Everything but the Song: The decade’s best albums are the most emotionally impactful to me

(Claire Wong | Daily Trojan)

I can’t write to you about the definitive album of the decade or give you a hodgepodge of songs that make up the quintessential soundtrack of the 2010s. 

I was six months shy of 12 years old in January 2010, and my musical acumen in my early adolescence was better than most teenagers’ but pales in comparison to the listener and critic I am now and will be in another 10 years. 

It’s impossible to think of all the “important’’ albums I paid no attention to in middle school and the records that I held in ridiculously high regard due to my youth. 

Generally, if asked by friends or when replying to tweets for the standout project of the 2010s, I’d turn to Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The rapper’s fifth studio album is 13 tracks and 68 minutes of unmatched production featuring Nicki Minaj’s hardest feature, an iconic sexually charged Chris Rock monologue and West’s fantasies of life and love mixed with his warped perceptions of reality. 

In my eyes, only a few albums outside of Ye’s brought varied musical stories in one concept album, creating something for everybody.

But in a decade where Nicki Minaj single-handedly resurged female rap and Kendrick Lamar dropped Pulitzer-winning “DAMN,” is there really one definitive album or even artist we can give the ’10s to?

With the rise and steady reign of Drake, Noname creeping up with her widely slept on but critically acclaimed debut and many eras of Tyler, the Creator, it’s hard to pick just one project which characterized and dominated the decade. 

So I’ve decided to shy away from this conversation plaguing the masses and music critics alike and turn inward. 

A month ago, I started a challenge on Instagram posting 10 albums that impacted me over 10 days. And in that bunch, only two of the records were released in this decade — Solange’s “A Seat At The Table” and J.Cole’s mixtape “Friday Night Lights.” I grappled with posting some of them, including Lady Gaga’s “The Fame and Dead Presidents Vol. 1/Music From The Motion Picture.” 

They didn’t seem like the “right” albums to post, the former almost too mainstream and the latter too random to be deemed impactful. But then I remembered the challenge was about me — not what critics said or what moved the general populace but what music is awe-inspiring to me. 

It’s not that the music of the 2010s wasn’t my cup of tea, but that the albums I posted are tethered to people and experiences rather than what I felt was the “best” or what was the most revered. My social media retrospection taught me the decade-defining albums, the ones we call “classics” are essential to rank and argue over but pale in comparison to the weight of the projects that moved us regardless of what the critics say. 

Yes, some projects reach and resonate with the masses and will do so for years beyond their release date — a typical marker of these so-called definitive albums. And modern music journalism wouldn’t be what it is today without arguments over Lamar’s best record or if Beck indeed should’ve won Album of the Year over Beyoncé at the 2015 Grammys. 

But to the listeners, I urge you to look at your life from 2010 to 2019 and give praise to the albums and songs that inspired you, excited you or made you feel something, regardless of what that feeling was. Forget what rose to the top of the Billboard charts, what Jon Caramanica mentioned on Popcast or what was even released this decade. The definitive record of the 2010s is what made you feel whole.

On April 1, 2017, my dad died. To cope, I cried, re-read old texts, listened to saved voicemails and went to therapy. But most importantly, I listened to music. I grew up running errands with my dad, every car ride ending with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way of The World.” Ingrained in my mind is my father singing the refrain on Miguel’s “Sure Thing.” And not more than a month would go by without hearing him play Steely Dan’s “Aja” in full. 

Up until around 4 p.m. on the day of his death, I was sure that Kanye’s “MBDTF” would stick as my “top” album of the 2010s but a pulmonary embolism changed that. 

My consumption as a listener from then on generally focused on healing wounds and taking myself back to the tan leather seats of my dad’s Toyota Land Cruiser. In comparison to my current reality, the world of fantasy I created through lengthy playlists titled “RIP DAD” could not be created by solely listening to “MBDTF.” The album, which I often push as the “record of the decade,” could not help me escape the never-ending pain and sorrow. 

If I had to pick just one album from the 2010s that single-handedly nursed me while in mourning, it would be Solange’s “A Seat at the Table.” “Cranes in the Sky” was therapy. I was “Mad,” just like the song and had the right to be. Every night that I cried myself to sleep ended with me awaking to “Rise.” 

When speaking of the differences between “A Seat at the Table” and her consecutive album “When I Get Home” the singer said, “with ‘A Seat At The Table’ I had so much to say. With this album, I had so much to feel.”

“A Seat at the Table” put words to the pain I felt — I mourned with this album. 

Nevertheless, picking just one album leaves out so many others that helped me grow from the most trying period in my life to date. What about the countless times I revisited Stevie Wonder to hear my dad’s favorites? Or the Chic I’d dance to in my room? I can’t forget the days where I played Earl Sweatshirt’s “Some Rap Songs” on an infinite loop, or gloss over tracks like “FEEL” or “Trauma” that didn’t directly address grief but made me feel something other than insurmountable loss. 

Anything I’d write about the “definitive” music of the decade would be deeply fictitious if I failed to mention each and every piece of music that helped me move past this “definitive” moment of my life. 

For myself, looking back on the music of the 2010s is less about what was the “best.” I don’t care to have an answer that is politically correct or paints me as a listener with the most exquisite and knowledgeable taste. I reflect on my 2010 to 2019 favorites to stand in my truth and express gratitude to this family of songs, interludes, skits and records that healed me.

Ellice Ellis is a senior writing about the music industry and social justice. Her column “Everything but the Song” ran every other Tuesday.