When we look back upon Seattle’s musical epochs, there are obvious defining movements. The flannel-wrapped late ’80s and ’90s will of course always be synonymous with the once-in-a-lifetime grunge uprising. The aughts ushered in an indie-rock boom, with a wave of introspective songwriters and folk-inflected rockers who matched the Pacific Northwest’s overcast aesthetic.
Twenty years from now, when Jeff Bezos rules the world and ’90s fashion is back in vogue for the third time, how will we remember the past 10 years of Seattle music?
The continued, gradual-slope rise of Seattle hip-hop — from Grammy winners to streaming-era prodigies — was one of the decade’s top story lines. In tandem with breakout electronic stars, these hip-hop artists helped evolve our guitar-town reputation while, nationally, music’s mainstream also became less guitar-oriented. Still, a number of harmonizing folkies and indie rockers of various stripes strummed their way into the national consciousness, proving our once-grittier technopolis continues to be a rock ‘n’ roll hotbed (at least for now).
To set the record straight, there has never been a single “Seattle sound” that accurately encapsulated everything our hometown musicians had to offer. And as these 15 artists who helped define this decade of Seattle music demonstrate, the 2010s were as eclectic as ever.
(Note: Some of these videos contain explicit lyrics.)
The Black Tones
While many of the artists on this list have served as Seattle envoys to the rest of the music world, The Black Tones’ impact is felt closer to home. With the ghost of Hendrix echoing through Eva Walker’s amplifier, this sibling blues-punk duo stomped its way into the hearts of local rock fans through relentless club gigging. Besides emerging as a truly can’t-miss live band in a town that’s seen its share of ’em, Walker has used her tenure helming KEXP’s local show, “Audioasis,” to amplify underrepresented voices throughout the Pacific Northwest. Expect that work to continue in the new decade as she and her snare-smacking brother, Cedric, launch “Video Bebop,” an all-Northwest music video show premiering 11 p.m. Jan. 11 on Seattle Channel.
Already one of the brightest local stars to emerge this century, Brandi Carlile leapt from veteran Americana fave to hardworking prime-time power player with 2018’s stunningly tender “By the Way, I Forgive You” — arguably the Seattle album of the decade. Her show-stealing 2019 Grammy performance and three award wins — more than Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s combined — cemented her place among Washington state’s biggest homegrown stars. With a wider-than-ever creative license, Carlile used her profile boost and songwriting prowess to help breathe new life into the career of country great Tanya Tucker and to “join the chorus” of women taking on country music’s gender disparity with her Highwomen supergroup. At some point, Carlile will presumably sleep. But after a career-defining year, it kinda feels like she’s just getting warmed up.
Car Seat Headrest
Not long after relocating to Seattle in 2014, Virginia transplant Will Toledo landed a deal with taste-making indie label Matador Records and shot from Bandcamp cult hero to indie rock’s next big thing, earning comparisons to ’90s indie-rock royalty like Pavement that make critics of a certain age drool. Toledo’s live band eventually morphed into an airtight septet that included the members of garage-rocking hooligans Naked Giants, forming (at least for a few years) a club-storming caravan showcasing two of Seattle’s top rock bands across the world.
Elan Wright and Nima Skeemz
It’s not just the ones holding the mics shaping the music. The Ruby Room studio helmsmen have become crucial behind-the-scenes players in Seattle hip-hop, producing, mixing and mastering records for local stalwarts like Sol, Travis Thompson and Dave B. — artists worthy of their own spots on this list — plus up-and-comers Parisalexa and Laza. In some ways, Wright and Skeemz are to 2010s Seattle hip-hop what Jack Endino was to grunge, their fingerprints gracing many of the city’s most significant releases and informing a soulful, pop-attuned sound that has defined a prominent segment of Seattle rap.
The Head and the Heart
The rise of these Conor Byrne-born folk rockers capped an era of acclaimed indie-folk bands sprouting from the Northwest. Where their Sub Pop labelmates Fleet Foxes — which shot to indie stardom on its 2008 debut — came before them favoring a delicate lushness, THATH flashed rootsy pop harmonies ostensibly readier for crossover appeal on its 2011 debut. While several members have moved elsewhere, the group showed Seattle is always in its heart, closing the decade with a monumental concert atop Pike Place Market.
Just because this local B-boy-turned-K-pop star spends much of his time on the other side of the world, where his star is even brighter, don’t think for a second that the Roc Nation rapper forgot about his roots. Whether cooking up soju-toasting collaborations with 2 Chainz, judging “Asia’s Got Talent” or winning the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Game Changer Award for his work as an artist and entrepreneur, the rapper/singer/label boss is representing Seattle on a global scale. With all its cameos from local artists, his latest “The Road Less Traveled” LP felt more like “Revenge of the Dreamers: Seattle” than a solo album. And in a show of scene unity, Park pulled half the rappers in the city onstage during a recent sold-out homecoming concert.
In two short years, this rising star went from an unknown Mountlake Terrace teen posting songs on SoundCloud to Seattle hip-hop’s biggest export since Macklemore. This year, Mosey earned a coveted spot among tastemaker XXL magazine’s Freshmen Class list of the hottest ascending rappers and has collaborated with the likes of Chris Brown, Gunna and Trippie Redd. Over two Interscope-backed albums — including November’s “Certified Hitmaker,” which hit No. 12 on Billboard’s Top 200 — Mosey’s delivered a constant stream of glossy, short-burst earworms baking pop melodies into half-sung rhymes. While his relationship with Seattle’s established hip-hop community got off to a bumpy start, Mosey’s put Seattle on the map for a younger generation of rap fans.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
By the end of the aughts, the future thrift-shopping chart-crasher already had heads nodding with “The Unplanned Mixtape.” But it wasn’t until the decade turned that Mack’s partnership with his ex-photographer/beatsmith Ryan Lewis launched the DIY duo into Ellen DeGeneres’ TV living room. Indie-rap’s improbable Top 40 incursionists owned 2012 with ubiquitous No. 1 hits “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” Mack’s forays into LGBTQ allyship and ruminations on privilege as a straight white guy performing Black music didn’t come without critics, even in his hometown. Whatever your opinions are, the pair undeniably took Seattle hip-hop to heights it hadn’t seen since Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ode de derrière 20 years earlier, and showcased other local artists in the process.
While the local music scene has always been far more varied, for many outsiders, Seattle was long synonymous with guitar-wielding rock bands. Indie-electronic producers Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight helped change that perception when their college send-off project rocketed from a smelly Bellingham basement to amphitheaters across the country, blossoming into one of big-stage electronic music’s most compelling live acts. The Grammy-nominated duo’s cinematic blend of future bass, downtempo and pop soars like a drone flight over Puget Sound, with bass lines danker than an old-growth forest floor.
No Seattle artist closes this decade with a more adventurous, rewarding catalog than enigmatic songsmith Mike Hadreas. Over four superb albums, the pensive avant-pop architect of somber, lo-fi tunes leapt out from behind his piano with a safety-threatening sashay and sparkling synthesizers. Throughout his evolution from stripped-down soul-barer to the charismatic performer writhing on stage during his intense, sexually charged music/dance collaboration with Kate Wallich at The Moore Theatre this fall, Hadreas — whose partner Alan Wyffels performs with Perfume Genius — hasn’t lost a shred of the intimacy and knee-weakening falsetto that hooked us 10 years ago.
Lest outsiders think Seattle rap was all cruising Goodwill aisles, Raz Simone provided a grittier counterweight when he was announced as the first rapper signed to Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment. While Young Thug and Migos went on to become some of the label’s first big stars, the prolific Simone has played the long game, steadily building a fan base with raspy, introspective street sermons over beats laced with strings and pianos big enough to score a blockbuster. Using his music as a catalyst for difficult conversations, Simone emerged as one of the city’s most important voices, tackling white privilege and appropriation in hip-hop without avoiding the Macklemore-sized elephant in the room on his poignant “Macklemore & Chief Keef.” Featuring a cameo from one of Seattle’s finest, Gifted Gab — a top-tier emcee — tracks like “Same Problems” are as relevant now as the day they dropped.
Inventive, visionary, pioneering, uncompromising. Tag that word cloud on an art-gallery wall and you’ve only scratched the surface of the experimental hip-hop group’s cosmic force. Pulling from jazz and African percussion, the boundary-pushing hip-hop duo made up of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire — Sub Pop’s first impactful hip-hop signing — has spent a decade at Seattle music’s vanguard, its cultural footprint extended to offshoot groups Knife Knights and Chimurenga Renaissance. The Black Constellation collective — a loose affiliation of like-minded musicians — that Shabazz Palaces anchors has become a local institution in its own right. And Butler’s A&R work for Sub Pop has made Seattle’s flagship label a more interesting place.
Whether eye-rolling at tech bros or digging at patriarchal B.S., no other band this decade felt more Seattle than Tacocat. With progressive values and frontwoman Emily Nokes’ wit and humor, the surfy pop-punks consistently delivered lulz and food for political thought in the same bubblegum-blowing breath. Alongside Chastity Belt, La Luz and Childbirth, the members of Tacocat didn’t just help carve space for women and LGBTQ folks in Seattle’s then-beardlier rock scene, they collectively reshaped it in their more inclusive image — work that’s still bearing fruit.
Since hip-hop/neo-soul duo THEESatisfaction’s Sub Pop debut in 2012, members Stas THEE Boss and SassyBlack have kept fans in Seattle and beyond sweating through their cardigans, creating space for queer women of color in a genre often dominated by straight men. While THEESatisfaction split up after two Afrofuturistic full-lengths, the members have remained Seattle fixtures — Stas an in-demand DJ, producer and host of KEXP’s “Street Sounds,” Sassy as an omnipresent electro-soul solo artist, and both as part of the Black Constellation collective. Overt self-love proclamations are in vogue these days, but THEESatisfaction’s warm space-funk grooves and infectious individualism subtly lit those candles without the cliches.
It’s only fitting that the 2010s will end with Seattle’s trademark warriors raising hell in our town’s premier rock club, the Showbox, now a Thunderpussy New Year’s Eve tradition. With amps revving louder than a ’68 Camaro, the ferocious quartet emerged as local torchbearers of good-ol‘-fashioned, unbridled rock ‘n’ roll, assuming the mantle with high-kicking swagger and a glammed-up live show that’s made Thunderpussy a hometown favorite across generational lines.