Any ranked list is an exercise in absurdity. To rank pieces of art is futile. To rank them across a decade is impossible. But it’s oh so fun and that’s why we’re here. When I came up with this list I ranked according to three pieces of logic.
1. It has to be something that represents my taste across the decade.
2. It has to represent music in the decade.
3. When I listen to it now I have to enjoy it just as much.
These 50 albums do that for me. Some have grown in estimation since they were first released like Manchester Orchestra’s “A Black Mile to the Surface”. Others have dropped a little but still find their way into the top 50 (Lady Lamb the Beekeeper). Most of the critical favorites are represented in some way, though the order in which I ranked them is certainly more personal than the general consensus (and is missing one huge artist, sorry Frank Ocean).
When I look at this just seconds before posting the list, I doubt the order that I’ve put them in, but at some point you just have to put things in stone.
As a writing exercise, I put reasons why you should listen to the top 10 which will certainly include something you haven’t heard or should give another chance.
50. Manchester Orchestra “A Black Mile to the Surface”
49. David Bowie “Blackstar”
48. D’Angelo “Black Messiah”
47. The War on Drugs “A Deeper Understanding”
46. Earl Sweatshirt “Doris”
45. Janelle Monae “Dirty Computer”
44. Julien Baker “Turn Out the Lights”
43. Anohni “Hopelessness”
42. Carly Rae Jepsen “Emotion: Side B”
41. Frightened Rabbit “The Winter of Mixed Drinks”
40. Right Away, Great Captain “The Church and the Good Thief”
39. Grimes “Art Angels”
38. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper “Ripely Pine”
37. Sufjan Stevens “Age of Adz”
36. American Football “III”
35. Priests “Nothing Feels Natural”
34. Kendrick Lamar “Good Kid, MAAD City”
33. Titus Andronicus “The Monitor”
32. The Tallest Man on Earth “There’s No Leaving Now”
31. Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”
30. No Name “Room 25”
29. Beyonce “s/t”
28. Snail Mail “Lush”
27. Run the Jewels “2”
26. Chance the Rapper “Coloring Book”
25. Kendrick Lamar “Damn.”
24. Soccer Mommy “Clean”
23. Idles “Joy As an Act of Resistance”
22. Vampire Weekend “Contra”
21. Japandroids “Celebration Rock”
20. Kanye West “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
19. Car Seat Headrest “Teens of Denial”
18. Carly Rae Jepsen “Emotion”
17. Vince Staples “Summertime ’06”
16. Bon Iver “22, A Million”
15. Chance the Rapper “Acid Rap”
14. Cloud Nothings “Here and Nowhere Else”
13. Parquet Courts “Light Up Gold”
12. Makthaverskan “II”
11. Lana del Rey “Norman Fucking Rockwell”
10. Courtney Barnett “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit”
Courtney Barnett is perhaps the funniest person in indie rock. Her sound is driven by wry witticisms and keen observations. Her songs are full of life and energy as she brings you along on her train of thoughts, consistently redirecting to observe some new detail you would have never expected.
9. The Beths “Future Me Hates Me”
The Beths’ created a perfect summer album that grows with every single listen. It’s so well produced and the band adds layers of melody to match their tight sound. It’ll be a mainstay in by May to July rotation for years to come.
8. The War on Drugs “Lost in the Dream”
The War on Drugs’ psychedelic Americana is absolutely beautiful. It slowly unveils piece by piece of subtle melody, occasionally meandering for several minutes on a musical idea Adam Granduciel has. It’s quietly upbeat, like the sunset on a long summer’s day.
7. Tame Impala “Currents”
Perhaps the spiritual, psych-pop sequel to Post-Merriweather Pavilion, Kevin Parker’s work on Currents showcases pop-genius underneath warbles and extended bits of noise.
6. Florence + the Machine “Ceremonials”
I may be the biggest fan of this album in the entire world. It’s a bold and bombastic pop effort featuring all the drama of an eleventh hour Broadway ballad for 12 tracks straight. For some it’s a little too much, for me it’s perfect.
5. Bon Iver “s/t”
Bon Iver went from the hipster folk favorite to bona fide production genius with his (their?) sophomore album. The woodsy folk vibes are still there, but here he amps up production with layered falsetto and 80s effects.
4. The National “High Violet”
My favorite of The National’s sad-sack indie rock albums which are always a variation of that theme. Matt Berlinger’s wrestling with demons never spoke more to me than here, whether it be his confession that he’s “Afraid of Everyone” or the time “England” shuffled onto my iPod after one of the worst flights of my life and I was about to land in London. If you find beauty in the melancholic this is for you.
3. Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly”
Kendrick proved himself to be the most talented rapper of the decade, his technical brilliance and lyrical poignance are unmatched. With To Pimp a Butterfly, he proved he could push the genre forward, melding together hip hop, jazz, and R&B connecting with experimental producers to make the decade’s best rap album.
2. Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City”
Ezra Koenig’s existential crisis pulls together the weight of death and God to create Vampire Weekend’s masterpiece. It’s fun (“Diane Young”), but features what may be the best religious song writing of the decade in songs like “Obvious Bicycle”, “Ya Hey”, and “Everlasting Arms” (a play on the old hymn), as the band wrestles through faith and doubt and growing old.
1. Sufjan Stevens “Carrie and Lowell”
Carrie & Lowell saw Sufjan settle back into singer-songwriter mode after years of big and bold experimentation. I am a huge fan of the experimentation, but Carrie & Lowell showcased what caused his rise to fame and is the best album of his career. Here he too deals with death and doubt and faith, brought to reflection by the death of his mother. It’s a tragic record to be sure, but one in which Sufjan reaches into the depths of his soul to find and create something beautiful.