It’s safe to say that our list of the 100 Greatest Albums Of The Decade: The 2010s got you talking last week.
As we continue to review the pop culture landscape of these 10 turbulent years, we today celebrate the 10 artists who defined the 2010s, in which we reflect on the artists who pushed things forward, changed the conversation and defined the times we live in. Unlike the albums list, this one isn’t strictly ranked – they’re all winners here. Tell us what you think on the usual channels.
This week, we round off our 2010s coverage with the Songs Of The Decade, Films Of The Decade, TV Of The Decade and Games Of The Decade – so stay tuned to NME to make sure you don’t miss a beat. Merry listmas, one and all.
Dan Stubbs, Deputy Editor
1Robyn – architect of the sadbanger
You can fit a lot of loss into a decade. In the last 10 years, you’ve probably lost at least two phones, four games of FIFA and hundreds of lighters. Unfortunately, most people have probably lost a person they loved, too. And through the snotty-faced break-ups, the best mate that just stopped texting, and the shitty emotional battering ram better known as grief, there’s been one constant: Robyn.
Rewind to the beginning of her career in the 1990s and industry cogs were conniving to try and make Robyn into the ‘perfect’ pop star. She resisted. By the time the noughties rolled around she was fearlessly independent, artistically liberated and making shattering, glimmering pop music that fixated on imperfection instead. Towards the end of 2010, the Swedish artist smushed together the biggest cuts from the two mini-albums she’d released that same year: the resulting ‘Body Talk’ is her undisputed masterpiece.
From that record, ‘Dancing On My Own’ is flawless, devastating pop gold. It’s the tangled-up knot of loneliness that throbs in the pit of your stomach; the sadistic pang of flicking through hundreds of adorable photographs of yourself on a romantic holiday with the fucker who recently dumped you. Put simply, it’s standing frozen in the corner of a club with tears pouring down your face, watching your ex trade salvia with a random. “I’m right over here,” that fist-clenching chorus howls. “Why can’t you see me?” It’s impossible to name a more savage skewering of isolation and heartbreak.
And from the impossible fantasy of ‘Call Your Girlfriend’, an imagined break-up letter penned to a lover’s current partner, to the painful self-obliteration of ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’, pinpointing the most painful registers of the emotional spectrum is exactly what Robyn does best, housing aching darkness in juggernaut pop bangers.
“Pinpointing the most painful registers of the emotional spectrum is exactly what Robyn does best”
After ‘Body Talk’, Robyn poured her energy into different channels. In the space of six years, she teamed up with the likes of Metronomy, Neneh Cherry and Norwegian dance duo Röyksopp, and formed batshit electronic project La Bagatelle Magique for a series of diverse collaborations. During this time Robyn’s solo material took a back seat while she collected herself after the death of her La Bagatelle Magique bandmate Christian Falk, and her split from her long-term partner: as she put it speaking to NME last year: “It takes courage to dig deeper, and I knew I had some digging work to do.”
For her next solo record, Robyn excavated and excavated, delving deep down into the messy depths of grief. There’s a warmth to 2018’s ‘Honey’ that trickles like the titular golden nectar. Profound pain throbs at the core of moments like ‘Missing U’ and ‘Baby Forgive Me’, but these are tracks that also pull you into the strange stillness that follows emotional upheaval. A curveball for anybody who expected anything vaguely akin to ‘Body Talk’, ‘Honey’ is all soft edges and crashing waves. In terms of trajectory, it flows more like a club night than an album.
We’ve come to expect nothing less from Robyn, really. 10 years on from ‘Body Talk’ artists are continually messing with expectations around the conventional album format: we’ve seen Kanye West making edits to ‘The Life of Pablo’ long after release, Charli XCX forgoing traditional albums in favour of mixtapes and collaboration overload, and Ariana Grande adopting a rapid-fire approach to releasing music. Robyn’s experiments with convention arguably paved at least some of the way. EL HUNT
Key Track: ‘Dancing On My Own’
Key Album: ‘Body Talk’
2Kanye West, the creative genius
What do you want from your pop culture icons? For them to be likeable? For them to always be right? Or do you want them to be macro versions of what it is to be human: hubristic, compassionate, egotistical, insightful, ambitious and deeply flawed? Every single person in the world is problematic in some way, despite the contemporary appetite for pretending otherwise, and the id of Kanye West is an XXL example of all of the above.
Kanye started and ended the decade as a pariah. In 2010 he was the most hated man in music, having been called a “jackass” by Barack Obama in the wake of interrupting of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMAs. As he put it on ‘POWER’: “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/Well that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation”.
That track appeared on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, Kanye’s magnum opus, an open-hearted exploration of ego, America, love, sex and self-loathing. Arriving at the end of 2010, it marked the beginning of what would be a turbulent nine years for West.
‘…Fantasy’ was Kanye’s plea for forgiveness, a lush collaborative record that saw him pioneer his ‘rap camp’ approach to recording; countless musicians travelled to Hawaii to hang out and work with him. And it was perhaps the last time he truly invited the listener into his world. 2013’s ‘Yeezus’ was a much more claustrophobic affair, while 2016’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ was an extremely unrelatable – but no less brilliant – portrait of a man longing for purity as he gorged on the filth and the fury of 21st Century celebrity. 2018’s muddled ‘Ye’ was an austere depiction of the fall-out from his renewed pariah status and this year’s much more successful ‘Jesus Is King’ saw him implore God to shield him from the criticism.
“Kanye West defined this decade because he defined divisiveness, the single most prevalent quality of the 2010s”
Because, yes, having won people over with ‘…Fantasy’, ‘Yeezus’ and ‘…Pablo’, Kanye managed to alienate himself once again when, last year, he told TMZ that 400 years of slavery sounded “like a choice”. He later tearfully apologised on local radio in his hometown of Chicago, blaming his mental health and alleging that his management should not have allowed him to speak to journalists at that time, given his state of mind. Having been spurned by Obama all those years ago, he also aligned himself with Donald Trump, in a move that dismayed many fans.
Kanye West defined this decade, for better or worse, because he defined divisiveness, the single most prevalent quality of the 2010s. He headlined Glastonbury and they signed petitions against him. He called himself a genius and for every person who agreed, there was another who sided with Obama. He outraged rap purists when he appeared on his wife’s reality TV show. He picked a political side and dared us to abandon him, like a family member you love but can’t see eye-to-eye with.
Part of this is built into Kanye – as he said on the ‘Yeezus’ track ‘On Sight’, “As soon as they like you/Make ‘em unlike you” – and part of it is iconoclasm: unwittingly soaking up the times you live in and refracting them back to the world. He got it very right and he got it very wrong. He was compassionate and he was careless. That was Kanye West. It was the 2010s, and it was you and me. JORDAN BASSETT
Key track: ‘Famous’
Key album: ‘Yeezus’
3David Bowie – a long shadow over a tough decade
You might think it strange that artist who first achieved fame in the 1960s, and who died precisely halfway through this decade, on January 10, 2016, has earned a spot on our list. But David Bowie’s death was a watershed moment of the 2010s, one that has changed how we view artists’ lives and careers forever.
Bowie’s comeback began three years before his death in that same, gloaming week in the bleak days after New Year’s when the decorations have gone but the cold and the darkness remains and all is tax returns and diet plans and regret. On Bowie’s 66th birthday, January 8, 2013, his first solo single since 2004 appeared like a mirage, opening a new chapter in the narrative of an artist who seemed to have gone on permanent hiatus.
And where previously Bowie’s reinventions had been in the guise of a man who apparently had the font of eternal youth in his backyard, ‘Where Are We Now’ was different. Bowie was old and fragile and nostalgic, looking back on his time in Berlin during his celebrated creative purple patch in the late 1970s.
The track was released with no fanfare into that January morning – Bowie embracing the incoming trend for dropping new material with little warning – and the accompanying album ‘The Next Day’, released in March, quickly became one of the most talked-about records of the year. Where Bowie had spent much of the previous 20 years releasing new music to disinterest, or even ridicule, ‘The Next Day’ found a warmth from the public that had long eluded him. The campaign was one of quality control – no interviews, few pictures, just a series of talking-point music videos and the album itself to pick over.
A year later, more new music arrived in the form of the experimental jazz track ‘’Tis A Pity She’s A Whore’ and ‘Sue’, quickly followed by news of another new album, ‘Blackstar’, released on January 8, 2016 – two days before Bowie’s death.
Bowie’s passing so soon after the release of new material made it all the more incomprehensible. We’d heard rumours – but nothing concrete – of ill health for some years, which fans had begun to assume must have been of no substance given his creative flurry. But as we processed the shocking news, it became clear that ‘Blackstar’ itself was full of clues we’d all missed, not least in the single ‘Lazarus’, named for the Biblical saint brought back to life by Jesus. “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/Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose,” went its lyrics. A man who’d made art of his life had done the same with his death.
“In his ever-shifting career, Bowie had, it seems, been everything to everybody”
Meanwhile, the world was reeling. Not in this NME writer’s lifetime has the death of a recording artist seen such a profound and widespread outpouring of grief and celebration. In his ever-shifting career, Bowie had, it seems, been everything to everybody. Quickly – and shockingly – followed by the death of Prince, another ethereal icon whose eternal presence had seemed a given, Bowie’s death coloured the narrative of 2016, a year which got off to a bad start and continued on that course, delivering body blows to a public wounded by the loss of one of Britain’s most beloved sons.
There has, since, been a reappraisal not just of Bowie’s life and work, but of the way we see icons, an appreciation that we’re lucky to live in a time when we can watch Dylan and the Stones and Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and Fleetwood Mac, a renewed understanding that even untouchable, alien icons are mortal underneath the hubris.
‘My Death’, a Jacques Brel track covered by a young Bowie many times, contained the lyric, “My death waits like a witch at night/As surely as our love is bright/Let’s not think about the passing time”.
In reality, Bowie’s death made us all think about it, sending not just a nation but a global fanclub of individuals, none of who knew quite how numerous a tribe they were part of, into a grieving process soundtracked by new music from the man himself. DAN STUBBS
Key track: ‘Lazarus’
Key album: ‘Blackstar’
4Christine & The Queens – the pop icon redefining gender
Everyone loves a pop fairytale, and when it comes to this decade’s most fantastical fable, the crown surely goes to Christine and the Queens. After being expelled from a theatre program in 2010 for staging her own play without permission – remarkably, women were not allowed to direct at her school – Hélöise Letissier locked herself in her flat and spewed out barbed scripts articulating her fury. Her protagonist was named Christine: representing a bolder, braver, and more transgressive version of her creator.
Shortly after being expelled, Letissier was also unceremoniously dumped – as years go, it’s safe to say this one was a bit of a shitter. And so she headed for the hazy neon lights of London’s Soho to escape. There, with the encouragement of drag queens at the now closed Madame JoJo’s, Christine was born as a fully fledged artist, as her plays steadily morphed into music. Four years after everything fell apart, Christine and The Queens released her debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’ in French, and became a superstar in her home country. A couple of years later, the rest of the world caught on.
It’s easy to understand why word about Christine spread like wildfire. Touring the European festival circuit the year after her debut’s initial release, you could sense the fizzing excitement of each crowd growing, show-on-show. Her theatrics-heavy staging, crammed with leaping choreography and slowly rotating neon, was refreshing. As a queer artist infiltrating the mainstream – and predominantly heteronormative – pop world, Christine and The Queens felt vital: her songs harnessing the pain of growing up feeling like a misfit, and turning that loneliness into something joyful and warm.
“Christine and The Queens felt vital: her songs harnessing the pain of growing up feeling like a misfit, and turning that loneliness into something joyful and warm”
The soft edges of ‘Chaleur Humaine’ later grew gleaming fangs: second album ‘Chris’ is lustful, filthy and dripping with desire as well as a half Tippex-ed out name. It’s a playful kind of sexuality, too: gravelly voices husk Chris’ name on the swaggering ‘Girlfriend’, and campy hip-hop samples punch from a vintage E-MU Mo’ Phatt synthesiser at every swerve. “When you play me loud me, baby,” Chris grins on ‘Comme Si’ “we are making love”.
Chris’ meteoric rise shows no sign of slowing, but she won’t play the game in order to bag chart successes. She also refuses to allow her queerness to be packaged up into a palatable selling point. Over the last few years, she’s spoken astutely about pop’s habit for co-opting select aspects of LGBTQ culture, and interrogated the way she’s been hailed as a fashion icon for cropping her hair short or wearing sharp suits. Christine and the Queens herself is far more interested in uncertainty and evading definition. In other words, she’s exactly the pop star the world needs. EL HUNT
Key track: ‘Girlfriend’
Key album: ‘Chaleur Humaine’
5Billie Eilish – the voice of the next generation
The phrase “the kids are alright” might have been hanging around since The Who said it in the 1960s, but never was it more true than in the latter half of the 2010s. Faced with the colossal mess adults had made of the world, Gen Z-ers stepped up to give their fellow kids – and a fair few older folk too – some hope.
Greta Thunberg was adopted as a figurehead for change, attempting to halt the climate crisis when she should have been worrying about exams. Emma Gonzalez and her classmates caused a seismic wave in the conversation around gun control after surviving a shooting at their Florida school. And kids found another teenager to get behind in Billie Eilish.
The 17-year-old LA musician has proved herself to be one of her generation’s most outspoken, smartest, and inspiring stars. She’s an advocate for the youth, telling NME earlier this year that young people “know everything” and shouldn’t be ignored. She’s refused to let people ogle or body-shame her, dressing in a uniform of oversized and baggy clothes that both hide her form and look ridiculously cool. She’s stood up to the sexist double standards of the music industry and the world at large with eloquence and a “fuck you” attitude that makes it clear that she won’t settle for the shit the rest of the world accepts as the norm.
“Eilish represents a generation that refuses to be moulded by its elders”
Eilish also represents a generation that refuses to be moulded by its elders, summed up in the way that she swerves the typical steps to pop stardom. Her critically acclaimed debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ is pleasingly feature-free – a rarity on pop records in this age – and she’s only worked with Khalid (a friend) and Justin Bieber (a hero) on her other tracks so far. She’s trusted her own voice and work and, along with brother and constant collaborator Finneas, refused to let outside voices disrupt her vision.
And why would she? Since she was 13 years old, she’s marked herself out as one of the most interesting and creative names in pop. ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ Is full of the weird and the strange. There are songs that shapeshift in seconds under distortion or odd effects, gigantic bangers that work both despite and because of their unusual structures and sounds. ‘Bad Guy’, in particular, has dominated the world since its release with its throbbing bass, looping, eerie melody, and a skittering breakdown full of dramatic huffs and glitchy beats that throw you completely off track.
Eilish’s whole time in the spotlight has been one that is intrinsically tied to the internet. She first came to the wider world’s attention when ‘Ocean Eyes’ went viral in 2016, made a connection with a staggering amount of fans on social media (her Instagram follower count alone is at 43.1m at the time of writing), and then used her platform to bring light to issues that concerned her and her peers, like politics and climate change. Offline, her presence was just as powerful – go to any of her shows and you’d be met by a room of young people as bold, fierce, and smart as the young woman on stage, all screaming along to her songs louder than the PA itself. In those moments, Eilish and her generation made it all clear – the kids are more than alright, and they’re ready to change the world. RHIAN DALY
Key track: ‘Bad Guy’
Key album: ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’
6Beyonce – the survivor
It’s hard to know where to start with Beyonce, not least because the word icon doesn’t seem to quite do her justice. A powerful example of just how great America can be, it’s worth looking back to the very beginning of the towering Texan’s storied career when considering how much of an impact she’s had on this decade.
Breaking out in the late 1990s as the most engaging member of Destiny’s Child, it was always obvious that Beyonce was the one who’d thrive solo. But when it came to going places, it’s incredible to see how far Beyonce Knowles has actually gone. So much more than a popstar, Beyonce has become an outspoken advocate for civil rights, feminism and self-expression, proving that it’s possible to be politically engaged and still hold down an extremely successful career in mainstream entertainment.
Over the past few years she’s also lived out personal trauma in public, turning pain into art by flinging back husband Jay-Z’s infidelity in his face by way of one of her most powerful albums, 2016’s multi-layered revenge record, ‘Lemonade’. It was this album, her sixth, that saw Beyonce at the peak of her creative powers and also at her most collaborative. Here she blended old blues and Isaac Hayes samples, worked with men whose talent just about matched hers; namely Jack White, James Blake, The Weeknd, Father John Misty and Kendrick Lamar, and in ‘Freedom’ sampled a speech made by Jay-Z’s grandmother at her 90th birthday, her words closing out the song as if they were a time-travelling mirror to Beyonce’s own lived experience and giving the album its title in the process. “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up,” says Hattie White. “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
“Beyonce has lived out personal trauma in public, turning pain into art”
Nothing was more illuminating that Beyonce’s own brand of lemonade. She performed the album’s first single ‘Formation’ at the Super Bowl halftime show with backing dancers dressed in Black Panther inspired costumes and tapped 20-something British-Kenyan poet Warsan Shire for the accompanying ‘Lemonade’ film, which featured the mothers of murdered black American citizens Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. No longer was she just a pop star; she was a phenomenon using her platform to bring the stories of others into the light. Nothing was without purpose. There were deeply personal meanings to the songs, but with the surrounding creative, they were deftly placed into a wider political context. Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ it was most certainly not.
Looking back to her first album of the decade, 2011’s ‘4’, you can see how Beyonce was planting the seeds for this kind of commanding statement. Its first single ‘Run The World (Girls)’ was hen-party feminism that would later be weaponised.
It’s true that 10 years ago Beyonce was already a force to reckon with. In 2010 she won six Grammys and in 2011 slayed Glastonbury with a performance that’s had fans begging her to return ever since. But it’s a post-’Lemonade’ Beyonce that we end the decade with; a woman with the kind of work ethic that would make HR insist that she has to use all her holiday days; a woman who truly gives a shit about people and a woman who still can’t fail to get you on the dancefloor. LEONIE COOPER
Key track: ‘Formation’
Key album: ‘Lemonade’
7Ariana Grande – the relatable superstar
At the beginning of the decade, Ariana Grande was best known for appearing in a couple of Nickelodeon TV shows. Ten years on, she exits the 2010s one of the most successful, impressive and resilient musicians on the planet. She’s overcome huge tragedy with remarkable strength, released some of the decade’s biggest hits and, despite being one of the most mega-sized popstars around, she’s managed to do everything on her own terms.
It goes without saying that Grande has an extraordinary, distinctive voice, and that she’s released a gamut of smash hit singles. In 2013 Grande dropped her debut ‘Yours Truly’, but it was next year’s follow-up ‘My Everything’ that catapulted her onto radio playlists, up the charts and into the Grammy nominations list. The hulking EDM-pop of ‘Break Free’ and ‘One Last Time’, and the R&B-tinged, sextuple platinum certified ‘Problem’ established Grande as a hit machine, something that has remained a constant since. She followed it up with her third record ‘Dangerous Woman’, which featured guest appearances from Lil Wayne and her mate Nicki Minaj, and fused trap, disco and house with her trademark sparkling pop.
While touring the album in arenas around the world in 2017, the unthinkable happened. On May 22, 2017, at Grande’s Manchester Arena show, 22 people were killed by a homemade bomb in a terror attack. The atrocity rocked the nation, and while nobody would have blamed Grande for cancelling the entire tour and taking some time off, she did the opposite.
“The only thing we can do now is choose how we let this affect us and how we live our lives from here on out,” she wrote in a letter to her fans a few days after the attack. “Our response to this violence must be to come closer together, to help each other, to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before.”
The musician lived by those words, acting with grace and compassion. She met with the victims’ families and returned to Manchester a few weeks after the attack for One Love Manchester, a benefit concert she helped organise. It was a massively uplifting event, filled with joy and a refusal to let hate win, and with it, Grande united a city. She was (and remains) a beacon of strength after the horrific tragedy.
“Grande united a city. She remains a beacon of strength after an horrific tragedy”
In April 2018 Ariana released ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, her first piece of new music since the attack. The shimmering tune saw her tackle devastation with positivity and disco-ready beats, addressing the horrors she’d been through and urging fans to continue having hope despite the disaster. A few months later came her Grammy winning album ‘Sweetener’. The impressive collection of left-field tunes was bold and self-assured, with Grande’s own brand of pop shimmer accompanied by brutally honest lyrics (on anxiety anthem ‘Breathin’ she sings “Time goes by and I can’t control my mind“) and exciting genre experimentation.
It was also the first step in Grande’s mission to tear up the album release rule book. Tired of waiting around to drop records using “traditional” release schedules, Grande decided she wanted to get her music out there as soon as it was finished. So six months after ‘Sweetener’ came its glittering follow-up album, ‘Thank U, Next’.
‘Thank U, Next’ also saw Grande honestly address more personal tragedy – including the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and break-up with fiancé Pete Davidson. She did all of this with infinite kindness, best demonstrated by the lyric: “Even almost got married/And for Pete, I’m so thankful/Wish I could say, ‘Thank you’ to Malcolm/’Cause he was an angel.”
Ariana Grande has defined the decade with her empathy and compassion. She’s united cities and been a symbol of hope, despite having to deal with a huge amount of tragedy herself. There have, of course, been more hit singles than you can shake a stick at; but it’s her strength in the face of adversity that has made Grande an icon. HANNAH MYLREA
Key track: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’
Key album: ‘Thank U, Next’
8Skepta – the saviour of grime
The king of carving out a career on his own terms, Skepta did the 2010s right. The Tottenham MC might have started the decade with the taste of a dodgy novelty single still fresh in his mouth (never forget 2008 electro-skank ‘Rolex Sweep’, which came complete with its own dance move) and the controversial decision to swap your more traditional music video with hardcore porn (search for 2011’s ‘All Over The House, if you dare and then immediately wipe your browsing history) but he closed it out triumphant. On the cusp of 2020 Joseph Junior Adenuga Jr. can take a bow as the man who took grime to the rest of the globe and became the figurehead of the UK’s most groundbreaking new sound since Britpop. We are not worthy.
His somewhat questionable promo moves included, Skepta has always done things his way. Take the video for 2014’s ‘That’s Not Me’, which won him a MOBO – it cost a bargain £80. The track itself only just missed out on the UK Top 20, but by then the wheels were already set in motion for impending superstardom. Skepta might have spent much of the 2000s in the underground, joining forces with Wiley’s Roll Deep crew before founding Boy Better Know in 2006, but finally he was becoming kind of a big deal.
It’s hard to remember the last time that a British movement connected so well with an international audience, but when the likes of Drake, A$AP Rocky and Kanye West started to fall at the feet of grime there was one man they needed to link up with first. At Ye’s 2015 Brit Awards performance, Skepta was there, shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Novelist and Stormzy, but by dint of already being in his 30s and something of an elder statesman of the scene, North Amerian rap stars were tripping over themselves to be his mate. Artists from across the pond found themselves imbued with a whole new kind of cool thanks to hanging out with Skepta. This new interest from America made the youth of the UK even prouder to fall in love with a homegrown sound that spoke to them and their lives.
“when the likes of Drake, A$AP Rocky and Kanye West started to fall at the feet of grime, there was one man they needed to link up with first – Skepta”
In 2016 Skepta released his fourth album, ‘Konnichiwa’. Barrelling straight into the Number Two slot, it was at the time grime’s highest charting album – until Stormzy bested him with a Number One the following year. Skepta was hot property and though he was denied a visa to tour the US, that didn’t stop him from doing a fair bit of travelling. He soon became a fashion show front row mainstay, constantly adding his own twists to his unique personal style, making him grime’s most chic as well as most successful. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned his dalliance with the iconic Naomi Campbell. Then, when he casually rocked up to the Ivor Novello Awards in a women’s blouse, his status as the best kind of rule-breaker was settled.
That Skepta ends this decade whilst finishing up his first ever arena tour as well as with a spot on Debrett’s list of the UK’s most influential people is perfect poetry. LEONIE COOPER
Key track: ‘Shutdown’
Key album: ‘Konnichiwa’
9Matty Healy – rock frontperson 2.0
The 2010s were the decade in which the millennial came of age, not just as a generation, amorphous and difficult-to-define as they are, but as a set of values, too: compassion, inclusivity, driving for change, and not defined by the boundaries of their predecessors. That ethos extends beyond the identity politics of nationhood (witness the outpouring of millennial grief when the rest of the family voted to strip them of their European citizenship) but to artistic boundaries too. Musically, we’ve witnessed the widespread casting aside of subcultural identity and genre loyalty.
There is, perhaps, nobody who embodies that shift more than Matty Healy, frontman of The 1975, the band who released their debut album in 2013, and over the course of three albums have proven themselves masters of genre-bending pop. Few would have anticipated the artistic gulf between the group’s self-titled debut, essentially a teen movie in musical form, and last year’s ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’, but you suspect that Healy, with his unflinching belief in the creative core of his band, probably did.
On stage, The 1975 have thrived in a decade that has, on the whole, given guitar bands a rough ride. Their live shows draw from the zeitgeist, reflecting trends in social media, and maximising the minimal. Their last tour, essentially, saw them perform within nothing but screens, surrounded by colour and #content.
We all became political this decade, whether we wanted to or not, and The 1975 reflected that shift as quickly and cleverly as anyone out there, delivering, in ‘Love It If We Made It’ and ‘I Like America And America Likes Me’, political screeds that reflect the madness, frustration and desperation of the times we live in. The first track released from their next album, the as-yet-unreleased ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, was a platform for a brand new speech from Greta Thunberg, and came with a stack of commitments to the climate plus a concession that nobody is perfect.
“‘Love It If We Made It’ and ‘I Like America And America Likes Me’ reflect the madness, frustration and desperation of the times we live in”
Outside of the band, Healy has made the band’s Dirty Hit label into a cottage industry-cum-powerhouse, home to a raft of like-minded contemporaries (Wolf Alice) and proteges (Beabadoobee, No Rome), fostering the next generation of talent.
And beyond all this, Healy has given us the defining frontperson of a generation, rewriting the rules of what it is to peacock on stage, replacing macho posturing with self-deprecating humour, daft dancing, mugging for the cameras, or breaking down in puddles of emotion. He’s used his platform to speak out for marginalised groups, and even kissed a male fan on stage in Dubai to prove a point. He is, he told NME this year, prepared to die for what he believes in. Long may he live. DAN STUBBS
Key track: ‘Love Me’
Key album: ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’
10Kendrick Lamar – hip hop’s boundary-pusher
It’s hard to believe that at the start of this decade, the majority of us lived in a K-Dot-less world. His contributions to the rap canon, hip hop culture more generally and even wider conversations around the boundaries of art and music, over the length of his career, have been so incredibly tangible and incendiary.
Over the course of the 2010s, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth of Compton, California, has represented, pushed and questioned the state of affairs at every hurdle, providing his own theories of existence as his audience grew rapidly both in size and enthusiasm. And with each project, from first mixtape ‘Overly Dedicated’ in 2010 to Grammy and Pulitzer-awarded ‘DAMN.’ in 2017, the now 32-year-old rapper, songwriter and producer has evaded categorisation and defied expectation both implicitly in his music and explicitly through his lyrics to become one of the most influential people of our generation.
After being featured in XXL’s Freshman Class of 2011, Lamar’s first independent album ‘Section.80’ released with the weight of Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre co-signs behind it, and served as an ambitious and unforgiving statement of intent for his career to come, which of course lived true.
In fact, over the hurried jazz instrumentation of soul-seeking ‘Ab-Souls Outro’, Kendrick likens his relation to the world to a newborn baby killing a grown man before pre-empting the clickbait taglines of his career and clarifying: “I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially-aware rapper, I’m a human motherfucking being over dope-ass instrumentation, Kendrick Lamar!”
And that ardent simplicity, of Kendrick Lamar as just an idiosyncratic individual who talks about “money, hoes, clothes, God and history” in the same sentence, is the basis for his creative freedom to mutate and transform constantly and fully realise his art beyond the bounds of genres and trends.
“The ardent simplicity of Kendrick Lamar as an idiosyncratic individual who talks about “money, hoes, clothes, God and history” in the same sentence is the basis for his creative freedom”
Following on from ‘Section.80’, a record that held a mirror up to his community as it drew upon anecdotes to illustrate the lives of those close to him, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ landed in 2012 as a true elevation of that wildly compelling storytelling narrative into a cinematic coming-of-age tale with Lamar at the centre. Where ‘Section.80’ wore different masks in the form of Keisha, Tammy and more, ‘good kid…’ had you in the driver’s seat, sometimes literally for example on ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’.
Receiving immense critical acclaim for managing to fuse the fearless grit of tracks like ‘Backseat Freestyle’ with the infectious immediacy of songs like ‘Swimming Pools’ and ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’, it was hard to imagine where Lamar would venture next. Heralded with awards and titles, as well as the infamous Grammy snub, it was clear to everyone (except maybe the Grammy Academy) that he was at the top of his game.
The last three projects had been such an exciting yet natural progression for Kendrick, that his 2015 return was met with unprecedented anticipation. And ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ as a response to – or more likely in spite of – this, was the album that no-one could have predicted.
Carrying through previous themes of struggle and pain amid joy and beauty but, this time, on a significantly larger scale, Kendrick transcended the boundaries of success in a West Coast rap space altogether.
The villain of the tale that was previously Compton-specific instead became an exploitative nation, racist systems and the literal Devil a.k.a ‘Luci’. And with this newfound scope came a whole host of new sonics too: dystopic and doomful jazz piano and sax improvisations, funk riffs, exalting choirs and nostalgic vignettes weaving throughout the record to punctuate the theatrics. Even Kendrick himself stretched his vocals to new levels on songs like ‘i’ and ‘u’. T.P.A.B was an album that pushed its audience to reflect on African-American history, interrogate society for all its injustices, empty patriotism and needless structures before eventually emerging triumphant and loving oneself against all odds: one of critical tension and liberation.
“Kendrick is fearless in the search for answers and candour in chronicling the human experience”
Once again, producing something impossible to outdo, Kendrick did what he does so well and shifted the goalpost entirely. On fourth studio album ‘DAMN.’, Lamar honed in one man – himself. Instead of tackling matters of history, he employed his well-exercised philosophical muscles and unparalleled lyrical ability to explore themes within himself and humanity more broadly, unobscured by proverbs and twisting narratives, the record is more of an internal dialogue about human nature. Aware of his own critics and amalgamating all the themes of his previous works into something still challenging and packed with gems, but more immediately accessible and universal than ever before.
To attempt to define Kendrick Lamar would be to dismiss the complexities and nuances of what he is and does or has been and has done over the years, and such is the beauty of him. But what is clear is that his fearlessness in the search for answers and candour in chronicling the human experience in any shape or form, is both essential and highly original. For the last 10 years, he has showcased his ability to recast his focus from Compton, to hoods, to blackness in and out of America, to humanity – all through the innovative lens of Kung Fu Kenny. Leaving only the unanswered question of where his unique gaze will take him next. NATTY KASAMBALA
Key track: ‘King Kunta’
Key album: ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’