The best albums of the 2010s

We're now approaching the end of another decade, so it's time to highlight a selection of the best albums of the 2010s.

Set of headphones leaning against a stack of vinyl records
Photo by blocks / Unsplash

It's hard to believe, but we are now approaching the end of another decade. Back in 2010, people still bought CDs, MP3 players were on their last legs, and streaming was yet to become a mainstream option.

As we enter 2020, it's rare to find anyone who doesn't stream music or listen to it on their smartphone or connected home speakers. With so much technological change, it's no surprise that music has changed, too.

The past ten years have seen music become more stylistically varied as it's now possible to listen to, and be influenced by, a greater range of music and genres spanning decades, thanks to streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music.

It makes sense, then, to cast an eye back over the past decade, and highlight some of the best albums of the 2010s.

Lil Wayne - I Am Not A Human Being (2010)

Fresh from the success of the hit single Lollipop from the rapper's ongoing Tha Carter album series, Lil Wayne was already established as one of the most innovative rappers of recent times. Tha Carter III was released two years earlier, but Wayne had released two mixtapes and a rock album (Rebirth) since.

I Am Not A Human Being (IANAHB) was initially announced as an EP, but became a full-length album. It was critically well-received, commercially successful, but had the off-the-cuff feel of some of Lil Wayne's earlier material. The collection has some of his most inventive and creative lyrics, too.

Although Wayne's second decade as an artist was to be scattered, filled with legal issues, and inconsistent releases, IANAHB is Wayne at his very best.

Lady Gaga - Born This Way (2011)

In 2019, Lady Gaga has reinvented herself a cultured singer, releasing duet albums, scaling back on the visual shock tactics, and even starring in the feature film A Star Is Born. But, back in 2011, she was gearing up to release her second album, Born This Way. Its predecessor, 2008's The Fame, was a phenomenon.

So, how do you follow up something that well-loved? Born This Way doesn't change too much of what came before, but saw Gaga delve into her influences more than she had. She revealed herself to be a metal fan with Electric Chapel, while taking musical and lyrical cues from her most obvious influence, Madonna.

The album's title track also elevated Gaga to an LGBTQ+ advocate and icon. Despite its apparent commercial success, it wasn't as even as The Fame but propelled Gaga to become one of the most famous artists of the decade.

Ginger Wildheart - 555% (2012)

It's hard to imagine now, but back in 2012, crowdfunding was still a new industry. Patreon didn't yet exist, Instagram was still in its infancy, and despite the internet making music more readily available, it was harder than ever for artists to make a living through music.

This was especially true for those without substantial record label backing. Ginger Wildheart, of The Wildhearts fame, was in such a position. Without major label support, and The Wildhearts looking all but over, Ginger, as the lead songwriter, still had a passionate following.

Enter, PledgeMusic. The site was set up explicitly to enable musicians like Ginger to connect directly with fans. In fact, when Ginger did launch his project, it quickly surpassed it's funding goal to reach 555% of the original target, lending the album its name. Not only was this a personal turning point for Ginger, but it was the revitalization of his solo career.

The album itself, in keeping with his past solo collections, was a varied, sprawling album in the best sense. There were heavy tracks placed next to delicate, intimate songs, and, most importantly, had some of Ginger's best songwriting on display throughout.

Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon (2013)

Laura Mvula's debut album was one of those rare releases, widely hyped, but totally deserving of such praise. Mvula had been involved in music since her teens. However, after graduating from university with a degree in composition, she had entered into teaching. Still, she pursued her musical passion on the side, writing songs on her laptop, which was still a reasonably new development.

The songs eventually led to her being signed to RCA, with an EP released ahead of the album. It was thanks to this release that Sing To The Moon launched to such excitement. It was well-deserved, too. STTM was stylistically diverse, incorporating elements of jazz, R&B, and gospel to create something new and unique. In many ways, that an album so accomplished could come from such a new artist spoke to Mvula's talent as a songwriter.

Taylor Swift - 1989 (2014)

Before 2014, Swift was already one of the most successful country music acts of all time. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she was also a songwriter, too. But, she was defined by her links to country music, and the perceived catalog of breakup songs become a running joke.

So, it was time to reinvent herself, which she did with stunning success on 1989. The strength of her songwriting was still on show, but the country styling was replaced with decidedly modern production. There was a heavy synthpop influence across the whole record, a conscious decision to refer to the title, the year of Swift's birth.

It was an enormous stylistic shift but turned Swift from a successful artist into one of the biggest pop stars in the world, a title she has retained since.

The Darkness - The Last Of Our Kind (2015)

The Darkness came from out of nowhere to become one of the biggest rock bands in the world between 2003 and 2004. They released the multi-platinum Permission To Land (their debut album), achieved fame with their international hit, I Believe In A Thing Called Love, and even released a now-beloved Christmas song.

But success had its downside, and, after their second album failed to reach such heights, the band effectively disintegrated. After some relationship building and sobriety, they reformed in 2012, with their fans firmly behind them. In truth, The Last Of Our Kind isn't all that dissimilar from what came before, but there was one big difference; consistency.

Every song on the album retained their upbeat, Classic Rock-influenced style, but the songwriting, production, and delivery were the best they'd ever been. It helps that the collection was concise, too, clocking in at just ten tracks and 41 minutes. The songs were varied as well, shifting between hard rocking riffs and more progressive sections to great effect.

David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)

One of the world's most celebrated musicians, David Bowie, had been mostly inactive since suffering from a heart attack in the early 2000s. He made a surprise comeback in 2013 with the release of The Next Day, a consciously self-referential album that harked back to his classic 70s output.

Then, in January 2016, was the silent release of Blackstar, what we now know to be Bowie's final album; he died just two days after the record's release. This album couldn't really be more different from The Next Day. Blackstar didn't look back, but defiantely forwards. Lyrically, Bowie dealt with his impending death and mortality, while he relentlessly experimented musically.

In many ways, there was never a more typically Bowie album than Blackstar. Knowing this would be his final album, he intentionally went against fan expectations, and his past release, to create a collection of songs that are intense, dense, complicated, but rewarding like no other record in his catalog.

Chronixx - Chronology (2017)

For the past four decades, reggae has been defined by the classic sounds of Bob Marley. For good reason; he was the first reggae artist to gain international success and amassed more classic songs than most other artists. Still, much of reggae's development since has been hidden from those outside Jamaica.

For a time, the genre became a more intense mix of reggae rhythms and US-style hip hop. Chronixx, however, is widely praised for being a modernizing force in reggae, but without forgoing its soul in the process.

Chronology, his debut album, gleefully indulges in reggae but doesn't focus on the past. Bob Marley's socially-conscious music was a product of the time, and Chronixx takes a similar approach. He delicately balances respect for the genre without being afraid of it. Lyrically, much of Chronology tackles Jamaican heritage, black identity, love of the style, and the country that first developed it.

Fickle Friends - You Are Someone Else (2018)

The synthpop revival primarily defined the 2010s. The beloved 80s genre found fans in those who grew up listening to it, and those fans were beginning to launch their own musical careers. But, rather than being an exercise in nostalgia, Fickle Friends added their unique stamp to the sound.

The band had gained a large underground following, thanks to their self-released singles on Spotify and relentless, energetic live shows. You Are Someone Else distilled everything that made Fickle Friends such a joy to listen to into a recorded album. The restless energy the group performs with remains intact, and the songwriting became more accomplished, too.

The album is long, clocking in at 16 songs over 51 minutes. While that may be a problem for some groups, every single song on the album firmly deserves to be here. It's a cohesive release that works just as well in a single sitting as it does plucking out individual tracks. It is absolutely impossible to listen to YASE and not walk away with a smile on your face, the songs burrowing into your head.

Billie Eilish - When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)

A common theme among these releases is that the artists develop on their own and create their unique voice without management or record label meddling. Nowhere is this independence shown more clearly than with Billie Eilish. When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a record that could only exist in 2019, where artists can find fans organically online without interference.

There's certainly very little chance that an album as bizarre, challenging, and, at times, downright weird, could have become so successful in previous decades. Eilish wrote and recorded the album with her brother, creating an entirely incomparable sound.

The production is bass-heavy, and minimal, giving plenty of room to Elish's intimate, ethereal vocals. This is an album that delves into the complexities of growing up in the internet age (Eilish was just 17 at the time of the album's release), while also taking gleeful inspiration from some of its strangest corners.