Ranking the 10 Most Important Albums of the 2010s

The 2010’s have been a time of great change for the music industry. Online streaming has come to dominate the industry. Rock finally faded as America’s favorite genre. Hip-hop, trap, and electronic pop have dominated the charts, and an undercurrent of bizarre, industrial experimental records has emerged to offer alternatives to the mainstream. The 2010’s have marked social, emotional and relational struggle like never before, both in the real world and between the bars of poignant lyrics.

The best records of the decade were not those which had the best production, the most experimental sounds or the most hard-hitting lyrics: they were the songs and albums that captured moments of time in the 2010’s and the struggle that more and more people joined as the decade marched on. These moments have been captured amongst the music we have produced. Here are the best records of the 2010’s.

Anderson .Paak- Malibu (2016)

Easily the grooviest, most soulful R&B record of the decade, Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu” rocketed the California native from small-label fame to the musical mainstream when it released in 2016. The incorporates elements of traditional hip-hop, pop, gospel and soul to create a seemingly all-encompassing sea of sound that pursues .Paak’s life by the sea, his rise to stardom and his own pursuit of a 21st-century digital romance.

Frank Ocean- Blonde (2016)

“Blonde” is as mysterious and open-ended as its author, R&B luminary Frank Ocean. “Blonde” is sorrowful, irreverent, atmospheric and hard-hitting. Every note on the record is curated and crafted by Ocean, who leaves his intentions open to interpretation. Perhaps better than any other of its kind, the record explores modernity, sexuality, depression, fame and loneliness, traits which define Ocean and his music. “Blonde” pioneered a burgeoning genre of eccentric R&B when it dropped in 2016, and continues to be a defining influence for many mainstream artists.

Capital Cities- In a Tidal Wave of Mystery (2013)

Los Angeles duo Capital Cities’ debut record “In a Tidal Wave of Mystery” is perhaps the least critically-acclaimed record on this list, but it somehow finds itself as one of the most important records of the decade. Capital Cities’ Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian got their musical start writing commercial jingles, and their ear for earworms comes through loud and clear on their first record. The album’s lead single, “Safe and Sound,” was an instant international hit, appearing on commercials, movie trailers and any other piece of commercial work that it could possibly attach itself to. The album’s most important cultural symbolism was not in its technical perfection, but in its ability to “go viral” online for years after its release. The record’s swath of synth-pop, electronica hits remain incredibly popular nearly seven years after they first appeared, making it a very important cultural and musical milestone, regardless of technical quality.

M83- Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

French synth-pop producer M83 has been active in the electronica community since the turn of the century, but his vision for a massive, arena-sized new-wave record didn’t come to a head until his sixth outing, 2011’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” Anthony Gonzalez, who helms the M83 project, kicked off the 2010’s with the sweeping, cinematic double-record. Blending 80’s synths, modern shoegaze, experimental vocals and electronic accompaniment, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” is brilliantly atmospheric, unwaveringly weird and uncompromisingly beautiful. The record served to push electronica and 80’s revivalism closer to the mainstream until the genre erupted into the pop landscape in the mid-2010’s with releases like Capital Cities’ “In a Tidal Wave of Mystery” and Flume’s “Skin.”

Alabama Shakes- Sound & Color (2015)

The Brittany Howard-led Alabama blues band’s second outing, “Sound & Color,” is an awe-inspiring and irresistible fusion of blues, rock, folk and shoegaze. Howard’s gutsy, full-throated voice carries the record’s palpable emotion, and the shimmering instrumentation drives home those feelings. Howard sings about modern romance, making ends meet and constantly finding herself in arguments. Every moment of “Sound & Color” invites listeners to delve deeper into their own lives and explore their own sound and color.

Mount Eerie- A Crow Looked at Me (2017)

After his wife suddenly developed pancreatic cancer and passed away, singer/songwriter Phil Elverum, under the stage name Mount Eerie, delivered one of the most sobering, heart-wrenching and soulful records of the decade. On “A Crow Looked at Me,” Elverum explores the grieving process, the unspeakable tragedy of loss and trying to raise a newborn daughter on his own. The record is deeply mournful and is genuinely difficult to listen to in a single sitting, but it is a very important piece to experience. The raw, unfettered emotion that grows from Elverum’s poetry captures a moment in time that no other album before it had done.

Kanye West- Ye/KIDS SEE GHOSTS (2018)

“Ye” and its follow up, the collaborative project “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” with Kid Cuddi are far from rap legend Kanye West’s best records. They are not decade-defining sounds, breakout records or inherently unique sounds that no other outlet in the music landscape has captured this decade. Their inherent importance and cultural relevance for this decade is in the exploration of depression, mental illness and vulnerability by one of rap’s most prominent figures of all time. Unlike his most well-received projects of the decade, 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and 2013’s “Yeezus,” “Ye” and “KSG” portrays West as flawed, broken and searching for redemption for his past mistakes. These two records were an important moment for the narrative of hip-hop which began to shift the spotlight to emotional and mental vulnerability and self-reflection like never before.

Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues (2011)

The first follow-up to their tranquil, soulful and absolutely essential debut record, Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues” shifts the band’s focus from soliloquies about nature and escapism to a harsh criticism of modern society and the helplessness that their debut record did not address. Each track offers an almost prophetic critique about life in the modern age; as the decade draws to a close, the record’s themes are as prevalent and hard-hitting as ever. Additionally, “Helplessness Blues” also introduced drummer Josh Tillman as a main member of the band. Following the record’s release, though, Tillman left the group for a solo effort under the stage name Father John Misty.

Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is widely regarded as the best album of the decade. If not, it is at least the best hip-hop project of this generation. Kendrick Lamar exposes life as a black man in modern America, dissecting the landscape of racism, relationships, power and politics in the African-American community. Every word of Lamar’s delivery characterizes a culture of mass incarceration, gang violence, drug use and stereotypes. All in all, he rips apart a system that seems designed to keep African-Americans from achieving and improving their lives. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is not an easy listen- in fact, its strange, swirling jazz and R&B vibes are often dense and difficult to manage. It is, however, a necessary listen- there is much to be learned from Kendrick Lamar’s soul-bearing.

Father John Misty- Pure Comedy (2017)

Under the stage name Father John Misty, singer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Tillman delivers the most sobering, all-encompassing record of the decade in 2017’s “Pure Comedy.” Each of the album’s 13 tracks delivers a biting criticism of modern life, society, entertainment, technology, religion and government. Nothing is sacred for Father John; every topic he turns his eye to is deserving of criticism in the severest degree. Tillman’s apocalyptic approach to songwriting is accompanied by stunning orchestration and beautiful piano, guitar and drum arrangements. Everything “Pure Comedy” has to offer perfectly encompasses life in the 2010’s.

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