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The 25 Musical Moments That Defined the First Quarter of the 2020s

If you want to say that a handful of months here and there shouldn’t have counted, we wouldn’t argue with you: With the chunks of time lost to pandemic shutdown and general societal breakdown, it certainly doesn’t feel like we’ve already lived through two and a half years of this decade already. But check the calendar, and here we are: six months through 2022, which means we’re halfway through this year — and thus, already a full quarter of the way through the 2020s.

Similarly, it may feel like not that much of note has actually happened in the music world over a period where the global news headlines have been so consistently overwhelming. In fact, though, it’s already been an action-packed era of industry upheaval, where the artists, execs, sounds and platforms leading the way for popular music have all transformed dramatically — leading to a current moment where the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 is largely driven by TikTok, Netflix and house music.

How did we get here, you may all of a sudden be wondering? Well, take a look through our list of the 25 moments that have defined the first quarter of the decade, and remember all the moments that probably shouldn’t feel nearly as far away as they already do.

Deborah Dugan placed on administrative leave as Recording Academy president/CEO 

In January 2020, less than five months after Deborah Dugan had been hired as the Recording Academy’s first woman CEO/president, the Academy placed her on administrative leave, following allegations of workplace bullying. Dugan filed an Equal Employment Opportunity discrimination complaint, alleging the real reason she was placed on leave was she had threatened to expose Academy misconduct, including voting irregularities and conflicts of interest. Dugan was officially dismissed on March 2, 2020 with then board chair Harvey Mason Jr. ultimately becoming CEO/president and promising a new era of transparency and a commitment to greater diversity. In June 2021, the Recording Academy and Dugan reached a settlement, ending a particularly ugly chapter in the Academy’s history. — MELINDA NEWMAN

Pop Smoke

Pop Smoke performs at Olympia London on November 29, 2019 in London, England.
Joseph Okpako/WireImage

Pop Smoke murdered at age 20

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

One of hip-hop’s rising stars of the early decade, 20-year-old Bashar Barakah Jackson (better known as Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke) was murdered during a home invasion and alleged robbery in February of 2020. Though the tragedy cut short one of the most promising careers of the ’20s — breakthrough mixtape Meet the Woo 2 had been released just weeks earlier, debuting in the Billboard 200’s top 10 — it also turned him into an icon. The rapper would posthumously achieve blockbuster success with his chart-topping LP Shoot For the Stars, Aim For the Moon, released later that year, as his music provided much of the soundtrack for the entirety of a tumultuous 2020 — particularly in the streets of his New York hometown, where the sounds of his drill anthems like “Dior” and “Christopher Walking” not only became unavoidable, but spawned countless imitators. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

South by Southwest canceled for 2020

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Concerns around the rise of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had been growing for some time by early March of 2020, but most people still believed that life would continue on largely as usual. But when Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster, canceling the SXSW festival just a week before it was due to start, that illusion started to shatter. Like a canary in a coal mine, SXSW was ultimately just the first domino to fall, as within a week cities and states began advising that people stay home, concerts and tours started getting canceled and postponed — and the pandemic truly began to take hold. — DAN RYS

Timbaland and Swizz Beatz launch Verzuz

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

It was spawned from humble beginnings: two of the most storied hip-hop producers of the turn of the 21st century going back and forth “battling” with their hits over an Instagram Live feed, one from his studio, the other from his car. Within months, Verzuz had become both a sought-after brand and a cultural sensation — one capable of creating countless viral moments, revitalizing and redefining legacy careers, and even providing comfort and community during periods of national and global turmoil, while also providing some much-needed competitive live entertainment in a time mostly without professional sports. It set the standard for the possibilities of livestreamed music during the pandemic shutdown, and while countless other artists and platforms tried to replicate elements of its success, few if any could recapture its early magic. — A.U.

Blackout Tuesday

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, two young Black mavericks ground the music business to a halt when their impromptu movement #TheShowMustBePaused went viral and became a worldwide rallying cry to end systemic racial bias within the multibillion-dollar industry. Conceived by Brianna Agyemang, senior artist campaign manager at Platoon, and Jamila Thomas, vp of artist marketing at Motown Records, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Blackout Tuesday sparked the formation of in-house task forces and social justice funds by labels and other music industry companies to address racial equity from the boardroom to the boulevard. Two years later, the push to create sustainable change in issues addressing Black music and culture continues. — GAIL MITCHELL

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift
Beth Garrabrant

Taylor Swift releases surprise Folklore album

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Taylor Swift, named Billboard’s Woman of the Decade in 2019, ended the 2010s on a strong note – she released another multi-hit pop album with Lover, with plans for stadium-set “Lover Fests” the following year. Yet the coronavirus pandemic upended those plans, and also set Swift down a different artistic path: Folklore, the first surprise album of Swift’s career — having only been announced a day before its release — was an unexpected indie-folk pivot, created under cover of darkness in part with The National’s Aaron Dessner. Not only was the album a commercial smash (topping the Billboard 200 for eight weeks and ending 2020 as the year’s best-selling album) and Grammy darling (becoming Swift’s third career album of the year winner at the 2021 awards) — also spawning a similarly chart-topping, Grammy-nominated companion album in Evermore later that year — but now, it stands as one of the quintessential quarantine full-lengths, an inward-looking course correction Swift fans didn’t know she needed. — JASON LIPSHUTZ

BTS’ “Dynamite” debuts at No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

After years of inching ever closer to the top of the Hot 100 chart, BTS finally secured peak position with the English-language “Dynamite,” an undeniable bit of bubblegum primed for U.S. top 40 radio and wedding receptions alike. “Dynamite” broke the dam for BTS as chart-toppers – the group has since scored five more No. 1s – but more importantly, finally delivered a K-pop act to the top of the Hot 100 after years of Korean music impacting the American mainstream, dating back to PSY’s “Gangnam Style” peaking at No. 2 in 2012. BTS would go on to score Grammy noms and headline U.S. stadiums, but “Dynamite” topping the Hot 100 was its own type of watershed moment. — J. Lipshutz

420doggface208

420doggface208 TikTk video feat. Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams”
Courtesy Photo

TikTok user Doggface208 goes viral for “Dreams” video

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

It didn’t seem like a world-shaking clip: just a guy out on his longboard, taking intermittent swigs of Ocean Spray cranberry juice and vibing to Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 pop/rock perennial “Dreams.” But the power of Nathan Apodaca’s (username Doggface208) viral TikTok clip proved mighty, as the video not only quickly took over the internet, but it spurred a massive gain in sales and streams for Fleetwood Mac’s lone Hot 100 No. 1, propelling the song back to No. 12 on the chart — the group’s highest Hot 100 ranking in over 30 years. The song’s revitalization demonstrated both the long-tail value of catalog classics in the streaming age, and the ability of TikTok to generate modern hits from just about any time or place — trends that have only gotten truer deeper into the decade. — A.U.

Bob Dylan sells his catalog to UMG for nine figures

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Bob Dylan cashed in on booming catalog valuations at the perfect time. Selling his entire catalog of songs to Universal Music Publishing Group for an estimated $375 million, he took advantage of investors’ explosive interest in what they deemed a relatively stable asset of music rights during the pandemic, and led the way for a wave of other high profile deals that followed — including his own recorded music sale in 2021 to Sony Music for almost another $200 million. Dylan’s song sale was at a record or near-record multiple of almost 30-times annual revenue, befitting one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever, and boosted by his ability to sell an entire career-spanning catalog. The deal was so good that Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie’s estate (among others) all made similar sales in the months to come. — COLIN STUTZ

Bad Bunny debuts at No. 1 on Billboard 200 with El Ultimo Tour del Mundo album

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Though much has been said and written about Latin music dominance and a new Latin explosion in late 2010s pop after “Despacito” topped the Hot 100 in 2017, no album in Spanish had matched the feat on the Billboard 200. It took a shift to streaming and a bad Bunny who only raps in Spanish to achieve global rule. El Ultimo Tour debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, following the success of his smash single “Dákiti” with Jhay Cortez, which topped all Billboard’s global charts in October 2020. Both achievements signaled the continued worldwide acceptance of music in Spanish, and its status as the most listened to-language in music after English — and perhaps most importantly, finally debunked the notion that the only way to achieve global domination was to sing in English. It’s a feat that Bad Bunny, now unquestionably one of the globe’s biggest pop stars, has since repeated — topping the Billboard 200 in May 2022 with Un Verano Sin Tí. — LEILA COBO

Olivia Rodrigo,

Olivia Rodrigo, “drivers license”
Courtesy Photo

Olivia Rodrigo releases “Drivers License”

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

With one song, Olivia Rodrigo morphed from the promising co-lead on the Disney+ reboot High School Musical: The Musical: The Series to a pop superstar for a new generation – and what a song it was. “Drivers License” revels in post-breakup vocal theatrics and Swiftian lyrical detail, culminating in one of the most memorable bridges in recent pop history; the song sounded huge upon its release in January 2021, and immediately lived up to its sonic makeup, setting streaming records and topping the Hot 100 for eight straight weeks upon its debut. Rodrigo has already accomplished a whole lot since “Drivers License” – “Good 4 U” has arguably surpassed its predecessor as her signature hit, and a best new artist Grammy win preceded a sold-out headlining tour – but her debut single represented an all-cylinders breakthrough, the type of immediate smash that most artists dream of achieving, and only happens a few times per decade. — J. Lipshutz

Morgan Wallen caught on video using N-word 

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Wallen’s sophomore set, Dangerous: The Double Album, was sitting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on Feb. 2, 2021, when TMZ revealed a video of a drunk Wallen casually calling a friend the N-word. By the end of the next day, leading radio chains and streaming services had dropped him from their playlists, his label suspended him and WME removed him from its agency roster, as a nationwide conversation about race relations in country music was ignited. But while the singer/songwriter remains a polarizing public figure, his fans never stepped away: Seventeen months later, most bans have long been lifted, Wallen is on a sold-out arena tour and Dangerous has topped the Country Albums chart for 63 of the past 76 weeks, and the set’s “Wasted on You” single sits atop Country Airplay for the first time this frame. In March, Dangerous won the ACM Awards’ album of the year, one year after Wallen was ineligible to attend or be nominated from the 2021 ceremony. — M.N.

3LAU sells 33 NFTs for nearly $12 million

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

In February of 2021 a relatively niche group of people could have told you what an NFT was. Electronic producer Justin Blau (who makes music as 3LAU) was certainly one of them, ultimately transcending the dance world, achieving global recognition and helping put these non-fungible tokens on the map when he sold 33 of them for a cool $12 million during an online auction. For a lot of us who looked at these digital objects and just saw a .jpeg or song file, this sale didn’t really make sense — but it did play a big role in launching the NFT and Web3 boom of 2021, causing tremendous hype about these tokens and their potential to create more equitable royalties, while also creating staggering amounts of money both inside and outside of the music industry. — KATIE BAIN

Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”
Courtesy Photo

Lil Nas X drops “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” single and video

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

The only Grammy-nominated video to feature someone giving a lap dance to Satan, Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” had conservative pundits steaming, as if they themselves were riding that stripper pole down to hell, the moment it hit YouTube. The endlessly thinkpiece’d music video simultaneously demonstrated how far LGBTQ culture has come and how far we still have to go; some quarters hailed it as a groundbreaking expression of queer Black identity and transgressive camp that would have been unthinkable in the mainstream even five years earlier, while others, via silence or performative outrage, tried to quash its success. It didn’t matter: Debuting at No. 1, “Montero” was nominated for three Grammys (including record and song of the year) and proved that LNX was no one-hit wonder, but a career artist. – JOE LYNCH

Foo Fighters perform return-to-live show at Madison Square Garden

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

After concerts were widely shut down for over 15 months at the pandemic’s height, no band ushered in the return of touring and live performance more than the Foo Fighters. After playing an intimate club show in L.A. on June 15, the band made national headlines with their June 20 return to one of the world’s most iconic arenas — New York’s Madison Square Garden. The comeback show was a two-hour hit parade for vaccinated fans (anti-vax protesters were also there, outside) with huge banners promoting the event stating “Rock & Roll Returns to the Garden.” The show grossed over $1.4 million on 15,371 tickets sold. From there, the band kicked off a 26th anniversary tour (intended for the band’s 25th but derailed in 2020) and seemingly played every major comeback show, festival and event that followed, with a giddy enthusiasm that — indeed — live music was finally back. — C.S.

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion debut “WAP” song and video

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Mirroring the incendiary pairing of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP” exploded onto Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 1 following its Aug. 7, 2020 release. Racking up 93 million U.S. streams, according to Luminate, “WAP” earned additional roses for logging the largest number of streams ever for a song during its first week of release. But beyond yielding Cardi’s fourth Hot 100 No. 1 and Megan’s second, the collaboration between two of hip-hop’s emerging forces — colorfully elucidating what pleases females sexually, much to the consternation of conservative pundits nationwide — was a refreshing respite from that summer’s unfolding Covid-19 quarantine drama. As Cardi B associate Brooklyn Johnny noted to Billboard at the time, “It’s almost like when ketchup met French fries … From inception — and this is a quote straight out of Cardi’s mouth — ‘It was like butter. The whole experience was like butter.’ It was dope.” — G.M.

The Weeknd

The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”
Courtesy Photo

The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” sets record for Hot 100 endurance

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Chubby Checker’s all time bop “The Twist” was so firmly lodged into chart history as the No. 1 hit on the Greatest Songs of All Time Hot 100 chart that it just felt inevitable that it would continue holding this record in perpetuity. Then came The Weeknd with “Blinding Lights,” the 2019 synth-pop sensation that helped make parent album After Hours one of the most successful LPs of the early pandemic era, and also cranked up the BPM at pop radio in the early 2020s after a downtempo-heavy end to the previous decade. It ultimately tracked a record-breaking 90 weeks on the Hot 100, and even replaced “The Twist” in the top slot on the Greatest Songs of All Time Hot 100 in November of 2021, forging a forever connection between two classics released sixty years apart. — K.B.

Universal Music Group goes public

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

When Sir Lucian Grainge banged the traditional gong to announce the Universal Music Group’s arrival on the Euronext Amsterdam Stock Exchange as a publicly-traded company, it marked “an exciting milestone in UMG’s storied history, reflecting our position as the world’s leading music-based entertainment company,” he said. But it also set a benchmark for what the biggest music label group in the world was worth: some $39 billion, which ballooned past $53 billion following its first day of trading, making it the most valuable music company in history. In the process, the listing ushered in a new era for the music business, one of investment and growth propelled by streaming revenues — a boom that still continues. — D.R.

Wizkid’s “Essence” hits top 10 of Hot 100

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

When Wizkid – who first made a splash in North America in 2016 as a featured guest on Drake’s No. 1 smash “One Dance” – returned to the top 10 in October 2021 with “Essence,” it wasn’t just a big moment for the Nigerian singer-songwriter. Not only was it his first top 10 as the primary artist on a single, but it marked the first time a Nigerian artist cracked the Hot 100’s top 10 as the main credited artist. Spending 35 weeks on the Hot 100 and topping the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart for 27 weeks, “Essence” (which also featured fellow Nigerian artist Tems, as well as North American pop superstar Justin Bieber on its official remix) doubled as a watershed moment for Afrobeats in general, signaling to the industry that the ascendant genre had real staying power on American radio. – J. Lynch

Travis Scott

Travis Scott performs during 2021 Astroworld Festival at NRG Park on November 05, 2021 in Houston, Texas.
Erika Goldring/WireImage

Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival ends in disaster

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

What was supposed to be a post-pandemic homecoming for one of hip-hop’s biggest acts with one of its most specialized festivals turned deadly on its opening night, when crowd surges killed 10 attendees and injured hundreds. The horrific death count — ranging from 9 to 27 years-old — made the event the deadliest concert tragedy in nearly two decades, launching several investigations into what went wrong and nearly 400 individual lawsuits, while also forcing the whole industry to take a long, sober look into the current state of concert safety after the country’s exciting and long-awaited return to live music. — C.S.

Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (10-Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” tops Hot 100

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

If you told Swifties upon the original release of Red in 2012 that a re-recorded version of beloved deep cut “All Too Well” would top the Hot 100 nearly a decade later — let alone in an extended 10-minute version, making it the longest No. 1 hit in the chart’s 63-year history — their reaction would’ve put Swift’s own legendary Surprised Face to shame. But such was the brilliance of the crown jewel of her Red (Taylor’s Version) release, which whipped fans into a frenzy and further validated Swift’s industry-shaking project of re-recording each of her first six studio albums — in an effort to reclaim ownership of those songs, after her original masters were acquired (and later sold) by longtime industry foe Scooter Braun — while also delighting fans with new period-appropriate treasures. The new recording became one of the year’s biggest cultural hits, and helped Red (TV) move an astounding 605,000 first-week units, numbers matched by only a handful of original releases this decade. — A.U.

Drake and Kanye hold Free Larry Hoover Concert

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

The biggest rap concert of the decade resulted from a beef-squashing: Kanye West and Drake buried the hatchet after some prolonged bickering — and after releasing two of the most anticipated and most successful albums of 2021, Donda and Certified Lover Boy (respectively), in back-to-back weeks — then decided to put on a co-headline show in support of imprisoned Chicago gang leader Larry Hoover. Held at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and live-streamed on Amazon, the concert included a string of Kanye hits, selections from Drake’s new set, and some amiable song trades (including the inspired touch of West performing “Find Your Love,” a 2010 Drake song that he co-wrote and co-produced). Above all, it represented a rare extended truce between the two larger-than-life hip-hop figures, and the culmination of a year in which their tangled presences towered over all of popular music. Something like the Larry Hoover show will probably never happen again for Kanye West and Drake, making the evening all the more special. — J. Lipshutz

Encanto, Disney

“Encanto”
DISNEY

Encanto arrives on Disney+

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

Encanto, the animated Disney musical about a “magical” family in the mountains of Colombia, topped the domestic box office after its release on Thanksgiving 2021. But the film’s real explosion — which ultimately impacted the Billboard charts as heavily as the box office — came after it arrived on Disney+ and entered the homes of millions of children over the holiday break. With the movie available to be replayed infinitely, with TikTok at its disposal to spread its songs and memes, and with an underlying Latin beat (and accent) propelling the Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned soundtrack, Encanto became a pop culture phenomenon. Its soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 for nine weeks, while the ear-worming “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five frames, longer than any other previous Disney hit. It showed how fast movies and their hit songs can spread to all corners of the culture in 2022, and that children and adults alike were ready to embrace Latin pop in any incarnation, even a Disney soundtrack. — L.C.

Vinyl officially outsells CDs for 2021

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

For several decades, the biggest changes in the record business have fallen along format evolution: from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to digital downloads to streaming, with each new format making the last more or less obsolete. But something curious has happened with vinyl over the past 16 years: as music has gone increasingly digital, LP sales have actually grown each of those years — until in 2022, vinyl album sales for the previous year were officially reported as comprising 50.4% of all physical albums sold in the U.S., It was the first time vinyl sales had eclipsed CD sales since Luminate began electronically tracking sales in 1991, and it made vinyl the leading format for all album sales in the U.S. for the first time over that period, too. Against all odds, vinyl has rebounded from relative obsolescence to once again become a vibrant piece of the business. — D.R.

Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” appears across multiple episodes of Stranger Things

25 Moments That Defined the Decade

While the spring of 2022 was mostly overpowered by high-profile LP releases by contemporary megastars — Future, Bad Bunny, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar — the biggest story in the music world this May was about a minor hit from 1985 improbably becoming the biggest song in the world. Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” rode an enormous, multi-episode sync from the Netflix sci-fi smash series Stranger Things to the top five of the Hot 100 and No. 1 on Billboard‘s Global 200, quickly becoming one of the year’s defining hits 37 years after originally peaking at No. 30 on the Hot 100. It proved that TikTok wasn’t the only contemporary platform that could make old hits into brand-new viral sensations in 2022, and further demonstrated just how much the timeline of popular music — along with our long-held assumptions about what is and isn’t a hit single — seems to be collapsing on itself this decade. — A.U.


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