Ten Albums from the 2010s

Alex Smee
9 min readMar 23, 2021

For a few years now I have really enjoyed writing about music, mostly as correspondence to bridge the distance of thousands of miles between myself and my good friend Chris Croasdale. Also simply for personal enjoyment and contemplation, something I hadn’t done in years. I intend to share more reflections on music, and art, and anything else that might take my interest, on this account.

Here to begin are some thoughts on ten albums from the last ten years that made an impression on me.

Oneohtrix Point Never — ‘Replica’ 2011

Oneohtrix Point Never — ‘Replica’ 2011

My last apartment in London before I moved to Singapore, in 2014, was on Glasslyn Road, a small steep hill on the edge of Crouch End. My flatmate Warren lived upstairs. The kitchen and his loft room above looked out over a sleepy cricket club field, behind which the incline up to Alexandra Palace was patched with tiled roofs, losing their scale with only pinpoints of light at night.

Over the hill the other way is Highgate. Under broad-leaved trees that make the pavement sticky in summer, and past large houses long since split into individually expensive flats, there was (perhaps still is?) a record room in a Victorian shopfront on the Archway Road. Most of their stock was in a basement reached by an iron circular staircase seemingly cut into the floor. Everything bare wood that was hastily stripped. I bought some records for my Dad there, and would accompany Warren as he selected releases. It was a basic situation. The guy had to take your card and type the numbers into PayPal on his laptop if you paid by debit or credit, then show you the screen for reassurance.

I was the beneficiary of numerous download codes that came along with Warren’s LPs. This record captured my attention and repeated over in my mind for the rest of that year, working from home, I played it a lot. An absorbing blend of radio frequency noises and a kind of plush neon ambient.

There would come a time late in the day as the sun painted long shadows in the early evening from tall trees across the cricket field. I feel transported back to that place when I play this album. At the time I think I felt transported forward–to a kind of dystopian futuristic setting, full of sharpness and layers of low bit rate voice sampling.

Ryuichi Sakamoto — ‘Three’ 2013

Ryuichi Sakamoto — ‘Three’ 2013

The title refers to the simplicity of this whole recording being three instruments, a piano, cello and violin, playing Ryuichi Sakamoto’s slightly more than minimalist compositions. Like a modern and softly distant abstraction of classical music. Actually, I’ve since realised that it might be a good entry point for anyone who doesn’t listen much to classical music. It’s accessible, elegant, wistful, with something a little baroque about it.

I played it over and over as my then girlfriend, now wife, and I journeyed around Japan in late winter three years ago. It became the perfect quiet complement to the quiet setting. I had been looking for something new and without association that would be as fresh as the trip itself. Now it is indistinguishable in my mind from the place.

Smooth overcast skies above dry brown hills, hidden shrines and small dark wooden buildings on narrow quiet roads. A spirit in the air.

Aimee Mann — ‘Mental Illness’ 2017

Aimee Mann — ‘Mental Illness’ 2017

Across water, sound travels with a strange quality. Firstly it is louder over a long distance than it would be on land. It also sounds as if played through many speakers at once, blurred with reflections touching small ripples on the surface maybe?

On the deck of a villa on the edge of the sea on the Riau Islands in Indonesia I heard a track from this album coming over the water from another house. It was so out of context that I couldn’t place it for a few moments although I knew the album well. I suppose it was being played from some Spotify playlist that collected well-received tracks from that year. The record did win the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album — not an entirely satisfying classification but a satisfying recognition. It’s more alternative Americana, close up and honest with such sweet arrangements and husky harmonics. How many artists, 25 years in, make possibly their best album on their ninth attempt? She is incredibly adept, consistent, masterful. A real songwriter.

Fauna Flora — ‘Fauna Flora’ 2014

Fauna Flora — ‘Fauna Flora’ 2014

Steve Ward, who goes under the name of Fauna Flora here, is a classy dude. Everything he does is so adept and well made. I played his debut, ‘Opening Night’, from 2001, on repeat, unintentionally memorising every word. His rare two albums since have shown different sides of a talent that I greatly admire.

This record is autumnal and smoothly confident. Bass tones move with an astute plan. Guitars are sparsely arranged. Small practice amps at medium volume. His conversational and quiet voice flows over clever chord changes with a minimum of effort. Everything is supremely accomplished in the subtlest, introverted way. It’s an obscure band in a garage studio somewhere and nowhere, who really know what they are doing.

Talvin Singh & Niladri Kumar — ‘Together’ 2012

Talvin Singh & Niladri Kumar — ‘Together’ 2012

I was fascinated by Talvin Singh’s underground dance music in the late 90s. It was like breakbeat, drum and bass, and trance with a cinematic extravagance. Big and grand sounding, full of space and richness.

After a gap in time where it somehow didn’t occur to me to wonder what he had been doing, I stumbled upon this album. A landscape of traditional Indian instruments in slow motion. It reminds me of that oddly beautiful sound when an orchestra is tuning up together and the blend of too many instruments harmonises together in totality. A kaleidoscope aligning for a brief moment before the inertia that brought it together then takes it apart.

I usually listen to albums that capture my interest over and over until I’m familiar with every note, yet this one always remains a little out of reach in a way that I’m happy about. I’ve played it many times and it meditates upon waves of speed and slowness in a hypnotic and constantly new way. Satisfying and peaceful.

The Avalanches — ‘Wildflower’ 2016

The Avalanches — ‘Wildflower’ 2016

’Since I Left You’, the first Avalanches album, is a great record. A flowing collage of cut and paste samples that somewhere invisibly blend with new instrumentation and vocals. I recall, in 2000, the CD pack sitting open on the shelf of our front room record library as it played, next to the dusty ash of incense sticks burning and thickly filling the air. I still think of it as our 1967, a reference to a summer of love and a discovery of pure joy in music, only twenty years ago but somehow now a simpler time.

This new album took all of the 16 years in-between to make. Twenty-one tracks and hundreds of samples later we are back in the soul / disco / r&b / jazz / hip hop / psychedelia groove from 2000. Presumably part of the reason for the suspension of time would be the legal requirement to clear those hundreds of samples? Jonathan Donahue appears on five tracks, Danny Brown and the late David Berman and MF Doom on others, and many more artists pay visits where they can add to the abstraction. An explosion of very post-modern creativity that was definitely worth the wait.

David Bowie — ‘Black Star’ 2016

David Bowie — ‘Black Star’ 2016

This album came from nowhere. I realise now that I probably hadn’t listened to a Bowie album made in my lifetime, although I bought the Pet Shop Boys remixed single “Hello Spaceboy” in 1996. Then suddenly this masterpiece was in front of us, and two days later he died. He recorded it in secret, he suffered from cancer in secret. That there was more to him than widely known, right until the end, is very fitting. He refused to stand still, purely creative.

There is everything to love about Bowie in this angular non-conformity, alongside some beautiful sharp melodies. The album covers so much ground in seven songs, not least poetically, “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” all the way to “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”. I’m so glad he had this last statement.

The Posies — ‘Blood/Candy’ 2010

The Posies — ‘Blood/Candy’ 2010

I can see now that every Posies album is quite different. They’ve made nine to date which I suppose isn’t a huge number considering the first was in the late 1980s, but it’s quite an achievement when you notice how they reinvented themselves so consistently. This album is mature and lovingly crafted, a little progressive in places and of confident showmanship in others. Actually, it’s almost playfully theatrical in a way. The expected signatures remain, they reliably continue to conjure smart melodies. Quite a few tracks have guest vocalists sharing the lead, Lisa Lobsinger from Broken Social Scene in particular adds to the harmonies nicely. It’s a kind of sweet and velvety harmony, and it mixes satisfyingly with the up-tempo choppiness. It’s a very nice album all the way through, listenable, inviting, present and awake.

In the autumn of 2010 I saw the London date on this album tour at the Garage in Islington. I lent them a Vox AC30, which Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers used when he joined them for a couple of songs, in return for more tickets which I excitedly distributed. It was almost ten years after I had seen them upstairs at the same venue, then playing requests and Big Star covers on a couple of metallic sounding acoustic guitars. A little too much smoke in such a small room. To see them playing downstairs with guest musicians and complex mature songs was satisfying. They were suddenly a grown-up band with a repertoire of things to say, embracing a new era.

Gaussian Curve — ‘Clouds’ 2015 and ‘The Distance’ 2017

Gaussian Curve — ‘Clouds’ 2015 and ‘The Distance’ 2017

I’m cheating and selecting two albums in one here. My friend Duncan Thornley recommended the first Gaussian Curve album ‘Clouds’ and I was so excited when I listened. It’s an indulgent trip into a distant dream where I hibernate in octave-spanning synths and guitar drones. The two albums blend into one and it’s a wonderful hour and a half when played together. They are a Dutch trio who seem to show up at the odd festival and spend the rest of their time in the studio. I hope they make more music together because they have perfected a mellow vibe that I find so pleasing.

Four Tet — ‘Morning / Evening’ 2015

Four Tet — ‘Morning / Evening’ 2015

Perhaps the most famous example of the artistic pointillist technique is the painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ by Georges Seurat. People gathered at a park in Paris painted using many thousands of tiny individual dots on the canvas. Close up it’s a sea of overlapping constituent atoms, at a distance a living image with emotion. At every level interesting.

The best of Kieran Hebden’s music is something like this. It’s meticulously, almost mathematically constructed, yet the finished composition has a feeling and charm you’d expect from a live jam. He’s so good at programming drums, the bleeping tones and percussion fuse so rhythmically with melody and evolving pattern, that I am often impressed simply by the mountain he climbs by embarking on each record. This album has one long track on each side, ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’. The samples are tastefully added and constructed into the fabric, with the traditional Indian vocal on ‘Morning Side’, such a delicate tune, giving the electronics a soft weightlessness. Like it could all blow away in the wind.