Picking 20 albums that have defined the 2010s for me has been almost impossible. In the end, the ones I chose have simply been those cases where I’ve been through periods where I can’t listen to anything else. These albums have kept me excited about following new music. Sometimes there’s nothing better than that feeling of hearing a new classic for the first time. An album by someone who is at the beginning of their career or something that takes you by surprise by an older favourite.
Before I begin my countdown, how about some honourable mentions..
Hatchie, Goldfrapp, Grimes, Twin Shadow, When Saints Go Machine, Kendrick Lamar, Hot Chip, Quadron, St. Vincent, Owen Pallett, Tove Styrke, Kali Uchis, Weyes Blood, The Juan Maclean, Crying, The Clientele, Lykke Li, Pet Shop Boys, Charly Bliss, Niki & The Dove, Julia Holter, Let’s Eat Grandma, Todd Terje, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Tegan & Sara, Moses Sumney, Lorde, Mitski, Mr Twin Sister, Alvvays, The 1975, Haim, Perfume Genius, Angel Olsen, Christine & The Queens, Janelle Monáe, Raphael Saadiq, School Of Seven Bells, Britney, Tracey Thorn, Saint Etienne and Kelis all put out albums that could have made the list on another day.
What a decade!
1. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs (2015)
Susanne Sundfør has had a great decade in music. In 2010 she released her second album, The Brothel — a thrillingly dramatic electro-pop record bursting with potential. In the next couple of years she worked with Röyksopp and M83 on a couple startling songs and released an even stronger follow-up, 2012’s The Silicone Veil. By the time she put out Ten Love Songs at the beginning of 2015, Sundfør had honed her craft and become a truly enigmatic and magnetic artist.
Ten Love Songs is a stunning blend of gothic ballads, huge electro-bangers and even a mini opera in the middle. The ambition is admirable and the execution is absolutely astonishing. It’s one of those albums that’s full of great little details (the transition from ‘Accelerate’ into ‘Fade Away’, the trance-like synths in ‘Kamikazi’, how she stretches her voice at the end of ‘Slowly’ and of course the microwave ping before the dizzying solo in ‘Fade Away’). This record was captivating when it arrived in 2015 and almost five years later, its scope and breath-taking beauty is still a revelation and unparalleled.
2. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012)
After his solid 2010 debut, All I Want Is You, Miguel made a huge leap with his second and best release, Kaleidoscope Dream. The first thing noticeable about this album is how versatile Miguel is with his incredible voice and how it is enhanced by the immaculate production. He sounds gritty against the rawness of, ‘The Thrill’ and ‘Use Me’. He’s playful and ecstatic as the euphoric climax on, ‘Do You?’ unfurls. On his seductive signature tune, ‘Adorn’ Miguel is full of infatuation and desire. He’s a master at how to control his vocals holding something back then jumping into falsetto within the same song. Kaleidoscope Dream is funky as it glides from smooth R&B into psychedelic soul with ease. Everything Miguel does here sounds utterly convincing and his sense of melody is staggering. It’s been a strong decade for R&B and soul releases and this perfect record stands above everything else.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)
Following the huge success of, ‘Call Me Maybe’, Jepsen was quickly assigned the one hit wonder label. Aware she was unlikely to recreate those mammoth sales, Jepsen took her time putting everything into her third album, Emotion making it as consistent and inviting as she could. Despite this obsessive attention to detail and her striving for perfection, nothing here sounds fussy or overwrought. Jepsen presents 12 well rounded songs that have endless appeal and their own identity. The dazzling rush of, ‘I Really Like You’, the bouncy two-chorus punch of, ‘Boy Problems’ and the Jam & Lewis slow-jam, ‘All That’. And then there’s, ‘Run Away With Me’, one of the decades most rousing odes to love and escapism. These instantly lovable songs (the bonus tracks are all outstanding too) tackle love and relationships with Jepsen’s unabashed charm. In an alternate universe this was her Faith/Purple Rain/True Blue/Thriller. It really is that good.
4. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet (2017)
Michelle Zauner’s second album under the Japanese Breakfast name is one of the biggest slow burners of recent years. Soft Sounds went from feeling like another neatly formed indie pop record brimming with warmth and heart to something more special the more time spent in its company. Listening to these intimate and autobiographical tales of Zauner dealing with life and the healing process after her mother’s death is a poignant and extremely rewarding experience. There’s so much to love here from sweeping romanticism of the melody that disguises the story of a shallow ex on, ‘Boyish’ to the heartbreaking struggle to move on, ‘Till Death’ (complete with the decade’s best key change). Even the remaining song from her abandoned concept album based on falling in love with a robot (the gentle electro funk of, ‘Machinist’) is vital. Zauner’s sharp songwriting mixed with her vulnerability makes Soft Sounds incredibly human and all the more remarkable.
5. Solange – A Seat At The Table (2016)
In 2008 Solange released Sol-Angel & Hadley St. Dreams — a glorious vintage soul album that should have been massive. After 2012’s Dev Hynes collaboration, ‘Losing You’ put Solange firmly on people’s radar, she made the most of her moment and released her powerful third album, A Seat At The Table. The loose arrangements are soulful and understated appearing slight at first. In time the political and personal themes resonate deeply, especially as its release preceded the depressing 2016 U.S. election results by a matter of weeks. There’s tension throughout these songs as Solange questions the times we live in as well as looking inward. It’s effectively linked by Masta P’s recollections of trying to make it in the music business which helps give the album a sense of cohesion. A Seat At The Table is a moving record that acts as a love letter to black culture, history and music. As Solange also touches on this being a time to heal, it becomes a defiant statement from one of R&B’s most singular talents.
6. Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)
Dan Bejar’s eighth album as Destroyer is a lush blend of glossy 80s inspired pop and soft rock that’s a career highlight. In particular, using Prefab Sprout and Roxy Music’s Avalon as two of its key touchstones, was always going to hit my sweet spot. Despite Bejar’s unconventional voice and curious use of lyrical repetition, (“I thumbed through the books on your shelf, I thumbed through the books on your shelf”), Kaputt is his most accessible record to date. The instrumentation glides around him with saxophones, New Order styled synths and jazz tinges all making an appearance. Bejar aways sounds relaxed and in control as the rich sonics of the music become hypnotising the more time you spend in the presence of this epic record. He even manages to make a 20 minute ambient piece sound essential. Kaputt has sound-tracked every summer since I heard it, but really it’s timeless nature sounds ideal at any time.
7. Sky Ferreira – Night Time My Time (2013)
After numerous delays and inner record label troubles, it was a long three years before Sky Ferreira unleashed her debut album in late 2013. Her early singles (including the addictive, ‘One’) gave little indication to the sounds Ferreira would eventually explore. Night Time My Time is a pop record album at heart with choruses as vibrant as the ones on, ‘24 Hours’, ‘Boys’ and ‘You’re Not The One’. There’s also a darkness that runs throughout. The scuzzy production cloaks these songs with a gothy new wave spirit and even at times recalls Stereolab (especially on, the Emperor Tomato Ketchup-esque, ‘Omanko’). The paranoid climax of the title track leaves things on an uncertain note that makes you want to immediately play it again to see if you spot any clues to Ferreira’s mysterious character. Night Time My Time is one of the decade’s strongest and most unexpected triumphs from a compelling artist.
8. Beyoncé – Beyoncé (2013)
Lemonade, was the first Beyoncé album to appear on many publications end of year lists. Albums as strong as, B’day and Four were largely ignored and there was a sense of playing catch up after her the brilliance of her S/T. Perhaps overshadowed by the surprise release strategy at the tail-end of 2013 this left field R&B opus is her crowning achievement. She went deeper than she’d ever ventured before revealing more about her personal life. In particular she sings about sex (‘Blow’, ‘Partition’, ‘Rocket’) more explicitly than previously. The self empowerment of her earlier works is still there as she embraces meme culture head on (“I woke up like this!”, “surfboard”). Throw in some of her best ballads (‘Blue’, ‘Heaven’), the explorations of sonically more ambitious production and unconventional song structures (the breakdown in ‘***Flawless’) and this is her most satisfying and dynamic work by some distance. Not even Drake’s appearance could ruin the fun.
9. The Beths – Future Me Hates Me (2018)
Future Me Hates Me exemplifies the joy of witnessing a word of mouth success. The Beths quietly put out their debut album in the summer of 2018 to modest reviews and little buzz. A year on and they’ve steadily become one of the most beloved current indie bands on the verge of breaking through. It’s all thanks to these 10 songs where the band masterfully cram endless power pop hooks, tight playing, gleaming vocal harmonies and tons of personality. There’s an innocence in Elizabeth Stokes’ delivery and a touch of humour that makes her relatable. In a decade full of brilliant indie pop records that tap into 90s nostalgia (Hatchie, Charly Bliss, Alvvays), The Beths have an energy and freshness that make them better than anyone. Future Me Hates Me is one of the decade’s most infectious listens from a band who convey how much they love what they do.
10. Shura – Nothing’s Real (2016)
Shura gained attention following the release of her 2014 single, Touch which she uploaded independently to YouTube. This gorgeous ballad where Shura pinpoints that feeling of lust verses personal insecurity was an instant internet hit. Two years on, she revealed that she had a whole album of material on the same high level. Nothing’s Real is the perfect balance of John Hughes pop (‘What’s It Gonna Be?’, ‘What Happened To Us?’) and touching R&B tinged ballads (‘Kids N Stuff’, ‘2Shy’). It’s all tied together by Shura’s endearing personality which is sprinkled over everything she’s done. Despite the lyrical themes about her own flaws and anxieties, Nothing’s Real is remarkably fully formed debut that’s a classic case of all killer no filler. Her outstanding follow-up, Foreveher is a different kind of record presenting a more loved up and confident Shura, but one that’s equally strong. In just two records, Shura’s human touch and pop sensibilities have already made someone we should root for.
11. KING – We Are KING (2016)
Minneapolis based R&B trio, KING starting putting out music in 2011. Guided by Prince, they were told to take their time and follow their vision for organic dreamy soul. After a handful of stunning singles, they put out, We Are KING five years later. From the beginning of the joyous opener, ‘The Right One’ it’s clear they’d followed Prince’s advice and perfected their sensual sound. The blissful harmonies and lush synths are peak Stevie Wonder/Minnie Riperton. How they carefully structured these intricate melodies (self produced by lead member Paris Amber) are achingly beautiful and are easy to get lost in. ‘Hey’ is a welcome hug from an old friend, ‘Oh Please‘ has an irresistible brass-led swing and ‘The Greatest’ is a groovy retro R&B jam that acts as a confident mission statement. As the wistful ‘Native Land’ floats away in its final moments, it’s clear this majestic record is the sound of a band seamlessly realising their full potential.
12. Paramore – After Laughter (2017)
Musically, Paramore have shed their emo rock past and blossomed into a much poppier proposition throughout their career. By the time their fifth album landed, they were almost unrecognisable to the group who broke through with Riot ten years before. Lead single, ‘Hard Times’ is closer to 80s revivalists Alphabeat and the rest of the album also touches on some of similar 80s influences (Duran Duran, Prince, Madonna). The songs often offer a stark contrast as Hayley Williams is very open about her struggles with depression and anxiety over big bright pop melodies (‘Hard Times’ being a key example). On ‘Fake Happy’, Williams can’t contain her sadness anymore, yet turns it into a mass sing-along. When she offers glimpses of hope on the tender, ‘26’ it’s to one of the album’s most delicate and melancholic melodies. The conviction of her emotionally charged lyrics against the pristine pop gives After Laughter an edge that’s made Paramore an increasingly exceptional group.
13. Robyn – Honey (2018)
Robyn felt an immense amount of pressure during Honey’s creation. After breaking away from her label in the early 2000s, her 2005 S/T album and number one single, ‘With Every Heartbeat’ elevated her status. The 2010 Body Talk era confirmed her as the internet’s favourite pop star. In the period after Body Talk, she only released EPs and one off projects. She also suffered a heartbreak through a split from her partner and the loss of one of her best friends. Robyn then became depressed due to self doubt and writers block. When Honey finally appeared, it confirmed what a formidable talent she really is. First single, Losing U stayed close to the Body Talk formula as a classic tears-on-the-dancefloor anthem, but was a red herring. Honey is a quirky and often understated dance record where she avoids repetition of her previous triumphs. She goes from early 2000s minimal R&B (‘Human Being’), weird off kilter samba pop (‘Beach 2K20’) to 80s new wave (‘Ever Again’). To put out an album this unique and bold after everything she’s already achieved shows exactly why Robyn is so adored.
14. Charli XCX – Sucker (2014)
Charli XCX has covered a lot of ground in a short space of time. She launched herself with the brilliant, True Romance — a fusion of 90s pop and R&B flourishes in 2013. A year later she tore that all up and made Sucker — a brash technicolour 80s infused pop masterpiece with hints of punk and power pop. Since then she’s shape shifted her away around the pop landscape with her own brand of futurism pop meets PC Music as if she can’t sit still. Even though Charli has largely disowned Sucker, it still stands as the thrilling moment she revealed her fearlessness and how she’s willing to bring to life her every whim. On the title track she repeats, “f**k you, sucker” with a ferocity as the frantic Xenomania bounce of the bass surrounds her. The swoonsome, ‘Boom Clap’ may have given Charli her biggest solo hit, but the retro 60s vibes of ‘Need Ur Love’, and the elastic 80s bubblegum ballad, ‘Doing It’ are even better. Every song here bursts with hooks and attitude from one of the decade’s most uncompromising, fascinating and prolific characters. Someone who gets how exciting pop music can be and won’t settle for anything less.
15. iamamiwhoami – Kin (2012)
When the annoyingly named, iamamiwhoami started teasing material whilst purposely not revealing their identities, people had fun trying to predict who was behind their wonderfully enigmatic singles. The game peaked as some really believed it was an alias for Christina Agulaira. Sadly, it wasn’t so as Swedish artists Jonna Lee and Claes Björklund eventually came out as the members. By the time they released their debut album Kin, they had maintained that sense of mystery on this atmospheric collection of enchanting Knife inspired electronica. They created soundscapes from throbbing electro rhymes and Lee’s histrionic vocals that are haunting and weirdly addictive. Kin flows beautifully and complete with the visual movie is one of the decade’s most cinematic and astounding releases. They’re beautiful no matter you say.
16. Jessie Ware – Devotion (2012)
The influence of Sade has been prominent on many of the best albums in the last 10 years. That same stillness and beauty is often captured on Jessie Ware’s sensational debut, Devotion. Her luxurious blend of sensual R&B and chilled out pop is a perfectly balanced as she borrows from the past and redesigns it for the 21st century. Devotion’s ballads are heavenly as Ware grapples with emotional turmoil. When she lets go on her upbeat moments, she’s cool and refined. It’s impressive how effortlessly Ware breathes life into these songs as her lovelorn voice is immersed in the beauty around her. For someone who never envisioned herself as a solo singer, it makes her performances all the more striking. For every mood Ware finds the perfect tone. On the breezy house of, ‘110%’ Ware becomes delightfully effervescent, she’s soulful on the touching gospel tinged, ‘Taking In Water’ and her sense of longing is so well balanced on the smouldering, ‘Running’ (that guitar solo is quite a moment too). This divine and engaging debut oozes class as it casually announces the arrival of one of the most alluring performers of recent years.
17. D’angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah (2014)
There’s a case to be made for D’angelo deserving the comeback of the decade title. After 14 years, he had the mammoth task of following perfection (his 2000 dark neo-soul meets hip-hop classic Voodoo). The pressure was so much at times, he became an almost mythical character and who might disappear completely. In December 2014, Black Messiah arrived as a surprise release. It contains the same muggy There’s a Riot Goin’ On aesthetic that made Voodoo essential. It’s also his most varied release. The rattling rhythms and muffled speech on,‘1000 Deaths’ are him at his most unsettling and experimental. ‘The Charade’ contrasts a romantic melody with the pain of his lyrics. On the cartoon funk of, ‘Sugah Daddy’ it pops so much you can hear the pressure that almost derailed him just sliding away. He becomes a crooner on, ‘Another Life‘. It’s amazing what he can turn into a hook (the ominous bell that leads, ‘Prayer’, the twisting jazz on ‘Betray My Heart‘ and ‘The Door’s‘ chirpy whistling). Black Messiah is natural progression for D’angelo. The empowering themes and ridiculously high quality make this another tough act to follow, but I wouldn’t rule him out of doing it again. Just another 10 years to go.
18. Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t (2012)
Five years passed between the release of Lekman’s 2007 classic, Night Falls Over Kortedala and his follow-up. Whereas Kortelada featured his most lavish production and poppiest melodies, Lekman stripped things back and wanted softer and more subtle choruses that flow into view (Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Being Boring’ being one source of inspiration). The understated nature of these songs and touches of sophisti-pop (‘Erica America’ is basically a Prefab Sprout song) were a refreshing change of pace for him. His stories of heartache, painful truths and glimmers of hope had never been more affecting. Anyone who can sing, “you don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully” in such a sincere beautiful way deserves to be cherished. Three albums in and Lekman maintained his reputation for being the greatest storyteller/lyricist of the 21st century.
19. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage (2018)
Melody Prochet’s first album was an enticing mix of layered neo psychedelia, dream pop and bewitching melodies that recall the mighty, Broadcast. For her delayed follow-up, she doubled down on the trippy psychedelic elements of her debut and made something very different that’s absorbed by her immense creativity. The formless song structures never go the expected rout and constantly intrigue even after several plays. Parts of Bon Voyage are romantic, some parts are terrifying and some are hypnotic. The most startling thing about Bon Voyage is no matter how much the spontaneous spirit skips around, it always comes back to something beautiful and intoxicating. On opener, ‘Cross My Heart‘ alone Prochet crams in 60s hippy vibes, hints of The Avalanches, an undercurrent of jazz and even a beat-box breakdown. Over a brief 34 minutes it feels like going through disorienting dream that’s so electrifying, you want to experience all over again.
20. Lana Del Rey – NFR! (Norman Fucking Rockwell) (2019)
Since the arrival of, ‘Video Games’ in 2011, Lana Del Rey has worked hard to win a lot of people round. After a brutal (and very unfair) backlash following her SNL appearance and the dissection of everything about her (from her background to her looks and the yawnesome debate about her authenticity). Over five studio albums Rey has stuck to her own vision as her stark ballads inherit a world of their own. For her fifth and latest release, she’s created her most consistent record. Despite NFR being ballad heavy, each song carves out its own identity. Her melodies, vocals and lyrics show an artist who has gently expanded and distilled the element that made her so great to begin with. Songs such as,‘The Greatest’, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’, ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing’ and especially ‘Venice Bitch’, indicate Rey is in love preserving the the the past, but also wants to find a place today. Rey is extremely prolific and has avoided making anything close to a bad album. There’s something even more satisfying by her ending the decade with something this enchanting.