The 50 Most Important Music Moments of the Decade - Rolling Stone
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The 50 Most Important Music Moments of the Decade

From 2010 to 2019, both the business and culture of music went through an unprecedented revolution. Here are the biggest, craziest moments to remember

Decades List

Images in Illustration by BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images, RMV/Shutterstock, imageSPACE/Shutterstock, Prince Williams/Wireimage, Scott Legato/Getty Images

It was the best of times, and it was the most chaotic of times. Over the course of the last decade, the music industry went through a transformation like never before. Startups tore down old hierarchies, fresh ideas and iconoclasts soared to the forefront, artists gained a whole new degree of power over their music, technology companies reinvented decades of industry strategy, and the business of music as a whole finally started to bring in money again, just to name a few of the revolutions that took place over the past ten years.

Dynamics between musicians, fans, and industry executives will never be the same, thanks to this decade of upheaval, and the next few years of music will inevitably take cues from it. Here, in chronological order, are the 50 key events to remember.

Guns N Roses'

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella


All hail the classic rock reunion tour

2016 to present — There’s perhaps no better metaphorical emblem of the rock reunion mania of the mid-2010s than Guns N’ Roses’ Las Vegas show, in which Axl Rose performs with a literal broken leg from a warm-up gig a few days earlier. (“I see how you could get used to this,” Rose says, limping from crutches offstage to climb up onto Dave Grohl’s throne.) As the live music becomes one of the most lucrative revenue streams for musicians, rock bands reemerge for reunion shows one after another, cashing in on loyal fans who are now at a time in their lives when they have cash to burn.


Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic


‘Ima fix wolves,’ Kanye West promises (and does)

February 2016 — Just hours after the release of his new LP The Life of PabloKanye West declares that he isn’t actually finished with the album: One track, “Wolves,” will get an update. A month later, West actually goes beyond that by updating a full 12 songs on the record, mostly with production and vocal tweaks — but demonstrating that the concept of album finalization may be outdated in the streaming era. Or is it the concept of the album itself?


BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images


Prince’s death leaves behind a legal tangle over his music

April 2016 — The death of Prince at the hands of opioid overdose shocks fans worldwide. It also suddenly puts the thousands of hours of locked-away music in his Paisley Park vault in jeopardy; without a will, the question of the control of his estate — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — also becomes a matter of dispute. While Sony’s Legacy Records will reach a deal with Prince’s estate in 2018 to be the exclusive distribution partner for 35 previously released albums, the vault’s music will remain, for now, entirely unheard.

Chance The Rapper

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images


Streaming is welcomed into the sanctum sanctorum

June 2016 — The Recording Academy announces that it will begin allowing streaming-only albums into eligibility for its nomination categories, allowing records like Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book to make Grammy history the following year when it becomes the first Grammy-winning record to not sell physical copies. “Fame or perceived success, it all comes from groupthink,” Chance tells Rolling Stone about his personal mindset — a philosophy that applies to the Grammys Awards’ set of rules as well.

Kanye, Kim, Taylor

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Taylor, Kim, and Kanye battle it out in apps

July 2019 — What begins as a light feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West turns into an all-out war when West’s wife Kim Kardashian posts a video to Snapchat of a phone conversation between the rapper and the pop star in which Swift, contrary to public comments, appears to approve of West using lyrics about her in his song “Famous.” (Swift denies that this is the whole truth, and responds on Instagram with the now-infamous line “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”) The entire they-said-she-said saga takes place via social media, which lets fans soak up every new development in real-time.

Frank Ocean

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images


Frank Ocean’s one-two punch makes labels very nervous

August 2016 — Frank Ocean releases his new album Endless, which debuts as an exclusive on Apple Music and fulfills his contractual obligation to Universal Music Group. A day later, he turns around and releases a second album, Blondewhich critics generally laud as the better, “real” album, and yields Ocean a far bigger chunk of royalties due to the lack of label involvement. Universal chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge reacts by immediately “outlawing” streaming exclusives at the music company — killing a strategy that labels had been keen on for most of the past year.

Desert Trip

Kevin Winter/Getty Images


Desert Trip proves exactly how much nostalgia pays

October 2016 — “Coachella for old people” proves the doubters wrong by putting on a killer festival with formidable performances from the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, and the Who. Its unprecedented financial scale — three-day tickets run as high as $1,599 a pop — yields record-breaking gross of $160 million, which soars well above the $94 million that Coachella brings in.

Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee



‘Despacito’ sweeps the globe without a word of English

January 2017 — Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s sultry “Despacito” defies gravity, exploding into the music stratosphere even before Justin Bieber lends his star power to a remix. The song’s myriad achievements include becoming the first YouTube video to receive five billion views, the most-streamed track around the globe, and so on and so forth — but its greatest accomplishment is its shattering of the language barrier for pop hits in the U.S., showing audiences that music doesn’t have to be fully understood to be beloved.


Arthur Mola/Invision/AP/Shutterstock


Drake releases a 22-track record that is not a record

March 2017 — What is More Life? Drake is adamant that it is neither an album, nor a mixtape; instead, it is a playlist, meant to serve as “a collection of songs that become the soundtrack to your life.” The 82-minute not-record takes listeners from Caribbean dancehall to South African house, and its self-billing as a collaborative effort seems to underscore that. “When you get right down to it, Aubrey Graham is a playlist — a true pop visionary who’s always a fan at heart, an omnivore with a raging appetite for his next favorite sound,” writes Rob Sheffield.


Scott Legato/Getty Images


Future unseats his own Number One with another Number One

March 2017 — What’s better than a single Number One debut album? Future’s answer: Two of them, back to back. The rapper’s record HNDRXX accomplishes the unprecedented by knocking his other record Future out of the top spot on the Billboard 200, demonstrating just how wacky things can get in the era of cheap and instantaneous music distribution and access. The double feature may be a sales trick, but it’s also a reflection of audience behavior: Fans will devour new music from major artists as fast as they can release it.

Music Streaming

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Streaming takes over as the revenue leader of the U.S. music industry

2017 — Streaming’s naysayers have to admit some level of defeat when the Recording Industry Association of America releases figures showing that the format, in the previous year, generated more money for the U.S. music business than all other forms of distribution, for the first time ever. The new balance of power causes a lot of hand-wrangling among traditional music companies at first — but most of them begin redistributing their efforts and budgets accordingly.

Billy McFarland

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The Fyre that will burn forever

April 2017 — Is Billy McFarland a genius or a madman? Is there a universe in which Fyre Festival could’ve gone off smoothly? What offers more schadenfreude: the metaphorical reckoning of the festival’s wealthy would-be attendees or the dueling documentaries responding to the island debacle? Some questions may never be answered.

Lil Pump

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images


‘Gucci Gang’ and the conquest of SoundCloud

July 2017 — Lil Pump’s two-minute tune “Gucci Gang,” which references its titular designer no fewer than 51 times, manages to strike the perfect balance between innocence and irreverence. By appealing to everyone from trap fans to Dave Grohl, “Gucci Gang” takes Pump from a self-releasing SoundCloud rapper to a major-label artist with a reported $8 million deal — within a matter of months. It’s as much a testament to the success of DIY platform SoundCloud as to the industry’s gold-rush mania for new rap talent.

Lady Gaga Vegas

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images


The Vegas residency is the new stadium tour

December 2017 to present — In a deal reportedly worth $100 million, Lady Gaga takes up a temporary residency at Las Vegas’s MGM Park Theater, becoming one of several artists to trade in tour gear for a Sin City hotel suite. Drake will ink a multi-year deal with XS Nightclub shortly thereafter, and DJ Marshmello will settle in at the Palms’ KAOS Nightclub — though his high fee will actually contribute to the shuttering of the venue itself in late 2019, suggesting the residency bubble may not remain as such for long.

Pulitzer Prize winner for music Kendrick Lamar,

Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock


Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer

April 2018 — For his album DAMN, Lamar is the first non-classical and non-jazz artist to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music. The Pulitzer board praises the “vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism” of DAMN in particular. “The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums,” Lamar tells Rolling Stone about the record. “That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody — and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It’s all pieces of me. My musicality has been driving me since I was four years old. It’s just pieces of me, man, and how I execute it is the ultimate challenge.”

Beyonce & J Balvin Coachella

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images


Beyoncé and J Balvin remake Coachella for themselves

April 2018 — In what may forever be known as “Beyoncé’s Coachella,” the 2018 iteration of the music bacchanal in the California desert features the superstar marching on stage with a hundred-member crew, a host of multi-genre friends and family members, and a dramatically new vision for what the traditionally rock-oriented music festival can be. Beyoncé’s surprise guest J Balvin makes history by performing Spanish-language song “Mi Gente,” which also sets the stage — physically and metaphorically — for his full set at the next year’s Coachella featuring Rosalía, Sean Paul, and some gargantuan, dancing papier-mâché bobbleheads.

R Kelly xxxtentacion

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock (2)


What to do with R. Kelly and XXXTentacion?

June 2018 — Spotify tries to show its good intentions by instituting a “hateful content and conduct” policy that bars R. Kelly and XXXTentacion artists from appearing in playlists — but the music-streaming service is quickly served its own judgment for acting as moral police, and it has to walk back the policy after a few weeks of backlash. The company learns a lesson, but the conversation around supporting artist misconduct remains murky as ever.

Drake Pusha

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Drake admits he has a secret son, thanks to Pusha T

June 2018 — The internet flares up when Pusha T releases a no-holds-barred diss track, “The Story of Adidon,” accusing Drake of fathering a son and keeping his existence secret. On his new double album Scorpion a month later, Drake actually admits it — although the producers involved in the record dispute that it’s a direct reply to Pusha’s song. Some say the information may’ve come to Pusha via Kanye West, who Drake previously visited in Wyoming. Whatever the case, the rap beef playing out entirely on record means both artists get to rake in a nice chunk of royalties from it.

Cardi B 'I Like It' amp; Cardi B & J BalvinCardi B 'I Like It' music video on set filming, Miami, USA - 28 May 2018



Cardi B is the first female rapper to score two Number One hits

July 2018 — “I Like It” rises to the top of single charts, joining “Bodak Yellow” in that hallowed sphere and making Cardi B the first female rapper to claim two Number Ones. The self-described “strip-club Mariah Carey” is also the first female artist since Lady Gaga to land two top hits off a debut album. Cardi tells Rolling Stone that she is determined to defy haters “expecting me to drop something trash”: “It just made me, like, ‘Aha, I gotta study these other rappers,'” she says. “Study how to do something different from them. You know all these female rappers, they talking about they money, they talking about they cars, so it’s like, what’s something that I enjoy? I enjoy fights!”


Prince Williams/Wireimage


Drake emerges as streaming’s dependable superstar

July 2018 — Landing as a double (read: super-long) album in the crest of music-streaming popularity, Drake’s Scorpion crosses a milestone that is as admirable as it is expected: The record becomes the first to hit 1 billion streams in a single week. Drake is also the first artist to cross 50 billion total streams, according to his record company. But what do these metrics actually mean?


Jefferson Siegel/NY Daily News via Getty Images


Rap’s never-ending police saga

November 2018 — The arrest of Brooklyn rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, whose burst from the homegrown SoundCloud scene is complicated by alleged gang involvement, joins Bobby Shmurda’s sentencing and Meek Mill’s imprisonment as yet another high-profile clash between musicians and the law; but as rap holds steady as the most popular genre of music in America, the tussles seem to only be picking up steam. (In 2019, Rolling Loud will remove five rappers from its lineup after receiving a note about “public safety concerns” from the NYPD, and Donald Trump will weigh in on A$AP Rocky’s detainment in Sweden.)


SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


TikTok is not a fad

January 2019 — With 1 billion downloads of the app in 2018, TikTok proves itself more than a blip on the radar for the music industry. (Instagram only received half as many downloads in the same year.) The social app in which users make 15-second videos set to music is big enough that everyone from amateur artists to major labels wants to crack its code. Whereas other platforms require popularity to be built up by metrics like follower count and share ratios, TikTok’s algorithm geared toward fast new discoveries makes it so that “if you can get famous easily, you’re gonna do it,” one viral TikTok user tells Rolling Stone.

Baby Shark



A cartoon fish (doo doo doo dooo) reunites America

Throughout 2019 — No one is really sure where the original “Baby Shark” tune comes from, but South Korean educational brand Pinkfong manages to transform it into a deliciously karaoke-able all-ages Top 40 pot of gold. The song will go re-viral when it becomes, of all things, the de facto battle cry of the Washington Nationals baseball team; it’ll continue its trajectory in a live tour, which probably means it’ll rival the Star Wars franchise in size by the end of 2020.

Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X

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Old Town Road to where?

March 2019 — Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is the perfect balance of viral video sensation and sunny-day radio hit — if only the music industry can make up its mind about the genre to which it belongs. The song’s (temporary) removal from Billboard’s country chart only fuels its insanely quick rise to the top, and a cleverly-timed remix from country stalwart Billy Ray Cyrus is all it needs to spark a global discussion about whether genres really matter anymore.

BTS Good Morning America

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BTS blow up ‘Good Morning America’

May 2019 — For anyone still doubting whether K-pop really has a foothold in America, this is it: BTS is chosen as the act to kick off Good Morning America‘s summer concert series, a spot that every aspiring pop act in the States would kill to have. In addition to being the first Korean group to go on a sold-out U.S. stadium tour, BTS also makes it onto Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the lineup of the Billboard Music Awards. Notes Rolling Stone‘s Elias Leight: “Since major labels have largely abandoned artist development in favor of amplifying acts that are already buzzing, BTS and other like-minded K-Pop groups have an open freeway: As they play with the sound and acrobatic showmanship of big-budget R&B and pop from 20 years ago, they can be confident that few American artists will even attempt to compete.”

Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock, imageSPACE/Shutterstock, Joe Russo/Variety/Shutterstock


Who owns Taylor Swift?

July 2019 to present — The answer: She does, no matter what any legal documents or contracts say. Swift first alleges that she was not consulted about the sale of her master recordings to Scooter Braun; then, in a months-later reprise, she accuses both Braun and her former label boss Scott Borchetta of shackling her to unfair terms. While Braun and Borchetta vehemently contest both sets of claims, the actual facts of the situation may not matter — as Swift is using every tool she’s got, including pleading directly to a zealous fanbase for help, to establish herself as a self-made artist who calls her own shots. If there’s any kind of ideal energy to ride into the new decade, it’s that.

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