The 50 Best Songs of the Decade
What do BTS, Kendrick Lamar, and Robyn have in common?
Congratulations–you've survived 2019.
We've been through haunting commercials, traumatically bad movies, and the fall of a favorite childhood author. But through it all, there's been Spotify, judging our music tastes like a disapproving boomer. And yet, we persisted. In alphabetical order, these are the top 50 musical lifelines of the 2010s. In the top 25 are the likes of BTS, Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino. Among the bottom 25 are FKA twigs, Tayor Swift, Julien Baker, and Charli XCX. Notably absent is anything by Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber, because we don't believe bad listening habits should be encouraged. Happy listening in 2020!
Top 50 Songs of the Decade
33 "GOD": Bon Iver
With 22, A Million, Bon Iver shattered expectations and blended innovative electronic arrangements with typically opaque lyrics, albeit this time more about religion and technology rather than snowstorms and forests. "33 'GOD'" is one of its most joyful and reverent moments. "I could go forward in the night / but I better fold my clothes," Vernon sings just before the song explodes into its shimmering chorus, a line that perfectly encapsulates the strangeness of being human while thinking about transcendence.
Bloodbuzz Ohio: The National
What happens when your hometown is full of bitter memories? If you're the National's Matt Berninger, you drink to the point of oblivion. But the instrumentals of "Bloodbuzz Ohio"—named after Berninger's home state and, well, an alcoholic buzz—aren't as somber as one might expect, its stadium-sized piano melody driven by intricate, racing guitars; like the malaise of homesickness squared up with an unyielding desire to move forward.
Dancing On My Own: Robyn
Seeing your ex with someone new can often behold the same "don't want to look, but can't look away" quality as a gnarly car accident. At least, that's the case for the narrator of Robyn's definitive sad banger, "Dancing On My Own"—and what better medicine for heartbreak than doing just that? The song might be sung from the perspective of being lonely, but truthfully, its listeners are never fully alone; just take it from the New Yorkers who threw a dance party to the song on a subway platform after Robyn's Madison Square Garden show earlier this year. "Dancing On My Own" pines for closure, but in the end, making yourself your own partner—both in life and in the club—is the best remedy for moving on.
Cardi B: Bodak Yellow
Cardi B's breakout hit became so unavoidable and beloved that it's pretty mind-boggling to think that just months before it dropped, she was only a reality TV audience favorite on VH1's Love & Hip Hop. "Bodak Yellow" is boastful and unapologetic, an anthem of bad b*tchery—the kind of song that makes you want to hit the club with your girlfriends and disregard every man in sight. Cardi had long left the stripper's pole behind her, but with "Bodak Yellow," all eyes remained on her.
Cranes in the Sky: Solange
The younger Knowles wrote "Cranes in the Sky" after an especially painful breakup with the father of her son. On the centerpiece of her 2016 record A Seat at the Table, Solange delivers a laundry list of coping mechanisms: dancing, spending, sexing, working hard. It's a jazzy, R&B ode to life's inevitable pains, and whichever vices we select in order to ease them.
Everybody Wants to Love You: Japanese Breakfast
In the dream-pop she makes as Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner wears her emotions on her sleeve. She wrote the first incantation of "Everybody Wants to Love You" with her previous band Birthday Girlz, for a woman who had no clue the song was about her. Years later, it was sped up and extended for Japanese Breakfast's version, a deliriously enamored love anthem that's as intoxicating and thrilling as a new crush.
Fake Love: BTS
As Popdust's resident "Only Person Who Listens to Kpop," (Dan) it's important to me to see BTS represented on our Top 50 Best Songs of the Decade list. As our world becomes more and more connected in the age of the Internet, we can no longer pretend that Western media is the only relevant pop culture content. With their incredibly diverse range of hits and a global appeal that transcends language barriers, BTS feels like a once-in-a-generation musical group.
All that being said, I reached out to ARMY (BTS's dedicated fanbase) on Twitter to get a sense of which BTS songs meant the most to them. I really enjoyed reading the range of their responses, as it seems like pretty much every BTS song is someone's favorite, many of them for deeply personal reasons. Out of every BTS song, Fake Love was echoed most frequently.
It's not hard to see why. Fake Love is a musical masterpiece that entirely escapes genre categorization. Structurally superb, the song's solemn, trap-rock-influenced melody effortly flows into both catchy pop refrains and emotional hip hop segments, with a little bit of grunge built in for good measure. The complex sound compliments the deep, mature lyrics, which explore the dissolution of an intense romance wherein a person realizes that they've lost sight of their own identity in order to shape themselves for a love that was never really there. Fake Love is easily one of BTS's darkest songs, making for an emotionally resonant experience that's sure to stick with listeners for decades to come.
Beyonce dropped "Formation" the day after Trayvon Martin's 21st birthday. On the surface, the Lemonade standout is a widely accessible party jam, Queen Bey at her boldest. But under its bombastic bass and victorious marching band instrumentals, there's an undeniable spirit of Southern black empowerment, reaching levels of unimaginable success against all odds.
Gold: Chet Faker
Chet Faker's "Gold" is one of the finest offerings on his debut album, Built on Glass. The track's smooth R&B and electronica match his soft-spoken drawl, punctuated by his crisp falsetto, as he croons about being in love with love.
I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times): Jamie xx
With his debut solo record In Colour, Jamie xx—one-third of the hushed, stoned indie trio the xx—proved he was no one-trick pony. That message is heard clearest on "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," an irresistible party track featuring rapper Young Thug, Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan, and a sample from '60s acapella group the Persuasions. Altogether, it's a certifiable good time indeed—maybe even too good if you're Rue from Euphoria.
Levitate: Kendrick Lamar
Track seven on Untitled Unmastered, unofficially known as "Levitate," is a stand out Kendrick Lamar track among a long list of contenders, mostly for its opening. The trippy instrumentals and the increasingly chaotic vocals capture a strange, surreal feeling of drifting away from the world. The lyrics are strong, but mostly, nothing will get as high as this song.
Man on Fire: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
The indie folk of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros lives in the American heartland of the past, which we're disillusioned with but nostalgic for at the same time. That includes frontman Alex Ebert, who describes "Man on Fire" as being a release from "all the problems, pain, murder, heartache, shame, and those things I bring up, especially the conflict." He told Artist Direct, "I felt like instead of trying to fix it or work on it within the paradigm of problem-solving, I wanted to throw it all away and just dance in the streets. That's what it's about. It was born from a really intense, defiant, and frustrated place. That's one of the reasons I love that song."
Midnight City: M83 -
Repeating a series of four notes eight times in a row is a method as old as pop music itself, but that didn't stop Anthony Gonzalez—the one man behind M83—from creating one of the most recognizable chorus melodies of the decade.
Nights: Frank Ocean
Blond, which seems to exist in twenty more dimensions than the majority of other music, is a master class in the art of building worlds through sound and panning and pure poetry. "Nights" is one of its lush centerpieces, a song about the exhausting and thrilling nature of the nighttime and everything that comes with it; dreams, the subconscious, love, sex, unfiltered emotion, exhaustion. As the song switches from its initial beat to its frenetic guitar interlude and finally breaks down to that too-dreamy, silky-trap outro, you know that Frank has been hacking your ears to transport you somewhere else. The lyrics help, too; when Frank sings, "Wanna see nirvana and I wanna die," you really feel it every time.
Claire Boucher turned her violent street assault and its lingering emotional toll into the defining song of her career. The staccato, arpeggiated bassline of "Oblivion" mimics the persistent, heightened wariness of walking by yourself at night; though the track is largely centered around being alone, the anxieties Grimes sings about are something all of her female listeners can relate to.
Pure Comedy: Father John Misty
"Pure Comedy" is a song that's memorable not so much for musical content but for its message. The melody is straightforward without a lot of elaboration, and the vocals don't make any attempt to show off. It's a song that serves the almost singular purpose of delivering its unambiguous lyrics and using them to dig into the profound and sad absurdity of life. It may not do much else, but it does that as well as any song of the decade.
Run Away With Me: Carly Rae Jepsen
By the time her third album, Emotion, dropped, Carly Rae Jepsen was a known auteur of potently catchy bubblegum pop songs. But the dark side to her breakout "Call Me Maybe" was that it overshadowed much of her work to come, even the chugging, euphoric "Run Away With Me." With it's chant-along chorus, a perfectly utilized saxophone solo, and a globetrotting music video, it's Jepsen at her most fun and most inviting.
Runaway: Kanye West
Say what you want about Kanye West's trajectory post-Life of Pablo, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a truly magnificent achievement. "Runaway" is the bloody, ragged, triumphant beating heart of the album. It begins with those iconic syncopated staccato piano notes and then explodes into a growling bassline, and all together it taps into the deep pain and guilt at the core of the human experience, something Kanye's always been an expert at exposing to the light. When the cello section at the end breaks loose, it's heaven in hell.
Silver Spoon (Baepsae): BTS
Whereas many of BTS's songs evade easy genre categorization, Silver Spoon (or Baepsae, which means crow-tit––a Korean term roughly equivalent to calling someone a "try-hard") falls firmly in the realm of hip hop. In that same vein, Silver Spoon is also one of BTS's most politically biting songs.
Serving as an anthem for disenfranchised millennials, Silver Spoon places the tension between younger generations and older generations into stark contrast. The title, Silver Spoon, refers to a popular Korean metaphor for class divides (the same concept plays a large role in Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies of the decade). In the song, BTS calls out the hypocrisy of older people acting like millennials don't work hard enough while simultaneously subjecting them to an unfair system with a dearth of opportunities. By wearing the derogatory term "baepsae" like a badge of honor, BTS takes power back from an older generation who would otherwise write younger people off.
With a platform as big as theirs, BTS's political messaging has the potential to reach further than most, and while Silver Spoon specifically speaks to issues in South Korea, its message has obvious parallels all around the world.
Someone You Loved: Lewis Capaldi
America's been slow to catch onto Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi, but the 23-year-old's piano-driven anthem topped the UK charts for seven consecutive weeks in 2019. Through his all-too-charming social media presence, he showcases his dry humor and pokes fun at himself and the seeming perfection of successful musicians: "A lot of people say that 'the best songs fall into your lap' and that they're the easiest ones to write and take the shortest amount of time," he told NME. "I wholeheartedly disagree with that. I think my best songs come from me sitting at a piano, bashing my head against a brick wall for hours and hours on end to get one good melody."
Spring Day: BTS
If I were to recommend K-pop to someone who had never listened to a single non-English-language song before, Spring Day is probably the first song I would play for them. One of BTS's most fascinating talents (and I'd wager a major reason behind their widespread international success) is their unprecedented ability to imbue their music with real, raw emotion that completely breaks through cultural barriers and hits on the core universal sentiments underlying their songs. Spring Day is all about longing for someone who isn't there, and even without translating the gorgeous lyrics, the song fills you with the melancholy sensation of nostalgia. It's almost impossible to listen to Spring Day without missing someone or something from your past.
Couple this with one of BTS's most imagery-dense music videos, full of references to Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer and Ursula K. Le Guin's false-utopian short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," and Spring Day plays out like an almost literary endeavor. For a group renowned for their ability to tear up a dance floor and hype up an audience, a deeply sentimental piece like Spring Day stands as testament to BTS's vast range of talents.
Take Me to Church: Hozier
In 2014 you could hardly leave the house without hearing someone butchering the lyrics to "Take Me to Church," Hozier's infectious folk-rock break out single. Many interpret the song as a critique of organized religion interfering in people's personal lives, particularly their sex lives. As such, the song was as divisive as it was wildly popular. Hozier's velvet voice and gospel-inspired songwriting prowess came together to create a song that was markedly more substantive and interesting than most other hits from 2014.
This is America: Childish Gambino
When "This is America" dropped, it came at a moment of breathless rage and fear in America. With its themes of gun violence and racial discrimination, it lit up like a match thrown on gasoline—but it had staying power because of its sonic juxtapositions of African folk-pop against brooding trap, and that breathtaking chorus line. When Glover says, "This is America," you're forced to wonder exactly whose America he's talking about, and that was always the point.
Your Best American Girl: Mitski
"Your Best American Girl" starts soft, but then explodes into a forest fire of electric guitar. When Mitski sings the iconic lyrics, "Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me / but I do / I finally do / and you're an all American boy, guess I couldn't help try to be your best American girl," she expressed a delicate balance of emotions: rage mixed with self-love, freedom combined with regret. The result is an unforgettable, cathartic love letter to music and solidarity.
A More Perfect Union: Titus Andronicus
In his famed Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln told the United States: "As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide." These words are uttered at the beginning of "A More Perfect Union," the opener to punk rockers Titus Andronicus' cult favorite The Monitor. Chock-full of New England references both historical and modern, it teeters the line between that invincibility and impermanence. But as the roaring second half marches on, it seems to rejoice in that at least we are free either way.
Cellophane: FKA twigs
Twigs has built a delicate and impressive body of work over the years, but few songs had the emotional resonance and total desperation of "Cellophane," an impossibly fragile breakup song for the ages off 2019's Magdalene. Its gorgeous video was a masterpiece of dance, endurance, and surrealist art, and socially, it's everything a cathartic cry into the void should be and more.
Despacito: Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee (NOT Justin Bieber)
Before Justin Bieber ever tarnished this song, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee had a globally viral hit that shone thanks to its magnetic, compulsively danceable beat and tune. "Despacito" is a tightly wound pop-reggaeton hybrid, one that checked every box and went further, becoming an irresistible earworm that will have us dancing for a long time to come.
Everything Is Embarrassing: Sky Ferreira
This Sky Ferreira track is utterly infectious, the kind of tune that gets in your bloodstream and makes you want to dance and cry at the same time. Written by Blood Orange's Dev Hynes, it's the perfect bridge between feeling everything and nothing, between taking things seriously and laughing at the absurdity of it all. When the chorus kicks in, you feel ecstatic despite the eye-rolls implicit in Ferreira's lyrics, then the bridge takes the song to an entirely new level.
Green Light: Lorde
Lorde's Melodrama was a tribute to parties, love, and heartbreak, and its opener set the tone for the entire cycle. "Green Light" starts out with restraint, but once Lorde starts singing about hoping her ex gets bitten by a great white shark as her voice plays in two octaves, you know she's not messing around. This unconventional and brilliant pop song is an open door into Lorde's neon dreamworld, a party invitation that's impossible to refuse.
How Great: Chance the Rapper
Chance has made an indelible mark on the music industry since releasing his mixtape 10 Day independently as a teenager. Since then, he's continued to push the boundaries of R&B and rap, perhaps most notably on his magnum opus Coloring Book, which he also released independently in 2016. One of the best, and most political, offerings off this album is "How Great," Chance's take on the classic gospel song "How Great Is Our God." Here, Chance combines biblical imagery with imagery from the technological age, creating a stirring juxtaposition between the holy and the seemingly mundane. The lyrics are thematically dense and brilliant, and the verses leave no doubt that there's no other MC in the game with flow like Chance the Rapper.
I Love It: Icona Pop feat. Charli XCX
This Charli XCX-penned bop contains so much joy and rage and energy, it's impossible not to dance along. A defining presence at every party of 2012 (and still a force to be reckoned with), it's the ultimate finally-getting-over-your-breakup song. Lyrically, it's an aggressive and punk-headed evisceration of bad memories, over a beat that's undeniably infectious.
Motion Sickness: Phoebe Bridgers
In early 2019, the New York Times published a report in which multiple women accused songwriter/producer Ryan Adams of sexual coercion. One of these women was then-up-and-comer Phoebe Bridgers, whose folksy single "Motion Sickness"—released almost two years prior—was rumored, and later confirmed, to be about Adams. "I hate you for what you did / And I miss you like a little kid," go her opening lines, as her anger unfolds. In that couplet, Bridgers perfectly summarizes the dichotomy of processing abuse at the hands of a confidant, a mentor, and lover all in one.
New Romantics: Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift built her country-pop crossover empire off teen heartbreak and the ill-fated tribulations of high school romance. But by "New Romantics," a bonus track from her full pop-pivot 1989, she ushered in a fresh generation of lovers-to-be. She cleverly ties in her adolescent anguish—"honey, life is just a classroom"—before launching into a shimmering chorus that exudes the joyful rush of youth.
Old Town Road: Lil Nas X
When "Old Town Road" was released in December of last year, it made Lil Nas X a household name almost overnight. The blend of country themes and sound with elements of trap music made the song both memorable and controversial—with contention over whether it belonged on country music charts, and accusations that the distinctions was tied to racial animus in the country music industry. The controversy may have contributed to the song's record-breaking streaming and the fact that everyone in the world now knows the lyrics.
Pa'lante: Hurray For the Riff Raff
Few songs manage to pack as much power as "Pa'lante," a Spanish word that can be loosely translated to "go onward" or "go for it." The song begins as a monologue about having to go to work and wanting to fall in love and prove our worth—all things we're told we have to want—then spirals into suicidal ideation about feeling colonized and ignorant and helpless—and then grows into a cry of revolution and solidarity with all people who have been blinded by the selfishness of capitalism, which tells us that we have to "be something" at the expense of all others.
"Pompeii" was the British band's breakout hit and one of the most popular songs of 2013. A deep chant backs frontman Dan Smith's smooth tone as he sings about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. "'Pompeii' is actually an imagined conversation between two charred corpses reflecting on the city," Smith told The Sun. The famous disaster was the perfect allegory for pent up emotions. "It is essentially about fear of stasis and boredom," he added. "Being quite a shy, self-conscious person, I was afraid my life might get stuck."
Queen: Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius's raw, ecstatic "Queen" is an anthem and a howl, a cry of brokenness and triumph. When Mike Hadreas sings "No family is safe / when I sashay," his voice (along with a yowling synth and threatening vocal punctuations) tell a story of decades of queer and trans oppression and resilience. But beyond its identity politics, "Queen" is also a magnificent song, innovatively orchestrated and expansive and ragged as human emotion itself.
Rejoice: Julien Baker
In 2015, Julien Baker quietly released her sparse, dimly lit debut album, Sprained Ankle. It gathered cult status for its searing observations about sadness, religion, death, and queerness, and it didn't hurt that Baker knew her way around a Telecaster and a pedalboard. "Rejoice" might be the album's most powerful track—it starts soft and downtrodden, and by the time Baker is screaming about God over reverb-heavy loops, you feel like you're in a church in the middle of the wilderness.
River: Leon Bridges
Leon Bridges' 2015 song, "River," may be a modern hit, but its sound is pure old school soul and R&B. The video for the song makes it clear that Bridges wrote the song with the intention of celebrating the past and future of soul music, as many of the images portray the 2015 Baltimore uprising that shone a light on the racism still built into the structure of America. "I want this video to be a message of light. I believe it has the power to change and heal those that are hurting," Bridges told NPR. In a fraught moment in history, "River" reminded us of the power of catharsis through music.
The Bug Collector: Haley Heynderickx
Haley Heyndericx's ethereal debut album I Need to Start a Garden is full of shattering observations about simple, everyday events, and no song exemplifies this like "The Bug Collector," which finds metaphors for Catholic guilt in the many-legged creatures that invade the narrator's bathtub and bedroom. The song layers delicate fingerpicking over foggy French horn and effortlessly transports the listener to a place outside of time.
The greatest: Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey may have found viral fame and loathing thanks to "Video Games," but she's disproven every naysayer by consistently producing excellent, electrifying and challenging work. Norman F**king Rockwell's "The greatest"—a piano ballad cut through with wailing guitars, and an elegy about aging, global decay, and of course, lost love—may be her greatest work yet.
The Morning: The Weeknd
After nearly 10 years, Abel Tesfaye still stands as one of the defining influences of the modern R&B soundscape. The Weeknd has forever revolutionized the aesthetic of modern-day R&B, and it all began in 2010 with a little song called "The Morning." It was the apex of Tesfaye's mystique. His haunting falsetto vocals, his drug-fueled braggadocio, emotional promiscuity, and the minimalist production all culminated into something breathtakingly unique. For the first time in R&B, an awkward loner could become a sex icon in his own way. "I was everything an R&B singer wasn't," Tesfaye said in his first-ever cover story with Rolling Stone. House of Balloons shifted the tide of what was possible in R&B; now, The Weeknd's influence is inescapable. "I'm not gonna say any names, but just listen to the radio," the singer said. "Every song is House of Balloons 2.0."
The Suburbs: Arcade Fire
To be honest, 2017's Everything Now was one of the most disappointing albums in recent memory. Arcade Fire is all about massive statements on culture, love, and the human condition, but Everything Now presented all of the flair without any of the substance. In retrospect, it made us realize how hard it is to do what they do. The coming of age tale of "The Suburbs" is one of the band's most heart-wrenching musical narratives, with the metaphorical lyrics still studied under a microscope to this day by music snobs. The yearning for home when you leave and then the disillusion that follows when you return are palpable on "The Suburbs" and creates for a timeless anthem for the Millennial experience.
This Feeling: Alabama Shakes
Sometimes in the midst of life's chaos, you hit moments of stillness where you know it's going to be okay. "This Feeling" might be about these moments, and the fragility and importance of these all-too-ephemeral feelings. Emotions can change with the weather and anything can change on a dime, Brittany Howard seems to be saying, but just for now, we know that things are gonna be alright.
Uptown Funk: Mark Ronson, Bruno Mars
"Uptown Funk" is the 2014 hit single by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars. The appropriately funky baseline and the high energy vocals make for a contagious energy that more or less guarantees that this song will play at every wedding for the foreseeable future. Coupled with the absurdly self-aggrandizing lyrics—like a contemporary "I'm too Sexy"—it's not hard to see why this song has gotten so much play. So much play that a lot of people would rather never hear it again…
Vroom Vroom: Charli XCX
If there's one thing Charli XCX loves as much as partying, it's cars. But before she ran too fast like a white Mercedes or fantasized about a Porsche, she just wanted to hang with people who could keep up with her. So goes the title track from the pop experimentalist's Vroom Vroom EP, a song that became the national anthem of Charli Land despite gaining little traction outside of her core fanbase. From it's instantly-recognizable synth intro to its infinitely-quotable "Beep beep! Let's ride," with "Vroom Vroom," risking a speeding ticket has never sounded so enticing.
We Bros: WU LYF
Manchester quartet WU LYF were short-lived and hid in a veil of mystery, having disclosed little information to the press during their four active years. "We Bros," from their sole LP Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, perfectly encapsulates what's been missing from the music scene since they called it quits. A six-minute anticapitalist indie rock odyssey, it embodies a sense of freedom, joining forces, and just singing.
You're Not Good Enough - Blood Orange
The immensely talented polymath Dev Hynes has an uncanny knack for capturing the minute intricacies of human turmoil. He is rarely vindictive of those who have wronged him, instead choosing to remain caustic. "I never was in love, you know that you were never good enough," he says calmly over a dark, funky instrumental. "It's always the self-identified nice guys who pack the cruelest, most vindictive punches," wrote Pitchfork. On "You're Not Good Enough," Dev Hynes' matter-of-fact delivery revolutionized the way emotion was conveyed in R&B. Hynes is a master of tactically communicating awkward in-between moments of pain. You're not really pissed anymore, nor have you forgiven those who wronged you for their transgressions, but you're still just kinda...bitter. Hynes reassures us that those feelings are genuine and important to dissect, especially within the context of LGBTQ culture.
Your Deep Rest: The Hotelier
Emo revivalists the Hotelier cut right to the chase with their second album Home, Like Noplace is There, an admittedly dark record. Its high point "Your Deep Rest" (which, when said out loud, sounds quite a bit like "you're depressed") centers on the guilt and shame that ensue after a close friend's suicide, so much so that the song's narrator skips the funeral completely. It's a gutting retrospective, but one that reminds us to look out for those who are still here.