Wew lads, this took a while. We actually had this almost done by the time the issue initially released, but Stooben had to finalise 'Shroom Mafia III stuff and then his internet kept crapping out across the week, so we ended up severely delayed. It's about a week late to be posted, but we finally got it done, and what a project this has turned out to be! This is me and Stooben's Best Songs of the 2010s (So Far) project, where we list all the songs we feel have a significant impact on this decade, or are at least something uniquely special, and detail our reasons for those choices.
We had but two rules for this project: 1) only two songs per artist (not counting features) to ensure this list isn't flooded to hell with a million Chvrches songs; and 2) only one song per album, so as to not feature five different deep cuts off any given Janelle Monáe record. Fair's fair, right? Every song on this list has been carefully chosen to best represent the 2010s and the amazing things going on this decade, so for all you LE WRONG GENERATION types or Pitchfork special snowflakes, you'd best be paying attention, because we're about to learn you some knowledge!
These things, they take time. Dippy and I spent around half a year working on this (quite steadily, I might add), exploring as many nooks, crannies, genres, scenes, memes, and underwear drawers as we could in that time. When we decided to make a song dedicated to the 100 best songs of the decade, we wanted to make sure each individual choice stood for something, were innovative, or have [had] a noticeable impact in music history. We've tried to spread the love across as many genres as we possibly could, with the final list encompassing rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop, pop, country, metal, electronic, comedy, classical, and everything we found that fits in between.
A lot of songs we wanted to put on the list did not make the final cut, because there is just so much great material to represent. Still, we both feel the 100 choices we decided on are diverse, and a good summation of the innovation, awareness, and soul put into this decade's many fine works. We hope you find some songs you love on this list — whether you knew about them prior to reading it or not. Now, you all ready to descend the Pit of 100 Vinyls? (You didn't think I was gonna let you go by without saying something like that, did you?)
If, instead, you feel like being a total cheater, though, then you can always check out the shorthand list for our top 100 entrants. It is the same list of songs without me and Dippy's extensive commentary.
Big Boi is somewhat a relic of the last decade, being one half of the overwhelmingly popular OutKast, but following the duo's dissolution, Big Boi returned in 2010 with this groovy as hell tune that harkens back to the days of Afrika Bambaataa back in the 1980s. "Shutterbugg" is a good old fashioned boast rap, about how Big Boi's status as the "OG" of southern hip hop means he'll continue to stay relevant in music well beyond the flavours of the week so prominent in the southern rap scene now.
I must admit the baritone vocal sample the track is built around took me some getting used to. But, once the song really kicks off, it's hard to not dig Left Foot's delivery. He confidently rattles rhymes that reference all sorts of things from Soul II Soul to Full Metal Jacket, in a fun and funky tune about being Atlanta's finest. It'd be difficult to argue that, too — Big Boi has been rapping in style for as long as I've been alive, influencing hip-hop artists every step of the way. It's nice to see in this decade he's still got what it takes to defend his title.
Neither me nor Stooben are particularly big Imagine Dragons fans - their latest album especially was a steaming pile of hot, arena garbage, marketed towards boring dads desperate for another "We Will Rock You" - but this song is killer. "Radioactive" is intended to be about breaking free of the old and embracing something new, but it does so via extremely vivid lyrics detailing a post-apocalyptic scenario that feel far more poetic and epic than would normally be expected from a simple alt-rock act.
Indeed, I will not defend the easily-digestible nature that most of Imagine Dragons' small-but-popular discography is made of. But, there is an empowering greatness to this track that has earned it a spot on my own little mp3 player. Once you get past the airy acoustic intro, the meat of the song is fixated on surprisingly tasteful dubstep "w-w-wum-wum-wum" sounds that help paint pictures to go along with the story's image of emergence in a wasteland. The music video, on the other hand, does not paint quite the same portrait...unless you'd consider a puppet-fighting ring to be a sign of time's end.
I have never been the biggest Weeknd fan, his work feels like a rather hollow attempt to be alternative without really having the substance to back it up (much like most of Kanye West's recent output), but this song takes a more direct pop approach while maintaining the dark overtones of Weeknd's previous work. While on the surface, its lyrics detail a possessive, potentially abusive relationship, the song is actually about cocaine addiction, which Weeknd has struggled with in the past - which made its nomination for a Kids Choice Award all the more amusing.
When I first heard this song, I had no idea who did it. It's a little weird how much this sounds like something Michael Jackson would do, but it works out just well enough to not sound like some sort of rip-off. The Weeknd sings this track with some very magnetic vocals, which completely lock the listener in place once the chorus hits with its perfectly-timed bass rhythm. There are modular synths placed in just the right spots to help carry the misty atmosphere set up in the beginning of the song all the way to the end. I'm generally fine with most of The Weeknd's material, but the sheer strength of this hit is impossible to ignore.
Compositionally inspired by the talents of Jimi Hendrix, "Mainstream Kid" sees Brandi Carlile completely ditching the soft, Grey's Anatomy ballads she became known for, in an effort to show people a less-refined side that she had been somewhat forced to hide during her years of success. The lyrics speak out against her previous "mainstream" record label, Columbia, as she now embraces one that is more independent and freeing. There's a strong sense of realism about this track, no doubt due in part to Carlile's raucous vocals telling tales of unfond personal experiences in the music industry.
Man, the frustration and sardonic humour in this song is staggering, it's enough to make Daria blush. I'm always down for a great "FUCK YOU" song, but to have the music fit that aggression yet still just plain rock the hell out, then all the better! Between the memorable melodies especially during the chorus, the insane solos, the way the song builds up into even more distortion towards the end as a sort of "climax of rage," just does everything to push forth that this chick means business. If anyone doubted country could be gritty and hard-edged, then this alone would prove them wrong.
Yea I know, it's a bit of a deep cut, but this is the song that really blew my mind when I listened to this album. Iceage have been rapidly establishing themselves as an essential of modern punk music, and on this album, they started slowing down their sound and exploring more experimental tones for a far more somber sound, with "Forever" in particular being built on sparse melodies and featuring a very twisted fiddle progression in the chorus, all backing lyrics detailing the fear and anxieties that come with suffering paranoid schizophrenia, especially the struggle to fight off the violent persona.
Technically, this was released as a single, but referring to it as a "deep cut" is still correct since it failed to chart. That said, a song being a deep cut has absolutely no bearing on its quality — a statement, to which, this song could easily be evidence. There is a lot to highlight in the instrumentation and mixing here, from the urgent, heavily-picked bass, to the shifty viola in the restrained choruses, to — most rewarding of all — the wondrously dominant trumpets in the final stretch of the song. Iceage are an authentic and well-intentioned addition to the genre of post-punk; they're doing it exactly right, and I look forward to hearing more.
While hilarious in Community, Donald Glover's rapper persona, Childish Gambino, has been very hit-or-miss act for me. This album, Because the Internet, is a bit of an overdramatic mess of a concept album... but I'll be damned if this song isn't really pretty. Following the story of a very emotionally confused lead character, this song details his desire to reconnect with an old flame from his youth back in Oakland, but their drastic differences in personality and lifestyles slowly destroy any hope of rekindling that passion.
I share the feeling that Gambino's work has been inconsistent in terms of excellency, and I struggle to enjoy little more than half of Because the Internet. Still, the good half is a very good half and a step in the right direction for Glover's career in music. The production here is really nice, and I feel like everything going on in the song fits in as it should, even the verse after the 2-minute mark with frequent audio pauses. It just may be most heartfelt piece in Gambino's catalog. I really like that brief, one-time IM sound near the beginning, too.
Sia has become the pop music darling of modern Australian music, and it's not too hard to see why given her emphatic delivery and layered production. "Elastic Heart" is best described as electropop, but the very bombastic, almost orchestral production gives it a larger-than-life feeling befitting of the very dramatic lyrics, which detail Sia's unwillingness to let a crushing, disastrous relationship ruin her life. The intensity of the track truly sells the strength and determination Sia is seeking to illustrate, making this one hell of a motivational piece for the recently heartbroken.
Yeah, this is a very pretty pop song, full stop. Sia's vocal performance here is stupendous. Right from the first verse, she's singing with a great sense of resolve that makes it easy to tell this song is going to be big. The harmonies in the chorus still managed to exceed my expectations though, and left me feeling very emotionally impacted. I don't know exactly what it is about the way her voice melds with the comforting sheets of sound in this song, but "Elastic Heart" is one of the most sonically-pleasing pieces I've been introduced to in working on this project with Dippy.
Do you find yourself longing for the good ol' days when Coldplay were heartfelt and dynamic, rather than "gg ez" musical cash-ins? Have no fear, Frank Ocean is here! You may realize your nostalgia is warmly welcomed in his debut mixtape, where he takes one of Viva la Vida's best cuts and turns it into an relatable series of memories recalling the simplicities and comforts of childhood, and how quickly we must adapt to the heartaches of life as our contentment is ripped away...even if our desire for the old and familiar is not stolen along with it.
The theme of nostalgia so prominent on this mixtape lends itself quite nicely to the test of time, allowing listeners to go back to a simpler time in Frank's career when he had yet to become the R&B monolith he is now. There are so few songs that can really capture that essence of wistfulness and reminiscing without coming across as schmaltzy - look no further than Nickelback's "Photograph" for proof of that - but Ocean's tasteful restrain and earnestness ensures this song tugs at the heart without feeling manipulative or tryhard. Just such a sweet song.
Damn, this album is so fun! Hadestown is a concept album that acts as a retelling of the Greek mythological characters, Orpheus and Eurydice. Held together with a highly-theatrical folk backdrop, the album features a dense cast of noteworthy names from the genre's modern output, with each singer playing their role consistently from start to finish. This particular track best encompasses the tone, instrumentation, and purpose of the album, even featuring a vast majority of the album's characters. It's rewardingly entertaining, leaving you wanting to know more about the story at hand, and the many talented musicians who contributed to creating this modern opera.
This song sounds like something I'd expect to hear in a shady Mexican town in a spaghetti western! It's so energetic and lively, the alternating vocalists and rich variety of folk instrumentation - from harmonicas, trumpets, banjos - are so vivid that it's impossible not to imagine the characters in some dorky 1920s-style animation, I just love it. I hadn't heard of Anais Mitchell before working on this project, but I feel really dumb for my ignorance now, especially as Mitchell has been labelled the Queen of Modern Folk Music. I can see why!
Slowly rising out of Melbourne and gaining recognition for their mind-boggling musical prowess, Hiatus Kaiyote are doing some really interesting things with soul music. The album fuses many genres and musical styles (including jazz, samba, and straight up prog-rock), to make for some of the most unusual, yet catchy, song structures of the decade. "Jekyll" starts out as a fervid piano piece but tastefully unfolds into a moaning progressive rock jam that would knock the socks off of some of yo daddy's favorites from the 1970s.
I've seen the album art for this record around a lot, but in a shameful display of judging the book by its cover, I presumed it was just some generic alt-rock in the vein of Violent Soho or The Temper Trap due to the edgy as hell artwork. I wish I had practiced what I preach earlier, because this team of curious young Aussies from my home city are doing magical things with soul music, with a complex rhythm reminiscent of the dense playing of Steely Dan and incredible vocals worthy of a young Lauryn Hill. I need to keep a closer eye on this band from now on.
I doubt anyone who's listened to rock music from the last 20 years can question Jack White's ability. It's impressive to me that after all these years, and being a part of three successful bands, he's still managing to pump out some awesome tracks such as this during his solo career. In this song, White deploys a method of singing that heavily incorporates rapping, influenced directly by inaugural feminist rapper, MC Lyte. The end result is not unlike some of Red Hot Chili Peppers' older works, but lyrically transcends into something much greater. And if the stop-start groove is not enough to keep you fully entertained, you'd best get ready for those fiddle solos.
This song sweats confidence and frustration, Jack White rap-singing his way through layers of distortion to express his fury over losing custody of his children following his disastrous divorce with Karen Elson, feeling like he's been tossed in a Lazaretto, isolated and punished while his children are being left to fend for themselves without his support. Whether you agree with White's indignation or not, there is no doubt he is fucking pissed, and nothing makes a good punk song quite like unbridled rage. The initial raw pressing for this song is also notable for being the fastest released record to date. Not bad going at all.
This song has one of the most imaginative guitar arrangements I've heard in years, being built around a ton of alternating time signatures that lend a heavy progressive rock feel to the song. This is furthered by the clever drum patterns and pronounced bass that boldly carry the rest of the song. The vocal harmonies also have a peculiar science behind their mixing, using some very slightly off-key phrases that add an entrancing element to the piece. This mixing technique is a prominent feature in Warpaint's discography, and makes much of their work easily recognizable as their own. Highly adept at all the instruments they play, the band is entirely female, which I must admit is refreshing to hear, considering how male-dominated rock music is.
I don't know if there's really a whole lot for me to add to this one, given how obfuscated the lyrics are, which is most definitely done on purpose to create an ethereal energy to the song. With vague lyrics that appeal to a cosmic origin of our species, the song has a very otherworldly presence, with a wall of sound approach that dominates the listener's ears and calls into memory the works of Cocteau Twins or Lush. Since Stooben has covered pretty much all the bases, I'll share with you an incredible remix of this song done by producer El-P, if you're interested in a far more haunting arrangement to this otherwise lush composition.
If you wanted something to melt your face off today, this is a damn fine start. While yes, Napalm Death are very much an 80s/90s act, this album propelled them back into the public eye, and with how intense yet experimental the album is, it's not hard to see why. Leading off the album's release was "How the Years Condemn", an insane punk-metal track detailing the consequences that come with our actions, particularly addictive, self-destructive actions, created as both a cautionary tale and a tribute to Jesse Pintado, a former bandmate that passed away from liver failure due to excessive drinking.
I wouldn't exactly consider myself a metal aficionado, but I can certainly appreciate Dippy's enthusiasm over this particular track. There is resounding energy here that works to fuel the advisory message behind "How the Years Condemn". But beyond the intense inflection of the dangers (and eventual cost) of substance abuse, this particular song holds up extremely well as a metal song for all generations, staying true to Napalm Death's staggering viciousness, while still remaining auditorily relevant to this decade. The rapid, clamorous beats that present the title line are not to be forgotten.
While I admit their band name is a tad silly, Alabama Shakes are giving the southern rock scene a much-needed punt. Brittany Howard, the group's lead singer and guitarist, is extremely soulful in her presence. Graduating from a very understated debut, this second album of theirs gets far more punchy and has some big-league hooks that are already bringing more and more attention to the unexpectedly powerful group. "Don't Wanna Fight" has a very classic feel to it, but somehow manages to escape total antiquity, probably because of its uneven but memorable rhythm. Brittany's vocals are quite gripping, too. That squeal in the beginning, oh man.
I'm in the camp of people that didn't care much for Alabama Shakes' first album, but absolutely loved the hell out of their second, which felt like it pushed beyond simply aping traditional soul-rock and becoming its own entity entirely. Stooben is not kidding about Brittany Howard's incredible singing voice, which has a lovely androgynous quality to it that I find so refreshing in a medium that favours sultry, feminine voices in their female vocalists, and this lady kills the hook with her bright, passionate vocals, which ensure the song stays in your head for a good long while after your first listen.
I sort of discovered this band by accident, but once I figured out what they were doing, I kept coming back for more. Speedy Ortiz are a grunge band that, despite being formed long after the days of Kurt Cobain, actually sound like grunge. They completely ignore the post-grunge fad and go right for the goods: unorthodox chord progressions, rusty vocals, picturesque lyrics, bombastic drums, and song structures that defy what post-grunge listeners have complacently learned to accept in the last two decades. Perhaps of further interest is that they are female-fronted without invoking the unimaginable horrors of Courtney Love.
I was hesitant to feature this on the list since Speedy Ortiz feel less essential to this decade than a lot of other artists on the list, but having had to come to terms with grunge's short life and the non-stop defacing of Mr. Cobain's grave for the past two decades, it is just so refreshing to finally hear a song that actually captures the mood and griminess of the genre. Frontman Sadie Dupuis' insightful lyrics touch on her frustrations of suffering depression yet having no one believe you, instead putting you down and insisting that you're faking it, baiting for attention. Putting on a happy face and pretending you're alright when you're actually dead inside does more than just take its toll, after all.
I know this is the memeist of memes to be putting on the list, but bloody hell, mates, "Thrift Shop" is just so much fun. Macklemore's biggest downfall is whenever he tries to be serious and political, and is probably why he's seen as a joke in the hip hop community, but when he tries to be fun and silly? Damn, if he doesn't take us all for a ride! In this case, it's a ride through the shopping aisles, as Macklemore insists that fashion statements don't have to be expensive, and that sifting through thrift shops for cheap, second-hand clothing is a perfectly valid, fiscal approach, all over a ludicrously goofy saxophone sample.
C'mon, what's not to love about "Thrift Shop"? There is a very good reason it became so popular following its release, and that's because it's just really damn funny. Macklemore's silly riffs on overachievers in fashion are intelligently articulated, all the way down to his focused mention of onesies. If you actually listen to the words, you'll probably find it hard to not crack a smile at least, unless you're having a really bad day or take extreme pride in your gratuitous wardrobe of Dolce & Gabbana or Todd Oldham.
The England-based, French-led punk group is like a modernised take on something Nick Cave might've done back in the 1980s, which led to their claustrophobic, unsettling debut release, Silence Yourself, which saw the release of this single, "Shut Up". A fast-paced, bass-driven melody complement Jehnny Beth's signature androgynous and reverberating vocals, detailing Beth's sociopolitical beliefs that media forces too many ideas, opinions, and distractions on people, and that it's essential for people to push through that and discover who they are, not who they are told they are.
Another faithful, yet refreshing entry into the post-punk scene, Silence Yourself opens up with this fantastic piece. Prepare your ears for raw punk greatness as muted, dagger-like guitar strums fly into their canals, quickly grabbing your attention before unleashing crisp, stringy squeals. The bass romps along with the drums at a high-speed, making the instrumentation and vocal delivery sound like absolute punk. If you were, at any point, expecting me to simply refer to "Shut Up" as "savage", then you were mistaken, as such a simple pun would severely understate the compelling foundation of this intrepid piece.
Oozing 80s Americana, Lost in the Dream proudly wears the influences of Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits in its compositions, while its lyrics and vocals seem to be pulled out of the sheet music books of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, respectively. Perhaps what is being displayed here in "Under the Pressure" is not necessarily new, but it is a very well-coordinated effort laced with shimmering guitars, serene synths, and a detuned piano. The lyrics, while intentionally vague, seem to depict the longing for an ex-partner, and how that person is the only one that can keep the lead singer grounded through times of duress and waste. My personal favorite part is the 3-minute long drone in A at the end though.
Stooby put it best when saying this song isn't anything hugely unique, wearing its influences clearly on its sleeve, yet still remains special in its execution. I don't consider myself a huge War on Drugs fan, but "Under the Pressure" is such a beautiful piece that it's almost impossible to believe the whole thing started as just a two-chord progression that frontman Adam Granduciel continued building on until he reached a sound that felt perfect. Granduciel's voice is terrifyingly similar to Paul Simon, and this gentle sound complements lyrics about trying to keep your head up even when everything is going wrong, even while you're under the pressure.
By no means a new group, The Roots are still remarkably talented, capable of writing songs that are either completely unique in direction or flat-out catchy. "How I Got Over" features some gentle, reggae-influenced instrumentation that lyrically depicts the reality and difficulty of living in an apathetic world. Imagery of hardening city streets are invoked to drive this point home, bringing attention to the dangers of some of Philadelphia's neighborhoods and why it is often difficult to take action and make a difference for the better. It's a very conscious song with a memorable hook that should stick in your mind and make you think about what YOU can do to help out. After all, someone has to care.
Nothing The Roots will ever do will overtake the masterwork of Phrenology in my mind, but the band have come damn close time and time again, and there's something almost Lutheresque about how this song tackles race issues. With a sound that could've come straight off a Bob Marley record, "How I Got Over" is just so instantly charming in its presentation, between the amazing flow, wonderfully catchy beat, and thought-provoking lyrics, which would no doubt make Marley proud. Jimmy Fallon is one lucky bastard for having The Roots as his own personal band for his show.
Massive Attack are never in any rush to release new material, much to my constant dismay, especially after how mediocre their last release, Heligoland, was. While the duo still seem disinterested in releasing another full release anytime soon, we got a fire EP in the interim with some of their best work in ages, especially "Voodoo In My Blood", a collaboration with fresh Scottish hip hop act Young Fathers, which presents one of the most claustrophobic, paranoid soundscapes backing some truly unsettling, cryptic lyrics delivered with an intense rhythmic ferocity. This is the Massive Attack of old, baby.
Everything about this song is disquieting. The tribal-esque clatter in the percussion, the warbling guitar sustains, the ominous progression... It's amazing in ways that should be unexpected to first-time listeners. Even if Ritual Spirit is only 17-minutes long (it is an EP, after all), it is a clear indication that Massive Attack do not want their material to dwindle into completely unremarkable territory, since it propels their music into a fierce, more open-minded direction than their 2010 release Dippy mentioned above. I think involving a guest act on each track was a smart move, and helped reinvigorate Massive Atttack's namesake.
It seems to be a popular act to hate on Taylor Swift just because she's popular, but truth be told, she's actually a very genuine country artist in a generation where a vast majority of musicians in the scene are determined to tell everyone about their dive bar woes and John Deere fetishes. Swift, on the other hand, makes an effort to write pristine pop-crossovers or honest love songs that almost make her this era's equivalent of Patsy Cline. "Begin Again" is a very pretty little song with all the subtleties a country ballad should don, while still maintaining fresh arrangments — the slide-guitar fade-ins, gentle mandolin, and accordion work together fluidly to support Swift's soft vocal delivery.
Taylor Swift's newest release, 1989, was so forgettable I legit forgot the name of the album while writing this. It makes me wish she stuck to the sound she had on Red, which while also following a dance/electropop path, was so much more conceptual and carefully crafted. However, "Begin Again" is a throwback to her earlier country roots, which gives the track a very sharp distinction from the rest of the album, showing Swift at her most vulnerable and honest. Here, she illustrates her feelings of having found a new lover that actually respects and cares for her unlike her ex-boyfriends, as she witnesses her dour outlook on romance change as she sees love begin again.
Joanna Newsom is easily one of the most inventive, open-minded acts in the modern folk music scene, having created one of my favourite albums from last decade, Ys. On Divers, we see her explore dream pop, chamber, and jazz, and nowhere is that more apparent on "Leaving the City", which uses the disparity between city and country life to explore the finite nature of human existence, and as a result, how desperate humans are to be remembered beyond death, all delivered in her trademarked fragile voice. This follows a recurring theme of life and death that Newsom explores in great detail over the course of the album.
Divers is quite unlike anything I've heard in this decade, and the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it. I've heard people compare Newsom's work to that of Kate Bush, but I feel that's underselling Newsom's efforts by passing off songs like "Leaving the City" as just another stylistic recreation. There is a quaint beauty to this song that may take pop-spoiled ears some getting used to, but if you can only make the time to experience Joanna's illustrious harp playing, you too will find the grace in her timid singing, and the album's god-tier production qualities (which features a non-discriminate cast of charming musical instruments).
Undoubtedly one of the biggest names on this list, Beyoncé is still putting out some excellent material this decade. "Love on Top", from her fourth studio album, draws heavy influence from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, while still being 100% true to her own formula. The product of these influences makes for a wonderfully cheery tune containing a delicious bassline that bounces around almost as much as Beyoncé herself in the music video. But what really sells this track for me is the superb execution of key changes. To make that sound a little less nerdy, the song changes its pitch to one that is higher, adding a great deal of uplifting emotion and intelligence to the song's structure, proving that Beyoncé is hardly "just another pop singer".
When Stoob says Beyoncé bounces too, he doesn't mean her dancing. My tits hurt just looking at her dance with no bra on in that video, it's absurd! The pain people endure for their art. "Love On Top" is one of Beyoncé's chirpiest songs to date, especially with how abrasive her music has become over the years, as her incredible singing voice melts the listener's ears with very romantic lyrics where she praises her partner, whom she can always be open with even when she's going through times of strife. It's no secret that Beyoncé is a feminist, and her emphasis on mutual respect and friendship within a relationship is a key focus of her message to women everywhere; don't settle for shit, get a man who really sees you as worthy of his time.
This is one of my favorite cuts from what is perhaps Kanye West's best album. "Power" is built around a flurry of conflicting samples that work together ridiculously well, the most recognizable (and jarring) of which, is King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man". The song is much more true to the "classic Kanye" works that fans of his first two albums may have missed during his more experimental and Auto-Tune-laden albums that followed. If you've never listened to West's discography before, this may be an ideal starting point, as it is a straightforward effort that delivers its intention very coherently.
On his newest album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye mocks fans that "love the old Kanye", but "hate the new Kanye," a sentiment I wholeheartedly disagree with given how he consistently finds new ways to piss me off, both in and outside of his music. But this album is a respite in the middle of all these sub-par to outright awful releases, and while "Power" is not the most inventive tune on the tracklist, it still hits hard with its hyperpolitical lyrics concerning white America's belittling perception of black confidence. Kanye also strokes his own ego on the album, questioning the media's attempts to tear him down for his extravagant persona, claiming that he is at the pinnacle of his power in the world.
Sufjan Stevens is one of the most delicate acts in popular music at the moment, although he's never been one to sit down and settle for just a guitar and some pretty vocals; no, this bloke tastefully layers on folk instrumentation, orchestral progressions, and electronic soundscapes to ensure his music is beautiful yet distinguishable from his peers. Having lived with his father most of his childhood following his parents' divorce, "Carrie and Lowell" is an emotional narrative about Stevens' distant mother, Carrie, and stepfather, Lowell, whom he very rarely got to see growing up, and how he used to ponder how the two were as he was growing up.
While the title track to Carrie & Lowell is certainly not my favorite on the album, I am still finding it difficult to knock any of this song's qualities. In a discography that has received hefty, well-deserved acclaim, this album stands a chance to be Sufjan's best creation since Illinoise. The emotion put into Carrie & Lowell is abundantly clear, and I feel it gives listeners a plush passage through which they can connect to Stevens, if not just as a musician and songwriter, then as a normal person, since he openly professes memories he wishes to relive, and regrets he wishes he could have corrected when there was still a chance to do so.
If you haven't at least read the name "Death Grips" somewhere, you are not using the internet properly. "No Love" is a very unsettling track that is marked by a deranged droning sound that heavily accentuates the vicious lyrics delivered by MC Ride. The song is full of unexpected twists that are, honestly, impossible to predict upon your first listen, and will probably still take you by surprise the next few times. That's part of what makes Death Grips so outstanding, though — they sound unlike anything else out there. Though they are far from accessible, I find it very hard to not admire what they're doing in the hip-hop scene. Their influence is already popping up everywhere, even affecting the musical direction legendary acts such as David Bowie.
God, this brings back awkward memories of the uncomfortable trip scene in Bojack Horseman, as anyone who is a frequent viewer of Netflix is sure to remember vividly. "No Love" is one of the most intense, inaccessible pieces Death Grips have done to date, accentuated by the erect, circumcised penis on the album art, with an intense drone worthy of John Cale. The cryptic lyrics are no less intensive and disorienting, seemingly concerning a horrible acid trip and the ensuing hallucinations, with implications of violence and torture being carried out while under the influence of drugs. If Hotline Miami doesn't have a theme song yet, this would be the perfect fit.
Chance the Rapper sort of came out of nowhere when releasing Acid Rap, but the mixtape took the hip hop world by storm for its psychedelic production and interesting approach to song structure. One of the standout tracks is "Paranoia", a hidden track placed at the end of the second song, "Pusha Man", that takes a very somber, off-kilter approach to the instrumentation. On this track, Chance nervously raps about violence in the hoods of Chicago and the unwillingness for the media to call attention to it, even mentioning how kids get roped up into the violence as well, hence the paranoia Chance displays as he walks through the dark streets of Chicago.
I feel the percussive "ah!" samples may catch some listeners off-guard, but the lavish, late-night square synths should be enough to counteract that and keep you around to listen to Chance's grievous message of the absurd murder rates in Chicago. Much of the city is in an awful state not beyond repair, but with the refusal of media outlets outside of Chicago to open eyes and ears to the horrific scenes going on there so frequently, many of us outsiders are made to believe the violence does not exist, or is completely acceptable...as if no one needs to do anything to help. There are a lot of bleak outlooks confessed in this song, all of which I think I would share if were forced to grow up and survive under the same circumstances.
Now, here's an interesting cut. "L$D" is psychedelic to the point of pure musical intoxication, loosely but proficiently exhibiting traits of a genre that could very easily sweep the music industry by storm. Led by a tame guitar riff, this relaxing hip-hop track is characterized by a distant, fuzzy bass and tender singing. Once the chorus hits, your ears become surrounded by cascading keyboards that make the trippy vibe of the song that much more prominent. Its song structure is also rather unusual, containing two different bridges where one would expect more verses to go. Between the wandering song structure and liberal use of reverb, this song really does seem to play out like a drug trip. A good trip, though.
In contrast to the Death Grips song above, "L$D" is a loving ode to psychotropics, with A$AP Rocky professing his love for the drug and the psychedelic experiences he's enjoyed as a result, remaining devoted to the stimulant even after his mentor, A$AP Yams, died of an overdose. I wouldn't say this is the deepest song in the world, and Rocky relies very heavily on the spaced out production to carry his lyrics about women and drugs, but that production does the job so amazingly it's impossible not to get sucked into the wonderful tripped out world of Rocky. If you're hitting the town tonight and bringing a bag of acid with you, I can imagine this song gently playing in your head the whole trip.
Silversun Pickups have failed to impress me over the years, I don't feel like they were quite able to nail that dream pop/shoegaze aesthetic, and their attempts to blend the subtlety of those styles with their more bombastic production felt messy to me. However, on this record, they shed most of their My Bloody Valentine influence for a more blatant neo-prog sound, and damn do they sell it well. Lyrically, this song is about a music-loving duo that simply enjoyed each others company until they started to develop more intense feelings for each other, and poetically explores the passion and insecurities that spring from that.
I respect and understand Dippy's opinions on Silversun Pickups, but I must confess that I stand at the opposite end of the spectrum — I find the majority of their work highly enjoyable because they generally blend shoegaze subtlety with alternative singalong rock just right. I will still admit that it's nice to see them take on a more openly prog sound with "Tapedeck", though, since the mild prog flavors they've featured in their older works typically made for some of my favorite cuts. While the band retains their sensual harmonies and signature fuzzy sound at just the right moments in this song, what really makes the track stand out is its heavy use of the vibraphone. "Tapedeck" changes its rhythmic structure near the end of the song, setting itself up for a segue into Better Nature's eighth track, "Latchkey Kids".
Chvrches are such a sugary, pretty synthpop group, an unashamed tribute to the early 1980s. However, Chvrches possess a tremendous deal more finesse and concept of song structure than an act like Hall and Oates ever did, with songs that are both parts danceable and emotionally stimulating, delivered by Lauren Mayberry's utterly adorable singing voice. Indeed, the bouncy synthesier melodies belie lyrics about a struggling relationship, with Mayberry singing about her initial desires to leave being swayed by outside circumstances pushing her priorities back to trying to save the relationship.
I actually don't mind some of Hall and Oates' work all that much, but Chvrches definitely blows them out of the water in practically every aspect — you see, Chvrches is pure bliss. Maybe they're just a pop weak-spot of mine, but good god I love the sparkling nature of their production, songwriting, and lyrics. If it were lexically correct to refer to music as ambrosial, I think Chvrches would be the one band I'd describe with that very word. The bridge of this song ("Maybe the water's high / But I can see the difference") has an astounding measure of suspense considering the verses and chorus that surround it, which makes it my personal favorite part of "Empty Threat". Simply put, it's a very lovable song on an equally lovable album.
I freakin' love African blues music so much. I will fight you about it, I swear. Tinariwen are a prominent name in the African blues scene, with their previous record Tassili even winning a Grammy award, but their lives took a strange turn when guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was abducted by Islamic militants, forcing the rest of the band to flee to America. There, they recorded this, an album full of protest songs and messages of peace in Islam, with "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim" ("Friends, Hear Me") concerning lost innocence to the extremism and pointless suffering caused by constant conflict in their home country of Mali.
I was completely unaware of these guys' existence until Dippy introduced me to them while working on this project, but WOW this is some groovy rock. The song is, structurally, very simple, but avoids being overly repetitious by maintaining an honest blues feel. The instrumentation is vaguely hypnotic, with snaking guitars drenched in reverb, backed by a snappy djembe beat and warm handclaps, culminating into something that sounds as if you are listening to a very tight live performance. It's little wonder to me why artists such as Carlos Santana, TV on the Radio, and Bono (among others) are happy to lend their talents to the band in-studio and in-concert.
The Game has always had an attachment to west coast hardcore hip hop, and that affinity hasn't changed over the years, but his perspective on life has certainly changed since he's started a family, which brings us to this track. A sequel to the song "Like Father, Like Son" off The Documentary, which illustrated his feelings when his first son was first born, this observes how he feels about his family ten years later, how he wants to forego his gangster past to ensure his children can grow up away from the violence in the streets, so they can become "everything they could be".
This is definitely a really touching song, and the feeling put into it became very apparent when I found out the kids performing on this track were actually The Game's own children, Harlem Caron and King Justice Taylor. Their portions of the song tell how grateful they are for their daddy's efforts in keeping them safe, with Harlem specifically stating that, because of The Game's actions, he's been able to grow up a good kid who can focus on his education. Hip-hop dignitary, Busta Rhymes, features here to sing the track's hook that encourages Harlem to aspire to greatness. The mood of the song is very delicate, thanks to glistening keyboards that decorate the track.
Man, this song is mental. SOPHIE is a very unique producer, employing a full collage of unusual sounds and blending them into a completely baffling mixture, with a very distinguishable watermark of up-pitched female guest vocals - yea, SOPHIE is actually a dude, despite the stage name. "VYZEE" is just so whacked out from start to finish, from the hilariously deadpan lyrics that seem to just be about drinking yourself stupid, to the off-tempo instrumentation that disorients as much as it engages, this song simultaneously feels fitting for both the club and a more low-key stoner party.
Okay, yeah. That genre name over there? "Wonky pop"? Well, if ever there was a need to label a song such a thing, this would be the one. The gratifyingly bizarre "VYZEE" is like a pharm party of pops, smacks, kissy sounds, undulating synths, and voice clips that sounds like someone who could pass for Tracer's younger sister. The song is designed to be silly and fun, a combination at which it fully succeeds. I can't imagine the time it must have taken to piece something like this together; the mixing and production is simply outstanding.
I am in love with the way Daveed Diggs weaves a tapestry of words to create a vivid portrait of events occurring in the lives of clipping.'s discography. Don't let the highly experimental nature of this hip-hop trio deter you my genre definitions alone — the work being done here is fantastic and deserves more attention. This particular track is built around coarse loops of static bursts that start out narrow and widen as each line reaches its most important detail. Eventually, the hook comes to pass in the form of a crestfallen croon provided by guest artist, Jalene Goodwin, while Diggs cuts in with worrisome word combinations that give the impression of drug trafficking gone awry.
clipping. feel like hip hop's answer to The Jesus and Mary Chain; pop structure and catchy hooks hide behind a challenging, gruesome presentation that can be a challenge for casual listeners. Their love for white noise, unorthodox sample sources, and grotesque lyrical imagery ensures that they demand more endurance and attention than most alternative hip hop acts. Stooben's interpretation of the lyrics is just one of many, as Diggs' surreal, metaphor-laden lyrics potentially reflecting gang violence, prostitution, and of course, murder in the streets, depending on the listener's perspective; one thing all fans will feel, however, is a strong sense of unease from the rich atmosphere of this track.
Oneohtrix Point Never has a very unconventional outlook on electronic music, taking inspiration from really baffling sources like grunge and heavy metal, but in a way that isn't infuriating like American dubstep is. Indeed, this album saw him refine that unique take, and of the tracks, "Mutant Standard" definitely stands out for its consistent rhythm and melody changes through the song. Made up of a million different samples, progressions, and fills, the song is disorienting and unnerving, lulling you into a false sense of security before swiftly and abruptly changing pace, ensuring the listener is always attentive and in focus.
Not for the faint of heart, but full of diligence, "Mutant Standard" is indeed an unconventional song with a high reward once you gain an appreciation for its dense, orchestral-like arrangements of electronic beats and sounds. This piece has numerous movements that start with unrelenting, fidgety bass beats, but evolve into several contrasting sections that range from sedating to bewildering. There are ricocheting shots of plump keyboards that form a tornado of shifting audio pitches near the middle of the song, before it finally commits to a diminuendo of isolated synth chords that make me feel as if I've just stumbled upon The Thousand-Year Door underneath Rogueport.
Bless your soul, Adele, your voice is a gift from the clouds. "Rumour Has It" is a swanky soul song with a foot-stomping beat and deep, noodling guitars reminiscent of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools". In its rich center is a jazz-influenced piano break that bleeds passion and keeps me coming back to this exact song over and over. The entirety of 21 is an thoroughly splendid album, but something about the grit of this track is really grabbing. It even managed to chart at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100before it was even released as a single, if that's any indication of how insanely catchy this deep cut was.
I will always find it hilarious the disparity between Adele's sophisticated singing and her foul-mouthed cockney speaking voice, although her biting, dry British wit is certainly not lost in the translation. Here, we see Adele at her most sarcastic, calling out her friends who believe the rumours and tall tales the media speaks about her instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt, primarily using the example of an affair with her ex-boyfriend as a baseless rumour. Adele's crooning drips with attitude and sass befitting of her strong public persona, and the clever melody and reserved production ensure that Adele is not just another gutless adult contemporary singer.
This song is bangin'! For all the attempts Sri-Lankan/British rapper M.I.A. has made to be sugary and melodic, at the end of the day, she is at her absolute best when being raw, aggressive, and unusual, and nothing exemplifies that for me quite like "Bring the Noize". A harsh protest song against... well, basically everyone that she feels contributes to the oppression of the world, from banks to media to the military to religious militants, you name it! M.I.A.'s flow is intense and rapid-fire, full of rage and resolution, and her desire to see a free world, even if she has to share harsh truths about who really rules the world.
M.I.A.'s flow in "Bring the Noize" is freakin' divine, I really love this song. I don't know how much I can add to what Dippy said, but the raw, assertive nature of this song is a very cohesive effort between M.I.A.'s rapping and the musical arrangements. The end of the song showcases her singing distant backup vocals that almost invoke elements of a mantra...which, now that I think about it, makes sense since Matangi was partly-inspired by the Hindu goddess of the same name. I think it can be safely said that M.I.A. put a lot of creativity into her work here.
Holy shit! John Lennon, is that you? Tame Impala's lead singer sounds eerily like the late Beatle, but don't be fooled, their lead singer is very much his own person. The band has a knack for streamlining abstract song sections into each other to make some of the greatest psychedelic rock in existence. "Elephant" has a few of these as defining characteristics, including a two-step droning bass-and-guitar riff that gets throttled right into some hefty drum fills, and a massive instrumental section in the middle that is full of wistful, sweeping synths. The album this song originates from is equally top-notch, too.
One of Stooben's favourite acts to come out of my home country, this song builds up an image of an arrogant, self-assured prick that throws his weight around wherever he goes, like "an elephant waving his big grey trunk". The thick guitars plod and thump along like an elephant stomping through the jungle, but the slow-paced drones and intoxicating bass lines give the song an almost sauna-like quality to it, putting the listener through the aural equivalent of a walk through the Aussie outback. At least, that's what I picture, anyway. While Parker has grown tired of the song, he no less acknowledges its significance to his career, once stating "[that song] paid for half my house".
Wew, now this is one strange concoction we have here. Kvelertak play a unique brand of black metal that fuses the style with 70s hard rock and punk rock, a fusion that should be nothing more than a funny gimmick... yet somehow, it works so well! Off their sophomore album, "Bruane Brenn" is an exciting, adrenaline-fueled song about foregoing society and simply enjoying life your own way, in this case, via a nomadic lifestyle. Alternating between shouted vocals and almost arena rock-ish vocal harmonies, the heavy but catchy melodies are enough to get you headbanging and dancing like your dad at a KISS concert.
The music video to this song is so goofy. I didn't know black 'n' roll was even a legitimate thing until hearing this, but the song unexpectedly ended up kicking ass. The song has a classic, hard-rock feel to it that reminds me of a more aggressive and better-produced "White Limo", except the guitar solo it's topped off with is of a decent length and nice tone. What's really interesting though, is how well the black metal vocals work with this piece! They actually feel accessible and fit in with the music, without losing the feel-good mood of the song, thanks in part to the cheery group harmonies during the song's rockin' chorus. Dippy's right though — this is no gimmick, and I'd argue it has the potential to become a mainstream scene.
Ever popular on 4Chan for some baffling reason, the "Social Justice Warriors" Andrew Jackson Jihad (now just AJJ) are one of the more notable acts in modern folk punk music, carrying with them a very sardonic sense of humour that typically tackles social and political issues. The silly title and relaxed melody of "People II 2: Still People'" hide very critical lyrics about society and its perception and attitudes towards depression, homelessness, addiction, poverty, and individualism, urging people to withhold judgment from those less fortunate as everyone has their own unique struggles to deal with. Honestly, why does 4Chan like this band again?
Probably renaming themselves to "Harriet Tubman Jihad" in the year 2020, this band has created one of my favorite folk albums of the 2010s with Knife Man. It's an album that says what's on its mind without sugarcoating anything, often bringing humorous, Carlin-esque observations to a backdrop of humble acoustic strums. "People II 2: Still Peoplin'" is a pseudo-sequel to "People II: The Reckoning" from their 2009 album, sharing many of the same harsh, forthright perception of everyday life — there's a monster hidden in everyone, the evils get what they want, and the hopefuls are left to get screwed.
Even ignoring that this song has one of the best music videos ever, this is just a beautiful diss song, even boldly using the title "Fuck You" for maximum sting. Lyrically seeming like a stab at an ex-girlfriend that left CeeLo for a richer man, CeeLo himself has said the song is intended as a metaphor for the selfish nature of the music industry, how they're all over you when you're successful and able to get top sales, but toss you in the gutter the instant things start going downhill. Indeed, CeeLo's frustrations with the music industry comes through in full force in this song, over a deceptively cheerful, Motown-style beat that only makes the song even funnier.
Pfff, this song is really hilarious. It's amazing how CeeLo fits such a commonly-offensive expletive over a bright little soul hook so easily — it makes for an even more enjoyable comedy presentation than, say, "Thrift Shop" earlier in the list. If the verses or chorus don't manage to get you chuckling, then the bridge definitely should, since it's song's peak in humour. I'm not gonna spoil it for you if you've never heard the song before, but it is golden. I never would have suspected something like this to come out of CeeLo Green when I first heard "Crazy" 10 years ago, but I'd venture to say that at the end of a crazy day, it's even more satisfying.
I gotta say, I feel bad for passing judgment on Justin Timberlake at a young age, just because he was a member of NSYNC. He's grown into a competent songwriter and performer, and "Mirrors" is a perfect reflection (I'm sorry) of that talent. The eight-minute-long pop epic features some very smooth production and instrumentation, not shying away from electric guitars, bells, strings, and a prominent clapping in its beat. Timberlake sings wonderfully on the track as he narrates the acknowledgment that his significant other is the love of his life. A little after the five-minute mark, the song evolves into an R&B-influenced coda that makes this message even clearer, if it wasn't already. It's really a superb piece and may just be the best song Justin Timberlake has ever recorded.
Inspired by Timberlake's grandparents, who were married for 63 years until death did they part in 2012, "Mirrors" is a song about emotional devotion and making a relationship work, even through the worst moments in your lives. Built off a repeating snare drum kick and sweeping synth harmonies that avoid feeling repetitious despite the 8-minute runtime, this is pop for the thinking man, for those who wish to sit at home with a glass of expensive wine pondering the mysteries of love. Even though the final R&B act was recorded long after the initial 5 minute piece was written, the two segments link up so flawlessly and beautifully, it almost feels like a perfect metaphor for true love always fitting back into place with a little effort.
I don't consider myself a huge Sam Smith fan, but if there's one thing that can be said about them, the fucker has some pipes on him. Nothing displays this for me more than Disclosure's most successful single, "Latch", which distinguishes itself from much of the duo's output for having a far more danceable, jazz-influenced progression. A song about possessiveness and lust, Sam Smith's amazing vocals deliver intense, disturbing lyrics about refusing to let go of his target of affection, and the absolutely stunning synths that overlay the track make this song an absolutely perfect track for sensual dancing or, dare I say, some damn kinky sex.
Hoo yeah, this song is a strong contender for most provocative entry on the list. The pristine, moody synths in this are meticulously arranged in a way that titillates the senses, especially when that pulsating chorus does its thing. "Latch" is also composed in a time signature unusual to works in its genre — 6/8 (as opposed to 4/4), which helps give the song a very slow, romantic dance rhythm. The come-hither music video does not shy away from the seductive audio, either, depicting various couples in time-slowing settings where they, indeed, latch on to each other — a man and woman alone in their bedroom, two young adults making a connection in an unpacking elevator, even two women embracing each other at a quaint cocktail lounge.
Fleet Foxes are definitely country music for hipsters, no doubt, but they're good country music for hipsters. The title track off the group's sophomore album, "Helplessness Blues" is a very conflicted song, detailing a young man's struggles to reconcile the constant insistence in his youth that he is a special snowflake distinct from everyone else who will inevitably accomplish great things... and growing up to begin realising that may not be true at all. It's a very relatable topic for those who grew up with elevated expectations for their future, and puts forth the idea that, perhaps, it's not so bad to be a small part of something greater.
Fleet Foxes made a pretty recognizable name for themselves in the indie scene despite having only two records to their name (Helplessness Blues being their second). I feel bad for not having listened to them as much as I probably should have, given their stature, but after Dippy exposed me to this album once again, I was able to understand why their following is so strong. The acoustic first-half of this title track is exhilarating, riddled with emotion in its folds of lyrics. Meanwhile, the second-half gives me that feeling of Déjà Vu, being trimmed with plucky electric guitars and harmonies of conviction, before settling down on its gentle closing chords.
WARNING: Do NOT click that link if you suffer from seizures! Fucking trust me on that! Anyway, long-standing Japanese noise rock outfit, Melt-Banana, are known for their cacophonic, unrelenting style, with vocalist Yasuko Onuki channeling her inner Yoko Ono by basically screeching like a banshee. "The Hive" - released on their first studio release in six years - is probably the only instance of heavy auto-tune use I can stand, since it's virtually no different from how Onuki sings in general, and comes off more as a very angry robot screaming at you. This song is an unrelenting barrage of beautifully dissonant noise, and is something so uniquely Japanese, we just had to put it on the list.
Honestly, you can barely even notice any auto-tune going on in this song, it's so full of sweeping noises and frazzled distortion. I can hardly make out what's going on with some of the unflinching guitar licks (harmonics, slides, snorting cocaine off the strings???) because the effects are so thick, but DAMN is the mixing spot-on for every piece of it. Prepare your parietal lobe for a beatdown as waves of pugnacious decibels consume your mind in the mere 2-minute track. I think the small refrain towards the end is the only place where the auto-tune is clearly discernible, but, like, by that point your face is probably melted anyway, so, you might have more important issues to deal with.
A member of the hip hop collective, Odd Future, Vince Staples' debut studio release saw him embrace a raw, vicious, hyperpolitical style of west coast hip hop blended with the more underground production he sprang from, and "Señorita" really brought that unique fusion to the forefront. Staples paints a grim narrative of life in the streets, the harsh realities of living in slums under harsh conditions and how little empathy exists both between those stuck in that situation, and those outside who can't empathise. Staples posits the question to the listeners; what would you kill for? Think about that before you judge his people for what they have to do to survive.
Co-written by Future, "Señorita" is a true highlight on one of my favorite albums of 2015. The off-key piano sample used throughout sets the tone for this foreboding song, through which, Vince raps with a honed sense of awareness. The music video is gritty and brilliantly-shot, making the song's message further apparent as people on the streets march towards the camera and collapse to the ground, one by one, dying for a cause that may never be heard, seen, or understood beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood. The ending shows the remaining people coming upon a glass bubble they cannot pass through — eventually revealed to be a window to a safe family's home. They are looking out on the horrors in the street with little concern, since they are free from such harm — meanwhile, the outsiders look through the window in disbelief of the family's inaction and inability to obtain the same security. The unsettling nature of the song reminds me of something I would hear during one of Breaking Bad's most intense moments.
Masquerading as a happy folk song, this duet's lyrics reveal something dark and ultimately saddening. Detailing the perspectives of two people who don't actually hear each other, but — in a sense — feel each other, the lyrics ostensibly tell the story of a widowed woman who profoundly misses her deceased husband. The husband's spirit lingers on wishing to bring some semblance of peace to her, but his presence only seems to bring her further despair, making her unable to discern if her husband is still really around or if she's simply going crazy from the loss. They both know at some point, though, they will eventually be together again. It's certainly tragic, but the story is told in an endearing enough manner to eventually bring listeners the peace that the husband so strongly willed to do.
Once the central hub of musical narrative, folk music has unfortunately seen a decline in its storytelling ability over the decades, instead putting more emphasis on surreal imagery or confessional lyricism... which is fine, but this makes the romance novel-like lyricism of "Little Talks" just so refreshing. The song's galloping rhythm and exceptional use of alternating vocals between the two lead vocalists whose natural chemistry shines over this piece like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, bolstered by the stunningly conceptual animated music video.
Going solo with his debut release in 2012 following his tenure with Fleet Foxes, J. Tillman - using the stage name Father John Misty - returned last year with a sugar-coated tribute to his then-new wife, photographer Emma Elizabeth. The second single off the album is easily one of the sweetest songs you'll ever hear, a recount of Tillman and Emma's escapades in L.A. while they were dating, delivered through Tillman's typical smarmy, sardonic lyrical style. The song is cute, fluffy, and just a full feel-good listen in general, oft compared to Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, whom are also referenced in the track name.
This is such a sweet little song, and I love the sentiment behind this album. "Chateau Lobby #4" has a 70s soft rock/country feel to it akin to Michael Martin Murphey. The instrumentation involves a clean acoustic guitar, graceful string arrangements, and a galloping "clip-clop" beat that already makes you feel like you're listening to a song for the southwest (appropriate for the L.A.-inspired tune). However, there are some really heartwarming trumpet overdubs scattered throughout the song that REALLY take this piece home. It's a loving little track that simply makes me wish I could give a certain special someone a nice, long hug.
Esperanza Spalding is extraordinarily talented, and probably the most proficient bass-playing singer this side of Geddy Lee (though, frankly, her voice is MUCH better). This jazzy track incorporates elements of math rock in its impractical, stuttering rhythm. Though the production and song structure is more straightforward than on some of her previous albums, Emily's D+Evolution witnesses Spalding making a leap into more rock-tinged material than anything else she's done, without losing the personality of all her prior works. This track, "Judas", takes an empathetic view with people who have had to turn to illegalities to withstand the unending trials of the everyday world, only to be judged with immense disdain by their peers.
I may need to relisten to D+Evolution since my initial impressions of it were lukewarm, but "Judas" was different to me. The acoustic, bass-heavy rhythm reminds me of Stevie Wonder's less funky tracks, but with the technical proficiency of an attentive jazz performer like John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. But the melody isn't the only thing that's groovin'; I am just loving how Spalding delivers her verses in this song - the way her voice gradually pitches down as she sings the chorus displays an incredible ability to control her voice. If Ella Fitzgerald were still alive today, she would be so proud to see soul music still has such a soulful voice after all these years.
This is the track that introduced me to St. Vincent and got me completely hooked on her music. While not as abstract as some of her older endeavors, this eccentric, upbeat rock song is punctuated with jagged guitar riffs in its verses, audacious chords in its chorus, and a couple solos for good measure. What really makes this song stand out is its wacky, fuzzy bass that throbs, groans, and snakes in some really odd ways — perhaps most memorably in the 40-second outro, which is completely berserk. The entirety of this eponymous album is sprinkled with piquant musical choices that kept me guessing upon my first listen, and left me dazzled enough to declare St. Vincent one my top favorite artists of this decade.
Too many so-called "experimental" musicians these days are content to slap some electronic music onto their otherwise bog-standard rock and knock off for lunch - but not St. Vincent. While yes, there's not a whole lot of expansive soundscapes or production going on here, but the disorienting syncopated guitar riffs give the song a huge, reality-shattering feel. Ms. Annie Clark's voice is equal parts exasperated and lively, flying through the catchy as hell chorus with an intensity matching her frustrations with media as she critiques public perceptions of her image and ponders the mundanity of her everyday life versus the extravagant nature of her career. If there's a song that can get you into St. Vincent's work, it's this one.
Behemoth are credited with creating the 'blackened death metal' style of music, but they also have the credential of having perfected the style as well, creating some of the most gut-punchingly potent and complex black metal songs east of the Atlantic. Hailing from Poland, the group came back into public focus with the release of their 2014 concept record aptly titled The Satanist, and of the tracks, "Messe Noire" probably best reflects what this style is all about. Emphatic lyrics touting allegiance to the Dark Prince himself and tossing away the tenants of Christianity overlay harsh blast-beats and killer guitar fills, culminating in one of the best solos you'll hear on this list.
This is, without a doubt, the most brvtal entry on this entire list. If you get creeped out easily by the portrayal of demonic rituals, I don't recommend watching the music video, unless you are a fan of H.R. Giger's (to whom it is dedicated). Mixed and produced with surprising balance, "Messe Noire" is a magnificent hymn to the one-and-only Satan, bowing down before his sinister greatness with gifts of gnarled guitar arpeggios, frantic ride patterns, and thunderous oaths of unending loyalty. Pleased with these offerings, Beelzebub allows Behemoth to commence forth with their musical worship, knowing full-and-well that the 60-second guitar solo that lies ahead will be nothing short of a glorious consummation.
A captivating 12-minute venture through a world of skilled production and smartly-arranged samples, "Ashtray Wasp" is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is layered with a myriad of atmospheric synths, vinyl rips, sound effects, and vocal clips, but the way in which they are strung together makes for a truly thoughful listening experience. Just when you think the song has showed you everything it has to offer, it tickles your ears with a completely new sequence of sounds, melding together to create something indescribably serene.
Burial has always been one of the most forward thinking artists in British electronica, exploring the soulful sides of dubstep, UK garage, grime, and intelligent dance music with such a crispness, that his songs reveal something new about themselves each time you relisten to them. Sparse, repeated lyrics tell a story of love gone wrong, and the ensuing bitterness and regret one half of that relationship feels post-breakup. Much is said about the character's hurt and desire for vengeance with so little, a recurrent element in Burial's work that leads the question; if he's this good at narration with just a few samples in his arsenal, what sort of aural paintings could be paint with full sets of lyrics?
Sturgill Simpson is doing some pretty creative things in the country scene. This track fuses in elements of psychedelic rock and southern soul that make for one of the most special tracks the genre has been graced with in recent years. The bass groove struts forth with a blues-influenced dignity, traipsing through fields of fuzzy synths, moody organs, and a long instrumental section with multiple guitar solos of varying intensities, each segueing into each other quite flawlessly. To put it into a single word that I'm trying to avoid using too much in this list, it's awesome.
If you think country is soulless or has been hijacked beyond repair by creepy nationalists with their dicks trapped in tractor exhausts, then Sturgill Simpson is your proof to the contrary. Much of this album is built around philosophical musings and the purpose of existence, framed as advice Simpson offers to his son to help him navigate life and all its mysteries. With "Brace for Impact", he takes on an existentialist perspective as he comments on the inevitability of death, and thus advises his son to get out there and just enjoy life the way he wants it - experience what it has to offer while he can! Also, I know this is cheeky of me, but if you like this song, definitely listen to Simpson's cover of "In Bloom" by Nirvana; a country rendition of this should not work, but it's somehow even better than the original. Mr. Cobain would be proud.
Alternative country, country rock, psychedelic rock
One of the most inventive acts in American heavy metal at the moment, Deafheaven have taken a very unique approach to the idea of "atmospheric metal" by fusing it with shoegaze and dream pop, in a blend that bears much of the same mood and tone of, say, Isis, but in a more digestable, melodious format. "Dream House" presents their signature style perfectly, with a song that almost functions in multiple stages, changing up the melody and tempo at different intervals of the song, with different sets of repeated lyrics fitting into those segments detailing lead singer George Clarke's alcohol addiction and fascination with death.
A metal song unlike any other this list will present to you, Deafheaven have done some fascinating work on this album. Barring the indecipherable screams (which, are more-than-intentional due to its black metal AND shoegaze influence), "Dream House" is an easily-accessible metal track that functions stupendously as the opening track to Sunbather. Largely drenched in polished, churning distortion, its beginning and end has a pretty heavy 2000s alt-rock feel to it that is held together by a peaceful refrain around 5-minutes in. The final portion of the song is characterized by strangely uplifting guitar chimes that, as the track closes out, convey the artistic intentions of this album perfectly, and what you can expect out of the next 50 minutes.
I'm remorsefully picky when it comes to progressive metal, but Terminal Redux has some legitimately thrilling sequences of instrumentation. The album tells a story about a military officer in space who becomes a powerful force in its world's cosmic government. The album does, unfortunately, get a little clunky in areas, but overall it far exceeds the standards of popular prog-metal by pushing the boundaries of the listener's expectations of the genre. "Pillars of Sand" focuses on the cultivation of a planet's resource that seems to bestow immortality, which, naturally, falls into the hands of the Terminal Redux's main character.
Hardly the most intense track on the album, "Pillars of Sand"'s short runtime compared to most of the album feels like a fitting entry point for bands new to this brand of very complex, conceptual brand of extreme metal. Hailing from Turboo (talk)'s beloved home state (giving him something to actually be proud of in that cesspit), Vektor's playing is unrelenting and ferocious, as fast as it is detailed, with David DiSanto's vocals sounding uncannily like the late Chuck Schuldiner in a very pleasant return to roots from the more extreme vocals of their peers. Indeed, much of Vektor's output feels like they've channeled the spirit of death metal pioneers Death. I don't like to brag, but I have this album in cosmic blue vinyl - a fitting colour for the out-of-this-world design of this incredible honour of extreme metal's humble origins.
Sun Kil Moon are not the newest of artists, and indeed the sole member Mark Kozelek has been writing music as far back as the 1980s with slowcore band Red House Painters, but it feels like the alt-folk have only gained significant traction in their career these past few years. A very emotional, personal act, one word encapsulates what "Garden of Lavender" invokes in its audience; nostalgia. Nostalgia for ones home town, nostalgia for the simpler times away from fame, and nostalgia... for your beloved garden, which frames the majority of this song, all presented through very lax, stream of consciousness lyrics that do a lot to create a vivid mental landscape.
"Garden of Lavender" is a highly intimate piece built around a very basic acoustic guitar chord progression, back with modest drums only to accent the soft steel strums and Kozelek's storytelling. He speaks of memories, dreams, and visions that take him back to the place he loves most, for better or worse. The song changes up a little after the 6-minute mark, layering delicate banjo plucks into the mix for a short duration before the song branches off into a more straightforward spoken-word bridge with different guitar chords, leading up to the track's coda of flickering harmonics. It is the longest piece on Universal Themes, but it is the sort of song you can just sit back and calmly listen to, perhaps even a little more easily than an old Bob Dylan yarn.
It feels like ages ago that I was introduced to Lindsey Stirling, but I still remember how enthralled her musicianship left me. Madly proficient at the violin, Stirling did the 2010s a huge favor by acquainting the predictability of dubstep with the depth of classical music. The violin playing on "Crystallize" is sublime, evoking an array of emotions in between earwormy passages of electronic goodness. Her talent does not simply end with her playing and songwriting ability, though — she can dance with the elegance of a ballerina, too.
I want it on record that I introduced Stooben to this chick, and I refuse to ever let him forget it. Called "not good enough" by Piers Morgan on America's Got Talent, Ms. Stirling turned to Youtube to share her material with the world, and she is now an international success simply by word of mouth and viral video culture - indeed, her success has been enough that noted egotist Morgan even acknowledged he was wrong! Stirling is the creator of a style she dubs "violin dubstep", and "Crystallize" defines that fusion to a T, with tasteful drops interspersed between frigid, distant soundscapes, contrasting with Stirling's very bubbly, energetic personality and wistful dancing.
Kendrick Lamar's big label debut single, "Swimming Pools", is a cautionary tale about the dangerous slippery slope between social drinking and alcohol addiction, and how impactful peer pressure can be on this descent, backed by a sinister and grimy beat that almost sounds like a more detailed trap instrumental. My brother, who teeters nervously on falling into the same trap, adds: "A perfect description of the road to alcohol addiction; on the same path, I too was told that I was more fun and loose when I drank, so I should drink more. So I did. But then one night, I felt like if I didn't have just one shot, I'd just die... and that terrifies me. If you like your liquor too, this song should terrify you as well."
The production on this song is phenomenal. Its highly eerie atmosphere makes way for its warning of drinking in excess. Even if you think doing it once or twice is safe, you could be seriously mistaken and find yourself going down a spiral that is complicated to reascend. Kendrick speaks largely from personal experiences in this song; not only has he had problems with alcohol in his own past, he grew up in a household of severe alcoholics and witnessed what that lifestyle can devolve into. The struggle with addiction is a persistent one, which is why "Swimming Pools" warns you is not to go against your better judgment and abuse substances with dangerous side-effects, no matter what your peers encourage you to do, or how badly you want to get wasted and forget the day ever happened.
"Uptown Funk" may have been overplayed to death after its initial release, but after the hype has simmered down, we can safely say that this song is one of the truest and most incredible throwbacks to an age when funk and disco dominated the pop and club landscapes, in particularly the Minneapolis sound of the 1980s. This song is, quite simply, about dancing and having a good time at one of Bruno Mars' shows, framed around a myriad of old school references to 1970s/80s disco culture, and between the groovy rhythm, the harmonised singing, and beautifully choreographed video, this is definitely one of the most danceable tracks on this list!
Say what?! This song is such an energetic number, you can't listen to it and not want to boogie, especially with dat bass going on in the background. In one of the most quotable songs I've ever heard, Bruno Mars rolls through each verse with more style than the limousine in the music video. Mark Ronson's production should not go without mention either. The song has all sorts of clever arrangements in it — start-and-stop verses that make for an entertaining music video, spontaneous brass sections that add a lot of sunniness to the song, and a simple beat that scales into a smattering of snare-heavy passages and a shuffle beat near the end. The music video is one of the most iconic of this decade, too, currently standing as the third most-watched uploads on all of YouTube.
I feel so bad for Carly... I fear the release of her awful claim to fame, "Call Me Maybe", has led to people writing her off as just another annoying, generic pop act. But look at her now! She's doing so much more than just standard bubblegum pop, and nothing shows this musical maturity like "Run Away With Me," a very idealised and romantic song detailing the passion and fun long-distance lovers experience upon meeting, if only for a short weekend... something I relate to on an emotional level. Jepsen's incredible singing complements the stunning ambient soundscapes, but what sells this song for me is the recurring saxophone lick that opens the track. It's like a sweet, passionate kiss to my ears.
This is such a beautiful song! Emotion is a wonderful album full of smart pop tracks like this, and if turns out to not be a fluke by the time Carly Rae's next record drops, I'd say let's just forget "Call Me Maybe" ever happened. This song has everything a good pop song should have — an anthemic chorus, a highly-danceable beat, an immersive atmosphere... It's great! The vocals are endearing too, thanks in part to the touching lyrics about spending some time alone with the person you love most, the one who means the world to you. The synths in this song are tastefully placed, with the bass in the chorus almost sounding like a candied version of the bass in "Latch"'s chorus from earlier in this list (which means the song is indeed in 6/8 time too). And yes, that saxophone is miraculous; it brings out warm, fuzzy feelings in me upon every single listen.
I think The Shins are one of those bands that are pretty hard to dislike. Their discography is chock-full of earnest and friendly tracks, and this is no exception with their latest album, Port of Morrow. It's an album with a grandiose atmosphere, but it does not dillute the contemplative nature of James Mercer's lyrics, nor his meaningful singing. "The Rifle's Spiral" is wonderful song in many ways, but I have to say that nothing about it is more wonderful than its mystifying stop-motion music video.
I honestly didn't expect to be so taken in by this song when I listened to it, I expected The Shins to be just another indie rock band among a million. But with the galloping, country and western-style guitar progression and tasteful synth cut-ins, "The Rifle's Spiral" is a beautifully composed song that hides a far more sinister meaning. Mercer's distrust of religious organisations and the violence doctrine can stir in people comes out in full force on this track, as he takes on the persona of a religious figure providing weapons and coercion to religious terrorists, convincing them to go through with their horrible actions for a "greater cause". Scary stuff.
Everyone in the art community loves James Blake, and is it really any wonder why? Listen to this song! "Retrograde" perfects minimalist emotion, with just a simple electronic melody and a repeated hi-hat backing Blake's delicate, gorgeous voice. This song oozes intense feeling and somber resolution, with its stripped back production giving it a hugely personal, intimate feel. Which is fitting given how the lyrics are about a lover who has changed for the worse, trapping themselves in a bubble of loneliness of their own design that they wish to escape, with Blake gently encouraging them to return to "the girl you loved." Note how Blake says "you," not "me," insisting he wants her to feel happy again.
James Blake is someone who can really accentuate the beauty in minimalism, certainly thanks his gorgeous singing voice. I feel like a lot of acts in very recent years have taken a page out of his book in terms of song structure — a simple beat with moody bass and synths to underscore the emotion in a soulful vocal performance, and to reduce distraction from the point of the lyrics. The understated production adds a lot to the song in all the right places, too — "Suddenly I'm hit" and a wave of roaring, phasing synths comes in to stress Blake's supportive statement. Perhaps of note is that this song could be directed towards his once-girlfriend, Theresa Wayman of Warpaint.
Joey Bada$$ is a newcomer in the hip hop scene, but his old school heart shines through on his west coast-inspired debut album with a little modern seasoning on top to make it uniquely Joey. Here we have "Paper Trail$" (with prominent references to Wu-Tang Clan's influential hit, "C.R.E.A.M"), which is Joey's protest against American consumerism, and how corporations have "controlled" black Americans with promises of social status through material goods, believing his brothers have become "New Slaves" to the corporate system. Joey also illustrates how success and money have helped him lead a better life, but has also changed his behaviour for the worse, a very balanced outlook on the ups and downs of making bank.
I'd never heard of Joey Bada$$ prior to working on this list, so props to Dippy for showing me this wonderful piece. "Paper Trail$" has a real classic feel to it, even going the extra step by throwing in a couple of scratches for good measure. While he's not necessarily doing anything new as far as I can tell from this album, Joey Bada$$ does have a lot of promise and I can't wait to see where he goes next. "Paper Trail$" has a very valuable lesson in its expression — money corrupts. It changes people whether they realize it's happening or not, from the lesser worries of purchasing niceties for oneself when there are more important financial obligations, to the greater cost of forgetting who you are and where you came from. Joey is just trying to keep it real.
Swans' music borders on otherworldly, and while it is not even vaguely pop-oriented, it is something that sticks with you upon your first exposure. To Be Kind is the culmination of the group's unreal experimental capabilities, and it is a sensational collection of tumultuous tunes. "A Little God in My Hands" is the second-shortest track on the 2-hour LP, and with its noisy goodness and organic, thumping beat, I think it is an optimal doorway to the inescapable universe of Swans' unparalleled achievements.
To Be Kind is a masterpiece of ingenuity and creative design in rock music, and the only reason this song doesn't get a higher spot on the list despite the album being one of me and Stoob's favourites from this decade is because the album demands full listen in its entirety to truly provide its full impact. While many Swans' songs are more droning and atmospheric than "A Little God In My Hands", that is exactly why this song is a great opener for those just discovering Swans; the drugged out groove and twinkling strings support Michael Gira's snarling vocals as he sings about how a "God" as we understand the concept, is an inherently flawed being, and carries much of the same insecurities and uncertainties as the humans it created.
Set to warped, jazzy backdrops, So the Flies Don't Come Home is a concise product of Milo's embrace of culture and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The album is loaded with riveting words and thoughts, making highly apparent exactly how much Milo's craft means to him. "Souvenir" is a very chill song with unsteady fade-ins and -outs that complement the delivery of his countless statements. It lacks a chorus, but in all honesty, it has absolutely no need for one, as it would distract from the attention Milo and guest act Hemlock Ernst are ardently providing here.
Milo isn't a Nerdcore rapper, but he is definitely a nerdy rapper, which comes out in full force in his intellectual and pop culture-laden lyricism, which he employs to analyse his insecurities and curiousity about his place in society as a sub-urban black man. "Souvenir" is a track concerning Milo's feelings of being out of place among his fans and the Hellfyre Club, which he delivers with a lax, deadpan vocal flow delivering some amazing stream-of-consciousness lyrics, almost sounding like an updated, more down-to-Earth version of Madlib and MF DOOM's amazing 2004 release, Madvillainy... and anything that resembles that album is a goddamn piece of art, in my book.
You know when an artist has a name like "Flying Lotus", they've probably got something cool to offer. His album, Cosmogramma, is a vortex of unique hip-hop beats and notational sequences that have already left a lasting impression in music history. His production chops and compositional abilities shine quite nicely on the track, "Do the Astral Plane", which starts out with a nutty scat sample, but propels the listener into a spiral of danceable cadences with intermittent synth swirls and sultan-esque string arrangements. I think his great uncle, John Coltrane, would be very proud.
Flying Lotus has released three absolutely incredible albums this decade with just two-year intervals between them (which makes me hopeful we'll see more from him this year), but while his two more recent albums have certainly been of a much higher profile (and arguably more accessible), I think it's important to go back to his humble roots. God, I just love how the song flows and progresses while maintaining a danceable groove, with an outstanding intro sequence leading into a collage of electronic beats and synths that sound like something DJ Shadow would've done back in his hey-dey. This is absolute ear candy for producers... and also note how the scat-singing is done to the rhythm of a typical Boom bap beat. Very stylish.
Janelle Monáe is the most unpredictable and imaginative act in modern soul music, and while she toned down the crazy on her sophomore release, she rammed up the politics tenfold. The Electric Lady follows a concept of women's liberty and unity... except on "Q.U.E.E.N.", which calls for liberation of minorities in general. Standing for "Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, and Negroid," Monáe's angelic voice delivers the lyrics in a question and response format, asking her oppressors if it's so wrong for her people to live the way they do, culminating in a powerful rap where Monáe outright tells them the oppressed will no longer stand by. What an inspiring equality anthem.
I can not get enough of Janelle Monáe. Her artistic sprawl is one that is uncontested this decade, with "Q.U.E.E.N." being a prime example of why that is. The song is set to a funky rhythm with electrifying synth bursts that channel some of the most successful works of Prince, but evolves with dignity in each passing verse and hook, intermittently layering more sounds that defy every label, until the brilliant rap coda comes along with flavors of Philly soul. Janelle Monáe pulls out all stops as she asks and answers difficult (yet reasonable) questions regarding the hindering prejudice between archaic social gaps. Erykah Badu's feature in the song calls people out for being "droids" (robots), when they should instead be embracing their individuality. There is no shame in being who you are, despite what cultural differences and your persecutors may make you think.
Sleater-Kinney are one of the most important acts the last few decades, and they impressively have not lost a lick of their relevancy, even though ten years had passed between the release of their seventh album, The Woods, and their eighth, No cities to Love. Every single cut on the album is great, and qualifies for some of the most intelligent punk songs to appear in the music industry in years. "Price Tag" is a ferocious tune with tight musicianship across all of its instruments, but goodness gracious, the guitar melodies in this are completely astonishing and, arguably, the absolute best I've heard come out of this decade.
I was the one to introduce Stooben to Sleater-Kinney, and I'm sure he's been forever grateful ever since that day. It is just so nice to have these girls back in action after so long. Sleater-Kinney are one of my absolute favourite groups, and I'm just so glad they haven't lost their edge over the years in this glorious comeback of theirs, bringing their trademarked biting wit and social analysis to the new decade. "Price Tag"'s forceful guitar progression resembles the dissonance of their album Dig Me Out and features a very short-sentence verse structure, this song critiques the disenfranchisement and lack of luxury many people in post-recession America have to deal with, with even a mere sweater being out of their price range. Corin Tucker's vocals have only gotten more abrasive with age, and I love it.
God damn, this is the goofiest shit I think my ears have ever been exposed to. Neil Cicierega is basically a Jedi when it comes to mash-ups, and "THE BEST" is probably the most shining example of that talent. He takes a smorgasbord of samples from Foo Fighters, Tina Turner, One Direction, television themes, and commercial jingles, tosses them all into a blender, and makes THE BEST concoction of humorously-placed samples I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. It's just flat-out funny.
Oh maaaaan, this is just in such bad taste for this list. If this was actually a high profile project, I could imagine hardcore music fans getting furious that Cicieraga can get this high up with novelty music... but fuck off, this is some of the most entertaining and creative novelty music I've ever heard. Cicierega is an amazing producer and has a great ear for figuring out exactly how to mash-up even the most completely incompatible sounds together, and that shines through on "Best", which is an abomination of every bloody song Cicierega could find that had any sort of prominent mention of the word "best". How's that for a song concept? But it works, it's hilarious, and I love it to pieces. If you want to hear Cicierega do his own compositions, check out his band Lemon Demon, which released a phenomenal album just this year, Spirit Phone.
PJ Harvey is no stranger to the music industry, having released a string of influential and artistic albums in the 1990s and 2000s, a trend which has impressively pushed forth into this very decade. Let England Shake contains some of the most touching folk-based songs in her admirable discography, my favorite example of which may very well be "On Battleship Hill". Characterized with Harvey's delicate, soprano-like vocals and a heartwarming piano solo, the song is quite breathtaking and fine example of the raw emotion that was poured into the entire album.
Yes Stoob, she's been around a while and is a very seasoned singer-songwriter in her own right, but it feels like PJ Harvey has only become more political as her career has gone on... and I don't for a second detest this direction at all. Let England Shake is a vehemently anti-war album that saw Harvey take on a far grander approach to her instrumentation, and "On Battleship Hill" comes from Harvey's frequent thoughts to the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in World War I. She viewed this carelessly run campaign as a perfect representation of the senseless waste of life endured in war, and expresses her fears that today's war-obsessed leaders continue to embrace this callous disregard for the lives of their own people.
I don't think Hozier quite expected "Take Me to Church" to propel him to fame like it did, especially given it made basically no impact upon its initial release as a single. It was only after the music video, directed as a protest against Russia's anti-LGBT legislation, went viral that Hozier became a household name. Using religious imagery to frame Hozier's disdain for all institutions that think they can strip away sexual liberty from any demographic of people, viewing it as a defiance of a basic, intrinsic element of humanity, Hozier's impassioned singing and the very cavernous, echoed instrumentation creates a song that perfectly encapsulates a mood of restrained anger.
This is a very powerful piece, with its lyrics and instrumentation being highly symbolic of one of the most infamous institutions to trample on the rights of the LGBT community — the Catholic Church. The song mostly seems to challenge dogmatic principles, but it does remain open enough to interpretation to bring all sexual oppressors into question. "Take Me to Church" voices its concerns in a very realistic way, starting out with segregated piano chords accompanied only by Hozier's stirring voice, slowly increasing density in its movements. Eventually, a more haunting chorale of instrumentation joins in for support, climaxing poignantly at the chorus. It is an impeccable example of how a musical argument can be put to effective use. The emotive step-downs right before the chorus remind me of parts from Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar".
Late last decade, underground hip hop was seeing a small push to the surface, bringing with it the unorthodox sounds that had been sweltering there for the past two decades. Shabazz Palaces were one of those groups, being the first hip hop group signed to the legendary indie label Sub Pop, and "Swerve..." is definitely my favourite track on their phenomenal debut release. With spare production built on a swishing, alternating beat that almost resembles the rhythm of ocean waves, both lead vocalist Palaceer Lazaro and guest duo THEESatisfaction deliver an incredible flow as they critique mainstream rappers for failing to "walk the walk" of their grandiose raps.
Black Up is a highly innovative album, a virtue that its closing track, "Swerve...", encapsulates very well. There are exotic synth samples all throughout the verses, and a very soothing, jazzy mid-hook, where THEESatisfaction's two-part guest spot takes shape (which is so good, it led to their eventual signing to Sub Pop). The song's coda is composed of a distinctive, Arabesque string-and-percussion rhythm, influenced by the wordly sounds of DJ Tendai Maraire's father, Abraham Dumisani Maraire, a prolific Shona musician who popularized the use of the mbira and marimba all throughout the Pacific Northwest after moving to Seattle in the late 1960s.
A famous act in Australia's alt-rock scene, "Taman Shud" is definitely one of the most acerbic political songs I've heard in quite some time. A very reference-heavy track, frontman Garreth Liddiard delivers a constant barrage of critiques of conservatism in Australia, framing it all around the infamous Tamam Shud case, arguing that for how obsessed Australians are in defining what is and isn't Australian, they don't know much about their own history. But also spliced in are harsh critiques of timid leftists that are too chickenshit to stand up to the Liberal party, as Liddiard expresses frustrations that this cowardice is why Australia has become the cesspit of bigoted, regressive ideology it is today. It even caught the ire of conservative pundit Andrew Bolt, who is name-dropped in the song, who stated he's "offending the right people," which is Liberal party speak for "This pissed me the fuck off."
The events being referenced in this song will almost certainly fly over the heads of anyone unfamiliar with Australian culture and the Taman Shud case, so I recommend reading about that case in the link Dippy provided above. The song itself is structured very jaggedly, being made up of uneasy drum hits, wiry guitar riffs, glassy string plucks, and some sinister fuzz near its end — but all of these unusual choices serve to stress the animosity frontman Gareth Liddiard has towards those who are ignorant of their nation's history, or who are willing to paint it in a light that benefits their views. By the way, if you find yourself confused by the album art, it is pulled from a mysterious code written in the back of a book found in the victim's pocket.
Representing the gothic rock scene in our list is Chelsea Wolfe, whose album, Abyss, is a highly-balanced approach at staying true to the genre while utilizing some alluring twists. "After the Fall" is a gorgeous track that transitions from glimmering timidity to tormented sequences of distortion in its choruses. Carried by ominous, fuzzy drums in its verses, the song wistfully moves into a mural of reality-bending synths and guitar sustains that have a very unsettling sense of beauty, all before diving straight into a very anguished chorus of lusciously unstoppable walls of fuzz. Wolfe's vocals are stunning in every section of this brilliant work of art.
I am madly in love with Chelsea Wolfe and her bittersweet aesthetic, you have no idea. None of her albums from this decade repeat the same sound due to her broad pool of influences, but the appropriately titled Abyss is easily her darkest, heaviest, and outright twisted albums ever. "After the Fall" is a song that tears into the mind, with haunting, cryptic lyrics that can be interpreted as lovers being forced away... or something far more sinister, like an obsessive, violent suitor, or even a perception-altering mental illness. It's not hard to think the worst with the dissonance between the serene verses and intense choruses, and Wolfe's sultry voice does much to give the song a strong sense of humanity... at both its most beautiful and its most ugly.
Ghost have no interest in being the heaviest metal band out there, but they sure want to be the most stylish band in the genre, and seeing their papal arrangement led by a rotating frontman dubbed Papa Emeritus, they certainly tackle metal with far more grace and finesse than most would associate with the genre. A catchy, mid-tempo riff inspired by early doom metal acts of the 1980s, Ghost explore religious corruption in this song; the manipulative, comforting approach many religious leaders employ to lure people into their oft-shady congregations. It is a very fluffy song compared to many of the other metal picks on this list, but this band has so much personality, it'd be a sin to neglect them.
Neither a vicious race of double-bass drums, nor an overcooked cheese sandwich from the kitchen of Dream Theater, "Cirice" is a metal song I'd argue is quite sophisticated. It is surprisingly catchy, having several thoughtfully-composed and, ultimately, highly-memorable riffs distributed across its 6-minute duration. From the daunting acoustic arpeggio in its intro, to the well-groomed doom chords and ghost notes in the verses, to its graceful piano-laden refrains, to the psalm-like vocal melodies all over, there is so much to grab the listener's attention and satisfy their senses. The organ break after the two-part solo may be my favorite part of the whole package. The music video is a really cool homage to Carrie, too.
An unexpected comeback album that is impressive in nearly every way possible, D'Angelo's Black Messiah is a strong contender for the decade's best soul album. It is full of complex song progressions that are blanketed with outstanding natural instrumentation and attentive production, sounding like something that could have fit perfectly into the golden age of soul. The lyrics bring awareness to a plethora of racial issues in a manner that is extremely tasteful, leaving you wanting to learn more. The vocals are superb at executing the importance of these struggles, and the dense instrumentation is pure ecstasy.
D'Angelo has a very long history in neo-soul music, and his broad scope and creativity have allowed him to elevate over his peers and become an absolute staple of the genre, although he grew uncomfortable with how this was being ignored in favour of his status as a sex symbol... so he disappeared from music from almost 15 years. But then he came out of nowhere in 2014 with this, and it's great to know he hasn't lost his ambition and ear for large-scale productions even after being out of the musical game for so long. The finale track, "Another Life" feels like the perfect farewell on this incredible album, with its blissful, dream-like instrumentation and D'Angelo's positively darling falsetto. It all adds up to a song that you can expect to hear both on adult contemporary radio and in a budding producer's study.
Killer Mike is a very intelligent rapper, but he has some very sharp teeth to go with those smarts; "Reagan" is a fiercely political song that absolutely does not sugar-coat the impact of Reaganomics and the War on Drugs on Americans in poverty, but especially the black community, who to this day continue to be the number one target for the corrupt prison system that treats their imprisonment as free labour. Killer Mike employs samples of Ronald Reagan's denial of the Iran-Contra Affair and an escalating industrial beat to frame his utter disdain for everything Reagan and American economics stands for, leaving the listeners with the most powerful finale you'll hear on this list.
The first verse sees Killer Mike bringing attention to the disproportionate allocation of power among black people in America. They have practically no ownership in many of the country's most important industries, while lifestyles unlikely to bring equality and provide lasting changes to such crises are encouraged, not just by the U.S. Government, but by many superficial (and, regrettably, idolized) black entertainers — something Killer Mike feels is condemnable due to its negative effects on future generations. The second verse is where the culmination of Reagan's presidency and policies get called out. In some of the most detailed, educational, and merciless rhymes you will ever hear, Killer Mike explains exactly why Reagonomics have hurled the black population into an era of neo-slavery, thanks to privatized prisons and the shameful profits made from every single incarceration. Even Obama, Clinton, and the BushDynasty are called into question for maintaining a very obvious bias against one of the most discriminated demographics in America. This song's selling point is in its harsh truths — no hook is necessary.
I can not get over how fucking fantastic The Epic is. At nearly three hours in length, the triple-LP fully lives up to its title, not just in length, but in performance as well. Seeping jazz expertise from every track, I could go on for almost as long as the The Epic itself about how appreciative I am of Kamasi Washington bringing the stupendous nature of unadulterated jazz back into the spotlight this decade. "The Magnificent 7" is the final track on the album's second LP, and there isn't an unimpressive moment to be found anywhere in its 13-minute duration. There are all sorts of mind-boggling solos going on that somehow become even more monumental when you hear the spacey choral harmonies fade in to accent the instrumentation, encouraging you to just sit back and enjoy the show.
I swear, the instant I find this incredible piece of art on vinyl, I am immediately grabbing it. Like To Be Kind above, this isn't higher on the list simply because the album is so much better to listen to as a whole, but that's not to say you can't pull a lot from the individual cuts as well. "The Magnificent 7" is an incredible piece worthy of the dramatic, expansive pieces of John Coltrane or Herbie Hancock (whom he has actually performed live with), with its escalating progression and incredible saxophone playing courtesy of Washington himself demanding your attention from start to finish, and its attention well earned! Any surprise Kendrick Lamar brought this guy on to perform live jazz instrumentation to To Pimp a Butterfly?
Let's face it, Chvrches are way too cute to not earn two spots on this list. Their brand of synthpop is unlike anything else around this decade. Even if its 80s influence is overwhelmingly obvious, everything about their work is fresh and enjoyable — they somehow bypass the cheesy stigma that haunts a lot of artists that attempt to relive the same genre. "Gun", from their debut album, is a delightful song that is punctuated with sharp, twinkling keyboards, a drumline that makes you want to move around in joy, and of course, the infectious vocal capabilities of one Lauren Mayberry. It's almost unfair how adorable she and the band's music are.
Uuuuggggghhhh, Chvrches are such a weak spot for me and Stooben, it's really become a problem. Do they even belong this high on the list? Probably not... but we can't help it, their music is just so pleasant, but treads the genre with enough finesse to avoid being just vapid and fluffy cutesiness (not that there's anything wrong with that; see, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu). "Gun" is sort of a break-up song, but Mayberry is singing about viciously confronting her boyfriend about their mutual grievances and distrust of each other, comparing herself to a gun coming to shoot him down for his behaviour. So precious, so pure, and I just can't help myself, this song makes me smile with vengeful delight.
Björk always seems to know exactly what she's doing, but in Vulnicura, her competence and artistry elevates to a whole new level. Inarguably this decade's most genuine and heartwrenching breakup album, Björk bares her soul for her listeners, speaking rather openly about the pain she has gone through, the love she is missing, and the grueling process of healing that she's going through. "Black Lake" is a lengthy confession of emptiness, marked by extremely tragic string arrangements and frustrated, scattered percussion. Listening to this song greatly dampens my spirits, but there is an honest beauty in her divulgence that I cannot disacknowledge the sheer power of. The violins at the end simply make me want to cry...
To expand on Stooben's point, Vulnicura is about Björk's tumultuous break-up with her lover of 13 years, Matthew Barney, and is probably the most bittersweet record of the decade thus far. "Black Lake" was written two months after her break-up, and was intended to represent the inability to express your anger and frustrations, only being able to get a few feelings out before holding back once again... throughout the song, there are several instances of the instrumentation simply stopping, intended to represent these "freezes" in expression. Its totality, however, is effectively a diss track; Björk eventually gains the courage towards the end of the song to outright tell Barney that she feels betrayed and that she resents him for what he's done. Björk's trademarked unique wail has more of an impact than ever on this gorgeous but deeply troubled masterwork.
Electropop, classical crossover, art pop, avant-garde
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do is a highly abstract album, if its full title did not quite give that way for you. That said, its abstractness fits in surprisingly well with the unusual pop structure of each song on the album. The instrumentation is thoroughly impractical (with its lead single being composed almost entirely on a celesta), but not a single track on the LP is without its well-earned catchiness. This song, "Left Alone", is built around shuffling jazz drums and frenzious piano scales that would make Billie Holiday want to sing along. If the ingenious compositions on The Idler Wheel... are not enough to keep you entertained, surely Apple's penchant for engrossing, visual lyrics will have you replaying the album at least once to reminisce upon its poetic quest for personal completion.
What, no mention of Apple's amazing Contralto singing voice, Stooben? Shame on you! "Left Alone" was the first track Apple composed for The Idler Wheel..., and Apple's personal favourite, Apple laments the cold, harsh exterior she's developed over the years, and how it's proven to be a huge detriment to her forming close connections with people - especially romantically. Indeed, there are a lot of sexual struggles going on in this song, as Apple observes how eager she is to engage in carnal acts of pleasure... but how difficult it is for her to enjoy the simpler day-to-day routines of a relationship, and how this unintended selfishness has caused her to bring her partners down with her. It's an intimate song, to be sure, but she certainly does a good job hiding it behind those pianos.
Radiohead are a band all about emotion and mood, and while their other release this decade, King of Limbs, felt cold and emotionless, the team came back this year with their most innovative album since Amnesiac. Leading off the album was "Burn the Witch", a beautifully atmospheric song structured around an unorthodox string arrangement overlaying sweeping synth melodies. Thom Yorke's trademark slurred, distant voice presents a haunting picture of Orwellian surveillance, scapegoating, and authoritarianism, seen by many as a topical critique of the xenophobic approach many Western cultures have taken to the current refugee crisis.
This is one of the most riveting pieces I've heard Radiohead put out in ages. "Burn the Witch" was something of a work-in-progress for the band since 2000, with a rough draft of the lyrics having been posted online as early as February of 2007. After sixteen years, the song finally reached completion in the form of this penetrating orchestral piece. The most noteworthy instrumentation in the song is the percussive violin playstyle, which is as beautiful as it is menacing, especially with the croaking synths and apprehensive chorus structure at its disposal. The music video further adds elements of concern due to the disturbing scenes depicted in a town that seems to believe themselves wholly pastoral — a representation of Western societies turning a blind eye towards the wicked acts they perpetrate.
Perhaps Lorde has never seen a diamond in the flesh, but her song "Royals" is assuredly a jewel in the world of modern pop. Its composition is very minimalist, but it certainly doesn't require a wall of instrumentation to earn its rightful place as a classic. Lorde's immaculate vocals are enough to carry the song; she is backed almost exclusively by a simple programmed beat and quiet synth flutters, even in the chorus where her cascading self-harmonies are all that's needed to impress the listener. The song's stripped nature helps keep attention on Lorde's lyrics, too, which point out the shallow hypocricies of mainstream pop and hip-hop artist's superficial lifestyles.
How do people just not have a huge crush on Lorde? I'm Australian, and I still want to give this bloody kiwi a big hug, and tell her she's the sweetest little muffin this side of the Pacific. Pure Heroine is a masterwork of subtlety and heart-tugging sentimentality, but on "Royals", the socially-aware young lady saw fit to instead tear into extravagant celebrity culture, with Lorde expressing contentment with the more humble things in life. The dreamy but toned down production gives the song a fantastical quality to it that really sells that this lifestyle popular culture keeps plugging is all just a fantasy, and it's important to live life in the real world. After all, you can always drive Cadillacs in your dreams.
Queens of the Stone Age suffered a bad slump in quality in the second half of last decade, but following a botched knee operation in 2011 that left lead vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme in a coma and bed-ridden for four months, Homme emerged from an intense bout of depression to record an incredible, brooding album inspired by the loneliness and self-doubt he experienced. However, it's the penultimate track, "I Appear Missing", that explores this in full depth, with Homme's wailing vocals soaring over complex, melancholy guitar licks, as he delivers some of his most poetic and heartfelt lyrics yet. It's definitely one of the most haunting pieces Homme has ever committed his name to.
Reportedly, Josh Homme died momentarily on the operating table as a result of asphyxiation and a pretty nasty infection. There is a deeply contemplative narrative in "I Appear Missing" that I interpret as Homme confronting his fears of dying and the loss of musical creativity he suffered post-operation. Admittedly, nothing groundbreaking is going on in the song, but it is an enormously honest effort in every possible way, with the song itself even pausing halfway through, acting as a metaphor for Homme's own brief death. Add in the pacing notation that almost elicits imagery of wandering through a desert (you know, Homme's home), and by the end this very much sounds like a song about Josh trying to find himself again.
FKA twigs is to British R&B what Janelle Monáe is to American R&B, taking the idea of cavernous, ambient electronic melodies to a whole new level into a sound that's almost operatic in its production, pulling influences from choral music, post-dubstep, and trip hop to create a sound that is not simply uniquely British, but just... unique. "Two Weeks" is one of the sexiest songs I have ever heard, with FKA twigs' beautiful, sultry voice narrating her desire to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend, who has found someone else but is still tempted by twigs' overbearing passion and sexuality... but twigs' takes the opportunity to assert dominance this time around, putting a subtle women's sexual liberty spin on what is normally a style of song that caters primarily to the male gaze.
I think comparing twigs to Monáe is pretty accurate, given that neither can be completely held down by any genre definition. "Two Weeks" is very much unlike anything you will hear. Past the spellbinding reversed keyboard signals and sparse, yet puzzling drum beats, FKA twigs steals the show with her flawless vocal performance. Seriously, her voice is as close to perfection as my ears have bore witness to during this entire project. Between the airy, hypnotic production of the song, and FKA twigs' entrancing, Aphroditic presence, it would be a severe mistake to refer to this piece as anything less than the most erotic entry on our entire song list.
Bon Iver's second album is probably the album I have listened to the most in this decade. Its near-angelic qualities are extremely pleasing to me, and I could ramble for ages about why Bon Iver, Bon Iver is something every person interested in music should give a try. "Calgary" is a fine representation of the album's frequent use of unconventional song structures and opulent mixing, being composed of a series of verses that increase in boldness as each one passes by, climaxing with a distressing bridge that features bright electric guitars somewhat uncharacteristic of the rest of the album — adding a very significant sense of fulfillment to the very odic piece.
Named for a city in Alberta, Canada, "Calgary" is really not about much at all. Bon Iver isn't fond of expressing stories or personal feelings in his lyrics, but he instead allows his writing to flow naturally and form a picture on their own, which in this case, ended up forming a story of a couple who have grown old, weary, and bitter, but still find a way to keep each other happy until they finally reach death together. At least, that's what a lot of fans have pulled from it. The spacey production, humble acoustics, and harmonised vocals do a lot to give one the impression of a cosy cottage out in the cold Canadian mountain ranges, and the way this track builds up and layers more to the instrumentation before exploding is just... so gorgeous. "Odic" is the right word for it, Stoob.
Xiu Xiu... a very divisive band, but whether you like them or not, there is one thing everyone can agree on; they sound like nothing else being done right now. This generation's Suicide, Xiu Xiu are hard to digest, hard to comprehend, and simply put, terrifying. "Botanica de Los Angeles" is a mournful ballad full of distorted synths and harsh white noise, its very vivid, cryptic lyrics eating away at the imagination, painting a picture of despair, obsession, and ultimately, suicide. Coupled with a music video that can only be described as a schizophrenic's hallucinations, Xiu Xiu may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they are a group that will definitely leave a lasting impression on you.
Perhaps Xiu Xiu are a bit polarizing, but I think it's hard to deny the unprecedented style of music they create. This track is a good example of their highly experimental habits as artists while still being fairly accessible. The song relies on catastrophic drum beats and vexing waves of sound to illustrate a feeling of loss and misunderstanding — themes that become increasingly visual as the track unfolds, due to the gravely despondent lyrics muttered across its 3-minute runtime. I get a conflicting 80s new wave vibe from the track, largely because of the organ sound-effects in the lyrically-inconsistent choruses, but this doesn't take away from "Botanica de Los Angeles"'s fresh, scraping arrangement.
Death Grips are a household name on the internet due to their overwhelming popularity on 4chan and close friendship with famed internet critic, Anthony Fantano. But they're not just a meme by any means; The Money Store ranks as one of me and Stoob's favourite albums of this decade thus far, and the closing track, "Hacker", is the logical conclusion of the violence and nihilism of the concept album's protagonist. Pop culture references and abrasive boasts of infamy and dominance serve as both a fitting finale for the brutality of the album's destructive protagonist, but also as a metaphor for Death Grips' rapid rise to popularity, how they're "hacking" the charts, they're "in the area" of rap, they're taking over.
Dips has it right, The Money Store is definitely one of my top favorite albums from this decade. I am so jealous of Death Grips' production, and "Hacker" (the first song I ever heard by them) showcases exactly why that is. The song is so frenetic! An absolute labyrinth of grinding beats, serpentine synths, and smackdown vocals — it's like listening to mothafuckin' Voldemort teachin' witches how to swim. I wish I could figure out how that pitch-shifted "n o o o o o o o" in the first verse worked out so well as a back-up harmony in the song's hook, too. It's not natural! Honestly, The Money Store feels like the most impressive industrial music (hip-hop or not) I've heard since Trent Reznor was violating people's ears with Halo 8.
Cattle Decapitation are a vicious deathgrind band whose entire discography concerns environmentalism, animal rights, climate change, and basically anything that Republicans hate, and on this album, they propose that mankind are destroying themselves and the world through their careless, greedy quest for money and expansion at the expense of nature. "Manufactured Extinct" is blatant in its message - we are causing an extinction of our own design, and the band snarl and growl their way through thick, blasting guitar riffs and devastating guitar solos to provide an intellectual breakdown of the effects our actions and denial will inevitably have on the survival of our species. I am consistently blown away by just how crushing and forthright this song is, and it's great to have something this intense bear a conscious as well.
Cattle Decapitation have managed to create a message that could resonate with headbangers everywhere. The album's title even states its theme quite clearly if you know the meaning of "Anthropocene" — a geological era in which the industrial advancements of humankind have started our planet's deterioration. Obviously one song, no matter its genre, can make enough of an impact to reverse an entire ecological downturn, but the point "Manufactured Extinct" makes is still valid: if citizens, governments, and corporations made a consistent group effort to become environmentally conscious (by reducing pollution, improving waste management, being more frugal with the earth's resources, reshaping energy production, instituting reforestation, the list of feasible efforts goes on), perhaps our own extinction would not be so imminent.
While two albums were released prior to this one, Strange Mercy was where fame and impact all started for our beloved Annie Clark, an artist both me and Stooben have a deep admiration for. St. Vincent grew frustrated with the constraints placed on her in her early career, pressure to fit a popular model that would be seen as "acceptable" for a female musician. She felt unappreciated, unrecognised, and ultimately, very small. This is where "Cruel" comes in; an anthem devoted to all women out there - especially housewives - who feel neglected, mistreated, abused... not in an aggressive way, but in a far more casual way, in ways that belittle women, make them feel small and insignificant. Indeed, she ponders how people can be so cruel to those that care about them.
I'm so happy that St. Vincent is gaining traction this decade. Her work is fresh, inventive, and it just pulls me in every single time. "Cruel" is a menagerie of different song styles that meld together in a way that does not make sense, yet somehow works. The introduction is annoyed, yet pacifistic, opting to let the casual listener enjoy the pounding pop-rock structure they were hoping for, while not abandoning any semblance of St. Vincent's brand of imagination. While the chorus riff has a bubbly sort of sound to it, the languid guitar solo at the halfway mark seems to just add weight to her feeling forced into a hole that no one will allow her escape from — an image that the music video also makes abundantly clear, as she is kidnapped by a family to become their very own June Cleaver, only to be buried alive once they are finished with her.
Julia Holter instantly captured my heart with this album... she is not a human, but an ethereal spirit that has somehow reached our plane to deliver unto us the most beautiful music imaginable. Holter has absolutely perfected the style of perky, layered classical-infused dream pop, and nowhere did this leap out to me like "Silhouette" did. A humble little track about two sisters awaiting for their lover to return to them after a cruelly long absence... the same lover, much to their dismay, painting a narrative of obsession and disappointment that contrasts beautifully with the serene instrumentation. String arrangements sweep across the relaxed double bass rhythm, and as the track progresses ever further, the strings and sweeping ambient synths began escalating louder and louder, reaching a crescendo worthy of the baroque greats themselves. If the Garden of Eden has a theme song, this would be it.
This song really is otherworldly, somehow completely absent of flaws despite its risky structure — a paragon for the beauty in imperfection. The stumbling drum patterns are highly unusual for a pop setting, but could easily be representing the dishonest lover's missteps in his relationships with the two sisters; somehow the complex rhythm is not at all pretentious, but rather shy instead. The key changes between the verses and choruses are highly-welcomed, since they add an even greater sense of refinement to this piece. The keyboard notation is silky, while Holter's celestial singing blossoms gracefully into sheer, unadulterated radiance during the choruses' waterfall of harmonies. "Silhouette" is elegantly-crafted; a precious, one-of-a-kind treasure that opens itself up to be appreciated by music lovers from all backgrounds.
Australia's answer to Beck, Courtney Barnett has been making waves in Australia since the release of her first EP back in 2011, recognised for her creative, casual lyricism and very deadpan singing style. Barnett is the voice of a generation displaced in society, scared, apathetic, and anxious about the future and our place in the grand scheme of today's society, and with her unique rambling approach to lyrical delivery, we have "Avant Gardener", a song as amusing as it is relatable. Barnett discusses the mundanity of day to day life and anxieties springing from the desire to change things up but being uncertain and apprehensive about change, all against a backdrop of a casual day of gardening gone horribly wrong.
"Relatable" is exactly the right word for this gem. Expanding on what Dippy said, Barnett begins feeling good as a result of her new hobby. The gardening is therapeutic...at least until she has an asthma attack and the neighbors call an ambulance. Wackiness ensues, and we get a deeper feeling for the self-deprecating nature of Barnett's persona, as she uses breathing difficulties to metaphorically explain her difficulties adjusting to change. The story is entertaining and cohesive, with crackerjack lyrics ranging from a reference to Pulp Fiction, to ingenious phrases like "I'd rather die than owe the hospital 'til I get old". The song also was appropriately placed in BoJack Horseman's second season finale.
clipping. make their second appearance on our list, very deservedly in the top 10. I've already explained why I love Daveed Diggs's ability to entwine observations into very vivid imagery, but there are few songs in the group's catalog that do so as well as "Inside Out". The song explains the casual standardization of violence in the streets by listing average details of every day life, how they quickly get turned upside down (or "inside out") by unwarranted bloodshed, and how we all continue about our business as though there is nothing that could have been done about it. It's a highly troubling issue that gets tackled with an acerbic brand of humour in this song, emphasized gloriously by the amusing, cyclic music video that...you really just need to watch to be able to appreciate, because my words will fall flat of its brilliance.
What's so uniquely special about CLPPNG is that despite its experimental, intense production and vicious lyrical content, so much of the album is built around catchy hooks and welcoming presentation, and "Inside Out" is the epitome of this. As Stooben mentioned, the song has a message of people being so accepting of violence in poor neighbourhoods, framed around a drug deal gone awry, and the music does a lot to encapsulate this image. A waddling drum and synth pattern carries the verses, reflecting a lackadaisical stroll through the streets, before shit hits the fan and you're hit with ear-shattering bursts of static in the pre-chorus, almost like a sudden wake-up call to what's really going on without rose-tinted glasses. It's just so expertly produced, and still keeps Diggs' trademarked sense of dry humour, so you can get your head blown off with a smile still resting on your face.
Ugh, his song hits so hard... Benji was the album that saw Sun Kil Moon reach a large audience, but between songs about Kozelek's insecurities, childhood, and regrets, we're treated with "Pray for Newtown", a song that vents Kozelek's frustrations with America's dismissive approach to gun violence. Kozelek's playing is exasperated and haunting, as he delivers verse after verse detailing where he was when different mass shootings occurred across America (and one in Norway), and his thought process during these tragedies, as he points out that people are so complacent of mass shootings that they just quickly forget about the lives lost. Impressively enough, Kozelek doesn't make any direct statements on gun control in this song, instead questioning what's happened to our empathy and concern for human life, how we sensationalise domestic terrorism and treat the killers as celebrities in their own right. Very thought-provoking song.
"Pray for Newtown" is a very difficult piece to listen to without being impacted, but that is exactly its purpose: to remind you of these tragedies, and the lives that were lost or forever changed. Written in response to a letter he received from a fan living in Newtown, Connecticut, Mark Kozelek reflects on his memories of five different mass shootings, how others around him reacted to the events, and at which points in our lives we should be remembering their lives — during the moments the victims will never get to experience [again]. Kozelek's sorrowful croon over his detuned guitar is an effective way for the listener to focus on the point. A little over halfway through the song, soft drumming, Portuguese guitars, and a xylophone enter the mix, but avoid detracting from the song's point; instead, they provide a sad, if mildly consoling, feeling to this overall painful dirge.
The loss of David Bowie in January is something I feel has unexpectedly set the tone for a year full of loss. His final album, Blackstar, was created as a parting gift to his fans, playing out like a series of diary entries where Bowie bears his soul while coming to terms with his own impending death. "Lazarus" deals with the concept of mortality, as Bowie sings of the highs and lows of his life, as well as his own eventual death that no one in the public knew was coming. Composed with subdued guitar lines, a hounding bass, and mournful saxophone, the vaguely-jazzy song is truly funereal in atmosphere. Its accompanying music video will haunt fans for years to come, showing Bowie in a fearful state, confined to a hospital room that he never escapes from, but rather simply ceases to exist within. To me, "Lazarus" is somewhat comparable to Johnny Cash's rendition of "Hurt". Both are pieces of music history that I will never forget.
The comparison to "Hurt" is more apt than Stooben realises, given they were both seasoned, renowned artists pulling influence from younger talent, which I think must be an incredible complement for said talent, to know they were responsible for these artist's swan songs. Bowie took inspiration from Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips in the making of Blackstar, and this influence can be heard in the somber, uncomfortable jazz trappings of "Lazarus". While named for the Biblical figure Lazarus of Bethany, Bowie eschews any hope of a higher force saving him, his fragile, desperate croon expressing his resignation to his untimely fate; he knows his rock and roll life is gone, he knows his secrets will soon be out, and he knows there's nothing he can do about it. This song is one of the most anguished pieces I've ever heard, off an album that has approached death with a far more uncomfortable intimacy than any other record in history to date. Rest in peace, you wonderful blackstar.
We covered the 8-minute pop epic from Justin Timberlake earlier in the list, but if you want an even more adventurous anthem for this generation, we have the truly sublime performance from Frank Ocean on the middle track of Channel Orange, "Pyramids". At almost 10 minutes in length, Ocean's glorious voice presents a narrative of lust and conquest over the black woman, how they've gone from a status of goddess-like idolisation throughout history to being seen as nothing more than sex objects, as mere props for a man's personal gain and pleasure. This is all poetically framed against a backdrop of both Ancient Egyptian politics and modern street life, in particular the relation between a pimp and his prostitute. And that vocal harmony at about the 5 minute mark, hnnnnggggh!
Where in the world is Frank Ocean? "Pyramids" is one of the greatest songs I have ever heard, full stop, but I want more! I know I'm a sucker for songs with a progressive flair, but this song is really something else. It's divided up into two acts that flow into each other like no other epic in this decade — the first part being a historical account of Cleopatra, and the second being a contemporary tale to introduce an alarming contrast between then and now. The song is swarming with flurries of intricate synth lines, ranging from tinny to voluptuous, all fitting seamlessly into the wondrous mix, fleshed out with misty soundscapes, a spry beat, spanking bass, bluesy guitar arrangements (including a solo played by John Mayer), and most rapturous of all, Frank Ocean's passionate, crackling vocals. Despite its length, "Pyramids" never overstays its welcome — in fact, you may just end up hitting "repeat"...more than once.
One of our beloved Walkazo (talk)'s all-time favourite tracks, legendary producer Grimes saw herself move past the sonically fascinating but rhythmically flat dream pop she was known for to create an album full of intelligent pop songs that were as exciting as they were thought-provoking, further pushing the boundaries between art and pop in a way unlike any others in the art-pop game. Interpreted as either a lament for the abusive, selfish behaviour of a close friend, or a venting of Grimes' frustrations with the hypocritical indie community that lambasted her every attempt to make a catchy melody, Grimes delivers an intense vocal performance over one of the most energetic, bouncy, and yet detailed and creative instrumentation you'll hear from any pop act working today.
Can we just take a minute to step back and appreciate that production? The way Grimes' voice wraps around the mix, the insane span of the percussion, the fades-ins and -outs... How could anyone ever think she needs help producing an album? Fools! All of Art Angels has the same level of detail. And as if that weren't impressive enough, Grimes is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, she writes her own songs, designs her own album and single art, and she even directed the music video! She's extremely versatile. But that versatility alone is not what got her this high on the list; "Flesh Without Blood" is a piece of sheer pop genius, as artistic as it is catchy. The lyrics are easy to remember without being cliché. It's a dance track that doesn't feel like a cheap listen. It is an enchanting balance of accessibility, creativity, and personality. It is only a matter of time before Grimes is the most sought-after producer in the entire music industry.
Run the Jewels are a hip-hop duo consisting of previous list entrant, Killer Mike, and El-P. Their work together has resulted in some of the absolute greatest rap music this decade has had the fortune of being exposed to. "Early" speaks out against the immense police brutality and misconduct plaguing the streets of cities everywhere, and how such actions have destroyed all too many families. This is a subject that, while mainstream news does bring to our attention, we as citizens are left unsure how to deal with, leaving us feeling sort of trapped in a cycle of violence from authorities we have been raised to believe we can trust. Killer Mike's own father was a even police officer, but he fervently requested his son stay out of the line of work which has become increasingly riddled with irrevocable corruption. The music video perfectly encapsulates the song's message with a visceral animation designed to keep the meaning of "Early" ingrained in its viewers' minds.
What I love most about Run the Jewels is the chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P and the interplay between their verses, which just makes their choreographed lyricism so much more engaging. In "Early", while Killer Mike raps about the disproportionate police brutality against black Americans for often petty reasons, El-P's verse in the second half illustrates white man's unwillingness to do anything about it... because they're so distracted and entrapped in the game of hopeless capitalism and surveillance, so paranoid of their own success. You start to get the impression that the character in El-P's verse is starting to wake up to what's really going on, finishing in one of the most amazing final lines I've ever heard in a rap song. This incredible lyricism is bolstered by Boots' unforgettable, haunting chorus, which further illustrates the point of feeling trapped and drowned in an uncaring system stacked against the common citizen.
Political hip hop, hardcore hip hop, experimental hip hop
Putting into words my adoration for Janelle Monáe, and my favorite album of the decade, The ArchAndroid, is no easy feat. SO, it's a good thing I'm here to talk about just one of its songs, instead! "Tightrope" is a snappy, funk-influenced track that is pretty much guarant-t-t-teed to make you move. With a message of maintaining a positive attitude in the face of your haters, while keeping your own ego in check, the song wows the ears with upbeat instrumentation from every source. The drums maintain a perky tap-and-thump throughout the song, the accompanying bass confidently wanders around without detracting from the beat, the guitars are optimistic and varied, the brass is what we call classy, and Janelle Monáe sings with fabulous energy. Big Boi (you remember him, right?) also features in the introduction and third verse of the track, keeping it real the whole time. The music video, although unfortunately censoring a couple words, is a brilliant performance, too — so many smooth dance moves!
Janelle Monáe is the robot bae, brought here from the future to keep music funky fresh and exciting even through this tumultuous time in the world. Like most of Monáe's work, this song fits into a narrative of a futuristic metropolis that's controlled by an oppressive government opposed by a musical rebel android named Cyndi Mayweather (Janelle's character), but "Tightrope"'s message of keeping your chin up even when you're so vehemently kicked down, resonates with the real world too. This song is just so electric and full of magnetic charm, it's so hard not to be drawn into Monáe's absolutely stunning performance and absolutely bonkers approach to song composition, as she straddles the lines between every genre you can think of while still ensuring they all actually work towards something greater (unlike other pop chameleons like Twenty One Pilots). If you can't dance to this song, you can't fucking dance to anything, and that's the short and long of it.
I'm just going to out and say it; Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper of this decade, hands down. Lamar saw his ever-growing skillset reach a pinnacle on last year's To Pimp a Butterfly, a hip hop epic analysing every facet of modern black American culture and the unique struggles his community have faced in so-called "post-racial" America. There's really no one track you can point to here and say "this isn't that good," but "The Blacker the Berry" just... goddamn. One of the most balanced and insightful takes on violence on black Americans, Lamar's voice is full of force and assertion, as he details the feelings and frustrations many black Americans feel with the disproportionate level of violence and police brutality aimed towards them, lamenting white America's total lack of regard for their plight, even going as far as to ask "You hate me, don't you?!" But while so much passion and exhaustion comes through in Lamar's intense lyrics, the very last few lines provide an unbelievable subversion to the entire song, easily the most unexpected twist I've ever heard in a song since Common's I Used to Love H.E.R. over 20 years before.
That twist at the end is definitely astonishing, and helps cement "The Blacker the Berry" as the most cerebral song released since 2010. It looks like it's up to me to avoid spoiling exactly why it's so potent, though, so I will elaborate on some of the song's other qualities. As with the vast majority of Lamar's material, he writes his ferocious words from his own personal experiences. His anguish, outrage, and confusion are all very real — Lamar never pretends to be someone he is not. It is through this transparency that so many of his listeners are able to become connected or moved. Lamar keeps his expressions at the forefront of this song, relying on a pretty traditional boom bap beat to carry his waves of intense frustration. Between each mind-blowing verse, Jamaicandancehall deejay, Assassin, comes in with a hook to remind us of the black population's history and their struggles to pull ahead of their centuries-long oppressors. The song's final minute consists of a flickering jazz melody, instituted as a way to reduce the song's overarching tension. To Pimp a Butterfly is landmark in even more ways than just this one amazing piece can define, but "The Blacker the Berry" is, simply put, the single most candid song on that entire album, and on this entire list. It deserves this number one spot above all others — it deserves your attention above all others.