Would this be a clichéd blog if there wasn’t an end-of-decade retrospecive? Absolutely not.
Between January 2010 to December 2019, I’ve gone from aged 16 to 26, and boy have I changed a lot. Am I still listening to the same few albums on repeat to deal with anxiety about getting older and life in general? Abolustely yes.
Joking aside, what a killer decade it’s been for music. The list below represents what I consider to be the best ‘mainstream’ albums, by which I mean, any albums that don’t fall under the soundtrack / score / classical / spoken word categories, but does encapsulate pop, alternative, rock, etc.
Also, I’ve only allowed for one entrance per artist, even though I’m sure I could have populated this list with the releases from maybe just 4 or 5 acts!
So, without further ado, here are my top 20 albums of the decade.
First Aid Kit (2014)
Kicking off this list is Stay Gold by Swedish duo ‘First Aid Kit’. Just as a warning, be prepared to see a lot of scandinavian pop on this list! There’s something incredibly enchanting about their tight harmonies, and slightly plusher-than-expected folk orchestrations. ‘My Silver Lining’, the first track of the album got some traction in the UK, and I’d definitely recommend checking out the rest of the album. A perfect summer’s evening listen.
Recommended Track: Stay Gold
We Are Born
Everyone knows Sia from her tracks that came later in the 2010s (Chandelier, Cheap Thrills, etc.) but in 2010 she released We Are Born which was already her 5th studio album. Before she reached huge commercial success with EDM music, Sia’s output was a little more acoustic-pop, and this whole album is a properly upbeat riot, but a bit more rock/orchestral than she is these days.
Recommended Track: Big Girl Little Girl
Life Love Flesh Blood
Imelda May (2017)
Up until this album, Imelda May had been releasing rockabilly-inspired albums, a lot of guitar, brass, with a determinably 50s sound, and then came this album. Still packed with Imelda May’s unique vocals and a very distinct sound, along with very noticeable blues and soul influences. Jack and I were lucky enough to get to see her perform a few years ago and what a gig it was. Start with this album and work backwards, you’ll not regret it.
Recommended Track: Leave Me Lonely
Man, this album. I never had myself pegged as a particularly rock-bluesy kinda guy, but back in 2016, this album kinda changed things for me. This was the album that spawned an interest in blues and particularly the likes of Beth Hart and Joe Bonamossa. And for something that sounds so quintessentially American, it’s even more fascinating that they’re an Icelandic band. Although it never received great critical or commercial success, this album spawned a couple of tracks that made their way into TV adverts and the like. Definitely one for a road trip, preferably on a country road with the roof down.
Recommended track: Hot Blood
Allie X (2017)
Canadian AllieX I find to be kinda hit and miss. When it’s miss, I find it to be provocative pop without much purpose, but when it hits, it hits hard. My favourite track is actually off one of her later albums (Not So Bad in LA, check it out here) but as an overall album, I find her first official album CollXtion II a better all-rounder. Hers is a very unique sound, somewhere between Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga, with a bit of Pink Floyd thrown in? It’s odd, but, damn, it’s good. Subdued, slightly electric-trip fashion pop? Sure.
Recommended Track: Lifted
Rob Dougan (2016)
There are very few male artists, especially male vocalists on this list. But those that are on this list, have something particular about them. Characterful voices, storytelling, and passion. Rob Dougan does not have a perfect voice. Not even, technically, a particularly good voice. But he has an incredible vulnerability and roughness that is unmatched. Having released one album in the late 1990s following his music featuring in The Matrix, things went very quiet for Rob Dougan, musically. He has since released 3 EPs in advance of a new album coming (hopefully in the 2020s), including this EP, intricately crafted with a full orchestra and haunting vocals. The more classical of the EPs (The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Sessions) is stunning, too. Check that one out here.
Recommended Track: Undone by London
A Woman’s Guide to Survival
Miss Li (2017)
Like Imelda May, Miss Li is another artist who transformed from rockabilly alternative pop, but instead of going acoustic-blues, Miss Li went noticeably a lot more electronic and heavy in her 2017 English-language album. Infused with everything from heavy vocoder EDM to reggae, it’s one of those albums where every track can catch you off-guard, and yet it all seems to work together as part of a striking feminist statement. Definitely worth going through her previous work if you’re a fan of that alterna-pop Paloma Faith kinda-sound.
Recommended Track: Aqualung
Black Honey (2018)
What if Lana Del Rey were crossed with Lady Gaga and put in a punk rock band? That’s Black Honey. It’s gritty, electronic-tinged punk rock, and it’s fun. The self-titled album is a culmination of a few years’ worth of EPs, and together they work so damn well. The visuals in the music videos too somehow straddle glam-rock, disco, punk and that Lana Del Rey Americana, and there isn’t another band out there that I know of doing this. Strong female-led badass bangers. What more could you want?
Recommended Track: Midnight
Oh Land (2011)
Apologies for two self-titled entries in a row. Released quite early in the decade, this is one of those albums that have stuck with me, despite the Danish artist releasing quite a few albums since. It manages to blend what feels like quite folk songwriting with synth-led electronica, without really straying into heavy EDM at all. It also has a slight absurdist/gothic twist running throughout the album, something that definitely carried on with her more recent albums. Some of it is a bit early-2010s pop, but honestly, I’m here for it.
Recommended Track: Wolf & I
Narrated for You
Alec Benjamin (2018)
As we nudge towards the top 10, that sad-core Americana that has come to define a lot of my favourite music makes another appearance with the hauntingly crafted album by Alec Benjamin. As I said about Rob Dougan, as there are so few male artists on this list, having a unique voice is something that really stands out. And Alec Benjamin’s voice does, almost for the complete opposite reason to Dougan: soft, high, and lyrical, there’s something remarkable about his voice, and I think that, as he and I are roughly the same age, the nostalgia that runs through his songs is a similar nostalgia I have for my teenage years. There’s something almost a little bit Owl City about his music which I love, too. An infinitely listenable-to album, especially when you’re nostalgic for suburban teenage years.
Recommended Track: Gotta be a Reason
Caravan Palace (2019)
Well it only took half the list to get an album from 2019! (Still nothing from ’12, ’13, or ’15 yet..) and this was a tough one as to whether I’d go for Caravan Palace’s latest offering, or the album that preceded it ‘<|°_°|>’. In the end, I went for their latest offering for a couple of reasons. First of all, it finally escapes the trap that I think electro-swing music has fallen into for well over a decade now, which is unnecessary record scratches. Even the best in the business (looking at you Parov Stelar) seem over-reliant on making the listener realise they’re listening to samples swing / jazz music, whereas Chronologic seems to let itself be inspired by the music, and even sample it, but create something determinedly new. And I love that. That said, their whole discography is a treasure, and you should listen to it all!
Recommended Track: April
I first found out about Josephine when she was supporting Paloma Faith on tour back in 2013, and this album had just came out. And it’s brilliant. And also heartbreaking, because despite some stunning songwriting and performances, as well as critical success.. this was it from Mancunian Josephine Oniyama. A genre-less album that crosses folk, into alternative pop, into ballad, there’s no way to pin down what it is. But it’s soft, and charming, and an album that hits hard every time I sit down to listen to it. One of those albums you should make time to listen to, from start to finish. Sublime.
Recommended Track: When We Were Trespassers
The Family Jewels
Marina & The Diamonds (2010)
I think this album has to rank so highly for me because of where my life was when I first discovered it. This was an album I listened to while I was learning to drive, working in retail, living at home in teenage angst, and there’s something about this album that just captures that fun, quirkiness and a little bit of darkness that I remember at that age. When I was discovering who I was, that one lyric: ‘better to be hated than loved for what you’re not‘ really hit hard. Marina is another one of those hit and miss artists, and where this album and the one that followed it, Electra Heart were such hits, I’ll never forget how disappointed I was with her third album, Froot. The jury’s still out on her latest, Love & Fear. A lot of great songs, also some misses. This album though? Brilliant.
Recommended Track: I Am Not a Robot
Gin Wigmore (2018)
This album got me through a particularly tough 3 months back in 2018. It was the soundtrack to endless commutes to and from London, and I’m fairly sure it gave me the confidence to commit to the job I was working, and also walk away from it when I was done. Bass heavy, Gin Wigmore’s voice it bright and raspy, and combines some hella punchy blues songwriting with exciting electronic instrumentation. It also happens to work brilliantly as an album, as Gin Wigmore and her team have structured the album in such a way that whilst all the tracks work great on their own, the album flows perfectly from one song to the next. Whether it’s an upcoming deadline, long night drive, or something else you need motivation for, stick this album on and let it envelope you.
Recommended Track: Hallow Fate
Hailey Tuck (2018)
And now for something totally different. Hailey Tuck is an American singer/songwriter who expertly weaves together modern-day issues with 20s Parisian glamour in beautifully soft songs that are equally as striking and strong as any of the punchier songstresses on the list. Another album that came along at exactly the right time for me, it offers almost total escapism to the listener, going along a gentle journey of sadness, reflection, coy flirtation and all out amusement, guided perfectly by Hailey Tuck’s sublime vocals.
Recommended Track: Underwear
La La Land
Justin Hurwitz (2016)
I’M SORRY. I know I said I wouldn’t include any soundtracks on here, and I haven’t put any theatre soundtracks or classical scores or anything! But I do have to make an exception for the soundtrack to La La Land. It’s arguably now one of my favourite films, and despite its problematic plot (white man swoops in and saves a traditionally black art form (yikes)), the soundtrack is exceptional. Having grown up watching the old Hollwood musicals, with An American in Paris a notable favourite, this film, as both a love letter to old Hollywood and to jazz music represented a perfect combination for me. So I’m sorry, I hope you’ll indulge me just on this one. If you haven’t seen the film yet, for goodness’ sake, make it top of your list in 2020.
Recommended Track: Someone in the Crowd
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Billie Eilish (2019)
Just like everybody else writing about the decade in music, of course I’m going to include this album on the list. Billie Eilish has been a transformative figure in pop music among the likes of Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, et al. Brilliantly produced by her brother Finneas, this is dark, indulgent pop at its finest. Billie Eilish’s soft vocals perfect for the songs thematically, and my only regret is that she wasn’t around when I was at my teenage angstiest. This is a stunning, stunning album. Not something you’d put on at a summer BBQ perhaps, but an infinitely complex, enjoyable, and fascinating work, pushing the boundaries of pop music to their limits, and even going way beyond.
Recommended Track: xanny
Born This Way
Lady Gaga (2011)
Come on folks, we all knew this was coming. This album changed my life. I know it’s a cliché, and even having been a big Gaga fan from the start, this album practically came out as I did. And a I discovered who I was, this album was by far one of the biggest influences on who I was then, and who I am now. It’s big, bold, brassy, camp, dark, edgy, pumping fun from start to end, with everything from electronic synth-pop to full on stadium anthems, it has everything. Seeing it performed by Gaga at the Born This Way Ball at Twickenham Stadium was life-changing. A night I’ll never forget. I’ve loved all her albums, and so delighted she’s enjoying a full blown Oscar-winning career resurgence, I’m just hoping that the eventual 6th albums proves just as iconic.
Recommended Track: Judas
The Golden Age
There’s a fascinating genre of music, sparsely populated, called Baroque Pop. In essence, pop music that combines and uses orchestral arrangements as part of their sound. This is what Woodkid accomplishes in spades. This album, the only full album yet released by Woodkid, is a masterpiece. Cinematic, dramatic, and endlessly vast and ambitious, this is music to get the blood pumping and the heart racing. It combines electronic and drum and bass production with symphonic classical in music that is far more suited to Panavision than VEVO – an absolutely breathtaking body of work that I’d recommend to anyone. Another artist I’ve seen live, a single London show at the O2 Academy in Brixton, front row with Amy, Woodkid, along with The BBC Orchestra made for an unforgettable gig. Woodkid has also just announced a new album and tour in the new year, so keep an eye out!
Recommended Track: Run boy Run
Born To Die
Lana Del Rey (2012)
As if it were going to be anyone else. I honestly consider Lana Del Rey to be one of the most exciting, enigmatic, and enthralling artists of all time. Her sound is totally unique, she captures a spirit and a mood resonates so thoroughly with me, that I find my life to be almost entirely soundtracked by her body of work. Just before I headed off to university, this album came out, and I must listen to it in full at least once a month, as I have almost every month since its release.
Cinematic, sad, and sublime, it’s the album that just has everything. It’s produced to perfection, and I find it the most complete and ambitious album of the decade. Lana has since continued to release a further 4 albums/EPs, with the most recent, Norman Fucking Rockwell! earning her both the Guardian’s and BBC’s coveted Album of the Year accolade. Thematically, it’s not an album without its faults, but if you approach it listening to Lana the character, as opposed to taking it all at face value, you’ll appreciate it so much more.
If you’ve never listened to it, take an evening, pour yourself some whiskey, dim the lights, sit back and let it wash over you. And then work your way through her entire discography.
I promise you it’ll be worth it.