music / Columns

The Top 250 Songs Of The 2010s (#60-21): Jay Z & Kanye West, Arcade Fire, St. Vincent, More

May 20, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
Jay Z and Kanye West

We are approaching the home straight, but before we tackle the top 20 don’t forget to catch up on PART ONE,  PART TWOPART THREE and PART FOUR.

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.

 

60. Jason Isbell + The 400 Unit – “If We Were Vampires” (2017)

“I’ll give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who is left behind”. “If We Were Vampires” is one of the most beautiful compositions, not merely the last decade, but in modern country music history. Against a heartbreakingly romantic arrangement that tip toes up to the saccharine line without crossing it, Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires harmonize as they come to the realisation that, as much as they love each other, one of them will die first. The rock on which they wholeheartedly depend will disappear and they will be left alone. There are no grand poetic flourishes and no creative licence, the sentiment is heavy enough: the image of husband and wife looking into each other’s eyes and solemnly stating: “one day I’ll be gone”.

59. Phoebe Bridgers – “Motion Sickness” (2017)

In one vivid, but queasy metaphor Phoebe Bridgers perfectly captures the inherent seasick feeling of being dragged through the wringer by your lover. “I hate you for what you did and I miss you like a little kid”; Phoebe is reflecting on a relationship with an older man that has long since perished, but that still racks her psyche. The anger and trauma of the break up remains, but her love still lingers contorting every experience and coloring her future relationships. Pheobe never comes across as bitter, just genuinely torn. She feels like she has been toyed with, and yet, she still strangely admires her ex.

58. Leonard Cohen – “Treaty” (2016)

Leonard Cohen was settling his accounts and leaving the table on the haunting You Want It Darker. He wasn’t remorseful, but he was honest about his sins and accepting of the damage he had caused to those who had honestly and earnestly loved him. “Treaty” is the most staggering work of all: the moment Cohen reflects on a recurring lover and God simultaneously (through a long metaphor) and contemplates the irreparable damage their love has caused one another. Their feelings are so strong, so genuine, but so destructive – being right no longer matters, the pain is all that remains and Cohen is left simply wishing “there was a treaty we could sign…a treaty between your love and mine”.

57. St. Vincent – “Digital Witness” (2014)

Annie Clark, this quasi-robotic starlet, values first hand experience in the meatspace, but her lyric sheet offers a (perhaps unintentional) argument for the opposite point of view.

The alluring dystopian death march of “Digital Witness” sardonically skewers lives slavishly beholden to social media: “What’s the point of even sleeping, if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me: what’s the point of doing anything?” But its album mate “Birth In Reverse” hardly validates the alternative, as Annie depicts a depressive (but wholly truthful) insularity: “What an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate”. Is the latter a function of the former or is her eponymous masterpiece an assault on passivity and second hand existence in all its forms?

Worse still, if we do embrace our analogue existence we are only met with more synthetic fiction (“fake knife, real ketchup”). So what’s a girl to do, eh? Thankfully, we can always dance to the fanfare horns and marching beat of “Digital Witness” while a legion of kids capture the moment on Snapchat.

56. Natalie Prass – “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” (2015)

“Our love is a long goodbye”. I fell in love the second I heard Natalie Prass wistfully coo those tragic but all-too-relatable words. “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” might just so happen to be one of those singles, so perfect, that it proves impossible to deny. Prass, whose delivery is utterly divine, tackles heartache and mistrust without glorifying either (unlike, say, Lana Del Rey). Instead, she evokes empathy and exudes tender charm as she remains resolutely stuck in a nightmarish slow motion car wreck – she loves her partner wholeheartedly, but they have grown emotionally detached. She is trapped in purgatory.

55. Hurray For The Riff Raff – “Pa’lante” (2017)

“I just want to go to work, and get back home and be something!” – Hurray For The Riff Raff cry out for meaning and purpose atop a harrowing piano line would prove devastating in isolation, but when taken in the context of a woman trying to rediscover and understand her racial identity, “Pa’lante” proves pristine in its pain.

“Pa’lante” inspires empathy at every turn: “Well lately it’s been mighty hard to see, just searching for my lost humanity”. Remarkably, Alynda Lee Seggarra could have let it be and have penned one of the great torch songs, but instead the tempo quickens with a Beatles-esque flourish as hope cracks the surface and soon hardens into resolution. She will reclaim. She will march onward. She will be something. Pa’lante!!!.

54. Azealia Banks – “212” (2011)

Azealia Banks (despite achieving a fair amount of critical acclaim and feuding with a host of female pop and rap superstars) still feels like a case of squandered potential at the decade’s end. This is almost certainly unfair. The bar was set implausibly high by “212”: one of the most brazen, immaculately cool and shockingly brilliant debut hits in modern pop. The production was clean and pounding, perfect for the club scene, but it was Banks’ awkward and goading vocal performance that stole the show. From cunninlingus and cheap threats to genuine moments of insecurity (will she be forgotten?) to garish self-confidence, Azealia runs the emotional gambit and delivers the word “cunt” better than any one in the pop music canon. “Hey! I can be the answer” – and she was, however briefly, the cocksure superstar the world required.

53. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me” (2016)

“Shut Up Kiss Me” might just be the perfect indie rock single as Angel Olsen strides the line between rock star swagger and the radical vulnerability of an outsider songwriter. Facades crack, guitars roar, resolution wavers and instinct takes over – Olsen’s and her lover are natural over-thinkers, but they succumb to desire just like everyone else. So stop playing it cool and forget the consequences, just give into the moment and swap saliva until your heart is content. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is not only fantastic rock song, it’s the moment when the wounded and self-serious Olsen’s songwriting blossomed and her horizons forever expanded.

52. Rihanna ft. Drake – “Work” (2016)

Beyonce may have garnered the bulk of the critical kudos, but Rihanna was the first pop superstar to cast off the shackles of mainstream expectation and release an album totally in tune with the streets while taking genuine compositional risks. Anti would start a trend for major pop releases: overnight artistry and expression were expected and murky experimentation would become the norm. “Work” was the shot across the bow: the slang laden, half gibberish, but ungodly sexy dancehall single that imbedded itself in the nation’s subconscious. The kind of patois driven, ice cool Rihanna cut she’d normally hide on the back end of one of her albums was now the lead single. Drowning in sleaze and seduction, the cleanliness and polish of yesteryear was being rejected wholesale.

51. Gillian Welch – “Dark Turn Of Mind” (2011)

Gillian Welch can do it all when it comes to roots, Americana and country music. Often positioned as an artful outsider, it is easy to forget just how divine a balladeer she truly is when she strips away all artifice. “Dark Turn Of Mind” is almost pleasingly simple: two deftly plucked guitars working in tandem to create a sultry lilt, while Welch’s vocal curls and drifts like smoke in the night air. “And leave me if I’m feeling too lonely, full as the fruit on the vine”. Welch’s lyrics are tonal, painting the loose image of a woman with a sorrowful and sardonic edge. She’s not warding her erstwhile lover off, Welch is simply being honest: she will retreat into darkness and she will never have a sunny disposition. The vision is ultimately seductive, Welch is at peace with herself and has found confidence in her own nihilistic tendencies: “You know some girls are as bright as the morning and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind”.

50. Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow” (2017)

“Say little bitch you can’t fuck with me, if you wanted to”. Now this is how you snatch the crown. “Bodak Yellow” was a coronation. Cardi walked into the pop scene, tossed her hair, rolled her eyes and booted Nicki, Drizzy, Trav and everyone else out the way with one blood red stilletto heel. “Bodak Yellow” is pure swagger, it’s a vibe: the raw stench of self-confidence from a pussy her lovers drown in to an endless cavalcade of dollar bills and designer tags, Cardi is suffocating any and all opposition. Cardi operates a scorched earth policy – she owns whatever room she steps into and she suffers no insolence or rebellion – “Bodak Yellow” is her elevator pitch for world domination.

49. Holly Herndon – “Chorus” (2014)

There’s nothing quite like going from a banger so brazen it practically trips over its own feet laying hook atop hook to “Chorus”, an anti-song; the sound of malware ripping its way through your hard drive and firing off a million little error boxes across your home screen. Holly Herndon is a technophile and a electronic innovator, but she is also a woman with a deep understanding of choral and club music – so it’s fitting that her skittish digital nightmare soon developes into a heavenly chorus buttressed by the most danceable of beats. She is unleashing the angels within the machine: the optimist’s vision of our autonomous future, human and machine in harmony amid disruption and decay. Let us hope that it is Holly vision that come to define the AI age.

48. The National – “Converstion 16” (2010)

The National’s dull but imperious phase began with High Violet and its never ending array of sweeping, swooning and utterly moribund ballads. Matt Berninger’s baritone was cutting right through the haze of portentously solemn guitars and arena sized rhythms to form these sorrowfully-and-yet-strangely-soaring emotional connections with his audience. In truth, any number of immaculately poised pseudo-ballads could have stood in this spot from “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” to “I Need My Girl” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, but “Conversation 16” gets the nod because it so sublime in its marriage of a dreary trudge to an angelic sweep. Berninger is afraid of himself and what he has become and the result is the most horrifyingly unguarded songwriting of his career to date:

“I’m a confident liar. Have my head in the oven so you know where I’ll be/I try to be more romantic, I want to believe everything you believe”.

47. Billie Eilish – “Bad Guy” (2019)

Billie Eilish had the look, she certainly had the hype, she even had the perfect debut album, but she still needed a hit to cement her status as the ultimate GenZ superstar. Enter the no fucks giving, wilfully obtuse, dad seducing, hard fucking, but head strong “bad guy”. It only takes a hypnotic bass groove and a splattering of impeccable placed handclaps to transfix the listener while the beat insidiously commandeers your hips. The lyrics offer a brattily brilliant sexual dissection. Obnoxiously obvious in the extreme, but delivered with a delectable deadpan that peaks with a truly farcical chorus: “I’m the bad guy, duuuuuh”. Dripping with disdain, exuding attitude, undeniably disingenuous, “bad guy” is an absolute trip.

46. Janelle Monae ft. Erykah Badu – “Q.U.E.E.N.” (2013)

Janelle Monae blazed onto the scene with her stunning Archandroid album and persona, a blend of modern affectations and the classic showmanship of James Brown. For her hotly anticipated sophomore LP, Monae kept her tight aesthetic control, but loosened up her hips and delved deeper into black culture and struggle. “Q.U.E.E.N.” was a radical injection of high snapping funk as Monae shook off the shackles of acceptance and embraced her flithy side by throwing her wings on the floor and getting down on the dance floor. Monae was metaphorically letting her hair down and celebrating herself; her culture and her blackness in its unfiltered, unedited glory. After flirting with political issues through the seductive lilt of the main track, “Q.U.E.E.N.” kicks into hyperdrive for its grand finale, a half-rapped, half-spoken verse. With the pride and clarity of protest or movement leader, Monae obliterates all ambiguity, whatever box she may be placed into, she will overcome and she will exceed: “Im tired of Marvin asking me what’s going on, march to the streets cause I’m ready and am able: categorise me? I defy every label”.

45. Caribou – “Odessa” (2010)

“Odessa” is one of those immaculate records that has been somewhat diminished by over-exposure. Dan Snaith, aka Caribou’s, solemn tale of a woman summoning the resolution to speak up for herself and take action (be it leaving or deciding to stay) is still the perfect hybrid of a tender narrative and a beat that absolutely bangs. Unfortunately, commercials, bad remixes and video game soundtracks took the edge off for a little while, but at the decade’s end “Odessa’ stands soulful, serene and undeniably danceable.

The ultimate sad banger of the modern age, “Odessa” blends the wildest of instrumentation from pan pipes and rave keys to tortured samples and heavily distorted bass. Dance music would become more synthetic as the years rolled by, but Caribou started the decade by reminding the world that electronic music is written in a minor key for a reason. Just because your hips are being ordered to move, it doesn’t mean you have to wipe the tears from your eye.

An impossible decision to exclude: “Can’t Do Without You”

44. Weyes Blood – “Andromeda” (2019)

In 2019 Weyes Blood crossed that imperceptible line from indie outsider making striking, but ever so slightly alienating music to an artist capable of penning pop songs so resplendent in in their beauty that they make time stand still. “Andromeda” blends needling folk with sumptuous 70s rock flourishes and somehow still ends up sounding utterly chilly in its distant, imploring, loneliness (“Andromeda’s a big wide open galaxy, nothing in it for me except a heart that’s lazy”). Less a lament or a song and more of a challenge to a would be lover. The teenaged Weyes Blood is alone in her room dreaming of the cosmos, contemplating the endless infinity of the great beyond and realising that she is just one lonesome spec floating in a bigger, more mystical and uncaring universe. She is on the verge of resignation, but she secretly desires to be pulled out of doldrums even if she’s given up wasting her own time looking for love: “Stop calling, it’s time to let me be. If you can save me, I’d dare you to try”.

43. Watch The Throne – “Niggas In Paris” (2011)

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the end of an era. Hip hop would splinter, distort and warp before getting hooked on lean and sad boy memes. But if Kanye created the ornate mausoleum to the grandeur and excess of the old industry, then Watch The Throne is the farcical victory lap. Backed by gargantuan samples and Kanye’s production at its most glitzy and luscious, Jay and Ye were determined to pull off one last globe-straddling flex before middle age truly set in. “NIggas In Paris” was their anthem and de facto theme song: less a track and more a parade of instantly quotable memes atop a club destroying beat. Played 5, 6, 7, 8 or more times in a row live, “Niggas In Paris” is a time machine to a bonkers era of pure unadulterated adulation.

42. Titus Andronicus – “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” (2013)

There’s nothing quite like sticking a 14-minute outpouring of blood, bullets, self-loathing, dejection and bagpipes onto a songs of the decade countdown. “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” is a surreal moment of both abject submission and an acceptance that life has to be lived, no matter how soul crushing it may be: “Things I used to love I have come to reject/The things I used to hate I have learned to accept”. Youthful rebellion and idealism is bloody, battered and in full retreat in the face of crippling self doubt and social disapproval (“Is there a human alive who can look themselves in the face without winking or saying what they mean without drinking? Who will believe in something without thinking: what if somebody doesn’t approve?”).

Dropping out doesn’t work and Titus Andronicus are left as a jabbering mess alone on the floor, reeking of booze and screaming with existential angst. To say “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” is a tour de force would be an understatement: this isn’t a song, it’s internal bleeding. This is rotting from the inside out as your sense of self is shattered against the rocks of reality and normalcy. The choices are grim: die inside and hate yourself or conform and find release in mundane amusements while slowly drinking yourself to death. Titus Andronicus offer a macabre brutality, but they will and have endured  to fight the good fight, even as they torture themselves night after night.

41. Little Big Town – “Girl Crush” (2014)

Little Big Town have never been known for subtlety, but in 2014 they laid the gloss, bombast and cloying sweetness to one side and set about producing one of the great pop songs. “Girl Crush” is heartbreaking, putting the listener in the headspace of a woman who is so hung up on her ex that she has started to fall in love with and idolise his new lover. Country media hilariously worked themselves into a frenzy thinking that Little Big Town’s hit might be promoting homosexuality, but of course “Girl Crush” is doing the exact opposite. This is pure desperation and near psychotic longing: “I want to taste her lips, because they taste like you; I want to drown myself in a bottle of her perfume”. The understated arrangement is the ultimate masterstroke: the vocals are allowed to hang in an crushingly empty chasm. Little Big Town are utterly alone in their sorrow and longing, incapable of moving on or silencing the voices in their heads.

40. Maya Jane Coles – “What They Say” (2010)

Maya Janes Coles would cement herself as one of the biggest and most accomplished names in modern dance music during the 2010s, but it’s hard to imagine her ascent being quite so seamless without this one immaculately controlled banger. “What They Say” might be built around a seemingly immediate groove, but it highlights the supreme subtlety and seductive nature of Coles’ craft that even such a prominent top line hook is subsumed within an atmosphere rich and defiantly understated deep house cut. It might, however, be fair to label Maya Jane Coles’ work too cool for its own good. “What They Say” has the air of a luxuriously tailored it-girl lounging by the bar and refusing to set foot on the dancefloor – but but that characterization wouldn’t be quite right. As sexily standoffish as Maya’s production may be, “What They Say” is still focused on moving bodies and that’s exactly what it does every time a DJ drops it in the mix. “What They Say” is urgent and subdued, insistent and incredibly chilled, a walking contradiction destined to slay dance floors and soundtrack slow motion seductions from now until eternity.

39. Iceage – “The Lord’s Favorite” (2014)

“The Lord’s Favorite” captures Iceage stumbling across town stinking of booze looking for someone (anyone!) kind enough to do them the courtesy of keeping them company as they spill their soul – but of course no one is listening. The desperation mounts, tension intensifies, crossdressers walk by, God is invoked, salvation is required, death is no doubt deserved, but by the end of a wild drunken night Elias Bender Rønnenfelt brushes himself off, pulls himself out of the gutter and is awed by his survival. He is living the life of a self-destructive wastrel, but he continues to endure. He must be blessed, I guess?

38. Arctic Monkeys – “I Wanna Be Yours” (2013)

Alex Turner is one of this generation’s greatest lyricists. It is hard to explain exactly how much his songwriting has meant to rock and indie music in the United Kingdom. Over the course of six albums this perpetually doomed romantic has managed to transition from kitchen sink satirist through desert rock superstardom into the opaque metaphors of a retro-futuristic lounge lizard living his life in a custom built hotel in the Sea of Tranquility (it takes some considerable explaining, we’ll save it for another day). It’s wonderfully ironic therefore, that this voice of a generations finest work of the last ten years is not “Arabella”, “Four Out Of Five” or an original single, but a pseudo-cover.

Taking the poetry of John Cooper Clarke and ever-so-slightly adapting the rhyme scheme (Pacific rather than Atlantic Ocean), Arctic Monkeys go about crafting one of the most glorious odes to loving commitment ever released. Calling back to the “Mardy Bum” era  with the very ordinariness of the metaphors and a quasi-sorrowful, slow-stewing arrangement that carries a bottomless depth of resonance. Alex Turner is diving headlong into a rut, but he will persevere because he is giving himself wholeheartedly over to his lover. There is no finer evocation of life long commitment than Cooper Clarke’s onslaught of definitely unglamorous bordering on unpleasant imagery: “I’ll wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust”.

37. Dua Lipa – “New Rules” (2017)

Dua Lipa turned hit making potential into globe conquering domination in one fell swoop. “New Rules” is a truly immaculate pop song. Not only is it utterly of the moment, marrying a snappy verse with an irresistible chorus, but it represents a concept so perfectly realized that it’s baffling to consider that it took us until 2017 for “New Rules” to come into existence. Dua has broken it off with her ex, she’s in the balearics (by the sound of the arrangement) and, despite living her best life, she keeps getting dragged back into that pit by the allure of shared memories and the thrill of a quick fuck. The heartbreak, agony and self-loathing inevitably returns each and every time (“I keep pushing forward, but he keeps pulling me backwards/Now I’m standing back from it I finally see the pattern”), so she’s written some “New Rules”: “1) don’t pick up the phone 2) don’t let him in, you’ll have to kick him out again 3) Don’t be his friend, you know you’ll wake up in his bed in the morning – if your under him, you’re not getting over him”.

36. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl” (2016)

Mitski is living a fantasy. She is will never be the typical WASP, the all American girl, but she has found her gleaming, gorgeous American lover and her relationship feels heavenly. The trouble is, as head over heels as she may be, reality keeps rubbing up against the dream. They are different. He doesn’t understand Mitski, her upbringing or her family. He isn’t cruel or unkind, he’s simply unknowing and oblivious and that fact continues to undermine their relationship. Mitski is forced into a caricature of herself, softening her edges to conform. She is being loved,  but not as her true whole self. “Your Best American Girl” is slamming alt-rock anthem that creeps, screams and seethes with the angst of an outsider and is perfect for anyone who has ever had their relationship caught in the no man’s land of racial or class identity. Mitski wants to love and to be loved, but she also wants to be seen, understood and accepted.

An impossible decision to exclude: “Nobody”

35. Rhye – “The Fall” (2012)

Toronto tandem (now a solo act) singer Milosh and producer Robin Hannibal swooned on the world stage with two of the most beautiful poised pop songs imaginable. “The Fall” inhabits a divine moment. Two entwined lovers find themselves begging the day not to break, they want to lie forever and let the moment last eternal. Soundtracked by sumptuous strings and soft-balearic keys, Milosh imploring is lover to make love to him one last time. The relationship might be over or his partner may simply be going away a while, perhaps it could be a one-night-stand slipping out the back door, but Milosh is determined to convince them to stay just a little longer – even if its only for one more roll in the hay and one last sunrise. “Don’t run away, don’t slip away my dear”, the beauty of the track lies in its soft, sultry, seduction. The subtext might be desperation, but Milosh’s vocals are not urgent or needy, instead they shine with a post-orgasmic glow that gentle whispers – “just lie here with me”.

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Open”

34. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” (2012)

From the soft, sensuous afterglow of orgasm to a song that screams “NEVER BEEN KISSED”. Carly Rae Jepsen was easy to ridicule when she rampaged to the top of the charts with “Call Me Maybe”, but that’s only because she called bullshit on the entire teenage experience. Perhaps only an older singer could call time on all the posers pretending they run in gangs, sip lean and sleep with models on a nightly basis, but that’s exactly what Carly Rae and “Call Me Maybe” did. This was the bumbling, awkward and honest embodiment of a giddy teen nervously stumbling over herself to secure a date. Her longing and yearning is so powerful that she was missing this potential lover before she’d even met him. No teenage superstar could ever release this song: it’s too true and too unfeasibly uncool, but like a 24-year-old Scouser asking his girlfriend to “Hold His Hand”, Carly Rae Jepsen had no pitiful teenage pretence to protect. The result was a sweet, innocent and honest pop song that struck a chord with a global audience and launched a starlet who was unafraid to speak to normal human beings.

33. Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better” (2015)

After the heavy electronica and deeply experiment Age Of Adz, Sufjan Stevens shocked listeners by returning to a stripped down acoustic driven palette for Carrie & Lowell – an album inspired by the death of his parents. “Should Have Known Better” sounds heavenly and mournful in its own right, but its narrative strength elevates it to the next level. Sufjan is addressing a topic that is all too real: the inability or refusal to grieve. In the aftermath of Carrie’s death, Sufjan represses his sorrow. He is “strong” and stoic, but he realizes now that he simply refused himself the opportunity to mourn.

“I should have known better, I should have wrote a letter explaining what I feel, that empty feeling”. Now time has passed Sufjan mind flicks back to childhood snapshots of Carrie’s smiling face, but when he was surrounded by people looking for comfort and support he held himself at arms length. Now he feels pitiful and warmed at the same. Sufjan regrets his actions even as he remembers the good times and is inspired by the birth of his brother’s daughter. “Should Have Known Better” is an incredibly complex work, built on the sweetest and simplest of foundations. Sufjan is shrewd to avoid over egging the omelette – this is not performative grief or a brooding ballad, it’s a man facing the psychological wounds that manifest themselves when we refuse ourselves the opportunity to grieve.

32. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian At Best” (2015)

Courtney Barnett arrived on the indie rock scene atop a screaming, screeching, slamming and clattering arrangement that manages to marry the groovy rigour of Elastica to the scuzzy intensity of the best drop-out post-punk. Of course, this wild see-saw onslaught of scuzz is only the appetiser, the scene setter for Courtney Barnett’s manic, overthinking and wonderfully dismissive barrage of acidic lyricism. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you, tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you”. Courtney is cruel, callous and honest – but she saves her darkest analysis for herself (“I want to wash out my head with turpentine, cyanide…my internal monologue is saturated analog…I’m a fake, I’m a phony, I’m awake, I’m alone”). She’s a mess staggering from one existential crisis to the next and taking it out on the lovers in her life – treating them as a disposal representations of her car crash of an existence. “Pedestrian At Best” is a whirlwind introduction to a devious and brilliant mind, both an undoubted inspiration and a pitiable mess.

31. Christine + The Queens – “Tilted” (2014)

French superstar Heloise Letissier captured the world’s attention in 2014 when she released her spellbinding debut album Chaluer Humaine – a dazzling and artfully constructed pop record inspired by her time living in London with a group of drag queens. This experience informed Christine + The Queens best material as notions of gender, identity and how we present, hide or reveal ourselves to the world are explored in the form of glittering three minute pop songs. “Tilted” remains her finest single to date (despite some incredible competition). The track captures the perfect balance between Heloise’s 80s synth influence and the modern minimalist flair for more lonesome sonics. “I am actually good, can’t help it if we’re tilted”: there is no shame in Christine + The Queens game. She, like many of us, might be caught in a malaise between happiness and sorrow, strangeness and conformity, but her behaviour is not performative – even as she, like a drag queen, does her face with “magic marker” – she is happy, this is who she is and who she wants to be.

30. The 1975 – “Love It If We Made It” (2018)

“Love It If We Made” represents the exact moment when The 1975 transitioned from the hottest indie band in the world to the voice of a generation. Whether you love or hate them, it is worth seeing them live (particularly at a festival), just to see the sheer venomous devotion their words and retro-futuristic hooks have inspired in a new generation of music fans. GenZ music lovers live or die by Matt Healy’s furious streams of consciousness. He is undeniably a proper rock star, shameless and brazen in everything he does. This inherent boldness also breeds clumsiness, but that’s the joy of “Love It If We Made It”: a headlong dive into the maelstrom of living life in an always on, always online, perpetually outraged, ultra-vulnerable and remorselessly decontextualised society. From shooting heroin in car and the strangling of black men to chatting shit with your mates and dreaming of impossible riches, “Love It If Me Made It” runs the gambit of big-talking paranoid optimism. The 1975 don’t try to play social critics, instead they lay our 21st Century existence out before us.

29. Father John Misty – “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” (2014)

“So bourgeois to keep waiting, dating for 20 years just feels pretty civilian”. Father John Misty is this decade’s arch social critic: a song writer who makes soaring and sumptuous indie-folk songs out of our modern misery, pretentions and transparent hypocrisies. It would be easy to paint him as a cynic –  a know it all, picking holes in the same idiocies he willingly takes part in – but there is one area in which Father John Misty does shatter the mould: his marriage. Misty is head over heels in love with his wife, unafraid to shout it from the mountain tops and feels no need to go through the motions of being a wild sexual lascivious dilettante. His tongue remains wicked (“I want to take you in the kitchen, lift your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”), but he wants to wholeheartedly commit, be radically vulnerable and shake off that acerbic voice in the back of his head. It might be conventional, it might be sweet, but Father John Misty is going to wave the flag for taking the plunge and taking it early: “What are you doing with your whole life, how about forever?” “Chateau Lobby #4” is a beautifully observed and dreamy love song of the highest order. There might be a barbed twist to the lyricism, but there is no wink or nod, no attempt to take the edge off, this is an arch hipster and pisstaker making the case for true love.

28. Vampire Weekend – “Hannah Hunt” (2013)

Strolling across New York and capturing a series of seemingly run-of-the-mill encounters, Ezra Koenig watches his relationship dissolve in slow motion. Their love is unquestioned, but the rot has set in and Ezra is wearing his reluctance all across  his face . “If I can’t trust you, then there’s no future”. “Hannah Hunt” is an undeniably sorrowful and beautiful tale, but the track’s brilliance lies in Ezra’s reluctance to be either vindictive or moribund. He knows his love is dying, but rather than succumbing to misery, he instead finds himself raising a little to smile as he relives a series of vignettes. He knows he had something special and he knows it must come to an end. He and Hannah Hunt occupied a truly special place in each others life, time slowed down and reality reordered itself around them (“though we live on the US dollar, you and me, we got our own sense of time”). There’s no doubt that by the end of Erza’s walk their relationship will be over – it’s the right thing to do, it may be inevitable, but it still a tragedy, something wonderful and unique is coming to an end. Fittingly, Vampire Weekend pitch “Hannah Hunt” perfectly between warmth and sorrow (between the reality of New York winter and the memory of Santa Barbara summer).

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Step”, “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey”

27. IDLES – “Mother” (2017)

Bristol punks idol came screaming onto the scene with an absolute masterpiece: a rabid and unflinching tribute to the brutality inflicted on women’s bodies (while taking a cheap shot at the Conservative party for good measure). “Mother” is an onslaught and a primal chant: his mother worked impossible hours, both out at work and unpaid at home to care for her son and bring him into the world – and what is the impulsive reflex of many a rebellious child and society at large? “Mother, fucker [Fuck her]”. IDLES defining anthem is relentlessly intense, but the track truly comes into its own when they enter the final stretch via a haunting spoken word coda: “Sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape. It starts in our books and behind our school gates. Men are scared women will laugh in their face, while woman are scared its their life they will take”. Sexual politics are laid bare and a new and essential punk voice had arrived, not merely with the outsider snarl of the 1970s, but with something vital to say. Punk, the ultimate anti-music was suddenly for something again. They’d go on to tackle the male side of the coin with equal brilliance on “Samaritans”

An Impossible Decision To Exclude: “Danny Nedelko”, “Never Fight A Man With A Perm”, “Samaritans” and “1049 Gotho”

26. Arcade Fire – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (2010)

“They heard me singing and they told me to stop, quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock”. One of the truly perfect opening lyrics sets the scene for Arcade Fire’s thrilling, inspiring and heartbreaking disco dancing anthem “Sprawl II”. Having been raised in the suburbs with a limited degree of freedom and the illusion of opportunity, Regine Chassagne is faced with a familiar refrain: the time for art and artistry is over, get serious, drop your childish illusions, join the working world and settle down. It can seem soul crushing, especially when your stuck alone in a suburban mono-culture where no one shares your interests or ethos and absolutely no one understands the music you listen to.

In this light, “Sprawl II” represents the alluring dream that pulls millions of teenagers, young people and disenfranchised artists to the gleaming lights of the city (“they are calling at me, come and find your kind”). It still takes an incredible leap of faith to leave and you may well end up cold, alone and poor, but Regine is driven by the hope that she will find her people, her music and dance the night away – even if it’s just alone in the dark of her bedroom. Arcade Fire could easily have turned “Sprawl II” into a pained ballad or a lavishing aching onslaught, instead they opted to capture the unrequited joy burning in every outsider’s soul. “Sprawl II” sets our inner disco dancer free and begs even the most stifled individual to summon the courage to trip the light fantastic.

25. Miguel – “Adorn” (2012)

After a decade of bling and bitches dominating the hip hop scene while R&B had succumbed to the artful scumbaggery of The-Dream an R Kelly, the time was right for a revolution. The thugs need love paradigm had to end (the farcical notion that gangstas show their humanity by (and deserve sympathy for) stealing their best friend’s girlfriend) and Miguel was the man to do away with it. “Adorn” was an alluring dreamscape full of tender and electric carnal energy even as Miguel preached a message of wholehearted commitment. Miguel’s mission statement was simple: he was out to prove that two lovers unreservedly giving themselves over to one another could be sexier and more powerful than any number of fleeting flings or sordid trysts. Trust, honesty and steadfastness are recast as turn ons to a man who wants his love to be all encompassing. After a decade of R&B that proved as shallow as a puddle and petulant in its immaturity, Miguel stood as a grown man: devoid of posture, unshamed of his feelings and confident of his loverman prowess.

24. The Weeknd – “High For This” (2011)

No artist introduced himself more succinctly that Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd. “High For This”, the opening track from his stunning trilogy of mixtapes, not only brings us into Abel’s sordid world of narcotic hedonism, but introduces the thick, heady and murk-laden-malaise that would soundtrack his ever growing list of indiscretions. “High For This” is a both a mission statement and a promise. The backdrops and settings would become more luscious and ornate, but the story remains the same. In a backroom in the seedy underbelly of LA or Toronto, Abel takes his lover by the hand with all due compassion and tenderness and slips a pill onto her tongue and proceeds to fuck her brains out while high as a kite. There is no pretence, this isn’t romance, they will not call each other in the morning – they may well move on to other lovers before the night is over – but for this brief moment they trust each other implicitly. They are going to retreat into the ether for an out of body experience, arm-in-arm, body-on-body and then they will bounce. Abel is cast as both the predator and the protector. He is talking her into it and holding her hand through a horizon expanding experience. The Weeknd’s hedonism is dark and uncomfortable, but undeniably real. So thoroughly convincing, but so utterly fleeting.

23. Travis Scott ft. Drake – “Sicko Mode” (2018)

No track captures the insane journey of rap in the 2010s quite like “Sicko Mode”. Travis Scott, the voice of GenZ, is firing out bars on a slippery and psychochelic shape-shifting composition. “Sicko Mode” became such a gargantuan hit that it’s worth remembering that this psycho-trap banger doesn’t actually contain anything resembling a traditional hook, instead Trav and Drake slide from one vignette to the next, picking up and slowing the pace at will and sparking arena wrecking mosh pits almost unintentionally. The latter point is perhaps the most staggering. This resplendent and hazy arrangement is wonderfully subdued when heard through headphones, but something about these muted grooves and the skittish beatwork sounds utterly mammoth either live or in the club context. In theory, Travis and Drake have sculpted a complex, illusive and understated odyssey, and yet, in the same breath they forged the biggest and most brazen smash hit of the late-2010s.

22. Ariana Grande – “Thank U, Next” (2018)

2018 was a banner year for Ariana Grande. In one fell swoop she went from angel-voiced try-hard struggling to reconcile commercial ubiquity with artistic experimentation to the very embodiment of the modern avant-garde popstar. Sweetener, her stunning and experimental career best LP was in heavy rotation when Ari returned with the follow up, Thank U, Next – an ice cool and thoughtful reflection on a series of bruising and psyche scrapping lover affairs. Both albums proved sublime and struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Taylor Swift famously turned her high profile celebrity romances into fodder for acerbic hit singles and, on the surface, the unflinching chorus of “Thank U, Next” suggests that Ariana was set to follow in Swift’s footsteps. Instead, in an deft and tender turn, rather than twisting the knife in a typical tabloid fashion – Ariana transformed the trauma of breaking up in the public eye into a anthem for internal growth and self-acceptance. Through failure she had grown, matured and come to better understand herself and, more importantly, decided that she would not find definition or self-worth through her romantic partners. Ariana was her own woman and, after the immaculately smooth  “Thank U, Next”, that is how she stood in the public eye: a dulcet toned artist with a cocksure persona, but one who doesn’t feel the need to posture.

21. Anohni – “Drone Bomb Me” (2016)

“I have a glint in my eye, I want to die”. Anohni’s jaw-droppingly horrible “Drone Bomb Me” is one of those songs so daring, so dark and so fundamental unpleasant in its subject matter that it’s impossible to know where to place it on a list full of conventional rap, rock and pop songs. Anohni takes the role of a child in a “terrorist” country who is cravenly begging to be blown to smithereens (like a debutant at a ball hoping to dance or a desperate fame-hungry contestant auditioning for a reality TV contest). Anohni uses her beautiful contorted vocal to seduce the drone pilot many miles away, “choose me, choose me tonight”. The concept is macabre and nihilistic in the extreme: romancing oblivion, praying for death and wanting escape, but the composition is genuinely serene. “Drone Bomb Me” is a the kind of polemic that holds a mirror up to western society and forces us to confront an aspect of our foreign policy we barely think (or are allowed to know) about. By imbedding this brutalistic message in such seductive surroundings Anohni is delivering a soulcrusing headfuck. The secret lies in the straight face Anohni maintains: there is no wink or nod, each line is delivered with an immaculately observed tenderness, flipping the conventions of R&B on their head as the narrator pleads and begs for a quick and anonymous death.


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