Categorizing music by decade is an arbitrary practice. The 1960s began with Marty Robbins, a country singer, topping the pop charts, and ended with psychedelia. The 1990s began with hair metal still in style, yet also saw the peaks of grunge, gangsta rap, Britpop and electronica. But decade recaps are inevitable, and with the 2010s about to conclude, they become a fashionable article to write (including here). These histories will inform future generations about the cultural soundtracks of an era, and the historical revisionism told in them will misinform.
A recent example of this came in “I Want My MP3,” the music episode of CNN’s documentary miniseries, “The 2000s.” In the show, pop culture-defining artists like Outkast or Jay-Z were given equal attention to niche artists such as 2000s New York indie scene darlings. TV On the Radio or LCD Soundsystem were not nearly as commercially successful, but were fashionable for the types of critics called upon to construct these histories.
One could easily argue that 2000s pop music was, on the whole, superior to 1970s pop music. But 1970s retrospectives focused not on the middling soft rock, which dominated the pop charts for most of the decade, and instead on much cooler, more inventive bands. So in order to compete, modern critics appeared to cook the books on the 2000s. And they almost certainly will for the 2010s.
Those retrospectives will certainly discuss Kanye West, particularly his 2010 album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Barring an unexpected late campaign, it will be the consensus album-of-the-decade pick among critics. This segues into a discussion of a new generation of album-oriented hip-hop artists, such as Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. It also segues into a discussion of Kanye’s pseudo-rivalry with Taylor Swift, who became a vital album artist in the 2010s, along with fellow singer-songwriters Adele, Lorde and, especially, Beyonce.
The singer who brought us “Lemonade,” went from respected – but ultimately pigeonholed as a mainstream pop artist – to revered cultural institution. The 2000s were the decade in which female artists finally gained recognition as equally important voices as men – the 2010s were when women began to dominate public discourse about music.
These are guaranteed discussions, even if not in that order.
One I’d label as “likely” is that of styles which were deeply indebted to once-unfashionable genres, such as the early 2010s revitalization of folk rock, most famously by Mumford & Sons. The middle portion of the decade’s pop charts were dominated by late-70s and early-80s Michael Jackson-esque disco sounds, such as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and, basically, Bruno Mars’s entire discography. Ed Sheeran headlined stadiums by adapting the sound of 1970s Van Morrison for teenagers.
This decade, critics are generally more receptive to popular music than in generations past, but there are exceptions. Will those anthologizing the 2010s mention critically dismissed, but highly popular subgenres, such as the dismissively titled “bro country” or “mumble rap”? Florida Georgia Line and Post Malone are superstars by popularity, but they aren’t fashionable with certain critics.
Will the need for hip rock music mean exaggerating the impact of Titus Andronicus or Deerhunter in lieu of mentioning Imagine Dragons or Twenty One Pilots? Critics routinely miss the boat on popular music trends. Acts like Led Zeppelin and Queen were dismissed at the time, and are now revered. I may not think Imagine Dragons will follow this path, but those who will have a say in the matter (those in their early-20s or younger), will by-and-large not be the ones writing 2010s recaps. Maybe Imagine Dragons become Led Zeppelin, or maybe they become Grand Funk Railroad, a stadium rock band (at their peak popularity), which has now been relegated to a historical footnote.
The only fair-minded approach to artists in 2019 is to evaluate what they have been, rather than what they may be. This was a decade of incredible music and some musical preferences which may age poorly. But to tell the truth about what it was, is the proper way to capture the spirit of actually living in the era. And we will never be more qualified to describe that essence than we are right now.
Editor's Note: For more from John (and our other hosts), check out our podcast.