Exeposé Music Writers discuss their top ten albums of the decade
10. My Love is Cool – Wolf Alice
Wolf Alice’s debut studio album preserves the motive “Keep your beady eyes on me/ To make sure I don’t turn to dust”. Like the album cover, it’s all about preserving something burning – fiery grunge – just before it fizzles into silky dust and coming-of-age fear. ‘Turn to Dust’ pinpoints Rowsell’s softer vocals – sounds of objects dropping through “clouds beneath”, dangled in stringy guitar. ‘Silk’ is also ethereal as its rocket-take-off opening blots single staccato guitar notes. Yet, swirly-sounding ‘Soapy Water’ does not fool the album’s underlying demonic anxiety that reaches “for the hand of the devil”.
‘Bros’ builds rapport as strummed acoustics from to flickered electric – like flames kindling from a state of forgetting “past lovers” to a “me and you” section. It recalls an intertwined wilderness, envisaging being raised by wolves; guitar-riffs howl like wild animals across the grungier side of the album. ‘Giant Peach’ spits embers repeatedly in numerous build-ups; it’s a chase between vocals and instruments.
My Love is Cool isn’t just celestial and “cool” – it’s blazing, burning, and heart-warming: a steppingstone to later releases.
Megan Frost, Online Music Editor
9. Suck It and See – Arctic Monkeys
Though Suck It and See is not Arctic Monkeys’ best-known album of the 2010s, the stylistic change from their earlier material makes it a highly influential record. Like how The Beatles broke out of their comfort zone with their experimental Rubber Soul and The Smiths changed things up with Strangeways, Here We Come, Arctic Monkey’s sound in Suck It and See is unusual when compared with their previous albums. While Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and Humbug fit comfortably into the genre of indie rock, Suck It and See, having a less heavy, and more ‘poppy’ sound, is harder to pinpoint.
A highlight is ‘Piledriver Waltz’, which sounds vintage and slightly bluesy with gorgeously bittersweet lyrics. The opening lines, “I etched the face of a stopwatch/ on the back of a raindrop”, show Alex Turner’s vocals at their best; wistful and melancholy. Though this is a stand-out track, the entire album is beautiful and potentially the best out of Arctic Monkeys’ entire discography. Suck It and See is one of the best albums of the decade, not just because of how it diverges from Arctic Monkeys’ other music, but also because of how it diverges from the indie rock genre as a whole.
8. Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Grieving the death of a loved one is an immensely painful process. Moreover, when the relationship with the deceased was a turbulent one, the complex emotions thrown up make any form of closure and acceptance seen unobtainable. The death of his estranged mother sent Sufjan Stevens into a spiral. Being the song-writing deity that he is, Stevens was able to channel feelings of depression, shame and anger into an album of delicate power.
After the lavish Age of Adz, Carrie and Lowell’s minimal and mostly acoustic folk sound underlined the record’s personal and confessional nature. It acts as a diary, an unfiltered window into the mind of a man unable to rectify the turmoil thrust upon him. Though like always, amongst the disarray Stevens finds impossible beauty – be it in snapshots of childhood memories, poignant ruminations on mortality, or just the comforting lilt of his voice. Sufjan has long been a master tugger of heartstrings, but here he yanks them with reckless abandon. What he achieved is nothing short of remarkable. To turn a mountain of pain and confusion into a work of divine art, an album both stunningly melodic and devastating. Carrie and Lowell was a gift, cherish it.
7. Red – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift was recently presented as artist of the decade by the American Music Awards, but her success this decade is owed to her masterpiece, Red, her first number one album in the UK, and her crossover from country to pop. None of Red was in any way calculated like her subsequent albums have bee; the insert of Red describes its concept: “moments of newfound hope, extreme joy, intense passion, wishful thinking, and in some cases, the unthinkable letdown”.
Released during a tumultuous period in Swift’s life, Red is every bit as wild and fiercely unpredictable as the love it represents; songs alternate between bouncy pop and heart-wrenching ballads.
Each track is fantastic; opener ‘State of Grace’ remains her best song, huge yet fragile in its portrayal of love, ‘All Too Well’ has become a fan-favourite for its intense, emotional lyricism, and ‘Holy Ground’ is a nostalgic piece of rock where the pain in Swift’s voice is palpable. This is Swift at her most poetic and vulnerable, and Red is peerless in its portrayal of how it feels to love and to lose.
Stephen Ong, Online Music Editor
6. Lemonade – Beyoncé
Nobody would dispute that Beyoncé can make anthems, songs that people have at least heard of if not can sing most of the words to. But in Lemonade, Beyoncé redefines the anthem. Lemonade reels off cries of hurt, pain, oppression, and tales of lies, anthems never really heard before from the famously private artist. Through a huge range of styles from reggae to electronic, Beyoncé ruthlessly calls out her husband for cheating on almost every track, broadcasted it worldwide and won herself two Grammys along the way. And perhaps the success of this album is due to the common narrative – adultery, something most people have seen in their lives, and if not, then she offers us stories of appreciating yourself and cultural rooting.
She offers up so much of herself that in turn we grow through out relationship with her, no matter the distance. ‘Hold Up’, one of her more iconic songs and videos of the album, encapsulates the album so well. Ruthless pride, straightforward honesty whilst also attaining silky vocals and now, slick rapping. An album this monumental not only culturally but also for Beyoncé as an artist, developing from guilty pleasure type pop music to raw, personal testimony.
5. Currents – Tame Impala
The First time I encountered 8D sound was when I listened to Tame Impala’s Currents. In 8D, the music circles your head like a spinning halo of sound. And when partnered with Tame Impala’s multicoloured synthesizers and acidic basslines, it feels like a glimpse into the head of a 1969 Woodstock weirdo. Now I’m an unashamed psych-rocker. Throughout the 10s a little bit of me feared that amongst the Euro EDM pop tracks and squelching pan-Atlantic trap beats that the psychedelic lessons of the 60s had been forgotten. With Currents, Tame Impala shot the reverberating mulch of Hendrix and The Beatles out of pop-cultures blind spot and into full view like a bollard on a B-road. 51 minutes of wobbling psychedelic storycraft, documenting Parker as he grows up and enters adulthood.
I find the album is best listened to alone in pitch blackness with noise-cancelling headphones. You can fully appreciate the depth of the sound then, particularly the 8-minute, operatic opening track ‘Let It Happen’. Parker somehow writes a musical story and lyrics that both perfectly reflect the mantra of the LSD godfather, Timothy Leary: “Turn off, tune in, and drop out”. Let yourself go with the currents.
Richard Ainslie, Print Music Editor
4. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West
At the 2009 MTV VMA awards, Kanye West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift, a whole new height of controversy for the controversy king. The world backed West into a corner from which he would emerge and, love him or hate him, defend his musical genius. MBDTF exemplifies collaboration of the heaviest hitters, not simply using but straining and stretching them. Kanye pushed Pusha T, crushed Rick Ross, elevated Kid Cudi and supercharged JAY Z.
Meticulous mixing and production permeate the project, with reportedly 5,000 man-hours producing solely the certified tribal anthem ‘Power’. Varied musicality is illustrated by Elton John’s classical piano on ‘All Of The Lights [interlude]’ matched against guitar solos synthesised to be grit-filled-filth on ‘Hell of a life’ but also liberating on ‘Devil In A New Dress’. Let’s not forget the notorious minimalist piano opening of the masterpiece ‘Runaway’; toasting scumbags has never sounded so appealing. MBDTF is produced luxuriously whilst maintaining an unparalleled intensity of emotion, exploring what it means to be surrounded by vices, lost in lust and found by love.
3. Melodrama – Lorde
The period between the age of 18 and 23 is more tumultuous than we could have ever been prepared for. Some of us are eating cereal at 2am and crying over boys while others are pregnant or worse – have mortgages. Considering this, it is no wonder why Lorde’s Melodrama captured the hearts of so many. The album deals with the heartache, the whirlwind parties and the sheer mania of being officially an adult but still not quite feeling, well, adult.
Maximalist electronica is the backdrop to existential imagery – in ‘Homemade Dynamite’ Lorde describes the possible consequences of drink-driving after a party as ending up “painted on the road/red and chrome/all the broken glass sparkling.” Piano ballads leave you feeling stark naked. ‘Liability’ cuts a little too close to the bone as Lorde weeps that “they say you’re a little much for me/ you’re a liability”. But it’s the album’s anthemic ‘Perfect Places’ that manages to summarise the restlessness of our age – I can’t be the only one who felt especially seen when Lorde sang “I’m 19 and I’m on fire”. After all, we are all constantly looking for our own perfect places in society, unsure of where we stand. And in that way, Melodrama unites us all.
Bryony Gooch, Print Music Editor
2. Blonde – Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s highly anticipated follow-up to the critically acclaimed breakout project Channel Orange did not disappoint. Blonde is a true demonstration of Franke’s impressive, harmonious vocal performances, whilst also supplying listeners with the glamorous instrumentals that we know and love. Tracks such as ‘Pink + White’ and ‘Self Control’ combine Frank’s sensational vocal melodies with various orchestral elements that illustrate his versatility. The jazzy chord progressions on show throughout ‘Solo’ complement lyrics that touch on the emotional experiences of isolating ourselves from the world around us. Many tracks on Blonde highlight Frank Ocean’s rich and raw storytelling, especially those that epitomise the ongoing identity crisis that we face in a society threatened by toxic masculinity and the stigmatization of emotional expression. Deputing at No.1 on the Billboard 200 chart in his own country, Blonde was a commercial and cultural success. Frank’s ability to empathise with his listeners through themes of friendship, disillusionment and heartbreak throughout the album establish it as one of the most significant talking-points in music over the past decade.
1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
The cover of Kendrick’s third album is loud. In monochrome, in front of the White House, Kendrick and his friends pose around a knocked-out, gavel-holding white man. Some are holding cash; some are holding booze – Kendrick himself is carrying a baby. This scene is referenced in the opening track ‘Wesley’s Theory’, where the point is crystallised: African American culture is contrasted with the white American view of status.
Kendrick’s astute and intuitive To Pimp A Butterfly stands out, also, fore his aesthetic blending of musical styles. His lyrical rapping is infused with jazz, soul and funk, and the sorts of instrumental arrangements that are no longer found in hip-hop. At one point, K-Dot breaks out into slam poetry, slamming the white American culture that will only accept black people when they are profitable, drawling the refrain “This dick ain’t free”.
In ‘i’, he breaks from the studio recording and plays a live version of the song, because halfway through his performance a fight breaks out in the audience. “We ain’t got time to waste time”, he tells his fans, “the judge make time”. This sentiment, about racial self-hatred, is echoed in the preceding track ‘The Blacker the Berry’.
In fact, this point is everywhere. Kendrick’s theme states consistent throughout, making TPAB one of the most politically developed albums of the decade. The titular Butterfly is the black artist, who is pimped out to the American entertainment industry. Kendrick makes the story of black exploitation in American culture vivid and accessible. It’s his riskiest and most experimental album, and fittingly so as he is raging against an industry that tends towards homogeneity.
In spoken interludes throughout the record, Kendrick teases a poem, before delivering it in full in the final track. The poem, it is revealed, is intended for the ears of his fellow West Coast artist Tupac Shakur. The track then mixes audio from a Tupac interview to imply Kendrick is interviewing hip-hop’s Greatest Of All Time. It might be audacious for Kendrick to stage a conversation between himself and Tupac, but he pulls it off. Just like he revives old-school hip-hop sounds for a new generation of listeners, he revives Pac for a new generation of race politics in America. Is there a new Greatest of All Time?
Jonathan Chern, Print Screen Editor