As you’ll shortly see, I did feel that 2014 was a good year for albums, but maybe not as strong as the other four years so far (there are only two 2014 releases here, and one was released after my end of year list last year and wasn’t even featured on it). I think you’ll find some gems within each respective year unquestionably, regardless of how much stronger a year may have been compared to another. This is precisely why I find my best of the decade (so far) list so exciting, and I hope you do as well. Some of these albums have made such an impact on my music taste that I forget that they are even this recent. What is also worth noting is who will be featured here: Many names are those who stuck within the music game for many years or have only just started making music again after hiatuses. The newer musicians featured here tend to average between their late 20’s and early 30’s in age (even when their albums were released), so they have had a bit of an observation of how music works, too. These past five years have been dominated by those who know where to take music, and we’ve been blessed with some truly remarkable releases, as well as many noteworthy albums otherwise (an album that was in my top ten initially didn’t even end up making the final list once I was finished). I hope you’re as thrilled as I am to see what incredible albums we’ve had this era, and for now here are the top 25 albums of the decade so far.
25. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (2011)
Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye, known better as The Weeknd, may need to do some searching for what made his original trilogy of mixtapes so successful. Kiss Land missed the mark, and it’s unfortunate, because The Weeknd was someone who somehow made sense of all the trivialities of popular music. House of Balloons contains as much sex, alcohol and sensationalism as your average radio artist would have within their own music, but The Weeknd’s observation of this trashy culture put a new spin on it all. The passively drifting music made you a part of the pre drinking, the actual party, and the hangover the day after. The title track is part fun and part serious, like the very moment your high is interrupted and you have to think straight. The Party & the After Party perfectly depicts the moment the sun starts to rise, everything is still dark and murky, and you have realized that you may have stayed up way too late. Then there’s The Morning, where you can’t even place where you are. House of Balloons truly understood this era’s fads and immersed itself fully. It reeks of beer, has been distorted by E and is caked in sweat, but The Weeknd’s House of Balloons is his finest effort yet because it’s just so real.
24. Sufjan Stevens – The Age Of Adz (2010)
So much for the Fifty States project. We all knew it was a joke, but could Sufjan Stevens have tried to stay on path any less? The Age of Adz is so far removed from anything he’s done. The piles of orchestration are replaced by digital fuzz, and his salutes to famous figures are now soul searches within himself. Basically, Sufjan Stevens took a step back? Wrong. This album may end up being his most ambitious. He had landmarks and stories to tell before, but with The Age of Adz, he’s completely vulnerable and without safety blankets. He discusses life and the possibility that it can all end (even at his own hand). He sings about emotions, and how he floats between rather feeling hurt or not feeling at all. It’s quite a dark album, and the electronic aspects only add to this. Everything feels dismal, and it’s Stevens’ knack for harmonies that helps make The Age of Adz an album that loves and feels instead of a pity party. He isn’t mentally in one place ever, and the song I Want To Be Well plays off on this perfectly with just one line alone (how the title of the song can be as is or also be heard as a response: “Well, I want to be”). By the time you finish the 25 minute digital trek Impossible Soul, The Age of Adz is Stevens’ way of opening up in a technological and schizophrenic era, and it’s his most daring observation of America yet.
23. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) (2010)
Erykah Badu never really went anywhere (sans a hiatus for a few years), as her music has always had staying power. She has had albums that are stronger than others, sure. The best way she could have reminded the world just how essential she is was with a two part album that focused on two types of passions. Mission accomplished: 2008 saw the very politically powerful Part One of New Amerykah called 4th World War. 2010, however, got a soul searching for what love means in Return of the Ankh. She isn’t the only R&B songstress to examine android amour: Janelle Monáe has done the same a number of times. What makes Return of the Ankh special, though, is how much of the album is focused on her own self: What is real if love, apparently, isn’t? She worked with some massive names here, ranging from Questlove, Madlib, Kristen Agnesta, and even the late J Dilla (amongst many others). She picked those who knew what made soul, funk and R&B work when all of these genres first started out (as well as those who could just help push these styles outside of their comfort zones), and thus New Amerykah Part Two is a bold statement: We can change, but what we feel the most will always stay with us.
22. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact (2011)
“I can hear everything. It’s everything time”. That’s how Eye Contact starts. This album is one long string of sounds that sounds like a live concert without the applause. There is never silence in between songs, but soundscapes instead. Even the opener Glass Jar takes a while to start up, as if you are standing and anticipating the band to arrive on stage. Once they do, you will, indeed, hear everything here, as Gang Gang Dance love to see how many cultures they can shove into a song at once. The beauty here is that it always works, and you don’t feel overrun by sounds. Gang Gang Dance cleverly use styles of music that have already crossed countries to link each genre together (for instance, the funky bass that appears in every song was foreign to us way back when but is a staple of Western music at this point). You’ll be aware of where you stand the entire time. The middle tracks sound like they belong there, and the ending (the charged outro Thru and Thru) will hit you with a ton of bricks to remind you that it’s almost over. It isn’t common to find a studio album carry the energy of a live setting without trying to pretend that it is one, and Eye Contact will feel like a private gem of yours (especially the first go around). The final line is the creepily uttered sentence “Live forever”. Music shall, and Gang Gang Dance do a superb job here trying to see why.
21. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Chords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
We haven’t seen this lady in a while, and it was worrisome. Fiona Apple has nothing to be ashamed of, as se has made dominating album after dominating album. The first time she released an album with a lengthy name (1999’s When the Pawn…), times were different. The album name alone received a lot of attention. In 2012, The Idler Wheel…’s name didn’t receive nearly as much notice, even though that, too, came from a poem Apple wrote. Shock doesn’t work anymore, as we’ve seen it all with the internet (not that Apple wanted to shock us in the first place). We need connectivity now, in an age where we’ve lost all senses of touch. The Idler Wheel… is possibly Apple’s most open and self referential album yet, and that’s why it is so relevant now. It talks over itself (the layered vocals in Hot Knife), cannot keep a straight face (the explosion of mercy in the middle of Left Alone) and even declares its own scary thoughts (all of the admissions in Werewolf of what Apple is really thinking). Apple’s back in our lives, and we feel like we know more about her than we ever have with this unstable art-jazz-pop exploration of her mind.
20. Death Grips – The Money Store (2012)
Who knows anything about this lot anymore. They don’t show up to shows. They leak their own albums with no warning. They’ve also apparently broken up (yet they just released Fashion Week a few days ago). Seriously, guys? The only thing for certain about this trio of artistic deceivers is their best album (possibly to date because who knows if they truly are over or not) The Money Store. It’s their most cohesive release, and it’s easily the album that put them on the map. It’s their punkiest sounding, and possibly their angriest. They’ve taken a few steps outside of their square since to see what Death Grips can also sound like, but their main essence thus far is this album. Its sense of directness is why it is so raw. Your speakers will explode, your brain will melt and your confidence will be shot. This is truly a barbaric release. The most shocking part of it all is how much staying power it has. It’s still a catchy and empowering record even now. It’s a bit scary to think that there may not have been a gimmick here if it hasn’t worn off yet. “Gaga can’t handle this shit” is a line in the final song Hacker. Not many of us can, but those of us who have are all still in the same shady hide out banging this album amongst the rest of us villainous folk.
19. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (2010)
Jazz allows us to look at the world around is in a new way. Jazz descendent Flying Lotus has been trying to open our eyes to many new opportunities while constantly reminding us that most of these ideas are coming from, as per usual jazz tradition, one person with a vision and a palette. We’ve explored who he is with his first two albums, our dreams (Until the Quiet Comes) and even the after life (You’re Dead!). With his best album to date, which is an accomplishment in itself (considering how with it Flying Lotus is), Cosmogramma extends its hands to the stars above and begs to know what’s out there. It channels the universe around us from many time periods. It will have a retro perspective of space with its static, jarring sample cuts and radio connections. It will move into modern territory with the rounded bass and the progressive melodies. The worlds created by this album are so difficult to describe, because they are ones we may not have even come up with ourselves if we weren’t helped out. Flying Lotus combines jazz complexities with electronic capabilities to truly question how war our limits go, and Cosmogramma is his hypothesis. The conclusion? We can go all the way. Why not? The future has never sounded sexier and sleeker.
18. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (2014)
This is the dawning of the age of Soulquarians! Well, the second coming, anyways. Erykah Badu was featured earlier in this list, and she’s not the only member of this soul 2.0 group to have found a second wind of success. D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah wasn’t featured on my best of 2014 list simply because it came way too long after my list was finished (and without warning; who had any idea this thing even existed apart from those who helped make it happen?). Had it come even slightly earlier, Black Messiah would have been featured very high on my list, as it is yet another testament that this era has had some damn good comeback albums. D’Angelo hid after the world became too fond of his image and his antics, and he came back just in time to make a statement on the world’s current political and social issues. D’Angelo’s talent hasn’t diminished at all; In fact, Black Messiah is the absolute perfect return for him. It’s his angriest album to date (with his charm, however, he talks softly often and harshly when needed to). We haven’t had an album this legitimately funky in a countless amount of years. D’Angelo always knew how the world worked and what it revolved around, and luckily he didn’t sacrifice himself this time to find out if he was right. Welcome back, D’Angelo: the prince of neo soul.
17. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
At this point, saying any album of Arcade Fire’s your favorite is not only never wrong, but worthy of large, cheerful discussion. For me, it’s Funeral. It wasn’t that exploration of life that won them many year-end accolades (the Grammy and the Juno for Album of the Year, the Polaris Prize, and more), though, nor was it 2007’s technological question Neon Bible or 2013’s disco-tragedy Reflektor. It was their most simple album thematically: 2010’s The Suburbs. The band questioned their upbringing and what it meant for them. They never really slam their places of origin or declare their immense love for them, either. They just look back and see how it all felt. The music is grande, but only because of the band members’ complex memories of their pasts. We can understand how they feel with our own childhoods and upbringings simply by the triumphant music alone. Maybe that’s why The Suburbs was their most decorated album. They’ve tried to explore the ways of the world in much more complicated ways, but The Suburbs projected a simple reflection in many specific ways. Sometimes, even the most basic things in life have far much more to them than we can ever know. Again, no answer is wrong when you’re asked what the greatest Arcade Fire album is. If you’re one of the many united by the homely epic The Suburbs, you have every reason to be.
16. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)
Annie Clark is a superstar. She always was one, but she has become the idol she has always aspired to be. She breaks apart like an old android on stage and she looks like the kind of replicant Rick Deckard would be after. Let’s rewind a little bit, where Clark, known to us all as St. Vincent, was still a wandering eye with a bit of an idea as to what she can be in this world. After Marry Me and after Actor, there was a point where St. Vincent was finally discovering her potential before fully transforming. Strange Mercy is that awkward period where St. Vincent knows who she is and what she loves, yet she isn’t sure why. The atmosphere feels very early 90’s and soothing, but her guitar playing is fairly punctuated. Her voice is both pleasant and unnerving at the same time, and it could be because of her deceptive lyricism. Is Annie Clark a blissful sweetheart or a bit of a sadist? That’s life, where not everything is set in stone and easy to read. She has captured that uncertainty of any situation with an album that is all sorts of ideas crammed into a spin. Before she took over the indie scene, Annie Clark was the person who wanted to hide from the world underneath a blanket with you. She’s showing you that you shouldn’t be afraid anymore. Yet, it’s still sometimes truly magical when you rehear Strange Mercy: That very moment where she knew she could burst to the other side and into the shadow-filled darkness of the night.
15. Deathspell Omega – Paracletus (2010)
No one knows fully who Deathspell Omega are. They’ve hidden themselves from the world as much as they can. It’s a shame because they’re one of the most technically proficient and creative metal bands in recent years. They completed their philosophically-damned trilogy with 2010’s Paracletus, and it’s pieced together to sound like one continuous song. This is a drifting mind that is bombarded with angst, fear, panic and immediate resilience. While they explored religion, existentialism and metaphysics many times before, Paracletus is their most emotionally responsive album because it feels the most driven. It doesn’t ask or research as much as it just concludes. There isn’t much control of the wheel here, and you may as well see where the album goes, as it’s well worth it. You won’t know where you stand with the time signature changes. You’ll fall behind of the machine gun drumming. You will be scowled at and scolded again and again. When the album finds clarity (usually with a reoccurring peaceful guitar melody that is plotted a few times within the album), you’ll realize that Paracletus isn’t about damaging you as much as it is about expelling itself. It’s as therapeutic of an experience for you as it is for the band and album, too.
14. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Vampire Weekend’s first two albums play with the western rendition of world music. This has been done before (Paul Simon and Talking Heads, for instance), but it doesn’t mean that Vampire Weekend didn’t do this well. With Contra’s slow descent into the deep end of the pool, the band have realized what else they are good at: Studio experimentation and pure songwriting. They dove into the deepest part and treaded water with Modern Vampires of the City; An appropriate album name considering they’re the most recent they’ve ever sounded and they’ve relocated themselves to the urban areas of our side of the pond. Their word play is wittier than ever, and their topics are, oddly enough, more universal than before (despite the zeroing-in on American music this time around). Modern Vampires discusses mortality, relationship curiosities, and even a bonding with a higher being (Ya Hey, where the narrator bonds with Jesus’s isolation from the world now). Like the smog that doomed New York in 1966 being featured on the album’s cover, Modern Vampires of the City is a new spin on what we’ve already been comfortable with. It’s this kind of challenge that has made Vampire Weekend more exciting than ever before.
13. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II) (2010)
It’s so unfortunate that this party had to end. At least we have three very solid albums that we can constantly refer back to, though. Whatever happens to both Ethan Kath and Alice Glass will, I’m sure, be with great success, and the split up of Toronto seizure-dance duo Crystal Castles will forever live on. With a release like their second self titled release (named II by the public), they captured the best of both of their worlds: The sexy techno party that would go on into the night and the scary rave that resulted in battery and reality. II is both gorgeous and rough, and the album gets extremely uncomfortable when the two feelings are hard to differentiate. You learn to not fear the intense moments and not gloss over the nicer parts. This is the pot smoking session in a graveyard that opened your mind and exposed your vulnerable feelings to the world. It may seem like a drug-related comeuppance at first, but it truly is just a cluster of life’s sensations all in one. If death lends us a hand, we take it and dance into the night. II is that ending of The Seventh Seal, where we don’t run away from mortality but instead experience it and digest it; You’ll feel cleansed and impassioned once you do.
12. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
This audio movie goes through a young rapper’s mind as he starts out wanting to be the typical hip hop star. He eventually wants to use his music to tell the world about its problems and how to solve them. His maturity grows stronger as he becomes wiser. He learns what truly is important in life; His want to feel good suddenly becomes replaced with his need to become a better person. That person is Kendrick Lamar, and his character’s wish to cleanse himself is secretly Lamar’s weapon to strengthen hip hop once again. You hear voicemail interludes where the character’s parents are bickering over the phone, and their concern of his whereabouts only worsens. In between voicemail checks, Lamar discovers superficial highs, escapes arrest, witnesses death, begins to find fear and the will to escape this life. This happens all within a day on the album, and that’s perhaps all it took for Lamar to learn that he wanted to be a rapper. He certainly is one of the best rappers of our generation, and an album like good kid, m.A.A.d city is a great way of showing this. His parents were trying to find out where he was on the album, but Lamar knows his place in hip hop, and we sure as hell do, too.
11. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (2011)
Daniel Lopatin has done some good work making plunderphonic ambient pieces; There’s no doubt about that. Even seeing him open for Nine Inch Nails under his pseudonym Oneohtrix Point Never was something to behold. Who would have thought that you could be relaxed and in a meditative state in a massive amphitheatre? That’s one way to observe Lopatin and his music. Then you have his strongest album Replica, and it actually works almost too well. When you give Lopatin a television set, he’ll make an album out of commercial and infomercial soundclips. Each sample crackles, hisses, and carries added editing blips with them. They aren’t perfect, but that makes the final result all the more scary sounding, if anything. This is an album made out of the noise that pummels our ears and drowns our mind every single day. It sounds either so calm or eerie enough to feel ill, and sometimes you can’t differentiate between the two. Daft Punk experimented with how mechanical clips can sound organic with their album Human After All. Lopatin has gone beyond that– we’re brain dead zombies at this point. Boy, does that bliss feel beautiful.
10. Danny Brown – XXX (2011)
Eminem stunned the world well over a decade ago with his pill riddled psychotic alter ego Slim Shady. He was edgy and controversial, but it took his confrontational songs for us to see the severity of it all. Fast forward to this era, and we have Danny Brown’s soul crushing album XXX. He hadn’t made it big yet and this was his cry to the world. The first bulk of the album is stuffed with fellatio, substances and all sorts of obscenities. The latter portions of this album are when Brown begins to open up about his life, and this is first done by his excuse that it must be how he shall live as it’s in his “DNA”. Suddenly, the first, fun parts start to feel like Brown had popped many tablets before rapping, and it’s far too late. He has his comedown and he’s scared straight. He talked about having a “Cobain type of mind frame”, but that may be a reference to how he wishes for death, not necessarily how he may die young. Brown is a Shakespearean jester here; A joker who brings as much depression as he does humor. He’s made it, now, and he’s luckily still with us. It’s weird to remember that XXX was a free album online, as if it was his final try with the world. Eminem may have been off the walls and startling, but Danny Brown’s take on a man gone too far is a nerve wracking trip throughout.
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (2012)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor were nowhere to be found for years until their reunion and their tours that followed. There wasn’t any new material, though. We waited during an era where George W. Bush was featured weekly as both a source of humor and an instance of worry. We missed their input of what our recent recession meant in their eyes. At one of their shows in 2012, an odd looking album was featured at their merchandise table. It certainly was a new release, and did the band ever pick their moment to release it. This year, many people who stuck to their beliefs felt that we would all die and be sent for judgement. The fighting in the middle east only worsened, and we’ve experienced many horrors on that front since that year. Since this album’s release, we’ve seen many political and social disturbances happen, from cop killings to a barrage of terrorist attacks (including the unfortunate one in Paris a few days ago). Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is about nonconforming and understanding that we wouldn’t die by rapture in 2012. We’d still be alive, but we’d still have to fight the evils of the world to live as free citizens. This is another political album of theirs that has to use very few amounts of words to get its point across. Its glorious climaxes and tearful crescendos speak volumes, and there couldn’t be a more fitting time for them; The world hasn’t been this severely political in a while. Welcome back, Godspeed You!, and thank you for the accompaniment during these harsh times.
8. Deafheaven – Sunbather (2013)
Metal has been a genre of music that has been, happily, cast aside from the many others. Non-listeners didn’t feel the need to identify with it, and fans loved the community spawned from its isolation. What if metal could be made a bit more understandable on a functioning level for those unused to the style? The emotions felt within any genre of music are universal (metal included). Metal has had its plentiful number of bands that have poured their souls into their music, and Deafheaven may not have done anything too differently from the rest of the pack. What they did, though, was make a fitting album for our struggling times where many of us are experiencing financial strains. We have less to offer, but the world hasn’t been as demanding as it is now. Sunbather observes the lucky rich girl tanning on her lawn, her lovely house, the sticky heat and the want to have it all. It acknowledges the impossibility of experiencing such luxury instantly not just because of the effort to achieve such successes but because of the discomfort one would have from not being used to this lifestyle. It is an emotional release for us all that uses the dreamy qualities of shoegaze and the harsh realities of black metal to make a swirling struggle to stay afloat. Sunbather is possibly the greatest burst of emotions you’ll have this decade so far, and it is easily the strongest metal album to come out in a very long time.
7. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (2010)
What a career this band has had already, and they’re still relatively young. Without a single bad release, it’s interesting that they started this decade out with their best album yet. Five years later, and it’s still as astonishing as it was when it first dropped. That album is Halcyon Digest, and it carries such confidence upon its back without ever being full of itself. It has many ideas it wishes to share with the world (fear of loneliness, the want to leave it all behind and society’s views on homosexuality, as shown with Helicopter’s take on a young boy’s struggles as a sold sex slave). It’s a frightening album at times, and much of it feels like Bradford Cox’s poems in his journal coming to life (Lockett Pundt’s contributions feel more like articles that speak of the world at large, while Cox’s are his take on the world through his own perspective). The guitar tones sparkle like diamonds (both clean and jagged), as they shimmer amongst the dark shadows of the album’s rhythm section and lyrics. Halcyon Digest keeps the kind of accidental darkness many pop songs of the 60’s had production wise, but here it’s with intent: To bring these secrets to life. It’s a very private album that makes its place known to the world, and it’s place amongst one of the best of this era is well deserved.
6. Chromatics – Kill For Love (2012)
Synth pop is back, and we welcomed its return with a cold drink and an approving glance from just over our shades. Chromatics have gone from an edgier band to the neo disco band we’ve come to love now, and while Kill For Love wasn’t their first salute to the world as their new selves, it was the album that made the grandest announcement that the genre is very much alive once it was being noticed again. It’s a double disc album full of confused love ballads, dizzying trips into the night, and more self affirmation than a declaration of love for others. Kill For Love sends itself its own condolences during its heartbreak, and it does so by lying to itself (pretending that its loved one will return) or by simply crying out of its window to the streets below. It’s a depressing album when truly observed, but it’s also an album that fights. The cinematic breath created by the steady beat and the flittering soundscapes turn this quest of adoring approval into an audio movie (if the many film posters Johnny Jewel makes isn’t an indication that this is their plan, anyways). If you yourself are not being kept sleepless by an abandoned lover, Kill For Love will work as a soundtrack that boasts how much of a lone wolf you are; You won’t be driving with a cooler backdrop than this. Kill For Love is a soul shattering quest that also is strong in its confidence, and it has become a neo realistic love letter that has reminded us that longing has been around for many years.
5. Swans – To Be Kind (2014)
Swans have been around for decades, even when they were on hiatus. If anything, their popularity grew even larger during their break. That’s one reason why their return is so welcomed. Another reason is because of how high in quality their releases have been since. To Be Kind is somehow their best album yet since their return (even topping The Seer), and it isn’t blatantly obvious at first as to why. Once you let it sit with you, it starts to make more sense. This album speaks to the world about what we all know instead of explicitly stating what it believes itself. Sure, much of To Be Kind is a declaration of how humans work (and a very bold one at that), but it’s the kind of embedded opinions about humanity we all share. We all feel pain, we all desire lust, we have our highs and we all die. To Be Kind is a two hour collection of all the raw experiences we have (and they are all raw; No artificial feelings, here). Swans have seen many decades, whether the current members have been in the band this whole time or not. They’ve seen trends change, society evolve (or devolve) and the world go on. They know what has kept us going, whether as a collective species or an individual lead actor in our own movies. To Be Kind is a difficult embrace for some and an exquisite replication for others, but it’s a reality for all.
4. My Bloody Valentine-mbv (2013)
It’s 11 at night. It’s February 2nd, 2013. Many of us are online seeing a blank screen, waiting for it to change and show us that our purchase has gone through (or, better yet, that the album we want hasn’t sold out entirely). None of us truly realize that we’re trying to buy the first My Bloody Valentine album in many years, because we’re too busy getting frustrated with trying to get the album in the first place. Once we finally finish our transaction and we are given our MP3 folder as we now have to wait for our physical albums to arrive by mail, we put on the first song she found now (with all the songs, and even the album name, in lower case), and the very first second was as strong as the initial moments of Loveless’s Only Shallow. We were blown away by such a majestic guitar whirlwind. The album is split into three parts: Pure shoegaze, a lighter take on the genre, and a more challenging take on the genre. We are given new versions of My Bloody Valentine in three pill sized forms to ingest that this is truly happening. Each rendition of the band is spectacular and the genre of shoegaze has been furthered by light years at this point. Once wonder 2 concludes and mbv is finished, we can accept that My Bloody Valentine have released a new album (finally). I don’t know if we can ever fully understand what we’ve been given, though (I sure can’t), and all I can label it as is the strongest reunion album I’ve heard in many years.
3. Beach House – Teen Dream (2010)
Every album Beach House has made thus far has been a solid effort. You have their enchanting self titled debut, their chamber lullabies on Devotion, and the songs that appropriately and gorgeously evolve on Bloom. Teen Dream, their finest effort that has peaked out amongst a catalogue of nothing but greats, you can hear a day take place. The sun rises with zebra, it remains bright during Norway and Walk in the Park is noon, where you’ve accomplished so much but the day is just getting started. From Used to Be until Better Times, you are relaxing in the afternoon. 10 Mile Stereo is where you chase the sun down the horizon, and Real Love is when the sky is dark. Beauty within the minutes ticking down to midnight are found at Take Care, where solace will fade out with you into your slumber. Like life, Teen Dream’s day-in-a-disc can be started from the beginning all over again. It’s a great day to revisit, and luckily Beach House have provided enough hidden trinkets to make each listen a fresh and beautiful one. Teen Dream may insist an idea the duo have had since their days of youth, but it is a gorgeous masterpiece that will only thrive with its permanence.
2. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
“The day you play me is the day MTV play videos” is a snarky remark Kanye West spits on his song So Appalled. If every musician tried to be as cinematic as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, music videos may not be as hunted for. Life pours through the walls created in this audible mansion where West locked himself to talk to his own demons. This schizophrenic staple in hip hop is so for (and against) both his good and his bad side that nothing is resolved. Has West learned anything? Maybe that’s his fantasy, where the reality is that he may never truly learn how to change like he wants to. The album starts with Nicki Minaj describing change: The change of the album covers, the change we ourselves can make and the perspectives we can choose when it comes to the real Kanye West. We are told to sit and listen, and for over seventy minutes we have no problem doing so. Virtually every song is a stand alone triumph that only compliments one another when played in order as a group effort. This is the most complete a hip hop album has been in a very long time, and it’s because it is so bold. It features guitar and vocoder solos at the end of already lengthy songs. It loves itself as much as it despises its own existence. It’s as much of a nightmare as it is a dream. In reference to his breakout albums College Dropout and Late Registration, West warns his “daughter” to not “grow up in that ghetto university”. His fame is as crippling as it is rewarding, and his fear of it continuing shared with his love of it happening is why My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an instant classic in hip hop.
1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)
“England’s dancing days are done” is a warning we are given on the title track of this truly exceptional album. Those are precarious words not just because they remark on the threats both sides of the war will face within this concept album, but also because it is nearly impossible to stay still during this perfectly crafted songbook. The brain of Let England Shake is nervous and constantly spewing fear, as the lyrics paint such depictions of anguish and torment. The heart of the album is so full of the same blood it is to spill, as you are never stalled during this rhythmic, pulsating ride. The soul of this record is to remain forever, as it became an instant classic from one of the primary listens I had of this absolute pleasure. You can feel PJ Harvey herself turn each page of her war journal, and you can spot the pages that are bookmarked with flower petals and the ones stained by bloody fingerprints. Let England Shake is victorious, grim, fulfilling and distressing.
Polly Jean Harvey hasn’t just survived the 90’s or the female-dominant rock scene. She has helped pave the way as a long-withstanding artist within the music scene, regardless of her gender, nationality, the genre she started in or the era she broke out in. After so many successful albums, we have been tricked time and time again because we thought we had seen the best this English neo-poet had to provide. We can all go to bed assured, now: Rid of Me’s her staple. Or is it To Bring You My Love? Hang on; it could very well be Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. With Let England Shake, her best album (possibly for now, as we may just end up being blindsided again), she has let go of her sultry deep vocals. She adopts a higher pitched voice of this historical narrator. She didn’t let go of her ability to observe the world within a song, though. Here she does so from many years ago, where she links the wars of our past to the wars of our present. Nothing has changed, and the large gamble Let England Shake took with its premise pays off (unfortunately, in that case).
You will march forwards in dance with songs like Let England Shake and On Battleship Hill. You will feel the raw wounds of warfare on songs like All And Everyone and In The Dark Places. You will witness the fighting from afar with a song like Written on the Forehead, where the chant “let it burn” will seem cooky at first but then will become a justifiable resolution. There are many schizophrenic albums on this album, where the war being fought isn’t the only battle. Let England Shake shows signs of mental struggle, too. There’s the out-of-place trumpet calls on The Glorious Land, the uncomfortable wails on England and the question at the end of The Words that Maketh Murder being asked by two different people with only themselves in mind. In fact, the accompaniment of a male vocal the entire album is comforting and worrisome: How real is this companion? Mick Harvey starts the final swan song (The Colour of the Earth) off and shows his initial dominance, so this character could very well be real. But then the female voice takes over once again, so perhaps it was only wishful thinking. This modern rendition of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra feels more like a couple hanging onto dear life than a duet that call each other from afar.
Every song seamlessly flows into one another, and no moment is like any other. Let England Shake is as unified as it is diverse. It is the kind of masterpiece only an accomplished musician could pull off; One that was wise of how the life within a piece can truly exist without just being lucky. PJ Harvey didn’t really disappear from the world, yet she was overlooked for a while. She jumped out with the odd release that would take on the world by storm, and she humbly accepted when a release of hers was respected but not ultimately championed. She has nothing to worry about, as she has proven that she is, somehow, an even better songwriter than she has ever been (again, this is PJ Harvey we’re talking about, not anyone who needed time to find their place). Let England Shake is, easily, one of my favorite listening experiences I’ve ever had, and it’s only aged well the few years it’s existed. To hear such an album, one so well constructed, thought out and executed in nature, is astonishing. To feel it only get better as it gets older is a blessing. It is a gem of an album and not just the best album of the decade so far, but easily one of the best albums I have heard in a very, very long time.