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Tame Impala Is the Artist of the Decade

Kevin Parker's project might not be the biggest rock act in the world—or even the best—but he defined the sound of the 2010s more than any of his peers did.

by Josh Terry
Nov 7 2019, 12:00pm

Illustration by Alex Jenkins; original photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images


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.


The 2010s were the decade when the walls between underground music and the mainstream almost completely dissolved. In 2012, Solange enlisted Dev Hynes—aka Blood Orange—for her breakout 2012 single "Losing You," a track that originally came out on Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor's label, Terrible Records. For 2016's Lemonade, her sister Beyoncé enlisted Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty to write "Hold Up," just one example of the many smaller artists that contributed in some way to her record. Also that year, bedroom-rock outsider (Sandy) Alex G contributed guitars on Frank Ocean's Endless and Blonde, as well as played in his live band. Genre hierarchies blurred, and collective music taste became more omnivorous thanks to the convenience of streaming platforms; there are very few people who came of age in the 2010s who listened to just one genre. These days, no one would be shocked if the world's most recognizable rapper and pop star attended a Grizzly Bear show—which, in 2009, was blog-worthy news.

No artist captured how genres cross-pollinated throughout the 2010s better than Tame Impala, the psych-rock project from Australian Kevin Parker. Tame Impala released three albums this decade (with another on the way in 2020), all of which highlight his clear (and thrilling) progression as a songwriter. Though Tame Impala is a full band live, Parker writes, records, and produces everything on the albums. It was both natural and exhilarating when he developed his crunchy, guitar-driven heaters on 2010's Innerspeaker into the widescreen, kaleidoscopic pop of 2012's Lonerism. 2015's Currents was even more of a left turn, featuring shimmering synths and other touchstones of 80s funk. But as Parker has evolved, he's still kept his sonic DNA intact. For Tame Impala, song titles like "Yes I'm Changing" are part of the deal.

It's because of how Parker's music has grown without losing its core magnetism that Tame Impala's songs have been covered by Rihanna; that Parker has worked with artists like Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Mark Ronson, and Lady Gaga; and that the project has been commercially successful enough to headline Coachella and appear on Saturday Night Live—all of which would have been virtually unheard of for a psych-rock artist prior to this time period. Even when genre peers The Flaming Lips played SNL, they were there with pop superstar Miley Cyrus; no one else has come close to Tame Impala's level.

In the age of streaming and the big-box festival bubble, Parker's discography seems factory-made for both a crowd of thousands and a chill night alone with a vibe-heavy playlist. Tame Impala might not be the biggest rock act in the world, or even the best, but his music embodies the technology-driven sense of loneliness of this decade better than any of his peers. When Parker sings lines like “I just don’t know where the hell I belong" on Lonerism cut “Mind Mischief,” he compellingly speaks to alienation even as his sprawling, hazy psych arrangements are ready-made for smoking weed in a van en route to Joshua Tree. Parker's stadium-ready sensibilities allow his lyrical themes of confusion, ambivalence, and regret to feel not only digestible, but totally immersive despite their complicated emotions. Unlike other commercially successful and radio-ready rock acts of the 2010s like Imagine Dragons or Mumford and Sons, Tame Impala has a sense of effortlessness that has imbued each album with an undeniable, critic-proof strength. More importantly, the progression between these albums has anticipated trends instead of chasing them.

Parker's unlikely rise into the mainstream is almost as fascinating as his songwriting. Raised in Fremantle, Australia, a city just outside Perth, Parker describes in a recent Rolling Stone interview being a “sensitive kid. I liked being on my own, playing video games, exploring on my bike. I didn’t watch violent movies—those were too intense. Maybe because I didn’t have that solid foundation beneath me.” When he started making music, his solitary nature continued.

Tame Impala's debut 2010's Innerspeaker highlighted his perfectionism in the studio. The album's mesmerizing, fractal grooves are propulsive; its guitar tones are layered in overdubs and wonky effects, and Parker's gentle but piercing voice perfectly cuts into the mix. Tracks like the aptly named "Solitude Is Bliss" evoked Parker's creative and personal mantra. While reverential to acts like Dungen, The Kinks, and The Flaming Lips, the LP didn't just rely on riffs and kooky lyrics, which would risk rendering Tame Impala as the cool kid's Wolfmother. Instead, that understated confidence and blend of intimacy and anthemic sensibilities won over fans like pop Svengali Mark Ronson.

But 2012's Lonerism was Tame Impala's true breakout. Parker told Pitchfork that the LP, while true to form, was also a time to "experiment and completely indulge" in "pop melodies and pop chord progressions." Songs like "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" have indelible, massive choruses that catapulted Parker's swirling soundscapes to another level. The track was such a success that Kendrick Lamar freestyled over it on the Divergent soundtrack. The LP didn't just impress with its palatable, infectious melodies; it also possessed some really fascinating songwriting: Synths and guitars blur into one another, and Parker's multi-tracked voice is washed to almost extraterrestrial levels in echo and reverb.

Other big rock acts of the early 21st century, like Jack White or Greta Van Fleet, have relied on harkening back to rock's past, but Tame Impala's music has always felt like the future. It hits the sweet spot of stylistically referencing, say, The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" without ever feeling overly derivative. Around the time of Lonerism's release, Parker met Mark Ronson (who Parker described to Pitchfork in 2012 as "this cool, sharply dressed producer guy"), then contributed vocals and writing for three songs on Ronson's 2015 LP Uptown Special. While Parker flirted with pop sensibilities on his earliest LPs, his friendship and collaborations with Ronson—who, at the time, had already won Grammys for his production work with Amy Winehouse on Back To Black—offered a real gateway into that world.

2015's Currents leans even more into ambitious pop and synth-heavy song structures, perhaps influenced by his time working with Ronson, who has drawn from pop icons of yesteryear like Michael Jackson and Prince for his own work. Single "The Less I Know the Better" (which currently has nearly 400,000,000 streams on Spotify alone) boasts a moonwalking funk bassline. But while it has massive earworm crossover appeal, Currents really thrives in its more experimental moments. Just take opener "Let It Happen" (arguably the best song Parker's ever written), which sprawls across seven epic minutes.

Another song on that record, "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," caught Rihanna's ear when, according to Parker, she was in the studio with Kendrick Lamar. SZA, who was also at the recording session, recommended Tame Impala to Rihanna, who later performed a faithful cover of the song on her landmark 2016 LP ANTI, albeit under a slightly shortened name: "Same Ol' Mistakes." Parker said of the rendition, "Context is everything. You can take a song that was on a psychedelic rock album and put it on a Rihanna album… It doesn't necessarily not fit just because they’re from two different worlds." Tame Impala's music is so widely compelling because it's so malleable and effective in different contexts. Parker realizes this, too, as he's parlayed the Rihanna cosign into recent writing and producing gigs with Lady Gaga, Travis Scott, Camila Cabello, and more.

As Tame Impala preps their next LP The Slow Rush, which already has three house-minded singles in "Borderline," "Patience," and the just-released "It Might Be Time," Parker promises to get even more deep into his eclectic influences. And considering that this year Tame Impala has already headlined several major festivals, he'll likely only continue to ascend.

Back in 2009, after he saw Grizzly Bear perform, Jay Z told MTV, "[Indie rock] will push rap, it will push hip-hop to go even further—what the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring." While that was an apt prediction, the reverse is also true: The collaborative relationship between these genres made indie rock more interesting, too. And Tame Impala did it more successfully than anyone else.

Tagged:
rock
tame impala
Psych-Rock
Kevin Parker
best of the decade
Artist of the Decade