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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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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