Bruno Mars, courtesy of Kai Z. Feng/Atlantic Records
It is that time of the decade once again – a time in which we compile best-of lists to commemorate the last 10 years. And now, it is my honor to evaluate the top songs of the 2010s.
But unlike a conventional best-of-the-decade list, I have decided to choose from a relatively narrow cluster of songs – the 116 songs which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart during the 2010s. The reasons for this are threefold. One is that many of these lists turn into a contest for list-rankers to establish how cool and knowledgeable the reviewer is – there aren’t exactly any underground jams that qualify for a list of number-one hits. Two is that if you’re even a relatively passive music consumer, you probably heard most of the songs on here, and thus the conversation is more fun, because it is more inclusive. Three, and most important for me, is that I didn’t hear every song this decade, nor has any music critic, but I have heard every number-one song this decade.
However, keeping songs I’ve known since I was in college in context compared to songs that are far fresher is difficult. This list is inherently subjective, even as I tried to be objective. If you disagree wholeheartedly with the list, your opinion is no less valid than mine.
It turns out that writing about all 116 chart-toppers isn’t very fun, because I’m more or less apathetic about most of the songs. But the top 10 has extra juice to it, so here is how those shook out.
10. "Can’t Feel My Face," by The Weeknd: Of all of the countless mid-2010s hits inspired by Michael Jackson, few captured the spirit of his peak quite like “Can’t Feel My Face.” Guided by layers upon layers of vocals piled atop a distinctly “Thriller”-to-“Bad”-era instrumental track, the highlight is The Weeknd’s undeniable vocal talent, which is often obscured by some of his dirtier lyrics. (While the lyrics of “Can’t Feel My Face” could certainly be interpreted illicitly, it’s at least left up to interpretation.) This song was a huge hit in 2015 and would’ve been a huge hit in any of the 40 years before it came out.
9. "All I Want for Christmas is You," by Mariah Carey: The final number-one song of the 2010s was also far and away the oldest number-one of the decade. Following its 1994 release, it took a full quarter-century for Carey’s modern Christmas classic to peak at number one.
And while I am naturally averse to most music in the pseudo-genre of “Christmas” or Mariah Carey's catalog, there is a reason this song became a standard despite being released 30 years after almost every other comparably popular Christmas song – it’s great. With its use of Christmas chimes and classic rock and roll instrumentation, it sounds like a new edition of a traditional song, and 25 years later, it still sounds contemporary. But the real highlight is Carey, arguably the most gifted vocalist of her generation. The song hasn’t aged a day.
8. "Royals," by Lorde: That an artist who was 15 when “Royals” was recorded and 16 when “it was released would crash into the pop charts with a song so minimalist and so dark was a dramatic shock to the system. The song, an attack on the excess and materialism pervasive in the pop music which dominated the charts literally the entire time Lorde was alive, had a catchy enough chorus, but that a song as atmospheric as this would dominate the pop charts made more sense in hindsight after the more similar songs that would hit number one a few years later, when Lorde’s peers caught up to her.
7. "Somebody That I Used to Know," by Gotye featuring Kimbra: One of the unlikelier pop hits of the decade came with 2012’s top Billboard hit, a sparse art-pop ballad that sounded more like a long-lost Sting B-side than a major pop culture sensation. Gotye hasn’t released any new material since 2013, therefore increasing the likelihood that he will be regarded as the decade’s greatest one-hit wonder. While such a distinction is often reserved for goofy novelty music that isn’t likely to be reflective of enduring musical talent, this brooding dose of indie felt, and still feels, sincere and not like a fluke, not only from Gotye, but from Kimbra, who sings the song’s equally memorable third verse.
6. "Look What You Made Me Do," by Taylor Swift: The singer/songwriter’s controversial 2017 single was an even harsher left turn than her abandonment of country music half a decade earlier. From the opening piano to the half-spoken vocal delivery in the opening verse to the icy drum machines that kick in at the thirty second mark to the way the increasing momentum of the song crashes to a screeching halt for the chorus, the first minute of “Look What You Made Me Do” was a shocking change of pace from those of us expecting “1989” redux.
Those who criticized the song as something that only reached critical mass because of the fame of the woman singing it were correct, but this shouldn’t be viewed as an insult. As much as Swift’s faux-foe Kanye West garnered attention for eschewing his pop stardom to release more interesting, experimental albums, Swift managed that transformation in a little over 3 1/2 minutes.
5. "HUMBLE.," by Kendrick Lamar: While Lamar was a well-known and respected artist prior to the single's release, this was the song that launched him for the first time into the upper reaches of pop superstardom.
While the hip-hop songs that reached number one this decade were by and large pop-rap, Kendrick was having none of that. “HUMBLE.” is an aggressive, profane track built on a heavy beat, haunting piano stabs and, of course, fantastic delivery from the best rapper of the 2010s.
It’s hard to have a subgenre called “pop-rap” and not incorporate a number-one rap hit, but this song feels like the exception which proves the rule.
4. "bad guy," by Billie Eilish: Eilish is the first, and to this point only, artist born in the 21st century to top the Billboard Hot 100, but she surely won’t be the last. And while one might expect this landmark to be accomplished by, say, teen-pop that plays up the youthfulness of its performer, “bad guy” set quite the example for future chart-toppers. The song is a stark, ostensibly un-pop song that combines elements of trap, synthpop and alternative rock into a musical stew that positions Eilish as the Gen-Z heir apparent to Lorde (and, prior to her, Fiona Apple).
As impressive as Swift’s ability to co-opt the already-common phrase “haters gonna hate” in “Shake It Off” and make it her own was, it speaks to the power of “bad guy” that I already can’t hear the word “duh” without hearing it in Eilish's voice.
3. "Havana," by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug: Cabello was already famous before “Havana,” but the second this song hit pop radio, it became apparent that she was destined for the upper-reaches of pop stardom. And in a decade of intense pop music gentrification, “Havana” wore its salsa music influences on its sleeve, and from the opening piano riff to the first time Cabello phrases the song’s title, which takes approximately 10 1/2 seconds, it’s impossible to not be completely hooked.
While I doubt those who made the song weren’t trying to have a massive hit (by 2017, Pharrell Williams, co-writer, wasn’t working on non-hits), the whole thing feels organic. The song is even able to overcome falling victim to the trend in pop music of throwing a dopey male rap verse in an otherwise unimpeachable female song.
2. "Uptown Funk," by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars: The first time I heard this song, I took note of it, because I knew this was one I would be hearing constantly for the foreseeable future. The second time I heard it, I added a tally. And before too long, I lost count, because “Uptown Funk” was such a massive hit that Mars made it into the Super Bowl halftime show, despite this being the only song he had released since the last time he was there, because what kind of populist celebration could exclude it?
While Mars had been releasing music that scratched the surface of his obvious potential, “Uptown Funk” was where it came together. The exquisite production from Ronson, who wisely deferred to Bruno in most of the promotion of the song and thus managed to mostly preserve his wider anonymity, draws from the best of Prince, James Brown and Michael Jackson, and Mars swaggers with confidence befitting those otherworldly frontmen. My count of times hearing “Uptown Funk” is surely now in the thousands, and I haven’t gotten the least bit sick of it.
1. "Rolling in the Deep," by Adele: Adele is, conservatively, on the Mount Rushmore of greatest pure vocal talents in popular music this century, but paradoxically, the strength of her voice often overwhelms the songs she’s singing. Many of her songs, even her most popular songs, feel more like vocal auditions than actual pop songs. But when she has worthy material, nobody sings like Adele, and nine years after it was released, it still doesn’t quite feel like “Rolling in the Deep” is real.
While the acoustic guitar opening is understated, that goes away the second Adele starts singing, who from the beginning is firing on all cylinders, and by the time the song ends, it feels like she just sprinted a marathon. The vocal is so strong that I don’t think any other vocalist could have topped it, and I say this as somebody aware that Aretha Franklin covered it.
That “Rolling in the Deep” charted on the alternative, dance, rock and Latin charts doesn’t mean that it actually fits any of those genres – rather, it is an appropriate reflection of how widespread this song’s appeal was.
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