Over the course of the last decade, radical shifts in how listeners consume music might have predicted the death of the album. And yet the form has flourished, as artists have reimagined what an album can do. Here are TIME’s picks for the best albums of the 2010s, presented chronologically.
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel… (2012)
Fiona Apple’s fourth album is full of dualities: inner demons and materialized threats; arch observations and moments of true sadness; white-hot anger and tender love. The tension between those elements animates this unpredictable, skeletal album, which finds Apple in full vocal bloom as she gives words workouts—just hear how “alone” on the shambolic “Left Alone” is stretched, again and again, to its breaking point—while working out the machinations of her always-on mind.
Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (2012)
Miguel’s 2010 debut All I Want Is You tipped him as a rising star in R&B—but his second album, 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, showed that his ambitions transcended genre. “Adorn” is a love song for an uneasy world, Miguel’s vocal becoming increasingly animated as he vows comfort to his intended; “The Thrill” swaggers and sways, describing the precise point where ecstasy meets danger; “Candles in the Sun” is a sun-dappled song of existential protest. A nervy, joyous album, Kaleidoscope Dream captures the fractured-world perspective of its title.
Beauty Pill, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are (2015)
Chad Clark, the chief creative force behind Beauty Pill, put his band’s process on full display while making this 2015 album, which was recorded during a two-week public session at the D.C.-area gallery Artisphere. But it’s not the gimmick that makes this album great. Instead it’s the exploratory spirit of Clark’s punked-up version of art rock, which makes songs like the glassine “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed” and the churning “Afrikaner Barista” feel like meticulously plotted puzzles.
Carly Rae Jepsen, E•MO•TION (2015)
After the early-decade blockbuster “Call Me Maybe,” Canadian pop savant Carly Rae Jepsen went on a treasure hunt for musical gems. Her third album celebrated her search’s success. E•MO•TION is packed with number one songs in heaven, kicking off with the saxophone-led crush chronicle “Run Away With Me” and running the emotional gamut through the longing of “Your Type,” the determination of “Making the Most of the Night” and the giddiness of “I Really Like You.” Few pop singers can pack as much feeling into entire songs as Jepsen can imbue in a single syllable, making E•MO•TION sparkle during even the darkest hours.
Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
An up-close examination of love, fidelity, and what happens when sacred bonds are ruptured, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, in audio and video form, is as audacious as it is heartfelt, channeling the roller coaster of emotions that run through someone’s mind after they’ve been hurt. The 2016 album is a joyride through genres—spiky rock on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” pick-up country on “Daddy Lessons,” cinematic hip-hop on “Freedom”—and living proof that, in the wake of betrayal, finding oneself can be the best revenge.
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (2016)
The 2010s were marked by too many losses on the pop front—David Bowie, Prince, Whitney Houston, George Michael. Canadian bard Leonard Cohen provided a kaddish of sorts with his 14th studio album, which was released a few weeks before his death in 2016. Cohen, whose flair for the poetic remained with him until the end, interrogates the cracks that allow life’s light to get in, his low burr framed by sparse arrangements—courtesy of his son Adam—that center his sardonic yet awed lyrics.
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings (2016)
Since her 2003 breakout on the long-gone reality show Nashville Star, Miranda Lambert has been one of country’s brightest-burning stars. Her 2016 double album upends expectations of what it means to be “country.” Over its two discs, she shows herself to be as much of a musical wanderer as the psychedelia-tinged “Highway Vagabond” promises, scuffing up her boots on “Ugly Lights,” brooding over wayward nights on “Vice,” and marinating in heartbreak on the devastating, delicate “Tin Man.”
Solange, A Seat At the Table (2016)
The third solo album by Solange Knowles is a necessary reframing of the protest-music ideal, using sonic space and Solange’s resolutely acrobatic vocals to drive home its points about being black in 21st-century America. A Seat At the Table pairs its plainspoken lyrics with light-on-its-feet soul: the pianos of “Cranes In the Sky” flutter around Solange’s voice; “Don’t Touch My Hair” blooms into a strutting assertion of the self; and “Junie” is an effervescent homage to funk pioneers Ohio Players.
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. (2017)
Picking just one of Kendrick Lamar’s releases for a decade-end list is tricky—even Untitled Unmastered, his 2016 collection of demos, is a solid hip-hop record. But with 2017’s DAMN., Lamar dove even deeper into his own head while expanding his sonic palette even further, adding Rihanna hooks (on the woozy “Loyalty”) and Fox News drops (on the critic-aimed “DNA”) as well as his own superhero origin story to his knotty, allusion-filled rhymes. DAMN. is a snapshot of an artist at the peak of his powers, who’s prepping to take himself even higher.
Ozuna, Aura (2018)
The second album from this Puerto Rican-born reggaetonero opens up the big tent of Latin music, which vaulted to popularity in the American mainland over the decade. Ozuna’s fusion of reggaeton’s riddims and the spare beats of late-10’s pop-trap make songs like the simmering “Única” ready for the club, while the collab with bachata king Romeo Santos, “Ibiza,” shows that his romanticism is just as potent when paired with that genre’s crisp guitars. Cardi B’s turn as Ozuna’s duet partner on “La Modela,” meanwhile, puts the spotlight on the “Bodak Yellow” MC’s sensitive side.
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