Albums of the Decade
Cast your mind back to 2010. Wikileaks. Spain winning the Men’s Football World Cup. Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s ‘California Gurls’ on every radio. The ‘double rainbow’ meme. Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Functioning UK government.
Times of change indeed. But, for us, there was no greater upheaval that year than The Great Norman Office Move. Yep, as the 2010s hoved into view we left our longtime home in Armley and relocated to a light-industrial park in Holbeck. Our new surroundings...well, the words ‘Former’, ‘East’, ‘Germany’ and ‘Fucking hell, are we lost?’ are often bandied about by visitors to Croydon House. But it provided greater storage space for our ever-expanding catalogue of records.
And let us tell you, there have been some records this past decade. And we've hit on an extremely scientific method to determine the best one.* We call it:
Casting Our Collective Eye Back Over Our Annual End-Of-Year Lists And Drawing Up A League Table.
Have a read and see if you agree.*Disclaimer: not at all scientific.
#10 2011: Ineligible due to laziness
First, the bad news - this entry is, in fact, no entry at all. Back in 2011 the powers that be at Norman Towers decided that, probably to save arguments, there was no need for us to make a best albums list that year. A commendably utopian bit of realpolitik by the staff of the day, but not exactly helpful when it comes to this particular appraisal.
2011 certainly wasn’t a poor year for albums. Far from it - Norman reviewers dished out scores and scores of positive reviews to new records released that year, including ten-out-of-tens for Peaking Lights’ ‘936’, The Haxan Cloak’s ‘Observatory’, Thee Oh Sees’ ‘Castlemania’, Cave’s ‘Neverendless’, Belong’s ‘Common Era’ and Alexander Turnquist’s ‘Hallway Of Mirrors’.
Indeed, taken as a whole this sextet acts as a good bell-weather for the trends of the time. Peaking Lights and The Haxan Cloak are almost yin and yang here, transplanting dubwise atmospherics onto kaleidoscopic post-chillwave (the former) or doomy dark ambient (the latter). While psychedelic revivalism drove Cave to neo-Kraut brilliance, it also turned Thee Oh Sees into a Brian Jonestown Massacre for the freak-folk generation. Belong’s shoegaze opus ‘Common Era’ foreshadowed the Lynchian reveries that would later be taken to stadiums by Lana Del Ray and Cigarettes After Sex. And then, aside from it all, there’s Turnquist, a singular guitarist who made the sort of gorgeous curio that blindsides us once or twice in a generation.
However, we simply can’t return to 2011 - we don’t know where the Norman hivemind was at in this year of the Arab Spring, Osama Bin Laden’s assassination and victory for Japan in the Women’s Football World Cup. And as such, we can’t give it anything more than an honourable mention with regards to these rankings.
#9 2012: Unfairly overlooked...by us?
No shade to 2012 - it may have come in bottom of these rankings, but this was still a mighty strong showing. The margins are fine in this game, and we decided that some of the others would get the nod this time around, but on another day it could have been very different.
Indeed, 2012 contains some of the decade’s standout albums. Grimes’ ‘Visions’ earned her a seat at the top table and spawned a new generation of bedroom producers. Tame Impala also approached ubiquity with ‘Lonerism’, balancing their post-Zeppelin rockery (‘Elephant’) with shimmering dream-pop songcraft (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’). Aided by the Italo-noir of Chromatics, Kavinsky, Desire and others, Cliff Martinez made arguably the definitive film OST of the past ten years in ‘Drive’ (Chromatics also made the list in their own right with the highly influential ‘Kill For Love’). And on a more personal note, Goat’s international fuzz-rock style struck a chord with many, becoming one of our biggest sellers ever.
The realm of club music saw big releases from Actress, Andy Stott and Laurel Halo while The xx incorporated some more danceable beats into their hushed indie-pop sound on ‘Coexist’. While Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland swapped out the Hype Williams moniker for their own names, a change of title did not indicate a drop in quality on the typically idiosyncratic ‘Black Is Beautiful’. Oren Ambarchi and Nathan Fake were among the other individuals who made quixotically brilliant work in 2012.
But the year topped out with a quiet triumph - ‘We Will Always Be’, an LP of truly beautiful guitar-based ambiences from Michigan duo Windy & Carl. While it may not have scored highly here, 2012 should not be written off by any means.
#8 2017: We’re not crying, you're crying!
2017’s number-one record was surely the heaviest of any of our yearly chart-toppers. Mount Eerie’s ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ was made after the death of Phil Elverum’s wife, and it dealt with the situation and fallout in unflinching detail. At times the record is almost unbearably poignant, but this only adds to its singular power. Something similar can be said of Richard Dawson’s ‘Peasant’, a kindred spirit of ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ and another album which landed in 2017’s top ten.
Fans of invective, righteous punk were heartened by IDLES’ ‘Brutalism’ and Downtown Boys’ ‘Cost Of Living’ - the latter of which contained one of the decade’s best political anthems in ‘A Wall’ - while those who dug the more sprawling end of guitar music could get down to ‘Luciferian Towers’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and ‘Stubborn Persistent Illusions’ by Do Make Say Think. The U.S.A. spawned further indie-rock trinkets from Sandy (Alex G), Cigarettes After Sex, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear.
Electronic artists also had another good year. 2017’s club music ranged from the ultra-mediated house style of Daniel Brandt to Lee Gamble’s ambitious deconstructions, Actress’ futuro-techno to NHK yx Koyxen’s zany micro-looping. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Craven Faults and Waveform Transmission all opened our inner eye with their beatific electronics, and Mahatma X made one of the decade’s top beat-tapes. Those wanting something more extreme were sated by industrial-inspired entries from Pharmakon and The Bug Vs. Earth as well as Colin Stetson’s typically powerful saxophone work ‘All This I Do For Glory’.
#7 2016: Angry music for angry times
Oh God. No. Save us. We’ll do anything - anything so that we don’t have to relive the hell-year of 2016. Please, we’re begging you!
Mind you, our aversion to 2016 is nothing to do with the records released that year. As the world went wild, some of music’s biggest acts were making definitive LPs that dealt with the hardest things life can throw at us. David Bowie said farewell with ‘★ (Blackstar)’ - put out just days before he passed away, this extraordinary parting gift conjured Scott Walker and Xiu Xiu as Bowie took one last look at the planet he landed on all those years previously. Radiohead laced Thom Yorke’s breakup through some of their best songcraft since ‘In Rainbows’ on ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds made the murky and grief-stricken ‘Skeleton Tree’, an album that came out in the wake of the death of Cave’s teenage son. All three made our top twenty for the year.
Other artists were also going through it in 2016: Danny Brown’s incredible ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ exploded the very notion of what a hip-hop record could be, piling on ultra-obscure post-punk samples and demonic bad-trip beats to create a landmark album for both the genre and the artist; Mitski continued to ward off her sorrow with emotional grunge tunes on ‘Puberty 2’; Carla Dal Forno married introspective balladry with brooding electronic techniques throughout her breakthrough LP ‘You Know What It’s Like’; Glaswegian punks Anxiety careered through twenty minutes of gut-wrenching hardcore with their eponymous record. This was heavy music for heavy times.
Mind you, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Classical artists did some great things with old materials, making some of the year’s most vibrant music in the process: Mary Lattimore got her harp to sing on ‘At The Dam’; two cellists, Helen Money and Oliver Coates, used their instrument to very different ends while both achieving superb results; the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (RIP) combined chamber composition with electronics to typically stirring effect on ‘Orphée’.
And there was also plenty of hope to be found in machine-music. Mark Pritchard’s ‘Under The Sun’ was frequently as sunny as its cover artwork, Steve Hauschildt brought the shimmering sound of his Emeralds group to bear on ‘Strands’, and Huerco S. made one of the most cerebral techno albums ever in the form of ‘For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)’. Ultimately, however, the year belonged to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, whose utopian brand of new-age electronica landed her not one but two spots on the list - one of which was the year’s chart-topper ‘EARS’.
#6 2019: A promising newcomer...
It’s always a bit harder to appraise a year just gone than one in the more distant past. Which albums will age well? Are the sounds of the day here to stay or simply a flash in the pan? Is this latest record by Thee Oh Sees really that much better than the millions upon millions they have released previously?
What’s beyond dispute is that, as we stand at the end of it, 2019 has produced a fantastic haul of LPs. It feels like a lot of rising stars have really found their level this year. Giant Swan, a name on the lips of anyone who’s had a passing interest in hard club music in recent times, more than delivered with their scuffed-up techno masterpiece of a debut album. Big Thief ascended to indie-rock’s major leagues with two great albums - ‘U.F.O.F.’ being the pick of the bunch from our end - and Angel Olsen consolidated her spot with ‘All Mirrors’.
Some leading lights of the black musical underground all made big plays this year too. In hip-hop, Little Simz delivered her most fully-formed work yet in ‘Grey Area’, a Kendrick Lamar-esque tome that almost bagged her the Mercury Prize, while Freddie Gibbs & Madlib matched the class and craft of ‘Pinata’ with ‘Bandana’. Moor Mother and clipping. continued to operate in the negative space between hip-hop, punk, industrial music and spoken-word, while Q-Tip brought Danny Brown back from a similar plain with the classicist ‘Uknowhatimsayin¿’.
#5 2014: Hard to pin down
A difficult one to get a handle on, old 2014. While you can find patterns in many of the other years here, either confined to the year itself or within wider trends across the decade, 2014 refuses easy interpretation.
The world of guitar music seems a good place to start, with strong showings from a plethora of artists. Swans crunched the numbers - and scored only the second perfect ten on The Needle Drop - with ‘To Be Kind’, an LP of overwhelming rock opuses in a discography full of them. ‘To Be Kind’ was run close in the loudness war by Shellac (‘Dude Incredible’) and a delightfully unexpected combination of Sunn O))) and Scott Walker (‘Soused’ - also, RIP Scott, you are missed). Psych-rock classicists were sated by The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s ‘Revelation’, Temples’ ‘Sun Structures’ and Ultimate Painting’s eponymous debut LP while fans of the genre’s freakier/deekier zones could enjoy salvos from Ty Segall, Goat and Wand. Ought and Protomartyr both climbed another rung on their way to the top of the post-punk pile.
Meanwhile solo troubadours continued to plough their own particular furrows: Grouper folded stronger songcraft into her drone-folk style on ‘Ruins’ while ‘Bécs’ found Fennesz going in the opposite direction; Dean Blunt’s ‘Black Metal’ balanced wry anti-music, sound collage and passages of tersely pretty songwriting in a way that only he would be able to pull off; Kate Tempest’s spoken-word invocations earned ‘Everybody Down’ a Mercury Prize nomination; Neneh Cherry and Aphex Twin both returned to the fray after many years away - the former with Four Tet and Robyn in tow - and wowed with ‘Blank Project’/‘Syro’ respectively.
And then there is 2014’s top pairing, Bracken’s ‘Exist/Resist’ and Ian William Craig’s ‘A Turn Of Breath’. Two different listens - ‘Exist/Resist’ tended towards lush beatwork while there was a touch of Arvo Pärt to the heavenly experiments of ‘A Turn Of Breath’ - but overlap in that both were unique and beautiful records which used electronics to elevate their tones to new heights.
#4 2010: Unflashy but brilliant
There was much deliberation at Norman Towers over whether 2010 would make this list at all. While we did collect our thoughts on the year at the time, our assessments weren’t as thorough as they would be in later years - the top records list stretched to twenty rather than fifty, and rather than ranking the entries we presented them in no particular order. As such, just as in 2011 there is no single album from this year to highlight.
But what a twenty. A glance at this selection throws up some cast-iron classics of alternative music, records that would remain vital for the subsequent decade. While our 2010 selection was rather stylistically varied, there is a shared feeling that runs through many of the entries - a kind of valium-smudged reverie, beatific and also slightly foreboding.
The year’s rock entries had it in spades. This haze floated over Deerhunter’s ambient-punk on ‘Halcyon Digest’, softening it up and spawning definitive tracks like ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Desire Lines’ in the process. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti channelled a similar sound on ‘Before Today’, adding a bit of ‘Off The Wall’ for good measure, and Woods followed it back to its psych-rock roots with the freaky, folky ‘At Echo Lake’.
bvdub levelled the vibe through his sky-scraping ambient techniques across ‘The Art Of Dying Alone’, and it lurked in the corners of Loscil’s weightless dub-techno on ‘Endless Falls’; Flying Lotus blasted it into the stratosphere on ‘Cosmogramma’, the LP that really announced Steven Ellison as a premier talent; Dan Snaith’s organic rave sound occasionally succumbed to its charm on Caribou’s ‘Swim’; it curdled and went sour in Forest Swords’ ‘Dagger Paths’, a highly innovative blend of dubwise sonics and stoic drum tracks that sounded like Peaking Lights sent off to war.
2010 also saw a resurgence in the sounds of minimal synth and coldwave, a trend that would continue across Teenies. Credit has to go Angular’s ‘Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Volume One’ on that one as well as Factory Floor’s untitled EP for First Blast Petite, a record which, by existing in the space between darkside post-punk and industrial techno, foreshadowed the emergence of acts like Silent Servant a few years down the line.
#3 2018: A stylistic smörgåsbord
Great records were produced in almost every genre imaginable across 2018. The result is possibly the most varied fifty on this list.
The international jazz revival was in full swing this year, and several artists rode the wave to make definitive work. Shabaka Hutchings was heavily involved, blowing horn on both the diasporic Carribean jazz of Sons Of Kemet’s ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’ and Makaya McCraven’s Chicago trip ‘Universal Beings’. Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids explored the cosmos on ‘An Angel Fell’ while Kamaal Williams took that spiritual sound to the streets of Peckham through the shuffling fusion LP ‘The Return’. Jazz flecked the corners of neo-soul/psych entries from The Internet and Khruangbin, The Necks plumbed the genre with the rhythmic drive of golden-age Steve Reich, and Eric Chenaux’s gorgeous ‘Slowly Paradise’ sounded like a dreamstate Chet Baker/Arthur Russell collaboration. Above it all floated Kamasi Washington (literally - check that cover artwork) with ‘Heaven And Earth’.
Several new sounds were spawned in metal: Thou confirmed themselves as heirs to the throne of Sleep with ‘Magus’ while pals The Body brought together sludge, doom and industrial beats for the monolithic ‘I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer’; Daughters broke an eight-year duck with ‘You Won’t Get What You Want’, one of the most furious and unrelenting noise-rock records we’ve heard in ages; two duos, Guttersnipe and Senyawa, made some of the most challenging and brilliant extreme guitar music of recent times.
A retreat into the poppier realm of indie-rock reaped similar rewards. Mitski and Snail Mail put pressure on melancholy and made diamonds from it, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever headed for sunnier climes on the Real Estate-esque ‘Hope Downs’, and Arctic Monkeys continued to travel a path of Brylcreemed hypnagogia on ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’. Meanwhile The Ex proved that they were still masters of knotted, choppy post-punk with the superb ‘27 Passports’.
And finally, 2018 was also a great year for unique solo talents. Sophie, serpentwithfeet, Yves Tumor, Sarah Davachi and Tirzah all wowed us with their singular crafts. However, none was more impressive than MALK, whose ‘Death From A Love’ pulled at the threads of the LA beat scene to create something all of his own.
#2 2015: Pipped to the post
2015 wasn’t just a year of great records - it was a year of high watermarks, and that’s why it’s placed so high on this list. Indeed, so strong was the 2015 showing that Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, the LP to end all LPs™, didn’t even make our original 50!
There are classics across the board here: Julia Holter’s ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ fused cerebral ambiences with baroque indie-pop to stunning effect; Björk and Sufjan Stevens bared their souls - the former enlisting Arca and The Haxan Cloak to create a mournful masterpiece in ‘Vulnicura’, an album that lit the way for the increasingly artsy turn much electronic pop would take in subsequent years; Kamasi Washington’s ‘The Epic’ kick-started a global jazz renaissance; Helena Hauff crested the minimal-wave resurgence with the stark and sexy ‘Discreet Desires’; Ought, Girlpool and Preoccupations set new benchmarks in poetic post-punk; Lakker tore the club up; Prurient dragged us to hell; Jenny Hval brought the ‘Apocalypse, Girl’; and then there’s the bloody Minecraft soundtrack, quite possibly the most influential set of computer game music this decade.
The year was won by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s ‘Never Were The Way She Was’, an extraordinary record in almost every way. Despite recording with no overdubs or loops, this duo somehow manage to make tracks that are rich, full of motion and wide in both scope and sound. There is the rippling fervour of NYC minimalism to cuts like ‘In The Vespers’ and ‘The Sun Roars Into View’, though Stetson and Neufeld chisel out more space for harmony than Reich and Glass ever did. ‘With The Dark Hug Of Time’ lurches with the malevolent energy of industrial techno, an incredible feat for a pair only working on saxophone and violin. This is muscular, emotional and intensely moving work, pretty much matchless for its craft, care and musicality.
#1 2013: Comebacks, career-bests, and cursing
The old guard made some triumphant reintroductions in 2013. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds entered their third phase with ‘Push The Sky Away’, an extraordinary album of earthy, brooding koans. Autechre and The Knife both broke electronic music down and built it up again in their own ways while we also saw a conquering return from electronica overlord Boards Of Canada. My Bloody Valentine didn’t so much end a twenty-two-year silence as blow it to smithereens on the ear-splitting ‘m b v’, and Mazzy Star’s ‘Seasons Of Your Day’ proved that their dreamy alt-rock sound had held up very well in the seventeen years since ‘Among My Swan’.
Meanwhile a new electronic vanguard also impressed: Mount Kimbie literally found their voice with ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’; The Haxan Cloak continued to stare down the abyss on ‘Excavation’; Oneohtrix Point Never took vaporwave into the big leagues with Warp debut ‘R Plus Seven’; Function’s dark techno opus ‘Incubation’ foreshadowed the EBM resurgence of the decade’s later years; Laurel Halo advanced the Shackleton sound with ‘Chance Of Rain’.
Kurt Vile made his magnum opus in ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ while Parquet Courts, Joanna Gruesome and Thee Oh Sees also cracked various rock codes. The experimentalists put in some great displays too - particularly These New Puritans, who furthered their case as Britain’s premier avant-garde group through ‘Field Of Reeds’, but also Grouper, Teho Teardo/Blixa Bargeld and Rashad Becker.
But top spot for the year, and indeed for the decade as a whole, belongs to two blokes from Nottingham - one sanguine, one gobby. After a few years causing a stir in the underground, Sleaford Mods made us all sit up and take notice with the compilation LP ‘Austerity Dogs’. Spurred on by the Poundland-punk loops of Andrew Fearn, Jason Williamson mouthed off, body jerking around like a puppet on a string, jaw swinging from side to side, about a country turned callous. It was arresting stuff at the time, and we stuck our necks out for it back then, but as the decade has worn on the gobshite prophesying of tracks like ‘McFlurry’ and ‘Fizzy’ has only come to feel more prescient. ‘Austerity Dogs’ captured the vitality of the Sleaford Mods project - and the prevailing feeling of being alive in Britain in the 2010s - better than any other LP we can think of.