Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

7 Experts Rank the Decade’s Top 5 in Music



Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.

The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ll feed that love a little bit this December. We’ll be hosting seven lists of expert Decade-Best picks. We’ve done movies, games, and writing, and TV so far, and you can look forward to two more: traditional visual arts and one surprise list at the end. Our experts include philosophers and other academics whose work concerns these topics, and people working in the relevant media. Up today: music!

Perusing the below lists, you may find yourself wondering: Where’s the Kendrick Lamar? The Lana Del Rey? The Arcade Fire? If you want that kind of list, go hit up Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. We’re here to give you something a little different. The world of music is huge, and contains a lot beyond the contemporary mainstream. Instead, what we have today is a glimmer of that variety in music, including everything from opera and rap to metal and Christmas music.

Our contributors are:

Julian Dodd

Julian Dodd is a professor of philosophy at The University of Manchester.
His book,
Being True to Works of Music, will be published by OUP in 2020. From
July, 2020, he will be a professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Philosophy,
Religion, and the History of Science at the University of Leeds.

  1. Recording: John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once (Impulse, 2018)
    Sonny Rollins is right: this is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid. These tracks were recorded in late 1963 by the classic quartet of Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. The second take of ‘Impressions’ swings so convincingly that even a white man in his 50s can dance to it.
  2. Film: Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (Dir: Nicolas Jack Davies, 2018)
    This is a heartfelt and inventive documentary about Trojan’s central role in the multi-cultural revolution that unfolded on the UK’s streets and dance floors in the late 60s and early 70s. The Jamaican music the label curated helped forge a distinctive Black British identity, and yet was also taken up by white working class skinheads (when, as Don Letts explains, this movement was about fashion, not fascism).
  3. Concert: The Hallé Orchestra/Tabita Berglund (November, 2019)
    Recently graduated from the Orchestral Conducting Masters course at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Tabita Berglund led my beloved home band through a scintillating performance of Sibelius 1. She’s a marvel, fizzing with ideas: watch out for her.
  4. Book: David Hepworth, Nothing is Real (Black Swan, 2018)
    The centerpiece of this collection of articles is a set of five essays on authenticity in pop music, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2017. Everything here is written with erudition and insight, and yet with a delightful lightness of touch.
  5. Radio Program: Private Passions (BBC Radio 3)
    I listen to this on most Sundays while recovering from a training ride, preparing lunch, or just getting over the night before. Each week the composer Michael Berkeley is joined by a guest who introduces some of the music that means most to them. The discussion is musically literate and has introduced me to pieces that I now treasure. Recent guests have included Deborah Levy, Ken Loach, Mark Morris, and Alfred Brendel. Listen to it on the BBC iPlayer!

Daryl Jamieson

Daryl Jamieson is a composer and researcher who lives in Zushi, Japan,
teaches at Showa University of Music, and writes on the
interpenetrating fields of philosophy and contemporary music.

To make some sense of the immense pile of great music made, recorded, and released this decade, I chose to focus on the five best pieces of composed ‘classical’ music written these past ten years. Before the list, I want to recognise both Simon Reynell of Another Timbre and Ilan Volkov, principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I could easily have made this list five discs produced by Reynell or five pieces commissioned by Volkov, and had to consciously restrict myself to one from each.

  1. Linda Catlin Smith, White Lace (2019) for solo piano, performed by Satoko Inoue
    As delicate and detailed as its title implies, this première capped off one of the most stimulating concerts of my life: a complete survey of Smith’s solo piano music. Smith’s always-beguiling soundworld reaches new levels of complexity here, demanding – and rewarding – repeated listening.
  2. Michael Pisaro, fields have ears (10) (constellation, monarch, canyon) (2016) for piano and orchestra, performed by John Tilbury and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (cond); not commercially released but archived here
    A radical reimagining of both the idea of a concerto and what sounds an orchestra can produce, this is also the conclusion to a series of fascinating pieces which foregrounds the relatively under-exploited parameter of location in music perception.
  3. Cassandra Miller, About Bach (2015) for string quartet, performed by Quatuor Bozzini (excerpt, album)
    Miller’s music has opened up new spaces with incredibly imaginative use of quotation, repetition, and traditional instrumental colours. Truly mind-expanding music.
  4. Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson, Einvaldsóður (2017) chamber opera
    I discovered this Icelandic opera almost randomly through bandcamp last year and immediately fell in love with its complex, unpulsed soundworld, its just intonation, and its ambitious scale.
  5. George Benjamin, Written On Skin (2012) opera (trailer, DVD)
    Of all the new works by establishment composers in the past decade, this is the one which most justified its own hype. A visceral piece of music theatre based on a mediaeval Provençal tale of art, sexuality, and cannibalism.

Andrew Huddleston

Andrew Huddleston, Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London,
specializes, in addition to aesthetics, primarily in the history of post-Kantian
European philosophy, and is presently writing a book entitled
Art’s Highest Calling: The Religion of Art in a Secular Age.

‘Top five’ of the decade is a difficult criterion to interpret and apply when it comes to opera. Relatively few new works are produced; there tends to be repetition of a small canon of pieces. I’ve focused on particularly memorable productions and performances. All of these will likely be either reprised on stage or released on DVD if they haven’t been already.

  1. Opera North, Manchester/Leeds (2016), Wagner, Der Ring des Niebelungen
    I’ve seen quite a few Ring Cycles in my day, from the Met to Bayreuth to La Scala. This is, far and away, the most impressive I have seen. It was semi-staged, and it made excellent use of simple, evocative video imagery. The producers mostly let Wagner’s powerful music and rich drama speak for itself.
  2. English National Opera, London (2013), Berg, Wozzeck
    This was a shattering performance of a shattering piece—one of the greatest works of 20th century opera. Largely atonal in its musical vocabulary, it conveys the horrors of the society around it, with dashes of tragically fractured lyricism. This production, by Carrie Cracknell, brought out the potential timeliness of the plot. The audience was so stunned that as the curtain fell, they—usually so eager to rush to applaud—were dead silent for a palpable period.
  3. Royal Opera House, London (2013), Benjamin, Written on Skin
    This is the best ‘new’ opera I saw in this period. (Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, perhaps even greater still, I saw at ROH just outside the relevant time frame.) George Benjamin writes intellectually serious, complex music, but with an eye always on its contribution to the drama. The plot is shrouded in darkness and mystery, and it pulls one along largely in virtue of that. Katie Mitchell’s staging was excellent. When I saw it on its revival several years later, I was slightly less impressed than I was initially, but this is clearly a significant contribution to the operatic canon.
  4. La Scala, Milan (2017), Verdi, Falstaff
    I’m not just into the heavy and the Germanic. This opera, and production, had a wonderfully appropriate lightness of touch, along with an excellent concept. The director Damiano Michieletto set the action in the Casa Verdi, the home for retired musicians founded by Verdi and located just around the corner from La Scala. Often these directorial concepts fall flat, but this worked beautifully, and was full of clever details. The titular character, sung by Ambrogio Maestri, was superb.
  5. Glyndebourne, Sussex (2016), Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
    This was excellent in a number of respects, but Gerald Finley’s sensitive performance as Hans Sachs is what most sticks in my mind. Nietzsche incisively noted, in a sort of backhanded compliment, that Wagner was a musical miniaturist. Those who don’t know Wagner’s work sometimes associate him with thunderous music, but he is even more in his element with poignant human interiority, in evidence in this subtle rendition of Sachs’s Act III monologue.

Jay Miller

Jay Miller is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Warren Wilson College.

  1. Windhand, Windhand (2013)
    This female-fronted trio purifies the heaviness of early Sabbath and couples it with the heavenly melodic vocals of Dorothea Cottrell. Every track on the Richmond, VA-based band’s debut album is a siren song luring its listeners to the darkest depths of metal.
  2. Goat, World Music (2012)
    There’s nothing like it. Swedish psychedelic rock collective with pulsating, ritualistic chants, pounding Afrobeats, and a full-blooded intensity from start to finish. World Music is the first and best of their prolific output of studio albums. For a taste, put on “Run to Your Mama Now” and just try to sit still.
  3. Sleep, The Sciences (2018)
    Like an aging boxer, not every comeback makes for a champion. But after decades of nothing-to-sneeze-at spinoffs and side projects (OM, High on Fire) the reunited pioneers of stoner metal have proven that Sleep is, and always will be, the stuff of legends.
  4. Witchcraft, Nucleus (2016)
    Some call it “doom”. But this Swedish-born revival of the vintage 70s metal sound is its own thing, with a healthy dose of piss-n-vinegar experimentalism. The tremolo vocals of frontman Magnus Pilander (that’s right) ring forth like a Nordic god commanding an ensemble of crushing riffs, pounding drumbeats, and a little bit of flute.
  5. Do Make Say Think, Stubborn Persistent Illusions (2017)
    This crew of music nerds has been cranking out mellow, feely instrumentals from their hometown of Toronto since the mid-90s. This—their seventh—continues a trend of solidly on-point, self-produced albums. It’s what post-post-rock sounds like when it stops brooding and starts making nice with eclectic sounds and synthesizers.

Brian Moseley

Brian Moseley is an assistant professor and music theorist at
SUNY Buffalo and co-author of
Open Music Theory.

  1. Hans Abrahamsen, let me tell you (2013)
    In let me tell you, Ambrahamsen creates timbres and textures spare and finely-wrought but that seem to shine with the icy lustrousness of a world moving at half speed. This is particularly true in the final movement, which depicts the tragic Ophelia setting out into the snow.
  2. Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)
    Everything about “Formation” revels in the communal power of individuality. Unmistakable, undulating synths pile on top of horn lines, collaborating with the remarkable distinctiveness and range of Beyoncé’s voice.
  3. Joanna Newsom, “Good Intentions Paving Company” (2010)
    Released in 2010, “Good Intentions Paving Company” is the best love song of the decade. Newsom’s lyrics are witty, warm, and honest. And the music itself never stops changing. Midway through, the confident swagger of Joanna’s voice—multi-tracked and accompanied by pulsating piano octaves at the opening— dissolves into a free-floating ostinato repetition. Accompanying Newsom’s voice alone, the moment is as direct and heartfelt as it is doubtful.
  4. Caroline Shaw, Partita (2012)
    With Partita, Caroline Shaw showed us how remarkable the voice really is. Listening to the work, one can’t help but get caught up in the production of sound, particularly in the “Courante,” where the motor use of the human breath produces an exhilarating, bodily sense of exasperation that collapses just before the movement’s end.
  5. Kanye West, “Runaway” (2010)
    The descending piano melody that begins “Runaway” recalls centuries of similar laments—by Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, and others. Here, that lament is celebrated, placed in the piano’s highest register as a musical embodiment of Kanye’s “toast for the douchebags.”

Lissa Skitolsky

Lissa Skitolsky is the Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Philosophy at Dalhousie
University. She works on Holocaust and genocide studies, Jewish thought, and aesthetics.

These are my top 5  hip-hop tracks from the past decade, or those that most profoundly affected my sensibility and helped me cope with the tumultuous and painful events that transpired.

  1. Kanye West ft. Born Iver, Rick Ross, JAY-Z, Nikki Minaj, “Monster” (2010)
    I don’t know if I was more impressed by the synergy of these rap gods or the way Nikki murdered ’em.
  2. Noname ft. K.O., “Sunday Morning” (2013)
    Released before her first mixtape Telefone, Noname’s track combines her signature upbeat melodies and flow in the service of spitting poetic—sometimes absurdist—bars that deliver a haunting message about the brutality of everyday violence on a “Sunday morning, and the birds are lovely.”  This song both chills me out and makes me anxious about the cost of being chill.
  3. Bates ft. Cedes, Mz Tigua, Phenom lonos, Chill, G.A. Barz, “Strange Woman” (2017)
    This stand-out track from Bates’ album of the same name features a group of brilliant underground rappers who defy heteronormative expectations and spit bars that convey the freedom and power of being a “strange woman.”
  4. Childish Gambino, “This is America” (2018)
    Already recognized as a masterpiece, and the video demands multiple viewings.
  5. BL Shirelle, “God Bless” (2019)
    The only track on BL Shirelle’s second album Restricted Movement II where she doesn’t go hard, but instead appeals for some grace to get-through the present. Her struggle and appeal are both more contentious and realistic than what I hear in Kanye’s turn to Jesus.

Brian Soucek

Brian Soucek is a philosopher of art and professor of law at UC Davis.
You can vote for him this month in the ASA Trustees election,
if you don’t hold his music taste against him.

The Decade’s Top Christmas Songs

My partner controls the music in our household for eleven months of the year. But from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas, the stereo belongs to me and only holiday music gets played. Here is the best of it from the 2010s.

  1. Annie Lennox, Lullay Lullay (A Christmas Cornucopia, 2010)
    Why are Annie Lennox and a choir of African children YELLING AT ME during Christmastime? Is this just another kooky choice from an established legend, like Carole King’s Carol of the Bells, (from her perfectly titled “A Holiday Carole” of 2011)? No: Lennox is here to remind you that the Christmas Story is one of wrath, refugees, and infanticide. Lennox’s Lullay is Matthew 2:18’s voice of the mother, refusing to be comforted—at least until that Picardy third comes along.
  2. The Oh Hellos, The Oh Hellos’ Christmas Album (2013)
    Lullay Lullay returns here, but so does most every other religious Christmas song. This is a four-movement journey, and one of the truly great arrangements of recent times. I think this EP is my favorite thing on this whole list.
  3. Seth MacFarlane, Holiday for Swing! (2014)
    The main styles of Christmas music include choral, country, chipmunk, wispy hipster, pop, and my favorite: the big band/studio-singer-backed crooner style that Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby perfected. Michael Bublé gave it a respectable go in 2012’s “Christmas” (try his Blue Christmas), but Seth MacFarlane gets the style better than anyone living. If you’re annoyed that I’ve listed an album rather than a song (for the second time, I know!), just try The Man With the Bag, or, for pure lushness, Moonlight in Vermont. It isn’t really a Christmas song, but MacFarlane’s tone on the word ‘meadowlark’ before the big instrumental break will make you forget that he’s actually singing about summer in Vermont.
  4. Ariana Grande, Santa Tell Me (2014)
    Finally: a Christmas song actually written this decade! Ariana’s Santa Tell Me is basically a forward-thinking Last Christmas. Where Wham! dwelt on last year’s mistakes, vowing not to repeat them this Christmas, Ariana is making present holiday choices with a steady eye on the future. I’m not entirely sure what she’s talking about when she says she “can’t give it all away if he won’t be here / Next year,” though I’m happy to discuss it further in the Q&A. I will note that the only singer more future-focused than Ariana is Sia, whose public service announcement/original Christmas “hit” Puppies Are Forever is only one of the sui generis joys of her album “Everyday is Christmas.” (Also try Underneath the Mistletoe.)
  5. Sarah Bareilles, Love Is Christmas (2011)
    I’m not going to apologize for cheese, given that this is a list of Christmas music. We can’t spend the entire season thinking about King Herod’s murder of the innocents. This is the lullaby Lenox refused to give you: the song you want on to close down the night while admiring your tree. The aughts produced a slew of songs like this: Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s Winter Song, Brandi Carlile’s The Heartache Can Wait, SONOS’ cover of White Winter Hymnal, and Sufjan Stevens’ Sister Winter. But Love Is Christmas is their only truly worthy successor in the 2010s.

You may be wondering why Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects isn’t on my list. Although Jones performed it at the Macy’s parade in 2013 and rereleased it on “It’s a Holiday Soul Party” in 2015, the song actually dates back to 2009. But since Sharon Jones left us this decade, I’m including her Christmas legacy on my Spotify playlist anyway. (Amazing how fifteen songs ended up on my top five playlist.) Enjoy! 

Edited by Alex King

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