Continuing the process of wrapping up the last decade before it disappears too far into the rearview mirror, this is the second part of the best albums of the 2010s.
The 2010s were an interesting decade for our corner of alternative and electronic music. Some veteran genres got a hell of a resurgence, others have faded away. New styles have appeared, become the “in thing” for a bit, then gone again. Other styles just soldier on, as if they’ll never go out of fashion. Technology has perhaps democratised music more than ever before – anyone can self-release, can potentially become a star. But is there the revenue anymore to live off it comfortably? This was also the decade where I began to travel so much more for music. I’ve been to Canada (once), to Belgium (seven times), to Chicago (three times), to Prague (once), to Düsseldorf (once), all to mainly see live music. I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and discovered new music along the way.
While I still try and keep the broad focus of the music covered here to the wider sphere of industrial music, I also listen to other music, and thus the spread here is perhaps a bit wider than you might otherwise expect. You know what, though? Try some of this music. Especially the stuff you don’t recognise or don’t know. Go for it – I love hearing new music that someone else has enthused about, trying to understand what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it will take days or weeks to click, and hopefully, something here will do that to you.
Time to cue the music. You can listen along on Spotify or Youtube. Links to the right, and as the rest of the posts are added, the navigation links below will go live.
Ice-T is not exactly new to political comment or, indeed, metal, his Body Count project has been active since the early nineties, not that long a time after he started out as a rapper. He’s long been a strident voice against police brutality and Government policy against the poor – as well as race relations – and his most recent Body Count albums have seen a resurgence in popularity again, and also quality. This album arrived like a pipe bomb, as Ice-T and the band burst back to prominence with a number of catchy rap-metal songs and a smart, well-honed message that might have been talking to the converted, but fucking hell, it was effective. The best and most powerful songs here, though, clearly came from personal experience and battles. Lead single No Lives Matter was the anthem we needed in the period post-election of Trump, a raging indictment of Republican policy that isn’t just racist, but genuinely couldn’t give a fuck about the poor, and Ice-T details this in clear terms. Then there is the raw, brilliant closing track, where he tears into hair-trigger policing that results in the shooting of a friend, simply because they were wearing the wrong clothing (the titular Black Hoodie). A blast of emotional fury, I’m not convinced Ice-T has ever been better than this, never mind just with Body Count.
/Beauty Queen Autopsy
One that got me out of leftfield, was an intriguing collaboration that resulted in an excellent album. The work of Matt Fanale (Caustic and a ton of other bands) and Erica Mulkey (Unwoman), it was an electronic album that went between trip-hop and dancefloor synthpop, as well as dark balladry, and had the great tunes that expect from these two artists, but it was the twist on the idea that made this fascinating. I was extremely surprised to find out – after a couple of listens – that Fanale had written the lyrics, as an experiment in taking a woman’s viewpoint, which makes you think twice about what you are hearing. Is this a reliable narrator, or someone putting what they think are the right words into someone else’s mouth? That said, this is a sexy, fun album that has lyrics that Erica Mulkey clearly gets her teeth into, and is very much worth revisiting for its unusual nature.
The remarkable longevity of Autechre is perhaps down to the fact that they’ve never quite stood still. That, and their electronic creations sound so alien, so unlike anyone else that the likelihood of others coming along doing the same seems infinitesimally small. Their output across the past decade saw a number of extended projects (the NTS Live project, in particular, was eight hours of material alone), which is something of a daunting prospect to listen to in a number of sittings, let alone one. But for me their best new creation of the decade was the dark, forbidding textures of Exai. There are rhythms hidden within the experimentation, the sounds of twisted metal and near-alien bleeps helping to disguise them, but there is no escaping the fact that Autechre makes electronic music that is explicitly not music for dancing. This is music to listen to, to immerse in (it sounds amazing and unsettling at the same time on good headphones), and continues a long lineage of electronic musicians – which goes back to the earliest days of the style – who are content to explore at the outer edges, and for that Autechre remain an indispensable act.
Skinny Puppy hasn’t been especially prolific since they returned from their hiatus in 2000 – just four albums since – and to be honest, the quality has been a little variable. But the last album they’ve released to date, Weapon, at points, felt like a return to the spiky, unpredictable beast of old. Sure, ohGr’s poppier, brighter solo work still bleeds into the sound, but at others, they seethe with fury (the political rage of illisiT, backed with a charging electronic beat) and get just plain weird (the fabulous, twisted druggy nightmare of tsudanama, a reminder of the realms that the band fearlessly explored before). At least in part apparently inspired by their discovery that their music was being used to aid torture at Guantanamo Bay, the anger that rips through this album seemed to give the duo a new lease of life. Interestingly when I saw them last live, that excellent set saw them digging deep into their past, pretty much ignoring the new material, which in some respects was a shame – I’d loved to have seen some of this live.
Over the years I’ve come to think that, perhaps, Factory Floor were ahead of its time. Their percussion and electronics-led – and a live feel to their recordings – were industrial techno sometime before it exploded into the wider consciousness further into the decade, and at their best, they were an utterly thrilling live act, too. Their earlier singles – most of which ended up on this long-awaited and long-promised album – were all basically flawless, with Nik Void’s vocals treated and stretched so that they were barely human, sitting neatly as a result with their mechanised, human-played drums that drove every song forward. Momentum was all with the sound, as songs charged forward, ever forward, and often stretching to epic lengths without ever any concern that they were overdoing it. I wasn’t as keen on the later album 25 25, mind.
/Misery Loves Co.
/Black Lodge Records
Two decades since the gloomy depths of Your Vision Was Never Mine to Share, Misery Loves Co., recently reformed, returned with their fourth album and the results were striking, and impressive. Rather than simply picking up where they left off, too, they instead appeared to have chosen a different route, one that nodded to both their aggressive, industrial-metal origins and also the sleek, gothic metal that they evolved into. But there are other things, too. The soaring, huge, Suburban Breakdown is dealing with domestic drudgery amid the monstrous, anthemic chorus, while the stuttering rhythms and bruising industrial power of the title track appear to suggest small-town escape. This is a theme spread across the album, which perhaps reflects the realities of life as the band members have grown up. The music, though, is vital and fantastic, the band back doing what they do best, and the result is a thrilling return.
There was a feeling when the first taste of this album appeared that Annie Clark was about to become a star. Her work previously had already got quite a bit of attention, but the glossy, hook-laden sound of the singles here suggested a step up – but even so, she became a star in ways we didn’t expect. That lead single was the glorious, technicolour Digital Witness, a song about oversharing on the internet, and its success and acclaim had an inevitability about it much as our failure to avoid oversharing since did. But it wasn’t just the songs heading for pop stardom that made this album brilliant. She’s just as great at introspection and detail, such as the heartbreaking Prince Johnny, which introduces a forlorn, presumably real character who is revisited on MASSEDUCTION, or the depth of family ties on I Prefer Your Love. As well as that, her lyrics always demand close attention, to the little snaps of clear detail that come through, even if she doesn’t always want to reveal the full picture. Pop is often dark, even with a facade of happiness and bright lights in front, and St. Vincent nailed that balance in brilliant style here.
/The Transhuman Condition
Encephalon went on to do even more grandiose, ambitious albums than this, but I must confess that it’s still their debut that I love the most. Something of a concept around the idea of the human condition amid technical isolation as we race into the future (man, that’s worked out a bit differently than how we might have expected), it was at the time a remarkable balance between the more melodic elements of songcraft and powerful electro-industrial, showing back in 2011 that there were certainly ways that you could be hard-hitting without sacrificing all emotion. There are some grade-A classic tracks on here, too – particularly the soaring, thundering opener Rise, and also the punchy dancefloor kick of Scar on Scar on Scar.
/The Golden Age of Nothing
/Ten Thousand Hours
What should perhaps have been a breakthrough became something of an epitaph, as this most interesting of recent British Goth bands called it a day in the months following the release of this outstanding album. Eschewing the usual route of bassline-led, dancefloor (two-step) aimed songs that so many bands have gone for, this group instead donned suits and went for a more stately, slower-paced miserablism that seeped disgust with failure from every pore. Previous releases were solid, but everything here took things to another level. The rich production allows for a bigger, stronger sound, with a solid rhythm section underpinning interesting guitar and viola effects that shroud them (most notably on the squalling, nasty storm that envelops Whip). Elsewhere, The Fall Down sees the sense of anger around perceived failures bubble to the surface, while the lovely St. Rowland is a tender tribute to Rowland S. Howard, in an oblique sort of way. Rather understaying its welcome, in some respects – at just thirty-six minutes – as a final word from the band, it’s a hell of a way to go. But I’m still sad they are gone, as there was still much promise to fulfil.
/Speak In Storms
The release of the Everything box-set a few years ago (one day, a copy of that will be mine. Oh yes.) felt like a full-stop on Seabound, particularly as Frank Spinath has continued with a number of other projects (including his solo album Lionhearts), and his bandmate Martin Vorbrodt is now in Los Angeles. Nothing either way has ever been announced, mind, so technically Seabound is still an active proposition. Speak In Storms was their first album in eight years at the time – the follow-up to the brilliant, slow-burn of Double-Crosser, and it is perhaps notable that in hindsight, the best songs here are the ones that slow things down, and stretch out the agony. The searing Contraband is a perfect example, where Spinath spins out a tale of mental betrayal and uses some unusual metaphors to ram home his fury, while A Grown Man adds some offbeat wit and humour to a dark treatise on dealing with failure and moving on. Seabound remain a unique band – in line with Spinath’s career in psychology, the group are experts in examining the mental effects of love and loss in song, and their delicate, often-devastating songs remain without parallel.
Talk about a closing statement. Across his decades-long career, Bowie controlled his sound, his styles, his image, hopping between styles as fashions and the desires took him, and for a good proportion of that career, he was a beacon leading the way for everyone else. As he got older and could afford to take risks and head down musical cul-de-sacs that others were unwilling to try, the sales may have dipped but the affection remained. His last years saw a couple of excellent albums, both released without much warning, particularly this last album. Recorded in total secrecy, and released just two days prior to his death from (previously unannounced) liver cancer, there was a distinct feeling of mortality to the album. The music was elegantly subdued and jazz-inflected, but his voice still shone through, while a number of the songs touched on the subject of endings and death. A singular, towering talent choosing to exit the world on his terms. Very Bowie, really.
/Zeal and Ardor
It’s still an unusual coming together of disparate music even now, in these days of genre-hopping and the blurred lines of the music scene. Challenged in one of the more unpleasant corners of the internet to combine black metal and African-American blues spirituals, the result of Manuel Gagneux’s work is absolutely extraordinary. At points, it is one or the other, but when the two are combined, it produces genuinely unique music that works better than perhaps it has any right to. The concept he came up with around it – what would have happened had the slaves and their descendants had found the devil rather than God? – means that it is also playing with other concepts than just spirituality, of course, but music can really be interpreted any way you wish. As a live experience, too, this is something else – a number of vocalists, as well as the band, resulting in huge, jaw-dropping sing-a-long sessions and a thrill that is probably among the closest to a religious experience that I’ll ever feel.
Long the problem for Arcade Fire has been the towering expectations that their extraordinary debut Funeral created. That an album dealing with grief and how you adapt and move on, could be both a soothing and cathartic listen – and have some of the most ecstatic live songs I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience – made what was to follow be on the back foot from the start. Wisely, though, they’ve continued to evolve and grow as a band, choosing never to set foot quite where they did before. Hence third album The Suburbs, a sepia-toned trip into memory and childhood, that at points is genuinely affecting, largely thanks to the lush instrumentation and the affection for the memories that they detail. Both a sign of future direction and also the best moment on the album by far, though, is the staggering disco-rock climax of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), where Régine Chassagne lets loose on one of the best songs the band will ever write.
/Randolph & Mortimer
/Manifesto for a Modern World
Across much of this decade, the Sheffield industrial act Randolph & Mortimer has grown almost by stealth, playing a limited number of live shows, and releasing a steady stream of singles, remixes and collaborations. This has got them attention all over the place and intriguingly has seen two styles, in particular, evolve in parallel. One has been heavily old-school industrial/EBM influenced work, the other being pounding, club-bound industrial techno (and at points, one bleeds into the other). It has certainly got the group a wider appeal than they might have done, and the eventual release of this album last year almost served as a “best of – so far”, especially as it featured a number of tracks that those following the band would know well, and especially as this was very much a case of “all killer, no filler”. Stomping early single Existing, Not Living rubs shoulders with the pounding, groovy techno of Citizens, the creepy, cut-up sample refashioning of Thatcher in The Ballad of the Iron Lady against the sneering against consumer culture of Enjoy More. One of a few groups to be picking up the torch for politically aware electronic music in the Steel City of late, it’s clear the future of that legacy is in safe hands here.
The eerie soundtrack to one of the greatest TV shows of the decade – Les Revenants, a French show where the dead return, but not quite as zombies, and how the town deals with the shock and emotion – Mogwai exactly nailed the unsettling dread that permeated the show. The band were shown early snippets of the show to build their music from, and they dialled back their usual guitar-led power to create soundscapes and motifs that enhanced, and indeed were integral to, the feel of the show. Exactly what a band scoring a televisual or cinematic event should do, of course, but it’s rare that the two work in such perfect lockstep like this. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this show wouldn’t have been half as affecting without Mogwai’s work. Also, if you’ve not seen the show, go and watch it right now. You won’t regret it, although you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards.
For his first solo album in nearly fifteen years, David Byrne rather burst back into the public consciousness. Rapturously received live shows were followed by a Broadway run (which has been renewed for a second go in late 2020, and yes, I’m considering trying to find time to go to NYC for it), and there was a general sense that Byrne is back in the public eye – and revelling in it – for the first time since he was fronting Talking Heads. The album itself stands on its own merits, though, as Byrne draws on his past and his influences, as well as more up-to-date sounds, to create an extraordinary, positive outlook across an album that is endlessly enjoyable and danceable. I suspect the latter part is important, as the album seems to let loose as much as possible (the joy in Everybody’s Coming To My House, in particular, is something to behold. There was a deeper message here, too – that while the world seems shit right now, we can make it better and work together to do so – and inch by inch, maybe in some ways we’re succeeding, but we still have some way to go.
/Lost & Lonesome
An album I heard by chance while waiting for an in-store show at Rough Trade East one evening – and I went and bought it on the spot once I knew what it was – this is sublime, dreamy shoegaze from Melbourne, Australia. The sultry summer heat of southern Australia drips from glorious opener Whale, which uses layered vocal melodies as well as it uses walls of guitars and effects, while elsewhere brighter, cleaner mixes fight through to provide upbeat, lovely songs and laidback instrumentals. This is modern shoegaze, with clear-as-a-bell production, a real depth of sound, but critically, wonderful songcraft and melodies. Not bad for a random, unexpected purchase, that has become one of my more treasured albums of recent times.
/Alter der Ruine
/I Will Remember This All Differently
In the space of eight years or so, Alter Der Ruine went from industrial noise, through to industrial dancefloor tunes, sly humour, onto being party-starters and finally the comedown. What was perhaps remarkable was that they were good at all of this, it just took some a bit of time to catch up, seeing as they were evolving at such a pace. Their most remarkable album was that final album, though. Bruised, exhausted and downbeat synthpop, each song was given time to grow and bloom, with Mike T’s vocals appropriately subdued and wracked with sorrow. Amid the whirlwind of their relatively short career up to that point, such weariness was perhaps understandable, but if you’d told me back when I first heard Ruine Process that the same group would in due course release a ballad as exquisite as Tiny Wars and Quiet Storms, I’d have laughed in your face. That they proved younger past me so emphatically still amazes me.
Quite the “supergroup”, this, featuring (among others) Krischan from Rotersand, Daniel Myer from Haujobb, and Frank Spinath from Seabound, the result was exactly the sleek industrial-electro, or futurepop, if you will, that we might have hoped for. Needless to say, the production, the songcraft, the hooks, are all flawless, and there are elements of all groups involved in the sound, that’s for sure. Raiders and Reach Out are both dancefloor bangers, Lovers is one of the most heartfelt songs Spinath has been involved in an age, and I’m left with this vague feeling that this album should have been much better appreciated when it was released.
/Profound Lore Records
By some distance, one of the most striking, intense albums I’ve listened to in a long time, this album has left me scrabbling around for words since I first heard it. Indeed, I heard some of it beforehand, watching Kristin Hayter perform live as she prowled through the crowd lit by a stark light she was carrying. She calls her songs “survivor anthems”, a vicious, searing “Fuck You” to those that have abused her and pushed her down both figuratively and actually. The songs themselves are often stark, with minimal instrumentation that serves merely as a platform for her extraordinary vocal delivery. This goes from whispers, and melodic moments, to wall-stripping howls of anguish and fury, with operatic and choral elements thrown in too. In short, this is the voice of a woman who has taken the front foot to fight back, taking those she needs to battle head-on, and it is a brilliant, mesmerising release. It might feel extreme to some, but so is the message, and it’s one that needs to be heard and addressed.