The 2010s: The Decade In Pop Music + The Ultimate Playlist
250 songs that shaped the pop music landscape and made up the soundtrack to the decade
The past decade saw a major step towards the democratization of the music industry. Sites like YouTube and Soundcloud provided aspiring artists a space to share their music; and if they’re lucky, be virally discovered and go on to launch successful music careers (see: Justin Bieber, Lana del Rey, The Weeknd, Halsey, Shawn Mendes). But the biggest game-changer came in the form of a little Stockholm-based service, which gave people on-demand access to HQ versions of almost every song ever distributed for a modest monthly fee. Spotify topped pay-per-song iTunes, who previously dominated in legal mp3 distribution, leading the rebrand to Apple Music, and the birth of TIDAL, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music. Then on top of all of that, you can find out whatever song it is you’re hearing with the (still truly astonishing) magic of Shazam.
Music is the most accessible it is now than ever before, with a constant influx of new releases catering to individual taste. People are no longer subject to the radio, opting for AirPods and Bluetooth to listen to their own curated playlists—but this nevertheless didn’t come at the cost of pop music. The number of hits—future “claaassics”—to come out of the past ten years easily amounts to many more than those of past decades, because so much music is just so available. As access to the industry became more universal, popular music did too.
Every era has its distinctive sounds—’40s jazz, ’50s rock & roll, ’60s folk, ’70s disco, ’80s new wave, ’90s alt-rock, and so on—but the popular music of the 2010s is a little bit more difficult to pin down to a few set genres. Sure, there was an undeniable boom in EDM and hip-hop (which together also gave rise to trap), but the walls between different music genres have been increasingly challenged in recent years. Nowadays, when you ask someone what kind of music they listen to, “a little bit of everything” is a prevalent answer.
Country singers (Taylor Swift), hip-hop rappers (Drake), and electronic DJs (The Chainsmokers) eventually all became pop artists; and pop artists shifted away from the bubblegum in favor of more indie-electro sounds (compare Justin Bieber’s 2011 and 2015 albums, My World 2.0 and Purpose). The top charts were no longer composed almost exclusively of US and UK-based artists, seeing the meteoric rise of K-pop (BTS) and latino pop (“Despacito,” which currently reigns as the most-watched video on YouTube with 3 billion views) into the mainstream. Frequent collaborations between artists designated to different genres made for chart-topping singles that boasted a variety of musical styles.
Pop music became exactly what it is: popular. And the music industry made it clear that pop music knows no bounds. To be recognized and stand out in the 2010s, you had to go viral. Artists had to get creative; go big, or go home. Music was no longer just released, but dropped with full-on spectacles. Whether it be a Netflix documentary, viral internet challenge, star-studded music video, spiritual service, music festival, shady or diss track, or a complete rebrand—whatever got people talking got the streaming numbers going.
Now without further ado, here’s a playlist of 250 songs that helped shape this era’s music landscape: tracks released between 2010 and 2019 (hence the exclusion of hits like “Tik Tok,” “Empire State of Mind,” early Gaga, and others that were popular at the beginning of the decade, but were nevertheless released in 2009); chart-toppers, Grammy winners, one-hit wonders, and everything in between worth the mention. Yes, several of the decade’s biggest hits are missing, but in order to keep the playlist to a reasonable size, I limited it to one single per album. You can stream in full My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Blonde, 1989, Lemonade, 21, or what have you on Spotify anyways.