By Coleman Bandy
As our new millennium soldiers on toward the 2020s and the musical landscape continues to change in unexpected ways, it’s time for Julie to look back at the past 10 years of music. Here are the best albums of the 2010s.
- To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly is a once-in-a-generation type of album: like Sgt Pepper’s in the 60s or Purple Rain in the 80s, Kendrick Lamar’s TPAB both encapsulates and redefines its genre while simultaneously representing its most devoted disciples: “Alright” has since become a cultural anthem about black resiliency, “i” and “u” describe Kendrick’s complicated sense of self, while “King Kunta” and “For Free” explore the ramifications of American slavery that still affect the world today. If it all sounds like a mess, it is – that’s kind of the point. Just like life, Lamar’s best record is long, sad, fun, and exhilarating – often at all at once – and it’s also the best release of the decade.
2. 22, A Million – Bon Iver
Listening to 22, A Million is like entering some alternate reality. Like many of the decade’s best releases, Justin Vernon’s third album as Bon Iver is utterly devoid of genre: Vernon uses more samples here than you can find on a Kanye record. Speaking of Kanye, Vernon and West make an interesting pair: the former helped shape Kanye’s career-making My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it’s easy to hear Kanye’s own influence on 22, A Million. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” sounds like the catchiest sample from a rap record that never existed, while “33 “GOD”” plays like the rock equivalent of “Jesus Walks,” but Vernon’s album is more than the sum of its influences. Above all, the music is gorgeous and incredibly emotional, most evident during “29 #Strafford APTS,” a sunshine-drenched ballad that mines nostalgia from seemingly unremarkable memories: a hot stairwell, a video store parking lot. It’s perhaps the most strikingly beautiful album of the past 10 years, and it’s the peak of Vernon’s incredible career thus far as Bon Iver.
3. U.F.O.F. – Big Thief
I’ve already written at length about Big Thief’s masterful third record, but there’s so much to say about its majesty. At times, U.F.O.F. is as transcendent as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an obvious influence on Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting and the band’s whirring instrumentation. Big Thief makes guitars sound like sunshine and drums that quake like the earth itself: if all this sounds histrionic or overdramatic, just listen to “Strange,” “Cattails,” or the title track for reference. U.F.O.F.’s singular beauty (and penchant for eerie metaphor) is most evident on “Orange,” a lovelorn tragedy that likens tears to the moon and heartbreak to birds falling from the sky. U.F.O.F. and its earthbound twin Two Hands, also released in 2019, prove that Big Thief is the best band working today, its musicians welded together in perfect harmony and turning the mostly stagnant ‘guitar rock’ genre on its head, proving that innovation doesn’t always require new instruments or recording techniques. Sometimes four people in a room is all it takes.
4. Lemonade – Beyoncé
Lemonade is a stunning album, plain and simple. Three years prior to Lemonade’s release, Beyoncé’s self-titled studio album was a sure-fire hit, a validation of the promise that Beyoncé had shown since first popping onto the music scene in the late 90s with Destiny’s Child – but Lemonade further proved Beyoncé as not only one of the best singers in the game, but one of the best songwriters, too. While she has always been more than just a member of a girl group or wife to a famous rapper, Lemonade finds Beyoncé reclaiming her voice as both an artist and as a woman, referencing her cheating husband’s exploits in “Pray You Catch Me” and “Hold Up,” while still nurturing compassion and surprising capacity for forgiveness. The record’s last and best song, “Formation,” cements Lemonade’s greatness and has rightfully been lauded as one of the best singles of the 2010s, an anthem to black empowerment not that dissimilar from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
5. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a revelation when first released in 2010, an obvious culmination of everything Kanye West had been doing up to that point. The album has the heart of College Dropout, the craft of Late Registration, the lofty experimentalism of 808s & Heartbreak, and does away with the frankly asinine skits that bogged down his first few records. MBDTF is unabashedly hip-hop, but its genius lies in its willingness to feature artists of all genres – great ones – from Sufjan Stevens to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The album’s list of producers and featured artists is seemingly unending. At a certain point, an album as accomplished as MBDTF doesn’t even belong to Kanye anymore: he first hands it over to his friends and collaborators, and finally to us as listeners. The album will most likely be remembered as Kanye’s masterpiece, a record that evolves with each listen and has come to represent the unlimited potential of West’s frantic, sputtering genius.
6. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
I Love You Honeybear is a testament to the power of love and all the messiness and confusion that it entails. The album’s sweetness is sometimes unbearably rich and its bitterness often equally cringe-worthy. The title track that opens the album plays like a confessional only meant for two people but somehow transcribed to song, while “The Ideal Husband” and “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” are purposefully crass and reflect negatively on Misty-the-narrator. It’s another album that uses its messiness as its greatest virtue. Falling in love is scary, and sometimes it turns us into jealous, pompous assholes. That Misty is so tenderheartedly honest – and willing to throw himself under the bus when necessary – only amplifies the album’s influence. More powerfully than perhaps any album I’ve ever listened to, I Love You, Honeybear captures the feeling of falling for someone – warts and all.
7. Art Angels – Grimes
Art Angels is a mess of apparent contradictions: robotic but deeply human, catchy yet deeply weird, secretive and confessional. After breaking out in 2014 with the dark and beautiful Visions, Grimes spent the next three years crafting Art Angels, a singular piece of work that may very well be the catchiest album of the 2010s. Grimes’ personality is stamped on each song, her interest in fantastic fiction and artificial intelligence baked into the record’s framework. Singles “Flesh Without Blood” and especially “Realiti” are just slightly too off-center to be radio hits but contain some of the best pop songwriting this side of Madonna (or Beyoncé for that matter). Grimes is more indie than R&B, but Art Angels’ indelible hooks are undeniably great, bridging genre constraints and basking in its own unique brand of twee-pop.
8. Blonde – Frank Ocean
The power of Frank Ocean’s music lies not in its production or even its captivating lyricism, but in its capacity for empathy. Ocean tells stories that are both personal and universal, using his wit and singular ear for melody as tools to poke and prod his songs into creation. Blonde opens with three of the best songs in his repertoire: “Nikes” serves as a roll call for fallen black youth, Ocean likening himself to the dead, commenting that every black person’s life can end suddenly and without warning: “Pour up for A$AP, R.I.P. Pimp C / R.I.P. Trayvon, that n**** look just like me.” “Ivy” is the best song in Ocean’s discography, a downtrodden ballad about Ocean’s own early experiences with love, heartbreak, and homosexuality, while “Pink + White” features Beyoncé and describes in detail the peaks and valleys of a frustrating relationship. Like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Blonde uses indie artists like (Sandy) Alex G and production from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam to provide color to Blonde’s features.
9. In a Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls
Like some of the best records of the decade, In a Poem Unlimited is genre-defying and kaleidoscopic in nature. Perhaps the most underrated album of the 10s, In a Poem Unlimited is full of feminist anthems that hover a magnifying glass over the most glaring problems facing women today. Lead singer and songwriter Meg Remy explores poverty in “Rage of Plastics,” gender discrimination in “M.A.H.” and “Pearly Gates,” and the mundanities of modernity in “Poem.” Clocking in just over 35 minutes, Remy’s album is short but sweet, and not a second is wasted on overly experimental flourishes or unnecessary jams. Like she says in “M.A.H.,” Remy is mad as hell, and she doesn’t have any time to waste.
10. Teen Dream – Beach House
Beach House didn’t pioneer the ‘dream pop’ sound, but they did perfect it with 2010’s Teen Dream, a beautifully dissonant batch of pop songs composed by lead singer Victoria Legrand and partner-in-crime Alex Scally. Teen Dream finds Beach House using guitars and synths to dizzying effect. The gorgeous “Silver Soul” remains Beach House’s defining song nearly 10 years later, as Kendrick Lamar even sampled it for his hit single “Swimming Pools (Drank).” While “Silver Soul” is perhaps the band’s most widely recognized track, it’s “Lover of Mine” that takes the mantle as Teen Dream’s best song, a fittingly dreamy yet strange foray into Legrand’s conscience.
11. Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter
Deerhunter got its start on the fringes of the Atlanta, Georgia rock scene in the early 2000s, kicking off as a drone-rock band and morphing into a more traditional punk-rock group by 2013’s Monomania. The band’s peak, though, is still 2010’s Halcyon Digest, a record that bears little resemblance to the band’s earlier work due to songwriter Bradford Cox’s commitment to the album’s theme. As one laments the passing of the halcyon days of their youth, Deerhunter’s music covers the tropes of rock ‘n roll past: opener “Earthquake” recalls the drone-rock of the Deerhunter’s youth, “Don’t Cry” and “Revival” are reminiscent of pop-rock bands like Big Star and Teenage Fanclub, and “Helicopter” and “Coronado” could pass as lost or repurposed psychedelic 60s tracks. Taken as a whole, however, Halcyon Digest accomplishes much more than mere imitation: it’s music seeped in nostalgia with the power to make you feel young again, if only for 45 minutes at a time.
12. The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple is a modern poet, her uncompromising lyricism defining her sound for more than 20 years. The Idler Wheel… might be her best effort both musically and lyrically; indeed, a Google search for each song’s lyric sheet is like looking up some lost Emily Dickinson poem that never saw the light of day. “Every Single Night” concerns a fight – not necessarily with a friend or lover, but most likely with oneself – while album closer “Hot Knife” paints a searing portrait of a new lover who is the hot knife to Apple’s butter. Metaphors like these pepper The Idler Wheel… with symbolic imagery that Apple has affectingly used her whole career but never so fruitfully than on her 2012 effort.
13. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
In the past, on the illustrious Illinois and adventurous Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has embraced the extreme: Illinois is bombastic and full of instrumentation, while Age of Adz brought synthesizers and altered vocals into the mix. But on Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ best album so far, minimalism is his newest instrument, as is a newfound fondness for subtlety in his songwriting. “Death with Dignity” is a beautifully sad ode to his departed mother, Carrie, while “Eugene” lovingly recalls his stepfather, Lowell, who is unable to pronounce his name and instead calls him ‘Subaru.’ It’s one of those lovely little moments that adorn the best folk songs, moments that make you think about your own life and how it relates to your favorite artist’s.
14. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City is peak Vampire Weekend, a record that includes all the faux-frat boy charm of Ezra Koenig’s songwriting but imbues it with a newfound depth. It’s a deeply human album about crises of faith and the hunt for life’s deeper meaning. “Diane Young” is a rollicking rock song about living life to its fullest (and dying young – get it?) while “Hannah Hunt” recalls an Odyssey-esque road trip with a girlfriend featuring moving plants and fortune-telling drifters. “Unbelievers” can read as an anthem for atheists or a satirical track that lambasts them. Although the band’s 2019 album Father of the Bride includes some of the group’s best and catchiest tunes, Modern Vampires of the City remains Vampire Weekend’s defining masterwork.
15. Have One on Me – Joanna Newsom
When Joanna Newsom released Have One on Me in 2010, she was perhaps best known as a harpist whose indie songwriting slowly found its way into the mainstream, but Newsom remained on the fringes of the modern music scene despite some of her best songs already being behind her. Have One on Me changed all that. “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which might be the best song Newsom has ever written, jokes about industrialized goodwill underneath a catchy piano riff. “Jackrabbits” and “Autumn” reflect Newsom’s love of nature that she would further explore in 2015’s Divers, but remain two of her best songs about man’s infringement on the natural state of things. Have One on Me is a double album in the most traditional sense: it is heartfelt, ambitious, bold, and beautiful.
16. Blackstar – David Bowie
17. Body Talk – Robyn
18. Too Bright – Perfume Genius
19. Good kid, mA.A.d City – Kendrick Lamar
20. Black Messiah – D’Angelo and the Vanguard
21. A Seat at the Table – Solange
22. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
23. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
24. Lost in the Dream – The War on Drugs
25. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
26. Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
27. Yeezus – Kanye West
28. Lonerism – Tame Impala
29. Visions – Grimes
30. Swing Lo Magellan – Dirty Projectors
31. Shields – Grizzly Bear
32. All Mirrors – Angel Olsen
33. Days – Real Estate
34. Norman Fucking Rockwell! – Lana Del Rey
35. Burn Your Fire For No Witness – Angel Olsen
36. Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
37. Beyondless – Iceage
38. Channel Orange – Frank Ocean
39. Melodrama – Lorde
40. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
41. m b v – My Bloody Valentine
42. Loud City Song – Julia Holter
43. Bon Iver, Bon Iver – Bon Iver
44. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
45. Some Rap Songs – Earl Sweatshirt
46. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
47. Freedom – Amen Dunes
48. LEGACY! LEGACY! – Jamila Woods
49. Sunbather – Deafheaven
50. MAGDELENE – FKA twigs
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