Updated: Jul 3
If you’ve ever heard of, or had the pleasure of seeing, British comedian James Acaster, you’ll know he’s a genuine delight. Few, however, will know of what happened in the year 2017 for James. His girlfriend, whom he loved very much, unexpectedly broke up with him, leaving him devastated. The ensuing depression took him to some very dark places. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be The 5 Best Albums of the 2010s? Why am I telling you about James Acaster, his girlfriend and his depression? Well, because his remedy for his mood was to collect music – more specifically, to collect music only from the year 2016. Acaster captures his melodic voyage through 2016 in his book Perfect Sound Whatever, which is well worth a read by the way. It's what inspired me to move away from chattering about politics, to talk about music.
Now, as you can already tell, I won’t be focusing just on 2016 – or any year for that matter. Unlike Acaster, I won’t be collecting 500 obscure records from one single year. I’ll just be presenting my retrospective on the best music to come out of the last decade. Enjoy!
5) Salad Days by Mac DeMarco, April 2014
The first album I’ll be bringing up today & one I wish I could put higher in the list, is Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days. Salad Days is the record that got me into DeMarco. He’s not for everybody. He has a very, very distinct style. That’s not to say that every song sounds the same; I defy you to go and listen to the album's second track, Blue Boy, then the ninth, Chamber of Reflection and tell me they’re similar. But I also defy anyone to begin playing a Mac DeMarco track and not instantly know it's him.
For me, this album is teeming with character. It feels as though you’ve got Mac sitting in your living room jamming the tracks out for you. It’s not too fast, it’s not too slow; it’s not too polished, it doesn’t sound like garbage. The songs are, to a track, beautiful. Take the album’s second song, Let Her Go; an upbeat and catchy riff accompanied by Mac’s simple but elegant drumming that brings you into the opening line, and before you know it, you’re into the chorus. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s wonderful. This album also makes me hypothesise that Mac’s a Beatles fan, simply because this is straight out of the Merseybeat playbook.
Just by way of exemplifying the character of this album, listen to Blue Boy, especially the drumming at around 1m 20s. You’ll hear the drum track fade out for a few seconds before fading back in. I can only imagine something was picked up on the mic that DeMarco didn’t want to end up on the recording. It’s a nice reminder that this album is a passion project recorded in a bedroom, and not a glossy chart-pop 'collection of singles' recorded in a multi-million-dollar LA studio. If you like mellow, melodic tunes, The Beatles and Canadians, do yourself a favour and listen to Salad Days.
1. Chamber of Reflection
2. Let My Baby Stay
3. Let Her Go
4) Melody’s Echo Chamber by Melody’s Echo Chamber, September 2012
Melody Prochet’s debut album, released under the nom de guerre Melody’s Echo Chamber, is nothing short of a masterpiece of creativity. Once you flip on the opening track, I Follow You, and hear those initial arpeggiated chords, you’re hooked. This album was produced by my all-time favourite producer, Kevin Parker (of Tame Impala fame). Prochet & Parker were in a long-term relationship during this making of this album and to some extent, the feeling of affection they had for each other shines through whilst listening to the album. All of the songs are upbeat, positive and evocative dreamscapes.
Furthermore, I’m a big believer in the idea that too many cooks can spoil the broth when recording music. This album could be ‘Exhibit A’ for this argument. Beyond a couple of guest tracks by friends of Prochet’s, the recording is done exclusively by Prochet and Parker – as were the mixing and mastering. Moreover, this album is interesting to me, as a little Englander, because some of the songs are sung entirely in French. However, this does little to diminish their merit. Take Bisou Magique; French, English, Swahili; the language doesn’t matter, for it’s the other dimensions of the track that make this song an amazing listening experience. For instance, the ascending and descending guitar, synth and bass parts present throughout, backdropped by the constant pattering of the drums, results in a song that sounds somewhat circuslike, somewhat like an intense acid-trip… I should imagine.
Put frankly, you can take this record and do whatever you like with it. You can sit and jam out to it, or you can sit and reflect to it. It’s a multidimensional, oxymoronic masterpiece, plain and simple. This album will always have a special place in my mind, because of the fact it evokes feelings of summer, love and positivity – in spite of its complex simplicity.
1. I Follow You
2. Quand Vas Tu Rentrer?
3. You Won’t Be Missing That Part of Me
3) The Weather by Pond, May 2018
Time to get political again. Pond’s The Weather is all about imperialism. And nuclear bombs, drug epidemics, capitalism, the media, masculinity, climate change, Australian nationalism as well as a little bit about falling in love… you know, just for good measure.
Anyway, it’s got everything I could ever ask for in a record. It’s pissed off at a number of things, but it’s not going to go at it like a punk rock band, it’s going to go at it like a bunch of Aussie stoners. Instead of criticising countries for having nukes, it critiques of consumer capitalism, then literally concludes that “we need 30,000 megatons” and to “push the button now”. It critiques the drug epidemic, not by taking aim at drug users, but at the fear-mongering media with choruses of “it’s colder than ice if you give it a try” intercut with outtakes of Australian newscasters vastly exaggerating the effects of meth.
Finally, Edge of the World Pt. 2, is a song lyrically on a par with Roger Waters’ best works with Pink Floyd. While this song is more of a rhapsody than a traditional pop song, it’s opening verse reads like poetry. Listening to these lyrics sung alongside the hypnotic music absolutely puts this album on another level emotionally & thematically. I’d encourage anyone to go & listen to this record for the lyrical themes alone – then go back through and focus on the tunes themselves.
As for the tunes themselves, some give more than others. Such is the weak point of this record. Not that any of the songs are particularly bad, just they’re not quite in the same stratosphere as the lyrics. That’s hardly a criticism though. Songs like Paint Me Silver will keep you coming back again and again for months. If you’re looking for a Pond song without any politics, this is your track. Similarly, the title track for the album, The Weather, is a truly slow number. In fact, it’s positively glacial compared to the rest of the album. Though, when you listen to it as a small part of a greater record, start to finish, it’s like a nice come down from the chaotic voyage you’ve just been taken on.
1. 30,000 Megatons
2. Paint Me Silver
3. Edge of the World Pt. 2
2) The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff, March 2017
Anyone who knows anything about my musical taste will know that I am a sucker for concept albums. Not unlike The Weather before this, The Navigator is a good ol’ concept album. However, The Navigator differentiates itself from The Weather principally in its focus. Whereas The Weather’s focus is broad and far-reaching, The Navigator’s is focused on two, possibly three themes.
Alynda Segarra; frontwoman, songwriter, and principal brain behind Hurray for the Riff Raff’s creative spark, is a Puerto Rican-American country-folk singer. Cultural assimilation, poverty and Puerto Rican nationalism are all central topics to this album, which is set in a kind of Orwellian dystopia. These concepts are spearheaded by the album’s two chief tracks, the title track The Navigator, and Rican Beach. Starting with The Navigator, it’s opening passage gives the listener a brief look into the life of Segarra, before moving into more imagery-oriented lyrics around Puerto Rican nationalism and national identity. All of this is set against a traditional low-tempo salsa beat and a Latin sounding backdrop – a big departure from Segarra’s signature Americana sound.
Similarly, Rican Beach, set to similar, more up-tempo music, is a protest song against the American occupation of Puerto Rico. Rican Beach is nothing short of a Puerto Rican nationalist’s song. It takes shots at the Trumpian notion of ‘building a wall’ pretty obviously, as well as an implied struggle between the Puerto Ricans and the occupiers. The outro summarises the revolutionary sentiments on the song with the repetition of the "I'll keep fighting 'til the end" - a song statement of resistance from a hitherto innocuous lyricist.
Later in the album, Segarra touches on memories of growing up in a family flat in the Bronx as the daughter of an immigrant and her father's struggle to put food on the family's table, as well as the topic of what it is to ‘settle’ in a place you don't identify as 'home'.
Finally, Pa’lante, a song whose title is a uniquely Puerto Rican phrase of solidarity, echoes the attitudes addressed in Rican Beach, but in a more forthright and direct manner. The middle of the song is intercut by the poem Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri, before ending on a Hey Jude-esque coda, each line ending in a shout of “Pa’lante”. The song’s penultimate track is a truly chilling anthem of defiance and freedom for the oppressed peoples of Puerto Rico, to which its citizens remain colonised by the American empire.
I had the good fortune of seeing Hurray for the Riff Raff in Leeds back when they released this album. They’re a remarkable live band and their live rendition of Rican Beach and Pa’lante made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Moreover, I was able to have a brief conversation with Segarra after the show, in which she told me that the entire album was conceived of after a family visit back to Puerto Rico, hence the strong nationalist sentiments she championed in her writing. Hurray for the Riff Raff are due an album out soon, so if you’ve listened to The Navigator, then do keep your eye on them.
1. Rican Beach
2. The Navigator
3. Hungry Ghost
1) Currents by Tame Impala, July 2015
This is my all-time favourite album. I can vividly remember sitting down and listening to this album for the first time and not believing what I was hearing. For those of you who don’t know Tame Impala, they’re an Australian ‘band’ from Perth, WA. I say band, but they’re not strictly speaking a band. Are they? Are you a band if you’re just one guy who goes by a collective-sounding pseudonym? I don’t know. Either way, Tame Impala are Kevin Parker’s band, and so I’ll be using the names interchangeably…
Currents is the (almost) perfect album. There isn’t a song on this record that I don’t know inside-out, upside-down, right-side-left etc. I’m sure I could have a good go at the bass part for The Less I Know the Better in a coma, so many times have I played it. There is so much to love about this album that I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll just start at the top.
Currents opens with the odyssey that is Let It Happen. This song is a 7m48s hailstorm. Simple enough in its musical underpinnings, though complex in its thousand-layers of tracks. When someone says Kevin Parker’s a perfectionist, this song is what they’re referring to. It is a tour-de-force in Parker’s musical, technical and creative abilities. If you take nothing else from this article, take away this song.
Next, Nangs is a simulation of what it’s like to take a nitrous oxide bulb – with a groovy drumbeat that appears halfway through. It’s a sign of what’s to come in Currents. Long tracks, broken up by shorter, refresher tracks.
Following on from the openers, Currents begins to revert towards the typical Tame Impala style of introverted, inward-looking lyrics about the passing of time, how people drift apart and eventually learning to live without someone you thought you never could. Whilst it’s a return to form for Parker lyrically, musically, he continued to up his game. Parker’s perfectionism allows the listener thousands upon thousands of relistens of his music before running out of new things to discover. For example, I’ve been listening to this record at least once a week since June 2015, and I only recently noticed how in Eventually, the chords on the synthesizer begin to fragment (I’ve forgotten the technical musical term for it) the longer they’re sustained. Whilst this is somewhat amateurish on my part, it shows Parker’s willingness to create musical nuances that some listeners may never consciously notice but add to the musical texture, nonetheless.
Following this reflective section, we move into the third act of the record; the big one: The Less I Know the Better. This song was very controversial at first. Kevin Parker had built up quite a dedicated, indie-rock audience, so for an Impala single to come out that sounds so poppy – to set the video in a High School, hit some fans wrong. I don’t care about those fans, frankly. It’s a fantastic track. The bassline alone is worth learning the bass guitar for (and yes, I know it wasn’t recorded on a bass guitar, it was done on 6-string – that is irrelevant). I could ramble on all day about The Less I Know the Better, but I won’t. I’ll spare you & move on to the rest of the record…
The Less I Know the Better is followed by Past Life & Disciples. Parker's been on record saying that he loves listening to spoken-word music, and here, he attempts to work this influence into Currents. Past Life is a recounting of a normal guy, going about his day, who sees a former lover from a 'past life' - the speaker is then thrown into something of a crisis of the self, before resolving to just see if she's got the same phone number. Who knows, maybe she does? Similarly, Disciples is a very short, very sweet song. Again, it serves to break up the energy between the previous song and the subsequent ones perfectly. It has a kind of lyrical melancholy reserved for Impala tracks, in an insecure protagonist whose lover has moved on from them, and they’re not able to move past themselves. It’s also got a really cool switch halfway through… like a literal sound of a switch – not dissimilar to the intro of Mr Blue Sky, where the piano introduction starts as if it’s coming through a radio and then switches to being diegetic.
The next act is probably the dreariest. The three songs that make up the weakest area in my opinion. ‘Cause I’m A Man, Reality in Motion and Love/Paranoia all bring something new to the party, but they don’t reach the heights of any of the other tracks. Out of this section, ‘Cause I’m A Man is probably my favourite, simply because it’s got a McCartney-esque bassline, and that I love. I’ll move on from here to the climax of the record…
To close out the record, New Person, Same Old Mistakes was given the nod. Similar to Disciples and others on this record, New Person, Same Old Mistakes is all about Parker’s inner conflict (Side note: If Parker were a fictional character, he’d be a George R. R. Martin character). A song driven by its bass part, which, as a bass player myself, I’m all-in for. More, it utilises one of my favourite musical clichés, the random-ass middle-eight. From being a very tight and rigid song, the middle-eight becomes this really wavy, HPF’d section with a completely contrasting atmosphere to the rest of the track. Though, as with any middle-eight, it inevitably resolves to a bumper chorus. This song is a perfect resolution to what is an incredible album. Sure, there are a few songs in there that aren’t 100% perfect, but when did that mean that something’s bad. Very few things in life are black and white, and while Currents isn’t perfect, it’s as close as I’ve ever heard an album be.
But ultimately, what makes Currents so special? Currents came out just as I’d finished studying Music at College. At the time I was planning to go to university somewhere far away and learn about Music to become a record producer or something of that nature. I was about 18 and thought my life was just beginning. However, to view it with a modicum of objectivity; it’s packed full of ten-out-of-ten songs, with a great running order (surprisingly important), and has a brilliant juxtaposition between its central lyrical themes (uncertainly, naivety, introversion) and it’s central musical themes (perfectionism, ambition, eccentricity).
1. Let It Happen
2. The Less I Know the Better