The 50 Best Albums of the 2010s, as Carved by Moses Unto the Stone Tablets of v.1
Asher White (BFA SC 2022)
1. Frank Ocean, Blonde (2016)
There is before Blonde, and there is after Blonde. Blonde bisected the decade and had a greater impact on music in the 2010’s than any other album. Brutally stripping down his songs to reveal their elemental forms and exchanging rhythm for atmosphere, Frank Ocean shattered the rules of an R&B album by using stream-of-consciousness storytelling and startlingly sparse synth-based soundscapes to explore the dread and desire of the 21st century. Blonde is exactly 60 minutes of excruciatingly tender odes to sexual confusion, romantic desperation, and a growing sense of alienation in the age of social media, and the album’s second half reaches an almost unbearable weightlessness that feels uniquely suspended in time.
Blonde, along with its 6-month predecessor Life of Pablo (Kanye West, see #25) and 3-month successor 22, A Million (Bon Iver, see #12), plays like a masterfully curated tumblr feed: recognizable faces shift in and out of focus, songs melt into one another or abruptly shudder to a halt, tone and texture are foregrounded while the lyrics swirl around the background, voices are manipulated, pitched up and down, whispered and smeared around a song. Ocean sews together a seemingly infinite tapestry of references; folded into the album are Beyoncé, Elliott Smith, the Beatles, (Sandy) Alex G, Outkast, Vampire Weekend, some French guy talking about Facebook. Its dreamlike patchwork of interludes and transitions are directly responsible for the other fantastic musical moments of the decade: ASAP Rocky’s TESTING, Solange’s When I Get Home, BROCKHAMPTON’s Ginger, Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, Daniel Caeser’s entire discography, Brent Faiyaz, HER, 6LACK, etc.).
As ornate as it is austere, as painstakingly embellished as it is exhilaratingly raw, Blonde offers a portrait of vulnerability and queer crisis for which there is little precedent. An album of gray areas and liminal spaces, its most jaw-dropping moments sneak up on you: the unaccompanied Prince-like scream of anguish at the very end of “Ivy,” the faint, washed-out bird calls in the frozen silences between Ocean’s words on “Skyline To,” the sudden pieces of shrapnel that pierce through “White Ferrari” like space debris, the digitally looped samples of laughter on “Futura Free.” The sum of its parts adds up to something astronomical, but Blonde is still greater than that sum.
Blonde has only a few songs you could play at the party but a bunch you could listen to hiding alone in the bathroom; it’s the album you queue up on your way home, that tosses and turns alongside you and sticks with you til sunrise; it’s the album that drags next to you in bleary morning-after sleeplessness, the album that crushes silent car rides, bad nights, wet dreams, spring leaves, or summertime loneliness into stunningly imperfect diamonds.
2. Lorde, Pure Heroine (2013)
Pure Heroine’s success relies to a large extent on the inherent paradox it walks itself into: a studio-produced, label-backed, highly commercial record with a vicious (if occasionally self-satisfied) disdain for mass appeal, a spiteful condemnation of hedonism and We-Are-Young sentimentalism that consists almost entirely of sweeping, anthemic manifestos, a protest against maximalist earworm-manufacturing corporate pop that also celebrates and embraces irresistible verse-chorus hits. Like Blonde, Pure Heroine impacted the rest of popular music in ways that are nearly incalculable. Its dramatic less-is-more approach to pop was, at the time, nothing short of radical. Take a listen to the other songs that fell just under “Royals” during its nine-week tenure as Billboard’s no. 1 song in America: “Applause” by Lady Gaga, “Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry's “Roar”—all comparatively cacophonous, bombastic smash-hits that bludgeoned radio listeners into submission.
Pure Heroine sounds like what car commercials want cars to look like: incredibly sleek, aerodynamic, and unstoppable, gliding, hissing, and cracking through 10 perfect songs. It is the rare instance of a truly revolutionary new sound entering the Top 40 and lodging itself there for years. In some ways, Pure Heroine is the feminine answer to Drake’s Take Care (see #5)— frighteningly bare, occasionally misanthropic, preoccupied with its own morality, and refusing to let anyone (the artist included) off the hook. Lorde’s contempt for the concept of “celebrity” sometimes teetered precariously on the edge of smug or pretentious superiority, but ultimately provided a necessary voice for the skeptics of the new millennium. In impossible real-time, Lorde watched her own rise to stardom with cynical indifference, dismissing the public arena (“Glory and Gore”) that young artists are confined within, lashing out at the executives who attempt to mold her, or demanding sincerity from her peers (“Tennis Court”).
Pure Heroine’s glimmering mission statements (“Royals,” “White Teeth Teens,”) crystallize a Perks-of-Being-a-Wallflower-esque fantasy of adolescence and dismantle it, taking it apart piece by naive piece. Nearly seven years later, the unprecedentedly quiet, considered, and often cagey album feels like a forgotten exercise in restraint and subtlety. Lorde as the iconic prodigious, sultry, and complicated teenage girl has now been eclipsed by her most devoted disciple, Billie Eilish— an artist who sounds exactly like she was 12 when Pure Heroine came out (she was), and who has either blasphemously destroyed Lorde’s legacy or merely renovated it, depending on your stance. But as pop music continues to cycle through trends in both ideology and aesthetic, Pure Heroine still stands as the decade’s first and most skillful album that asked us to confront the gaps of silence.
3. Frankie Cosmos, Zentropy (2014)
At this point it is indisputable that Frankie Cosmos single-handedly invented a genre, and naysayers must look no further than the endless labyrinth of “related artists” on Spotify that all sound nearly identical and are similarly great. Any band with “mom” in the name owes a debt to Frankie; she introduced most of the world (and, notably, me) to Big Thief on their dual 2016 tour; without Frankie, Clairo wouldn’t exist at all. Of course, Frankie Cosmos was not the first champion of plainspoken, unadorned female vocals and clean, efficient power-chord compositions, but she’s one of the most important followers of the century: her song-crafting skill is yet unmatched, and her influence defined a generation of young kids figuring out how to communicate with the world. If the Frankie Cosmos methodology involves collecting a days’ jokes and insecurities and laying them bare, her artistry lies in her ability to spin these moments into universally nostalgic anthems, distilling specific memories into grander impressions of childhood, and her neatly inventive melodies granted each word a disproportionate weight.
Notably, she sits on a repository of over 50 releases on music-sharing site Bandcamp, serving as the exemplar of what it looks like to be a prolific and uninhibited artist in the 21st century. Zentropy, her first massive hit, is like an album made solely out of choruses: each line is instantly hummable, and the tracks whizz by, mostly clocking in under two minutes. Every sound is modest, loved, and well-worn: the awkward synths that charge up behind her, the flubbed notes on her guitar, the cardboard-box drums. It’s her reach for truth—or some beautiful version of the truth—that makes her music anthemic, and occasionally transcendent. Whereas Lorde and Frank Ocean shot for the stars, Frankie Cosmos’s aim was always refreshingly humble. Ultimately, zeroing in on mundanity and celebrating the interims and stitches of adolescence was never just a musical trend: it’s a legitimate philosophy for growth and gratitude, for love and anxiety.
4. Noname, Telefone (2016)
There are few “new” ideas on Telefone. It doesn’t break ground, stake out unheard sonic territory, or introduce fringe political theory. It barely makes any declarative claims at all. It is the rare album that proves its worth simply by being really, really, unbelievably good. As far as rap personas go, Noname’s primary feature seems to be that she’s just extraordinarily likable. But in her poise is an immense amount of power that goes entirely unbroken for Telefone’s duration. Murmured in a style she once self-deprecatingly referred to as “lullaby rap,”, Telefone is understated, amiable, and modest, a breezy 33 minutes that feel more like 10. She weaves slyly ambitious lines that curl in on themselves and loop back around, folding in onomatopeia and puns to cushion the occasionally devastating confession.
Telefone’s opening 90 seconds—Noname’s first verse on the first song of her first album—present an astonishingly fully formed artist with an undeniably clear voice; a slow fade-in of what sounds like a warped closing credits to a children’s show. By the second song, she’s demonstrated an awe-inspiring mastery of form: dancing and skipping around the beat, falling in and out of rhythm, uniting the acutely personal with the broadly political. Telefone casts itself in a warm, incandescent kind of nostalgia that grows more vivid as it unfolds, like balmy summer nights and cigarettes in the living room. It’s teeming with guests—mostly the friends that she grew up with or met through Chicago’s YOUmedia open mics. It’s impossible to choose any select quote from Telefone because of the way her lines melt into each other, creating one long continuous sequence of thoughts that runs through the entire album—though “Too many babies in suits” as part of her plea for street violence to end is particularly crushing. Moving and funny, confident yet reserved, Telefone finds Noname digging out her place in history and constructing a monument to the memories, hopes, and fears that brought her there.
5. Drake, Take Care (2011)
The extent of Drake’s enduring legacy can be largely traced back to “Marvin’s Room,” the eerie, slow-mo centerpiece of his sophomore album Take Care. In it, Drake dodges out of a club feeling inconsolably empty, and for nearly 6 minutes, completely guts himself to an ex, taking her (and us) piece-by-piece through the desolate wasteland of getting everything you ever wanted. The unmistakable grief in his voice as he bemoans, “We threw a party, yeah we threw a party” dared a generation of young artists to question not if they were the best, but why they wanted to be the best in the first place. Released a year into the decade, Take Care—like its logical successor, Lorde’s Pure Heroine (see #2)—foreshadowed a defining theme of rap in the 2010s: an increasing disillusionment with the splendors of fame and wealth.
Mark Fisher identifies Drake (along with Kanye West, see #8) as “morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism.” It’s true—Drake spends most of the album as either ruthlessly petty ex-boyfriend or remorseful and melancholy king. He boasts about his mistakes. He insists he changed the lives of the women he is clearly at the mercy of. He bankrolls friends and instantly regrets it. He texts “I love you” to girls he went to high school with and then pretends to be faded. Almost every brag he levels against the world, his peers, his enemies or his ex-lovers, ultimately feels defensive, undercut with doubt and shame. Not to mention the music itself, which sounds like little else of its time. Take Care was an outrageous leap away from the blowout, top-of-the-world radio rap of its era to an insular dreamworld. Sinister and sedated, Drake mutters over atmospheric clouds of synths and muted beats. Guests drift in and out before dissolving back into the murk. Drake veers between singing and rapping as it serves him, ditching the people he loves only to beg for their forgiveness. Alongside Kanye, Drake suggested that even at our supposed best, we’re still—if not more—susceptible to our worst tendencies. On Take Care, Drake is immature, vain, clever, insecure, incredibly funny, and deeply human.
6. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
It’s impossible to overstate To Pimp a Butterfly’s effect on the decade, so much so that I almost forgot to include it on this list. It hardly feels like an album anymore, but rather just an event, political movement, or cultural phenomenon. It’s now easy to reduce to its statistical worth: To Pimp a Butterfly is the among the rare platinum (1 million copies!) rap albums to be outrageously, uncompromisingly political. It ushered in a new wave of self-reflexive conscious rap that implicated its artist in a way it didn’t previously (looking at you, Lupe Fiasco). It offered the first major racial protest song of the 21st century: “Alright” is chanted at riots and demonstrations, placing Kendrick next to… who, Bob Dylan? Marvin Gaye? Woody Guthrie? Gil Scott Heron?
That said, focusing solely on its sociopolitical impact threatens to underplay its artistry. An enormous, hulking rap opera that spans free jazz, funereal dirges, trap, and disco, To Pimp a Butterfly manages to be a reference-packed, high-concept dissertation that you can play at a dorm party, a conscious rap album that is entirely unpreachy, a chaotically experimental ode to black American music that’s remarkably immediate. Not only did Kendrick open his album with an argument between Wesley Snipes and literal Uncle Sam and close it with a meditative, postmortem conversation between himself and Tupac, but he made it feel like these chapters were the only appropriate bookends for the album. Crucially, To Pimp a Butterfly is framed around Kendrick the rapper and Kendrick the guy, his own relationship to newfound wealth, the ensuing survivor’s guilt, his horror at the endless legacy of slavery and unending oppression, his interpersonal failures and inconsistencies, and his drive to do better. From there, it builds outwards and upwards to reach centuries of trauma and perseverance, cruelty and ecstasy. Its expanse is staggering: it is a report of our time, a manifesto, a how-to guide, a cautionary tale, but also really something much more simple: it’s Kendrick’s second memoir.
7. Big Thief, Capacity (2017)
Adrianne Lenker has always seemed profoundly out of step with what’s going on. Most of her songs seem to be set in some dilapidated rural world that operates like a gothic “Little House on the Prairie”. On Capacity, she reaches vivid new heights. At its core, Capacity is an album about intimacy, trust, tradition, and the violation of those things; it’s about “folk,” and also about folks—half the songs include specific names of people: Matthew, Evelyn, Andrew, Mary, Haley. It’s a scathingly (though obliquely) political album, concerned at every turn with the way women respond to violence, the imposing American countryside, the failures of men, and the nurturing of their kin. The band, an unbreakably tight and unusually democratic 4-piece, cycles through riff and fill behind Adrianne, rendering autumnal scenes that blossom and wilt behind her words. With its seemingly modest palette, Big Thief offers a deceptively wide amount of textural ground, finding ringing guitars, skittering drums, and ambient washes tucked into their cinematic Americana. While Capacity closes where it opens—lost in the unsteady arms of a lover—it is somehow simultaneously restorative or optimistic. Leave it to Adrianne to disguise a feminist war cry as a simple homespun country tale.
8. Kanye West, Yeezus (2013)
After creating his universally acclaimed fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, Kanye made one of the most memorable and audacious artistic choices this decade. Following an erratic, cryptic guerilla marketing campaign, he released his most challenging, antagonistic project to date, with a fittingly outrageous title to match. Reviewers at the time were awestruck, comparing the album to career pivots like Kid A, In Utero, or Lou Reed’s impenetrable noise work Metal Machine Music: "No wonder the late, great Lou Reed embraced Yeezus, since it's basically the Metal Machine Music concept translated into futuristic hip-hop, all industrial overload and hypertense egomania and hostile vibes” (Rolling Stone). It’s true. Yeezus is disgusting, forbidding, and abrasive. It’s also a blinding lightning rod of ideas, and it ends with the greatest song Kanye ever wrote.
Kanye has always been a mind that is equal parts unstoppable force and immovable object, but here he is unprecedentedly irreconcilable. Unbearably raw and untameably powerful, Kanye is at his most pathetic, fearsome, and bare. While Drake and Lorde suggested that fame is empty or underwhelming, Kanye proved to us that it’s terrifying, too, and often torturous. It certainly doesn’t shield him against the racist powers that be—in fact, it only makes him more susceptible to criticism. “New Slaves” in retrospect represents one of the last moments that West’s racial politics were really coherent, and it’s a brilliant sardonic look at consumerism and black capitalism. His hugely controversial repurposing of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” into “Blood on the Leaves,” is still sacrilegious, but not without searing political intent.
The album still sounds cutting-edge too, often literally: the beats are made of metal and ice, clanging and shattering, snarling and cracking. Rusted scraps of vocal samples wash ashore and then back out to sea. Bon Iver shows up in a horrible, mutated form, as does Daft Punk, Frank Ocean, Chief Keef. West’s curatorial approach and dissolution of indie/underground/”experimental”/mainstream boundaries opened the doors for the other groundbreaking rap albums of the decade (Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, Drake’s More Life). The person we meet on Yeezus is what can only be described as a post-Kanye Kanye—at his most boisterous and self-loathing, paranoid as ever. The confused belligerence and belligerent confusion of Yeezus is the most insight we ever got into his ensuing friendship with the president; on Yeezus, he’s in full hateable-mode. And yet it is hard to think of a more worthy candidate to lead us through the corruption and inflation of ego, desire, glory, and carnal fear.
9. Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
Obviously, Beyoncé has never missed a beat. Her every move lies somewhere on a gradient between very majestic and extremely, earth-shatteringly majestic. Lemonade falls towards the latter. Its surrounding narrative is now folkloric in a way that occasionally obscures its content, but basically: Jay-Z cheated, destabilizing the greatest celebrity couple of the 21st century; Beyoncé, eternally cunning and cosmically gifted, saved the day with a thorough indictment of anyone who has ever disrespected her, an elegy to her ancestors, and a plea for more devoted love from everyone. Lemonade operates with such unfathomable grace and skill, and like its gorgeous accompanying film, covers a shocking amount of ground while still remaining cohesive and purposeful.
If the first half of the 2010s promised a paradigm-shifting marriage of indie rock and rap, post-ironic Internet-mashup, and sincere cross-cultural intermeshing, then Beyoncé’s interpolation of an Ezra Koenig tweet—itself a reference to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song from the last decade—into Lemonade’s lead single serves as the greatest feat of an optimistic post-post-modernism. More importantly, Lemonade found Beyoncé establishing herself as not just a symbol of regal power, but as a figure of deep thought, guidance, and care for the people watching. Turning her tabloid-worthy personal life into a site for a public meditation on her past, her family’s past, and the future of pop culture, she affirmed pretty much everything we already knew: she’s “smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bare the children, then get back to business.”
10. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (2010)
What’s the big deal with Age of Adz? The concept of “going electric” is nothing new; there are plenty of templates Sufjan Stevens could’ve chosen from. Plus, Sufjan already had electronic roots, so in actuality, Age of Adz was more a “return to form” than it was a bold new path.
Even so, when the spaceship lands after red-herring “Futile Devices”—the best bait-and-switch this side of “Little Thing Called Love” from Neil Young’s Trans—it is like Dorothy Gale’s world exploding into technicolor, and it’s hard not to buy into the magnificent scale and ambition of Sufjan’s opus.
What ensues is the kind of sprawling, baroque masterpiece we could’ve expected from Sufjan, though on radically different terms: brimming with Greek mythology and religious fanaticism, stuffed with electronic flourishes, squeals of synths and pounding tribal drums, and excursions into the cosmos, love, lust, and existential despair. One of the most unabashedly epic slabs to wedge its way into the indie rock canon in recent memory, Age of Adz cracked open a new chapter of electronic experimentalism that set the bar immeasurably high for what it meant to adapt your sound at the start of this decade. At the time, we had yet to see a Sufjan this emotionally direct, hiding less behind cute thematic story arcs (though still surrounding himself with colossal pillars of sound). And its closing suite, the 25-minute “Impossible Soul,” is undoubtedly one of the most utterly enormous and inspiring pieces of music from this century.
11. Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)
Let’s face it: Puberty 2 is often an oppressively sad album. At the start, Mitski is getting exploited for sex by the personification of happiness itself. In the video for “Your Best American Girl,” she makes out with her hand after getting snubbed by an Aryan American Apparel model. Later, she Bets on Losing Dogs. By the end, she numbly declares that she is both the forest fire and the witness. No one else is there. Yet for all of Puberty 2’s suffocating loneliness, its explosive forwards momentum is a testament to Mitski’s utter force and ferocious passion. On her fourth album, Mitski stretches her voice—both vocally and lyrically—into arresting new territory, casting herself in painterly scenes of alienation and desperation before putting on show-stopping performances. There has always been a certain quality of hopelessness to her voice; here, her every word is devastatingly deliberate, as if perpetually holding back a disaster.
When the floodgates inevitably open, however, the effect is exhilarating. It is impressive alone that she revived grunge in 2016, somehow made it feel relevant for as long as she needed it to, and then promptly stomped it right back into the grave. Puberty 2 takes a fearless, almost vengeful approach towards the two-and-a-half decades of indie rock she was excluded from, smashing together dream pop synths with industrial gnashing, bedroom folk with stadium power ballads. The mass appeal of these cries of rage and dread is proof of its genius. It serves bedrooms and music festivals alike, igniting both seas of middle school girls and noise rock bros, all screaming along together at the hollowness in the center.
12. Bon Iver, 22, A Million (2016)
Yes, 2016 was a cartoonishly strong year for music, and yes, many of its albums dealt with the ensuing apocalypse that loomed heavy over most of the year. But 22, A Million feels especially haunting; what’s more, it’s ostensibly one of the least overtly political albums of 2016, yet it foreshadowed the national crisis of honesty, empathy, and collapse of executive function with visceral urgency and striking depth. 22, A Million turned its scope inward in a way that was (and still is) remarkably untrendy: what does an album itself sound like as it is falling apart? It’s a record littered with moments of total systemic failure: Vernon’s voice cracks and splits open, synths seem to lose power mid-note, guitar tracks jump and rupture.
The parallels between 22, A Million and Frank Ocean’s Blonde (see #1) are crucial. Both Bon Iver and Frank Ocean had become icons in their respective domains, having created robust, full-band instant-classics five years earlier (Bon Iver’s self-titled and Channel Orange, respectively), and both took the same dramatic left turn, tearing down their sound to a paralyzing sparseness. Like Blonde, 22, A Million follows distinctly internet-age strains of logic: it siphons in scraps of bygone eras, scrolls through textures and sounds with little transition, scrambles and unscrambles itself, and pastes drafts and demos into the finished product. It allows an uncomfortable amount of insight into its creation, all rough marks and torn edges. From the eroded vocal sample that flickers like a flourescent bulb at the album’s start to the cascading saxophones that close it, 22, A Million offered a deeply affecting and truly deconstructive approach to song-making, to technology, to slogan-writing, and to language.
13. Jlin, Black Origami (2017)
First-time listeners of Jlin should be forgiven for not immediately drawing the link between her and Bruce Springsteen: their music shares almost nothing in common, operates on vocabularies that are entirely separated by time, place, and identity, and the two artists will probably never occupy the same room. But a closer look reveals her to be the closest thing this century has to The Boss. Springsteen did to rock what Jlin did to danceable electronic music: remained faithful to its essential aesthetic qualities while upending its traditions into wide-screen epic suites. Both made music in the name of their forebears, keeping themselves well within a lineage while pushing inexorably forward. Because of their integrity, workmanlike approach, and dutiful respect of lineage—plus the astral planes they ended up accessing—there is a spiritual quality to Jlin and Springsteen’s music that few other artists reckon with.
The day Black Origami came out, Jlin was still employed at a local steel mill in Gary, Indiana, where she had worked for years (and continued to work throughout the album’s press cycle). Her music is firmly rooted in footwork, the electronic subgenre of fast, stark polyrhythms that grew out of Chicago house music in the early ’90s. But Jlin’s personal spinn on footwork heightened it to a level of mind-numbing complexity, and Black Origami found her folding cerebral experimental composition into immediately powerful, instinctually danceable tracks.
If footwork originally split up house music’s 4-on-the-4 kick drum into a grid of polyrhythms, Jlin fractures that grid up even further into a glittering mosaic of rhythmic potential that feels infinite, terrifying, and at times, totally life-affirming. Black Origami can often be impenetrably dense, so stuffed with textures and sounds that one forgets that the album is almost entirely without melody—a testament to how many ideas Jlin has on rhythm alone. There were many albums that felt relevant, fresh, or exciting this decade, few that felt legitimately challenging in the way Black Origami does, and even fewer that managed to make challenge unfailingly fun. Jlin’s virtuosic ear has since sent her into elite classical dance composition, but her Midwestern integrity has ensured that her work has remained vital, thrilling, and dangerous. Whether it is from her small bedroom in Gary or an NYC loft, Jlin’s towering skyscrapers of rhythm have revealed her to be the most compelling electronic musician of the decade.
14. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
In retrospect, Modern Vampires of the City displays a singularly brilliant band shimmering at the height of its powers, each member operating at their peak. Vampire Weekend’s third and best album marks the point where Ezra Koenig’s lyrics switched from answers to questions. Cutting his semi-ironic intellectualism and referentiality—something the band had received substantial (and often warranted) flak for—with sincerity, uncertainty, and poignant storytelling, Vampire Weekend triumphed. In-house producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij cemented his status as the decade’s finest indie rock producer, rendering the album in exquisite detail, conferring a richness to every drum hit, guitar strum, piano plink. Chris Tomson and Chris Baio lent an earthy craftsmanship that grounded the album in its place, sending its sonic peaks (the speeding-train workout “Unbelievers,” the breathtaking climax of “Hannah Hunt”) to tremendous heights.
15. Tierra Whack, Whack World (2018)
The songs on Whack World really sound like the kind of songs you might catch yourself singing to yourself as you do menial tasks: they usually revolve around one surreal idea or phrase and build off that, they’re sung in silly accents or muttered under her breath, they repeat for a short while and then move on.The album’s internal logic (along with its brilliant video piece) is so strong and specific that its 15-minute runtime feels like a small window into a much more expansive universe, one that’s outrageous, hypnotic, and hilarious. There are regional characters, late-night restaurant trips, silly voices, animals, vegetables, and minerals, love affairs and betrayals. Candy-colored synths get draped around beats that click and stutter, and Tierra, alternately wry and affectionate, leads us through.
Whack World, while brief, still feels like a generously thorough manifestation of Tierra Whack’s imagination, which demonstrates not only the richness of her ideas but the deftness with which she presents them, 60 seconds at a time. She is also so uncompromisingly herself, making choices only of her own volition that take dignified stands. Her debut single was a sly meta-commentary on mumble rap that affirmed the genre’s singsong unintelligibility as a valid means of expression; Whack World is similarly much more concerned with melody and tone than it is with lyricism. Skeptics of this artistic choice should look no further than the absolutely mindboggling must-see videos of her as a 16-year-old (!!!!!) freestyling around Philly. These clips indicate that on Whack World, she’s not interested in proving anything because she knows she doesn’t have to.
Whack presented a work so singular that upon its release critics were largely unable to find reference points, often shamefully resorting to tired comparisons with Missy Elliott, an artist Whack shares almost nothing with other than ideas that demand attention. Tierra Whack’s closest kindred spirit is actually a band like Ween, with their sincere devotion to playfulness. But really, Whack proves herself to be utterly peerless—as of now, an irrepressible visionary.
16. Chief Keef, Finally Rich (2012)
Chief Keef released Finally Rich in 2012, when he was 17 (!), the same year his neighborhood was ranked as the 5th most dangerous in Chicago. A high school dropout, he recruited a few friends to make beats in their basements until, inevitably, producers discovered the sheer potency and electric charge of his work. From then on, he barrelled forward, practically unstoppable.
The world has been at war with Chief Keef from birth, and very quickly he soldiered up and started crafting massive walls of sound to be unleashed upon basically everyone. Chief Keef spends most of the album leading us through his empire, warning off the ones he knows can’t handle his universe. Finally Rich finds early 2010s trap at its most opulent and unhinged: clanging church bells and stuttering drums are stacked on top of enormous, churning synths. Gunshots pepper every song, often fusing into hi-hats and then collapsing behind more sound effects: screams, sirens, explosions. The result is a crazy, overwhelming type of sensory overload that ultimately ends up closer to the experience of death metal than it does hip hop. Joined by a slew of formidable guests at the peak of their respective powers, Finally Rich showcases a young rapper with almost nothing to lose, slam dunking on everyone around him.
Since his debut, Chief Keef has only gained momentum, releasing upwards of four mixtapes a year, joining the ranks of Gucci Mane or Lil B in terms of mindboggling prolificacy. Finally Rich is where it all started, and where the stitches show the most, before the youthful ambition had been burnt into cynicism. The video for “3Hunna” is still victorious and entirely homemade, the result of stuffing his house with everyone he knew and just erupting into chaos. The music to match it is so positively huge, the hooks so tirelessly shoutable, the story Chief Keef created so infectiously triumphant, it’s impossible to deny his kingdom.
17. Elysia Crampton, American Drift (2015)
If you’ve ever accidentally installed a virus on your computer, or opened a slew of catfishing spam websites, you may find moments of American Drift to be an uncomfortably similar experience. The music consists exclusively of massive blocks of synthesized sound, flurries of lo-res sound bites, torrents of flat MIDI presets, all ripped through at an unpredictable, often breakneck pace. It makes sense that American Drift was released at the midpoint of the decade. It is a strange and forbidding world with a suffocating sense of 2010s anxiety, and it cunningly captures the confusion and dread of internet-era methodology, from its half-serious action-movie-poster cover art to its semi-ironic Lil Jon samples. There’s also a hidden logic to this overwhelming information overload. Behind the brash fake horns and jarring sound effects lies a sprawling network of references, academic texts, and postcolonial resistance, a terrifyingly dense work of conceptual art, sound-collage, and personal narrative. Dissertations could be written about American Drift—it’s practically a dissertation in itself, pulling from the history of indigenous South American tribes, nascar racing, Houston trap music, post-structuralist theory and ontology, and pangeaic geology. Crampton’s greatest feat lies in her ability to center and unite these enormous global concepts into an intimate work that feels locally grown, tethered directly to her own temporal and geographical circumstances and yet internationally important. For all its artifice/technology discourse and ambitious intellectualism, American Drift is also deeply human.
18. Beach House, Teen Dream (2010)
Before the car commercial lawsuits, Drake samples, and curious Lollapalooza appearances, Beach House was humble and shy: just two indie pop musicians with unbelievable musical chemistry who weren’t siblings or dating. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s sound was comfortably predictable and crafted from familiar elements that make logical sense together: gauzy organ, twinkling piano loops, warm electric guitar, dusty drum machines. They have been unusually faithful to this palette since their debut, gradually expanding into clearer shades, becoming ever more purposeful.
On Teen Dream, they hit their stride. It is without question the go-to “autumn” album of the decade. The sensory information enfolded in Teen Dream is so incredibly gratifying: everything feels tactile and inviting, each guitar note plush, each organ tone thick and churning. Swells of cymbals crest and break over deep thumps of bass. Pacing has always been one of Beach House’s strengths, and here, each song is impeccably strung together to blossom and close at just the right moment. The songs on Teen Dream are ethereal and atmospheric, but never boring, and always feel rich and substantive. Each contains at least one simply beautiful, heart-wrenching melodic turn that sends it soaring, and on “Real Love,” Legrand’s closing refrain of “I met you …” is nothing short of transcendent.
19. David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)
The appeal of Blackstar is admittedly tied to personal experience. It’s perhaps my biggest betrayal of queerness but I never was really a huge fan of David Bowie’s music. Bowie’s relationship to celebrity, iconography, and identity always seemed to overshadow any particular musical revelations. Still, Blackstar changed my life.
Upon its release, the album’s critics were somewhat puzzled by its odd pacing and foreboding moroseness. It was clear something was wrong. Then, two days after its release, it was announced that David Bowie had died of lung cancer, and suddenly everything snapped into excruciating focus. The shaky breathing that opens “‘Tis a Pity” was suddenly unlistenably disturbing, and “Dollar Days” sounded desperate instead of triumphant. Now, built into the Blackstar the album were the two days between its initial release—also Bowie’s birthday—and Bowie’s death, and the 69 years of Bowie’s life.
Rendered in noirish jazz and smoky ballads, Blackstar is Bowie’s darkest release— drums that race endlessly forward, spidery keyboards and panicked blasts of saxophone. His words take on a psalmic scale, and there’s a noticeable solemnity to his writing: even when he cracks dry jokes, there’s an unshakeable grimness.The grandeur is warranted: Bowie the king, Bowie the alien, Bowie the robot, but never Bowie the fallible. So what happens when Bowie has to die? On Blackstar, he both bent death to his well and surrendered to it, accepted it and subverted it, relinquished the icon for the human, ironically securing his legacy. By transforming human mortality into an artistic statement, Blackstar is perhaps the closest anyone has come to cheating death, and only someone with the cultural stature and legacy of Bowie could have pulled it off. The final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” with its endless shuffle and reprised harmonica solo from 1977’s Low, sounds like nothing other than a spacecraft taking off before disappearing into the rest of the universe.
20. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up (2017)
In nearly every regard, Crack-Up is not a cool album, and it felt shockingly out of touch with the rest of 2017: Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold completed an elite grad program at Columbia during its genesis. It’s named after a Fitzgerald essay. Its opening song is an epic three-part suite that runs 6 minutes but feels like 10. The genres it covers—theatrical, meandering prog-rock, English and Irish folk, minimalist classical—feel irrelevant to the 21st century. The presiding question is: Who cares?
If you have the time and energy to buy into its epic proportions, you will be rewarded: repeat listens reveal it to be one of the most thoughtfully and painstakingly constructed indie rock albums of the decade. It is structured loosely like an opera, with sweeping suites and walls of sound that divide and subdivide. Like Elysia Crampton’s American Drift (see #17), Pecknold situates—and implicates—himself in the events of the world, underpinning his more abstract lyricism with specific historical figures and events. Fleet Foxes displays a cultural omnivorousness that lends the album an open, celebratory quality, and its socio-political scope ties in Muhammad Ali to the panopticon to Ethiopian jazz to the murder of Alton Sterling.
Musically, Crack-Up was not in conversation with its peers either, but earned its place through the sheer excellence with which it is composed and recorded. The dazzling crescendo of “On Another Ocean” is quintessential Fleet Foxes, but elsewhere their expansive folk-rock incorporates doleful piano arpeggios, nimble jazz drumming, and hazy, stomping psychedelic workouts. Crack-Up also holds the most understated, moving song written in the aftermath of the 2016 election, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” which, in its eerie quiet, finds something outside of anger or despair: mourning, solidarity, hope.
21. Kali Uchis, Isolation (2018)
22. Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes (2012)
23. FKA Twigs, LP1 (2014)
24. Young Thug, Barter 6 (2015)
25. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo (2016)
26. Angel Olsen, My Woman (2016)
27. Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap (2013)
28. Drake, More Life (2017)
29. Grimes, Visions (2012)
30. 21 Savage / Metro Boomin, Savage Mode (2016)
31. Bobby Shmurda, Shmurda She Wrote (2014)
32. Perfume Genius, No Shape (2017)
33. Macintosh Plus, Floral Shoppe (2013)
34. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)
35. Ariana Grande, thank u, next (2019)
36. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (2014)
37. Tyler the Creator, Flower Boy (2016)
38. (Sandy) Alex G, Beach Music (2015)
39. Charli XCX, Pop 2 (2017)
40. D’angelo, Black Messiah (2014)
41. St. Vincent, St. Vincent (2014)
42. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (2013)
43. Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe (2013)
44. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy (2018)
45. Mac Demarco, Salad Days (2014)
46. Death Grips, The Money Store (2012)
47. Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti (2017)
48. Brockhampton, SATURATION II (2017)
49. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel ... (2012)
50. Sleigh Bells, Treats (2010)
Asher White did not actually listen to any of the albums listed above.