60. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression | 59. Kelela – Cut 4 Me | 58. Holly Herndon – Platform | 57. D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah | 56. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 | 55. ANOHNI – HOPELESSNESS | 54. Mitski – Puberty 2 | 53. Future – DS2 | 52. Grimes – Halfaxa | 51. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition | 50. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls | 49. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell | 48. Frankie Rose – Interstellar | 47.Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly | 46. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper | 45. Jlin – Dark Energy | 44. Jeremih – Late Nights | 43. Laurel Halo – Quarantine | 42. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me | 41. Arca – Mutant | 40. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee | 39. Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone? | 38. Olga Bell – Krai | 37. Björk – Biophilia | 36. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 | 35. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy | 34. Julia Holter – Ekstasis | 33. Sean McCann – Music for Private Ensemble | 32. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE | 31. Zola Jesus – Stridulum
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30. Ian William Craig – Centres
Culturedarm said: ‘A single voice in a vast cathedral, light refracting on four sides through stained glass, the shrug and hum of a submersible, the muffled rhythm of a steadily beating heart, Ian William Craig’s Centres is sometimes baroque, or monastic and cloistered, or like the strings and sinews of popular forms stretched out and carefully pressed, plucked, rubbed, or cut. Occasionally it veers towards folk or singer-songwriter territory, always graceful, but mostly sounds like a cross between Craig’s FatCat/130701 labelmate Max Richter, under flowing water, and John Cale’s Paris 1919 wrapped in layers of gauze.’
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29. Tink – Winter’s Diary
While it remains to be seen whether she will be stimulated or stifled by her association with Timbaland – Think Tink, supposed to be her debut studio album under the auspices of Mosley Music Group, is now a couple of years overdue – left to her own devices Tink refuses to let up. Still just twenty-two years old, seven mixtapes since 2012 – a career built around the four-tape-strong Winter’s Diary series – mean she is vying only with Young Thug for the title of our most prolific contemporary artist.
Winter’s Diary 4, released last August, has a strong and supple spine thanks to ‘Surprizes’, ‘Stay On It’, ‘Your Side’, and ‘Nothing Else Matters 2’, and Winter’s Diary 2: Forever Yours boasts one of the lushest ballads of the decade in the longingly downtempo ‘Lullaby’. But the pick for the moment remains the first Winter’s Diary, songs like ‘Can I’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ showing Tink at her most sultry and caustic, pushing and compelling her music with a sheer mastery of R&B pacing and mood.
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28. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl
Culturedarm said: ‘Whether enacting and envisioning flickering gender transformations or observing more passively, rapt on the platform of a big city subway, standing at the back of church in a small Norwegian town, or lying in bed with one hand on her cunt and the other clutching a dick placidly soft, Jenny Hval sparks the consciousness, writing self-revelatory music in a conversational tone with a political edge. For their candid language and sudden insights, some of the lyrics on Apocalypse, girl are enough to laugh out loud. Hval whispers in spoken-word paragraphs that soar into pristine moments of song, over a superficially skeletal accompaniment that withholds a wealth of bubbling detail, new age and barrel organ melodies, cello, harp, bass, and Mellotron interspersing with stretches of electronic noise.’
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27. A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.A$AP
Many critics digress, finding flaws in A$AP Rocky’s rampant commercialism, which seems to linger in old attitudes towards drugs and women while prestiging only the culture of the economically upper-class. But all this washes away amid the hum and buzz of Live.Love.A$AP, an atmosphere and an aesthetic as much as a statement, a perfect harmony of sound. Combining the influence of Southern hip hop with the emergent themes and manners of cloud rap, Rocky’s voice loiters and lulls effortlessly over loops and beats provided by producers including Clams Casino, A$AP Ty Beats, and Beautiful Lou. Any old hack can write socially conscious lyrics, but few possess Rocky’s ear for cadence, his rapping languid yet emboldened and packed with internal rhymes. ‘Bass’ is especially memorable, defined by Clams’ low-frequency, impalpable and gaseous loop. Live.Love.A$AP is enhanced too by a flurry of entertaining cameos, notably courtesy of SpaceGhostPurrp and A$AP Ferg.
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26. Animal Collective – Painting With
Culturedarm said: ‘A few days before the release of the record’s sweaty and squelching first single ‘FloriDada’, Animal Collective premiered Painting With through the speakers of Baltimore-Washington International, looping the slightly surreal and hitherto unspecified music – best heard through the building’s bathrooms, pre-security observation areas, and post-security lounge – until 6 pm in the late afternoon.
The band have called Painting With their ‘Ramones record’, ‘short songs with a homogenous energy […] something where the first song revs up the engine, and it kind of just cruises after that’. But while the comparison is apt it could just as well be today’s Music for Airports, ‘able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular’, ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’.
The relentless onrush of overlapping voices, spouting and sloshing synthesizers, and buzzing and hiccuping beats can be by turns disorientating, fist-pumping, or strikingly danceable, but they’re not without uncertainty or doubt, and in the right mood and with the right atmosphere, the whole thing coheres to provide a certain still. Perhaps more than any other Animal Collective record Painting With harks back to The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, and even 60s and 70s singer-songwriter influences, yet it feels completely of the moment, finding balance amid busyness and bombardment, sensuously and with a sense of fun attuned to modern life.’
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25. Waxahatchee – American Weekend
Sometimes fledgeling artists – whether they are relatively new to recording and releasing music, or enjoying newfound freedom after time in a band as they prepare to embark on a solo career – seem to catch themselves in a moment of raw and untethered and idiosyncratic brilliance, encapsulating their state of mind and their relationship with the world. Take Jolie Holland’s debut Catalpa, for instance, or elsewhere on this list Love Remains by How To Dress Well, or just this year the solo debut of Jófríður Ákadóttir who seems to concentrate her previous work as part of Samaris and Pascal Pinon while striking out in new directions on the wonderful Brazil.
More than some of her contemporaries who started out in the ballpark of lo-fi indie rock, Waxahatchee has pushed forward with each successive release, showing the same capacity for intimately evocative songwriting, but seamlessly incorporating new sounds and new rhythms. Yet the urgency of American Weekend – a remarkable collection of eleven perfectly concise and discrete songs depicting bodies butting against each other and drifting inevitably apart – remains hard to beat. Is there a sonically heavier or more emphatic song this decade than ‘Luminary Blake’?
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24. Jessy Lanza – Oh No
Culturedarm said: ‘Tonally and atmospherically Oh No plays like the composite of decades’ worth of R&B, bolstered by beefier keys, strident electronic patches, wetter and splintering beats which push the palette in the direction of footwork and house, and Lanza’s voice, an arresting admixture of Japanese pop and new wave, replete with coquettish exclamations and inhalations and breathy groans. The synth patterns – with Lanza joined by Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys on production – threaten to run away with themselves, only for Lanza to lure them into step and ultimately bring them under her control. Shimmering, sad, perfect for summer, Oh No is precariously irresistible.’
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23. The-Dream – Terius Nash: 1977
After three acclaimed albums established The-Dream as the most grandiloquent R&B artist since Prince, but failed to result in glorious commercial success, in late August 2011 he released this tape for free, under his birth name, with his birth year as the title. Seen as a stopgap while work on what would become IV Play haltingly progressed, the record went largely unheralded, even after Def Jam released it commercially at the end of 2012. Yet this is both a minor record and roundly accomplished, The-Dream certainly sombre but intimate and exposed. Its first five songs are especially alluring, from the ironic wordplay of ‘Wake Me When It’s Over’ to the free-form crooning at the end of ‘Ghetto’. And amid bright synths as he defiantly and drunkenly elaborates his feelings upon the wedding of a former lover, ‘Wedding Crasher’ still stands as perhaps The-Dream’s defining moment of the 2010s.
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22. Nicole Dollanganger – Observatory Mansions
Recorded in her bedroom or bathroom pushing through a plethora of plush animals, bottled keepsakes, and old dolls, Nicole Dollanganger’s Observatory Mansions – her fourth self-released album, immediately preceding the equally brilliant Natural Born Losers which saw her affiliate with the Eerie Organization and Grimes – is of a piece with her haunting and mesmerising, flinty yet gracefully glimmering body of work. Self-consciously and stylistically but never falsely or ironically white trash, she draws her material from ‘sleepy towns and cemeteries’, littered streets, dilapidated apartments, stained upholstery, abandoned theme parks, and daytime TV, wringing out an elegy in the form of a lament for the living dead.
Which is to say all of us, for as she unfolds on the title track, ‘Time scurries away from us like field mice / Out through the holes in our walls / Lost to the dark night’, before in the only compatible gesture, her voice carries faintly over the top, half pleading, half compelling, lingering as she enacts ‘Heal me up again’. There is raw violence here which her swooning and coddling voice neither masks nor forgives, but over warily looping synth lines, the occasional forlorn guitar, and the thrash and clang of distant percussion, she manages to find beauty and delicacy in perseverance, in the mere fact and materiality of life. Her lyrics are archly observed, wistful, witty, and rooted in a keen sense of place, which evokes her Ontario hometown and seems capable of resuscitating the past so it moves thinly about in the present. Observatory Mansions has the stagnant glow of nowhere to go and a golden evening.
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21. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon
‘If I look / Or if I don’t look / Clouds are always / Passing over’ – so sings Phil Elverum, the opening lines to ‘The Place I Live’, the third song from Clear Moon. Elverum consistently relays for us, compassionate and clear eyed, those minutiae which substantially comprise all of our lives. Clear Moon was the first of two records he released in 2012: both it and the denser, more experimental Ocean Roar focused immediately upon his hometown of Anacortes, Washington, and were recorded there in the large room of a converted church. Yet through both his lyrics and his music, the detail of his observations, the scope of his speculations and misgivings, and his tracings of the landscape come together to extend beyond the provincial and evoke that which is essentially human. On Clear Moon, accompanied by a rumbling acoustic guitar, steady percussion, and occasional backing vocals which wisp and wind, Elverum’s voice thinly sustains and encompasses.
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Culturedarm said: ‘While the referential bravura of ‘Sapokanikan’ shaped many interpretations of the album – allusions and quotations from the Lenape to John Purroy Mitchel, from Shelley to Van Gogh, coming together in a tender waltz that relays the foundations of New York City even as we walk – the broader concerns of Divers are universal, meditations on time and space and the nature of art, which cohere into an act of defiance in the face of onrushing death. Joanna Newsom’s most singular and circular cycle of songs can be at once harrowing and packed with luscious instrumentation, featuring her trusty harp alongside trombones, violins, double bass, clarinet, and celesta, the Mellotron, Wurlitzer, and clavichord, Ryan Francesconi’s bouzouki and baglama, and Judith Linsenberg’s recorder.’
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19. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Melodious if sometimes manic, motley and idiosyncratically multi-voiced, blending the facile or puerile with the emotionally complex, Mature Themes – the second album proper for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, after the rhapsodic breakthrough of Before Today – finds the singer navigating the margins of post-Golden Age Hollywood, twirling on the floor of the discotheque but gazing dolorously out to sea, sexed-up but with a sense of yearning, and yes, ultimately more mature.
The satanism of ‘Early Birds of Babylon’ and the spunk of ‘Symphony of the Nymph’, with ‘Schnitzel Boogie’ sandwiched in between, provide Mature Themes with its strange but undeniably catchy centre. Yet its heart resides in the title song, ‘Only in Dreams’, and ‘Baby’, an obscure cover from Donnie and Joe Emerson’s 1979 album Dreamin’ Wild, which Pink imbues with ethereal soul, funk, and Flamingos-style ‘shoo-bops’. For a line which not only shakes the foundations of truth and expressibility but seems to shy agonisingly away from the very possibility of mutual relations, try ‘I’m sorry but it’s true / Truth is shameful and vile / So I’m not real and I won’t call you / And I want to talk about mature things (daily)’.
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18. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Rarely if ever has there been a better instance of narrative rap than Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore studio album, a close coming-of-age depiction of how a sometimes angry, agitated and introspective, eloquent and far from altogether bad kid from Compton became the compromised king of contemporary hip hop. Compromised because there is real sadness in this: its flashbacks are not without fondness, and they show something of the boastful big-dreaming nature of youth, but it is a tragic tale of petty crime, gang violence, drug addiction, dubious relationships, and family and friends dying young, Kendrick dealing quietly and steadily with the trauma rather than conquering at every turn.
Kendrick’s methodical delivery and the sheer detail of his lyrics – whether relaying conversations or fluctuating thoughts, or evoking specific localities – make his character initially hard to discern. Yet on repeated listens he comes compellingly and indelibly through. ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’, ‘Poetic Justice’, and ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ received the play time, but the twin title pieces ‘good kid’ and ‘m.A.A.d city’ are crucial for rounding out the story, as is the opener, ‘Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter’, whose spectral voices do so much towards setting the tone.
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17. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf
Culturedarm said: ‘A collaboration in the grandest sense – sold on the name of Chance The Rapper, only the extraordinarily generous Chance releases all of his stuff for free; introducing the world to the elegant and dexterous playing of Donnie Trumpet; but equally highlighting the other members of The Social Experiment, Peter Cottontale as the musical director, Nate Fox on keys, and Greg Landfair Jr. on drums, alongside a host of featuring artists from Big Sean and Busta Rhymes to Janelle Monáe and Noname Gypsy – Surf was the soundtrack to a blissful summer, endlessly verdant live variations on rap, jazz fusion, gospel, and soul.’
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16. Grimes – Art Angels
Culturedarm said: ‘First appearances can be suggestive, but they rarely tell the full story of a work of art: Visions too tended to blur in the middle across early listens, with ‘Infinite ♥ Without Fulfillment’, ‘Genesis’, ‘Oblivion’, and ‘Symphonia IX’ providing the hooks, and it is a similar thing on Art Angels with ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’, ‘California’, ‘Flesh without Blood’, and ‘World Princess Part II’. But Art Angels soon emerges not only as Grimes’ most conscientious album to date, but as her most strident and upbeat, retaining her otherworldly atmospheres and idiosyncratic song structures, still eminently danceable, all while charting a new course through twanging guitar country, lush neo soul, and shimmering punk pop.’
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15. How To Dress Well – Love Remains
Love Remains was love on first listen. How To Dress Well’s debut album smothers softly a beautiful falsetto voice and R&B melodies underneath layers of thick reverb and unsettling percussion. Opening with ‘You Hold the Water’ – introduced by a line from Julianne Moore, from the Todd Haynes film Safe, with this borrowing from film a consistent facet of How To Dress Well albums – the first five songs sound like keening turned towards popular music. Tom Krell laments in turn strained relationships, a body and mind broken down, and the irrevocable past. ‘Suicide Dream 2’, the longest track on the album and one of its standouts, is equally stately and anguished, emerging steadily and dissolving in profound pain.
In the middle section of the album, the tempo picks up and the songs become more dance-oriented, but the album is unified by a resolute aesthetic, by the production and Krell’s voice. The atmosphere and the conceptualisation of the music call to mind projects like William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops and Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks; the rhythms have seen How To Dress Well placed at the forefront of a posited movement which has been alternately dubbed PBR&B, alternative R&B, or bedroom R&B. Yet four years after its release, Love Remains still sounds like nothing else, and could equally have been produced in an empty church: it is an intensely personal and deeply spiritual record, which dwells close to the ground and still ascends as crooked smoke.
After the exuberant breaking clear of ‘Decisions’, ‘Suicide Dream 1’ provides a coda to the album. Krell’s continual refinements of these compositions – on the orchestral Just Once EP and for live performance – have shown the strength of the structures which underlay the sound of Love Remains. His two subsequent albums – Total Loss as well as What Is This Heart? – have proved equally affecting, maintaining something of the same pace and depth of feeling, while significantly broadening his sound palette and bringing his voice to the fore.
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14. Kanye West – Yeezus
Kanye West at his most scabrous and experimental yet pointed and compact, Yeezus lurches and lunges from the explicit politics of ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘New Slaves’ to ‘Blood On the Leaves’, which pilfers the paradigmatic protest song, a seething and graphic denunciation of lynching, a distillation of blues, soul, and jazz, and places it on a plinth ahead of an account of egocentric consumption and the complications of lost love, to ‘Bound’, an exuberantly scathing close to the record which just like the rest seems to meld willful obnoxiousness with artistic beauty and grace.
This is where Kanye really perfected – by boldness and exaggeration – his collage-montage technique, stylistic shifts and the insertion of disparate samples which yield stunning resonances and real emotional depth. Yeezus features glowing contributions from Chief Keef, Justin Vernon, Frank Ocean, and Charlie Wilson, and incorporates song samples which stretch from the Hungarian psychedelic rock band Omega to the Jamaican dancehall of Beenie Man to the all-American rockabilly of Brenda Lee. With Kanye West beauty is omnipresent, and never delivered through gritted teeth, but this still feels brilliantly uncompromising, and explosively lean.
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13. Samaris – Black Lights
Culturedarm said: ‘An Icelandic trio making this sort of music can readily conjure local icons and images, alongside a keen and closely drawn if capricious sense of place: cold nights in padded overcoats against the swirling wind, Faxaflói bay providing the backdrop as busy lights hum dimly in the distance. It is a liminal space between trendy dance clubs and rawest nature, but on their third album Samaris sound fully formed, more than the sum of their influences, beyond the mere evocation of mood or atmosphere.
Vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir – who has been cited by by Björk as one of her favourite current artists – clarinettist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir and programmist Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, writing for the first time solely in English and recording between Reykjavik, Berlin, and Ireland, have made a record at once hypnotising and profoundly eloquent. Through the stuttering beats and ambient electronics emerge private anthems of loss and longing, beacons blinking out before home, bodies unfurling and dissipating beyond the reach of a warm touch. Black Lights tells of two people falling out of sync, and moving tentatively but resolutely while still hearing old echoes and seeing old shapes. There is room for hope too on tracks like ‘R4vin’ and ‘Gradient Sky’ – the latter the shortest track on the album as well as the standout – even where it resides in memories that will not soon be forgotten.’
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12. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Culturedarm said: ‘Even amid the hype and buzz around Boys Don’t Cry and potential due dates, in the heat of the summer with a boombox and workbenches, with orchestral grumblings and short industrial spurts, Frank Ocean turned the anticipation over his second studio album into something more resembling a slow burn. Blonde is emotionally dense and musically complex and not always riveting, but that’s precisely the point: as he sings on ‘White Ferrari’, one of the tracks of the year, ‘Basic takes its toll on me ‘ventually yes’, which is to say that the pressures of life – especially one lived openly – and romances unrequited or forestalled can make expression a struggle and each hour more wearying, but our bodies are still elegant and our thoughts lucid and free to roam.
The beats take a backseat on Blonde but bubble up to give life its momentum, as Ocean ruminates and allows his thoughts to meander against languid guitars and brooding synth sounds offset by the chirping and tweeting of birds. There’s a hazy atmosphere, a lushness to the music especially on the pivotal ‘Nights’, and the crackle of tape recordings which bring us usefully back down to earth. Ocean lingers on the threshold of love and reminisces on drug use and his youth, but never gets caught in the mire, casually yet concertedly conciliating and harmonising with the here and now. Blonde is a deep dive yet fresh as the morning.’
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11. Robyn – Body Talk
Body Talk – a compilation of three mini-albums bearing the same name released throughout 2010 – is an album of singles which speak across and echo within one another. Its numerous highlights – among them ‘Dancing on My Own’, ‘Hang with Me, and ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ – portray not the full bloom of love, but relationships which are tentative or disintegrating. Robyn’s romantic hold is therefore never firm; but her voice is both plaintive and commanding, as she endures tribulation and heartbreak without ever doubting or denying her sense of self. The depth of her voice is allied to crisp but continually surprising electronic music, to produce a potently moving, eminently danceable masterpiece of pop.
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10. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven
Daniel Lopatin’s Warp Records debut takes its impetus from constrained aesthetic production and the confines of modern life, and frames a view of America in wide perspective. The record’s title indicates Lopatin’s interest in Oulipo, a school of writing founded by Raymond Queneau, and whose practitioners have included Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, which seeks creativity through the imposition of constraints and adherence to identifiable patterns. One of Oulipo’s constraints, referred to as N+7, involves replacing each noun in a text with the noun seven places after it in a dictionary.
Lopatin followed Oulipo’s strictures on R Plus Seven to spread disfigured vocals throughout his record. Chopped choirs chatter and chant, accompanied by synthesized brass and saxophone, new-age harmonies, and the sounds of nature, which break through and provide moments of respite. There is a sheen to these pieces which recalls something like Opiate’s Objects for an Ideal Home; but where that record is playful and often warm, R Plus Seven is more fractured. Concerned hums and throbs lie at the heart of tracks, and after the adjusted celebrations of ‘Americans’, tension increasingly builds. The word ‘wait’ is uttered on ‘Problem Areas’ – the only fully enunciated word on the record. The tension reaches a laden and hectic climax in ‘Still Life’, before ‘Chrome Country’ unburdens in a choir of children.
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9. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
Surf and Coloring Book stepped up the levels of instrumentation and spiritualism, but musically and lyrically Acid Rap remains Chance The Rapper’s best and most relatable work. There is nothing here which seeks to make a grand statement, and Chance – just turned twenty years old upon the release of the mixtape – sticks within a fairly close and familiar set of thematic concerns: drug use, gun violence, his musical influences, his time at school. But the density and the detail of his wordplay, and the narrative weight so lightly borne by each of these songs, makes Acid Rap a uniquely intimate insight into the life of a young rapper as well as a project which seems to reach out with grace and wisdom to the world.
Only Chance can go from the casually observant but emotionally scarred ‘Paranoia’, with its summertime murders and police brutality and mass psychological fear, straight into a fond lament for his childhood and the ‘Cocoa Butter Kisses’ of his mom; or deliver a line like ‘Her pussy like me, her heart like ‘fuck it” from ‘Lost’, at once so playful and funny and empathetic and sad. More than anything though, and more than any other record on this list, Acid Rap is ebullient, an artist in the full throes of enthusiasm with his art.
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Culturedarm said: ‘Björk has never been afraid of unravelling herself through song, but especially after the relative outgoingness of Volta and Biophilia, this was a startling and shatteringly poignant act of self exposition. From the first line Vulnicura throws ‘a juxtapositioning fate’ into sharp relief, recording in descriptive fragments the deterioration of a long-term relationship, with drawn out vocals and a soundscape of spare isolation – the result of Björk’s string arrangements and throbbing production aided by Arca and, on ‘Family’, The Haxan Cloak – which at the same time seems to fold back and filter through the full extent of Björk’s career. The feelings and the memories of love and loss linger and return in blazing bursts, but at their core stands the persevering self, which takes its ultimate form in the reverberating close to ‘Black Lake’.’
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7. Grouper – Ruins
Culturedarm said: ‘Barring the final track ‘Made of Air’ – which was recorded in 2004, and rumbles to life before submerging itself as a coda to the album, following on from the thunder and rainfall which draw ‘Holding’ to a close – the set of songs which comprise Ruins were recorded on a portable 4-track during a residency in Portugal in 2011. Liz Harris has depicted a several-mile hike to the beach, undertaken daily during her stay in Aljezur, and has described the resulting songs as ‘A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love’. Frogs whir, on the margins of the remote tribal beat of the opening track, ‘Made of Metal’, and again in the midst of the gently looping piano on ‘Lighthouse’. Harris’ voice, tender and plaintive, occasionally pulls away from her piano playing, as on ‘Call Across Rooms’, before reconciling and merging wordlessly with the music.’
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6. Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me
Released back in 2004, The Milk-Eyed Mender was an astonishing and eye-opening debut. Drawing from the modes of folktale and the methods of modernist literature as much as from the sound palette of folk music, it showcased across concise, compact songs Joanna Newsom’s agile harp playing and her exceptional voice, at once delicate and twisting and flowing forth with words. Ys, which appeared two years later, abounded in ornate orchestral arrangements, its movements seeming to capture mythologies in the act of their initial telling.
Touring for Ys, Newsom gathered around her a five-piece band, and together with band member Ryan Francesconi set about rearranging the album’s songs for live performance. The twin processes of playing and reshuffling palpably influenced Have One on Me. Combining apparent performative ease with prolonged length and elaborate ornamentation, the album sprawls over two hours and three discs. For the first time, Newsom accompanies herself on piano as well as harp. Songs like the title piece and ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ stretch out, driving and building to quickening climaxes, while sitting happily alongside shorter pieces the redolent parables ’81’ and ‘On a Good Day’.
Indeed, the album’s musical openness extends to its lyrics, which offer American histories and biographies and accounts of the road along with some of the most personal evocations on record. Prominent among these are ‘In California’ and ‘Does Not Suffice’, which closes Have One on Me and reprises the progression from the earlier song, as Newsom recounts in close material detail the strained ending of a relationship. ‘Baby Birch’ is especially devastating, culminating in violent discord as Newsom subjugates the realm of nursery rhyme and sounds willfully sinister, as she suggestively depicts life’s losses and closed doors.
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5. Jolie Holland – Wine Dark Sea
Culturedarm said: ‘After the tightly drawn compositions of 2011’s Pint of Blood, Wine Dark Sea is no less composed, but its pieces rumble, scuzzy and searing, in wave upon wave with Holland’s voice cohering at the centre. Songs shift seamlessly between the genres of blues, jazz, folk, and soul. There’s thick feedback played through multiple guitars; reverberating piano; cello which lifts a couple of songs at apposite moments, notably in concert with Holland’s violin on ‘First Sign of Spring’ as it steps and strides forth; burly bass; and percussion which swells in time, all coming together to forge richly atmospheric, slowly forming, modulating, moving shapes of noise.
Holland sounds like she’s having fun, wrapping her voice around words, but more she sounds supremely confident, which is a confidence hard won and thoroughly deserved by an artist performing at the peak of her powers. Nobody else could deliver a song like ‘I Thought It Was the Moon’, reminiscent of ‘Catalpa Waltz’ from her debut, as Jolie patiently navigates the words as she navigates a space at once carefully recalled and celestially suggestive. She is generous too: just as her interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Rex’s Blues’ marked the culmination of Pint of Blood, so here her take on Joe Tex’s ‘The Love You Save’ is one of the album’s centrepieces. Clarinet comes to the fore on ‘All My Love’, a distorted R&B number; echoing, clip-clopping percussion underlies ‘Out on the Wine Dark Sea’; and if the album has any single highlight, it comes on ‘Saint Dymphna’, as Jolie pauses and delivers, ‘What do you mean by that? / Do you mean to break my heart? / Do you mean to break my heart in two?’.’
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4. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Culturedarm said: ‘In retrospect, it is tempting to see everything about The Life of Pablo – from the rambling prelude of GOOD Fridays and title changes, the tentative release of the record amid fashion shows and exclusivity disputes, the fragmentary series of updates which stretched until the addition of ‘Saint Pablo’ four months later, to the sprawling nature, cleaving soundscapes, and lyrical content of the music he produced – as a symbol or sign of Kanye West’s faltering health and excessively heightened mental state. Overworked as he committed to a one-of-a-kind tour between fashion launches and family crisis, struggling with the demons of fame and his own penchant for causing controversy – whether for the sake of publicity or in an artistic gesture borne from the need to feel freed from restraint – in November he was hospitalised and cancelled his remaining tour dates.
But his relatively brief period of hospitalisation was no more a culmination than the record itself. Some of its songs had a long gestation – ‘Wolves’ a notable example, howling plaintively in public for more than a year – and the changes wrought by West were always considered, and wound up giving much more than they took. This was an artist in a creative flourish, and in full control of his work. The sprawling nature of the record, as well as its staggered, sometimes swaggering, sometimes self-doubting release, not only reconfigured our sense of the album as something static and singular, but perfectly suited Kanye, who has made the embrace of life’s conflicts and contrasts his ethos.
It is a Joycean pursuit, collages with a dizzying array of textures and subtle and sudden tonal shifts, the putting together and repurposing of sacred texts and ephemera, willing portals out of mistakes. The Life of Pablo features the best moments and best runs of Kanye’s career, from the opening choral salvo of ‘Ultralight Beam’ to ‘Famous’, or as the placidity of ‘Waves’ ripples out through ‘FML’, ‘Real Friends’, and ‘Wolves’, a sequence full of defiance in the face of fear and regret. ‘Saint Pablo’ provides the record with a holy apostrophe. Nobody else can take us in the space of seconds from anal bleaching to a state of unfettered and helpless harmonic bliss.’
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3. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Chords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s fourth album is defined musically by her piano playing, its plush jazz sound sparsely constructed whether softly repeating or restlessly pushing forth, and by variegated percussion: along with utilising field recordings, Apple and her drummer, Charley Drayton, are listed in the album credits as playing ‘thighs’ and ‘truck stomper’. The loose and flexible patterns of the percussion and the restrained piano allow Apple’s voice to hold the centre. Her singing is fearless, rolling out into torrents of words with palpable expressive vigour, the straining of the muscles in her face as she sings almost showing through. The Idler Wheel… also possesses some of sharpest lyrics written, from the vertiginous psychological insight of ‘Every Single Night’, through pages of personal history, to cultural allusions both recondite and pop-cultural, as in ‘Anything We Want’, which uses folded fans and fighting championships to figure intimacy and desire.
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2. Grimes – Visions
Grimes is often discussed within the framework of the postinternet – a product of the internet’s profusion of materials, its endless repetition and recontextualisation of images, its viral videos, its fractured texts and snatches of songs – and one of the characteristics of the internet’s materiality is that it speeds up time. With so much to view, stream, or download, and popular content shared with millions in seconds across a multitude of social networks, trends rise and fall with rapidity and what once gains favour quickly grows old. Yet despite the the wide acclaim and the broad appeal Grimes and her album have won since its release at the beginning of 2012, from the opening shuffle of ‘Infinite ♡ Without Fulfillment’, Visions still sounds like the shock of the new.
Age cannot wither, nor custom stale its infinite variety, and Grimes too makes hungry where she most satisfies, but it is not only the rhythmically propulsive loops and the exquisitely layered vocals, or the diverse influences which range from experimental noise to K-pop, which make Visions a great album. Nor is it solely a modern or feminist manifesto, though Grimes is both vigorously feminist and thrillingly modern. It took time for people to fully grasp the lyrics to ‘Oblivion’, for instance, while other songs offer profound enjoyment though their lyrical content remains undisclosed, abounding in utterance and expression while eschewing determinative statement. Equally important is the album’s structure and shifting sense of space.
It moves coherently from the opening’s multiple voices into the soaring synths and vocals of ‘Genesis’, while ‘Oblivion’ begins a movement into industrial sounds, squelching percussion, and dance. ‘Vowels = Space and Time’ explicitly gestures towards the inexplicability of language. ‘Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)’ sounds monastic, and develops musically and lyrically the sense of waiting which is sustained throughout as one of the album’s predominant themes. Indeed, for an album with so many musical ideas and which abounds and rebounds with so much energy and replenished confidence, Visions feels markedly tranquil. An album which merges the generous impulse of a song like ‘Be a Body (侘寂)’ with the tender intimacy of ‘Skin’, Visions is the record of a person quietly embracing life at the same time as she boldly impels it onward.
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Culturedarm said: ‘A collection of songs without the conceptual underpinnings of her earlier works, on Have You in My Wilderness Julia Holter shifts between salty coastal and sultry urban settings, offering listeners a restless embrace. The palette is effortlessly varied, by turns jazzy, country, and baroque, and keys, strings, synths, and vocals swoop and swirl in often startling juxtapositions, but the record is still characterised by a graceful restraint: these are songs that lilt and teeter on the edge of love, balancing finely between the rush of freedom and the hold of romance. Have You in My Wilderness is Holter at once endearingly approachable and so daring you stumble, stripped of breath.’