- Insider ranked the 113 best songs of the 2010s, taking into account both quality and cultural impact.
- “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn took the top spot.
- “Nights” by Frank Ocean, “Formation” by Beyoncé, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, and “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift rounded out the top five.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
There’s an endless number of ways to judge a great song.
Is it something you can listen to over and over without getting tired of it? Is it something you can only listen to sparingly because it makes you feel all the feelings? Did it pioneer a totally unique sound, or does it perfectly harness a musical trend that you already enjoy?
There are many beautiful songs that are best heard within the context of an album, when an artist has weaved their tracklist together seamlessly and gracefully. (Fiona Apple and Mitski come to mind, for example, as well as two of this year’s best albums: “Norman F—ing Rockwell!” by Lana Del Rey and “Igor” by Tyler, the Creator.) But which songs can be pulled out from an album or discography and still be just as good, if not better?
This process becomes even more complicated when you’re asking how a song fits into its own era (in this case, its decade). How do we measure musical legacy?
Here at Insider, we don’t have definitive answers – only educated suggestions. Our list attempts to consider both cultural impact (ubiquitous bangers, meme-able anthems, social commentaries, record breakers) as well as innovation and quality.
Our 113 best songs of the 2010s are ranked below, in descending order. You can listen to the songs on Spotify here.
113. “Baby” by Justin Bieber featuring Ludacris
This absolute smash – the second song in history to be certified diamond, by the way, and the first in 16 years – was unleashed unto the world on January 18, 2010. What a way to kick off the decade.
112. “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers
“Sucker” was the perfect comeback song for this century’s most beloved trio. After an agonizing six-year breakup, the Jonas Brothers could’ve released any kind of catchy radio hit or “Burnin’ Up” knockoff and it would have been embraced by fans. Instead, they returned with a delightfully weird, tropical pop-rock banger and triumphantly asserted their dominant role in 2019 as more than a nostalgic fluke.
111. “Sit Next to Me” by Foster The People
I feel sorry for anyone who thinks Foster the People is a one-hit wonder band. After “Pumped Up Kicks” stormed our collective consciousness at the start of the decade, Foster the People hasn’t had another massive radio hit, but has consistently released quality music – and “Sit Next to Me” is their shimmering, neo-psychedelic masterpiece.
110. “Face” by Brockhampton
Brockhampton is a remarkably prolific boy band, but this deep cut from their first-ever mixtape has remained a standout. Drawing from the innovations of artists like Frank Ocean and Solange, “Face” is smooth and warm and exquisitely minimalist.
109. “F— With Myself” by Banks
“F— With Myself” is edgy, chilling, darkly contoured, and extremely gutsy. It also boasts some of Banks’ most captivating songwriting to date. Confessional and subversive, the song gracefully captures that tender line between self-inflation and self-sabotage, giving the enigmatic lyrics many possible interpretations.
108. “XO Tour Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert
“XO Tour Llif3” is arguably the defining song of SoundCloud rap and its stratospheric rise this decade. The lullaby-trap fusion – which sees Lil Uzi Vert sing-rapping about nihilism and dead friends, barely bothering to enunciate – came to feel like a natural representation of Gen Z’s distaste for polished industry professionals and sharp nose for phonies.
107. “Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man
You might think you’ve gotten sick of this song, and then you hear it again and you’re subconsciously head-bobbing the entire time.
Portugal. The Man’s surprise smash, with its funky melody and falsetto chorus, hinges on a retro-pop vibe – but it’s not shallow catchy, like previous pop-rock crossover hits that quickly grew tired (Fun’s “We Are Young” comes to mind). As Billboard’s Lyndsey Havens noted at the time, there’s something about the chorus’ rallying lyric, “I’m a rebel just for kicks now,” that felt especially resonant in the tense, high-stakes atmosphere of 2017.
106. “New Rules” by Dua Lipa
“It’s a song about how not to behave after a breakup, sure – but it’s also an anthem for self-care in a moment when so many of us felt unmoored,” Raisa Bruner wrote for Time when she ranked “New Rules” the No. 1 song of 2017. “As an escapist fantasy of girl-power, it’s a triumph, but as a rallying cry to buck the status quo, it’s even better.”
105. “Girl” by The Internet featuring Kaytranada
Syd, the lead singer of The Internet, has written that she “wanted to make this song feel like a love trance,” and she succeeded: It’s a melodic, silky, hypnotic account of passion and pining.
104. “Lover” by Taylor Swift
Although “Lover” is such a recent release that we can’t yet be sure of its legacy, it feels fairly guaranteed that it will play an indispensable role in Taylor Swift’s discography – as well as in wedding ceremonies for decades to come.
After years of singing of love stories based in fantasy and embellishing the details of failed courtships, Swift found a mature groove on this Mazzy Star-esque love song, writing from within a long-term relationship – a place of security and frustration and comfort and understanding and persistent, abiding, I’ll-run-away-with-you-if-you-ask passion.
103. “Attention” by Charlie Puth
How does one explain the genius of “Attention” by Charlie Puth? It’s something about thinking you’ve got the song figured out, and then instead of the chorus giving you a dramatic beat drop, it pulls back and gives you that bass line – minimal yet confident, and powerfully seductive. The beat slowly returns, the synth drums continue to build, and then by the end of the song, Puth has you convinced. She probably did just want attention.
102. “Dang!” by Mac Miller featuring Anderson .Paak
Mac Miller was known for brutally honest lyrics that explored addiction and death, and his most personal songs are some his most beloved. But with “Dang!” – the lead single from his fourth studio album, featuring his friend Anderson .Paak – Miller tapped into a jazzy optimism that heralded his most creative, most fun, and overall best music.
With any luck, Miller will be remembered for the confidence and sheer joy we hear in “Dang!” – because, despite the lyrics hinting at a breakup, the two rappers sound contagiously happy, grateful to be alive, and inspired by love.
101. “No Role Modelz” by J Cole
“No Role Modelz” remains a fan favourite from J. Cole’s deeply mythologized “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” his most famous and best album. The irresistibly animated song illustrates Cole’s unshakable nostalgia and storytelling prowess, musing about father figures and Hollywood women and the nature of fame.
100. “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith
Sam Smith’s exquisite vocal range could make any gospel-inspired ballad feel alive, but it’s really their stirring emotional depth and honesty that made “Stay With Me” such a sensation.
99. “What’s My Name?” by Rihanna featuring Drake
Before there was “Take Care” or “Work,” there was “What’s My Name?” – the first collaboration between Rihanna and Drake, with a hook that’s probably been on a loop in your reptilian brain for 10 years. In retrospect, it was the perfect way to kick off their side-by-side decade-long reigns.
98. “Caroline” by Aminé
Perhaps Aminé’s greatest skill is his ability to manifest sheer joy. He became an essential figure in this decade’s “emerging hip-hop counternarrative,” as the New York Times called it, “centered on enthusiasm and occasional silliness.”
His goofy, gleeful breakout hit “Caroline” manifests joy better than any popular rap song in recent memory. It’s like D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” or Chance the Rapper’s “Angels,” only better – elevating this optimism with vivid storytelling, a hint of rebellion, and a fresh melody that would make Pharrell proud, or feel at home on Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”
97. “I Like It” by Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin
“I Like It” is an important song within multiple narratives: For Cardi B, one of this decade’s most prominent breakout stars, it made her the first female rapper with two No. 1 hits, as well as the first female artist with multiple No. 1 songs from a debut album since Lady Gaga in 2009; for Bad Bunny and J Balvin, it helped cement them as spokespeople for the world’s growing obsession with Spanish verses and reggaetón; it was nominated for record of the year at the 2019 Grammys.
All this success aside, it’s also a phenomenal song. It’s better than all three of the rapper’s previous singles – brighter than “Bodak Yellow,” far catchier than “Bartier Cardi,” and more representative of her infectiously carefree personality than “Be Careful.” Thus far, it’s the song that best encapsulates the force that is Cardi B.
96. “1950” by King Princess
It’s true that King Princess’ recent debut studio album, “Cheap Queen,” is brimming with soulful and mature pop. But her breakout single, the effortlessly anthemic “1950,” is The Song we’ll all refer to when we’re reminiscing about her rise to stardom in 10 years.
“1950” is especially impactful coming from King Princess, aka Mikaela Straus, an out-and-proud lesbian who gleefully eschews gender norms and the feminine pop star paradigm. It’s the kind of earnest, transcendent love song that queer kids have craved for decades.
95. “Fallingwater” by Maggie Rogers
The obvious choice here would have been Maggie Rogers’ viral, Pharrell-approved “Alaska,” but “Fallingwater” does everything her breakout hit did, only better. The lyrics and production are just as intimate, just as shimmery, but stronger and more confident. “Fallingwater” is the Clefable to “Alaska’s” Clefairy (Rogers would definitely be a rare fairy-type Pokémon that thrives in the moonlight, right?).
94. “Prblms” by 6lack
The sinister, industrial production of “Prblms” intensifies a lyrical message that’s shockingly blunt and actually kind of cruel, but in a disturbingly real and relatable way. Everything 6lack (pronounced “black”) says feels true – which makes sense, since he built the track using lines from real-life conversations, arguments, and text messages. “Everything in the song was verbatim what I was dealing with at the time,” the rapper revealed.
93. “Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood
“Sweater Weather” felt impressively ahead of its time upon its release in 2012, a year largely defined by maximalist pop and EDM. The Neighbourhood’s alt-rock, dark-pop hit preceded a landscape that has welcomed similar genre-bending sounds from Post Malone and Billie Eilish – and it still feels like a fresh new listening experience every time autumn rolls around, begging to be intimately cataloged and tenderly narrated.
92. “Chandelier” by Sia
No one can actually hit that note (you know the one) when we scream-sing along to the chorus of “Chandelier” – at least, no one can hit it with the same tone and conviction as Sia – but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
While it’s unlikely the song would have been the cultural moment it became without its unhinged music video – starring then 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler, choreographed by Ryan Heffington, and co-directed by Sia herself – there’s still a cathartic, anthemic quality to the confessional song that keeps us all singing along.
91. “Lemon” by N.E.R.D featuring Rihanna
“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” Phew. I mean, “Lemon” would have been an arresting song even without the stroke of genius that is a Rihanna verse. It’s one of those rare tracks that gets more and more addictive the longer you listen.
90. “Get You” by Daniel Caesar featuring Kali Uchis
“Get You” sounds like the daydreams you have when you’re in love. Somehow, Daniel Caesar managed to precisely crystallize that euphoric disbelief, that constant sensation of floating – and then enlisted Kali Uchis for her characteristically surreal vocals to amplify the effect.
89. “Delicate” by Taylor Swift
As Rob Sheffield (Rolling Stone’s resident Taylor Swift expert) wrote, “‘Delicate’ is her triumph on ‘Reputation,’ a whispery vocoder rush that sums up everything she’s about.”
“She spends ‘Delicate’ talking herself out of that midnight confession, but when it spills out – ‘I pretend you’re mine all the damn time’ – the moment feels cataclysmic,” Sheffield wrote. “Let’s face it, Tay will always fail spectacularly at playing it cool, because she will never be able to resist saying way too much of All That. Yet as ‘Delicate’ proves, All That is what she was born to say. Isn’t it?”
88. “Latch” by Disclosure
“Latch” is a spectacularly weird song – so weird that Disclosure felt sure it wouldn’t be well-received. It messes with the standard chords, melodies, and classic 4/4 tempo typically used in house music, and Sam Smith’s robust vocals gave the song a hint of soul. But it was precisely thanks to all those idiosyncrasies that “Latch” became a hit with general public, breathing fresh air into a crowded EDM scene and minting a brand new pop star in the process.
87. “Missing U” by Robyn
Eight years after her monumental album “Body Talk,” Robyn lured us back into her chromatic world with “Honey” – more specifically, the album’s opening track “Missing U.”
As a dance anthem about heartbreak, the song bears similarities to her beloved sad girl bop “Dancing On My Own” – designed for times when your feelings are so strong, the only thing left to do is to let them run all the way through you and out the other side. But it has also become a poetic symbol of Robyn’s enduring power.
“‘Missing U’ is a song about this trippy thing that happens when people disappear. It’s like they become even more clear, it’s like you see them everywhere,” Robyn said. “And it’s also maybe a little bit of a message to my fans. That I’ve missed them.”
Despite her absence for much of the decade, despite the sorrow she’s had to turn into glass, Robyn and her euphoria remain unvanquishable.
86. “Slow Burn” by Kacey Musgraves
“Slow Burn” is the perfect introduction to Kacey Musgraves’ ethereal, dewy-eyed, rosy-cheeked world in “Golden Hour,” her Grammy-winning opus. Though it’s clearly one of the singer’s most autobiographical songs, there’s something about its glimmering, winking quality that makes “Slow Burn” feel like a soothing balm prescribed for your own individual soul.
85. “We Found Love” by Rhanna and Calvin Harris
“We Found Love” epitomizes many of our musical obsessions in the first half of this decade: EDM, cathartic bass drops, anthemic choruses (easy to memorise, easy to scream at the top of your lungs and mean it), and Rihanna.
Combined with Calvin Harris’ slow-burn rise to stardom, it’s no wonder why “We Found Love” remains one of the most successful singles of all time. It’s the song you want to hear when you’re out dancing and the night hasn’t quite hit its potential yet. As soon as that first note of “We Found Love” rings out, the atmosphere shifts; in exactly one minute and seven seconds, everyone will be losing their minds.
84. “Gasoline” by Halsey
“Gasoline” isn’t Halsey’s breakout single (“Ghosts”), nor is it her biggest hit (“Without Me”). But it is the song that feels most quintessentially Halsey at this point in her shape-shifting, multi-coloured career.
For a singer-songwriter who could be described as “punk” just as easily as “pop” – whose defiance, sincerity, and vulnerability seem just as important as her talents for singing and hit-making – what song could speak to her budding legacy more than an outsider’s anthem on her debut album, only included on the deluxe version, that prematurely meditated on her own power and went platinum without any promotion?
83. “This Is America” by Childish Gambino
“This Is America” wouldn’t have become the phenomenon it is without its absolutely genius music video and painfully relevant timing. Though it’s certainly his most viral, it’s not Childish Gambino’s best song.
But it’s also true that “This Is America” is a disturbingly danceable earworm, blending Atlanta trap and Soundcloud rap and gospel pop and shrewd lyrics in a way that, it seems, only Donald Glover can.
82. “Don’t Wanna Fight” by Alabama Shakes
You’re bobbing your head to a funky guitar riff when, all of a sudden, you hear it: Thirty-eight seconds in, that “spine-tingling squeal” makes you realise this is a song you’re going to be thinking about for a loooong time.
As Rolling Stone’s Jon Blistein wrote, “Singer-guitarist Brittany Howard goes on to deliver a dizzying vocal performance that splits the difference between James Brown and Barry Gibb.”
81. “Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monáe
This Prince-indebted ode to sexual fluidity is the perfect way to summarize Janelle Monáe’s magic.
“When we were writing it and me and [cowriter] Julia Michaels referenced ‘sexual bender,’ we weren’t thinking of it as gender-bending or bisexuality, but rather a sexual or drinking bender,” lyricist Justin Tranter told MTV. “That’s when you’re a f—ing artist like Janelle Monáe: when your cowriters aren’t even thinking of something and you turn it into an important statement in [the guise of] a party song.”
80. “God Is a Woman” by Ariana Grande
If “No Tears Left to Cry” was Ariana Grande’s triumphant comeback single, confirming that she hadn’t lost her optimism or range in the face of trauma, “God Is a Woman” let us know that we actually had it all wrong. “Sweetener” wouldn’t simply be a comeback: It was a rebirth, the work of a new-age icon approaching her creative peak – and “God Is a Woman” was its thesis statement.
Generally, Grande’s futuristic-angel album is best heard as a complete experience, with each song playing off and elevating the others. Listening to “Sweetener” feels like hopping from one cloud to another. But “God Is a Woman” exists in its own universe, taking a detour beyond the visible atmosphere and skyrocketing into Grande’s vividly feminine paradise.
79. “Breezeblocks” by Alt-J
This song seamlessly blends graphic imagery with a sense of innocence, using multiple references to the children’s book “Where The Wild Things Are” to communicate an unguarded – and, in some interpretations, manipulative or violent – sense of desperation. It coaxes you to feel sympathetic, to relate to that vulnerability, but then repulses you. All the while, those kaleidoscopic emotions are woven together with glittering synths and rippling melodies.
78. “Chanel” by Frank Ocean
Whether “Chanel” was intended as an ode to bisexuality or not, Frank Ocean’s first solo single as an independent artist was a massively earned flex. Alongside the song’s “dizzying piano melody and muffled beats” (Rolling Stone), Ocean put his knacks for vivid imagery and genius wordplay front and centre.
“The boastful first few bars of Ocean’s new song might be the coldest, gayest, and most securely masculine flex in the history of rap,” Austin Williams wrote for The Undefeated after its surprise release. “Elegant and mellow, the song’s lyrics read as a deliberate ode to duality and non-heteronormative binaries – an ambition, that since the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, is sorely missed in black music.”
77. “Cheerleader” by St. Vincent
“Cheerleader” is the threateningly beautiful core of St. Vincent’s third album, an avant-garde protest song that juxtaposes her ethereal vocals with thorny observations about objectification, internalized misogyny, and societal expectations.
76. “Take Me to Church” by Hozier
“Take Me to Church” is one of those ornate gospel-pop songs that will never quite feel tired. Sure, it was over-played for a moment there in 2014, but it’s powerful enough to beg our devotional attention years later. It almost dares you not to feel Hozier’s soulful wails in your bone marrow.
75. “Track 10” by Charli XCX
As Hanif Abdurraqib wrote for Pitchfork, “Charli XCX is sonic science fiction,” which is best exemplified by the closing track on her experimental mixtape “Pop 2.”
“Track 10” would eventually become her polished, Lizzo-featuring single “Blame It on Your Love,” but in its rough original form, we get a peek into Charli’s process – which is to say, the process of one of this generation’s most forward-thinking singer-songwriter-producers.
“At her best, which she is here, Charli XCX cracks a key pop music code: doing as much with as little language as possible,” Abdurraqib wrote. “The chorus of ‘Track 10’ consumes and consumes, until it ends, and the listener can’t remember living in a world before they heard it.”
74. “Habits (Stay High)” by Tove Lo
It’s difficult to imagine another singer-songwriter who can pull off a club banger that opens with the lyrics, “I eat my dinner in my bathtub, then I go to sex clubs / Watchin’ freaky people gettin’ it on.”
But “Habits (Stay High)” became a sensation for that very reason. Only an exceptional hitmaker like Tove Lo could write a seedy, explicit ode to post-breakup depression – full of confessions that an average person wouldn’t utter to their best friend, let alone the world – and turn it into an anthem.
73. “Black Skinhead” by Kanye West
The explosive energy of “Black Skinhead,” one of West’s most subversive songs in a discography full of rebellion, didn’t feel unwise or misinformed, like the vast majority of his recent work. It felt righteous, intoxicating, and impressively ahead of its time. It still does.
72. “F**kin’ Problems” by A$AP Rocky featuring Drake, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar
To paraphrase a bunch of comments under the “F**kin’ Problems” music video on YouTube, this song is what happens when all the smartest kids in class are assigned to the same group for a class project. Getting an A is all but guaranteed.
71. “Despacito (Remix)” by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber
There’s a reason why “Despacito” broke the dam holding reggaetón back from mainstream US charts, and why it was the first Spanish-language No. 1 since the novelty 1996 hit “Macarena.”
Of course, the song was already dominating worldwide charts, but Justin Bieber’s involvement marked a turning point in pop music. It reigned over the Billboard Hot 100 for an unprecedented 16 weeks, tying Mariah Carey’s record from 1996. Its music video became the first-ever on YouTube to pass 3 billion views, and still has more views than any YouTube video in history. It became the most-streamed song of all time.
While “Despacito” lost all three historic Grammy nominations, the sheer outrage inspired by that snub speaks to the song’s power. It captivated the world – and judging by the number of hopeful copycats that have popped up in the years since (Latin pop hits now regularly feature everyone from Beyoncé and Drake to Selena Gomez), it’s not done yet.
70. “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucci Mane
Having inspired a viral challenge, “Black Beatles” could have been a passing craze – but instead, Rae Sremmurd tapped into something so beautiful and bizarre that it feels fresh and exciting every time you listen to it.
In the words of legendary Beats 1 host Zane Lowe: “There’s a hook every five seconds. One of the craziest things about that record is how strange it is. It’s really inclusive, it references old geezers and all sorts of mad reference points. It’s quite psychedelic. It’s a really odd record.”
69. “Hold Up” by Beyoncé
“Hold Up” is the delightfully unhinged cornerstone of “Lemonade,” upon which all other pieces are stacked. Without the swagger and smirk of “Hold Up,” the rage and apathy and acceptance and forgiveness that follows in Beyoncé’s redemption tale would have felt incomplete. The outro’s Soulja Boy sample is just the ingenious icing on top of the cake.
68. “Sober” by Childish Gambino
For an experimental song that sits in a quietly released EP, “Sober” has impressively enormous staying power. As an exquisite blend of tropical pop and R&B (with a last-minute, climactic swerve into punk-rock territory), it’s both a product of its genre-bending era and a timeless, sexy slow burn.
67. “Antidote” by Travis Scott
Travis Scott’s official debut single “3500,” a seven-minute statement with high-profile features, was ostensibly meant to announce Scott’s entrance into the top tier of rappers – while its follow-up “Antidote” was a throwaway that he planned to leave off the album (“This is for the real fans; the real ragers! This is some vibes for the summer. This isn’t on Rodeo… it’s coming soon,” he wrote on SoundCloud).
Instead, it was the toned-down “Antidote,” intended just for the “real fans,” that heralded the domination of Scott’s hallucinatory brand of rap in the latter half of the decade. The genius was buried in its deceptive simplicity.
“It’s essentially one line of melody, one two second phrase, yet somehow it feels good for four minutes,” Lorde once wrote of “Antidote” on Twitter. “The higher line of melody happens (and it’s really just the original line a bit higher) and by then we’re so unwittingly thirsty for a lift. That its BLISS! Travis gives us crumbs in this militaristic melodic eatery and we consume them like a feast!”
66. “Congratulations” by Post Malone featuring Quavo
No other song captures the allure and staying power of Post Malone more effectively than “Congratulations,” with its intoxicating hook and central screw-the-haters rallying cry: “They said I wouldn’t be nothing / Now they always say, ‘Congratulations.'” It’s a universal jam that gets the the people going, regardless of whether you’re dead asleep or too young to understand the lyrics.
65. “Slide” by Calvin Harris featuring Frank Ocean, Quavo, and Offset
The 2017 posse cut “Slide” is the most fascinating, irresistible pop song from a traditional DJ in recent memory. As Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal wrote at the time, the combination of Calvin Harris’ sleek California funk, two of rap’s most adaptive guest stars, and Frank Ocean’s “subtle radicalism” makes for an effect that is “magnetic and a little startling.”
64. “Praying” by Kesha
All you need to understand the power of Kesha’s “Praying” is to watch her passion, her righteous fury, while performing the song at the 2018 Grammys – assisted onstage by women like Camila Cabello and Cyndi Lauper, but in a room full of music industry titans who’ve probably whispered about her and rolled their eyes at her for years.
That this wrenching, soaring ballad – written about her experience overcoming sexual trauma and abuse – lost to Ed Sheeran for best pop solo performance, its singular nomination at that very ceremony, only underscores the song’s urgent importance.
63. “Garden Shed” by Tyler, the Creator featuring Estelle
This is not Tyler, the Creator’s buzziest song (“Yonkers,”) or his most beloved (arguably “See You Again”), nor does it even come from his best album (“Igor”).
But with “Garden Shed,” Tyler does something incredibly rare: He lays himself bare, insecurities and all, while capitalising on his strengths as a rapper and producer. He raps over a luscious, sparkling chord progression, while employing his characteristic wit – and even reveling in a bit of Odd Future-era shock value – without hiding behind “characters” or disingenuity.
62. “Hannah Hunt” by Vampire Weekend
“Hannah Hunt” is a quintessential breakup song, grappling with themes like youth, redemption, and inevitability with its deceptively simple imagery (the narrator describes, for example, a road trip he took with his ex-girlfriend to Pheonix, a city name that doubles as a symbol of rebirth).
In the song’s climax, frontman Ezra Koenig delivers one of the most compelling vocal performances of his career with some of his most impassioned lyrics.
61. “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Chance the Rapper is known for uplifting gospel-rap with a jazzy-pop twinge. But while he has creates full narratives on solo projects like “Acid Rap” and “Colouring Book,” meandering through his own complex observations about faith and family, “Surf” is a euphoric popcorn mix. The album, which he made with his touring band, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, is “a celebration of friendship, and a tribute to the alchemic power of collaboration,” (Pitchfork). “Sunday Candy” is its crown jewel.
Later, Chance would perform a Christmassy version of the song on “Saturday Night Live” and again at the White House for the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony – transforming its warm, smiling energy into a small but important moment in American history.
“There was something distinctly special, and spiritual, about it,” Sheldon Pearce wrote for Pitchfork. “A prodigious and cheery ‘mixtape rapper’ singing modern psalms and praises on the national stage at the behest of the first black President of the United States in his last days; the convergence of a God Dream and the American Dream.”
60. “Into You” by Ariana Grande
It’s difficult to translate the magic of “Into You.” The pulsing, scorching single is Grande’s best dance floor triumph. When it hits you, it lights up your whole body.
The magic may have been best described by Grande’s fellow singer-songwriter, Lorde, who called the song “maybe the closest thing to pop perfection i’ve ever heard.”
“people truly just weren’t ready to comprehend that many layers of emotion,” she later wrote on Twitter, trying to explain why the song didn’t top the chart. “it’s like ‘run away with me’ it’s 2 much for the half-open heart.”
59. “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn
The power of “Call Your Girlfriend” – an instantly classic pop anthem with a painfully unique point of view – was bolstered by its iconic music video. If you’ve seen it even once, it feels like a possessive spirit that pulses through your body every time that chord change hits. It might be the closest thing we have to a national dance.
“The comedian Taran Killam has performed a lovingly observed parody, and YouTube is cluttered with step-by-step homages and tutorials,” The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz observed, “which is at once apt and entirely beside the point: The power of the choreography and the one-take video itself comes from how personal, singular, and idiosyncratic these moves feel, like a spontaneous overflowing of Robyn’s strange heart.”
58. “Primadonna” by Marina and the Diamonds
“Primadonna” is more than just the thumping, infectious, electropop highlight of every party playlist I’ve ever made. It’s the centrepiece of “Electra Heart” (the sophomore release from Marina Diamandis, aka Marina and the Diamonds, who now goes by the mononym Marina), an avant-garde concept album that cheekily exaggerates female archetypes in order to dissect and dismantle them.
“Primadonna” is meticulously constructed and designed to intoxicate you, its vainglorious lyrics punctuated by sugary interjections (“ooh!” and “wow!”) that sound almost bored by the song’s perfection. Marina, with her uniquely spacious soprano, may seem to be taunting a row of suitors (“Would you get down on your knees for me? Pop that pretty question right now, baby”) – but in reality, it’s us she has wrapped around her finger.
57. “Norf Norf” by Vince Staples
Vince Staples’ enduring ode to Long Beach is both loving and cynical. “Norf Norf” thrives on this duality: a sleek delivery of clever lines that glide on the surface of a tense, twitchy atmosphere.
“Though every detail is in 4K, the screen flickers,” Stephen Kearse wrote for Pitchfork. “The bass quakes and smolders; the synths blare and pulse; the claps tingle. Proud of his home, Staples is at ease within this discord, but he doesn’t shy away from its costs. Because he sees his city so clearly, he has no illusions: No one can run forever.”
56. “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
Before every pop star was rushing to pander to LGBTQ fans,Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” wasn’t a case of coy queer-baiting: It was a confident and technicolor rallying cry, arguably lightyears ahead of its time. Now, looking back on the progress we’ve made this decade, the song feels downright prophetic.
“Fifty versions of this song were done to get it to that point,” co-producer Fernando Garibay told Billboard. “The song meant more than just, ‘Can this be a pivotal moment in pop history?’ It was more, ‘Can this create change?’ And in order to create change, the content needed to be spectacular.”
55. “Humble.” by Kendrick Lamar
No other rapper captures complexity and contradiction as well as Kendrick Lamar. On “Humble,” the explosive lead single from his 2017 masterpiece “Damn,” he swerves back and forth between top-of-the-world braggadocio (“If I quit this season, I still be the greatest”) and the song’s central decree: “B—-, be humble / Sit down.”
A traditional reading would say he’s instructing his competition to be humble and bow down, but then again, Lamar isn’t a traditional rapper.
He grapples with his own pride throughout “Damn,” often treating it like a temptation, before reminding himself that the afterlife is waiting with a judgment. Perhaps Lamar is talking to himself on “Humble,” struggling to take his own advice.
And so the song is a force of nature either way: standing confidently on its own, but also playing an essential role to enhance a larger narrative.
54. “Blackstar” by David Bowie
Just two months before his death, David Bowie continued to do what he always did best: upend expectations, absorb varying styles, innovate, and give us what we didn’t know we needed. The titular lead single from his final album is a 10-minute Baroque masterpiece that resembles little from his legendary catalogue – or, for that matter, little in the history of music.
53. “Retrograde” by James Blake
When “Retrograde’s” slow burn finally builds to its climax, that buzzing swell of electronic emotion, it feels like you’re leaving your body. The hauntingly beautiful, ornate sonic architecture is James Blake’s finest work – perhaps best understood by fans of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” whose showrunners chose “Retrograde” to introduce audiences to its supernatural, rapturous reality.
52. “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna
There is something so deliciously Rihanna about “Love on the Brain,” a startlingly beautiful ballad that feels at once vulnerable and combative. It’s the dramatic, swaggering, palatial centrepiece of “Anti,” her most ambitious and best album to date. It’s also the best her voice has ever sounded, showcasing her impressive range to the point that some people thought it was recorded by two different singers.
51. “The Weekend” by SZA
Despite SZA’s years-long cascade of beautiful music – from 2014’s “Sweet November” to her 2017 album’s lead single “Drew Barrymore” – her defining anthem has become “The Weekend,” a graceful fusion of a young Justin Timberlake’s trance-infused R&B and modern, glittering synths.
With its jarring honesty about monogamy’s pitfalls, there is an open-ended strength within SZA’s experience that feels available for listeners to latch onto. As NPR’s Jenny Gathright noted, by allowing the details of the affair to unfold plainly, without judgment or a defined moral stance, SZA’s messiness feels like radical self-care.
50. “High for This” by The Weeknd
In February 2011, no one knew who Abel Tesfaye was. When three songs were uploaded to YouTube under the username “xoxxxoooxo”, people thought The Weeknd was a band.
It was amidst this tantalising mystery that “House of Balloons,” The Weeknd’s debut mixtape and creative peak, was unleashed unto the world. “High For This” was our official introduction to his hedonistic, depraved world. Like many classic R&B hits, it dripped with honeyed vocals and smirking seduction – but renounced the genre’s popular formulas for gothic production, his voice echoing almost creepily through the sonic space he created.
For many of us who listened in awe – fascinated by this anonymous voice who promised, “You wanna be high for this” – that magic won’t likely be recaptured.
49. “Ribs” by Lorde
“Ribs” is a singularly unique song that transports you back to high school – but not in the way that popular music from your adolescence is connected to specific memories. Instead, “Ribs” evokes that universal sense of fleeting youth, when everything mattered and also nothing did, when you were worried about all the wrong things but somehow knew more about what mattered than the adults around you.
Lorde – who was still a teenager when she wrote this song – understood that nostalgia before any of us, and perfectly captured those vivid emotions, reflecting them prismatically across her synth-laden sonic architectures.
48. “Marvins Room” by Drake
Before Drake’s Instagram-worthy lyrics were considered a punchline, before he was seen as hip-hop’s resident sentimentalist, his relatability and sentimentality were innovations.
With lines torn straight from late-night texts, swimming through woozy synths that sound drunk themselves, “Marvins Room” rebelled against the expectation that rappers – and, more broadly, men – should be immovable, untouchable.
Drake’s mythology probably wouldn’t exist in the same way today without the messy confessions of “Marvins Room.” Rappers spilling their guts on the radio, crooning their own choruses, and exposing their regrets with voicemail clips only feel so conventional now because “Take Care” rewrote the rules, and “Marvins Room” is the album’s most enduring, subversive triumph.
47. “Malamente – Cap.1: Augurio” by Rosalía
“‘Malamente’ marked the arrival of one of the decade’s most remarkable – and unexpected – talents,” Philip Sherburne wrote for Pitchfork. “The song’s age-old flamenco roots were audible in its fluttering hand claps and in Rosalía’s vocal trills, but every other element – the lurching beat, luminous keys, hiccuping ad-libs, and samples of breaking glass – was unmistakably contemporary.”
“‘Malamente’ jacked into a heretofore undiscovered matrix of possibilities, and a whole new world flashed into being.”
46. “Zebra” by Beach House
“Zebra” is the clear standout on Beach House’s celebrated album “Teen Dream.” It swoons and yearns, creating its own plane of existence and swelling to fill it, like gas in a container. Despite its heart-wrenching lyrics (“Don’t I know you better than the rest?”), listening to it is how I imagine breathing underwater would feel.
45. “Two Weeks” by FKA Twigs
Although FKA Twigs released one of this year’s best albums, her 2014 single “Two Weeks” remains her standalone master stroke.
While 2019’s “Magdalene” is a conscious-altering holistic experience, Twigs’ debut studio album “LP1” had one clear zenith. The album’s lead single, “Two Weeks,” is a veritable feast of everything that has made her an indie-pop icon: spectral falsetto, throbbing industrial beats, otherworldly magnetism, and taunting sexual power.
44. “Oblivion” by Grimes
As Laura Snapes wrote for Pitchfork, Grimes’ “Oblivion” is both reminiscent of a simpler time (before Grimes swiftly dismantled her own brand by defending capitalist beau Elon Musk) and enduringly futuristic, with a “gargled bass line that still sounds tailor-made for the exact moment when aliens lower their drawbridge onto Earth.”
The singer-songwriter-producer, born Claire Boucher, wrote the track to grapple with a violent sexual assault that left her “paranoid” and “feeling powerless.”
“‘And now I’m left behind, all the time,’ she sang, a devastating sentiment rendered in succubus sing-song, and a setback transcended by the track’s forward-thinking production,” Snapes wrote. “Ultimately, ‘Oblivion’ galvanised Boucher’s pain into a complex anthem of vulnerability and nihilism that defiantly eludes a clear reading – a reminder to never stop searching for nuance as you look ahead.”
43. “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus
“Wrecking Ball” isn’t fully appreciated until you can play it at full volume and sing along to every word at the top of your lungs. It’s a song that’s meant to be screamed – throatily, passionately, and with full abandon.
Out of all the excellent songs Miley Cyrus has released this decade, from “Can’t Be Tamed” to “Mother’s Daughter” and all the bangers (er, bangerz) in between, “Wrecking Ball” is a glorious anomaly. It speaks to her talent and power that an emotional breakup ballad could cause such a frenzied devotion – especially in her post-Robin Thicke spotlight, amidst the myriad of ways she was mistrusted and mocked by critics and fans alike. Ultimately, Cyrus’ passion and artistry manage to shine through the noise.
42. “Love If If We Made It” by The 1975
Few songs make you want to scream, dance, cry, march, and call your senator all at the same time – and even fewer manage it without feeling pretentious, calculated, or disingenuous. “Love It If We Made It” is a generational anthem in the most literal way possible.
41. “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish
This is one of the rare times that an artist’s song – one that wasn’t even released as a lead single for her album, one that she actually thought people would hate – has eclipsed the one that made her famous.
“Bad Guy” has become Billie Eilish’s defining anthem, illustrating the unconventional spooky pop that has made her so beloved.
Released just before we head into the next decade, “Bad Guy” already feels like something we’ll remember as the inspiration behind many copycats, as a song that paved the way for a new kind of radio hit – and perhaps as more than Eilish’s defining anthem, but a generation’s.
40. “Sicko Mode” by Travis Scott featuring Drake
“Sicko Mode” is the crown jewel of Travis Scott’s blossoming career, his most masterful combination of trippy and exhilarating. Essentially three songs in one – and a non-stop roller coaster ride from start to finish, somehow only getting better as the minutes tick by – “Sicko Mode” is one of the most delightfully bizarre No. 1 songs in recent memory. Not to mention, it’s also the most invigorated Drake has sounded since 2015’s “Back to Back.”
39. “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen
“Run Away With Me,” the opening track on Carly Rae Jepsen’s celebrated pop masterpiece “Emotion,” is this decade’s most essential ’80s revival banger (sorry, “Out Of The Woods”).
Many of Jepsen’s die-hard cult-like followers would argue it’s her best song to date. On a fairly regular basis, just as a point of principle, fans will express retroactively righteous anger about “Run Away With Me’s” lack of nominations at the 2016 Grammys – even going so far as to circulate fake quotes from the Recording Academy explaining why it was snubbed (“When a song is so ahead of its time, it’s unfair to say it was released during the eligibility period, and that’s exactly what happened with ‘Run Away With Me'”).
38. “Love on Top” by Beyoncé
“Love On Top” is fairly uncomplicated and deceptively repetitive. In any other hands, the song would have been a standard feel-good bop. But in Beyoncé’s hands, it feels positively transcendent – especially considering her iconic performance at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, when she revealed her first pregnancy onstage after nailing the song’s four key changes. A Moment!
37. “I Follow Rivers” by Lykke Li
Lykke Li is at her best on “I Follow Rivers,” a bizarre pop-rock-folk triumph that’s soaked in an “eerie swirl of synths, reverb-swathed guitars, and pinging electronic percussion” (Rolling Stone). It’s also one of those rare times a song was given new life with an upbeat remix that nearly surpasses the original’s ingenuity and melodrama.
36. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake featuring Majid Jordan
Drake’s classic songs all capitalise on his characteristic rap-sung combination: “One Dance,” “Passionfruit,” “Nice For What,” “In My Feelings,” etc.
Many of those songs became hits because Drake recognised rising musical styles (dancehall, bounce, etc.) and repackaged them with his own flavour added. But “Hold On, We’re Going Home” isn’t just a certified classic within Drake’s specific catalogue: Back when he still had something to prove, he made a timeless love song that will surely outlive his meme-able legacy.
“Hold On” transcends the limitations of Being Drake because it doesn’t rely on gimmicks or trends. As Jason Parham wrote for Pitchfork, this song “is not consumed with the moment, as Drake songs routinely are, but with forever.”
35. “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z
As the two rappers will tell you themselves, they were undoubtedly in their zones when making “Ni**as in Paris,” the crown jewel of their collaborative album, “Watch the Throne.”
“Ni**as in Paris” is a pure banger from two legends at the top of their games – and it becomes even more legendary when you realise that, not only have West and Jay-Z severed communication, at least one of them appears to have lost the roadmap to return to his zone. We’ll likely never see anything like this song ever again.
34. “Loud Places” by Jamie xx featuring Romy
How fitting that the preeminent song on James Smith’s solo album, “Loud Places,” best illustrates his chemistry with Romy Madley-Croft, his bandmate from The xx.
The duo’s palpable tension makes this song feel like a living, breathing, growing creature. Smith conducts a gospel-like chorus of chants and drum beats and hand claps, swelling around Croft’s breathy croons – and transforming the song from an intimate confession into an all-consuming, gravity-defying hymn.
“Didn’t I take you to higher places that you can’t reach without me?” she asks. When the song ends, it feels like you’re coming down from an adrenaline rush. The answer is yes.
33. “B—- Better Have My Money” by Rihanna
“Don’t act like you forgot / I call the shots.” If there was anyone left pretending to forget that Rihanna calls the shots, “B—- Better Have My Money” made that species extinct.
In the years following, Rihanna went on to release her career-topping album “Anti,” as well as launch a myraid of game-changing beauty and fashion brands, cementing her permanent mark on culture that now extends far beyond music.
It was like “B—- Better Have My Money” was her final battle cry. The song is sheer power personified, flipping gender stereotypes by repurposing a lyric coined by controlling pimps, typically used by men in sexist revenge fantasies. Even as we whine and pine for new music from our High Priestess of punk-pop, no one needs reminding anymore who’s in charge. Everytime she drops, she is the only thing we’re playing.
32. “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj
In the beginning of the decade, Nicki Minaj was a buzzy, up-and-coming rapper who was best known for delivering the best verse of the year on Kanye West’s posse cut “Monster.” She released three top 30 singles throughout 2010 before her debut studio album, “Pink Friday,” dropped that November. It made major waves in rap-obsessed circles – but Minaj didn’t become a cultural touchstone until “Super Bass” caught fire.
“Super Bass” rocketed Minaj to another dimension. When it was rereleased as a single in 2011, the bonus track seemed to contaminate the country’s water supply, infecting everyone –Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Ariana Grande all knew the lyrics by heart – with its pop-infused combination of rap and melody.
The song hit like a sugar rush with a hint of something harsher – something tart, sharp, and acidic – establishing Minaj as a top-tier rapper as much as an international pop star.
31. “Midnight City” by M83
You may not know this song by name, but as soon as that first chord hits, you’ll feel a familiar euphoria. “Midnight City” conjures feelings of youthful nostalgia with the very first listen, but eight years later, those feelings are beautifully compounded by actual nostalgia; somehow, it sounds like all the best moments of 2011.
30. “Everything Is Embarrassing” by Sky Ferreira
The beauty of Sky Ferreira’s defining hit “Everything Is Embarrassing” is its eternal relatability. The glossy, glittering production would feel right at home in the soundtrack of a rose-coloured coming-of-age indie movie, but then Ferreria swoops in with her sullen lilt and scathing observations for a reality check: “Telling me that basically you’re not looking out for me / Everything is true to me.”
There’s a discomfort here, but it’s poignant and vivid and keeps you coming back for more, like a masochistic teenage romance. “Everything Is Embarrassing” is the sonic equivalent to being on the dance floor at prom and watching your boyfriend flirt with other girls, but still refusing to break up with him (if you know, you know).
29. “Style” by Taylor Swift
There are plenty of songs from Swift’s official pivot to pop music, “1989,” that might feel at home on this list. “Blank Space,” for example, was an ingeniously satirical script-flip that plays an essential role in Swift’s catalogue. “For those who stan a Swift closing number, ‘Clean’ is the holy grail,” according to Insider’s Courteney Larocca. Swift herself is particularly proud of the production on “Out Of The Woods.”
And yet, none of them come close to the transcendent experience of listening to “Style,” which is sheer pop perfection from start to finish.
“Style” is the album’s pièce de résistance. Its percolating guitar riff and polished synths expand gradually, creating an otherworldly third space that exists between what’s been said and what hasn’t. Swift and her lover are suspended there, driving in the dark, unseen and timeless.
Lyrically, Swift has rarely been more in control. Each winking detail has been carefully chosen; each image is precisely painted. The song’s narrative builds and smolders, gradually, until the climactic lament (“Take me home!”) blows it all wide open. The moment feels like an explosion, or a rebirth. That euphoric uncertainty is the whole point.
28. “Do I Wanna Know?” by Arctic Monkeys
“Do I Wanna Know?” is the ideal portal to the Arctic Monkeys’ sleek, swaggering, lipstick-smearing, leather-jacketed world on “AM,” the band’s best album to date.
The opening track is a hypnotic, humid slow burn that showcases some of frontman Alex Turner’s most masterful lyricism to date: “Have you no idea that you’re in deep? / I’ve dreamt about you nearly every night this week” is like a boxer’s baiting jab before the uppercut that knocks you flat. By the end of the song, you’re winded and longing for an ex that you didn’t even know you missed.
27. “Partition” by Beyoncé
When Beyoncé surprise-dropped her self-titled fifth album, “Partition” quickly took centerstage. The pulsing two-part showpiece heralded a new dimension to our most private superstar, who had created her most personal album yet. On “Beyoncé,” she shines multi-coloured spotlights on different facets of her guarded life, and “Partition” is her raw sexual power.
The traditional (read: misogynistic) platitude is that a woman is beyond her prime once she’s married, and especially after she’s given birth. Stigmas and narrow expectations for mothers, especially for black mothers, still run rampant. But here was Beyoncé, nearly two years after welcoming her first child, seducing her husband in the back of a limo. Here was Beyoncé, teasing him (and us), “We ain’t even gonna make it to this club.”
And so, as she is wont to do, Beyoncé transformed a pop song into a grand statement that defies expectations, alters conversations – oh, and it slaps.
26. “Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West featuring The-Dream, Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, and Kirk Franklin
Kanye West’s divisive 2016 album “The Life of Pablo” illustrated a Tale of Two Personas: the father and the philanderer, the legend and the naïf, the devoted disciple and the fallen angel. “Ultralight Beam” was its halo.
For such an egomaniac, West’s collaborative skills remain unparalleled. It says a lot that in the midst of “Ultralight Beam,” which boasts some of West’s best production to date, he decided to hand the mic to Chance the Rapper. And Chance, already a formidable lyricist in his own right, handed back a career-topping verse that paid direct homage to West’s influence.
Strokes of genius like this illustrate why many West fans refuse to give up on him and his potential for creative redemption. Two albums later, we may have to grapple with the fact that “Ultralight Beam” was his last.
25. “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem
“Dance Yrself Clean” is a sprawling tour de force that somehow remains captivating for nearly nine straight minutes. It sort of sounds like an arcade video game, and also like the work of a chill David Bowie enthusiast who makes beats in Brooklyn, and also like aliens crash-landing on our planet in a spaceship that resembles a disco ball.
The song fizzes and pops and shrieks, with LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy delivering intense, cutting observations about distance and loneliness and quitting while you’re ahead: “We’ve got to bring the resources / I wanna play it ’til the time comes,” he wails in the song’s climax. “Forget your string of divorces / You go and throw your little hands up.”
Fittingly, “Dance Yrself Clean” is the opening track on the band’s 2010 album, “This Is Happening,” which was intended to be their final release. (They returned seven years later, proving that dancing yourself clean really can do the trick.)
24. “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
I am fully aware that the popularity of a song does not necessarily translate to its objective quality. This, however, is indeed one of those times.
Think of everything you want a pop song to be. Now try to tell me that “Uptown Funk” doesn’t succeed on every single one of those levels. It’s no fluke that it’s been the cornerstone of every party, workout, and pump-up playlist worth its salt for the past six years; sometimes, a song is so catchy and fun and universally beloved that it escapes rational critique.
23. “Green Light” by Lorde
Lorde’s sophomore effort “Melodrama” is one of the decade’s finest, most cohesive albums, on which each song enhances the others. They shine individually but brightest as a whole, like Ursa Major, with its distinctive Big Dipper pattern and commanding place in the night sky.
If there’s one song that can exit this carefully constructed mosaic and emerge triumphant, however, it’s the album’s opener and lead single, “Green Light.” The breakup anthem is so luminous, so confidently bizarre, that pop mastermind Max Martin called it a case of “incorrect songwriting.” It stands out on purpose.
Besides the defiant production – complete with an abrupt key change, a sudden swell of drums, and a song title that’s only sung by a tiny chorus of background Lordes – “Green Light” expertly showcases Lorde’s nuanced songwriting.
She revels in intimate personal details that should feel far too specific for a pop single, but don’t (“She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”), and images that seem simple but actually glisten with multi-dimensional emotion: longing, regret, anger, hope, euphoria.
Nothing is undercooked. Every line lands like a sledgehammer.
22. “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry
Traditional pop music thrives when it makes you feel young, vivid, and carefree. In that sense, “Teenage Dream” is the pop song.
From Katy Perry’s album of the same name, “Teenage Dream” exists like a shining beacon amongst its four fellow No. 1 hits – “California Gurls,” “E.T.,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” and “Firework.” Rather than playing into her sugary caricature, the shimmering rock-tinged single gave Perry a kind of gravitas.
“There was something about ‘Teenage Dream’ that brought her to another level of sophistication,” cowriter Bonnie McKee told Billboard, “where it really captured the hearts of everyone from your grandma to your metalhead cousin.”
21. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by Kendrick Lamar
Truthfully, any number of Lamar’s breakout anthems on his debut studio album – namely “B—-, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” “Backseat Freestyle,” or “Poetic Justice” – could fit comfortably on this list. But there is no song that better illustrates Lamar’s rise as “hip-hop’s trojan horse,” both a master lyricist who has important things to say and a master producer who knows how to make you listen.
Think back to when “Swimming Pools” first dropped: At some point during a night out, it was all but expected that every person at the party would commune to chant, “Pass out, DRANK! Wake up, DRANK! Faded, DRANK! Faded, DRANK!”
Of course, “Swimming Pools” doesn’t actually encourage its listeners to drink, but rather warns them not to. In its ferocious second verse, Lamar adopts the slightly deranged voice of his own conscience to tell him he’s spiraling. “If I take another one down / I’ma drown in some poison, abusin’ my limit,” he reflects. But then, the chorus comes back around, and he’s convinced to “turn it up a notch.”
Before he was widely recognised as the greatest lyrical rapper alive, Lamar still intertwined complex storylines, societal observations, and explorations of his own duality with infectious beats and thrilling hooks. As he coaxed us to have fun, he also whispered truths in our ears – and as he rose to icon status, he rewrote the rules of rap and pop and commercial music on his way.
20. “Sorry” by Justin Bieber
In 2015, it would have taken a powerful song to completely overhaul Justin Bieber’s image and convince us to open our hearts to him again. And, in a gloriously poetic turn of events, “Sorry” was up to the task.
In under a year’s time, Bieber went from the irresponsible, immature poster child for white boy nonsense to pop music’s saviour. You could argue that his true comeback was his Jack Ü collaboration, “Where Are Ü Now.” Or maybe you’d argue that “What Do You Mean,” his lead single from “Purpose,” is actually the one to thank. But you’d be wrong on both counts. “Sorry,” to borrow a phrase from the song’s co-producer, is the song.
Bieber was gathering momentum before he dropped “Sorry,” to be sure, but nothing else could’ve cemented his revival in the same way. Because even if Bieber falls back into old patterns, even if we grow tired of his grating social media presence, we’ll still be bumping “Sorry” until the end of time. It’s a banger so undeniably catchy and charismatic that it transcends his reputation, his comeback, and any possible comebacks to come.
19. “The Less I Know the Better” by Tame Impala
Since Kevin Parker’s studio debut as Tame Impala in 2010, he’s made an unparalleled impact on the ever-melting border between “underground” and “mainstream” music. And while every song he touches these days is a prime example of his ingenuity and flair, “The Less I Know the Better” truly embodies what makes a Tame Impala song resonate.
“That song originally I thought shouldn’t be on a Tame Impala album, because it has this dorky, white disco funk,” he told Under the Radar magazine. “I wouldn’t call it cheesy, but it’s not trying to be too cool, because the lyrics are pretty dorky and the groove is pretty dorky. But at the same time, for me, I love that kind of music.”
Parker leaning away from convention and fully into his own taste is exactly the point. The best Tame Impala song isn’t one that worries about trying to be “cool.” It’s one that plunges you into a kaleidoscope. With colours and patterns swirling around you, you forget that a boundary between “cool” and “uncool” is even supposed to exist.
18. “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande
“Everyone has done it first. To take inspiration from somewhere is always dope, but like, there’s always this hunger to do something that no one is doing right now – a hunger to push people somewhere new,” she said. “I like to make people a little bit confused or mad.”
Mission accomplished. There has never been a song like “Thank U, Next,” one that casually name-drops a superstar’s exes – not for shade or shock value, but to express radical honesty and genuine gratitude.
Given the very public relationship drama that preceded its release, the hungry masses would have been perfectly satisfied with a kiss-off anthem, even if it had been shallow or self-indulgent. Instead, Grande channeled her momentum – operating within the brightest spotlight of her career – to craft something that felt more like a philosophical statement.
17. “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey
Del Rey’s debut studio album, “Born To Die,” is rich with “slow-melt Cali-goth” masterpieces, as Rolling Stone wrote of “Blue Jeans.” The title track is deliciously sinister, and “Summertime Sadness” inspired a generation’s worth of sun-drenched melancholy. But her debut single, “Video Games,” is the most perfect example of how Del Rey can make you feel nostalgic for memories that aren’t even yours, or things that may have happened to you in a parallel universe.
16. “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.
It’s hard to believe that “Bad Girls” was released all the way back in 2012. It’s one of the most enduring pop songs of the century, managing to feel fresh and modern every time it plays.
With its dancehall influence – years before Drake’s “One Dance” or Rihanna’s “Work” – and its themes of female empowerment and sexual power – including its connection to the Women to Drive Movement in Saudi Arabia, a years-long campaign that only saw the fruit of its labour last year – it still feels like “Bad Girls” could’ve been released yesterday. And yet, it also still feels ahead of its time.
15. “Hotline Bling” by Drake
For someone who keeps his finger on the pulse so successfully, it should be impossible to identify a career-topping song. But if Drake has one, we all know it’s “Hotline Bling.”
There’s hardly a need to explain why, because you already know: The song, along with its many-hued music video, truly defines the era of feverish social media-fuelled obsession.
But beyond that, it was more than a viral craze in the vein of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Don’t let Drake’s meme-able dance moves distract you from the fact that “Hotline Bling” is a phenomenal song, down to its ingenious title: It describes something totally mundane in the most deliciously offbeat, unexpected way (who had ever used the phrase “hotline bling” to describe a late-night booty call before?) that burrowed into our collective consciousness.
As much as Drake wants to keep insisting he’s a rapper, his decade-defining anthem is a dynamic pop song that simultaneously twinkles, thumps, sneers, and aches.
14. “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange
It’s difficult to articulate the significance and resonance of “Cranes in the Sky,” and I’m certainly not qualified to try. As Judnick Mayard wrote, “A Seat at the Table” is “an album for Black women made by one Black woman. In speaking her personal truth, Solange has created a meditation not just for herself but for so many seeking safe space, asylum, and peace, for those who seek to maintain their dignity and regality in the face of condescension, lies, aggression, violence, and murder.”
No other song illustrates the album’s transcendence better than “Cranes in the Sky,” a shimmering ode to nurturing your own soul in a chaotic and unjust world.
13. “212” by Azealia Banks featuring Lazy Jay
You’d never expect to love a song so much that includes the lyric, “I guess that c— getting eaten” – until you can practically hear Azealia Banks grinning in the first verse of “212,” her nimble voice strutting through Belgian house music.
Then, as that brazen line echoes and fades, Banks’ smile starts to fade, too. She adopts more of a playful eye-roll. “I’m a rude b—-, n—-, what are you made up of?” she smirks.
The song shifts again as the bridge takes over. The beat disappears and Banks starts serenading your downfall. “They will forget your name soon,” she titters. She knows you’re not ready for what comes next.
While “212” lacks a traditional structure, it does boast the best beat drop of the decade. When those synths come back with a vengeance and Banks starts to howl (“This s— been mine, mine!”) all those cookie-cutter house tracks and cute EDM hits quake. The song’s effect is intoxicating, like you’re taking successive shots of different liquors. By the end, memories of the night are blurred but gleaming. Banks makes “212” feel smooth and cohesive because even as she shape-shifts, she coaxes you along with her. All of her brags and snarls are yours now.
12. “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s piercing falsetto on its own (“‘Cause I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout forevaaaa“) was enough to make this song one of the decade’s best.
Take into account its meticulous, summery, atmospheric production – Google says the actual definition of “atmospheric” is “creating a distinctive mood, typically of romance, mystery, or nostalgia,” which is literally “Thinkin Bout You” to a tee – and how it’s been mythologized as Ocean’s official debut single, the song is practically a priceless historic artefact.
11. “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
Adele’s global domination, during which has she maintained a near-constant monopoly over our hearts and our tear ducts, was launched in 2010 by “Rolling in the Deep.” It’s entirely possible that essays entitled “Adele is the artist of the decade” would have never existed if it weren’t for her soaring manifesto for strength and resilience.
Adele can write and execute an aching breakup ballad better than almost anyone, but this ground-breaking “gospel disco” anthem (her words) is the most powerful spiritual sucker-punch in her discography. It’s the three-minute-and-48-second tornado that sucked us all into her world of emotional turmoil and emotional triumph.
10. “Holocene” by Bon Iver
“And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” With that one simple refrain, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon creates something akin to a religious awakening.
With layers of instrumental colour and a uniquely spectral voice, Vernon is capable of packing a lifetime’s worth of emotion into deceptively simple lyrics. This is never clearer than it is while listening to “Holocene” – the heart of Vernon’s “Bon Iver,” his dazzling sophomore album that, ironically, convinced most of the world of his magnificence.
The song is at once a spacious, soothing listening experience and an evocative, Baroque piece of artwork. This duality is essential to the song’s meditation on the relative insignificance of human life – you know, just light and casual stuff – but also the inherent significance in those little human epiphanies. You don’t listen to “Holocene” to feel hopeless or small, but rather to feel spiritually bigger than your smallness.
9. “Somebody Else” by The 1975
There is no other song in existence that evokes the same ultra-specific, exquisite emotion as “Somebody Else.” To listen to The 1975’s synth-laden masterpiece is to wrap yourself in a gossamer spun from nostalgia and misery and guilt and some perverse sense of self-importance in the face of betrayal (“Get someone you love? / Get someone you need? / F— that, get money”). The central message of the song is at turns regretful and smug.
“Somebody Else” is also strikingly modern. The simple elegance of the lyric, “I’m looking through you while you’re looking through your phone,” is relatable almost to the point of being obvious – as though you’ve written that lyric in your head one thousand times without realising it.
8. “Royals” by Lorde
2012 began with LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” reigning as the No. 1 song on the chart. It was succeeded by Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s maximalist blend of EDM and pop. Much of the year continued this way, with ostentatious hits from Carly Rae Jepsen and Maroon 5 becoming the longest-running chart-toppers of the year.
Amongst the noise, a teenager quietly made “Royals” available for free online, its gleaming vocal harmonies strung together with a defiantly, arrogantly simple beat. The song was a harsh critique of an opulent world – a world that this very song, which became a No. 1 hit for nine straight weeks the following year, would help the teen inherit. It was also a winking love letter, betraying Lorde’s own ambitions and temptations, and expertly examining the way our feelings of moral superiority and jealousy can hold hands.
In 2018, Rolling Stone ranked “Royals” as No. 9 on its list of the century’s best songs: “Maybe the greatest striver’s anthem of our modern era was written in half an hour by a 15-year-old in Auckland, New Zealand – perfectly reasonable, since no one views the world’s absurd unfairness, or their own rights within in it, with greater clarity than a 15-year-old, especially one situated 8,800 miles from Wall Street and the heart of pop-culture imperialism.”
7. “Runaway” by Kanye West featuring Pusha-T
Let me set the scene: It’s the beginning of the decade. Kanye West is still reeling from the death of his beloved mother, and he’s essentially in hiding after he crashed the stage at the 2009 VMAs to steal the mic from 19-year-old Taylor Swift. President Barack Obama has labelled him a “jackass.” He splits from his serious girlfriend, Amber Rose, in July. To the world, it looks like the self-proclaimed genius is imploding.
Then, at the 2010 VMAs, he premieres “Runaway” – his intoxicating, intricate, instantly iconic “toast for the douchebags.” Its effect was immediate. To this day, if that single opening piano note rings out from a speaker, people lose their minds.
“He probably had listened to the beat for four minutes, and got in the booth, and almost verbatim to what’s on the song today, just did it,” co-producer Emile revealed to Complex.
“The lyrics and the concept were what they were, and that’s when the Kanye West genius producer mode came in to play. He totally reproduced the record, and kept working on it and working on it,” Emile continued. “He turned it into this epic song. It’s just a beautiful record. It’s a masterpiece.”
With this nine-minute opus, West simultaneously reveled in his own flaws, asserted his power, and staged a sweeping comeback. “Run away from me, baby,” he insisted, over and over. We couldn’t.
6. “Redbone” by Childish Gambino
Fans got a taste of Childish Gambino’s range on his 2014 EP “Kauai,” but Donald Glover’s rap career was still mocked and underestimated in many musical circles. His 2013 sophomore album “Because the Internet” was met with mixed reviews, and Glover’s initial career as a goofy comic still made it difficult for self-proclaimed “serious rap fans” to take his alter-ego seriously – that is, until “Redbone.”
As Steven Edelstone wrote for Consequence of Sound, “It’s no coincidence that ‘Redbone’ was featured in the very beginning of ‘Get Out'” –which Insider ranked as the No. 1 movie of the decade – since it’s a prime example of a modern record that’s “considered both Important and Iconic.”
The common belief that Glover is inexplicably good at everything,as parodied in his “Saturday Night Live” monologue, didn’t truly take hold until “Redbone” spent eight months climbing the chart (it originally debuted at No. 75 on the Billboard Hot 100). Against all odds, this ’70s-inspired funk oddity saturated every corner of our culture and sank into our skin. The song has entered legendary territory, and it helped Glover do the same.
It’s no fluke, either. Glover wrote and coproduced the song, on top of playing drums and glockenspiel. All its instrumentals were built around a single drum beat he spontaneously came up with. The futuristic guitar riff, the reverberating howls, that vibrating, alien-high falsetto – there’s a reason why the internet is obsessed with how “Redbone” would sound in the bathroom at a party. It makes you feel like you’re floating in a dimension where time stands still.
5. “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift can be considered iconic for many reasons: She emerged as a wunderkind, became an advocate for artists’ rights, and pulled off the most graceful pivot from country to pop in history.
But Swift’s defining power, the skill that has made her our preeminent singer-songwriter for over a decade, is how she seizes on small moments or fleeting details and turns them into cataclysmic events – best represented by the deep cut “All Too Well.”
In the years since the song’s debut, quietly nestled at track No. 5 on her 2012 album “Red,” it has been hailed as Swift’s most iconic musical triumph by fans and critics alike.
“All Too Well” starts humbly enough, with a quiet guitar strum and mentions of innocent details, like a scarf in her boyfriend’s drawer. But as the pop-rock ballad builds and the instruments swell, Swift begins to lose her cool.
And then, a crescendo, and Swift wails the best set of lyrics she’s ever written: “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.”
This is Swift’s thing: She remembers. But her lyrics don’t just recall details, they immortalise them. Beyond its impeccable production and arena-friendly arrangement, “All Too Well” is a cinematic, five-minute masterclass on narrative structure. (Case in point: Ingeniously, Swift reminds you of the scarf that her ex kept, because he also remembers it all too well.) Swift brings you into the story and by the end, you’re as invested in her failed relationship as she is. If she’s a crumpled up piece of paper lying here, then so are you.
4. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
As Sheldon Pearce noted for Pitchfork, “Alright” is like the nucleus of Kendrick Lamar’s essential album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
The song exists, essentially and mindfully, within a fraught political and social climate – in particular, one that witnesses and often condones murder after murder of unarmed black people. But rather than simply observing this pattern or offering a commentary, Lamar comes bearing “a message of unbreakable optimism in the face of hardship” and a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“You can imagine the characters who cycle in and out of his songs whispering ‘We gon’ be alright’ to themselves, or reassuring loved ones between sighs, trying to make it through the next day,” Pearce wrote. “Here, as horns wail and drums snap, there is a sense that the ‘we’ is actually unfathomable, a force that can overcome anything when banded as one.”
3. “Formation” by Beyoncé
How does one explain why “Formation” is a top three song of the decade without sounding painfully obvious? Anything I could possibly write here will simply reiterate something you already know, something that has been documented and think-pieced ad nauseam.
The moment Beyoncé appeared onscreen staring you down from a sinking police car; the moment she towered over the Super Bowl halftime show, surrounded by dancers outfitted like Black Panther activists; the moment you heard the song’s first note reverberate through your headphones like an alarm, the earth’s core shifted. “Formation” is the most boundary-pushing and culture-altering anthem from an artist who is routinely described in those terms. Its power is self-evident. She slays.
2. “Nights” by Frank Ocean
Plenty of songs feature sudden gear shifts or transitions, including other songs on this list. But none will ever give you the same disorienting thrill as Frank Ocean’s two-part odyssey “Nights.”
Warm, sparkling guitar riffs initially dominate the song. But these eventually fall away, giving way to heavy synths, before a voltaic staccato effect triggers a new direction and a new beat: A slower, psychedelic haze drenches the final minute of the song. Ocean’s voice becomes slightly distorted, pitched higher than before.
Structurally and compositionally, this is Ocean’s most ingenious work to date. “Nights” plays an essential role within the context of its parent album, “Blonde,” with its mid-song beat change landing precisely in the centre of the 60-minute tracklist – down to the exact second.
Much has been written about how “Blonde” plays with duality, and “Nights” embodies this theme. For the casual listener, the iconic beat switch reflects a shift from day to night (“New beginnings, wake up akh / The sun’s goin’ down,” Ocean sings just beforehand). But for a devoted student of Ocean’s work, there is so much more to unpack.
Lyrically, this song could be analysed and digested like capital-R Romantic poetry. Ocean has always been able to load brief stanzas with double meanings and layered interpretations, and with “Nights,” he touches upon a veritable feast of modern, existential concerns: exploitation, the drive for pleasure, the fear of mortality, the monotony of life, the loss of innocence (Has there ever been a more perfect way to describe a phone call from an ex than “Did you call me from a séance?”), and Ocean’s own struggles as a student in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.
And if your eyes glazed over all of those sentences, that’s OK. This part is the most important: You don’t need to know where Ocean went to school to appreciate the song. You don’t need to spare one thought about any of this. One of the best things about “Nights” is how it feels hypnotic and captivating in any moment, on any playlist. Worship at your leisure.
1. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn
“Dancing On My Own” feels like an epiphany every time you listen to it. It conjures such a singular blend of melancholy and euphoria, asking your blood to swirl and surge and remind you just how alive you are. Everything else melts away.
As The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz wrote, “Robyn’s music sought to strip away the stigma of feeling solitary, to turn loneliness into something triumphant… There she is in that stark landscape, moving with her own gravity: The first pop star on the moon.”
It’s not insignificant that “Dancing On My Own,” the opening track of her celebrated album “Body Talk,” was released in 2010 – the dawn of the decade, earlier than almost every single song on this list. In fact, without “Dancing On My Own,” many of the songs on this list wouldn’t even exist. Without Robyn, there is no Carly Rae Jepsen, no Charli XCX, no Lorde. Some of the best music from artists like Janelle Monáe, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Ariana Grande bears the mark of Robyn’s signature “poptimism,” for which “Dancing On My Own” is the ultimate example.
At a time when pop music was still comfortably discredited – when purists would insist that it was shallow or somehow less “authentic” than “real music” – “Dancing On My Own” emerged exultant and unbothered, burning an effigy of loss and betrayal and heartbreak before scattering the ashes under a disco ball.