Have the 2010s been the best decade ever for Philadelphia music?
No, I won’t go that far. Let’s not blaspheme the 1970s Sound of Philadelphia orchestrated by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. And don’t forget Thom Bell. That was one of the great periods in soul music history
But I will say this: In these last 10 years, Philadelphia has become an epicenter — to some extent, a mecca — for rock music in a way it has never been before.
In a hip-hop and pop era when “rock is dead” is widely accepted as a (false) truism, an array of Philly bands — The War On Drugs, Sheer Mag, Low Cut Connie, Mannequin Pussy, the RFA, and the list goes on — have stubbornly raised their voices in objection.
Philadelphia has always been a great black music city. It still is.
This decade, Philly has produced its fair share of hip-hop heroes, from street rapper-turned-criminal justice reform advocate Meek Mill to maverick rap superstar Lil Uzi Vert and sui generis marvel Tierra Whack. And don’t forget the Roots. All they do is rep Philly every night with Jimmy Fallon, and throw a multistage picnic that gets bigger every year.
New this decade, though, is the way indie bands have flourished. A supportive DIY culture, quality venues like Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s, and the local focus of radio station WXPN-FM (88.5) all help.
But what it’s really about is real estate. Lots of local luminaries grew up here — Kurt Vile is from Lansdowne, (Sandy) Alex G hails from Havertown. But many leading lights found sanctuary, or at least cheap rent, in the most affordable, centrally located major city on the East Coast.
Pacific Northwest native Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast went to Bryn Mawr College and stayed. Sheer Mag reconnected in Philly after meeting at college in New York state. Twin sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield moved from Alabama to Brooklyn, then found their way to West Philly.
In this last month of the decade, I’m refraining from compiling a general Best of the 2010s and filling it with the same Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Lana Del Rey, David Bowie, and Frank Ocean albums on everybody else’s list.
Instead, what follows is an annotated playlist of songs by acts demonstrating the depth and excellence of Philadelphia music in the past decade. Rather than hierarchical, it is put together in the order it’s intended to be played. But feel free to hit shuffle.
The Spotify playlist is at the bottom of this story.
Meek Mill, “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro).” It has to start here, from the 2012 official debut by the rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams. “I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this / So I had to grind like that to shine like this.” The underdog anthem for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles and #FreeMeekMill movement remains his best song.
Japanese Breakfast, “Diving Woman.” The lead track on 2017’s Soft Songs From Another Planet, Korean American songwriter-producer Michelle Zauner’s second, more musically expansive album as Japanese Breakfast.
Kurt Vile, “Pretty Pimpin’.” Singer-guitarist Vile specializes in grooves that circle back on themselves, pondering philosophical conundrums. Is this, from 2015‘s b’lieve i’m goin’ down, his most perfect one? Probably.
The War On Drugs, “Red Eyes.” Adam Granduciel spent the decade creating a hypnotic sound that fused the influence of classic rock with the driving momentum of German motorik bands. It all comes together on this track from 2014’s Lost in The Dream for the Grammy-winning band playing Union Transfer on Dec. 29 and the Fillmore on the 30th.
Hop Along, “Waitress.” Hop Along broke out nationally with Painted Shut, the 2015 album showcasing Frances Quinlan’s literary songwriting and desperate, potent voice. She releases a solo album, Likewise, in January.
Sheer Mag, “Fan The Flames.” With Tina Halliday’s powerhouse wail and guitarist Kyle Seely’s arsenal of ‘70s guitar licks, Sheer Mag is a godsend to those who find indie rock a tad too wimpy. “Fan the Flames” — about a worthless South Philly landlord — is on its 2017 Compilation LP.
Low Cut Connie, “Revolution Rock n Roll.” Get too close to unabashed showman Adam Weiner and he’ll sweat on you. The piano-pounding favorite of Barack Obama and Elton John hit his songwriting stride on 2017’s Dirty Pictures (Part 1). LCC play Union Transfer on Dec. 21.
The Roots, “How I Got Over.” The title track to the band’s 2010 album, its first after getting the Fallon gig. The song draws from Philadelphia gospel singer Clara Ward’s 1951 hymn of the same name.
Tierra Whack, “Pet Cemetery.” With 15 well-crafted, wildly varied songs that fly by in minutes, each accompanied by an equally ingenious video, 2017′s Whack World epitomizes cool.
Waxahatchee, “La Loose.” Katie Crutchfeld, who records as Waxahatchee, released three excellent mid-decade indie singer-songwriter albums in the 2010s. Perhaps the catchiest song in her repertoire, “La Loose” is from 2015’s Ivy Tripp.
Allison Crutchfield, “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California.” “We’re pretty far away from Philadelphia / And that’s fine, because I’m really starting to hate you.” Soon after that release in 2017, Crutchfield moved to Los Angeles, though she still makes music with her ex, Kyle Gilbride, in the band Swearin’.
Hurry, “Waiting For You.” Yearning, aching, pure sun-kissed power pop from songwriter Matthew Scottoline, on 2018’s fetching Every Little Thought.
Dr. Dog, “That Old Black Hole.” Kind of rootsy, a bit jammy, Dr. Dog has been chugging along for a good decade and a half. So dependable, it’s easily overlooked. This Scott McMicken gem is from 2012’s Be The Void.
Strand Of Oaks, “JM.” Sorrowful, inspiring Neil Young vibes about Jason Molina, one of Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter’s songwriting heroes, who died in 2013. From 2014’s Heal.
Nothing, ”Everyone Is Happy.” Actually, nobody is, in this gauzy track from songwriter Domenic Palermo of Philadelphia’s premier shoegaze band, from 2016’s Tired of Tomorrow.
Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3.” The words to this hip-hop earworm are fraught with tension, nearly nihilistic. Yet it’s the rapper born Symere Woods’ biggest song so far and the most popular on this list, with more than 1 billion Spotify streams.
Deadfellow, “Millennials in Love.” A 2018 piano ballad about gentrification, crushing student debt, and internet-assisted heartache by gifted crooner Hayden Sammak.
Pink Sweat$, “Honesty.” Breakout hit by R&B soul balladeer David Bowden, who has a touch of Babyface and Donny Hathaway in his forthright, heart-on-sleeve approach. His stage name matches his trademark attire.
Beach Slang, “Too Late Too Die Young.” Beach Slang singer James Alex was 40 when his 2015 breakthrough album The Things We Do To Find People Who Like Us came out. “Too Late” refuses to give up its romantic belief in music as a lifesaving force.
RFA, “Lazy.” Standout from the 2018 self-titled debut of this Philly foursome fronted by Dan Cousart, whose sound tips a cap to early ’00s garage rock revival bands like The Stokes and Libertines. Playing Ardmore Music Hall on Dec. 26.
Mannequin Pussy, “Drunk II.” Working with Conshohocken-based producer Will Yip, raging Philly punks Mannequin Pussy chart a more melodic course on this sad, lonely, and fabulous rock and roll song from their 2019 album Patience.