The last 10 years in music have brought about seismic shifts. Hip-hop has overtaken rock and pop as the heart of youth culture; we've seen the rise (and decline) of EDM, the trap takeover and SoundCloud rap renaissance, the reemergence of horny-as-hell R&B, and the second coming of nü metal. Boy bands are back. "Indie rock" as we know it has shapeshifted and split off into smaller factions that are weirder, deeper, and darker, from John Maus to Alex G. Traditional genre lines have all but dissolved, and impossible-to-classify artists like Billie Eilish or Brockhampton or Deafheaven enter the conversation every day. If Lil Nas X is any indication, it now seems possible for an artist to reach atmospheric levels of fame overnight. And thanks to the proliferation of streaming services, we now have access to an infinite music library anytime, anywhere (just don't think too hard about the inner workings of the algorithm). Music is more democratic than ever before—and there's certainly a hell of a lot more of it. So how do you distill 10 years of music into the 100 albums that mattered most? It seems like an impossible task, but we tried.
If 2010 was the year the tea leaves drifted to the bottom of the cup, hinting at how the decade would unfold, we would all have been wise to take Salem’s King Night a little more seriously. Simultaneously lauded and reviled by critics at the time of its release, it was a dark, weird mishmash of demented Christmas song remixes, car crash noises, chopped and screwed vocals, and tungsten-heavy synths—one that seemed to be influenced in equal measure by Three 6 Mafia and Debussy. Ten years later, though, it’s hard to deny that King Night represented a powerful first dose of the current of extreme nihilism that would come to define youth culture in this decade, from Euphoria to every barely legal rapper with a million face tattoos.
How a group of Midwestern white kids who mumbled about “bitches” and unapologetically slept through interviews with the New York Times managed to make an album so prophetic is unclear. But this dissociative witch house (VVi†©π HΘ⊔Sℇ?) opus helped kickstart the nine years of GarageBand hip-hop, strobing dark wave, and miscellaneous micro-genres ending with the "gaze" suffix that would follow, ahead of artists from Lil Uzi Vert to Clams Casino. In retrospect, King Night feels like an early foreboding of America’s burgeoning opiate crisis; but over the past decade, its songs also made appearances in a Skins episode, a Givenchy fashion show, and the house party scene in The Place Beyond the Pines where a teenage boy yells, "Who wants some fucking Oxy?" Twisted: yep. Essential: for sure. —Hilary Pollack
It's hard to remember a world before Cardi B—though given the rules of space and time, one must have existed. 2017 single "Bodak Yellow" saw the stripper-turned-rapper-turned-impresario exploding out of the window of every passing car with scathing bars floating atop spare, stripped-down trap beats. If the artist born Belcalis Almanzar had just stopped there, cranking out the kind of hard-hitting, hard-working banger you'd expect from someone whose previous mixtapes were both called Gangsta Bitch, that would also have been completely understandable—but she didn't. Instead, the following April, she dropped Invasion of Privacy, a tightly edited, every-track-a-gem collection that made clear that you can't talk about Cardi without talking about range. Every song sounds markedly different than what comes before it, but every last one makes you want to rip your life up and go get what Cardi has. Cardi might be everywhere now, but Invasion of Privacy reminds us why she deserves it. — Rupa Bhattacharya
Can you think of a more resonant sax solo in a major pop hit, a more heartwarming song about a hallucinogenic frog, or a more poignant and unironic use of slap-bass in the 2010s? Hell, can you think of a more consistent, emotionally rich double album from this decade than Hurry Up, We're Dreaming? In 2011, M83's 22-track opus dropped like a boulder into the shallow pond of stadium-ready pop music, and its reverberant tremors can still be felt. French artist Anthony Gonzalez was at once channeling U2, Peter Gabriel, and Smashing Pumpkins, while also showing how much bigger, deeper, and weirder their music could be. But Hurry Up didn't just amplify the best parts of main-stage rock bands; it proved to be the quintessential M83 album. Kitsch infused with pathos; anthems wrought from intimacy; dream logic that speaks to everyone—the hallmarks of Gonzalez's singular career, all blown up to a scale he's yet to match. —Patric Fallon
Since 2010, Alex Giannascoli has been wildly prolific, first uploading a string of modest and eccentric albums to Bandcamp, then slowly expanding his musical palette with releases on Run for Cover and now Domino. His discography is a cumulative slow burn, with flashes of brilliance on each release. But his latest, 2019's House of Sugar, is probably the most powerful example of his songwriting's versatility and adventurousness. It's his most accessible release yet—with songs as immediate as the plaintive and mournful "Hope" and the disquieting "Crime"—but at other moments, his weirdest and most abrasive. Opener "Walk Away" finds Giannascoli distorting, looping, and layering his voice in increasingly unsettling ways. When catchier songs like "Southern Sky" and "Gretel" start to make the LP feel like a more straightforward indie rock record, the ensuing tracks unexpectedly go into experimental territory. "Project 2" is a mesmerizing ambient oddity; "Sugar" features piercing strings. It's a shocking left turn (especially when the acoustic "In My Arms" immediately follows the sonic detour) that only an artist as charmingly unpredictable as (Sandy) Alex G could pull off. —Josh Terry
Kurt Cobain died in 1994, which means that a baby born that day would now be 25 years old. In some ways, Nirvana's legacy has barely been diluted, but as far as the musical moment from whence it came, the 90s renaissance of heavy, anthemic rock music—well, that feels long gone. But if you took Cobain's musical sensibilities and crossed them with early Slowdive and turn-of-the-millennium hardcore, you'd find yourself staring down the barrel of Philadelphia's Nothing, whose 2014 album, Guilty of Everything, just might be the Nevermind that Generation Instagram 'n' Xanax didn't even know it was looking for.
Remember guitars? Here, they feel colossal. On this grungy, 38-minute spacewalk, distorted post-shoegaze riffs tumble over each other like solar flares as introspective, half-whispered vocals narrate frontman Nicky Palermo's odyssey toward self-acceptance. You're beckoned into a wall of sound, a volcano of reverb, "if you feel like letting go," as he chants meditatively on stunner "Bent Nail." Lyrical moments like "My hands are up, I'm on my knees … I've given up, but you shoot anyway / I'm guilty of everything" might seem hyperbolic to those unaware that Palermo once spent two years in prison for allegedly stabbing a man in a knife fight outside of a Blink 182 show in 2000. But never mind that. Maybe Cobain is dead, but the best parts of grunge aren't, after all.—Hilary Pollack
After Macintosh Plus decided to open Floral Shoppe with that chopped 'n' screwed Sade sample, nothing was ever the same. The album that spawned a million memes, it remains the defining document of vaporwave and one of the most delightfully bizarre emblems of this deeply weird decade, rewiring kitsch for a new generation while completely transforming how we think of taste. (It was also produced by a trans woman, lest anyone forget where this genre came from.)
From its queasy remix of Diana Ross's "It's Your Move" to its heavenly loop of a forgotten New Age track by Dancing Fantasy, the album asks us countless questions: Does slowing down old adult contemporary songs really count as making music? Are these unsettling tracks a warning of how warped our own world is becoming? And is it finally time to go dig up all those old Phil Collins records we threw away? Put simply, Floral Shoppe taught us a new way of listening to music, one as absurd and surreal as it is prophetic. In some ways, we're still catching up to its dystopian fantasia. —Sam Goldner
Every track on Home, Like Noplace Is There feels designed to be screamed while wedged in a tightly packed crowd of other sweaty people singing along, which, for an emo album, is the highest honor. It starts off quiet, but when Christian Holden's vocals kick in 18 seconds into "An Introduction to the Album," it's clear that raw, relentless emotion will carry the band's most iconic album through to its end, establishing The Hotelier as one of the genre's greats. Home, Like Noplace Is There is emotionally heavy, and it hits hard. "The Scope of All of This Rebuilding" turns the line "you cut our ropes/left the umbilical" into an anguished, screamable refrain about broken relationships, while "Your Deep Rest" reckons with guilt after the death of a friend by suicide as Holden sings, "You said, 'Remember me for me/I need to set my spirit free.'" Packed into under two-and-a-half minutes, "Life In Drag" is a shouty missive about grappling with gender identity. As brooding, energetic, and anguished as the album is, it knows exactly when to let up. It's a frantic burst of pent-up energy, but with just enough time to breathe. —Bettina Makalintal
Before he was a producer to the stars, and long before his work became easy shorthand for cinematic hedonism, Skrillex was just trying to rage. Taking up the neon vomit Ed Banger set and the stomach-churning bass of the U.K. club scene, he became a self-styled rock star of the American dubstep world on Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, blowing out beats that were intentionally garish, unquestionably stupid, and unbearably loud—three characteristics that all true bangers must abide by. Forgive him for the legions of dodgy imitators and years of bad behavior at Vegas megaclubs that these tracks enabled. It's worth it for the pure ecstasy he unlocked on tracks like "Kill Everybody," which imagines what Daft Punk might sound like were they actually modified T-1000s. Forget good taste; surrender to the drops. —Colin Joyce
Elysia Crampton's electronic music has always been both epic in scope and profoundly personal. The experimental artist's work in the early 2010s, that she released as E+E, juxtaposed American pop with pounding cumbia-inflected beats and occasionally punishing noise. Arriving in 2015, the Bolivian-American's first record under her own name, American Drift, was more substantial, investigating the effects of colonial America on her own sense of indigenous identity and history. Crampton's knotty compositions coursed with layered synthesizers, intoned vocals, and hypnotic, MIDI-like guitar, at times sounding like a vivid video game soundtrack. Where samples did appear, they were used texturally rather than as a focal point, while gunshots, chirping birds, and clicking insects imbued the songs with an indelible sense of place. Alongside contemporaries like Chino Amobi, it felt Crampton was decolonizing electronic music in real-time. The possibilities were, and continue to be, endless. —Lewis Gordon
When Gojira burst onto the scene with The Way of All Flesh, they took the world by storm. In an era when every extreme band with a modicum promise is briefly anointed "the next Metallica," the Bayonne, France-based quartet were as close to the real thing as you could get: roaring, surprisingly smart lyrics; riding the melodic wave, but never forgetting that it's all about that riff. Two LPs later, the band would issue their greatest work yet, the Grammy-nominated Magma. On what is debatably their finest hour, Gojira starts to build on those earlier promises, using clean-singing against harsher death-metal vocals, leaning further into melody but never going limp (*cough LOAD cough*). Tracks like "Silvera" and "Pray" aren't afraid to offer their own spin on riffy thrash and Meshuggah-like math-chug, yet clean and psych-focused guitars abound on favorites like the title track and "Yellow Stone." Whether Magma will ultimately be viewed as the band's Master of Puppets still remains to be seen, but until then, they've left a hell of a record to listen to on repeat. —Fred Pessaro
Created in the midst of a high-profile breakup and what seemed to be a moment of sober clarity, Swimming could be read as an assessment of everything that happened in Mac Miller's life up to that date. The luscious, string section-backed "2009" sees him reflecting on the passing of time, while on album opener "Come Back To Earth," he hones in on past mistakes while looking toward the future. None of this makes the album nostalgic, though. Swimming is a lucid and often extremely peaceful listen. It seems to exist out of time, making it all the more bittersweet when the world learned of his death not long after the album dropped. —Ryan Bassil
We all think we know better than our parents. After all, they're old! They're dorks! At 14, what choice did we have but to crank Enema of the State in our bedrooms to drown out the Bob Seger that Dad was bopping to in the garage? But somewhere around your return of Saturn, you might catch Full Moon Fever after a few bong rips and realize that it's actually incredible. Then one day, “I'm On Fire” comes on at CVS and you realize that you, too, have got a bad desire. The next thing you know, you're actively longing for some Rod Stewart. It's a slippery slope, and at the end of it is The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream, a mouthwatering tribute to all of the dad rock that ever made us wish we still used landlines. Frontman and songwriter Adam Granduciel adds a generous sprinkle of folk, shoegaze, and ambient elements that make the album less of a straightforward homage and more of a postmodern meditation on Americana. Songs like “Under the Pressure” are awash with layers—atmospheric interludes, soaring synth lines, drum machines—that bring in an amorphous, shimmering beauty and help evade the corniness of 80s sentimentality. If your dream was cranking Bruce Springsteen out of your Mustang while watching the sun set over the lake, this is the Inception-like dream within it. — Hilary Pollack
When you write about Pile, you write about their influence. Their small but rabid fanbase; the guitar rock renaissance they helped spearhead in Boston; the fact that Krill once recorded an entire concept record about them. But none of that matters. Listening to Dripping is an isolating, individual experience. It's an album full of haunted, broken Americana songs. It's gothic in the Flannery O'Connor sense of the word. It's a difficult passage of tangled through-composed songs that almost actively try to shake you. Movements sneak up on you, structures are hard to follow even seven years later—the stutter of "Baby Boy," that transcendent two-bar melody in the middle of "Steve's Mouth," the ankle-cramping kicks in "The Browns." In a better, more just world, Dripping would be on everyone's top 10 for the decade and it wouldn't matter who recorded what EP about it or whatever. In this world, it barely broke our top 100. Oh well. —River Donaghey
Few of us will ever have sex on a private jet, let alone a blimp. But thanks to Jeremih, we now know what it's like. There's the echo of empty space all around you, the synthesizers that throb like the red light panels on a sexy Death Star, the sense of awe that nobody else seems to have thought of coming here.
R&B spent the decade evolving from a critical backwater to the province of serious art, largely by swapping out the alcohol-soaked neon clubscapes that ruled the radio for the druggy, brooding introspection that ruled the blogs. Jeremih has been a lonely adventurer flying above these shifting winds, one of the few experimentalists willing to mine the outer bleep-bloop nebulae of the genre while still actually making music you want to smoke weed and fuck to. And his triangulations ultimately put him closer to the center of what is interesting about this era in music history than perhaps anyone else.
Late Nights hovers in the margins of robotic late-aughts radio hits and ambient melodic trap, turning neglected sonic ideas into the full songs they've always deserved to be. Thus, the crystalline stoner club jam that is “Pass Dat”; the slinky rap boasts of “Feel Like Phil,” set to a minimalist Radiohead-style synth pattern; the 2 a.m. cassette-tape crackle of “Woosah.” The result is, like the album's main lyrical preoccupation, an agile but effortless workout, an exercise in perfecting a craft that most people will only ever explore partway. —Kyle Kramer
Featuring a strangely beautiful doll face with shades of red flowering like a bruise in its center, Twigs' Jesse Kanda-designed LP1 cover was the perfect introduction to an artist whose work would center on sexual pleasure and pain, female strength, and vulnerability. In an era of empowerment feminism, her desperate, sensual, subversive pop dug deeply into the human experience. Instructions to lovers could be misconstrued as threats or bargaining. "Two Weeks" wants to take you "higher than a motherfucker" as the track's synths slide to ecstasy, but like nails into thighs, won't let you forget "I can fuck you better than her." She can rip your body open, but "Pendulum," from the album's midpoint, hypnotizes and declares Twigs as "your sweet little love maker." She calls and coos like a dove, melody circling toward a peak that mimics desire. It's a meticulously controlled debut album, and the fact she worked with multiple producers—Arca, Dev Hynes, Clams Casino, Sampha and more—while co-producing some LP1 tracks is a testament to her overall magnetic perfectionism. She's one of the most distinctive artists working today, and the world can thank her for making easily the best collection of sex jams released in the decade. —Hannah Ewens
Part of being a Wiley fan is understanding and accepting that Wiley is erratic. He literally invented the genre of grime, only to watch his protégé, Dizzee Rascal, become the genre's breakout star. When he finally scored the sort of breakout pop hit that would put him on the same level as Dizzee—2008's "Wearing My Rolex"—Wiley pulled out of the music video at the last second, eliciting tabloid claims that he was afraid of the fox that was to be used in the clip. (He vehemently denied this, stating, "Wiley's not scared of no animals, fam." It was later revealed that he'd been attacked in the days leading up to the shoot.) A friend of mine was once interviewing Wiley in Ibiza, only for him to casually excuse himself, never return, and then four hours later tweet about being in Scotland.
To be fair, the music industry is inexcusably terrible, and there's only so much a person can take without doing something drastic. In 2010, Wiley had had enough. Frustrated by his label delaying the release of his album, The Elusive, he dropped a laptop's worth of unreleased tunes on the internet, over 200 songs in total, from instrumentals to grime workouts to would-be pop hits, much of it among the best music of his career. Many of the tracks were unfinished snapshots of a deeply creative mind at work. The data dump seemed to be cathartic for Wiley, who would spend the rest of the 2010s on an upward trajectory, releasing one focused project after another—and, in the process, cementing his place as the true godfather of grime. —Drew Millard
Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint was a fitting declaration for her decade of dominance in rap. In previous work, she took the form of quirky characters, with more colorful wigs and inventive flows than we could count. The Queens-raised artist decoded the formula that made being a mainstream "female rapper" possible, landing her in the thick of hip-hop's boys club. But The Pinkprint found Minaj stripping back the regalia she used as an accessory. She was learning she could be herself and still create a successful pop-rap hybrid album.
Nicki Minaj has a way of pushing people past their comfort zone. The album, loaded with collaborations, would feel incomplete without them for an artist as fluent in features as Minaj. She enlisted the My Everything-era Ariana Grande (who was still very Disney-adjacent) for the slow, creeping sensuality of "Get On Your Knees"; Beyoncé provides background vocals under Minaj's fast-paced delivery on "Feeling Myself" before dishing out a delicious brag about the time she made the world stop. But some of Minaj's best work happened solo. "Who had Eminem on the first album? Who had Kanye saying, 'She a problem?'" she asks on the Metro Boomin-produced "Want Some More." "Who the fuck came in the game, made her own column? Who made Lil Wayne give 'em five million?" Hip-hop's problem with misogynoir means Nicki Minaj has always had to remind people of her accolades. But she shouldn't have to. —Kristin Corry
Sometimes, the way to save rock 'n' roll isn't through introducing some daring new element to the mix or selling your guitars to buy turntables; it's through making really good rock music. And if that's what you want, then Sheer Mag's Need to Feel Your Love has just what you need, to paraphrase singer Tina Halladay on the record's title track. Released in 2017 after a trio of stunning EPs, the band came out swinging with an album that was positively begging you to talk shit so that Halladay could put you in your place. But where the band's previous work was all killer no chiller, Need to Feel Your Love embraced the groove that always undergirded the band's edge.
There are Thin-Lizzy-at-Studio-54 disco stompers ("Need to Feel Your Love," "Pure Desire"), ass-kicking revolutionary anthems ("Meet Me in the Street," "Expect the Bayonet"), and even a dalliance with lo-fi bedroom-pop ("Until You Find the One"). Lyrics about bumming around, falling in love, and rising up are all equal parts of a whole: When the world is against you and the causes you care about, the first step is to focus on those around you and figure out how you can come together to bash out a new way of life. On Need to Feel Your Love, Sheer Mag captured the restless solidarity that has come to define our social and political moment. —Drew Millard
Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington are two of the most interesting and exciting artists of the past 10 years, and we still don't understand how lucky we are to hear them collaborate on the same album. Psychic is an ambitious project that reaches wide without straying too far away from the minimalist electronic production and funky, noodly guitar sounds that the two are best at making. Straddling several disparate genres, the album borrows elements of electro-pop, jazz, prog-rock, and ambient sounds to create a seamless blend that gives you something new to discover every time you listen to it. Be it a basement party or the hungover morning after, Psychic shapeshifts to soundtrack a rainbow of moods throughout its 45-minute run. And its biggest single, “Paper Trails,” anticipated the Yee Haw Revival™️ years before it took off. Psychic is a visionary project from a pair of legends, and while it holds up to this day, it will continue to feel ahead of its time for years to come. —Trey Smith
For Holly Herndon, music has always been a vehicle for big ideas. Her debut album, Movement, channeled decades of computer music research from scholars like Max Mathews and Laurie Spiegel as it attempted to push the human voice to its furthest limits, refracting dynamic vocal audio through digital processes to give it an eerie, alien feel. While the album was mostly completed in isolation, Herndon's doctoral research at Stanford University led her to collaborate with a growing cast of writers, designers, visual artists, and other thinkers. And on her follow-up, Platform, this communal spirit became a driving principle.
Teaming up with artists like Mat Dryhurst, Akihiko Taniguchi, Claire Tolan, and the Dutch design studio Metahaven, the album is a fascinating study in 21st-century communalism—and a collection of vignettes about how we live now. With its Skype samples, targeted audio ads, ASMR music, and alleged love letters to the NSA, the group's vision amounted to one of the more prescient accounts of 2010s techno-capitalism to date. Yet for all its theoretical ambitions, the album is an imminently listenable dance record at its core, with tracks that still feel rewarding years later. Platform remains a highlight for club music this decade, as committed to knotty computer music research as it is to making us feel. —Rob Arcand
Australia's Total Control not only gave us a glimpse into the incredibly fertile Melbourne punk scene; it also introduced a new world of music courtesy of Al Montfort (Dick Diver, UV Race) and a glimmer of hope for more incredible records from Mikey Young, who blasted onto the scene with the much-loved Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Much like Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf, the band's debut effort Henge Beat plays like a mixtape of styles and approaches to post-punk, giving us a diverse look at the band's breadth and boundless ability. Somewhere between Suicide, Swell Maps, Joy Division, and Devo depending on the song, Henge Beat is a perfect 11-track album that balances icy effortlessness with urgent delivery and flawless songwriting. It's peak Andrew Eldritch (of Sisters of Mercy), shirtless and in a leather jacket, sipping a whiskey in the corner at a Goner gig—radiating cool aloofness throughout the room. Whether you're in awe from the melodic simplicity of ”The Hammer,” raging to the garage punk perfection of "Retiree," or swaying in the fog goth-style to "Love Performance," Henge Beat is an exercise in quality through diversity. —Fred Pessaro
If you ever want to make a room full of internet-addled rap nerds lose their minds, pick a random Gucci Mane mixtape from the 2010s, confidently declare that it's the best one he put out this decade, and sit back while they spend the next two hours arguing about which is actually the true best Gucci tape. With this in mind, take Gucci Mane's World War 3 trilogy (the three World Wars were Lean, Gas, and Molly) as a stand-in for all the music that Gucci Mane made in the 2010s that you like. But also, World War 3 is legitimately fantastic, with Gucci surrounding himself with a team of collaborators uniquely suited to pushing his creative limits.
Lean features production exclusively from Mike Will, Zaytoven, and Honorable C-Note, and is probably the best and most consistent of the three. By "most consistent," please keep in mind that I mean that the audio quality on the other two can be weird sometimes; by "best," I mean that it's the one that contains a chopped-and-screwed love song about Actavis. But the highs on the 808 Mafia-produced Gas ("One Minute," "Whippin") reach incredibly high.
And then there's Molly, the one with all the Metro Boomin beats (Sonny Digital and Dun Deal also help out here), released just as Metro was settling into an astonishing run of hits that would help establish him as one of the defining producers of the decade. Gucci Mane has always had as much of a knack for spotting talent as he has for rapping itself, and on World War 3, he yielded the floor to rising stars like Young Thug, Migos, and PeeWee Longway, who steals the show on basically every verse he touches. There might not be one definitive Gucci project of the decade, but there just might be three. —Drew Millard
Sean Yeaton used to sit in a corner of the VICE office, dutifully blogging blogs for Motherboard. Then he left his desk and recorded this brain-bleedingly brilliant debut with Parquet Courts. Sure, you can argue that Light Up Gold sounds like [insert: knotty 80s post-punk band] or [insert: generic college rock band], and that Parquet Courts went on to refine their particular Parquet Court-ness on subsequent albums like Human Performance. But Light Up Gold is still their most engrossing collection of songs that somehow manage to touch on everything from the military-industrial complex to the merits of various bodega snacks. Now, Sean is sweating on stages across the world and cranking out a murderers' row of records with the rest of Parquet Courts, while the rest of us are still sitting at our computers, blogging blogs about him. We love you, Sean. We all wish we were you, but we can't be, because you are you. —River Donaghey
Early reviews of Turnstile gigs right around the time of the release of the Step to Rhythm EP were not just flattering, but downright jaw-dropping. Critics threw around phrases like "the future of hardcore" and "a live show that made me feel like a 14-year-old kid again" with reckless abandon, making it hard not to instantly smash that cynical button. But just this once, the juice lived up to the squeeze; the Trapped Under Ice-adjacent band has not only created records that could comfortably sit beside iconic hardcore favorites, but in some ways, has transcended them. Nonstop Feeling is Turnstile's debut LP, and it manages to do something that virtually every band strives for: contain their live firepower while successfully showcasing the band's songwriting strengths. And while it's virtually impossible to truly bottle the boundless live presence of frontman Brendan Yates, drummer Daniel Fang, bassist Freaky Franz and co., with all of their jump kicks, splits, and total command of the crowd, the LP comes close, tagging 90s alt and hardcore to create a bouncy, fun, and positive amalgam of everything from Madball to Rage Against the Machine. It's fun, catchy as hell, and boiling over with real, nonstop feeling. —Fred Pessaro
It's wild to think that Take Me Apart is Kelela's debut album, because it can feel as though her forward-thinking, emotive music has been around for far longer than just a few years. First, her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me established her as an emerging and singular voice in the places where electronic music rubbed up against R&B and intimacy. To put it bluntly, at the tail end of EDM's reign, second-generation Ethiopian queer women hadn't quite become the dominant voice within dance-floor-primed music. Beyond that, though, Kelela seemed to quickly send out feelers into the worlds of music and fashion, inspiring here, collaborating there; she just became part of the culture. By the time she shared the shimmery, sometimes hazy and contemplative Take Me Apart in summer 2017, she sounded her most confident. After years of being processed (and often misread) by the overwhelmingly white dance music press, her debut proved she could create on her own terms. There'll never be a simple way to categorize Kelela—but that's part of the fun. And now? Well, now we wait for album number two. —Tshepo Mokoena
There's a searing sense of catharsis underlying This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem's third and not final album. Always allergic to austerity, James Murphy pushes ideas to their bursting point, resulting in a record that never stops to catch its breath—not that you'd want it to. "Dance Yrself Clean" is all simmering unease until it combusts into a rolling synth explosion. The Berlin-era Bowie tribute "All I Want," a deeply sad requiem for a relationship, climaxes with Murphy howling "Take me home," as if his self-reflection has become too much to bear.
If it feels like a culmination, that's by design; LCD billed this as their final album (complete with a career-spanning, confetti-splashed Madison Square Garden farewell concert), before ultimately reuniting in 2017. Polarizing as that decision was, This Is Happening endures because it stands alone, its components much easier to disentangle from their event trappings than, say, Jay Z's The Black Album. Murphy was doing what he'd always done—lifting from his idols, ruminating on fame and love and loss, and muddying the line between cool and uncool until the distinction becomes invisible—but he was doing it bigger, more universally, and better. As he sings on the tender finale of "Home," "Look around you, you're surrounded… it won't get any better." Murphy was finally content, and it almost doesn't matter that the moment didn't last. —Alex Swhear
Though he has since rebranded himself as the artist Kossisko, in 2012, the Berkeley rapper once known as 100s was making a breed of swaggy pimp rap that none of his contemporaries had yet been able to match. Songs like “Slow Drip” and “Power” showcase his innate storytelling ability, strong technical skills, and utter ease behind the mic. "Brick $ell Phone" is the type of track you just want to throw on repeat, with its sparse production somehow sounding both familiar and fresh at the same time. The combination of local flows that are a hallmark of the Bay Area combined with his vivid descriptions of the mack life captured a retro yet modern vibe, and made for compelling listening that kept you engrossed in every line. For a few years, he was this generation’s Suga Free, and possibly this generation's last chance at having their own version of the iconic Pomona, California rapper. But looking in the rearview, 100s deserves accolades all his own. —Trey Smith
Following the release of a string of stellar and critic-approved dubstep EPs and 12-inches on boutique U.K. labels, James Blake's self-titled full-length debut felt like a genre-defining moment. His falsetto-heavy soul singer approach to electronic music angered some genre purists (like Portishead's Geoff Barrow), but his obvious talent in writing fascinating songs was enough to make the dissenters feel irrelevant. Not only does Blake have a striking voice, but he imbues a wealth of emotion in almost every annunciation (just take his lovelorn delivery on breakout "The Wilhelm Scream" or his brooding Feist cover "Limit To Your Love.") What makes James Blake a success is his willingness to experiment. "I Mind" boasts a staggering amount of vocal loops that envelop the herky-jerky percussion. The same goes for "Lindisfarne I," which employs Auto-Tune in ways that still feel surprising. Blake would later expand his sound to be more pop-adjacent, but his debut is where he felt the most groundbreaking. —Josh Terry
Metal is littered with burnouts, used up by their early 40s even if they don't realize it. (They often don't.) Yob's Mike Scheidt, on the other hand, hit his stride in his early 40s, and the Eugene, Oregon trio hasn't fallen off since. While Yob's second life began just before this decade with 2009's The Great Cessation, 2011's Atma truly signified their renewal and made them the doom metal band to reckon with. Scheidt honed his style on this album: meditative, yet still ungodly heavy. Both the title track's trance-like crunch and the huge sweeps in "Before We Dreamed of Two" will make you headbang in devotion. "Prepare the Ground" is Yob's best song and one of the best doom metal songs ever: Yob play like stone that can flex like gel, and Scheidt's vocal performance is warlord Ozzy, giving that weary warble a terrifying command. Metal thrives when it becomes a mode of prayer, even (especially) if you're irreligious, and Yob are still way ahead in both realizing and practicing this. Yob is love, and heavy metal is spiritual war. These are not mutually exclusive; Atma shows they work in tandem. —Andy O'Connor
Let England Shake might not be your favorite PJ Harvey album. It might not even be your third or fourth. It's a far cry from the lo-fi grunge anthems she came out of the gate with in the early 1990s, or the "pop according to PJ Harvey" tracks she released in the 2000s. But it's not fair to compare it to her previous records, because it doesn't compare itself; it also won the British singer and guitarist a second Mercury Prize, making her the most successful artist in the award's history.
It's easy to see why so much of Let England Shake feels unexpected—especially its imagery. Where she once wrote beautifully and poetically about her own life and loves, this time she swivels the lens outwards, elevating her contemplation of the human condition to the warfare and trauma we endure on a wider scale. "On Battleship Hill's caved-in trenches / A hateful feeling still lingers," she sings on "On Battleship Hill," her voice curling into an astonishing falsetto. Later, on "Bitter Branches," she spits over desolate guitar riffs: "Twisting under soldier's feet / Standing in line / And the damp earth underneath." The result is an album that sounds like nothing PJ Harvey has given us before or since. "I'm very pleased because I'm not repeating myself," she told AOL's Spinner in 2009, demurely, as if she wasn't writing one of the best albums of the decade. —Daisy Jones
This is a landmark album for two reasons: One, Gang Signs & Prayer is the biggest grime album ever, debuting on the U.K. charts at No. 1—the first grime album to do so in the genre's history. Two, it achieved this feat while also centering on a religious concept, never for a moment shying away from Stormzy's faith. Standout track "Blinded By Your Grace," which is separated into two standalone songs, is the purest evidence of just how far Stormzy's religious leanings seep into his music. But his love for the big G doesn't get corny, and you don't need to be Christian to enjoy it. Considering how much of a sensitive tearjerker it is, you just need to have a heart. —Ryan Bassil
Leading up to Justin Bieber's 2014 album Journals, the then-20-year-old artist hit a bit of a rough patch. 2013 was not his year: In April he caught flack after writing that he hoped Anne Frank "would have been a Belieber." Then, a video surfaced in which he appeared to be peeing in a mop bucket while wearing some ill-advised studded pants, yelling "we the 'wild kidz!'" and "fuck Bill Clinton!" and spraying a photo of the former president with cleaning fluid. (He later apologized.) The journey from being discovered on YouTube to international pop star is full of trials and tribulations, and he was going through some darkness in a very public way.
But from this fraught era came Journals, which shows the pre-Hillsong, still-baby-faced Canadian singer at his best. It's the project that made people take Justin Bieber seriously, and it's when critics realized that he had potential beyond the bubble gum sound of previous hits like "Baby" and "Boyfriend." With Journals, he showed that he had range, and that he was meant to be making pure R&B songs all along. The album is intimate, sexy-as-hell, genuine, and ostensibly apologetic. (It's rumored that the album is about his tumultuous breakup with Selena Gomez.) Over 15 tracks, Bieber shares intimate journal pages full of growing pains that were musically experimental, showing more genuine emotion than anything he'd ever released before. Tracks like "Recovery" and "Confident" were evidence that Bieber was growing up. Dripping with emotion, "All That Matters" showed a Bieber ready to shed all the teeny-bopper tropes. Who knows what Anne Frank would have thought, but Journals was the point at which many of us became Beliebers. —Dessie Jackson
When he was on tour in 2016, Dean Blunt would only go on stage obscured by a thick fog. It was tough to tell if there was anyone in there—to make out a silhouette you had to get within a few feet. He told NPR that he was doing this so he could be alone, so he didn't have to "feel anyone else being there," but it had the added effect of drawing people in. If they wanted to catch a glimpse, they had to lean in close.
Blunt's 2013 album The Redeemer is built on the same conceit. It's theoretically a breakup album—there are lonely voicemails and mournful ballads scattered across the record—but it's opaque and fragmented. The narrative, if there even is one, is hard to parse. Who's broken up with whom? Who's been harmed? Shattered samples of classic 80s pop records break through the haze, as do dizzying string sections, drippy horns, and heartsick mumbles. Lean in close, you can make out some of the details, but it's confusing by design. It sounds how a breakup feels—you're lost in a fog of your own creation. —Colin Joyce
It's unfortunate that being 31 years old when you break through as a musician qualifies you as a late bloomer, but with wunderkinds like King Krule and Billie Eilish out there making the rest of us look bad, here we are. When John Maus released We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, he was just your average deeply neurotic philosophy lecturer from the University of Hawaii on a quest to make the perfect pop song. Of course, this backstory only served his mystique. But instead of a savant-like Shaggs record, he actually delivered. Imagine if your high-school English teacher listened to the Magnetic Fields for 10 straight years, took a bunch of LSD, saw god, and came back down to earth to write an album. The melodies on Pitiless Censors are instantly classic, even catchy, but the arrangements are bizarre and spooky, like organs in a haunted house. The opening track, "Streetlight," sounds like a ghost shouting through a cave over 80s video game music, and "Hey Moon," perhaps his best-known track, is a Mooged-out lullaby for babies, aliens, or you. "Cop Killer" would feel like an obnoxious white privilege joke if it wasn't delivered with such bone-dry conviction and not a hint of tweedom. Maus's songs are dark, lo-fi, and unhinged—but they're still, somehow, pop. —Hilary Pollack
The 2010s were an exciting time for fans of reggaeton and Latin trap music, and J Balvin's ability to craft a certified bop en español landed him at the forefront of its rise to the mainstream. The Colombian reggaetonero had already banked hits with "Ginza" and "Ay Vamos," but his crossover appeal began to skyrocket in the second half of the decade, when Beyoncé lent vocals to "Mi Gente" and he guested on Cardi B's "I Like It.” So when Vibras dropped in 2018, its mix of beat-heavy hip-hop, dembow, reggaeton, urbano, and raw sensuality were just the thing he needed to take his career to the next level. Boosted by features from Carla Morrison, Wisin, Yandel, Willy William, Zion & Lennox, and critical (and controversial) darling Rosalía, the album proved Balvin was an artist who refused to define himself according to any genre or style. As urbano, reggaeton, and Latin trap continue to grow in popularity, he remains one of the heavyweights doing work that pushes the boundaries of what the genre can be. —Alex Zaragoza
Lorde has stated a number of times that she experiences synesthesia, the phenomenon of colors corresponding to sounds in one's brain. It makes sense that her record Melodrama would feel like a vivid realization of that concept, tripping from the nightclub neon of opener "Green Light," through a flowering bruise—first soft pink, with "The Louvre" and "Loveless/Hard Feelings," then blue ("Writer in the Dark")—before concluding with the kaleidoscopic spin of "Supercut" and "Perfect Places."
Melodrama takes listeners through the course of a relationship's breakdown, from the initial grab at freedom to the eventual gratitude for what has passed, even though it's over. Lorde paints her second record from the palette of her own feelings during this experience in her own life, and with pinprick specificity, her lyrics isolate many of the subtleties of relationships and their dissolution ("She thinks you love the beach, you're such a damn liar"; "I overthink your punctuation use.") On Melodrama, Lorde finds words, sounds, and colors for her pain and her release. What results is the decade's finest breakup album. —Lauren O'Neill
Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 1, Lil Peep's first full-length album and the only one completed while he was alive, is a testament to growing up without losing your roots, and not getting stuck in them, either. Lil Peep was an icon for the new generation of kids whose entire lives have been shaped by the internet; so-called emo rap—the genre in which Peep was a pioneer and the one that solidly defines COYWS—feels like the logical culmination of growing up online in the early aughts, clicking through Kazaa for new music and spilling your guts on LiveJournal.
Peep's one-off songs leaned more heavily on distinct samples from 3rd-wave emo bands like Brand New and Underoath, but on COWYS, Peep is less obvious, deftly merging the influences of early-00s pop punk, emo, and metalcore with the trap beats and nihilistic angst of the current decade into tracks like the gloomy "Benz Truck" and the surprisingly upbeat "Better Off (Dying)." What Peep gave us was guided by nostalgia, but it definitely isn't trapped in it. —Bettina Makalintal
Nigerian artist Burna Boy has been busy this decade, showing the rest of the world how vast, powerful, and futuristic Africa's music scene has become. African Giant heralded Burna Boy's arrival and proved to new listeners that he was already larger than life in his homeland. His self-propelled rise was in stark contrast to more pop-centric Nigerian artists like Wizkid, who collaborated with Drake and Swae Lee on big summer hits to crossover success. The Afro-fusion sound of African Giant showed that African artists can create universal anthems that lean heavily into their own Afrobeats, slang, and languages, without sanding down any edges for Eurocentric standards. There's no mistaking the feeling his music communicates, whether he's jolting dance floors into their best footwork with "Killin Dem" or compelling listeners to grab someone they love for a slow wind "On the Low." —Taylor Hosking
On 2012's Born to Die, Lana Del Rey asked if we "like[d] our girls insane." Hell yeah, we said. On her single "Ride" from later that year, she sang, "I'm tired of feeling like I'm fucking crazy." Seven years and four albums later, we weren't sure if she was still feeling misunderstood. Then, along came Norman Fucking Rockwell, her richest and most cathartic release yet. All that angst, those bad decisions, those bad boys, that dope sex—she now recognizes that those things never weakened her; they gave her a strength of character that made her invincible, a folk hero. On the title track, she eviscerates a phony, self-obsessed poet with annoyingly excellent sexual prowess with a weariness so laid-back she may as well be murmuring from a hammock while being fed grapes. In "Mariners Apartment Complex," the album's most powerful song, she channels Leonard Cohen while refusing to apologize for "the darkness, the deepness" that make her who she is. "I'm your man," she purrs. She doesn't need no full-time daddy anymore. Cher once said that she didn't need to marry a rich man; she was a rich man. Lana Del Rey seems to have followed suit, realizing that the assurance she craved from neck-tattooed fuckboys was always inside of her—if she only dug deep enough. —Hilary Pollack
"I don't know how they treat you / How they do it where you at / But all I'm tryna say is you should know me like that," opens The-Dream's Love King. The-Dream is your favorite singer's favorite songwriter, and by the time he released his third album in 2010, you probably already knew him, even if you didn't know you did. By that point, he had penned some of the biggest pop hits of the century with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies" and Rihanna’s "Umbrella." (Although, in an alternate universe, "Umbrella" is a Britney Spears song, as The-Dream has repeatedly said the song was inspired by Spears' infamous incident with the accessory and that he wrote it with her in mind.)
The artist born Terius Nash's greatest chart successes might have been the songs he's written for other people, but his best work is his own, and Love King set the tone for a decade where R&B-fueled pop would become all but ubiquitous. Nash has a knack for crafting lush,, piano-tinged songs that are undeniably catchy—"F.I.L.A." grabs you from the first line, with The-Dream telling a girl he wants to make her "fall in love again." In one breath, he is sweet; in the next, he's noting that "you should see shawty from the back."
Arranged with meticulous intention and attention to detail, Love King is the work of a gifted storyteller, with memorable one-liners, vivid imagery, and metaphors for days. On "Sex Intelligent Remix," he sings, "I'm all over you like the credits on a CD"; on "Yamaha," he tells his girl she reminds him of a vehicle, then sentimentally reveals he's still got her name tattooed on his back. The 17 songs on Love King could certainly stand alone, but they're best enjoyed as a whole, especially the five-part operetta that spans from "Sex Intelligent" to "Abyss." It's impossible to quantify influence, but it's hard to imagine artists like Ty Dolla $ign, The Weeknd, and Miguel being famous without The-Dream's groundbreaking R&B making him the true Radio Killah first. —Leslie Horn
Over the past five years, many of the artists in the PC Music cohort have continued pushing their sounds in idiosyncratic new directions—making the whole thing feel like less of a conjoined entity and more like a self-taught school, one from which artists eventually graduate.
Though she never released her own music on the label, SOPHIE's fizzy early singles (and collaborations with A.G. Cook and GFOTY), aligned her early on with its candy-coated take on pop. But her astonishing 2018 debut, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides, saw the Glaswegian artist, producer, and DJ shedding old skins and stepping comfortably into new ones, delivering a piece of work that pushes the boundaries of what electronic music is—and how it can make you feel.
The album is a masterclass in production, full of icy, shattering beats, latex-pop synth lines, and heartfelt vocal samples. But more than that, she also injects the whole thing with real emotion. The result is an album that doesn't just blend the technological and the organic, experimental music and pop; it reminds you that they're different sides of the same enterprise, constantly informing each other. —Daisy Jones
Bon Iver is the total inverse of For Emma, Forever Ago—an intimate and introspective album that captures the magnitude of heartbreak with an acoustic guitar and a lot of soulful howling. By contrast, Bon Iver is rich and expansive, taking Justin Vernon's songwriting process from one man in a shed into a full ensemble complete with a horn/woodwind section.
While Bon Iver is broader in scope, it's still subjective enough to resist clear interpretation. Each song represents a different place, whose identity is pieced together through a combination of observation and memory. Vernon has always been a lyricist of huge sentiment and few words, and here we see him communicating his vision with almost philosophical clarity. While lines like "At once I knew I was not magnificent" may have no fixed meaning, they carry a universal resonance. Like the watercolor on its cover—a pastoral scene with no limits, bleeding off into blank space—it encourages the same depth of meaning you might experience among nature. From the chamber pop of "Perth" through to the Bonnie Raitt-inspired balladry of "Beth/Rest," Bon Iver is one of the most perfectly realized albums about everything. —Emma Garland
This decade, country music found a batch of artists pushing the genre forward by looking to the past, rebelling against radio-ready production values in favor of grit and authenticity. Out of the artists leading this throwback trend—including Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton—Sturgill Simpson was arguably the most radical in translating the sounds of classic country into a present-day context with 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The title itself, a reference to Ray Charles' own genre-and-race-barrier-breaking 1962 album, shows how much Simpson swung for the fences in trying to subvert country music's formula. He opens the LP on "Turtles All The Way Down" with references to DMT, LSD, Buddha, and Jesus. He's a searcher throughout the tracklist, but his lyrical headiness is never grating or pretentious, and the songs feel timeless. There's a surprise cover of the new wave hit "The Promise" by When in Rome that reimagines the song as if it had been by Waylon Jennings. When he sings, "But when you're in doubt / And when you're in danger / Take a look all around, and I'll be there" he knows that for all the existential questions throughout, something as simple as love might be the only answer. —Josh Terry
Amid the smoky haze of Kendrick Lamar's "u," a distinct tenor saxophone fades in and out, weaving its way around the Compton-bred rapper's breathy, exasperated bars. For millions, these fleeting textural touches served as a secret introduction to the work of Kamasi Washington, who picked up an extraordinary following in the mere months between To Pimp A Butterfly's heralded release and the debut of his own aptly named project The Epic.
Comprising nearly three hours worth of music, the triple LP offered a profound and sweeping document of jazz excellence. Performed exceptionally by a formidable band that includes two former Suicidal Tendencies members, his compositions dominate a lengthy set where earthly brilliance and cosmic visions unspool together into a spiritual listening experience without creed or denomination. Heavens crack open with light as Thundercat's extended solo on "Askim" keeps the choirs euphoric, eventually dimming to a supper-club candlelit intimacy where Washington's sax then rebuilds its stairway to the stars. Even his ensemble's take on a standard like "Cherokee" exceeds expectations, its gutsy groove and electric keyboard strokes lifting up singer Patrice Quinn. —Gary Suarez
Celebration Rock is Pyromania for craft brew enthusiasts concerned about their mounting debt. On their booming, contagiously joyous sophomore album, the Vancouverite duo blows their shit-fi noise-punk wide open to create the decade's definitive collection of fist-pumping arena rock. Road-roaming odes to hedonism like "Fire's Highway" and "Evil's Sway" wield their sparkling guitar distortion as a glittering sword, reframing the desperation in singer/guitarist's Brian King's lyrics as defiant abandon. "The House That Heaven Built" is kickass enough to have been used as hockey pump-up music (the band are Canadians to the end, natch), but it's also kind of dark, a hallucination of a semi-mythical house party that sucks in the directionless, leaving them no option but to scream at the skies just to confirm they exist.
The album's beer-fueled, "fuck it all" sense of Westerbergian joie de vivre set a precedent for the hard-rocking alternative bands like PUP and Beach Slang that would also ascend in the '10s. Japandroids disappeared from the spotlight for more than three years after Celebration Rock, but this record has such elemental force that it's still as palpable as ever. —Phil Witmer
Grouper's Ruins is a home: A dilapidated escape from the cacophony and chaos of life. It's a respite that exists in your thoughts, and becomes inseparable from your soul. Liz Harris's music is both crushingly beautiful and impeccably arranged, and every rogue nature sound and subtle hiss of tape static serves a purpose. The songs on Ruins aren't sketches or bare-bone structures, they're complete works, devoid of anything not essential to Harris's vision. There's the piano ache of "Clearing," in which she sings along with her chords, as if she's trying to insert her voice into the warmth of the instrument; "Lighthouse," like the bulk of the album, is also built around that framework. This record is the centerpiece of a flawless discography, and Liz Harris is a generational talent. On Ruins, she shows how few tools she needs to build a home you'll never want to leave. —Will Schube
On Flower Boy, Tyler, the Creator literally moves himself left of center. Where previous records focused on the Odd Future member's distinctive, low-toned growl—as Tyler described in a 2019 interview with Zane Lowe, if "65-70 percent [of my previous music] was cool, it was 30 percent 'just damn it, Tyler, shut the fuck up!'"—his vocals take a backseat on his fourth album. Instead, it's the album's various collaborators who take center stage, lending Flower Boy a sense of colorful variety. Just take a look at the list of featured artists: Rex Orange County, Estelle, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Kali Uchis, and a whole bunch more, many of whom stomp forward and lead tracks ahead of Tyler or guide the record's plentiful hooks. Compared to Tyler's fifth album IGOR, Flower Boy is, as its name suggests, a pretty and clean listen, leaning less toward provocation and horror and preferring you look on with mouth agape, in awe of its beauty. —Ryan Bassil
In making Surgical Steel, Carcass achieved the impossible: creating five LPs that would influence legions, calling it quits for 21 years, and then releasing what might be their finest work close to three decades later. The goregrind forefathers wrote records that transcended genre, pushing Carcass into the mainstream consciousness without ever sacrificing their punk cred or losing their maniacal core audience. After creating their most “radio-friendly” effort, Heartwork, toward the end of the first portion of their career, Surgical Steel feels like the logical next step, taking notes from the entirety of their previous work while stepping up the melodicism and playability. It's easily their most listenable effort, and it feels utterly fresh and modern, but it never alienates their day ones. For every supergroup, comeback kid, and reunited band, Surgical Steel should be the blueprint for not just how to return from the grave correctly, but how to write a cohesive record, period. —Fred Pessaro
As Jamie Smith tells it, his 2015 album In Colour grew out of a period of homesickness. "A lot of the spoken word samples on the album came from watching very British things while I was away on tour because I missed home," the xx member told The FADER. "I felt like I was missing out, like London was disappearing while I was away." Accordingly, the record felt like a nostalgic candy sampler of the city's underground youth culture, much of which he was too young to have experienced firsthand: Top Boy; Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore; jungle raves and pirate radio and the dubstep sounds he fell in love with at shuttered venue Plastic People when he was a teen.
Listening to In Colour in 2019, its origins as a lament on gentrification feel somewhat ironic: This album was pretty much ubiquitous in the second half of this decade, its skippy breakbeats and lovelorn-on-the-dancefloor melancholia soundtracking cafes, chic retail spaces, WeWorks, Apple ads, and pretty much anywhere else you would expect city-dwelling creative professionals to be lurking. But it's still one of the most affecting, tautly constructed electronic albums to emerge from the millennial generation, one that shrouds the mundane rituals of city life in its own Big Mood: The feeling that things were more exciting before we got here. — Emilie Friedlander
Depending on which music publications you read on the regular, you may or may not know that Ozuna is one of the biggest artists in the world. Looking at the rest of the acts highlighted on this very list you're skimming, few of them can compete with the singer's stellar track record and reputation worldwide, boasting the kind of numbers that would make your fave balk or blush. Fueled by silken upper-register vocals, his 2017 album Odisea perfectly captures the commercial rise of música urbana as the foremost Latin pop format. He lays down coat after coat of R&B polish on the throbbing reggaetón of "Bebé" and "Se Preparó" and sands down Latin trap's rough edges for "El Farsante" and "Pide Lo Que Tú Quieras." In the U.S., Odisea topped the Spanish-language album charts for nearly a full year, and even after two years, it remains a top-10 staple week-in, week-out. For those who weren't aware of Ozuna prior to "Taki Taki," consider this album your mandatory crash course. —Gary Suarez
Don't be deceived by her stately delivery, or the delicate ornateness of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never's production; the decade has few better documents of rage than ANOHNI's Hopelessness. Across 11 tracks, she surveys the state of the world, and looks upon it with dismay, excoriating the evil forces who seem hell-bent on destroying our planet and its people. The surveillance state, climate change, US foreign policy, and the devastating toll of modern warfare all feel her wrath. She sings beautifully, but you can hear the brittle edge in her voice when she invokes the coming horrors of environmental devastation on "4 Degrees": "I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see the animals die in the trees." It came out in early 2016, which almost makes it feel prophetic. There have been so many more reasons to be angry at the world since then. —Colin Joyce
Frank Ocean's 2012 debut was a sea-change moment for queer representation in mainstream music. When the New Orleans native seemingly came out as bisexual on Tumblr a few days before the album's release, it became a major talking point, but then all we could think about was how brilliant Channel Orange's shape-shifting R&B was. His music is seductively decadent; like so many millennials who grew up in The Hills era, he shows both a healthy disdain for—and an incorrigible fascination with—the privileged folks he calls "Super Rich Kids." Consequently, the record is filled with keen observations about the sorts of lavish homes where "the maids come around too much" and "parents ain't around enough," but his songwriting is also stunningly personal. The way he fawns over a male love interest on "Forrest Gump," a boy who's "so buff and so strong" but "wouldn't hurt a beetle," may not sound quite so brave in the wake of last year's #20GayTeen movement. But it remains almost unbearably tender and, like so much of Channel Orange, uniquely transcendent. —Nick Levine
Few things made the 2010s more exciting for electronic music than the return of Aphex Twin. Intelligent Dance Music's preeminent prankster Richard D. James teased new music on the festival circuit, experimented with live performances, launched obscure SoundCloud accounts, and allowed fans to crowdfund a "lost" album via Kickstarter. His biggest milestone, however, was Syro, the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years. It wasn't just the long wait that made the 2014 LP so momentous: its 12 tracks were impeccable, simultaneously familiar and unlike anything else in his catalog. Richard D. James Album's impish melodicism rubbed up against drukqs's haunted dissonance, and heads likely noticed how much AFX-style acid laced these jittery beats. And yet, what stood out most was how straight-up funky James sounded amidst dueling drum machines and oblique synthlines—not to mention how unusually warm and lived-in his production felt. Syro marked the return of a masterful pioneer, blazing new frontiers while reminding fans exactly why they began following his path in the first place. –Patric Fallon
Drake's surprise fourth mixtape—a gritted-teeth, no-bullshit collection of boasts and rants set to ominous, skeletal beats—is where the rapper became the 6 God, an all-powerful lord seething on his gilded throne. That this record somehow burst the dam on Toronto's rap scene is baffling given that there are very few showcases for local talent and that the album's best songs were—very controversially—co-written by an American. But Drake's knack for turning specifics into naggingly memetic catchphrases (and rafter-shaking anthems, as on the unstoppable "Know Yourself") has never been more fine-tuned than it is here, and the persistent undercurrent of pettiness feels like him channeling the grievances of his city's long-ignored hip-hop community. IYRTITL is the moment where the decade's biggest pop star reconnected with his roots, proving he was truly a rapper and making his most vital music. —Phil Witmer
When Jahron Brathwaite, aka PARTYNEXTDOOR, sings "you can't tell these bitches nothing" in his unpolished tenor on "Belong to the City," it doesn't sound like contempt—it sounds like wistful admiration in the face of real confidence. Maybe he was a stone-cold player as a young man growing up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, but he delivers the line as if he knows what the folding chairs lining the wall at the dance feel like.
In 2014, at the age of 21, Party was on his way to becoming an indispensable part of Drake's camp, and the largely self-produced PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO is a remarkable mixture of cockiness and wonder. Act like you've been here before is helpful advice for combating try-hard syndrome, but PND2 stands out from much of the post-Weeknd R&B of the 2010s because it is trying. He's going for notes he can't quite reach on "FWU," and he pulls a dangerous U-turn on "Muse" after he spots a beautiful woman from Oakland: "The fuck I'm doing?" he sings in a near-comic moment of self-reflection. One of the best songs here is "Thirsty," and he's not talking about the competition. He's talking about himself. —Ross Scarano
Popcaan's sophomore studio album, Forever, is a lush and dynamic body of work that beautifully displays the artist's lyrical sensibilities while pointing to the changing sonic landscape of dancehall. Peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Reggae chart and released months ahead of Spice's Captured EP, it spoke to the possibilities of contemporary dancehall music as a contender for the biggest accolade in music. Though the artist used to be under Vybz Kartel's tutelage, Forever sees an artistically mature Popcaan continuing to form a legacy of his own as one of dancehall's most formidable forces. Through his records, he grapples with the woes and paranoia that accompany fame, and allows his braggadocio to shine through when he speaks about his new material gains, while serving up some lighter tracks that outline how he enjoys himself with family, friends, and women. While I prefer to carry my feelings and my (metaphorical) gun dem—shoutout to "Bullet Proof"— Forever is Popcaan's re-introduction to the world. —Sharine Taylor
Halcyon Digest is the rare album that's so beautifully nuanced, front to back, that you can never truly tire of it. It strikes the perfect balance between the two things Deerhunter does best—tender ballads and drive-around-with-the-windows-down anthems—and the songs are sequenced in a way that makes each turn feel surprising even after repeated listens. A few seconds after you stop banging your head to "Revival," you're lulled into "Sailing"; once your heart is sufficiently broken and you want to lie down for the rest of your life, you get bowled over by the flood of sound that is "Memory Boy." By the time "He Would Have Laughed"—a crushing, somber number written in memory of Jay Reatard, who died nine months before Halcyon Digest came out—fades out, you feel like you've arrived at the end of a long journey. Only you're not spent: Even though it's a record that centers on death, Deerhunter's music is decidedly alive. Halcyon Digest didn't redefine indie rock, or even push the genre into uncharted territory. But it showed us what it could be at its best. —Drew Schwartz
It seems inevitable now: the way all that hard work came together with the perfect timing, making Future the most important rapper of the decade. Now we know about FUTURE and HNDRXX and DS2 and how legendary it all was. But you've got to know the real meaning! The way it all once hung in the balance! Imagine Future's DJ Esco locked up in Dubai, with Future himself going codeine crazy. If we're just being honest, they tried to forget about him. And then, suddenly: March Madness.
56 Nights is the moment Future became inevitable. It's the sound of a dam breaking, of a Winnebago in Decatur's worth of cocaine being dumped into the streets. It's pure energy: Emirati oil on the fire of Future's personal myth-making; too much finessing and pretty hoes getting exposed and taking 56 bars all in one month; screeching apocalyptic fervor in the key of 808 Mafia. It's a new set of mantras: "None of this money it matters, all of my niggas they matter." Here is what there is now, and here is what will come: Future Hendrix. Dirty Sprite. Legendary. —Kyle Kramer
While Dominick Fernow and his long-running project Prurient may not have been the first out of the gate when it comes to noise and power electronics, he remains a towering and pioneering figure in the genre. And though it’s debatable which release was truly his greatest achievement, or if his masterstroke was just his experimental label Hospital Productions as a whole, there is no question as to which LP truly shook the underground on the largest scale: Frozen Niagara Falls. Released on Profound Lore Records in 2015, Frozen Niagara Falls is a confrontational record which juxtaposes clenched-jaw noise squalls against would-be synth pop and even ambient passages, taking hard lefts from serenity into the dark corners of metal, power electronics, and ultimately, utter chaos. The combined clash of styles makes the melodic passages more harmonious and the dives into nether regions of static and feedback even more terrifying. Yet what’s most impressive isn’t the fury or the juxtaposition of styles; it’s the fact that, clocking in at 90 minutes, the album feels like a total journey, and as demanding of a listen as it may be, it's still a cohesive, intelligent, yet totally fucked up whole. —Fred Pessaro
2011's House of Balloons was a mysterious and compelling introduction to a figure who still doesn't share much of himself—a free mixtape released in total anonymity and with a co-sign from Drake's blog, followed by two interview-free years. The record is a woozy arc of come-ups and comedowns, brought to life by blown-out production and samples lifted carefully from three decades of female-fronted pop with a streak of tragedy (Aaliyah, Beach House, Siouxsie and the Banshees). Like an endless night out that's neither bad nor enjoyable, the record introduces the themes The Weeknd has spent the decade turning over—drugs, sex, and emotional numbness, with violence just out of shot—but at the time, the record offered something new: a new framework for releasing music, a new way of writing about sadness (as a lifestyle), and a sonic legacy that continues to loom large over contemporary R&B. —Emma Garland
It's almost endearing now that Grimes once called her music post-internet. Now we have TikTok and literal babies with Instagram accounts, but Grimes paved the way for a genreless future perhaps more than any other artist this decade. To write her third album, Visions, the producer-artist buried herself away for three weeks, filling the self-imposed aural void with her own take on electro, K-Pop, 80s pop, and New Age. The results sound like the handiwork of finely tuned robots, but with the melody and hooks to reveal her as decidedly human. (Grimes has professed to always want to make pop music.) Visions rightly attracted comparisons to Cocteau Twins and Björk, while revealing her knack for dreaming otherworlds of her own making. Her vocals, high-pitched like an ethereal elf or cyborg angel, are looped enough times that you feel like you're in a cylinder spinning through space. At once direct and abstract, intense and mystifying, this is the music of late-night obsessive rabbit-holes on the web when the internet was still fun. —Hannah Ewens
These days, that Dev Hynes sound is easy to clock. Hear some smooth, color-soaked synth, electric piano lines, and soft thwacking drums, and the U.K. musician and producer probably had something to do with it (recent years have seen him work with everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen to Debbie Harry, Mac Miller to Empress Of, not to mention his own records.)
But his second album under the Blood Orange moniker, 2013's Cupid Deluxe, was what really cemented him as not just an artist, but an auteur. From the creamy falsetto of "Chamakay" to the dreamy saxophone of "Chosen" and the slick, 80s grooves of "You're Not Good Enough," this was an album which paved the way for a new sort of 2010s pop: polished and retro, but fresh and future-facing, too. More than that, though, Cupid Deluxe is just a really bright, enjoyable album. Each one of its 11 songs paints a different mood, taking you from solitary, introspective moments on a New York subway at nighttime through to a multicolored dance floor at 2 a.m., sweating out your emotions. Cupid Deluxe is not the only exceptional record Dev Hynes has released, but it's a stand-out, and it made room for all that he went on to give us afterwards. —Daisy Jones
Charli XCX has been so effective throughout the 2010s that she's now basically synonymous with the phrase "future pop" (see also: the phrase "getting absolutely wrecked"). This began with 2016's SOPHIE-produced Vroom Vroom—misunderstood at the time, but now quite clearly a huge statement that redirected the XCX spaceship forever. Vroom Vroom signaled the beginning of Charli's efforts to drag pop music into her own virtual reality, which culminated with the mixtape Pop 2, released at the end of 2017.
Though it's full of enjoyably hammy, artificially futuristic sounds (tracks like "Out Of My Head" and "Unlock It" are the sonic equivalent of what you see when you type "Y2K" into Depop), Pop 2 genuinely provides a groundbreaking conceptual blueprint for the possibilities of mainstream(-ish) pop. Released during a period of leaks and label turmoil, it proposes an internet-literate, experimental, real-time model—closer to what we often see in hip-hop than within tired, cynical pop release cycles—and brings artists from Carly Rae Jepsen to CupcakKe along for the ride. Actively acknowledging the commodified artifice of pop music, Charli ambitiously sang on "Backseat" at the time, "I want it all even if it's fake." Looking back, it seems like she got it. —Lauren O'Neill
In theory, Deafheaven should be an easy band to describe. Combine the racing, blast-beat intensity of black and death metal with the soaring progressions of post-rock, shoegaze, and dream pop, and you've pretty much got the idea—however hard that may be to wrap your head around. Premised on a kind of combinatory pragmatism that was all but inescapable at the turn of the 2010s, the band is formula made flesh, an aural manifestation of a few guys kicking around ideas and influences from the inner sanctity of their practice space, not expecting any immediate attention. Yet despite these unassuming beginnings, Sunbather proved that the band was anything but average, adapting the sonic palettes of their heroes into something bolder, heavier, and more cinematic than ever before.
Across 59 minutes of graceful tremolos and mathy, melodic chord progressions, the San Francisco-founded five-piece stretched black metal to its limits, held together by frontman George Clarke's howling vocals and a general adherence to the genre's rhythmic sensibilities. Tracks like "Dream House" and "Sunbather" felt like sprawling conceptual exercises in the inherent instability of genre, while others like "Irresistible" and "Vertigo" basked in a lightness completely foreign to the band's progenitors. While it certainly got its share of hate from metal purists, Sunbather demonstrated the necessity of bold, brash, in-your-face rock music in the current moment, especially in genres whose loyalty to tradition so frequently precludes future stylistic development. Never has a send-up sounded this breathtaking. —Rob Arcand
From the first "BOW!" on Flockaveli to the final curtain call, it's clear where Waka Flocka Flame stands: in the middle of a mosh pit yelling "Brick Squad" while everyone around him punches each other in the face for fun. "We in this bitch throwing gang signs!" Waka screams; "Fuck this industry / bitch I'm in these streets!" Waka chants; "Waka! Flocka! Waka! Flocka! Waka! Flocka!" If a certain brand of rap lyrics were meant to be studied as poetry, these were meant to be shouted, ideally while smashing a beer bottle over someone's head.
Rap entered the decade dithering about its future and bloated with stadium-show excess, but Flockaveli was the scrappy corrective that pulled fans out of the bleachers and took the music back to its energetic roots. The years that followed would see rap audiences slam-dancing and stage diving; Waka's percussive style of ad libs and arrhythmic one-liners would become the norm; Lex Luger and Southside's towering, post-crunk symphonies would inspire a generation of producers to push deeper into menace and turn trap music into a household concept. But as much as Flockaveli was a seismic shift, it endures above all as an eardrum-shattering good time. "Roll up the loud," the poet says, in what could double as commentary on his own music, "I'm tryna get fucked up!" —Kyle Kramer
If Kamasi Washington's The Epic is the equivalent of a prestige drama limited series for HBO, this album is, in contrast, whatever the programmers at Adult Swim put on at 4 a.m. to mess with anyone somehow still awake. A mainstay of Flying Lotus studio albums from 2010's Cosmogramma onward, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner let his madcap ideas loose across Drunk, a jazz album for anime geeks, furry freaks, and assorted misfits. His proficiency on the bass made him versatile enough to work with both Kendrick Lamar and Suicidal Tendencies, but left to his own devices, he transforms his instrument into a force for pure (and sometimes puerile) mischief. He recruits soft-rock troubadours Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald for the whimsical yet sincere single "Show You The Way" and taps stoner rap icon Wiz Khalifa for the faded Alice In Wonderland redux "Drink Dat." FlyLo features prominently on a plurality of cuts, including the jittery fusion fare of "Captain Stupido," yet the delightful mania on display here is all due to Bruner indulging in his quirky genius. —Gary Suarez
Janelle Monáe looked like an entirely new artist in the 2018 video for "Django Jane," rattling off a list of her accomplishments while dressed as a swagged-out queen in a deep-red pantsuit. "Pause, let the vagina have a monologue," she demands. The album (and its accompanying "emotion picture") was her first project since she came out as a pansexual "free-ass motherfucker." It brims with urgency and reclaims real power. "If you try to grab my pussy, this pussy grab you back," she sings on "I Got the Juice." The project nailed the anxieties of living in Trump's America with an Afrofuturist plotline about a government trying to delete Monáe's memories, and yet it accomplished the feat of leaving a sliver of hope for the future by framing Monáe's carefree, queer Black life as the real American dream. Monáe reshaped American freedom in her own image—an image that came with unforgettable vagina pants and Prince-inspired dance solos. —Taylor Hosking
Angel Olsen's discography is one of reinvention. The Asheville-based songwriter has excellently, and sometimes violently, tweaked her formula between albums. There's a drastic evolution between her latest orchestral and maximalist LP All Mirrors and her sparse 2012 debut Halfway Home. But her most successful leap came with her sophomore effort Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Her stunning, warbling voice feels ignited with ferocity on rocking singles like "Forgiven/Forgotten" and "High & Wild." The album boasts muscular and full-throated four-piece rock band arrangements that properly suit the power of her voice. But even the quieter moments, like the epic, near-seven minute folk-minded "White Fire," hit with so much urgency it's almost overwhelming. It's the LP that announced Olsen as a singular and stunning talent that demands to be heard. —Josh Terry
Sufjan Stevens released just two proper albums in this decade, and they feel like electronic and acoustic twins, both dealing unflinchingly with love and death. The weird electronics on 2010's The Age of Adz spooked some fans, but the real scary stuff came with the spare, barely there songs on Carrie & Lowell. Returning to the more acoustic roots of Greetings From Michigan and Seven Swans, Stevens deals in song with the death of his mother, Carrie, whose mental illness and substance abuse issues kept them apart for most of his life. Though they saw each other infrequently, the songwriter watched her die in 2012, and her passing let loose a wave of emotion in him, from anger to guilt to nostalgia to a depression so deep he contemplated suicide—a situation recounted in "The Only Thing." Though guttingly sad, Carrie & Lowell ultimately feels redemptive in its microscopic examinations: Sufjan forgives Carrie for abandoning him at a video store, embraces memories of the little time they spent together, and ultimately hopes to find reconciliation in the breathtaking "John My Beloved." From an experience that "nearly destroyed me," as he described it to Pitchfork, came Sufjan Stevens' finest album yet. —Josh Modell
After a then-20-year-old Chancelor Bennett uploaded Acid Rap to the free mixtape service Datpiff, it galvanized not only his home city of Chicago but also a wave of young artists who chose staying independent over more traditional models of music industry success. His second official mixtape was as fully formed and intentional as a major label-backed studio album, boasting songs that gleefully blur the lines between soul, funk, juke, and hip-hop. From the opening horns on "Good Ass Intro," the project bursts with life. Acid Rap sounds like youth, especially when Chance raps about getting in trouble for smelling like cigarettes on "Cocoa Butter Kisses." But on songs like the moody "Acid Rain" which features a haunting line about a friend lost to gun violence—"I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always / He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways"—it's clear that there's real hurt and pain in these songs. It's a towering achievement not just for its scrappy spirit, but for how much it sounded like the best and worst of a Chicago summer. —Josh Terry
Somewhere, a bearded man is about 10 or so minutes into "The Battle of Hampton Roads," drunkenly muttering into his flannel sleeve: "they don't make 'em like this anymore." That's only a half-truth: Titus Andronicus' unhinged and pathologically ambitious sophomore album The Monitor has become a sacred text for dozens of similarly unhinged and pathologically ambitious punk and emo bands projecting their mental breakdowns onto footnoted librettos, AP history lectures, and bagpipe solos. However, none of them had access to the budget, exposure or indie cred that comes from sharing a label with Vampire Weekend and M.I.A.
But even as Titus Andronicus' populist agitprop recedes into a niche concern in the greater scheme of indie rock, almost no album has proven more sociopolitically prescient in the current day. While sales of books like The Handmaid's Tale and The Plot Against America skyrocketed after Trump's election, they provided comfort by likening the political climate to works of dystopian science fiction rather than the logical endpoint of America's ongoing failure to process the trauma of the Civil War. Frontman Patrick Stickles anticipated the "new normal" that emerged once the shock of the inauguration wore off, seeing through Obama's impossible promises of comity and predicting an endless future of the right encroaching on common decency, whether it's intransigent Republicans or just Barstool bros. "It's still us against and them and they're winning," he warned, a battle cry in America’s forever war against itself. — Ian Cohen
There are two ways to consume Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. First, as a megaton major label rap album, stocked with high-profile features, blessed with the financial liberty that Dr. Dre has always bequeathed to those he believes in. But it's only after you sink into the album's crevices that you untangle its greater mystery. The fuzzy chatter in the margins of the tracklist reveals a quiet narrative—one that begins in tragedy and ends in redemption before breaking through to a titanic, silver-screen epilogue that jars you awake from the dream. A song like "Backseat Freestyle" would be the technical apex in any rapper's career, but thanks to Lamar's skewed genius, it can also be a metatextual meditation on the bewitched shock of adrenaline before a home invasion. That ability to bait-and-switch remains his greatest trick. —Luke Winkie
At Radio City Music Hall in October, about three-quarters of the way through the second-to-last night of Kacey Musgraves's Oh What a World Tour II, a small portion of the audience sat down. Musgraves was launching into the "country" part of her program, and as such, the best assumption is that some of her fans were less familiar with the excellent tracks that graced her first two major-label albums, not to mention the songs she wrote for other artists before that (ahem: "Undermine," of the television show Nashville). Indeed, Golden Hour brought all kinds of people into the fold, a gateway drug to the magic of Musgraves. There are things everyone feels they must mention when discussing her—the trippy vibes and aesthetic, her musical "authenticity"—but what rises above all those trappings is that this record is for lying on the beach, driving in your car, or cleaning your apartment, but is still an ambitious commitment to something truly stunning. Her new fans might have accidentally gotten dosed with her evolving sound, but the trappings of classic Musgraves are all there. Golden Hour, like its namesake, is ethereal and moving and funny, and blissfully, as its creator sings, "happy and sad at the same time." —Kate Dries
It's hard to think of an artist who pushed electronic music into stranger, more beautiful shapes than Arca did this decade, from the expressively pitched hip-hop vocals on 2012's Stretch 1 to the elastic synth melodies of 2014's &&&&&, which flowed less like a mixtape than a 21st-century take on romantic composition. And though it felt like a coup for underground music when artists like Kanye West, Björk, and FKA Twigs tapped her as a collaborator, it also sometimes seemed as though she were saving her lushest world-building for other people's songs. 2017's Arca changed all that, casting the Venezuela-born producer's Spanish-language vocals front and center in what reads like a collection of love songs—or better yet, of atmospheres that point to the abstract feeling of love, full of tattered piano chords, warming string sounds, and vocal turns that evoke something you might hear in a 17th- or 18th-century cathedral. There's something vaguely liturgical about the whole affair, like sitting in a cold room at night, staring at a sputtering candle and thinking of someone who is far away. And then you'll hear an explosion of snapping whips, because after all, you're still listening to Arca. —Emilie Friedlander
What is there left to say that hasn't already been said about Carly Rae Jepsen's critically acclaimed E•MO•TION? From the reviews, you'd think this thing flew up the charts and never left, when in fact CRJ is one of those artists that manages to be considered both "underrated" AND "overrated"—depending on who you ask. However you see her, E•MO•TION is far and away her best album to date, so heartfelt and electric that even its accompanying B-sides (or, Side-B, released a few months later) topped best-of lists. E•MO•TION flies by like the world's most perfectly-written 90-minute romantic comedy; from "Run Away With Me" to "When I Needed You," it's a hopeless romantic's diary screed, with Carly-isms as broad as "I really, really, really, really, really, really like you / And I want you, do you want me, do you want me too?" to ones as specific as, "'Carly, gotta let it go' / She said to me on the phone / 'So tired of hearin' all your boy problems.'" But ultimately, CRJ's emotions (as well as her E•MO•TION) is proof there's more than life after One Hit Wonder: There's love. — Lindsey Weber
Despite dropping nearly two decades into her career, Beyoncé's eponymous fifth album changed everything. In addition to serving as an unprecedented display of her blossoming self-realization, it also completely disrupted existing models of distribution and redefined what constituted an album package. Released in 2013 and dropped with zero promotion, Beyoncé was billed as a "visual album," with each track accompanied by an artfully directed video and packaged as one immersive, even cinematic experience. The groundbreaking release made it evident that the Houston-born singer and former Destiny's Child star wasn't afraid of an unconventional marketing strategy; it apparently worked, since the surprise album broke iTunes sales records and was downloaded 80,000 times in just three hours.
The tracklist was also a departure from her past work, tackling heavier sociopolitical issues more directly than ever before, particularly in songs like "Pretty Hurts" and "Flawless," which featured a breakdown of feminist theory spoken by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beyoncé told a story of marital love and self-actualization; birthed big-time bangers and anthems like "Drunk in Love," "Partition," and "Flawless" that have since become canon; and laid the groundwork for Lemonade, her next visual album, which would arrive three years later and tell the story of her rage, liberation, and ultimate forgiveness for her husband Jay Z's alleged infidelity. Nearly six years after Beyoncé, surprise releases are to be expected, visual albums are not uncommon, and Beyoncé is widely accepted to be one of the greatest living artists of this generation. This album was the smart risk that made it all happen. —Alex Zaragoza
While Atlanta and its artists and sounds dominated the first decade of this century, no other city and style had more influence on the 2010s than Chicago and its drill scene. The brash and aggressive subgenre spread to places as near as New York City, as seen by the aggressive sound of Bobby Shmurda, and as far as South Korea, where it's championed by artists like Keith Ape. The scene ushered in a new style that was about being tough as much as it was about making music that motivated people to elbow the nearest person in the face without issue (well, depending on where said elbowing happened, and where all parties involved were from). Chief Keef is the poster boy and maestro of that movement for a reason, which is what makes him and drill so special. Almighty So is a marathon of chest-filling, bass-driven beats and tough-guy lyrics that make you feel like Thanos. It was the perfect foil to the more R&B-leaning rap sounds that began to emerge a few years prior, and it proved once again why Chief Keef is the standard-bearer for one of the most important scenes in rap. — Trey Smith
Most of us begin a new year by making (and breaking) resolutions. Robyn greeted the 2010s by taking all her misgivings about the future—borne out of heartbreak and simply living—and hashing them out on the dance floor. The record that resulted, of course, is Body Talk, the Swedish pop singer's seventh and a compilation of two mini-albums she'd released earlier that year.
Body Talk has a few blissful moments (see: "Indestructible" and "Stars 4-Ever") but it's probably best known for dance-floor-slaying, devastating anthems like "Call Your Girlfriend" and "Dancing On My Own." The latter garnered mainstream recognition in 2012, when it appeared in a scene on the first season of Girls wherein Lena Dunham's Hannah dances with her best friend Marnie in their shared apartment. Whatever your opinion on the show, the moment is a perfect encapsulation of Body Talk's unique and enduring appeal: It's a collection of songs rooted in loneliness, nostalgia, and forbidden love, with just enough debauchery to soundtrack your Saturday night out—and a warm enough touch to keep you company when you're walking home early Sunday morning. —Avery Stone
When everyone goes right, Tierra Whack goes left. In a year that yielded bloated tracklists and damn near two-hour albums, the Philadelphia rapper obliterated industry standards by creating her own rules. She is the Commander-in-Chief of Whack World, the whimsical universe where no one questions her choice to devise a debut album of 15 one-minute-long tracks. Catering to the attention span of the algorithm, both fleeting and incredibly curated, Whack's bite-size offering is the future of music. Each song is a testament to her battle-rapping prowess; she's spontaneous and nimble with an outlandish sense of humor. She litters her lyrics with on-the-nose metaphors like "buggin', like mosquitoes" and garbles satirical mumble-rap murmurs throughout the project. Whack can clearly do what everyone else is doing—she just does it on her own terms.
Whack World reads a lot like a "greatest hits" compilation instead of a debut album. There's the punchy rap of "Bug's Life" and "Sore Loser," which are a departure from the R&B melodies she tries on "Hungry Hippo." Before Lil Nas X had everyone talking about country rap, Whack channeled an exaggerated twang, and the genre's knack for storytelling, to tell the man who reminds her of her absent father to "Fuck Off." Buried beneath all of its eccentricities are lines that reveal the project to be as confident as its creator: "They cannot take away what I worked for / I know I am worth more." — Kristin Corry
Kanye West's unwillingness to moderate himself used to be, if not a virtue, the reason he was able to make an album like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Sonically ambitious and emotionally generous, West's magnum opus MBDTF takes a deep and often surreal dive into wealth and race in America, as well as West's own turbulent relationships with fame, women, and, of course, his own ego. A red-carpet fever dream with a rotating cast of personalities including Kid Cudi, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, and Justin Vernon, it's an album that pushes everyone involved into unexpected and transformative places through exaggerated confidence or vulnerability.
From the starry-eyed beginnings of "Gorgeous", "POWER," and "All Of The Lights" through to the minimal darkness of "Blame Game," "Monster," and "Runaway," MBDTF is a master class in making simple points with vast arrangements, and doing a lot with a little. But, whether financial, material, psychological, or instrumental, the defining feature of MBDTF is excess—the initial thrill, followed by the hollowing consequences. The effect of MBDTF is like stepping into a place of worship; a monument to himself that's so impressive, so overwhelming, you have no choice but to surrender to it. — Emma Garland
Young Thug first entered the collective cultural consciousness in 2014 with singles like "Stoner" and "Danny Glover" and as one half of Rich Gang, whose highly influential 2014 release Tha Tour Pt. 1 would provide a sonic blueprint for the next half-decade of rap. By 2015, Young Thug had arrived in the mainstream. But the controversy surrounding his debut commercial mixtape, Barter 6, threatened to swallow rap whole in the weeks leading up to its release. In a not-so-subtle jab at self-proclaimed “best rapper alive” Lil Wayne, whose Carter V seemed like it might be stuck in release purgatory indefinitely, the tape was originally slated to be titled Carter 6. At the last minute, Thug changed the name to Barter 6, after Wayne threatened to sue him.
Save for two perceived Wayne-directed jabs—”Pussy boy, I leave you dead and call it dead-ication" ("Can't Tell") and "Got 100 mil flat like my motherfuckin' idol / I might eat it, I might lick it, but I swear I'll never bite 'em" ("Halftime")—the tape didn't have much to do with Lil Wayne. But Barter 6 was a breath of fresh air—and a near-perfect album that no one saw coming. Its restraint, perfect pacing, and excellent wordplay showed that Young Thug was more than just a weirdo, and that he himself was one of the greats. "But really what is it to do, when the whole world constantly hating on you?" Thug asks on tape-opener "Constantly Hating." In spite of the success of a smash hit like "Lifestyle," Thug still had his fair share of detractors. But with Barter 6, he proved they were wrong to ever doubt him. —Leslie Horn
Born to Die (and its expanded Paradise Edition) was the moment Lana Del Rey planted her flag, at once inserting herself into American mythicism and flipping it on its head. Containing many of her most iconic songs, the album blueprinted the world she continued to build in the seven years following its release. "Video Games," Del Rey's breakthrough single, set the stage for this year's phenomenal Norman Fucking Rockwell, establishing her ongoing lyrical themes about the frustrations of being in love with a man without much emotional intelligence. "Summertime Sadness" became synonymous with Del Rey's aesthetic; a blissed-out anthem for a stressed-out generation. On "National Anthem" Del Rey equates herself with America itself, singing, "Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it, it's a fact / Kiss, kiss."
There are amorously acerbic pleas to sugar daddies and road dogs, earnest references to Cali churches and Springsteen, and biting opening lines like, "Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn's my mother / Jesus is my bestest friend." Born to Die was where we discovered that her "pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola" and her "eyes are wide like cherry pies" (on "Cola," which has since been retired from LDR's live shows post-Harvey-Weinstein). Lana is the jazz club, the jukebox dive, the pier, the sock hop, the Grand Ole Opry, the beach, the dusty highway. She's every classic American archetype, every icon all at once. On "Ride," she hits the open road; on "American" she feels free and proud; on her cover of "Blue Velvet" she ties herself to the legacies of Bobby Vinton and David Lynch. In consuming America, Del Rey transcended it. —Leah Mandel
On the first song of A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum recognizes the absurdity of the album existing at all. "Real Death," he says, isn't meant to be sung about, "it's not for making into art." The story of his late wife's Genevieve Castree's gradual slide into sickness and death is told in heart-shattering detail across the record, accompanied most often just by an acoustic guitar or two, and occasionally a few of the instruments she left behind in her room when she died. The lyrics almost pour out of him more than he sings them, the intimate moments and sudden realizations streaming forth in this torrent of world-upending grief. It doesn't sound planned, or practiced really, but it couldn't have been. It's an honest and vulnerable portrayal of the way death will always leave you reeling. —Colin Joyce
Looking back on a decade's worth of hip-hop subgenres and fads makes it tempting to go on record with an informed guess or audacious gamble on what the next ten years will bring. From this writer's vantage point, there is no reasonable version of the 2020s that doesn't include Bad Bunny. The Puerto Rican rapper went from Latin trap's promising upstart to a global rap superstar in just a few years' time. Arguably the first trapero to cross over to the English-language market, via his feature on Farruko's "Krippy Kush" remix with Nicki Minaj, he suddenly seemed to be everywhere after Cardi B's "I Like It" with reggaetonero J Balvin went supernova.
Still, all of that could've seemed a happy accident if not for his exemplary debut full-length, X100PRE. Dropped by surprise on Christmas Eve 2018 as his all-Spanish Drake collab "MIA" stormed the charts, the album presents El Conejo Malo as a multi-faceted artist unbound by música urbana's standards. He toys with pop-punk and emo on the spunky "Tenemos Que Hablar" and succumbs to the thumping thrills of Dominican dembow with El Alfa on "La Romana." With Bad Bunny now playing the album more or less in sequence at sold-out arenas across the world, it's clear that X100PRE is not just the peak of his career, but the beginning of a prolonged movement.—Gary Suarez
Almost 30 years after Control, Janet Jackson's most liberating album, SZA used the women closest to her to explore the eponymous topic herself. Interspersed with commentary from the matriarchs in her family, Ctrl examines what it means to truly own your narrative. "That is my greatest fear—that if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just, you know…I would be fatal," the singer's mother says over the sound of a crumbling page.
Ctrl, abbreviated like the key on a computer, is about how Black women navigate self-worth in the social media age. It's the antithesis of the manicured personas that fit neatly into an Instagram grid. At times, SZA is confident—and utterly vindictive—like when she shares she's been sleeping with your friend, practically daring herself to do it again. This is mostly an illusion, though, because like the faces we present in others' feeds, who she says she is and who she really is are two different people. "Hope you never find out who I really am / 'Cause you'd never love me," she sings on "Garden (Say It Like Dat)." Despite hitting the window a few times, as she says on "Pretty Little Birds," it's the perspective that counts. "You still ain't scared of no heights / When the spiral down feels as good as the flight." By the time she nears the end, SZA realizes the way she views control, or its absence, is up to her. —Kristin Corry
Fiona Apple takes a lot of time between albums, but that's always seemed to be more a sign of her intentionality and perfectionism than anything else. There was a seven-year gap between 2005's Extraordinary Machines (which was itself delayed several years) and 2012's The Idler Wheel…, but opener "Every Single Night" provided a window into her relentless creativity: "Butterflies in my brain / These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine." As she explains in the song's refrain: "I just want to feel everything."
Taking it all in, even the unpleasant and disturbing emotions, is Apple's modus operandi—and it makes for some particularly unsettling moments on the LP. There's a scalpel-like bite to the way she allows herself to be raw on the recordings, occasionally twisting her voice into almost guttural sounds, such as on the jazz-minded and loop-heavy "Hot Knife." Off-kilter percussion and homespun arrangements give the record a nervous energy that's somehow still beautiful, resulting in a thrilling balancing act between intensity and catharsis that few songwriters could pull off with as much depth as Apple. —Josh Terry
All three albums Kevin Parker released as Tame Impala have succeeded on their own terms. 2010's Innerspeaker offered a glimpse into the Australian's heady and companionless studio perfectionism, subverting hazy psych-rock song structures into something wholly mesmerizing. 2015's Currents, with its synths and funky inclinations, turned the band into a stadium-ready crossover force, complete with a cover by Rihanna and headlining Coachella slots.
But it was the middle album in his catalog that marked his transition from a psych-weirdo to one of the most influential and ubiquitous voices in contemporary rock music. 2012's Lonerism retained the heavily layered and wonky pedalboard effects of his debut, but it transferred those tools to a more contemporary context. Songs like "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" were nostalgia-pop enough to draw comparisons to the Beatles or the Kinks, but the arrangements felt firmly planted in the now, hinting at the electronic direction he'd pursue on subsequent material. On the sprawling "Apocalypse Dreams," Parker sings: "Everything is changing / And there's nothing I can do / My world is turning pages / While I am just sitting here," over a bed of synths and guitars that blur into each other. Lines like these make for some of the most moving moments on Lonerism, highlighting what is ultimately one of his biggest contributions to music this decade: taking his own feelings of social isolation and anxiety and making them feel universal. —Josh Terry
When Miguel recorded his follow-up album to 2010's All I Want Is You, he wasn't just looking at life through rose-colored glasses. Instead, his sophomore album was a "kaleidoscope dream," one that viewed an occasion as normal as going to the bar as a reflection of complex hues and patterns. All I Want Is You paraded Miguel around as a lover, but two years later, the updated version of Miguel is more nuanced. At times, he's romantic, but insecure; other times, he's extremely contemplative and self-aware.
On Kaleidoscope Dream, he's eager to show the underbelly of his hedonistic existence. Most people don't beg to be used, but Miguel does. The singer relinquishes his self-control on "Use Me," breaking down the walls he erected for his own protection. "Sedate me, salacious salty and sweet / I'm overwhelmed by tasty thoughts of you," he sings. He surrenders, and the power his partner possesses over him is enough for him to feast on. "Arch and Point" drips with the sensuality of an intense guitar, with instructions that could make most blush, while "Where's the Fun in Forever" questions the meaning of time. But the singer saves his meditations on humanity for the album's final song, "Candles in the Sun." Released seven years ago, the song predates the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump-era anxieties, but it's still relevant for today's climate. "Hey, I say we're all created equal / That's what they teach us," he sings. "But that ain't how we treat each other / Shit, the truth is that we need each other." Amen. —Kristin Corry
Beach House's place in the hallowed throne room of dream pop has been guaranteed for over a decade now—they have been crafting music in the grand, woozy lineage of Lush, Mazzy Star, and other greats of the sub-genre since 2006. Though fans and critics debate Beach House's defining moment, the best case to be made is for 2010's Teen Dream, a record so emotionally stirring it feels as though it takes place in the chest rather than the ears.
Teen Dream maintains the palpable, mellifluous aura which had been becoming the band's calling card, but it complicates it, too—here, there is also warmth and expansiveness; "Lover of Mine" and "Walk in the Park" are veritable sun on the face. And the sheer largesse of the songs—their breadth, their depth, and their dimensional, layered quality—mean that from the very earliest guitar thrums of first track, "Zebra," Teen Dream is pervaded by a sense of inevitability, as if its atmosphere was a part of nature. Victoria Legrand's melodies are so timeless as to feel familiar in some ancient, fundamentally human way, and a heavy atmosphere, like life itself, looms over the record like thick perfume. After almost ten years, Teen Dream remains revelatory. —Lauren O'Neill
Of all the realms Daniel Lopatin envisioned this decade—be it the polygonal MIDI-scapes of R Plus Seven, the nü-metal hell world of Garden of Delete, or the decayed classical renderings of Age Of—nothing haunted us quite as sublimely as Replica did. Sitting at the intersection of the hypnagogic pop scene of the late '00s and the incoming vaporwave movement of the '10s, Replica stood alone as its own strange monolith, inviting us to get lost in its maze of faded cultural debris. Assembled from scattered pieces of old TV commercials and strung together by Lopatin's hypnotizing synth work, Replica was ambient music like nothing we'd ever heard before, conjuring up something new and futuristic while still sounding ancient, buried, and forgotten. It tapped directly into that reality-altering moment when the old CD in your car starts skipping, with Lopatin's samples looping endlessly until their jarring cuts became a new kind of rhythmic lullaby. Like a Ouija board channeling ghosts of the digital age, Replica distorted our cheap, plastic history into something beyond recognition, and left in its place a void for us to gaze at in morbid wonder. —Sam Goldner
Where was your ass at when Future released Dirty Sprite 2 in the thick of summer 2015? Real heads almost certainly remember—if anything, because it felt wrong for something to bang so hard. "I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops," he boasts on album-opener "Thought It Was a Drought," which prominently features the sound of ice cubes and lean swirling around in a cup. It’s impossible to think of a better image to kick off a record that marked a firm pivot back to depravity (and one named for Future's favored codeine-and-soda concoction).
After releasing Honest in 2014, a pop turn that was a critical flop (but that feels, five years later, like it was actually underrated), the notoriously prolific rapper born Nayvadius Wilburn turned back to his preferred medium: the mixtape. The three-tape run that started with the release of Monster, followed by Beast Mode, and ended with 56 Nights is where Future became Future, perfecting the dark skies and codeine-hazed sound that remains his signature. DS2 was his victory lap from that run, and it was the moment he brought together all the sonic threads he’d been exploring, galvanizing himself as rap's greatest innovator.
It's next to impossible to pick highlights from an album that's all highlights, but it's worth pointing out that Drake feature "Where Ya At" was followed by an entire joint album from Future and the Canadian rapper roughly two months later. "Fuck Up Some Commas" sees Future doing one of the things he does best—boasting about how much goddamn money he has—and you'd be forgiven if you wanted to start a riot the second you hit play on "Stick Talk." But it's on "Slave Master" where Future offers a perfect summation of the record’s themes: "Just bought a new whip, like I'm a slave master / I pour up two zips, I'm feelin' way better." Future may find temporary solace from his misery through drugs and material things, and that feeling may not last. But his quest to numb himself has resulted in some of the decade's best rap. — Leslie Horn
There are few albums that evoke the unease of being Black in America as succinctly as To Pimp a Butterfly. It's an alluring amalgamation of rap, funk, and jazz that makes you want to find the groove in the midst of Kendrick Lamar's musings on race. Even the album art, featuring a squad of Black men and children smiling and shirtless holding wads of cash and 40-ounce beers on the White House lawn, makes a statement. Lamar's sketch of Black America underscores its resilience.
There is no wasted space on the album; the interludes are as intentional and deliberate as its anthems. Lamar channels the spiraling spoken-word intonations on "For Free?": "Oh America, you bad bitch / I picked cotton and made you rich / Now my dick ain't free," he says, throwing jabs at how Black men have historically been hypersexualized. The declaration that his dick isn't free isn't there for shock value on an album that finds Lamar ruminating on freedom. He litters references from iconic Black liberation films like The Color Purple's "Alls my life I had to fight" on the de facto Black Lives Matter anthem "Alright," and reinvents Kunta Kinte, a character from Alex Haley's 1976 slave epic Roots, as "King Kunta."
To Pimp a Butterfly successfully unpacks the relationship between America and the exploitation of Black people, with Lamar cleverly drawing connections between enslavement and the entertainment industry. Thematically, the 16-song tracklist revolves around commerce, which coincides with America's tradition of buying and selling, even when that meant people. Titles like "For Free?," "For Sale," and "How Much a Dollar Cost?" juxtapose the tension between creative and capital, a tension that Lamar doesn't want to sacrifice.
The thread that ties To Pimp a Butterfly together is a phrase Lamar repeats six times at various points of the album. "I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same." It's a sobering reminder that sometimes in order to survive in America, you end up pimping yourself, too. —Kristin Corry
It's been almost four years since Rihanna released her opus, ANTI, and it is still the reigning pop record of the decade. You can't go out dancing without hearing at least one ANTI track—whether it's the dancehall-inflected "Work," featuring her footservant Drake (which popped out of speakers positively everywhere when it came out), or "Sex With Me," Rih's as-yet unmatched libido anthem. Between opener "Consideration," her brooding kiss-off collab with SZA, who would go on to blow up with Ctrl a couple years later; the DJ Mustard-produced sultry slapper "Needed Me"; her unexpected Tame Impala cover "Same Ol' Mistakes"; and the retro-soul passion of "Higher," ANTI has incited infinite debates over its best song. Is it "Kiss It Better," the slow jam that simply reeks of sex and sweat and on which she proclaims, "Man, fuck your pride"? Countless fans have said they wish the 72-second-long stoner ditty "James Joint" was about three minutes longer. "Desperado" started the yeehaw movement before it was a glimmer in anyone's eye. ANTI is so jam-packed with incredible songs (the record took two years to make, and came out four years after Rihanna's previous album, 2012's Unapolagetic) it would be a fool's errand to try to choose. There's also "Yeah, I Said It," an iconic ode to rough sex with fuck buddies, and the ecstatically amorous "Love On The Brain." ANTI is endlessly inspired by Rihanna's simultaneous devil-may-care attitude and the bottomless depth of her desire.
To know your worth, and give your love only to those who truly deserve its intensity; to fuck whomever you want, however you want, while getting as high as you want—these are the philosophical principles Rihanna has shown us both in her music and in her public demeanor. Kind and caring, she'll pass the J, but at the end of the day she's her own number one. As she sings on "Consideration," "I got to do things my own way, darling," and that's why ANTI is not only Rihanna's best album, but the last one she released. Despite promising an album this year, Rih seems busy with other endeavors. Four years later, we're adorning our faces with her Killawatt highlighter, wearing her Fenty lingerie while ANTI still plays in the background. But it continues to sound so perfect that we can't complain. —Leah Mandel
In the year before his death, people often asked DJ Rashad about sadness. As he was gearing up to release Double Cup, the final full-length album he released while he was alive, people had questions about the content of songs like "Feelin," a mournful revision on the footwork sound that he'd spent the preceding few years shepherding from Chicago to the world. Sampling R&B songs was part of footwork from the beginning, he said, out of a desire to make "something kind of sad but not sad."
But the way he approached those sounds on Double Cup felt different, more textured than much of what he'd offered to the world so far. The drum programming, as was typical of the sound, remained delightfully elliptical and erratic, but even tracks like "Pass That Shit"—an ostensibly weed-hazed party jam—takes place in wheezy slow motion. It's packed with far more emotion than its lyrics ("Light it up motherfucker, light it up") would otherwise suggest. Most of the tracks feels dense and desperate, full of an unquenchable longing, especially on songs like "Only One," which twists a line from a song by Case and Mary J. Blige into a despairing, ghostly plea: "Girl you knowwww our love is real." Footwork has its share of ballads, but on Double Cup, Rashad explored this lane fully, prioritizing feeling and depth over just making hot tracks.
Bangers do make appearances though, to be sure—keen as he was to explore the more emotive side of the genre, Rashad was also pushing it in new directions, emphasizing the DNA that the hyper-fast sound shared with other forms of high-octane dance music, like jungle and acid, to name a few. More than anything else, Double Cup is a document of footwork's transformation, a sign that footwork needn't be bound to the traditional rules or forms that originally governed it. Since his death, Rashad's proteges like DJ Taye and DJ Earl have more explicitly pulled at the genre's connective tissue, marrying it both more explicitly with rap and more experimental electronic forms. Double Cup was the first step into a bold new future, and what's sad is that Rashad isn't around to see it. —Colin Joyce
Before 2016, lemonade was innocent. The beverage was reserved for the entrepreneurial spirit of suburban children, sold for the low price of pocket change. When Beyoncé released her second surprise album, Lemonade, along with a 65-minute visual on HBO, the drink suddenly felt a lot more sophisticated. That's the Beyoncé effect.
The footage for the visual album includes the birthday speech of Hattie White, Jay Z's 90-year-old grandmother, who was the inspiration for Beyoncé's dissertation on Southern Black womanhood. "I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up," she said. "I was served lemons, but I made lemonade." White's lemonade isn't the same lemonade that costs a quarter. It cost her parts of her smile, the parts that made her feel most whole. Lemonade was the bittersweet handiwork of what she made with ingredients she'd never asked for. When it came time for Beyoncé's most personal album, she did the same, and she made sure to leave the taste on our lips.
For the first time in her storied 20-year career, the flavor Beyoncé was craving was authenticity. Her normally unflappable disposition had no space on an album as tart as Lemonade. She felt worthless on "Hold Up," but swelled up with arrogance in the following song, "Don't Hurt Yourself." Lemonade showed that Beyoncé spoke in the vernacular of the modern woman, equipped with "boy bye"s, middle fingers, and Soulja Boy quotes from "Pretty Boy Swag" like it was 2010.
For so many of us who wondered what it felt like to be best friends with Queen Bey, we finally got our answer. She cried like we did and she got cocky like we did. By the album's end, she turned into the friend we all have: the one whose break-up you got a little too invested in, only for all to be forgiven in the end. —Kristin Corry
They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and Power Trip took no prisoners in demonstrating that claim on their 2017 opus, Nightmare Logic. Before the Dallas-based crossover behemoth came along, thrash seemed like a fun but expired genre that had come and gone with your older brother's Exodus bumper sticker; Slayer's legacy was under threat of being reduced to $400 vintage shirts worn by Kardashians. Power Trip's ability to harness their nostalgia for thrash and make metal feel fresh again proved that shred-lord classics like Ride the Lightning and Bonded by Blood could be not just honored, but improved upon. We must look to our past to shape our future; on Nightmare Logic's “If Not Us Then Who,” listeners are implored to "get up, out of your cave and into the fire."
The band rose from the ashes of early 2000s hardcore, a moment in punk that at first seemed to be a PMA-driven mode of turning male aggression into good clean fun, a hunky-dory idea that we can hop into a circle pit instead of punching a hole in the wall. But over time, hardcore began to feel not only tired, but in some ways, as toxic as the conformist values it existed to rail against. Sure, it was cathartic for jacked white guys to pat themselves on the back for their "integrity" and “heart” or whatever, but shouldn't heavy music be smarter? What's worth mobilizing for?
Nightmare Logic was released less than a month after Trump's inauguration, during a moment of crippling confusion and fear in America, and it comes out of the gates like a firehose blast. You don't have to follow the band's politics to enjoy the record, but it illuminates the vision of dystopia they portray to know that they abhor "sexist, homophobic, racist, Islamophobic [pieces] of shit"; that they're as comfortable sharing the stage with female-fronted power pop band Sheer Mag as they are with any death metal act; and that “this is not a band for white males to enjoy and be dumb rednecks,” as vocalist Riley Gale has made clear. Don't misinterpret that as any compromise on their aggression; the first utterance on Nightmare Logic isn't a word, but a guttural bark signaling that you're about to be drawn and quartered by tomahawk-like riffs that leave you no choice but to stage-dive into their world.
Power Trip inseminated the moshpit sensibilities of hardcore—gang vocals, two-step-friendly breakdowns—with the more speedy, technical elements of thrash metal to birth a giant, scary, perfect baby with shockingly wide appeal. (“Executioner's Tax (Swing of the Ax)” picked up such traction that it somehow ended up on FOX News, much to the unapologetically progressive band's chagrin.) It's not only the record's crushing sense of power but its unparalleled ability to speak to our modern angst that render it not just one of the best metal records of the decade, but of all time.
When Gale howls, “The slumber of reason gives birth to all demons / A new battle takes form” on the album's title track, it's hard not to read it as a comment on how contemporary culture and politics have left us at a moment in history when logic is dead, and our nightmares roam rampant as realities. We were warned about the decline of Western civilization; now Power Trip says we must “rewrite the rules to play the game.” Time to fight fire with fire. —Hilary Pollack
Frank Ocean prefers the dodge to the direct, the oblique angle to the head-on approach. Consider that on August 19, 2016, Endless initially appeared to be his long-awaited album, only to be displaced a day later by his actual release, Blonde, and even then, what you first encountered was a kind of perversion; you didn't hear Frank Ocean's unadulterated voice until three minutes in. Or going further back, think of how much of the songwriting on 2012's Channel Orange dealt with characters—new parents, addicts, johns—who were not Ocean in the literal sense. "I'm more interested in lies," he told W Magazine recently, and when the interviewer pressed him—"So you mean a fantasy, not a lie"—he zagged again. According to Ocean, "they're the same thing."
It's nearly impossible to halt the detective work of reading an art object for the artist's biography, and certainly, Blonde appears more autobiographical than Nostalgia, Ultra, or Channel Orange. (See "Good Guy," a gem of economical storytelling, or the last verse on "Nights.") Still, Blonde is an album that feels personal without revealing its author's life at every turn. "Bones feeling dense as fuck" is a perfectly weird yet still legible flex about strength and confidence; the album is studded with lines like this, and they remind us that a lyric doesn't need to scan as a time-stamped diary entry to feel real—it just needs to belong to one consciousness.
Blonde is an album about aging, about bad-fit desire and being alone, about coming to know yourself and your past while wondering about the future. Even its straightforward songs strain against themselves—a kind of musically embodied restlessness. "Ivy" is about as traditional a song as Ocean has made, in terms of its structure and driving guitar riff, but with vocal quirks and production choices that make each listen feel possessed, like its emotions are too strong to pin down; they squirm and threaten to spill out of the chorus trying vainly to encapsulate them.
The album's most intense eruption is delivered by Andre 3000, speaking from the wilderness of his forties, and it cleaves Blonde in two, like a midlife crisis. The back half feels especially destabilized; this isn't the smooth, linear journey to nirvana that Ocean namechecks on "Nights." After the cacophonous smear of strings begins to fade out on "Pretty Sweet," he sings, "What it means to be alive on this side." Which side would that be? Is it the future described by "Seigfried," with "two kids and a swimming pool"? Is it the shit-talking posturing of "Futura Free," all emails with Jay Z, acting your net worth, and dozing off during group sex?
Blonde ends on a conversation among young people about early memories, first words, and super powers. It's like one of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine's collaborations, but without the coarseness. The editing makes the conversation feel explicitly stitched together and spacey—you can't follow its flow precisely or with certainty connect this person's answers to that question versus another. "I go out and just do everything that I ever thought about trying," one participant says, plainly stating a belief in novelty and freedom that will likely be extinguished in him in no time at all. But for now, he's alive and moving along a path that only he can see. His life is still his fantasy. —Ross Scarano
In a fair and just universe, Rich Homie Quan would have his own Young Thug-like orbit, although it would be less weird, more tangible, and with far fewer snakes. When the duo released Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1 in September 2014, each rapper was on his own ascent to stardom. But the type of fame Young Thug achieved cruelly eluded Quan, and at some point, he was left behind.
Between health issues and a few run-ins with the law, any momentum the rapper carried from releasing the best rap album of the decade vanished in the years after the release of Tha Tour. His return in 2017 with Back to the Basics was nothing short of a triumph, but by that time, Thug had already reached a new level of success; two years later, any rumblings of a Tour Pt. 2 have been thoroughly squashed. But we always had Pt. 1.
Overseen by Daddy-in-chief Birdman, this Cash Money Young Money tape is a sterling example of two creative forces locking into a cohesive concept. Thug and Quan are so in sync that their individual, complementary styles link the album seamlessly. There's the Jeezy-inspired mid-2000s Atlanta beat of "War Ready," all heavy horns and chest-beating, plus a particularly absurd Thug vocal performance. "Freestyle" was an instant classic, featuring the now-classic Young Thug line, "Imma pull up, eat on that pussy, and dip." It's a project with no skips, and "730" is either its best song or its fifth, depending on who you ask. The spotlight shifts on each track: On one, it's Quan's show; the next, you forget he exists because Thug's flow is that powerful. Baby's part amounts mostly to ad-libs, although a co-sign from the label boss in 2014 was worth more than gold.
At over 80 minutes and 20 tracks long (deluxe version), it's the rare commercial mixtape that has very little filler. It showcases a dynamo performance from two performers on their come up, and it's so sprawling because to give us anything less would be an insult.
This all-time great rap relic is a time capsule that manages to sound just as revolutionary in 2019 as it did upon its release. It was a once-an-era moment where two artists coalesced while still asserting their individual styles. Young Thug or Rich Homie Quan have never been the same. Neither has rap. —Will Schube
It's October 2013. Solange Knowles body-rolls while singing into a mic, flinging her free hand as she pieces together the fragments that will turn into "Don't Wait." She's a couple of months into being 27. As fans would later see in a behind-the-scenes documentary, she's in a studio on Long Island, working on the scaffolds and melodies of her agenda-shifting album, A Seat at the Table. For so many Black women, the album will be a kind of mantra, a modality for healing. For some of them, it will be their first time hearing the weight of anti-Black microaggressions folded into a 21-track package and dropped onto the warm boom-clack of a drum, or feathered through harmonized falsetto. But this isn't an album of misery. With it, Solange created a document of heritage, grief, anger, and, most importantly, hope.
Frankly, we needed it. In the four years that Solange spent writing the album, the news cycle pounded along at what felt like a breakneck pace. As the Black Lives Matter movement coalesced following the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, she also found herself confronted with stories of unarmed Black people's deaths at the hands of police, neighborhood vigilantes, and white supremacists. And when she finally released A Seat at the Table in 2016, the U.S. was five and a half weeks away from electing Donald Trump.
Though A Seat at the Table reads more like an homage to her parents and community than an explicit reckoning with the whole of Black American trauma, she still understood the risks in releasing an album this openly political. "When I felt afraid or when I felt like this record would be so different from my last, I would see or hear another story of a young Black person in America having their life taken away from them, having their freedom taken away,” she said in conversation with her mother Tina Lawson and journalist Judnick Mayard. “That would fuel me to go back and revisit and sometimes rewrite some of these songs to go a little further and not be afraid to have the conversation."
Though it's been written about before, it's important to revisit one pivotal moment that catalyzed the album, because it demonstrates how far forward art like this can push the conversation around Black womanhood. In January 2013, in a discussion about her fanbase, white New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica implied that Solange should be concerned about "biting the hand that feeds you." She says Caramanica has since apologized, but the comment sat with her for years, long enough to form the basis of "Don't Wait," where she sings "Now, I don’t want to bite the hand that’ll show me the other side, no / But I didn’t want to build the land that has fed you your whole life, no / Don’t you find it funny?"
Knowing as we do now that this album would end up topping Billboard's Hot 100 and inspiring books, art, and a university syllabus, Solange's distress seems somewhat vindicated; today, we've come to expect critics to approach reflections like hers with more empathy. Six years later, the aforementioned behind-the-scenes footage shows a woman on the verge of the biggest step in her career. But in the moment, her hat pulled low over her eyes, all that matters is the music. —Tshepo Mokoena
UPDATE 11/6/19: This story has been updated to clarify the context of Jon Caramanica's quote.