Technically, 2020 is the last year of a decade, not the first year of a new one. We get that. That inconvenient fact didn’t stop anyone else from publishing a 2010s retrospective, however, and it ain’t gonna stop us. From the ascendance of mumble rap and country trap to the last wheezing breaths of the compact disc as a commercially viable format, it was an eventful 10 years. We can’t possibly cover everything that happened, but we can share some of the most memorable moments.
You might say Justin Bieber had an okay year. In April, his first full-length studio album, My World 2.0, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. This made the 16-year-old with the appalling haircut the youngest male solo artist to top that chart since Stevie Wonder did so with Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius in 1963. Before the year was out, Bieber had picked up the Video Music Award for best new artist, four American Music Awards (including artist of the year), and two Grammy nominations. He’s done pretty well for himself since then, too, although he did have his, uh, wild years. (We’re not even going to mention that time in 2013 when he pissed in a restaurant’s mop bucket while inexplicably cussing out Bill Clinton.)
Weirdly, considering how forward-thinking they were as a band, the Beatles didn’t exactly dive headfirst into the 21st century. Even as it started to become clear that consumers didn’t want CDs cluttering up their 350-square-foot condos, the Fab Four’s stakeholders resisted making their music available digitally. But after years of Beatles fans being forced to consume Sgt. Pepper’s and Revolver on compact disc, scratchy old vinyl, vintage cassettes, garage-sale 8-tracks, and sketchy LimeWire files, the band’s entire back catalogue was made available for download on iTunes in November, eventually enabling an entire new generation to discover the jaw-dropping magic of “I Am the Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify. Sometimes the wait is worth it.
It has been described as “a perfect tear-jerker”. And for sure, just the lyrics of Adele’s 2011 hit “Someone Like You”—in which the singer pays a surprise visit to her ex, only to realize that he’s much happier without her—are enough to make the song a three-Kleenex affair. To find out what else makes “Someone Like You” (which Adele wrote with Dan Wilson) a guaranteed heartbreaker, the Wall Street Journal turned to UBC psychologist Martin Guhn, who cited the singer’s vocal modulation and the song’s use of tension-creating dissonance as factors. Hell, the damn thing even works on Adele herself, who was famously in tears by the end of her performance of it at the 2011 Brit Awards.
To those who weren’t there, it’s hard to convey how important R.E.M. was as a creative force. The Athens, Georgia, four-piece started out as an underground cult fave and slowly blossomed into one of the first “alternative” acts to conquer the mainstream, all without ever compromising its founding principles. The genius of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry was in how they never forgot their weirdo roots as they evolved musically. Think of 1992’s “Man on the Moon” paying tribute to Andy Kaufman, Elvis Presley, and Sir Isaac Newton (not to mention Twister and Risk), or the way that “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” shouted out to everyone from Lester Bangs and Lenny Bruce to Leonid Brezhnev and Leonard Bernstein. On September 21, just months after releasing the critically praised Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. announced it was done, citing a determination to go out on a high note. And just like that, the band was gone. Somewhere up in heaven, Kurt Cobain—who openly stated that his dream was to write the kind of songs R.E.M. did—spun Automatic for the People and wept.
Nothing about the Beastie Boys made any sense on paper. How did three upper-middle-class Jewish kids with punk-rock backgrounds not only transition seamlessly into hip-hop, but earn the legitimate respect and admiration of the black artists who invented and defined the genre? And let’s not even get started on how Mike “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz shocked the world by following up what seemed like a one-hit-wonder (“Fight for Your Right”) with the wildly layered landmark that was Paul’s Boutique. An implausible and endlessly inventive run came to a sudden and unexpected end on May 4 when Yauch died after a three-year battle with cancer that started out on a salivary gland. Out of respect for their fallen comrade, Diamond and Horovitz did the right thing by announcing they wouldn’t be carrying on, and that they’d honour Yauch’s dying request that the Beastie Boys’ music never be used in advertisements.
In retrospect, “Gangnam Style” had everything going for it, but there were arguably three key factors in its massive success. First of all, it came with an eye-poppingly over-the-top video, complete with a signature dance move—by the end of the year, “Gangnam Style” had become the first video to reach a billion views on YouTube. Second, Psy’s monster single was part of a cultural wave (K-pop) that was on the verge of crashing into the North American mainstream. Third, and perhaps most importantly for an international hit, it had a catchy refrain in English. All together now: “Heeeey, sexy lady.”
Iit’s hard to say who had a more controversial 2013: Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke? The former did her best to demolish her squeaky-clean Disney image by releasing the “Wrecking Ball” video. Directed by unrepentant creepy uncle Terry Richardson, said video featured the birthday-suited singer swinging on a wrecking ball and performing unsimulated oral sex on a sledgehammer. Meanwhile, Thicke released “Blurred Lines”, which also featured naked ladies. When it was suggested that the song and video might be a wee bit sexist, Thicke told GQ, “What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.” Oops. As if to prove that there need be no competition when it comes to tastelessness, Thicke and Cyrus teamed up for a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which was roundly criticized as being not just lewd and raunchy, but also appallingly racist. Let’s call this one a tie.
Ever wonder why getting along is hard for those lucky enough to be in successful bands? Rising out of the great emo boom of the early ’00s, My Chemical Romance hit the ground gunning for something more than a Victory Records deal. Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge set the table by injecting the sound that made Fall Out Boy famous with nuclear posthardcore and bruised-knuckle punk. Black Parade elevated MCR to platinum-shifting stars by adding glitter-bomb glam, gothic cabaret, and lightning-strike metal to the mix. And then, at the height of its powers, My Chemical Romance disbanded on March 22, while rumours flew that the band’s members had been fighting in the green room, the studio, and first-class between champagne refills. Time has a way of making people forget why they once hated each other, which explains a reformation this past Halloween, with tour dates and a new album in the works. That Black Parade uniform you’ve had mothballed for the past decade is suddenly cool again—unlike your Victory Records hoodie and matching hat.
Whether you’re talking Ozzy Osbourne snorting up ant colonies or GG Allin flinging his own feces at fans, the people who make hard-edged music aren’t always the most balanced of folks. As I Lay Dying’s Tim Lambesis proved this in the most brutal of ways by attempting—after months of domestic turmoil—to arrange the murder of his wife in 2013. The metalcore singer—and formerly self-proclaimed Christian—pleaded guilty to the charge on February 25, 2014, did a couple of years in prison, and then returned to As I Lay Dying upon his release, presumably declining all requests to cover My Chemical Romance’s “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison”.
Charlie Brown once said, “I guess if you have a signed document in your possession you can’t go wrong.” Mind you, some miscreants sign documents with no intention of honouring the promises within them. Take Mötley Crüe. (No, seriously—please, take Mötley Crüe.) At the beginning of 2014, all four of the band’s members signed a “formal Cessation of Touring Agreement”, which stated that Vince Neil, Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, and Mick Mars would no longer hit the road under the name Mötley Crüe after one last lap. Naturally, this sold a lot of tickets, and probably moved a few copies of the inevitable “last concert ever” Blu-ray. As anyone who’s ever shotgunned a Coors Light in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven at King George and 72nd can tell you, however, the Crüe is back on tour and will be playing a stadium near you this summer. Suckers! As for that cessation-of-touring document? Well, perhaps it was never notarized.
Remember back in 2009, when Kanye “Jackass” West interrupted Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech to argue that Beyoncé should have been the winner? He did it again on February 8, 2015, only this time his target was Beck. West jumped on the stage while Beck was accepting the album-of-the-year Grammy for Morning Phase, but the rapper then departed without a word, leaving a baffled-looking Beck at the microphone. In an interview after the incident, West said, “Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé.” In Yeezy’s defence, after someone pointed out that Beck wrote, arranged, produced, and contributed most of the instrumental work to Morning Phase, West backpedalled, telling the Sunday Times, “I was inaccurate with the concept of a gentleman who plays 14 instruments not respecting artistry.” It probably didn’t hurt that, despite the album-of-the-year upset, Beyoncé still picked up more awards than Beck did that night.
Here’s some interesting trivia likely known only by those who work in record stores or mine the servers at the Pirate Bay: record companies once had a quarter-century-long tradition of releasing new albums on Tuesdays in the U.S., and on various other specific weekdays around the world. But on July 10, industry players decided on a standardized global holy day for those who love getting their records piping hot off the press. Why are all new major records now released on a Friday? Because Americans used to get their new music on Tuesday and then promptly upload it to the web, where it would it be downloaded by anyone who wasn’t interested in waiting three days for it to hit shelves in Australia. That everyone today downloads records on Apple Music two seconds after they go live, making one wonder why the hell anyone gives a shit about release dates in 2020, but then again no one’s ever suggested that the post-Internet music industry knows what it’s doing.
When it came to bad blood between former bandmates, Guns N’ Roses was the one band that made everyone from the Eagles and Pink Floyd to the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys look like sane and happy families. Back in 1996, when they were indisputably the biggest rock stars on the planet, Axl Rose and Slash launched one of the most legendary intra-band feuds in the often ugly history of rock ’n’ roll, with fallout that sank the band for the next 20 years. (Sorry, as entertaining as it was to watch a guitarist play with a KFC bucket on his head, the 2.0 edition of Guns N’ Roses that spent six ice ages working on Chinese Democracy doesn’t count for anything.) The groundwork for a reunion was laid when Rose reached out to Slash (whom he once described as a “cancer”) on the phone in 2015, and then suggested he was interested in hashing out old grievances face to face. Flash forward to April 1, 2016, and two of the most iconic figures in rock ’n’ roll found themselves on-stage together at the 500-capacity Troubadour in Los Angeles, with Guns N’ Roses cofounder Duff McKagan holding down the bass. During the show Rose fell off an on-stage monitor and broke his foot, which would have been fine if Guns N’ Roses hadn’t scheduled a massive Not in This Lifetime… world tour for the rest of the year. Rose performed many of the shows sitting on a makeshift throne gifted to him by Dave Grohl, which at least stopped him from leaping into the audience wearing a fur coat and nut-hugging Spandex.
When David Bowie released his 25th studio album, Blackstar, on January 8, 2016—his 69th birthday—it was met with universal acclaim. Critics and fans praised the record’s outside-the-box sound and Bowie’s refusal to rest on his heritage-rock laurels. Blackstar would top best-of-2016 lists everywhere from Rolling Stone to Newsweek, and the LP won four Grammy Awards. The artist himself wasn’t around to see any of that, though. Bowie died on January 10, two days after Blackstar was released, making the album a “parting gift” to fans, as coproducer Tony Visconti put it. Thank you, Major Tom, wherever you are.
And then there was one. One of the most famous hallmarks of the Seattle grunge scene was the way depression was viewed not as a curse, but rather as an inspiration. The downside of that was the toll said depression took on those who became legends for turning their angst into art. The Emerald City’s big-four alternative acts were Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain decided he’d had enough of living in 1994, and used a shotgun to commit suicide at his Seattle home. After years of self-medicating with heroin and cocaine, AIC’s Layne Staley died alone of an overdose in his Seattle condo, his body going undiscovered for two weeks. Chris Cornell was seemingly in a good place in 2017; after fruitful years as a solo artist and a member of the supergroup Audioslave, he’d spent the better part of the decade reunited with his Soundgarden bandmates, making music, and touring the world. Then, after a May 17 show, the 52-year-old hanged himself in a room in Detroit’s MGM Grand hotel. Today, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder remains the only big-four frontman still flying the flannel.
In 2017, this very publication marked its 50th anniversary, and a few friends dropped by to help us celebrate. (Or to console us, depending on how you feel about getting older.) In a series of intimate concerts held in the lobby of Georgia Straight HQ, we were joined by Yukon Blonde, Dan Mangan, Said the Whale, the Gay Nineties, the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer, the Zolas, the Pack a.d., Mother Mother, and Hannah Georgas—all of whom have appeared on the cover of the Straight. Mangan’s rousing sing-along version of “Robots” is still spoken of in hushed tones around these parts.
We can thank those brave souls who created the #MeToo movement with helping many women find the courage to speak out about the abusive misogyny that sadly still runs rampant in the entertainment industry. In 2018, one of Canada’s most popular rock bands, the multiplatinum-selling Hedley, was hit with accusations of sexual misconduct with fans. On February 25, an Ottawa woman accused singer Jacob Hoggard of sexual assault; on July 23 he was arrested and charged with one count of sexual interference and two counts of sexual assault causing bodily harm. Hoggard’s trial is set to begin in January 2021. It’s a sad story in many ways, but the upside for music fans is that Hedley hasn’t released any new music since it all began.
Anyone can win a Grammy or MTV Video Music Award, but scoring something like a Pulitzer Prize is a whole other matter. Rapper Kendrick Lamar pulled off the previously unheard-of when he was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work on DAMN., becoming the first nonjazz and nonclassical artist to receive the award. Dana Canedy—the first woman and first person of colour to be Pulitzer administrator—told Lamar, “Congratulations, we’re both making history this year.” Before you go wondering what the hell the world is coming to, listen to “DNA” and marvel at what Kendrick Lamar Duckworth hath created.
By any measure, 2019 was Lil Nas X’s year. The record-breaking musical event that was “Old Town Road” didn’t come out of nowhere, mind you. Roughly a quarter of the cowboys active in the American West between the 1860s and 1880s were black, and the reclaiming of that legacy in fashion and music had been bubbling under to the extent that, in September 2018, Texan “pop-culture archivist” Bri Malandro coined the term “the yeehaw agenda” to explain it. While Lil Nas X is the most obvious beneficiary of this movement, one can’t forget about Blanco Brown, whose “The Git Up” achieved something even “Old Town Road” could not—it got a trap beat onto country radio.
God help future generations—we mean that in the best of ways. For years and years, America wanted its female pop stars bold, bright-eyed, and glitter-spackled; think of the lineage that includes Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift. Last year saw Billie Eilish bring her own fantastically fucked-up blueprint to the table. The now 18-year-old rocketed out of her bedroom with a brand of darkwave pop targeting those who prefer everything black: their nails, clothes, hair, and world-view. Forget strutting around the halls of high school like the prom queen: Eilish came on like the girl who spends Friday nights curled up under the covers in the dark in a boiler room, listening to tortured mix tapes loaded with Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse, Lorde, the Knife, and Tyler, the Creator. The message? It’s okay to be totally fucking weird, whether that means dressing in six-sizes-to-big clothes or dyeing your hair three shades of Kool-Aid green. Nerds, freaks, and geeks of the world: the future now belongs to you.