A Decade Retrospect on the Music of the Last 10 Years and the Albums That Moved Us Most

To commemorate the end of the decade, Riffs & Rhymes presents a collection of essays encompassing the music of the past ten years and the artists who gave it to us. We asked numerous writers, artists and creatives to submit a list of their five favorite or most essential albums of the decade, along with writing on the records they chose and what this decade of music meant to them.

Written by Alex Johnson // @AlexJohnson760

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Midland – On The Rocks
  2. Chris Stapleton – From A Room Vol. 1
  3. John Mayer – The Search For Everything
  4. Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe
  5. Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born Soundtrack

There’s no way I can write a “Best of the Decade” post without listing my Spotify Artist of the Decade at the top. Midland burst onto the scene with their debut album On The Rocks, which was equal parts Laurel Canyons, Bakersfield, and Nashville. Chris Stapleton’s From A Room Vol. 1 was quite simply one of the most masterfully put together albums of the decade. The power of Stapleton’s vocals ring throughout the entire record and alone are reason enough to place the album on a “Top 5” list. Straying away from the usual country tunes, John Mayer came out on The Search For Everything as ambitious as ever, and the four years it took him to write the album were every bit worth the wait. Brothers Osborne’s Port Saint Joe was an intriguing adventure led by the duo’s blistering guitar solos and smooth-cadenced vocals. Finishing off the Best of the 2010s is the soundtrack from the 2019 Oscar Award winner for Best Original Song. The fact that Bradley Cooper learned how to sing and play guitar for his directorial debut accompanied by Lady Gaga’s ever-powerful vocals make A Star Is Born Soundtrack round out my Best of the Decade list. Here’s to good music in the 2020s.

Written by Ellie Burleson // @ellie_burleson

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
  2. Beach House – Bloom 
  3. Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe
  4. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
  5. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

As this decade comes to an end, I am reminded of all the personal achievements, regrettable mistakes, and the moments in between which these years have encompassed. Each album on this list represents a greater meaning to me than just a beautiful piece of music. Listening to Bloom while being sad and heartbroken to blasting Blonde at full volume when I was happy and falling in love. Music is always there to help you cope with whatever life throws at you and that is exactly what each of these records have done for me the past ten years.

Written by Erica Garcia // @ericadanlle

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll
  2. 1989 by Taylor Swift – 1989
  3. Ed Sheeran – X
  4. The Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton – Hamilton: An American Musical
  5. Gang of Youths – Go Father In Lightness

Ten years is a long time. Ten years is a long time to consume and create music. With so much art all around us, it’s been incredible difficult to narrow it down to five favorite albums from the past ten years, but taking a look at the past decade from a perspective of growth, self-discovery, and open mindedness to accepting new art, these five albums are the ones that define this last era of music for me. Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock and Roll was the first album they had released after taking a years long hiatus, and despite their pop-punk roots and twists and turns into new sounds, Save Rock and Roll – from my perspective – did exactly what it claimed it would. The record doesn’t feature any stereotypical rock sound, but you’ll find big guitars on it. However, you’ll also find classic pianos, string sections, and witty lyricism too. This album made me realize that everyone’s definition of rock ‘n’ roll is different, and that’s the one thing that connects us all.

The past decade also saw a huge shift in the way pop music was consumed and heard. From jumps in radio to play to the rise of streaming services records like Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Ed Sheeran’s X – both released in 2014 – broke major world records. Songs like Swift’s “Blank Space” introduced a fresh, modern sound for females in the pop space, while songs like Sheeran’s “Photograph” carved out a whole new road for singer-songwriters to travel by.

One album that did wonders for both the hip-hop and musical genre was the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton: An American Musical. With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hit Broadway musical’s record went number one on the Billboard Charts and even later won a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Musical. Taking storytelling and infusing it with rap and hip-hop, this record showed me that creativity knows no bounds.

In 2017, came a rock record called Go Farther In Lightness from rock band Gang of Youths, laced with string quartets and orchestrations, drawing inspiration from classical musicians. This Australian rock band became deeply special to me. Writing from the heart, the band proved their lyrics timeless and their songs forever moving, and even three years later, their songs still follow me. Just like all the albums I’ve written about here, it’s an honor to be a fan, and one of the greatest joys in life to have their music live on while we wait to welcome a new decade of sound.

Written by Genesis Mihalko // @GMihalko15

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Movements – Feel Something
  2. D.R.U.G.S – D.R.U.G.S. 
  3. Of Mice & Men – The Depths
  4. Set It Off – Cinematics 
  5. My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys 

A whole decade of music to pick from? Wow, okay. No pressure. The records I chose for my top five are ones that were the most significant to me throughout the past ten years. For me, this has been a major time of growth because that was the bulk of my childhood and the transition period into adulthood, which some would say is a pretty major thing, so let’s dive into what music made those hard years enjoyable. In general, none of these records are alike, and that’s what I love the most about my list. Each of the albums on the list made me feel like I was a part of something special, and they made me feel like I had a home in music, which every teenager needs in that point of their life.

Aside from that, each of these records paved the way for the artist that wrote them. Each work drives on innovation that wasn’t heard in the time that those albums were released- this was successful for some of these artists, and for some, not the most remarkable moments for them. Overall, these records take the idea of the respective music scene and twist and bend them to fit the type of music that they wanted to produce, and I respect that more than anything. It is so hard to follow your musical vision when you’re established or trying to become established, and each one of these artists took that risk through their albums.

Before I close, I just want to emphasize how remarkable Feel Something by Movements is. In 2017, my life was at the lowest it had ever been, and that record gave me a reason to live, through its lyrics, musical nuances, and just the experience the band created through their music. Also, that album was the first record I ever reviewed on my personal blog. If it wasn’t for that album, I probably wouldn’t be writing this contribution right now, crazy right? Okay, I’ve officially went way past my writing limit, but all I have to say is these albums will stay strong into the next decade, but I’m ready to see what the new decade brings to life, musically speaking.

Written by Imp // @TheUncannyImp

Top 5 Albums:

  1. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
  2. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
  3. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
  4. Bonobo – Black Sands
  5. Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth

The 2010s in retrospect feels like a peculiar repeat of the 1960s where civil right debates, cultural tensions, focus on recreational drug use, and fear of war (both current and impending) are at a peak. These combining factors have led a lot of paranoia to persist within the music that has come about within the 2010s. Former Def Jux artists El-P and Aesop Rock both epitomized paranoia within their respective albums Cancer 4 Cure and The Impossible Kid, with El-P opting to use a dystopian lens for the scenes he captures while Rock uses humor to capture his hermitage. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! feels no paranoia, but rather dysphoria; the transgender community has been placed in the spotlight this decade and, prior to chronicling her dysphoria in her memoirs, Grace came out the closet with loud punk riffs, defiant in the face of the heteronormative status quo on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”

Social protest against the status quo continues in a much different lane on Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth, a record much overlooked after much of his fan base eschewed him for previous releases. Fiasco, a major politically outspoken figure, continues his desire for lyrical density in ways previously unexplored, like viewing the criminal injustice system from inside the jail on opposing sides of the jail bars on “Prisoner 1 & 2” or sly jabs at his (now former) record label Atlantic Records on “Dots & Line” through alchemical metaphors. The music 2010s, regardless of what narrative mainstream press will place upon its music, will likely (and deservedly) be remembered as one of fear, rebellion, and, perhaps most importantly, personal growth among stoicism.

Written by Maxton Schulte // @maxtonschulte

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Tame Impala – Lonerism
  2. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
  3. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
  4. Tycho – Dive
  5. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Everybody consumes music differently, but something we can all relate to is that very distinct feeling when a particular album strikes your core, leaving a permanent imprint on your life. As a dedicated musician and producer, each of these albums have heavily inspired me with their uniquely forward perspective on where modern music is capable of traveling. 

In just ten years, we experienced a radiant resurgence of psychedelic pop and sweeping electronica reignited by Lonerism and Dive alongside eerie reminders of beauty waiting patiently in the darkness voiced by the angelic Ultraviolence. Both the infectious arrangements escorting a much needed reality check for Americans granted by DAMN. and the illustrative future amongst the stars embraced by Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino properly concludes the decade with profound storytelling.

From Tame Impala to Kendrick Lamar, the 2010s have proved to be one of the most ambitious eras of modern music, both sonically and socially, hinting at a deeper dive into record producing and expansive commentaries.

Written by Mike Flores // @fleezym

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Future – DS2
  2. Travis Scott – Rodeo
  3. Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful
  4. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
  5. Drake – Take Care

Every artist that reaches the upper echelon of their craft has a career defining moment captured in an album. Dirty Sprite 2 propelled Future into the stratosphere of Atlanta royalty, which is basically synonymous with being at the top of the entire rap game in the 2010s. Released in 2015, the album has aged beautifully. 19 thumping songs take us deep into the bleak worldview that Future composed, with no shortage of gun and drug references. He found something special in linking up with producers Metro Boomin and Southside, who played their own part in cultivating the sound that pretty much took over all music made with a DAW in any genre.

Undoubtedly influenced by the game-changing, late 2000s Southern rap sound, Future taps into his unique vocal talents that we heard on previous works and lays it down on some of the most well-curated production of the decade. Shortly after this release was the apex of the Drake & Future hysteria, which has inspired countless joint projects since then. “Where Ya At” featured Drake, the project’s lone feature, and Future gliding over one of Metro’s stand out beats, rapping about loyalty and flakey people. On “I Serve The Base,” Future raps, “Tried to make me a pop-star/And they made a monster,” alluding to some of his mainstream collaborations, including Miley Cyrus. His 2014 release, Honest, was very pop-heavy. On DS2, Future shifts back into himself where he feels most at home; the album is unapologetic and ruthless. There are no love ballads, which had become expected on a Future album up until this point, and although he has released mellow and nostalgic music since then, he seems to reap rewards from blending his styles together perfectly.

Written by Roberto Johnson // @robertoj007

Top 5 Albums:

  1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
  2. Alex Cameron – Forced Witness
  3. Beach House – Teen Dream/Bloom
  4. Danny Brown – XXX
  5. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

It’s hard to pick a starting point when it comes to describing this entire decade of music, whether basing it from a personal standpoint or not. Over the past ten years, my life perspectives have grown and adapted frequently. Naturally, they have been highly informed by the experiences I’ve accumulated, people I’ve met and art I’ve consumed. Along this journey, I’ve indulged in many different records, both old and new, but in attempting to capture the essence and meaning of how the music of the 2010s most impacted me, I’ve been able to distinguish my favorite albums by grouping them into three pools.

For starters, there are the lyrically-driven albums that moved me from a narrative perspective. These are the albums that made me care about a story, ponder on a particular concept, or even, altered my way of thinking about a specific place, culture, philosophy or people.

You can’t discuss lyrical and conceptual bodies of work without mentioning Kendrick Lamar. His projects paint hyper-vivid pictures of his worlds and I’m continuously floored by his ability to describe life with such careful detail. Through their language and schizophrenically-crafted story lines, albums like Good Kid, m.A.A.d City and Ab-Soul’s Control System, not so much changed my train of thought, but rather helped open my mind to new ideas and new realities. To Pimp A Butterfly holds up as perhaps the seminal album from Lamar, this decade and generation’s undisputed rap king. I relish in the album’s creation, regardless of how often I actually listen to it, and am proud to have experienced it in my formative years.

In the same vein, I discovered a new means of appreciating beauty and pondering the world through the words of one-of-a-kind songwriters like Father John Misty. Who knew antagonizing society and serenading the apocalypse could sound so serene? Pure Comedy, more than any other record this decade, sold me on this trope the best – that words always count, especially so when they incite universal disdain.

The second grouping by which I am acknowledging my favorite records of the 2010s, are the albums that moved me, first and foremost, in a visceral sense. Playlist culture and short attention spans are two of the biggest proponents of “vibe-based music,” but who can deny a good mix of songs that create the perfect atmosphere in the perfect moment? When it comes to capturing a mood or simply enriching the purity of our existence with an intoxicating aesthetic, the kings and queens of that castle were Beach House and Mac DeMarco. The melodies and instrumental passages on Teen Dream and Bloom are infinitely stimulating, to the point I couldn’t include one album on my list without the other. The stoned and sun-soaked medley of guitars and synthesizers on 2 and Salad Days achieve a similar balance; they still trigger a side of my emotions that feels both surreal and sublime.

The final group of my favorite albums of the decade resonated with me significantly in both a literary and musically intuitive way. Theoretically speaking, I adore all of the records on my list in a lyrical, musical and conceptual sense; however, there were a handful of albums on which the music and the storylines achieved their greatest potential working hand in hand. Arguably my favorite rapper of the last 10 years, there’s no question Danny Brown has one of the most distinct voices in hip-hop. Pair that with extremist production choices and his willingness to rap over anything, and you have a potent discography loaded with some of the most cutting edge rap music ever recorded. The first time I listened to XXX, I ripped off my head phones in fear of what I was hearing, less than three songs in. Nine years later, the same abrasive and grimy goofball who once scared the living hell out of me, is the same rapper I can’t get enough of.

Similarly, Alex Cameron’s Forced Witness builds its brand on groove-centric synth-pop and the perils of modern masculinity. Few records, if any, have ever struck me as so comically entertaining and downright infectious. Is Cameron just some sleazy songwriter looking for attention? Maybe, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s penned some of the most important pop songs of the last few years.

Written by Tyler Blankinship // @_solodolo_

Top 5 Albums:

  1.   Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
  2.   Frank Ocean – Blonde
  3.   Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
  4.   PRhyme – PRhyme
  5.   Future – DS2

While trying to make this list, I didn’t have a chance at getting everything down to only five albums to represent my decade in music. There were too many albums that I loved in such different ways, so I decided to split them into five distinct categories, highlight one from each as my official pick, and provide two honorable mentions for each category along the way. Also, my favorite album of the decade, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, somehow didn’t make any of the categories so note that this is far from exhaustive.

The first category I selected is “music that’s incredibly exciting and incredible to watch as a promising artist fully steps into their own and exceed all expectations.” No album displayed this better for me than Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, a whirlwind of a project full of so many ideas and styles that led a movement of mid-2010’s Chicago hip-hop into prominence and introduced me to so many of my future favorite artists. From the dizzying lyricism of the aptly titled “Good Ass Intro” to the raw terror of “Paranoia,” this album covers a lot of ground without ever really missing the mark. Honorable mentions for this category are Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City

The second category is “music that’s incredibly well-written and hard not to cry to.” I think just giving that title likely led most people to think of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, as strong a contender for album of the decade as anything else. Frank followed a Grammy winning, pop-tinged R&B breakthrough album with four years of silence, a confusing fake-out experimental album, and a subdued 18-track album with very little radio potential, barely any drums at all, and multiple spoken interludes. Frank made it immensely clear this decade that we were living on his terms, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. While a lot of the early songs are hyped the most, the end of album run of “White Ferrari,” “Seigfried,” “Godspeed,” and “Futura Free” is what always gets me. Honorable mentions for this category are Phoebe Bridgers’ A Stranger in the Alps and Saba’s Care For Me.

The third category is “carefree, Sunday morning sitting on the porch drinking coffee music.” While I could try for days to articulate this particular state of reflective and soothing fun, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, manages to do so in the span of its title and hand-scribbled cover art. What’s found inside fits perfectly; a compilation of ideas and observations, each approached with cleverly observational lyrics and calm vocals from the Australian songwriter. Honorable mentions for this category are Anderson .Paak’s Malibu and Noname’s Telefone.

The fourth category is “music that makes you mean mug and stare in amazement at the bars.” PRhyme’s self-titled debut of this type of perfect rapping for the sake of rapping. Royce da 5’9″ spits over DJ Premier beats and scratches, all of which are samples from Adrian Young, with guest appearances from Mac Miller, Ab-Soul, Jay Electronica, Common, Slaughterhouse, Killer Mike, ScHoolboy Q, and Dwele (plus DOOM, Phonte, Black Thought, Joey Bada$$, and Logic on the deluxe version). That sentence feels like a ridiculous Christmas list and yet somehow not only did we get it, it lived up to the potential. Royce’s raps are fairly low stakes and revolve around guns and how good he is at rapping, but depth was never the goal here. Listen to his album Book of Ryan if you want that. Honorable mentions for this category are Pusha T’s Daytona and Benny the Butcher’s The Plugs I Met.

The fifth and final category is “filthy, supervillain music from the future.” Future’s DS2 is a filthy misogynistic, violent, drug-promoting, arrogant, greedy slap in the face. And yet, it sounds incredible and is so fun to listen to. Future is a perfect Byronic hero. His contempt for everything but his own immediate wants destroys him and he brags about it. Though he occasionally has personal moments, any realizations he makes are immediately thrown out the window in favor of more codeine and money. This could be a tragic album, but instead Future takes us with him through his bender and lets us experience the highs of truly living like there’s no tomorrow with him. Honorable mentions for this category are Kanye West’s Yeezus and Travi$ Scott’s Rodeo.

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