The 20 most important artists (and 10 other essential songs) of the 2010’s.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — “Round and Round” (2010)
Like its creator Ariel Rosenberg, “Round and Round” doesn’t play by the rules. It’s 70’s AM pop-radio nostalgia before the modern era of vinyl retromania was ever in fashion. It chucks traditional songwriting norms out the window, containing one verse, two bridges, a chorus for an outro, and a non-sequitur interlude where Rosenberg answers the phone. But for something so out of the ordinary, “Round and Round” feels deliciously familiar; that circular bass groove, the whirling carousel, and Rosenberg’s musings on reincarnation serve as reminders that somehow we’ve all been here before.
In the decade prior to 2010, Rosenberg’s proclivity for recreational drugs and debauchery was only eclipsed by his productivity under the moniker Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti; he recorded over 200 cassettes of notoriously lo-fi material, including such family-friendly gems as Oddities Sodomies Vol.1 and “Butt-house Blondies.” But with the elevated production values and pop magnetism of Before Today, he finally hit pay dirt, polishing his modge podge of 60’s pop, new wave, punk, and schlock rock into something as sleek as it was strange. If the 2010’s were a musical supercollider, Rosenberg was a Professor Emeritus in the science of pop particle physics. From it’s intital hook of “Na na naaaah na’s” to the earworm chorus of “Hold on’s,” “Round and Round” bends time and space, taking us back to a fetishized analog realm where it’s deja vu all over again.
Listen: Ariel Pink — “Round and Round”
See also: Destroyer — “Savage Night At The Opera”
M83 — “Midnight City” (2011)
What would it sound like if film director John Hughes had soundtracked Blade Runner? The answer, “Midnight City,” feels inevitable in hindsight. M83 had spent a decade crafting albums that could have been synth pop backdrops for nameless 80’s coming-of-age flicks — aching, melodramatic, brashly sincere — and 2011 double LP Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was the IMAX-sized culmination of front man Anthony Gonzalez’s vision. It’s four-minute centerpiece is a personification of urban cool; glittering skylines, chrome surfaces, and neon glow powered by the purring motor of keyboards and drum machines. Cyborg yelps and cherubic sighs call from some digital heaven. Gonzalez responds devoutly: “The city is my church.”
“Midnight City” is a cocktail of adrenaline and impressionistic mood — a real-life orchestral manoeuvre in the dark by a conductor tiptoeing between the blurry-eyed restlessness of after-hours and the religious epiphany of nocturnal solitude. “Waiting in a car/ Waiting for a ride in the dark” Gonzalez concedes from his velvet-roped lounge before finally unveiling the song’s secret weapon — the most unexpected (and quintessential) saxophone outro since Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s the perfect, fleeting conclusion that implores you to play the song again almost immedately after you’ve listened. On second thought, that Uber can just wait outside — “Midnight City” is a sound of prolonged ecstasy, of never wanting to leave.
Listen: M83 — “Midnight City”
See also: My Bloody Valentine — “Only Tomorrow”
Jai Paul— “BTSTU (edit)” (2011)
From first blush with enigmatic songwriter Jai Paul, it became apparent that the London-born producer transmitted sounds on a different wavelength than his pop peers. Hosted on a MySpace page, “BTSTU (edit)” felt like something familiar that was born under fantastic extremes; a slow jam crossbred with Martian DNA in the vacuum of outer space, futuresexylove sounds conceived on the floor of the Indian Ocean. The funk guitar licks and Prince-indebted falsetto on follow-up track “Jasmine (Demo)” shimmered like air over a scorched highway. This was R&B that stretched and clipped, oozed and sparked, landing both liquid and jagged.
If Paul considered these songs as mere demoes, the thought of his completed works was mind-blowing; the intrigue was only heightened by an 18-track leak in 2013 that left studio mavens salivating and sent Paul spiraling into six years of muted seclusion. Drake and Beyoncé would both sample “BTSTU (edit),” but all attempts to re-engineer its brilliance proved to be no more than replicas. It reaffirmed that even though mega-artists might dictate musical trends and tastes, a prized authority is bestowed upon musicians who are quietly worshiped for their sonic singularity. Ushering in the decade then standing apart like some untouchable, alien jewel, “BTSTU (edit)” remains startlingly ahead of its time.
Listen: Jai Paul — “BTSTU (edit)”
See also: Flying Lotus — “MmmHmm (ft. Thundercat)”
Real Estate — “It’s Real” (2011)
Martin Courtney, Matt Mondanile, and Alex Bleeker built their eighth grade friendship on the mutual exploration of indie rock’s tangled ancestry. They shared headphones on school buses, bonded over Pavement and Built To Spill records, and taught each other how to play Pixies’ tunes between guitar lessons. It would become an inspiration for the interplay of sing-speaky vocals and crystalline guitar they later developed while playing songs about swigging adult beverages in suburban New Jersey. During the early 2010’s, when indie guitar rock ran the emotional gamut from strung-out (DIIV) to exasperated (Cloud Nothings) to irrepressibly heart-on-sleeve (Japandroids), nothing felt quite as earnest as Real Estate.
Their best songs blend simple pleasures and shrugging disaffection, with titles as forthright and elemental (“Easy,” “Had to Hear,” “It’s Real”) as their hooks. The latter’s circular melody, whoa-oh-ohhs, and guileless intentions (“I carved our names into a tree”) are a Michelangelo sculpture of dream pop — as much a marvel of what has been chipped away as the essential shape that remains. “It’s Real” is a veritable anthem — one that feels as wistful and introspective as the naïveté it ponders — but a song to believe in nonetheless.
Listen: Real Estate — “It’s Real”
See also: Japandroids — “Younger Us”
Daft Punk — “Get Lucky” (2013)
“Get Lucky” streaked through the summer of 2013 like a 100-year comet — otherworldly, ubiquitious, and almost as rare. Its critical and commercial success were unequivocal (the single hit #1 in over 30 countries and was song of the year in numerous publications), it exceeded expectations without being predictable, and its melodic simplicity belied the titantic amount of resources spent to get it just right. Pop deity Pharrell reportedly has no memory of singing on it, so jet lagged and spellbound was he. Inspired by the song’s demo, Chic’s Nile Rodgers crafted a guitar part so arresting that Daft Punk re-recorded all of “Get Lucky’s” separate tracks to fit around his performance. This was lightning in a bottle where Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter spent 18 months stormchasing to get the precise jolt of electricity.
Columbia Records’ marketing campaign for the single was a mix of modern viral mechanisms (Facebook posts and Coachella teasers) and old school reveals (15-second SNL promos, international billboards and customized Coke cans) that matched parent album Random Access Memories’ tastefully honed blend of modernity and nostalgia. When contractual obligations prevented Daft Punk from appearing on his comedy show to celebrate “Get Lucky’s” release, Stephen Colbert played the song anyway with a pre-recorded elaborate dance routine starring numerous media superstars — “Get Lucky” was the song that promoted itself. Daft Punk had already revolutionized dance music and erected neon pyramids; this is when they became a franchise.
Listen: Daft Punk — “Get Lucky”
Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away With Me” (2015)
How do you create pop music — an art form fickle and transient by nature — that stands the test of time? Algorithmic science and expert opinions on the subject abound, but Carly Rae Jepsen’s play is to bet the farm on the genre’s raison d’être — the timeless act of escape. Yes, “Run Away With Me” is built on an irresistible bed of melodic triplets and the sort of echoey synths and gated reverb snares that ooze 1980’s nostalgia, but the song’s inexorable tug of emotional gravity comes from Jepsen’s literal request to elope into a fantasy weekend where everything turns to gold. It’s sonic cotton candy packed with ten grams of protein.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have that sax riff. The opening salvo falls somewhere between extraterrestrial whale song and Celtic war horn — the sound that launched a thousand Vines. As soon as she heard it, Jepsen admitted that the hook seemed destined to open E•MO•TION because it felt like “a really happy punch in the face,” one that in retrospect, makes her global pop smash “Call Me Maybe” feel like batting practice. When her raspy soprano finally cuddles up to the weight of that indomitable riff on the last verse — caressing, careening, imploring you to please come along with her — you’re all but knocked out, helpless to resist.
Listen: Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away with Me”
See also: Sky Ferreira — “Everything is Embarassing”
Courtney Barnett — “Depreston” (2015)
The migration to the suburbs is a time-honored tradition born of optimism. Maturing couples shed city slicker digs in favor of stability, the promise of a family, and a more tranquil life. “Depreston” captures all of this hopefulness but reveals the spectre of mortality lurking just out of view. Over a sly guitar lick and pedal steel, Courntney Barnett and her partner grudgingly join the gentrification herd, trading in high-price city lattes for a quaint, affordable bungalow. But utopia isn’t as advertised.
The property on sale is a deceased estate cluttered with mementos of the recently departed; a shower handrail, cannisters of sugar and coffee, old photographs. Imminently listenable, “Depreston” blooms into a surprise meditation on life’s simple profundities and the futility of clutching them too tightly. It’s Barnett’s skeleton key to two-chord Valhalla — the kind of tune you can pen at any age then die, knowing your place is secure in the pantheon of great songwriting.
I recently attended an estate sale, and it was truly unnerving. The intimate act of rummaging through a dead man’s 60-year old record collection felt like taking stock of an entire life’s arc, one musty album cover at a time. Barnett brings a precious dignity to that space, knowing there is no good choice for the living — keep the old property intact with all its ghostly memories or knock it down and start again. Imagine if John Cougar Mellancamp’s cozy “Pink Houses” were inhabited by the lost, benevolent shades of their prior owners; you’d find yourself in the neighborhood of “Depreston.”
Listen: Courtney Barnett — “Depreston”
See also: Fiona Apple — “Every Single Night”
Jamie xx — “Gosh” (2015)
Three years in the making, In Colour was The xx’s Jamie Smith transitioning from his role as musician and producer of brooding indie pop back to the mysterious entity he idolized as child growing up in the UK — the radio DJ. His 2015 debut LP under moniker Jamie xx was a nostalgia-drenched love letter to three decades of London dance culture (acid house, dancehall, jungle, drum & bass, garage), and opening track “Gosh” was the moment he translated the masterful phrases of past poets into his own iconic language.
“Gosh” is the utopian manifestation of crate digger’s ecstasy. Its ominous, guttural vocal is sampled from an unaired pilot of Radio 1’s “One in the Jungle,” and its lurching rhythm is the legendary drum break of Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It)” metastasized into something ecstactic and more ruinous. At the climax, a high-pitched siren plummets from the clouds as if Orbital’s “Belfast” were broadcast from a drone missle. Jamie xx combines these disparate parts into something nearly unrecognizable yet lovingly referential — a Frankenstein’s monster of club bangers so canonical, the stitches become essential to its identity.
Listen: Jamie xx — “Gosh”
See also: Burial — “Ashtray Wasp”
Mitski — “Your Best American Girl” (2016)
Your is the crucial word in Mitski’s breakthrough hit “Your Best American Girl” — it indicates possession by someone else. The kind that can leave you confused, sad, and angry, unleashing power chords that are shorthand for a big fuck-you. The boy Mitski addresses (we never learn his name but it’s quite certain that he’s white, blue-blooded, and desirable; the kind of kid who could have been quarterback of his high school football team) remains anonymous. But it’s in her extracation from him — his demands, preconceptions and entitlement — where Mitski finds what so often evades those who are marginalized because of their gender, race, or birth origin; an identity.
In a xenophobic era marked by the constant threat of walls, “Your Best American Girl” is Mitski appraising and tearing down her own barriers. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me” she frets before reliquishing regret: “But I do/ I finally do.” As a Japanese-American woman expressing a sense of cultural dislocation, Mitski repurposes the loud-quiet-loud dynamic crunch of the white, male alternative rock as emotional foil to that genre’s pent-up sexual repression (even Trans-Pacific, in some cases). Mitski flips the threadbare cliché of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” on it’s head when those car-wreck guitars howl and a narrative is rewritten. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy. Girl regains herself.
Listen: Mitski — “Your Best American Girl”
Solange— “Cranes In The Sky” (2016)
Newly divorced, wracked with doubt, and rudderless in her twenties, Solange noticed massive construction cranes cluttering the Miami skyline one sweltering evening in 2008. She wrote a song about feeling overwhelmed by our society’s incessant need to build outward and do more, rather than appreciate the gifts we possess within. That story came as a surprise to me — I’d always assumed “Cranes In The Sky” was about birds. In Asian culture, cranes signify prosperity and longevity; their fabled life span is a thousand years. Solange’s song was aerial personification of both the woman and her music; poised but effortless, in the present moment yet timeless.
Fittingly, “Cranes in the Sky” is impervious to any one interpretation. It’s Solange doing the emotional heavy lifting and being in it for the long haul. It’s an exquisite meditation on self-love and an escape. Solange recites the symptoms of some vaporous ailment she can sense but cannot name. It could refer to any void we seek to fill; the song’s simplicity is its strength. But a decade later, as a fulcrum of her 2016 landmark album A Seat At The Table, “Cranes in the Sky” crystallized into a seminal statement on Being Black in America; the conscious act of going high when others go low.
In a season when rappers Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, and Run the Jewels clamored against discrimination, only Solange’s protest song felt as soothing as it was defiant; it offered audacity without rage, a soft rebellion gathering force without urging militance. Her soprano climbs skyward past those metal clouds by song’s end, discarding the broken shackles of an earthbound plight. It is a majestic release from spiritual malaise and material gluttony just as surely as it is from racial oppression, but Solange does not fight her way through any of these things. She ascends.
Listen: Solange — “Cranes in the Sky”
See also: SZA — “The Weekend”