These albums not only shaped the past decade: they'll determine what music will be in the coming one.
Music has never been extricable from culture, but in the 2010s, it became crystal clear that music has the ability to shatter norms and reshape the world.
Take a moment and think back to the albums that changed your life over the past decade. Most likely, they altered your worldview on a fundamental level, reshaping the way you saw yourself and your life. Some albums are capable of doing that on a massive scale, and that's what this list is intended to highlight: Albums that managed to shift the way people saw music, culture, and themselves, and that paved the way for what music might become.
10. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar - Alright www.youtube.com
Poet and firebrand Kendrick Lamar creates music that's both timeless and entirely of its time. To Pimp A Butterfly was Kendrick at his most inspired and radioactive. It cut into the pain and rage and hope of an era and a community and a person, and collapsed time into a tangle of sound and memory that reviewers and listeners will be playing and attempting to understand for decades.
It made an indelible impact, becoming a juggernaut and an easy name-drop, but fortunately, To Pimp A Butterfly searingly addresses all the trappings of fame, shallow understanding, and commodification that follow it, retaining an indomitable inner life.
9. BTS — Map of the Soul: Persona
BTS (방탄소년단) MAP OF THE SOUL : PERSONA 'Persona' Comeback Trailer www.youtube.com
The 2010s were the era that K-pop entered the global theatre, and nobody dominated more than BTS. Their album Map of the Soul: Persona may not have been critically lauded, but it was legendary in the hearts and minds of their fans.
Map of the Soul: Persona was glittery boy-band pop, pristine and starry-eyed. Rolling Stone described it as "harmless" and "impregnable," but BTS fans are not harmless, and neither is K-pop, but what this band is is unavoidable, pervasive, and larger-than-life. To ignore the impact of BTS would be to miss a massive portion of the 2010s and to remain blind to what the 2020s will hold, which is a far more globalized music industry that, no matter what, will always, always have its beloved boy bands.
8. Carly Rae Jepsen — E•MO•TION
Carly Rae Jepsen - Run Away With Me www.youtube.com
Jepsen's seminal debut album gained her a cult of devoted fans and spread a wide-eyed sense of pop optimism across the 2010s. Just what about E•MO•TION was so singular, so moving, so unforgettable? As Jia Tolentino wrote, "Carly Rae Jepsen is a pop artist zeroed in on love's totipotency: the glance, the kaleidoscope-confetti-spinning instant, the first bit of nothing that contains it all." As one Twitter user insinuated, "Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION is for all the gays in a healthy relationship for the first time."
Electric Lit argued that with E•MO•TION, Jepsen ushered in a "queer renaissance," one that exists because her music occupies a familiar feeling: "the struggle to express a desire that isn't supposed to exist." From the raw ecstasy of "Run Away With Me" to the dreamy chaos of "LA Hallucinations," Jepsen's music is desperate to bridge the gap between the self and others, to leave behind loneliness, to cut straight to the feeling; and in that, it left an indelible impact for those who were there to experience its majesty.
7. Lana Del Rey — Born To Die
Lana Del Rey - Born To Die (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
Lana Del Rey is, rightfully, credited with ushering in the wave of sad-girl pop that is still going strong, thanks to artists like Halsey, Billie Eilish, and of course, Del Rey herself. The artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant emerged onto the scene as a cyborgian, hyper-manufactured industry plant refracted through a vintage DIY filter, and now she's one of the voices of her generation, whispering platitudes on America and sex and sadness in the same breath.
Born To Die was Del Rey at her most manufactured, her most glittery, her must luxurious and opulent and depressed, and it's beautiful in its decay. Its kitschy Americana held no bars, and from its nihilistic title track to the sultry "Blue Jeans" to the weird glamour of "Off To the Races," it effectively spawned an entire generation of flower-crowned teens who are now sad Trump-hating adults.
6. Lady Gaga — Born This Way
Lady Gaga - Born This Way www.youtube.com
Lady Gaga might not have the clout she did at the beginning of the 2010s, but back in the day, Gaga was a wild card and game-changer, crushing norms, changing fashion, and standing up for the LGBTQ+ community. She was proudly weird and always daring, and she created a whole space for weird pop stars after her. She blended drag, burlesque, and shock-factor performance with genuinely catchy pop, and created a new blueprint for stardom in the process.
Born This Way was arguably her crown jewel, the point where she blossomed into the true freak she'd been waiting to become. It had the ecstatic "You and I" and "Edge of Glory." It marked an era where pop music became inextricable from its visual component and political implications—not that it ever really was.
5. Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
Lizzo - Truth Hurts (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Most likely, Lizzo will be even bigger in the 2020s; after all, she only just released her major label debut album. But Lizzo has already changed the game, creating space for a type of beauty and confidence that pop stars before her have only played at or insinuated. From her refusal to tolerate inadequate men to her willingness to rock thongs at baseball games and her decision to pay tribute to the great women who paved the way for her, at this point, Lizzo might be our best hope for the future.
Cuz I Love You synthesized the hits Lizzo had been building up for years, twining them into a euphoric testament to self-love in spite of a world that teaches you to hate yourself. From the celebratory "Good As Hell" to the buoyant mic-drop that is "Truth Hurts," the album is a gift to us all.
4. Lil Nas X — 7 (EP)
Lil Nas X - Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus www.youtube.com
Lil Nas X's fantastic "Old Town Road" was the perfect conflagration of factors that hit at exactly the right time. It was also supremely, unbelievably catchy. Using memes, blurring genres, buying beats off SoundCloud, coming out on Twitter and being open about how he made "Old Town Road" while sleeping on his sister's couch, Lil Nas caught us all in our heartstrings and created a blueprint for music's undeniably post-genre and multimedia future.
X's EP, "7," wasn't a high-quality work so much as it was a cultural flashpoint, an inspiration that no doubt has marketing executives scrambling to replicate it.
3. Billie Eilish — when we all fall asleep, where do we go?
Billie Eilish - bad guy www.youtube.com
Billie Eilish is changing the game in terms of what pop music can sound like and how pop stars should act. Any producer who attempts to drag pop songs into clear-cut and old-fashioned forms involving high notes and beat drops will find themselves challenged by the innovative, glitchy, challenging tunes that Eilish creates with her brother in their childhood home. Her refusal to fit into gender norms and her insistence on standing up for things like climate make her emblematic of what a future of Gen-Z stars might look like.
when we all fall asleep, where do we go? is a peculiar album. A lot of its songs don't even try for radio play, and some are so sad they can take your breath away. Some are barely whispers, like the moody "when the party's over," while others are cracked and angry and challenging, like the smash hit "bad guy," but all of it's undeniably unforgettable and boundary-breaking.
2. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West - Runaway (Full-length Film) www.youtube.com
Provocative, raw, and almost bloody with emotion, Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy continues to reverberate nearly 10 years after it was released. West's album is full of unexpected dips into guitar solos and alien sounds that draw it into new dimensions; it's peppered with cheesy lines, dirty jokes, and shockingly confessional lyrics; and no matter how far West has gone into Christianity, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an enduring ode to the devils we all know.
Its best songs, "All Of the Lights," "Devil In A New Dress" and "Runaway," explore what West has always been working through—the ragged edge where sin meets faith, and where success meets corruption. MBDTF sinks its teeth into the rough, infected parts of the world and creates something great out of them. Though we might not see West exploring this territory again, his work sparked an entire generation of artists looking to dive into the world he created.
1. Beyoncé — Lemonade
Beyoncé - Formation www.youtube.com
Beyoncé's brilliant Lemonade has yet to be surpassed, even as other artists try to mirror her surprise video-drop format. Lemonade mixed poetry, visuals, and beautiful, kaleidoscopic music to form a treatise on freedom, love, black women's power, and of course, Jay-Z. It made an indelible impact on all the music that came after it, setting the standard for what a truly creative release could look and sound like.
From the harmony-laden "Pray You Catch Me" to the gritty Jack White duet "Don't Hurt Yourself" to the triumphant, anthemic "Freedom," Lemonade changed everything. We can only hope we'll see more like it in the 2020s.
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And here's why.
You know those movies that have been parodied, memed, and referenced so much that you feel like you've seen them–but you never have and, honestly, why would you bother?
You know that at the end of Taxi Driver Travis Bickle may or may not hallucinate a violent episode, and you've seen people dress up in Robert De Niro's utility jacket, black shades, and weird Roman soldier haircut at every Halloween party you've ever attended. You know that Scarface's Tony Montana screams, "Say hello to my little friend" while wearing a suit with giant lapels and holding a machine gun. How do you know this? No, you've never seen the movie; the fact is that the sheer masterpiece of a few key scenes capturing the climax of a film can overshadow the entire production. Sure, you want to sit down to watch them "one day," but you just never get around to it.
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The overculture is lit.
Reigning weird white women Lana Del Rey, Grimes, and Brit Marling sat down to have a conversation for Interview Magazine, and the result was as futuristic and multidimensional as you might expect.
Grimes, who's in the midst of promoting her forthcoming album Miss_Anthropocene, spoke to Del Rey about everything from ancient religions to artificial intelligence and beyond. Their conversation revolved around artmaking, womanhood, and fame in the Internet age; and like their art, it was characteristically inscrutable. When Del Rey asked if Grimes' work was inspired by personal experience or "the overculture," Grimes launched into a discussion of ancient Egyptian gods and anthropomorphization. "If you think about it, god-making or god-designing just seems so fun. The idea of making the Goddess of Plastic seems so fun to me," she said.
Lana Del Rey and Grimes: Variations on Femininity, Faith, and Critics
Though they're both creative spirits who play with religious symbols and cultural iconography, Grimes and Del Rey are known for representing femininity in different ways (and for dating problematic men). While Del Rey has been linked to classic archetypes of femininity, Grimes' early work seemed to present a futuristic, androgynous image. "On my last record, I was in this gender-neutral mindset," Grimes told Del Rey. "I was an asexual person. F*ck my sexuality. F*ck femininity. F*ck being a girl. I was having this weird reaction to society where I just hated my femaleness. It was like, to be a producer, I felt like I had to be a man."
But Grimes' next album seems like it will lean deeper into feminine and goddess archetypes, while Del Rey's latest, Norman F**king Rockwell, found her comparing herself to great male artists and challenging those who labeled her work as artificial.
Both were full of surprises and were critical of the press, which have always viciously criticized each of them in turn. "In terms of what I'm writing, in my personal life I have to be really, really happy," said Del Rey, contradicting thousands of critics in one fell swoop. They also lamented outrage culture, with its tendency to pluck headlines from interviews and its preference for catchy misinformation at the price of nuance.
Grimes and Brit Marling: On Politics, Artificial Intelligence's Impending World Domination, Capitalism, and Hyperobjects
In the second part of the interview, Grimes spoke to Brit Marling, another futurist whose recently-canceled show, The OA, presented an alternative mode of storytelling and connected technology to environmentalism to the multiverse theory. Together, the two lamented how their work and visions sometimes wind up being incompatible with reality.
Like their work, their conversations spiraled through various dimensions, though one could only imagine what they'd speak about off the record. "We're always negotiating the cost versus the craziness, which is why we always end up editing ourselves," said Marling, hinting at dimensions left unseen.
Both expressed appreciation for the mind-bending nature of each other's work, and Grimes quickly dove back into history and archetypes. "In the medieval times, when literacy was at its lowest, everything got really symbolic, like the cross. Nuance got lost," said Grimes. "I feel like we're going back to a time like that, where everything is symbolic. No one reads past a headline because our attention spans are so short. The same symbols are being fed to people, and they're gathering completely opposite meanings from them, and it's creating chaos."
Marling pulled things towards the politics of the present. "The American flag means one thing to one group of people, and one thing to another," she said. "To one, it's a metaphor for freedom. To another, it's an image of oppression. That duality of symbolism applies to so many things. But we live in an increasingly complex time where it's hard to grasp things in symbols. We're having to deal with all of these hyperobjects. Climate change is a hyperobject that people cannot wrap their minds around, because, among other things, it involves a contemplation of time that is off the scope of the human body. We're at a moment when we need nuanced, layered thinking more than ever, and somehow the moment is being met with a real shrinking away from context or depth."
They also discussed artificial intelligence and its impending world domination, a favorite topic of Grimes'. "There will eventually be a sentient technology that is smart enough and strong enough and has access to take everyone's sh*t, and then can make anyone do whatever it wants," said Grimes. "I might be wrong, and I might be aggrandizing here, but I feel like this might be one of the most important times in history. Especially in the last two years, it feels like we've walked right up to the edge between the old world and the new world. It's like before the pyramids and after the pyramids. We're at a 'pyramids got built' moment. We're going to be digitizing reality and colonizing space simultaneously, which may be two of the craziest things that will have occurred in the history of humanity. It's going to happen while we're alive and while we're young, which is nuts."
Marling has previously written about the need for a better story, one that unifies the scattered threads of our era and critiques hero worship, but the idea that artificial intelligence might write this story is definitely a threat to all of this. She replied, "If the objective of art has often been to be a lighthouse in the dark, to say, 'Hey, come this way,' or to expose fraudulent things for what they actually are, what does it mean if something other than human beings is authoring that force of rebellion?" A valid point—though on the other hand, what if artificial intelligence could improve upon some of the flaws that define the human condition, such as our general inability to understand what asexuality actually is?
Grimes returned to a topic she'd addressed with Del Rey. "We're always looking for our maker: 'Who is our god? Who created us?' What's interesting is, for AI, we are their god," she said. "That will be the first intelligent being that knows its creator, and knows everything about us."
Marling proposed that maybe AI isn't our worst fear—maybe something else is already controlling us. "Capitalism, even if there wasn't corruption, is a model that doesn't work for most people, because its only goal is the increase of profit, which means that there's somebody at the top of the pyramid and most people at the bottom who get paid less than their work is worth for profit to be extracted," she said. "I think part of the reason there's been so much climate change denial is that if you acknowledge that this economic system leads to ecological ruin, you have to acknowledge in the same breath that it's broken. Right now, we put value in growth, and everything is just endless, ridiculous growth, even though we're on a finite planet with dwindling resources and more people every day. Let's say, just for a moment, you put the value on caregiving."
"I was just thinking the other day how much I didn't appreciate my mom growing up," said Grimes. "I remember thinking, 'Why did you wake me up for school? This b*tch. F*ck.'"
There's only one conclusion to be drawn here. Lana Del Rey, Grimes, and Brit Marling should collaborate on a visual concept album with an interactive artificial intelligence component that crafts a new story outside the bounds of capitalism and neoliberalism and that motivates everyone to fight climate change, promote ethics in Silicon Valley, and call their mom.
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