The 20 most important artists (and 10 other essential songs) of the 2010's.
10. Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City is textbook artistic maturation — the moment when an indie band’s exuberance garners gravitas and its songwriters mature into full-fledged storytellers. Fresh-faced front man Ezra Koenig acknowledged that MVOC marked the conclusion of a sort of trilogy for Vampire Weekend, one where boyish, Ivy League party anthems evolved into erudite meditations on faith (“Unbelievers”), mortality (“Step”), and moral disillusionment (“Ya Hey”).
But it was “Hannah Hunt,” a ballad written during the days of VW’s self-titled debut, that served as the album’s emotional bedrock. A Kerouacian cross-country jaunt of young lovers is undercut by a sense of impending doom — the purest rendering of generational disaffection disguised as road trip since Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.” Koenig’s climactic confession: “If I can’t trust you, then dammit Hannah/ There’s no future, there’s no answer” echoed Simon’s own revelation to his sleeping companion: “Kathy, I’m lost…/I’m empty and aching, and I don’t know why.” Sadness rarely sounded this lovely.
Elevated by Rostam Batmanglij’s harpsichords, strings, and celestial choirs and Koenig’s effervescent choruses, MVOC is the sound of borrowed Afrocentric rhythms and pop tropes finally convalescing into authenticity. Rostam departed for a solo career soon afterward, leaving Koenig to carry the torch as indie rock stalwart, but not before the band had crafted this career masterpiece, an album that both pushed Vampire Weekend forward and came full circle.
See also: Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — “In A Black Out”
9. Bon Iver
Bon Iver entered the decade as one man and an immediately recognizable sound. It exited as a creative enclave, dismantling of self, and an ethos of aural reinvention. Each daring sidestep away from the dulcet folk of 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago was a plot twist you could only fully appreciate in hindsight; Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), the gigantic, full-color map of Vernon’s emotional topology possessing pastoral sweep and disarming immediacy. Follow-up 22, A Million (2016) — the outrageous notion of Kid A recorded in a log cabin. And i,i (2019) the space in between that infused experimentation with maturity and newfound assurance. Remember when the sound of a saxophone in a Bon Iver song felt radical? It now brings a sense of comfort.
For Vernon, the weight of Being Bon Iver was at times exactly that — burdensome. Some of his most liberating vocal performances came in supporting actor roles beside Kanye, James Blake, and The National’s Aaron Dessner. To cope, Vernon circled the wagons, converted hometown Eau Claire, WI into an artistic refuge, and surrounded himself with fellow risk-takers, killing his ego to survive. He would doggedly hunt for meaning in seismically shifting sounds, jumbled linguistics, and cryptic numerology with a single constant — a voice so unmistakable that you almost forgot how singularly gorgeous it was. The moving moments in these songs — “Calgary”’s galvanic chord changes, the gurgling cyborg climax in “33 (GOD)” — endure long after their avant garde jolt has faded. Bon Iver’s quest for permanence is rooted in an unwillingness to remain still.
Speaking from experience as a former curator of a 9-year old’s iPod playlist, if you surreptitiously position Grimes among your daughter’s favorite artists like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Arianna Grande, she resembles a harmless-looking Mogwai camouflaged in a stuffed animal menagerie — that is, until a banger like “Kill V. Maim” rips and Claire Boucher goes full-on Gremlin. Pop music is by definition that which is popular, making Grimes subversion of well-known tropes into an act of menace all the more transgressive.
In 2011, armed only with a Roland Juno-G keyboard, vocal pedals, and GarageBand and devoid of food, sleep, and human contact, (“I blacked out the windows” Boucher admitted), Grimes emerged from her Montreal apartment after three weeks of self-deprivation with aptly titled Visions. “Genesis” and “Oblivion” were 80’s-style pop transmissions from the Upside Down — stranger things powered by her pitch-shifted three-octave coo, cyborg club beats and euphoric waves of melody. Follow-up Art Angels (2015) was bolder, brighter and even more inviting, with day-glo poptronica like “Flesh Without Blood” and “California” blowing up the equalizer like a plutonium-powered Light-Brite.
Boucher has systematically obliterated notions of female artist as mere vessel in a male-dominated industry; every one of her talents (songwriting, performing, arranging, recording and producing) remains gloriously DIY even as her sphere of influence expands. Visions remains patient zero for the virulent strain of mutant, feminine pop that crisscrossed the 2010’s post-internet landscape; without Grimes, there’s no Charlie XCX, Lorde, or Chvrches. Her music remains unclassifiable, enduring, and open-minded — a perfect gateway drug into weirder, weightier worlds.
See also: Charli XCX — “Track 10”
How do you wrap your head around the oxymoron that is Aubrey Drake Graham — hypersensitive Lothario, Canadian bad-ass, black Jew from Degrassi High? As The Rapper Who Dared To Sing, Drake’s nuanced command of melody and remorseless desires would first set him apart then carve out a path for countless peers. For every scowling banger (“Started From the Bottom,” “Worst Behavior”) that earned him an inch of street cred, there was a hot-buttered R&B crooner (“Hold On, We’re Going Home”) and dancehall interpolation (“Hotline Bling,” “One Dance”) engineered to top the charts. “Who else making rap albums, doing numbers like it’s pop?” he sort-of rapped. At first, well, nobody. Now, with progenies like Post Malone, Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert sprouting up like weeds, everybody.
Sure, he got dessert and drinks dumped on him at the Cheesecake factory and moped all day in Marvin’s room, but Drakes’ tortured lover persona was clearly part of the act; he remains the decade’s savviest image maker. Self-clowning dance memes and quotables like “YOLO” became cultural canon, while more underrated lines (“Shout out to the Asian girls/ Let the lights dim sum”) would hang around years after the fact like dirty dad jokes you can’t unhear, juiced by Noah “40” Shebib’s murky, muscular beats.
From hungry up-and-comer, to depressed millionaire pining for strippers, to the world champion Toronto Raptors’ brand ambassador (and resident shoulder rubber) perched on top of the goddamn CN Tower, Drake has done what canny songwriters do — he sings about his reality. His five-album run is one long, gripping memoir of boasts so supple, it makes shouting from the mountaintop feel like a humble brag. When all of his frenemies’ gripes have faded, nothing will remain but Drake’s enviable skills and body of work. Oh, and his woes.
See also: The Weeknd— “The Morning”
Bow down bitches. Surfbort. I woke up like this. Queen Bey reeled off so many cultural catchphrases in the 2010’s, she warranted her own Urban Dictionary (or a soundboardt), augmenting her already preternatural arsenal of vocal coos and trills with a legit rap flow. With Beyoncé and Lemonade, she broke the record business, attained sex goddess and mother-of-the-year status, and after being done dirty by her man did one better than divorcing his dumb ass — she publicly shamed him on a #1 album then simply waited for the dude to come crawling. “When you play me/ You play yourself” Ms. Carter clapped back, equal parts savvy, sassy, and supreme.
It’s no wonder female empowerment experienced a late decade resurgence; Beyoncé spent years clearing the damn way for girls to rule the world. Because even if you were Becky with good hair, she sure as hell spoke for you even as she was speaking at you. Bey’s 2017 headlining performance at Coachella wasn’t just a magnificent first for an African American woman; it re-contextualized an entire era of black music, hop-scotching through her catalog and timely covers to canvas 30 years of R&B, hip-hop, funk, soul, gospel and pop. “I am the dragon breathing fire/ Beautiful mane, I am the lion” she roared on “Ego,” a vision Disney would soon actualize in a no-brainer voice casting for the ages. Beyoncé had already set an entire generation of confused Simba’s straight — it seemed only fitting that the rest of us bow down to the Queen.
See also: Rihanna — “Work”