100 Best Albums of the 2010s, Ranked by Rolling Stone - Rolling Stone
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The 100 Best Albums of the 2010s

Pop felt more ambitious than ever, voices from the margins broke through in every genre and great records kept coming at us from every direction.

In the 2010s, the biggest artists were also some of the biggest innovators — from Kanye West creating his monumental over-the-top opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Beyoncé connecting her life story to a history of African American expression on Lemonade to Chance the Rapper blowing up with a free mixtape that was full of psychedelic realism to Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves and Frank Ocean pushing the limits of the conservative genres they eventually broke out of entirely.

Country had its most adventurous decade ever, whether that spirit came through in the fire-spitting lyrical honesty of the Pistol Annies, the hardbitten literariness of Jason Isbell or an almost unclassifiable work like Sturgill Simpson’s soul-tinged song-cycle A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. After being left for dead in a chillwave puddle 10 years ago, indie-rock got back to its gloriously messy guitar roots, with bands like Parquet Courts, Japandroids and Car Seat Headrest making fantastic albums. If indie-rock looped back to the Nineties, hip-hop did the opposite, evolving faster than any other style of music as it got more emo (thanks, Drake) and more political and more sonically deep-space out-there all the same time. Meanwhile, icons like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and John Prine kept up with the youngsters by making some of their best music in years, 

What was so fun about the 2010s was the way so many artists from across genres seemed to draw from the same well of wide-open possibility, of discovery happening in real time; this is reflected in the albums that made our best-of list. For instance, David Bowie had been making music for nearly 50 years when Kendrick Lamar released his sprawling, self-interrogating hip-hop masterwork To Pimp a Butterfly, but Bowie, eternally living in the moment, still took major influence from Kendrick in crafting his incredible farewell album Blackstar; and it’s thanks to mutable pop visionaries like Bowie that the world can even imagine a pop context for something as challenging and multi-faceted as To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a shame those two won’t be hooking up to make music together in the decade to come.   

RELATED: ROLLING STONE’S BEST SONGS OF THE DECADE LIST

 

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Haim, ‘Days Are Gone’

“We don’t just want to be a rock band,” Alana Haim said shortly after the release of her Los Angeles trio’s long-awaited debut. True to her word, Days Are Gone would end up helping define what it meant to be a compelling rock band in a decade when guitar-based music took a firm and final back seat in the pop mainstream. With its stuttering synths, percussive-first production, and Nineties-pop-R&B leanings, immaculate pop perfections like “Forever” and “Don’t Save Me” combined the group’s decidedly retro muses with a streaming-friendly approach to genre-less songcraft, inspiring scores of Fleetwood Mac-adoring imitators ever since. —J. Bernstein

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Bob Dylan, ‘Tempest’

Talking with RS about his 35th studio album, Dylan was typically nonchalant: The songs, he said, were “worked out in rehearsals during soundchecks,” and he worried he should have gone with a set of “religious songs” instead. Yet there was nothing casual about his only collection of original material this decade. Songs like “Pay in Blood” and “Tin Angel” are killer — literally, in the case of the latter murder ballad — and the music adheres to Dylan’s current, road-band-fueled mix of cryptic jump blues, Western swing and British folk ballads (and sung in Dylan’s crypt-keeper voice). His 45-verse ode to the Titanic is Dylan at his most eccentric, but seven years later, lines like “This is hard country to stay alive in/Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin” (“Narrow Way”) cut even deeper than when he first sang them. —D.B. 

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Miranda Lambert, ‘Platinum’

Lambert had as good a decade as almost any other artist alive, and this nearly immaculate collection is so catchy, confident, and wide-ranging that it’s almost unfair to other Nashville stars. Lambert had just turned 30, and gone were the gun-toting revenge songs that had partly defined her earlier work. “I’ll still shoot a two-timing man if I need to,” she told Rolling Stone. “But I’m not just burning houses down anymore. I have more to sing about.” Platinum veers from tender meditations on fame (“Priscilla”) to cheeky celebrations of her hair color (the title track, which turns “What doesn’t kill you, only makes her blonder” into an extremely sticky melody), tossing in sharp-edged arena rock (“Somethin’ Bad”), faux vaudeville (“Gravity Is a Bitch”), and Western swing (“All That’s Left”) along the way. Every song is perfectly constructed but also feels like it was broadcast directly from Lambert’s soul — none more so than “Bathroom Sink,” a portrait of self-doubt, written by Lambert alone, that grows from acoustic sketch to raging rocker. “I thank Him for his patience/And I take my medication,” she sings, a world-beater willing to show her vulnerabilities. —C. Hoard

 

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Sturgill Simpson, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

After being labeled a savior of “real” country music, Sturgill Simpson did everything he could to disavow himself of that title. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is more psychedelic soul cycle than Nashville sound. As he told Rolling Stone, the album functions as a love letter to his son and wife “for having saved me from a life of despair.” On “Keep It Between the Lines” and “Brace for Impact,” Simpson offers the best kind of fatherly advice (enjoy yourself, just don’t be a dumbass), then, on an unexpected cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” amplifies the rallying cry of adolescent empathy at the core of the song. There are deeply earnest ballads like “All Around You” and “Breakers Roar,” and he closes A Sailor’s Guide to Earth with the furious country-disco stomp of “A Call to Arms,” offering the always-prescient warning, watch your step — there’s bullshit everywhere. —J. Blistein

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SZA, ‘CTRL’

R&B singers in the 2010s often seemed intent on concealing the extent of their talents, responding to rap’s rule over the charts by tamping down the vocal runs, choosing to hide behind booming trap beats and acres of reverb. But in 2016, the singer SZA, who is signed to the same label as Kendrick Lamar, had an epiphany. “I had to get more involved in my sound,” she told Rolling Stone. “I had to just say what was on my mind, not find a way to hide it behind the boards.… I decided to take down the reverb and be in the forefront.” The resulting album was a breakthrough, winningly candid (“Let me tell you a secret: I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”), with clean hooks that were easy to shout along to and several undeniable hits: “Love Galore,” which is somehow frustrated and rapturous all at once; “Prom,” which has all the crisp clarity of Eighties radio pop; and “The Weekend,” a slow-drip ballad about a timeshare romance. “I think clutter comes from nerves,” SZA explained. “It doesn’t come from choice.” Other singers should take note. —E.L. 

 

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Rosalía, El Mal Querer

Rosalía turned her college thesis into Latin Grammy gold with her 2018 avant-pop breakthrough, El Mal Querer, or A Toxic Love. By using the time-honored Andalusian art form of flamenco as her canvas, the Barcelona luminary tells a 13th-century tale of a woman kept locked in a tower by a jealous suitor — bringing high drama to a Spanish-language pop world that has capitalized on Caribbean riddims like reggaeton and dembow. Yet she knows better than to work against the dominance of Latin America’s urban mainstream; in fact, she welcomes those elements into her songs, where both 808s and palmas, or percussive hand claps, cradle her vocal melismas with ease. —S.E. 

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Chance the Rapper, ‘Coloring Book’

On Chancelor Bennett’s independently released third mixtape, the medium was very much the message: The first streaming-only album to both chart on the Billboard 200 and win a Grammy (Best Rap Album, beating out critical faves by Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar), it proved to be the triumph over the major-label system that he promises on the jubilant “No Problem” and defiantly woozy “Mixtape.” Kids telling him they dropped LSD after hearing his earlier tape Acid Rap made him realize, he said at the time, “the responsibility of being a popular artist.” So when he brings out the gospel singers and horn-fanfare blares, he’s really preaching — the virtues of clean living and raising a family (aptly seconded by the Chicago Children’s Choir on “All We Got”). Ultimately, though, he’s convening an unlikely church-basement community. T-Pain prays, Kirk Franklin exhorts, Jamila Woods sprinkles blessings, 2 Chainz runs shit like diarrhea — and on “All We Got,” Kanye West is content to just sing along. On Coloring Book, miracles never cease. —N.C.

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Frank Ocean, ‘Channel Orange’

When Ocean brags about his “great gray matter” on Channel Orange, it is truth in advertising. Lush and mysterious, evoking the downcast smolder of 1970s Sly Stone as the inner visions of Stevie Wonder, the moody soul romantic’s first official release is a gorgeously bleary midnight ride into an L.A. where unemployed dudes live off their stripper girlfriends, and cab drivers double as shrinks for lovelorn backseat confessors. Ocean opens the album with the falsetto soul valentine “Thinkin Bout You,” interpolates some Elton John as he and Earl Sweatshirt survey and savor Los Angeles decadence on “Super Rich Kids,” and tells a story of aloneness and empathy across cultures over strings and a Procol Harum organ on “Bad Religion.”  Ocean made headlines before the album’s release when he put a letter on tumblr revealing that his album’s love songs were inspired, in part, by a man; it was a very brave thing for a rising R&B star to do in 2012, a statement that still resonates with meaning today. In life and in music, Ocean’s bold vision helped transform R&B into a more wide-open place for the generation that followed him. —J.D.

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Randy Newman, ‘Dark Matter’

American music’s greatest comic ironist released only one LP in the 2010s, but it was a gem — perhaps Newman’s most mordant assessment yet of his fellow man. Dark Matter catalogs historical calamities: science on trial in the huge, multipart “The Great Debate” (almost a full-scale musical in itself), the Cuban Missile Crisis on the brink in “Brothers,” and fascism on Broadway in the sardonically smiley “Putin.” And when he pares back his sweeping, classic Copeland-esque sound for somber family tragedies like “Wandering Boy” (a father’s lament for a beloved son who he hasn’t seen in years) and “Lost Without You” (in which a dying woman pleads for her adult children to take care of their helpless father), the dark stuff really hits home. —J.D.  

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D’Angelo, ‘Black Messiah’

When neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo released his first album in 14 years with little warning, just the fact that he was able to battle back to the commercial marketplace seemed like a triumph. That the album turned out to be immaculately layered, relentlessly funky, and politically urgent — the sudden release was spurred in part by a grand jury’s failure to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for the shooting death of Michael Brown — seemed like a miracle. At a time when many artists appear to record and put out their music without even listening back to it, here was an album that was pored over and overflowing with virtuosity, each song filled to bursting with D’Angelo’s beguiling, twistingly intricate multipart harmonies; why listen to one voice when you can have five or 10? It all came together to make Black Messiah one of the most impressive comebacks of the 2010s — or any other decade. —E.L. 

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Cardi B, ‘Invasion of Privacy’

Cardi B didn’t need to make music to become a star. She was already a huge social media presence and a hilarious reality-TV personality. But she recorded one of the most entertaining hip-hop albums of our era anyway, radiating brash old-school Bronx charisma as she spit unforgettable lines like “I started speaking my mind and tripled my views/Real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs.” Cardi did a bloody-shoed stomp up the charts with the dragon-breathed “Bodak Yellow,” declared herself “like Big Pop mixed with Tupac” on the Chance the Rapper-assisted “Best Life,” and convened a cross-cultural convo with Latin pop stars Bad Bunny and J Balvin on the surprise summer smash “I Like It.” As she told Rolling Stone, “I used to tell myself that I will always be myself.” On Invasion of Privacy, she’s the only Cardi the world will ever need. —J.D. 

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Mitski, ‘Be the Cowboy’

Building up from a foundation of both American Songbook pop and the distorted grunge that she had explored on her previous breakout records, Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2, Mitski Miyawaki lays out a collage of Wendy Carlos synthesizers and carnival sound effects over tales of loneliness and self-worth. The result is her re-creating the bottomless pit that is millennial ennui in bite-size sketches. “What does it mean to be an adult?” she has said of the album’s inspiration. “What does it mean to push down your emotions in order to be responsible and fit into the working world?” These are questions she leaves unanswered, but like many a good songwriter, Mitski has always seen the most potential in the parsing out. —C.S.

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Lana Del Rey, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

The most potent work from pop’s “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” In collaboration with Jack Antonoff, Del Rey continued to harness the Sixties and Seventies American nostalgia that has echoed throughout her work since she first reached public consciousness. With this round, however, the nostalgia is less a camp rouse than a PhD thesis on and tribute to the era’s greatest poets, like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, in which Del Rey dissects the Americana she once fetishized. From the moment she sings “goddamn, man-child” on the opening, title track, NFR! feels both timely and timeless, chock full of political and cultural references du jour (“Kanye West is blond and gone”) alongside on-brand nods to her jukebox heroes (Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy; Crosby, Stills, and Nash). “It’s not like I’m always trying to evaluate the state of the American dream, or my version of the white picket fence,” she told Rolling Stone this year, “but there was some kind of version of [that], where [Antonoff and I] both felt the culture was.” —B.S. 

 

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Billie Eilish, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’

Everyone knows that pop was big business in the 2010s, but that didn’t stop 17-year-old Billie Eilish from making her insanely catchy blockbuster debut the DIY way. Writing and recording alone with her brother at their childhood home in L.A.’s Highland Park, Eilish reinvented punk rebellion for the extremely online generation, from the gleeful button-pushing of “Bad Guy” to the goth drama of “My Strange Addiction” to the straight-edge eye-roll of “Xanny.” As her dad explained to RS, Eilish has no tolerance for people she’s not interested in and doesn’t give a shit whether you like her or not.” —S.V.L. 

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Ariana Grande, ‘Thank U, Next’

After dealing with a series of personal traumas — a terrorist attack at her Manchester concert, the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and her breakup with Pete Davidson — Grande channeled her feelings into the stellar Thank U, Next. “NASA” swirled into space, while “Ghostin” stared tragedy in the face, and the title track was a graceful break-up ballad for the ages. The LP was part of a creative surge for Grande, her second album in less than six months. “My dream has always been to be…obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do.’” —J.D.  

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Car Seat Headrest, ‘Teens of Denial’

Indie-rock prodigy Will Toledo got his start just out of high school, writing songs in his parents’ house or, sometimes, alone in their car, and putting the results on the internet. By his 10th LP, Teens of Denial, he had a real band and total mastery of chaotic guitar poetry à la Pavement, haymaker hooks à la Guided by Voices, and gut-check unburdening à la Liz Phair. “I’m so sick of/Fill in the blank,” he sings on the album’s opening anthem, going on to yell about getting bummed out when he’s high on “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and to invert the Cars in “Not What I Needed.” What makes Teens of Denial such a kick is that there’s as much empathy as apathy in Toledo’s songs, especially on the crushing centerpiece anthem “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” in which he stares a broken world straight in the face and demands, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” Amen, kid.  —J.D. 

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Jason Isbell, ‘Southeastern’

After then-girlfriend, fiddle-player-songwriter Amanda Shires helped get him to quit drinking and go into rehab, alt-country singer-songwriter Isbell made this focused album, a stripped-down, often reflectively quiet collection of unsparing honesty and vivid detail. “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time,” he sang on “Cover Me Up,” one of many songs that deal with the stages and challenges of love. With Shires and Kim Richey adding harmonies, he addressed his demons on “Stockholm,” and with “Elephant” he authored a penetrating song about watching a loved one die of cancer, taking on tragedy with plain-spoken truth while singing “One thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity.” —J.D.

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Kendrick Lamar, ‘Damn.’

“That’s the challenge that keeps me going,” Kendrick Lamar told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Can I outdo myself again? Can I make a better rhyme than I made last time? That’s the whole chase.” He rose to his own challenge on Damn. After the sprawl of To Pimp a Butterfly, with its wide-screen jazz-rap portrait of the nation, he changed gears completely. Damn. is his most unabashed rap banger, rocking hard from start to finish, scoring his first Number One hit with “Humble.” Despite guests from Bono to Rihanna, Kendrick keeps the flow fast and furious as he rages about “the feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’.” As he explained, “The best entertainers have to have the most wickedest sense of humor, to be able to take pain and change it into laughter.” —R.S. 

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Beyoncé, ‘Beyoncé’

No one does self-mythologization quite like Beyoncé. She was already easily one of the biggest stars on the planet ahead of her self-titled 2013 album, but here was a record seemingly designed to convey, clearly and calmly, that there was simply no one else in her lane. It arrived without a whisper on a Friday — the surprise drop that very nearly invented the surprise drop — and with a startling intensity of ambition that’s still difficult to comprehend, let alone match. A full-suite visual album, a full-throated call to feminism, an auteurist level of control — not to mention many of her best and biggest songs to date (“Drunk In Love” will get played at weddings for as long as there are weddings). The entire music industry releases albums on Fridays now. —B.K. 

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Rihanna, ‘Anti’

From Lady Gaga’s myriad stage characters to the many eras of Taylor Swift, this was the decade where pop performance art became not only expected from music’s top-selling artists, but was also embraced. Midway through the 2010s, Rihanna swerved in another direction and gave us an album that is unabashedly herself. Anti arrived more than three years after 2012’s Unapologetic — the longest gap between LPs in Rihanna’s career — but the vibe of the album suggests that she hotboxed the studio one night and emerged with a masterpiece. “Needed Me,” “Love on the Brain,” “Higher”: These are all near-perfect, in-my-feelings anthems for various stages of the night (and of inebriation). But Ri-Ri’s carefree sweetness is still there: She does an extremely faithful Tame Impala cover and interpolates a Florence + the Machine deep cut in a bonus instrumental, just to show off her appreciation for both artists. She brings Drake in on “Work” and helps solidify dancehall’s place on the pop charts. Who knows when we’ll get that next album, but at least Anti is the gift that keeps on giving. —C.S.

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Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

“The perfect tone is halfway between deeply serious and totally fucking around,” Ezra Koenig told Pitchfork in 2013. Modern Vampires of the City is an album of mortality, morality, God, uncertainty, and romantic decay, as much as it’s an album of in-jokes, wordplay, and goofy references. All these elements combine on songs like “Diane Young,” “Hannah Hunt,” “Step” and “Ya Hey,” a contemporary redemption song with a title that alludes to both the Old Testament God, Yahweh, and Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” But of all the moments that capture the unease and uncertainty of the past decade, as well as the darkly comic hope necessary to keep going, is a line on “Finger Back” so good Koenig would later recycle it: “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” —J. Blistein

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Robyn, ‘Body Talk’

Some artists peak early; Robyn was already an international star at 15, but it took 15 more years to make her first full-length masterpiece. Built from a series of mini LPs, Body Talk plays like a greatest hits, and proves there may be no artist better at marrying modern pop science with soulful club jams, harnessing precisely calibrated hook-fests to ego-dissolving dance-floor bliss. Meanwhile, her emo lyrical game made indie rockers rethink their prejudices. The heart-on-sleeve scenario of “Dancing on My Own,” unofficial theme song of the HBO series Girls, is the paradigm. But “Hang With Me” is Euro disco with achingly real emotions, and “Call Your Girlfriend” lays claim to a lover while respecting their ex. Robyn’s got great comic timing, too: See the self-explanatory “Don’t Fuckin’ Tell Me What to Do,” and “Fembot,” a robo-rap showcase with feminist subtext that foreshadowed Janelle Monáe’s cyber-soul and Siri’s sassier moments. —W.H. 

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Radiohead, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

Radiohead kept a low profile for much of the decade — all the better to floor us when they returned after a five-year gap with this deep, dark dream of an album. While it’s bookended by two lost gems from the Nineties (the twitchy “Burn the Witch” and the gentle “True Love Waits”), the real triumph of A Moon Shaped Pool is everything in between, with Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous orchestration and Thom Yorke’s vulnerable songwriting pushing the band to new heights of emotional realness (“Glass Eyes,” “Decks Dark,” “Desert Island Disk”). “It felt hard to make progress,” Greenwood told Rolling Stone of the lengthy recording process in Provence, France. “Then suddenly we had two golden weeks in the studio . . . and it felt like we broke the back of lots of difficult things.” —S.V.L.

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Courtney Barnett, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’

Like any incisive songwriter, Barnett loves words and stories, and her stand-up-and-be-noticed debut was packed with detailed vignettes: a friend mistaken for a potential suicide victim, a dying seal that makes Barnett reconsider how she’s helping the planet, her yearning to impress a fellow swimmer at a local pool. Other songs were shot through with her own neuroses and self-doubt. “The album is a general overview of essentially a year of emotions — 12 months of fucking every day, up, down, up, down,” she said. But her bracing guitar pop, combined with her endearing hints of Aussie accent, never failed to fortify her. —D.B.

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Solange, ‘A Seat at the Table’

Up until A Seat at the Table, it seemed pretty obvious that Solange’s creative well had not been fully tapped just yet. Her music prior saw her fitting herself into different molds: radio-friendly R&B crooner, pop star, Dev Hynes-assisted indie dream. On A Seat at the Table, Solange found exactly what the title promised and established herself as an auteur of soul and a poet laureate of the 21st-century black female experience, articulating frustrations with Angry Black Woman stereotypes (“Mad”) and hair fetishization (“Don’t Touch My Hair”). She also opens up about her own struggles with depression (“Cranes in the Sky”) and invited her mom and dad to speak on interludes between songs. “I wanted to reclaim that space,” she said of the LP, which was recorded in New Iberia, Louisiana, where her family hails from. “I wanted to be able to go back as a descendant of my grandparents and stake my claim and create work that honored them.” —B.S,

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Taylor Swift, ‘1989’

When Taylor Swift turned in her fifth album to country-centric former label Big Machine, label head Scott Borchetta asked for just a few tracks that referenced her old sound. “Love you, mean it, but this is how it’s going to be,” Swift told Rolling Stone of her response. On the cusp of turning 25, Swift took the biggest risk of her career. After experimenting with more “blatant pop music” on the still country-tinged Red, she abandoned her teardrop-stained guitar for a dance-floor rebirth. On 1989, the singer looked to the decade she was born at the end of as well as stars like Robyn to make a synth-pop fantasia. Lyrically, Swift is at her most experimental and self-referential, like on the cheeky “Blank Space,” vitriolic “Bad Blood,” and the atmospheric romance of “Wildest Dreams.” Since then, Swift has rarely looked back. 1989 launched Swift’s future and inspired stars like Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen to sonically follow suit. —B.S. 

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Paul Simon, ‘So Beautiful or So What’

Paul Simon’s most satisfying set in decades was made by going back to basics: Instead of building songs around beats, “the stimuli was a guitar in my lap,” he said, a process that took him back to early ballads like “Still Crazy After All These Years.” But his 12th solo album also engaged the present, enlisting Grizzly Bear’s Chris Bear to contribute electronic drums, flipping blues and gospel samples, and writing lyrics that invoked a CAT scan, “a pre-owned ’96 Ford,” a kid on triple-deployment in Iraq, Jay-Z on a billboard, and a Vietnam vet working in a car wash while trying to write a film script. The album’s old-fashioned in length (10 songs, 38 minutes) and palpable in its storytelling even when it’s otherworldy, like “The Afterlife,” an African-pop-flavored gem with Graceland echoes where Simon describes the wait at the Pearly Gates like it’s a trip to traffic court, all long lines, mumbled excuses, jokey asides, and even a hopeful hook-up attempt. —W.H.

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Chance the Rapper, ‘Acid Rap’

Acid Rap exists between multiple eras — blog and streaming gold rush, the major-label mining of Chicago subgenre drill, and its more subdued nameless cousin (Polo G, Juice WRLD), clearly defined mixtapes versus projects that need no distinctions. But somehow it’s the psychedelic, Kanye-chipmunk-biting-soul, hopeful and turbulent coming-of-age journey of Chancelor Bennett that best defines the early 2010s. On “Paranoia,” the young rapper tells the world “I know you scared/You should ask us if we scared too.” It was meant to show the humanity of Chicago’s young children during a time when the preconceived notion of the city was one of an endless war zone. Six years later, the words no longer belong to the Midwest. They’re universal. —C. Holmes

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Parquet Courts, ‘Light Up Gold’

Just what you least expected from indie rock in 2012: a nonstop manic guitar rave, from a band of merry Texas pranksters running wild in Brooklyn. Parquet Courts crammed their breakthrough album Light Up Gold full of relentless guitars, shroom poetry, dazed drums, daring all other bands to try a little harder. “Stoned and Starving” became a millennial anti-anthem, a five-minute power drone about the search for junk food: “I was debating Swedish fish/Roasted peanuts or licorice?” Pure poetry. Parquet Courts have kept the pace ever since, trying different tricks on every album — hippie jams on Sunbathing Animal, art funk on Wake Up — but Light Up Gold is an evergreen kick. —R.S.

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J Balvin, ‘Vibras’

If 2015’s Energía helped shift the course of reggaeton, J Balvin’s globetrotting opus Vibras paved the road to mainstream acclaim with sunshine. Part science experiment, part internationalist platform, the Colombian singer’s breakthrough embodies the post-“Despacito” urban zeitgeist, taking Latin pop by storm. Blessed with a chameleonic chill, Balvin hardly paints himself into a corner: His flirtations with dancehall, Afrobeat, and electro-pop are blended seamlessly in the hands of young producer Sky Rompiendo and reggaeton stalwart Marco “Tainy” Masís. No matter the genre, nor how high he ascends, Balvin’s mission statement remains the same: As he noted on his first Top Ten single, “Mi Gente,” “My music doesn’t discriminate against anyone.” —S.E.

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The Black Keys, ‘Brothers’

Before they started into their sixth album, the Black Keys were hardly in the safest or most creative space: They’d drifted apart personally, and drummer Patrick Carney had endured a crippling divorce. But just as when he and guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach had jammed together as Ohio teens, they once again bonded over music. “Pat was fried from his divorce,” said Auerbach. “When he heard the lyrics to ‘Next Girl,’ he was just so stoked. The rest of the session it was smooth sailing.” Brothers turned into one of their most emotive and cathartic records, with songs touching on marital discord and hope for the future set to beautifully smudgy R&B, soul, and low-fi funk. “Tighten Up,” the Danger Mouse-produced slice of staccato bump-and-grind, even became their pop-radio breakthrough. —D.B.

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Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’

Just when it looked like Kanye West the celebrity was finally threatening to devour Kanye the musician, he bounced back with his most intense, confrontational album ever. Yeezus was a surprise: a blast of industrial avant-rap that sounded like a guy who’d memorized his Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb records. Kanye’s secret weapon: old-school producer Rick Rubin, called in at the last minute. As Rubin told Rolling Stone, “I was thinking like Alan Vega and Suicide, that kind of noise-synth minimal vibe.” Yeezus amps up the aggression, from “Black Skinhead” to “New Slaves” to the Nina Simone-Billie Holiday tribute “Blood on the Leaves.” But he saves his best trick for last, with the vintage soul of “Bound 2” — his most obscenely tender love song. —R.S. 

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Frank Ocean, ‘Blonde’

Before Blonde, Frank Ocean was a prisoner — to R&B, to his label, to the success of his debut album, Channel Orange, and to misconceptions about his sexuality. Then the chaotic collage and kaleidoscope vision of his second, or maybe third, studio album arrived to muddy the waters. For an hour, Ocean’s voice is mutated into chipmunk chirps, guttural screeches, and imperfect coos that go to war with simple guitars, cinematic synths, and audio snippets that float in and out. Narratively, French men complain about Facebook, potential lovers text nothing like they look, and a maternal treatise on lazy, sluggish, stupid, and unconcerned drug addicts emerge and recede with an unrelenting speed. The 17-song purge seemed to mean everything and nothing at once. The first taste of freedom after years battling for it tends to have that effect. —C. Holmes 

Kacey Musgraves
11

Kacey Musgraves, ‘Golden Hour’

Musgraves ushered in a new era of country music in 2013 with her live-and-let-live hit “Follow Your Arrow.” But it was her 2018 LP that fully reimagined the genre. There was a celebration of psychoactive plants set to vocoder and banjo (“Oh, What a World”), a love letter to the LGBT community (“Rainbow”), a yee-haw filter-disco diss track (“High Horse”), and songs that handily erased the line between Seventies singer-songwriter classicism and country classicism. It also transcended the country genre commercially, reaching Number Five on the pop charts, taking home a Grammy for Album of the Year, and letting Musgraves open shows for Harry Styles, a superfan who tweeted: “It’s impossible to listen to [her] too much.” —W.H. 

lcd soundsystem
10

LCD Soundsystem, ‘This Is Happening’

Before their “retirement,” LCD went out in a blaze of hungover glory on this set of squelchy analog synthesizer jams, a sort of elegy for clubbing sluts and road-dog musicians who feel it’s time to maybe find another outlet. “Everybody’s getting younger/It’s the end of an era — it’s true,” James Murphy mourns on the opener “Dance Yrself Clean,” which tries to square the wreckage of aging with the undeniable redemption of disco raging. In particular, the meta-parody “Drunk Girls” and the woebegone “All I Want” suggest lost singles from Low-era Bowie. But everywhere the hooks are sharp, the builds delicious, the beats kinetic, the lyrics (per usual) droll, sarcastic, heartbroken. It reached the Top 10, a first for the band, and helped fill Madison Square Garden for a legendary farewell gig — all testament to the album’s weary-raver majesty, its defining fusion of rock and EDM, and its stealth impact on the sound of modern pop. —W.H.

pistol annies
9

Pistol Annies, ‘Interstate Gospel’

The country supergroup of the decade (if not century) tossed aside their ex-husband, house-burning fantasies in favor of somber midlife introspection on this rootsy ode to prenups and Percocet. If their understated third LP contains less hell-raising honky-tonk than previous efforts, the nuanced portraits of divorce, mommy issues, fraught Southern heritage, and overdue midlife crises cemented Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert as three of the sharpest songwriters in any genre. Released less than a year before the Highwomen sparked their country revolution, Interstate Gospel remains a testament to the profundity of unfussy quotidian storytelling. “We’re not on a soapbox,” Presley said of the group. “We’re doing dishes and writing songs about it.” —J. Bernstein

adele
8

Adele, ’21’

Reviewing her debut LP, 19, this magazine praised Adele Adkins for her astonishing voice and hoped her storytelling would “one day be as interesting as her phrasing.” Fast-forward three years, and it damn sure was. “Go ahead and sell me out/And I’ll lay your shit bare,” she promises an ex-lover on “Rolling in the Deep,” a retro-soul burner driven by hand claps and a kick drum like a beatdown. As the singer explained: “It’s me saying, ‘Get the fuck out of my house,’ instead of me begging him to come back.” It’s an object lesson in how to survive breakup trauma that extends throughout the album’s mix of pain, power, anger, and authority. A chart-topper worldwide, 21 earned six Grammys, and almost single-handedly buoyed the music industry as streaming began its market stranglehold at the downloading era’s peak; it would eventually sell close to 12 million copies. And the numbers only matter because it stands with forebears Dusty in Memphis and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black among the great British soul records of our time. —W.H. 

melodrama
7

Lorde, ‘Melodrama’

With her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde became revered for her honest, mature reflections on being a 21st-century teen. With Melodrama, she became a legend. Her sophomore album features some of the decade’s best writing, with the then-20-year-old dissecting a breakup and the ensuing solitude. Executive-produced by Lorde and Jack Antonoff, Melodrama is immersive: She dives into the deep end of her own heartbreak, sadness, and loneliness between both wrenching ballads (“Liability,” “Writer in the Dark”) and sweeping, intoxicating dance-floor releases (“Green Light,” “Supercut”). For Lorde, who found herself as inspired by Katy Perry as she was by Kate Bush for the LP, it was about respecting the very genre she is in. “A lot of musicians think they can do pop, and the ones who don’t succeed are the ones who don’t have the reverence, who think it’s just a dumb version of other music,” she said upon the album’s release. “You need to be awestruck.” —B.S. 

drake take care
6

Drake, ‘Take Care’

Drake has never been more magnetically, confoundingly Drake than he was on this primal sigh of a second official album. The delicious self-own “Marvin’s Room” — which epitomizes the regal, dark, and minimally adorned production provided here mainly by his day-one beatmaker 40 — finds him duetting with the recording of a woman on the phone; she asks, “Are you drunk right now?,” and he concern-trolls her with, “I’m just sayin’ — you could do better.” When Rihanna joins him for the title track, her tender choruses and his anxious verses glide past each other, while Jamie xx and 40’s beat throbs and stutters like a newly broken heart. “I said something on Thank Me Later like, ‘I wish I wasn’t famous,’ ” Drake told an interviewer ahead of this release, referring to his previous album. “I realized months later I don’t feel that way. All my friends are happy. I’m rich. I can do whatever I want.” What he managed, somehow, was to reinvent poor-me longing as rich-boy swagger. —N.C.

david bowie blackstar
5

David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’

David Bowie spent his whole career as rock’s cracked actor — but he saved one of his most stunning performances for the final curtain. After years on the down-low, Bowie dropped Blackstar on his 69th birthday — but just two days later, the world was shocked to learn the Starman was gone. Nobody knew he’d been secretly living with terminal cancer. As his producer Tony Visconti said, “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” It’s the testament of a man who knows he’s got no time to waste — he stretches out into sci-fi space jazz, drawing inspiration from Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo, still experimenting right up to the end. Visconti summed it up: “His death was no different from his life — a work of art.” —R.S.

taylor swift red
4

Taylor Swift, ‘Red’

You knew she was trouble when she walked in. At the tender age of 22, Taylor Swift was already America’s favorite country singer. But with Red, she grew up with a bona fide pop classic, proving she could do it all. As she told Rolling Stone in 2014, “Different phases of your life have different levels of deep, traumatizing heartbreak.” She hit all the levels on Red, showing off her mastery of Nashville twang, disco flash, guitar-hero swagger, even a dubstep drop. Swift set out to top Prince (“Red”), U2 (“State of Grace”), Britney Spears (the Max Martin-produced “22”) — yet every moment sounds unmistakably like her. “All Too Well” remains her most majestic rock ballad: like the young Bruce Springsteen, if somebody dared him to sing about a scarf instead of a car. —R.S.

 

to pimp a butterfly
3

Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

The decade’s deepest, rangiest, most musical and consequential rapper made three masterpieces in the 2010s, earning a Pulitzer for Damn. But To Pimp a Butterfly is the LP that defined hip-hop’s state of the art in the 2010s, not just for Lamar’s miles of MC styles and undiluted politics (see “King Kunta,” the inspirational “Alright,” the self-interrogating “The Blacker the Berry,” and Obama fave “How Much a Dollar Cost”) but also for his musical vision, which embraced cutting-edge beat architecture (producers Sounwave, Flying Lotus, Rahki) while knighting a new generation of polyvalent jazz masters (Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Thundercat, Robert Glasper). The LP took home five awards out of a record-breaking 11 nominations at the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016. And its influence went beyond hip-hop. David Bowie studied it while working on his final LP, Blackstar. “We loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded” said Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti. “He threw everything on there.” He did, and the result is a landmark. —W.H.

beyonce lemonade
2

Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’

“Who the fucks do you think I is?” Beyoncé asked on her monumental sixth LP, proceeding to deliver a thunderclap statement of marital collapse, personal triumph, radical blackness, Southern roots, and boundless musical vision. She rocked out with Jack White on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” kicked gun-toting country on “Daddy Lessons,” and linked her story to a deeper sense of African American roots on “Formation.” Lemonade was the only place in pop where co-writers Father John Misty and Kendrick Lamar felt equally at home, part of a global collaborative conversion helmed by the queen herself. “Beyoncé is really involved at all stages,” Jonny Coffer, who co-wrote and co-produced “Freedom,” told Rolling Stone. “She runs the show and will say what she likes and doesn’t like, and is always making suggestions. She knows exactly how she wants it to sound and how to get there.” On Lemonade, she reigned supreme as the rare pop goddess who inspires as much love and empathy as shock and awe. —J.D.

kanye west my beautiful dark twisted fantasy
1

Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’

Forget, if you can, the red hat, the outrageous tweets, the overpriced sweatpants. (We’d ask you to forget 2018’s half-assed Ye too, but chances are you already have.) Remember, instead, the gravity-defying artistic leap that Kanye pulled off with his fifth LP. Stung by the ferocious backlash to his 2009 VMAs meltdown — a moment that, quaintly in retrospect, seemed like rock bottom for his public image — he hid out in Hawaii and emerged with the ultimate case for his genius/jerk-off duality. The secret sessions at Avex Honolulu Studios saw Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Justin Vernon, and others turning in career-best performances under the guidance of Kanye’s absurd yet effective house rules (“NO HIPSTER HATS”….”JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES”). Presiding over it all was the greatest producer of his generation, pulling from 40-plus years of popular music to spin his symphony of wounded pride, from the lush falsetto soul of “Devil in a New Dress” to the heavy-metal thunder of “Hell of a Life.” And while he memorably heaped contempt on racist cops and the South Park writers’ room, Kanye saved the most bitter shots on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for himself (“Blame Game,” “Runaway”). Under all the bluster, this is a concept album about his own inability to stop breaking America’s heart. Nearly a decade later, it still hurts. —S.V.L.

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