5. Tame Impala
When the quest for sonic nirvana made pop go indie and indie go pop, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker possessed a Holy Grail of technological aptitude and genetic gifts. His prowess as studio gearhead grew legendary over three albums — 8-tracked guitar latticework coated in dewy reverb, phased synths swooping like condors across a smeared aural field, and the microscopic trembling of snare skins in anticipation of bass onslaught. Spiraling through it all, a voice that critic Jayson Greene wrote sounded “like someone trapped John Lennon’s vocal take from ‘A Day in the Life’ in a jar and taught it to sing new songs.” Fittingly, the same six words appear next to Kevin Parker’s name on every Tame Impala album: “Production, recording; all vocals and instruments.”
Parker’s progression from lo-fi Nuggets-era sonics (2010’s Innerspeaker) to pristine wall of sound (2015’s Currents) reveals an obsessive audiophile whose love affair with groove (“Why Don’t You Make Up You’re Mind”) and mood (“Cause I’m A Man”) would seduce every pop star from Rihanna to Mark Ronson by the end of the decade. Tame Impala growing from a one-man boutique psych-rock act to Coachella headliner seemed as improbable then as it feels like a foregone conclusion today. Glow-stick kids starved for vape-induced altered states found Tame Impala’s set placement next to festival DJ’s a fortutious one indeed; their baeleric hooks, psychedelic aura, and EDM-sized drops felt like long lost siblings. Except Tame Impala was more than just a guy behind turntables — it was a band manifesting Parker’s grand illusion. Of sounding like an entire band.
4. Kanye West
Yeah, by decade’s end Kanye West’s precipitous decline into mental instability, MAGA pandering, and diminishing musical returns left us with a foul taste in our mouths. But how far and fast Ye fell is stunning testament to how utterly Olympian his peak was. Lest we forget: in the period between 2010’s opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s mercilessly spartan Yeezus, Kanye West owned not just the rap world but all of pop music. He was part iconic tastemaker and part sonic mad scientist, pirouetting seamlessly between masterful R&B and funk tapestries to a mishmash of chopped electro, trap, and drum & bass. He sampled as fearlessly from King Crimson’s prog rock as Nina Simone’s gospel and Otis Redding’s soul — nothing was untouchable and anything seemed possible.
All good things come to an end (although few this catastrophically), but without Kanye, rap simply doesn’t evolve into the frontier of innovation it’s become by decade’s end, surpassing pop and indie rock as the place where ingenuity thrives and practitioners push the boundaries of their art form. He’s the bridge. “No one man can have all that power” Kanye claimed. Today it feels like prophecy. But for a brief, fantastic time, he had all the answers, more Azor Ahai than Mad King. Watch the throne, Kanye demanded, and we all did, waiting for that next startlingly prescient decree.
See also: Watch the Throne — “Niggas in Paris”
3. Beach House
Lighter than air yet colossal, Beach House’s dream pop sailed into our consciousness like a hot air balloon bound from Oz. It’s journey reached a zenith on 2010’s towering Teen Dream but never really came down as the Baltimore duo spent four more albums refining its exquisite profile, by turns sleeker (2012’s Bloom) and more sinewy (2018’s 7). The honey-coated rasp of Victoria Legrand’s alto and electric organ melted with Alex Scally’s languorous guitar to create a sound as ineffable yet hard to pin down as a childhood reverie.
Even as Beach House perfected their aesthetic, Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd sampled it, the Chainsmokers namedropped it, and Volkswaggen tried to steal it. “Silver Soul” and “Take Care” were mood rings that reflected whatever emotional temperature you brought to them, with a tinge of fantasy that suggested something unnameable in the alloy. Nothing was quite as it seemed. To paraphrase a famous Supreme Court judge, Beach House’s sound was impossible to describe, but you knew it the moment you heard it. And it was everwhere.
Amorphous yet unmistakable, Beach House becoming a definitive indie rock benchmark of the 2010’s spoke less to broadening musical tastes than to our grudging acceptance of uncertainty. In an era marked by cultural and political surrealism, we spent much of decade realizing we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Beach House was our blissful, wobbly soundtrack; it made us feel at home.
2. Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean suffers from synesthesia — simply put, he perceives colors while hearing sounds (check out the fan-created, song-by-song swatch card for 2016’s Blonde). But as a musician of otherworldly caliber, his condition may as well be a neurological superpower. On major label debut Channel Orange (whose titular hue Ocean described as “the color that reminds me of being in love”), the R&B singer/rapper created one of the most sublime albums of the millennium — a multi-layered meditation on love, spirituality, excess, and ennui by a recently self-proclaimed bi-sexual man seeking meaning in a world of distraction. For Ocean, Channel Orange wasn’t just an output on some virtual TV frequency that only he could see. It was him literally channeling the orange he hears in his mind. For us, it felt like truly seeing a color, in all its subtle gradations, for the first time.
From 2011 mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra to coming out party Channel Orange to self-promoted Blonde, every musical leap Ocean has taken feels quantum. He’s evolved from sampling Coldplay (“Strawberry Swing”) and MGMT (“Nature Feels”) to pairing 70’s soul jams (“Sweet Life”) with mammoth electro-funk suites (“Pyramids”) to constructing a cosmic, post-R&B bricolage (Blonde) from session musician’s spare parts like some Magic Eye puzzle where only he can see the hidden image. The plump grooves have become skeletal, the synths spaced out and zen-like, and the rhymes littered with qualuude-fueled Kōans. Ocean’s identity remains fluid yet imminently approachable, his music comforting yet boundless.
“I can’t relate to my peers” Ocean professes on fever dream “Seigfried,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Blonde finishes with an interview between Frank’s younger brother and his friends about what super powers they wish they possessed. A distinct sense of otherness pervades Ocean’s work but the synthestete’s real superpower? Channeling personal disassociation into indelible expressions of empathy. Whether narrating from the perspective of a crack addict, apathetic trust-fund brat, or average Joe trapped in the reality of two kids and a swimming pool, Ocean pulls off the same magical feat—within him, you see yourself.
1. Kendrick Lamar
Greatness is often an accumulation of little things done well. On 2012 major-label debut Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick Lamar uses just a single phrase — “The coroner between the sheets like the Isleys” — to intertwine complex themes of sex, violence, and African-American culture into a unforgettable vignette of inner city life. It rattles by so fast the first time that you almost miss it.
But you begin to notice other things, too. Sprinkled between pockets of airtight wordplay are sounds of gunshots, whirling helicopter blades, and wailing police sirens. Panic-stricken orchestral strings, blues riffs, and blaring bass impart a backdrop of desperation and dread. A legion of narrators join the fray — worried parents and sagacious neighbors, hood homies and murderous rivals —offering humor, context, and discernment. Finally, the songs all miraculously fit together into a semi-autobiographical album where a kid from Compton leans on faith and family as a way to escape a Section 8 fate of crime, drugs, and death. With all the pieces in place, you begin to realize something. Kendrick Lamar isn’t merely a rapper, writer, or storyteller; he’s a world builder.
Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City remains a masterclass in conceptual art; the songs stand tall on their own, but sequenced with savvy interludes, meld into a gangster-rap cinema of tragedy and redemption. Byzanatine follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) is more impenetrable but no less extraordinary — freeform jazz and funk rhythms propel Lamar on a metaphorical journey through a maze of uncertainty, self-persecution, and rebirth that centers around a fictitious interview with the ghost of 2Pac that you’d swear was real. DAMN. (2017) is a straight-up rap tour de force featuring some of Kendrick’s most jaw-dropping flows, anchored by punishing beats and retaining commercial appeal. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first non-jazz or classical composition ever to do so.
Lamar’s work has permeated the cultural consciousness and Top 40 alike. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Humble” are devious radio hits — a party anthem about the pleasure and pain of getting fucked up and an ode to the perils of reigning supreme. Faulknerian rap epics “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “FEAR” are miniature Sound & Furys that switch narrators and hop timelines, signifying just about everything. All throughout, Kendrick bends language to his will, syllables drawn and quartered over the bar, rhymes fluid as Hennessey, vocal timbre tweaked to conjure moods (pararnoia, grief, impish delight) or characters (Uncle Sam, Lucifer, Lamar’s own conscience). As an emcee, Kendrick is peerless, but his underlying strength is a fusion of incisive societal commentary and literary talent (“I write poems in these songs” he raps) not seen among songwriters since Gil-Scott-Heron.
Indeed, Kendrick’s music isn’t just CNN for black neighborhoods; it’s aggregated social media on full blast. The word on the street, the lingo, the pulse of a community. In the wake of racially-motivated police shootings and the corresponding Black Lives Matter movement, Kendrick performed protest song “Alright” from the roof of a graffiti-ridden cop car at the 2015 BET awards, a watershed moment where an artist was as outraged, intrepid, and raw as the entire body politic. Kendrick explores the nature of contrast — between empowerment and oppression, material gluttony and moral backruptcy, guns and God, love and lust. But he transcends pontification because his most striking criticisms (“The Blacker the Berry”, “U,” “DNA”) are aimed at himself. “It was always me versus the world,” Lamar admits on “DUCKWORTH,” “Until I found it’s me versus me.”
Perhaps it’s our kneejerk response to the perpetual cycle of hype in the 21st century, but we paradoxically tend to minimize modern day greatness and canonize the past. Lebron is spectacular, but he’s still no Michael Jordan. Obama can orate on the audacity of hope, but nobody preaches like the late Reverend Dr. King. Today’s heroes can’t live up to yesterday’s myths. But in the case of Kendrick Lamar, supremacy is a fact. His peer-eviscerating verse on Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013 was prophetic (“I got love for y’all, but I’m tryna murder you niggas”), but, in retrospect, understated. He acknowledged a place for himself beside legends like Hova, Biggie, Andre 3000, but never suggested surpassing them. Things have changed. To understand how his catalog stacks up against those of his idols today, imagine if The Chronic, Illmatic, and All Eyez on Me were released back to back to back… by the same rapper. “Sit down/ Be humble” he advised. It is time to listen.
See also: Vince Staples — “Norf Norf”