Top Albums of the Decade
The way music was consumed continue to evolved as we entered the second decade of the new millennium. Physical sales continued to fall as digital sales continued to rise. Early in the 2010s, as digital sales through retailers like iTunes and Amazon Music began to plateau, the next wave of distribution began to take shape in the way of streaming. Through all this, the impending end of ‘the album’ continued to be on the horizon, but so to was something else: the return of vinyl. Every year this decade, sales of vinyl records were higher than the year before. In September, a Rolling Stone article predicted sales of vinyl would soon top CD sales for the first time since 1986.
So even as the music industry continues its shift toward curated playlists, individual songs and singles, it’s unlikely the album will ever really die. This list is made of albums released across the last ten years that support that claim. Albums I bought, played, listened to, enjoyed and lived. Many of these I own on CD but also own the vinyl. These are the albums that shaped the decade for me.
50. Dragonette – Bodyparts (2013)
Bodyparts makes it fact that you need to have a good time. “Dance like I started a riot,” from Riot, “I don’t wanna work, just give me the money,” from My Work Is Done, and the ultimate pre-club song, My Legs, where lead singer Martina Sorbara proclaims, “I can’t stop my legs/my legs go out late dancing.” With a good mix of party songs and sexy numbers, Bodyparts fills the void in classy sass pop we didn’t know was there.
49. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
There are many songs found on The Suburbs that, one way or another, made a mark. Around the album’s release, Arcade Fire released a series of singles, promo singles and videos using a range of different means to help get the tracks out into the world. The interactive video for We Used To Wait was one of the first of its kind, while the disco-ready synthpop Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) was a constant throughout the album cycle and beyond. The Suburbs arrived at the height of the band’s peak, and as an indie band, that meant word of mouth helped carry it beyond what their already creative promotional tactics were doing. The Suburbs, perhaps ironically, pushed the band further into the mainstream and ultimately earned them the top prize when they won the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 2011.
48. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (2019)
Where Arcade Fire started the decade with an album about the suburbs, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers end the decade with an album that evokes the feelings of suburbian isolation on their collaborative project Better Oblivion Community Center. You’ve fallen out of touch with the world around you. Politics, pop culture, old friends, everything you used to know have moved on, and you’re left behind to simply exist in your surroundings. Recalling 2000s indie pop as its musical framework, it’s an album about loss. Loss of family, friends, feeling lost in a world rooted in nostalgia where little makes sense, painting a dystopian picture that may be more real for many of us than we’d like, but it’s nice to know we’re not alone in that feeling.
47. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (2014)
Nicki Minaj ruled the start of the decade, and much of that impact was felt even before her first album dropped through features on hits by other acts. Both Pink Friday and Pink Friday…Roman Reloaded showcased more of her versatility as a rapper and singer but both lacked the consistency of a solid album. The Pinkprint was that album. Before that, her best verses regularly appeared on songs by others but this time, she with this record, she kept them close and delivered a solid tracklist start to finish.
46. Patty Griffin – Servant Of Love (2015)
Servant Of Love marked a departure of Patty Griffin’s sound that was found across her nearly 20 year career at the time of its release. She shifted from the folk and rock sounds of its predecessors toward even older genres of blues and jazz. Perhaps even more impressively, while she kept things fairly minimal throughout the record, she maintained the ability to craft the right mood through the music and still deliver. The lyrics on Servant Of Love felt raw and defeated but, as evidenced by the closing track, Shine A Different Way, a willingness to move on. It’s an album that swings up and down through various degrees of tunnels, but the light at the end is the saving grace.
45. Lissie – My Wild West (2016)
The third album My Wild West by American singer/songwriter Lissie doesn’t necessarily contain her ‘best’ songs, but it is her most striking as an album. It’s one that is in many ways representative of a generation that is socially aware, environmentally aware, and where she shows appreciation for her roots. The album was written after she moved from California to a farm in Iowa to essentially start over again, where she re-evaluates what it means to follow your dreams and take control over your life again. It’s an early mid-life crisis; that point when it’s not too late to restart without feeling like you’ve lost time. That concern over missing out on the future rather than regret for losing out on the past.
44. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You (2019)
Lizzo’s star had been bubbling under for several years before the release of Cuz I Love You, yet after the album came out and first single Juice looked poised to send her into superstardom, it was with two older tracks, 2017’s Truth Hurts and 2016’s Good As Hell that made her a household name in 2019. Somehow that might reflect poorly on her new album, except Cuz I Love You only adds to everything Lizzo has become known for: incredibly memeable one-liners; encouraging self-care; and loving who you are in the body you’re in. She sings, she raps, and she gives no fucks what anyone has to say about her. She owns it and Cuz I Love You is every representation of that.
43. Various Artists – Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond (2012)
While none of the songs on the soundtrack album were actually in The Hunger Games film, they were all inspired by the Suzanne Collins novel-turned-film starring Jennifer Lawrence. What’s impressive about this collection is how much these songs capture the sentiment of the story, grabbing the very essence of near hopelessness the citizens of Panem felt. Led by legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, the album’s varied list of artists ranging from Arcade Fire and the Decemberists, to Taylor Swift and Maroon 5, who, on paper might read like a mess waiting to be heard, they all fit together as one cohesive album representing a dystopian post-apocalyptic story.
42. Phantogram – Voices (2014)
Maybe it’s in the beats and synths that pulsate throughout the record, resulting in a musical equilibrium hypnotic to the ears, or maybe it’s the delicious production mixed so tight and smooth that listening to it allows for a complete tune-out of everything else going on in the world, but Voices was an instant standout in a post-EDM music scene. Serving as the perfect crossroads between heavily-produced hits and the more natural, authenticity of acoustic pop, Phantogram fused them together into a sound all their own, lead by the buzzing warm single Fall In Love.
41. David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
David Bowie’s genius continued through to his very last days and beyond, marked by his final album that dropped just days before his passing. A true artist who knew his death was pending and used it to accompany the final songs and visuals that would make up Blackstar. A classic within his discography, the album touches on elements common to his music: space, the occult, gender, and androgyny, all presented through mainly experimental art rock with a touch of avant jazz. The story of Blackstar and Bowie’s last days aren’t complete without the pair of videos that accompanied the title track and Lazarus, both showing how he both lived and died with his art.
40. Beyonce – Lemonade (2016)
Lemonade saw Beyoncé dive deeper into unexpected, and sometimes unexplored, territory as she expresses an emotional array of themes, thoughts and genres that make up the album. There’s something also deeply heartbreaking about her suspicions of infidelity as Beyoncé prays to either discover the proof or be caught trying to in the opening track Pray You Catch Me. The album goes through the many cycles that come after finding out the worst before ending with hope, reconciliation and the desire for eventual forgiveness. In every way, the album is a triumph.
39. Lorde – Melodrama (2018)
I was skeptical that Lorde could evolve from her debut album convincingly. On Pure Heroine, she was the modern day anti-pop star and it seemed like a mould she would need to break if she wanted to continue the trajectory of a pop music career. Melodrama more than satisfied that skepticism as an album that continued along those same lines of being an outsider, but with a new focus. The main setting of the record is a house party where Lorde goes through the motions of trying to move on from a relationship while trying to enjoy where she is. She wraps it up with the final track Perfect Places, where she suggests such a thing doesn’t exist because our drive to find it is really an attempt to emotionally escape using whatever means necessary. Melodrama didn’t have the hits Pure Heroine did but it did its part in securing Lorde’s place as an artist to keep watching.
38. Vance Joy – Dream Your Life Away (2015)
Dream Your Life Away is a comforting album that doesn’t really offer anything new, but is a pleasant record that exists to serve as the backdrop for future nostalgia. Case in point, where does the album’s hit Riptide take you back to when you hear it now five years later? Not unlike acoustic pop songs of the early 2000s, Vance Joy mastered approachable indie pop by singing songs and telling stories that were relatable, but that had hidden gems in the lyrics that still worked their way out with each listen.
37. Ed Sheeran – X (2015)
Ed Sheeran’s first album + was charming because fame hadn’t yet influenced his craft as a songwriter and recording artist. X, on the other hand, had that impact, as felt on the first two singles Sing and Don’t, but it still maintained a tinge of naivety often found on debut albums that gets lost along the way. X showed growth for Ed but held on to much of what made him unique on the musical landscape at the time, keeping him grounded. His next two albums would mostly strip those qualities away, but beyond the still-overplayed love ballad Thinking Out Loud, X is a modest yet solid guitar pop album.
36. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born Soundtrack (2018)
When Lady Gaga was chosen as the lead to Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, no one was really sure where that might lead. Yet, early buzz placed it in the Oscar conversation, many praising Gaga’s acting and the soundtrack of original songs created specifically for the movie with an array of songwriting collaborators from across folk, rock and country music. As solid as the film was, the music played a heavy role in winning over audiences. From the tender duet Shallow, the heartwarming Always Remember Us This Way and the heartwrenching grand finale I’ll Never Love Heart, A Star Is Born was the checkmate of Gaga’s long-winded comeback with some of the best songs of her career.
35. Taylor Swift – Lover (2019)
Taylor faltered with 2017s Reputation, which is saying something considering it sold over a million copies in its first week and remains the last album to do so. It was the first sign that there were cracks in the team responsible for making all the right moves that helped make her one of the biggest pop stars of all time. Even at the start of the Lover era, things weren’t looking great. ME! wasn’t well received. You Need To Calm Down was subject to criticism, but the album itself, at a lengthy 18 tracks, somehow did nearly everything else right. She calls out gender inequality in the industry, cites the divisive political landscape in America, and gushes over love – a lot. Lover is a simply a great pop album that doesn’t dive too deep but still leaves you with something to dig into and melodies to take away.
34. Eminem – Recovery (2010)
Recovery gave Eminem a resurgence after several subpar albums. It was much more serious in nature and delivery than Encore or Relapse and it showed a more human side to the character he created early on. Featuring one of his biggest hits to date, Love The Way You Lie, and one of his best tracks, No Love, Recovery doesn’t bend under a need to show off and willingly receives boosts through featured artists such as Rihanna, Lil Wayne and Pink, who each offer something without eclipsing the rapper. Recovery is calmer yet more intense than his previous records without giving in.
33. Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise (2010)
Ray LaMontagne received a profile boost when his song Beg, Steal and Borrow was nominated for Song Of The Year at the Grammys. It was one of those out-of-left-field moments the Grammys are sometimes known for where a relatively unknown or niche artist gets thrust into the spotlight for a brief period of time. The song and accompanying record offered great blend of folk and soul led by Ray LaMontagne’s raspy vocals with songs that yearn for the simplicity of small-town life. It’s the kind of record you play while sitting on the back porch in the summer with a rum and coke, being grateful you’re not trapped in the confounds of city life.
32. Adele – 25 (2015)
25 served as Adele’s sequel to 21, which in itself is a tall order but one that more than succeeded. In a climate where album sales had long plummeted from their early-2000s peak, 25 shattered sales records with over 3 million copies sold in its first week – in 2015! It’s an album about mending a broken heart and picking up those pieces to reflect, right wrongs and start to move on. Musically, little changed from the previous album but in this situation, nothing needed fixing. Despite those similarities, 25 was a strong record of ballads. She spiced things up a bit with Send My Love (To Your New Lover) and the sexy I Miss You, but 25 captured the best of Adele, creating an effective and emotional record because we expected it and knew we wanted it.
31. Whitehorse – Panther In The Dollhouse (2017)
Whitehorse had developed a particular style of wild-west-leading folk rock that made good use of fiery guitars and studio FX so when Panther In The Dollhouse came without those elements, it was almost like the duo were a new band. Panther sounded more like Canadian alt-folk that combed the last 30 years of Canadiana to formulate as they touched on the social issues surrounding sex politics and prostitution. It contained some of their best songs to date, such as the punching ballad Die Alone, the soothing yet yearning Kicking Down Your Door, and the gritty pop of Nighthawks.
30. Amy Macdonald – A Curious Thing (2010)
Amy Macdonald’s distinctive brand of folk pop had fully taken shape by her second album, A Curious Thing, and with that, a collection of catchy heart-filled songs dissecting fame, personal growth, and love. Her booming voice carried the record full of sweeping songs, lush production and determined melodies. Starting out with the energetic Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over, the album punches through one folky earworm after another, before coming to an end with the delicate What Happiness Means To Me, which starts out on a reflective note before exploding into a beautiful string arrangement that carries out the remainder of the song. The song, like the album, is a treasure.
29. Lady Gaga – Joanne (2016)
After ARTPOP, Lady Gaga took some time to refuel and rebuild her brand into something easier to digest. She performed The Sound of Music at the Academy Awards to overwhelmingly positive response, she recorded a song about the effects of sexual assault for a film, earning her an Academy Award nomination, and she headlined the SuperBowl halftime show. She also released Joanne, a near polar opposite of ARTPOP, but not really any less weird. As part of the promo leading up to the album’s release, Gaga did a string of shows in dive bars performing tracks from the album decked out in country music fashion, and a guitar she ‘played’ only not really. That this new persona wasn’t as affective maybe weakened reception of the album, but Joanne wasn’t a total miss by any means. She collaborated with country, folk and indie rock songwriters to help craft songs that were still more Gaga-esque than country, resulting in a disjointed yet still fun album. At the very least, Joanne deserves credit as being the precursor to the final peg of her career rejuvenation: A Star Is Born.
28. Cast of Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording (2015)
After hitting the stage, Hamilton quickly became a phenomenon as one of the most accomplished musicals on Broadway, where it won 11 Tony Awards – out of its record 16 nominations, a Grammy Award, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, and on and on. With music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical took the roots of American history, centred around one of its founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, and intricately told it using hip-hop, pop and soul music, incorporating modern day references on race and social issues. These elements also likely played a role in helping make Hamilton one of the most mainstream musicals ever, if the soundtrack being the best-selling cast recording of all time is any indication. Not to mention the spin-off Mixtape featuring covers and interpretations by some of the top names in pop, R&B and hip-hop. Hamilton remains a beast in pop culture, with an incredible delivery through songs that are as impressive to listen to as they are enjoyable and sometimes heartbreaking.
27. Katy Perry – Teenage Dream (2010)
The Teenage Dream album became the definition of pop music at the start of the decade with an era that outlasted many others around that time. Beginning with California Gurls, Katy dominated pop radio and the music video world for over two years across eight insanely catchy pop hits – even breaking the record longheld by Michael Jackson for most #1s on the Hot 100 from a single album. Granted, Wide Awake, the sixth and final #1 was from the re-release, Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection, which Billboard decided wouldn’t count, backtracking against its own rules. So place a big candy-shaped asterisk next to that, but one thing is still clear: Teenage Dream was a moment in pop history that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
26. Ria Mae – Ria Mae (2017)
The pairing of singer/songwriter Ria Mae with hip-hop producer Classified made up one of the most interesting and dynamic duos in Canadian pop music in the 2010s. On Ria’s first major label album, she embraced pop music, modern beats, drums and bass and, without sacrificing her singer/songwriter sensibilities, came out with an album of yearnful folk and pop backed up light hip-hop beats, resulting in a natural sound that few folk artists would be able to pull off without sounding awkward. The album came polished and smooth without being dense, packed full of enticing melodies and sometimes heartbreaking lyrics.
25. Taylor Swift – 1989 (2014)
Despite her immense success since dominating country music in the 2000s, it was easy to dismiss Taylor Swift’s brand of singer/songwriter as pop fluff. But actions speak louder than words, and over and over again, Taylor proved herself, not only as a musician, but as a businesswoman who paid attention to every little detail. Her shift from country to pop was considerably gradual and by 2014, it was complete with the hit-filled 1989. It’s an album that played off of what critics have said about her, taking ownership of the criticisms and playing with them how she wanted and using those points as fuel for some of her biggest hits like Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood.
24. Lori McKenna – Lorraine (2011)
For Lori McKenna, Lorraine was a crossroads of sorts. It’s a record that came in the middle her discography, arriving over a decade into her career to be followed by four more. She was already an established writer and seasoned recording artist by this point, but Lorraine was the album that elevated her to the next level. It was her transition record with more standard country fare in the way of songs like You Get A Love Song and American Revolver to her brand of introspective songs like Still Down Here and the title track. This album gave a broader view of who she was as an artist, eventually leading to her becoming one of the top country songwriters in the industry by decade-end.
23. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (2013)
Upon its release, good kid, m.A.A.d. city was an instant rap classic that did its part to usher rap back into the mainstream after an intense era of electropop. As a complete package, the record came together where each track weaved into another, leaving its respective mark before exiting gracefully to make room for the next. Individually, the songs stand stood on their own; distinct chapters contributing to the story that made up the album that introduced many to the many layers of Kendrick Lamar.
22. George Ezra – Wanted On Voyage (2014)
It’s probably a goal of any singer/songwriter to, at some point in their career, record an album that could be described as timeless. For George Ezra, that album was his very first. Wanted On Voyage is a musical time-travel through much of the last century as he channeled swing, folk, rock n roll, and more on the album’s 12 tracks. His distinctive voice, and witty lyrics further helped his music stand out among the other Brit-pop artists to emerge this decade. File this record in the instant classic section.
21. Ellie Goulding – Halcyon (2013)
Halcyon is the musical sister to a movie set in a winter adventure/fantasy world with magic, dragons and princess. Hogwarts meets Narnia with all the dark undertones. While the album’s production takes Ellie’s sound to the depths of huge beats and raving synths, it’s her voice that takes centre stage, as the songs are built around it rather than trying to fit it into them. While she ventured more toward a made-for-radio pop sound with subsequent albums and singles, Halcyon is the genre Ellie mastered and made her own.
20. Sarah Harmer – Oh Little Fire (2010)
While Sarah Harmer’s focus shifted in the 2010s away from music toward environmentalism, her decade was bookended by her music. Just last month, she announced her first album in nearly ten years, to be released in February called Are You Gone, with the song New Low already out. Her last album Oh Little Fire came out at the start of the decade, consisting of what was probably the most Sarah Harmer-sounding album she had put out up to that point. Folky mid-tempos made up most of the album with a few special gems showing up midway through in the way of The City and Silverado, featuring Neko Case on the second verse.
19. Highwomen – Highwomen (2019)
What do you do as a country artist when radio won’t support you because you’re a woman? Whatever the hell you want. The Highwomen, with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, did just that with their album of country gems lead by the epic self-titled introductory track that both paid homage to the 80s country supergroup The Highwaymen, and to the many women before them who gave their lives for the betterment of women. The album touches on social and political issues, such as gender roles and gay love, but stays surprisingly tame as it sticks mainly within the confines of traditional country music – fun, love and honky tonks. It’s a strong collection that wouldn’t be an injustice to any of the legends who came before them to say that The Highwomen is an instant classic worthy of sharing the same shelf.
18. Sarah Slean – Metaphysics (2017)
For a singer who often sang about the world around her, present and past, in delightfully unique ways, Metaphysics was a soberingly personal record for Sarah Slean. Many of the lyrics were autobiographical, referencing her recent divorce. She even went as far as to name one of the songs after herself. Yet, as painful as such an experience can be, Sarah approached it with poise, never placing blame and expressing appreciation for having had the experience, even if in hindsight she felt it probably could have been avoided. Once again, she captivated with her music using a range of styles that sometimes felt like fusing elements of past albums, resulting in a mix that could be suitably described as a Best Of Sarah Slean.
17. KT Tunstall – KIN (2016)
KT Tunstall might be long dubbed a two-hit-wonder from the 2000s, but her musical output remained as strong as ever in the mid-2010s with her fifth album KIN. The album, the first in a trilogy with the final installment still to come, returned KT to the smooth mid-tempo acoustic pop sound from her earlier albums with lush production and refreshing melodies. What adds to the pleasant nature of the album is how the album is positive and forward-facing, taking a glass-half-full approach in songs about self-acceptance and enjoying the good things in life. KIN is simply a sonically pleasing and comforting record.
16. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (2013)
If green is the colour of envy and blue is the colour of sadness, orange must be the colour of loneliness and channel ORANGE is its soundtrack. Musically, channel ORANGE is a minimal record, but the lyrics overflow with themes around lust, desire, and addiction, as they carry over light rhythmic and sometimes hypnotic beats. Together, all of these things, coupled with him having admitted to carrying feelings for another man in a blog post just weeks prior to the record’s release, play into the overwhelming sense of loneliness one can unwillingly box themselves in with. Not everyone can relate with channel ORANGE, but for those who can, it’s a record that can make you feel just a little less lonely.
15. fun. – Some Nights (2012)
Some Nights was the second album by fun. that also became their breakthrough. And they haven’t released another since. Singer Nate Ruess dropped a solo album, and member Jack Antonoff would go on to form indie rock band The Bleachers, as well as write and produce a ton of hits by a wide array of artists. But for a chunk of time, fun. led the airwaves with a pair of hits We Are Young and Some Nights. The record was a representation of the reckless days from youth, themed around the thoughts one might think about at night in a very self-depreciating way. Using bouncy melodies to mask the broken relationships, past experiences, and hopes for the future, fun. provided a bittersweet musical experience to remind us that we all have moments we would change, want to relive or things we think we want to achieve, even if we never do anything about it. Some nights it’s nice to just think about them.
14. Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle (2016)
The Bird & The Rifle continued Lori McKenna’s late-career boost, earning her an array of country music awards, a Grammy award for Humble & Kind, and more avenues that saw her contribute to albums by some of the biggest names in country music. On the record, Lori captures honesty and emotion through the tiniest details that set a scene just enough to put you in the middle of it. The songs are relatable, even if you don’t share the experiences in the stories she tells. From dreaming about leaving a broken relationship on Wreck You, to reminiscing about being young on We Were Cool, to giving life advice on Humble & Kind, Lori hits every mark in just the right way.
13. Robyn – Body Talk (2010)
What she may have lacked in mainstream success and chart-topping hits, Robyn more than made up for with a solid collection of dance and pop songs that made their mark. Beyond the peak-confidence tracks and the robotic themes, her songs often evoke sadness and loneliness, even in times of euphoria. Call Your Girlfriend is one of the most profounding sensitive songs as she gives advice to a guy she’s been seeing as ‘the other woman’ to be delicate when breaking up with his girlfriend. And try to find a dance club anywhere that won’t play Dancing On My Own – it shouldn’t exist. Prior to the release of Body Talk, most of the tracks were previewed across three EPs that help set the tone for what would be an iconic album, not just for Robyn, but for broken-hearted club-goers everywhere.
12. Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials (2011)
Florence + The Machine became an indie darling with the first album Lungs, but it was Ceremonials that really put Florence on the map. Like Lungs, it was filled with a string of singles that exploded one after another. Shake It Off, No Light No Light, Never Let Me Down, Spectrum – which was remixed by Calvin Harris, giving Florence their first #1 single in the UK and topping the US dance chart. It’s an album of dramatic, heavily layered anthems that explode from the moment Only If For A Night hits its first chorus, to the closing sounds of Leave My Body. Ceremonials is filled with massive choruses, gigantic vocals and tons of wall-to-wall sound. It’s like you’re in the middle of a stadium with every listen.
11. Adele – 21 (2011)
Few will deny the presence Adele had this decade and the impact she had with her music. When 21 initially came out, everyone knew it was something special, but few could suspect just how massive it would be. I initially predicted that Adele would be “the name of the year,” and “this year’s success story,” but that maybe she wouldn’t have a strong radio presence. Little did I know…! Adele’s success was as much timing as it was her talents. When Rolling In The Deep and Someone Like You came out, the world was starved for music without a heavy beat, something not EDM or electropop-flavoured, something that felt more traditionally ‘authentic’. She was exactly that with an album of heavy hitters in both the singles and the deep cuts.
10. Beyoncé – Beyoncé (2013)
When Beyoncé dropped a full-length video album in the middle of December, she rewrote the rulebook, shattering expectations for how music stars could release albums. Instead of announcing a date, releasing a single, a video, another single, a few interviews, maybe a tour, Beyoncé simply dropped the entire project without notice. Initially I was skeptical that such a thing could be possible and still contain quality material. Two tracks in, I was blown away. Beyoncé not only entered new territory for herself, she broke new territory for what pop superstars should be capable of, shying away from radio-friendly, hook-laden pop songs in favour of electronic-minimalistist hypersexual self-empowerment jams that gave her ownership over her image and her life. And each track had a full-production music video. A solid album with a solid promotional angle. That was a true pop culture moment.
9. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
It’s in the details. The multiple layers, references within references, and the delivery. Kendrick Lamar struck out on To Pimp A Butterfly by intricately creating a set of poetic, free-flowing, and emotionally charged verses across 79 minutes of recording. Every verse, every line and every word had a purpose. To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t just a collection of songs that made up an album, it was one single piece that tackled heavy political, racial and social themes. What further drove the point was how he left room for discussion. He didn’t just say his piece and close the book. He created dialogue and encouraged engagement. If there’s one record this decade worth hearing, To Pimp A Butterfly is it.
8. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION (2015)
Call Me Maybe was the perfect pop song because of how simple and pure the lyrics and melody was. It’s easy to underestimate the challenge of writing an undeniable pop melody and yet Carly did it. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise what she was truly capable of when she released her next album. One might even go far enough to say that when E•MO•TION dropped, pop music was changed. Yeah, it wasn’t a best-seller and it didn’t have any big hits, but E•MO•TION is pop music at its absolute finest and that became its narrative. Heavy on 80s flavours, E•MO•TION was melody after melody, earworm after earworm of Pop. Music. Perfection. It was the pop album for people not afraid to like pop music, and suddenly, it became cool to like it again.
7. Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You (2018)
That it took nearly a decade and a half and six albums for Brandi Carlile to finally get noticed outside of her musical circle is surprising, but that it was By The Way, I Forgive You that did it was no surprise. Across the album’s ten tracks, Brandi sings about forgiveness, queer struggles, motherhood, addiction, loss, and relationships strains. It’s a liberating album that shows incredible focus and drive that would also receive the attention of the Recording Academy, who nominated Brandi for six Grammy awards, including Album of the Year, for this, along with Record of the Year and Song of the Year for The Joke. She won three.
6. Years & Years – Communion (2015)
Communion is a mood. Lead by out and proud singer Olly Alexandre, who plays around with sex and control and how they each contribute to the relationships he sings about throughout the record. Behind the melodies and layers of synths on Communion is an album about insecurities, unhealthy desires and self-destruction. Using slick and glossy production, it captures the feeling of being emotionally alone and craving affection while in failing or unstable relationships. As a genre, electropop may not be where you’d expect to find emotion in music but on Communion, it’s what you get.
5. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur (2012)
There are two essential break-up albums in the 2010s: Adele’s 21 and Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur. Where 21 romanticized the period following a breakup, focusing on rebuilding self-confidence and offering olive branches, Voyageur takes a bitterly realistic route, making it strikingly relatable by depicting different points along the trajectory of a failing relationship, from the moment you know it’s over to the point after-the-fact where you wonder how you even thought it was feasible. She ends the album with a song about Natalie Maines’ infamous “just so you know” quote, which ultimately lead to the Dixie Chicks stepping away from music – and then she herself took a break from music. (Both are expected to release new albums in 2020!)
4. Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011)
Born This Way was an explosive record leading up to its release. It cemented how polarizing Lady Gaga was as an artist at that point, leading those who loved her to love her more while those not on board became more passionate about it. But the album is one that, despite clearly being a product of the early 2010s production-wise, somehow got better with age. Maybe it was the glitchiness of ARTPOP or the faux-country of Joanne that makes one yearn for the days of Gaga’s intentionally wild and quirky persona. Maybe it was the excitement of the era as a whole, where every aspect of the album’s aggressive promotion was strategically planned to a T. Or maybe it’s because, when all that other stuff is stripped away and the album has room to breathe purely as a musical entity, it’s a solid pop record from the inhale that begins Marry The Night to the flatline of the sax that closes out The Edge Of Glory.
3. William Fitzsimmons – Lions (2014)
My introduction to William Fitzsimmons was through Fortune – that rare moment of hearing a song for the first time that stopped me on the spot and drew me in with every note and detail. And then I had to listen again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. What makes Lions even more striking is that nearly every track on it would have received the same result. Stop, drop, and listen. The strength lies within the ambience of each song. Depth added to the recordings in the way of production and arrangement, layering the songs with additional guitars, strings, drums, backing vocals, or subtle electronic blends using synthesizers, loops, or just simply reverb. Matched with William’s solemn songwriting that evokes loss, failure, nostalgia, his delivery keeps these themes in check as if he’s yet to externalize the pain revealed in the lyrics. The album is a musical journey that captures complete attention and takes you with it.
2. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob (2013)
Upon its release, Heartthrob was dubbed by many longtime fans as a sellout album. Yet, it’s an album that made sense for anyone who followed their progression from acoustic punk singer/songwriters nearly 15 years prior to the synth+guitars of The Con and Sainthood. Despite the slick advancement in their sound, Heartthrob was still clearly a Tegan and Sara record, with the same innocent vulnerability that themed So Jealous‘ thoughtful whatever’s-on-my-mind lyrics. What were new wave influences then became modern-day synthpop now, fused with elements of Tiffany meets Roxette meets Cyndi Lauper meets a Heart power-ballad. Each song contributes to the overall success of the record’s sound, but like pretty well all of their albums, Heartthrob truly plays best in its entirely rather than individual songs.
1. Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek (2012)
Before Bear Creek, Brandi Carlile was still honing her place in the music world of folk and Americana. Each of her three prior albums presented a good chunk of who she and her band were and what they had to offer, but it wasn’t until Bear Creek that everything truly came together on one record. Recorded in the secluded Bear Creek studios in Washington state, this record captured the essence of roots and soul in the recordings with a perfect combination of foot stompers, hand clappers, and mellow acoustic numbers. Instant classics like Hard Way Home and That Wasn’t Me evoke recording styles of 60s and 70s soul and country records, while In The Morrow goes for a more contemporary country-flavoured folk. Bear Creek is a soothing album that comforts the soul from start to finish.