he 2010s bore witness to a slew of drastic societal and political changes. America watched as the buttoned-up professionalism of Barack Obama’s presidency devolved into the clickbait chaos of the Donald Trump administration, which, regardless of your political leanings, was at the very least jarring. Social media became the medium through which we document our lives and gaze upon the lives of others. The iPhone made the transition from a luxury to a commodity. And all of this altered how we make and hear music.
Following the replacement of iPods and MP3 players with Internet-accessible iPhones, streaming became our music-listening format of choice. First Pandora, then Spotify and Apple Music, pushed us into a new era of listening, where playlists reign king and chart-ready singles are the currency of the art. In the last gasps of the decade, artists responded with the collective rise of the sprawling 15+ track album, a “long play” in the fullest sense of the phrase—think Vampire Weekend’s 18-track Father of the Bride or Migos’ 24-track Culture II. Melodrama in the political and private spheres metastasized to give rise to more introspective genres of old—shoegaze—and new—emo rap.
The following list is by no means exhaustive—if we printed 24-page papers twice a week like we did in the decade prior, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (2015), Adele’s “Hello” (2016), and One Direction’s “Story of My Life” (2013) would have been in the following 10. And we’ll admit that recency bias is almost certainly at work here—most current Heights board members were between 9 and 11-years-old when Ryan Seacrest first rung in the decade with the help of Daughtry, Jennifer Lopez, and The Black Eyed Peas. The following 10 songs are tracks that made us dance, scream, cry, and sometimes do all three at once during some of the most formative years in our lifetimes. From indie pop to modern rock to genres too specific to list, these are the songs that remain etched in the collegiate musical consciousness into 2020.
No. 1 – “Love It If We Made It” (2018)
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nthemic and glittering, The 1975’s “Love It If We Made It” is a bleary-eyed manifesto for the Instagram era. Over steady hi-hat pops and ethereal sparkling synths, frontman Matty Healy preaches “I’d love it if we made it” to a choir of Tumblr poets. The 1975 flips the basic concept of an anthem on its head, replacing resolute optimism with sincere ambivalence.
Politics are plentiful on the track, which clocks in at just over 4 minutes. Healy emotionlessly strings together the words “Fossil fueling / Masturbation” with clinical conviction, spewing his discontent for modern Internet culture with a potent tinge of contained vitriol behind his strained plea. When the song first debuted on Beats Radio 1 with Zane Lowe, Healy remarked, “I’m saying a lot of individual things, but the fact of the matter is all of these things are nuclear,” of the dissonant verse.
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Healy takes punches at Trump, co-opting the absurdity of one of the world leader’s 2018 tweets during a rant about the newfound pettiness of the presidency: “Thank you Kanye, very cool!” Healy scoffs before charging “Modernity has failed us.” It’s a welcome change for a band whose career was jump started by a song that used “Chocolate” as a euphemism for weed. On “Love It If We Made It,” The 1975 affords its maturing audience a level of seriousness that far exceeds the band’s earlier work.
Despite the song’s bleak forecast, the beat ascends from a rocket-launch countdown of muffled synths to a celestial procession of ad-libs from The London Community Gospel Choir. Drummer George Daniels’s oscillating dance beat provides an intoxicating contrast to the dire lyrics: The 1975 is mixing uppers with downers at this apocalyptic pity party, but its vision is more focused than ever. In a decade that was largely marked by the reign of Taylor Swift’s apolitical blushing ballads and the rise of emo rap (“Rest in peace, Lil Peep,” Healy laments in one verse), The 1975 exited the self-important comatose of its earlier work with a vigor not channeled by its contemporaries. In the 2010s, The 1975 was the year in our headphones and on our lips. – Kaylie Ramirez, Arts Editor
No. 2 – “The Less I Know The Better” (2015)
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here’s the Lindsey Buckingham-Stevie Nicks-Mick-Fleetwood love triangle that inspired “The Chain” and “Go Your Own Way,” and then there’s the complex relationship between Kevin Parker’s indifferent lyrics, slapstick electronic beat, and eel-slick production. Incendiary and bereft, Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know The Better” wades into a vacuous abyss of lyrical loneliness with the musical swagger of a man who already rebounded. Parker isn’t as openly broken as he is on “Yes I’m Changing” or as certain of his optimism as the clamoring build of “Eventually,” but apathy has yet to set in.
Tame Impala’s nuanced anti-melancholia dives into an emotional territory that is as hard to convey as it is to navigate: forced naïvete. Parker’s protective hesitancy bucks the millennial post-breakup routine of scouring Instagram profiles and Twitter likes. Following on the distant nostalgia of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (Lonerism, 2012), Parker has been roiled by romance once again. But unlike the unbridled discontent laced into the fiery lyrics and wailing guitar solo of breakup staple “The Chain,” Parker’s muted croon communicates the singer’s utter exhaustion about the whole ordeal.
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The back-and-forth of the stumbling bassline echos Parker’s candid admission, “I was doing fine without ya / Till I saw your eyes turn away from mine.” It’s a sentiment that we all long to be on the other end of, but just as easily find ourselves mumbling in drunken bouts of regret. Parker’s visceral narration of the events qualify the track for ballad status, but the freshly waxed synth beat saves him from falling into the downtrodden mold of Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her Say Hello” or Frank Ocean’s more contemporary “Thinkin’ Bout You.”
Parker appears as a one-man band on “The Less I Know The Better”—and on the 2015 Currents album more generally—not only in a lyrical sense, but in a literal sense. Parker is credited for the track’s mixing, vocals, and all instruments—including the now instantly recognizable sweeping “bassline,” which Parker revealed is actually the product of a guitar with an octave pedal in a 2016 interview with VICE. In the same interview, Parker told VICE he recorded the demo for the song in roughly half an hour. One man, half an hour, and a whole lot of clarity led to the reinvention of the breakup song and a sound Parker called “dorky, white disco funk.” And for all of our loveless late-night dance sessions, we thank him. – KR
No. 3 – “Liability” (2017)
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ndie-pop virtuoso Lorde was thrust into the spotlight at age 16, lauded for her precocious lyrics and wisdom beyond her years. Yet there’s always been a coy smile behind Lorde’s most serious works, and her critically acclaimed 2017 album Melodrama is no exception. Look no further than the title, which subtly acknowledges that from another point of view, the roller-coaster ups and downs that Lorde chronicles in her music are nothing more than petty teenage dramatics.
“Liability” sits unassumingly halfway through Melodrama. Unlike the other, flashier tracks surrounding it, Lorde’s voice on “Liability” is only urged along by a muffled, plodding piano as she slowly spirals. There’s nothing to distract from Lorde’s string of confessions, a series of dark, 3 a.m. realizations that are so raw that they’re almost painful to hear. Like a burning car crash, it’s hard to look away. “The truth is I am a toy / That people enjoy ’til / All of the tricks don’t work anymore” she sighs, her voice scratchy and tear-stained. But there are glimmers of wry self-deprecation in the track that indicate that even at her most vulnerable, Lorde is still hiding behind a character, having the last laugh.
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A broken-hearted debutante, she’s “Crying in a taxi.” She wallows in self-pity as she laments, “I’m a little much for E-a-na-na-na, everyone,” her voice mimicking shuddering sobs. It’s all a little too cinematic to be believable. Is she broken-hearted or just playing the role, going through the motions? With the music industry’s black sheep, nothing should be taken at face value. In her March 2017 performance of “Liability” on Saturday Night Live, Lorde was clad in all-white with a rumpled veil over her hair like a 21st century Miss Havisham. The emotion in her voice was undeniable. Face cast in shadow, she bowed her head to every line as if they were weighing her down. And yet there she was in all white, slyly playing the part of the hysterical bride left at the altar. Even in the midst of an emotional breakdown it seems that Lorde’s millennial irony is inescapable. – Jillian Ran, Asst. Arts Editor
No. 4 – “Runaway” (2010)
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hen Kanye West first performed “Runaway,” his second single off the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, at the 2010 VMAs, many wondered if the track would seek forgiveness from a 20-year-old Taylor Swift. After all, West infamously interrupted the country pop sensation the previous year at the annual MTV awards show. But, once again, Kanye did the unexpected.
As Brennan Carley writes in the Nov. 22, 2010 issue of The Heights, “[‘Runaway’] is Kanye’s long awaited acknowledgement of his wrongdoing, and he does so in typical Kanye fashion—cockily and boldly, with no apologies to be found.” The track has stood the test of time, just like the em dash. West recounts relationship failures and reflects on his image as an artist, chanting the defiant lines, “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags / Let’s have a toast for the assholes / Let’s have a toast for the scumbags / Every one of them that I know.”
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With a chilling instrumental that fits the build for just about any emotional movie soundtrack, West’s “Runaway” is just as versatile as it is beautiful. The pings of the piano in the track’s intro deviate from rap norms and lure even the most mild hip-hop fans into what is one of West’s most critically acclaimed songs. And the bass provides a sense of intensity that keeps listeners focused throughout the nine-minute track—a nearly impossible feat for any rap artist.
No. 5 – “Slow Burn” (2018)
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low Burn” is not only a standout song from Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, but within modern country music as a whole. Soft and ethereal, the song is packed with detailed lyrics and clever contradictions, starting with the unexpectedly personal opening line, “Born in a hurry, always late / Haven’t been early since ’88.”
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The mellow guitar that flickers behind Musgrave’s voice throughout the first verse gets bolstered by further instrumentation later on, giving the piece a fuller, more substantial sound. The song is fairly nonsensical, containing mostly vague lyrics that revolve around the floating beat in a cyclical manner. But this does not mean the lyrics are meaningless—the song has an inherently soothing quality formed by the combination of well-crafted lines draped perfectly over the sound of soft, repetitive guitar. – Emily Himes, Assoc. Arts Editor
No. 6 – “Hannah Hunt” (2013)
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zra Koenig starts “Hannah Hunt” with a whisper, and then keeps whispering. Save for its explosive interlude, the track is neatly bookended by quiet winds at the opening and a single, resolved chord that walks out the end. The lyrics, too, don’t ask for much. Koenig sings a timeless, wandering ballad where the narrator wants nothing more, for he and the titular Hannah are all but commanded to have their “own sense of time” apart from the mind readers and The New York Times.
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But this ideal is interrupted two-and-a-half minutes in by the sobering realization that, in fact, living disconnected and on the move isn’t living at all. Koenig stops screaming about 40 seconds later only to linger for another 30 while begging the listener to consider the fairness of his declaration. “Hannah Hunt” could be split 85/15 between waiting and payoff, but isn’t everything? – Steven Everett, President and Editor-in-Chief
No. 7 – “Colder Weather” (2010)
Zac Brown Band
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ac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather” set the bar for what country songs could be in the 21st century. Country music has, for the last few decades, been the butt of the joke in the music world. It has been made fun of for the reliance on twang, clumsy metaphors, and trucks. While these criticisms are not without substance, country music has always been better than its weakest links. “Colder Weather” dusts off the best markers of the genre.
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It is a mournful song, full of story and emotion, with a hair-raising chorus. It’s impossible to listen to the song without picturing it in your head. “The night is black as the coffee he was drinkin’ / And in the waitress’ eyes he sees the same old light is shinin’ / He thinks of Colorado and the girl he left behind him.” This is such evocative imagery, it’s nearly cinematic. This is one of the best songs country music has to offer in the last few decades, it deserves its place in the halls of country music, and music overall. – Jacob Schick, A1 Editor
No. 8 – “Knee Socks” (2013)
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lex Turner’s leather jackets and jet-black pompadour would lead you to believe the Brit’s primary occupation is tending a gas station in middle-of-nowhere America circa the 1950s. But Turner, the frontman for Arctic Monkeys, is a songwriter at heart. While Arctic Monkeys 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not instantly usurped British air waves, it would take 2013’s AM to cement the band’s status across the pond.
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“Knee Socks” fully embodies the album’s timeless appeal, combining Turner’s imaginative songwriting and the album’s signature classic rock pastiche. Somewhere between Matt Helders’ foot-tapping kickdrum intro and Turners’ visceral painting of “the ghost in your room / That you thought didn’t approve of you knockin’ boots,” Turner tapped the murmured pulse of rock music in the 21st century. – KR
No. 9 – “The greatest” (2019)
Lana Del Rey
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hen the only thing that the music world’s damsel in distress can offer is a world-weary sigh, you know that the future is truly bleak. “The greatest” is five minutes of soft-rock catharsis, an elegy for the world as we know it. Lana Del Rey mourns the passage of time in all its various forms: the death of The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, the dissolution of a relationship, the disappearance of rock ‘n’ roll.
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“And I’m wasted,” Lana sings, the last word stretched into a desperate warble. The singer strikes her final blows in the song’s last moments, unleashing a collection of eerie apocalyptic warnings. “Hawaii just missed a fireball / L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot,” Lana murmurs softly, utterly exhausted by the world just like the rest of us. – JR
No. 10 – “Bad Religion” (2012)
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Harrowing organ notes open the transcendent backseat monologue that is Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” a standout from the singer songwriter’s breakthrough channel ORANGE. It’s tempting to substitute “Bad Religion” with “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the singer’s most prominent song to date, on the list. But “Bad Religion” packs a lifetime of despair and a cinematic build into just two minutes and 55 seconds.
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Openly gay, Ocean addresses his difficult relationship with worship in terms vague enough for the song to function as a romantic ballad. “If it brings me to my knees / It’s a bad religion,” Ocean cries three years before the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Ocean contrasts tradition with modern elements by injecting a crashing hip-hop drum beat into a classic violin section, mirroring the dissonance that resides in his mind and in society at large. – KR
Featured Image by Dirty Hit