These are my 50 favorite songs of the decade (although some are over on my albums list, to avoid duplicating all the same artists). For most of these, I went back to what I wrote about them at the time on my year-end lists, to preserve that time-capsule quality. Including but not limited to: hits, flops, obscurities, disco glitz, indie slop, rap bangers, slow jams, guitar noise, soul survivors, karaoke atrocities. And Stevie Nicks, obviously.
The future has taken out her Invisalign, and this is her song. Billie Eilish’s generational manifesto was one of the best perks about being alive in 2019, but it’s also a hopeful early clue to the new direction for the 2020s. As David Lee Roth used to put it: Change. Ain’t nothing stays the same. Or as Billie Eilish likes to say: Duuuuuh.
David Lee Roth, Mr. Non-Stop Talker What a Rocker himself, reunites with the brothers Van Halen to light up the sky, using up every gimmick in their ice cream truck. It’s an oddly touching reunion: everybody in the band explodes like they waited years for the chance to do this. Then, needless to say, they remembered they hate each other. Sing us home, Diamond Dave: “Look beyond the kung fu fighting / God is love, but get it in writing.”
Punk boys discover the existence of girls, question everything they ever believed in. Puffy-lipped Danish ingenue Elias Bender Ronnenfelt learns too late that knives are nowhere near as dangerous as a pair of high heels.
Karen O testifies about how your friends can be as needy and self-destructive and idiotic as you are, but you’re still lucky you have each other to share those wasted nights. The Yeahs blow up “Despair” into a pop-glitz melodramas. Every bit as choice as “Maps,” from the MVPs of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era.
An Australian punk squad, with a feminist bombshell from their excellent How to Socialise and Make Friends. Georgia Maq rants about everyday misogyny, from the promoter (“another man telling us we can’t fill up the room”) to the sound guy (“another man telling us we’re missing a frequency”). The punch line: “See how far we’ve come not listening to you!”
“I made a mixtape straight out of ’94/I got your ripped skinny jeans lying on the floor” is one of those perfect radio pop choruses. When 5SoS played this at MetLife Stadium in 2014 while opening for One Direction, in front of 80,000 screaming girls, the drummer wore a Sonic Youth Confusion Is Sex T-shirt under a MIXTAPE ’94 backdrop — a sublimely weird pop moment.
Now that’s how you write a break-up song. Sam Cook-Parrott says goodbye in his awesomely abrasive indie-boy squawk. “When you call your mom back, tell her that I’m the one leaving” might be the funniest line in any break-up song of the post-Taylor Swift era.
The Monkees had a beautiful resurgence with Good Times — their first record written and produced by actual Monkees fans, which must be why it was their best since the Sixties. “Me and Magdalena” is a country-roads ballad, written for them by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard: Mike Nesmith flexes his weathered Texas twang, in Magnetic South mode, while Micky Dolenz hits the high harmonies. They sound like they’ve waited years for this moment — and they’re not the only ones.
Sky goes for a typical overshare, though there’s barely any lyrics — it’s all in the paranoid ghost-rider shiver of her voice, as she talks dirty in Japanese.
“If it ain’t workin’, take a whizz on the world” — now there’s a philosophy of life.
This is what pop is for, right? A Canadian Idol refugee nobody ever heard of conquers the planet with a diabolically brilliant blast of teen lust. A song that slides into your soul. A song you hear everywhere you go. A song that forces you to keep making up new verses just to keep that melody flowing (like Mark E. Smith from the Fall, like Caesar conquering Gaul, “Another Brick in the Wall,” and now you’re in my way) even though you’re only a few minutes away from hearing it again (like Heidi Klum needed Seal, this Captain needs a Tennille, DeBarge sang “Time to Reveal,” and now you’re in my way) because it always ends too soon. Where do you think you’re going, baby?
The gypsy queen comes back to tell the world who the eff she is, with a lyric by one of her hot dead rock & roll boyfriends, Edgar Allen Poe.
Another reliable “today sucked until I put this song on” song. Dylan Baldi gives himself a good talking-to, gulping, “I focus on what I can do myself,” even if all he can do himself is write great punk songs about how he can’t get a damn thing done. The drummer races him to the finish line. Over the years I’ve been amazed at this song’s power to turn a rotten day into one with a fighting chance. What more could you ask from a song?
The ultimate slow-jam shakedown. Roses are red and violets are blue, Miguel’s gonna rock this world for you.
A folk-rock ballad that can hit you at a weak moment, read you in six or seven languages, and leave you for dead. “Night Shift” starts out as a bad coffee date with your ex. The singer asks, “Why did I come here, to sit and watch you stare at your feet? What was the plan? Absolve your guilt and shake hands?” After she walks out, Dacus stays out walking late at night, waiting for the caffeine to wear off. She will replay this coffee date in her head for years. So will I.
A deep-soul ballad where Solange can’t escape her melancholy, describing the kind of sadness she can’t escape by crying, drinking, sexing or shopping it away. Raphael Saadiq’s bass gives her the courage to push on to the next line.
What a heartbreaker: “I fell in love with a war and nobody told me it ended.” On this gem from Be the Cowboy, Mitski achieves a woozy kind of glam guitar elegance, as she drops mixed metaphors like handkerchiefs and starts something she can’t finish.
The Vancouver punk duo go for a big-hearted goopy power ballad, complete with a guitar hook swiped from .38 Special. (“If I’d Been The One,” to be precise.) Then halfway through, they crank the already-lofty cheese level through the roof with a clumsily heartfelt pro-girl sentiment. The highlight of their Celebration Rock.
Favorite moment: the dynamite in Lorde’s brain finally blows up (“poooof!“) but the dancing girls just keep grooving, over all that sparkly broken glass of a beat. I guess we’re partying.
The best psuedo-Quarterflash sax solo in the history of … actually, I’m not sure there is a history of pseudo-Quarterflash sax solos. The whole Carly Rae album Emotion is full of lovingly detailed Eighties mall-disco homages like this. Can’t believe nobody beat her to the line “I’ll find your lips in the streetlights.”
I’m trying not to repeat artists on this list, but nobody makes rules for the gods, and if they want to bestow upon Selena Gomez two songs on the level of “Bad Liar” and “Hands to Myself,” you can’t tell them not to do it. I’m getting “I mean I could but why would I want to?” tattooed on my forehead.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in country-girl drag. Preach, sister: “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.
Best 2Chainz poetry of the decade: “She got a big booty, so I call her big booty.”
You know who won’t be so pretty when he cries? Don Henley, after he hears how Lana turned “Hotel California” into this pretty hate machine.
All anybody expected — or wanted — from “Thank U, Next” was a little petty late-night celebrity shade. Nobody was asking Ariana Grande to drop a song this resonant. But with a few lessons in love, patience and pain, we can all feel fucking grateful for her exes, whether or not we grew from the drama.
“Every moment of our love is a star” and “This is awesome” are rare strays of intelligible verbal content that wander into this otherwise pristine Eighties synth-pop brain-freeze. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon cuts his Kajagoogoo with Christopher Cross chord changes, a keyboard intro from REO Speedwagon, and filtered vocals evoking Toto in their “wild dogs cry out in the night” phase. I love this song so much, I spent months wondering if I hated it, but I can’t fight this feelin’ any more, and I’ve forgotten what I started fightin’ for.
Tell it, Uzi: “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead.” The realest saga of the hard-knock life of a musician on the road since Bob Seger sang “Turn the Ppag3.”
Nashville hellions Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe join forces for a country supergroup, dishing the menfolk over “Gold Dust Woman” guitars and levee-busting drumrolls. “Hell on Heels” kicked off their delightful reign through the decade, up to the glories of 2018’s Interstate Gospel.
“Shallow” does for Gaga what “I Will Always Love You” did for Whitney — a pop dowager roars back to life with a blockbuster movie belting a country ballad, climaxing with a Hollywood high note. Bradley Cooper fills the Kevin Costner void, though he could have used his own bodyguard in the Grammy scene.
A break-up song in the classic Paul McCartney “you stay home, she goes out” mode. Nobody on earth has more fun than a girl who’s just stopped banging Drake — in fact, the Drakean FOMO seems tragically justified, since ever since he left the city, the entire population of Toronto is having one big champagne orgy on the floor to toast him not being there. All Drake has to keep him warm is that Seventies beatbox sample — from Miami, of all places. Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?” sounded so DIY and low-tech in its time, yet it became the heartbeat of 2015. (I learned that song from Sade’s version — God, I’d love to hear her sing “Hotline Bling.”)
Camila’s electro epic is the sound of an shy girl caught up in the cyclone of her feelings, where every secret beat of her heart gets amped up to the size of the “Be My Baby” drum crash. When she gasps for breath over those drums, Camila sounds just like honey.
With his mask off, Future stands revealed as a man who does way too many drugs and has too many feelings face down on the strip-club floor, to the surprise of literally nobody. The self-proclaimed “Extravagant Hendrix” talks molly and Percocet and calamari and his Rick James chains over Metro Boomin’s jazz flute loop, sampled from the 1976 civil-rights musical Selma.
An eight-minute guitar ramble, pondering death and the devil and Miley Cyrus.
A rock & roll anthem about the cosmic girl/boy/car love triangle — the finest since the glory days of Bruce Springsteen or the Replacements. “Story of My Life” was a turning point for 1D, but also for modern pop in general — five very different boys teaming up as writers as well as singers, pouring their hearts into a song that really does feel like the story of a life.
Psycho Selena, qu’est-ce que c’est? “Bad Liar” is a pop song worth donating a kidney to, as she gooses that Talking Heads bass hook with her whispers about obsessive lust.
Nicki spends 3:19 talking an American guy (she’s into those! lucky us!) into her car, which is three minutes and 18 seconds longer than she would ever need. The way she savors the line, “I can tell that you’re in touch with your feminine side,” is like an 11-word tutorial on what it means to be pelican fly.
The Brooklyn indie dudes in LVP UP emote about how it burns to hate the people who’ve left scars on the ones you love, closing out with a heartfelt freak scene of a guitar solo. It’s a hate song that doubles as a love song, with a touch of Elliott Smith in the vocals. (LVL UP sadly split soon after releasing this; songwriter Mike Caridi is now in the Glow.) Guitar fuzz with actual emotional impact: what a concept.
By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you. A warp-speed tour of African-American history, from Sugarhill to the slave ship, from Richard Pryor to Ralph Ellison, from MJ to Mothership Connection. As the song begins, “we want the funk” is a party chant; by the end it’s the stubborn refusal to die.
Rihanna’s lifetime total of fucks given remains zero — in fact, “Needed Me” might push it down into negative numbers. “Trying to fix your inner issues with a bad bitch” — ouch. “Needed Me” is the coldest of cold, the hardest of hard, Rihanna at her most fabulously merciless.
Quite possibly Britney’s best song ever. Every sound effect that jumps out of the mix – Brit slurring the word “speakerrrr,” digital finger-snaps, a real beatbox pretending to be a human beatbox — builds the tension. There’s even a plot: An ordinary girl sits in her lonely room, dreaming of party lights far away, wishing she could escape to a place where she can show her kneesocks and drink tequila on the rocks, where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive. But the mean old world won’t let her break free, so she just sings along with the machines until she turns into a machine herself, because only the beat understands her. There’s your story of pop music right there.
Can’t nobody tell me nothing.
Kanye finally releases all the girlie emotions he keeps hidden in his soul, and it all comes down to that “uh huh, honey.” It’s the sampled voice of Fities singer Brenda—the one female who manages to make Kanye feel something. Her “uh huh, honey” scares him into his rawest confessions, as all those sweet soul voices torture him by reminding him what it was like to have feelings. The realest song he’s ever done? Uh huh, honey.
The Hold Steady frontman spins the gorgeously heartbreaking tale of a small-time drug deal, reaching for the badlands vibe of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town but ending up somewhere new. Every detail of “God In Chicago” sticks, especially the tape deck in the Chevy wobbling as the couple drives out from the Twin Cities, singing along to 1999 and Led Zeppelin III. (Finn added the last-minute 1999 reference because he cut this song the day Prince died, back before any of us knew how purple the sky was going to get.) What a song.
“We show off our different scarlet letters/Trust me, mine is better” is Taylor’s sharpest couplet, except maybe the others in this song. I have no idea why she left a song this urgent and glittery and perfect off her album, but geniuses are weird. In “New Romantics” she plays it cool vocally — she sings “We’re all bored,” when boredom is maybe the least Tay of emotions. But then that chorus hits and she’s inside the mirror ball, on a floor where the lights and boys are blinding and playing cool won’t cut it anymore.
Truer words, Cardi B: “Only the real can relate.” Nobody could be realer than this Bronx queen, strutting into all our lives with her bloody-shoes anthem “Bodak Yellow.” She puts her hand on her hips, when she dips, you dip, we dip.
A space-glam piano epic, nearly six minutes, pondering love and death and rebirth — as if Lady Stardust and Captain Fantastic had a kid. “Sign of the Times” was a shocker at first — wasn’t this a slightly eccentric way for a boy-band star to begin a solo career? Well, yes, it was. But the song just gains resonance over time — Harry’s voice surges with excitement and empathy as the music keeps on ascending into the clouds.
Queen B’s ticking clock-of-the-heart countdown tweaks Jay-Z’s long-ago playa boast, “Do It Again.” Remember that one? “5 AM now we at my house / 6 AM I be diggin’ her out / 6:15 I be kickin’ her out.” That song must be a big Beyonce fave. But those were different times, and this is definitely B’s countdown.
Yeah. Call her. Tell her you met somebody new. Say it’s not her fault. Tell her you can still be friends. Jesus. Robyn sings this like she could be the new girlfriend, or the old girlfriend, or the one dumping her girlfriend, knowing in a few weeks she’ll be on the ex’s side of the call. Robyn seems to know her way around every corner of this triangle. Either way, a cold-blooded synth-pop squirm-fest, and just one of a couple dozen great songs Robyn released this decade. The day my iPod segued alphabetically from “Call Me Maybe” into “Call Your Girlfriend” was like the world’s most depressing Lifetime movie in seven minutes.
The decade’s most dependable “today sucked until I put this song on” song — one that can catch you in a bleak moment and remind you it’s not over yet. The Montreal postpunk kids lock into a staccato guitar groove and stretch it into a beautiful long marquee moon of a thing. (Especially live—my go-to is the Paris 10/30/14 version.) Tim Darcey starts out sneering easy-target buzzwords (“Warplane! Condo!”) and then the kind of phony cliches people say in cartoons (“Fancy seeing you here! Beautiful weather today!”) then his own awkward confessions: “I am no longer afraid to dance tonight, because that’s all that I have left.” The longer the band beats up on the groove, the more life-affirming it sounds, with electric piano to cushion the guitar slashes. It has the reach of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” except without the friends. So many of my favorite moments in recent years have been standing in a sweaty room where Ought was playing “Beautiful Blue Sky” and hearing strangers say the word “yes” aloud in the chorus.
“It would be kind of weird to finish a song and be like, ‘And this moment, I shall remember,’” Taylor recently told Rolling Stone. “‘This guitar hath been anointed with my sacred tuneage!’” But when has weirdness ever stopped this woman from doing a damn thing? Never, that’s when. For her most perfect song, Taylor takes a lost scarf that Maggie Gyllenhaal probably used to mop up some spilled chamomile in 2011 — and she anoints it with her tuneage. Every detail of “All Too Well” is the calculating flourish of a master, from the plaid shirts to the crumpled-up paper to the walk home alone to the kitchen dance party to the way her fangs come out for that “yeeeeah” at the 4:37 point. “All Too Well” peaks about six times, then calms down…then she rips up her masterpiece and starts the song over. Scary, really. One goal for the 2020s: finally hear that lost original ten-minute version.