The pace at which music has changed this past decade has been almost rapid. Ten years has seen the death of rock as a popular genre, Soundcloud rap as the rising beast, and synthwave as the new punk rock. Many genres have come and gone, styles have melded into each other. So then, what’s next for music in the next decade? Well, the answer is, everything. These past ten years have arguably been the most turbulent ten years in the industry’s history. We’ve now entered an era where a new generation of musicians have not known a world without the internet, where everything is available to everyone. Nothing is off limits, everyone has the same resources (if everyone has super powers, how can anyone truly be super?). But like I say every year, we live in a world where everyone is allowed to like everything. There is no old music or new music, but music we have heard, and music we have not. Here are our top 20 albums from this past decade.
20. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
With Plastic Beach, the Gorillaz had finally become a household name. They weren’t just a “cartoon band” anymore to the world, but an actual driving force for seamlessly melding genres. Part alternative, part electronic, part hip-hop, it was a mixed bag serving to the album’s greater concept of the world polluting itself, and most of all, felt so undeniably British. One could say that the entire album is a metaphor for the experience of being British, somewhat forever hanging in the balance of the world’s politics (if only England knew of the impending Brexit vote that would come five years later). And eight years later, the album still slaps with song after song. Featuring everyone from Snoop Dogg, to Lou Reed, to Little Dragon, it’s as if the world’s population was force to cram side by side with each other on an island due to the rising sea levels, everyone hanging onto one another.
19. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
When this album was released, I remember the first reactions were about the saxophone in “Midnight City,” and that finally someone reinvigorated the passion for brass in pop music. But to merely stop there would be serving the album a disgrace, because what this double album represents is how we perceive time differently at different phases in our lives. Gone were the cinematic soundscapes of their previous albums that conjured narratives in the listener’s head. Inspired by his move from Paris to L.A. in hopes of following in the path of Daft Punk in doing cinematic scores for film (*cough* Oblivion *cough*), Anthony Gonzales found himself dreaming at different phases in his life from the shows he’d see, the screenings he’d go to, the solo road trips out to Joshua Tree… It evoked the synthwave nostalgia that had been missing from pop music up until then, and set the tone for the decade to come.
18. Beach House – Bloom
For the past decade, Beach House had always been an acquired taste for me. Keeping the same vibe but never truly evolving, I’d always kept asking myself “Is this it? Haven’t they made this album before?” But it’s like what Malcolm Young of AC/DC would say when people would ask him, “What do you say to people who tell you you’ve made the same album the past 18 records?” To which he’d respond, “Oh it’s the past 19 records.” But that’s all you need to know. If you want to hear a Beach House record, that’s the sound you’re going to get. But never has their sound felt so ephemeral and fleeting than it has on Bloom. The synthesizers are more saturated, the rhythms carry the melodies more properly, the lyrics are sung with more depth. Many drummer friends I know always gave them shit for using only dream machines. But on this album, they go all in on acoustic drums, which is probably what gives the album such a great counterpart with its electronics. The band has said their name comes from revisiting a family beach house at different points in their lives, with little details being different upon each visit. But on this record, they chose to not look back again.
17. Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde’s Melodrama makes you feel like you’re almost okay with yourself again. Despite the hardships and failed connections, and how hard it is sometimes to look at yourself in the mirror, it makes you feel content again with spending time by yourself, even though at times you can’t even stand to be with yourself. But that’s what I feel this album is about: self-forgiveness. There are times you don’t even feel like you can make it through your twenties. It just feels like the longest road ahead, sometimes never ending, and yet we fear that impending doom when it does end, so we try to do everything we can with this time to make it worthwhile, only to end up making mistakes, hurting feelings, and damaging relationships. We try to find perfect places (get it?) for us to finally come to solace with this feeling, when really, it’s all there in front of us. Time is only what we make of it. It’s on our side. So make the mistakes, live in the moment, be not only fearless but courageous. It makes me think of all these “list your biggest accomplishments of the decade” twitter threads going around, to which a good friend of mine once told me: “I lived, bitch.”
16. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan chose to strip back on this album as opposed to his prior heavier electronic release, Age of Adz, in favor of acoustics. Following the death of his mother whom he never got to truly know which plunged him into near suicide (as expressed on “The Only Thing”), he decided to rid the flash in favor of pure honesty and empathy. It’s scary to think how life can just flash before you, putting into perspective how much time you actually have to spend with your parents. You see them, what, maybe once every three to six months? If that? That’s two to four times a year, and you think of how many years they still have on this Earth. And then you think of how many actual meaningful conversations you’ve had with them, how well you truly go to know them. This album serves as not only a wake-up call to call the ones you love and tell them how much you truly appreciate them, but also serves as an album of forgiveness: he forgives Carrie for forgetting him at the video store, and cherishes the few moments they got to spend together. And with that sentimentality, this album stands out among his best – poignant, and straight to the point.
15. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
It’s easy to make comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Nick Cave when talking about the War on Drugs. All the elements are there – the rambling verses, the abrupt eruptions into full-on jams – but what their influencers lack is the ability to truly take a listener to a place, instilling such vast soundscapes within the listener’s mind. That’s what makes this album so special: it instills the cinematic experience in the mind of the spectator. Have you ever listened to a record of their’s while on a winding road trip? Often times it doesn’t even act on a conscious level, but becomes a backdrop of scenery to gaze upon, to think about. It provides a certain accompaniment to a wandering mind, full of psychedelic and soothing electronic pianos but laden with sharp cutting guitar licks. It makes one think about where they’re going, both geographically and figuratively, providing a mental map for the listener that’s as narrow as the road ahead and as wide as the sky above.
14. David Bowie – Blackstar
Two days before his death, on his 69th birthday (how’s that for metal?), David Bowie would release his final ode and love letter to the world. And the music world rejoiced – another album rollout, hopefully another tour, and another phase of Bowie. But boy were we wrong. The days that followed sent an outpouring of wishes and apologies, but no one needed to look any further than his last installment, Blackstar. It’s the greatest magic trick he ever pulled, sending us on a tour of misdirection to distract us and make us properly digest his passing. “I can’t give everything away,” he sings, and dreams of seeing the British countryside once more on “Dollar Days.” It was already a fantastic record upon its release, but after his death, the album added a whole other layer of meaning. But the greatest goodbye of all concluded with an email to his longtime collaborator, Brian Eno. The two communicated mostly via email signing off with invented names, such as “mr showbiz, milton keynes, rhoda borrocks and the duke of ear.” – “I received an email from him seven days ago,” Eno stated. “It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’. I realise now he was saying goodbye.”
13. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
“This dance/Is like a weapon/Of self-defense/Against the present tense.” These lyrics – somewhat – sum up the theme of Radiohead’s latest effort. From the outset, the album seems transparent, yet feels opaque for much of its duration from its airiness – synthesizers sound like guitars, guitars sound like synthesizers. Stepping back from the self-generated software of King of Limbs, the band tackled a more analog sound, even playing with the acetate tape itself in rewinding the spool and recording the effect. But what the album deals with most is the sitting and moving of time. Time feels like it passes differently when listening to it. Not concerned with the manufactured duration of time, nor focused on the novelty of “real” time, the band chose to take “their” time. They deem how fast or slow the record plays out. Maybe that’s what this album is truly about, how we perceive the passing of time, and how we’re all at the mercy of how fate plays out.
12. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
Back in 2012, Fiona Apple was approached by her past love, director Paul Thomas Anderson, when he asked, “How’s that album coming along?” To which she responded, “I’ve finally created something that, if I were to die tomorrow, I’d be happy.” This, in a sense, encapsulates the genuineness of her only album this decade, The Idler Wheel… Like a Terrence Malick, Fiona Apple releases an album only about once every decade. But that sparseness only emphasizes the sheer gravity of the material she does release. This is Apple at her most confident, staring down the blandness and uncertainty of life and saying “Fuck it. I can only be true to myself and what I know.”
“Nothing wrong when a song ends in the minor key,” she sings on “Werewolf.” And that’s totally okay. Sometimes events in life do ring out on and on never able to be shaken away. “But we could still support each other/All we gotta do is avoid each other.” She digs into broken promises and denied expectations on “Periphery,” forcing herself to turn her direction away from such events and compartmentalize them in the corner of her mind. This album’s all about self-trust, not knowing that everything will be okay but just knowing that you have to believe that everything will be okay, because at the end of the day, that feeling of unknown certainty is all we have to cling onto.
11. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
For years I’d been giving Vampire Weekend shit. “They look boring, they sound boring, their name sucks…” But it wasn’t until this year’s Father of the Bride that I actually began to have second thoughts, and thus worked backward through their discography. And it wasn’t until I came across Modern Vampires of the City that I realized how truly a gift this band is – such an album about urban living unlike any other, such an album to think about and accompany you when you’re bumming around the Lower East Side at five in the morning chain smoking cigarettes with nowhere to go. But most importantly, it feels like a break-up album with religion and karma itself. Everyday feels like a risk in city life when you can walk outside and be struck by a car at any moment. What’s the last crutch you can lean on when you’ve lost all hope in karma? When you’ve lost all hope in the last thing that could work in your favor? It all culminates in the album’s crux, “Hannah Hunt,” which feels like what everything Vampire Weekend has been working up to, the song they were born to make, a natural culmination of everything that came before it, all the tension and build up finally let out in the song’s final falsetto – “If I can’t trust you, then dammit Hannah/There’s no future, there’s no answer/ Though we live on the U.S. Dollar/You and me we, got our own sense of time.” Here, they’re clinging onto the last beacon of hope they can believe in.
10. Tame Impala – Currents
Little did we know that, when this album was released in 2015, it would become the essential break-up album of the decade. And yes, we do perceive this to be a break-up album. Three years after Lonerism was released which focused even more inward than Innerspeaker, Tame Impala decided not to go with the concept of introspection, but rather the cutting of ties of a stalled relationship. Not to say that it was a failed relationship, but I’m sure Kevin Parker was aware that there comes a time where you realize you’re watering a plastic plant. And unlike the previous two records, he explores this emotional turmoil with sonic depth. You can practically hear every penny on this record. Never has a break-up album been championed with such sonic detail, not only exploring lost love but also regret, broken promises, and destroyed dignities. Sometimes people just keep growing and move on. Circumstances and feelings change as humans grow older. And much like clothes, love is just another thing we outgrow, and put in the drawer.
9. Kanye West – Yeezus
Many people rolled their eyes at the debut of these songs at Governor’s Ball from the get-go. Lyrics like “I am a God,” “Stick my first in her like a civil rights sign,” “Eatin Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce.” You couldn’t deny the vivid imagery that was conjured in your head from these lyrics. It was like a fever dream that evoked from morning sex, only to come to a settle on the love that truly matters as represented by the album’s closer “Bound 2.”
Yeezus acted as a fierce fire storm that came out of Kanye’s id – unfiltered, unmasked, undeniably raw and truthful. He was speaking without second thoughts, much like he’s always done, although this time inspired by architecture and a lamp. But to put that into perspective, the album’s influences took into account the movement of modern man, the multi-facted purposes deemed by such architecture in how man is transported through the modern world, cattled onto subways and escalators to get to where they’re going, not unlike Radiohead’s Ok Computer. The album’s recording process was described by its many collaborators as “more of an art class than producing a record.” Kanye had brought in all his friends and collaborators to help chip in on this work – Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, Daft Punk, Arca, Pusha T, Q-Tip, Gesaffelstein – if they had worked with him in the past, then they were on this record. He’d give them “homework assignments,” in which Kanye would give the foundation of a song to each of them and they’d go off to tinker with it and give their own touch. They’d then reconvene at the end of the day and compare what they’d all had come up with.
When this album leaked in the summer of 2013, it didn’t just “leak” onto the internet, but as a Washington Post article put it, the record “gushed out into the pop ecosystem like a million barrels of renegade crude — ominous, mesmerizing and of great consequence.”
8. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago was significant in that it was never meant to exist in the first place, yet tapped into a universal appeal. When the ice thawed and Justin Vernon emerged from that cabin, he returned to a place that was familiar to him, yet somehow different. If you look at the track-listing of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the song names are composed of fictitious cities and towns, that is to say, they are all places familiar to him, but something evidently had changed. He had assigned new meanings to these places, each pieced together through a combination of observation and memory, now forever turned into a pit of solace and regret. It’s hard coming back to a place that was once familiar to you, one that held special memories or traumatic experiences, but that’s what this album’s about, assigning your own definitions to locales. “These will just be places to me now,” Vernon would later sing on 22, A Million. Their worth had withered. Physical geography moves on, but your mind doesn’t. Special places and songs are like wells: if you come back to them too often, they dry up.
7. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
It was the summer before college when this album was released, and it probably couldn’t have come at a more apt time in my life. At that point in time (and even now), the album very much paralleled what was happening in my life – too much time on my hands, summer romances, big dreams – but it was all coming into my life much like how the album is portrayed: like flipping channels on a television. With Channel Orange, Ocean provided the essential psychedelic summer soundtrack, one that would be attributed to the summer of 2012 for years to come. “Thinkin Bout You,” “Super Rich Kids,” and “Pyramids” provided an acidic tinge for what we would define as summer music, unrequited love, missed chances and opportunities. “Thinkin Bout You” will always take us back to that place in time, to that one summer love that we all had but maybe never got the chance to truly flourish. We all had that one brief summer love that we wish could go on forever, that new feel throughout the endless summer days and nights, that one love that somehow altered the course of our lives. Maybe we never got the chance to follow through. Maybe we fucked it up. Maybe we never got the right opportunity to pursue it in the first place. Or maybe, it was perfect in every way.
6. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
2012 was the year I had first moved to Los Angeles. Everything seemed stranger, everything seemed different, as I had thrusted myself into unknown territory despite never having even been to the west coast before. It had seemed like a different beast from New York, an even more malevolent form of Chicago. The city at times felt overwhelming. But Kendrick’s debut LP, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, made this strange city just a little more familiar, a little more promising. It depicted a city where you could have your whole life ahead of you, where anything you dreamt of was possible. To be honest, this list could’ve included all three of his LPs in the top ten, but whereas To Pimp a Butterfly was him at his most political, and Damn. at his most conceptual, GKMC was Kendrick at his most cinematic. The way he vividly paints a portrait of a daunting and scrutinizing L.A. with such imagery makes it feel like a city where we have nowhere to go but up. Anything is possible, everything is within our grasp. All it requires is the will to chase after it.
5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire’s albums, to me, have always been about broken promises. If Funeral was about the fallacy of growing older only to find that adulthood wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be, then The Suburbs is a continuation of that, only this time focusing in on interpersonal relationships and the distancing of individuals from one another, all taking place in the backyard. It’s like looking through the eyes of a child: big dreams and aspirations, goals, and future relationships. But when a new area of life is explored, another one is left behind. Songs like “City with No Children” and “We Used to Wait” show a failure of undelivered promises, approached with a narrative-type flow that’s supported by their baroque-pop sound. It’s a classical tale set in modern times. It begins with the proclamation “Now I’m ready to start,” yet ends with “Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/And there’s no end in sight.” It’s a declaration that, no matter where we’re headed, no matter what our goals and dreams are, we will never fully “arrive.” That feeling of a chased destination will forever be in the distance, yet serves as a guiding north star, in which it all ties back to the beginning feeling again. Kind of makes you think how such small ideas and thoughts can have the power to become so revolutionary.
4. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
James Murphy had come to the end of the road. To him, there was only so much material he could write and produce about growing old and the impending dangers and burdens of adulthood. Yet, he had to make one last banger. This is Happening plays not as a look forward for excitement, but a cautious thought we tell ourselves in order to just stay calm. “Hoping and hoping and hoping/This feeling goes away,” he belts on “I can Change.” But in reality, it’ll never go away. It’s a feeling we have to live with ourselves, past and future mistakes and all. But it also serves as a testament that we are not following a linear, narrative timeline. We are not either young or old, it’s not black and white, but a fact that we are just in the middle of something, with time still ahead of us. Because we all know that one lyric that goes…
But that’s why LCD had to “end,” (only to reunite, you know the story), to snap that tether off from its audience to finally get them to think for themselves. Because you and I both very well know, Murphy included, that we should never get our advice from rock stars. That’s for damn sure.
3. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
The origin of this album began at a seaside villa in Italy owned by none other than Paul Williams. The two robots had come to visit him with an idea for an album where they wanted to draw a parallel between the human brain and the hard drive. Yet, they didn’t quite know where to begin – all they had was a simple piano melody, which Guy-Man then played for Williams, when the lyrics just began to pour out of him, “Touch/I remember touch/Pictures came with touch.” Problem was, they weren’t sure what “Touch” really meant. Was it an alien seeing Earth for the first time? Was it a robot gaining human feelings? A consciousness? So, Thomas Bangalter gave Williams a book of short stories to take inspiration from. It was a book compiled of near-death experiences, something that machines would never be able to replicate – to see a side of mortality that is indescribable, and come back and live to tell the tale. That’s one realm this album dives into. It also then implies the exploration of human memory, and how the hard drive can contain so much but the brain can contain so little, which then prompts the question: are humans meant to forget? Not necessarily, but what this album implies is that humans only remember the basic facts and necessities needed for survival, relying on instincts that go back to human evolution.
This album is loaded with layers and meaning, just as their Pro-Tools timeline for “Touch” is bogged down with tracks upon tracks. But above all else, it’s an album that showcases banger after banger, an album that you can just put on a party that keeps a somewhat constant BPM to keep the night’s momentum going. We could write about “Get Lucky” and “Lost Yourself to Dance” being the songs of the summer of 2013, or Panda Bear’s near perfect delivery on “Doin it Right,” or Giorgio Moroder’s revival of the “discotheque,” but that’s all that it would be. You already know this is a fantastic album. But beneath all of that is a phenomenal dance record. For an album that’s all about time and memories, it came out at a time where it felt truly timeless, and everything else felt like anything but.
2. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Boy was this an exciting time to be a music fanatic. Upon its release, we all knew something exciting was happening: the major label psych-out, the release of Endless just a day prior, Ocean’s first official music video in years, the excitement was palpable. And upon Blonde’s release, we all knew we had something special in our hands. But what we didn’t know was how well it has stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time. The initial knee-jerk reaction drew mixed reviews – no one knew what to make of these strange song arrangements, sparse percussion, and tunes that didn’t really end exactly where they started. They were hard to latch onto upon first listen, hard to play for the homies riding in the back seat. But now, we find ourselves going straight to this record when we plug in the aux cord (now how does that fit for a retro image?) But what we originally saw as the album’s flaws – the ambiguities, the loose-ends – eventually become the album’s strengths. And once you acknowledge that, the record becomes a sprawling stream of consciousness that you just let wash over you. Such records have strong melodies, exciting chord changes, and unexpected arrangements that boggle the mind, raise the hairs, and reset the synapses. SONGS. 17 of them. All great, here, in this order, working together perfectly. A breathing human made this! Making it clear that Ocean must be the greatest pop-star alive, if not the best since you know who. And I’m sure we can all admit that, yes, it’s not the “perfect” album. But you know what? I don’t think we would love it as much even if it was perfect.
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Try, if you can, to not think about the MAGA hats. Try to forget the endless Twitter rants, the spontaneous outbursts and VMA and Bonnaroo debacles. Imagine if you had heard this album completely in the vacuum of outer space, would you still feel the same about Dark Fantasy? Again, who would have thought that nine to ten months into the new decade, we’d already have the decade’s best album? Aside from his endless list of PR mishaps, Kanye found himself hanging by a thread – everyone thought of him, even Obama, as a jackass. The world was turning against him. There was no guarantee this album was going to be a success. So he turned to what everyone else turns to in times of self-turmoil: music. And that’s why this album truly reigns – it’s a testament to talent. His aim was to create something so undeniable, so compelling that it would eclipse all past wrongdoings and mishaps, no matter how dark and black his soul could be. After the release of this record, no one had any doubt that Kanye could make transcendent music. No other album this decade forced literally every musician to think about how to deconstruct their art in order to build something greater. And who else has had a decade long run that compares to Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson? Where everything he’s released, every show he’s put on, feels like a natural culmination of everything that’s come before it?
And perhaps where the album truly stands is that it’s the ultimate test of separating art from the artist. It’s called My Beautiful Dark Fantasy for a reason. The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. But to truly separate this album from all the emotional baggage that comes with it, you have to step out and meet the neighbors. Dark Fantasy paved the way for this decade’s most brilliant musicians to build their masterpieces: Bon Iver, Bon Iver, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and Channel Orange wouldn’t exist without the precedent set by Dark Fantasy. But this list ends here, because it’s where the decade truly begins.