For our 2019 AMS::ATX playlist, we gave the UT AMS community a challenge: pick your “top” songs of the 2010s, whatever that means to you. Without further ado, here are the “songs of the decade” selected by the faculty and graduate students of UT Austin American Studies.
My song of the 2010s is Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and I guess I’m talking about the video as well as the song. Released on February 6, 2016, one day before Beyoncé’s iconic Super Bowl performance, we had all watched the video enough times in 24 hours to be able to sing along by the time she killed her halftime performance. I honestly can’t think of a more impressive move than releasing a song and then knowing your audience will have memorized it by the next day. In general, though, this decade was Beyoncé’s and we are all so lucky to have her. From the unannounced drop of her self-titled album Beyoncé in 2013, to the truly phenomenal music experience that was Lemonade in April 2016, to her completely unbelievable performance at Coachella in 2018, Beyonce has blessed us so many times this decade. While I love all of the albums and songs she released in the 2010s, I think “Formation” really ushered us into a new era of Beyoncé, one filled with love for black women, black hair, black music, black dancing, and black creativity writ large. Thank you, Beyoncé. We’ve really needed you. –Gaila Sims
Throughout the aughts, it seemed like every kind of cool person I know claimed to love “everything but country and rap,” a short statement that manages to be racist, classist, and snobby about region all at once. Country/Hip Hop collabs are nothing new (Nelly and Tim McGraw, anyone?) but Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road seamlessly melds the two genres, made Billy Ray Cyrus mildly relevant in 2019, and gave us (the maybe first?) Gen Z/Tik Tok hit. –Holly Genovese
One day, Austin will have to reckon with its heavy-handed gentrification that has radically transformed the city’s east side and displaced thousands for coffee, condos, and consignment stores. ATCQ’s refrain that “…you must go,” with “you” being non-white and poor people, could be transposed to any major US metropolitan area in the voice of real estate developers, the police, and nervous retail shoppers toward a person of color just hanging out. They were “woke” before you were born and, by the sound of the rest of their excellent reunion album We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service, they don’t seem to care that you scrolled your way down on your feed to an Angela Davis quote. –Robert Oxford
I remember back, back in school, when I wasn’t cool
S***, I still ain’t cool, but you better make some room for me
“Coconut Oil” was church with a twerk before “Truth Hurts” was even born. Lizzo has been giving us self-care anthems for nearly a decade, back to Coconut Oil and Big Grrrl Small World. I saw her this October in Houston at a too-small venue she had booked before hitting #1 on the Billboard chart. When she came back on stage for the encore, she emerged from smoke into a gold pulpit on a gold stage in a gold bodysuit, and played only the solo from this song, and then faded back to darkness. No one has ever been more iconic than Lizzo. –Kerry Knerr
The 2010s were a big decade of losing some of the 20th century’s most iconic musical artists. We said goodbye to David Bowie, Tom Petty, Aretha Franklin, and Lou Reed to name a few. But Leonard Cohen’s death hit me the hardest of all. It hurts to listen to “You Want it Darker.” I’m not even sure if I like it. Cohen was not much of a singer at the end of his life, but his strength as a writer and talent for haunting composition shines through in this song. It is the spiritual sequel to “Who By Fire,” Cohen’s conscious goodbye to the world and acceptance of death. He gave us one last album before he left. Cohen’s death was a reminder that things you don’t anticipate or expect to hurt suddenly do. But as I listened to “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” on repeat, it became abundantly clear that Leonard Cohen knew exactly the way to say goodbye. –Zoya Brumberg
The other day I was puttering around the house humming incessantly to myself, and my partner asked, “What’s that song you’re singing? It’s driving me nuts.” It took me a moment to place the tune. It was, of course, “Baby Shark.”
Pinkfong, a Korean children’s edutainment brand, introduced the world to “Baby Shark” in 2015 when it uploaded a K-Pop style music video to YouTube. The song became a global sensation and the video has now surpassed 4 billion views. Today, you can purchase a slew of “Baby Shark” inspired swag from books and stuffed animals to Christmas ornaments and coordinating family T-Shirts. You can also buy tickets to the touring “Baby Shark” live show (it comes to Texas next April, in case you wanted to know).
For those of you without small children, “Baby Shark” traces the adventures of a multi-generational, heteronormative shark family–baby, parents, and grandparents–who go hunting. The lyrics are particularly appealing to the under-5 set. “Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo/ Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo/ Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo/ Baby shark!” The next line repeats the first, but begins with “Mommy shark.” And so it goes with Daddy shark, Grandma shark, and Grandpa shark. They go hunting. Their prey get scared and run away to safety. Then it ends.
“Baby Shark” is a gift and a curse. It is guaranteed to make children smile. I can attest that it significantly lightened the mood in an ER waiting room at the Dallas children’s hospital this past summer. But the undeniably feel-good song is also a highly addictive drug for small children. They cannot stop watching/listening/singing, and therefore, neither can anyone else within ear shot.
For the pain and pleasure it has wrought, “Baby Shark” seems an apt symbol of the 2010s. Like so many other highly addictive digital phenomena to emerge over the past decade–Instagram, Pinterest, Netflix TV shows–it is an instrument of distraction and self-torture simultaneously. I can’t stop singing. And I can’t wait for it to end. –Lauren Gutterman
Annie Clark is the guitar hero the 2010s needed. From Strange Mercy (2011) to St. Vincent (2014) to Masseduction (2017), Clark put out some of the most innovative rock albums of the decade and pushed the boundaries of pop stardom through her ever-changing musical persona. “Cheerleader” is a reflection on autonomy that showcases St. Vincent’s softer side: “I don’t know what good it serves, pouring my purse in the dirt, but I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” There’s something so prescient about these lines, a kind of stoicism anticipating the fury of #MeToo, Time’s Up, and the women’s marches that surfaced a few years later. –Kate Grover
Janelle Monáe is pop
Janelle Monáe is R&B
Janelle Monáe is soul
Janelle Monáe is funk
Janelle Monáe is human
Janelle Monáe is an android
Janelle Monáe is retro
Janelle Monáe is the future
Janelle Monáe is everything –Brendan Gaughen
FKA twigs arose like an enigma on fire in the early to mid-2010s, releasing three EP’s and one LP from 2012-2015. Although the removal of six fibroid tumors from her uterus in 2017 would keep Tahliah Debrett Barnett out of action until 2019, twigs’s already impressive discography would have fans and critics eagerly anticipating her return. “Kicks” is the last track on 2014’s LP1, a deep cut that is simultaneously a yearning for someone emotionally and/or geographically far away and an ode to masturbation and self care. Barnett’s signature whispery vocals and asymmetric drum machine programming form the sonic bedrock of the song, with cooing baby sounds reminiscent of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” signifying the pop/R&B atmosphere that Barnett both came up through and was eagerly trying to define herself against. It would turn out to only be a glimpse of the dark underbelly of the mainstream star that FKA twigs would become with the release of—and subsequent tour for—Magdalene in November 2019. –Christine Capetola
I watched Regina Spektor perform this charged piano ballad at New York’s Beacon Theatre the month before the 2012 presidential election. She dedicated the tune—which describes politicians as performers, debasing themselves for money and power—to Mitt Romney, who was then the Republican presidential candidate. In a shaky pre-iPhone video that I took during the concert, Spektor sits at a glossy grand piano and speaks passionately into the microphone, encouraging her audience to vote for the candidate who represents women and “everybody who’s [expletive] cool” instead of the candidate who just “wants to help out their billionaire buddies.” In some ways, today’s political conflicts feel a world away from Romney versus Obama and the various political dramas that dominated the news at the start of this decade. At its core, though, this song’s depiction of those in political power doesn’t feel dated at all: “A man inside a room is shaking hands with other men. This is how it happens, our carefully laid plans.” –Leah Butterfield
Obama rap (his pick). If this track is notable beyond centrist-Liberalism-on-the-precipice approval, it is because Lamar is far more evocative, provocative, and exacting in his production on To Pimp a Butterfly than most. The politics and religion here signify Lamar’s move from L.A. kid with flow to a rightfully paranoid, spiritual, Black Lives Matter political statement that served as Fox News fodder, where their reactionary rhetoric was later appropriated as samples for DAMN. (2017), which won a Pulitzer. I suppose you can’t get any more mainstream than that. NPR rap. Yet this album was an alarm bell. As he put it, it’s all about him, his experiences, his relationships. It is poetic and explosive. That hasn’t changed. –Robert Oxford
I’m going to choose a song I wrote and recorded over the summer with my partner Monti. Last spring I had lost my ability to play guitar to chronic pain in both hands, but I had gotten a reworked 1962 Harmony Stratotone with amazing tone and wanted to do something that would cheer me up. So I did some chicken scratch on this six string relic, programmed a funky bass line, got Monti to moan and croon, and crafted some beats that made me think of Dee Lite or Tribe Called Quest. That’s my organ solo too. We didn’t really release it into the world so I thought, let’s share it here. –Randy Lewis
There is a meeting in my thighs
Where in thunder and lightning
Men are baptized in their anger and fighting
Their deceit and lies
I’ve got lips like sugar
I saw Adrianne Lenker perform this song sitting crossed legged on the stage at Radio Coffee and Beer sometime in the winter of 2015, and I was absolutely blown away. “Pretty Things” is the first track on Big Thief’s second album, Capacity, released a year after their brazenly titled debut album, Masterpiece. They’ve released two more albums this year, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands. Adrianne has also released her own solo album, abysskiss. Every song on every one of those albums is a truly incredible piece of art. I strongly believe that Adrianne Lenker is the greatest songwriter of her generation, and if you’re sleeping on her, you’re sleeping on yourself. –Kerry Knerr
Rhiannon Giddens is doing a fantastic fusion of heritage/ history research and turning it into something public facing. I struggled to pick a single song of hers to submit to this because everything she does is wonderful. I settled on this song because a) I love Elizabeth Cotten as a guitarist, and b) Rhiannon Giddens makes this older song sound modern and fresh while putting the memory of the black women musicians she’s saluting on this album at the forefront of her craft. –Coyote Shook
If you were a Tulane University student between 2011-2012, there’s a chance that you’re familiar with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” For a few glorious years, the Bruff Commons Dining Room (R.I.P.) was home to an Akoo video entertainment system (also R.I.P). Students would text in music videos from Akoo’s online catalogue, and if they were lucky, their song popped up on an overhead screen as they sat down for Monday red beans and rice.
“Party Rock Anthem” played every single day of my freshman year. I have two theories about this. 1) It was an inside joke. Some smartass Tulanians realized the song was an earworm, texted Akoo incessantly, and the lemmings followed. 2) It’s a good song? Look, if you wanted an electro-pop pump-up party jam that was perfect for birthdays, weddings, and pre-gaming in your dorm room, “Party Rock Anthem” was for you. And the music video truly has it all: zebra stripe pants, Thriller-esque dance sequences, robots, Beats by Dre product placement, a 28 Days Later spoof. It’s no wonder “Party Rock Anthem” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and charted for 68 straight weeks. –Kate Grover
As you can tell from the album cover, they look like they are posing for the middle-school jazz band yearbook photo, but they are wise and talented beyond years: Keyboardist Matt Martains told VIBE, “it’s us about acknowledging our egos and the egos around us, and using them the best way we can.” I like to think that’s a lot like grad school, too, but they clearly figured these things out faster than I did. This whole album was my go-to chill-out choice for the second half of the decade. The record signifies non-binary conforming sex, love, and desiring that exceed critics’ definitions of “neo-soul,” a term that so often flattens not just the music but the lyrics and embodiment of the artists themselves. –Robert Oxford
I wanted to pick something from Yeezus, and even though “Bound 2” may not be a top music critic’s choice, it’s definitely my favorite. It came out the first year my husband and I started dating. I listened to it on repeat driving through the Colorado mountains, emulating the music video in which Kanye and Kim Kardashian are screwing on a motorcycle in the (Wyoming?) mountains. He’s wearing tie dye. It is definitely odd. But the song is so real in how frankly it addresses intimacy and the precariousness of relationships. Kanye repeatedly samples Kim saying “uh huh honey,” but this supposed passive phrase is the refrain that drives the song forward. It is preceded and followed by silence, giving us all space to listen and breathe. –Zoya Brumberg
Originating from a small town outside of Houston and named for the Thai word for “airplane” (literally “engine fly”), Khruangbin provides the chill “surf-rock-meets-Thai-lounge-music” vibes so desperately needed in 2019. –Brendan Gaughen
My favorite Taylor Swift song was released in the aughts (though it did spawn this decade’s defining feud), but I think “All Too Well” perfectly captures the cozy feelings of the early 2010s and the slow “crumpling” of our innocence throughout the decade when T-Swift sings “Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me. You can’t get rid of it, ’cause you remember it all too well, yeah.” –Holly Genovese
The year is 2011. I’m in the last half of my senior year at Naperville North High School and am itching to escape what I then perceived to be the prison of adolescence; my parents won’t let me do “anything,” who should I ask to the Spring-Turn-About Dance, and wow, like, how unfair is, like, this 11:00 pm curfew? By the spring of that year, I felt beyond ready to fly the coop and experience “freedom” in the city where I’d be attending college in the fall.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only teen ready to break free and have some “fun, fun, fun” because in March of 2011, Rebecca Black released her first single “Friday.” Described as possibly one of the “worst songs ever” in a Yahoo! Music article, “Friday” was produced by ARK music after Black’s mother, Georgina Kelly, allegedly paid the production company $4,000 to record the thirteen-year-old’s song and shoot a music video with her as the star. The song itself is about a teenage girl (Black) who wakes up on a Friday morning, eats her cereal, waits for the school bus, and then sees her friends pull up in a convertible. Evidently, this throws a serious wrench in her otherwise smooth-sailing Friday morning because she has no idea where to sit when all the seats (including the driver) are already occupied by her other thirteen-year-old friends. Is encouraging thirteen-year-olds to hijack a convertible and drive it without seat belts dangerous? Possibly. But hey, it’s Friday! For four grand I might also consider letting an underage teen drive my car.
The remainder of the music video features Black and her friends singing (chanting?) “It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday” as they move through the halls of their school and then throw a massive house party where adults are seemingly non-existent (again). Black is clearly the star guest at this party. She walks across the lawn with groups of teens on her left and right, singing to them, “partying, partying,” as they respond with finger guns and emphatic yells of “yeah!” Basically, the song illustrates a teen’s fantasy of escaping the constraints of adult-monitored life and celebrating the weekend with her friends. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the song to this day, however, is its educational component — Black teaches audiences the days of the week when she sings, “yesterday was Thursday, Thursday. Today it is Friday, Friday. We, we, we so EXCITED…we gonna have a ball today. Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards.” As an adult who’s unconventional work/school schedule often leads to days becoming blurred and jumbled together, I appreciate any reminder of what day of the week it is. Bonus points when I have a little jingle to remember it by.
Black’s music video immediately became popular (or unpopular) and garnered more than 30 million views on YouTube just one week after its release. I remember sitting around a friend’s family desktop after school, eating peanut M&M’s, and watching the video over and over again. There was so much we didn’t understand — who is this girl? How did she get someone to produce her song? How did they get adults to not bust that party? And who on earth is this unidentified adult man rapping in his car??? For a full twenty seconds he speeds down the road while rapping about this thirteen-year-old’s Friday shenanigans, seemingly equally excited that Black and her friends are raging it up for the weekend. As a seventeen-year-old watching him I thought, “well…this got even weirder.” But nearly nine years later I’m a graduate student with multiple jobs, living paycheck to paycheck. Now, I watch this man rapping in his car on low-budget, CGI-created highway and without hesitation think, “For four grand? I’d do it, too.” –Andi Remoquillo
My one of two negative reviews. We have reached (or sped past) peak garage and psychedelic rock in Austin, Texas. I’m sorry to break it to you, but Armadillo World Headquarters isn’t coming back, Keep Austin Weird is a marketing scheme, Marfa is six hours away and the town successfully pushed back against Austin-based mega-promotor C3 Presents’ bullet-headed push for a Coachella-esque festival for glamp-psych. To perpetuate this genre into the next decade will be a grave disservice against the many acts who share the heterogeneous composition of music in this city, especially Latinx, punk, and hip-hop artists. It all seems like parody now. White Denim will not be missed. The airwaves of KUTX are over saturated with them and other vintage-genreists who prefer feel to significance. They are norm core. You can hear them piped into Austin-Bergstrom airport. These are all red flags. –Robert Oxford
Jenny Hval’s 2016 album Blood Bitch is something else—a conceptual album based on the idea of female vampires that’s somehow also addressing love as a commodity under capitalism. It’s playful, postmodern, and somewhat awkward in its language. Conceptual Romance expresses the anxieties surrounding love and connection in the 2010s. It is intellectualized and mediated, but still as haunting and real as it has always been. I haven’t dated in Hval’s post-Tinder era, so I don’t have much of a story or deep emotional connection to this song. I just think it’s good. –Zoya Brumberg
Nothing is a state of mind
Somewhere on the county line
The air is blowing sweet and fine
And you find you have it all
When I replayed this album to write this, I completely broke down during this song. Back when I first moved to Austin, drove a 2001 Subaru Forester, and had a flip phone, I used to put Raina Rose *CDs* into my *car radio.* And cry. While trying to turn left from 15th onto Lamar. I don’t suggest that specific experience, but I do suggest that you join me on February 1st at the Cactus Cafe for Raina’s CD release of Vesta. –Kerry Knerr
I recently described my favorite kind of song as “one you sing with your arms outstretched.” “Your Best American Girl” definitely fits this criteria. Building from languid opening verses, “Your Best American Girl” explodes at the chorus: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I think I do.” Sing that at the top of your lungs and tell me it’s not cathartic. –Kate Grover
I’m thrilled to be living in the age of the mash-up. Media scholar Henry Jenkins figured out nearly three decades ago that media consumers can reappropriate texts to serve new purposes and sometimes the resulting nonsense is surprisingly good. –Brendan Gaughen
My other negative review. Some indie bands are made from NPR (I’m thinking Houston trio Khruangbin). Spoon was saved by NPR. In 2007, their Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga successfully bridged their post-UT college rock where they may have very well fallen fallow and instead joined the major indie battalion assembled in the 00s by Merge Records founders and Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance: Arcade Fire, She&Him, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc. With the help of friendly boomers at NPR, all of these bands charted. In the 10s, neo-dad rock was born. Spoon occupies, or perhaps guided indie rock toward, the radical center, out of the campuses and into Priuses. You know how you see those signs at the Erwin Center for aging rockers like Bob Seager? Give it a few decades and we’ll see the Wilco/Spoon tour there, too. –Robert Oxford
It might not be the best Lana song, but what, in the year of our lord 2019, could “Goddamn, Man Child” not be applied to? –Holly Genovese
I’m not sure this is my favorite song of the 2010s, but I do know that I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since it first came on 100.1 FM Sun Radio in 2015. For me, it’s one of those rare songs, like a really excellent Stevie Wonder or Regina Spektor track, that can hook you the first fifty listens on pure idiosyncratic groove, and then only gets richer and deeper and wonderfully stranger as you begin to really absorb the meaning of the lyrics and their interplay with the music and the lyrics’ texture and rhythm.
“Living the Dream” moves at the pace of a hungover morning: ambling around a messy house, trying to bring one’s world into focus, drenched in unexplainable, unspeakable, volatile emotion. The drums just kind of tap around for the first two-thirds of the song, and the bass, guitar, organ and voice seem to be testing each other, throwing little tantalizing lines and licks at one another. This ambling leads to a fitting, angry climax in the form of a heavily distorted, soulful guitar and organ solo, then a belting reprieve of a chorus that you aren’t sure is actually going to return until the very end of the song.
Lyrically, it’s outlaw country for millennials: bitter, cynical, yet somehow also ecstatic, reveling in day-to-day pleasurable excesses (“walkin’ around, just livin’ the dream / any time I take the notion…”) while hyper-aware of the personal, societal, and cosmic consequences of such an unfocused, unconscious existence (“…till the truth comes bubbling up so bittersweet”). The lyrical themes aren’t exactly revolutionary, and the song dabbles in some tired gendered tropes–angry and long-suffering mothers who take on the world’s sins, angel waitresses who might deliver the resentful and sorrowful male protagonist. Yet in the end, it’s snarling chorus–which starts, “Ain’t no point getting out of bed / when you ain’t living the dream,” and ends, “I don’t have to do a goddamn thing / but sit around and wait to die”–works as a challenge to the listener: will you be paralyzed by the resentments, unrealized ambitions, broken hearts, and, above all, the saturating injustice of this oddly decadent, desperate, and entirely impoverished late-capitalist existence; or will you see, feel, and recreate all the textured love and beauty that you can, that is already here for us to gather, preserve, and pass on? In other words, what dream will you live?
Well anyway, it’s a great song on one of the best country albums in years, and you should give it a spin. –Nick Bloom
Who would have thought that I would see another emo revival in my lifetime? Pity Sex speaks to all my teenage feelings without the cringe factor and misogyny of first and second wave emo rock. Pity Sex is like Jawbreaker meets Tiger’s Jaw with a little Rilo Kiley thrown in, appealing to us older emos but legible for a new generation. The angst and desperation are real, but it is tempered by self-consciousness. There are no grandiose, pseudo-romantic cliches. The lyrics are simple and unpretentious. The standout line in this song is the universally relatable, repeating line: “how did I get so depressed?” –Zoya Brumberg
Andrew Jackson’s face has had a good run on the $20 bill but seriously…time’s up for that guy. –Brendan Gaughen
One sure way to make it onto independent airwaves in the United States is to summon David Byrne. In this case, Beninese singer and African diva Angélique Kidjo took a much bolder step and reclaimed the seminal Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light (1980) with a raft of African instrumentation and styles, the sounds and feel Byrne and producer Brian Eno took from in creating their record just shy of forty years ago. This first track was well played here on KUTX and is a hopeful sign that independent radio can and will continue to feature international artists, and not just relegate them to “world music” programming. –Robert Oxford
I ain’t rich and I may never be
But baby I’d rather be broke than be a wannabe
They can’t change me
They can’t hold me
Only one of me
Just tell yourself this until you have a dissertation. –Kerry Knerr