From ‘TiK ToK’ to ‘Old Town Road’: top ten English songs from the 2010s

Songs that linger on as the decade reaches its outro

Updated - December 28, 2019 06:06 pm IST

Published - December 21, 2019 09:27 pm IST

Pharrell Williams performs at the 57th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Pharrell Williams performs at the 57th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles.

2010: "TiK ToK" - Kesha


"TiK ToK" by Kesha doesn’t pretend to be an anthem for a generation, but it does give a blink-and-you-miss-it peek into what makes them tick - a rare confidence, which viewed through the lens of previous generations may come across as "in-the-face self-assertiveness".

It takes some reading between the lines and some dipping into the social history of the last two decades to understand where this confidence comes from. In any case, this song’s strength does not lie in its message, which in fact can be missed if one does not search for it. Its highpoint is that it is an absolute earworm: With its upbeat tempo and matching hooks (Don't stop, make it pop/ DJ, blow my speakers up/ Tonight, I'm-a fight/Till we see the sunlight/ Tick-tock on the clock/ But the party don't stop, no), it ticks all the boxes of an addictive electro-dance song. It is highly visual with even the tune seeming to follow a "visual script".

That takes us to its pleasantly-anachronistic side, marked by chiptune-music that is likely to take the 90s-generation to songs such as "Scatman" with their video-game sounds. "TiK ToK" is a heavily processed song, and this particularly includes the liberal use of Autotune, but nevertheless Kesha's prowess as a singer-songwriter and performer is present in its incipient glory. Her presence as a performer evokes memories of Madonna of the 1980s.

Over the years, Kesha has evolved as a singer, a act particularly borne out by her performance in "Praying" from her album "Rainbow". On the surface, "TiK ToK" is a celebration of teenage carefreeness. However, beyond the innocuous epicureanism it portrays, this song seems to stick up for a generation, suggesting that they can live life king-sized on the "little" they have. Gift and circular economies are now making this an easy reality to be had. A free homestay can shrink the distance between Chennai and Chicago, and in this day and age, this is often easy to come by. Greater connectedness through improved communication technology is creating an environment for such economies to thrive. Concepts such as couch-surfing and freecycling, though children birthed in earlier decades, were dotingly nurtured through the 2010s due to greater social interconnections. As digital natives, this generation is in a better position to draw the best out of such connectedness.

2011: "Somebody That I Used To Know" - Gotye 


Even at its best, a floor design made with an assortment of broken tiles is going to look painfully put-together. This art-pop song by Gotye from his album Making Mirros employs a similar imagery, as it holds a mirror to a broken relationship. A man and a woman, ex-lovers with lingering bitterness, provide pieces of information from their perspectives, not to arrive at a state of resolution, but to assuage their wounded feelings.

The art-based music video takes the theme forward, illustrating the psychological complexity of trying to make sense of a broken relationship. The singers Gotye (stage-name of Australian-Belgian singer-music producer Wouter De Backer) and Kimbra, a singer from New Zealand, also play "models" for the music video. Their bodies are painted in patches of different colours and set against a mosaic, similarly painted, to suggest disharmony, which is amplified by the pixilation technique used in the videography. It is etch-Gotye. He has done many other songs whose DNA consists of art and visual special effects. In its sounds too, "Somebody I Used To Know" is sufficiently avant-garde. The xylophones – Gotye is multi-instrumentalist – provide a timbre that subtly contributes to building tension between the two ex-lovers. Besides chart-busting performance in many countries, the song picked up two Grammys, with one of them being in the "Best Pop-duo/ Group Performance", apt because it will automatically recognise the massive creative contribution by Natasha Pincus as the director of the music video.  

2012: "Rolling In The Deep" - Adele


Across cultures, female singers with incredibly rich voices invariably invite ‘taxonomical reclassification’. Lata Mangeskar is "the nightingale of Bollywood". K.S. Chitra is chinna kuyil ("Indian koel") in Tamil Nadu and vanamadi (skylark) in Kerala. There is an unofficial biography of Adele, by Alice Hudson, and it is titled Adele: Songbird. Adele is a lyrebird, a creature of the skies that can achieve astounding sound modulations to suit a situation. Adele’s voice is replete with emotive power, and with it, she seems capable of driving the theme of any song. Rolling In The Deep (from her album 12) which walked away with the "Song Of The Year" honour at the 54th edition of the Grammys, is particularly illustrative of this ability.

A woman issues dark threats to her ex-lover. The mood is akin to inky-dark skies gathering to usher in a cataclysmic thunderstorm. And Adele, though a mezzo-soprano, sings in the lower pitches with disdainful ease, conjuring up that "dark skies" effect, so to speak. Such signing must be "just another day in the office" for contraltos, but not mezzo-sopranos. That Adele manages it with poise speaks for her vocal range. Instrumental sounds are kept sparse, to allow Adele’s voice unhindered airplay. 

2013: "Thrift Shop" - Macklemore and Ryan Lewis  


There are musicians who bandy around subjects of socio-economic or environmental significance in their songwriting, touching upon them with the lightness of a feather. On the other side of the spectrum are musicians fixated on certain issues to the point of pursing it with activist-like tenacity. The rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have persisted with the issue of consumerism, with their treatment of it ranging from acerbic gravitas to facetious humour.

In the song "Thrift Shop" from the album The Heist, the duo treats the subject in a lighter vein, extolling the values of recycling. The music video has Macklemore showing off the purchases he has made on the cheap, including a "dooki-brown leather jacket that I found diggin’", a broken keyboard, a skeet blanket and a kneeboard. Beneath these merry bargains lies a layer where the duo takes a bead on their own tribe and their consumption pattern that is marked by ostentatious extravagance. The line "I’m gonna pop some tags" is aimed at underlining the extravagant spending habits of the hip-hop fraternity, and is offered with a touch of irony as he is thrift-shopping, and the following line is "Only got twenty dollars in my pocket". These lines are part of a neat hook that keeps replaying in your head. The sax sounds are just where they should be, contributing to the overall tenor of the song. This song contrasts with Wings, a song from an album with the same name where the duo takes on the issue of consumerism in a direct, head-on fashion. There is also a poignancy attached to the song that has been reportedly distilled from a Macklemore's days as a school-going kid.

2014: "Happy" - Pharrell Williams


In the summer of 2014, Pharrell Williams kicked up a happiness tornado that whirled around the globe, and got people dancing to his merry tune. Pharrel's falsetto -studded "exhortation" to embrace happiness turned out to be astoundingly infectious, with people recording videos of themselves dancing in tune with the the song and posting them on their socal-media handles.

Happy also got India with some videos such as the one by Sony Music India featuring multiple-city "performances". The incredible success of this neo-soul song caused some older music enthusiasts to recall how Bobby McFerin's acapella reggae song "Don;'t Worry, Be Happy" managed a happiness wave of sorts in the 1980s. Both the songs are cut off same stylistic cloth – soul forms part of the foundation for reggae. Besides, a philosophical subtext runs through both the songs, that happiness has to be achieved in spite of one's human situation.

2015: "Uptown Funk" - Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars


If you think a funk tune has earned its honest rupee if it provides that sway-inducing rhythm, "Uptown Funk" (by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars) from the album Uptown Special is for you. It hits you with rhythm, from the beginning, with some orchestrated hand-clapping. It succeeds to in its attempts to be retro in its sounds, visuals and the overall structure encompassing both. There are allegations that in its attempt to stretch back and blend into the '70s and '80s funk scene, it has acquired pastiches of some past funk work by other artists, leading to copyright infringements. It is a groovy song, with many hooks to sustain listener's interest in it, and is likely to be valued for dusting some old funk sounds that are rarely heard today.

Among the other songs that ruled the airwaves, "Blank Space" by Taylor Swift was impressive in how it expounded on its dark theme of jealously accompanied by mindless rage. Its electro sounds trot at a steady pace, as Taylor’s vocals, infused with suppressed hysteria, broods over the dark theme, and apt visuals complete the picture.

2016: "Hello" - Adele


"Hello" by Adele from her album 25 is a modern soul offering, but the package it comes wrapped in, makes it a song for all-time. On the visual layer of this packge, the Xavier Dolan-directed music video is shot in sepia, and this achieves a double effect, one buttressing the nostalgia-element, a key component of the song, and the other imparting a sense of timelessness to the song. It could be placed in any time period. The use of flip-phones by the protagonists can only be seen as part of carefully-made choice to evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Of course, Adele's singing is the crowning glory. As is the case with most songs involving Adele, instrumentation takes a back seat, barely filling out a thin layer, on which to place Adele's mesmerising vocals. "Hello" is about a woman who believes she has done her ex-lover great wrong, and seeks emotional closure by trying to connect with him and talk the guilt out of her heart. Adele has done justice to this grand theme, and "Best Song of the year" from the 59th edition of the Grammys was a much-deserved reward. In 2015, Justin Beiber made an impact too, with "Love Yourself" and "Sorry", both of them presented with a high-degree of creativity. Based on an interpretative-dance performance, the music video of "Love Yourself" was particularly attention-grabbing. 

2017: Shape of You - Ed Sheeran


To find a cricketing analogy for "Shape of You", it is like a blitzkrieg of a knock from the blade of a batsman known for solid defence and sheet-anchor's roles. In his music videos, Ed Sheeran generally seeks to stay inconspicuous even when he is the protagonist, letting the theme take precedence over his personality. In "Shape of You" he cuts loose, and fills out the screen a lot more than usual. Diehard Ed-Sheeranians lapped it up. An earworm of song with some ready hook lines to hum, the song also appealed to a wider listenership, as some stats about the song show. It is the second most-viewed music video on YouTube in the 2010s, behind the Spanish song "Desapcito".

2018: "God's Plan" - Drake 


Year 2018 was hugely productive for Drake, with some songs hitting the top-10 deck on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. A line "Kiki, do you love me?" from his single "In my Feelings" became a viral sensation, as a challenge was crafted around it. Those who take the challenge would be ghost-riding – stepping out of a moving vehicle and dancing alongside, in traffic – in tune with the line. The popularity of the challenge triggered a flurry of exhortation-videos, where concerned celebrities would ask people to find other ways to take the challenge that are as safe as they are creative.

One memorable exhortation-video had actors Kajal Agarwal and Bellamkonda Sreenivas taking to the wheelchair to drive home the point . The Kiki challenge also led to intense speculation about who 'Kiki' could be. Amidst the obsession with the Kiki challange, another song from Drake's album Scorpion, was clambering up the sales and listenership charts -- God's plan, where Drake engages in "random acts of mercy", giving away wads of cash to the unprivileged. A music video going withe the song shows how Drake gave away the entire amount earmarked for making the video. At the beginning of the video, there is a "conspiratorial" note asking viewers not to tell the record label. We didn't, until now.  

2019: Old Town Road - Lil Nas X 


An outsider getting there first, while dyed-in-the-wool veterans of the craft look on with a reaction that lies someehere between shock and admiration. Recently, such a scenario played out when news surfaced that a young Chennai-based space-science enthusiast Shanmuga Subramanian identified the spot on the moon where the debris of moon lander Vikram lay, before anybody else could.

Earlier in the year, a teenager in America left the music fraternity similarly stumped, as he hewed out a hitherto unknown route to music glory. "Old Town Road"'s success story demonstrates the disruptive nature of social media, with its ability to take the wind out of more established promotional methods. In recent years, songs have erupted to notice years after their release, simply because one of their lines got picked up and shaped into an online challenge. That is how Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" became a sleeper hit in 2019.

In contrast, "Old Town Road" achieved traction on the charts as a country-trap song, even before any record label had laid its hands on the tune. In a rare case of lateral entry, its creator Lil Nas X had racked up a huge-social media following, and used it to popularise the song. It particularly got noticed on TikTok, as users found it a handy tool to shape their response to a cowboy challenge called, Yeehaw Challenge. When Billboard took the song down from its country charts, stating that it was not country enough, there was a roar of protest, and much of it was coming straight from Lil Nas X's social-media following.

Lil Nas X's collaboration with Billy Ray Cyrus gave it a new hope, as it had been reshaped into a fine country-trap song. From there, the summit was just a canter away. Among the other finds of the year, was Lewis Capaldi. His voice filled with emotional intensity drove "Somebody You Loved" straight and quick to the winner's circle. With a rather unique vocal distortion, he scales a rare intensity as he sings about the pain accompanying a relationship.

The songwriting, the singing, and even the emoting in the music video make a winner. There are two music videos accompanying the song, with one about the heart-ache resulting from a break-up, and the other about the numb emptiness that follows bereavement. While both videos are intense, the latter is poignant, because its comes with twin-theme, that of extending a hand of compassion through organ donation in the midst of personal suffering. Actor Peter Capaldi, who is related to Lewis, plays the role of the bereaved spouse with a sensitivity that is heart-stirring. Though it arrived in 2019, judging by appearances, it is likely to gain more traction in the year to come. 

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