The Best Albums Of The 2020s So Far (A Wildly Speculative Investigation)

There are many notable things about the year 2024. It is an election year. It is an Olympics year. It is the beginning of the mid-2020s. But I am only concerned with one particular notable thing about 2024: It is the earliest possible moment when it is acceptable to start talking about the best albums of the decade.

Some might disagree. “Only a moron would write about this now,” those people are saying. (Kind of harsh, to be honest.) But they are wrong. Dead wrong. I know this because, as a music writing professional, I am well versed in the science of these lists. And my expertise tells me that my speculation about the most consequential music of the 2020s has arrived precisely on time. We have already eaten up 40 percent of our current decade. Preparation for the act of ranking must commence now.

To clarify: I’m not really thinking about my choices for the decade’s best albums. (At least I’m not thinking all that deeply yet.) I’m more interested in what I think critics overall will pick as the best. I have thought a lot about this. Probably too much. But I believe I have cracked the code.

Let’s begin by looking at recent history. Here is a list of 10 well-regarded albums from the 2010s. I compiled it by looking at a variety of “Best of the 2010s” lists and mentally averaging the most common entries. My process was “imprecise” (my word) and “possibly half-assed” (my editor’s words). But nevertheless I think most people will agree that these are definitely among the most critically acclaimed records of the previous decade.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel … (2012)
Beyoncé, Beyoncé (2013)
D’Angelo, Black Messiah (2014)
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Frank Ocean, Blonde (2016)
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2011)
Solange, A Seat At The Table (2016)
Taylor Swift, Red (2012)
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City (2013)
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

It’s interesting to note how some of these albums have shifted in terms of their critical reputations. At the 40-percent mark of the 2010s, the consensus choice for album of the decade so far was easily My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye West stood head and shoulders above all other artists as a figure of profound cultural import and intense music-critic obsession. Then Kanye started to lose his mind in the back half of the 2010s and MBDTF slipped a bit — though not completely off the charts. At that point, To Pimp A Butterfly seemed like the album of the 2010s, given Kendrick Lamar’s elevated status as a Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper. But if a website or publication made a best of 2010s list now, I suspect that Blonde would be the new “easy choice” for the top slot, as Frank Ocean in retrospect seems like the defining artist of the decade.

Back to my original point: Half of these albums came out in the first 40 percent of the 2010s, between 2010 and 2013. The other five came out in the mid-2010s, between 2014 and 2016. The late 2010s are completely absent. I am confident that, if you look at most decade lists, you will see a similar pattern. There might be some records from a year ending with 7, but that’s about as late as they generally go. For the most part, these lists are front-loaded with “early decade” music. (In the parlance of “best of the decade” lists, we can liken the “late” part of the decade to December on year-end lists.)

Why does this happen? There are two reasons:

1) Decade lists made in the moment are typically made up of albums that were loved immediately. The “grower” records that rise in esteem over time do better on retrospective decade lists made years after the fact.

2) This “precedent of love and prestige” effect, so to speak, favors albums that were released earlier in the decade. As a critic, you want to feel that the records under consideration have some staying power. Also, it’s easier to assess the importance of an album that’s already been out for several years. Reputation and mystique by then have been banked. And there’s less risk of overrating something that feels important in the moment. This explains why, for instance, Rolling Stone named The Clash’s London Calling as its best album of the 1980s — it came out in America in January 1980, which means it had more precedence of love and prestige than practically any other ’80s album. (It actually came out in December 1979 in the U.K.) The magazine acted similarly when it named Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) the best album of the ’90s, followed by Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992). Nobody was going to argue against Nevermind or The Chronic in 1999 — the influence and impact of those records was undeniable. Time, as always, has a substantial home-field advantage.

Here’s the relevant takeaway: There’s a good chance the album that critical consensus eventually dictates as the best of the 2020s has already come out. But which album? Here are 10 records from the first 40 percent of the decade that have achieved a high level of acclaim, listed in alphabetical order.

Alvvays, Blue Rev (2022)
Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters (2020)
Beyoncé, Renaissance (2022)
Boygenius, The Record (2023)
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher (2020)
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee (2021)
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour (2021)
Rosalìa, Motomami (2022)
Taylor Swift, Folklore (2020)
Tyler The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost (2021)
SZA, SOS (2022)

One might quibble with some of the choices. Perhaps you want to swap in Turnstile, Bad Bunny, or Wet Leg. But these feel like the early critical frontrunners to me. This list reflects the predominant shifts in music culture and critical thinking during the Biden administration, i.e. there’s less big-tent hip-hop and way more female singer-songwriters. As you might have noticed, there are three crossovers from the 2010s list, and two of them are very predictable: Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. The third, Fiona Apple, has established a track record of releasing one critically adored album per decade. (See also: 2005’s Extraordinary Machine.)

Do I like any of these albums personally? Yes. I like four of them. Though the only serious contender for my personal list is Blue Rev. Speaking of my personal list, here are five albums I feel confident about proclaiming as “the best” from the first 40 percent of the 2020s, listed alphabetically:

Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Bob Dylan, Rough & Rowdy Ways
MJ Lenderman, Boat Songs
The War On Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

To clarify: my determination for “the best” is based on a variety of criteria, including what I listened to the most (I Don’t Live Here Anymore), what makes me happiest when it’s on (Boat Songs), what impressed me the most in terms of songwriting and thematic ambition (New Warm Dragon I Believe In You), what I suspect I will love the most in 20 years (Saint Cloud), and what has the longest song about the Kennedy assassination (Rough & Rowdy Ways).

Now, it’s very possible that the albums we don’t know about (or that don’t even exist yet) coming in the next 60 percent of the 2020s will blow away all of the records mentioned in this column. I actually hope that happens! It’s exciting to think about what’s potentially ahead of us! But let’s assume that at least half of the top 10 records of the decade have already come out. And let’s also say that one of those records ends up being No. 1. And (for the sake of fun and conversation) let’s imagine that we have $1 million to wager on that choice.

What’s the record I would bet on? Punisher.

It is influential for other popular and acclaimed artists in the 2020s. It was made by a person who (like Frank Ocean in the 2010s and unlike Taylor Swift and Beyoncé now) feels native to the current decade. I believe the next generation of music critics (who were in their teens in 2020) will look at it as definitional for its time and their age cohort. It’s the kind of record you pick if you’re trying to make a statement about an era. It’s also — this helps — a really good album. Even with the lack of 17-minute JFK assassination songs.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.