00s centralized around modern Indie Rock and the suburban popularization of Hip-Hop, the 10s rode a strange spiral through Alternative R&B, Rap's experimental phase, Industrialized-Folk and a "great awokening" in Pop. We entered the decade with Kanye bringing Hip-Hop to its absolute maximum and Drake allowing us to get in our feelings. Beach House took us to the absolute peak of Dream Pop, and Frank Ocean showed us just how introspective and unidentifiable Pop can really be. When we exited the decade, Rap had been largely dominated by Trap and young stars, experimentalism had finally filtered itself in small increments into just about every genre, and streaming had dramatically changed how we consumed the album format from then on.
10s may not have reached the peaks quite like say the 60s or 90s, music had perhaps never been as confrontational. Artists weren't pretending as much anymore. In order to be a Pop star you had to take a stand on something. Audiences of both music and brands at large became completely conscious of what they were consuming, it was no longer about the product alone. Listeners were now able to ask what is the artist doing in their private life. Compare the best music from the 10s with say, the 80s and you'll begin to see the inner morals of Punk had made itself apparent to pretty much all genres.
I have my own inherent biases in making a list like this. For one, I gravitate extremely toward experimental music or music that at least has those tendencies. If the music takes risks toward the progression of sound and what's being said, I favor it much more over any top 50 hits.
DISCLAIMER -- this list does not really include Punk/Hardcore/Metal because I don't believe my knowledge of those genres is strong enough, and I wouldn't know how to curate my best albums from them – I rather leave that task to someone who does know and actively listens to them. But here's my personal list, 100-1.
The Titling system goes as follows: Rank. Artist - Album (Year)
100. U.S. Girls - In a Poem Unlimited (2017)
99. Julia Holter - Aviary (2018)
98. Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (2014)
97. Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy (2017)
96. Soccer Mommy - Clean (2011)
95. Mac Demarco - 2 (2012)
94. Vampire Weekend - Contra (2010)
93. JAY Z - 4:44 (2017)
92. Yves Tumor - Serpent Music (2016)
91. James Blake - James Blake (2011)
90. Weyes Blood - Titanic Rising (2019)
89. Sampha - Process (2017)
88. Young Thug - Barter 6 (2015)
87. Haim - Days Are Gone (2013)
86. Destroyer - Kaputt (2011)
85. Kids See Ghosts - Kids See Ghosts (2018)
84. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream (2012)
83. Grouper - Ruins (2014)
82. Father John Misty - Fear Fun (2012)
81. Drake - Take Care (2011)
80. Bjork - Vulnicura (2015)
79. Nicolas Jaar - Space is Only Noise (2011)
78. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe (2013)
77. Playboi Carti - Die Lit (2018)
76. Car Seat Headrest - Twin Fantasy (2018)
75. Angel Olsen - My Woman (2016)
74. (Sandy) Alex G - House of Sugar (2019)
73. David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)
72. Skee Mask - Compro (2018)
71. Mitski - Be the Cowboy (2018)
70. Kelela - Take Me Apart (2017)
69. Miguel - Wildheart (2015)
68. Fleet Foxes - Crack Up (2017)
67. Nicolas Jaar - Sirens (2016)
66. Lorde - Melodrama (2017)
65. Sharon Van Etten - Remind Me Tomorrow (2019)
64. Brittany Howard - Jaime (2018)
63. Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch (2018)
62. Thundercat - "Drunk" (2017)
61. Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch (2016)
60. Robyn - Honey (2018)
59. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (2011)
58. Twin Shadow - Forget (2010)
57. Beach House - 7 (2018)
56. Grimes - Art Angels (2015)
55. Daughters - You Won't Get What You Want (2018)
54. Nick Cave - Skeleton Tree (2016)
53. The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships (2018)
52. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour (2018)
51. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (2016)
50. Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe (2013)
49. Twin Shadow - Confess (2012)
48. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo (2016)
47. Big Thief - UFOF (2019)
46. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (2011)
45. FKA Twigs - LP1 (2014)
44. Julia Holter - Have You in My Wilderness (2015)
43. Snail Mail - Lush (2018)
42. Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)
41. Mac Demarco - Salad Days (2014)
40. Against All Logic - 2012–2017 (2018)
39. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Pinata (2014)
38. Blood Orange - Freetown Sound (2016)
37. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (2010)
36. Jai Paul - Bait Ones (2013)
In 2013, when a collection of demos and rough takes credited to Jai Paul went up for sale on Bandcamp without his involvement or approval, it pushed the already reclusive pop-soul artist even more into the fringes. For almost seven years, he was mostly silent, aside from contributing one guest feature and working behind-the-scenes with his artistic think tank the Paul Institute. But then he re-materialized in 2019 with new music, a formal release of the leaked material, and a note to fans describing the “complete shock” and subsequent emotional fallout of the experience.
Spanning a nine-year creative period,
Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) remains an appealingly unpolished, timeless capsule of shaggy beat experiments, space-age funk workouts, and the limber, Bollywood-sampling “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” a gleaming pop highlight that tamped out the one-hit-wonder debate that had hovered around Paul after his breakthrough hit “BTSTU.” What already felt beamed in from a thrilling, genre-agnostic future at the onset of the 2010s was given a deserved revisit and reality check by the end of the decade.
35. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (2017)
DAMN. is as zealous and purposeful as it is broadly appealing. The record is rangy and radio-friendly, sacred and secular, full of evocative scene-setting and risk-taking. Kendrick’s more complex ideas get pared down without losing impact, flexed in his most digestible storytelling yet. Scripture becomes song on DAMN., where Deuteronomy and the curses of disobedience inform paranoid musings and philosophical debates. The fame monster has been eating away at his spirituality again, but this time he returns to the source: God.
These are the tension-filled tales of a self-professed sinner, reborn but not yet redeemed, chasing divine favor and freedom. On “HUMBLE.,” he tries to induce meekness; “LUST.” considers the monotony of materialism; and “LOVE.” longs to find beauty in a depraved world, and in others. The pressures of being a missionary and emancipator crash onto the rapper’s very human shoulders on “FEEL.”: “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em/But who the fuck prayin’ for me?” When he takes the wider view to his community, his rhymes burst with urgency. “See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches/I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison,” he raps on “PRIDE.,” where paradise can be found in self-actualization. “I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service/Just to tell ’em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect.”
Throughout, Kendrick’s inner war rages on, as he dares to expose grim realities while questioning his place in them, and in the next world. He wonders aloud how to be a good Samaritan, a rap king, and a savior; how to savor both the pleasures of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. But Kendrick’s kingdom is here on Earth, as he takes his rightful place before the altar and on the rap throne, humbling many of his peers in the process. The hymns and prayers are for Him, but the preternatural raps are for us.
34. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (2011)
The making of Fleet Foxes’ second album was fraught, due in no small part to the success of their first. Robin Pecknold and co. wondered how to trust their instincts without leaning on formula, and fretted about the reception that awaited their new music. These worries form a backdrop for
Helplessness Blues, the unmistakable work of uneasy hearts. Starting with the scene-setting intonation that opens the record (“So now I am older”), Pecknold’s melancholy tenor heralded a decade of discourse about millennial anxiety. He paints an indelible portrait of fading young-adulthood—diverging from the path set by parents, searching for place and purpose, falling out of relationships that have dried up. Above all, Pecknold questions his ability—and will—to be anything other than, as he describes it on the title track, “a functioning cog in some great machinery.” These complicated fears offer a foil to the swollen sound that envelopes them. Fleet Foxes’ maximalist folk, with harmonies stacked high as mountains and reverb that could fill caverns, makes feeling small seem epic.
33. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Modern Vampires of the City was the moment when Vampire Weekend stopped knowing everything. Ezra Koenig turned his gaze from mansard roofs and diplomats’ children to wonder aloud about God and the nature of existence. Rostam Batmanglij, now working with producer Ariel Rechtshaid, crafted his most sentimental, stirring music yet. “If I can’t trust you then dammit, Hannah/There’s no future, there’s no answer,” Koenig sings softly on “Hannah Hunt,” interrogating a relationship in novelistic detail, winking toward hopelessness while suggesting that all the universe’s truths can be contained in a single love affair. Later, on “Ya Hey,” Koenig confronts God, asking how He could remain silent in a rotten world. Again, he seems to know the answer: There’s never an answer.
32. Mitski - Puberty 2 (2016)
After the majestic ballads and clear-eyed heartache of her third album,
Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski returned with a louder and gnarlier indie-rock record rife with distortion and thrashing guitar riffs. Hurt still radiates from its pores, but so does the sound of struggle. Here, Mitski is experiencing a second coming-of-age, a metamorphosis from young woman into adult. She is grappling with how the world sees her and who she wants to be in it. On “Thursday Girl,” she sounds lost in existential angst as she searches for someone to “please tell me no.” And on the album centerpiece “Your Best American Girl,” she struggles with a lingering sense of shame about her upbringing and what it means to feel fully American and fully worthy of love.
31. Beach House - Teen Dream (2010)
Beach House are nothing if not devoted to a mood. On their first two records, that atmosphere was one of lo-fi wistfulness, but on
Teen Dream, the Baltimore duo amplified their dream pop to the logical next step: grandiose, sweeping songs that are more My Bloody Valentine than Mazzy Star. It’s the sound of a band pulling back the veil of composure and unleashing the emotional intensity that has long been bubbling beneath the surface. Teen Dream is less an ode to adolescent nostalgia as it is a tribute to a lost feeling of passion: With Alex Scally’s guitar swelling to imperial heights and Victoria Legrand’s voice reaching new depths, euphoria bursts from every note. As Legrand chants “it is happening again” on “Silver Soul,” the urgency of her voice commands you to hold on tight to this rapture for as long as you can, because losing it would be devastating.
30. Disclosure - Settle (2013)
Settle showcases the good things about Pop - great hooks and irresistible grooves. On paper, the lyricism and structures seem nothing surprising, but Disclosure's supernatural ability to create iconic beats and utilize British-House influence. While Sam Smith, Jessie Ware and countless others were recruited to help pour life into the music Disclosure had assembled, their masterful performances all still feel as just underpieces to Disclosure's vision. While EDM was blowing up predictable, dumb, template music, Disclosure was busy creating a new wave and platform for artists to follow, and also making dance music that mattered.
29. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach (2010)
At its peaks-- the blissfully tense electro-funk of "Stylo", the longing pop-house of "On Melancholy Hill", the title track's Morricone-meets-Moroder spaghetti western new wave--
Plastic Beach provides the thrills of hooky, well-crafted pop with a feeling of baroque dejection. And its sleek production is craftily undercut with a cast of voices that mutter wearily (Mark E. Smith on "Glitter Freeze"; Lou Reed on "Some Kind of Nature"), belt heartachingly (Bobby Womack on "Stylo" and "Cloud of Unknowing"), lonesomely serenade (Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano on "Empire Ants" and "To Binge")-- or, as Albarn does more compellingly than he has in ages, wail with a haunting ennui
28. Tame Impala - Lonerism (2012)
At its core,
Lonerism is a tightly wound, deeply internal album about what it means to always feel like an outsider. That it gained such a huge following and catapulted Tame Impala into the mainstream is ironic, but not surprising. Throughout the record, classic rock tropes are updated with reverence, memorable riffs are tossed off like they’re in endless supply, and moments of bliss allow for at least an illusion of catharsis: The tongue-in-cheek single “Elephant” is so sure of itself that it practically swaggers, while “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is built around blown-out cymbals and a communal hook that happens to be all about frontman Kevin Parker’s own indecision and dashed hopes. If there’s one idea to take away from Tame Impala’s second album, though, it’s that everything repeats itself and nothing is ever really in our control. Frustration never sounded so good.
27. Grimes - Visions (2012)
Grimes is the embodiment of a millenial artist -- she uses any creative platform she is capable of to get her vision across, especially if its a combination of every medium. She creates music, visual art, fashion, character portrayal and video to supplement her albums, and does it all in a way so that it doesn't just add to the vast waste pile of objects and art we see in the digital age.
, while not as flamboyant as Visions Art Angels, is Grimes hitting her stride as a musician and contains her most important music, and some of the most important songs electronic music has ever had. "Genesis" opens with bouncing synths and is one of the most recognizable riffs of the decade, with her voice floating over jarring production throughout the entire album. "Oblivion" is her grand statement as a survivor of sexual assault, crooning "someone could break your neck coming up behind you" like an apparition. Its almost hard to believe she's saying that, considering she does it so playfully.
Visions, Grimes is creating Experimental music that actually puts meaning into the meaningless era of EDM, where for others lyrics were such an after thought to production. Grimes takes the work of her influences such as Burial and Trent Reznor and created probably the best work of Electronic music of the decade while fusing Goth, industrial and other genres. Visions is equal parts accessible and brilliant, and Grimes is the most refreshing star considering she only wants to do everything herself - no help, no guests, no clout. Just her. And it couldn't be better.
26. Jamie XX - In Colour (2015)
Hearing In Colour feels like listening to the dissection of a heartbeat—skittering anxieties mirrored in the snares, the warm glow of love reflected in steel drums, camaraderie sampled via musical voices of the past.
By the time the record came out in 2015, Jamie Smith had already made two LPs with the xx, remixed an album by the legendary musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron (later loaning a sample from the project to Drake for a Top 10 hit), and released a solo track called “All Under One Roof Raving” about the communal ethos of the UK underground. He was a dance music enthusiast who didn’t really enjoy drugs, a loner who frequented London’s famous Plastic People nightclub by himself, a kid who watched UK garage documentaries on tour when he was homesick. In Colour was the result of his self-directed club education, a collection of influences—’90s jungle, swaggy doo-wop, the exaltation of trance, and the tension of two-step—that were reverent of the past but wary of nostalgia. It’s the sound of longing and loneliness mixed with the joyful relief of discovering that you’ve been among friends all along.
25. Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs (2018)
When Earl was making music while still being associated with Odd Future, it was merely derivative of the group's sound - sludgy beats with edgy lyricism, with some cringey-offensive lines that never hit quite as hard as they did on
Yonkers. But with Some Rap Songs, Sweatshirt is taking a sort of re-debut, and this time he ascends to a completely different playing field than his peers. He raps over complicated and gestural beats that sound as if they were taken directly from J-Dilla's Donuts sessions, sometimes rhyming in a slightly-off tempo. Actually, upon first listen, all of Some Rap Songs seems like a completely rough and gestural work, unrefined and without a hook in sight. But with more focused listening, Earl has actually done something spectacular and relatively groundbreaking in the rap space - a full length exploration of overcoming depression and analyzing the leaps he had along the way.
"Bend, we dont break", "Two Years I was missin living life", "Fingers on my soul, this is 23" -
Some Rap Songs is chuck full of one-liners that force you to reflect on how your own depression and struggle has affected you, and the people that helped you on the journey. Some Rap Songs is Earl's tale of how he overcame his deep depression, evolving from the dark, isolating music of his past to an intensely mature and optimistic effort that sounds boundless. Most importantly, Some Rap Songs is unified and consistent in its themes, and the lyricism is incredibly strong. Lines such as "there's not a Black Woman I can't thank" resonate endlessly
24. Swans - The Seer (2012)
Michael Gira is the perfect example of "do whatever you want, and don't care what others think." For over 30 years, Gira and Swans were creating brutal, exhausting music that didn't catch too many people's attention, and never really sold out shows in the states. It wasn't until
The Seer and its trilogy including To Be Kind and The Glowing Man that Swans finally caught their big break and universal respect. Out of the Trilogy, The Seer is perhaps simultaneously the darkest and the most uplifting, rewarding its listeners with beautiful passages after grueling, relentless chromatic repetitions.
If someone were to say
To Be Kind is the best album in Swans' trilogy, I wouldn't argue because it too is equally massive in scale and just as grueling. But what puts The Seer ahead for me is its reward system from top to bottom, the dark themes it establishes, and the beautiful ending to A Piece of the Sky. Gira's writing is so vivid and poetic, sounding like the rebirth of a goth Jim Morrison, but with more purpose and experience, chanting "On the skin of my eye, are you there?". Throughout the album, Gira is searching for something that might show him his existence, and he dives to the darkest depths of living Hell to find it.
23. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
"Carbon footprint, incest dreams, Fuck the mother in the green". Every time I introduce Father John Misty to someone, they are utterly confused considering its possible he might be a priest, he sounds like a cross of Elton John and The Band, has song titles like "Holy Shit" and starts singing lyrics like "Mascara, blood, ash and cum" out of absolutely no where. But what
I Love You, Honeybear proves is that even the most negative, most cynical, and self-isolating people can experience deep, astounding and never-ending love. Father John is one of the most talented and enigmatic song writers of the decade, writing as a modern version of Billy Joel or Elton John but with a SERIOUS modern twist that embraces the transparency and realism it requires to be a ballad writer in today's climate.
Misty knows that he is experiencing love, but what makes it so much more real and vivid is that he is experiencing it against all odds and doubts, proclaiming "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity, but What I fail to see is what that's gotta do, With you and me". While pop stars are constantly singing about their oh-so righteous love and being hypocrites about it, Father John Misty writes about love that we can actually believe in.
22. Beach House - Bloom (2012)
"Patiently" might be the operative word in explaining how Bloom became Beach House's first album to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart while so many near-contemporaries have faded from view. The differences here are significant enough to reward longtime fans without alienating listeners who might be just tuning in after hearing older material sampled by G-Side or the Weeknd. Victoria Legrand's lethal contralto and gothic organ playing, Alex Scally's side-winding guitar lines and simple drum programming-- both remain, joined by live drums, and burnished again by past producer Chris Coady. And yet, where 2010's Teen Dream added Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac and other styles to the post-Mazzy Star haze, Bloom billows out even further. Plea for remembrance "The Hours" alone spans from Abbey Road-like layered vocals to stadium-indie guitar chug. Ghost-ship waltz "On the Sea" brandishes viola.
Legrand's lyrics are often overlooked, but their impressionistic, fill-in-the-blanks way of expressing deep feeling is too fundamentally characteristic of the group's appeal to discount. On Bloom, her subject is often the ineffable itself-- "Help me to name it," she repeats, referring to "momentary bliss," on intoxicating opener "Myth"-- along with the one-of-a-kind, the ephemeral, and the sublime. Whether conveyed through visual details or cryptic fragments, these words enhance the mood the meticulously constructed music creates, a mood Beach House have been too smart to spoil by spelling out entirely.
21. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
After what felt like a sign of Radiohead's mortality with
King of Limbs, A Moon Shaped Pool found Radiohead back at their absolute best with a rejuvinated purpose and yet another huge transformation. Yorke's recent divorce most likely destroyed him, but the good news for us was that meant we were getting some very serious, melancholic, masterful doom-saying music just like the old days. A Moon Shaped Pool brought in loads of sharp strings mixed with condemning lyrics like on "Burn the Witch" and notably "Ful Stop", where Thom Yorke croons "You really messed up everything" amidst deep bass and muddy percussion. What Radiohead does best however is pulling together a beautiful melody among the deep sorrow, while maintaining huge complexities in how they arrange their music and the time signatures used. A Moon Shaped Pool helped solidify Radiohead's discography, and if they do choose to make it their finalé they can proudly rest as one of music's all time greatest acts.
20. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got it from Here... (2016)
For nearly 18 years, Tribe and Hip-Hop fans alike were waiting for the follow up to 1998's
The Love Movement. After that amount of time away from a project, its normal to think either a group wouldn't make anything else, or if they DID, it just simply wouldn't be that good anyway. But We Got it from Here... might be one of the best comebacks in Hip-Hop, because it not only smashed expectations, it can even go toe-to-toe with the top tier of Tribe's albums.
With the unfortunate news of Phife Dawg's death during the album,
We Got it from Here... is the perfect finalé to one of Hip-Hop's greatest acts. Q-Tip, Phife, Ali, Jarobi and some Busta Rhymes pour their greatest, most thoughtful verses from top to bottom, acting as Rap's now elders and sages, taking the wisest and most thought-provoking observations and showing the current generation how things are done. What makes We Got it from Here... even more interesting is its inclusion of Rap's lineage, bringing in historical icons such as Andre 3000, Kanye, Kendrick and even Jack White for guitar licks. This wasn't just a message from Tribe, but an entire time capsule from all of Hip-Hop's greatest pieces.
19. Bon Iver - 22, a Million (2016)
22, a Million is this decade's Kid A. What Radiohead did to Rock music, Justin Vernon is doing to folk music, simultaneously deconstructing it and morphing it into something completely and unbelievably different. While 22, a Million may not be quite as perfect as Kid A turned out to be, you can argue that 22 is possibly one of the more modern albums to ever be released because of its construction. Names are replaced by numbers, all acting as a reference points to how Vernon remembers moments in time. We are in an era of calculation, all marked by passwords and numbers and binary decision-making that we must take with us at all times.
But even though
22, a Million is Vernon's and perhaps all of folk's most experimental and intense albums, Vernon sounds more natural and clear than he ever has before once he is stripped back and out of his madness. Through this, 22 shows us the power of contrast in music and song sequencing, using songs that are highly conceptual and difficult such as 21 Moon Water and contrasting them with the cleansing and beautiful 8 (circle).
18. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, MAAD City (2012)
Section .80 was any indication that Kendrick Lamar had serious insight to how systems are run and affect everyone, MAAD City cements that he knows more about the real thing through living experience than most books could ever tell you. MAAD City even parodied how people live in their bubbles, with hits like "Swimming Pools" that mocked party culture, while becoming a party anthem. Example A nobody actually listens.
MAAD City also cemented Kendrick as one of the most prolific rappers ever, and certainly of our time, while writing about a grand journey of surviving an extraordinary life. While artists like Kanye and MF Doom were taking rap to more abstract places, Kendrick was returning the focus of rap to America's reality, while also taking experimental risks that paid off dividends.
17. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me (2010)
Joanna Newsom has called
Have One on Me her “early ’70s California singer-songwriter album”—and indeed, there are implicit references to Joni Mitchell and the smooth, layered arrangements of Laurel Canyon in centerpieces like “In California” and “Good Intentions Paving Co.” Her songwriting, newly direct here, often concerns falling in and out of love, drinking and dancing, leaving home and coming back. Among the most beautiful ballads in her catalog, “Baby Birch” pairs her harp with electric guitar to stark, almost confessional effect; it’s the rare Newsom composition that could be drawn from the traditional American songbook.
As the follow-up to 2006’s wildly ambitious Ys, even just the barroom title of Have One on Me seems to signal a more earthbound turn from a harpist who often composes with a full orchestra in mind. But through these songs, Newsom’s greatest asset remains the cosmic grandeur she brings to even the most familiar scenes. “You give love a little shove and it becomes terror,” she sings on “Soft as Chalk,” a quiet warning from a songwriter known to dissect the simplest truths until they turn mystical and strange.
16. Death Grips - The Money Store (2012)
That ringing sensation in your head from the crossed streams of cable news and political discourse? That’s
The Money Store. Every time you’re digitally assaulted by millions of loud voices creating nothing but noise? Pure, unadulterated The Money Store. Recorded (improbably) at the Chateau Marmont, and released (even more improbably) by the same label that puts out Mariah Carey and Meghan Trainor, Death Grips’ proper debut album captured the barking, unstoppable information overload of the 2010s in a burst of experimental rap and rock. It's a pure thrill to hear: throat-searing vocalist MC Ride, keyboardist Andy Morin, and drummer/producer Zach Hill assault the senses with blasted beats, brutally nonsensical sloganeering, and sour melodies that sound like squeezing a lemon onto a skinned knee.
15. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening (2010)
Before he entered the hibernation that was supposed to be his grand exit, LCD Soundsystem lifted up every last commandment James Murphy believed in: Get newly baptized under the disco ball, change who you are if it helps someone fall in love with you, never make a hit, take one last shot at your critics, then leave the stage forever.
This final album from the band—the story went—was full of stakes and climaxes and last-goodbyes. “It was a music of desperation,” Murphy once said of “All I Want,” the beating heart of the record, a song so stuffed with feeling it ends with Murphy crying, “Take me home." He sings again of home at the very end of the record, as if heaven or a wine-bar proprietorship calls him hither. Of course, in the real world, where LCD Soundsystem reunited and made another good album seven years later, the “take me home” motif now scans a little more like a drunk guy in the back of an Uber after a long night. The saga of
This Is Happening and the band’s final concert at Madison Square Garden fizzes in the mind like a dream, too cathartic and momentous to ever be real.
14. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange (2012)
Christopher Breaux began the decade as a recent transplant to Los Angeles who’d written a few minor songs for Justin Bieber and Brandy. He will end it as Frank Ocean, not just one of the most acclaimed musicians of his time but a trailblazer for artists’ autonomy and their freedom to express their sexuality. His legacy on the former was secured when he delivered one album to Def Jam and sold another immediately to Apple. The latter came years earlier when he published an open letter on Tumblr in which he came out as queer, one of the first men in R&B. and rap to do so. But the album that accompanied that letter, Channel Orange, was not crafted to echo what ended up becoming a major cultural moment.
Instead, Ocean’s studio debut is an unassuming, languid record; its drums shuffle along softly, cushioning Ocean's weightless vocals. It’s queer, too, in its own pure, nascent way: Across the span of an hour, Ocean slips into different narrative roles, including father, trust-funder, drug addict, Egyptian king, rock star. The act of inhabiting someone you are not is inherent to the queer experience; after all, pretending to be straight is nothing if not the assumption of a persona. Perhaps this informs Ocean’s richly observed characters, especially the subversive closer: On “Forrest Gump,” Ocean imagines himself within that movie’s universe, cheering on the well-meaning galoot playing running back. He sings of his fingertips and lips burning as he chain-smokes through his nerves, ending with a lilting outro—“Forrest green, Forrest blues/I’m remembering you/If this is love, I know it’s true/I won’t forget you”—that captures the peculiar, melancholic longing of the closet. His tenderness is unforgettable; even the second half of “Pyramids,” told from a pimp’s perspective, foregrounds the humanity of the woman who works for him. Channel Orange, above all, suggests the work of a profound empath, and in the seven years since its release, Ocean has shown himself to be nothing if not that.
13. Kanye West - Yeezus (2013)
Yeezus felt like a plot twist. After becoming music's biggest hitmaker, Kanye opens Yeezus with a synthesizer practically vomiting up acid, letting listeners know he wants this to smash any conventions you placed on him. Yeezus is easily Kanye's most divisive album, hanging on majorly provocative words like "God", "Slaves" and "apartheid" while using samples as complete interruptions rather than just woven textural pieces. Yeezus takes several listens to realize its clear consistencies and collective vision, using Dancehall classics, Industrial, Acid-House and the influence of some Death Grips to make an album that's on the fringes of explosion. But through this era of Kanye at his loudest and most boastful was actually him at his most insecure and distrustful, writing about his darkest tales and stories of collapsing around the relationships that were betraying him
Yeezus is a mountain. On all fronts, it is extraordinary risk-taking for an artist that had practically the largest fan base in the world. And for this reason, Yeezus is the final work that many needed to agree that he is the century's most important artist. Taking on the footsteps of Bowie and even Radiohead, Kanye used every album as an opportunity for a complete artist transformation. "As soon as they like you, make them unlike you." While bloated artists such as Drake and Beyonce were just making music that they think their listeners want to hear, Kanye is making art to elevate art itself, and for what he believes. He doesn't really give a shit what you want to hear, which is what makes music real.
12. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest (2010)
On their fifth album, Deerhunter linger in the dark recesses of the mind. Understated and insular, especially compared to the band’s previous avant-garde leanings, these songs shine a light on private pains: melancholy, rejection, repression. And yet many of
Halcyon Digest’s bleakest moments are also its brightest, which is in itself a statement on how difficult memories can shift into something more manageable. Full of lush textures and impressionistic details like “a dirty couch in the gray fog” and “the smell of loose-leaf joints on jeans,” Halcyon Digest watches memories get blown away by the sands of time yet never quite makes peace with mortality. Pushing forward this sense of impermanence, the closing track “He Would Have Laughed,” a seven-and-half minute tribute to the late rocker Jay Reatard, cuts out suddenly in the middle of a dreamy melody, a candle extinguished as quickly as life itself.
11. Sun Kil Moon - Benji (2014)
You may not have heard of Mark Kozelek, or his project Sun Kil Moon, but perhaps that's one of the things that makes his opus
Benji such a heartburn. There's no larger-than-life persona to tie down these songs, no mystical backstory or legendary fortune following the release. Someone dies in almost every single song on Benji, and the majority of these people's deaths are sudden and surprising. And within Mark's stream of consciousness - we get stories draped in authenticity.
I can't remember an album that seriously made me pause and reflect the way
Benji did. The immediate takeaways are bleak - death is always imminent, nothing is certain, life can definitely hurt. But the true pillars you can take from Benji are rather much more essential - the simplicity of your closest relationships (ie. I Can't Live Without my Mother's Love, Carissa) is much more important than you think, we are all unavoidably connected in some way, and if you are able to capture some experiences, you've been able to live.
Benji could've been practically made in any era. There's no ground-breaking sonics or production on display here, but Benji carries a level of importance most albums just never have. While Mark's writing would never reach this kind of peak again, there's something special in saving all these stories and emotional response all for one specific moment. Benji is less a work about death, but more of an album of the healing process in facing loss all around us.
10. Tame Impala - Currents (2015)
Kevin Parker might be one of the most gifted musicians of all time. He does literally everything. The only time he needs a band is when he's touring. But his one-man showmanship is beside the point -- this is Parker's effort to perfect music, and not many have gotten closer.
Currents is a heartbreak album, but the kind of heartbreak that can kill you; and just like the severity of its subject matter, the album's technicality, production, riff-writing and grandeur is equally as serious.
Currents goes from songs in the largest possible scale and magnitude to bedroom pop, all equally crafted and perfected. So much care and craftsmanship is put into every single instrument and note. Lyrically, Parker is making brutally honest statements about self-deprecation, masculinity and existentialism without hanging on a single cliché. Parker perfectly weaves an experimental approach into pop songs, just enough to simultaneously create experiential, accessible listens while pushing music forward. This is the music both this generation and prior ones can love, but Parker absolutely mocks anything your dad's favorite bands put out.
Currents never really lets up the intensity from top to bottom, with even its softer points feeling perfect and like they matter just as much as the songs with greatest magnitude. Listen closely and you can hear guitars seamlessly become synths, percussions being opened and closed through a phaser at the perfect turn of a certain lyric, all happening while the melodies take the main stage. This duality is what makes Currents so perfect, because it is perfect on all technical, compositional and lyrical fronts. Its an opus written with the most urgency, and for moments while listening, you wonder if music has ever been this good. Of course, for years "The Less I Know the Better" gets thrown on at day-drinks every Saturday across the nation while hundreds of America's brain-dead start screaming "omg I love this song", but at least its something we all love.
9. Solange - A Seat at the Table (2016)
Every artist hopes to capture the zeitgeist, to make the right record at the right time. Yet only a handful can claim to have given voice to a movement, as Solange did with A Seat at the Table. At once deeply personal and unapologetically political, the album offers an honest reflection on race and identity in America in the twilight of the Obama era. The album’s rousing message of black empowerment is set forth in no uncertain terms on “F.U.B.U.”—For us, this shit is for us—and feels more urgent than ever as we approach the end of this tumultuous decade.
More than just rage against the system, though, there’s a life-affirming joy in A Seat at the Table. On tracks like “Weary” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange rises above the insidious slights that come with moving through the world as a black woman, soaring toward a higher creative and emotional plane. That spiritual levity is buoyed by a series of conversational interludes, soul-bearing monologues from the singer’s friends and family.
8. Frank Ocean - Blonde (2016)
During the 10's, we've witnessed widespread increase in the gray areas of, well,
everything. This includes our moral gray areas, the way we treat our passions and careers, our definitions of families, how we define spirituality, sexuality and gender. At the vanguard of this, was Frank Ocean. At the beginning of the decade, Frank came to us as almost the human of the future, bending toward practically any fluid ideal we wanted, breaking racial and any binary barrier at all. But Frank always kept himself as something to still be discovered and unearthed despite the widespread acceptance. And unlike the normal modern superstar where they want us to be attached to their brand at any waking moment, we literally spent years waiting for Frank to come back, questioning if he every even would because of how desperate it felt.
And in 2016, upon surprise release, Frank returns with
Blonde. And to many people's further surprise, it didn't sound like what we expected for Channel Orange's follow-up. Channel Orange was eclectic, tasteful, broad and expansive, pulling reference from everything from smooth jazz progressions to 8-bit funk. But Blonde, upon first listen, is much more passive, singular and introverted, not to mention structurally rough. At some points you go through several minutes at a time without hearing a single drum, and rather just the ambience of surf guitar and warbling synths. But when Frank's voice enters these passages, a spotlight falls on him, and soul-crushing words soon follow. But the difference between Blonde and many other works that take a stand against categorization, is that
Blonde does so on a subconcious level, rather than right in front of us. There are no big hooks here, nothing that is attempting to appeal to us as something we want to hear, but rather lines that strike us with such emotional potency they ring much harder than any hook can attempt to. Blonde synthesizes Frank's writing with his public persona, which is one of solitude and one of response to what is expected of him.
Frank Ocean is the hinge artist of our time, the true voice of a generation because he takes long silences. With
Blonde and its attendant works, his Boys Don’t Cry zine and Endless, he took his time building his staircase to somewhere. Elusive and independent, he weaves from genre to genre, sometimes shifting gears to obliterate category altogether, as he cruises past the conventions the culture still fears to let go. On Blonde, the languid guitar of surf rock coexists with soft doo-wop melodies; Frank the rapper—who is heady and occasionally, knowingly vulgar—coincides with Frank the singer, who is plaintive and longing. Sometimes, he just talks rhythmically, like in “Nights", which I dub Hip-Hop's official "Bohemian Rhapsody. "Futura Free" the triptych anchor of Blonde, moves from midtempo to atmospheric synth to a clanging guitar solo. The impressionistic lyrics mirror the feeling of wanting to disappear, for a spell: “Breathe till I evaporated/My whole body see through.”
While other generations took to heart how an album can harness as many essential anthems an artist can produce, we began to realize in the Teens that jingo-ism was the problem in the first place. We wanted the blurred, the softened, and especially the existential now. “Inhale, in hell, there’s heaven,” Ocean sings on “Solo,” capturing the whiplash experience of being young in one line. With
Blonde, Frank joins the lineage of artists that step outside of the conventions we set for our time, and use it as an obligation to allow us all to be completely existential and inclined.
7. Swans - To be Kind (2014)
Is this how it ends? Is this the death of Rock? Who knows, but on
To Be Kind, Swans stretches Rock to its absolute limits - to where our atmosphere meets the vast nothingness of the universe. Clocking in just over 2 hours, Swans embarks on a grueling, overwhelming and often dizzying journey in a quest to open up your head - in classic Gira-bodily-function-fashion.
To Be Kind's duration isn't what makes it feel so much larger than life. At every track's core is an overwhelming sense of desperation, each with the weight of an entire lifetime depending on it. If The Seer asked us what terrifies us, To Be Kind asks how would we survive if we lived in that same fear. By traditional measurements To Be Kind is not a metal album, but its very heaviness makes it all the more intimidating than most works.
But with the destruction of Rock, Swans' trilogy this decade has ushered in the new wave of Post-Rock and Post-Punk. Bands such as Idles and Fontaines DC have taken influence from Swans' colossal songwriting and mood-setting openers.
6. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (2011)
Bon Iver is quiet... very quiet. But while For Emma, Forever Ago was stark and isolated, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is uplifted with strings, orchestras, and grandiosity. The places are ambiguous, and lost in time as if only imagined - much is the feeling of ambiguity in alcoholism and complete insignificance. Throughout the album, Justin Vernon grapples with a broken mind and soul from suffering his downfall, to the point he only lived without structure and lost in spacial un-awareness. However, Justin's struggles with these dark times made him realize that you need to identify that you are a blip in time before you have full control of how you utilize your time.
Bon Iver is a dreamscape that requires a patient listen, and holds some of the most iconic songs indie-folk has ever had. Bon Iver is the evolution of one of the century's most unlikely heroes, and has become a hipster-loving generation's staple. Whenever you're sad, Bon Iver is there to be sad with you.
5. Yves Tumor - Safe in the Hands of Love (2018)
Safe in the Hands of Love has to be one of the single most important works of experimental music. Yves Tumor is not making music to be accessible, or to become the face of a genre - so much so that he really never shows his face, is usually found in costume, flows through identities and plays the roles he depicts in his music. Tumor pronounces himself in his music only by how much he desires to be seen. He is an outsider among his listeners, but when he is close he is extremely alarming, showing us the hells and tribulations of what true modern chaos sounds and looks like.
Tumor aims to make music that is deeply disturbing and also rhythmic. Gut-wrenching songs like "Economy of Freedom" are followed up by disco-influenced grooves like "Noid", but underneath the beats lay unsettling statements about mass shootings and how we frame them. The album ends in such an uncanny yet revealing manner, playing Jan Haflin's "Angelfire" just after the swarming drones of "Let the Lioness in You Flow Freely", showing the deep contrasts between the 80s avoidance culture and Tumor's hyperrealism. Read my review of the album
4. Kanye West - My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy (2010)
For all that Kanye does for himself, Kanye also did a lot for both Hip-Hop and Pop music.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the ultimate reinvention of an artist that already predicated the album format on the chance to reinvent himself. Each album saw Kanye in another realm, playing a different character in his own world, channeling the influence of David Bowie and bringing it to Hip-Hop. But what makes MBDTF a step above the rest is its perfection top to bottom, collecting a nation of the world's most popular artists all contributing to Kanye's single vision.
Coming off of a toxic break-up with Amber Rose, a subdued
808s and Heartbreak effort and most of media against him, Kanye answered with the perfect comeback album that celebrated what it means to be an artist and also Mr. West. MBDTF is probably one of the more maximalist albums ever recorded, and showed the world what maximalist Hip-Hop sounds like – Hip-Hop with dark synths mixed with strings and intense percussives, with 8-15 voices layered on top of each other – whilst making it sound GREAT.
Like Grimes, James Blake, Pharrell and others, Kanye is producer gone singer/rapper, so his raps of course never started out quite as tight as naturals like Ghostface or Q-Tip – but since the
Dropout days Kanye mastered his verses on MBDTF, all while maintaining Pop-oriented structures and placing emphasis on instrumentation. Kanye is the only artist ever that can take >11 guests on a song like All of the Lights and fuse them seamlessly so that it still all just sounds like Kanye.
3. D'Angelo - Black Messiah (2014)
After he released 2000’s steamy soul classic
Voodoo, D’Angelo went into freefall, reeling from addiction, a near-fatal car crash, and the deleterious psychological consequences of starring in the thirst-trap video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Black Messiah served as evidence that his decade-and-a-half sabbatical also brought about creative maturation. Played by the Vanguard band, the album’s painstakingly crafted R&B fusion veers from the twitchy groove of “Ain’t That Easy” to the Pointer Sisters-ish jazz-bop of “Sugah Daddy” to the delicate guitar balladry of “Really Love.” D’Angelo’s muffled falsetto obscures the lyrics of songs like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade,” but on those tracks, he wades deep into issues like police brutality, putting the album in conversation with Kendrick Lamar’s activist classic To Pimp a Butterfly and the era’s #BlackLivesMatter concerns. Like one of those rare, exotic plants that only blooms every decade, D’Angelo only seems to gift us with a new album once a generation or two. But he always feels right on time.
2. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel... (2012)
Every single line on
The Idler Wheel... matters. Fiona Apple is full of some of the wittiest juxtapositions and most poetic disses you'll ever hear in songwriting, and The Idler Wheel.. is chuck full of them without a line wasted. This amount of care placed on every line is exactly what Apple is intending for herself; an album about feeling absolutely everything.
Form definitely follows function here. Upon first listen,
The Idler Wheel.. is incredibly demanding, and difficult for most. Your focus point to follow is within the lyricism, and upon several listens you'll understand that every key change and awkward chord progression is based on exactly what she's saying and feeling-and once that's discovered, you may even feel this level of songwriting is just supernatural.
1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
It's incredibly rare for an album to capture a trifecta of progression, thought and melody all in unison and all on 100, and it's even more rare for an album to become the battle cry for an entire movement. Released just a few Springs after the death of Trayvon Martin,
TPAB captured the zeitgeist of social warfare during the 10s, the realization that we haven't improved many things as a country - only manipulated and changed the ways we've confined eachother. Musically, what makes TPAB a shoulder above the rest is how at heart it is a fusion of impressionism and experimentalism, yet still manages to climb to majorly infectious and anthemic choruses that say so much more than most pop tunes really have.
From the opening crackles of "Wesley's Theory", a jazz-behemath band including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, George Clinton and others accompany Kendrick's very intricate yet freeform delivery on this Rap odyssey. Sounds are delivered so familiarly, yet at the same time they are huge steps in the world of both Rap and Pop. Songs take dramatic dips and dives and rise again such as in "Institutionalized" or on "The Blacker the Berry" and Kendrick takes on deeply self-analyzing roleplay on tracks like "For Free?" and the treacherous "U". These songs play a huge role in creating layered storytelling for when the album's anthemic highlights roll in, including "King Kunta" and perhaps the decade's most important song, "Alright".
Kendrick's delivery of his politics is what makes
TPAB so engaging. He's not telling the listener we should do this or that or this view is fact or saying absolute cornball lyrics like "everyone should reach out and grab a hand". He's speaking about his raw personal experience, how things have excrutiatingly affected his life in a certain way and how he had to manage to struggle and navigate it- every facet of it. Doing this offers a perspective, and a perspective when analyzed correctly can do a much better job of relating to other people and the obscenities they too have to go through that other social classes wouldn't understand.
The timing of
TPAB, however, is perhaps its most perfect element, coming at a crucial crossroads of social change and also when Hip-Hop replaced Rock as the most popular genre. With this title, TPAB helped inspire many pop artists to participate in a great 'a-wokening' in popular music, with other pop artists such as Solange, Frank Ocean and JAY Z all beginning to dedicate music to current matters rather than simple jingle-ism. None of them were delivering messaging and depth quite the level Kendrick was though. TPAB is filled from top to bottom with deep metaphorical philosophies and realizations that make you astounded this was all written by one guy, let alone by someone in the music industry.