Best Albums of the 2010s

Author’s Note: This isn’t really a list of the best albums of the 2010s so much as a compilation of the reviews I’ve done for these albums I’ve done over the years. I simply added some extra detail to certain entries about their influence over the past decade and some retrospection. As a result, this list is quite long with essentially full-length reviews for most of the albums. I’d recommend using the table of contents and the “scroll back to top button” at the bottom right to navigate the page.

Table of Contents

50. Angel of Salvation — Galneryus (2012)

For most western listeners, the extent of their knowledge about Japanese power metal band Galneryus starts and ends with Hunter X Hunter. However, they are the most active and proficient Japanese power metal band in the current millennium having released a dozen albums in their career. By the time the 2010s had rolled around, whatever lasting interest people had in power metal had already disappeared. Its brief revival in modern bands like Dragonforce and Gloryhammer didn’t last long. The problem with power metal in general is that there is little room for the genre to evolve. It exists as a niche in the metal genre as a fusion between speed metal and orchestral tendencies. There are only so many speedy riffs and high fantasy lyrics you can do before it becomes boring. At the same time though, power metal bands rarely retain their magic so to speak. Their consistency wanes, their stage antics mellow, and people forget. So it’s a huge surprise that Galneryus released their best album so late into their career without a unique evolution in sound.

On Angel of Salvation, Galneryus perfects the power metal sound that they had been working on for the previous 7 albums. They retain the energy and triumph that makes power metal such a joy to listen to. Sho’s vocals are soaring throughout the album as he blends Japanese and English lyrics together. It’s almost operatic at times where he glides effortlessly above the instrumentation. The guitar work from Syu is incredible as his riffs follow Sho directly almost giving the guitar a voice of its own. The melodies consistently match one another as they cascade throughout the songs. The guitar solos in songs like “Hunting For Your Dream” are mind-blowing. One of the coolest parts of Angel of Salvation is their use of orchestration. Becoming the forefront of a Galneryus album, the strings and horns give a powerful symphonic sound on the downtime of Angel of Salvation.

The real centerpiece of Angel of Salvation is the epic 15 minute title track. It’s a slow burn with masterful usage of recurring themes and a reminder of what makes power metal so great. The solos are triumphant, the orchestration is a beautiful addition, and the vocals float effortlessly. The atmosphere that’s created throughout the bridges and verses as the song swells into a crescendo left me in awe. It’s uplifting, catchy, and is a brilliant display of what made power metal so fun to listen to in the first place.

Must Listens: Reach To The Sky, Hunting For Your Dream, Angel of Salvation

49. Finally Rich — Chief Keef (2012)

It’s always funny to see how ahead of its time Finally Rich was. Circa 2012, groups like A$AP Mob, TDE, Pro Era, Odd Future were the exciting new wave of rappers that were cropping up. But no single rapper or group had more influence on the blueprint of rap than Chief Keef. Not only did Keef lay the foundation for how rap would sound for most of the 2010s but he was a catalyst in the shift towards online streaming. Like Soulja Boy and Lil B, his social media presence (controversial at times) would change how rappers marketed themselves as the culture shifted towards the Internet. Finally Rich is the groundwork for modern hip hop as Keef’s ad-libs, melodies, and emphasis on hooks would slowly become the dominant sound of hip hop today. By 2012, Chief Keef had popularized drill and made it a part of mainstream consciousness despite being only 16.

Combined with producer Young Chop’s signature minor-chord synths, Finally Rich is Chief Keef at his purest. Keef’s intuition for pop sensibilities shines through here undistilled. Whether it’s drenching his voice in autotune, bouncing off his ad-libs, or creating incredible hooks, there is no denying its catchiness. Every song on the album feels like an anthem. Back in 2012, critics often dismissed Finally Rich as ignorant, simple, or boring. What they didn’t realize was that Keef had shifted the approach to creating rap music. Rather than emphasizing heavy lyricism or a multitude of flows, Keef would make his melodies and delivery his bread and butter. Every verse he included would sound like hooks: catchy, repetitive, and full of ad-libs. The production would always cycle back to a familiar sound when the hook arrived again. It’s a deceptively simple sound that is insanely addictive. Being ahead of its time, Finally Rich only sounds better and better with age. As rap begins to gravitate heavily towards artists with an instinctive understanding of melodies like Thug, Uzi, and Carti, Finally Rich remains the centerpiece of where it all started.

Must Listens: Love Sosa, Kay Kay, I Don’t Like

48. Reflections of a Floating World — Elder (2017)

As Elder evolved throughout the decade, they went from a traditional stoner/doom band to one of the most creative, ambitious metal bands today. Painting incredible soundscapes with their proggy guitar riffs and crisp drumming, Elder evolves the sound that they have been working on throughout their career on Reflections of a Floating World. As the opening riff starts on “Sanctuary”, it’s easy to see how much more detailed they have become with their guitarwork. It’s extremely dense and heavy yet effortlessly carries melodic undertones along with the echoing vocals. The buzzy guitars are punctuated by the crashing snares which slowly morph into a bright solo and gentle interlude before cycling back to the jagged guitars. Every song on Reflections of a Floating World is a behemoth in its own right: they all have a runtime of about 10 minutes which allows plenty of room for long-winded solos and recurring themes. To add to the outer-worldly sound, they include spacey synths, soaring melodic solos, immersive distortion, and beautiful interludes. Elder manages to effectively create a narrative out of riffs where the vocals take a backseat in their sound.

What Reflections of a Floating World does so well is how it perfects a unique yet familiar sound. It takes influences from prog, stoner/doom metal, psych rock when creating riffs but there is also distinct aesthetics in the spacey sounds found throughout the album. There is a sense of adventure and journey in this album and they play that feeling up constantly. Elder seems to enjoy creating the dense atmosphere of stoner/doom without relying overtly on distortion and fuzz pedals. They love to focus more on the melodic side of their sound and opt to convey the sheer power of their riffs through more subtle or emotional ways. The composition of the album is incredible as it weaves effortlessly through complex structures and detailed layers. All of these aspects make the album feel alive and organic as each song constantly evolves upon itself. The end result is a gorgeous album that feels like it occupies life on its own. The intricacies within every song shift naturally like the waves on the album art. As they crash and flow into the towering rock formations, they transfer their momentum to a new tide. Reflections of a Floating World pulls you into its own living, breathing world effortlessly and never lets go until the thunderous end.

Must Listens: Sanctuary, The Falling Veil, Thousand Hands

47. Wildlife — La Dispute (2011)

Let’s get this out of the way: Wildlife is a modern masterpiece and a pinnacle of the entire post-hardcore genre. On the surface, it’s just another stereotypical post-hardcore album about struggling through adulthood through angsty lyrics and loathing for their hometown. It’s not a novel concept by any means. But there’s something truly poetic about the way they write their songs on Wildlife. The album is intended to be a collection of short stories from a hypothetical author. Revolving around themes of loss, despair, anger, and tragedy, Wildlife projects the author’s struggle through the songs and monologues. The way Jordan Dreyer sings is often a turn-off for a lot of first-timers. Rather than focus on distinct melodies, Dreyer is heavily influenced by spoken word, almost rapping over the songs. On other albums, Dreyer often comes off as too theatrical or forced to really take seriously. But when it connects on Wildlife, it really emphasizes the pure emotion and anger behind his voice.

Wildlife is an album that requires a listener to truly listen to the lyrics to understand the emotional impact behind the songs. It’s deeply haunting how Dreyer is able to transform the complexities of growing up into such poetic words. On “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues”, he sings about a decayed church in their hometown and compares it to his own feelings of depression. “What gave those people purpose/Past death approaching constantly/Now left to crumble slowly/Now left to wither with the weeds/Now left to ice and vandals”. There’s something terrifying about how hollow and empty the lyrics can make you feel. Of course, nothing compares to the climax of the album in “King Park”. Based on a true story, it follows the perspective of a person who is captivated by a drive-by shooting that occurs and the subsequent suicide of the killer who is riddled with guilt. At the end of the song, Dreyer takes the perspective of the killer as he decides to end his life. “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?/Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?/Can I ever be forgiven ’cause I killed that kid?/It was an accident, I swear it wasn’t meant for him!”, he screams and you cannot help but have a visceral reaction to the internal conflict.

On Wildlife, the hypothetical author struggles to find purpose in his seemingly meaningless life. He attempts to overcome some sort of tragedy by analyzing the suffering of others to find solace in his own struggle. Slowly, the author realizes that suffering is universal and that one’s tragedy being bigger or smaller than others is irrelevant. We need to find our own ways to cope and overcome our tragedies. Despite the cliche sentiments, La Dispute portrays their message in a deeply impactful way. The intensity and emotion lodged into Dreyer’s voice is powerful and his feelings are universal. Wildlife speaks to the human condition of suffering and what it means to survive beyond that.

Must Listens: St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues, The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit, King Park

46. Your Queen Is A Reptile — Sons of Kemet (2018)

Your Queen Is A Reptile derives its name from a long history of British racism and imperialism. Finding that the British monarchy does not represent immigrants, Sons of Kemet counter this British nationalism with tracks that refer to influential black women in history. With references to Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Anna J. Cooper, Doreen Lawrence, and more, Sons of Kemet make it known that it’s your accomplishments that propel you to greatness and not your bloodline.

Sons of Kemet are led by Shabaka Hutchings and play a style of jazz that incorporates influences from all over the world including Caribbean folk, Afro-Jazz, rock, dub, and Afrobeat. Rather than confine themselves to a jazz label, they take on numerous sounds for a more avant-garde inspired approach. This is accomplished by their strange composition: there’s tenor sax, tuba, and two drummers. Despite how weird it sounds, the dual drum section allows Your Queen Is A Reptile to flourish as a rhythmic masterpiece. The drumming is relentless as it bounces between two grooves. As the rhythms move in multiple directions, it nevertheless remains tight and precise. Caught in a perpetual duel, the drummers bounce off one another and act as opposites. More space is given to melodies to move and transform the songs into something more dance-driven. Theo Cross acts as the baseline on the tuba: he sets the foundation for the grooves and creates the bass rhythm for the sax to cascade along with melodies. The strong emphasis on horns allows for a hyper-energetic pace that never becomes dull.

What’s more, Sons of Kemet defy expectations of what modern jazz should sound like. They carve a unique London-inspired sound that tracks the influences of jazz before them but is also innovative enough to stand on its own. Shabaka and crew take on the cultural history of jazz but conjure something new out of it. The end result is impressive, full of vitality and spirit that manages to convey politics through melodies. Your Queen Is A Reptile is a rhythmic triumph, intricate in its details yet addictive in its danceable melodies.

Must Listens: My Queen Is Harriet Tubman, My Queen is Anna Julia Cooper, My Queen is Yaa Asantewaa

45. Titanic Rising — Weyes Blood (2019)

Titanic Rising’s cover features Weyes Blood submerged in an underwater bedroom. Speaking on the symbolism, she has stated that the water represents the subconscious and the bedroom exists in this subconscious as a safe and imaginative space that shapes beliefs and identities. Titanic Rising is about the yearning for simpler times and learning how to avoid sinking from hopelessness. Existing in this little area allows ideas and creativity to flourish, away from the world around you. The sound of Titanic Rising is influenced by 70s artists like Joni Mitchell and Carole King as well as the 1997 movie Titanic. It’s a dreamy, slow-burn of ballads that feels nostalgic and cinematic.

Much of the album revolves around love and finding fulfillment in an ever-changing world. It’s certainly romanticized here but at the same time, when we reach songs like “Movies”, reality starts to creep in. Like cinema, there is sometimes that feeling of disillusionment: we can hope for a life of simplicity and satisfaction as we see in the movies only to realize that real life isn’t nearly as interesting. We search for meaning, hoping that we are the main characters in some way and often put suppress the notion that we are ordinary. Weyes Blood searches for fulfillment, something that can direct her life in a direction like the movies often depict.

Titanic Rising is gorgeous in its sound. Designed to sound as if Weyes Blood is submerged underwater, her echoing voice is dynamic as it shifts with the shimmering synths and slow percussion. The strings are mesmerizing and her vocal harmonies are a sight to behold. Her powerful voice sends home the message of nostalgic yearning: it’s encompassing yet hesitant at times. It’s as if she’s fearful that being too sentimental or hopeful will only crush her in the end. As each song reaches the climax, the instrumentation swells along with her voice, creating a blissful peak before progressing to a new idea. Entrancing at all moments, Titanic Rising is a universe of its own: safe from the perils of the outside world and allows listeners to find solace in the ordinary.

Must Listens: Andromeda, Movies, Something To Believe

44. Autumn Eternal — Panopticon (2015)

Panopticon is an atmospheric black metal project by Austin Lunn which mixes black metal with elements of folk, bluegrass, and post-rock. Autumn Eternal showcases Lunn at his best by creating a down-to-earth sound featuring triumphant riffs and folksy atmospheres. The seamless merging of black metal with folk sounds stems from Lunn’s own experiences. Being an anarchist and avid outdoorsman, the sounds of Autumn Eternal are heavily inspired by nature. There are sections where the drumming slows down, samples of walking through leaves are added, and you can feel the chilly breeze of the outdoors envelope you. On Autumn Eternal, there are much more melodic riffs and winding guitar solos compared to other black metal albums. Highly textured, its solo sections are reminiscent of post-rock and prog. There’s an air of warmth in its grounded atmosphere which makes its stylistic choices unique from the classic Norwegian sound of black metal.

Lunn’s artistic vision is always staggering in its ambition and depth. He clearly has a lot of passion in what he does and his technical skills back it up. There are moments throughout the album where you can sense his folk and post-rock influences come to play very directly. However, they always seem genuine by design, weaving authentic expression into his art. There is never a time where the genre-blending feels forced. Each song is unique in its natural progression with its melodies and riffs. Unlike his previous albums, Lunn takes it upon himself to gradually transform and develop singular riffs rather than utilize multiple. As a result, the crescendos during the climax of the songs are much more powerful and akin to post-rock passages. Small details like the woodwinds and bells are often quiet additions to the overall sound but they play into the autumn sound effectively. Listening to this album instantly transports you to the top of a mountain range, hidden in a deep forest. A beautiful testament to the expansion of a genre, Lunn’s work in Autumn Eternal is naturally majestic and captures the feeling of peaceful solitude.

Must Listens: Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing, Pale Ghosts, Tamarack’s Gold Returns

43. Chinese Football — Chinese Football (2015)

People have often criticized Chinese Football for being too similar to their American counterparts but if I’m going to be perfectly honest….I like them better. I stumbled across Chinese Football in my recommended section of YouTube while listening to Elephant Gym. I was instantly blown away by the intricacies within their sound and how dense everything was despite the obvious midwest emo influence. What also stuck out to me was how they were from Wuhan. At least from what I know from relatives there, they haven’t really had a solid local music scene for a while. There are few people who even know what midwest emo is in China. Chinese Football is an organic growth story: gaining traction on the Internet, releasing EPs steadily, and eventually even sharing a stage with American Football.

Still, relegating Chinese Football to a midwest emo clone is unfair. What makes Chinese Football stand out is their utilization of intricate details and mathy riffs in their songs. They have more in common here with Chinese and Japanese math rock bands like Elephant Gym, Toe, and Tricot by placing a heavier emphasis on melodies. The riffs on the songs carry a number of cascading melodies that slowly mesh together with the vocal harmonies. This focus on intricate, poppy melodies is derived from their influences in 90s indie music and J-Pop. There’s even post-rock influenced sections like the beautiful tremolos on “Goodbye Milu.” Chinese Football loves their arpeggiated guitars sections like any good midwest emo band but it’s clear that a lot of their influence is also pulled from math rock. The vocals are often wandering, utilized as a secondary instrument to the guitar. The lyrics are repetitive and drift off aimlessly at times but underscore the feelings of nostalgia and youth. The polyrhythmic guitars take on the majority of the work as they glide effortlessly throughout the songs.

Chinese Football occupies a space here because they represent how the Internet age has allowed artists and bands to blossom in the 2010s. Despite creating music that has little relevance in their country, their prowess and skill allowed them to flourish online and build up a following. Not only that, but Chinese Football proved that genres transcend regional barriers and there are ways to blend your own experiences into the influences that you utilize. As they said in an interview: “Good music will survive. There are great bands that exist all the time, no matter new or old, waiting for you to discover.”

Must Listens: 400 metres, Goodbye Milu, Goalkeeper

42. Koi No Yokan — Deftones (2012)

The strange thing about Deftones albums is how much they grow on you over the years. Upon first listen, Koi No Yokan did not impress me. It seemed like they had failed to capture the magic of what they had done in White Pony. But over time, you begin to notice the small things within Koi No Yokan that make it truly incredible. Koi No Yokan is the most complete, seamless album that Deftones have ever made. Certainly, it is not a very influential album by any means. But Koi No Yokan manages to perfect the sound that Deftones had been working on in Saturday Night Wrist and Diamond Eyes.

The instrumentation is phenomenal and the songs flow into each other with ease. The emphasis on strong transitions is particularly important for a band like Deftones who not only ebb and flow between their heavy riffs and tender interludes but also combine them in certain passages. The warm, dreamy shoegaze sections bleed effortlessly into the pounding drums and melodic vocals. Synths take up a larger role in this album and the overall sound is much more atmospheric than its predecessors. Deftones retain the energy that made them great while showing restraint on the slower songs. Songs like “Leather” and “Swerve City” are blistering in their riffs while songs like “Entombed” and “Rosemary” slowly build up over time. This hybrid of sounds ensures that the songs complement each other and transition well. There is always an element of consistency across the album but the variety in atmosphere keeps things interesting. Koi No Yokan is the mastery of the sound that the Deftones had been building upon. There’s no doubt that this is one of alt-metal’s finest offerings.

Must Listens: Leathers, Entombed, Swerve City

41. Sunbather — Deafheaven (2013)

As blackgaze gained popularity throughout the 2010s, Deafheaven became the figurehead of the genre through the release of Sunbather. Though critically acclaimed, it drew heavy criticism from metal fans who felt the sound wasn’t kvlt enough, or the post-rock passages meandered too long, or the shrieking vocals were too unintelligible. Ultimately, a lot of these discussions about Sunbather’s genre are useless because it occupies a space by itself. Deafheaven has a unique approach to their sound that extends beyond black metal or post-rock. Certainly, there’s a lot of influence that they pull from different genres but their attention to small details and brilliant songwriting help create their own sound.

Deafheaven loves utilizing crushing guitars and pounding drums but also places a heavier emphasis on major-chord riffing. The result is a much more triumphant, hopeful sound than the typical minor-chord brutality that black metal is known for. Deafheaven also loves to contrast these dark, intense passages with winding, post-rock influenced sections of brightness. The contrast between the light and dark sections on the songs are brilliantly executed in their sequencing. They feel like natural progressions between one another as they modulate throughout the songs. There’s also little elements of influence from post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor through the spoken-word samples and piano sections. What really separates Deafheaven from their contemporaries, however, is the vocals from George Clarke. Barely intelligible for most of the album, the vocals carry all of Clarke’s emotion in a conduit, expressing all of his emotions at face value. The mixing for the vocals is masterful in their purposeful restraint in sound. Clarke is screaming his heart out in every song but it is never at the forefront of the song. Attempting to burst out but ultimately suppressed, Clarke is able to convey emotion in a restrained manner. It’s tortured but subdued, explosive yet fragile.

You probably won’t be able to make sense of the lyrics unless you read them online or something but they contain brilliant songwriting. Exploring themes of wealth inequality, existential crises, regret, and blame for his father’s absence, Clarke screaming has a lot more context within its lyrics. Particularly powerful is the last three minutes of “The Pecan Tree” where Clarke blames his father for his own failures. “I am my father’s son/I am no one/I cannot love/It’s in my blood”. Deafheaven isn’t set out to reinvent genres or create some sophisticated piece of art that’ll stand the test of time. They are simply passionate about their work and it is a showcase in how music can be freeing. Despite whatever grievances about elitism or aesthetics one might have, you cannot deny Deafheaven’s ability to put their full emotion and being into every song. The result is a beautiful record that feels wonderfully free: trusting the gut instinct of emotion before anything else.

Must Listens: Sunbather, Irresistible, The Pecan Tree

40. Piñata — Freddie Gibbs & Madlib (2014)

Compared to a lot of other albums on this list, Piñata is fairly straightforward. It’s not heavily influential nor is it very important in the grand scope of the 2010s. It’s just a very good album from a very good rapper working together with a very good producer. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib come from two different worlds in hip hop: one’s a gritty gangsta rapper and one’s a producer with unparalleled expertise in loop-digging samples. On paper, they certainly don’t match. And neither would be very good if they had compromised their sound. Instead, they opted for a vision that would be solid middle ground. Gibbs described Piñata as a “gangster Blaxploitation film on wax”. Filled with obscure chopped samples and old Blaxploitation film dialogue, Madlib fills the album with soulful jazz and funk-inspired keys. The production feels very typical for Madlib: samples that are chopped so tight they become pieces of a puzzle with cinematic, silky synths.

On the other side, Gibbs contrasts the smooth, jazzy production with grimy tales of hustling and tight wordplay. Recounting tales of drug dealing and cutthroat environments, Gibbs uses his skill in creating incredibly detailed narratives to form the nihilistic world in Piñata. Gibbs also shows off his adaptability here as he floats effortlessly atop the groundwork that Madlib has laid out. Madlib’s drums are rarely quantized completely meaning that there’s a human element in its sound that Gibbs has to constantly match. His baritone voice should feel out of place on the silky Madlib production but Gibbs will take less aggressive, introspective tempos to match certain songs. Madlib also reins in his eccentric flips to make sure that Gibbs will flow effortlessly throughout the album. Despite these minor compromises, neither loses their signature sound. The result is a perfect match for the concept that the pair have laid out. Gibb’s aggressive lyrics paint a portrait of a gangster lamenting his past against Madlib’s backdrop of jazzy soul.

Certainly, Piñata is a little rough around the edges compared to its 2019 follow-up Bandana. But there’s something unique about the charisma behind Piñata. Finding the balance between Gibb’s gangsta personality with Madlib’s left-field production isn’t easy but it connected beautifully on Piñata. Madlib’s versatility brought out a range of poignant moments in Gibbs’ rapping like on the heartbreak-filled “Deeper” or the introspective “Broken”. Both Madlib and Gibbs are precise in their execution: never relenting in their own sound, but adapting just enough for their diversities to come together in strength.

Must Listens: High, Shitsville, Broken

39. Virgins — Tim Hecker (2013)

There’s something inexplicable about certain emotions: fear, wonder, terror, mystique. No matter how hard you try, words often fail to capture the essence of their meanings. There’s something abstract about them that sometimes only sounds or sights can do them justice. On Virgins, Tim Hecker fully delves into these primal emotions creating a dense wall of cacophonies. The album is densely layered, full of terrifying drones entrenched by small glimmers of bliss. There’s an incredibly slow burn to Virgins which is guided by the ensembles and live instrumentation throughout. There’s something distinctly human about these sounds and the way they are naturally out of tune or out of time. The real haunting part about Virgins is when these organic sounds slowly distort and merge with the abyss underneath. There’s a certain intensity to it, something that’s scary about the beautiful instrumentation getting lost in the murky sound. Virgins conjure these abstract emotions and throws you face-first into the atmosphere it has created.

The album art on Virgins is a clear reference to the prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib. Though it’s a fruitless effort to uncover the ultimate significance behind the art and the song “Incense At Abu Ghraib”, we can infer Hecker’s intention. Virgins is terrifying in the sense that it allows a little glimmer of tranquility ever so often. Among the sheer chaos and violent walls of noise, there are moments of small respite. These bittersweet moments are few and in between but as a result, sound transcendental. But just as quickly, it’s taken away as we are plunged into the darkness once more. There’s a battle between beauty and violence but violence is consistently winning. That’s why Virgins is so disturbing. The violence is ever-consuming as whatever light we are hanging onto is ripped away. Though it’s terrifying, Virgins really allows us to take a look at the primal emotions that we can’t express properly with mere words. It’s a grim reminder about our base instincts and how sometimes even the brightest ray of hope can get extinguished.

Must Listens: Live Room, Black Refraction, Radiance

38. Worry — Jeff Rosenstock (2016)

“Laura said to me, ‘This decade’s gonna be fucked’”.

On Worry, Jeff Rosenstock finds himself in his mid-30s comfortable with his life but still clouded with anxieties and doubts. Sounding overwhelmed and exhausted at some points, Rosenstock examines economic inequality, police brutality, gentrification, adulthood, regrets, and love in the face of a deteriorating capitalist society. Hidden behind the cheery pop-punk instrumentals is a man filled with dread: the kind that haunts you and keeps you up late at night. As the album’s opener “We Begged 2 Explode” reaches its climax, Rosenstock screams “Won’t somebody fucking please come and save me?”. What do we do in the face of existential terror and the nagging feeling of inadequacy? It’s not like we’re gonna go out there and stop capitalism by ourselves. Worry is the feeling of looking at the world around you and wondering how you’re gonna survive the next few decades.

Worry is balanced nicely between the two intersections of pop and punk. The choruses are shout-out-loud, in your face, and anthemic. They’re upbeat to an infectious degree and will have you singing along in no time. “Festival Song” has Rosenstock screaming about the commercialization of music festivals while “To Be A Ghost…” finds Rosenstock angry at apologists of police brutality. When you reach the B side, however, the songs run through at a breakneck pace rarely lasting more than 1 or 2 minutes apiece. It’s chaotic, noisy, and explosive altogether. Among the confusion though, Rosenstock’s message starts to come through. At the end of “…While You’re Alive”, Rosenstock sings “ And it’s not like the love that they showed us on T.V/It’s a home that can burn/It’s a limb to freeze/It’s worry.”

At the end of the day, all these worries and feelings of anxiety aren’t quelled by sitting around and overthinking things. You need to find things and people that you care about and you have to hang on to these things in the worst of times. Love doesn’t have to be the warm, fuzzy feeling that we see on TV. It can be messy and anxiety-ridden, fearful of bad things that can happen to those you love. And of course, love is also about caring for others and worrying about them. The change that we need so badly within society really starts from within all of us: from our capacity to love and worry about the people important to us.

Must Listens: Festival Song, Pash Rash, We Begged 2 Explode

37. Southeastern — Jason Isbell (2013)

For the most part, Jason Isbell’s first few years after leaving the Drive-By Truckers were underwhelming. He had a knack for songwriting but it never seemed to connect on his solo albums. During this time, he had gone through a divorce and turned to alcohol and cocaine. In 2012, he entered rehab finally and began writing Southeastern. Southeastern is an incredible body of work that’s deeply gripping and personal. Centered around substance abuse, life experiences, and regrets, the album explores the difficult topics in life, the ones that don’t always have an answer.

Southeastern is a fairly straightforward singer-songwriter album. Isbell and his guitar are the main focus although some members of his backing band, the 400 Unit, appear from time to time. Balanced between Americana and country, Southeastern sounds no different from most of Isbell’s previous work. However, his songwriting ability starts to shine through again. His skill in creating character songs is on full display here as he weaves bittersweet narratives about life. The centerpiece of the album, “Elephant”, is a moving tale about a man who sees his friend dying of cancer unable to do anything meaningful. It’s a topic that’s been done thousands of times before but Isbell creates a tale that’s so tragically real. The woman in the song is nearing the end of her life and can’t even manage to make the jokes about her sickness that she used to do. Isbell examines our desperation to help others despite the futility in the face of death.

There are beautiful moments throughout the album where you can really see the importance of this record to Isbell. It’s a shift in his personal journey as he changes over from one phase to another. His smoky voice going up and down registers is a reminder of both the pain he’s endured and the growth he’s experienced. Southeastern provides solace in its listeners, making sure that we have hope despite life’s difficult questions. Learning how to cope with tragedy or being able to pick up the pieces when everything goes wrong is inevitable. Isbell wants you to know that he’s lived it and you’re not alone.

Must Listens: Cover Me Up, Elephant, Relatively Easy

36. Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time — Candy Claws (2013)

Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time is like taking a morning walk through a rainforest. There’s a very dense sound that envelopes you but at the same time, the dream-pop melodies and sunny vocals shine through the canopy. There’s an element of childhood and naivety in its sound: playful and imaginative like how we would envision fairytales as kids. Loosely conceptual, the album is about a girl and her seal companion traveling through deep time (the Mesozoic era) attempting to return home to their own timeline. The album feels like a companion piece to this adventure documenting the feelings of magic and wonder that the pair experience. It’s full of tropical lushness and a sense of adventure.

One of the cool things that Candy Claws does here is their decision to emphasize vocals a bit more than other shoegaze artists normally would. Despite taking a backseat to the overall instrumentation still, they manage to shine through brightly on the songs. Less noisy than a lot of their shoegaze counterparts, Candy Claws draws more on the twee/dream pop sound to bring about their charm rather than rely on effects. The result is warm, gentle vocals that feel airy and float atop the instrumentation rather than becoming blended underneath them. There’s also meticulous attention to detail in the songs. The album retains its dream pop/shoegaze sound for the entire runtime but isn’t afraid to add unique splashes of outside influences. From the eerie woodwinds on “Night Ela”, to the tropical marimbas on “Birth of a Flower” to the Latin guitar riffs on “Fallen Tree Bridge”, Candy Claws is ambitious in how they create their melodies. The result is successful, creating a vibrant and esoteric atmosphere for the album’s concept. Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time is an incredible journey through seas of lush nature driving home the sense of wonder in all of us.

Must Listens: White Seal (Shell & Spine), Fallen Tree Bridge (Brave Rainbow Rider), Night Ela (Mystic Thing)

35. Winter’s Gate — Insomnium (2016)

I think melodeath is one of those genres that you really have to create an engaging narrative or concept along with your music. What you do in the downtime between the riffs and growling during the more atmospheric sections of a song will really make or break the album. Insomnium steps it up in this department releasing a short story to go along with the album. Conceptually revolving around a group of Vikings who seek to find an island before the dangerous winter sets in, the story matches up well with the album itself. Usually, a lot of bands will falter here. Ambition in an epic tale is certainly exciting but it also needs to be concise and create a narrative in tandem with the album. Too many concepts become corny, boring or stray too far from the album itself. Insomnium nails it here too: the story is a compelling narrative about hope against seemingly insurmountable odds and powerlessness in the face of fate.

The sounds match up beautifully with the story at points. You can hear little elements of Scandinavian folk which helps portray the setting of Vikings being lost at sea. The sound effect of thunder cracking through the sky gives listeners the same sense of fear that the Vikings are feeling. The bells that chime along with acoustic piano play into the howling winds blowing up snowstorms. The end product is an immersive experience: you feel like you’re right there in the journey to find the island with the Vikings. The prog-inspired riffs and long solo passages contrasted by the soft, acoustic ballads are a great representation of both fear and hope that the Vikings experience. You can feel the moments when they charge into battle as clearly as you can feel the quiet moments of self-reflection. There are orchestral and choir performances scattered throughout as well which gradually ramps out the climax of certain songs. The crescendos that swell from these moments are truly incredible as they hurtle towards the grand finale. It’s shocking how Insomnium pulled out such a great album this late into their career. Instead of following the blueprint they had set down on their previous records, they opted for a concept album that is much more ambitious and exciting than what anyone could have anticipated.

Must Listens: Listen to the whole thing

34. Liumin — Deepchord Presents Echospace (2010)

Liumin captures the essence of nightlife in a city perfectly. The rolling rhythms are hypnotic as they pulse along and melt away into one another. The field recordings that are captured from Tokyo breathe life into the ever-evolving basslines. Echospace’s Rod Modell and Stephen Hitchell bring about a new sound of dub techno in Liumin, one that builds upon their work from their 2007 release, The Coldest Season. Liumin is similar in its minimal aesthetics and mutating nature but features a much warmer sound. The pounding basslines are drenched in reverb and a humid, dense atmosphere. It’s the feeling of getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of a city at night and this unique sensation is underlined by the ambient voices, subway noises, and distant winds.

This album is intriguing in the sense that there is always more underneath the surface. At a cursory listen, it’s long-winded and doesn’t seem much more than an atmospheric take on dance music. But it’s easier to pick up on the details if you envision the album as the representation of a city. Certainly, the people and structures within it are interesting but when you look at the bigger picture, the city as a whole, that’s when it comes together. This city is dynamically breathing: its blur of nightlife and quiet ambiance give it a life of its own. It’s obviously clear that most of the sounds are computer-generated yet there’s an organic, human feeling that cannot be denied. The kick drums that were so prevalent on The Coldest Season have faded into something much more subtle. Melodic loops take a much larger role here as they rest on top of the songs. These small changes in sound give more emphasis on the organic feel of the album. As Echospace shift toward more melodic intuitions, Liumin truly starts to feel like the sounds you would hear in a city at night.

When it was first released in 2010, Liumin was a very different approach to minimal techno and dub. It was such a drastic change from The Coldest Season in its laser-like focus on ambiance and people found it boring or uninspired. But the beauty of Liumin is in its sound design. Echospace have constructed a living, breathing soundscape, one that starts and finishes with the album. Liumin is certainly enjoyable as pieces to a puzzle: “Maglev” features an incredibly hypnotic loop that slowly unravels at the halfway point. “Firefly” contains gorgeous synths that vibrate to a constant beeping tone. But when you combine everything together, you can see how much effort was put into the overall sound design. The transitions between songs are so smooth and feel like natural transformations of each other. The natural flow of this album is what separates it from others in the minimal techno genre. All concepts are direct, evolving extensions of one another. As you breathe in the sounds of the city, you have never felt more alive.

Must Listens: Maglev, Firefly, Bcn Dub

33. Puberty 2 — Mitski (2016)

Everyone dreads their 20s. For every depressed millennial and zoomer on Twitter, there are a billion tweets about how life sucks, how no one has figured out life, and how impossible it is to navigate your 20s. You’re mixed up with emotions of happiness, sadness, loneliness, love, anxiety, and everything in between. You stumble home drunk at 7 am some nights and go to work at 7 am some days. Everything is just a mess of emotions, confusion, and angst and you slowly realize that you’re reliving your teen years but with more money. Mitski knows this feeling well as she examines herself with brutal honesty. Over the 11 tracks on Puberty 2, Mitski tries to come to terms with failed relationships, aging, existentialism, racial identity, and depression.

The tracks convey a sense of dread as Mitski is unable to figure out how to overcome each of the problems they present. On “I Bet on Losing Dogs”, she outlines her struggles in dating someone with depression. She finds herself in a pattern of trying to save broken people to no avail. On “Your Best American Girl”, she finds a relationship that gives her joy but ultimately, their backgrounds got in the way. There seems to be a tragedy in whatever happiness Mitski is able to find which only makes her feel more lost. Whatever feelings you thought you had buried in your teen years come flooding back as Mitski’s urgent voice conveys her deep fears. And sometimes, the distorted guitars take it up a notch and Mitski starts lamenting about how out of control everything is. It’s here where Puberty 2 strikes the hardest. Uncertain but full of emotion, she tries to take it one step at a time with the looming sense of dread in the background. There’s pain and anxiety but worst of all, there’s no definitive answer to all your worries.

By the time the climax of the album “A Burning Hill” comes on, all that’s left is exhaustion. As Mitski attempts to start anew with no idea of what the future holds, she attempts to fill the void by putting on a facade of being okay. She murmurs that she will appreciate the smaller things in life but she only feels hollow. At the end of it all, uncertainty still clouds all of us. There’s a crushing resignation in losing your innocence but it’s only amplified by our uncertainty about the future. It’s an incredible examination of what makes early adulthood so painful but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. With her gorgeous voice, Mitski guides us to the end only to leave us wondering where to go from here.

Must Listens: Your Best American Girl, My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars, Happy

32. Malibu — Anderson .Paak (2016)

I first found out about Anderson .Paak years ago. Back when YouTube was still a popular platform for underground musicians, a guy named Breezy Lovejoy was gaining momentum. Affiliated with Hellfyre Club, Project Blowed, Knocksteady, and OBE, Breezy Lovejoy frequently appeared in collaborations with established underground artists like Dumbfoundead, Watsky, and Wax. After changing his name to Anderson .Paak in 2014, he released his debut album in 2014 and was noticed by Dr. Dre who would feature .Paak prominently on Compton. The rest, of course, is history but looking back at the decade and .Paak’s discography, it’s obvious that his success is born out of hard work and dedication. On Malibu, you can see the evolution of Anderson .Paak’s musicianship in action. Known for his angelic voice and bright, charismatic raps, he takes the formula he’s honed over the years to new heights on Malibu.

To bring out .Paak’s true appeal, you really have to set an atmosphere that matches his nonstop charisma. Venice was mostly produced by Lo_Def and .Paak himself which had a fun, summery vibe. But as soon as you hit play on Malibu, you can tell this is the project that .Paak has envisioned since the start. With beautiful production from guys like Madlib, 9th Wonder, Kaytranada, Like, and DJ Khalil, his artistic vision becomes fully recognized. Malibu is full of warm, mellow percussion that sways seductively along with the summery synths and .Paak’s mesmerizing voice. As early as his Breezy Lovejoy days, he’s favored these mellow tones and easygoing drums. Yet, you can also tell that the sound is incomplete in some ways. They don’t always fit the high registers that he hits effortlessly and sometimes fade to obscurity when he starts rapping. On Malibu, it finally feels as if the production and .Paak are one, blending in neo-soul, hip hop, jazz, and RnB with ease. The distinctive influences that .Paak pulls from naturally morph into his own style as he showcases his charisma and versatility.

Moreover, .Paak improves his melodic inclinations and direction on Malibu. Every song flows naturally into the next like an ocean breeze. Effortless and smooth, .Paak navigates the album with total freedom: flexing his creativity as he chooses. His timbre and range in his voice allow him to play with unique melodies and explore new sounds. Reminiscing about his struggles growing up and breaking out in the music industry, .Paak explores themes of family, youth, and success throughout the album. .Paak didn’t have it easy at the beginning of his career: he didn’t move to LA until he was 25 and ended up being homeless briefly with his wife and son. Through dedication and hard work at his craft, .Paak managed to achieve success and Malibu is a reflection of that. The album is a culmination of everything .Paak has worked on since he first started his career and is a heartwarming snapshot of what it means to finally reach your dreams. Absolutely dazzling in its elegance and lush sounds, Malibu is a celebration for Anderson .Paak and is where he finally finds his true voice.

Must Listens: The Bird, Am I Wrong, Celebrate

31. Monster — Future (2014)

Monster marks a shift in how the trap sound evolved in the mid-2010s. Executive produced by Metro Boomin’, the tape takes a far darker turn than its contemporaries and allows Future to lean into the persona of a spiraling drug addict. Balanced between reckless hedonism and emotional devastation, Future finds himself denying his emotions as he gets consumed by heartbreak, gang violence, drug addiction, and success. Metro, TM-88, and Southside’s production style on Monster places an emphasis on hollow beats with snappy 808s laid upon gritty snares. The gooey, hazy synths play heavily into Future’s drug-induced introspection. This would slowly pave the way for more psychedelic, hazy sounds that dominated trap in the latter half of the 2010s. The empty space allows Future to switch from aggressive nihilism to his vulnerable moments of pain with ease. The concept of the mixtape itself revolves around these shreds of humanity: the media, fame, and past relationships had turned him into a monster against his will.

Denial of his vulnerability slowly morphs into anger only to crumble away again in face of sorrow. “Throw Away” is a 2 minute hedonistic spiral of using women for sex before the beat switches as he breaks down reminiscing over an old lover. It’s a stark contrast to the utter bravado he had for the first half of the song. “Codeine Crazy” explores how Future distracts himself with luxury, sex, and drugs only to have his demons catch up eventually. Topped off by the haunting line “I’m an addict and I can’t even hide it”, it’s a perfect showcase of Future’s humanity hidden under the sea of indulgence. Monster takes the gritty, dark atmosphere of trap but laces it with a touch of vulnerability. Future realizes that his invincibility is only a facade and the wall that he has put up is slowly crumbling to dust. As his voice cracks and slowly disintegrates, Future explores themes that are rarely touched upon in trap music. The small hints of emotional instability and weakness expose the cracks in his armor: his self-indulgence has ultimately led to his downfall as well. He lives with detached sentimentality but at the cost of his own happiness.

Future would eventually double down on his pop-rap sound as he morphed his vulnerable side into R&B hooks and love ballads on projects like HNDRXX. The gritty, raw trap sound found in Monster transformed into polished, crisp bangers on DS2 and FUTUREMonster stands as his sole project that balances both sides of Future Hendrix in such a definitive way. The way that he humanized the murky, darkness of trap is extraordinary and pushed the genre into new territory. Though other rappers would continue to take inspiration from Future in his willingness to portray vulnerability, rarely does any project feel as genuine as Monster. There is no aspect of the emotional instability that feels forced or corny. Though he is oftentimes angry, petty, or cruel on Monster, he also never hesitates to be emotionally open about his shortcomings. Monster was proof of Future’s versatility as an artist and propelled him into a pantheon of his own.

Must Listens: My Savages, Codeine Crazy, Throw Away

30. Bon Iver — Bon Iver (2011)

Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago, captured the anguish of a man who had been battered by heartbreak and a liver infection forcing him to retreat to a cabin in the woods. In isolation, Justin Vernon poured his soul into the record in an attempt to process his feelings. The end result was a sentimental yet icy sound of loneliness. It was as if Vernon had disappeared into the forest for months and let nature run its course. The gorgeous world he had created in tandem with his isolation was a sight to behold. Eventually though, Vernon would have to leave the woods and come back to society. Bon Iver would be the image of that man stepping out, grizzled and worn, but into a new day.

Just from the album cover alone, we can tell that a new kind of hope and inspiration has taken place. Where the cover for For Emma, Forever Ago was a grayscale portrait of an ice-covered window looking into the woods, Bon Iver features a colorful, oil painting of a lush forest. Using the falsetto he had cultivated on the debut, Vernon sings with renewed confidence, more attuned to the beauty of the world. If For Emma, Forever Ago was the passing of a desolate, bleak winter, Bon Iver is when the sun rises on the half-melted snow of early spring. “Never gonna break, never gonna break” he sings on “Minnesota, WI”, marveling at his growth.

Vernon has stepped up his arrangements tremendously on Bon Iver. All of the little moments serve as an accompaniment to his powerful voice. The autotune, bright synths, and orchestral elements all serve to prop up Vernon’s voice as an instrument. Featuring ever-changing melodies and lovely dynamics, his voice swells and contracts as he dances atop the melancholic instrumentation. He layers everything together like a choir: echoing vocals merge into a full, elaborate sound. Over time, the songs blossom from the quiet beginnings into a mighty apex. What separates Bon Iver apart is their ability to create these intimate moments on a record. Wherever their songs go, there is a feeling of being connected to Vernon’s falsetto, a lingering tenderness, and familiarity. Nothing makes me feel quite at peace like this record.

Must Listens: Holocene, Towers, Calgary

29. A.I.A: Alien Observer — Grouper (2011)

Isolation is a big theme in many works of art today. That gnawing feeling of loneliness often eats away at us, especially during the night. Alien Observer is a unique approach to the theme of loneliness. Grouper is different from a lot of ambient artists in that her vocals are a key aspect of her songs. They work in tandem with the rest of the instrumentation and synths to create a dreamy sound rather than being placed underneath. This method often gives her songs pop structures and recognizable melodies. For Alien Observer, this is an important element to the way the album portrays loneliness.

As we reached the crux of the digital age, we have noticed how isolating and alienated we feel from society. We seek out comfort in hopes that it’ll minimize these feelings and sometimes this comfort is characterized through nostalgia. Having recognizable and familiar emotions give us comfort in our loneliness. Grouper portrays these elements of nostalgia beautifully: giving us vocals that make us yearn for our past despite having the instrumentation sound foreign. There’s something deeply comforting about her distorted voice shifting against the backdrop of cosmic reverb and spacey chords.

Alien Observer captures the feelings of wonder we had when we used to stare off into the night sky. The gentle piano which sways along with crescendos and decrescendos is easy to immerse yourself in. The delays and reverb which cover the chords often trail off or cover the sound in a shrouded mist. Each element of the instrumentation is purposeful in drawing out those feelings of both isolation and comfort. Grouper’s melodies are often basic chords and simple melodies which slowly morph together to create a wall of sound that is lush and alive. Over time, we see this shift of isolation into a brighter, more hopeful sound.

As each song progresses, Grouper’s vocals become the illumination that guides us away from those feelings of solitude. It feels like you’re drifting alone in space and seeing the distant stars give you a sense of comfort and homesickness. These small illuminations are swallowed by the vast expanse of space but also act as small beacons of comfort. Grouper understands how vocals can act as something that’s nostalgic and comforting even without needing explicit lyrics or focused melodies. Just humming along under the reverb is enough to evoke emotions in listeners. Alien Observer is stunning in its ability to draw out our feelings of loneliness and immerse those feelings with warmth and comfort.

Must Listens: Moon Is Sharp, Vapor Trails, Alien Observer

28. Immunity — Jon Hopkins (2013)

Jon Hopkins has the incredible ability to breathe life into digital sounds. A classically trained pianist, Hopkins is able to make synths sound organic and lifelike. Taking influence from Brian Eno, Hopkins will sometimes forego a synth completely and heavily process a piano key instead. Immunity is often viewed as a two arc narrative: the first, heavier half represents going out at night while the lighter, second half represents the comedown afterward. Despite such a simple concept, Immunity excels in weaving a compelling narrative within its mechanical sounds.

The first four tracks of Immunity are full of lively, evocative sounds as it shuffles along. Every beat has a purpose to it, giving it a warm feeling of being alive. The glitches, pounding basslines, and reverb all sound organic in the way they shift among each other. Hopkins is able to manipulate the sounds in a way that plays on our senses. Each small modulation to the synths is carefully designed to bring out some sort of reaction: tapping your feet, nodding your head, or humming. As each song transforms over time and grows upon its initial motif, we can’t help but associate our own experiences with it. Whether it’s reminiscent of a night out, dancing in the club, or moving through a city, you inevitably get caught up in Immunity’s humanity.

The track “Abandon Window” changes the pace of the album by gravitating towards a piano-based ambient sound. The second half is undoubtedly quieter and calmer as we find solace in a night of chaos. The tracks on the second half of Immunity play with our emotions rather than our senses. The emphasis on piano sections and softer basslines give way to memories and feelings. Again, there’s a tactile element to these sounds. You can feel the piano hammering at each key and the earthly synths feel alive as they progress the song. Hopkins has managed to build this deeply engaging narrative off of manipulating the textures in his sounds. The pulsating rhythms are almost human in the unique ways they are crafted. Immunity is a masterful display of how electronic music can be visceral and emotive despite notions to the contrary.

Must Listens: We Disappear, Abandon Window, Sun Harmonics

27. Mista Thug Isolation — Lil Ugly Mane (2012)

Alright, I’m sure Lil Ugly Mane deserves some award for the strangest music career trajectory of the 2010s. Imagine being some harsh noise artist from Virginia, taking a bunch of influences from Memphis rap, and then making your own rap album complete with absurd, Three 6 Mafia-esque lyrics. At its core, Mista Thug Isolation is just a homage to the gritty, sinister 90s sound of Memphis rap with a cover slapped on that’s straight from da share z0ne. So what exactly explains this cult-like status that Mista Thug Isolation has retained over the years?

Of course, one cannot have a Memphis rap album without the dark, twisted production, and here’s where Ugly Mane shines. The nightmarish production is highlighted by the harsh noise opener and never relents until the end. Full of bleak synths, drowsy chopped n’ screwed samples, and menacing drums, Mista Thug Isolation is clear on the influences it takes from. Yet at the same time, Ugly Mane throws enough creativity into the production to keep things fresh. His ability to take even the most obscure samples and create a melody out of them is masterful. Add in some smooth, jazzy saxophones or some creepy violin sections and it suddenly sounds like a unique take on a familiar sound. Ugly Mane’s song structure is also different from traditional rap songs. Instead of having a chorus follow a verse and rinse-repeat, the choruses sometimes follow up with samples or the verse might start without warning. This allows plenty of room to include beat switches or sample cuts to ensure the ominous sound never follows a set trajectory.

Though the production is the highlight of Mista Thug Isolation, his ability to adapt to each song is also impressive. The energy found on songs like “Wishmaster” showcases Ugly Mane at his most menacing while he also slows down his flow on songs like “Breeze Em Out” to match the hazy production. Matching the pace of whatever song he’s on means that he has total control at all times. Another important element is his innate charisma. The lyrics are purposely absurd, full of sexual innuendos, and malicious to an extreme degree. However, the way Ugly Mane is so serious with his delivery is what sells each line. He plays into the braggadocio persona perfectly, exaggerating his voice with pitch shifts and constantly trying to outdo his own outlandish lyrics. Mista Thug Isolation is a perfect example of how to take a genre but push the sound to create something new. There’s no doubt in its influences but the charismatic delivery and distinctive production give it a life of its own.

Must Listens: Radiation (Lung Pollution), Serious Shit, Wishmaster

26. Deliverance — Culprate (2014)

Sometimes, there’s an album that comes along and it is so grand in its ambition and scope that it feels impossible to digest. Every idea under the sun gets stuck in and if the artist isn’t careful, it just ends up as an incohesive mess. To derive a central theme from all the sounds is difficult and takes skill to manipulate. However, Culprate does just that on his 2014 album, Deliverance. Deliverance is a trippy, psychedelic project that blends unique sounds and influences from IDM, trip-hop, jazz, glitch-hop, and even folktronica to create a wholly unique experience. As Culprate says: “It’s a reflection of what I listen to like Amon Tobin and Squarepusher. Everything comes from somewhere. Whether you’re conscious of it or not is another thing but this is what comes the most naturally to me.” Despite garnering attention as a dubstep artist, Deliverance is a different direction in sound than what most are used to from Culprate. You can tell that this is the album that he has wanted to make: a labor of love and an homage to all the influences that have inspired him.

The best thing about Deliverance is that you never know what to expect as you follow along with the album’s twists and turns. The intro track “Whispers, Pt. 1” starts with gentle, pitch-shifted vocals that fade slowly into jazzy guitars and glitchy synths. Everything blends together slowly and everything feels like natural extensions of the songs. Is that a saxophone you just heard? Where did the ukulele sound that you heard just disappear to? Is the string section real or done through a computer? Are the wonky synths the same ones you heard from the previous song or have they morphed? The construction of the songs and their themes are so tight that everything just feels like a natural progression rather than force-fed ideas. You can hear where Culprate pulled his influences from but because the overall sound is so unique, it feels like it has evolved to a life of its own.

The amalgamation of sounds, both acoustic and digital, is done so well that it’s hard to tell where one stops and where one begins. Each element is key to creating the individual sound of the song but they are all meshed in perfectly rather than having one aspect stand out. There’s something so innovative and unique in the sound that Culprate is able to form on Deliverance. Electronic music can be one of the most daring and innovative genres in music if one has the ambition to push the envelope. Deliverance is a perfect example of how that ambition can be actualized in a cohesive way.

Must Listens: Whispers, Pt. 1, The Memoirs of Gregory Otterman, Without

25. An Empty Bliss Beyond This World — The Caretaker (2011)

Back in 1999, ambient artist James Leyland Kirby adopted The Caretaker moniker for an album called Selected Memories From the Haunted Ballroom. Using old 30s ballroom pop recordings, Kirby created a terrifying atmosphere based around the haunted ballroom scene from The Shining. Throughout the years, Kirby’s work as The Caretaker has revolved around the concept of Alzheimer’s and memory loss. Old-timey samples are distorted into harrowing noises as the character descends slowly into dementia. On An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Kirby focuses on the mind of a person struggling to remember his past through broken sounds. Containing a large number of Dixieland-era jazz samples and swing music, Kirby bases this album around a study of Alzheimer’s patients and their ability to recall music from their youth and the feelings associated with the songs.

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World starts slowly, crackling with ballroom samples, stuttering stops and starts, and a deep echo as if we’re listening to the music underwater. The easiest comparison to draw is from the aesthetics of the Bioshock series. However, there’s something immediately unsettling about how out-of-reach the music sounds. It feels as if the foggy noise swallowing the jazz samples is meant to invoke forgetfulness. Akin to blurry photographs or dusty letters, there’s an element of uncertainty as if whatever is unintelligible relies on your own narrative. Each melody loops in a recurring motif as if to imply difficulty in recalling its content. Cleverly, Kirby even manages to squeeze different tracks under the same name forcing us to question whether we’ve heard the songs before.

Unlike Kirby’s other work under The Caretaker name, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World rarely gets claustrophobic or horrifying. The scary part of this album is the pauses within the music as the character attempts to desperately recall the note in the song playing. As the music fades from time to time, there are garbled voices and noises in the far distance. Verging on the thin line between sanity and insanity, life or death, we’re never really sure if what we hear is something new or is simply deja vu. As we get jolted back and forth between new and recurring noises, we understand the end is inevitable but can never pinpoint when it will happen. The happiness and cheerful sounds of the ballroom samples only eventually give away to static. It’s a chilling narrative about how terrifying Alzheimer’s is and how it is completely out of your control. Everything slowly spirals into a blur and the only thing you understand clearly is that an inevitable end is coming. You can only hold on to whatever these cloudy memories made you feel. Nothing else is guaranteed.

Must Listens: All You Are Going to Want to Do Is Get Back There, Camaraderie at Arms Length, Libet’s Delay

24. The ArchAndroid — Janelle Monae (2010)

I mean if you wanted to see what the most ambitious album of the 2010s is, I think Janelle Monae has got you covered with The ArchAndroid. Serving as the follow-up to Monae’s debut EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite, The ArchAndroid consists of the second and third parts to the Metropolis concept story. The story revolves around Monae playing the part of an android named Cyndi Mayweather who becomes a godlike figure to the citizens of the futuristic town, Metropolis. Borrowing elements of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, Monae examines themes of prejudice and class in this futuristic dystopian setting. The ArchAndroid pulls out all stops in the effects and instrumentals in order to create a true cinematic feeling. The swelling orchestras with the triumphant horns and smooth strings guide the narrative along. It’s mixed with utmost precision: the opulent instrumentation feels like it could be the soundtrack to a Disney movie. Little flairs are sprinkled throughout: a bass lick here and there, some turntable scratches, blistering guitar solos, and ethereal bells all help the grandiose sound.

The overarching narrative is seamlessly merged together with the album. There are interludes and overtures when Monae doesn’t appear at all in order to signal a change in the story. When she does come back, it’s often with great fanfare as if she has taken the stage in the movie doing the part of a character song. These songs like “Cold War” or “Tightrope” are upbeat, fun, and feature catchy hooks that showcase Monae’s pop sensibilities. A key element to how The ArchAndroid succeeds in its ambition is the effortless combination of genres and influences. Monae pulls from RnB, pop, soul, psychedelia, jazz, hip hop, and funk but it all blends with the overarching narrative. There’s no part of these different sounds which feels forced or out of place. They all naturally play into the story as it changes “scene to scene”. It’s as if every song has its own story arc within the album itself. As we progress throughout each song, it feels like we’re watching the narrative progress as well.

The sheer detail and care that is placed into the concept is exhilarating. Every minute detail exists for a reason and the scope involved is immense. As you continue to traverse the 18 song epic, you keep wondering when the album will collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Yet as the album continues, as incredulous as it might be, it never ends up in the mess you think it will. And by the time the final track has rolled around, you buy into her ambition as well. The ArchAndroid is a masterwork of what every concept album should strive to be. Monae takes every risk possible on this album and there is not a single moment where it doesn’t pay off. Genre-defying and an incredible showcase of Monae’s musical range, The ArchAndroid is what pop should sound like at its best.

Must Listens: Cold War, Tightrope, 57821

23. Tha Tour Part 1 — Rich Gang (2014)

In the long lineage of hip hop duos over the years, the ones that stand out the most not only have chemistry but strike a balance between each other. Outkast, UGK, Clipse, Mobb Deep, Little Brother, and more all have the element of dualism that balances each other on every song. This yin yang effect not only gives each member a distinct personality but also ensures they bounce off each other and feed into the others’ energy. In 2014, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan would solidify themselves as one of rap’s greatest duos when they released their mixtape, Tha Tour Part 1. The pair had already linked up earlier that year on the brilliant single “Lifestyle” but to expect a mixtape that was nearly an hour and a half long to hold up seemed far-fetched. Yet against all expectations, this 20 track mixtape exceeded in every way.

What enables Thug and Quan to float effortlessly throughout the runtime is their chemistry and their deep understanding of melodies. Thug is consistently contorting and stretching his voice to new melodic heights while Quan’s stone-cold hooks and adaptability keep the songs grounded. Their chemistry is undeniable as they go back and forth with one another throughout the mixtape. Importantly, producer London on da Track’s ability to create energetic, bright beats for the pair to glide over cannot be understated. Back in 2014, the term “pop trap” seemed like an oxymoron but pushing Thug and Quan’s melodic intuitions to the limit seemed effortless with the extravagant production. In most cases, the moments of absurdity littered throughout the mixtape might be too much. The ad-libs are basically yelps or screeches. Birdman doing yet another monologue about luxury and gold toilets. Questionable lines like “Baby girl spoiled and she spoileder than milk” followed immediately by lyrical brilliance in “She gon’ look over these bitches like terms and conditions”. Thug is constantly teetering on the line between complete absurdity or absolute brilliance. But these moments add to the charm of the mixtape. Any moment that is too out of place is leveled out by its own quirk, ensuring that whatever crazy noise is coming from Thug or Quan is what should be the norm.

As we know, Thug and Quan eventually fell out with one another and it’s unlikely that they will ever make music together again. Despite the projects they have put out since, nothing ever seems to capture the magic of Tha Tour Part 1. Everything came together at a perfect time to encapsulate this decade’s best hip-hop duo into a brilliant mixtape. A true definition of lightning in a bottle, Tha Tour Part 1 is still unmatched in its melodic creativity and pure chemistry between Thug and Quan.

Must Listens: Tell Em (Lies), Givenchy, Flava, 730

22. Die Lit — Playboi Carti (2018)

There’s something so effortless about Carti’s rapping that it often feels like a fluke. Does he understand the brilliance behind his approach to rapping? Is there a purpose in the way he’s utilizing the spacing in between his lyrics? Is he just doing whatever sounds good? How does he make it seem so simple yet no one can seem to replicate his sound? On Die Lit, Carti’s debut studio album, Carti brings the same twitchy, repetitive rapping that he used on his self-titled mixtape. Constantly teetering between the edges of addictive and obnoxious, Carti once again lays the groundwork for the most chaotic yet charismatic sound in rap today.

Pierre Bourne is a large reason why Die Lit works as well as it does. The 26 year old producer enables the empty spaces in Carti’s rapping to shine through. Every time Carti takes a pause in rapping, the beat lingers long enough to float slightly and builds a small moment of suspense before Carti launches back into another quick stream of words. Full of silky synths, chiptune sounds, and springy drums, the beats cycle continuously as Carti fills in gaps with bouncy ad-libs. The Carti and Pierre Bourne duo is filled with chemistry and they elevate each other to greater heights on Die Lit.

Importantly, the features never seem to detract from the vision of the album. Chief Keef comes in with a phenomenal feature, Uzi and Carti bounce off each other like on *wokeuplikethis, and there’s a lot of fun listening to the sounds that Young Thug and Carti make together. On Die Lit, Carti experiments more with contorting his voice and constantly tests the boundaries of what sounds good. Whether it’s ad-libbing “pew pew pews” or mashing words together, Carti seems to just throw in all the ideas he has in any given song. Yet it never fails as it grounds itself on the sheer force of Carti’s charisma. Die Lit proves that Carti’s debut mixtape was not a fluke. Carti has mastered a catchy, minimalist approach in such a unique way that it feels like a breath of fresh air compared to his contemporaries.

Must Listens: FlatBed Freestyle, Long Time, Mileage

21. Blackstar — David Bowie (2016)

It’s only fitting that one of the greatest musicians to ever live goes out with an album like Blackstar. In a career that spanned across five decades, David Bowie continuously adapted to new genres and sounds with ease. Creating incredible personas and concepts out of his albums, Bowie changed the landscape of pop music as we know it. His stagecraft, visual presentation, and sheer ambition permeated every aspect of music from pioneering glam rock, to influencing punk, to altering the sound of rock as know it. The mark that he has left on music is eternal and closing it with Blackstar is a perfect epilogue to his illustrious career. On Blackstar, he comes to terms with his impending death, and underneath all the dazzling lights, we see a glimpse of the real David Bowie. Certainly, it’s a new experimental sound that differs from his previous albums. The lyrics are vague and abstract and contain no sense of a narrative. Yet, undeniably, as Bowie’s low and thick voice rests gently atop the songs, there is a sense of freedom. This is a man unburdened by pressure and the need to impress. It’s a reflection of his art, a final farewell gift.

Blackstar took a new approach to sound compared to many of his previous works. His producer Tony Visconti had stated that the goal was to create something unique, removed from the genre he was known for. Inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and its deviation from typical hip-hopBowie wanted to have a little bit of everything so that it was far removed from typical rock music. Indeed, the sound of Blackstar leans heavily towards a jazz sound: full of saxophones, tight drum work, and flourishes of flutes. It’s melancholic in nature as Bowie appears to grapple with his inevitable death. Wistful on “Dollar Days”, Bowie contemplates his successes and regrets, assures his fans are appreciated, and yearns for the nostalgic British countryside. It’s morbid considering the circumstances but it’s liberating for Bowie to end his career in a way he sees fit.

I’ve always wondered what would be better: to die unexpectedly so you don’t have to come to terms with your mortality or to know when you die so you can give your last goodbyes. Bowie seemed to prefer the latter: his imminent death inspired this album to serve as a farewell. Despite whatever philosophical sentiments he had about death, he came to terms with it and ended his career on this breathtaking finale. No other musician lived and breathed their art quite like Bowie; it’s only fitting that Blackstar is the album that serves as the final chapter in his eminent career.

Must Listens: Lazarus, Dollar Days, Girl Loves Me

20. Melodrama — Lorde (2017)

In the early 2010s, pop music entered a transitory phase from the party anthems of the late 2000s. Where Ke$ha, Black Eyed Peas, Flo Rida, and others had ruled the latter end of the 2000s with club-oriented music about partying all night, the early 2010s brought indie-inspired artists like Adele and Gotye to the forefront lamenting about relationships and heartbreak. This transition phase of pop allowed room for artists like Lorde to explode. On her debut album Pure Heroine, she captures the phase between your teenage years to adulthood masterfully. The fear of the unknown, the knowledge that your life will change irreversibly, the yearning for the days of youth when there were no responsibilities: everything is perfectly articulated by Lorde.

Four years later in 2017, Lorde released Melodrama, a follow-up to those years of transition and growth. When you reach your early 20s, no one ever tells you that you have to figure out a lot of things by yourself. Through trial and error, you go through failed relationships, suffer from loneliness and isolation, and deal with confusion about your growth as a person. Only after going through failings can you reflect on your actions with maturity. On Melodrama, Lorde offers the insight that comes after those tumultuous years.

Unlike Pure Heroine which featured minimalist, sparse arrangements, Melodrama is produced by Jack Antonoff and includes a much more colorful palette of sounds. There are explosive choruses, triumphant crescendos, and somber piano sections which all back Lorde’s low, smoky range. Loosely based around the concept of a party and its subsequent comedown, Melodrama examines the intoxicating highs and crippling lows that come with this phase of our lives. Despite her age, Lorde approaches the topics of heartbreak, regret, and anxiety with astounding maturity. Rather than wallow in her own sadness, she takes a step back and reflects on her own faults in a failed relationship. She understands that both sides will always have faults and comes to embrace herself more easily given these realizations.

Melodrama at its core is about the process of accepting yourself despite your insecurities and fears. It’s about embracing the feelings of solitude, anxieties about your future, and learning to cope with failed relationships. We all inevitably reach this stage of our lives and no matter how prepared you think you are, something unexpected always blindsides you. How we learn to grow from these moments is what defines us. Lorde turns her experiences into something universal: how those feelings of inadequacy and loneliness can also liberate us if we learn to accept them.

Must Listens: Liability, Perfect Places, The Louvre

19. v2.0 — GoGo Penguin (2014)

I think jazz as a genre has also kind of reached a weird place in the 2010s. Certainly, there’s been a ton of great albums that were put out this decade. Kamasi Washington, Sons of Kemet, Matana Roberts, BADBADNOTGOOD, The Comet Is Coming, and more have all put out great jazz records during the 2010s. But at the same time, while these bands all have great ideas that pull from their influences, there’s rarely a band that just gives you something completely different. And this is where GoGo Penguin comes in. Standing at a perfect balance between jazz and IDM, this trio incorporates elements of trip hop, hip hop, electronica, and rock into their songs with ease without losing the organic feel of their instruments. Nu Jazz has gained momentum in recent years partly spurred by the crossover appeal of bands like BADBADNOTGOOD. It’s not even like jazz/IDM is a new concept either: artists like Benn Jordan have been doing it for a while. But what makes GoGo Penguin stand out is how they effortlessly merge the styles without losing that natural sound of their instruments. Where other acts create jazz-inspired music, GoGo Penguin often feel like they create electronic music out of jazz instruments.

v2.0 is pretty basic as far as instrumentation goes: there’s a piano, there’s a bass, and there are drums. They work in tandem, playing perfectly in sync as they float along each track. But what makes v2.0 really special is how they utilize electronica influences and even manage to recreate them on their instruments. They all fit like pieces of a puzzle: the small glitchy beeps, the notes that you can’t tell if they’re piano or synth, the drumming so precise that you don’t know if a human is playing it or not. Of course, this only works as well as it does because of their talent. On v2.0, drummer Rob Turner is an absolute star as he creates beats at breakneck speeds that are so precise, you can’t help but wonder if there’s a drum machine involved. And really, that’s a big part of the charm. The instruments are undoubtedly real: you can hear acoustic piano melodies gently roll along, the snares aren’t always identical and the tip-tapping of the bass might be uneven sometimes. But at the same time, the instruments themselves veer into the territory of electronica as they create the illusion of certain sounds that might seem impossible to replicate.

What’s most impressive, however, is the atmosphere that they are able to lay down. With just three instruments, they are able to create powerful basslines, arpeggiated melodies, and head-nodding beats that sound like a Squarepusher or Aphex Twin song. Yet, it’s also distinctly more “real” than any of these influences because of how their own instruments shine through. The atmosphere feels like a background to actual instruments playing but it’s also so effortless that you can’t help but wonder if they’re cheating somehow with drum machines and synthesizers. Not only are GoGo Penguin filled with technical expertise, but they also create a unique sound of their own. They’re one of the most exciting jazz acts of the 2010s and their skill will leave you wondering how basic instruments can create such detailed atmospheres.

Must Listens: Hopopono, To Drown In You, Murmuration

18. Fetch — Melt-Banana (2013)

With the sound they’ve developed over their 20 year career, Melt-Banana released Fetch as the pinnacle of everything they mastered over the years. Fetch is unmistakably a chaotic noise rock album: grindcore-influenced shredding, lightning-fast drumming, and shrieking vocals that operate at a breakneck pace. When it comes to pure energy, there are few bands that can rival Melt-Banana. Yet, they also manage to take Fetch in a different direction from their contemporaries in noise rock and punk. Key to this of course is Agata’s guitarwork. He utilizes strange effects that sound like lasers or wailing sirens which makes the guitar feel like two different melodies working at the same time. His guitar sounds are distinctive and instantly recognizable against his contemporaries. The extended passages of effects on “Candy Gun” and “The Hive” are densely packed and move as an unstoppable force. Glitches, swelling distortions, and frantic feedback loops all help give off the futuristic cyberpunk vibe that Fetch has.

There’s also more polish on Fetch where the mixing is clear and none of the instruments are purposely muddled. It seems like a conscious decision to do so and while it’s not the norm for noise rock, it really elevates the poppy sections of the album to a new level. The frantic shrieking from Yasuko Onuki carries percussive and almost danceable melodies. That sheen of clean production which rests on top of the songs really helps bring out her voice against the noisy backdrop of guitar and drums. Melt-Banana never restricts themselves to a certain sound either. If at any point you think you are getting the hang of their sound, they switch it up completely. On tracks like “Zero+”, you find yourself getting into a groove of the song only for it to completely stop and become replaced with nothing but noises of frogs croaking in a pond. The minute loops of guitar are constantly changing and often sound like Agata is chaining multiple guitars together in feedback. It’s an impressive sound and allows space for the songs’ riffs to evolve over time.

There’s something special about the way everything connects together on Fetch. The cutesy, shrill vocals that blend together with the whirlwind of guitars and drumming should be incredibly unwieldy. Yet Melt -Banana navigates this with ease as their talents enable the sounds to come together in a ridiculously fun way. Fetch is like if the K-On girls mixed cocaine and Adderall and played their instruments at twice the normal speed. It’s such an exhilarating ride that Melt-Banana takes listeners on and it’s only made possible through decades of honing their sound.

Must Listens: Candy Gun, The Hive, Lie Lied Lies

17. Random Access Memories — Daft Punk (2013)

Random Access Memories opens with a small monologue from Giorgio Moroder on the eponymous song. “I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the 50s, the sounds of the 60s, of the 70’s, and then have a sound of the future.” In a lot of ways, this is the goal of Random Access Memories. Daft Punk pays homage to electronic music through the decades and then takes their own prowess to imagine what electronic music would sound like in the future. Taking influences from 70s/80s pop, disco, prog, and funk, they utilize live instrumentation to build the base for the songs. Whether it’s the string orchestra on “Beyond”, Nile Rodgers playing guitar on “Get Lucky” or the crisp sound of acoustic drums, every song is engineered to perfection. Despite the sample-heavy sound they were originally known for, this new approach makes Random Access Memories sound surprisingly organic like they pulled these songs straight out of the 70s/80s.

So how do we make these classic, romanticized versions of disco and pop songs sound like the future? Daft Punk addresses this by adding their own twist to these songs. As shown on Homework and Discovery, Daft Punk are at their best when they take a simple sample or loop and derive multiple grooves from repetition. Slowly over time, these grooves permutate into another one ad infinitum. This signature sound is melded directly into Random Access Memories. Often, songs will start out with a classic piano, strings, or basic synths. As the song progresses, it slowly shifts from that basic loop into vocoder-drenched vocals, dancefloor synths, and repetitive drums. After a while, the classic disco sound morphs into the familiar Daft Punk sound. The live instrumentation keeps each song grounded but Daft Punk takes liberties in making the album sound like theirs. It’s an homage album but it’s also exactly how Daft Punk envisions their own take on the classic sounds of 70s/80s electronic music. Despite its influences, Random Access Memories undoubtedly sounds like something from the future.

Deeply ambitious, Random Access Memories is really a culmination of Daft Punk’s career. It seeks out the influences that brought them here but seamlessly meshes their own sound in as well. The idea behind this record is to create something timeless: a sound that teeters on the edge of old and new while encapsulating the timeline of electronic music as a whole. Random Access Memories is a celebration of the past of electronic music while looking ahead into its future.

Must Listens: Instant Crush, Beyond, Get Lucky

16. Faces — Mac Miller (2014)

“A shame that my tragedy my masterpiece.”

There’s an easy argument to be made that Faces is one of the best mixtapes of all time. Along with frequent collaborators like Vince Staples, ScHoolboy Q, and Earl Sweatshirt, Mac Miller was one of the most prolific artists of the early 2010s rap blog era. Cultivating his sound over the years, it would culminate in the dark, psychedelic concept of Faces: an intimate look at Mac’s struggle with depression. Clocking in at nearly 90 minutes over 24 tracks, Faces is sprawling yet surprisingly precise in its sound. Mac never seems to lose his focus throughout the album and each song sounds like it has a purpose in the context of the whole. Such a level of cohesion is rare in mixtapes and one of the reasons why Faces stands the test of time.

Produced largely by Mac himself, Faces features a distinct jazzy style of production that he would later become known for. Covered in cloudy reverb, the mixtape is full of introspection and melancholy. There’s less emphasis on the percussion, depending on colorful samples and hazy piano instead. Building upon the introspective themes of Macadelic and Watching Movies With The Sound Off, Faces examines Mac’s battle with depression and heavy drug use. Throughout the mixtape, Mac faces constant conflict within himself. On songs like “Insomniak” and “Here We Go”, Mac is full of energy and bravado as he brags about his fame and money. But just as quickly, the swagger disappears as he’s filled with anxiety and fear about navigating his depression.

Faces is Mac understanding the dark side of fame but also being unsure of how to work through it. There’s constant conflict within himself knowing that his drug use can’t be a permanent solution yet seems to be the only viable one. As a result, Mac constantly finds himself face to face with his own morality on songs like “Rain” and “Grand Finale”. With that in mind, he opens up with honesty about his struggles knowing that death is always around the corner. Faces is special because of how Mac navigates the feeling of hopelessness. He’s honest, self-aware, and importantly, stays true to himself. Yes, there’s no real answer to traversing fame, addiction, and depression. But there’s always some sort of hope that shines through in Mac’s goofy persona. “I’m the only suicidal motherfucker wit’ a smile on.” Faces is the heart of Mac Miller, the good and bad, the struggles and triumphs. Even at his lowest, there’s always been a reason to root for Mac Miller.

Must Listens: Rain, Funeral, Polo Jeans

15. EMOTION — Carly Rae Jepsen (2015)

I’ve listened to EMOTION since its release back in 2015. It felt like a breath of fresh air for pop music but I couldn’t seem to understand why. For so long, there was just something inexplicable about Carly Rae Jepsen that pulled me towards her music. It wasn’t until I went to her Dedicated tour that it finally clicked. What really separates Carly from her contemporaries is her genuine attachment to her music and willingness to be completely transparent. After most songs she played, she would recount the process behind writing it or what it meant to her. For “Julien”, she told the crowd about the guy who inspired the namesake. Out of breath, she recounted a few stories about this ex and how she found his name “musical”. For her story about stealing a bike, she was caught up in the excitement and would stumble over her words. That aspect of honesty and how it ties back into her music is so important. Carly has this innocent, almost naive approach to her emotions that is so refreshing to hear. It’s so simple but that sincerity makes a world of difference.

The really astonishing thing about EMOTION is its own ability to hit a peak and stay there the entire time. The euphoric feeling of the anthemic chorus is there for literally every single song. Carly’s smooth, gliding voice floats effortlessly on every ebb and flow of the songs. EMOTION is like listening to a greatest hits album: there are just no weak spots. Carly has found this perfect formula of charm and the precision in how each song is constructed is unbelievable. It’s catchy, fun, and most of all, it never relents during its runtime.

On the surface, the sound of EMOTION is unassuming. The 80s synthpop and disco-influenced production isn’t exactly a new idea. But the production is incredibly layered due to the work of collaborators like Dev Hynes, Rostam, and Mattman/Robin. The synths are addictive, the crescendos always lead beautifully into the choruses, and the drum work is superb. The little subtleties in the sound really drive home the need to dance along to this record. The production matches Carly by never letting up, keeping her balanced from front to back. Ultimately, what makes EMOTION special is Carly’s unapologetic sincerity and its brilliant cohesion. Nothing about this record feels manufactured or out of place. Each song has its own purpose and it’s so easy to get caught up in its fun. Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s the musical equivalent of a rom-com. But there’s something magical about having a record that’s just so pure.

Must Listens: Run Away With Me, Making The Most of The Night, I Really Like You

14. 美しい終末サイクル — JYOCHO (2018)

One of the most difficult aspects of making math rock is balancing the melodies well with the technical riffing. It’s easy for a band to lean too much into one side which can end up making the music lifeless or boring. Striking a balance is important but rarely is it perfect. On JYOCHO’s 美しい終末サイクル however, they have truly achieved that perfect balance. Not only is the riffing and drumming out of this world, but they also manage to capture emotions and nostalgia in an indescribable way. It’s graceful, full of finesse, and best of all, effortless. Everything about the record is so light and airy that the instrumentation just glides along despite its complex undertones.

Vocalist Nekota Netako has a steady, airy voice that radiates warmth. She’s able to float effortlessly between the riffs and gives the songs a familiar sound to ground themselves in. The drumming is sheer perfection and the light strumming is beautiful as it plays off melodies and counter-melodies with ease. However, what really makes JYOCHO special is the flutist Yuki. Her ability to weave in and out of the songs giving them an almost folk-rock sound is astounding. The flute is almost like a synth the way it blends in with the songs. It’s quiet, not always immediately noticeable but it pushes the nostalgia factor throughout the album. Despite the complexities of the sounds, there is an element of tranquility throughout. The resulting feeling is like a nostalgic trip through forests with warm summer rays peeking through the canopy.

There’s truly something magical about the sheer joy that this album manages to bring. The way each song cascades intuitively between the melodies is so effortless and a clear indication of their skill. Everything about the musicianship is precise and intricate yet it carries the beauty of emotion throughout. JYOCHO manages to perfectly balance the technical craftsmanship of math rock with the sheer elegance of folk-rock. 美しい終末サイクル is a brilliant and exhilarating ride of overwhelming joy executed to perfection.

Must Listens: Aporia, こわかった, つづくいのち

13. A Crow Looked At Me — Mount Eerie (2017)

This is probably one of the hardest albums I’ve listened to this past decade. I’ve only gone through it completely a few times and each time, it’s absolutely crushing. A Crow Looked at Me is an album by Mount Eerie, the musical project of Phil Elverum. It’s about the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, and the progression of her illness followed by his grief. To talk about the musicality or whether this album was enjoyable or not doesn’t seem right. As Phil sings on “Real Death”, ‘When real death enters the house/All poetry is dumb’. There’s no point in trying to search for meaning or answers in music after such a traumatic experience. Death is real, it’s sudden, and it’s absolutely devastating. There’s no answer to your grief, there’s no way to recover, and you become numb. Phil simply puts these feelings into songs, to make it known that his love for his wife stands strong against all of this obliteration. There’s no artistic interpretation or romanticization, there’s no metaphors or symbolism: it’s a forward and blunt description of the utter grief that consumed him.

A Crow Looked at Me follows a loose timeline in the weeks and months after Geneviève’s passing. The emotions are all raw and fragmented but you can also sense the fear of what many of us go through after losing someone. In “Seaweed”, he notices how he’s already forgetting minute details about her and searches for symbolic representations in the nature he sees outside to no avail. It’s these little things, these small details that people rarely talk about while they face something so devastating that makes A Crow Looked at Me so visceral. No one ever talks about how these tiny details are often the most crushing and that’s what makes this album so devastating. The album is a struggle to reconcile with the idea that death is senseless and that regardless of what Phil does, there’s always a sense of futility. Even though there’s little solace to be found, Phil does his best to keep her memory alive and finds that if the sadness has been this real, then the happiness should’ve been too.

This album does not occupy a space on this list because it is better than the ones before it or worse than the ones below. It simply exists as an extension of a man’s grief and is a glimpse into the devastation that will inevitably occur to all of us. It’s the most painfully real album of the process of grief after death and that’s why it’s an important listen. Death isn’t like the movies, death isn’t romantic, death isn’t a plot device to use in literature. It’s real, it’s tangible, it’s beyond words and comprehension and art. Listen to this, keep Geneviève’s memory and contributions to the world alive.

12. Cosmogramma — Flying Lotus (2010)

Back in 2008, Flying Lotus’ mother passed away from complications due to diabetes. Over the next year, FlyLo would record material for Cosmogramma stating in an interview: “I decided that if I was going to speak after that experience, it better be something honest, and deeper than a record that was just made for the times. I wanted to do something that made her proud.” Cosmogramma’s name was influenced by his great-aunt Alice Coltrane who frequently talked about a concept called “cosmic drama”. In that same vein, a lot of this album’s concept revolves around the universe, the heavens, and FlyLo’s life. When the album first starts, you get bombarded by this intro of frantic glitches, buzzing beeps and bass wobbles, and pulsing synths. It’s a strange sensation but also an indication of what’s to come. Cosmogramma is an otherworldly blend of IDM, glitch hop, and nu-jazz. It’s a departure from FlyLo’s previous work in that it utilizes live instrumentation. You can tell that his great-aunt had a lot of influence on this record as it takes a jazzy approach with the harps, trumpets, and saxophones. This nu-jazz influence would mark the start of a different kind of framework for his sound, one that would follow him in his albums to this day.

FlyLo stated that this album was inspired by lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. By design, Cosmogramma is meant to be a “map of the universe”, a way to chronicle his life in some respects and to touch upon certain moments of the present in others. You can pick up on central themes in some of the songs like “Zodiac Shit” signifying his birth, “Drips/Auntie’s Harp” alluding to the passing of his great-aunt, or “Galaxy In Janaki” as a tribute to his mother. It’s a maximal sound, full of layering and densely packed with orchestral work. The samples are manipulated to be blended within the sounds although distinct ones like the sample of his mother’s respirator do take precedence on songs like “Table Tennis”. Altogether, there’s a certain warmth in the sound which emerges from the entities that would be cold and mechanical if separated.

Cosmogramma displays this warmth as emotions: metaphysical longing and pondering, cosmic meditation, and self-realization. It’s an album that provokes thinking: attuning yourself to underlying thoughts and emotions. What makes Cosmogramma special is its ambition: overflowing with influences and sounds that blend together in a tight, cohesive way. It‘s the definitive moment in FlyLo’s career where he becomes the forefront of a genre. With Cosmogramma he emerged as a visionary, pushing the sounds of electronica into the future.

Must Listens: Zodiac Shit, Satelllliiiiiiiteee, Drips/Auntie’s Harp

11. Atrocity Exhibition — Danny Brown (2016)

Atrocity Exhibition is, in a word, ugly. The dark, paranoid atmosphere that permeates the album is all-consuming. It’s like having your demons personified as they stalk you at a dizzying pace through the streets. It’s a disturbing sound accentuated by the off-beat percussion, splintered bells, and Danny’s urgent squawking of rhymes. When you think of terrifying music, it’s usually something like dark ambient or drone. The menacing atmosphere is cultivated by strange sounds and atypical rhythms that should be impossible to rap over. Yet, Danny Brown proves his versatility by manipulating his voice to go hand-in-hand with the maniac production. Named after the Joy Division song and J.G. Ballard novel, Atrocity Exhibition takes influence from its post-punk namesake and finds Danny Brown navigating his struggles with addiction, depression, and fame. His topics don’t deviate too much from his previous work: he still raps about drugs, isolation, loneliness, raunchy sex, and partying. But the sinister production hints at a great sense of urgency between his rhymes. It seems that the line between this maniac persona he uses in his music is slowly becoming tangled with reality. This culminates on “Ain’t It Funny”, a dark reflection on how his self-destructive behavior has spiraled out of control and the only thing he can do is laugh at the irony of fame.

Atrocity Exhibition is relentless in its capacity for darkness. As Danny puts his demons out on full display, it’s hard to look away from the trauma and pain that he’s going through. The torment he suffers is deeply uncomfortable for listeners and the hellish soundscape that producer Paul White has painted only serves to further magnify those feelings. At the same time though, Danny comes to terms with the pain and hopes that his experiences can help shape others. “So my task is inspire/Your future with my past/I lived through that shit/So you don’t have to do through it” he raps on the closing song “Hell For It”. Danny is bearing the burden so to speak, of living through the hardships he experienced in order to become the successful artist he is today. He hopes that by talking about these experiences, other aspiring artists can avoid a similar fate. With the closing lines “ I just wanna make music/Fuck being a celebrity/Cause these songs that I write/Leave behind my legacy”, Danny stays determined to concentrate his effort into his music to ensure that his legacy will be remembered.

When all is said and done, there’s no doubt that Danny Brown will be in the pantheon of rappers that shaped hip-hop in the 2010s. Danny has carved out an inimitable style that pushes the boundaries of conventional hip-hop. He’s a trailblazer in the genre and his evolution since the beginning of the decade has been nothing short of incredible. There’s nothing out there like Atrocity Exhibition and there likely never will. Danny Brown really shouldn’t have to worry: his legacy has been cemented beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Must Listens: Ain’t It Funny, Rolling Stone, When It Rain

10. Replica — Oneohtrix Point Never (2011)

There is no artist more influential than Daniel Loptain (best known as Oneohtrix Point Never) when it comes to the 2010s. He started his career in the mid-2000s with a signature sound of spacey synths created through a Roland synthesizer. As the 2000s came to a close, he began to experiment more heavily with samples and took on a more hypnagogic pop sound. His album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 under the one-time moniker would inspire the genre of vaporwave. Soon after, he built upon that sound in Replica, a sample-based album that draws heavily on 80s and 90s television advertisements. Despite OPN’s influence on the genre and the sound he had developed as Chuck Person, Replica deviates from the sounds of vaporwave that developed in the early 2010s. Instead of the sample-heavy approach that’s stereotypical for vaporwave, Replica isolates samples from VHS tapes that are unrecognizable and restructures them into small pieces.

Drenched in a haze of tiny glitches and atmospheric nostalgia, Replica captures the “longing for a past we never knew” feeling that vaporwave inspires but does so in a unique way. The tiny samples are often fractured, without context, and only last briefly. Certainly, there are harmonies within the samples but there’s a lack of musicality that it derives from. The samples are all sliced from a long broken-down original which allows it to take on new meaning in the songs of Replica. The way that OPN is able to construct pop structures out of these tiny samples is an incredible feat by itself. Vocal snippets are distorted and filtered in a way that blends into the background giving the songs a hook but without any discernible lyrics. On “Sleep Dealer”, the vocals are rhythmic breathing that beats together with the glimmering synths. It’s a great example of how OPN meshes the vocals together with the atmosphere without giving the vocals a life of their own. This way, it retains the foggy, nostalgic atmosphere that OPN has centered Replica around.

As OPN put it, Replica is “A way we deal with the decline of knowledge, or human knowledge going to waste because we’re not immortal. But it’s not a solution, it’s just a way of coping with those mysteries.” In that sense, Replica holds new context within itself after reconstructing old samples. We inevitably ponder what will happen to the remnants of the digital age if it ends. As we reconstruct the fragments, we create something new despite searching for old art. There’s something haunting about the distorted TV samples calling for nostalgia that isn’t really there. Knowing how to cut up samples to make them fresh and interesting is a feat by itself. OPN takes that even further and masters composition within his sounds: a beautiful, hypnotic swirl of futuristic splendor.

Must Listens: Sleep Dealer, Replica, Nassau

9. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do — Fiona Apple (2012)

I first heard Fiona Apple when I borrowed a copy of Extraordinary Machine from a library when I was like 11. I wasn’t very impressed at the time: the backing instrumentation was enjoyable but I didn’t get much out of the lyrics or Apple’s dusky, swinging voice. And so I put away the idea of Fiona Apple until 2012 when The Idler Wheel… was released. This time around, I was much more appreciative of her biting wit, clever wordplay, and emotional candidness. Her vocals are blatantly imperfect: it growls or hisses at times, wavers and whispers, and drips with venom as she sings about heartbreak, regret, depression, and passion. The Idler Wheel… takes a different approach to sound compared to Fiona’s previous works. Instead of the lush string arrangements and jazzy piano sounds that appeared on Extraordinary Machine, The Idler Wheel… features extremely sparse sounds. Rarely composed of much more than drums and a piano, The Idler Wheel is full of mechanical sounds inspired by its namesake. The percussion is syncopated at times, humming and chugging along in a robotic fashion. There are random sounds of machinery littered throughout the album that sometimes provide a foundation for the piano sections. The overall sound is jarring: it sounds like it’s purposely unmelodic and unmusical.

Despite these weird sounds though, they fit in almost perfectly with Fiona’s unique vocals. The songs don’t feel like they’re supposed to sound good by design yet her vocals that tremble and sway fit squarely into the mechanical instrumentation. Part of it is how Fiona seems to be embroiled in this inner conflict of naivety vs cynicism. “How can I ask anyone to love me when I all do is beg to be left alone.” Stripping down the sound for moments like these places an emphasis on that moment of “comfortable silence.” It’s not designed to sound beautiful or overly extravagant. It’s just this raw, unfiltered emotion that’s there and despite how uncomfortable it is, at the same time, it’s not overbearing. A lot of this album plays into these contradictions as conflict within Fiona herself. Sometimes, she’s angry when she sings something twisted like “And I just made a meal for us both to choke on”. But just as quickly, she starts to feel sadness with “I made it to a dinner date/My teardrops seasoned every plate”. The peak of this turmoil is on “Werewolf” where Fiona sings about a failed relationship and realizes she has quite a lot of blame to share as well.

The pure passion and emotion hidden within Fiona’s vocals are key in why The Idler Wheel… is so powerful. Despite the atypical sounds that dominate this record, her vocals carry so much humanity against the mechanical backdrop. Moments like her screaming on “Regret” or her voice cracking on “Left Alone” showcase vulnerability in such a poignant way. These parts only serve to accentuate Fiona’s stunning utilization of metaphors and imagery. It’s no exaggeration to say that she is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. The way her lyrics feel like a poem come to life is breathtaking and in combination with her vocals, creates a distinctive sound that carries so much emotion. The Idler Wheel… is Fiona at her best, hopelessly romantic yet immensely cynical, filled with visceral power in her poetic songwriting.

Must Listens: Valentine, Werewolf, Every Single Night

8. Carrie and Lowell — Sufjan Stevens (2015)

Sufjan Stevens is a genius in his ability to make captivating, enchanting songs using nothing but his voice, piano, and guitar. The simple melodies he uses are contrasted by the complex, poetic songwriting he employs and creates incredibly detailed stories. Carrie and Lowell is the seventh studio album from Sufjan and was written following the passing of his mother, Carrie. Carrie and Lowell is an album about grief but processed in a different way than what you’d expect. Carrie was bipolar, schizophrenic, and suffered from substance abuse. She had abandoned Sufjan long ago, and as a result, he has a difficult time reconciling with her death. With little to no memories of who she was, Sufjan faces the concept of death with a lack of direction. He’s deeply conflicted, unsure of how he feels in regards to forgiving, grieving, and moving on. The atmosphere on Carrie and Lowell is warm and nostalgic despite its heavy themes. Throughout the album, there are references to Oregon, where Carrie lived during Sufjan’s childhood. It’s a callback to those distant memories, the summer trips in his youth that Sufjan uses to try and paint a better narrative of his mother with.

The lack of relationship with his mother is complicated. Sufjan refuses to hate her: he has a lot of love and respect for her despite her illnesses and decisions. Her passing has been difficult for Sufjan not just because of the past but also because he didn’t reconcile with her earlier. He’s consumed by regret and a flurry of what-ifs in the wake of her death. As he closes the penultimate song “No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross”, he sings “Fuck me, I’m falling apart” in a falsetto and it’s evident that closure isn’t really available to him. These are the feelings that you don’t think about on the surface: it’s the ones that slowly creep on out after a devastating loss. Carrie and Lowell is a sparse and hollow-sounding album. Apart from basic instrumentation, Sufjan’s feathery voice does most of the heavy lifting in the songs. The writing on this album is incredible as Sufjan makes mythological allegories, uses biblical references, and dark metaphors. It’s a swirl of these feelings of guilt, depression, and aching sadness that gives rise to the inner conflict that he feels.

Not only does Sufjan evoke an emotional response from his audience, but he also allows them to feel the complexities of his grief. There are emotions that lie underneath the surface, ones that you feel like you shouldn’t entertain, that often crawl up from under the abyss. Devastation in the face of death is often terrifying. But what happens when your grief is deeper, more complicated than you expect? Could you reconcile your relationship with someone who abandoned you? Carrie and Lowell isn’t Sufjan searching for answers: it’s a cathartic way for him to let out these bottled-up feelings. By the end, he’s sure he loves his mother despite all that’s happened. But even as he cries out about how he forgives her and that he loves her, there’s no use as she’s gone. All he can hope for is that the forgiveness is known. As Sufjan said in an interview: “You can’t change your history. But you can choose to relinquish the anger, and you can choose to recognize that there’s no perfect way to cultivate a person”.

Must Listens: Death With Dignity, Should Have Known Better, Fourth of July

7. The Money Store — Death Grips (2012)

“Soon your crew will be serving sandwiches named after me.”

The Money Store served as an evolution of experimental hip hop in the 2010s. Combining MC Ride’s raw, abstract lyrics with Zach Hill’s blast beats and Andy Morin’s terrifying synths, Death Grips created one of the most aggressive, forward-thinking albums of their time. Combining pop structures with abrasive, industrial sounds, The Money Store is a barrage of noisy, yet catchy production. The Money Store is typically known as the entry-level album for the Death Grips discography given its heavier reliance on pop structures and melodies. However, this point is ultimately what makes The Money Store so great. Despite the stream-of-consciousness raps and in-your-face drumming, the colorful blend of danceable synths and bright samples strike a balance between aggression and catchiness. The choruses get stuck into your head with ease and you can’t help but bob your head to the beat no matter how weird it gets.

The Money Store favors overblown maximalism compared to the sparse production found on No Love Deep Web and Exmilitary. There’s much more detail within the empty spaces of each song whether it’s arpeggiated synths or elongated samples. This creates the feeling of having the sounds becoming more fleshed out and a touch of warmness that was lacking in their colder, sparser work. Despite the nonsensical lyrics of MC Ride, they do hint at heavier themes at times. For example, on “I’ve Seen Footage”, MC Ride wrestles with feelings of paranoia, and on “The Fever” there’s a loss of sanity through drug abuse. Whatever meaning you derive from the metaphors though, there’s no mistaking the bleak, post-apocalyptic atmosphere MC Ride creates. The lyrics are extremely violent, detailing crimes and drug dealing all within this nihilistic underworld Death Grips has created.

The Money Store is chaos in a pure, undistilled form. Noisy, filled to the brim with distortion, and full of anarchic samples, there is no stopping the album once it starts. It’s exciting to engage in something that is relentless in the way The Money Store is. In a lot of ways, it also became the centerpiece of how experimental music would evolve through the 2010s. Influencing other acts like JPEGMAFIA, Injury Reserve, Kasabian, and even David Bowie, Death Grips created music that was forward-thinking and wholly unique. Backed by their DIY aesthetic and refusal to “sellout”, they also became a shining example of what it means to keep the music first. This punk ethos matches up perfectly with the unique sound that they create on their albums. Death Grips carves out a niche that is impossible to replicate and as a result, has become one of the most important acts of the 2010s.

Must Listens: Hacker, Bitch Please, Get Got

6. Black Messiah — D’Angelo and The Vanguard (2014)

In the 14 years that passed since Voodoo, D’Angelo had gone through a lot. Uncomfortable with his status as a sex symbol, he retreated from the public eye. He developed a drinking problem following the death of a close friend and by 2005, his girlfriend had left him and he was out of touch with his family. He almost died in a car crash in which he was subsequently arrested for driving under the influence. After checking into rehab, he was signed to a new label and appeared on various features over the years. Over these long years, D’Angelo would work on this album, slowly but surely. The end result is Black Messiah, an album that sounds far removed from any recognizable neo-soul album today but retains the modern, creative edge in its lyrics and experimental sound.

Since the conception time was so long, Black Messiah doesn’t really fit into what we recognize as the stereotypical R&B and neo-soul sounds. It takes a bulk of influence from 70s soul by utilizing live instrumentation but it also is drenched in murky undertones. The Prince and Sly Family Stone influences are obvious but it also favors the darker undertones of bass and guitar in its sound. This unique approach is made possible by the fact that D’Angelo finally has a constant backing band in The Vanguard. This allows him to express much more creative freedom in this album. Some of the songs on Black Messiah, especially towards the latter end, hark back to the sounds of Voodoo and Brown Sugar but for the most part, it’s a new sound with a heavy emphasis on the bass and percussion. The bass leading a number of songs gives Black Messiah a groovy, richly textured sound. It’s beautifully chaotic and muddy, purposeful in its slow movement like molasses.

Originally, Black Messiah was slated for a 2015 release but D’Angelo decided to push it forward following the Ferguson protests and murder of Eric Garner. Black Messiah is a statement of political reckoning and the black experience of living in America. On “The Charade”, D’Angelo sings about systemic racism and the legacy of the civil rights movement. The chorus is haunting for its timeliness and its morbid truth: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk”. Even the more romantic, nostalgic songs on the album carry weight: the longing for a simpler past and solace in memories underscores the dark state of America today. Black Messiah is a return to form for D’Angelo and an incredible statement to the infuriating circumstances of black Americans today.

Must Listens: 1000 Deaths, The Charade, Really Love

5. House of Balloons — The Weeknd (2011)

It’s crazy to think about but back in February 2011, no one knew who the Weeknd was. Before the massive success, the Weeknd was uploading singles on YouTube under the name “xoxxxoooxo”. No one knew whether the Weeknd was a person or a group and didn’t have any info beyond those singles. By the time March had come around, the Weeknd dropped a mixtape titled House of Balloons. Surrounded by mystique and promoted by fellow Canadian artist Drake, House of Balloons instantly catapulted the Weeknd into internet fame.

House of Balloons utilizes an atmospheric production courtesy of Doc McKinney and Illangelo. The dark, haunting synths twisted together with Beach House or Siouxsie and the Banshees samples create a hazy environment for The Weeknd’s falsetto to shine. House of Balloons is patient by ensuring that each new song has time to build its atmosphere before swelling into crescendos and choruses. The Weeknd is a perfect match for the slow, sensual sound as he croons about his hedonistic lifestyle: drugs, sex, and debauchery. Highlighted by an undertone of self-loathing and over-indulgence, the Weeknd weaves an eerie tale of nightlife.

Since its release in 2011, House of Balloons has remained deeply influential to the R&B genre. Drake’s 2011 album Take Care even used songs that were supposed to be on House of Balloons. The nocturnal, atmospheric production was integral in creating the “Toronto” sound and its influences are vital to R&B music today. Importantly, House of Balloons is an organic success story. The style of R&B that the Weeknd had created here was beautiful but also not meant for radio play. Riding off the success it had seen on the internet, House of Balloons slowly culminated in online reviews and a Mod Club concert. There was always an air of uncertainty surrounding the Weeknd back in 2011. There’s a timeline not far removed from ours where he never blows up and becomes the chart-topping artist he is today. He just as easily could have been the next Jai Paul: shrouded in mystique but never entering the mainstream. But that’s exactly what makes House of Balloons so special and influential. There was always mystique surrounding the mixtape and the question of how it would gain traction beyond the internet. Against all odds, it succeeded and changed the sound of R&B in the 2010s completely.

Must Listens: Wicked Games, The Party & The After Party, Twenty Eight

4. Blonde — Frank Ocean (2016)

It’s strange to think that at one point we waited four years for a Frank Ocean album. There was so much hype surrounding its release and yet it still managed to exceed expectations. So much so that even though it’s already been three years since the release of Blonde, expectations have leveled out. People on Twitter no longer demand a new album or spam Frank’s brother about release dates. The incessant refreshing of Frank’s Tumblr has slowed. Frank has disappeared yet again but the constant doubts have mellowed. Waiting has slowly but surely paid off. Blonde itself is no different: it’s complex, full of small details that only become evident over repeated listens. The emotions and experiences you take away from this album only open up after you spend time with it and acknowledge your own vulnerabilities. By the time a new Frank Ocean album comes out, there’s no doubt we’ll still be finding new ways to approach Blonde.

Blonde is one of those albums that just seems to keep getting better over time. It’s like a time capsule: all the feelings and nostalgia that you were filled with the first time comes rushing back every relisten. In many ways, that’s the goal of Blonde. It captures the warm, summer feeling of love and innocence but also contrasts it with the realization of growing up and the longing for youth. The beautiful thing about Blonde is how it occupies itself in your own life experiences. Whatever you take away from the music during one listen can be vastly different from another listen. Frank’s vulnerability and intimacy throughout Blonde are characterized by the scattered ambiguity. The songs are hazy and dislocated: sounds and textures blend into each other while autotune and pitch shifts distort Frank’s voice. The blurring of nostalgia with growing pains speaks volumes for this generation as alienation and loss of our pasts become more evident in this digital age. One night it’s forever and the next night you wake up with the bittersweet realization that forever isn’t as long as you thought it was. Blonde is heartbreakingly beautiful in its desperation to hang onto the past along with our fears of the future.

Appreciating Blonde requires your own vulnerability in many ways. The vagueness of the lyrics, ethereal production, and constantly changing vocals often shroud the album in mystique. The tracks are often long-winded and the album is littered with interludes. It sometimes feels like aimless wandering as some sections are filled with nothing but samples. Unless you dig deep in your own experiences, the magic of Blonde doesn’t always appear right away. Melancholy, heartbreak, relationships, love, isolation, nostalgia, and fear are all themes that are present throughout the album. But it doesn’t come together as a whole until you align your own experiences with Blonde. Certainly, peering into Frank’s diary of emotions and experiences makes for an interesting album by itself. What makes Blonde so timeless, however, is Frank’s ambiguity in both sound and lyrics. Not only do we experience his feelings and mental state, but we also inevitably attach our own experiences to the songs. You can’t put those feelings or emotions into words. The subtlety that Frank employs is genius and ensures that whatever you derive from Blonde is a personal and unique experience.

Must Listens: Self Control, Ivy, White Ferrari

3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — Kanye West (2010)

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sums up the culture of fame and celebrity of the 2010s better than any other albumEven as an album that relied heavily on its own contextual creation and the hype that it drew during its moment, it’s still stood the test of time. Its themes on fame, consumerism, the American dream, race, and idealism have become only more relevant as the decade wore on. This album goes far beyond the VMA controversy, the Grammy snub, Kanye’s political shift, or his antics as a public figure. This album not only encapsulates Kanye’s career trajectory in a perfect way but examines the dark undertones that plague the entertainment industry and how we view fame. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a man wrestling with self-doubt in how the world perceives him. On the surface, he embraces fame: accepting his megalomaniac image and drowning himself in ego and hedonism. Underneath, however, he struggles with unfulfillment and lack of satisfaction. He’s fearful of how his actions will be immortalized and wonders how far away he is from being consumed by his lifestyle.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is filled with grandiose, gloss, and opulent sounds. Against the maximalist production, dense layering, and incredible instrumentation, Kanye laments about how fame can be all-consuming. It’s a struggle of power between Kanye’s grounded, middle-class upbringing against his egotistic, lifestyle of excess. The album teeters on this balance: whether it’s the Greek tragedy-esque narrative of “Runaway”, the antitheses on “Lost In The World”, or the fall of grace outlined on “Power”, Kanye finds fame as a double-edged sword. It’s the life that he’s always wanted but surviving the industry means accepting how it eats away at you. As the presence of online journalism and social media grew in the 2010s, the separation from artists to their fans has diminished greatly. There are constant updates on a celebrity’s life from the everyday mundane to the career-ending controversies. Fame opens you up to the world and the obsession or vitriol can break a person. At its core, that’s what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is about: the decadence and extravagance that fame brings while hiding the darkness that robs you of autonomy. You become a product, a brand to promote rather than a person. This becomes even more apparent as we watch social media bring about stan culture and celebrity obsession.

Despite this, however, Kanye takes on the approach of indifference to criticism. He loves to indulge in his lavish lifestyle and if it means that the entire world hates him for it, so be it. He’s an asshole, he’s a douchebag, he’s a scumbag; he knows it but he takes it in stride because that’s what it takes to survive in the industry. Driven by this sentiment, Kanye employs everything at his disposal to create an album that reaches impossible heights as a sign of defiance. He creates for the sole egotistical belief that he is the greatest to ever do it, not because of his fans or his critics. It doesn’t matter what sort of goodwill or branding he does for his name: Kanye is the biggest asshole in the music industry but his sheer audacity and skill will make you unable to look away from his art.

In the end, that’s why My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy works as well as it does. It’s simply Kanye’s ego actualized in a musical statement. This is an album from a guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to the world and ignores all forms of criticism raised at him. He brandishes arrogance as his weapon: no amount of bad press can ever hope to stop his belief that he is the greatest artist alive. In retrospect, it’s kind of ironic that this arrogance led to his downfall in the media and even among his most die-hard fans. But on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye is able to wield his ego to the maximum effect: nothing can stop that album from reaching the mythical heights it was destined to. The album is perfection incarnate: born out of a desire to create a resounding statement against the notion of consumerism and corruption of fame, Kanye refuses to let criticism stop him from creating his art. He opens himself up to all forms of criticism and readily accepts his flaws on this album. Whatever the media and critics have to say about him is irrelevant in Kanye’s eyes: he just makes the music he thinks he was destined to create. Egotistical? Definitely. Delusional? Probably. But maybe, just maybe, that’s what it takes to avoid having fame swallow you whole.

Must Listens: POWER, Devil In A New Dress, Runaway

2. Birth of A New Day (新しい日の誕生) — 2814 (2015)

One of the strangest new genres of music that emerged in the early 2010s was vaporwave. Vaporwave artists would take influences from mood music and Muzak in lounge, elevator, and smooth jazz and fuse it together with 90s and 00s samples. Sampling heavily, the genre is meant to be a satirical take on consumerism and cyberculture. Yet as it grew, more and more artists begun to take different approaches in developing the sound. Artists began to combine elements of ambient or hypnagogic pop to create nostalgic and futuristic sounds.

2814’s Birth of A New Day is the result of blending vaporwave influences while creating something completely unique that still pulls on nostalgia. 2814 consists of two artists: Telepath テレパシー能力者 and HKE (Hong Kong Express). Both are well-established artists in the vaporwave scene: HKE is the head of the label Dream Catalogue and telepath is extremely prolific having released dozens of projects in 5 short years. 2814 released their self-titled debut in 2014 which featured little vaporwave influences opting instead for a downtempo, hazy dub sound. For Birth of A New Day though, the duo took a different approach. In an interview with Rolling Stone, HKE said “We wanted to show how the whole vaporwave vibe could be made as original music rather than just relying on the same muzak and kitsch-pop samples everyone else had been using for years. While I thought the whole idea of playing with samples was cool … I’ve always been more enamored by its thematic concepts — its focus on dreaminess and surreal futurism and on painting a narrative through music.”

Birth of A New Day is an incredible display of what it means to take the minimalism involved in ambient music and create an atmosphere that is still deeply vivid. Throughout the album, there is a feeling of cruising through a sci-fi movie like Blade Runner or Ghost In The Shell. The distorted vocal samples combined with the sound of a train or the drone of a distant siren often make you feel like you’re traveling through some futuristic city. At the same time though, there is something surreal and dreamy about this futuristic cruise you’re embarking on. The samples of rain or the hustle and bustle of the city make the songs still seem distantly familiar. Faraway voices appear at times with dreamy words that beckon you. “恢复” begins with a woman speaking in Mandarin: “Why can’t we go back to the way we were before? Don’t go. Stay with me tonight.” It’s subtle, barely noticeable but sets a tone of nostalgic yearning: looking for something that you’ve heard in a dream or a past life. Despite the minimalism derived from the ambient sound, there are still common themes that can be picked up. Loneliness, isolation, and intimacy are all interwoven together in this surreal, cinematic world. Combined with the gorgeous cover art, Birth of A New Day is able to create an immersive experience for listeners.

This album pushed the envelope in how creative vaporwave can get. It’s not enough to slap a few Japanese symbols and Greek busts on the cover while reusing the same samples everyone had been using since 2011. Chopping up 80s samples is fine and dandy but there is a point where none of it sounds original anymore. Indeed, nothing on Birth of a New Day feels like recycled material. The samples that the duo used were interwoven effortlessly within the narrative they had designed. The ability to retain the nostalgic charm of vaporwave while taking the sound to new directions is why Birth of A New Day is so influential. It’s the declaration of what vaporwave as a genre could achieve and influenced other artists to continually progress their sound.

Must Listens:
恢复, テレパシー, 遠くの愛好家

1. To Pimp A Butterfly — Kendrick Lamar (2015)

This is an album that Kendrick Lamar didn’t have to make. Kendrick’s critically acclaimed sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d city was an exploration of his teenage experiences with drugs and gangs in Compton. The album conceptually revolved around the harsh realities of growing up in the streets, gang violence, economic disenfranchisement, and how it affected those who lived around it. It was an incredible body of work, emphasized with vivid imagery to make listeners feel like they were watching a movie. He had garnered mainstream attention and commanded respect in the rap game as a newcomer. He could ride off this fame, doing features and tours and continually make music derived from a formula. But he didn’t. Instead, he decided to take a left turn and make a statement: he would use his newfound fame to create something larger than himself, an attempt to inspire real change. In 2015, he would release To Pimp A Butterfly, his magnum opus and an album that many would consider being one of the greatest of all time.

You can view To Pimp A Butterfly to be an extension of good kid, m.A.A.d city in a lot of ways. Narratively, Kendrick takes the experiences of growing up in Compton and shifts it towards an overarching concept about the black experience in America. The title is derived from a poem that Kendrick wrote which balances the beauty and ugliness in life. The word “butterfly” represents hope, beauty, and the light in our lives while the word “pimp” is used to juxtapose it with how sinister and aggressive the connotations are. The focus of To Pimp A Butterfly is this balance of beauty and ugliness, a celebration of black art and culture underlined by struggle and pain. Kendrick takes influence from decades of black music tradition by incorporating elements of hip-hop, soul, jazz, R&B, spoken word, and funk together to create a nostalgic sound that’s unique enough to remain contemporary. The instrumentation is complex and layered gorgeously in a way that imitates the sound of a big band. With help from artists like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, George Clinton, Flylo, and the Isley Brothers, Kendrick creates a dynamic narrative with themes of hope, suffering, fame, race, culture, and discrimination. Moreover, he builds upon the themes of good kid, m.A.A.d city as well by exploring the themes of trauma, survivor’s guilt, and mental health that plague those involved with street life.

To Pimp A Butterfly is not just the most important album of the 2010s, it also acts as a time capsule of this decade and gives insight into where America stands today. On the last track “Mortal Man”, Kendrick ‘interviews’ Tupac, discussing black culture, racism, and fame. Kendrick sees himself as following a long list of black leaders like Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Tupac. Following the Ferguson unrest and high-profile cases of police brutality in the deaths of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, the song “Alright” has become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Kendrick has found himself as a leader of the 2010s, the new voice of a generation. As Kendrick talks to Tupac about the state of America and the struggles that black people face, we see that not much has changed. As Tupac rapped about how the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, we see the evolution of American society into late-stage capitalism and its damaging effects on impoverished neighborhoods. Tupac talked about police brutality, activism, and racial discrimination and we can see how closely his experiences still mirror America’s problems today. Despite the rise of social media and Internet helping shine a spotlight on more injustices than ever, we also feel as if the system has perpetuated itself to a point where nothing we do matters.

To Pimp A Butterfly is more than just Kendrick just rapping about modern events or cementing his position at the top of the rap game. It’s about legacy. It’s about how he can use his fame and newfound position to better society as a whole rather than become commodified and lose his roots. It’s about how he must build upon the work of past leaders to continually strive for a better tomorrow. To Pimp A Butterfly is a call to all of us to build upon what we have learned from history to try and change America for the better. This album goes beyond music: it’s about rallying people together to accomplish something bigger than ourselves. As “Mortal Man” comes to a close, Kendrick is left hanging in his conversation with Pac. As he shouts “Pac? Pac? Pac?!” into the void, we realize that Pac’s work is left incomplete and Kendrick has become the one tasked with carrying on that legacy. But he can’t do it alone. We have to decide whether we as caterpillars stay trapped within our cocoons or we uproot the system to form new ideas and generate change like a butterfly. To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t just the greatest album of the 2010s, it’s a cultural phenomenon and a monumental movement in striving for a better tomorrow.

Must Listens: Alright, i, How Much A Dollar Cost

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I turned my incoherent ramblings on music, anime, and video games into an entire blog.

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