This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Picking one singular artist of the decade proved difficult, because so many genres shifted, careers launched, and sounds grew—and frankly, there were a whole handful of musicians you could make the case for. So we decided to talk about all of them. Click here to see all of Noisey's Artists of the Decade, and here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.
You know it when you hear it: Pounding drums, thrumming synths, an emotive lift into a chorus that sounds like homesickness and wanting to "escape this dead-end town, mom" all at once? It’s Jack Antonoff, bitch.
At the end of the 2010s, Antonoff’s name is one of the most recognisable in mainstream pop music production. Over the last ten years, he’s moved from producing his own music with the band fun. (remember "We Are Young"? Or, you know, don't) to working on some of the most seminal albums of the decade, with a number of prominent pop and rock artists – Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Kevin Abstract.
His distinctive, bombastic, Bruce Springsteen-influenced style has not avoided critique for sometimes feeling formulaic, or for supposedly drowning out the individuality of the artists he works with. But that's a lazy reading which focuses on the most well-known and radio-friendly parts of his catalog only. On closer listening, Antonoff’s full-length productions, like Melodrama, or Norman Fucking Rockwell! or even Taylor Swift’s Lover, are marked by how well they illuminate, or even expand, the main artist’s aesthetic, often resulting in a career highlight record. He is at his best when working across an entire record, and, indeed, what makes Jack Antonoff one of the most notable artists of the 2010s is his deep commitment to the album form.
In the last decade, streaming has become the primary method by which most people listen to music. In their 2019 poll of listening habits across 19 major markets, music industry body IFPI found that 89 percent of people now listen to music via on-demand streaming. The proliferation of Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play et al means that music is often discovered via suggestions made by a user's chosen app, or through playlists like Spotify's Discover Weekly or New Music Friday. And due to the user-friendliness and popularity of playlists, there's an implicit suggestion that the traditional album form is out of favour – in fact, a 2018 Noisey article which surveyed a random group of music fans basically indicated as much.
As a result, in the case of mainstream artists especially, though they still release proper albums, those albums are often structured more like playlists – 20 songs long, lots of different "sounds" – than the sort of self-contained thing you'd have listened to on a Walkman or bedroom CD player as a kid. The clearest example is probably Drake, who literally billed 2017's More Life as a playlist rather than a record. It's a smart way to adapt to streaming services, and such shifts are inevitable as listening habits change. At the same time, they feel like a sign of an industry moving ever closer towards the idea of music solely as an instantly-consumable commercial product, illustrated by records and records worth of one-and-done tracks that don't cohere with one another
Obviously it’s worth saying that there can be lots of positive and authentic reasons for the playlist-style album – Billie Eilish's debut record When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? ricochets between genres in an authentic reflection of her tastes. (Referring to her own music in an MTV interview earlier this year, she said: "I try now [to] just make sure it's not categorised [...] I don't know what I am.") But whatever the explanation for it, Jack Antonoff, works in direct opposition to the shift towards playlist-ification and has for years.
When I interviewed him in 2017, we discussed the album as a form. "I think it's so sad and disappointing – and it happens a lot lately – where it doesn't sound like an album, it sounds like 12 songs trying to be singles," he said. "I always think about [making a record] like a house. You need your front door, you need your basement, it needs all these different layers to it." He continued, "When you make an album, it should be this perfect documentary of yourself in that time period. As convenient as streaming is – so I can go, oh I wanna listen to X, Y, Z right now – it also, kind of takes the pleasure out of listening to an album."
Antonoff is certainly not an albums-only producer. He has worked on standalone tracks with Fifth Harmony, Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sia, Zayn, How to Dress Well, Banks, Taylor Swift, and Troye Sivan. Via his work on singles, his proclivity for a swollen, euphoric chorus has had a big impact on mainstream pop in the last decade. But it's on albums where he is at his most perceptive and effective. Frequently, he helps prove the worth of LPs – the opportunities that they provide for explorations of an artist's self, and the fact that a tightly structured record is an emotional journey like little else.
His production and co-songwriting on Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! (widely accepted as one of the two best records of her decade-long career) for example, gave Del Rey’s haunting voice the most space to breathe it's had since "Video Games," and his appreciation for simple, classic chord progressions, which match Del Rey's own, results in moments of utter timelessness (listen to "Love Song" and try to keep it together.) He provides the sonic expansiveness that Del Rey’s lyrics, all California and tall grass, gesture towards.
On Lorde’s Melodrama, he helps to craft a clear, painstakingly realised trip from heartbreak to acceptance – a traditionalist break-up album coloured by Lorde’s contemporary perspective – while on Taylor Swift’s Lover, one of his most recent projects, he strikes a smart balance between the rootsy Swift that diehard fans love, and the giant, laser-eyed popstar she has become. The opportunity for an artist to craft a complex story over a number of songs – and for listeners to experience that in full, rather than a song here and there – is one that he is clearly passionate about, and which remains important more broadly.
Though critics sometimes bemoan Antonoff’s omnipresence, his popularity as a producer won’t wane any time soon. That's because of all the pop producers currently working, he reveres the album as a whole entity rather than the mere sum of its parts. That's increasingly rare. Antonoff's popularity among artists of all stripes from Carly Rae Jepsen to Kevin Abstract proves that there's still keen interest in making full, nuanced albums for albums’ own sake, As we no doubt zoom further into the guts of late-stage capitalism over the next decade, approaches like Jack Antonoff's, especially from within mainstream music, will be necessary. Let’s hope that they are also more common.