ALBUMS + TRACKS OF THE 2010s
Future, DS2 (2015)
Future’s consistency works to his disadvantage – the decade’s relentless stream of albums and mixtapes can feel like a level plane. DS2 is manifestly some kind of peak, though, in quality and mainstream impact. The album works as a microcosm of Future’s career: fixated in themes and mood, a steady accumulation of dirge upon dirge sustaining his bleak vision of joyless hedonism. Ambient music, almost, if the beats – mostly Metro Boomin here – didn’t hit with such pummeling physicality. Memorable images flash up now and then: the codeine urine of “Thought It Was A Drought”, the literal money-laundering of “Blood On the Money.” But Future is not a lyrical MC in the tradition upheld today by Kendrick Lamar. He’s a voice more than a writer, shines as texture rather than text – and his most crucial accomplice was engineer Seth Firkins (RIP), the Auto-Tune wizard who coated Future’s bleary croon in a hundred subtle shades of digital grit. A plateau of pleasure-pain, DS2 finally breaks loose with the closer “F*ck Up Some Commas”: an anthem of ecstatic indifference, Future squandering money and life-force over Southside & DJ Spinz’s slow-mo stampede. The third verse, where Future chops his vocal against the beat like a deejay slashing the cross-fader, is one of the decade’s most thrilling and purely musical moments.
Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucci Mane, “Black Beatles” (2016)
Calling yourself a rock star became a rap meme this decade – it simultaneously affirmed hip hop’s centrality in the culture, laid claim to an inheritance of artistic grandiosity, and turned decadence into an aspirational ideal. Despite strong bids from Kanye and “Future Hendrix”, despite Post Malone literalizing it into numbing cliché, Rae Sremmurd own the idea for all time thanks to “Black Beatles”. Propelled to #1 off the back of the Mannequin Challenge YouTube craze, it truly deserved the top spot for its unusual sound and magical mystical mood. Mike WiLL Made-It’s loping beat and haunting synth conjure a feeling of floaty suspension, which probably then triggered the lyric-concept and its sense of having stepped through the looking glass into a dreamworld of super-fame. There’s something strangely pure-hearted about the fey sighing way Swae Lee murmurs lines like “quick release the cash watch it fall slowly” – as though Sremmurd have somehow gone through the excess of lust and ego and now levitate serenely, above it all, “nothing to explain”. In a song crammed with great lines, Slim Jxmmi sees off Lee and guest Gucci Mane with his kicker “me and Paul McCartney related.” The impudence is adorable, the hubris hilarious…. and yet “Black Beatles” really is a psychedelic pearl as radiant as “Rain.”
Tinashe feat. ScHoolboy Q, “2 On” (2014)
DJ Mustard dominated rap radio in the first half of this decade with hits for the likes of YG and Tyga. But the LA producer’s finest moment was this ratchet & B beauty, which streamed out of car speakers like shimmering strands of honey all through 2014. Kicking off with the famous “Mustard on the beat, hoe” tag and deftly weaving in his other audio-logo (marching marines chanting “hey”), the beat is widescreen and intricately sculpted. Its rhythmic components – a curling high-toned bassline that seems to whir and chime, a descending roll of pizzicato syn-drums – are so ear-catching they compete with the gorgeous vocal melody. “2 On” is Tinashe’s term for too high, intoxication chased to the edge of oblivion. The lyric ripples with references to liquor and smoke, and the song’s forthright celebration of “getting faded till we trip” may well have contributed to it only reaching #24 on Billboard. (That and a salacious feature from ScHoolboy Q, adding sex to the drugs-drink combo). “Live fast die young that’s my choice” does sound nihilistic, admittedly. But the sensual slur to the way Tinashe lingers over the chorus “I luuuuu to get 2 on” is joyous and life-affirming, a million miles from the deadened hedonism of so much trap. Dissolution has never sounded so delicious.
Bowie was sometimes accused of being calculating. He even made that criticism of himself - remember “never did anything out of the blue” on “Ashes to Ashes”? But the personality trait served Bowie triumphantly when it came to stage-managing his exit as an artist: a public adieu that comprised not just Blackstar, with its bold music, perfect title, stunning artwork, and startling videos, but the play Lazarus and the box set Nothing Has Changed. Even the timing was immaculate, Blackstar coming out two days before his death. As pop’s greatest self-dramatist, he doubtless felt he owed his audience a consummate denouement. But you also get the sense from Blackstar that Bowie felt free of obligations, able to explore and experiment to his art’s content. Unlike the preceding album The Next Day, Blackstar betrays zero concern for radio play or other worldly metrics of success. The cutting edges dominate, with a sound-palette steeped in lifelong loves like jazz and brief passions like drum and bass. An early hero, who himself ventured far from chart pop, also looms large: Scott Walker. But although the urgent desire to break new ground rather than revisit familiar pathways is palpable, almost inevitably flickers from across Bowie’s vast past appear here and there. The harmonica texture from Low’s “A New Career In A New Town” , for instance, rematerializes on the closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. That title could be read as Bowie affirming the value of mystique. It’s notable that he never wrote a memoir - a rare act of superstar tact. Yet while Blackstar’s words are oblique, vocally and emotionally Bowie has rarely seemed more achingly exposed. Time will tell if this final statement ranks with the several peaks of the 1970s. But the opening title track is certainly one of the strangest and strongest things Bowie ever made. The glassy-grey waver of his voice sounds like he’s already a ghost. The refrain “I’m a blackstar” serves as a chilling image for the extinction of personality, but also hints at the way icons fascinate long after they’ve expired, just like black holes emit radiation. “Something happened on the day he died” goes another line in the song – again, Bowie seems to look ahead to the sheer Event that was January 10th 2016 and, like the careful planner that he was, prepares us for the feeling that part of the sky’s gone out.
Vampire Weekend, Contra (2010)
Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut offended the punk-minded with its Wes Anderson-like vignettes of upper class life. Upping the ante, Contra took its title from Nicaragua’s CIA-backed right-wing paramilitaries - a witty inversion of The Clash’s Sandinista, named in tribute that country’s socialist government. Contra amplifies and exacerbates all the aspects of Vampire Weekend that trad indie rock fans associated with la contrarrevolución –the dainty details, the blithe bounciness, the preppy smartness, the clever-clever references. Polishing the debut’s demo-like sound, Contra set its sights on the charts. Drum machines merge with hand-played rhythm, digital reverb lends a slightly canned quality to proceedings, and, on the mad sprint of “California English,” Ezra Koenig’s already buttery voice is buffed to a slick Auto-Tune sheen. What Contra does share with Sandinista is the later Clash’s outward-facing perspective and yen for border-crossing hybridity. The instrumental palette includes rebolo, zabumba, and shereke, and no, I don’t know what those are either. But these exotic borrowings read less like rhythms-of-resistance solidarity and more like liberal-elite tourism. The album’s supreme fusion-cuisine triumph is “Diplomat’s Son”, a seamless melange of Caribbean rhythm, Morrissey, Michael Nyman-style minimalism, and 1940s vocal harmonies. While it’s tempting to read the title as yet another Clash reference (Strummer sang like a gutternsipe but his dad worked for the British Foreign Service), it comes from a Koenig short story about boarding school and has nothing to do with Rostam Batmanglij’s lyric about gay sexual initiation. What does it all add up to? Whose side are Vampire Weekend on anyway? It’s hard to care when the sound is this captivating and the words dance with the melodies so attractively.
2018 albums + tracks of the year
Travis Scott, Astroworld
Young people have loved Travis Scott for years now. So have radio programmers. 2018 was when Informed Opinion woke up to his sound-design skills. The standard accusation previously directed at Scott – more convenor of other talents than talent in his own right – was abruptly retired. That curatorial networking flair is actually still in evidence on Astroworld, which recruits everyone from Stevie Wonder to the ghost of Notorious B.I.G. But what’s striking about the album is how it all sounds like Travis Scott: the host rarely gets over-shadowed by the guests, the broth is not spoiled by the ridiculous number of cooks. “Sicko Mode” splits its song publishing between 30 names and involves six producers, but still triumphs as the album’s banger (albeit one that comes in three parts). Stereo-panning growls and vocals like anesthetic gas seeping under the door in a Sixties spy movie make “5 % Tint” another killer. Doubts persist about Travis ever becoming the Kanye-level major artist he craves to be. Rarely memorable, the lyrics mostly traffic in hollow-inside hedonism only a notch above Post Malone’s shtick. But you don’t turn to Scott for insights into our contemporary decadence, you come for the exquisitely intricate ear-candy: queasy stereo-sculpted effects, dilated smears of texture, startling vocal treatments. More about mood than meaning, Scott’s music is a glistening vapor that fills your headphones or car interior with cocooning unreality. File under ‘ambient’.
- Migos, “Stir Fry”
Compared with the preceding Culture II single “MotorSport”, whose wafting ethereality pointed to a new post-trap direction for their sound, “Stir Fry” is Migos playing by old skool rules - and winning. Originally made for T.I. but never used, Pharrell’s beat dates to 2008; its feel harks back further still, recalling the raw funk of Neptunes productions like Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”. Running through the whole of “Stir Fry” is a nagging ear-worm that’s positively primordial: a whistling motif based on an organ lick from Mohawks’s 1968 R&B tune “The Champ,” already sampled hundreds of times in hip hop. Riding the loping, breakbeat-like groove, Takeoff, Offset and Quavo reel off references to fast-food chains whose downhome cheapness contrasts with the more typical litany of namechecks for expensive foreign watches and cars. But that just fits the contradictory aspiration expressed in Quavo’s Auto-crooned hook: the wish and the vow to “still be real and famous.” 2018 was the year Migos became a meme: parodied in a SNL sketch, celebrity guests on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. They exist now somewhere between Street and Simulacrum, turning snapshots of vice and viciousness into blithe and buoyant entertainment. The tongue-twisting, lip-smacking assonance of this irresistible single’s chorus - “in the kitchen wrist-twistin’ like it’s stir fry” - makes crack preparation seem as harmless and wholesome as a cooking show.
(NB "Stir Fry" is my 19th favorite track on Culture II)
Aphex Twin, “T69 Collapse”
It’s hard to think of another electronic artist who’s enjoyed a late-career rejuvenation like Richard D. James’s. Instead of glum self-plagiarizing stagnation, his artistic middle age has been a sustained eruption of surprise and delight. Continuing the recent run that includes Syro and Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments, the Collapse EP bursts its skin with ripening creativity: a feeling of panoply and plenitude caught in the vocal snippet that promises to lead the listener to “the land of abundance”. Opener “T69 Collapse” is a fitting herald of the richness within. It starts with the whispery crispness of intricately edited beats, skidding and slipping like a tap-dancer on an oily floor: a flashback to the serene frenzy of late-Nineties drill and bass, when James and his IDM comrades strove to beat jungle at its own breakbeat game. But things get really interesting mid-song, when the collapse referenced in the title occurs: a juddering tumble of drums that feels like an astrophysical rupture, Time itself swirling down the cosmic plughole. The tune then pulls itself together like reverse-film of an explosion, gliding out with feverishly dainty beat-work offset by an archetypally Aphex pensive melody, daubed in milky synth so tonally smeared it feels like your ears are being pulled out of focus. 27 years into a recording career and approaching his life’s half-century mark, James exhibits a limber vitality and an evergreen joy in creation that’s as remarkable as it is enviable.
2019 albums + tracks of the year
Nothing Great About Britain
Brexit broke Britain, fast-rewinding the country to the ‘70s, when it first joined Europe and last seemed this close to collapse. Perhaps that’s why slowthai, a grime MC from the nowheresville dead-center of England, often feels so punk. Publicity stunts like brandishing Boris Johnson’s decapitated head at a music-biz awards ceremony can’t help but recall the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious gets an explicit namecheck on one song, and there’s even a sample from an ancient doc about glue-sniffing. Elsewhere the evocations are early millennial: the loping strings-propelled beat on “Drug Dealer” could be The Streets, there’s a reference to Dizzee Rascal. These echoes might add up to deja vu if it weren’t for slowthai’s outsize personality and razor eye. From the touching Tupac-like tribute to his single mom on “Northampton’s Child” to the teen miscreant memoir “North Nights”, he’s got a way with words. But it’s the waywardness of his delivery that really grabs. Sounding (and looking) like a cross between a grimacing gargoyle and an impish urchin, he lurches from side to side of the groove, like a very drunk man approaching on a sidewalk – you flinch but you also lean in to hear what’s got him so agitated. Even more than calling Her Majesty the C-word, slowthai’s mangling of the Queen’s English is his true feat of treason.
Billie Eilish, “Bad Guy”
On the radio, “Bad Guy” jumps out by not jumping out the speakers. The volume seems to drop and the song pulls the listener in close, making you strain to catch the breath braided so exquisitely by Billie and co-producing brother Finneas. A pop miniaturist who shuns large canvas displays of vocal acrobatics, Eilish skirts the edge of inaudible to invent a new kind of subdued sass. Her virtuosity resides in tone and texture – the delicious derision of “duh”, the way she smudges consonants and crumbles vowels in her mouth like flaky pastry. Apart from the occasional deliberately unsubtle effect, like the juddering digital croak on the chorus, it’s an artfully crafted illusion of intimacy. “Bad Guy” is a crawlspace of a track that feels like it’s made of the same whispery fabric as Billie’s voice: clicks, whirrs, fingersnap flurries and ear-tickling sounds purpose-built for ASMR tingles. Furtive and nimble, the beat moves just like the lines about “creeping around like no one knows” on “tippy toes”. The intricate weave of mids make for earbud intimacy, but the bass, when it hits, has the dancefloor heft of trap. As for Eilish’s jaded Goth-pop shtick, those who can only remember being teenage might smile at lines like “my soul? So cynical.” But for the actual teens who’ve followed her rise from TikTok to chart top (she’s the first person born in the 21st Century to reach #1), Eilish captures the tender mess of being young and alive.