The 100 Best Albums of the 2010s – slantmagazine

Posted: December 20, 2019 at 6:49 pm

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Theres a popular memeshared most often by Gen Xers and tech-capable boomersthat self-deprecatingly laments the perception that the 1990s were just a few years ago. The absence of a generally recognized way to demarcate the first two decades of the 21st century (aughts? Teens? 10s?) has, perhaps, rendered the decade as a measure of time more arbitrary than ever before, resulting in one nebulous blur. The music of the past 10 years has likewise felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.

Of course, a lack of obvious trendslike synth-pop and hair metal in the 80s, and alternative rock and R&B in the 90sdoesnt mean there werent important milestones in music. Bolstered by albums like Kendrick Lamars To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye Wests My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hip-hop continued to rediscover both its conscience and its voice in the 2010s, while artists like Robyn and Katy B proved that even when dance-pop is pushed to the margins, as it was after the EDM explosion of the late aughts, it will always find its groove.

As is often the case with pop music, whose wiles arent often immediately apparent, some of the titles on this list of the greatest albums of the decade took their sweet time taking root. Taylor Swifts 1989, for example, sits at a lofty perch here but failed to garner a mention on our list of the Best Albums of 2014. Others, like DAngelos Black Messiah, were released just days after we published our list that same year. And yet another 2014 album, Bright Light Bright Lights sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, came to our attention a year after its initial release.

Some of the artists with multiple entries on this list, like Kanye West, began the 2010s at their creative and commercial zenith but floundered on both counts by decades end. Others, like Lana Del Rey, started out with great but uncertain promise and ultimately fulfilled it as the decade came to a close. Holdovers from the 90s like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Bjrk, as well as artists whose legacies stretch even further back, like the dearly departed David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, released some of their most compelling work to date in the last 10 years, making the task of clearly defining the decade even more of a fools errand. What these 100 albums do have in common is quite simple: They moved us. Sal Cinquemani

At a time when pop music is defined foremost by cynicism, Bright Light Bright Light, n Rod Thomas, offers a refreshingly sincere voice, unafraid to be poignant or vulnerable. Though the melodies on the Welsh singer-songwriters sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, are often uncomplicated, theyre also instantly familiar and accessible. The albums opening synths nod to Angelo Badalamentis score for Twin Peaks, as Thomas paints vivid, cinematic scenes of love lost and imagined, drenched in retro-minded synth-pop reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. The album is littered with tales of disintegrating love (Everything I Ever Wanted, I Wish We Were Leaving, featuring Elton John) but also the wide-eyed optimism of a hopeless romantic (An Open Heart, I Believe). It makes lifeand lovesound easy. Cinquemani

The first of two stellar albums Big Thief released in 2019, U.F.O.F. is less immediate and rhythmic than the subsequent Two Hands. Its all ambience and texture, unfolding like a reverie, with chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and cooing melodies so natural and easy that they sound like they sprung up from the ground or out of the trees. Singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenkers songs dont so much progress as they circle mesmerizingly around themselves, and the best of themCattails, Century, Fromseize on sing-songy melodic motifs with repetitious snake-like structures that become almost like mantras. Lenker and Buck Meeks guitar work is sparkling throughout, with every pluck and strum sounding sonically optimized. This is an album as difficult to categorize as it is easy to listen to. Jeremy Winograd

Electric found the Pet Shop Boys taking an easy and well-earned career victory lap. This isnt a nostalgia cruise through the sounds of its creators lost youth, but rather a daringly foolhardy effort to communicate with the kids in their own blissed-out lexicon. For this task, Electric brought in the man most perfectly suited to marrying 80s electro-pop classicism with genre-straddling EDM modernism, Stuart Price. More importantly, the duo brought a collection of wry and wonderful earworms that are every bit as huge as Prices canyon-sized sound. A reminder that classic songs dont have to arrive already frozen in amber. Blue Sullivan

Norwegian DJ Hans-Peter Lindstrm and vocalist Christabelles Real Life Is No Cool is a pop-funk odyssey that draws on early Massive Attack, Prince, and especially the space-disco of Giorgio Moroder. The album is, perhaps, Lindstrms most accessible work to date (the single Lovesick appeared in a car commercial and the U.S. version of the album is even more polished than the original Rough Trade incarnation), but despite clear standout tracks and copious pop hooks, its a testament to the strength of Lindstrms singular vision that the album plays best as one whole piece, no small feat considering that it was at least seven years in the making. Cinquemani

A friend recently played me James Blake through his new subwoofer with the dial turned to about 5, an experience that nearly made our heads explode. It served as a reminder of how amazingly rumbly, strange, and unique of an album it is, a fact that may have been forgotten in the nine months since its release. Cloaked in a cloud of mystery, it defies the usual bedroom-recording template, with an expansive sound that ranges from creeping, percussively stripped-down R&B to eerie MIDI-inflected dirges, with textures that provide padding for one of the most uniquely smooth voices to come around in years. Jesse Cataldo

Few artists could record an album as downright adventurous as Syro. It jumps from eerily funky trip-hop (produk 29) to disjointed, robotic acid house (CIRCLONT6A [141.98]) and then concludes with a solo piano piece that wouldnt feel out of place on a recital program alongside Chopin and Satie. But only Aphex Twin could record something this outlandish and appear to be toning down the experimentalism. Syro is a refinement of everything that Aphex Twin has accomplished in his career of genre invention and deconstruction. As a complete work, its enveloping, with moments of virtuosic composition (the prog-rock-on-ecstasy of syro u473t8+e [141.98]) balanced out by larger, propulsive gestures like rave banger 180db_[130]. While the rest of the electronic music world has been trying to catch up, Aphex Twin is finally taking a breath and, in turn, had released his most accessiblethough still profoundly idiosyncraticalbum to date. James Rainis

Tyler, the Creators obvious talent has always been undercut by an insistent immaturity, with callow, prankish antagonism proving a continued obstacle to his artistic development. With Flower Boy, raps resident enfant terrible has finally found a way to channel his hostility, on an album that still retains his inherent unruliness and intensity. Tyler taps into the internal reservoir of insecurity and doubt motivating his anger, expanding his range and revealing new creative layers in the process. Building on the glimmers of tuneful sweetness found on 2015s Cherry Bomb, the album finds existing horrorcore inclinations mixing freely with polished electro jazz, hard-edged psychedelia, and hazy R&B. Surprisingly smooth but still never easily digestible, its diverse palette provides insight into the wide variety of sources influencing a mounting wave of paradigm-fracturing rappers, helping to spearhead the genres fervent push into new modes of expression. Cataldo

As everyone whos caught his sprawling live show already knows, jazz bandleader Kamasi Washingtons maximalism will not be contained, and that, ludicrous as it may sound, even a three-hour label debut broken down into three volumes titled The Plan, The Glorious Tale, and The Historic Repetition and given the title The Epic still ever so faintly suggests the tip of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic. Change of the Guard? That might be an overstatement, but theres something undeniably thrilling about an artist who doesnt seem to dislike a single reference point. Washington, better known as Kendrick Lamars go-to arranger, pulls not a single punch as he draws from big band, fusion, swing, and bebop traditions, pays homage to Malcolm X, Ray Noble, and Claude Debussy, and overlays heavenly choral and string arrangements to send the entire enterprise into orbit. Eric Henderson

As the coolly altered colors of the cover art indicate, Katy Bs On a Mission is euphoric without aggression. Its awash in the newness of discovery, and represents the perfect confluence of elements that all but transcends any single camp. This isnt merely a house album, a pop album, a dubstep album, or an R&B album. Its a bright, cheerfully mainstream-friendly record thats almost completely built from the ingredients of much darker, grimier dance music subcultures in a way that recalls the sunnier moments of Basement Jaxx, or Kathy Diamonds Maurice Fulton-guided retro jaunt through the Loft on Miss Diamond to You. But softer still. On a Mission is a glowstick Alice in Wonderland, a tour of sensations as narrated by an emotionally reserved young girl whose curiouser and curiouser reactions ultimately wind up giving in to the moment, hungry for the next chapter. Henderson

Caution is an apt warning for those about to consume Mariah Careys first album in over four years. While her voice may be a reedy version of what it once was, she makes it abundantly clear on Caution that she isnt to be fucked with in this or any other decade. She wisely relies on the rap-inflected R&B sounds that have been her bread and butter since Butterfly, while bringing in unexpected collaborators like Skrillex and Blood Orange. She also switches up the message: In the aftermath of a highly public breakup, a sense of inevitable heartache hangs over the whole thing, from the delightfully salty lead single GTFO (I aint tryna be rude, but youre lucky I aint kick your ass out last weekend, she quips) to the even more savage A No No, in which she summons her verbally gymnastic falsetto for a Gilligans Island-related diss. The adoption of patois and clearly intentional use of irregardless suggest Mimi (still) has no time for notions of cultural appropriation or grammar, and appearances by Slick Rick and Biggie (via sample) let us know that her heart will always lie in hip-hop. Where it belongs. Paul Schrodt

With the lone exception of Bon Ivers Beth/Rest, no music this year has better captured the glitzy, breezy, unaware charm of 80s air pop better than Destroyers Kaputt. Theres an almost stark obliviousness to the albums caricatural, glossy atmosphere, obtuse lyricism, and plethora of jazzy brass, but therein lies its allure: Dan Bejar exists in his own little bubble, making songs for himself as much as others, and leaving us narrative riddles that perhaps only he can ultimately decipher. Yet as confoundingly esoteric as Kaputt can often be, its still a joy to listen to: Luxurious and blissful and playful in a way that conjures up the psychedelic pop storytelling of Al Stewart. From the bouncy hotel lobby ballad Suicide Demo for Kara Walker and the delicate melancholy of Chinatown to the almost ridiculous, full-on saxophone and vibes explosion that is the title track, Kaputt is the consummate balancing act of the cerebral and the irreverent. Kevin Liedel

With Hurry Up, Were Dreaming, M83 braintrust Anthony Gonzalez reportedly aimed to combine the aesthetics of the decidedly more shoegazey Before the Dawn Heals Us with the all-out, sparkling post-punk of Saturdays=Youth, with synth-pop tracks like Claudia Lewis and Reunion alongside ambient throwbacks like Echoes of Mine. As always, Gonzalez goes grand, aiming for the bright lights and saturated echoes of stadium anthems. One need look no further than the opening blast of Intro for evidence, where Gonzalez masterfully stacks buzzing circularity and distant choir strains with the seagull synths of Kim & Jessie, over which Zola Jesus delivers her muscular vocals. Liedel

In the run-up to the release of her sixth album, Reputation, Taylor Swift was excoriated by fans and foes alike for too often playing the victim. The albums lyrics only serve to bolster that perception: Swift comes off like a frazzled stay-at-home mom scolding her disobedient children on Look What You Made Me Do and This Is Why We Cant Have Nice Things. But its her willingness to portray herself not as a victim, but the villain of her own story that makes Reputation such a fascinatingly thorny glimpse inside the mind of pops reigning princess. Swift has proven herself capable of laughing at herself, thereby defusing the criticisms often levied at her, but with Reputation shes created a larger-than-life caricature of the petty, vindictive snake shes been made out to be. By albums end, Swift assesses her crumbling empire and tattered reputation, discovering redemption in loveonly Reputation isnt so much a rebirth as it is a retreat inward. It marks a shift from the retro-minded pop-rock of 2014s 1989 toward a harder, more urban aesthetic, and Swift wears the stiff, clattering beats of songs like Ready for It? like body armor. Cinquemani

Righteous anger is potent fuel for art, and in a year that desperately beckoned for protest music that could stand up to systematic economic and racial oppression, Killer Mike and El-P drew on just that to create Run the Jewels 2. Its not a political treatise (there are too many absurdist threats and flights of linguistic fancy to qualify), but tracks like the drug-dealers lament Crown and the accusatory Lie, Cheat, Steal hold a mirror up to societys blemishes and implore you to get fucking pissed about it to El-Ps punishing, Bomb Squad-reminiscent production. Decades after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the sonic revolution is still being fought, with brothers-in-arms Killer Mike and El-P as the new ringleaders. Rainis

DJ Kozes eclectic third effort, Knock Knock, tones down the psychedelic flourishes of 2013s Amygdala for a more accessible album thats inviting and soothing while also, at times, preserving a plaintive sense of yearning. Music on My Teeth opens with a sample of Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts intoning that time is a social institution and not a physical reality. Whether its a Gladys Knight & the Pips sample on Pick Up or a guest spot by an Auto-Tune-drenched Kurt Wagner from Lambchop on Muddy Funster, Koze seamlessly melds eras and genres to fashion shape-shifting sonic textures. He plays to his guests strengths, giving the music the semblance of a mixtape at times, but overall the sound nevertheless remains cohesive. Seamless shifts from trip-hop to R&B to deep house create a multidimensional aesthetic that runs the gamut from retro to futuristic, from analog to digital, all while exuding Kozes mastery of making the uncanny feel oddly familiar. Josh Goller

I hate love in my own language, Jenny Hval says on the title track of her seventh album, a spoken-word exchange between herself and Lasse Marhaug about the notion of reproduction and its impact on humanity. Although Hval has admitted to feeling some anxiety about dealing with love as a theme when shes spent so much of her career focusing on anything but, on The Practice of Love she explores the concept with closely observed specificity. Over propulsive, trance-influenced musical backdrops that lend a disarming sheen to its raw lyrics, Hval analyses the presenceand lackof love in nature (Lions feat Vivian Wang), in pregnancy and childlessness (Accident), and in communion with the dead (Six Red Cannas). Her lyrical style, equal parts allusive and up-front, makes for an exposing, raw album, as disquieting as it is dazzling. Anna Richmond

The collaboration of producer Doc McKinney and singer Abel Tesfaye, House of Balloons is entirely without precedent in R&B. The gothic production aesthetic is influenced as much by industrial, trip-hop, and downtempo as it is by urban radio, while Tesfayes tortured falsetto conveys both vulnerability and predatory intent. Its a lurid exercise in subterranean world-building, its depictions of dependency and desperation soundtracked by some of the catchiest, sexiest R&B jams youll never hear in the club. Matthew Cole

True to their name, Wild Beasts builds on and fully inhabits an undomesticated musical world far removed from the familiar grounds of their indie peers. The bands experimentation in flaky, embellished baroque pop is ultimately a reward for its loyal audience: The weirder they get, the better Wild Beasts become. For those who stuck with them through Two Dancers, Smother is another masterful step in that surreal journey, albeit a quiet, sensuous one. Largely shouldered by the bands two lead vocalists (a libertine cooer in Hayden Thorpe and the earthier, huskier Tom Fleming), Smother is both alluring and purposeful, not to mention full of beautiful surprises. What other group could achieve something like Invisible, an undisguised hat tip to the kind of soft, safe ballads one would expect from Phil Collins circa 1985, and still manage to infuse it with their own brand of unpredictable artistry? Liedel

The knock against Stephin Merritt and companys latest long-sit is the lack of company in the equation: Where 1999s 69 Love Songs varied its three-CD sprawl with rotating vocalists, Merritts sad-sack monotone is all we get for five discs on 50 Song Memoir. But, then, per the title, this is Stephins story: The songs each correspond to a year in the prickly 50-year-old songwriters life, and it wouldnt really make sense for anyone else to tell it. Merritt the aesthete understands this, and so he indulges in songs that wouldnt really make sense for anyone else to sing: Its hard to imagine A Cat Called Dionysus being such a laugh riot without his deadpan pivot from He hated me to I loved him, and only Merritt could find musicality amid the drolly listed maladies on Weird Diseases. What 50 Song Memoir has in common with 69 Love Songs is that its one of the Magnetic Fieldss most consistent albums. Merritts lyrical concepts hold together as albums better than his aesthetic onesand duration only helps the charm of his offbeat writing to sink in. Sam C. Mac

With her punk-yelp drawl, Santigold at first seems to be trying to affect Karen Os style on her second albums first single, GO!, but then the beat drops out and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman herself takes the mic, all elongated syllables and spliced-up vocals, and its clear Santi isnt just playing dress-up, but skillfully, reverently co-inhabiting Karens world. Santi is a shapeshifter, and the beats and arrangements of each track are likewise perfectly tailored to their lyrics. Dont look ahead, theres stormy weather, Santi warns just as guitar licks crackle like electricity on Disparate Youth, an expertly layered piece of dub-pop, while her cavernous background vocals reverberate beneath the mechanical rhythm section of God from the Machine. Even if hip-hop-leaning tracks like Freak Like Me and Look at These Hoes feel more derivative than the albums copious nods to new wave and synth-pop, Master of My Make-Believe is still a genre-defying exercise in exerting ones mastery over all. Cinquemani

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The 100 Best Albums of the 2010s - slantmagazine

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