Even more than the 2000s, this decade became focused on individual tracks and mixes. Albums faded almost entirely, even though my list of the best albums is quite long. But I once again found room for 100 tracks that stuck with me. Listen to a Spotify playlist of these songs here.
The 1975 – “Love It If We Made It”
The Millennial “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but with a point. It’s more than just a recap of all the terrible things that have happened this decade; it’s a realistic love song. ‘Til our climate change-induced death do us part.
Adele – “Water Under the Bridge”
While she conquered the world with two albums, and killer singles from each (21‘s “Rolling in the Deep” and 25‘s “Hello”), this reverb-heavy jaw-dropper stood out above the rest. It’s the most honest love song since “God Only Knows.”
Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”
Brittany Howard had one of the most powerful voices of any artist to emerge this decade, and she shined brightest on this bluesy, gutsy number that contrasted its chunky riffs with heavenly falsetto harmonies.
Animal Collective – “Jimmy Mack”
From the EP The Painters
While nothing the Baltimore band have done this decade has matched their mid-00s output (to say nothing of the creative and commercial peak of Merriweather Post Pavilion), they’ve managed to continually get creative, especially on this gorgeous and weird Martha and the Vandellas cover.
ANOHNI – “Crisis”
From the album HOPELESSNESS
While the narrative has become that things didn’t get bad until 2016, ANOHNI didn’t buy into that bullshit. Her first solo album reflected the ugly reality of the Obama era, directly attacking the bomb-first foreign policy that left blood on America’s hands that we can’t wash off. It was far too easy to shrug off the collateral damage of the continued War on Terror; she rubbed our noses in it.
Arcade Fire – “City with No Children”
From the album The Suburbs
It was nearly impossible to pick a favorite song from Arcade Fire’s only great album of the decade, especially because of how personal it was for me. But I eventually landed on this cynical reflection of the world to come, lashing out at the hypocrisy of religious leaders (“You never trust a millionaire/Quoting the Sermon on the Mount”) but realizing we’re not that much better than them (“I used to think I was not like them/But I’m beginning to have my doubts/My doubts about it”).
Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?”
One of the decade’s best comebacks, the British band (almost) fulfilled their promise as one of the best rock bands on the planet. But first they had to get some swagger courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. This single from their best album is practically made for strutting.
Band of Horses – “Infinite Arms”
From the album Infinite Arms
One of the most gorgeous songs the band has ever done, this title track conjures the album cover perfectly. This is a song for looking up at the sky with loved ones. I only wish I would have thought to play it at a stargazing session in Oregon the day before my friends’ wedding in 2019.
Beach House – “Myth”
Slowly but surely, this Baltimore duo became one of the most consistent, lovely bands of the decade. Their absolute peak is this devastating and deceptively gorgeous ballad about the end of… something (a relationship? a life? the world?).
Beyoncé – “Love on Top”
While LEMONADE was certainly a creative achievement, I will always maintain that 4 is Beyoncé’s peak as a musician (before she became an all-encompassing force with a cult-ish fanbase). She may have had more powerful songs this decade, but this catchy throwback (and its spectacular key change) remains my favorite.
The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”
While nothing this duo put out in the 2010s matched the creativity of their first decade (or pre-sellout era, if you’re like that), there’s certainly no denying how much great driving music they churned out, like this lead single from El Camino, the first album after they went from underground heroes to Grammy-winning rock radio staples.
David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
David Bowie left the earth in January 2016, mere days after releasing Blackstar. I can’t think of a more perfect goodbye than this final track, which still reduces me to a giant puddle of tears. Paul Bettany’s friend was right.
Bright Eyes – “One for You, One for Me”
From the album The People’s Key
One of my big pop culture regrets of the decade is not seeing Bright Eyes on their final tour. Yes, I saw Conor Oberst at Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2016, but it wasn’t the same. The People’s Key remains my favorite album of 2011, a beautiful farewell that interweaves metaphysical nonsense that Oberst first explored on Cassadega with some perhaps misguided hope for the future. The final track may not quite achieve enlightenment, but it’s transcendent nonetheless.
Chance the Rapper – “Same Drugs”
From the mixtape Coloring Book
No other rapper threatened to give Satan a swirly (though I haven’t listened to everything by the 116 Clique yet, so TBD), but the Chicago star shined brightest on this ode to losing friends, one of the saddest parts of your 20s.
Childish Gambino – “This Is America”
While I’m still an ardent defender of Camp, Donald Glover took another leap in 2016, first with Atlanta, then with his brilliant Awaken, My Love! album. But this one-off single (and its accompanying video) took it to another level. Reducing African-American celebrities to minstrel acts? This is America. The school-to-prison pipeline? This is America. Endless, senseless gun violence? This is America.
CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
For a while there, electronic music took over as the dominant genre. But it still had room for very few female voices. Enter CHVRCHES, which put Lauren Mayberry front and center. Their debut single practically played on a perpetual loop all of summer 2013, and its rarely left my brain since.
Coldplay – “Christmas Lights”
This 2010 holiday single essentially marks the end of the Coldplay I grew up with and loved dearly. Their arena-size sound and tours for the rest of the decade never hit me like those first four records. But this track has remained on my winter playlist ever since.
Cut Copy – “Need You Now”
From the album Zonoscope
This Australian electronic act has all but been forgotten, but there was a time when this was among my most-listened to albums. This opening track has endured, however, becoming one of the songs I clung to when it seemed like the world was falling apart.
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams – “Lose Yourself to Dance”
While “Get Lucky” became the French duo’s biggest song to date, it’s their other collaboration with Pharrell that was the superior dancefloor anthem. It’s pretty much those four words repeated over and over, but it has a hypnotic effect as you indeed lose yourself to dance.
The Decemberists – “Calamity Song”
From the album The King Is Dead
Few songwriters have such a witty way with words as Colin Meloy. “Queen of supply-side bonhomie” is a phrase that wormed its way into my brain in 2011 and I haven’t forgotten since. Another extremely reliable band, their songs all tell a story, and this one is among their most fascinating.
Disclosure feat. Sam Smith – “Latch”
Long before Smith won one of the most undeserved Oscars in recent history, he was just the lead vocalist on this electronic duo’s biggest hit (nearly 500 million streams and counting). Like the title, this track attaches itself to your brain.
DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”
Killer Mike and El-P – stellar artists in their own right – positioned themselves as rap’s most important duo of the decade. Teaming up with DJ Shadow just increased their power. I first heard this in an episode of Silicon Valley, but I knew it was going to be used forever when it popped up in the trailers for Booksmart and Good Boys, both released on the same day.
Ramin Djawani – “Light of the Seven”
From the Game of Thrones: Season 6 soundtrack
Used as the eerie theme for one of the show’s greatest moments, Djawani’s peak as a composer is also highly recommended as a soundtrack to watching a big storm roll in.
Drake – “Over My Dead Body”
From the album Take Care
Drake became a pure singles artist after this, releasing album after album of filler. But there was a time when his album openers heralded something truly special. Having Chantal Kreviazuk for the ethereal backing vocals is exactly the kind of very Canadian choice that would get vetoed by record labels if he recorded this today. He became a bigger artist by abandoning this sound, but he would have been a better artist had he maintained it.
Duke Dumont feat. A*M*E – “Need U (100%)”
The very best DJ to emerge this decade, Adam Dyment is appreciated in his native UK and in dance clubs across the U.S., but the disparity in popularity is striking. This is the kind of energetic and upbeat track that would have led a Dance Mix USA or Ultimate Dance Party CD in the ’90s, and I mean that as high praise.