50 Best Songs of the Decade
Artists, industry insiders and critics pick the best tracks from the past 10 years
1. Gnarls Barkley
In this frazzled and fragmented decade, when the Top 40 broke down into squabbling niches, the idea of a universal pop hit, a song anybody could love, seemed like a sweet old-fashioned notion. Then these guys showed up. Atlanta rapper Cee-Lo and indie producer Danger Mouse decided it would be a gas to pretend to be the world’s greatest pop group, and so they gave the world ‘Crazy.’ Everybody loved this song, from your mom to your ex-girlfriend’s art professor. It blasted in punk clubs and Burger King bathrooms. Every sucky band on earth tried a lame cover. For the summer of 2006, ‘Crazy’ united us all into one world under a groove. Gnarls Barkley packed a career’s worth of genius ideas into three minutes – and then they basically disappeared. Does that make them crazy? Probably. But was this the most glorious pop thrill of our time? Totally.
Jigga’s incredible decade-long run reached its hard-rock crescendo in this Black Album smash, flipping an old Ice-T hook with go-go percussion and metal guitars. It was the funkiest thing Rick Rubin had touched since the Eighties. And needless to say, it was a relief for Beyoncé to be upgraded to “nonproblem” status.
3. Beyoncé feat Jay-Z
‘Crazy in Love’
The horns weren’t a hook. They were a herald: Pop’s new queen had arrived.
Beyoncé’s debut solo smash, powered by that sampled Chi-Lites brass blast, announced her liberation from Destiny’s Child and established her MO: She’d best the competition by doing everything sassier, bigger, crazier.
After all these years, ‘Hey Ya!’ sounds as weird and fantastic as it did the first time: A genre-humping blur of acoustic guitars, hand claps, dance instructions and André 3000’s funktastic charm. Fifty years from now, kids will still be asking what a Polaroid picture is.
Rapper Maya Arulpragasam cheerfully threatened to steal your money, over a beat sampled from the Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell,’ tossing in cash-register rings, gunshots and shout-outs to Third World slums. The year after ‘Paper Planes’ came out, the Pineapple Express trailer blew it up into one of the unlikeliest Top 10 jams ever.
6. The White Stripes
‘Seven Nation Army’
Jack White uses an effects pedal to make his guitar sound like a bass and howls about a rage so intense, he could take on an army all by himself. Result: the greatest riff of the decade and a massive, career-changing hit that college marching bands now play.
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
How often do we get a fiery soul ballad and an art-punk classic in the same song? Karen O testifies to the power of love as if she’s miraculously channelling Siouxsie and Sam Cooke at the same time. She wails the word “wait” with a heartsick ache, while Nick Zinner’s guitar and Brian Chase’s drums ride to her emotional rescue.
8. Amy Winehouse
The humour in Winehouse’s 2006 salvo is darker now, given subsequent crack binges and other misbehaviour. But ‘Rehab’ still sums up the London diva’s greatness: Sonically letter-perfect retro soul with producer Mark Ronson’s 21st-century beat-muscle and cheekiness. “He’s trying to make me go to rehab,” she sings, “I won’t go, go, go.” You go, girl.
The song that re-established U2 as the world’s biggest band looked backward, reviving the skyscraping sound of their Eighties classics. But the lyrics – “See the canyons broken by cloud/See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out” – were more ambivalent than the title suggested, a prayer for transcendence in a wounded world.
This creepy hit encapsulated the dramatic flair that made Eminem so impossible to ignore in 2000. A deranged fan writes Em a series of unhinged letters, and as the song builds to a bloodcurdling climax, Em is forced to confront his rep as a bad role model. And despite Dido’s reassurances, this story won’t end well.
‘Time to Pretend’
Two keyboard dorks air their rock-star fantasies – “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin” – and force you to guess if it was an ironic goof, a biting satire or (just maybe) totally sincere. What made it great was the way that piercingly beautiful chorus kept you wondering.
A megahit from the 8 Mile soundtrack, ‘Lose Yourself’ was hip-hop as inspirational as Rocky, with Em rapping about the kind of poverty he grew up in – and showing the superhuman rhyme powers that got him out of it.
13. 50 Cent
‘In Da Club’
50 introduced himself to the pop world with a kickass Dre beat, stepping through the club to charm the ladies with boasts of his bullet wounds and his bountiful bar tab. “I’m into havin’ sex/I ain’t into makin’ love,” he sang. “So come give me a hug!”
14. Missy Elliott
‘Get Ur Freak On’
One of the most deliciously freaky, gleefully experimental hip-hop songs ever: Timbaland delivers an amazing bhangra beat while Missy throws down like some weird-ass cheerleader who knows that the world is listening.
15. Johnny Cash
Cash strips a Nine Inch Nails arena anthem to little more than an acoustic guitar and the trembling voice of a dying man staring down his failures. Trent Reznor’s verdict: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”
16. The Strokes
The Lower East Side version of youthful angst: All the Lou Reed vocals and sweaty garage rock you can pack into three minutes, driven by a surging riff and a subway car full of cool confusion.
17. Bob Dylan
A drifter’s love song that seems to sum up Dylan’s entire career, and a rambling classic that ranks up there with ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ When he growls, “I’m gonna look at you till my eyes go blind,” it’s both a romantic promise and a hint of doom.
18. Kelly Clarkson
‘Since U Been Gone’
Is it a stick of bubblegum? Or a stick of dynamite? With this indignant, inspirational megahit – co-produced by Max Martin – the American Idol moved from inspiration to indignation and gave teen pop a feisty new template.
19. Kanye West
“If I talk about God, my record won’t get played,” rapped Kanye over thundering martial drums on this gospel testimonial. He was wrong: ‘Jesus Walks’ climbed the charts and won a Grammy for Best Rap Song. But more important, it introduced a hip-hop star who could single-handedly create more drama than a carful of Crips.
20. Justin Timberlake
‘Cry Me a River’
The video, in which Justin stalks a Britney look-alike, made clear the inspiration for this breakup aria. But the real story was the formation of the Timberlake-Timbaland team: a match made in pop heaven.
One of rap’s most frenzied moments: OutKast preachify, guitars howl, and a choir chants, “Power music! Electric revival!”
Amerie sounds breathless on this R&B smash about getting sucked into an ex’s orbit. The beat samples the New Orleans funksters the Meters, the biggest airplay they ever got – right before Katrina hit.
2007’s song of the summer was more power ballad than R&B song, thanks to its rocking live-drums beat. It had the whole world singing along with Rihanna and her umbrella-ella-ella – and made the careers of The-Dream and Tricky Stewart.
‘Everything in Its Right Place’
Kid A’s opener announced a record where nothing was in its right place. Thom Yorke’s voice was more processed than Spam, but this was oddness at its most hummable.
25. Missy Elliott
The Divine Miss E puts her thing down, flips it and reverses it over one of Timba-land’s most futuristic sex jams.
This paramount example of Coldplay’s blank-slate gorgeousness turns on a simple melody and a dangling chorus of “You are…”; the rest is left to our imaginations.
27. The Postal Service
‘Such Great Heights’
Fuelled by sparkly synth beats, this aching love song represented a new phase for Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard – and inspired a wave of gentle-keyboard copyists.
28. Randy Newman
‘A Few Words in Defense of Our Country’
At a time when most political songs were outraged rants, this was a deceptively easy-rolling New Orleans piano jam musing on “the end of an empire” – notably, America’s.
29. Kanye West
Kanye’s most instantly pleasurable single ever, thanks to Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles impression and Yeezy’s hilarious lyrics about money-grubbing hotties.
30. R Kelly
The beat is unstoppably sultry, but the vocals made this one of the decade’s signature R&B hits, with Kelly spitting syllables in a tongue-twisting, rap-singing style that only he could have invented.
31. The Flaming Lips
‘Do You Realize??’
The song that epitomised the Lips’ mission to put adults in touch with their inner children: See Wayne Coyne’s good-natured instructions (“Make the good things last”) and hypnotising acoustic-guitar strums.
32. Franz Ferdinand
‘Take Me Out’
Thanks to these slutty Scottish boys, this mod guitar stomp rules any bar where the girls feel like dancing – a fiendishly clever seduction where Alex Kapranos seethes, “I won’t be leaving here… with you.”
33. Daft Punk
‘One More Time’
The Auto-Tune revolution began with this dance-floor epiphany. France’s finest house DJs built a lovingly detailed tribute to Seventies disco with cyborg voices, wildly EQ’ed horns and an elephantine groove.
Has any band had a better line for their first single than “Look at the stars, see how they shine for you”? The introduction to Chris Martin’s unique dreaminess.
35. Bruce Springsteen
This strings-laden rock & roll rapture was written about 9/11. But when its metaphor of struggling through darkness was blasted at Obama’s victory celebration, it became a national anthem for the 21st century.
‘Moment of Surrender’
Bono sings about a junkie riding the subway, disconnected, then failing to recognise his own reflection in an ATM window. The most devastating ballad U2 – or anyone – has delivered since ‘One.’
37. LCD Soundsystem
‘Losing My Edge’
This tale of an aging hipster would’ve murdered on its sleek dance-floor groove alone. But the lyrics – which both skewer and celebrate music geeks – double the pleasure.
“The future is coming on,” croons Damon Albarn with his cartoon supergroup, riding a reggae groove that evokes Ennio Morricone. Then Del tha Funkee Homosapien drops rhymes like a high-plains drifter.
39. Modest Mouse
A snappy, silver-lined indie-pop march that asserts, “Good news is on the way.” A summer of ’04 hit, its chill-pill positivity nailed the zeitgeist during Bush’s re-election: Good news is slow sometimes.
Be advised: There will be milk, and it will get crazy shook. Amid a Neptunes beat and a chanted hook, the R&B dairy queen taught a course in advanced bootyology.
41. LCD Soundsystem
‘All My Friends’
A seven-minute blast of electro disco that’s also a rock anthem on the scale of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes,’ mourning the comedown from the decade’s killer parties and the friends lost along the way.
42. Arcade Fire
‘Wake Up’ was the first dose of the blessed excess that made Arcade Fire great, mixing art-collective clamour with enough passion to rouse Dick Cheney (OK, almost).
43. The Roots
‘The Seed (2.0)’
On this sleek winner, hip-hop’s greatest band got deep in the pocket as Cody ChesnuTT delivered a scorching guitar riff. Somewhere, James Brown is smiling.
44. Britney Spears
Bollywood strings! Surf guitar! Euro disco! Producers Bloodshy and Avant tossed a bit of everything into this hit, which proved that Britney could turn whacked-out techno pop into delicious bubblegum.
45. Kylie Minogue
‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’
The pint-size Aussie disco dolly seduced the US with this mirror-ball classic, chanting that obsessive melody in a sea of “ba-ba-ba” vocals. We’ve been hearing it at the gym ever since.
“Control yourself/Take only what you need from it,” they sing, sounding like Arcade Fire shrooming with the Flaming Lips, and with sloganeering so vague, the president of France used this as a campaign theme.
47. Green Day
The song fans had waited years for – a Clash-worthy guitar rant full of righteous political fury, with Billie Joe Armstrong showing how adults misbehave in style.
48. The Killers
They crawled out of Vegas armed with glitzy beats and faux Bowie accents. ‘Mr. Brightside’ made them famous, bringing New Wave ecstasy and a story line that sums up the first two seasons of Gossip Girl.
49. The Walkmen
An anthem of New York’s rock revival that mixed Strokes strumming with U2’s operatic fury. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser gives an unlucky caller an earful. “Can’t you hear me, I’m bleeding on the wall!” We hear you.
‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’
With a helping hand from The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, Beyoncé issued her definitive statement for ladies stuck in limbo with a dude who can’t commit. The swinging beat was irresistible, the video was jiggletastic, and the message was clear: Get it together, fellas.
Contributors: Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield