Honorable Mentions: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange, Lorde – Melodrama, Tame Impala – Currents, St. Vincent – St. Vincent, Beyoncé – Lemonade, Arcade Fire – The Suburbs, Grizzly Bear – Shields, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, Chrome Sparks – Sparks EP, Flying Lotus – You’re Dead.
10. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights (2017)
A sprawling, aware, and emotional catharsis, Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights showcases both her vocal & literary gifts. Her lyrics are sophisticated, like formal literature, and will cut your arteries with piercing emotion. She makes the saddest music I even know of, but it is perfect in times when you just want to be sad—or contemplative. No artist can replicate her art. Check out the lyrics in the above photo; each song reaches that level. She is a genius, artistically and intellectually.
9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
The least generic album of the most generic band on this list, Modern Vampires of the City marks a clear evolution in the maturity of Ezra and his indie band. The sounds are more organic and pulsating—while the lyrics are far more vulnerable. It’s easy to love the songs Step, Hannah Hunt, and Diane Young.
8. Roland Faunte – Sewing Kit (2018)
This is my favorite album of the decade along with Frank Ocean’s Blonde, but, given its niche characteristics and indie audience, I couldn’t rank it over a peak Kanye album or anything. But Sewing Kit is astonishing. Roland—whom I met in college and am friends with, as you may know—wrote, produced, sang, played, and engineered each song all by himself. The product is a mesmerizing, cathartic tale of a man’s coming-of-age story—with each darkest time and mental health issue documented, as they pushed him to the brink of suicide. The production’s already amazing, but the lyrics are some of the most vivid, imaginative, relatable out there.
7. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (2015)
“I make music because I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through.” Summertime ’06 is my favorite rap album. Vince is a smart, informed, eloquent man who’s been to hell and back. His father was a crack addict and dealer who left him. He was soon pressured into a gang. This explores his summer of 2006, centered around the hedonism of the Crips (his gang) and a girl that rocked his world. Señorita, Lift Me Up, 3230, and Like It Is are all amazing but favorite song is Summertime. “My teachers told me we were slaves, my mama told me we were kings, I don’t know who to listen to, I guess we’re somewhere in between, my feelings tell me love is real, but feelings are known to get you killed, I feel as if I’m misconstrued, I spend my moments missing you, I’m searching for atonement, do I blame my darker tone? I know some things are better left unsaid and people left alone, pick up the phone, don’t leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world.” If that’s not poetry, nothing is.
6. Beach House – Teen Dream (2010)
Everything Beach House releases is gold. Pioneers in the genre “Dream Pop,” Beach House, like Radiohead, reinvents itself with every album—while maintaining its seducing, trancelike, dreamlike sound. I’ve listened to them for a decade, but each year I still find new settings in which I like BH. I first just listened when depressed; now I listen when studying, driving, with friends, etc. Teen Dream is brilliant. Its first four songs are genius. Its closers, 10 Mile Stereo and Take Care, are genius. But Teen Dream is best when played from start to end.
5. Kanye West – Yeezus (2013)
Like Kanye, Yeezus is bizarre. But I can’t stop listening. It can be superficial, profoundly vulnerable, sonically minimalistic, and sonically maximalistic. It is like a rollercoaster from the future. It refuses to be rap. Yeezus combines house, industrial, baroque, IDM, ambient, and electro elements of sound mashed together over fragmented, convoluted ideas. You pick up new sounds and thoughts every time you listen—particularly with the brilliant Hold My Liquor, New Slaves, Guilt Trip, and Blood on the Leaves. It’s super innovative and futuristic.
4. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) is like a play. With a poem that gains lines throughout the album and songs centered around those lines, TPAB covers all facets of a man’s life, confronting the strife of growing up in Compton, temptations of fame & money, and innate human desires & vanities. I remember the first time I heard it, right before I saw him at Bonnaroo in 2015. It’s not for everyone—and definitely one that’s also best when heard from start to end— but if it is your type, you will fall in love. From the jazz & funk elements to the Thundercat & Flying Lotus features to impeccable verses, it has something for every snob. It also gives unique access to the struggles, successes, insecurities, and psyche of a young African-American artist. His recent music sucks, but his early work’s godlike.
3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
GKMC is an album held together by skits over the course of a long, materialistic, grandiose night out with young Kendrick and his friends. Each song is FIRE. This actually got me into rap. Kendrick cooks up nothing but heat in everything from The Art of Peer Pressure to Money Trees to m.A.A.d city to Swimming Pools to Compton. You could play the album at a big college party—everyone loves KDot’s flow and beats on this LP—but what stands out is that even the hits contain many layers of nuance. People often drink and party to Swimming Pools because it has an amazing beat and fast bars, but the song is condemning alcohol and the many vices it brings to one’s life. These layers are further embodied in Sing About Me I’m Dying of Thirst, which many Kendrick snobs (I included) consider his best song. Over 12 minutes, Kendrick scrutinizes himself via the perspectives of others in his life, each verse dedicated to a person (check out the lyrically brilliant quote in the pic above). Its poetic lines are mind-boggling. All in all, GKMC barely beats TPAB due to its combo of commercial appeal and artistry.
2. Frank Ocean – Blonde (2016)
Blonde is my favorite album of all time. It’s one of those where everyone has their own favorites, though. You can only listen to Frank with a clear conscience and nice headphones. Then you’ll feel his reclusive genius. He grew up in New Orleans, was bullied for his intelligence, moved into his dorm at the University of New Orleans a week before Katrina destroyed it, slipped into poverty & addiction, moved to Houston and became homeless, moved to LA and quickly caught fame as a songwriter for everyone Justin Bieber to Beyoncé to John Legend, joined a talented yet infamous rap group called Odd Future, distanced himself from rap, dropped a debut R&B album that racked up many Grammy wins, and earned his ludicrous reputation. Listening to Blonde is like gazing at your reflection as the world slowly melts around you. It is personal, ranging from his biggest pains to love to addiction to mental health to many other topics. It is calculatedly soothing at times, with little drum use. It shows color, euphoria, and sonic blasts at others. It dabbles Frank’s impressive vocal range while alternating between R&B, rap, and ambient sounds. It draws from Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Aphex Twin, and D’Angelo. It’s smooth, organic, touching, inspiring, moody, and relatable. It’s incomparable. My favorite songs—in order—are Nights, Ivy, Seigfried, Solo (Reprise), Nikes, and White Ferrari.
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the most influential, groundbreaking albums of all time. It’s also arguably the most well-produced. It’s stacked with brilliant songs and seamless from start to end. Dark Fantasy kicks off the album with a delicious ensemble of symphonic sounds, transitioning into some solid vocal work. We hear songs like Power in sports arenas often. All of the Lights has the most instruments & vocals I’ve ever heard in a song, yet it works perfectly. Gorgeous & Devil in a New Dress exhibit rare high-quality Kanye verses. Runaway tears into his insecurities—over a piano tune and drums & synth. Blame Game combines everything great from Aphex Twin to John Legend. Lost in the World manifests Kanye’s extremely diverse palette of sounds and his introspectiveness. MBDTF is also one of the most critically acclaimed albums ever, with a 94 on Metacritic and the highly rare distinction of a 10.0, not 10, on Pitchfork. Critics love all from the scope to the sound engineering to the cerebral use of string, brass, and piano instruments. This album is as sophisticated as Kanye is controversial. An audacious, stunning, Earth-shattering work, it will influence for decades, perhaps centuries, as a brilliant and iconic album of its time.