The 2010’s are just about over and I’m pretty sure we can all agree that there’s too much damn content out there. For the first time ever, the average person practically has every album in the palm of your hands for what seems like the cost of one. The industry finally figured out how to recoup some of their losses from the DL revolution of the early 2000s. Put everything on a platform and charge everyone a competitive subscription fee. In the process, the age of streaming redefined the rules for the modern pop song and subsidized the value of record sales.
It was the perhaps the best singles decade since the 1960’s, with the best artists oftentimes being the biggest.
Urban music’s inevitable takeover as pop’s defacto sound came full circle with most rap artists taking the full auteur approach before trap swallowed the genre whole in the latter half of the decade.
The evolution of the home studio opened up a wormhole of DIY artists from everywhere from Vancouver to Australia. All of a sudden the line in the sand had blown away, now the popular music fan spends much of their time in the underground, while the indie community reveres artists they might have called industry plants in the 2000s. And it was true, the most compelling music seemed to come from just about anyone.
In a conceited effort to commemorate the end of an era, we at Smack Media have decided to put it in words and then put those words into our first feature. Here’s Smack Media’s “Top 40 Songs of the 2010’s”
Check out our Top 40 Albums of the 2010's here
In case you haven’t been paying attention for the past decade and have happily found yourself in a world of blissful ignorance, Josh Tillman, otherwise known as Father John Misty, has done you the courtesy of cataloguing the seemingly endless agonies of the 21st century. On Holy Shit, we've got holy wars, misogyny, infotainment, climate change - take your pick, it’s all there. Tillman even packaged it up in a nice little acoustic ballad with his uncomfortably accessible angelic voice.
On his second solo album, I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman evolved into the type of songwriter who pens folk songs for the impending apocalypse - or in the case of Holy Shit, written 10 minutes before Tillman’s impending wedding. Who could have guessed that the drummer from Fleet Foxes, those airy choir boys, would have parted ways like Neil Young from CSNY to embark on a solo career that’s always had a forlorn finger on the dwindling pulse of the zeitgeist?
Yet even for the seen-it-all-before cynic, this song possesses a hidden bit of wisdom beneath the plights. You can look around and see the horrors of humanity advance at ever increasing scale, but it’ll always be dwarfed by the petty vanities of your own life. “Holy Shit” indeed.
- Blake Haarstad
With the slyest of drum breaks lifted from the Isley Brothers’ Footsteps in the Dark (a frequently used sample most famously underlining Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”), Stephen Bruner -a.k.a. Thundercat- presents here a song whose melancholy lyrics are subtly woven into a modern soul classic. Eschewing the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure in favour of a more free form two verses separated by an “ooh ooh” break, the song is divided into a before and after scenario of heartbreak. Having at first been let down and later left wary and unable to trust, yet still desperate for love, "Them Changes" is lyrically full of the deepest darkest blues. But then again, musically the song is a fat slice of acid jazz/funk/R&B that deserves to be played on a car stereo with the heaviest of bass settings, the convertible roof down, and the smell of bodies soaked in sunscreen wafting in from the beach across the street. Dig it all summer long.
- Jason Foster
When Philly rapper, Meek Mill, levelled ghostwriting accusations against Drake in the summer of 2015, he either miscalculated how much people would care, or he miscalculated his ability to take Drake head-on. History now tells us that he miscalculated both. When the initial dust settled from the feud, there were no back-and-forths -- just Back to Back. The implications of the feud meant we got something we rarely get to see in the realm of rap beef history..
Meek Mill went after Drake’s integrity as an artist, but Drake got personal.. going after Meek Mill’s relationship, career, and lifestyle. Back to Back was an anthemic, roast-laden, meme-worthy, response, never failing to provide goofy rap-alongs to housequakes and club nights.
Soaring to over 500,000 plays in the first 4 hours alone, Drake showed that even though he threw the second jab, his ability to skew public perception given the sheer gravity of his global listener base was not to be underestimated. Tag on Joe Carter, the first basemen for the ’93 Blue Jays, who hit the walk-off homer to win Toronto back-to-back championships over Philly as the cover art and you’ve got another level of ‘us vs them’ hometown pride. A home-run for Toronto’s burgeoning hip-hop coming-out party.
- Kaveh Sarhangpour
James Blake cemented himself as a true original with the release of his eponymous debut album, but many listeners felt alienated by his ostensible disdain for traditional song structure. While ardent fans appreciated his irreverent style, others were unconvinced of his potential as a songwriter until the release of Retrograde. Through the combination of airy, ambient production and clear, concise songwriting, Blake created an ethereal pop classic in the tradition of Brian Eno’s classic 70’s output. The influence of the modern pop structure can be traced across Blake’s sophomore effort Overgrown, but Retrograde stands alone as one of the decade’s ultimate convergences of electronic singularity and mainstream reach.
- Alex Vujacic
Billie Eilish has one hell of a dark side. Signifying a clear departure from the sultry notes that catapulted her to stardom, Bury a Friend underscores Eilish’s ability to teeter between two personas: a sensitive-coming-of-age-teen and a badass.
And while one presumes we’re still in the first chapter in a career that promises to be full of focused arrangements and beautifully understated grimness, this is Eilish’s coolest track to date. Even with intermittent distorted screaming sounds throughout the song, Eilish goes easy on us (compared to that music video with the mouth spider) with a surprisingly playful groove.
Like most fresh faces, Eilish’s style is steeped in her idols. The powering use of distortion and sub bass may recall Tyler the Creator, while attention drawn to melodies feel more akin to Lana Del Rey. Remarkably like these two artists, Billie Eillish does her own thing. On Bury a Friend, if one does have the willpower to guide their attention away from the infectious and creepy frills, they’re slapped with the realization that the lyrical content makes the song even darker championing mental illness it into one of the moodiest pop songs of the era.
- Bianca Chan
Like so many great British artists before her, Tahliah Barnett a.k.a. FKA Twigs, has taken a multitude of genres and incorporated them into a singular sound all her own. Borrowing elements of American R&B, British electronica, trip-hop, and hip-hop, she creates on the 2014 song Two Weeks an ode to desire and longing that pushes and pulls between silky seduction and raw lust. Through the programmed circuitry slides a voice that is layered into peaks of soprano bursts and sighs determined to erase the memory of the girl left behind (“give me two weeks, you won’t recognize her”). Between fragments of sexual imagery and the language of addiction, FKA Twigs presents a futuristic femme fatale’s late night promise of pleasure. “Higher than a motherfucker”. Well said.
- Jason Foster
To say that Donald Glover is versatile is an understatement. Before Awaken My Love had even been announced people were accustomed to the rapid fire, sketch comedy writing, limbre flowed punchline spitting superstar that Childish Gambino grew to embody. Then in a left turn of events, Glover seized from rapping entirely and churned out his most universal song to date, a funk ballad.
Redbone, with its silky falsetto delivery and 70s arrangement symbolizes a punk move for a multi-talented star like Glover, an artist who was doing something on his own terms. It symbolized a protest to critics who believed he was incapable of making great music and a surprise to fans who expected another Because the Internet.
Put on the first 30 seconds of Redbone and you’ll understand why so many DJs throw it on after hours; it’s low tempo, balanced arrangement is equal parts Stylistics and Don Blackman. It also focuses on a relationship that has gone astray due to infidelity, with Childish positioning the chorus as a warning for himself to keep a watchful eye over his partner’s actions. Later the song would take on new meaning, being used for Jordan Peele’s Get Out and serving as a subtle metaphor for the type of relationship African-Americans have with their country. It would make perfect sense as Redbone and its “Stay Woke” chorus sonically presents a defiant refrain.
- Kayla Vickers
Annie Clark wants you to pause for a moment to consider that, in the 2010s, masturbation and contemplating the void have been routinized, akin to merely taking out the trash. Overstimulated apathy has taken out all the fun. Becoming so desensitized to sex and global annihilation is an enticing prospect, a survival mechanism to ward off constant terror. But wading knee deep in irony, St. Vincent is convinced it’s a gag, still holding for the laugh as she inches towards the edge and peers over as if the punchline to this cosmic joke is hanging on by its fingertips.
But Birth in Reverse isn’t the Cronenbergian horror its name implies. The song’s really built on seductive rhythms and flashy imagery. See the music video’s neon-soaked toothpaste model in a psych ward or her live performance’s coordinated stiletto shimmy.
In a decade full of dance-me-to-the-end-of-the-world pop songs, Birth in Reverse stands out as a highpoint because St. Vincent doesn’t say “fuck it” and get lost in mindless indulgence; she’s looking right at America, even if she’s only peaking through the blinds.
- Blake Haarstad
In the latter stage of his career, Mac Miller transformed his sound from couch potato mixtape rap to freshly faced hip-house, driving up his BPMs, and crafting decidedly more danceable music. On Dang!, the beat maker responsible, Vancouver born, MTL hailed, LA based producer Pomo, delivers something truly contagious.
Like all great urban music, the drum mixing on Dang! Knocks, but what sets it apart is the density of its sonics. This thing sounds full, forceful enough to move full rooms. The beat is fluid. Bubbly analog synths take centre stage and never have to go into hiding, not even for Mac’s memorably nonchalant flow. The spirit of collaboration never stops giving. Word is Anderson took the master tapes on a visit to Julliard for a drum seminar and had their brass class noodle flugel horn lines. It’s a neatly packaged, expertly mixed party but on paper one would assume otherwise.
Miller swore the idea for Dang! came from Anderson as a eulogy track, inspired by the loss of family members. But based on the video and lyrics, the song clearly evolved to be about relationships and trying to get your girl back. Miller’s highly publicized relationship to pop superstar Ariana Grande will provide fans of both parties with analysis until they outlaw free thought, but great muses reveal the inner characteristics of their poets. Throughout Dang!, Miller carries himself as neurotically self aware, philosophically curious, sexual, funny, and though it would all be over soon, a pretty charismatic entertainer.
- Aaron Chan
In the years leading up to ANTi Rihanna had already cemented herself as an icon, flirting with r&b, trap, and house music, and seemingly reaching new found levels of attitude and sexual freedom along the way. Work sounded a return to dancehall in a big way. Rihanna and song partner Drake would be something of champions of a commercial dancehall revival halfway through the decade.
Classically, Work is a toast on struggles in life and love, namely money, the energy required to maintain satisfaction, and the frustrations that come along with all four of those things. Rihanna’s unforgivably one of a kind voice is in full swing here and her forgoing of of syllables and sporadic use of Patois renders any words unimportant. There are no breaks. Verses and choruses bleed into each other creating a vibe that’s more about movement than structure.
Making faithful use of the sailaway riddim, producer, Boi1da’s rolling beat, shows a decent amount of restraint for a club banger and patiently builds. It never drops, or changes really, but as soon as the hook is called back he’s got quite the system going. Fellow Jamaican Canadian, Partynextdoor on lyrical duties offers an under bubbling dichotomy of words to music. You can’t talk about Work and not talk about that repetitive, silly chorus. Partynext came up with it and everyone believed in it enough to lead as a first single. By the time Drake fully surrenders to it by the end of the third, what started as a catchy joke now makes complete sense.
- Aaron Chan
If this was a contest for least amount of words in a chorus, then “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police,” would have netted Vince Staples the top spot. Norf Norf could also compete for the most meme-worthy song of the decade, spawning a full Sprite advertising campaign and a legendary viral reaction video from an overly-concerned helicopter mom. Regardless, none of these secondary accolades should detract from just how timely this song was.
A self-proclaimed Crip, with Norf Norf, Staples instantly established himself as a peerless juggler of traditional gangsta rap lyricism and avant-garde electro-beats, two divergent sensibilities emboldened by Clams Casino’s lurching, terrifying production. Making perhaps the most important rap music by a teenager since Illmatic, Vince Staples possessed a similar higher education wokeness, but unlike Nas, Staples’ vision of American street life is without hope. Schoolyards are drug zones. Violence is commonplace. Women are objects. It’s an America Staples truly believes he lives in and whether Christian moms have a say in what is appropriate for their children to hear on FM radio, it’s a very real America. Creation needs a devil.
- Alex Vujacic
It’s the seminal millennial coming of age event, house hunting. Melbourne singer songwriter guitar hero Courtney Barnett and partner Jen have decided to gravitate towards a decidedly more simple life in the suburbs. The neighbourhood is a bit sketchy and the lack of cafe density means you have to brew your own coffee, but they can garden, which Barnett consistently refers to as her favourite pastime. The company tour the open house, they joke around, until Barnett sees relics from the previous owner, an old lady, now deceased. It becomes an existential experience as she wonders who was this lady who died in this house she lived in for 50 years? Did her son die in Vietnam? and does any of it matter if someone with half a million dollars is probably just going to put a condo there anyway?
It is amazing how deep a story Barnett can tell in just a few stanzas. Spending the better half of the decade trailblazing the indie rock world with focused performances and unique song writing, Depreston, the quietly vulnerable, yet beautiful standout at Barnett’s live shows and debut album would symbolize a victory in both regards. Even on a ballad of such tender sincerity, Barnett’s likeable jack rabbit wit and imperfect rhyming style are humbly used to great effect, but make way for something boldly poignant; How our preoccupations with material things distract us from what really makes houses homes, the stories that people who lived there left behind.
- Aaron Chan
It’s hard to tell if King Krule is even of his era. If dude is a time traveler, Dum Surfer makes a pretty good case for the matter. Like a crime noir set to rhythm, it’s a smoky, spiritual story of self-realization: ripping off a man out of fifty bucks sends the narrator into a spiral of revelations towards his own behaviour. He abuses drugs as much as he abuses people, and it might even end up being his downfall. It’s a tale that could have been penned by Billy Wilder or Ray Chandler, told in Krule’s unmistakably harsh vocal delivery which truly makes the song feel like it’s being narrated from the edge of a nervous breakdown. The timeless nature of the song owes a lot to Krule’s true love for jazz. The ominous sax playing on the latter half blends perfectly with the augmented guitar chords that propel the track into motion. It amounts to a unique rock experience that will make you wonder why people believe the genre is dead. Krule seems to operate in a fourth-dimensional plain where time and genre are irrelevant. Mood.
- Jared Marshall
You know what sucks? Depression. On Cranes in the Sky, Solange is less focused on the feeling and aims her sights on her attempts to escape. She uses sex, travel, and consumerism to dig her way out of a rut, but left with nothing apart from temporary relief, she averts to “those metal clouds”. In an interview with her sister, Solange said that the titular metaphor came from an observation she made during her divorce. She’d see cranes towering over the city skyline and interpret it as America using excessive building to run away from its actual problems.
It’s little nuggets like this that make you reconsider what you’re listening to. Is it an autobiographical take on post-marital trauma, or a clever allegory on American ignorance to issues of gender, race, and class? Probably both. But what’s really nuts is that it’s all wrapped up in a beautiful r&b ballad. Would a song this thematically heavy have such a far reach if it weren’t such an ear worm? You have a hook that is begging to be belted during your morning commute. A funk bassline that seeps into your core while giving Solange’s vocals just enough room to breathe. Don’t even get me started on those piano chords that come crashing in for the chorus. It’s a song that is as upbeat and beautiful as it is sad and reflective. We all fall victim to depression. As cumbersome as it may be, it feels like Solange is trying to show us we can all face it if we just have the courage to look it in the eye.
- Jared Marshall
When Vampire Weekend released Step as the first single from their new album, few expected the newfound maturity in their music. Though the era would be defined by brilliant polarizing album moments like Yeezus and Blonde, Vampire Weekend’s gift for melody and intellectual candour made for an inoffensive yet seismic shift in sound. For one, Step is low tempo. While early material had the pulse to wiz down hallways and sprint down grass, Step marked an unequivocally relaxed pace, dialling back the trademark energy to better showcase the melodic abilities of its principal songwriters.
While the song originally came based off a cut from Oakland 90s rap group Souls of Mischief and interpolates Pacobel’s Canon in D ala Dr. Dre, Step goes even deeper in its connection to hip hop. Floating blissfully atop attic rhythms, Koenig’s lyrics retain some early VW identity paying homage to Angor Wat, Tanzania, and the American Civil War all within the first two lines mind you. However if you look a little closer, you start to see the story put forth is a beautiful metaphor for our relationship to music in general.
In hip hop, stepping to your girl could mean coming onto your woman, similarly here, Ezra uses the phrase to describe other fans jumping on the bandwagon to music you loved before it was popular. Sure he may have “seen the stars when they hid from the world”, but by the end of the third verse, our hero comes to terms with the fact that the best music deserves to be enjoyed by the masses. Whether it be hip hop, classical, or indie, Step makes use of all three to say something profound about the way we love and cherish music.
- Aaron Chan
You put Frank Ocean’s vocals over an organ and you’re going to end up with magic. Let’s roll the clock back to the release of Channel Orange. Ocean coming out as gay could have ended his career before it even started. Instead he used it to propel himself into full-on superstardom. Half of this is because of the bravery of his decision. The other half is due to his undeniable genius as a musician. Both sides merge on Bad Religion.
Exercising his signature storytelling muscles, Ocean paints the picture of a broken man. His only confidante is his taxi driver. Through this lyrical back-and-forth between driver and passenger, we learn that our protagonist is going through a crisis of identity (I can’t tell the truth about my disguise/I can’t trust no one). Given that Ocean came out only days before the song was premiered on Jimmy Fallon, it’s not hard to piece together what the song’s alluding to.
But even out of this context it’s still a staggeringly brilliant song. The strings that swell up in the chorus invoke goosebumps, and the final lyrics are enough to reduce anyone to a puddle of tears. The idea of “bad religion” is a triple entendre for the one-sided love shared with the church, the public, and toxic relationships. There’s even a clever reference to the People’s Temple for good measure (and it wouldn’t be his last reference to cults either). What you have in Bad Religion is a man at his most courageous. Both in his artistic and personal expression.
- Jared Marshall
“To make an impact by doing the very antithesis of what the public expects.” Rihanna’s persona as a woman wronged had been dead and buried for a good long while, but when ANTI hit streams in 2016, the last nail in the coffin was sufficiently hammered. On the album’s best single, Needed Me, Rihanna rains fire and brimstone on the womanizing assumptions of the male ego. Many took to Twitter to call the track their “anthem.” Whether it is an anthem for female empowerment or a declaration of bad bitch savagery is hard to tell. This is the good girl gone bad after all.
The iconic single marked a new trajectory for Rihanna’s career. Sounding far from her pop and club roots that launched her to superstardom, Needed Me boasts a dark and confrontational swagger under the sly veil of a ballad. With peak era DJ Mustard at the helm of the track’s moody beat, the producer ployed to win Rihanna’s approval by sending her 50 potential backing tracks-- finally landing on what would become Needed Me. There’s a compelling relentlessness in the shimmering reverse of the instrumental, taking you to a room where the weed is sticky, the liquor is expensive, and the clock reads 4.
A continuation of the idea that flipping the script by treating men as though they are sexually disposable, Rihanna’s dominance as a sexual icon is cranked up to full. On Needed Me, men are single-serving products, purely existing to be chewed up and spat out at Rihanna’s leisure. Harsh? Perhaps. But it takes a bold push to shake the apathy of the norm. And, frankly, the paradigm shift is a breath fucking fresh air.
- Kayla Vickers & Jared Marshall
Love Galore puts the toxicity of being the other woman on full display. It's Summer Nights circa LAX. Instead of returning to high school after a dreamy summer fling, SZA finds herself still head over heels for a man, even after discovering he was with another girl. She's surprised that he called her after "the things that [she] said", but can't seem to fight the fact that they still have "love, love, love."
We all know where this is going, infidelity rarely pans out positive for the hero in question (especially under the lens of pop music), but SZA comes through with a playful attitude that gives the track a sensually adventurous charm and a gorgeous melody that made every verse sound like it could be the chorus. Mixedbyali channels a deep mix over in house TDE producer ThankGod4Cody’s frohliking rhythm. It’s typical high level sonics from the record label of the era and a far more sincere love song than anything in the Kendrick catalogue.
A great duet takes two elements: chemistry and contrast. Travis Scott steps to the mic with devilish charisma, seductively pollutes the sound waves. He almost feels like the song's antagonist as SZA knows the relationship's detriment to her well-being. Travis is the demon hanging from her shoulder, whispering "yeah, but you still want me." It's as honest it gets, a pitch-perfect portrayal of infidelity. Exciting, deeply sexual, and maybe a little bit genuine.
- Jared Marshall
Let us consider, for a moment, the quintessential Migos track. Triplet flow? Check. Hypnotic bass? Check. A general sense of absurdity? This is T-Shirt, an instant ice cold classic. Showcasing the Migos at their most confident, recounting their heritage while preparing listeners for the present-- and if you were even passively following music in 2017, you know the word present was synonymous with Migos. “T-shirt” the first song on the iconic Culture represented a moment of invincibility.
Riffing off of Dem Franchize Boyz White Tee and late Atlanta pioneer Shawty Law from D4L’s “I’m the Man”, the Migos opportunistically amp each other up with machine gun rhythms and non sensical ad libs. Spitting over Nard & B’s menacing beat, the spirit of interpretation is high and Migos displayed a brand new, decidedly more simple attitude. Nobody doesn’t use autotune on the track, but it’s used as more of an instrument here and it’s never sounded better, but it’s the group’s unshakable attitude that ultimately gives T-shirt it’s power of braggadocio.
But really? Are Migos The Beatles of our generation? According to Donald Glover, the answer is yes, to everyone else in the room this is an explosive take. Well, if anything at all, the Migos’ unbreakable synergy has led to what seemed like a relentless spoil of universal hits, but also like The Beatles the variety of talent within the group is wide enough to consider each member a bankable star in their own right.
- Jared Marshall
Released a few months before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, POWER already emanated the thrill of an epic. Following Swift-gate, common belief was that the artist formerly of his generation Kanye West had strayed too far, embodying a megalomaniac persona that was the subject of pointing, laughing, and trash talk, and that was just from the President. As he has shown both before and after, he was up to the task of proving himself and POWER was a return to form.
The opening chants and thundering clap rhythm sound like the call of someone back from the dead, which it was.
If his earlier albums proved his technical prowess as a soul beats producer, POWER sounded the tip off of Kanye declaring himself the best and most important artist of his generation. Kanye truly is living for the 21st century, and as the song evolves into a wonder of sounds and melodies, it becomes clear the scale of ambition he was pushing himself to achieve.
Kanye went full Spielberg on us. Titanic kick drums, emotional brevity, internal struggle, King Crimson samples, Mike Dean’s guitar licks, declarations of war against SNL and South Park, slam poetry at the offices of Facebook and Twitter, nothing is left on the table and in the end Kanye is standing on it. It’s a shot into the air that came from focus, frustration, and superego. The ultimate comeback.
- Evan Koski
*When Frank Ocean dropped Blonde, to say expectations were high would be a gross understatement. It's a song like Nights that shows you what *four years can do*. Gone, the sweeping, L.A Scorsese wide lense footage of nonchalant nightlife, with Frank bringing us into the land of the Lynchian surreal.
On the surface, Nights tells the story of a relationship gone astray. However when you dig deeper into the lyrics, it isn’t exactly clear who the relationship is with; is he lamenting a long-lost lover, or reflecting on a younger, more naive worldview, hellbent on one thing and one thing only: getting the hell out of your hometown.
Then there's the off kilter, almost myspace style production, made up of off kilter guitars and unmastered drums. You can't talk about Nights without mentioning the beat switch, one of the weirdest moments in music of the decade. Placed squarely at 30-minute point in the album, Nights splits Blonde exactly in two and represents a duality lending itself to the larger themes of the album. The first half is an emanation of a youthful childhood glow, while the latter half symbolizes the harsh realities of adulthood. It's no coincidence that the album's already dower mood takes a nosedive after this track. It's the kind of genius narrative trick we’ve seen the artist achieve before (hyperlink pyramids), but never this cold.
Of Frank Ocean's many gifts, his best may be his ability to tell a story. His songs are complex tapestries that, by some miracle of meticulous craftsmanship, weave together into something painfully human.
- Kayla Vickers
It’s a passing of the torch thing. A new titan sharing the stage with his idol who in a late great career moment convinces us of his typical high form, and yet still manages to be surpassed by the young blood.
Giving the best pure rap performances on record of the era, Kendrick Lamar and JAY-Z’s showy technique is put on full display, relentlessly running circles around Sounwave’s late night Compton beat. It’s a new kind of boasting, not about racks or bitches or even street cred. It's about having music so good that album numbers are rendered unimportant.. A calling for everyone else in the game who isn’t rapping this good to step it up and stop killing my god damn vibe.
It was the best JAY-Z verse in what seemed like a decade. But almost impossibly Kendrick shows him up and the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (remix)” represents the best artist of the era at the height of his technical powers. Kendrick’s updated victory lap verses put his scarily dominant skillset into the fire. Thought provoking references, consistent flow, lyrical authenticity, and understanding of structure are used to great effect directing 16 bar verses to amp up to climax to close out.
“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a classic based on Sounwave’s beat alone, making use of Aftermath’s top notch session musicians and high level sonics. A song so accessible that it begun as an abandoned Lady Gaga collab, became a classic album cut about spirituality and struggle and later evolved into the album’s fifth single, the JAY-Z featured remix. With performances of a noticeably higher energy, Kendrick would never rap the album version in live form again.
- Aaron Chan
When Abel Tesfaye dropped Can’t Feel My Face he was in the midst of a breakout hot streak. Coming off a trilogy of well respected EPs and two number ones, Ontario’s late night elastic voiced face of new wave r&b was far from in need of a hit. He got one anyway and calling Can’t Feel My Face the best radio smash of 2015 is a criminal understatement. This thing makes Blurred Lines look like the Kevin Federline album. I’m writing this on the cusp of 2020 and it still sounds fresh as ever.
On some of his best work yet, Max Martin lends his pen and streamlined approach to moodier territory and edgier subject matter than seen prior. Nobody should be surprised that the guy who wrote Baby One More Time would be capable of such playfully artful allusions to designer drugs, but the other inevitability here is Martin’s otherworldly understanding of pop song mechanics; how its structure sells its hook, the power of pre choruses, the importance of tempo. The latter of which should be most obvious to average ears; this song is an explosion of groove.
Since Day 1, The Weeknd has been well lauded for using drugs and sex as material for storytelling, but his true star quality and secret weapon as an entertainer is his mystique. As he was blowing up, The Weeknd’s shadowed persona was ominous to say the least, leaving a lot of questions on the table: is he a pimp? a drug dealer? a sensitive soul? a phony? How come he doesn’t have instagram?
And that’s what makes Can’t Feel My Face so brilliant; like The Weeknd’s backstory, the source of the feeling (or lack there of) is uncertain. Is numb the feeling you get from finishing a bag of cocaine, or love at first sight at the club? Is it crossing over to the other side like what Pink does in The Wall? Or maybe it's something that feels so good you start to neglect the brevity of the things it might make you do. By the time the song is over it's all of the above.
- Aaron Chan
Disclosure rose at an interesting time, fatigue from the glossy frills of commercial EDM pitted most adults against the gratuitous materialism that had become all but commonplace by 2013. Disclosure came like a gift from God with formalist fundamentals and a sonic expansion from the original hey day of the genre. You & Me, the third of six smash singles off the quintessential Settle ticks all the boxes; a rapid fire 2-step beat, clean rising filters, bouncy synths, and of course that towering powerful vocal performance by Eliza Doolittle taking house’s marriage to the r&b vocal and kicking it into modern day.
But apart from being a genre game changer, I don’t think anyone can deny the talents of Disclosure, two brothers who at the time were under the age of 23, as producers. Ever component comes through icy clean backed by an effective drum mix. The deep pulsing bass and warm synths that surround the listener in an envelope of sound recall their breakout hit Latch, but this time with the shuffle of UK garage, a decidedly faster and more modern sound. Clean and crisp percussion pans around the channels, bloops and keyboards sway with rotating build up to that soaring chorus that cuts like a knife to the listener’s ear. The arrangement is never taken for granted, removing, changing, and reabsorbing elements as the song goes on, but always in the service of a perfectly crafted pop song.
What really separated Disclosure from other DJ producers of the era was that they never felt like they were riding with the trends-- yet the music didn't feel like it was going against the grain either. It’s all in that structure. While every other DJ leading up to the era was building to drop, Disclosure’s climaxes were based on the emotional centre of their songwriting with a heightened focus on rhythm instead of attacking the listener. Their influences and genuine love of clean pop music shines through every note, every filter, every perfectly mixed synthesizer. If “home is where the heart is” then Disclosure wears theirs on their sleeve – for they always sound perfectly comfortable in their zone.
- Evan Koski
The immediate virality of Yonkers in 2010 completely reset the formula for rap super stardom. It galvanized a new wave of self-made rappers finding their fame and influence through social media, and solidified the internet as the preeminent tool for A&R. Leading an eccentric pack of misanthropic producers and lyricists with relentless momentum, it seemed like Tyler, The Creator had synthesized the Wu-Tang Clan for the online age with Odd Future.
On Yonkers, Tyler takes the philosophy of artists like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams to the extreme by writing, producing and rapping the song and directing its infamous music video providing a DIY template with implications for years to come. The overwhelming popularity of Yonkers has a lot to do with its iconic clip and the cinematic duality it lends to the song, leading many fans to speculate on both the authenticity of the video’s deranged events and the conviction of its star auteur. It begins with a blunt declaration that reflects his artistic output over the entire decade: “I’m a fuckin walking paradox/No I’m not”. He portrays this absurd dichotomy through a stream of consciousness rant on topics ranging from Columbine to Bruno Mars to pregnant gold retrievers - all while snacking on a crunchy cockroach. Meanwhile, the lurching industrial loop underscores a hazy, monochromatic visual as Tyler apathetically digresses between absurd thoughts in his signature snarl. Despite its obvious controversy, Yonkers manages to resist relying on shock value through its vivid imagery, hypnotic production and sheer individuality.
- Alex Vujacic
There is an age-old tradition tying experimental music to S&M. This makes the avant garde a tough place to be because to a certain degree you have to like pain. The self-immolating Death Grips have always been in this space, but NO LOVE DEEP WEB was where they began to demand audience participation. And you know you’re demanding a lot from your audience when your album cover is the drummer’s sharpie-stained phallus erecting itself across some teal-tiled void.
The album’s lead single, No Love, is a song that wants you to feel the beatdown, the shame, and the fear. The kick drum slugs you in the gut, the whirring electronics scrape nails across chalk boards, and MC Ride belittles you with a lyrical chokehold. It wastes no time at it either, exemplifying Nicholas Cage’s infamous motto “maximum violence immediately”.
MC Ride is personally involved in this process. He’s making you huff the music’s “sick transmissions” as you navigate off course, lost in the sonic mire. And yet MC Ride is anchored in his familiar imagery of mental chaos, descending spiral staircases, and feverish iPhone checking. The spectre of addiction hangs over everything Death Grips have done, and it’s a dizzying process, a reaction to alienating technology’s tyranny at the height of its power. There’s no love here - or anywhere - but Death Grips just want you to feel something, goddamnit. It’s not for everyone, but some of us like it rough.
- Blake Haarstad
Ask an audiophile who Travis Scott is and you’re likely to hear one of three things: visionary producer, rambunctious showman, who is Kylie Jenner and what does she do. While the latter may have taken him to new levels of mainstream exposure, day one fans have been rewarded by Scott’s prolific work throughout the decade. It’s all here on his breakout hit Antidote. Attention to melody, wall of sound, focused songs about derelict situations, swag.
It signifies a new school in rap vocals, heavy reverberation and melodic riffs have replaced punch lines for good.
Overseeing a song that involved 14 writers and producers, Scott mixes sounds at the savant level. His use of space is vast, selection of organs and synthesizers towering. It was trap through and through, but this reached a little farther than the club with a sound that was more informed by contemporary indie genres like chillwave and neo psychedelia.
Like all later day rap visionaries, Scott lets his voice drive this one; the cool as dusk background beat perfectly weaves with the vocals to provide a universal yet singular atmosphere. It’s a vibe, a scenario if you will. The liminal state of the afterparty. People everywhere. The smell of bad liquor and thick smoke in the air. Other drugs on the table as well if you look closely.
Is this the antidote? The celebration of high life hedonism is tired yet energized. Rinse. Repeat. Sex, booze, drugs, and all things once associated with rock and roll have now been squarely placed in the hip hop circle. Much could be said about the relevance of these hazy atmospherics to modern culture and how we are coming to the end of an excessive decade: the party’s over, the hangover’s begun and it doesn’t look like we’re sobering up anytime soon. There’s no leaving “the night show”.
- Evan Koski
Kendrick Lamar’s music has always operated in a socio-political sphere that reflects the social consciousness of early rap stars like Chuck D and KRS One, and To Pimp a Butterfly offers a particularly focused statement on the black experience in America. However, what separates Kendrick from many of his predecessors is the nuanced perspective he adopts on songs like Alright, the towering Pharrell-produced centerpiece of his magnum opus.
Kendrick’s faith abounds across the entirety of TPAB, but takes the spotlight here through the Christian values of faith and perseverance. He lyrically tackles everything from police brutality to drug abuse to economic inequality, but it’s always framed against the backdrop of black resilience. The power of Alright lies not in its exposition of racial injustice, but in the black community’s proven persistence to overcome adversity. The production is partyready even catchy, but the subtle jazz samples and acerbic lyricism keep the mood rooted in reflection and resistance. The result is a song that challenges listeners to celebrate black identity without neglecting the social hardships faced by the community. In a decade steeped with racial hostility, Alright is a necessary testament to the value and power of optimistic faith.
- Alex Vujacic
Nobody currently making music today has as much funk in them as Anderson Paak.
Like great r&b artists of eras past, t’s difficult to listen to Anderson without picturing him at the peak of his powers as a live performer. honestly, why wouldn’t you?. We’ve spent the last 5 years watching him switch from crowd hype duties, to rapping a hot verse, to dancing, to climbing a flight of stairs, playing a drum solo, to drumming while rapping sometimes all in the span of 4 minutes. He’s a James-Prince-Michael level showman. Creating a synthy, dancefloor ready, house slapper should be an easy feat, a layup.
Although flashy technique and quote unquote “lurgh-ics” take the backseat on Am I Wrong the closing track of most of his sets, a major part of Paak’s talent as a vocalist is his understanding of when he needs to sit in the groove. The idea is basic: time is finite, live life to the fullest, hit the dance floor, get the girl, celebrate good times. We don’t need bars, we don’t need punchlines. What we do need is all hook and Paak delivs. We get an all star performance, if not two..
In demand MTL producer Pomo’s beat is all old school, building arrangements off a loop with some serious imagination. Over the course of 4 minutes we get horns, backup singers, cowbell, analog synths, secret weapon jazz guitarist Danny McKinnon. 3 minutes into this thing I thought Chaka Khan was going to show up out of nowhere and start belting and screaming. We were in Am I Wrong and I thought anything was possible.
However, it’s more than just performance and stage antics. Yes Paak, Pomo, and even Schoolboy Q criss cross through funk slaps and always land back on the one. But what the collaboration truly gifted us was a song that used references to time, love, and fate to draw a sincere love letter to the dance floor.
- Aaron Chan
80s synth pop was literally everywhere in the 2010’s. The synthesizer very may well have replaced the guitar as the defacto pop instrument, but in the indie world, the resurgence brought with it greater melancholy than even 30 years before. Cheery arpeggios and bright big synths existed, but they were brought a nostalgia with them that seemed to represent the original meaning of the word: a painful realization that you cannot return.
Vancouver’s Claire Boucher, better known to the world as Grimes, takes this mixed melancholy and uses it brilliantly on her iconic 2012 song Oblivion. Written about the potential to be killed at any moment on the street at night, the song projects anxiety, loneliness and ennui in an original voice.
Oblivion and its album Visions represent a huge triumph of the great DIY revolution of the 2010’s. Benefitting from the rapid fire evolution of the home studio, seemingly a renaissance of talented artists were able to create music within the confines of retro analog equipment, record it on their laptops, and then post it to soundcloud. The approach taken by artists like Toro y Moi and Archy Marshall displayed great control and an exercise in minimalism, yet interest in the genre relied on how one person could do so much with so little. Though it was made with just a few sequencers and a microphone, the world we get to see in Oblivion is a terrain. Running high tempo, the song presents a sonic picture full of interesting drum sounds, melodies and a host of different voices, never not overlapping.
With a layer or two of irony, Grimes playfully sings about how great it would be to find someone to hold hands with and tell her to watch her health. The “See you on a dark night” refrain that closes the song becomes an acknowledgment of the singer’s own power to be able to correctly view the threats in the dark around her.
For perhaps the silver lining that comes with a bleaker, less rosy nostalgia is the ability to see what is in the darkness more clearly.
- Evan Koski
He needed a statement. Take Care was a chart topper and even snatched him his first Grammy, but that wheelchair-shaped cloud was still hanging high in Drake's sky. He needed street cred. He needed something to make him 12 feet tall, something to let the world know he wasn't fucking around anymore. He needed Worst Behavior.
Powerhouse producer DJ Dahi pounds out a beat that weaves around Drake's swagger perfectly, giving the emcee space while managing to sneak up on you with tiny little flourishes. Processed vocals create a dizzying atmosphere and reverse effects threw innovations at the game about 4 years before Damn, but the overall sonic picture would become a staple of the Toronto rap sound.
There was a bone to pick, a sunspot on the rising star. It's hard to find a rapper in recent years who has had more criticism labelled against them than Drake. The rapper spent the opening act of his career being accused of having fraudulent reputation and marginal plagiarism. Worst Behavior was him setting the record straight. The opening line about how he still scrubs "J's with a toothbrush" was a clear message to sceptics: I've always done the dirty work myself, so fuck you if you think otherwise. From there comes a four minute onslaught, culminating in a career defining third verse where Drake reimagines Mo Money Mo Problems for the internet troll era. He even fits in sly references to some of his biggest tear downs at the time, such as the BlackBerry incident or his acting career. It’s about as self aware as it gets from the most brand conscious of showmen
Drake is "doing numbers like it's pop" for a reason and Worst Behavior hammers that home while redefining the possibilities of the genre along the way. He's a force of nature, no matter how hard people try to stop him, he always seems to come out on top. He carved out his own throne. Worst Behaviour was the moment he declared himself King. Who are you to argue?
- Jared Marshall
Picture this. Every year you get older, memories from a better time fade. Back then you were 14 and didn’t even know what it felt like to have actual problems or real life consequences. In an urge to satisfy moving past the feeling, you return to those old neighbourhoods and tunnels but they’re gone, new buildings and roads appear in their place. People you once loved have vanished from your life, friends fight, never make up, disappear from each-other’s worlds but are painfully existent in their minds.
At least great music is forever. Noticeably reminiscent of the best FM rock of the 70s, The Suburbs (and the album it spawned) somehow turned out to be an evolution of the Arcade Fire sound. A group known for the epic scale of their songs and sheer force as a 10 piece, still occupy the space here powerfully, but the fantastical buildups and vibraphones are held back here for something decidedly more modest. An acoustic guitar rhythm, simple piano arpeggio, and soft strings don’t crescendo or pound like they do on Funeral, but do just as much to suitably accompany the sincerity of Win Butler’s vocal.
It is important to note that with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire did not create a coming of age song, our hero doesn’t change or learn anything here. Despite its title, it’s not really about a place either. It’s about a time, a time you didn’t even know was happening. You were in the prime of your life and even then you were already bored.
- Aaron Chan
Why is Kanye West such a douchebag? It’s kind of a rhetorical question, and everyone with any awareness of pop culture will have their own answer. But on Runaway Kanye attempts to provide his own answer, or at least he acknowledges why women in his life may see him that way. A tinkling piano opening gives way to his honest and pained explanations of his own failures – he claims to be “gifted at finding what I don’t like the most”, as well as never taking time off of work, chasing cheap sex when he’s already in a relationship with a “good girl”, and just generally acting like an asshole, a scumbag, a jerk off, and, yes, a douchebag. But being Kanye, he then flips it around, telling his current girl she can “leave or live with it” through a career defining Pusha T guest verse, and tells her that the best strategy is for her to “run away fast as you can”. In other words, he acknowledges his transgressions but refuses to take responsibility for them. He then doubles down, playing the victim and claiming that although he knows he can be blamed for all the problems in the relationship, he doesn’t know how he’ll manage “if one day you just up and leave." At the end of the day, who is this song for? Is it a defence of his behaviour, or an indictment? Is he trying to find sympathy or is he proclaiming his need to be accepted for who he is? The genius of the song is that it’s all of these things at the same time, and it’s that brilliant balance of provocation and vulnerability that keeps Kanye West so relevant, and never more so than on this stellar track.
- Jason Foster
Kevin Parker was no stranger to lavish soundscapes before Lonerism. Upon first listen, Tame Impala’s debut release Innerspeaker converted casual listeners to die hard fans of their powerful neo-psychedelic pop music. Released shortly after, Apocalypse Dreams represents a masterclass in pace and texture and a forward movement for one of the great sonic auteurs of the era. A departure from Parker’s previous work, the jam heavy grooves of Alter Ego and Lucidity have evolved into pop-oriented melodies and more poignant songwriting; the sound of a visionary musician learning to use his words while still clenching on to his axe. While Currents, released three years later, was even more singles driven, Apocalypse Dreams would resemble something of a transition point between Tame Impala’s experimentalism and pop sensibility.
It’s easy to get lost in a song this powerful with its towering wall of synth, guitars, and drums bending and weaving through one another. The pace transitions seamlessly from bustling intro to halftime rhythm breaks that feel like epiphanies. It takes hold, handily wields this jumble of instruments -- the outlandish use of delay, the involved bassline, the layers of stratified vocals -- and creates a beautiful, epic, sense of organized chaos and wide use of space. The control is understandable; Parker is, after all, the sole artist behind Tame Impala. Everything heard on the track, from the instrumentation and vocals, the recording and production, mixing and mastering, words and music come from his hands and voice.
In a timely turn of events Tame Impala’s music became something of a symbol for themes of aging and change, promise and helplessness. It was no surprise that his music achieved a far reach and universality touching both 30-year-old parent and millennial hype beast.
- Bianca Chan
Flexing his muscles as rap’s premier thespian storyteller, Kendrick Lamar’s performance on m.A.A.d city paints images that splay across the mind like a silver screen. Serving as a centrepiece for the sonically cinematic masterwork of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick recalls the traumas of his Compton childhood through frantic, adolescent yelps.
It’s a slapper..yes, but only at a distance. If you slip past the rhythmic hypnosis of his flow and peer in, you might find Kendrick keeping you as wide awake as you would be after a late-night screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a toss up as to which is more violent. Kendrick lives out memories in real-time, bombarding the listener with visuals of shootouts, rampant substance abuse, and cold blooded murder up close— and that’s just the first half of the song. The G-Funk flavoured beat switch serves as a reprieve from the opening onslaught of the first two minutes. If the first part of m.A.A.d city is the panic attack, the second part is the sweaty aftermath on your bedroom floor; reflecting on why it even happened in the first place. Despite Kendrick’s trademark lyrical precision, the song has a stream of consciousness quality in its delivery that makes it come out in freestyle from an inpatient group therapy session.
It’s one of the single darkest tracks the Compton emcee has ever put to wax, yet it remains a staple at his live shows— erupting through the crowd with palpable response. It’s easy to see why, it showcases everything that made him the most iconic musician of the decade: masterful storytelling, explosive sonics, and a delivery and flow beyond replication (not that people haven’t tried).
- Jared Marshall
It’s the part of the movie where it seems as though nothing could fail, you know like the beginning of Act II. On “Countdown”, Beyonce Knowles Carter practically explodes with joyous adventurism in entering a new phase of her life and career. Her decade-spanning relationship with JAY Z had gone unusually well by Hollywood standards, her relationship with the press was almost better, and the announcement of Blue Ivy was only a matter of time. Two classic albums, three mega tours, and era defining performances at the Superbowl Halftime Show and Coachella were on the way, but Countdown marked the moment the Queen landed on the moon.
An instant classic from the Holy Mother of instant classics, Countdown triumphs something of a technical marvel; an animatedly elated track, made from a highly unpredictable arrangement. It’s an exuberant call to the power of love that presents a worthy backing to a powerhouse performance. No genre is wasted. Funk, R&B, latin, 8bit, reggae, hip-hop, world beat, drum&bass are all thrown into the mix. Upon release, “Countdown” was labelled odd and described as “experimental” by critics who had no idea what to make of its unusual twists and turns.
Including Knowles, the song was worked on by 9 people, 7 if you ignore the Boyz II Men sample. Don’t. In-house producer Cainon Lamb literally built the top notch beat around Cooleyhighharmony classic Uhh Ahh, perhaps not knowing Destiny’s Child’s early career opening slot for the legendary Philly group’s world tour may or may not have caused Beyonce to “lose her mind” upon first hearing the beat in EMI offices.
Though some would call it a thematic sequel to Crazy In Love, Countdown holds the logical place for definitive Beyonce song of the era. With an ambitious attitude that lines colourful music and a dynamic performance from one of the most important artists of all time, it’s a wildly important song. Countdown stays true to the idealism reminiscent of the early stage of Beyonce’s career, but also displays a maturity reflective of the current one. An ode to self worth and monogamy, Beyonce pours out her undying devotion to her love without ever having to sacrifice how she values herself.
- Aaron Chan
When you listen to Pyramids, you might hear and absorb it as towering an achievement as the eponymous Giza monuments themselves. Hyperbole? Possibly, but Ocean brings such a grandeur to the virtuosic modern backing music and the epoch-spanning lyrics that by part II it is actually easy to believe. The past becomes a backdrop for the struggles of an individual and a culture. This is an artistic perfectionist carefully crafting even the most disparate sounding pieces together into a whole that crosses boundaries of genre, instrumentation, and mixing. The massive building blocks that underpin the song feel as though they are working towards a revelation as sublime as the ancients seeing the pyramids pointing up.
The track hooks you right away, with the high full keyboard stabs being gradually overwhelmed by the pulse of the reverse kick drum, and slowly the evolving percussion along with Ocean’s voice push the track into a kaleidoscope of sound. Envision the glowing pyramids of another place, simultaneously of the past and future. The two feel as if they exist in the same continuum in Pyramids, even as Ocean, ever the great purveyor of concept sings about Egypt and Cleopatra points to what music, expression, and emotion can be.
Afro-futurism has had an extremely long shelf life. With themes of future optimism, pride in oneself and one’s culture, and the importance of remembering the past as life goes on, Frank Ocean reflects these current anxieties and the initiative to form cures for those cultural and social ailments. The shift around five minutes into Pyramids solidifies these trends being united: yearning, optimism, past, future, macro, micro, pride, and vulnerability.
- Evan Koski
Kanye really went off, heh? What do you get when the most maximalist artist of the past 15 years decides to strip everything away?
Kanye has always been something of a visionary fuelled by his own curiosity. Like all great auteurs before him he seemingly perfects ideas, discards them and starts fresh every release, but never before with the brashness and audacity of Yeezus. Still keeping his bold sense of experimentation, but now weaponizing a less lavish vision. Something dirtier.
Kanye’s conflict with the fashion industry was a clear source of unbridled rage, embellished by disorderly interviews with Sway Calloway and Zane Lowe. In New Slaves, Kanye maintains his signature wit but now with more purpose than ever taking to the mic a punk energy you’d expect from Milo Aukerman.
This is Kanye perched from his ledge with a machine gun, sky high on coke, ripped and ready to blow down the first motherfucker who comes through the door. Now armed with frustrations of being marginalized in both the music and fashion industries, West comes armed to the teeth creating a villainous persona, even willing to pull apart any remnants of his previous sound. After spending nearly a decade earning his seat at the drum programming big boy tables, Kanye’s removal of drums on the large majority of New Slaves is a statement in its own right, but the imperial synth stab arrangement still knocks as hard as anything on The College Dropout.
No one is safe. The fashion industry, the Hamptons, the media, the prison system.. the DEA and the CCA are practically burned at the stake here to demonstrate the terrifying current state of America. We’re a long way from the Eddie Murphy-esque comedy of Gold Digger here.
Then, redemption. A victorious sample scoring glorious vocalizations between an uncredited Frank Ocean’s falsetto and Kanye West playing a guitar solo with his voice. It all seems like a lot on paper, but if there’s one thing the dark prince of pop understands is tightness of concept and New Slaves lets Kanye say more in 4 minutes than most artists do in an entire album.
- Jared Marshall
The release of Robyn’s consolidated Body Talk represents a turning point for millennial pop music at the turn of the decade. She successfully accomplished what many pop artists have tried and failed to create: a cohesive, engaging concept album constructed entirely of singles. This approach imbues the album with an ambitiously high energy level for over an hour, but the effort would be in vain if not for the explosive catchiness of the album’s opener, Dancing On My Own. Despite the title’s implied sense of solitary, this song is as relevant in the club as it is in your bedroom.
It’s an old story. A woman watches her ex-lover with another on the dancefloor and persists to dance away her sorrows all night. About 7 years before Body Talk, Robyn ended her decade long relationship with Jive Records after the latter reacted negatively to her new indie friendly electro-pop sound, far before Charli XCX and Lorde were bankable stars. Known primarily as a Swedish Euro pop singer, Robyn was left without a contract and forced to make and release music on her own. In a beautiful marriage of expert songwriting and context, the song has become a symbol for independence and the most accessible song of the decade.
The song’s invasion of various corners of pop culture since its initial release has been spectacular to say the least, serving as the musical backdrop to key scenes in Girls and Gossip Girl, and cementing itself as a gay anthem during a particularly captivating exchange on Rupaul’s Drag Race. The single has also inspired a litany of tear-stained YouTube covers that have launched the careers of numerous talent show competitors, but their unrestrained embrace of the lyrical melancholy ignores the many dimensions that Dancing On My Own operates within. The song ostensibly starts with a New Order-style dichotomy of somber lyrics and electric melody, but slowly transforms into something more balanced and responsive. The same lyrics that express rejection and loneliness at the beginning of the song begin to represent an opportunity for self-empowerment by the end. Robyn’s perspective undulates with the energy of Dancing On My Own, but the final lyrics illustrate a resolute conclusion: “The music dies/But you don’t see me standing here”. Robyn is officially over it, and she’s walking away from the experience with a timeless pop classic for show.
- Alex Vujacic
by the age of 19, Azalea Banks had already been through two record contracts, was self releasing music through Myspace and Youtube, and ultimately ended up with little finances and working at a strip club
then 212 happened. Most people were introduced to the song the same way: through a barebones, black and white DSLR shot video that cost under 30 dollars to make
on first glance it seemed to be about dominance; a fresh brag in which Banks threatens to steal your trick, offers unbeatable head and a pulsing, bubbling sonic playground that was as outlandish as it was spontaneous.
In the midst of the greatest DIY revolution in popular music, some random teenaged internet personality jumped on a youtube rip of a Lazy Jay song, dropped bars in a sometimes British sometimes American accent, fought her way through transitions, sang a sticky hook, said "cunt" 50 times all before the drop. and then the song erupts, Banks double time flow morphing to a war mongering scream. It is wild, ecstatic, sexual, danceable, offensive, stupid, genius, braggadocios and above all highly, highly contagious.
what is the 212 anyway? Search google and you’ll see “Manhattan area code” But don’t be fooled 212 isn’t a location. it’s a mindset. a vibe if you will
It’s supreme confidence, the attitude she took in order to survive the ghetto and the music business as a female African American
unsurprisingly, 212 spread like wildfire. This thing was everywhere, every party, every gym, every car, to this day it hasn’t really gone away. in true modern omnivore fashion, everyone wanted a piece of the red hot Banks, from Kanye West to Lady Gaga
and then the plane went down
very few collaborations made it to release, with most artists shelving their cosign
Banks’ commercial debut Broke with Expensive Taste was released to tepid response
If there was a bridge, odds were Banks set fire to it. She was fired by UMG, dropped by her booking agency, and pulled from multiple headlining festival slots
producers who seemed tailor made to spearhead the next great Yung Rapunxel single were shunned, Disclosure got called ugly, Pharrell a “light skinned nigga”
even civilians were fair game as Banks very public altercations with club security and airplane passengers provided effortless media fodder
She’s gone now, 212 is still very much here
Enough has been said about the reclamation of the cunt to fill several 1991s, but in an era of outlandish excess and sensory overload, is there anything this song isn’t? hip hop, house, garage, indie, liquor, oral sex, designer drugs, freedom, black music, white music.
Above all, the song can also be interpreted as a contemporary statement about fame and ambition, with Banks foreshadowing the trajectory her career would take before it really even started.
“They’ll forget your name soon and won’t nobody be to blame but yourself.”
212 is a zeitgeist capsule by an artist who never apologized for unashamedly being herself. Never above pointing out her peers’ novel gimmicks and novelty as the source of their notoriety. While most people laughed and trolled, the valiant music fan saw an artist who was ultimately doomed by the frivolous ego that was her ticket in the first place, but hey..she can be the answer.
- Aaron Chan & Jared Marshall