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A top ten for the ages

From Arcade Fire to Kendrick Lamar, it was a decade of musical diversity but how many will stand the test of time?

DISTILLING a decade of music into 10 albums is no easy task. Music that once gripped you has lost its originality or vitality. Other music that you set aside has with the passing of years gained new depth and meaning. A decade later you re-assess the list and reject half the albums on it, while adding a few that with the grace of time have become classics.

Recall that The Beatles’ recording career only lasted seven years. When they were starting out, it was recording live in the studio onto a four track, no overdubs. By the end of the ’60s, they had introduced an entirely new vocabulary to the recording studio, some of which we are still only just starting to understand.

And recall also that just one year, 1967, witnessed the release of both Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. The same year as the release of Between The Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request, Are You Experienced?, The Doors, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Disraeli Gears, John Wesley Harding, Forever Changes, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, Surrealistic Pillow and The Who Sell Out. Thirteen influential and timeless classics all in the space of 12 months.

Elvis Presley had already been a recording artist for almost a decade by the time of the British beat invasion, and he made his “comeback” in 1968. The Smiths broke up just four years after releasing their debut album. Even The Clash lasted less than a decade, their career traversing a period of incredible change and innovation, including the rise and fall of punk, disco and new wave.

On the other hand, a decade is actually a long period, and the pace of change is increasing all the time. The Obama presidency was less than two years old at the start of the 2010s, Facebook was still a harmless novelty, and no-one had heard of Netflix. Courtney Barnett was still collecting empty glasses in the Northcote Social Club and Kendrick Lamar was still some years off from his major label debut.

At the other end of the spectrum, PJ Harvey, one of the artists on this list, has been recording music for almost two decades now; Bruce Springsteen for more than 40 years. Some artists age better than others.

And how can any 10 albums summarise a period of time anyway?

In bygone days, before the wild fragmentation of popular culture into a myriad of different tribes and camps, a single recording could transcend and come to represent its era. Recall how Prince was beloved by everyone, black and white, funk and soul aficionados alongside rockers? But that was in the days when we all listened to the radio and watched the same shows on television.

That fragmentation, combined with accelerated post modernism which means everything is derivative of something else, makes it harder to identify truly original innovators. New trends and fashions last just weeks or months. If a movement like Punk was to emerge today, it’s likely it would be seen as niche rather than a direct challenge to the mainstream status quo.

Plus there’s just so damn much of it. The volume of music being released on a variety of formats — vinyl, CD, digital downloads, streaming services — is greater than ever before, and at a pace like never before. It means that some worthy records get dropped by the wayside as the latest, greatest next big thing is surpassed by something even newer before you had a chance to familiarise yourself in the first place. Where once radio and magazines like the NME were the arbiters of taste, now it is the algorithms of streaming services now dictate what is heard and what is not.

As you get older, your tastes become more entrenched, and you lose touch with trends, no matter how hard you attempt to keep up. You can’t understand why Beyoncé is considered such a cultural icon, having seen Madonna at her peak. You wouldn’t recognise a Frankie Oceans song, let alone one by Pink. The interwebs go crazy because My Chemical Romance is making a comeback tour, but you can barely remember them from the first time around.

If you rely on something like Pitchfork as a barometer of musical taste, you begin to feel increasingly isolated and confused and question your own tastes. What is good or bad anyway? It’s all subjective.

The albums on this list are the ones that spent the most time on CD player or iPod throughout the past decade, but still sound fresh(ish) and original years later. They have been culled from the dozens of new recordings added to my collection over the past decade. Some of those additions were familiar names, others took my fancy at the time but will probably end up on sale at a school fete at some stage. Darwin Deez anyone?

Yet, they gave me pleasure or made me think at the time.

Distilling them into a list of just 10 or so recordings was actually more difficult than imagined because it was hard to identify 10 stone cold classics recorded in the past decade. The top five name themselves, but as I got further down the list it did feel a little like I was padding it out. And that has never been the case for music from any other decade.

The final 10 (or in reality, 12 as it was impossible to reduce the list to 10) span an eclectic range of styles: jazz, hip hop, alt-country, stadium rock, art rock. What they have in common is a quest to understand and explain our world, to tell a story, to reflect their surroundings, to explore the world sonically and lyrically. Who knows how they will stand up against the best of previous decades in 10, 20 years time? Who knows if I will still be listening to them in 2029?

But that’s the great thing about music: there’s always something new lurking around the corner, ready to blow your mind.

The Suburbs — Arcade Fire (Merge 2010)
Boys & Girls — Alabama Shakes (ATO/Rough Trade 2012)
Bad As Me — Tom Waits (Anti- 2011)

THREE vastly different albums by three very different artists — one a band in their mid-career prime, another a group just starting out and the third an elder statesman in his 60s — but in the end none of them deserved to be left off this list.

Arcade Fire’s third album was a sprawling 16 song set loosely connected by subject matter hinted at by the title: failed suburban dreams and the quest to escape and the monotone boredom of life among the shopping malls. Occasionally overwrought and after an hour, Win Butler’s voice can grate, but at its most sublime moments, moving and beautifully rendered, with recurring motifs and layered instrumentation.

Alabama Shakes’ debut shook like a country hoedown, the timeless stripped down sound of two guitars, bass and drums sound lifted by Brittany Howard’s incredible voice, one moment dirty and guttural, the next angelic. This was an album that hinted at potential that has yet to be fulfilled but may still be possible.

And then there was grizzled veteran Tom Waits, whose eclectic and eccentric selection of new songs shook, rattled and rolled like an empty can being kicked along a gutter by an old pair of boots with a flapping sole. With the backing of some killer collaborators, including Keith Richards and Flea, Waits’ whiskey soaked voice was the unifying factor across a collection of songs that sat together like a mismatched group of short stories, some tender and sad, others bawdy and raw, and some even veering into political commentary (“Well we bailed out all the millionaires/They’ve got the fruit/We’ve got the rind/And everybody’s talking at the same time”).

One of Us — Cash Savage & The Last Drinks (Mistletone 2015)

IT could just have easily been 2018’s Good Citizens, such has been the purple patch Melbourne songwriter Cash Savage has been able to mine in the second half of this decade.

Not a note is wasted on this dark and poetic collection of songs, haunted by death and grasping for emotional connection. Strains of country feature throughout, with Kat Mear’s fiddle ever present, but it would be a simplification to describe Savage’s music as country rock.

The spectre of Patti Smith often hovers in the background (‘Empty Page’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Horses), and the slower songs have an epic atmospheric haze. And when they rock out, the Last Drinks really rock out: single ‘Rat-A-Tat-Tat’ was one of the most raucous and joyful four and a half minutes of noise to be played on the radio for a long time.

Savage’s voice is an instrument of its own, sometimes powerful and angry, other times droll and exhausted, but always lifting the songs to another level.

The Epic — Kamasi Washington (Brainfeeder 2015)

IN the middle of the decade emerged Kamasi Washington’s debut album, a recording that almost defies belief.

Drawing on a century of jazz history, but also influenced by hip hop and contemporary urban sounds (Washington was part of the house band on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly), The Epic was just that: an epic triple album, with each disc having its own title (‘The Plan’, ‘The Glorious Tale’, ‘The Historic Repetition’).

Many of the instrumental tracks extend to 10 minutes or more, swimming on lush orchestration with the 13 piece core band underpinned by a full string section and multi-voiced choir. On top of it all was Washington’s saxophone, which draw comparisons to John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.

Despite its somewhat Muzak initial impressions, this wasn’t always easy music to listen to — it demanded you pay attention — and if it sounds pretentious, it sometimes was.

But Washington’s ambition and integrity in an era of short attention spans and crass commercialism was something to be applauded. And his live performances, far more funky than what has been committed to record, are something to behold.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit — Courtney Barnett (Milk! 2015)

THE rapid transformation of Courtney Barnett from pouring beers at the Northcote Social Club to global fame has been a joy to behold, not least because the Melbourne artist seems completely unaffected and unspoilt by all the attention.

Barnett first came to attention with early singles ‘Avant Gardener’ and ‘History Eraser’, which were wordy, catchy and foot tapping, but the big question was whether she could sustain that quality across an entire album. We needn’t have worried: Sometimes I Sit and Think…was chockful of hits, from the opening frantic chords of ‘Elevator Operator’ through the retro grunge of ‘Pedestrian At Best’ and the countrified ‘Depreston’.

Barnett has a knack for concise story telling with a sharp attention to detail and clever wordplay, and at their best, these songs were short stories set to music and Barnett’s drawling voice. And as if to show it was no fluke, Barnett’s sophomore effort, Tell Me How You Really Feel, was just as good. The sky is the limit for a songwriter who it is easy to imagine in 20 years time will be held in just as much esteem as Paul Kelly and Neil Finn are today.

Wrecking Ball — Bruce Springsteen (Columbia 2012)

WRECKING Ball was Bruce Springsteen’s response to the Global Financial Crisis, a searing 13-song collection that spared no-one in its fury at the impact of Wall Street greed on working class Americans.

The tone is set with the opening track ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, and the song titles tell the rest of the story: ‘Death of My Hometown’, ‘Easy Money’, ‘This Depression’, ‘Rocky Ground’, ‘Shackled and Drawn’.

The characters who populate these songs are struggling to keep going, angry but not quite defeated, they soldier despite the collapse of their American dreams. The street racers and romantic lovers of Springsteen’s heyday have now hit late middle age and discovered they don’t have much to show for a lifetime of hard work.

The music covers a range of styles, from classic rollicking Springsteen of the opening track, echoes of gospel in ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ to the Irish jig of closing track ‘American Land’, which sounds as if Springsteen had swallowed the Pogues’ entire catalogue before stepping into the recording studio. The result was Springsteen’s most powerful and consistent album for a decade, one which gave his career a fresh wind, and stands with the best in his canon of work.

Blackstar — David Bowie (RCA/Columbia/Sony 2015)

DAVID Bowie’s timing was impeccable as always, releasing his 25th studio album on the day of his 69th birthday and dying two days later from liver cancer.

Recorded in secret, Bowie’s final album was a masterpiece that would have stood with his very best even if it had not been so entwined with tragedy.

Reuniting with producer Tony Visconti and primarily accompanied by a New York jazz combo led by Donny McCaslin, this was an ethereal and poignant collection of songs in which Bowie pondered and grappled with his impending mortality, mostly free of regret and content with what he would leave behind on earth. ‘Look at me, I’m up in heaven,’ he sang in a fragile voice on ‘Lazarus’, while elsewhere he lamented ‘I can’t give everything away’.

On the 10 minute title track, which opens the album, Bowie was at his most strange and obscure, piecing together two separate songs, with a change of tempo in the middle section. Saxophonist McCaslin and his band gave most of the songs an appropriately jazzy sound. This was a fitting final chapter to a remarkable career by arguably the most influential recording artist of the past 50 years.

Lost in the Dream — The War On Drugs (Secretly Canadian 2014)

SLOWLY revealing itself over repeated plays, Lost In The Dream was a series of dense, layered soundscapes recorded over two years mostly solo by The War On Drugs main man Adam Granduciel.

The production and the arrangements are meticulous, the melodies remain in your head long after you’ve finished listening. Granduciel’s nasally voice is reminiscent of Tom Petty or Bob Dylan, and the music has strong echoes of mid-80s Springsteen and U2, with multi-tracked guitars and sweeping synthesisers. And then there’s the foot-tapping single, ‘Red Eyes’, shimmering on a wave of synths and pianos and throbbing basslines, Granduciel’s voice drenched in echo and reverb, daring you not to get up and dance along.

The centrepiece was ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’, seven minutes and 11 seconds of ambient sounds which build and build over the top of a mechanical drum machine and pulsing bass, finding release in an endless solo on a Stratocaster, with Granduciel’s voice growing from a tired murmur to a yelping rediscovery of the thrill of being alive. Like all great albums, it challenges you to stop what you’re doing and listen carefully in one sitting and is destined to be remembered as a classic from its era.

Halcyon Digest — Deerhunter (4AD 2010)

OBTUSE, obscure, tender, anthemic, elegic, trashy. Over 11 tracks on their breakthrough 2010 album, Deerhunter traversed a range of styles, feelings and emotions, evoking comparisons with another Georgia band in their heyday (it’s probably no coincidence that it was recorded in R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens).

Whether it was the narcotic dreaminess of album opener ‘Earthquake’, the saxophone driven garage rock of ‘Coronado’, the life-affirming ‘Revival’ or the intricate guitar patterns of the epic ‘Desire Lines’, this was an album bristling with confidence that could be listened to again and again without ever sounding repetitive or tired. At its heart was eccentric lead singer/composer Bradford Cox, whose offbeat phrasing gave the songs an extra dimension. In an alternative universe, this would have been a chart topper.

Let England Shake — PJ Harvey (Island 2011)

IT shouldn’t work, 12 songs about war — the First World War specifically — sung in a keening falsetto with sparse, mostly acoustic, musical accompaniment. I mean, who opens an album with the melody of ‘Istanbul Constantinople’ on a xylophone? Try explaining that to someone and watch the confusion in their eyes.

But work it did. Let England Shake is the highpoint of a musical career that already had many peaks, establishing Polly Jean Harvey as one of the great artists of her time.

Like an intrepid historian, Harvey explores the impact of war on England’s psyche, and tells the stories of its young victims with rare empathy and poetry (witness, for example, the dying narrator of ‘The Last Living Rose’: ‘Take me back to beautiful England/And the grey, damp filthiness of ages/And battered books and/Fog rolling down behind the mountains/On the graveyards, and dead sea-captains’). These are songs that sound as if they were drawn from the depths of time and have always been with us, burnt into our subconscious.

Much of the magic is due to Polly Jean’s partner in crime, ex-Bad Seed Mick Harvey (no relation), for collaborating on an aural adventure that evokes misty battlefields strewn with bloody corpses through judicious instrumentation while mostly eschewing studio trickery, apart from some deft sampling.

To Pimp A Butterfuly — Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope 2015)

KENDRICK Lamar is the most important rap artist since the heyday of Public Enemy and NWA, breathing new life into a genre which had become a tired cliché of gangsta misogyny. As Lamar raps on ‘For Free’ (‘I need forty acres and a mule/Not a forty ounce and a pit bull’), he is striving to produce music and words that describe an African-American experience by expanding on the violence of the ghetto to encompass an entire history that begins with slavery and ends with a man called Obama in the White House.

This is what he set out to achieve with To Pimp A Butterfly, an album that is cinematic in its vision and ambition, but which Lamar manages with aplomb. It’s hard to think of any other current artist who would attempt something so lyrically, sonically and thematically complex and sophisticated let alone pull it off. This is the culmination of a lifetime of artistic thought, a symphony in which everything is connected: the words, the music, the voices and characters.

To Pimp A Butterfly could so easily have been an incoherent self-indulgent mess but it’s a stunning achievement, a pinnacle in the history of early-21st century popular music. The wordplay is constantly inventive, the beats infectious, the backing music and sonic effects — ranging from sparse drums and bass to funk and soul and avant garde jazz — is a montage of styles and influences as diverse as Miles Davis and Parliament-Funkadelic, and the range of voices and characters Lamar and his co-conspirators bring to this album is mind-boggling. His rapid fire rapping often disguises the sheer brilliance of the images he creates with words, and it takes multiple listens to fully unravel and comprehend what he is saying.

Over 16 songs and 79 minutes, this is a concept album that is breathtaking in its thematic scope, contemplating black empowerment, race relations, the history of slavery, economic impoverishment and the state of present day politics and life in the ‘hood in raw, vernacular language. Released smack bang in the middle of the decade, it’s nothing less than a soundtrack to a deeply divided America at the tail end of its first African-American presidency and on the cusp of Trumpism, a period that saw the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. And although stylistically it is much different, it brings to mind Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On, released in 1971 at the last gasp of the civil rights movement.

And like all great albums, part of its greatness comes from its back story.

When Lamar recorded To Pimp A Butterfly, he had experienced his first taste of superstardom following the commercial and critical success of his major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, which had chronicled his upbringing in the gang riddled streets of Compton in south LA. Subsequently, he had toured much of the world and visited Africa for the first time, including Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, which had a profound influence on him.

But his first brush with fame had also triggered underlying emotions of guilt, depression and anxiety which frame To Pimp A Butterfly. The songs are linked by a semi-autobiographical spoken word story beginning with a repeated refrain (“I remember you was conflicted/misusing your influence”) about fighting off the temptations of Lucy (the devil disguised as a groupie) that slowly reveals itself as the album progresses. At the story’s climax, scarred by memories of friends and relatives who died violently in the ghetto, Lamar has a nervous breakdown in a hotel suite and realises that to find peace he has to go “home” and use his fame and influence to help his community. Taking inspiration from Mandela, he resolves to use his platform to spread a message of respect, unity and reconciliation.

Thus emerges the album’s theme of black empowerment as Lamar first explores ways the system keeps black Americans down — drugs, gang violence, poverty, racism, police brutality — and then, using the metaphor of an ugly caterpillar trapped in a cocoon that one day emerges as a beautiful butterfly, points in a different direction.

On songs like ‘King Kunta’, Kendrick can swagger with the best of them, but frequently on tracks like ‘u’ and ‘Institutionalized’ he shows a dark or vulnerable side as he examines his survivor guilt and seeks to exorcise the demons created by his fame and wealth while feeling the tug of the ‘hood. Elsewhere there is hope and redemption (‘Alright’), black pride (‘The Blacker The Berry’) and salacious sex talk (‘These Walls’). Every track is a revelation, containing shifts of mood and tempo and colour — multiple voices and perspectives, a sprinkling of keyboards here, a splash of strings or a swirl of alto sax solo there, beats breaking down and shifting gear. More is revealed with each listen.

Coming out at the halfway mark of the decade, To Pimp A Butterfly sets the standard against which everything before and after must be measured. And nothing stands above it.

Honourable mentions:

Adalita — Adalita; New Start Again — Dick Diver; Work (Work, Work) — HTRK; Hurtsville — Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders; Brothers — The Black Keys; Ex Tropical — Lost Animal; Future Universe — Ron Peno and the Superstitions; The Whole Love — Wilco; Oshin — Diiv; Toward the Low Sun — Dirty Three; Meat and Bone — Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; Psychedelic Pill — Neil Young with Crazy Horse; Spencer P Jones & the Nothing Butts — Spencer P Jones & the Nothing Butts; Lonerism — Tame Impala; Calendar Days — Dick Diver; I See Seaweed — The Drones; Western Sun — Grapes; The Messenger — Johnny Marr; Games of the XXI Olympiad — Black Cab; Gon’ Boogaloo — C.W. Stoneking: Silver Bullets — The Chills; Kill It Yourself — Jess Ribeiro; B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down — Kurt Vile; Joy — The Peep Tempel; Blue & Lonesome — The Rolling Stones; Reclaim Australia — A.B. Original; Second Of Spring — Beaches; Cable Ties — Cable Ties; Jen Cloher — Jen Cloher; DAMN. — Kendrick Lamar; A Quality of Mercy — RVG; Good Citizens — Cash Savage & The Last Drinks; Tell Me How You Really Feel — Courtney Barnett; Make Way For Love — Marlon Williams; Western Stars — Bruce Springsteen; Your Future Our Clutter — The Fall; Phases — Angel Olsen.

Top dozen from 2000–2009

Franz Ferdinand — Franz Ferdinand (2004)

A Different High — Even (2001)

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea — PJ Harvey (2000)

Pop Crimes — Rowland S. Howard (2009)

Bubblegum — Mark Lanegan Band (2004)

Turn On the Bright Lights — Interpol (2002)

Gala Mill — The Drones (2006)

Up the Bracket — The Libertines (2002)

Is This It — The Strokes (2001)

Original Pirate Material — The Streets (2002)

Elephant — The White Stripes (2003)

I Am A Bird Now — Anthony & the Johnsons (2005)

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, journalist & communicator based in Melbourne, Australia. Author of Radio City: the First 30 Years of 3RRR-FM.

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