The 15 best albums of the decade, ranked
- Insider ranked the 15 best albums of the 2010s, taking into account both quality and cultural impact.
- "Red" by Taylor Swift topped the list.
- "To Pimp a Butterfly" by Kendrick Lamar and "Lemonade" by Beyonce rounded out the top three.
- Frank Ocean's "Blonde," Carly Rae Jepsen's "Emotion," Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," and Rihanna's "Anti" also made the list.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Defining a decade isn't an easy feat, but if there's anything universal about the sound of the 2010s, it's that audiences gravitated toward music that evoked real emotion and felt authentic and raw.
One of the best examples of this was Taylor Swift's 2012 album, "Red," followed by Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly" and Beyoncé's "Lemonade."
Other albums that helped define the past 10 years include "Anti" by Rihanna, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" by Kanye West, "Melodrama" by Lorde, "Blonde" by Frank Ocean, and "Emotion" by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Below, Insider rounded up the 15 best albums of the decade, ranked in descending order.
15. "Thank U, Next" boasts some of Ariana Grande's most poignant and heartbreaking lyrics.
Grande's 2018 album, "Sweetener," elevated her to new heights, but six months later she went on to release her most personal and lyrically driven album to date.
"Thank U, Next" was born out of catharsis. Grande grieved in the studio with her friends after her ex Mac Miller died and she broke off her engagement to Pete Davidson. She found solace in creating music, and the result was an album packed with some of the most vulnerable - and arguably best - tracks in Grande's entire discography.
"Needy," which Insider named one of the best songs of 2019, is a "sparkling, synth-laden ballad" and the "tender heart of 'Thank U, Next,'" Insider's Callie Ahlgrim wrote. "Imagine" is a dreamy song that appears to be a direct response to Miller's passing, ending with whistle notes that call back to the ones used in her Miller collab, "The Way." "Ghostin" might be the most honest track in Grande's catalog, centered on the idea of feeling bad for the one you're with because you still have feelings for someone else.
But it's not all pain and heartbreak. Her three singles, "Thank U, Next," "7 Rings," and "Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored," are all fun and light in their own ways while showing Grande's growth beyond her grief. She goes from forgiving exes for teaching her love, patience, and pain, to engaging in retail therapy with her friends, to wanting to watch a relationship end out of sheer boredom.
"Thank U, Next" is, from start to finish, a roller-coaster of emotion - albeit a genius one.
14. "Emotion" pulled Carly Rae Jepsen out of one-hit-wonder territory.
If "Call Me Maybe" is what sent Jepsen up the charts, it was her third album, "Emotion," that sent her into the pop stratosphere.
This glittery ode to the 1980s opens with what might be the best saxophone solo of the 21st century. The first track, "Run Away with Me," has been hailed as Jepsen's best song to date, and even landed on Insider's list of the best eight songs of the decade; it also acts as the album's thesis, asking listeners to quite literally run away with Jepsen as she embarks on the emotional journey that is the following 14 songs.
As Insider's Libby Torres wrote of the album, with songs like the innuendo-filled "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance" and the yearning "Gimme Love," "Jepsen proved that she couldn't be pigeonholed in her music."
"She's as comfortable writing and singing moody songs about clandestine trysts in a nightclub as she is describing the overwhelming and saccharine giddiness of love at first sight," Torres said.
Jepsen was smart to opt for an '80s-infused sound, which she filled out with more modern alternative styles. A year prior, Taylor Swift's "1989" shook the core of mid-2010s pop music, reverting to a nostalgic sound reminiscent of the year she was born. But Jepsen brought her own narrative and emotion to the '80s-pop resurgence.
"It was kind of an escape from reality. There's a bit of fantasy on the album in that we've heightened everything - heightened the love and heightened the drama," she told Newsday in November 2015. "I think that's what I loved about the '80s too is how emotional everything got. It makes you really think about heartbreak in a really intense way."
13. "1989" solidified Taylor Swift as a pop queen.
Swift has been divisive for most of her 13-year career, but in 2014 people came together to recognise her as a stellar pop musician - largely because of her fifth studio album, "1989."
The '80s-synth-infused album was a smash before it was even released; the lead single, "Shake It Off," was certified 2x platinum by the RIAA before the album's release and went on to become Swift's biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit to date, staying on the chart for 50 consecutive weeks.
"1989" brought about some of Swift's best songs ever, including the satirical track "Blank Space," the perfect bridge on "Out of the Woods," and the atmospheric "Clean," easily the holy grail among Swift's closing tracks.
"Style" was even described as a "transcendent experience" by Ahlgrim, who put the track at No. 29 on Insider's list of the 113 best songs of the 2010s.
"Lyrically, Swift has rarely been more in control. Each winking detail has been carefully chosen; each image is precisely painted. The song's narrative builds and smolders, gradually, until the climactic lament ('Take me home!') blows it all wide open," she wrote of the track. "The moment feels like an explosion, or a rebirth. That euphoric uncertainty is the whole point."
In a way, this is what makes "1989" in its entirety so wonderful: It's just as lyrically clever as any of her previous country albums while feeling like Swift's (first) rebirth as an artist. Swift's career would certainly come into uncertainty after 2016, but man, was this era euphoric.
12. Kendrick Lamar's debut album, "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," brilliantly showcased the rapper's lyricism.
As Mark Braboy argued for Insider, "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City" was a "rare, instant classic" that helped set the foundation for Lamar becoming "an unflinchingly honest storyteller who never compromised on either his core sound or his values."
"Good Kid, M.A.A.D City" chronicles the rapper's life in his native Compton, stringing his experiences together through clever and conversational turns of phrase, set to atmospheric beats and low-key production.
"The miracle of this album is how it ties straightforward rap thrills - dazzling lyrical virtuosity, slick quotables, pulverising beats, star turns from guest rappers - directly to its narrative," Jayson Greene wrote for Pitchfork.
One of the standout tracks on the album, "Backseat Freestyle," brings us right into the moment when a young Lamar began rapping.
"Framed this way, his 'damn, I got bitches' chant gets turned inside out: This isn't an alpha male's boast. It's a pipsqueak's first pass at a chest-puff," Greene argued. "It's also a monster of a radio-ready single, with Kendrick rapping in three voices (in double- and triple-time, no less) over an insane Hit-Boy beat."
Another highlight, "Swimming Pools (Drank)," landed at No. 21 on Insider's list of the best songs of the decade, largely because it's a perfect example of Lamar's artistry.
"Before he was widely recognised as the greatest lyrical rapper alive, Lamar still intertwined complex storylines, societal observations, and explorations of his own duality with infectious beats and thrilling hooks," Ahlgrim wrote. "As he coaxed us to have fun, he also whispered truths in our ears - and as he rose to icon status, he rewrote the rules of rap and pop and commercial music on his way."
11. "Pure Heroine" challenged modern pop artists to keep up with a teen who knew more about youth nostalgia than most adults.
"Pure Heroine" is an album packed with strokes of genius, from the opening line of "Don't you think it's boring how people talk?" to the ending lyric of "Let 'em talk."
But between those slick bookends is a young woman exploring youth while critiquing the ways in which mainstream culture - namely wealth, fame, and consumerism - drastically differ from suburban teenagedom.
At the center of it all, of course, is the lead single, "Royals," that put Ella Yelich-O'Connor, or Lorde, on the map and the charts. The track was critically acclaimed, described by The New York Times' Jon Pareles as "a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that's so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single."
The album expands on the idea of being distanced from the world's elite in songs like "Team" and "Still Sane." But on tracks like "400 Lux" and "Ribs," Lorde proves it's the mundane moments of human existence that characterise the teenage experience.
From having someone to buy you orange juice to "sharing beds like little kids / laughing till our ribs get tough," Lorde yearns for a time when things were simpler, despite still being in the thick of adolescence.
It's almost as if she has a third eye open to the realities of adulthood, knowing full well that she's experiencing the time in her life that straddles the line between innocence and maturity. "Pure Heroine" is the kind of album that could have only been written by a teenager, yet it manages to grasp youth nostalgia so precisely that the age of its listener doesn't affect the message's impact.
10. "Channel Orange" was an instant classic upon its release and is now simply a classic.
Ahead of the album's release, Ocean published a heartfelt letter on Tumblr revealing that his main inspiration for "Channel Orange" was his first love, who happened to be a man. This was a risky move for someone linked to the hip-hop community, where systemic homophobia runs deep. But as we know, "Channel Orange" was a massive success, immediately dismissing any concerns that Ocean would be relegated to being "the gay singer."
"While 'Channel Orange' is stuffed with one-of-a-kind details and characters, its overall scope is grand, as is Ocean's. Tape-hiss interludes bind these very hi-fi songs together with a musty analog quality, and a couple of tracks seem to end mid-sentence, leaving you no choice but to keep going," Ryan Dombal wrote for Pitchfork.
"And there's a timeless philosophy involved here, one of hard-won acceptance and the acknowledgment that love and sex and loss will always draw legends to them," Dombal continued. "How else to explain 'Pyramids,' a 10-minute time warp that goes from ancient Egyptian wonders to modern strip clubs and essentially reincarnates one of the most storied female rulers in history as a six-inch-heeled woman of the night. But still, the song doesn't read as an indictment of the last 2,000 years as much as yet another attempt to cleverly level the playing field."
As Ahlgrim wrote for Insider: "Listening to Ocean's music feels like sitting in a planetarium. We're seeing his memories, musings, and complex emotions reflected prismatically across a spacious, sparkling sky. No one has ever witnessed a celestial event and wished it had been more contained or self-conscious."
9. "Body Talk" by Robyn set the groundwork for 2010s pop music.
"At a time when pop music was still comfortably discredited - when purists would insist that it was shallow or somehow less 'authentic' than 'real music' - Robyn emerged exultant and unbothered, burning an effigy of loss and betrayal and heartbreak before scattering the ashes under a disco ball," Ahlgrim wrote of Robyn and her stellar 2010 album, "Body Talk," explaining what made the artist one of the best musicians of the decade.
"Robyn has had an immeasurable impact on the modern landscape of pop music. Without her, there is no Carly Rae Jepsen, no Charli XCX, no Lorde," Ahlgrim wrote. "Some of the best music from artists like Janelle Monáe, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Ariana Grande bears the mark of Robyn's signature 'poptimism.'"
No song showcases Robyn's power better than the endlessly listenable dance bop "Dancing on My Own," a pop song so perfect that Insider named it the best song of the 2010s. On it, Robyn sings about watching her ex-lover kiss someone else in a club, turning her pain into a bouncy track that feels just as joyful as it does heart-wrenching.
Even though this song is about dancing alone, it's so euphoric that it united a subway platform's worth of New Yorkers after Robyn headlined at Madison Square Garden in March - a whole nine years after the song's release.
This song alone would warrant "Body Talk" a spot on this list, but Robyn kept the momentum going throughout the album with excellent pop gems like "Call Your Girlfriend" that are just as enjoyable at the end of the decade as they were at the start.
8. "Melodrama" is a perfect album that understands that there are no "Perfect Places" to deal with your heartbreak.
The best albums are the ones that grapple with real human emotion, which typically makes an artist's breakup album one of their most coveted. Lorde's sophomore album, "Melodrama," was no exception (though it broke a few sonic rules, like that wicked key change on "Green Light").
There are heart-wrenching ballads like "Liability" and "Writer in the Dark" that grapple with the ways in which Lorde's personality affected the end of her relationship ("The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/ Till all of the tricks don't work anymore / And then they are bored of me") and her reaction ("I am my mother's child, I'll love you till my breathing stops / I'll love you till you call the cops on me").
But what might be the most interesting part of "Melodrama," however, is it doesn't always feel categorically depressed as many breakup albums do. Instead, there are songs, like "Green Light," where it almost feels as if Lorde saw the "I don't know why I'm crying in the club right now" meme and centered her bouncy production on that very idea. This concept even comes across explicitly on "The Louvre" when Lorde sings her thesis statement: "Megaphone to my chest / Broadcast the boom, boom, boom / And make 'em all dance to it."
But there's no better example of a crying-in-the-club song than "Supercut," a soaring, sparkling, thumping synth-pop track that if you aren't paying attention feels like it could easily be remixed into the kind of song that gets people dancing at clubs.
The magic of "Supercut" - like the upbeat melancholy of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" - is that paired with those pulsing beats are heartbreaking lyrics that reflect on a breakup, focusing on how in Lorde's head she would "do everything right" and how she'd "forgive and not fight" if given the chance to redo her last phone call with her ex.
After all, pain doesn't just come when you're locked in your room at night. Sometimes those hard feelings hit when you're doing your makeup in somebody else's car or when you wake up in a different bedroom. There are no "Perfect Places" to deal with your grief, because, as Lorde sings in the final line of the album, "What the f--- are perfect places anyway?"
7. Beyoncé changed the music industry forever when she surprise-dropped her self-titled album.
Only Beyoncé could get away with dropping an album out of thin air and earn a Guinness world record for being the fastest-selling album on iTunes.
The release of Beyoncé's self-titled album is when "she shifted from mere artist to tour de force," Taylor Bryant wrote for Insider. "The album explored themes of capitalism, black pride, and embracing your sexuality while also providing an intimate look into her relationships as a mother and a wife."
"The vibe on 'Beyoncé' is moodily futuristic R&B, strongest when it goes for full-grown electro soul with an artsy boho edge," Rob Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone. "'Blow,' the best track here, evokes Janet Jackson circa 'The Velvet Rope,' a song about oral sex that has an air of melancholy in the chilly neo-disco groove. There's a similar mood in her excellent Drake duet 'Mine.'"
As Bryant and Sheffield both pointed out, "Beyoncé" deals a lot with sexuality and her marriage to Jay-Z, and those songs ended up being the best on the album.
"She hits nasty highs all through the album, from the squishy slow jam 'Rocket' ('Let me sit this ass on you' - now there's an opening line) to the Frank Ocean duet 'Superpower,'" Sheffield wrote. "In the fractured Timbaland production 'Partition,' she and Jay get kind of rough in the back of the limousine. She has to warn the chauffeur, 'Driver roll up the partition please / I don't need you seeing 'Yoncé on her knees.' But the car doesn't even get to the club before, as Beyoncé puts it, 'He Monica Lewinsky'd all over my gown.'"
"Beyoncé" is quite a ride.
6. "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is often referred to as Kanye West's magnum opus.
Along with "Body Talk," another album released on November 22, 2010, would go on to impact the music of the rest of the decade: West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
On it, West "gets ridiculously maximal, blowing past all the rules of hip-hop and pop," Sheffield wrote of the album for Rolling Stone in 2010. "There are hip-hop epics, R&B ballads, alien electronics, prog-rock samples, surprise guests from Bon Iver to Fergie to Chris Rock, even a freaking Elton John piano solo."
Sheffield dubbed it West's "best album," adding: "But it's more than that - it's also a rock-star manifesto for a downsizing world. At a time when we all get hectored about lowering our expectations, surrendering our attention spans, settling for less, West wants us to demand more."
There are plenty of stellar moments: Nicki Minaj's verse on "Monster," the Grammy-nominated "Power," the way West brought in John Legend, The-Dream, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Drake, and Rihanna to assist with vocals on "All of the Lights," the sampling and subsequent distortion of Bon Iver's "Woods" on "Lost in the World," the entirety of "Runaway."
Emile Haynie, a coproducer, told Complex of "Runaway": "The lyrics and the concept were what they were, and that's when the Kanye West genius producer mode came in to play. He totally reproduced the record, and kept working on it and working on it."
Emile added: "He turned it into this epic song. It's just a beautiful record. It's a masterpiece." That can be said about the entire album.
5. There's a reason fans have been endlessly itching for another album since Rihanna unleashed "Anti" onto the world.
"Gone were the cute, dancey tracks and the bombastic club bangers," Caroline Colvin wrote about the album for Insider. "Her power ballads, like 'Love On the Brain,' sounded like they were infused with brown liquor. She enlisted gentle, glam-rock guitars to beg her lover to 'kiss it better.' She gave fans macabre sexy tracks like 'Woo,' its industrial-trap sound a wink to that rumored Travis Scott romance."
Colvin added: "She painted herself as a tough-talking-but-lonely outlaw in 'Desperado.' And she covered Tame Impala's 'Same Ol' Mistakes,' changing almost nothing in her version but still somehow absolutely killing it. 'Anti' was risky, but only because it pushed pop's imagination to its limits."
It's been almost four years since "Anti" was released, and yet Rihanna remains very much in the center of the cultural zeitgeist, even topping Forbes' list of the highest-paid female musicians thanks to her consumer reach with ventures like Fenty Beauty and her high-end clothing line. And if "Anti," along with everything else Rihanna has touched in the years since, promises anything, it's that "R9" will likely end up on every best-of list once 2029 rolls around.
As Colvin argued, "She's not just making music for the decade. She's making art for the century."
4. "Blonde" by Frank Ocean "is a fully-realised vision with stratospheric high points and virtually zero low points."
Had it been anyone else's follow-up to the massive success of "Channel Orange," "Blonde" could have easily fallen flat amid all the hype. But being an Ocean production, it naturally exceeded all expectations.
This decade, it became something of a rarity to see musicians solely write their own songs as the industry became increasingly collaborative. But Ocean doesn't need any help, as evidenced by his being the only songwriter credited on numerous tracks on "Blonde," including "Nikes," "Self Control," "Good Guy," and "Pretty Sweet."
But "Blonde" is more than just a lyrical marvel; it's a transcendental experience.
"The three-song stretch of 'White Ferrari,' 'Seigfried,' and 'Godspeed' is an entire world unto itself, where it's always overcast and the air is extra oxygenated, I imagine," Ahlgrim wrote for Insider.
"'Pink + White,' featuring production from Pharrell and backing vocals from Beyoncé, evokes warmth and nostalgia in a way that only an Ocean song can," Ahlgrim continued. "The project's atmospheric, hypnotic centerpiece, 'Nights,' is one of the single best songs released this decade. The album's full effect is more abstract and nebulous than his debut, and far more rewarding."
3. "Lemonade" is evidence that Beyoncé is in a league of her own.
"Who the f--- do you think I is?" Beyoncé asks on the genre-bending, rock-infused "Don't Hurt Yourself." An interesting question, considering she makes the answer clear throughout "Lemonade," an album that lays out the intimate details of her husband's infidelity and their reconciliation, allowing her to narrate her most personal experiences while turning down interviews.
"If you've ever been cheated on by someone who thought you'd be too stupid or naive to notice, you will find the first half of 'Lemonade' incredibly satisfying," Jillian Mapes wrote for Pitchfork. "If you have ears and love brilliant production and hooks that stick, you'll likely arrive at the same conclusion. The run from 'Hold Up' to '6 Inch' contains some of Beyoncé's strongest work - ever, period - and a bit of that has to do with her clap-back prowess."
But aside from the killer run at the front of the album, Beyoncé proves she can truly do it all, from spinning earnest tales listeners can see themselves in to exploring how different genres of music can help propel her stories forward (as she navigates them flawlessly).
"'Lemonade' is her most emotionally extreme music, but also her most sonically adventurous, from the Kendrick Lamar showcase 'Freedom' to the country murder yarn that struts like buckskin-era early-1970s Cher ('Daddy Lessons')," Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone. "She mixes in a spoken-word snippet from Jay-Z's grandmother Hattie White, the obscure 1960s Mexican garage band Kaleidoscope, indie slop like Father John Misty, Animal Collective and (with a production credit) Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig."
She also enlisted James Blake and The Weeknd for "Forward" and "6 Inch," respectively. "Don't Hurt Yourself" brings in The White Stripes' Jack White, who sounds "feistier than he has in years, as she compares herself to a dragon breathing fire - that's an understatement - and samples the John Bonham drum thunder from 'When the Levee Breaks,'" Sheffield added.
So who are you supposed to think Beyoncé is? A living legend, obviously.
2. "To Pimp a Butterfly" became the lyrical backdrop of the greater Black Lives Matter movement.
"To Pimp a Butterfly" the single "Alright," featuring Pharrell, "became the unofficial soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement amid a continuing wave of fatal police violence against unarmed black Americans across the country," Braboy wrote for Insider.
"Lyrics like 'N----, and we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho / N----, I'm at the preacher's door / My knees gettin' weak, and my gun might blow / But we gon' be alright' were a rallying call heard from street corners to protests signifying that despite the well-documented history of trauma that black Americans continue to endure, we'll continue to find our ways to overcome our struggles and be OK," Braboy continued.
But beyond "Alright," the entire album "is perfect," Micah Singleton wrote for The Verge. "There's no other adjective that can properly convey its greatness. 'To Pimp a Butterfly' is an immaculate amalgamation of rap, jazz, funk, soul, and spoken word. It cannot be restricted by a single genre."
Singleton continued: "Even though it's not an album designed for a wide audience ('I'm not talking to people from the suburbs. I'm talking as somebody who's been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed at me,' Kendrick told The New York Times), 'To Pimp a Butterfly' has wide appeal, thanks to the excellent beats and production that inject energy into consequential records."
While many people who follow hip-hop believed Kendrick Lamar could be the greatest rapper of all time after the release of his debut album, "Good kid, M.A.A.D City," his follow-up pushed him beyond that level.
"Calling Kendrick Lamar the best rapper alive doesn't seem right. That title seems unworthy for Kendrick Lamar, not the other way around," Singleton wrote. "While artists like Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Drake are happy fighting for that title, Kendrick is seemingly aiming for something far higher than that, a position that truly captures the power of his voice."
1. "Red" is endlessly listenable and thoroughly enjoyable, and includes some of the best lyrics written this entire decade by anyone.
"It's all the different ways that you have to say goodbye to someone," Swift told Billboard about the concept for the album, adding, "Every different kind of missing someone, every kind of loss - it all sounds different to me."
When the album came out, critics' main gripe was that it wasn't "sonically cohesive." With all due respect to those critics, they missed the point completely. The way that there is no "signature sound" to "Red" lends to its masterpiece status. With every addition of an acoustic guitar or dubstep wobble, Swift gives each inflection of her pain a different sound. She brilliantly laid out this album to showcase all the ways that love and loss can be messy, while simultaneously pointing out the different types of beauty within that mess.
The opener, "State of Grace," sets the scene with a pulsing drum beat, embracing the "worthwhile fight" of a relationship while acknowledging that love can be a "ruthless game." The devastation hasn't happened yet; instead, it's a new beginning of something great. Of course, that all comes crashing down on the second track, "Red," when Swift hits her metaphorical and lyrical dead end - but something great is still yet to come. It's just not in the form of true love.
The titular track begins Swift's journey of missing her ex-lover, which she explores further on the pop-rock "I Knew You Were Trouble," where she realises "the blame is on me," and on "All Too Well," Swift's opus and the centerpiece of the album.
"All Too Well" is "full of killer moments: the way she sings 'refrigerator,' the way she spits out the consonants of 'crumpled-up piece of paper,' the way she chews up three 'all's in a row," Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone. "No other song does such a stellar job of showing off her ability to blow up a trivial little detail into a legendary heartache."
But missing someone isn't always sad, as evidenced by "Holy Ground," which, like "All Too Well," reflects on a relationship. But where "All Too Well" focuses on how much it hurts to miss someone, "Holy Ground" deals with how much better off you were for having that relationship with an upbeat, thumping beat and lyrics like "And darlin', it was good / Never lookin' down / And right there where we stood / Was holy ground."
The album closes with "Begin Again," a promise that after all that heartache, love will find a way to rear its messy head in your life once more.
So yes, "Red" may not have a "signature sound," but it does have a signature feeling. The album is made to feel as if you've lost yourself before finally finding your way back home; it's a feeling that, even seven years after the album's release, listeners still know all too well - and are better off for it.
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