These were my 20 favorite songs of the 2010s (with a limit of one song per album), in chronological order:
“Hard Enough,” Brandon Flowers (2010) — Flowers and his band, the Killers, eventually moved toward bombast and dance club sounds in the 2010s. Before that, we got this song (off a great album, “Flamingo”) that emphasizes the singer’s sensitive side. It doesn’t hurt that his fellow Las Vegan, Jenny Lewis (who will appear again on this list), sings backup vocals.
“Just Like Zeus,” Jenny and Johnny (2010) — Jenny Lewis’ and Johnathan Rice’s lone album “I’m Having Fun Now” is indeed fun, filled with a summery wall of sound and great lyrics. This is my favorite track because it gets right into the vibe and the story, incongruously blending pretty music with Jenny’s list of things she hates.
“Ridin’ in My Car,” She & Him (2010) — A cover is worth doing is if you make it sound better, or at least different. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward achieve that with their dreamy take on NRBQ’s faster-paced original. In a “Volume Two” that also includes Deschanel’s vocal showcase “Thieves” and the pop gem “In the Sun,” “Ridin’ in My Car” stands out for the way the duo’s voices trade off. Plus, Ward gets to unleash a guitar solo.
“She Walks in So Many Ways,” The Jayhawks (2011) – The Twin Cities band isn’t quite as prolific as in their 1990s heyday, but as I found it out at a 2019 concert, they still deliver the goods live. Pretty yet propulsive, and showcasing Gary Louris’ one-of-a-kind vocals, this low-key catchy track from “Mockingbird Time” is my Jayhawks pick for the decade.
“Myth,” Beach House (2012) — An Onion headline says: “Unclear Which Beach House Song This Is, Reports Lead Singer of Beach House.” Indeed, the band’s songs blend together, and that makes it difficult to pick a favorite. But I’ll go with “Myth,” which kicks off the epic dreamscape of “Bloom.” Victoria Legrand’s vocals are transporting enough that you don’t have to know what she’s singing.
“Only For You,” Heartless Bastards (2012) — “Sway” was one of my favorite songs of the Aughts and dang if “Only For You” isn’t even better. It’s one of those songs you want to live inside of as Erika Wennerstrom sings about … well, it doesn’t really matter, but I think the topic is a budding relationship. “Only For You” is more than five minutes long, but it could be an hour and I wouldn’t complain.
“It Won’t Be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore),” The Wallflowers (2012) – The Jakob Dylan-fronted band’s output of great songs dropped from the previous two decades, but I dig this standout track from “Glad All Over,” the Wallflowers’ last album (as of now). It encapsulates the belief that brighter days are ahead.
“Cool Kids,” Echosmith (2013) — Whether you wish you could be like the “cool kids” or like the “cookies” (a popular misunderstood lyric), this tune from the California teen siblings’ debut album “Talking Dreams” is driven by a hook that would sound good in an arena or a club. Time will tell if Echosmith has a big career or is a one-hit wonder, but at least the band was cool for a brief moment at mid-decade.
“Archie, Marry Me,” Alvvays (2014) — Molly Rankin and her Toronto band, on the best track from their excellent self-titled debut, mix bittersweet longing with a grainy wall of sound. It transports a listener back to the time of their purest feeling of romantic love.
“Late Bloomer,” Jenny Lewis (2014) — “Just One of the Guys” got more attention on the “Voyager” album, but this is a richer song. Lewis sings of meeting various types of oddballs around the world while also trying to entice a late bloomer to be more adventurous (I think). The music has a nostalgic quality.
“So Now What,” The Shins (2014) – Probably because “Wish I Was Here” was a more meandering and imperfect film, its soundtrack didn’t get nearly as much attention as that of “Garden State” from 10 years earlier. But again Zach Braff compiles a flawless mixtape, leading off with this instantly transporting Shins original, which the band put on its 2017 album “Heartworms.”
“Elegy to the Void,” Beach House (2015) – On second thought, a Best of the 2010s list can make room for a second Beach House song. I overlooked “Thank Your Lucky Stars” when it hit shelves, because you just don’t expect a band to release an album within months of their previous one (“Depression Cherry”). If “Myth” is the best bombastic (by their standards) BH song of the decade, “Elegy” is the elite slow-burner. The six-and-a-half minute epic can be heard as melancholy or peaceful, depending on your mood. Regardless, don’t listen to it just before you need to go to work, because you won’t be able to get off your couch; this song induces temporary “Dang, that was good” paralysis.
“Nobody’s Empire,” Belle and Sebastian (2015) – This tinkly-but-propulsive five-minute epic from “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance” gradually got under my skin. Like REM’s “Losing My Religion,” it lacks a chorus, so a listener waits for a payoff that seemingly never comes … until you realize the whole song is the payoff. The music video is likewise initially strange, with an actress lip-syncing Stuart Murdoch’s vocals, but the old war reels bring emphasis to phrases like “targets for gunfire” (nicely followed by rat-tat-tat sound effects). It’s like Track 1 of a mixtape for the fall of the US empire, yet the lyrics offer hope if you listen till the end.
“Feeling OK,” Best Coast (2015) – This and “In My Eyes” are the elite tracks from “California Nights,” which finds Bethany Cosentino’s L.A. band moving toward a more produced sound – often in a good way. With a groovy hook playing behind most of the track, “Feeling OK” is as good a song can be when the singer is expressing not happiness or sadness, but rather a fair-to-middling mood.
“Cold Little Heart,” Michael Kiwanuka (2016) – TV show theme songs largely went into hibernation in the Aughts and Tens, but there are some exceptions. Kiwanuka’s gorgeously dark and atmospheric “Cold Little Heart” – filled with a chorus of backing “oohs” — probably made me slightly overrate every episode of “Big Little Lies.” The standout track from “Love & Hate” perfectly sets the mood for a story of the bizarrely intertwined lives of people capable of hurting each other in ways they don’t even realize.
“Spark: Lost,” Butch Walker (2016) — The prolific Atlanta musician/producer released a lot of great tunes in the 2010s, including a Butch Walker and the Black Widows disc and the introspective and atmospheric “Afraid of Ghosts” (a great overall album, but one where it’s hard to pick out a “hit”). But then came his coup de grace: the Americana rock of “Stay Gold.” Three blitzing rockers kick off this album, but this penultimate track gives me goosebumps as Butch sings about a woman and three places close to his heart: “Now you’re leaving L.A. for Nashville, with Georgia on your mind.”
“Lollipop (Ode to Jim),” Alvvays (2017) — The sophomore album from a breakout band is often more heavily produced than the first, a fact that’s often lamented by music nerds. But, although the fuzziness of Alvvays’ self-titled debut is sometimes missed, “Antisocialites” is a better album top to bottom. The song that benefits the most from the studio dials and levers is “Lollipop,” a mid-previous-century-sounding pop-rocker where singer Molly Rankin is a “gumdrop” and the object of her affection is “a lollipop in (her) head.” A listener could float away on the echoing and fading “pop-pop-pop” sound amid the chorus.
“Alabama,” Tracyanne & Danny (2018) — After 2013’s “Desire Lines,” Scottish band Camera Obscura closed shop (at least for now) as it mourned the death of pianist Carey Lander. But a few years later we got a nice consolation prize when lead singer Tracyanne Campbell, along with Danny Coughlan, gave us a self-titled debut that sounds like early Camera Obscura. My favorite track is Tracyanne’s timeless love letter to traveling in North America, one of her favorite themes.
“Sister Buddha,” Belle and Sebastian (2019) – The Scottish twee legends experimented with a lot of sounds in the decade, and finally found a perfect mix of old (Stuart Murdoch’s inimitable vocals) and new (a heavy emphasis on bells) in this song from the “Days of the Bagnold Summer” soundtrack. I might be influenced by the adorable music video, but I think it chronicles a young woman (a Buddhist, presumably) finding her way in the world and realizing her own worth and beauty. At any rate, the song sure is beautiful.
“Heads Gonna Roll,” Jenny Lewis (2019) — Lewis, who you’ve probably realized by now is my favorite artist of the Tens, started the decade with a fun album with her boyfriend and ends it with the reflective “On the Line.” As with “Late Bloomer,” she meets lots of weird people in the lyrics of “Heads Gonna Roll.” There’s also a sentiment against strict religions, I think. Above all, it sets a slightly melancholy yet gorgeous-sounding tone for her best album yet.
They got plenty of attention elsewhere, but these were my favorite mainstream radio and commercial songs of the decade:
- “Forget You,” CeeLo Green (2010) — CeeLo blends bitterness with an old-school melody backed by a girl group. A wonderful cover is sung by Gwyneth Paltrow and the “Glee” kids.
- “We Are Young,” Fun (2011) — The Tens’ best youth anthem came from a band that burned bright then faded away, adding retroactive poignancy to the song.
- “Gangnam Style,” Psy (2012) — This international hit is the kind of stupid that makes me smile. It’s made funnier in the music video where Psy does the dance in increasingly weird locations.
- “Crazy Youngsters,” Esther Dean (2015) — This highlight of the “Pitch Perfect 2” soundtrack and the 2019 MLB playoffs is the decade’s “age is just a number” anthem.
- “Thunder,” Imagine Dragons (2017) — I discovered the decade’s best stadium anthem when it was the soundtrack to the 2017 U.S. Open tennis tournament.
- “This is Me,” Keala Settle, from “The Greatest Showman” (2017) — I especially enjoyed this ode to being yourself when it played behind the figure skating gala at the 2018 Olympics.
- “Shallow,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, from “A Star is Born” (2018) — A little bit country, a little bit pop, a little bit showtune, the centerpiece track from “A Star Is Born” was inescapable, but no one minded.
What were your favorite songs of the 2010s? Share your lists in the comment threads below.