The best albums of the decade: From Tame Impala's Lonerism to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

The 2010s saw the boundaries between mainstream and underground continue to blur. Pop was best when it was sad, synthy or Scandinavian. Rock is dying or has already died, depending on whom you ask. R&B and soul got revivals. Hip-hop surpassed them all to become the most influential genre, while some believe genre itself is dead. Here's our pick of the best 10 albums that emerged in this decade

Prahlad Srihari December 30, 2019 10:22:48 IST
The best albums of the decade: From Tame Impala's Lonerism to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

To whittle down a decade of music to a few albums is no fun task, but it does give us the opportunity to take stock of all the tunes that we listened and grooved to these past ten years. It also gives us an idea of the records we'll continue to listen to the following decade.

The 2010s saw the boundaries between mainstream and underground continue to blur. Pop was best when it was sad, synthy or Scandinavian. Rock is dying or has already died, depending on whom you ask. R&B and soul got revivals. Hip-hop surpassed them all to become the most influential genre, while some believe genre itself is dead. Spotify and Apple Music have turned music into an all-you-can-eat buffet. Yet, few listen to albums from beginning to end, as the artists intended.

Thus, the following list evaluates albums best experienced as a whole, not as individual tracks. We've tried to revisit as many albums from the earlier half of the 2010s to overcome the expected recency bias (our tendency to favour recent albums more heavily than the older ones). Though many artists gave us more than one decade-defining album, we've sadly had to restrict them to one entry.

Honourable mentions: Björk - Vulnicura (2015), David Bowie - Blackstar (2016), Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid (2010), PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (2011), Sun Kil Moon - Benji (2014)

10. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening (2010)

The James Murphy-led band's third studio album is a joyous marvel of emotion and composition. There are unmistakable echoes of Berlin-era Bowie ('All I Want'), the alien synth tones of Brian Eno ('I Can Change'), the punk spirit of Talking Heads' Remain In Light ('Pow Pow') and the robotic pop tendencies of Kraftwerk ('One Touch'). The lyrics are often repetitive, some of the beats quite generic but it still possesses an undeniable cathartic power. It's the kind of album that will pull you out of your funk, clear out the staleness in your emotions, and make you want to dance.

9. Tame Impala - Lonerism (2012)

If Innerspeaker put you in a hypnotic trance, Lonerism wants to wake you from it. Tame Impala's sophomore effort finds that sweet, colourful spot between retro and contemporary sounds with ethereal textures designed to induce synaesthesia. At the heart of these rich melodies are Kevin Parker's dreamy voice, his introspective lyrics and his impeccable arrangements. Music, as always, becomes a contagious euphoria with Tame Impala.

8. St. Vincent - St. Vincent (2014)

Unclassifiable, bewitching and always inventive, St. Vincent's self-titled album blurs the boundaries between genres in her own unique style. In her quest for identity, Annie Clark has built herself new personas — and luscious soundscapes reflecting them — with each album. Here, she gives us the essence of who St. Vincent is with fittingly provocative lyrics and snarling guitars. Is there a track which better captures our generational ennui than 'Birth In Reverse' (Oh, what an ordinary day/ Take out the garbage, masturbate)?

7. Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)

Kamasi Washington's debut studio album is an aptly titled three-hour epic. The tenor saxophonist has rejuvenated a genre — which was at the heart of the African-American social and political struggle — promptly for the times we live in. From the opening piano chords on 'Change of the Guard' (which evoke memories of Coltrane’s Impressions) to the high-energy New Orleans-style grooves of 'Re Run Home' to even the gospel-tinged jazz mash-up of Debussy's 'Clair de Lune', you feel the emotion in its rhythms and improvisations. No wonder Washington has been referred to as an unofficial ambassador of jazz, a genre whose days were numbered and whose future now lies firmly on his shoulders.

6. D'Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah (2014)

D'Angelo's follow-up to Voodoo is another resolutely political record, fuelled by meditative soul and smooth funk jams. As visible in the album cover, he draws inspiration from the street protests following unrest over police brutality against unarmed black citizens. From the seductive grooves of 'Sugah Daddy' to the syncopated rhythms of 'Back to the Future', D'Angelo's soul-searching never sees him lose his experimental edge. It was a 14-year wait that was well worth it.

5. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

Few artists have consistently given us albums of such impeccable quality in their careers as Radiohead. While some might argue that they reached their peak with In Rainbows, A Moon Shaped Pool proved there are still enough poignant ballads and transportive melodies left in Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood's repertoire. The latter's arrangement of London Contemporary Orchestra's choir and strings sections lend the album a dramatic, almost cinematic, quality. 'Burn The Witch' takes you back to Hail To The Thief period; 'Daydreaming' brings to mind the quieter moments of Amnesiac; and 'True Love Waits', which is rearranged as a piano ballad, makes for the perfect closing track to this sweeping meditative epic.

4. Swans - To Be Kind (2014)

Clocking in at 121 minutes, Swans' To Be Kind is a thing of overwhelming intensity and unsparing contradictions. It can be painfully slow before the tension ratchets up to a crushing climax. Michael Gira's grand instrumentation injects an almost spiritual dimension to his meticulously constructed pieces of organised chaos. Between the hellish riffs and relentless rhythms, the bluesy hooks and abstract lyrics, To Be Kind might not make for the most relaxing listen. Take the lyrics from 'Some Things We Do' for example: "We seed, we feel, we need, we fight/We seal, we cut, we seek, we love/We grow, we take, we eat, we break/We hunt, we hurt, we seize, we kneel/We heal, we fuck, we pray, we hate..." But if you're the kind of listener who believes there is beauty to be found even in brutality, it's the record for you.

3. Beach House - Teen Dream (2010)

Beach House make detox music to cleanse your soul off generic pop bangers. The Baltimore duo gave us three solid albums this decade (Teen Dream, Bloom, 7) but Teen Dream truly made us take notice of their talents. Whether it is the organ chimes, the hypnotic keyboard sections, the sepia-toned longing in Victoria Legrand's Elizabeth Fraser-meets-Nico voice or a combination of all three, the music is somehow both heartrending and reassuring at the same time. Teen Dream's melodies evoke the warmth of nostalgia as your skin bursts into goosebumps on each listen.

2. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

Just like Beach House, Kendrick Lamar was behind three of the decade's most seminal albums: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012), To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and DAMN. (2017). But at a time when structural racism targeting African Americans has resulted in violence and death, Lamar's voice stood out from the rest because it captured the anger and anxieties of an entire community with a forceful urgency. He boasts an incredible range across his vocal performances as he delivers scathing rants and internal monologues with equal ease. Drawing influences from funk, jazz, soul, blues, gospel and spoken word, Lamar proves himself to be not only a master of the multi-syllabic rhyme, but an exceptional songwriter, arranger and producer. To Pimp a Butterfly is a transgenerational work of art that will remain one of the most important albums of the century.

1. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (2010)

Win Butler's homecoming to the supposed idyll of Texas suburbs ends in deep melancholy and disillusionment, and this becomes a reflection on the double-edged sword that is memory in Arcade Fire's possibly final great album. When it all comes together for the Canadian collective like it does with The Suburbs, few can compose music that affects the mind, body and soul like them. The Suburbs works because Butler's ambition is expertly backed up by the band's instrumental variety: strings, saxophones and French horns make an appearance along with the usual guitar and drums. So, the music is richer than ever. No album this decade had a higher repeat value than The Suburbs.

Read more from our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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