Everywhere I go, I see lists of the Top Ten Albums of the Decade, and it got me thinking about how musically great this decade was. Since I’m not a trained musician, and I don’t have any musical education besides one class in college on “The Art of Listening to Music” all of these are based off personal preference.
10. 2014 Forest Hills Drive- J.Cole (2014)
In the #10 spot, J.Cole. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is the album that cemented J.Cole as a top-tier rapper worthy of Jay-Z’s cosign. J.Cole went platinum with no features on this album, a huge deal at the time. Some of my favorite J.Cole songs are on Forest Hills Drive, so I might be biased towards it.
J.Cole is incredibly good at telling stories, on “Wet Dreamz” he talks about how nervous he was losing his virginity, a heartfelt and vulnerable experience for anyone to share, let alone a rapper. That’s the thing about him, he is very good at being relatable, you probably felt the same way he did going to that girl’s house after school, you probably felt you could’ve helped your parents more, you’ve probably felt hopeless at some point and didn’t think it would end.
Not only does Forest Hills Drive have great lyrical content, the beats J.Cole picked are incredible too, especially on “Fire Squad”, “No Role Models”, and “Love Yours”. My favorite moment on the album comes on “No Role Models” in a sample of lovable doofus George W Bush butchering a common saying.
9. I don’t like shit, I don’t go outside-Earl Sweatshirt (2015)
Earl Sweatshirt is a master of bite-sized content that makes you feel full, and i dont like shit, i dont go outside is definitely bite-sized, but feels like a 3-course meal. I dont like shit is perfect for those cold winter days where you wake up hungover and realize you have to go outside and shovel snow. It’s both lyrically dense, and sonically pleasing, which is a nice surprise for an album that’s less than half an hour long.
Earl has grown up quite a bit since the days of Doris, jacking off to Asher Roth eating apple sauce, and his lyrical content has grown with him, this album is filled with one-liners that take a second to comprehend, you can tell that Earl has studied at the MF DOOM School of Internal Rhyme. This isn’t an album for everyone, there’s a lot of depressing shit here, Earl seems to be baring his soul on songs like Faucet and Grief, but he does it in such a way that makes you nod your head along with him. Earl ends the album off on a high-note with “Wool” a middle-finger to everyone who doesn’t like him, with Vince Staples shooting off aggressive gun lines and Remona Park shoutouts.
I listen to this on my way to work every once in a while, its short runtime makes it perfect for the commute, and by the time I get there, I’m fired up by the “Fuck you” confidence of Vince and Earl.
4:44- Jay-Z (2017)
Jay-Z is the best rapper alive. Full stop. That being said, he only put out one album worth talking about this decade, and I think it’s one of his best. If it wasn’t a Tidal Exclusive, more kids born before Reasonable Doubt came out would recognize that Jay is the GOAT. 4:44 is produced front-to-back by legendary producer No I.D, and switches Jay’s usually bombastic style to something more low-key and personal. This is a rare look into Jay’s life at the time, he was just called out by his wife in an incredibly public way, and feels the need to apologize to her. The title track 4:44 is one of those songs that I feel uncomfortable listening to, it feels too personal and intimate for me to be listening to while I vacuum my house in a bathrobe.
Jay-Z is the richest man in rap, and he uses the knowledge he’s gained over his career to try and educate the next generation on The Story of OJ, Legacy, and Moonlight. The Story of OJ might be my favorite Jay-Z song ever, it’s got an immaculate instrumental, it’s got Jay going full dad-rap, and it’s got the best line on the album: ” OJ like ‘I’m not black, I’m OJ’……Oookay.” You can practically hear the eye roll there, and it’s a great insight into the theme of the song. There are so many high-points in this album, it’s hard to just pick a few to write about. “Marcy Me” has Jay reminiscent of the Marcy Projects where he grew up, “Moonlight” is basically Old Man Jay shaking his head at the new generation of rappers, “Smile” features his mother, who comes out as a lesbian, “Bam” is a brass-heavy banger with Damian Marley, “Family Feud” is the family reunion of Jay and Bey, every song on 4:44 is an event, and by the end, I was shocked by how great it was.
There aren’t many ways to hear 4:44, unless you have Apple Music or Tidal, or have the patience to sit through 6 minute intros before getting to the song on YouTube. This caused me to actually purchase a physical copy, which you should definitely do if you’re Jay-Z fan.
7. Avantdale Bowling Club- Avantdale Bowling Club (2018)
This might sound weird, but ABC is a jazz rap album from New Zealand. It’s worth a listen. This isn’t just a rap album, it’s free jazz with rap verses. The live band makes this album sound more rich, and is what initially caught my ear. You could listen to the instrumental version of ABC and still enjoy it, I keep it on in the background while I work, the jazzy trumpets and cymbals make my work day a little more tolerable.
There is a lot to unpack here, you might need to pull up the lyrics to fully understand the songs, but it’s worth it, front-man Tom Scott pours his heart out all over this album, and with the incredible trumpets and saxophones and drums in the background, you can hear the pain in his voice. Songs like Old Dogs, and F(r)iends use the brass section to give the song an extra punch that they wouldn’t feel the same without.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about ABC, and I’m torn between thinking whether it’s an autobiography, or a collection of short stories with the same characters. One the one hand: all of the songs flow together so well, and the subject matter is highly personal, but it also tells multiple stories and life lessons learned over a lifetime. On the other hand though, it’s warning from Tom not to live like him: consumed by creating perfection, and empty when you can’t find that spark. Tom also tell stories of his friends who’ve progressed from weed to meth, and some of them die from it. This is what F(r)iends is about, the title applies the people in the song, both friends and fiends. I’ve dealt with this before on a smaller scale, the people you hung out with in high school maintain the same bad habits that made them “cool” in the first place, never growing up, and switching to harder drugs until they’re a shell of their former selves. Water Medley is an ode to water, the cure to hangovers, the cure to creative blocks, the key to life.
This album’s about an hour long, but only 8 songs, which is nice because you have time to properly enjoy the music without having to be intently focused on understanding the lyrics. It’s a perfect Fall album, and makes driving at night feel like you’re in an old detective movie.
6. To Pimp a Butterfly-Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Yea, I said it, Kendrick Lamar isn’t #1. This might seem like a hot take for those of you who idolize Kendrick, and while I love this album and what he was trying to do with it, there are albums I like more. Now that that’s out of the way, To Pimp a Butterfly is incredible, from the ridiculous flex on the cover, to the ensemble of musicians assembled, to the lyrical content. This is an album about black excellence, and how music has been influenced by it.
At first, I wasn’t into the jazzy instrumentals, but as my tastes develop, I appreciate them more and more. There are few “bangers” on here, but there are songs that make you think, and I think we need that type of music even more. There is a lot of anger in this album, anger at at society, anger at the community, and anger for Kendrick himself. The Blacker the Berry is an example of anger at society and community, with Kendrick declaring that he is the biggest hypocrite of 2015,while describing the ways that black people are mistreated in America, but ending the song by pointing out the hypocrisy of black-on-black crime.
This album is deep, and you might not catch onto everything the first time around. I certainly didn’t. Songs like “How Much a Dolla Cost” had an instrumental that I couldn’t appreciate, so I didn’t give it a proper listen until long after the album came out, which is a shame because not only was it one of Obama’s favorite songs, it has one of the most shocking moments on an already-eventful album: the revelation that the homeless man asking Kendrick for a dollar was God. I had to run it back a few times to properly appreciate the story Kendrick was telling, and I’m glad I did.
5. At.Long.Last.A$AP- A$AP Rocky (2015)
A$AP Rocky surprised the hell out of me with this one. I’m a fan of the his New York twist on Houston Screw music, so that’s what I went into At.Long.Last.A$AP looking for. Boy, was I in for a treat. The opening rant from a pastor evolved into a slowed down soul sample on Holy Ghost, I was shocked, it sounded like something Jimi Hendrix would do if he was alive today, I couldn’t believe this came from the guy who liked to fuck because he had a fuckin’ problem.
The psychedelic vibe continues with L$D, where Rocky switches things up and sings, something I didn’t know he had in him, with a trippy music video that looks like Rocky dropped a tab or two before thinking of it. I like that Rocky is switching up his style a bit here, it’s refreshing to see him sound good on beats that he’d probably never touch in 2011. Kanye West makes an appearance on “Jukebox Joints” and while his verse isn’t the best, I like the production he put on it, he definitely knows how to flip a sample and make something gold with it. There is a lot of genre-bending on this album, but my overall favorite song is Everyday with Rod Stewart. This was my first introduction to Rod Stewart, and I loved how the old style and the new styles meshed together, with a heavenly Miguel outro to tie it all together. On M’s Lil Wayne comes out of nowhere to absolutely annihilate his verse, much to my surprise, and gave me a new respect for Wayne I hadn’t had before, so if you’re not a big Wayne guy, check that one out, you’ll be surprised.
A.L.L.A is filled with diverse sounds, and is worth a listen regardless if you like Rocky or not, I’m sure you’ll find a sound you like. If you like confident bangers, you’ll like LPFJ2, Electric Body, and Excuse Me, if you like socially-conscious boom-bap, you’ll like Max B, Wavybone and Canal St., and if you like experimental stuff, you’ll like L$D, Dreams, Everyday, and Pharsyde.
4. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-Kanye West (2010)
I, like most people, think Kanye West is an asshole. That being said, Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of my favorite rap albums ever, and if it weren’t for the last 3 songs, Dark Twisted Fantasy would be #1. Dark Twisted Fantasy starts out with a barely-recognizable Nicki Minaj with what barely passes as a British accent ordering you to zip it and listen to Kanye’s magnum opus. Whatever your feelings toward Kanye, he was extremely gifted at putting songs together, and he demonstrates his gift here. All of the songs on this album are immaculate, maximalist anthems that will exist long after Kanye has his eventual mental breakdown. This album was supposed to be his masterpiece, his legacy, and while he accomplished that on this album, his legacy will always be tarnished because of his antics.
Musically, this is Kanye West at his best. Tracks like Runaway, Devil in a New Dress, All of the Lights, and Gorgeous are among the best and most recognizable of his career, and the rest of the album isn’t far behind. Runaway was actually the song that got me into Kanye, I’d heard of him before as the guy who made beats for Jay-Z, but I’d never given his solo work a chance. Those 4 opening piano notes drew me in, and as soon as the drums came in, I was hooked. Immediately after finishing this 9-minute long toast to assholes, douchebags, and scumbags, I took a minute to reflect on what I’d just heard. After composing myself a little, and getting over the fact that I’d liked a Kanye song, I went and listened to the whole album.
Every single artist on Dark Twisted Fantasy brings their A-Game, with career-defining verses from Nicki Minaj and Cyhi the Prynce. The posse cut “So Appalled” is the best posse cut I’ve ever heard, with Jay-Z, Pusha-T, Cyhi, and Raekwon all competing for the best verse on the album. (Jay-Z won, hands down.) This feels like an album for the ages, all of these songs, with an exception of the last 3, are classics, no matter your feelings toward Kanye.
3. Swimming-Mac Miller (2018)
Swimming means a lot to me, and although it came out barely a year ago, I can’t say I’ve gotten bored with it, and I play it almost every day at work. It’s the last album Mac put out, and it’s bittersweet to listen to because he was such a gifted musician, and he had come so far from the frat-rap days of Donald Trump, that I will always be curious where he would take his sound next.
Swimming is light, airy, and subtle. Most of the instrumentals aren’t bass forward, there aren’t any obvious bangers, with the J.Cole-produced Hurt Feelings coming the closest, but it is a heartfelt album full of Mac’s most hopeful and personal songs. Mac does a lot of singing on this album, which is a bit of a change from his last few projects, and what he lacks in technical ability, he makes up with raw emotion and effort, with a touch of auto-tune at times. His rapping abilities, however, are better than they’ve ever been, almost lazily floating over the understated chimes of Conversation Pt.1 and the clean Steve Lacy chords on Jet Fuel. Mac clears up any questions about his relationship with popstar Ariana Grande on a few songs, namely Dunno and Perfecto, where he addresses that she helped put him back together when he was broken and down, and that he has no harsh feelings toward her, and wishes her the best. This shows a maturity in Mac that is yet another sign of his growth and recovery. 2009 is my favorite song on Swimming, it’s Mac’s look back at the things he’s done and the life he’s lead, and while he sounds like he regrets some of the things he’s done, he understands that he can only learn from his mistakes. The strings in the intro remind me of a Disney movie for some reason, and the quiet piano notes make this already intimate song feel even more so.
Everyone has a different interpretation of this album, but I think that this album is when Mac realized he can fight off depression and drug abuse and be sober and happy. He’s been fighting for so long that when he finally gets an upper hand, he relishes it and keeps going. During his heavy drug period, Mac was drowning in sorrow and fear and all sorts of negativity, and didn’t think he could fight it off, but now he’s grown up enough and been through enough that he has confidence in his ability to be fine without the safety net of being high all the time. It’s sad that he died shortly after this came out, but like the inevitable ending of everything, so it goes.
2. Malibu-Anderson .Paak (2016)
Malibu had the #1 spot for a very long time, only recently beaten, but it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time, and deserves to be heard by everyone who even remotely likes R&B. Anderson .Paak is a musical Swiss Army knife: he sings, he raps, he plays the drums, he produces, he dances, the amount of talent that resides in one person is astounding. I first discovered Anderson .Paak on Dr. Dre’s Compton, where he stole the show on Animals and Deep Water. When I first listened to Malibu, I couldn’t help but smile, the summery feeling of this album is undeniable, and it has this funky soul to it that just boosts your mood, and that’s awesome.
My favorite songs on Malibu change regularly, but as of now, The Waters, Celebrate, and The Dreamer are my go-to songs. The Waters is a Madlib-produced soul banger where Anderson displays his rap skills and declares himself “the First Church of Boom Baptists” with an incredible soul sample as a hook. Celebrate is a funky groove with an incredible bassline that you’ll feel yourself subconsciously jamming along to while you drive down the road with the windows down. Celebrate has simple, but important, message: life might suck, but you’ve got to celebrate the good parts while you still can. Celebrate leads perfectly into The Dreamer, which I absolutely love. It starts off where Celebrate ends: with a clip of an old surfer talking about enjoying the old styles, as well as the new, fitting Anderson’s style perfectly. The addition of Talib Kweli and optimistic children’s choir makes this song an inspirational anthem for anyone who has ever been told they couldn’t do something, or that their dreams would never come true.
1. GO:OD AM- Mac Miller (2015)
GO:OD AM became my favorite album 2 years ago, so any claims of being a bandwagon fan can stop right here. GO:OD AM is Mac Miller’s best work, and will be his classic record. It’s a comeback record, and dear God did Mac come back. Coming from the “Good times are killing me, please help” phase of Faces to the ‘Ok, I need to get my shit together” phase of GO:OD AM, Mac matured beyond anything I’d thought capable.
When I first heard the opener “Doors” I knew this would be different, and that I should definitely pay attention. Next up is “Brand Name” the second single, and my current morning alarm. Brand Name is the point where Mac wakes up and realizes how fake everything around him is, and how he needs to get his act together. Morbidly enough, Mac also predicts his death here with the line “to all the people who sell me drugs, don’t cut it with that bullshit, I’m not tryna join the 27 Club” which hits a little harder after someone mixed his drugs with that bullshit and killed him.
My favorite song on GO:OD AM is the two-part Perfect Circle/Godspeed, near the middle of the album. Not only is this the best song on the album, I think it’s the best song Mac has ever made. The first part “Perfect Circle” is a chest-thumping flex over an amazing bass line from Mississippi Mud” and piano chords, with an eery chorus in the background. Perfect Circle is everything I love about Mac Miller: introspection, great beats, and piano chords. “Godspeed” is a whole different beast, it’s one of the few songs that I have to turn off when it comes on because it doesn’t feel like it was made for me, but for the people in Mac’s life who’ve been worried about him. “Godspeed” starts with a voicemail from Mac’s brother around the holidays, after Mac hasn’t been around for awhile. Mac’s brother is heard wishing the best for him, and the voicemail complements the song material. Godspeed is a musical apology from someone who has trouble finding any other way to say what’s on his mind, and I relate to that.
This album means a lot to me, and I hope that I’ve convinced at least one person to check it out, you won’t regret it.