An album doesn’t mean the same thing in 2020 that it did in 2010.
These days, albums seem to exist primarily as chum for streaming services. They’re vibey, they’re overlong, they’re stuffed with guest stars designed to game the recommendation algorithm and rack up No. 1 albums by the spin. The 2010s were the first decade where “album-equivalent units” became a more valuable currency than actual physical album sales.
And yet you just can’t kill the album. Even 2019 albums by Miranda Lambert, Maggie Rogers and Lana Del Rey feel like cohesive artistic statements, collections of songs that were meant to be heard as albums rather than, y’know, “collections of songs.” The more you pore over the past decade’s worth of great albums, you see plenty of artists who feel that same way.
In picking our Top 10 albums of the 2010s, we decided to include only one album per artist. (Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, among others, had a strong case for two.) Narrowing the list was tough, so here’s a special honorable mention shout-out to our final five albums to miss the cut: David Bowie’s Blackstar, the Black Keys’ Brothers, Adele’s 21, Rihanna’s Anti and Porter Robinson’s Worlds.
Without further ado ...
10. Frank Ocean, ‘Channel Orange’
In the years since 2012′s Channel Orange, Frank Ocean’s elusiveness, musical and otherwise, has only added to the intrigue of everything he does. But on this debut album, it’s out there front and center. There are songs that, in the right light, feel like traditional R&B love songs (Thinkin Bout You, Sweet Life), others that surprise and evolve like mysteries waiting to be solved (Pyramids, Pink Matter), others that just make you want to get up out of your seat (Monks, Super Rich Kids). Ocean doesn’t solve it all by the end, but no one was ever meant to — in love, in life, in anything.
9. Taylor Swift, ‘Red’
Swift has made bigger albums than 2012′s Red — ever since 1989, she’s tried to top herself in terms of sheer magnitude — but she’s never made one better. This was her tipping point between country and pop, incorporating elements of arena rock and EDM and folk, as well as some of the strongest lyrics she’s ever penned (All Too Well, State of Grace, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together). Wherever the world’s biggest pop star goes next, she said it best herself here: Everything will be all right, if we just keep dancing like we’re 22.
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8. Sleigh Bells, ‘Treats’
You need to be in a specific sort of mood to spin Sleigh Bells’ eardrum-destroying 2010 album Treats, a 30-minute barrage of Alexis Krauss’ breathy, cheerleader-style vocals and Derek Miller’s distorted-to-hell metal riffs, slathered all over old-school drum-machine beats. But if you’re in the mood for a pep rally from hell, there’s nothing better. Tell 'Em, Kids, Infinity Guitars, Riot Rhythm and Crown On the Ground are blistering shots of adolescent amphetamine, and there’s even a sweet little cool-down track in Rill Rill. Sleigh Bells never lived up to the potential of this debut, but even nearly 10 years later, there’s still nothing that sounds quite like it.
7. Maren Morris, ‘Hero’
Not since a young Taylor Swift had a country singer come along who knew her way around a hook like Morris. It wasn’t just her smart, snappy lyrics; it was her delivery, which felt pulled from the canon of pop and even R&B, like Rihanna gone yee-haw. Sugar, Rich, 80s Mercedes and Second Wind were fresh, sun-kissed blasts of songwriting sweetness; My Church and Once took the audience somewhere deeper. Hero established Morris as a star on the rise in 2016, and she’s done even bigger things since.
6. Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
In a decade that saw the cultural appetite for young rock bands fall largely off a cliff, no one kept surprising fans like stylish smarties Vampire Weekend. Contra (2010) built upon the sunny equatorial pop of their self-titled debut; Father of the Bride (2019) eased them into a looser middle age. In between came 2013′s Modern Vampires of the City, an album with as much (pardon the pun) bite as brains, courtesy of singer-songwriter Ezra Koenig and since-departed multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. Diane Young, Unbelievers and Worship You bristle with restlessness; Hannah Hunt, Ya Hey and Hudson allow listeners to breathe. It’s the jewel of a catalog that made them the best rock band of the 2010s.
5. Katy Perry, ‘Teenage Dream’
One cannot assess Perry’s best album without acknowledging the contributions of its problematic primary producer, Dr. Luke. But as a (mostly) self-aware collection of bubblegum pop, 2010′s Teenage Dream is undeniable. From the escalating tension of its title track to deluxe-edition bonus cuts like Wide Awake and Part of Me, it’s a hit parade through and through, with California Gurls, Firework, E.T. and Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) still some of Perry’s biggest singles. It’s the album that best captures Perry’s grownup girly-girl appeal, and all the giddy, tongue-in-cheek glee that brings.
4. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Emotion’
When is a one-hit wonder not a one-hit wonder? When it’s Carly Rae Jepsen, the Canadian pop phenom behind Call Me Maybe, who surpassed all expectations with her third album. From the soaring sax of Run Away With Me to the glistening dance-off of When I Needed You, 2015′s Emotion is loaded with memorable, crackling synth-pop jams (Boy Problems, Your Type, I Really Like You) curated by an intriguing mix of pop and indie producers. Write it down: Jepsen’s music will one day form the basis of a Broadway jukebox musical, and the songs from Emotion will lead the way.
3. Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’
Surprise-released on the eve of an HBO “visual album” and world tour, 2016′s Lemonade was Beyoncé’s most deeply realized artistic statement to date. Widely believed to be about her husband Jay Z’s infidelity, Lemonade dug deep to reflect broader truths about the hardships of women and African Americans everywhere. She brought the smoke (6 Inch), she brought the fire (Freedom), she even brought a country bop in Daddy Lessons. And she shut it all down with Formation, a culture-shaking single debuted at, of all places, halftime of the Super Bowl. That’s a power move only Queen Bey could pull.
2. Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Good Kid, m.A.A.d City put him on the map, and DAMN. won him a Pulitzer Prize, but 2015′s To Pimp a Butterfly is his masterpiece, a sprawling, occasionally messy, consistently mind-expanding meditation on young, black, maleness in America. There’s surprisingly little in the way of traditional hip-hop here (although the righteous Alright and celebratory i do qualify), but Lamar surrounds it with so much funk, soul, jazz and spoken word that you almost forget you’re listening to a rap album in the first place. The thoughtful and lyrically dexterous Lamar is the best lyricist of the 2010s. This album proved it.
1. Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’
The reason anyone who cares about music keeps tuning in to West’s latest controversial foible or folly is out of hope he’ll make another album like 2010′s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Spoiler alert: He won’t. No one will. Fantasy is a maximalist masterwork by a galaxy-brain genius (yeah, we’ll give it to him on this one) at the peak of his production powers, an album that could rope in Jay Z and Rihanna and Bon Iver and Elton John and basically launch Nicki Minaj — all the while leaving no doubt about who’s in charge. Supposedly composed during a period of introspection in West’s life, the album nevertheless radiates excess at every turn, hearkening back to his chopped-up-soul-sample days while foreshadowing the noisier, more abrasive work to come. It all finds West considering his place in celebrity culture, dealing with discomfort and dropping a murderer’s row of bangers (All of the Lights, Power, Monster, Runaway). What West said is true: No one man should have all this power.