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The 50 best albums of the 2010s

Angel Olsen (Photo: Zia Anger), Kendrick Lamar (Photo: Press), Beyoncé (Screenshot: "Formation" video/YouTube), and Robyn (Photo: Press)
Angel Olsen (Photo: Zia Anger), Kendrick Lamar (Photo: Press), Beyoncé (Screenshot: "Formation" video/YouTube), and Robyn (Photo: Press)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Like television and film, the music industry has undergone seismic changes over the last 10 years, the effects of which we could be parsing for many decades to come. With more access to more music than ever, we continued to fragment as listeners, our journeys often guided by individualized feeds, subscriptions, and playlist algorithms. This division was certainly reflected in the wide variety of nominations sent in by our critics for best albums of the 2010s, only a small fraction of which made the final list below. Among these albums we all agree on, however, are unforgettable challenges to and elevations of the traditional LP form, ones that both define the decade behind us and point toward what’s next. Here are The A.V. Club’s top 50 albums of the decade.

50. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me (2010)

If one of the opening lyrics (“Who asked you if you want to be loved by me?”) is any indication, Have One on Me is the album where Joanna Newsom strengthens her artistic defiance while still permitting the highs and lows of love to swallow her whole. It’s a daunting two-hour listen, yes, but it’s quick to envelop listeners in its narrative epics—an 1800s Irish mistress escaping captivity, the edifying turn in folktale Bluebeard, nine minutes of indelible pain over a lost infant—and its brilliantly timed details: the lesson-like callback in “Does Not Suffice” to “In California,” her “cuckoo, cuckoo” calls striking exactly at the album’s one-hour mark. Put simply, Have One On Me is an album of perfectionism paying off. [Nina Corcoran]

49. Sylvan Esso, What Now (2017)

“I’m the song that you can’t get out of your head.” So goes the refrain to “Song,” and so goes What Now as a whole, an album full of shimmering electro-pop numbers that expertly blend radio-ready hooks with an idiosyncratic sense of crackling grooves absorbing enough for late-night headphone-session deconstructions. Sylvan Esso graduated from catchy to masterful in the course of just two albums, and the duo’s dance-floor anthems smuggle in subtle songcraft as expertly as singer Amelia Randall Meath sneaks raw and heartfelt emotion into her cool-as-ice lyrics. It’s ecstatic in both sound and sensation. [Alex McLevy]

48. Rihanna, Anti (2016)

There are albums that you turn to when you’re looking to scratch a very specific itch, and then there’s Rihanna’s eclectic, utterly transcendent Anti. It’s hard to pin a singular vibe among the 16-track joy ride as you glide from a crowded dancehall in “Work” to an intergalactic saloon in “Desperado” or a sleek Fashion Week runway in “Pose.” It possesses the kind of range that elevates an artist from enjoyable to essential, and it cemented Rihanna as a burgeoning icon. The intimacy, the fearlessness on display secures Anti’s place among the most unforgettable albums of our generation, without question. [Shannon Miller]

47. Pile, Dripping (2012)

Not every album that earns unanimous critic praise earns unanimous fan praise. In hindsight, Pile’s third album, Dripping, would get both; it just needed time to spread beyond Massachusetts. With vein-popping screams and unpredictable guitar melodies, founder Rick Maguire defined his post-hardcore songwriting style with manic hits like “Baby Boy” and the satirical guitar solo in “Prom Song.” What elevates Dripping, though, is the band’s commitment to anxiety: Kris Kuss’ syncopated drumming on “Grunt Like a Pig,” Matt Connery’s sinister bass tone on “Bubblegum,” Matt Becker’s unhinged guitar on “Bump A Grape.” It’s like if Jesus Lizard were doused in gasoline while covering Built To Spill and the person holding a match told them to grin and bear it. In the words of Maguire, “Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god.” [Nina Corcoran]

46. Four Tet, There Is Love In You (2010)

Kieran Hebden has had an extraordinarily prolific decade, his second making music under the Four Tet moniker; every new release reflects the work of a seasoned, yet still evolving, artist. But, front to back, none quite matches the experience of There Is Love In You. Hebden’s fifth LP is an earthy, ecstatic summation of his distinctive musical interests and talents as a producer, its blend of ambient, dance, and world music radiating an intense warmth. The album’s passing textures hint at myriad unexplored paths, just as its patient, precise editing suggests complete contentment in the here and now. There is love in There Is Love In You, and you can feel it. [Kelsey J. Waite]

45. Paramore, After Laughter (2017)

Just when you think there’s no way that Paramore could top itself with the genre-bending “Ain’t It Fun,” in barrels “Rose-Colored Boy” with its sailing, guitar-soaked chorus and Hayley Williams’ take-no-prisoners vocals. The rock outfit’s fifth studio release showed tremendous growth while embracing a bolder, ’80s synth-pop sound. More importantly, After Laughter rang like an open book about the realities of mental health, weaving honest lyrics with deceptively fun calypso beats and bass lines. There’s a certain level of compassion laced in the upbeat tones, an understanding that everyone puts on a mask sometimes. After Laughter made listeners feel a little less alone. [Shannon Miller]

44. Kali Uchis, Isolation (2018)

Pop iconoclast Kali Uchis has bristled at the R&B label, but her longstanding ties with Odd Future refugees like The Internet and Tyler The Creator aren’t the only reasons why soul fans embraced Isolation. Uchis’ debut album, following years of internet drops like 2015’s Por Vida, finds her pulsing through myriad styles: the Afro-Latin groove of “Body Language,” the bouncy neo-soul of “Your Teeth in My Neck,” and the noodle-y synth-pop of “In My Dreams.” But a persistent funk rhythm underlines it all, whether in the sounds she commissions from the likes of Steve Lacy, Gorillaz, and BADBADNOTGOOD; or in her effortlessly supple yet fully engaged voice. [Mosi Reeves]

43. Panopticon, Kentucky (2012)

Black metal and bluegrass: Who could have guessed these two great tastes would taste great together? Austin Lunn did. The one man of one-man band Panopticon spent much of the last decade building a sonic bridge between Scandinavia and Appalachia, augmenting blurs of electric guitar with banjos and fiddles and flutes. Never corny or forced, this fusion of unexpectedly simpatico genres finds its most purposeful expression on Kentucky, a stirring concept record about the way the coal industry abuses man and land in pursuit of profit. Sampled audio from Barbara Kopple’s seminal labor documentary Harlan County USA articulates the album’s themes, but not its political conscience; for that, Lunn needed the megaphone of metal, amplifying his righteous fury in a way delicately plucked acoustic strings never could. [A.A. Dowd]

42. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City (2013)

Vampire Weekend seemed destined to burn bright but quick back in 2008, when they emerged as if from a Nantucket preppy dream, all pastels and big, Afro-pop-indebted hooks. But their self-titled album has aged shockingly well, partly because the band didn’t try to repeat it—and on 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City, they bested it. They did so by getting a little weird, and by getting super comfortable in the studio, where they layered and assembled and fussed with crystalline songs until they were perfect but not over-scrubbed: “Step” is loping baroque pop buoyed by harpsichord, “Diane Young” is both frenetic and painstakingly assembled, and “Unbelievers” nods to the band’s past while proving handily that it isn’t stuck there. [Josh Modell]

41. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book (2016)

“In dreary times joy itself is insurrectionary,” Rebecca Solnit writes. And while times have certainly become drearier as this decade has worn on, Chance The Rapper has only become more joyful. Coloring Book is a hyper-bright, hyper-driven collection of songs that are eager as hell to make everyone who hears it smile. And it worked! Only a few months removed from “Ultralight Beam,” Chancellor Bennett coaxed the last happy hook out of Kanye, brought Jay Electronica out of hiding (for a minute, at least), and positioned D.R.A.M. as a soul singer. Oh, and he made himself into a superstar. He hasn’t stopped smiling since. [Marty Sartini Garner]

Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts
Photo: Ben Rayner

40. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)

For some, the suburbs signify an oasis of manicured calm tucked outside the hustle of the city. For others, they’re a death sentence, soul-draining in their cookie-cutter plasticity. Some spend their lives trying to leave them; others spend their lives trying to get there. All that and more is interwoven in the evocative lyrics of the Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs, which limns electro-flecked chamber bangers like “Ready To Start” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” with anxious fretting over the loss of youthful defiance. [Randall Colburn]

39. Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold (2012)

At their best, Parquet Courts play like a kid sprints down a hill: They only trip if they try to stop. With breakout Light Up Gold, the art-punk quartet manifested the wild yet crafted, shaggy yet tight artistry that would mark its sound throughout the decade. Austin Brown nearly falls over himself on lines like “Death to all false profits around here we praise a dollar you fuckin’ hippie,” but the band always hits its marks, cramming in as much ennui and ire as it can before each incendiary track burns out. [Laura Adamczyk]

38. Drake, Take Care (2011)

Drake stands astride the 2010s like a great emo colossus, weeping in his drink at the outset and shadowboxing to Ms. Lauryn Hill at the conclusion, as contentious in rap circles (still!) as he is beloved by wedding DJs worldwide. Underneath all of this are the albums, none better or more influential than Take Care. Following the grand pop come-up of Thank Me Later, the saddest man in the club reunited with longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib, who helped conjure a stretch of immaculate sine-wave R&B full of late-night ruminations and lonely cab rides home. The result established Drake as a meme, a pop-culture titan—and a restless sonic innovator. [Clayton Purdom]

37. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising (2019)

When Natalie Mering, a.k.a. Weyes Blood, released 2016’s Front Row Seat To Earth, the apocalypse was on her mind but not yet her primary concern. Her breakthrough follow-up, Titanic Rising, from its underwater bedroom artwork to its claims that “it’s a wild time to be alive,” fully centers the end of the world. On the breathtaking “Something To Believe” and the lounge-inflected “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” for example, strings whirr around starry-eyed chamber-pop instrumentals as Mering delivers contralto sermons on staying hopeful in the face of climate change. Doomsday has rarely sounded so opulent. [Max Freedman]

36. Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind (2012)

Aging gracefully doesn’t always mean mellowing with age. Just look to the peerless and ever-evolving maelstroms of Converge, metallic hardcore veterans who have been kicking out stone-cold classics (and whipping up some mighty circle pits) since the early 1990s. Their eighth studio album is one of their best and most eclectic, zigzagging from warp-speed shitfits to the powerhouse melodrama of the title track, a howl of sorrow over (no shit) the death of lead screamer Jacob Bannon’s dog. Refining its songcraft without muffling its ferocity, Converge runs laps around bands a couple decades its junior, laying out a 20-year plan for the whippersnappers eating their dust. Here’s to 2o more. [A.A. Dowd]

35. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Bandana (2019)

When rapper Freddie Gibbs and enigmatic producer Madlib first united in 2014 on Piñata, the result was a classic pairing of dusty samples and hardened, world-weary gangsta politics. Released five years later, Bandana is arguably more consistent, gliding easily amid the soulful horn fanfare of “Freestyle Shit,” the smoothed-out keyboard piano of “Crime Pays,” and the plush grooves of “Cataracts.” Freddie Gibbs remains a prickly but reliable narrator, anxious to remind us of his street-dealer bona fides and sharp enough to acknowledge that the world is bigger than the block. More impressive is his deep baritone voice and deftly fluid lyrical style, the pivot around which this Bandana soars. [Mosi Reeves]

34. Sharon Van Etten, Tramp (2012)

Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp comes right in the middle of her near-perfect five-album discography, past the point where she was quietly working her way through a terrible relationship but well in advance of this year’s burst-of-confidence rebirth, Remind Me Tomorrow. It feels like the middle of Van Etten’s story, the part where she gets more comfortable—but not too comfortable—with her songs and with being in the studio. She produced Tramp with The National’s Aaron Dessner, and they teased out more texture than she had found in the past, both sonically and lyrically: You can sense the triumph of these songs unfolding as they’re being made. It’s gorgeous, haunting, and strong. [Josh Modell]

33. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (2010)

If Steven Ellison was challenging the orthodoxies of jazz and electronic music with his third album as Flying Lotus, he was only following family tradition. Just as his aunt, Alice Coltrane, used her harp to take spiritual jazz to a fifth dimension, FlyLo used a bank of samplers, synths, and anxious edits to send the beat-driven experiments of J Dilla into the cosmos. Though the nonstop frequency shifts can make it feel like a shootout in a zero-gravity casino, Ellison is masterful at controlling the album’s flow: It’s impossible not to feel your heart heave every time he stops spinning through the stars and taps his feet to the earth. [Marty Sartini Garner]

32. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

When Courtney Barnett announced her debut album with “Pedestrian At Best,” an overdriven power-chord anthem for the ages, she issued a warning: “Put me on a pedestal, and I’ll only disappoint you!” she cries as the chorus starts. Sometimes I Sit nevertheless propelled Barnett into indie-rock’s leading class precisely because the album never lags. Her overt, self-deprecating humor and sung-spoken Australian accent pierce as strongly through “Pedestrian” and other punk-infused tunes as through extended country-tinged jams such as “Small Poppies” and “Kim’s Caravan.” Turns out that initial warning was way off-base. [Max Freedman]

31. Jamie xx, In Colour (2015)

In some ways, Jamie xx’s debut album simply transfers the aesthetic of his dream-pop group The xx to a U.K. house-music setting. He overlays the album with his signature tricks, spacing out rhythms until they’re full of silent moments, and polishing tones until they sparkle with precision. The mood can be ecstatic—“I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is a wondrously happy bass wobbler, and “Gosh” is the kind of speaker-rattling instrumental that makes revelers lose their minds, no speaking required. Then there’s the sadness of “Loud Places,” and the heartbreak of a woman watching her lover take molly with someone else. In Colour is full of joy in the club, and tears, too. [Mosi Reeves]

The 50 best albums of the 2010s

30. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (2010)

Those unfamiliar with Janelle Monáe when she debuted in 2010 were quick to learn she’s not just a singer or a musician, but a queen of creativity who’s content to build her own throne. The ArchAndroid makes sure of this by opening with an orchestral suite-turned-electronic bridge. It whisks you from the stuffy confines of tradition to a cinematic cyborg world where Monáe can belt pop hooks, whisper R&B verses, and wink through raps. Whether dancing on “Tightrope” beside Big Boi, doing lyrical open-heart surgery with “Cold War,” or drawing up a film-ready score with “BabopbyeYa,” she’s operating at double speed without ever breaking a sweat. Who better to help lead us toward music’s reinvention throughout the decade? [Nina Corcoran]

29. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor (2010)

Few modern rock acts are more ambitious than Titus Andronicus, a transcendently raucous New Jersey outfit that celebrated the summer of 2015 with a five-act rock opera. But, charmed as we were with A Most Lamentable Tragedy, it’s 2010’s The Monitor that still stands as the band’s most resonant work. Loosely based on the U.S. Civil War, the record wraps singer Patrick Stickles’ existential anxiety, paranoia, and complicated relationship with his home state up in punk bangers, drunken duets, barroom sing-alongs, and a 14-minute closer that asks, straight-faced, if there’s “a soul on this earth that isn’t too frightened to move?” Nine years later, it remains a good question. [Randall Colburn]

28. SZA, Ctrl (2017)

Maybe R&B had reached a superhuman saturation point—as larger-than-life as Beyoncé, as otherworldly as Frank Ocean. Maybe it was time for someone more tangible and life-size, someone more like who we are than who we dream of being. Maybe CTRL wasn’t R&B at all, a notion that SZA, whose stated influences range from Ella Fitzgerald to Björk, has endorsed. What sort of R&B record begins with weird, detuned guitar strums like those on “Supermodel,” anyway? Or maybe it’s just that aching, dancing voice; that intimate yet universal songwriting; that freewheeling, naturalistic narrative vigor. In any case, strength in vulnerability has seldom sounded so sweet and alive. [Brian Howe]

27. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour (2018)

Weakened by years of novelty rap verses about trucks, pop-country music was in need of a savior when Kacey Musgraves and her shiny brown mane trotted onto the scene. Musgraves’ debut full-length, Same Trailer, Different Park, was released in 2013, but it would take five more years for her style to fully mature into the dreamy, cinematic sound of 2018’s Golden Hour. Blending folk, pop, and traditional country and warming them under a gently psychedelic sun, Golden Hour has a featherlight quality that accents even the album’s kitschiest number, the country-disco kiss-off “High Horse.” [Katie Rife]

26. Jon Hopkins, Singularity (2018)

Techno maestro Jon Hopkins found his key to the human heart with 2018’s Singularity, a record that applies his ambient-to-thumping-and-back-again musical approach to inner spiritual life, to tremendous effect. Layering numerous organic sounds throughout his meticulous electronic orchestration, the record conveys everything from meditative reflections (“Feel First Life”) to gloriously flushed and cathartic releases (“Everything Connected”), all while maintaining a rare degree of cerebral engagement. It’s music for the head, heart, and body all at once—riotous and devotional in equal measure. [Alex McLevy]

25. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap (2013)

“Twerk, twerk, merge, swerve, dang, pick a lane,” Chance demands on the “Good Ass Intro” of Acid Rap, and he discards that advice before the intro’s even over, melting juke, gospel, and effervescent jazz into a woozy sing-along. Hip-hop doesn’t get much more fluid than it does on Chancellor Bennett’s sophomore mixtape, a place where avant-rap (“Paranoia”) and pure syllable play (“Everybody’s Something”) rub shoulders with Saturday-night pop (“Favorite Song”) and hard-foraged self-worth (“Everybody’s Something,” again). The truth is that Chance has always had a taste for schmaltz, but when dosed with the right quantity of hallucinogens it becomes tangible, a place you can almost visit. It’s worth the trip. [Clayton Purdom]

24. Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)

Mitski’s music has an ability to express the inexpressible that feels almost miraculous, reaching down the listener’s throat and pulling out glistening gut bags full of the anxious bile that secretly drives all human interactions. Combined with Mitski’s talent for combining addictive snippets of melody and scuzzy indie-rock guitars in surprising and innovative ways, the result is a dynamic, perfectly ordered collection of songs about the scary, alienating transition from irresponsible youth to accountable adulthood. This second puberty is, to be honest, rarely any fun, but Mitski gives it the same heart-in-your-throat rush usually associated with reckless teenage love. [Katie Rife]

23. Hop Along, Get Disowned (2012)

By turning her solo project Hop Along, Queen Ansleis into a full-blown band, Frances Quinlan gave herself room to become louder, sadder, and way more vulnerable. On Get Disowned, the first album with her brother and drummer, Mark Quinlan; bassist Tyler Long; and guitarist Joe Reinhart, Hop Along remind indie rock that it’s healthy to veer emo. Quinlan ruthlessly holds herself accountable, often to an unfair degree of self-detriment, in matters of heartbreak (“Tibetan Pop Stars”) and faux happiness (“Diamond Mine”). It’s an inner dialogue we’ve all had with ourselves before, but never has anyone had the singular, throat-scratching voice to articulate the pain quite like Quinlan does. [Nina Corcoran]

22. James Blake, Overgrown (2013)

The pop ascension of the U.K. electro-soul auteur James Blake—which this year resulted in Assume Form, his highest-charting album—began on Overgrown, his most baroque and beautiful album. Before, Blake was an enigmatic prince of post-dubstep (the depressive kind, not the hectic kind) whose postcoital-choirboy voice and bass-music monoliths were just starting to earn looks from tastemakers like Kanye West and Justin Vernon. Afterward, you could find Blake stone-sad lamping in a drop-top with Chano and showing up on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. But Overgrown, where he fusked with Brian Eno and RZA, is the pivot and pinnacle where Blake permanently stamped his exquisite hieroglyphics on the luxe-pop landscape. [Brian Howe]

21. Tame Impala, Lonerism (2012)

Lonerism is ostensibly an album about isolation, and it is the work of mostly one man. But in so many ways, Kevin Parker’s second album as Tame Impala exemplifies an exhilarating sense of creative expansion and connection. By merging his psych-rock roots with his modern pop inclinations, Parker showed us a new side to psychedelia, a vision that would launch him into the company of the industry’s most musically omnivorous stars. (Elsewhere on this list, he produces on Kali Uchis’ Isolation, and Rihanna covers his “Same Ol’ Mistakes” on Anti.) Seven years on, Lonerism is still so inspired, so dense with good ideas, that it feels like its influence could echo forever. [Kelsey J. Waite]

David Bowie
David Bowie
Screenshot: “Blackstar” video

20. Frank Ocean, Blonde (2016)

Remember when Frank Ocean was mainly associated with Tyler The Creator’s embryonic Odd Future collective? Yeah, us neither. But then, that vanguard of teenage transgression—basically the return of ’90s horrorcore in cloud-rap clothing—sent many of its members in surprising, rewarding directions, from Earl Sweatshirt’s throwback lyricism to Syd’s neo-soul and trip-hop excursions. And no one has traveled farther from the stage-diving days of Odd Future than Ocean. On his second official album, Blonde, he perfected a style of almost-ambient R&B that is both inimitably personal and perfectly resonant with the moody, mischievous, algorithmic internet pop of its day. He also shed just a couple of the gossamer layers of mystery that shrouded Channel Orange, and it’s tempting to say that you can’t talk about Blonde without talking about Ocean as one of the first male R&B stars to claim a queer identity. But in truth, you can: The visionary music dissolves everything from doo-wop and experimental pop to brainy electronic music and trap into a sublime fluid for Ocean to float through, disarmingly casual and effortlessly precise, and impossible to box in. [Brian Howe]

19. Deafheaven, Sunbather (2013)

Deafheaven doesn’t traffic in small themes. While its debut introduced a band who shot black metal through the prism of post-rock, shoegaze, space-rock, and emo, Sunbather mapped that star chart of influences to a vision at once suburban and surreal, pursuing ordinary corrupt human beauty with throat-shredding sincerity. Its dream homes and teenage languor seep dread, evoking Blue Velvet and The Virgin Suicides as much as Behemoth and Darkthrone. Ultimately, the record is a triumph of juxtapositions like this: the cricket-quiet interludes against the 10-minute gauntlets they separate; Milan Kundera references and secretly recorded drug deals; the pink-orange cover and the apocalyptic despair contained within. When the four long-playing tracks rupture at their midpoints, spilling arpeggiated guitar lines out over the blast beats, you feel like the titular sunbather opening up their eyes to look at their flesh. Some beauty is worth burning for. [Clayton Purdom]

18. Future, Dirty Sprite 2 (2015)

Future had already reimagined mainstream rap with his idiosyncratic robot croon by the time he released DS2, the culmination of mixtape projects he issued during the prior several months. But while earlier albums like 2012’s critically acclaimed Pluto (and its underappreciated 2014 follow-up, Honest) introduced him as an ATL oddball capable of strange melodies, DS2 finds him moody, cantankerous, and heavily under the influence of prescription drugs and his own ego. A brag about his coercive power turns into the airy, slightly melancholy “Slave Master”; an acknowledgement of his (then) lack of pop appeal becomes the astringent and noisy “I Serve The Base.” The beats by Metro Boomin, Southside, and others are seemingly inspired by electronic horror soundtracks and trap drums. The joyously gurgled voice that once powered “Turn On The Lights” is gone, but it’s hardly missed. Future has entered a new phase of remaking the present, and even radio fare like “Rich Sex” seems slightly off-kilter, both of the moment and where rap is headed next. [Mosi Reeves]

17. David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)

The David Bowie reissues have been rolling out fast and furious since his January 2016 death—but before his passing, the musical omnivore gave us one last original parting gift: the intricate mortality meditation Blackstar. While co-produced with Bowie’s long-time collaborator and creative foil Tony Visconti, the album was recorded with a quartet of jazz musicians: saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana, and pianist/keyboardist Jason Lindner. As a result, Blackstar sounds like little else in Bowie’s extensive catalog. (The one major exception might be 1977’s “Heroes, which shares a similar penchant for moody textures and leisurely experimentation.) If anything, the album mostly unfolds like it’s shrouded in chilly, gray fog: Ruminative elegies peppered with mournful saxophone give way to spurts of frantic percussion, midnight-dark keyboards, and contorted vocals, with a few electrified bursts (namely the stormy, prog-tinted “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)“ for starters) adding heft. Although in hindsight Blackstar is difficult to analyze apart from Bowie’s death—it was released two days before he passed—the album is challenging, thrilling, and very much a testament to Bowie’s visceral creative life. [Annie Zaleski]

16. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (2011)

What is Black Up? A prayer, a rallying cry, a provocation? Could it just be… a rap album? Fifteen years after releasing a pair of boundary-pushing jazz-rap LPs with Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler returned with Shabazz Palaces, whose debut, Black Up, landed like a Kubrickian monolith in the turn-of-the-decade hyphen-rap landscape. A decade of diligent scholarship and follow-up LPs have revealed little. The record still shifts uncomfortably in and out of view, pulses of static coalescing into hooks that vaporize after one incantation. A jazz trombone introduces “Endeavors For Never,” then reemerges later, as if from a dream; “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” packs two of the album’s most celestial beats, each for about 90 seconds. Butler wanders through this landscape, as likely to extoll his lust in metaphysical terms as he is to just mutter “wow” a few times beneath the beat. The album is full of subliminals, some of which appear to be directed at cellphones, others at the internet. This is not a non sequitur. If you like a moment, the album seems to be saying, listen to it. Be there. Maybe Black Up is a reminder. [Clayton Purdom]

15. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell (2015)

Carrie & Lowell is the sound of grieving. What’s clear when you listen to these 11 songs—Sufjan Stevens wrote them in the wake of his estranged mother, Carrie, dying in 2012—is that they exist not in the resolution of grief, but rather the process of it. The singer wrestles with suicidal thoughts against the gentle finger-picking of “The Only Thing,” and he spirals beneath the outro of “Fourth Of July,” in which his recitation of “We’re all gonna die” resonates less as a declaration than it does a dawning realization. Elsewhere, he cycles through shades of hate and resentment before a desperate, childlike love overwhelms him—“I want to save you from your sorrow,” he sings on “The Only Thing.” There’s catharsis here, but the specter of resolution is as ephemeral as the ambient wash that closes out “Blue Bucket Of Gold.” Stevens is actively reckoning with Carrie no longer existing; a fading memory, she lives on, as most of us eventually will, in scraps of fondness, regret, and self-reflection. [Randall Colburn]

14. Danny Brown, XXX (2011)

XXX sounds like an ending. Danny Brown had already achieved sputtering regional success, done a stint in jail, worked the mixtape circuit, flown to New York on Roc-A-Fella’s dime. He almost made it into G-Unit but 50 Cent thought his jeans were too skinny. He was turning 30, retirement age in rap years. But the Hybrid knew he could fucking rap. So he made an album designed to attract attention, pulling together cloud-rap mainstays and mollied-out club beats and rapping on them with a go-for-broke intensity that’d either earn him the respect he knew he deserved or serve as his obituary. It’s mission statement after mission statement, quotable after quotable: Cool Ranch Doritos, “boy you softer than Flanders’ son,” jacuzzis full of dead celebrities, handfuls of pills, and the specter of inherited addictions. It ends with a sense of finality rare for any album, Brown howling an autobiography written in Pac’s blood. Thank god, then, that the plan worked: XXX ended up being a beginning, kicking off a decade of creativity and establishing Brown as one of the greatest to ever grab the mic. [Clayton Purdom]

13. Beach House, Teen Dream (2010)

In a catalog defined by subtle evolution, Teen Dream was a dramatic turning point for Beach House. After honing their sound on Devotion, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally found room to run on their third LP, a reaction to touring that would be a refinement of their craft in every way. Partnering with producer Chris Coady for the first of four career-defining records, Beach House begins to sound like a much bigger band than it is, testing the limits of its duo setup with more sophisticated writing and arranging that still carries the intimacy of its lo-fi beginnings. Legrand’s vocals, Scally’s guitar playing, and their songs overall become so much more dynamic, reflecting the intense highs and lows of young love at the album’s center. It is a tempestuous, physical experience, an unforgettable rush of longing, lust, heartbreak, and hope rendered in soft-focus. Teen Dream captures Beach House coming into its own, buzzing with a vision and an ambition that by decade’s end would push the pair far past indie-blogosphere curio to standard-bearers of psych pop. [Kelsey J. Waite]

12. Grimes, Visions (2012)

No album evokes the perpetual scroll like 2012’s Visions, a masterpiece of somnambulant pop that could only exist in a world that’s online more than it’s not. Grimes relentlessly loops and layers her ecstatic, elastic falsetto, channeling the avalanche of voices clogging your timeline on cuts like “Eight” and “Vowels = Space And Time”—“Circumambient,” meanwhile, sounds like a thousand pop-up windows opening at once. Grimes makes it all a blast, though, due in no small part to the breadth of her influences, be it science fiction, new age, or K-pop. Elsewhere, as on “Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)” and “Nightmusic,” Grimes dives in and out of the beats like a winged creature, her lyrics evaporating in the ambient waft of her vocals as shadows swoop in from the fringes. It’s dreamlike in its way, forceful but only occasionally obtrusive—Visions operates like the phone held to our faces, bringing with it the dissociative sensation that comes from staring too long at a bright screen in a dark room. [Randall Colburn]

11. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN (2017)

“Today is the day I follow my intuition,” Kendrick Lamar sings on “YAH.” This he does throughout the fourteen pointedly definitive statements that compose DAMN, adapting his fearless flow to the needs of each organically fiery beat, each story he’s burning to tell. He sounds like whoever he wants, whenever he wants, and the insistent periods in the album’s titles are less assertions of authority than acknowledgments of the authority we’d ceded to him by then. The record’s musical greatness is virtually self-evident in its ambition, scope, originality, and virtuosity. But it’s greater than music, too, and everyone could feel it as soon as they heard it, though it will likely fall to the next generation to say exactly how. It captures something too close to us to see. On DAMN, Lamar gathers all the outward fury he summoned on To Pimp A Butterfly and bends it inward for an undaunted dark night of the soul, a clash of national good and evil with himself as the arena. All the fault lines and failures, the joys and terrors, the injustice and defiance of America today are here. Lamar gives more shine to the Pulitzer than it could ever give to him. [Brian Howe]

The 50 best albums of the 2010s

10. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)

There aren’t many artists out there capable of simultaneously seeming like an enigmatic, unknowable genius and also your dorky, introverted best friend with a knack for making things awkward (but, you know, in a really endearing way). Part of Fiona Apple’s appeal has always been the way she marches to a drum most of us can’t even hear—a resolute refusal to accept life on its own terms, instead maintaining a steadfast commitment to the meandering muse that animates her work, however infrequently the rest of us get to hear it. (She’s released only four albums in her entire 20-plus-year career.) “I assumed in the beginning I could do whatever I want,” she says in a rare recent interview. “I had no idea I was setting my own narrative by not acting a certain way or taking anybody’s advice.”

The Idler Wheel… is a sprawling and commanding fusion of all her best tendencies, a painstakingly assembled album that somehow still feels like a loose-limbed improvisational set at your local piano bar. Everything veers left of center: It’s in the way “Werewolf” slowly transforms until its spritely invective literally has screams and shrieks over it. It’s in the way the lacerating lyrics of a kiss-off will suddenly turn back on her, like she just can’t let herself escape unscathed. And it’s in the warped jazz-pop musicality running through everything, from the bebop stutter step of “Valentine” to the hoarse, soul-baring vocal hollers of “Regret.” Lots of albums get described as a musical journey, but this one leaves you exhausted, breathless, invigorated, and—still, almost eight years later—ravenous for more. [Alex McLevy]

9. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014)

Like a photographer shooting multiple rolls of the same subject, Angel Olsen hit her heartache from all angles on 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire For No Witness. There’s bare, plain grief over a relationship’s dissolution on “Unfucktheworld,” the straightest line to her prior output of stripped-down indie-folk; a country-twinged ode to shared loneliness (“Hi-Five”); and gentle resolve (“Windows”), like a face scrubbed clean after a late night. Nothing Olsen does with her voice is an accident, and on Burn Your Fire, she made her lush alto flat with despair, drove it straight and pure, and set it trembling like the croon of a Grand Ole Opry starlet. Emerging as a clear-eyed truth-teller in the vein of Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn, Olsen was nonetheless never beholden to her influences.

After the album’s release, Olsen was christened the patron saint of loneliness, which occasionally eclipsed her preternatural songcraft and one of Burn Your Fire’s richest undercurrents: the struggle over artistic expression. “No one’s gonna hear it the same as it’s said / No one’s gonna listen to it straight from your head,” she sings on “Lights Out.” People can’t read your thoughts, so you have to cry them out yourself, even if it puts you at risk of being misinterpreted. Earlier she tells her lover, “This would all be so much easier if I had nothing more to say.” Releasing two subsequent studio albums in the 2010s, Olsen had (and still has) more to say; Burn Your Fire For No Witness all but guaranteed people would listen. [Laura Adamczyk]

8. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (2011)

Coming almost squarely in the middle of her then-decade-long series of releases, 2011’s Strange Mercy found Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, finally cracking the code to what had previously felt like an artist holding the world at an icy distance. It introduced a more vulnerable pathos to her music, in a raw and potent way perhaps best embodied by the track “Surgeon”: “Best finest surgeon / Come cut me open.” (Not that Clark herself is terribly precious about said vulnerability: When she spoke to The A.V. Club about the Marilyn Monroe-inspired song back in 2011, the artist mused aloud whether the long-deceased actor would’ve been okay with Clark mining her diary for material, before quickly concluding, “She doesn’t care about some fucking indie singer.”) Stripping back the more ornate flourishes that had marked previous album Actor, Strange Mercy rarely abandons its fundamental rock-band arrangements, with even the more ethereal moments—the soaring refrain of “Chloe In The Afternoon,” the mid-song breakdown of the title track—continually returning to the start-stop rhythmic churn that drives the entire affair.

Even the synths and effects threaded throughout the record feel more like organic support beams for the foundation of her jagged, distorted guitar snaking its way through fierce riffs and pealing melodies. Clark has continued (and will continue) to produce bold and absorbing music, but Strange Mercy remains an undeniably masterful synthesis of her competing personas, slick and rough, distant and intimate. [Alex McLevy]

7. FKA Twigs, LP1 (2014)

In 2012, an unknown artist with just two songs to her name appeared on the cover of prominent U.K. culture magazine i-D. By the time FKA Twigs again covered the magazine in 2019, she’d be an established luminary of pop music. That shift can be chalked up to 2014’s LP1, one of the decade’s most forward-thinking debut albums.

Although FKA Twigs has only recently introduced its album-length follow-up, LP1 still sounds years ahead of its time thanks to its amorphous synths and slightly off-beat percussion; lusty, alien, crestfallen lyrics; and breathy, serpentine singing. The thrilling “Lights On,” an ode to the direct relationship between trust and good sex, sounds like cyborg tarantulas dancing atop granite countertops as late-night becomes early-morning. “Pendulum” remains an unparalleled combination of horniness and hopelessness: As Twigs’ sighs of “I’m your sweet little love maker” combine with contrasting cries of “so lonely trying to be yours” and arrhythmic percussion, the overwhelming pain of her partner’s emotional and physical distance permeates the song.

On the flip side, FKA Twigs is in full control on LP1’s breakout lead single, “Two Weeks.” She fuses gently oscillating synths with scattered trap trilling and salacious lyrics to paint herself as the queen of her dominion, an image that the song’s iconic video makes concrete. Five years later, LP1 remains as regal as ever. [Max Freedman]

6. Robyn, Body Talk (2010)

No queer dance night or hipster house party in the 2010s was complete without a spin of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” a song that’s carved an enduring place in the American pop-cultural imagination not unlike that of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” in the U.K. That infectiously lonesome sleeper hit would be enough to propel Body Talk onto any list of the 2010s’ best music, but the entire album—composed of three mini-LPs of the same name, all released in 2010—is a cybernetic disco-pop record in the Giorgio Moroder mold that stands on more than one decade-defining single.

The album’s production blends bubblegum and dancehall for a sound that’s lubed up and dance-floor ready, but Robyn’s lyrics about oversexed fembots belie a need for intimacy and connection that is unmistakably human. On “Call Your Girlfriend,” a femme fatale expresses her wish for the other woman to be let down as gently as possible, and a sensitive current of self-doubt bubbles just underneath the empowering sloganeering on “Indestructible.” And Robyn’s ability to give emotional depth to even the chilliest club beats isn’t just about vulnerability: The Swedish diva’s fiery self-determination comes through with equal clarity on songs like the righteously named “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” proving that at its most expertly crafted, pop music can be as personal as any whispered acoustic number. [Katie Rife]

5. Solange, A Seat At The Table (2016)

If there is one word that springs to mind when it comes to Solange’s culture-defining A Seat At The Table, it’s “intentionality.” In terms of its wider appeal, the neo-soul/R&B sojourn—a mix of ethereal synths and bass-thumping funk—is hardly a difficult listen. The quiet desperation of “Cranes In The Sky,” bolstered by persistent strings and a lilting piano, is enough to win over even the most casual of listeners. Punctuated by engaging storytelling from her family and fellow artists like Master P, Solange’s carefree allure throughout the bulk of 21 tracks is undeniable and it’s hard not to find oneself fully, euphorically immersed.

But what makes Solange’s third studio album indispensable is how firmly it stands in its intentions. Tracks like “Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U.,” and its accompanying interlude leave no additional room for ambiguity: A Seat At The Table speaks specifically to Black people, their experience, their righteous anger, and their beauty. Wrapped in arias and gentle orchestration, it stands as a radical call to claim boundaries and space in a world that takes great strides to encroach upon both. Solange’s mission to carve out a nook for Black people—especially Black women—to fully process their experiences and heal has rendered something that is not only necessary, but timeless. [Shannon Miller]

4. Taylor Swift, 1989 (2014)

Well in advance of its release, Taylor Swift proclaimed 1989 to be her first “official pop album,” after years of moving slowly away from the country-inflected songs that made her name (and sold her millions and millions of records). According to Swift, that shift was cause for alarm for her record label, but obviously they needn’t have worried: 1989 stands with the greatest pure-pop albums ever—it’s smart and cheeky by turns, expertly produced but also resolutely human. Every song feels and sounds like a smash hit, and half of them actually were, in terms of radio play. (It’s like Thriller in that the singles just kept rolling out.)

From the undeniable energy of “Shake It Off”—the “Hey Ya” of 2014—to the earworms of “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood,” the album is positively relentless. And part of its charm is in how much of 1989 is actually about its creator, an almost unimaginably famous and wealthy person who’s hounded by the press and does her best to hound right back. Every note and marketing stunt seems carefully planned, sure, but the planner and her songwriting team—which here included boy-band hitmakers along with the likes of Jack Antonoff and Imogen Heap—tapped into a vein that was far from pre-fab. It’s one of those incredibly rare records that unites everyone from jaded music critics to tweens, a phenomenon that might seem perfectly manufactured but is in fact a kind of rare cosmic event. [Josh Modell]

3. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

To Pimp A Butterfly is an unsatisfied album. It’s unsatisfied with the state of hip-hop, with the state of the world, with the state of its creator’s soul. As Kendrick Lamar leads one of the greatest collections of musicians ever assembled through the darkened maze of life as a Black man in the 21st century, the sky rarely opens up; the album starts dense and stays there. A few months after To Pimp A Butterfly’s release, a quiet backlash complained that the album didn’t bang as hard as Good Kid, M.A.A.D City; The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica worried that the innumerable twists Lamar leads the listener through might serve to obscure his intent. Four years later, that seems like precisely the point. “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture” he sneers in “The Blacker The Berry.” It’s not his fault the bright days are few and far between.

But when To Pimp A Butterfly breaks into the light, it shines with the tarnished gold tone of Miles Davis’ trumpet. The big moments here are bright, but they’re still conflicted: “These Walls” follows Kendrick’s lead away from slinky bedroom jam and into closed-off introspection, “King Kunta” hammers and mimics and flaunts its stereotypes like Thelonious Monk or James Brown at full vamp, “I”’s self-loving ecstasy sounds triumphant because it has something against which to triumph. Even “Alright” couches its hopes in what’s not yet here. We’re gonna be all right, Kendrick Lamar says, and we’re still not. [Marty Sartini Garner]

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)

To say that Beyoncé had a fantastic decade is a vast understatement. Not only did all three of her solo albums top the U.S. charts, but she launched three stadium tours—including two co-headlining treks with husband JAY-Z—performed at the Super Bowl halftime show, and planned and executed arguably the best Coachella performance of all time. On a broader level, Beyoncé was also at the forefront of making her album releases double as capital-E events. Her 2013 self-titled album was surprise-dropped as a “visual album,” while Lemonade premiered via a mini-movie aired on HBO.

This kind of treatment for the latter album makes sense, as Lemonade is a rich text with multiple interwoven narratives. It’s a vulnerable look at someone navigating a rocky marriage—songs include references to cheating, wedding regrets, and a breakup—but ultimately deciding to stay with her partner. Both musically and lyrically, the album also celebrates the resilience of strong Black women and Beyoncé’s own Southern roots. Songs weave together eclectic samples (e.g., Outkast, Animal Collective, and Led Zeppelin) with inspiration from the entire genre continuum: R&B, rock, country, soul, hip-hop, and blues.

Perhaps most significant of all, Lemonade is a deeply political album that found Beyoncé embracing activism and lifting up activist voices. The stunning, gospel-influenced “Freedom” features a Kendrick Lamar verse criticizing police treatment of Black men, while the accompanying Lemonade film features the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown holding photos of their sons. These poignant (and pointed) moments spoke volumes—and cemented Lemonade as Beyoncé’s most resonant and important album yet. [Annie Zaleski]

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

“I miss the old Kanye,” indeed. When Ye satirized himself on The Life Of Pablo’s “I Love Kanye,” he missed the point: He was mocking the perception of “new Kanye” (and more to the point, mocking his fans, something about which old Kanye would’ve been more self-aware), but he should know the real cause of nostalgia: When it came to the art, old Kanye couldn’t be touched. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the apex of Kanyes old and new, brash and insecure, defensive and outraged—a fusion of everything celebratory and intimate that had come before, wedded to everything furious and contradictory that would follow. That Kanye knew the current one was coming; hell, he was downright funny about it.

The old Kanye gave us “Runaway” and “All Of The Lights,” arena-ready pop bombast as anthemic as anything this century has seen; the new Kanye has been red-pilled into shitposting intellectually bankrupt nonsense. The old Kanye roared through “Power” and spent months capturing his alchemical blend from a murderer’s row of guest stars he willed into his own likeness through sheer force of talent; the new Kanye genuinely thinks refusing to vote for a white supremacist is a form of “mental slavery.” But he can’t undo the towering achievement that stands watch over this decade like a colossus, everything released subsequent to it bending under the weight of MBDTF’s influence. When you put it on, you don’t need to miss the old Kanye; he’s right there. [Alex McLevy]