Like every year that ends in “9,” 2019 is a special time when critics everywhere get together and decide to evaluate an entire decade. For music critics, that means ranking the best albums of the 2010s.
You’re going to be seeing a lot of these lists in the months ahead. In order to prepare, I’ve made this list of 20 albums that I expect will be in the conversation. They are not my personal favorite albums, though I do like (and even love!) many of them. These are just the records that will (I think!) be put at the forefront of the critical discourse.
For each record, I’ve also included the odds of it actually topping most lists. I deduced these odds by revisiting old album reviews, surveying the aesthetic preferences of major publications, and then making wild guesses. Actually, I just did the guessing part.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar is arguably the greatest albums artist of the decade, in that he has at least three LPs — 2013’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and 2017’s Damn. — that you could reasonably declare his defining masterpiece. Plus, the dude won the Pulitzer Prize. Nobody else on this list has that kind of reputation as an artist. Out of all of his records, To Pimp A Butterfly feels the most “important,” a true magnum opus that future generations will feel required to hear. They might eventually decide that Good Kid is actually more entertaining, but that’s another issue.
2. Beyoncé, Lemonade
Beyoncé is the most respected and beloved artist of the 2010s. You can be put on notice by the Beyhive for simply showing disrespect to her at a Warriors game. Critically speaking, she inspires the sort of hyperbole that Bruce Springsteen garnered in the 1980s, or Nirvana did in the 1990s. You could make the case that Lemonade — which gets the edge over 2013’s similarly feted Beyoncé — will be declared the decade’s best simply as a testament to her lofty stature.
3. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
If Beyoncé is this era’s most culturally ubiquitous artist, Frank Ocean is the most celebrated recluse. Frank can create headlines at this point by discussing his skin-care routine. This desperation for any scrap of Ocean-related news stems from the love for 2011’s Channel Orange, one of the first true album-oriented events on social media. When people look back on the decade, Channel Orange is one of the records people will remember hearing for the first time.
4. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
When this album dropped in 2010, it seemed like the race for the best LP of the 2010s had already been settled — in the same way that many critics already decided in 1980 that the Clash’s London Calling was that decade’s greatest. With Twisted Fantasy, Kanye decided to make a self-conscious masterpiece that melded pop potency with an epic sweep that derives from classic rock. And Kanye — who in spite of his recent stumbles remains a consummate showman — delivers on every count.
5. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Compared with the top four albums on this list, Golden Hour doesn’t have quite the same unimpeachable pedigree. However, don’t discount the fact that every single person who has heard it absolutely loves this album. I recently heard Golden Hour playing before a punk show, for crying out loud. Also, this album could benefit big time from the recency effect.
6. Taylor Swift, 1989
It’s extremely weird to describe Taylor Swift as a “dark horse.” If this were five years ago, the supremacy of 1989 would go unquestioned. It’s undeniably one of the decade’s biggest and most emblematic pop records, and a touchstone for the pop-ification of indie music this decade. What keeps this album just outside the favorites category is the inevitable hit that Swift’s reputation (pun definitely intended) took after her period of intense over-exposure.
7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
There’s been some debate lately over whether this album holds up. I’ll admit that I haven’t played it at all in the past, say, two years. However, Random Access Memories is the biggest “event” indie-oriented album of the decade. And the fact that it didn’t merely turn out a series of hit singles that sounded exactly like “Get Lucky” adds to its charm. RAM is an endearing “big tent” record with enough room to house Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear, Paul Williams, and Giorgio Moroder.
8. Drake, Take Care
Like Taylor Swift, Drake doesn’t fit comfortably under the “dark horse” banner. He’s only the most commercially dominant rapper of the 2010s, after all. However, when it comes to albums, Drake has arguably done as much as any artist to diminish their impact. Behemoths like 2016’s Views and 2017’s More Life are basically playlists optimized to generate maximum streams for their stats-obsessed creator. In terms of actual album-albums, however, Take Care is his definitive statement of the 2010s.
9. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City
While super-fans might argue for 2010’s Contra as being more accomplished, and those who love a tasty jam will likely gravitate to 2019’s Father Of The Bride, the third Vampire Weekend LP seems like the one most likely to be remembered as the classic. Also, Modern Vampires Of The City is one of the decade’s most influential indie records. Ezra Koenig’s gadfly approach to music-making — his love and knowledge of pop, hip-hop, and classic rock is deep and infectious — is millennial through and through.
10. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
In the ’80s, The Suburbs probably would have had the stature of The Joshua Tree — a big-sounding and emotionally strident statement from a messianic rock band. In the ’10s, however, it’s more like War, a popular though slightly left-of-center choice from a medium-popular alt act. The fact that The Suburbs won an album of the year Grammy seems crazy now, though when you revisit the record, it still has the power to push your anthemic rock buttons.
NOT A LIST TOPPER, BUT DEFINITELY MAKING THE TOP 10
11. D’Angelo, Black Messiah
Is this album the decade’s biggest musical miracle? Not only was it amazing that D’Angelo came back from an extended period of personal upheaval — there were drug and alcohol problems, and he lost the cut physique he sported on the cover of 2000’s Voodoo — but he returned with a thoroughly triumphant and beloved record. For that reason. Black Messiah remains the kind of feel-good story that list-makers will remember.
12. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
When this album dropped in 2010, it telegraphed the premature end of one of the most popular indie bands of the last 20 years. Now, it just seems like the second-best album (after 2007’s Sound of Silver) in LCD’s catalogue. Any sour feelings about James Murphy’s retirement fake-out are pretty much quelled by the music, which holds up. (Aside from the vapid “Drunk Girls,” of course).
13. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
If Josh Tillman wasn’t the most polarizing indie-rocker of the 2010s outside of Mac DeMarco, this exquisite concept album about love and marriage would probably be a lock for the favorites category. As it is, this is probably the one FJM record that even people who were alienated by the press cycle of Pure Comedy can get with.
14. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion
In the ’10s, indie music sounded more like pop music, which made it possible to make pop music that wasn’t actually widely popular. There is no artist who typifies this phenomenon better than Carly Rae Jepsen, and her third record, Emotion, is a pivotal record for “non-popular pop music” fans. CRJ’s reach isn’t necessarily wide, but it’s extremely intense for the faithful, which will help this record tremendously at list-making time.
15. The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream
Like it or not, but dad rock couldn’t be killed in the 2010s. If anything, an increasingly pop-obsessed critical establishment was forced to accept that a significant number of listeners still want vision quest-y heartland rock that sounds great when you’re driving at dusk. And Lost In The Dream was the greatest example of that kind of album released this decade.
WORTHY LONG SHOTS
16. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
The decade’s most ambitious, most rousing, most cacophonous, most obsessed with Abe Lincoln punk-rock album of the 2010s. If this list were ordered in terms of noisiness, Titus would blow the rest of these records out of the water. (Also shout-out to Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, which could just as easily be ranked here.)
17. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
This band is probably always destined to be a little under-appreciated, even if they’re now recognized as indie’s leading legacy band. A lot of super-fans would put High Violet in this spot, but any album with “Pink Rabbits” deserves to be in best-of-the-decade contention.
18. Grimes, Art Angels
There was a moment when it seemed like the 2010s might be Grimes’ decade. Art Angels certainly seems like one of the decade’s most indelible indie records, though Grimes’ extended period of inaction and the problematic Elon Musk connection kicks her back into the long shots category.
19. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Here’s another album that seemed hugely important to the decade a few years ago and now seems slightly diminished. In Justin Vernon’s case, he voluntarily took himself out of the indie-rock rat race once he became a Grammy winner and fodder for Saturday Night Live sketches. In a way, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a reminder that the ’00s didn’t really end until the early ’10s.
20. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel …
The main reason I put this record here is to remind people that Fiona Apple put out an album this decade and it was kind of a masterpiece. That’s what Fiona Apple does — she puts out one or two albums per decade, just so she can be considered for best-of lists. And it works every time!
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.