10
Jan 20

Top 100 Tracks Of The 2010s Part 1

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I’ve been running this on the Patreon – available to patrons of any tier – but the intention has always been to export the entries onto this site in chunks. So here’s the first set! Track #100 serves as a fair intro to the project as a whole. Expect a leisurely pace on this stuff.

100. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – “Postcards From A Young Man”

“I’m quite prepared to admit I was wrong,” sings James Dean Bradfield on this song about ageing and reflection, and rejecting those things for a moment or two of bloody-minded resolve. He doesn’t sing it like it’s true.

It won’t have escaped your notice, but you’re older than you were in 1999. Me too, it sucks, I know. But maybe you’ve made the best of it, grown into yourself, found what makes you happy. I hope so. In a lot of ways, I’m in a better place than when I made a list of my Top 100 Records of the 1990s, pushing my opinions out, day on day, to an imaginary audience, trying to pretend I was a music writer.

At the end of the 2000s, I was, in some financial sense, a music writer. I had a column in Pitchfork and one starting in the Guardian, and while I made an expansive list that year, I never got far with writing about the records. I was busy, and not motivated, and too deep in the horse-trading world of public lists to feel like looking back for my own.

But now here I am again, trying to put a rope around a decade, and write a hundred things about songs I liked. It feels more difficult, but it feels right because it’s so difficult that it’s absurd too, and absurd things might be fun.

The biggest difference between twenty years ago and now is that I know how much I don’t know. My 1990s list felt, in some deep private smugness, like the work of an eclectic and discerning listener, and I tried to write like that listener, as if each choice had been carefully selected from dozens of others.

Looking at it now, it is what it was, postcards from a young man who’d been a passionate reader of the music weeklies, who’d followed some of their writers (at a nervous distance) on the journey to rave, who’d discovered a way for his ornery streak to come out in online brawling. Who’d listened, honestly, to nowhere near as much as he thought he had.

In 1999 it felt like a noble effort – or at least like a fun piece of critical cosplay – to try and sum a decade up. In 2009 I got to do it for money and it was a fucking nightmare, if I’m honest. In 2019… where would you even start? 

My listening in the 2010s has been so spatchcocked, months of paying attention followed by years of broken receptors, formal games and chance encounters, the recommendations of dear friends and of fathomless networks. All refracted through my life and my body, a fat white man, no longer young, a contented Dad living in a collapsing polity.

“This world will not impose its will”: I first heard this song long past the point where I imagined I’d ever care again about the Manics. Nothing else I’ve heard by them this decade has its defiance, or its ambiguity, or its stiff-legged swing, like a man kicking the blankets off his legs on a winter morning and getting up one more time to drag himself through the day, because the alternative is to stop, and sink into the fog of resentment and disappointment. The way you see other men doing.

“Postcards” feels like a band taking stock and rededicating themselves – in an awful irony, its specific type of catchiness recalls solo Morrissey to me, someone who really has sunk into the dark. It’s a song where hope beats regret, but only just, and with the rueful foreknowledge that it’s a vote that’ll be rerun many times yet. Still, a win for all that. 

I know I believe in nothing, this band once quoted, but it is my nothing. Here they’re saying, I know I believe in bullshit. But it’s my bullshit. That’s a progression. And it was the only possible place I could start.


99. JANA RUSH – “??? ??”

Spotify’s best-known recommendation engine is its Discover Weekly playlist, but I’ve found that takes a long time to train up before it stops trying to tempt you into remaking youthful errors. The Discover tab is cruder but also more useful – a basic “if you like that, try this” system which creates paths into the untracked megaforests of music the service hosts.

Careful mapping and exploration is possible – I preferred to plunge into the underbush and trust to instinct. I would guess my path to footwork producer Jana Rush came via fellow Chicagoan Jlin: Rush’s surly, lean Pariah LP came out the same year as Jlin’s more experimental and lauded Black Origami. Rush – who got her first break in the mid-90s as a 13-year old and now makes music on the side of two day jobs – doesn’t waste much time on the conceptual. Her tracks are called stuff like “Beat Maze”, “Chill Mode”, “Frenetic Snare” and “No Fuks Given”. Her music is dark, fast, functional – percussive obstacle courses for flashing sneakers. At home I listen and try to keep up, a tortoise attempting to understand the leg muscles of hares.

“??? ??” cuts through the album with urgent joy – a trilling flute sample riding on murky rolls of sub-bass, then low, swinging horns, then those horns sliced up into a strobing pulse. No slower or less intricate than the rest of Rush’s music, it still feels like her world opening up, saying the quiet part – footwork’s debt to rave, funk, jazz – thrillingly loud. No wonder an arriviste like me digs it most.

A lot of this list will be these finds, torn by algorithmic whim from living context – which I work to reconstruct, once the music’s made me care enough. Singles only in the sense that everything is if the data slices it that way. This is how I listen now, often. Out beyond Jlin and Jana, the forest path goes on: I haven’t yet wandered down it.


98. KANYE WEST – “Runaway”

One of the decade’s themes – across media of all kinds – has been dudes winning plaudits for admitting what shitheads they are. For me, the ‘asshole confessional’ style mostly makes for boring art: the scab-picking and raw honesty oscillates wanly between morose and narcissistic. “Runaway” incarnates all the style’s worst impulses at extreme length, so why do I rate it?

Three reasons. First, once I had this song in my life I didn’t need anything else remotely similar – no other soul-dredging is likely to compare to “Runaway”’s pushing the simultaneous limits of self-flagellation and self-regard.

Second – and this goes for all the better stuff on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – the opulent extra-ness of it wins me over despite myself. From that portentious one-note piano intro, to ending the song with four minutes of corrosive autotuned flailing, it goes all-in on fucked grandiosity. MBDTF is a determined attempt – one of the last, maybe? – to make a ‘classic album’, it gives me the sense of a man making recording decisions with at least one eye on future documentaries about them. The force of will carried a lot of people along. 

“Runaway” is a massive, self-destructive, mess of a song. That absurd intro leads into one of the hookiest choruses Kanye West has written, which he follows with a couplet of such sleazebag self-disgust it might be from an Arab Strap song. Pusha T’s verse – controlled disdain next to West’s purgative thrashing – is a snapshot of the viciousness the rest of the song confesses to, a reminder of why forgiveness is not deserved.

And third, I’m not immune to feeling this toxic. One thing that can make great pop music great is its power of crystallising a sliver of feeling in a single line or moment. Those feelings aren’t always noble. In the real world, when you realise that you’ve been a fuck-up, or how damaging you can sometimes be, the right next step is to pick yourself up and start finding out how to put it right. That isn’t what “Runaway” is about – it’s the song for the selfish moment before that, where you want to be irredeemable. You’re a black hole and you know it, but at least that still makes you the centre.


97. SHAKIRA – “Empire”

I don’t have any great insight into “Empire”, I just adore its bombast. Back in 2010, with Gaga ascendant, it felt like records this theatrically demonstrative might be a common occurrence. That hasn’t really happened – a lot of the decade’s pop has felt dialled-down and diffident. That has its virtues – but listening back and rediscovering “Empire” made me feel it as a loss.

Shakira gets no songwriting credit on “Empire”, but the prolific songwriters who do have little in their discographies to match its bravado. Perhaps she encouraged them to take more risks, stretch their journeyman metaphors a little until they ended up with something as absurd and awesome as “the stars make love to the universe”. Which Shakira rightly plays completely straight, following it up with her growled “and I’m like – and I’m like – AND I’M LIKE-“ and then a wordless roar, more triumph than bliss.


96. STORMZY – “Big For Your Boots”

 

A lot of Stormzy’s appeal lies in his range – sometimes dark, sometimes god-fearing, sometimes playing clever games, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes thoughtful: he’s one of the only UK performers who could play the reflections-on-my-fame card (on “Crown”) and not make it sound like a humblebrag. 

So maybe it’s odd that my favourite Stormzy track is such a straightforward banger, a song that does its job – reintroducing Stormzy as a lead for his album, smacking down the competition – with vigour. The dramatic production helps, of course, but the quality is all in the details – the peachy way Stormzy pronounces “Boots” as “bewts”; the devastating dismissal of older rivals; and best of all a handful of great punchlines – “never too big for Adele”. Stormzy is a lot of things and has come to stand for even more – but one of them, when he wants to be, is grime’s funniest MC.


95. TIERRA WHACK – “Only Child”

Tierra Whack got famous for the string of 1-minute miniatures which make up Whack World, a hip-hop taster menu of formal play and private feeling. She’s followed it in 2019 with a series of singles, more conventional only in length. “Only Child” feels like an expansion of her collage approach, shorter vignettes and baby hooks patched together over the beat, a sketchbook of feelings from a collapsed relationship.

Like a lot of rappers this decade, Whack’s approach is polyvocal – shifting between singing and rhyming, switching registers from stoner sing-song to sharply dismissive rap to a sad, bunged-up coo. With her the effect isn’t virtuosic or dramatic, but more playful. Even when Whack’s poignant or cruel, she’s funny – the theatrical neediness of the ‘what about me?’ section, for instance. I get the vivid impression of a restless mind, working through ideas and dancing around styles because it amuses her. We’re fortunate we get to listen in.


94. ARIANA GRANDE – “No Tears Left To Cry”

Is it safe to say Ariana is the critics’ favourite pop star this decade (among pop stars who actually have big, regular hits, at least)? I found her hard to get on with at first – a lovely, flexible voice applied to material which felt offhand or slight. It eventually clicked with me that this slightness is – somewhat – the point: a good Ariana Grande song feels like a sketch of a mood, a sensation that the song can then flesh out and work through. “Right now I’m in a state of mind”, as she says at the top of this track.

The moods are plain, relatable – relief, satisfaction, often lust – and she’s candid and conversational about them, but their presentation is anything but plain. Over its cantering beat, “No Tears Left To Cry” puts Ariana the easy-going emotional diarist in the front, backed up by Grande the soaring, swooping, hollering multi-octave performer. That adept balancing of casual intimacy and stadium-filling scale is what makes her such a strong pop star for her times, where knowing how much to share is a celebrity’s most finely calibrated skill.

At her best, though, it all comes back to those moods, and “No Tears” captures its feeling gloriously – the energy of getting over something, and putting yourself out in the world again. It’s a song that’s indecently eager to hustle its singer, and its listener, out of the door and back into their lives.


93. MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE – “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)

Back when I was 15, Pop Will Eat Itself put out “Def Con One”, one of the knockabout rap-rock pile-ups they used to specialise in. I thought “Def Con One” was cool as fuck, because it was rammed with Alan Moore comics references*, mostly from Watchmen, including very deep cut Watchmen references (“How Sick Is Dick?”) which I felt extremely proud of getting. 

It was a bit disappointing to start buying the NME and realise, rapidly, that this record I thought was the last word in style was held in great contempt by my new arbiters of hip. Some of their suspicion was basically regional prejudice. Some of it was a bit more grounded, as I realised when I went back and heard “Beaver Patrol”.

Anyway, since then I’ve been made aware that for reasons of cosmological balance, for everything to do with Alan Moore there must also be something to do with Grant Morrison, and after 22 years, the universe brought us the Grant Morrison equivalent of “Def Con One”, and I was pleased to find myself loving it with the exact mix of enthusiasm and embarrassment. Here it is.

It’s not a complete parallel – there’s no actual references in the song, but Morrison shows up in its video. What “Na Na Na” is, though, is an adrenalised glam-punk recreation of the giddy experience of reading a Morrison superhero comic – a compressed rush of dramatic moments and stylised one-liners, but in the service of some shopworn rebel-kid rhetoric which often slides into outright cringe (“Na Na Na” has the most awkward spoken-word break this side of “Shake It Off”).

Part of what makes it work is that hip-comic-book is exactly the effect you suspect Gerard Way is going for (he’s a huge Morrison fan, of course), and his enthusiasm amps up the thrill-power and carries the song sailing through its dodgier bits – he’s at the end of MCR’s first career, doing whatever he likes, and so all the sloganeering and fist-pumping feels playful, like glam rock should feel. Shut up and let me see your jazz hands!

*It’s NOT the “Alan Moore knows the score” one, that’s “Can U Dig It?”


92. FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE – “Shake It Out”

British artists aren’t for the most part especially religious, but they do love to borrow the sounds and phrases and aesthetics of other people’s worship, and here’s a song which structures itself like an idea of a revival meeting, with lyrical hooks cobbled from school assemblies and stale sayings and whirled up into a secular exorcism.

Of the maximalists who thrived in UK pop at the start of the decade, which seems an age away now, Florence Welch is the most endearing in her vastness. Coldplay are too banal, Adele too grounded, but Florence at her best has that streak of wild absurdity and make-believe which lured me to pop in the first place. “Shake It Out” is her best song because it has her best chorus, but also because it commits so totally to its ideas -the organ drones and trembling keyboards and drum tattoos all working to call you to Florence’s dance. She’s pouring everything into selling it, too, her line readings turning cliche – “it’s always darkest” – into high drama, but also using them to pull in stranger, more pagan imagery – “tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground!”

And yes, you could sneer at it – I know this because at first I did – fretting that the blowout approach shreds any chance of genuine mystery. Stadium hauntology – who thought that was a good idea? But it turns out it is a good idea. I don’t quite trust it but I love it; its force sweeps me along. Scale has its own powers, and there are more things to do with ghosts than conjure them.


91. KENDRICK LAMAR – “King Kunta”

At some point Spotify did a deal with Genius (formerly RapGenius) to feed snippets of into about songs onto your screen while they played, a kind of streaming music equivalent of the DVD commentary track. These are always banal and annoying, except in the one case of “King Kunta”, where I watched the whole thing goggling at the references – samples, borrowings, lyrical nods – Lamar was layering the song with for my app to glibly unpack.

Kendrick Lamar makes extremely dense music which only sometimes sounds that way – “King Kunta” is my favourite song by him partly because it wears its density more lightly than most; everything in the track is subordinate to its striding rhythm, this determined march across decades of black American culture and funk history – Roots, Bootsy, Michael Jackson, and dozens of others crowding into the groove. Lamar is the tour guide but also the destination. Even if you don’t take in every point, the pride in the walk is unmistakable. And intoxicating. 

Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 10 Jan 2020 #

    (One thing I should say on the “rules” for this – no No.1s included in the list. There would probably have been 7 or 8: where feasible (i.e. the act has another song almost as good) I’ve included that instead.)

  2. 2
    weej on 10 Jan 2020 #

    Is there any chance someone could make a youtube playlist for this? The entry at #99 is particularly hard to track down.

  3. 3
    Tom on 10 Jan 2020 #

    Yes, it is a bit of a nightmare to find – https://youtu.be/_jniFrX_9L8

    I’ll try and do Spotify and YouTube playlists as I go (at least one song in the 100 is not on Spotify but I’m nowhere near it in the list.)

  4. 4
    Tommy Mack on 10 Jan 2020 #

    King Kunta really, really wrongfooted me and I spent an hour listening to To Pimp A Butterfly jogging round Modern Hall Park, a somewhat bemused expression, I imagine, on my face…

  5. 5
    Ian Mathers on 12 Jan 2020 #

    Fantastic stuff so far, I actually read the entry for #100 out to my wife and she loved it too. Happy to see “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)”, a ridiculous song I love to distraction, make the cut.

  6. 6
    Chelovek na lune on 12 Jan 2020 #

    Love this, and looking forward in due course to the top 90….an appealing mixture so far, to me, of things I know (and mostly like or like greatly) and of new discoveries…

  7. 7
    Steve Mannion on 14 Jan 2020 #

    King Kunta the only one of these to make my lists (plural because as per the 00s I compiled five different lists in five categories – Hits (anything Top 75), Non-Hit Singles, Non-Singles, Instrumentals and Remixes/Edit) so interested in our overlap ratio as ever. My end of decade lists and playlists: http://ghostfood.uk/music/earcatchers-2010-2019.html

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