I just realized that I never published my short reviews of the best 3 albums from the 2010s. Originally written for The Stanford Daily, this article is something I’m really proud of. I’ll always be proud of sneaking in the line “Blonde channels endless nostalgia” – hint hint, it’s all four of Frank’s Ocean’s albums to date!
I wrote a particularly prophetic line in my review of Blonde. “What is the 2010s if not the decade when we connected with each other most — whether through text messages, car rides, Facebook — and also felt the most isolated?” Little did I know that this hyper-online-connectivity-combined-with-physical-isolation would come to describe social distancing in 2020 perfectly!
When I choose the “best” albums from a certain time period, as opposed to my favorites, I consider their influence. That means an obscure album I’m in love with will get some points docked off in rankings. As a result, the three albums below are very well-known and will surprise no one, but let’s admit it – this is G.O.O.D. music.
No. 1: Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015)
To Pimp A Butterfly is everything an album can strive to be: an intimate confession of an artist’s deepest regrets and most rewarding triumphs, a celebration of a community, #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and a catalyst for a sweeping social movement. Kendrick Lamar contemplates how historical, cultural, and community influences shaped his identity, promising to be an imperfect leader through rap. The opening moments of the album declare, “Every n***** is a star,” emphasizing how white America has tried to undermine African Americans and how they have succeeded regardless. The track “Alright” likewise served as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. TPAB is a celebration of black pride, but there are also plenty of moments for universal empathy. Lamar reveals his most hidden insecurities in “u”; he condemns himself with, “I know you’re irresponsible, selfish, in denial, can’t help it.” His voice is grotesque, drunk and haunting. But by the penultimate track, “i,” Lamar commits to move past trauma rather than “let the paranoia haunt you.” Kendrick has an uncanny ear for selecting beats that enhance his verses, whether it be the melancholy piano and brass of “How Much A Dollar Cost,” the relentless boom-bap beat of “The Blacker The Berry” or the smooth guitar chords and glittering chimes of “These Walls.” Dense, complex jazz instrumentation and funk, R&B and soul samples add to the ever-growing variety of musical styles permeating the album. In the poignant final track, “Mortal Man,” a jazz band improvisation builds to a wonderfully chaotic climax as Kendrick Lamar reads a spoken-word poem to a recording of legendary rapper Tupac. Finally, one last drum beat drops before Kendrick realizes Tupac has left him and that he now leads the future of rap — music has rarely been more powerful.
No. 2: Kanye West – “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010)
No one could predict what this decade had in store for Kanye. Rise as a fashion icon, marriage to a reality star, hospitalization for bipolar disorder, impassioned support for President Donald Trump and coming forward as a Christian. And somehow, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was prophetic of them all. MBDTF is a portrait of extravagant America and the dangers of maximalist lifestyles — and Kanye West, who reaps the highest rewards and sulks in the deepest abysses, is the perfect messenger. Throughout this narrative of success, pleasure, guilt and vice, Kanye is at once fierce, resistant and vulnerable. He controls the pace of the album brilliantly, expanding the emotional palette with every track: the rock-fuelled energy of “Power” followed by the poignant cello-piano “All Of The Lights (Interlude),” the melancholy ego battle of “Blame Game” and the impromptu celebration of “Lost In The World.” The star-studded tracklist features guest artists at their best: Pusha-T, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross each spit career-defining verses. Yet Kanye’s vision is unmistakable in every song. Gritty, primal sounds on “Monster” and “Hell of a Life” bring a refreshing abrasiveness. The best three tracks on MBDTF — “So Appalled,” “Devil In A New Dress,” and “Runaway” — feature sumptuous instrumentation and unforgettable verses. Over a soundscape of anxiety and paranoia, six rappers deliver astonishing wordplay and allusions in “So Appalled.” “Devil in a New Dress” is desire dignified over transcendent, shimmering production. One of the most vulnerable songs Kanye has ever released, “Runaway” is the emotional climax of the album thanks to both the regret and debauchery honestly confessed. Kanye’s desperate yet genuine vocals grasp for human connection in the gorgeous three-minute outro. At the end of MBDTF, we see Kanye for who he is at last: successful, flawed, hopeful.
No. 3: Frank Ocean – “Blonde” (2016)
Blonde is the most humble and unassuming yet most emotionally devastating album of the decade. “One solar flare, we’re consumed / So why not spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life?” Frank Ocean’s muffled voice asks on “Seigfried,” the stream-of-consciousness meditation near the end of the album. How do we make the most of our fleeting, impermanent existence? Frank answers with feelings, vignettes, and catharsis. Musing on cherished past lovers, liberation, and authenticity, Frank showcases his most enigmatic and vulnerable lyrics. In “White Ferrari,” Frank retells stories of summertime loves graciously, with pain seeping through his voice: “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension / You say we’re small and not worth the mention.” Blonde’s strength is in its minimalist, honed focus: the single twang of a guitar string, a bare piano chord, a single whispered word all speak volumes. The instrumentals are often drumless, providing the bare backbone for Frank’s lonely vocals. The hollow reverberations of “Nikes” and nature sounds on “Skyline To” are gorgeous. The transcendental beat change in “Nights” is breathtaking, and even the frenetic chaos of “Pretty Sweet” reinforces the album’s theme of disorientation. What is the 2010s if not the decade when we connected with each other most — whether through text messages, car rides, Facebook — and also felt the most isolated? Blonde inhabits ambiguity and duality beautifully. The album cover, written “blond,” contrasts the masculine and feminine spellings of the same word in a nod to Frank’s thematic exploration of bisexuality. Love and solitude are miserable, love and solitude are rewarding — and so is this world. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven,” he sings on “Solo.” Blonde channels endless nostalgia — it is the soundtrack to our most intimate reflections and memories.