It’s difficult to pick “the best” of anything — especially something as subjective as art. I’ve chosen my selections based on an album’s innovativeness (which is also difficult to measure). While many of these albums are universally beloved, others are a bit controversial. Here, I present to you my (completely subjective) list of 15 of the most iconic and innovative albums of the 2010s.
15. ASTROWORLD - Travis Scott (2018)
ASTROWORLD is possibly the best mainstream hip-hop album of the decade. Travis Scott and his team succeeded in curating a raunchy, trippy, hard-hitting sound with exceptional production and memorable verses. In turn, Scott paid homage to his hometown Houston with myriad lyrical and sonic references.
Creating a soundscape modeled after “AstroWorld,” an old Six Flags theme park in Houston, was no easy task. Each track sounds like a rollercoaster with switch ups, psychedelic sound effects, and a vibrant amount of musicality. On track three of ASTROWORLD , Travis Scott teamed up with Drake for “Sicko Mode.” It recently went 7x Platinum in the USA and currently has over 892 million streams on Spotify.
14. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West (2010)
Kanye West, the man we love to love and love to hate. But, nobody loves Kanye more than Kanye. During the recording of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF), it’s rumored that Kanye insisted that everyone in the studio wear tuxedos. In fact, he has an entire list of studio “rules.”
I started to gather that this wasn’t going to be my typical guest verse. The first thing I noticed were all these signs Kanye had put up on the walls.
NO HIPSTER HATS
ALL LAPTOPS ON MUTE
JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES
NO TWEETING PLEASE THANK YOU
NO NEGATIVE BLOG VIEWING
DON’T TELL ANYONE ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING WE’RE DOING!
NO RACKING FOCUS WHILE MUSIC IS BEING PLAYED OR MUSIC IS BEING MADE
TOTAL FOCUS ON THIS PROJECT IN ALL STUDIOS
NO ACOUSTIC GUITAR IN THE STUDIO
I wasn’t sure what tweeting was but I did know that something different was taking place here.
Through months of hard work, Kanye West and his team created an indisputable masterpiece. MBDTF also highlights one of Kanye’s best skills: using his music to absolve himself of anything bad he did in the public eye.
The album was complemented by this 34 minute masterpiece:
13. This Is Happening - LCD Soundsystem (2010)
Starting the 2010’s with This Is Happening is somewhat unfair to other musicians. I mean, a lot has happened musically. There’s been new genres created, exploration, collaboration, and innovation.
This Is Happening rests somewhere between eletronica, spoken word, dance-punk, and indie rock. However, labeling This Is Happening is a futile effort done to quell the ambiguity that so concerns us. Instead, LCD Soundsystem takes what it wants to create This Is Happening, leaving a collection of songs that explores life in New York City free of concerns. It’s characterized by lyrics that are both meandering and poignant set to music that sounds it was dug from crates in the basement of a record store that doesn’t exist anymore. This Is Happening feels more like an auditory novel than just an album.
12. Rocket - (Sandy) Alex G (2017)
Through a blend of country and ethereal soundscapes, (Sandy) Alex G is endlessly compared to others who seem to occupy the same space. With a sound of his own, (Sandy) Alex G effortlessly creates beautiful soundscapes through seemingly unorchestrated chaos. More intentional than not, (Sandy) Alex G’s music is a product of his recording environment, his bedroom. But, this limitation engenders the necessity that births (Sandy) Alex G’s sound.
(Sandy) Alex G’s music is a product of his recording environment, his bedroom.
Rocket is a tight 41 minute album. It navigates 20-something life juxtaposed with dissonant expressions extending (Sandy) Alex G’s frustrations into a medium-past, pure emotion. Like most artists of the 2010’s, vocal treatment as a medium is present in a way that is fundamental to the songs themselves.
11. Take Care - Drake (2011)
Take Care is Drake’s second studio album, and arguably his best and most popular. Drake melded the sound that Kanye West created in 808s and Heartbreak with his own signature pop-rap/R&B style. It’s a moody blend of 90s R&B, downtempo electronica, hip-hop, and pop.
The lyrics focus on heartbreak and the problems that money can’t solve, including our American obsession with the celebrity-endorsed plastic lifestyle. It’s an odd dichotomy of needing money to survive and only living for money. Of course, an album of this caliber is not without controversy.
Over the years, there’s been a developing narrative in the hip-hop community that Drake’s frequent collaborator The Weeknd wrote Take Care. Recently, a fan tried to take a stab at Drake on the sixth anniversary of Take Care. Drake wasn’t having it:
Abel Tesfaye [The Weeknd] CO WROTE on ‘Shot For Me’ and ‘Practice,’ obviously was featured on ‘Crew Love’ and ‘The Ride’ and that’s it, Drake replied. There’s 20 tracks on that album… don’t try me.
10. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
Following an eight album stretch of contrived albums that attempted to conjure Sam Smith released under J.Tillman and a ennui-inducing stint as Robin Peckenhold’s beatkeeper in Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty emerged. Originating from an amalgam of Josh’s desire for musical actualization and nihilistic outlook, Father John Misty is a blend of new-era Lenord Cohen singer-songwriting and the agnst you would expect from an adult Holden Caulfield, however more poignant:
In stride with his 2013 release Fear Fun, 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear is a concept album detailing the manifestations caused by his newly-minted relationship with his now wife, Emma Elizebeth. Seemingly a love album by both title and eponymous track, I Love You, Honeybear exploits tired notions of love centered singer-songwriter-ship through the utilization of hormonal emotions, cultural expectations, and prior sexual history for Father John Misty’s own catharsis.
Maybe from a distance, the album is about love, but I think that under closer scrutiny, it’s pretty much about me and my confusion, my lack of clarity. I found myself in this new intimacy, and very quickly you become like a child, and all these traits, like jealousy and neediness, start to manifest. As does this tendency to dehumanize your partner by turning them into, like, a sacred object, deifying them or whatever. I guess a lot of those sacred cows had to die.
Father John Misty
Completed, we’re gifted an album reflecting both our modern malaise and inescapable egocentric self-introspection centered on the common human experience of love. Truly fit for the 2010’s, I Love You, Honeybear take us past any feelings of love or care into doubts that you ever truly cared about anyone.
9. Coexist - The XX (2012)
Coexist is an album that requires endless playbacks, if for nothing else, to find the seams that created it. The XX’s follow up to their inaugural eponymous album is a creation that merges the psychedelic soundscapes created by Pink Floyd with the delicacies given by poignant singer-songwriters. Released in 2011, Coexist is an album beyond the pale for the genre by being driven by digital instrumentation and only augmented by traditional instrumentation.
Orchestrated By mastermind Jamie Oliver, the sounds envelop your connection with reality while building and releasing tension. The result is a cathartic release, elevated and deflated while listening.
8. Flower Boy - Tyler, The Creator (2017)
Tyler, The Creator is an interesting artist. His early albums Goblin and Bastard are filled with dark hip-hop beats, homophobic slurs, and quite a bit of vulgarities.
They say success is the best revenge.
So I beat DeShay up with the stack of magazines I’m in.
Oh, not again! Another critic writing report.
I’m stabbing any blogging faggot hipster with a Pitchfork.
Tyler, The Creator on "Yonkers"
However, there’s much more to these albums than shock value. In an almost art-pop way — a style where artists choose the manipulation of signs, style, and gesture over personal expression — Tyler, The Creator wrote his early albums from the perspective of different alter egos.
“Wolf Haley” is his evil alter ego, “Dr. TC” his his therapist, and “Tron Cot” is a voice in his head, among others. Flower Boy marks a sharp departure from these past styles. It’s difficult to characterize, but Flower Boy prioritizes chord progressions and song structure over rap — although the bars are as good as ever. This isn’t surprising, however, coming from an artist who’s pretty outspoken about hating rapping.
On Flower Boy, Tyler did something he’s always wanted to do: break into the mainstream. Along the way he explored new styles, seemingly opened up about his sexuality, and proved to the world that he truly is a musical genius. Even if you don’t vibe with his music, it’s hard to discredit an artist who wrote and produced just about every song he’s ever released.
7. When I Get Home - Solange (2019)
I’ve always been a fan of Solange Knowles (yes, Beyonce’s little sister), but When I Get Home spoke to me more than any of her earlier projects. Musically, the album is filled with ethereal soundscapes and live instrumentation — a soothing blend of experimental neo-soul and progressive R&B. Lyrically, it’s filled with self-reassuring meditations.
Underneath the beautiful sonic bed is an intriguing current of individualism and rejection of authority.
On When I Get Home, Solange gives a clean “fuck you” to contemporary pop expectations. Minimally processed sounds, experimental song structures, and the occasional odd time-signature give an invigorating sense of authenticity.
Recently, she released a director’s cut of her interdisciplinary performance art film When I Get Home.
Even with 19 tracks, When I Get Home is only 39 minutes long. Underneath the beautiful sonic bed is an intriguing current of individualism and rejection of authority. I grew up listening to a lot of punk rock, so perhaps that’s why I’m so captivated.
6. Negro Swan - Blood Orange (2018)
Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange) is a musical polymath with an uncanny ability of infusing emotion into every breath and note. Negro Swan wasn’t really a mainstream release, but I fervently believe it belongs among the best albums of the decade.
Musically, it’s a refreshing emulsion of alt-pop, indie hip-hop, and progressive R&B. Lyrically, the authenticity is uplifting and the messaging couldn’t be more relevant. The name itself, Negro Swan, says it all. The black swan, a bird prized for its unlikely beauty by indigenous Australians was simultaneously considered evil by European colonizers. Rodney James Giblett, author of Black Swan Lake: Life of a Wetland, writes:
…the opposition of ‘good-evil, white-black’ is a ‘maneichism delirium’ of colonial discourse that privileges white/good over black/evil.
…Decolonizing the binarist and Manichean opposition between white and black also means undertaking an ecological psychoanalysis of the psycho-chromopathology that privileges white over black and of the psycho-zoopathology that denigrates the black swan as atrocious…
Negro Swan frees blackness from the fetization and stereotypes of society — a liberation from beauty standards, toxic masculinity, and other constraints that limit the way people exist. To me, Negro Swan represents a sharp break from the expectations of society and unrestrained creative freedom to be yourself.
5. To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) a couple of years after Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, another outstanding album. Aside from a couple singles, mainstream reception was shaky at first. Why? On TPAB, Kendrick Lamar did something quite unexpected, especially for a hip-hop artist of his caliber.
He distanced himself from the popular trap sound and embraced a funk-forward style incorporating obvious jazz elements into every song. Following the release, some called him the John Coltrane of hip-hop. TPAB features musicians like George Clinton, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Pharrell, and Robert Glasper. This was different from most hip-hop records of the time (and since).
The music explores topics like materialism, institutional racism, and Lamar’s struggles with fame after his rapid ascent into limelight. Underneath lays Kendrick Lamar — more vulnerable than ever — revealing inner conflicts and anxieties that make it more and more difficult to love himself. Like all of his music, the emotion is chasmic, taking multiple listens to fully absorb everything.
4. MAGDALENE - FKA Twigs (2019)
Following a five year drought of studio albums, FKA Twigs proved to be worth the wait with 2019’s release of MAGDALENE. Possessing not a mere musical style, but a multimedia approach to the medium present in both dance and clothing that is sadly truncated due to the limitations of audio. Completed through both video and live performance, MAGDALENE is FKA Twigs’ best work to date.
A key theme of MAGDALENE is the public heartbreak felt, and the journey to arrive at said heartbreak, when Tahliah Barnett (FKA Twigs’ given name) separated from fiancé Robert Pattinson. MAGDALENE’s introspection goes further than a typical separation ballad, however, with lyrics imbued with the criticism from both British tabloids and Twilight stans stemming from a desire to make real life accurate to the Twilight movies.
The result is an album that one can’t absorb through individual tracks, because you’re taken through the better part of a decade’s worth of FKA Twigs’ life.
While the social commentary imbues a unique flavor to the album, it’s far from what MAGDALENE finds its gravity in. Present throughout all FKA Twigs’ releases is her soprano, both haunting in depth and invoking in tone, it isn’t until MAGDALENE that she find the symbiosis of her voice and music much like Frank Llyod Wright’s architecture melds with its environment. The result is an album that one can’t absorb through individual tracks, because you’re taken through the better part of a decade’s worth of FKA Twigs’ life.
3. Igor - Tyler, The Creator (2019)
Tyler, The Creator took an art-pop approach to Igor, his fifth studio album. It’s characterized by complete creative freedom and a seeming disregard for the mainstream — an interesting approach after his mainstream success from Flower Boy.
“Soon as they like you make ‘em unlike you” —Kanye West
This is ironic, however, because Igor’s main single is one of the most popular songs of 2019 (with over 230 million streams on Spotify alone).
The irony continues further, too, with Igor snagging the number one Billboard spot over DJ Khaled’s album Father of Asahd. DJ Khaled was not happy.
Igor has the least rapping out of any Tyler, The Creator album ever released. He took an emotionally charged, freeform approach that left more of his soul exposed than ever before. Frankly, it’s exciting to see an artist like Tyler, The Creator have the courage and confidence to embrace such a level of artistic freedom.
Join our email list and get notified about new content
Be the first to receive our latest content with the ability to opt-out at anytime.
2. Yeezus - Kanye West (2013)
We can always count on Kanye West for pushing boundaries that we never even knew existed. Sure, he samples a lot, but it’s his knack for developing soundscapes full of musical contrast that makes him so unique. Yeezus, his 10 track masterpiece, is the best example of this.
The album, with tons of help from mastermind producer and mix engineer Rick Rubin, was approached from an extremely minimalist perspective. It’s even been compared to Cubism, a style of art created by Picasso characterized by simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes. Supposedly, Kanye waited until the very last minute to finish the album, recording vocals for half of the album in about two hours. Rick Rubin was stressing out, to say the least:
Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.’ In the two hours before had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto. A remarkable feat. He had total confidence in his ability to get the job done when push came to shove.
The album opens with “On Sight” — consisting of only modular synth percussion and Kanye’s vocals, and ends with “Bound 2” — a classic sample beat where Kanye expresses his love for Kim Kardashian.
Here, Kanye explains the subject matter behind track three “I Am a God” himself:
In summary, Yeezus is an album that was way ahead of its time. Nobody since, not even Kanye, has created anything quite as raw and iconic as Yeezus. It was also followed by an amazing tour.
1. Blond - Frank Ocean (2016)
After four years of waiting, Frank Ocean delivered his second album Blond. The 17 track project is filled with ambient soundscapes, experimental song structures, and minimal production. It was well-received by both mainstream and alternative crowds. But, perhaps the most fascinating part of this release, is how Ocean tricked his record label.
“I had writer’s block for almost a year… I would stare at the monitors and come up with nothing, or nothing that I liked.” —Frank Ocean
Def Jam spent approximately $2 million on recording costs for Ocean’s album — which they thought was going to be titled Boys Don’t Cry. On August 19, 2016, Frank Ocean released Endless, an experimental visual album that was not for sale. Endless was released under Def Jam Recordings, and thus fulfilled his contractual obligation with them. The very next day, Ocean released Blond under his own label Boys Don’t Cry through an Apple Music exclusive. Presumably, he used an advance from Apple Music to pay back the $2 million he owed Def Jam and essentially buy back his own records.
Frank Ocean pulled a fast one on of the biggest record labels in the world, and boosted his profit share from 14 percent to 70 percent of total revenues from Blond. This was all within 24 hours. On July 9, 2018, Blond was certified platinum by the RIAA.