Musical Memories: Best albums and songs of the 2010s (so far)

By Ryan Reichard, Arts & Entertainment editor.

The 2010s have been a rather divisive decade in nearly aspect, but hardly any topic has been able to remain as divisive as the sonic landscape. Where some new artists landed rave reviews from critics, other established artists struggle to get the critical acclaim of their heyday. Some artists delivered cohesive and inventive new albums, while others got drowned out in the sonic sounds of the new musical landscape. For those artists who delivered quality music, they earned a spot on my lists of the best albums and songs of the 2010s so far.

Best Albums

1. “21” – Adele
More than an album about a painful breakup, “21” represents the moment that the world was reintroduced to chart dominating soul music. On Adele’s sophomore effort, she was solidified as the superstar we have to know today, due in part to bolstering ballads such as “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire to The Rain.” Rooted in its universally emotional core, “21” became the black horse of sales, selling millions upon millions of copies globally. Opening with the burning, heart-pounding “Rolling in The Deep” and ending with the solemn piano ballad “Someone Like You,” “21” is a classic from its first lines to its very last. In a time of dancing the cares away, Adele brought the soulful, emotional core back to the music industry.

2. “Lemonade” – Beyoncé
“Lemonade” is Beyoncé at her best. This album sees her exploring genres she previously had not delved into, such as country and rock. The most lyrically diverse Beyoncé album to date, “Lemonade” explores themes of black feminism, infidelity and reconciliation. What truly makes the album monumental is the humanity that dominates it. From her heartbreak when discovering her husband Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity to exploring issues with her father, “Lemonade” shrinks Beyoncé from a larger than life persona to another human experiencing hardships. Humanity is the very essence of music and Beyoncé showcases hers, creating one cohesive piece of artwork that will stand for many generations to come.

3. “Red” – Taylor Swift
While the pop juggernaut that is “1989” nearly made the list, it’s Swift’s fifth studio effort “Red” that nabs the spot. “Red” is the quintessential Swift album, and one that her following albums must be measured against. Rather than leaving country for full blown pop bangers, Swift eloquently straddles both musical worlds. The most surprising element is how she balances both musical genres with such ease, seamlessly blending country and pop for a genre bending album that pushes both into new frontiers. Much of this can be attributed to the country, pop and dubstep chart powerhouse that is “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Its daring blend of styles remains as one of Swift’s most notable achievements. However, the album’s centerpiece remains “All Too Well” a soft, acoustic ballad that turns the smallest detail into the biggest heartbreak and is Swift at her lyrical best. While the album is called “Red,” everything about it is pure gold.

4. “Damn.” – Kendrick Lamar
In a discography that contains classics such as “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” and “To Pimp a Butterfly,” it is difficult to select one Kendrick Lamar record that stands above the rest. However, “Damn” is a hip-hop behemoth and stands as Lamar’s best work to date. From beginning to end, Lamar takes you on a journey blending old-school hip-hop and new styles to set a new bar for other artists. Similar to past Lamar records, his voice and delivery style does most of the heavy lifting, blending and shifting styles faster than the blink of an eye, allowing Lamar to play multiple characters for a fluent narrative. “Damn” manages to balance a fine line between “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” while also finding a balance between personal lyrics and broad themes. “Damn” is the instant classic that Lamar has always had inside of him.

5. “Golden Hour” – Kacey Musgraves
Picking up where Taylor Swift left off with her album “Red,” Kacey Musgraves continues to break new ground in expanding country music’s borders by adding touches of psychedelia. Resulting in multiple Grammy wins, including “Album of the Year” and “Country Album,” “Golden Hour” puts Musgraves’ talents on full display. “Golden Hour” is carefully built, structured around immaculate production and impeccable, yet emotional songwriting. Lyrically, Musgraves takes more adventurous risks with broader themes that retain her classic attention to small details, making for a universal theme that applies to everyone while still remaining tailored specifically for the listener. “Golden Hour” shines a light on the county music outsider that is Musgraves, and proves that she was worth that “Album of the Year” win.

6. “Melodrama” – Lorde
After captivating audiences with her debut album “Pure Heroine,” Lorde proved she was not some one-hit wonder, and that she had much more to offer with 2017’s “Melodrama.” Reeling from lessons learned during her teenage years and her transition into adulthood, Lorde delivers her most cohesive and explorative album to date. Inspired by a house party, “Melodrama” will keep you busy exploring its content long after the last drink has been drunk and the music stops playing. Superbly written by Lorde and Jack Antonoff, “Melodrama” is more than a coming of age album. It is an album packed with layers of truth, wit and introspection, all bundled together by its rich and diverse production. “Melodrama” is a true masterpiece from one of pop music’s brightest young stars.

7. “The ArchAndroid” – Janelle Monae
Very few debut albums have made such a lasting impact, both culturally and musically, as R&B singer Janelle Monae’s debut album “The ArchAndroid.” Across the album, Monae ventures into new sonic territories combining rock, soul, big band and R&B together to form a fusion hybrid that takes the best works of both Prince and Michael Jackson and pairs them with Chuck Berry’s rocking flare. By distancing herself from a particular sound, Moane seems to discover one all her own. As “The ArchAndroid” progresses, so does the iconography that paint the picture of universal sentiments framed by Monae’s specific lyrical concepts. With statements that are both audacious and ambitious, Monae crafted one of the best debut albums to come out this decade.

8. “Glory Days” – Little Mix
Overshadowed by their United States counterparts Fifth Harmony, Little Mix has been churning out quality pop anthems for the better part of the last decade. However, their greatest achievement remains their 2016 album “Glory Days.” It is the group’s most personal and ambitious record to date. Yet it still retains the big hooks that the group is known for, all balanced by elements of pop, tropical and R&B production. Often compared to the Spice Girls, Little Mix differentiate themselves from their predecessors by retaining stronger vocal abilities and naturally charismatic vocals. “Glory Days” sees Perrie Edwards, Jesy Nelson, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirlwall come together to create pure pop perfection that was set to dominate the charts all across the globe. While the album is not as experimental as others, it perfectly plays into the niche that the girl group has carved out for themselves. After two years and one more album release, this record still stands as Little Mix’s “Glory Days.”

9. “Traveler” – Chris Stapleton
Before his pairing with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 Country Music Association Awards and spurring national interest in his music, Chris Stapleton released one of country music’s decade defining albums. “Traveler” is country music at its purest, from songs that tell a story to pedal steel based production. Stapleton’s time as a songwriter for others has allowed him to create nuanced characters that are rooted in loss, ruin and resignation with relative ease. Many of the characters are highlighted by Stapleton’s gravely, soulful voice, which gives the songs another layer of depth that does not remain understated. Every track retains a level of emotional authenticity that goes straight for the juggler. A brilliant debut, “Traveler” cements Stapleton’s place as a future country music legend.

10. “Days Are Gone” – Haim
The appeal of Haim is obvious. The band comprised of three sisters are unapologetically who they are, seemingly owning their lack of cool to become cool. They straddle the fine line between being mistaken for another one of the guys and maintaining a degree of their own femininity. While most of “Days Are Gone” can come off as overtly cheesy, there is an overwhelming degree of complexity in their music. Focused on sounds from ‘70s soft rock and ‘80s R&B, “Days Are Gone” incorporates elements from celebrated bands such as Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles with updated production to create a modern throwback deserving of the praise it received upon its release. The “Days Are Gone” for other bands, but with their debut album Haim show that they are here to stay.

Best Songs1

1. “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele

Reeling over what she considered to be her first real breakup, Adele turned her pain into poetry with this decade defining hit. Co-written with Paul Epworth, “Rolling in the Deep” took the pain from Adele’s heartbreak and channeled it into one of the greatest heartbreak songs to touch nearly every musical chart. “Rolling in the Deep” is power and pain at its most raw and relatable, delivered immaculately by Adele’s commanding voice. This soul and gospel infused song broke through the club boom and allowed old-school music to dominate the charts once more.

2. “Formation” – Beyoncé
After nearly two years of silence, Beyoncé came back bigger and better than ever with an ode to black feminists. First performed at the Super Bowl, Beyoncé took center stage to celebrate her southern roots and her blackness with the now iconic “I slay.” Mike Will Made It produced the synth-heavy justice cry. After the wrongful deaths of several African American community members, Beyoncé took her career spanning empowerment message and broadcast it to millions. While “Crazy in Love” is her most widely known song, “Formation” serves as the song that defines Beyoncé as an artist and what she stands for.

3. “You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen
Famous poet and musician Leonard Cohen took the title of his final album from one of the darkest tracks he has ever written. Created in the final years of his life, “You Want It Darker” finds Cohen bare the personal aspects of his life. Delving into his impending death, Cohen sings “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game.” The darker message of the song is accompanied by an ominous choir in the background as Cohen’s aged and gravelly voice takes center stage. Beautiful and haunting at the same time, “You Want It Darker” is a testament to Cohen’s artistry and his unwavering lyrical abilities.

4. “The Sound” – The 1975
Released as a single from the British alternative rock band’s second studio album “I Like It When You Sleep for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It,” “The Sound” is a bouncy ‘80s inspired synth rock driven song. The band’s lead singer Matthew Healy takes aim at his past relationship, where his former girlfriend questions nearly every aspect about who he is. His lyrical response is all too catty and works way better than it should. Perfect for the dancefloor or getting over an unaccepting ex, “The Sound” is a song you won’t turn your ear away from.

5. “The Wire” – Haim
On the three sisters’ debut album “Days Are Gone,” Haim earned comparison to music legends Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. Blending soft-rock and tinges of R&B, their debut album was lauded by critics and fans alike. Most of their praise was drawn to the track “The Wire” and for good reason. “The Wire” is the middle ground between Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, balancing an 80s soft-rock sound and with breakup lyrics that resemble a callback to “Rumors.” While Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles never made an album together, “The Wire” is an insight into how brilliant it would have sounded and quickly became a modern retro classic.

6. “Springsteen” – Eric Church
Country guy Eric Church gets sentimental on this 2011 track from his album “Chief.” On “Springsteen,” Church is taken back to a burning high school romance that was beginning to flicker out, and how hearing Bruce Springsteen takes him back to a specific moment in time with that love. More than love, “Springsteen” demonstrates how music and melodies are as ingrained in us as our most personal memories. Taken from a page in his life, “Springsteen’s” magic comes in the deeply personal lyrics. More than his personal story, “Springsteen’s” lyrics transports you back in time to high school and that first love who helped shape who we become. Nostalgic and wild, “Springsteen” will have you relieving your “Glory Days.”

7. “All Too Well” – Taylor Swift
“Red” is the album that every other Taylor Swift album will be compared to and for good reason. Part of this is due to one particular song, “All Too Well.” Arguably the most emotional and detailed song Swift has ever written, “All Too Well” is the balance between emotional heartbreak and painstaking details. Reeling on the heels of her rumored breakup with actor Jack Gyllenhaal, “All Too Well” demonstrates how autumn leaves fall into place when her relationship fell apart. A tragic tale spinning warm lattes into cold heartbreak, “All Too Well” is Swift at her lyrical best. Every single little detail, rather trivial or not, comes together to create one devastating and memorable heartache.

8. “Green Light” – Lorde
The lead single from Lorde’s momentous coming of age album “Melodrama,” “Green Light” was written by Lorde and her “Melodrama” co-writer Jack Antonoff. Rooted in a bouncy piano and synth pop beat, “Green Light” explores the theme of moving on from a relationship. Lorde awaits the “Green Light” to move on whilst being caught in relationship limbo. Across the track, the impatient heartbreak can be heard in Lorde’s sassy vocals. While it was not her most commercially successful single, “Green Light” showcases Lorde’s talent as an artist and how far she will go.

9. “DNA” – Kendrick Lamar
Easily one of the greatest rappers not only alive, but in general, Kendrick Lamar cemented his legacy with 2017’s critically acclaimed “Damn.” On “DNA,” Kendrick Lamar tells you exactly what is in his DNA. Lamar attacks the beat with some of his best flows to date. Lamar and the beat go back and forth battling out between exquisite flows and chaos in the sound. In the last minute of “DNA,” Lamar’s flows are some of the fastest he has ever delivered, spitting bars faster than what the bass heavy production can keep up with. With DNA, Lamar proves he is deserving of a seat at the table with rap’s greatest.

10. “Style” – Taylor Swift
While it may seem a bit pretentious of me to place two Taylor Swift songs in the best songs of the decade, hear me out. “Style” was released as the third single from Swift’s pop juggernaut album “1989.” Inspired by music in the ‘80s, “Style” is comprised of overlapping synthesizers, a steady drum beat, slick electric guitars and overlapping vocals from Swift. Swift’s vocals are more restrained and even tense at times, allowing for more of a misty vocal performance. A stark departure from Swift’s country roots, “Style” represents a more mature and innovative sound for the pop star. Taking broad iconic imagery from the ‘50s, “Style” waters them down to relatable characters. Rather than blaming another for their relationship demise, Swift instead focuses on the simple truth that toxic relationships never quite go out of “Style” with small, exceedingly detailed moments. Here’s to “1989” and this song never going out of “Style.”

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