By: Heather Bushman
Let’s all take a moment to acknowledge the fact that this decade, this entire decade, is over in a little less than a month. Take it in. Internalize it. Good to go? Great, because it’s time to make a list, check it twice, and talk about some of my favorite music from the past 10 years. There were so many songs and artists that made an impact on my life, so these decisions were nearly impossible to make, but my choices represent the journey of self-discovery that I took over this decade. I grew both physically and mentally, starting this period at 9 years old and ending as a (technical) adult. This music was a constant presence in the process becoming a fully realized person and coming to terms with the fact that life, at its core, is about change. Not to mention, this music is just (to me) really good, and every track is still a favorite today. So, here it is: these are my Top 5 Songs of the 2010s.
Sex: The 1975 (2013)
“And this is how it starts”: the song, the list, and the development of my entire music taste. I was maybe 13 when I heard those D chords slam in rapid succession for the first time, and I discovered a world of music that existed outside of my parents’ cars or top 40 radio. More importantly, I discovered that I liked it. “Sex” was my introduction to alternative pop-rock quartet The 1975 and alternative music in general; what an introduction it was. The beginning is a pair of eyes snapping open, instantly alert and captivating to the listener. From there, it just sprints. “Sex” pins you to the wall and doesn’t let up, which is why it hooked me so quickly and is on repeat to this day. It’s a joyride: energetic, euphoric, and entirely exhilarating. At 13 years old, this was pure freedom. Not only did I feel ridiculously cool listening to a song that spoke so casually about, well, sex, but The 1975 were one of the first bands that I consciously decided I enjoy. Music is a huge part of my life, so what I listen to is almost an extension of myself. I make decisions every day about what I like and what I don’t, what makes the playlist and what doesn’t, and I’m passionate about discussing it because my music is an expression of my individuality, what makes me, me. “Sex,” exciting and fresh and new, feels like a celebration of the first something. It was certainly a first for me, and it paved the way for my exploration of the music that ultimately shaped the rest of the decade.
m.A.A.d. city: Kendrick Lamar (2012)
As a rap fan, I love Kendrick Lamar, but as a writer, I love Kendrick Lamar. He sounds frenzied but never frantic, fragile but never frail, and his ability to fuse the voracious and the vulnerable offers a personal touch to his music that’s missing in many modern rappers. Lamar’s gift lies in his strong narrative voice, a skill every writer dreams of mastering. It’s on full display in the semi-titular track of the 2012 masterpiece, good kid, m.a.a.d. city, where Lamar details the traumas and trials of his childhood in Compton, California. “m.a.a.d. city” is a brilliant piece of writing, but it also has an unmatched intensity level in its production. The beat is incessant, especially in the track’s first half, with a trap snare/bass combo that enforces the anxiety that the song depicts. The repeating string melody only adds to the tension, and the track as a whole feels like a fight-or-flight moment, an absolute assault on the psyche. It’s pure adrenaline, and personally, it’s been my go-to hype song for as long as I can remember. Exam, interview, anything: all it takes is “YAWK YAWK YAWK YAWK” and I’m ready to run through a brick wall. Lamar is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of all time, and arguably everything in his discography would qualify as decade-defining, but the influence this song in particular has over me is too significant to ignore. “m.a.a.d. city” not only got me through some of my most high-pressure moments, it also taught me that great rapping and great writing are not mutually exclusive.
All Of The Lights: Kanye West (2010)
Say what you want about Kanye, but the man is a musical genius. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an incredible production that raised the standards for how rap is supposed to sound. Kanye had always been a prolific producer, but the way he incorporates so many musical elements onto one record is on an entirely different level. The crown jewel of this project is “All Of The Lights.” Big brass, relentless percussion, and flurried keys and smooth strings underneath it all, this song is a triumph. It was instantly iconic, with a forceful vocal feature from Rihanna on the hook and an explosive chorus that radiates power and prowess. This solidified Kanye’s status as a legendary music mogul and changed the conversation about the musical merit of rap. Yes, it’s a rap song, but the nuances, be it the flighty piano melody or the rich horn section, make it impossible to categorize or define.This song taught me that rap can have both lyrical and musical depth, and my expectations for what a rap track can be have been definitively heightened because of it.
Ribs: Lorde (2013)
It feels selfish, but I’m thankful that Lorde is a few years older than me. She is exactly one stage of life ahead of me, so as she exits, I enter. Pure Heroine was released in 2013, the same year I began my transition to the awkward in-between that is being a teenager. This album was the soundtrack to my years in high school, on repeat as I navigated relationships, responsibilities, mental health, and everything in between. “Ribs” recounts a wild party that Lorde threw when her parents were out of town, but the song itself never feels rowdy or hectic. It’s a quiet chaos, with a racing pulse and soaring synthesizer that constantly threaten to break the surface but never do. There is almost a detached quality to it, like the party is in the center of the room and you decided to walk out the door, watching the excitement from a distance. That was me in high school (and still is): controlled, content to let the others do whatever it is that exciting and spontaneous people do. The song is a subdued storm, and when I needed a release, I would get in my car and drive somewhere, anywhere, with this in the background (still do). “Ribs” sounds like the feeling of taking a deep breath, exhaling all of the stress and anxiety that comes with getting older and just living in the moment. It’s the complete abandonment of restraint and hesitation, and I’m convinced that it sounds like how it feels to fly.
Prom: SZA (2017)
The dreaded “favorite album” question is a struggle for most music fans. How could there possibly be a single choice with so much music existing in the world? I’ll tell you how: SZA’s Ctrl. That’s the choice, at least for me. It is, without a single shred of a doubt, my favorite album of all-time. Strangely, I can’t relate to much of it. The themes of uncertainty and self-doubt certainly translate, but as much as I am able to sympathize and understand SZA’s experiences, I fail to make a personal connection to the specifics. So, what makes this album so special to me? Enter “Prom.” Upon my introduction to this song, I was, as SZA puts it, “fearing not growing up.” The writing is raw, honest, and accessible, and the relatively simple but fun production not only makes it a really catchy listen, it also grounds the track even further. “Prom” is a song about the prospect of the future and the myth that maturation means stability. For me, it’s the most relatable song on an album known for its relatability. SZA’s voice feels smaller than usual, lacking the unfiltered confidence that characterizes the rest of the record. This is purposeful: She’s admitting a big insecurity in an intimate manner, so the delivery is meant to be quiet. When I listen to “Prom,” it’s as if SZA is talking directly to me, like we’re old friends speculating on how we’re going to survive all of this. My relationship with “Prom” has developed within a period of massive uncertainty: It took me through my senior year of high school, helping my close an important chapter of life. I even made a special point to listen to this song on the night of my own prom, which, for me, represented the tail-end of my adolescence. When I first heard this song, I was at a point where I believed I’d be completely put-together by the time I was where I am now: finishing up my first semester of college. That didn’t happen, and it likely never will, but “Prom” reminds me that uncertainty is inevitable and a means through which we grow. I don’t have everything figured out, neither does SZA, and neither does anyone. We’re all on a learning curve, and if “Prom” has taught me anything, it’s that not knowing isn’t always the worst thing in the world.
I’ve always hated change, but it’s laughable to me now that I ever thought I could avoid it. Life itself is about change and progress, and ultimately, I’m thankful for all of the changes that happened to me in the last decade. I’m even more thankful for the music that got me through it. In the process of finding and loving new music, I found myself too. I don’t have all of the answers, and I’m not going to pretend I do, but I’m confident in what I’m passionate about, what I stand for, and who I am. The music that defined my decade was instrumental in constructing my connection to the world around me and my understanding of how it works. Growing up is terrifying and confusing, but the fact that I wasn’t the only one experiencing these feelings made it much easier to manage. That’s why music is so wonderful: there is a song or artist with which everyone can connect. No matter how isolating life can feel, there is always someone that has gone through the same thing. Music never let me feel alone, and I’m positive that it never will. Here’s to another decade of change, growth, and progress, and the incredible music that will get us through it.
Soflosound.com is your one stop shop for a hip hop fan’s music reviews, profiles, and essays. By the youth, for the youth, and allied with all oldheads, everywhere. Leave a comment below on what you want to see next!
Edited by Tommy Rodriguez