Continuing the process of wrapping up the last decade before it disappears too far into the rearview mirror, this is the seventh part of the best tracks of the 2010s. This has been an interesting, and memory-laden trip doing this list. I’ve dredged up a few memories, reconnected with a few songs I’d not heard in a while, and generally enjoyed doing it. It took a while, too. I started considering this list back in October last year, so it’s taken the best part of eight months to complete.
In this list of 200, there were artists from nineteen countries across four continents, released on 122 different labels (and ten that were self-released). Not all artists remain active – nor indeed some of the labels – but even if they are no longer active, their music resonated long enough to mean something to me. This is a top 200 because, well, I’ve listened to a lot of music over the past decade. My /Tuesday Ten/Tracks of the Month posts (usually nine or ten per year) have covered no less than 673 artists and 1089 tracks. So as you might imagine, whittling this down to just 200 has been tough enough.
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.
The National were one of those bands I initially dismissed. Another earnest indie rock band? I already loved Arcade Fire, did I need another? Well, it took a few years, but it turned out I did. The point where I realised that this was the case, admittedly a couple of years after the event, was this song. There is a jerky urgency to the song as if Matt Berninger and the rest of the band are riven with nerves, as he appears to deal with the middle-aged issues of being constantly concerned about having to pay for something, even while on the road to elsewhere (perhaps a metaphor for running away from problems). The cryptic nature of the song, though, is part of the attraction, as that chorus is fucking glorious. The National might have already noted their brilliance by this point with Boxer (another retrospective discovery for me), but this was the point where they made the step onto the centre-stage, and it turned out that position suited them well.
/Keep You Close
dEUS released just two albums this decade, within a year of each other, and since then have been looking back at their past (an excellent, sprawling best-of, and then an equally great twentieth-anniversary tour for The Ideal Crash, with a hiatus in between). These two albums, Keep You Close and Following Sea, saw another significant shift in style from the taut joys of Vantage Point. Keep You Close was a lush, string-accompanied album, while Following Sea, written and recorded while on tour, felt disjointed and was difficult to love initially. From the former, though, the loose-limbed, quite lovely Ghosts throws in shuffling electronic beats, steel drums and Tom Barman’s ever-world-weary vocals, and was an instant highlight both on record and live (and indeed remains so). I’ve followed this band for over twenty-five years, and with every release, they continue to surprise, confound and bring joy in some way or another.
Mike Lévy came to prominence thanks to his production work in particular – his work on Kanye West’s Yeezus was much-celebrated – but a couple of songs on his own debut album Aleph were enough to convince that his dark, techno-adjacent electronics were worth paying attention to. Hate or Glory took a pitch-dark turn (particularly with the violent video), but Pursuit was something else. A fierce electro track that felt like one huge build towards that amazing climax that leaves hairs on my neck prickling every time I hear it, it again was assisted with another eye-popping, stylish video that as the track, took repeat viewing and listening to catch all of the smart ideas on display. The rest of the album wasn’t as exciting, mind, but this track will live long in the memory.
Nadine Shah’s sound has evolved quickly, perhaps as a result of an increased self-confidence more than anything (her first album felt tentative, especially), and while her third album Holiday Destination was an impassioned defence of multi-culturalism and also skewering much of the right-wing discourse that was becoming clear at the time (and has only got worse since), her second album Fast Food had much to enjoy as she found her voice. Her dark, smoky alternative rock owed something, sure, to PJ Harvey and Nick Cave in particular, and the wonderful kiss-off Fool slyly takes aim at the latter being used as a point of “cool” and intelligence, as she swats away a wannabe sophisticated suitor with smart, well-placed put-downs and a fantastic tune.
Tristan Shone’s work as an engineer set him up well for his work as Author & Punisher, as he constructed creative ways to control the inputs for his music, particularly live, that made his music and live shows far more interesting than just one man and a laptop might have done. His work crosses between doomy, sludgy metal and vicious power electronics, in some respects being the former made with the tools of the latter. This astonishing, droning monster of a track was the first thing I heard by him, and I immediately was hooked. The slow-paced, the monstrously-heavy track is like a war robot dragging itself out of a furnace, while on fire, and the treated vocals just add to the horrific imagery that it evokes. Not for everyone, needless to say – my wife ran a mile from this from the off! – but for those of us looking for heavy, intense music that stands apart from the herd, we found our saviour in Tristan Shone.
/All My Skin Standing
/Data Mirage Tangram
Over their three-decade career, The Young Gods have often peppered their albums with lengthy, epic tracks – and certainly on a number of their albums, those long tracks have become the jaw-dropping centrepieces. This was certainly the case on Data Mirage Tangram, their first album of new material in nearly a decade. The centrepiece here was All My Skin Standing, eleven minutes long, and at first listen, just a low-key drum pattern and whispered vocals. But wait for the eruption – when it first comes, seemingly out of nowhere, but listen more carefully and the gentle swirls of synths get louder and more urgent – as huge slabs of guitar samples get unleashed into the mix, and things get louder and louder… An awesome, expansive piece of music, it is even better live when the aural barrage is accompanied by a blinding light show.
/Citizens (Schwefelgelb Remix)
What a meeting of minds – Berlin techno body music kings Schwefelgelb and Sheffield’s industrial powerhouse Randolph & Mortimer. Citizens was an impressive techno-industrial workout as it was, but what Schwefelgelb did so well here was to tease out the groove, so that it becomes front-and-centre in the mix. The samples are relegated somewhat into the background, but the aim here is to turn it into a dancefloor monster, and that is very much mission-accomplished. I can just imagine losing my mind to this in a sweaty techno club somewhere, and I’ve no doubt many of my friends already have.
/They Gave Me A Lamp
The darker, perhaps less optimistic tones of Every Valley didn’t perhaps resonate as much as the glorious The Race for Space that preceded it. Looking at the end of the coal industry in South Wales, and what did – and didn’t – follow it, it covered the optimism of the sixties and seventies when it seemed like it had a strong future, through the Miner’s Strike of the eighties and the desolation and destruction of communities that followed when the mines closed down (there are now none left in the region). But amid the darkness and anger that permeated the songs here was a wider message, that the many neglected, post-industrial regions in the UK (and indeed elsewhere) are one of the reasons for the polarised, virulent politics that have taken root, and until this is understood, little will change. One beacon of hope, though, came through They Gave Me A Lamp. It gave a voice to the women who got involved in the politics of the time, fighting for the livelihoods of their families and their communities in the teeth of the Miner’s Strike, and one of the women’s voices used here is Margaret Donovan, who was later featured in Pride!. Hers and the other voices sampled in this song are a show of extraordinary defiance, people who were determined to make a difference for the better, and this elegant song is a fitting tribute to them.
/Born In The Echoes
The Chemical Brothers might not be the mighty force in UK dance music that they once were – back in the nineties and past the Millenium, they were an instrumental part of the second wave of artists breaking down the barriers between rock and dance music – but they remain an extraordinary live act and still have the odd flashes of utter brilliance on their albums. The lead single from Born In the Echoes was one of those. Renewing a previous fruitful partnership with rapper Q-Tip, Go skips along at a quick pace, dipping into a seventies-esque disco for the soaring chorus, and then that closing drop, never-ending build and sudden stop. Dance music as a pep talk, this is the Chems at their best once again.
/Captive Bolt Pistol
The widely celebrated reunion of Carcass resulted in, unexpectedly, one of the best albums of their career. Their final album before they originally split, Swansong, was hardly at the level of what had come before, and this album righted an awful lot of wrongs. The title, Surgical Steel, hinted at their approach to this – focussed, with no fat, no wasted moments and Carcass back to being a shit-hot death metal band. Earlier tracks on the album blitz past in a flurry of death metal grit, before the band (comparatively!), relax a bit, with guitar solos and a trace of melodicism creeping in, but there are absolutely no bad tracks. The song that marked their return to recording, though – Captive Bolt Pistol – is a tour de force of economy, as it roars through three minutes in a blizzard of hefty riffage and blastbeats, and even seven years on from when it appears, it still proclaims the work of extreme metal masters.
The shelf-life of Canadian synth-pop/post-punk group Cygnets was sadly short – just four albums in five years before they apparently pulled the plug and ended things. Which is a shame, as their distinctive, powerful sound deserved to be heard by many more than perhaps did. Their best album by far was the 2014 album Isolator, where they nailed a slightly more direct sound that did wonders for their songs, as this album was absolutely full of bangers. Their crowning moment, though, was the dramatic, quasi-operatic Gallows, a song that combined breathless verses and a soaring, yearning chorus that evoked synthpop of old, but also saw this young group put down as a marker as a group with apparently limitless potential, such were the possibilities opened up by this jaw-dropping, beautiful song. Sadly it wasn’t to be, but the song suggests all kinds of what-ifs.
The big changes in ASG’s line-up post Alkimia eventually felt like a rebirth, such was the different feel of the new material. The new vocalist was perhaps the most dramatic change, but also the shift to a much more electronic-based sound was also notable. That said, one of the first singles from the new line-up felt like an even more dramatic change than A/X actually was. Stripdown is a bombastic, huge-sounding electronic pop song, the big synth hooks owing at least a little to Depeche Mode in their pomp, perhaps, but the chorus is a thing of melodic wonder, and even a lengthy sax solo works.
/Rats In My Bed
/Skin and Bone
The pick of a few versions of this song, it is propelled forward by a treated kick drum that literally kicks – it’s almost as if the edges were sharpened for maximum impact. That kick runs like a pulse through the track, as synths swirl woozily around it, and Adrian Smith launches into some kind of drug nightmare in the lyrics. It is fucked up, deliberately obtuse and really fucking great. Click Click was one of those bands experimenting liberally, it seemed, with both industrial music and drugs and like their peers Skinny Puppy, some quite spectacular results came about from it. This is by the far the best moment from their later period, too.
/Trust The Pain
/Trust The Pain EP
This young Scottish duo were the talk of Infest 2019, thanks to their powerful, unmissable set that opened the Saturday of the festival. A group inspired apparently by downtempo electronics, the folk of their homeland, and the faded glamour of decades past, it rapidly became clear that they had a unique sound. Part of that is down to vocalist Erin’s extraordinary, clear voice, that she puts to excellent use on this chilling single. The song feels consumed by guilt, and fear, as her voice dominates the delicate synth constructions behind. Mark my words – a duo to watch as we head further into this new decade.
/Voodoo In My Blood
/Ritual Spirit EP
Massive Attack have never had a regular release schedule, so lengthy gaps between releases are not unexpected, but even by their standards, they weren’t especially active in recording terms over the past decade. Ritual Spirit was their first new material in around six years but was notable among other things for featuring Tricky on a Massive Attack release for the first time since 1994, but also for what has become a wider partnership with Scottish group Young Fathers (they now frequently collaborate and appear live with Massive Attack). Voodoo In My Blood was the obvious highlight of this EP, too, an urgent, jumpy track that fizzes with energy and introduced me to the brilliance of Young Fathers, as much as it pulled me back into the Massive Attack orbit.
In the end, it turned out James Murphy wasn’t done, and unlike some, I was entirely fine with that. American Dream felt like Murphy going “and also…”, and there were moments on this album that were absolutely joyous and brilliant – and also moments of seething, quiet rage. Musically, of course, the electro-disco influenced indie-rock was still his stock-in-trade – hey, when you’re this good at it, don’t let go of a good thing – but it was the subjects of the songs that got really interesting. Particularly this fabulous song, where Murphy considers the idea of he – and his musical heroes – getting old, and how we deal with that concept. Not that we’re not cool enough any more, but how we adjust to dealing with our accomplishments, how we deal with life changes. But most importantly, it’s about not wasting the time we have, and this song doesn’t waste a second of its nearly six-minute run-time, either. A song about getting old that sounds so irrepressibly vital and alive. Who would have thunk it?
/Copy of A
This was the first Nine Inch Nails album in five years or so, following the lacklustre The Slip, and the return to the “classic” NIN typeface and imagery seemed to suggest a return also to that sound. It perhaps didn’t work out that way – and Trent Reznor has been exploring new sonic routes since, too – but this album really did have some moments to adore on it. One of those was the steadily-building brilliance of Copy of A, which uses repetition and looping to build layer-after-layer to the song, and reveals an elegantly melodic heart to the song, something Reznor has often been so good at but hid beneath sheets of noise. Ideas fire in all directions on this five-minute track and was easily his best track in many years.
/Noise Inside My Head
A23 are one of those bands that are something of a comfort blanket. Tom Shear’s thoughtful, intensely emotional industrial/futurepop is always reliably good, on every release, and he has this knack of getting across his thoughts on difficult issues – particularly around his mental health – in eloquent ways, and they often take their place among his greatest songs, and this song is another of those. The nights where your mind decides it’s time to overthink everything, and stop you from sleeping, and stress takes over? Yeah, that. Oh, that and this soaring, elegant chorus is among the best he’s ever written – I hear it, and I feel like I can take on the world again.
When Russian Circles truly unleash their musical power, they are a formidable, awe-inspiring band, and this track was and is one of the best examples of this. Part of an album that flows beautifully as one whole piece – each flows into the next without any clear marker between them, and the delicately picked guitars of Asa gradually swell into this track, as Dave Turncrantz’s titanic, complex drum pattern marks the change into it, his free-handed work allowing Brian Cook’s liquid bassline to be the lynchpin. Mike Sullivan’s considered guitars provide the melody (and the heft for the mighty breakdown later in the track), but perhaps the most remarkable thing about this band is how moving, and engaging, they make their instrumental music. Often this kind of sound can be dry and, well, emotionless, and this song in particular displays just how adept they are at flipping this thinking on its head.
/Make Me Feel
It was revealed not long after release that, as it sounded, that Prince had been involved in the creation of this song in particular, not that it really mattered – this song was Janelle Monáe’s strongest moment yet anyway, surging forward on a bed of tongue clicking, finger clicks and an elastic, funk-bass rhythm that just oozed sex. Never mind the melody, the salacious lyrics, the glorious, eye-popping video… How in ever-loving fuck was this not a massive hit? It was certainly a critical hit, and my route into Janelle Monáe’s music at last (something I’d dabbled in the fringes of, it was just that I needed a hook – this provided that and then some), and while the rest of Dirty Computer was a pansexual, open-armed call-to-arms – and proof you can be political and sexy at the same time – this song towered over it.