Why now? Because — and there’s no reason to ignore the elephant in the room: SPIN stewardship has changed hands many, many times since we made the online jump — we got our chance. Because plenty of our favorite albums of the last 10 years could still use a boost. Because some of the already unanimously beloved music on this list still merits further praise. Because we relish excuses to sound off on the music that’s affected us the most and to enlist some of our favorite writers to do so. Because the works of art below serve as a reminder that the 2010s weren’t all bad. Because lord knows we need the distraction. Because it’s fun.
There’s a lot of music that isn’t on this list. Which, duh, but plenty of artists whose work defined the decade for many, many people, including many of us, just wouldn’t fit. Some of these artists didn’t move us as much as they did other braintrusts of music writers. Some were cherished by past incarnations of SPIN and haven’t aged as we hoped; some were overrated in the first place. Some are overrepresented in critical circles at the expense of other artists who aren’t viewed as equally valid, and some we don’t even like. Many, many artists we love we just didn’t have room for. Have fun guessing who’s who: LCD Soundsystem, the War on Drugs, Tame Impala, Carly Rae Jepsen, Father John Misty, Jay-Z, FKA twigs, Joyce Manor, Kacey Musgraves, Sleep, Arcade Fire, 03 Greedo, G.L.O.S.S., Daft Punk, Cobalt, Bad Bunny, Calvin Harris, HAIM, Jon Hopkins, Mbongwana Star, Rae Sremmurd, SunnO))), the National, Migos, DJ Koze, the New Pornographers, St. Vincent, D’Angelo, M83, Foxing, Tyler, the Creator, Angel Olsen, Group Doueh, Nick Cave, Perfume Genius, Vince Staples, Todd Terje, Kurt Vile, SZA, Tim Hecker, Spoon, Brockhampton, Shabazz Palaces, Torche, Moodymann, CupcakKe, Lorde, the late, irreplaceable David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. And those are just the ones we know you’re gonna ask about.
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What does that leave then? The most pleasurable, innovative, infinitely replayable, groundbreaking, heartbreaking, hilarious, challenging, emotionally overwhelming, unrelenting, memorable, did-we-already-say-pleasurable collections of music that we leaned on over the last 10 years for pure life-enhancing sensation. Some of these albums taught us something. Some of them made us dumber. Some of them, for better or worse, defined the concerns and musical trends of the 2010s. Others we wish had that kind of reach. And perhaps most importantly, many of these artists and works upended the status quo as the world questioned its power structures like never before. One of them is still Drake. Here are the 101 albums and album-shaped music packages that SPIN would most prefer the past decade to be remembered for, and we guarantee you’ll find at least one new discovery to change your listening habits, if not your world.
101. Drake, Take Care (2011)
This guy. For better or worse, Drake was the 2010s. He ran so far with Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak playbook that he eclipsed its creator, spotted trends faster than Tan France when he landed on the French-tuck, and rode waves harder than an Olympic surfer. He also brought emo’s worst tendencies to rap music, with a weird, condescending streak towards women whom he expects to return his texts even after they’ve got whole new lives, even whole new kids. His unedited self-indulgence extended to his album lengths: From 2016 to 2018 alone he released more than 252 minutes in combined full-lengths (or playlists or whatever he wants to call them to avoid criticism) without even factoring in his loosies and guest spots on others’ work. The album dedicated to his perilously delayed fatherhood announcement also found him rapping about having “Mob Ties” (???). He was oversharing run amok, the perpetually thirsty mayor of the friend zone. He’s also the most-streamed artist of all-time. His unhealthiest songs — drunk-dialing classic “Marvin’s Room,” the delusional “Hotline Bling,” a Rihanna duet where the hook is literally Drake telling a woman he’s too good for her — have often become his biggest. A great deal of his fame and fortune has come from all of this being mistaken for sensitivity.
Take him or leave him, Drake made his best, most enjoyable work with Take Care, diluting his self-pity with seductive party anthems like “Crew Love,” featuring a just-discovered fellow Torontonian known as the Weeknd (who was responsible for a sizable chunk of the record). Top-shelf Rihanna, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj duets break up all the breakup tunes, with the new star holding his own on every one, eventually drawing the entire musical universe into his overcast, fame-obsessed world. He deserves credit for making it not just okay but cool for a rapper to talk about his insecurities at length, and his ability to weave in pop culture from all corners — turning “Back That Azz Up” into a melancholy bedroom banger, referencing George Strait — is unmatched by virtually anyone. He could stay on top for another six years, or less than six months, but the last decade unquestionably belonged to him, and Take Care is where to direct anyone who’s still wondering why. — Brenton Blanchet
100. Best Coast, Crazy for You (2010)
From DIY venues in Los Angeles to the vinyl display of every Urban Outfitters in America, Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno’s debut full-length heralded the return of ’60s-style girl-group vibes fuzzed over with millennial stoner malaise. Cosentino’s sun-dazed songs about the paralysis of heartbreak had more staying power than the men who inspired them, particularly the inescapable “Boyfriend” and “Our Deal.” When she unforgettably sang “I wish my cat could talk” on “Goodbye,” her prayers were nearly answered when her feline Crazy for You cover star Snacks became internet-famous in his own right. — John Paul Bullock
99. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015)
Internet rap-mixtape fame that ballooned during a widely publicized stint at a reform school “for at-risk boys” forced Thebe Neruda Kgositsile to grow up in public. His evolution from Rakim-in-troll’s-clothing continued with this sophomore LP, a fistful of bleak, introspective Polaroids from the edge, which also introduced us to his matching, claustrophobic self-production style. Paranoia, weed smoke, dense word-blocks, and matte-black beats swirl like a loner’s vape clouds within a taut, half-hour frame. “Name gettin’ bigger than the difference between us / Niggas is fake, I limit the features I give ‘em,” Earl spits, conceding that his brand is passive-aggressive panic management. On the depressive I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, “Sweat. Shirt.” wasn’t just his rallying cry but also an item he taught hip-hop to slump around the house in. — Raymond Cummings
98. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest (2010)
Halcyon Digest is a tranquil coda to Deerhunter’s lustrous indie-rock breakthrough on 2008’s Microcastle, nestling into dreaminess throughout most of the record — from the astral projection of “Earthquake” to the layered guitar jangle of “Revival.” (At one point, a harmonica appears. No one said dreams make sense.) Bradford Cox remained the band’s creative engine, one of the most unpredictable bandleaders in the business, and his songwriting evolved in stream-of-consciousness and accessibility at the same rate. But the indisputable peak of Halcyon Digest came on “Desire Lines,” one of two tracks spearheaded by guitarist Lockett Pundt; it builds patiently for six-plus minutes, wrapping with a majestic instrumental climax built on interlocking electric guitars that spiral into infinity. And that’s not even the last time the album does that. — Ryan Reed
97. Anderson .Paak, Malibu (2016)
We never forgot the dot after this one. After overcoming homelessness, doing a bid as a drummer for an American Idol finalist, and winning over rap’s greatest A&R man Dr. Dre, Anderson .Paak secured the bag and banged out his soul with his wave-crushing sophomore effort. From the subtle horns in “The Bird” to the heavy drum fills of “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” to the atmospheric funk of “Am I Wrong,” .Paak channeled both Kendrick Lamar’s rasp and Smokey Robinson’s beauty; it’s no surprise both would become collaborators. You can hear his jubilance at finally getting the world’s attention, and he gives that energy back to his strongest set of songs. With love to August Alsina, no other XXL Freshman has had pipes like this, or for that matter, the chops. After Malibu, .Paak earned the right to follow-up with a record called Yes Lawd. — B.B.
96. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (2016)
Chancelor Bennett’s third label-free outing transcended the general idea of the mixtape-as-secondary-release, a powerful, gospel-informed examination of everyman issues like love, family, and faith. The exuberant Chicago rhymer had already become one of the biggest success stories in the early days of SoundCloud, not just performing on SNL as a nominally unsigned artist but eventually hosting and it was Coloring Book that established that Chance was at the forefront of popular music — indie or otherwise. Book builds on what recent Kanye has attempted with less self-awareness; Chance is adept at conveying Christian themes in a cohesive hip-hop album-whether-he-likes-it-or-not that never sounds didactic. “Angels” is one of the most life-affirming songs of the past 20 years by anyone to grace a mic. The guy wears so many hats, it’s a wonder that he’s stuck with that infamous “3” cap for so long. — Stereo Williams
95. The Hotelier, Home, Like NoPlace Is There (2014)
If there’s an album that better exemplifies the 2010s “emo revival” shift — away from slick, problematic mall-punk and toward pure, cathartic fucking bloodletting — it’s probably hiding on some teenager from Akron’s Bandcamp page, waiting to be discovered by the next wave of genre pioneers. The Hotelier’s 2014 breakout is alternately uncomfortable and awe-inspiring, a concerted effort by frontperson Christian Holden to exorcise demons of all stripes. Their novelistic retellings of funerals, splintering friendships, and that old standby, crushing depression, are a work of art unto themselves, but they’re bolstered by the band’s ability to run emo’s full gamut, from pop-punk (“In Framing”) to screamo (“Life in Drag”) to noisy, sloppy Midwest fare (“The Scope of All This Rebuilding”).
Unlike many of their forebears, Holden’s lamentations are defined by empathy over selfishness, especially on “Housebroken,” where a sexist relationship is portrayed as an owner abusing his dog. Home, Like NoPlace Is There asks its listeners to rethink what “emo” means while simultaneously hitting every one of the genre’s benchmarks — which is probably why this site named it the best album of its entire kind. — Patrick Lyons
94. Arca, Mutant (2015)
After collaborations with Björk, Kanye West, and FKA twigs, Alejandra Ghersi’s 2015 breakthrough shattered expectations and redefined her vividly amorphous sound again and again like radioactive Play-Doh over the course of a single 20-track album. Mutant does exactly what it says; it grows, changes, and doubles back on itself, rarely sounding like anything you’ve heard before. It’s a beautiful and often harrowing journey through experimental synth-driven electronica. “Vanity” hisses, squeaks, and stutters its way to a majestic pounding climax. “EN” pushes a vocal sample to its limit then twists it into a double-helix with a searing wall of white noise. And “Soichiro” starts as an atmospheric piece of movie music then descends into the comic horror of a solo organ line for almost a full minute before jacking back up into a crashing, transcendent finale. What, you thought it was safe to sit still? — J.P.B.
93. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)
“Elevator Operator,” the opener from Courtney Barnett’s first true LP, follows a dead-eyed 20-year-old who ascends an Australian retail building and contemplates life on the roof while bystanders beg him not to jump. That’s the big picture, but the real joy is found in the filler: The pyramids he builds out of Coke cans in the grass, the visions of SimCity as he stares down at the ant-like people, the tortoiseshell necklace that dangles between a woman’s breasts. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit thrives on the ultra-specific world-building of a master storyteller — albeit one who often uses her deadpan delivery to insult herself and loves her some loud distortion. Barnett’s little details stick with you: The photo of a Vietnam vet glimpsed by house-hunters in the folksy “Depreston” (which sounds like a Juno soundtrack reinterpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”), or the origami she folds her money into on grunge-pop centerpiece “Pedestrian at Best.” She’d never run out of origami after this one. — R.R.
92. DaBaby, Blank Blank (2018)
It’s increasingly easy to overlook since he released three more successful albums in the next 18 months, but Blank Blank was DaBaby’s tipping point. The Charlotte, North Carolina rapper had refined his goofball charisma over the course of a dozen mixtapes, cycling through early gimmicks like the name Baby Jesus and wearing a diaper at SXSW, until he reached his final form: Just a guy in a Hornets jersey rapping loopy boasts like “Pulled up with that tool in an Uber / I’m in the pool with a cougar.” Not to mention his DIY hooks sung in his signature baritone without electronic aid. Blank Blank was initially distributed by Roc Nation before it was re-released by Interscope two months later, with the barrage of punchlines on the wonderfully obnoxious “Walker Texas Ranger” becoming a viral video and the blithely flirty “21” breaking him through on the radio. But before the chart ubiquity, DaBaby had just these 24 minutes of near-constant bars, with the occasional literal two-second pause to call himself the best motherfuckin’ rapper and issue the command “next song!” to the engineer. — Al Shipley
91. Charli XCX, Pop2 (2017)
The pop star’s pop star, or maybe Dr. Frankenstein’s: a restless lab-coated formalist for whom boys and parties and Auto-Tune are only so many volatile neon liquids, piped in colorful corkscrews from beaker to centrifuge in hope of explosions. Pivoting from a foundered line of investigation into mainstream pop stardom on 2014’s “Boom Clap,” Charli and a rotation of likeminded collaborators (jobbing Dane MØ; much-missed prodigy CupcakKe; fellow pop-gratis-pop miniaturist Carly Rae Jepsen) began a new research partnership with PC Music head A.G. Cook, recklessly dissolving Charli’s syrupy, super adhesive melodies in experimental acid-bath production. Presenting their findings on Pop2, the team is interrupted after only three minutes and 17 seconds by a gargantuan rubbery synth line that suddenly bursts from the mix like a kaiju. The rest — of this delirious blurt of a posse album — is rampage. — Theon Weber
90. Superchunk, I Hate Music (2013)
“I hate music, what is it worth? / Can’t bring anyone back to this Earth,” Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan sings at the beginning of “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” insisting in a moment of grief that he can’t find solace in music, but trying anyway. The death of the band’s longtime friend Dave Doernberg looms over the album much like McCaughan’s breakup with bassist Laura Ballance haunted 1994’s Foolish, the band’s weightiest and most emotional album before I Hate Music. For the first time, the eternally youthful North Carolina quartet that made “Hyper Enough” sounds aware of their own mortality, and the rasp creeping into McCaughan’s voice suits him on slow burners like the partially acoustic opener “Overflows,” while his falsetto register proves even more powerful as the band rushes through each breakneck chorus of “Void.” And “Trees of Barcelona” and “Breaking Down” make for stirring festival indie singalongs that suggest Superchunk’s mentorship of younger bestsellers via their own Merge Records has rubbed off on them. Great bands rarely sound like they still have a stride to hit on their 10th album, but I Hate Music puts Superchunk in elite company with the Stones, Sonic Youth, and few others. — A.S.
89. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound (2017)
Americana hero Isbell paid his dues all the way from spotlight-stealing Drive-By Truckers third-banana to topping Billboard’s rock and country charts with 2015’s Something More Than Free, but his real gift is for being so straight-laced that it exposes the absurdity of conventions his sensible sanity out-norms. So it’s no surprise that his best album concerns his “Anxiety” with the privilege he wields in a “White Man’s World” and doesn’t sound like your Aunt Jemima-missing Facebook aunt when he sputters, “I can’t enjoy a Goddamn thing.” But there’s nothing straight-laced in the joke about his own audience “clapping on the one and the three,” or the sudden admission “I used to want to be a real man / I don’t know what that even means,” or the shuffling “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” speed that carries the “Cumberland Gap” chorus away. — Dan Weiss
88. Homeboy Sandman, Kindness for Weakness (2016)
In his unsigned days, along with Creature, C-Rayz Walz, and the legendary Percee P, Homeboy Sandman used to stand in front of Fat Beats hawking his tapes to shoppers on the way out. But by 2016, the lyrical mastermind of Elmhurst, Queens was an established artist on a venerated label, and used his third missive for Stones Throw Records to reflect on the calm before the Trump shitstorm. With beats by sample-adept freethinkers such as Georgia Anne Muldrow, Edan, and Jonwayne, Kindness for Weakness had a looseness that allowed the mid-30s rapper to drop introspection in new ways, such as on “Talking (Bleep),” where he plays Gil-Scott Heron to Edan’s Brian Jackson in a psych-funk talking blues: “Yo, I was riding my bike down the bike path / Going the wrong way, but who’s to say what the wrong way is? / Unless they not minding they business / Along comes this chick, like ‘You’re going the wrong way mister’ / In her brain she thought she was an authority figure.” Karens, man. — Ron Hart
87. My Bloody Valentine, m b v (2013)
Oh… you had to wait four years for a new Frank Ocean album? Don’t ever try being a My Bloody Valentine fan. By early 2013, most fans had given up hope of ever receiving a proper follow-up to 1991’s Loveless. It was like waiting for Andy Kaufman to reveal he’s alive: Sure, that would be cool, but who’s really naïve enough to still hold out hope? That m b v came into existence somewhere other than Kevin Shields’ hard drive felt like enough of a divine intervention. Even more miraculously, the album managed to live up to its comically long gestation period, recapturing the inscrutable melodic haze of Loveless while veering into sharper, more aggressive terrain during its final act (sup, “Nothing Is”). The album even helped spark a mini-shoegaze revival, as bands like Slowdive and Ride reformed after long absences and welcomed an appreciative new generation of fans into the fold. Now if only Shields would admit it went platinum. — Zach Schonfeld
86. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, Jama Ko (2013)
The return of individual players to the top of the musical presses would be so, so, welcome in the 2020s. Not that this bluesy, intricate Malian family outfit is going platinum or even earning $312 via Spotify anytime soon. But you don’t have to be an adept of African music to hear on first listen what kind of awe-combusting technique on Jama Ko can coexist with songform, groove, meditative beautiful music. You also don’t have to get far into track two to hear barn-incinerating rock’n’roll. There’s strong political content here, as Kouyate rejects fundamentalist Islam in a desert region with such proximity to the fraughtness that his own friend was the Malian president overthrown by military insurgence. And his network, from onetime bandleader Youssou N’Dour to genre-encyclopedic blues legend Taj Mahal, who cameos here, is impressive. But all you need know is what’s in your ear: The ngoni, Kouyate’s signature, lute-like instrument, and his spidery, unthinkably variegated prowess on it, underscoring his wife Amy Sacko’s fiery — as in warm — singing in a language your heart will understand. Play it for your favorite Bill Maher fan! — D.W.
85. Gary Clark Jr., This Land (2019)
Gary Clark Jr. spent his 2010s becoming music’s go-to guitarist and helping make “genre” itself something we may just leave out of the 2020s. No one else can boast of playing with Big K.R.I.T., Tech N9ne, Bun B and then jamming with B.B. King, Clapton, Petty, and Richards — and that was only the beginning. Clark’s third album, the smoldering This Land, completed his journey from smoky Austin blues clubs to the Hollywood Bowl, because he had almost as many things to say as he had styles to say them in. Confronting Trump-era racism upfront on the title track, he continues tearing down walls through the reggae-infused “Feelin’ Like a Million” and the ’50s garage-rocker “Gotta Get Into Something” with power and fury that no one expects of a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album. This Land was where he showed that he wasn’t just one of the most versatile guitarists of his generation already, but one of the best musicians, period. — Daniel Kohn
84. Diaphragmatic, Fear Biters (2013)
In an age where almost everything is streaming everywhere, there’s an extra hint of wonder to that which is only available physically — those artifacts discovered through happenstance. For this correspondent, Fear Biters was a fortunate $7 impulse buy from the Ende Tymes Festival 2014 merch table. Here, one Nate Tandy (former Ohioan, now residing in Hanoi) locates a harsh, mysterious beauty. Trundling, metallic pulses and rhythmic clatter intersect as post-industrial noise, an unwieldy crush of sonic samples, recordings, and manipulations that calls to mind scrapyards and factory floors. The effect is at once distinct and abstract, setting this project apart from other entries in the Harsh Noise Wall hall of fame; like Metal Machine Music, Tandy’s dense, caterwauling roil — his tortured vocals do eventually surface, buried in the mix — scalds itself onto the subconscious like a branding iron. How’d he do that? What components conspired to bend listener’s minds? I don’t know, neither do you — and neither of us really need to know to be floored by Diaphragmatic. In the experimental underground, great pleasures emerge from retail leaps of faith. — R.C.
83. BTS, LOVE YOURSELF 結 ‘Answer’ (2018)
The most popular group in the universe wasn’t even big in South Korea when they hit the scene seven years ago, fronting in ridiculous “street”-wear and armed (“We are bulletproof!”) with hard-rap tropes they were just too sweet to mean. But they found their footing and then some with the pop breakout of 2015’s The Most Beautiful Moment in Life and the art-forward flights of 2016’s Wings, and by the time they busted out their physics-defying choreography to “Idol” on Fallon — an Ed Sullivan moment, tbh — they’d already had a Billboard No. 1 album. This was their second: A marriage of Her’s day and Tear’s night, Bangtan Boys’ most ambitious full-length may be a singles genre’s best ever. From unassailable slaps (“DNA”, “MIC Drop”) to sinuous soul (“Singularity”, “Dimple”), crystalline love notes (“Euphoria”, “Magic Shop”) to breathtakingly vulnerable kissoffs (“Seesaw”, “The Truth Untold”), this is K-pop at an all-angles apex. With their UN visit proving the breadth of their ambitions, they may yet save the world. — Ryan Maffei
82. Counterparts, You’re Not You Anymore (2017)
Maybe kids call it metalcore or screamo or simply melodic hardcore but we know there’s never been a shortage of demand for loud, pummeling, oversized-load-truck-hitting-underpass music that emits rainbow-hued candy sparks on impact. All it needs is a T-shirt-worthy title, a 28-minute time limit to curb dehydration, and the inconceivably pretty fretwork blooming in the margins of “Arms Like Teeth.” The relentless battering ram of doubled kick drums, power-tool squeal-bends, U2-grade overlays of spotless reverb, and avoidance of waste itself is the hook. See you in the pit/pass the Kleenex. — D.W.
81. Sheer Mag, Compilation (I, II, & III) (2017)
This allegedly punk Philly five-piece actually serves up classic rock soul, glam-pop hooks, and Kyle Seely’s Thin Lizzy-bred guitar licks. Sheer Mag’s punk rep isn’t sonic — it’s in their deeply political lyrics and the praxis of putting out a DIY EP featuring singer Tina Halladay’s skull-shaking wail each year from 2014 to 2016. Compilation collects this trio (I, II, and III, Zeppelin-style), all self-recorded on a vintage eight-track in an improvised rowhouse studio and neighborhood practice space. Sheer Mag’s nostalgic warmth is solely musical and their pleasurable buzz is closer to a swarm of smart-ass bees than anything else you’d describe as warm and fuzzy. Full of rage and grief, their rallying cry for liberation and defiance holds even when they show some vulnerability. Resisting power, whether it’s the thrall of a noncommittal jerk (“Nobody’s Baby”) or an increasingly gentrified neighborhood’s slumlords (“Fan the Flames”), requires both a framework for action and the promise of pleasure to keep you moving. This band supplies both; “Action” means more than one thing after all. — Heather Batson
80. Run the Jewels, RTJ2 (2014)
Run the Jewels came into this world gift-wrapped for hip-hop fans on a free 2013 album everyone assumed was a one-off, but it was on the duo’s blockbuster sequel that they established a headliner’s agenda that would go on to dwarf their well-respected solo careers. The scrap-metal beats are meaner and the energy at once more ferocious and comedic. With a supporting cast that includes Zack de la Rocha, Gangsta Boo, and Travis Barker, Killer Mike and El-P aim their merciless rhymes not only at sworn fuckboy nemeses but at the perpetrators of all society’s ills. RTJ2 tackles economic inequality and militarized oppressors by shooting at exploitative CEOs and pedophilic priests. Sadly, the album has only become more relevant as America has rotted under the Trump presidency (which is why we need them more than ever). RTJ2 is the album that made Run the Jewels not just a sick what-if, but a downright important musical alliance. — Kat Bein
79. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (2010)
Steven Ellison was already an elite beatmaker as the decade began, weaving hip-hop groove with wonky electronic drums and disorienting samples on his 2008 breakout, Los Angeles. But he truly became a Low End Theory legend with the filmic, kaleidoscopic dreamscapes of Cosmogramma: Probing deeper into jazz and psychedelia, pulling A-list guest vocalists into his orbit (always forward-thinking radio-head Thom Yorke, bass virtuoso Thundercat) and blending live instruments into his uncanny swirl of off-the-beat programming. It’s the pinnacle of symphonic jazz-fusion/New Age/IDM since, ya know, no one but Ellison could even conjure up that combo. But Cosmogramma also helped Ellison and Thundercat set the stage for an experimental jazz renaissance following an all-time sales low, inspiring Kendrick Lamar’s off-kilter To Pimp a Butterfly and blazing a path for Kamasi Washington, Makaya McCraven, and others to repopularize the genre for a brand new audience. — R.R.
78. Zeal & Ardor, Devil Is Fine (2016)
The most original metal album of the decade proved everything (to 4chan, naturally) that Manuel Gagneux had to, in under 26 minutes, when some racist dared him in unprintable terms to fuse black metal and Black spirituals. Asking himself “what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” Gagneux produced this work of art (and a perfectly titled follow-up, Stranger Fruit) that transcends its thought-experiment beginnings by leaving them there. He deploys gospel-blues and kvlt noise only as needed — they can’t all be as incredible as “Blood in the River” chanting “a good God is a dead one” against clanking chains — so they coexist with synths, piano, and music box incorporated mainly to turn a great idea into a great listen. — D.W.
77. Charly Bliss, Young Enough (2019)
There was no way to improve on Charly Bliss’ effervescent 2017 debut, Guppy, which jam-packed a frankly absurd amount of caramelized hooks and riffs into 30 minutes of authentic Letters to Cleo-style bubblegrunge. Thankfully, their less crunchy follow-up aspires for something completely different. Young Enough is a longer, more patient, more dynamic listen that engages with much heavier subject matter while adopting a lighter sound more Carly Rae Jepsen than Kim Deal. Nowhere is this more carefully balanced than when Eva Hendricks bravely recounts the abuse she survived over the hyperglycemic bounce of “Chatroom.” Whether mimicking the silly rush of infatuation on “Under You” (“I’ll occupy your nation, fool!”) or bringing the Arcade Fire-worthy title track to its skyscraping emotional peak, her best moments on Young Enough harness something more than just a catchy melody, and feel, as Hendricks puts it, “almost too alive.” — P.L.
76. Eric Prydz, Opus (2016)
Eric Prydz is not flashy; surely there are more fun things to name a two-hour, two-CD opus than, uh, Opus. But it’s also his debut album, and what more needs to be said? It’s the ultimate musical stealthbrag. It’s also the best traditional EDM record you’ve ever heard, not least because it holds up for two fucking hours but it’s also a hell of a simulated rave for your airbuds, a window to the boundless paradise of desk-chair dancing and not caring how stupid your co-workers think you look. Still, it’s surprisingly austere for EDM — after all, the guy’s signature trick is one big heavy snare drum hit used as a fill the way you’d use a shot of a TV being thrown from a hotel window in a music video. It just lands beautifully, as punctuation, as ASMR, as circulatory system for your moving ass. Austere is good, though, because for once you know the simple, Kraftwerkian hooks of “Black Dyce,” rising and falling percolations of “Last Dragon,” and the accelerating title track are always taking you somewhere melodic rather than lulling you into highway hypnosis. It’s almost enough to make you want to pay festival prices. — D.W.
75. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer (2018)
Janelle Monáe’s third album features the electric nonbinary in slick and accessible mode; and the results are sparkly and spectacular. Monáe had always been creative and ambitious, but her earlier, conceptually driven work’s never this much fun (nor were her Grammy-winning collaborators fun., either). In the earlier days of Monáe’s career, she’d crafted a detached, otherworldly persona as a literal android; that slowly gave way to a more uninhibited version of the singer on Dirty Computer. Employing a serious Prince jonez (with an assist from the late-royalty himself) on “Make Me Feel,” rapping on “Django Jane,” and indulging Grimes at her freakiest on “Pynk,” this song cycle affirmed that Monáe’s craft is just as strong as her creative spirit and performing virtuosity. Monáe sustained her freewheeling persona, recruited legends like Brian Wilson and Stevie Wonder to ride shotgun, and delivered the best inter-being human/techno orgy since “Computer Blue.” — S.W.
74. billy woods + kenny segal, Hiding Places (2019)
Talk about hiding places; we’ve never seen his face and billy woods probably isn’t the rapper’s real name. He may be in his 40s, which would line up chronologically with the childhood memory of jostling the joysticks at the arcade he didn’t have quarters for on the gorgeous centerpiece “A Day in a Week in a Year.” But we know this guy: “Came back to God like, ‘Motherfucker, you promised,'” “You can’t eat pride,” “Salt, pepper, ketchup, barbeque sauce the eggroll,” “Ass kinda flat but that’s fine.” The very specific fucked economy that he and segal’s dilapidated beats evoke inspires the contemporary contempt of his Public Enemy update “I got a letter from my insurer the other day / Opened it and read it / Said the treatment wasn’t covered.” That song’s called “Bigfakelaugh.” He probably works in an arcade. — D.W.
73. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up (2015)
Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up might as well be called This Is 30. Blunt self-reprimands like “I’m sick of always being bored / I think I need a schedule” and “Got to stop doing things that are bad for me / ‘Cause I don’t want to live with disease” mark a coming-of-middle-age album that struggles to reconcile with the fact many traditional aspects of adulthood (marriage, homeownership, children) are now increasingly at odds with or completely out of reach of her listeners. This newfound maturity-in-immaturity’s clothing elevates I Want to Grow Up to a near-universal statement for a generation haunted by fading memories of the ’90s. It’s also a sonic evolution for Green, who leveled up her Orange County punk-meets-bedroom bubble-grunge sound with a proper backing band and real studio recordings. And because the 2010s scarcely produced an intimacy phobia song as gut-wrenchingly detailed as “Deeper Than Love,” she sings her truest love song to her TV. — J.P.B.
72. Lady Gaga, Born This Way (2011)
If The Fame, Lady Gaga’s 2008 debut album, introduced her as a pop-disco chancer with an artsy, NYU-alumnus aura, 2011’s Born This Way permanently cemented her as an international superstar on an Elton/Bowie/Freddie/Madge IV drip. Mother Monster conquered the world by upping her game on her sophomore effort with a bag of not just timeless dancefloor bangers but also a country power-ballad, one song apiece sung in deadpan German and theatrical Spanish, and some of Clarence Clemons’ final sax riffs. The world recognized the anthemic power of “The Edge of Glory” – full of cascading trance-tinged verses and a pounding house(-on-E-street) chorus – and the all-conquering number-one hit “Born This Way.” But the deep cuts also bounced around from “Hair,” a power-ballad tribute to her own locks, to the repurposed heavy metal guitars of “Bad Kids.” Born This Way made a feel-good story out of believing in one’s own hype, finally turning out songs as fascinatingly odd as her videos (and album cover), and turning our weirdest chart-topper in years into a stone-cold icon, albeit one who wouldn’t give up her meat couture for Lent. — Jolie Lash
71. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator (2017)
Though Hurray for the Riff Raff’s sixth album partially takes place in an ultragentrified New York of the future, at every turn, it is a eulogy. The Navigator is an Americana story, built around Navita, a teenage Puerto Rican runaway struggling with the limits of her freedom, much like singer Alynda Segarra after she left the Bronx at 17. Interpolating Puerto Rican bomba, salsa, and son into the band’s repertoire of roots, folk, and blues, Segarra’s storytelling is a hybrid folk history that displaces the shame that capitalism and migration force onto the individual responsibility of the colonized. It culminates in the achingly sung “Pa’lante,” titled after the newspaper published by the Young Lords and the Caribbean axiom for survival. Echoing the voices of Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, and Manuel from Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Segarra places Navita (and herself) in a long lineage bent to liberation and whose compass always points forward. — Stefanie Fernández
70. Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti (2017)
In the middle of the last decade, rap writers got really obsessed with creative descriptions for cutting-edge artists that downplayed their brilliance: Young Thug was “post-verbal,” Chief Keef “drowned his voice in processing like someone bent on murdering their personality through technology,” Playboi Carti’s self-titled 2017 debut was “a glorified beat tape with ad-libs.” Moreso than any contemporary, Carti fundamentally broke down what was previously thought of as “hip-hop” and reassembled it in his zooted image with no concessions to convention or tradition. The paradoxical, minimal-massive result is captured effortlessly on Playboi Carti, which was as much a coming-out party for prodigious synth wizard Pi’erre Bourne as its marquee name.
Before getting tapped to work with Kanye, Drake, and Travis Scott, the producer’s calling card was the woozy, oddly propulsive sleeper-hit “Magnolia,” where Carti cut a linear path through Bourne’s swirling textures. The duo is unstoppable whether they’re teaming up with Lil Uzi to flip a Beyoncé line into God-tier shit-talk on “wokeuplikethis*,” or robotripping to absurdity on “Yah Mean.” Playboi Carti throws every textbook it can find out of the window of a moving Benz, hits a puddle at full speed to drench nearby nerds, then sprouts rocket thrusters and jets to the moon. “Damn this shit so radical,” Carti proclaims in wonder, before authoritatively correcting himself: “Damn my shit so radical.” — P.L.
69. Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica (2011)
As the famous adage goes, Replica only sold several thousand copies, but everyone who bought one immediately went out and got a Roland SP-555, an Akai MPC sampler, and a hard drive packed with audio samples of ’80s television commercials. JK, it’s hard to imagine how you would go about imitating music like this even if you wanted to. Daniel Lopatin’s breakthrough album sculpts mesmerizing melodic fragments out of sampled voices from forgotten advertisements; “Sleep Dealer,” for instance, splices together disembodied bits of a 1988 Wrigley’s gum commercial. Although it was released at the height of the chillwave boom, Replica doesn’t employ its vintage source material in the service of a nostalgic haze. From the constantly mutating ambient desolation of “Remember” to the manipulated youth of “Child Soldier,” its textures still feel alien and unsettled nearly a decade later. — Z.S.
68. Britney Spears, Femme Fatale (2011)
Looking back, Femme Fatale was perhaps the album that helped solidify Britney Spears’ Las Vegas stint. Along with 2007’s Blackout, these twin mirrorball masterpieces found her embracing her full shamelessness and finding her comfort zone as a result. The pop star’s seventh studio LP is a swirl of sex and sadness that married then-burgeoning EDM and dubstep in a drive-through chapel. Since its 2011 release, the record’s swirl of Eurodance, electropop and trance has become even more infectious. Singles like the Kesha-penned “Till the World Ends,” “I Wanna Go” and “Hold It Against Me” aren’t lyrically complex by any means; Neil Strauss once wrote about trying out gross pickup techniques on Spears when he interviewed her, but lines like “If I said I want your body now / Would you hold it against me?” turned these around on such men for fun.
Often shortchanged by critics, the once-teen idol became a thrilling album artist six or seven albums in — and her high-quality control has now outlasted all of her TRL peers, inching her legacy closer to Donna Summer or Diana Ross (whose biggest album was her 10th) than most would care to admit. Femme Fatale has only gotten better with time, allowing deep cuts like “Gasoline” and “Selfish” finally get their due, and if anyone can keep us dancing ’til the world ends, it’s still Britney, bitch. — Ilana Kaplan
67. Hop Along, Painted Shut (2015)
The wandering, discursive song structures are Frances-Quinlan-the-writer’s. They pile syllables atop each other with the casual density of folk songs while a rhythm section led by her brother Mark ensures every twisty offshoot keeps rushing for a goal even as it wanders, like vines climbing a wall. Hop Along isn’t the only Philly band this decade to wrap singer-songwriter indie around northeastern-corridor emo, which knows a thing or two about piling up syllables. But they’re the only one that has Frances-Quinlan-the-singer, whose sharpened Leatherman of a voice can do crisp Jenny singsong, gravel-blasted Courtney howl, and/or the giddy elasticity of Bob vowels. It’s her expert shifts in register, as much as her band’s breakneck swing, that drive songs like “The Knock” and “Waitress” cathartically sunward. — T.W.
66. Honey Dijon, Essential Mix 7/22/17 (2017)
As an artist who cites four different countries’ editions of Vogue as influences, Honey Dijon had better have style. So that goes without saying. The Chicagoan DJ’s simultaneously runway- and underground-friendly sets find that happy midpoint between fashion and individualism, genre classics and curveballs that defy definition, giving a fuck about craft and not giving a fuck about rules. She’s a house DJ, and isn’t. You could play her 2017 BBC Essential Mix to impress someone with deeply entrenched guidelines about what dance music should be, and you could equally blow someone’s mind who doesn’t care for that culture’s regimentations at all.
For two hours it never lets up, from the queered-Sugarhill Gang single-entendres of Ragtyme’s “Fix It Man” to her own PLUR-funk “Look Ahead” with Tim K and Sam Sparro, the unrelenting basslines, squelchy synth chirps, and countless timbres of traditional 4/4 percussion all familiar and soul-massaging even when you haven’t heard one of them in your life. “It’s not my job to make other people feel comfortable about who I am,” Dijon stated matter-of-factly in a Channel 4 News segment on trans visibility. But like any world-class DJ, she’s great at making others feel comfortable about everything, and you just want to return the love. — D.W.
65. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me (2017)
The latter half of the 2010s felt dominated by grief, and we’re still mourning so much now. That’s how Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me could be so widely beloved and identified with. We were more ready to take in Phil Elverum’s overwhelming grief from losing his wife, Geneviève, to cancer, and to having to raise their daughter alone. A detail like Elverum collapsing over a just-arrived backpack his wife had ordered for their daughter in “Real Death” is beyond devastating. Being in public feels insurmountable (“My Chasm”), taking out the garbage is a test of will (“When I Take Out the Garbage at Night” — no metaphor will do). Grief tests you far more than the initial shock of death does. A Crow Looked at Me captures this honestly, without much dressing from Elverum’s hands or voice. These words of praise, like all of the ones that came in this album’s wake, feel all too faint. — A.O.
64. Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
Beyoncé has reigned as popular music’s most undeniable force for the better part of a decade; and no event in her career was more obvious in its world-changing ambitions than Lemonade. A magnum opus that tackles the pain of history and heartbreak in equal measure, her sixth album remains a groundbreaking audio/visual marvel. On emotional bloodlettings like “Sorry” and “Daddy Issues,” Bey navigates a flurry of topics and genres, working her way through contemporary country, protest marches, and hard rock, daring you to tell her what she can’t do. No work of art was more polarizing, more scrutinized, more conversation-worthy in 2016, and frankly, the entire decade gave us no album that was more talked about. Hillary Clinton quoted Lemonade, SNL parodied it, and phrases like “Becky with the good hair” and hot sauce in bags permanently entered the lexicon. It was enough to bring back memories of the monoculture. In an age where albums were beginning to feel arbitrary, Mrs. Carter reveled in the creative power of the medium — while pushing it to new heights. Lemonade is the rare pop album that positions itself as “important” and not only affirms that status but raises the bar on what a pop-culture event can be in the first place. — S.W.
63. Javiera Mena, Mena (2010)
Chilean dance-pop queen Javiera Mena has spent the past 15 years as one of pop music’s unsung visionaries, perfecting a unique style of analog-synth Hi-NRG back when guitars were still in vogue. And Mena is her masterpiece, an aural Molotov cocktail of disco and electro genres blended with Technicolor slow jams. From the blacklight stomp of “Hasta la Verdad” to the vivaciously minor-key pan-American anthem “Luz de Piedra de Luna,” there’s no shortage of bangers for your next foam party. Yet it’s love songs like the Jens Lekman duet “Sufrir” and closing tearjerker “Un Audífono Tu, Un Audífono Yo” that truly showcase the beauty behind the beats. It’s not often that a pop album can make you simultaneously dance and cry. — Andrew Casillas
62. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel… (2012)
If piano-blues dispatches from Fiona Apple’s inner storm system have become increasingly infrequent, they’re no less potent and heartfelt once they finally reach our ears. Her fourth LP is her most outwardly generous and internally conciliatory, as though she’s figured out how to solve the puzzle of herself. The hooks here are tauter and subtler, the playing rambunctious, lyrics unsparingly sharp, husky voice wistful and direct. The powerful bridge of “Daredevil” lays bare those needs felt by anyone who’s ever half-fallen in love: “Wake me up / Give me, give me, give me what you’ve got in your mind, in the middle of the night.” The gleaming “Every Single Night” self-diagnoses in mid-tempo; “Left Alone” and “Werewolf” offer long, searching glances in rearview mirrors. And the intricately arranged “Anything We Want” is the blessed promised land, free from strife and anguish, that everyone seeks in pursuit of romantic love. Here, as ever — see her 1997 VMAs “this world is bullshit” acceptance speech for the ignition — she remains a guiding beacon for any creative questers donning hearts on fraying sleeves. — R.C.
61. Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)
Mitski Miyawaki’s Puberty 2 is an album for the adolescence that comes after adolescence. The devastating crunch of “Your Best American Girl” was far and away Mitski’s most universally lauded song of the decade, an everygirl vindication against the lame white guys in whose image were taught to shape ourselves. Yet that hard-won self-acceptance is even more powerful in the context of the album, where Mitski charts a path to self-intimacy that is necessarily ugly, embarrassing, and self-denying, as on “Thursday Girl,” begging to be cut down: “Somebody, please / Tell me no, tell me no / Tell me no / Tell me no.” Puberty 2 isn’t just an album about being seen, but about the pain of being perceived, and the ecstasy that sometimes comes with disappearing.— S.F.
60. 100 gecs, 1000 gecs (2019)
When was the last time you heard a synthesis so original it broke your brain? Look at the YouTube comments on 100 gecs’ normie-slaying “Money Machine” video and watch commenters’ real-time battle between confusion and fascination. The Missouri-raised duo of Dylan Brady and Laura Les always wins that war, earning their devoted fans one head-scratching composition at a time. Irreverent visuals are part of their gecs appeal, but it’s their Frankensteined genre-fluid lab concoctions that make 1000 gecs impossible to resist. The deranged psycho-pop of their full-length debut mixed country twang with abrasive dubstep, snotty punk with Eurotrash techno, and industrial squawks with trap 808s for one of the most jarring and welcome headaches in recent memory. We’ll take 100000 gecs, please. — K.B.
59. Miranda Lambert, Platinum (2014)
Country’s Sign o’ the Times in every way except double-CD, Platinum is the genre’s most gifted star showing off her CV of everything she can do. These include, but are not limited to: Title track about how blonde she is that’s also the most polysyllabic (“disposition,” “permeates,” “calculation,” “pretentiously,” “compensation,” “irrefutably,” “genetically”) tune she’s ever written. “We Will Rock You”-meets-Aerosmith Carrie Underwood duet. Complex-feminist makeup song about “the amount of rejection I see in my reflection.” Fake-1930s western-swing breakup song. Clap-along sympathy song for Priscilla Presley (“It’s a difficult thing being queen of the King”). Fogey nostalgic anthem-single topped by sprightly nostalgic ditty that goes, simply, “I’m a fan of it / Old shit.” And then she followed it with country’s first-ever double-CD by a woman. — D.W.
58. VHÖL, Deeper Than Sky (2015)
Even the best metal bands of the decade have their obvious reference points, a tyranny of history. Those that can’t transcend the RIYLs are even worse off. Banging on tradition looks even stupider when you’re covered in tattoos and long hair; West Coast thrashers VHÖL both honor metal and banish frat mentality on their sophomore effort Deeper Than Sky. John Cobbett is explorer and captain supreme, bouncing VHÖL from power thrash (“The Desolate Damned”) to terse hardcore (“3AM,” where Yob vocalist Mike Scheidt returns to his brutish roots) to blackened detours (“Lightless Sun”). It’s unified by their collective love of metal at its weirdest, most nonsensical, and most unpolished. The four-piece finds beauty in over-Xeroed Eastern European black metal and Canadian prog-metal also-rans, and their enthusiasm in filtering their obsessions is the power of loose guides over dogmatic playbooks. Sky’s best moment is when Cobbett temporarily ceases command: “Paino” pits Sigrid Sheie’s jaunty piano against Aesop Dekker’s limber d-beat, resulting in an instrumental that works precisely because it’s so ridiculous, humorous without having to let you know it’s funny. Such cleverness is rare in metal. — A.O.
57. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob (2013)
In which the sisters Quin complete their metamorphosis from scrappy indie-rockers into the world’s biggest synth-pop band, causing Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Paramore, and countless others to embrace the neon. Working with producer Greg Kurstin — whose own career took a stratospheric leap two years later with Adele’s seismic “Hello” — the twins tabled the guitars and sanded off the two-minute angst of The Con and Sainthood in favor of meticulous three- and even four-minute songcraft. Heartthrob is the all-killer/no-filler LP they’d been building toward, frantically tucking hooks into pre-choruses and bridges as if running out of places to put them. Every tune is a gleaming megachurch of melody — from the windows-down, new wave nostalgia of “Drove Me Wild” to the tear-streaked stomp of “Shock to Your System.” Heartthrob perfectly captured the decade where no one dared cry “sellout” when our favorite indie bands landed opening slots for Taylor Swift; instead, we only applauded their hustle. — R.R.
56. Noname, Room 25 (2018)
Room 25 captured Noname at a startling moment of personal and creative discovery. The Chicago-bred rapper had already amassed a name for herself in the slam poetry community and a reputation for delivering one of the strongest guest spots on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape, but she had not yet emerged as a breakout star-turned-radical anti-capitalist voice. On her debut album, her rhymes are alternately diaristic and revolutionary, all delivered in the conversational flow that she’s described as “lullaby rap.” From the syncopated grooves of “Blaxploitation” to the lush, sighing neo-soul of “No Name” and “Regal,” Room 25 is awash in a low-key virtuosity that feels like a spiritual kin to the Soulquarians movement of the late ’90s — it’s so good, you almost expect D’Angelo to show up when summoned. We’d respect her decision to quit music, but we really hope she doesn’t. — Z.S.
55. Against Me!, White Crosses (2010)
To a listener in 2010, Laura Jane Grace espousing support for teenage anarchy and individual expression sounded like typical punk-rock righteousness. But in the decade that’s followed, the Butch Vig-produced, E Street-indebted White Crosses has revealed itself as arguably the most prescient rock record since Washington D.C. banned Bad Brains. Anthems like “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” (and its evergreen video) remain visceral calls to action dressed in arena-rock boots, and in retrospect, the album’s most powerful demand was that listeners expand their perspective beyond oneself. During the early stages of Grace’s public transition and making history as one of rock’s most visible trans icons with the advent of 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, many were quick to examine her lyrics for deeper personal truths. Well, try the epic “Bamboo Bones” refrain that takes White Crosses out: “What God doesn’t give to you / You’ve got to go and get for yourself.” — A.C.
54. Dawn Richard, Blackheart (2015)
After tasting mainstream stardom as a member of Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money, New Orleans-born singer Dawn Richard left the Bad Boy family and released a string of audacious independent R&B albums. But in a decade when artists like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd mined similar left-of-center territory and eventually topped the charts, Richard’s psychedelic R&B symphonies remain a cult curio. And Blackheart is her most experimental album, trading out the EDM-flavored Druski productions of her early solo projects for dense soundscapes that sometimes sound like a Brandy album written by Björk. She boldly surrenders the first two minutes of its first full song, “Calypso,” to a variegated collage of manipulated vocals before anything resembling a melody emerges. But the seven-minute suite “Adderall/Sold (Outerlude)” is the centerpiece, hopping between genres from minute to minute and priming the listener for the trippier second half of one of the decade’s greatest headphone albums. And just when it feels like Richard has gone as far out as she can go, the simple, stately piano ballad “The Deep” brings it home. — A.S.
53. PUP, The Dream Is Over (2016)
If a punk album is only as good as its backstory, then The Dream Is Over is a phenomenal one. As ancient legend has it, PUP frontman Stefan Babcock went to see a specialist after developing a cyst on his vocal cords. The doctor grimly informed him that “the dream is over” and he’d need to quit singing. Babcock ignored her advice, got a second opinion, and proceeded to screech his lungs out on one of the best punk albums of the decade (titled, of course, after the initial doctor’s disposable wisdom). The Dream Is Over is an uncommonly exuberant album about disappointment and disillusionment, full of fist-pumping chant-choruses that hit so hard that even in lockdown you can smell the sweat and shitty beer. Yeah, you’ve heard punk songs about drinking too much and refusing to grow up, but when have you heard a song this affecting about a sick pet chameleon? — Z.S.
52. Omar Souleyman, Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts (2011)
The three-decade career of the world’s greatest wedding singer is full of live recordings of the Arabic electronic dance music known as dabke that probably give Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 a run for its money. But we only have access to so many, and this one turns Philly, Berlin, and Melbourne among others into Cheap Trick at Budokan. The bellowing “aaaaaayeeeeeeeaaah” hook of unlikely star Souleyman matched frenetically with the redlining buzz of Ali Shaker’s saz (lute) and Rizad Sa’id’s relentlessly programmed beat comprise the most indelible hour you’ll hear outside of studio fare in a decade that completely abjured the concert recording. And in a discography whose repetition makes the Ramones and Clinic look like the 1975, there is truly more where that came from. — D.W.
51. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You (2019)
The very end of the decade teased a bright future for 2020s pop between the wise-beyond-her-years Billie Eilish, and the barrier-destroying utopianism of Lil Nas X. But in terms of raw talent, showmanship, and more personality than her stage props have air, no one had the world-conquering aplomb of Lizzo. She bared it all on this album (and its beautiful cover art) beginning with that thirsty-with-desire title track, which recalls Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ soul-shivering performance on “I Put a Spell on You.” The CeCe Peniston-flavored Harry Styles favorite “Juice” is as perfect as pop gets and the proper addendum to 2016’s “Good as Hell,” bursting with self-love and every line worthy of its own CafePress store. “Jerome” is the sultry kiss-off to a millennial timewaster not worth a wax (“smileys and hearts aren’t the way to my juicy parts”), while “Tempo,” a duet with the sorely missed Missy Elliott lays a spooky, twisting beat beneath a tune championing body positivity (with a fantastic nod to a Lizzo onstage trademark – “twerk skills up on legendary”) and sneaks in a bar of her famous flute. So much was 2019 the year of Lizzo that it rocketed 2016 and 2017 lizzobangers to the top of the charts where they belonged in the first place, but don’t be surprised when this multi-hyphenate Prince protégé reigns supreme over decades to come, too. — J.L.
50. The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (2018)
For all the ink spilled on the idea that Matt Healy is the millennials’ designated spokesman, he’s really a classic wiseass British frontman in the tradition of Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, and Jarvis Cocker. “I’m sure that you’re not just another girl / I’m sure that you’re gonna say that I was sexist” is one of Healy’s best Twitter-baiting bon mots, delivered over a swaying neo-soul groove on “Sincerity Is Scary,” which features one of late jazz-trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s final performances. The 1975 are shameless magpies for different sounds on their third album, where drummer George Daniel proves as adept with a drum machine as with a live kit on the cod dancehall of “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” and the glitchy two-step garage of “How to Draw/Petrichor.” But it’s also their darkest album — not because it’s the purported Tumblr-era OK Computer with a “Fitter Happier” knockoff but rather a rehab record where the glossy, no-jacket-required love song is sung to heroin and the majestic, “Champagne Supernova”-style ballad finale is called “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes).” — A.S.
49. Sightings, Amusers and Puzzlers (2015)
From their beginnings in 1998 through their 2013 split, the uncompromising NYC trio Sightings stalked a blazing line between noise-skronk and industrial-blitz. Their bromides were photo negatives or undersides of standard rock’n’roll fare: twitchy, anxious, lunging, and impeccably honed despite a sometimes garbled fidelity. A broad range of snarls, howls, and mutters from singer-guitarist Mark Morgan lent the catalog an extra tension, additional grit. Sightings’ music sounded, often, as though it was in the thick of a war for its very right to exist. Morgan, bassist Richard Hoffman, and drummer Jon Lockie concluded their tradition of gradual evolution on strong swan song Amusers and Puzzlers — knock-about spasms and cramps, the Geiger-counter scrawl of “13,” brutalist ambient misadventure “Syllabus of Errors.” All bands change and grow; one might locate Sightings’ influence in its diligent willingness to edit, limiting output to only the most absolutely essential material. They were always on point, always essentially themselves, and they ended the way so many more compromising bands only wish — to go out on their absolute best. — R.C.
48. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die (2012)
All she know is flower crowns, Pabst Blue Ribbon, charge her phone, watch David Lynch, laugh like God, sound like Napoleon Dynamite’s brother, eat hot chip and lie. — D.W.
47. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains (2019)
Comeback stories are never as uncomfortably honest and ultimately heartbreaking as David Berman’s brief return. Silver Jews’ poetic singer-songwriter “spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion,” as he sings in Purple Mountains’ opening seconds, before recruiting Brooklyn psych-folkers Woods as his backing band on his first album since he disbanded the Jews following 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. A realist to a fault, Berman had always been startlingly adept at depicting the bleakness of the human experience, but Purple Mountains, with divorce, death, and depression hanging in the air, goes even deeper into despair. But despite its brutal imagery — sleeping in a “Band-Aid pink” Chevy, the “icy bike chain rain of Portland, Oregon,” “drinking margaritas at the mall”— and the crushing postscript of Berman hanging himself amid tour rehearsals, Purple Mountains somehow balances itself with dark humor and cheeky wisdom like all of Berman’s work only catchier. If there’s any solace to be had, it’s offered by Berman himself on “Nights That Won’t Happen”: “the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” — P.L.
46. Huerco S., For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) (2016)
Ambient swag is the best swag: “nine of the densest ambient and meditative music pieces since the dawn of music!!” quoth Brian Leeds about his second collection under the alias where he does this thing rather than that thing. And as the album title implies, ambient is the perfect fill-in-the-blank music, auditory illusions for the ear that lets your mind fill in the blanks. So why is the second Huerco S. album so full-bodied, so melodically thorough, so devoid of vagueness that you can wake up humming a spirographic pattern like “Marked for Life?” The rare ambient collection that does all the work, so you can get some damn sleep, which in 2020 makes it the most essential album of all. — D.W.
45. The Weeknd, House of Balloons (2011)
Long before the Weeknd became known as an ‘80s synth-loving chart-topper, he was a faceless enigma. Not only was his given name unknown (later revealed to be Abel Tesfaye), but we didn’t even know if he was one person or a mysterious group. With the production assistance of frequent collaborators Doc McKinney and Illangelo, the Weeknd lured in depraved Tumblr girls and eager R&B fans alike with his beguiling (and crass) debut mixtape, House of Balloons. The titular location was haunted by drugs, despondency and bleary-eyed perversions. “Wicked Games” reflects toxic love, “The Loft” turns a placid Beach House sample into an ominous brain warp, while the head-rattling beat switch on “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” mimicked a coke-binge comedown. Although the Weeknd has since polished up that sinister tone for the mainstream, nothing can compare to this startling stranger’s first request of an audience: “You wanna be high for this.” — Bianca Gracie
44. No Age, Everything in Between (2010)
Randy Randall and Dean Spunt belligerently announced themselves on the 2007 collection Weirdo Rippers and perfected their volume-first/melody-second approach on 2008’s Nouns, but Everything in Between is where the Los Angeles duo opened up their scuzzy sound and allowed some sunlight in. Sure, the screeching feedback that passes for a riff on “Fever Dreaming” is classic No Age, but the two noisemakers eagerly veer into veritable pop-punk on “Glitter,” Shields-ian soundscapes on “Dusted,” and a disarming noise-pop duet on “Chem Trails.” Ten years later, it remains No Age’s most varied album, at once abrasive and sour-sweet. It’s also a time capsule from the days when a regular gig at the Smell, a well-trafficked MySpace page, and a formidable command of distortion pedals were enough to win you blog-rock glory. Always glad to have them back underneath our skin. — Z.S.
43. Pusha T, Daytona (2018)
This is the Purple-Tape umbrella for the rainiest of days. This is the scalpel that drew first blood in a dangerously “surgical summer.” This is the greatest seven-song hip-hop project of all time. Pusha T’s fourth solo venture, produced entirely by Kanye West during his 2018 production run (which may be remembered as his last stroke of genius), was the stone that toppled the 25-track algorithm Goliath known as Aubrey Graham. King Push proved all he needed to in 21 minutes that made bestsellers 10 years younger look tired. The bars are tight enough to cut off your circulation (“Still pull them whips out, still spread the chips out / Might buy your bitch some new hips and yank her rib out”), the samples are otherworldly (George Jackson perfects “Come Back Baby” with a simple vocal snippet), and even when the industry wanted nothing to do with him, Kanye chops it up like he had the world in his corner. Like Taco Bell, Daytona showed that less is more, but any dosage is lethal. — B.B.
42. Syd, Fin (2017)
As an early producer for Tyler, The Creator/Odd Future and the co-founder/lead singer of Los Angeles-based stoner-groove band the Internet, Sydney Bennett is beloved for her modern take on classic soul and funk melodies. But she decided to sink deep into previously hidden inspirations on debut solo album Fin. It’s a stunning display of languid ‘90s R&B-driven escapism, as Syd unveils even more layers of vulnerability and engaging vocal subtleties. “Shake Em Off” finds her dismissing incessant haters (“Young star in the making / Swear they sleeping on me”), she channels the late Aaliyah’s soft coos on hook-up anthem “Know” and drowns in bedroom sensuality on “Body.” She’s most human on album closer “Insecurities,” as she struggles with leaving her partner. Syd juggles this versatility with ease, all while shaping a refreshing queer perspective on how it feels to be both artistically independent and uneasy with love’s unpredictable game. — B.G.
41. Power Trip, Nightmare Logic (2017)
Thrash in the ’80s remains metal’s high point, yet some of its progenitors were hurtling toward irrelevancy through a hail of blabbermouth.net headlines in the 2010s. (Lulu was by far not the biggest embarrassment from the Big Four, though.) Despairing this isn’t — Power Trip more than took up the mantle as thrash’s loudest, fastest, and most conscious band. Nightmare Logic trades nuclear winters and PMRC panics for broader anxieties in dehumanizing complacency and misplaced aggression. It makes sense that vocalist Riley Gale would eventually collaborate with Body Count, as “Waiting Around to Die” and “Firing Squad” aim squarely at killing the cop in your head. “If Not Us Than Who” lays out this generation and next’s most important question, Discharge’s astute-brute duality hanging large. There was a reason that Power Trip was a cult band among Texas metalpunks, and Nightmare Logic let the whole world in on the secret. Like a certain band they were beefing with earlier this year, they’re headstrong, they’ll take on anyone. — A.O.
40. Young Thug, 1017 Thug (2013)
We have Peewee Longway to thank. In his 2017 autobiography, Gucci Mane describes inviting Longway, a longtime acquaintance, to his studio and offering the up-and-coming rapper a considerable sum of money to sign to his 1017 Brick Squad label. Longway, apparently rich enough as it was, declined, and suggested that Gucci instead give the money to his friend, a lanky kid standing right behind him. That’s how we wound up with 1017 Thug, a street-rap tape by an exhaustingly inventive vocalist who sounds like he’s miles above the pavement. Thug would soon develop a fluency for his signature style, gathering a cadre of open-minded producers around him, but what’s so fascinating about his 2013 breakout release is how much it sounds like a Shawty Lo or Jeezy tape — workmanlike, straightforward “trap music”— while Thug ceaselessly shape-shifts atop it, inventing a million voices a minute over, say, the rubbery twinkle of “Picacho” alone. “I can change your ears,” Thugger raps on “Scared of You,” and for hip-hop devotees at the turn of the 2010s, he did. — P.L.
39. Ariana Grande, Sweetener (2018)
In 2018 — a year after a terrorist attack took the lives of 22 of her fans in Manchester and as Ariana Grande’s longtime relationship with Mac Miller came to an end — fans were unsure of how she’d emerge from this onslaught of turmoil. But Grande bleached her gargantuan ponytail, sat on a gigantic staircase, and promised not to shed another tear. And with that came the Pharrell-produced, “Yuh”-coining Sweetener, which now stands as Grande’s most left-field work to date and, hands down, the most purely uplifting pop record of the decade. She layers her vocals into a Neptunes-style bouncy house on “blazed,” makes love to her own self-love anthem on “successful,” and sets aside 40 seconds of silence for the Manchester victims on “get well soon.” Her playful moments never lack empathy, and on “the light is coming” she manages a tricky vice versa with an unusually appropriate Nicki Minaj, who always soars on her Grande collaborations. Sweetener had legs like no Ari album before it, and Grande was so full of inspired determination that only six months later, she earned her first Hot 100 No. 1s with a couple hits from the almost-as-beloved Thank U, Next. To listen to it today is to hear an artist prepare to embark on a winning streak that has yet to end, even if her memorably-memed chapter with “Pete Davidson” has. As she sings on the title centerpiece, somehow her method touches our soul (ed. note: sheesh!). — B.B.
38. Death Grips, The Money Store (2012)
The Money Store wasn’t just an album, it was an ideal. Death Grips achieved what nü-metal failed to do: They brought rap and hardcore closer together with all the fury and none of the cringe, even if portions of their fanbase have big Szechuan sauce energy. The permabanned’s favorite band united industrial’s harsh, anti-music roots with its dancier outgrowth on heavy music with dissipating borders. Many futures were ground up coarse and mutated into one: “I’ve Seen Footage” took Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” beat to new heights of raw ecstasy; “The Fever (Aye Aye)” felt like moshing to nuclear-bomb alarms with societal collapse as the ultimate dancefloor; every song was a rallying call to move beyond commodified subcultures and to embrace new extremes. Calling things punk in the 2010s more often than not felt like just another coat of paint in a city apartment with suburb soul, so here’s a thought if you canceled the grand exception for their litany of no-shows, leaking their own albums, and going about their business as abrasively as their music: Isn’t wasting rich peoples’ money on uncommercial, purely cacophonous anarchy just a good thing? — A.O.
37. Taylor Swift, Speak Now (2010)
Taylor Swift was already a household name and by no means a country purist when the seasoned vet made her third album at the age of 20. But Speak Now was the last album Swift wrote on her own and co-produced with longtime collaborator Nathan Chapman before she decided to call Max Martin and draft a press release announcing her intention to become a capital-P pop star (even though any Kardashian could tell you she already was). And it’s an inspired last hurrah for Taylor 1.0, as the girl named after James Taylor sings some of her best acoustic ballads, including the proto-#MeToo, scorched-earth six-minute John Mayer breakup epic “Dear John.” But the album also contains propulsive rockers like the glittering Shania disco of “The Story of Us” and “Better Than Revenge,” a petty-Paramore homage so dead-on the band themselves had to change direction. Each song on Speak Now was addressed to a different unnamed person, and over the course of 14 Carly Simon-style blind item pop songs, Swift (allegedly) settles scores with everyone from professional boomer Bob Lefsetz to some guy named Kanye. — A.S.
36. Elza Soares, A Mulher do Fim do Mundo (The Woman of the End of the World) (2015)
When producer Guilherme Kastrup approached her about making a new album, the septuagenarian samba legend told him it should be about “sex and blackness.” After enlisting dozens of writers, session performers, and producers, the result was an extraordinary amalgam of profane and divine, electronic and organic, traditional and experimental. Yes, it features the incomparable Soares using the full range of her distinctive — and highly emotive — vocal instrument, which alone would make it singular. But musically, it’s also a masterful assemblage of “dirty” samba suja infused with serrated alt-funk, Afro-Brazilian jazz, and electronic effects. For lyrics, she critiques the racism, classism, and sexism of Brazilian society historical and present-day: Police violence, domestic abuse, political corruption, the disillusionment that follows repression. Lest you think the late-career opus is a downer, every grievance is matched by feminine power and joy; the opening lines of “Pra Fuder” translate to “I look at my body / I feel the lava ooze down.” Even if you don’t know a word of Portuguese, the only way to get anything else like this will be to encourage Soares to “sing until the end” as she implores in the title track — hopefully well into her 90s. — H.B.
35. Solange, A Seat at the Table (2016)
At the start of the decade, the millennial Black generation’s feet were placed in our ancestors’ shoes as a demoralizing sociopolitical society continued to fail us. Solange compartmentalized these emotions she grappled with on her eye-opening third album, A Seat at the Table. Narrated by Master P and her parents, the world inside this record became a necessary healing space. “F.U.B.U.” was a call to reclaim our culture, “Mad” (featuring a pent-up Lil Wayne) possessed Black anger and the deceptively lush “Cranes in the Sky” is an uncomfortable recollection of self-denigration. Nearly four years following its release, the album still resonates with the current state of Black grief as the issues we faced just years prior were shoved in our faces once again. As society continues to carelessly destroy Black lives like a twisted game of Russian roulette, A Seat at the Table reminds us to hold our chins up and get to building our own table. — B.G.
34. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love (2015)
No Cities to Love proved what many of us already knew: That Sleater-Kinney is a band not confined to its era, or the infantile mischaracterizations of Riot Grrrl that followed them in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Ten years after 2005’s The Woods, the trio re-emerged in total lockstep musically and viscerally, from the clean slice of Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s harmonized snarls on the titular phrase to the dark engine of “Fade.” The post-punk energy and feminist urgency of their prior body of work are instantaneously cued here without repetition. Instead, they sustain the anger they always masterfully articulated into the absurdity and morbid drama of aging into the political present. Put simply on “A New Wave”: “No one here is taking notice / No outline will ever hold us / It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me.” — S.F.
33. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012)
Listening out of context, one can be easily forgiven for assuming that Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city was the album that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, as opposed to 2017’s DAMN. Expanding and deepening the themes introduced on his prior effort, the independently released Section.80, Lamar created a musical bildungsroman that added intimate texture and vulnerable nuance to the life in South Los Angeles’ gang culture. Where milestones like N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, marked the frustrations of young Black American L.A. and the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society established the gradations and hopes of gangbangers, m.A.A.d. city declared that those multitudes could be contained within the story of one person — a young aspiring rapper dealing with lust, revenge, temptation, and parents who were at once comic relief, peanut gallery, and spiritual conscience.
The parts of Lamar’s experience that are romanticized are fleeting flights of fantasy — backstreet freestyles about chasing money trees. Instead, he makes love seem endangering while meditating on addiction, breaking and entering, drive-by shootings and even his own death while declaring “what we have common is pain.” Over a dozen producers contributed to make this project that varies from the melodic to the abrasive without every sacrificing a sense of cohesion. Everything here feels powered the same similar sonic storm and at its center is Kendrick Lamar’s voice which — both figuratively and literally — seems of the madness and detached from it. “I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies,” he rhymes, but he never gives the homies too much weight because he knows the best way to tell his story is to focus on the kid and treat the city as an antagonist. — kris ex
32. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager (2014)
As the bandleader of Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis never fully received the respect she was due in the 2000s. But the band’s fourth, final, and most polarizing record Under the Blacklight has had a ripple effect since its 2007 release, kicking off an ‘80s yacht-rock resurgence and predicting HAIM’s Fleetwood Mac infatuation years before anyone was ready. Lewis was ahead of her time, and with The Voyager, the world caught up to her in some ways. She was ready; her best solo record navigates the messiness of life through (polished) sunny, Californian pop as she makes like a walking Petty-Nicks duet and spits out harsh, unapologetic realities, like when she suddenly drops “I’m just another lady without a baby,” into the air on “Just One of the Guys.”
There aren’t many songwriters who would croon something as equally vulnerable and blunt, but she’s never been lacking for complex emotions or details, whether she’s referencing Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All in “The New You” or spying someone getting a handjob in “Aloha & The Three Johns.” On the brassy, emotional rollercoaster “Head Underwater,” she battles insomnia but exhales on a glimmer of hope: “There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass.” On The Voyager, Lewis pushes back on society’s expectations for women with grace and levity by simply being her own complicated person. So stop dragging her heart around. — I.K.
31. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time (2013)
The perennially label-troubled model-actress-singer’s still-unfollowed debut imagines with perfect confidence and unclouded vision a world in which ultra-hooky beat-and-riff-driven pop albums slathered with gradually thickening My Bloody Valentine guitar fuzz are normal things that model-actress-singers put out all the time and might deliver more of any year now. Work to bring such a world about: Play “I Blame Myself” in the first half of a party, answer each and every guest as they approach individually to ask who it is; then wait a couple of hours and play “Omanko.” — T.W.
30. Paramore, Paramore (2013)
Rock’s mainstream did not produce many quality rock stars in the 2010s, but Hayley Williams is very much an exception, and possibly commercial alternative’s greatest hope. On their sprawling, diversified self-titled LP, Paramore’s Warped-friendly punk began to take on an inevitable pop sheen, but no one could’ve predicted that losing two members (Josh and Zac Farro on guitar and drums, respectively) would bring out their experimental side. This skeleton crew took four years and banged out a whopping 17 tracks.
Paramore is still rife with the band’s foundational angst and Williams’ boisterous spunk, but the bounciness of the gospel-tinged “Ain’t It Fun,” glockenspiel-flanked “Anklebiters,” and slow-burning, eight-minute closer (“Future”) all pushed the band into new territory — making it the perfect midpoint between the rebellious attitude of Riot! and their eventual ‘80s makeover on After Laughter. You won’t find pointed tracks like “Ignorance” or “Misery Business” here, although Williams and co. acknowledge their battle scars on opener “Fast in My Car (“Been through the ringer a couple times / I came out callous and cruel.”) By and large, Paramore is a coming-of-age record: “Some of us have to grow up sometimes / And so if I have to, I’m gonna leave you behind.” And while she sings “Ain’t It Fun” with the resounding sigh of a coworker on a Monday, how did she manage to make adulting sound so, well…fun? — I.K.
29. Rosalía, El Mal Querer (2018)
El Mal Querer is one of this era’s best albums, and also one of the most fascinating to examine beyond the music. Sonically, its mix of Old World folk and flamenco with American hip-hop and “Cry Me a River” challenged conventions of all the above while simultaneously becoming one of the biggest cross-Atlantic artists of a generation. That is to say, one doesn’t need to be up-to-date on palos or recognize that this is a concept album about a 13th-century text to know that “Malamente” fucking rips. It’s also a delayed victory lap of sorts for El Guincho, whose manic beats provide the perfect backdrop for the room-stopping command of Rosalia’s operatic vibrato; together they’re the greatest Spanish combo since Xavi and Iniesta. Its legacy may well be the reckoning it caused regarding race, class, the Latinx diaspora, and cultural appropriation in contemporary pop. But that conversation wouldn’t have raised above a whisper if El Mal Querer wasn’t such a landmark musical achievement. — A.C.
28. Future, DS2 (2015)
What do you do after breaking off a high-profile engagement with a major R&B star? Dive deep into your innermost toxic thoughts, of course. After Future and Ciara messily called it quits in 2014, the Atlanta rapper truly leaned into his heartbreak to create DS2. Heightened by the bleak production of go-to collaborators Metro Boomin and Southside, Future makes it clear that his soul wasn’t worth saving. The audible swigs of codeine in a styrofoam cup kick off the “Thought It Was a Drought” opener as the rapper seethes: “Bitch, I’ma choose the dirty over you / You know I ain’t scared to lose you.” DS2 grows more nihilistic, with the rapper drowning his sorrows in a mountain of Percocets and nameless strippers whom he fucks with his chains on in an unconvincing self-reminder of his pimp status. While there are a few unlikely club anthems and somewhat radio-friendly moments (the Drake-assisted “Where Ya At,” “Freak Hoe,” and the already-huge “Fuck Up Some Commas” tacked on as a bonus), Future is quick to remind you that he’s not anyone’s hero: “Tryna make a pop star and they made a monster.” — B.G.
27. tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l (2011)
The music of the 2010s is beautifully divorced from the organic sounds and forms of bygone eras — the big beat of hip-hop layered with the synthetic soundscapes of prefab pop. But slickness is a virtue in a hi-def age, and before Fiona’s sui generis apotheoses, Merrill Garbus was ebulliently pursuing the joys of just making noise. No one else with Audacity software and a head for ideas was as deft at turning cacophony into kitchen-sink gold, though the lyrical musculature of bassist Nate Brenner grounded her in music and eventually life. Her voice is a mid-range missile of unbound enthusiasm, wry but exploding with conviction, she flings euphonious torrents of uncommon combinations at targets like racism (“Gangsta”), fatophobia (“Es-So”), sexism (“Killa”) and police brutality (“Doorstep”), years before the best among us woke up and said fuck this. And in “Powa,” her body nearly floats away from her in a sex song that could take Al Green back to the river. — R.M.
26. Deafheaven, Sunbather (2013)
Nothing was the same for Deafheaven after 2013, and that would be true even if guitarist Kerry McCoy wasn’t a Drake stan. The subversive black metal outfit’s breakthrough record Sunbather came at the tail end of the early 2010s’ omnipresent uncertainty, and it felt brighter and more confident than what came before, signaling an optimistic dawn for metal and the world at large. The loudly evident but somewhat unspoken truth that we never recovered from the 2008 economic crash (if you’ve ever played this record during a 12-hour Uber shift, smash that mf Like button) haunts it now. Surging opener “Dream House” and the title track both gawk at expensive real estate through singer George Clarke’s intoxicating wonder, and over time it’s morphed into bitterness over dreams deferred indefinitely. Even with all the malaise, McCoy’s shimmering Britpop-black metal grandeur and new blood Daniel Tracy’s forceful drumming turned discomfort into shrieking beauty and both proved to be key in Deafheaven becoming the small-c crossover metal band of the decade. — A.O.
25. SOPHIE, PRODUCT (2015)
If you like your sugar served on a piece of sharpened glass, Scottish Elektron Monomachine alchemist SOPHIE and her attendant chipmunk divas are for you. Her 2015 singles compilation sounds kind of like leaving your Aqua CD in the sun for 18 years and playing the melted, holographic disc. SOPHIE’s maniacal sound is intensified by her astounding, nearly VR tactility; the drips on “Lemonade” and “Bipp” are so round and gooey, you can feel them splash and spring against your eardrums. The relatively normal “MSMSMSM” is just straight bossy, while “L.O.V.E.” sounds like a teakettle being put to death, and “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” proves she could make straightforward, even emotive pop hits if she desired. And the PC Music alumnus has indeed produced for Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples and others, nabbing a Grammy nom for Best Dance/Electronic Album while only getting weirder. Unlike plenty of button-pushers, SOPHIE can always make you feel better. Which is why she sold this collection with a limited-edition sex toy. — K.B.
24. Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday (2010)
Regularly assailed for imperfect aim in the 10 years she’s outstayed Hot 97’s welcome since her “Monster” breakout that’s widely considered the verse of the decade, it can be hard to recall what a miracle Nicki Minaj was at her advent. Unflappable and proudly eccentric, lightning-sharp and razor-fast, her debut is the sound of someone who’d paid shrewd enough dues to know she already had a shot at the crown. Whether cavorting with will.i.am and the Buggles, out-threatening Eminem by way of Busta Rhymes, staring sincerely at stardom with Drake and Natasha Bedingfield, or proudly defecating on her competition, Pink Friday practically proved there was nothing she couldn’t sell on the diamond-impermeable force of her skill and personality. “Haters, you can kill yourself,” she trills, blissfully unaware of how badly they’ll get to her in the years to come. — R.M.
23. M.I.A., /\/\/\Y/\ (2010)
One of the more musically challenging artists to find mainstream success, M.I.A.’s fractious third album had to follow Kala, her commercial breakthrough, and it came on the heels of a backlash against the rapper by way of a controversial video for “Born Free” and a scathing, distorted New York Times hit piece. Nonetheless, /\/\/\Y/\ stands as arguably the final act of her first trilogy. Squealing, Bomb Squad-indebted tracks like “Teqkilla” are a streamlined version of her style at its most abrasive; as conspiracy theories, romance, and Auto-Tuned party anthems are blended into this chaotic, anarcho-funk stew. She samples Suicide, blasts Google, and raves about motherhood. Her firebrand persona was at its peak as a brash, rich, pseudo-guerilla genre hacker and a sign of her internet-fried times. Like Fear of a Black Planet-era Public Enemy, M.I.A. fell out of media favor just as she was releasing her most uncompromising music. And just as Planet’s legacy outlived its own morass of controversies, the potency of /\/\/\Y/\ reverberates beyond any backlash. — S.W.
22. Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels (2011)
Ten laid-back but bladed ditties about shotgun weddings, opiate habits, serial gold-digging, contested inheritances, domestic arson, and buying on layaway. The triple-helix songwriting — arming Angeleena Presley’s bleak class consciousness with Miranda Lambert’s bottle-blonde ruthlessness and softening both with Ashley Monroe’s wistful detail — also provides a handy model for solidarity and survival. The characters they sketch may stand alone, but the Annies’ intertwined vocals and familial noms de guerre imply adopted sisterhood as a remedy to every ill, from deadbeat husband to unplanned pregnancy to late-capitalist death drive. — T.W.
21. Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste (2014)
Overshadowed by her long-brewing Twitter ban, hot-and-cold Trump fandom, and singlehandedly causing the SEC to investigate Elon Musk are this volatile NYC musician/actress’ rich musical gifts. Her sole LP to date — released two long years after debut-single-of-the-decade “212” — made good on Azealia Banks’ artistic promise fifteenfold. On Broke With Expensive Taste, she sang, rapped, and scatted over kinetic productions commingling calypso, hip-house, dance-pop, and more. (There’s even a bizarro faux-Gidget Ariel Pink co-write on this LP. How zeitgeist can you get?) At her best here, a rhythmic vortex flow and uranium-dense lyricism reveal Banks as a successor to Missy Elliott, who largely sat the 2010s out, and, with bionic fare like “Soda,” a Crystal Waters stand-in for the era. If “Miss Amor” was insult-comic dancehall and “Wallace” crammed Dadaist onomatopoeia into a skeletal elegance, “Heavy Metal and Reflective” felt more attuned with the gully Banks the world got to know via social media. “I be Cherry Deeky when I swell up, get that best dick,” she bragged. “I be in Osaka with that papa, took that best trip.” — R.C.
20. Sleigh Bells, Treats (2010)
In 2010, Sleigh Bells startled everyone by slicing through that spring’s laid-back fare with their thunderous debut album Treats. The Brooklyn noise-pop duo, comprised of ex-hardcore guitarist Derek E. Miller and dedicated pop student Alexis Krauss, crafted a confectionery of metal- and punk-inspired riffs (which felt more like jackhammers), sticky-sweet melodies, and vibrant pop enthusiasm. “Kids” possesses a schoolgirl charm thanks to Krauss’ delicate vocals, but refrains from getting too saccharine ” with Miller’s discordant, blown-speaker sonics. The cheerleader chant of “Infinity Guitars” would have the Neptunes wishing they compressed Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” at an RMS of -4dB. And more surprising than any of their thrashers that melt the whole ice cream truck, the questionably sane-volumed “Rill Rill” transforms 1971 Funkadelic chestnut “Can You Get to That” into a postmodern summer jam. Treats is an exhilarating jolt to the brain and an open threat to the eardrum. — B.G.
19. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service (2016)
In the 2010s, albums from hip-hop’s elder statesmen were met with acclaim and accolades — as opposed to cynicism and snark. Hip-hop’s audience has expanded, gotten older, and “elder” no longer feels dismissive of the old school. It had been almost 20 years since A Tribe Called Quest released The Love Movement before they unveiled what would be their final release. A triumphant return to Midnight Marauders-era form and an uncommonly urgent swan song for the legendary crew, service also functions as an elegy for the late Phife Dawg. Tribe’s unflappable everyman died just six months prior to the album’s release, but he shines on legacy-amplifying tracks like “Dis Generation” and “We the People.” Q-Tip’s broadened production is immaculate throughout, and guest spots from the likes of Elton John, Jack White, and André 3000, not to mention Busta Rhymes’ best role in years ensured that Tribe’s final word was well worth the wait. This is a strong case for the best reunion album ever made; it grants immortality to Tribe’s eminence by extending it. — S.W.
18. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)
When most of us were 17, we were failing chemistry finals and causing our driving instructors to inadvertently teach us new swear words. Billie Eilish, on the other hand, made one of the best records of the decade and swept award ceremonies as a green-haired, sleepy-voiced goth who casually gamed the pop system with her brother FINNEAS’ help. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is the perfect culmination of loose 2010s ends, when “bedroom pop” reached critical mass even before quarantine. Produced entirely by these sample detectives alone, it leans into Eilish’s ASMR-friendly zombie-angel contralto and interrupts its eerie atmosphere with samples from The Office because no fantasy world is safe from commercial breaks. The rambunctiousness of her runaway smash “bad guy” winds down into dreamlike ballads such as “i love you” that probably impressed Thom Yorke because Radiohead’s recent stuff can’t hold a candle. Eilish once again reinvented what a pop star could be: An all-inclusive, xanny-rejecting, tongue-stapling, lonely Lucifer who has just taken out her Invisalign. Duh. — B.B.
17. Japandroids, Celebration Rock (2012)
No bass, no ballads, no bad songs, no synths, no interludes, no time for indulging cynicism or restraint. Celebration Rock, the still-thrilling second album from Japandroids, is a master class in stripping rock music down to its vitals and discarding all the other nonsense. Across seven originals and one Gun Club cover, two Canadians snarl, roar, overload their amps, and deliver the first-through-eighth-best whoa-ohs of the decade — all while reveling in the idea that just because youth is fleeting doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate it forever: “Remember that night you were already in bed / Said ‘fuck it’, got up to drink with me instead.” Records this unironically bombastic and joyful weren’t exactly commonplace in the indie-rock scene of the early 2010s, which made Celebration Rock stand out all the more (and the prospect of competing with it all the more onerous). Not since Sleater-Kinney’s redlining The Woods (another bassless wonder) has there been a rock album so likely to have your neighbors humming along while they’re on hold waiting to make their noise complaint — Z.S.
16. DJ Rashad, Double Cup (2013)
A prominent producer once told me it’s easy to make a banger, but it’s making something hard and funky that’s impressive. Double Cup, the only album footwork’s greatest practitioner was alive to make, shows just how rare that talent is. Soul, house and R&B samples are warped and dribbled into hyper post-juke anthems without sacrificing an inch of sensual touch. Tinny percussive beats explode in midnight shades, daring clubgoers unafraid of the 160 bpm speed limit to fuck up the dance floor until they slip on their own sweat. No wonder the Teklife collective’s founder is regarded as one of the most influential producers and Chicago cultural figures of his generation. Rashad tragically died from a drug overdose in 2014, leaving behind his cohorts DJ Spinn, DJ Earl, Taso, and others who all make appearances here, a big collaborative family that revolutionized dance music — and a too-large hole where their star used to be. — K.B.
15. Frank Ocean, nostalgia, ULTRA. (2011)
Remember that “dying world” Frank Ocean warned us about in his Coldplay-slaying rendition of “Strawberry Swing?” Maybe he was referring to the major-label industry before he sabotaged it from the inside. Before the now-king of musical secrecy finessed Def Jam for millions while building a staircase, his debut mixtape revolutionized R&B entirely and gave would-be radio-seducers the green light to experiment, to drive right off the road, head-first into the ocean. A onetime ghostwriter for Bieber and Brandy, Christopher Breaux became fed up with the major-label machine, changed his name, and became one of the 2010s’ most famous examples of an artist showing how far he could reach without pandering to labels, radio, or award shows.
His self-made, word-of-mouth mixtape was like nothing else in R&B or anywhere else. The coked-out narrative of “Novacane,” the on-the-run storyline of “Swim Good,” and the Radiohead-sampling interlude he dubbed “Bitches Talkin’” all made nostalgia, ULTRA. an audacious introduction to a superstar who does it his way, especially when rewriting some of music’s biggest hits. MGMT’s “Electric Feel” became the biblical porno “Nature Feels.” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” significantly improved as the emotional plea of “American Wedding.” Not only did Ocean set himself up for a decade of unpredictable greatness with nostalgia, ULTRA., but he actually made a long-ass Eagles song bearable. — B.B.
14. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (2014)
At this point in their young career, Parquet Courts had mastered their particular vision-illusion of shaggy spontaneity, expertly selling the sense that every song was being written even as it was being committed to digital tape. Were primary songwriters Austin Brown and Andrew Savage even singing? More “like”: they gang-chanted chestnuts into existence, deadpanning over crude, spindly indie rock-outs that faded before they could properly ignite. Those listening to Sunbathing Animal might blink and miss a killer tune, so swiftly they came-and-went that, starry-eyed and only nominally about anything significant. “Always Back in Town” and “Ducking & Dodging” are thematically self-explanatory — garage-y, chugga-chugga-chugga gems that lodge in memory like gilded splinters. Not since Slanted and Enchanted (or at least Is This It) had stray slack been so beguiling, so brilliantly casual. Their ripping spontaneity wouldn’t last — it never does — but Sunbathing Animal also showed a path for tenderness and conscientiousness that few rippers have managed to mature into. As with obvious forebears Reed, Boon, and Malkmus, they laid down a marker for their 2020s counterparts to pick up. — R.C.
13. Robyn, Body Talk (2013)
“If you’re an outsider, you can always find a club where there’s other people feeling the way you do,” Robyn told SPIN in 2010 while promoting Body Talk from the set of Gossip Girl. The Stateside teen fluke turned Swedish pop icon reclaimed our shores on her seventh album by speaking directly to the inner monologue of wallflowers, loners, and led-on souls she’d rather party with anyway. No 2010s dance-pop triumph had better songwriting – or more astute clubbing observations, right down to the “bad kissers clicking teeth” on “We Dance to the Beat.” Sometimes she’s downright minor-key: “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” made a rhythm out of life’s headaches, and the ominous, Röyksopp-paired ragga “None of Dem” tapped into the simmering resentment of one’s predictable predicament. The album’s career-making Mona Lisas, though, are the aching, bittersweet “Call Your Girlfriend,” wherein those glowing synth chords help the other woman coach her flame to gently break it off with his girl, and the flip — “Dancing on My Own” — wherein a heartbroken singleton finds comfort under the warmth of strobe lights. — J.L.
12. Danny Brown, XXX (2011)
The idiosyncratic Detroit MC’s breakthrough delivered as advertised: A profane quadruple shalom of pathos, poverty, partying, and no-holds-barred comedy rap in the vein of pre-ubiquity Eminem. It was difficult to say with certainty whether Danny Brown would survive any given banger, or whether he even wanted to; anyone who went four or five rounds with XXX unlocked a brilliant narrative portmanteau linking chemical excesses to their sociological roots. But it’s also worth noting there’d never been a hip-hop star quite like him, peeling off verses in a strangled, corkscrew yelp or a braying bark. Each segue seemed to begin before the last one had a chance to end.
Other rappers didn’t look or act like him. He’d conked his hair, rode hard for 1990s alt-rock touchstones, and even sounded charming as he declared “no apologies for all the misogyny.” And while Brown sold assertions like “I’m Ferris Bueller with Frank Muellers / Ya blank shooters on stank hooters / I’m in Aruba, sipping wine coolers” with Adderaled conviction, his influence on the decade that came down to a profound fearlessness, in championing outré production, skinny jeans that got him rejected from G-Unit, and the free mixtape as a sink-or-swim calling card. — R.C.
11. Burial, Tunes 2010-2019 (2019)
It’s been over a decade since Burial was unmasked as mild-mannered British homebody William Bevan, who insisted via MySpace that “im a lowkey person and i just want to make some tunes, nothing else.” Well, in the 11th hour of the 2010s, he did finally give us Tunes, a compilation of the most essential non-album tracks by anyone in the last decade. Following 2007’s landmark Untrue, these miniature epics have mostly come in the form of increasingly ambitious EPs that pushed the boundaries of his atmospheric, trip-hop-informed garage shuffles.
This 150-minute Christmas gift re-sequences nearly all of that work into a stunning (and deservedly long) narrative that reveals the quietly profound and wide-ranging achievement of this notoriously reclusive legend behind the boards. The reshuffled six tracks that comprise 2012’s frenetic Kindred and 2013’s uplifting, even pop-aware Rival Dealer are the cornerstones, defining Burial’s bespoke blend of two-step and house overlaid by various rained-out ambiences. But the entirety of Tunes 2010-2019, awash in warm vinyl static and peppered with field recordings, is essential listening for understanding the current landscape of electronic music and some of the darkest comfort food your ears will ever consume. Many artists offer hope in a hopeless world. Burial builds his own hopeless world from scratch and imbues it with hope. — J.P.B.
10. Tierra Whack, Whack World (2018)
“Albums” formatted this ambitiously (and “released” via Instagram) are rare; rarer still is the ambitiously formatted album that’s not an imposing monolith erected to scare off the casually interested listener. This 22-year-old former battle rapper from Philadelphia’s flawless 2018 debut is as charming and bite-sized as it is a staggering feat of craftsmanship, consisting of 15 wildly inventive songs, each exactly a minute in length. What Whack World lacks in grandiosity and winding song structures it makes up in spades via playful eclecticism, both in subject matter and sound. Take any triplicate here as an example: Tierra Whack veers from mourning a dead friend over minimal trap-pop on “Pet Cemetery” to adopting a faux-Southern accent and repelling a would-be-suitor over the amorphous synth squiggles of “Fuck Off” to lamenting a man that plays too many games (including Mario and Luigi) on the retro R&B-styled “Silly Sam.” This all occurs within three minutes, the amount of time a normal artist devotes to verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus. The songs juggle heavy emotions behind the presentation as a goofy, tossed-off curio.
Whack World the music video is even more impressive, a 15-minute candy store of vibrant looks, sets, and concepts that change completely from one scene to the next. It’s the instant-gratification Vine counterpoint to the HBO of Beyoncé’s visual albums, replacing every moody color with neon but still managing to convey the full gamut of the human emotional experience in its brief, episodic structure. The following year, Whack proved that she’s also mastered the art of more conventional songwriting with a thrilling month-long run of singles, and that she hadn’t yet run out of jaw-dropping visuals. But she made history with that first thunderbolt no matter what follows: Whack World is the rare album whose form is as interesting and charming as its content. — P.L.
9. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Vampire Weekend’s third album was the kind of progressive leap forward that bands always threaten to make but never quite stick the landing. The late ’00s Vampires’ gift for catchy, polyrhythmic melodicism and an infinite palette of sonics made them a sort of musical Wes Anderson movie; easy to admire but one was just as likely to be annoyed by them — sometimes in equal measure. For a band that once seemed easy to hate, the polished songcraft and emotional urgency was suddenly undeniably resonant.
Referencing Modest Mouse while interpolating Souls of Mischief is no ordinary task, and Ezra Koenig makes his band’s encyclopedic references and genre-juggling seem both effortless here and tied to a higher purpose. The instrumental gifts of Rostam Batmanglij underscore the wordplay with the orchestral trickery and broad sonic soul the band is known for, but there’s more spiritual and aural weight here than on their Afropop-obsessed earlier work. This is a focused, dark record haunted by mortality down to the ticking clock on “Hudson,” and the best rock album of the 2010s. Modern Vampires of the City succeeds at everything it has the guts to gamble on, and that’s saying a lot when Koenig spends “Ya Hey” talking to God between the deity’s festival DJ sets. — S.W.
8. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy (2018)
A decade ago, Cardi B’s stripper-turned-reality star-turned-mixtape backstory would have made her a smart-mouthed novelty. Instead, this revenge-of-the-thirst-trap debut LP served as a showcase for Cardi B the person, and not just the skurr-skrting, Bernie-stanning FashionNova icon. On one end, there’s street Cardi, capable of infusing more energy and bravado into her rhymes than anyone else north of Atlanta with the comedic flair of a Friars Club roastmaster. But Cardi also raised the bar for sheer force of superstar personality, where she can put three incendiary odes to hedonism — “Money Bag,” “Bartier Cardi,” and “She Bad” — back-to-back-to-back and still come off as inspirational. For all the brashness of her early singles, Invasion of Privacy works because of its introspection: “Only thing fake is the boobs.”
Whether it’s “Be Careful” revealing cracks in her tough exterior or the closer “I Do” reveling in the possibility of short-lived fame, or “I Like It” proving once and for all that Latinx hip-hop can be, simply, pop music, Invasion of Privacy is an invitation into Cardi’s world of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a rebuke to much of what passes for chart-focused rap, where the artist’s persona is crafted for maximum exposure. Instead, Cardi B recognized that POC artists no longer need to pander or soften themselves in order to become household names (she co-hosted The Tonight Show for Christ’s sake!). Invasion of Privacy opens the table to a new generation of pop artists remaking American music in their own image and accents. And Cardi will remain front-and-center. After all, these shoes are bloody for a reason. — A.C.
7. Grimes, Art Angels (2015)
Years before she became more well-known for being eligible for a lifetime achievement award in trolling, all that rocketed to the surface of Claire Boucher’s music was its mystery. The drowned-reverb haze of Visions entranced critics of a hipper stripe, but her less defined early work would grow in confidence by unpredictable bounds. So her fourth album was a candy-explosion surprise – after three years of tactful tooling, avowedly sober, and chasing dreams of Gaga-level ubiquity, Grimes had come up with a DIY pop monolith more purely visionary than anything Stefani G had put her name on.
Having sung/played/programmed everything save for one sample and Aristophanes’ and Janelle Monáe’s drop-ins, her every effervescent note on this one-woman show (plus the cover art she drew and videos she self-directed) glimmers with proud artifice, the vocals a rainbow panoply of helium filters. But from the stark hope of the countryish “California” (“This music makes me cry / It sounds just like my soul”) she shows more of her human side than she’d ever let us in on — the overture is titled “laughing and not being normal.” Amid surrealistic allowances like larynx-dynamiting “Scream,” the auteur essays perfect, pro-hook takes on toxic masculinity (“Kill V. Maim”), toxic love (“Flesh Without Blood”) and the sexist onslaught our many of our modern pop heroes have to fight through (“Butterfly”). “Welcome to reality,” she coos, sounding like nothing from this world. Which must be why she spelled it “REALiTi.” — R.M.
6. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Say whatever you will about MAGA-hat-wearing, static-Christian-opera-directing, “last night I thought about killing you” present-day Kanye West. Before he OD’d on the belief in his own divine genius, he very nearly earned his narcissism simply by releasing one groundbreaking, extravagant, possibly-perfect full-length after another. By 2010, he had almost expectedly culminated his streak with this gilded work of audio-visual art, one of the greatest albums of the contemporary age. Released in 2010 after the Taylor Swift incident, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was recorded with a cavalcade of trusted collaborators in self-imposed Hawaiian exile and marked the dawn of what was probably West’s public unraveling, when his questionable ideas weren’t yet inextricable from his brilliant ones.
As the title implies, his fifth album is opulent, self-absorbed, grandiloquent, the sound of a soul at war with itself. Lyrically, he’s never been more intense, with stranger jokes (“Put the pussy in a sarcophagus”), pornographic fantasies (“We both screwed the bridesmaids”), and a not-yet-corrupted ability to tell it like it is (“Balding Donald Trump taking dollars from y’all”) against musical frescoes sampling not only Rick James, Smokey Robinson, and James Brown, but King Crimson, Aphex Twin, Black Sabbath, the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack. “Monster” solidified Nicki Minaj’s place in history and Justin Vernon’s contributions gave his career its second act, while Pusha T, Rihanna, Rick Ross, Raekwon, Kid Cudi and Jay-Z all contributed to the magnificence.
With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, rap ascended even further into the realm of high-art, and Kanye began consummating his vocal ambition to be the next Shakespeare or Disney by accompanying his most grandiose LP with a 34-minute feature film: “Runaway” is an abstract, extended metaphor on beauty and its ills, itself one of the most gorgeous and luxurious visions a musician has set to celluloid. But more importantly, Kanye expanded what high-art could be as well as he did rap; his conception made room for ballet, horror films, Gil Scott-Heron, and the unforgettable sequence in which Chris Rock is party to the words, “Yeezy upholstered my pussy.” Can it get much higher? — K.B.
5. Skrillex, Bangarang (2011)
It’s not that shocking that after more than a decade of dance music ruled by a litany of European acts (the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, DJ Tiësto, Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx), America’s homegrown EDM megastar sure sounds a lot like rock music. In probably the least guitar-prominent decade for music since rock’n’roll’s very inception, the loud distorted squall of the instrument was most closely brought to life via this onetime emo kid and his famous wub-wub-wubs. Skrillex showed that dance music could be as noisy and distorted and punk as anything a real guitar has ever contributed to. Sonny Moore’s unruly American spin on largely European trends is symbolic of a very un-rock decade, and some of the last great pop music to truly break the sound barrier. The Los Angeles native’s Bangarang, which was considered an EP at the start of the decade (if maybe not post-Wyoming Kanye), delivered the most fun half-hour of the 2010s, with shamelessly huge, sexy beats, slick car-alarm dubstep, and an inexhaustible abundance of mind-breaking, chemically-tinged EDM pyrotechnics.
For the former frontman of From First to Last, his unlikely second act as a producer who changed dance music forever led to multiple Grammys – including one for the unstoppable, Sirah-assisted title track and Best Dance Album for the whole record, despite electronic gatekeepers initially turning their noses up – and turned him into a summer-festival hero. Deliciously addictive, Bangarang remains awash in melted-gummy synths, woofer-torturing basslines, and eye-gouging electro. There were the unexpected collaborations too, like “Breakn’ a Sweat,” which featured the surviving members of another L.A. outfit – the Doors (and a Jim Morrison sample predicting the rise of electronic music) – “Summit” with then-paramour Ellie Goulding, and even his own “Orchestra Suite” bonus track. Dance music may have broken a bit later in the U.S. than some predicted, but it was inevitable that an artist this thrilling — a visionary of sound design who turned Justin Bieber into a dolphin — would push it over the top. — J.L. & D.W.
4. Beyoncé, Beyoncé (2013)
Where were you when Beyoncé stopped the world? On an unassuming Thursday night, when most people were either getting ready for bed or still reeling over the latest drama-filled episode of ABC’s Scandal, King B shook everyone by surprise-dropping her eponymous fifth album on iTunes. To this day, the music industry has yet to figure out how to top Beyoncé, as a multimedia tour de force and sheer news event — the only person who has is Beyoncé herself.
After being previously accused of being too robotic and having a cold personality, she opened up her previously shielded world to dedicated Beyhive fans and a sudden battalion of converted critics. With the help of an impressive crew of frequent collaborators and then-newcomers such as Boots and Majid Jordan, Beyoncé stretched her sonic capabilities more than ever at the time (this reached its peak with 2016’s weighty Lemonade). The album was a kaleidoscopic experience that heightened the senses, with each song being brought to life by unforgettable visuals: The colorful “XO,” “Partition” set inside Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse, and “Superpower,” with its surprise Destiny’s Child reunion. “Pretty Hurts” and “Jealous” found her face-to-face with her insecurities, the club-ready “Drunk in Love” gave way to endless SURFBORT memes, “Blow” was best paired with disco lights and rollerblades, “Partition” and “Rocket” highlighted her innate provocative nature, and “***Flawless” which featured Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was an unprecedented summit of women’s continuous fight for gender equality.
Hit records came easy for Beyoncé at this point in her career. By the turn of the decade, R&B experienced a renaissance; the likes of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and FKA twigs weren’t just groundbreaking but recognized as such, creeping up behind hip-hop and surpassing rock entirely as the more innovative, album-centric genre. And Beyoncé herself sought a new lyrical approach and more challenging music with no regard for airplay. In a vulnerable move that set the foundation for Lemonade, the self-titled album found the famously guarded singer more candid than ever. She wasn’t afraid to openly get drunk with her man, express irritation with society’s treatment of women, or reveal complications with motherhood and the issues that come with long-term marriage. Black women are often urged to be silent, yet Beyoncé made it more comfortable to own and express your identity.
The greatest surprise album of all-time went on to rack up numbers: It was nominated for five Grammy Awards, took home three, secured her Video Vanguard Award at the 2014 VMAs, became the fastest-selling album in iTunes’ history, and earned Beyoncé the distinction of being the first female artist to have her first five albums debut atop the Billboard 200 chart. But Beyoncé managed something even more significant than any of that. Not only did she cement her title as the world’s greatest entertainer, she profoundly redefined its meaning. — B.G.
3. The Knife, Shaking the Habitual (2013)
Sure, No. 3, but what it sounds like is the No. 1 album of the 2030s. Karin and Olof Dreijer were already pushing their macabre synth-pop into sui generis territory on 2006’s Silent Shout, but seven years later, their apparent swan song Shaking the Habitual seemed to have discovered a new, alien landscape: Chilly, omnirhythmic, a realm where every sound was a beat, even if the sound was 19 minutes of drone. “We’ve been running round / Pushing the shopping cart,” Karin confesses in the opening moments of a 96-minute anticapitalist theme-park ride. One of the things this album has in common with you now that it probably didn’t then is how much it slows down — except when it freaks out.
The habits it’s shaking are of power, of class, of sex, of ideology, even as they’re also habits of synth-pop composition; but it’s not called Shake the Habitual!, because its title isn’t exhortation or advice. It’s something that’s already happening because change is life’s natural business. (“I want to bend my soul again,” Karin sings on “Raging Lung,” a 10-minute symphony for steel drum and what sounds like the whacked side of an oil reservoir. “That’s what we do when we get older.”)
Against controlling “signoris,” brutal inequity, and — in the album’s funniest moment, an obsessively repeated gurgle that drills into the skull — “liberals giving me a nerve itch,” the Knife set the same permanent opposition: transformation. What banishes that hammering itch is the crooned counter-mantra that Karin breaks into a second later: “Now living, and always moving.” At the peak of a manic trip on “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” she suddenly concocts a plan: “What if we can’t make it / But we say that we can?” Around her, a dissonant flute-riot turns out to be moving with the beat like everything else. In 2013, maybe you already felt a radically transformed way of life — radical transformation as a way of life — was, in the face of various hard-to-solve problems, a duty, and necessity. Maybe, while pushing the shopping cart, jamming avant-garde Swedish synthpop on your iPod Nano, confidently inhaling raw supermarket air, you wondered whether or not you were obliged to commit to all that right now. In 2020, maybe it feels more like something that’s committed to you. That’s the bad news, and the good: You’re already shaking. — T.W.
2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
By the Spring of 2015, Kendrick Lamar had already solidified himself as a deep-thinking rapper who was not only one of the best professional rappers alive, but also one with the kind of cultural capital and marketplace real estate that marked him as a once in a generation rap artist. For To Pimp a Butterfly — his second major-label studio album — he put his entire net worth on an impolite polemic against whyte supremacy that reinforced that Black Lives Matter without ever invoking the slogan and rarely mentioning whyteness. From the opening — a snippet of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star” that segues into a cosmic slop courtesy of brain feeder Thundercat and funk Godfather George Clinton — the Compton MC mortgaged his brand into a wild vision of counter-gentrification American Blackness: “I’ma put the Compton swap meet by the White House.”
If his major debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was about an astute young Black kid looking around his Los Angeles war zone and looking for peace and sense inside, Butterfly was about a young Black man looking at his America and not finding any shelter anywhere. From first listen, the album made clear that it would not be easily made over to fit into any cookie-cutter models. Instead, it sprawled into the underbelly of fame, squatting with depression, and treating introspection like a series of gang walks, sweaty backyard cookouts, block parties, and street riots. There were no easy singles and even the ones that emerged felt more like they were carpetbagging on mainstream grounds than trying to move on up.
Produced by a squad of design-bending architects that included Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus, and Terrace Martin in addition to in-house talents Tae Beast and Sounwave, the album was simultaneously retro, modern, and futuristic: Suites of free-flowing live instrumentation buttressed by swampy floors of bass and moulded by synthesizer flourishes. To Pimp a Butterfly immediately emerged as timely and timeless, and five years on — with the country excavating the foundation of itself and removing statues from public spaces — it remains a necessary reminder that this stolen land of the free was built by the souls of Black folks whose houses have many rooms. — k.e.
1. Rihanna, ANTI (2016)
We’d become so used to Rihanna spoiling us with new albums nearly every year. So it came as somewhat of a shocker when that impressively prolific trajectory halted. The pop star took a step back (four years to be exact) to contemplate where her sound should go next. That self-reflection birthed her universally worshipped eighth album, whose very essence is explained right in the title. ANTI is the antithesis of what fans and industry critics came to expect from her. Before the age of 30, Rihanna crafted the most purely enjoyable album of the 2010s by embracing her fully realized womanhood. ANTI is a double-edged journey: One on end, it is a collection of diamond-studded hooks that roam through the multiple stages of love. And on the other, it’s the singer (who had just left her longtime record label Def Jam) taking a leap of faith by further shedding that manufactured facade of being The Pop Star. Gone were the glittery, chart-friendly credits of Sia or Stargate. No, Rihanna was ready to get weird, erotic, and unfiltered. The year prior, “Bitch Better Have My Money” was the first sign of ANTI’s snarling aggressiveness and sonic exploration, even though it didn’t make the final cut.
The SZA duet “Consideration” is her owning newfound career independence (“I got to do things my own way darling/ Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No”), while “Kiss It Better” is an irresistible ‘80s pop ballad with squealing guitar that quietly made for one of the greatest Prince tributes following that devastating loss three months later. Rihanna embraces her Caribbean heritage with the patois-laced “Work” smash and Drake following her lead like a lost puppy, and she channels a Quentin Tarantino-worthy fugitive on the bluesy “Desperado.” She goes full-on pained doo-wop starlet in “Love on the Brain,” while cheekily provoking a former beau with the seductive “Needed Me.” The sonic versatility of ANTI impressively has zero boundaries. “Higher” stretches her whiskey-throated vocal limit to the max for her most risky performance, and a karaoke version of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” tossed in for the hell of it becomes infinitely better than the original. And she gets absolutely buckwild on “Sex With Me,” the hedonistic bonus track that’s literally about how great sex with her is.
By breaking her own rules, ignoring her long-satiated craving for a hit record, and accepting the authority of her own artistry, Rihanna once again became a trendsetter. “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40,” she told Vogue in 2016. “But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.” Of course, she was always able to do whatever she wants. But few pop stars ever realize the full possibilities of that. This time, Rihanna embraced tunnel vision and pushed her boundaries off the map. And the end result just happened to be the best album of the decade. — B.G.
Enjoy our playlist of songs from these albums below.
To see our running list of the top 100 greatest guitarists of all time, click here.