These Musicians Defined the Sounds of the 2010s
The 2010s were the decade when streaming let us explore music from around the world like never before. Musical genres no longer dictated what we listened to, and as a result, the biggest tastemakers made music that combined influences from all over the musical spectrum.
At the same time, we craved something real. Fantastical displays of reinvention from icons like David Bowie, Prince and Madonna were once celebrated, but as we became infected with Facetune, reality TV and fake news, people craved authenticity. More musicians opened up and revealed themselves than ever before, canceling the "pop deity" routine in favor of relatability. These artists gave us hope, made us dance and showed us how to resist fitting into just one box.
No musician had a finger on the trembling pulse of the nation like Lamar in the 2010s. Simply put — Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of all time. Four albums and 13 Grammys later, Lamar has cemented himself as a voice for the culture.
Swedish singer-songwriter Jonna Lee’s audiovisual project was the decade’s first taste of a viral video campaign on YouTube. Each week, the YouTube channel iamamiwhoami would upload haunting, distorted video clips of a blonde woman in the woods with hidden messages and codes for viewers to decipher.
Anthony Gonzalez’s post-rock project M83 found its footing in the 2000s with an exhilarating blend of shoegaze and dream-pop. But it wasn’t until their Grammy-nominated 2011 album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that the world paid attention to their signature symphonic ‘80s synth sounds.
M.I.A. expertly blended hip-hop with seldom-heard rhythms from countries and genres across the world in the 2000s, with her breakout song “Paper Planes” kickstarting her mainstream popularity and success. In the 2010s, she kept her global sound but focused her message on even more politically charged themes, leading the decade in protest music.
Drake’s reign was all over the 2010s, and so was his music. Releasing five successful studio albums and three mixtapes in a decade is no easy accomplishment, especially considering how many genres he explored throughout his catalog.
The emo mallrats who bought their favorite pop-punk bands’ merch at Hot Topic largely dominated the goth aesthetic in the early 2000s. In 2010, the Chicago trio Salem released King Night, an album that kidnapped the goth vibe along with music critics’ attention with their scuzzy, bass-blasting house and hip-hop spell.
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey was Elizabeth Grant’s soft-spoken muse inspired by American nostalgia, tragic romance and trip-hop who sang torch songs about video games and blue jeans. When critics initially sparked internet debates over her authenticity and credibility, they overlooked her expert songwriting.
Lil Uzi Vert
The days of sounding like the toughest rapper in hip-hop were long gone in the 2010s. Instead, a collection of rappers from SoundCloud challenged each other to sound the most evasive and childish while covering heavy subjects like sex, drug use and violence.
At first, she was a sneering teenager who lamented about never being a royal. Then the world fell in love with her thoughtful songwriting and melodramatic take on electropop. Suddenly, the soft-spoken singer was pop music royalty, hanging out with the likes of Taylor Swift and her cohort of musicians, actors and models.
In July 2012, Ocean released his debut, the critically acclaimed Channel Orange. It wasn’t just a fantastic, cohesive R&B album, but it also changed the conversation around an artist’s personal life and sexuality.
Diplo is the superstar DJ and music producer who first worked with British-Sri Lankan power player M.I.A. Ever since he made her music take over underground nightclubs around the world, the rest of the industry came calling.
It was the decade that made the diva an icon. Beyoncé started the decade with 4, where she experimented with R&B and ditched her focus on pop music. Then, she doubled down on experimentation, releasing the self-titled, genre-blending visual album Beyoncé.
The atmospheric dream-pop duo are experts at creating emotionally climactic symphonies. In the 2000s, their first two albums were devoted to the lo-fi chillwave sound that dominated the decade. But on 2010’s Teen Dream, they raised the stakes with breathtaking peaks fueled by passion and nostalgia.
When the batteries wore out on dubstep’s dominance in the 2000s, James Blake slowed down dubstep’s bassline and blended it with ambient, minimal R&B. Blake became the post-dubstep poster boy and has since collaborated with big names like Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Beyoncé.
In the 2010s, a mainstream rock band was hard to find atop the charts. Imagine Dragons found success by taking rock music and incorporating pop, EDM and hip-hop into their tracks. It was a formula that worked across four chart-topping albums.
It was only 2010, but Robyn released the best pop song of the decade. With "Dancing On My Own," Robyn created the formula for every successful pop song for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to follow: touches of disco and house music, emotional vulnerability and a message for the underdog.
Future was on a roll in the 2010s in every sense of the word. He released 12 albums and mixtapes in a decade, with a catalog centered around drugs, drinking and debauchery. Rapped through his signature relaxed, Auto-Tuned croon, Future was the poster boy of trap and mumble rap.
Naysayers dismissed Psy as a novelty. It’s understandable. His video for "Gangnam Style" had all the ingredients of another flash-in-the-pan viral video. Not to mention, the song charted at #1 in over 30 countries, went 10x platinum in Australia and 5x platinum in the US and, has over 3.3 billion YouTube views.
Nicki Minaj was everywhere in the 2010s. Seriously, it was hard to find a radio station or Billboard chart that Minaj wasn’t on from week to week. It’s because she possesses a unique versatility to appeal to serious hip-hop diehards and 8-year-old girls on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
José Álvaro Osorio Balvín, better known as J Balvin, is the Colombian singer responsible for bringing Reggaeton back from the early 2000s. But unlike the music from years ago, J Balvin sings almost exclusively in Spanish.
They’re the band that couldn’t quit. After 2010’s This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem went on a world tour that frontman James Murphy billed as the group’s last. Diehard fans were devastated. Not even the documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits to commemorate their final show felt like an appropriate end.
Musgraves’ first two albums of the decade played by the rules of relatively traditional country music. But on 2018’s Golden Hour, she created her own modern, neo-traditional sound far more fitting for the 2010s.
Arcade Fire proved that getting labeled "indie rock" doesn’t have to keep you from impacting the mainstream. The Suburbs, their third studio album, surprised the industry and listeners after taking home the Grammy Award and Juno Award for Album of the Year in 2011.
Like David Bowie before her, Monáe’s music was inspired by her muse. "Cindi Mayweather," an android from a hip, Metropolis-like future, mixed funk and electronic elements like early Prince and Janet Jackson before her. But Monáe’s message was different.
"Despacito," Fonsi’s comeback song with Reggaeton legend Daddy Yankee, was more than 2017’s indisputable "Song of the Summer." It was the catalyst for the wave of Spanish/Latinx music to break through radio airwaves.
Bounce music is an energetic style of New Orleans hip-hop music that pairs well with a skilled twerker on the dance floor. No one could lead bounce music’s parade into the global consciousness better than New Orleans-native Big Freedia.
Rihanna was already a bonafide pop star at the start of the decade, but things needed to shift. Like Madonna and Christina Aguilera before her, she needed to take ownership of her image and sound.
The War on Drugs
The six-piece band from Philly found their sound somewhere in between heartland rock, shoegaze and psychedelia. Both 2014’s Lost in the Dream and 2017’s A Deeper Understanding served timeless indie rock for the long drive home.
Adele broke major records with 21 and 25, her award-winning albums that expertly blended folk, pop, Motown soul and Southern blues. Using her formula of melding honest, emotional songwriting with music that drew from genres of the past, Adele created albums that were simply timeless.
If you went to a music festival, any festival, the chances are high that Tame Impala was somewhere on the lineup. The psychedelic rock band started the decade with accusations of being a Beatles’ Revolver cover band — just with more acid — but they toured endlessly to make their name.