Congratulations, you’ve survived the 2010s.
The end of 2019 also meant the end of the ‘tens’. And no, I don’t know anyone who called them that either. Then again I don’t know anyone who used the same moniker a hundred years from today, but I digress…
By any stretch of the imagination it’s been a tumultuous decade. Savile, Spacey, Brexit, Boris, the rise of Gaga Trump (see what I did there?), and the demise of Prince, Scott, George, Lou, Donna, Amy, Whitney, Rod Hull and Emu. It really did seem as though the earth’s been in permanent turmoil since Bowie went to that great Space Oddity in the sky.
Still, at least we still have Vylie.
Seriously though, the world has gone a bit bonkers, hasn’t it? How else can you explain vinyl’s outrageously overpriced comeback? And don’t even get me started on cassettes.
The 2010s will certainly be known for how music consumption was transformed beyond belief—bye bye CDs and poorly tagged MP3s, hello streaming-service exclusives with Apple and Spotify judging your listening tastes with a like and a swipe.
But that change was accompanied by boundary-breaking pop music from big-name stars and up-from-SoundCloud hopefuls alike. It’s been a decade defined by larger-than-life personalities
Although thousands of artists composed the DNA of the decade’s musical landscape, this week I felt an overwhelming desire to attempt some kind of shortlist putting ten of my favourite new acts to come along this decade in the spotlight.
The criteria was ineffably simple. The act in question must have released their debut album under the chosen stage name sometime this decade. In no particular order other than the A to streetmap thing, this international smorgasbord made the loudest and proudest statements, and established themselves as inescapable over the course of the past ten years. But that doesn’t mean you’ve heard of half of them.
Oh, I like a bit of a cavort.
AGNES OBEL (Denmark)
I discovered Agnes Obel in 2015 in the most unlikely of circumstances. For most of that year I was living in Melbourne, and started dating a local lad who’d recently won the US green card lottery (yup, it does actually exist, through isn’t available to Brits) and thus was in the process of emigrating to New York.
What’s the secret of my success? Timing, obviously.
One day I texted Tall Bloke to ask if he had any music recommendations “because I don’t know much about music,” I jested. He took me completely seriously and fired back a few suggestions, the ubiquitous Sia among them. This isn’t her but it may be him.
Adelaide native Sia’s quite alright — she’s even cool enough to give away some of her best material to the likes of Blondie (yay) — but the one that really connected was a Berlin-based, Danish-born singer/songwriter with an elegant and elastic voice by the name of Agnes Obel. She’s a gifted classically trained pianist, as was Tall Bloke, and her melancholic inexorably pretty chamber pop draws from the same atmosphere-heavy well as cinematic spellcasters like Lisa Hannigan and Antony & the Johnsons/Anohni, but with a spellbindingly succinct aura of Scandinavian refinery.
Born Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel, she took up the piano at a preciously young age, honing her craft amidst the strains of Bartok and Chopin emanating from the fingers of her musician mother. She later drew inspiration from the work of Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson, and it was between those two worlds that her own soundscapes began to emerge.
Citing influences as diverse as PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Claude Debussy, and drawing comparisons to the likes Ane Brun, Eva Cassidy and Joni Mitchell, Obel’s evocative blend of classical, pop, jazz and electronic music found success in Europe on the strength of the self-produced debut Philharmonics (2010) and its successor Aventine (2013), the later which features very possibly my personal favourite of hers, the haunting Fuel To Fire, which always reminds me of Clannad only much much better.
Pure, austere, with an elegant, slipping darkness that creeps in around the corners, the poised, pristine mix of instrumentals and atmospheric, melancholy balladry was both a critical and commercial success, especially in her native Denmark, where the record went double platinum. Composed, produced, arranged, and mixed by Obel herself, the impressionistic Aventine was another commercial success, charting in nine countries.
A third studio album, 2016’s ambitious, transparency-themed Citizen of Glass, Obel introduced ghostly electronics, voice modulation, and a 1920s monophonic synthesizer called a Trautonium into the mix, helping to establish her credentials as one of the most inventive new musicians of the decade. This is best typified on the first two singles Golden Green and Familiar.
Expressly not a cover of the Eighties indie single by The Wonder Stuff, Golden Green has piercing highs, unusual harmonies, a very effective low register pre-chorus and the most playful second verse you’ll hear this year as Obel evokes her inner Bush. Familiar on the other hand uses vocal experiments of an entirely different fashion using that modern production to pitch shift her bridge down giving a bizarre but pleasing tone.
A much-anticipated fourth opus, Myopia, is set to drop in February 2020.
BISHOP BRIGGS (USA)
Father forgive me but I must confess.
I didn’t have the foggiest Bishop Briggs existed until January this year, when, by chance, I caught a newspaper advert for her Sydney show the following day.
Second confession, but it was purely the name that caught my eye, with Briggs being my maternal family name. I quickly scanned her Wikipedia page and found she was born in England, though hadn’t lived there since she was four.
“Gosh, I wonder if we might be related,” I thought to myself.
Alas, the connection ends there.
This singer songwriter of dark, rock-influenced pop was briefly known as simply Bishop. Though that was amended to order to avoid confusion with a heavy metal band of the same name. Reverting to the full form of her branding inspiration was taken from her family’s hometown of Bishopbriggs on the edge of Glasgow, which, fact fans, was ranked the second most desirable postcode in Scotland to live in 2015 and 2016.
BB came into the world as Sarah Grace Mclaughlin, born in London to Scottish parents, and went to school in Tokyo. Growing up with the Japanese city’s karaoke bar traditions and hearing music ranging from Motown musicians to The Beatles at home inspired her to pursue music.
After eight years in Hong Kong she settled in Los Angeles, where she was heard performing in a local bar, which then led to the recording of her first 45, Wild Horses.
The song was licensed for an Acura TV commercial and became an Internet buzz hit. Exhibiting soulful shades of trip-hop with acoustic guitar, electronic beats, and a strong dose of sass, River followed in early 2016.
A powerful collision of intense beat drops and her gospel choir roots, Briggs’ debut album, Church Of Scars, arrived in April 2018 and peaked in the Top 30 of the Billboard 200. She quickly moved on to a new hyper cycle following a difficult breakup, which resulted in 2019’s Champion, an empowering set of angst-filled anthems with surging bass and BB’s trademark skyward vocals that included singles Champion (with Tom Morello) and Jekyll & Hide.
Oh, and after checking out some of her key tracks on Apple Music I was enthused enough to go to the gig after all. On the first Friday in January 2019, Bishop Briggs entertained 500 punters at the Oxford Art Gallery’s Live Art Space in Darlinghurst. Talk of the devil.
She was fun, feisty and flailed her limbs in all directions, exhibiting some of the most eccentric dancing this side of Iggy Pop. She was also quite explosively cocksure, spouting off some egomaniac wank about how this was her second visit Down Under and that she was invited back because “Australia was excited by a powerful woman.”
Ugh, great records but stick to singing, ok, love?
CHRISTINE & THE QUEENS (France)
Everyone loves a pop fairytale, and when it comes to this decade’s most fantastical fable, the crown surely goes to Christine And The Queens. After being expelled from a theatre program in 2010 for staging her own play without permission – remarkably, women were not allowed to direct at her school – Nantes born Hélöise Adelaïde Letissier locked herself in her flat and spewed out barbed scripts articulating her fury. Her protagonist was named Christine: representing a bolder, braver, and more transgressive version of her gallic creator.
CATQ blurs the lines between theatre, dance and 21st Century chanson as singer, songwriter, choreographer and dancer Letissier plays with the concepts of gender, sexuality, and identity. Her French “freakpop” is indelibly influenced by the theatricality of David Bowie and Laurie Anderson, and she often combines her atmospheric music with computer-based multimedia presentations. She even ropes in Perfume Genius on 2014’s debut album, Chaleur Humaine. More of him in part two.
With its poignant, thought-provoking electronica, the disque pulses within irresistible independence as it explores Létissier’s turbulent adolescence as a queer woman.
The set’s strangeness and strength amply introduced her as a distinctively vulnerable talent, largely on the strength of the enchanting singles Tilted and, my personal favourite, the gorgeous, hypnotic St. Claude, which depicts the moment of walking away or committing entirely with heart-stopping beauty.
Létissier delved even deeper on 2018’s Chris, a visceral examination of gender stereotypes set to an ’80s R&B groove that underscored her commitment to making listeners think, feel, and move. And in case you’re wondering, the moniker is an homage to the drag queens who would dance with her while she performed. Very Eurythmic.
If their March 2019 show at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre is anything to go by, Christine and the Queens are also a masterclass in live performance art. From her exquisite stage presence to the expert choreography and immersive genre-defying sound, this was an experience, not a show.
Songs like the G-funk strut of brilliant single Girlfriend — an early highlight of the show — become intense dance workouts on stage, Chris expertly leading her six-strong dance troupe
For the uninitiated it’s kind of a magnificent amalgamation of the best bits of Michael Jackson’s showmanship, Pet Shop Boys’ theatricality and something yet to be invented. While her musical style is eclectic, the choreography almost threatens to eclipse the eccentricity of her songs. At times it could have been pulled together by Bob Fosse, other times Ethan Stiefel, and sometimes it felt like you were watching a deleted scene from ‘80s musicals Fame and Flashdance.
It all sounds like a hot mess, but somehow it’s utterly spellbinding. Imbuing every element of her music and performance with her unabashed queerness only adds to the overall brilliance. She’s a joy to watch perform, precisely because her own joy in performance is so evident.
FATHER JOHN MISTY (USA)
Another random serendipitous moment coming up. I happened to be Netflixing one evening and chanced upon a straggly but striking looking gentleman having his photo taken in Barnaby Clay’s incredibly pretentiously titled Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, a documentary of “the man who shot the ‘70s” (it says here). The snapper and subject of the film was Mick Rock, known for his in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time glam snaps of Bowie, Blondie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop et al.
Much more interesting to me at that particular moment was the ruggedly handsome chap taking his shirt off for the camera. ‘Wow, I wonder how often people tell him he looks like Jim Morrison,” I smirked to myself.
A scan of the credits revealed his name was singer Josh Tillman, drummer in folksy indie combo Fleet Foxes until 2012.
Tall, willowy and biblically bearded, and possessed of a wonderfully expressive voice, the same year he hung up his drumsticks he wasted no time in releasing the psychedelic-folk Fear Fun, the critically acclaimed debut album under the musical persona of the not un-Messiah-like figure Father John Misty, transforming himself from quiet percussionist into an eccentric singer-songwriter frontman of his own band.
Oh, and did I mention he was easy on the eye? Cough.
Born in Maryland on 3 May 1981 (the very same week I officially bought my first single, Stand and Deliver by Adam & The Ants. Similarity stops there), Tillman was raised in a Baptist church, attended an Episcopal elementary school, then a Pentecostal Messianic day school. You getting the Father nom de guerre now?
Maintaining a steady output of solo recordings (initially as J. Tillman) since 2003’s Untitled No. 1, JT’s music is drenched in sadly beautiful baroque arrangements painting languid portraits of love and life on the margins evoking the frailing folk of Pete Seeger and the moody depth of Harry Nilsson and Nick Drake, both key influences.
I Love You, Honeybear (2015) saw Tillman take his caustically sweet and sour storytelling alongside a delicate acoustic guitar and a beautiful, Laurel Canyon-esque production to a place of raw honesty and ornate romantic confession. Labeled by FJM as a concept album “about Josh Tillman,” it had listeners weeping tears of bliss, heartbreak, sadness and laughter. None more so with the album’s first 45, the slow, sarcastic piano ballad Bored in the USA, a biting tragicomic spin on a certain Bruce Springsteen standard, but sung in a way that doesn’t appear to mock The Boss, instead seemingly in sympatico with the Jersey Boy’s ironic disaffectedness with the American Dream and a prescient pre-Trump-era account of a quotidian malaise infecting the country.
It’s the kind of wistful satire over an elegiac early Elton John meets late-era Ben Fold piano line that Misty explored to even greater success on subsequent works. Indeed, such is the uncanny throwback, not just in his cognate arrangements but in his swooping vocal affectations, that it’s impossible not be transported back to the heady ‘70s when Elton ruled the airwaves. But whereas Elt left behind Reg Dwight legally and emotionally, there’s a sporadic nature to the rotating between which character Tillman/Misty channels, while the either crassness or beauty of his words all cultivate into one large, lovable experience.
A third album, Pure Comedy dropped in 2017. Lyrically, the record touched on themes such as politics, social media, the environment, technology, and celebrity culture. Key tracks include the bittersweet Ballad of the Dying Man and the epic So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain, a sonic adventure so magnificent that when his voice drops out and distorted guitars lurch across the terrain it swiftly became of the best music moments of the year.
Ever the prolific artist, Misty returned in 2018 with God’s Favorite Customer, my personal favourite of the four. See, I just had to get the proper spelling of the word in somehow.
Trailed by the singles Mr. Tillman, Just Dumb Enough to Try, and Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All, GFC was written during a six-week period when the singer was “kind of on the straits” living a life of misadventure in a hotel. It’s a startlingly honest, personal collection of songs, a broken album by a man in one of his most desperate moments, and as a result it’s one of the most affecting and vulnerable series of compositions Tillman has released.
Over the last eight years, the character of Father John has evolved into the Jim Morrison-meets-modern day cynic/eye candy swooner who’s become renowned for enrapturing live audiences with his semi-deranged onstage banter and the mind-blowing delight his soaring voice can bring.
It was on this basis that I made a brief pitstop on this year’s American road trip (direction North to Northwest, all thanks to the expert jigsaw assembling of Cassie Bull at Flight Centre Balgowlah), and checked out his June 14 show at The Armory, a cavernous historic venue built for the Minnesota National Guard in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis. In one of those happy/sad coincidences, it was 15 hours and seven days after what would have been the Purple One’s 57th birthday.
Tillman is a pelvis-thrusting, guitar-hurling hunk, and the kind of performer who talks and talks and talks—in on-stage tirades about the liberal listener’s complicity in Donald Trump’s revolting rise, mainly. Bob Dylan he ain’t, babe.
Oh, he sings as well though. I don’t know if he was having an off night or the venue was a little on the large side, but I sensed a crowd slightly disappointed with the crazed Casanova.
A steady steam of people were vacating throughout his performance, but as I spied the support act, Southern alt. Country rockers Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, doing as roading trade in T-shirts I put it down to Father John failing to preach to the unconverted.
“See, people are leaving,” I heard a middle aged woman tell her companion.
Well, the bailers missed out on an intriguing encore number; the premiere of a song he claimed was commissioned then rejected from the film A Star Is Born. Having already worked with Lady Gaga (co-writing two tracks on her Joanne album of 2016) it’s not unthinkable that he wasn’t having us on. For a change.
Anyhow, watch it happen around the 1:20:00 mark above.
Andrew Hozier-Byrne, known by his stage name Hozier, is an Irish singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist that many of you have probably heard on the wireless. His two albums Hozier (2014) and Wasteland, Baby! (2019) are a pair of beauties that everyone deserves to experience, where he uses his public platform for all the right reasons, crafting thoughtful, uncompromising recordings, often performed solo or with the aid of a single drummer.
I’m wary of using a tired, cliched old ‘New Dylan’ tag, but through his music Hozier spreads messages of human rights, moral leadership, love, heartbreak, homophobia, social issues, drug abuse, domestic abuse, politics and even climate change.
The son of a County Wicklow blues musician, he joined his first band when he was 15, gravitating toward R&B, soul, gospel, and, of course, earthy blues. Citing James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, and community choral singing among his influences, Hozier rose to global attention in 2013 when his single Take Me to Church ripped its way through the establishment, first on YouTube and Reddit, then the charts. And if you haven’t heard it I can only assume the rock you’ve been living under is nice and warm.
As powerful as it is heart-wrenching, Take Me To Church directly addressed the discrimination and persecution of gays in the Catholic Church and the wider world. It was a stunning tour de force. It may even be the single of the decade.
A 21st Century sign of the times, many credit his meteoric rise to viral hype. Indeed, when you’ve caught the attention of serial Twitter person Stephen Fry, who “fueled the hype by tweeting a link to Hozier’s video” to his followers — all eight million of them — you know you’re on to a good thing. Indeed, Hozier thanked Fry directly for the help.
Cracking the upper echelons of the Billboard Hot 100 in stunning style, a shaggy, lanky singer-songwriter from a seaside resort in Ireland is not necessarily the type of person you’d expect to champion the cause of gay rights in Russia. But as our countries (largely) continue to embrace the LGBT community in ever growing numbers and ever loosening laws, Hozier did it with aplomb, placing Putin’s shocking record on equality firmly in the spotlight.
So, on to that video, which features an incendiary topic handled in a manner that’s spot on but immensely challenging whatever your persuasion. Playing into the context of our times, it features a gay couple kidnapped and attacked by a group of feral masked men, directly addressing the Russian Federation’s archaic and totalitarian approach to homosexuality.
Conceived on a budget of just 500 euros, the clip immediately went viral—notching over 230,000 views in the first week-and-a-half—as media attention turned to Russian politics ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Hozier had found his international audience.
Though, as we’re in confessional mode, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that, not being a particularly prolific YouTuber (hello to my YT subscribers out there, all six of you), I didn’t even get around to viewing the film until it suddenly burst on to the tv screen as I ate in my hotel’s restaurant in Ukraine in September of this year. That’s right, 2019. Six years almost to the day that it first made its almighty splash. I know, right.
The fact that I was viewing said video in a former Soviet country at war with neighbouring Big Brother Russia was an inescapable irony. It strikes a chord with anyone who’s suffered at the hands of bullies, mobs and aggressors. In fact, it’s such a devastatingly powerful piece of work that I can’t sit through it without welling up, and I only searched it out online for the first time today in the course of writing this article. If I can paraphrase Rag’n’Bone Man, I’m only human, after all.
(Incidentally, Rag’n’Bone Man a.k.a Rory Charles Graham almost made my top 10, though other than the mighty Human I’ve yet to be convinced by the rest of the booming bass baritone’s output yet.)
Take Me To Church catapulted Hozier into a major-label contract for his eponymous debut, gaining platinum certifications in 11 countries, a 2015 Grammy nomination for Song of the Year, as well as praise from Annie Lennox, who performed a magnificent mash-up with her fellow celt at the ceremony.
Far from a one trick dick*, other songs on Hozier’s self-titled debut album include In A Week, a love song delivered from the perspective of two decomposing corpses, and Cherry Wine, which is about an abusive relationship. The album still went multiplatinum.
Hozier returned with the 2018 EP Nina Cried Power, which featured a gorgeous gospel-infused collaboration with soul legend Mavis Staples on the title cut. His second full-length album Wasteland, Baby! debuted at number one in the US upon its release; it also topped the charts in Ireland and debuted at six in the U.K.
Across the 14 tracks, Hozier manages to offset his natural despondency with a little positivity, tilling the sediments of sex, art, and mortality, dragging ash from a cigarette into a grave and equating penetrating fingers to the double-digit swipe of a phone screen to a frantic drowning kick. It’s a real mean scene.
*My sister Stella caught Hozier live in Toronto in 2014 but told me she preferred support act, the now ubiquitous George Ezra, because “I only knew Take Me To Church.”