I’ve loved music since a fairly young age, though perhaps a good arbitrary starting point is the age I first got my mam’s Walkman -- yes the one that plays cassettes -- and there was a mixtape made of all the songs I loved at the time. There was some Green Day, some punk, a lot of The Smiths and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!. My music tastes have gone through various iterations throughout my life, from getting into all the indie and punk my parents loved growing up, to becoming a proper metalhead in secondary school, to diving into hip hop thanks to Odd Future, NWA, Lil B, Chief Keef and Gucci Mane, diving back into indie when I wanted to be able to talk about music I liked to people I knew, and the weird collision of various conflicting sounds at my current age. Here are my 10 favorite albums, all listened to at various stages throughout my life, all great records.
1: Counterparts: The Difference Between Hell And Home
I first heard Counterparts on a compilation CD when I was a tender 17 year old and honestly didn’t think too much of them. It was an enjoyable track, but didn’t immediately make me obsess over them. Fast forward to 2014, and I’m looking for new music to download. I put on Witness by Counterparts. Holy fuck. I can count the number of songs on one hand that have shaken me to my core and almost made me cry on the first listen the way “Witness” did. It was pacy and punch, yet with a really haunting melody underpinning the whole thing. The lyrics were the single frankest description of what I was going through emotionally at the time: the frustration, the fact I was still fighting but on the verge of giving up, the guilt. The entire record is hardcore/metalcore done at its absolute zenith. It is extremely melodic but never at the expense of its bite. It’s very technical but never to a self-indulgent degree, instead letting that direct the songs into interesting territory. And more than any other compelling factor, it has so much passion and heart poured into it that is immediately audible from the first listen. The breakdown of relationships, feelings of losing hope, despair and isolation, the troubled relationship with a relative with Alzheimers, all taken on lyrically in a fashion that’s both poetic and direct -- emotional yet surprisingly mature. From the blunt force devastation of “Slave” to the technically fiendish “Compass” to the most straightforward yet most powerful track, “Witness”, this is an example of the sheer emotional power hardcore is known for at its finest level. Nothing released before or after has ever affected me to the degree this record has. Go listen to it. Right now.
2: Placebo: Placebo
Growing up listening to my parent’s record collection, there was quite a lot of punk and post punk, the more visceral material catching my interest immediately, while the quieter albums would be things I’d return to later on -- bands like The Clash, The Ramones, Killing Joke, Sonic Youth, Husker Du. But this album, oh man, it took ten or eleven year old Mal completely by surprise. It starts off with “Come Home” and that pretty much lays out what that album’s about: Brian’s fey, very androgynous vocals, strange instrumental parts/very interesting structures, and guitars with just such a lovely blend of strong melody and stinging feedback. There are quieter moments too, a post-rocky song dedicated to a dildo with "Bionic", "I Know" being underpinned by a didgeridoo, and "Hang Onto Your IQ"'s laundry list of insecurities held together with one of Stefan's finest bass-lines. Of course the ragers are of note too, with "Nancy Boy"'s filthy glamorous stomp, the head-rush of "36 Degrees," and the industrial precision of "Bruise Pristine." I was too young and inexperienced to understand the lyrics, nonetheless it just felt so much more dangerous, stranger, more interesting than what I’d heard before. It was the love child of The Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, and Depeche Mode I didn’t know I needed. Still to this day, I’ve yet to hear an album that captures that sound, or even comes close.
3: Radiohead: OK Computer
Radiohead are one of those bands you just can’t escape hearing about if you’re into indie spheres, and putting them on a list of favorite albums might seem like an easy way to gain clout, but fuck it. OK Computer was a revelation. This is another early childhood favorite, a very early one in fact, obtained by name dropping them in the car to my dad. He found the album in his CD collection and lent me it, and oh my god. I’d never heard an album that felt like a proper immersive journey into some sort of dystopian space before. It’s not a concept album, but the repeated themes of unease, the mix of electronic textures and traditional instruments used in strange ways, and the cryptic yet suggestive lyrics all create this suffocating but beautiful ambience. It also has some mighty tunes on there, from the vicious “Electioneering” to the haunting “Exit Music (For A Film)”, leaving out the obvious highlight that is the sprawling masterpiece of "Paranoid Android." It’s an album that’s spoken about a lot, but that is very much deserved in the case of this album.
4: Architects: Lost Forever // Lost Together
Hollow Crown, before going far more melodic with 2011’s The Here And Now, recapturing the technicality and the heaviness with Daybreaker the following year. However with the album in question, they were back on their bullshit and taking no prisoners. There was the heaviness of old with “The Devil Is Near”, yet the melody was delivered in a far more compelling fashion with closing track “The Distant Blue”, drawing on post rock but keeping that same fire alive. The entire band is on their finest form, but I have to mention Sam Carter’s vocal performance here, the raw screams, the vicious lows, the soaring clean singing and the strange half sung, half yelled vocals he perfected, especially on the chorus of “C.A.N.C.E.R.”. With critics and fans, it was very much clear Architects were back on top of the heap. Having followed them since late 2010, it was so gratifying seeing them deliver their finest work after having been in the game so long.
5: Earl Sweatshirt: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
I had never taken much notice of Earl before this record, mostly knowing him from the edgy quotes from his first mixtape in pieces on the Odd Future collective, but by the time this dropped I was fully immersed in hip hop and willing to give this album a shot. Coming out in sixth year, I was mired in stress, severe mental illness, hostility towards the outside world, feelings only released when I’d go out drinking, all themes this album is immersed in. The album zips by in 30 minutes, which works well given just how dark and suffocating the atmosphere is and how dense Earl’s lyricism is. It’s very dour, very lofi, Earl’s flow coming out in both a monotone dirge and with spat out venom, it takes a few listens to get full immersed in, but it’s startlingly powerful when it clicks. It’s hard to single out a single stunning moment from it, but I’d have to go with “DNA” purely for Na’kel’s feature, recorded while he was high on LSD and right after hearing his brother had passed away in hospital, completely delivered on the spot, one of those musical moments that very rarely comes around.
6: Deftones: White Pony
White Pony is one of those albums that just leaves you in awe of how it could have been created, where Deftones went from being one of if not the best nu metal band out there into being in a genre of their own. It’s an album that fully explores all the sides of them hinted at on previous albums. There’s the dark sexuality, the bruising taut riffs, the dense layers of guitars and electronic textures, lurching from the simple beauty of “Teenager” to the hectic downtuned violence of “Elite” with the likes of “Knife Party”’s sweeping beauty and the creepily damaged love song “Digital Bath” bridging the gap between them. Immaculately produced, I hate to single out one element when everything just fits together so well but the drums just sound so good on this album, creating the grooves that underpin all these wonderful songs. Perhaps that very balance of beautiful and brutal, furious and fey, delicate and destructive will be bettered, and certainly many bands have taken a stab at it, but Deftones have truly perfected that with this album.
7: Teen Suicide: dc snuff film // waste yrself
Teen Suicide is a strange band, one of the earliest bands playing that lofi noise-pop-sadboy-folk -- one of the bands who put up all their stuff for free on Bandcamp. They are a group with an eclectic take on that sound, the main unifying element being the awful recording quality, veering from blistering slacker rock to sparse acoustic moments that explode into feedback. This album is both the best introduction to their sound and the finest collection of their songs, and they are a band who often live more on songs scattered in isolation than consistent full length projects. The vocals are often buried under the lofi sound, forcing you to dig deeper, from the lighter tracks to louder cuts like “lonely boy goes to a rave” to the strange but undeniably beautiful “salvia plath.” There are tales of despair, boredom, love and drugs. Gloriously scrappy, gloriously immature.
8: Bones: Powder
In the murky world of Soundcloud rap, Bones is somewhat of a legend. His extremely prolific career -- the intense live shows, the sinister VHS music videos, the eclectic nature of his sound, taking in hard hitting trap, gloomy stoner ballads and some truly beautiful acoustic guitar led numbers -- have gained him legions of fans and detractors alike. While Powder may not be the unanimously accepted “best tape," (Skinny, PaidProgramming, Rotten and Garbage also vie for this title, and those are just the popular choices) Powder makes a strong case for this title, as well as being my personal favorite. It’s a more moody, reflective tape than the aggression that is usually at the forefront, but that is here too with perhaps his first and only fully fledged metal song, “ICanSeeMyHouseFromHere”. Yet, the standout is the heartbreakingly beautiful, “ItAllComesTogetherInTheFinalAct”.
9: Arab Strap: The Last Romance
Scottish miserabilists lightened up a wee bit on this album, their triumphant last one before splitting in 2006. While I love their whole discography, this one edges it as my favorite because they were able to add just a touch of color without losing their signature dark touch. The seedy filth remains, but the sparse nature and sprawl that characterized their earlier work has gotten a lot more immediate here, without turning it into a pop record. Aidan Moffat’s lyrics are still snide and pointed vignettes of scauldy behavior and the emotions surrounding it, much in the vein of the early Artic Monkeys material, but less likely to make you want to smack him in the jaw. His vocals are more confident, but still with that smoky Scottish brogue. As a triumphant last statement and end chapter on a beautiful piece of indie history, this record is a masterpiece.
10: Death Grips: The Money Store
It can be argued that Death Grips are the Marylin Manson of the 2010s, both building on the embryonic sounds of their chosen genres, highly image driven, but with a really conceptual edge, and perhaps the act of this generation most likely to have your parents worried should you listen to them. On their second album, the punky spiteful attack of Exmilitary was replaced with a more sophisticated but no less powerful synthetic, electronic driven sound. They were taking their sound to new places, from the shoegaze leaning “Get Got” to certifiable banger “I’ve Seen Footage” to the more traditionally aggressive likes of “Hustle Bones”. MC Ride’s vocal performance is perhaps his finest, blending his traditionally screamed rapping with some more traditional flows. Though the jagged sample flipping isn’t quite as blatant this time around, it is still one of the most intriguing albums of the last decade.