‘Best of’ lists are not really important, are they?
Yet at this time of year they are everywhere, endlessly organising a chaotic glut of music, film, television and literature. The end of 2019 affords us the opportunity to put a cap on the decade that has just been, soon to be consigned to the annals of history. Perhaps this is why they hold such fascination for culture junkies such as myself, but why do we then often feel compelled to produce our own?
Before Spotify and Apple Music changed the very way we consume music, Last.fm was tracking recording habits and compiling them into weekly statistical data dumps for the numerically-inclined. I’ve had the app installed on either my phone or my laptop ever since I signed up way back in 2006, meaning that I have a fairly accurate log of the amount of times I’ve listened to songs from each of the albums in this list. There’s no purpose to this — maybe like the list itself, and yet I’m fascinated by the idea of it as a complete work that exists sans any concrete meaning. It merely provides a run of numerical data that I find somewhat insightful.
Making this list has felt like a labour of love. I’ve known that I would actually commit to it for quite some time, I just didn’t know until a few weeks ago that it would contain as many as 200 albums. I began by working my way up from the number one spot, fairly confident of my favourites. Yet around the time I got to 100 I was struck with an almost criminal guilt at the thought of leaving some albums out.
“Perhaps more than any other popular art form, music has the staunchness and versatility to stir within us a deluge of emotion — if we allow it.”
It gradually expanded; I capitulated to decade-old memories of why certain albums made me feel something and in doing so made way for them to be included as part of the gang, simultaneously acknowledging that the ‘guilt’ I’d been feeling stemmed from the close bond I had formed with most of these albums. The very idea will no doubt sound ridiculous to anyone not passionately affiliated with music as an art form. Yet the innate personal nature of music means it presides as arguably the most immediate and enduring of popular mediums.
Perhaps more than any other popular art form, music has the staunchness and versatility to stir within us a deluge of emotion — if we allow it. Moreover, we can experience a range of emotions and feel them in equal measure whilst listening to music, prevailing through completely disparate locations. Whether cocooned in bed during winter, dripping in sweat on the treadmill, dancing at the club, preparing wedding or funeral playlists, journeying in the car, miming along on the train, or raucously in unison with friends at a gig, music has such site-specific malleability (I’m coining it) that we all like to think of ourselves as music lovers.
Yet seeing the art in music is similar to seeing the art in a painting or a film. The viewer (or in this case the listener) must yield to it. Music needs to go beyond the immediate and deeper than the surface in order to truly cohere. If we only ever look to music as a source of entertainment, or a medium to pass a few hours, then we’ll often be let down or bored by anything that seeks to inspire, educate or explore.
When I made the unconscious shift from pop music to ‘alternative’(!) in 2003 (Björk and Radiohead, basically — what more did a sixteen year old need?), I gradually began to see music as something that I could learn from. It existed: an artist put it out there and I was privy to sharing that experience in whatever capacity I chose to. That stringent idea has wavered over the years, but it’s never left me.
200. Toro y Moi — Outer Peace
199. Broken Social Scene — Forgiveness Rock Record
198. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
197. Leon Vynehall — Music for the Uninvited
196. Wild Beasts — Smother
195. SBTRKT — SBTRKT
194. Baths — Cerulean
193. Warpaint — The Fool
192. Broken Social Scene — Hug of Thunder
191. Bat For Lashes — The Haunted Man
190. Wye Oak — Civilian
189. Solange — When I Get Home
188. The Horrors — V
187. Todd Terje — It’s Album Time
186. The National — High Violet
185. The Men — Open Your Heart
184. The Weeknd — House of Balloons
183. Jenny Hval — The Practice of Love
182. Visible Cloaks — Reassemblage
181. DJ Healer — Nothing 2 Loose
180. Objeckt — Cocoon Crush
179. Gold Panda — Good Luck and Do Your Best
178. Kevin Morby — Singing Saw
177. DJ Rashad — Double Cup
176. black midi — Schlagenheim
175. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — The Kid
174. Tim Hecker — Love Streams
173. Jlin — Black Origami
172. The National — Sleep Well Beast
171. Levon Vincent — Levon Vincent
The 2010s decade for the most part captured my twenties and has carried over into my early thirties. These albums mark the passing of time in my life better than any other medium and contain countless memories within them. By going through this list I recognise in them a vast well of emotion and experience (and inexperience). I recall with surprising accuracy what I was thinking or feeling when I first heard them, where in London I was living, who I was living with, even the guy I was sleeping with. Or frequently how I turned a friend onto the album, passing it over like a gift from my mind to someone else, gauging their reaction and being conscious of how much their opinion meant to me.
“After an album made its initial impression it was seared into my memory. I would carry it around with me like a map in my head, sifting through the words and sounds.”
Looking back on the first few years of the decade almost reminds me of just how in love with music I was. I would spend an obscene amount of time reading Pitchfork, Stereogum, Tiny Mix Tapes, the Quietus and (later) Resident Advisor, actively seeking out music I hadn’t heard, making it my mission to trawl through daily music reviews and commit myself to at least five albums a week.
It sounds a bit ostentatious but I lived and breathed music unlike anyone I knew. After an album made its initial impression it was seared into my memory. I would carry it around with me like a map in my head, sifting through the words and sounds.
Everything sounded amazing and I was excited by the very idea of a new release and even more so how it could connect to the artist’s previous releases. I would sometimes give an album a go if I found the title intriguing or if the cover art was visually arresting. I needed no recommendation other than my internal compass and gut feeling. If what I found inside was to my liking then it signalled a successful discovery and the reward felt like emotional nutrition for the ears and brain.
170. Nicolas Jaar — Sirens
169. DIIV — Is The Is Are
168. The Field — Looping State of Mind
167. Prime Minister of Doom — Mudshadow Propaganda
166. Shinichi Atobe — Heat
165. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial
164. James Blake — Assume Form
163. Laurel Halo — Dust
162. Beach House — Depression Cherry
161. Sharon Van Etten — Tramp
160. Tiger & Woods — Through The Green
159. Tobias Jesso Jr. — Goon
158. Jim O’Rourke — Simple Songs
157. Cut Copy — Zonoscope
156. Savages — Silence Yourself
155. Wolf Alice — Visions of a Life
154. Phosphorescent — Muchacho
153. GAS — Rausch
152. Tim Hecker — Konoyo
151. Kornél Kovács — The Bells
150. Spoon — They Want My Soul
149. Clark — Clark
148. Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
147. Bon Iver — 22, A Million
146. Owen Pallett — Heartland
145. LCD Soundsystem — American Dream
144. Daniel Avery — Drone Logic
143. Dirty Beaches — Drifters/Love Is The Devil
142. Beyoncé — Lemonade
141. Sharon Van Etten — Are We There
I gradually came to see a series of albums as something like audible sculptures, or how a gallery might curate six paintings by an artist and hang them on the same wall with the aim of showing how each one is markedly different from the others — and at the same time indebted to the others; they exist as solo works and in harmony with one another.
Needless to say I miss the feeling from those days.
I recall how some albums bookmarked times in my life that are tied to specific locations like a job that I worked in. Almost ritualistically I would listen to the number one album on this list whilst walking home late at night from a crappy job I worked — in the dark, in the cold, for months on end. I then left the album behind along with the job, filing it away like a well-worn book on a library shelf, taken out on loan and traded in when something else came along. The fact that I’ve only occasionally listened to it in the last six or seven years clearly doesn’t diminish my respect for it.
140. Jenny Hval — Apocalypse, girl
139. Björk — Utopia
138. Destroyer — Poison Season
137. (Sandy) Alex G — House of Sugar
136. Wild Nothing — Nocturne
135. HAIM — Days Are Gone
134. Vampire Weekend — Contra
133. The Avalanches — Wildflower
132. Huerco S — For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
131. Talaboman — The Night Land
130. Whitney — Light Upon The Lake
129. Four Tet — There Is Love In You
128. Lotus Plaza — Spooky Action at a Distance
127. DJ Koze — Amygdala
126. Oneohtrix Point Never — Garden of Delete
125. Blondes — Blondes
124. The 1975 — A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
123. Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire For No Witness
122. Andy Stott — Faith In Strangers
121. Big Thief — Capacity
120. Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost
119. Caribou — Our Love
118. Future Islands — Singles
117. Skee Mask — Compro
116. Kurt Vile — Wakin on a Pretty Daze
115. Janelle Monae — The Arch Android
114. The Walkmen — Lisbon
113 . fka Twigs — MAGDALENE
112. Dirty Projectors — Swing Lo Magellan
111. Bill Callahan — Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
110. Big Thief — Two Hands
109. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues
108. Real Estate — Days
107. Kate Bush — 50 Words For Snow
106. Robyn — Honey
105. The Haxan Cloak — Excavation
104. Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride
103. Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising
102. The Antlers — Burst Apart
101. Chvrches — The Bones of What You Believe
100. Fleet Foxes — Crack-Up
99. Mount Eerie — Now Only
98. Bicep — Bicep
97. DIIV — Oshin
96. Flying Lotus — Cosmogramma
95. Julianna Barwick — Nepenthe
94. Sun Kil Moon — Benji
93. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love
92. Beach House — 7
91. Oneohtrix Point Never — Replica
90. Grizzly Bear — Painted Ruins
89. Crystal Castles — Crystal Castles II
88. Kelly Lee Owens — Kelly Lee Owens
87. Four Tet — New Energy
86. Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
85. Godspeed You! Black Emperor — ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
84. Perfume Genius — No Shape
83. Boards of Canada — Tomorrow’s Harvest
82. Emeralds — Does It Look Like I’m Here?
81. Blood Orange — Cupid Deluxe
This list only represents a singular voice yet those from online publications gather dozens of opinions via their contributing writers — and allow for only slight deviations. The same artists are often found within all of their top ten rankings, forming the beginning of a trend that feel more like an assertion of fact over opinion.
Therefore, do online publications feel compelled (nay, obliged?) to structure their lists by placing these artists near the top? In my experiential browsing it would appear that ‘best of the decade’ seems more a reflection of ‘most important of the decade’.
The albums critically adored by the online cognoscenti are not necessarily found at the top of my own list, but clearly I take influence. In order to represent my personal favourites then it has to reflect those albums that I connected with most across the decade as a whole, otherwise why bother?
That’s not to discredit the process of acknowledging what those publications have to say. Then again, there are some albums in this list that I feel I subconsciously avoided because the hype around them was so distracting at the time of release. Discovering them in the last few months has made me see their brilliance, but their position in this list may be subject to their own personal hype on my part. Likewise, there are albums that have been released in 2019 that I haven’t given as much time as ones released earlier in the decade — ones which would no doubt rise significantly should this list be re-assessed in five years time (don’t count it out). Already as I write these words, Titanic Rising is impressing me more with each listen, so much so that I’m starting to envisage it much higher than number 103.
80. Gang Gang Dance — Eye Contact
79. Nicolas Jaar — Space Is Only Noise
78. Floating Points — Elaenia
77. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
76. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
75. The War on Drugs — Slave Ambient
74. Real Estate — Atlas
73. St. Vincent — Strange Mercy
72. Against All Logic — 2012–2017
71. fka Twigs — LP1
70. Actress — R.I.P.
69. Fennesz — Agora
68. Autre Ne Veut — Anxiety
67. D’Angelo and the Vanguard — Black Messiah
66. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
65. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
64. Lorde — Melodrama
63. Forest Swords — Engravings
62. LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening
61. Slowdive — Slowdive
60. Robyn — Body Talk
59. Bill Callahan — Apocalypse
58. Beach House — Bloom
57. The xx — I See You
56. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Ghosteen
55. SOPHIE — Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
54. James Blake — James Blake
53. Jon Hopkins — Immunity
52. Japandroids — Celebration Rock
51. Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven
The Last.fm data that I mentioned earlier has revealed to me those handful of albums that I literally couldn’t stop playing — the ones that often breached the 1,000 play count, the ones that boast a dozen earworms, the embarrassment of riches that hit me at just the right time.
…and of course The Suburbs, easily my most played album of the entire decade and one that somehow connected most of the people within my friendship circle. Friends were made and lost around that album. To me it remains an ambitious juggernaut with a 16-track arc, one that I had a personal obsession with, one that in today’s tumultuous 2019 somehow feels gloriously out of fashion in its overblown theatrics and at once even more prescient than it did in the first half of the Obama era.
Fashions and trends in popular music are always shifting and time has not been kind to a handful of these albums. Some of them may no longer feel relevant to the public or culture at large, and now I might wonder what all the fuss was about when it seems we lost our collective shit over an album that has been consigned to the digital graveyard. In the same way R.E.M.’s Monster became a recognisable orange swell in second hand $1 record bins back in the mid-nineties, some albums on this list have lost their sheen for a number of reasons. Either the decade wore on, people’s politics hardened or access to streaming services became evermore commonplace.
50. These New Puritans — Field of Reeds
49. Kurt Vile — Smoke Ring For My Halo
48. Julia Holter — Have Me In Your Wilderness
47. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — Before Today
46. Joanna Newsom — Divers
45. Caribou — Swim
44. Disclosure — Settle
43. John Talabot — fIN
42. Grouper — Ruins
41. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
40. My Bloody Valentine — mbv
39. PJ Harvey — Let England Shake
38. David Bowie — Blackstar
37. Chromatics — Kill For Love
36. Tame Impala — Lonerism
35. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear
34. Aphex Twin — Syro
33. Kelela — Take Me Apart
32. Big Thief — U.F.O.F.
31. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
30. DJ Koze — Knock Knock
29. Grizzly Bear — Shields
28. Mitski — Be The Cowboy
27. Sufjan Stevens — The Age of Adz
26. Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell!
25. The Knife — Shaking The Habitual
24. Björk — Vulnicura
23. Bon Iver — Bon Iver
22. Frank Ocean — channel ORANGE
21. Andy Stott — Luxury Problems
In some sense this list is forever changing and I will discover music from the last decade well into the next that may totally re-shape it, which means it’s forever in flux — but this is where the chips have fallen at this particular moment in time.
Yet even if it exists as a vanity project to remind myself of the thousands of hours of listening time I’ve put in then it has a dual purpose of acting as a launchpad from where I can explore even more music.
In these crazy times I find music remains my primary constant. My compass. My love for it never wavers. It’s an expression, a continual process of exploration into the art form that summons the strongest emotional response in me.
Happy future listening.
20. Grimes — Visions
19. Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me
18. Deerhunter — Halcyon Digest
17. Jamie xx — In Colour
16. Tame Impala — Currents
15. Solange — A Seat At The Table
14. Grimes — Art Angels
13. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
12. Beach House — Teen Dream
11. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City