Apropos of nothing much – normally, around the end of a year, I’ll mention a handful of my favourite albums of the year on Facebook, but there’s really only one about which I’d be shouting from the rooftops in 2019. So let’s talk about the whole decade instead!
The only rules: one, that the album released in the UK in any of the years 2010-19, and two, that no artist may appear more than once.
10. They Want My Soul – Spoon
Spoon have been churning out excellent albums for over 25 years at this point, but I only discovered them and their extensive back catalogue shortly after the release of this 2014 beauty. That said, while I’m sure there’s some first-album-you-heard bias in there, after an extended wallow in almost all of their work, I’d argue that this and their follow-up, 2017’s Hot Thoughts, are the Texas band’s best work. It’s a close-run choice between those two albums for a place on this list but, while the highs of Hot Thoughts might be just a little bit higher for me (the title track and Can I Sit Next to You, particularly), They Want My Soul is a more consistently strong run from start to finish. From the arresting opening of Rent I Pay that then gives way for the mesmerising second track Inside Out, you get both ends of the Spoon spectrum straight away, and both leave you wanting more. The urgent Rainy Taxi is the ultimate standout, but the Let Me Be Mine/New York Kiss back-to-back at the album’s close is energetic and dreamlike all at once.
9. Chasing Yesterday – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Back when Oasis were a thing, I never would have guessed, not for one minute, that a Noel Gallagher project would produce something that I’d love this much. But here we are. I quite enjoyed his solo act’s self-titled debut, but their sophomore effort has stuck with me for much longer.
It all hinges on the hypnotic opener, Riverman, which sets the tone for all of the album’s best moments: a calm wonderment, luxuriating in its rhythms, filling the space but not overwhelming it. Those echoes are felt most strongly in the mid-album run beginning with The Dying of the Light, through The Right Stuff to While the Song Remains the Same. There’s more bombast in earlier entries like The Girl with X-Ray Eyes, and both angles are then brought together for the whisk-you-away closer, Ballad of the Mighty I. It all adds up to an album that will pick you up and carry you away.
8. All You Can Do – Watsky
The me of 2009 wouldn’t have guessed that there’d be a rap album on my top 10 for the decade, either, but I’ve become increasingly attached to George Watsky’s quick-witted, sometimes-juvenile, always-honest approach over the last couple of years in particular. Swerving from tongue-in-cheek bombast like Bet Against Me and Whoa Whoa Whoa to earnest reflections on passion, mental-health struggles and finding value in life (All You Can Do, Never Let it Die, and Cannonball among my favourites), this 16-track behemoth offers me something new to appreciate each time. This album’s 2016 successor, x Infinity, makes a close argument for inclusion instead, finding a Watsky more in control of his powers than ever before, but the range keeps me coming back to All You Can Do.
7. The Fine Art of Hanging On – The Leisure Society
The Leisure Society have released four albums this decade and I could have easily chosen any of them for this list, but there’s a little more that surprises and excites in this 2015 collection. Band leader Nick Hemming is as evocative a lyricist as he is charming a vocalist, equally at home on melancholic tales of a struggling fishing industry – on the above Tall Black Cabins – as he is on the thrilling, foot-stomping riffs that are peppered into the likes of Outside In and I’m a Setting Sun. The album is dominated by its lower-key moments but its occasional orchestral and brass-led flourishes are things of beauty, with Wide Eyes at Villains becoming delightfully transcendent out of nowhere. Really, though, you could pick any entry point with this lot.
6. I Am Easy to Find – The National
While I love the National (they who possess music’s greatest Big Divorce Energy), this is by some distance the album that speaks to me the most as a coherent whole, greater than the sum of its parts but also boasting several great, great, great parts. It’s the best thing they’ve ever done, and comfortably my favourite album of 2019. Contrasting (and often sidelining) Matt Berninger’s vocals with those of several excellent female guests (including another of my favourite artists, Lisa Hannigan) adds such richness to the ensemble that it makes other National albums seem retrospectively incomplete, while emphasising the quality of what was already there. It’s a slow burn, with the excellent Rylan a stark exception to the rule as perhaps the only song that will grab you by the scruff of the neck on first listen. But once you start wallowing in the glorious melancholy of tracks like Quiet Light, Oblivions, So Far So Fast and the heartbreaking title track, you’ll want to stay cocooned in them forever.
5. Singles – Future Islands
Like a great many, I discovered Future Islands through the viral breakout of their performance of Seasons (Waiting on You) on The Late Show, where the extraordinary energy of vocalist Samuel Herring insisted that viewers pay attention to their deeply heartfelt brand of synthpop. It was delightful to confirm that that song is no one-hit wonder; the rest of the album is every bit as impressive. Its slowest moments, such as the reverent A Song for Our Grandfathers, are every bit as compelling as infectious pop tracks like Doves, and the inner turmoil of A Dream of You and Me at the album’s close nearly rivals Seasons to be the album’s standout, but it’s that irresistible opener that raises Singles from a great album to an all-timer.
And a word to the wise – if you ever get a chance to see Future Islands live, take it.
4. Let the Hard Times Roll – David Ford
David Ford wouldn’t want me to talk about how he should be a bigger deal than he is – indeed, some of his best work has been expressing his peace with never quite breaking out beyond a small but passionate fanbase (even if you don’t enjoy his music, I can recommend his autobiographical book I Choose This: How to Nearly Make It in the Music Industry). But it is a shame, because he’s one of the best songwriters and all-round performers out there, as happy penning sharply satirical outrage on politics and economics as brutally honest self-deprecation and touching love songs. His third album, released just early enough in 2010 to make this list, is certainly his best, starting with the bracing urgency of Panic and taking in achingly gorgeous sing-along sad-songs like Waiting for the Storm and Hurricane, in between a touching, stripped-down take on the killing of Northern Irish policeman Stephen Carroll and a near-hysterical ode to how Margaret Thatcher really can fuck right off in She’s Not the One.
3. There There – Megan Washington
Nobody made better pop music in the 2010s than this exceptional Australian. It’s a toss-up between this second album and her irrepressible debut, I Believe You Liar, but There There is a slicker, more grown-up outing with a satisfying blend of attention-grabbing upbeat tracks that hook you quickly and slower ballads that’ll stick with you for a long time afterwards. Washington wrestles with restlessness and commitment issues on My Heart is a Wheel, the break-up of an engagement on Marry Me, the struggle for self-confidence on To or Not Let Go… but it’s on the anguished Consolation Prize where the album peaks in its depiction of a woman who can’t accept that her feelings aren’t reciprocated. For raw fun, try I Believe You Liar first, but this is a true feast.
2. Keeping the Peace – Arthur Beatrice
Arthur Beatrice’s near-complete refusal to participate in any kind of publicity means that it’s impossible to know whether we’ll get a follow-up to this, their 2016 second album. If we don’t, it’ll leave their catalogue – this and 2014’s Working Out – as a discography that’ll be pretty much impossible to beat, pound for pound, for any artist I’ve ever heard. I loved Working Out, a record full of low-key masterpieces in which vocal duties were shared more-or-less equally between Ella Girardot and guitarist Orlando Leopard (a name which, I must insist, I have not made up), but as soon as I heard the above Who Returned, lead single for Keeping the Peace, I knew this was going to be a step up. The band partnered with the London Contemporary Orchestra for this album, lending their work a breathtaking new scale that lifts the standout tracks into something utterly transcendent. Opener Real Life is a gorgeous and touching tribute to parents, while tracks like I Left You and I Don’t Get That Chill reflect on things that aren’t quite right any more, the former expansive and choral and the latter quiet and mesmerising. The theme is most evident in Every Cell, which forms the middle part of a sensational mid-album peak, either side of Since We Were Kids and Worry. All three are soaring, stirring triumphs that, alone, would mark out an album as great. The only reason why this isn’t my top pick? That Girardot is the lead vocalist throughout – not a mark against her in any way at all, given the beauty of what’s achieved, but Leopard’s purr (which, I insist again, is absolutely the right word even without the name) is every bit as gorgeous and led some of Working Out’s best tracks. But that’s it. Keeping the Peace will be on rotation for as long as I live.
1. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
You don’t need me to tell you about Arcade Fire, or even this album in particular. But goodness me. Bursting with barely controlled tension, this postcard from Win and Will Butler’s childhoods pierces through to the teenager in me every time that I listen to it. Arcade Fire’s single greatest track isn’t here – that’s Reflektor, and I’ll fight you on it – but there are so many standouts here that the word essentially ceases to hold any meaning whatsoever (I am compelled to mention the title track and Sprawl II, but to specify beyond that is splitting hairs). No other album transports me away so completely as The Suburbs, and it’ll take some doing for anyone to beat it in the years to come.