Favourite Albums of the Last Ten Years: The Play-Offs

I’ve been threatening this “favourite albums of the last 10 years” for a while now, so in my final week as a regular here, I will indulge myself.  The rules are I take the albums that were my number one in the lists over the 10 years I’ve been publishing lists, but I am adding four “wild cards” -  3 that just missed the top slot plus one choice I totally missed first time around.

So we have my number ones;

2009       Wild Beasts                           Two Dancers

2010       Laura Marling                      I Speak Because I Can

2011       The Antlers                           Burst Apart

2012       Alt-J                                         An Awesome Wave

2013       Vampire Weekend            Modern Vampires of the City

2014       Bombay Bicycle Club        So Long, See You Tomorrow

2015       Wolf Alice                             My Love is Cool

2016       Christine & the Queens   Chaleur Humaine

2017       Hurray for the Riff Raff    The Navigator

2018       The 1975                               A Brief Inquiry ….

The wild cards are:

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (nowhere in 2010)

Decemberists – The King is Dead (runner up in 2011)

Maccabees – Marks to Prove It (runner up in 2015)

Bon Iver – 22 A Million (runner-up in 2016)

But just to make it more interesting, I will do a head to head, knock out competition rather than an immediate list. I will listen to each album in turn then decide on the basis of a totally random draw, with six qualifying heats then a quarter final and so on over the next three days.

Heat 1: Kanye West vs Alt-J

Listening again to An Awesome Wave, Alt-J’s debut, it is hard to remember quite how innovative and plain weird it sounded first time around. The combination of folk harmonies – religious sounding “plainsong” even – acoustic interludes, plus dance rhythms and obtuse lyrics took the band from nothing to winning the Mercury Music prize with this album. It good many good reviews, but Pitchfork commented on “draining, elongated MOR tunes”. It has beautiful moments, but listening again and looking back, it feels very much of its moment.

Up against Alt-J we have the enigma that is Kanye West. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album has been even more highly lauded in retrospect than at the time, and I certainly did not pick up on it back in 2010. But I included it here on the basis of the influence it has had in many way (paving the way for Drake and Kendrick Lamar, we might argue), but also because while I don’t love or even like all the tracks - some just a bit too rap for me – it includes the 9 minute long Runaway, which is probably my favourite single track of the last decade. We’ll have more on Kanye in the next round, because on the basis of Runaway (and other great tacks like All Of The Lights) he goes through to the quarter final.


Heat 2: Antlers vs Bombay Bicycle Club

Antlers’ Burst Apart was critically acclaimed, winning Drowned in Sound’s album of the year as well as mine! It is often rather lovely, dreamy alt-indie, and it still sounds good, although the falsetto vocals mean the words aren’t clear, and the soothing electronic soundscapes can be soporific rather than stimulating. But a beautiful album, nonetheless.

Some of our albums here were critically acclaimed but some weren’t. Bombay Bicycle Club’s 2014 release So Long, See You Tomorrow  got reasonable but not startling reviews in general. “Emotional, internationally-flavoured electronic and dance music” said the Telegraph, who did love it.  It is also a very varied album yet sounds cohesive – you know it is BBC even as you enjoy some quite different styles, chilled out to euphoric electronic sounds to world music influences.

A tough decision, and BBC were always low profile, shy even – although their live performances got better and better over the years. That’s maybe why they are under-rated, but on balance, Bombay Bicycle Club have it for me – just showing that this is a very personal choice, and like most people, my tastes won’t always coincide with the media experts!

Heat 3: Laura Marling vs Bon Iver

Oh dear … my favourite female artist of the last decade versus my favourite male! My concern here is that this isn’t the best Bon Iver album – that would be his debut from 2008 (which would have been my album of that year if I had been doing lists then). And actually… is this Marling’s best work? She has released 5 very good albums, 6 if you include “Lump”, this year’s collaboration.

Anyway, I Speak Because I Can was big step forward for her after her debut (released when she was just 17). It’s just unbelievable to think that she recorded this follow-up when she was just 19 – there is such maturity in her music and lyrics, combined with a youthful vulnerability. Songs like Rambling Man and Goodbye England sound like absolute classics now.

22 a Million is decidedly weird in places, a world away from Bon Iver’s folky debut – it is pretty uncategorizable. Is it folk, R&B, electronic classical, soul …? It is certainly very odd in places, with song titles that use symbols as well as words, but has beautiful tunes sprinkled throughout the album (see below), yet also a couple of tracks I really didn’t like much at all. Because of that, and although this is a great album, I will go for Ms. Marling here.

Heat 4: The 1975 vs Wolf Alice

Whilst their second album won the Mercury Music Prize, it was Wolf Alice’s debut, My Love is Cool, that topped my chart in 2015. From their first release, the wonderful Fluffy, I loved this band, and here it is the variation is impressive, from tuneful mid-tempo rock ballads to floaty almost psychedelic songs, to grungy flat-out Pixies type thrash – but held together by Ellie Rowsell, a charismatic and versatile vocalist. But it is very much a band performance here, and it all carries a definite Wolf Alice personality.

The 1975 won our award this year (2018) with their third album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. It contains some brilliant songs, but there is no consistency of musical style here. There’s a huge amount going on here, and although the lyrical theme gives it some cohesiveness, the music doesn’t, as it runs through MOR ballads, a bit of garage, pop/dance bangers, smooth soul, jazz, ambient electronica, and frankly a couple of tracks are a bit rubbish. It is also hard to judge too at this stage just how well it will age – for that reason, as well as the consistency issue, we’re giving this one to Wolf Alice.

Heat 5: Maccabees vs Hurray for the Riff Raff

Maccabees came second in my 2015 list (to Wolf Alice), and Marks To Prove It turned out to be their final album. It was very strong in itself and also represented a fine four-album run (their second album Wall of Arms from 2009 is another I still play).  The mood switches from passionate and uplifting to vaguely sad or wistful in turn, while the music is varied with synths, guitar, brass; but it feels quite organic rather than over-produced. It’s just an excellent, intelligent rock album, all said.

This is a very tough heat though because The Navigator is one of the most under-rated albums of the least decade. After several albums with an Americana, roots / country feel, Alynda Segarra, who in effect is Hurray for the Riff Raff, both went back to her family Puerto-Rican roots and stretched herself with this stunning “concept album” about immigration, exploitation, community and love.  The music runs through beautiful country songs to garage rock and Latino-influenced dance; every single song is strong and plays its part on the overall theme.  So Hurray for the Riff Raff just win this one!

Heat 6: Wild Beasts vs Decemberists

Wild Beasts second album Two Beasts featured majestic “art-funk”, with twin vocals, one high-end falsetto and the other a rich baritone which gave the songs a unique, sometimes bordering almost on the hysterical feel.  Songs often build into major anthems, and it’s all very sexual in places too (don’t listen to the lyrics too closely), yet somehow there are songs you can both sing along with and dance to very easily. The band never bettered this, and it remains an influential and brilliant album.

The King is Dead is far less original, with the Decemberists’ folk-rock vibe sounding very much like early REM in places. What it does have in common with Wild Beasts is great tunes. There are strong country influences too, but it has a pop-rock production values and feel to it, and never sinks into either the strident finger-in-ear folk approach or the mushier side of country. I love this album and still listen to it today – but considering both again, I’m giving this one by a whisker to the Wild Beasts for their more innovative music.

Tomorrow …  Christine and the Queens and Vampire Weekend join today's six winners for the quarter finals!

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