These are the best debut records of the 2010s.
And here we are. At the end of a decade and the end of our retrospective. Have we learned anything from our half century of debuts? Maybe it is that innovation can come from anywhere: the ‘10s prove that thesis as well as any other decade ever has. From ghostwriters ascending to godhood, lounging Norwegian DJs and over-the-hill rappers gleefully reborn, the muses have a weird sense of humor. – Nathan Stevens
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (2010)
Before one hears a note of Janelle Monáe’s debut full-length, its sweeping ambition is already evident in the track list: an 18-song sprawl divided into two Roman-numeraled “suites,” just like a proper ‘70s prog album. When the music begins, it’s with the sound of an orchestra tuning up while the audience settles into their seats—a nod to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that deathless archetype of the pop album as capital-“A” Art. But Monáe does the Beatles one better: no mere wink at high-art respectability, her album’s opening track is a bona fide overture, sticking with the orchestral conceit all the way to the closing applause.
Upon its release in 2010, The ArchAndroid’s unironic commitment to art-pop aesthetic principles already felt quaint; in today’s era of albums as mixtapes and streaming playlists, it’s downright anachronistic. The suites really are suites: that opening overture segues seamlessly into “Dance or Die,” which segues into “Faster,” which segues into “Locked Inside.” And yes, the album even tells a story of sorts—though Monàe wisely eschewed the stagy narration of her 2008 EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite in favor of cohesive sonic and lyrical themes. But even more breathtaking than The ArchAndroid’s conceptual heft is its stylistic variety. At this point in her career, Monáe’s eclecticism feels almost compulsory; she juggles genres like she’s ticking off boxes, from the driving electropop of “Cold War,” the retro-R&B of “Tightrope” to even the Tommy James and the Shondells-ian cod-psychedelia “Mushrooms & Roses.”
It can all be a little overwhelming—which may be why Monáe’s moment didn’t seem to fully arrive until the release of her third full-length, Dirty Computer, in 2018. That album brought sturdier songs and more emotional clarity—aided, no doubt, by her official coming-out in the pre-release promotion, bringing to the fore the queer subtext of her earlier work. But while Dirty Computer has an immediacy The ArchAndroid lacks, it’s still hard not to miss the sheer hubris of Monáe’s debut: the gobsmacking boldness of an emerging artist—who, lest we forget, had been best known for her features on OutKast’s Idlewild soundtrack just four years earlier—skipping over the Purple Rain phase of her evolution and diving straight into Sign “O” the Times. The ArchAndroid may not be quite the masterpiece it aims to be, but Monáe’s willingness to shoot for the stars remains an inspiration. – Zachary Hoskins
Perfume Genius – Learning (2010)
Though smeared in the gauzy aesthetics of early-‘10s hauntology, Mike Hadreas’s debut album as Perfume Genius stands tall above all else for its songs—songs, the kind of thing you can play on piano or guitar and pass down through the generations. “Learning,” “Write to Your Brother” and “Mr. Peterson” are so well-written and robust it’s amazing they aren’t standards. Susan Boyle could sing these songs, but it’s for the best that Hadreas sang them first. It is reminiscent of something Roger Ebert said about Johnny Cash: “When he sings something, it stays sung.” Far from Cash’s assured machismo, Hadreas sounds like he’s perched on the edge of tears, but his delivery is stone-cold. He is staring you in the face.
Hadreas has emerged at the other end of the decade as a major indie rock artist, a glam god whose songs soundtrack teen dramas and reverberate across festival fields. He’s come to epitomize queer vulnerability not through nursing his wounds but through concealing them with makeup, feathers and sequins, saying the most alarming things to us as he slithers across the stage. 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It followed in the vein of Learning, 2014’s Too Bright combined the pulse of the club with lyrics out of Revelations and 2017’s No Shape blew his sound into the stratosphere. But for my money, Hadreas has never been better than here, accompanied only by his piano, with gay angels hovering above. – Daniel Bromfield
Frank Ocean: nostalgia, Ultra (2011)
The Odd Future collective hit like a bomb at the start of the decade, but their first impression was one of brash, occasionally edgelord behavior that frequently undermined their undeniable creative restlessness. Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape, however, pointed the way toward the shocking artistic leaps the group would make over the next few years. Compared to the ragged hip-hop the group was known for, Ocean specialized in a smoldering, open-hearted R&B approach with a lyrical breadth that painted him as wise beyond his years. On “Novacane,” Ocean prepared for later epics of complex, shifting perspectives in describing a dental student who does porn to pay for school and sneaks anesthetics on the side to deal with her feelings of alienation, and he threw in references like Eyes Wide Shut and auto-tune to deepen the context of artistic numbness. “American Wedding” is even more expansive, using the Eagles’ “Hotel California” as a backdrop to a tale of youthful attraction mistaken for true love that, in a relative manner, compares such ill-advised teen weddings to arranged Muslim marriages to illustrate how unions supposedly made with free will can be as outside the understanding of those involved as those made on behalf of others. Throughout, Ocean’s detached yet yearning delivery presents him as one of the foremost interpreters of contemporary romantic disaffection, dulled by the artificial barriers of romance in the digital age but burning with loneliness. – Jake Cole
Disclosure – Settle (2013)
For an album whose title refers to stillness, Settle rarely ever sits idly – when a fire starts to burn, it springs you to action. It accomplishes an impressive feat from the get go, fashioning a motivational speech, often a corny thing, into a suave rallying cry. This introduction ignites a series of upbeat, stirring tracks, each propelled by the Lawrence brothers’ expertise with drum pads and minimal Diva synths. They provide the steady pulse and the vocalists bestow the heart, both elements intertwined as seamlessly as this track list; even the deluxe edition delivers “Boiling” and “What’s in Your Head,” both Sinead Harnett’s finest efforts, alongside the infamous remix of Jessie Ware’s “Running.” Thanks to “Latch,” a still brilliant 6/8 track that deserved to break through, Sam Smith has a career today.
Yet “Latch” is hardly the main reason to return to Settle, where the Lawrence brothers assembled a stellar cast of vocalists. The minimalist garage productions are bare but effective, allowing AlunaGeorge to haunt “White Noise” while Sasha Keable struggles for freedom on “Voices.” Even the brothers themselves use their voices to great effect on the infectious “F For You” and the dissonant industrial of “Confess to Me.” The beats may feel repetitive, but they lend Settle an overarching cohesion. From this homogeny, the brothers shape each song’s direction with just a sample here (“Stimulation”) or a sleigh bell there (“January”). Most impressively, these tracks all boast an intimate quality hard to find on many dance numbers, much less albums. Appealing to individual intimacy and a dancefloor’s communal needs simultaneously takes an understanding that goes far beyond the ability to operate a Sample Pad.
Even if true originality is dead, Settle demonstrates how sophisticated innovation keeps it all interesting. And when Settle turns 10 in (God, only) four years and becomes “nostalgic,” expect to hear it, and its sound, played much, much more. – Mick Jacobs
Anyone who tells you creativity peaks in youth is a liar. The 2010s saw a ripple of renaissances in the rap realm for old heads. Ghostface Killah continued his personal dynasty, Madlib was revived through the Tupac reincarnated flow of Freddie Gibbs and A Tribe Called Quest got a eulogy and a classic in one fell swoop. But no one did career rebirth like Run the Jewels. Both pushing 40 and grinding through personal and musical hurdles, El-P and Killer Mike formed a colossal tandem that was less Jordan-Pippen and more Jordan-LeBron. El, recovering from the death of close friend Camu Tao and the disintegration of his record label brought Blade Runner production and a steely flow that punctuated every punch line with a dagger. Mike had been hustling for nearly a decade to receive the acclaim he’d garnered from guest spots with Outkast but never quite reaching the same heights again. Turns out he just needed some futuristic shit to proclaim himself King of Wakanda (and Atlanta). “I move with the elegance of an African elephant,” he smirked over the stip club circa 2219 beat on “Banana Clipper.” Though El and Mike had worked together on Mike’s solo comeback R.A.P. Music,Run the Jewels was out of fucking nowhere. Gleefully spitting about killing zombies one moment, credibly rioting for revolution the next, RTJ, with a wink and a middle finger, had casually dropped one of the finest records of the decade, let alone debuts. Put the fist and the guns up, a Christmas fucking miracle has arrived. – Nathan Stevens
FKA twigs – LP1 (2014)
FKA twigs’ first and (to this day) only full-length established both the artist’s visual identity and the make-up of a sound entirely her own. Electronic and experimental R&B had existed long before twigs released her 2014 debut, and many of the qualities of groups like P-Funk or the weirder end of ’90s neo soul run through her music: an unearthly mix of digital effects and analog instrumentation, a wispy, mid-climax voice, elaborate costumes and dance choreography. All of these elements ground LP1 in a storied tradition, providing proof – if you even needed it– that FKA twigs isn’t completely out of her mind.
Still, little music before or since feels so overarchingly strange and alien, even after multiple listens. The way the tempo stretches and contracts on tracks like “Lights On” or “Two Weeks” should be unsettling, but twigs’ masterful voice feels like it’s dragging the music along with her body, not trying to keep up with the wonky production. “Pendulum” employs an unfathomably slow build, but the musical explosion a minute and a half into the track is nothing short of revelatory. The initially sparse “Numbers” eventually breaks down into a quasi-juke section; “Closer” is equal parts monastic chorale and pure glitch.
Then, of course, there’s her voice. Voices, more appropriately, as twigs and her producers constantly multitrack, pitch-shift and altogether mangle the vocals in unique ways on each track. The album opens with a solo twigs hesitantly breathing, but quickly a gliding dirge, shrieking “oohs” and deep rapping fill in the mix. This careful attention to the vocalist on top of what’s still some of the most jarring pop production of the decade is what makes LP1 so consistently listenable. FKA twigs released her first official single in four years this April, perhaps signaling her long-awaited follow-up. However, even if she never released another album, her debut is more than enough assurance of twigs’ unmatched artistry. – Connor Lockie
Todd Terje – It’s Album Time! (2014)
One of the best dance records of the decade enriches the mind as much as it jump-starts the body. Norwegian cosmic disco god Todd Terje cut his teeth on remixes of such dancefloor stalwarts as Michael Jackson and Chic, but the breadth of his vision was exemplified by reinventions of such unlikely suspects as AOR staples America and Canned Heat. For Terje, boogie knows no boundaries, and his debut full-length is full of rhythmic shifts and bright melodies that seem like too much fun to be called intelligent dance music, but that’s what it is.It’s Album Time opens with a chorus of “Album time, album time, album time,” an anthemic chant that sounds as much like “apple pie, apple pie, apple pie,” the perfect metaphor of a wholesome, fully-baked sugary nightclub treat. Some of Terje’s music may seem too familiar or comforting; “Inspector Morse” was reportedly banned by Norwegian radio for sounding like elevator music – but who wouldn’t want to get on this elevator? Terje’s debut has aged better than the comparable Random Access Memories, and has its own ’70s pop cameo: then-68-year old Bryan Ferry turns Robert Palmer’s pulsing “Johnny and Mary” into a memento mori for the me decade, the brooding and contemplative remembrance of an aging Lothario. That melancholy highlight gives depth and perspective to an otherwise celebratory album that’s equally at home in synth-pop and bossa nova, all part of a sonic vision that’s retro and timeless. – Pat Padua
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (2015)
Summertime ‘06 has some of the signifiers of a throwback album, even if that wasn’t what was intended. Indeed, Vince Staples sometimes seems out of place in modern rap, not necessarily because he’s out of his time but because he doesn’t slot neatly into any of the scenes or mini-genres that rap has splintered into in this decade. Instead, Vince finds himself on a plateau on his own on Summertime ‘06, choosing to create a world of cracked despondency rather than chasing any prevailing trends. He takes the listener through a tour of his psyche, but what we find isn’t the stridency of a Kendrick Lamar or the ennui-fueled debauchery of a Danny Brown. Instead, Vince frames things as succinctly and matter-of-fact as he can, echoing Camus’ ideas of the absurd as he does so: life is meaningless, but it keeps happening anyway.
Furthermore, Summertime ‘06 upends rap conventions with its sleek, cold production adding another layer to Vince’s bleak worldview. Despite being helmed by a number of producers (among them No I.D. and Clams Casino), the album has a surprising level of coherence in sound, and it never overstays its welcome as a result despite consisting of over 20 tracks. Through this and a number of impressive guest performances, the album never really strays away from Vince as its center, keeping focus on him as he throws out pointed barbs at a world that doesn’t respect people like him while simultaneously wondering if the gangsta experience he grew up around is all that he’ll ever know of life. Vince’s ambitions have not waned even as he garnered more critical acclaim and a larger audience, and he has since become one of the most important voices in modern rap. Listening to Summertime ‘06, it’s clear that that was inevitable. – Kevin Korber
Jlin – Dark Energy (2015)
Footwork is built on a manic foundation, taking the pace and rhythms of house music and speeding them up so that the sense of joy becomes infused with tension and a hint of dread. Even with that in mind, there is an intensity to Dark Energy that is in equal parts unsettling and captivating. Rather than working in the instinctual realm in which most dance music resides, Jlin’s debut is a laser-focused, intellectual piece of work that retains the raw power of predecessors like DJ Rashad. This is aggressive music, music that was made with the intent of pushing barriers and giving listeners something other than just an empty good time. Dark Energy is a swirl of quick, stuttering drums, vocal snippets and noise blended together into a singular, individual expression of fire and fury that takes dance music to frightening new places.
What’s striking about Dark Energy is how its roots seem to lie beyond music. Whereas most electronic artists, even in footwork, rely on the traditions of music’s past to build on and branch out from, Jlin’s inspirations aren’t really rooted in music at all. Instead, she samples lines from thrillers and horror films and builds her music from the ground up, severing even any nominal ties to music as we may understand it. To call Dark Energy “otherworldly” would simultaneously be accurate and a misnomer, seeing as that distinction is usually placed on the kind of music one regards as spacey and dreamlike. Dark Energy is a nightmare, a twisted world woven to reflect the horrors of real life back at the listener. Even though no political messages are explicitly laid out on the album, it’s fairly evident that Jlin has an eye on the world outside of the club on Dark Energy. Far from being part of a genre or style, Jlin exemplifies the best of that style while providing a pathway to the future. – Kevin Korber
Tierra Whack – Whack World (2018)
Here is an album of fierce discipline and touching vulnerability, the personification of the millennial impulse to surround oneself with cute things to stave off existential dread. The young Philadelphia rapper’s references to Don Bluth and A Bug’s Life aren’t just ‘90s-baby name-dropping, as even the best animation, whimsy, wit and dazzling color barely mask the thrum of sadness. The record climaxes with “Pet Cemetary,” in which she holds an ear to the heavens, hoping to hear the voice of her dead friend. “All dogs go to heaven,” sings a massed choir, and indeed all she can hear is the barking of dogs—until the gates close once again with a cat’s meow. It’s ridiculous, fanciful, funny and almost unbearably poignant, an assured statement by an artist who draws us in with charm before blindsiding us with pathos.
Whack World is still Tierra Whack’s best album, though she’s released five great singles since and boasts the mumble-rap pastiche “Mumbo Jumbo” as a minor hit. Critics love to end their reviews with “I can’t wait to see what she does next,” which is usually a backhanded compliment, implying that what they just made won’t hold them over. Whack World has it both ways. It rewards repeat listens and conceals endless details to sniff out, but it still leaves us hungry for more. After all, every track on Whack World is exactly one minute long. The reason I haven’t mentioned that until now is that it’s the least interesting thing about it. – Daniel Bromfield