These Musicians Defined the Sounds of the 2010s

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The 2010s were the decade when streaming let us explore music from around the world like never before. Musical genres no longer dictated what we listened to, and as a result, the biggest tastemakers made music that combined influences from all over the musical spectrum.

At the same time, we craved something real. Fantastical displays of reinvention from icons like David Bowie, Prince and Madonna were once celebrated, but as we became infected with Facetune, reality TV and fake news, people craved authenticity. More musicians opened up and revealed themselves than ever before, canceling the “pop deity” routine in favor of relatability. These artists gave us hope, made us dance and showed us how to resist fitting into just one box.

Kendrick Lamar

No musician had a finger on the trembling pulse of the nation like Lamar in the 2010s. Simply put — Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of all time. Four albums and 13 Grammys later, Lamar has cemented himself as a voice for the culture.

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He wasn’t promising that all would get better, but proclaiming that “We gon’ be alright!” is an example of the kind of reassurance a generation of fearful young men and women needed. Named one of Time’s most influential people in the world in 2016, Lamar’s 2017 album Damn became the first non-classical and non-jazz album to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The album’s lead single Humble hit the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

In 2018 Lamar produced the soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther. A single from the album “All The Stars” earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. That year he also found himself opening the Grammy Awards, where he was nominated for seven different awards, and finished the evening having won five of those seven. Lamar would take a bit of a break from producing his own music, only to re-emerge four years later with a new album called “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” set to be released on May 13th, 2022 on his new website.

iamamiwhoami

Swedish singer-songwriter Jonna Lee’s audiovisual project was the decade’s first taste of a viral video campaign on YouTube. Each week, the YouTube channel iamamiwhoami would upload haunting, distorted video clips of a blonde woman in the woods with hidden messages and codes for viewers to decipher.

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Music critics and viewers alike took the bait, debating endlessly online on whether the mysterious messages were coming from Björk, Goldfrapp or even Christina Aguilera. It was the first (and most unique to date) taste of artists using YouTube to create mystery and intrigue for an upcoming music project. After releasing an audiovisual album and putting on a so-called performance art “concert” as iamamiwhoami, Lee launched a solo career as ionnalee, calling it a continuation of her YouTube channel persona.

Several tours were planned after this rebrand, the last of which was announced in February of 2020 and was intended to be a celebration of her project that began 10 years prior. This tour was canceled in light of the pandemic, but in September of that year the artist performed a live-streamed concert that you can still watch on YouTube.

M.I.A.

M.I.A. expertly blended hip-hop with seldom-heard rhythms from countries and genres across the world in the 2000s, with her breakout song “Paper Planes” kickstarting her mainstream popularity and success. In the 2010s, she kept her global sound but focused her message on even more politically charged themes, leading the decade in protest music.

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She warned us that our digital data was being collected by the government. She told us that the border crisis would threaten the lives of immigrant refugees. She even co-wrote a song about paying better attention to facts with WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange. She brought the noize and rallied her fans to take action, all while giving us memorable collaborations with mega-stars like Madonna and Nicki Minaj. 

But the daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil parents, who was displaced by war at a young age, expressed repeated frustration with an industry that stifled her activism. In an interview with another Tamil journalist, she says, “They put you on television, and I’m a pop star. But we can’t be specific with our problems.” In 2020, she launched a Patreon to fund a new album, and fans are hopeful that her new, self-funded work will be less constrained.

Salem

The emo mallrats who bought their favorite pop-punk bands’ merch at Hot Topic largely dominated the goth aesthetic in the early 2000s. In 2010, the trio out of Traverse City made up of Jack Donoghue, John Holland, and Heather Marlatt released King Night, an album that kidnapped the goth vibe along with music critics’ attention with their scuzzy, bass-blasting house and hip-hop spell.

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Salem were intentionally provocative, suspiciously demonic and proudly subversive towards the traditional music industry guidelines. They laid the groundwork for other jaded young musicians with little musical training to embrace music production, gothic tropes and a disregard for the rules. Not only was Salem decade-defining, but we can’t help but feel that the trio paved the way for artists dominating the airwaves today — namely five-time Grammy-winner Billie Eilish.

In 2020, after 8 years of inactivity, the group released a second album, but this time as a duo without Marlatt, who has taken to Instagram to protest the move.

Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey was Elizabeth Grant’s soft-spoken muse inspired by American nostalgia, tragic romance and trip-hop who sang torch songs about video games and blue jeans. When critics initially sparked internet debates over her authenticity and credibility, they overlooked her expert songwriting.

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From 2012’s Born to Die to 2019’s Norman F****** Rockwell!, Del Rey’s signature melancholia inspired countless pop singers to embrace the beauty inside pain. Her consistent lyrical prowess and spot-on cultural critiques have made her one of the decade’s great American songwriters. “A lot of my songs are not just simple verse-chorus pop songs,” she told The Guardian. “They’re more psychological.” Early on in her career, Del Rey was told this melancholy, Lynchian vibe wouldn’t work on the radio, but, in the end, she tapped into something we were all feeling. 

Frank Ocean

In July 2012, Ocean released his debut, the critically acclaimed Channel Orange. It wasn’t just a fantastic, cohesive R&B album, but it also changed the conversation around an artist’s personal life and sexuality.

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Right before the album’s release, Ocean confessed that his first love was for a man. Suddenly, rumors and conjecture fell to the wayside, and Ocean showed queer artists to follow how to take control of their own narratives. Later, Ocean chose not to submit Blonde for Grammys consideration, stating that the institution “just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.”

Frank Ocean has no doubt paved the way for other queer artists, among them Lil Nas X, who has named Ocean as one of his biggest idols and recently told Ocean that he’d love to collaborate.

Robyn

It was only 2010, but Robyn released the best pop song of the decade. With “Dancing On My Own,” Robyn created the formula for every successful pop song for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to follow: touches of disco and house music, emotional vulnerability and a message for the underdog.

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Her Body Talk project was released in three glorious installments in 2010, and frankly, she didn’t have to release anything else. Then came Honey in 2018 with even more incredible heartfelt songs for the dance floor. “[Honey is about] this sweet place, like a very soft ecstasy,” she told Pitchfork. “I danced a lot when I was making it.” 

Robyn has been quiet since Honey came out. We don’t know what, if anything is next for the artist, but we’ll be ready to welcome her with open arms and ears if the time comes for a victory lap.

Future

Future was on a roll in the 2010s in every sense of the word. He released 12 albums and mixtapes in a decade, with a catalog centered around drugs, drinking and debauchery. Rapped through his signature relaxed, Auto-Tuned croon, Future was the poster boy of trap and mumble rap.

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The rapper made Billboard 200 history when his 2017 albums Future and Hndrxx made him the first artist since 2014 to debut two No. 1 albums in consecutive weeks. For other artists, having Future on one of your songs elevated the atmosphere to an ambient, Atlanta-cool. Try and find a smoother rap song that doesn’t feature Future. You simply can’t. And to back us up is GQ, who named Future the Best Rapper Alive in early 2022.

Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj was everywhere in the 2010s. Seriously, it was hard to find a radio station or Billboard chart that Minaj wasn’t on from week to week. It’s because she possesses a unique versatility to appeal to serious hip-hop diehards and 8-year-old girls on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

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The rapper’s first studio album, Pink Friday, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went certified triple platinum. Known for her use of alter egos and accents, Minaj has sold an impressive 30 million singles as a lead artist and a jaw-dropping 60 million singles as a featured artist. Needless to say, her albums, singles and guest features on rap, R&B and pop songs dominated the music world, making Minaj the undisputed queen of hip-hop in the 2010s.

Big Freedia

Bounce music is an energetic style of New Orleans hip-hop music that pairs well with a skilled twerker on the dance floor. No one could lead bounce music’s parade into the global consciousness better than New Orleans-native Big Freedia. Big Freedia identifies as a gay Black man with a feminine stage persona who is fine with any pronoun.

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You can hear his infectious voice in chart-topping songs from Beyoncé and Drake to Sia and Diplo. Everyone wanted to get Freedia’s lust for life captured in their music, lifting bounce’s popularity in the process. Of Bounce, Freedia wrote that for her and other folks “who lived under such constant oppression — the violence, poverty, and homophobia — Bounce is our way to transmute that pain into joy.”

In 2020 Big Freedia released a documentary about growing up in New Orleans and gun violence, which was the cause of her brother’s death.

J Balvin

José Álvaro Osorio Balvín, better known as J Balvin, is the Colombian singer responsible for bringing Reggaeton back from the early 2000s. But unlike the music from years ago, J Balvin sings almost exclusively in Spanish, with hits like “Ginza” and “6AM“.

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Ever the trendsetter and boundary pusher, J Balvin was the first Latino artist to be a Lollapalooza headliner. As of 2019, J Balvin has sold over 35 million singles and over 4 million albums worldwide, certainly proving that Spanish-language music has a global audience. In 2020 he was included on Time‘s list of the most influential people in the world, and named one of the Greatest Latin Artists of All Time by Billboard.

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