A decade is a long time, particularly when it comes to our tastes in art. There’s an innate desire for novelty, growth, and change that affects artists as much as their audiences. Although our minds gravitate to the familiar, the same trick over and over will only get you so far; after a certain period of time repetition becomes boring and uninspiring. That being said, reinvention for its own sake is no guarantee of success – particularly in music, where trends come in go in waves that are equal parts unexplainable, invisible and somehow irresistible; it’s the only way my brain can make sense of the brief success of both Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, two bootleg versions of the Fleet Foxes.
With that context, it’s only fair to recognize those musicians who were around at the end of the last decade but really shone over this one. To qualify for this (completely subjective) list, these artists must have released an album before 2010 and put out work that I think significantly evolved – and improved – their sound and reputation in the public eye in the years since. Without further ado I present to you 9 Artists from 2009 Who Pushed Boundaries in the 10s.
In alphabetical order.
Justin Vernon’s transformation from lovelorn, reclusive folk singer into pioneering champion of the avant-garde is one I certainly did not anticipate. The Wisconsin native has used his platform to shine a light on the wide network of friends, collaborators, and artists in his orbit who inspire him. That he does this in his capacity as a bandleader makes a degree of sense; that he has taken an active role on promoting the wider arts – beyond musical performance – shows that he’s one of the few who can see the entire artistic landscape with clarity. The indie singer-songwriter label has been too small for him for many years – after all, this is an artist whose voice and distinctive sound became the cornerstone a decade ago for Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one of the greatest rap records of all time. Given the fact that he has his own music festival, sits on the board of Pioneer Works, is involved in industrial light and stage design, and work in grassroots political activism, calling him just “musician” is beginning to seem limiting as well.
All the signs were there from the start, weren’t they? The man born Aubrey Drake Graham and best known to fans for his role as Jimmy Brooks on Canadian teenage soap opera DeGrassi had that burning ambition from day one; he even told us as much on “Successful”. The third track off of his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone laid it all out: Drake was here for the money, the cars, the clothes, and the women.
Over the the last decade Drake has become rap’s version of Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds, seemingly hoovering up every aspect of popular culture, hamming it up for the camera during the first seven years, and collapsing unto himself over the last three. That curdling could easily be interpreted as the lashing out of a man hurt by the changing tides. Drake’s ascent took him from rap underdog to bullet-proof charmer. Recent years have taken some of the gloss off: the revelation (and initial denial) that he had a son with Sophie Brussaux, the middling reviews – but mega sales – for a few of his projects, and finally, allegations of his habit of “striking up friendships” with underage actresses have all put a dent in his once-sterling reputation. But ask any casual fan of rap or pop and Drake was probably the biggest name on the planet over the last decade.
By the time 2010 came around, Kanye had just finished restoring his reputation for the first time. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a record so lush, so opulent, so different that critics fell over themselves to tell us how Kanye’s genius justified his behavior. And candidly, fans and casual listeners alike bought it; if we are looking at rap today, you can’t deny that album’s impact. The rest of the decade brought us some highs (Yeezus, “Kids See Ghosts”, Kanye’s forays into design – particularly footwear and the set for the Saint Pablo Tour) and some lows (Ye, Jesus is King, MAGA Kanye) but what is tru is that whenever Kanye did something over the last decade it was on everyone’s lips.
It all started with that verse on “Runaway”. Pusha T had always been known to hip hop fans as one half of The Clipse, the hard-rapping, weight-moving, Virginia Beach natives closely associated with Pharrell and The Neptunes. But the retirement of his brother Malice, who left hip hop for religion (and changed his stage name to “No Malice”) led many to ask what would happen to Pusha – a question he emphatically shut down with one of the standout verses on an album chock-full of star turns.
The relationship between Push and Kanye would blossom from there, leading to a series of hard-hitting cocaine rap albums that rattled your ear and your trunk. Pusha T was named as president of Kanye’s GOOD Music label and used his ever increasing skill and clout to aim for a spot at the top of rap’s hierarchy. It all culminated in the release of “The Story of Adidon” – breaking the news of Drake’s son – and the subsequent album Daytona, an album that was short, brutal, and fun as hell. With that one-two punch, he rightly justified the King Push moniker.
Enigmatic as ever, Rihanna completed her transformation from pop starlet to full-on global business maven. Seriously, think about it: Rihanna has only released four albums in the last decade, and none since 2016’s critically acclaimed Anti. The record marked a new direction for Rihanna, one that was much more candid and confessional and showed a side of her that wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable and comfortable. It helped round out her public persona, reflecting the self-sufficient woman she is today on her own terms, as opposed to through the prism of her relationships to her exes or collaborators.
Anticipation for her next album is at a fever-pitch, although it’s unlikely we’ll get any more music by Ri-Ri this decade. Throughout the same period, she’s built up Fenty into a cosmetic and fashion empire aligned with her exquisite taste and fierce independence. I can’t wait to see what the next decade holds for Rihanna.
Solange’s first album was released in 2002, while she was just 16 years old, but she had been around showbiz for much longer – first as a backup dancer in Destiny’s Child and then as an artist in her own right. And while she had a breakout single in 2012 with “Losing You”, it wasn’t until the latter half of this decade that her genius received wide acclaim and recognition.
Some records are bigger than just the music. A Seat at the Table was released in October 2016 – slightly over a month before Trump was elected president – but it seemed to be steeped in prescience about what it means to suffer, and celebrate, being a minority in the United States under this administration. Like Janus, it told us the future by looking at the past. Since then she’s served to both set the agenda and continuously push it forward.
Annie Clark had already ventured out by herself into the great unknown of a solo career at the start of this decade, and with considerable success. She showcased her chops as a guitarist and witty lyrics in a way that caught attention and turned heads on on Marry Me and Actor, her first two records. But it’s been her work since that firmly established her reputation as a one-of-a-kind, iconic presence of the New York music scene. Each one of Strange Mercy, Love This Giant (her collaboration with David Byrne), St. Vincent, and 2017’s Masseduction peels back yet another layer to St. Vincent, the artist, yet she remains as enigmatic as ever. These transformations – in subject matter, instrumentation, and approach – have provided me with great joy and surprise over the past ten years. I can’t wait to see what face she shows up with next time.
It would be easy to dislike Sufjan’s music. It can come across as overly wrought, dramatic, and precious, and if seen in just the right light, you can catch a glimmer of the flecks of hubris speckled across the surface. However the truth is that the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist pours so much sincerity and emotion into each of his songs that they somehow feel immune from these criticisms.
When Sufjan sings, be brings us into those memories with him in a way that makes us feel as if we were sitting alongside him as they were formed. His complicated relationship with, and estrangement from, his mother gets wrapped into our own complicated dynamics with our parents; his battle with mental health and fight for happiness becomes our own climb towards wellness. Sufjan only released two full-length albums this decade, but each one of them tugged at heart strings in ways that blurred the lines between audience and artist.
The biggest band in the world today isn’t really a ‘band’ and hadn’t even released a full-length record when this decade started. Nonetheless, Tame Impala make it onto this list as the musical act that has made the biggest splash – and impact – on popular music in the past ten years. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when they reached a higher gear, it’s often cited as coinciding with the release of Currents in 2015 – the moment when an excellent band discovered synthesizers and became even better. The album had such a stronghold on popular culture that Rihanna even covered the closing track from it less than a year later.
Starting off as a psychedelic rock project, the Perth, Australia natives’ sound has been influenced by hip hop and electronic music over the last few years, while simultaneously also leaving its imprint on wider popular culture. Frontman and principal songwriter Kevin Parker has been heralded as a genius, and now is frequently brought in to collaborate with leading rappers, including Travis Scott and Kanye. Tame Impala closed out the decade with another global tour and a steady drip of four new singles in anticipation of their next record, The Slow Rush. I can’t wait for February 2020.