The 10 Best Artists of a Decade That Atomized Music

One clammy August night in 2011, newly relocated to New York City, I watched Music Twitter collectively lose its shit. Jay-Z and Kanye West had just released Watch the Throne, their buzzy, long-prayed-for joint album about wealth, class, and #BlackExcellence. The timing was, in retrospect, paradoxical: August 8 was also Black Monday. Global stock markets were in a thrashing downturn. The chill of the Recession iced our backs—still. The strangeness and uncertainty of the moment was matched only by the strangeness and uncertainty of what unfolded on my laptop screen. Like a meteor rocketing toward Earth, Music Twitter had converged for its first real moment of the decade—a presaging of future times and trends.
Decade in Review

WIRED looks back at the promises and failures of the last 10 years One summer later, sweaty and electric with the fever of the season in an apartment on Mulberry Street, friends and I salivated over the gravity of a TextEdit screenshot Frank Ocean had, only minutes ago, uploaded to his Tumblr page. It detailed a lingering and intense relationship with another man, his first love. A window was opening. By the end of the 2010s, a 19-year-old born Montero Hill would find viral fame in the unlikeliest of internet apertures: on a short-form video app called TikTok, ultimately catapulting into untold stardom—and with it his song became the longest-leading Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 in history. Montero Hill vanished. The young legend of a black gay cowboy named Lil Nas X was cemented—and the tempos of our digital biodome were fully etched in stone.At the dawn of the decade, even though we couldn’t fully grasp it then, a new language was being written online for both music artists and fans. Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram—they were tangible proof that eccentric, one-purpose technologies could not only endure but revolutionize how we understand, consume, and make music. Engagement was mandatory.

Now, in the dimming tints of a decade that moved at warp speed, the here and now is defined doubly: by obsessives and obsessive technologies. Let us look to our foremost cultural engines, many of which are still with us, some of which have withered into the digital graveyard, as the true barometer of music engagement. Social media platforms have altogether rewritten how we metabolize music and the culture that surrounds it. They’ve radicalized the rules of fandom. They’ve upturned traditional industry releases and made extinct the idea of gatekeepers. Best of all, they’ve given us goggles for a future that obeys only the pulse of change.

Big data tells one story. That music streaming platforms—Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal—are the most transformative music tools of the decade. Guess what? Big data is wrong. This decade, music streaming platforms merely archived culture; they didn’t shape it in the way that we like to believe. Aside from Soundcloud—that lovable, volatile breeding ground of genre fermentation—Silicon Valley-backed music giants were important in mostly two ways: They substantiated the Playlist Era (which Soundcloud had already been experimenting with in much more exciting fashion, though on a much smaller scale), and as a result they created a culture dependent on singles. The logic skewed to our frenzied times. We moved at lightspeed, which meant there was no time to labor over hour-long albums. The cult of the single best mirrored another modern phenomenon that defined this decade: virality. Singles—Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow”; Carley Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”—became the conduit; an optimal pathway to capture the moment and all it had to offer.
Music streamers are like museums: They house culture, they don’t create it. Soundcloud was the lone exception . Even though it predates the Big Three, it has had the most enduring impact, culturally. Launched in 2008, SoundCloud came of age this decade and erected a business model on community-oriented music streaming—for musicians, podcasters, DJs, mixed-media artists—that reflected that plurality in every regard, soon transforming into a network whose boundaries were delightfully porous. It gave us Soundcloud rap, one of the most disruptive and compelling genres of the 2010s, and elevated cultural forces like Chance the Rapper, Lorde, and Lil Uzi Vert to pop royalty.