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.