As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, this week I felt an overwhelming desire to attempt some kind of shortlist spotlighting ten of my favourite new acts to come along in the 2010s.
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, these are the ones that 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.
Well, OK, if you haven’t heard of this first guy you really need to switch that wireless on.
KENDRICK LAMAR (USA)
The King of Compton to his followers, KL is one of those rare MCs who has achieved critical and commercial success while earning the respect and support of those who inspired him. After several years of development, the 2010s saw him issue his first three proper major-label albums to almost universal acclaim.
Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (no relation to Jack and Vera) grew up immersed in hip-hop culture and surrounded by gang activity. As a youngster, he gradually discovered an aptitude for writing stories, poems, and lyrics, which naturally led to rapping. He made a name for himself as K. Dot. At the age of 16 in 2003, he issued his debut mixtape, The Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year. While the limited release merely hinted at the potential of the then teenager, it was impressive enough to catch the attention of Top Dawg Entertainment and led to a long-term association with the label that steadily propelled his career.
The first tape credited to Kendrick Lamar was Overly Dedicated, released in September 2010. Also the rapper’s first commercial release, it reached enough listeners to enter Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. After XXL magazine selected him for the 2011 Freshman Class feature, Lamar released Section.80, his first official album that July, and crossed into the Billboard 200.
With deeper conceptual narratives and sharpened melodic hooks, as well as comparative multi-dimensional development from primary producer Sounwave, the set acted as a kind of warning flare for Lamar’s mainstream rap dominance. In addition to the dozens of tracks he had appeared on by then, Lamar had the support of veteran West Coast stars as well. During a concert later in 2011, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Game dubbed him The New King of the West Coast, a notion Dre endorsed more significantly by signing KL to his Interscope-affiliated Aftermath label.
The record deal was the springboard for Lamar to really hit his creative and chart-topping stride. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012), the Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. (2017) have displayed an unmatched mix of inventive wordplay and compelling conceptual narratives, examining internal conflict, flaunting success, and uplifting his community.
An innovative, progressive vanguard of a record, Butterfly broke all the rules and was even said to be the sonic inspiration for David Bowie’s desire to experiment with new sounds and textures on his final work, 2016’s Blackstar. Producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone “we were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” during the making of the album. “We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved that Kendrick was so open-minded and that he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
LANA DEL REY (USA)
Like most Brits of a certain musical disposition, I discovered Lana Del Rey on a wet Tuesday evening in October 2011. For it was on the BBC’s late night music show Later… With Jools Holland where the chanteuse born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant in New York made her debut appearance in the living rooms of millions.
I’d chooned in to watch an old favourite, Peter Gabriel, but became bewitched by this slightly tentative self-conscious new face — a “viral sensation” on YouTube so they said, giving a sparse performance of her current 45, Video Games.
The song was murky, mysterious, magnificent even; haunting and suggestive of a suburban, gothic menace lurking in the background. In the coming days I played the telly clip on repeat until the track was available to download. Transfixed was my word du jour.
Del Rey’s journey to this stardom was a long, steady climb. Having recorded a clutch of small time or no time releases under various names, including Lizzy Grant and May Jailer, Grant rechristened herself Lana Del Rey and envisioned a Southern California dream world constructed out of sad girls and bad boys, manufactured melancholy, and genuine glamour, and then she came to embody this fantasy. At first, her stylised noir-pop garnered sceptical sneers, but her long-playing debut, 2012’s Born to Die proved she was way tougher than her soft exterior suggested.
Following a storming dance remix of the single Summertime Sadness, LDR steadily gained not only popularity but respect; her second album, 2014’s Ultraviolence, received positive reviews to accompany her sales, and her imitators (of which there were many) became merely an alluring accessory.
Lana has an impressive five studio albums under her svelte belt, the most recent being 2019’s charmingly titled Norman Fucking Rockwell. A quintessential Lana mission statement, NFR is a complex and beguiling work full of luscious soft-rock ballads that peer uneasily at the demise of the American Dream, and one which topped many critics’ best of year lists.
If you’ve listened to even a second of music this decade, it can seem like Lana Del Rey has been many things to us over the years: sad girl supreme, flower child, American oracle. Really, she’s been those things all along, and in 2019 she finally attained the ideal she always intended to be: a timeless torch singer designed as the tragic romantic icon for her age. Long may she reign.
PERFUME GENIUS (USA)
Occasionally X-rated, PG is the project of singer/songwriter Mike Hadreas, whose music spans fragile piano ballads and swaggering glam rock as he explores sexuality, homophobia, and domestic abuse with brutal and often poetic honesty. His earliest home recordings — many of which appeared on his full length debut, 2010’s Learning — established a comforting, confiding connection with listeners that never wavered, even as his sound became more lavish on 2014’s snarling breakthrough Too Bright and the elaborate collages of 2017’s Grammy-nominated No Shape.
Born in my maternal ancestry state of Iowa, Hadreas was bullied for being gay and coped by painting, writing, and listening to artists including PJ Harvey and Liz Phair. While attending Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, he was hospitalised after he was attacked by a group of young men in his neighbourhood.
During this time, he began making music, pairing unflinching lyrics with simple piano melodies. By 2008 he had set up a MySpace page and began offering his music there, along with similarly spare and evocative homemade music videos; a year later, Turnstile Records released his debut single, Mr. Peterson, the tale of a suicidal pedophile high-school teacher.
To tour in support of the album, Hadreas brought Alan Wyffels, a classically trained pianist he met in group therapy, as an accompanist. Eventually, they became a couple, and Wyffels performed on Perfume Genius’s later tours and albums. These included 2012’s even more intimate Put Your Back N 2 It and 2014’s ferocious Too Bright, which fused the swagger of glam rock and early PJ Harvey with Hadreas’s growing frustration with casual homophobia. Featuring Portishead’s Adrian Utley and longtime Harvey collaborator John Parish, the album marked a breakthrough in PG’s career.
It’s an earnest, honest, and uncompromising album, that sounds like nothing else around. Lead single Queen is good enough on its own to merit its place on any best of list but it’s the continual oddball innovation and pure songwriting talent that makes his third album work so well.
Perfume Genius returned with new music in 2015, collaborating with Héloïse Letissier a.k.a. Christine and the Queens, who featured in the first part of this countdown. Throughout the tender avant ballad Jonathan, the pair maintain a heartbreaking poise, matched by the utterly exquisite balance of strings, percussive pop and hiss, and delicate, otherworldly synths that gather to fill the song with mournful elegance. Christine is the strawberry girl:
“I got lucky enough to ask Perfume Genius if he would like to sing with me. He cannot be ignored, because his voice melts every stone, because he doesn’t hide; without him, the song felt like dying, but now, it’s more like the promise of something healing through the pain. This is what I learned with artists like Klaus Nomi, and still love with ones like Perfume Genius: you’re never as strong as when you allow yourself to be the most vulnerable person you can be.”
PG resumed duet duties in 2016, with Sharon Van Etten on a cover of To Lay Me Down For Day Of The Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute album produced by the Red Hot Organisation to fight AIDS/HIV and related health issues around the world.
That September, Hadreas also issued a cover of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love that was featured, fragrantly, in the ad campaign for Prada’s La Femme and L’Homme scents. Hadreas then recorded the fourth Perfume Genius album, 2017’s No Shape, in Los Angeles with producer Blake Mills.
A tender and transcendental protest record of love and devotion, is spanned influences such as gospel, goth pop, and soul and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards; Mills also received a nomination for Producer of the Year. Two one-off 45s followed in 2019, Eye in the Wall and Pop Song. They’re both a bit marvellous.
This two-parter has been dominated by acts who I discovered in the most random unorthodox fashion, and, unsurprisingly, this next act is no exception.
Please allow me to introduce myself, ladies and gentlemen this is Spafford.
How did I discover there’s a band with my name? Only by Googling place names in America with Pafford in the name, in case there was one or two in the vicinity when planning this year’s road trip. It really was an utterly random as that. And yes, how I didn’t know Spafford existed before as few months ago is an irony far from lost on me.
That is the simplest way Spafford can describe themselves and their sound. Quite simply, they’re the best jam band you haven’t heard yet, but you really really should. In an era of music where the electronica scene dominates and the jam band generation relies on organic improvisation, Spafford stands out as a refreshing creative hybrid, bringing their special brand of ElectroFunkTherapy to new audiences across North America.
Hailing from Arizona, the awesome foursome all share vocal duties and is comprised of Brian Moss (guitar), Jordan Fairless (bass), Andrew “Red” Johnson (keys), and Nick Tkachyk (drums). According to Fairless, one of the things that makes the band unique is “the diversity and freedom that comes from having five different songwriters in the band which never really conform to any one specific genre. Even Chuck, our lighting guru, writes lyrics for our songs, though he can’t play any instrument besides the recorder.”
But, that name. How did it come about? Guitarist Brian Moss fills me in:
“I looked over at my buddy whose name is Chuck Spafford Johnson and realised I have never met anyone with the name Spafford. Everyone felt good about it and the name just stuck with us. We more or less named the band after one of our best friends and still find it to be quirky and unique.”
Chuck’s the fifth member of the band. As well as a lighting supremo, he writes poetry and the band turns some of his work into songs. He’s a fellow Cancerian, born on 23 June 1985, three days before my 16th birthday and a fortnight before I stopped playing the recorder in music class and school for good.
Spafford have released three studio albums. Their self-titled debut came out in 2012 when the band was little more than a local phenomenon in the Arizona mountains. 2017’s Abaculus: An Improvisational Experience saw band returning to their roots and widening their fanbase. Recorded in their hometown of Phoenix, it consisted of a single hour-long jam session. That’s right. You heard me. 100% improvised. No song titles, no boundaries and no limitations. They plugged in and just began to jam, with each member trading off and taking turns through alternative leads, melodies and movements.
For Amusement Only (2018) mostly consists of material that’s already been road-tested and refined, retroactively creating studio versions of songs that their increasingly large fanbase —known as Spaffnerds—already know well. The reggae-vibed album opener Leave the Light On sets the pace in blistering fashion, while Fuel takes Moss’ sharp guitar-rock riffs and boils them down to cerebral self-reflection, with the lyric “Be honestly anything you want to be.” When It Falls, on the other hand, is a certified party-jam, with an Umphrey’s McGee-style prog-rock breakdown worth its weight in bramble.
On 23 March 2019 and already in the San Francisco area for family reasons, I managed to gain very last minute access to Spafford’s show at the Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael.
It was literally a case of badgering their not entirely unhunky road manager (pictured) with a “Look at my press pass. I’m S Pafford and you need to let me in.”
Guess what, he did.
Thank you Charles.
Kicking off with a fabulously funky version of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City, they kind of reminded me of a less showy Red Hot Chili Peppers with a slight tinge of the Grateful Dead. See for yourself. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was live-streamed on Facebook. Fancy.
Onstage, the band revel in the freedom of improvisation, pushing the envelope and focusing heavily on the jam where you build and build until the crescendo.
It’s a bit like a good game of chess without the stress.
TAME IMPALA (Australia)
The sound of spacy, guitar-heavy psychedelic pop has never really gone out of fashion since The Beatles brought it to the mainstream in the 1960s, with proponents like Pink Floyd and the Flaming Lips managing to make long careers out of mining its every seam. In the 2010s, there is no more popular psych-pop group than Oceania’s very own Tame Impala.
Kevin Parker and Dominic Simper formed Tame Impala as 13-year-olds in Perth, Western Australia in 1999, sticking to scratchy bedroom recordings until 2007, when Jay Watson joined them on drums and backing vocals. Their sound was pure late ’60s, but wasn’t the sound of any specific band from the era.
In typically Ziggy fashion, they were as likely to channel the Nazz as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Cocooned away inside walls of psychedelic fuzz in WA, they re-created their preferred period one song at a time with the aid of gear and production techniques that sounded like they hadn’t been dusted off since 1968.
In 2010, Tame Impala made their full-length debut with Innerspeaker. Recorded mainly in a remote beach house four hours outside Perth, the album was a critical and popular success, gaining the band fans all over the globe, being nominated for many awards in Australia including ARIA Album of the Year and winning the J Album of the Year nod.
Released in 2012, Lonerism was a less guitar-heavy, far weirder album than Innerspeaker, yet it made an even bigger splash, topping many year-end polls (including NME), and the record was nominated for Best Alternative Album at the Grammys.
All this success made Parker, now based in France, an in-demand collaborator, working on a handful of tracks on Ronson’s Uptown Special album as well as team ups with Mick Jagger and Lady Gaga. 2015’s Currents, which included the cosmic dance-rock suite Let It Happen (very probably my favourite single of the year) saw TP’s sound expanded to include more up-tempo club-informed tracks and some smooth R&B stylings, was once again nominated for Best Alternative Album at the 2016 Grammys.
In 2019, the band switched back into gear, landing a handful of high-profile summer festival headline slots, with their fourth LP, The Slow Rush, set for release on Valentine’s Day 2020.
Happy new year, folks!
BONUS: They coulda been contenders! A few that didn’t quite make the shortlist. And if you’re wondering why there were no Brits in the top ten maybe blame Brexit.
BILLIE EILISH (USA): Still only 18, her brooding, understated L.A. darkpop is evocative, atmospheric and unsurprisingly filmic. As she enters her twenties in the 2020s she is gonna be, oh, you know, everywhere
CAMP COPE (Australia): visceral alt.rock trio from Melbourne know how to get fierce
CELESTE (UK/US): Paul Weller knows his sassy soul singers, and I discovered her gorgeous jazz-tinged R&B via a delectable duet with the Modfather
CHVRCHES (UK): Scottish idiosyncratic indietronica threesome
GOLD CLASS (Australia): Victorian rockin’ quartet though not always four on the floor
HANNAH GEORGAS (Canada): indie popster, known for her stunning cover of Eurythmics’ Love Is A Stranger
HURTS (UK): Alas, I wrote about them very recently so would have only repeated myself
JENNY HVAL (Norway): ethereal avant artpop singer-songwriter
LONDON GRAMMAR (UK): dewy dream pop practitioners from Nottingham
LORDE (New Zealand): Auckland’s finest. Bowie loved her. We should all love her.
MARCUS WHALE (Australia): Sydney’s newest prince of sinewy electropop, also one half of Collarbones and BV
MARINA DIAMANDIS & THE DIAMONDS (UK): bombastic dance pop by a lady who keeps fiddling with her stage name
MICHAEL KIWANUKA (UK): sumptuous soul-drenched singer-songwriter and Muswell Hillbilly. If Bill Withers and Nina Simone had a love child it would sound almost as good as this
RAG’N’BONE MAN (UK): see my mini write-up in part one