Hmm. In no particular order, my brainstorming list:
The break-through. The tinny retro-electro sound of their debut got a bit edgier and more fully-fleshed out on Light and Magic, the foollow-up, but it was Witching Hour that blew the door off its hinges. It opens with High Rise, billowing around you like hot plasma, and then you're plunged into Destroy Everything You Touch, the stomper that won't stop, a furious blizzard of a song with more hooks than a meat locker. Your guides through these brute elemental forces are a lady from Liverpool who sings sweet, like an angel, and a stern-sounding woman from Bulgaria who speaks like a voice over a PA in an Orwellian dystopian scenario.
At War With Walls and Mazes
Lyrical minimalism. I don't care. This is a treat for the ears. So many layers of noises and sounds. Such a wonderful blend of electronic elements and actual instruments like piano and woodwinds and, uh, porn-y funk base. A real 'headphones album.'
So deceptive. This could have been twee and self-important, but instead it's subversive and surprising. Smart and not afraid to show it without ever actually crossing the line to showing off, Annie Clarke is a guitar prodigy, a formiddable lyricist, and a disarming singer.
Yeah it doesn't represent what the YYY's have meant to this decade, but screw it, it's my list and this is the YYY album I like most. The singles make you think it's a party record, but it's more like a party EP with some really sad downtempo electro-rock ballads you can listen to as you walk home at 4 am, suffering that melancholy feeling one often has when walking home alone from a party at 4 am.
Simply put: if Kate Bush was born in 1985, this is what she'd be doing now. I'm not saying she's a knock-off. She's in the same genre/vein, but Bat for Lashes is in some ways completely different from Mme. Bush.
Speaking of folks unfairly accused of immitating the one, the only, this is maybe the only truly good album Tori Amos has done this decade (as opposed to the full five good ones she did in the 90's). I'm not saying other releases from her haven't had some brilliant songs, but they've had a balance (or more than a balance) of unnecessary or even downright bad material. Scarlet's Walk, though? A classic singer-songwriter's album in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, a warm 70's Americana sound, a cohesive piece of work with some of Tori's best lyrical work (which went south sharp, and quick, after this).
And we arrive at the lady herself (by accident I promise). 12 years off the radar and Kate comes back with a really nice album. That's the best word for it. Nice. It isn't revolutionary and it isn't trying to prove anything, it just . . . is. In a very pleasing way. Listening to this album is like having a sunny Sunday in September where you don't have anything in particular to do, so you sit in the window with a cup of tea and then go for a walk around the neighbourhood.
I tried to keep this list to one entry per artist, and really, it was quite difficult to settle between 'Stories from the City' and this (Uh Huh Her is, uh, not quite so good). They're so different. The former is polished, accomplished, accessible, mature. This one is gothic, affected, avant, niche. But I just like White Chalk more, I think. It's all thin and haunted.
See PJ above: likewise, Vespertine was a strong runner-up (and, again, Volta kind of trails in the distance). but I just love the experimental quality of Medulla. And you know what? Hidden under the all-vocal production and the handful of totally out-there tracks, some of the strongest and catchiest pop tunes of Bjork's career are on here.
Origin of Symmetry
Muse is good fun. I kind of think of them as dumb-prog. Most stuff with proggy influences is a little insufferable in its pedantry. Muse is so bombastic and full of such wonderful technical proficiency and their songs are often very structurally complex, but, you know, you never get the sense that some jack-ass is stroking his beard and looking serious. No, everyone is waiting for New Born to kick in so we can all jump around like maniacs.
Did I say pedantic prog? Battles kind of goes the other way, in that this is unabashed math rockery, but it's like, the gateway drug. The fragments of melody in here are damned infectious, and the rhythm section is just an unstoppable moving wall of awesome. When I first heard Atlas, the lead single, I said I didn't understand what i was hearing but the bottom half of my body definitely liked it (or something along those lines, but wittier and more insightful). Now that my brain has had a few years to catch up, I can say with conviction: my entire goddamn body loves this.
Is there any surprise? From simple songs with just a strummy guitar and his sad sensitive Christian-but-not-in-a-bad-way indie boy vocals, to songs with about 137 different instruments all tootling and farting and humming and whatever, this is long, convulted, and entirely, entirely heartfelt.
You know part of the reason this is on here is I have never really got around to getting any other full releases from iron and wine, just songs here and there. But I like this EP. I like that it introduces some electric elements. I like that the lyrics are just so damned good. Usually good lyrics aren't enough to sell me on something, but these, plus that whispy but oh-so-tuneful voice, I am sold.
Once I got over my contrarian 'oh everyone loves these guys, boo' knee-jerk, I realized that there was some awesome stuff going on with the Arcade Fire. Most people would probably put Funeral, and fair enough, that one's awesome too -- but this one is bigger, more ambitious, more grandiose, more foolish. I like those things.
Wind in the Wires
This is the only commercially released album I have ever encountered that sounds like my wandering years, that feels like my wandering years. I listen to Teignmouth and all of a sudden I am back on the train pulling north out of Waterford, and no one for a thousand miles in any direction knows me or cares who I am, and I'm totally lonely and totally free and totally alive, in a way that's painful and beautiful. I'm grateful that there's an album that can bring me back to that place.
I like Goldfrapp better when they're being kind of spooky and ambient and 'i'm awake at 3 am and driving down a country road and i can't quite describe the way i feel but i definitely feel a certain way.' I like sexy electro-pop but seriously, Goldfrapp, this is your strength.
Thudding, shuddering electronic soundscapes that are totally unafraid of cheesy 90's videogame elements, combined with lyrics from a dream, sung in voices from a nightmare. We Share Our Mothers Health is like a duet between a pair of petulant demi-gods, a sister and brother, twins perhaps, who are powerful and incomprehensible and simple. Uncomprehending and incomprehensible.
Cheating! This is the lady from The Knife's solo album. What do you like about The Knife? Is it their creepy, ambient moments? This is mostly like that, except with the atmosphere dial turned to 11. It is a well-named project because honestly there is something to this which is akin to a fever dream. I do not know where the ray comes into the equation, though.
Rufus Wainwright got less interesting as the decade went on. I was pretty much ready to turn in my fan card around Want II. But Poses, man. Poses is a great album. Such wonderful lyrics, such lithe melodies, such rich arrangements. He's got the goods and, for at least one album, he made them work together in such a way that the end result is engaging, compelling, and memorable. Oh and if you dislike his voice, though, there's essentially no selling you on this.
Begin to Hope
A lot of Regina fans lament her turn to slicker production and pop elements, but I am pleased. I find her earlier recordings are mostly pretty dry (why no vocal reverb, Regina? Why?) and more like a quirky talented friend playing piano in the next room, not knowing you're in the kitchen listening. That's endearing, I suppose, but this, this is a proper album. Oh, except the version of Samson on here is way too fast.
Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
Probably the songwriter I'm most excited for in the next few years, because the tunes on her solo debut that are most impressive are the ones written most recently (possible exception: runs in the family). Her powerful, unapologetic voice is pretty much all that remains of the 'punk' element of the original 'punk-cabaret' designation of her old band, The Dresden Dolls, but really, when your lyrics are this smart and this visceral, you want them delivered in a voice that sounds like you really fucking mean every single syllable. Oh, and Ben Folds did a bang-up job on the production. I die of joy a little bit every time the synth bass arpeggiates in 'Guitar Hero,' which is a strong contender for 'song of the decade' in my books.
Places Like This
There's some artists I like, such as Joanna Newsom, who I only know piece-meal i.e. I have never acquired a full album. I feel like Ys should be on here anyway, just because.