We blew music up in the 2010s. Part of that was structural—iTunes begat TIDAL and Spotify and Apple Music and Vine and TikTok, all of which offered new ways for us to consume the best albums and songs out there, but also put emphasis on certain artists and genres over others, by the very nature of curation. Some artists turned their noses up at this new world order and did things their way, dropping albums in the middle of the night, on HBO, on a Saturday afternoon in the summertime (ok, yeah, all of those were Beyoncé, sue us). Others played into the formula, using what they’d been given to game the system and get their art heard as widely as possible. No matter how you look at it, though, certain artists spent the decade releasing some of the best albums around, ones not only of a higher quality but also bodies of work that fundamentally changed music’s very DNA, the way we consume it, and the way other musicians made it. Here, according to GQ contributors past and present, are the thirteen albums that got us to where music exists at this very moment.
A peculiar thing happened to Beyoncé in the run-up to 2013: people began regarding her pattern of perpetual triumph smugly. She had been the Recording Industry Association of America’s top-selling artist for 2000 - 2009. She had launched a viral choreography/leotard craze. She had set a record for most Grammy wins by a female artist in one night (six). Having spent years doggedly charting a path to success, the new decade seemed to find her barreling down it. But somewhere along the line, the public began to talk about Beyoncé less as a specific person than a concept.
Admiration morphed into hammy, patronizing fawning. The self-evidence of her talent became a kind of punchline, her name a lazy shorthand for greatness. The attitude was not that Beyoncé wasn’t good, but that she was so good one needn’t bother thinking about her critically. She could be dismissed with a compliment. Her success was predictable.
The surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013 was a disconcerting reveal for those who had become blasé about Beyoncé’s abilities; a thrilling establishment of the scale of her calculatory powers and creative control. It was not, it turned out, a joke that Beyoncé could do anything. She could release an entire album of secretly recorded music and videos in the middle of the night with no warning, marketing campaign, or even physical discs, and watch it become the fastest selling album in the history of iTunes. She could make people buy a full album in the age of singles. She could make people buy a full album in the age of no one paying for music.
The music was her most exhilarating ever—bold, ambitious, and complex. It was exceptional. Because she was Beyoncé. —Caity Weaver
SOPHIE, OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES
Statistically speaking, pop music has been a downer over the last decade. A study by the maker of a popular DJ app showed that the average tempo of the 25 most streamed songs on Spotify in 2017 had declined by 23 beats per minute from five years earlier. You only need to look at Twitter for a few minutes to see why listeners might have gravitated to slower, sadder songs throughout the 2010s. We slogged through it, and so did the music.
But for the producer and songwriter SOPHIE, this status quo is just a failure of imagination. She said about as much in an early interview with Rolling Stone, in which she was asked who her favorite pop artists were. She demurred, instead offering up a philosophy that she's held to ever since: "I think you’ve always got to be critical and try to imagine things that aren’t there."
On her 2018 album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, she spelled out exactly what she was trying to do in the title of the final track. She didn't have to accept things as they were, she could make "A Whole New World." Since her days making songs with the members of the futurist pop pranksters PC Music, she's adopted the approach to a degree, but OIL was a step further into pop's outer realms than she, or any of the producers in her immediate orbit, had ever taken before.
Formed out of a primordial ooze of classic rave tracks and Eurodance anthemics, SOPHIE's debut album is a pop big bang, a breath of new life in a genre flattened by the realities of the streaming economy. At times, it sounds like someone totaled the Vengabus, and then decided to make something out of all the broken glass and twisted metal. Tracks like "Faceshopping" and "Ponyboy" work as both critique and celebration of her chosen form: adopting the crushing dynamics of EDM and the infectiousness of top 40 radio, while obliterating them with dizzying vocal effects at the same time. It's rare to hear something that sounds so new, so radical, and so unlike its peers, which makes the fact that it ultimately received near universal critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination even more astounding. That's reason for a little hope at the end of a long decade. With a little more time, she might be able to remake the whole pop world in her image.—Colin Joyce
Calvin Harris, 18 Months
You might look back at the decade of dance and think of names like Diplo, Disclosure, and Daft Punk. Reasonably so—they each had huge hits in the 2010s, and they all moved a genre away from oontz-oontz-ing brainlessness back towards genuine, thoughtful artistry—but no one did more with a moment over the past ten years than Scotland’s finest non-Logan Roy export, Calvin Harris. A DJ turned actual super producer, Harris has played a huge part in fine-tuning what Top 40 sounds like today. He’s become an inescapable pop force, but we’re not exactly running from him.
His reign started with 2012’s 18 Months, a completely filler-free 15-song record that has both a strong emotional arc (one that neatly spaces out your uppers and downers) and the greatest abundance of certified (literally so!) smashes since Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream dominated airwaves two years prior. “Bounce” takes Kelis back to the disco, to incredibly euphoric effect. “Feel So Close” is simple in structure and lyricism but perfect in execution. Florence + the Machine’s Florence Welch finally leans into the Studio 54-inhibiting persona she’s always kept hidden just beneath the surface on the joyous “Sweet Nothing.”
It’s near impossible to overstate the influence 18 Months, and Harris himself, had on the way our biggest stars thought about crafting hits. Rihanna joined him on his level (Rihanna! That Rihanna!) as a featured artist on “We Found Love,” the decade’s best song, which appeared on her own album, Talk That Talk, the same year. That’s how big a presence he was in 2012. You couldn’t turn a corner without hearing a Calvin Harris song that year, and for years after, too. And you wouldn’t want to. Because what makes a Calvin Harris song so urgent is not just how expertly produced they are, or how simultaneously universal and precise their lyrics all are; it’s how evocative each one is. How big each feels in ambition and execution.
In the years since 18 Months, Harris has more frequently zigged (Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1) where he easily could’ve retread (“Summer”). It hasn’t all been as pitch-perfect as the album that left his fingerprints all over the culture, but it’s all been for the betterment of pop.—Brennan Carley
Drake, Take Care
If the uneven and fractured Thank Me Later introduced Drake to the world, his second full-length album, Take Care, was something of a mission statement, the first coherent vision of what Aubrey wanted to accomplish during his time with us. From the first twinkle of piano on "Over My Dead Body," the myth-making begins, and we get a very real sense of Drake’s interior life and who he might actually be: arrogant, relentless, crude, sometimes sneering, sensitive to a fault. The unswirling center of his own doomy solar system. Take Care painted Drake in edifying detail as someone who was tortured by his own self-awareness, who knew exactly what his critics thought about him and who wanted nothing more than to prove their assumptions wrong. And then—joke’s on all of us—he did just that. —Chris Gayomali
Chris Stapleton, Traveller
The story goes like this: with one explosive performance at the 2015 Country Music Awards, Chris Stapleton and his whiskey-soaked volcano of a voice saved true country music forever, wrenching control back from pop’s influence and the taut-denimed bros of honky tonk. A nice story, if not exactly true. The performance was arresting, and the symbolism rich, but Stapleton had long collected songwriting credits on pop country hits, some of them (Luke Bryan’s ”Drink A Beer”) the very type of song deemed responsible for slowly euthanizing the genre.
What is true is that Traveller, the album that brought Stapleton to those CMAs—and, ultimately, the winner’s podium (Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Male Vocalist of the Year)—is the best male country album of the decade. Even though it didn’t completely dismantle pop’s runaway influence in Nashville, his ensuing surge in popularity signaled something significant.
At a time when artists had successfully turned the down-home authenticity of country into a cloying caricature of itself, there was still a (very) healthy appetite for music steeped in the sounds of outlaw twang, Southern rock, and hearty blues. If it seemed like traditional country was about to be subsumed by the tidal wave of empty bro bops, Stapleton’s popularity showed a real hunger for old-fashioned narrative lyricism, songs that told stories about the lonesome rhythm of life on the road, or the heartbreak of watching your elderly father stop saying grace (as opposed to, you know, getting drunk in economy class). Stapleton, for his part, rejects this characterization of mainstream country: “I don't think anybody wants some kind of good-and-evil scenario with music. I don't. I think that's something that's fed to us a little bit. To me, we need all of it. If there's one kind of music that makes somebody happy, how is that a bad thing?”
Eventually, Traveller was tapped for an Album of the Year Grammy nomination. When we spoke with Stapleton in 2017, he spoke earnestly about the impact he’d already had on country: “If you stop and get too proud of yourself, you're just gonna wind up not doing anything. People used to ask me what my favorite song I ever wrote was, and I always used to say, ‘It's the next one I'm going to write.’ You keep moving. That's the creative process: Trying to find something that falls down out of the air that wasn't there before, and hope that it's something worthwhile.”
If the next decade brings anything like the 2010s did, it’s hard to imagine Stapleton’s next piece of work won’t be something worthwhile.—Clay Skipper
Taylor Swift, 1989
With 1989, Taylor Swift left behind her insular country music community—of which she was the undisputed queen—to make an ambitious play for global pop megastardom instead. And as the 2010s come to a close, the phase of her career she launched with 1989 remains very much in full swing.
Swift is hardly the only artist to venture beyond the outer limits of the genres that made them famous. This is the same decade, after all, in which Lil Wayne released a rock album, Kanye West released a gospel album, and Sam Hunt released a Drake album.
1989, though, is the decade’s highest-risk, highest-reward example of an established artist choosing—in purposeful, decisive fashion—to move beyond the trademark sound their loyal listeners might have expected to hear at that time in her career. Its runaway success neatly encapsulates the spirit of this post-labels era of pop music: Fans don’t really care how the local Sam Goody would have classified your record a generation ago, as long as they can’t stop themselves from singing along to it.—Jay Willis
Rosalía, El Mal Querer
El Mal Querer (which loosely translates to “The Bad Desire”) opens with “Malamente,” an immediate show-stopper studded with punctuated handclaps atop a sweet and sour melody. The song introduces those unfamiliar with Rosalía to her perfectly tuned combination of flamenco and pop, a hybrid she sustains over 11 chapters based on a medieval manuscript about a jealousy-stained relationship. Telling us a tale literally as old as time, the Catalan-born artist allows us to experience the classic bad romance story differently. Notes are trembled like she’s holding back tears on (“Reniego” and “Nana”); elsewhere, her yelping ad libs and trappy beats (“Pienso en tu Mira” and “Di Mi Nombre”) reflect her worldly influence, and an incredibly sharp ability to curate the best sounds her favorite genres have to offer.
Though only a year old, El Mal Querer has already solidified Rosalía’s place as a creator behind some of the decade’s most urgent, forward-thinking music. In a time when listeners crave more tangible connections to our cultures and our pasts, Rosalía reached backwards in time and modernized her country’s traditional art. In the Spanish singer’s take on flamenco, the familiar crooning pleas of romance and folk melodies are still there, but they’re entwined with heavy beats, synthesized vocals, and sharp kicking clatters. Rosalía’s vision, buoyed by El Guincho’s next-level production, seamlessly brought a local folkloric music tradition to the global stage. Only three years into her professional career, Rosalía showed us what it means to synthesize the beauty of the new and the old to deliver a truly distinct pop masterpiece.—Camila Perez
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
The road of Kanye West’s career is a long and winding one, with stops at majestic vistas and visits to barren, unforgiving valleys along the way. But like every journey, the most crucial moments are those when turns are made. For Kanye, there’s no turn more instructive than 2016’s The Life of Pablo, his seventh album, a muddled love letter to his most acrid vices and a plea for a clearer, more sanctified future.
On Pablo, all of West’s greatest strengths show up to the party. There’s his ingenious sampling — the ecstatic use of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” on “Famous,” a melancholic haunting from Arthur Russell on “30 hours,” the appropriation of an sermonic spoken interlude on “Low Lights.” There’s his unmatched A&R work—chasing a Desiigner hook with the vocoder’d incantations of contemporary classical composer Caroline Shaw (“Pt. 2”), handing the conductor baton to Chance the Rapper on the ascendant “Ultralight Beam,” goading Frank Ocean out of his cavern for 38 seconds (“Frank’s Track”).
The Life of Pablo also exposes long-present fissures in West’s persona that have only expanded since. As a lyricist, he can be be megalomaniacal and vindictive, as evidenced most shockingly by his now infamous dig at Taylor Swift on “Famous.” He’s also capricious and prone to sudden changes of mind: in the period following Pablo’s release, West edited the project more than once, adding new songs and making adjustments to existing ones.
Those tweaks and edits are Pablo’s longest-lasting legacy. Alongside the SoundCloud artists who were climbing to mainstream fame when the album dropped, West helped popularize a more informal attitude toward music distribution and presentation. It was arguably his first album in the era of “#content”—which is to say, it mattered less what you did or how you did it, so long as you did do it, and people watched.—Jordan Coley
Robyn, Body Talk
Initially a late-’90s crossover success from Sweden with “Show Me Love,” Robyn had, until Body Talk, always been whispered about in pop circles like a cult favorite, a secret worth keeping private because she was ours, and some secrets are worth keeping.
But some secrets are worth sharing, and Body Talk made Robyn yours as much as she was once ours. It was an album in three parts that started the decade with a bang, an indestructible, futuristic body of work that coated layers of sadness and solitude and resilience in some of the most shimmering production pop had ever seen. Body Talk proved not only that Robyn had a dog in the fight, but also that she was so light years beyond that very same fight that she’d won it, walked away, and moved on to something new before we had a chance to process what’d happened. She won a war no one knew needed fighting.
I think we’ll look back at the ‘00s as pop’s golden age. Some of it trickled over into the early ‘10s—Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream forever changed what a genre could do; Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob took up the blueprints left for them and inspired a new generation of singers; and Robyn proved that Pitchfork and pop could coexist in beautiful harmony—but it was hard for anyone else to measure up to even half of Body Talk’s towering height. With “Dancing On My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend,” Robyn took the bar by which we measured success and broke it in half over her knee without breaking a sweat. “Time Machine” and “Hang With Me” still, in 2019, sound fresh and innovative in their slickness and depth. “U Should Know Better” found Robyn trading bars and carrying her weight with Snoop Dogg without falling on her face.
Most importantly, Body Talk held a mirror up to an industry and said “show up and prove yourself or leave.” It was a gauntlet without ever meaning to be so, unassuming in its perfection but intensely, necessarily challenging to those who followed suit. And though many tried, no one lived up to Robyn except herself. We’ll forgive an eight-year break between albums if it means a level of quality like hers.—B.C.
Tame Impala, Currents
“Yes, I’m moving on,” Kevin Parker sings on “Yes I’m Changing,” a standout on Tame Impala’s third album, Currents. “And if you don’t think it’s a crime, you can come along with me.” It’s a breakup tune, so the Australian jack of all trades (and master of all, whose job title includes singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist) is addressing a partner he’s grown apart from, but he could just as easily be talking to longtime fans. During the first half of the decade, Tame Impala won admirers with a sound heavy on reverb and psych-rock nostalgia. But on Currents, Parker traded his stoner riffs for synths.
Expanding his sonic palette to draw on elements of dance and R&B, Parker concocted an immersive disco trip. The songs on Currents are as heady as his earlier work (knowing thyself is a big concern), except they’re also designed to get bodies moving. And that they have: Tame Impala boasts nine-figure streaming stats and graduated to a headlining Coachella slot earlier this year. Parker himself, meanwhile, has become an in-demand collaborator, answering calls from Travis Scott, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, and SZA in the last few years alone. (And never forget that Rihanna covered Currents’ closing track, “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” on 2016’s ANTI.)
Currents matters because of how it reflects listening habits in the Spotify era, and the path forward that it lights for rock music, drifting back and forth between styles, paying little mind to outdated notions of genre or instrumentation. Its success demonstrates just how far open-eared music can reach. In a 2015 interview, Parker mentioned that he had previously stopped himself from pursuing certain kinds of inspiration because he imagined “indie-music snobs would turn their nose up at it.” That’s no longer an issue for him. Currents is the sound of a recovering rockist learning to go with the flow.—Kyle McGovern
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
It’s strange for a debut to also be a culmination, but that’s what channel ORANGE was when it came out in 2012. Shortly after moving from New Orleans to Los Angeles to pursue a music career, Frank established himself as an in-demand pop songwriter, and then as the soulful member of Odd Future. He released a shimmery mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra, that featured original-besting reinterpretations of songs by Coldplay and MGMT, and that announced himself as a lone entity—a smooth R&B torchbearer, a mysterious sex symbol, a budding superstar. In short succession, there were then his two guest appearances on Watch the Throne (an anointment if there ever was one), the epic 10-minute “Pyramids,” that Tumblr post, and then channel ORANGE, a week early. And with it, Frank arrived, as himself, seemingly fully formed.
So much about that sequence of events is a relic of a not-so-distant, yet long-bygone era. Odd Future, a mixtape, Tumblr, a surprise early release—2012 might as well be 1912. The exception is the music. Pharrell only worked on two channel ORANGE songs, but the entire album adopted his skincare regimen. Unsavory things like sorrow and heartbreak are woven cleanly into a lush tapestry of smooth synthesizers, pulsing drums, airy strings, and John Mayer guitars, such that they’re practically appealing. You didn’t have to speak English for channel ORANGE to be your favorite album; it was flawless background music. When Frank’s mom first heard it, she called it “A perfect summertime album.”
The album’s title comes from what Frank saw when he first fell in love: the abundant orange of summer. When I listen, I obviously can’t see what he saw, but I can see a lot. Channel ORANGE is an album that’s always seemed wedded to the truth, but one of his best lines hinges on a lie: “My TV ain't HD, that's too real.” Everything about channel ORANGE is 4K.—Max Cea
Lil Peep, Hellboy
Lil Peep’s songs are alarmingly honest in their portrayal of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and addiction. At the time, almost no one else on the internet sounded like him; by 2019, his sound had become pop’s load-bearing wall.
Peep had been experimenting with combining trap and emo rock since he was 16, but Hellboy was the SoundCloud stalwart’s masterpiece, a graphic snapshot of a young artist’s chaotic life in 2016. Every track is staggering in its innovation, from depression anthems like “OMFG” and “Walk Away as the Door Slams” to the goth lullabies “We Think Too Much” and “Interlude.” Hellboy perfectly captured everything that was, and still is, thrilling about this modern melding of 2000s trap and emo sounds. The guitars pull inspiration from Avenged Sevenfold and Bright Eyes, the beats heavily influenced by those of Gucci Mane and Chief Keef.
Everything that Lil Peep wrote—every hook, chorus, and ad-lib—sounds urgent in delivery, each lyric bursting with emotional weight. His signature vocal style was so devastating it was impossible not to trust his every word. It made his musings on death that much heavier, his boasts about his victories that much more triumphant. If you’ve ever felt sad or hopeless, this record captures those emotions so vividly that it’s impossible to not feel a closeness with Peep. HIs pain seems so honest, and turned out to be more cause for concern than anyone cared to admit.
In retrospect, Hellboy was a bright red warning sign, blown by all too quickly. Lil Peep died of an accidental overdose in November 2017 in his tour bus. After Peep, we’ve seen the passing of XXXtentacion, Juice WRLD, and even one of Peep’s former collaborators, Hella Sketchy—all gone before reaching the age of 22. A generation of talent has crumbled under the pressure of youth, rapid fame, and a total lack of industry interest in actually taking care of them. What do we, as listeners, really owe to someone living their life on the edge of death for our entertainment?
From tragedy comes strength. Peep’s influence on Hellboy will keep rippling throughout the next decade. Peep himself lives on in his collaborators and imitators—hell, we’ve only just begun to see the kids who grew up idolizing him create their own songs. With any luck we might even heed the warning signs more closely next time around.—Shak Greeley
Turnstile, Time & Space
Something weird happened to hardcore music early in the decade. As festivals became the default method of seeing your favorite acts, many bands stopped hitting smaller, local venues, in favor of the big city circuit. This led to a hegemonous period in hardcore, during which every band from 2010-2015 played all of the same festivals and sounded exactly the same. It led, naturally, to a lot of truly uninspired music. But from the cracks in the sidewalk grew new life. Kids started paying to see bands that were weren’t just a bunch of dudes complaining about their exes over chugging 4/4 riffs. Bands were finding success in writing emotionally open and vulnerable songs, and even in singing—and it paid off in spades. It wasn’t until hardcore bands started to push their sound and experiment that the music started to become interesting again.
Turnstile was chief among these bands. You can track their progression of experimentation from their debut EP, Pressure to Succeed, to 2016’s Nonstop Feeling. They play fast and energetic music inspired heavily by early New York hardcore, but they’re also equal parts inspired by psychedelic imagery, soul, funk, and jazz. The music they started to make mid-decade pushed up against a genre’s rigid, stubborn boundaries, asking why hardcore had to sound a certain way, when it’s always sounded like absolutely anything it wanted to.
2018’s Time & Space is the product of what it sounds like to lean into that thesis of “why not?” It’s a blisteringly fast album that harnesses the best of their creative energy. On tracks like “Moon” and “Right To Be,” singer Brendan Yates and bassist Franz Lyons both handle vocals, settling into as perfect of a groove that somebody can while singing over a hardcore track. The overwhelming ethos of Time & Space is that hardcore was always, and will always be, truly about a ton of kids climbing over each other, jumping off stages, and having fun. There are so many moments in their music that exude that joyful energy. It’s hardcore music that you can actually dance to, and feels celebratory about the passion and the chaos that has been so core to this kind of music since its inception. —Gabe Conte
From Breaking Bad to RuPaul's Drag Race, the small screen saw some of its sharpest-ever programming over the last decade.
Originally Appeared on GQ