One of the reasons I love Lil’ Nas X so much is that he was supposed to be a one-hit wonder. Then he showed everyone that he’s a versatile, talented artist. The xx seemed that way too – their sparse, single-note-plucked melodies, spacious drum machine beats, quiet background synths and the potentially overly precious back-and-forth of singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. 10 years later, it’s clear that wasn’t the case. Instead, the group’s debut would transform not just indie pop and electronic music, but the entire popular music landscape (they were sampled by Rihanna! What?).
On I See You, I feel like The xx fully came into their own. This is what I’ve always wanted from them — full control over their aesthetic, complete mastery of their craft, a breadth of explorations of their signature sound without actually being bound by it. They’re still sad, and there’s still so much empty space within and between so many of their arrangements. But Jamie xx’s production really takes the forefront here. It’s incredible how he pulls these sounds together, and how Croft and Sim have evolved as vocalists. They actually seem like they’re harmonizing here; they always had incredible chemistry but they sound confident and self-assured now. There are love songs that aren’t just about longing! But there are those too; “Say Something Loving” is about the difficulty of accepting true affection when you’ve settled for toxicity for too long, and “On Hold” laments not taking advantage of something good while it was still available to you because destiny doesn’t mean you don’t have to try to make things work.
“On Hold,” by the way, is one of the best songs of the decade. It is the perfect amalgamation of The xx’s spacious, open sonics and a new, bouncy, bright, club-ready pop/dance strategy. How the hell did they pull this off? I also didn’t know that The xx were queer – both Sims and Croft (Jamie xx was coy if I remember correctly; I met them a few years ago and they told me in person). Where previously they’d utilized vagueness as a form of connection, on this one I see the metaphors much more plainly — “Dangerous” is about committing to a love society says is wrong, “I Dare You” about the bliss of returned affection, and “Performance” is ostensibly about the pressures of visibility, but to me it reads like gender performativity. Every song on this album is significant and beautiful.
Indie Pop/R&B, 2013
Blood Orange’s entire discography of instant-classic albums exists within the confines of this decade, and in my opinion, considered in total, is the genius work of a master producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter. As such, it was hard to choose one. I landed on Cupid Deluxe not because it is head and shoulders above his other albums, but because I believe it’s most representative of what Devonté Hynes does. Blood Orange trafficks in tenderly-wrought vignettes of queer life cast against retro pop beats infused with modernity.
Cupid Deluxe is wistful and melancholy, and bounces with soft, meandering melancholy. The vibe is like remembering the mistakes of your youth with fondness. Not recasting the mistakes — they were still mistakes — but that you were still so carefree and open that you were even able to make them. It’s like nostalgia for one’s own past naiveté, for the lack of cynicism and jadedness that accompanied it. Like, you were heartbroken and taken advantage of because you were an idealistic, bright-eyed young gay in the big city, but you’re nostalgic for the feeling of being young and free, not for the bad choices you made as a result. Does that make sense? Blood Orange makes the gayest music, and while Cupid Deluxe isn’t as specific to the Black queer experience as 2018’s Negro Swan, that layer does come in fits and starts throughout.
Now, I’d be remiss to not mention the controversy: Devonté Hynes has been accused by a handful of people, on Twitter and some message boards, of being a transmisogynist and/or a “chaser.” I haven’t seen any receipts of this, and indeed have never seen any actual claims or evidence or even like, “I heard he did this to x person” gossip, and never from Black trans women themselves, always from allies. That being said, I am always inclined to believe accusers, so if this is true, then fuck this genius who makes incredible music. I wish we had the same energy for non-Black, queer artists, and I’m aware that Black men in particular can be interpreted as violent for doing neutral things. I still don’t know how to approach the “artist’s actions vs. the art they make” situation, but it’s always worth at least mentioning.
Also Check Out: 2016’s Freetown Sound and 2018’s Negro Swan. The former is an extension of Cupid Deluxe that does similar things very well, and the latter was the best album of 2018 in my opinion.
Alt Pop/R&B, 2010
OK, hear me out. I’ve been listening to Janelle Monáe since The Chase Suite, OK? Long before I knew she or I were queer, I was captivated by the narrative concept she was going for. All of Janelle Monáe’s albums have been telling variations on a single story — the ballad of Cindi Mayweather, an outlaw android originally on the run for falling in love with a human, then the leader of the android resistance. It’s not a particularly unique metaphor, but it’s ambitious and weird and so is Monáe. That’s why I love The ArchAndroid. It’s Monáe at her weirdest. She literally starts this album off with “Suite II Overture,” immediately confusing everyone for whom this is her first album. Then it shifts immediately into “Dance Or Die,” featuring legendary slam poet Saul Williams and… Monáe rapping?
I love this because it’s not concerned with popular appeal. Monáe in 2010 was a weird, artsy, jazzy singer with a sci-fi creative vision, and she didn’t compromise. But regardless she created something gorgeous, beautiful, and — it turned out — somewhat popular. Throughout are jazzy, rollicking songs that use the cyborg/android metaphor to explore — what? We know now that Monáe is queer, but at the time — race? Class? She was also wearing suits and uniforms at the time in public, and discussing paying homage to her parents’ occupations.
“Faster” is a fun, jazzy bop that has the perennial line: “Am I a freak?/ Or just another weirdo/ Call me weak/ Or just call me your hero.” On “Mushrooms & Roses:” “We’re all virgins/ to the joys/ of loving without fear.” On “Cold War:” “I was made to believe/ there’s something wrong with me.” In the video above, she “ruins” the first take by starting to cry immediately after getting this line out, and they decided to make that the music video. “Tightrope” was a minor hit; I remember attempting to do the “tightrope” dance at parties. “Say You’ll Go” starts off with a fascinating bit of percussion that sounds like someone in a kitchen hitting a variety of upturned pots and pans. “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” is a claustrophobic, frenetic, intense track, complete with heavy breathing, yelps, and a really electric electric guitar. I could write a paragraph about literally each song.
And it’s genuinely a concept album. It never loses its narrative focus, telling chronological vignettes of Cindi Mayweather’s life, complete with an interlude (“Suite III Overture”) that makes you realize that if this album is Suites II and III, you need to get her first EP to hear Suite I. That’s the only reason it’s here above The Electric Lady, which I think is underrated, and Dirty Computer, which is also a masterpiece, but on which she generally abandons the sci-fi concept narrative. Not completely—she’ll always be a lovely, beautiful, talented weirdo—but on The ArchAndroid that aspect of who she is is front and center, and that’s why I love it so much.
Also Check Out: 2018’s Dirty Computer, obviously. After finally coming out publicly, Monáe made an album not about an alter ego or a metaphor, but about her self. She’s still sort of an android and definitely a weirdo for this one, but also very much a queer Black woman in Trump’s America.
I promise I’m not just being contrarian (well, I didn’t like Blonde, and that upsets some people, but I’m referring to the fact that I chose Nostalgia, ULTRA over Channel Orange). It’s simple: Nostalgia, ULTRA has better songs, including “Swim Good,” which is my favorite Frank Ocean song. Other than the incredibly annoying, but kind of funny, video game interludes, it makes sense that this album (mixtape?) launched Frank’s career. I don’t entirely know all the details about how it was put together, whether it’s a mixtape and/or not allowed on streaming services because the extensive use of samples means it’s technically illegal, or what. It’s still on bandcamp, though.
I don’t have to go track-by-track here, because they’re literally all incredible, but I’ll mention a few: “Novacane” is the obvious breakthrough banger. “We All Try” is a lovely, inspiring little gem of a song, that hit me at a time when I was still shaking off the shackles of Christianity, and as such, hit in a special way. “There Will Be Tears” was a future-thinking electronica-infused ballad that borrows a bit from future collaborator KanYe West, but is innovative also for its time changes and for its vulnerable exploration of Black male emotion-having. He was a little ways from coming out as bisexual, but on this (and “We All Try”) Ocean made it clear that he wasn’t going to do masculinity as prescribed. “American Wedding” might sample “Hotel California” so much it could be considered a cover, but it infuses it with so much feeling it’s transformed. It’s really hard to believe someone wrote this song in his late teens or early twenties. And I once listened to “Nature Feels” while having sex outdoors. It was pretty great.
Then there’s “Swim Good,” my favorite Frank Ocean song. It’s hard to really describe why. I love the simple percussion and the groovy piano chords that kick in during the chorus; I love that the focus is on the incredible vocals. I love that the pop song format — verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus — is infused with a repeated but progressive narrative. He’s always “about to drive in the ocean,” but it’s five more miles, then one more mile, then he’s “going off.” I love that he’s gonna “swim good,” but it’s clear that he’s not swimming away to escape anything. He’s not coming back. I love that it’s way overkill; he says “I feel like a Ghost/ ever since I lost my baby,” but driving off a cliff into the ocean? Even though we find out later he was processing the ending of his first love, with a man, and having to hide it, and all of the things we learn on Channel Orange, it’s too much, but he’s young and in love and the act of saying “I’m going off, don’t try stopping me/ I’m going off, don’t try saving” is clearly a call for help. If you can find a way to download this album (or let’s say you are an OG and had a CD of it, or are willing to pay $80 for an out of print one), since you can’t even do that off bandcamp anymore, make a playlist and take out the filler skits. And I guarantee you won’t skip a track.
Also Check Out: 2012’s Channel Orange and 2016’s Blonde. Both excellent albums, maybe masterpieces, by one of the auteurs of our time, one of the legend-in-the-making artists that we’ll be talking about for years and years, guaranteed. But there are a few songs on each album (especially Blonde) that just don’t do it for me.
This is one of the most important albums I’ve ever heard. And I know that’s because of my own positionality; it may not hit as hard for you if you’re not a trans woman. But if you like dance pop, EDM, or electronica, it will be enjoyable nonetheless, because this album is chock full of bops. Heavy hooks, soaring choruses, just enough of the classic EDM “drops,” (and a couple ballads), all buoyed by Tami T’s robotic, but endearing, fittingly high-pitched vocals.
“I describe a lot of relationships,” she says in a recent interview, “in a way that I think I don’t hear enough in music… I just try to tell my stories in a relatable way.” This is the key for me. High Pitched and Moist contains danceable pop songs about some of the realest shit: queer dating, trans sex, body image and self-confidence… “Fourteen,” for example: “Fourteen/ so uncomfortable in my own skin/ shaking by the bathroom sink/ I’m about to get naked and I am worried what the boy will think/ …Twenty-five/ Self-confident keeping my head up high/ But I’m still shaking when buttons get undone/ I’m afraid they won’t like me when they see me with nothing on.”
Or on “Princess:” “Princess is my gender/ Don’t call me ‘she’ or ‘her’/ The pronoun I prefer is ‘Her Majesty.’” Or on Mucous Membrane: “You say I only call when I wanna fuck/ But that’s OK ‘cause I almost always wanna fuck/ …What we have is wrong and beautiful/ Brains turned off, purely physical/ You don’t know how to challenge me intellectually/ But you’re a genius at satisfying me sexually.” Or on “So Afraid:” “Pepper spray in my pocket/ Always afraid/ So afraid of getting beat up again/ …Violence hiding behind a cute face/ In the night, in a club, in a so called safe space/ In my head, in my heart, in my head, in my bed, in the streets, in police uniforms.” Or on EVERY SONG. Do yourself a favor and buy this album.