The last decade has given America its fair share of bona fide British stars, from Harry Styles to Adele to The 1975. But what about those acts who mainstream international success eluded? Apple Music DJ Matt Wilkinson, who hosts a daily Beats 1 show broadcasting out of London, is a self-confessed new music obsessive. Here, he shines a light on ten of the best ‘lost’ UK albums of the past ten years, taking in everything from grime to punk to jazz.
There’s always great music coming out of the U.K. I know that because I live here, I see it live, and I hear it every day of my life. It might not necessarily always be the most successful or accessible music around, and you might have to look a little harder for it sometimes, but it’s always there.
Below are my picks of the best “lost” U.K. albums of the past ten years. “Lost” in this case means either a) massively forgotten about, b) hugely undersold, c) cruelly ignored outside of its home scene or d) barely registering anywhere outside of the people of made it. But take my word for it – all of these records are brilliant. Many of them would probably make the cut in my overall best of the decade list, too.
It’s a varied bunch, from young kids barely out of school learning their instruments as they fumble their way around the studio for the first time, to jazz and metal visionaries coming of age, to hometown rap heroes who for some reason never found the same success across the pond as they did here in Blighty. Enjoy them.
Wu Lyf, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (2010)
Full disclosure: I threw the brief for this article out to some friends to see what they thought should go in it — a few people from the music industry, a few not. Literally everybody came back saying this album had to make the cut. I was pleased about that, as it was top of my list too.
On the one hand Wu Lyf were proof that too much hype early on kills a band, but on the other… their only full album still stands up so brilliantly. Reverb-drenched, rich in melody and desperate to cut against the grain, the Manchester fourpiece’s greatest achievement was that they proved you didn’t have to be backwards-looking as a band in the 2010s, or subscribe to benign retrogression to make something genuinely powerful with guitars. They’re much missed.
Dean Blunt, Black Metal (2014)
Dean Blunt as an artist could almost rival Banksy in terms of obfuscation, and that’s gotta both irk and impress him. To be clear, this is a man who once filled a London venue with so much dry-ice during a gig that a passing fire brigade thought the place was ablaze. This is a man who attempted to sell a toy car stuffed full of weed on eBay, and who put on an art show featuring just one exhibit — a stock photo of a woman drinking a cup of tea.
Yet, away from all the “perennial prankster” headlines, the MUSIC of the most elusive and transitory London figure of the past decade cannot be underestimated. His albums The Redeemer, Soul on Fire and especially Black Metal might have seemed utterly chaotic at first, veering from reverb-drenched Smashing Pumpkins samples to dense, red raw industrial beats, and to meandering folk, but there was a very serious sense of bitter beauty dotted throughout. England was split clean in two this decade, the damning and beleaguered on one side, the acutely aware on the other. Dean’s greatest achievement was that he seemed to have his eye on all of it.
Tirzah, Devotion (2018)
It’s weird how so many reviews for this record jumped on it for being ‘minimalist’. To me, Devotion was something else entirely: these lilting R&B songs were layered in the same way that Prince might have approached a track like “The Cross.” While some of Devotion might have sounded almost childlike in its simplicity (“Gladly” even has some school bells halfway through), there’s nothing at all rudimentary about the way Tirzah wrote her brooding, extraordinarily intimate music.
Goat Girl, Goat Girl (2018)
Another example of a British band who, on their debut album, actively ignored whatever had come before them. Goat Girl was a brilliant record because it sounded so honest: here were a band of London teenagers who got signed straight out of the rehearsal room, warts and all, and didn’t even pause to consider what rules and regulations might usually get thrown at other people in their position. Songs like “I’m the Man” and “Country Sleaze” still sound like they’re fresh out the traps today.
Kero Kero Bonito, Intro Bonito (2013)
Hailing from the same south London suburb as David Bowie and Siouxsie Sioux (Bromley), school friends Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled found their singer, Japanese computer graduate Sarah Midori Perry, via an Internet forum for ex-pats. Their 2013 mixtape, Intro Bonito, sounded wildly left-of-center upon release — which is funny, because nowadays it fits right in. Part ’90s pop sheen (think Saint Etienne at their most bubblegum), part chiptune cutesy-overload, and part PC Music precursor, its power lay in its endless array of top line melodies. Surely Charli XCX was listening and taking notes.
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Blood Lust (2011)
I seem to be talking a lot about artists’ refusal to look back in this list, so let’s change all that. Blood Lust was pure homage to primetime Black Sabbath, and was all the better for it. Riff-heavy, groove-heavy and Discogs pricetag-heavy — at one point early pressings of the vinyl were going for around £1000 — Uncle Acid and his buddies simply put the melody back into British metal.
Various Artists, We Out Here (2018)
An essential compilation of the great and really great mainplayers of the current UK jazz scene. Curated by Shakaba Hutchings of The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet, and released on Gilles Peterson’s label Brownswood Recordings, here we had key tracks by Moses Boyd, Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Ezra Collective and more – all boundary pushers, all variously riffing off jungle, grime, rock, trap, club, afrobeat and more. They, and this album, made UK jazz the most vibrant, forward-thinking and mainstream it’s been since the 1980s.
The Amazing Snakeheads, Amphetamine Ballads (2014)
One of the saddest rabble-rousers of the past decade came from this Glasgow threepiece. Tunes like “Memories” and “Here It Comes Again” evoked lost post-punk bands like Scars and Candyskins, but with an angry, ugly snarl courtesy of singer Dale Barclay at the center of everything. Rarely had a frontperson been so thrilling while sounding so vitriolic towards his audience.
Dale’s vocals were something else: the slow drip-drip of pain and frustration that most kids in British bands feel at some point, except he’d somehow carried it into his adult life and remained 100% convincing when singing lines like “I’m a soulsucker, I’m here to suck your soul” (“Nighttime”). He was the real deal, basically, and his death in 2018 of brain cancer was an immense, weighty loss for British music.
Kano, Made in the Manor (2016)
I’m guessing most U.S. readers of a certain age will be well aware of Kano now, if not for his latest record Hoodies All Summer then because of his role in Netflix’s Top Boy. But you’ve gotta delve deeper into his earlier records. 2016’s Made in the Manor was a sizeable hit in the U.K., released a decade after his ascent to the big-time over here as one of grime’s elder statesmen. But it didn’t make a dent on the U.S. charts. A shame, because its exploration into London’s yin/yang mentality — that age old ability to make or break you — had a vibrancy and freshness that most rival artists could only dream of. Manor was, at its heart, a wide-eyed, bittersweet soul record, full of yearning, power and reflection.
Childhood, Universal High (2017)
Speaking of bittersweet soul… Perhaps feeling shackled when they were cast as indie also-rans after the release of their debut album Lacuna, London four-piece Childhood decamped to Atlanta to record its follow-up. Which is funny, because this record didn’t really sound Georgian at all. Rather, singer Ben Romans-Hopcraft’s masterstroke was to dive headfirst into his parents record collection, scooping up their old 45s as if they were plastic gold. 70s Brit funks Cymande were a key reference point, as was Blue Note legend Bobbi Humphrey, with songs like “Too Old For My Tears” and “Californian Light” proving that vindication could be a wonderful thing.