Best albums from the last decade, according to critics

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April 8, 2020
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Best albums from the last decade, according to critics

Historically, albums represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Throughout the "album era" from the mid-1960s to 2000s, LPs (full-length albums) were the chief means by which artists communicated to their fans. Album art, hidden tracks, and concept albums changed the dynamic of the music industry and encouraged album production that was free of filler tracks and less dependent on hit singles. This seismic industry shift in the '60s was inspired by albums such as The Beatles' "Rubber Soul," which came out in the U.S. in 1965 without any singles being released.

Albums today offer a fresh way of approaching a changing industry and inspire artists to set musical structures and cohesive messaging that can add to the potency of musical releases. That doesn't mean they haven't struggled, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Sales of physical albums plunged by 6% between March 6 and 12, 2020, followed by an announcement from Amazon March 17 that it would halt incoming shipments of vinyl and CDs from music suppliers in the U.S. in order to prioritize essentials. 

Streaming platforms such as Spotify and Pandora recalibrated the music industry in recent years to again focus on single tracks and curated playlists rather than entire albums. People spent the last decade predicting the death of the album, but the format continues to be an integral, relevant, and celebrated component of musical creation and artistry. To that end, Stacker took a closer look at the best albums of the last decade by mining data from Metacritic. The resulting gallery was garnered from the top-rated critical reviews of albums from the decade. To be considered, albums had to have been released between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2019, and had to have 15 or more reviews in Metacritic's database. Reissued albums, EPs (extended-play recordings with more tracks than singles but not enough to constitute albums), multi-artist soundracks, compilations, live albums, and holiday albums were not considered. The songs were ranked by Metascore, with only one tie.

The question of what makes a great album is ultimately subjective, but throughout this gallery critical review centers around certain music themes such as narrative, lyrics, production, and musicality.

Many of the albums on this list deal with serious topics like race relations, the loss of a loved one, and living as a woman in a patriarchal society. Several deviate from a musician’s previous output, or showcase arrangements, lyricism, and overall songwriting that denote growth, freedom, and sophistication as an artist. In addition to musicianship and storytelling, these albums also reflect an increasingly diverse field of contributors that includes the LGBTQ+ community, women, and people of color.

Read on to learn why some of the world’s top critics chose these 50 albums as the decade’s finest creations in music.

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#50. 'Lonerism' (2012) by Tame Impala

- Metascore: 88

“Lonerism” received positive reviews from critics and fans in part due to its reminiscence of '60s and '70s psychedelic rock. The record makes nods to hallucinatory sounds of decades past with the band’s use of synthesizers, amorphous song structure, and overall sound. Others have compared the timbre of guitars and layering of harmony in parts of the album to the Beatles' "Revolver," specifically "Tomorrow Never Knows." “Lonerism” garnered positive feedback from mainstream music outfits such as Rolling Stone, NME, and Spin, and received Album of the Year recognition from Rolling Stone Australia, among others.

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#49. 'Undun' (2011) by The Roots

- Metascore: 88

“Undun,” featuring vocal contributions from Bilal, Dice Raw, and Big K.R.I.T., marks The Roots’ debut concept album. The story follows the quasi-fictional character Redford Stephens (inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ track “Redford”), a young black man who resorts to selling drugs to escape a life of poverty. Stevens also took part in composing and producing the record. The story maintains narrative cohesion even as it unfolds in reverse chronological order. Los Angeles Times music critic Ernest Hardy wrote that the album brings "a psychological depth and complexity rarely afforded black folks in modern pop culture, including (or especially) the borough of contemporary hip-hop.”

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#48. 'Magdalene' (2019) by FKA twigs

- Metascore: 88

FKA twigs' sophomore effort tailed her first release by five years. The British songwriter uses the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, frequently portrayed as a former prostitute in biblical teachings and pop culture, to zoom in on FKA twigs' sexuality and public perception. While working on the album, the artist's then-relationship with "Twilight" star Robert Pattinson was under heavy public criticism and she was recuperating from the removal of uterine fibroids.

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Bruce // Wikimedia Commons

#47. 'Designer' (2019) by Aldous Harding

- Metascore: 88

"Designer" is Aldous Harding’s folk-infused third record. Multiple music critics commented on the surrealism of the lyrics in the song "The Barrel," including the line, “The wave of love is a transient hut/The water’s the shell and we are the nut.” John Parish, who helmed the production of Harding’s previous record, returned to produce “Designer.” Harding’s trademark quirkiness comes through in the music video for “The Barrel,” in which she stares directly into the camera for much of the time.

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#46. 'Run the Jewels 3' (2016) by Run the Jewels

- Metascore: 88

A follow-up to “Run the Jewels 2,” the third album from duo Killer Mike and El-P includes guest performances from several hip-hop/R&B vets, such as Danny Brown, Joi, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington. A critic for the Chicago Tribune described “RTJ3” as "an album about the often underestimated power of the powerless, even as it celebrates the almost telepathic collaboration between two of the era’s most gifted MC’s.” The hands that appear in each album’s cover art represent different things; for “RTJ3,” the duo said that the gold hands, represented without the bandages or chain from other album art, signifies "the idea that there is nothing to take that exists outside yourself. You are the Jewel." The album art for "RTJ3" in January 2018 won for best album artwork in the Best Art Vinyl Awards.

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#45. 'Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit' (2014) by Courtney Barnett

- Metascore: 88

Barnett’s debut full-length album received serious acclaim from the big-name music magazines, with many calling it very listenable and a great first record. To that end, Everett True of The Guardian said the album gets better with each listen and compared some of its songs to "early 1990s indie-pop," and others to Lou Reed and Nirvana.

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#44. 'Masseduction' (2017) by St. Vincent

- Metascore: 88

The fifth studio album by St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) won multiple Grammy awards, clocked in at 10 on the Billboard 200 chart, and garnered frequent mentions in 2017 best-of lists. Produced by Clark and Jack Antonoff, “Masseduction” features multiple musical guests, such as Doveman on piano, Kamasi Washington on saxophone, and Jenny Lewis on vocals. The songs on the record were created from text messages, voice memos, and bits of melodies that Clark happened upon while traveling.

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#43. 'A Moon Shaped Pool' (2016) by Radiohead

- Metascore: 88

Radiohead’s first studio album since 2011 features strings and choir sections performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. Thematically, the record deals with central questions from much of Radiohead’s output, notably how one maintains humanity in an ambivalent, cold world. Some critics believe that the lyrics are tinged by Thome Yorke's separation from his partner of over 20 years, Rachel Owen, while other more apparent themes include climate change and the perils of groupthink. Stylistically, the record boasts several genres, including chamber music, art rock, and folk.

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#42. 'Bad as Me' (2011) by Tom Waits

- Metascore: 88

“Bad as Me” was Waits’ first album since 2004's "Real Gone" to be composed entirely of new songs. A long list of musical stars lent their talents to the album, including Keith Richards, Marc Ribot, Flea, and Les Claypool. Critics greeted the album with open arms. Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, co-produced the record with him.

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#41. 'Loud City Song' (2013) by Julia Holter

- Metascore: 88

Julia Holter's musical works are steeped in symbolism and inspiration, but the subject matter of “Loud City Song” deviates from Holter’s two previous albums. "Tragedy" centered on the play "Hippolytus" by Euripides, and "Ekstasis" was named for the Greek philosophy of being beside oneself. “Loud City Song” draws on inspiration from the musical "Gigi" and takes a hard look at society's obsession with celebrity

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#40. 'Divers' (2015) by Joanna Newsom

- Metascore: 88

Regarding “Divers,” Newsom said in an interview that she had been working on the instrumental arrangements and overdubs for about a year or two because she wanted each song to change dramatically in instrumental flavor. On this highly collaborative album, members of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra played on the album. Noah Georgeson, who has worked with Devandra Banhart and The Strokes, took part in producing, and Nico Muhly was one of many arrangers. 

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#39. 'American Band' (2016) by Drive-By Truckers

- Metascore: 88

This southern rock band’s 11th studio album is laden with political commentary, unsurprising considering the state of politics in the year of its release. The collection of songs began inciting arguments before the record was even released. To single out a couple, the song “Surrender Under Protest” is about the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, and “What It Means” centers on the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

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#38. 'To Be Kind' (2014) by Swans

- Metascore: 88

Experimental rock band Swans’ 13th collection of songs features multiple musical contributors, including Cold Specks, St. Vincent, and Little Annie on vocals, and current King Crimson drummer Bill Rieflin. Amid glowing reviews from critics, many compared the record to the group’s previous album “The Seer.” All of the record’s tracks exceed seven minutes in length, the longest being “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” at just over 34 minutes.

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#37. 'The Idler Wheel ...' (2012) by Fiona Apple

- Metascore: 89

Fiona Apple brought her trademark eccentricity and eloquent lyric-writing to “The Idler Wheel…,” the name of which, like “When the Pawn…,” is a snippet of a poem that she wrote. Recordings for the album took place fairly secretively over the course of three or four years leading up to its release.

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#36. 'When I Get Home' (2019) by Solange

- Metascore: 89

When I Get Home” rides on a variety of musical styles, including R&B and jazz. The album also features a chopped hip-hop mixing method that originated in Houston hip-hop culture in the 1990s. It also samples narrated poetry by African American women from Houston's Third Ward area, Solange Knowles’ childhood neighborhood. Several collaborators joined Knowles in the production, including John Key, the group Standing on the Corner, and Pharrell. Many musicians contributed vocals, like Playboi Carti, Panda Bear, The-Dream, and Dev Hynes, among others. 

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#35. 'A Seat at the Table' (2016) by Solange

- Metascore: 89

The precursor to “When I Get Home,” Knowles’ third album "A Seat at the Table" is the product of songwriting that started as early as 2008. The album includes multiple collaborators, such as Lil Wayne, Q-Tip, Kelly Rowland, The-Dream, and Kelela. Raphael Saadiq and Troy Johnson also took part in its production. Knowles drew inspiration from the killings in Ferguson and Baltimore, and their associated protests, for the record’s opening track “Rise.” 

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#34. 'Golden Hour' (2018) by Kacey Musgraves

- Metascore: 89

Musgraves said that part of the inspiration for “Golden Hour” came from the solar eclipse that happened in the summer of 2017. The record scored multiple Album of the Year and Grammy awards, placed on dozens of year-end lists, and was highly lauded by critics.

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#33. 'Chris' (2018) by Christine and the Queens

- Metascore: 89

This second musical oeuvre by French songwriter Héloïse Letissier, aka Christine and the Queens, now shortened to Chris, exists in both English and French language versions. Letissier’s 2014 record “La Chaleur Humaine” dealt with motifs ranging from queer identity to depression; since then, the singer started becoming a different version of herself with a new look and outward eroticism. In an interview with Pitchfork, she discussed the song “Doesn’t Matter,” one of her more exposed tracks, as pulling back the curtain on the song’s fictional character, the sun stealer. "The sun stealer for me is someone who inspires me to just get out of the mud. In my mind, he was male, and it’s unclear if I want to become that person, or love that person, or be a brother to that person.”

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#32. 'Big Fish Theory' (2017) by Vince Staples

- Metascore: 89

Like many great albums, “Big Fish Theory” is the product of several collaborations and guest appearances. It features vocals from Kendrick Lamar, Kilo Kish, and Dolla Sign. Producers include duo Christian Rich, SOPHIE, Justin Vernon, and Flume. Musically, Staples drew influence from Detroit Techno, a style most prominently linked to the Belleville Three, who incorporated elements of sci-fi and Afrofuturism into their music. 

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#31. 'Coloring Book' (2016) by Chance the Rapper

- Metascore: 89

Prior to recording this mixtape, Chance the Rapper delved back into religion upon learning that his girlfriend at the time was pregnant and that the baby had atrial flutter. Many critics raved about the use of gospel choirs melding with hip-hop and rap on the record, which also features Jamila Woods, Lil Yachty, 2 Chainz, and a host of other musicians.

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#30. 'All Mirrors' (2019) by Angel Olsen

- Metascore: 89

Olsen’s fourth full-length album features diverse instrumentation, including a small string orchestra, vibraphone, trumpet, trombone, and flugelhorn, with arrangements by Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff and production by John Congleton. The album received beautiful reviews from most critics and peaked at #52 on the U.S. Billboard 200. 

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Planet Mu

#29. 'Black Origami' (2017) by Jlin

- Metascore: 89

When working on the track “Nandi,” the first piece that would be part of “Black Origami,” producer Jlin noted a "sparseness" that was never present in her music-making before. In making the title track, Jlin again tapped into something she had never made before and kept going until the sound she was achieving resonated with her. Musically, the album is amelodic, built on abrupt changes in rhythm and atmosphere. The album is percussive with some aggressively looped vocals, and its stylistic influences are rooted in Eastern music

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#28. 'Apex Predator - Easy Meat' (2015) by Napalm Death

- Metascore: 89

The 15th record by British grindcore band Napalm Death was recorded in piecemeal in order to accomplish "varying types of sonic assault," according to singer Mark Greenway. The video clip that corresponds with the song "Smash a Single Digit" is a critique of capitalism, while elsewhere the band takes aim on social injustices such as human exploitation. 

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#27. 'Kiwanuka' (2019) by Michael Kiwanuka

- Metascore: 89

In the first month Kiwanuka’s third record was available, it placed on U.S., European, and Australian music charts. The album clocking in at #142 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Pitchfork described the record as seemingly " easy listen at first, but eventually reveals its mournful and even despairing heart." 

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digboston // Flickr

#26. 'Honey' (2018) by Robyn

- Metascore: 89

Robyn’s eighth full-length record boasts collaborations with Joseph Mount (Metronomy), Adam Bainbridge (Kindness), longtime collaborator Klas Ahlund, and others. Robyn started working on songs for the album in 2015 after the loss of friend and collaborator Christian Falk. The record delves into multiple styles, including what The New York Times referred to as "outré future pop," as well as “playful '90s house.”

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#25. 'RTJ2' (2014) by Run the Jewels

- Metascore: 89

The second record by hip-hop outfit Run the Jewels received serious accolades from critics, many of whom thought it outshone its predecessor. The album scored praise for its layered production, Killer Mike and El-P’s stellar lyric-writing, and its long list of guests, including Gangsta Boo, Despot, Diane Coffee, and Boots. The duo released a free parody remix of the record comprised of beats consisting of cat sounds, called "Meow the Jewels."

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#23. 'The Dusk in Us' (2017) by Converge (tie)

- Metascore: 89

Although this metalcore band wrote 18 songs for their ninth studio record, only 13 made the cut due to the fact that its members failed to agree on which songs were their best. The songs that didn’t make the album were published on the 2018 EP “Beautiful Ruin.” Critics generally liked the record, which was named in several lists of the best metal and generally best albums of 2017. 

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#23. 'LEGACY! LEGACY!' (2019) by Jamila Woods (tie)

- Metascore: 89

Songwriter and poet Woods’ second album was released to widespread applause. Every track on the record pays homage to an important figure in African American music, visual art, literature, and poetry: all people who helped shape Woods as a creator and activist. Such names include Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, and Muddy Waters. In contrast to some of the big names who contributed their voices to her previous record, Woods collaborated with up-and-comers Saba, Nitty Scott, and Nico Segal. Elizabeth Woronzoff of Pop Matters said of the record, "More than the musicians and artists, Woods unequivocally demonstrates how black writers were akin to the pedagogues calling for an empowered self-identity despite marginalizing and oppressing conditions.”

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#22. 'St. Vincent' (2014) by St. Vincent

- Metascore: 89

Clark described her fourth record as "a party record you could play at a funeral." While “Strange Mercy,” her 2011 release, "was more about self-laceration," this 2014 self-titled record is “more confident... very extroverted.” Homer Steinweiss of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings contributed his drumming chops to the record, as did McKenzie Smith of the folk-rock band Midlake.

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#21. 'Spaces' (2013) by Nils Frahm

- Metascore: 90

Frahm used multiple recording techniques to make “Spaces,” including cassette and reel-to-reel tape in different venues all over the world. He strove to channel the specific vibes of the different venues in which he recorded the tracks on “Spaces.” 

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#20. 'Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty' (2010) by Big Boi

- Metascore: 90

Big Boi’s first solo album outside of his work with Outkast features multiple guest rappers and producers, including his former hip-hop partner Andre 3000, Organized Noize, T.I., Janelle Monáe, and Jamie Foxx. In this release, Big Boi successfully reached his goal to weave "something from every genre" into the record. Musically, “Sir Lucious Left Foot” hits on a large range of genres, including funk vocals, Hendrix-era guitar work, and southern hip-hop.

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#19. 'No Cities to Love' (2015) by Sleater-Kinney

- Metascore: 90

Following almost 10 years away from making music as Sleater-Kinney, the seeds of their reunion were born when Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein hung out with Fred Armisen and Tucker’s husband, Lance Bangs. Armisen and Bangs were very encouraging when Tucker outwardly wondered if they would play another show as Sleater-Kinney. The thematic backbone of the record’s songs ranges from anti-consumerism to aging friendships

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#18. 'Carrie & Lowell' (2015) by Sufjan Stevens

- Metascore: 90

In contrast to Stevens’ previous album, “The Age of Adz,” the songs on “Carrie & Lowell” are rooted in folk music and comprised of relatively scant instrumentation compared to his tendencies toward lush orchestral arrangements and various electronica. Stevens made the record as a way to grieve and come to terms with the loss of his mother, Carrie, who struggled with substance abuse and depression and who abandoned Stevens when he was a baby. 

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#17. 'We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service' (2016) by A Tribe Called Quest

- Metascore: 91

"We Got It From Here..."  followed Tribe's breakup, with bandmemberseventually reconvening following a 2015 performance on "The Tonight Show." Tribe member Phife Dawg died the same year the record came out. Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Elton John, Talib Kweli, and Kanye West were among several vocal and instrumental contributors to the album. "We Got It From Here..." topped the Billboard 200 chart and scored gold and platinum certifications.

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#16. 'The ArchAndroid' (2010) by Janelle Monáe

- Metascore: 91

“The ArchAndroid,” Monáe’s first full album, marks the second and third installments of her Metropolis concept series, which started with the EP “Metropolis: The Chase Suite.” The series is partially inspired by the 1920s film “Metropolis.” “The ArchAndroid” perpetuates the tale of the android messiah figure, Cindi Mayweather, liberating the androids of Metropolis from a secret society that uses time travel to revoke the Metropolites of their freedom. Rooted in Afrofuturism, Monáe up to that point had been compared to David Bowie, Outkast, and Prince.

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#15. 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City' (2012) by Kendrick Lamar

- Metascore: 91

Lamar made this second studio album along with contributing rappers Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, and Drake. Album producers include Pharrell Williams and Dr. Dre, who doubled as a producer and vocalist. Lamar said that he portrayed the hardships of his young life growing up in Compton through this record. Critics compared the style of the album to "mid-2000's Roots," Dr. Dre's 1990s G-funk, and the 1998 Outkast record "Aquemini."

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Phil Walter // Getty Images)

#14. 'Melodrama' (2017) by Lorde

- Metascore: 91

Lorde’s electropop-driven second record, made in the wake of a breakup with boyfriend James Lowe, departs from her minimalist approach in “Pure Heroine.” Lorde and Jack Antonoff produced the album and sought creative advice from Flume, Frank Dukes, Joel Little, and S1. Critics commended Lorde for her emotive vocal performance on the record, which she said was influenced by those of Sinead O'Connor and Kate Bush, as well as Laurie Anderson's use of the vocoder. While “Melodrama” deals with the struggle of being alone after a breakup, Lorde described the concept as denoting a house party where “...there’s that moment where a great song comes on, and you’re ecstatic, and then there’s the moment later on where you’re alone in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, you don’t think you look good, and you start feeling horrible.”

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#13. 'Titanic Rising' (2019) by Weyes Blood

- Metascore: 91

The fourth record by Pennsylvania-born songwriter Weyes Blood, aka Natalie Laura Mering, is named after the RMS Titanic, as well as the 1997 semi-historical film about the sinking of the ship. Stylistically, Mering’s songwriting on this record was influenced by 1970s musicians like The Carpenters and Joni Mitchell and chamber pop, as evidenced by the use of strings. 

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#12. 'Channel Orange' (2012) by Frank Ocean

- Metascore: 92

On “Channel Orange,” Frank Ocean freely jumps from one genre to another, from electro-funk to soul to psychedelia. His painful love life and his experience falling in love, unrequitedly, with a man for the first time make up part of the narrative content of the record’s songs. When critics started outwardly discussing Ocean’s material on the record as an indication of his sexual orientation, he published a letter via Tumblr in which he described his experiences of falling for another man. Other hip-hop musicians expressed support for Ocean upon reading his letter. Ocean collaborated with songwriter and producer Malay to make the record. To tap into specific moods while creating the album, Ocean and Malay listened to records by Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, and others from that era.

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#11. 'You Want It Darker' (2016) by Leonard Cohen

- Metascore: 92

Released just 19 days before Cohen’s passing in 2016, the songwriter’s last work hangs on themes of mortality and religion. In the years before writing the album, Cohen was suffering from multiple spine fractures and other physical ailments. Cohen's son Adam stepped in to work on the songs with him when his producer Patrick Leonard ran into personal issues. Some of the musicians who played and sang on the record include Alison Krauss, Bill Bottrell (Madonna, Electric Light Orchestra), Brian Macleod, the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, and others. Among accolades and analyses from critics, an NPR critic said that “You Want it Darker” is largely rooted in "...the metaphor of the fragile flame and the myriad ways it gets extinguished, from within and without."

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#10. 'Sunbather' (2013) by Deafheaven

- Metascore: 92

The second album by metal duo George Clarke and Kerry McCoy, joined by drummer Dan Tracy, is comprised of layered distorted guitars, frequent use of a whammy bar to create a sort of light-headed effect, as well as close-micing of drums for upbeat sections in order to achieve a "bigger and slicker" production than on their first record. The album contains four full-length songs and three interludes, one of which features  StéphanePaut of post-metal band Alcest reading an excerpt of the novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," one of Clarke’s favorite books. Before the album hit digital and physical shelves, it was named in lists of the best albums of 2013 by the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, Absolute Punk, and others.

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#9. 'Lemonade' (2016) by Beyoncé

- Metascore: 92

“Lemonade” was Beyoncé’s second visual album and her sixth studio album. The 65-minute film that accompanies the album incorporates poetry and prose by Somali poet Warsan Shire, as well as appearances by Afro-French Cuban musical duo Ibeyi, actress Amandla Stenberg, and Serena Williams. The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown also appear holding photos of their sons. A slew of musical contributors graced the album with their voices, including Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, and The Weeknd. Among the multiple awards and widespread kudos the album received, The Chicago Tribune described “Lemonade” as "...more than just a play for pop supremacy. It’s the work of an artist who is trying to get to know herself better, for better or worse, and letting the listeners/viewers in on the sometimes brutal self-interrogation.”

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#8. 'Room 25' (2018) by Noname

- Metascore: 93

Noname’s debut record following her mixtape “Telefone” documents her move from Chicago to L.A., and her first sexual experiences. The rapper, whose given name is Fatimah Warner, referred to her mixtape as "very PG" compared to "Room 25," which contains overt expressions of her sexuality. Produced by Phoelix, the record boasts live instrumentation, including keys, bass, drums, and strings, Warren's preferred mode of record production. Critics had great things to say about the record; the A.V. Club called it “ ...a testimony to the power of telling your story and the hope that can be found in doing so without apology."

In spite of her success, Noname in November 2019 suggested on Twitter that she might quit music altogether following the release of her upcoming album, "Factory Baby." 

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P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.

#7. 'A Crow Looked at Me' (2017) by Mount Eerie

- Metascore: 93

Phil Elverum is the man behind Mount Eerie, whose eighth record chronicles the loss of his wife, musician, and artist Geneviève Castrée, who died of pancreatic cancer. Elverum drew inspiration in part from poet Gary Snyder, folk-rock band Sun Kil Moon, songwriter Julie Doiron, and author Karl Ove Knausgård. The record is a veritable diary in its recounting the sadness Elverum felt in the wake of his beloved wife's death. The Atlantic described the record as "...unflinching and hyper-literal, hypnotic and lo-fi, and deeply hostile to clichés about death..." Elverum wrote and recorded the record himself in the room where his wife died, using one microphone, mainly acoustic guitar, and a laptop.

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#6. 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' (2010) by Kanye West

- Metascore: 94

West worked on this fifth record in the wake of public controversy surrounding his outburst in 2009 at the MTV Video Music Awards when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s award of Best Female Video by proclaiming Beyoncé should have won instead. An arsenal of big-name musicians can be heard on the record, including Jay-Z, Pusha T, Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj, Common, and a bundle of others. Numerous critics commented on the stylistic similarities between this record and West's first four albums, and others dubbed it grandiose and "maximalist," with flavors of "East Coast hip-hop." Narratively, motifs of sex, wealth, race, escapism, self-exultation, and, conversely, self-doubt pervade the record, as well as a collage of musical samples and literary references.

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Kevin Winter // Getty Images for Coachella

#5. 'Skeleton Tree' (2016) by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

- Metascore: 95

A follow-up to the band’s 2013 record “Push the Sky,” this 16th record saw production from Nick Cave, Nick Launay, and Warren Ellis. Among many attributes, critics noted that the songs on the album are much more instrumentally bare, with less refined production than the group’s past projects. Lyrically, the songs are rooted in motifs of death and loss, though the bulk of the writing for the album was done before the passing of Cave's 15-year-old son the previous year. Many critics described the record as beautiful, grief-stricken, and vulnerable, lauding Cave’s adeptness at wordplay, symbolism, and irony, in the words of one Rolling Stone journalist.

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#4. 'Black Messiah' (2014) by D'Angelo

- Metascore: 95

D’Angelo made “Black Messiah” after a 14-year musical hiatus and disappearance from the public eye. A barrage of occurrences gave way to this retreat, including the death of his close friend Fred Jordan and a subsequent alcohol habit, a breakup, a falling-out from most of his family, and a car crash. Following some guest appearances and solitary production work, D’Angelo started to solidify songs for the new album in collaboration with Questlove, Pino Palladino, and James Gadson. Questlove described the record as "...a black version of [the Beach Boys record] 'Smile.'" He also commented on D’Angelo’s innovative use of music patches on the record, especially on the track “The Charade,” which included a trombone patch that D’Angelo "re-Eqed and then put through an envelope filter and then added a vibraphone on top..."

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#3. 'DAMN.' (2017) by Kendrick Lamar

- Metascore: 95

Kendrick Lamar’s fourth song compilation rides on elements of conscious rap, as well as R&B, pop, and trap. In making the song “DNA” with Mike Will Made It (Michael Len Williams II), one of a slew of producorial collaborators, Lamar rapped over half the song to an existing beat and then started rapping the rest a cappella. He asked Williams to create the beat such that it sounded like his rap was fighting against it. In addition to “DAMN.” garnering multiple awards and mentions in year-end lists, critics gushed about it, one of whom said that what catapults Lamar’s poetry on “DAMN.” to a higher level " his ability to find humanity in desolate situations."

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#2. 'To Pimp A Butterfly' (2015) by Kendrick Lamar

- Metascore: 96

Before releasing this follow-up to “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” Lamar spent time in South Africa, where he paid a visit to Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island, among other important historical places. Having abandoned a couple of albums’ worth of songs, Lamar sought to tap into his experiences growing up in Compton, California and started listening to musicians such as Miles Davis and Sly Stone, weaving some of those styles into his record. As a whole, the album fosters a conversation about the systemic problems faced by the African American community. To that effect, the song "Alright" came to serve as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, in part after a group of people started singing its chorus at one such protest in Cleveland in 2015. Critics widely praised the record, calling it extremely politically timely, and singling out Lamar’s lyrics and cinematic production.

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Takahiro Kyono // Flickr

#1. 'Ghosteen' (2019) by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

- Metascore: 97

This double album is the third installment of a three-part album series consisting of 2013’s “Push the Sky Away” and 2016’s “Skeleton Tree.” Via a blog series called The Red Hand Files in which Cave answered questions from fans, he stated that the songs on the first of the two parts are "the children," and the songs on the second are "their parents." In writing the lyrics of the album, which he worked on after his teenage son’s passing in 2015, Cave changed up his routine and compiled "lines and thoughts, images and ideas" in his Brighton home. He explained his philosophy: "The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd, and, more than anything, an intellectual convenience..." Elizabeth Aubrey of NME said that “Ghosteen” "...evokes the trying-to-make-sense stage of grief, even when there's often no sense to be found."

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