ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: alt-J’s ‘An Awesome Wave’

MMC Writers reflect on their favorite records of the 2010s.

Nothing and nobody sounds like alt-J. When they burst onto the scene with their Mercury Prize-winning 2012 debut, An Awesome Wave, they were here to shake things up.

For lack of a better description, the English folktronica outfit combines warped choir boy vocals with intense, lengthy pedal tones, and other math rock tricks. They rarely follow standard song structures, reveling in leaving the listener momentarily disoriented, and yet the underlying pop melodies make it instantly dissolvable and completely transfixing.

The sweetest moment in the whole album can be found on “Dissolve Me,” when, after a brief intro, the most intense bassline of the 2010s interrupts the keyboards. Later in the track, as you’re anticipating that bass to come back, the vocals hold an uncomfortable harmony for a beat too long, before releasing again into a euphoric freakout. It’s an intense experience, if only for a second, and similar moments of drama playfully titillate your heart and mind throughout the album.

The band’s name comes from the keyboard combination to produce a delta sign—a triangle—and in “Tessellate” singer Joe Newman, never one to shy away from unusual lyrics, croons “Triangles are my favorite shape.”

Once you know the lyrics, you can try to sing along with alt-J, but the unusual vocal harmonies certainly don’t make it easy for you. Similarly, you’ll have a hard time dancing to its alternating time signatures and unexpected refrains.

Rather than trying to participate, An Awesome Wave is best experienced by completely giving yourself away to its awesome powers.