25. Grimes: Art Angels (2015)
You’ll get the most out of Art Angels if you think of it as a rock album. Though Grimes grabbed everyone’s attention in 2012 with her slightly off-kilter art pop, these loud, abrasive dance songs are driven by an undercurrent of guitar. And nothing captures what’s wonderful and horrible and *holds up spork* about Grimes better than a song about Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt II, “except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” Grimes might just be the most interesting musical figure of the decade. This is where it all came together.
Listen: “Flesh Without Blood”
24. Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (2017)
This is simply Jens Lekman’s greatest storytelling by a fair margin. And it’s not just the telling but the stories themselves: the 3D printing of a tumor, trespassing to hotwire a ferris wheel, a conversation with a cold-footed bride, of course the Mormon missionary walking through Vasa Lane, and…the history of the universe? And thanks to Jens’ unique arsenal of sounds this time, each is independently presented so tenderly but cuts deep. If there’s a unifying theme to be found, it’s finding our place for a short life in a vast universe. Profound, hilarious, heartbreaking.
Listen: “Wedding in Finistère”
23. Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE (2012)
Written about the summer when he first fell in love with a man, channel ORANGE brought more ambition to the table and saw him getting rawer than before. Frank Ocean moved away from the tightly-woven episodes of nostalgia,ULTRA. but put his back into more colorful compositions and more memorable performances. “I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions,” Frank wrote on Tumblr. The style in his coming out note was just what he brought to his music: contemplating the biggest questions while fucked up by the bigness of it all.
Listen: “Bad Religion”
22. Chance The Rapper: Acid Rap (2013)
Acid Rap once and for all shattered the stigma of the mixtape being a lesser product. Instantly you heard the glow and gush of the live instrumentation and you knew it’d be a fool’s errand to wait on his “official” debut. Paired with the playfulness of his backing tracks, his youthful exuberance manifests as a spinning Tasmanian Devil of sly references and guttural yelps. His hyperactive train of thought speeds through his and our senses of nostalgia and interrogates it. Acid Rap was his moment, and he knew it. You can still hear how tickled he was.
21. Pistol Annies: Hell on Heels (2011)
Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe have both spent the decade making incredible music and Miranda Lambert towers over all other country artists, but none of them have put out anything as wonderful as when they came together in 2011. The jams (“Takin’ Pills,” “Boys from the South”) and ditties (“Lemon Drop,” “The Hunter’s Wife”) are all fantastic, but the music truly shows its power in its quiet, violent, bare bones moments, as on “Housewife’s Prayer” and “Trailer for Rent.” These women broke from making their own grand statements to come together for a simpler, more understated kind of masterpiece.
Listen: “Trailer for Rent”
20. Parquet Courts: Wide Awaaaaake! (2018)
After spending the decade scratching the itches of Pavement and Velvet Underground fans, Parquet Courts’ newest and best approach most closely resembles The Clash. Andrew Savage’s bark really does evoke Joe Strummer, his yowl both world-weary and hopeful. And though the album’s most famous line is “FUCK TOM BRADY,” it’s the dreary “Violence” that lies at its heart. In its “Know Your Rights”-style rant, Savage contextualizes the accusation that riots are violent by listing the small ways in which that escalation has already been made in your daily life.
Completing Parquet Courts’ portrait of 2018 America, Savage also rattles off anthems about collectivism (“Total Football”), climate catastrophe (“When The Water Gets Too High”), and normalization (er, “Normalization”). But complemented by three songs from co-frontman Austin Brown, including the “Range Life”-reminiscent “Mardi Gras Beads” and the mourning children’s choir on “Death Will Bring Change,” Wide Awaaaaake’s great triumph is in its touching resolution “Tenderness,” a hopeful song that wonders if we might come out on the other side of this stronger. Entirely unexpectedly, Parquet Courts has released the best political rock of the Trump era. Right now, they’re the world’s greatest rock and roll band.
Listen: “Total Football”
19. Japandroids: Celebration Rock (2012)
After 2009’s solid but timid Post-Nothing, Celebration Rock is an astonishing upgrade of Japandroids’ heartland rock, showing off their new, humongous sound. Their production makes it sound much more like a live show, the drums booming and the voices scratching. Japandroids shed their inhibitions and sing about adrenaline, sexual red, and hearts from hell colliding. Punctuating the affair at every juncture is an “ALL RIGHT” or “WHOA-OH” or “OH YEAH.” Celebration Rock is the sound of sweat on concrete.
Six of the eight songs here follow a similar blueprint of unrelenting, wild-eyed momentum and bombastic, wide-eyed lyrics, frequently reclaiming former glory or seizing this very moment. The other two songs close out each side: One is a vicious cover of The Gun Club, the other is the relatively quiet finale “Continuous Thunder.” It has a line that goes “and if the cold, pissing rain flooded that fire.” Even dialing it back, Japandroids didn’t have an off switch. It’s such a thrill.
Listen: “The House That Heaven Built”
18. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste (2014)
No song this millennium has had the same big bang nothing-into-everything effect of “212,” Azealia Banks’ skillful working of Lazy Jay’s bouncing “Float My Boat” beat. Her employment of a certain c-word lifted it to virality, but the song was nasty with promise alongside its plain old nastiness. Her flow was smooth, her voice was fierce, she could shift gears on a dime, and her singing voice was incredible.
Three years passed, and after great but minor releases (2012 gave us the 1991 EP and Fantasea mixtape), we finally got Broke With Expensive Taste, and it delivers on the promise of “212.” From the opening moments of “Idle Delilah,” it’s apparent that Banks has a unique ear for beats, and her rapping sounds so effortless, her boasts rolling naturally off her tongue, her writing stuffed with assonance. When she sings her own hooks, as she best does on standout “Chasing Time,” her power and versatility as a performer is terrifying. Broke With Expensive Taste is a perfect showcase for the most talented hip hop artist out there. Just pray she bothers to give us another.
Listen: “Chasing Time”
17. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)
“And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” In 2007, these lines were part of the unreal New Wave finale “The Ocean,” and in May 2012 Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender to Rolling Stone, instantly becoming the most high profile trans figure in music. Grace’s first album as an out trans woman rose to the task and tackled all this head on, and it was…despondent.
With song titles like “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” and “FUCKMYLIFE666” and lyrics as coldly straightforward as “you don’t worry about tomorrow anymore, because you’re dead,” Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an unflinching dive into the existential despair that can come with transition. Near its end, its bleakest song details a trans woman killing herself in a hotel bathtub, capped by the gut-wrenching line “Standing naked in front of that hotel bathroom mirror/In her dysphoria’s reflection, she still saw her mother’s son.” It’s compelling, captivating rock music, but this might be too brutal a listen for many. But for those who stick it through, its honesty is beautiful, devastating, and revelatory.
Listen: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
16. Tegan & Sara: Heartthrob (2013)
The endpoint of Tegan & Sara’s voyage from indie to indie pop to full-on, no asterisks pop, Heartthrob has nine perfect songs of ten. From the second the synths on makeout jam “Closer” start buzzing, they’re fully realized in this mode. It’s sacrilege I’m sure, but they’re even better with synths than they are with guitars, and Greg Kurstin’s tight production helps keep their heavy songs fun.
As always, they specialize in breakup songs that cut to the bone. Sometimes they reminisce (“Drove Me Wild”), sometimes they agonize (“How Come You Don’t Want Me Now”), sometimes they join the two (“Now I’m All Messed Up,” a stadium-ready track up there with their best songs), but the best moment is their upsetting dose of reality: “WHAT. YOU. ARE. IS LONELY.”
Somehow tying it all together is their song about “Tegan & Sara”: “I’m Not Your Hero,” their reckoning with just how many other young lesbians they inspire. It’s perhaps the biggest reminder that even with this radically different approach, Tegan & Sara’s music still has the same heart. And while they never get as intimate as they did on The Con, I think their ears for melody are best here.
Listen: “Now I’m All Messed Up”
15. Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)
Is Lana Del Rey authentic? So went the discourse around her 2011 single “Video Games,” and her proper debut Born To Die landed with a thud. It was unfair, sexist bullshit. But right away she let us know what she wanted: “Tell me I’m your national anthem.”
On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey is really going for it, trying her hand at writing the next best American record. She’s always been suited for the role: her knack for plumbing nostalgia and Americana would make for a great chapter in Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train. She brings her style (shameless triplets like “Lying on your chest/In my party dress/Baby I’m a mess”) and gives them her best melodies and lush arrangements. Daring to write a drugged out, ten minute song or a song as triumphant as “The greatest” (her greatest) is the difference this time.
She’s our national anthem.
Listen: “Norman fucking Rockwell”
14. Beyoncé: BEYONCÉ (2013)
It’s a little jarring to remember a time when Beyoncé wasn’t one of the decade’s most auteuristic music makers. Then twin wonders “Countdown” and “Love On Top” ramped up her hype leading up to her Super Bowl XLVII halftime performance, the moment when she became even more than a superstar. The following December, Beyoncé somehow surprise released an album in an era of constant leaks, and it marked the official start of this new era of her career.
Her self-titled album is by far her most cohesive long-release, a dark, electronic sound permeating every song. “***Flawless” is a microcosm, its “bow down, bitches” emphasizing her new place as queen of the world, the passage by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie affirming the central place feminism now had in her career (enough for bell hooks to call her a terrorist), and “I woke up like this” as ready for the meme big time as her videos for every track (!) were for Tumblr gifs. The album is both a victory lap and the start of a new chapter for one of the most massive recording artists of the millennium.
13. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (2010)
On just their second album, Titus Andronicus went all out. The Monitor is an insane, sprawling rock concept album built around Civil War imagery. Its ten tracks more often than not exceed seven minutes, although this is partly because of interludes in which indie figures like Cassie Ramone and Craig Finn recite writings of figures like Jefferson Davis and Walt Whitman.
Somewhere between The Pogues, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen, and The Replacements, Titus Andronicus’ music joyously ventures into the saddest, most pathetic feelings you’ll have: “I will not deny my humanity/I will be rolling in it like a pig in feces.” Patrick Stickles’ lyrics are phenomenal, most impressive on 14-minute epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” where the lines seem to endlessly flow from him. Titus Andronicus excels at songs to listen to while crying on the bathroom floor and at leaving you smiling by the end. The Monitor is among the finest monuments to human misery ever concocted.
Listen: “A More Perfect Union”
12. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
Two men loom large over A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years. The first is the late Phife Dawg, who had passed eight months before release but who still has verses on most songs here. The second is Donald Trump. In fact, We Got It From Here dropped just three days after his surprise 2016 election. And while it sounds like Tribe thought we’d have another President Clinton, the fact of President Trump makes the album so prescient and necessary. Hearing “Muslims and gays/Boy, we hate your ways” that November was just gutting.
If the situation weren’t so serious, We Got It From Here would be a bit of a party: guests include Busta Rhymes, Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Jack White, and many more. This all gives the album a unique feel that wonderfully fit both the political tracks (“The Space Program” calls out the notion that society’s advance will necessarily bring any equality) and the memorials (“Black Spasmodic” is a deeply touching tribute). It’s so unexpected and beautiful that Tribe can come back after so many years and create a contender for their best work.
Listen: “We The People….”
11. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires Of The City (2013)
Moving beyond the electronic sound of Contra and shedding the African influence that brought their music fame, Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend’s best album, full of their most intricate compositions. Quite a few songs here are explicitly about God and religion, and even when he’s on another topic, Ezra Koenig speaks in huge terms: “There’s no future. There’s no answer,” ”I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.”
The band’s writing is at its peak, most thrillingly in the knotty, reference-loaded “Step.” And while Koenig is still a smartass, it’s a lot cuter when he doesn’t come off as so knowing, helped here by constantly wondering aloud about the meaning of life. “Ya Hey” is likely the best song any of them will ever write, a choir-adorned track that shouts into the void, begging to know God and coming the closest when hearing “you spinning ‘Israelites’ into ‘19th Nervous Breakdown.’” Modern Vampires of the City is the 21st century’s greatest album centered on religion this side of The Hold Steady.