music / Columns

The Top 250 Songs Of The 2010s (#100-61): Jay-Z, David Bowie, Childish Gambino, More

May 13, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
JAY-Z TIDAL

The Top 100 has arrived, but before we dive in don’t forget to catch up on PART ONE,  PART TWO and PART THREE.

THE CRITERIA:

To keep this countdown from getting too repetitive I am introducing a ONE TRACK PER ARTIST limit.

When it comes to picking tracks we’ll have an eye on cultural impact and importance as well as strict artistic quality. So while there will be album cuts from classic albums that capture an artist’s aesthetic or core message, more often than not these songs will be evocative of the decade at large.

So expect this list to be light on insular or intentionally alienating works (sorry 2010s Metal), while including a fair share of one hit wonders that captured the moment. The goal is to tell the story of the decade in sound.

To put everything perspective I have a 400 artist shortlist! This was an incredibly difficult task, but without further ado let’s get underway.

VOTE FOR YOUR TOP 10 TRACKS OF THE 2010S: PLEASE SUBMIT AN ORDERED LIST FROM 1-TO-10 FOR OUR READERS POLL.

100. Margo Price – “Hands Of Time” (2016)

Margo Price has singled herself out as one of the most thoughtful and provocative voices in modern country music by penning needling, but beautifully composed, country songs that tackle the weightiest socio-economic issues. “Hands Of Time” was her stunning debut statement: a sweeping and yet understated epic that sees this Midwest Farmer’s Daughter leaving home to reclaim her family’s lost pride. Margo cannot be nostalgic for the days of yore (her father lost the farm when she was only two-years-old), instead she’s trying to rekindle a fire long extinguished. The pipe dream of buying back the farm endures, but only as a distant beacon, a mantra to keep Margo going as she is thrust into a precarious working life, running from one desperate situation to the next. In this light, “Hands Of Time” is simply soul crushing and ode to eating shit over and over again, year after year out of sense of duty – in an attempt to a restore an American Dream that was snuffed out long ago.

99. Lizzo – “Juice” (2019)

Well after losing the farm and seeing a wife and child abandoned this countdown could do with a pick-me-up and thankfully Lizzo is on with an never ending onslaught of positivity. “Juice” is a towering monument of self-confidence: an effortlessly danceable funk-pop dynamo that refuses to relent. Each line is more preposterously effverscent than the last (from “Mirror, Mirror on the wall don’t say it, cause I know I’m cute” to “somebody come get this man, he got lost in my DMs”). Lizzo is the life and soul of the party, a whirlwind of charisma who understands the camp joy of classic funk and soul without succumbing to imitation. Her music is modern, not only in its lyrical content, but in its rapacious keep-dancing-until-the-lights-come-on energy.

98. Chief Keef – “I Don’t Like” (2012)

The banger that launched a thousand careers. Few tracks would prove more influential than Chief Keef’s rampaging “I Don’t Like”. The perfect marriage of Young Chop’s ultra-buoyant and yet steely production and Chief Keef’s unremitting charisma and aggression, this is the drill track that set the stage for the trap era. For some it will represent the moment when hip hop took a disastrous wrong turn towards posture and away from meaning, but few will dare deny the urgency or club destroying bombast of “I Don’t Like”.

97. Lykki Li – “I Follow Rivers” (2011)

I don’t think I truly appreciated just how mammoth “I Follow Rivers” had become until I visited South America. Lykki’s indie-folk-dance hybrid had been a hit on dance floors in Europe, but it was genuinely shocking to learn that “I Follow Rivers” was not only in the mix in Brazil a full three years after its release, but that it was legitimately the biggest song around – the track a DJ dropped to elevate the atmosphere. What makes Lykki Li’s dominance so remarkable is the sheer understatement of the track itself. Built on an icy reserve and powered by a charming ear worm hook, “I Follow Rivers” is almost apologetically as it goes through the gears. Lykki’s desire and commitment may be as deep as the ocean and run as true as the most torrential of rivers, but she never oversteps the mark. This is her ode to stolid persistence rather than emotional grandstanding – a truly unique hit in the 21st Century canon.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone”

96. Chance The Rapper – “Paranoia” (2013)

The biggest rapper to come out of Chicago since Kanye, Chance The Rapper tends to be viewed – like Lizzo – as a force of pure positivity and Christian optimism. It’s this ability to see the best in every person and each situation that makes the perm-smiling Chance’s turn to the nihilistic darkside so compelling. Chance is a guiding light to the nation, but he shines out of Chi-raq – a city famed for the brutality of its crime and the remorseless nature of its poverty trap. “Paranoia” is Chance’s Eminem-aping ode to the state of mind this kind of anonymous brutality breeds. Left to die like rats in a cage, Chance and his friends use dope to numb the pain and are so perpetually terrified that they have their fingers on the trigger at all times. In one of the most powerful statements of his musical career, Chance implores the wider world to stop turning a blind eye and take notice:

They murdered kids here. Why do think they don’t talk about it? They abandoned us here. Where the fuck’s Matt Lauer at? Get Katie Couric in here…down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot”.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “No Problem” and “Sunday Candy”

95. Kevin Abstract – “Empty” (2016)

Before his self styled “boy band” Brockhampton started receiving rave reviews, Kevin Abstract was the type of artist – much like a male Lana Del Rey – who divided music fans right down the middle. Abstract was love or hate, a generational talent or a pitiful joke. His early albums wear their vulnerability like a badge of honor – his desperation is so transparent and crassly presented that he dares you to ridicule him. Crooning “I love my mum, I hate my boyfriend”, Abstract was bringing the unfiltered more-is-more emotionality of emo to the rap world. “Empty” was his stab a celluloid perfection. Less a song than an epic tone poem, a splattering of ill conceived diary entries bellowed out over a children’s choir (“empty home”) and sung/rapped with a performative misery (“I hate my yearbook photo…I hate my last name, I hate everything it stands for…I never went to prom, now I’m stuck on the dance floor…just hugging”).

Of course, amid the stadium size angst is a painful reality: a young man driven apart from his family because he’s in love with the captain of the football team. “Empty” plunges from depression to romantic majesty with implausible abandon. Kevin Abstract is brazen and ungodly ballsy – in an age of cosy critical consensus and artful eclecticism, “Empty” is out there on the edge begging to be ridiculed even as it wins hearts.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Sign Of The Times” by Harry Styles(another great ridicule risking pseudo-ballad)

94. M83 – “Midnight City” (2011)

It’s not even close, the decision to exclude M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming from 411’s Album Of The Decade list garnered more feedback from readers and friends than any other inclusion, exclusion or placement. Truth be told, my opinions on the album (good, but not great) haven’t changed, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t blown away by the record’s finest cuts. “Midnight City” is one of those rare tracks to achieve a near global ubiquity. Its core riff (I’m sure you can all hum it in your heads) seemed to penetrate the subconscious of the entire human race. Still, “Midnight City” has more to offer than just a killer riff, the track is imbued with a sense of silent sorrowful longing: a build up understated repression that is due to explode in a technicolored release. Better still, as the layers are pulled together and bombast melds with hushed anticipation (“waiting in a car, waiting for the right time”), “Midnight City” soars across the skyline with a delicious sax solo for the ages.

93. Danny Brown – “Lost” (2016)

Danny Brown sure ain’t kidding when he blurts, “I’m like Kubrik with two bricks”, on the trippy Alice-in-the-underworld cut “Lost”. When is comes to coke rap, Brown is every inch the avant garde, psychedelic, provocateur (Stanley Kubrik) to Pusha T’s grounded and brutal Michael Mann. “Lost” is the moment when the LSD kicks in and the walls start to melt. The core Lina Lim sample is torturous chopped and screwed into one depressive inhuman bleat. Cooking up an ungodly cocktail of narcotics, the arrangement points to a sorrowful, paranoid and dark existence, but Danny Brown is both ruthless and relentless – firing off hard bars at a lightening clip. Brown has been a product of this world since birth. Having slung, cooked and enjoyed crack cocaine he is now immune to the nihilism and misery that surrounds him. His unflinching bars might sound callous, but it took an incredibly hard exterior to survive and eventually escape a world where so many others become simple “lost in the sauce”.

92. Burial – “Come Down To Us” (2013)

Dubstep’s most important and influential artist entered a no mans land in the 2010s. The scene he ruled was fading from view, he was now simply a name – albeit a very big one – in the dense world of electronica. He was pulled in two divergent directions, on “Street Halo” Burial showed just how effortlessly he could bend the new house revival to his will; on the majestic crackling mutation of “Come Down To Us” he proved just how soulful his abstract, divergent and at times abrasive sonics could be. The icy chill of the post-club night-air had been replaced by a resplendent warmth and an exquisite sense of refinement. The obtrusive vocal samples almost function as a reminder that Burial is a product of the streets and not the world’s most revered art houses – never the less, “Come Down To Us” is a piece that inspires awe. The second chapter of Burial’s career would not be as notorious as his first, but it would just as imperious.

91. Against Me – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” (2014)

Geat music descended from Punk tradition forces the listener to confront the status quo and to stare oppression and ache unflinchingly in the face. It can make a generation want to smash a Procol Harum record to pieces or to simply scream, shout and kick out in a common direction.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues” buzzes with a buoyant, bristling, craftily composed rock and roll swagger, but it triumphs in spite of its slick brilliance. “TDS” is instinctual, not because a glorious drum beat or a killer riff signifies that it’s time to bounce and shout, but because Laura Jane Grace’s lyrics make you want to roar along in solidarity and disgust – that sensation is rare and is to be cherished. Her pain is palpable and real, whatever you may believe, the human connection between Laura Jane Grace and her audience is undeniable as she howls: “you want them to see you like they see every other girl – they just see a faggot”. This is vulnerability as strength and perseverance in the face of indignity in the hope of a few sweet moments of respite.

90. Rae Sremmurd – “No Type” (2014)

Any number of Rae Sremmurd smashes could have stood in “No Type’s” stead, particularly the dreamy globetrotting flex “Black Beatles”, but “No Type” encapsulates the entire Sremmurd aura. The track is hit of monstrous proportions built on a stately, slow-thudding baseline and it tells you everything you need to know about the two brothers. They are obsessed with women and they’ve turned their hit making purple patch into a never-ending college bender. They are aware that they are living the ultimate scumbag dream (“sinning every night”) and prove both unrepentant and surprisingly honest about their existence: “I’m just living life, let my momma tell it: I ain’t living right”. But behind the extreme hedonism is a strange openness, they might be obsessed with “bad bitches”, but they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. They spend their money on what they want and sleep with whomever they chose. They ain’t got no type. The world at large might say that they have no taste and less class, but they couldn’t give a solitary shit – they are young and they are living the dream.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Black Beatles”

89. Let’s Eat Grandma – “Falling Into Me” (2018)

Talk about a second album leap, teenage wunderkinds Let’s Eat Grandma fulfilled their considerable potential and then some with their sophomore LP and its lead single “Falling Into Me”. They are young and racked with the insecurity of inexperience. These teenage BFFs might be content stage diving during festival sets, but in their bedrooms they are fumbling through online flirtations and on the verge of abandoning their hard-earned dates out of sheer anxiety. Thankfully Rosa and Jenny have one another. They might not able to find love together, but they have each other’s backs, spurring one another on. When the traffic lights turn red, they won’t turn around, they won’t slip away into a tear stained dream: they are going to silence the doubting voices and stumble headlong into the night.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “It’s Not Just Me”

88. The War On Drugs – “An Ocean Between The Waves” (2014)

The War On Drugs have accomplished something quite extraordinary. In one fell swoop they have merged the lonesome artistic fringe with the shameless stadium-sized sweeps of the great rock classicists. The result is a band who can dip effortlessly from the painstaking lows and broken swan dive soloing of “Suffering” to the timeless travelling Americana of “An Ocean Between The Waves”. There are echoes of Dylan, Simon, Springsteen, Dire Straits and even Bryan Adams, but this is no hollow imitation or exercise in aesthetics: Adam Granduciel is forging his own path. Using an impressionistic brushstroke The War On Drugs smear edges and blur lines; creating a dream-like-haze around their painfully rooted songwriting. Listening to Adam Granduciel’s homespun concoctions is akin to reliving your darkest decaying memories through a Valium cloud of obfuscating guitars and alluring synths.

87. Jay-Z – “The Story Of O.J.” (2017)

Reflecting on his decade spanning career and the riches he has amassed, Jay-Z focuses on the black condition and dispenses advice to a younger generation. Far from a patronizing lecture to a younger generation, Jay details how he made every foolish decision that tends to trap young black people at a certain level – from throwing away money at strip clubs to splurging on flashy motors. Fat stax in your pocket  might buy short term street credibility, but is that desire to show your prosperity that keeps young artists (or dealers) running on an endless treadmill offering only limited outcomes. Credit, capital, control and stability, it ain’t sexy, but it is the way to break the cycle. Own your intellectual property, don’t be tempted by the quick buck (that big advance with no sales cut or liscencing control), secure generational wealth and achieve ownership – not only of your assets, but of your ingenuity, identity and future.

86. Mount Eerie – “Real Death” (2017)

At some point list like this one become utterly absurd. How on earth do you compare a song like “Real Death” – the heartbreaking and painfully mundane description of a man’s existence in the wake of his wife’s death – with some of this decade’s most joyous and uplifting three minute pop songs? Every second of “Real Death” is crushing – anyone who has experienced this kind of trauma can recognise the nondescript horror of walking into the room where your loved one was, but will never be again. Mount Eerie barely sings and he strips away any posturing, poetry or anything resembling an adjective. This is descriptive agony – “you still get mail, a week after you died, a package with your name on it came and inside was a gift for our daughter you’d ordered in secret, and collapsed there on the front porch I wailed”.

“Someone’s there and then they’re not and it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art”. Of course, Mount Eerie has turned death into the most beautiful and deep cutting of artworks. No matter how plainspoken his songwriting may be, there is profundity in his anti-artistry. His final words are charged with the anger of a grieving partner forced into a performative role to match the expectations of society at large – this might sound strange, but in showing his contempt, Mount Eerie demystifies death in music and makes it real, horrible and graceless. The opposite of the romantic ideal so often portrayed in song:

“It’s dumb and I don’t want to learn anything from this, I love you”.

85. Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting On You)” (2014)

“People change, but you know some people never do”. It’s fitting that these two thunderous gut punches have landed side-by-side in our countdown, because both Mount Eerie and Future Islands make their most profound statements in the simplest of terms. “Seasons (Waiting On You)” is hopelessness incarnate. The story of two lovers drawn together by an undeniable attraction and held in place by a will that one day their relationship will improve. Something or (crucially) someone will change and their love will blossom. Samuel T. Herring has reached the end of his tether after many a long year: “I’ve tried hard just to soften you…but I’ve grown tried of trying to change you”. “Seasons…” is neither a celebration of growth or an outpouring of remorse for time wasted, instead it functions as a misty eyed tribute to his effort and endurance. It may have been futile, but the glorious happy-sad sweep of the synths suggest that if Herring were told he could go back and change his past, he’d refuse. The relationship was and wasn’t time wasted, as Herring so beautifully puts it: “you know, when people change, they gain a peace and they lose one too”.

84. Kacy Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow” (2013)

Time to lighten the mood, albeit briefly. Kacy Musgraves, country’s premiere 21st century perma-stoned, momma lovin’, LSD dropping, slacker-turned-superstar burst onto the scene with a beautiful pop ditty about acceptance. The “Follow Your Arrow” credo is simple, it’s “YOLO” but without even a hint of crass bravado: “say what you think, love who you love, cause you only get so many trips round the sun”. Kacy isn’t demanding that anyone live their best life, just that they live a life that is true to them. Kiss girls, kiss boys, get high, stay sober, have sex, stay chaste – it honestly does not matter, just follow your own path, because no matter what you do, you will be judged, ridiculed and dismissed. “If you can’t lose the weight then you’re just fat, but if you lose too much then you’re on crack/You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, so you might as well just do whatever you want”.

83. David Bowie – “Dollar Days” (2016)

The Thin White Duke’s grand illusion was revealed in 2016. The cryptic but tender jazz infused maelstrom of Blackstar was the sound of one this century’s great artist facing his death. The metaphors were so alluring and romantic that critics and fans alike theorised over their meaning without seriously considering that the great David Bowie was lying on his death bed laughing at our lack of imagination. “I’m dying to(o), push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again, I’m trying to”. Well he certainly accomplished his goal, the world was hoodwinked. Bowie got to have his perfect farewell, surrounding by rich evocative guitars and a sumptuous sax he rode toward a crashing, but still skittish crescendo. Perfectly pitch between tragedy and triumph Bowie seems to run toward both ambrosia and oblivion in this beautiful lyrical passage: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me. It’s nothing to see”.

82. Tyler, The Creator – “Yonkers” (2011)

The iconoclastic beginning or the vulnerable and artful conclusion? Choosing between “Yonkers” and tracks like “Earfquake” is next to impossible – they both proved devastatingly effective and truly shocking (albeit for very different reasons). Ultimately, there’s nothing quite like the first time and “Yonkers” is a faux horror-core rap anthem that feels far more potent in 2020 than it did upon release. Nearly 10 years lately, Tyler’s most shocking lines are not throwaway jabs, but hints at what he was to become. Tyler set his stall out as a psychotic over-sharer – he might pose like the antagonist in a slasher flick, but he’s actually dancing around his mom’s house in a pair of panties trying to assure her he’s “not a faggot”. Elsewhere, Tyler captures the arrested development of online troll culture: “This ain’t no V-tech shit or Colombine, after bowling I went home for some Adventure Time”. Somehow in three tight minutes “Yonkers” captures the entire evolution of the 2010s – from flexible sexuality and mental health woes to flagrant trolling and a dropout generation addicted to homemade narcotics.

81. Girls – “Vomit” (2011)

Girls imploded shortly after the release of “Vomit”: the stand alone masterpiece from Christopher Owens and Chet White’s magnum opus sophomore LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Owens’ sprawling six minute epic is a depraved delight that pairs deliciously distorted guitar work with an angelic choir. Abandoning the tightly written post-surf pop of their early releases, “Vomit” is tone poem that goes from the most unpleasant of lows to the most transcendent of highs. Owens is prowling the streets like both a predator stalking his prey and a junkie desperate for a fix (“Nights are spent alone, I spent them running around looking for you baby”). There is the briefest of bridges where the slick pop of Album returns, but it soon gives way to the sheer heavenly delight of having found love – or at the very least someone to cling to (“come into my heart”). Owens is an addict in need to companionship, “Vomit” is his attempt to have the listener experience both the agony of withdrawal and the euphoria of fresh love, no matter how fleeting.

80. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls” (2012)

There’s no two ways about it, the 2010s were a complete clusterfuck for M.I.A. Having established herself as one of the 21st Century’s most influential innovators she fell into a tailspin of hit and miss LPs, retirement talk, fallings out with her former collaborators and political activism both worthy and utterly insane (she is at the forefront of the 5G Covid conspiracy). Still, throughout all the chaos, the bangers never dried up and none was bigger than the globe-trotting braggadocio of “Bad Girls”. In one rampaging moment of cocksure self assurance M.I.A. popped a wheelie on the zeitgeist and perfectly encapsulated a new hyper-globalised bad girl aesthetic.

79. Skepta – “Shutdown” (2015)

Grime’s moment of global ubiquity was capped by the emergence of Skepta as an international superstar. The MC who was left by the wayside in the early 2000s: a true believer persevering with Boy Better Know in London while Dizzee Rascal garnered chart success by chasing trends. “Shutdown” is particularly satisfying because, despite its slightly slower tempo, this is unmistakably a grime anthem. The kind of wilfully quirky beat that used to raise eyebrows on the otherside of the Atlantic was now destroying nightclubs from Brussels to Seattle. Drake had no choice but to cling to Skepta to retain culture capital in the UK and Skepta topped off his coronation as the UK’s premier MC by sending up the typically white viewer/twitter backlash to Kanye West’s iconic performance of “All Day” at the Brit Awards flanked by practically the entire grime scene at Skepta’s beckoning: “a bunch of young men all dressed in black, dancing extremely aggressive on stage, it made me feel so intimidated – it’s just not what I expect to see on prime time TV”.

78. James Blake – “CYMK” (2010)

“CYMK” is James Blake’s grand farewell to club culture. The most prodigiously talented bedroom producer to come out of the post-dub step wave, Blake was faced with a fork in the road. He could follow the woozy piano loops and crooned sorrow of his EP Klavierwerke or he could dive head long into the hypnotic, staggered and paranoid grooves of “CYMK”. Blake, perhaps predicting the overall direction of travel of the 2010s, decided to delve into his feelings and abandon the sweaty bodies and hedonistic joy of the club scene. Given the incredible work he has subsequently produced its hard to question his decision, but even a decade on “CYMK” shines like a beacon, displaying his intuitive understanding of dance floor sonics. Taking a snatched fragment of “Caught Out There” by Kelis – the very moment when she realizes her love is cheating – and turns this one shocking revelation into a stainless steel banger underwritten by paranoid, almost sub-aquatic unease.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Wilhelm Scream”and “Retrograde”

77. PJ Harvey – “The Words That Maketh Murder” (2011)

When PJ Harvey sat down to write a reflection on the British experience of war – particularly the transformative effect of World War One on our national psyche – brilliance and brutality was expected. Few anticipated gorgeous summery pop music and yet that’s exactly what PJ Harvey and “The Words That Maketh Murder” delivered. Tapping into the unsettling naivety of the Whicker Man and riffing on jaunty American surf-rock, Harvey sings her most gruesome lyrics (“I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief”) to some of the breeziest pop of her entire career. The point is both sly and severe: soft, seductive words have sold entire nations on committing most brutal acts of violence. In the blink of a young girls eye and with one snappy soundbite, a generation is lost.

76. Sylvan Esso – “Coffee” (2014)

The sorrowful wimper is a thing of beauty and Sylvan Esso have managed to cobble together a collection of disconsolate fragments into one gorgeous beat. “Coffee” functions as a series of intimate snapshots. They are perhaps cliched, but piercingly tender nonetheless: cold coffee, warming embraces and a stolid mantra of “get up, get down” gives the track a mundane realism that devastates. This is head down stubborn ache of monotonous real love and true romance. “Coffee” proves so evocative and moving precisely because of its very ordinariness – this is the thread of lukewarm endurance that unifies couples across the globe and throughout time.

75. Alicia Keys – “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)” (2010)

Alicia Keys is a deeply frustrating artist: a beautiful understated vocalist with undeniable compositional skills whose output veers from the most anonymous and pandering chart hits to genuinely incisive and unguarded love songs. “Un-thinkable (I’m Read)” captures Keys at her absolute zenith. Against a surprisingly cool, but unobtrusive arrangement, Keys turns the very thinness of her voice into a heavenly, almost ecstatic vapor as she coos: “you give me a feeling that I’ve never felt before”. The polar opposite of The Weeknd’s “High For This”, where Abel sort to talk his lover into a night of fucking while high as a kite, Alicia looks her partner in the eyes and makes a solemn commitment, she’s ready to go to the next level. The music video adds a layer of complexity in the form of inter-racial dating, but “Unthinkable…” functions on a number of levels even in its skeletal lyric form – a leap will be taken, a commitment made, backlash and an unpredictable future will be faced, hand in hand.

Note: “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)” is a 2010 single from a late 2009 album – hence it tends to slip between the decades, however it felt appropriate to place on this list.

74. Earl Sweatshirt – “Chum” (2012)

If 2011 was spent yelling “free Earl” and trying to unpick the mystery of where one this generation’s most ferociously talented wordsmith had disappeared to, then 2012 was lost to marvelling at some of the hardest bars imaginable. “Chum” is masterpiece that takes us from the moment when Earl’s dad walked out (“my father left, left me fatherless”) to his struggle with journalists (“thanks so much, you made my life harder and the ties between me and my mum tightened”) while exploring his relationship with his protective mother and life growing both on the streets and in his darkest feelings. “Chum” is the moment when Earl gets a years worth of frustrations off his chest in one beautiful, sophisticated and genuinely endearing stream of consciousness.

73. Childish Gambino – “This Is America” (2018)

“Black man, get your money” and there in lies the trap. The gleaming escape route from the struggle that only reinforces your woes, so what is a black man to do but throw up his hands…oh wait, that probably won’t end well either, damn. Never has so much been said so succinctly as on Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”: a masterful tour of the modern black experience from Gospel uplift to the remorseless streets of the Trap world. Truth be told, “This Is America” is a hardly a song at all, more an elongated vibe (much enhanced by its video and those ear splitting gun shots). Nothing will change, if you’re caught slipping you will die or become ensnared in the most miserable of existences – so when solidarity is an impossibility, you might as well get your money, what other choice is there?

72. Vince Staples – “Norf Norf” (2015)

If Childish Gambino is semi-tragically reflecting on the contradiction of modern blackness, then Vince Staples is living the street level reality. Unbowed and unrepentant, Staples is running through the neighbourhood detailing the mentality required to survive while praying for an escape. Staples genius lies in his refusal to elevate himself above the fray. Anyone who has heard Staples’ speaks knows that he cares deeply about the plight of California’s poorest communities, but he is not going to run from reality on “Norf Norf”. He portrays himself as the school age nightmare selling coke, keeping people in line, terrorising rival neighbourhoods and torturing the police. He knows the cost, his momma’s street is a war zone, but on this stone-eyed banger he gives listeners a tour of the long beach streets as the dealer turned provider. If “black man get your money” was a haunting reminder of a toxic culture, then Vince Staples one upped it with the terrifying simplicity of “I ain’t never run from nothing but the police”.

71. Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles all The Way Down” (2014)

LSD is a hell of a drug. Sturgill Simpson’s beautiful and poetic “Turtles All The Way Down” conjures a grand cinematic sweep as fatherly wisdom is passed down to a patiently listening son – of course that advice isn’t get a career and work hard, it’s take drugs, expand your mind, embrace life and love. The point is not to dropout out, but the exact opposite: don’t be scuppered by expectation or the depression of knowing that there’s nothing original left to do – simply get out there an do. So take a tab, see lizard men and all those glorious turtles, but for the love of god just try.

70. Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night” (2011)

Fiona Apple is the woman of the moment, one of the few artist bold enough to release their A-grade material in the middle of lockdown that has seen streaming numbers and record sales plummet. Fetch The Bolt Cutters might have dominated the conversation in recent months, but no one should forget the brilliance of her solitary 2010s LP and its masterful lead single “Every Single Night”. Almost painfully minimal and oppressively sparse before its chorus dramatically swells, “Every Single Night” is one of those tracks that goes so deliciously off the rails. Fiona almost starts by weaving a fairy tale surrounded by silences and childlike chimes, but sooner or later her internal narrative twists, turns, churns and begins ripping her apart from the inside out. Her romantic bliss turns into a perpetual struggle and Apple cannot help blame herself for chasing this fraught feeling – it might be unhealthy, but it keeps her alive and keeps the devil (as she puts it) out.

69. Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX – “I Love It” (2012)

We’ve reached the part of the countdown where serious songs about death, decaying romance and outright dejection start to dominate, but not every classic cut need be weighty. Joy is as valid an emotion as grief and no one likes a po-faced self-serious teenager who thinks they’ve got the entire world figured out – after all, the reasons so many people pine for their lost youth is that sense of carefree freedom, not for some half imagined anxiety. In this light “I Love It” is the perfect pop song –  a balls out anthem to hurtling through life without a second thought, dancing, drinking, cutting lose and, errm, driving your car headlong into a bridge (well maybe avoid that bit). Charli XCX has always understood the allure of nascent independence – that first chances to set your own rules and to go totally off the rails before the bills rack up and adult life takes over.

68. Chris Stapleton – “Outlaw State Of Mind” (2015)

“Outlaw State Of Mind” isn’t Chris Stapleton’s most thoughtful or sensitive cut, instead it represents the moment when the saviour of modern country music arrived and swept all opposition from his path (be it country radio pedalling pap or marketing agencies looking for clean cut lookers). Stapleton and “Outlaw State Of Mind” were so big, raucous, soulful and catchy that in one fell swoop they had united the commercial country fans, the outlaw country bros and the arch traditionalists. Here was an artist that everyone who cared about country music could rally behind and, best of all, he had the songs to back it up (oh and don’t worry, he most definitely had the album). Mainstream country was redeemed and “Outlaw State Of Mind’ was the hard rocking anthem of a new dawn.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Whiskey And You”

67. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin” (2015)

“Pretty Pimpin” is one of those beautiful and truly poignant songs that just so happens to be built around the silliest of premises. Each morning a man wakes up, brushes his teeth and fails to recognize the face staring back at him. He soon comes to his senses, shakes his head and thinks: “oh silly me, that’s just me”. Vile’s genius lays not only in the sunny sweep of the softly echoing production, but in the multiple layers of meaning imbedded in this seductive little pop song. On the one hand, it can be read literally: the narrator suffers from Depersonalization Disorder and literally cannot recognize himself and lives in a strange tragi-comedic Groundhog Day. “Pretty Pimpin” can also be read as a drop out joke, a stoner wakes up, each day blurring into one and jokes with himself “Who’s this stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink? But he was sporting all my clothes and I gotta say pretty pimping”.

The final reading is perhaps the most heartbreaking, that of young man who sees his life passing each day in a slow tedious march. Eventually the face staring back at him grows older, his opinions have changed, his opportunities and optimism have drained away and all that’s left is a grey haired man who he can no longer recognise or respect (even if his clothes are pretty cool). Vile’s genius lies in his rejection of mawkish sorrow. The tragedy of the situation is evident, he doesn’t need to lay it on thick, instead he tips his cap and deadpans: “pretty pimping”.

66. Jamie Lin Wilson – “Death & Life” (2018)

When ask what topics did the artists of the 2010s tackle better than any previous generation, the answer may well be that of death and grief. This list is already populated by weighty and heartfelt ruminations on the loss of loved one, but if Mount Eerie’s stunning “Real Death” was an open wound demanding that death be stripped of its romantic imagery in the face of its terrible reality, then Jame Lin Wilson’s “Death & Life” is a sweeping testament to those left behind. It is romantic and it is grandiose, but it is build on a tragic common bond we all share: struggling to cope in isolation.

To bring this universal misery to life, Wilson employs a series of tasteful and haunting vignettes: a wife shocked into stasis (“in forty some odd years she never had to sleep alone, it’s been three years in November and she still ain’t bought a stone”),  a son asked to build a casket the way his dying father had taught him (“then he had a baby boy on the same day as his dad, so he took his name to give him, it’s the best thing he has”) and lastly, the singer herself walking through a cemetery seeing children skipping and playing around the decaying tombstones of the long dead.

65. Grimes – “Realiti (Demo)” (2015)

“Realiti” is the perfect hybrid of the ethereal and slight sound of Grimes’ early years and the onrush of her imperious pop phase. Both elements of her sound are brilliant in all their glitchy, alien, fairy-faint allure, but in 2015 on the original demo of “Realiti” (the finished version is surprisingly leaden and over-produced) Grimes found perfect equilibrium. “Every morning there are mountains to climb”. Grimes is the kind of artist who knowingly drifts off into fantasy in hopes of escape the anxiety and inertia of her terrestrial existence, but “Realiti” saw her gritting her Canadian pixie-sprite teeth and committing to finding exhilaration in real world. She might not be able to recreate the glorious highs of her youth, but in the arms of her loved one she can revisit those beautiful Elsyium Fields where she danced to the music of the heavens.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Vanessa”, “Kill V. Maim”, “Genesis”, “Venus Fly”, “Flesh Without Blood” and “Oblivion”  

64. John Grant – “Queen Of Denmark” (2010)

John Grant came roaring out of the wreckage of The Czar and arrived as one of the this decade’s most distinct, eccentric and undeniable outsider songwriters. Big, gay, chronically confused and permanently depressed, the classically talented Grant set about unleashing his id on the world at large. Alongside Midlake he’d sculpt songs that were both beautiful and undeniably funny, but for his endnote, set-closer and show stealer he needed something that hit considerably harder. The result was “Queen Of Denmark”: an anthem that is both laceratingly self-loathing and swaggeringly cocksure. Tired of being lectured and judged, Grant turns all his anxiety, angst and disgust into one great mule kick into the face of our society. Grant screams “why don’t you take it out on somebody else, why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else”. His rage might be dark and wild, but his harshest and funniest lines are reserved for himself: “I’ve had it all the way up to my hairline, which keeps receding like my self confidence, like I ever had any of that stuff anyway”. Beaten, battered and scarred, “Queen of Denmark” is the precise moment when Grant snaps, pisses in the office coffee, flips the table at a child’s birthday party and reads the world the riot act.

Best of all, John Grant isn’t above contempt, in fact this middle finger to society thrives on the back of Grant’s own contempt and shallowness: “I hope you know that I’ll I want from you is sex, to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear and if your haircut isn’t right you will be dismissed”.

63. Sophie – “Bipp” (2013)

Charli XCX might have turned her self into PC Music’s spirit animal, but the scene’s premier superstar will always be avant grade producer and noisenik Sophie. Glasgow delivered two of this decades great electronic revolutions, first in the form of Maximalism, then in its sugary, glitchy, but ungodly hard hitting, gender-shattering sister PC Music. Sophie’s music is both sugary and terse. She soothes her audience, tenderly luring you in with an out stretched arm only to savagely smack you across the face with a PVC glove. Sophie’s music would become harsher, more dynamic and far more complex in its emotion, but her breakthrough cut “Bipp” remains sublime. This is a glimpse of utopian pop perfection: an enticing tease full of sweetness and purity that is revealed, when touched, to be nothing more than flexible plastic hiding obtuse bolts, welding and circuitry.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Pony Boy”, “Hard” and “It’s Okay To Cry”

62. U.S. Girls – “Mad as Hell” (2018)

While some artists are busy raging against Donald Trump, Meghan Remy still hasn’t forgiven (or forgotten) Barrack Obama. For you see, it’s one thing to be disgusted by a political opponent, its another thing entirely to have your illusions shattered by someone who promised so much. “M.A.H.” is a masterful distortion of classic 60s girl-group-pop used to devastatingly dissect the broken promises and slow withering of even the most appealing of political illusions.

61. Miranda Lambert – “Runnin’ Just In Case” (2016)

Miranda Lambert casts herself as the slow burning train wreck, running from one town and one catastrophe to the next. The truth is that the act of running from security, stability and heartache is entirely performative, consciously or subconsciously she is seeking out of these chaotic situations (“I’m looking for a lighter, I already bought the cigarettes”). She has built a hard exterior to keep her from truly suffering, but her true exhilaration comes in flight: those divine moments speeding through the countryside, buying into the same old lie that the next town and the next love affair will end differently.

The tragedy of “Runnin’ Just In Case” lies in Miranda’s acknowledgement that she is getting too old for this lifestyle – “I ain’t unpacked my suitcase since the day I turned 21, it’s been a long ten years since then, it’s getting kinda cumbersome”. She’s living out a parody of an existence and she is keeping herself from forming anything resembling a meaningful relationship. She ran from one heartbreak in Lobbeck, Texas, but rather than looking for a new life, she’s secretly reliving that initial calamity over and over again, it’s the only way she can feel alive.


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