The 20 best albums of the decade: From Kendrick Lamar to Billie Eilish

David Smyth
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As the decade closes, it’s obvious who the biggest acts were. Since the ready availability of YouTube and Spotify stream counts, this period has been awash with gargantuan statistics, principally generated by Ed Sheeran and Adele, but with Taylor Swift, Drake and Ariana Grande also making up the big numbers.

But what music was so good it will genuinely last? It was extremely tough to come up with a list that didn't run on and on and on. With honourable mentions to LCD Soundsystem, Nick Cave, St Vincent, Vampire Weekend and Young Fathers, here are (some) of the greatest releases of a great 10 years for music.

Robyn Body Talk (2010)

Ten years ago, Scandipop frontrunner Robyn was doing something that has since become far more prevalent: releasing songs as soon as they’re finished rather than holding off for a full album. Body Talk Pt 1 and Pt 2 appeared months before the full collection, helping dance-pop classics such as Dancing On My Own to feel box fresh.

Arcade Fire — The Suburbs (2010)

Portentous and overblown on some other albums, the Montreal group were at their best when tackling smaller concerns —writing letters, sleepless nights, growing up away from the bright lights.

Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

The fact that he lost his way since makes West’s fifth album feel like an even higher high point. He threw everything at this one, inviting Bon Iver on board, making Sir Elton John a backing singer and providing Nicki Minaj’s finest moment on Monster.

PJ Harvey — Let England Shake (2011)

In 2011 I was tasked with helping to decide whether this or Adele’s globe-straddling 21 was the best album of the year, as a judge for the Mercury Prize. We went for art over commerce, giving the award to this turbulent, intense work about the state of the country.

Frank Ocean — Channel Orange (2012)

The Californian is now a more enigmatic talent, but his sound had the clearest appeal here — classic soul with a modern sheen, journeying from smooth electronic funk to hazy, minimal R&B, and in the 10-minute Pyramids, one of the great pop epics.

Arctic Monkeys — AM (2013)

The indie discos of Sheffield seemed a world away when Arctic Monkeys released their fifth album, now with the volume and charisma to pass as genuine rock gods. The riffs had swagger while Alex Turner’s lyrics were horny as well as witty.

Lorde — Pure Heroine (2013)

Before Billie Eilish, there was another absurdly talented teenager sounding jaded by the world. Sixteen-year-old kiwi Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s minimal electropop was more than sophisticated enough to win over the grown-ups.

Jon Hopkins — Immunity (2013)

Previously best known as a side man for Brian Eno and Coldplay, on his fourth album Hopkins found a way to tell a compelling story through wordless techno. Immunity goes on a remarkable journey from tough industrial beats to blissful ambient beauty.

Christine and the Queens — ​Chaleur Humaine (2014)

Héloïse Letissier’s debut album was a hit in her native France in 2014 but didn’t become one of the UK’s biggest sellers until an English-language version two years later. In both forms its smooth, fluid digital pop sounded uniquely appealing.

Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (2015)

Stevens stayed close to home on his devastating seventh album. It dealt with the death of his mother Carrie, who suffered from depression and schizophrenia and abandoned him as a baby. Mostly performed just on acoustic guitar, the results are overpoweringly beautiful.

Tame Impala — Currents (2015)

Having started out as a psych-rock band, Kevin Parker’s third album as Tame Impala ramped up the electronics and the melodies. It widened his appeal so much that he ended up being covered by Rihanna and writing for Kanye West.

Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

By the time of their ninth album, Radiohead seemed ready to appease fans at last. They finally recorded True Love Waits, an exquisite live favourite since 1995, and used a string orchestra to create their warmest sound in years.

Beyoncé — Lemonade (2016)

Beyoncé touched on a few big trends of the decade here: a quick release, streaming exclusively on one platform and making the visuals almost as important as the music. But what was most startling, alongside the bigger themes of black and female power, was hearing a superstar being this explicit about her marriage troubles.

Michael Kiwanuka​ — Love & Hate (2016)

North Londoner Kiwanuka’s second release is a masterpiece and a huge step on from the cosy folk-soul of his debut. The songs, produced by Inflo and Danger Mouse, are rich and grandiose, and set him up to push his sound even further on the recent follow-up.

Kano — Made in the Manor (2016)

The pace and aggression of grime was a key sound of the decade. One of its pioneers, Kane Robinson, went way beyond it here, working with Damon Albarn and employing a full band sound. Meanwhile lyrically, he was fascinatingly honest and raw.

David Bowie — ​Blackstar (2016)

Bowie died just two days after releasing his final album, which naturally ramped up its significance. But now time has passed it still stands up as a bold, strange piece of work. It didn’t chase trends but occupied a dark, jazzy world of its own — a perfect way to exit.

Kendrick Lamar — DAMN. (2017)

The LA rapper won the Pulitzer Prize for this album, an honour that is usually reserved for classical works. The judges recognised it as a work of state-of-the-nation significance, which absorbed multiple strains of American music into the most potent one of all right now: hip hop.

Kacey ​​Musgraves​ — Golden Hour (2018)

It was when country music’s stars toned down the twang that they had the biggest impact. Previously a witty lyricist, Musgraves gained new depth on her gorgeous fourth release, which won album of the year at the Grammys.

Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)

Having long occupied her own distinctive sound world, Del Rey had been edging towards more current styles on later work, but this one sounded like a timeless classic. It’s understated, unhurried and staggeringly beautiful throughout.

Billie Eilish​ — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)

Sneaking in under the wire, 17-year-old Eilish looks set to be the dominant artist of the next decade. With brother Finneas, she filled her debut with computer pop with dark distinctiveness.