10. Jessi J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”
I would call this my “guilty pleasure” selection, but, as Colton and I have repeatedly noted, there should be no guilt in the pleasure of a finely-crafted pop number. The Max Martin-produced “Bang Bang” is probably my favorite pop radio staple this decade, with a sizzling beat, an upbeat chorus, and great vocals from Jessie J and Ariana. But what really elevates it is Nicki’s absolutely killer verse. (And if you think I don’t rap along with her every time I listen to the song, you don’t know much.)
9. Green Day – “X-Kid”
As I spend so much time discussing music with my fellow Earn This writers, their preferences inevitably affect my own taste. This is especially true of Colton and Grant, the latter of whom pulled me back on the Green Day train. The trio (now quartet) has effectively had just one release this decade: their back-to-basics trilogy (now quadrilogy). The set has a bunch of great songs (I can never get “Stray Heart” out of my head). But the absolute peak is “X-Kid,” which mostly slipped under the radar but feels like it should be a generational touchstone for millennials entering adulthood.
8. Haim – “The Wire”
Blending the modern sounds of drum machines and synthy pop with classic Fleetwood Mac songcraft, Haim is the a perfect synthesis of past and present. Their debut album Days Are Gone is one of the my favorite albums of the past few years, and its best track is “The Wire.” Appropriating the opening beat from “Heartache Tonight,” instant classic “The Wire” is a singalong breakup song that’s compulsively danceable.
7. Robyn – “Dancing on My Own”
Speaking of singalong breakup songs that are compulsively danceable…
Mainstream America has more or less ignored Swedish sensation Robyn, which is a damn shame. Her 2010 album Body Talk is a gem, but the singular success of “Dancing on My Own” is what really stands out. Like an electropop cross between “Always Something There to Remind Me” and “I Will Survive,” “Dancing on My Own” is an emotional dancefloor masterpiece.
6. The Wonder Years – “The Devil in My Bloodstream”
If you consider Streetlight Manifesto on indefinite hiatus and Relient K in their hardcore-fans-only twilight years, the current title-holder for My Favorite Active Band in the World is probably The Wonder Years. They pair pop-punk with intensely reflective, earnest lyrics. Like any great band in their peak, each album they release is more interesting and ambitious than the last. My favorite song of theirs to date is “The Devil in My Bloodstream,” the emotional lynchpin to their 2013 The Greatest Generation. The first half of the song is a quiet ballad but… well, I’ll let you hear for yourself the sledgehammer that comes in at 2:00 mark.
5. Hellogoodbye – “When We First Met”
It shouldn’t be that hard to find simple, good-natured, upbeat love songs, the kind that make you smile and want to dance with your wife. But so many love songs come with some sort of caveat or pretension: Whether its the irony of indie pop, or angsty moping, or the overproduction and oversexualization of radio pop, it can be surprisingly difficult to find music that fits the bill. Enter Hellogoodbye. The band’s 2008 debut, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! And More! featured some nice songcraft, but had a twee smirk about it that I just wanted to slap off its face. After some band turmoil, they emerged with Would It Kill You? a truly delightful sophomore effort that sounds like nothing less than an heir to The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, one of the greatest and most pleasant albums of all time. The best track on the album is “When We First Met,” a charming song that chronicles a romance through its lovers’ haircuts: “Our love goes on as our hair grows long.”
4. Relient K – “Collapsible Lung”
Supposedly when Matt Thiessen decided to start writing for Relient K’s seventh album, this song came pouring out of him, then he hit a bout of writers’ block that he overcame by hiring a bunch of co-writers. Most of the album came out uneven and a bit emotionally empty, but this song — the album’s title track and its closer — remains a stunningly perfect track, beautifully composed and performed. Like “The Promise” was to “Thunder Road,” “Collapsible Lung” is the downbeat coda to “Forget and Not Slow Down,” as Thiessen struggles to find emotional redemption.
3. Streetlight Manifesto – “The Hands That Thieve”
It was an excruciating six year wait, but oh so worth it: Streetlight Manifesto‘s third album is, in my esteem, its best, a resounding five-star effort that should be on Best of the Decade lists come 2019 but probably won’t be (the mainstream gave up on ska about twenty years ago). While there are many great entries on the album that received consideration for this list — “The Three of Us,” “The Littlest Things,” “If Only for Memories,” “Toe to Toe” — the album’s most potent moment is its title track. The song has two distinct sections: The first half of the song is a march-style barnstormer with one of Tomas Kalnoky’s best choruses. The second half slows down, then gradually builds to a searing climax: “You said don’t look back!” Sorry, Tomas, but I’ll be looking back to this album as one of my favorites for years to come.
2. Taylor Swift – “All Too Well”
So much has been made about Taylor Swift’s “switch” to pop (fun fact: her music has always been pop), that the much more noteworthy development in her songwriting the past few years has been overshadowed: Her ballads have gone from barely above average to some of the best music around. That’s part of what makes 1989 so frustrating to me: beyond the over-reliance on collaboration, every song is produced and polished to the point that the ostensible “ballads” sound like mush. Does anyone legitimately think the heavy-handed production of “All You Had to Do Was Stay” resulted in a better song than if it had been left as a gentle “I Almost Do”-style tune?
While many of her slower, more emotive tracks have been great — “Treacherous” and “Everything Has Changed” have been in solid rotation on my car stereo for the past three years — her absolute peak as a songwriter came in a co-write with her old pal Liz Rose: “All Too Well” on Red. Taylor’s favorite trick — using little images to capture the emotion of moment — has never been better used. The gently crescendoing production amplifies Taylor’s emotional turmoil. But the biggest victory here is Taylor’s ability to turn a phrase that punches you in the gut: “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest” — “You tell me ’bout your past thinking your future was me” — “I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to.”
It’s easy to be skeptical with all the music videos and award shows and mediocre top-ten singles (“Bad Blood?” Seriously, guys?), but “All Too Well” shows that at her best — when her songwriting and expressive vocals are put front and center — Taylor Swift is worth the hype.
1. Kanye West – “Runaway”
Is there any chance that a greater album is released this decade than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? It’s gotta be the Vegas favorite to top every countdown list in December 2019, right?
The album is so dense with great tracks covering the whole spectrum of Kanye contradictions, by turns boastful and self-deprecating, extravagant and critical of over-indulgence, earnest and crass, political and sexual. It’s given me so much to think about and admire, on an artistic level if not always a character level.
As great as the album is cover-to-cover, the undeniable centerpiece is “Runaway,” which is simultaneously a breakup song, a manifesto, and an apology for “imma let you finish.” The production is brilliant and instantly iconic, opening with an isolated piano keystrike and ending with a four-minute wordless coda that’s so expressive and heart-tugging you might even conclude it improves upon the Eric Clapton template it’s based on.
In between, Kanye and Pusha T pay tribute to the liars and lechers of the world. But it’s really an apology to the people they’ve hurt through the years, and to themselves: “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most, so I think it’s time for us to have a toast” — to the “douchebags… assholes… scumbags… jerkoffs” that they’ve become.