100 Best Songs of the 2010s - Rolling Stone
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The 100 Best Songs of the 2010s

From Robyn to Taylor to Kendrick to J Balvin to Drake — here are the greatest songs of the last 10 years

best songs of 2010s, taylor swift, bad bunny, lil nas x

Images in Illustration from Getty Images

In the 2010s, streaming gave us a granular sense of the songs people loved and the artists they wanted to hear, and even as streaming services tried to segment taste into fabricated sub-sub-genre playlists, people pursued their own interests and artists were free to follow their arrows. Our list of the decade’s best songs includes downhearted divas, country renegades, rap radicals, history-bending, feelings-sharing rock bands, and Latin-pop stars with global ambitions. It was a great decade for songs that felt like classic, summery Top 40, and musical hybrids that would’ve seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago.

RELATED: ROLLING STONE’S BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE LIST

 

Parquet Courts

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16

Parquet Courts, “Stoned and Starving”

Cat-sitting for a friend, Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts decided to go on a stoned bodega crawl through Ridgewood, Queens, that became the inspiration for the decade’s premier indie-guitar banger, with the band zoning out gloriously as Savage turns “I was debating Swedish Fish, roasted peanuts, or licorice” into a rich existential riddle. Live, the band stretched the song into a tranced-out epic in the fine New York tradition of Television and the Feelies, setting the stage for a decade in which Parquet Courts proved themselves to be about much more than Nineties indie nostalgia — even if they pulled the perfect Nineties move of getting sick of playing “Stoned and Starving” once college bros started turning up at their shows to request it. —J.D. 

Willy William and J Balvin

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15

J Balvin and Willy William, “Mi Gente”

“The beautiful thing about ‘Mi Gente,’” said Balvin in 2018, “is that I wrote it in Spanish with Willy William, a producer from Paris…and it hit number one [in charts] around the world.” Colombian reggaeton star Balvin campaigned for an all-inclusive, borderless pop future, crooning about musical inclusion as William drops an infectiously forlorn synth-horn riff and rattling beat. “Mi Gente” was a smash even before its Beyoncé remix. As Balvin noted, “It wasn’t a strategy to make it bigger…. It was for the culture.” —S.E.

Bradley Cooper as Jack and Lady Gaga as Ally

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14

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow”

It took just 10 seconds for “Shallow” to become one of the greatest songs in film soundtrack history. The duet was first heard in trailers for A Star Is Born, Gaga’s big debut as leading actress helmed by duet partner and co-star Bradley Cooper. The film was coming off a confusing few years for Gaga: Her past two solo albums were chart and critical duds, but she was finding herself beloved by new fans with her jazz album (Cheek to Cheek, with Tony Bennett) and Super Bowl halftime performance. But when the key change of “Shallow” hit during the trailer — “ha ah ah ah ahhhhhhh” — a superstar was reborn. The song, a critical moment for the fictional, insecure Ally (Gaga) who sings it onstage during an arena show for has-been rocker Jackson (Cooper), feels just as massive as it should during the actual film. Offscreen, it’s a testament to the type of pop drama Gaga has always been capable of delivering and that fans will continue to imitate in karaoke bars and cars for years to come. —B.S. 

Mitski

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13

Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”

For anyone who followed Mitski’s ascendance from SUNY Purchase music major at the start of the decade to indie rock’s North Star by its conclusion, it’s impossible to listen to the chorus of “Your Best American Girl” without seeing droves of young fans screaming it back at her in concert. In one fell swoop, Mitski brought headbanging Nineties rock to a new generation while skewering some of the more insidious, white-washed parts of its legacy. “I didn’t grow up in the U.S.,” Mitski Miyawaki said of the song. “It came from wanting to just fit into this very American person’s life, and simply not being able to.” —C.S. 

Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X

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12

Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road”

Created by a 19-year-old peddler of Twitter memes using a $30 web-sourced beat, popularized by TikTok users swapping street clothes for cowboy get-ups, and inscribed into history after topping the Hot 100 for a record 19 weeks, this booming two-minute ballad and its viral-engineered remixes impeccably crowned a decade of disruption, and not merely because it was extremely online. Growling lines about cheatin’ and ridin’ horses — the Nine Inch Nails sample, a spooky little banjo figure, only sounds twangy in context — and recruiting a gleefully game Billy Ray Cyrus for the remix that made it even more huge, Lil Nas X cheekily appropriated country-music tropes, and kids, in turn, rushed the barricades of mainstream pop with his burner hip-hop track. “I got bored one day and made this song,” Nas later told Rolling Stone. It was his boredom with the status quo, not just his solution to it, that spoke to a new generation. —N.C. 

Lorde

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11

Lorde, “Royals”

Inspired by an old picture of Kansas City Royals slugger George Brett, and Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne, a 15-year-old New Zealander, Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, penned a softly swaggering ode to her own fantasies of greatness (and the mixed feelings they engender) that became a global smash, introducing one of the most unique from-nowhere pop superstars of the decade. “It was just that word,” she said of the title. “It’s really cool.” Pensive but proud, “Royals” was hushed low-fi pop rap, with Lorde mumbling her lines like a kid dreaming up poetry while distractedly staring at her phone. It was a classic dispatch from a teenage wasteland rendered in a whole new language of millennial malaise. —J.D.

Drake

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10

Drake, “Hotline Bling”

Drake (rightfully) slammed the Grammys for awarding this not-very-rappy song Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Performance, wondering if they picked those categories just “because I’m black.” But in their defense, it’s a pretty great little jam. Caribbean in feel but powered by a Seventies soul sample, widely covered — the video even more widely memed — and dissected for its slut-shame-y lyrics, the song’s less a pop smash than a marvel of the internet: a user-generated triumph of the mainstream. —N.C. 

Cardi B Bad Bunny J Balvin

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9

Cardi B feat. Bad Bunny and J Balvin, “I Like It”

Nobody ever accused Cardi B of thinking small. “I Like It” is her hugely expansive vision of hip-hop as a multicultural, worldwide block party. Cardi brings in Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin to shine on her trap groove, riding a sample from the 1967 boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That.” All her guests rise to the occasion — who else but Balvin would compare himself to Lady Gaga and Jimmy Snuka in the same verse? But Cardi runs shit like cardio, turning “I Like It” into a Number One smash. —R.S. 

Kacey Musgraves

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8

Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”

The Texas cowgirl made her big entrance with “Follow Your Arrow,” and right from the get-go, she had her own style. Over the guitar twang, the 25-year-old Kacey serves up some homespun advice: “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” She whipped up a fair amount of controversy, but refused to back down. “Even if they don’t agree with the girls-kissing-girls thing or even the drug reference,” Musgraves said, “I would hope that they would agree that no matter what, we all should be able to love who we want to love and live how we want to live.” She’s been following her arrow ever since. —R.S. 

Ariana Grande

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7

Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next”

When Grande split up with SNL’s Pete Davidson after a very public whirlwind romance, the obvious thing to do was drop a tabloid-ready celebrity breakup diss track. Instead, Grande released one of the most generous breakup songs of all time — an ode to lessons learned and self-love set to a fluttery track that suggests a mind at peace already moving on to new discovery. She cycles through a list of relationship revelations, sounding light-years from the man-needing bubblegum-soul diva of only a couple of years ago. “Even almost got married/And for Pete, I’m so thankful,” she sings. Grande began work on the song in the midst of her relationship with Davidson, and she wrote several versions of the song, including one where they get married: “Then we broke up again, so we ended up going with that verse.” —J.D. 

Kanye West

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6

Kanye West, “Runaway”

Here’s what we talk about when we talk about the Old Kanye: a song, speculated to be a mea culpa for his original dust-up with Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, which opens with 36 seconds of slasher-film-soundtrack-meets-piano-lesson keyboard plinks, ends with vocoder-obscured vocals and sawing strings running the length of a typical pop song, and in between, finds West sing-songing about his toxicity over an oozing bass line as a Rick James sample sneers, “Look at Ya,” and Pusha T chimes in about women caught “in the balla-nigga matrix” (Pusha T later said that West pushed him to repeatedly rewrite his verse, insisting, “‘I need more douchebag’…. He’s screaming at me, ‘More douchebag'”). Is the song a searing self-indictment in which Kanye ultimately lays waste to his own voice? An epic shrug at his endless teetering between self-awareness and self-obsession? West, for what it’s worth, explained it this way to Access Hollywood: “It’s funny — it’s like a man’s anthem, but it’s a woman’s anthem. Like, ‘Let’s have a toast with a douchebag!’” Toast or roast, it’s sad, frightening, and almost incomprehensible in its scarred beauty. —N.C. 

Taylor Swift

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5

Taylor Swift, “All Too Well”

Chromed-out Max Martin singles like “22” made more noise at first, but real fans know the heart of Red is this subtly devastating ballad. “All Too Well” is about a relationship that’s long over, except in Swift’s memory, where it burns on in piercing clarity — and in her ex’s dresser, where he keeps the borrowed scarf he can’t bring himself to return. The disappointment in her voice is still fresh as she thinks about the sweet-talking guy who turned out to be “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” (She freestyled that line, her favorite on the album, while soundchecking for a concert: “I was just playing these chords over and over onstage and my band joined in and I went on a rant.”) Tabloids quickly identified the scarf thief in question as Jake Gyllenhaal, but the brilliance of “All Too Well” is in how it makes you feel like you were right there with her, too. —S.V.L.

Beyonce

The shortlists for the 92nd Academy Awards have been announced, including the categories of Best Original Song and Best Original Score.

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4

Beyoncé, “Formation”

None of Beyoncé’s many hits embodied her unrivaled cultural power in the 2010s better than “Formation,” a stylish song-of-myself flex that was also a rallying cry for millions. Celebrating her roots in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, she recentered the black experience in the Deep South as a source of pride; with a single horny couplet, she forever changed the meaning of date night at Red Lobster. The genius of “Formation” — especially taken in conjunction with the striking imagery of its music video and Super Bowl performance — is in its bold tangling of the personal and the political, wrapping the tragedy of Katrina in the glamor of a Givenchy gown and daring you to call it a contradiction. Naturally, there were those who missed the point, but Beyoncé wasn’t concerned. “I’m an artist,” she said, “and I think the most powerful art is usually misunderstood.” —S.V.L.

Adele

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3

Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”

Freshly hurt by the end of her relationship with an older photographer, Adele walked into producer Paul Epworth’s northwest London studio and made the greatest breakup song of the 2010s. “I never get angry, but I was ready to murder,” she later recalled. You can hear it in her voice, an all-time performance whose roaring fury is downright biblical. “Rolling in the Deep” made Adele a superstar and proved that classic gospel-blues fundamentals could still conquer the world. “Carole King is the last person [before Adele] who wrote the kind of lyrics women immediately could relate to,” marveled Aretha Franklin. “I love to hear a schoolgirl on the school bus yellin’, ‘We coulda had it all!'” —S.V.L.

Kendrick Lamar

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2

Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

“As a kid from Compton, you can get all the success in the world and still question your worth,” Kendrick Lamar told RS in 2015. In the most lasting single from his era-defining masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, he dramatizes that inner conflict in vivid, immediate terms. “Alls my life, I had to fight,” he begins, quoting Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to evoke generations of inherited trauma. By the time Pharrell’s buoyant production kicks in, Kendrick has found reason to believe: “If God got us, then we gon’ be alright.” In the context of the album’s complex emotional journey, it’s a moment of cautious optimism. Once “Alright” reached the world, it became something more: an anthem for a new civil rights movement, its chorus chanted at countless Black Lives Matter protests across America. —S.V.L. 

Robyn

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 17: performs on stage during the third day of Lovebox at Victoria Park on July 17, 2011 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by )

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1

Robyn, “Dancing on My Own”

“I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?” Robyn might as well have been singing to U.S. pop audiences in the 2000s, who mostly ignored her as she spent years refining her bright, fizzy synth-pop sound to perfection. Then came “Dancing on My Own,” the killer single that elevated her to something approaching voice-of-a-generation status among America’s burned-out youth. Written and produced with fellow Swedish ace Patrik Berger, it’s a relatable hit of heartbreak at the club, with a chaser of empowering uplift — exactly the disco anthem we needed in the long hangover of the subprime-mortgage crisis. And while she’s no torch-song diva, Robyn sang the hell out of this one, sounding as warm and human as the precision-engineered track isn’t. “Dancing on My Own” just kept building as the 2010s went on, soundtracking a memorable scene in HBO’s Girls and countless karaoke nights across the nation. “All the big pop acts that I’ve been into over the years — whether it’s ABBA or Prince — managed to combine amazing melodies and honest human emotion,” Robyn told one interviewer. “But coming out of the super-super-commercial pop industry in the Nineties, maybe people forgot about the fact that pop music can do both of those things.” —S.V.L. 

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