When Billboard released its Top 10 Rock Songs of the Decade list, it felt like a depressing confirmation of a long-prevailing sentiment in popular discourse — that rock music was, in fact, dead. The saddest part was that the list, which featured not one, not two, but three Imagine Dragons songs, was probably an accurate indication of the kind of rock music that dominated the mainstream in the 2010s: uninspiring, inoffensive, barely rock, and barely any of it – a testament to the fading relevance of the genre.
But that would be unfair to the countless legitimately great rock albums that were released during the past decade. If the 2000s were the golden age of indie rock, much of that sound echoed into the first half of the 2010s, sometimes in its most elegant and mature form. On the other end, you had bands both old and new revisiting rock n’ roll’s classic sounds, revolutionary spirit, and raw energy in an effort to rekindle its flame, while some of its greatest pioneers came out with the best material of their careers by breaking those very same conventions.
Compared to our best pop albums of the decade list, a couple of things stand out. First, almost all the albums here were released in the first half of the decade, with no albums released after 2016. Does that mean that rock music died in 2016? If so, it went out with a bang — half of the records on this list came out that year. But that’s far from the case. While many bands, including some featured here, moved in a poppier direction as the decade progressed, acts like Idles, King Gizzard & The Lizard, Black Midi, Oxbow, and Lucy Dacus came out with ambitious, boundary-pushing rock albums at the tail end of the decade that deserve at least an honourable mention. Secondly, while rock still remains a predominantly white genre, the playing field seems to have leveled in terms of gender, as more and more female songwriters were recognized for their achievements in the genre (though there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to representation). Without further ado, here are the records that defined rock music in the 2010s:
10Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love (2015)
Ten years after Sleater-Kinney graced fans with what seemed to be their swan song, the band returned with an unexpected comeback record that no other rock group managed to top in the past decade. For anyone who’d listened to 2005’s masterful The Woods, though, No Cities To Love may have come as a surprise — a disappointment even. Where The Woods was experimental and conceptual, No Cities to Love kept it simple and focused, brimming with the kind of catchy choruses and pop-adjacent structures that they went on to cultivate on their follow-up, 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold. But behind the album’s deceptive facadé of no-frills rock n’ roll lies the same gripping intensity that made their music so engaging in the first place (and that inspired the sound of countless new acts, including one featured on this list), whether it’s through Corin Tucker’s electrifying vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s tight riffs and angular solos, or now ex-member Janet Weiss’ propulsive (but unfortunately somehow restrained) drumming on tracks like ‘Fangless’. Only a band like Sleater-Kinney can title a song ‘No Anthems’ and then go on to offer such anthemic songs as ‘Surface Envy’ and ‘No Cities to Love’. If The Woods remains untouchable because it saw the band stepping out of their comfort zone, No Cities to Love stands out simply because it sounds like they’re having a whole lot of fun doing exactly what they do best.
9Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork (2013)
Queens of the Stone Age assembled an impressive list of guest artists for their much-hyped sixth studio album, including Elton John, Trent Reznor, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, and Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan. But nobody would blame you if you couldn’t tell just by listening to it. At its core, …Like Clockwork is an intensely personal record that very much centers around frontman Josh Homme, whose songwriting and delivery here are more potent and pronounced than ever. Having almost lost his life during a knee surgery that left him incapacitated for six months, Homme ruminated on the big stuff — life, death, mortality — themes that are explored through the band’s usual brand of stoner rock, except it’s more ambitious and theatrical than ever. “Who are you to me?/ Who we’re supposed to be/ Not exactly sure,” he laments on the stand-out ballad ’The Vampyre of Time and Memory’. But the album also makes for an extremely satisfying listen, filled as it is with swaggering rock n’ roll tunes like ‘My God is the Sun’ and ’I Sat By the Ocean’ as well as tracks that showcase the band’s pop sensibilities like the funky ‘Smooth Sailing’. Then there are fittingly darker moments, like the 6-minute ‘I Appear Missing’ that sounds like falling into an abyss or the existential titular ballad that brings things to a close. This might be the only true-blue rock album on this list — and that’s because it strove to hold on to the power of classic guitar music as if Homme’s life depended on it. And it probably did.
8Savages, Silence Yourself (2013)
No other rock band this past decade burst into the scene quite like Savages did. With such clear intent of purpose and an uncompromising message that fiercely found its way into their music, it’s easy to forget that 2013’s Silence Yourself was in fact a debut album (and, notably, the only one on this list). The record commands you to do exactly what frontwoman Jehnny Beth suggests in the essay featured on the album’s artwork: “If the world would shut up just for a while perhaps we would start hearing the distant rhythm of an angry young tune”. Sure, one might easily scrutinize the band’s obvious array of influences, from post-punk to goth, and deem them too unoriginal to be celebrated in this musical era. But time has only amplified the ferocity of the band’s sound and the frenzied physicality of their approach (the album was recorded live in studio), which distills what makes the best rock music so visceral and then upgrades it for the new millennium, where such reminders of the true immediacy of art are more necessary than ever. From the tenacious opener ‘Shut Up’ to the anxiety-inducing highlight ‘Husbands’ and more meditative cuts like ‘Waiting for a Sign’, the songs here breathe and spit fire. As Beth sings on the liberating ‘She Will’, “she will choose to ignite/ and never to extinguish!”
7Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t Radiohead gone full-on electronic? Can they even be considered a rock band anymore? I mean, that’s a fair question to raise for most artists on this list. But as much of a stylistic pivot as 2011’s The King of Limbs was, A Moon Shaped Pool is somewhat of a return to form — which for Radiohead doesn’t indicate a specific sound as much as a particular approach. The alternative rock band’s ninth studio album feels less like another experiment concerned with genre excursions than an amalgamation of bits and pieces that have defined the band up until this point (there’s a song here that dates back to before The Bends was even released). The result is a haunting, achingly beautiful record that expresses a deep sense of devastation about the future — both personal and cosmic — by melding organic, carefully composed instrumentation, Johnny Greenwood’s grand but never superfluous string arrangements, and Thom Yorke’s reliably evocative croons against jittery beats and deceptively conventional songwriting. The album’s rockiest cut, ‘Identikit’, features a rhythm that pulses with a familiar sense of dread as well as a jagged guitar solo. Opener ‘Burn the Witch’, on the other hand, is so filled to the brim with tension it doesn’t even need an electric guitar to get the point across. “As my world comes crashing down,” Yorke sings on ‘Present Tense’, “I’ll be dancing, freaking out”. Disintegration has never felt so arrestingly graceful.
6Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (2016)
You can feel Nick Cave’s pain before you even spin Skeleton Tree. “Spin” is undeniably the right word here, as the songs here waver in seemingly endless circles of grief, seeking resolution in spite of its apparent impossibility. The most harrowing and emotionally raw record of his career, Skeleton Tree was recorded after the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, fundamentally shaking up both his life and songwriting process. Cave’s usual brand of storytelling is undercut by inevitable cries of despair like “I need you”, “I miss you”, and “Nothing really matters”. The stark, stream-of-consciousness lyrics can at times be too much to handle: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world, in a slumber till you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth,” Cave intones on the ethereal ‘Girl in Amber’. “Well, I don’t think that anymore.” Warren Ellis’s experimental instrumentals, comprised of lush string sections and sparse ambiance, envelop Cave like creeping shadows, resisting any kind of solid form or structure, instead suggesting ambivalence, incompleteness. It can be hard to judge or even revere a record like this when so much of its power stems from being imperfect and fragile, but it’s exactly that barely filtered vulnerability that makes it so impactful, especially coming from one of rock’s most enigmatic and morbid storytellers. There’s a hint of hope on the closing track that felt like too little to grasp onto at the time of its release, but years later, we got Ghosteen, documenting not so much the process of grief as that of healing. There’s light on the horizon, even if it always seems to be spinning out of reach.
5Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
“Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth,” Ezra Koening muses on ‘Step’. But somehow, the acclaimed indie rock group’s third studio album seems to juggle between both. There’s a youthful romantic energy running through ‘Unbelievers’, until the protagonists consider their inevitable fate as sinners; on ‘Hanna Hunt’ — perhaps the greatest track Vampire Weekend have ever penned — scenes of a young couple running away from the mundanity of the world are undercut by feelings of mistrust and uncertainty about the future. Modern Vampires of the City is still the band’s most grown-up and mature statement, so considered and expertly crafted that it almost caused the tired narrative of privilege and cultural appropriation that haunted the band for years to die out. It comes as no surprise that the album is overloaded with references you’d need hours to unpack and genre fusions no other contemporary rock band is capable of pulling off, but the album’s sentiment would be just as effective without the complex allusions it’s tied up to, while its musical experimentation serves a clear thematic purpose rather than just passing for a hip aesthetic. From the unexpected bleakness of ‘Hudson’ to the frantically infectious energy of ‘Diane Young’, MVOTC oscillates between various extremes — newfound emotional immediacy and a familiar sense of intellectual distance, optimism and existential fear, maturity and youth — while remaining the band’s most coherent and complete effort yet. The album’s emotional ambivalence is encapsulated in the iconic line from ‘Finger Back’ that resurfaced years later on the chorus of ‘Harmony Hall’: “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.”
4David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)
No one was ready for Blackstar. Bowie’s endlessly enigmatic career could have ended with another The Next Day, comfortably reveling in the nostalgia of the past and pleasing swaths of fans. Instead, Bowie left us with a deeply uncompromising listen that found him taking a hard look at his life while facing his imminent death, which came just two days after the album’s release. Bleeding with a haunting sense of mortality and fear of oblivion, every moment on Blackstar sounds like Bowie’s about to take his last breath, his voice more vulnerable and weary than ever, yet at the same time gloriously invincible against the cosmic power of the experimental jazz-rock instrumentals he and long-time collaborator Tony Visconti expertly put together. It’s also the most human he’s sounded without completely shedding his usual veil of detachment: “Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no but meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant/ That’s the message that I sent,” he laments on ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. Even separated from the personal context of Bowie’s death, the sheer artistic merit of the album would earn it a spot on this list, but the tragic reality that surrounds it renders it one of the most important cultural moments of the millennium. In the wake of his death, the lines “Look up here now, I’m in heaven” from ‘Lazarus’ felt like a chilling affirmation that Bowie was no longer with us and had transcended to the skies; now, it serves as a potent reminder that The Man Who Fell to Earth is watching over us from above, his Blackstar still shining, pushing us to never stop challenging ourselves.
3Angel Olsen, My Woman (2016)
With My Woman, Olsen proved to the world that her music had no limits, brimming with a sense of ambition she would expand on her grand 2019 album All Mirrors. But the electrifying guitars and endlessly compelling songwriting here imbue the record with a different kind of energy. The album opens with ‘Intern’, a synth-infused meditation on identity that starts with an acknowledgment of the identity work we each carry out on a daily basis but ends with a defiant sense of yearning to be something more: “Everyone I know has got their own ideal/ I just want to be alive, make something real,” Olsen bellows. The same kind of introspection fuels ‘Sister’, an 8-minute epic that’s perhaps the best song Olsen has ever written: “I want to live life/ I want to die right,” she declares, before building to a heart-shattering crescendo, complete with angelic backing vocals and a guitar solo that sounds like it might explode any minute as Olsen repeats “All my life I thought I’d change”. But somehow, she remains composed throughout, managing to contain even the most life-altering of emotions while still evoking their sweeping intensity. It’s perhaps on the album’s other epic, ‘Woman’, that she comes closest to erupting, as she commands: “I dare you to understand/ What makes me a woman.” Even on the shorter tracks, though, Olsen doesn’t hold back, asserting control, like on the fiery, infectious ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ or the bluesy rocker ‘Give it Up’. My Woman is an album full of highlights, the work of an artist ready to show the world she’s much more than what they’ve made her out to be.
2Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)
Be the Cowboy might be the more acclaimed record, but it’s the refreshingly compelling indie rock powerhouse of Puberty 2 that better fits the purpose of this list. The record is a boiling pot of musical ideas, from the fuming folk-punk of ‘My Body’s Made Up of Crushed Little Stars’ to the cheekily Weezer-esque indie rock of ‘Your Best American Girl’. But there’s no way you’d mistake Mitski’s music for anyone else’s – she’s always the focal point that magically ties it all together. Puberty 2 is like a trip to a desert island, but instead of feeling empty, Mitski intimates the true richness of loneliness, its euphoric highs and crushing lows, how love and happiness and anxiety can all coexist in that same seemingly barren place. Opener ‘Happy’ compares happiness to a man who visits you, offers you cookies, and leaves, but is accompanied by an unexpected, triumphant saxophone riff. Elsewhere, aloneness is simultaneously a place of comfort that she wants to share with a lover and a self-imposed barrier preventing her from fully embracing its pleasures. On ‘Fireworks’, she begins with a wish that “one day this sadness will fossilize and I will forget how to cry” and then offers a soaring chorus where she yearns to “listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry”. Mitski is such an astute observer of the human condition and her own desires, and it’s that perspective of being an outsider to her own self that leads to such idiosyncratic yet intimate musings on relationships as ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs’ and ‘Once More to See You’. The album leaves us with the somewhat unfulfilling sentiment: “I’ll love some littler things,” Mitski intones, but we know that’s not a compromise someone who’s familiar with the immense complexity of the human experience is willing to make.
1Swans, To Be Kind (2014)
It was always going to be a battle between 2012’s The Seer and its equally ambitious follow-up, To Be Kind, but the latter earns the number one spot for being arguably the more fleshed-out and coherent record. What can even be said about this 2-hour, nerve-frying behemoth of a record? Words cannot possibly describe something so preoccupied with the most primally visceral aspects of the human psyche, so carnal and animalistic yet also spiritual, more akin to a religious experience than a record – that is, if that religious experience was led by a manic cult leader who’s as obsessed with blood, sex, and chaos as he is with love, God, and yes, kindness. That the band managed to make a record fundamentally designed to test your patience as relentlessly compelling as it is is a testament to Michael Gira and company’s musical prowess, each song pulsing through throbbing bass, pummeling rhythms, deranged noise, and apocalyptic climaxes. From the thunderous explosion of synths on ‘A Little God in My Hands’ to the epic ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’ to the bluesy cries of despair on ‘Just a Little Boy’, the mastery on display here is almost as unsettling as its ritualistic atmosphere. Gira, now 65 years old, delivers searing howls that seem to draw from the entire history of rock’s shamanic madmen. Here is a band that, in the fourth decade of their career, are making more boundary-pushing music than any of their contemporaries could even attempt. And with To Be Kind, rather than watering down their sound, they boiled it until something disgustingly majestic and truly transcendental came out.