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

 

paul simon
18

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.

chance
17

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

parquet
16

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.

j balvin
15

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.

black keys brothers
14

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.

yeezus
13

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. 

frank ocean blond
12

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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