End of an Era: Reading In Between the Lines of Pitchfork’s “Best of the 2010’s” Lists


Illustration by Drew Litowitz and Arjun Ram Srivatsa

Johanna Zen

This past week, the online music publication Pitchfork released two lists dissecting both the 200 best songs and 200 best albums of the 2010s.As someone with a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork’s reviews, the lists gave me much less of a pretension-induced headache than I originally thought they would. Frank Ocean’s Blonde is the only acceptable answer for the number one album of this decade and I truly will not budge on that opinion. Additionally, I fully appreciate the mature decision to put aside the controversial memeification of Azealia Banks to discuss how “212” is one of the best songs that has ever graced our ears and therefore deserves a spot in the top ten. Still, however, lists of this nature always call into question the validity of their own existence when we get down to the nitty-gritty of what makes a song or album great enough to be decade-defining. This is not to say that any of the opinions found in these lists are wrong, but it just makes me curious that we try to quantify any of these things at all.

When looking through the list of the 200 best songs, one thing that struck me was that for some of them, the justification for their inclusion had less to do with their actual musical or lyrical content and more to do with the mythos surrounding them or the artist. For example, let’s take Justin Bieber. The teen-star turned bad-boy turned God-fearing husband has two songs featured on the list, “Sorry” and “Where Are Ü Now.” The descriptions underneath both songs talk about Bieber’s awkward transition from a teeny-bopper to a confused young-adult celebrity with too many scandals on his hands. There’s no denying that this is a powerful narrative. Time and time again, our understanding and consumption of pop culture has shown that we love to look on in shock and awe as young innocent stars get chewed up and spit out by Hollywood. We love to hate the Lindsay Lohans, Britney Spears, and Justin Biebers of the world, confusingly rooting for them and awaiting their downfall at the same time. Then, if and when they do get their heads above water to make a comeback, like with Bieber’s breakout hit “Sorry,” we rejoice. The confusing thing about this narrative, however, is how we pick who gets this shot at a comeback and how this gets to play out on the cultural stage.

Bieber’s superstar counterpart, Taylor Swift, gets one slice of recognition on the list with her universally-praised track “All Too Well,” from her 2012 album Red. The sweeping epic of a break-up song is a safe-bet for music critics to write about because of its sheer quality, one even going as far as to say that it’s Swift’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” Swift does not, however, receive the same mixture of quasi-mythology and forgiveness that Bieber does. Her own relationship with the media has been the subject of criticism for years. She finally tried to make sense of her own metanarrative in 2017 with the aptly titled album, reputation. The music video for her single “Look What You Made Me Do” saw Swift giving us a tongue-in-cheek look at what we have perceived as her carefully-crafted personas over her career. It’s a smart piece with a Sunset Boulevard-Esque thesis about how fame deconstructs one’s own identity and sense of themselves.

This experiment was met with critiques that Swift was simply falling into her usual schtick of playing the victim and giving us a clinical, calculated version of a star who’s ready to shed her good-girl persona for something a little darker. This blasé hand-waving of her reputation era has always bothered me though. Why is it that Bieber gets to bare his soul in the pop charts after many public mishaps yet Swift doesn’t in the same way? This isn’t an endorsement of all of her choices, nor is it brushing off the many valid critiques about her evolution as an artist and media icon. It’s just interesting to me that, at the end of a decade, we are giving ourselves the space to look back at artists like Justin Bieber and ponder over the nature of fame and redemption and comebacks while not applying this more universally. Perhaps, when looking back at the art from a decade defined by internet virality and thousands upon thousands of layers of irony and contradiction, it would be better for all of us to examine these nuances in a more qualitative way.