Long-time readers will know that I’ve fluctuated awkwardly around my yearly “singles” list each year, at one point keeping a steadfast commitment to only including legitimate, record-company approved releases. Last year I abandoned it completely and produced my mixtape project instead. Now, the decade’s conclusion at hand, I once again return to a singles list as an artificial – but useful – construction for looking at some of the decade’s biggest and best tiny moments of glory.
I’ve made a list of 100, but I’ll only be providing writeups for the top 50. You’ll probably look through and say “how is POP SONG X higher than ALTERNATIVE SONG Y?” to which I say, so what? I think we do – and should – ponder the individual song under slightly different terms than the album, especially if that song is part of a broader conversation and not just something you enjoy in the comfort of your living room. It’s got to be about distilling an idea or emotion to something lean and essential, which is why it’s perfectly reasonable to have a number of Top 40 songs alongside some of the decade’s biggest standards in rock, hip hop, indie rock and so-forth. (If anything, my list includes several mainstream rock tracks which Internet tastemakers have, in my view, neglected. I only hope I’m not artificially inflating them to make a point, but hey, none of us are perfect).
Also, one last disclaimer: don’t presume that any 2009 singles or albums on these decade lists will be in the exact same order on my yearly list (to come at the end of the month). I totally reserve the right to change my mind. That’s why Internets are awesome.
100. The New Pornographers – Use It
99. Arcade Fire – Rebellion (Lies)
98. Broken Social Scene – Lover’s Spit
97. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Y Control
96. M.I.A. – Paper Planes
95. Stars – Your Ex-Lover is Dead
94. Gorillaz – Feel Good Inc.
93. Sloan – Who Taught You to Live Like That
92. No Doubt – Hella Good
91. Hot Chip – Ready for the Floor
90. Ted Leo + Pharmacists – Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?
89. Annie – Chewing Gum
88. Animal Collective – My Girls
87. The Darkness – Growing On Me
86. Queens of the Stone Age – The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret
85. La Roux – Bulletproof
84. U2 – Vertigo
83. The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize?
82. The Futureheads – Hounds of Love
81. The Shins – Kissing the Lipless
80. Britney Spears – Toxic
79. Gwen Stefani – What You Waiting For?
78. The Organ – Memorize the City
77. MGMT – Kids
76. Kanye West – Touch the Sky
75. Manic Street Preachers – Your Love Alone is Not Enough
74. R.E.M. – Imitation of Life
73. Stars – Elevator Love Letter
72. Coldplay – Clocks
71. Japandroids – Young Hearts Spark Fires
70. Beyonce ft. Jay-Z – Crazy in Love
69. Bloc Party – This Modern Love
68. Metric – Dead Disco
67. Sigur Ros – Untitled #1
66. LCD Soundsystem – Tribulations
65. Camera Obscura – Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken
64. PJ Harvey – This is Love
63. Rihanna ft. Jay-Z – Umbrella
62. The Postal Service – The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
61. Scissor Sisters – Take Your Mama.
60. The White Stripes – Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
59. The Knife – We Share Our Mother’s Health
58. Death Cab for Cutie – The New Year
57. Interpol – Obstacle 1
56. Sam Roberts – Don’t Walk Away Eileen
55. The Roots ft. Cody Chestnut – The Seed 2.0
54. The Killers – When You Were Young
53. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
52. The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations
51. Radiohead – Idioteque
I’m curious to see if Justice has a long career ahead of them, because they seem to have been a classic case of right band/right album/right time. Just as hip hop was looking outwards to electronic music for sonic inspiration, along comes two Frenchmen owing great debts to Daft Punk but interested in edgier beats and more aggressive sounds. It was a perfect match for mainstream success, but it still needed a bit of a Trojan Horse. The solution: a Michael Jackson-aping pop song that hit like an instant classic from the moment the radio fuzz kicks in.
One of the biggest complaints leveled against indie rock this decade has been accusations of “twee,” of it being too cute and breakable for its own good. I don’t necessarily disagree; I just don’t see the problem with cute, breakable things, or why they’re worth complaining about. I’m pretty sure that “1,2,3,4” would have been a crossover hit even without Steve Jobs’ help, because it’s like a Sesame Street song for 20-somethings: a little bit broken, but still full of youthful enthusiasm and a noble heart.
I’m not sure what disappoints me more about the Dears: that they never were able to reach the same stratosphere as their Montreal brethren, or that it’s been six years since they brought their massive, spectacular live show to our eastern shores. I saw them play this song to a 30-person crowd at Acadia University and the room felt like it was a full house with sound cascading off the walls. Less proggy than a lot of their material, “Lost in the Plot” lingers with me both as the sound of what was, but also what might have been.
Coming from one of music’s most notorious mopes, “First of the Gang to Die” is one hell of a rouser. With dark irony, Moz sings of sunlight at the home of the blind and smashed human bones, all overtop of a blistering guitar hook that’s the closest thing he’s written to a genuine singalong in years.
A recent discovery – as I wrote about last month – but a no less spectacular one, “You Were the Generation…” is one of the decade’s hidden gems that, hopefully, future sonic archivists will dig up and rediscover accordingly. That it was ever a modest hit at all in the UK perhaps speaks to the odd times in which we live. In its sonic reconstruction, there’s a sense of breaking apart the past and rebuilding something we can almost call our own.
For many, including me, this was the introduction to one of the decade’s most sporadic, complicated and fascinating indie rock outfits. Ironically, they broke out with a track where band’s dominant frontman – Kevin Drew – takes a back seat to Brendan Canning’s quiet whispers. But it’s the instantly-recognizable bass line and escalating hand claps that made it a miniature classic. Every time I’ve seen the band play this song live, there’s not a soul in the venue who doesn’t clap in time; it’s as if we all collectively know our part to play.
There was a time circa 2000 when the Dandy Warhols seemed like the real deal. And while subsequent records and the band’s assholedom have tarnished the promise of Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, the first single still sounds like a band ready to take on all-comers at decade’s dawn. Like a hedonist Western, the simple guitar riff and doubled-vocals of “Get Off” makes you believe for three minutes that the Warhols actually WERE cool, and not just a bunch of snotty punks trying to be.
I really enjoy Ratatat, but they’re one of those bands where if they had disappeared after “Seventeen Years,” I’m not sure I would have minded. I distinctly remember a friend of mine describing his first experience with the band’s self-titled debut record as an ordeal to avoid pressing the repeat button on track one over and over again. No wonder, as “Seventeen Years” is such a perfect distillation of Ratatat’s sound: layered guitar riffs that escalate quickly, with a moodier, rhythmic outro that takes us home softly.
In a scattershot career defined by a glutton of scattershot material, Robert Pollard’s high points put most other bands to shame (which is why the band’s greatest hits record is, in my view, one of the most indispensible collections out there). Though Isolation Drills isn’t the band’s best by any margin, the blissful “Glad Girls” is the closest the band ever came to a hit, and it’s pretty damn obvious to see why: it’s pretty much chorus after chorus, only taking a breather for a polite bridge that apes R.E.M. with clinical precision.
I’m cheating. Deal with it. I tried for weeks to choose one of these two songs and failed miserably; as 2009’s strongest one-two punch, they’re completely inseparable to me. “Lisztomania” is as loose and playful as “1901” is industrial and calculated. It doesn’t matter which of them comes up on my iPod – my feet start swaying side to side, my head starts bopping and, if I’m in public, I have to fight the urge to start a dance party right on the spot. I often lose that fight.
It’s becoming pretty clear by that Timbaland jumped a massive shark tank at some point in the last few years, but there was a time when his sound was a revelation. And his greatest frontperson remains Timberlake, and this kiss-off track their most powerful work. It’s easy to forget that the forgettable “Like I Love You” was the first single from Justified – it wasn’t until this moody, dark synth opus that the two Tims managed to shatter the boy band image and build one of the decade’s more exciting pop icons in its place.
On a massive concept album that tries to find balance between the beautiful and the bombastic, no track finds that equilibrium quite like “Chicago.” The song is Illinois’ anthemic centerpiece, but frankly it’s a bit of a marvel that it succeeds so spectacularly, especially when you consider how silly the overly-emotional lyrics sound when you read them out loud. But somehow, the soaring strings and hushed vocals allow every word to sound harshly believable, the entire package coming together to make something truly majestic and memorable.
Bruce Springsteen’s best songs about cars always framed vehicle’s role in staging an escape as an act of desperation, not ecstasy or joy. It only makes sense, then, in crafting their most Springsteenian work to date that the Arcade Fire would make the car seem like a death trap, only marginally less terrifying than the existential dread that haunts its protagonist. He/she may be in denial about the darkness that lies down the road, but we sense its ominous presence in every chord, every scream.
This song was recently featured on CBC Q’s ongoing “How To” video series, where guitarists show off how to play their iconic songs. Turns out the secret to this song’s rolling piano riff is that one hand is playing every three beats, while the other hand plays every four. Guitarist Aaron Dessner talks about this in a shockingly nonchalant way, as if doing this is a simple, easily replicated procedure. I’ve been listening to the song for two and a half years now – it still sounds like magic to me.
That the members of MGMT are my age pisses me off to no end. We shouldn’t get away with this at our age: a cocky, confident debut that has no qualms about trying a bit too hard to be cool. And while in any other context Oracular Spectacular may have been the sort of smug, hipster record that earns a harsh blog backlash, the band smartly led with “Time to Pretend” – a fuzzed-out haze of a track that’s pretty hard to dislike by the time its four minutes roll to an end. Its romantic nostalgia may be more than a little bit vain, but hey, aren’t all of us these days?
Spoon are at their best when they’re at their least. In an age where studio dressing crosses genres and pay scales, few other bands have less need for flourish, pomp or circumstance. A Spoon track succeeds by stripping away everything but the most essential elements. Recalling “The Way We Get By’s” piano riff from memory takes mere seconds; I’d say it’s pretty damn essential.
If there’s a contender for the decade’s most inexplicable pop hit, here it is. What’s so surprising and rewarding about “Crazy’s” success is that it had nothing to do with the band’s image or personality. After all, most people didn’t ever know who the unfortunately-named Gnarls Barkley were (a DJ only hipsters had heard of and a rapper that even fewer knew). No, this bizarre, strange, creepy song owes its success entirely to itself: an impassioned vocal, an old-fashioned bassline and just enough oddness to stand out on the radio dial.
When preparing my decade coverage, I had half a mind to do a “greatest hits of the blogosphere” list of songs and albums whose success appeared to be almost entirely driven by music and MP3 blogs. Were I to go ahead, “The Funeral” would not only make such a collection but might top of the list. Band of Horses’ unassumingly confident debutsounded like My Morning Jacket meets The Shins – plum pickings for hipster folk – but it might have been lost to the digital wilderness had every blogger and their mother at the time not realized that “The Funeral” was a mini-masterpiece of pent-up passion and release, and worth shouting to the cyber rooftops about. It still is.
Two Wolf Parade albums and four EPs. Three Sunset Rubdown records and two EPs. Two Swan Lake records. And a new solo record coming out next year under the moniker Moonface. Spencer Krug has ADD, and thank goodness for that. But there will always be a special place for “I’ll Believe in Anything,” his arrival notice as one of Canada’s best songwriters and performers. Apologies to the Queen Mary’s alternating tracklist, with tracks switching between Krug and fellow Wolf Parade songwriter Dan Boeckner, is a close fight until that keyboard riff kicks in, those guitars chime and Krug’s unmistakable croon warbles, on the verge of breaking down with every impassioned line. After that, it’s no contest.
Joel Plaskett’s probably the closest thing that Canada has to a Springsteenian archetype right now, so it’s only fitting that his most beloved song appears to be woefully misunderstood every time he plays it in front of an audience. Far from a simple, fist-pumping patriotic anthem, “True Patriot Love” may be Plaskett’s most clever lyric, brilliantly laying out our country’s entire inferiority complex with the United States as a narrative of lost love and sexual angst. The early morning ritual – waking up with “O Canada” on the television – is less a moment of pride than of resignation. When seeking acceptance, sometimes we take what we can get.
When Kanye West sampled “Young Folks” on a 2007 mixtape – and later performed the track with Peter Bjorn and Johnon-stage in Europe – one couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony. Here was hip hop’s world of boisterous, sometimes misogynistic sexual exploits embracing a song about far more modest view of gender relations: less conquest, more discovery. Neither Peter Moren or guest vocalist Victoria Bergsman seem to have any idea what they’re getting into as the conversation flows, the hours fly by and their fellow bar patrons vanish into the night. It’s a testament to the power of accidental romance. Oh, and whistling, obviously.
Though not the record’s biggest hit, nor its greatest genre experiment, “Holiday” is American Idiot’s most important song by a country mile. Without it, the record’s teenage angst and alter-ego romanticism would risk seeming shallow, vain and – dare it be said – downright emo. But on “Holiday,” Billy Joe Armstrong finally grows the balls to pull back the curtain on the band’s slacker/stoner image and ask why their protagonists feel so isolated and alienated from the rest of society. What the resulting imagery lacks in originality, it makes up for in volume and vinegar. For years, the band was unfairly compared to The Clash simply due to a similar sound and small flashes of ambition. On “Holiday,” Green Day finally earned such a prestigious namedrop.
In 2002, Scotland’s Idlewild were in transition between their punkish roots and the anthemic stadium-seeking act they were about to become. 2000’s 100 Broken Windows sat on the first side of the divide; most of their breakthrough record The Remote Part fell on the latter. But Remote’s opening song – the exhilarating, riveting “You Held the World In Your Arms – bridges the gap by inexplicably managing to still sound brash as a chorus of strings and overdubbed guitars blast through the speakers. Like many music geeks, I generally lament how mastering techniques have wiped the nuance out of many recordings, but on “You Held the World” I don’t care one bit – hell, I usually turn it up even louder just to feel the walls shake.
When we reach a Blade Runner society and robots become physically indistinguishable from humans, “Hey Ya” will be an important litmus test to help determine a person’s humanity. Seriously, is there anyone with a pulse who doesn’t enjoy this song? I’ve seen senior citizens run to the dance floor at weddings for this one, grabbing the hands of their grand neices and nephews and shaking it like a Polaroid picture. Andre 3000’s The Love Below may have been a wee bit of a mess, but his amalgam of hip hop and old-fashioned soul produced a pop song that will survive for generations. Future robot-hunters will thank us for it.
It’s an open question as to whether or not “Falling Slowly” would be remotely memorable had it not appeared in Once, but ultimately a pointless one. We could ask that of so many songs in the music video age, and frankly, of songs in general. We don’t listen to music in a vacuum, and a song’s context is as much a part of its story as the chords and lyrics. In the case of “Falling Slowly,” it’s the soundtrack to four of the most magical movie minutes of the decade, as the film’s protagonists tease their way through the song, less performance than courtship. It’s a naked, intimate experience that renders the song equally naked and intimate on its own, even when performed in front of millions at the Academy Awards.
Dance music of the 2000s owes a huge debt to Daft Punk’s Discovery – and “One More Time” in particular – for shamelessly making disco cool again. In one spectacular track, two robots manage to obliterate the 1990s obsession with grungy authenticity and angst-ridden rockers and build a club track that even those of us who were high school rockists at the time couldn’t ignore. It’s a song so massive that even the band’s Toronto-based tribute collective can get the crowd to dance their faces off as if they’re hearing the real thing for the first time, one more time.
Spoiler alert: Hot Fuzz does not make my Top 50 albums of the decade list. Had the Killers released their breakthrough debut as an EP, though – cutting off the filler-filled second half in favor of the flawless power pop of its first five tracks – it might well have been a contender. And the highest of the first side’s highlights is “Mr. Brightside,” a passionately neurotic ode to sexual angst with an arpeggio riff that’s keeps the tension tightly wound until it explodes in boistorous synthizer chords. Never before has a such a clearly false expression of confidence sounded as confident as it does when Brandon Flowers croons the chorus at the top of his lungs.
Jose Gonzalez’s cover of this song – famously used in a popular Sony ad – probably won more hearts than it sold televisions. But beyond being pretty, it served two more important purposes: it earned The Knife enough money to support the recording of the creepy, brilliant Silent Shout, and it introduced the masses to 2004’s original take on the song, a version more proudly romantic than Gonzalez’s quiet, understated version. After all, these aren’t the lyrics of a sweet, unassuming love affair: these are spinning, twirling confessions of bliss that Karin Dreijer Andersson sings with every ounce of distorted joy she can conjure up.
For all my appreciation for calculation and craft in rock music, there are times when all I want to hear is something on the verge of falling apart at any second, teetering on the skinny tightrope of togetherness. So it is with “The Rat,” the Walkmen’s impassioned hit that bleeds the eardrums with sprawling chords and breakneck drums. I love how the song’s bridge tries to calm the fury by stripping away the madness, only to have it sprawl back into the song and explode into passionate panic all over again. The final chord is less a moment of accomplishment than inspired relief.
The first singles from The College Dropout tended to reinforce Ye’s “Bentley and a Backpack” image, as opposed to really giving a sense of the record’s scope and ambition. Thankfully, though, someone had the mind to release the epic, apocalyptic “Jesus Walks” to radio. I’ve always thought that the anxieties Kanye voices in the track – about how rapping about God won’t get played – were falsely modest. Did he really not think that the song’s vocal hook and gospel chorus was a hit just waiting to happen? Did he really not see that gangster rap was a shell just looking for someone to shatter it? Did he really not see that his star was about to shoot into the stratosphere? (Actually…I kind of think he saw that last one coming.)
As it should, the bridging of the great pop/alternative divide has inspired traffic in both directions, though for most of the decade it was the pop tracks sounding alternative that got the press. Then along comes this weird, wonderful band from Brooklyn fronted by a David Byrne apostle and two beautiful, harmonizing women who – in the middle of a weird, wonderful record – deliver an indie rock ode to R&B every bit as massive as the era’s biggest pop hits. No song towards the decade’s end demanded immediate and devoted attention in quite the same way. And when Beyonce’s sister Solange released a covered of the song last month, the circle of life was complete. Pop is alternative. Alternative is pop.
The Foo Fighters are a good band that has generally been content with simply good. They’ve spent over 15 years being dependable, but rarely producing the sort of material that deserves intense devotion. But like “Everlong” eight years earlier, “Best of You” unexpectedly breaks that mould by breathing hunger and fury from every note. Eschewing any sort of obvious verse-chorus-verse pattern, the song fights every urge to be formulaic and predictable and ends up perhaps the punkest thing that Dave Grohl and his band have ever laid to tape. It’s no wonder that Prince chose to cover the song as part of his Super Bowl set: few songs this decade capture naked passion quite so perfectly.
I seem to have this taste for when proggy bands embrace their poppier side, at least when it comes to singles. I found TV on the Radio’s sprawling Return to Cookie Mountain a bit impenetrable, but “Wolf Like Me” took no time at all to immediately fall for. Tunde Adebimpe even manages to sound a wee bit canine as he barks out the song’s lyrics with animal abandon, all over top of one of Dave Sitek’s best punkish soundscapes (with particular attention to the epic breakdown). Also, fun fact: Return to Cookie Mountain was released less than a week before New Moon’s publication. TV on the Radio, ahead of the curve once again.
“Should Jay-Z have stayed retired?” is probably one of the decade’s best counter-factual questions. Is two disappointing records, one decent album and a few hot singles enough to justify a comeback when your farewell track was one of the 00’s greatest hip hop anthems? Rick Rubin – ridiculously overrated as a rock producer – returns to the hip hop world and proceeds to hand Jigga the beat of his career to rap over. Jay then brings his A-game, spitting off on his critics, racism, violence against women and more with a passion younger than his years. If this had been his last will and testament as an MC, it would have been one hell of a way to go. You’re crazy for this one, Rick, indeed.
How can three short minutes of complete stupidity justify such a high ranking on this list? When it’s most infectious three short minutes of stupidity the 00’s had to offer. When my friend Travis and I were trying to decide what to play at our first iPod battle two years ago, this song not only made our shortlist – it was our opening number, a clarion call to our supporters that this was no time for sitting down on their ass like stoic hipster chumps and chumpettes. We expected dancing. And for all the great dance music this decade gave us, no single song – not even “D.A.N.C.E.” – said “dance” quite like Junior Senior’s wonderful little one-hit-wonder.
The first time I heard “Float On” was a live performance on CBC’s TV show Zed in 2003, several months before the song was released to radio in advance of Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Like many, I had fallen hard for The Moon and Antarctica and was excited to see the band’s performance of “3rd Planet,” but my jaw dropped when I heard this mysterious new song. Somehow, the band had managed to maintain their strangeness and squalor, but had channeled their sharp edges into a bizarre pop song that screamed spectacular to me. Even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I knew in my gut that the band was onto something. Thankfully, it seems everyone agreed with me.
Both U2 and “Beautiful Day” have been so ubiquitous this decade – for better and for worse – that it’s easy to forget what a revelation their comeback single was when it hit in the fall of 2000. Post-Pop, U2 were, in Larry Mullen’s words, “the biggest little cult band in the world” and even a bit of a joke in the wake of the punchline-worthy Popmart tour. And in one fell swoop – and one reverb-heavy guitar riff – it all came soaring back: the passion, the professionalism, the sheer power of everything U2 had once stood for. It’s a song incredible enough that it tricked everyone into thinking that the accompanying album – All That You Can’t Leave Behind – wasn’t a boring, inconsistent record. And it’s the main reason U2 can claim to be the outright biggest band in the world as the decade winds to a close.
At many points this decade, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music being discussed and debated, and in the wake of the deluge I start to tune things out. 2005 was one of those years for me, so when Pitchfork placed this unfamiliar song at the top of their year-end singles list – ahead of some personal favourites – I reacted with a giant “huh?” And I confess that when I downloaded the song and Antony’s affected vocal kicked in at first, I didn’t get it. But open minds find great rewards: as the song moved on, its empty soul grew more and more haunting, and by the time the strings kick in, I was overwhelmed. We have so much music at our fingertips these days that songs can lose their power quite easily, but “Hope There’s Someone” is every bit as moving as the first time I staggered through it.
At the risk of giving away which Strokes record ranks higher on next week’s albums list, I prefer “Hard to Explain” to pretty much every other song on Is This It because doesn’t feel loose and effortless. It feels like the sort of song that was overthought, overworked, overproduced and yet – in spite of it all – came out sounding completely amazing. I remember seeing the band on SNL – having not heard the record yet – and being a bit bored by “Last Nite.” But thank jeebus I stayed up for their second song, when the band’s crisp, clear professionalism pushed “Hard to Explain” to a whole new level of cool.
Less a song than a prophecy, less an opening track than a gospel, “Tunnels” was released as a vinyl single three months before Funeral, a sort-of teaser for the early street preachers. The rest of us soon-to-be converts first heard the song when we downloaded this strange new record that the cool kids were telling us about and pushed “play” in our iTunes, no idea what we were in for. From the rickety piano intro building to the song’s choral outro, it was like opening the Bible with the Book of Revelations. For all the decade’s brilliant anthems, none demanded action quite like this one, creating an army of evangelicals desperate to spread the good word of the Arcade Fire.
Pop culture generally knows better than to try and tackle topical tragedy, which is why with a couple of exceptions, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks didn’t really change the culture landscape very much. Bruce Springsteen, as usual, proved an exception, releasing an album and (in particular) a song that took the America’s outward fists of rage and turned them into upward fists of passion, smashing through the sky with every “la la la” chorus. After a moment of great sorrow, followed by questionable decisions and misplaced aggression, “The Rising” miraculously made America sound beautiful again.
Best fake-out of the decade, easy. For 55 seconds, you think you’ve got it all figured out: these Scottish lads are going to deliver a nice piece of post-punk riffage that’s probably going to make for a good three-minute rock song. And then the beat slows down. And then the guitar slashes through the speakers with an entirely new agenda. Now we’ve got groove, swagger and a sinister edge. It’s as if you thought you were being dragged for the dance floor, but you end up at her place instead. In other words, it’s one hell of an evening.
To someone like me – whose native language isn’t hip hop by any stretch – the 2000s seemed like a decade where the boundaries of what constituted “rap” music were stretched to the point where the genre burst at the seams, and cheers to that. But the biggest genre smashing moment for hip hop came early at decade’s dawn, as Outkast kicked off Stankonia‘s litany of hit singles with the manic, crazy, brilliant “B.O.B.” Both Big Boi and Andre 3000 spit out their rhymes as if time is running out on them, as if their very lives depend on getting sneaking the next breath in between their lines. From guitar riffs to gospel choirs, it’s as if the entire history of modern music has been shoved desperately into one single song, and the result just barely holds the seams together.
For a band whose entire motif is minimalism, The White Stripes sure do know how to fuck with expectations. Just as every journalist and their mother were falling over themselves to talk about the band’s lack of a bass player, Jack White goes through the work of bumping up the low end and produces the bass line of the decade on his guitar. Add in Meg’s apocalyptic drum beat and White’s creepy, unnerving lyric and you end up with four of the decade’s most captivating four minutes of doom and dread. Oh, and the song’s placement at number seven on this list? A hilarious coincidence that gave me a good laugh when I realized it.
Prior to Mass Romantic, Neko Case was already an acclaimed alt-country vocalist and songwriter. But this was the moment that she became a goddess. Though much of the New Pornographers’ debut record was an exercise in harmony, “Letter from an Occupant” was mostly Case’s show, a glorious gift handed to her from the killer craftsmanship of Carl Newman. There’s no room for subtlety here, no time wasted on nuance or modesty. This is about filling every spare bit of space with sound and volume, with Ms. Case keeping every note hovering near the top of her majestic, incomparable lungs. I have no idea what any of the lyrics mean, frankly, but Case sings every one as if it’s the most important thing she’ll ever sing. She might not have been wrong.
It says volumes about Kid A that Radiohead couldn’t find room for “Pyramid Song” on it. Any other band with such a beautiful, haunting track would have fought tooth in nail to squeeze it onto their new record (so long, “Treefingers”). But perhaps it’s for the best. Not only did the band choose to promote Amnesiac with a proper single, but placed among a hit-and-miss group of leftovers, “Pyramid Song’s” quiet revelations had ample room to resonate. Listening to the song today, though, what hits are the lyrics, a death’s dream equal parts creepy and breathtaking. Even among Radiohead’s countless contributions to the decade, “Pyramid Song” remains one of the band’s greatest achievements.
What always irked me about the mainstream hip hop songs I was exposed to growing up as a teenager was that they felt lazy; they were all overly concerned with a self-conscious cool and a manufactured sense of danger. What I wanted was REAL danger – a sense that these stories and these characters might not make it to the next song or the next album. Though I had initially dismissed his gimmick as a simple jokester, I had started to come around to Eminem when 8 Mile was released and he unleashed this monster of a track. I maintain that the opening guitar riff is the single greatest rock and roll moment of the decade, and even it’s just a teaser for the desperation and drama to follow. This is the hip hop song I was waiting for since I was 15.
For the first time in what feels like a long time, teenagers are no longer the sole driving force in (what’s left of) the music industry. In the Internet age, it’s us 20- and 30-somethings who hold court more often than not, pushing our cult favourites into the higher ends of the Billboard charts and championing our favourites on blogs and websites across cyberspace. James Murphy’s first attempt at writing our anthem – the anxious, status-seeking “Losing My Edge” – was a noble effort, but he succeeded beyond all expectations with 2007’s “All My Friends.” Chock-full of nostalgia, regret, pathos and humour, the song wrestles with aging in a world that spites the aged, laying out its laments over the two repeating, unforgettable chords that echo long after the song’s seven glorious minutes come to an end.
Great pop music should be a criminal act. Because the sonic innovations and creative shifts that occur below the mainstream surface aren’t always palatable to the masses, we need pop music to steal, take and borrow and translate the best of them into something agreeable instead of alienating, songs that earn consensus rather than produce conflict. “Since U Been Gone” takes a Strokes/Interpol-like verse, a New Pornographers-esque chorus and a ripped-from-the-Yeah-Yeah-Yeahs bridge and ends up with the decade’s great equalizer. But you know what? All the hipster cred in the world really doesn’t matter when that chorus kicks in. If there was a better distillation of sonic joy this decade, I sure as hell didn’t hear it.
Three years ago, I put a Yeah Yeah Yeahs track at the top of my year-end list as a Stephane Dion-esque compromise and ended up regretting it like it actually was Stephane Dion. It’s not that my esteem for the band declined; if anything, it’s grown as the band’s sound has expanded into something less brash and more beautiful. No, I think I regretted choosing “Turn Into” – still a great song – because it was really just a thinly veiled desire on my part to write about “Maps.” Three years later, I get my chance.
In making this list, I circled around “Maps” time and time again, trying to determine if it truly represented the decade in a single song. I still don’t know if that’s the case (although having its bridge riff show up in my number two song makes a good argument for it) but for me, it’s the moment where the decade’s possibilities were blown wide open. As I started to get a sense of the sheer volume of music I was coming in contact with in the post-Napster era, I coped with the deluge by making presumptions and snap judgements. I would define a band in my head based on advance press or what music websites were saying about them, and I’d spend time with their records accordingly. With Fever to Tell, it seemed as if I was going to get exactly what I expected from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: a bit ugly, a whole lot punky, as much attitude as sound.
But then, “Maps.” What on earth was this strange, breakable beast, buried in the final third of the record? From what planet did this shattered voice beaming from Karen O arrive from? What brought this lingering, tinkering guitar riff that blows between the headphones like an inspired wind? And how did anyone come up with “They don’t love you like I love you,” a lyric that sounded like it had always been there the moment I heard it?
From that point on, I stopped making presumptions when it comes to my record collection because, frankly, I really don’t know anything. I don’t know where the music industry is headed. I don’t know what my favourite band is going to do next. I don’t know what your favourite band sounds like. I don’t know where the next herioc effort will come from, and I don’t know when my next heartbreak will hit. The one thing I have figured out is that, just as it was with “Maps,” there is revelation out there just waiting to excite, to inspire, to surprise.