I dipped into Pitchfork's list of the top songs of the 2010s tentatively, not knowing what to expect.
Considering the sheer amount of music released in the past decade, there's simply no way one could ever hope to listen to it all, let alone compare it. Also, music rankings are inherently subjective, entirely reliant on the opinions of those curating the list and their respective definitions of what makes "great" art.
Don't get me wrong—the Pitchfork list has issues. First off, it essentially consists of popular American music. You won't find too many deep cuts here, nor many country, K-pop, classical, or non-English-language tracks. If you're someone who "dislikes pop," you might as well leave. Also, some of the blurbs are very odd. "Hotline Bling" is described as a "human centipede of modern music," which is a unique metaphor—I'll give them that—and apparently Lorde "[dissects] love like it's a frog in science class." Justin Bieber's "Sorry" is somehow painted as a track that asks for redemption in an era of #BlackLivesMatter protests. A lot of the writing is beautiful, though, and we get phrases like, "Pop songs, trends, and life itself are a constant cycle of death and rebirth" (in reference to Ariel Pink) to balance out the other stuff.
In terms of the song choices, I like and respect Grimes, but I'm not sure "Oblivion" deserves its number two slot. There are countless glaring omissions, with innovators like Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Donald Glover, and Sufjan Stevens notably absent (though Gaga and Stevens appeared on Pitchfork's equally solid best albums of the 2010s list). Also, "The Louvre" is objectively not the best song on Melodrama.
Even so, scrolling through the list made me remember that a lot of fantastic music has been released this decade, and a lot of creative visionaries have come out of the woodwork, selectively utilizing new technologies to create ambitious works of art. Plus, in contrast to the vast majority of best-songs-of-all-time lists, a lot of these songs are by women and people of color. Yes, there's still inequality in the music industry, but music has never been more diverse, both sonically and demographically.
The list is evidence that the concept of listening to one genre or disliking music just because it's pop has been steadily dying over the past decade. In today's world, pop hits like Carly Rae Jepsen's "Run Away With Me" and Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" exist comfortably next to indie powerhouse ballads like Mitski's "Your Best American Girl" and ANOHNI's "Drone Bomb Me," and rap and ambient and metal all appear on the same playlists. The kind of pretentiousness that discredited pop music in the past is largely disappearing, and in its own respect, pop is getting more daring, more willing to experiment and pull from other genres.
Carly Rae Jepsen - Run Away With Me www.youtube.com
Mitski - Your Best American Girl (Official Video) www.youtube.com
You could analyze the list forever on this kind of macroscopic level, but music is never only collective or political; it always has a microscopic, personal dimension. Personally, as I scrolled through the list from the bottom to the top, I began to feel something that I don't usually feel while on the Internet. The list was strangely heartwarming. It brought back good memories. Many of the songs on it are extremely special to me, intertwined with specific places, people, and emotions.
For example, Sampha's breathtaking ballad "No One Knows Me (Like the Piano)" took me right back to a time I got lost on a bus in Queens and ended up listening to that song as a woman delivered a sermon from the seat across me while rain poured down around us. The Kanye selections are particularly wrenching; "Runaway" is eternally powerful, "Ultralight Beam" sparks several memories immediately—driving over a bridge under a purple sunset, or another time, astronomically high in the woods, blasting the song from speakers and clinging to every note. "Queen" by Perfume Genius made my jaw drop the first time I heard it. Listening to "Mary" by Big Thief is always a religious experience. SZA, Tyler the Creator, the National, Vampire Weekend, Chance the Rapper—they've all held special places in my heart and life over the years. They're as real and significant to me as any friend, and I doubt I'm alone in that.
Perfume Genius - 'Queen' (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Reading through the list made me remember that while the world may be incredibly chaotic and painful to exist in, there's so much good music to soundtrack our journey through this brief and absurd life. The 2010's gave us revolutionary opuses like Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. and "Pa'lante" by Hurray for the Riff Raff. It gave us Frank Ocean's mystical, effervescent Blond, which I must give thanks for roughly once per week. It gave us Katy Perry's early exquisite pop and Courtney Barnett's dry ramblings and the soft electricity of Yaeji, whose "Drink I'm Sippin On" soundtracked so many of my night walks around the city.
Hurray For The Riff Raff - Pa'lante (Official Video) www.youtube.com
It gave us ample drama and good stories, too—there was the gleeful spite of "thank u, next," and the thrill of watching Cardi B rise with "Bodak Yellow," Miley's chaotic metamorphosis and Solange's ascendance. The 2010s took David Bowie and Lil Peep. It gave us unforgettable images, Bon Iver and his mythological cabin and FKA Twigs' surrealist masterpiece "Cellophane," images that connected to us on personal levels and bind us together across space and time.
FKA twigs - Cellophane www.youtube.com
I think that the best kind of music is taps into something much bigger than us, like a collective unconscious, something that extends way beyond the reach of one person. In order to make it, and to make any kind of art that can reach others on a profound level, you have to let go of the limitations of your singular self. That's what so many of these songs do—they tell individual stories, but they also channel something greater, and bring us together on a higher plane.
In many ways, I suspect that the 2020s will be even more full of change and tumult than the 2010s were. But I have complete faith that, when 2029 rolls around, there will be another Pitchfork list of songs that tap into the deepest emotions and most powerful connections we have. And maybe sometimes, the songs that help us personally are what give us the strength to engage with the world on a larger scale and speak truth to power. Maybe our greatest songs are the ones that, like Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," give us the strength to go on.
Kendrick Lamar - Alright www.youtube.com