Staff Picks: Our Personal Favorite Projects of the 2010s

Nearing the end of any year — nevermind a decade — blogs get crowded with lists about the objective “best” projects of the year. Even Lyrical Lemonade has one. But looking toward the end of the 2010s, we decided that we’d try something a bit different.

For just about all of our writers, the 2010s capture the period of growing up, per se. As such, the music to come from the past decade is what has shaped us into the people that we are. Taking this into consideration, we asked 5 writers to each list 3 albums from the 2010s that had the most personal impact on them. Not the “best” albums, or even necessarily the hits. Just 3 albums that spoke to them on a personal level.

Below is the result. Enjoy, and feel free to share with us your own 3 picks on social media!

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Brodie Harvey

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – Drake (2015)

Of all artists on this list, it would be hard to argue that anybody had a better 10 years than Drake. This project, in particular, was wildly impactful on the decade as a whole. It came at a time right before streaming services became the ruling form of music consumption for the masses and a point of no return in the way that people interact with albums.

Drake was already an international icon at this point, but this album marked a special point in his career. This was the first time Drake really let the world behind the curtain and fully put his hometown Toronto on center stage. This project was riddled with nods to his Canadian upbringing, signifying a change in the rap landscape up North by showing off his city and its culture in the most unique way. Songs like “Know Yourself”, “6 God” & “Jungle” are all prime examples of how Drake was able to connect Toronto to so many hits that made the entire planet reconsider the city and take its music seriously. The 5 years that have passed since this project released has seen an outpouring of talent from Toronto and the entire Great White North, something that can only be attributed to the 6 God himself.

Get Home Safely – Dom Kennedy (2013)

There is no artist that pairs with a season like Dom Kennedy and summertime. Something about his laidback West Coast raps merges amazingly with warm weather and a sense of relaxation. Dom Kennedy and the fine folks at the Other People’s Money Company have provided the soundtrack to almost every summer this decade for me, and even as I grow older, the tracks on this project never seem to grow tiresome and will have a place in my playlists for summers to come.

Even after revisiting this project while writing this article, it’s clear that Dom’s iconic 2013 album Get Home Safely has stuck with me this entire decade. Its impact was recently reignited by the passing of the legendary Nipsey Hussle this year. The song “Pleeze” features two of the most recognizable LA rappers in their prime — a song about making it home safely which took on an entirely new meaning after the loss of Nip. Other tracks like “Honey Buns” and “After School” make this one of Dom’s best albums to date. Even though Dom has a deep and impressive catalog, Get Home Safely just hits different.

Days Before Rodeo – Travis Scott (2014)

One aspect of this decade is the amount of monumental music that has fallen out of the limelight due to the digital-mixtape era being eclipsed by streaming services and copyright claims. Travis Scott is closing out this decade as one of the genre’s brightest stars, but it all became clear to fans with this mixtape that Travis Scott was an artist that was on the cusp of taking over the entire galaxy.

Travis’ first project Owl Pharoah was a beautiful introduction, but this is where LaFlame’s sound became truly developed. He brought in some of the most talented producers and artists to collaborate on this album, and all those involved have gone on to achieve incredible things since this point, making it a true moment in hip-hop history. One of the aspects of Travis Scott’s talent that has allowed him to progress so far is his attention to detail when it comes to sound design, this is as clear on this project as it is on his most recent. As soon as the strings begin twanging on “Mamacita,” you are teleported to this different planet that Travis creates. Being that Kid Cudi and Kanye were such big influences on Travis, he brought all of their previous experiences and the way the music connected with him, then turned it into something new altogether. While Travis would go on to create much bigger albums, Days Before Rodeo was a refreshing project that let the world know there was a new star in their midst.

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Mike del Ro

Reign of Terror – Sleigh Bells (2012)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Sleigh Bells, sitting in the car in the middle of a thunderstorm with my dad as he excitedly asked me “what do you think of this?” What followed was the barrage of distortion and crashing guitars that kicks off their song “Tell ‘Em”, the first track on their 2010 debut album Treats. It was a fitting setting for the face-punch of noise that the duo has become synonymous with, and on their second album, 2012’s Reign of Terror, they refine the thunderous sound they introduced on Treats into a project that hones their strengths and expands them into more fully-fleshed and dynamic compositions.

The soft vocal style of lead singer Alexis Krauss and the banging guitar riffs and percussion of producer Derek Miller function like an oxymoron, and Sleigh Bells are at their best when they’re able to exploit this juxtaposition to elicit an effect that’s as eerie as it is intriguing. Reign of Terror sometimes sounds like the soundtrack to a Poltergeist-like horror film and sometimes like an early 2000s pop record played through a guitar amp, and I mean this in the best way possible. The album’s lyrical content mostly wrestles with mortality in a way that sheds light on the usually grim subject, and for all the gloominess of Reign of Terror, there’s a sense of brilliance that always comes through. In this sense, both sonically and thematically, Sleigh Bells attempt to fuse together things that don’t sound like they should go together. In the process, they’ve created a record that at times for me seems to defy the laws of nature—a sensation I think we all ought to experience every once in a while.

Pure Heroine – Lorde (2013)

It’s special to find an artist in your life that you feel like you’re growing up with, whose music seems to so perfectly mirror the same place you find yourself at in life when it comes out. I felt Lorde being that artist for me from the moment I first heard Pure Heroine. No, I didn’t grow up in the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, but from the way Lorde paints vignettes of a suburban upbringing on this album, the Midwestern suburbs I know myself don’t sound that different. The kids are probably just as bored, and out of that boredom grows an astute appreciation for reveling in monotony and an uncanny desire to construct something meaningful out of it.

Lorde demonstrates that she’s honed the art of bending the mundane into something profound on Pure Heroine and the true beauty of the album rests in her songwriting. At 16-years-old, she comes across as uncharacteristically wise in her observations but still naïve enough that she isn’t discouraged by coming off as cliché. It’s this balance of perspective that makes for an endless supply of quotable, crafty lyrics that create vivid images of her own upbringing so that anyone could understand and relate to it in their own way. The nuance in her writing style allows the album to still sound fresh even as I listen back to it today, and the memories I associate with it play through in my mind so clearly as if permanently tape-recorded to the waveforms of each track.

Pure Heroine, in my opinion, serves as one of the strongest debut albums of the decade, introducing the world to an artist that pop music hadn’t really ever seen before and doing so in a way that had a resounding impact both on radio waves and personal playlists. At its core, it’s a coming-of-age album crafted by an artist whose soul sounds like its far outlived her body and whose stories about the anxieties of growing up can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia in just about anyone who listens.

Yeezus – Kanye West (2013)

It’s tough for me to think about Yeezus the album without also considering all the context surrounding the music. From the guerrilla-style marketing campaign which featured Kanye projecting his face rapping “New Slaves” on buildings across the world, the numerous memorable interviews, and of course the monumental tour (which featured custom Margiela masks, a volcano, and “White Jesus” among other spectacles), Yeezus, to me, represents Kanye’s most well-defined and defining era. At the center of it all is an album that almost spits in the face of the couture-level hip-hop he’d perfected on 2010s MBDTF, a mirror of his attitude toward the hostility he’d perceived from the actual couture fashion world—one of the many frustrations fueling this album’s rage. It’s not exactly the project you’d expect from a newly-engaged father-to-be, but remember who we’re talking about here.

Kanye may not be the first rapper to employ the industrial, experimentally sparse production style that characterizes Yeezus, but I’d counter that argument in my best Kanye impression by asking “was Apple the first company to invent the computer?”. To me, the innovation of Yeezus has nothing to do with it being the first experimental or the most boundary-pushing hip-hop album of the decade. Instead, it’s Kanye doing arguably what he does best, taking a style that’s not yet accepted in the cultural zeitgeist and refining and curating it in such a way that it becomes accessible at a mainstream level. Yeezus feels like Kanye truly hitting that bullseye, and while some people may still hate the album, it undoubtedly forced listeners to reconsider the status quo of the kinds of sounds we could hear not just in mainstream hip-hop but in popular music at large.

Although Yeezus may seem out-of-step with much of Kanye’s earlier work, the barebones of his musical style are still there in the album’s most resounding moments; they’re in the earworm soccer arena-sized melody of “Black Skinhead”, the impactful beat drop of horns and percussion on “Blood On the Leaves”, or the audacity to fuse Chief Keef with Bon Iver and actually make it work. There’s not a moment on Yeezus where I feel bored, and it doesn’t feel a second too long or too short. While it’s not an album I could or should listen to every day (although Freshman-year of high school me probably did), it’s one I’ll never tire of revisiting.

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Sam Morrison

Dark Sky Paradise – Big Sean (2015)

Dark Sky Paradise was actually the first album I listened to all the way through without skipping songs. With features from the likes of Kanye, Chris Brown, PARTY, E-40, John Legend, etc. there’s really not enough good words to describe this one. I think what made this project so special to me was the fact that it came out on February 24th, 2015 (my birthday). I was a high school senior getting ready to leave my hometown of Leesburg, Virginia and begin my college football career at The University of Arizona. Dark Sky Paradise was the album that played constantly in the background of this weird transitional phase I was going through. The tone of it perfectly matched the emotions I was feeling about moving on to a new chapter of my life.

Anti – Rihanna (2016)

The release of Rihanna’s ANTI took place during my freshman year of college. When you leave home for the first time, everything is new. You’re left trying to figure out different aspects of life without the help of your parents. One of the situations I was trying to navigate during that first year of college was love. How to treat a girl, what to tolerate, and everything in between. In a very natural way, ANTI was the background music that was set to all of my romantic encounters with the opposite sex. The soothing vocals present on each track paired with the rock undertones really drew a parallel for the delicate yet edgy nature that love boasts.

War & Leisure – Miguel (2017)

Miguel has put out some legendary music, but I’ve never seen a project contain so many stellar songs than his 2017 album, War & Leisure. The success and popularity of “Sky Walker” increased the hype factor of this album and in no way did it disappoint. The project was pivotal during my junior year of college. I was in and out of different relationships, trying to heal from heartbreak… some of which was self-inflicted. All in all, I’m eternally grateful to Miguel for creating this work of art that helped me get through a crazy tough time in my life.

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Lee McIntosh

Man on the Moon, Vol II: The Legend of Mr. Rager – Kid Cudi (2010)

Coming off of the success of his debut album Man on the Moon, Kid Cudi started the decade off on the right foot with this one. At this point in my music listening journey, Cudi had to be by far one of the most “different” rap artists that was out at the time. A few years before this, I was only listening to pure rap (mostly trap music), and my music taste hadn’t evolved quite yet. When Cudi dropped “Day N’ Nite” in 2009, it was a huge smash—however, to my close group of friends, it was “too weird” because they were all still on the trap wave. I remember this being the first album that I bought that was really the turning point of my music taste, and also caused me to become a huge fan of Cudi from this point forward.

Kid Cudi was never afraid of being different. He was never afraid of being the oddball. He never wanted to be placed in a box of just being considered a rapper despite being signed to G.O.O.D. Music at the time. Everything about this album just bled pure pain, emotion, introspection, and mastered the aspect of traveling down a musical path that no rapper had gone down at the time. What caught me the most was the cohesiveness and the importance of sequencing in the album tracklisting. In the album liner notes, the tracklist was separated by different acts which all represented a different vibe and feeling of the album. When this album dropped, I was a senior in high school, just turned 18 as well, and still unsure about who I was as a person. After digesting this album for hours on hours, it helped me find myself and not be afraid to like music just because it’s different and just enjoy the music for what it is.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010)

This is the album that many other publications are placing as the best album of the decade—and I have to say, they are not wrong. For many reasons, Kanye West was and still is my favorite musical artist of all time. That goes for his song creating ability, production, album arranging, and artistry as a whole. In fact, Kanye was one of the main reasons I started to make beats back then. Everything Kanye had done up until this point was the pinnacle of pure artistry and learning to master his craft. After the release of this album, this is what solidified my stance on calling him the greatest artist of our time, and in my opinion, of all time. College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, and even 808s & Heartbreak all showed pure progression through every stage of Kanye’s career.

As far as why this album impacted me the most, this album was special to me because I felt as if this was an accumulation of every album that he had released at that point. I truly felt as though Kanye went against all odds and created the music that he wanted to make, no matter what the general consensus was about the change in his artistry. After Graduation, Kanye’s musical style started to drift into a more futuristic style, and when 808’s dropped, it wasn’t received as well by the pure “hip-hop heads”. Here on this album is where Kanye showed that taking time with your craft and not listening to what anyone has to say about it is crucial—especially in the music world. This was something that stood out to me and shaped me as a producer over the years, and I can wholeheartedly say that this album will stand the test of time—not only for myself, but for the entire industry.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City – Kendrick Lamar (2012)

I had been a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar since I first heard the Kendrick Lamar EP in 2009. Even though Section.80 was his OFFICIAL first album, I consider Good Kid, m.A.A.d City his real debut album, due to the fact that this was the album where he had all eyes on him and this was his breakthrough project unto the masses. This album was special for me for the main fact that it had the perfect balance. Coming in an era where the club/party records were still a thing, Kendrick was still able to create an album that had that pure hip-hop element, and still have that club record at the same time without compromising the overall artistry and the message that lays within the music.

I was never a huge fan of concept albums, or albums that told a story—but this album is what sparked my love for them. The fact that the entire album felt like I was watching a movie kept me intrigued the entire way through. It was vital for me to listen from top to bottom so I wouldn’t miss a skit or an interlude in the album anywhere. On a more personal level, I could relate to a certain extent to the mindset of Kendrick Lamar during his upbringing. I was never a kid who wanted or would seek out trouble, but I had friends that did. Peer pressure was real and at times I felt exactly how Kendrick felt during this album. It was the ultimate shaping of his journey of becoming a man, and mine, as well. Seeing his growth over the span of 1 ½ hours of music made me reflect on my own life and how I was often shifted by the wrong crowd, causing me to be my own mind and own individual.

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Seamus Fay

Faces – Mac Miller (2014)

In a lot of ways, I have Faces to attribute for building my taste. The album came out in 2014, when I was obsessed with the slew of talent coming out of LA at the time; TDE, all things Odd Future, Vince Staples, etc. I remember downloading Faces and listening every day on the bus to middle school, learning all 85 minutes of lyrics after just a few weeks. It was weird, it was different, and it was notably clever, with lines like “I did it all without a Jay feature” marking highlights on my morning commute.

But the reason that Faces sticks out as a favorite, even with Mac gone, is just how much experimentation he fit over 24 tracks. Playing a slew of instruments, gathering a renowned cast of friends for the feature verses, and employing perhaps his most personal lyricism to date, the album removes the barrier between artist and listener, and brings both parties eye to eye. It was effortless, but it was a masterpiece, and something that so many Mac fans hold onto as a crowning example of his artistic achievements.

Blonde – Frank Ocean (2016)

Blonde, for myself and so many others, is the kind of album that you grow with. It came out in 2016, but didn’t actually become a favorite of mine until the summer of 2017, right before my senior year of high school and just as the pressure of choosing a college began to bubble to the surface.

Realizing that senior year was it, and that I would have no choice but to leave my high school friends and start fresh in the coming fall, Blonde felt special. On the surface, captured moments of fleeting nostalgia with lines such as “we’ll never be those kids again.” Furthermore, songs like “Futura Free” perfectly communicated the bittersweetness of it all; that I would be leaving what I had known my entire childhood, only to go on to bigger and better things. And that, even before I left, I had one more year to take it all in.

Even now, every once in a while, I’ll revisit Blonde. And while it reminds me of this specific time in my life, the album has become a classic in the way that it hits just a little bit different every time I relisten, depending on where I’m at in life. A lot has changed, a lot of good has happened, and Blonde is still always there to soundtrack it all.

Suffolk County – Cousin Stizz

Cousin Stizz’s Suffolk County is a favorite for so many reasons. On one hand, being from Massachusetts, it’s a Boston classic. Period. On the other hand, it’s one of the reasons that I’m writing today, and that I even decided to embark on this journey in the first place.

Watching Stizz make noise on a national level being from Boston was an inspiration to so many. It said that people from Boston could have a voice in rap, and made me want to write about that. Writing about Stizz and other Boston artists eventually graduated into writing for Lyrical Lemonade, and the rest is history. So this album was really the start of everything for me.

In addition, I can’t name many other projects as consistent as Suffolk County. “Shoutout”? “Jordan Fade”? “No Bells”? “Dum Dope”? The list goes on.