1: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West
A funny one this: it would be a controversial choice for album of the decade amongst the general public, but a totally uncontroversial one amongst the musical establishment and
critics. That’s because anyone who has listened seriously to this album knows that it is indeed a great one, whereas too many people feel qualified to comment on Kanye’s artistic success based on their limited knowledge of his media presence and clownish persona.
So I advise you to sit down and listen to this one start to finish. Not as a chore to complete, but because it’s one of the most exhilarating cultural experiences of the last few years, and because you will probably enjoy it immensely. Allow the dense musical arrangements to wash over you, succumb to its haunted beauty and twisted power, marvel at Kanye’s wordplay, and debate where the fantasy ends and reality begins within the convoluted lyrics. ‘Power’ questions the hypocrisy of his own wealth and success, ‘Runaway’ questions his flawed conduct with women, and ‘Lost in the World’ even questions his place in the world at large. It is a soul-searching and deeply personal album, in which contradictorily some of the highlights come from its many guest vocalists (Nicki Minaj lays down one of the greatest raps in history on ‘Monster’). This fact alone demonstrates his insecurities, which he examines in great detail throughout the album.
I’m sure this will go down as one of the great artistic achievements of the decade, and Kanye as one of the supreme artists of our time. It does what all great music should: it probes and questions and pushes the boundaries of what we are to expect from both the artist and the culture at large, whilst simultaneously seducing us into having a damn good time.
2: The Truth About Love – Pink
The certainty of the determiner at the beginning of this album title is intriguing – does Pink really believe that she holds the truth about love, after thousands of years of debate on the subject? I don’t think so, especially when you listen to the title track itself: ‘The truth about love comes at 3am/You wake up fucked up and you grab a pen… No one has the answer/So I guess it’s up to me’. This is not mere boastfulness, this is a correct assertion that love is unique to each and every individual on the planet: you can’t rely on what others have said about it, you just have to write it down and figure the truth out for yourself. Even if it comes at three in the fucking morning. What’s more, Pink realises that the truth about love is variable not only between people and relationships but also within one; it can be about ‘bedroom eyes on a smiling face’ one minute and ‘the smelling of armpits’ the next. So this is a concept album about love which searches for a definitive truth without ever hoping to find one – Pink is thankfully too free of bullshit to pretend she holds all the answers. But it’s the quest that counts, and what makes this one of the great albums of the decade.
3: Beyoncé – Beyoncé
If Pink’s is the great love album of the decade, this is the great sex album. The beats are slinkier, more seductive than they ever have been before on a Beyoncé album – from the fizzling groove interspersed with smooth guitar lines on ‘Blow’ to the thrusting drumbeats of ‘Mine’, the mood is explicitly pornographic. Not to mention the words: ‘Now my mascara running, red lipstick smudged/Oh he so horny, he want to fuck…’ she groans on ‘Partition’. I have read intelligent people arguing that this overt sexualisation of her image is demeaning and contradictory to her apparent feminism. I think this is a gross oversimplification of a complex persona; Beyoncé clearly gets her rocks off from her ability to arouse her husband (‘Take all of me/I just wanna be the girl you like’) and she finds a power and confidence within herself arising from it (‘The kind of girl you like/Is right here with me’). That is the magic of sex, an act which can inspire us to grow in self-belief, absolving the mind of the many insecurities Beyoncé expresses so poignantly in ‘Pretty Hurts’. Her sexual confidence is therefore not just a cheap tactic to sell records, but a vitally important aspect of her personality, and this album is her greatest expression of it. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s so musically gifted, her vocals are so incredibly commanding, that all she has to do is sneeze on the beat and the beat gets sicker.
4: Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend
My favourite rock album from the last few years is the current peak of rock’s most exciting working band. Goths and emos, take note: this is how you create an album about death, not by despairing over the dark chasm that awaits us, but by using an awareness of its inevitability to heighten the considerable pleasures of being alive. ‘The fire can’t last and the winter’s cold’ sings Koenig on ‘Don’t Lie’, but instead of despairing he implores his lover to ‘hold me close my baby’. This is one of many tender moments on the album where the fear of death leads to a heightened physical and emotional response, a passionate urge to connect with people and to hold loved ones all the tighter, because of the knowledge that some day it will all end. ‘Grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight/’Til you’re tottering off into that good night’ he sings on ‘Diane Young’: he’s basically saying enjoy yourself while you still can. Which the band certainly do; the music on this album is joyous, beautiful, triumphant, exultant and most importantly of all alive, raging against the darkness with an infectious joie de vivre. Oh, and also bagpipes.
5: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 – Eminem
In which Eminem, the smartest man in music, follows up his masterpiece with a sequel that is, astonishingly, nearly as good (and criminally underrated by the critics). In his early 40s, Eminem’s flow is amazingly undiminished, in fact it even scales new heights in the jaw-dropping ‘Rap God’. But more importantly, this is his most emotionally diverse album, calling for a party one minute (‘Berzerk’) and offering a heartfelt apology to his mum the next (‘Headlights’), dealing both with the monsters inside of his own head (‘The Monster’) and the head of a deranged fan (‘Bad Guy’). The most intriguing thing about Eminem was always the fact that he continually asked of us the question: who is the real Marhsall Mathers? Was it the violent and aggressively antisocial Slim Shady? Was it the modest and compassionate artist depicted towards the end of ‘Stan’? At the end of this album, he finally reveals the truth we were all too afraid to consider: ‘we are the same, bitch’.
6: Truant/Rough Sleeper – Burial
I don’t claim to know much about electronica, or dubstep in particular, but I love this double EP from the mysterious, nameless Burial. I find that I keep returning to it, entranced by the melancholic groove, distorted and haunting vocals, and eternally shifting rhythmic undertow. As restless and changeable as any truant or rough sleeper, this is a musical composition with few lyrics, and what lyrics there are are oblique and hard to discern; however, it still follows a compelling narrative. Most would point to Untrue as an ideal introduction to this great artist, but I would direct the uninitiated here. It’s a work of staggering beauty and clarity.
Runners-up: To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar, Platinum – Miranda Lambert, Good News – Withered Hand, Art Angels – Grimes, R.A.P. Music – Killer Mike, Heart of a Dog – Laurie Anderson