The 40 Best Albums of the 2010s

The 40 Best Albums of the 2010s

The team at SMACK pick 40 genre spanning albums from the last decade.
rappers and rock stars pop stars form the cover for sgt. peppers

40. Badbadnotgood


[Innovative Leisure. 2014]

All throughout the decade, Canadian trio BADBADNOTGOOD have been carving their own path with their signature hybrid of hip-hop and jazz. Secretly inspiring important artists like Tyler The Creator, Kaytranada, and Ghostface Killah among many, the band’s formalist sound carried huge implications in the era’s renewed interest in live band hip hop and jazz. 2014’s III gave listeners their most unique composition yet.

Initially known for their jazz renditions of famous hip hop songs via youtube, III marks the first BadBadNotGood album comprised entirely of original music. The album carries a dark and smokey sonic texture that acts as a hypnotically engulfing canvas. This is greatly made possible by the fluid soloing of keyboardist Mathew A. Tavares who never seizes to make dynamic seven minute jazz fusion instrumentals feel like three minute pop singles.

The band’s natural crossover appeal pushed them to a wider niche of hip-hop fans and on III, Badbadnotgood’s crack shot rhythm section featuring drummer Alexander Sowinski and the rich basslines of Chester Hansen introduce post bop to boom-bap. Producer and Toronto hip hop staplist Frank Dukes gets some pretty great instrumentals live off the floor, and provides an eerie RZA like mix. Similar approaches to jazz and hip-hop have become common in recent years, but BADBADNOTGOOD have been planting these seeds for us since 2010 culminating in a truly original work in III.

- Nate Baptiste

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

39. Anderson Paak


[ArtClub. 2016]

With the immediate cultural and critical success of Malibu, one question lingered after Anderson Paak catapulted himself into the spotlight: what took so long? The California rapper’s latent talent was unmistakeable from the album’s first moments, but his diverse capabilities didn’t properly synthesize until he reached his thirties. One possible explanation for the delayed maturation is the sheer scope of his influences. While most traditional and contemporary hip-hop music is rooted in jazz, soul, funk and blues influences, few artists have juggled them as deftly and evenly as Anderson Paak. His production, lyrical and vocal styles move effortlessly between rap and R&B, and Malibu showcases his versatility as the rare jack-of-all-trades who mastered them all. That kind of proficiency takes time to develop, and this album was more than worth the wait.

The album is framed by a handful of historical radio transmissions, detailing specific aspects of the titular city’s cultural fabric. There’s an inherent sense of nostalgia in both the connecting samples and the songs themselves, starting with the Donny Hathaway inspired grooves of "The Bird". The album adopts a more distinctly rap identity as it progresses, aided by surprising guest appearances from solidified L.A. rap contemporaries like Schoolboy Q and veterans like The Game. This is just one example of the multi-layered ebb and flow between history and the present on Malibu, but the album’s mysterious narrator perhaps states it best on "The Dreamer": “I enjoy the old, and I enjoy some of the new. If I can find a balance between the two, that’s where I find my satisfaction”.

- Alex Vujacic

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

38. The War On Drugs

“Lost in the Dream”

[Secretly Canadian. 2014]

If you’ve ever tried to put together the perfect road trip playlist then you’ll know that finding the right music to fill the hours of highway driving can be a challenge. Fortunately, Adam Granduciel has you covered. His band The War on Drugs, formed back in 2005 with like-minded and now solo star Kurt Vile, have specialized in sweeping and melodic guitar-based music with lyrical and vocal nods to early Dylan, and on 2014’s perfectly realized album Lost in the Dream Granduciel has created the greatest album of his career.

The ten songs blend together so effortlessly that they feel like the subtle shifts in mood or conversation that demarcate the way a car ride with a good friend can ebb and flow. And with most of the songs clocking in around the six minute mark, there’s lots of room for Granduciel to expand his musical ideas and tones. Leaning heavily on early 80s influences like Springsteen, Petty, and even Roxy Music (instrumental track “The Haunting Idle” would fit easily on to classic Roxy album “Avalon”) the songs are never derivative, but are instead filled with poetic observations about relationships falling apart, self-doubt, and the general anxiety of being alone. There’s a building tension throughout the album that starts with almost-nine minute opening track “Under the Pressure”, which mounts to a cathartic release on late album track “Burning”. But throughout this Granduciel weaves in elaborate guitar work, sweeping synths, steady rhythms, and a progressive sense of moving forwards.

By the album’s last track, “In Reverse”, you feel as if you’ve come to the end of a journey through Granduciel’s lushly illustrated inner landscape and arrived at a kind of peaceful resolve – a feeling that is helped by the song’s recorded sound of waves washing on a shore. But like every good road tripper knows, it’s as much about getting there as it is the actual destination.

- Jason Foster

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

37. Kanye West

“The Life of Pablo”

[GOOD. 2016]

A beam of light from the heavens, a prayer for serenity, a child’s joyful exorcism, a choir, Chance the Rapper leading the procession…. A brief moment of silence as Kanye approaches the pulpit to deliver his first true bars of the album to the dismay of his pearl-clutching congregation, “Now if I fuck this model/ and she just bleached her asshole/ and I get bleach on my t-shirt/ I’mma feel like an asshole.” These side-splitting tonal shifts have come to characterize Kanye’s 2010s career where in true Joycean fashion West perilously leaps between the sacred and the profane (or more often pornographic).

The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s code-switching Ulysses, the homeward-bound wanderings of a man caught between the fleeting everyday of GoPro strapped dicks and petty beef with frictionless pop stars and the heights of divinity ascended on “Lowlights.” As he proclaims on “Ultralight Beam”: This is everything. Not just glamour, God, and fortune, but Lexapro, obsession, and witheringly crowd-sourced self-esteem. Even on “Saint Pablo”, Kanye’s self-aggrandizing makes comparisons to Einstein (or more likely Eisenstein, a similar master of montage) before translating Joyce’s legendary musings on the inanity of extolled virtue and the apathy of the stars to just staring up at the silent night sky wondering if God will finally reveal himself and even a simple “Hi” would do.

Kanye’s stuck between worlds. The album cover presents two photos and asks “Which One?” in a choice between family and thicc. By marrying Kim Kardashian, Kanye effectively got both. And though “Wolves” dubs Kim the Mary to Kanye’s Joseph, Kim is a little less Mary Mother of God and a little more Mary Magdalene. Yes, it’s a little hard to Keep up with all the Kontradictions, one moment there’s blood on the leaves and the next moment there’s bleach on the t-shirt. But for Kanye “This is Everything”, God’s creation. Just as God gave us the gift of making love, He also gave us the gift of making sex tapes.

- Bert, Ernie, & The Dirty Attorney

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

36. Scott Walker

“bish bosch”

[4AD. 2012]

Scott Walker, Walker Brother turned Brother Grimm, begins his final solo album Bish Bosch by plucking feathers from his own swan song, extricating all the sky-clad delights from the titular painter’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. The result? a Boschian landscape of grottesche surrealism and detached amusement where the sublime lurks in every sound.

Guiding the listener through the darkness is the unmistakably vampiric baritone that made Walker the Béla Lugosi of the avant-garde – not to mention Bartok and Tarr, other Hungarian Bélas with whom he shares an aesthetic taste. Lyrically, Walker is at his career’s erudite peak. In “Tar” he explores Biblical contradictions that go to the heart of evil: shall the righteous flourish or shall they perish? In the album’s slapstick S&M centrepiece, “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”, he redeems the downtrodden as he tells the tale of Zercon the Moorish dwarf’s ascent from Attila the Hun’s court jester to high-mass substellar object (true story). And on “Pilgrim” he inserts a bizarre and completely necessary reference to Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin, reminding us with the line “Blowing up bullfrogs with a straw” that cruelty is an impulse of the immature. But if threnodies aren’t your game, the album closer is a Christmas song, jingle bells included.

The instrumentation is just as uninhibited as the lyrics and no less precise. Coaxing blocks of sound from tubaxes, ebows, gongs, shofars and – yes – sphincters (among other more conventional instruments), Walker creates one of the most outrageous technical and engineering achievements of the decade. A big-budget studio affair where every nightmarish piece of soundscape is recorded in hi-fi.

In the end, many critics saw Bish Bosch as an aimless, pretentious shock-rock display. But it’s their loss, because they missed the wonderful pastiche of human-all-too-human macabre and undisguised contempt for Earth 2012 Anno Domini. The unbelievably enervating 21st century is filled with exactly the sort of historical detritus Walker recalls in his lyrics, but if we suffer through it we’ll be rewarded with treasures like Bish Bosch. In Walker’s words, “If you’re listening to this, you must have survived.”

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

35. Taylor Swift


[Big Machine. 2014]

The ubiquity of Taylor Swift today makes it difficult to remember that her massive pop album 1989 was released only five years ago. And while it may seem strange that a guy in his late 40s is writing about a singer-songwriter who was born in the year she takes her album title from, it shouldn’t. Swift is like Hurricane Katrina or the great San Francisco earthquake: she’s a force of nature that has transformed the entire cultural landscape. Like her earliest influence Shania Twain, Swift managed to crossover from the country music scene that nurtured her from her arrival in Nashville as a 14 year old performer to the global pop scene, and it’s on 1989 where her transformation is most clearly established.

Starting with the early release of catchy bubblegum-pop single “Shake It Off”, a song that skewered her critics’ slut-shaming of her, through to her cinematic fifth single “Wildest Dreams”, which features a Joseph Khan video starring Swift and actor Scott Eastwood in a Taylor/Burton type of Golden Hollywood-era illicit romance, Swift created on 1989 that rare kind of album in which almost every song is so perfectly crafted and produced that they could all be singles, and they can all be sung by her legions of fans in arenas around the world. And her fans are many, including Ryan Adams who famously covered each song on the album and then commercially released it the following year. Truly great music transcends age and genre, and Taylor Swift proved that handily with the release of a crossover masterpiece.

- Jason Foster

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

34. Swans

“to be kind”

[Young God. 2014]

In many ways, the 2010s seemed like a decade of long-awaited, triumphant comebacks: MBV, Hallelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend!, Black Messiah, Sol Invictus, ranging from once popular artists spurred on by dire straits to underground heroes delivering work long in utero. Yet, when Swans returned with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, and quickly followed it up with The Seer and To Be Kind, they uniquely fulfilled a true stylistic reinvention unprecedented for bands so old and dormant.

Yet for many it doesn’t matter that they evolved from the searing no-wave and gothic folk of the ‘80s and ‘90s, to the muscular primal rock we know now, because Swans 3.0 arrived with such fanfare from Web 2.0 that many were hearing them for the first time, as evidenced by To Be Kind cracking the Top 40, a milestone to which mastermind and sole original member Michael Gira was surely indifferent.

In a roundabout way, its fitting that To Be Kind was a record heard by so many virgin ears because it’s a work that marvels at naivety as it rediscovers the inner child. If the sextet of wailing babies on the album art didn’t give it away, one need only turn to the lyrical obsessions with the maternal and infantile scattered throughout. The opener “Screen Shot”, begins with two words “love” and “child” and unfolds in an exploration of the five senses that reasserts Gira’s sense of wonder with the Universe, a theme that peaks with “Some Things We Do” by skirting the edges of prosaic observations with quotidian incantations simply listing out – you guessed it – some things people do.

Even “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)”, sonically portrays childhood with startlingly accuracy as the band lets out a mocking laugh and explodes into fits of noise as if goading the listener into some schoolyard confrontation. And despite the lyrical focus of childhood and tenderness, “Oxygen”, “Kirsten Supine”, and “She Loves Us” typically culminate in a collective pummelling of instrumental pugilism. On one hand, there’s a blatant irony uniting the album, most obvious in the baby faced cherubim sequenced on gatefold contrasted with Gira’s weathered rictus shrouded in a large white cowboy hat. And yet, To Be Kind’s ironies are mostly synergies as adult-onset infancy gives birth violence, confusion, and Oedipal complexities that for most artists remain merely embryonic.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

33. PJ Harvey

“Let England Shake”

[Island. 2011]

When Let England Shake came out in 2011, its cynicism for the future was palpable. To many of the time it may have seemed too pessimistic for the moment: the Bush and Blair years were behind us, America had a black president now, and social progress for minorities seemed to be rapid.

In 2019 the album seems like a prophecy: the fall of the English empire seeming to reach its natural inward-looking swing with Brexit, and the world feeling like it is falling apart a bit day by day. The songs make it clear that we should not forget the past and not forget the mistakes of emotion and judgment made. The Iraq War still raged in the streets day after day, the rise of ISIS only a few years away.

Indeed, religion, war, and images of near Biblical carnage litter the album. This contrasted with Harvey’s higher pitched and less rock style vocals create an image of a crumbling society in a ballerina snow globe. The use of piano and horns further add to the feeling of some ancient and grand, playing in the background to often give an ironic punctuation to songs (see "The Glorious Land"). Overall Let England Shake feels like an album trying to shake a conscience and a passion back into society, and boy do we need it more with each passing year.

- Evan Koski

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

32. Fiona Apple

“The Idler Wheel...”

[Clean Slate. 2014]

“This world is bullshit”

It’s been over two decades since 19-year-old Fiona Apple’s viral admonishment of the music industry went hand-in-hand with her infamous MTV VMA speech. Despite releasing a collection of objectively superior albums in the years that followed, Fiona (unsurprisingly) has yet to receive an invitation back. But while the establishment had its back turned, she quietly released the best album of her career: a carefully curated magnum opus that’s as sonically singular as it is lyrically universal. Combining the emotional acuity of Tidal, the baroque experimentation of Extraordinary Machine, and the tonal focus of When the Pawn..., The Idler Wheel... highlights the most compelling features of Apple’s unparalleled discography.

Perhaps the most astonishing quality of the album is its omniscient self-awareness. The introspective reflection that defined Tidal has evolved to demonstrate a mature understanding of relationship dynamics. She admits on “Werewolf” that “I could liken you to a shark, the way you bit off my head, but then again, I was waving around and bleeding open wounds.” Her ability to articulate both perspectives of a nuanced relationship is what separates this album from its more solipsistic peers.

“Go with yourself” is the quote that she was chided for and with the release of The Idler Wheel, she proved twenty years later that her advice wasn’t bullshit.

- Alex Vujacic

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

31. Flying Lotus

“You’re Dead!”

[Warp. 2014]

You’re Dead! is an album where jazz, hip hop, and electronic music collide in a cyclone of technical flourish. According to virtuoso bassist Thundercat whose lightning runs across the fretboard give the album a frenetic feel, its title from the murderously effective instrumental ability displayed by all the musicians taking part in recording. Ominous bars from Kendrick Lamar, numerous arpeggiated bass solos, and the densely clustered keyboard harmonies courtesy of certified legend Herbie Hancock all pack into a swirling album that never gives you time to breathe (perhaps this is the reason why the listener is dead). Yet, despite the progressive compositions, You’re Dead! is a wild ride, fun and accessible from beginning to end.

However, You’re Dead! isn’t just about death by jazz. It’s about the continuity of life after death filtered through gonzo psychedelia. If you drop enough acid and read enough Homer you’re bound to discover the uncanny similarities between the Death Trip and Katabasis, the traditional Ancient Greek descent into the underworld where heroes impart wisdom on the traveller before returning to the land of the living. Although for Flying Lotus, instead of sacrificing a ram and ewe to make your descent to hell, you take a hit from a bong unexpectedly laced with DMT and Snoop Dogg emerges from the haze of weed smoke to be the most chill nekyia since Teiresias.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

30. Kaytranada


[XL. 2016]

Coming out of Haiti and eventually Montreal, deep house funk DJ Kaytranada’s versatility as a producer and deep understanding of rhythm and created buzz when he showed up on seemingly every important r&b and rap album from Malibu to Ego Death. His remix of Janet Jackson’s “If...” caught the attention of Madonna, while other work earned him a deal with XL and gave him a passport to book amazing collaborators for his coming out project.

Still, with all of the guests that feature artists as diverse as Syd!, badbadnotgood, Craig David, River Tiber, and Little Dragon, Kaytranada’s retro slice of funky electronic alt r&b and strength as a producer always takes centre stage. The album title refers to perfectionism and indecision, and the high standard of music on 99.9% speaks volumes.

It’s a noticeably old fashioned electronica; most of the retroback approach is rooted Kaytra’s use of vinyl samples and strange analog synths that play augmented chords giving the album a moody vintage cool. 99.9% is a collision course of varied styles offering a wide diversity of genre and a bridge between old school styled house routed in 80’s Detroit like “Together”, bass heavy new wave r&b like “Got it Good”, and club rap with heavyweights like Vic Mensa and Anderson Paak. Kaytranada’s talents are nowhere more centre stage than “Lite Spots”, the best of 99’s four tracks without a guest, where a sample of Brazilian funk is filtered, flipped, and dropped to thrilling effect.

It should be no surprise that a DJ would be capable of creating a record with this ebb and flow of sequence and whip smart curation. In an era of digital shine and edm excess, Kaytranada’s stripped down sound and skillset as a producer made 99.9% one of the strongest debuts of the era.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

29. Beyonce


[Parkwood. 2016]

As both an artist and an icon, Beyoncé has attracted all manner of superlatives, but it is on Lemonade that they are the most deserving. Beginning with an early roll-out at the Super Bowl 50 Half-time Show, lead single “Formation” generated controversy with its Black Lives Matter content, and just barely overshadowed the behind-the-scenes marital drama that inspired much of the writing of Lemonade. As such, it’s almost impossible to listen to the album or watch the accompanying videos without considering the highly publicized indiscretions of Mrs. Knowles-Carter’s husband. And that’s a good thing.

These are songs (and videos; the album is very much another concept project that incorporates the two together) about grown-up problems that are free of the trappings of radio-friendly love-and-loss lyrics, and in this era of parasocial relationships these realizations of betrayal (“Pray You Catch Me”, “Hold Up”), personal rage (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), and the pain of reconciliation (“Love Drought”, “Sandcastles”) and rediscovered self-worth (“6 Inch”, “Formation”) feel like they’re happening to a couple we all know. Indeed, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are pop star royalty, and this carefully produced and marketed exposure of their domestic struggles emboldened both their brand and our impression of them (clearly reflected by the fact that their 2018 On the Run 2 Tour generated over a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue). Musically, lyrically, and visually, Lemonade is a major turning point not just in Beyoncé’s career, but in pop music itself.

- Jason Foster

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

28. Chris Stapleton


[Mercury Nashville. 2015]

Like every other shooting star that lights up our night skies, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, Chris Stapleton had in fact been moving through space for quite some time before bursting into our consciousness. By the time his solo debut Traveller was released in 2015, Stapleton had already spent over a decade in Nashville writing songs for a broad range of artists, including George Strait, Darius Rucker, Brad Paisley, and Adele, as well as helming his own bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. But it’s as a solo musician where, with the assistance of super-producer Dave Cobb, Stapleton truly found success. Proving himself to be a troubadour, a raconteur, and an outlaw, his mercurial writing has set him apart from almost every other artist in the Country or Americana scene.

On opening title track “Traveller” Stapleton establishes the theme of perpetual movement, and the inability to either settle or see things remain the same, which is ultimately an apt description of his refusal to adhere to one typical sound. Second single and chart topper “Parachute” reveals a more crossover-conscious Stapleton, bridging a tight gap between Jason Isbell’s Americana and Tom Petty’s heartland rock. Interestingly though one of the album standouts is a cover of “Tennessee Whiskey”, a song made famous by George Jones back in the 1980s, but here delivered in a sultry and sensual style that’s more Marvin Gaye than traditional country. And this desire to surprise us is perhaps why Chris Stapleton is worth paying attention to as he continues to burn ever so brightly.

- Jason Foster

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

27. Deafheaven


[Death Wish. 2013]

The ubiquitous proliferation of pop and hip-hop influences has more or less defined the decade in terms of both popularity and critical appeal. Seasoned alternative rock bands shifted toward an unprecedented embrace of pop sensibilities, while new artists gravitated toward the revivalist movements of shoegaze, dream pop and psychedelic rock. For the first time ever, it seemed as though the (over-arching) indie rock genre was ceding its reputation for artistic innovation to its electro-pop peers. Then, out of nowhere, Deafheaven came along and released Sunbather, a towering fusion of black metal, post-rock and ambient electronica that reminded everyone of the limitless potential of album-oriented rock.

In a decade that’s seen a dramatic rise in both anxiety disorders and activities like yoga and meditation that are intended to alleviate them, it’s easy to see how Deafheaven genuinely addresses and reflects the zeitgeist. Sunbather is nearly bipolar in nature; it undulates between screamo aggression and ambient melody in a way that truly shouldn’t mesh as effortlessly as it does. The album is structured to contrast long, heavy metal-oriented songs like the eponymous “Sunbather and “The Pecan Tree” with brief soothing instrumental interludes like''Irresistible” and ''Please Remember”. The sheer sonic breadth of the album is overwhelming for many, but few albums have ever been able to capture the full spectrum of human emotion as honestly as Sunbather. It’s equal parts Slayer and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with its own unique perspective on how those influences coalesce. If you’ve ever been fascinated by heavy metal but turned off by its relative inaccessibility, this album is the perfect starting point for you.

- Alex Vujacic

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

26. Kamasi Washington

“The Epic”

[Brainfeeder. 2015]

Fully formed and already self-mythologizing, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington makes his his mainstream debut on The Epic. Though many may not have yet known his name, Washington was fresh out of playing on Kendrick Lamar's earth-shaking To Pimp a Butterfly and was ready to take over with an album whose titular and thematic synergy was positively meteoric in impact.

Like Kendrick, Washington was inspired to channel the Afro-American futurism of the late-sixties and early seventies by avoiding the cliché romanticisms of traditional vocal jazz and instead recalling the street like mentality of Max Roach or Archie Shepp’s soulful eulogizing for seminal figures like Malcolm X and Henrietta Lacks.

Washington's similarity to these figures goes beyond substantive and into stylistic as his tenor sax runs nod to Coltrane’s commanding pentatonics and sheets of sound. But he takes many structural cues from Pharaoh Sanders as well, as he builds his solos from melodic and bubbly conciertos to explosive overblowing. With nine out of the 17 tracks that feature an ensemble of 25 personnel, it’s miraculous that the arrangements feel as spacious as they do, often fitting a standard jazz combo alongside a second drummer and bassist, a string section, and a 14-person choir à la Alice Turiyasangitaananda Coltrane.

Jazz has been flying over the heads of the popular consciousness ever since Coltrane went galactic and Miles Davis read Stockhausen. So what is a jazz album supposed to sound like in the 2010s? Today, we see the nostalgic tributes of Wynton Marsalis, the cold intellectualisms of ECM first-stringers like Vijay Iyer, and the post-hip-hop grooves of Yussef Kamaal and BADBADNOTGOOD. But from out of nowhere, Kamasi Washington arrives from the wholly different space of the spiritual and the political, as if he descended from the same interstellar galaxy that Coltrane departed to, returning back to Earth with a righteous message and the awesome power to back it up.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

25. Beach House

“Teen Dream”

[Dreamland. 2010]

Teen Dream is one of those albums that seems to have a connection backwards and forwards in time. With a sound that picks up where the Cocteau Twins left off (with a bit of Slowdive-style shoegaze for good measure), inventive Baltimore dream pop duo, Beach House created a powerful indie classic that feels buried in a haze of love, loss and longing.

Indeed, the lyricism present on Teen Dream is impressive itself, tackling the topic of lost love with incisive poetry, unique vocals, and chord changes that invoke a miasma of romantic nostalgia that could rip your heart right out of your chest. In the case of Beach House, it’s how they found their voice. Legrand’s voice and keyboards and Scally’s guitars still hold the fire as the major force in the band’s dynamic, but it’s stretched here with more diversity as promised by the forward moving opener “Zebra”. The group even flex a newfound pop sensibility on “Norway” resulting in the rare crossover that breeds festival appearances and car commercials interpolating their rhythms.

Beach House are given rightful credit for restarting the dream pop craze of the 2010s, but none of their ilk quite reach the sound and depth of forbidden knowledge and veiled beauty achieved on Teen Dream. Romantic and alluring but with a more ambitious outlook, Teen Dream is an epic in modern indie alternative.

- Evan Koski

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

24. Tyler, the Creator


[A Boy is a Gun. 2019]

In a profile piece for Fantastic Man, Tyler the Creator was asked if had ever fallen in love. His answer was clear: “I don’t want to talk about that. That’s the next record.”

We’re in the second act of Tyler’s career, a bizarre statement given that he is only 28 years old. It’s hard to believe the same kid who rapped about imprisoning Taylor Swift on “Orange Juice” would be spitting over the avant-garde hip-hop of Igor, but I guess that’s what happens when brilliance matures in the public eye. Igor may be a grown-up record, but it’s the grown-up record only Tyler could make. With an outcast’s catharsis along with a flamboyant new alter ego, Igor is as Blood on the Tracks as it is Ziggy Stardust, Tyler’s odyssey through the tribulations of a break-up made not only for 2019’s most impactful listening experience, but also its most tumultuous. A protagonist professing his love on “EARFQUAKE” finds himself consumed by his own jealousy on “NEW MAGIC WAND”, turning him into a monster worthy of the album title. A less competent artist might sacrifice cohesion for such emotional mayhem, but Tyler manages to make the dips and rises feel all part of the same carousel ride, even managing to capture this war of romance and toxicity in soulful slow-jams like “A BOY IS A GUN”.

It’s this level of intention and boldness that gives the project an authenticity unlike anything we’ve ever seen from the Odd Future mastermind. Flower Boy showed Tyler’s understanding of pop structure and how he could bend it to his will, but Igor proved him the conceptual visionary he always had the potential to be. It’s a break-up record so honest you can see tears soaked into the grooves, not to mention his masterpiece until he proves otherwise. And at 28 years old with no end in sight, who would be surprised if he did?

- Jared Marshall

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

23. Courtney Barnett

“Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit”

[Milk! Records. 2015]

Remember those dumb songs from the 2000’s and the Juno soundtrack where the girl and her B-rate band sing cute major key songs about vampires and gardening? Well, Courtney Barnett took that niche aesthetic, put it on steroids and gave it legitimacy.

Another way to look at Sometimes I Sit..., is as an ideal gateway album to the 2010’s reinvigorated interest in 90s rock. Not just in its loud quiet dynamics, but in that it invests a renewed interest in dry wit and a Gen X sincerity not seen in this capacity since Pixies and Pavement.

It’s all in the performance, the interesting characteristics in Barnett’s voice between her accent, grace, and lagging yet perfect pitch and the personalities she depicts in her songs. Oh right and that incendiary guitar sound. Barnett’s shredding solos, often centre-stage at the climax of her songs, spawns the powerhouse tone that grounds the entire album. There’s a recklessness to Barnett’s playing, yielding songs that are rough like the thrilling “Pedestrian at Best,” but it’s just a byproduct of the decade’s new generation of female guitarists. Courtney Barnett is maybe the best of them, pushing the guitar beyond its reputation as accompaniment for singer songwriters and using it as a lead instrument. Barnett’s songs are full of riffs, solos, rhythm leads, and different tunings all without the use of a pick.

Once acclimatized to her raw, edgy style, you can see the 32-year-old a little clearer through her whip smart, yet reflective lyrics. A purposefully mundane delivery in thick Melbourne tongue makes it all the more special when you sit and (think) listen to the stories being told about the slackers and homebodies that inhabit them.

- Bianca Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

22. Haim

“Days Are Gone”

[2013. Polydor]

I’m sure you’ve heard the critiques before: something about the post Taylor Swift breakup song universe and weird genre hybrids and how any singer worth a damn who charges off into the pre chorus with “you know you ain’t gonna make it” after rhyming it with “you know I ain’t gonna take it,” would HAVE to back it up with some kind of crack shot musicianship. But something the blog haters could never understand is that this is pop music we’re talking about, a pop music seemingly designed bulletproof from the spoils of over analysis, and with fearless lyricism, musical proficiency, and a deep understanding of rhythm, HAIM may as well have written the book on indie crossover.

Seemingly bouncing around the teen pop industry for half a decade, Danielle, Este, and later, younger sister Alana had done everything from playing Jewish delis to performing jingles to backing up Julian Casablancas and Cee Lo Green. Through some divine miracle the sisters clicked, started a band, used their connections to get bigger gigs, dropped their EP, and signed a deal with Polydor. Recorded in between touring, Days Are Gone showcases in the pocket, precise playing with the synergy signature of any great family act.

The Haim sisters' ear for melody yielded a collection of songs that was not only catchy, but smart, designed at a running tempo, but danceable. The tracklist doesn’t leave room for a breather, confidently zipping through what couldn’t be 12 great pop songs in a row, thrown down in a no nonsense sequence. “If I Could Change Your Mind” lays down a tender contralto a la Christie McVie yet plows through three minutes and fifty seconds with the pace of new jack swing. Bandcamp icon, “Forever” boasts a similarly active arrangement and with the same incredibly aware occupancy of sonic space never comes off as busy. “Don’t Save Me” is all hook, but tugs onto the emotional brevity of every soulful wail and staccato grunt just as much as it relies on every breezy melody.

Rock producer of the decade and Danielle Haim boyfriend Ariel Rechtshaid in finest form presents every sound with utmost respect.. Claps, stomps, fake drums, linn drums, gated reverb, a host of guitars and digital synthesizers straight off your sister’s yamaha (but more likely Garageband stems) create a collage of effervescent sound. Which ultimately is what makes Days Are Gone so fantastic; the marriage of an artist who knows how to write great songs and a producer who knows how to make great recordings.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

21. LCD Soundsystem

“This is Happening”

[DFA. 2010]

At the beginning of the decade, pop music was in a palatable phase of shifting. With his intended swan song, 2010 was the perfect year for James Murphy to close out the belated 2000’s and show us what the 2010’s could have in store. In the meantime, Murphy and his virtuosic dance punk band of LCD Soundsystem showed us that nobody could do it quite like them. This Is Happening is a dancy, anthemic album that makes you want to party through hard times.

James Murphy, then newly 40, had massively altered the scene with another decade’s best in Sound of Silver. Like prior works, This is Happening features a unique blend of organic sounds with bright electronic production. The characteristically cheeky “Drunk Girls” upholds a fun party vibe with a garage arrangement expressed by fuzzy guitars, snappy live drums, and clean infectious basslines. This engaging injection of live instrumentation adds LCD Soundsystem’s signature human touch to a stereotypically robotic genre.

This is Happening’s dance punk gave way for some pretty impressive performances and incredible chemistry between members. Drummer Pat Mahoney drives a beat behind the album’s tight nine tracks. Perfectly punchy, simple and on top of the beat, it feels like the energy they bring to the album is equal to the energy exerted by the group’s terrific rhythm section. It’s a band working together behind existential think pieces and heartfelt performance. At times subdued and simple, at others explosive and melodic, Murphy infuses raw emotion into every line, carrying a catharsis no matter what style he chooses to sing in.

Calling from various eras of technology, LCD Soundsystem are known for their synth implementation, but no previous projects of theirs has been able to achieve This is Happening's crystal clear sound. “Dance Yrself Clean” is probably the most upfront display of this with both sides of the spectrum felt. In the nerve racking extended intro, there is a light to Murphy’s invasion of a living breathing stress case until in one of the greatest moments in modern recorded music, a soaring lead synth line that explodes into a massive bassy groove rattles the speakers and releases the narrator.

This Is Happening is an iconic part of the decade's rock and dance music progression. LCD Soundsystem pull sounds from the 70’s and 80’s in a marvellous way without making any song a direct throwback. The culmination of one of the great rock careers of our time, what LCD Soundsystem brilliantly constructs here is that feeling of temperance. Enjoy the moment. It is happening.

- Nate Baptiste

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

20. David Bowie


[ISO. 2016]

The precipice of destruction has always been a place where the artist stands perched with an easel. It’s just a shame that David Bowie’s precipice, which led to his greatest album since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), was liver cancer. Wrestling with the great unknown is nothing new in music, but Bowie handled it the way that he seemed to handle everything else in his life: he turned it into a spectacle.

Blackstar doesn’t just stand on gimmick alone. Yes, it cannot be ignored that listening to it feels like a dead warrior calling to you from the skies of Valhalla, but this ambiance is created by pinpoint execution. Not a saxophone or drum roll feels out of place; all the pieces coming together in ways that evoke the same glee as adding “Station to Station” to your cue. Perhaps calling back to his early days as a jazz aficionado, Bowie recruited a local New York jazz band led by Donny McCaslin to help him record “from 11 to 4 every day,” according to Tony Visconti. This in tandem with influences of To Pimp a Butterfly, Death Grips, and Boards of Canada led to a record deliberately eluding the rock and roll feel Visconti and Bowie were trying so desperately to avoid. This is the most avant-garde the dynamic duo has gotten since Low.

It’s not to say the record isn’t homely. While the 10-minute epic “Blackstar” is utter pandemonium fit for an Anne Hathaway SNL jazz freak-out, the rhythm slips nicely into a classic Bowie swagger for the latter half. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” literally samples “A New Career in A New Town” to close the album in a mist of memories. But it is the sound of a fading star. Bowie turned his fall from grace into a mystical engagement with Osiris and a swansong fit for the Thin White Duke.

- Jared Marshall

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

19. Father John Misty

“I Love You Honeybear”

[Sub Pop. 2015]

On his second studio album, Josh Tillman – better known as Father John Misty – flexes his artistic muscles, proving he is both one of the decade’s greatest singers and songwriters.  I Love You, Honeybear is a concept album that chronicles Tillman’s life and relationship with future wife Emma. A deeply personal album, enough so that Tillman has explained his struggle to perform the songs to the people that inspired them. However, the raw nature of the album stands out and his emotional IQ as a songwriter has never been stronger.

Billed as “The Love Album”, Father John Misty thoughtfully tempers the intimate and uncomfortable notes with incredibly sharp, pointed songwriting full of pure emotion and deep meta self awareness– even down to the inserted laugh track on “Bored in the USA”. Tillman’s composition of each track on the album is best described as gorgeous and deliberate as he continuously steps outside of the traditional rhyming structure and indulges run-on lyrics. It’s a refreshing take that is propelled even further when delivered through Tillman’s genuine, beautifully heart aching vocal register..

He runs the gambit on genre, flaunting electronic pop tunes in “True Affection”, indulging rock and roll angst in “The Ideal Husband,” and bathing the overall album in a heartfelt and heart-wrenching country twang throughout the album but never better than “Nothing Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow”.

The sheer diversity – in emotion, in genre, in lyricism, in paraphrases to the pillars of modern pop culture from Dylan to Carlin – should not be overlooked, either. Tillman walks listeners through the emotions of falling in love, of heartbreak, and of all the feelings in between. From song to song, his demeanour jumps from tender to charged, from passionate to disillusioned. He’s both assertively pessimistic and unapologetically openhearted, but most importantly FJM made one of the decade’s most personal albums that in the vein of most great folk music runs the line between funny, relevant, sincere, and consequential.

- Bianca Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

18. Sun Kil Moon


[Caldo Verde. 2014]

At some point around 2012 Mark Kozelek began his late-career shift into DIY neo-realism, ushering in a new era of Sun Kil Moon that would typify the prolific artist through the rest of the decade. Set to delicate nylon finger-picking, Benji traverses death both explicable and inexplicable as he ventures into the quotidian recesses of his life.

His elegiac send-ups on “Carissa”, “Truck Driver”, and “Micheline” aren’t concerned with spilling ornate verse, but instead focus on the inauspicious ends of exploding trash, petty thievery and fast food at a funeral. Even, “Dogs”, the album’s ode to romantic love brings out Kozelek’s most world-weary troubadour. It begins by recalling how Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” made great make-out music and ends with an ambiguous take on the eponymous sexual position. And though its struggles will surely bring a cringe or two, the embarrassment has long faded away.

Though Benji is mostly concerned with Kozelek’s personal life, his politics shine through on “Prayer for Newtown” and “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”, songs which do more to capture the exhaustion and rage of political despondency than any number of we-are-the-world detritus released this decade.

The album reaches its peak with “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same”, drawing on Led Zeppelin’s mighty epic, not for mere fantasy, but to look back in a fog of Proustian Reverie at schoolyard bullies, career moves, rock ‘n roll and wonder, “What the fuck happened to my life?” Indeed, the shocked melancholy of time has been a dominant theme in Kozelek’s career. The revelation of Benji is that there is nor will be no release, the whole damned human comedy just keeps perpetuating itself. So it’s fitting that Benji closes on the day-in-the-life recounting of “Ben’s My Friend”, declining to confront the infinite one last time and instead smooth out with a breezy saxophone, listen to the crickets and shrug off the whole affair as a “a middle-age thing”.

As Sun Kil Moon albums have gotten entropically longer, testing the boundaries of attention span and good taste (or any taste at all for that matter), it's worth remembering that Benji was the masterwork, a breakthrough to a new style of plainspoken folk, filterless and unrelenting in its reckoning.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

17. Arcade Fire

“The Suburbs”

[Merge. 2010]

When most people heard Arcade Fire’s timeless debut Funeral it was clear that Arcade Fire were going to be the best band in the world. The Suburbs is the realization of that statement, but it also clearly paints Arcade Fire as the biggest and a unique phenomenon in the tried and true world of rock and roll. The epic third studio album from the Montreal indie rock band is steeped in grand emotion, but unpretentious and genuine to the core as ever achieving universal acceptance not yet achieved by an indie group.

But it’s also great and beautiful and meaningful, personifying the directionless feeling inherent in adolescence with a theatrical full length structure. And together with its epic arrangement, the record’s unifying theme catapulted its reach. It’s ultimately about the desire to not become like the kids using big words that they don’t understand, nor the blood drinking businessmen.

Arcade Fire maintains the distinctive, signature sound from Neon Bible full of odd and traditional instruments and large ensemble crescendo, but more chances are taken here yielding a more varied collection of songs. Inspiration is seamlessly woven in from other genres, from the droning of post punk guitars in “The Month of May” to the theatrical string and wall of synthesizers for the climactic “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. “We Used To Wait” predicts the more dance oriented grooves of the forthcoming Reflektor, delivering perhaps the first Arcade Fire song with attitude. Each song has its own personality, but none feel out of place and complete a diverse, yet cohesive record united by the theme of adolescence.

From the opening promise of an impending war to the closing whispered reflection “If I could have it back, all that time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again”  The Suburbs creates a motif of youthful unrest that feels like an outstretched hand. As if on the verge of something, Arcade Fire creates a significance in something as mundane as suburbia and makes mountains out of moments.

- Bianca Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

16. Beyoncé


[Parkwood. 2013]

Do you remember where you were on December 13, 2013? A few minutes past midnight I was  deep into my twitter feed and my laptop practically exploded. After a few clicks, it became clear that what I had stumbled upon was a justified reaction. Beyonce’s album dropped: 14 new songs, 17 videos, no warning, 11 days before Christmas. A mega-star known for her perfectly tailored image and regularity in the press junket. The secrecy of a project of this size seemed so risky at the time.

Apart from marketing brilliance Beyoncé marked a turning point in Beyoncé’s music. Though an entertainer of untouched caliber since the early stage of her career, it had been somewhat of a struggle for the Queen Bey to come up with a definitive sound. Previously 'Yonce was mostly classified as an R&B star who flirted with funk and had some retro feeling records. B’day was thematically inspired the golden aged nostalgia of movie star vehicle Dreamgirls, and 4 consisted of 1980s boogie funk, incredibly executed if not predictable.

Then all of a sudden in the early part of the decade, a relatively fast growing offspring of southern hip hop called trap blew up and nearly consumed everything in its path.  It was a match made in chop and screw heaven, Beyonce finally finding the right playground to communicate her ethos with more attitude than before and unabashedly flaunt her empowering sexuality and monogamist flexes. Now, established enough to take risks, her lyrical reinvention, a singy, powerful rap style created a vocal delivery that was versatile and definitively hers.

Like any memorable pop record, Beyoncé delivers a copious selection of great singles and memorable moments; “Blow” weaves playfully through R&B, funk, hip-hop, and sex and drug innuendoes while “No Angel” would foreshadow later themes with its telling of imperfections within a relationship in the form of a poignant ballad. For turning up, the iconic “***Flawless” serves a double time unapologetic ode to feminism featuring Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie.

She yearned for an era when creating music was about the entire production, the planning, execution, no detail left unattended and Beyoncé delivers on this desire. A defining moment for an iconic visionary and one of the great artists of the era whose later standouts Lemonade, back to back Superbowl halftime appearances, Everything is Love, and Homecoming would follow in a similar vein and ethic, Beyoncé in its self titled reinvention glory would symbolize the blueprint for her takeover of the decade.

- Kayla Vickers

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

15. Migos


[Quality Control. 2017]

It’s not dumb...but it is weird. They looked weird, spoke weird, and used slang that didn’t make sense. Their circumstances were unpredicted, spending their early years selling drugs and working Atlanta’s then under bubbling rap scene until Drake, hungry for street cred, jumped on a remix of the iconic “Versace”. A wildfire of hype spread, Migos becoming the talk for bars laid with off kilter, yet gripping placement. Upon first listen, the Migos flow and those off the cuff adlibs appear inventive but nonsensical nonetheless, until you realize Takeoff is using “cookie” the same way John Lennon did on Plastic Ono Band.

This decade, trap music was the defacto sound of rap, something of a 70s punk movement as a highly in demand breath of simplicity to pretentious over-complications in the contemporary sound. Migos may as well be Ramones. Sure the obvious similarity is that they’re billed as related, get a little deeper and you get into attitude, but it’s really how each member contributes something unique to the big picture here that aligns them with other great bands who differentiated themselves from the current climate. The combination of Offset’s machine gun consistency, Takeoff’s girthy baritone, and Quavo’s drippy melodies make for a mutuality that could have only come from a family act.

More people than can be counted on human digits crafted an immaculately clean sound. Throughout the record, pianos and synths pierce through the mix with icy integrity while trunk rattlers like “Get Right Witcha” and the seminal “T-Shirt” boast enough sub bass to eject the roof. Even slow burner “Kelly Price”, completely comprised of auto-tuned vocals offers a pretty effective duet between Quavo and Travis Scott.

Upon re-listen it is no wonder why the Migos took the decade over. They revolutionized an approach that was fresh enough to be exciting and a style unique enough to be original; it was gangster enough to be serious, yet direct enough to be funny. Woof.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

14. Solange

“A Seat at the Table”

[Saint. 2016]

In a year of gargantuan albums from the biggest artists of the day like The Life of Pablo, Anti, Lemonade, and Views Solange proved that the quietest voice speaks loudest. A Seat at the Table demanded to be heard.

Rather than follow in the footsteps of her sister, Solange Knowles possessed a more graceful register and relied more on sonics for emotional brevity yielding some of the most realized, slickly produced socially conscious music of the day and expanding the sonic and thematic limitations of modern R&B. The use of live instrumentation, synths, effects, and three part harmonies continually dazzle and the imaginativeness feels like a constant blow of refreshing air. ASATT recalls a Black America sonically engineered by revolutionary albums like Hot Buttered Soul or To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s broadly experimental pop music with the ability to create real lasting emotion, to touch on deep and universal themes, and to not just be of the moment but pull us far into the future as necessary.

A swirl of different styles, identities, collaborators, and sociopolitical commentary combine to create an album that has the feel of a lifetime work. Industry geniuses like Sampha, Q-Tip, and uniting Solange’s early career affinity to Brooklyn indie, Dave Longstreth create a sonic picture of lasting impression. A Seat at the Table was inspired by the police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore and connects the current toxic climate to Solange’s mental and emotional self doubt. The album has gone on to represent Black identity, female empowerment, dignity, and independence.

The piano based “Mad”, influenced by her father’s segregation filled childhood in Houston uses a simple piano melody and gives Solange a satellite stage to wax poetic and correct a long running stereotype regarding the tempers of Black women. “F.U.B.U.” pays homage to the iconic 90’s brand, teams Solange with R&B legend The-Dream, and draws parallels between Black owned and illegitimate businesses; “Weary” is a tender ballad, but under the surface argues the near impossibility of maintaining cordiality when constantly fighting for a base level of respect.

It is neo-soul, late night lounge, and packaged in the form of committed concept piece. A contemporary take on the much needed protest album and a stunning achievement in modern urban music. Like What’s Going On nearly 45 years before it, A Seat at the Table seems to reach beyond the boundary of art and encapsulate the current social climate through progressive music.

- Evan Koski

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

13. Noname


[Self Released. 2016]

After catching the public’s attention with her scene stealing appearance on Chance the Rapper’s “Lost”, Chicago’s spoken word MC Noname Gypsy, made everybody wait. 4 years eclipsed from the time her debut release was announced to its eventual release.

It is an album for quiet spaces.

With a style rooted in jazz, gospel, and the melodic sincerity of Stevie Wonder, Telefone carries a unique identity. Comprised entirely of live instrumentation, its sound is noticeably colourful and warm. Try comparing it to other braggadocios native Chicago sounds like drill, trap, or even The College Dropout or Acid Rap. Yes, like all great hip hop music the drum mix still knocks, but here, more space is left to allow for the ensemble to snap their fingers. Living room pianos and vocal registers barely rise above library lecture. Chance the Rapper does not reciprocate an appearance, the MC doesn’t even really have a name. It is a modest, healing, purposeful 30 minutes of music and one of the most different and original sounding hip hop records in recent memory.

During the decade, the South Side of Chicago, famous for its gang unrest became an area of interest in the media’s short lived focus on police brutality and death and mortality loom heavily over the record. Though packaged with colourful vibrance, the cover pays homage to Día Del Muerte art and lyrical references to loss throughout the record are extensive. The deaths of Noname’s grandmother and underground open mic legend Brother Mike shun out the pursuit of material wealth on humble opener “Yesterday”, meanwhile side B’s “Casket Pretty” illustrates the ominous dread of being notified by phone or local news of a slain family member or friend.

One way Telefone reacts to this struggle is through the power of voice, but this also contributes to the communal neighbourhood like nature of the project. Local singers and intellectual MCs  all of whom deliver a loving touch give the project a sense of community and make the project feel like one big posse cut. Everything is brought together by the illuminous female MC, Noname whose slam poems wrap around these fervent hooks with the comfort of an oversized champion sweater.

Which resulted in some pretty incredible music, much of it rooted in thoughtful reflection.

“Sunny Duet” laces a beat made up of chopped vocals for Noname’s retelling of two failed teen relationships while “Diddy Bop” takes us back a bit further making use of a Puff Daddy dance move among many other things to paint a beautiful picture of childhood. Both stories occur on the stoop and the band intuitively make use of vibraphones and clapping game rhythms. We inevitably end at an early death on “Shadow Man”, where Noname, Saba, and Smino, all artists under the age of 26, lay down requests for each of their funerals. Each candidate assumes this event will be in the next few years and urging people of the like to stay black, stay strong.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

12. Vampire Weekend

“Modern Vampires of the City”

[XL. 2013]

The kids may not stand a chance, but they have to grow up eventually. Gone are the days of pretentious commas and psychotic balaclavas, Vampire Weekend are adults now! And they're talking about adult things! Like death! And God! It's a turn of events that could have drastically backfired, but to our fortune, Ezra and the gang turn in arguably their best effort yet with Modern Vampires of the City.

Returning from solo ventures and knee deep in post 30s minutiae, nostalgic ideas combined with futuristic recording techniques, and a continued kinship to light melody a la Paul Simon, the band approaches Modern Vampires with a mystical, matured sound, surgically staying loyal to their initial aesthetic while simultaneously breaking new ground. The music manages to be as gratifying as it is grim, delving into themes of aging, loss, and spiritual turmoil by embracing instead of letting it knock them down. The horror of youthful demise becomes trivial fodder for Ezra Koenig to make clever use of homophones on the vivacious “Diane Young”. A spiritual crisis with Yahweh becomes the triumphant battle cry "Ya Hey!" while “Unbelievers” disposes feelings of anticipation in place of existential dread, before our hero chooses love over all in a classic VW resolution. You can argue that this clashing of theme and tone can be looked at as more dark than hopeful, until you realize Koenig and the classically trained Rostam are incapable of making inspiring, catchy music.

It’s the sound of a band pushing themselves forward without alienating what made their music so widely beloved in the first place. Ezra's genius lyricism mixed with Rostam and Ariel Rechtshaid's progressive production recorded entirely on analog tape create a world as vast and mysterious as it is refreshing and familiar. Pitch shifting was a major hallmark of Modern Vampires giving the drums an underwater almost fake feel on the atmospherically dreamy “Step” and lifting Ezra’s vocal climax on “Hannah Hunt”. One of the finest rock records of the era, Modern Vampires of the City symbolizes Vampire Weekend’s evolution as one of the smartest bands of their time, and a marriage of timeless songwriting and innovative production.

- Jared Marshall

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

11. SZA


[Top Dawg. 2017]

Having survived a backbreaking recording process and a short-lived social media meltdown, SZA had something to prove for CTRL. Paralleled in her examination of modern relationships, CTRL was focused. Perhaps benefitted by procrastination and indecision from its kiboshed rollout in favour of DAMN, Ctrl set a new bar for R&B singing and songwriting as the quintessential project from Top Dawg Entertainment’s only female vocalist.

Throughout the entirety of CTRL, SZA holds a defiantly female point of view, from decisions over leg-shaving and laying herself bare to the ultimate confession that she can’t open up emotionally. The subject matter is intimate and dualistic, and never one-note. CTRL offers an honest range of emotion that could only come from the self aware; joy, liberation, hurt, confusion, torment, envy, and anxiety are all seen through the perspective of a woman in her 20’s. And while her sense of sexual liberation and buoyant power is impossible to ignore, SZA is never blind to the consequences of it. “Normal Girl” deals with this directly, a celebration of difference bound up with a longing for acceptance that would sit nicely next to early 2000’s emo.

This is the underlying theme that unites the varied music of CTRL and explores the difficulties of a Black woman’s personal life. SZA explores a society that puts self-interest above anything else yielding a particularly rigged dating game. Calls for women to be strong, be independent, be self-sufficient and "Lean in," occult the fact that self-doubt is often the only option for those who feel the pressure to conform to societies’ expectations and policing of women’s bodies and minds.

The opening track “Supermodel”, feels like a cold open; the smoldering Scum-produced revenge jam that conjures N.E.R.D.’s “Run to the Sun” finds SZA speeding off of a cliff in a vehicle with no brakes. The opening statements: “I been secretly banging your homeboy/ Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day?/ Why am I so easy to forget like that?” If ever there were an occasion to do a mic drop on an R&B track, this is it. SZA has said she honed her conception of how to make an album through working guest spots for contemporaries and CTRL marries SZA’s truly original voice with some cool influences like the futuristic spirituality of Thundercat, the cool aloofness of Tyler, The Creator, and the pop culture obsessiveness of Frank Ocean.

SZA is no longer hiding in the reverb behind dense swirls of ambient synthesizers and immaculately suggestive samples (like she had on previous effort Z). Instead from the album’s beginning to end, she reveals herself to be an artist of startling confidence and emotional range with an album reflective of the era.

- Kayla Vickers

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

10. Kanye West


[Roc-A-Fella. 2013]

In 2010, Kanye West clawed himself back from a burst of PR disasters that would have scuttled any lesser artist’s career, releasing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to near unrelenting critical success. In 2011, his buoyancy surged again with the commercial viability of Watch the Throne’s smug opulence. So what does Kanye do with his 2013 solo follow-up? Through the garbled synths of “On Sight”, he declares the mission statement, “Soon as they like you/Make ‘em unlike you.” And thus we have Yeezus, 40 holy water-tight minutes of in your face heresies, bondage (both kink and emotional), and nymphomania.

Leading singles like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” display the angriest Kanye we’ve ever seen, as his laser-focused raps take on the New World Order, paparazzi, and conservative baptists – to name a few – before shattering his glass ceilings below top-floor industry moguls, Yeezus is an album where Kanye rages against the dissonance between his perception of boundless self-worth and a culture that can’t handle a Black man with this much power unless he’s cozened with Maybach keys, fur coats, and diamond rings.

But amidst these bars of fury, Kanye does what he always does and turns inward. In the woozy arpeggios of “Guilt Trip” he wears his 808s and heartbreak on his sleeve, fearful and isolated, “The door locked by myself, I’m feeling it right now/’Cause it’s the time when my heart got shot down.” While Kanye used to ascend victorious heights on “Touch the Sky”, In “Hold My Liquor” he’s rock-bottom at utter serotonin depletion as “soulmates become soulless.”

Even in this maelstrom of counter force both internal and external, “I am a God” is the definitive statement on Kanye’s ego. Demanding pastries in Paris and stacking millions alongside Jesus, the delusions of grandeur are blown out to illuminating and jocular proportions with a devilish wink to the audience before breathless, blood curdling screams viscerally emerge in finale.

But don’t let this heady drama fool you, Yeezus is also Kanye’s funniest album. Take a moment to appreciate the juxtaposition of Bon Iver’s plaintiff cooing against infamous ribaldries like “Black girl sippin’ white wine/Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” and “Pussy keep me floatin/Feel like Deepak Chopra”. Even “Send It Up”, the album’s most abrasive track chortles, “Can you get my Benz in the club? /If not, treat your friends like my Benz park they ass outside ‘till the evening ends.”

Yeezus does a lot of damage in a very short amount of time so when “Bound 2” rolls around it’s hard not to be stunned as the hero rides off into the sunset. The warm soul and triumphant Charlie Wilson chorus melt away all the troubles aired in the preceding nine songs. It’s a Lynchian hip-hop fever dream, crass and a bit silly, but nevertheless a tender ode to love affirming that some people are bound to be bound to each other, whether it's one’s own self and or Kim Kardashian.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

9. Frank Ocean


[Boys Don’t Cry. 2016]

It took a four-year hiatus, a bizarre music video about woodwork, and an epic business move to get Blonde out of Frank Ocean's hard drive and onto streaming platforms. It’s 2016 and the news drops on social media: new Frank Ocean music has been released. I plugged in my earphones and could barely process what was about to happen. Music's most enigmatic introvert was about to take me on another journey. So what did I think of it on my first listen?

I fucking hated it.

Why had he taken the most distinguished vocal style since Amy Winehouse and chipmunked it beyond recognition? And what the hell was going on with "Pretty Sweet"? The first time I heard "to the edge I'll race/to the end I'll make it" over startlingly dissonant strings, I thought Frank was playing some kind of practical joke. What I didn't know at the time-- how could I when the power of Channel Orange hits you like a transport truck at warp-speed-- was that the magic of Blonde hid beneath the surface.

Channel Orange is a colourful blast of soulful R&B that doesn't give you a second to breathe. Blonde is truly antithetical. Normally the sophomore record is where you up the ante; you take what made you successful and dial it up to eleven. Blonde's impressiveness lies in its subtlety. However, only the ignorant would call it simple. The wavy production of "Ivy" or the short but grandiose "Pretty Sweet" is enough to make your head spin if you pay close attention. You also have some of the best collaborators money and reputation can assemble: James Blake helming the organ on "Solo", Jonny Greenwood arranging the strings on "Seigfried", Beyoncé f u c k i n g Knowles harmonizing on "Pink + White". There's a lot going on here, but Frank refuses to show off. It's executed with homogeneity; a cohesive colour palette of complimentary shades.

Something that still takes me aback about Blonde is its sense of duality. Nothing can be taken at face value, everything can be cut in half. It goes beyond double entendres. Take the album's centrepiece “Nights". What is Frank talking about? Is he talking to a former love or a former sense of self? A Before Sunset-esque rendezvous or, to reference another Ethan Hawke-led indie gem- a literal act of time travel? Blonde has been out for over three years and I'm still trying to unravel it. I don't think I ever will. I don't even think Frank made something that was meant to be understood. Blonde is a record that seeps into your consciousness and grows with it. It's not so much an emotion, but an awareness of emotion itself and ultimately a record that can calm the chaos of self-apocalypse.

- Jared Marshall

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

8. Tame Impala


[Modular. 2012]

Lonerism was Keven Parker’s midpoint masterstroke between the early guitar riffing of Innerspeaker and the chart-topping pop of Currents. Navigating the comfortable medium of garage jam psychedelia and keyboard composed pop, Parker unlocked rich harmonies in guitar chording and wrote his most introspective collection of songs to date.

The title gives most of it away: Lonerism, variations on a theme. Not necessarily loneliness – there isn’t much sadness here – rather, being the sort of person who gets their kicks in solitude. But hidden behind the romantic loner of the Neil Young school of thought, Parker explores the darker, voyeuristic loner. We can see it from the album cover. While the observer is caged out of youthful bliss in Luxembourg gardens, he watches the women and their suitors from afar in guilty obsession. In “Endors Toi” he bids his love to sleep while he watches on and in “Keep On Lying” he images a fictional crowd laughing on as he continues his deception. The brilliance of this subtle creeping is that Parker swoons the listener with his cooing voice and hazy Instagram-ready colour pallet all the way until death strikes in the album’s finale “Sun’s Coming Up”.

But beyond the album’s celebrated thematic neurosis, the real triumph of Lonerism is its dedication to an instrumental aesthetic that at once recalls the tie-dye psychedelia of late-‘60s pop while reaching towards the knob-twisting sonic possibilities of its digital production. Parker’s focus, direct hand of control, pop sensibility, capabilities as a multi instrumentalist and fresh use of sonic space had implications that reached far beyond chillwave. With the help of renowned special effects man David Fridmann, Parker pulls as many sounds out of the boards as he can without ever getting overwhelmed. An understanding of the studio will always be Parker’s most important weapon in his seriously strong arsenal of talents. Despite the excess he’s always careful to put his strongest melodies right on top of his drum heavy mix like in “Be Above It”, “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” and the towering “Apocalypse Dreams”.

Like a modern day Todd Rundgren, Tame Impala has mostly been a vehicle for Parker to explore himself freely without the constraints of other collaborators, writing in the wee hours of the morning and recording around the globe. The results have always been strong – brilliant at times – but Lonerism remains the peak moment of the universally beloved Tame Impala model thus far; deep introspective themes accentuated by powerful arrangement.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

7. St. Vincent

“Strange Mercy”

[4AD. 2011]

The cover art of Strange Mercy depicts a mouth plastered over with white fabric attempting to scream. Apropos. On the surface, St. Vincent’s third record comes across as a freak show. A dominatrix provides short-term pleasure for needy clients. A lonely housewife begs to be cut to pieces by a mad surgeon. They all come out like a Lynchian carnival troupe. But what’s the thematic thread that ties these misfits together?


Isolation has become quite a pliable substance. Annie Clark must have known this when she retreated to a studio her friends from Death Cab for Cutie lent her in Seattle. Not a hunting cabin in Wisconsin. Not a mountain in Wyoming. No, not even a shitty hotel room. Clark decided to wrestle with the dark night of the soul in a fairly regular city. But if you turn your cell phone off for a month, you might as well be invisible.

While her self-titled record and Masseduction would go on to make her a bonafide rockstar in the public eye, Strange Mercy is St. Vincent at peak genius. Imaginative guitar licks, noisy solos, and visionary production blanket themselves over tales of lonely souls searching for solace in sex, pills, or in the case of “Cruel”, basic human validation. It’s a record about being scared and alone in America, propelled by absolute madness.

St. Vincent has become something of an alternative pop icon. Acclaimed live shows, musical partnerships with Jack Antonoff and David Byrne, and strangely inspired collaborations with Dua Lipa, Cardi B, and Taylor Swift have made her the indiesphere’s most bankable star. But even in a shower of vibrant success, you can still see the wondrous darkness of Strange Mercy creaking down the walls of modern music.

- Jared Marshall

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

6. Kendrick Lamar

“Good Kid m.A.A.d City”

[Top Dawg. 2012]

It doesn’t get anymore cinematic than the opening moments of Good Kid m.A.A.d. City: A tape reel entering rotation on a film projector, the sound of air, and then a low resolution sample of a prayer establishes the setting before a bassline deep and clear as the sky, cuts through. it’s an unforgettable introduction to the definitive major label debut of the era and a deep exploration into the artist launched. With each song effectively recalling past experiences and feelings living deep in Compton, it would take an artist of titanic storytelling ability and vivid recollection to be able to effectively go back to move forward. My Angry Adolescence Divided.

Lamar’s road to GKMC was an incredible campaign that already had him cemented as one of the best rappers in the game before he even had a proper album out. Section.80 turned everybody on; Lamar’s lyrical talent and voice painted him as a modern poet, but it was his originality and undeniable ability that would gain the attention of Dr. Dre and pretty soon the whole world.

Future generations will never understand what Compton represented before K Dot had it locked and it’s a world very much still alive throughout Good Kid mAAd City. Compton icons Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube, Nate Dogg, Kurupt, Warren G, M.C. Eiht and The Game glorified gang banging, drug dealing, and misogyny. Kendrick paints Compton from a decidedly more conscious perspective and GKMC’s universal reaction is based purely on the strength of its music vs celebrity or controversy. And boy does it deliver on that promise.

The teaming of in house producers like Sounwave, Tha Bizness, Tabu, T-minus, and Terrace Martin, along with big budget guys like Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, Scoop De Ville, and Hit-Boy all mixed by recording engineer of the era Derek MixedbyAli present powerful chord movements, expansive arrangements, and a fondness for natural instruments played flawlessly that grab the listener and create one of the best sounding records of the decade. But it also holds narrative purpose; the virtuosic drum mixing acts as the powerful core of each instrumental, sometimes modulating to create the eerie late night environment of “Sherane (a.k.a. Master Splinter's Daughter)”, sometimes rattling the trunk and attacking the block for the entirety of the hook based “Backseat Freestyle”.

Kendrick’s performance went beyond star making, instantaneously inserting him as the best rapper out there. This guy sounded great on record, not to mention hard and delivered more thought provoking subject matter than anyone else. His talent: a skillset that included different voices, interesting word choices, imperfect rhyming, unpredictable flows, melodies, raw emotion, and a humanity in hip hop not seen since his idol Tupac Shakur.

Like the music of Pac, the album draws a similar attachment to the streets of L.A. Light skits in the form of answering machine messages from Lamar’s caretaking aunt and uncle diffuse the grand tension and intimacy, but also give some context to its charismatic star. Kendrick Lamar is a survivor of the streets who never gang banged himself, but was still a product of his crime filled surroundings."The kid that's trying to escape that influence, trying his best to escape that influence, has always been pulled back in because of circumstances that be.” It’s Menace II Society in the era of Jeezy; social consciousness set to gangsta rap with every song in some way relating to the experience of growing up in economic disenfranchisement.

The sequence is impressive, holding a three act structure that continues Dre’s mission of mimicking the grandiose emotion and realism of film to album. “The Art of Peer Pressure” takes us through a home invasion gone awry and establishes Lamar’s relationship dynamic to his gangster friends. On “Money Trees” Lamar sits in the groove on a hook approach that immortalized the welfare anthem only to let underground legend and labelmate Jay Rock deliver a career best verse. “Poetic Justice” gives us our mandatory 90’s hood film love scene complete with playful Drake verse, before things really start to get dark on the eponymous two song suite of “Good Kid” and “m.A.A.d. City”.

There’s a naturalness to what Kendrick Lamar can do with a four minute song, 9 times in a row in a seriously wide scale of styles. Like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney, Lamar’s technical or phonetic talents plays second fiddle to his primary talent as a concept songwriter. GKMC’s diversity of styles never interrupts the meditated cohesiveness associated with all classic L.A. rap records. It’s held together by its commitment to looking into the past to rediscover the present.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

5. Frank Ocean

“Channel Orange”

[Def Jam. 2012]

Occasionally an album comes along that feels as much defined by the city in which it originated as it is by the artist who created it. Frank Ocean’s monumental “Channel Orange” is as much about Los Angeles, his adopted home after leaving post-Katrina New Orleans, as it is about his own unique blend of storytelling, confession, and critical observation.

Ocean seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Emerging from quiet appearances as Odd Future’s crooner, his metamorphic talent was apparent even in the smallest capacities. He  eventually released Nostalgia Ultra independently, signed with Def Jam, and came out as the first queer icon in modern urban music. Channel Orange’s timelessness could be cemented through somehow appealing the premise that there is no fresh perspective on love in music, if not Ocean’s power as a lyricist, vocalist, and a virtuosic ear for melody.

But for me, the album is a soundtrack to a day in the City of Angels. Starting with the warm Malibu-sunrise sound of “Thinkin’ Bout You” and its coy sense of early morning seduction. Then, head south down the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach towns or Palos Verdes for “Sweet Life”, a subtle critique of the romantic but inward gazing lifestyle of wealthy Angelenos (“Why see the world/ When you’ve got the beach?”).

A slow drag up the 405 to Santa Monica Boulevard in the hot afternoon sun, then east into Beverly Hills will bring you to the sardonic take on spoiled LA “Super Rich Kids” who waste their parents’ money to try to keep from being bored (the Earl Sweatshirt verse is especially funny). But the album’s almost ten-minute-long centerpiece, “Pyramids”, belongs to a midnight crawl along Sunset Boulevard, as we follow the storyline of a high-end stripper with the allure of Cleopatra. Following track “Lost” is a late-night drive down Fairfax for a fuel-up at Canter’s, talking in a booth and wondering what happens to those “big full breast” girls who take up with the wrong guys.

Finally, as the sun rises on Venice Beach, the bubbly, bumpy “Forrest Gump” suggests through a clever film analogy a lost crush or a missed chance who “kept runnin’ past the end zone”. In the end, the album paints a vivid picture of characters and reflections that belong to a city, and when it’s finished you have to wonder what tomorrow in Los Angeles will bring.

- Jason Foster

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

4. Disclosure


[PMR. 2013]

On their debut album Settle, Disclosure seemed to be aggregating the most interesting aspects of UK garage, a mostly forgotten subclass of deep house, and elevating them to another level: breakneck tempos, disc scratching, augmented jazz chords played on digital synthesizers, high pass filter transitioning, and R&B vocals. But what pushed the album past any turned over genre trend was how it never compromised sophistication in its quest for accessibility and the fact that it was only garage on the surface; Settle is essentially pop music.

After gaining a record deal and the attention of house music veteran Todd Edwards, Disclosure’s profile shot up quickly based on the strength of their instrumentals and remixes. They were two brothers from the countryside of England, at the time 17 and 21, who benefitted from the advent of the makeshift home studio. A year later, PMR records connected Disclosure to Method Management providing them with a slew of terrific vocal collaborators, a who’s who of the UK scene to collaborate for their first major label full release.

Settle was designed for dance floors, but its depth, sonic ambience, and reverb could make it music for airports. Its tempo and energy make it music for activity with a sound representative of the speed of the modern world. But most importantly, it’s music that redefined what commercial electronica could be in a decade of excess. Most EDM qualifies as two minutes of buildup, ninety seconds of drop. Rinse. Repeat. Disclosure were far more concerned with fulfilling song structures; thrilling vocal takes followed by the groove of an infectious instrumental break. It’s a higher level understanding of pop mechanics that makes every song on Settle so catchy, pushing its 6 singles to the top floor of the UK billboard and proving that great hooks are just as if not more important than big drops.

Expanding the sonic limitations of music created by laptops, Settle never ceases to be exciting or interesting. These guys use high pass filters with samurai precision, cuing in moody pop hooks to outstanding effect. Aspiring producers and engineers will gasp upon first listen at the meticulousness of the drum programming and virtuosic mixing, and the modulated sound effects that carry a playful quality. Much of the drum work was played live on electric kits giving off a human feel and the simple addition of a great hi hat pattern seemed to uplift grooves into stratospheric places.

Not to mention it’s freaking loaded. 4 sides jam packed with an almost dizzying lineup of songs. Every singer here is so well curated, with the brothers displaying a wild sense of adaptability.

For how truly great it is and what it did to launch Sam Smith (not to mention Disclosure themselves), “Latch” may very well be the worst song on this album. The ridiculous “Voices” which includes a 19 year old Sasha Keable pushing psychoactive banter from her brain backed by a merciless 2-step rhythm may very well be the best. On “January”, jazz crooner Jamie Woon would prefer to forget the events of the night before. “White Noise”, partners Disclosure with another rising UK electronic duo in the name of Alunageorge as we navigate through the static of high volume club music and an abusive partner. Finally, on closer “Help Me Lose My Mind”, Disclosure and beautiful contralto London Grammar very necessarily close out the lavish party as if the sun came up on a tender note to close out the best pop record of the era.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

3. Kendrick Lamar

“To Pimp a Butterfly”

[Top Dawg. 2015]

In an era where protest art and music surged in tandem, To Pimp a Butterfly was hard as hell.

Perhaps the most timely depiction of America in the 2010’s, its songs disrupt society’s views on afrocentricity, racial divide, and institutional discrimination with neo soul melodies and chord movements rooted in jazz. Its lyrics engrain the Black American experience in a painfully honest portrayal.

When “I” was released as the almost misleadingly straightforward first single, it seemed Kendrick was diverting farther back into the past and emulating 70s funk. To Pimp a Butterfly makes good on this promise to revert hip hop to a space for natural instruments and vocal melodies, but also pushes rap into the future, raising the stakes and reaffirming its social consciousness.

The conception of To Pimp A Butterfly is a testament to its relevance. The climate of police brutality and shootings pushed the ever responsible K Dot into heavy territory and it’s tackled in a characteristically nuanced voice. Ultimately it’s about living everyday against insurmountable odds. In regards to the record’s unique sound, Kendrick knew something interesting was going on in the underground hip hop scene with futuristic jazz artists like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Taz Arnold, and Terrace Martin. The billing of collaborators on the album is dazzling; Kamasi Washington’s horn arrangement gives “Complexion” a classic feel while Bilal’s unconventional singing style and character voices take the album to wondrous places.

The album kicks off with a divisive one-two punch: “Wesley’s Theory”’ runs a terrifying rhythm full of modulated vocals and frenetic verses about the marginalization of black celebrity before early interlude “For Free” is messy jazz over doodling slam poetry about major label slavery. Even those who considered the record out there couldn’t deny the fact that no mainstream artist was attempting this kind of creativity in 2015, nor has it been replicated since.

Lamar’s skills as an MC are in full form here. His flow elastic, use of words incomparable, story telling ability unmatched, and his bone demanded to be picked. An entire community's worth of different inflections with more thoughtful content, original sound, and creative use of background vocals-- many of them Kendrick’s own-- progresses the different voices from GKMC into a full ensemble cast. Every song whether it be lounge smoker or club banger is about living poor and Black in America. If “Institutionalized” is about equality then “These Walls” eases us with the spirituality of copulation. If “For Sale? (interlude)” is Kendrick impersonating Satan, then “How Much a Dollar Cost” is Kendrick betraying God. “Momma” is about youth, “Hood Politics” is about the rap game. Even the singles never stray from the mission of encapsulating the experiences of minorities and American economic disenfranchisement; “King Kunta” draws a tight Thundercat bass measure on Sounwave’s house party beat to create a song primarily about a slave who gets amputated, while the seething “…Blacker the Berry” tackles African American stereotypes and Trayvon Martin in a thoughtful, aggressive, if not self critical manner.

There really is nothing like it. 16 excellent songs with spacious production, knocking drums, and Lamar’s Miles Davis-like inability to do the same thing twice. It’s gone on to become a symbol of black excellence in its thematic combination of jazz, revolt, poetry and God. To Pimp A Butterfly will be timeless in what it did to document the social issues of the era and for its advanced futuristic musical arrangement all pulled together by the definitive songwriter of the era.

- Aaron Chan

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

2. Kanye West

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

[Roc-A-Fella. 2010]

Having My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so high might be a normie move, but c'mon. Music this decade has been defined by streaming, curator culture, the domination of hip hop, and an absolute disregard for the neat little boxes of genre. Who do you think broke down the door for that to happen? Who played the role of Hannibal, riding his war elephant across the Alps to let the Roman Empire know the old days were done? Scold him for the controversy all you want, but MBDTF changed everything.

You know the story. Kanye West is shunned by the industry after showing up Taylor Swift at the VMA's. He retreats to Hawaii, enlisting a roster unlike anything we'd seen ranging from Rick Ross to Elton John. He tells everyone to book a plane and head to the studio, full suit and tie, ready to make music and "just shut the fuck up sometimes." Something big is happening, we just don't know what it is yet. Kanye starts to amp up hype with GOOD Fridays, where every Friday he releases songs that may ("So Appalled") or may not ("Lord Lord Lord") appear on the new album, molding what would become the streaming model to his advantage. A 35-minute short film is also unveiled, inspired by Fellini and Kubrick and debuting music from the record.

Then it happens. Kanye drops his Twisted Fantasy, and the world loses its shit.

The hype, the controversy, the releases, the multiple album covers, the visuals: the indulgence fuelled the art. I'm far from the first person to describe MBDTF as maximalist, but that's what it was. Kanye wanted to show everything the record could be and it didn't stop at the record alone. He was trying to create an experience. Now doesn't that sound familiar?

Much like something as Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, which also pushed its relatively new genre forward, Twisted Fantasy sounds as fresh as it did the day it was released. Full of decadent beats that amaze as much as they overwhelm, interpolations and samples even more inconsiderable than the previous game changing albums and secret weapons like RZA, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and guitarist Mike Dean to help him blend prog with hip-hop. Kanye's blatant indifference for normalcy and childlike instinct to create is what leads to stadium-ready standards like "POWER", "Lost in the World", and "Monster". Kanye spends the last three minutes of "Runaway" screaming into a vocoder. Guys, this record shouldn't work. It should be a pretentious, career-ending mess, but Kanye unites an epic scale production into one of the greatest records ever. Its complexities and darkness can overload the senses, but it's impossible to look away.

Twisted Fantasy didn't just define a decade in music, it defined an attitude and taught an entire generation of creators to take what they had and run with it. Don't worry about convention. Don't worry about rules. The DIY aesthetic comes from making the art you want to consume. Kanye created art we didn't know we could consume. No foolish comments or questionable fashion choices will ever be able to change that.

- Jared Marshall

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

1. Death Grips

“The Money Store”

[Epic. 2012]

The Money Store achieves its greatness through observation, not because of picayune details like commercial appeal or airwave ubiquity, but because of its ability to describe the Brave New World that has emerged since the sun set on December 31, 2009. And not only has The World changed, but hoary lacuna between human and object has now been saturated by the Interconnected Network, or, in popular portmanteau, the Internet. And although the origins of this system predate the decade in which we write this, the 2010s have had the dubious privilege of seeing the Internet transition from its idealistic childhood and into the luster-losing teenage wasteland we find ourselves in today. Seemingly limitless in scope and mesmerizing in its appeal, the internet has become a powerful cultivator of misanthropy, misinformation, and intellectual miscarriage. This is Death Grips’ observation: The Information Age is not a utopian singularity as some had promised, but a schizoid plurality.

Death Grips had been around for a couple years. Appearing with a morose lunacy found in early singles like “Full Moon (Death Classic)” or sprinting through the wild to the gravelly narration of Charles Manson. But with the trio’s sophomore effort, frontman MC Ride along with drummer Zack Hill and synth/sample/keyboard - fuck it, computer guy Flatlaner barged through on a major label deal with kinetic hip-hop possessed with bloodshot eyes and stagnant rage.

The Money Store is a borderless space of low-culture and high-tech. The transcontinental sampling of “Get Got,” “Punk Weight,” and “Fuck That” show that the modern age is without boundaries and the flow of capital also means the flow of drugs. For Death Grips, the withering effects of psychotropics are not unlike chasing the dragon online down obscure forums, wikis, and social media addictions.

From the first lines on “Get Got,” Ride is mired in the sense that someone is out to get him, catfished and staring at things that aren’t there. Internet dependency is substance abuse with schizophrenic side effects and Death Grips hit the nerve of this contemporary paranoia, or as they coined the phrase in “I’ve Seen Footage”, to be “Noided”. Internet culture has bred its own form of lay-scholarship where paranoia imagines new worlds in places like Infowars, Zeitgeist, Wikileaks and the Deep Web. This is the other side of the tracks, MC Ride warns on “Lost Boys” as he shouts, “It’s such a long way down.”

The Money Store’s entire worldview comes together on “Hacker”. Ride is a self-described “reclusive-aggressive” behind a laptop screen, a malware wielding “info-warrior” on the prowl hacking into your computer and stealing your shit before uncovering a vast network of intertextuality. What is it that connects Tangier, Lady Gaga, Tesla, Linens and Things, and the Apple Store? Is it a bona fide conspiracy or just six degrees of hyperlink separation?

The Money Store’s release was a true cyberspace event. A wildly experimental production on a major label downloaded by an unexpecting and occasionally repulsed audience (yes that may include some of our dear readers, but please run with us on this). From the early years of the 2010s, Death Grips rode the crest of a wave created by the very same internet commentariat that they critiqued. As a strange and shadowy trio from Sacramento, buzz from Pitchfork, Needle Drop, and 4 Chan put The Money Store in the spotlight before Death Grips promptly annihilated it with an obscene act of indecent exposure on No Love Deep Web. But it was here on this brilliant album, the last time we would see Death Grips in such a lean, culture-shocking form.

It's hard to tell where Death Grips are now, whether it be lost in the Bottomless Pit or divining obscure annual Zodiacs, from some unreckonable corner of the internet. But influence has not been lost. Their acts of performance art, their fearless plunges into the avant-garde, or simultaneous embrace and elision of meme culture; it's all rippled into the world. No one can say where Death Grips influence will be in 10-20 years (assuming the World is still here), but such sustained acts of self-definition rarely go unnoticed. Until then, those who've seen footage will continue to replay it. Those who haven't are probably due to burst their bubble.

- Blake Haarstad

Listen: Spotify / Apple Music

Check out our Top 40 Songs of the 2010's here




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