25. David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
Never one to follow the norm, David Bowie doesn’t seem to give a care on Blackstar, his 25th studio album — and also his last. Full of rock and jazz elements, and released two days before his death, the album came out on Bowie’s 69th birthday and is an agonizing work. Eerie, off-putting and strange are words that come to mind when listening to Blackstar. But it’s also an album filled with self-awareness: Bowie seems to be singing about his death on “Lazarus,” the third track on the album. It’s “goodbye” from a man who has lived his life to the fullest, and it’s hard not to be sad when he starts singing about “having nothing left to lose.” The ultimate farewell album, Blackstar is as groundbreaking as it is heartbreaking. — Happy Haugen
24. Grimes – Visions (2012)
One of the most impressive things about Grimes is her ability to create music that sounds otherworldly and familiar at the same time, which she uses to great extent on Visions.
Recorded using only Apple’s GarageBand, Visions blends futuristic sounds, small pop elements and a certain DIY aesthetic to create ambient electronic symphonies which are hard not to dance to.
Singles “Genesis” and “Oblivion” entrance listeners with bouncing basslines while tracks like “Cicumambient” employ a thumping beat, commanding everyone in the room to move to the music.
At times, Grimes’ voice gets lost in the production, but this is intentional, as she treats it as just another instrument in her ensemble of blips and whirrs. On Visions, Grimes presents herself as a trailblazer, leading electronic and dance music’s charge into the future. — Drew Pearce
23. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (2010)
This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem is electronic, dance art-rock, from which you can draw all kinds of lines to the art-rock of the 70s. The opening track, “Dance Yrself Clean,” remains my favorite. It starts fairly mellow, with frontman James Murphy’s voice reduced to a near whisper. But eventually, the track turns itself up, into the bashing and cathartic noise fest that is LCD Soundsystem. This Is Happening is largely centered on observations about love and loneliness, like “All I Want,” that tells the story of finally going home only to find your partner and dog gone. On “Home,” Murphy sings, “Love and rock are fickle things.” Well, true. Love and rock are fickle things. — Cheyenne Bilderback
22. King Krule – The OOZ (2017)
If traveling to the moon ever needed a creepily accurate soundtrack, King Krule created just that with his sophomore release. Sure, Archy Marshall’s debut as Krule was titled 6 Feet Beneath The Moon, and conjured images of other-worldly parties, but The Ooz delivers in a different way. Throughout the album, distaste reigns over Marshall’s dominion, the ability to express his jaded thoughts leading to a motif of isolation. “The Locomotive” listens like Marshall’s full understanding of what he has become trapped in — a dystopian panic sets in, forcing him to face his demons on a planet alone with his thoughts. Marshall’s tone holds an air of nonchalance, without a care for consequences or structure. — Virginia Croft
21. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Sufjan Stevens is one of the pioneering forces in indie folk music, and Carrie and Lowell is his thesis: the album that declared Stevens as one of the greats. After experimenting in other various genres, Stevens’ seventh studio album is full of flirtatious vocals and adventurous finger-picked guitar, both signaling a return to his indie folk roots. Throughout Carrie and Lowell, named for Stevens’ late mother and her second husband, he pulls at multiple emotions in an amazingly intimate way, and creates a sensation in the listener as close to flying as humanly possible. — Happy Haugen
20. SZA – Ctrl (2017)
SZA’s full-length debut is slow-burning R&B, while also playing with several other genre tropes. There’s features from Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, a Donna Summers sample, and various 90’s references. Against this nostalgic backdrop, SZA struggles with self-acceptance. “Wish I was comfortable with myself but I need you,” SZA sings on “Supermodel.” Then, on “Anything,” she sings, “Maybe I’ll be perfect in a new dimension.” As CTRL progresses, she continues to grapple with accepting what she can’t control, including outside forces. There’s moments of humor paired with harsh confessions, making the album a fully-realized statement about modern love and life. — Cheyenne Bilderback
19. Tame Impala – Currents (2015)
With trance-inducing melodies, colorful synths and clean beats, the third full-length LP by Tame Impala, also known as Kevin Parker, is his best yet. Instead of being an album you listen to, Currents is one that you experience.
Each song takes the listener on a sonic journey, each different from the last. “The Moment” is a perfectly crafted piece of synth-pop with echoes of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” while tracks like “Past Life” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” are the musical equivalent of a crazy acid trip.
Those looking for something with more mainstream appeal can find it in “The Less I Know The Better” and “Reality In Motion.” Like all great albums, Currents is a stash of ear candy with different flavors for everyone. — Drew Pearce
18. 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)
The fourth and at-this-point last album from Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is a title taken from one of Apple’s poems. She cast aside Jon Brion, who’d help produce her previous two albums, for touring drummer Charley Drayton to create an angsty and angry album that describes picking up the pieces of a shattered relationship. As is typical with Apple’s work, you get this beautiful tone on songs like “Every Single Night” and “Valentine” mixed with spoken word and yelling vocals on “Daredevil” and “Left Alone.” Overall, the tone of the lyrics is matched by the disjointed, if at times clumsy vocals and production that paint a picture of an artist working to pull herself back together. — Clay Sauertieg
17. Solange – A Seat at the Table (2016)
Solange Brought Artistry Back Around
The year is 2016 and guess what? It’s another year of Knowles artistry happening- no not Beyoncé. Think more… abstract and soulful. Think Solange.
While both phenomenal women have albums featured on our Top 250 Albums of the 2010s list, it’s Solange’s A Seat At The Table that won her so many hearts both broken and healing. Her album balanced attention to detail with her own kaleidoscopic experiences.
A Seat At The Table was released in September of 2016 to high praises. The album was released through Saint (Solange’s imprint company) and Columbia. The single “Cranes In the Sky” won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
A Seat At The Table was huge for Solange’s career. It was SPIN’s number one album of 2016 and her first number one album on Billboard 200. The aforementioned single took her eight years to release. She shared that she had written it eight years prior to the album’s release and sat with it.
The festival circuit in 2016 ate up A Seat At The Table; Solange headlined Broccoli City Festival in Washington D.C. She also headlined Hopscotch and did Glastonbury and Outside Lands in 2017. Her album was never followed up with a tour in the traditional sense. Her performances were designed by her (from stage design to set list) and performed in art museums and festivals around the world.
16. Jamie xx – In Colour (2015)
It’s unlikely anyone doubted Jamie xx’s (James Smith) talent prior to his debut studio album, with an impressive resume that already included two studio albums with The xx, a remix and cover (of a cover) of Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love,” and working with Adele and Drake.
The Grammy-nominated In Colour delivers a stimulating, full journey ride that grabs hold from beginning to end with an impressive flow of eclectic sounds throughout. Standout tracks include “SeeSaw” (feat. Romy from The xx), “Hold Tight,” “Stranger in a Room” (feat. Oliver Sim from The xx), and “Loud Places” (feat. Romy from The xx). Yes, I see the pattern here, but it continues to work like a charm. — Leslie Richin
15. Tame Impala – Lonerism (2012)
Tame Impala’s second venture, 2012’s Lonerism, acts as the bridge between the psychedelic rock penchants of its predecessor and the danceable synth pop of its follow-up. It was recorded around the world and taps into feelings of isolation and self-reflection. The influence of Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, a True Star can be felt on the investigative DYI directness of opener “Be Above It”; further along, “Mind Mischief” is a vibrant marvel of production over Parker’s trippy vocals and “Elephant” is like the perfect mixture of blues rock and Muse-esque stadium electronica. As a whole, Lonerism is a terrifically transitional statement. — Jordan Blum
14. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (2015)
For Staples’ debut album cover, there’s a reference to Joy Division’s debut, Unknown Pleasures. While Staples’ debut is heavy, frustrated rap, and Joy Division is essential English punk rock, both debuts take up residence in the darker parts of life: Joy Division’s frontman Ian Curtis committing suicide only one year after its release and for Staples, Summertime ‘06 serves as an introduction into his life and where he has been. He’s upfront about the less-than-beautiful things he’s seen. Even when Staples lets himself relax into his easier to swallow tracks (“Norf Norf,” “Senorita”) he’s quick to remind himself of the ever present halo of his past. On “Like It Is,” Staples raps “No matter what we grow into, we never gon’ escape our past.” — Virginia Croft
Jibril Yassin’s Honorable Mentions
- Women – Public Strain (2010)
One cold Calgary winter, the band Women got together in Chad VanGaalen’s basement and made a racket that seemed to go on and on. Public Strain would go on to highlight what made Women so good: their keen interest in interwoven post-punk guitar work that recalled both drone-y no-wave and ‘60s psych-pop wrapped up in black sheets of noise. Women managed to capture just what arctic cold felt like: chilling and gloomy but beautiful too.
- Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 (2017)
I miss Calvin Harris’ bloghaus era and while I can concede his pivot to EDM has turned out some of the best pop songs this decade has seen, it was excellent hearing him whip out his black book for a collection of loose detours that were above all, fun.
- Hop Along – Painted Shut (2015)
That voice. Enough said.
- Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo (2014)
A frank and open debut that turned heads for Isaiah Rashad’s inimitable vocal delivery and ability to describe his darkest headspaces so accurately.
- Sleigh Bells – Treats (2010)
With boneheaded riffs that made no qualms about what they were for and drum machine beats with the volume set to obliterate and candy-pop arrangements that sounded as visceral as they felt, Treats proved that noise pop was far from creatively exhausted.
13. Kanye West – Yeezus (2013)
The tongue-In-cheek “I Love Kanye” skit on The Life of Pablo told us everything we already knew about what era of Kanye West’s career had been left behind. But before that, Yeezus was him pouring gasoline on what we expect of him and constantly finding ways to ignite it.
This could alternatively be called The Bad Mood Kanye, although that would downplay the absolute validity of West’s rage. Before being a continual PR nightmare with MAGA-stumping and describing slavery as “a choice,” West provided some of his most ferocious social commentary to date on tracks like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” The pure acidity of opener “On Sight” (“How much do I not give a fuck?/Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up?) lets us know we’ll be through the wringer and every movement onward, up to and including its heartfelt ode to Kim Kardashian, “Bound 2” leaves you winded but still ready for more. — Brody Kenny
12. Frank Ocean – Blonde (2016)
Frank Ocean and mystery: name a more iconic duo. His songs refuse to answer questions; they build staircases out of them. Somehow, the evasive Ocean succeeded at tapping into universal truths by learning to follow his whim. When Blonde finally arrived after years of missed deadlines, it sounded like a fever dream, the kind where an old friend you haven’t seen arrives and whispers softly in your ear about your life. If Channel Orange was Ocean refracting the sounds of his childhood, Blonde is a xeroxed copy, left to bake in the sun. The quiet moments go on forever as elements slid in and out of focus – acid-soaked guitar, pitched-up vocals, plaintive synths – only to be punctuated by brief, startling moments of cacophony. Everything you hear on Blonde is an intimate moment we just so happened to become privy to. Years later, we’re all the better for hearing them. — Jibril Yassin
11. Drake – Take Care (2011)
Throughout Take Care, Drake speaks freely, holding nothing back — creating the voice his fans desperately need. Instead of tearing apart those he is missing, Drake allows himself the moments to reflect on how good he had it in the past. “Marvin’s Room” acts as the standout track, a heartbreaking ballad of regret and the painful, gritty pill that must be swallowed to move on. Drake takes a stab at genre-bending, as “Buried Alive Interlude” forays into darker, Panda Bear territory, and “Over My Dead Body” listens like Thundercat-fused velvet. Sticking to his roots, Drake doesn’t try to talk about anything he doesn’t know firsthand, leaving that to his guests. — Virginia Croft
10. Beyoncé – Beyoncé (2013)
Prior to her self-titled effort, pop icon Beyoncé Knowles’ previous efforts often seemed very commercial and a tad bit overproduced. However, Beyoncé sees the singer at her most raw, both vocally and lyrically.
She emotionally covers topics like unattainable beauty standards, sex, romance, female empowerment, relationship issues and motherhood all through an unfiltered voice. On her fifth LP, Knowles is not afraid to get down and dirty but also finds time to take time to appreciate the people she loves.
Highlights on this album include “Blow” and “Partition,” two of the sexiest songs in the legendary entertainer’s discography, and “***Flawless,” a feminist anthem that sparked the popular saying, “I woke up like this.”
Knowles ends the album on an absolutely beautiful note with “Blue,” where she uses her entire range to sing about her love of her daughter, Blue Ivy, who is featured on the track. — Drew Pearce
9. Grimes – Art Angels (2015)
On her fourth album, singer, songwriter and producer Grimes delves more into the world of pop while also managing to keep her signature DIY electronic sound.
This was made apparent when she dropped lead single “Flesh Without Blood,” which incorporates elements of pop rock, with Grimes putting her own spin on the signature stylings of artists like Avril Lavigne and Paramore. Tracks like “Kill V. Maim,” “Venus Fly,” and “Butterfly” also seem to mimic various areas of pop music, but Grimes adds an obvious touch that keeps them from becoming cookie cutter.
The quirky songstress even draws inspiration from folk and country on “Belly Of The Beat” and “California,” but she manages to add just enough of electronic tough to keep the songs from falling into unoriginality.
With Art Angels, Grimes proves she can put out more pop-inspired music that appeals to the masses while not losing that “wow” factor that makes her work so unique. — Drew Pearce
8. Beach House – Teen Dream (2010)
Throughout the course of Beach House’s sophomore album, Teen Dream, there’s a constant cloud of protection over the listener. The tracks are dripping in warm, illustrious vocals from Victoria Legrand, and breezy synths and beats complete the easy-to-swallow pill. It’s a charming, dreamy collection, reminiscent of the French Riviera and standing in freshly wet grass. “Silver Soul” stands out, a bellowing ballad of love and what can be left behind after a relationship ends, or an example of what love can add to a life. There’s constant room for interpretation, because Beach House doesn’t necessarily create albums, they create soundtracks to a feeling. Teen Dream is no exception, bringing the listener to a place of serenity and peace. — Virginia Croft
7. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012)
In many ways, Lamar’s 2012 sophomore effort is the true start of his revered and recognizable artistry. Exploring his upbringing on the drug-addled streets of Compton, CA, it hits hard from the start via the blunt narration of “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter,” plus the eclectic and agitated “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Later, “The Art of Peer Pressure” presents multiple vocal styles and a stark score, whereas “Swimming Pools” makes strong use of strings and the one-two punch of “Good Kid” and “M.A.A.D City” harkens back to early ‘90s hip-hop. It’s a great indicator of the greatness to come. — Jordan Blum
6. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Who would have expected a band like Vampire Weekend to grow up? The New York indie group epitomized a certain kind of irreverence on their first two studio albums but Modern Vampires of the City finds the band becoming a touch or two vulnerable. Vampire Weekend traded in their status as cheeky millennials for a larger record collection and make no mistake, Modern Vampires feels expansive, thanks to the songwriting of Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij. The songwriting duo, alongside the rest of the band, successfully craft a musical universe that seems to stretch out across every corner of New York’s five boroughs, like watching a style palette explode into glorious Technicolor. It makes for an experience that’s plenty irreverent but never shallow: the sound of lived-in comfort. — Jibril Yassin
5. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (2010)
Deerhunter is a band obsessed with nostalgia. Halycon Digest succeeds largely in part because of how the band succeeds at presenting their hazy, vague take feel as irresistible as the real thing. Previous Deerhunter albums married the twin flames of ambition and avant-garde; Halycon Digest opts for stated, stark elegance instead. Profoundly sublime and ruled by its allusions to the past, Halycon Digest is full of bleak snapshots given new life thanks to Deerhunter’s taste for gorgeous textures. It all comes to a climax on album highlight “Desire Lines,” a lush statement with an equally dreamy coda that feels like it could go on forever as the guitars lock into a half-step of a dance, interlocking guitar lines on top of one another like puzzle pieces. Halycon Digest lingers in the memory, refusing to be extinguished. — Jibril Yassin
4. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (2012)
channel ORANGE is Frank Ocean’s debut album clearly showcasing his funky and soulful style. The title refers to the color he most associated with the summer he first fell in love. This theme comes through strongly in the widely popular single, “Thinkin Bout You.” It is rhythmically romantic, displaying his expansive range and lyrical intelligence, which continues on throughout the album. Balancing between catchy and explorative, light and deep, “Sweet Life” was my top track when I first experienced the album as it hit all the right notes. Other features on the album (”Super Rich Kids” and “Pink Matter”) proved successful through the development of different sounds and discussion of serious subjects. Overall, channel ORANGE remains some of Ocean’s best work, defining his sound while not containing him. — Sadie Burrows
3. Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)
Before Kaputt, Destroyer albums were like the filmography of an actor typically branded as a “chameleon.” Sometimes, Dan Bejar would be dressed lavishly, like on the Bowie-indebted Streethawk: A Seduction. Other times, he was stripped-down, like on the underrated, lo-fi City of Daughters. But his essence, of lyrics at the midpoint between cryptic and casual, delivered like a barfly’s musings that create an ambiance to complement and at times, outshine, whatever’s on the jukebox, was always there.
That Kaputt became a relative sensation could be attributed to several factors, from its velvety production to its horn-iness (as well as its horniness, this is Destroyer, after all). It could also be that the stars aligned and Bejar realized soft rock was due for a unwinking comeback. All the while, he holds onto his wit. “I heard your record; it’s alright” goes one key refrain. If he was bracing himself for a possibly muted reception, mission not accomplished. — Brody Kenny
2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Lamar’s third album and magnum opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, was immediately and rightly regarded one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. His use of an ever-expanding poem—“I Remember You Was Conflicted . . .”—as the recurring glue holding it all together is brilliant; fortunately, just about every self-contained composition is an enjoyable and necessary listen, too. Be it the composite urgency of genre-shifting starter “Wesley’s Theory,” the stylistic metacommentary of “For Free,” or the self-assertive infectiousness of “Alright” and “i,” Lamar ensures that To Pimp a Butterfly is ceaselessly prophetic, relatable, and challenging on multiple levels. — Jordan Blum
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Kanye West has never been afraid to push new boundaries and set trends, and MBDTF was certainly no exception to that rule. Contributions from everyone from Rick Ross to Bon Iver to Gil Scott-Heron line this ambitious album that presents us with the in-your-face motifs of sex, extravagance and breakups. Lead single “Power” can still be heard playing on radio stations today, while the piano intro to “Runaway” — accompanied by a Rick James sample — is iconic and immediately recognizable any time it comes across the speakers. Throw in what many call Nicki Minaj’s most memorable verse on “Monster” and a hilarious skit from Chris Rock on “Blame Game,” and you have an album that is West’s Magnum Opus, a true masterpiece in a collection full of them. — Clay Sauertieg