Even as the album faded as a cultural force this decade – recently, A Boogie Wit a Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN sold only 749 true copies to earn a No. 1 slot on the Billboard chart – there were still plenty of artists who made the most of their LPs.
Adele – 21
On rare occasions, the biggest album of the decade is among the best. The only diamond-certified album of the 2010s is among the few things we could agree on as a culture. Adele makes extremely personal-yet-universal pop music that feels authentic. That’s why her albums are treated as events, and why she stands head and shoulders above most of her peers.
Further Listening: “Skyfall,” 25
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Released the week I graduated from college, few albums carried as much deep relevance as the band’s best album: a perfect summation of middle-class ennui that only magnified in the years since, as the ever-expanding areas around the major cities served as a symbol of our worst indulgences.
Further Listening: Reflektor, “I Give You Power” (with Mavis Staples)
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
One of the most gifted songwriters of my generation, this Australian genius has a cleverness and brash honesty that caused this album to stick with me, even with stiff competition.
Further Listening: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Tell Me How You Really Feel, “Everybody Here Hates You”
Beyoncé – 4
While Lemonade was no doubt a game-changer, divorced from its striking visuals, it’s still not as good as 4, her best album to date. But it was also her lowest-seller, and I’ll always wonder how different her career would have been had this album – with its full band and positive lyrics – had been the monster her follow-ups were.
Further Listening: Lemonade, “Before I Let Go”
David Bowie – Blackstar
Learning Bowie died just days after this was released was devastating. That the album is filled with goodbyes even more so. He knew he was leaving and he gave us all this beautiful gift. Of the many older artists grappling with mortality through song, this was the absolute peak of the form.
Further Listening: The Next Day
Leon Bridges – Coming Home
This Fort Worth singer seemed to ascend in real time, earning every Sam Cooke comparison. With his raw talent and effervescent personality, he’s impossible not to root for. His debut album is one of the easiest listens of the decade, perfect for just about any situation.
Further Listening: Good Thing, “That Was Yesterday”
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
I’ll always regret not going to see them on their final tour. This album feels like the summation of the metaphysical path the band went down on Cassadega, weaving in spoken word pieces and allusions to African history. It’s a shame we likely will never get any new music from them, but they leave behind an incredible legacy of iconic indie rock.
Further Listening: Conor Oberst’s Ruminations, Better Oblivion Community Center’s Better Oblivion Community Center
Cut Copy – Zonoscope
This Australian band was one of the most consistent groups of the last decade, regularly matching great beats with profound lyrics. Their 2011 record hooks you from start to finish, beginning with the earnest plea of “Need You Now” and closing with the epic 15-minute “Sun God.”
Further Listening: Free Your Mind, Haiku from Zero
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
There really wasn’t anything this French duo couldn’t do on this multiple Grammy winner. Truly collaborating – as opposed to just leaning on – artists as varied as Pharrell, Paul Williams and Julian Casablancas, they delivered one of the most eclectic and lasting albums of the decade.
Further Listening: TRON: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
The Portland, Oregon, band has rarely varied their sound or songwriting style. It’s not for everyone, but has certainly worked for me. Their only No. 1 album is also their best (at least of this decade), a collection of short stories that are alternately rousing, depressing and engaging.
Further Listening: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; “Ben Franklin’s Song”; I’ll Be Your Girl
Drake – Take Care
It’s a little hard to take seriously Aubrey Graham’s turn from sensitive kid naming songs after Diane Keaton tearjerkers to tough guy asking someone to start shit so his crew can beat them up. But for a brief moment, he was the ultimate mix of emo, R&B and hip-hop. His massive second album features absurdly great production, collaborations with singers and rappers at the exact right point in their careers and a peak inside an artist’s mind we wouldn’t really get again.
Further Listening: Thank Me Later
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Yes, he’s a little embarrassing. Yes, he’s a little brilliant. But Josh Tillman has captured the “Is that all there is?” ennui of 30-something dudes better than anyone else.
Further Listening: Fear Fun, “Real Love Baby,” Pure Comedy, God’s Favorite Customer
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Speaking of artists from Seattle who traffic in despair, this album served as a beacon for other ships lost in the night, especially in 2011, when I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t figure it out right away, but it was comforting to know other people were transient too.
Further Listening: Crack-Up
fun. – Some Nights
Oh, what could have been. Out of the ashes of the Format and Steel Train – the former being one of my all-time favorite bands – came this power pop powerhouse, putting together a stellar follow-up to the wistful Aim and Ignite. They won several Grammys but never could keep it together. Now, Jack Antonoff is one of the most in-demand producers and Nate Ruess hasn’t put out anything substantial in years. But for a brief, shining moment we were young, and this was our soundtrack.
HAIM – Days Are Gone
The most astonishing debut album of the decade, I can’t think of another band that emerged this fully formed. The sister act produces some of the best pop music, paying homage to their ’70s elders (sometimes explicitly) while playing with their own attitude.
Further Listening: Something to Tell You, “Summer Girl”
Sarah Jaffe – Suburban Nature
Even as the Denton artist’s sound evolved over several amazing albums, its her spare, intimate debut full-length that packs the biggest wallop.
Further Listening: The Body Wins, The Way Sound Leaves a Room, “The Blue Umbrella Suite” (with Jon Brion), Don’t Disconnect
Carly Rae Jepsen – EMOTION
Taylor and Katy have nothing on this Canadian chanteuse, who followed up her only big solo hit with a perfect album, with one gargantuan track after another. She earned one of the nicest, most loyal fanbases in the process.
Further Listening: EMOTION: SIDE B, “Cut to the Feeling,” Dedicated
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Until this album, I didn’t really “get” Kendrick Lamar. I admired him more than I actually liked his music. That all changed with this Pulitzer Prize winner, which samples a direct criticism from Geraldo Rivera, features U2 and Rihanna, and contains two of the biggest rap songs of the decade in “DNA” and “Humble.”
Further Listening: untitled unmastered.; Black Panther: The Album
LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
While it ended up not being their actual last album, this pre-emptive farewell from James Murphy’s legendary electronic project once again found the perfect blend of melancholy and danceable.
Further Listening: the long goodbye, American Dream
Lecrae – Anomaly
The Christian rapper’s first No. 1 album was his most personal, delving into verses about abuse, abortion and the stark reality of being black and Christian in a world where the latter refuses to acknowledge their role in the persecution of the former.
Further Listening: Rehab, Church Clothes 3, “Coming in Hot” (with Andy Mineo)
Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
An absolutely stunning arrival, as Melissa Jefferson finally got the acclaim and popularity she deserved. Truly body-positive and sex-positive, her music delivers pure dopamine hits every time.
Further Listening: “Good as Hell,” “Truth Hurts,” “Boys”
The Lonely Island – Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Official Soundtrack)
It’s pretty remarkable how much mileage this trio gets out of an album that’s essentially a collection of lists – including the Macklemore parody “Equal Rights,” the catchphrase generator “Turn Up the Beef” and the literal “Things in My Jeep.” This soundtrack is just as uproarious divorced from the hilarious film it’s attached to, a truly impressive comedic achievement.
Further Listening: Turtleneck and Chain, The Wack Album, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
Lorde – Melodrama
Something odd happened on November 28, 2017. Lorde was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, but nothing else. It debuted at No. 1, but sadly faded, at least from the level of fame she achieved with “Royals.” There’s a bit of resignation woven through every track on this masterful pop album, an acceptance that things probably won’t work out like they’re supposed to. She blames herself on “Liability,” but she shouldn’t. It was the public that got bored of her, but that’s on them.
Further Listening: Pure Heroine
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
This sprawling double album can’t match the French band’s 2000s output, but its highs are a little higher, including “Midnight City” and “Outro,” which were inescapable.
Janelle Monaé – Dirty Computer
Living on a higher plane than us mere mortals, Monaé put out R&B music so good, so free, even Prince collaborated with her before he died, resulting in her best album to date. She’s a strong actress, too.
Further Listening: The ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
An essential testament on grief, Phil Elverum’s saga of life after his wife passed away from cancer goes back and forth between utter desolation and determination, culminating in the devastating closer (“Crow”), which is dedicated to his young daughter.
Further Listening: Now Only, Lost Wisdom pt. 2
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Before they became punchlines, this band released this truly great album, which tackles resentment, forgiveness and rage, and loaded with biblical and Shakespearean allusions, it’s no wonder they became so popular. Alas, there was nowhere else for them to go, and each tweak of their sound felt like a misstep. But we’ll always have this.
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Her peak as a musician, so much of this album could have gone awry, with punny songs like “Space Cowboy” and “High Horse,” but her voice and intentions are so pure, it becomes one of the most transcendent albums of the decade, a true blend of pop and country that shows all those other jokers what they’re doing wrong.
Further Listening: Same Trailer, Different Park; Pageant Material