The 2010s was an incredibly gay decade in music. Queer and trans musicians gained more visibility and success than ever before over the last ten years! Here are the best 50 albums of the decade, according to me. But first, a few rules:
1. So that I could make this a bit more feasible, I decided to only feature one album per artist. If not, it would be impossible to choose between two incredible albums by the same artist, and half of the 50 would be repeats. So whenever an artist had two or more albums that could have made the top 50, I chose one and put an Also Check Out: at the bottom of their entry briefly discussing their other great albums.
2. These are the best albums, not necessarily the best songs. A great album is one that I can listen to in its entirety without feeling the need to skip any tracks. However, a great album is also made up of great individual songs! A really incredible banger can uplift the other songs on the album. So I had to evaluate the album both as a whole and as individual songs.
3. I don’t really understand genres any more so I made them up when I didn’t know what else to put.
4. I couldn’t place the top five, sorry! They’re all amazing, and the way I know is that when I listen to them over and over, I don’t have to skip a single track.
Please argue with me in the comments. I agonized over these rankings until I gave up, because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter! Enjoy, and of course, here’s the Spotify Playlist:
50. Jónsi, Go
Electronic/Experimental Pop, 2010
Ever so slightly more accessible than Sigur Rós, Jonsi’s debut solo album hits a lot of the same beats — his soaring falsetto floats over inventive, gorgeous arrangements of strings, synth, and left-of-field production — but he turns it up to 11, and keeps it (almost) pop. If you’re a fan of soaring melodies, he has the soaringest ones. If you like epic, this will take you on a journey. If you’re not a lyrics person, perfect: this is either in Icelandic or it’s largely unintelligible, and when you can make out lyrics they’re largely saccharine-infused positive thinking cliches, which matches the music perfectly. It’s 100% pick-me-up.
Dark Hip-Hop, 2013
I’m not sure why, but a handful of queer rappers blew up in the early 2010s and all had incredibly deep, dark voices. Le1f and Cakes da Killa released debut albums around the same time as Zebra Katz, but in my opinion he used it the best, primarily because he hasn’t felt it necessary to confine himself to any hip-hop tropes. Katz’ minor 2012 hit “Ima Read,” for example, features a single bass drum beat throughout the entire song without interruption. His dark, slow, mesmerizing production and uncommon flow are his trademark. He often raps laconically, but purposefully, and repeats refrains until they lose — or gain — meaning.
The Internet has a lane, and sticks to it, and excels within it. I’ve heard criticism of Syd’s vocals, of how lethargic their vibe can be, and other things that don’t matter because they’re not what The Internet’s trying to do. Ego Death is sexy, soulful R&B/soul for Black weirdos and anyone else who’s interested in catching the vibe they’re delivering. I love the mixture and interaction of live band and programmed elements, and highkey appreciate how gay this album is.
Confessional Pop, 2014
Mary Lambert’s whole shtick is empowering, extra-vulnerable tear-jerkers—either taken to their logical extreme via piano ballads (“When You Sleep”) or arena ballads (“Monochromatic”) or hidden behind extremely catchy singer-songwritery pop hooks (“Secrets”). This was her major label debut, and I think that has positives and negatives. Lambert was a poet/spoken word artist before her big break, and in my opinion her latest album suffers from going too far in that direction. I think Lambert’s best as a super-vulnerable, confessional, singer-songwritery pop singer, and this album best encapsulates that.
Also Check Out: 2019’s Grief Creature is intense, and powerful, but not as accessible as Heart On My Sleeve.
I’ve never been a fan of country music, but not because I don’t like the way it sounds — it’s just always felt so alien to my Bay Area-raised, queer, city-living experience. Bluegrass and Americana are similar genres that don’t have the typical trappings of mainstream country, and Loamlands is one of a bunch of queer Americana musicians making excellent music. When I listen to them, I feel an intense pull toward queer homesteading; I’m reminded of my many road trips through the American South and Southwest, and see myself in a small house, surrounded by a quiet, comforting desert landscape, with other queer and trans folks, just happily existing. With Loamlands in the background.
Also Check Out: 2019’s Lez Dance had a terrible name but was also really solid.
Indie Rock, 2011 (Rereleased 2018)
Laconic, yet powerful indie rock from a musician who doesn’t care about singing well (in some cases this is annoying, in Will Toldeo’s it’s refreshing and disarming) or really about doing anything else in a standard way. Instead of the expected hooks or melodies, his songs are often long and meander in six different directions, with incredibly precise guitar work and deft percussion. He really doesn’t take himself or his band too seriously; on “Bodys” for example: “Is it the chorus yet/ no it’s just the building of the verse/ so when the chorus does come, it’ll be more rewarding.”
Also Check Out: 2015’s Teens of Style or 2016’s Teens of Denial.
I’ll admit it — I’m not a longtime Against Me! fan. I wasn’t listening to them when this album came out. And really this isn’t even my genre, and I wonder if it wasn’t about being trans if I’d really care. But the title track hits me square in the chest, and there are days when I listen and scream along to it over and over and over. Laura Jane Grace’s lyrics are simple and direct and they mean so much to me. “Dead Friend” is basic, perhaps: “You don’t worry about tomorrow anymore/ Because you’re dead.” But I’ve comforted myself with this literal exact thought countless times when thinking about a friend who passed. And on “True Trans Soul Rebel,” she nails the experience of being early in transition: “All dressed up and nowhere to go” is a cliche but in context it’s exactly what we all do: sit in our bedrooms with our femme clothes, not yet brave enough to go outside in them, still a little weirded out by what we see in the mirror, dreading yet eagerly anticipating the inevitable. “Yet to be born, you’re already dead.” Heartbreaking and invigorating at the same time.
DIY Indie Rock, 2017
Jay Som makes bright, accessible “bedroom” guitar rock. I’m not sure exactly what “bedroom rock” means anymore, other than the fact that Melina Duterte wrote and recorded this entire album herself. It doesn’t sound like it! I love a complex arrangement and modern sounds as much as anyone, but she makes basic guitar-based indie rock as fun as it can be without bogging it down in complexity. Or sentimentality: lyrically, this alum is perfect early-adulthood angst, but without being cloying or dour; rather it feels very measured and thoughtful. Title Track “Everybody Works” is a lamentation on the realization that adulthood under capitalism essentially means selling your labor for the rest of your productive years: “Try to make ends meet/ Penny pinch ’til I’m dying/ Everybody works.” But her phrasing is simultaneously uplifting in a way: everybody has to deal with this, you’re not alone!
Also Check Out: 2019’s Anak Ko. Also incredible, but slightly less accessible as it’s more exploratory and experimental.
Pop Country, 2018
This album really grew on me. I’ve lately been trying to listen to all the queer country I can find, and Carlile is a legendary figure; she came out all the way back in 2002! This album had a lot of hype, but the singles I heard didn’t give me hope: to be honest, they seemed kind of corny. “The Joke” is a pretty nice anthem in support of queer and gender non-conforming kids, “The Mother” is a nice, sweet ode to lesbian motherhood, and “Sugartooth” is a sad ballad about mental illness and addiction. But once I let go of my cynicism, I was able to appreciate these songs for what they are. And there are other excellent ones on this album, like the gorgeous and heartbreaking “We’re not going to break up, we’re going to fight until we remember how much we love each other” ballad “Party of One,” or the complex emotional journey of “Every Time I Hear That Song.”
Alt/Experimental R&B, 2018
Alternative R&B had a big decade. Josiah Wise fuses jazz, blues, neo-soul, and electronica together, along with his completely unique voice and vocalizations. His voice is really the most expressive instrument on this wide-ranging album. Both in pitch, as he ventures all the way up and down his register, he also modulates his vocals electronically, as on “messy,” to punctuate the harsh truths of the lyrics: “Each time you deny my mess/ you’ll find yourself/ closer to me.”
Indie Pop, 2015
Escape From Evil is ‘80s-style pop rock music, but seemingly without a hint of nostalgia. Instead the album sounds like it went back into the mainstream ‘80s – with its glam rock and genderbending still stuck, somehow, in an explicitly heterosexual framework—and liberated it from that patriarchal cage.
Experimental Classical/Jazz, 2019
This is like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s experimental, piano-based instrumental music, with flourishes of… all kinds of stuff: found sounds like walking through gravel, seagulls on the coast, the stretch and sway of a hammock. There aren’t lyrics, but Keith has discussed that it’s about her childhood, mental illness, her transness, and, especially, death. “Maranasati” is a kind of Buddhist meditation practice that centers on the contemplation of death. A lot of art evokes, discusses, or rebukes death, but this album seems to convey a warmness to its inevitability that I haven’t experienced in quite this way. Keith explains this as well—sort of: “Death has been presented to me since my youth as this mysterious, magical force. That’s made it softer to untangle.” That softness is both alluring and frightening.
One of my favorite music narratives is the standout artist who breaks free of their singing group to start a solo career, especially when it’s an “I wanted more creative control” situation. I never listened to Danity Kane, to be honest, but from what I’ve heard Richard was one of the best parts of it. I love this electro-R&B; it reminds me a lot of Kelis’ post-”Milkshake” output. It’s relentlessly futuristic, but still incredibly accessible.
Also Check Out: 2019’s New Breed. Less futuristic, warmer, incredibly authentic and personal, and miles ahead of most mainstream R&B that’s come out recently.
Sad Lesbian Low-fi, 2010
I saw Jenn Champion perform songs from this album at the last lesbian bar in Seattle not long after it came out. This was before I knew I was a lesbian, and before anyone knew that bar would soon close. It’s possible that the nostalgia makes this album sound better than it is, but that image is a perfect encapsulation of Champion’s music (did she choose the band name “S” to purposely be virtually unsearchable?). I really think that these sad, largely finger-plucked guitar ballads, with their over-confessional, over-vulnerable, pleading, whisper-sung, super DIY, low-fi sound are beautiful in their own way. It brings me back to my emo days, but it feels a lot more authentic than the Bright Eyes and Fall Out Boy and Early November I was listening to back then.
Also Check Out: Jenn Champion’s style evolved for 2014’s Cool Choices, with a slightly more upbeat-sounding piano and percussion setup in addition to the guitar, and a slightly more professional recording setup (though lyrically it was just as dour). But she really shined on 2018’s Single Rider, when she ditched the DIY basement rocker aesthetic wholesale and decided to make dance music. If you just listened to the single in the video above it’ll be hard to believe, but it works. Really well.
36. Arca, Xen
Weird Electronica, 2015
This decade, a wave of electronic musicians like Ultrademon and SOPHIE (see below), gained prominence. Gone are the club days of EDM and big-name DJs. The underground artists, like Arca, making electronica-as-art have come. Well, it’s not that they’ve come, as they’ve always been around, but they’re starting to bubble up to the surface. Arca even had a hand in creating KanYe West’s Yeezus album. This is a strange, dark album of weird glitchy synthy goodness; it’s definitely not an album to play at a party — unless maybe it’s a goth/industrial drugs and sex party, in which case, it’s probably the perfect album to play!
35. Clairo, Immunity
Indie Rock, 2019
This is one of the best albums I heard all year. One of the things I love about it, that I find fascinating and stirring, is how Claire Cottrill makes her not-quite low-fi, not-quite trip-hop, not-quite indie pop sounds warm, as though it was all recorded live. The drums feel live. The bass feels live. Somehow even her understated, reverberating vocals feel live. She’s made the transition from bedroom pop to the big leagues without losing the charm that makes low-fi so endearing. She got rid of the microphone hiss but not the heart.
Retro Pop Rock, 2019
I think, for me, this album suffered from over-saturation. There was the steady stream of singles, including non-album tracks (“Pussy Is God” isn’t on here?), and just way too many mainstream “this is the new face of queer music” takes or “King Princess is dating Amandla Stenberg, no she’s dating Quinn Wilson” celebrity coverage that I got too tired to give the album complete listens. But it’s actually excellent. She or her team were smart to leave “Hit The Back” for the album release, though, because it’s one of the songs of the year in my opinion. But her whole retro, soulful, pop-rock vibe is a really good look in an era when everyone and your mom is releasing trap-infused pop. I do feel like this album is mostly better-than-average filler tracks, though, which is why it isn’t higher on this list.
Slack Rock, 2015
“If you can’t see me, I can’t see you” transforms, in Courtney Barnett’s hands, from a mundane bumper sticker seen by thousands of freeway commuters daily into a refrain used to tie together seemingly unrelated quotidian observations. She mulls over pesticides in vegetables, then roadkill, then a near-crash with a semi, then gas prices on “Dead Fox,” but stops just shy of actually making a statement about the food industry or capitalism or anything, really. That’s the charm of this album: Barnett’s slacker-rock aesthetic is a perfect confluence of the sonic and the lyrical; she notices interesting things, ties them together in a fascinating, accessible way, and lets the listener do the work.
Folksy Jazzy Soul, 2011
“Le petite mort” — translated, “the little death” — refers to the momentary loss of consciousness that occurs either simultaneously with or immediately after orgasm. To be real, Meshell Ndegeocello crooning “Who’s your daddy?” nearly gets me there. This album is incredibly sexy.
Folk Rock, 2019
I don’t know how it’s possible to choose between U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, two masterpieces by Big Thief just this year. I reviewed Two Hands here, so I guess I’ll give this one its due. One of the things that folk music does best is storytelling. And raw, expressive, precise, heartbreaking storytelling is exactly what Big Thief does, and they do it better than anyone else. “Cattails,” the song linked above (they don’t do music videos, really, but this live version is excellent), is especially fascinating to me as someone who loves pop music: this song doesn’t have a chorus. It has a motif, sure, and a somewhat-repeated melody, but otherwise it trudges forward, kind of slowly, building a narrative in hazy vignettes pregnant with emotion. The stories are somehow impenetrable yet accessible; the characters have proper names as though Adrienne Lenker, principal singer and songwriter, is tapping into a bard’s role, passing down stories we already know the broad strokes of but are learning new details about. It’s immersive and beautiful.
Also Check Out: 2019’s other incredible album from Big Thief, Two Hands.
Dance Pop For Lovers, 2010
Content warning: This video is NSFW and features lowkey explicit sex.
Resident Advisor’s Andrew Casillas is responsible for the perfect description of this album: “dance pop for lovers.” I think this album sits perfectly alongside Robyn’s 2010 masterpiece Body Talk, except where that album feels like the soundtrack to dancing through your most recent heartbreak, MENA feels like dancing through your most recent love affair. That could be, though, because I’m relying more on the sonics than the lyrics—I understand Spanish, but not well enough to get the fullness of what’s going on here. For example, on “Luz de Piedra de Luna,” she sings: “Aunque cuando bailo contigo/ No me preocupo mas/ Sueño contigo, luz de piedra de luna/ Cuando bailo contigo/ No, no, trato mas de entender que tu luz se apagara.” Loosely translated: “Although when I’m dancing with you/ I don’t worry any more/ Dreaming with you, moonstone light/ When I’m dancing with you/ I stop trying to understand that your light goes out.” Is this happy or sad? Fatalist or realistic (moon and sun being standard metaphors for impermanence)? It’s hard, but thoroughly enjoyable, to not know.
Experimental Cinematic Pop Soundscapes, 2010
Owen Pallett has been playing classical violin since the age of THREE. He’s scored films, written operas — and even composed music for video games. Before 2010, he made music as “Final Fantasy,” and I think the video game connection is apt because I can definitely hear “Heartland” as the soundtrack to an incredibly dense, epic RPG — like, well, a Final Fantasy game. Ostensibly it’s about the entire breadth of a relationship, though told from the perspective not of Pallett himself but his lover. This album is cinematic in scope, disarming in its idiosyncrasies, and enjoyably disorienting.
Indie Pop-Rock, 2017
Japanese Breakfast makes pretty lovely, but pretty sad, indie rock, but the album title here is incredibly purposeful — just around the edges, and in the background, infused throughout, is an ethereal, otherworldly quality. It lurks! It’s as though Michelle Zauner wrote a pretty excellent chill rock album, and then was abducted, and the aliens liked what they heard but wanted to add a little alien flair, so they did and then sent her back to Earth to share the final product with the rest of us. Also, I love Zauner’s lyrics — they are simple, direct, and dense: “I can’t get you off my mind/ I can’t get you off in general” is maybe the best encapsulation of bed death I’ve ever heard, and that and many other songs on this album seem to be poignant explorations of bisexuality from the perspective of someone married to a man. I mean, it sounds pretty terrible, to be honest, but what are you going to do? Listen to this record and relate, I guess!
27. Kelsey Lu, Blood
Weirdo R&B, 2019
Kelsey Lu makes strange, lovely music that’s hard to classify. Lu was raised as both a Jehovah’s Witness and a classical musician, learning piano, violin and cello from the tender age of six. Her first EP, Church, primarily focused on her cello, looped and chopped and interspersed with her dynamic voice. While Blood is in general more accessible than Church, with some pop hooks here and there, it’s still very weird. “Due West” is easily the most accessible song. I love “Poor Fake” for its sheer audacity. And “Foreign Car” — especially when coupled with the music video, above — seems like it’s about objectifying men, which I’m here for.
26. Kesha, Rainbow
In early 2017, I wrote a mostly tongue-in-cheek article I was going to pitch to Autostraddle about the many life lessons I’d learned from Kesha’s first two full-length albums. And then she went ahead and released “Rainbow,” and the empowering lessons were no longer in the subtext of her songs, and my article was irrelevant! I’ve always loved how, even when she was doing mainstream vapid dance-pop, there was an obvious authenticity within her silly tales of overdoing partying. Recurring motifs included being broke and dirty, not caring about men’s, or really anyone’s approval, and an affinity for the outcasts and weirdos of the world (in, I might add, a way that felt like she was one of us, not a benevolent overseer like Lady Gaga). We all, of course, know the story of “Rainbow” and her legal battle with Dr. Luke; that she was able to turn that turmoil into something so gorgeous is mad inspiring to me. I dare you to watch this without feeling something.
There’s too much to say about this decade and queer Black musicians in hip-hop and R&B. I will say, though, that I found this album charming, and as someone who grew up in the suburbs on emo and pop-punk, and grew into hip-hop in my adulthood, I find this album a charming marriage of the two. Explicitly about Abstract’s youth as a Black suburban gay, it’s relatable when so much music about high school is overly nostalgic, as on album opener “Empty:” “I hate my yearbook photo/ I hate my passport/ I hate my last name/ I hate everything it stands for/ I should probably fucking transfer/ Blue and brown JanSport/ I never went to prom/ Now I’m stuck on the dance floor/Just holdin’ your hand.”
I’ll be honest — I didn’t used to listen to Sleater-Kinney, like, back in their first heyday in the 2000s. I knew they were legendary, but I just didn’t get into it. It wasn’t until, honestly, Portlandia debuted that I thought, “Hey, I know her from somewhere!” And then a couple years later, this album came out. So I can’t tell you if this is better or worse than their previous albums. I can tell you that I do like it better than what came after. No Cities To Love hits that perfect place of accessibility, pop sensibility, and raw attitude.
Shura’s incredible 2019 album, forevher, is confident, sexy, powerful. When I’m feeling myself, it’s an incredible listen. But this, her 2016 major label debut, is hesitant and introspective; it’s more of a coming-of-age album, and as such it’s a bit more accessible and relatable to me. That’s not evident in the production; the album is gorgeous and intricate electronic dance pop.
Also Check Out: 2019’s forevher, which is, again, confident, sexy, powerful, and suuuuuper gay.
22. Noname, Room 25
Someone once told me that “rap” originally stood for “rhythm and poetry.” I don’t know if that’s true — it’s been repeated enough times that it seems impossible to really know the truth — but in my opinion, the best rappers have a healthy respect for poetry and spoken word. I first heard of Noname on a Jamila Woods feature, and I’m so glad I did. They’re perfect collaborators; both are all about Black, queer liberation, the power of poetry, and modern-yet-classic beats. Especially given what’s come out lately, I respect Noname so much. She’s never been worried about popularity or mass appeal; her lyrics are far too dense and political for that. She’s also not interested in mainstream bounds of Blackness; I love this little line on “Ace:” “Room 25, the best album that’s coming out/ Labels got these niggas just doing it for the clout/ I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out/ Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out!”
Chill Urban Vibes, 2019
This was so hard, because all of Dounia’s albums are incredible. Each one is better than the last. I honestly don’t know if this album is better than 2018’s Avant-Garden, but here we go! I love Dounia’s swagger, her positivity, and of course her voice. Much of her music is independently self-produced, and she remains preternaturally singular and slept on. I think I’m choosing THE SCANDAL over Avant-Garden because of the trilingual verse on “LOWKEY GRL” (video above) by her alter ego “Moroccan Doll,” during which she raps in Arabic, English, and French, switching between the three seamlessly – a great example of how smooth she is in general. “DELIGHTFUL,” “UP 4 AIR,” “SPECIFIC,” and “ROYAL” are other standout tracks.
Also Check Out: 2018’s The Avant-Garden, which had Kehlani collab “Rich Girl Mood,” “If U Wanna,” and “Avant Garde.” 2017’s “Intro To” is also an incredible debut!
Indie Experimental Art Pop, 2019
If there was a lesbian multi-nodal polyam relationship between Tegan and Sara’s, Feist’s, and Annie Clark’s music, and they birthed a child during a lightning storm that somehow, Frankenstein-like, infused the infant with its spark… that child could be Arthur Moon’s self-titled debut album. Does that make sense? Probably not. Anyway, with exquisite pop sensibility, weird singer-songwriter creativity and disdain for traditional song structures, and crunchy, rocking hooks and melodies, this album is killer. The electro touches, especially on Lora-Faye Åshuvud’s vocals, but also on the deftly-applied chopping and screwing of the instrumentation, keep this album consistently fresh, exciting, and often pleasantly unexpected. She breaks all the rules so beautifully.
Indie Electronic Soft Pop, 2015
Sui Zhen’s music is so delightfully weird. Do I understand it? No. Is it extremely pleasant to listen to? Yes. Secretly Susan is ever so slightly weirder than 2019’s Losing, Linda, so I recommend it! I know that both of these albums are dealing with technology and its impact on identity and sense of self, but honestly that’s as much as I need. Is there a meaning in the music video linked above? To be honest, I don’t think so. Just enjoy the weirdness and vibe.
Also Check Out: 2019’s Losing, Linda, which is like yacht rock for cyborg aliens.
Lesbian Jesus really delivered with this one. Pure gay pop goodness. One overlooked aspect of this album, I think, is how meticulously constructed it is as a whole. I think she really could have put out a collection of singles and it would have been a wrap. But Expectations has a genuine opener (or “Overture”) that blends right into standout “Feelings.” Then not one but two back-to-back two-parters with “Mercy/Gatekeeper” and “Under The Blue/Take Me In,” either of which could have been split into a single, standard pop song. She’s even got a little interlude after smash single “Curious.” I don’t think anyone really underestimates or underrates Lesbian Jesus, but still. This whole album goes.
17. Baths, Cerulean
Baths was essentially my entryway into underground electronic music. Birthed around the same time as “chillwave,” it went in a slightly different direction, using choppy, loopy chiptune and synth to evoke future anxiety rather than blissful nostalgia. Almost 10 years later, it still sounds unique — no small feat.
Also Check Out: 2013’s Obsidian; once Baths’ Will Wiesenfeld got more confident in his singing, Baths went in a poppier direction, with great results. Also: Wiesenfeld wrote and performed the theme song to Dream Daddy, a gay dad dating simulation video game, which… yes, I downloaded. I still haven’t played it though, but the theme song goes!
Alternative Jazzy Folk Pop, 2019
Bebé Machete does incredibly creative, unexpected things on this album. They modulate their voice, going up and down in register, to spoken word, switching seamlessly between English and Spanish, to distortion and reverb, and back again — sometimes in the same song. They play with time signatures — you never know if a song will speed up, slow down, and/or stop completely. Their take on salsa, latin jazz, and low-fi pop music is fresh and immediate and challenging and lovely. It’s also highkey inspiring: “Imperfection is so liberating,” Machete begins the album’s opener, Mx. Machete. And on closer Ta Vivo: “All we got is you, me, one another/ together we will liberate each other.” Between the two, a fecund well of seemingly limitless creativity. This one deserves quite a few listens.
Electro Indie Pop, 2012
This album came out a year or so before Michael Angelakos got married, and a few years before he got divorced and then came out. And during, as was revealed later, the throes of the worst of a yearslong struggle with bipolar disorder. This music video — which looks like two great friends who get along great and can’t understand why they don’t work together romantically — is incredibly prescient in retrospect. Gossamer is the happiest sounding album about heartbreak and death and mental illness I’ve ever heard, and to this day it’s still a marvel of production. How do you make something so big that still feels direct and poignant and meaningful? The opening line (and, even title) of “I’ll Be Alright” is a mission statement for the band: “Can you remember ever having any fun?/ Cause when it’s all said and done/ I always believed we were/ But now I’m not so sure.” It’s almost like Gossamer is a response to that thought process, like Angelakos decided, “I’m not sure if I’m having fun, or if I ever have, but I’m going to make an album that sounds like the sonic equivalent of having as much fun as possible, more fun than anyone could possibly ever have, too much fun.” And succeeded.
Experimental Industrial Pop, 2016
This is one of the most important albums, by one of the most important musicians, of our time. ANOHNI’s debut takes laser aim at climate change, American interventionist foreign policy, violent masculinity, as well as heartbreak, with her incomparable voice. It’s hard to imagine a better merger of form and function than the harsh industrial production and the subject matter of this polemic of an album, and hard to imagine a more striking contrast between those two things and her voice, which lilts and sways and floats and also cuts. Incredibly deeply.
Also Check Out: everything that Antony & The Johnsons (ANOHNI’s pre-transition band) ever released! But especially their first two, I Am A Bird Now and The Crying Light, and their live albums.
A lot of people think of dance when they think of electronic music. Props to Pitchfork for coining the term “conceptronica” — SOPHIE makes electronic music for queer cyborgs to glitch out to. It’s definitely not dance music, and isn’t even necessarily consistently enjoyable to listen to—but it is beautiful, touching, weirdly erotic, unnerving, disarming… “It’s OK To Cry” is simultaneously the most accessible song on the album, similar to almost nothing else by SOPHIE, and yet it’s also one of the best. “Immaterial” sounds like if a robot woman — let’s call her “Pandora” — became an American pop star, and was able to do all of the moves and understood on an algorithmic level how to make pop music, but had no soul. Which is a good way to describe most of SOPHIE’s music, actually.
Indie Rock/Pop, 2011
Like Be Steadwell, Tune-Yards has to be heard live to be appreciated. The core element here is Merrill Garbus’ incredibly powerful, expressive voice, but equally important is her out-there, kitchen-sink style of DIY song-building. Built from the ground up with electric ukelele, off-kilter drum patterns looped continuously, and controlled by her deft feet, which bring together the harmonized yelps and bits of drum crashes at perfect moments, the final product is a sight to behold; a dizzying, glorious mish-mash of indie pop, rock, world music, jazz, R&B, and basically everything else. w h o k i l l – originally titled “women who kill,” by the way – is a powerhouse of emotion, vitriol, and creativity. On later records — Nikki Nack to a degree and especially I can feel you creep into my private life — Tune-Yards got a bigger budget and shinier production values. So they aren’t as raw, and the loop pedal became somewhat unnecessary. But they didn’t lose their innovative, DIY spirit.
Also Check Out: 2018’s I can feel you creep into my private life, where Garbus interrogates her own white privilege in an incredibly vulnerable and arresting way over an outsider-pop soundtrack.
11. Kelela, Cut 4 Me
Artsy Electro Pop/R&B, 2013
Kelela was making artsy, innovative pop/R&B, with warped synths, unique percussion, and unexpected arrangements — backed by peripatetic, maudlin yet alien vocals — long before fka Twigs and other “Escape Room” artists took up the mantle. There are two things, in my opinion, that make Kelela stand out, and make this album one of the best of the decade. The first is her vocals, which sound effortless, regardless of whether she’s floating high or bellowing. She also isn’t afraid to manipulate them; she flits from being a chanteuse to her own robot accompaniment on a dime and without it being disorienting. The second is the overall pop sensibility. Listen to “Send Me Out” and tell me you don’t hear Solange in the intro. The thing is, where Solange, Twigs, even SOPHIE had to forego making music that might be played in the club in order to achieve their artistic vision, Kelela manages to have it all. This album belongs in the club and in the museum – not a simple feat.
Also Check Out: 2017’s Take Me Apart might be equally as good, or better, than Cut 4 Me, so I decided to choose the one that had a bigger impact on the decade.
Guitar Goddess Indie Rock, 2014
OK, this was way too hard. This decade, St. Vincent released this album as well as 2011’s Strange Mercy and the one-two punch of 2017’s MASSEDUCTION and 2018’s MassEducation. Up until I wrote this, like literally right now, I was planning to put Strange Mercy here. Because St. Vincent is a guitar goddess, I wanted to choose the album that was a bit heavier on the guitar. But her self-titled has so many incredible songs — “Birth in Reverse,” “Prince Johnny,” “Digital Witness…”
But then, my favorite song of hers overall is actually “Fast Slow Disco,” which wasn’t even on an album! I consider it part of the “Disco Suite,” which includes “Dancing With A Ghost” and “Slow Disco” from MASSSEDUCTION, then “Fast Slow Disco,” which was a single, and finally “Slow Disco (Piano Version),” which was on MassEducation. I listen to them in that order. I don’t know! Even her older albums, like 2009’s Actor, are excellent. Is Annie Clark really one of the most accomplished and talented musicians of our generation? Or Am I just a stan? Or am I simultaneously in love with and also want to be her? It’s impossible to tell.
Also Check Out: 2011’s Strange Mercy and 2017’s MASSEDUCTION. The former is a bit more rockin’, and the latter is a bit more experimental and pop-oriented. They’re both excellent.
Indie Electro Pop, 2019
This album really grew on me, especially after seeing them live earlier this year. I have a new appreciation for the complexities of the percussion on this album; their muted nature, situated a bit in the background to let the languid, dreamy melodies wash over each other in the foreground is actually incredibly unique. So many artists push the percussion to the front for power and impact, but Amber Bain doesn’t do that; letting the occasional wood block or steel drum-ish beat be surprises.
What’s still so unique here, though, after listening to this album on repeat (it appears that I’ve listened to this album at least 50 times since March, or at least once a week), is the way Bain modulates her voice. It’s always double- or triple-tracked, with some reverb, so it seems like every phrase is uttered by triplets, each with a very slightly different register. The multiple versions of the voice aren’t harmonizing — except when they are — but support each other in an endearing, disorienting way.
In all those listens, I gained a new appreciation especially for “Worms,” buried toward the end right before standouts “f a r a w a y” and “i saw you in a dream.” It begins in a pretty distorted, disorienting way, but then hits the chorus: “Only a day old, but I know what love is/ Invest yourself in something worth investing in.” I ponder this line to this day and, in the context of the rest of the song, about our culture’s obsession with coupling and the compulsory nature of romantic attachment, is still opaque but compelling to me.
Dance Pop, 2019
I didn’t know it was possible for an entire album to be full of 100% certified bangers. This is the best pop album I’ve heard in years, up there with Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION and Robyn’s Body Talk. I know that’s high praise, but seriously—this album is good. Every song is immaculately produced, with perfect swirls of synth, heavy, club-ready percussion, and harmonies that soar to heaven. What’s even wilder is Petras also released an album of Halloween-themed songs this year and it was also really good! What?
It’s also an incredibly sexy album — “Do Me,” “Sweet Spot,” and “Got My Number” are sultry as hell. I believe that trans women singing openly about sex and being desirable is revolutionary! Otherwise, lyrically, it’s pretty standard pop music fare. There are quite a few heartbreak anthems, and the rest seem to boast about Petras’ beauty and wealth—also revolutionary IMO. The one gripe I have about this album, and it’s hardly unique to Petras among pop stars, is the degree to which she — a white German — appropriates so much AAVE.
There’s another controversy, however, that I have to mention, and it honestly breaks my heart. Almost the entire album was produced by Dr. Luke, best known for being accused of a number of crimes, including sexual assault, by Kesha. Petras initially invalidated Kesha’s claim, then sort of apologized, but not really. I haven’t landed on how obligated I feel to avoid consuming art by people I don’t respect. I feel like Petras’ positionality as an out trans pop star — there aren’t many of them! — complicates how moralistic I want to get about the choices she makes for her career. If you feel similarly, this is an incredible album. If you skip it because of the Dr. Luke affiliation, I get it!
Also Check Out: 2019’s TURN OFF THE LIGHT. Who knew being creeped out could be so sexy?
It’s hard to have an incredibly mainstream pop album in your top ten. But it’s also hard to find a single fault with this one. In the 2000 film “High Fidelity,” music snob Rob describes how to make the perfect mixtape; he could be describing 1000 Forms of Fear: “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention.” “Chandelier.” “Then you gotta take it up a notch.” “Big Girls Cry,” and then she sneaks in another huge song, the severely underrated “Burn The Pages.” “But you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch.” “Eye of the Needle.” All of the singles from this album are generational statements; huge songs that spread the globe and sold missions of copies and saw literal billions of views on YouTube. “Elastic Heart” is a masterpiece. But every single song on this album is good, and she takes risks that I think get overshadowed by how good the singles are.
“Hostage” is rock solid. “Straight For the Knife” is a perfectly heartbreaking ballad. “Fair Game” is a mid-tempo ballad that has a 30 second xylophone solo 2/3s of the way through the song, that somehow WORKS! I even love closer “Dressed In Black,” which brings me back to my Evanescence days. Sia’s marble-mouthed melodies are perfect pop music; they suggest emotional experiences and pair them with soaring sonic journeys. She’s expressive without being too specific, so the listener can easily insert themselves into the narrative.
Also Check Out: 2018’s This is Acting, which is a compilation of songs that Sia wrote for other artists. It has some really incredible tracks — “Alive,” of course, and “Bird Set Free — but it doesn’t feel as cohesive.
The first song I heard of Jamila Woods was “VRY BLK,” which also introduced me to Noname. I didn’t have the experience of playing hand games with other Black children in my youth, but somehow I knew “Miss Mary Mack,” and I imagine many of you do too. That she flips it on its head to make it about Blackness and police brutality, while keeping the song’s original spirit—the ends of key lines are homonyms, homophones, or double entendres—is incredible: “Black is like the magic, the magic’s like a spell/ My brothers went to heaven, the police going to/ hello operator, emergency hotline/ if I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk/ line up to see the movie, line up to see the act/ the officers are scheming to cover up their/ ask me no more questions…”
This is the Blackest — the most radical Black, leftist, collection of songs I’ve ever heard. “Blk Girl Soldier” is an incredible ode to Black women activists as well as a clarion call. “Lonely” is an introvert anthem as well as an excoriation of the superficiality of everyday life and the pathologization of being emotionally attuned—“I put a sun in my lamp/ I put a Post-It note on my mirror/ So I might love myself/ So I might be enough today/ I’m not OK, thanks for asking/ I can tell I’ve said too much/ I’m out of touch/ Guess no one ever really wants to know.” And then there’s a flipped Paula Cole reference: “I don’t wanna wait/ for my life to be over/ to let myself feel the way I feel/ I don’t wanna wait/ for our lives to be over/ To love myself however I feel.” I love the idea of love expressed on “HEAVN:” “I don’t wanna run away with you/ I wanna live our life right here.”
And then there’s “Holy.” I spent a solid six months listening to this song every single morning when I woke up because it was the only thing that made getting up seem worthwhile. “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me/ With my mind set on loving me/ I’m not lonely, I’m alone/ And I’m holy by my own… Yeah, the bad days may come/ The lover may leave/ The winter may not/ Hey, the map of your palms/ The temple you be/ You’re all that you got.”
Also Check Out: 2019’s LEGACY! LEGACY! also a radical masterpiece, each song dedicated to a revolutionary (in their own way) person of color, most of them Black women.
One of the reasons I love Lil’ Nas X so much is that he was supposed to be a one-hit wonder. Then he showed everyone that he’s a versatile, talented artist. The xx seemed that way too – their sparse, single-note-plucked melodies, spacious drum machine beats, quiet background synths and the potentially overly precious back-and-forth of singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. 10 years later, it’s clear that wasn’t the case. Instead, the group’s debut would transform not just indie pop and electronic music, but the entire popular music landscape (they were sampled by Rihanna! What?).
On I See You, I feel like The xx fully came into their own. This is what I’ve always wanted from them — full control over their aesthetic, complete mastery of their craft, a breadth of explorations of their signature sound without actually being bound by it. They’re still sad, and there’s still so much empty space within and between so many of their arrangements. But Jamie xx’s production really takes the forefront here. It’s incredible how he pulls these sounds together, and how Croft and Sim have evolved as vocalists. They actually seem like they’re harmonizing here; they always had incredible chemistry but they sound confident and self-assured now. There are love songs that aren’t just about longing! But there are those too; “Say Something Loving” is about the difficulty of accepting true affection when you’ve settled for toxicity for too long, and “On Hold” laments not taking advantage of something good while it was still available to you because destiny doesn’t mean you don’t have to try to make things work.
“On Hold,” by the way, is one of the best songs of the decade. It is the perfect amalgamation of The xx’s spacious, open sonics and a new, bouncy, bright, club-ready pop/dance strategy. How the hell did they pull this off? I also didn’t know that The xx were queer – both Sims and Croft (Jamie xx was coy if I remember correctly; I met them a few years ago and they told me in person). Where previously they’d utilized vagueness as a form of connection, on this one I see the metaphors much more plainly — “Dangerous” is about committing to a love society says is wrong, “I Dare You” about the bliss of returned affection, and “Performance” is ostensibly about the pressures of visibility, but to me it reads like gender performativity. Every song on this album is significant and beautiful.
Indie Pop/R&B, 2013
Blood Orange’s entire discography of instant-classic albums exists within the confines of this decade, and in my opinion, considered in total, is the genius work of a master producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter. As such, it was hard to choose one. I landed on Cupid Deluxe not because it is head and shoulders above his other albums, but because I believe it’s most representative of what Devonté Hynes does. Blood Orange trafficks in tenderly-wrought vignettes of queer life cast against retro pop beats infused with modernity.
Cupid Deluxe is wistful and melancholy, and bounces with soft, meandering melancholy. The vibe is like remembering the mistakes of your youth with fondness. Not recasting the mistakes — they were still mistakes — but that you were still so carefree and open that you were even able to make them. It’s like nostalgia for one’s own past naiveté, for the lack of cynicism and jadedness that accompanied it. Like, you were heartbroken and taken advantage of because you were an idealistic, bright-eyed young gay in the big city, but you’re nostalgic for the feeling of being young and free, not for the bad choices you made as a result. Does that make sense? Blood Orange makes the gayest music, and while Cupid Deluxe isn’t as specific to the Black queer experience as 2018’s Negro Swan, that layer does come in fits and starts throughout.
Now, I’d be remiss to not mention the controversy: Devonté Hynes has been accused by a handful of people, on Twitter and some message boards, of being a transmisogynist and/or a “chaser.” I haven’t seen any receipts of this, and indeed have never seen any actual claims or evidence or even like, “I heard he did this to x person” gossip, and never from Black trans women themselves, always from allies. That being said, I am always inclined to believe accusers, so if this is true, then fuck this genius who makes incredible music. I wish we had the same energy for non-Black, queer artists, and I’m aware that Black men in particular can be interpreted as violent for doing neutral things. I still don’t know how to approach the “artist’s actions vs. the art they make” situation, but it’s always worth at least mentioning.
Also Check Out: 2016’s Freetown Sound and 2018’s Negro Swan. The former is an extension of Cupid Deluxe that does similar things very well, and the latter was the best album of 2018 in my opinion.
Alt Pop/R&B, 2010
OK, hear me out. I’ve been listening to Janelle Monáe since The Chase Suite, OK? Long before I knew she or I were queer, I was captivated by the narrative concept she was going for. All of Janelle Monáe’s albums have been telling variations on a single story — the ballad of Cindi Mayweather, an outlaw android originally on the run for falling in love with a human, then the leader of the android resistance. It’s not a particularly unique metaphor, but it’s ambitious and weird and so is Monáe. That’s why I love The ArchAndroid. It’s Monáe at her weirdest. She literally starts this album off with “Suite II Overture,” immediately confusing everyone for whom this is her first album. Then it shifts immediately into “Dance Or Die,” featuring legendary slam poet Saul Williams and… Monáe rapping?
I love this because it’s not concerned with popular appeal. Monáe in 2010 was a weird, artsy, jazzy singer with a sci-fi creative vision, and she didn’t compromise. But regardless she created something gorgeous, beautiful, and — it turned out — somewhat popular. Throughout are jazzy, rollicking songs that use the cyborg/android metaphor to explore — what? We know now that Monáe is queer, but at the time — race? Class? She was also wearing suits and uniforms at the time in public, and discussing paying homage to her parents’ occupations.
“Faster” is a fun, jazzy bop that has the perennial line: “Am I a freak?/ Or just another weirdo/ Call me weak/ Or just call me your hero.” On “Mushrooms & Roses:” “We’re all virgins/ to the joys/ of loving without fear.” On “Cold War:” “I was made to believe/ there’s something wrong with me.” In the video above, she “ruins” the first take by starting to cry immediately after getting this line out, and they decided to make that the music video. “Tightrope” was a minor hit; I remember attempting to do the “tightrope” dance at parties. “Say You’ll Go” starts off with a fascinating bit of percussion that sounds like someone in a kitchen hitting a variety of upturned pots and pans. “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” is a claustrophobic, frenetic, intense track, complete with heavy breathing, yelps, and a really electric electric guitar. I could write a paragraph about literally each song.
And it’s genuinely a concept album. It never loses its narrative focus, telling chronological vignettes of Cindi Mayweather’s life, complete with an interlude (“Suite III Overture”) that makes you realize that if this album is Suites II and III, you need to get her first EP to hear Suite I. That’s the only reason it’s here above The Electric Lady, which I think is underrated, and Dirty Computer, which is also a masterpiece, but on which she generally abandons the sci-fi concept narrative. Not completely—she’ll always be a lovely, beautiful, talented weirdo—but on The ArchAndroid that aspect of who she is is front and center, and that’s why I love it so much.
Also Check Out: 2018’s Dirty Computer, obviously. After finally coming out publicly, Monáe made an album not about an alter ego or a metaphor, but about her self. She’s still sort of an android and definitely a weirdo for this one, but also very much a queer Black woman in Trump’s America.
I promise I’m not just being contrarian (well, I didn’t like Blonde, and that upsets some people, but I’m referring to the fact that I chose Nostalgia, ULTRA over Channel Orange). It’s simple: Nostalgia, ULTRA has better songs, including “Swim Good,” which is my favorite Frank Ocean song. Other than the incredibly annoying, but kind of funny, video game interludes, it makes sense that this album (mixtape?) launched Frank’s career. I don’t entirely know all the details about how it was put together, whether it’s a mixtape and/or not allowed on streaming services because the extensive use of samples means it’s technically illegal, or what. It’s still on bandcamp, though.
I don’t have to go track-by-track here, because they’re literally all incredible, but I’ll mention a few: “Novacane” is the obvious breakthrough banger. “We All Try” is a lovely, inspiring little gem of a song, that hit me at a time when I was still shaking off the shackles of Christianity, and as such, hit in a special way. “There Will Be Tears” was a future-thinking electronica-infused ballad that borrows a bit from future collaborator KanYe West, but is innovative also for its time changes and for its vulnerable exploration of Black male emotion-having. He was a little ways from coming out as bisexual, but on this (and “We All Try”) Ocean made it clear that he wasn’t going to do masculinity as prescribed. “American Wedding” might sample “Hotel California” so much it could be considered a cover, but it infuses it with so much feeling it’s transformed. It’s really hard to believe someone wrote this song in his late teens or early twenties. And I once listened to “Nature Feels” while having sex outdoors. It was pretty great.
Then there’s “Swim Good,” my favorite Frank Ocean song. It’s hard to really describe why. I love the simple percussion and the groovy piano chords that kick in during the chorus; I love that the focus is on the incredible vocals. I love that the pop song format — verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus — is infused with a repeated but progressive narrative. He’s always “about to drive in the ocean,” but it’s five more miles, then one more mile, then he’s “going off.” I love that he’s gonna “swim good,” but it’s clear that he’s not swimming away to escape anything. He’s not coming back. I love that it’s way overkill; he says “I feel like a Ghost/ ever since I lost my baby,” but driving off a cliff into the ocean? Even though we find out later he was processing the ending of his first love, with a man, and having to hide it, and all of the things we learn on Channel Orange, it’s too much, but he’s young and in love and the act of saying “I’m going off, don’t try stopping me/ I’m going off, don’t try saving” is clearly a call for help. If you can find a way to download this album (or let’s say you are an OG and had a CD of it, or are willing to pay $80 for an out of print one), since you can’t even do that off bandcamp anymore, make a playlist and take out the filler skits. And I guarantee you won’t skip a track.
Also Check Out: 2012’s Channel Orange and 2016’s Blonde. Both excellent albums, maybe masterpieces, by one of the auteurs of our time, one of the legend-in-the-making artists that we’ll be talking about for years and years, guaranteed. But there are a few songs on each album (especially Blonde) that just don’t do it for me.
This is one of the most important albums I’ve ever heard. And I know that’s because of my own positionality; it may not hit as hard for you if you’re not a trans woman. But if you like dance pop, EDM, or electronica, it will be enjoyable nonetheless, because this album is chock full of bops. Heavy hooks, soaring choruses, just enough of the classic EDM “drops,” (and a couple ballads), all buoyed by Tami T’s robotic, but endearing, fittingly high-pitched vocals.
“I describe a lot of relationships,” she says in a recent interview, “in a way that I think I don’t hear enough in music… I just try to tell my stories in a relatable way.” This is the key for me. High Pitched and Moist contains danceable pop songs about some of the realest shit: queer dating, trans sex, body image and self-confidence… “Fourteen,” for example: “Fourteen/ so uncomfortable in my own skin/ shaking by the bathroom sink/ I’m about to get naked and I am worried what the boy will think/ …Twenty-five/ Self-confident keeping my head up high/ But I’m still shaking when buttons get undone/ I’m afraid they won’t like me when they see me with nothing on.”
Or on “Princess:” “Princess is my gender/ Don’t call me ‘she’ or ‘her’/ The pronoun I prefer is ‘Her Majesty.’” Or on Mucous Membrane: “You say I only call when I wanna fuck/ But that’s OK ‘cause I almost always wanna fuck/ …What we have is wrong and beautiful/ Brains turned off, purely physical/ You don’t know how to challenge me intellectually/ But you’re a genius at satisfying me sexually.” Or on “So Afraid:” “Pepper spray in my pocket/ Always afraid/ So afraid of getting beat up again/ …Violence hiding behind a cute face/ In the night, in a club, in a so called safe space/ In my head, in my heart, in my head, in my bed, in the streets, in police uniforms.” Or on EVERY SONG. Do yourself a favor and buy this album.