What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?
Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.
From the beginning of October through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections – tell us why you agree or disagree – and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.
When a musical movement like Britain’s garage/grime rap emerges, especially one as jagged and aurally confrontational as grime could be, it’s not surprising that someone in the genre could see past the inherent limitations of pigeonholed labels. While some genuine masterpieces of purist style emerged (Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner and the genre-defining Run the Road compilation), it was Mike Skinner and his work as the Streets that became the commercial vision of grime. His debut album, Original Pirate Material, was already looking beyond – incorporating the more traditional two-step, house and dub styles into his playbook, but his audacious sophomore album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, went far beyond what anyone might have expected. A cinematic concept album that traces the whereabouts of a thousand pounds and the start and dissolution of a romantic relationship, A Grand Don’t Come For Free openly mocked criticism of Skinner’s flow and delivery, enlarged his musical palette even further and created a hilarious, frustrating and moving album that was far better than its parts had any right to be.
Skinner’s critics have long aimed directly at his sometimes tone-deaf singing and awkward meter as powerful negatives, but Mike Skinner is anything but an amateur, and the ‘mistakes’ that dot the landscape of this album aren’t anything but intentional. Skinner is a lyricist in the tradition of songwriters like Ray Davies, Ian Dury and Damon Albarn – and his personas across the first two Streets albums were intentional inhabitations of working and middle-class British teens and 20-somethings in the 2000s. The awkward phrasing and singing make his character on A Grand Don’t Come For Free decidedly more real, down to the stumbling, repeated cursing in “Dry Your Eyes” as his character becomes flustered and panicky in an attempt to save his relationship. (“I’m not going to fucking..just fucking leave it all now.”) What some spy as the album’s weaknesses are also at times its finest and deftest touches.
The album’s musical cues are also broader than his previous efforts. While songs like “***Not Addicted***” and “Such a Twat” have the brassy, rushed feel of the debut, the album is dotted with songs that hit different influences. “Fit But You Know It” uses live guitar (something that was a relative rarity at this point for Skinner) to create a sound somewhere between ska’s rhythmic bounce and the dirty fuzz of garage rock. “Blinded By the Lights” uses the song’s focus on the narrator’s ecstasy trip in a club to build a song that not only mimics trance club music, but the very physical feeling of the narrator’s trip as well.
The titular thousand pounds that goes missing in the first song is a macguffin to tie together the story arc tracing the narrator’s relationship, so despite its name in the title (and its recovery that mends wounds and teaches a lesson in album-closer “Empty Cans“), it isn’t of major substance to the plot. But it’s this cinematic structure that makes the album’s story compelling, as the bulk of the songs deal more with a relationship that migrates from initial overwhelming interest to complacence, betrayal and miscommunication to pleading and acceptance. “Could Well Be In” uses the pop-psychology of a television show to dissect how much the girl likes the boy. “Blinded By the Lights” uses its drug-trip re-enactment to also juxtapose the euphoria of the narrator’s high with the paranoia he has over the location and actions of his girlfriend.
But the album’s pair of closing songs is, in a lot of ways, the highwater mark. The middle section of the album treads in a fevered egotism as the narrator lashes out at friends and his girlfriend, but “Dry Your Eyes” begins to right the album’s mood as it heartbreakingly portrays the end of the relationship in fine detail, down to the intricate body language as the two have their final conversation as a couple, while “Empty Cans” takes its 8 minutes of time and creates a moment of clarity at the bottom of the well. It’s these two songs that also show that, clearly, Skinner can create music that is well timed, beautifully sung and emotionally convincing. They are also what make A Grand Don’t Come For Free the repeatedly rewarding experience that it is. Without the redemption and evolution of these closing tracks, it would be a story without purpose. As it stands, an album of day-to-day detail, monotony and the dramatic emotions of love is a triumph. words/ j neas