Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lots of “best albums of the 2010s” lists going up right now. But what’s the “most 2010s” album of the 2010s, the record that’s most representative of the music of decade? — Greg from Edwardsville, Ill.
Fantastic question, Greg. In order to pick the “most 2010s” album of the 2010s, we must define what exactly distinguishes 2010s music. This is a decade of mellow, vibe-y songs, which suits the streaming platforms that have become central to music consumption. The most mainstream pop was imbued with a modern hip-hop sensibility and swagger, and yet there was also persistent nostalgia for the comforts of the past, in a manner reminiscent of the memes that were popular on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. While 2010s music could be hyper-specific to the moment, it also had a slightly “out of time” quality, which also feels like the new internet-based normal.
More than ever, popular music artists this decade had a strong cult of personality, with fans investing themselves in the personal lives of their favorite musicians like they were comic-book characters, or reality TV show stars. When you heard a song, you didn’t necessarily think of yourself, you thought of the artist and how this latest single fit in with their overall persona. This was reiterated, again, by social media, which connected fans to artists like never before. Not that this form of media was any less curated than “old” media, though it often felt that way. At the same time, pop listeners were savvier than ever about the limits of “authenticity” and more willing to contextualize pop-star celebrity as a construct, because in a way we all exist as constructs in the online sphere.
This was also a decade in which the old separations between the mainstream and the underground essentially collapsed. The hippest artists from the fringe came to embrace pop as the most vital and relevant form of music, dialing back and ultimately marginalizing the rock-oriented and dude-centric aesthetics that had characterized indie music in previous decades.
Finally, the “most 2010s” album of the 2010s should be popular — not just for a brief window of time immediately after the record’s release, but for a sizable part of the whole decade. That way, when people in the future make movies set in the 2010s, it would be easy to imagine this music playing in the background, just as CCR inevitably scores movies set in the ’60s or grunge music instantly evokes the ’90s.
The album that best satisfies all of these criteria is Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die.
It’s very vibe-y. It’s extremely internet-y. It is exceedingly thinkpiece-y in all of the usual “who are we, really?” kinds of ways. It’s an indie record that’s also a pop record. It was on the Billboard charts for more than 300 weeks. It’s also obsessed with celebrity and the afterlife, which are the twin concerns driving our collective fame-addicted death wish. In the year 2039, someone will make a biopic about Donald Trump, and the music that will be pumping underneath all of those bad wigs and orange makeup will be Born To Die, the “Fortunate Son” of this blasted era.
What is the best album about the music industry? Sturgill Simpson’s latest album got this one bouncing around my head. — Thomas from Rogers, MN