For the past seven years, I have reflected on the year behind me through the music I loved (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013). I wanted to do the same for the decade, but had no idea how stressful that would quickly become (okay, I had some idea). The list that follows features 35 of my favorite albums, but at various stages of this process it numbered 100+. I even reordered every year and tried to imagine what my lists would have look liked for the first three years of the decade before I started this tradition. (Why am I the way that I am? Another reflection for another time…)
The point is, if you’re baffled by the exclusion of a particular album, it’s probably on my overall list somewhere. But the 35 albums that follow defined me more than anything else, and I couldn’t put the decade to rest without writing a few words about each.
All rankings are subject to change, so don’t hold me to any of this.
35. Vampire Weekend — Contra (2010)
I didn’t totally get Vampire Weekend when their 2008 debut launched them into hipster stardom. I got it on Contra, and I’m still surprised this album came out at the very beginning of the decade (eleven days into it), since it still works.
34. Frank Ocean — channelORANGE (2012)
On an album that features both the sprawling, nearly 10-minute club epic “Pyramids” and the pensive, mournful taxi cab ride on “Bad Religion,” you can tell that Frank Ocean was going to be around forever, however rarely he appeared after this release.
33. Taylor Swift — RED (2012)
Taylor Swift’s reign as the queen of pop throughout the 2010s is best represented on RED, near the beginning of the decade, when she first verged into pop and made some of her best music to date. I love 1989 and even Lover, but RED might be the album that defines Swift forever. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.
32. Kendrick Lamar — good kid, mAAd city (2012)
The defining debut of the decade. The moral tale of a single day in the life of a young Lamar did not just announce his arrival: it announced the beginning of a legacy that changed rap forever.
31. St. Vincent — Strange Mercy (2011)
Although released in 2011, I mostly remember Strange Mercy in 2013, my first year living in Dallas, when I would drive around and feel St. Vincent, Dallas’s own Annie Clark, was telling me secrets about how to survive the city and the country at large. After charging that she has seen America “with no clothes on,” she feels the political giving way to her own personal tragedy, finally offering a plea bargain: “America, can I owe you one?” Strange Mercy is an album about complicity, consumerism, and the cruelty inherent to our country, and how all of those debts keep stacking up while we try to dodge the bill. With Strange Mercy, Clark said a lot about the decade ahead of us.
30. Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour (2018)
A late addition to my decade, Kacey Musgraves was on heavy rotation throughout 2019 and shows no signs of slowing down. Every song hits. “Happy and Sad” is an all-time anthem for my everyday state of being. I will cry if you play “Rainbow” without warning me.
29. Saba — CARE FOR ME (2018)
After the passing of his cousin John Walt in 2017, Saba set out to put his grief and depression on wax, and CARE FOR ME is what happens when therapeutic music reaches outside of a private moment to help a lot of people. The album is full of grey, grey moments detailing mental health struggles, mourning, and the long path towards the other side of pain. The closing tracks, “PROM / KING” and “Heaven All Around Me,” find Saba narrating the story of his relationship with his cousin, building to Walt’s tragic passing, and finally ending with Walt’s perspective, not a ghost but a spirit that lives on.
28. Tyler, the Creator — IGOR (2019)
IGOR is the type of breakup album you would never have expected from Tyler at the beginning, or even middle, of the decade. I’ve never smiled this much while listening to a record about love ending, and that is not just a testament to the bright sounds on the album but to the true spirit of Tyler that has been present through his many changes, that of an artist who, deep down, wants listeners to experience his warmth. IGOR stands an embodiment of his compelling humor, emotional intelligence, and disarming grace. I wish I had this album years ago when I experienced heartache and turned to Tyler, who was—understandably—still learning how to grow up.
27. Maggie Rogers — Heard It In A Past Life (2019)
On Heard it in a Past Life, Rogers extends gratitude to the past and welcomes the new without romanticizing either. Here is millennial uncertainty in every shade, memories never sweet enough to cherish wholesale, but too strong to forget. This decade finally brought me a group of people to call my own, but earlier, I found myself in a group of friends who I thought were forever—then, only some time later, I found myself avoiding them in public, blocked from their social media, strangers in the same city realizing too often how small it could be. Rogers understands these breaks, while people remind her, “You should be so happy now.” But it’s not that easy, and elsewhere she memorializes the changes that we almost didn’t chance upon: “saw my old life and my old friends / saw me haunted, saw me back again.” These ghosts might mean more than I wanted them to, my mid-decade depression “a past life coming out inside of me,” but I’ve learned to let them in and hear them out. Maggie Rogers delivers the anthem to this growth and the pain necessary to make it stick.
26. Mac Miller — SWIMMING (2018)
Before Mac Miller passed away in 2018, I spent a month listening to SWIMMING every day, often multiple times. This album was helping me understand a lot of things about my own seasons of depression and the struggle to swim after it felt like I might drown. “I just need a way out of my head,” he sings on the first track, and I let that line twist its way through my brain and live inside of me because I really understood it, deep down. The truth is—a year later—I’m still really quite speechless about what this album does for me. I want to quote every lyric and explain what it means to me, or describe the feeling I have when I listen to Swimming, but it’s hard. Ariana Grande put it best: “Wish I could say thank you to Malcolm.”
25. Lorde — Melodrama (2017)
When Lorde sings, “I guess this is what they call hard feelings,” she encapsulates both her first heartbreak and her own expression of music. On her sophomore album, Lorde does not shy away from the hard feelings but revels in them. Every time I play this album, I forget how every song really digs into the sounds buried deep inside the beat of a heart. Play “Supercut” loud at my funeral, please.
24. Kanye West & JAY-Z — Watch the Throne (2011)
The last collaboration between the two giants of rap—the ones who defined so many years of this decade for me—is also their best work together. It’s sometimes hard to remember now how much was at stake for both of them: JAY-Z had returned from retirement and wanted to best his protégé; Kanye had not toured since interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs and needed to win favor again. Some of the defining songs of the decade are here on Watch the Throne, an album that reclaims the American Dream while casting doubt on its legitimacy.
23. Kanye West — Yeezus (2013)
Many people often talk about the first time they heard an album that changed their lives. What’s harder to parse is when you realized that it was the last time an artist would do that for you, one who spoke to you through many of your worst moments and saw you through when you felt nothing else could. Yeezus is the most difficult album of the decade, Kanye West’s true feelings about America seeping out and jarring the audience out of our shared fantasy. This is the anger that people do not want to hear. It is so wildly imperfect that I often compare it to Kanye’s Twitter taking shape as lyrics and being placed to music that grinds and upsets the meaning. For years, this album would probably have been in my top 10 for the decade. For now, I’m going to confess that the God complex I once found so complicated and riveting, I’m ready to let rest—at least for the time being.
22. FKA twigs — MAGDALENE (2019)
In the hands of FKA twigs, Magdalene becomes not angel but “fallen alien,” biblical myth meeting post-apocalyptic landscape, where desolation is salvaged for art and devotion is tested until it reaches its final limits. In part, MAGDALENE hit me so hard because just two weeks before, another biblically-themed album was released by a man who used to thoughtfully—dare I say, brilliantly?—engage with religious doubt, but traded all of that in for glossy conversion and right-wing conviction. He was embraced by the very people I’ve wondered how to engage thoughtfully in my own work. twigs insists that old narratives can still be told anew, their endings not wrapped in bows but weighted with convictions that sound more like questions posed than answers told. As our troubled decade comes to a close, I’m still so much more drawn to this curiosity over conclusion.
21. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Mining his grief after the loss of his mother, Sufjan Stevens took a headfirst dive into their long-estranged relationship, the reunion near the end of her life, and finally, her departure. He leaves nothing out on this sparsely instrumented album, from his suicidal ideation on “The Only Thing” (“do I care if I survive this?”) to his feelings of abandonment as a child (“I should have wrote a letter/and grieve what I happen to grieve”). What else makes Carrie & Lowell beautiful is that—amidst his grief—there is still so much life to be found. “Search for things to extol,” he sings on “Blue Bucket of Gold,” and Sufjan might have just made his best album after finding quiet, life-defining moments with which to do so.
20. NoName — Telefone (2016)
“Check my Twitter page for something holier than Black death,” NoName raps on album opener “Yesterday,” an ode to lives and moments lost too soon. Although sonically the album sounds light, with NoName gliding over characteristic Chicago keys, her subject matter is anything but. The emcee’s poetry celebrates, mourns, and sits back to reflect on Black life and meaning. On album closer “Shadow Man,” NoName makes requests for her own funeral, prophesying that when she dies, “my music was a church when my spirit hopped out.” Amen.
19. SZA — Ctrl (2017)
SZA’s insecurities are on full display on Ctrl, one of the best representations of my generation this decade. “Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?” she mourns, and one-liners like these make this album sound like listening in on any conversation between millennials. And I don’t mean that as an insult in the way that others might. Ctrl is not an outright political album, but SZA speaks to the politics of the personal: “I could be your supermodel if you believe / if you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me / I don’t see myself.” I firmly believe in millennials, because for all of our issues, we must take ownership of our limited time here, as sentimental as that may sound. Something about listening to SZA makes me feel that if no one else has our backs, we certainly can find solace in ourselves, as broken as we so often are.
18. Manchester Orchestra — Simple Math (2011)
Manchester Orchestra, one of my five all-time bands, released Simple Math at the top of the decade, but it never means less to me than it did then. A concept album that imagines a conversation between singer Andy Hull, his partner, and God, the record explores the ways that our personal beliefs can affect and mediate our relationships with humans around us. This decade marked many shifts in my faith, and Simple Math still stands as a testament to the complexity of those changes and not settling for easy answers. “What if I’ve been trying to get to where I’ve always been?” Hull asks, a question about the endless cycle of searching and not finding. Even still, there is joy to be found: “What if you believed me: everything is brilliant?” I love the questions this album asks of me and my relation to others and the Other which is here.
17. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) / Beyoncé — LEMONADE (2016)
There’s a reason these albums have become the subject of classes, podcasts, and books. To Pimp a Butterfly and LEMONADE are the two most significant records of the decade. They point condemning fingers at the nation, while they work to carve space for something new and hopefully better. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” James Baldwin wrote, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Lamar and Beyoncé brought those words into the 21st century, and no award can replace the legacy and impact they will continue to make.
16. Vince Staples — Summertime ‘06 (2015)
On his 20-song debut album, Vince Staples wonders if white people chanting his lyrics at shows are aware that he knows “they won’t go where we kick it at.” Whereas Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly attempts to moralize many of the issues plaguing his mind, Staples strips the fight between good and bad from the conversation to offer striking insights:“I never vote for presidents / the presidents that change the hood are dead and green.” The album challenges and engages as Staples does not attempt to be a model citizen for the youth, but rather describes what it is like to be a youth in the suburbs white Americans are afraid to talk about, but whisper about nonetheless. “My teacher told me we was slaves,” Staples sings, “my mama told me we was kings.” Caught in the middle of a world that is fighting over the value of a Black body, Staples confesses, “I don’t know who to listen to / I guess we’re somewhere in between.”
15. Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy (2017)
I grew up with Tyler, until I felt that Tyler wasn’t growing past his shock factor days. Then, Flower Boy, where Tyler clearly found the voice he was developing and sharpening all along. Flower Boy marks the growth of a man who demanded not to be seen as a role model to a man who showed men how to reach into the soul’s garden shed and begin to bloom: “That was real love I was feeling / Ain’t no reason to pretend.” As toxic masculinity reigns supreme, let Tyler’s first remarkably queer album stand as one example of what can happen when men are taught how to feel, and how not to hide it.
14. Solange — A Seat at the Table (2016)
A Seat at the Table is not just the defining album of Solange’s career, but in my mind will remain one of the defining albums of the 2010s and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a canvas of songs and stories that lift up family, hope, loss, and love in strikingly political and deeply personal ways. I don’t feel that this album is mine to claim or write about at length, but I will say that 2016 was the year I experienced my worst depression, and A Seat at the Table went a long way in healing me. “I’m goin’ look for my body, yeah / I’ll be back real soon.”
13. Bleachers — Gone Now (2017)
There was almost no one I loved seeing perform live more than Bleachers this decade. The earnestness and sincerity of Jack Antonoff is unmatched. When Gone Now begins, I feel as if I’m listening to my favorite musical, the images of the album so clear before me, the life inside of it apparent. I learned a lot about grieving this decade, and I don’t think another album captures how I want to celebrate and mourn life like Gone Now does. “Hey, I know I was lost, but I miss those days,” Antonoff reminisces, a statement of admission and resolve. Gone Now is about learning to look back without remorse for who you were becoming, and who you are becoming, even now.
12. Arcade Fire — The Suburbs (2010)
“You always seemed so sure / that one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war,” Win Butler opens on The Suburbs, “But by the time the first bombs fell / we were already bored.” There’s still not another album that captures the melancholic, privileged restlessness of growing up and out of a suburban community better than this one. It plays like a memory told in mournful vignettes, straddled in the headspace between the band’s Houston and Montreal roots. Our perceptions are warped by hindsight, as Régine Chassagne sings that “our heads are just houses without enough windows,” as if all wisdom gained is lessened by the slowness of its arrival. This was the first album that made me look at my life in the light of its political context, and I still “pray to God I won’t live to see / the death of everything that’s wild.”
11. Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory (2017)
Big Fish Theory took the best parts of Yeezus and imported emotional depths to add nuance and confirm Vince Staples as a prophet of cynicism. “I used to look up in the sky, now I’m over shit,” he seethes, on an album that throws stones at rap thrones, the president, and his own demons. In the midst of questioning his interactions with white audiences (Staples only raps the n-word when interpolating another song so that white listeners won’t feel permission to use it), Staples also makes space to mourn the loss of a relationship that he only allows the audience to look in on as if through a glass. Throughout, Staples scores the downfall of American myths once—and still—held sacred.
10. St. Vincent — St. Vincent (2014)
“Here’s my report from the edge,” St. Vincent sings on the wonderfully weird self-titled album that solidified her as the best rock artist of the decade. And from the edge she reports on rampant consumerism, digital footprints, and mental breakdowns. “If I can’t show you, if you can’t see it,” she ponders, “What’s the point of doing anything?” In an era defined by our complicated, conflicting relationships to and through the Internet, Annie Clark soundtracked an entire decade’s anxieties about losing ourselves to social media feeds, “entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones.”
9. Lorde — Pure Heroine (2013)
When Pure Heroine was released, it was praised as an album that expertly capture the life of a teenager’s growing pains. I had just moved out of my parents’ house for the first time, and it felt to me that Lorde was singing about growing pains at any age. She was 16, and I was 22. There is a low synth that runs through “400 Lux,” and it will always remind me of the melancholic days when I was learning who I was to become. “And I’ve never felt so alone,” Lorde sings, “it feels so scary, getting old.” Nearly seven years on, this line does not feel constrained to an earlier time in my life, but is still present with me. While Melodrama may be the better album, I feel Pure Heroine in my bones, and I think I always will.
8. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
“If I’m born again,” Ezra Koenig complains, “I know the world will disagree.” Modern Vampires of the City found the singer meditating on theological doubts of the modern age, when many millennials are leaving churches and self-identifying as “nones,” spiritual wanderers in an anxious age of spiritual skepticism. “Age is an honor, it’s still not the truth,” Koenig warns his elders who try to correct his wayward path. Although clever, the album never condescends, as mortality weighs heavy on Koenig’s soul: “Nobody knows what the future holds / and it’s bad enough just getting old,” he protests. “Ya Hey” is one of the greatest parables ever told: the speaker questions how God could desire to stay anonymous in the age of celebrity and viral success. “Through the fire and through the flame, you won’t even say your name / only that ‘I am who I am’ / but who could ever live that way?” Modern Vampires of the City stands as the defining album of religious doubt for the 21st century and for me especially.
7. The National — Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
In this decade, I started dating Meg, we broke up, did not speak for three years, started dating again, got married, and are ending the decade having known each other for 10 years. In the midst of our time apart, Trouble Will Find Me was the breakup album that made me wonder what if: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind,” Matt Berninger confesses. The National is a band that speaks to my anxiety and provides the words for the feelings I cannot articulate. On this album, they just so happened to speak to the most important relationship in my life at a time when we thought we were lost to each other. Berninger closes the album with something that is not quite hope: “If I tried, you’d probably be hard to find.” But you never know.
6. Childish Gambino — Because the Internet (2013)
“Because the Internet, mistakes are forever.” Donald Glover, Internet sensation, spoke to the social media generation more than any other artist on Because the Internet. A case study in FOMO, trolling, and digital content-curated anxiety, Glover-as-Gambino straddled the line between person and persona, a line he has always blurred to brilliant effect. As Childish Gambino, Glover may never have reached the height of his peers in hip hop, but Because the Internet is the rap album that defines the millennial generation. This is my soundtrack to loneliness, solitude, and the ever-blurring line between the two.
5. Beyoncé — Beyoncé (2013)
With Beyoncé, Beyoncé changed album releases forever. Released on my birthday, I had my friends sit in my living room and watch this album all the way through. I could tell then that I would watch it for years to come, but listening to it, it’s still Beyoncé’s best work to me. This is the moment when she turned her pop superstardom into legacy-making work, demanding to be taken seriously as an artist. As most artists decline as their careers progress, Beyoncé was proof that some artists just keep getting better.
4. Bon Iver — 22, A Million (2016)
There is probably no other lyric from the decade that speaks to me more than the opening line on 22, A Million: “It might be over soon.” It embodies a reminder, a warning, and a hope: that it all might end before you realize it, so have hope and don’t waste time. Justin Vernon is the artist that bonds my group of friends around a common language, and 22, A Million is the one that speaks most clearly to me. Written and recorded during Vernon’s own depression, it was released during my own, when I felt as broken as the jagged sounds on this album and longed for the times when “the days have no numbers.” Those days are always with my friends, when time gives way to moments that seem to pulse without end.
3. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN. (2017)
Lamar’s other albums are usually more appreciated, but DAMN. is my personal favorite because it speaks to the current political era in powerful, probing ways. The 2010s were divided by the Obama Era and the one that followed, and DAMN. was released in the latter, when hope gave way to uncertainty. Interpolating the racist reaction to his BET performance by Fox News hosts, Lamar pondered a way forward for himself and the nation in the midst of our myths coming undone before our very eyes. Lamar deals with religion and politics meaningfully, thoughtfully, and without pandering to simplistic answers. It’s proof that he earned the title of best rapper alive for good reason, not least because he cares more about the world at large than the world of rap alone.
2. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
For the first half of the decade and a bit longer, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was my all-time favorite album. Kanye West was long my favorite artist, and it went deeper than I am prepared to share here. What I will say is this: when he made this album, he was proving to me that you could come back from the worst moment of your life and still make something meaningful. Before everything that happened later in the decade, West was a self-admitted insecure artist making grandiose statement to prove to himself—and the world—that he mattered. That conversation is still worth having, and it meant everything to me for much of my young adult life. Now, it’s difficult to listen to his music without reinterpreting it in light of recent events, but that doesn’t make Dark Twisted Fantasy less valuable. It just means that we grow, and growing is never painless, and nothing looks the same in the rearview mirror. I wanted to say that this album defined a generation: I’m afraid now that it may define a particularly troubling era, and what that might mean when we take a closer look than we are comfortable with.
1. Frank Ocean — Blonde (2016)
This is the album that defines a generation. I still don’t know how to talk about it because I want to protect what it means to me and also to let it speak for itself, to not put words to what doesn’t need them. I walked down the aisle to “White Ferrari” because I wanted to remember this, and still do: “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension / you say we’re small and not worth the mention.” Depending on the day, I could believe either is true. I’m sure both are, and that’s why, if I’ve learned anything this decade, it’s to cherish life over ego. “If you think about it, it’ll be over in no time / and that’s life,” Ocean sings. I’m still listening to Blonde to hear what I haven’t yet.