I had a thought earlier today that went like “LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ would be my favorite track of the 2010s if Arcade Fire’s ‘Modern Man’ didn’t exist.” And from that I decided to create a top ten of my favorite tracks of the 2010s thus far.
This isn’t a Greatest-Songs-of-the-Decade list, because lists like that aren’t very useful and I haven’t listened to enough music from the decade anyway. These songs are some of my favorite tracks, ones that I both listen to a lot and think have artistic merit. Some of these songs were really hard to select, because a top-ten list is more discarding options than picking them. Many of these songs have sad undercurrents, but then again most, if not all art does. Some have explicit lyrics as well, but they’re worth listening to if you can get past that barrier.
So anyway here they are:
10. Lana Del Rey – Video Games
“Video Games” (2012) I think is Lana del Rey at her best: lush instrumentation, acute lyrics delivered with a captivatingly sad voice. Its lyrics (“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you / everything I do”) are at once ridiculously fawnish on the surface and tragic below it. The mood produced by the accompanying music heightens the tragedy. The song suggests a sense of doomed-ness to modern love.
9. J. Cole – She’s Mine Pt. 2
J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only (2016) is fantastic. The character and story he created and developed for the album are some of the most poignant in any genre. “She’s Mine Pt. 2” is my selection for this list because it’s the most lyrically striking track from the album. It’s written from the point of view of a father who loves his daughter, but it gets at American culture in general, incarceration and hyper-consumerism included. The piano-driven track is chill-sounding, but I think it’s meant to induce sadness, or at least a sober attitude.
8. Frank Ocean – Ivy
I’m only putting “Ivy” (2016) on here because it’s a really cute, heartfelt song from Frank that’s also nostalgic of youth (“I ain’t a kid no more / we’ll never be those kids again”).
7. Funeral Suits – All Those Friendly People
Funeral Suits might be the least recognizable artist from this list. They’re an Irish band whose album Lily of the Valley (2012) is one of my favorites. “All Those Friendly People,” which is from Lily, is one of my favorite tracks ever because it manages to be continuously energetic without being heavy. The unrelenting singing during the verse and the insanely catchy riff maintain hype without it ever being too much. And it’s also the only non-medical cultural artifact I know of that uses the word “anaesthetize.”
6. Arctic Monkeys – R U Mine?
(English-major jargon ahead.)
If I were an English professor who had to teach song lyrics, I’d teach the songs of Britrock act Arctic Monkeys. Songwriter and frontman Alex Turner produces songs that aren’t just lyrically good because of the story they tell/picture they paint; they’re good because of the sonic quality of the lyrics themselves, which is to say the words of their songs sound good together. Alex Turner makes incredible use of internal and end rhyme and just assonance in general, sometimes inspired by dialect, like when he rhymes “summat” (a British variant of “something”) with “stomach” in 2006’s “When the Sun Goes Down.” Poet Simon Armitage admires their work, calling Turner “among the most poetic [of songwriters].” Their songs are also driven by some of the best rock riffs produced in any era.
“R U Mine?” (2013) is one of the best examples of all these things. The first verse is a masterpiece of verbal sound:
I’m a puppet on a string
Tracy Island, time-traveling diamond cutter-shaped heartaches
Come to find you fall in some velvet morning
Years too late
She’s a silver lining lone ranger riding
Through an open space
In my mind when she’s not right there beside me
You have the usual suspects like the alliteration in “silver lining lone ranger riding.” But you also have incredible rhyming. “String,” “morning,” and “riding” feel more like internal rhymes than like end rhymes because of how the song sounds (you really have to listen to it if you haven’t yet). “Come to find you fall in some velvet morning” is brilliant not just because of alliteration but also because of how the vowels naturally stress, giving the line a level of rhythmic power usually only found in poetry and rap.
And the riff is both ridiculously sexy and ridiculously well-integrated into the song. I’m linking a live version of the song because it’s stunning that Turner both plays the riff and sings.
5. Kendrick Lamar – u
I can’t find a link to a video, but that’s fine.
“u” comes from Kendrick’s 2015 masterpiece of an album To Pimp a Butterfly. It is hands down the most hard-hitting of tracks on an album that’s about incarceration, racial tensions (both inter- and intra-), greed, sex, whathaveyou.
“u” is divided into two parts. The first centers on the lyric “Loving you is complicated.” The loving is self-love. Here Kendrick struggles with emotions, confidence, and ego in light of his success as an artist.
The second half has Kendrick rapping in a higher voice that suggests that he’s speaking from drunkenness and despair. It’s almost painful to hear him angrily voice out his guilt, shame, and depression. The song only finds its light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel in the context of the whole album, which is fluctuates between status quo and hope of a better future. It helps that “Alright” comes after “u” in the album, which contains the line “if God got us then we gon’ be alright.”
4. Lorde – A World Alone
Lorde is a genius. She’s been praised by David Bowie, covered by Arcade Fire. She’s one of the best pop songwriters of our time. She sings about isolation. She sings about losing childhood. She sings about the Internet culture that has allowed people to freely make rude comments and gossip with little or no consequence. And her album Pure Heroine (2013) came out when she was only 17.
“A World Alone,” the last track from Pure Heroine, is about all the themes mentioned above, and it contains one of my favorite song-lines: “Maybe the Internet raised us or maybe people are jerks.”
3. The 1975 – Robbers
According to Last.fm, I’ve listened to “Robbers” more than any other song. It’s a well-written tune. It tells a good story, which I think is based on a Tarantino short film. It isn’t The 1975’s best song, but it’s my favorite song of theirs.
There’s this one point near the end of the the song where the lead singer Matt Healy’s voice jumps between octaves and it sounds so heartfelt and sincere that you can’t help but get hit by the feels. The music video is also top-notch I think.
2. LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean
“Dance Yrself Clean” (2013) is my second-favorite track, but it’s kinda hard to articulate why. It might be that the song starts really low-volume but then gets you in the middle with the sudden burst in volume and energy. It might be the fact that it’s both an indie and a dance track: it makes you want to reflect on existence, or on the human condition, or on how non-mainstream you’re being aaand it makes you want to writhe awkwardly and dance your cares away. The middle dance section encourages us to “go and dance [ourselves] clean / … it’s [our] show.”
Thing is, the lyrics in the low-volume section get at the social anxiety of being unsure about whether people like you or not and needing desperately to know. You get that sense again at the end. “Dance Yrself Clean” ends quietly in a letdown after the hype of the dancefloor. You tried to dance yourself free of your worries–but in the end, what?
1. Arcade Fire – Modern Man
“Modern Man” (2010) is my favorite song from my favorite album of my favorite band.
Arcade Fire has always been about huge, sweeping issues. “Modern Man” is a perfect exemplar of what AF is about. It’s about the general uneasiness/malaise we have in our supposedly well-advanced and -developed time.
The narrator of the song finds himself waiting, standing in lines so much of his life. All this waiting is done in accordance to a story shaped by a modern vision. But the narrator realizes that it’s all deeply, fundamentally, like C.S.-Lewis-“made-for-another-world”-level unsatisfying and confusing (“In line for a number but you don’t understand”). “Something don’t feel right,” the song repeats, and eventually comes my favorite lines from my favorite song from etc. etc.:
If it’s alright
then how come you can’t sleep at night?
So why can’t you?