Continuing the process of wrapping up the last decade before it disappears too far into the rearview mirror, this is the fourth 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 any more 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.
Youth Code burst into our vision less with a bang, more of a punch through the wall. With roots in hardcore punk and love of industrial/EBM, they were one of the first over the past decade to find the links between the two, and make a listenable, exciting proposition from it – and quite a few others have tried similar paths since. I also thought long and hard about which album to include. Commitment to Complications might have technically the better production, and perhaps has the better songs overall, but for sheer impact, this debut is the one that needs to be here. All of the songs on this relatively short album pack a huge punch, with the feeling that these songs were written from a hardcore slant and then fashioned into EBM, and the results are far better than we might have expected them to be. That said, as always with this kind of thing, it is best experienced live, and I’m happy to report that Youth Code has destroyed live every single time I’ve seen them.
The intriguing Airmech turned out to a pointer for an idea of the general direction of Front Line Assembly over the past decade. It was the point where Bill Leeb and his cohorts introduced subtle – and at points, not-so-subtle – bass music elements into their sound, but the other element less considered that was introduced was a sense of humanity. FLA has never been the most emotional of bands – with a modus operandi of exploring the relationships between humans and machines, there never really was room for emotion. But Airmech was a deeply, unexpectedly emotional release, and one of Echogenetic‘s immense strengths was a continuation of that, showcased best by the exceptional ballad Ghosts that is the centrepiece of the album here. But it wasn’t all navel-gazing, as there was also the best dancefloor-stomper in an age here, too, in the form of the pummelling, monstrous Killing Grounds, that used huge drum patterns alongside an arsenal of synth lines and the targeted use of cavernous bass drops (seriously, this sounds amazing at high volume). This was, overall, though, such a satisfying release, as FLA hit the sweet spot between doing what they do, and introducing new electronic weapons.
/Loma Vista Recordings
Six years passed between the excellent GET COLOR and the release of this – the band mainly occupied with lucrative and well-received video game score work – and while fashions and tastes had changed in music in that time, HEALTH returned reinvigorated, sounding better than ever and perhaps with a more sympathetic audience. Mainly as noise-rock, or whatever you want to call it, had become much more widely recognised, and thus HEALTH no longer sounded like odd ones out. The thing is, HEALTH hadn’t really changed, they’d simply honed and super-charged what they already did, so the industrial elements became much more pronounced, the noisy elements became even more extreme, and they still had a pop heart that kept producing massive choruses. This album is full of the latter in particular – Stonefist and Flesh World (UK) kick really hard but with gossamer-light, euphoric choruses, while Life had a surprisingly hopeful, tender core. An endlessly listenable album, this, and one I still love now.
There has been an awful lot of EBM-influenced music this past decade, and there’s also been a number of notable Australian EBM-influenced acts, too. Multiple Man fit the bill on both scores, and this album was very much a highlight of 2017 and has remained a great listen since. It took an interesting tack on EBM, by not making punishing rhythms the core of things, instead of dropping them back in the mix a bit, with perhaps less bass than might be expected, and adding a host of synth patterns over the top, that hinted at techno, house, and perhaps the more psychedelic end of trance, too, with vocals less an afterthought, more just part of the overall sound. The result was an exceptional album that was well worth immersing yourself in, and happily, the subsequent EP proved this was no one-trick pony, either.
/You Want It Darker
In the decade or so prior to his death, Cohen experienced a remarkable renaissance, borne from misfortune. The discovery that his longtime manager had pilfered much of his money accrued indirectly resulted in him returning to playing live, playing to perhaps bigger crowds than he’d ever done before, and reaching a much wider audience also (helped, as well, by a continuing stream of covers of Hallelujah, one in particular on a TV reality show). His last album – released just weeks before his death – felt like a comment on finality and atonement, kinda like Bowie controlling how his own death was interpreted. His voice may have shown his age as it cracked at moments, but the warmth of the album as he considered the end was something else. Especially the utterly extraordinary Treaty, a beautiful song which feels like Cohen making amends with a great many people, rather than just one. After such a distinguished career, the final notes were his best in decades.
/Safe From Harm / Losing Touch
It takes guts – and no small amount of confidence – to release two albums simultaneously as your debut album, but perhaps Empathy Test weren’t like their peers from the start. Having eschewed labels and instead built their presence by a succession of well-received singles and live shows, they also benefitted from sounding different to what others were doing in synthpop at the time, too. That meant writing mainly slower-paced songs, but songs with real heart and emotion, and also by learning and evolving. Their live show over the past six years or so has been transformed with confidence and lengthy tours supporting old hands, and their music has done similarly by better tech, better production and consistent songwriting. The reason both of those albums are here as one entry is because, frankly, there isn’t a way to separate them, as they are two sides of the same coin. It’s just a really, really good, twenty-two track debut, the way I see it.
/Anti-Ghost Moon Ray
In the end, there weren’t too many artists that interested in writing about Brexit directly, but those that did were angry. Elizabeth Bernholz, though, seethed as her Gazelle Twin alter-ego when taking on the subject. In many respects, though, this album was taking on the British conceit that brought about Brexit rather than Brexit itself. The historical revisionism, the idea that things were “better” in the past, from the perspective of a generation (the so-called “baby boomers”) that have for the most part accumulated wealth in the form of homeownership value and pensions (in particular) that no following generation has been able to do, and a sneering view that Britain still remains great. Instead, as this searing, furious album points out, while they’ve done well, others have ended up in poverty, or deported, as a result of policies that have simply been mean. Musically and conceptually an absolutely fascinating album, it bubbles with menace and brilliantly gets across an entire generations’ fury at a future stolen from them by those that have comparatively little left.
The peak of the all-too-short active period before High-Functioning Flesh went on hiatus, I’d perhaps suggest that this could be the pinnacle of the minimal synth influence on industrial music. Vocals and vocal effects layer upon each other over tumbling drum patterns and sharp-edged synths that help make Susan Subtract’s vocals all the harsher – and all the more effective. Amid the breathless, rapid delivery, though, is a commitment to melody and a just fascination with the bands that came before them, but the skill here is how they refashioned clear influences into something new. This felt new, despite a concept that could have been dismissed as slavishly retro. Culture Cut, the album that followed this, was on a hiding to nothing trying to match the heights of it, and sadly never came close. This, however, was a brilliant demonstration of their prowess.
/L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes
Mika Godrijk’s tribal-industrial project has been a feature of the industrial scene now for well over two decades, and for a long time remained a sole voice in the scene exploring the links between religious fervour and dancefloor abandon. While others have begun to follow suit in their own ways, This Morn’ Omina albums – and live shows – remain extraordinary, thrilling events. This album saw TMO at the peak of their powers, as they explored the concept of rebirth and resurrection in ancient religion, and the results gave the group a new lease of life, too. A sprawling album over two CDs and nearly two hours of running time, it was at least partly split into the more “traditional” tribal power of the group on the first CD (and certainly that’s where most of the dancefloor-bound material was found), and a perhaps more experimental edge prevailed on the second. But there was no difference in quality – the whole thing was amazing, a fascinating insight into how a group can bring in disparate influences but still hold true to their signature sound.
/The Waiting Room
I’ve been listening to Tindersticks for a long, long time, and they remain a remarkable band for their longevity but also the way that they’ve retained a singular, instantly recognisable sound without ever repeating themselves. And so it went with their exceptional eleventh album, where they worked with friendly filmmakers to create visuals for each of the songs, but also brought in yet more influences. I’d never expected a subtle afro-beat influence to seep in, but here it does and the works are exceptional. This is – as most works that feature Stuart Staples’ vocals are – a release that feels world-weary, where the picking apart of the self, others and one’s thoughts are necessary even if they bring you down. But the musicianship, the songs, the word, everything is sublime here, with moments of triumphant joy amid a feeling of deep sadness at others. And, in the shape of Hey Lucinda, the greatest duet and possibly the greatest song they will ever write.
/The Light In You
Mercury Rev may be destined to be fondly remembered by many for one album, Deserter’s Songs, which turned them into unexpected mainstream stars for a few fleeting moments. But there is so much more to enjoy from this fabulous – and sometimes disaster-prone – band over their now thirty-year career. One such example came in their first studio album in seven years with The Light In You, which contained some of their best songs in years. Particularly the swooning The Queen of Swans, and then the desperate, lonely boy-in-a-city feels of Central Park East, which plainly and simply nails down utterly the feeling of being alone amid millions. Sure, it gets a bit weird in the second half, as they delve into the joy of (re)discovering their own influences, but they’ve always been an indulgent band who do what they feel, so why change now?
/Pale Green Ghosts
The story behind this album sometimes feels like it’s subsumed the album itself (Grant revealed he was HIV positive beforehand onstage at a gig, and much of the album is about the other person involved that he’d since split with), but the frankly the album itself is more than good enough to stand alone. Grant’s rich voice is accompanied by the often delicate and sparse electronic experimentation from Birgir Þórarinsson of Gus Gus, as well as notable backing vocals from Sinead O’Connor, but really, this album is all about Grant. A mix of jaw-dropping, oversharing confessionals, bitter break-up songs and some gloriously catty, witty put-downs, frankly it is an album that has only grown in stature since.
The highest-ranked album from 2019 in this list, and if it had been released a few years further back, would it be higher? I can’t answer that yet. As I noted just a few months ago, the rise of Boy Harsher has been intriguing to watch, and at any industrial/related club now, it’s almost impossible to go a night without hearing Pain in particular. But in time, I think it’s fair to say that it will be supplanted by one of any number of songs from this exceptional, game-changing release. Stark, retro-obsessed electronic albums have been two-a-penny for some years now, but no-one has quite managed to pull off the feat that Boy Harsher have. They’ve taken those bare bones of old-school club beats, and created a sensuous, cryptic atmosphere and sound around them, while also finding a way to make their music accessible and thrilling (just listen to the relentless, brilliant four-song run of Face the Fire, Fate, LA and Come Closer here). One eye on the past, yes, but most importantly they’ve got their other on the future, and it’s looking really bright for this duo.
/I’m Not Your Man
/Sub Pop Records
This was, on the face of it, an unlikely artist for me to get into – and I can thank my lengthy period of listening to BBC 6 Music for much of the working day in my old job for discovering her music in the first place. I suspect it was the wonderfully smart Boyfriend (about “double standards” when a man’s partner “cheats” on him with another woman) that hooked me, but I was fully on board by the time I heard follow-up single My Lover Cindy (the impermanence of relationships and self-analysis). This was catchy, intelligent indie-rock, with themes that were more universal than the lesbian angle that they were written from. Sure, there were points where Hackman admits herself that she overshares, but that’s part of the fun of this album. It’s only saying what many of us would like to say. Unfiltered, witty comments on events we probably should have dealt better with at the time, and it reminded me of a number of instances from my own life. In short, life and relationships and sex can be messy. It’s never perfect, we make mistakes, and we could always be better. But these mistakes often make great stories. It’s also clear from this album that they make hugely entertaining and endearing songs, too.
As I wrote (at great length) in /But Listen/138, this was as close to an overt political statement, perhaps, that Laibach will ever get. Their only “regular” album of the decade – the rest dedicated to soundtrack work, visits to North Korea, and revisiting distant elements of their past – it came with a message and comment that took me months to fully digest. As I noted at the time, this was Laibach examining their and their home nation’s (Slovenia) position within Europe, and how it came to be a negative connotation rather than the positive ideal that it was intended. As is often the case with Laibach, too, this was an album as varied stylistically as it was long – near-show tunes rub up against martial industrial, Star Trek references to assimilation nudge up against whistling earworms. There were so much more here than it first appeared, it just took work to uncover it. Those that took the time would be richly rewarded.
A remarkable album that still sparkles like it did when I first picked this up (I was one of the lucky few to pick up a copy immediately after her Cold Waves show that Saturday in September 2016). What might be described as confessional industrial-pop, it marked out Kanga as a potential star, and indeed one that has seen her take on some pretty high-profile support slots in the wake of it. The album has a number of stone-cold dancefloor-bound thumpers – the heavy-duty beats of Going Red, the submissive power and spiralling ecstasy of Viciousness, the casual filth and examination of expectations of perfection in Vital Signs – but it’s where Kanga takes diversions from what might be expected that it gets really interesting. Honey is near hip-hop as it snarls at masculine bullshit, while the swirling clouds of treated guitars and synths on Dissonance have a really arresting effect. It works even better as a whole, though. It’s basically perfectly paced, and I’ll even forgive the rather blatant NIN steal of the otherwise fabulous opener Something Dangerous. This was the birth of a future star.
In truth, I could have selected any of Calvi’s three albums so far, such are the high standards she’s held across the decade. A dramatic presence on stage and on record, her vocal delivery is as striking as her guitar playing but better than that, this album was no simple demonstration of her musical skills. We’ve seen too much of that over the years, a notable talent wasted on poor songwriting, but that wasn’t the case here. At points able to dial things right back and delve into bluesy scrawls (the measured No More Words, the astonishing, howling The Devil), and at others tell skyscraping love stories (Suzanne and I), it was remarkable to think that Calvi barely sang (for the fear of it) until well into her twenties. She has style and substance in abundance and this album was an intriguing entrance point.
/The Bones of What You Believe
The arrival of CHVRCHES, with their striking and brilliant debut album, felt like a shot-in-the-arm at the time for mainstream synthpop. Something about them just clicked with the mainstream, and in these times, selling over 300,000 copies of this album is quite a feat. Part of that appeal was their ability with songcraft – every song came stuffed with hooks, choruses and glorious melodies – but like any great synthpop band, there were spikes hidden beneath the surface. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry’s sweet-natured sounding voice disguised songs that dripped with betrayal, revenge and cynicism, reminding that relationships can often be a succession of battles fought. Picking highlights from this album could mean I’m here all day – but just a few: the stomping beats of Gun are staggering alongside the sheer bitterness in the lyrics, the cynical manipulation of the fabulous, soaring Lies, the tender The Mother We Share…even the ballads don’t let up on the quality here. They’ve gone onto even bigger success since – and Mayberry has been a strong voice in advocacy and feminism – but this brilliant debut was the reason they are where they are.
/The Heart Is A Monster
The return of Failure was rightly celebrated as a genuinely innovative, different rock band, at last, getting the due they should have had in the first place. They appeared to have gone through to hell and back in the meantime, but the comfortable, wiser band in interviews – and live – around the time of the release of this album rather clearly showed a desire to move on. This comeback album, successfully and quickly crowdfunded, was a marvel, too. It felt sparkling and alive, and perhaps more preoccupied with matters on Earth than on faraway (real or imagined) worlds that were the key to escape on the sprawling, still-brilliant Fantastic Planet. There are still the Segue tracks that make this lengthy album feel seamless, and more importantly, a whole stack of new, essential Failure songs. Comeback single Hot Traveler has a heft and power that shows a band reborn, while A.M. Amnesia and Mulholland Dr. have melodious cores that are utterly irresistible. Comeback albums this good are rare, and this is still cherished by me five years on.
Behemoth has been part of the evolution of extreme metal – and Black Metal especially – since the early nineties, and have long been the most prominent Polish band in the scene. But adversity seemed to push them to ever-greater heights over this past decade, and most of all on this album. Lead member Nergal survived leukaemia in the years before this album was released, and it clearly spurred him on to create an extraordinary piece of work. A band long intrigued by the darker side of human nature – and the hypocrisy of those that seek to portray themselves as “good” (hence his run-ins with the Catholic Church in Poland), this album teemed with power and defiance, taking in elements of all that came before and creating a whole that absolutely towered over any other metal release that year. Live it was astonishing, too, but the album culminates in their ultimate statement, the jaw-dropping roar of O Father, O Satan, O Sun. The call of the dark never sounded so good.