Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
At the end of the 2000s, rock was defined by roaring electric guitars, with the likes of Fall Out Boy, The Killers and Kings of Leon dominating arenas and alternative radio. But in late 2009, a British quartet called Mumford & Sons released “Little Lion Man” — a rollicking folk-rock tune that, upon crashing U.S. shores the following year, would usher in a new definition of modern rock for the 2010s.
The band’s namesake frontman, Marcus Mumford, didn’t expect “Little Lion Man” to have major commercial returns for two main reasons: It prominently features a banjo and a blunt curse word. Mumford calls the four-minute track a “self-reflective” song with “quite a lot of self-loathing,” which is accentuated by one particularly jarring moment in its chorus: “I really f–ked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?”
The singer insists that such a forceful curse word was the only way to convey the emotion he felt while writing “Little Lion Man,” and actually helps make the song feel more vulnerable — and in turn, more relatable.
“There was definitely something about being emotionally vulnerable that was culturally acceptable at that time, and it has been since,” the singer says. “There was the songwriting factory side of things in the ‘80s and ‘90s where you could kind of tell with artists that their songs were being written in back rooms by people that knew better. There’s been a resurgence in the past decade of a generation that are emotionally quite aware, allowing emotional vulnerability from their stars is something that’s more culturally acceptable, and even attractive.”
What was perhaps most groundbreaking about “Little Lion Man,” though, was the boot-stomping, shout-along folk sound that the song introduced to the mainstream amid electronic-driven pop hits like Kesha’s “TiK ToK” and Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” Moreover, Mumford asserts that songs with four-part male harmonies were just as unusual for the time. “We weren’t f–king with acoustic guitar sound modes or putting things through lots of different software — it was fairly straightforward, recording a band in a room,” Mumford says. “There was an authenticity to the instruments we were playing and what translated on records.”
That’s part of what made Nick Petropoulos, head of promotion for Mumford & Sons’ U.S. label, Glassnote, and his team believe “Little Lion Man” was, in fact, a radio hit. “If you look at it on paper, this kind of music had no place being at alternative radio or anywhere at that moment,” Petropoulos says. “But it was dripping with passion, and it was still a powerful rock song, even though it didn’t have those traditional rock instruments. It was so different, and it really stood out.”
Petropoulos recalls some programmers dishing “a lot of hate” for the banjo, but he also saw early indicators of stateside success thanks to tastemaker stations in Boston and Minneapolis. With streaming platforms still in the early stages, terrestrial radio helped the song soar, and in October 2010, “Little Lion Man” reached No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart. Though that was the song’s biggest chart achievement, it also reached No. 2 on Adult Alternative Songs, No. 3 on both Hot Rock Songs and Rock Airplay, and cracked the top 20 on Adult Pop Songs. But as the song continued to make an impact, so did Sigh No More’s fervent follow-up “The Cave,” as well as the album itself: By October 2011, Mumford & Sons had the No. 1 rock album in the country.
Within two years of “Little Lion Man” becoming a hit, several groups followed suit, and suddenly harmonic, hollering folk was the next big thing. In 2012, The Lumineers and Of Monsters & Men released their debut singles,“Ho Hey” and “Little Talks,” respectively, the former hitting No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the latter reaching No. 20. The folky sound creeped into top 40 radio, too, with pop hits like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” One Direction’s “Story of My Life” and Pitbull’s Kesha collaboration “Timber” incorporating stomp-along vibes with acoustic guitars and harmonicas.
Amid the folk boom, Mumford & Sons released their sophomore LP Babel in September 2012, which solidified the group’s place as folk-rock superstars. Lead single “I Will Wait” marked the group’s biggest hit to date, topping multiple rock charts, and reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — earning the biggest debut of the year with 600,000 copies sold — then went on to win album of the year at the 2013 Grammys. Mumford & Sons have since released two more Billboard 200-leading albums, 2015’s Wilder Mind and 2018’s Delta, evolving the anthemic sound they first introduced into full-on rock shows in arenas around the world.
As for what Mumford thinks the biggest impact of “Little Lion Man” was on his group? “That song set people up to expect a foul-mouthed show,” he quips. “Which suited us just fine.”