20: KANYE WEST
THE COLLEGE DROPOUT
How great Kanye was in that short period before his ego went mental and he turned into a massive prick who CAN ONLY WRITE LIKE THIS!!! on his weird, American Psycho-esque blog. In amongst the high-drama of the likes of ‘Jesus Walks’ – which, in retrospect, hints at the bombast that was to come from him – are a peerlessly lovable set of songs: clever, goofy, funny and sad, and all drenched in dreamy helium-soul samples that distantly echoed the plasmic bliss of old hardcore rave.
With Kanye picking over the disappointments of post-college life, The College Dropout was for many middle class listeners the first time that hip-hop spoke directly to them and their concerns. That makes it a controversial piece of work, but also an important one; for me, at least, this direct reportage of a common experience – be it facing unemployment after college, or just going to Ikea to buy a bed – was a revelation, an epiphany moment of finally realizing just how powerful hip-hop could be when it told stories about your own life. [Simon Hampson]
19: METRO AREA
The founding idea of Metro Area was, essentially, to make a series of techno-savvy disco dubs. A simple premise, to be sure, but Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani fulfilled it so consummately that they ended up creating an entirely new kind of music: a mix of house, boogie, techno, electro, R&B, disco and lavishly orchestrated pop. Distancing themselves from opportunist re-edit culture, the New York duo went about creating tracks as soulful and musical as those that had inspired them in the first place.
The rolling ‘Miura’ is the album’s best-known track, a crisp and skilful melding of low-slung beat-programming and gliding Philly-style strings, but there’s so much else to enjoy on this glorious, cumulative record. Pay particular mind to the piano-glossed, elegiac ‘Caught Up’ – for me, it’s about as good as music gets. [Kiran Sande]
18: VAMPIRE WEEKEND
2008 saw the unthinkable happen; firstly, the resurgence of boat shoes as the fashionista’s footwear of choice, and, more startlingly, the USA became cool again. You can trace both these outcomes back to Vampire Weekend, four Ivy League graduates furnished with a kind of confidence that only a healthy trust fund can bestow.
Their self-titled debut specialised in tight, Afro-pop-inspired indie rock which saw critics falling over themselves to phone in the Paul Simon comparisons. Tracks like ‘Campus’ and ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’, with their starchy tales from within the quad set to sparky mbaqanga rhythms, revelled in a kind of fey intellectualism that appealed to an audience sick to death of the conceit that creativity should be borne out of garret hardship. Rather, charismatic front-man Ezra Koennig proved that you could be militantly erudite – ‘Oxford Comma’ presumably sent the text message generation into the arms of Lynne Truss – and unfeasibly cool. Breezy literariness in chart-bothering indie? About as likely as America electing a black president. [Louise Brailey]
17: ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI
(PAW TRACKS, 2004)
‘Hauntology’ was a hot concept in the more theoretically-inclined musical corners of this decade, and it was rarely so movingly explored than on The Doldrums; jolts of gorgeous melody cracking and warping under the LA sun. Through refracting pop’s past – and particularly 70s AOR – something radically new came about; the familiar and the kitsch – the falsettos of the Bee-Gees, say – are twisted into something right in the middle of being both unsettling and deeply comfortable.
As a set of songs which feels like half-remembered dreams and muddied memories of pop songs, The Doldrums is a little like this generation’s World of Echo, one of Arthur Russell finest and most hallucinatory works. It’s fair to say that The Doldrums is also a right slog in places, though; there are long, long passage of teeth-grinding dirge. But this total unwillingness to compromise and pander to the listener is part of what makes the record so beguiling. And amongst the background moroseness, the breath-taking moments of beauty shine out, jewel-like. [Simon Hampson]
16: MAX RICHTER
THE BLUE NOTEBOOKS
The Blue Notebooks has become rather a name-dropped album since its 2004 release, and with good reason. The work of British composer Max Richter, who combined his formal classical training and worship of Philip Glass with a love of Kraftwerk, Basic Channel, Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and countless other masters of electronic texture from the realms of techno, ambient and post-rock, it’s too musically expansive to be called ambient, and too sonically advanced to be called classical.
This album is really a kind of chamber music in dub, its aching piano, string and woodwind arrangements augmented with drowsy synths, cotton-wool drum tattoos and judiciously deployed field-recordings. The fragments of Tilda Swinton reading aloud from Kafka are a little hammy, and at times the swelling strings are just a bit too overwrought, but overall this is too enchanting a record to find fault with – I mean, you could just die to the strains of ‘Shadow Journal’.
Listening to The Blue Notebooks for the first time, it’s hard to shake the impression that you’ve heard it before; you don’t feel so much that you’re discovering it as being reunited with it – and not just because the BBC are always pilfering its best tracks for TV idents and transitions. This is music which plays games with one’s memories and one’s perception of time; music that obliterates the already blurred boundary between the conscious and unconscious mind. [Marie Kelly]
We got what we wanted with Robyn, and that’s a strange feeling. Hipster MP3 blogs raised the alert to ‘Konichiwa Bitches’ and ‘Be Mine’, everyone did the usual thing of saying “this album should be massive” without ever really believing it would be, and upon Robyn’s re-release in 2007, it was… well, it was massive. Nice when things go right.
This decade has, in truth, be a bad-to-fair one for a whole range of genres, but it’s been a brilliant one for pop; Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Annie, Kylie, Lady Gaga and Robyn – future generations will look back on this time with envy and awe. In amongst all that greatness, Robyn stands out for two reasons. Firstly, she’s particularly great – ‘Be Mine’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’ [from said reissue] some of the finest three-minute moments of this decade. Secondly, she created a whole new framework for pop – totally independent and DIY, setting up her own label to release this album. This should be the future – let’s hope the wish comes true once again. [Simon Hampson]
(STONES THROW, 2004)
Fresh off the heels of Jaylib, Madlib’s collaboration with J Dilla, came Madvillain, his partnership with MF Doom that led to this full LP in 2004. It seemed as though Madlib was the west coast underground Marley Marl at this point – Madvillainy is consistently praised as a complete and satisfying hip hop experience, a perfect synergy between raw beats and incredible rhymes that in the minds and hearts of many, neither party has yet to surpass.
From the eerie Daedulus sample that opens ‘Accordion’ to the very last bar of ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, Madvillainy is a journey into Doom’s dense wordplay and Madlib’s dirt-cheap sampler crunch and light/shade contrast, and they compliment each other’s work perfectly. Its enduring appeal has a lot to do with the genius rhymes Doom spits on this album, probably his finest and most tongue twisting since Operation Doomsday. “Doom’s songs lit, in the booth, with the best host / Doing bong hits, on the roof, in the West Coast / He’s at it again, Mad at the pen / Glad that we win / a tad fat in a bad hat for men”. [Mr. Beatnick]
(ONE LITTLE INDIAN, 2001)
Bjork’s ode to the evening is perhaps her finest musical statement todate. Certainly it’s her most coherent: a Narnia-esque soundworld full of beats that crunch like snow underfoot, synths and strings that glisten and glide and songs that charm like incantations. “I never thought i would compromise” she sings on the closing ‘Unison’. Pop music never sounded less uncompromising; never sounded more magical. [Justin Toland]
12: PANDA BEAR
(PAW TRACKS, 2007)
Regarded as the populist conscience at the root of Animal Collective’s amorphous experimentalism, Person Pitch gave Noah Lennox opportunity to flex his avant-pop muscle to impressive effect. Sounds here are refracted like light through water, giving Pitch’s songs the effect of existing on an upward trajectory rather than following any discernable linear structure.
Rarely is a record so effective in treading the line between wildly experimental – check ‘Good Girls’ almost tribal, techno aesthetic or the gauzy abstractions of ‘I’m Not’ -and gloriously accessible – ‘Bros’ channels the Beach Boys dusky harmonics into 12 minutes of almost spiritual sustained bliss punctuated by owl hoots. Sure, it eased the way for the wholesale taking of the world by Animal Collective in 2009, but it’s so much more than some kind of hipster fluffer. Person Pitch is boundary pushing, meticulously detailed and so beautiful it seems almost sad. [Louise Brailey]
11: THE OTHER PEOPLE PLACE
LIFESTYLES OF THE LAPTOP CAFÉ
The only album that late Drexciya founder James Stinson released under the Other People Place name, and a quiet masterpiece.
Perhaps Stinson’s most friendly, and bitter sweet work, Lifestyles is a very simple, open and lovely album. The premise is simple and well executed; it’s more or less jazz-funk compacted and stripped of its pomp and pretence, reduced down to the parts that matter. An album that’s unashamedly about vibes, warm alien jazz chords, simple crisp drum patterns and funky little melodies, vocals that are notions rather than narratives, woven mantra like into the tracks. Tracks like ‘Let Me Be’ instantly personalize the music for the listener, providing almost the exact opposite effect to Stinson’s dense, cryptic and cold work with Drexciya. [Marcus Scott]