As 2019 draws to a close, our minds here at Picky Bastards have inevitably turned to one thing. No. I’m not talking about the impending end of the world. I’m talking about something much more important (kind of) than that. I’m talking about music.
In a decade that has been politically tumultuous, music has been the thing that has often dragged us through. Some of the albums here represent the difficulties of the decade. Others represent the need to escape those issues and concentrate on something else, like the love of your new partner or a journey of self-discovery.
Whatever the albums chosen here represent to you, to our writers they are the absolute stand out piece of music from the last ten years. Fifteen of us have made our picks, and in December you’ll be able to hear our four editors argue about them all on the podcast before eventually declaring a Picky Bastards Album of the Decade. But before that, indulge yourself with our shortlist…
Tom Burrows: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) – Generally speaking, classic albums say something about the world that surrounds their creation. No album symbolised this messy, politically chaotic, and increasingly morally troubling decade than a record that landed right in the middle of it, in March 2015 – Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album.
Breathtakingly powerful and impeccably constructed, Lamar uses the canon of black music – jazz, funk, blues, spoken word – to create a modern hip hop album that recognises the civil rights struggles of the past, castigates the societal forces responsible for the sickening oppression in the present, and offers solutions for the future.
It’s dense and overwhelming at times – I mean, it ends with a 12-minute song that addresses apartheid and the perception of idols, segues into an imaginary interview with 2Pac, and concludes with a poem that ties up the whole album – but for an artist to follow up one of the decade’s other best records with something just as majestically overpowering is, in my opinion, incredible. It’s the greatest album of the 2010s; it’s one of the greatest albums ever made. Yeah, I went there!
Listen to the Picky Bastards discuss Kendrick’s later album, Damn, on an early episode of the podcast.
James Spearing: Alt J – An Awesome Wave (2012) – For a while in my twenties and late teens it seemed like I only bought debut albums. At the time this was hugely exciting as each seemed better than the last and signalled some sort of golden era for what is still the most overused phrase on radio – “new music”. Now that I’m older, buying physical albums is mostly a thing of the past (I did buy one recently, it was a fifth album) and very few of those debuts have stood the test of time.
An Awesome Wave is the exception.
We fell in love with their unique “quiet-rock” sound which emerged from nowhere with this album and has still not been bettered, even by the band themselves (although they came close on their poppier second album). My album enjoyment peaked with their Other Stage set at Glastonbury the year after its release. I still don’t know any of the words today but I’m happy to “ooh” along just like we did at Glasto and on every listen to the album before and since.
And if you’re looking for credentials, it won the Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello. Finally, seven of the tracks were released as singles. Seven. That’s how strong An Awesome Wave is.
Lisa Whiteman: Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships (2011)
I can’t call my album of the decade without reflecting on my decade, including bits I’d sooner forget.
Music soundtracks life; to me, it is the beat on which I walk to work, the bad pub dancing, the anguish and comfort as you punch then fall into a pillow… and what picks you back up when the tears dry.
This past decade has near enough bookended my thirties. The decade started with two parents, a grandparent, a beautiful relationship, and an international job. It ends with one parent, no grandparent, becoming a parent, living through domestic abuse, losing a job, and being out the other side of it all alive.
An album released in 2011 subsequently and subconsciously soundtracked and carried me through the rest of the decade. A record that came out against all odds, written from the soul of someone who refused to give up despite his world crashing around him. A record about survival and energy and loss… a record about being human but above all, the one that spoke to me about me. For that, I’ll be ever grateful and will love it for all the decades to come.
My album of the decade is Rise Ye Sunken Ships by Augustines.
Pete Wild: Beck – Morning Phase (2014)
For me, it’s Morning Phase by Beck. It’s an album that I go back to. It’s like a friend. Morning Phase is there for me like a warm hug when I need it, but it also looks into me – abyss-like – when I disappoint myself. It’s clearer than a reflection. It says, you’re right to be disappointed, do better. You can hear it in the opening orchestral strains of ‘Cycle’ – this is Beck in serious mode. But then it’s plaintive, heartfelt, sweet (‘Morning’ plunges me into Nick Drake territory, as surely as his ’From the Morning’ does), reflective, uplifting, catchy (‘Heart is a Drum’), heartbreaking, reassuring, wise (‘Say Goodbye’). And so it goes.
It’s an album that has won me over over countless plays. It’s the very definition of an album for me, a grower not a show-er. As the years have gone by, my favourite songs have shifted and changed too (from ‘Blue Moon’ to ‘Blackbird Chain’ to ‘Waking Light’ via the aforementioned ‘Heart is a Drum’ and ‘Sat Goodbye’). I’m as much of a fool for the goofy pop Beck as the next man (can’t hear his most recent single ‘Saw Lightning’ enough) but the semi-sombre Beck of Morning Phase blows me away every time.
Fran Slater: Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos (2016)
Some albums are a snapshot of a time and place, perfectly capturing the moment of their existence. You love them for that. Other albums make their mark because it feels like they were written with you in mind. They get you. Very rarely, an album does both.
So rarely in fact, that I could think of only two of them in the decade that started with 2010 and ends in 2019. Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination and Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos are my two favourite albums of the last ten years and it has been an agonising decision to choose between them.
I settled, eventually, on Kate Tempest’s 2016 masterpiece because I feel that the second half of my decade might have been very different without it. It lifted my mood on many occasions. It made me feel held, like I wasn’t alone, like there were others who saw things the way that I did even as the world burned down around them.
Add to that the energetic and intelligent way that Kate creates her beats and rhymes on this album, and there could be very little competition in the end. This was the decade when women were at the head of a social and musical revolution, and Kate, for me, was right there leading the charge.
Read Fran’s earlier account of how Let Them Eat Chaos affected him in this Why Music Matters piece.
Nick Parker: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Initially trying to choose an album of the decade seemed a pretty much impossible task. My shortlist was about 20 albums long. In the end though, once I had a chance to define my terms here – that the album should both “speak to me” in a personally affecting way, and also try to capture the lived experience of its creator(s), along with the world around them – this became a very short list indeed.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a massive album in so many respects, but it is also so detailed and minute, as it leaps from talk of Lamar’s mental health struggles, to America’s romance with gun violence, to the hamstrung economics of being an African American in the US in 2015. This and so much more, all dressed in the most lush and refined instrumentation I’ve ever heard on an album of this genre. It turns out these kinds of decisions are easy.
Sam Atkins: Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle (2013)
I had my album of the decade picked out back in November of 2010. How could any album match the lifelong change as a listener that I felt when I first heard Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? An album with such monumental impact on the past decade of music that I can’t imagine music in 2019 being anything like it is now. MBDTF is still an incredible album, but I’m not here to talk about it at all.
Reflection is an interesting thing and I only changed my mind about a year ago on what album was the ‘one to beat’ for something as important as Album of the Decade (and yes, it really is that important to me). Laura Marling is probably my artist of the decade who, back in 2011, quickly became my favourite voice of the decade. Once I Was An Eagle is the definitive Marling record, with a level of lyricism and musicianship that completely floors me every time I hear the album.
The opening suite of 5 tracks that blend seamlessly into each other; the rhythmic quality of the electrifying ‘Devil’s Resting Place’; the breathless simplicity of ‘Once’; the returning motif that appears right up until the closing bars of the album; Once I Was An Eagle is a breathtaking album. It’s musically crafted to perfection and no album has given me more joy, pain, and emotion over the last decade. An album so good that on reflection Laura herself even sounds surprised at just how good it is.
Kathy Halliday: Snowmine – Laminate Pet Animal (2011)
Laminate Pet Animal is the debut album of the illusive Snowmine, a 5-piece band hailing from Brooklyn, New York. Illusive in the sense that very little is known about them – not helped by the fact they disappeared a few years after the release of their second album, Dialects (2014). Yet, despite their complete media blackout, Snowmine still command a respectable following, with many speculating over their absence and the reality of a fabled return. In my opinion, this is an album starved of the recognition it truly deserves. Like the fox that adorns the cover, it’s a fervent beauty. Snowmine have created an electro-acoustic dream-animal that is just a joy to listen to.
Matt Paul: Bon Iver – 22, A Million (2016)
After their 2011 self-titled album, I expected Bon Iver to keep following the same path. The album established Justin Vernon as one of the best singer-songwriters out there. It was beautifully executed, but also a logical next step after his debut.
5 years later, when he came back again with 22, A Million, he ripped up the rule book and turned from a guy with a guitar to an avant-garde artist with a whole new vision. This felt like an album where the artist truly found their place. Where he struck that balance between the highly intimate first album and the grandiose second. The result is a dark and raw collection of songs that, though abstract at times, paints an evocative tale of redemption and self-discovery. You can ignore the other picks. This is the the Album of the Decade.
Fat Roland: Kiasmos – Kiasmos (2014)
It’s been a brain-wibbling decade of electronic music: we had a tsunami of Aphex Twin tunes, Rustie headbutted electronic music into a million fractals, and people did 8-bit versions of ‘Baby Shark’. So for the 2010s highlight, why choose something as understated as Kiasmos’s debut album Kiasmos, a polite slice of classically-influenced microhouse?
Anyone who’s flicked through Erased Tapes’ back catalogue already knows this album’s simplistic palate, sitting somewhere between Sigur Rós and Nils Frahm. But Ólafur ‘Broadchurch theme’ Arnalds has created a special alchemy with Bloodgroup’s Janus Rasmussen that’s perhaps not immediately noticeable as the paper-light bass drums tick along merrily. But wait. Why has that shaker given me chills on ‘Looped’? Why do the descending strings on ‘Held’ melt my rickety old bones? And is that a cigarette lighter acting as a hi-hat on ‘Thrown’, evoking memories of a zillion club night hang-outs?
The right kind of piano melody strums your heart strings. The right kind of synth line gives you goosebumps. This is a perfect combination of both; as its tidily-arranged octet of tracks play out, Kiasmos’s minimalistic geometry becomes emotionally complex. Think of it as an awkward Icelandic sister to Jon Hopkins. It may have been a brain-wibbling decade of electronic music, but the decade’s quiet victor is something for the heart: let 2014’s Kiasmos become your soundtrack for years to come.
Joe Shervin: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
I’d say topping your Spotify most-played-of-the-year list two years in a row is a solid basis for an album of the decade nomination. I’d also say an album so beautiful, so thoughtful, so entwined with an artist’s real-life discovery of real love, is a pretty good reason too.
Around the time of writing this album Father John Misty – or, to use his real name, Josh Tilman; or, how he was referred to by many, the drummer from Fleet Foxes – married his girlfriend. It shows. It’s an honest account of falling in love; at once open and heartfelt, terrified and paranoid.
The album also felt ‘new’. I hadn’t heard anything like it before. True, this was Father John Misty’s second studio album, but I hadn’t heard anyone – not least a guy as mysterious, suave, or funny as he is – sing so intelligently, so sarcastically, so poetically.
I’ll be listening to it well into the next decade, too.
Listen to the Picky Bastards discuss Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy on an early episode of the podcast.
Kim Fernley: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)
PJ Harvey’s 2011 masterpiece, Let England Shake, is a definite winner for me. It’s an album I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, and I unearth something different each time I hear it. I also think it speaks volumes when music helps you to learn more about yourself.
Let England Shake is still very relevant. It deals with the theme of war, as well as Harvey’s conflicting feelings about her homeland. Her love/hate relationship with England definitely draws me to the record- it’s something I can relate to, something which feels comforting and reassuring.
Let England Shake includes some of the most melancholic lyrics behind uplifting melodies. Harvey manages to address current issues with a sweet yet cutting voice. The result is a stunningly flawless record, which will stand the test of time. If we’ve not nuked the planet by 2100, I’m sure it will make Picky Bastards’ top 10 albums of the century.
Hear Nick Parker tell us why he loves PJ Harvey on this special episode of the podcast.
Kirsten Loach: Fionn Regan – The Bunkhouse Vol 1: Anchor Black Tattoo (2012)
I had just moved to Manchester and hardly knew anyone. My life felt chaotic and I was riddled with anxieties about where the future might lead. Putting this album on for the first time, I was immediately calmed by Fionn’s ethereal voice and transported away to a mysterious world full of midnight ferry crossings and gardens with magical doorways. Although loneliness is always lurking in the shadows of each track, the sheer beauty of the lyrics is enough to remind you that the world can still be a wonderful place.
I very much doubt that this album will be picked as the best of the bunch by the other Picky Bastards – it’s far too quiet and unassuming for that. But for me, it represents the origins of a musical love affair that has seen me through a particularly tumultuous period in my life. I always turn to Fionn when I need some help getting back on my feet and I now consider his albums to be some of the most cherished that I own. If that’s not enough to warrant being considered for album of the decade, then what is?
Fliss Clarke: Beyonce – Lemonade (2016)
Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade is an unequivocal masterpiece. PhD theses have been written on its profound and nuanced paen to Black womanhood. It is at once raw and slick, vulnerable and unapologetic, personal and political, tender and bold. With dizzying musical scope – RnB, rock, hip hop, country, trap, gospel, soul – and textual complexity, Lemonade redefined the pop album: in the age of playlists, Lemonade is a complete multimedia narrative defined by its wholeness rather than individual tunes.
The accompanying film is layered with sumptuous imagery and historical symbolism, American South in the background, Black women front and centre, songs segued by the poetry of British-Somali writer Warsan Shire. The songs are emotional and fierce: Beyonce can immaculately belt out a banger, so when her voice breaks in the delivery– whether the rage of ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ or the desperation of ‘Sandcastles’ – you really feel it. You feel it all, which is the marker of great art. It’s obviously the album of the decade. OK bastards, now let’s get in formation.
Mike Hull: Swans – The Seer (2012)
From their earliest incarnation in the no-wave sound of the early 80’s, Swans have been a force to be reckoned with in experimental music, noise rock, and alternative music in general. Indeed, anybody that has attempted to endure any of their early records or witnessed the relentless crushing power of Swans’ live performances could testify to this. After around a fourteen-year hiatus, Swans came swinging back on the scene; The Seer was the second record from their new chapter.
The Seer, which weighs in at an impressive two hours, sees Gira and co weave textures and rhythms that can be entirely brutal and abrasive. As always, Swans focus on repetition and a kind of visceral force that can entirely consume you should you allow it to. But, in the next breath The Seer can reward the listener with music so extraordinarily beautiful, swaying hypnotically into enveloping mantras and warm drones. It’s such a luscious, exquisite piece of art. It can be a seedy, bullying, threatening record, but one that is completely demanding of your attention. It’s like being warmly hugged, before being punched full pelt in the head. It’s a wonderful journey.