The 2010s: the decade when algorithms and play counts took over music

So here we are. It is the last day of the decade. I must confess that I have never looked towards a new decade with more trepidation before. Where will the raging, protectionistic nationalism exemplified by Trump, England and Putin lead? For one thing, I suppose it will mean I finally stop buying physical records because import taxes from the UK will go through the roof. Is that the point when I stop writing about music too? It might be.

But even more than nationalism, I fear what the climate crisis will do to the world. Our house is on fire, yet we are all focused on who gets to play in the garden.

From a musical perspective, I hope that this will be the decade when artists find their way back to broader collaboration; there was no musical movement focusing specifically on the big issues during the 2010s.

Instead, this decade just took the trend of parallell revivals from the previous decade into overdrive. 60s music obviously, but also soul, funk, synth pop, hard rock, new wave, punk. Seriously, everything. Jazz came back in style, even prog rock was allowed in from the cold.

If you want to be positive about it, you could say that listeners became more eclectic and open-minded. However, that was driven by algorithms rather than curiosity, since the 2010s were really about new distribution and not new music.

Spotify and its ilk took over the scene and automated our playlists, killed the album and replaced it with… what actually? With 30 second song stubs, that’s what! This was the decade when everyone tried to make music that would capture the listeners attention for 30 seconds, as that is what’s needed to get a stream counted as income.

But in the middle of all of this, there was also marvellous new music that didn’t sound like anything else, that dared to experiment and challenge. It was probably more marginalised than ever before, but it was truly incredible. 

And it is from those margins that I pull my decade in music. But I am not doing this based on preference, memory or even judgement. In order to keep aligned with the surveillance capitalistic, algorithm-over-free-choice sign of the times, I am listing my top ten album list in play count order. 

The only common sense intervention I have made here is that I have excluded too glaring multiple occurrences of the same artist from the list. Finally, I won’t bother you with the detailed play counts, since they are very close to each other after the first two albums in the list. Also in this age of the 30 second stream count, there are no actual album play counts; they need to be calculated as averages of all the songs on a specific album.

 

Sternpost – Anti-clock (2018)

Anti-clock was by far my most played album this decade; I played the A-side 268 times and the B-side 258 times. In this age of superabundance, nothing even comes close to that even in my nerdy world.

However it is as fitting as it is frustrating to have this as my top album of the decade, because nothing is more marginalised than ‘Anti-clock’. It was pressed in 109 copies, and was only available as a digital download for a very limited time. Very few people have heard it and that is a real shame. 

So, my New Year’s resolution is actually going to be to try to get this masterpiece reissued on CD, in Japan. I am not saying it will succeed, but watch this space!

This is what I wrote about Anti-clock back in 2018: “… my top pick for 2018 is an album that makes fragmentation its core idea. Like the soundtrack to a film about a world where humans never regained language capacity after being punished for building the tower of Babel, it is an album where the narrative is pushed to the fore but the narrators have lost the ability to communicate. 

It also grinds musical languages such as ambient, experimental, electronic, musique concrète and progressive rock into a garbled whole.” 

anti-clock [24-44]

The person behind Sternpost is Petter Herbertsson, and he would have pulled even further away from the rest if I had included his other releases here as well. The most notable of them is ‘Barrikad’ by Petter’s band Testbild! from 2011. Another must have album, for sure.

 

Brežnev Fun Club – Il Misantropo Felice (2015)

Although a distant second, I still played ‘Il Misantropo Felice’ almost half as many times as ‘Anti-clock’, which is quite impressive given the very challenging content of this album. 

To be quite honest, this is totally outside of my reach intellectually, and I would struggle to even give it the right label, so I wouldn’t even dare to try to review it.

Suffice to say that it is rooted in contemporary classical art music, but adds a warm layer of strutty melodic twists and hooks that seem to come directly out of the pop world. Although the instrumentation here is clearly more indebted to the classical world with French horns, flutes, oboe, violin, tuba, cello and you name it, the effect it has on me is very much the same as playing Henry Cow, Matching Mole or something like ‘Hot Rats’ by Frank Zappa.

Given the sheer complexity and scale of this album, it is no surprise that it was painstakingly recorded over a period of three years; a herculean effort struggling under a low budget, I would assume.

So yes, I am totally unable to describe this music, but don’t blame me for putting the album on this list, I am just a slave to my behavioural data, exactly like the rest of you!

 

Sanguine Hum – The Weight of the World (2013)

My overall play count of Sanguine Hum is much higher than this third ranking indicates. The problem is that all of their albums were released from 2010 onwards, and I have played them almost equally much. In fact, I have played ‘Songs For Days’ even more. That was released as a Sanguine Hum album in 2016 even more – but originally trickled out in 2007, so that disqualifies it.

‘The Weight of the World’ is a lush and brooding start of a series of concept albums, the first chapter in the revolving Buttered Cat saga. With this album, Sanguine Hum manage to take everything that could be considered pretentious with prog rock, turns it inside out while literally passing it through a time machine, and come out laughing in the end. Amazing and very British in the best of senses.

 

The Sea Nymphs – On The Dry Land (2016)

In all honesty, this was not really on my radar, primarily because it is technically an archival release recorded by Mr & Mrs Smith and William D Drake during the same sessions that produced the Sea Nymphs debut album back in 1992. 

Instead, on my manually compiled list, I had William D Drake’s solo album ‘Rising of the Lights’ (2011). But who am I, a mere human, to argue with the machines? 

In any case, ‘On The Dry Land’ is a full album of original and hitherto unpublished material. And although decidedly darker in tone, just like Drake’s solo album it is an utterly crazy, genre-straddling, murky and creaky yet baroque odyssey into the unknown. In a class of its own.

 

North Sea Radio Orchestra – Dronne (2016)

Again, I am beaten by my own behaviour here. Although I love ‘Dronne’ and would have selected it over their 2011 album ‘I A Moon’ even though that is brilliant too, I initially went for NSRO band leader Craig Fortnam’s second solo folk album as Arch Garrison, ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ from 2014, since I think it is potentially even more unique. But that is only because I am comparing ‘Dronne’ to the magical albums that the NSRO did already back in the 2000s. Taken on its own, it is nevertheless a masterpiece.

My original (Swedish) review of the album had the following to say: ‘Dronne’ is a river that flows through the southwest of France, and the music here is like the sound of that river; it ripples, swirls and billows. If you take out an ’n’ you get drone and suddenly the notes flow like the sound of an organic raga.”

Maybe that sounds better in Swedish, but you I am sure you get the drift (pun intended.)

 

Stars In Battledress – In Droplet Form (2014)

Back in 2012, I had dinner with William D Drake in Paris as he was rehearsing for the musical Poppea (a modern reworking of the Monteverdi opera ‘The Coronation of Poppea’) featuring Marc Almond among others. 

During that dinner I remember him referring several times to Richard and James Larcombe as “The Amazing Larcombe Brothers” almost capitalised like that as if it was their stage name. And it might well be, because they are truly amazing and I love basically every album that they appear on as collaborators or otherwise. 

However, as a duo, their stage name is Stars In Battledress, and ‘In Droplet From’ from 2014 is their classic second album; angular an eerie, yet beautiful and melodic. If this is pop music, it might come from a universe that Philip K. Dick invented.

Richard Larcombe currently has a band called Lost Crowns, and their 2019 album ‘Every Night Something Happens’ was my album of the year pick for 2019. Still, it had a slightly lower play count than ‘In Droplet Form’, so I had to take it out of this list to not double up artists too much. But you must check that one out too, needless to say.

 

Tom O. C Wilson – Tell A Friend (2017)

Each time I play ‘Tell A Friend’ I am totally struck with awe over how incredibly ambitious yet simultaneously full of quick-footed invention it is. It has that fantastic capacity to turn on a dime while remaining perfectly tuneful that only a few albums I know of can manage, notably ‘How Dare You’ by 10cc and ‘Rotters’ Club’ by Hatfield and the North, probably the two best albums that I have. But just like those two albums are totally different from each other ‘Tell A Friend’ sounds neither like them nor like anything else. Tom’s voice is very much in the forefront establishing a pop feel, while the music sputters and fizzes like something from Henry Cow. Yet somehow the combination is just obvious and natural.

When I play this album I immediately get the urge to sing along, because, well for me this is very much a singalong album. Yet even though it is one of my most played albums of the decade, I still am not even near following Tom’s vocals!

Despite being an absolutely groundbreaking album, it is still basically ignored by everyone, which is totally unfathomable. Even the Soundcloud link below has a lower total play count than I have on my own play list. Come on world, you can do better than that!

https://soundcloud.com/tomocwilson/sets/tell-a-friend-1

 

Karda Estra – Infernal Spheres (2017)

Although the album is actually subtitled ‘A Solar Odyssey’, a friend of mine said that ‘Infernal Spheres’ sounds like National Health in slow motion, and I thought it was so true that it became the title of my original review of it. 

But even though there is a lot of Canterbury here, intended or otherwise, this album also contains the exact opposite of the hallmark warmth and humor of that genre. Because here Karda Estra are making music from outer space, using sounds that are ultimately cold, and desolate and aiming for a structure that is as incomprehensible as the universe itself.

Such contradictions of terms often make for exciting listening and that is certainly the case here. I still can’t say I really understand what is going on here, which is probably why I have been playing it so much!

 

Everything Everything – Man Alive (2010)

When hearing this album back in 2010, it truly was the album that gave me confidence in music for the new decade. It sounded just like the future I wanted but hadn’t been able to imagine. Convoluted and overly complex, stopping, starting and turning wildly, yet full of life and catchy tunes. Although I have already mentioned 10cc once in this post, here was another band that had that feeling of pure invention that is so rare and magical.

I continued to eagerly purchase every new release by Everything Everything throughout the decade, including the name-your-price live album only released eleven days ago, that includes a rendition of the fabulous ‘Leave The Engine Room’ from ‘Man Alive’. But sadly, nothing they have done since even comes close to the astonishing energy and uniqueness on display on their debut. Most of it was still was good but just didn’t have that electric spark. In that sense ‘Man Alive’ reminds me of ‘Swoon’ by the Prefab Sprout, a debut album that remains utterly peerless in the pop world as far as I am concerned – even this album pales in that comparison.

 

Frisk Frugt – Den Europæiske Spejlbue (2015)

I am very proud of my behavioural self that lets me end this data based list of my ten most played albums with ‘Den Europæiske Spejlbue’. Not only is this very close to home, since it was made in Copenhagen, a city I literally can see from my neighborhood, but also because it is a listen that is as mind opening as it is unique. 

Although several people appear on this double LP, it is very much a solo effort by experimental crossover musician and composer Anders Lauge Meldgaard. He wrote the whole thing and played most of it, partly on instruments he built himself. When you put on the record, you immediately feel like you are entering a fantasy toy shop from the 1950s where everything whirrs and purrs and hums. And even though it certainly doesn’t continue as a record played on children’s toys, it remains a veritable wonderland of sounds throughout and keeps that friendly toy shop atmosphere. The songs are hymnal and somehow very big. On Discogs the genre for this album is listed as “Jazz, Rock, Pop, Classical” and the style as “Experimental” so if you ever wanted an album that describes a decade when the genre walls were finally broken through, then this is it!

 

Honorary mentions – because data is not the truth

Even though all of the above was based on actual personal play count data, you shouldn’t take that as the truth. Play count data, is just that: data. The truth is something much more than just stats. I could have based the play count list on tracks of course, or artists, or some other criterium, and the result would have been totally different. That is why I wan to add three albums to the above list, that were hovering just outside the bottom of the top ten list but never made it further for specific reasons.

 

Homunculus Res – Limiti All’Eguaglianza Della Parte Con Il Tutto (2013)

Homunculus Res are the Sicilian band that took Canterbury music into the 2010s like no one else. Despite their obvious English references they are also proudly Italian, taking over where Picchio Dal Pozzo left off. Even though they play complex music with many different sections and parts, and even though they like to get involved in unusual time signatures, they add the magic of infectious melodies and absurd, almost dadaistic, yet warm humour.

Their three albums appeared between 2013 and 2018, and since I love all of them, I have played them equally much and have not favoured one album enough to actually get one onto the top list. Bad behaviour on my side!

 

Regal Worm – Pig Views (2018)

Just like Homunculus Res, Regal Worm so far has made three equally excellent albums between 2013 and 2018, and just as I explained above, that works very badly if you rank albums based on play count. 

But Regal Worm has also released a wealth of singles, EPs, special tracks and special editions that work against the data driven economics of this. Suffice to say that a total play count approach would have made for an entirely different list placement.

Here is what I wrote in my review of Pig Views: “… this is the prog album you should buy if you don’t like prog rock. And if you already like prog rock, well open the windows and let in this breath of fresh air, for heaven’s sake!

Although Jarrod probably plays at least fifteen different keyboards here, there are no solos. And there’s no pretentious bullshit.

By the way did I say there is also plenty of Mellotron and that this album is the third in a trilogy? Or that the whole thing was originally planned as a concept album? And that it ends with a twenty minute suite?

Like I sad, no pretentious bullshit!”

The only thing I would like to add to that review snippet now is the name of that twenty mniute suite. It is called ‘Under den svenska vintern (During The Swedish Winter)’ which is something I am longing very much for right now as the polar caps are melting.

Ralegh Long – Hoverance (2015)

Finally, we have Ralegh Long’s absolutely beautiful album ‘Hoverance’. This really isn’t an album that I listen to with the intensity and correspondingly high frequency as other albums, but that doesn’t mean I like it any less. 

On the contrary, ‘Hoverance’. is one of those albums that are so special that you want to save them for the right occasion. And it certainly needs a special setting and mood to work, because it is very subdued, and quite brittle. It might not be all the way out there with the sound of silence of Mark Hollis’ eponymous album, but it is going in that direction. A more ample comparison might be Nick Drake – and although I worship his music I don’t play it all the time while walking the dog or sitting on the train, if you get my point.

Hence, ‘Hoverance’ is the album to play when you are in a slow and reflective mood. And when you treat it with the kind of respect it needs to feel comfortable, it opens like a flower in front of you.

 

The truth is indeed out there, but as I have tried to illustrate, it is so much more than a data point. Still, from a data-driven perspective, it is good to note that the list is now 13 albums long in total. 13 is my lucky number, so that makes it a perfect ending for me. See you in the next decade!

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