The 100 best albums of the decade so far
After five years, 250-odd FACT mixes and far too many uses of the word ‘ethereal’, we’re here – the pivot point of the 2010s.
To honour the milestone, here’s our version of an ill-advised midlife crisis splurge – our rundown of the 100 best albums of the decade so far.
Plotting any sort of ranked list of recent releases is always difficult: it’s easy to call XXJFG a classic, but anointing a recent Soundcloud giveaway as one for the ages can seem like folly. At times, we’ve felt like Neil Buchanan stranded in an art attack – there’s an amazing picture there somewhere, but how the hell do you see it?
As such, we’ve tried as best we can to celebrate records that have done one (or, as we ascend the list, all) of the following: proved influential or important with peers; withstood the ravages of time (or hype); embodied or popularised a particular sound; or earned semi-legendary status amongst our staff. It’s also partly a wrong-redressing exercise – a chance to give proper credit to albums we might have missed or underrated at the time. Don’t expect it to look like previous FACT rundowns (or, on that point, our Best of 2014 list) – it’s a list tailored to the task, and very much a product of our current staff and tastes.
The result touches on some familiar trends: knackered house, rave de/re-constructions, rap + psychedelia, kohl-eyed R&B, and all manner of ‘80s worship. But, true to the diverse range of music we’ve been covering, it’s also stacked with anomalies, obscurities and curveballs. And it’s worth noting that almost a quarter of these albums were given away for free – some as mixtapes, some as mixes, and some as other things entirely.
We’ve kicked off proceedings by revealing the bottom half of the list; we’ll follow up with numbers 50-1 tomorrow.
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100. COOLY G
Cooly G’s album of gyring digital soul certainly beguiled us at the time, earning a podium place on our best albums of 2012 rundown. For sure, some of that dazzle was down to sheer surprise – after a string of whipcrack UK funky releases, this was a genuine bolt from the blue – but, two years after the affair, there’s still plenty to recommend this collection of gimcrack come-hither music: queasy, low-lit R&B, carried by rattling percussion tattoos and bristling with threat. Also features, rather improbably, one of two Coldplay covers on this list.
99. FRANK (JUST FRANK)
The Brutal Wave
The Brutal Wave‘s title provides a neat summary of Frank (Just) Frank’s approach: the duo combine the melodies of coldwave with the “brutality” of underground metal, resulting in some of the most memorable guitar songs of the half-decade. By their own admission, the Cure-indebted duo are continuing traditions rather than changing the world, but when faced with tunes as classy as ‘Mr. Itagaki’ that scarcely matters.
The funny thing about this one is that, in a sense, it’s less of a “proper” album than others Kenny Dixon Jr released in this half-decade: it’s bordering on a compilation, in fact, featuring as it does several tracks released over the previous three years. However, not only is there lots that’s new here, but – particularly on the sprawling CD version – it has unprecedented structure for a KDJ album. Swerving across styles and tempos, full of snippets of news and history voiceovers relating to Detroit, and building to a fantastic cover of Funkadelic’s ‘Cosmic Slop’ (as ‘Sloppy Cosmic’), it is as coherent a expression of KDJ’s context and ethos as he’s ever made.
97. EARL SWEATSHIRT
The debut mixtape from a 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt was audacious in all senses of the word. His horrorcore fantasies of rape and murder were as vivid as they were vile: noxious syllables seemingly tumbling out of his mouth as soon as he could think them up, set to the sinister tones of an equally twisted Tyler, the Creator. Earl’s hateful lyrics are very much piss-your-parents-off material, but knowingly so — telling tall tales of cop murder in one breath and then heading “back to the fucking crib for some tea and crumpets” in the next. Even if he’s disavowed it, the mixtape is still one of Odd Future’s best records and a reminder of why “Where’s Earl?” was the only thing fans wanted to know during the clique’s meteoric rise.
96. MR. MITCH
(Planet Mu, 2014)
As part of London’s Boxed collective, it’s easy to lump Mr. Mitch in with 2013/14’s “new wave” of instrumental grime, but that’s doing him a disservice: his Gobstopper label was providing an outlet for grime producers like Moony and Deset back in the doldrums of 2010/2011. While his label’s output has remained consistent, Mitch’s music has sunk into its own personal doldrums. Using his series of Peace Dub remixes as a starting point, Parallel Memories juxtaposes dinky, naive melodies with overwhelmingly sour chords in environments closer to an airlock than a pirate radio cipher. There’s no real climax to the album, it just plods forlornly into the distance at its close; as worn-down and gutted as grime’s ever sounded, demanding yet another play.
95. JUJU & JORDASH
Techno albums are never the most exciting proposal. For every More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art or Neptune’s Lair, there are countless others that barely hang together by a thread – dull hodgepodges of mistimed floor fillers and vapid ambient interludes. Techno Primitivism works so damn well because Juju & Jordash look back to move forward, and don’t allow themselves to be constrained by good taste or scene standards. The resulting record is delightfully psychedelic and strikes a compromise between reverence, indulgence and innovation.
SKYWLKR, go-to producer for Danny Brown and others, loves drugs, and that’s never more apparent than on Strawberry Cough. It’s named after a strain of weed, almost every track on the mixtape references weed, and the cover art is – surprise surprise – a big old handful of weed, but rather than the clouded-over slog you might expect from a record this indebted to the green, Strawberry is full of clarity, colour and detail, with some of the most transportive digi-horns this side of Just Blaze.
(Lakeshore Records, 2011)
If the soundtrack for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive only included the score by modern composing icon Cliff Martinez, there’s an argument to be made for it making this list: its synth-splatted themes capture the film’s alternating serenity and savagery with Carpenteresque tension. But its the inclusion of a handful of ’80s-inspired synthesizer anthems (and a sweeping Mondo throwback by Riz Ortolani and Katyna Ranieri) that seals its fate as one of the best soundtracks of the decade. Try listening to the neon-drenched ‘Nightcall’, ‘Under Your Spell’ or ‘A Real Hero’ without imagining a stoic Ryan Gosling in that satin jacket, behind the wheel or saving the day. There’s a reason why hiring Zane Lowe to rescore the film was such an outrage.
92. SHABAZZ PALACES
(Sub Pop, 2012)
The history of alt-rap is a chequered one to put it mildly: without even venturing into the perilous zone of “cultural appropriation” discussion, there’s just so much stuff out there that telegraphs the message that simply by removing funk and swagger from hip hop and cramming in too many syllables and a few IDM glitches, you automatically create something with more cultural and intellectual validity. There are glorious exceptions, though, and Palaceer Lazaro and Tendai “Baba” Maraire – Shabazz Palaces – rise way above the pack of artwank dorks by virtue of sounding like they are purely making the music they hear in their heads, no more, no less. 2014’s Lese Majesty is great too, but this is where their crackling, droning, psychedelic mentality became fully formed, and remains their strongest statement.
You’ve Never Been to Konotop
The strong likelihood that the listener has indeed never been to Konotop, Vakula’s hometown, seems to give the Ukrainian producer extra powers of world creation on this sprawling and capricious album, which despite being rooted in familiar Detroit-y grooves feels as exotic and unpredictable as a holiday on Mars. Stylistic left turns and discombobulating breakdowns abound across a collagistic landscape of noodly jazz, dub fragments, grubby acid and even the odd barking dog – it’s one to get utterly lost in.
90. JON BROOKS
Music for Thomas Carnacki
(Cafe Kaput, 2011)
Best known for his work as The Advisory Circle, Jon Brooks has spent the last five years quietly releasing collections of whimsical, beautiful miniatures under his own name, mostly on his Cafe Kaput label. Music for Thomas Carnacki – inspired by to a fictional detective created by William Hope Hodgson, and originally designed to soundtrack a reading by Moon Wiring Club on Resonance FM – is the best record from this run, drawing from the usual Radiophonic reference points but providing a more varied and advanced take on hauntology than his peers; as romantic as it is necromantic. Boards of Canada might have released the half-decade’s most hyped album in this vein, but, post-Carnacki, Tomorrow’s Harvest felt like a furrow already well-ploughed.
89. SICKO MOBB
Super Saiyan Vol. 1
The latest in a long line of Chicago-born dance crazes-turned-genres, bop is the impossibly cheery emulsion of footwork rhythms, saccharine trance synths and Auto-Tuned ringtone rap. Teenaged brothers Lil Ceno and Lil Trav dropped their Dragon Ball Z-inspired mixtape on New Year’s Eve (almost daring the music world at-large to notice), ushering in the new year with a relentlessly buoyant sound that inverts the menace of drill rap for songs about fiestas, Maseratis and Pluto (plus, a reworking of Chief Keef’s cult favorite ‘Citgo’). It remains to be seen whether or not Chicago’s bop scene will ever have a proper moment in the sun, but either way, we’ll always have Super Saiyan.
88. LAWRENCE ENGLISH
Wilderness of Mirrors
Drone veteran Lawrence English didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel on Wilderness of Mirrors, instead he just chiseled away lovingly at his established set of ideas, honing them to a fine point and arriving on his finest collection of work to date. It’s deep, undeniably gorgeous stuff, but really excels by holding back where other, lesser artists would have been tempted to lavish their compositions with bells, whistles and fluff. There’s no shame in economy in long-form music, and English has it nailed.
87. DAVINCHE & KATIE PEARL
A decade after it came and went, the short-lived R’n’G (rhythm and grime) movement emerged as one of the UK underground’s most prominent reference points. Grime producer DaVinChe and singer Katie Pearl put together the only R’n’G album circa 2002, although record label trouble meant that it stayed in the vaults until being unearthed earlier this year. The album is a fine example of what could have been – Katie Pearl’s immense vocal talents highlighted by the contrast between her soulful overtures and DaVinChe’s rambunctious, metallic production. The album is honest, unpretentious and refreshingly youthful; ‘Wanna Be Your Girl’ (a vocal of Davinche’s classic Jam Hot instrumental) and the Kano-featuring album opener ‘Leave Me Alone Version II’ are highlights, along with ‘What Time It Is’ (Katie’s vocal of emotional grime anthem ‘Ghetto Kyote’).
86. WATCH REPAIR
Stopped Clock Chimes
We could spend days coming up with spurious genre tags for Stopped Clock Chimes (bongcore; tockstep; chrono), but it’d be more honest to call it what it is: a remarkably numinous ambient record and, with any luck, a cult release in waiting. Released in a limited CDr edition on experimental Manchester imprint Ono, it’s an anonymous collection of close-mic’d grandfather clock recordings. The result is a sort of horological gamelan, a hypnotic suite of all-enveloping chime music. If you’re lucky enough to get your mitts on it (not so easy these days), you’re in for a treat – few albums in recent memory have taken us deeper.
85. CHIEF KEEF
Back from the Dead
It would be impossible to talk about the last five years of rap without pointing out just how much Chicago has changed the landscape. Before Chief Keef, “drill” was a subgenre most rap fans weren’t yet acquainted with. After the Chicago youngster’s smash hit ‘I Don’t Like’ (which was subsequently nabbed, and tainted, by Kanye West) however, tastes shifted practically overnight and it’s this shift that made way for the recent worldwide success of New York’s Bobby Shmurda. Back from the Dead solidified Keef’s importance, matching his sloppy unusual rhymes with ascendent beatmaker Young Chop’s urgent, ear-battering productions. It’s a set of tunes that’d make a concrete slab to the face sound graceful, and it’s all the better for it.
84. THE BUG
Angels and Devils
(Ninja Tune, 2014)
Is this the perfect expression of Kevin Martin’s The Bug project? It might not contain tracks that are as world shaking as ‘Skeng’ or ‘Poison Dart’ (although if you’ve seen what ‘Dirty’ and ‘Function’ can do to a big rave, you’ll know the brutal sonic power is all still there), but as a complete album it’s head and shoulders above his previous works. With Gonjasufi and Grouper bringing in the same kind of cracked delicacy that Martin’s King Midas Sound tunes have, it has more light and shade, highs and lows than almost anything he’s done before. Pretty decent for a man fast approaching three decades of music-making.
83. OMAR S
Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself
You might think an Omar S album was a little beside the point, given his propensity for pumping out a steady stream of EPs – often with five, six or more tracks – on his FXHE label. And in a sense that’s right: like 2011’s It Can Be Done But Only I Can Do It, this makes no real compromise to the album format: this is just fourteen more tracks of uncompromising, bumping house music of various flavours (soulful, acidic, boogie-based, lavishly jazzy), but always boiling down to drum machine, raw bassline, riff and not much else. It’s exactly what you get on his EPs. But that’s the beauty of Omar: if it aint broke, he aint in any hurry to fix it, and almost nobody else on the planet flies the flag for house in its purest essence as a fully viable artform like this man.
The Night’s Gambit
(Iron Works, 2013)
Ka’s backstory is one that’s been told several times now: a moderately successful but ultimately peripheral ’90s rapper retreats into the shadows (and becomes a fireman, no less), then slowly remerges with a series of self-released albums, each more devastating than the last. The Night’s Gambit is Ka’s best yet, and crucially, his most minimal – the space between the beats allowing him to hone right in on his broken subjects and situations, making maximum use of every syllable and spinning a web of reoccurring metaphors that run throughout the album. You’re never in doubt that Ka could rap rings around your favourite rapper – such is his authority – but The Night’s Gambit is often most powerful when he leaves you in silence.
81. HOW TO DRESS WELL
(Lefse Records, 2010)
Tom Krell’s first full-length offering as How To Dress Well was a lo-fi love letter to the R&B of the ’80s and ’90s: melodies lodged in the collective consciousness deconstructed and reconstructed as spectral hypnogogia. Stripping away bombastic percussion and singing-competition dramatics, Krell leaves the listener with his falsetto, fog and fragments of the love, pain and heartache that R&B does best. A few years removed from all the hand-wringing and think-pieces about “PBR&B,” Love Remains feels like a breakthrough both for Krell and for Tri Angle; the label re-released it as their first album, anchoring their flawless run of early records.
80. EXPRESSWAY YO-YO DIETING
(Weird Forest, 2010)
As the rest of the noise scene was nursing a rapidly rising boner for teutonic minimal techno, Portland operative Pat Maher (aka Glamorous Pat, Indignant Senility etc) was instead following the Biblical word of Houston’s DJ Screw and rustling up his version of screwed ’n chopped rap. Firing snippets of half-forgotten Southern trunk rattlers through his arsenal of broken distortion pedals and tape machines, Maher managed to carve out his own niche removed from pretty much anyone else in the noise world, and he did it with compelling honesty and verve.
79. JUICY J & LEX LUGER
Rubba Band Business 2
Juicy J’s post-Three 6 Mafia career revitalization began when he linked up with a then-teenaged Lex Luger for a series of mixtapes. Fresh off monster hits ‘Hard in da Paint’ and ‘B.M.F.’, Luger’s take on trap rap — metallic horror-score synths, rat-a-tat TR-808 percussion and heart-stopping bass — would soon be one of the most influential and imitated sounds in all of music, from Brick Squad producers to the likes of Girl Unit, TNGHT and Kuedo. Rubba Band Business 2 is the pair’s best collaboration, with Juicy’s odes to sex-drugs-money still catchy as hell — revisit ‘A Zip and a Double Cup’ and ‘Who Da Neighbors’ for proof.
78. BING & RUTH
Tomorrow Was The Golden Age
(RVNG Intl, 2014)
David Moore’s Bing and Ruth project excels on this collection of slow music with impressive emotional reach. Performed on piano, bass, clarinet, cello and manipulated tape, Tomorrow… offers instant, just-add-water reverie, full of Reichian piano figures that break and flutter like flocks of startled birds. The results are deliciously hard-to-place – too taciturn to qualify as post-rock, but too sentimental to sit happily in the minimalism section. It’s got winter warmer written all over it, too, so we’re expecting it to reveal new charms as the long nights start to close in.
77. ENSEMBLE ECONOMIQUE
The Fever Logic
(Not Not Fun, 2013)
Sometimes a title says it all. Brian Pyle (this is a one-man “Ensemble” from Humboldt County, California) operates in an interzone where ambient, post-classical, shoegaze, post-rock intersect and refract one another’s sounds. And his particular way of managing this collision of sound is to take it into a fever dream, where songs appear to be taking shape but logic, gravity and structure will suddenly melt away to leave you stranded in a freaked-out state. It’s hellishly tactile, by turns free floating and crushingly claustrophobic, rubbing on your skin like velvet and iron filings, seducing you into sickly clinches. It’s sick, but very definitely not in the way your average dancefloor banger is.
76. LANA DEL REY
Born to Die
Loaded with teen girl fantasies and Americana anthems, Born To Die is no less masterfully singular now then when it dropped in early 2012. Perhaps the most divisive pop artist of our time, the Instagram ingenue formerly known as Lizzy Grant crystallized a vision of pop somewhere between Disney and David Lynch with a nearly-flawless hit parade that is astounding no matter how you slice it, whether as a pop record, a debut album or a major label release. ‘Video Games’ and ‘Blue Jeans’ are just as poignant as when they first captured the zeitgeist; ‘Summertime Sadness’ has surpassed them both at this point. She’s grown as an artist since its release, but Born To Die will always be the quintessential portrait of Lana Del Rey.
75. ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER
R Plus Seven
Dan Lopatin may have burst onto the scene championing a new wave of Tangerine Dream-fetishizing synth acts, but over the last few years he’s matured confidently and ended up producing music that’s far harder to pigeonhole. R Plus 7 was his weirdest and most unique set to date, transferring the blunt nostalgia and tacky humor of Lopatin’s previous records into a delicate (and phenomenally well-produced) new mode. The signs may have been all there, but few of us thought that Lopatin would end up with an album so incredibly well-realized, surreal and restrained as this.
74. DIRTY BEACHES
(Zoo Music, 2011)
The breakout LP from Montreal’s Dirty Beaches is a loop-based collection of phantasmagoric doo-wop, schlocky rockabilly and deep-fried dub. Alex Zhang Huntai’s vocals – part Roy Orbison croon, part Lux Interior histrionics – come over like a wail from the other side of the River Styx, making for one of that year’s darkest and strangest records, and one that continues to bear bruised fruit. Zhang Hungtai’s just called time on the Dirty Beaches project – but we’ll always have this, baby.
73. DANNY BROWN
Now, of course, Danny Brown seems like he’s been around for ever, a technicolour rap jester cavorting across the cultural landscape. But his archetype wasn’t fully formed before XXX dropped: up until that point, he’d been a clearly talented but slightly unfocused mixtape rapper, with a penchant for early Wu-Tang style beats and drama and a brief and slightly unlikely alliance with G-Unit. Then suddenly, at the age of 30, there he was – finally finding his own voice, hooking up with a giddy array of producers, and hollering about drugs every which way but loose. An inspiration for grafters everywhere, and a reminder that rap doesn’t have to be a young man’s game.
72. HYPE WILLIAMS
Hype Williams’ journey over the last five years has been a protracted shuffle out of the shadows – from moody, slo-mo collage, through the muddled songcraft of Do Roids and Kill E’rything and Black Is Beautiful, to honest-to-God pop writing (The Redeemer) and hook-singing (copeland’s work with The Bug). Their debut album sees them at their dreamiest and fuzziest – molasses-thick ambient music linked to the (by then waning) “hypnagogic” mania, but with a deep felt connection to UK urban lore. It’s a magic carpet ride – part industrial experiment (in the mould of Vox Populi! or The Shadow Ring), part trip-hop shudder.
71. ROME FORTUNE
Rome Fortune stood out from his Atlanta peers not by being particularly weird (“weird” in Atlanta is pretty expected at this point) but instead by simply managing to avoid trends at almost every turn. On Beautiful Pimp he brought in a team of some of the city’s best producers and urged them to up their game, whether it was the then-unbroken Childish Major (who was yet to hit superstardom with ‘UOENO’) or local hitmakers C4, Spinz and DunDeal who turn in their weirdest collection of beats here. Everything is strung together perfectly by Rome’s pointedly sluggish, thoughtful flow that’s got personality by the bucketload. Rome doesn’t really make mixtapes at all, he makes albums, and Beautiful Pimp is one of the best rap albums of the last few years.
My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky
(Young God, 2010)
Has any modern band had a second act like Swans? After a 13 year hiatus, Michael Gira and friends have returned with not one, but three albums that have have ticked the important boxes – critical adulation, genuine creative development, and most elusively, Actually Being Good. Their last two records (2012’s mammoth The Seer, and this year’s sassier To Be Kind) have been heavyweight statements, so it’s easy to forget just how wonderful My Father… is – pummelling as anything, but, thanks to an array tubular bells, dulcimers and vibraphones, decorated with an ecstatic glitter (plus, unlike subsequent Swans albums, you don’t have to block out an afternoon in your diary to listen to it either).
69. LAUREL HALO
(Hippos in Tanks, 2011)
Laurel Halo was lumped in with the fantastically spurious and protean genre “hypnagogic pop” when she first came out, which as far as anyone can work out just meant ’80s pop culture tropes put through a filter of psychedelic fuzz. And yes, that’s a small part of what she does – the Cocteau Twins / Kate Bush high drama and the ’80s drums and structures that would become all the more pronounced in her later Hyperdub work are indeed frequently surrounded by Basic Channel-ish fizzy radiance. But there’s far, far more going on, and on this – her first, subtlest and probably best statement so far – she owes more to living traditions of techno and ambient than to any dodgy neologism or arch retro urges. Whatever you call it, this is electronic music with its futurist urges turned right back up to maximum, and all kinds of bittersweet bliss seeping through its complex structures.
Where We Came From
While Dre Skull and Mixpak had already linked up with a dancehall star for a personal, Kingston-meets-Kings County full-length (Vybz Kartel’s Kingston Story), Popcaan’s debut record feels like a fuller statement: Popcaan proves that he can be more than the party king, painting a complete picture of where he comes from, while Dre Skull and Dubbel Dutch hold their own against dancehall veterans in the beat department. With ‘Everything Nice’ and ‘Love Yuh Bad’ blasting from Jamaica to the JMZ, Where We Come From has entered timeless summer album territory.
67. ZOLA JESUS
(Souterrain Transmissions, 2010)
While her debut album The Spoils and split efforts with LA Vampires and Burial Hex were awash with spooky lo-fi haze, Nika Danilova’s expanded version of Stridulum was the first step in her transformation from bedroom producer to goth pop star. With a voice trained for the opera, Danilova belts out her melodies over booming, funeral march drumlines and horror score synthscapes, somewhere between Cocteau Twins and Nine Inch Nails. Yet even if it seems to be drenched in crude oil (like the album’s unforgettable cover art), there’s a hint of hope in what are essentially love songs — uneasy, heart-wrenching, haunted love songs.
Cut 4 Me
In an age of factory-built hits, horse-traded productions and identikit songwriting, the type of symbiotic relationship between a singer and a producer that allows both to find transcendence is often missing from pop. Like a modern-day Aaliyah and Timbaland, Kelela and the Fade to Mind/Night Slugs axis needed each other for Cut 4 Me, a showcase of both a mesmerizing singer and a crew of producers ready to move beyond the limits of instrumental (or vocal-sampling) club tracks. “Mixtape” doesn’t do Cut 4 Me justice: this is a pristine collection of broken-heart kiss-offs, bedroom-eyed come-ons and it’s-complicated confessions that sounds like nothing else in pop, R&B and dance music – yet surely will in years to come.
65. MARA CARLYLE
(Ancient & Modern, 2011)
Mara Carlyle is one of the most individualist singer-songwriters out there, as well as having one of the best voices in the game. She’s not only adept at, but utterly at home in classical, folk, jazz, electronica, modern R&B and plenty of other styles, she’s worked with the likes of Herbert (who signed her first album to his Accidental label), Plaid, Joe Goddard, The Invisible as well as all kinds of orchestras and ensembles – and she’s battled through the mainstream too, having signed to EMI, been through development hell, and emerged with the rights to this glorious album intact. This is frequently a record of absolute, soaring positivity: not in any facile way, but in the sense of emerging from life’s tribulations stronger and wiser. It’s by turns dark, strange and blissful, but its songs and the singing are unforgettable.
64. YOUNG THUG
If you’re looking for someone to blame for Young Thug (trust us, when we slotted him into a 2013 rap feature, readers were not happy), direct your ire towards Lil Wayne. Thug coolly snatched Weezy’s nasal loud-addled flow and tailored it to Atlanta’s neon-lit strip clubs. This was best exhibited on the Gucci-cosigned 1017 Thug, a record where the idea of street rap was turned on its head as Thug put his rubbery, auto-crooned hooks at the very center of the record, eliminating the need for the expected Nate Dogg character. It worked too, and while Thugger’s wincingly off-key wails aren’t for everyone – just spin ‘Pikachu’ or ‘Nigeria’ to a room full of heads and witness divisions emerge – there’s no denying that after 1017 Thug, rap got discernibly stranger, almost across the board.
63. ALTERED NATIVES
Tenement Yard Volume One
(Eye4Eye Recordings, 2010 )
He started out in broken beat, and, around the time of this release, was briefly lumped in with UK funky because, well, he essentially makes house beats with heavy sub bass, and his tracks frequently make explicit reference to the acid house and early hardcore eras. But Danny Native’s style has always been broader and deeper than anything any one scene could contain. In fact, it’s like he has access to the motherlode of UK underground sound, the ur-rhythm that underlies it all: all of the above mentioned styles, plus all kinds of other spectral pirate radio signals, flow through his deceptively simple beats, but even more importantly it rocks the best, sweatiest sort of parties now as then. We like the hi-hats, too.
62. KANYE WEST
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
(Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam, 2010)
As a few cautious souls pointed out during the scrum to anoint MBDTF, albums that scream ‘blockbuster’ often have a limited shelf life: what can seem grand and widescreen on early listens often feels overblown and stolid when the initial shine has worn off. Fair cop: half the songs on MBDTF are undoubtedly overlong, some passages pong of cheese (those Shazza’s-coming-down-the-aisle string interludes in particular), and, for all the grandstanding, it’s much less creatively daring than either of the Kanye albums that bookend it. But we’re frontloading the quibbles here: as all-star indulgences go, this is still terrific fun, with moments of canned adrenaline (‘All Of The Lights’, ‘Power’), self-laceration (‘Runaway), and, in Nicki Minaj’s guest spot on ‘Monster’, the cameo of the decade.
61. FIONA APPLE
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
(Clean Slate / Epic, 2012)
Fiona Apple doesn’t release much, but when she does you can bet it’s going to be something special. What makes The Idler Wheel… so great is that it was so unexpected. She produced the record in secret with the help of her touring drummer Charley Drayton rather than usual collaborator Jon Brion and in doing so managed to avoid the label drama that plagued her earlier releases. The result is a peculiar, personal, deeply bizarre set of songs that might be among the best Apple has ever put together in one place. It’s not an easy listen, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more absorbingly tangled collection of uninhibited songwriting in this list, at least.
60. KING LOUIE
Before Chief Keef there was King Louie and it was Louie’s deceptively lackadaisical flow that lit the touch paper that would push the Chicago sound over State lines. Drilluminati is the best of a solid run of mixtapes (check the autotune-heavy Jeep Music for our #2), and matched him with a varied range of the Windy City’s best beatmakers – Nez & Rio, C-Sick, Young Chop and more. Somehow it’s not overlong at an economical 14 tracks and it’s jam-packed with hits, from the bare-faced consumerism of ‘2 Pair’ to re-assuring, euphoric grind of ‘Bands Up’. Drill hasn’t coughed up a lot of truly solid albums yet, and Drilluminati is probably as close as we’re likely to get for now.
59. SILENT SERVANT
(Hospital Productions, 2012)
Of all the Downwards axis – in fact, of all the deep-and-dirty industrial techno axis – Silent Servant’s sounds are among the most seductive, and this album is one of the most perfect expressions of this. Yes, there are lo-fi drum machines, distortion galore, plenty of layers of subliminal sound that nag and whisper at you like tormenting sprites and a dark and kinky core to it all – but at the same time there is lushness, voluptuousness, a sense that you’re in a constant ebb and flow between subjection and exultation, always swerving away before getting stuck in one or the other.
58. DJ BURN ONE & STARLITO
Nashville rapper Starlito is a fine lyricist, with a particular skill for smart rhymes that build up their effect cumulatively rather than relying on snappy one-liners. But it’s his voice – rich, raw and extraordinarily soulful – that really makes him stand out, and never has it been quite so well showcased as on this mixtape (though it’s easily coherent enough to treat as a ‘proper’ album) which emerged in a prolific period following the end of an unproductive relationship with Cash Money. Burn One’s beats throughout are richly-textured, sultry soul-sample looping that of a quality you won’t find anywhere this side of Pete Rock’s finest work, and they bring out the musicality of Starlito’s style far better than any of the predominantly 808-heavy productions he’s jumped on since.
57. CONNAN MOCKASIN
Forever Dolphin Love
(Phantasy / Because, 2011)
‘Psychedelic’ is a term too often used to describe any old record that’s been in sniffing distance of a joss stick, but this is the real deal, damn it: whimsical, waterlogged, weird-as-you-like hypno-pop from the mind of New Zealand oddball Connan Mockasin, a cross between Syd Barrett and Prince whose quivering, chipmunky voice is the sensual foil to his gloopy, tuning-is-for-squares guitar playing. The album was re-released a year later on Erol Alkan’s Phantasy label under the title Forever Dolphin Love, which does a much better job of hinting at its contents.
56. MICA LEVI
Under the Skin
As already noted in our all-time horror soundtracks rundown, Mica Levi’s achievement – still only in her twenties – of producing one of the most chilling and suspenseful film scores in history is nothing to be sniffed at. But even better, it works excellently as an ambient album completely detached from any thought of Scarlett Johannssen as alien sex predator. The Penderecki-ish string creaks and quivers are set off by a rich palette of electronic drones and a particular way with a subterranean thud that gives everything a sinister womb-like quality – like so much of the greatest soundsystem music, that tension between comfort and fight/flight impulse produces an uncanny zone that is strangely thrilling to be in.
55. A$AP ROCKY
Released on Halloween 2011, A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape introduced an all-black-everything, Houston-meets-Harlem fashion killer to the rap world. Forgoing the New York rap tradition in favor of woozy cloud rap, chopped-and-screwed Houston hip-hop and Memphis horrorcore, Rocky’s understanding of the zeitgeist is and was more impressive than his originality or talent — but it doesn’t matter. While he’s not the first to rip-off DJ Screw and Three 6 Mafia or rap over Clams Casino’s scene-building beats, hip-hop has always (more than any other genre) put a premium on commercial instincts, which he has in spades. And even rap purists can’t deny the unbeatable run of ‘Palace’, ‘Peso’, ‘Bass’, ‘Wassup’, ‘Brand New Guy’ and ‘Purple Swag’.
54. JOHN MAUS
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
(Ribbon Music, 2011)
Brace, engage…fist-pump! There’s something about the John Maus package – the induced hysteria of his live performances; his emphasis on (ever so blustering) political theory; that jawline – that’s easy to get swept up with (how many other lo-fi bedroom poppers have had books have been written about them?). The former Ariel Pink sideman’s third album – complete with lumpy Alain Badiou-inspired title, naturally – is a grab-bag of smudgy electro-pop, with an unfeasibly high hook ratio, and performed with the sort of shameless enthusiasm that other wannabe pop zealots would do well to learn from.
(Young Money Entertainment / Cash Money Records, 2011)
Take Care should never have been so good. An indulgent, lofty rap statement from a Canadian ex-child star who’d shot to rap stardom on the back of a genre-hopping mixtape? It was almost destined to be crippled by its very existence, but somehow it worked. In all its audaciousness, Take Care managed to make exactly the indelible mark on the last half-decade as Drake no-doubt was dying to and stands as a crucial example of the way the rap genre has shifted over the last few decades. Guided by producer 40’s light touch, Take Care is the rare sound of an artist trying to prove himself and succeeding, and finds Drake at his most thirsty and most tireless. It’s a couple of tracks too long for sure, but Take Care is decadent, soft and over-emotional in all the right ways – it’s peak Drake.
(Honest Jon’s, 2010)
Alright, alright, this is a bit of a shoehorning as there’s barely 30 minutes of music on this vinyl doublepack BUT: 1) it’s as close to an album as we’re ever going to get from former Monolaker Torsten Pröfrock’s now-defunct T++ guise, 2) the four tracks work superbly as a whole, and 3) it’s truly, truly great. Using minuscule fragments of 1920s and 1930s recordings from West Africa melted into a kind of ultra-high-resolution, hyper-detailed 2-step, Pröfrock pulls us deep into uncanny valley where the ancient becomes futuristic, the digital becomes natural and nothing is what it seems. Much imitated, never bettered.
God of Black
Before personal problems shattered the Raider Klan, before 4AD scrubbed away the grit and grime, before every trap-fascinated producer on the Internet replaced vowels with Vs and Xs… there was SpaceGhostPurrp’s God of Black Volume 1. With a tongue-in-cheek biography that insisted he was an “underrated rapper from the ’90s,” SGP wore his influences on his sleeve: Memphis mixtapes, Mortal Kombat and marijuana. God of Black is the highlight of Purrp’s sprawling, uneven catalog, and — perhaps acknowledging that his skills behind the boards always outpaced his skills on the mic — shares the spotlight with then-unknowns Denzel Curry, Amber London and Metro Zu.
50. MOTION SICKNESS OF TIME TRAVEL
Seeping Through the Veil of the Unconsciousness
(Digitalis Limited, 2010)
Not really fitting in with the synth set and never totally at ease with the miserable drone lot, Rachel Evans has managed to sit firmly in her own space over the last few years. Seeping through the Veil of the Unconscious finds her at her transcendent, delicate best. It’s a collection of tracks that wisps and washes through like a warm, gentle breeze, blending her swooping wordless coos with subtle, wavering synthesizers and creating a virtual dream world that’s both welcoming and decidedly singular. While most of the B.O.-drenched uber-masculine synth lot have been rightly brushed under the carpet, Seeping Through the Veil of the Unconscious is a lasting example of just how good the scene could have been with a few more x chromosomes floating around.
(The Social Registry, 2010)
Before 2010, Sam Hillmer’s bezerker jazz outfit were typically associated with scattershot, pin-sharp modern composition, but New Slaves is something else entirely – a thundering noise-rock record that hits like a brick to the bonce. There’s a live three-piece in here somewhere, but they’re buried under sedimentary layers of electronics and studio manipulation. Hillmer and friends lurch from one type of racket to another: cascading paradiddles on ‘Concert Black’; pentagram glam ‘Acres of Skin’; powerhouse electronics of ‘Gentleman Amateur’, and the title track – a 20-minute skronkathon that makes mincemeat of you-know-who’s track of the same name.
Brandy might not have the iconic status of Beyoncé or the raw sexuality of Rihanna, but she’s remained a pop culture fixture for two decades for a reason: the woman can flat-out sing. Released in the last quarter of 2012, Two Eleven remains criminally underrated, despite being a lush collection of contemporary R&B that does ballads, break-ups and booty-shaking with ease — and without the genre-hopping that often leaves a RiRi album with a few duds. With assists by Frank Ocean, Mike Will Made It, Bangladesh, Switch and more, perhaps DJ-producers should have been playing this one out instead of sampling her songs from ’94.
In a sense, Shackleton belongs to a 2000-2009 list: the period where Skull Disco (R.I.P.) lorded over its little patch of burial ground and his namemaking EPs did the rounds. But release schedules don’t always sync up with history as neatly as we might like, and so it’s 2010 that ended up bringing us Shackleton’ long-form high watermark. Made up exclusively of Shack tunes, it’s packed with new material, plus assorted selections from from previous releases on Perlon, Skull Disco and Mordant Music; more so than his 2012 box set, it’s an excellent showcase of his taut, denuded productions – insinuating bass, bone-on-bone percussion, prickly textures and dub cadet tomfoolery.
46. MATT CARLSON
Gecko Dream Levels
(Gift Tapes, 2011)
Matt Carlson is best known now as one half of Thrill Jockey duo Golden Retriever, but this splattered selection of experimental modular synth trickery is maybe his finest moment to date. It’s not the easiest listen (and listening already requires you track down a long OOP cassette), but where Carlson separates himself from his long list of peers is that his electronic bleeps, coughs and pings are packed to the brim with heart. It’s hardly surprising given that he’s such an accomplished live performer (as anyone who’s seen Golden Retriever can certainly attest to), and Gecko Dream Levels is evidence that when you add a bit of humanity into synthesis, a world of possibilities emerges.
45. MAIN ATTRAKIONZ
808s & Dark Grapes
When people look back at hip-hop in the early 2010s, we hope they spare a thought for cloud rap. The short-lived genre was centered around a number of different emcees and producers, but if there’s one album that sits at the center, it’d have to be Bay Area duo Main Attrakionz’ 808 & Dark Grapes II. Not only did the album boast production from the genre’s primary group of innovators – Clams Casino, Friendzone, Silky Johnson and Keyboard Kid – but it featured an early appearance from the soon-to-be megastar A$AP Rocky, showing his affiliation and involvement in the scene despite his more recent change-of-status. The syrupy ultra-melodic sound might have been absorbed into other genres now, but cloud rap was an important milestone, and few records say it better than 808s & Dark Grapes II.
44. HORRID RED
From the grave of lo-fi troublemakers Der Teenage Panzerkorps lurched Horrid Red, a cross-Atlantic coalition of underground veterans making grotty Cure-a-likes with a crotchety German whooping over the top. If you’re not already sold on the above, you’re a) moronic and b) doomed, but Celestial Joy justifies its existence by having some of the best tunes around, carried by limber New Order basslines and an air of freewheeling chaos. The clue’s in the name, really: Celestial Joy might sound like it was bashed out in an oubliette, but it’s bursting with heart, hope and (crucially) hooks.
The Weighing of the Hands
(Second Language, 2013)
Cecile Schott has been making peaceful near-ambient music for many years, but she hit a career high with The Weighing of the Heart simply by relying on her litany of influences. Fusing bizarre rhythms and instrumental flourishes with a keen knowledge of experimental production techniques, Schott crossed the rhythmic mayhem of Moondog with Arthur Russell’s breathy, chiming song structures and emerged with a record that sounded barely compatible to either. Listening is almost a sacred experience, and we reckon that The Weighing of the Heart will only improve with age.
My Krazy Life
Until last year, Compton’s YG was better known for being the voice of DJ Mustard’s ubiquitous “Mustard on the beat, ho” tag than anything he had released on his own (cult fave ‘Toot It & Boot It’ aside). Then, a brilliant idea: what if someone made Good Kid, m.A.A.d City from the perspective of one of Kendrick’s knucklehead friends in ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’, and DJ Mustard oversaw the whole thing instead of Dr. Dre? The result is My Krazy Life: a tightly-narrative album hidden behind wall-to-wall ratchet bangers, with pitch-perfect features and none of the usual head-scratching, major label bullshit to drag it down. An instant classic that almost makes up for YG passing on ‘Rack City’.
41. LEE GAMBLE
Sometimes an album emerges that you just have to respect simply for being a damn good idea executed properly. Diversions was exactly that, and it’s still a surprise to us that someone hadn’t done it before. Gamble took a selection of vaguely familiar samples from jungle 12”s and tape packs and instead of reattaching them to contemporary rhythms, he created what might be the best back-room ambient record of the last few years. It might be tugging on our blurry nostalgia, but you can’t argue with Gamble’s delirious cotton-wool compositions.
40. KATY B
On A Mission
Many have tried to fuse British urban sounds with traditional chart pop and many have failed. It’s incredible, then, that Rinse managed to cobble together this hodgepodge of productions (from Zinc, Benga, Geenius, Skream and Artwork) and emerge with an album that does everything so bloody right. There’s really no filler – it’s a small but perfectly formed tracklist that does exactly what it should without resorting to poor approximations of its core sound. Katy B acts as our guide and sounds as if she’s enjoying every minute, prompting us to remember that dance music’s supposed to be fun after all.
39. DEMDIKE STARE
(Modern Love, 2011)
The reason for the unmitigated success of Demdike Stare is that they’re defiantly hard to pin down. They’re not a noise act, but they’re noisy; they’re not a drone act, but they’re droney; they’re certainly not techno, but they’re not afraid of using beats. It’s the melange of dark, cinematic sounds that has piqued interest in Demdike Stare over the last few years, and nothing in their catalogue is more crucial than Triptych, a compilation of three album-length offerings. It’s a grand statement but doesn’t drag, belting through a winding selection of grim electronics and sampled terror. If you’re wondering why electronic music got so much darker in the last few years, Demdike Stare are certainly partially responsible.
38. LIL UGLY MANE
The Three Sided Tape
Virginia producer, rapper and artist Shawn Kemp’s pay-what-you-want Bandcamp release is a schizophrenic tapestry of satin-smooth jams, wonky soul edits, throwback jungle breaks, gangsta rap nonsense rhymes, grinding noise – all of that and more, and done with lashings of taste and enviable skill. There’s another volume, almost as good, but this one wins on account of the absurd miracle that is gangsta anthem ‘Forever I B Stangin’ and the heavenly ‘Jesus Piece’. The perfect mixtape.
37. KEITH FULLERTON WHITMAN
(Root Strata, 2010)
If you’ve even entertained the idea of putting together a modular synthesizer, getting acquainted with Keith Fullerton Whitman should be mandatory. His complicated self-generating sequences are the stuff of legend, and he rarely exhibited his system so succinctly as on Generator, which was released only on cassette on the Root Strata label. A love-letter to the synthesizer pioneers of the ’60s and ’70s, Generator manages to update the process without distorting it, giving acknowledgement but not burying the playbook.
An old contemporary of Daft Punk, French producer I:Cube struggled to make his most recent album. As he told FACT at the time, “the dance album has always been a kind of paradox … dance music is about tracks, put together for one night, in one context. That’s when it makes sense. I can’t even think of many great dance music albums.” To avoid falling into the same trap as other dance producers, he structured “M” Megamix like a DJ set: tracks rarely make it to the three minute mark, and although they’re not actually mixed, they slip into each other perfectly. Of course, this would all mean nothing if the tracks themselves weren’t some of the best of I:Cube’s career: from the clammy arpeggios of ‘Transparent Sea Creatures’ to the jackhammer 4×4 of ‘Transpiration’; the tweaked-out electro of ‘Y.O.U.R.O.C.K’ to the honey-soaked skyways of ‘Le Rocher Aux Singes’, every single one is fantastic.
35. WAKA FLOCKA FLAME
(1017 Brick Squad / Asylum / Warner Bros, 2010)
It might be easy to forget now that he’s become something of an EDM superstar, but Waka Flocka Flame is responsible for one of the most influential rap records of the last few years. Flockaveli’s blend of Lex Luger-patented “trap” beats and infectious barked hooks shifted the sound of an entire genre and aided the development of European trap EDM immeasurably. It wasn’t single-handed of course, but it’s hard to imagine contemporary rap music without ‘No Hands’, ‘Fuck the Club Up’ and ‘Grove St. Party’. Waka set out to make a defining, bass-heavy party record and that’s exactly what we get, without interruption.
Bangs & Works Vol. 1
(Planet Mu, 2010)
Since its emergence onto the global stage in the late 2000s, the footwork scene has thrown some excellent artist albums: Rashad’s Just A Taste (which, incidentally, trumps his comparatively baggy Double Cup LP); the stuttering psychedelia of RP Boo’s Legacy; DJ Nate’s door-opening Da Trak Genious; and Traxman’s venturesome Da Mind of Traxman. But none have had either the impact to the end-to-end quality of this tastemaking Planet Mu compilation – the Good News which turned a million European producers onto the elemental power of 160bpm tempos and needling, syncopated bass jabs.
Late Nights with Jeremiah
After several years spent trying and failing to match the commercial success of his debut single ‘Birthday Sex’, signed to a label that still appears not to care, Late Nights completely changed many people’s perceptions of Jeremih. 2012 was a year defined by Mike Will-made anthems, but Late Nights arguably featured the best of the lot (‘773 Love’), while ‘Fuck U All The Time’ did minimal ‘n’ weird so well that dance producers were queuing up to remix it (it’s also possibly the only r’n’b track to ever make a Resident Advisor tracks of the year list). Two years on, it already feels like this half-decade’s great comfort food – is there any mood that Late Nights doesn’t fit?
32. SKY FERREIRA
Night Time, My Time
Before she even could legally buy a drink, Sky Ferreira had tried more than her share of musical styles: glossy Euro-dance-pop, acoustic-country strummers, nostalgia for the ‘80s (with Blood Orange) and the ‘90s (with Shirley Manson). On Night Time, My Time, she managed to distill it all into something congruent: a personal collection of grunge sing-alongs, mall-pop ballads and timeless synth-tunes about boys, the music business, youthful indiscretion and the self-discovery contained therein. Three years in the pop spotlight can be an eternity — albums planned and cancelled, trends ridden and rejected, the private turned public on Tumblr — but Sky survived it all and kicked off her career in style and on her own terms.
Twists and Turns
Last summer, a revitalized Jack “Mumdance” Adams returned after a two-year hiatus with a new approach and sound. During his time away, Adams looked back to the music of his roots — hardcore, proto-jungle, garage, grime — and came up with this hardware-born mix of hydraulic instrumental grime, pulsating industrial techno and queasy shoegaze washes. Comprised entirely of his productions and collaborations, some of these tracks would end up being released by the likes of Keysound, Tectonic and Unknown to the Unknown, like the warped-and-wonderful ‘Springtime’ that appears near the end of the mix’s 48-minute run. It’s the closest thing we have to a full-length Mumdance record, and with the impact he’s had in the last 18 months, it definitely belongs here.
30. LORENZO SENNI
(Boomkat Editions, 2014)
Multidisciplinary Italian artist Lorenzo Senni was a dead cert for this list for his 2012 LP Quantum Jelly – a collection of isolated trance leads left to spiral into infinity, and, alongside Lee Gamble’s Diversions 1994-1996 and The Automatics Group’s Summer Mix, one of a brace of early ‘10s LPs ripping the guts out of big-room club music. The recent Superimpositions, however, trumps it in almost every regard, taking Quantum Jelly’s building blocks – complex lattices of unadorned trance lines – and using them to construct a series of dazzling genre studies: R&B (‘PointillistiC’), peak time club-froth (the title track) and, in ‘Elegant, and Never Tiring’, the sort of beat bliss that could get played out at Boxed.
29. MOUNT EERIE
(P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2012)
Phil Elverum’s twisted indie concoctions are always worth a peep, and on Ocean Roar he managed to weld together the noisy black metal-isms of ’09’s defining Wind’s Poem and the pastoral loveliness of ’05’s No Flashlight with surprising ease. The result was an album that has to be picked away at slowly – the songs are there but wrapped in crumbling noise and decaying ambience. Hell, there’s even a Popol Vuh cover to break things up a bit.
(Sähkö Recordings, 2012)
Few records have sent us tumbling through the looking glass like Matteo Ruzzon’s second album. Madteo nominally belongs to the techno firmament, but this is something else entirely – essentially, an album of dark psychedelia, spun together by a crackpot loner operating out of a dingy bedsit in the twilight zone. In Ruzzon’s cabinet of curiosities: churning industrial; eviscerated house jams; word salad interludes; soured beatnik patter; and a Drake bootleg called ‘Rugrats Don’t Techno For An Answer’. True originals are hard to come by, but Madteo’s well out on his own, and this is his defining statement to date.
For the time being, this is the definitive statement of the new generation abstracted grime sound. It’s like Burial but weaponised, it’s like Blade Runner if it was set in London, it’s ambient music for people who don’t like to relax. So often when a grassroots musical form is given a high-tech sound design makeover it dulls its impact, removes the directness that made it so powerful in the first place – but somehow grime seems abnormally amenable to this treatment, like a classic video game being skilfully upgraded for a new system.
(Radio Killa, 2010)
The-Dream’s command over pop in the last decade is almost unfathomable. After penning Rihanna’s radio killer ‘Umbrella’, he waved his magic wand over a brace of hits, but always saved his absolute best material for his own solo albums. Love King isn’t the established best (that would be Love vs. Money), but it puts up a damn good fight, with the central run of ‘Sex Intelligent’, ‘Yamaha’ and ‘Nikki Part 2’ showing off Terius Nash’s excessive genius quite admirably. It’s proggy, overblown and delightfully ambitious and all the better for it.
25. CLAMS CASINO
“EVERYONE THAT HAS BEEN ASKING: I FOUND OUT WHAT 320KBPS MP3S ARE AND CAN MAKE THEM NOW, NOT THAT I CARE” – Clams Casino, Twitter, 2011
Producing from his mum’s attic, Clams Casino changed the hip-hop world without even bothering to read the manual. His productions for Soulja Boy, Lil B and more – collected on Instrumentals, his first mixtape and accidental opus – combined the heavy snares of Southern hip-hop with thick layers of ambience, basslines crunched far into the red and reversed vocal samples, usually cribbed from Bjork and Imogen Heap. It enchanted both the hip-hop world – Clams went on to produce key tracks on A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape and hits for Mac Miller, while also getting ripped off at every turn – and experimental circles, with Tri Angle and Type [full disclosure: a label independently operated by FACT writer John Twells] releasing Clams’ music on vinyl. The very definition of passion over process.
(Epic / A1 Recordings / Freebandz, 2012)
As the modern representitive of Atlanta’s influential Dungeon Family, Future had a lot to prove and even more to live up to. Thankfully he pushed his city forward with Pluto, and helped inform a new generation of rappers with his robotic (but strangely soulful) auto-tuned crooning. Pluto was of course aided by the scene-defining production of Mike Will, whose filtered melancholy backdrops made tracks like ‘Turn on the Lights’ and ‘Neva End’ into romantic hood anthems.
23. FOREST SWORDS
(Olde English Spelling Bee, 2011)
Now signed to Tri Angle, plenty of writers have lumped Forest Swords in with a generation of producers combing r’n’b influences with experimental aesthetics, but although Swords is an open devotee to Aaliyah (who he covers here) and MKS, Dagger Paths is really closer to the doomy blues of groups like Grails. As Simon Hampson wrote in FACT at the time of its release, what continues to astound about Dagger Paths is that for all the layers of studio treatment – thick sheets of processed mist; dubby, World of Echo-style blips – it’s an incredibly intimate album, with its process (hands scraping across guitar strings, untreated echos) laid bare at every turn. Few albums paint pictures of expanses this vast without losing details to the horizon.
22. FRANK OCEAN
As the story goes, a frustrated Frank Ocean self-released Nostalgia/Ultra when Def Jam didn’t know what to do with it — or him. This is why major labels are obsolete: if you can’t sell a smooth-voiced songwriting ace like Frank Ocean, you don’t deserve to be in business. Nostalgia/Ultra is a mixtape in the recorded-off-the-radio-for-your-crush tradition (complete with cassette-tape flipping) that samples Coldplay, MGMT and the Eagles (the latter causing his first and certainly not last brush with controversy). ‘Strawberry Swing’, ‘Novacane’ and ‘Swim Good’ are as good as anything on the over-ambitious Channel Orange, and one can only hope that ‘American Wedding’ replaces ‘Hotel California’ on playlists, in jukeboxes and at weddings around the world, because Fuck Don Henley.
21. JAMES FERRARO
Far Side Virtual
(Hippos in Tanks, 2011)
Perhaps the chief achievement of Far Side Virtual is that you don’t have to actually enjoy it to perceive its genius; on the contrary, being confused or even repulsed by its frenetic MIDI ditties, shopping mall melodies, Skype wooshes and incessant, vapid peppiness is probably the most fitting reaction to its queasy encapsulation of high-gloss late capitalism. It’s three decades of technological ‘progress’ squashed into a parade of affectless-but-occasionally-sublime jingles that could’ve come from the demo mode of a ’90s Casio keyboard – and it’s brilliant. The effect is especially stark when compared to Ferraro’s sizeable back catalogue of hissy, lo-fi recordings, making it all the weirder and, ultimately, more prescient in the face of the many producers now turning to high-def hi-jinks for their kicks.
20. SUN KIL MOON
(Caldo Verde, 2014)
Consider this less a blurb than a plea: Mark Kozelek, stand down. Since Benji’s February release, Kozelek has devoted himself to becoming 2014’s troll-in-chief, pursuing a long and bratty beef with The War On Drugs that’s seriously threatening to overshadow his big achievement – an album of startling emotional lucidity, and the creative apex of his post-milennial period. Benji is a series of unvarnished diary entires about different types of bereavement – personal (a cousin killed in a domestic fire), national (the 2012 Newtown massacre), emotional (innocence-snatching teenage fumbles), and imagined (the looming spectre of his parents’ death). Sung in a younger artist’s voice, these meditations on mortality would seem callow; presented with Kozelek’s grace and experience, it’s a devastating, affectionate and deeply human work.
19. SAND CIRCLES
(Not Not Fun, 2012)
Released on cassette on Not Not Fun, the solitary album from Stockholm’s Martin Herterich is prime list grist – a record that barely made a critical pock-mark at the time, but, then and now, can be relied upon to convert listeners into enthusiasts. Structured like a film score, Motor City essentially takes lots of our favourite things (Carpenter scores, Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, pretty much all of Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1) and concertinas them together. The results are catchy and evocative – motorik vistas, underscored by junkyard drum machines and swamped in reverb. We’ve barely heard a peep from him since, unfortunately.
18. KEVIN GATES
The Luca Brasi Story
Nodding to classic crime films is a gangsta rap tradition, but apart from its The Godfather-referencing title and opening sample, there’s nothing old school here. After kicking around the mixtape world, serving a prison sentence and briefly linking up with Young Money, Gates re-emerged as a new school sensitive thug on The Luca Brasi Story. There’s the usual drug-dealing and sheet-spreading boasts, but he also admits that his favorite book is Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook and that he can’t get hard without snorting a line — and that’s just in the first twenty minutes of the sprawling 75-minute epic. The fearlessness in his lyrics, both in the life-on-the-streets bluster and his frank confessions, is reflected in his music, which relies on cinematic, synth-heavy beats just outside the trap mainstream. Gates has kept the solid efforts coming, but we have a soft spot for his breakthrough.
17. JULIANNA BARWICK
The Magic Place
(Asthmatic Kitty, 2011)
Julianna Barwick’s methodology was pretty much locked in by the time The Magic Place dropped: looped, incrementally building a cappella devotionals, with the sonic richness of peak My Bloody Valentine and the glimmering mystery of the best Cocteau Twins records. But it took this, her breakout album, for the elements to really fall into place, and the result is a record that keeps goosebumps standing to attention like little else released this decade. Too emotionally fraught to qualify as ‘ambient’ in the traditional sense, The Magic Place is a tsunami surge of feeling – pure shiver-inducing alchemy, and of an entirely different order to a lot of New Age hokum playing with similar tools.
(Planet Mu, 2011)
Before reinventing himself as Kuedo, Jamie Teasdale made Britain’s most brutal music as half of Vex’d; imagine Godflesh doing grime and dubstep. The violence on his Planet Mu long-player Severant was much more oblique, with the menace of its main touchstones — US trap-rap production and Vangelis’ Blade Runner score — submerged and suggested rather than expressed sonically. And even if those touchstones (and the strain of footwork that runs throughout the album) seem played-out at this point, this was before Glass Swords, TNGHT and trap funerals. Three years on, Severant remains a gorgeous, cohesive record with a high concept that’s well-executed, and we’d still pick it over its legions of followers.
(Honest Jon’s, 2010)
A tough one, as in retrospect it’s hard to pull one of Darren J Cunningham’s albums out of his ongoing musical saga; each seems now like an integral part of an unfolding electronic psychodrama. But thinking back to when this album, erm, Splazsh-ed down: where Hazyville kind of felt a part of the general post-dubstep landscape, its trippy drift of a part with other fringe spirits like Burial and Lukid, this hit hard and stood out like an alien predator in a W.I. meeting. It’s house and techno more-or-less, but made of exotic and impossible sonic materials, sounding like it’s grown rather than been made, and writhing and twisting into deeply uncomfortable forms. It’s ugly-beautiful style set the scene for a load of weirdo-techno that’s followed – but few have come close.
(Hydra Head, 2011)
It wasn’t always obvious that noise icon Dominick Fernow would take on electronic music and win. Before Bermuda Drain, Prurient was a project that would never cease to elicit strong, polarized reactions. Whether it would be discomfort at Black Vase’s searing feedback or revulsion at titles like A History of AIDS, onlookers seemed to enjoy being disturbed by Fernow’s shtick, until, of course, he seemed to make his peace with the world on Bermuda Drain. A collection of techno-influenced noise-drenched “songs”, the album managed to meet fans of harsh noise and electronic music somewhere in the middle without losing any focus at all.
13. DIDDY DIRTY MONEY
Last Train to Paris
(Bad Boy / Interscope, 2010 )
Calling this a Diddy album’s a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t erase the greatness of Last Train to Paris. His secret weapon was Danity Kane’s Dawn Richard, whose Dirty Money project Diddy signed up to pen Last Train to Paris. Fusing Richard and writing partner Kalenna Harper’s songs with syrupy electronic production, Diddy smartly managed to capture a sound before it had even broken, and while ‘Coming Home’ was (and still is) a massive hit, it felt like the record may have been “too future” back in 2010. Listening now, it sounds as if Diddy and co. simply knew where the scene was heading, and decided to make their mark early.
12. LV & JOSHUA IDEHEN
Routes is this decade’s Original Pirate Material – a quirky, colourful document of the business (and pleasure) of being part of the urban blob, fronted by a rapper-not-rapper and featuring a mix of comedy songs (‘Northern Line’), sad geez ballads (‘Deleted Scene’) and an anomalous big-room anthem (‘Primary Colours’). Both records are besotted with UK garage too, although where Skinner feasted on 2-tone and hip-hop, LV draw for funky and ragga. The result is a complete joy – a pop record with unusual swing, presented with LV’s pointillist sound palette – synth pinpricks, snapping drum programming, and all-staccato-everything. What you know about Moorgate?
11. THE WEEKND
House of Balloons
The rightful soundtrack to 2011’s most insalubrious moments, House Of Balloons took slow jams to the dark side and cast a narcotic pallor over R&B from which we’ve barely recovered. Though 20-year-old Abel Tesfaye’s red-eyed wisdom and scenery-chewing histrionics provide the focus of the mixtape, it’s that opiatic production that still hits hardest, the gothic mood smeared on thick and heavy through Siouxsie samples and those sludgy, cavernous drums.
10. TERRENCE DIXON
From the Far Future Pt. II
Sometimes it takes a veteran to put you straight. Detroit techno legend Terrence Dixon’s labyrinthine From The Far Future Vol.2 emerged without a wave of hype, without hashtags and teasers, without a drip-feed campaign. Frankly, it didn’t need it – this was proper techno, no bells and whistles, no beginnings, middles or ends, just a thick slab of pulsing sci-fi indebted electronic music made by one of the scene’s true originals. If you’re into Actress and haven’t heard Terrence Dixon, it’s probably best you remedy that.
The way that Beyoncé released her fifth album — as an unpromoted surprise, in the middle of the night — has become the go-to talking point when discussing it. Pop-prognosticators ponder whether Lady Gaga or Rihanna will be the next to “pull a Beyoncé,” while the singer makes her way into headlines about Death Grips and U2. But we’d reckon that by the end of the decade (if not already), what will be remembered most about Beyoncé isn’t its surprising release, but its surprising character.
Beyoncé is a stunning album: it takes plenty of chances, both sonically and lyrically, that no one expected from an image-conscious pop star known more for polished perfection than pushing boundaries. It’s an album that sees Beyoncé confirm and challenge assumptions about her public and private personas — proclaiming her love (‘Drunk In Love’) and admitting its challenges (‘Jealous’); asserting her dominance (‘Flawless’) and daring to be imperfect (‘No Angel’); celebrating a birth (‘Blue’) and mourning a loss (‘Heaven’) — while sparking conversations about feminism, race and sexuality and never losing sight of its main goal: to be endlessly entertaining.
08. GALCHER LUSTWERK
(Blowing up the Workshop, 2013)
“Some tracks and stems from 2012 compiled into a promomix. Hope you enjoy! – GL”.
Not the most auspicious strapline in the world, and certainly not one that hinted at 100% Galcher’s snowball effect: released in March as part of the Matthew Kent’s Blowin’ Up The Workshop podcast series; a word-of-mouth sensation by June; and, come EOY season, easily the best regarded dance release of the year. 100% Galcher is a brilliantly sequenced mix of exclusive tracks, stems, fragments and assorted flotsam from White Material bro (and one-man earworm machine) Galcher Lustwerk. Pellucid deep house, quietly indebted to Larry Heard and Nu Groove, is the order of the day, with Lustwerk’s lizard lounge raps (part ’70s pimp, part Jackanory guest) adding character and quirk. For those spods (i.e. us) who spent more time than we should trawling the web for The Complete Article™, this felt like the grail – and it’s still an absolute delight.
(Duke Productions, 2011)
Electronic Dream is, frankly, a doss job – essentially a clutch of edits of naff trance tunes, some so cosmetic they were booted off the official release. But, as anyone that’s been caught up in Electronic Dream knows, it’s a perfect (electrical) storm – a work of accidental genius. In keeping with his anxious, chrome-plated Dipset productions (and, more explicitly, the Dipset Trance Party tapes), Araabmuzik takes originals by Eurotrance grubbers like Jam & Spoon and Starchaser and bolts chattering head-nod beats on top. The results are tightly wound exercises in restraint, tracks that feel forever on the verge of bursting out into big room euphoria but are forever throttled at the leash. In Electronic Dream’s world, a crunching snare hit can be the most exciting intervention imaginable; almost four years on, it still has a fierce Pavlovian pull, and an knack for deferred pleasure that verges on the erotic.
06. KENDRICK LAMAR
Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
(Aftermath / Interscope, 2013)
Granted, you won’t be surprised to see Kendrick Lamar so high up on the list – this was our favourite album of 2012 and pretty much everyone else’s, hailed as a classic almost before it hit the shelves. Two years on, we’re still bedazzled by Good Kid m.a.a.d City, an album defined by multiplicities; it’s a coming-of-age story told from every angle, with Kendrick exploring the Jekyll and Hide urges in his own head just as he inhabits the minds of the gangbangers, girls and grouchy relatives that make up the supporting cast of his tale. The attention to detail is mind-boggling, from the double, even triple, meanings hidden in every line to the dense, collage of samples and sounds that make this album truly cinematic: a familiar boast, but one that rings true for once on this diamond record.
05. JAM CITY
(Night Slugs, 2012)
Few albums in this list have been as influential as Jam City’s Classical Curves. In the two years since its release, a host of producers have attempted to replicate the album’s precision crafted, chrome-plated sound, and most have failed to even come close to evoking the singular vision put forth by Jack Latham on his debut. Classical Curves draws the listener into a vividly sculpted future, seamlessly blending influences of proto-grime and Prince with nods to Danny Weed and Masters At Work. Sparks of emotion invigorate Jam City’s sparse, cyborg-like rhythms and the result is a stunning listen that still maintains its otherworldly sheen today. Tracks like robotic Detroit hybrid ‘How We Relate To The Body’ and funk-meets-ghetto-house number ‘Strawberries’ sound like nothing that was created before – or since.
04. ANDY STOTT
Passed Me By / We Stay Together
(Modern Love, 2011)
Manchester-based producer Andy Stott wasn’t a newcomer when he put out the Passed Me By double 12”, but he may as well have been. Until then, he’d been known for dropping regular doses of melancholy Detroit-influenced techno on the Modern Love imprint, then most notorious for being the home of Claro Intelecto. It was all about to change, as Passed Me By exhibited a sound that the world had been clamoring for, they just didn’t know it yet. It was “knackered house,” a genre that was one part Theo Parrish and one part DJ Screw. Stott slowed his tunes down to a faint pulse, dropping out anything that you might confuse for melodies and building his tracks from bass bulges and hoarse samples. It felt as if it could all fall to pieces at any moment, and a new genre was born. The rest of the world’s been trying to catch up ever since.
03. DEAN BLUNT
(Hippos in Tanks / World Music, 2013)
After the dissolution of Hype Williams, Dean Blunt’s first official solo venture offered a palpable change in mood. The merry prankster was in a bit of a state, basically – heartbroken and disarmingly genuine as he came to terms with his loss by enlisting Joanne Robertson’s gently fingerpicked guitar, some cheapo synthesized strings and primitive drum beats, and his own dog-eared baritone. Call it a break-up album, or perhaps the whole thing is more arch than that –regardless, it’s one of the most fascinating records made in the last five years.
02. KANYE WEST
(Def Jam, 2013)
From its first analogue squelch to its final soul sample, Yeezus is Kanye West’s most essential album, in the purest sense. This is the most fundamental expression of Kanye West: the asshole, the jackass, the douchebag; the college drop-out and the kid in the pink-ass polo and a fucking backpack; “Imma let you finish” and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The first three albums are the hit parades; 808s & Heartbreaks the rap-game game-changer; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the baroque masterpiece. But Yeezus is Kanye doing whatever the hell he wants. In this case, that means dropping an industrial-tinged polemic designed to piss off not just the usual suspects, but also his fans (“Soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you,” indeed).
You may quibble over his definition of “minimalism,” but it’s hard to argue with the lean-and-mean results: Kanye kicks off Yeezus with his angriest finger-in-the-eye anthems ever; he then pairs Bon Iver with Chief Keef, appropriates ‘Strange Fruit’ and closes with ‘Bound 2’ — a song we’re still wrapping our heads around. Unlike with 808s, the sound of Yeezus has not trickled down to the rest of hip-hop (maybe it never will, and maybe that wasn’t the intent), but its attitude certainly has — and we’re all better for it.
If Classical Curves was the decade’s most influential dance record in terms of making producers rethink their rhythms and drum kits, then Glass Swords was the one that made them rethink their entire approach.
In the UK especially, dance albums were all-too-frequently judged in terms of a home listening vs. club setting binary, as it if wasn’t possible to make dance music that – like the best pop music – can sweep you away no matter where the setting, without being a cynical crossover attempt (see albums by several of Rustie’s peers made in the years prior to Glass Swords). Dance albums weren’t meant to be larger-than-life, they were judged on restraint; swing; atmosphere. Glass Swords, as inspired by Daft Punk, hyphy and RPGs as it is the UK/techno continuum, thumbed its nose to this attitude, straddling the line between fill-up-the-grid club bangers and classic pop structures like few others could. ‘Surph’ is a sun-kissed diamond riding a wave of footwork 808s and a handclap every beat; ‘All Nite’ is a better radio-friendly dubstep tune (with trap snare rolls to boot!) than, well, just about every dubstep radio hit ever; ‘Ultra Thizz’ is the sound of a thousand angels crashing together at once; ‘Hover Traps’ and ‘Death Mountain’ are somewhere between Hud Mo and the Home Improvements theme.
Glass Swords is full of exhilarating, ecstatic, thrilling, fun and sometimes downright silly songs, but that’s not all – It’s the sound of someone changing dance music by utterly disregarding dance music. It’s a slap round the chops of meditating on bassweight, it’s a wet-willy right up the ear of going back to go fwd>>, and it boots the burnt-out junglist bores straight out the after party. It’s ecto competitions, trance hands at dawn and a reminder that although it’s fine for dance music to be dark and smoked-out, it’s also possible for it to be The Most Fun In The World – and the latter had started to feel sorely, tragically out of favour. With more artistry than AraabMUZIK and less throwback fetishisation than Where Were U in 92, Glass Swords wasn’t just the feel good hit of the Summer; it lit up the whole half-decade, and continues to shine today.