We’re now halfway through the countdown of my list of the 100 Best Songs of the 2010s, and #50 is “Breakeven” by Irish alternative rock band The Script. The beautiful song is also one of the saddest and most bittersweet on this list. From their self-titled debut album The Script, “Breakeven” was actually released as a single in the previous decade, in late November 2008. It quickly became a hit in Ireland and the UK, but didn’t appear on the U.S. music charts until a year later in late 2009. It eventually peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Top 40 charts in May 2010. It was one of my favorite songs of that year, so as far as I’m concerned, it qualifies for inclusion on my list of best songs of the 2010s.
“Breakeven” 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 lovely mix of strummed acoustic and chiming guitars, snappy drums and sparkling keyboards provide a stirring backdrop for lead singer Danny O’Donoghue’s heartfelt vocals that beautifully convey feelings of intense sadness and desolation after a painful 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..”
The guitar work on this song is phenomenal, and it always impresses me when musicians choose just the right kinds of guitar notes and textures – along with any and all other instruments for that matter – to make their songs sound the very best they can be.
The song at #51 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “All the Stars” by songwriter and rapper Kendrick Lamar and singer-songwriter SZA. One of many outstanding songs featured on the soundtrack for the hit superhero film Black Panther, the gorgeous song is a stylistic departure for Lamar. Unlike most of his rap-heavy hip hop songs, “All the Stars” is highly melodic, with vibrant sweeping synths and lush orchestration, set to a strong 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: ” This may be the night that my dreams might let me know / All the stars are closer.”
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 just personally 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,.” Well I say screw him! He’s entitled to his opinion and I’m entitled to mine, and I love it!
The dramatic and richly colorful video, directed by Dave Meyers and the little homies, is visually stunning, and one of the best of the year.
Since the release of their terrific debut single “Hooks” in the spring of 2018, British alternative garage-rock band Black Bear Kiss have consistently put out a series of stellar singles – all of which I’ve written about on this blog. (You can read some of those reviews by clicking on the links under ‘Related’ at the end of this post.) With their exciting guitar-driven sound, strong charisma and rowdy live performances, the talented five-piece have built a loyal following in their home base of the West Midlands/Shropshire region of England and beyond. Making this great music are Chris Leech on lead vocals, Colin Haden on lead guitar, Rob Jones on rhythm guitar, Rich Sach on bass, and Chris Bagnall on drums.
Following up on their last single “Reach Up Higher”, an excellent song decrying the dominance of mainstream media and its often negative influence on the public, Black Bear Kiss are back with their latest single “When I Break“, which dropped October 30th. The song is a stylistic departure from their usual harder rocking sound, with a mellower, more introspective vibe, though the band once again serve up a memorable melody and the outstanding instrumentation we’ve come to expect from them. Highlights for me are the bluesy guitars and those beautiful keyboards that come in late in the song.
And then there are Chris’s warm, distinctive vocals that are particularly stunning on this track. He told me the lyrics are somewhat reflective, but he seems to question his relationship and his lover’s commitment toward it: “So we get somewhere we wanted / When does this feeling of fulfillment begin? Are we there, you know I’m counting on you, but this funny little feeling goes / So when I break darling, everything you take will wash over me.“
With “When I Break”, Black Bear Kiss keep their perfect score for producing great singles intact.
The song at #52 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Renegades” by Ithaca, New York-based rock band X Ambassadors. The beautiful song of inspiration 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 in March 2015.
The uplifting lyrics speak to courage and perseverance in living one’s life to the fullest, no matter the obstacles placed in our paths. This 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 lovely strummed acoustic guitar riff that slowly builds, then a thumping drumbeat ensues along with a deep bass line and swirling keyboard synths to create a stirring soundscape. Lead vocalist Sam Harris fervently sings “Long live the pioneers, rebels and mutineers, go forth and have no fear, come close and lend an ear. And I say hey, hey hey hey Living like we’re renegades.”
The song was a sizable hit, peaking at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the Rock Airplay, Adult Top 40 and Alternative charts, where it spent many weeks at the top spot.
From the picturesque Isle of Anglesey in northwest Wales hails alt-rock band Dying Habit, who in mid-October released their debut album Until the Air Runs Out. Officially formed in 2016 after a few years of informally playing together, the band now consists of brothers Nathan (vocals & bass) and Mark Jones (drums), and Alan Hart (guitar). Influenced by some of their favorite bands such as Dead Letter Circus, Katatonia, Biffy Clyro, Therapy?, The Wildhearts and Karnivool, they play an intense and grungy style of melodic alternative rock with progressive undertones.
I’ve previously written about Dying Habit a few times on this blog, first in July 2018 when I reviewed their magnificent single “Unrealities”, then again this past May when I reviewed their single “Solutions”, one of the tracks featured on Until the Air Runs Out. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.) About the album, which dropped October 16th, band front man Nathan Jones explains: “Almost a year in the making, this album portrays our passion for music, grunge, and a 90s feel which has been given a contemporary makeover. It also exploresthe difficulties of how our world changed in 2020, as well as mental health, loneliness and how even in the darkest of times there is always hope.”
It’s an ambitious work, featuring 13 tracks and running a total of 46 minutes. There are quite a few gems here, and I’ll touch on the ones that most resonated with me. Kicking things off on an ominous note is “The Prey“, a dark track with heavy stab-like riffs of grungy guitars, spooky synths and a grinding, wobbly bass line, all of which succeed quite nicely in creating a menacing vibe. I really like the instrumentals a lot, and my only criticism is that Nathan’s vocals are sometimes overpowered by the music, making it difficult for me to understand much of what he’s singing.
“Lost On You” is a great example of Dying Habit’s superb songwriting and musicianship. I love the meandering melody that goes from a moody, Nirvana-esque groove to a dramatic crescendo, highlighted by a torrent of fiery buzz-saw riffs. I cannot gush enough over Alan’s phenomenal guitar work, and Nathan does a great job on both bass and vocals here as he sings of his frustration to a partner who doesn’t value or appreciate him: “I will never burn these bridges / What are we hurting for? All my reasons, all my conscience, must be lost on you.” The beautiful track “Solutions” speaks to feelings of regret over past mistakes and hurts inflicted toward others, and yearning to make things right but not fully knowing how: “Whatever my mistakes were / Whichever lies I told / The heat is overwhelming but my skin’s remaining cold / This serenity engulfs me yet the world keeps passing by / I long to find solutions.”
I like when bands leave unintended sounds at the beginning or end of their songs, so the belch heard at the beginning “The World’s Too Big For Us” is perfectly fine by me. That said, it’s a terrific progressive grunge rock song, with a chugging start-stop groove, highlighted by a cacophonous mix of super-gnarly and distorted guitars, heavy throbbing bass and spacey synths. Along that same vein, “Red Lines” delivers a wonderful fantasia of grungy as hell riffs, accompanied by pummeling bass, Mark’s crashing percussion and wild psychedelic synths that make for a dramatic and fascinating track.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Out of My Hands“, an enchanting song where the band shows their softer side. The chiming guitars are simply gorgeous, and accompanied by a subtle bass line and just the right amount of percussion that allow the guitars to shine. Once again, it’s hard to make out many of the lyrics Nathan sings, but the exquisite instrumentals more than make up for it.
The title track “Until the Air Runs Out” is another great track that’s heavy on progressive grunge vibes. The song starts off with dark, ominous sounds that conjure up images of an impending battle in a sci-fi movie, then a driving, bass-heavy rhythm ensues along with wailing buzz-saw riffs as Nathan begins to sing. As the song progresses, Alan introduces an upbeat melodic riff that ends things on slightly more optimistic note. “Scared of the People We Love” is a moody six-minute-long tour de force, with an extended instrumental segment that nicely showcases Dying Habit’s outstanding musicianship and skill at playing as a tight unit. And the mesmerizing melody, stunning guitar work, and hypnotic drum beats on album closer “Nowhere to Run” are fantastic.
I must admit that I’m generally more a fan of melodic and dream rock than heavier grunge or progressive-style rock. Nevertheless, I still have a great deal of respect and appreciation for those genres, and do enjoy a fair amount of it. Dying Habit have packed quite a lot of complexity and nuance into their songs, and it took a couple of listens for me to fully get into Until the Air Runs Out. But once I did, I fell head over heels in love with this excellent album. I’ve been following this band pretty much since their beginning and I’m so proud of them. I know they worked hard on this album, and their skill and dedication for producing quality music really shows.
Nathan is also a talented visual artist, with a number of remarkable paintings to his credit. Inspired by their lyrics, album, lockdowns, and anxiety, he created this wonderful abstract oil painting titled ‘Until The Air Runs Out’:
The song at #53 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Human” by British blues artist Rag’n’Bone Man. An intensely powerful song with a gospel feel, “Human” was a huge breakout hit for the imposing singer/songwriter born Rory Charles Graham. With his soulful and raw bass-baritone voice, he passionately sings of having human frailties, and that he’s neither a saint nor a demon, nor does he have all the answers: “Some people got the real problems / Some people out of luck / Some people think I can solve them / Lord heavens above / ‘Cause I’m no prophet or messiah / You should go looking somewhere higher/ I’m only human after all / Don’t put the blame on me.” I love the deep, booming bass line, thunderous percussion and soaring string synths.
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, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia, as well as the Billboard Alternative and Adult Alternative charts. Shockingly, it peaked at only #74 on the Hot 100, a chart I personally now find largely irrelevant.
The video for the song has been streamed more than 1.175 billion times.
The song at #54 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Highway Tune” by Greta Van Fleet. The young Michigan foursome literally blasted onto the music scene in 2017 like a little bundle of TNT. I’ve possibly ranked this song too high, but ‘wow, just wow!’ was my and nearly everyone else’s reaction upon first hearing this explosive head-banger (though the group’s 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 all skilled musicians, and lead vocalist Josh – a diminutive guy with a gargantuan bluesy voice – sounds disarmingly like a young Robert Plant. The song was featured on their debut EP Black Smoke Rising, and reached #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock and Active Rock charts.
This past summer I had the pleasure of learning about the immensely talented young British singer-songwriter Callum Pitt when he reached out to me about his single “Fault Lines” (you can read my review here). A beautiful song with biting lyrics decrying governmental and media efforts to divide and polarize society, “Fault Lines” has enjoyed a 10-week run on my Weekly Top 30. The prolific artist has been releasing singles every two months in 2020, beginning in May with “Out of the Trees”, followed by “Fault Lines”, “Ghost” and now his latest, “Sea of Noise“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.
Based in Newcastle Upon Tyne in northeast England, Callum writes folk-inspired alternative and dream rock songs influenced by such great acts as The War on Drugs, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. With his soft, pleasing vocals, rich harmonies, captivating melodies and meaningful lyrics, he’s captured industry attention and built a growing fan base since the release in 2017 of his gorgeous first single “You’d Better Sell It While You Can.” His equally beautiful second single “Least He’s Happy” has been streamed nearly two million times on Spotify, an astonishing feat for an indie artist.
About his latest single, released on October 6th by label Humble Angel Records, Callum explains “‘Sea of Noise’ alludes to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness while feeling surrounded by quite a lot of negative things. Despite this, it mainly discusses the importance of having a person (or activity) which takes your mind away from that mindset, keeps it away and gives a feeling of having a form of control in life.”
With “Sea of Noise” Callum delivers yet another outstanding track for our listening enjoyment. The song is beautiful, with a sweeping back and forth melody driven by a powerful stomping percussive beat, and accompanied by a lush mix of shimmery synths and moody strings. But the highlights for me are his gorgeous intricately-strummed chiming and jangly guitars and enchanting falsetto vocals. His voice nicely transitions with ease from a gentle tenderness to soaring passion as he sings of finding solace from the surrounding din through another’s support: “The colours were running from all this distortion in my head / The speakers were humming, circling feedback in our ears / Swept by the currents further until the choruses blurred and your shout was a murmur / Felt your tug away from the crowds ‘cause, everything always seems so loud / While we’re drifting in this sea of noise flooding in our ears and our eyes.”
The song at #55 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Believe” by British folk rock band Mumford & Sons. Formed in 2007, the London-based band has been putting out consistently great music, beginning with their debut album Sigh No More in 2009. I love many of their songs, but my absolute favorite is the magnificent “Believe”, from their third album Wilder Mind. It’s a gorgeous, deeply moving and impactful song.
Released in March 2015, 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 a near-epic crescendo with screaming guitars and galloping drumbeats, leaving me covered with goosebumps and with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I realize that I’ve mentioned how many of the songs on this list give me goosebumps, but isn’t that one of the best signs that a song moves us in powerful ways? And quite frankly, if this song doesn’t move you – as fellow British rock band Muse put it in one of their songs – you’re dead inside.
The lyrics speak to feelings of uncertainty and possible betrayal in a relationship. Mumford passionately cries “I don’t even know if I believe, everything you’re trying to say to me / So open up my eyes / Tell me I’m alive / This is never gonna go our way if I’m gonna have to guess what’s on your mind / Oh say something, say something, something like you love me.”