Hello, and welcome to the Iainsight’s songs of the decade, in which I will reveal to you the 101 best songs from the past ten years. Yes, I am going to do this in four parts, just to build the suspense and also because I don’t think anyone is going to read a 101 song review list all in one go.
In trying to find the songs that defined the decade for me, there was very little rhyme or reason. I love every single one of these tracks with all of my heart, and the only way I could put them in some semblance of order was to put them into four tiers: Bottom: I love this; Lower middle: I love this so much; Upper middle: I cannot express to you how much I love this; and top tier: This Song Changed My Life.
Every December I’d make playlists of my favourite songs from the previous 12 months, either a top 40 it 50 depending on how good the output was from that particular year. You can find them all (not including unreleased songs for obvious reasons) following my personal Spotify account if you’re for whatever reason interested. And so I feel as though I’ve been preparing for this decade ending roundup of the best, read ‘my favourite’, songs that have debuted in the last 10 years.
It was a pretty agonising process, and there were a lot of hard cuts, so I’ve put a playlist of the 50 songs that didn’t quite make it here, in alphabetical order by artist, because I don’t have the time to write about them, but they all definitely contributed to defining my decade in music.
I know a lot of you reading this will have your own decade-defining songs, and they’ll probably be vastly different to mine, but I’m sure you will recognise (to some extent) the majority of these songs and their artists. I like popular music, which either makes me basic or just in tune with most people. I hope you take some time to read my words on all of these songs that I love from the bottom of my heart – maybe you’ll find something you missed.
So here they are, the first chunk of my ‘songs’ of the decade
101. Diana Vickers – Once (2010)
I needed to put this here for historical reasons. Does this song hold up almost ten years on? Probably not. But did 15 year old me listen to this almost 200 times? Yes, yes he did. I was a reality tv singing competition obsessed teen. I lived and breathed whatever X Factors, American Idols, Got Talents and The Voices I could get a hold of. I even went so far as to write a blog about them, and as this list continues there are a few names that cut their teeth coming through these competitions. Vickers wasn’t the one I loved longest, but she was the one I loved hardest. The open sirens to Once were both jarring and exciting and like nothing I had ever really experienced, or at least paid attention to, in music before. The lyrics and the pop-rock sound felt more nuanced than anyone coming out of a reality tv singing show had much right to be, and still feel like a precursor to a lot of modern pop music. Her breathy, squeaky vocal made her a love-her-or-hate-her artist and I was in the former camp. She was my obsession, and Once was where she bloomed.
100. Roo Panes – Indigo Home (2014)
In 2014 I was in the habit of booking random gig tickets for a tenner by singers I knew next to nothing about except the clips on YouTube I skimmed before making the purchase. Panes was one of these, and my memories of the intimate seated gig, particularly when the sound cut out and he and his band performed a couple of acoustic songs, are viewed with a magical tint. I cannot speak to whether or not Indigo Home was one of the acoustically performed tracks, but for whatever reason it became his most defining in my eyes. Panes’ vocal is both gentle and firm, the melody is both calm and rousing, and it’s a very lovely song to sing.
99. Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle et al – Come Alive (2017)
While the plot of The Greatest Showman is glamourising, thin and historically dishonest, the songs from it are undeniable. I’ll never forget the pure electricity that rang through the cinema when the opening stomps of The Greatest Show and how high on life I felt two hours later. Come Alive, for me, was the showstopper. It was the climax of optimism in the film: Jackman energetically rousing his future employees, filling them with self worth, sending them out into the world with an organised dance number, a stunning chorus of vocals, excellent solos from Keala Setts and Zendaya – what’s not to love?
98. Shakira + Freshly Ground – Waka Waka [This Time For Africa] (2010)
Songs penned for football world cups are a strange niche and one that Jason Derulo found difficult to capture in 2018. Waka Waka came about like a fever. You’d hear it one the radio, you’d hear it on promo ads for the world cup. You didn’t expect it to take hold of you like it did, but it was undeniable. The opening shrieks and throat singing were foreign and unsettling and after twenty seconds you’re not sure what exactly you’re being subjected to, and then Shakira shimmies in singing some words you understand and some you don’t over plucky strings, samba drums, and the sound of a football bouncing on the concrete and all at once you feel warm and as if someone just handed you a col beer. Waka Waka is the definitive and unavoidably infectious football song to end all football songs.
97. The Lumineers – Gale Song (2013)
If you know me a little, you’ll probably be aware that my good friend Calum and I covered not one, not two, but three Lumineers songs in our tenure as an acousitc covering duo – and none of them were this. Gale Song was first released as part of the soundtrack to one of the Hunger Games films, whose soundtracks were curated by Lorde and were better than they had a right to be. I was obsessive toward both film franchise and folk band at the time (and having recently rewatched the films I can report that 3/4 of them hold up) and this felt like a gift just for me. Wesley Schultz’ voice evokes both teenage heartache and the sociopolitical anguish at the heart of the story with lyrics that are delivered with such breathtaking sadness. It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s quintessential Lumineers.
96. Aiden Grimshaw – Chokehold (2012)
Another X-Factor alum who struggled to find his way after the show, releasing one poorly perfoming album and a string of random solo efforts on SoundCloud before completely distancing himself from the Syco machine under the new moniker of Butterjack. You could always tell he was a bit too cool and a bit too alternative when he was on the show, and as much as I am happy he is doing his authentic self now, there were some real gifts that came from his album Misty Eye, with Chokehold being the pinnacle. It’s just him and an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, singing a tune about cupid having him in the titular chokehold with his Northern-twang and some distorted background vocals. I fancied him then, and I fancy him now what can I say?
95. Mariah Carey + Miguel – #Beautiful (2013)
The video for #Beautiful consists of Mariah Care and Miguel cruising around on motorbikes and in hatchback cars in the most vividly summery landscape and the song itself is so perfect to that scene. Those opening strums, Miguel’s slightly husky voice, those teases of Mariah Carey giggle-singing in the background are all so smooth and warm, and then when Carey arrives after a stuttered laugh for the second verse it is so well pitched it gets me every single time. #Beautiful is #Beautiful.
94. Zara Larsson – Lush Life (2016)
Larsson came (to the UK at least) out of nowhere with Lush Life. It was a sleeper hit that made a steady chart ascent and stuck in the top ten for an unncaeptable and yet full deserved eternity. It’s went triple platinum in the UK even though it only reached number 3, and racked up a million sales in the US with a heady chart peak of 75. The chorus is irresistible and delivers one of the infectious pop hooks of the decade. Those opening chords still give me chills.
93. fun. – We Are Young (feat. Janelle Monae] (2011)
We have Glee to blame for a lot of things, but few more so than being instrumental in propelling this song to number one around the world. Everything about this is very Glee: from the dramatic angst-driven narrative, to the iconic “toni-i-ight” that defines the chorus, to the anarchic message at its heart, it is almost surprising that this wasn’t written with the Ryan Murphy show in mind. It’s also mind blowing to note that Janelle Monae is doing backing vocals here between serving as the soft sung vocalist for the bridge.
92. ZAYN – PILLOWTALK (2016)
The first time I heard Pillowtalk my reaction was very much ‘what has he done’. It was edgy, R&B driven and very out my comfort zone. But on the promise of Zayn’s smoky vocals, I listened again. And again. And again. The song absorbed me. It was pop and rock and R&B rolled into one messy package with the risqué inclusion of the lyric “In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day/Fucking in and fighting on/It’s our paradise and it’s our war zone” for someone fresh out of the world’s most popular clean-cut boybands. Zayn arrived in a very unexpected way, but he came in swinging.
91. Ellie Goulding – Starry Eyed (2010)
A lot of my friends growing up were predominantly interested in indie bands I gave very few shits about, so it was revelatory to find a song that fell in the middle of our music venn diagrams: Starry Eyed. Goulding was doing that which my then-fav Diana Vickers was trying to do but wasn’t quite able to land consistently: a blonde bombshell with a whispy vocal peddling new-sounding, pacey dance-pop. I listened to Starry Eyed over and over and as much as Goulding’s voice has become a source of aural pain in recent years, this is an undeniable banger.
90. Pitbull, Ne-Yo, Afrojack and Nayer – Give Me Everything (2011)
A song that opens with Pitbull boldly rhyming Kodak with Kodak should be the worst thing you’ve ever heard but that chorus from Ne-Yo and those expertly written lyrics have stood the test of time and memes. Give Me Everything is nothing short of iconic.
89. OneRepublic – Counting Stars (2013)
Ryan Tedder has been behind some of the the biggest songs of the decade, penning songs with Adele, Beyoncé, Maroon V, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, James Bay, Camila Cabello, Jonas Brothers, P!nk, One Direction, Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis, Gavin DeGraw and The Wanted to name a few. As if that wasn’t enough, he fronts one of the biggest alt rock bands on the planet OneRepublic, who in 2013 put out their biggest song to date: Counting Stars. It arrived as the lead for the bands new album Native which became one of my most beloved albums of the following year. As much as I’d like to claim I Lose Myself, Feel Again, I Lived, Burning Bridges or the song that Ben Haenow was given to cover for his winner’s single, Something I Need, were my favourite, Counting Stars is the song that got me there and is one they’ve been struggling to recreate since.
88. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel (2018)
Somehow, through all my organising and ranking, I overlooked Make Me Feel in my 2018 wrap up, which feels like the biggest crime I’ve committed as a music blogger to date. It is a funk driven, Prince-channeling, sexually-charged, groove-inspiring anthem by one of the most undeniably talented women on the planet.
87. Clairy Browne & The Bangin Rackettes – I’ll Be Fine (2011)
It’s no small feat for a song which gained fame as the opening credits song for a TV show to remain so listenable after it assaults you every time you watch the show, but I’ll Be Fine is no simple song. If you haven’t seen it already, I cannot urge you enough to get on Amazon Prime Video and watch Please Like Me. It it far and a way the best show of the decade, and indeed my favourite TV show of all time: it is a show full of poignancy, honesty, self awarness and completely unashamed of what it is, and I‘ll Be Fine does more than just fill that theme song slot – it it so integral to the tone and the story of the show. Its campness cuts tension built in the preceding scene, it creates bittersweet moments, and it never fails to lift you up.
86. Foxes – Better Love (2015)
It has been six years since Louise Rose Allen, AKA Foxes, stole my heart. I’ve seen her four times and counting and I cannot wait for whatever she does next – it’s been four years now Louisa! I could have put one of ten of her songs on this decade defining list – and spoilers: she does make another appearance further down – but Better Love is one of her best. The song itself is an energetic rush of piano driven pop, it’s beautifully formulaic, has a massive chorus, an even massiver post-bridge chorus, it has supporting vocals from none other than Dan from Bastille, and it’s the perfect song to run to. Relentlessly good.
85. Rita Ora – Your Song (2017)
It was such a reward after so long to hear Rita Ora moving away from being a pale Rihanna clone stuck in label dramas into becoming a real contender in modern music. Your Song is a perfect piece of pop: those opening pops, Ora’s husky vocal, and incredibly catchy chorus – far and away Ed Sheeran’s greatest contribution to 2017.
84. Harry Styles – Sign of the Times (2017)
Harry Styles’ debut single was a grower. I think most of us were expecting something with energy and bravado and instead we were given this confusing, slow, enormo-ballad that felt like an attempt to be ‘woke’. I remember listening to it and thinking that he had just killed his career. And then I listened to it again, and again, and the crescendo that builds throughout got me a little bit more very time. His falsetto, those Phil Collins-esq drums, and that bridge into the final chorus are as close to exquisite as you can get. Oh, and there’s also an excellent dace-pop cover of it by Post Precious that reveals just how versatile a song it is.
83. Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe (2011)
Jepsen is the second coming for the LGBTQ+, and I really highly rate Emotion as one of the best pop albums of the decade, but without Call Me Maybe where would that all be? It took the world by storm, was the subject of endless memes and overplaying to the point of madness – which is something only the best of the best pop songs can do. A guiltless pleasure that you’ll never, ever forget.
82. Tor Miller – Midnight (2015)
I first and last heard of Tor Miller when he did a set for the BBC Radio 1 Piano Lounge that I stumbled across by accident looking for my pop favs covering my pop enemies in the Live Lounge. Midnight took my breath away. There’s something magical about a man with a piano, and though it’s easy to compare a song like this to the quote unquote greats like Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah I truly in my heart of hearts believe that this deserves to be in that specific hall of fame. It’s a beautifully evocative song that paints the often idealised image of New York dive bars, punctuated with lyrics about angry drunks, catching cabs and the glow of street lights, and Miller performs it as if it was his life’s mission to do so.
81. Nick Jonas – Jealous (2014)
One of the biggest crimes still in motion on Spotify is that the version of Jealous where Nick Jonas sings replaces the word ‘sexy’ in the chorus with ‘fucking’. Back in 2014, the most neurotic member of the Jonas got a buzz cut, got ripped, got laid, and wrote about it. Jealous was the mark of his transition from boyband member to adult popstar. It’s the perfect R&B-pop song: Usher-esque vocals, a bangin chorus, and a range that’s impossible to reach unless someone has a clamp squeezing your testicles. As iconic now as it was 6 years ago.
80. Julia Michaels – Happy (2019)
It took me more than a minute to come around to the Julia Michaels way of thinking. She was lurking behind the scenes for years a song writer, penning songs in the mid 2010’s for Fifth Harmony, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, Rita Ora and long time collaborator Selena Gomez. She really broke out in 2015 when Gomez’s Hands To Myself cracked the billboard hot 100 and then Justin Bieber’s Sorry went in for number one around the world. With the world now familiar with her sound, much of which she touched turned gold and platinum, including Gomez’s Bad Liar, Ed Sheeran’s Dive, and Janelle Monae’s Make Me Feel – her success behind the scenes then feeding into her solo material, with breakout hit Issues becoming a global smash. I felt like so many songs I loved came from her so much so that it was overwhelming to the point I would almost dislike anything she touched due to overexposure. But time and good songs heal, and so came her Inner Monolgue EPs, and on them Happy: an honest, raw song about getting into relationships and self-sabotaging them then watching them fall apart to better her career. Her vocals are pitched perfectly, their affected delivery never more right for one of her songs, and the “I just wanna be happy” fade out is heartbreaking even though you know it’s kind of all her fault.
79. Imagine Dragons – Yesterday (2017)
Imagine Dragons are my favourite band. Sure, I wish their name was a bit less cringeworthy and I think under a different moniker they would be less ridiculed, but I’m happy to forgive that small error for all of their excellent songs. I’m not a purist – I know that when they’re bad they’re awful, but when they’re good: they’re great. Yesterday was only ever an album track, a decision which still baffles me given how career defining it could have been. The bellowing from Dan Reynolds of the jaunty “here’s to my future, here’s to my yesterday” is equally iconic to anything that Freddie Mercury did for Queen. Sure, the lyrics on paper are far from profound, but who says the have to be when the song is anthemic as this?
78. Clean Bandit – Rather Be [feat. Jess Glynne] (2014)
Rather Be arrived at a blissful time before Jess Glynne has unleashed herself with what felt like the same song over and over again. Her voice (now grating) was just another random pop female lending her (then) talents to who could have been just another dance group. Clean Bandit have obviously gone on to do a lot more since Rather Be but nothing, for me, has lived up to the iconic opening strings and the light synth, and that echo of “no no no no”. The real highlight of the song that stands so strong after so much repeat playing is the bassy melody in the second verse – I feel in those few seconds that I’m experiencing synthesia.
77. Sia – Eye of the Needle (2014)
Sia has done so much for music. Her tone and her style is so distinctive and the raw emotion of her vocals are incomparable. You could throw a dart at a her discography and you would find an incredible vocal without trying – but the peak of it for me is this: Eye of the Needle. It succeeded Chandelier and Elastic Heart in scope, in build, and in the sheer emotion of those final choruses. The wavering whoa whoa whoahs still give me chills every single time.
76. One Direction – Wolves (2015)
This is, no question, the best One Direction song. It’s a ~deep cut~ that a fanatic friend put me on to and I genuinely feel like it has changed my life. Having a bad time? Listen to Wolves. Having a good time? Wolves can turn that into the best time. Feeling emotionless? Wolves will bring you back. It’s pure, it’s euphoric, and it will unfailingly make your day 110 per cent better.