It can be difficult to remember because nobody thinks of the switch from 4 to 5 as significant, but the 2010s just wrapped up the first half of the decade. Thus, these past couple weeks have been a pretty good time to reflect on everything that’s happened in the pop culture world during the past five years.
Rather than look at great movies, epochal albums, soul-stirring novels, or one of the more enriching media, I’ve instead spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to analyze and predict what pop singles are going to go down as “iconic.”
If you’ve been following our podcast, you know that this topic has been on my mind. You also know my definition for “iconic” in this context: It’s the definition 2, part B, provided by Merriam Webster’s.
widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence
I think those two components are both crucial and are in the correct order. Part 1: “Widely known and acknowledged.” Part 2: “Especially for distinctive excellence.”
The central trait of iconic songs are that they’re widely recognized and beloved. They’re the type of songs that can incite singalongs with just the first line. They’re huge and last forever, for better and worse. Quite possibly, they’re overplayed and a little bit annoying. But everybody knows them.
But songs that fit the definition in an unironic sense (a distinction you have to make when sites like VH1 list “Baby Got Back” as the #6 Greatest Song of the Nineties) are also well-crafted, enduring, and timeless. They may remind you of a time or represent a focal movement (in fact, they probably should), but they need to stand alone for non-cheese reasons.
One last caveat: For this list (and anything I write that groups music by year), I consider the date of peak relevance, not the release date of the album or the single. This is a very subjective way to group items, I know — and it certainly affected the list, as two selections were released as singles in late 2009 — but I’m standing by it. This list is about cultural consciousness and appreciation of music, so grouping based on that rather than the technical release date simply makes more sense to me.
2010-14 has been a very solid half decade for iconic pop. Not truly indispensible, but definitely not a wasteland like portions of the ’80s. Without further adieu, I present my picks for the top 10 most iconic songs of the past half decade (plus two special cases).
Intentionally Excluded: Shake It Off – Taylor Swift
It’s a massive hit from the biggest pop star on the planet. It’s been played a half billion times, it has a music video that made the entire world buzz, and it’s from the greatest pop producer since Phil Spector.
But I can’t put it on the list. I don’t WANT to put it on the list. While “Shake It Off” is catchy and infectious, and Taylor Swift is more than up to the task of infusing the song with charm, I simply don’t think it’s a good song. It doesn’t stand alone. It’s too much “Look at me, I’m Taylor Swift! Isn’t that neat!?” It’s self-indulgent and -referential. It calls attention to itself in an unappealing way.
All I know is that Taylor trying to be huge and beloved by building her own image is a lot less compelling than when she tries to be great. Listen to the better parts of Red or basically all of Speak Now if you want to remember what that sounds like.
Honorable Mention: Gangnam Style – Psy
It started as a gimmick — a chubby Korean pop star singing a goofy, repetitive song and doing a silly dance. It went viral. And then people determined to make it the most watched YouTube video ever. (It quickly passed a billion views.) By then, we’d all heard and seen it enough that it was in our heads like an earworm. Familiarity is a pop song’s most crucial ingredient to success, so it’s no surprise that it slowly transformed from “viral hit” to “beloved single.”
But when people started calling it one of the best songs of the year at the end of 2012, I’d had about enough. It’s competently crafted, and Psy seems genuinely likable, but can you really call this song GREAT?
“Gangnam Style” is undeniably an important song, representing a shift in the way we discover and consume music. It’s definitely a global song, one of few non-English tracks to scorch Billboard. It’s certainly huge and beloved; the counter of the video (now past 2 billion views) indicates as such.
But it’s not a hallmark of excellence. I say that, in the coming decades, it will go down as a novelty hit that people roll their eyes at, not a piece of “distinctive excellence.”
10. Fuck You – Cee Lo Green
Arguments against the inclusion of Cee Lo Green’s pop masterpiece: Its profanity minimizes how widely it can propagate. The “Forget You” recut neuters not only the dirty words but the song’s gleeful, almost demonic, energy. The song is also almost TOO retro-sounding; the recording definitely emphasizes the juxtaposition between the sweet, ’70s-esque sound with the angry lyrics… almost to the point that it distracts from the actual song.
Arguments for the inclusion of “Fuck You”: No song from the past half decade has more of the “feel good” gene in it. If singing and bobbing along to this track isn’t cathartic and mood-boosting, I’m not sure what will be. You hear this song, you don’t forget it… and chances are that you immediately adore it. Green’s prodigious vocal charm and energy lights up the track, as does the fantastic production.
9. Get Lucky – Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams
I actually think this is a worse song than “Fuck You,” but I seem to be one of the few. “Get Lucky” was the consensus best song of 2013, and it dovetailed nicely with the narrative that 40-year old Pharrell was suddenly the biggest pop star on the planet (hold that thought for a couple paragraphs).
Producer Nile Rodgers deserves more credit than Daft Punk or Pharrell for the song’s charm. It sounds like a legitimate funk/disco/pop track, not a throwback. This is a good, fun groove that will be played at parties for decades to come. Yeah, the chorus falls flat, but it’s a monster hit and sure to be an enduring gem nonetheless.
8. Happy – Pharrell
This is another non-favorite of mine, but one I foresee being played at weddings and on radio stations for the rest of eternity.
Singing about how good life is and how we need to embrace the goodness of life, then pairing it with a catchy tune, is a sure way have people singing along with you for years to come. Americans prefer sentiment to angst.
Kudos to Pharrell for tapping into that in a way that’s inescapable. There have been catchier songs the past five years, but few that have incited more smiles.
7. TiK ToK – Ke$ha
Number 7 seems too low for “TiK ToK,” but I couldn’t talk myself into moving any of the songs above it down, so here we are.
Ke$ha’s first single is one of the best selling tracks of all time, and it was the biggest hit of 2010. It was more or less everywhere this half decade. And — even though it’s basically the same song as some other Dr. Luke tracks — it’s a distinct hallmark of 2010s pop, exemplifying many of this half-decade’s recurring traits: It’s driven by a distinct female vocal part; it has a propulsive, upbeat rhythm; it has fun lyrics about dancing in the club.
It’s not my favorite pop track by her (that’d be “Gold Trans Am”), it’s not the first one I put on playlists (that’d be “Die Young”), and it’s not her greatest recording (that’d be… this). But it’s easily her biggest and most iconic single, and it’s quickly become a pop standard.
6/5. Rolling in the Deep & Someone Like You – Adele
Adele pulled off some rare feats in 2011 and 2012. Her second album, 21 was the bestselling album of the year for two consecutive years. That’s only happened four times ever, and hasn’t happened since Thriller.
She unequivocally won 2011 with two genuine smashes that each independently felt like the best pop song of the year. “Rolling in the Deep” was the bigger song — in fact, the biggest of the year — and “Someone Like You” was nearly as pervasive.
I agree with Chuck Klosterman, though, that “Someone Like You” seems destined to endure. Simple, understated ballads usually play well in the long term much more than heavily produced barnstormers like “Rolling in the Deep,” though that one certainly seemed the bigger, greater song at the time.
Either way — in another parallel to Thriller — Adele gave us perhaps the hugest one-two punch of same-album singles since “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” She took the searing napalm of greatness that was Amy Winehouse diva-soul, transmuted into something more universal and populist, and reminded the world that big-hearted and earnest and soulful never go out of style.
(I do have a slight beef with Adele, though it’s not really her fault. Since she made it huge — and especially in 2014 — the radio has been full of dour, mournful songs that mistake moping for soul, like “Take Me to Church.”)
4. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Again, this ranking feels a little bit too low, but I couldn’t talk myself into moving anything else down.
“Call Me Maybe” is simple and sweet and perfect. It’s ear candy, pop at its most granulated. And I genuinely like it for that: Its wholesome romance reminds me of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (minus that one line about “ripped jeans, skin was showing”). True, the line “before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” doesn’t make any damn sense.
But the syncopated chorus? The way Jepsen’s voice longingly bounces on the word “call”? The fact that it was basically one of every three songs on the radio in 2012 and I didn’t mind at all? All perfect. This is the stuff that summer radio pop dreams are made of.
Tack on the million pop culture parodies, the stark contrast it provided to the downbeat chart-toppers from the first half of 2012, and the fact that it can still light up my afternoon when it comes on the FM station even though I’ve heard it a thousand times… and you have a lock for one of the most iconic pop songs of the decade.
3. Royals – Lorde
As unexpected as it is perfect, “Royals” sounds like a song stuck out of time, yet it always brings me back to driving around the Florida Keys during my vacation in fall of 2013. Timeless, yet undeniably of its time — that’s the paradox of a truly great iconic song.
It’s easy to enumerate the reasons this song is so distinct: The minimalist echoing background, the fact that the crooner is sixteen year old girl from New Zealand, the punk-like dismissal of images of pop superstardom, the appropriation of the “Queen Bee” moniker (sorry, Beyonce), and an unquantifiable strangeness that borders on ethereality.
But you don’t have to list it out. It’s all there in the song. Just hit play, and it washes over you in waves. I knew it the first time I heard it, and I still know it: this is one of the best pop singles of the decade. It was rightfully a smash, and it feels like it hasn’t left public consciousness since.
Much like “Killing Me Softly” and “Toxic” in previous decades (but even better), “Royals” feels like nothing else and captures the zeitgeist of the moment. And, much like those two tracks remain staples, I expect “Royals” to be infinitely listenable and forever adored.
2. Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
It doesn’t feel like this song is that recent doesn’t? (Well, it technically came out in late 2009… but, still.) This song is already a classic, a sort of towering pop powerhouse on the landscape of 2010 when Lady Gaga was basically the only interesting thing in pop music. It already feels like a well-ingrained memory.
But that doesn’t reduce its greatness. In fact, it may even increase it. My only concern about “Bad Romance” enduring is that it’s just a hair too gonzo. Especially the music video. It takes a special kind of strange to remain fresh and interesting decades later. I’m talking David Bowie, Prince, and “96 Tears.” I’m a bit worried that Gaga and “Bad Romance” will be remembered as electric oddities — not titans of appealing musicianship and artistry.
Thankfully, I seem to be wrong. I still hear it once or twice a week on the radio, and it brings me back to my last year of college when it was so far and away the best and most important pop song that it almost defied explanation.
To paraphrase something Colton told me once, it’s almost unfair that a song gets to be both this great AND this popular. But “Bad Romance” — like Lady Gaga herself — is an anomaly, and it’s one I’m hugely thankful for.
1. Let It Go – Idina Menzel
One question I often ask myself when I’m thinking about pop music is: Fifteen years from now, when we look back, what songs will we remember?
Well, I guarantee you this: Anyone currently under the age of twenty will remember Frozen… as will most people over the age of twenty. It’s possible you don’t realize how huge Disney’s latest franchise already is. Here’s a bit of perspective: Before 1989, the Frozen soundtrack had sold about 4x as much as the #2 bestselling album of the year. All of that on top of the $1 billion of box office receipts the movie pulled in and the never-ending Elsa and Anna-themed merchandise. (And after Taylor Swift’s album was supposedly the biggest hit in a decade… it still lagged behind Frozen in sales.)
And yet, movies and soundtracks are a different sphere from pop. It’s like comparing apples to oranges — box office and soundtrack sales are not enough to top this list.
Songs from soundtracks sometimes do well as pop songs. Sometimes, they do more than well (see: “My Heart Will Go On” and “I Will Always Love You”). But those are always pop tracks played in the background of movies or added to soundtracks to sell albums: They’re not true pieces of the score like “Let It Go.”
Disney knows this pattern well: great pop songs from huge movies get played a lot and win awards. They even planned that way, having Demi Lovato record a pop version of the song. That’s why the succes of Menzel’s version was literally unprecedented. “Let It Go,” as sung in-film, is so damn good that it storm-raged up the charts despite not being released as a single for three months.
And it could have been a fluke, but it just… kept… climbing. For awhile it even peaked in the Billboard top five. I really wanted it to hit number one (because it would have been such a weird story for a #1 hit, and because it’s a great Disney song). Alas, it never topped Billboard, but it did end up the #21 biggest hit of 2014.
You know when a song is so famous and pervasive that people are apologizing for it that you have something special and iconic.
So — in summary — “Let It Go” is a one-of-a-kind juggernaut. It’s an unprecedented smash for both movies AND pop, defying formulas and reason to become a beloved radio hit despite not being designed for radio. Fifteen years from now, “Let It Go” will be THE icon for 2010’s entertainment. And that’s why it had to be the unconventional #1 on this list.