Top Albums of the Decade

As the 2010s come to a close and we look back on the evolution of music, the hardest genres have begun to blur and conventions of music have been broken. Many new artists have emerged, and many older artists have resurged. So, during this natural time of reflection, I’d like to revisit some of my favorite albums of the past ten years. If you haven’t heard of them, I’d encourage exploration, and if you have, revisiting classics is always enjoyable as our perception of music changes as time continues. 

J. Cole – Forest Hills Drive (2014)

Goodness, where do I start? This album is thirteen tracks of nothing but lyricism from the mind of J. Cole. The featureless record expresses Cole’s disgust with rappers and a culture that perpetuates the oppression of African Americans through violence, drugs, and lack of aspirations and education. This album employs parallelism of Cole’s reality vs dreams and societal and cultural expectations vs Cole’s own desires and identity. The song “A Tale of Two Cities” explores this parallelism in the most overt fashion out of any of the tracks, contrasting Cole’s self-serving desires to rob, steal, and use violence to escape abject poverty, with his own engrained morals and values. The song ends with an eerie plea to God for forgiveness that sends chills down the listener’s spine. Forest Hills Drive also preaches gratitude on the track, “Love Yourz” which features a falsetto hook repeating, “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours”. Cole’s melodic voice carries more impact when considering the dire childhood he lived and described throughout the album. 

When writing this list, I was certain J. Cole needed to be included due to his superb lyricism, but picking just one of his albums is akin to picking a favorite child. Although I chose Forest Hills Drive, almost all of his releases are impressive, but his Soundcloud only EP, Friday Night Lights is a true sleeper record filled with classics and is well worth a listen. 

Willie Watson – The Folk Singer Volume One (2014)

The listening experience of this record is truly disorienting. With each playthrough I feel as though I am transported back in time one hundred years to a small, creaking porch of a sharecropper in the American south listening to a yodeling drawl backed up by strumming. A majority of the tracks are sung in a rhythmic 4/4, but Watson contrasts his vocals with a wide range of banjo plucks and guitar riffs. The opening track “Midnight Special” is a cover of a classic folk ballad performed in its truest form, with confident singing backed up only by rhythmic chords of Watson’s acoustic guitar. The song “Mother Earth” is possibly the strongest track off the album, and it has a simple premise. The song centers around death as the great equalizer of all men, casting aside material considerations with the repeated chorus, “When it all ends up, you got to go back to Mother Earth”. This album as a whole is the quintessential representation of folk in a modern age and pays homage to the successes of a withering genre, while adding to it in a remarkable way. 

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE (2012)

Teenage romance, heartbreak, and R&B. This mind warping, highly experimental, synth laden record shows Frank Ocean’s intrepid creativity. The album centers around the emptiness and isolation of a wealthy and cushy upbringing. It discards money for raw human emotion, even including a track entitled, “Not Just the Money” which is a minute longer recording of a woman admonishing her child for his/her material want. The song “Pyramids” is a ten-minute electronic ballad in which Ocean shows of his vocal abilities in a surprisingly high key for a male singer. He sings of Cleopatra, who represents an escort or stripper trapped in the upper echelons of the high class Pyramids, a brothel or strip club. It emphasizes the albums themes of the pitfalls of excess and the negative effects imbalanced power dynamics. 

The tracks are layered in meaning and beautiful. They embody a skillful blending of Rap, R&B, soul, and jazz. Andre 3000 has a verse on the track “Pink Matter” that poses existential questions about the roles of men and women in society, and the meaning of life. The song has heavenly vocals from Ocean contrasted with timidly voiced machine gun flows from Andre and backed up by a slow march of electric guitar twangs. If you only listen to one song off the album, I’d recommend this one, but you’d be much better off experiencing the album in its entirety. This is music that will challenge your prototype of music itself. 

Migos: Culture (2017)

The embodiment of the Atlanta Trap genre, this triplet-filled ab-lib-fest is the pinnacle of the Migos discography. The tracks utilize heavy synths and 808s, and have high profile features from names like Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, and the father of Atlanta trap, Gucci Mane. This album marked the beginning of the “New Wave” in Atlanta, which helped to revitalize the rap scene for a new generation of rappers in the dirty south. Its massive success from songs like “Bad and Boujee”, “Get Right Witcha”, and “Brown Paper Bag” helped to boost the Quality Control label to astronomical heights, and helped pave the way for other Atlanta artists such as Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, and YFN Lucci. While lyrical substance isn’t this record’s strong suit, the Migo’s confident delivery, and chemistry as a trio in combination with stellar production from Metro Boomin, Murda Beats, and Zaytoven creates an album that will make you forget about the skip button entirely.

Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap (2013)

This second EP of Chance the Rapper’s discography is an innovative, flamboyant, and defiant production that rejects the norms of Chicago rap for an expressive take on Chance’s life as a young adult. The EP is filled with melodic choruses and hooks, extremely creative lyrical wordplay, and Chance’s signature adlibs, which function like rhythmic devices helping the songs to bounce along, similar to 808s or other drum kits. It has pervasive drug themes, but many songs explore the unrecognized downsides of drug use. The song “Cocoa Butter Kisses” is one of the biggest hits of the EP, and centers around the negative social effects Chance experiences from living his drug-filled life, particularly his strained relationship with his mother. The most lyrically interesting track “Pusha Man” comes in at over seven minutes long and is two different productions combined into one. The first chapter is an idyllic celebration of the rapper lifestyle, full of guns, drugs, money and women, where Chance brags about his drug sales. The second chapter is the direct contrast to this lifestyle and paints a grim picture of the lonely drug dealer, driving around in a state of perpetual paranoia. This EP has extraordinary features, that serve to improve the record even more. Features from Vic Mensa, Nosaj Thing, and Noname, all improve the lyrical quality of the record, and contrast Chance’s distinctly expressive style. In my opinion, it’s Chance’s strongest release to this date, and if you’d like to check it out, be sure to listen on Soundcloud. It includes the original release order of the songs in the fashion they were meant to be listened to.

Cage the Elephant – Melophobia (2013)

Lead Singer Matt Schultz shows off his lyrical chops and diverse vocal range throughout this unique rock record. With a heavy helping of electric guitar from Brad Schultz and heart-thumping, adrenaline pumping drums from Jared Champion, the album has banger after banger. It represents the best improvisation and creative risks the band has taken, from distorted and heavily masked vocals on songs like, “Come a Little Closer” and “Halo” to quiet, entreating rock ballads complete with dejected metaphors and slow strumming on songs like, “Telescope” and “Hypocrite”. Many of the songs focus on the struggles of romance and difficulties of communicating vulnerability to someone you love. It does this with imagery filled analogies and a plentiful bounty of some of the best rock choruses I’ve heard encapsulated into a single album.

As an aside, I was fortunate enough to see Cage the Elephant live on their most recent tour. Matt Schultz came out wearing a full suit and Executioner’s hood (in the hellscape known as North Carolina summer) that he slowly began to strip whilst singing to reveal about ten successive layers of clothing. During his singing, jumping around on stage, and stripping, he proceeded to do a headstand while singing, “Cigarette Daydreams”. All of this, while he was so clearly intoxicated it seemed as though the stage hand had switched his water for wine. However, despite the ridiculous stage antics and what I assume was the raging influence of alcohol, his performance was phenomenal, and his singing was breathtaking. If that doesn’t speak to his musical ability, I’m not sure if there is anything that can. Should you receive the opportunity to see Cage the Elephant live, I implore you to take it, and I assure you that you will not regret the cost of admission. 

Noname – Telefone (2016)

Vibrant expressionism, clever lyricism, and afro-influenced beats produce this intensely profound record. Noname is a true poet, and the way we she skips across her beats weaving a colorful cloth of words makes her delivery truly unique. Her voice is hopeful and vibrant as it  her lyrical content changes from jocund to morose from track to track. Many of her songs center around her experience and struggles as a black woman, and the trials and tribulations faced by her relatives and ancestors. She doesn’t shy away from any darkness in her life, and the song “Bye Bye Baby” is a beautifully poetic track about abortion and Noname’s search for happiness. The song is saturated with biblical allusions including the repetition of the line, “My baby needs some milk and honey,” which were God’s blessings to Moses’ followers in the Promised Lands. 

As a straight white male, I sometimes have difficulty relating to much of the lyrical content, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, nor do I think others can’t enjoy it. Noname offers a truly fresh perspective on her personal black female experience, and the effects of significant phone calls she’s had on her decisions throughout her life. I’d encourage everyone to listen, because it offers a new worldview coupled with some of the most impressive and profound wordcraft of our generation.

These picks merely represent my own opinions, and this is by no means a comprehensive index. As well, due to natural article length constraints, I was forced to leave a lot of stellar artists and records off this list.  I’d love to discuss what your top picks would be in the comments below, specifically female artists, because my list is strongly lacking in that regard. I truly enjoy conversations in and around music and its ability to unite us, inspire change, and offer a unique view of the world. I’d like to end this list, as well as this decade on one last note concerning my mindset for both music and life:

Mistakes will be made.

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