The 2010s brought an era of musical excellence that was heavily driven by the unstoppable voices of women within the music industry. Here are some of the most compelling projects released by women within the decade that will shape the direction of music in the 2020s.
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Released in the early springtime of 2018, Golden Hour was a refreshing, beautiful nod to the singer’s classic Texas roots with a sweet blend of psychedelic, mature energy. This album is a stunning 45-minute experience of Kacey’s nostalgic style and thematic preferences when creating music, specifically focusing on her relationship to nature, family, lovers and her own physical, spiritual and mental being. Unlike other big country releases during this time, this album takes a step back from corporate music culture and instead relies on experimentation, honesty, spirituality and classic country acoustics to speak for themselves. Golden Hour is important because it’s not just an album for country fans. It’s an album for all people who have felt heartbreak, love, loneliness, maybe even happy and sad at the same time. The work is unapologetically authentic, and showcases that Kacey isn’t afraid to admit the vulnerability and emotion that drives itself from being human in today’s social climate. Golden Hour is an intimate conversation on a breezy summer day with an old friend that ends up going smoother than you thought it would. Everyone say “thank you, Kacey.”
SZA – Ctrl
Ctrl, “Control,” was released in the summer of 2017 and was truly the root of anxiety and frustration for its hardest critic — SZA herself. Taking more than three years to write and produce, Ctrl is the product of various collaborations with neo-soul and R&B masterminds who brought her story to life through a harmonic, indie hip-hop work that lyrically emphasizes the singer’s confessional spirit. “Drew Barrymore” was one of the first singles released off the album, and in my opinion, serves as a warm and hazy encapsulation of the album’s dreamy sound and sense of comfortable bliss it exudes. The album also embeds conversations between SZA and her “granny” and “mommy,” all of which discuss the central theme of control throughout the album. The songs all seem to function in relation to its order, with the entire album itself serving as a chronological depiction of resentment toward personal vulnerability when experiencing existentialism and heartbreak, focusing in on gender and race insecurities to tell her story. Ctrl counters the industry expectation that a leak of insecurities needs to uphold a certain standard, or have some sort of materialistic redemption when being exposed to the world or else it won’t be significant. Ctrl is a self-aware project that knows it’s flawed and a work in progress, which is what makes this coming-of-age brainchild a work of art — reminding us that art itself is human and constantly undergoing pressure and conflict, much like people are.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Lemonade, an album title inspired by Beyoncé’s grandmother, dropped unexpectedly in the spring of 2016 and was accompanied by a film on the concepts introduced within her body of work. Track by track, this album sounds like success. Beyoncé is elegantly unstoppable and you can hear it in her voice and her lyrics. By taking samples from classics, Beyoncé and her various producers worked to create a nostalgic, yet fresh, new-wave sound that celebrated power, mystery, confidence and something I could only describe as “big-middle-finger up” energy. Lemonade is a celebration of Blackness that wants you to learn a valuable lesson and also wants you to know that she can end you in a second if you try her. The production and mastering heard within this work help create an extremely raw and intimate mood between the artist and listener. This album proves to be more than just a radio play — rather, an inside listen to the life of Beyoncé; the things she loves, despises, the people who shaped her and how she moves as a rebellious, evolving and brave force of nature.
Taylor Swift – 1989
The album 1989 followed as the second album that showcased Swift’s clean, straightforward adaptation and transition into the pop genre. This album is a synth-pop daydream that serves as a colorful, boppy and personal coming-of-age classic for its hopeless romantic demographic. This album is an obvious confirmation that Swift belongs in the pop realm and her ballads alone serve as evidence. There is a certain type of relatability found within this album that brings a wave of familiarity, yet unspoken truths from the artist. Through the way Swift conceptualizes her album based around her birth year, you can hear the recognition of her own adolescence, her personal traits and tendencies — all of which contribute to her journey of growth, self-discovery and clarity. With the same tongue-riddling lyrical genius displayed by her older album successes, Swift continues to uphold this detail-oriented and real form of storytelling within her songwriting — but with a punch. She’s no longer the person that everyone else wanted her to be — rather, she is an artist learning to shape her craft to resemble the authentic, flawed, yet determined person she aspires to be.
Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
Fully released in the summer of 2019, this album has a vintage, classic charm mixed with soft, psychedelic rock that makes you miss the 60-year-old sugar daddy you never had. Jokes aside, NFR is an intimate exposure to the mastermind of Jack Antonoff, the primary producer of the work, alongside Del Rey herself. Following a West Coast, carefree and vibey agenda, Antonoff fully executes with excellence the electric shockwaves of love, chill recklessness and mystery perpetrated by Del Rey’s musical presence and energy. Del Rey admits her past struggles with love and substance abuse, but emerges from the ashes optimistic toward the new era in a California daydream. Like a lullaby, the album brings an introspective, simple lens on love and romance — turning the ordinariness of the human experience into an exceptional, deeply personal connection that can be larger than life. Going into a genre that is extremely hit-or-miss and selective, Del Rey claims the title of the queen of soft, classic rock with a twist that personifies her complex darkness and flowy strains of happiness.