The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Click here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.
What do you say these days when somebody asks you what kind of music you listen to? Do you have a stock answer ready to go? Do you just try to remember whatever the last thing you heard on Spotify was? Or do you tend to stumble a bit like I do, searching for something accurate while trying to avoid that cursed phrase that signifies absolutely nothing: “I listen to a little bit of everything.”
The truth is, these days most people really do listen to “a little bit of everything.” As I write this, I'm enjoying the folky new Big Thief album, but before that it was Rosalía's experimental flamenco record from last year. Before that, it was an old tape by Memphis rap group Royal Famlee, Steely Dan's misunderstood late-period masterpiece Gaucho, and Britney Spears.
This scattered collection of artists is impossible to group into a category that makes sense, and yet, this is how we consume music now. Even as streaming services like Spotify attempt to predetermine exactly what we'll enjoy, being a Merzbow fan is hardly an indicator anymore of where you stand on the latest Ariana Grande album. But it's not just our listening habits that have changed: Over the past 10 years, music itself has become increasingly genre-agnostic. Whether it’s Lil Nas X’s hotly debated fusion of rap and country, or Billie Eilish’s goth-y mix of alternative pop and trap, some of the most exciting younger artists to emerge have been those who resist fitting into any box at all. It feels as though our collective cultural melting pot has finally boiled over, leaving us all to deal with the unclassifiable spillage.
Musicians have been mixing and matching styles since the dawn of pop, whether it was reggae’s fusion of R&B and calypso, psychedelic rock’s fascination with Indian ragas, British post-punk bands combining dub with disco, or mainstream pop taking influence from classic house music. But until now, audiences still typically fell into more easily categorizable demographics. There’s a longstanding history of rockists refusing to accept rap as legitimate music (or disco for that matter), in the same way that country music has historically existed on its own island that few outsiders would dare touch. While some of these lines have been more tied to race and class than people would like to admit (with labels, magazines, and radio stations targeting specific demographics), these segmented audiences have also been propped up by the simple fact that up until recently, listeners’ access to styles that might fall outside their normal wheelhouse was much more limited.
The internet however, with its unlimited access to the entire sum of recorded history, has changed all that, making it possible for people to form their own unique personal map of musical reference points to draw from. The advent of the internet and filesharing in the 2000s completely rewrote the rulebook for how people listen to music, with sites like Napster, What.CD, and Soulseek spawning a new generation of listeners with libraries that would normally take a lifetime to accumulate, while online communities like Rate Your Music and an ocean of MediaFire-strewn private blogs ushered fans along the way.
The resulting music of the 2000s would already demonstrate some fascinating interplay between genres, both from indie artists like Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective as well as larger acts like Daft Punk (to say nothing of the literal mash-up culture spearheaded by DJs like Girl Talk). Many of these artists, however, grew up as teenagers in the 90s, and as such still carried that era’s band-focused, revivalist ideals. It wasn’t until the 2010s that kids who came of age in the 2000s would finally rise up to take their turn in the spotlight, bringing with them a new attitude towards genre that was both more inclusive of pop music and less concerned with traditional taste.
Towards the beginning of the decade, British indie label heavyweight 4AD welcomed two new acts to their roster, who together represented a massive shift in music that was about to happen: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti and Grimes. Their music may have been different, but both would become emblematic of a new mindset within independent music, one that viewed “high” and “low” art as equal, complementary forces in a vast cultural expanse.
Grimes was a Vancouver-born philosophy student mashing up net culture, fashion, and Madonna-style bangers. Her synth-heavy sound, D.I.Y. background, and arthouse influences helped her to fit in nicely among her more indie-leaning peers. But early on, she openly demonstrated a more pop-friendly mindset. Backup dancers were a key element of her live shows, and in interviews, she would advocate for people to take Justin Bieber more seriously. Within a matter of years she would sign to Jay-Z's Roc Nation management company, pen songs for Rihanna, and date billionaire Elon Musk, essentially becoming a living embodiment of the underground’s gradual assimilation into the mainstream in the 2010s.
Pink, meanwhile, was a Beverly Hills miscreant who had spent much of the 2000s channeling a different attitude towards pop, one that would also prove attractive to a new generation of music listeners. Pink's druggy inversion of AOR, 80s soft pop, and commercial jingles reflected a fondness for the era's schlocky musical artifacts, revealing a peculiar beauty in their synthetic gaudiness. Compared to the indie stars of the 2000s, who were all fighting to keep the rock & roll dream alive, Ariel Pink knew the dream was already dead; his strangely catchy songs sounded like a fading memory of those old hits, and he delivered them with a dejected mumble, as if he were already tired of singing them. Instead, he offered a novel perspective on music from the past, reclaiming all this discarded pop debris as something authentic and weird.
Although he may not have been a direct participant in the scene, it's not hard to draw a line between Ariel Pink's recycling of cheesy older sounds and vaporwave, a new genre based entirely around reinterpreting corporate elevator music and forgotten adult-contemporary tracks. Founded upon the blueprint of Daniel Lopatin's Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1 tape, which consisted of slowed-down pop hits slathered in delay and spun on an endless loop, vaporwave's meme-patterned aesthetic spread across the internet—partially thanks to its timely themes of late-capitalism run amok, and partially because it was easy to make. Vaporwave transformed some of the most uncool music imaginable into something dizzying, hypnotic, and exciting, while simultaneously defying almost all of the previous trappings of the music industry, driven entirely by an online network of artists who remained largely anonymous and often gave their music away for free (in addition to freely sampling others’ work without a second thought to copyright laws). By the end of the decade, the scene would even have its own bona-fide music festival, but not before laying the foundation for various other musical movements that would also draw from overlooked genres to push against the limits of taste.
Over the next 10 years, a number of niche music communities would spring up on the internet, each more resistant to categorization than the last. Whether it was the rise of the atmospheric, emo-worshipping SoundCloud rap movement, the chilled-out YouTube rave music of lo-fi house, or the experimental bubblegum-pop assault of PC Music, each of these scenes initially faced backlash for their willingness to challenge the norms of their respective genres. Sometimes they'd get pegged as just being one big prank. "Everything can get interpreted as satire, in that very cynical way,” A.G. Cook said in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview when asked whether PC Music was conceived as a way of making fun of pop. SOPHIE added: “Why would you bother investing so much of your time and energy in something that's basically laughing at something and not contributing anything? I don't think that's a worthwhile use of your time."
But regardless of whether the old guard wanted to accept them, many of these scenes would eventually become too big to ignore. Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert have topped the charts with their highly melodic, bedroom-confessional style of hip-hop, leading a new generation of Soundcloud rap stars who have found success by filtering the sounds of Atlanta strip clubs through an internet loner’s mindset. The late Lil Peep, one of the leading figures in emo rap, once declared pop-punk idols Good Charlotte to be his “biggest influence”, and part of Playboi Carti’s cult-like success has come from producer Pi'erre Bourne's tendency to channel his love of old video game soundtracks into his colorful, zoned-out beats.
One side effect of this shift in mindset has been a gradual blurring of the relationship between the mainstream and the underground. Major stars like Drake, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West have all worked to stay ahead of the curve by embracing more experimental sounds and working with left-field producers. Thanks to her and her PC Music cohorts' hybrid of pop, rave, and noise music, Charli XCX has succeeded in carving out a lane for herself as an underdog star with all the financial accoutrements of a major label and a crossover fanbase—particularly among the queer community—whose tastes run between left-field electronic music, 5 a.m. warehouse techno, and good old-fashioned dance pop.
This has led to some of the same dissonances one might feel seeing a harsh noise show put on by Red Bull; for XCX, that means hosting late-night warehouse afterparties while simultaneously releasing numerous music videos featuring blatant Beats by Dre product placements. Not unlike Grimes, Charli XCX is characteristic of the ways in which the weirder music trends of the last few years have managed to infiltrate the mainstream—while major labels, in turn, have capitalized on the cred that comes with being underground.
All of this crossfade between disparate scenes, sounds, and influences has created some absolutely baffling music. On 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, Yves Tumor forwent his usual ambient-collage approach for a peculiar hybrid of British big beat, harsh noise, and the sort of indie-rock drums that could've come straight off a Bloc Party album. Fire-Toolz has become one of the most unique artists to emerge out of the vaporwave scene, creating her own distinctive blend of Dream Theater prog, smooth jazz, new age music, and vintage screamo. Amnesia Scanner has historically operated at the edges of Berlin's deconstructed club music scene, but the duo reached new heights last year with an album that sounded more like Skrillex than Stockhausen. And 100 gecs have become one of the most talked-about bands of 2019 with their batshit mash-up of crunkcore, experimental electronics, ska punk, and EDM. Even bigger artists are dissolving the boundaries between genres, like Kacey Musgraves, whose psychedelic, disco-influenced songs have reached listeners who normally wouldn't touch mainstream country with a fifty-foot pole.
As we move into a new decade, it’s safe to say that this bleed between genres will only become more pronounced. The rise of streaming services has made it easier than ever to seek out whatever music your heart desires, opening up infinite possibilities for artists to build their own eclectic musical histories to draw from. The old canon of white, male rock music is continuing to slowly die off, taking the very concept of the album with it and clearing the way for new voices that are unencumbered by the tastes and prejudices of previous generations. The slate has been wiped clean, and what comes next has never been more unknowable; that’s exactly what makes it so exciting.
Sam Goldner is a writer based in Los Angeles covering music and video games. You can find him on Twitter.