A decade is a long time. Ten years ago, Ariana Grande was a Nickelodeon teen. Taylor Swift was a country star. Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X were children. “Drip” was something drops did. “Lit” was something lamps did. Ten years ago, we didn’t have Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Tidal, Apple Music, or YouTube Music. Most people didn’t have Twitter. Now, we have them all at once, all the time, changing the ways we interact with music, and musicians, and each other.
As the price of memory plummeted, and the speed of internet skyrocketed, streaming usurped traditional physical and digital media on several fronts as fans on the go took a shine to services that alleviated the stresses of hoarding discs and files, and price points that offered access to vast libraries for less than $20 a month. Over time, audiences that had chosen piracy over the prospect of paying out of pocket for individual CDs and DVDs acquiesced to paying a reasonable monthly fee for relatively unrestricted access. The speed of that shift sent shockwaves through the music industry that we’re still trying to process. Changes in the mechanics of how we listen to music dovetailed with changes in the moral fabric of the decade. Prestige awards had to restructure categories and voting pools to address matters of race. Industry abusers were exposed. Women in country, pop, hip-hop, and beyond fought for better representation. Hip-hop warmed to LGBTQ artists like Frank Ocean and Young M.A and earned its first out gay chart-topper in Lil Nas X.
The music industry is a lot like the Wild West again. Glory is up for grabs for anyone resourceful enough to claim it. The old rules don’t apply anymore. The new ones are pliable. Drake became a superstar in part by weaponizing the hilarity of being Drake. Taylor Swift dominated through relatable songwriting and maintained power in open warfare with her business rivals. Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar kept to themselves and made singular, inimitable works that defined the era not through miming familiar sights and sounds but by manipulating existing concepts and making them their own. Kanye West and Rihanna became multimedia moguls, each to radically different results. These days, everyone paves their own path, and we all run ourselves ragged trying to keep up. The story of the decade in music is bigger than the records that turned our heads. It was songs and shows and beef and overdue cancellations and heartbreaking losses and so much more. Let’s take a look back at the decade’s biggest stories presented in chronological order, with our 10 choices for the moments that mattered most featured throughout in bold. —Craig Jenkins
January 25, 2010: Live Nation and Ticketmaster merge
The 2010s shook up the music industry right out of the gate when the U.S. government approved a controversial $2.5 billion merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster. The move meant that two of the biggest pillars in the live music business were now in bed together. Venues (almost all already owned or acquired either by Live Nation or AEG this decade) and ticketing vendors were now playing the same game, and consumers’ pockets felt the effects of that marriage almost immediately. Suddenly, scalpers, and bots, and special codes, and virtual wait lines, and fancy credit cards, and all sorts of scamming started to run the live music business — though certainly not into the ground. Going into the ‘20s, touring remains one of the top moneymakers for artists, especially independent acts, but at what cost to fans? —Dee Lockett
June 1, 2010: Robyn, “Dancing on My Own”
This song is so much more than the soundtrack to the scene that launched Lena Dunham’s career, but it is also that. “Dancing on My Own,” a perfect pop song, is a million things: It’s more wail-along-able than “Someone Like You,” more dance-along-able than “Uptown Funk,” and so, so much cooler than both. It’s a song that makes everyone on the dancefloor break out into a sweat and a smile. There’s something empowering about how, amidst all of the Swedish mega-producers penning songs for women, the pinnacle of Scandipop came from a singer-songwriter writing her own music, the lovelorn lyrics about not being seen by the object of your affection at once personal and universally relatable, all of us dancing on our own, together. —Rebecca Alter
October 23, 2010: Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse
Nothing sums up the impact of Nicki’s “Monster” verse better than this viral tweet from earlier this year: “Being gay IS a choice, you CHOSE to memorize nicki minajs monster verse. Not god …. YOU.” On a breakout track from a decade-defining album, here was a newcomer, a woman with the vocal dexterity of a Loony Toon, doing verbal backflips on the mummified tombs of these older, male rappers. 50K for a verse, no album out! At the dawn of the decade, Nicki’s audacious debut created a hunger and a market for more, and busted down the door for every woman rapper that followed her this decade. —R.A.
November 22, 2010: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
To think there was once a time when it was exciting to be surprised by Kanye West. There was a trust built between the people and Kanye that he’d never lead us astray and that anything he put out under his name would have to equal or exceed greatness. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his masterpiece, delivered on all the promises and expectations set forth by Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Fridays series, a weekly installment of a free new track that would feature all his famous friends and signees to his then-thriving G.O.O.D. Music label. “Monster” debuted during this series; several MBDTF tracks did. This was the best time to be a Kanye West fan because nothing he did disappointed and, though Kanye still Kanye-ed all the time throughout this period, it was a lot easier to keep the focus on the music and ignore the external bullshit. 2020 Kanye is a whole different beast. If it was ever unclear, this is “the old Kanye” he was talking about on The Life of Pablo. —D.L.
January 14, 2011: Adele, 21
Adele achieved something this decade that few other artists can claim: She sold albums. A lot of them. As in, halcyon days of the CD-era numbers. The year 21 dropped it moved more than 18 million copies, led the singer to a six-Grammy sweep, and since 2011, sales of 21 have swelled past 31 million. She’s the last true four-quadrant, mass-market artist. The only other album that came close to doing 21 numbers in the 20-teens? Also Adele, with 2015’s 25, which claimed the biggest single-week sales for an album in chart history at 3.38 million. (The previous record holder? NSYNC’s No Strings Attached.) Not even the Beatles could touch Adele this decade. —Jordan Crucchiola
February 10, 2011: Tyler, the Creator, “Yonkers”
One of the most striking visuals to come out of the 2010s, Tyler, the Creator equally mesmerized and appalled certain corners of the internet with the video for his breakthrough solo single “Yonkers.” It’s the song that put Odd Future on the map and made Tyler an instantly polarizing rap character, the one who you heard ate and vomited a cockroach in that one video. The black-and-white visuals were criticized for being satanic, triggering, and just plain gross; the song’s lyrics were panned for being violent, sexist, and homophobic; and Tyler and Odd Future were largely written off as a bunch of offensive California punks. Fast forward to 2020 and Tyler’s widely accepted as a visionary, he’s queer AF, and he’s making music that’s just plain pretty. —D.L.
February 13, 2011: Arcade Fire’s surprise Grammy win
Arcade Fire had already hijacked the Grammys when Barbra Streisand announced “The S-s-s-Suburbs” as 2011s Album of the Year winner. Having not prepared a speech — the first indie band to win, they bested Lady Gaga and Katy Perry — they took the stage for an encore. A year later, the audience still wasn’t prepared for Bon Iver’s Best New Artist win; his Google searches spiked. Even with another Album of the Year upset for Beck in 2015, the awards struggled this decade to organize the rock and alternative categories just as rock and alternative music itself struggled to keep up with how quickly indie rock outgrew its own white male archetype. (For more grim evidence, take a glance at the very Imagine Dragons-heavy list of the decade’s top-performing rock songs.) —Justin Curto
February 25, 2011: Rihanna’s Ciara tweet
Once upon a time, during the era when Rihanna said whatever the hell she wanted on Twitter, Rihanna and Ciara were fussing online over who knows what (the specifics weren’t important enough to be memorable). Ciara said something to the effect of “you don’t want to catch me on or off the stage.” And then Rihanna put her foot down and finished their fight: “good luck with bookin that stage u speak of.” Good! Luck! With! Bookin! That stage u speak of! Whenever someone you love gets a little too big for their britches, remind them that they can’t even book the thing they’re talking about. It is an elegant drag, applicable nearly anywhere, that deserves to be credited for elevating the clapback to an art form. That the tweet remains live on her account to this day is the kicker. Jack Dorsey should pay Rihanna royalties. —Hunter Harris
March 15, 2011: The rise of Las Vegas residences
Back in the day, Las Vegas concert residencies had the musty air of washed-up Rat Pack wannabes, Elvis, and magicians. Cher once called it an “elephant graveyard where talent goes to die.” In the ’10s, however, something shifted, and suddenly, the residency was relevant, again. First, there was Celine Dion’s return to Caesar’s Palace in 2011, at a time when her star image was transitioning from cheesy to actually pretty fucking cool. Then Britney Spears became the must-see attraction at Planet Hollywood, with Jennifer Lopez following suit. Lady Gaga’s Enigma residency in 2018 was a whole social-media event that made even the most Vegas-shy fans consider purchasing a ticket. In 2019, Drake and Cardi B announced their own Vegas residencies, suggesting that Elvis has truly, finally left the building. —R.A.
June 14, 2011: Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci”
That’s right, Kreayshawn happened this decade. Though she feels distinctly like a relic of the internet’s weirdest early days, the Oakland rapper gave definition to going viral in the 2010s with her 2011 debut “Gucci Gucci” (between it and “Teach Me How to Dougie,” they were among the first). It was a parody of a parody, a white girl doing what we now refer to as flexing and clout-chasing with her White Mob Collective and style of rapping about nothing. Naturally, this all led to a multimillion-dollar major-label record deal, an indicator of how most rap deals would go this decade. The song would’ve totally been all over TikTok if it happened now. “Gucci Gucci” — ahead of its time? Hmmm. —D.L.
July 14, 2011: Spotify Arrives in America
Five years after Spotify launched in Sweden, the music-streaming service finally became available to customers in the United States. There were a few options: Use the service for free on your computer, but with ads. Or pay $4.99 for an unlimited plan that removes the ads. Or, for $9.99, you could get all that but also use Spotify offline and on your phone. And, just like that, the way we listen to and “own” music was forever changed. —Madison Malone Kircher
July 23, 2011: Amy Winehouse’s death
More often than not, fame is a losing game, as Amy Winehouse proved when she died at 27 of alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. After impressing on both sides of the pond with her instant classic Back to Black, an international media circus swarmed Winehouse, with paparazzi hounding her every move and British tabloids routinally shaming her for appearing like a deer caught in headlines — the whole while knowing and feverishly speculating about her drug abuse and mental health issues. Asif Kapadia’s 2015 film Amy later documented Winehouse’s final years battling fame and addiction, and was critical of the media for being complicit in her demise. —Justin C.
August 8, 2011: Kanye West and Jay-Z, Watch the Throne
One of the best nights in Twitter history remains the night that one of modern rap’s greatest pairings, Kanye West and Jay-Z, cemented their legendary friendship with the release of their first joint project. It was the rare high-profile rap release of the decade not to leak, and one of the last event, appointment releases where everyone showed up to what felt like a live global listening party on Twitter. Watch the Throne was a meeting of the masterminds that brought out the most electric energy out of the other that neither has really been able to capture with anyone else since (not even Jay with his own wife on Everything Is Love). Watch the Throne was a complex record that dug into the interior lives of two black men whose public lives look nothing like the lives of most black men to have ever existed. It was personal (they spoke about raising future sons long before Saint, Psalm, and Sir were born) and political (“Murder to Excellence”). They discovered another dimension of big ego (“Niggas in Paris), and sampled the greats (Otis Redding, Nina Simone) like they’re one of them. Jay-Z and Kanye have made other albums with other people (Kanye with Kid Cudi, and Jay regrettably with R. Kelly) but Watch the Throne is something special. So special, in fact, it doesn’t look like we’ll ever get a sequel since their relationship has largely deteriorated. But there’d be no point in trying to recreate the magic anyway. —D.L.
August 28, 2011 : Beyoncé announces she’s pregnant with Blue Ivy
And in the most Beyoncé way possible, no less. Bey informed the world she was pregnant with destiny’s child, Blue Ivy Carter, onstage at the VMAs during a performance of “Love on Top,” which she closed not by dropping but tossing her mic, unbuttoning her sequined blazer, turning to the side, and rubbing her growing baby bump. Cut to Jay-Z and Kanye in the audience looking possibly the most overjoyed we’ve ever seen them. Simpler times. —D.L.
September 19, 2011: Future, “Tony Montana”
The 2010s were a boom time for rap subgenres and none was possibly more contentious than so-called “mumble rap,” the hip-hop cousin of pop’s mush-mouth (worst offender: Ariana Grande). In mumble rap, it’s not so much that the words don’t matter, but the key ingredient is in the delivery: It’s a genre made by people in a lot of emotional pain self-medicating with sedatives, meaning some consonants disappear, some vowels get elongated to the point of slurring, and some syllables get skipped over or added at random. Atlanta rap king Future often gets credited with inventing this flow on his single “Tony Montana,” off the genre’s celebrated classic, Pluto. Its origins are debatable; what isn’t is the extent to which Future mastered and popularized the form in just a few short years. —D.L.
September 20, 2011: Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
At the start of the decade, Carly Rae Jepsen was primarily known for placing third in the fifth season of Canadian Idol. Which is to say, she wasn’t really known at all. Cue Justin Bieber hearing this infectious ditty on the radio on a trip to the homeland, and suddenly CRJ was on her way to world pop domination. Those staccato strings get the bop going, the chorus is sugar sweet, and the music video was perfectly wry and cheeky. The catchiness prompted endless Lip Dubs and one of the first of many viral dances (more on that later), paving the way for a decade of memeable pop. —R.A.
December 2, 2011: Tyga, “Rack City”
It is utterly baffling how quietly influential Tyga has been this decade. He started the 2010s coming out of the shadow of his cousin Travie McCoy and his years on the Warped Tour scene; he transitioned to the big rap leagues under Lil Wayne and Birdman’s label, Young Money; then came his breakthrough single, “Rack City,” a California G-funk homage that brought him together with an up-and-coming L.A. producer named DJ Mustard. Together, they set the stage for the rest of 2010s trap to come: “Rack City” is twerk-appropriate strip-club music, classed under a genre I like to call “ratchet.” And every other rap banger on SoundCloud and RapCaviar right this second sounds just like it. —D.L.
December 6, 2011: Azealia Banks, from “212” to self-sabotage
When Azealia Banks broke out with “212,” it was addictive, virtuosic, hypnotic, undeniable stuff. What gave her the right to wring out all that talent in one track, using upspeak and vocal fry to threaten and taunt over that singular house beat? To basically singlehandedly revitalize the C-word as an obscenity of choice? Banks was heralded as the next massive thing, but the public’s tolerance for her propensity to get into feuds quickly waned. Between incidents where she called a flight attendant a homophobic slur and bombarded One Direction’s Zayn Malik with racist tweets, it became harder and harder for even her most ardent fans to explain away her behavior. She’s still putting out great music, but the sheer volume of shenanigans has prompted a game/meme where you Google her name and your birthday to see what particular mess she started. It’s better than astrology. —R.A.
January 14, 2012: Lana Del Rey’s journey from SNL flop to Great American Songwriter
The hardest thing about marketing to hipsters is that they hate being marketed to. Lana Del Rey was a controversial figure in L-train Brooklyn when she arrived in 2011, an “indie chanteuse” whose blatant artifice — that name! those lips! — put her at odds with the scene’s conventional notions of authenticity. A drowsy SNL debut led to a full-on backlash, but watch it now, and you’ll be baffled at what was supposed to be so bad about it. Eight years of Lana’s Hollywood Cemetery glam later, the culture has finally caught up to her. —Nate Jones
February 3, 2012: M.I.A., “Bad Girls” video
M.I.A.’s propulsive music video for “Bad Girls,” which shows high-fashion hijabi women stunt-racing cars in Morocco while dudes in keffiyehs watch and dance, was, simply put, badass. The video was shot in solidarity with the “women to drive” movement, which protested Saudia Arabia’s restrictive laws banning women from driving. (In 2018, the ban was lifted.) —R.A.
February 11, 2012: Whitney Houston’s death
I don’t know that Lifetime, VH1, and Bravo’s writers’ rooms combined could’ve scripted a more devastating end to Whitney Houston’s life than the events that actually transpired. The decade that preceded Houston’s death was nothing short of tumultuous, involving trips to rehab, troubling revelations about her and Bobby Brown’s toxic marriage, and a nonstop cycle of personal drama as her career went into decline. Around 2009, she began to stage a comeback, releasing her best-selling album since The Bodyguard, making it through most of her first tour in ten years, and eventually getting the ball rolling on her remake of Sparkle co-starring American Idol’s Jordin Sparks. In the middle of all this, though, she reentered rehab. Less than a year later, Houston was found dead at 48 of an accidental drowning in her hotel bathroom with multiple drugs in her system. News of her death broke at her mentor Clive Davis’s annual Grammy party; both the party and the ceremony itself became Houston tributes, followed by a memorable, elaborate public funeral in Newark. Three years later, her and Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died at 22 years old after six months in a medically induced coma after being found just like her mother, unconscious in a bathtub. Though we wish we could say that at least Houston’s at peace, her estate, run by her sister-in-law, Pat, is gearing up to resurrect Houston as a hologram that will tour beginning in February 2020. Sigh. —D.L.
March 11, 2012: Chief Keef ft. Lil Reese, “I Don’t Like”
There’s been much debate over who the real godfather of SoundCloud rap is — not those who first struck it big on the platform, but the ones who birthed the sound and the means. Some say Lil B, others SpaceGhostPurrp. Chicago rapper Chief Keef’s rise ran adjacent to SoundCloud’s earliest days, and there’s no mistaking whose sound echoes throughout the space now that it’s everywhere. At the time, Keef, fellow local rapper Lil Reese, and their producer Young Chop took the horrors of their increasingly bloody streets and translated it into a sound fit for wartime: drill music, a fusion of trap and gangsta rap. It’s tough, matter-of-fact street rap that wouldn’t have found its way into the mainstream in previous decades. Enter Kanye West, who remixed the Chicago kid’s viral internet hit and made it a radio one, the path most rap hits follow these days. Kanye knew what to do with “Don’t Like,” but the industry never quite knew what to do with Keef (a series of personal, legal, and record-label issues followed). Meanwhile, everyone from Ariana Grande to Pop Smoke still sounds like “Don’t Like.” —D.L.
April 15, 2012: 2Pac hologram debuts at Coachella
Who would’ve guessed that resurrecting dead celebrities via holograms and CGI would become one of Hollywood’s biggest trends as we exit the decade? No one could’ve after the way the first majorly publicized venture was received. In 2012, when Snoop Dogg headlined Coachella, he brought out a hometown hero as his biggest guest: the ghost of 2Pac. The rapper, who’d been dead for 15 years, rose from under the stage as a glowing orb of pixelated particles that made him look either transparent, glowing, or like an NBA 2K player, depending on the livestream’s camera angle. (In person, judging from old videos, it looked even stranger.) It wasn’t so much the virtual performances of his old hits or the fake banter with Snoop and Dr. Dre that left a foul taste in the mouths of viewers, but the way the hologram manipulated recordings of Pac’s voice to say things like, “What the fuck is up, Coachellaaa?!” With hologram tours from Whitney Houston and Selena on the way, it’s not feeling any less icky. —D.L.
June 13, 2012: Drake and Chris Brown get in a bar brawl over Rihanna
Incredible to think there was a time when Rihanna would seriously entertain these men, but it happened on and off throughout the 2010s. This whole love triangle came to a head on the night of June 13, 2012, when Drake and Brown were at the same NYC nightclub. At the time, Brown and Rihanna were the definition of “it’s complicated” (not to mention, Brown was dating Karreuche Tran); Rihanna and Drake were … involved. To this day, reports aren’t totally clear what happened next, but, supposedly: Brown sent a bottle of champagne to Drake’s table as a “peace offering,” and Drake sent it back with a note that allegedly said “I’m fucking the love of your life, deal with it.” Then all hell broke loose. Glass was shattered and Brown sustained a cut on his face (because Drake might’ve thrown a bottle at him?); even Tony Parker caught a stray shard in the eye. Naturally, this only drew the male pair closer at the end of the decade (see: their somehow Grammy-nominated new song “No Guidance”); luckily, drew Rihanna far the hell away. —D.L.
July 4, 2012: Frank Ocean comes out on Tumblr
When Frank Ocean and the Weeknd first got big, anonymity and mystique were the language of all the internet “alternative R&B” types. We were barely meant to know their faces, let alone their stories. And then one day Frank Ocean decided to shake things up and tell his –– a love story, about a time he fell in love with another man and, in turn, found a way to love his true self. Ocean shared this story in a Tumblr post, probably the most famous Tumblr post to date save for Taylor Swift’s own letters shared on the platform, where he knew his coming out would resonate. Ocean’s Tumblr letter changed his course. It made him one of the most popular out figures in music, made it okay to be out early in your career when old attitudes had for so long discouraged it, and set the tone for the rest of his creative decisions that followed. —D.L.
July 15, 2012: Psy, “Gangnam Style”
Riding the wave of crossover success started by groups like Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, and BigBang, Psy struck it big in Korea and Japan as a controversial solo star known for his absurdist videos and choreography, all of which culminated in “Gangnam Style,” a song so ahead of everything, it even predicted yeehaw culture and doesn’t get the credit. “Gangnam Style” wasn’t a song, it was a goddamned cultural phenomenon, the likes of which would soon become the norm in the 2010s, but Psy holds the title for doing it first. It was a dance craze that had everyone fake-riding a horse and spinning a lasso. It was the song that had a bunch of very white people singing Korean. It was K-Pop’s first big hit. And it was YouTube’s first major success, becoming the first video in the platform’s history to hit a billion views. It remains the seventh-most viewed video ever, topping over 3 billion views. K-Pop hasn’t looked back since. —D.L.
February 11, 2013: Baauer, “Harlem Shake” and the viral dance hit
Any song that strikes chart gold these days off a meme has “Harlem Shake” to thank for paving the way. The trap EDM song from Mad Decent DJ Baauer was first released in May 2012 (and confusingly had nothing to do with the real Harlem Shake). But like so many hits today, it didn’t bubble to the surface until early 2013, when the song took on a life of its own as the background music for a bunch of videos that started going viral. They would begin with one person dressed up in some sort of costume starting to dance while everyone else in the room pays them no mind; then the beats drops, and it cuts to the whole room going absolutely buckwild. It was the birth of a meme and, ostensibly, a little thing I like to call “meme music” (think also “Old Town Road”). Soon the song and videos were everywhere. Around the same time, Billboard changed its rules to count YouTube streams on its charts. So while “Harlem Shake” never got an official video, all the streams racked up from the memes flooded the charts and pushed “Harlem Shake” to No. 1. The rest of the 2010s saw dozens of hits take off in the same way (see: “Bad and Boujee,” “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?),” “Black Beatles,” and “In My Feelings”). —D.L
April 15, 2013: Jai Paul’s album leaks
Before streaming became the go-to method of music consumption, illegal downloads and torrenting music were still very much a thing, even after Megaupload’s shutdown and Kim Dotcom’s arrest in 2012. Back when posting MP3s on blogs was still common practice, the buzz around a somewhat mysterious British singer-songwriter by the name of Jai Paul was beginning to intensify thanks to experimental cult classics like “BTSTU (Edit),” later sampled by both Drake and Beyoncé. Anticipation for his debut album was so high, someone hacked several demos for the album, uploaded them to Bandcamp as an album, and effectively leaked what would’ve been his debut project. The theft and violation of Paul’s privacy and creative control sent him into hiding for the rest of the decade. He only just reappeared in 2019 to officially put the album on streaming on his own terms, with other unreleased songs, and to explain the damage the leak did to his psyche as a creator. —D.L
June 3, 2013: Lorde, “Royals”
They grow up so fast! The 23-year-old New Zealander was only 16 when “Royals” became a Billboard No. 1, thanks, in part, to other 16-year-olds. Like her, those born in 1995 to 1996 are on the generational cusp, stuck between millennials and Gen Z. “Royals” captures that ambivalence, touching on the transitions from obscurity to fame, youth to adulthood, and all the anxiety that comes with it. What “Royals” didn’t know was that social media was only getting bigger and that the “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece” lifestyle was becoming an integral part of online culture. —Zoë Haylock
June 18, 2013: Kanye West, Yeezus
Yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye West’s magnum opus, but in the latter half of the decade, Yeezus has become just as influential to a new crop of artists as 808s and Heartbreak was at the end of the aughts. It’s deliberately postured against everything — radio play, sales, promotion, listenability — right down to the packaging. Drawing inspiration from minimalism (one Le Corbusier lamp in particular), West produced a spare, potent collection of antiracist anthems, drug-fueled tirades, and the ultimate brag track. Somehow, every album of his since has felt like too much. —Justin C.
July 8, 2013 : Migos, “Versace”
The 2010s changed so much for rap that it even popularized new ways to rap. Atlanta rap trio Migos (Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff) exploded onto the mainstream with 2013’s viral “Versace,” a flashy trap hit that turned heads for their use of the triplet flow, aka the Migos flow –– simply, the way they hit three notes over a single beat. Within months, their interpretation of this flow was everywhere in rap (and, within years, had extended to pop). No one catches onto a trend like Drake, who eventually remixed “Versace,” borrowed the flow any chance he could, and put Migos on the road to becoming one of the biggest modern rap groups. —D.L.
August 25, 2013: Miley Cyrus twerks at the VMAs, horrifies the masses
Miley came like a wrecking ball into the 2010s, pummeling every last molecule of her Hannah Montana image. The makeover began in 2010 when she warned us she couldn’t be tamed, and dammit if she didn’t stay on theme for the whole of the decade. What followed was a series of WTFs that peaked at the 2013 VMAs when Miley, dressed in flesh-toned underwear and space buns, stretched out her tongue, bent forward, and shook what her mama gave her, onto a coked-out Robin Thicke’s crotch, on live television. (Some might call what she did a twerk; I … won’t.) The moment was dead on arrival when it first occurred and has only aged worse. —D.L.
November 21, 2013: Pharrell, “Happy”
If you made it through the 2010s without knowing the lyrics to Pharrell’s “Happy,” congratulations, you win. Pharrell has spent years mastering music and in 2013, he made the perfect song. It’s catchy, it’s funky, and it came with an entire kids’ movie attached to it, Despicable Me. But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. A very bad thing. “Happy” took over airwaves with a vengeance no one could have predicted. Then, a few months later, Pharrell wore a statement hat that quickly became his signature. Pharrell without the hat is like Pharrell without a four-count beat at the beginning of a song. It’s iconic for a reason. —Z.H.
January 26, 2014: Macklemore wins Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar, publicly grovels
Macklemore was one of our favorite professional cringe artists of the decade. “Thrift Shop” was a cute trifle for a hot minute, “Same Love” was a truly doofy “no homo” anthem, and then to clear things up he officiated a mass gay wedding onstage at the 2014 Grammys. But Macklemore bested himself when he won the Best Rap Album Grammy, texted an apology to Kendrick Lamar, and then posted screenshots of his apology to Kendrick Lamar. —R.A.
February 17, 2014: Iggy Azalea, “Fancy” and her appropriation backlash
First things first: Looking back, it’s laughable that Iggy Azalea, of all people, started this track with “First things first, I’m the realest.” Few people stood less for authenticity in the 2010s than this blonde, white Australian rapper whose Billboard success was countered with critiques that she used cultural appropriation for personal gain. Azalea rapped in a “blaccent” and used hip-hop cultural signifiers as a gimmick to contrast with her appearance. The music video parodied Clueless, mining iconic blonde Valley Girl aesthetics for further contrast. Five years down the road, “Fancy” feels like a boiling point in the culture wars and Iggy isn’t even the most problematic Az(e)alea, anymore (see below). At least the hook gave Charli XCX another feather in her cap. —R.A
May 5, 2014: Solange attacks Jay-Z in an elevator at the Met Gala
Solange’s defense of her sister, made eternal by the Standard Hotel’s security-camera footage, is forever embedded in the popular consciousness. The photos have become memes, legendary relics in the Beyoncé canon, and symbols for sisterhood. Even though we don’t really know what happened at that fateful Met Gala afterparty, it inspired (forced?) a trilogy of Beyoncé and Jay-Z albums — Lemonade, 4:44, and Everything Is Love — in the years that followed, and bombed much of the mystery that pop culture’s most powerful couple had enjoyed for so long. For that, we are eternally grateful that Solange threw hands in a custom 3.1 Philip Lim dress. —Z.H.
May 6, 2014: Sia x Maddie Ziegler, “Chandelier”
I recently played the music video for Sia’s “Elastic Heart” for all my friends because I am fun at parties. The video takes place in a giant birdcage and depicts a brutish Shia LaBeouf sparring with the spritely Maddie Ziegler of Dance Moms fame. Less than a year earlier, Ziegler had starred in Sia’s “Chandelier,” which earned over 2 billion views. The Sia x Ziegler collaboration phase was an odd one. A singer who won’t even show her face hanging with a reality TV show darling? But that’s what makes the combo so dynamic. Their videos captured the popular imagination for years, helping Sia maintain a brand from behind her closed bangs. —Z.H.
September 9, 2014: U2 and Apple force Songs of Innocence on everyone’s iTunes
In the middle of the decade, the principle of consent became a much-debated issue. This was usually discussed in the sexual sense, but it entered the technological sphere on September 9, 2014 — the day Apple and U2 released the band’s Songs of Innocence for free to millions of iTunes users. Those who’d set up automatic downloads experienced a strange sense of dislocation: Without knowing or asking for it, they had suddenly found themselves the proud owners of a new U2 album. A similar feeling would be felt in years to come, as streaming services allowed artists to keep tinkering with tracks long after they’d been officially released to consumers. In the 2010s, your music collection was not yours the way it used to be. —N.J.
October 27, 2014: Taylor Swift goes pop on 1989
Curse Jack Antonoff and his shining, shimmering production values and impossibly winsome, wonderful hooks that took over pop music in the 2010s! Taylor teased a shift away from country with bigger, more complex sounds on Red, but with 1989, she made her first capital-P pop album. Lead single “Shake It Off” and tracks like “Blank Space” and “Style” solidified Tay’s shift away from her guitar and the teardrops that go with it. She hasn’t looked back since. —R.A.
November 10, 2014: Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk”
Such a populist hit comes around once every few years, crossing generational and genre divides to follow you from stores to parties to the internet. The way the charts tell it, “Uptown Funk” was one of the first of the decade to have such a wide appeal. It carried Bruno Mars from his poppier Unorthodox Jukebox to the funkier throwback of 24K Magic and brought Mark Ronson back into the pop conversation. And I know you haven’t heard it since 2015, but give it a spin today — you can’t deny, it’s still too hot. —Justin C.
December 15, 2014: Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”
“Girl Crush” still isn’t really about what you think it is, but that its legacy rests on a ton of misinformation, overreaction, and ultimately, its exposure of country music’s blind spots, says more than the lyrics of the song ever did. At the time of the song’s release, a narrative was sold that it was about a woman being turned on by another woman and, well, that was just way too gay for country purists to handle, and so that’s supposedly why some radio stations pulled it. Ultimately, it was a lot of smoke over nothing (Billboard confirmed that almost all reported listener outrage was fake), but the dust-up unintentionally turned the song into a political statement and a bit of a watershed moment for country music having to reckon with its homophobia. (This was around the same time as Kacey Musgraves’s ally anthem “Follow Your Arrow.”) Now going into 2020, some of country’s biggest superstars are openly queer. —D.L.
February 4, 2015: The unstoppability of Post Malone
It’s outrageous to think Post Malone arrived only midway through the decade, with one of SoundCloud’s first big hits, 2015’s “White Iverson,” a rap-ish, R&B-ish, pop-ish slurred-sung woozy thing from a white boy sporting a gold grill, cornrows, a raggedy beard, and tinted shades. Picture a less flashy, more sensitive James Franco cosplaying as Riff-Raff in Spring Breakers. His music was depressing, charismatic, and deeply popular for both reasons. But the white Dallas-raised star courted controversy for playing fast and loose with rap while struggling to explain his cultural appropriation?. By 2019, though, something’s grown clear about Post Malone: He never thought any of it required explaining. To Posty and a lot of other 24-year-olds, genre-mixing comes natural. And, unlike Miley Cyrus’s own genre journey, his isn’t as opportunistic; his stadium rock, metal, rap, country, folk, and pop roots all gel and maintain a presence throughout his increasingly improved catalogue. Now, he’s collaborating with Ozzy Osbourne and Travis Scott on the same track; he’s ditched the braids for tousled curls and cowboy hats; traded all-black bummy fits for rhinestone-encrusted baby blue suits; and become one of the most-streamed artists of the decade?. —D.L.
March 25, 2015: Zayn Malik leaves One Direction
One Direction put out five albums in six years, all while touring the world. When Zayn Malik quit on March 25, 2015 (ask the young women in your life where they were when they heard the news), it was, unfortunately, a long time coming. The breakup and indefinite hiatus devastated millions of fans and the four remaining members: Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, and Liam Payne. Coming up on year four of their “hiatus,” each member has released their own solo music, achieving moderate success and leaving us all with warm, fuzzy memories about 2010s One Direction. —Z.H.
March 30, 2015: Jay-Z launches Tidal with an Avengers-like event
In early 2015, Jay-Z took a financial risk and acquired Norwegian tech company Aspiro to launch Tidal, a new paid-subscription-only streaming service that claimed it would pay higher royalty rates than all the competition and let artists be in full control. To prove it wasn’t just lip service, he opened his new company’s doors to big investors, naming multiple high-profile artists — including his wife, Beyoncé; Rihanna; Madonna; Jack White; and more — as artist co-owners, meaning they’d have a direct stake in the company. The kicker: He brought each and every one of those artists — all 16 of them — onto the stage to launch Tidal to the public. The message was clear: This was a service by and for artists. And with that promise of trust and integrity, hopefully the consumer would be more inclined to pay for music ethically again. It hasn’t always worked out that way — Tidal’s been the subject of numerous lawsuits, even losing Kanye West as a fan and business partner for a while there. It was slow to take off in subscribers and infamously botched Rihanna’s Anti release. The kinks seemed to be worked out, though, and there haven’t been any major new challengers to the music streaming wars since Tidal. —D.L.
April 29, 2015: Fun Home, “Ring of Keys”
The most memorable tune from Fun Home, the Broadway musical based on the Alison Bechdel graphic memoir by the same name, is the moment when young Alison sees a butch lesbian in a restaurant she’s at with her father. (He’s also gay and in the closet and will eventually die by suicide just a few months after a college-age Alison comes out to him.) “Ring of Keys” is — to borrow from But I’m a Cheerleader, another iconic piece of lesbian canon — Alison’s root. It’s the moment she started to recognize her queerness, thanks to a jangling ring of keys hanging off the pants of the woman she spots. Before Fun Home, the few lesbian characters on Broadway had been relegated to secondary roles and stereotypes. (The on-again, off-again Maureen and Joanne in Rent; Rafaella pining for the unrequited love of a straight woman in Grand Hotel; Enid, the man-hating dyke, in Legally Blonde.) In a way, “Ring of Keys” became Broadway’s root, too. The moment the industry finally recognized queer women in a real, sincere way. —M.M.K.
May 5, 2015: Taylor Swift’s girl squad and the 1989 World Tour friendship parade
Please welcome to the stage … literally everybody. While circling the globe on her 1989 tour, Taylor Swift made it her new capital-T Thing to bring out random celebrities and have them join her for a song or two. Joan Baez and Julia Roberts one night. Gigi Hadid another. Lorde. The U.S. Women’s soccer team and … also Heidi Klum. Sure, why not! The friendship-tour era also coincided with the rise of Swift’s “Squad,” a seemingly ever-increasing group of women the singer let into her inner circle in the name of, uh, feminism. Years later, Swift admitted that the Squad, and the endless stream of showy Instagram content it spawned, maybe wasn’t her best idea. —M.M.K.
May 17, 2015: Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry
We seriously don’t talk enough about the mixed messaging of Swift’s 1989 escapades: On the one hand, there she was parading around every famous person she’d ever encountered and celebrating the joys of being Taylor Swift’s friend. On the other, there she was on a warpath against a former member of her club: Katy Perry. This whole row boiled down, allegedly, to Perry stealing Swift’s backup tour dancers (which is pop-star code for man-stealing). Swift threw around words like “sabotage,” Perry tweeted “watch out for the Regina George in sheep’s clothing,” and it was all as high school as that reference makes it sound. Their wacky feud peaked around “Bad Blood,” whose friend-filled video took girl-fighting to literal extremes. Five years later, Katy and Taylor are baking cookies together, sending each other literal olive branches, and dressing up as the burger to each other’s fries in a far less intense Taylor music video. That, folks, is called growth. —D.L.
June 21, 2015: Taylor Swift declares war on music streaming
If there’s one area of her life that Taylor Swift can never be accused of being apolitical about, it’s the music business. In summer 2014, Swift first weighed in on music streaming’s unignorable rise in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, sharing that she was equally optimistic about what it all would mean for the industry’s future but also firm on this opinion: “Music should not be free.” Later that year, Swift took a semi-silent protest against music streaming by removing her entire catalogue from Spotify, though her reasons were unclear. Her next move in the streaming wars, however, was a much louder shot fired: In summer 2015, shortly before Apple Music’s launch, Swift published an open letter on her Tumblr to the company announcing that she would be withholding her latest album,1989, from the service. She also shamed Apple Music for its free three-month trial period, which would effectively leave artists, songwriters, and producers unpaid for their work for those three months: “I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” she wrote. Apple Music ultimately caved and paid up for those three months; Swift then went on to make a bunch of ads for them and eventually also made nice with Spotify. (She never took issue with Tidal.) —D.L
June 30, 2015: Apple Music debuts with Drake onboard
Apple’s answer to Spotify and Tidal was Apple Music, its own subscription streaming service that would be paid-only with the exception of a free three-month trial period. For its introduction, Apple brought out the big guns and recruited Drake as a partner, meaning it got to parade him around for the big reveal and a million subsequent ads. It was the beginning of a brief but fruitful period of artist exclusives — Apple Music scored future deals with Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and more — which the platform has since abandoned. The introduction of Apple Music not only meant the first real competition for Spotify but competition for terrestrial radio, too, with the launch of its subscription-free Beats 1 Radio service, home to nonstop song and album premieres, exclusive interviews, and whole shows hosted by artists, like Nicki Minaj’s “Queen Radio” and Frank Ocean’s “Blonded.” Five years in, Apple Music is already pulling in Spotify’s paid-subscriber numbers in half the amount of time and Apple has since shut down its iTunes store. —D.L.
June 30, 2015: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
The most important rap album of the 2010s was Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, his “ghetto lullaby for every one-day MC.” The most important rap song of the 2010s was its mission statement, “Alright.” Right in the middle of an album consumed by pain, ego, and sacrifice is a rallying cry that calls for more than just survival, but for black people to thrive in spite of generational trauma. It’s also not a request to keep black people safe but reassurance that if the black race couldn’t be snuffed out by centuries of slavery, the surge in police brutality against black people and modern enslavement wouldn’t erase them now. “Alright” become an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement at its peak mid-decade. Circumstances are no less grim for black people in this country (Donald Glover’s take on a similar theme, “This Is America,” reflects that), but the hope embedded in “Alright” hasn’t soured. This is the most timeless song to come out of the 2010s. —D.L.
July 10, 2015: Dear Evan Hansen and the rise of Ben Platt and Pasek and Paul
Dear Evan Hansen — the beatifully composed, emotional, and very fraught Broadway musical about an anxious teenager who gets caught up in a web of lies after he pretends to have been secret best friends with a teen who dies by suicide — was an awards-winning machine that could not be stopped. It won Tonys. It won a Grammy. Members of the cast won Emmys for televised performances. It did not win any Oscars, but it was a vehicle for songwriting and composing duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who would go on to nab an Oscar for La La Land’s “City of Stars,” and then show up seemingly everywhere: The Greatest Showman, Aladdin, Trolls. (There’s a DEH movie in the works.) Equally everywhere these days is the musical’s titular Evan, originated by Ben Platt. —M.M.K.
July 10, 2015: Friday becomes the Global Release Day for new albums and singles
Cody Simpson’s Free, Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die II, and Years & Years’ Communion: three otherwise unmonumental albums that happen to be some of the first to be released globally on a Friday — July 10, 2015. The industry made a decision in the middle of the decade to shift from staggered national releases (new albums came out on Tuesdays in the U.S., but Monday in the U.K.) to one “New Music Friday.” Now, the conversation around new music truly happens all at once — on Twitter on Fridays, over a weeklong press cycle, or whenever artists who still run on their own schedule decide to drop new releases. But we get a guaranteed early weekend treat each week. —Justin C.
July 20, 2015: Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton divorce
Once dubbed the Tim & Faith of their generation, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton were a country-music power couple that both the industry and fans alike simply assumed was built to last. Their love story began in 2005 when they met singing a duet of “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” for CMT — I mean, c’mon. (Though their admission that they fell in love during this moment despite the fact that he was still married to another woman at the time should’ve raised eyebrows.) But alas, a decade, an Oklahoma ranch, and a four-year marriage later, the pair announced their divorce after months of cheating rumors. Shelton went on to date his Voice co-star Gwen Stefani and Lambert found herself a Staten Island cop. But we’ll always have Lambert’s excellent breakup album, The Weight of These Wings, to mourn the Lambert-Shelton era. Meanwhile, country music’s throne remains wide open for succession. —D.L.
July 22, 2015: Meek Mill exposes Drake for allegedly using a ghostwriter
And thus the phrase “Twitter fingers” and its endless applicability to Trump was born. Drake vs. Meek Mill, which played out over the summer of 2015, all began one not-entirely-sober night for the Philly rapper, who, pissed off that Drake hadn’t promoted their song “R.I.C.O.,” fired off some tweets accusing him of not writing his own verses instead using a ghostwriter named Quentin Miller. It was a mic drop. You mean all those Drake quotables on every girl’s Instagram caption weren’t written by Drake? Though the use of songwriters, uncredited or not, is fair game in every other genre, in rap, it’s considered something of both a cardinal sin and an open secret. Dr. Dre uses them; so does Kanye. But Drake’s whole brand is relatability; if he’s not the one writing his words, then who are people really relating to? Use of a ghostwriter also invites asterisks into any legacy talk. In the end, Drake walked away with a Grammy for his responding diss track, “Back to Back.” But he won the popular vote and we’ve all moved on, including the two rappers: They’re buddies now. —D.L
July 31, 2015: Drake, “Hotline Bling”
Where were you for Halloween 2015? I’ll tell you: You were at a party surrounded by girls in bubblegum pink T-shirts and jeans, the easiest pop-culture costume to come along in years, creating a whole room resembling the 1-800-HOTLINE-BLING call center from Drake’s instantly classic video. When the song came on, you probably pulled out your best awkward-dad dance moves. With “Hotline Bling,” Drake not only invented millennial pink (sorry, Glossier) but cracked the code to total streaming domination: memes. —R.A.
August 23, 2015: Nicki Minaj vs. Miley Cyrus / “Miley, what’s good?”
Someone had to ask her. Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj started feuding in the middle of Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz era, during which Cyrus adopted (and would later discard) black culture. Minaj’s “Anaconda” video had just beaten Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” Vevo single-day streaming record, but the MTV VMAs only nominated Miley’s for Video of the Year. When Minaj called out that hypocrisy, Miley took it personally. (As did Taylor Swift, out of nowhere.) “Miley, what’s good?”, the message Nicki sent directly to Miley in front of the world on the VMAs stage, is both a callout and a genuine question. Nicki and Miley have taken their feud all the way to the end of the decade, both firing shots as recently as this year. —Z.H.
November 13, 2015: Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan targeted in terrorist attack
On this date, three gunmen armed with assault rifles and explosives entered the Bataclan theatre in Paris, where 1,500 people had gathered for an Eagles of Death Metal concert. They opened fire, took hostages, and eventually detonated their vests, killing 90 people. Along with the other coordinated Paris terrorist attacks, this shooting was part of the deadliest attack in France since World War II. The band escaped, but their merchandise manager, Nick Alexander, was killed. In December, Eagles of Death Metal announced that they would continue their European tour, including a February performance in Paris. In the years since, Colin Hanks directed a documentary about the band, and its members have found continued support in the music community despite some controversial statements. Still, this tragedy made concerts, like movie theaters, just one more safe space marred by fear and uncertainty this decade. —R.A.
November 23, 2015: “Let It Go” and why we just couldn’t
In the winter of 2013 and early 2014, you could not occupy a public space for long without hearing Frozen’s octave-summiting signature number, especially if you happened to be within earshot of any children. Maybe it was the empowerment-slash-“fuck it I’m going to live in an ice castle” message; maybe it was how writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez took advantage of the way Idina Menzel belts like she’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown; or maybe it was just that Elsa got a cool ice dress. “Let It Go” was so ubiquitous there’s no one way to explain it. But it proved there’s always money in the family movie musical, especially if you throw in a good ballad, something Disney didn’t forget as it pushed ahead to Moana, Coco, numerous remakes, and of course, Frozen II. —J.M.
January 10, 2016: David Bowie’s death and what he left behind
2016 would turn out to be filled with tragedy with losses including George Michael, Leonard Cohen, and Prince; it was small consolation that the first of the year would be less polarizing than those to come. David Bowie’s death of liver cancer on January 10 was all the more surprising because no one had even known that he was ill. Fittingly, he’d left behind a gift whose meaning we couldn’t pick up at the time: the album Blackstar, released two days before his death, a final goodbye from the man who came from outer space. —N.J.
January 28, 2016: Rihanna, Anti
After a career of pushing out hit singles as the priority, Rihanna stepped back to build an album. Anti was her first for Roc Nation, and it sounded like its own declaration of independence: 16 tracks of ambitious, audacious experiments. Her voice coos and cracks in imperfect and unexpected ways: “Higher” is a late-night, whiskey-laced, love-struck apology. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” deserves to be a Bond villain theme. And then there’s “Work,” the song that — lame Drake verse be damned — waves its wand and implores you to shake whatever the good Lord gave you. I still think often of its botched rollout, leaking on Tidal two days before its official release. It adds an aura of casualness — in my fantasy, maybe Rihanna was hanging out and smoking a blunt and not texting some man back when she came out with one of the decade’s strongest albums. —H.H.
February 6, 2016: Beyoncé, “Formation”
Beyoncé’s “Formation” dropped one day before her Super Bowl appearance with Coldplay, just for insurance that we’d know all the words by Sunday. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, “Formation” depicts black joy, black culture, black anger, and black tragedy in four minutes and 47 seconds. The image of Beyoncé lying on a New Orleans cop car as it sinks into a flood is both anti-police brutality and a commentary on the government’s inaction during Hurricane Katrina. Beyoncé used “Formation” to remind black people everywhere that blackness is divine through it all — above water or at the bottom of the sea. —Z.H.
March 8, 2016: Mariah Carey, “I don’t know her”
To describe this decade-defining entrant, we have to go back to the dawn of the millennium: 2001, when in an interview on German television, Mariah Carey was asked her thoughts about J.Lo, and she responded with a savagely blithe, “I don’t know her.” Not just an “I haven’t really listened to her music.” Not even a “great gowns, beautiful gowns.” To claim not to know someone that level of A-list is so shady it can technically be classified as a lunar eclipse. Fast forward to 2016, when Stan Twitter got their hands on the clip, quoting it and using it in GIF react form to throw the cruelest possible levels of shade toward other artists. But surely, by then, Mariah would have to acknowledge knowing J.Lo, yes? Not according to this TMZ video from 2016, where she fired off an equally legendary, “I still don’t know her.” Between that, the 2017 New Year’s Eve disaster, and her status as a Skinny Legend, may she continue to reign in the decade of music and memes to come. —R.A.
April 15, 2016: LCD Soundsystem unretire, piss everyone off
LCD Soundsystem had already written itself into the musical history of the 2010s on April 2, 2011, when James Murphy accomplished one of his dreams, selling out Madison Square Garden, on the condition of his groundbreaking dance-punk collective’s breakup. He’d given the misfits one more anthem, “Dance Yrself Clean,” a set of instructions for LCD Soundsystem’s departure, singing “It’s the end of an era, it’s true.” Yet just five years later, on April 15, 2016, LCD Soundsystem played its first reunion show, headlining Coachella. Even if it was all a stunt, you hadn’t said a proper good-bye, had you? —Justin C.
April 21, 2016: Prince’s death and the opening of his vault
The year 2016 was doomed from the start when it began with the loss of David Bowie. Then, in the spring, Prince died suddenly at his famed Paisley Park of an accidental drug overdose. His passing was a shock for a host of reasons: He was 57, in seemingly top health, still performing, still creating, and still regularly discovering and mentoring the next generation of white-hot talent at Paisley. Perhaps the most jarring effect of Prince’s death, like Bowie’s, was it revealed the Purple One’s mortality — he was so otherworldly and prescient in almost every way that the circumstances of his death, a part of the current opioid crisis, rang false. Not Prince. Not like this. But Prince in death remains as he was in life: a challenge to the status quo. Soon after his passing, Prince’s legendary vault was opened and its contents mined for public consumption, sparking a healthy debate about ownership, legacy, and the right way to handle someone’s life’s work without their consent. As estate battles, label politics, and streaming wars continue to complicate matters, these conversations are far from over. —D.L.
June 17, 2016: “Indie music” redefines itself
In the early 2010s, the icons of indie included quirky rock bands like Arcade Fire, preppy New Yorkers like Vampire Weekend, and slackers with guitars like Mac DeMarco, and hits like “Pumped Up Kicks.” But in the latter half, as it was prophesied, the meek inherited the earth. The indie establishment opened up to — or was rather taken over by — women, people of color, and queer people, telling their stories as loudly (or quietly) as they wished. Mitski (whose acclaimed Puberty 2 arrived in June 2016), Jay Som, and Snail Mail topped album lists and became a generation’s new rock touchpoints. But with indie even expanding to artists like Frank Ocean and FKA twigs, who’s talking about rock? —Justin C.
July 18, 2016: Taylor Swift vs. the Wests
This feud dates back to 2009 (you know the story) and hasn’t disappointed since: Though tensions appeared to cool off in the first half of the 2010s, signs of a genuine-seeming truce didn’t happen until Kanye asked Taylor to present him with the Video Vanguard Award at the 2015 VMAs and she obliged. Naturally, immediately after her speech, he announced his presidential candidacy, which is somehow the least eventful aspect of this story. Taylor watched his speech buddied up with Kim Kardashian West, unbothered. The following year, though, things took a sharp left when West released his song “Famous” with the lyrics “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” and “I made that bitch famous.” Kanye claimed he got Swift’s approval; she called B.S. through her reps. Their he-said-she-said raged on — she shaded him in a Grammys speech; he … made a naked wax replica of her in the infamous “Famous” video — until Kim took the gloves off. On Snapchat, she played recordings of a phone call between Swift and Kanye in which it appeared Swift did have more knowledge than she publicly let on and consented to at least some of the lyrics. Kim concluded by symbolically calling Swift a snake, Taylor publicly begged to be “excluded from this narrative,” and the rest is history. Swift’s reputation never fully recovered, so she put the final nail in the Old Taylor’s coffin herself with the album that followed. —D.L.
July 29, 2016: “Closer” and the last breaths of EDM
EDM’s 2010s could be best described as a seesaw: In 2012, the genre lost one of its legends when Swedish House Mafia called it quits. But then every so often hits like “Harlem Shake” and “Where Are Ü Now” and artists like Zedd and Calvin Harris and Martin Garrix would come along and resuscitate things for a bit. The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” featuring Halsey was one of those last flickers of hope for EDM when it went viral and topped the Hot 100 for 12 weeks. But, as it turns out, that tired trope of the EDM producer as the ultimate douchebag finally wore itself out and, soon, nobody wanted to hear about the Chainsmokers members comparing their, uh, members or calling their collaborator Halsey a “bald bitch.” Things took a further turn for the worse when Swedish producer Avicii died of suicide in April 2018 at age 28. None of this is to say that dance music on the whole isn’t prospering; quite the opposite (see: Kaytranada’s latest). But EDM has certainly peaked. —D.L.
August 20, 2016: Frank Ocean releases Endless and Blonde to get out of his record deal
Frank Ocean and Def Jam were always going to clash. Ocean made it clear in his coming out letter and then on his impressive debut album Channel Orange that he wouldn’t compromise on his identity. If that meant that Ocean needed to go mostly off the grid for years between albums to recharge, then so be it. We later learned, however, the real reason for Ocean’s disappearance was creative differences with his label, an apparent lack of freedom to release his work his way. To get out of the deal, Ocean staged an elaborate scheme involving sporadic Apple Music live streams that chronicled him building a stairway from scratch. The stairway, it turned out, led to the release of a lo-fi companion album, Endless, that existed as an Apple Music exclusive but could only be played along with the film of Frank Ocean’s carpentry hijinks. This all turned out to be a massive troll on Def Jam because in releasing Endless, he fulfilled his contractual obligations and was free to self-release his real sophomore album, Blonde, under his own Boys Don’t Cry imprint just two days later. Def Jam never earned a penny from it. It was both a genius move, one that effectively put an end to streaming exlusives once labels saw how it could be used against them, and an act of desperation that too many artists have had to do to regain control. —D.L.
September 30, 2016: Solange, A Seat at the Table
It’s strange to think back on a time when Solange was considered almost exclusively within the narrative of being Beyoncé’s little sister. Solange got cast in her sister’s shadow only to step into her own light in the same that year that Beyoncé fully stepped into hers, so that they could both blind us all. Beyoncé discovered personal strength on Lemonade; Solange identified her sound and purpose on A Seat at the Table. It is extremely difficult, impossible even, to process trauma in real time. (Even Lemonade doesn’t use all the first drafts.) A Seat at the Table is a feat because it works through the collective trauma of being bombarded with images of young black people being snuffed out by police every other day, or multiple times a day at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Solange never fit neatly into music spaces but A Seat at the Table carved out her own and has since invited so many like her (Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator, etc.) to pull up a chair beside her. —D.L.
December 18, 2016: Camila Cabello leaves Fifth Harmony
Like Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction, you could hear Camila Cabello’s exit from Fifth Harmony coming from miles away. Even while the band was intact, Cabello was always the loudest voice in the room. In the year before she left the band, Cabello had already released two songs without Normani, Ally Brooke, Lauren Jauregui, and Dinah Jane. They’ve all followed their own paths since. With the success of Normani’s single “Motivation,” it looks like now it’s her turn to make some noise. —Z.H.
January 12, 2017: “Despacito” and the rise of música urbana
Before “Old Town Road” ran away with the Hot 100, “Despacito” became the closest thing to a chart phenomenon since Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” topped the Hot 100 for 16 weeks in the ‘90s. “Despacito,” the biggest Spanish-language song of all time, by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and reggaton king Daddy Yankee, tied Mariah and Boyz II Men’s record back in 2017 when “Despacito” became not just the Song of the Summer but the year and, arguably, decade. The song was already viral in Latin America, but when the two tapped Justin Bieber for a remix (on which Biebs sings in Spanish, never to be replicated live), it was a receipe for crossover success the likes of which the industry hadn’t seen since the aughts. The Bieber-less video has over 6 billion views on YouTube, and the song ushered in a new golden age for Latinx music, specifically the mainstream rise of música urbana. We’re talking hip-hop, reggaetón, dembow, champeta, and more across North, South, and Central America. We’re talking leaders in the movement like Colombia’s J Balvin and Puerto Rico’s Ozuna and Bad Bunny (the three most-streamed artists in the world on YouTube in 2018), but also by extension, Camila Cabello and Rosalía’s hits. Spanish music is popular music now. It’s about time. —D.L.
February 1, 2017: Beyoncé announces she’s pregnant with twins
Because Beyoncé will stop at nothing to prove she’s superhuman, for her second pregnancy, she announced she was carrying twins Rumi and Sir in an Instagram post to end all Instagram posts. You know the image: Beyoncé, draped in a mint veil and wearing just her intimates, cradling her bump in front of a shrine of flowers and greenery. When we say god is a woman, this is what we mean. —D.L.
February 26, 2017: The emo revival
In 2013, it seemed like emo might’ve stayed behind in the aughts. My Chemical Romance broke up, Fueled By Ramen’s torchbearers started releasing pop records, and Algernon Cadwaller hadn’t lasted more than five years. Everyone was actually just underground, recording their masterpieces: The Hotelier’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There; Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again; Hop Along’s Painted Shut. Forefathers like American Football and the Get Up Kids followed with some of their most inspired work, and the genre seeped into rap, where performers like Lil Uzi Vert (whose “XO Tour Llife3” climbed the charts in 2017) and Juice WRLD clung to the once-insulting adjective. This year, emo conquered its great white whale with a coveted Pitchfork Best New Music designation for Oso Oso’s optimistic album basking in the glow. —Justin C.
March 5, 2017: Future makes history with consecutive-week No. 1 albums
Streaming broke the charts past any point of repair so now it’s just a free-for-all on any given week for No. 1. Future largely benefited from streaming, both on a macro and micro level, when he became the first artist in chart history to go No. 1 with two different albums for two consecutive weeks with FUTURE and HENDRXX. Streaming has shifted consumption habits across creative fields. It’s made it so that attention spans are so short and demand so high that artists can now do back-to-back releases of this magnitude in such a short time period and perform crazy numbers regardless of the minimal wait time. It’s one way to take hold of the charts: Others, like beefing up albums with extra songs to get streams up, creating viral marketing videos, bundling albums with merch and concert tickets, and other creative loopholes have also come along in the 2010s to game the charts. Billboard has been slow to catch on, but it plans to start cracking down on chart trickery in the new year. —D.L.
April 28, 2017: Fyre Festival
Where were you when you found out that Fyre Festival — the luxurious, exclusive island music festival that celebrities had been inundating Instagram feeds with — was a total disaster? I was at home, eyes glued to the now-iconic plain cheese sandwich, with a millionaire-eating grin on my face. The chaos resulted in a six-year prison sentence for founder Billy McFarland, $26 million in restitution, and a lot of angry trust-fund kids. But for the rest of us, Fyre Festival and its two documentaries were an absurdist escape, a meme goldmine, and something for Ja Rule to talk about instead of starting fights. —Z.H.
May 15, 2017: The Chance the Rapper effect
The Grammys maintained that they didn’t extend their eligibility rules to include streaming-only releases specifically because of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. But they can’t deny the anti-label rapper’s impact on the music industry. Coloring Book was the first album to chart on the Billboard 200 based solely on streams, staying there for 33 weeks. It earned widespread praise and ultimately won Best Rap Album at the 2017 Grammys. That’s called changing the game. —Z.H.
May 22, 2017: Ariana Grande and the Manchester bombing
Ariana Grande was already very popular by 2017, but she became a global phenomenon after her response to a terrorist attack at her Manchester concert that left 22 people dead. The One Love Manchester benefit concert, co-organized by Grande, was pulled together in a matter of days and showcased A-list stars like Pharrell and Katy Perry, all performing to help victims and their families. Grande’s rapid response to the bombing (while processing her own trauma) transformed her from rising, goofy pop singer to compassionate superstar. —Jordan C.
June 2, 2017: The rising crossover success of Afrobeats and dancehall
The rising crossover success of Afrobeats and dancehall (June 2, 2017)
The fact is the African diaspora is absolutely everywhere, spread across the globe — meaning the market for the sounds that define the many regions of the culture is equally everywhere. So it’s no surprise that once major U.S cities got with the program like London and Toronto did, in the 2010s, and opened even more of its doors, ears, and minds to genres like dancehall, soca, Afrobeats, and reggae, they’ve been nothing but ubiquitous across popular music ever since. Starting with 2010 and Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” and Vybez Kartel’s “Straight Jeans & Fitted” and “Clarks” through to OMI’s “Cheerleader” and Rihanna’s “Work,” dancehall went through a major mainstream revival this decade with new talent, from Popcaan to Koffee to HoodCelebrityy, cropping up left and right. Meanwhile, Afrobeats (or Nigerian pop or Afropop) exploded across the continent and then abroad, led by stars like Nigerian singer Davido and his hits “Fall” (released June 2017) and “If,” Nigerian rapper-singer Wizkid, and most recently British DJ Afro B’s “Joanna (Drogba)” and Nigerian singer Burna Boy’s “Ye.” Now, just about everybody’s (namely Drake) slipping in a slight patois accent or stray ting, the Western versions of “tropical pop” and “tropical house” are still trying to be a thing, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are curating soundtracks filled with African artists, and Rihanna’s about to drop the full reggae album we deserve. —D.L.
January 28, 2018: Grammy president tells women to “step up”
The Grammys haven’t had the greatest track record when it comes to female representation — between 2012 and 2017, only 17 percent of its nominees were women — and by the former Recording Academy president’s logic, it’s … women’s fault. Asked about the lack of women awarded on the 2018 broadcast, Neil Portnow infamously responded that women merely needed to “step up” to get recognized, rather than the Academy and its majority-male voting body do the work. His comments enraged the music industry, and not just women, later sparking Time’s Up to launch a Grammys task force that has since restructured things at the Recording Academy internally (including instating a new president, Deborah Dugan). 2019’s Album of the Year winner was a woman (Kacey Musgraves), and the 2020 nominations are led by women (Lizzo, Billie Eilish), so whatever progress is said to be happening behind the scenes, it’s happening fast. —D.L
April 16, 2018: Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer
Rap is still a relatively young genre, which means there are still plenty of old, historically white institutions it hasn’t touched yet. But the 2010s saw a fairly seismic shift in the way our cultural canon treats the genre: Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, several more rappers made it either onto the ballot or into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and LL Cool J is rap’s first Kennedy Center honoree. Rap’s highest prize so far came in 2018, when Kendrick Lamar became the first non-jazz or -classical artist selected to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2017’s DAMN. for “capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” In any other era, his previous, more jazz-indebted To Pimp a Butterfly might’ve been the more obvious Pulitzer candidate, but it’s a testament to rap’s continued ability to get the masses to adapt to its various identities, rather than the other way around, that DAMN. is the one that history will call his opus. It’s a victory for Kendrick, sure, but really this is hip-hop’s Pulitzer. —D.L
May 15, 2018: BTS takes over the world
K-pop has been gracing American soil for decades. PSY, Girls Generation, and Big Bang all found success outside of Korea, but none have captured our attention quite like BTS. No boy band has since the Beatles. Founded in 2013, BTS and their label, Big Hit Entertainment, have built an army of fans dedicated to their success. The seven-member band fused hip-hop with pop, Korean with English, and boy-next-door grins with bad-boy lip bites to create a chart-topping, merch-selling supernova. Their stans are already prepping for when Jin, the eldest member, has to go to the army for two years, starting in June 2020. If they make it through that, BTS will make it through the next decade no problem. —Z.H.
May 29, 2018: Pusha T exposes Drake for hiding his son, on diss track “The Story of Adidon”
All it took was five words to blow the lid off rap’s worst-kept secret: “You are hiding a child.” That was Pusha-T’s lethal shot aimed at Drake’s image on his mother of all diss tracks, “The Story of Adidon.” At the time, Drake took issue with the rapper for dredging up those old ghostwriting accusations on his latest album, Daytona; Drake responded with “Duppy Freestyle,” dragging Push’s fiancée into it. Push took the namedrop to mean all bets were off, so what’d he do? Reveal that Drake got a woman named Sophie pregnant, fathered a son named Adonis, and, oh yeah, suggested that Drake’s a deadbeat dad. It was a character assassination for the ages. At a time when most rap beefs play out on Twitter or Instagram, it was nice to take it back to a bit of dirty, lawless street rap. —D.L.
July 24, 2018: Demi Lovato’s public struggles with addiction
The most recent surge of Disney-minted musical sensations coincided with the first wave of social media superstardom, meaning we got unprecedented access to the personal lives of stars like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. Lovato has long been open about her substance and mental health struggles, and in 2018, she suffered a relapse that nearly killed her, shortly after releasing the song “Sober” that let fans know she was off the wagon. Lovato’s massive social following has, at many points throughout the decade, served both as a mental-health advocacy platform as well as a high-stakes image-management hub. It’s often aided her recovery while also testing her boundaries, putting her at the intersection of one of modern mega-fame’s biggest dilemmas: When you present your whole life to the world, what’s left that belongs to you? —Jordan C.
August 2, 2018: TikTok’s rapid rise
Vine walked so TikTok could run. The short-video app — formerly known as musical.ly — has become the it social-media platform during the last breaths of the decade. Its ease of use plays no small part in its popularity. And unlike platforms like Instagram where curation has long been standard practice, all things weird and raw are encouraged. On the watcher side, the app is addictive. You open it and are — even without an account — immediately presented with a “For You” page where you can easily lose hours of a day (more likely hours of a very late night when you should be sleeping) scrolling through clip after clip. TikTok was the launchpad for “Old Town Road” and, in the few months since then, the platform’s ability to send songs flying up the charts by way of viral memes and dance challenges has only surged. —M.M.K.
August 17, 2018: Ariana Grande’s Sweetener/Thank U, Next one-two punch
After One Love Manchester, more eyes were on Ariana Grande than ever, but her public profile grew even larger during what was both the most personally challenging and creatively fruitful period of her career to date. A whirlwind engagement to comedian Pete Davidson that dominated summer headlines overlapped with the tragic death of her ex, the beloved rapper Mac Miller; following her breakup with the SNL star, she released the most talked-about and critically acclaimed albums of her career in rapid succession, Sweetener and Thank U, Next, six months apart. Grande reached another pinnacle, putting her in a class of stardom inhabited by a precious few, like Rihanna and Taylor Swift. —Jordan C.
September 7, 2018: Mac Miller’s death
Vulture called Mac Miller “The Perfectionist” in our 2018 profile of the beloved rapper, published the day before his sudden death from an accidental overdose at age 26, because he spent a short life and even shorter career not just chasing perfection in his work but possessing the rare talent to match the ambition. He was a wizard in the studio, collaborative, deeply curious about instrumentation and form, and committed to challenging the bounds of his own potential. This is why Miller counted so many friends in this industry, and why it feels like the mood hasn’t been the same since his loss. Miller’s death struck so many nerves worldwide not just because of the disbelief that he’d become a casualty of the late-2010s fentanyl crisis, or the devastating Ariana Grande factor, but the certainty that he wasn’t done. He was barely scratching the surface of what his sound could be, between 2015’s GO:OD AM and his final, near-perfect album, Swimming. Between Miller and Nipsey Hussle, who was killed in March 2019, there’s a gaping hole in hip-hop now and it already shows. —D.L.
October 5, 2018: A Star Is Born
Sure, A Star Is Born is a great movie. It glitters with the desperate urgency of an affecting love story. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country star who’s a little washed up, a little past his prime — and then he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a spunky, ambitious singer-songwriter with talent that knocks his socks off. That’s the text of the movie, and it’s plenty good. But it’s everything in A Star Is Born’s orbit, its context, that made it a phenomenon. There was the music, and the way we could spend weeks debating whether the pop songs were good or bad. There was the are-they-or-aren’t-they chatter around Cooper and Gaga’s fawning press tour. There was the hit song, and the “Shallow” scream, a few seconds of such divine and impossible talent that you could cry about it and meme it in the same afternoon. Here was a big movie about a big romance that wears a big heart on its dirty chambray sleeve: A Star Is Born is a melodrama about loving someone and the music that they make, and that music turned out to be pretty good. —H.H.
December 3, 2018: Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road”
Lil Nas X is a gay, black 20-year-old and he holds the record for the longest-running Billboard Hot 100 No. 1. His impact on history is set in stone. But since we’re here, let’s tally up all the other things that made Lil Nas X’s ascent influential. The rapper used social media to spread his SoundCloud song, capitalizing on TikTok’s capacity for memeing. Then, Billboard banned the song from its country charts, setting a precedent for future crossovers and giving the song the little bit of controversy it needed to get the whole world behind “Old Town Road.” —Z.H.
December 8, 2018: Women get shut out at country radio
Women made the best country music of the decade, from Kacey Musgraves’s stunning Golden Hour to Miranda Lambert’s songs of heartbreak. Unsurprisingly, country radio didn’t reflect that, with multiple studies in the last few years showing that women struggle for airtime and chart positions. (In December 2018, there was even an entire Billboard Country Airplay chart that didn’t include a single woman in the top 20, a first in the chart’s history.) Even as Musgraves, Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and others took home top country awards, they heeded popularity thanks to outdated wisdom that radio listeners will only tolerate a certain number of women. Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, and Natalie Hemby created the excellent supergroup The Highwomen in response this year, hoping banding together could prompt change. They haven’t cracked the country chart’s top 40. —Justin C.
January 25, 2019: Leaving Neverland
Ten years after Michael Jackson’s death, Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance and later aired on HBO. The four-hour documentary is a punishing look at the victims of Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual assault of children whose families had entrusted him with their care. The film’s horror stems in part from the public’s complicity: We allow certain celebrities impossible degrees of lenience, blocking out stories we don’t want to hear. Members of Jackson’s family have since denounced the accounts in the film and his estate is suing HBO, but in 2019 it became nearly impossible to listen to a Jackson song in the same way. —R.A.
February 10, 2019: Cardi B becomes the first solo woman to win Best Rap Album
Cardi B’s meteoric rise from stripper to Instagram star to reality star to rap star made it to completion at the 2019 Grammys when Cardi became the first solo woman to ever win Best Rap Album, for her debut Invasion of Privacy. Making history is something Cardi has improbably turned into a core part of her brand: Her breakthrough single, “Bodak Yellow,” previously became the first solo rap single by a woman to top the Hot 100 since Lauryn Hill. She’s the biggest new entry into the female rap canon since her sworn enemy Nicki Minaj, but the comparisons should stop there. Ultimately, both women are responsible for the boom in female rappers at the turn of the decade, including everyone from Lizzo to Rico Nasty to Megan Thee Stallion, a credit to all the work they each put in throughout the 2010s, as well as to rap’s broadening appeal. —D.L.
March 29, 2019: Billie Eilish leads Gen Z into the future
What did we talk about when we talked about music in 2019? All year long, it was Billie Eilish. Her inescapable album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is bedroom pop in the truest sense: music made in Eilish’s home studio that dominated the charts. It’s dark, layered, and anxious, thanks in part to close collaborations with her producer-brother Finneas. Older generations have taken 18-year-old Eilish’s success and singularity as evidence that the kids are, in fact, all right. On behalf of “the kids,” I have one thing to say: “DUH!” —Justin C.
September 19, 2019: Tekashi 6ix9ine snitches on everybody
How will history remember Tekashi 6ix9ine, the cartoon-character rapper with the taste-the-rainbow hair and jumbo “69” tatted across his forehead: a troll whose jokes landed him in prison? A fraud? A rap icon? A snitch? My money’s on the latter, for the foreseeable future at least. The controversial Brooklyn SoundCloud rapper first caught attention for his viral hit “Gummo,” then for his social media antics (namely, trolling rappers both big and local), then for posturing as a gang banger until the gang banging got too real. In late 2018, the rapper born Daniel Hernandez and several of his Nine Trey Bloods–affiliated associates were arrested on federal racketeering charges. Tekashi would later plead guilty and strike a deal with the Feds that required him to divulge intel on Nine Trey in exchange for a lighter sentence. When Tekashi’s day in court came, he sang, snitching on everyone from his friends to his enemies to his famous peers like Cardi B and Jim Jones. No one was safe, least of all Tekashi. He was later rewarded a two-year sentence for his services and will likely be released in 2020 on time served, where a reported $10 million, two-album record contract awaits him. —D.L.