The 10s. Not very catchy, is it?
Happily, dear reader, the tunes absolutely were.
As we prepare to say goodbye (and, possibly, good riddance) to another decade, Team NME have been busy revisiting some of the best music of the last 10 years, arguing over its longevity and merit and generally indulging in some lovely, lovely nostalgia.
It’s been a complicated time for British music, and in truth, for us here at NME, too. As the guitar bands of the 2000s fell out of favour, all eyes on what was next. Right on cue, it was grime’s time to shine. British rap has been the UK’s biggest success story of the last 10 years; it’s punk, it’s angry and it’s political, like the best music always is.
We’ve also seen a new-gen of US hip-hop artists dominating the charts, leading the old guard to ask if the culture was losing some of its cred. Is the triplet flow just lazy? The numbers would suggest otherwise.
Culturally, we’ve become unthinkable narcissists, all thanks to social media. Imagine seeing your mate shamelessly taking a pouty selfie and posting it online 10 years ago. They’d never hear the end of it. Now it’s just… fine? Rewarded, even. Just check out Yungblud’s Instagram. The effect of that on modern music? Likes have been pivotal in scoring record deals for new artists while TikTok is a new marker for viral success. The industry has changed dramatically. Now everyone’s an A&R. So, in short: a bit of a weird one.
There have been rows aplenty putting this together. How do you begin to distil a decade’s worth of music into any kind of list? We tried the diplomatic approach among our network of contributors, which largely we stuck to (apart from the people who were just wrong).
We debated and debated. And in the end, this is where we’re at. You’ll have your thoughts – you always do – but for us at NME, these are our absolute favourite albums of the ‘10s and I truly believe every album in our Top 10 is a work of art.
Please share your top 10 records with us too, using the hashtag #NME10of10s. Preferably with a pouty selfie, too.
Charlotte Gunn, Editor, NME
Words: Elizabeth Aubrey, Dhruva Balram, Jordan Bassett, Rhys Buchanan, Patrick Clarke, Leonie Cooper, Charlotte Gunn, Rhian Daly, Thomas Hobbs, El Hunt, Emily Mackay, Natty Kasambala, Ella Kemp, Charlotte Krol, James McMahon, Sam Moore, Hannah Mylrea, Matthew Neale, Kevin EG Perry, Will Richards, Gary Ryan, Thomas Smith, Dan Stubbs, Andrew Trendell, Kyann-Sian Williams
100Biffy Clyro, ‘Opposites’ (WARNER BROS, 2013)
The aim, said frontman Simon Neil was to make “the first double album that you could enjoyably listen to from start to finish” but Biffy Clyro’s sixth studio album seemed to have another goal in mind. That was to confuse and frighten, a crucial reset after becoming the band that gave their song to an X Factor winner to desecrate. The result was the expected onslaught of melody, but also contained some of the most abrasive sounds the Scots had made in ages; including, on the epic ‘Stingin’ Belle’, what can only be described as ‘heavy metal bagpipes’. JM
99Bring Me The Horizon, ‘amo’ (SONY/RCA, 2019)
15 years into their career and light years from their deathcore beginnings, the Sheffield band embarked on an odyssey in sound, turning in a pop-metal album that touches on ambient and electro-pop with cameos from Dani Filth and Grimes. It’s ballsy, bold, loads of fun and proof alone that this band can do what they want and get away with it. There’s nothing as exciting as a surprise that pays off. In their own words, “no, it ain’t heavy metal”. It’s just class songwriting. AT
98The Strokes, ‘Angles’ (RCA, 2011)
On their seminal debut ‘Is This It’, The Strokes marked themselves out as both New York’s most formidable gang and kings of the indie disco. 10 years later they added another string to their golden bow with the more experimental ‘Angles’, leaning heavily on keyboards and bringing elements of sci-fi, reggae, and polished 1980s choruses into a record that showed old dogs can most definitely learn new tricks. RD
97SZA, ‘Ctrl’ (RCA, 2017)
SZA was already a hugely exciting R&B prospect by the time her debut studio album finally arrived and the superb ‘Ctrl’ further confirmed the New Jersey singer’s star quality. Filled with real-life tales of heartbreak, fragility and the pains of growing up (‘Prom’), even guest spots from the likes of Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar couldn’t wrestle your focus away from a sensational, heart-on-sleeve performance from SZA. SM
96Muse, ‘Drones’ (WARNER BROS, 2015)
Muse calling an album ‘Drones’ is only slightly short of them naming an album ‘It Was All About Oil’ or ‘There Are Eyes Everywhere’. And yet the Teignmouth trio’s seventh album was the most vulnerable, primal AND human record they’d made in years. This being Muse, it’s still a record that concerns itself with themes of deep ecology, modern warfare and the decline of empathy, but there were songs here – stripped of the electronics that had added such pomp to previous outings – that sounded written with the primary purpose not to educate, nor to provoke, but to connect. JM
95Blur, ‘Magic Whip’ (PARLOPHONE, 2015)
After Damon Albarn spent the early part of the century exploring new hip hop and old funk samples with Gorillaz, the first Blur album in 12 years somehow felt like the bigger gamble. Blessedly, ‘The Magic Whip’ conspired to strike out in unfamiliar territory while still sounding unmistakably like Blur, whether charting extraterrestrial melancholy on ‘Thought I Was a Spaceman’ or unapologetic love songs like ‘Ong Ong’. Please don’t make us wait until 2027 for the next one. MN
94The Horrors, ‘Skying’ (XL, 2011)
If 2009’s ‘Primary Colours’ had everyone scratching their heads, then The Horrors’ third album ‘Skying’ confirmed the band as iconic musical chameleons. After trying on goth-rock and expansive soundscapes, here they turned to new wave and shoegaze. Surprise surprise, it was another suit that fitted perfectly. The anthemic ‘Still Life’ remains the band’s high point to this day. ‘Skying’ showed that there was nothing The Horrors couldn’t master. WR
93The Vaccines, ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?’ (COLUMBIA, 2011)
The Vaccines’ debut might be one of the last true classic indie albums of its kind – based around three chords and more concerned with going hard and fast than sticking around much beyond the two-minute mark. The subject matter of ‘Nørgaard’ aside, it’s an album that has aged spectacularly too, still delivering a thumping great whack of pints-in-the-air adrenaline as potent as your first listen with every hurried strum. RD
92MIA, ‘Matangi’ (NEET, 2013)
Its punchy first single ‘Bad Girls’ might have come almost two years before the album itself, but good things are always worth waiting for. MIA‘s fourth was global in its scope but its targets were focussed, taking to task the Super Bowl organisers who lambasted her middle finger raising antics during her half-time show appearance with Madonna as damned her copycat imitators by way of glitchy garage, rough and ready R&B with a helping hand from controversial Wikileaker Julian Assange. LC
91Florence + The Machine, ‘Ceremonials’ (ISLAND, 2011)
Bolstered by the success of her debut ‘Lungs’, Florence Welch was allowed to dive head-first into her sumptuous, baroque fantasies with the velvety ‘Ceremonials’. Here, she was able to make a hangover sound worthy of a place in the National Gallery (‘Shake It Out’), and melded Kate Bush curios with soulful epiphanies (‘What The Water Gave Me’), truly earning her place as one of the UK’s greatest songwriters. LC
90J Hus, ‘Common Sense’ (Black Butter, 2017)
Taking mainstream UK rap in a fresh and vital direction, J Hus‘s debut album blended bashment and Afrobeat to create the kind of sound that could turn the driest house party into a full blown rave. In ‘Common Sense’ and ‘Bouff Daddy’ it also had two of the biggest bops of 2017. LC
89Lana Del Rey, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ (POLYDOR, 2019)
On her fifth album, Lana Del Rey came for the best opening line of the decade crown with “Goddamn man child/You fucked me so good I almost said ‘I love you’.” But ‘NFR!’ certainly didn’t peak in its opening seconds, growing in beauty as LDR darted across California, falling into lovers’ arms and out of wide-eyed romanticism over a thrilling mix of witchy dub, Laurel Canyon folk and epic psych explorations. RD
88Wu Lyf, ‘Go Tell Fire To The Mountain’ (LYF RECORDINGS, 2011)
There’s a certain magic to a band that puts out a single ferocious record before calling it quits. With their obscure moniker (it stands for World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation) and smoke-obscured photoshoots in grey car parks, Manchester’s WU LYF were 2011’s most mysterious outfit. And their one and only album ‘Go Tell Fire To The Mountain’ was a hungering slab of supercharged indie rock, lorded over by Ellery Roberts’ feral and unholy snarl. Pure music mythology, and ripe for rediscovery. EH
87Alt J, ‘An Awesome Wave’ (INFECTIOUS, 2012)
So distinctive in sound that it inspired a stoner parody, alt-J’s debut tapped into a largely unexplored musical genre: sexy geometry. Praising the humble triangle with a sensual yowl on ‘Tessellate’ and penning an entire lighter-wafting ballad based on the closing line of Luc Besson’s ‘Léon: The Professional’ might be a unique niche to hold, but still, it turned this lot into festival headliners. EH
86Childish Gambino, ‘“Awaken, My Love!”’ (GLASSNOTE, 2016)
Donald Glover silenced any remaining Gambino doubters through his 2016 reinvention as a soul and funk singer from the 1970s. The pairing of Glover’s powerful vocals (rapturous opener ‘Me and Your Mama’ and the frenetic ‘Riot’ being two fine examples) and Ludwig Göransson’s lush production paid wonderful homage to the greats, while the foot-tapping twilight groove of ‘Redbone’ – which won a Grammy and went global after soundtracking the opening scene of Get Out – is guaranteed to live on for many years to come. SM
85DIIV, ‘Is The Is Are’ (CAPTURED TRACKS, 2016)
DIIV have never been particularly interested in reinventing the wheel; instead, they set about doing a common formula better than anyone else. The recipe was perfected on second album ‘Is The Is Are’. Adding extra polish to promising 2012 debut ‘Oshin’, album two saw Zachary Cole Smith and co honing their melodic indie-pop brilliance with simply stunning songwriting. Lyrically, the album deals with struggles around heroin addiction, but the music bursts out like pure enlightenment. WR
84James Blake, ‘James Blake’ (ATLAS, 2011)
James Blake’s debut album was created for melancholy and dark nights. Its minimalistic approach placed as much importance on the gusts of space in the songs as on the beats, samples and notes that came between them. Across a series of glitches and croons, the then-21-year-old proved himself to be both a production whiz and an ace at emotionally rich songwriting. RD
83Rihanna, ‘Anti’ (ROC NATION, 2016)
Rihanna’s eighth studio album eschewed the big pop bangers that her peers – and Rihanna to be fair – usually relied on and instead opted for a more forward-thinking, experimental approach. Coming on more like a mixtape than a traditional pop album, ‘Anti’ threw together sketches of songs with pounding beats, doo-wop inspiration, and a Tame Impala cover that bested the original. As the wait continues for ‘R9’, it stands as a shining example of the bold brilliance RiRi’s DGAF attitude sparks. RD
82Pusha T, ‘Daytona’ (GOOD/DEF JAM, 2018)
Kanye West’s ‘Wyoming Sessions’ brought together an array of big-name talent to record at his Jackson Hole ranch, but none of them were able to match the heights scaled over 21 mere minutes by King Push. ‘Daytona’ delivered knock-out line after knock-out line with King Push announcing his arrival by “pulling up in that new toy” on ‘If You Know You Know’. Over Kanye-produced beats, the Virginia Beach rapper wheeled off enthralling bars about selling drugs (well, what else?) before taking aim at Drake on ‘Infrared’ and triggering a brief beef for the ages. A career-best. SM
81Christine & The Queens, ‘Chaleur Humaine’ (BECAUSE MUSIC, 2014)
The French version of Christine and The Queens’ ‘Chaleur Humaine’ followed a slow-burning trajectory at first, but gradually the rest of the world started to catch onto this subversive pop innovator. Two years later, an English-language version followed, and became the biggest selling debut of 2016. Packed with warm, soft-edged explorations of otherness and resisting definition, ‘Chaleur Humaine’ grapples with trying to carve out space in a world built on straight lines: ultimately, it’s a tilted triumph. EH
80A$AP Rocky, ‘Long.Live.ASAP’ (RCA, 2013)
A crack of thunder set the stark and ominous tone for A$AP Rocky’s debut studio album before a sharp quip: “I thought I’d probably die in prison/Expensive taste in women”. The Harlem-born and raised rapper had a few false starts with this record, one that was supposedly the product of an eye-watering $3million deal. An absolute landscape of ideas, innovation and ambition – to say it was worth the wait is a massive understatement. RB
79Unknown Mortal Orchestra, ‘Unknown Mortal Orchestra’ (FAT POSSUM, 2011)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra end the 2010s as indie’s most treasured new hero and it was their self-titled debut that laid the groundwork at the start of the decade. Playing like a mixtape you’d send to a loved one, ‘Unknown Mortal Orchestra’ is the eclectic, rough and ready sound of a band figuring out who they want to be in real time. The edges would get smoothed over later on, but this is the band at their purest. WR
78Lady Gaga, ‘Born this Way’ (UNIVERSAL, 2011)
Steeped in Eurotrash excess, Lady Gaga’s second album had all the subtlety of a bull rampaging through a silent yoga retreat. ‘Edge of Glory’ and ‘Born This Way’ are wonderfully silly, overblown and flamboyant. ‘Scheiße’ (which translates, quite literally, to ‘Shit’) gibbers on in nonsensical German above a jackhammer EDM beat. ‘Judas’ is a Biblical traitor fable shot to heady Eurovision heights. It’s cheesier than Cheddar Gorge and all the more brilliant for it. EH
77Gorillaz, ‘Plastic Beach’ (PARLOPHONE, 2010)
After hiding behind a cartoon facade for two albums, Gorillaz became that much more real on ‘Plastic Beach’. With an all-star cast of collaborators including Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Kano, Mos Def and Bobby Womack, it seamlessly collected genres like a treasure seeker sifting through the sand of its imagined seaside world, finding gold in each song. RD
76The Big Moon, ‘Love In The 4th Dimension’ (FICTION, 2017)
There’s a very obvious thing about debut albums and that’s that you only get one crack at your first mission statement. When every single element falls into place from one of the most exciting bands around, it’s a truly magical thing, and The Big Moon’s first record perfectly captures their mayhem and bubbling excitement. From the fiery sparks and wolf-like howls of ‘Bonfire’ to the undeniable ‘Sucker’, ‘Love in the 4th Dimension’ had hard-whacking indie anthems up its sleeves for days. EH
75The Black Keys, ‘Brothers’ (NONESUCH, 2010)
It felt like ‘Brothers’ was the moment where everything clicked into place for The Black Keys. Their breakthrough sixth studio album had the riffs and the vintage flair and it ultimately laid the foundations of an arena-ready juggernaut. With grit and rawness in the guitars – and that instantly recognisable high, soulful vocal – they pulled the blues-rock genre right back into the mainstream. RB
74Lil Peep, ‘Come Over When You’re Sober Part 1’ (LIL PEEP, 2017)
Lil Peep’s debut arrived in 2017 bursting with potential and promise, but tragically it was to be the only full-length album released during his lifetime after he passed away from an overdose a few months later. A true symbol of the tattooed, millennial SoundCloud rapper generation, this album opened a window on Lil Peep’s world with his trail-blazing blend of emo and hip-hop. RB
73Queens of the Stone Age, ‘…Like Clockwork’ (MATADOR, 2013)
Written in the wake of knee-surgery-gone-wrong, and with depression brought on by the immobility subsequently engulfing him, QOTSA’s sixth album is a voyage into the shadows of a man’s heart. It begins with a song that sounds like the national anthem of Hades (the lumbering ‘Keep Your Eyes Peeled’) and ends with the epic number that gives the album its title; think a Bond theme, only performed by a choir of ghosts. Somehow the record also finds space for – deep breath – Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, Jake Shears, Alex Turner, James Lavelle, Brody Dalle and Elton John. And yet the record belongs to Homme more than any other in the Queens catalogue. JM
72Chance the Rapper, ‘Acid Rap’ (UNSIGNED, 2014)
Chance fans who were left disappointed by the rapper’s schmaltzy ‘The Big Day’ at least knew they’d always have ‘Acid Rap’ to fall back on. This dazzling 2013 mixtape was Chance’s breakthrough moment, with intelligent and affecting sing-song raps about childhood nostalgia, Chicago street violence and, as the title suggests, drugs (“lean all on the square, that’s a fucking rhombus”) playing over jazzy beats and hip-hop samples from the likes of Slum Village and Kanye West. SM
71Tame Impala, ‘Currents’ (CAROLINE INTERNATIONAL, 2015)
After lingering in the shadows of cult cool, ‘Currents’ was Tame’s stepping-out-into-the-spotlight moment – a huge album featuring some of mastermind Kevin Parker’s biggest pop songs yet. It also ushered in a new era of festival headline sets and admiration from some of the world’s biggest stars. ‘Let It Happen’ went full-on lasering rave banger, ‘Eventually’ detailed heartbreak through divine synths, and ‘Cause I’m A Man’ dove headfirst into FM pop and emerged as one of Parker’s best creations so far. RD
70Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’ (POLYDOR, 2014)
After the huge success of her 2012 debut ‘Born To Die’, Lana Del Rey suggested she might not ever make another album. Luckily, she didn’t stick to her word and followed up with ‘Ultraviolence’, a record full of Bond theme-worthy drama that saw her delve into yet more character studies of dirtbag men and glamorous starlets. It also delivered sardonic, sharp-tongued reactions to her recent rise to fame while simultaneously guaranteeing her star would ascend even higher. RD
69Slowthai, ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ (METHOD, 2019)
The title of Slowthai’s debut album is perhaps a contradiction. In his claim that there’s nothing great about Britain, he fails to acknowledge the bittersweet beauty that generations of negligence and marginalisation has spawned in this country, through art and resistance; his own career a great example. ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ is an urgent and essential record, one that ruthlessly unpacked the delusions of nationalism, class structures and Tory government in a way that was both timely and long-lasting. NK
68Tierra Whack, ‘Whack World’ (INTERSCOPE, 2018)
It’s not often that an artist is able to put their name on the map in just ten minutes. But Tierra Whack’s debut album ‘Whack World’ did just that. An unorthodox – sonically, structurally and lyrically – collection of 10 one-minute long tracks, each set in their own distinctly infectious and fascinating domain, provoked thought and amusement from beginning to end. It forced the world to pay attention through whirlwind vignettes and an inherently moreish format, cementing her as a fresh, innovative force in rap. NK
67Stormzy, ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ (#MERKY, 2017)
Emerging fully formed on his debut studio album, which swung confidently between barked braggadocio (see the frenetic ‘Bad Boys’) and crooned introspection (the Lily Allen and Kehlani collaboration ‘Cigarettes & Cush’), it’s no wonder Stormzy was headlining Glastonbury just 18 months after it landed. ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ teems with massive anthems (‘Shut Up’ is a timeless riposte to anyone who’d talk you down) and breath-taking honesty, an indication that Michael Omari – 23 years old when he put out the album – was an icon in waiting. JB
66Kaytranada, ‘99.99%’ (XL, 2016)
This Montréal producer and DJ was already a revered presence in the electronic scene before his 2016 debut album, with numerous SoundCloud remixes and transfixing Boiler Room sessions becoming the stuff of internet legend. The Kaytranada hype simply had to be believed with the arrival of ‘99.9%’, though: an hour-long journey through electro, hip-hop and R&B, where his intoxicating style of chopped-up, drums-first production was further enhanced by vocals from Anderson .Paak, Syd and even Craig David. SM
65Wolf Alice, ‘My Love Is Cool’ (DIRTY HIT, 2015)
When Wolf Alice first burst out of Camden’s locks, they felt like the cohesive gang that indie had been missing for some time, and ‘My Love Is Cool’ was a spot-on debut. Have a go at counting the pints-in-the-air anthems and you’ll lose track: from night-bus hopping ‘Bros’ to the snarl of ‘Giant Peach’ and thunderclap intro to ‘Fluffy’, they make every second count. Plus, ‘My Love is Cool’ walked so that Wolf Alice’s unlikely chart rivalry with Shania Twain could run on album two. EH
64Travis Scott, ‘Astroworld’ (EPIC, 2018)
The Houston rapper assembled an all-star cast to help create his exhilarating and otherworldly third album, named after the now-defunct theme park of the same name. Tame Impala, Frank Ocean and Drake – the latter on the gargantuan single ‘Sicko Mode’ – all helped lay down the tracks on this thrill-ride, but it was Scott who was ultimately in charge of pushing the lever. Strap yourselves in, folks: it’s still one hell of a ride. SM
63The XX – ‘I See You’ (XL, 2017)
With their self-titled 2009 debut, The xx influenced the subsequent decade of music a great deal; but with their third album ‘I See You’, they deviated from murmured minimalism, and ran wild with each member’s respective talents. The euphoric ‘On Hold’ – built around a stuttering Hall & Oates sample – has Jamie xx’s dancefloor credentials written all over it, and ‘Say Something Loving’ is Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s shimmering power ballad moment. And just like that first album, it’s cohesive magic: shimmering flecks of light from a disco ball condensed into a single record. EH
62Solange, ‘A Seat At The Table’ (SAINT/COLUMBIA, 2016)
On her third record, Solange Knowles invited her listeners to pull up a chair, and listen to her lived experience as a black woman in the United States of America. Touching on both pain and healing, there’s an intense warmth to the soundscape of ‘A Seat At The Table’. “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” she sings atop gentle twinkles of piano – a fire burns at this astounding record’s heart. EH
61Royal Blood, ‘Royal Blood’ (WARNER BROS, 2014)
Set against another decade of hand-wringing about the death of rock music, Royal Blood’s self-titled debut album didn’t mock the concept so much as bully it into submission. Nonetheless, that Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher sent a record built on muscular, blues-driven riffs to the top of the charts in 2014 shouldn’t have been a surprise; listening back, you instead wonder how they ended up playing Margate Winter Gardens this year instead of Madison Square Garden. MN
60Kasabian, ‘48:13’ (COLUMBIA, 2014)
After straying into weirder territories on fourth album ‘Velociraptor!’, the Leicester louts remembered exactly what they’re best at on its follow-up. Witchy interludes were sprinkled throughout ‘48:13’, but it’s best remembered for its gargantuan singles. ‘Bumblebee’ and ‘Eez-Eh’ are undoubted world-beaters, and came as a timely reminder that when Kasabian are on form, no-one goes harder. And don’t tell us that “Everyone’s on bugle/Now we’re being watched by Google” won’t still be funny in 2030. WR
59Radiohead, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ (XL RECORDS, 2016)
After the skeletal sounds of 2011’s ‘The King Of Limbs’ showed a band transitioning into their third decade, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ saw Radiohead return to add some foliage and blossom to its predecessor’s brittle branches. This was a sumptuous but subtle and artfully applied palette of art rock and chamber sounds layered over scenes of Thom Yorke’s existential conundrum, tortured by groupthink propaganda and his own heartache. After ‘In Rainbows’, it’s the best work they’ve produced this century. AT
58Slaves, ‘Are You Satisfied?’ (VIRGIN EMI, 2015)
“Are you done digging your grave yet?” If ‘The Hunter’ seems a little on the nose today, it’s worth bearing in mind that ‘Are You Satisfied?’ arrived in 2015 – right on the precipice of Brexit, Trump and real panic about climate change. Not only did the album bring punk back to the masses with relentless invective but, as on the wonderfully titled ‘Cheer Up London’, it asked the questions we’d end up asking for the rest of the decade. MN
57Giggs, ‘Landlord’ (SN1, 2016)
Giggs’ fourth album is a treasured artefact in UK rap. He’d released just one single in the three-year hiatus that preceded its release, so fans were hungry for his iconic, burly growl – and this amalgamation of grime, EDM and trap drew in a wider audience, too. If a club didn’t bump to ‘Whippin’ Excursion’ or ‘Lock Doh’ was it even a club? K-SW
56St Vincent, ‘St Vincent’ (4AD, 2014)
An album that flees from ferocious Texan rattlesnakes and racks up gigantic lines in a Berlin toilet cubicle with Prince Johnny, ‘St Vincent’ even fits in a cheeky wank after putting the bins out (“take out the garbage, masturbate” remains one of this decade’s best lyrics). Helmed by Annie Clark under the guise of a dystopian overlord, this record is fascinated by and frightened of the modern world in equal measures. EH
55Beyoncé, ‘Beyoncé’ (COLUMBIA, 2013)
For her fifth record, Beyoncé pulled off pop’s biggest heist, disappearing off the face of the earth to make a visual masterpiece behind closed doors, with a ring of secretive collaborators. Shooting music videos around the world while on tour, Bey wore in-ear headphones throughout filming to keep the material under wraps. When she finally unleashed the self-titled project the hugely ambitious album laid down the blueprint for a whole new way to release music. EH
54Tyler, the Creator, ‘Flower Boy’ (COLUMBIA, 2017)
Tyler, The Creator wasn’t exactly known for sincerity before ‘Flower Boy’ came along. Until then, the rapper ruled over barbed caricatures and shock-value slurs; in playing these cruel characters, his satirical alter-egos felt in danger of lending a voice to bigots. ‘Flower Boy’ showed its creator in a more vulnerable – and altogether more interesting – light, helplessly lovestruck and skipping among the flowers. EH
53Arctic Monkeys, ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ (DOMINO, 2018)
Set in a fictional hotel and casino on the moon’s Tranquility Base landing station, the Sheffield lads went galactic on this curveball: a slab of lounge-jazz examining consumerism, modern tech, and the trappings of rock stardom. What ‘Tranquility Base…’ lacked in juggernaut riffs, it delivered in one-liners, with Alex Turner hamming things up in his new role as a jaded extra-terrestrial rock star. “What do you meeeeeeeean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” Still got it. EH
52Paramore, ‘After Laughter’ (FUELLED BY RAMEN, 2017)
Fractured relations and departing members have always featured prominently in Paramore’s story. In 2015, the strain became too much for Hayley Williams – the only constant in the band over 16 years – and she stepped away to focus on her health. ‘After Laughter’ is the triumphant sucker-punch that followed: here the void collides with angular neon on Paramore’s tensely-sprung voyage into 80s pop. EH
51Parquet Courts, ‘Wide Awake!’ (ROUGH TRADE, 2018)
This Brooklyn band have forged an unmistakable (and oft-imitated) sound but with ‘Wide Awake’ they shook things up. Parquet Courts sought to make a punk record that could soundtrack a raucous party, and enlisting producer Danger Mouse for the occasion, venomous and surreal post-punk rules on the Brooklyn band’s sixth. Their most fully-formed record yet, it was a deep-delve into all things absurd. EH
50Sunflower Bean, ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ (LUCKY NUMBER, 2018)
Written while the world felt like it was flying off the rails during Trump’s ascendance to office, Sunflower Bean’s second album didn’t offer up the expected reaction. Forget wallowing in misery – the New Yorkers built a record filled with messages of resilience, hope, and defiance, delivered through glam-rock stomps (‘Crisis Fest’) and swooning dream-pop (‘Only A Moment’). Raging against the machine never sounded so beautiful.
Key track: ‘Twentytwo’
Goosebump moment: The rallying cry of ‘Crisis Fest’’s combative bridge and chorus. RD
49Slipknot, ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ (ROADRUNNER, 2019)
20 years on from their iconic self-titled debut, there were those that thought Slipknot may well be done. With principal songwriter Paul Gray long passed and founding members Chris Fehn and Joey Jordison since departed, maybe the last decade’s most consistently ferocious band were about to enter an era where they would be more akin to a dress-up-in-the-hits factory than a genuine creative force. Then album six dropped, a record that was an aural assault equal to anything they’ve ever done, as well as containing some of the bands most innovative moments. It’s the record that guaranteed Slipknot a future both relevant and eagerly anticipated.
Key track: ‘Red Flag’
Goosebump moment: Lead single ‘Unsainted’ sounded exactly as you’d hope Slipknot would sound in 2019. Singer Corey Taylor’s dangerous penchant for melody remained, as did his confidence in showcasing it. JM
48Iggy Pop, ‘Post Pop Depression’ (CAROLINE INTERNATIONAL, 2016)
At the age of 68, Iggy wanted one more shot at true greatness. With the help of Queens of the Stone Age‘s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita as well as Arctic Monkeys‘ drummer Matt Helders, he found it somewhere out in the Joshua Tree desert. Together they made a gnarly, wise, outrageous, sex-and-death obsessed album which stands as one of the greatest achievements of Iggy’s life. Given the life Iggy has lived, that’s saying something.
Key track: ‘Gardenia’
Goosebump moment: Iggy spewing poetry on closer ‘Paraguay’ while Homme et al provide the backing chorus: “Wild animals they do/Never wonder why/Just to do what they goddamn do.” KP
47Father John Misty, ‘Pure Comedy’ (BELLA UNION, 2017)
Moving on from the hipster Hollywood bars of his debut ‘Fear Fun’ and the sanctity of his marital bed on ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, Father John Misty delivered big themes and even bigger tunes on his elegantly elegiac third album. It was hard to know if he wanted you to laugh or cry at his winking solo John Lennon-esque showtunes, which took on life, the universe, the endless churn of capitalism and VR sex with Taylor Swift. Most poignant of all was the brutal takedown of social media, seen through the eyes of a man scrolling on his phone just before he dies (‘Ballad of The Dying Man’).
Key track: ‘Total Entertainment Forever’
Goosebump moment: The choir kicking in during ‘When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay’. Oof. LC
46Anderson .Paak, ‘Malibu’ (ART CLUB, 2016)
Years of toil and graft (and even a brief period of homelessness) all became worth it for .Paak in early 2016 with the release of his sublime second album, which subsequently landed him a deal with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath. ‘Malibu’ was packed with glorious and emotive lashings of hip-hop, soul and funk – not to forget knock-out production from the likes of Madlib and Kaytranada – to showcase the Californian’s stunning musical versatility. “How did you find me here? It must be perfect timing,” .Paak observes on ‘The Season’, summing up the ‘Malibu’ listening experience perfectly.
Key track: ‘The Season / Carry Me’
Goosebump moment: ‘Come Down’ will never ever fail to get anyone on the dancefloor. Never! SM
45Lorde, ‘Pure Heroine’ (UNIVERSAL/REPUBLIC, 2013)
Lorde never shied away from the influences she grew up with – Florence + The Machine, James Blake, Lana Del Rey – but her youthful wisdom was unique from the start. ‘Pure Heroine’ sings bravely of teenage boredom and ambition, finding adrenaline in the mundanity. She laid rich and hypnotic vocals over sirens, attacking the clutches of fame and celebrating the nighttime dreams of house parties going nowhere. It was the apex of teen-pop and finally good enough for adults.
Key track: ‘Royals’
Goosebump moment: ‘It drives you crazy getting old’, the lyrics synthesising the agony of adolescence when closing the chorus of ‘Ribs’. EK
44Kendrick Lamar, ‘DAMN.’ (TOP DAWG ENTERTAINMENT/UNIVERSAL, 2017)
How the hell do you follow ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’? If you’re Kendrick Lamar, you don’t even try. Shortly before ‘DAMN’ came out, he told The New York Times that his new album wouldn’t pack its predecessor’s heavy political themes: “[‘Butterfly’] was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem any more.” That’s something of an untruth – he takes swipes at Trump and Fox News and shares plenty of profound reflections on race relations – but it’s true that ‘DAMN.’, trading on a ‘70s soul sound, is Kendrick’s pop record.
Key track: ‘HUMBLE’
Goosebump moment: ‘Duckworth’, the real-life tale of an incident that occurred between Kendrick’s father and Anthony Triffith, founder of the label to which Kendrick is signed. The latter spared for the former’s life in a robbery and, two decades later, they all reaped the rewards. JB
43Haim, ‘Days Are Gone’ (POLYDOR, 2013)
Channelling the sonic signifiers of 1970s/early-1980s soft-rock into 11 hook-heavy pop-rock songs – six of which were singles – Haim’s big choruses and bigger charisma saw everyone from Calvin Harris to Bastille vying to become part of their extended family. It’s testament to how successfully the sisters lived up to the promise of their raucous live shows and early ‘Fleetwood Mac meets Destiny’s Child’ billing with this debut that by the end of the year nobody was mispronouncing their name.
Key track: ‘The Wire’
Goosebump moment: The aural nectar of every time those luscious three-way harmonies kick in. GR
42Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (XL, 2013)
On their third album, Ezra Koenig and co escaped their preppy afro-pop straitjacket to explore a more nuanced sonic palette. An existential crisis haunted by the ticking clock of mortality, it was the sound of indie-pop’s smart alec’s facing the sobering realisation they didn’t know it all. “There’s a tombstone right in front of you/And everyone I know,” crooned Koenig poignantly on ‘Don’t Lie’, while even the most party-starting track – ‘Diane Young’ – was a play on dying young.
Key track: ‘Step’
Goosebump moment: The beautiful nostalgic haze of ‘Step’, which contained the graceful observational nugget “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it in for youth”. GR
41Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’ (GOOD/DEF JAM, 2016)
Before he went all-out gospel with ‘Jesus Is King’, Kanye combined elements of praise music – a soaring choir here, a religious lyric there – with filthy dispatches from the front line of celebrity. ‘…Pablo’, West’s most confounding masterwork, is a pornographic kaleidoscope of sound, shifting between high and low culture as abruptly as one jarring sample interrupts another. Sublime reflections on faith and redemption (‘Ultralight Beam’) give way to gross-out gags about bleached bumholes (‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’). The work of a restless, preoccupied mind.
Key track: ‘Waves’
Goosebump moment: You wouldn’t call that lyric about Taylor Swift a “goosebump moment”, exactly, but it’s lost none of its awful potency, encapsulating Kanye West in one line: provocative, frustrating, fascinating. JB
40The War On Drugs, ‘Lost In The Dream’ (SECRETLY CANADIAN, 2014)
Slinking out of a hazy Americana fever dream, The War On Drugs’ third album quickly took them from cult concern to crossover success, placing Adam Granduciel’s widescreen tales of depression, extremely Dylan-esque vocals and Tom Petty played by Spacemen 3 riffage bang into the mainstream rock canon. In a lesser musician’s hands it would have screamed dad-rock, but the lushness of ‘Lost In The Dream’ connected with everyone from Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage crowd to The BRIT Awards, where they were nominated for Best International Band.
Key track: ‘Under The Pressure’
Goosebump moment: When Granduciel really, really fucking goes for it, whooping two thirds of the way into ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’ and you think your heart might actually burst. LC
39Janelle Monáe, ‘Dirty Computer’ (ATLANTIC, 2018)
For the first time in her career, ‘Dirty Computer’ saw Janelle Monáe dispensing with the flawless futurism of her fictional alter ego, Cindi Mayweather. Monáe went from being “the cybergirl without a face” to a flesh-and-blood human proudly declaring her pansexuality – “let the rumours be true!” Channelling her late mentor, Prince, via funk, electro, R&B and futurism, she urged us to celebrate humanity as dirty computers, recognising all genders, races and sexualities as equal. The album was also Monáe’s call to arms in the #MeToo era, a manifesto to women everywhere. “Let the vagina have a monologue” she declared on ‘Django Jane’; “This pussy is gonna grab you back” she warned on ‘I Got the Juice’. The message continued to resonate long after its release.
Key Track: ‘Make Me Feel’
Goosebump moment: When Monáe shouts: “We’re gonna start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot!” on ‘Django Jane’. EA
38Kano, ‘Made in the Manor’ (PARLOPHONE/BIGGER PICTURE MUSIC, 2016)
A three-dimensional tour of East London that shines a light on both its potential and limitations, ‘Made in the Manor’ was the moment Kano progressed from being a technically flawless emcee to an artist with something to say about how Britain treats working-class black people. On the gripping ‘Roadman’s Hymn’, Kano spits: “Wonder why we worship cars and clothes, man/We don’t own land so we’re stuck in no man’s” — proof this is a record designed to make the top boy on the estate pause for a second, and consider whether they are really heading in the right direction.
Key track: ‘GarageSkankFreestyle’
Goosebump moment: The breezy sonics of ‘T-shirt Weather in the Manor’ bottle the optimism of being a teenager in the city and make it impossible not to feel warm, fuzzy and nostalgic for hotter days. TH
37Disclosure, ‘Settle’ (PMR/ISLAND, 2013)
The brothers Lawrence piggybacked on a burgeoning dance revival – Holy Ghost and Katy B were cutting shapes too – yet set themselves apart by imbuing their take on deep house with a distinctly poptastic sensibility. The roll-call of featured artists read like a who’s-who of popular music at the time (Sam Smith, Jessie Ware, Friendly Fires), all of whom took a back seat to the wunderkind producers; it’s amazing to think that Howard and Guy Lawrence were 18 and 21 respectively when they made ‘Settle’. Coolly assured and utterly distinctive, the album paid homage to dance history while consistently pushing things forward.
Key track: ‘Latch’ feat. Sam Smith
Goosebump moment: Pastor Eric Thomas’s urgent vocal sample on the labyrinthine, twisting, turning ‘When a Fire Starts to Burn’. JB
36Idles, ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ (PARTISAN, 2018)
The mistake so many make about punk rock is that they view the concept as a sound; a template for music-making that’s stuck in a particular era. That follows a format. Not so Idles, who took inspiration from disparate sources within the genre – here you’ll find the sneer of The Stooges or the askew drama of The Fall – then reimagined what punk rock might sound like within the era of Brexit, the rise of the new-right and a new discourse about what masculinity might mean. “This album is an attempt to be vulnerable to our audience and to encourage vulnerability; a brave naked smile in this shitty new world,” said singer Joseph Talbot.
Key track: ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’
Goosebump moment: “I’m a real boy, boy, and I cry, ”stutters Joe on ‘Samaritans’. At the time of writing, suicide remains the UK’s most common cause of death for men aged 20-49. It’s no exaggeration to think said lyric could actually save a life. JM
35Cardi B, ‘Invasion Of Privacy’ (ATLANTIC, 2018)
“My little 15 minutes be lasting long as hell,” Cardi rapped on ‘I Do’. Her debut album ensured that those 15 minutes – which started with the release of her viral hit ‘Bodak Yellow’ – wouldn’t be over any time soon, either. Fiery, funny, and incredibly sexually free, the record saw Cardi shooting down haters with rapid-fire flow and inventive, brash bars, and securing her crown as the new Queen of Rap.
Key track: ‘I Like It’
Goosebump moment: When she went in on Offset for cheating on ‘Through The Phone’, switching from fierce rapping to tender singing. RD
34LCD Soundsystem, ‘This Is Happening’ (DFA, 2010)
“Everybody’s getting younger – it’s the end of an era, it’s true,” mourned frontman James Murphy on opener ‘Dance Yrself Clean’. The ageing hipster was done with the scene he created on 2002’s ‘Losing My Edge’. While intended to be LCD’s swansong, ‘This Is Happening’ felt so complete in its nine songs of oh-so-human electronica that it inspired a wave of emulation of their sentimental but self-aware take on dance-punk, later begging their return. Ironically, it turned out to be ageless.
Key track: ‘Dance Yrself Clean’
Goosebump moment: That drop three minutes and six seconds into ‘Dance Yrself Clean’. I mean, just – fucking yes mate. Come on. AT
33Arctic Monkeys, ‘Suck It And See’ (DOMINO, 2011)
After getting their desert kicks with Joshua Homme on 2009’s divisive ‘Humbug’, for their fourth album, Arctic Monkeys made an effortless swagger back towards the intoxicating, surrealist indie sound that made them. They weren’t afraid to be weird (‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’), happy to be hilarious (‘Reckless Serenade’) and certainly not scared to be vulnerable (‘Suck It And See’, ‘She’s Thunderstorms’, ‘Love Is A Laserquest’). The sound of iconic band becoming a legendary one.
Key track: ‘She’s Thunderstorms’
Goosebump moment: When Alex Turner croons “I poured my aching heart into a pop song/I couldn’t get the hang of poetry” on the title track. Swoon-a-rama. LC
32Grimes, ‘Art Angels’ (4AD, 2015)
‘Art Angels’ didn’t feel so much like Claire Boucher bridging the gap between the underground and mainstream as her attempting to bend pop to her own demonic, idiosyncratic will. Adding everything from K-pop, ‘80s synths, horrorcore and rave to its sonic Pinterest, the pace of quality doesn’t let up for 14 breathlessly inventive, genre-blurring tracks. Awarded NME’s Album of the Year in 2015, four years later it still feels thrillingly future-facing – far from the “piece of crap” she’d later dismiss it as.
Key track: ‘World Princess Part II’.
Goosebump moment: The nightmarish turbo-charged ‘Kill V Maim’ – about a gender-switching space-travelling vampire – which sounds like a bunch of cheerleaders gone feral. GR
31Taylor Swift, ‘1989’ (BIG MACHINE, 2014)
With her fifth album ‘1989’ – named after the year she was born – Taylor truly transcended her country beginnings to claim pop’s Iron Throne. Clad in sheening synthpop shot through with her savvy, self-aware lyrics, everything on this blockbuster collection sounded timeless. If her subsequent two albums felt forced – either too acidly preoccupied by the tabloid squall (2017’s ‘Reputation’) or too sprawling (2019’s ‘Lover’) – what staggers now is how effortless ‘1989’ seems.
Key track: ‘Style’
Goosebump moment: The imperious meta-pop takedown of her image of a serial Dater who uses her exes as score-settling songwriting fodder on ‘Blank Space’, using a humour and lightness of touch she’s never equalled. GR
30Skepta ‘Konnichiwa’ (BOY BETTER KNOW, 2016)
Skepta’s fourth full-length was a landmark moment in UK grime. Dropped a month before the EU referendum, it came like a gritty and raw statement of intent against troubling times. Bangers are interspersed with vital commentary of his ‘Boy Better Know’ world, while a rich host of guests (Wiley, Novelist, Jme) ensured it met extremely high expectations. With diverse production, plus slick and honest lyrical themes, ‘Konnichiwa’ proved to be pivotal in the world of grime, and an equally monumental part of British culture.
Key track: ‘Shutdown’
Goosebump moment: A powerful slice of dialogue before ‘Corn on the Curb’ pretty much sums up the brave intent behind this record: “Everyday bro, we’ve got to stay battling, gotta stay fighting, gotta stay striving, gotta stay dreaming, gotta stay believing, gotta stay scheming.” RB
29Foals, ‘Holy Fire’ (WARNER BROS, 2013)
“I can’t get enough space,” howled frontman Yannis Philippakis on the call-to-arms ‘Inhaler’, capturing the 21st Century anxiety that drove ‘Holy Fire’ and defined the era. From the shameless bop of ‘My Number’ to the tender but paranoid ‘Late Night’, Foals’ third album saw them assume their ultimate form to create something so muscular, dancey, ambient and ultimately widescreen that it cemented them as the artful and conscious arena rock daddies the decade needed.
Key track: ‘Inhaler’
Goosebump moment: After the crescendo in ‘Late Night’ when Philipakkis soulfully pleads “staaaay with meeeee” before a filthy, blues-inflected scuzzy guitar wig-out. AT
28Robyn, ‘Body Talk’ (KONICHIWA RECORDS, 2010)
Robyn’s knack for writing songs that made you want to dance and cry at the same time was already well established before 2010 (see: ‘Be Mine’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’), but ‘Body Talk’ truly cemented her as the don of emotional pop. Even as modern pop has made a similar approach one of its very foundations – with everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen to Lorde deploying it – the liberating euphoria of the likes of ‘Hang With Me’, ‘Call Your Girlfriend’, and ‘Dancing On My Own’ remain unbeatable.
Key track: ‘Dancing On My Own’
Goosebump moment: The glittery synth sadness of ‘Hang With Me’. RD
27Jamie xx, ‘In Colour’ (YOUNG TURKS, 2015)
The first full solo effort from the man dubbed the driving force of The xx took five years of production and arrived in a rainbow burst of fresh beats and playful patchworked tracks. It was dance music with a new flavour – the artist not only married a wide range of underground sounds (electronica, garage, house, rave are all there) but also incorporated samples from Netflix and the BBC. It worked gloriously and still sets the bar.
Key track: Loud Places (feat. Romy)
Goosebump moment: The tinkling piano chords signalling a jump back to the future, after the vocalised introduction of ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’. EK
26Drake, ‘Take Care’ (YOUNG MONEY, 2011)
Aubrey Graham called upon the likes of Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar and André 3000 for his lengthy but compelling second album, which cemented his place on hip-hop’s A-list. Drake used much of the 80-minute run time to explore relationships, vulnerability and the trappings of fame – all while still finding plenty of time for braggadocio boasts. It was an affecting and engaging formula that paid dividends to Drake’s career and an approach he’s successfully replicated in many of his subsequent releases
Key track: ‘Marvins Room’
Goosebump moment: The Just Blaze-produced ‘Lord Knows’ is a booming, gospel-infused interlude which briefly but brightly breaks away from the record’s otherwise largely sparse and melancholic production style. “My story is far from finished,” Drake presciently declares. SM
25Mac DeMarco, ‘2’ (CAPTURED TRACKS, 2012)
The album that changed everything for young McBriare Samuel Lanyon DeMarco. Unless you happened to live in a very cool Montreal loft at the start of the decade, this was probably the first time you heard his expertly-crafted and irresistibly melodic songs about growing up, falling in love and getting in so much trouble you scare your mum. Before ‘2’, Mac was touring half-empty venues out of his car. Afterwards thousands of fans were selling out his shows, dressing like their hero and smoking endless Viceroys.
Key track: ‘Freaking Out The Neighborhood’
Goosebump moment: Mac’s voice cracking as he sings fan-favourite album closer ‘Still Together’. KP
24Metronomy, ‘The English Riviera’ (BECAUSE MUSIC, 2011)
Previously masters of after-dark electro, ‘The English Riviera’ marked something of a transition for Metronomy. On it, they stepped into the daylight and made something to match – a dreamy, bright pop album that still featured the moments of weirdness that made Joe Mount’s outfit special in the first place. Through a lens of summertime nostalgia, he crafted warped synth-pop romance as golden as the beach cruises they could soundtrack and set Metronomy free to explore increasingly weirder worlds.
Key track: ‘The Look’
Goosebump moment: Guest vocalist Roxanne Clifford’s detached declarations of “I’m in love” on the subtle swing of ‘Everything Goes My Way’. RD
23Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’ (COLUMBIA, 2013)
We thought the robots might have abandoned us forever. Instead, eight years after third album proper ‘Human After All’, they returned to blow our minds. They brought with them a stellar supporting cast including Nile Rodgers, Pharrell, Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear and even disco godfather Giorgio Moroder. Together they created a wildly ambitious album that paid tribute to the past while sounding unmistakably like the future. And then, of course, there was ‘Get Lucky’… still the sound of the summer.
Key track: ‘Get Lucky’
Goosebump moment: The speaker-detonating climax of ‘Contact’. KP
22Wolf Alice, ‘Visions Of A Life’ (DIRTY HIT, 2017)
There’s returning on your second album new and improved and then there’s doing what Wolf Alice did, which is to somehow progress so much you make writing one of the 21st century’s greatest love songs (‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’) sound like a snap. Bolstered by an even more eclectic bunch of sounds (snarling rock, country twangs, folky fingerpicking), ‘Visions Of A Life’ was miles more adventurous and self-assured than its predecessor, and even more astonishing for frontwoman Ellie Rowsell’s poetic but razor-sharp lyrics.
Key track: ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’
Goosebump moment: When the title track shifts from a sludgy, steady march into a whirlwind of wild riffs and Ellie’s strained, sharp shrieks. RD
21Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ (TDE/INTERSCOPE, 2015)
Kendrick could have just done more of the same and still satisfied critics, but by taking this ambitious left-turn and experimenting with jazz and a loose, free-flow style of rapping, the Compton native showed an aversion to following a script. People rightly talk about how ‘Alright’ fuelled the endurance of the Black Lives Matter movement, but this record is at its best when it channels the more paranoid politics of Malcolm X rather than the optimism of Martin Luther King, with the moody urgency of ‘The Blacker The Berry’ and ‘Mortal Man’ still capable of lighting a fuse under any crowd. This is rap’s own ‘Bitches Brew’.
Key track: ‘King Kunta’
Goose bump moment: When you realise the homeless man Kendrick raps about on ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ is actually God. TH
20Bon Iver, ‘Bon Iver’ (JAGJAGUWAR/4AD, 2011)
Justin Vernon’s impact over the past decade is undeniable. From his game-changing work with Kanye (their extensive collaboration began because Ye was a fan of Vernon’s work) to Justin Timberlake shacking up in a cabin for his fifth album ‘Man of the Woods’, his fingerprints are on much of the music of the past ten year. But it’s Bon Iver’s self-titled gem is his real crown jewel.
You can hear its influence in The Japanese House’s kaleidoscopic layered vocals, the soaring instrumental lines of The 1975, and James Blake’s shimmering production. ‘Bon Iver’ remains a gorgeous collection of chamber-pop flecked indie that packs a powerfully emotional punch.
Key track: ‘Holocene’
Goosebump moment: When ‘Lisbon, OH’ seamlessly transitions into the stunning vocoder ballad ‘Beth/Rest’. HM
19Foals, ‘Total Life Forever’ (TRANSGRESSIVE, 2010)
The Oxford quintet’s second album landed at a crossroads. A new decade had arrived, the Tories were back, and the nation was reeling from recession. It was a new era for Foals, too. Their breakthrough came with yappy math-rock debut ‘Antidotes’ (2008) but it was ‘Total Life Forever’ that bore greater emotional heft and grander sonics. Paranoid, prescient lyrics about the planet (“God damn this boiling space”) and existentialism cross-pollinated intricately textured art rock songs that remain their greatest to date.
Key track: ‘Spanish Sahara’
Goosebump moment: The stunning, build-and-release eruption in ‘Spanish Sahara’. CK
18Billie Eilish, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ (INTERSCOPE, 2019)
If this list celebrates the music defining the previous decade, ‘When We All Fall Asleep…’ sets the agenda for the future. The last bona fide popstar of the 2010s, it perfectly captures the emotional clusterfuck of being a teenager over 14 unique tracks of trap-influenced pop, bare face balladry, horror film dread, and funny lyrics that have made Billie Eilish a Gen Z prophet. An inventive curtain-raiser that’s unafraid to show you the working out in the margins.
Key track: ‘Xanny’
Goosebump moment: All of ‘Bad Guy’, which rightly secured her first chart-topper, and acted as a crowning moment of the phenomenon. GR
17Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’ (PARKWOOD/COLUMBIA, 2016)
Still only three or so years old, Beyoncé’s sixth studio album has already had a huge impact on what came after it. Musically Taylor Swift, Snoop Dogg and The-Dream have all said it inspired them, and her visual album treatment paved the way for artists like Frank Ocean to put out expansive video albums. It’s unsurprising though, as ‘Lemonade’ is a genre-defying masterpiece.
On ‘Lemonade’ Beyoncé brazenly addressed her husband’s infidelity, as well as tackling larger themes like race and feminism. It’s brilliantly honest, musically varied – collaborators range from Kendrick Lamar to James Blake and Jack White – and stuffed full of earworm songs. With it Beyoncé reminded us she’s the greatest game-changer we have.
Key track: ‘Formation’
Goosebump moment: The minimalist opening beats of ‘Formation’, which allow full focus to be put on Beyoncé’s spoken vocals. HM
16The 1975, ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ (DIRTY HIT, 2018)
The 1975 have built a reputation for crafting wide-ranging, thought-provoking albums and ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ was no different. On it, the band tackled the entire millennial condition, from our reliance on technology (featuring an appearance by Siri) to the global politics haunting our existence, penned love songs to heroin, and renounced postmodernism in favour of sincerity. Despite comparisons to Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, it was an album that stood proudly unique – social commentary wrapped up in sounds that pushed boundaries and spanned genres.
Key track: ‘Love It If We Made It’
Goosebump moment: When ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’ swells into a stereo-filling, stadium-sized hit of grandeur and emotion. RD
15Father John Misty, ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ (SUB POP, 2015)
There are thousands of break-up records, but falling-in-love records are harder to come by for some reason. With ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, Josh Tillman crafted a paean to that heady, bewildering feeling while managing to resist falling back on cliché. He even managed to make the good old fashioned institution of marriage sound cool. “Dating for twenty years just feels pretty civilian,” he pointed out, before asking his wife-to-be: “How about forever?”
Key track: ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’
Goosebump moment: One night stand chronicle ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.’ is so acid-tongued it’s not safe to be kept around children or animals. KP
14The National, ‘High Violet’ (4AD, 2010)
Delving into the darkest of human anxieties and neuroses, Matt Berninger and co opened up conversations on mental health and masculinity long before the mainstream dialogue began; “Sorrow got me when I was young.” “It takes an ocean not to break.” “Put me on the pill.” Berninger’s weary baritone sang amidst sparse orchestration, military drumming and mournful guitars. Compiled of troubled anthems for tortured souls and broken hearts, ‘High Violet’ searched for meaning during breakdowns and breakups on songs so candid and crushing that it felt intrusive to listen. With lines as beguiling as “I was carried to Ohio on a swarm of bees” and “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders,” Berninger rarely found answers to his questions, but he taught us the importance of asking.
Key Track: ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’
Goosebump moment: The desperate sorrow of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, when Berninger repeatedly sings: “All the very best of us/String ourselves up for love.” EA
13David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’ (RCA, 2016)
A stark work of self-reflection and thrilling jazz-rock, ‘Blackstar’ was hailed as one of the finest records of Bowie’s career upon its release on his 69th birthday, even when we didn’t know he was dying. The album would become his own eulogy when Bowie passed away two days later. As producer Tony Visconti put it, “His death was no different from his life – a work of art”. The ★ icon on the sleeve was in fact a perfect full stop.
Key track: ‘Blackstar’
Goosebump moment: Bowie’s devastating farewell with a wink as he sighs: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now“. AT
12Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (DEF JAM/ROC-A-FELLA, 2010)
The debate over the greatest ever Kanye album may rumble on for eternity, but it seems silly to suggest that anything but ‘MBDTF’ is his masterpiece. Recorded primarily in Hawaii shortly after that “I’mma let you finish” moment, Ye – who later said he wanted to make a “long, backhanded apology” to the public with this album, especially after President Barack Obama labelled him “a jackass” – assembled an all-star cast to help delve into his standing as the world’s most notorious “21st-century schizoid man“. The result was a dense, complex and utterly triumphant work of art.
Key track: ‘Runaway’
Goosebump moment: Nicki Minaj’s primal scream at the end of her career-best verse on ‘Monster’. She’d just emerged victorious from a Royal Rumble of superstar rappers involving Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Kanye himself. SM
11Tame Impala, Lonerism (MODULAR, 2012)
It was Tame Impala’s debut ‘Innerspeaker’ that first saw Kevin Parker acclaimed as one of psych-rock’s new stars, but it was ‘Lonerism’ that made him one of the most revered – and most frequently imitated – musicians of the decade, his talents sought by everyone from Lady Gaga to Kanye West. Though it’s evergreen hits like ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ and ‘Elephant’ that remain the record’s anthems, the whole album still glistens and shimmers with as much kaleidoscopic light as ever.
Key Track: ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’
Goosebump Moment: When the pulsating opening pump of ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ flips straight into a soaring psychedelic drift, like falling through a portal to another dimension. PC
10Lana Del Rey, ‘Born to Die’ (POLYDOR, 2012)
Tracklisting: 1. Born to Die 2. Off to the Races 3. Blue Jeans 4. Video Games 5. Diet Mountain Dew 6. National Anthem 7. Dark Paradise 8. Radio 9. Carmen 10. Million Dollar Man 11. Summertime Sadness 13. This Is What Makes Us Girls
Highest UK chart position: 1
Original NME star rating: 8/10
‘Born to Die’ is Lana’s worst-reviewed album. It was a brave, mysterious release, thrusting a confident identity into the mainstream before anyone knew what to do with it. She didn’t either – she offered it, curls sprayed and lips puckered, but her image didn’t bloom into a living thing until later. Here was a beautiful girl singing proudly about being sad. About loving men passionately. About sex, glamour, and money.
The world wasn’t an easy place in 2012 (when was it ever?), but it was certainly easier than now. ‘Born to Die’ was released when Donald Trump was merely a businessman and TV personality. Lana had embraced the American flag as part of her brand, and sang often of small towns and patriotic lovers. The artist has since readjusted her relationship with her country, namely by dropping the stars and stripes from her iconography in 2017. ‘National Anthem’ sits a little differently now. Its fireworks sound dangerous.
2012 was a time where people could go viral online just because they were good. That’s what happened with ‘Video Games’, Lana’s favourite song. She described it as “Hollywood sadcore”, a deliberate wallow that was somehow still aspirational.
Lana was the first contemporary sad girl who sang. Someone who owned their feelings and increased the volume, rather than blocking them out with a catchy hook. She sang for, and with, girls on Tumblr, girls who now stan on Twitter. Lana wasn’t afraid of much on ‘Born to Die’ – not metaphors of cancer, nor immortal declarations of love, or comparisons with Nabokov’s controversial Lolita.
This was pop music, but nothing like before. Velvety vocals were poised over ferociously eclectic sounds, with trip-hop beats and pure, sweet melodies coexisting as if they’d never been apart. ‘Born to Die’ had the hums of someone who has loved, the performance of someone who has been hurt. Lana would purr for validation, and then growl for redemption. Her contradictions made her alluring.
It was a little rough, but epitomised what was, and still is, so singular. ‘Born to Die’ has always sounded like a dream, one maybe lost in its own haze at the time. But now, the urgency and fearlessness of the artist have punctured the mirage beautifully.
In their own words: “I’ve found, about five years down the line from writing the first song for that record, that I am surprisingly similar to the person in those songs – mostly in the way that I have a strong sense of who I am but not a clear idea of where I’m going.” Lana Del Rey, NME, December 2016
Key track: ‘Video Games’
Goosebump moment: The five-string snarling countdown of ‘Blue Jeans’.
Like this? Try this: Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Stranger in the Alps’ EK
9Arcade Fire, ‘The Suburbs’ (CITY SLANG, 2010)
Tracklisting: 1. The Suburbs 2. Ready To Start 3. Modern Man 4. Rococo 5. Empty Room 6. City With No Children 7. Half Light I 8. Half Light II (No Celebration) 9. Suburban War 10. Month Of May 11. Wasted Hour 12. Deep Blue 13. We Used To Wait 14. Sprawl I (Flatland) 15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) 16. The Suburbs (Continued)
Highest UK Chart position: 1
Original NME star rating: 9/10
A full decade on, ‘The Suburbs’ endures because it manages to look forwards, backwards, inwards and outwards all at once. It is a record coated in the anxiety of 2010, capturing post-financial crash unease and that sinking feeling that not only is the damage irreversible, but that things are only going to get worse. It bottles the comforting yet ultimately empty glow of nostalgia, but also a sense of dread about the future that now feels more than a little prophetic.
Much of the album’s energy comes from a sense of desperation. There are fantasies of fleeing fruitlessly from the sprawl, nostalgic daydreams laced with sorrow, and straight-up denial that anything is even wrong. Often there’s just impotence in the face of collapse – “By the time the first bombs fell we were already bored,” sings Win Butler on the title track. Yet no matter where the band seek their escape on ‘The Suburbs’, there’s a shapeless dread at the album’s core, something they can’t bring themselves to fully confront. Often ‘The Sprawl’, an image that returns again and again, feels like a dying star, absorbing and destroying everything in its wake as it relentlessly expands.
Yet for all of its paranoia and doom, ‘The Suburbs’ is a record that still sounds absolutely beautiful. Its title track and opener is a melancholy skip of piano and a march of percussion, gradually incorporating distant sweeps of violin and ghostly backing vocals. Then it careens into the fierce guitars of ‘Ready To Start’, submerges itself in the melancholy of ‘Modern Man’ and leaps back up to the sinister, magisterial rush of ‘Rococo’. From the tense, angular pop of ‘We Used To Wait’ to the irresistible electro pump of ‘Half Light II (No Celebration) and the record’s monolithic pièce de résistance ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, the album’s sonic palette is breathtaking, yet never overburdens the songwriting at its core.
Arcade Fire have never shied away from a grandiose expression of emotions, but while on subsequent albums like 2013’s bloated ‘Reflektor’ and 2017 misfire ‘Everything Now’ they let their loftiness bog them down, ‘The Suburbs’ tempers the group’s preachier tendencies with a powerful injection of humanity. It takes the youthful angst of ‘Funeral’ but matures it into something universal and affecting, while the pompousness that’s characterised their later work is scaled down so you’re always on their side. It remains their absolute creative peak, and will probably still do so for a decade more.
In their own words: “I think the very notion of the suburbs in the old-fashioned sense – that homogenised sprawl of corporate housing and malls – is like a metaphor for something much bigger.” – Win Butler, The Guardian, November 2010
Key track: ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains’) – A tidal wave of a track, encompassing every ounce of the colossal, pumping emotive power of Arcade Fire at their best.
Goosebump moment: The tense, staccato piano chords that open ‘We Used To Wait’; the calm before the storm.
Like this? Try this: Deerhunter – ‘Halcyon Digest’ PC
8Grimes, ‘Visions’ (4AD, 2012)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘Infinite ❤ Without Fulfilment’ 2. ‘Genesis’ 3. ‘Oblivion’ 4. ‘Eight 5. ‘Circumambient’ 6. ‘Vowels = Space and Time’ 7. ‘Visiting Statue’ 8. ‘Be a Body’ 9. ‘Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus)’ 10. ‘Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)’ 11. ‘Nightmusic’ 12. ‘Skin’ 12. ‘Know The Way (Outro)’
Highest UK chart position: 67
Original NME star rating: 8/10
This past summer, Grimes did a very celebrity thing and shared her fitness routine with the world. Rather than the usual “interval training and drinking lots of water” her regimen included sword fighting, sensory deprivation tanks and voluntary surgery on her corneas to block out blue light.
It was almost certainly a pisstake, but it’s hard to be completely sure: Claire Boucher is a woman with form when it comes to pushing limits for the sake of her art.
Originally from Vancouver, she moved to Montreal to study Russian literature before switching to neuroscience, but never finished either course, lured instead to the city’s underground music scene. She banked everything on becoming Grimes, a decision that cost her friendships and relationships and left her without a permanent home for a time. But it paid off: her first two albums, ‘Geidi Primes’ and ‘Halfaxa’ – inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune and medieval mysticism respectively – grew a cult following, and for her third, she was snapped up by 4AD, spiritual home of electronic goths. Faced with a proper grown-up label deadline and inspired by 11th-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, Boucher shut herself away for three weeks, taking speed and going up to nine days without sleep in an attempt to access deep-level creativity.
Which is how you end up with galactic gems called things like ‘Vowels = Space And Time’. ‘Visions’ sounds exactly like what it is: an album crafted as a midpoint between R&B and IDM in an insomniac chemical rush by a woman who with equal love for Nine Inch Nails and K-pop. Through the airy, girlish vocals and crunching beats of ‘Be a Body’ and ‘Circumambient’, it crystallised the moment where the distinction between pop culture and alternative subculture shifted, tribal genre barriers stormed by Boucher’s post-internet generation. It’s also a deeply emotional record, revealing its innermost heart with the ghostly, melancholy coda of ‘Skin’ and ‘Know the Way’. And it showed Grimes her forward path: her self-directed video for ‘Genesis’, with its flaming-sword-wielding apocalyptic hipster gang, hinted at the rich visual persona that emerged in 2015’s ‘Art Angels’. She’s never stopped getting weirder and thinking bigger since: her forthcoming ‘Miss_Anthropocene’ is “a concept album about the anthropomorphic goddess of climate change: a psychedelic, space-dwelling demon/beauty queen who relishes the end of the world.” You better believe she’ll be going Method for it, too.
In their own words: “Once you hit day nine, you start accessing some really crazy shit. You have no stimulation, so your subconscious starts filling in the blanks. I started to feel like I was channelling spirits. I was convinced my music was a gift from God. It was like I knew exactly what to do next, as if my songs were already written.” The Guardian, April 2012
Key track: ‘Genesis’
Goosebump moment: Boucher’s soft chirrup of “see you in the dark night!” on ‘Oblivion’, a song inspired by her experience of a violent assault.
Like this? Try this: Purity Ring – ‘Shrines’ EM
7Frank Ocean, ‘Channel Orange’ (DEF JAM, 2012)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘Start’ 2. ‘Thinking About You’. 3. ‘Fertiliser’. 4. ‘Sierra Leone’ 5. ‘Sweet Life’. 6. ‘Not Just Money’. 7. ‘Super Rich Kids’. 8. ‘Pilot Jones’. 9. ‘Crack Rock’. 10. ‘Pyramids’. 11. ‘Lost’. 12. ‘White’ . 13. ‘Monks’. 14. ‘Bad Religion’. 15. ‘Pink Matter’ . 16. ‘Forrest Gump’. 17. ‘End’
Highest UK chart position: 1
Original NME star rating: 7/10
In the summer of 2012, as the end of Barack Obama’s first term as the President of the United States of America came to a close, Christopher Breaux held a listening party for his debut studio album, ‘channel ORANGE’. His 2011 mixtape ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ had drawn to him a small legion of dedicated fans and music journalists fawning over his work. At the listening party, the use of “he/him” pronouns in a project discussing heartbreak and emotion drew attention. To control the narrative, Christopher Breaux took to Tumblr to pen an open letter under his pseudonym Frank Ocean.
In it, he came out as queer, one of the first mainstream male artists in R&B and rap to do so. Soon after, the album, ‘channel ORANGE’, was released. It wasn’t the queer rights anthem many expected, instead the obscure nature of the project was what stood out. Flowing between funk, soul, RnB, hip-hop, and electronica with speckles of Marvin Gaye, and odes to Prince all underpinned by Frank’s penchant for unique lyricism, tenderness was crucial.
It’s slippery and cryptic, with Ocean taking on multiple identities — most famously during the sprawling 10 minutes of ‘Pyramid’ where Ocean re-invents one of the most famous rulers in history as a woman of the night who dons six-inch heels. On ‘Bad Religion’, Ocean uses a fictional back-and-forth with a cab driver as a personal therapy session while on ‘Super Rich Kids’, he admonishes the wealthy and privileged.
There is no formula here. It does what it needs to when it needs to. Take its featured guests. John Mayer backs away from the spotlight entirely, his guitar solos on ‘Pyramids’ and ‘White’ his only prominent contribution and he brings Andre 3000 out of semi-retirement to deliver a stand-out verse on ‘Pink Matter’.
Ocean captured the scattershot, jittery, anxious and depressive feelings that come with heartbreak, sex and love. All of the personas are consumed by guilt and vanity while grappling with the acknowledgement that acceptance is hard-won. With ‘Channel Orange’, Frank Ocean announced himself as a generational talent.
In their own words: “I wrote to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions.” Frank Ocean, Tumblr, 2011
Key track: ‘Bad Religion’
Goosebump moment: The beat-change halfway through ‘Pyramids’ when it goes from a club banger to a melancholic introspective track.
Like this? Try this: Solange – ‘A Seat At The Table’ DB
6The 1975, ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ (DIRTY HIT, 2016)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘The 1975’ 2. ‘Love Me’. 3. ‘UGH!’. 4. ‘A Change Of Heart’. 5. ‘She’s American’. 6. ‘If I Believe You’. 7. ‘Please Be Naked’. 8. ‘Lostmyhead’. 9. ‘The Ballad Of Me And My Brain’. 10. ‘Somebody Else’. 11. ‘Loving Someone’. 12. ‘I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful and yet so unaware of it’. 13. ‘The Sound’. 14. ‘This Must Be My Dream’. 15. ‘Paris’. 16. ‘Nana’. 17. ‘She Lays Down’
Highest UK chart position: 1
Original NME star rating: 4 /5
On their 2013 self-titled debut album, The 1975 started out as a radio-friendly pop band, all attention-grabbing earworms and hefty hooks that helped them pack out festival tents and commandeer the charts. It was a bright start but the follow-up was really what set them apart from every other guitar-wielding group on the Radio 1 playlist. They’d shown hints of something more in songs like ‘Heart Out’, but ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ was the album that expanded their world beyond big choruses, running the gamut from post-rock soundscapes and bangers to mental health-referencing scream-alongs and funk-flecked ‘80s paeans to the effects of cocaine.
‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ stood out not just because of its innate eclecticism, but for its restless race through the ego of The 1975’s frontman Matty Healy. Packed with self-referential nods and sardonic wordplay, it established him as a pop star with opinions on everything, a brain that never stops ticking over and a lot of extreme life experience. ‘Love Me’ took on selfie culture, while ‘She’s American’ rolled its eyes at a Stateside lover obsessed with status. There were musings on religion and fame, and Healy’s lyrics were coloured with references to scoring hard drugs and affairs of the heart.
With its refusal to play it safe, ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ pushed The 1975 from being simply loved and into another world of great influence. You can hear their DNA in the younger bands signed to their label, Dirty Hit – see Pale Waves and No Rome – but their sound has travelled much further than their own stomping ground. Hints of their particular ‘80s-styled synths and fidgety guitar lines cropping up as far afield as in the music of K-pop groups such as Day6 or Pentagon.
Even their aesthetic has coloured the last four years of the decade. Pink rectangular lights now adorn countless stages and pastel neon signs shine on artwork with stunning vistas in the background. Their crisp, clean iconography has been replicated throughout the pop sphere, rounding out their place as one of the most influential bands of the last 10 years.
In their own words: “There’s fuck all wrong with the album. Nothing. It’s perfect for me” – Matty Healy, NME cover feature, November 25, 2016
Key track: ‘Somebody Else’
Goosebumps moment: The raw pain in Matty’s rasping voice as he declares, “Well I think I’ve gone mad/Isn’t that so sad?” on ‘The Ballad Of Me And My Brain’.
Like this? Try this: Halsey – ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’
5Kendrick Lamar, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d City’ (TOP DAWG ENTERTAINMENT, 2012)
Tracklist: 1. ‘Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter’ 2. ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ 3. ‘Backseat Freestyle’. 4. ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’. 5. ‘Money Trees’. 6. ‘Poetic Justice [Explicit]’. 7. ‘Good Kid’ 8. ‘m.A.A.d city’. 9. ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’. 10. ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. 11. ‘Real’. 12. ‘Compton’
Original NME star rating: 6/10 (whoops!)
A work of extraordinary empathy and insight, Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album – and commercial breakthrough – wove a bighearted tale about his upbringing in LA’s infamous Compton neighbourhood, as he rejected the temptations of gang culture and instead embraced a life of rhyme. Like so much of Lamar’s work to follow, it combined dense lyricism and incredibly intricate delivery (listen to the beautiful tumble of words that unspools on ‘good kid’) with a neat conceit that threaded the whole thing together in an unfussy way.
Opening track ‘Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter’ saw Kendrick evoke his endearingly misspent youth, bombing through LA in his mum’s car to meet a girl named Sherane. Young Kendrick discovers his talent over the course of the narrative, with ‘Backseat Freestyle’ recounting early lyrics with which he attempted to will himself into superstardom: “All my life I want money and power… I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck the world for 72 hours”. This wily approach enabled the rapper to espouse traditional hip-hop braggadocio while satirising it as the adolescent posturing of a kid not quite as confident as he made out.
Eventually he achieves the success he once dreamt of, with Dr. Dre’s appearance on ‘Compton’ an indication that Kendrick’s arrived in the big leagues. But that’s only half the story of ‘good kid, m.A.A.d City’. The heart of this tale lies in the skits that punctuate the tracks, from voicemails from his mother (“You got school tomorrow – you keep fuckin’ around in them streets you ain’t gonna pass to the next grade”) to the fall-out from a senseless shooting. This is a story of family, and how that family kept Kendrick from becoming another victim of his environment – a luxury not afforded to many of his less lucky peers. In that sense, this pretty specific tale is actually universal. Everyone has a family, or doesn’t, and we’ve all been shaped by the people around us.
On ‘Money Trees’ he upturns the image of the criminal with the gun and focuses on the person receiving the bullet (“the one in front of the gun lives forever”), an indication of Lamar’s 360-degree narrative scope. No wonder Pharrell called him “this era’s Bob Dylan” for his “masterful storytelling”. His decision to end with the Dre-assisted ‘Compton’ underlined the point that ‘good kid, m.A.A.d City’ is this generation’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’, destined to grace ‘best of’ lists forever more. And here we are.
In their own words: “At first, I was scared to show fear because you can never be sure how people will perceive you. But I dared myself to do that, to stand out. Now I’ll talk about being beaten up or robbed or making a stupid decision because of a girl or whatever.” – Kendrick Lamar, The Guardian, December 2012
Key track: ‘Backseat Freestyle’
Goosebump moment: Literally every time that warped backing vocal chants “Drank” on ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’.
Like this? Try this: Vince Staples – ‘Summertime ‘06’ JB
4PJ Harvey, ‘Let England Shake’ (ISLAND, 2011)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘Let England Shake’ 2. ‘The Last Living Rose’ 3. ‘The Glorious Land’ 4. ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ 5. ‘All And Everyone’ 6. ‘On Battleship Hill’ 7. ‘England’ 8. ‘In The Dark Places’ 9. ‘Bitter Branches 10. ‘Hanging In The Wire’ 11. ‘Written on the Forehead’ 12. ‘The Colour of the Earth’
Highest UK chart position: 8
Original NME star rating: 10/10
Eight albums and almost two decades into her career, we thought we knew who PJ Harvey was: a cult dramatist of interpersonal battles, a glib critical by-word for describing a certain kind of sound (raw, ragey, usually female). But ‘Let England Shake’ reinvented her utterly.
In the years after the 2003 Iraq war, as its grim aftermath rippled outwards, Harvey had found herself drawn to dig in the deep roots of human conflict. There were war correspondents, she reasoned, and war poets. Why not a war songwriter? The lyrics of ‘Let England Shake’ took almost two years to perfect, as she digested works on the First World War, the Bosnian conflict and the war on terror, trying to make the words work as standalone poetry. The narrative voice that emerged needed a new sound, which Harvey crafted using a recently adopted instrument, the autoharp, shaping her vocals into an eerie, keening croon to suit dark, detached visions of the recurrent patterns of war.
Recorded in a live, loose way with her core collaborators in a Dorset village church, ‘Let England Shake’ is haunted by voices that seem to float out of the past. The military bugle call in ‘The Glorious Land’, a skewed nursery rhyme of British and American nationalism, seems more like a ghostly squall than an instrumental flourish, and Harvey’s narrator on the title track is as blithe as a musichall sweetheart as she and a paramour splash around in the “fountain of death” amid jangling strums and naive plinks.
Harvey’s hard work pays off richly for the listener – ‘Let England Shake’’ calls you back to its horrors again and again, lines like “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat” sticking nastily in the brain. The album’s success – her first Top 10 record, album of the year in NME and her second Mercury prize win, making Harvey the only artist ever to do the double – also decisively secured her place as a top-tier songwriter, one you’d be wise not to underestimate.
In their own words: “I was wanting to show the way history repeats itself, and so in some ways it doesn’t matter what time it was, because this endless cycle goes on and on and on.” Polly Harvey, NME, January 2011
Key track: ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’
Goosebump moment: The moment in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ when Harvey invokes the ghost of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues with pitch-black irony: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
Like this? Try this: Richard Dawson – ‘Peasant’ EM
3Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’ (DEF JAM, 2013)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘On Sight’, 2. ‘Black Skinhead’, 3. ‘I Am A God’, 4. ‘New Slaves’, 5. ‘Hold My Liquor’, 6. ‘I’m In It’, 7. ‘Blood On The Leaves’, 8. ‘Guilt Trip’, 9. ‘Send It Up’, 10. ‘Bound 2’
Highest UK chart position: 1
Original NME star rating: 9/10
There will, no doubt, be gasps of derision from Kanye aficionados that ‘Yeezus’ has placed above ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ in this list. The latter is seen as Kanye’s defining artistic statement, the moment where his genius was not just spoken about by the man himself, but by the world at large.
‘Yeezus’, by contrast, is a strange beast: a tight, 40-minute album that lacks a thematic link and with a shoddy cover that pretends it’s a CDR. But really, ‘Yeezus’ found Kanye at the absolute peak of his powers, delivering a collection so wildly futuristic that the rest of the world is still catching up. Seriously, listen to ‘Black Skinhead’ and Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ back to back – six whole years separate them.
Kanye’s detractors, you suspect, have two primary grumbles. One: his arrogance. And two: his lack of focus. Those taking offence with Kanye’s displays of self-confidence don’t – or didn’t, at this point – realise it’s a mask for the fragility of his ego and an extension of his humour. Here, the ego was out of control. Where now he’s making music purely for the big guy in the sky, here, ‘Ye was declaring himself a deity on the urgent rush of ‘I Am A God’. Featuring the immortal lyric “I am a God/Hurry up with those damn croissants” it put Kanye’s way with comedy front and centre. Later on ‘Bound 2’, the most brilliantly unsentimental love song of all time, he constructs this zinger: “So hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas/She asked me what I wished for on the wishlist/Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?”
The album itself is a thrill ride of glitchy electronics, soul samples, filth and bombast. Its Ritalin-sharp focus is what sets it apart from the rest of West’s oeuvre. This is what he sounds like when he’s really concentrating, something that, arguably, he has never truly managed since. Follow-up ‘The Life Of Pablo’ was his great, unfinished folly and ‘Ye’ and ‘Jesus Is King’ sprawling and inconsistent. But ‘Yeezus’ remains futuristic, flawless and impeccable. This was Kanye standing on top of the world. He had the success. He had the acclaim. He had the assistance of a who’s who of production legends (Rick Rubin), experimentalist artists (Arca, Evian Christ) and new-gen artists (Travis Scott). And in Kim Kardashian, he finally had the girl of his dreams. No wonder he felt godlike. We don’t necessarily “miss the old Kanye”, but we may never see the like of him again.
In Their Own Words: “Yeezus was the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia—the ability to see sound—and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch…” (Interview Magazine, 2014)
Key track: ‘Black Skinhead’
Goosebump moment: ‘Blood On The Leaves’, for the sensitive sampling of the harrowing ‘Strange Fruit’.
Like this? Try This: ASAP Rocky, ‘Long.Live.ASAP’ DS
2Lorde, ‘Melodrama’ (REPUBLIC, 2017)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘Green Light’ 2. ‘Sober’. 3.‘Homemade Dynamite’. 4. ‘The Louvre’. 5. ‘Liability’. 6. ‘Hard Feelings / Loveless’. 7. ‘Sober II (Melodrama)’. 8. ‘Writer In The Dark’. 9. ‘Supercut’. 10. ‘Liability (Reprise) 11. ‘Perfect Places’
Highest UK chart position: 5
Original NME star rating: 5/5
Heartbreak at any age sucks, but your first experience of it is world-shaking. That doesn’t change even if you’re one of the most famous young pop stars on the planet, but at least you can pour your feelings and reflections into a decade-defining album as you work through the debris of a relationship. That’s exactly what Lorde did when she experienced her first major break-up, using it as inspiration for her second album ‘Melodrama’ and coming out with a record that serves as both a pint-of-ice-cream kind of wallow sesh and the kick up the arse you need to get out of bed and realise you’re still a whole person without your ex.
Rather than make a loosely related collection of songs, Lorde set ‘Melodrama’ out over the course of a house party. It began with ‘Green Light’ and her doing her “makeup in someone else’s car” and ended with ‘Perfect Places’, an ode to what she’s dubbed “the transcendent nature of partying”. In between, she was full of lust and ready to carve up the makeshift dancefloor, watery-eyed in quiet, painful moments, and – for a brief moment – craving revenge.
As you’d expect from someone whose debut album showcased a deep thinker and a dreamer full of wisdom and sharp observations, ‘Melodrama’ was the kind of album that dissected the end of a relationship in precise, gut-wrenching pen strokes. “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/‘Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore,” she concluded on ‘Liability’. On ‘Writer In The Dark’, her voice dipped and soared like a young Kate Bush as she pledged her everlasting love to her ex (“I’ll love you ‘til my breathing stops/I’ll love you ‘til you call the cops on me”). She took cues from the queen of sad bangers Robyn and matched the heft of her heartbreak with slamming house piano chords and contrasting slabs of euphoria.
But the album’s most affecting moments came in the little specific details, such as buying groceries with her ex on ‘Hard Feelings / Loveless’ or coming alive in a new city as she finally let go of her pain. Much like ‘Supercut’, the whole record felt like a montage of moments; a flip-book of memories crashing into each other and causing a pile-up in your heart. It was all so raw and real that it felt like it was happening to you, and almost made you long for a break-up so you could burrow down into it and come out as strong, clever, and cool as Lorde.
In their own words: “It’s about contrast: really big and grand, and really tiny and intimate. Going from the personal, emotional stuff to the headlines and the web… You’re talking about literal, out-there violence and, like, heart violence” – Lorde, NME, June 2017.
Key track: ‘Green Light’
Goosebump moment: When all of the layers strip away on ‘Hard Feelings / Loveless’, leaving only string flourishes to accompany Lorde as she recalls the little moments in a relationship.
Like this? Try this: Robyn – ‘Body Talk’ RD
1Arctic Monkeys, ‘AM’ (DOMINO, 2013)
Tracklisting: 1. ‘Do I Wanna Know?’. 2. ‘R U Mine?’. 3. ‘One for the Road’. 4. ‘Arabella’. 5. ‘I Want It All’. 6. ‘No.1 Party Anthem’. 7. ‘Mad Sounds’. 8. ‘Fireside’. 9. ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’. 10. ‘Snap Out of It’. 1. ‘Knee Socks’. 12. ‘I Wanna Be Yours’
Highest UK chart position: 1
Original NME star rating: 10/10
It all started with those drums. We don’t just mean the languid stomp of opener ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ or the showy solo at the start of ‘R U Mine?’. No – we mean the way that as soon as you heard ‘AM’ erupt out of your speakers for the first time it was clear that from now on the Arctic Monkeys were moving to a different beat.
They were magpies, of course, but they were good at it. The band cheerfully admitted to nicking a few ideas from the likes of Dr Dre, Outkast and Aaliyah, but what was really remarkable was the sheer range and scope of their rampant looting. They stole from hip hop, glam, Motown, rock’n’roll, R&B and even doo-wop with equal ease and evident delight. They picked Phil Spector’s pockets and mugged John Lennon. They lifted that “Mad sounds/In your ears” bit from a song by their early producer Alan Smyth. For the finale, they just straight-out recited a John Cooper Clarke poem. Somebody should have called the police.
This disparate collection of pilfered genres and stolen sounds came together seamlessly with Turner’s too-clever-by-half lyrics about love, lust and the grey area in-between. It’s still hard to get over the elegantly sketched scene in the car in ‘Arabella’, which ends with the phenomenal line: “The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes.” The man can chirpse. He had us at: “I’m sorry to interrupt/It’s just I’m constantly on the cusp/Of trying to kiss you.” But ‘AM’ was about so much more than just chat-up lines. What about the lovely, melancholy double meaning of: “Leave me listening to the Stones/2000 Light Years From Home”? The writing is sharply-observed, sometimes self-lacerating and often laugh-out-loud funny. There were a lot of great albums released in the 2010s but only one of them features prominent lyrical references to both Mean Streets and Thunderbirds.
What it all amounted to was as good a portrait of what it was like to be staying out too late and getting into trouble in the 2010s as anyone wrote in any medium, with the added bonus that it was also really fun to dance to. That meant it connected with people. It sold more copies than One Direction’s ‘Up All Night’. It became the soundtrack for countless nights out, hook-ups and comedowns in every town and city of this country. It was the album of the decade.
In their own words: “It sounds like a Dr Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.” Alex Turner, NME, July 2013
Key track: ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, which somehow delivers on Turner’s ludicrous hype quoted above.
Goosebump moment: If ‘AM’ is an album on which our narrator finds himself torn between the immediate pleasures of the flesh and a deeper romantic longing, then ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is the moment he chooses love.
Like this? Try this: Queens of the Stone Age – ‘…Like Clockwork’ KP