10. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (2018)
Marking the occasion of her third album by finally coming out as pansexual, Janelle Monáe touches on her sexuality more explicitly than ever by…well, by once again dressing everything up in an elaborate analogy involving misbehaving technology. Which is fine! While I’ve always wondered whether Janelle’s music strictly needs these conceits, I’ve come to accept that she’s a total nerd, so it’s all for the better that she leans into it for an album about being unapologetically herself.
Where her previous two albums pushed seventy minutes, Dirty Computer doesn’t even hit fifty, and it’s refreshing to hear her being choosy about what makes the cut. She’s very focused on sex and anatomy: there are the gushing guitars on vagina anthem “Pynk,” the hysterically fun “Screwed,” and the note-perfect Prince tribute “Make Me Feel.” But she also again shows off her underrated rapping in the fearless “Django Jane,” she opens up about her queerness in “I Like That,” and she attempts to reclaim what it means to be American in the name of the country’s dirty computers.
Dirty Computer is Janelle Monáe’s leanest, most confident offering of her young career. It’s the sound of freedom and self-realization, both the payoff of her career up to this point and the beginning of a new chapter for her.
Listen: “Screwed” (ft. Zoë Kravitz)
9. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
“My ills are reticulate/My woes are granular/The ants weigh more than the elephants.” The Idler Wheel is littered with bizarre spurts of verbosity like this, and Fiona refuses to filter or dumb down the thoughts racing through her head. Sometimes they’re about men, but they’re always about her anxieties. Wrestling with her mind on opener “Every Single Night” (“Every single night’s a fight with my brain”), she settles into and hums, “I just want to feel everything.” Fiona Apple is exceptionally gifted at bringing you into her brainspace.
Released seven years after 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, itself the product of a six year drought between albums, The Idler Wheel also finds Fiona at her most musically imaginative. “Left Alone” is manic, “Jonathan” waddles along, “Periphery” marches, and “Hot Knife” is a sizzling slow-burner of a closer, the most inventive track of her career. She’s also dangerously playful, having searched far and wide for the right soundbite of children screaming to throw on the second verse of standout “Werewolf.” And “Anything We Want” is the most content, assured thing she’s ever written. There’s still nothing quite like Fiona Apple suddenly shouting, “SEEK. ME. OUT. LOOK AT. LOOK AT. LOOK AT. ME. I’m all the fishes in the sea.”
But the gap between The Idler Wheel and now is even greater than the gap between Extraordinary Machine and The Idler Wheel. Luckily, if The Idler Wheel is any indication, Fiona Apple gets better and better, setting a new high mark each time she decides to give us a new collection of music.
Listen: “Left Alone”
8. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
After autotune’s definitive artistic statement, 2008’s 808’s & Heartbreak, was released to mixed reception, Kanye West’s image would undergo further turbulence as he turned into the sort of figure they make South Park episodes about. His interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs remains among the most significant moments in both of their careers, and at the time it seemed like it could end up defining him (although now we know there are more embarrassing things to be defined by). As 2010 went on, it felt like it had been a while since Kanye West had done a rap album.
Honestly, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the beginning of something deeply irritating. Moreso than before, Kanye West releases bred inescapable discourse as if he had harvested the Taylor Swift incident’s firestorm but for his own ends, and people would pay him this sort of attention for the next six years.
But here it’s deserved. “POWER” is the ultimate testament to his cultural force, complete with an embarrassing amount of time spent being angry at Saturday Night Live. “Monster” has a dreadful HOV verse and an all-time great verse from Nicki Minaj. “Runaway” is a nine minute mess of a masterpiece. “Lost In The World” sets Bon Iver’s “Woods” aflame and launches it into Gil Scott-Heron’s awesome “Comment #1.” A million guests all on one song. Chris Rock discussing pussy reupholstering over Aphex Twin. Too. Many. Urkels. My god. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is deliriously ambitious, so much so that it loses sense of itself at least a dozen times.
7. Beyoncé: Lemonade (2016)
Lemonade’s hype cycle began with her perched on top of a police car submerged by floodwater. Shortly after, her Super Bowl backup dancers’ outfits’ semblance to the Black Panthers sparked a police boycott of her concerts. Beyoncé Knowles wasn’t the first to make music critical of the police, or even the first to do so in this particular era of police killings. She was just the most visible. But though it’s a constant undercurrent and its visual accompaniment brings it up frequently, Lemonade never explicitly confronts police violence. Instead, it tries to find some answers to these problems through a tale of personal strength.
After video emerged in 2014 of Knowles’ sister Solange attacking Jay-Z in an elevator, rumors of his infidelity swirled. Regardless of whether that theory is true, it sets the stage and informed the way we listened to Lemonade. The despair of “Pray You Catch Me” and the fire of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” may have done wonders for the album’s social media presence as we all experienced Lemonade in real time, but they’re also enduring songs about the different stages of feeling betrayed. “Sorry,” the album’s greatest song, is a masterpiece, beginning as a great fuck-off anthem (“boy, bye” just the latest in Beyoncé’s ouvre of enduring catchphrases) and finishing as a gentler but more intense stream of consciousness. And forget Pusha T, “Becky with the good hair” is the best barb of this decade in music.
Lemonade is fierce, occasionally sounding like a rock album. Jack White joins Beyoncé and Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” drum sample for “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She sings her first country song with “Daddy Lessons,” and we should pray it’s not her last. BEYONCÉ was a more subdued beast. There’s an energy coursing through Lemonade, and its runtime (shorter by twenty whole minutes) keeps her laser-focused.
Its final three songs complete her vision. On penultimate track “All Night,” she finds acceptance and the strength in herself to continue her relationship, “Spottieottiedopaliscious” horns sending that arc out on a high note. On “Freedom” and “Formation,” she gives space to what seems like the real point: making music to empower black women. And these anthems are made more powerful by emerging through the pain of the album’s first act. She was served lemons and, well, you get it.
6. Robyn: Body Talk (2010)
After drastically stepping it up on her 2005 self-titled album and the singles that followed (“With Every Heartbeat” even going #1 in the UK), Robyn’s 2010 began with two eight song EPs. By November, she completed the Body Talk trilogy by releasing five more tracks but rolled them and choice songs from earlier in the year into a full length product. Body Talk is exactly what you might imagine when you think the words “pop music,” its sound fuller than her previous album (props to Klas Åhlund) and its lyrics with broader aim. “I’m in the corner/Watching you kiss her,” “Just don’t fall recklessly, headlessly in love with me,” “Call your girlfriend/It’s time you had the talk,” Robyn’s biggest songs here have become anthems to loneliness, infatuation, and breaking up.
Every single song is a certified bop, too. Max Martin and Shellback put their shine on “Time Machine,” Diplo puts his unique fingerprints on “Dancing On My Own” flipside “Dancehall Queen,” Röyksopp preside over the album’s most subdued track “None of Dem,” and Snoop Dogg hops on “U Should Know Better” to flex with Robyn “Konichiwa Bitches” style.
But the craziest thing about Body Talk is that Robyn leaves off Body Talk Pt. 1 standout “Cry When You Get Older.” The decade’s best pure pop album could have been even better.
Listen: “Call Your Girlfriend”
5. Alex Lahey: I Love You Like A Brother (2017)
Whoa! This album is awfully high up, isn’t it? But make no mistake, I Love You Like A Brother so deserves to be here. Right from the get-go, the skip and hop of the guitar on “Every Day’s The Weekend” lets you know how fun Alex Lahey’s music is. Then the first “WHOA-OH WHOA-OH WHOA-OHH” lets you know that this is the decade’s most fun music, and its best rock album.
After the Australian’s 2016 EP B-Grade University (which includes three phenomenal songs), Lahey brought the same approach to her 2017 debut album but made everything a little bigger. ILYLAB is nasty with wordless shout-alongs, from the joyous whoa-oh’s of “Every Day’s The Weekend” to the manic doot-da-da’s of “I Haven’t Been Taking Care Of Myself.” This all makes for a shockingly millennial product: a good times album about the sunny side of barely keeping your life together.
Her songs feel so relatable because of the small ways in which she fleshes out her own life: her relationship with her brother enduring her parents’ divorce, her begrudging admiration for Perth, her brief callout of Australia’s lateness to marriage equality, and generally her anxieties spilling out everywhere. I enjoy listening to I Love You Like A Brother more than any other album of the past ten years because of how much space and reverence she gives these anxieties, deploying them with a foolproof formula.
Listen: “Every Day’s The Weekend”
4. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
Section.80 was among 2011’s best rap albums and it established Kendrick Lamar as the rapper to watch, but good kid, m.A.A.d city was so much more than anyone dared to expect from him. Few albums this millennium have so obviously been instant classics.
Kendrick’s narrative of a young man finding himself lost in gang violence and peer pressure, hitting rock bottom, and pulling himself out of it is simple but astonishing, with few concept albums throughout history equaling the sustained quality of its storytelling. “The Art of Peer Pressure” is an early turning point, detailing him and the homies breaking into a house and robbing it. “m.A.A.d city” is a monstrous two-part epic, a rapidfire soliloquy to end the second act. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” is a late album showstopper, meditating on the death of one of his companions with three masterful verses from three different perspectives before accepting the need for salvation. “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” just hangs there, the nagging question at the heart of the album.
Less talked about is good kid’s music, a unique atmosphere in which a haunted Beach House sample fits right in. The voice modulation on “m.A.A.d city” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” help you hear Kendrick’s anguished mind. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is elevated by its relaxed disposition, raising many Aquemini comparisons.
good kid, m.A.A.d city is a stunning accomplishment, and for nearly any other artist, it would be all downhill from here. But this album was too determined and too well-imagined for Kendrick Lamar to have wound up a flash in the pan.
Listen: “m.A.A.d city” (ft. MC Eiht)
3. tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l (2011)
2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs is a wonderful album, and it was already clear that Merrill Garbus had a knack for songwriting. And while its lo-fi recording (edited using Audacity) isn’t exactly a fault, it’s immediately clear on whokill that she fiended for more from her music. BiRd-BrAiNs was mostly just her soft voice and ukulele, only sometimes getting louder and more complex. whokill immediately thrashes you with a lively drum machine, stacked instrument loops, horns, thick bass guitar, and Garbus just belting. Lead single “Bizness” and album opener “My Country” were each such shocking introductions to this transformation, which sounds so natural while being so dramatic.
But its real triumph is the intimacy of its politics. She frequently focuses not just locally, but in her own neighborhood. Amidst “Gangsta”’s horns bleating like police sirens, she contemplates her role in her neighborhood’s gentrification. She further considers her own privilege on “My Country” and “Killa.” The central line to her national anthem is “we cannot all have it.” Police violence occurs near her home in two songs, once on her very own doorstep. The closest her songs have to an answer is her howling, “THERE IS A FREEDOM IN VIOLENCE THAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND, AND LIKE I’VE NEVER FELT BEFORE.” But most revolutionary still is “Powa,” as in sex (as in the quote misattributed to Wilde), where she stretches her singing to its limits.
whokill’s political lyrics and imagination along with its extremely distinct sonic approach make it the best indie music of the past ten years.
2. Frank Ocean: nostalgia,ULTRA. (2011)
This is some visionary shit.
In February 2011, the collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All gained newfound levels of prominence when head honcho Tyler, The Creator released his video for “Yonkers.” Based on “Yonkers” alone, one gained the sense that these kids would somehow take over the world. We were both right and wrong. Syd, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, The Creator did become large figures in popular music. But, of course, one member of Odd Future became far and away more prolific than any of them.
Six days after the “Yonkers” video released, lone Odd Future singer Frank Ocean posted nostalgia,ULTRA. to his Tumblr. Though certainly noticed, nostalgia,ULTRA. was quietly received relative to some Odd Future brethren, and eight years later it’s much less discussed than its successors channel ORANGE and blond.
This is mostly because in the streaming age, nostalgia,ULTRA. might as well not exist. Three of its ten songs and several of its skits rely heavily on uncleared samples, most infamously “American Wedding,” which uses “Hotel California” in full for Frank’s tale of rushed and failed young love. He keeps the entire guitar solo section in, and Don Henley threatened to sue when he performed “American Wedding” live while playing “Hotel California” on Guitar Hero.
Along with besting Eagles on their own song, he does Coldplay one better by taking “Strawberry Swing” and blasting it with a heavy dose of nostalgia before its bridge sucks it into armageddon. He seizes MGMT’s “Electric Feel” and reimagines it as Adam and Eve stumbling upon sex for the first time in the Garden of Eden.
Frank established himself as a storyteller, a lyrical powerhouse. On single “Novacane,” he relays a tale of meeting a college student at a music festival, sharing her ice blue bong before the two disappear into each other. Then we leap out of the chorus: “Sink full of dishes/Pacing in the kitchen/Cocaine for breakfast/…yikes!” Frank’s capacity for imagery is endless, and he has a knack for spitting you out in new and interesting places in a narrative.
“Dust” and “There Will Be Tears” show off his sensitive side while “Swim Good” and “Songs 4 Women” put his charisma and sense of humor on display. But the most astonishing song on nostalgia,ULTRA. is “We All Try,” where Frank contemplates existence and humanity. Marriage equality, abortion, and the moon landing all feature on the journey to this affirming refrain: “I still believe in man/A wise one asked me why/’Cause I just don’t believe we’re wicked/I know that we sin/But I do believe we try.” “We All Try” is the most explicit example, but nostalgia,ULTRA. goes so far in part because Frank Ocean is always trying to grapple with something unimaginably huge.
And while that trend continued well into his career, much of what makes nostalgia,ULTRA. so wonderful has become less and less present. He no longer tells stories and his music has gotten more and more formless, and while publications have championed channel ORANGE and blond on their decade lists, nostalgia,ULTRA. is far and away his best album, this millennium’s benchmark for lyricism.
1. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
If good kid, m.A.A.d city hadn’t already established Kendrick Lamar as the world’s greatest rapper, his scorching verse on “Control” in 2013 firmly established how far ahead of his peers he was. Still, the idea of following up his masterpiece seemed unthinkable.
Fast forward a year and the police assassinations and subsequent protests in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray (among others) became among the most common topics for rappers, most notably from Run The Jewels and J. Cole. Even D’Angelo sped up his long-delayed Black Messiah in response. But especially after performing an untitled track (“We don’t die/We multiply”) as the final musical act on The Colbert Report, Kendrick’s forthcoming album was slowly taking on insurmountable expectations.
The first voice you hear on To Pimp A Butterfly is Boris Gardener’s on a sample of the 1974 track “Every N—-r Is A Star.” The next is funk titan George Clinton’s. To Pimp A Butterfly is a musical tribute to so many black musicians that came before. Along with reggae and funk, “King Kunta” is an homage to the blaxploitation music of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. Nineties hip hop legends Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur appear. The lead single is built around an Isley Brothers sample. Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Terrace Martin make jazz one of the album’s go-to backdrops. To Pimp A Butterfly is an immense step up musically for Lamar.
To Pimp A Butterfly’s throughline is reminiscent of good kid m.A.A.d city’s. Kendrick’s character falls into a deep depression and almost destroys himself, but is saved through the power of self-love and self-respect. And while no song on good kid, m.A.A.d city really floundered, the connective tissue was flimsier and “Real” wasn’t the most convincing resolution. But here, “u” drowns in its sorrows, almost suicidal. “The Blacker The Berry” ruthlessly clarifies Kendrick’s self-hatred. The faster, far livelier version of “i” sounds more convincingly like a revelation, and a celebration of finally turning the corner for the better.
But To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t just about one man saving himself. The album wasn’t wholly a response to the recent string of high profile police assassinations, but it still paints a compelling picture of the way that the United States has screwed over black Americans: “No condom, they fuck with you/Obama say, ‘what it do?’” It was so vital to point out that so much suffering was still taking place under even a relatively progressive administration.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a massive contemplation of these facts and a debate between facing them with hope or hopelessness. “We gon’ be alright” might be getting harder and harder to believe, but he doesn’t open with “Alright.” It’s the album’s centerpiece, a conclusion he arrives at after a good deal of accounting for musical and African-American history.
It is a dizzying achievement. It is the greatest American album of all time.