Best of The Decade: Bill Cummings’s Top Twenty- Five Albums

Best of The Decade: Bill Cummings’s Top Twenty- Five Albums

Lists are always subjective; increasingly I find combined lists deathly predictable, ripe with flavours of the month and critic proof artists. In fact, when they are included multiple times you wonder what the worth of the actual ranking is? So being able to select a personal list is an opportunity to go with your gut and your heart. I have taken editors privilege and selected twenty five of my favourite albums from the last ten years; these are the ones that have excited me and moved me most, the ones I have returned to. There are also some recommendations and lesser known works as well as some well known names. In truth I could have picked twenty more records as there wasn’t much difference between many of my picks, but here are the twenty five selections, in alphabetical order, that I settled upon after much agonising.

Angel Olsen – My Woman (2016)

My Woman isn’t just an album about relationships, or love or even a man, it’s a fierce document of the self, of holding onto the fragments of yourself when everything is falling apart around you. So it turns out the woman she’s singing about is herself.  It’s also an immensely varied and almost uncategorisable album of alt-pop music infected with a burgeoning artistry.  It is utterly startling.

Anna Meredith – Varmints (2016)

Songwriter, producer, composer with a classical background and winner of the Scottish Album of the Year award, Anna Meredith is a prodigious talent.  Her magnificent Varmints is the daring, adventurous and glorious sound of the solar system imploding.  Marrying a tapestry of electronic motifs with a dexterity of percussion, vocal loops, cavernous strings and samples, it sounds like it’s been beamed from another planet.  A most entrancing and affecting record.

Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest (2017)

Mysterious, sensual and alluring. Rest ripples with the majesty and intrigue of something which carries the name Gainsbourg. But more than that, Rest is on the quiet a classic of the tens. This enveloping gem flowers delicately from the tip toeing harpsichords and breathy melodic couplets, its the sound of the Tales of the Unexpected set in Paris. ‘Ring – a ring a roses’. The melodrama of the string laden ‘Kate’ to the throbbing pulses of ‘Deadly Valentine’ that simmers with revenge and regret, the squealchy funk of ‘Sylvia Says’ is majestic. Elegant production suites that blurs genre lines, pregnant with emotion perhaps informed by heartbreak and the death of her sister, these incisive couplets and electric soundscapes provide interest around every corner and make Rest a masterclass, and the high watermark of Charlotte’s musical career thus far. We will be fascinated to see where she goes next.

Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Hermain (2014)

First released in French then rereleased as bilingual version Christine emerged into the wider consciousness through her awesome glitch of ‘Titled’ that joyously celebrates difference. With its mix of future pop sound and torch balladry, her second album ‘Human Warmth’ was a smart introduction to Christine and The Queens’ ability to craft special pop music that reflected her growth as a young woman trying to find her sexuality and place as an artist, one who throws off the shackles of stereotype at every turn.

‘Jonathan’ featuring Perfume Genius, is a bubbling lament that becomes a tale of gay emancipation and mistreatment by a partner who never provided closure. Sophisticated, artful and nuanced her splicing of musical styles, her bilingual abilities giving the songs constantly fresh perspectives: her tales of blurred identity are ambiguous yet universal to human experience.

The R&B pops of ‘No Harm Is Done’ is counterbalanced by a male rap from Tunji Ige. Further embracing her dualities and boundary crossing performances, she flexed her muscles again on the more refined sleek US rnb influenced sound of last year’s awesome Chris.

Chromatics- Kill For Love (2012)

Sleek, noirish and cinematic. Chromatics are powered by the talents of Oregon-based producer Johnny Jewel. In 2007 they defined a textured cinematic 80s influenced sound, retooled for the millennium with their influential album ‘Night Call’, that became the centre of the soundtrack to the 2011 film Drive.

Their 2012 album ‘Kill For Love’ crystallised their sound further into a masterful opus. Pulsing, textured and shiny, this meticulously crafted sound is laced with a dream pop sensibility from vocalist Ruth Radelet who inhabits longing, alienation and disconnection to the modern world. It cruises to the intersection of post-punk, shoegaze and electronica in a way M83 did too. It’s little wonder David Lynch picked them as one of the acts to help soundtrack a rebooted Twin Peaks. An extended epic with shifting moods and elongated instrumental passages rattling alongside the brilliance of the New Order-eaque title track or the aching cover of Into the Black. Mysterious, imperious and marvellous.

David Bowie – Black Star (2016)

Released just a few days after his death, Blackstar, felt like a parting gift from Bowie, an artist who knew that his star was fading out. A fitting final artistic statement, that was capped when a mere weeks after its release when his death was announced. Tapping into his history and myth like a diviner, a master craftsman, Blackstar was one of his best latter longplayers, teaming with jazz textures and ripe with under currents of electronic. This was the star man writing his own ending, completing his life’s work, and shooting off into the solar system in affecting, adventurous and gut-wrenchingly brilliant style.

Desperate Journalist – ST (2015)

Desperate Journalist, may have refined their sound on the two follow-up records but its the emotional rush of their debut that really made its mark upon me. Swelling, cinematic, epic songs laced with startlingly affecting vocals and a thunderous post-punk gut-kick.

Desperate Journalist’s sound might positively bristle with the musical ghosts of the past: it’s there in Rob Hardy‘s 12 string Rickenbacker arpeggio assaults; it’s there in Simon Drowner‘s dexterous basslines; Caz Hellbent‘s fire-gun drum beat; and most of all the duality of Jo Bevan‘s cathartic vocals. But far from the derivative retromaniacs that characterise the songs of many modern-day post punk and 80’s indie inspired bands, these songs sound affectionate, knowing and not cynical, like a love letter to the bands they are influenced by, but filtered through each of their personalities. Each one of the songs that made up the superlative rush of a debut album beats with an unflinching heart, a simmering rage, an affecting touching point embodied by singer Jo Bevan’s intensely personal vocals that explode into towering bittersweet melodic peaks as she reclaims the pain of past memories and turns them into self affirming anthems. It’s this that marked Desperate Journalist apart from the crowd as an unstoppable, unmissable guitar pop force who transcend desperate (journalistic) pigeon-holes.

Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo (2011)

Gruff Rhys’s most realised solo album is brimful of multi coloured melodies, imagination and restless creativity. Rhys drawing on his palette of psychedelia, surf and heaven sent melodies. ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ tumbles playfully as a pebble rolling across the beach; the stomp pianos of ‘Honey All over‘ is insidiously catchy; ‘Sensations in the dark’ two steps across the room with a foot tapping latin flavour. ‘Christopher Columbus‘ is a strident melange of horns and psychy blasts and is a simmering delight. This is Gruff on fine form his Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach mingles with lounge sounds, some of it may even hark back to Super Furry Animals records like Radiator and Guerrilla yet it’s a riot of sounds burnished in Rhys‘s singular, mercurial imagination.

Grimes – Art Angels (2015)

Following the anxious, weightless shudders of 2012’s extrodinary bedroom created debut Visions, 2015’s Art Angels saw
Canadian artist Grimes aka Claire Boucher throw off her introspection and go straight for the pop jugular with a collection of songs that clarified her sound and fired it into the stratosphere like a multicoloured flate. Oscillating between casio-core, synth pop and dream pop and all wrapped in her vivid visual imagination that takes in the influence of fantasy, cyber punk and manga. But its the songs that are utterly irrepressible totally infectious. Grimes was charting out her future pop in her bedroom before many of these songs even made it onto record. The reflective ‘Belly of the beat’ dances through a twinkling rhythm with a nightmarish nursery rhymes quality “Everybody dies, we appoint their eyes and we dance like angels do”. The programmed beats and expressive vocals of “Kill vs Maim” is the aural equivalent of a video game beat em soundtrack, giddy and insanely catchy. The rippling ghost in the machine of ‘Realti‘ is postmodern post-feminist pop perfection, an EDM floor filler invested with a existential anxiety that hangs onto the precipice as the world is falling apart. Restless and inventive, Grimes is painting her own otherworldly planets and we are privileged to visit.

Grumbling Fur – Prenaturals (2014)

Grumbling Fur are that rare thing in the current musical climate, a duo who peek beyond the horizon, who craft a sound that whilst its tapestry of found sounds, resonant harmonies and electronic textures might rustle with warm reminiscences for artists of the past, is still uniquely rooted as it is in the present and future sound. It sounds quite like nothing else you’ll hear, Preternaturals is utterly transformative.

Gwenno – Y Dydd Olaf (2015)

Initially released on Peski records then retooled for release the following year on Heavenly records Gwenno announced herself as a solo artist of endless depths with the superlative ‘Y Dydd Olaf’. Crafting sophisticated suites of intricate soundscapes, underpinned by pulsing Krautish rhythms. Her home-made synth lines light up like illuminations in the night sky and her floating, hypnotic vocals are dipped in a Welsh lilt her prophetic Sci-fi and homespun lyricism taps into prescient themes of technology, cultural and political hegemonies, and feminism.

Kathryn Joseph – ‘bones you have thrown me and blood i’ve spilled’ (2015)

One or the pleasures of writing and editing a webzine is discovering new music that can move people. One such artist arrived in 2015 with her debut album she told me last year I was one of the first to write about it, which isn’t why I do this but was rather heart warming. Here’s what I wrote about her utterly transfixing devastating debut then.

Consisting of ten tracks of emotionally raw, meticulously crafted songs replete with naturalistic, gothic and intensely personal imagery, musically comparable to P J Harvey‘s stripped back piano and vocal masterpiece ‘White Chalk’ or grand melodrama of Antony and The Johnsons best works. Joseph is the possessor of a unique tone that cuts through each of these couplets. Take the ghostly hauntings of ‘The Bird’ that’s brittle circular piano motif, is painted by Joseph’s spellbinding expression of hurt through haunted pointed metaphors (“you bring me dead birds/ and then you go”) before turning it into a cry of universal suffrage (“and it sounds like all of our lives”). While the startling ‘blood’ is breathtakingly powerful, her quivering vocals slithering down each punctured piano note, that rises and falls and is enveloped by a cinematic majesty. If you are touched by Kathryn Joseph’s work you will fall under her spell.

Janelle Monae- Archandroid (2010)

Throughout the tens, Janelle Monae’s genre-blurring sounds and creations mined the worlds of hip hop, rnb, electronica and future soul yielding great rewards. Archandroid is her excellent concept album from 2010 that constructs Monae from the ground up with her prescient themes touching on fluid identity, inequality and society.

While Monae’s retro suits, bow-tie and afro bun were boyish yet fiercely representative of a confident female empowerment and openess that chimed with post Beyonce pop culture.  That she initially didn’t identify with any sexuality only added to the mystery, responding to questions about her sexuality with the mysterious: ‘I only date androids’ this made her symptomatic of the new guard of less willing to be pigeonholed female pop stars. She makes reference to exploring her sexuality admidst prejudice, throughout the record and in the process becoming a queer icon: “I’m trying to find my peace,” she sings on the proulsive ‘Cold War,’“I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me. And it hurts my heart.” She later came out as queer and pansexual in interviews.

Her excellently smart R&B influenced sound and visuals typified by the video for standout ‘Tightrope’, was part of what has made her a standout artist of modern pop performance. Sleek, retro yet also futuristic the sprawling sci-fi pop of Archandroid laid a path for her excellent Dirty Computer album.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (2012)

While this years stunning Norman Fucking Rockwell might be her crowning achievement. It was Lizzy Grant’s debut that seared itself on my subconscious this decade. Some may paint her as a caricature of the doomed girl looking for love in all the wrong places or worse still a marketing man’s product but Del Rey’s Lynchian sound is best summed up in the slow-motion sumptuous heartbreak of ‘Video Games’, the existential sweep of the anthemic title track or the twanging noir of ‘Blue Jeans’. Unfairly written off at the time as superficial and insincere, Del Rey has shown she is a formidable artist who has enduring appeal her songs mining existential insecurities, and strips back the veneer of California to reveal the dark underbelly of the American dream and female experience, in a way perhaps no other mainstream artist had the ablty to.

LoneLady – Hinterland (2015)

Manchester LoneLady’s vision of a modern world is haunted by the past and lies decaying at the outer reaches of the urban sprawl untouched by gentrification. Her view highlights the contradictions of modern living, the need for space yet also the desire for genuine human contact in a technological driven new millennium culture.  It is also an album brimming with tunes, skeletal, post-punk and artful, yet grooving with the ghost’s of the best disco records. Yet it is more than just another album, because with ‘Hinterland’ Campbell had not just crafted one of the best albums of the mid 2010s, but created one of the most powerful artistic statements.

Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film (2013)

Ageing, a subject not oft broached in popular music, yet with brutal honesty Rewind the Film pondered on the theme with grace, heart and with the power to move. Some Manics fans dislike RTF because of its acoustic textures and its multiple guests, but for me it sparked my interest in the band after the disappointments of PFAYM and SATT, a starkly honest, stripped back record punctuated by beautiful moments and a set of their strongest songs as a pure trio (discounting the excellent Albini produced Journal for Plagued Lovers..) for many years.

Delicate opener ‘Sullen Welsh heart’ featuring Lucy Rose wears its heart on its sleeve as its creeping thoughts of mortality are heartbreaking, while when James Dean Bradfield swings in on the imperious Richard Hawley led title track amidst a tangle of acoustic guitars, a goosebump inducing moment that clarifies this moving, reflective song about the passage of time. “How I hate middle age/in between acceptance and rage” sings with defiance Bradfield on ‘Builder of routines‘ a song seemingly about Nicky Wire’s attempts to create a protection from the world through ritual. While the elegantly plucked ‘Running out of Fantasy’ harks back to ‘Small Black Flowers’, but with an air of resignation and regret. For a band who once made such bold proclamations it was startling to hear just how vulnerable and reflective they could allow themselves to be.

Melody’s Echo Chamber – ST (2012)

Blurring psychedelia and shoegaze, Melody Pinochet’s debut album is a masterclass in tantalising dreamy pop influenced by Broadcast. Working with members of Tame Impala’s band, tracks like the glistenubg and infectious ‘I Follow You,’ the trembling fuzz of ‘Crystalize’ and the psychedelic caousel of ‘You won’t be missing that part of me’ are resplendent with a bittersweet quality.

While the awesome twinkling of ‘Some Time, Alone’ chimes with a deep appreciation of French pop and 60’s lounge music. A masterful beginning from an artist who would spread her wings further on its glorious follow-up Bon Voyage last year.

Noname – Room 25 (2018)

Whilst Kendrick and Kanye perhaps predictably dominate many of the end of decade lists, the role of women in hip hop in the last decade has been somewhat overlooked. Cardi B and Lizzo may be more well known but with her debut ‘Room 25′, Noname delivered a record of rare insight and quality seamlessly blends old school hip hop, jazz with neo-soul. Weaving her intricate playful witty poigniant stream of consciousness ripple with a endeering introspective quality. On swaying and affecting opener ‘Self‘ she asks “you really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” with a knowing smile. She taps into timeless themes of civil rights, poverty, cheating partners and every day experience on the excellent ‘Blaxploitation’ with its shuffling beat, busy basslines and prescient lyrical wordplay (“I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black, bad sleep triggered by bad government”.) Her easy natural flow sounds almost like she’s weaving with her childhood tic-tack toe rhymes into the struggles of adulhood and her community, each bar vividly and interwoven with samples that speak to the experience of struggle and being black in Trump’s America (“America the great, this grateful dead and life for me, apple pie on Sunday morning, obesity and heart disease. Can you hear the freedom bells?”) with its subtle arrangements and prodigous rhymes with Room 25 NoName had produced one of the best hip hop albums of the decade.

Perfume Genius – No Shape (2017)

Elegant, graceful yet constantly gripping throughout. Swelling with a glorious confidence that has echoes of everyone from David Bowie to Prince, No Shape was the clumination of a series of great Perfume Genius releases throughout the decade. Opener ‘Otherside‘ is an exquisite shimmering burst, ‘Slip Away’ sounds like it’s clinging onto the planet by its fingertips. While ‘Wreath’ is utterly transfixing. While ‘Die 4 U’ rustles with a heartstopping devotion. ‘No Shape‘ was his best album so far and another step up for Mike Hadreas and his brand of grand, shape-shifting pop songwriting that possesses an otherworldly transformative power.

Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps (2017)

Teaming up with Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), Bridgers crafted one of the most emotive, affecting, and well-realised albums of the later 2010s.  This is songwriting with a real personal, poetic, and heartfelt touch. An imperious excavation of uncertainty, insecurity and loss, you feel Bridgers isn’t just witnessing it but has lived it and has the rare ability to tell the tale. The glorious ‘Motion sickness’ thematic metaphors sketch out a landscape of anxiety and heartbreak while trying to put a brave face on it all; the tender and ghostly ‘Smoke Signals’ with its vivid memory shots is masterful and affecting; “jesus christ I’m so blue all the time/ that’s just how I feel/ always have and I always will”; the sensitively plucked ‘Funeral’ is a devastating heart stopping meditation on grief and depression. Phoebe’s distinctive haunted tone and ability to embody vivid couplets have the ability to stop you dead in your tracks. She’s one if the best current song writers around today.

Real Lies – Real Life (2015)

Real Lies craft a tapestry for our times, with their brilliant debut Real Life that was as much for the comedown as it was dancefloors. There’s the downtempo excellence of ‘North Circular’ that’s a moving ambient rummage through the ditritus of urban living in the margins. Whilr lead single ‘Seven Sisters’ trtful suite of airy playful percussion, bouncy keyboards, sample stings, communal choruses: allows each part space to pop, unlike the current trend of many over produced electronic pop cuts.

Like the meeting point between the production suss of KLF and New Order, while the vocal dexterity is redolent of Pet Shop Boys with even a smidge of, whisper it, early East 17. Their sound warmly transports you back to the 80s and 90s electronic and rave sounds of your youth. But crucially its spliced with a knowing heart and soul; these half-spoken, half-sung vocals are under cut with a disquiet that speaks to what it is like to be young and falling through the cracks of Broken Britain. 

Shrag – Life ! Death ! Prizes! (2010)

You may not of heard of it but ‘Life! Death! Prizes’ (so named after a bizarre headline in a glossy woman’s magazine) was an album by Brighton outfit Shrag released at the turn of the decade, sadly they packed it in after another album a few years later.

But this their best record bristles with bounding new wave rhythms and addictive colourful melodies that collided with shouting exclamations; it’s an unheralded gem for the tens. Each song exudes a feisty personality that pivot on the southern English tone of Helen King’s lead vocals, from sighing melancholic melodies to conversational interludes that unpick her feelings, to the sparring with guitarist Bob whose pointed retorts these are perhaps the record’s most memorable moments, his male voice acting as a counter balance to Helen’s clever, playful lyrics, at times introspective at others dripping with deep irony this is what made Shrag a cut above.

Following a long tradition of English pop acts that don’t really fit in any scene, from the shouty-pop of Shampoo, the DIY synth-indie of Bis and lyrical humour reminiscent of the Fall and Art Brut. Shrag’s sound is somewhat redolent of fragments of all of these, but yet somehow it’s fresh, individual, and exciting brave and bold, referencing pop culture, surrealist film and their own diaries it’s both anthemic and analytical, yet funny and sad, all of life is here!

Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs (2019)

Released this year Beware of the Dogs is Stella Donnelly’s marvellous debut album proper, possessing the vivid clarity of a set of diary entries and framed in a set of infectious, deftly produced songs; the 26-year-old artist is calling out abusive men, terrible bosses, racists, and clueless partners, and in the process she depicts her growth as an empowered young woman and burgeoning artist. Whether breezy or stripped back, each of her tunes are dipped in an introspective brutality or a sardonic twist, that reveals itself as you pay closer attention to each song. By giving voice to her experiences Melbourne’s Stella Donnelly is an artist giving a face to today’s climate of injustice, gender imbalance and music industry sexism and abuse, she’s giving voice to the voiceless, she’s turning the tables, ripping power from the powerful with humour. That she does it all with such class is credit to her outstanding voice and talent: this is wonderful, sharp and clever songwriting, catchy yet laced with her wit and personality. It’s what great pop music is all about. Lock up the dogs, shut up boys, stick a pipe in it gammons, here comes Stella – it’s remarkably welcome and by god it sounds thoroughly fantastic.


Tindersticks – The Something Rain (2012)

‘The Something Rain’ crafts an evocative palette of smoky sounds of the kind that could soundtrack the gently wafting cigarette that perches from an ashtray in a blues club, the swaying leg of the man that sits at the bar, and the tales of the old man in the corner who cowers of the past when you look him in the eye. The ghost of  John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Andy Williams and Scott Walker drifts through these compositions that thrive with an intimacy and allow Stuart Staples’s voice the space to gently tell his ever compelling tales of losing, winning and finding oneself all over again.

The Something Rain  marries their best sounds, the sighing strings and grand sweeps of their early years, joined by the stripped back jazz like elements of their latter period. Mature, yet crawling with new ideas, luxuriously throbbing yet intricate and human. Where once their sound was almost troubled and discordant, sometimes almost unbearably melancholic, these poetically vivid tales are now infused with warmth and the wisdom of experience. In this throw-away musical culture, it’s rare that a band reach their ninth album and deliver one of their best, and sometimes it is the passing of time that really does make the difference.

Very honorable mentions for Alvvays, Adwaith, Beach House, Bicep, Big Thief, Dum Dum Girls, The Decemberists, Goldfrapp, Islet, Kendrick Lamar, Jenny Hval, Lorde, Evans the Death, Joy Formidable, Kendrick Lamar, Michael Kiwanuka, Nick Cave, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Run the Jewels, Solange, Suede, Swimmer One, The Beths, US. girls, who in truth could all have featured above.

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