“Radio Say Speed It Up”: Top 25 Songs of the Teens (2010-2019)

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It is never easy to define a decade. Our personal experiences and individual perspectives shape which events matter, which stories deserve to be told, which memories deserve to be preserved. They shape our faith in society and culture, in the people we know and encounter. They shape our trust in beauty, they shape our belief in art. Yet perhaps, in truth, art is and will always be the most polarizing of subjects when recalling the last 10 years, as we all have our own beliefs of what truly revealed a particular, spectacular importance.

The songs we heard at parties, in the car. The songs we heard on dates, or during breakups. The songs we heard during the harsh winter or the blazing summer. The songs we heard in the privacy of our bedroom or walking down crowded streets. They are all personal, they are all individual, they are all our own.

So, as this most mesmerizing and terrifying decade draws to its inevitable close, I would like to look back, in no particular order, at the 25 songs that changed my life. Some may be popular, some may be obscure, and some may even be missing.  But each of these encapsulate what it felt like from 2010-2019, what it felt like to live within a time when everything changed and nothing was the same.

  1. Government Hooker by Lady Gaga (2011)

Erstwhile the club-kid darling brandishing disco sticks and brooding in bubbles, Lady Gaga dove headfirst into the steel-plated political sphere with this cold, nightmarish vision of late-capitalist ideals. Amidst an assembly of operatic trills and mechanized grunts, our ambitious Dada-flavored narrator carefully announces their ability to be whatever one desires “as long as you pay me,” a sentiment that appeared playfully provocative and incredibly audacious during the cheery, go-go optimism of the Obama Age yet now epitomizes the lush vulgarities of decade’s end with unyielding potency.

2. The Less I Know the Better (2015)

Shimmying somberly under a cracked glittered ball, Tame Impala drag us into their intricate web of surprise and self-delusion eternally vulnerable and anchorless. As the peyote-laden groove sweetly clouds any remaining senses, we fall prey to the troubadours’ freakishly accurate recall of that startling moment of witnessing a former lover with another and realizing all past memories and emotions are not as dead as once imagined. “I was doing fine without you,” that every-voice drawls with the pain of a thousand thorns, and we wince. “Is this what you want? Is this who you are?” that every-voice snaps with the chill of a thousand winters, and we cry.

3. Diet Coke Head (2018)

Cloaked in radiance, bombast, and a coolness entirely free of effort, Miss World’s rollicking sonic mixture of Phil Spector’s malt-shop blues and the vampish ferocity of post-riot grrl is both delightfully familiar and astonishingly refreshing, concocting an ode to indecision and uncertainty that perfectly encapsulates the brazenly superficial woes of a generation raised by popular culture and chronically stuck within adolescence and adulthood.

4. Video Games (2011)

Although Lana Del Rey has undoubtedly made more fascinating and enrapturing puzzles for us to solve, this glittering, siren-soaked slice of millennial melancholy undoubtedly remains one of the foremost Classical texts of our young century. So delicate it feels it may break upon your ears and so romantic it feels it may break your heart, there is an Olympian otherworldliness about this rhapsody on tech-hungry boytoys, mourning our mundane modern existence as if already covered in dust and gauze.

5. Pyramids (2012)

Frank Ocean’s wondrously sensuous sense of storytelling reaches epic heights amidst this spellbinding two-part suite of radical experimentation. As he takes the perspective of a motel-boarding pimp with Dickensian wit, we cruise on a manic magic carpet ride from the miraculous, sumptuous life of Queen Cleopatra to the outrageous deglamorization of strip club culture, the former exemplified by frightening futurism whilst the latter barrels through a sizzling haze of downbeat, hangover-induced rhythm & blues. Wait for that shocking second when both bleed into each other; see if you don’t melt.

6. Same Ol Mistakes (2016)

Rihanna may not have written or even originally recorded this mesmeric dewdrop of psychedelia, yet within her signature drawl, it carefully morphs into a bone-chilling, blood-curdling explosion of intoxicating love. Surpassing its predecessor with bittersweet diva opulence, it reimagines one of the most powerful and independent pop stars of our time as a colossally doe-eyed romantic, foolishly crafting a cozy nest for her new partner even if disaster and danger may be lurking right around the corner – a concept so absurd it feels intensely alive.

7. Space Bootz (2015)

Perhaps one of the greatest and most disturbing ruminations on lost love, this stream-of-conscious intergalactic hymn spirals through one’s freshly bruised and broken-up psyche with groundbreaking, earth-shattering accuracy. Startling and miserable in its candor (“I get so high because you’re not here smoking my weed/and I get so bored”), poignant and glorious in its faith (“We’re both vegan/It makes it easy to think you’d never hurt anything/Living intentionally”), there is no room to catch one’s breath within this beautiful maze of hurt and distress; it is the sonic embodiment of balling one’s eyes out in the fetal position and we are so much better for it.

8. The Light is Coming (2018)

The aberrant screams of a political official. Nicki Minaj rapping in zero-gravity excess. Ariana Grande crooning like a mutated cartoon. This is what happens when one of the most contemporary creators of music drifts down a rabbit hole of Surrealist fantasies sans parachute: amidst a bevy of bounces and bleeps and fragments of Frankensteinian glam, a luxurious, shapeshifting netherworld emerges, looking toward a perplexing future in which nothing makes sense and everything is permissible.

9. Ima Read (2012)

As if created for the mere, extraordinary purpose of voguing behind the gates of Hell, Zebra Katz lords imperious over thudding, thumping drones of thunderous bass, casting incantations of vengeance and disgust with satanic glee. Joined by the equally vicious and delicious Njena Reddd Foxxx, there is a demonic convergence of malice, venom, and evil as the two conspire to expire yet it is so serenely drenched in humor and intellect one welcomes their encroaching, unflinching madness with open arms and legs.

10. Truth (2016)

A masterful display of metamorphosis, this sun-drenched, spot-lit summertime tone poem reincarnates teenybopper extraordinaire Zayn Malik into a seasoned crooner, allowing him to lusciously pout, sneer, and throw shade with a dosage of sensuality and soul not too dissimilar to what one may find within a relative’s yellowed vinyl collection.

11. Backseat Freestyle (2012)

Never has the sound of youth been so massive. Never has the sound of arrogance been so intoxicating. But, more than anything, never has the sound of the black male teenager been so urgent and so evocative, so free and so detached, igniting that breezy, single-minded aimlessness of adolescence amidst bass so heavy and colossal it sounds as if it will collapse at your feet.

12. Take Care (2011)

Between the many, multiple musical duets of Rihanna and Drake, none have been as majestic, sophisticated, and downright tragic as this slow-burning slice of harrowing house. Though entranced by its own dancefloor modernity, it has the calming, meditative atmosphere of a noirish, smoke-filled café, exacting the wounded, gauzelike fears and torments of 21st century dating culture (“I’ve loved and I’ve lost”!!!) with a sharpness and severity that cuts straight to the bone, and then some.

13. Warm Blood (2015)

Awash in aquatic, ethereal vocals suggesting a curfew-skipping Disney princess and a pummeling, barreling production reminiscent to a discordant heartbeat, Carly Rae Jepsen’s tantalizing ode to the swollen raptures of new romance delights in its cat-eyed claustrophobia, building a thick, echoing wall of sound that envelopes every fiber of our being in comfort and care beyond recognition.

14. Kerosene (2012)

Forget that you can’t understand a word Alice Glass is saying. Forget that the production sounds as if it’s being played in reverse. Instead, bask in the madness. Instead, bathe in the oddity. Instead, marinate in the machines. This is what would happen if Luigi Russolo grew up with a computer and a hip-hop compilation: a glittering, glossy, yet ultimately anarchic mess, a clue of what will be when humans are no longer making music.

15. Freak Hoe (2014)

Though easily read as an abhorring celebration of the ill-gotten riches and rule-makings of pimp culture, there lies within this rapid ricochet something of greater depth and quality, analyzing and dissecting the primordial necessity of control and shame with rewarding illustration (“My Cuban link bigger than a Wu-Tang’s/Lil nigga take your head off for a new chain”) that seamlessly veers from pure popcorn into pure poetry.

16. Venus Fly (2015)

Rambunctious in nature and epic in scale, Grimes and Janelle Monae’s outrageous 31st century fever dream transports us in the midst of an intergalactic space battle, backed with bass too divine for its own good and vocals too supreme for their own mania. A crystalline vision of matriarchal domination and postmodern pop, it is the finest, most complete synthesis of the heady years of now and those of latteryear, as if one is twerking on Neptune, popping on Pluto, dipping it low on Saturn’s rings.

17. Nada (2018)

This is where hip-hop culture has led. This is the natural extension of forty years of crossing the vast globe, latching onto unsuspecting eardrums, and engulfing eager brains. This: a succulent and breathtaking wonder fueled by Lexie Liu’s prodigious pendulum-rapping from English to Mandarin, taking the typical trope of flexing and flaunting one’s wealth and turning it upon its head, bridging countries and coastlines, ideals and ideologies, culture and conflict without once even trying.

18. Everything Is Embarrassing (2012)

There was perhaps no producer more prolific and diverse in the Teens than Dev Hynes and it was his brief, endearing encounter with dream-punk priestess Sky Ferreira which birthed one of his most dazzling, mind-altering works. “I believe in everything, everything that could’ve been,” Sky coldly recalls a failed relationship with bubblegum remorse, the tinkering, foreboding echoes of the production somewhere between Debbie Gibson and The Cure. There is an innate sweetness within this dignified sorrow, and the deeper we fall for its emptied, music-box serenity, the harsher and darker it feels.

19. Heaven Or Las Vegas (2011)

Sounding as if a codeine-fueled Frank Sinatra crooning atop a supersonic train, this remains the consummate exhibit of the Weeknd’s alluring, impossible mixture of beauty and damnation. He is never quiet and calm within this hurried, pressured milieu – only in mystical shouts, cries, and howls does he communicate, coming off like a saint seeking redemption or a sinner seeking validation, he appears to reach neither, forever stuck in a purgatorial nightmare.

20. Truffle Butter (2015)

The appeal was irresistible: over a narcotic, neck-breaking house sample, three of hip-hop’s most creative, colorful, and charismatic artists wax poetic about their undeniable power, lavish sensibilities, and carnal perversions without a moment to breathe or reflect. Yet, what truly elevates this marvelous monster to unmatchable heights is the sheer excess and luxury dripping from every single crevice, effortlessly emitting an aura of gild and glamour that feels our own.

21. 212 (2011)

What remains so incredibly stunning is the simplicity: the tinny Belgian backbeat; Azealia’s ruthless, relentless schoolyard chants and come-ons (“I’ma ruin you cunt”); the vague yet careful recalls of Caribbean Patois; the playful vulgarity coddled by attitude and confidence. Though it remains decidedly prophetic in its doom-laden lyricism, one is pressed to imagine a more vital, charming, and immediate representation of the halcyon, genre-busting days of the early 2010s.

22. Betty Rubble (2012)

“I wouldn’t try to do the things that I do,” the incomparable Mykki Blanco snarls through a ten-foot bullhorn against macabre Hitchcockian swirls and whirls, happily holding court with a dangerous, exhilarating mixture of bile and sincerity, “You should pray to God and not play with false idols.” This is a raw, rugged entity emerging fully-realized, enlarged and amplified before our very eyes, unleashed without restriction, unbothered with convention, unfazed by order, and unchallenged by time.

23. 10-20-40 (2017)

Has depression ever sounded so euphoric? Has loneliness ever seemed so intoxicating? Has ennui ever seemed so inviting? As Rina Sawayama scales through her tormented, damaged psyche in the way a climber scales vast mountainous peaks, comparing her own degree of madness to the speed of a car, she reveals a cold-hearted, synthesized world of strange hyperrealism, a world where it is much easier to numb one’s suffering in silence than it is to reveal one’s truth.

24. Who Will Survive in America? (2010)

As the finale on Kanye West’s immaculate paean to the cult of celebrity, there exists within these unstoppable barriers a radical, apocalyptic flair, transforming Gil Scott-Heron’s Black Power bars on the injustices of a nation drunk on its own glory into the stuff of total fact and foundation. Have things really changed in 40 years? In 10? Will we still be asking “Who will survive in America?” come 2030? Will we already know the answer? That is the magnificence here, that is the power.

25. Partition (2013)

Nothing is more compelling than a superstar letting themselves loose and upon this bewitching two-part masterpiece, one could not imagine witnessing a more ecstatic liberation. First, against a minimalist bounce with more elasticity than a pack of rubber bands, the once-perfect Beyoncé extols her artistic and financial might through a ravenous hip-hop growl only to rapidly switch gears over a pulsating, heart-stopping throb as she details demigod decadence in lavish limousines. In anyone else’s hands, this may have turned into a puzzling footnote, yet with Beyoncé, we are treated to a groundbreaking, mystifying mosaic of sonic innovation and classical mythos.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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