Ranting About Music’s 30 Favorite Albums of the 2010s

It is the fall of 2009, and I am in a university computer lab. I am a freshman English major working on a paper while listening to music on my mp3 player through corded headphones. At the same time, I am texting a friend on my LG Shine, and when they stop responding, I assume it’s because the Blockbuster where they work got busy (meanwhile, their mom is one of the first Netflix subscribers I’ll ever know). I return to my paper, which is on the future of music consumption in America. I am the person who still goes to FYE on Tuesdays for new albums, which reads as slightly anachronistic even in 2009; my girlfriend, who hoards iTunes gift cards like a dragon with a penchant for Florence + the Machine B-sides, is more with the times. But iTunes feels stuck, and I want to use this paper to see what else was out there. My research turns up several options, one of which is this European service targeting an early 2010 North American release. It’s called “Spotify.”

Look, you’re reading a music blog. You know how much has changed around music in the 10 years since I was plugging away in a major I’d drop by the end of the semester. This past decade has seen shit like albums show up out of nowhere unannounced, albums you could listen to on some streaming services and not others, and in one infamous case, an album that just showed up on your phone without your input. And, at the same time, we’ve seen careers, movements, and genres meltdown and rise up and become something utterly different and exciting. It’s all felt like it happened at lightspeed.

Amid that lightspeed, though, here are some albums that matched pace with me. This End-of-the-’10s coverage is going up more than halfway into 2020, but hey I’ve got time on my hands and probably so do you. So that’s what we’re starting today, with this list of my thirty favorite albums from the ‘10s. 

A few things before we begin. The hard and fast rules for this were 1. the album had to come out in the 2010s to be eligible, and 2. limit one album per artist (this is mostly in the interest of space–this started as a top ten, and then a top fifteen, and then a top twenty and then). Beyond that, as for how I could pick X over Y, or why Z was left off, well, this is a list of my favorites, and I tried to make it accurate. When you’re working on this big of a timescale, the temptation’s there to make a “correct” list of all the big, obvious picks arranged in a tasteful order (and I definitely have some on here), or to swing entirely in the opposite direction and load a list of 30 with 20-25 “interesting” picks (I definitely have some of those on here, too). I tried to put something together that wasn’t a kissass rundown of safe choices or a total chore to read through. Everything here, from the international smashes to the self-releases, meant the world to me, and with that, I’d like to introduce you to Ranting About Music’s ‘10s retrospective: A Whole Fucking Decade of This.

30. teen suicide – It’s the Great Big Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honey Pot (2016): Of course, I name this entire feature after one Sam Ray album only to immediately spotlight another. It’s the Great Big Celebration…is Ray and company’s greatest, widest ranging collection of indie rock and indie rock adjacent songs, wrapped in just enough production to count as “lo-fi” as opposed to “shitty,” and tuneful to a fault. Ray’s default style is very “songs as sketches,” and while that’s present on It’s the Great Big Celebration…even most of the sketches here have a clarity to them that puts the album above TS’ previous work.

29. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else (2014): This is kind of a decade achievement pick for Cloud Nothings, who made three albums (this one, Attack on Memory, and Last Building Burning) of some of the most musically satisfying, kinetic indie rock of the decade. Drummer Jayson Gerycz is a generational talent.

28. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials (2011): One of the most perfectly realized ornate alt pop albums of the decade; it’s wild that this isn’t the Florence record with “how big” and “how beautiful” in the title. The first like, seven songs on this thing are incredible, and even after “Seven Devils” it never truly slows. I would also say it’s an album whose deluxe version is the only version, even the bonus tracks don’t miss.

27. The Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording (2015): It’s just that good. Look, Hamilton is a rap-influenced Broadway musical about one of the Founding Fathers that turns not one but two cabinet member debates into rap battles, has a Beatles-esque song by King George, soundtracks a 1700s courtship to JaRule and Ashanti, and still has the ballads and ensemble numbers inherent to musicals. Do you know how high a bar that has to clear just to be listenable?

26. Rihanna – ANTI (2016): If the mood “bitch don’t kill my vibe” was a whole album. Arguably the album that best captured what popular music sounded like in the ‘10s while retaining its own hits and identity, and any A-lister pop album trying to have it both ways as a prestige project and chart dominant force has ANTI’s fingerprints all over it.

25. The National – Sleep Well Beast (2017): The National were so good this decade. Trouble Will Find Me might have a better highlight reel, but the cohesion here is off the charts. 

24. Amanda Palmer – Theatre is Evil (2012): An idiosyncratic, technicolor burst of a record that’s extra in all the best ways. So much of this album feels like a whirlwind theatre performance that could fall apart at any moment, and I love that chaotic energy.

23. Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY. (2016): Rosenstock’s punk rock peak. An album of socially-minded anxieties and, well, worries about the future that’s also sneakily impossibly melodic. As someone who’s followed Jeff since the late BTMI! days, this is the album his best stuff always hinted he had in him.

22. Foxing – Nearer My God (2018): My “if I could hear an album for the first time again” pick of the decade. Just a wildly adventurous record.

21. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (2010): The best Gorillaz album. Expansive, gorgeous, and uses its army of guests quite well while still having time for Albarn to turn in songs like “Rhinestone Eyes” and “On Melancholy Hill.” I think popular music absorbed the lessons of Gorillaz to the band’s detriment in the ‘10s, but this album was impeccable.

20. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (2012): My favorite movie scene of the decade is the “Leap of Faith” sequence from Into the Spider-Verse. It’s stunning for a number of reasons, the least of which it hits a lot of the same notes as Celebration Rock. Both works are not only feats of studio wizardry–Into the Spider-verse’s animation is in a category of its own, and on CR, the sound of 2 guys from Vancouver is engineered to sound like 20–but they find catharsis in the unrestrained moment, the freedom and joy of just going for it (the most exuberant moment from the “Leap of Faith” scene is an elated WOOOOOO that even gets displayed comic-book style once Miles hits his stride; as a fitting comparison, the lyrics on Celebration Rock live up to the passion and drama suggested by titles like “The Night of Wine and Roses,” “Fire’s Highway,” and “The House That Heaven Built,” and yet the purplest prose on the album are its massive cries of “WHOA-OH-OOH-WHOA-OH-OH” and “OH YEAHHH, AWRIGHT!”). It’s the sort of launch no one makes if they aren’t at least a little desperate: the run-up to “Leap of Faith” involves Miles’ resolve reforming itself after being pushed to the brink, and for as wildly life-affirming as it is, Celebration Rock in a certain light believes in living large because it has no other options. It’s the feeling of leaping not because you’re unafraid to fall, but because you can’t sit on the ledge any longer. And that’s where Celebration Rock soars.

19. Grimes – Art Angels (2015): It feels 30% goofy to extoll the virtues of Grimes in 2020, but the same impulses that drive her toward wince-inducing headlines also power gloriously batshit albums like Art Angels. It’s loud and overtly strange, and yet its core is musically solid in a way a lot of Aggressively Online pop music just isn’t.

18. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011): The great irony of St. Vincent’s guitar hero pop culture reputation is that it only kicked in once she was years removed from her most histrionic guitar record. Listening to Strange Mercy, you can hear Annie Clark twist her instrument in as many shapes as she can within a record of psychosexual tortured indie rock. Peep that “Chloe in the Afternoon” riff.

17. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence (2014): Lana Del Rey’s second proper album trades Born to Die’s “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” for “It’s my third week with this doomsday cult in the California desert, we’re out of water, my body is a swirl of narcotics and amphetamines, and I don’t know whose blood this is,” hazy dread, and along with more confident, bigger songs, it makes all the difference.  “Shades of Cool” is the best Bond theme in I don’t know when.

16. Paramore – After Laughter (2017): “Poppy album that’s got emotions, actually” has become such a disingenuous logline over the last few years thanks to how therapeutic terms and concepts have been normalized that it’s hard to take it at face value, but damn if After Laughter doesn’t mean that shit. Under that new wave/power-pop sheen is a dark, frankly bitter record about feeling too miserable to feel anything at all, the gap between how you want to feel and how you do, and just being flat out ruinously depressed. This is an album whose Marital Love Song equates love with drowning. Remarkably though, After Laughter’s never really dour, and even though it’s aware the questions it asks seldom have answers, there’s warmth in the uncertainty of asking.

15. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again (2014): Short feels like the inverse of simple for Never Hungover Again. Sure, it’s a 19 minute long album of pop-punk ragers, but there’s still plenty going on (“End of the Summer,” “The Jerk”) and when there isn’t, the songs are a straight trip (“Victoria,” “Heart Tattoo,”). One of my most replayable albums of the decade…

14. Mannequin Pussy – Romantic (2016): …Although this one can compete with it. Last year’s Patience is probably a better album all around, but Romantic has a figuring-it-out energy that I love, and at 17 minutes, it feels like getting into a brief, intense mosh pit with your emotions. That and its exact mix of punk, emo, and shoegaze just speaks to me.

13. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015): Hour-plus jazz rap G-funk odysseys with a spoken word piece framing device shouldn’t dazzle as much as TPAB does, and yet the sheer technical wonder of the album gets there. One that’s gotten more play with me in recent months.

12. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014): Against Me!’s twangy punk onslaught that’s loosely about frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s transition rocks, but it also sounds like the hell that has to accompany rebuilding yourself from the ground up. At the same time, the heart of the self never falters on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and the determination to live through this is always there, from “Trans Soul Rebel” to “Paralytic States.” And, it just has to be said, “fuckmylife666” fucking owns. 

11. glass beach – the first glass beach album (2019): This was my Favorite Album pick for last year, which means I had to take a step back from it in January. It’s gone into  rotation again lately, and I still love it for being the kind of big swing album that has room for diminished chords in one of its catchiest songs.

10. The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation (2013): The Greatest Generation is a self-conscious “Masterpiece” record. It’s the kind of record that has a seven minute long closer that brings back lyrics and motifs from the previous 50 minutes and includes meditations on family scattered throughout. At the same time, it’s loaded with viscerally satisfying songs (“Passing Through a Screen Door,” “Teenage Parents,” “We Could Die Like This,” “Cul-De-Sacs”) that are these hi-def, unabashedly Warped Tour pop-punk hook parades with three guitars and big hearted choruses. In terms of what it is and the scene it’s from, The Greatest Generation is probably the best pop-punk album of the decade, but I remain fascinated at how little play it gets outside of that on largely aesthetic grounds. It’s a wide-screen, absurdly catchy and approachable What It All Means rock album, but because it’s too uncool to do uncoolness correctly, fuckin’ no one bone fide will go near it (this Ian Cohen Grantlander digs into this phenomenon and is also the sum total of TGG’s online writing of note). Not that any of this really ~matters, I just think people would love this one if they gave it the chance.

9. Kitty – Miami Garden Club (2017): Kitty’s career through the ‘10s has been one of my favorite things to watch. From cloud rap beginnings (fuck the abusive creep who produced on it, but Kitty’s rapping on D.A.I.S.Y. Rage still goes) to electronic and dance pursuits to dipping her toes in full-on pop, she amassed a back catalogue as solid as anyone while constantly expanding what her songs could do. Miami Garden Club feels like a culmination of all her work up to its release while still existing as its own thing; a jam-laden dance/rap/pop album stripped in the name of resilience down to the essentials. It’s also the only album I’ve heard that has room for an 80s throwback named after a Mass Effect alien race and features multiple Super Smash Bros. samples. MGC points the way forward in Kitty’s career, too: the album has a permanent sense of self to it, and Kitty’s solo production credits on “New Leaf” and “Sugarwater” act as north stars toward the sound and vibe of self-produced future projects Rose Gold and Charm + Mirror. This may also be my favorite album cover of the decade because, like teeth falling out in dreams symbolizing letting go of insecurity, Miami Garden Club to me is about the freedom of not being fucked with, set to immaculate beats.

8. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (2010): This list is admittedly filled with big-swing records, and probably none  are bigger and swinginger than The Monitor : an hour long, hyper-literate ramshackle punk rock epic that views the Civil War as a modern struggle between us and our lesser impulses/vices or the permanent match-up between good, thoughtful people and the boorish, hateful machinery of our day that only chews said people up to spit them out. It’s an album you’re either in or out on because it is A Lot, and that’s before getting to Patrick Stickles’ yamping barfly vocals, the beer-soaked shoutalongs, swelling orchestral moves, and the album’s bagpipe solo outro. But for an album this burly and thematically dense, there’s a deftness in execution; the entire enterprise could collapse under its own weight, and yet it never does. Despite its chestbeating that “THE ENEMY IS EVERYWHERE,” “YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A LOSER,” and “IT’S STILL US AGAINST THEM,” The Monitor is still in the fight and holding onto its ideals of a more perfect union that exists only in theory. The opening Lincoln quote of “As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide” felt in 2010 like a surge of optimism, but as time goes on, the ultimatum in it looms. It’s still us against them.

7. Beach House – Depression Cherry (2015): A few years ago, the art museum in my city hosted an installation called “All The Flowers Are For Me.” Go click through that link, because the little description I had here didn’t do justice to what might be the most beautiful art I’ve seen in person. I liked it so much, that I went multiple times. There was one Sunday morning the museum set aside for quiet reflection/meditation in the exhibition room with “AtFafM,” and I went, getting lost in the floral shapes, architectural patterns, and just taking in the interplay between lights and shadow; it was quite immersive. When I was there that morning, I listened to Depression Cherry, because “All the Flowers Are For Me” looked the way Depression Cherry sounds.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010): I’m fairly certain that I started writing this piece before Kanye’s Presidential run even started, so who knows what’s going to happen by the time it finally goes up? To revisit MBDTF in 2020 is to recall why Kanye had any cultural capital in the ‘10s to begin with, after torpedoing everything at the VMAs the fall before; there is no doubt a contingent out there of discerning fans who will say Yeezus is better, but to me, MBDTF is still his best work of the decade. Listening to it now, I’m noticing how beneath the cabal of guests (14 notable artists and Cyhi the Prince get verses/features), this is an isolated, lonely album whose at times crushing volume reads as a desire to be obliterated by sheer noise. It’s an album very much up its own ass/in its own head; even on the less overt headtrips, something like “Devil in a New Dress” sounds like watching the world go by from a limo with the windows up. At other times, it’s just a blast to listen to maximalist ALL CAPS music like “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster,” or “Lost in the World,” or hear an ego shatter over an Aphex Twin sample. It’s Kanye, so inevitably parts of MBDTF are gross as all get out (“Hell of a Life,” “So Appalled” hasn’t aged well), and that’s to be considered in its legacy, but still, it hits when it hits. 

5. The Hotelier – Goodness (2016): This is gonna be a short one. Sorry about that. It’s just that Goodness, while a lifesaver, is the emotional equivalent of staring at the sun. It believes that goodness and restoration are always possible, and they always have to be, because you’re kinda doomed without that belief. Which is kind of a lot to put on a pastoral record I’ve referred to at least once as “nature punk,” but it’s true. There may not be any finer quarter-hour run than the first 15 minutes on here.

4. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (2013): Stay with me for a sec. Around the time that Janelle Monae released her third album Dirty Computer and came out as pansexual, a lot of writing slagged her previous albums The ArchAndroid (also great) and The Electric Lady for being too aloof, cold, or inhuman compared to the freer, warmer coming out party of Dirty Computer. I could pick nits over this kind of writing as lazy “then vs. now” spin, or point out how prominent allegory is in Afrofuturism writ large and how even the most cursory look at Monae’s Cindi Mayweather myth indicates there’s something larger at play (one of the interludes on The Electric Lady literally features an angry radio show caller shouting “Robot love is queer!” but yep, it’s just about androids), but what gets me is that these albums are so human. 

The Electric Lady swaps out its predecessor’s psychedelic touches for gleaming, exacting R&B/soul/pop/rock arrangements synced with precision strike rhythms, and it pairs these clockwork-like instrumentals with lyrics that idolize the power and freedom found in going unrestrained. It’s also an album full of so many nods to women in worshipful fashion (including a song named after Sally Ride, who was the first woman in space and was also covertly in a same sex relationship for decades, hm) and pronounless love songs that you don’t realize how queer it’s been out of the side of its mouth until the vibe changes on Miguel duet “PrimeTime.” There’s a tension in the unsaid, and I listen to The Electric Lady, and I hear someone acknowledging a personal truth that is too much for them to speak aloud by willing it into the architecture of their creation, and in that, I understand that Monae’s synchronized rhythms aren’t clockwork, but heartbeats.

3. Frank Ocean – Blonde (2016): It’s always a question of what to do with the unassailable classics. I can rattle off what’s great about Blonde, like the incredible production values (that “Nights” beat switch, my God, still), the melancholy and sadness in Frank Ocean’s voice, the fact that there are like five songs on here that I have to skip on shuffle because I know they’ll ruin my day if I let them, the way it’s music has a so much texture and depth without sounding like it, how this kind of deconstructed R&B/soul/pop fit the sound and mood of music in the ‘10s, or how it’s just a plainly beautiful album, but all of that can’t help but feel trite or like a retread. At the same time, unassailable classics don’t get that way by being bad, and Blonde’s meant too much to me as an introspective, gorgeous trip to ever get contrarian over “okay, but it topped Pitchfork’s list.” So it makes sense here at number three, and deserves all its praises.

2. Candy Hearts – Everything’s Amazing & Nobody’s Happy (2011): I saw Candy Hearts play some of these songs in the upstairs part of a bar I’ve never been to and probably could never find again, the kind of place where we handed the dude cash at the door and he wrote a number on our hands, and I had one drink that night because I was just out of school and most of the money I could afford to spend had to go to the ticket that might have been $12. Candy Hearts traded in songs that hit with that kind of super-specificity, but with a skilled hand that made each experience feel like your own, and while this is my second pick on the list, I assure you it’s the one I’ve stumped for most IRL. It’s my idealized mix of indie and pop-punk to the point that I still subconsciously measure any album like it against it, looking for incisive lyrics, endlessly singalongable melodies, a kicking rhythm section, and guitars subtly cranked into the red while an acoustic plays in the back.

Plus, Everything’s Amazing & Nobody’s Happy just has songs. If you want shout-alongs about low stakes fun with your friends as a way to get over (“Asbury Park,” “Jawbreaker”), it’s got those, ditto for giddy crush songs laced with pleading (“Lighter Than the Air,” “Tongue Tied”) and a self-affirmation banger about caffeine addiction and bodily discomfort (“Good Enough”–Candy Hearts was years ahead on this one), but the best tune here (“Sleepy Kisses”) is probably the bleary-eyed one fixated on a blissful early 20s relationship’s eventual end (Candy Hearts frontwoman Mariel Loveland is ever the Swiftie–of course “Sleepy Kisses” is a Track 5). Even “Something Special” changes it up with some Strokes-ian shuffle, and “I Want Out” and “She’s So Cool” are killer ballads that don’t skip on the fuzz. If this feels like a pitch, it’s a shameless one; I love this album like it’s my favorite hoodie.

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010): It’s sorta nuts to think that Arcade Fire had this album in them. AF’s first two records ran almost exclusively on bombast, and then suddenly here they are with The Suburbs’ title track that just kind of nails creeping dread (listen to how bright that piano motif sounds the first time, and compare that to how it sounds nearly drowned by woeful strings and nervous electronics by the song’s end). It’s a more subtle album that portends a more subtle era; whatever else you want to say about Arcade Fire’s work in the ‘10s, The Suburbs ended up being one of the model records for indie in the ‘10s (it came out 10 years ago today). It’s a very created-in-the-studio album: the 80s rock heroics and texture of like, “City With No Children” or “Suburban War” wouldn’t have shown up on an ‘00s dry, jangly indie rock record, and while you could probably fill an entire XM station with modern groups trying to write their own “Heart of Glass”-aspiring “Sprawl II,” Regine Chassange’s standout moment was an honest left turn in its time. And despite being the only Arcade Fire album you could ever call “nuanced,” this is still the one where they put on the most arena rock muscle for tracks like “Month of May” and “Ready to Start,” gesturing towards indie’s increased stature in the coming decade.

The album does a great job at capturing what its titular landscapes feel like. The music really digs into (sorry) suburban sprawl, and the way all that empty space can be used to project either an idyllic if restless beauty or existential suffocation depending on how you feel that day. An album aware of “moving past the feeling” is also great at evoking them, like how “Half Light I” sounds like staying out on a Friday and watching the shopping centers close from the Steak and Shake across the street, or “Empty Room” captures the rush of your friend hitting the gas in their family’s most used car once you get to the edge of town, or the way “Wasted Hours” remembers keeping a hangout going later than it should because you don’t feel like going home yet. Everything has that reflective tinge of being gone, but enough inviting details always skip to the surface.

And like, screw it, The Suburbs is a foundational work for me. When I say that this is a list of my favorite albums, I mean that shit; if I wanted to look cooler by slotting in Lemonade or Harmlessness, Amanda Palmer and Hamilton are right there, and I’d go with any other Janelle and Beach House records. But no, it’s truly a list of my favorites, and The Suburbs is truly my #1 pick of the bunch. In some ways, it was the first release day album to hit me where I was, and that left both short and longterm impacts. Hell, it was Ranting About Music’s first 5 star review, and the second post I ever actually shared with people (the first, in a cool bit of symmetry, was 10 years ago today, as well, where I wrote a super eager writeup on this neato band called Candy Hearts). It’s the kind of thing that I hope everyone has: that piece of art or that experience that stays with you and informs you. Now then, let’s get into the rest of the decade.

Up Next: The 10 Most Essential Albums of the 2010s (coming soon)

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Top Ten Best Hits of 2019 (5-1)

Alright, part 2 time.

5. Ariana Grande and Social House – “Boyfriend” (#98)
You know, for someone with a slew of collaborations to their name, Ariana Grande rarely shines in hers. They tend to feel a little under-thought, like labels and promoters just throwing names together and hoping that the sheer starpower involved is enough to carry the thing forward (it mostly works on “Bang, Bang,” and mostly doesn’t on, say “Don’t Call Me Angel”). That’s not the case with “boyfriend,” her collaboration with Social House for their debut EP. Social House is a duo who’ve worked with Grande before as beatmakers; they did “goodnight n go” and “pete davidson” from Sweetener,  “NASA,” “7 Rings,” and the title track for thank u, next, and one-off single “Monopoly” and while that rap sheet includes “7 Rings,” everything else she’s done with them has been aces. Grande and Social House have chemistry on “boyfriend” that pairs well with the song’s lyrics about loving whatever the hell your non-relationship with someone is or isn’t, but honestly, I’m mostly here for the melody and the vaguely “lofi hip hop beats to relax/studio to”-core beat. It’s just a good listen, and a good companion piece of thank u, next.

4. Post Malone – “Circles” (#62)
It is with heavy heart that I announce Post Malone has a good song.

Sure, Post has had brushes with greatness before, but they were based on his own inherent goofiness (“White Iverson”) or featured someone else doing the heavy lifting (keep reading, you’ll know). The vast majority of his hits are, in a word, bad, from utterly forgettable (“Congratulations,” “Rockstar”) to barely existent (“Psycho”) to grossly misogynistic (“I Fall Apart”). “Circles,” meanwhile, is just a no-qualifiers great pop song with solid instrumentation, a surprisingly deft melody, and a chorus that’s nothing but hooks. The real stunner here is toward the end of the chorus, where Post just leaps into the line “I dare you to do something” with this burst of confidence and vocal assurance that I haven’t heard from him before. Most of his singles have all the permanence of a puff of Axe bodyspray, but “Circles” is fully realized.

The other thing is that Post does sadboy better than he does braggart; this could be a misread on my part, but I always thought “White Iverson” got its charm from the incredulity and implicit sadness of Post Malone–an oafish looking white dude whose every style choice could be described as “unfortunate”–comparing himself to the man who legitimized black street fashion in the NBA. It was such a reach that it felt like watching Charlie Brown believe he could kick the football. “Circles” is less existential and more “guy and girl can’t make it work, thus sad, “ but it taps that same hangdog vein to great effect. It also seems like it’d be a good song to crush at karaoke. But, even if “Circles” didn’t come out, Post would still be on this list, because…

3. Post Malone and Swae Lee – “Sunflower” (#2)
Look, anyone who’s spent any time with me since December of 2018 should not be surprised by this. I fucking love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, so much so that I did my first ever cosplay last year as Miles Morales, complete with a sunflower pin that now lives on my everyday jacket. I went with the pin because sunflowers are a recurring item in Spider-verse fanart due to how the song’s used in the movie: after a 2 minute, action-heavy introduction to Peter Parker as Spider-Man, Spider-verse jumps to Miles drawing at his desk without a care in the world. He’s sitting there with his headphones on, singing along badly to “Sunflower” until his dad interrupts him from the other room about packing for school, and listen, Tobey Maguire might have nailed geeky gawky comic book Peter Parker, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone might arguably be the best superhero movie couple ever, and Tom Holland’s every move might be focus grouped for maximum charm, but there’s never a moment with any of them that puts you as wholly and unquestionably on their side as Miles jamming out in his chair and mumbling along to “Sunflower.” 

And none of that works if “Sunflower” isn’t great. As much as I carp about pop’s streaming-driven journey toward the middle, this is what can be great about music that takes a little from everything: you’ve got that hip-hop beat, lush piano, textured synths, and some guitar for flavor, plus an outright dreamy chorus. Swae Lee just radiates warmth throughout, and it’s such a perfect match for the production that you can’t help but hear Post Malone’s limitations when he shows up later (that Swae isn’t the lead credited artist on “Sunflower” is legitimately bonkers to me; this is his song the way that “I Love It” was Charli XCX’s). But still, Post does well enough not to detract from the song, and the duo’s efforts were rewarded: “Sunflower” tied the record for the most weeks a single’s spent in the Hot 100’s top 10. It’s just that good, and that’s not even getting to the Swae Lee-only version. I just love this song through and through; if I wasn’t trying to keep some measure of objectivity, this would be at number one.

2. Billie Eilish – “bad guy” (#4)
There’s this little artist who came along in 2019 named Billie Eilish, ever heard of her?

Probably even more than Lil Nas X, 2019 was Billie Eilish’s year. Honestly, I’m still kind of sorting out how I feel about her for the most part: to me, she feels less like an entirely new thing as much as she does the logical endpoint of years of hushy, minimalist pop, pop/rap symbiosis, and a pinch of ‘90s nostalgia (her look reminds me of nothing as much as end-of-‘90s cyber goth meets ‘10s The Fader and her facial expressions in promos call to mine Kurt Cobain’s disaffected stare). You throw Pure Heroine, Born to Die, and Yeezus in a stew together and dye its bangs, and you’ve got most of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The album does it’s thing well, but I sometimes feel like its mastery over aesthetic does more than some of the songs (this is something that plagues artists like Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd every now and then, but is also a point in Del Rey, The Weeknd, and Eilish’s favor because aesthetic mastery’s just as necessary as like, good songwriting). Alternatively, it could just be not for me.

All that said, “bad guy” unabashedly knocks. The production values are high, the mix is slick, and man, that bassline’s killer. On top of that, the song just makes a bunch of whipsmart interesting songwriting choices, like Eilish’s vocal layering, the decision to cut the bass at the top of the second verse, the “duh” button, the wordless vocal loop after the chorus, the trap beat switch for the outro, and it’s overall playfulness on what is and isn’t sarcastic. So yeah, Eilish had a slight leg up in the industry starting out, that doesn’t account for how a song that makes this many flat out odd choices tops the charts. Eilish has tapped into several different ideas that were all out there in pop, and she’s expressed them in one hell of a banger. I’m interested to see what she does next.

1. Sam Smith and Normani – “Dancing With a Stranger” (#14)
Party pop started the ‘10s with a bang. If we wind the clock back, the early part of the decade was littered with these speaker destroyers that weren’t just about parties, but these world-ending parties that went all night, never stopped, and demanded everything of you. This reached a fever pitch as club pop gave way to EDM, and after EDM went to gloriously cartoonish heights, something…happened. Our party pop became sad. You can chalk it up to any number of factors–inevitable course correction from “Party Rock Anthem” and “Turn Down For What,” a side effect of pop’s trend toward personal marketing with the rise of Spotify, Adele’s success, Drake’s success, Lorde and “Royals”–but by 2016, you’ve got yahoos like The Chainsmokers making wistful jams and a song like “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” which is straight up just about how hollow partying can make a person. The ‘10s became the era of “dancing with tears in your eyes” music, the era of the sad banger.

“Dancing With a Stranger” is an incredible sad banger. It has this propulsive dance floor groove, not just a drum but an actual groove, that pairs with those watery, sad-eyed synths and occasional bells. It’s also just a goddamn delight to hear Sam Smith on another dance track after “Latch;” I always get Smith’s impulse to do weepy ballads because their voice has this crumpled ache to it that lends itself well to balladry, but that same quality means they can bring so much more depth and nuance to upbeat numbers. Normani matches that quality in Smith, with both of them sounding forlorn and desperate to find a stranger just as a way to get over the person they’re hung up on. “Dancing With a Stranger” isn’t trying to party just for the sake of getting obliterated or purely to forget, but to find something new with someone else, and I like the symmetry of that. It’s the perfect pop song at the end of the decade, and an R&B dance track by a nonbinary balladeer and a girl group survivor feels like it has both eyes on the future, teary though they may be.

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Top Ten Best Hits of 2019 (10-6)

Welcome to the last leg of Listmas ‘19, here in *checks calendar* late January. Whoops. As you can guess by the title, today’s entry will look at Billboard’s highs for 2019.This list took some doing; I kept getting dinged by my own rule that only songs that peaked in 2019 were up for consideration, which eliminated things like “breathing” and “Youngblood” that were 2018 holdovers (a quick aside that shows how long we can hold onto hits these days: “I Like It” was the consensus pick for 2018’s Song of the Year. It ranked #69 [nice] on the ‘19 year-ender). Similar to how 2019’s overall not great, not terribleness made sussing out the worst hits of the year difficult, nailing down what was truly the best of this year also took some doing, but, rest assured, we made it. Let’s begin.

Honorable Mention: Polo G ft. Lil Tjay – “Pop Out” (#45)
The year-end Hot 100 is rife with “three minutes or less” Rap Caviar hits built on AutoTuned bars and preset trap snares/bass, but “Pop Out” stands above the rest. Polo G and Lil Tjay rap with a sense of urgency and loss that you don’t see in most of their contemporaries: they spin tales of their crime-riddled pasts, and it feels like bloodletting, even as Polo boasts about having nothing but $100s and diamonds. There’s a mournful triumph to the song’s slash and burn guitar and piano production, too, that echoes Polo and Tjay’s sentiment; everyone’s just in the pocket here. “Pop Out” is catchy and hooky, but haunted at the same time, packing a lot into a brief runtime, and for that it gets the HM.

10. 21 Savage ft. J.Cole – “a lot” (#42)
I did not think 21 Savage had this in him.

Granted, okay, I didn’t think 21 had much to him, and that’s on me. I never really got into his EP with Metro Boomin, and I essentially wrote him off when he steered into the “issa knife” meme early on. Between that and a lack of compelling guest spots, I just never paid him much attention (“Bank Account” excluded). But “a lot” is genuinely great. 21’s been around long enough now that this contemplative, “look how far I’ve come” rap fits him, plus “a lot” balances that with the idea that even for all his success, 21 still goes through a lot. His verses here are solid, and the call and response hook works better than you’d think. Plus, the choice to match 21 Savage, whose blunt instrument of a voice resists expression, with a beat this lush is downright inspired. J.Cole’s new rappity-rap elder statesman turn is a solid look, and he acts as a foil for 21 with a nimble verse that includes a prayer for Tekashi 6ix9ine (not great!) and one for Markelle Fultz (great, and, given his resurgence in Orlando, prescient!). “A lot” as a hit in 2019 feels almost counterintuitive: it’s a long song at nearly 5 minutes, and its beat is comparatively maximialist, but it’s just a good enough song that it got people to pay attention, regardless. Never again will I think of 21 as the “issa knife” guy.

9. Lil Nas X ft. Young Thug, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Mason Ramsey – “Old Town Road” (#1)
There are going to be lots of people who try, in some form or another, to emulate the success of “Old Town Road,” and they’re going to fail, because no one can replicate the exact circumstances that lead to this song’s rise, all of which, to me, come through in this remix. In the middle of everything is Lil Nas X, the kid who bought a beat that unknowingly sampled a hilariously obscure Nine Inch Nails track and rode “Old Town Road” to hitherto unknown heights from TikTok to a label deal as the year’s breakout star. You have Young Thug ,whose years-long genre elasticity, country dabblings, and overall rap weirdness laid the groundwork for “Old Town Road”’s eventual success. You have Billy Ray Cyrus, here to grant country industry legitimacy to a song that was initially rebuffed from Billboard’s country charts because it did “not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version” (the backlash to Billboard pulling “OTR” from its country charts is what broke the song through to wider audiences; “What if Billboard had just let ‘Old Town Road’ chart without fuss?” is already a great pop music “What If?”). You have Mason Ramsey here to show just how fast and how potent virality can be if it’s unexpected. And just on a technical level, that everyone here gets a chance to shine and the track’s still brief is a testament to structure and ability. Look, maybe you don’t like “Old Town Road,” that’s fine. But there’s nothing else like it.

8. Shawn Mendes – “If I Can’t Have You” (#29)
One of the many songs that “Old Town Road” stiff-armed from the number one spot was Shawn Mendes’ (making his second Best Hits appearance after being a Worst Hits mainstay) “If I Can’t Have You,” and while “IICHY” did well for itself, it didn’t rebound to top the chart like Mendes and Camila Cabella’s “Senorita” eventually did, despite being a much better song. “IICHY” borrows from Mendes’ white guy singer-songwriter brother-in-arms Charlie Puth’s bag of tricks by seamlessly blending styles together for one pop hit: there’s a little bit of soul, some trop-pop, a touch of dance, and the final chorus even features a breakdown, and these elements all breeze by so easily that you don’t even notice their disparate nature. If you’ve ever wondered what late day Maroon 5 would sound like if it was good, I feel like “If I Can’t Have You” is the answer: it’s slick, it’s unabashedly pop, but the difference is that there’s a beating heart at the center of this one. Mendes really sells the longing here without overdoing things, and his falsetto toward the end is a deft touch that makes “If I Can’t Have You” feel real. I get that “Senorita” has the name and brand appeal, but dammit, this one’s better.

7. DaBaby – “Suge” (#24)
One of the best things a song can do is just let its artist go, and that’s what happens with DaBaby on “Suge.” A top-down analysis of “Suge” doesn’t reveal anything special: it’s a hook-verse-hook-verse-hook shit-talker whose beat’s only defining feature is the (rightly kickass) gravity bomb bass on the hook. But it’s in the vein of “A Milli” or more recently “Bodak Yellow” where the point is just hearing a rapper sound twelve feet tall for a few minutes while just throwing bars. DaBaby raps with an “I can do this all day” confidence, and listening to “Suge,” you believe him.

6. Lizzo – “Truth Hurts” (#13)
So, at the top of this week, I went to a drag show with an amateur competition piece. The first contestant did “Nasty” (a very smart pick), and then the next did “Criminal” (a good song, if terminally long and slow for drag [not that I know anything, but c’mon, “Get the Party Started” and “Cut to the Feeling” are right there]). As the applause died down after contestant number three’s introduction and she took the stage, the opening piano notes of “Truth Hurts” erupted from the speakers, and the place went off like a bomb. I remember far less about the routine than I do the crowd’s reaction to “Truth Hurts:” the cheers, the dancing in seats, the fan clacks from the queens in the audience, and everyone singing along.

That’s the kind of power that “Truth Hurts” and Lizzo have amassed in under a year, the sort of thing that makes a song instantly iconic once it catches on. It’s a song where every part of it is memorable, yes, but it’s also magnetic and inviting; I can’t imagine hearing “Truth Hurts” and not reacting to it even a little. The musical bedroom is solid with that now signature piano intro, a wailing synth, and a concussive bassline, and Lizzo’s singing is emotive in all the right ways, and the lyrics are infinitely quotable from the first line on. Much has been made of the oddity that “Truth Hurts,” a song from 2017, blowing up the same year that Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You was released with its own promotional hype, but I kinda get it. “Truth Hurts” is affirming and cathartic in a way that’s singular, and it’s so easy for those traits to be reduced to sloganeering or hollow positivity. And people understood that and flocked to it. Now, let’s get “Juice” on the charts.

(As for the “Truth Hurts” contestant, she tied with the one who did “Nasty” for fourth. My friends in the competition took second and third.)

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The Gibby Fifty 2019: My Favorite Songs of the Year

On the eve of a new year, I wanted to share my favorite songs of 2019 in the annual Gibby Fifty. There are a lot of singles in the bunch, but there are also plenty of deep cuts, too. This one’s pretty straight forward: it had to come out this year to make this alphabetical list, and if it’s here, it’s not on the forthcoming best pop songs of the year list. Just an aside, if you want a window into what my listening for a year looks like, this entry always has the clearest view. I’ll leave you with tunes for now (playlist at the bottom) and see you in the new year!

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – “Just Sign the Papers”
American Football feat. Hayley Williams – “Uncomfortably Numb” The emo band tapping Hayley Williams feels like some kind of affirmation of Paramore.
American Pleasure Club – “What Kind of Love?” The sound of utter oblivion.
Anderson .Paak feat Andre 3000 – “Come Home”
Angel Olsen – “Chance”
Arcade Fire – “Baby Mine” From Dumbo, which I legit forgot came out this year.
Ariana Grande – “ghostin”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “No Drug Like Me” I love that this song has a groove.
Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens – “Gone”
Charly Bliss – “Young Enough”
Chris Farren – “Love Theme from ‘Born Hot'”
Dogleg – “Fox” Dogleg’s new album from next year is one I probably won’t shut up about.
Doja Cat – “Bottom Bitch”
Ellen Alien – “Bowie in Harmony” Things I found out this year: I kinda dig Euro electronia!
Empath – “Roses That Cry”
fka Twigs – “fallen alien” Both this and the Empath track are insane and I love them both.
Florence + the Machine – “Moderation”
Frank Ocean – “DHL”
Free Nationals feat. Mac Miller and Kali Uchis – “Time”
Future – “Love Thy Enemies”
glass beach – “glass beach” (…or “bedroom community” or “neon glow” or “yoshi’s island” or “orchid” or “cold weather or)
I Love Your Lifestyle – “Dreamy Dreams”
Jaden feat. Tyler, the Creator – “Noize” A great song on a way too long album. Killer Tyler verse.
Jay Som – “Superbike” Anah Ko gets my annual “watch me love this in like 4 months” award.
Kim Gordon – “Air BnB” It really shouldn’t be surprising that Kim Gordon’s the member of Sonic Youth who’s sounded the most creatively vital after the split, right?
Kitty – “Mami”
Lana Del Rey – “How to disappear”
Leggy – “Prom”
Lizzo – “Juice” Can’t wait to see this top the charts in 2022.
Mannequin Pussy – “In Love Again” In which Mannequin Pussy experience joy and it is incredible.
Oso Oso – “The View”
Proper. – “Lime Green Jheri Curl”
PUP – “Sibling Rivalry” If we’re going by pure listens, this was probably my song of the year. Feels like a continuation of “If this Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.”
Sharon Van Etten – “Seventeen” Me and a pair of friends of mine saw SVE debut this at a show while opening for The National last year in Colorado. We were underdressed and miserable in the cold and sleet and snow, but hearing “Seventeen” for the first time left me gobsmacked.
Solange – “My Skin My Logo”
Tame Impala – “Patience”
Taylor Swift – “Cornelia Street” You could also put “I Think He Knows” or “Cruel Summer here.
The 1975 – “Frail State of Mind”
The Menzingers – “Anna”
The National – “Rylan” Fun fact: The National played this at that show where Sharon Van Etten opened for them.
The Pom-Poms – “200 Grams”
The Raconteurs – “Don’t Bother Me” A rollicking number despite it being about how much Jack White hates phones.
The Twilight Sad – “VTr”
The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights”
Turnover – “Number on the Gate” Altogether didn’t do much for me that Good Natured hadn’t already, but this is still a jam.
The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – “Smoke + Felt”
Tyler, the Creator – “I THINK”
White Reaper – “Real Long Time” See above on Turnover.
Willow – “Overthinking IT” I was on the fence on Willow on a first listen until the second half of this one.
Young Thug – “Light It Up” Thug’s So Much Fun might be the album kneecapped hardest by rap’s compulsion to make 13 track albums into 19 track ones.

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