I’m a lifelong lover of music. Seriously, my enjoyment of music is one of my earliest memories as a three or four year old, when I danced on my stubby little legs to the rock’n’roll records my older brother spun on his record player. For me, the years 1964-72 and 1982-88 were the best periods for music. But now that I’m in late middle-age, I have to concede that the 2010’s, especially the years 2013-2018, are right up near the top in terms of music excellence. In fact, there was so much great music in the 2010’s that it was excruciating to have to cull my list of best songs of the decade to only 100 songs. There are close to 200 songs that I wanted to include but, this being a top 100 list, I had to cut it off at 100.
I’m not going to bore my readers with a recap of the decade, but will offer up just a few observations about music that were meaningful for me. As I’ve pointed out numerous times on other posts, my favorite music genre is alternative rock, followed by pop-rock, R&B and punk, so most of my picks for best songs of the 2010’s reflect those genres. Also, given my advanced age, I’m partial to melodic music with lush or complex arrangements, so I’ll be using the words “gorgeous” or “beautiful” a lot. Finally, most of the songs on this list are from mainstream artists, which will likely cause some of my readers to be highly critical or even dismissive of my choices. Fair enough, but at the end of the day, these are my favorite songs of the past 10 years.
One of the most important acts to emerge in the decade for me personally was twenty øne piløts. They’ve become one of my all-time favorite bands, and have six songs on this list, more than any other artist or band. Another of my favorites is Foster the People (who are still pictured on my Twitter header photo), as well as Cage the Elephant, Arctic Monkeys, MISSIO, Foals and The Neighbourhood. Some of the other incredibly talented and influential new artists represented on this list include Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, The Weeknd, Highly Suspect, Tame Impala, Lana Del Rey, Hozier, Two Feet and Billie Eilish, among others. Unfortunately, there was a substantial amount of really bad shit too – most bro-country, mumble rap, and anything from the horrific Iggy Azalea or Cardi B. Ugh!
Several artists who appeared on my Top 100 Best Songs of the 2000s, including Coldplay, Green Day, Cage the Elephant, Muse, The Killers, OneRepublic, John Mayer, P!nk, Lady Gaga, Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Maroon 5, Panic! At the Disco and Train, are also represented on this list. Some of the artists I love whose songs unfortunately didn’t quite make the cut include Florence + the Machine, AWOLNATION, Death Cab For Cutie, Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, alt-J, Royal Blood, Post Malone and Sia, to name a few. So without further ado, here are my picks for the Top 100 Best Songs of the 2010s, counting down from #100 to 1. I’ve embedded or provided links to the YouTube videos for each one, as well as a Spotify playlist at the end of the post.
100. DANG! – Mac Miller featuring Anderson .Paak
The untimely death of Mac Miller (born Malcolm James McCormick) was one of the more unfortunate and sadder losses suffered by the music industry over the past decade. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Miller was a musical genius of sorts, learning to play the piano, guitar, drums, and bass by the age of six. As he entered his teens he decided he wanted to be rapper, and started recording and releasing mixtapes at 15, becoming prominent in the city’s hip hop scene. By the time he reached 21, he was presented a key to the city by the mayor of Pittsburgh, and had a day named in his honor. He was such an amazing talent who produced an impressive catalog of music by the time of his death at 26, and we can only imagine what more great music he would have given us.
The first single from his fourth studio album The Divine Feminine, “Dang!” is ear candy from start to finish, featuring not only Miller but also Anderson .Paak to sweeten the mix. Over a thumping retro-soul groove and shimmery synths, .Paak delivers the hook in his smooth, soulful croon: “I can’t keep on losing you / Over complications / Gone too soon / Wait, we was just hangin’ / I guess I need to hold onto, dang!” Then Miller enters the scene, delivering his flow with swagger tinged with just enough vulnerability to reveal his consternation over the fragile state of his relationship. Initially boasting of his sexual prowess: “Yeah the dick ain’t free, I don’t give no fucks”, he later concedes love ain’t so simple: “Can’t concentrate, you always on my brain. If it’s love then why the fuck it come with pain?” The sexy and colorful video produced for the song is superb.
99. SHINE – Mondo Cozmo
I’m not a religious person (I grew up Catholic but am now Atheist), so it’s kind of surprising that I would love “Shine” by Mondo Cozmo as much as I do. I guess it’s because of its inspirational melody, the way the instrumentals build into a sweeping gospel-like crescendo, and his raw, soaring vocals that remind me of Bob Dylan. Mondo Cozmo is the artistic name of Philadelphia-born and now L.A.-based singer-songwriter Josh Ostrander, who told ABC Radio in an interview that he “wasn’t in the best headspace” when he wrote ‘Shine’. He added “It’s so cool that something written during that [low] time could be looked at now as being an inspirational thing. I didn’t think about the mixes or the recording, it was just all really loose, and I like to keep it like that. I think some of the charm is the shittiness of the recording.” I think it’s perfect.
98. LOVE ON THE BRAIN – Rihanna
Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty in Barbados) is an international music superstar, fashion designer, actress and businesswoman who emerged on the music scene in 2005 at the tender age of 17. Since then, she’s racked up an impressive string of monster hits and earned numerous awards and accolades. I love many of her songs, especially “Only Girl (In the World)”, “Stay”, We Found Love” and her duet “Love the Way You Lie” with Eminem, but my favorite of all is “Love on the Brain”. The song is from her eighth studio album Anti, and features a sultry doo wop/R&B vibe in the style of many great R&B songs of the late 50s and early 60s that strongly appeals to my mature music sensibilities. It’s a stunning torch song that beautifully showcases her considerable vocal talent.
97. SIGN OF THE TIMES – Harry Styles
Since the breakup of One Direction, each of the individual members have released their own material, some of it fairly respectable. But to me, the greatest single by far has been “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles. The deeply moving anthem aims straight for the heartstrings, and blew me away the moment I first heard it. The song gives ample proof of Styles’ singing talent, and how much he’s grown as an artist, both vocally and stylistically. The song starts off with a somber piano movement then, with tremendous emotion in his voice, Harry begins to sing “Just stop you’re crying, it’s a sign of the times. Welcome to the final show. Hope you’re wearing your best clothes.” He may be admonishing us to not cry, but boy it’s hard not to! His voice rises to a tender falsetto before the song bursts open with sweeping orchestration. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Harry explained that “Sign of the Times” is from the point of view of a mother giving birth to a child, but there’s a complication whereby the child is fine, but she’s not going to make it. “The mother has five minutes to tell the child, Go forth and conquer.”
I really thought that given the immense popularity of One Direction and each of the individual members, this song would spend many weeks at #1, but I was wrong. It debuted on the Hot 100 Chart at #4, then quickly dropped off, which shocked and disappointed me. I guess it just didn’t click with very many of the young teens whose tastes dominate the charts, and seem to prefer bad pop and hip hop over quality songs with thoughtful lyrics.
96. WANDER – Vox Eagle featuring Pierre Fontaine
Vox Eagle is the music project of Australian-born and now Colorado-based singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Crosby. One of the tracks from his outstanding 2018 album TriumAvium, “Wander” is an enchanting mashup of melodic dream rock and hip hop, and when those magical keyboard and string synths wash over us like a shower of tiny diamonds, I’m covered with goosebumps. Eventually, a trip hop beat ensues as Andy freestyles about how communication has broken down in his relationship, his vocals going from sultry to falsetto as he sings: “We don’t talk no more, baby girl, we just wander.” Guest vocalist Pierre Fontaine’s smooth rap vocals take over on the last third of the track, adding another wonderful textural element. I love this song so much I’ve probably listened to it five hundred times.
95. MY TYPE – Saint Motel
Like many of the songs on this list, I loved “My Type” by Los Angeles-based band Saint Motel the moment it first hit my eardrums. Their rousing, sophisticated sound is a nod to the brassy exuberance of the Big Band era, but delivered with a fresh, contemporary indie pop approach. “My Type” is a deliriously catchy song with an exuberant horn-driven hook and one of the best tongue-in-cheek lyrics ever: “You’re know you’re just my type. Oh, you’ve got a pulse and you are breathing.” Band front man A.J. Jackson produced and directed the stylish video for the track, which was filmed in a cool Mid-Century Modern house in L.A.
94. DREAMS – Beck
Beck (born Bek David Campbell in Los Angeles) has been making great music ever since the unexpected success of his breakout single “Loser” in 1994. Over his long, innovative and prolific career, he’s recorded and released an astonishing 14 studio albums, continually experimenting with an eclectic myriad of genres including alternative rock, folk, country, hip hop, soul, funk and electronic. He just released his latest album Hyperspace on November 22. “Dreams” was released in June 2015, a few months after his Album of the Year Grammy win for Morning Phase. Beck stated he wanted to make a record that “would be good to play live“, and did he ever! The song is exhilarating, with a fantastic guitar-driven groove, cool psychedelic synths and the kind of strong drum beat that I adore. The song was ultimately included on his 2017 album Colors.
93. RIPTIDE – Vance Joy
“Riptide” is a delightful, upbeat love song from Australian indie folk-rock singer-songwriter Vance Joy (born James Gabriel Keogh). With his ukelele as the primary instrument, he adds piano, guitar and percussion, and combines them with with a breezy melody and lovely backing harmonies to create an incredibly pleasing track. His heartfelt, earnest vocals convey an endearing vulnerability as he sings the lyrics about being besotted with a girl. “I love you when you’re singing that song, and I’ve got a lump in my throat ’cause you’re gonna sing the words wrong.” The song has sold over 7 million copies (both physical copy and digital download) worldwide, and holds the record for the most weeks in the top 100 of the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Assn.) Singles Chart – 120 consecutive weeks.
92. THE SOUND OF SILENCE – Disturbed
It’s hard to believe anyone could do a respectable cover of this iconic Simon & Garfunkel song, but David Draiman and his heavy metal band Disturbed accomplished the feat and then some. Wow, what a magnificent and emotionally raw interpretation it is! Some people I know hated it for reasons unfathomable to me, but I love it. After seeing the band perform the song on the late-night talk show Conan, Paul Simon sent Draiman an email praising his performance, writing “Really powerful performance on Conan the other day. First time I’d seen you do it live. Nice. Thanks.” Draiman responded, “Mr. Simon, I am honored beyond words. We only hoped to pay homage and honor to the brilliance of one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Your compliment means the world to me/us and we are eternally grateful.” (Loudwire) That live performance on Conan is the most watched YouTube video ever from the show.
91. SUPERPOSITION – Young the Giant
California alt-rock band Young the Giant has an instantly recognizable sound unlike no other, thanks to their brilliant instrumentation and front man Sameer Gadhia’s engaging and distinctive vocals. “Superposition” is the second single from their fourth studio album Mirror Master, and one of their most beautiful songs. Starting with a deep bass line and a rhythmic toe-tapping drumbeat, the band layers moody synths, delicate piano keys and an enchanting ukelele riff to create a gorgeous backdrop for Gadhia’s captivating vocals, which are in turn backed by lovely vocal harmonies. The term ‘superposition’ is used in physics to describe how things or items in nature overlap or interact. For the song, Young the Giant uses the term to describe the strong pull or connection we feel to those we love, and how fate and inexplicable events can bring us together.
90. CAN’T FEEL MY FACE – The Weeknd
The Weeknd (born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye in Toronto, Canada of Ethiopian ancestry) is in incredibly talented singer, songwriter, actor and record producer. His music is a wonderful mix of R&B, hip hop and dark wave, and his gorgeous, velvety vocals at times seem to channel Michael Jackson, who he cites as one of his main influences. “I Can’t Feel My Face” is from his brilliant and critically acclaimed second album Beauty Behind the Madness, and I loved it the instant I heard it. The song speaks of being so love-drunk with someone they make you feel lightheaded, and everything else around you is meaningless in their presence. Rolling Stone and Billboard both named it the best single of 2015, and it certainly ranks among mine.
89. THRIFT SHOP – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz
The first time I heard “Thrift Shop” I hated it. But after a couple listens, damn if it didn’t hook me in with it’s irresistible hip hop beat and hilarious lyrics. Now it’s a guilty pleasure! With added vocals by rapper Wanz, Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) freestyles about saving money by buying cool second hand shit at a thrift shop, rather than wasting it on expensive status symbols like a lot of rappers. The fourth single from their debut album The Heist, “Thrift Shop” was a massive worldwide hit, reaching #1 not only in the U.S, but also the UK, Ireland, Canada, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. and was named by Billboard as the #1 song of 2013. The hilarious video, which has been viewed nearly 1.5 billion times, was filmed at several thrift shops in Macklemore’s home town of Seattle.
88. READY TO GO (GET ME OUT OF MY MIND) – Panic! At the Disco
It may be one of Panic! At the Disco’s lesser-known hits, but I absolutely love “Ready to Go (Get Me Out of My Mind)”. From their third album Vices & Virtues, it’s such a euphoric, celebratory song, with lush, almost whimsical orchestration and Brendon Urie’s delightful exuberant vocals. It’s a great example of the band’s theatricality and musical creativity, and just makes me happy to be alive when I hear it! The charming video shows the band re-enacting old musical films such as Grease, Mary Poppins and Singin’ In The Rain, and Urie is just too damned handsome and charming for his own good! I like how at the end of the song, he’s heard talking and puffing on a cigarette.
87. CHLORINE – twenty øne piløts
As far as I’m concerned, twenty øne piløts can do no wrong. Incorporating too many different genres to mention, and a vast array of instruments and synth sounds, they combine them with intricate, complex melodies, deep lyrics and Tyler Joseph’s amazing vocals to create truly unique and spectacular music. “Chlorine” is the third single from their monumental concept album Trench, and the first of their six songs on this list. The song was co-written by Joseph and MUTEMATH frontman Paul Meany, who produced Trench, and whose voice we hear in the opening lines. They’ve stated the lyrics address how creativity can cleanse dark impulses, but also cause pain. Like many of the tracks on Trench, the song shows a growing maturity in twenty øne piløts’ sound and music style. I love the sweeping, spacey synths, Josh Dun’s sharp percussion and Joseph’s haunting layered vocals. The wonderful little twinkling piano riff adds a slightly menacing vibe to the track. It’s a dark and stunning song.
86. LOADING ZONES – Kurt Vile
I became a fan of Kurt Vile when I fell in love with his wonderful song “Pretty Pimpin’,” which ended up at #19 on my Top 100 of 2016. He followed up a year later with the outstanding “Loading Zones”, which I love even more. His intricate guitar work is phenomenal, and the talkboxy wah-wah riffs toward the end of the track are so damn good. He’s also quite the wordsmith. He sings of driving around his “dirty little town” of Philadelphia, running errands and parking for free in loading zones as he tries to stay one step ahead of the parking meter police, humorously played by actor Kevin Corrigan and Matt Korvette of the band Pissed Jeans in the entertaining video. He defiantly declares “I park for free! One-stop shop life for the quick fix / before you get a ticket / That’s the way I live my life” – leaving little doubt he’s the coolest musician around today.
85. CLEOPATRA – The Lumineers
Denver, Colorado based folk rock band The Lumineers first made a splash in 2012 with their massive breakthrough single “Ho Hey”. “Cleopatra” is the title track and second single from their sophomore album Cleopatra, and my personal favorite of all their songs. I love songs that tell a compelling story, and “Cleopatra” certainly fills the bill. Schultz explained his inspiration for the song in a 2017 Facebook post: “It’s inspired by a true story about a female taxi driver who, when she was younger, was proposed to. But her father had just passed away, so she didn’t give her boyfriend an answer. So he left the village broken-hearted and rejected and never returned again. He was her great love and she wouldn’t wash the footprints off the floor after he had left.” The toe-tapping rhythms, jangly strummed guitars and rousing piano are really wonderful.
84. ROYALS – Lorde
New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde (born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor) stunned the world in 2013 with her mesmerizing single “Royals”. Only 16 years old at the time, she was the youngest artist to have a #1 song on the Billboard chart since Tiffany in 1987. The song had a totally new sound, unlike anything that had been done before. Lorde wanted to write a song expressing her disapproval of the luxurious lifestyle of many contemporary artists, and reportedly penned the lyrics in half an hour. The song title came to her after seeing a photo in the July 1976 edition of National Geographic of Kansas City Royals baseball player George Brett signing baseballs, with his team’s name ‘Royals’ emblazoned across his shirt. “Royals” spent nine weeks at #1, and also topped the charts in Canada, New Zealand and the UK. It sold 10 million units worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all-time, and was awarded the Grammy for 2013 Song of the Year.
83. MADNESS – Muse
“Madness” is another song I hated when I first heard it. The opening lines “Ma ma ma ma ma ma madness” nearly drove me to the point of madness until one day the song suddenly clicked for me, and I fell madly in love with it. Formed in 1994 while they were in high school, Muse is an immensely talented band from Britain who’ve had a phenomenal string of hits since the early 2000s. “Madness” is from their sixth studio album 2nd Law, and spent an astonishing 19 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Alternative chart. Band singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy was inspired to write the song after having a fight with his then girlfriend Kate Hudson, and later said in an interview that the song was an attempt to strip down the sound of the album. To me, the song seems to be somewhat in the Bolero style, starting off slowly with a wobbly, pulsating melody, then gradually building to a dramatic crescendo, highlighted by Bellamy’s phenomenal guitar work and enthralling vocals that soar to the heavens. Fun fact: Bellamy’s father George was the rhythm guitarist of the 1960s pop group The Tornados, who had a #1 hit with “Telstar”.
82. COUGH SYRUP – Young the Giant
I’ve expressed my love for Young the Giant earlier, and now feature one of their most well-known songs, and my personal favorite, “Cough Syrup”. It was released in 2011 as the second single from their eponymous debut album, but actually predated the band, as it was composed when they were called The Jakes, and first appeared on their 2008 EP Shake My Hand. About the song’s meaning, band front man Sameer Gadhia has stated it was written at a time when the band was unsigned, had no money and “felt somewhat oppressed by the universal expectation of what to do in Orange County…in suburbia in general. I think we really yearned to break out of that and do something a little bit different. [The song] is kind of a cry for help to break free, not necessarily from oppression, but from the common symptoms of suburbia like boredom, normality and homogeneity.” The gorgeous swirling guitars, rather somber cello and spirited drumbeats create a stunning backdrop for Gadhia’s passionate soaring vocals. I saw Young the Giant in concert last summer (in a double bill with Fitz & the Tantrums), and their performance of “Cough Syrup” was wonderful.
81. SOME NIGHTS – fun.
New York City-based alternative pop-rock band fun. was formed in 2008 by Nate Ruess, Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff. Their debut album Aim and Ignite was fairly well-received, though a commercial disappointment. But it was their second album Some Nights that propelled fun. to international fame. The title track “Some Nights” was the second single and follow-up to their massive hit “We Are Young” (which I’ll be discussing later). The song has an exuberant melody, with a strong, almost military-style drumbeat that gives it a jubilant vibe that’s been favorably compared to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”. In fact, in an interview with Billboard, Ruess stated that Paul Simon’s Graceland was a major influence for the song. He added that the song is about “just being someone different on any given night.”
80. CAN I SIT NEXT TO YOU – Spoon
I’m embarrassed – no, make that mortified – to admit that I was not familiar with Austin, Texas-based band Spoon until 2017, despite the fact they’ve been around since the mid 1990s! When I heard their brilliant ninth album Hot Thoughts, I became an instant fan and began listening to their impressive music catalog while kicking myself for all their great music I missed out on hearing all those years. I love their art rock sound, especially band front man Britt Daniel’s distinctive gritty vocal style that gives their songs so much authenticity. My favorite track from Hot Thoughts is the deliciously sexy “Can I Sit Next to You”. The song has an almost sinister vibe, with a deep, bass-driven beat and heavily-strummed gnarly guitars contrasting with twinkling and swirling synths that impart an otherworldly feel. I love the dramatic spiraling synths in the chorus, as well as Daniel’s hoarse vocals as he seductively snarls his way through each verse. It’s fucking awesome, and the surreal video is a trip.
79. STEREO HEARTS – Gym Class Heroes featuring Adam Levine
“Stereo Hearts” is a great song by American rap/rock band Gym Class Heroes, featuring additional vocals by Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine. The song is so damned upbeat, with a catchy hip hop beat that makes me feel glad to be alive! The delightful lyrics are filled with music-based metaphors that make the song very relatable to a music freak like me. The track opens with Levine singing the chorus hook: “My heart’s a stereo. It beats for you, so listen close. Hear my thoughts in every note. Make me your radio. Turn me up when you feel low. This melody was meant for you. So sing along to my stereo.” Gym Class Heroes front man Travie McCoy raps “If I was an old-school, fifty pound boom box. Would you hold me on your shoulder, wherever you walk. Would you turn my volume up in front of the cops, and crank it higher every time they told you to stop. And all I ask is that you don’t get mad at me when you have to purchase mad D batteries. Appreciate every mix tape your friends make. You never know we come and go like we’re on the interstate.” Songwriting doesn’t get any better than this.
78. TROUBLE – Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant are one of my all-time favorite bands, and “Trouble” is the first of three of their songs on this list. The song is from their fourth album Tell Me I’m Pretty, which was released at the end of 2015. Produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, the album really shows his strong influence. “Trouble” was the second single from the album (after the uneven “Mess Around”) and it’s brilliant. The song has an almost magical vibe, thanks to the beautiful piano, xylophone and intricately strummed guitars, accompanied by Matt Shultz’s swooning vocals. The song’s entertaining video was shot at Joshua Tree National Park, which is near my home and one of the most popular places to make music videos.
77. LOCKED OUT OF HEAVEN – Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars (born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Hawaii, but his father nicknamed him “Bruno” at the age of two, because of his resemblance to professional wrestler Bruno Sammartino) is a hyper-talented singer, songwriter, producer, dancer and multi-instrumentalist dynamo with a style and showmanship reminiscent of Michael Jackson, James Brown and Little Richard all rolled into one. He came from a musical family which exposed him to a diverse mix of music genres. His mother was both a singer and a dancer, his father performed Little Richard rock and roll, and his uncle was an Elvis impersonator, and encouraged three-year-old Mars to perform on stage. By the time he was four, Mars began performing five days a week with his family’s band, The Love Notes, and became known in Hawaii for his impersonation of Elvis Presley. He moved to L.A. in 2003 when he was 18, and a year later signed a recording contract with Motown Records, but the deal went nowhere. Success eluded him until 2010, with the release of the successful singles “Nothin’ on You” by B.o.B and “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy, both of which featured his vocals. Soon after, Mars struck gold with his debut studio album Doo-Wops & Hooligans which generated the hit singles “Just the Way You Are”, “Grenade”, and “The Lazy Song”. In 2012, he followed up with his hugely-successful second album Unorthodox Jukebox , the lead single of which was the fantastic reggae/pop/funk song “Locked Out of Heaven”. Tim Sendra of AllMusic described the song as “a breezy mashup of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’, The Police, and Dire Straits“, while Paul MacInnes of The Guardian called it “a brazen but successful welding of Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans of Swing’ and ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ by the Police.” In fact, Mars stated that The Police were a strong influence for him in writing the song, which addresses the rapturous feelings of a loving and sexual relationship, something all of us can identify with.
76. PINK LEMONADE – James Bay
I’ve liked James Bay and his music since his first breakout single “Hold Back the River” in 2014, but wasn’t what I’d call a huge fan. With his signature hat and long hair, and pleasing low-key folk-rock style, he quickly built a huge following. Then, in early March of 2018, he released “Pink Lemonade” and appeared on Saturday Night Live, revealing a major change in both his look and sound. When I watched his performance on SNL, I nearly fell out of my chair! James had ditched the hat, cut his hair and replaced his casual clothing style with a hot pink sequined shirt and black leather pants, and he looked hot! Not only that, I loved the song’s exuberant, harder rock vibe. Many of his fans seemed to prefer his mellower folk ballads to this edgier sound, however, so “Pink Lemonade” was not as successful as his other singles. Their loss, as I loved it and couldn’t hear it enough. The song is about escape and not wanting to commit to a relationship, and the video for the song is cleverly done, showing scenes of James building a rocket ship, only to be revealed at the end as a young version of himself playing pretend in his garage.
75. OUT OF MY LEAGUE – Fitz and the Tantrums
As with several artists on this list, I was not familiar with Los Angeles-based pop/neo-soul band Fitz and the Tantrums until my musical awakening in late summer 2013. One day I discovered the Billboard Alternative Rock chart, and it was a revelation! I saw songs by lots of artists I’d either never heard of, or who I knew about but wasn’t aware they had new music out. One of the songs riding high on the Alternative chart at that time was “Out of My League”, and I instantly fell in love with it’s bouncy, piano-driven synthpop grooves. I became a huge Fitz and the Tantrums fan, and bought their CD More Than Just a Dream, which I played nearly to death. Their sound is unusual in that they have no guitarist, but they more than make up for it with a strong rhythm section and James King’s saxophone (although his sax is not prominent on “Out of My League”). Sadly, their two follow up albums have been disappointing to me, many of their early fans and critics alike. They seem to have abandoned their earlier soulful, groove-based sound in favor of a more pop-oriented style that just sounds generic and predictable. Also, their newer stuff hasn’t utilized Noelle Scaggs’ great vocals nearly enough.
74. JUST GIVE ME A REASON – P!nk featuring Nate Ruess
The gorgeous and deeply moving song “Just Give Me a Reason” is one of my favorite songs from P!nk. The track was co-written by P!nk, Jeff Bhasker, and fun. lead singer Nate Ruess, who also provides his stirring vocals. The song is a heartfelt plea between two people desperate to hold on to a relationship that appears to be falling apart. It was originally intended to be sung just by P!nk, but she soon realized that she needed someone else to sing the song with her, as she felt it was more of a conversation between two people rather than a one perspective song. She asked Ruess to sing the song with her as a duet, and the result was magical. The song was a massive worldwide hit, topping the charts in 21 countries including the U.S.
73. HEARTBREAK WARFARE – John Mayer
My first introduction to singer-songwriter and guitarist John Mayer was with his wonderful debut single “No Such Thing”. The song was a poignant look back at the high school experience that really resonated with me, as it was played a lot on the radio during the time of one of my milestone High School reunions. I loved that song so much it ended up at #17 on my Top 100 Best Songs of the 2000s list. Another of his songs that I really love is “Heartbreak Warfare”, a darkly beautiful song from his fourth studio album Battle Studies. Like a lot of his music, the song is has a mellow tempo, with his skilled guitar work taking center stage. The lyrics speak of a toxic relationship, and is a plea for his lover to ease up on her poisonous behavior in the hope they can salvage what’s left: “How come the only way to know how high you get me is to see how far I fall? God only knows how much I’d love you if you let me but I can’t break through it all.”
72. THE JOKE – Brandi Carlisle
The beautiful and deeply moving song “The Joke” is singer-songwriter Brandi Carlisle’s poignant ode to the delicate boys and striving girls who continue to struggle in our society. She explained her inspiration: “There are so many people feeling misrepresented. So many people feeling unloved. Boys feeling marginalized and forced into these kind of awkward shapes of masculinity that they do or don’t belong in…so many men and boys are trans or disabled or shy. Little girls who got so excited for the last election, and are dealing with the fallout. The song is just for people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.” Carlisle has a strong, beautiful voice and her stirring, passionate vocals on on this song send chills up and down my spine. Hearing her sing the defiant lyrics in her gorgeous voice, backed by soaring instrumentals highlighted by beautiful strings courtesy of the late Paul Buckmaster (a music genius who arranged Carlisle’s album By The Way, I Forgive You as well as such legendary recordings as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and many of Elton John’s early hits), is a religious experience indeed.
71. HOLDING ON – The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs are one of the best bands making music today, and I love their lush melodic sound. I became a fan of the Philadelphia alternative rock band a few years ago after hearing their spectacular song “Red Eyes.” So it was natural that I’d love their beautiful track “Holding On” from their brilliant critically-acclaimed and Grammy-winning album A Deeper Understanding. Having six band members, including two guitarists, two keyboardists, one of whom also plays sax, a bassist and a drummer, gives their music a lush, full sound. The piano, guitar and synths on “Holding On” are stunning, and singer Adam Granduciel’s sublime vocals bear a striking resemblance to Bob Dylan.
70. MOVES LIKE JAGGER – Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera
One of my guilty pleasures on this list is the rousing duet “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera. Both Aguilera and Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine were judges and coaches on the hit music competition show The Voice at the time, and their great chemistry shines through in the song and video. The song was a massive worldwide hit in 2011, reaching #1 in the U.S. and 25 other countries from Brazil to Finland to South Korea, and selling over 15 million digital units. In an interview on the ABC program Nightline in November 2011, Mick Jagger stated he was flattered by being named in the song, and later joked on the Late Show with David Letterman about not seeing any royalties from it. Fun fact: “Moves Like Jagger” is one of two songs on this list featuring prominent whistling, the other being the upcoming “Pumped Up Kicks”.
69. DIZZY – The Million Reasons
“Dizzy” is an outstanding rock song by Chicago indie rock band The Million Reasons, and I loved it at first listen. (I love this band and all its members too, as they’re as gracious and kind as they are talented.) The song is about a relationship in which both parties are blinded by an obsessive and possibly irrational desire for each other. It opens with an enthralling guitar riff that immediately pulls us in with the promise that something really beautiful is about to unfold, and as the music swells into a soaring anthem, we’re not disappointed. The instrumentals and lead singer Scott Nadeau’s fervent vocals are perfection, and by the time the chorus arrives with Mike Nichols’ jaw-dropping solo from his screaming guitar and Nadeau’s raw, impassioned wails, I’m left gasping for breath. This is truly one of the most beautiful rock songs I’ve ever heard.
68. NINA CRIED POWER – Hozier featuring Mavis Staples
The strikingly handsome Irish singer-songwriter Hozier (born Andrew John Hozier-Byrne) burst onto the music scene in 2014 with his massive hit “Take Me to Church” (coming up later in this list) and self-titled album Hozier. Exhausted from nearly two years of touring, he took a break in 2017 and then began writing new songs, but it would be four years before he followed up with a surprise release in September 2018 of a four-track EP Nina Cried Power, which includes the title track. He later released his second album Wasteland, Baby! in 2019. “Nina Cried Power” is a magnificent and stirring gospel-infused ode to Hozier’s love of American rock and roll and it’s roots in R&B and gospel, with tributes paid to artists like Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, James Brown and Mavis Staples, who lives up to her reputation by adding her powerful vocals to the song. In addition, legendary musician Booker T. Jones contributed his organ-playing to the song and other tracks on Wasteland, Baby! It’s a stunning masterpiece in my not-so-humble opinion, yet seemed to fail to connect with very many listeners for reasons I don’t comprehend. It was a hit only on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart, where it reached #1.
67. JUMPSUIT – twenty øne piløts
I’ve already professed my love for twenty øne piløts. Like Blurryface, Trench is a concept album, and tells the saga of the fictional evil city of Dema ruled by nine bishops, referred to as “Nico and the Niners” in the companion single of that name that was released concurrently with “Jumpsuit”. The bishops impose the religious cult of Vialism upon their citizens, and they do everything in their power to prevent them from leaving the walled city. Because they are unable to see the color yellow, the only way to escape is by wearing a yellow garment. Tyler Joseph’s alter ego is a character named Clancy, whose escape attempt is described in “Jumpsuit”. The song is a metaphor for the struggle with mental illness, with the evil city of Dema representing mental illness, and the bishops representing the internal struggles of a person suffering from mental illness. Given its subject matter, “Jumpsuit” is one of their darker songs. It opens with Joseph’s altered vocals shouting “cover me“, referring to his jumpsuit. As the song progresses, the music alternates between barrages of Joseph’s heavy bass guitar riffs and Josh Dun’s pounding drums, and soothing interludes of hushed vocals, lush synths and haunting piano. Joseph’s vocals gradually build to a goosebump-inducing crescendo towards the end as he desperately wails “Jumpsuit, jumpsuit cover me!”
66. LIVE IN THE MOMENT – Portugal. The Man
Rock band Portugal. The Man are originally from Wasilla, Alaska, but now based in Portland, Oregon (they refer to themselves as ‘Lords of Portland’). They’ve released a whopping eight albums since forming in 2004, but “Feel It Still,” from their eighth and most recent album Woodstock, was their breakthrough single. Following up on that monster hit, (which was my #1 song of 2017), they hit the mark again with “Live in the Moment.” It’s an exhilarating track, with a hard-driving beat, sweeping synths, chugging guitars and soaring choruses dominated by John Gourley’s wonderful tenor vocals. The song lyrics are pretty deep with lots of hidden meaning, but they basically touch on subjects of religion and mortality: “Let’s live in the moment. Come back Sunday morning. Got soul to sell. When you’re gone goodbye, so long, farewell.” Toward the end it transitions to an almost church hymn with a dominant organ riff and chant-like vocals produced by computer text-to-speech software that sing “Oh, God, I can hardly believe my eyes. Wake up everybody you know. Come and watch the garden grow. I’ll see you when you get there.” The imaginative video shows the band riding in a car with a giant puppet of a guy skateboarding on top, being chased by another with a policeman puppet on top of that car.
65. COMING OF AGE – Foster the People
Though I really liked their debut single “Pumped Up Kicks” a lot, it was the beautiful, introspective song “Coming of Age” that made me fall in love with Los Angeles-based alternative rock band Foster the People. Hard as it is to believe, prior to hearing it in January 2014, I was unaware of any of their other songs besides “Pumped Up Kicks”, as I’d had my head up my ass from a musical standpoint for a very long time. I purchased their first album Torches and second album Supermodel, and had both on repeat for the rest of 2014. I saw them in concert at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium that November, and a photo I took of them has been my only Twitter header pic ever since. The song was inspired by Mark Foster’s experience and introspection after two years of touring with the band. He told XFM London: “Lyrically it is almost a confession. It’s about having a moment of clarity…after the storm of touring for two years and my life drastically changing. It was kind of the first breath I had to really look around and see that there were some things that happened during that period with my friends and with my loved ones, with the people that are close to me and with myself as well. It’s about growing up.” Musically, the song is melodically complex and utterly stunning, with glittery synths, haunting piano, gnarly guitars and lively percussion. I love Foster’s soaring vocals that at time channel his idol Brian Wilson.
64. SO TIED UP – Cold War Kids featuring Bishop Briggs
Cold War Kids is an alt-rock band from Los Angeles, and I love their vibrant, hard-driving sound. Singer-songwriter Bishop Briggs, also based in L.A., is pretty awesome too, with a distinctive, powerhouse voice. So, combining her passionate vocals with those of Cold War Kids lead singer Nathan Willett on “So Tied Up” results in auditory fireworks to match the biting lyrics about a destructive co-dependent relationship you can’t escape. The song is from their sixth studio album L.A. Divine, which also features another great song “Love is Mystical”. I loved “So Tied Up” at first listen and never tired of hearing it. The darkly amusing and somewhat violent video shows Willett and Briggs singing the song interspersed with scenes of a couple hell-bend on killing each other.
63. ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME – Coldplay
Coldplay were my favorite band in the 2000s, and continued to produce some great music in the 2010s, although many criticized them for putting out music that was too ‘pop’. I suppose that’s partly true, but I still love a lot of their songs from this decade. They pulled out all the stops with their joyously upbeat “Adventure of a Lifetime”, one of the songs featured on their seventh studio album A Head Full of Dreams. Jonny Buckland’s gorgeous swirling guitars, Will Champion’s spot-on drums and Chris Martin’s signature soaring vocals make for a truly great song. Guy Berryman’s strong bass gives the feel of a heart beating and the mandolin at song’s end is stunning. The whimsical video shows the band members transformed through the magic of CGI into gorillas cavorting about in the jungle.
62. TRAMPOLINE – SHAED
Washington, D.C. indie dream-pop band SHAED struck gold in 2019 with their haunting breakthrough single “Trampoline”. The song was originally released in May 2018, but got little airplay until it was featured in an Apple MacBook Air commercial that October, and the song quickly took off. The song debuted on the Billboard Alternative Chart in early December 2018, and as I write this one year later, it’s still in the Top 10! The gorgeous track was named the #1 song of 2019 on the Alternative Chart, and finished at #5 on my own year-end list. SHAED’s inspiration for the song came one night as the trio sat together watching old family videos of Spencer and Max jumping on a trampoline as small children. The song’s meaning has been the subject of debate, ranging from death to suicide to drug addiction, but SHAED simply wanted to write a great song loosely based on the idea of the Stranger Things alternative dimension “Upside Down”.(Genius.com). This is artfully captured in the beautiful and stylish video for the song.
61. HEATHENS – twenty øne piløts
twenty øne piløts are back with their third single on this list, the superb “Heathens”, which was recorded for the Suicide Squad film soundtrack. The dark song has been described as rap rock in style, with a haunting arrangement set to a slow hip hop beat. Mournful piano, rough scratching sounds, Tyler Joseph’s monotone vocals, and a mysterious disembodied voice chanting “watch it” contrast with the dramatic, sweeping orchestration, creating a rather menacing sense of foreboding. The lyrics speak to not making snap judgements about people you don’t know, and to be more sensitive to others, as we all have hidden issues. “We don’t deal with outsiders very well. They say newcomers have a certain smell. You have trust issues, not to mention, they say they can smell your intentions. You’re lovin’ on the freakshow sitting next to you. You’ll have some weird people sitting next to you. You’ll think ‘How did I get here, sitting next to you?’ But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget.”
60. LIFE ITSELF – Glass Animals
“Life Itself” by British psychedelic art pop band Glass Animals is one of the most interesting and musically complex songs on this list and I adore it. The song is from their second album How To Be a Human Being. The band employs all kinds of instruments, from harps and tom toms to tambourines, piano and unusual guitar synths to create an exceptionally strong track. Lead singer Dave Bayley’s distinctive vocals are hypnotic and mesmerizing, and the lyrics about being a millennial slacker are superb: “I can’t get a job, so I live with my mom. I take her money but not quite enough. I sit in the car, and I listen to static. She said I look fat, but I look fantastic.” The rather intense and artfully-filmed video made for the song is quite good, but seems to tell a different story than that described in the lyrics.
59. BANG BANG – Green Day
Legendary rockers Green Day proved their staying power with the 2016 release of their 12th studio album Revolution Radio, 26 years after their first album 39/Smooth in 1990. The album’s hard-driving first single “Bang Bang” stays true to the band’s penchant for topical themes, with lyrics that speak to America’s culture of gun violence and mass shootings in an era of narcissistic social media: “I want to be a celebrity martyr. The little man in my own private drama. Hurrah (bang bang), hurrah (bang bang) the hero of the hour. Daddy’s little psycho and Mommy’s little soldier.” The song’s musical high points are Billie Joe Armstrong’s furious guitar riffs and Tré Cool’s awesome drum solos.
58. CLOSER – IAMWARFACE
British electro-rock band IAMWARFACE are among my favorite indie bands making music today. Their aggressive name is a fitting metaphor for their bombastic, groove-based sound, and I love every single one of their songs. But my absolute favorite is “Closer”, and I was stunned the moment I first heard this fiercely beautiful and monumental track. It opens with a mysterious throbbing synth chord that slowly builds into a dramatic soundscape, enveloping us as lead singer Matt Warneford wearily implores to someone with whom he seems to have an obsessive and destructive relationship: “Who, who am I? I’m just living to die. This old night, when it comes, I’ll be free of these old bones.” With that, the music explodes into a maelstrom of grinding synths, fuzzy guitars, buzz-saw bass, and thunderous percussion, punctuated by almost violently crashing cymbals that emphasize the feelings of desolation expressed in the bitter lyrics. Warneford’s deeply emotional vocals seem filled with despair and resignation over a love affair that now lies in tatters. “Feel I’m walking on shattered glass. This romance just has to end, to reset, erase, begin again.” The dark, ghostly video has a gothic quality that’s at once disturbing and breathtaking.
57. FEVER – The Black Keys
The Black Keys, consisting of childhood friends Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, have been putting out fantastic music for almost 20 years. From their eighth studio album Turn Blue, “Fever” was one of my favorite songs of 2014. The song spent 11 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Alternative chart. The album was co-written and co-produced with noted producer Danger Mouse, and was a continuation of the duo’s departure from their earlier blues/garage rock roots, much to the chagrin of some of their fans. The song has a slicker, psychedelic rock vibe, with an infectious dance beat and greater use of lush, throbbing synths in addition to driving guitar riffs and snappy drums. The song was nominated for two Grammy Awards, for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance. The unusual video features Auerbach portraying a sweaty televangelist preaching to an audience as drummer Patrick Carney sits nearby.
56. HIGH – Sir Sly
“High” is a wonderful song by Los Angeles alt-rock band Sir Sly, and is the lead single from their second album Don’t You Worry Honey. Led by a dominant buzzing bass line, the exuberant track lives up to its title, bopping along with a snappy dance beat and heavily-strummed jangly guitars. I love lead singer Landon Jacobs vocals, and the guys’ vocal harmonies in the choruses are exhilarating. In a general sense, the lyrics address the topic of drug use and the struggle of withdrawal, but a deeper analysis reveals more nuanced meanings. The opening lyrics “I’ve been smoking on the peace pipe. I’ve been wondering just what would peace be like” speaks to using drugs as an escape, and wondering what the world would be like if discord was replaced with tranquility. “I remember back in Oakland. I was lying there in rapture on the bathroom floor.” refers to an incident when Sir Sly was touring with The 1975, and Jacobs got much too high and ended up having a panic attack on the bathroom floor of their motel room. He stated the original lyric was “I remember back in Oakland, when I thought that I was dying on the bathroom floor”, but changed it after realizing the panic attack was actually a positive, transcendental experience. I love this song, and the delightfully trippy video is my absolute favorite of 2017. How can anyone not like this band and song after watching them dancing about like marionettes channeling Cirque du Soleil!
55. BELIEVE – Mumford & Sons
British folk rock band Mumford & Sons have been putting out consistently great music for over ten years, beginning with their debut album Sigh No More. I love many of their songs, but my absolute favorite is the magnificent “Believe”, from their third album Wilder Mind. The song was written by band members Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane, minus front man Marcus Mumford, and is a departure from their usual acoustic folk rock sound. For it and the rest of Wilder Mind, they abandoned their signature acoustic instruments (such as banjo and upright bass) for electric ones and added a session drummer to fill out their rhythm section. The result is a dramatic, sweeping song that builds to near-epic in scope, leaving me covered with goosebumps. The lyrics speak to betrayal in a relationship, with Mumford passionately crying “I don’t even know if I believe, everything you’re trying to say to me.” If this song doesn’t move you, you’re dead.
54. HIGHWAY TUNE – Greta Van Fleet
Greta Van Fleet literally blasted onto the music scene in 2017 like an atom bomb with “Highway Tune.” ‘Wow, just wow!’ was my – and most everyone else’s – reaction upon first hearing this explosive head-banger from the young Michigan foursome (though they’ve had their share of detractors who’ve dismissed them as a cheap Led Zeppelin cover band, to whom I say go fuck yourselves!). Greta Van Fleet consists of the three Kiszka brothers Josh, Jake and Sam (Josh and Jake are twins), and drummer Danny Wagner, all of whom were in their late teens or early twenties when they recorded the song. Despite their youth, these guys are highly skilled musicians, and lead vocalist Josh – a diminutive guy with a gargantuan bluesy voice – sounds disarmingly like a young Robert Plant.
53. HUMAN – Rag’n’Bone Man
A powerfully moving song with a gospel feel, “Human” was a huge, breakout hit for British singer/songwriter Rag’n’Bone Man (born Rory Charles Graham). With his raw bass-baritone voice, he passionately sings of having human frailties, and that he’s neither a saint nor a demon. The song was released in July 2016, but didn’t chart in the U.S. until early 2017. It reached #1 in many countries, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Poland and Slovakia, as well as the Billboard Alternative and Adult Alternative charts. Shockingly, it peaked at only #74 on the Billboard Hot 100, a chart I personally now find largely irrelevant.
52. RENEGADES – X Ambassadors
“Renegades” is a beautiful song of inspiration from Ithaca, New York-based rock band X Ambassadors. The song was already in the process of being written by the band when their label Interscope Records was approached by Jeep, who wanted a song to promote their new Jeep Renegade SUV. The band and label delivered the song within a few days, and it was simultaneously released as a single. The lyrics speak to courage and perseverance in living one’s life, which not only satisfied Jeep’s goal of having a song that would appeal to young people’s sense of freedom and exploration, but also had personal meaning for the band, as one of its members Casey Harris was blind since birth. The video that was later produced for the song shows several people with disabilities working to overcome their challenges. Musically, the song starts off with a tender acoustic guitar riff that slowly builds, then a thumping drumbeat ensues along with swirling keyboard synths as singer Sam Harris fervently sings “Long live the pioneers, rebels and mutineers, go forth and have no fear, come close and lend an ear.” The band’s soaring choruses at the end give me goosebumps.
51. ALL THE STARS – Kendrick Lamar and SZA
The gorgeous “All the Stars” by acclaimed songwriter and rapper Kendrick Lamar and singer-songwriter SZA is one of many outstanding songs featured on the soundtrack for the hit superhero film Black Panther. A stylistic departure for Lamar, the song is highly melodic, with vibrant sweeping synths and orchestration, set to a thumping drumbeat. His vocals are mesmerizing and powerful as he sings the biting lyrics about duplicity and betrayal, while SZA captivates with her bewitching soulful vocals. She passionately sings about her inability to resist another’s charms despite the fact he’s no good for her, always putting her faith in love and the stars. The song received much critical praise, but also a few withering reviews. Most critics and fans much prefer Lamar’s edgier rap songs like “Alright” and “HUMBLE” for their artistic innovation and how they speak to issues in the Black community (which I certainly appreciate), however, I’m more drawn to this type of beautiful and melodic song. Sheldon Pearce of Pitchfork called it “generic and so nondescript that it reeks of compromise, devoid of personality or any true vision, and pales in comparison to both Lamar and SZA’s recent works“. Screw him, I love it! The lush and colorful video is visually stunning, and one of the best of the year.
50. BREAKEVEN – The Script
The beautiful “Breakeven” from Irish alternative rock band The Script is one of the most poignant songs on this list. From their self-titled debut album The Script, the song was actually released as a single in late November 2008, and quickly became a hit in Ireland and the UK, but didn’t appear on the U.S. charts until a year later. It eventually peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Top 40 charts in May 2010, and is one of my favorite songs of that year. The song is about how the breakup of a relationship can affect each of the two parties involved quite differently, leaving one feeling free while the other is heartbroken, and unable to move on: “I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing. Just prayed to a God that I don’t believe in. ‘Cause I got time while she got freedom. ‘Cause when a heart breaks, no, it don’t break even.” The chiming guitar work, snappy drums and sparkling keyboards provide a dramatic backdrop for lead singer Danny O’Donoghue’s heartfelt vocals, which beautifully convey the terrible sadness and pain one feels after a breakup: “What am I gonna do when the best part of me was always you? And what am I supposed to say when I’m all choked up and you’re OK? I’m falling to pieces..“
49. SHUT UP AND DANCE – WALK THE MOON
Pop-rock band WALK THE MOON scored big in 2015 with their wonderful sleeper hit “Shut Up and Dance”. From their second album Talking is Hard, the song first appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in late November 2014, then fell off after only two weeks, only to re-enter a week later. From there, it slowly climbed the chart, ultimately peaking at #5, but spent many weeks at #1 on the Alternative and Hot Rock charts. Band front man Nicholas Petricca was inspired to write the song after an experience at a nightclub in Echo Park, Los Angeles. The place was packed and it was taking forever to get a drink, and he was frustrated because he wanted to dance to the great music that was playing. His girlfriend basically told him to stop complaining and dance with her, inspiring the title “Shut Up and Dance’. He envisioned the song “as an anthem for letting go of frustration and having fun”, and set the lyrics to a jubilant, catchy-as-hell dance beat, embellished with rolling riffs of jangly guitar, jazzy synths and thumping drums. The endearing video portrays Petricca as, in his own words, “an incredibly uncomfortable, awkward adolescent dude” at a bar, trying to look cool.
48. A SKY FULL OF STARS – Coldplay
Coldplay are back with the beautiful, uplifting song “A Sky Full of Stars”, from their sixth album Ghost Stories (which received mostly positive reviews, other than from the aptly-named Pitchfork, which tends to skewer everything that sounds the slightest bit mainstream or formula.) “A Sky Full of Stars” was co-written and co-produced by the late Avicii, which accounts for its sweeping piano and synth-driven EDM and progressive house sound. The song is a jubilant celebration of someone for whom their love shines brighter than the stars. A bit sappy, yes, but so darn pretty and exhilarating that I can’t help but love it!
47. SEASONS (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Despite releasing three studio albums and touring almost non-stop for years, American synth-pop band Future Islands remained relatively unknown since forming in North Carolina in 2006. That all changed in 2014 with the release of their superb fourth album Singles, particularly the breakthrough single “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, and their riveting performance on The Late Show with David Letterman in March 2014, which became the show’s most-viewed video. Lead singer Samuel T. Herring, who actually started out as a rapper, is a lifelong lover of performance art. His on-stage performances are characterized by his elaborate and animated dance movements and raw, aggressive vocals, and he literally owns the stage when he performs. He also has Reinke’s edema, a condition involving swelling of the vocal chords that has caused him to compensate for the fact that he can no longer hit certain notes by growling, which is now part of his signature vocal style. In an interview with Stereogum, Herring attributed his condition to four causes: “Acid reflux, smoking, talking too much or overuse of the vocal cords, and then chronic misuse of the vocal cords … which is how I sing.” Now based in Baltimore, Maryland, Future Islands has long rejected being called synth-pop, instead calling their music “post-wave”, a combination of the romanticism of new wave with the power and drive of post-punk. “Seasons (Waiting on You)” is a stunning, almost heartbreaking song about finally giving up on trying to win the love of another, and Herring makes us believe every word he sings. The song was named best track of 2014 by NME, Pitchfork and Spin.
46. MOUNTAIN AT MY GATES – Foals
British alternative rock band Foals rank among my favorite bands and I passionately love their distinctly unique sound. From their magnificent fourth album What Went Down, “Mountain At My Gates” is a gorgeous dramatic anthem about perseverance, and overcoming life’s obstacles. Lead vocalist Yannis Philippakis has an amazing and instantly identifiable singing voice that smolders, wails and soars. The powerful song builds to a climactic flourish that gives me chills every time.
45. POMPEII – Bastille
British alternative pop/rock band Bastille started out in Leeds in 2010 as a solo project of singer-songwriter Dan Smith, who named his project after the French holiday that’s celebrated on his birthday of July 14. Bastille later grew into a four-piece, releasing an EP Laura Palmer, featuring songs Dan had previously written. That December, they signed with Virgin Records, and began recording and releasing a series of singles that would become part of their debut album Bad Blood, which dropped in March 2013. One of those singles, “Pompeii”, would catapult Bastille to international fame. Smith wrote the song in 2010 while still a student, after reading about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. It made him think about all those who perished being forever frozen in time. He later told The Daily Telegraph that he imagined what those dead inhabitants might have to say to one another, and explained the song’s meaning “It is essentially about fear of stasis and boredom. Being quite a shy, self-conscious person, I was afraid my life might get stuck.” “Pompeii” is darkly beautiful, immediately grabbing our attention with its ominous opening chant of “Eh, eheu, eheu…” (“eheu” is Latin for alas, which is an exclamation of grief, pain, or fear) that’s repeated throughout the track, ending as it started. The fascinating video shows Smith frantically wandering about an empty-looking Los Angeles at night, discovering the few people he encounters all have unnatural vacant black eyes that resemble the looks of the petrified remains of those who perished in Pompeii. He steals a car and flees to the desert to try and escape, but the car breaks down. The next morning, in a scene filmed next to the Whitewater River in north Palm Springs not far from where I live, he realizes he’s been infected too. In the final scene, he’s atop Mt. San Jacinto looking out at the view, then turns around to reveal his own eyes have turned black.
44. BAD GUY – Billie Eilish
2019 was a huge year for the insanely talented young Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Billie Eilish (her full birth name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell). With the meteoric success of her ground-breaking debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, one of the biggest-selling albums of 2019, she became a superstar. I was blown away by her riveting performance at the 2019 Coachella Music Festival, when she was only 17 years old. “Bad Guy” reached #1 on numerous music charts in the U.S. and around the world, including Australia, Canada, Mexico, Greece, Hungary, Norway and the Czech Republic. Musically, the song has an unusual minimalist bass-driven melody that pulls us headlong into a thumping, ominous soundscape. Eilish’s clipped, breathy vocals have a seductive, almost menacing quality as she sings the provocative lyrics that seem beyond her tender years, yet she makes them believable. “I’m that bad type. Make your mama sad type. Make your girlfriend mad tight. Might seduce your dad type. I’m the bad guy, duh.” It’s brilliant!
43. HAPPY – Pharrell Williams
Pharrell Williams is a renowned and prolific singer, rapper, songwriter, record producer and fashion designer, with a successful career as a solo artist, part of the record production duo The Neptunes (with Chad Hugo), lead singer of rock/hip hop band N.E.R.D., and frequent collaborator with numerous artists. In late 2013, on the heels of his monster collaborative hits “Get Lucky” (with Daft Punk) and “Blurred Lines” (with Robin Thicke), Pharrell released “Happy”. One of five tracks he wrote for the Despicable Me 2 film soundtrack, “Happy” was originally intended to be sung by CeeLo Green, whose version Pharrell actually thought was better than his. However, Green’s label Elektra Records decided against it, as he was about to release his Christmas album, so Pharrell’s recording was used for the film soundtrack and released as a single instead, and also later included on his album Girl. The irresistibly catchy song became a massive worldwide hit, reaching #1 in over 30 countries, and was the #1 song of 2014 on the Billboard Hot 100. To coincide with the single release, the website 24hoursofhappy.com was launched, featuring a 24-hour long video of “Happy” consisting of the song repeated multiple times, with footage of various people dancing and miming along to the song on streets and parks around Los Angeles. An official four-minute long edited video was also released, and has been viewed over 1 billion times. The song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, but lost to “Let it Go” from Frozen.
42. RADIOACTIVE – Imagine Dragons
Since the release of their breakout single “It’s Time” in 2012, Imagine Dragons has grown to become one of the biggest and most successful music acts in the world, selling over 35 million singles in the U.S. and 20 million albums worldwide (RIAA). “Radioactive” was their second single, and was included on their EP Continued Silence and later on their debut album Night Visions. It’s a powerful alternative electronic rock song with booming dubstep beats, loads of distortion, and dramatic soaring choruses that make for an intense and exciting listen. The dark lyrics reference apocalyptic and revolutionist themes, though band front man Dan Reynolds told Rolling Stone that it’s “basically about my struggle with anxiety and depression. It’s about becoming self-empowered and rising above that. I wanted to write a masculine and primal song about conjuring and rising above human weakness.”
41. THIS IS AMERICA – Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino is the artistic name for the music project of the multi-faceted and incredibly talented actor, writer, director, producer, singer-songwriter and rapper Donald Glover. His brilliant song “This is America” uses an alternating mix of African-folk inspired melodies and pulsating hip hop-driven trap beats and pairs them with provocative lyrics that address issues of racism, police brutality and gun violence in America. It features background vocals by rappers Young Thug (who also co-wrote the song), Slim Jxmmi, BlocBoy, JB, Quavo (of the group Migos), and 21 Savage. The companion video for the song, directed by Hiro Murai, drove home the lyrics’ message with shocking and often disturbing visual imagery. Released on YouTube simultaneously with Gambino’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live on May 5, 2018, the video quickly went viral, receiving 12.9 million views in the first 24 hours. As I write this, it’s been viewed over 630 million times. In February 2019, the song won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Music Video.
40. BAD ROMANCE – Lady Gaga
From a bad guy to a bad romance, the business of love can be a hazardous minefield. At the dawn of the 2010s, Lady Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) was already an international star, thanks to the success of her debut album The Fame, which launched her career like a shot from a cannon. Two singles from the album – “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” were both huge worldwide hits, topping the charts in the U.S. and many countries. In late 2009, she followed up with Fame Monster, released as both a stand-alone EP and as a deluxe reissue of The Fame, which included two discs, one consisting of the eight new tracks, and the other consisting of the original tracks from The Fame. One of the new tracks was “Bad Romance”, which I think is her best song ever. The melody and song structure are interesting and fairly complex, featuring elements of German-esque house and techno that Gaga described as being experimental pop. The lyrics address aspects of a bad relationship and her poor choice in men, specifically, of being attracted to men with whom romance never works, and falling in love with your best friend. In an MTV interview, she stated that in the verse, “I want your psycho, your vertigo shtick, Want you in my rear window, baby, you’re sick“, she used Alfred Hitchcock film titles to express that she wanted “the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much.” The stylish and surreal video for “Bad Romance” has garnered 1.15 billion views.
39. THE MAN – The Killers
I’m a huge fan of The Killers, and I love their deliciously bombastic single “The Man,” from their fifth studio album Wonderful, Wonderful. Though it received mixed reviews from critics and bloggers, I think it’s terrific, and it spent five weeks at #1 on my own personal music chart. The song revs up at the beginning, then explodes into a pounding dance beat courtesy of Ronnie Vannucci’s power drums. Throw in a sturdy bass line, sweeping synths and Brandon Flowers’ soaring tenor vocals, and you’ve got a fun, exhilarating track. I also love when Flowers pays homage to David Bowie late in the song with the line “headed for the hall of…FAME!”. Vannucci has stated that the song was basically about how a lot of men feel invincible when they’re younger: “Sort of your chest out, the breadwinner, nothing could stop you… It’s sort of tongue-and-cheeking that, how that is not really the point of being a man at all. It’s actually more about compassion and empathy.” The fantastically entertaining video shows Flowers playing several different arrogant characters who are full of themselves, all thinking they’re ‘the man’.
38. CAN’T HOLD US – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Ray Dalton
On the heels of their worldwide smash hit “Thrift Shop”, Seattle hip hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit the jackpot again with their follow-up single “Can’t Hold Us”, although it took a while for the song to catch hold. The single was first released in August 2011, but didn’t gain much traction or airplay until after the release of their debut album The Heist more than a year later. The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 in early 2013, and reached #1 that May. Featuring guest vocals by R&B singer Ray Dalton, “Can’t Hold Us” is a wonderful celebratory anthem of hope and perseverance. Macklemore freestyles the lyrics about overcoming naysayers and fighting onward in the pursuit of his dreams with a flow that’s truly impressive: “Chasing dreams since I was fourteen with the four-track, bussing halfway cross that city with the backpack / Fat cat, crushing labels out here, nah, they can’t tell me nothing. / We give that to the people, spread it across the country.” Dalton sings the hook “Can we go back, this is the moment / Tonight is the night, we’ll fight ’til it’s over /So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us / Like the ceiling can’t hold us.” Musically, the song features an exuberant array of instruments, including piano, horns, strings, tambourine, guitar and drums, all accompanied by bold handclapping, foot-stomping, and a soaring gospel-like chorus that make for a truly uplifting and electrifying track. The video produced for the song is a mini saga, filmed in several locations around the globe.
37. HEY, SOUL SISTER – Train
“Hey, Soul Sister” by San Francisco-based pop-rock band Train is a sweet, upbeat celebration of lust and love. From their fifth studio album Save Me, San Francisco, the song is their highest-charting and best-selling single. Band front man Pat Monahan teamed up with New York-based Norwegian songwriting and music production duo Espionage (consisting of Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund, who wrote Beyoncé’s smash hit “Irreplaceable”, among others) to write “Hey, Soul Sister”. Monahan told them he wanted the song to have an INXS vibe, and after they wrote the melody, he wrote the lyrics and started to sing the song, but wasn’t pleased. He later recalled: “Espen, who’s like a huge star in Norway, picked up a ukelele and said, ‘Hey, how about this?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And it made the difference. It made my words dance. It made sense. These words were meant to dance with ukulele and not guitar.” (Wikipedia) The lyrics speak to being besotted with a woman, and singing her praises: “Hey soul sister, ain’t that Mr. Mister on the radio, stereo. The way you move ain’t fair you know. Hey soul sister, I don’t wanna miss a single thing you do tonight.“
36. COUNTING STARS – OneRepublic
I’ve been a big fan of pop-rock band OneRepublic since falling in love with their beautiful song “Apologize” in 2008, which ended up at #8 on my Top 100 Songs of the 2000s. Their fantastic song “Counting Stars”, from their third album Native, was a huge hit around the world, and my second-favorite of their many wonderful songs. The song has a powerful driving beat, with touches of soul, gospel and dance-pop that make for a colorful, exciting listen. Band front man Ryan Tedder wrote the song while staying in a house in the Hamptons being rented by Jay-Z and Beyonce, and said it’s about “laying in bed awake at night when you’re stressed out of your mind, thinking ‘How are we gonna make ends meet? How are we gonna pay the bills?’ You know, all those things you wanna do with your life – how are we gonna make them work? How’s this actually gonna happen or come to pass? So, instead of counting sheep, we’re counting stars.” The music video for the song shows the band performing in a dusty, decrepit building beneath a church service going on upstairs. As I write this in early January 2020, it has received nearly 2.9 billion views, and currently ranks as the 11th most-viewed video ever.
35. SAFE AND SOUND – Capital Cities
“Safe and Sound”, by Los Angeles-based indie pop duo Capital Cities, is another fun, upbeat song that brings me immense joy. Capital Cities is comprised of Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant, who seem like nice guys you’d want to have a beer with. They formed their music project in 2010, a few years after Merchant responded to a Craigslist ad by Simonian, who was looking for music production jobs. Their lineup includes other musicians who assist in the recording of their songs and for live performances. The song has a catchy synth-driven melody with an infectious dance beat, but the real highlight is the exuberant trumpet line that gives the track incredible energy and depth. The guys’ vocal harmonies are pretty great too. A sleeper hit, “Safe and Sound” was originally released in January 2011, but didn’t chart until 2013, when it was included on their debut album In a Tidal Wave of Mystery (the album title is from a lyric in the song). The song reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative chart that June, and was the #2 song of 2013 on that year-end chart. In a 2013, interview with USA Today, Simonian explained that “‘Safe and Sound’ is an ode to humanity and all living things. We want people to recognize that life can be good, things are getting better.” The wonderful official video, directed by Grady Hall, was filmed in the historic Los Angeles Theatre, and shows Capital Cities performing on stage as dancers emerge from pictures on the wall and film clips from different time periods in the theater’s history, and compete in a dance-off. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video.
34. SET FIRE TO THE RAIN – Adele
British singer-songwriter Adele (born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins) first came to prominence in 2008 with her debut album 19 and hit single “Chasing Pavements”, for which she was awarded Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal. In 2011, she released her second album 21, which became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, setting numerous chart and sales records, and topping the album charts in the U.K., U.S., and around the world. It was the top-selling album in the world both in 2011 and 2012. As I write this, 21 has spent 445 weeks and counting on the Billboard 200 Album chart. The album’s third single “Set Fire to the Rain”, was also the third consecutive single to reach #1, and is one of my favorites of Adele’s many songs. The song was co-written and produced by Fraser T. Smith, and it’s a sweeping, piano-driven anthem, with the kind of lush orchestration that I love (though a few prickly critics called it ‘over-produced’ and a ‘misfire’, and to them I say fuck off!). The dramatic arrangement creates a cinematic wall of sound befitting Adele’s soaring, emotionally-charged vocals. The lyrics speak to the contradictions that occur in some relationships, how a partner can seem so wonderful at times, yet awful at others: “You and me together, nothing gets better. But there’s a side to you that I never knew, never knew. All the things you’d say, they were never true, never true. And the games you play, you would always win.”
33. THE SYSTEM ONLY DREAMS IN TOTAL DARKNESS – The National
Ohio alternative folk-rock band The National have been putting out consistently good and well-received music for 20 years, and one of their finest works was their critically acclaimed and Grammy-winning seventh studio album Sleep Well Beast. The lead single from that album, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a phenomenal track, and one of the best of 2017. The song opens with a dreamy a cappella female vocal, then lovely piano chords and gnarly guitars ensue, propelled by an urgent drumbeat as lead singer Matt Berninger sings in his stunning and heartfelt baritone vocals. Aaron Dessner delivers a blistering guitar solo in the bridge, giving the track a dramatic edge. I was shocked to learn this was the band’s very first single to ever appear on any airplay chart in the U.S., going all the way to #1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart.
32. TAKE ME TO CHURCH – Hozier
The stunning, gospel-like “Take Me to Church” was the debut single by Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. Raised as a Protestant Quaker, he now identifies as agnostic, and was inspired to write the song by his frustration with the Catholic Church, which he saw as a negative dominant force on social and political life in Ireland. He told Rolling Stone, “Growing up, I always saw the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. The history speaks for itself and I grew incredibly frustrated and angry.” (As a former Catholic myself, I completely agree.) In another interview with New York magazine, he stated: “Sexuality, and sexual orientation…is just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation – that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.“
Hozier uses religious terminology in the lyrics to describe his feelings of romantic and sexual obsession with his lover, while also condemning church dogma: “My lover’s got humor. She’s the giggle at a funeral. Knows everybody’s disapproval. I should’ve worshiped her sooner. If the Heavens ever did speak. She is the last true mouthpiece. Every Sunday’s getting more bleak. A fresh poison each week. ‘We were born sick’, you heard them say it. My church offers no absolutes. She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom’. The only Heaven I’ll be sent to is when I’m alone with you. I was born sick, but I love it. Command me to be well. Amen, Amen, Amen.” The darkly disturbing black and white video produced for the song tells the story of a gay relationship in Russia and the violent homophobic backlash that ensues when the community learns of one of the men’s sexuality.
31. STARBOY – The Weeknd
The second song by The Weeknd on this list, “Starboy” was the title single from his third album of the same name. The song features music by Daft Punk, who along with others, co-wrote the track with The Weeknd and collaborated on the album. It’s a moody, but beautiful R&B song with electro-pop elements, and speaks to various trappings of celebrity life, including references to some of the expensive cars owned by The Weeknd, including his McLaren P1, Lamborghini Aventador SV Roadster, and a Bentley Mulsanne. The dark and rather violent video, which was directed by Grant Singer, who also directed the videos for “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills”, has been described as The Weeknd’s attempt to murder his former persona, a sign perhaps that he was reinventing himself with his new song and album. It shows a masked figure, eventually revealed to be the Starboy incarnation of The Weeknd, killing his former self, and destroying posters and awards for his previous album Beauty Behind the Madness.
30. SOCIAL CUES – Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant are one of my favorite bands of the past decade, with a long string of consistently great singles. The title track from their fifth studio album Social Cues, this song now ranks among my top favorites of their many songs. The bouncy tempo is incredibly catchy, and those chirpy synths are irresistible, but what I love most of all are Matt Shultz’s wonderful vocals that always sound so genuine. The rather poignant lyrics speak to the anxieties and insecurities of being a rock star: “Hide me in the back room, tell me when it’s over. Don’t know if I can play this part much longer. I don’t know if it is right to live this way, yeah. I’ll be in the back room, tell me when it’s over. People always say, ‘Man, at least you’re on the radio’.” The song’s production and arrangement are flawless.
29. BAD BAD NEWS – Leon Bridges
American singer-songwriter and producer Leon Bridges is like a breath of fresh air with his throwback R&B style that echoes some of the great soul singers of the 60s like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. It’s a reflection of my advanced age, but I loved so many of the artists and music coming out of Detroit (Motown), Memphis and Philadelphia from the early 60s to the late 80’s. “Bad Bad News”, from his second album Good Thing, is fantastic, with jazzy guitar, gorgeous brass, crisp percussion and deep bass set to a soulful, hypnotic beat. Add Bridges’ smooth vocals, and the result is sonic heaven. He sings about overcoming others’ lack of faith in him, and making it on his street smarts, honesty and belief in himself: “Ain’t got no riches, ain’t got no money that runs long. But I got a heart that’s strong and a love that’s tall. Ain’t got no name, ain’t got no fancy education. But I can see right through, a powdered face on a painted fool./ They tell me I was born to lose. But I made a good good thing out of bad bad news.”
28. DOIN’ TIME – Lana Del Rey
One of the best songs of 2019 is “Doin’ Time” by Lana Del Rey. The song was the lead single from her stunning and critically-acclaimed sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell, which she co-produced with Jack Antonoff. It’s a cover of the song originally recorded by the ska punk band Sublime, which itself samples the great classic “Summertime” from the musical Porgy and Bess, written in 1934 by George and Ira Gerwshin, with lyrics by DuBose Heyward. Del Rey’s version is faithful to Sublime’s ska vibe, but her beautiful, seductive vocals and dreamy instrumentals take the song to a whole new level, as well as capturing the languid, sultry feel of the original “Summertime”. I love that she kept the lyrics and pronouns exactly as written by Sublime, which describe a cheating girlfriend whose infidelities and poor treatment of her lover makes him feel like he’s in prison. “Me and my girl, we got this relationship. I love her so bad, but she treats me like shit. On lockdown, like a penitentiary. She spreads her lovin’ all over, and when she gets home, there’s none left for me.”
27. FIRST – Cold War Kids
“First” is a dramatic and stunning anthem by Cold War Kids, and their second track on this list. The song is from their fifth album Hold My Home, and their most successful single, spending an incredible 64 weeks on the Billboard Alternative chart, seven of them at #1. “First” is about a troubled relationship in which both parties are deeply unhappy, and wracked with both guilt and anger toward each other. The intelligent lyrics are particularly compelling: “Flying like a cannonball, falling to the earth / Heavy as a feather when, you hit the dirt / How am I the lucky one? / I do not deserve to wait around forever when you were there first / First you get hurt, then you feel sorry.” Musically, the song features a gorgeous chiming guitar line over pounding drumbeats and bold hand claps, creating a magnificent wall of sound for lead singer Nathan Willett’s plaintive vocals.
26. BURN THE WITCH – Radiohead
The release of English rock band Radiohead’s amazing ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool was one of the music highlights of 2016. The brilliant lead single from that album “Burn the Witch” is one of the most eerily beautiful and haunting songs of the decade. The band had worked on the track on and off for over 10 years, considering it for inclusion on several of their previous albums, but were never satisfied with the results until it was given this gorgeous arrangement by their guitarist Jonny Greenwood, with lush strings performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. What gives the strings their dramatic percussive effect was the use of guitar plectrums, rather than bows, on the orchestra musicians’ strings. The dark lyrics, hauntingly sung by Thom Yorke’s beautiful falsetto, are an attack on groupthink and authoritarianism: “abandon all reason / avoid all eye contact / do not react / shoot the messengers / burn the witch“. Yorke stated in an interview with BBC Radio that the lyrics were inspired by a 2000 article he read in News of the World that published the names and addresses of sex offenders. The clever, stop-action animation video, directed by Chris Hopewell, pays homage to the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man.
25. THE LESS I KNOW THE BETTER – Tame Impala
“The Less I Know the Better” by Tame Impala is arguably one of the most enchanting tracks on this entire list. Every time I hear it, I wish I was 20 again. Tame Impala is the music project of Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker, who writes, records, performs and produces all his own music, although he collaborates with a number of musicians, many of whom are members of his other psychedelic rock band Pond, for live shows. “The Less I Know the Better” is one of the singles from his gorgeous, critically-acclaimed third album Currents (which ended up on many best album of 2015 lists). I could just as easily have chosen the equally beautiful song “Let It Happen” for this list, but I think I love “The Less I Know the Better” more.
Parker stated in an interview with Under the Radar that the song “shouldn’t be on a Tame Impala album, because it has this dorky, white disco funk. I wouldn’t call it cheesy, but it’s not trying to be too cool, because the lyrics are pretty dorky and the groove is pretty dorky. But at the same time, for me, I love that kind of music.” So do I. Swirling, glittery synths are coupled with Parker’s layered chiming and gnarly guitars to create an achingly beautiful and dreamy backdrop for his ethereal falsetto vocals. The lyrics express the protagonist’s intense longing for a girl he can’t have, which Parker so beautifully expresses with his enthralling vocals: “Oh my love, can’t you see yourself by my side? I don’t suppose you could convince your lover to change his mind. I was doing fine without ya, til I saw your face, now I can’t erase.” Why this song was not a huge #1 hit is a complete mystery to me. The unusual and entertaining video brings the song to life with an imaginative and humorous blend of romance, surrealism and colorful animation.
24. PAIN – The War on Drugs
The second single from The War on Drugs’ magnificent, highly-acclaimed album A Deeper Understanding, as well as the second of their songs on this list, “Pain” is my favorite of their many incredible songs. As I’ve alluded to earlier in this post, I know I love a song if it gives me chills, and “Pain” brings them in spades. It boggles my mind that people are capable of writing and creating music as exquisite as this. The layered guitars and sparkling synths are so fucking gorgeous they literally bring tears to my eyes, and lead singer Adam Granduciel’s vocals are brimming with a heartfelt urgency that touches the soul. He told Q Magazine that “Pain” was inspired by the physical agony he endured from a ruptured disc. (Having suffered myself with intense pain from just a back sprain, I can empathize.) It’s one of several tracks on A Deeper Understanding where he touches on the excruciating experience. “I couldn’t sit to work and I couldn’t stand up to play guitar,” he said. “The idea of chronic pain and what it does to the mind is scattered throughout the songs.”
23. PUMPED UP KICKS – Foster the People
The second song by Foster the People on this list, “Pumped Up Kicks” was their debut single, becoming their breakthrough hit and one of the most popular songs of 2011. It was the #1 song of 2011 on the Billboard Alternative chart. The track was later included on both their self-titled EP and their debut album Torches. It has a breezy, upbeat synth-driven melody accompanied by cheerful whistling, that contrasts with the dark lyrics describing the thoughts of a troubled and delusional youth. Mark Foster wrote and recorded the song in about five hours, playing all the instruments himself and arranging and editing it using music software. He also electronically altered his vocals, giving them a menacing, almost creepy vibe. The demo he recorded was ultimately the version of the song the band released.
Foster later told CNN.com “I wrote ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ when I began to read about the growing trend in teenage mental illness. I wanted to understand the psychology behind it because it was foreign to me. It was terrifying how mental illness among youth had skyrocketed in the last decade. I was scared to see where the pattern was headed if we didn’t start changing the way we were bringing up the next generation.” He wanted to raise awareness of gun violence among disaffected youth. The subject also hit close to home for the band. Foster was bullied in high school, while then-bassist Cubbie Fink has a cousin who survived the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. The song was temporarily pulled from several radio stations after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. And in a recent interview with Billboard, Foster stated he continues to wrestle with the song’s legacy in light of the ongoing epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S., and is considering retiring the song and no longer performing it in their shows. The lighthearted video does not make reference to the dark subject, instead showing scenes of the band performing the song and having fun and socializing.
22. LONELY BOY – The Black Keys
“Lonely Boy” is my favorite song from The Black Keys, and one of their biggest hits, reaching #1 on the Billboard Rock, Alternative and Adult Alternative charts. It also won Grammys for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance of 2012. The track is from their seventh studio album El Camino, and was co-written and produced by Danger Mouse. Auerbach’s grimy, bluesy riffs are fantastic, chugging along to Patrick Carney’s aggressive drumbeats as he laments about his love that keeps him waiting, making him a ‘lonely boy’. The quirky but charming video features actor, musician and part-time security guard Derrick T. Tuggle dancing and lip-syncing to the song in front of the Pepper Tree Motel in North Hollywood, one of the many communities that make up the city of Los Angeles. The video, shot in a single take, went viral upon its release on YouTube. The original video produced for the song had a script and a cast of more than 40 people, but the guys were not pleased with the results. Auerbach recalled, “A couple of weeks after we shot it they sent us the edit and it was awful. We sent it back… they sent us another edit and it was terrible. That’s when we said ‘what about that one guy, the extra who had that one dance scene’ and that’s the video – the most expensive single shot ever recorded.”
21. EX’S & OH’S – Elle King
Singer-songwriter Elle King (born Tanner Elle Schneider, and the daughter of actor and comedian Rob Schneider and former model London King), blew us away in 2015 with her fantastic breakout single “Ex’s & Oh’s”. The song is a ballsy, foot-stompin’ mix of blues and alternative rock, with generous amounts of Country swagger thrown in. The hard-driving beat is infectious as hell, and when paired with a pummeling bassline, lively banjo and riffs of distorted guitar, the result is an electrifying backdrop for King’s big, raspy ‘don’t fuck with me’ vocals. King plays the alpha figure here, turning the tables on men by objectifying them as sexual playthings to be used and discarded: “One, two, three, they gonna run back to me / ‘Cause I’m the best baby that they never gotta keep / One, two, three, they gonna run back to me / They always wanna come, but they never wanna leave.” The terrific video, directed by Michael Maxxis, is one of the best and funniest I’ve ever seen, and perfectly brings the lyrics to life in a way that most other videos fail to do. King is the only female, surrounded by hordes of adoring, scantily clad beefcake. I love it!
20. WE ARE YOUNG – fun. featuring Janelle Monae
The debut single for fun., and their second song on this list, “We Are Young” is a life-affirming, fist-pumping anthem celebrating the hope and promise of young adulthood. The band teamed up with producer, songwriter & instrumentalist Jeff Bhasker (who’s produced albums and songs for Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Beyonce, among others) for their album Some Nights, of which “We Are Young” was the lead single. Together they employed a rich palette of orchestral instrumentals and synths, and layered them over a thumping drumbeat that starts off like a military march, then slows to a pounding, bass-driven hip hop groove. Lead singer Nate Ruess’ vocals are lovely, with an almost tender vulnerability as he sings the poignant opening lyrics: “Give me a second I / I need to get my story straight / My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State / My lover she’s waiting for me just across the bar / My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses asking ’bout a scar, and I know I gave it to you months ago / I know you’re trying to forget / But between the drinks and subtle things / The holes in my apologies, you know I’m trying hard to take it back / So if by the time the bar closes and you feel like falling down / I’ll carry you home / Tonight / We are young /So let’s set the world on fire” He told Rolling Stone that the lyrics were inspired by “my worst drinking night of all time.” He said he was kicked out of a taxi for vomiting all over it, and all he could do was stand on the street corner with is head against the wall. Singer-songwriter Janelle Monae, a personal friend of Bhasker, provided guest vocals for the chorus, but some felt her talents were wasted by giving her such a small presence on the song. That said, “We Are Young” is a great track overall.
19. RIDE – twenty øne piløts
The spectacular Blurryface by twenty one pilots is one of the greatest albums of the decade in my opinion, and ranks among my all-time favorite albums. I had the CD in my car stereo, and played it every time I went anywhere, and turned multiple friends onto it as well. It’s of such high caliber that literally every track could be a hit song, and in fact, in 2018 it became the first album in the digital era to have every track receive a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. Blurryface was released in May 2015, and has remained on the Billboard album chart ever since, now in its 242nd consecutive week as I write this. “Ride” was the fourth album cut to be released as a single. It’s a wildly upbeat alternative hip hop song with strong reggae elements. The lyrics speak to uncertainties and anxieties over the meaning of life, with references to thinking about death, which Tyler Joseph raps about at high speed: “‘I’d die for you,’ that’s easy to say / We have a list of people that we would take a bullet for them, a bullet for you, a bullet for everybody in this room / But I don’t seem to see many bullets comin’ through / See many bullets comin’ through / Metaphorically, I’m the man / But literally, I don’t know what I’d do / ‘I’d live for you,’ an’ that’s hard to do / Even harder to say when you know it’s not true.” At the end, he concludes “I’ve been thinking too much, help me.”
18. I FEEL LIKE I’M DROWNING – Two Feet
I was blown away the moment I first heard the dark and sultry “I Feel Like I’m Drowning”, and quickly became a devoted fan of New York City-based singer-songwriter Two Feet (born Zachary William “Bill” Dess). This man can play guitar, and is one of the best blues guitarists making music today, in my opinion. I love his soulful, bluesy music style, and his songs are accompanied by some of the deepest bass grooves around, giving them tremendous heft and impact. His vocals have a seductive, yet vulnerable quality that’s incredibly appealing. He first gained notariety in 2017 when the video for his first single “Go Fuck Yourself” went viral. “I Feel Like I’m Drowning” is about drowning in a toxic relationship, but could have also described his own mental state early in the year as the pressures of fame and professional commitments took their toll on his emotional well-being. The song was later included on his debut album A 20 Something Fuck, and reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative chart.
17. COME A LITTLE CLOSER – Cage the Elephant
My favorite song by Cage the Elephant, “Come a Little Closer” was my first introduction to the band during my 2013 music epiphany I discussed earlier. The song is from their stellar third album Melophobia, and was a huge hit on the Billboard Alternative and Adult Alternative charts, spending many weeks at #1 on both. Though em>Melophobia literally means “fear of music”, in an interview with American Songwriter, band front man Matt Schultz said “it wasn’t necessarily an actual fear of music, but a fear of making music to project premeditated images of self rather than being an honest communicator.” The band essentially wanted to go outside their comfort zone with the album. He was inspired to write “Come a Little Closer” one morning after watching the sunrise from his hotel room in Sao Paulo. As he looked out over the favelas, he wondered what each soul living within those crowded neighborhoods felt, whether it be heartache, love, loss or joy, and decided to write a song about the concept of looking at things more closely. Musically, the song is a magnificent psychedelic trip, a sort of sonic magical mystery tour, with endless melodic twists and turns that keep us on the edge of our seats, wondering what’s coming next. The instrumentals are fantastic, highlighted by an intriguing surf guitar that erupts into a wailing barrage in the choruses, with Shultz fervently urging us “Come a little closer, then you’ll see. Come on, come on, come on“.
16. SIT NEXT TO ME – Foster the People
As I’ve already stated numerous times, Foster the People are one of my favorite bands, and I adore their song “Sit Next to Me.” The third single from their third album Sacred Hearts Club, it was released in July 2017 and was a sleeper hit. It debuted on the Billboard Alternative chart that September, and slowly climbed until peaking at #3 in early 2018, then remained on the chart until September 2018! Song intros are important in setting the tone for a song, and “Sit Next to Me” has one of the most enthralling openings of any song I’ve ever heard. It starts with a delicate shimmering synth and Mark Foster’s ethereal vocal, then opens into a breezy ballad loaded with gorgeous sweeping synths, subtle guitar and Mark Pontius’ perfect drumbeats. I love Foster’s vulnerable vocal style that includes lots of soaring falsettos and beautiful harmonic choruses.
The song was inspired by his time spent in the L.A. bar scene. Foster explained in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Everyone was trying to look cool, say the right thing and be at the center of the universe. It was like a fashion show. In that environment, I felt alone in a room packed with people. I kept waiting for someone authentic to come walk through the door and sit next to me.” About the song’s slow rise and longevity, he stated: “I’m just kinda shocked. It’s kind of crazy to me that it’s been on the radio for so long and it keeps continuing to grow. I guess it’s a sleeper.” I never tired of hearing it, and my Spotify Wrapped report for 2018 showed that it was my most-played song that year.
15. BROKEN – lovelytheband
One of the catchiest ear worms of 2018, the debut single “Broken” by Los Angeles-based three-piece lovelytheband actually came out in 2017 as an exclusive release to Billboard that April, but didn’t chart until the beginning of 2018. It ended up being the #1 song of 2018 on the Billboard Alternative chart, and was my personal pick for top song of the year as well. “Broken” holds the current record for the longest time spent on that chart – an eye-popping 76 weeks! The song speaks to the idea that everyone’s flawed and has problems, and of finding someone who’s just as fucked up as you, and trying to make a go of it: “I like that you’re broken, broken like me. Maybe that makes me a fool. I like that you’re lonely, lonely like me. I could be lonely with you.” I love the chirpy synths, intricate guitars and assertive drumbeat, as well as lead singer Mitchy Collins’ irresistible, quirky vocals that had me listening to the song over and over.
14. DO I WANNA KNOW? – Arctic Monkeys
British rock band Arctic Monkeys have had quite a musical journey since forming in 2002, while still in their teens living in Sheffield. They’ve released six studio albums, won seven Brit Awards, been nominated for five Grammy Awards, played numerous music festivals – including twice headlining at Glastonbury, and performed at the London Summer Olympics opening ceremony in 2012. “Do I Wanna Know?” is from their fifth album AM, which received widespread acclaim from both music critics and fans upon its release in 2013. The album was partly recorded in Joshua Tree, in the high desert not far from where I live in Palm Springs, with contributions by area native and Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme. “Do I Wanna Know” has a moody, psychedelic/stoner rock vibe, with a dominant drumbeat and accompanying bass line forming the track’s mesmerizing rhythmic foundation. But the real highlight is the spectacular shimmery guitar work by front man Alex Turner, courtesy of his Vox Starstream 12-string electric guitar, which produces a richer, more ringing tone than a standard six-string guitar. (Wikipedia) The lyrics speak of uncertainty and doubt as to whether the object of one’s affection shares your feelings, leaving you wondering if you really want to know the truth: “Do I wanna know, if this feeling flows both way? Sad to see you go / Was sorta hoping that you’d stay / Baby, we both know that the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day.” The interplay between Turner’s sultry croons and the falsetto backing vocals is exquisite. The magnificent song is the band’s biggest hit, spending 10 weeks at #1 and a total of 58 weeks on the Billboard Alternative chart, and is their only song to chart on the Hot 100.
13. TONGUE TIED – Grouplove
I love “Tongue Tied” by Los Angeles alt-rock band Grouplove with a passion. There, I said it. It’s an exhilarating synth pop song that fills me with strong feelings of euphoria, like a kid jumping up and down on a bed at a slumber party. So it was a surprise to discover in researching about the song that it was widely panned by music critics upon its release. A lot of music critics make me sick. They’re so fucking smug, self-impressed and full of shit. OK, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let me say that I think “Tongue Tied” is wonderful, and one of the best songs of the 2010s. Grouplove’s music is fun, quirky and infectious, and always a joy to listen to, even their downtempo songs. “Tongue Tied” starts off with what sounds to me like a sweet little banjo riff, then explodes into a cacophony of exuberant synths, deep bass, smashing drums and a boisterous chorus of cheers that set the stage for the adventure about to unfold as they head to a party. Singers Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi wail “Take me to your best friend’s house / Go around this roundabout Oh yeah / Take me to your best friend’s house / I loved you then and I love you now Oh yeah / Don’t take me tongue tied / Don’t wave no goodbye Don’t… / Right!” By song’s end, I’m left feeling happy, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Many of their fans loved it too, as it ended up as the #2 song of 2012 on the Billboard Alternative chart.
12. DARK NECESSITIES – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been making great music for 30 years, racking up scores of hits. Thirteen of their songs have reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative chart, more than any other artist in the chart’s 31-year history. I love many of their songs, but my favorite is “Dark Necessities”, from their 11th studio album The Getaway. I think it’s their greatest song yet and a real masterpiece. The band teamed up with Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse for the writing and production of the song and album, and say what you will about the use of more complex music and instrumentation, but I love it. Flea’s wonderful opening bass riff, the vibrant piano keys, and Josh Klinghoffer’s layered funky guitars are all drop-dead gorgeous, and I especially love the repeated “aah aah” in the backing chorus. In a video interview for the band’s YouTube channel, lead singer Anthony Kiedis explained that the song “speaks to the beauty of our dark sides and how much creativity and growth and light actually comes out of those difficult struggles that we have on the inside of our heads that no one else can see.” He added that the song meant a lot to Burton and it was one of his favorites on the album. Mine too! The meaningful lyrics show a real maturation of The Red Hot Chili Peppers sound, which is totally appropriate for a band whose members by then were in their late 40s to early 50s.
11. NEED YOU NOW – Lady Antebellum
“Need You Now” is a stunning, bittersweet song by Nashville-based country band Lady Antebellum. First released as a single in August 2009, it topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart that December, then crossed over to the Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts in early 2010. I haven’t cared for very many country songs in recent years, however, I love “Need You Now” and it was my favorite song of 2010. It could be argued that the song contains strong pop-rock elements, which might explain why I like it so much. Be that as it may, the arrangement and instrumentation are exquisite, especially the poignant piano keys and mournful slide guitar that really tug at our heartstrings. The highly relatable lyrics, beautifully sung by vocalists Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley, describe making a phone call to a former lover in the middle of the night out of loneliness and longing for companionship: “And I wonder if I ever cross your mind / For me it happens all the time / It’s a quarter after one / I’m a little drunk and I need you now / Said I wouldn’t call, but I lost all control and I need you now.” “Need You Now” won four Grammys in 2011, including for Record and Song of the Year.
10. I SEE YOU – MISSIO
It’s not often I love an entire album at first listen, but that was the case with the spectacular The Darker the Weather // The Better the Man by Austin, Texas-based duo MISSIO. Comprised of singer-songwriter/producer Matthew Brue and songwriter/producer and instrumentalist David Butler, MISSIO’s unique, eclectic sound is a glorious mashup of alternative electronic rock, hip hop and dream pop. In 2017, they released their outstanding debut album Loner, which generated several singles, including “Middle Fingers” and the mesmerizing “Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea”. “I See You” was the third single from The Darker the Weather // The Better the Man, and my favorite song of the 2019. This was further confirmed by my Spotify Wrapped report, which identified it as my most-streamed song of 2019. And what a gorgeous song it is, at once sad yet hopeful, and brimming with emotional intensity. The lush, sweeping instrumentals, highlighted by beautiful piano, sparkling synths and crisp percussion create a stunning soundscape for Brue’s stirring falsetto vocals. He raises goosebumps as he sings the poignant lyrics that can be interpreted as being directed either to a loved one or to oneself, reassuring the intended that they are understood, supported and loved despite their shortcomings. “I’m alone with you, you’re alone with me. What a mess you’ve made of everything. I’m alone with you, you’re alone with me. And I’m hoping that you will see yourself like I see you.”
9. MY NAME IS HUMAN – Highly Suspect
“My Name is Human” by American alternative rock band Highly Suspect is fucking mind-blowing, featuring some of the best guitar work of any song on this list. The heavy, gravelly bass riff at the opening sends shivers down my spine, then spooky guitars, crunchy percussion and otherworldly synths enter along with lead singer Johnny Stevens’ intense, breathtaking vocals that go from seductive to wailing, adding goosebumps to the ones already covering my body. The track is perfection from start to finish. It was released in September 2016 in advance of release of their superb second album The Boy Who Died Wolf, but peaked on the charts in early 2017. The song’s brilliant video showing a human being built by robots and then given finishing touches by Stevens is a little creepy, yet stylish and riveting. The song spent eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart.
8. UPTOWN FUNK! – Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
“Uptown Funk” needs no introduction. From the moment it was released in November 2014 with a terrific accompanying video, the feel-good ear worm went viral, becoming an international hit. Originally written by British music producer Mark Ronson, Bruno Mars, Phillip Lawrence and Jeff Bhasker (the same guy who worked with fun. on Some Nights), the song incorporates elements of funk, soul, boogie and what is referred to as Minneapolis sound, a subgenre of funk rock pioneered by Prince. Accordingly, it seems to pay homage not only to Prince, but to the master of funk himself James Brown, Rick James and Morris Day & The Time. A cast of characters were ultimately involved in the song’s production; besides the people listed above, additional collaborators and musicians included Mars’ backup band The Hooligans, afrobeat band Antibalas, the horn section of The Dap-Kings, and sound engineer Charles Moniz, among others. And what’s mind-boggling to me is that the song involved recording sessions in Los Angeles, London, Memphis, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver! The stress over the recording and production of “Uptown Funk” was so high that Ronson passed out during one session while trying to perfect the guitar part. Two days later in Toronto, he finally got what he was looking for after 82 takes!(Wikipedia)
The song received critical praise and garnered numerous accolades, including Brit, Grammy and American Music awards, but also generated some blowback by artists who accused the writers of plagiarism. Copyright infringement lawsuits were filed by The Gap Band, Collage, The Sequence and Zapp. The Collage and Zapp lawsuits were later dropped, but the one from The Gap Band resulted in the writers and producers of “Oops Up Side Your Head” being added as songwriters and awarded 17% of publishing royalties. Billboard named “Uptown Funk” the #1 song of 2014 and of the decade, and its YouTube video has been viewed over 3.7 billion times.
7. TEAR IN MY HEART – twenty øne piløts
Although they’d been putting out music since 2009, it was their single “Tear in My Heart” that introduced me to twenty øne piløts in April 2015. I instantly loved the song and became a huge fan, bingeing on their back catalog of music, especially the brilliant album Vessel. “Tear in my Heart” was the second single from their phenomenal album Blurryface, and is a delightful song of love inspired by Tyler Joseph’s marriage to his wife Jenna a month earlier. Not only do I adore the song’s arrangement, lively melody, colorful instrumentation, and Joseph’s wonderful plaintive vocals, I also love the endearing lyrics about the contradictory emotions of joy and agony that often come from romantic love: “The songs on the radio are okay. But my taste in music is your face. And it takes a song to come around to show you how. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m alive. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m on fire. She’s the tear in my heart. Take me higher than I’ve ever been!” The video shows Joseph and drummer Josh Dun performing the song in L.A.’s Chinatown, with the people around him barely paying attention. Eventually, the surrounding buildings begin crumbling as Joseph notices Jenna in a group of people, and follows her down an alley and into a restaurant. She sings to him the opening lyrics of the song: “Sometimes you’ve got to bleed and know that you’re alive and have a soul“, to which he responds: “but it takes someone to come around to show you how“, whereupon she starts beating him until he’s bleeding. The video ends with them kissing.
6. FEEL IT STILL – Portugal. The Man
The second song by Portugal. The Man on this list, “Feel It Still” is one of those songs that virtually everyone loves, thanks to an irresistibly catchy retro dance beat and driving bass line, that awesome little guitar riff, and lead singer John Gourley’s delightful falsetto. It was the second single from the band’s eighth album Woodstock. The melody used in the chorus was inspired by The Marvelettes’ 1961 hit “Please Mr Postman”, and the band included that song’s original writers in the songwriting credits for “Feel It Still”. The lyrics are filled with meaning, making reference to both personal and sociopolitical themes. For example, the line “In case my baby girl is in need” was inspired by Gourley’s young daughter, while “I been feeling it since 1966 now, Might be over now, but I feel it still” refers to a year of seismic societal and cultural changes, and “It’s time to give a little to the kids in the middle, but, oh until it falls won’t bother me” is a back-handed slap down of Trump’s call for a border wall. It’s a short track, only 2 minutes and 43 seconds long, but packs a real punch. The song was a massive hit for Portugal. The Man, spending an astonishing 20 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Alternative Chart, as well as many weeks at #1 on the Adult Alternative and Adult Pop charts. It also peaked at #4 on the Hot 100. It’s a fantastic song and an instant classic.
5. LOVE ME AGAIN – John Newman
“Love Me Again” is a magnificent and electrifying song by British singer-songwriter and musician John Newman. I was blown away the first time I heard it, and to this day it still has the power to stun me. Released in May 2013, it was the lead single from Newman’s debut album Tribute, and was a big hit in the UK and Europe, but had only moderate success in the U.S., where it peaked at #13 on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40. (It spent 4 weeks at #1 on my chart.) Newman has an arresting powerhouse voice, characterized by a raspy, soulful quality that gives him a distinct sound unlike any other singer I know of. With a raw, unbridled passion rarely heard in other vocalists, he laments over the hurt he’s caused his lover “Know I’ve done wrong / I left your heart torn / Is that what devils do? / Took you so low where only fools go / I shook the angel in you“, then fervently pleads for forgiveness as if his very survival depends upon it: “I need to know now, know now, can you love me again?” The song’s arrangement and instrumentation are spectacular, with a dramatic and bold piano riff, wailing organ, swirling synths, and some of the fiercest drum beats I’ve ever heard. Wow!
4. SWEATER WEATHER – The Neighbourhood
Words cannot adequately describe how much I love “Sweater Weather” by Southern California alternative band The Neighbourhood. I know I’ve stated this a number of times in my discussions of several songs on this list, but I fell in love with it at first listen. The gorgeous song is from their debut album I Love You, and was originally released in March 2012, but didn’t chart until a year later. It spent 11 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Alternative chart during the summer of 2013, and later peaked at #14 on the Hot 100.
“Sweater Weather” is a hauntingly beautiful love song with a unique melody and arrangement that’s pretty spectacular, especially given that it was one of the first songs The Neighbourhood ever wrote. Starting with a sharp, rapid drumbeat, the band layers a rich palette of sparkling synths and gorgeous plucked guitars to create a breathtaking, almost ethereal backdrop for lead singer Jesse Rutherford’s sensual vocals. I love his voice, which so beautifully captures the fervor of a budding romance expressed in the lyrics: “She knows what I think about / And what I think about / One love, two mouths / One love, one house / No shirt, no blouse / Just us, you find out / Nothing that I wouldn’t wanna tell you about, no / ‘Cause it’s too cold for you here / And now, so let me hold both your hands in the holes of my sweater.” Two-thirds into the track, the melody and instrumentals abruptly transition to an achingly beautiful strummed guitar and bassline, with Rutherford cooing “Woah, woah, woah / Woah, woah, woah, woah…” before repeating the final chorus “‘Cause it’s too cold for you here / And now, so let me hold both your hands in the holes of my sweater.” It’s perfection from start to finish.
3. STRESSED OUT – twenty øne piløts
2016 was clearly the year of twenty øne piløts, as the duo saw their fame skyrocket with the popularity of their album Blurryface, as well as their enormously successful Emotional Roadshow World Tour (which I had the good fortune to see and write about in 2016). “Stressed Out” is one of the many outstanding tracks from that album, and is my favorite of all twenty øne piløts songs. It’s a brilliant alternative rap-rock song about facing the burdens and responsibility of adulthood while longing for the simplicity and safety of one’s childhood: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days. When our mama sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.” The song also references the album’s title “Blurryface”, which is the alter-ego of Tyler Joseph. “Blurryface” represents his doubts, fears and self-loathing, expressed in the lyric “My name’s Blurryface, and I care what you think.” “Stressed Out” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs, Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and Alternative charts, where it spent 12 weeks on top. It spent 11 weeks #1 on my own weekly chart. The delightful video portrays Joseph and Dun as both children at play and young adults grappling with the onset of adulthood.
2. SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW – Gotye featuring Kimbra
I still vividly remember the night in 2013 when “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra won the Grammy award for Record of the Year. Prince was presenting the award in that category at the ceremonies that night, and as he opened the envelope to announce the winner, he said “I love this song.” So do I. Not only did it win a Grammy, it also won the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) for Single of the Year, and was a massive worldwide hit, selling over 12 million copies and reaching #1 in the U.S., UK, Australia and 23 other countries. It was named the #1 song of 2012 on the Billboard Hot 100, Adult Pop and Alternative charts.
Gotye (born Wouter “Wally” De Backer in Belgium, and now based in Melbourne, Australia) is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has recorded as both a solo artist and with his band The Basics. Kimbra is a singer from New Zealand. “Somebody That I Used to Know” was first released in Australia and New Zealand in July 2011 as the second single from Gotye’s third studio album Making Mirrors, and later released that December in the UK, and in January 2012 in the U.S. The song explores the bitter breakup of a relationship from the perspective of both parties: “But you didn’t have to cut me off / Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing / And I don’t even need your love / But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough / No you didn’t have to stoop so low / Have your friends collect your records and then change your number / I guess that I don’t need that though / Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.”
Musically, it samples the opening guitar riff from Brazilian composer and guitarist Luiz Bonfa’s instrumental track “Seville”, and builds from there with spooky synths and an array of mesmerizing beats. One of the notable features is the use of xylophone that gives the song an intriguing, almost exotic vibe. Many music critics noted the similarities between the song and works by Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bon Iver. Jon O’Brien of AllMusic called it an “an oddball break-up song whose stuttering rhythms, reggae hooks, and hushed vocals sound like The Police remixed by The xx.” (Wikipedia) As for me, I remember being dumbstruck when hearing it for the first time, wondering “what is that song!?!” It’s a masterpiece.
Then there’s the amazing video, which was directed by Australian artist Natasha Pincus. It shows Gotye singing the song while standing naked against a neutral backdrop. As he sings, his body and the backdrop gradually become covered with paint so that he seems to be part of a painting. My take is that his identity is being swallowed by his surroundings. The camera eventually pans to include Kimbra, who then sings her response to Gotye. As the video nears the end, the paint starts to disappear from Kimbra’s body, signifying her escape from what was left of their relationship.
1. ROLLING IN THE DEEP – Adele
It’s fitting that Adele would have my #1 song of the 2010s, as her song “Chasing Pavements” was my #100 song of the 2000s. It’s also owing to the fact that Adele is one of the greatest female vocalists of our time, and that “Rolling in the Deep” is a fucking phenomenal song. It’s been well-documented that Adele conceived of and wrote many of the songs on her seismic second album 21 after a painful breakup with her then-boyfriend. She had begun writing and recording songs for the album while still with him, but couldn’t seem to find much inspiration. Then, the day after her break-up, Adele contacted producer Paul Epworth (who’s co-written and produced songs for Foster the People, Florence + the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Bloc Party & Coldplay, among others), wanting to capture her seething emotions in a song. She told London newspaper The Sunday Times: “We’d had a fuming argument the night before … I’d been bubbling. Then I went into the studio and screamed.” She and Epworth restructured a song she’d been working on, rewriting the lyrics and renaming it “Rolling in the Deep”. The melody and instrumentation evolved as they went along. After trying out various jazz riffs, Adele sang the first verse “There’s a fire, starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark” a cappella, which then inspired Epworth to come up with a melody on his acoustic guitar. They came up with the strong thumping drum beat to mimic her racing heartbeat.(Wikipedia)
As the song unfolds, Adele’s emotions, as told through the lyrics, run the gamut from angry: “Go ahead and sell me out and I’ll lay your shit bare / See how I leave with every piece of you / Don’t underestimate the things that I will do“, to defiant: “Baby, I have no story to be told / But I’ve heard one on you and I’m gonna make your head burn / Think of me in the depths of your despair / Make a home down there as mine sure won’t be shared“, to wistful: “We could have had it all / Rolling in the deep / You had my heart inside of your hand / But you played it. You played it, You played it, You played it to the beat.”
The dark and rather surreal video, directed by Sam Brown, shows Adele sitting on a chair in an abandoned house. Various scenes show a room filled with hundreds of water-filled glasses vibrating to the beat, a drummer playing his drums under a staircase, a ghostly figure dancing about a room kicking up white dust, while in yet another room, white china is thrown against an illuminated piece of plywood suspended from the ceiling. Finally, a white model of a city on a large table is set afire by five bursting light bulbs, all of which seems to signify a relationship that’s gone up in flames.
Here’s my Spotify playlist: