The end of 2014 also meant the end of the first half of the 2010s, a decade that has been defined by larger-than-life personalities in the world of popular music. Although thousands of artists composed the DNA of the decade’s pop culture, these 10 made the loudest statements, and established themselves as inescapable over the course of the past five years.
Check out who the Billboard.com staff chose as the 10 defining artists of the 2010s so far, and then read our lists of the half-decade’s 20 Best Songs, 10 Worst Songs, 20 Best Albums and 20 Best Music Videos!
10. Kendrick Lamar
It’s hard to think of anyone who gets rap fans more excited than Kendrick Lamar. If you miss the days when endless displays of lyrical dexterity was the norm, few concessions were made to pop radio, and rap albums were Rap Albums, he became your man during the past half-decade, especially when good kid, m.A.A.d city was released and became a critical and commercial smash. This sort of pressure might break or paralyze a lesser artist, but somehow, King Kendrick has remained focused, unhurried and altogether fascinating.
9. Arcade Fire
At the beginning of the decade, Arcade Fire was already a pretty big deal in the indie-rock world, thanks to a tremendous debut album (2004’s Funeral) and a harrowing, Springsteen-influenced follow-up (2007’s Neon Bible). It was hard to imagine the seven-member army from Montreal getting any bigger or better, but that’s exactly what they did: 2010’s The Suburbs became the group’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart and a Grammy winner for album of the year, and 2013’s Reflektor was a sharp swerve toward dance music with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy onboard as a co-producer. During the 2010s, Arcade Fire’s music videos got more ambitious, their festival gigs became headlining slots, and frontman Win Butler ceded the floor to his wife, Régine Chassagne, for one of their most crowd-pleasing songs to date, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Yet most notably, Arcade Fire spent the first half of the decade proving that a rock group can not only continue to top charts and sell out arenas, but innovate and push the genre into brave new directions.
8. Katy Perry
Part of Katy Perry’s magnificence is purely mathematical: In the history of the Hot 100, she’s one of only two artists to hit No. 1 with five singles from the same album. You’re breathing rarified air when Michael Jackson is your only competition. Like all the important stars, she’s stylistically restless, but one thing remains constant — her ear for hooks, which went unmatched in the 2010s.
7. Lady Gaga
If the first half of the 2010s was split in half itself, the first quarter of the decade was undoubtedly defined by the arresting pull of Lady Gaga. The provocative pop superstar rode the momentum of The Fame and The Fame Monster into the new decade and continued dropping wildly imaginative music, visuals, looks and stage shows, all while confidently catering to a devastatingly passionate fan army. Even those who aren’t Little Monsters have to appreciate the classic-rock maneuvers of Born This Way, the electro-buzz of ARTPOP‘s best bangers and the sophisticated vocal stylings of her Tony Bennett duets album, Cheek to Cheek. Gaga can go in any number of directions with her next project, but if there’s one thing she proved in the first half of the 2010s, it’s to expect the unexpected.
6. Nicki Minaj
Is there a more technically accomplished rapper working in the 2010s? Each verse Nicki Minaj unveils is endlessly dissected with feverish intensity. Minaj’s power only grows with each release, and no one is safe — the way she takes other people’s hits (recent examples include “No Flex Zone” and “Danny Glover”) and makes them her own is fearsome and startling. She’s a member of a small, elite group of artists who transcend genre, and the three albums she has released this decade are glimpses into a dazzling psyche.
In June 2009, Drake was the newest signee of Lil Wayne’s Young Money label, a 22-year-old former child actor with a buttery radio hit (“Best I Ever Had”) and an in-the-works debut album. Five-and-a-half years and three albums later, he’s arguably the most popular rapper on the planet, and has undoubtedly altered the expectations of modern hip-hop with his successful explorations into R&B. With the help of producer Noah “40” Shebib, Drake has conquered rap music on his own terms, through both brash club fare like “Worst Behaviour” and “HYFR” as well as sensitive confessionals like “Marvins Room” and “Hold On, We’re Goin’ Home.” He is a personality capable of hosting Saturday Night Live, keeping all eyes on him at Toronto Raptors games and unleashing an unlimited number of memes. Most importantly, Drake — a 2015 Coachella headliner and the creator of one of the year’s most hotly anticipated new albums — is here to stay.
4. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift’s path from country queen to mainstream domination was cleverly plotted and unstoppable. At the same time, her ability to maintain an underdog persona while reigning at the top of pop’s pyramid makes most presidential candidates look like bumbling idiots. In an age of polarization, Swift is a unifying force, satisfying old-fashioned notions that artists should use guitars and write their own songs while also churning out modern hit after modern hit. Hate all you want — at the end of the day, Taylor is just going to shake you off anyway.
People deride the Grammys’ best new artist category for occasionally whiffing on artists who burned bright for only a small amount of time, but the voting committee sure looks smart for handing Adele the trophy over artists like the Jonas Brothers and Duffy in 2009. Back then, Adele was a rising star; with her 2011 sophomore album 21, that star exploded into a mega-selling supernova, a cultural force responsible for instant classics like “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire to the Rain,” songs that don’t sound much like each other but are tied together by the voice of a generation. Adele technically defined only one year of the past five, but that run was so dominant and universally beloved that we are now helplessly waiting for the next one to arrive.
2. Kanye West
How many times has Kanye West changed the game? Last decade, he had “Stronger” and 808s & Heartbreak, which helped create entire sub-genres. In the ’10s, he set the template for ambitious album-length statements: Without My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, other seminal, highly acclaimed full-lengths like Drake’s Take Care and Beyonce’s Beyonce would not and could not exist. And before DJ Mustard’s lean beats dominated pop, rap and R&B radio in 2014, Kanye was already preaching the virtues of hard-hitting minimalism with Yeezus. Most artists slow down as they get older; Kanye only seems to get more relevant.
What does it mean to define a musical era? For us, it means to bend the universe of the medium toward you, to become the star that every other entity is forced to orbit. In the first half of the 2010s, no artist possessed that amount of control more than Beyonce, who destroyed the rules and wrote new ones on the fly with her 2013 “visual album” Beyonce. Bey toppled the industry’s plane by dropping an instant-classic full-length with no prior warning, selling hundreds of thousands of copies within less than a week, redefining her crowd-pleasing sound and putting out over a dozen visuals that kept our jaws squarely on the floor. The release and content of Beyonce would be enough to bolt this author onto this list, but consider all of the other moments Beyonce enjoyed since 2010: the release of 4, perhaps the most underrated R&B of the 2010s; the Mrs. Carter tour and co-headlining stadium stint with her husband, Jay Z; a Super Bowl performance that reunited Destiny’s Child, and a show-stopping finale at the 2014 VMAs; and the line “Strong enough to bear the children/Then get back to business,” which she followed by… bearing a child, then getting back to business. Nobody’s perfect, but Beyonce is just about as flawless as they come — and in the 2010s, the rest of the music world was simply trying (and failing) to keep up with her.
Text by Jason Lipshutz and Elias Leight.