The Top 75 Albums of the 2010s

Beyoncé changed the game with her digital drop. A new crop of pop stars led by Ariana Grande emerged. Adele, Taylor, and Drake outsold everyone in the universe. Rihanna scored hit after hit. Female rap experienced a boom. Streaming took over. The 2010s were a wild decade for music, here are the Top 75 Albums of the Decade:

75. 2014 Forest Hills Drive (J. Cole, 2014)

Dreamville/Columbia

Here’s an indisputable fact: 2014 Forest Hills Drive is J. Cole’s best album. This record, his third, is a culmination of everything Cole had been working for in terms of his ability as a solo artist. While his peers were more concerned with being pop stars and crafting pitch-perfect crossover hits, Cole, at heart, has always been a storyteller. On Forest Hills Drive he moves from the sprawling metaphors of Born Sinner to a more specific and personal narrative. There may never be a song about losing your virginity that’s as good as “Wet Dreamz” or a casual takedown of race and industry politics like “Fire Squad.” We’re all familiar with the “no features” gag, but, at the end of the day, it is worth noting that Cole shines without any guests on this record. His voice and story are unfiltered and unadulterated. It’s the crown jewel of his discography so far. Listen to: “No Role Modelz” and “Love Yourz”

74. HNDRXX (Future, 2017)

Freebandz/Epic

As I was narrowing down this ranking, I nearly put 56 Nights in this spot. I eventually settled on HNDRXX because on his umpteenth mixtape/album/project, Future delivered a full and unfiltered view of himself at his most vulnerable. Our favorite lean-guzzling trapper opened up about the emptiness of his love life, the warm and lethal embrace of drugs, and he even fumbled his way through some “apologies.” It’s a somber record. There aren’t any bangers like “March Madness” of “F*ck Up Some Commas,” and there doesn’t have to be. The melodic trap ballads are perfect just the way they are. Listen to: “Sorry” and “My Collection”

73. Endless (Frank Ocean, 2016)

Truthfully, this would likely be placed higher if we got a higher quality version of the record. Only available as a 45-minute short film on Apple Music, Endless is less of an album and more of a proposal. We’ve been conditioned to think of songs as these perfect seamless capsules, but Frank wants to remind us that songs can also be unfinished sketches that never reach completion. The album skews more towards Blonde than Channel ORANGE in a sonic sense, but the murky vocal production combined with the general rawness of the record offers something new and important in Frank’s discography: transparency. Listen to: “At Your Best (You Are Love)” and “Rushes To”

72. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (Drake, 2015)

Cash Money/OVO/Republic

Drake dropped a lot of music this decade. A lot of music. Maybe too much music. The biggest rapper (and overall artist, possibly, of the decade) cemented his place in this history books and destroyed genre lines with all of his 2010s music. When it comes to straight rapping, however, none of his projects compare to the illustrious If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Truthfully, it’s always been difficult to take Drake seriously when he acts tough on records, but on this mixtape, he rips through 40’s beats with no remorse. It’s a tour de force of skill for an artist who had something to prove: he wasn’t just the sensitive poster child for “sad boy hours,” he could rap too. Drake was hungry on this tape, and that was something his later records lacked. Listen to: “10 Bands” and “6PM in New York”

71. 22, A Million (Bon Iver, 2016)

Jagjaguwar

This was a pretty weird album. Especially for Bon Iver. But it was also a pretty great album. No surprise for Bon Iver. The band ditched their indie folk sound for electronic music and hip hop, and the result was incredible. The soundscape they were able to create was confusing, rapturous, beautiful, melancholy, and just plain good. Bon Iver is no stranger to hip-hop collaborations, but to see them truly commit to using sampling on their own records was mind-blowing. With 22, A Million Bon Iver simultaneously moved away from their traditional sound and fine tuned what made them so great. Lyrically, their work has never been that clear, and 22, A Million exacerbates the obliqueness of their lyricism while trying on a host of different sounds. Listen to: “33 “GOD”” and “8 (circle)”

70. Ventura (Anderson .Paak, 2019)

12 Tone/Aftermath

Anderson .Paak’s blend of hip-hop, R&B, soul, and funk has influenced the sound of a lot of late-2010s rap music. Ventura is a smooth record that is grounded by a live band whose instrumentation provides the perfect pockets for every moment of harmony. With guests like Brandy, Smokey Robinson, Jazmine Sullivan, and Lalah Hathaway, Ventura leans more into R&B than any of Anderson’s prior records. Nevertheless, he wears the sound well. In a decade where artists like Bruno Mars and Daft Punk leaned into the glory days of Motown, disco, funk, and soul for smash hits, Ventura does it all authentically. That’s why it’s so great. Listen to: “Reachin’ 2 Much” and “Make It Better”

69. Sremmlife (Rae Sremmurd, 2015)

Ear Drummer/Interscope

There was a time when Rae Sremmurd ruled the world. Their debut album, the relentlessly joyful Sremmlife, featured such hits as “No Type,” “Throw Sum Mo,” and “No Flex Zone.” Rae Sremmurd’s boyish energy and shrill, melodic voices brought something new and exciting to the rap game. On their later albums, the duo proved they had considerable musical depth, and Swae Lee’s solo career exploded. Nevertheless, it all started with this perfect unit of semi-innocence and pure fun. Listen to: “Unlock the Swag” and “Come Get Her”

68. Red (Taylor Swift, 2012)

Big Machine

This is Taylor Swift’s first pop album. And it’s brilliant. Red is one of Taylor’s strongest records because she explores nearly every facet of her musicality. There’s the folky-country sound of “Everything Has Changed” and “Begin Again,” but there’s also the rock influence on “Holy Ground” and the EDM-inspired “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Taylor floats across the different subgenres of pop with stunning ease. This is an album where the hit singles didn’t feel forced and the sound feels authentic and genuine. Listen to: “All Too Well” and “Holy Ground”

67. K.T.S.E. (Teyana Taylor, 2018)

G.O.O.D. Music

Teyana Taylor’s immense potential has been hindered by Kanye West’s unreliability for years. K.T.S.E., her most recent effort, faced issues up until (and even after) its official release. Thankfully, the quality of the music was too great to be marred by record label woes. Taylor’s music sits an interesting cross-section. She has a really rich and smoky tone that floats into an aching falsetto akin to Toni Braxton. She thrives in traditional R&B, but she can also rap, and she draws influences from bounce and ballroom culture. All of these elements come together in a beautiful way on K.T.S.E. The seven-track project is a love letter from Teyana to her husband, her daughter, her fans, and music itself. Listen to: “Never Would Have Made It” and “Rose in Harlem”

66. The Pinkprint (Nicki Minaj, 2014)

Young Money/Republic

Nicki Minaj could have had around three classic albums by now. Right now, she has one (an argument can be made for two), The Pinkprint. On her third album, Nicki poured her heart and soul out in ways that we hadn’t seen from her, or female rappers in general, before. She raps about her abortion, the murder of her cousin, gun violence, the trauma of drug dealing, and a slew of different types of relationship woes on the record. Lyrically, the album is stellar, and the production is even better because it is so cohesive (outside of a few outliers). In typical Nicki fashion, the heftier emotional moments are balanced by comedic sex anthems and more lighthearted motivational fare. The Pinkprint has aged incredibly well, pretty much every track holds up. It brought something special to the rap game and Nicki’s career. Listen to: “All Things Go” and “Shanghai”

65. Sucker (Charli XCX, 2014)

Asylum/Atlantic

People will go on and on about Pop2 and Charli, but Charli XCX’s real gem of the 2010s is her sophomore album, Sucker. Career-wise, Charli was in a curious place in the lead up to SUCKER. She sang the hook on the longest-running female rap song of all time (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) and scored a surprise soundtrack hit with “Boom Clap” for The Fault In Our Stars. All signs pointed to a more palatable pop album than what Sucker was. Sucker is so great because it completely subverted every expectation audiences had for Charli at the time. “Boom Clap” was a saccharine love song, but Sucker was populated by chunky guitar riffs, winkingly bratty lyricism, and punk-pop/rock influences. Charli was able to blend those harsher elements of punk and rock with classic pop music melodic structures and it clicked. Listen to “Famous” and “Caught in the Middle”

64. 1989 (Taylor Swift, 2016)

Big Machine

Taylor Swift’s first “official” pop album was a homerun. 1989 felt effortless; it was a natural progression from Red and the music was great. Mainstream pop albums are hard to get right. There has to be a proper balance of emotional moments and radio hits, and they have to hold the audience’s attention for extended periods of time. It’s also really easy to become monotonous in pop music. Taylor achieved something special with 1989. She took one of the basic subgenres of pop music (acoustic pop and alternative/indie-influenced pop) and made it feel unique. Part of that is because of her lyrical prowess on songs like “Out of the Woods” and “Clean.” Taylor has a knack for creating beautiful worlds with her lyrics, yet they still feel universal. 1989 is Taylor at her most free and most authentic. Listen to: “I Know Places” and “Out of the Woods”

63. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Florence + the Machine, 2015)

Island Records

Florence + the Machine have never made a bad album. But How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is absolutely gorgeous. Lungs was a very loud album and Ceremonials was quite dark, HBHBHB exists on a plane of softness and whimsy. On this album, Florence and her backing band finally nail their unique combination of mystic lyricism and heartbreaking personal narratives. There’s the bewitching “Third Eye” and the rollicking “What Kind of Man.” Lyrically, these two songs couldn’t be more different, but they are bound together by Florence’s masterful voice and the stadium rock sound of the production. That’s the beauty of HBHBHB, it tackles a million different elements but never crumbles under its own weight. Listen to: “Various Storms and Saints” and “Delilah”

62. Sound & Fury (Sturgill Simpson, 2019)

Elektra Records

Stans love to brag about how versatile their favorite artists are. Sturgill Simpson may just have their faves beat. On SOUND & FURY, Sturgill pulls from country, blues, rock, jazz, hip-hop, and pop, and, oh, he even delivered an anime version of the album. SOUND & FURY functions as a protest album of sorts. The album is fearless in the way it rejects the very notion of genre by flying through boogie-rock, funk, country, hip-hop/rock, and still finding a way to fit it all into mostly traditional song structures. Lyrically, the album gets introspective and melancholy at times, especially with the album closer, “Fastest Horse in Town.” SOUND & FURY is an absolutely thrilling listen. It’s reckless and sprawling and hopeful. Listen to: “A Good Look” and “Make Art Not Friends”

61. EL MAL QUERER (ROSALÍA, 2018)

Sony

Every so often, an album comes along that is so expertly curated and created that one wonders how this is just an artist’s second record. ROSALÍA’s EL MAL QUERER is one of those records. The Spaniard’s star rose as people fell in love with her “urban flamenco” style. Her tightly choreographed stage shows and unique blend of traditional flamenco with reggaeton and latin pop have made EL MAL QUERER an immaculate experience. The album is an experimental concept album about a toxic relationship that is illustrated by breathy vocal performance and stunning belts. Each track is presented as a different chapter and they range from the sleek smash hit “Malamente” to the Justin Timberlake-sampling “Bagdad.” The most amazing thing about this record? EL MAL QUERER is actually ROSALÍA’s final project for her bachelor’s degree in flamenco studies. Listen to: “BAGDAD” and “DE AQUÍ NO SALES”

60. Eve (Rapsody, 2019)

Jamala/Roc Nation

After carrying female rap for most of the decade, the latter years of 2010s have brought Nicki Minaj a lot of new contemporaries to share the mantle. Rapsody’s Eve, which was released just a few months ago, is a shining jewel of 2010s rap. The fiercely feminist album celebrates the beauty, power, and strength of black women. Each song is named after an impactful black women and the lyrics revolve around themes that characterize the greatness of that woman’s contributions to society. 9th Wonder’s excellent production ties the album together as Rapsody shifts from lyrically dense rap ballads to club bops with astonishing ease. Eve is a very special record. Very special. Listen to: “Nina” and “Hatshepsut (feat. Queen Latifah)”

59. Four (One Direction, 2014)

Columbia/Syco

Turn up your nose all you want, but One Direction made some really great music during their run. By their fourth album, the aptly titled Four, One Direction had conquered the pop world with cookie-cutter jams like “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Live While We’re Young.” On Four, the boys finally got to fully explore rock-pop sound that many of their earlier album tracks had been hinting to. Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones proved to be major influences for this album as the boys got more involved in the songwriting process. Themes of maturation and lost innocence dominate the record, but there are also moments of exquisite power pop that really capture the essence of the boy-band subgenre. Listen to: “Fireproof” and “Stockholm Syndrome”

58. thank u, next (Ariana Grande, 2019)

Republic

It’s crazy to think that Ariana Grande started her music career in 2013. With four #1 albums, a Grammy, 2 #1 singles, and 14 top ten hits, it feels like she’s been around forever. Watching her evolve as an artist has been really special, and her most recent record, thank u, next, is a gorgeous addition to her discography. This album was put together in around two weeks with her close friends and collaborators after a series of life-altering events. The death of an ex-boyfriend/best friend and a failed engagement are just some of the events that influenced this record. This album is about loneliness, grief, and uncertainty, but it’s also about growth and celebrating the losses because of the lessons you’ve learned. With soft trap production and understated vocal performances, the gloomy lyricism really shines on thank u, next. Ariana took some of the most heartbreaking moments the world has seen and turned them into a triumphant album and era. Listen to: “ghostin” and “needy”

57. For All We Know (NAO, 2016)

RCA/Little Tokyo

That voice. I’m not sure that there’s a more underrated vocalist this decade, but Nao is simply unbelievable. This album carefully toes the line between electronica, jazz, and neo-soul. The record is expertly layered and produced, but it’s Nao’s superhuman vocal agility that seals the deal. She flies through octaves and different parts of her voice with astonishing ease and precision which makes each listen absolutely thrilling. From a lyrical standpoint, For All We Know is oddly sad, especially in relation to it’s bouncy synths and frequent uptempo tracks. Nevertheless, this blend of emotional intensity really drives the album and makes it even more impressive. Listen to: “Girlfriend” and “Fool to Love”

56. Wildheart (Miguel, 2015)

ByStorm/RCA

Miguel has released more consistent albums this decade, Kaleidoscope Dream and War & Leisure come to mind, but Wildheart, showed us Miguel at his most fearless and most experimental. And he sounds damn good while doing so. While Miguel did play with the “vibe-y” R&B sound on Wildheart (“Coffee”), the album mainly sat at the crossroads of rock and R&B. These two genres have a history intersects more often than we realize, and Miguel uses their natural chemistry to his advantage. He gets personal about his mixed heritage and childhood on “what’s normal anyway” and employs fuzzy vocal effects on sex anthems like “the valley” and “gfg.” Wildheart is a brash and unfiltered album, it’s more jagged than it’s predecessor and ultimately more rewarding. Listen to: “waves” and “a beautiful exit”

55. Playboi Carti (Playboi Carti, 2017)

AWGE/Interscope

The eponymous debut commercial mixtape from Playboi Carti is arguably a landmark album for hip-hop. This decade has been one long watershed moment for the ad-lib era of hip-hop, and on this mixtape Carti pushes this moment to its limit. What does an album of just beats and ad-libs sound like? Even the primary lyrics sound like ad-libs which basically renders traditional song structures obsolete. Carti erratically jumps from track to track with the kind of boyish glee that only a debut project can provide. On Playboi Carti, Carti figures out how to capture and convey a feeling or a series of emotions without using many words (or any at all). It’s quite incredible when you think about it. Listen to: “Magnolia” and “dothatshit!”

54. SLIME S3ASON (Young Thug, 2016)

300/Atlantic

This is Young Thug’s most consistent record. Debatably. Thugger’s Slime Season mixtape series was a simpler time. His warbling Auto-Tune drenched voice ripped through a brisk nine track setlist. This mixtape was the final tape in the Slime Season series, and it plays like a greatest hits record but with brand new songs. Each track builds thoroughly before an explosive final act. As Thugger’s most “mainstream” and accessible album, SLIME S3ASON, isn’t necessarily his most innovative record. Nevertheless, what really matters here is how he was able to whittle down his staccato delivery and almost manic shrieks into small pockets of sublime trap music. Thugger is special, and he’s amassed an incredible catalogue this decade. Listen to: “Digits” and “Drippin”

53. Gumbo (PJ Morton, 2017)

Morton Records

Gumbo is probably the least successful album on this list. It didn’t even enter the Billboard 200, but that should remind us that charts measure popularity and not quality. Gumbo, PJ Morton’s fourth album, delved deeper into soul music with an incredibly smooth rumination on romance. PJ has been one of the keyboardists for Maroon 5 for most of this decade. Yes Maroon 5’s non-Adam Levine members actually have roles in the group. In his solo career, PJ is an R&B maestro that leans more towards classic soul with gospel influences than the alternative/trap/electro-R&B that has dominated most of the decade. PJ’s voice is effortlessly agile and his range is simply stunning. PJ self-penned this entire album (outside of a cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love”) and the heart-melting lyrics are almost too much to handle. PJ has been an unsung hero of classic R&B for a minute now. Listen to: “First Began” and “Go Thru Your Phone”

52. Reality Show (Jazmine Sullivan, 2015)

RCA

Arguably the best vocalist in mainstream music right now, Jazmine Sullivan’s most recent album is already a classic in my eyes. On Reality Show, Jazmine shifted her sound into a drum-heavy, almost militaristic sound, that felt futuristic, but still authentically R&B. Jazmine’s soulful and raspy voice is more necessary than ever as R&B continues to shift from traditional gospel-based vocalists. Furthermore on Reality Show, Jazmine provides a more complete listening experience than her peers because of her ability to quickly and seamlessly switch narratives and perspectives. Listen to: “Mascara” and “Masterpiece”

51. Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes, 2015)

ATO

Brittany Howard could sing the phonebook back backed by just a xylophone and an album of those tracks would probably still make this list. On Sound & Color, which scored a whopping six Grammy nominations and became the group’s first #1 album, Alabama Shakes expands their sound into a kaleidoscopic dream world that vibrantly jumps from genre to genre while still remaining focused. Alabama Shakes’ dabbles in myriad subgenres of indie rock and proves the depth of a genre that still struggles for respect. The 2010s were the decade of dance/EDM and hip-hop/rap, so it was nice that authentic rock got some time to shine with such an incredible album. Listen to: “Miss You” and “Don’t Wanna Fight”

50. Same Trailer Different Park (Kacey Musgraves, 2013)

Mercury Nashville

Country, pop, and hip-hop are sort of the holy trinity of genres that usually have a clear divide between cohesive albums and collections of songs made with the intention of scoring hit singles. Every so often, an album is able to exist in both realms. If not for the blatant sexism at country radio, this could have been that album for Kacey Musgraves. Same Trailer Different Park is the sort of conscious, lyric-focused country music that traditionalists prefer. Nonetheless, Kacey still makes country incredibly modern with her references to same-sex love, weed, body positivity, and the generational divide. We all knew Kacey was a once-in-a-generation songwriting talent from her work with Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), but on Same Trailer we got to hear Kacey sing her own songs for the first time. And man, was it amazing. And it still is. Listen to: “Silver Lining” and “Merry Go Round”

49, From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2 (Chris Stapleton, 2017)

Mercury Nashville

The sophomore record is always a difficult one to nail. In Chris Stapleton’s case, his debut album, Traveller, was initially released to minimal fanfare, but after a star-making awards show performance with Justin Timberlake, Stapleton became, arguably, the biggest country music star in the world. For his sophomore record, Stapleton split From a Room into two separate volumes. From a critical and commercial standpoint, this decision alleviated the insurmountable pressure to deliver a record worthy of succeeding Traveller. From a creative standpoint, the first volume was more melancholy while the second volume told a more tender story of love. Stapleton is a gifted songwriter, but arguably a more gifted vocalist. He is a soul singer at heart, with a guttural edge to his voice that is offset by the gentle twang of Southern rock and outlaw country. Listen to: “Death Row” and “Midnight Train to Memphis”

48. Aquarius (Tinashe, 2014)

RCA

Tinashe has been an interesting position for most of the decade. Prior to Aquarius, her major-label debut album, she had crafted a distinct persona in alternative and indie R&B. In spite of that, her post-Aquarius label-backed releases have seen a more pop-focused Tinashe try to coexist with mixtape era Tinashe. On Aquarius, she best achieves this balance. There’s the mainstream appeal of “2 On” and “All Hands on Deck,” but there’s also the hazy alternative-R&B of “Bated Breath” and “Far Side of the Moon.” With influences from everyone from Aaliyah to The Weeknd to Kelly Rowland, Tinashe’s Aquarius is arguably the premiere representative for the state of R&B in the 2010s: fearless and transformative.

47. Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1 (Calvin Harris, 2017)

Columbia

The 2010s will likely be remembered as a decade where we most often looked to the past to figure out how we wanted to move forward. It seems that each year of the decade brought more remakes and revivals than the last; this was a trend that Calvin Harris latched onto for his fifth studio album, You can’t discuss music in the 2010s without discussing dance music and EDM. Calvin did a 180 from the Europop and aggressive drops of Motion, and instead explored funk and elements of 80s boogie. He facilitated more R&B/dance collabs on this album than the industry may have ever seen (Frank Ocean, Kehlani, Khalid, John Legend, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jessie Reyez, etc.) while still aligning himself with the ever-intensifying dominance of hip-hop (Migos, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott, Young Thug). This was an actual summer soundtrack and truly timeless dance album. Listen to: “Skrt On Me” and “Faking It”

46. Harry Styles (Harry Styles, 2017)

Columbia

Somehow, Harry has already topped most of his eponymous debut album with the sublime “Lights Up.” Nevertheless, the record still holds up. From the brash hard rock influences on “Kiwi” to the sentimental softness of “Two Ghosts,” Harry showcased a surprising amount of range on this album. Sonically, he tried on different shades of pop/rock, and lyrically he was able to exist in both the metaphorical and deeply personal lanes. The debut solo album for a member from a big group is always met with a lot of expectations and pressure. Unlike some of his former One Direction bandmates, Harry didn’t fold. He stuck to what he knew and what he loved and delivered a record that is as great as it is authentic. Listen to: “Kiwi” and “Ever Since New York”

45. The 20/20 Experience — The Complete Experience (Justin Timberlake, 2013)

RCA

Few artists make a comeback like Justin Timberlake. Notorious for his lengthy breaks between album, his return in 2013 with two new albums was one for the books. The album featured a unique blend of throwback R&B stylings with moments of electronica and traditional pop. Even on his more standard pop tracks like “Mirrors” and “Not A Bad Thing” the elongated song structures allowed for hidden tracks and experimental moments within the music. The 20/20 Experience was Justin’s first full-length album since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and his first album since marrying Jessica Biel. Justin’s maturity drove the album, both lyrically and sonically. While he has always been fearless in terms of exploring new sounds, The 20/20 Experience harbored some truly mind-boggling tracks while still feeling effortless. Listen to: “Pusher Love Girl” and “Blue Ocean Floor”

44. Broke with Expensive Taste (Azealia Banks, 2014)

Ah, Azealia. Although she has become more known for her unhinged rants on Instagram Stories and downright repulsive tweets, at one point in time, Azealia Banks made great music. On her debut studio album, Broke with Expensive Taste, Banks had perfected her balanced blend of house music and rap with slight touches of pop that pointed to a viable future in the mainstream. It’s an imaginative and fearless album that floats through space and time on its own terms. By 2014, female rap still hadn’t had artists putting out genuinely experimental work with the visibility that Banks did. Just like we can see elements of Nicki Minaj’s influence on Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, there are small bits of Azealia’s influence on rappers like Doja Cat and Rico Nasty. Broke is an important and, ultimately, enjoyable record that encapsulates how delightfully erratic this decade was. Listen to: “Soda” and “Wallace”

43. Caution (Mariah Carey, 2018)

Epic

Let’s be honest, Mariah Carey doesn’t need to release anymore music. She has one of the most successful and incredible discographies in music history, but her love and drive for the art is still there. On Caution, her fifteenth studio album, Mariah adapted to the umpteenth new wave of R&B/pop, but still remained true to herself. She delved into the depths of alternative R&B, collaborators with new school heavyweights, and still found time to deliver the powerful and introspective ballads we all know and love. Caution is an exciting step forward for Mariah. This album completes her third decade in the music industry, and she is still making some of the best music in the world. Caution is mature and adventurous; it’s a look at the ever-changing landscape of R&B through the eyes of a veteran who has seen it all. Listen to: “Giving Me Life” and “One Mo Gen”

42. I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It (The 1975, 2016)

The 1975 Artist Deal P/S

The 1975 has consistently put out some of the most mind-boggling albums in mainstream music this decade. I Like It When You Sleep, is the bright and sparkly follow up to the band’s dark and moody debut. On this record, the British rockers leaned into synth pop, ambient music, R&B, electronica, and pop/rock to create a record that weaves in and out of elongated instrumental breaks and rollicking anthems of love. It’s almost been a half a decade since the release of this album, and it’s still as intriguing and confusing as it was 2015. As we enter the new decade with increasingly lax views on genres, this record is one that helped propel that school of thought in mainstream pop/rock. Listen to: “UGH!” and “She’s American”

41. Watch the Throne (Jay-Z & Kanye West, 2011)

Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam

Eight years later, it feels weird listening to this album in the context of where the two hip-hop icons have gone with their careers. Nonetheless, the two gave us one of the most legendary music moments ever with this collaborative album. This album marks a psuedo-turning point for the two artists in terms of overtly political statements in their music. As an album that flaunted and gloated about black wealth over some of the most cinematic beats of their careers, Watch the Throne was a thrilling record. Recently we’ve gotten many collaborative records between big artists (KIDS SEE GHOSTS, Drip Harder, Without Warning, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, etc.), but few have felt as effortless and distinct at Watch the Throne. The attention to detail on this record is second to none; these two meticulous artists made sure every take of every rap was perfect. An artist can only make and album like Throne once they’ve already been on top, it’s a celebration of success that sounds like a movie. What more could you want? Listen to: “No Church in the Wild (feat. Frank Ocean)” and “Murder to Excellence”

40. E•MO•TION (Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015)

Interscope

How do you follow up a monster hit like “Call Me Maybe?” It’s a hard call to make because that was the song that catapulted Carly Rae Jepsen to stardom, but it also became bigger than the artist herself. Regardless, Carly took the broad songwriting and effervescent sound of “Call Me Maybe” and turned the dial up 40 notches. E•MO•TION is a perfect little capsule of retro-pop hits that expertly articulates the tenuous area between falling in love with someone and liking them. Carly was able to breathe humanity into the most rigid pop melodies and strong structures through her expressive vocal performances and universal lyricism. This is pop music at its most safe, but it’s also pop music in its purest form: a record of love and good vibes that makes you want to dance your fears and worries away. Listen to: “All That” and “Making the Most of the Night”

39. pom pom (Ariel Pink, 2014)

4AD

About a year before E•MO•TION, there was pom pom. If the former was on the more accessible end of the pop music spectrum, pom pom is on the more challenging end. Although this is Ariel Pink’s most accessible record (by far), the album weaves in and out of art rock, psychedelic pop, and alternative stylings with a sly wink. Ariel Pink is fully aware that his sound is confusing, it’s purposeful and intense. This is a album that pokes fun at the audience and our collective idea of what progressive pop music should sound and feel like. There are lofty pop melodies that are crowded by seemingly disparate vocal effects and sounds. Pom pom plays it’s slight lack of cohesiveness to it’s advantage; it’s a genius record from an incredibly smart producer. A true snapshot of the soundscape of indie pop in the middle of the decade. Listen to: “Not Enough Violence” and “Nude Beach a Go-Go”

38. Born to Die – The Paradise Edition (Lana Del Rey, 2012)

One of the most influential artists of the decade, Lana Del Rey, revived the yearning sound of folk rock and soft rock for the 2010s. Before she continued to strip down her sound on her later albums, Born to Die, Lana’s debut album, was steeped in early trap influences and hip-hop. Her impeccable songwriting captured the anxiety and depression of an entire generation. Lana Del Rey instantly became an emblem of the new americana with this landmark record. Her languid and hazy vocal delivery set her apart from her peers and she gave birth to a whole subgenre of alternative/indie pop stars that can score #1 hits now because of the path that Lana waltzed down. Born to Die is album that sounds cinematic and opulent, and that production is contrasted by the Lana’s childlike vocal inflections and bleak lyricism. With an album like this, it’s easy to be boxed into a certain sound or image, but throughout the decade Lana has kept us on our toes. And it all started with Born to Die. Listen to: “Video Games” and “Ride”

37. Nothing Was the Same (Drake, 2013)

Young Money/Republic

Drake is a very talented rapper. Unfortunately, this is one of his last projects that felt like a cohesive unit meant to tell a story and not a collection of tracks that were destined to be hits. Following a landmark album with Take Care, Drake had solidified his spot as a credible rapper that was able to crossover with astounding ease. On Nothing Was the Same, Drake shifted his introspective writing from his relationships to a closer look at himself as a person. Sonically, this is arguably Drake’s most cohesive project; he leans into the edges of the new alternative-R&B wave and contrasts that with hard beats that have notes of electronica. On this album, the audience gets to know him as more than just Drake the Rapper and Drake the Heartbreaker (or the Brokenhearted Drake?). Instead, he grants us access to his life before the fame, his psyche in the afterglow of Take Care, and the lessons he’s learned from his parents and their relationship. Drake dug deep on this record, and that artistic sacrifice truly paid off. Listen to: “Wu-Tang Forever” and “Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2”

36. Motion (Calvin Harris, 2014)

Fly Eye/Columbia

One cannot discuss the past decade in music without mentioning dance music and its complete and utter dominance. Before releasing Motion, Calvin Harris had released 18 Months, a blockbuster record-breaking album that helped soldiy the wave of European EDM that would soon dominate the decade. How do you follow up a record that broke Michael Jackson’s chart records in the U.K.? You go bigger. Stacked to the brim with everyone from Big Sean to Gwen Stefani, Motion turns the dial up several notches from where 18 Months left off. Motion was more than a soundtrack to a summer, it was a soundtrack to a moment of mass catharsis for the world. The 2010s were a turbulent time for most of the world, and what better way to cleanse ourselves of our worries and troubles than dancing to the aggressive beat drops of Calvin Harris? Listen to: “Blame” and “Pray to God”

35. Talk That Talk (Rihanna, 2011)

Def Jam

Back in the day, when Rihanna used to gift us with a new album every November, life was easy. Talk That Talk, an album as reckless and fearless as anyone in the midst of their 20s, is just one of the many triumphs in Rihanna’s impressive career. From legendary anthems like “We Found Love” to straight up nasty bops like “Cockiness” and “Birthday Cake,” Rihanna was on something different with this album. Arguably, Talk That Talk has Rihanna’s most addictive hooks. She leans into acoustic pop/rock, hip-hop, the depths of the EDM, and the more subtle sounds of soul. Despite all the genre-hopping, Talk That Talk still excels as unit because it is held together by Rihanna’s iconic tone and the spunk of a pop idol who refuses to be your role model. Listen to: “We All Want Love” and “Birthday Cake

34. 4 (Beyoncé, 2011)

Parkwood/Columbia

Beyoncé, the Artist of the Decade, kicked off the 2010s with one of the most important albums for R&B and her own career. Fresh off of parting ways (professionally) with her father, becoming her own manager, and creating Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé put out 4. The album is a tour de force of vocal prowess and a masterclass in touching the different subgenres of R&B. I wrote extensively about the legacy of this album here, but for now, I’ll just say that this is easily one of the most important albums for R&B this century. 4 helped keep the more traditionalist aspects of the genre alive in the face of rising subgenres and the increasing dominance dance/electronica and hip-hop/rap. Listen to: “I Care” and “1+1”

33. Room 25 (Noname, 2018)

Albums rarely get this perfect. The most effective and impactful albums are the ones that are genuine depictions of an artist’s headspace. Room 25 chronicles Noname’s various life experiences since the release of Telefone, her debut mixtape. Over jazzy instrumentation and crunchy chords, Noname uses her signature triplet flow to recount her growth, memory, and general nostalgia for less complicated times. Room 25 is steeped in neo-soul and jazz; those genres provide the perfect background to the stream-of-consciousness style that Noname employs. At just over half an hour, this record is succinct, but extremely fulfilling. Listen to: “Ace” and “Don’t Forget About Me”

32. Rodeo (Travis Scott, 2015)

Grand Hustle/Epic

While ASTROWORLD and Bird in the Trap Sing McKnight are outstanding albums in their own right. Rodeo, however, still remains Travis’ strongest effort this decade. The Houston rapper’s debut lifted trap music to brooding, cinematic heights that only he has been able to consistently match since. “Antidote,” one of the defining songs of the decade, was the perfect mainstream entry point into the more challenging records on the album like the aggressive “Piss On Your Grave” and the turbulent “3005.” Rodeo helped develop the depth of trap music for a pop audience, and he did it with style and ease. Listen to: “Apple Pie” and “Pray 4 Love”

31. Swimming (Mac Miller, 2018)

REMember/Warner

Albums about healing don’t always have to be triumphant and pretty. Swimming drifts through the uncertainty and the grittiness of recovery, but there is always a mile-wide streak of optimism. Like Anderson .Paak’s Ventura, Swimming is steeped in the sounds and instrumentation of jazz and soul. Soft guitars and drums make up most of the instrumentation while Mac’s inimitable flows skates over each beat. Swimming tackles the addiction and the path forward with poise and nuance. Every emotion is represented on the album. It’s a true breath of fresh aire. Listen to: “Jet Fuel” and “Ladders”

30. AM (Arctic Monkeys, 2013)

Domino

There’s always one band that defines a specific era of music and the greater global culture. The Beatles, The Who, Coldplay, U2, and for a stretch of time between 2011 and 2014(ish), Arctic Monkeys were that band. Their brooding image of leather jackets, cool hair, and cigarettes was soundtracked by the chunkiest guitar riffs and intensely personal lyricism. AM, the band’s best and biggest album yet, perfected everything that makes Arctic Monkeys modern icons. The band expanded their musical arsenal to include keyboard, 808s, and synths that elevated their indie rock sound to one explicitly influenced by hip-hop and blues. Listen to: “Arabella” and “Do I Wanna Know?”

29. Sweetener (Ariana Grande, 2018)

Republic

Few artists are tasked with the seemingly impossible task of delivering an album after a fatal terrorist attack at one of their concerts. Fourth albums are already notoriously difficult; this is usually the record where artists branch out and try drastically different sounds to varying degrees of success. After two straight albums filled with pop smashes (2014’s My Everything and 2016’s Dangerous Woman), it was time for Grande to go deeper. She played with funk and trip-hop on the Pharrell-produced “the light is coming” and “successful,” found light in what seemed like endless darkness through “no tears left to cry,” and delivered one of the most sublime pop songs of the decade with “God is a woman.” The only thing that’s surprising about Sweetener winning Ariana her first Grammy is that the Academy actually decided to reward excellence. Listen to: “get well soon” and “sweetener”

28. 4:44 (Jay Z, 2017)

Roc Nation

Back in 2017, on Black Boy Bulletin‘s first-ever year-end list, I named 4:44 the best album of the year. As we enter 2020, the record still holds up. The album’s politics (somewhere black financial literacy and black capitalism) have proven to be less than favorable upon reflection, but the music is still terrific. With samples built from gospel (“Family Feud“), soul (“4:44”), and reggae (“Bam”), 4:44 is steeped in the sounds of black music as it grapples with marital trauma, masculinity, growth. With a discography like his, Jay Z didn’t need to release 4:44, but the album’s very existence has set an excellent blueprint for what grown-rap can be. Listen to: “Marcy Me” and “Moonlight”

27. Teenage Dream (Katy Perry, 2010)

Capitol

Looking at the way Katy started this decade, it’s almost impossible to believe where she is at right now as the decade draws to a close. Regardless, on this album alone Katy provided us with about three decade-defining songs and a host of others tracks that are pretty much the peak of pop perfection. The candy-coated “Teenage Dream” music video says it all: Katy set out to capture the euphoric optimism and endless hope and opportunity of our teenage years. And that she did. Even in her quest to create the saccharine confections that dominated radio for years, Katy still found time for more muted emotional moments like “The One That Got Away” and “Who Am I Living For?” Listen to: “Peacock” and “Hummingbird Heartbeat”

26. LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jamila Woods, 2019)

Jagjaguwar

When the 2020 Grammy nominations, I was very disappointed to not see Jamila Woods’ name. I had hope that the Blue Ribbon Committee would push her name to final shortlist. Jamila’s blend of spoken word, neo-soul, and rock resulted in a musical exaltation of praise for classic black artists. Jamila’s debut featured rich and layered wordplay and she dove even deeper into her craft on LEGACY! LEGACY! The album is aware of its heft (just look at the cover art and the stylisation of the tile), nevertheless Jamila’s ethereal tone and the almost whimsical production carried the political weight of the record with grace and ease. Listen to: “BETTY” and “BALDWIN”

25. Melodrama (Lorde, 2017)

No one was better at capturing snapshots of life than Lorde this decade. Melodrama, which was released just as Lorde entered her twenties, perfectly encapsulated the, well, melodramatic atmosphere of adolescence. Whether she’s wallowing in self-pity, dealing with her first major breakup, or searching for a place to let go, Lorde delivered her most impressive vocal performances and most heart-wrenching lyrics on this record. While Pure Heroine was steeped in hip-hop influenced alternative sounds and convoluted metaphors, Melodrama fully leaned into more traditional pop sounds and simple yet punchy songwriting. And the horns of “Sober?” One of the best production moments of the decade for sure! Listen to: “Writer in the Dark” and “Liability”

24. The ArchAndroid (Janelle Monáe, 2010)

Wondaland/Atlantic

Back in 2010, before she was releasing emotion pictures and starring Oscar-nominated films, Janelle Monáe debuted with The ArchAndroid. The sprawling concept album introduced afrofuturistic themes to music’s mainstream and featured a cinematic blend of classical music, hip-hop, soul, funk, rock. Even though the album felt too inaccessible times, you know Janelle was doing something legendary and completely unique. Partially based the 1927 film, Metropolis, on this album Janelle assumes the role of Cindy Mayweather, an ArchAndroid that is sent back in time to free the citizens of Metropolis from a secret society that aims to suppress love and freedom. Sound complicated? Well, it is. Nevertheless, Janelle was still able to give us a peek inside that exciting mind of hers with some of the most challenging and irresistible music of the decade. Listen to: “Locked Inside” and “Cold War”

23. LP1 (FKA twigs, 2014)

Young Turks

In the 2010s, R&B got hooked on every drug imaginable. A wave of R&B concerned with nature and lust completely flipped traditional perceptions of the genre by incorporating heavy electronica and trip-hop influences. FKA twigs’ debut album, LP1, explored the possibilities of pushing that new wave to the other end of the spectrum. Over a set of industrial production courtesy of herself, Arca, Dev Hynes, and more, twigs sang some of the most poignant lyrics of the decade. She has this aching quality to her tone that is just on the cusp of pure desperation. The drama of her tone and vocal performance makes up for the lack of vocal gymnastics in this new wave of alternative-trip-hop-indie-R&B. Listen to: “Pendulum” and “Video Girl”

22. House of Balloons (The Weeknd, 2011)

This is, without a doubt, one of the most influential releases of the decade. House of Balloons, The Weeknd‘s debut mixtape, was a moody soundscape accentened by lust, pain, aguish, and a dash of cocaine. The Weeknd’s piercing falsetto permeated even the most layered moments of production and his painfully honest songwriting was able to bring any audience into his glamorous world of sex and heartache. With the image of a lothario who is fully aware that he is emotionally damaged and somewhat manipulative, The Weeknd was able to update the concept of the R&B maestro for the 2010s. Without House of Balloons, it’s hard to imagine the existence of some of our favorite/the best songs by Bryson Tiller, Tory Lanez, PARTYNEXTDOOR, etc. Listen to: “The Morning” and “Wicked Games”

21. A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead, 2016)

XL

This may read as the token “pretentious” pick on this list, but A Moon Shaped Pool was honestly one of the greatest albums of the decade. One of the most memorable things about this decade in music was watching superstar singers and bands get as vulnerable as possible and mixing their vulnerability with the political. On this record the band covers everything from climate change and mob mentality to the pain of marital separation. Over meticulously curated orchestral symphonies and slow burning power ballads, Thom Yorke brought his masterful songwriting to life. This is truly a depressing album, but it’s ability to linger in its melancholy and not feel the need to be hopeful is part of what makes it so great. Listen to: “Ful Stop” and “Burn the Witch”

20. DAMN. (Kendrick Lamar, 2017)

Aftermath/Interscope

Has anyone had a better run than Kendrick in the 2010s? His most recent studio album isn’t even his best, but it still became the first non-classical/jazz project to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. DAMN is a tightly woven tapestry of traditional hip hop hallmarks (DJ Dahi’s iconic introductions and interjections), ruminations on love, fame, religion, race, and family, and intricate beats. The album is a reflection of Kendrick’s storied past, the shining lights of his present, and the endless opportunity of his future. It’s at once autobiographical and fantastical, a testament to the resilience of black American stories. Listen to: “DUCKWORTH.” and “XXX.”

19. A Seat at the Table (Solange, 2016)

Saint Records/Columbia

People often uplift Solange with the intention of talking down on her sister. A Seat at the Table, released the same year as Beyoncé’s Lemonade, stands on its own as a masterful record. Solange upgraded the cloud R&B/funk mixture she employed on her True EP and focuses her lens on black womanhood in America. Whether she’s being brutally honest about her depression, reclaiming ownership over her body and language, or reveling in her magic, Solange’s fluttery voice ties the entire album together. In an era where R&B delved deeper into electronica than ever before, Table was a nice reminder of the jazz and soul roots of the genre, as well as its storied relationship with hip-hop. Listen to: Scales (feat. Kelela)” and “Where Do We Go”

18. Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves, 2018)

MCA Nashville

When you’re a critical darling who hasn’t yet achieved the full commercial success that you’re obviously capable of, trying to strike that balance can feel impossible. Not many are capable of pulling this feat off, but on her latest album, Kacey Musgraves did just that. Golden Hour painted her insightful lyricism and snarky songwriting with a coat of mainstream paint. Her soft tone is already tailor-made for the ears of pop music listeners, and with catchier hooks than ever before (“Happy & Sad”) and disco-pop influences (“High Horses”), Kacey broadened her appeal and brought country to a whole new audience. Despite all of the expansion on this album, the traditional Kacey was still present, particularly on the lush ballads and her trademark political lyrical bent. Listen to: “Slow Burn” and “Love Is A Wild Thing”

17. Currents (Tame Impala, 2015)

Fiction/Interscope

No one did psychedelic electropop/rock better than Tame Impala this decade. The music project birthed by Kevin Parker thrives because the music guides the creator. In most albums, you can feel and hear some level of control. On Currents, however, Tame Impala allows the music to wind its way from the depths of Parker’s psyche to the depths of each individual listener’s. The synths on the album coil themselves around Parker’s sexy falsetto, but they still don’t take away from the poignant lyricism. Thematically, the album is all about growth. Whether it’s personal growth or emotional growth, every chord has a specific purpose: to strike some sort of emotion in the listener. Currents is one of the most effective pieces of musical art we got this decade. Listen to: “Yes I’m Changed” and “Cause I’m A Man”

16. The Weight of These Wings (Miranda Lambert, 2016)

RCA Nashville

Back in 2017, I named Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man” the best single of the year. The delicate and yearning ballad is probably the best representation of its parent album. The Weight of These Wings, a concept album inspired, in part, by her divorce from Blake Shelton, is Miranda’s magnum opus. The country star channeled every fiber of her being into crafting one of the most emotional records of the decade. Miranda always had pop appeal, as made evident by Platinum, but she eschewed all of those sensibilities in favor of a folkier sound that was steeped in americana influences and traditional country. There’s so much Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn on this record, but the best thing is: there’s so much Miranda. Miranda has always released personal songs, but this record felt straight out of her diary. She was able to turn one of the most specific life events imaginable into one of her most universal records. Listen to: “To Learn Her” and “Tin Man”

15. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West, 2010)

Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella

It’s a really awkward paradox when one of an artist’s strongest releases is arguably the beginning of their artistic decline. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a showcase for Kanye to prove just how far he could stretch himself before the cracks truly started to show. The sprawling record was a culmination of the soul sample-based sound of his first triumvirate of albums and the Auto-Tune and electronic influences of 808s & Heartbreak. Sonically, the album transcends genre and time. Of course, at its core, the record is mainly rap but moments like Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse and the intro of “Runaway” took the influence of past rap icons and twisted it into something new and futuristic. Fantasy was also the beginning of Kanye’s major shift in lyricism. While his raps were normally witty and personal, Fantasy saw a change into more elaborate metaphors that often cracked under their own weight. It’s one of Kanye’s great statements, in short. The album is gaudy and grandiose and it really shines when it wears its extravagance on its sleeve like on “All of the Lights” or “So Appalled.” West helped push rap to new heights in the 00s, and the 10s were no different. This was just arguably the last time he did so this decade. Listen to: “Lost in the World (feat. Bon Iver)” and “Devil In a New Dress (feat. Rick Ross)”

14. Norman F*****g Rockwell! (Lana Del Rey, 2019)

Polydor/Interscope

Lana’s hazy melancholic sound revived a sort of hopelessly hopeful Americana image that had been missing from America’s mainstream for quite some time. Her image and music influenced a plethora of new artists (Zella Day, Billie Eilish) and even some of our biggest mainstream pop stars (Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”). On her most recent album, the 2x Grammy-nominated Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana was able to turn her pensive sound into something so quietly optimistic that it comes as a surprise. Over delicate piano, sweeping strings, and laid back surf rock, Lana crafts some of her greatest love songs and most introspective tracks. She roots her music in the literary world of Sylvia Plath and the artistic world of Slim Aarons. However, her music never feels pretentious or “highbrow,” she’s simply creating what she feels meant to create. Listen to: “Norman F*****g Rockwell” and “The greatest”

13. ANTi (Rihanna, 2016)

Westbury Road/Roc Nation

It’s a privilege to watch artists grow up before our eyes. Rihanna had already covered every genre and tried on every wig in the known universe by the time we truly settled into our four-year wait for ANTI, her eighth album. So, what did she do? She made her first record that unequivocally felt and sounded like a body of work. She let go of pretty much any straightforward attempts to craft a radio hit, and just made music that reflected her soul, heart, and mind. There’s the chaotic “Woo,” a warbling Weeknd-influenced moment of angst, her instantly iconic Tame Impala cover, “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” and her sparkling Prince homage in “Kiss It Better.” Rihanna has always thrived when her songs were easy to break down and follow, but on ANTI she threw all of that out of the window in favor of moody interludes and rich mixtures of cloud R&B, soul, rap, and psychedelic pop. Listen to: “Consideration (feat. SZA)” and “James Joint”

12. Ctrl (SZA, 2017)

Top Dawg/RCA

There is a strong case to be made for naming Ctrl the best debut album of the decade. SZA’s debut was the type of masterful and raw R&B record that covered black womanhood, self-esteem, self doubt, love, sex, family, and just growing up. Ctrl defines that period of time in everyone’s lives: they’re starting to steer their own course, but get into at least three wrecks per minute on the way. Multiple songs are accented by short monologues from SZA and her family members, further grounding the album in the rich lineage of black women and their experiences. She shifts from spacey R&B midtempos to full on pop anthems throughout the record. Yet, she still finds time to lean into her hip-hop roots and deliver emotional and soulful vocal performances. It’s very rare to see a debut album with such a fully-formed and complete vision. Listen to: “20 Something” and “Garden”

11. channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean, 2012)

Def Jam

If SZA has any competition for the “Best Debut Album of the 2010s” title, it would be Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE. The instantly iconic album created a cinematic marriage of Ocean’s trademark storytelling and grandiose production. Arguably, this was the album that really started to drive alternative R&B, or PBR&B as we called it back then, into the mainstream. His piercing falsetto drove “Thinking Bout You” to classic status and his willingness to play with song structures resulted in the glorious “Pyramids” and “White.” Many artists have seen their downfall when they try to mix flamboyant metaphors with intensely personal lyrics, but Frank blooms in that arena. His metaphors are witty and he delivers them over a controlled mixture of ambient, soul, classical, and hip-hop stylings. This album was a radical statement of what mainstream R&B would soon be. Truly, it was ahead of its time. Listen to: “Pilot Jones” and “Pyramids”

10. 21 (Adele, 2011)

XL/Columbia

When album is the the most successful of its decade, it better be good. 21, Adele’s landmark sophomore album, is better than good. This is the quintessential break up album of the decade, and arguably the century. Adele’s tone has often masked her less-than-impressive vocal technique, but with such honest songwriting and soulful instrumentation, does it really matter? In many ways this is a more than a romantic break-up album. On 21, Adele is breaking up with her teenage years and charting her way through this turbulent and unpredictable thing called life. She has the spunk of the classic vocal divas along with a distinct rasp that allows her to convey different layers of anguish and anger on this record. With pop music, it’s pretty easy to hear if a song was written specifically to be a hit single or not. None of the tracks on 21 sound like that, Adele was just able to perfectly capture her personal experiences and recount them in a universal way. The 21 era occurred alongside the rise and dominance of EDM. This ballad-driven album was an organic escape from the clubs and into our own tattered hearts and minds. Listen to: “He Won’t Go” and “Don’t You Remember”

9. good kidm.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar, 2012)

Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

Like Beyoncé, Kendrick makes movies when he makes albums. Good kid, m.A.A.d. city, is still Kendrick’s most introspective work to date. On the album, his narrative of his childhood and adolescence is set against a backdrop downbeat production and subtle piano chords. The album is a somber affair that occasionally reaches moments of high intensity like on “M.A.A.D. City.” Kendrick layers his vocals like a singer on this album, and each voice is symbolic of the many ones in his head that pull him in a thousand different directions. Kendrick switches his flows so quickly you don’t even realize how skilled he is until you break it down and give it a close listen. As per usual, his wordplay is unmatched and his ability to play with his tone and voice and create different characters add more color to his music. With this being his major label debut album, the record is decidedly more polished than Section.80, but every bit as excellent, if not more. Listen to: “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Real (feat. Anna Wise)”

8. When I Get Home (Solange, 2019)

Saint Records/Columbia

Haters will say that this was a disappointing album. They’re dead wrong. After looking outwards with A Seat at the Table, Solange made the conscious decision to look inwards on her 2019 follow up, When I Get Home. The record is all about finding yourself and finding your way back home. Many have called this album Solange’s Secret Life of Plants moment. The most striking thing about this album is how quiet it is. Music in the 2010s was often stacked to the brim with every vocal effect, production tool, and Apple loop in existence. There’s a stark and almost therapeutic silence to When I Get Home. Solange pulls from jazz and trap to ruminate on her own life and purpose. If Table was concerned with centering and magnifying Solange’s blackness in spite of her audience, Home is more preoccupied with Solange’s existence as a black woman and the trauma she is working through, with no regard for who is listening. Listen to: “Dreams” and “Binz”

7. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (A Tribe Called Quest, 2016)

Epic

As social media quickly dominated the 2010s, it felt as if everything was moving at quadruple speed. A one year break felt like five, and a five year break felt like twenty. The music landscape quickly evolved from indie pop/rock to dance and EDM and then to hip-hop and rap. How were legacy acts supposed to fit in this new era where 50 new artists pop up per week and meme culture drove the industry as much as radio or sales? When A Tribe Called Quest delivered We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, their first studio album in eighteen(!) years, they put any questions about aging musical acts to bed. Rap has arguably enjoyed the most interesting evolution this decade, and on this record, the rap collective chose to draw from 80s and 90s R&B instead of the boom-bap of their past and the trap of rap’s present and future. As usual, their bold lyrics centered and uplifted the power of black people and offered inspirational and insightful political commentary. With contributions from Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, and Kanye West, Tribe got to work with the artists they influenced and they struck a beautiful symbiotic musical relationship with them. Listen to: “Dis Generation” and “Ego”

6. BEYONCÉ (Beyoncé, 2013)

Parkwood/Columbia

Where were you when that digital dropped? If I remember correctly, I was studying for a history exam and I took a break for a scroll on Instagram. I saw the album trailer, immediately ran to iTunes and purchased the album, and successfully devised a plan to fake a sickness so I could skip school the next day to listen to the album. Of course, the impact this album had on the music industry is historic and unmatched by any release this decade. Nevertheless, the music holds up, and that’s the key: the digital drop was iconic because the visuals and music were equally as great as the marketing strategy. BEYONCÉ was a blend of everything we knew and loved about Beyoncé: her rap-singing (“Yoncé”), soulful power ballads (“XO,” “Pretty Hurts”) and sexy love anthems (“Drunk in Love”). But this was also the album where she truly became fearless with her production choices. The bewitching “Haunted,” for example, borrows equally from rock, electronica, pop, and soul. Then there’s the neo-soul new age jazz-influenced masterpiece in “No Angel,” and the saccharine disco pop confection in “Blow.” Queen Bey also completely ignored traditional structures in favor of long-winding songs that seamlessly flow through two or three different evolutions of the same track (“Mine,” “Haunted,” “Partition,” “Blow,” etc.). Finally, Beyoncé sold sex alongside her unabashed feminism, something that we hadn’t seen on scale this large since Madonna, arguably. With production from Bey herself, Pharrell, BOOTS, Detail, Chairlift, Frank Ocean, and more, this is a defining album of the decade. Fearlessness, that’s what this album is all about. Listen to: “No Angel” and “Mine”

5. Dirty Computer (Janelle Monáe, 2018)

Wondaland/Bad Boy/Atlantic

Last year, I named Dirty Computer the best album of 2018. I still stand by that choice. Remember The ArchAndroid? Well, Dirty Computer is part of that same thematic universe, but musically, Janelle made her sound more accessible to the average listener without sacrificing her artistic integrity. With notes of trap, funk, soul, rock, hip-hop, pop, and rap, Dirty Computer is quintessentially American. The album, Janelle’s triumphant look at black queer womanhood, rings with freedom and pride so strong that you can’t help but to feel her conviction yourself. The album uses its sugary-sweet pop sheen to add some levity to its bold political statements. Take two of the album’s singles, “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel,” for example. The former was a catchy hook-less rap track with an irresistible flow through which Janelle rapped militaristic and empowering lines about the power and magic of black women. The latter, a funky Prince-homage, gifted listeners an audacious and non-exploitative declaration and celebration of black queer womanhood. This album is America in all of its 2010s glory. Listen to: “Screwed (feat. Zoë Kravitz)” and “Americans”

4. Black Messiah (D’Angelo and the Vanguard, 2014)

RCA

Like A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo also took a lengthy hiatus between his most recent studio albums. Fourteen years, to be exact. Over those fourteen years, D’Angelo took his time crafting one of the most intricate and rewarding musical tapestries of the decade. The jazz and funk-influenced neo-soul record covered the African-American experience in terms of race politics, state violence, love, and generational trauma. The weight of the subject matter is offset by D’Angelo’s soothing falsetto and sweeping arrangements. In the 2010s, it was exceptionally easy for an album to sound overproduced. Nonetheless, with a musical ear as trained and as skilled as D’Angelo’s what could have been overproduction instead sounds like the meticulousness of an artist who only wants to produce the best work possible. While R&B lumbered forward into a plethora of different routes and, arguably, further away from its roots, Black Messiah called back to what makes the genre so rich: it’s humanity and willingness to engage with every facet of said humanity. Listen to: “Sugah Daddy” and “1000 Deaths”

3. Blonde (Frank Ocean, 2016)

Boys Don’t Cry

With Channel ORANGE, we knew what was going on. The general roadmap of the album wasn’t difficult to follow and the sounds were familiar but still innovative. “Nikes,” the first song on the album, effectively destroyed whatever we thought we were going to get from Frank’s second proper album. With a pitched-up vocal, a rap-sung outro, and a reference to the deaths of Pimp C and Trayvon Martin, Blonde was immediately set up to be something fantastic that we wouldn’t immediately understand. The album plays with pitch effects, Auto-Tune, and dry guitars for most of its run. Blonde is an enigmatic record; the drug-infused lyrics simultaneously reveal too much about the listener, but never enough about Frank himself. It’s an intensely personal collection of songs that perfectly captures the general mood of 2010s R&B and pop. Not only is Blonde a remarkably sad album, it also tackles the relationship between romance and social media head on. Where his debut was almost exclusively concerned with universalizing the personal, Blonde aims to personalize the political. Frank does all of this while tying the album’s alternative R&B sound to soul (through a Stevie Wonder sample on “Close to You”) and traditional gospel-influenced R&B (Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan, and Kim Burrell are all uncredited backing vocalists). The point of Blonde isn’t to understand it, it’s to get lost in all of its sublime idiosyncrasies. Listen to: “Self Control” and “Godspeed”

2. Lemonade (Beyoncé, 2016)

Parkwood/Columbia

What does black music sound like in the 2010s? One of the most powerful music moments of the 2010s was the mainstream finally beginning to acknowledge the fact that virtually every form of American music has its roots in black history. What better way to explore black womanhood, marital trauma, and triumph than to create an album that incorporates every major American genre? Beyoncé’s Lemonade, one of the most powerful pieces of art of all time, did just that. “You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath.” The opening line of Lemonade immediately evokes an uneasy restlessness and suspicions which soon evolve into raging anger and then reaffirming bliss. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is an audiovisual odyssey of the Black woman in America and her experiences with love, marriage, divorce, and reconciliation. By far, Beyoncé’s most mature and personal work, Lemonade is a tragically beautiful album that allows us to see more about the life of the notoriously private Mrs. Knowles-Carter. The album is literally a musical interpretation of the Kübler-Ross model of the Stages of Grief; each song represents a different emotion on Bey’s journey to healing and forgiveness. With guests like The Weeknd, Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, and James Blake, Beyoncé pulls from every corner of the musical universe to create one of the most poignant and passionate albums of the century. Listen to: “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Pray You Catch Me”

1. To Pimp a Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar, 2015)

Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

To Pimp a Butterfly, the greatest album of the 2010s. Kendrick’s sophomore album is an essential listen for anyone looking to get a grasp of the past decade in music. To Pimp a Butterfly took the intense black politics of Black Messiah and ran. Over a soundscape exclusively influenced by jazz, funk, and soul, Kendrick created an album that was less autobiographical and more of an allegory for black Americanness. The funky bounce of “King Kunta” juxtaposes a bright instrumental and flow with the dark bravado and empowerment provided by his interpretation of Kunta Kinte, the iconic Roots character. A similar sonic relationship between the production and lyricism on the anthemic “Alright”; The euphoric chanting of the chorus offsets the necessary optimism of black America in the face of police brutality. There’s even the juxtaposition of entire songs like “i” and “u.” The former is motivational uptempo while the latter is length ramble on depression and mental illness. To Pimp a Butterfly is a fierce and fearless blend poetry and music. The album’s narrative is tied together by poem entitled “Another Nigga.” Excerpts of the poem are recited throughout the album with the poem being read in its entirety during the final track, “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man,” in itself, is a combination of music, poetry, and an “interview” between Kendrick and Tupac. In fact, that track sums up what makes Butterfly so terrific. Kendrick leans into the deepest roots of hip hop (spoken word, jazz/funk influences) to frame his exploration of contemporary black America. To Pimp a Butterfly is an inherently prideful album, but that’s not its aim. This is an album to soundtrack a movement, it’s an album to keep us moving forward, it’s an album to remind us that we have had (and always will have) the power to move mountains. Half a decade later, we are still discovering new things about this multilayered record, and it remains the greatest project of the decade.

16 Comments

  1. Great list. Got 17 of your top 25, so must check out D’Angelo. Also 2020 has started great with Fiona Apple, Moses Sumney and Waxahatchee being the best I’ve heard so far.

    Like

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