Written by Sam Murphy
Illustrations by Bianca Bosso
by Tame Impala
Tame Impala were this decade’s unlikely success story. As rock drifted further-and-further away from the mainstream, Kevin Parker was plucked out of obscurity to become the go-to festival headliner. It may have been strange in the moment but looking back at a moment like Let It Happen it’s clear why it did. Parker’s work is flashy and ambitious. This is it at its finest. A 7-minute plus epic that travels through time with washed-out detours and synth-heavy climaxes. All the while, Parker is preaching about going with the tide. It’s the sort of grandiose nonchalance that we needed to survive this decade.
by Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves’ Slow Burn was exactly that. No one could’ve quite predicted the impact that her progressive country album Golden Hour could’ve had but we’re all glad it did. While music was busy sharing their wide-lens opinion of the world, Musgraves zoned-in, creating an unusual sphere of calm, built by poignant vivid songwriting. Slow Burn is a patient song that finds beauty in the smallest things from the wonderment of time zones to flowers on her walk home. “Born in a hurry, always late, haven’t been early since ‘88,” may also be the best album opener of the decade.
by Jamie xx
Jamie xx has always restrained his work with The xx, in a sense, allowing their pop sensibilities and the strengths of the rest of the group to shine through. On his own record though, he let fly. Gosh is an anxious, immediate club song that creates a state of panic. It’s alarming, frantic and relentless, firing along with claps until a rumbling synth rolls in and ascends. Suddenly, the anarchy is left below as we’re taking to a state of euphoria. It’s an emotive ride and one that proves Jamie’s place as one of the best sonic story-tellers around.
by Charli XCX featuring Christine & The Queens
Social anxiety is no new emotion for an artist but no one has captured it quite as aptly as Charli and Chris do on Gone. It’s a constraining, harsh pop song that begins in a state of claustrophobia. Bit-by-bit, their friendship forms and they find a way out, breaking away together. As the song progresses, the grip tightens and it becomes looser. By the time the dance-break hits, the pair are sprinting towards euphoria together. It’s a testament to Charli and Chris’ chemistry that they were able to create an atmosphere where they’re working together to find freedom.
by Nicki Minaj
It’s unbelievable to think that Super Bass was almost never given its moment. A bonus track on her debut album Pink Friday, it was Nicki reluctantly stepping into pop but doing so convincingly. Few rappers at the time could create a rap/pop song where they handled both the hook and the verses but Nicki was already showing herself to be a chameleon. To look too far into the genius of this would be doing it a great disservice. This is Nicki at her most playful, simply gushing over a guy and his “sickening' eyes”.
by Frank Ocean
We knew Frank was something special by the time Pyramids dropped but no one could’ve quite predicted a 10-minute single. Pyramids is an epic in every sense of the word. It’s an intergalactic R&B song that travels through time-stamps and influences to tell the story of the black woman throughout history. It moves from ancient Egypt to American strip clubs with the protagonist going from Egyptian pyramids to the fake pyramids of Egypt. Frank has rarely indulged in this sort of historical and mythical songwriting again but you get the fact Pyramids was him showing the lengths he could go too. It’s a feat that most would fail doing so but Frank prevailed, as he always does.
Robyn began and ended the decade with contenders for song of the 2010s but in between there was a quiet patch. She lost a close collaborator Christian Falk and broke-up with her longtime partner, leading her to a period of depression. The way out of it for Robyn was dancing, rediscovering freedom on the dancefloor and using music as a vice to express herself. “Let go of your doubts, say yes,” she sings on Honey - a song that works on a feeling for its entirety with throbbing beats and vivid descriptions of pleasure. It’s been speculated that the song is about oral sex but the specifics are not important. This is about feeling. It’s about connecting with yourself sensually and physically, using the dancefloor as a place of expression. Robyn has always brought feelings to the club but on Honey she leaves it ambiguous, allowing you to get what you want out of it.
There’s no one that’s able to occupy the throne that Beyonce does and connect with so many. On Sorry, Bey is both powerful and vulnerable, reckoning with her own future as she faces infidelity. “Middle fingers up...tell ‘em boy bye,” she sings on this Lemonade highlight as her fury converts to a reckless confidence. By the time the beat switches, however, she’s embraced the vulnerable singing, “I left a note in the hallway, by the time you read it I’ll be far away...I’m far away.” Here’s Beyonce working through her emotions in real-time and giving us the unfiltered details, every bit down to “Becky with the good hair.” You can take both power and sadness from this which is not an easy juxtaposition to create.
by Ariana Grande
2018 was not an easy year for Grande. Despite releasing one of the best records of her career, she was rocked by the death of her former boyfriend Mac Miller and the breakdown of her relationship with Pete Davidson. She could’ve disappeared but she didn’t. It’s not an option she’s ever taken. Instead, she went into the studio and said, “fuck it.” Thank U, Next is the rawest Grande’s ever been but instead of using it as a moment of sadness or spite she practiced gratitude. It’s an exercise in self-love even if it’s not something Grande had achieved quite yet. It was a promise to herself and one that rightfully earned her first US number one record.
by FKA Twigs
FKA twigs walked an unusual path in between her albums. LP1 made her a critical and alternative darling but a high-profile relationship with Robert Pattinson landed her in the gossip mags, many underwriting her talents as a musician to simply label her a “girlfriend”. The pair broke-up but she wrestled with the fallout both publicly and personally. Instead of hiding it away, however, she released Cellophane as her first single in years, declaring, “didn’t I did it for you?” It’s one of the frankest songs of the decade, directly addressing her ex and the public over a minimal but towering instrumental. This is twigs accepting her place in the public eye, performing for them, but also pouring her heart out in sincerity. The lyrics leave her completely exposed but her adamant vocal delivery in the final parts of the song find strength in the release of emotion.
by Carly Rae Jepsen
While pop was busy getting serious, Jepsen was embracing its most joyous core. There’s nothing complicated about Runaway With Me. No tricks or metaphor. It’s an outright expression of love that feels as bombastic, careless and fulfilling as it sounds. Jepsen has never been one to hide back emotion and her in-the-moment thoughts on Runaway With Me are hyperbolic in the most rewarding way. The saxophone blares, the beat pounds and Jepsen soars. For 4-minutes, we all run with Jepsen, rediscovering pop’s greatest attribute - escapism.
by Sky Ferreira
Sky Ferreira was meant to be your next favourite popstar. The only problem was she didn’t want to be. She escaped said pop career, breaking away from her label and doing what she wanted to do. Everything Is Embarrassing was her first display and it was glorious. Produced by Dev Hynes, long before he was producing everything, it expanded over a looped, ‘80s-tinged beat peppered with sporadic keys. Ferreira’s love isn’t being reciprocated and she’s facing it head on, singing about being unwanted with an effortless cool that shouldn’t come so easy when singing about something so...embarrassing. Alternative Pop’s changed a lot since Everything Is Embarrassing but Ferreira was instrumental in its blueprint, displaying that you could be raw and experimental while dabbling with big pop hooks.
Unintentionally Losing You sits next to Everything Is Embarrassing on this list but they make sense as a pair, of sorts. Hynes produced both of them and they’re both heartache songs that grapple with that moment just before a relationship ends. Solange’s Losing You sounds like a party on first listen. It’s scattered with perky sounds and uplifted by Hynes’ groovy loop. It’s undercut by a melancholic synth though that Solange follows vocally. “I gave you everything and now there’s nothing left of me,” she sings, sounding as if she’s caught between dancing and destruction. Freedom is so close and yet she needs to dance through her emotions to truly realise it.
by Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend’s lyrics have always been complicated to decode but none more so than Ya Hey. It’s a dense walk through religious references and a read through the lyrics is unlikely to make your eyes well up but the song itself is an emotional sucker punch. Ezra Koenig looks for purpose and while he never quite finds it you can’t help but feeling satisfied in the extenstential point her lands at. Despite the despair of it all, there’s an uplifting nature to the song that makes you feel as if believing in nothing is something to feel joyous about after all.
Solange had been through it before releasing A Seat At The Table. She’d been on a path of rediscovery, fighting anger, pain and feelings of displacement. Cranes In The Sky is the centrepiece of the story - a calm and considered autobiography about her journey to fulfillment. She tries everything from sex to heartache but never quite finds her peace. Cranes are used as a metaphor of unnecessary growth with Solange explaining it came from a time where she was watching lots of development in America. Sometimes we build something new without looking at what we have. A Seat At The Table proved that despite all of Solange’s searching, the answers and subsequent strength were found from within.
by Frank Ocean
It’s interesting to hear Frank write intricately and intellectually but sometimes his greatest strength is in expressing the obvious. Thinkin Bout You is a straight-up love song for an ex. He’s trying to remain cool but really he’s in his feelings about losing the first love of his life. The verses may be cocky but by the final bridge, his walls have been torn down. “You know you were my first time, a new feel,” he sings over an instrumental that could tear hearts to pieces. And then the falsetto hits and it’s over for all of us. A vivid, earnest piece of songwriting that collects all its accolades because of its sheer simplicity.
by Lana Del Rey
There are few artists who could essentially write a retirement song at the height of their career but Del Rey has always lived for the drama. Like Frank Sinatra’s My Way, The Greatest faces the final curtain call. “I guess I’m signing off after all,” Del Rey sings before the drums rollick, turning the drama dial even more. This isn’t her actually signing off though. She’s nostalgic for a time when things were simpler. She was a nobody, able to simply do nothing and she’s yearning for that. The world has always been complicated but in this moment it’s overwhelming. One of Del Rey’s heroes Kanye West is spiralling, the world is quite literally on fire and life is lived-out on a livestream. This is Del Rey’s way of retreating, even though she knows she can never truly return to the way she used to live. It’s both grandiose and fragile, marking one of her greatest songwriting achievements ever.
by Kanye West, JAY-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver & Nicki Minaj
Kanye West may be featured as the lead artist on Monster but when people think of the song they will forever think Nicki Minaj. The song was released the same day as her debut album The Pink Print and it established her as one of the greats. Here she was a song with four of the greatest rappers of the time and she annihilated them. She gave us different flows, conflicting characters and otherworldly noises all in the space of just over a minute. It’s no wonder that Kanye was worried about putting the verse on the album for fear of being outshined. He was.
by Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande’s 2018 return was never going to be simple. Everybody was listening to hear what she would do following the horrific events of 2017 and she could’ve handled it in many ways. A ballad was expected and the opening bars of No Tears Left To Cry suggested that was exactly what she was going to give us. Grande had other plans though. No Tears Left To Cry chooses to win with positivity in one of the greatest returns in pop music. The track is spiritual, futuristic, soulful and melodic with the beat sounding like nothing else on the radio. Still, months after the song's release it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes it so great. It’s almost like it was created in the lab, to pull at certain parts of our brain without making the emotion explicitly obvious. She never explains that “state of mind” in the song but she’s content staying in it. So are we.
by Azealia Banks
Azealia Banks has had quite the decade. In 2011, when 212 went viral, she was the coolest artist in the world. She was a loud-mouthed New Yorker with an effortless superstar appeal and 212 encapsulated all of that. It had clubs globally yelling profanities that had never really been aired before, transcending genres from hip-hop to electronica. Electronic music and rap collided many times over the decade but few mastered it quite like Banks.
by Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly was one of the decade’s densest records. Throughout, Kendrick Lamar wrested with the struggles of the community and his own. Amongst it though was this shining beacon of optimism in Alright. Damning police brutality, Lamar rose above it, uniting the Black community under the mantra, “We gon’ be alright.” His words resonated across the country as they were chanted at Black Lives Matter protests throughout 2015 providing hope amongst the pain and frustration.
by Rihanna featuring Drake
By ANTI, Rihanna knew she could do anything she damn well liked. Work was her embracing the music she truly wanted to make by delivering three minutes of slinky bliss over a ‘90s Jamaican riddim-sampling beat. It sounded effortless - the sort of record only Rihanna could breeze through - but there’s a depth to Work that hits harder. “Nobody text me in a crisis,” she sings, delivering a crushing blow in a take that encapsulates modern loneliness at its core. We try to forget about Drake’s contribution now but it was hard to deny their chemistry at the time.
At the start of 2011, Adele took to the stage at the Brit Awards, accompanied by just a piano. The room fell silent as she poured her heart out with one of the most direct breakup songs ever written. When she finished, she unsuccessfully fought back tears proving at that moment she was a cut above the rest of the balladeers. Adele mania took over the world that year and it’s barely wavered as she’s become the voice for anyone who just needs a really damn good cry. There’s something so universal about Adele’s songwriting and this song in particular that just connects. You can’t fault that.
by Frank Ocean
The feeling that Frank Ocean evokes in his finest moments is sometimes difficult to describe. Even before you start to pick apart the lyrics you’re already feeling some type of way. Nights is the best example of that. It’s Blonde’s gritty, raw centrepiece that uses tempo and vocal production to control the narrative. He swerves from near-rapped lyrics to woozy, winding vocals detailing a previous relationship like a drug trip. One minute, he’s present and connected. The next, he’s wafted into a haze. His sequencing is masterful and while there’s barely any traceable structure to the song, he crafts these beautiful melodies to latch too. As much as you crave a beat on Blonde, when it drops out in the dying seconds of Nights, that’s when the beauty shines through. As the voices swell, we’re plunged into momentary bliss before it’s morning again. We’re back to the harsh reality that, “Every night fucks every day up.”
by Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey may have been accused of playing a character for most of her career but the honesty was there from the start. There are few love songs as vivid and unfiltered as Video Games. We’re right there with here, sitting at the piano, declaring her love to a man as if they’re going to last forever. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you,” she sings, as if she’d give up anything if she needed to. Del Rey’s view of the world has since moved to a wider lense but she’s retained the sincerity that she held here. It’s a song about giving up and giving into love. You know deep down she knew it wasn’t eternal but for almost five minutes she pondered a world where it was.
Pop has become increasingly political and social throughout the decade but it was somewhat of a rarity when Grimes unleashed Oblivion in 2012. On the surface, it’s a great pop song. It’s feather light, bounding along with perky ambition but there’s a depth to it. “I never walk about after dark,” she sings in the opening line before opening up further about assault. It’s about feeling unsafe but the tone of it suggests that she’s regaining the power, something she confirms in the music video. By entering sporting arenas typically defined by a masculine energy she’s shifting the narrative. “Art gives me an outlet where I can be aggressive in a world where I usually can’t be,” she told Pitchfork at the time.
Formation was Beyonce’s biggest statement to date. Debuting it during Coldplay’s halftime show, she infiltrated and delivered a powerful message, speaking out about police brutality while showing a pride and fight for her culture. It was Bey like we’d never seen her before, re-exploring her platform and exposing its potential for activism. It’s a protest anthem but in true Beyonce style it’s also a flex. “I see it, I want it,” she raps, alongside other glorious one-liners like, “When he fuck me good I take his arse to Red Lobster.” Part of activism is empowering the voiceless and Bey has always aimed to make people feel really damn good.
by Kanye West featuring Pusha T
Kanye is rarely emotional to the point of admitting fault but he’s potent when he does. He considered his faults emotionally on 808s & Heartbreaks but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy signalled a shift back to his grandiose ways. On this album that features every great rapper and producer of the time, however, sits this beautiful, solitary moment recognised by just one key. This is Kanye stripped bare, wrestling with ideas of blame, deceit and love. It’s then boosted by one of Pusha T’s finest verses, grappling with forgiveness and his own ego.
Dancing and sadness had never made such a fine match in pop music until Robyn came along. Dancing On My Own used the club as a cathartic experience. Robyn begins the song dark, watching her ex-lover with someone else. “It’s a big black sky over my town,” she sings as the bass pulsates. By verse two, however, there’s a shift. The music starts to become empowering as she declares, “I’m just gonna dance all night.” By the time the bass has thundered through the speakers to sound the gun on a mighty dance break, the sadness has becomes euphoric. That’s something that people have been connecting to for a decade now. Dancing On My Own still taps into a pocket of self love and that’s just so special to see in any moment.
The EDM wave was one of the most undying trends of the 2010s and with it came some of the greatest crimes. At its core, however, it had an ability to tap into a giddy, senseless euphoria that few other genres could. We Found Love is the greatest example of its power. The Calvin Harris-produced megahit took Rihanna to another level of stardom. It made her sound like a giant and at the same time it was beautifully human. The song passed through a number of artists hands, including Leona Lewis', but it eventually landed at RiRi. Nobody else could’ve given it what she did. Her raspy, raw delivery elevates its titular lyric to a new place. It’s a line that simultaneously embodies heartache, lust, glory and despair. People instantly come together on a dancefloor when this plays and there’s a unity in it that just can’t be beaten.
See the entire Top 50 ranked below in our Spotify playlist: