The 25 Best Albums of the Decade, 2010-2019
A vast array of expansive records, standalone singles, and other bits of new music makes its way into the world over the course of 10 years. These past ten years in particular, we’ve collectively been more hyper-aware of all the music at our fingertips than any previous generation. All of which is to say, deciding on the best albums of the 20-teens was no easy task. Thankfully, we here at The Key had a massive amount of help.
Some 45 music experts in our periphery contributed the voting for this list you’re about to read — including most of WXPN’s on-air staff, behind-the-scenes production folks, as well as The Key’s staff of contributing writers and photographers. We’re all passionate about the music we consume, we all love vastly different things, and these are the records that made the biggest impact on us collectively.
25. Phoebe Bridgers — Stranger in the Alps — Dead Oceans, 2017
Balancing hauntingly beautiful arrangements with downright gothic subject matter, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter’s debut album introduced songs that sting as much as they comfort. Sparse and evocative, with occasional punches that reinforce Bridgers’ unpredictability. – Sarah Hojsak
Standout Tracks: “Motion Sickness,” “Funeral,” “Scott Street”
24. Brandi Carlile — By The Way, I Forgive You — Low Country Sound / Elektra Records, 2018
On her sixth album, Carlile channels real-world resignation into musical catharsis that finds the strength to surmount roadblocks both personal and political. Lush string arrangements balance the weight of the singer-songwriter’s raw-edged vocals. – S.H.
Standout Tracks: “The Joke,” “Party of One,” “Every Time I Hear That Song”
23. Jason Isbell – Southeastern – Southeastern Records, 2013
The Drive-By Truckers affiliate had released three solo albums previous to Southeastern, but none were this vulnerable and emotional. Written during and after a stint in rehab, it finds Isbell candidly reflecting on his life and purpose with a newfound sobriety. – John Vettese
Standout Tracks: “Cover Me Up,” “Stockholm,” “Something More Than Free”
22. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – Merge Records, 2010
Theatrical Montreal rockers contemplate the banality of suburban sprawl, the nostalgia of misspent youth, and the loss that comes with a rapidly changing world. Big concept, bigger anthems. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” “We Used To Wait,” “Ready to Start”
21. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial – Matador Records, 2016
Every generation gets its four angsty white dudes making one of the biggest and best rock albums, and Car Seat Headrest belongs to the 2010s. Led by the Will Toledo, who falls in with DIY artists like (Sandy) Alex G and Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi, Teens of Denial was ambitious enough to reach outside the devoted cult following Toledo held prior, and pushed the group to critical and popular acclaim. – Sam Kesler
Standout Tracks: “Fill In The Blank,” “(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem),” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
20. Solange – A Seat At The Table – Columbia Records, 2016
With shimmering electronic backing and a soaring voice that won’t be denied, Solange Knowles captured complexity, frustrations, and personal power on her third album. In a review for The Key’s best albums of the year, Sameer Rao wrote “Solange’s lush A Seat at the Table brims with the anger and catharsis well-known to people—most relevantly to this album, black women—that society reduces to mere demographic categories.” It provides space for healing, space for empathy, and a source of strength. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Cranes In The Sky,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U.”
19. Angel Olsen — My Woman — Jagjaguwar, 2016
Expanding her musical style out of the folk singer mold, Olsen interprets “the complicated mess of being a woman” with retro pop influences and a cinematic arc. Stacking the upbeat, sun-soaked tunes on the A-side leaves room for a B-side that’s sprawling and sparse. – S.H.
Standout Tracks: “Shut Up, Kiss Me,” “Sister,” “Woman”
18. St. Vincent – St. Vincent – Loma Vista Records, 2014
With her fourth record under the St. Vincent banner, Annie Clark brought the spectrum of her strengths to the table: she’s a writer of haunting, ethereal songs; a guitar player par excellence; a futuristic style icon; a harnesser of incredible pop sensibilities. Though it’s a different St. Vincent than we heard on Marry Me and Actor, and a different St. Vincent still than we heard on Masseduction, the record captures the moment where Clark’s Bowie-esque shape-shifting cycles to the point where her various faces are all in focus; it’s the truest picture of one of the century’s most significant artists. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Digital Witness,” “Prince Johnny,” “Birth in Reverse”
17. D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah – RCA Records, 2014
After a decade and a half out of the spotlight, R&B star D’Angelo revealed his long-in-the-making third LP to much-deserved fanfare. Moving beyond the sleek and sexy soul that defined his early work but ultimately drove the singer uncomfortably into hiatus, the record rocks with a funky, fierce urgency; it’s brash and beautiful, touching on spiritual and societal themes with crystalline clarity. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Really Love,” “The Charade,” “Sugah Daddy”
16. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange – Def Jam Records, 2012
Singer and songwriter Frank Ocean’s first major label project sits perfectly between the loose, poppy kitsch of his debut project Nostalgia, Ultra and the immersive, artful ambition of its follow-up, blonde. It’s the best of both worlds in that regard, boasting his most enduring song of the decade (“Thinkin’ Bout You”) as well as the relatable personal lyricism that draws so many listeners in, but also hints at the feats he’s capable of, the broader canvas he’d be painting later on in his career. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion,” “Super Rich Kids”
15. The National – Trouble Will Find Me – 4AD, 2013
Although the group had been around for more than a decade at this point, in Trouble Will Find Me, The National had truly found their groove in the line between excess and subtlety, mastering the fine art of restraint in Matt Berninger’s well worn vocals and the Dessner brothers laser-precise orchestrations. – S.K.
Standout Tracks: “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” “Sea of Love,” “Demons”
14. Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color – ATO Records, 2015
Brittany Howard and her bandmates shake loose the genre trappings of folk-Americana that defined their debut to make an endlessly more complex and interesting record. It’s not just rock, not just soul, not just blues, not just folk, it’s all of those things and more, with an irresistable groove. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Gimmie All Your Love,” “The Greatest”
13. Hop Along – Get Disowned – Hot Green Records, 2012
A coming of age story in rock record form, Frances Quinlan and her bandmates explore life on the cusp of adulthood with imaginative, artful production and vivid lyrics about memory, trauma, and resilience. The band’s mix of cathartic playing and immersive audio collage place you directly in their world. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Tibetian Pop Stars,” “Kids on the Boardwalk,” “Young and Happy!”
12. Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour — MCA Nashville, 2018
Some say it’s hard to write music from a place of personal happiness, but Musgraves proves the worth of reveling in everyday beauty with the simplicity of her warm and inviting songs that blend country and pop influences into an album that transcends both genres. – S.H.
Standout Tracks: “High Horse,” “Slow Burn,” “Rainbow”
11. David Bowie – Blackstar – Columbia Records, 2016
A very public coming to terms with his own mortality, experimental rock great David Bowie made his 25th album in secret over the course of 2015 with downtown NYC jazz bandleader Donny McCaslin and his quintet, and released it on his birthday in 2016, two days before he passed away. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Lazarus,” “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, “★“
10. Hop Along – Painted Shut – Saddle Creek, 2015
Philadelphia’s Frances Quinlan has proven time and again to be one of the singular voices of a lifetime, and that’s no better exemplified than on Painted Shut, which pulls inspiration from the stories of Buddy Bolden, Jackson C. Frank, and Quinlan’s own life. The group’s diverse influences are drawn together to craft an album as essential and timelessly American as road trips and Paul Simon. – S.K.
Standout Tracks: “Horseshoe Crabs,” “Waitress,” “Well-Dressed”
9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City – XL Records, 2013
The avatars of blogrock cool pull together their wit and whimsey, the pop sensibilities of songwriter Ezra Koenig, and the adventurous production of Rostam Batmanglij, keeping all forces in balance for a career-defining album. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Diane Young,” “Unbelievers,” “Ya Hey”
8. The War On Drugs — A Deeper Understanding — Atlantic, 2017
Sprawling and expansive, The War On Drugs’ fourth record launched the Philly-based project to new heights. Songwriter Adam Granduciel’s ambitious writing and recording process manifests in large-scale songs that blend classic rock influences with impressionistic dreaminess. – S.H.
Standout Tracks: “Holding On,” “Thinking Of A Place,” “Knocked Down”
7. LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening — DFA / Virgin, 2010
A listener could draw a through-line from one LCD Soundsystem album to the next, charting a person’s growth from insouciant adolescent scenester to anxiety-ridden adult. So if the band’s self-titled debut sets its scene on the coke/ecstasy/PBR-ridden dancefloor of some all-night rager in a Brooklyn loft, and Sound of Silver is the hungover, sleep-deprived subway ride into one’s soul-crushing Manhattan 9-to-5 the next day, the new decade brought This Is Happening, the point where the trappings of youth have been long outgrown and a leaner, meaner kind of existential malaise sets in. James Murphy and his indie-dance army rode the zeitgeist into the ground on this one, but did it dancing all the way. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “I Can Change,” “Dance Yrself Clean,” “Pow Pow”
6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think and Sometimes I Just Sit – Milk! Records, 2015
Her debut album but not her first foray into the public eye, with two EPs to her name at the time, Sit was certainly Barnett’s gateway into becoming not only a mainstay of Australian indie, but also internationally, full of lackadaisical stoner rock that meanders in sound and sensibility. – S.K.
Standout Tracks: “Depreston,” “Dead Fox,” “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”
5. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Def Jam Records, 2010
A very raw and very real self-expose of one hip-hop titan’s id, the deep and occasionally disturbed bars on Kanye West’s fifth studio outing are searing and callous, but also introspectively self-critical, and backed with some of the very best, stadium-rocking beats of the new millennium. Try as one might to dislike and dismiss Ye (and the lyric sheet alone might offer a few reasons), MBDTF is nothing short of a triumph. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “All Of The Lights,” “Monster,” “Power”
4. The War on Drugs –Lost in the Dream– Secretly Canadian, 2014
Experiencing depression and anxiety after touring extensively for 2011’s Slave Ambient, Adam Granduciel took two years to form Lost in the Dream, creating something akin to what it would sound like if you blended together all your favorite jam bands from the 80s and stretched the product out like taffy. But within the extended guitar solos and four-on-the-floor drums, Granduciel is kneading and pulling at the sound with expert dexterity. – S.K.
Standout Tracks: “Under the Pressure,” “Red Eyes,” “Eyes to the Wind”
3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city – Interscope Records, 2012
After establishing himself as a formidable voice in hiphop with his debut project Section.80, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar brought his craft to new heights with his major label breakout good kid, m.A.A.d. city. In it, he delivers honest vignettes of life in Los Angeles County, and by extension, life as a young black man in a city and country and system that tries to hold you down. Turbulent emotions and tumultuous decisions mix with struggles and violence in this album’s vulnerable storytelling, and for his part, Kendrick neither glorifies nor condemns, but lays it on the line: the point here isn’t one of right-v-wrong morality, the point is making us feel what he feels. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Real,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
2. Beyoncé – Lemonade – Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2016
Accompanied by an hour-long film, Lemonade is as much a visual endeavor as a musical one, its power and intensity shining through in both art forms. Grief, pain, joy, hope and resilience all find their place as Beyoncé holds her personal experiences in the context of what it’s like to be a black woman in America. – S.H.
Standout Tracks: “Formation,” “Freedom,” “All Night”
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly – Interscope Records, 2015
Having extensively explored life as a young black man in the city of Compton, Kendrick Lamar turned his sights broadly for its followup. To Pimp a Butterfly examines American society at large in an era of escalated violence against people of color – or more specifically, society’s escalated ability to discuss the violence publicly – but it also turns inward, discovering deeply personal truths. The album unpacks struggles with faith, with intimacy, with addictions and the painful means of coping in a world that refuses to love you for who you are. But it does so with a powerful current of hope and strength; the body-moving “Alright” became a de facto anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, while “i” might just be the best self-care celebration this side of Lizzo. A masterpiece. – J.V.
Standout Tracks: “Alright,” “i,” “King Kunta”