I don’t know why it took me this long to realize that we just ended another decade, but it’s honestly so terrifying that I’m even writing this. Music has certainly transformed over the last ten years, as it does after each decade. The 2010s have left us with some amazing albums, and while they don’t seem like they were released all that long ago, they’ll eventually go down in history. Here are some of my personal favs.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
The decade’s deepest, and most musical rapper made three masterpieces in the 2010s, earning a Pulitzer for Damn. But To Pimp a Butterfly is the album that defined hip-hop in the 2010s, not just for Lamar’s ability to speak undiluted words regarding politics (see “King Kunta,” the inspirational “Alright,” the self-interrogating “The Blacker the Berry,” and Obama fave “How Much a Dollar Cost”) but also for his musical vision, which embraced cutting-edge new beats (producers Sounwave, Flying Lotus, Rahki). The album took home five awards out of a record-breaking 11 nominations at the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016. And its influence went beyond hip-hop. David Bowie studied it while working on his final LP, Blackstar. “We loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded,” said Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti. He threw everything on there, and the result is a landmark.
From Lady Gaga’s myriad stage characters to the many eras of Taylor Swift, this was the decade where pop performance art became not only expected from music’s top-selling artists but was also embraced. Midway through the 2010s, Rihanna swerved in another direction and gave us an album that is wholeheartedly herself. Anti arrived more than three years after 2012’s Unapologetic — the longest gap between albums in Rihanna’s career — but the vibe of the album suggests that she hotboxed the studio one night and emerged with a masterpiece. “Needed Me,” “Love on the Brain,” “Higher”: These are all near-perfect, in-my-feelings anthems for various stages of the night. But Ri-Ri’s carefree sweetness is still there: She does an extremely faithful Tame Impala cover and includes a Florence + the Machine in a bonus instrumental, just to show off her appreciation for both artists. Who knows when we’ll get that next album, but at least Anti is the gift that keeps on giving.
Arctic Monkeys, ‘AM’
Five albums in and Sheffield alt-rockers Arctic Monkeys had perfected the more nocturnal, adult version of their earlier vibe: a steadying drumbeat, fuzzed-out guitars and a smoldering look from frontman Alex Turner to seal the deal. On AM, Turner ponders the hardships of dating — from the “what are we” conversation (“R U Mine?”) to leaving late-night “come over” calls (“Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”) — proving that, for better or worse, even the best of us still strike out on occasion.
The 1975, ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It’
Can’t say the title didn’t warn you: The 1975’s second album was as sprawling, unwieldy, open-hearted and yes, occasionally embarrassing as its name would imply. But I don’t think they would’ve had it any other way — at a moment where many rock bands’ ambitions seemed to shrink to either getting to the bottom lines of a festival poster or populating a couple of Spotify playlists, The 1975 went as big as their character limits would allow. The result was a 74-minute work that encompassed electro-funk, starry-eyed new wave, and bedroom pop.
Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’
After three albums of radio-embraced, critically acclaimed rap, one deeply introspective detour and a VMAs mic grab seen ’round the Internet, no one knew what to expect when Kanye West dropped his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in late 2010. As it turns out, West had matured (in sound, at least) from the self-loathing song “Runaway” to the hard, pounding beat of “Monster” (complete with an iconic verse from Nicki Minaj) to the breath-taking openness of “Lost In the World,” MBDTF is the sound of an artist — using the studio as a palette — facing his contradictions, unhappiness and uncertainty. As we enter the 2020s, it’s hard to say where Kanye is headed, but one thing is for sure: At the outset of this decade, he set the bar by which all 2010s albums – rap, pop, alternative, you name it – would be measured.