The Best Albums of the 2010s Showed Music Can Spark Revolutions and Change the Soundtrack of Our Lives
Music, more than any other form of entertainment, serves us like a memory scent. We take songs and albums on the road and into our lives, letting them soundtrack first dances and funerals and late night ragers. In our private moments, they console broken hearts and anxious minds or, on better days, prompt solo dance parties. In pivotal moments, a music release changes the culture, as rallying cries carry marches through the streets. So to remember what came out—and, even more, what took off—is to remember who we were, then.
If the Internet killed music with sites like Napster, Limewire, and Bearshare in the '00s, the rise of streaming outlets saved it this decade. Spotify came to the United States in 2011 and YouTube totals were officially factored into chart placement by 2012, and, immediately, the records began to topple—Drake was the most streamed artist until Ed Sheeran and then Sheeran until Drake—while a new swath of top dogs were welcomed to the A-list. Hip-hop and electronic music, which finally earned the household name of EDM, exploded, and the lines between genres all but vanished completely.
Revolutions arrived. Frank Ocean, then just 24 years old, changed R&B forever with his sparse, stunning Channel Orange LP and the ensuing tumblr post where he came out as queer. The most important trilogy of music from this century kicked off in 2012 as Kendrick Lamar made his major label debut with Good Kid, M.A.A.D City; a near-perfect ode to Jesus Christ and West Coast rap. He'd follow with To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), which gets its due below, and DAMN. (2017). As 2019 wraps up, and the the Grammys edge ever closer towards oblivion, the 32-year-old has collected a Pulitzer, but not Album of the Year from the Recording Academy. Guitar god antics are alive and well, but their ambassador is a 37-year-old woman named Annie who hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma and absolutely fucking shreds under the moniker of St. Vincent.
And, the reality that never gets easier, an unbearable number of icons were lost. Prince, George Michael, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, and David Bowie all slipped beyond that silvery screen to the Far Beyond this decade. But before he went, The Thin White Duke pulled off the finest magic trick from a career that was full of them: a perfect goodbye. Blackstar released just two days before his death in 2016. —Madison Vain
10| Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
As the 2010s came to a close, musicians were still attempting to make music that sounded like Kanye West’s Dark Twisted Fantasy. Few producers or rappers have a sonic vision that compares to West. All of his many public persona faults aside, he knows what the masses want to hear before they know they want to hear it—Twisted Fantasy is the finest example of his ability to create trends and to direct entire eras of hip-hop. —Matt Miller
9| Rihanna, ANTI (2016)
Following a then-unprecedented three-year hiatus, the Top 40’s Barbadian princess returned with the most dizzying, DGAF album of her career. An ode to toking up, coke-fueled trysts, and Tame Impala, ANTI is RiRi at her loosest—and pop music at its finest. —Madison Vain
8| St. Vincent, St. Vincent (2014)
St. Vincent is a guitar god for the Millennial generation. Her virtuosic technical ability with a guitar—combined with her brilliant songwriting ability—make her a type of rock and pop star that is becoming ever rarer in an era of pre-programed beats and chopped up samples. There’s nothing derivative about St. Vincent’s type of rock. It’s not longing for a bygone analog era—it’s the artistic, forward-thinking rock music that is new, exciting, and, above all else, the future. —M.M.
7| Margo Price, All American Made (2017)
With lyrics that rail against the pay gap, the patriarchy, and the plight of family farmers—all levied with a tender twang reminiscent of the great Loretta Lynn—the Jack White Third Man Records-signee’s second LP never found a home on mainstream country radio. That’s a shame for listeners, but Price cemented her status all the same as this generation’s Young or Nelson; a stark truth-teller of the finest degree. —M.V.
6| Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
The surprise drop of Lemonade on April 23, 2016 brought the world to a halt. A visual album detailing her husband Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity was a brilliantly realized multi-media artistic vision. Themes of strength, motherhood, and black female empowerment, pulsed with life and love on Lemonade—which was an important chapter in Beyoncé's narrative over the course of this decade. All hail, Queen B. —M.M.
5| David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)
After five spellbinding decades darting between glam rock, art pop, soul, and all the nameless spaces in between, rock & roll’s otherworldly son left his fans with a perfect parting gift. Released on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, Blackstar is a gorgeous, genre-warping, immersive experience that sparkles with everything Bowie ever did well. —M.V.
4| Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)
Save for U2, no rock act loves a Grand Statement more than (the former) indie A-listers Arcade Fire. But it’s actually when they abandon existentialism and cast their lyrical eye towards the mundane that they’re most effective. On their third full length, singers and real-life couple Win Butler and Regine Chassagne spool their very intimate anxieties about growing older and starting a family into visceral, arena rock catharsis. —M.V.
3| Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2012)
The most influential debut album of the decade, if not the century so far, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange established him as a visionary new voice in popular music. Upon its release in 2012, Channel Orange directed the sound of hip-hop, pop, and R&B music for the rest of the decade, and began the agonizing wait for Ocean’s follow-up that would come four years later. If Blonde is the record that will define the next 10 years, Channel Orange is the album that defined the sound of the 2010s. —M.M.
2| Robyn, Body Talk (2010)
Fembots have feelings too. The crying-in-the-club anthem is its own genre in the pop-sphere now, but each entry traces their origins here, to Robyn’s magnificent, mascara-streaked and strobe light-bathed 2010 opus. —M.V.
1| Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.