Join us all month long as we celebrate the best music, film, and television of the decade. Yesterday, we shared the Top 100 Songs of the 2010s. Today, we continue with the Top 25 Rock Songs of the decade.
Ten years ago, If you’d asked me to predict the artists behind the top 25 rock songs of the 2010s, I would’ve had no shortage of predictions: a couple opuses by blog-era heroes like Franz Ferdinand or TV on the Radio, a decade-worth of hits by promising newcomers like Wavves or Surfer Blood, and maybe even some dazzling singles from Washed Out, Neon Indian, and the rest of the chillwave vanguard. 2009 Tyler would’ve been pretty confident in these guesses. He also would’ve been absolutely, totally wrong.
Aside from being a personal embarrassment, my failures at prognostication also speak to the sneaky depth of talent that emerged during a decade in rock music that felt like a critical and popular retreat for the genre. As the world’s geopolitical reality began to crack around us, it was easy to assume that conventional wisdom of “rock is dead” was accurate. Though many outlets (this one, at times, included) spent much of the decade writing and rewriting rock’s obituary, the artists on this list missed the memo regarding retreat.
Instead, freed from the expectations of the spotlight and the whims of previous decades’ quick-moving subgenre cycles, the rock musicians of the 2010s were free to stake out sonic territory as they saw fit. For some, that meant refining the primordial sounds that helped define the genre to begin with; here you’ll find the thrashing guitars of Cloud Nothings, the smoky stoner sounds of Kurt Vile, and the shout-along choruses of Japandroids.
For others, it meant capturing a share of the hypercolor bigness that help pop and hip-hop conquer the decade; Spoon’s Dave Fridmann-aided reinvention as a synth-rock band goes here, as do the best tracks from crossover headliners like Arcade Fire, Tame Impala, and The 1975. From veterans turning in classics in the autumns of their careers (hello, Tom Waits and David Bowie) to acts that took dance-punk’s electro fusions to their logical high points (you too, LCD Soundsystem and M83) — when the the chapter on the 2010s is written into rock history, it’s going to be longer than you’d think.
Having established that I’m terrible at predictions isn’t going to stop me from asking this anyway: what will rock music look like at the end of the 2020s? If I’m going to go on the record, it’s going to be with a touch of hope: the next time we write one of these lists, you’re going to see an even more diverse lineup of artists than the one we’ve compiled here. From Mitski to Brittany Howard to Laura Jane Grace, the voices keeping rock music vital in 2019 are more varied and inclusive than ever before, and that’s a shift that needs to keep trending upward if rock wants to survive as anything other than a genre in twilight.
Now’s not the time for looking forward, though. For now, we’re looking back, and taking a moment to appreciate the rock songs that soundtracked the decade. It hasn’t been an easy one, and the next one’s looking rough already, but tracks like these might just help us weather the storm, one power chord at a time.
Click ahead to see our Top 25 Rock Songs of the 2010s…
25. Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight” (2015)
That muscular guitar riff is a great example of why Brittany Howard is one of the most interesting songwriters in rock, but the strangled scream that kicks off the song shows why she’s among the greatest rock vocalists of her generation. You can hear it in the weariness as she sings “Lying down ain’t easy” and the staccato flourishes she lends to “Why can’t I catch my breath?” It’s a breathtaking performance, full of nuance and power, sadness and anger and loss. Howard doesn’t just have more ideas than most of her peers; she has more talent to pull them off. –Wren Graves
24. Tom Waits – “Hell Broke Luce” (2011)
It’s not that Tom Waits has shied away over the years from reflecting on the pain, despair, and devastation that war brings to soldiers and their families. He’s just always touched upon the topic rather subtly — by picking through a box of old keepsakes, including war medals, at a yard sale (“Soldier’s Things”) or through an epistolary song from the point of view of a soldier getting ready to be discharged and sent home (“Day After Tomorrow”). However, on “Hell Broke Luce”, Waits creates a festering, wretched hellscape, using a collage of disoriented sounds, the cadences of a platoon march, and a swamp of soldier biography, eye-witness accounts, and infantry doggerel. It’s what one might imagine a flashback or nightmare might be like for an ex-soldier suffering from shell shock. By creating such a haunting portrayal of war, Waits forces us to rethink what we’re signing up our children for — no matter how proud we might be of their service. –Matt Melis
23. Spoon – “Inside Out” (2014)
If you’d told most Spoon fans in 2005 that the band would be responsible for one of 2014’s most underrated beach songs, they would’ve snorted, adjusted their trucker hats, and retreated to the nearest High Life tap. However, “Inside Out” exists, and, at least sonically, its beachiness is undeniable. The sweetest fruit of the band’s subtle reinventions under producer Dave Fridmann, “Inside Out” juxtaposes Britt Daniel’s bruised lyricism with waves of synth and fluttering harps that render Spoon’s sound warmer and more contemplative than ever before. If you need a soundtrack for feeling sad in the sunshine, this song’s a top contender. –Tyler Clark
22. Foo Fighters – “Rope” (2011)
In his Grammy acceptance speech for Wasting Light single “Walk”, Dave Grohl reminded us that “the human element of making music is what’s most important.” To that end, Foo Fighters rejected the push for digital precision and returned to the basics of rock and roll on “Rope”. Recording on analog equipment in Grohl’s garage, Foo Fighters and producer Butch Vig recaptured the energy and swaddling production value of the grunge era. From its layered opening guitar riffs to over-the-top drum breaks to rich vocal harmonies, “Rope” is a good, old blast of rock and roll from one of the genre’s most consistent patrons. –Christopher Thiessen
21. The National – “Terrible Love” (2010)
A low, steady thrum of reality, the unshakable feelings, the “quiet company.” Then apocalyptic drums — harder and harder to ignore. After fan favorites Alligator and Boxer, whose opening statements are far less earth-shattering, The National kicked off a prolific decade with the knotty High Violet. Of course, The National became the vanguard of the 2010s’ “grown up” rock: emotional intensity in a button-up shirt. “Terrible Love” gestures toward High Violet’s heady production and meditations on sorrow and addiction. It is measured and solemn until the final minute: a crush of drums, a haunting falsetto, the piano just barely audible. –Erin O’Brien
20. The War on Drugs – “Red Eyes” (2014)
It took until 2014’s Lost in the Dream, the third album from Pennsylvania indie rockers The War on Drugs, for frontman Adam Granduciel to fully emerge from the smoke-ring shadow of ex-member and frequent collaborator Kurt Vile. in many ways, “Red Eyes” is his coming-out party; while the influence of Vile’s trademark haze is still evident, that “whoo!” around the 1:45 mark should tell you that you’re dealing with music more insistent, more desperate, and more stirring than expected. By adding a touch of Springsteen to the slackerdom, Granduciel found his voice, and the world found a new source of troubled-times rock that leans into the jitters instead of sitting still. –Tyler Clark
19. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built” (2012)
Garage rock was the savior of guitar music for much of the early half of the decade, and Japandroids were the flag-bearers. “The House that Heaven Built” is everything you want in a sweaty rock song: an epic illustration of love and glory so furious in delivery that the scratchy bellows seem to come from your own throat. It’s perfectly constructed to rouse hope in the hopeless, an electrifying example of how powerful two musicians can be when they go for broke together. When you can feel the joyous moshing just listening through your headphones, you know you have a true rock anthem. –Ben Kaye
18. The 1975 – “Love It if We Made It” (2018)
When the decade began, the members of The 1975 had just escaped teenagehood, and for the first part of the 2010s, their songs reflected the experiences of young men freshly in their 20s. However, as they’ve aged, so has the subject matter of their songs. The culmination of their growth as a band peaks on “Love It If We Made It”, a track detailing the failings, both social and political, of the modern world. Vocalist Matty Healy knows the world may be bleak around us, but wouldn’t it be great if we made it? That’s the hope Healy clings to and you can’t help but believe in him. –Jennifer Irving
17. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” (2014)
If there’s one thing bullies hate above all else, it’s to get a taste of their own medicine. It’s what makes the title track to anarcho-punks Against Me!’s sixth album so bracing: It’s the sound of somebody else’s “fuck you” getting rubbed back in their face. Her voice full of pain and righteous anger, Laura Jane Grace speaks up for every transwomen who’s ever wanted to tell a TERF to go die in a fire. This is no-bullshit anthemic rock at its best: The kind of song where the riffs and the words land as breath stealing gut punches. –Ashley Naftule
16. The Strokes – “Under Cover of Darkness” (2011)
It had been five long years since their last full-length when The Strokes positioned themselves back on the scene with “Under Cover of Darkness”, the lead single of their fourth studio album, Angles. It gave fans the familiar allure of their glittering guitar and the stumbling lyrical irony from frontman Julian Casablancas, but more than just a return to their sound, it was a confident reintroduction and call to arms from a band who’d been known for where they’re from, ridiculed for being style over substance, and critiqued for their best songs being behind them. When Casablancas sings, “Get dressed, jump out of bed into a vest/ Are you OK?/ I’ve been all around this town /Everybody’s been singing the same song for 10 years,” he means it. –Erica Campbell
Click ahead to see more of our Top 25 Rock Songs of the 2010s…
15. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin” (2015)
I’m not saying I need the chaos and bad news of the day sugarcoated or told to me with a smile … but it doesn’t always hurt either. Throw in a dusty beat that feels like it could stretch out forever, and you have Kurt Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin”, a song that understands perfectly well that some days are so fucked up or exhausting or confusing that you’re liable not to recognize the person staring back at you in the mirror. And while that may not be a positive thing, it’s where we are. To think back upon the 2010s, especially since the 2016 election push started, is to remember a lot of mornings where you didn’t recognize the person, the people, or the country right in front of your eyes. Hell, some mornings it’s been more than I can muster to try and sort it all out. But that stranger’s clothes? Pretty pimpin, I must say. –Matt Melis
14. Cloud Nothings – “I’m Not Part of Me” (2014)
Every singer-songwriter has an anthem in them. “I’m Not Part of Me” is something Dylan Baldi had been working up to for years. The closing track off of 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else finds the Cleveland rocker chewing on the universal. Hampered by heartbreak and hamstrung by the past, Baldi is hungry for a new future, trying desperately to contend with what came prior. Who isn’t? In an age of constant reminders and living records, the past has never felt more exhausting, following our every footstep with every haunting move. So, when we hear Baldi snarl, “I’m not, I’m not you/ You’re a part of me, you’re a part of me,” it’s easy to relate: We all want that kind of elation for ourselves. –Michael Roffman
13. Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs” (2010)
The third album by Arcade Fire was a breakthrough commercially and exposure-wise for the band, and its title track encompasses what 2010’s The Suburbs had in store for us. It’s “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs — it’s a letter from the suburbs,” describe Win and Will Butler as they explore their childhood in surban Texas. Like their other work, the record is concerned with growing up and shines light on some of the darkness and hidden fears in a seemingly idyllic childhood and introduces some of the album’s themes, including war, youth, and loss of innocence. The song is about growing up in the suburbs and about becoming an adult in the suburbs — a methodical wasteland of barren strip malls, gaudy advertisement, and chain restaurants — and absorbing all the morals and aesthetic that a suburban life embodies. –Samantha Lopez
12. Sharon Van Etten – “Seventeen” (2019)
“I see you so uncomfortably alone/ I wish I could show you how much you have grown,” sings Sharon Van Etten on the lead single off this year’s Remind Me Tomorrow, a fitting sentiment to round off the end of the decade: Who were you 10 years ago, and how does it compare to who you are now? The standout “Seventeen” exudes a harmonious mix of despair and nostalgia for the naive teenage feeling of invincibility with the “grown-up” anxiety-ridden feeling of what that younger version of you would make of you now. She taunts, “I know what you’re gonna be,” at a bone-chilling vocal level: “You’ll crumple it up just to see/ Afraid that you’ll be just like me!” Do things really get easier or better? Or are we always that same insecure, head-strong teenager — only with more developed coping mechanisms? –Samantha Lopez
11. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me” (2016)
There is arguably no better sound than a woman, confident in herself and what she wants, directly asking for what she wants, and that sentiment is embodied in absolute perfection on the track “Shut Up Kiss Me” from Angel Olsen’s fourth album, MY WOMAN. It opens with a refusal to stand down as Olsen sings over even strumming, “I ain’t hanging up this time / I ain’t giving up tonight” and climaxes with Olsen’s voice breaking cathartically into the lyrics, “It’s all over, baby, but I’m still yours / I’m still yours”. Built atop the chorus’ consistent demand to “shut up kiss me hold me tight”, Olsen’s directive is a love song for the end of the world, for those acutely aware of time, for those with no moments to waste reading between the lines. –-Erica Campbell
10. Lucy Dacus – “Night Shift” (2018)
In an era that will be fondly remembered for its rise in female songwriters, Lucy Dacus stands firmly as one of the most captivating artists to arrive during the 2010s. On “Night Shift”, her tremendous talent for atypical compositions of dazzling quiet-loud dynamics is on full display. Here, she uses it to highlight the dichotomy of emotions stirring in an anguished but resolute heart, at once dejected and defiant. An impassioned declaration of self-worth delivered with Dacus’ graceful honesty, it’s a fitting theme for a culture more concerned than ever with addressing toxic habits. –Ben Kaye
09. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen” (2015)
Tame Impala have quietly been setting a tone over the past decade for the trajectory of “rock” music. After 2012’s Lonerism was released to critical acclaim and received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album, Kevin Parker and band had a lot to live up to. “Let It Happen”, the first taste off their following album, Currents, finds them recombining their love of electronics and ’70s guitar grooves to remarkable new levels. The single is the musical embodiment of ease and relaxation, coupled with gorgeously produced bass nods and tight keyboards. During the opening verse, the music begins to fade as Parker effortlessly whimpers, “Just let it happen, let it happen,” and when the chorus picks up, he’s aided by gorgeously honest backing vocals and translucent synths, which add a layer of depth to already expanding horizons. –Samantha Lopez
08. Portugal. The Man – “Feel It Still” (2017)
It’s rare that a band breaks into the mainstream eight albums in, but with the mass appeal of the contagious “Feel It Still”, Portugal. The Man did just that. At first glance, it’s a fun pop jaunt, but the band infused inspiration from political movements, the early hip-hop movement, and being a “rebel just for kicks” into the sound and lyrics of the track. Back in 2017, I asked lead singer and guitarist John Gourley about the crossover success of “Feel It Still” and if there was a foreseeable recipe when conducting such a hit. He responded, “It’s not about the beat. It’s about the lyrics, end of story. Tell your story, be honest, be true. Don’t give me another song that just says exactly what you think you’re supposed to say. There’s no time for it. There’s no point.” –Erica Campbell
07. Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?” (2014)
The first time I heard “Do I Wanna Know?” live, Alex Turner looked out into the crowd as if to size each of us up. It felt more like the beginning of a match than the beginning of a song, and I don’t think I’d ever been so elated over the prospect of a fight. But guitar riffs, blues sonics, and daring frontman aside, at its core, “Do I Wanna Know?” is a love song. No amount of leather, bravado, or machismo can deviate from a line like “Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new,” and that’s the true treasure of the song, auditorily confident, lyrically diffident. –Erica Campbell
06. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” (2016)
Will Toledo’s story will be one of indie rock’s most interesting when the history books on the 2010s are written. Signing to Matador after coming up as a DIY artist with notably knotty lyrics, the Car Seat Headrest mastermind made his songwriting skills evident on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”. It’s an improbably thoughtful examination of the internal struggle against external expectations, relating that dangerous constraint to both the captivity of orcas at SeaWorld and driving home drunk after a party. Making such a poignant point out of such disparate concepts — all tucked into such a rollicking track — takes some fascinating genius. –Ben Kaye
Click ahead to see the best of our Top 25 Rock Songs of the 2010s…
05. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl” (2016)
Though it wasn’t until the release of her fifth studio album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, that the spotlight truly found Mitski, the now 29-year-old has been reinforcing her reputation as a master at handling complex narratives and crafting them into clear and dazzling pop songs for nearly a decade now. It’s on “Your Best American Girl”, the lead single off of 2016’s Puberty 2, where Mitski’s ability to examine universal feelings and tuck them into personal narratives shines the brightest. The singer-songwriter is able to excavate her own anxieties, desires, and mistakes and reach universal conclusions through acoustic strums, twinkling dreamy pop synths, and piercing bursts of feedback. –Samantha Lopez
04. St. Vincent – “Cruel” (2011)
“How could they be casually cruel?” A great question that we still can’t answer, and probably never will. St. Vincent knows this. She knew it back in 2011, and she certainly feels it now. These are dark times, indeed, and “Cruel” gets more prescient with each passing day. Looking back, Annie Clark’s pop parable on the trials and tribulations of women is a staggering preamble to the 2010s. “You were the one waving flares in the air/ So they could see you,” she sings, “And they were the zephyr blowing past you/ Blowing fastly so they can’t see you.” Look above, look around, and perhaps look within, these zephyrs are everywhere, and their thick trails of smoke continue to pollute what little sunlight struggles to eek through. Not surprisingly, Clark has since leaned into her vitriol, the kind that comes from making such revelations as these. But this is the singer-songwriter at her most poignant, and her words aren’t just haunting, they’re crushing for all their truths. –Michael Roffman
03. LCD Soundsystem – “Dance Yrsef Clean” (2010)
There’s great irony laced throughout LCD Soundsystem’s career. So much of their catalog is about band leader James Murphy wrestling with his understanding of the music field at large as well as his place within it. Yet, even as he derides that “It’s the end of an era, it’s true,” he creates unstoppable dance anthems that perpetuate LCD’s status as a beloved force in music. “Dance Yrself Clean” is an exemplar of this modus operandi. Two separate songs presented as one because doing it in parts would be “pretentious,” according to Murphy. It challenges fame, friends, and Marxist industry practices with a simple solution: Dance. With the group’s usual mastery of lengthy jams with builds that release in epic style, “Dance Yrself Clean” is inescapably danceable — a true achievement of the goals laid out in the lyrics themselves. In fact, it’s so successful that there’s an indie pop dance event named after the track. Doesn’t that just make you wanna go and throw your little hands up? –Ben Kaye
02. Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young” (2013)
This song has everything. Saabs, the Kennedys, government mistrust, golf, death, and (of course) arguably the best use of a vocal effect this decade has ever seen. Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of The City, barreled in with “Diane Young”, a homonym titled track that embodied the psyche of an entire generation of post-grads who were learning that unfortunately, their dreams might not pan out as they’d planned. Lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig shared in an interview, “We felt like the world didn’t need a song called ‘Dying Song’, so we started to get a vision of a woman named Diane Young and we just took it from there.” That desire to take sinking feelings of doom and gloom, while enlisting guitar pop-punk to make it buoyant, can be felt throughout the track. A testament to the time it was written, Koenig puts our generation’s woes succinctly when he rattles out over the crescendo, “Nobody knows what the future holds/ And it’s bad enough just getting old/ Live my life in self-defense/ You know I love the past, ’cause I hate suspense.” –Erica Campbell
01. M83 – “Midnight City” (2011)
If the 2010s taught us anything, it’s that we’re all looking for some kind of hope. Obama successfully campaigned on that notion in the late aughts, and that hunger certainly carried over into the following decade, metastasizing into a spiritual slogan for an entire generation. “Midnight City” fits squarely into those needs, which is why M83’s blockbuster single so ably whisked away millennials into its synthpop carnival in 2011. It’s cotton candy for dreamers, sweetened by electronic hooks, Twitter-ready sentiments, and a saxophone solo that doubles as a stairway to heaven. By the time Anthony Gonzalez screams, “The city is my church,” you’re checked in and praying you never have to leave. Why would you want to? Anything can happen, tonight is the night, we’re going to save ourselves, we’re going to be free — redemption is near. This is pure pop escapism at its finest, but also why the genre conquered the decade: Because when reality’s a nightmare, one can only hope to dream again. –Michael Roffman
Stream the full playlist below via Spotify.