Oomori Seiko – “Saishuu Koen”
Narrowing down an entire decade’s worth of music to two or three songs was a tough call, but I can’t think of a more appropriate top pick than this. On the face of it, Saishuu Koen (Last Performance) is a case study of the most beautiful, raw facets of indie folk, spinning a bitter snapshot of dejection into a stunning outpouring of frustration, heartbreak and loneliness. I used to think it would be impossible to recreate this song’s magic beyond the original version, but hearing the almost-as-good rock revamp on Seiko’s Pink Tokarev side project gave me bad ideas and it’s since become the only Japanese song I can cover by heart. Putting aside her incredible songwriting talent, one of the things about Oomori Seiko that has always spoken to me is her knack for turning her distinctly imperfect voice into a dazzling force of personality. Her lyrics and performance are presented in a way that foregrounds her own weaknesses, with a fierceness and boldness that a long way to explaining why her exemplary discography has stolen the show this decade.
The Knife – “Full of Fire”
Finding a worthy runner-up for Saishuu Koen was a tough call. A lot of songs might have held the slot, but I gave myself a load of silly criteria: it shouldn’t be Japanese, it shouldn’t be overrepresented across the rest of the site, and, most importantly, it should be a statement song – something that trumped understated excellence or circumstantial personal resonance and actively asserted itself against the decade. Full of Fire fits the bill perfectly: a warped dance pop banger that grinds out every one of the Knife’s arthouse imperatives over a range of hawkishly focused permuted loops as unsettlingly claustrophobic as they are disarmingly sexy. It plays out like an aggressive fever dream, unravelling and retracting itself with dazzlingly complex dynamic and aesthetic nuance and maintaining such gripping tension that the fact of its nine-minute runtime feels a coincidental afterthought. The suspense here is so thick that you can practically feel the curl of siblings Karin and Olaf Dreijer’s lips over the airwaves as they call out conservative liberals and patriarchal privilege in a slew of characteristically weird vocal inflections and modulations.
Keiichi Okabe – “City Ruins – Rays of Light”
Yoko Taro and the Nier games were one of the more interesting, forward-thinking parts of the 2010s, but that conversation can be saved for later because the partnership between Taro and composer Keiichi Okabe is easily deserving of its own spotlight. The moral complexity and existential dilemma of Niers Gestalt and Automata wouldn’t have been half as compelling if it weren’t for Okabe’s vast talent for epic arrangements, stylistic eclecticism and, above all, stunningly evocative motifs. City Ruins – Rays of Light benefits primarily from the latter, using a straightforward yet saturated arrangement to support a cyclical series of delicate piano arpeggios. The chord progression is simple yet rich in subtle changes of tone, as though the atmosphere of the piece is constantly shifting in a different direction underneath its unwaveringly strong central melody. In this sense, it is entirely appropriate as a theme for a central area that undergoes drastic changes over the course of gameplay, but it’s also a case study in that beautiful sense of mystery that can be held as synonymous with the Nier games. The series is adept at unraveling its many complexities in a way that facilitates maximum personal resonance with the player at every turn, and this piece is a virtual cornerstone of its nuanced focus on all things sentimental and aesthetic as a stepping stone to weirder, wilder territory.
Ben Howard – “End of the Affair”
In 2011, a young singer songwriter from Richmond (England) named Ben Howard crushed the UK charts with a captivating debut album titled “Every Kingdom”. It was an album that granted him a free ride to an impressive amount of festival and venues while blessing him with high praise and fan madness all over the world. A long and sepulchral hiatus followed his first release and it only meant one thing: success was not on his plans. Ben Howard is an artist who has matured and mastered his craft throughout the years with unwavering resolve. It was interesting to see how his early summer scented songs started to veer towards a darker path already on his sophomore album, a sort of reaction to literally thousands of fan made lyric videos with couples walking on the beach. “End of the Affair” bulldozed his catalogue like a bear in a china shop. As his core fans gradually got frustrated with his new direction, the young UK phenomenon entered a state of grace, ditched his old band members and long time friends and surrounded himself with session musicians. Whatever went through his head at the time of writing his second album, “I Forget Where We Were”, is still a mystery but, certainly, touring and sky-rocketing fame didn’t make him a happier man. The cold water surfer probably never felt as alone as in the years that followed “Every Kingdom”, but frustration and grief allowed him to write a song that defied the highly praised works of the very own artists that once inspired him, namely the likes of Nick Drake and John Martyn. This live performance of “End of the Affair” cemented my belief that Howard is just one of a kind. Not many singer songwriters can say they have cursed a lost love screaming through the guitar pick-up. See for yourself.
Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – “Cygnus”
I remember it like was yesterday. It was an autumn morning in 2016, and I had just gone back to listening to new music after years of reclusion working on my own material. Swedish post metal titans Cult of Luna had released some months ago a collaboration with Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice banshee, Julie Christmas, simply titled “Mariner”. I was mildly excited to find out what these bands had been doing during my long self-imposed musical slumber, and I say “mildly” because no new music had struck me as hard as to consider listening to new music, something that in those years I saw as really violent intrusion to my creative process. As soon as I hit play on this thing, my whole life passed before my eyes. “Mariner” is an album that hits from start to finish, impossible to stop once “A Greater Call” has started. I was a passenger on that album, as it carried me through the stars, deep into the corners of the Universe, I stood prisoner of both rapture and disbelief. Until I reached “Cygnus”. Yes, my friends, it was a sonic orgasm what brought me to this site. Three years ago, on October 19th, I wrote my first comment on Sputnikmusic: “Cygnus makes me levitate and become one with the cosmos”. It was a raw thought, coming from absolute astonishment after repeated listens of this colossal, 15-minute epic. From the mind boggling synth of the first minutes to the cathartic mantra that Julie drills into the final outro, “Cygnus” quickly became one of my favorite songs of the decade, and it has remained undefeated until now.
Paramore – “Future”
I just spent $20 on a grilled salmon to desperately remember the feeling of what it felt like to come home from middle school to my step-dad’s cooking. Listening to this song would’ve been a cheaper option. All the days spent in the school bus on my way to high school play in my mind, eyeing the snowy rooftops of suburban Chicago. If there’s anything that the song–and it’s parent album–is about, it’s acknowledging the past before catapulting yourself into the future. And after a few longing verses imploring a young her to keep strong, combined with acoustic strumming and incessant clock-ticking percussion, Hayley sings herself into the next stage of her life. Monumental guitars, gigantic drums, and a massive volume bump fade in to create a soundscape larger than anything Paramore have done since. And then it fades in and out again to remind you that they’re never really ever going away. This is the song that played in a young band’s head when they left their small town to start a life of something bigger. And I’m glad they shared it with me before I did the same. It’s cheaper than salmon, and by the end reaffirms that I did the right thing in leaving instead of just filling my stomach and head with old memories of a long-gone past. We’re all just doing what we’re called to do. And this song reminds us that it’s okay to leave some things behind in order to do what we love. And for the record, that salmon wasn’t even as good as my step-dad’s.
Phoebe Bridgers – “Georgia”
It should be noted that “Georgia” didn’t grab my attention at first, much like the rest of its parent album. I really enjoyed it, but for the life of me I never understood just how fucking strange it is until the 10th listen. But when I finally sank my teeth into bassy undercurrents, the various chimings and churnings layered into the recording, the pure ridiculousness of the overblown, string-laden bridge, I realized that this was female-singer-songwriter crack to me. Basically, the song is a goddamned masterpiece. With ghostly restraint (and lack of it), Bridgers recounts the miracles and maladies she experiences with her lover. Switching her focus consistently, one never really knows which “you” she’s talking to, her lover, or her lover’s mother. It’s one of those ambiguous things that you know doesn’t fucking matter because the emotion of the piece is so clear that you know exactly what she means even when you don’t. Anyway, if you’re confused, know I’m more confused. I don’t know what makes this song so perfect, but I know exactly what. It’s just not something I can explain.
Moon Tooth – “Igneous”
Listening to the absolutely molten and shockingly original blues-steeped riffage and voodoo-inflected vocals of “Igneous” will dare you to hope that maybe, just maybe, rock isn’t dead. Then, when you watch the band play the song live and guitarist Nick Lee whips out a cigarette lighter to play a slide solo that ends with him holding the lit lighter aloft, you’ll know for sure.
Dead Sara – “Weatherman”
More women are participating in the world of heavy guitar music than ever before, but few (women or men) in the twenty-first century have managed to capture the ferocious beauty and violent catharsis that marks great rock anthems the way Dead Sara did for the sublime 4 minute and 23 second duration of “Weatherman”.
SOPHIE – “LEMONADE”
>In 2014, nobody knew who or what SOPHIE was. We had “Bipp” and “Elle,” which were linked more with the wonky scene (everything on PRODUCT ended up dropping on Numbers) than the new style she would end up creating. PC Music hadn’t even made Pitchfork’s radar yet, and “Hey QT” wouldn’t drop for a few weeks. “LEMONADE” felt like it came out of nowhere. It wasn’t the most experimental of its genre, but it was just the right crossover between accessible, uncomfortable, playful, menacing and genre/gender-bending. Most of all, it was feminine in a way that would make her infamous, with criticism starting off as semi-well-intentioned gatekeeping and eventually turning into blatant transphobia. Before the hate could fully set in, though, “LEMONADE” and its insane energy gave her the boost she needed to set the timer for pop’s explosion.
Julien Baker – “Something”
Every era needs a song to soundtrack total, unfiltered heartbreak. While it’s not as iconic as “Someone Like You,” “Somebody That I Used To Know,” or “Marvin’s Room,” “Something” was the most powerful. Maybe it’s because of the way it addresses frustration over a failure to communicate and overpowering self-hatred, feelings that seem to becoming more popular every day. In a world where we are constantly shown examples of people resolving their communication issues by, you know, communicating more, and using their apparently natural self-love to care about others, “Something” understands what it means to be totally alone, disappointed not in the terrible ways things went, which was what we expected, but in the terrible people we see ourselves to be. Raw disgust for oneself and snowballing regret are themes of our generation, and Julien Baker soundtracked us.
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
Music is something we can study for years in an effort to understand it, and many do. The quest to discover why some songs sound good and some sound bad has been going on for decades now. I don’t claim to be an expert in that field of academia, but from what I understand, nobody really knows. “Call Me Maybe” is evidence that it’s all just random. By all accounts, this shouldn’t have been successful. It’s a folk song written by Carly (at the time best known for winning 3rd place in Canadian Idol) and the vocalist for Marianas Trench, given a last-minute pop sheen and thrown onto the charts. Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber noticed and tweeted about it, and you know the rest. What has been lost to history is just how perfect this song is. Somehow, despite having an insane work ethic and putting years of effort into creating a formula for flawless pop music (and doing a better job than almost any other artist), this is the best song Jepsen ever wrote. It doesn’t seem like it should be, but the minimalist opening strings, the juvenile yet inspirational lyrics, and that extra little spark elevates it into something magic.
Thou – “Free Will”
“Free Will” is far from the first Thou song I would play for a newcomer to introduce them to the band. At over fourteen minutes, it’s the longest song they’ve ever recorded. It begins with 45 seconds of ear-splitting feedback, followed by a glacial, nigh interminable build that comprises the first half of the song. But these factors make “Free Will” perhaps the best demonstration of what makes Thou such a special band. From the classically themed artwork that graces their album covers to their sprawling, philosophical lyrics that make generous use of the royal we, Thou have tailored their art to transcend its era and feel epic, ancient, and quite literally timeless. Accordingly, they demand patience and vigilance from their audience. On “Free Will,” they take their sweet time crawling through the muck, so that when they reach the midpoint, release the tension with a glorious riff, and declare, “We are the stone that starts the avalanche,” the arrival feels inevitable, fated. By lumbering leisurely across the track like a giant, Thou make themselves massive.
Deafheaven – “Brought to the Water”
If I was going to select any Deafheaven song to represent the best of the decade, you’d think I would choose a song from Sunbather, the album that cemented Deafheaven’s legacy by irrevocably bringing black metal out of the shadows and introducing it to entirely new audiences. Any one of the four full songs from Sunbather could have easily earned their place on a Best Songs of the Decade list for how grand, cathartic, empathetic, and downright important they made black metal.
But then, Deafheaven just had to top themselves.
New Bermuda doesn’t quite come together as a full package in the same way that Sunbather did, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Brought to the Water” is, hands down, Deafheaven’s best song. It amplifies everything that made tracks like “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree” great: The metal is heavier, the shoegaze is dreamier, the contrasts are starker, and I didn’t think it was possible, but the climactic release is so much more satisfying. After three minutes of harrowing tremolo and blast beats, the triumphant guitar solo floored me the first time I heard it; four years later, it still hasn’t lost its effect. On Sunbather, Deafheaven may have perfected their sound, but on “Brought to the Water,” they made it fucking transcendent.
Altar Of Plagues – “Burnt Year”
Teethed Glory and Injury came at a particular tipping point in my life. It was upheaval, filled with as much joy and torment and “Burnt Year” defined a clouded space within my own mentality. Life was a trapping of sorts, but there was a lot to be happy about. Looking back, it’s probably easier to describe myself as ‘not ready for it’. The track itself offers up any level of post metal transcendence by throwing electronic sections into a swirling pool of harsh black metal aesthetic and boundary pushing ambivalence. Teethed Glory and Injury is as much about the journey as it is a bleak emotional connection to the present and unsure future and in turn can be found relatable to any elated anguish, fear or uncertainty. In this regard, “Burnt Year” proves that music doesn’t have to be “pretty” to be beautiful.
Falls Of Rauros – “Weapons Of Refusal”
You think it would almost be inevitable that something from Falls Of Rauros’ Patterns In Mythology would end up on my “best of the decade” list. Decidedly, Patterns… has a host of tracks that could easily fall into this category, but it’s the “Weapons Of Refusal” that sits atop a pile of almost transcendental atmospheric black metal this decade. From the cold atmosphere to the ambitious pummel of wistful longingness that culminates in a state of hopefulness, it’s “Weapons Of Refusal” that supports the rest of the record mentioned above. From the gritty upheaval of black metal stereotypes to the graceful brush-strokes found in the band’s more folkened sensibilities, the climes of Falls Of Rauros are well defined in this track.
AJJ – “Small Red Boy”
The crowning jewel of AJJ’s The Bible 2 is one of the most beautiful and hopeful tracks in all of the group’s discography. The metaphorical story of Sean Bonnette’s acceptance of his personal demons and regrets hits close to home for me, but lets the listener know that there’s a light and the end of the tunnel. The emotion driven vocal performance from Bonnette and the band chemistry of AJJ really sells this story. It’s a beautiful track; the kind of which I don’t want to spoil, it’s better if you just listen to it.
“No more shame, no more fear, no more dread! I am, I am, I am, I am the truth!”
Bomb The Music Industry! – “You Still Believe in Me?”
Although the overall quality of Jeff Rosenstock’s solo material is a high that few artists can ever reach, he got pretty damn close in the earlier half of the decade with Adults…, releasing some of the catchiest ska-flavored power pop of all time (the humor of how specific that is isn’t lost on me). “You Still Believe in Me?” is a perfect song; filled to the brim with catchy vocal melodies, bright horns, two-step strum rhythms, and some of the most charismatic performances of the entire BTMI! discography. Rosenstock’s lyrics about seeing his hero, Brian Wilson, live and how his ability to listen has waned in recent years hit hard due to his excellent phrasing. Jeff has always had a skill in putting you in the environments he writes, but this song is where that really shines. It’s a triumphant shout of getting older that serves as a thesis for the themes of Adults…
“I know fires don’t last forever, but I need to find a match cause these days, fuck, I’m tired…”
Daft Punk – “Touch”
When Daft Punk dropped Random Access Memories in 2013 it blew the minds of critics and music listeners everywhere with its ability to combine aesthetics both futuristic and past with stunning delicacy and style. Taking the electro-funk stylings the French duo had become famous for and framing them in the context of late 70’s disco and early 80’s soft rock, Daft Punk developed a sound that had the warmth of nostalgia, even as it pushed boundaries. This sonic nexus was best represented by the Paul Williams fronted “Touch”. In many ways a microcosm of the album at large, “Touch” has everything; mellow pop bridges, jaunty, theatrical swing sections, and futuristic, robotic choirs all have a home in this song. In retrospect it almost feels like a flex, Daft Punk easily demonstrating their ability to do it all, and all at once. Even six years later it makes you scratch your head and wonder “how the hell did they do this?”
Horrendous – “Golgothan Tongues”
The 2010’s were a renaissance for old-school styled death metal, and there is no band who performed that sound better than Horrendous, and no track they did it better on than “Golgothan Tongues”. Like most later-era Horrendous the track is nuanced without losing any of the brutality and venom one would expect from a band of their ilk. There’s a certain bounce adopted through the track that easily makes it one of their most groovy to date. What’s almost impressed me most about this band is their use of melody and how they implement it within the structure of their songs to make it hooky and memorable, without the cheese usually associated with more harmonious heavy music. “Golgothan Tongues” has this in spades and as such it may not only be the best song from this album, but the best song in the band’s catalog.
mewithoutYou – “Nine Stories”
‘Nine Stories’ is a song that gets to the very heart of mewithoutYou. It’s about the power of storytelling, and presents it as a double-edged sword: how stories can both transform and corrupt, how they can blind us from reality by offering a cruelly fleeting grace. While it derives much of its power from its place in the larger narrative of Ten Stories, it’s still a mesmerizing and impactful song on its own, with a haunting and explosive coda that cleaves the song in two and ends with a balm of funereal horns. Reality and fantasy clash in heartbreaking, apocalyptic fashion; nothing new for the band, but it was never better represented than in this heartsick tall tale.
Hop Along – “Well-Dressed”
‘Well-Dressed’ takes all the best elements of Hop Along, throws them into a blender, and ends up with the best song of the decade. How can a song so strange, intense and suffocatingly personal be this fun? It’s a frankly absurd balancing act, but then, that’s just about the perfect way to describe the band, anyways. ‘Well-Dressed’ combines the raw vocal gymnastics of singer Frances Quinlan with slowly blooming peels of guitar that eventually builds to a lengthy outro of distorted chords, stomping half-time drums, and the funnest goddamn vocalisations EVER. There’s no better band at making the inexplicable seem completely natural, at harvesting the chaos of everyday life and turning it into something miraculous. ‘Well-Dressed’ is simply their best magic trick yet.