The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Picking one singular artist of the decade proved difficult, because so many genres shifted, careers launched, and sounds grew—and frankly, there were a whole handful of musicians you could make the case for. So we decided to talk about all of them. Click here to see all of Noisey’s Artists of the Decade, and here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.
Consider what it means for an artist to be emblematic of a decade. No matter their creative medium, it means that they stand apart in an ocean of talented peers, not just for their work but also for their persona and their history. Now consider the career of Arca. The Venezuela-born artist, who came out as non-binary in 2018 and uses the pronouns “she” and “it,” has come to embody practically every positive thing that is synonymous with the 2010s. She has been, variously and at different times, a hip-hop deconstructor, an experimental composer, a queer icon, a fashion visionary, a BDSM advocate, an immigrant, a gamer, a DJ, an avant-garde pop producer, an otaku, a model, a trendsetter, a performance artist, a millennial, a filesharer, a social media provocateur, an activist, and, of course, musical innovator—while refusing to be defined by any of these identities.
Since she debuted the Arca moniker in Summer 2011, 30-year-old Alejandra Ghersi’s one constant defining trait has been fluidity, a taste for artfully blending genres, dismantling samples, and shifting identities. As the saying goes, Arca has always contained multitudes, and tracing her creative arc feels like watching her reveal them all in real time. With each successive phase in her career, she’s made a huge leap forward both artistically and personally.
That fluid nature could explain why mixtapes have been a staple of her output from the beginning. In October 2011, avant culture website DIS Magazine premiered a 25-minute mix of originals and edits from the then-unknown Ghersi. Hip-hop, drum & bass, Venezuelan music, and even choral and orchestral sounds rubbed up against twisted versions of Craig David and Bilal. Those close-proximity contrasts between mainstream and underground values sparked a friction that Arca continued exploring for years, from 2013’s &&&&&, a high-water mark for Ghersi’s beat-driven productions, to Sheep, her 2015 score for Hood By Air, which took a more viciously experimental approach. Well before the ubiquity of Spotify playlists, algorithmic curation, and “lo-fi beats to relax/study to,” Arca was crafting her own seamless amalgamations of popular and fringe culture—and presenting them as authored listening experiences.
Such contentious yet coherent intersections were also the foundation for Arca’s early albums. Speaking to The FADER in 2014, Ghersi explained how the contorted voices in her music were like echoes of what went on in her head after first coming out as being interested in men when she moved to New York to attend NYU. “It was about different voices that came from completely different parts of my mind or my heart, shouting at each other in this crowded room,” she said. But if her first EPs, Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, were written amidst that internal cacophony, then her debut album, Xen, marked the beginning of a sea change.
Arca’s 2014 LP, Xen, felt more skeletal, clear-minded, and emotional, as if she’d discarded any baggage from her past to throw herself headlong into the future. After the release of her debut, Ghersi told DAZED, “I wanted to rip myself open just as an experiment, and if I didn’t like it then I would never do it again… Until I wedge some dynamite in my ribs and let that explode, I can’t really regrow.” Like many transformations, Xen was violent, vulnerable, and vivid, and it codified Arca’s rightful place as a singular creative force at the vanguard of contemporary electronic music.
It wasn’t long until her regrowth happened. Arca’s second album, Mutant, arrived exactly one year after Xen, as if the latter record had galvanized a creative explosion that couldn’t be contained. Sure enough, it was pure, unflinching excess: more tracks, more violence, more abstractions, more emotions, just more. True to her love for mixtapes—and likely bolstered by her time spent on a DJ tour with GHE20G0TH1K resident Total Freedom—Mutant was a seamless hour-long blast of sensual, volatile soundscapes. Where Xen showed Arca growing her new skin, Mutant found the producer learning how to wear it best.
Wearing a new skin, or putting herself into someone else’s skin, became something of Ghersi’s forte as the years rolled on. It wasn’t so much her propensity for elaborate costumes, or her knack for transforming a song like Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” into a club monstrosity, as it was her ability to shed her ego to help others say what they needed to say. Arca’s collaborative productions would come to inform, and at times even define, songs by vocalists Kelela, FKA twigs, and Björk—not to mention her work with Dean Blunt, Mykki Blanco, Blood Orange, and Frank Ocean. And in 2013, well before Arca’s debut album or long collaborative streak, Kanye West tapped Arca to contribute to and consult on the music that would become Yeezus, among other collaborators from the electronic underground, like Evian Christ and Hudson Mohawke. Suffice it to say that without the myriad musical personas Arca has inhabited, some of the most vital, game-changing pop music of the 2010s simply wouldn’t exist.
Despite all that came before, the last three years of the decade may have been the most remarkable for Ghersi. If there’s one aspect of the 2010s she doesn’t embody, it’s a generational weakness for nostalgia, and Arca’s constant forward momentum has resulted in some of her most honest and challenging work. With 2017’s Arca, she bared the latent troubadour within her, presenting 13 brutally heartbroken songs sung in her native Spanish. Pitchfork described its centerpiece, “Desafío,” as coming from a future “where the way we love will be fluid and liberated and uncompromising, rejecting every single convention of the here and now.” It was Ghersi’s most fearlessly personal and fiercely queer album to date, taking her out from behind the producer curtain and placing her directly in the spotlight that intimate art like this necessitates.
More recently, Ghersi has been making inroads into other kinds of media. In the past two years, she’s contributed to the score for one of the best-selling video games of all time, designed a $6,450 pair of BDSM headphones, written a generative AI composition for MoMA NYC’s lobby, and conceived a four-night “experimental performance cycle” that gradually dismantled its own edifice. In a 2017 interview for i-D, Ghersi told artist Wolfgang Tilmans about the concept behind her alias: “Arca means ‘box’ or ‘wooden’ in very old Spanish. It’s a ceremonial container where you store jewellery or valuables, an empty space that can become pregnant with whatever music or meaning I give to it.” If the 2010s was a decade full of chaos and creation, deconstruction and discovery, exposure and examination, revolt and revelry, then Arca was the vessel carrying the glut. And the more she opened herself to share what teemed within, the more significance could be found in our enduring through it all.