Originally posted fall 2009.
I make no apology for this list. I also make no particular claims for it; as the title says, this is one hundred songs released in the first decade of the twenty-first century. That is all it is.
I spent this decade immersed in music; but I spent it immersed in the music of the 60s or the 70s or the 20s as much as, and frequently more than, the music that was happening around me. I have been engulfed in a fog of historicity for much of my adult life; this is what managed to break through and illuminate the present.
My modus for the past couple of lists has been to talk like a curator, introducing an asummed-to-be-ignorant audience to the salient features and notable landmarks of the era. That won’t cut it here; you probably know more about this music than I do, and anyway you have strong opinions on it which don’t need any help from me. So I’m going to take a more personal tack, trying to express not why these songs matter (I’m not sure they do, or that anything does in that open-ended sense), but why they matter to me.
Most of this list falls under the broad banner of “pop” — in fact, I would argue that all of it does, but others would object, especially to #83, #43 and #21 — but while I would call myself a defender of pop, I’m not necessarily a pop fan. I like a lot of the things that pop does supremely well, but I also like a lot of things it doesn’t do well, or at all, and on the contentious question of What Is The Best Era For Pop I remain a firm agnostic. (I’m suspicious anyway of words like “best” or “greatest,” which doesn’t mean I don’t use them, but I mean less by them than I should.) I’d like to think that my years in the mines of history would have given me some much-needed perspective on the present, but the main lesson I’ve come away with is how relative everything is, and how little any of us know.
Lists like these are, for me anyway, exercises in competing loyalties and self-presentations. What do I love? What have I loved? Who takes precedence, my current self or my past self? Will this choice make me look clueless, or unfashionable, or like I’m trying too hard for indie cred? Will this ranking make me look overeager, or supercilious, or like some kind of Pitchforkian sheep? (I’ve purposely kept as far away from other people’s end-of-decade lists as is possible for someone with an active RSS reader, but I have a rough idea of the kinds of things people have been choosing, and my picks are largely more of the same.) Do I want to show off my exquisite, wide-ranging, and idiosyncratic taste, or be honest about what I’ve listened to and loved and returned to over and over again? I’ve ultimately tried to compromise and do both. Doesn’t everyone?
The most important tribute to honesty I’ve made is that (unlike every other of these lists I’ve made) none of these songs were listened to for the first time expressly for the sake of the list. They are all old friends I came to naturally over the course of a decade’s listening. Which means there are gaps, unconscionable gaps if you’re someone who has been immersed in new music for ten years and doesn’t understand why someone wouldn’t have heard enough Arcade Fire or Animal Collective to make an impression. I can only shrug: I’ll get around to it.
100. 50 Cent “In Da Club”
(50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Mike Elizondo)
Shady · 2003
I have never been clubbing — or not since I was fourteen years old and went to English-language nights at the skating rink in Guatemala City — nor do I have any particular desire to do so except as a sort of anthropological experiment, but the mythic aura which “the club” has taken on in modern pop music, as a sort of hyperreal space in which all desires are satisfied, all bodies are beautiful (and available), and everything and everyone exists for the sake of the person making the song, is too obviously a recurring theme to be ignored. Fiddy’s rhymes approach the club from a tough-guy street pose, but Dre’s polished, expensive beat and the very lack of urgency in his voice betray him: he’s just another rich asshole in paradise.
99. Joan As Policewoman “Eternal Flame”
Reveal · 2006
Not the Bangles song: a fact for which I was grateful when I first heard it, and now kind of wish it was, especially if the same claustrophobic, echo-bass production had been applied to it. I’m not sure where I first read about this fairly minor, widely unheard song — a singles review column somewhere (Stylus?), probably discontinued since — but I downloaded it and it’s become part of the fabric of my listening ever since, one of the rare songs on this list which I’ve only heard because I chose to. Mostly this list consists of songs which were great enough to reach my ears outside my iPod or laptop — the fact that I think “Eternal Flame” is strong enough to stand up in such august company is notable in itself.
98. Damian “Junior Gong” Marley “Welcome To Jamrock”
Universal · 2005
Confession time: I know virtually nothing about Jamaican music after about 1980. Which makes me the reggae equivalent of a classic-rock dinosaur, I know — but I prefer to think that dancehall, in all its permutations, is still interestingly in my future. This song’s brief residence in the wider popular culture is (aside from some guest spots on Gwen Stefani songs) all I’m familiar with in the post-roots scene, and I’m not even sure if it’s actually representative of any current stream Jamaican music, rather than being the kind of explicitly US-centric crossover tune which only a scion of reggae royalty could get away with. Regardless, it’s a monster beat, and Marley’s vocals, halfway between toasting and rapping, sound as righteous as his father’s.
97. Band Of Horses “The Funeral”
(Band Of Horses)
Sub Pop · 2006
The story of the progression of my taste in the 2000s (and yes what a shitty story that would be I hope no one tries to write it ahem) is largely the story of me turning my back on the sensitive white-guy music which at first glance should have been my bread-and-butter: I’m an introspective, lonely liberal arts major with literary pretensions, a romantic who pretends to cynicism, and conflictedly religious. I’m indie-rock’s demo if it ever had one. But the rise of the Arcade Fire is, I think, the moment when I stopped being Pitchfork’s bitch; not because I disliked the Arcade Fire, but because I never seriously listened to them. I was busy at the the with the music of the past — and when I dipped into current music again, it was very much at the pop end of the spectrum. Band Of Horses was part of that dip, and at first I dismissed them as Arcade Fire-wannabes, emotional manipulators who didn’t even do anything with their pounding guitars. But they’ve outlasted that impression, and while I still partly resist the sudden drops and soars of the song, I can’t get enough of the curling steel-string figure which opens it. The song is bigger than me; and I’m happy to acknowledge it.
96. The Dresden Dolls “Sing”
Roadrunner · 2006
I saw their records in Virgin Megastore and assumed they were teen-emo like My Chemical Romance or whatever. I don’t remember where I learned that they were actually a cabaret-rock act (still appealing heavily to the makeup-teen demographic, I’ve gotta assume), but I was intrigued and checked out Yes, Virginia. Nothing except this song stuck with me, probably because of its political themes. That, and the High Romantic assumption that all differences can be bridged through unity of artistic expression; there’s something very Beethoven, or even Goethe, in the “you motherfuckers, you’ll sing someday” refrain. (Something Michael Jackson too.) The final drum hit, sounding like a shot, sealed the deal: this was theater music for our day.
95. Kelis “Milkshake”
(Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo)
Star Trak · 2003
My reactions to this song, in order: “Wow, that’s a stupid chorus emanating from that kid’s cell phone.” “It is catchy, though.” “Wait, it doesn’t even make sense.” [This, in my mind, is nearly always a good thing.] “Huh, that ‘la la la la la’ section is weird and Middle Eastern.” “Okay, this is a great pop song for the moment. We’ll see, though.” “Wow, Kelis has a really interesting discography which overshadows ‘Milkshake’ quite a bit.” [Years pass.] “I hope the ‘I drink your milkshake’ thing doesn’t overshadow how great Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ is.” “Man, it sounds even weirder now.” “I’m pretty sure sure #95 is too low.”
94. The Scissor Sisters “Take Your Mama”
(Jake Shears, Babydaddy)
Polydor · 2004
First heard in the office because a co-worker liked to listen to Virgin Radio streaming online (he had a thing for the female DJs’ accents); I went for several weeks believing it was an Elton John song from the 1970s that I had happened never to hear before. When I finally found out it was the Scissor Sisters, I was surprised: I had dutifully listened to their “Comfortably Numb” cover (thx Pitchfork’s Track Reviews) and hadn’t expected them to be able to sound so funky. The gay-pride subtext (okay, text) has only gotten more relevant since, for reasons I’m not going to go into in public; but a road-trip singalong with my brother, both of us in falsetto the whole time while my sister tried to sleep in the back seat, remains one of my favorite memories of the song.
93. Wolfmother “Woman [Avalanches Millstream Remix]”
(Wolfmother, The Avalanches)
Modular · 2006
Remix culture is not one I move in easily; I’m still too historically-minded, too instinctively devoted to the idea that there needs to be one definitive version of a recording — and that it should ideally be the most popular one. Of course, such a deeply-held position can go right out the window when my actual preferences are at stake. This ranking was, for several weeks, going to be held by an actual Avalanches song — probably “Frontier Psychiatrist,” novelty be damned — but just in time I remembered this remix, which for several months had been one of my most-played tracks. I’m aware, vaguely, that Wolfmother’s original was pretty popular among the lingering classic-rock set, but this goofy cut ’n’ paste thing, with its horn fanfares and sped-up rewind noises, both rocks harder and feels less like a pastiche of 1971. For better or worse, it’s now.
92. Jimmy Eat World “The Middle”
(Jimmy Eat World)
Dreamworks · 2001
In 2001 my younger brother was deeply immersed in what he called emo and I (taking cues from the online chatter of people better informed and infinitely more world-weary than I) dismissed as teen-pop. He played Bleed American all the time; my eyes were stuck in a permanent roll. Except I secretly actually kind of liked “The Middle.” Not, for God’s sake, because I liked the positivitist* message, or even thought it was useful in any way — oh the biting cynicism of twenty-three — but, like “All The Small Things” and “My Own Worst Enemy” before it, because it was a great pop song wearing mall-punk clothes. Today, more familiar with the self-defeating nature of cynicism, I’m much more likely to openly embrace the positivitism; and it’s still a great pop song.
*because positivist means something else.
91. The Notwist “Pick Up The Phone”
(Martin Gretschmann, Markus Acher)
City Slang · 2002
I honestly can’t remember where I encountered this song; I’ve had it so long, listened to it so much, and heard so much in it that it’s just part of me by now. Based purely on the date, I would guess it was part of a late-2002 trawl in which I downloaded a couple of songs from every album recommended in Rolling Stone’s online year-end best-of; but it could as easily have been a Pitchfork track recommendation, or a random click-through on Allmusic’s front page. Regardless. I’m a dilettante when it comes to forms of electronic music; I recognize this as bearing some relationship to glitch, but it’s a smooth, elegant adult-pop song too. The more I listen, the more odd sonic details I hear. And I’ve listened to it a lot.
90. The Black Eyed Peas “Boom Boom Pow”
(The Black Eyed Peas)
Interscope · 2009
Between 2005, when I found “My Humps” unbearably obnoxious, and 2009, when I frankly rejoiced in the dominance of “Boom Boom Pow” over the early summer’s pop charts, lies a transformation in taste which would be described by many (most?) people as a deterioration, if not outright collapse. But here’s the thing: I still think “My Humps” is embarrassingly shitty; it, after all, doesn’t contain the gleeful cartoon-futurism of this song. Sure, “I’m so three thousand and eight, you so two thousand and late” is a stupid line if we’re trying (for some reason) to analyze it as a semantic expression, but it’s not meant to be sensical; it’s a ridiculous put-down, the sort of balls-out nonsense which any child could find charming. But my jaw really dropped when I first heard the wiggly synth line on the outro, floating through dissonance and modality into (for a couple of beats) klezmer, and then out into static. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can sneak sounds like that past the guardians of bland who rule pop radio in Phoenix is a genius.
89. Paris Hilton “Stars Are Blind”
(Sheppard Solomon, Fernando Garibay, Ralph McCarthy)
Heiress · 2006
The thing is, I don’t actually disagree with Patton Oswalt’s famous line, spoken in complete seriousness to the producers of Best Week Ever when they prompted him to make a joke about the trashiest celebrity of the decade. (“She’s a cunt who should die of AIDS.”) (He was fired soon thereafter.) Well, no, that’s harsh; I’m too much of a pussy to wish anyone actually dead, however little they contribute to a well-functioning democracy. But if it’s possible (and I’m not sure it is, especially as the history of pop is increasingly gatekept by those who write embarrassment out of it) to separate the dead-eyed artist from the effervescent, sun-kissed cod-reggae art, then the pop excavators of the future will no doubt know Hilton as a sweetly minor pop star of the oughts whose promise was wiped out by personal scandal and the puritanism of her audience.
88. Cat Power “He War”
Matador · 2002
Apparently Chan Marshall hates this recording of the song, but it’s the one I came up on. It’s still only one of a handful of songs I’ve heard by her, but it’s important to me for several reasons. 1) It’s the Cat Power song I heard first, which is rightly or wrongly still an important metric in the byways of my consciousness. 2) It’s the least stylized singing I’ve heard from her — which isn’t necessarily a dealmaker, she’s really good at that stylized singing, but the relatively unadorned vocal(s) here make for an easier entry into her world. 3) I hadn’t heard it in so long that I was almost convinced I didn’t know it at all, but then when I listened to it again for this list the chiming, pinging, clockwork-like instrumentation shook me up all over again. Of course I knew it; and of course it would go on the list. And I’ll never let it drift away like that again.
87. Maroon 5 “This Love”
(Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael)
Octone · 2002
Uncle, uncle. I give. White guys trading in guitars ’n’ yowls for funk beats and soulboy croons is one of the secret stories of 2000s indie (see also: Jamie Lidell, Stuart Murdoch, the whole DFA universe) — the only difference is that Maroon 5 went platinum with it. I resisted the pull of this song for the longest time, even sneering at it when my closest friend (who’s far more likely to listen to a Korn record or a Bill Frisell side project than the radio) insisted that it was one of the best pop songs of recent years. But no sense of indie cool — particularly one as loosely-held as that thrown around my shoulders cough Paris Hilton cough — could keep me from surrendering to the bouncy strut of the song at long last. Adam Levine can in the wrong ears sound smug; but I prefer to recognize it as joy fulfilled.
86. Chris Brown “Forever”
(Chris Brown, J. Jones, B. Kennedy, A. Merritt, Rob Allen)
Jive · 2008
As a nation we’ve talked about Michael Jackson and we’ve talked about Roman Polanski; but I haven’t seen (I’m sure it’s out there) much in the way of aesthetic defenses of Chris Brown. Not personal defense — fucker should be beat with lead pipes, not because Rihanna’s a greater talent than he (tho she is) but because while I’m not a particularly masculine man I do retain some patriarchal instincts, primary among them being YOU DO NOT HIT WOMEN. But people are all too willing to throw his music out with the bathwater, and down that road I cannot follow. “Forever” was my favorite song of the summer of 2008 — and I wrote a really long essay trying to explain why, though I don’t think I succeeded — and its space disco, sexy-black-robot glide hasn’t diminished one bit.
85. Regina Spektor “Fidelity”
Sire · 2006
Now that I look back on it, I’m simply befuddled by how much time my past self spent reading about music instead of listening to it. I quite clearly remember the first time I heard of Regina Spektor — a Pitchfork (I’m gonna be mentioning them a lot, dig in) review of Soviet Kitsch which namedropped both the Strokes and the term “anti-folk.” But I never actually heard Regina Spektor until I downloaded Return To Hope because I was trying to establish a hazy genre in my mind which also contained Nellie McKay and that’s as far as I got. I still have never heard any Regina Spektor outside of Return To Hope, and that’s actually fine — I like it a lot, but hers is a very specific kind of music that I don’t feel much need to return to very often, too on-the-nose for my indie instincts, and too coy for my radio pop loving self. This track, with its layers of pizzicatti on every instrument and her amazing broken-voiced hook, was the clear winner of the album, and has stuck with me as though its title were an actual promise.
84. The Streets “Dry Your Eyes”
679 · 2004
One way listening to a lot of pre-rock music has affected me: I have a much higher tolerance for the kind of string arrangements which a lot of my peers would tag “syrupy” or “maudlin,” just because I’m comfortable with the mood they’re trying to set. That reflective, suspended-in-time mood isn’t one that a lot of twentysomething rock fans have a lot of time for . . . and when it’s matched, as it is here, by some awkward, even embarrassing rhymes, it’s time for wholesale dismissal. But the embarrassment has always seemed to me to be part of the point of this song; it’s an open wound, lines like “the softness she’s blessed with” just as burningly horrible to remember as the kind of desperate pleading they occur in the middle of. Relationships ending are awful, and the people trying to stop them ending are nearly as awful, and this song captures both awfulnessnesses so specifically and so well that it almost approaches being awful in the same exact way. Almost.
83. The Blood Brothers “Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck”
(The Blood Brothers)
V2 · 2005
I’ve never looked at the lyrics to this song till just now, just to make sure there wasn’t anything utterly at odds with my understanding of the song. (There’s not, and I’m surprised how much of it I caught.) It’s not, uh, your standard guitar-pop type deal; the Blood Brothers are a noise-punk outfit, and most of the lyrics here are delivered in a strangled shriek. And then there’s the death-metal interlude. But throughout, there’s a nagging chorus, the most simple and basically pop of all choruses: “Love love love, love love love.” In its own twisted, exposed-bone fashion, this is a pop song, with pretty singing, memorable lines like “It’s dangerous to be so intimate,” and dynamic shifts that take your breath away.
82. Sugababes “Freak Like Me”
(Eugene Hanes, Marc Valentine, Loren Hill, William Collins, George Clinton, Gary Numan)
Islands · 2002
This and the next item are the closest I get on this list to mashup culture, for the simple reason that I haven’t heard much of it and of what I have heard I’ve been far more taken with the idea than with the result. (CCC’s Revolved totally holds up, though. Best rediscovery of the recent Beatles re-craze for me.) Anyway, not being British I’ve never listened to Sugababes beyond the first couple of singles, but Richard X’s stroke of genius in putting Gary Numan’s “Are Dreams Electric?” (which I knew and loved) behind Adina Howard’s party jam (which I’d never heard until researching my 90s list) was not to be ignored.
81. Jay-Z vs. Linkin Park “Numb/Encore”
(Jay-Z, Kanye West, Linkin Park)
Warner Bros., Roc-A-Fella · 2004
No, really. I wasn’t invested in Jay-Z the way it seems nearly everyone was this past decade — I knew him, basically, from guest appearances and random tracks, and (mea maxima culpa) never even got around to hearing, say, “99 Problems” until I was getting ready to make this list. The fact that I put this in instead is due both to my desire to make a strict accounting of my actual listening rather than ginning up credibility, and to the fact that I think it’s actually a great song. Well, the “Encore” bit is, anyway, Jay retiring on top of the heap (which I never believed for one second even if I wasn’t familiar with his work). But then Linkin Park cycles through a verse and chorus of “Numb,” and the juxtaposition makes for an uneasy whole: if both Jay and Chester are speaking from the same “I,” this is a song about suicide.
80. Estelle ft. Kanye West “American Boy”
(Estelle, Kanye West, Keith Harris, will.i.am, John Stephens, Caleb Speir, Josh Lopez, Kweli Washington)
Atlantic · 2008
Some things last a long time. Close in the running for the first pop I ever knew, Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” was the obsession of the teenage cousin who lived with my family for a period in the eighties, and its chord changes and sense of romantic fatalism are so deeply ingrained in me that I sometimes despair of ever getting them out. I mention this only because when I first heard the “. . . American boy” at the end of the first chorus on this song, something deep within my psyche kicked. “. . . They fell in love,” warbled Barry in memory, and I was besotted without even knowing it. Once reason took hold, and I was able to hear the bubbly disco song underneath for what it was, well, then I was besotted and knew why.
79.The Hives “Hate To Say I Told You So”
Burning Heart · 2000
Yes, it was Nick Hornby’s New Yorker article where he said he had started dreaming about Howlin’ Pelle Anqvist. (To be scrupulously fair to myself, I didn’t realize it was Nick Hornby at the time; I had just started subscribing to the New Yorker, and I figured they were just always on the cutting edge of indie taste.) The Strokes and the White Stripes (the other two poles of the not-actually-garage-rock aesthetic) quickly outstripped the Hives in both popular acclaim and my own listening; but this song, with its goofy propulsiveness, throbbing bass, and lyrics that sound as though they were translated second-hand, is the kind that sticks with you. For a couple of months, I thought the Hives might be the first shot in a musical revolution, but they turned out to be something much better: a one-hit wonder.
78. Broadcast “Pendulum”
Warp · 2003
Let it be known by these presents that from 2002 to 2005 I obsessively curated a series of mix discs that I called Maestropolis (for reasons which we need not go into now; the whole story is here if you’re terminally curious). On the fifth volume of these discs, the second track was Broadcast’s “Pendulum,” not because I loved it particularly at the time, but because it seemed to fit between Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros’ “Coma Girl” and Blur’s “Out Of Time.” (Why I ever heard Broadcast in the first place is a question which I have no answer to, unless Pitchfork is it.) Listening to it now is oddly comforting, like being rocked back and forth in the arms of a fritzing sine wave.
77. Pink “Get The Party Started”
Arista · 2001
This song marks the first time I was able to enjoy — nay, even to understand — the teenpop that had crested and broke in the wave just after I entered adulthood and stopped paying attention. I had brung myself up on early-90s alterna-rock, and the Class of 99 was opaque to me: Britney, Nsync, and the Backstreet Boys were, as far as I could tell, only singing terribly cheesy lyrics over muscular, gleaming synths, second-rate Michaels or Janets Jackson without personalities. It all sounded terribly expensive, but none of it sounded at all human. Then I started testing my assumptions. I bought Pink’s Missundaztood, and found that I liked the upbeat songs and started getting very cynical once she moved into heartfelt, autobiographical ballads. This song in particular; its bright, cartoon-pop beat, with an extradimensional orchestra showing through in sudden squelches, was exactly what I wanted out of silly dance-pop. And Pink’s voice, without Britney’s barely-legal affectations or Christina’s oversung showiness, sounded . . . dare I say it? Real.
76. Coldplay “Clocks”
Parlophone · 2002
Maybe I’m just a sucker for a clockwork piano pattern. (There’ll be another along about #20 which is far superior.) I’m definitely a sucker for a piano, period. Everything that everyone says about Coldplay is true: they’re boring, Chris Martin writes lyrics that are meaningless at best and embarrassing at worst, they’ve inspired a generation of soppy, prettily-played vagueness that tries to soar and mostly just whines. But on many of their hits, and this one in particular, there’s something to the construction of the song that can be admired, the repetitive, overlapping patterns in piano and guitar and drums floating like a cell-based composition by Terry Riley or Philip Glass. It doesn’t progress like a standard Romantic melody, it interlocks and shifts with the tides. Coldplay: secret minimalists? Sure, I’ll go with that.
75. MGMT “Time To Pretend”
Sony · 2007
This, on Pitchfork’s Best of 2007 list, was the first time I realized that indie rock was moving on without me. Not only had I not heard MGMT — that’s no surprise, there’s so much I haven’t heard you guys — but when I finally heard the song I had nothing to say about it besides that’s quite the earworm of a synth lick those guys have got there. I forgot about it after that. Until one day when the pop and hip-hop radio stations were all on commercials and I punched in the low-wattage local “alternative” station (they mostly play 90s rock to make their audience feel like they’re still young and cool) to wait them out, and that earworm of a synth lick jumped out, and I had to do a furious recalculation of everything I thought I knew. I never actually listened to the lyrics until earlier this year, and I’m still not sure how it’s positioned within the discourse; I don’t even know what people mean when they praise or diss MGMT. I just know I like the song a lot now.
74. Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow “Picture”
Atlantic · 2001
Aside from the most notable cover of the decade at #36, this is the closest this list gets to mainstream country (no Taylor Swift, sorry I just feel like a creepy old man if I try to like her work), a lack which becomes more and more evident the longer I look at it. And while as a country song it’s pretty great, Rock’s thin whine and Crow’s California-mellow tics make it hard to hear the great George Jones/Tammy Wynette duet underneath the plastic sheen. But then the plastic sheen is part of the point — this is a song for moderns, not for nostalgists, and while all the country standbys — drinking, church, men crying, reconciliation — are namechecked, the Skynyrd-aping guitar solo and Rock’s alterna-bellow in the last verse bring the classic themes firmly into the modern strip-mall country world of bad tattoos and stripper heels. Kid Rock’s unique melange of hip-hop, hard rock, and sentimental country is truer to the life most Americans live than any classicist can acknowledge; and if it too often comes across as shoddy and prefab, well, that’s true, too.
73. The Gossip “Standing In The Way Of Control”
Kill Rock Stars · 2006
In trying to defend this choice to someone who was listening to this playlist in real life, I mumbled something about its being a post-punk disco song with a house vocal. Which all by itself sounds interesting — or at least did in the early 2000s, when punk was punk and disco was disco and never the twain should meet (look I was still learning what punk was cut me some slack) — but the Gossip’s updating of the sounds that the Au Pairs and the Bush Tetras had perfected in the early 80s (yes I knew about them before I heard the Gossip, which only goes to show how much more I’ve been invested in historical genre-plotting than in the sounds of today) would have been nothing without the sheer righteous power of Beth Ditto’s voice. When I first heard the Gossip, I was bored to tears of scuzzy, minor-key guitars over funk rhythms; now they’re just one dish in a much more variegated diet, which helps me hear them for what they are: a dance band with a bristly exterior.
72. Christian Falk ft. Robyn & Ola Salo “Dream On”
(Christian Falk, Robyn, Klas Åhlund)
Bonnier · 2006
For the past oh eight years I’ve had a bad habit of automatically downloading anything I’ve read anyone say anything positive about, and then sticking it in a folder where it sits unheard for months or years. So I don’t remember why I had “Dream On” on my hard drive in 2006, but eventually I included it on a mix of female-vocalled pop songs (many of which are on this list now) that came out in 2006, where it batted cleanup. (Mix-makers know that the final song requires almost as much thought as the first; in this case, no thought was needed.) And that was that, until I got the Pitchfork 500 book (oh go ahead and judge me) and saw that they included it; which validation is exactly the kind of thing that always makes me go back and listen again, going “really”? In this case (spoilers) the answer was “yes.”
71. Franz Ferdinand “Take Me Out”
(Alex Kapranos, Nicholas McCarthy)
Domino · 2004
Observant cynics would shrewdly note that this too appears on the Pitchfork 500; and they wouldn’t be wrong. But it was an earlier Pitchfork note — the debut of Franz Ferdinand as a name on the site, in fact — that first sold me on the song. It’s the most important thing about the song, the moment the slightly dull indie song grinds to a halt and the much more interesting disco song starts up, that first made me curious, and still after all these years remains one of the most satisfying moments in guitar-pop this decade has produced.
70. Lady Sovereign “Love Me Or Hate Me”
(Lady Sovereign, Lukasz Gottwald)
Def Jam · 2006
The ways in which popularity, time, tastemaking, and subcultures interact is one of the things I find most fascinating about the music of the 2000s, in which I mostly got to see them play out in real time. To wit: I first heard of Lady Sovereign as the GWH of British rap/grime. One single, then another showed up on Top Ten lists and got buzzed about online. Then she signed to Def Jam under Jay-Z and made a serious play for pop stardom. And she got as much of it as a white female rapper would seem to be capable of — a minor hit on the American pop charts, about which everyone who had previously championed her shook their heads and sighed over its dumbed-down roteness. (I bet there were people championing this too, but I never saw them). But what I heard was the sound of a pop personality fully coming to grips with itself; “Ch-Ching” (e.g.) was a great hook, but an unmemorable song, and if it takes borrowing a late-period Genesis line to make an impact, I’m all for it.
69. The Darkness “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”
Atlantic · 2003
A millistep to the right, and They Might Be Giants would be here instead (I loved loved loved Mink Car when it came out). And I think the fact that I put the Darkness in a similar category to TMBG is sort of the answer to the question mark I imagine popping over the head of everyone that reads this. B-but . . . (goes the argument) but . . . they’re making fun of hair metal! Maybe. Does it matter? It’s not as if hair metal ever took itself all that seriously in the first place (except Axl Rose, and he’s not on here). I don’t hear mockery, I hear affection; and the ridiculous “Guitar!” after the second chorus, the glorious Thin Lizzy/Scorpions twin-guitar soli, and Justin Hawkins’ magical shriek are such superb pop sounds that it’d be stupid to disbar them on the grounds of being insufficiently sincere.
68. Jamie Lidell “NewMe”
Warp · 2005
White techno-industrialist geek turns soul shouter/crooner. Which is the narrative hook on which a thousand indie-rock profiles were built, but the real thing about Jamie Lidell is that he wants to be Justin Timberlake. Or anyway that he’s the indie-rock mirror-image Justin Timberlake, a white boy patterning himself after Michael Jackson ca. 1984 with freak-sonic futurism stepping up around him. I still get irritated whenever I see people dismiss Lidell as some kind of throwback retro guy; he’s not Sharon Jones, he fully embraces modern techno-futurism, he just likes sounding like James Brown on top of it. And I like it too. This is my favorite track off his first album, probably because of the big-band horn charts (which are more Stevie Wonder than Count Basie), because I love hearing history mashed up.
67. Mariah Carey “Touch My Body”
(Mariah Carey, The-Dream, Cri$tyle, Tricky Stewart)
Island · 2008
Is it just because I sort of dropped out of new music altogether from late 2006 to mid-2008 that I get the impression that there’s been a sort of sea change in chart pop over the past couple of yeas? The change isn’t good or bad, it’s just change, but for example there’s no way The-Dream’s lush, enervating productions could have been hits in say 2002. (Unless they were R. Kelly joints, because R. Kelly could do whatever he wanted.) (Sadly, no Kells here. I don’t know how I managed it, but I didn’t even hear “Ignition (Remix)” until I started making this list.) Mariah sounds, as she has consistently post-millennium, far weirder than the adult contemporary star I remember from the 90s, even gamely namechecking Youtube. But it’s that production that does it for me, the dozens of multitracked Mariahs creating a suffocating, dreamy atmosphere that sounds just right both for lovemaking and paranoia.
66. Wilco “I’m The Man Who Loves You”
(Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett)
Nonesuch · 2002
I first met Wilco through their story, or rather the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its recording and shelving and eventual release, and I’ll be honest the only thing that made me want to pick it up was that someone somewhere in some review namechecked Radiohead’s Kid A. (With the perspective of eight years, it more or less is the American Kid A, a collection of loose-limbed but terminally mopey guitar-pop songs obscured by layers of digital foolery; not groundbreaking except in the important sense that many of the people who heard it had never heard anything like it before.) This soon became my favorite cut off the album,
Nels Cline’s Jay Bennett’s Neil-Youngish guitar sputters the most intelligible sound to my classic-rock ears, and if I’ve drifted away from that kind of music since, my heart still lifts to the Staxy horns in the outro.
65. Fergie “Clumsy”
(Fergie, will.i.am, Bobby Troup)
A&M · 2006
I must be very far from the first person to make the observation that while there’s no hint of clumsiness in Fergie’s performance (as glibly sassy as ever), in its Frankenstein’s-monster arrangement and production, the song hits just the right notes of adorably geeky awkwardness. Its metronome hook; its Little Richard sample; its out-of-nowhere drum breaks; and, of course, the spoken-word interlude over a doo-wop backing that could have been made fifty years ago, all fit together with the seams showing and no attempt made to convince the listener that it’s cool. Which naturally makes it urgently, irresistably cool, if only in the Napoleon Dynamite sense.
64. John Legend ft. Andre 3000 “Green Light”
(John Legend, Andre 3000, Rick Nowels, Fink)
Sony · 2008
The proportionate representation of the decade on this list is all out of whack: almost nothing from the first couple years, then a bunch of indie-rock staples, another trough, then a spurt of as-mainstream-pop-as-it-gets for the last several years. Which more or less reflects my actual listening over the decade; as explained elsewhere, I’ve spent the last couple of years hooked on radio and ignoring practically everything outside of that spectrum. Which may mean that I overvalue some of the pop gems I find on the radio. In particular, this song was such a breath of fresh air in between the fake-thug ballads and stripper-jams-to-be for a few weeks in the fall of 2008 that I experienced its soaring (Legend) funk (Dre) as uncomplicated joy.
63. Queens Of The Stone Age “No One Knows”
(Josh Homme, Mark Lanegan)
Interscope · 2002
Hard rock and I have had our ups and downs over the years; these days I’ve accepted that a serious relationship isn’t in the cards for us, but we can still be friends. (Sometimes, I won’t lie, friends-with-benefits. Don’t hate the playa hate the game.) QOTSA’s stoner rock too often sacrifices songs for riffage, like they’re playing their middle-school memories of Black Sabbath rather than anything relevant, but when the cards align and they get a kick in the rhythm section they can turn out as classic a rock tune as anyone has been able to since 1976, with a taut, modern strut.
62. David Banner “Cadillacs On 22’s”
SRC · 2003
The earliest music I heard and loved was gospel music — Contemporary Christian, to speak the marketing dialect — and while I have not entirely turned my back on the faith of my fathers, I’ve more or less ignored the Christ-pop market since coming of age and discovering that the devil, in the words of the old Larry Norman song, has all the good music. Well, not all, obviously: one of the most important throughlines of black American music over the past couple hundred years has been religion, believed sincerely and used as an interpretive lens through which to examine the rest of life. In this decade, Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” DMX’s “Lord Give Me A Sign,” and Jay-Z’s “Kingdom Come” used direct Christian imagery without going all Kirk Franklin, but the clear winner in the gospel-rap sweepstakes was David Banner. He prays earnestly without giving up on his hustler’s materialism, which is the most honest evocation of American Christianity I’ve seen outside of a John Updike novel.
61. JoJo “Leave (Get Out)”
(Soulshock, Kenneth Carlin, Alex Cantrell, Silky White)
Blackground · 2004
And with this track I have given myself away completely. No critical intellect, as far as I know, has ever had a good word to say for this song, and it wasn’t even much of a hit; number fourteen and scant follow-ups have left her pretty much off the map since 2004, and I would never have heard of her if I hadn’t happened to have the radio on for the couple of weeks she turned up. The song could be written off as a pale retread of one that will show up at #18, only R&B instead of “rock,” and as a performance and production it’s pleasantly bland, except for the one touch that made it addictive for me then and made me return to it five years later: the massed-girls chant in the chorus: “Leave!” “Now!” “Who?” “Why?” “Waste of time!” She’s as thin and uncertain as any thirteen-year-old; but her friends have her back, and she’ll be fine.
60. Spoon “The Underdog”
Merge · 2007
The poptimization of Spoon, once the most bone-dry punk band in Texas, has been one of the most rewarding stories I’ve followed over the past decade. When I first encountered indie rock as a coherent aesthetic (ca. 2002, via sigh Pitchfork), I was well primed to buy into its valorization of the punk ideal as the baseline standard for worthwhile music, having just graduated from my own self-curated punk seminar. Kill The Moonlight became the archetypal Great Indie Rock Record. Then, as I was discovering that guitars didn’t have everything to say and it might be better if music danced too, Britt Daniel responded with the Stonsey disco of “I Turn My Camera On,” my jam for the summer of 2004. And as I started to reassess everything I thought about music, adopting the more generous throughline of pop history instead of narrow rockism, they gave me Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, a record in which Motown, Japan (the band), and lovingly detailed power-pop saved guitar rock from itself. “The Underdog,” keying in on sunshine pop and spy music, with a power-to-the-people thesis, became my favorite. Shorter version: I like horn charts. A lot.
59. Jessica Simpson “A Public Affair”
(Jessica Simpson, Johnta John Austin, Greg Kurstin, Sam Watters, Louis Biancaniello, Lester Mendez, Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson)
Epic · 2006
Jessica Simpson was the perennial also-ran in the pop-tart sweepstakes. Without Britney’s material, Christina’s voice, Pink’s attitude, or even Mandy’s taste, she was relegated so much to an anonymous smile, haircut and rack that I couldn’t say for sure whether I’ve even ever heard another of her songs. The backstory (of course) is that this is her post-Lachey statement of independence; which, of course, is why it sounds so much like a Madonna or Diana Ross song. Which is meant for high praise: “Holiday” and “I’m Coming Out” are benchmarks every pop song should strive for. Even her dumb-blonde performance, all giggles and unwitting come-ons, works perfectly as an expression of anonymous joy. Any discernable personality would ruin the whole thing.
58. Common ft. Kanye West & John Mayer “Go”
(Common, Kanye West, John Mayer, Linda Lewis)
G.O.O.D. · 2005
Some time around the turn of the millennium, I called my brother a racist because he didn’t like hip-hop. So it’s a bitter little irony that my own engagement with hip-hop had to wait for the past couple of years to fully flower. (It was hardly the last time my ideals would outstrip my taste. Still waiting on Iron Maiden.) I made several stabs at the genre in the interim, though: and one of the most successful was Common’s Be. It was the kind of record that a white nerd disdainful of the thugz-n-hoez kabuki of chart rap could get behind, Kanye West’s warm, 70s-soul production and Common’s wise-elder act easing me into the history and conventions of the genre, and peaking with a song at which I would sit up and stare when it showed up in a Gap ad years later.
57. Electric Six “Danger! High Voltage”
(Dick Valentine, Rock And Roll Indian, Surge Joebot, Disco)
XL · 2003
It was right around 2003 that I started to suspect that the people who kept saying that the great pop single, that staple of nostalgia about the 60s and the 80s, was dead were full of shit. Electric Six were the perfect refutation: a manic garage-dance band, with guitar licks out of funk and sax licks out of no wave, with a frontman as deadpan ridiculous as Fred Schneider and lyrics as goofball immortal as “fire in the Taco Bell”? If an era that could produce them was an era devoid of great pop, there never was any great pop in the world. Jack White’s cameo as Dick Valentine’s shouting-partner gave a million newly-minded White Stripes fans a reason to listen; and the song itself assured its keepsake quality.
56. Johnny Boy “You Are The Generation Who Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve”
Vertigo · 2004
By 2004 I was already starting to feel guilty about not keeping up with new music like I had done through 2002 and 2003; whole weeks went by when I didn’t look at Pitchfork, as I burrowed into Captain Beefheart and Smokey Robinson and the Jesus & Mary Chain simultaneously. I came to rely on their year-end best-ofs as quick-and-dirty guides to what I’d been missing — and I rarely even got past the first couple pages of those lists. Which is of course how I found this, “Be My Baby” with a CGI effects-laden budget, the backbone of earnest indie — the anthemic chorus — transfigured into a “yeah, yeah!” grinalong, and a peculiar title which meant nothing in particular and still managed to make Excel spreadsheets look unwieldy. The joy when I found an import of the album in a local store is one of my most satisfying pop-rat memories of the decade. (Finding Randy Newman’s first album in the same store trumped it, though.)
55. Lily Allen “LDN”
(Lily Allen, Future Cut, Tommy McCook)
Regal · 2006
I’m still not used to listening to the legitimate release of this song. Somehow I managed to get in on the ground floor with Lily Allen, and her first Myspace demos became part of my essential listening in 2006; I was disenchanted when the production on her first album turned out to be so busy, and still haven’t gotten round to listening to her second all the way through. But this remains a great song despite the waves of lash both back and fore that continue to erupt every time she tweets a word. She won my attention with the island-mariachi horns, won my heart by rhyming Tesco with al fresco, and sealed the deal with the high, fluttery murmurs in the outro. Not being British I don’t have to care whether her depiction of London is true or false, middle-class or real innit; what matters is whether I believe that she doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
54. CSS “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above”
(Lovefoxxx, Adriano Cintra)
Sub Pop · 2004
Brazilian indie-dance with a Japanese lead singer who calls herself Lovefoxxx was at least three hooks too many to ignore; the fact that their full name, Cansei de Ser Sexy, translates to “tired of being sexy” was enough to make every blurb-writing blogger on the Internet erupt with joy. At least, such was my impression at the time. I listened to the album once, and sniffed. Samey, graceless electro which plodded when it should prance and used dirty, ugly keyboard tones to pretend towards some kind of punk authenticity, was my judgment. Then, on a whim, I listened to this song on its own. Oh. Well, of course, as a song it makes perfect sense, a poker-faced put-on with gleeful headbanging breaks. I still haven’t listened to the album again.
53. Cassie “Me & U”
Bad Boy · 2006
I sometimes wish I had the decade to do over again. I cam e to this song irresponsibly late; I heard it as part of a year-end Pitchfork list, and I may have skipped over it. Cloth-eared, apparently, or maybe just dumb. It’s taken me far too long to be able to understand and appreciate modern R&B, and even to hear any difference between songs. (I imagine most modern listeners going through my 20s and 40s lists would have the same problem. My sympathies, and listen harder.) I resisted the gleaming electronic surfaces, the spare, tautly shifting beats, the uninflected, inhuman performances; I muttered darkly to myself that real r&b (by which I meant “from the 60s and 70s”) was live, and passionate, and made of songs rather than repetitive hooks. It wasn’t until I heard this on the radio earlier this year — they sometimes do retrospectives of great this-decade pop songs, and their taste is pretty damn impeccable — that I realized just how genius the shiny minimalism of its production is, and that Cassie’s unstudied croon is one of the pop gifts of the decade.
52. The Mountain Goats “Woke Up New”
4AD · 2006
This is only the second Mountain Goats song I’ve really listened to; the first, “Idylls Of The King,” became part of the furniture of my 2003, but remains firmly in the past for me. This, on the other hand, downloaded on a whim after some Pitchforkian blurb (I can only hope and pray, btw, that this list will inspire even one similar download; let all this pontificating not have been in vain), has burrowed deeply into the windmills of my mind, its images of loss and still-raw solitude still pushing me to the brink of unstable emotion after all these years. But that it all comes wrapped in a hushed, unassming guitar-pop song, Darnielle’s pretty voice unnervingly steadyexcept on the whisper-screamed chorus, is a gift of grace. Emotion this deep is too precious a commodity to be given away in arrangements and performances; which is why there’s no emo here. I’m too old, too reserved, too white.
51. Justus Köhncke “Wo Bist Du”
(Justus Köhncke, Fred Heimermann)
Kompakt · 2005
I’ve been to Germany only once, and I spent far more time in cathedrals than in clubs. Nevertheless Justus Köhncke’s Doppelleben always reminds me, with ineluctable force, of an afternoon spent walking around downtown Munich, its rationally designed electronic spaces and carefully-planned builds both comfortably human-scaled and exquisitely engineered. I’m still not very comfortable with striaght electronic music, uncut by pop structures, but Köhncke’s attention to detail and the low-key warmth of his approach has stuck with me long after more critically-acclaimed producers have fallen out of my playlists. There’s no justice, sometimes.
50. LCD Soundsystem “Losing My Edge”
DFA · 2002
The hipster hymn of purpose, the “Internationale” of the skinny-jeans-and-black-frames brigade. Except that’s hardly the point, because what do I know from hipsters? I’m an aging dork in an exurban wasteland, and when I heard this while stumbling around the University of Arizona one autumn evening, I fixated not on the codings of taste and cultural capital, but on the sheer perverse delight of lines like “I hear that you and your friends have sold your guitars and bought turntables. I hear that you and your friends have sold your turntables and bought guitars.” The buzzing Krautrock disco behind it all only amped up the feeling that this matters, man, even if Can and Captain Beefheart and Daft Punk were only names in a Rough Guide to me at that point. In closing, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics.
49. Camera Obscura “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”
Elefant · 2006
If modern indie requires an unsustainably high level of familiarity with the touchstones of the past, as its critics have claimed, then my experience of this song could never have happened. I had no idea it was the answer to a question asked by the title of a Lloyd Cole song until two years after it had become part of the fabric of my life. (The song it answers? Eh. It’s okay, I guess.) But the song’s winsome jangle, its healing organ, and Tracyanne Campbell’s everyone’s-indie-crush voice, was more than enough. When I found out about the Lloyd Cole connection, it was like discovering that the girl I married had had a girlfriend before I met her: somehow, it only made her hotter. (Ick! Male gaze! Male gaze!)
48. Girls Aloud “Sound Of The Underground”
Polydor · 2002
This remains the only Girls Aloud song I’ve ever heard (like I keep saying, I’m not British, although you could be excused for thinking that it sure seems like I wish I were). I’ve read stuff that people say about Xenomania, the production team here, but I don’t know what the Xenomania “sound” is, if there is one. For someone who flatters himself that he has a wide-ranging taste, I can be remarkably incurious; one song is so often enough for me that I sometimes wonder if I’ve forgotten how to listen to an album. In the case of this one song, I think it’s that I’m afraid nothing else in their repertoire could live up to it: a dance-pop song with breakbeats and spiralling surf-guitar lines, it’s so giddily infectious that it doesn’t matter that, as everyone’s already said, nobody could ever mistake this for any kind of underground.
47. Modest Mouse “Float On”
(Isaac Brock, Dan Gallucci, Eric Brody)
Epic · 2004
The only reason I knew the name Modest Mouse before this became an unlikely radio hit was because I used to look for Moby Grape records in indie stores, the alphabet being what it is. And the only reason I knew they had an unlikely radio hit was because one of the at-risk youth I used to play basketball with back in 2004 would not stop singing it during a game, which was both really annoying and kind of charming, and when I found out that those two things were related, that the anonymous indie-rock band had a catchy hook and that the carefully-managed idiocy of radio still allowed for freak guitar-pop hits, I had to be part of that story. Again, I haven’t really bothered to investigate Modest Mouse further — one-hit-wonderhood should be a badge of honor.
46. Golden Boy ft. Miss Kittin “Rippin Kittin”
(Golden Boy, Miss Kittin)
Emperor Norton · 2002
One of the first words I learned when I started reading Pitchfork in the summer of 2002 was “electroclash.” I downloaded a whole bunch of stuff that got tagged with the name (remember KaZaA? That takes me back), and in between all the Eurotrash poses and unimaginative distorted beats, this haunting little song kept coming up, an electronic slice of psychological noir that never bothered to explain itself or do more than slink darkly by. And long after I forgot what Chicks On Speed or adult. sounded like, it kept recurring, showing up in other people’s best-ofs and slowly gathering a reputation as The Only Worthwhile Thing from that moment when electroclash was a word.
45. TV On The Radio “New Health Rock”
(TV On The Radio)
Touch And Go · 2004
“Hey, I know this,” I said to the air. “TV On The Radio, ‘New Health Rock.’” The uncomfortable space that followed was a silent reproof to my approval-begging wanton dispensal of knowledge. And that was the last time I attempted to strike up a conversation with relative strangers over shared musical interests. (Didn’t help that me and the dude playing it were both interested in the same girl, also present.) Thankfully this is far from my only memory of the song — like many of these songs, it was one I put into a playlist of new music that no one I knew was cool enough to have heard and listened to over and over again. I lost track of TVOTR shortly thereafter, and being busy demolishing my interest in the stiff-armed snobbery of cool, still haven’t heard the (apparently) epochal Dear Science. I once described this as an imaginary collaboration between Prince and Interpol, but the percussion is Third World, and to his credit Prince was never this abstruse.
44. Amerie “1 Thing”
(Amerie, Rich Harrison, Stanley Walden)
Columbia · 2005
When I say I was left cold by modern R&B, I was always willing to make exceptions, especially for something as obviously amazing as this. It’ barely counts as a production at all, just a series of looped hard-bop drum breaks and some guitar stings for texture, over which Amerie’s thin voice pipes an oblique soul song about falling in love or something. In retrospect, it’s the high-water mark of the avant-garde production technique as massively successful pop single that crested in the early 2000s and has receded somewhat today, as personality and performance-based criteria have taken a (reality-show prompted?) more dominant role. After the middle of the decade, pop never got more decisively strange than this.
43. System Of A Down “B.Y.O.B.”
(Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian, Casey Chaos)
American · 2005
I’ve complained before that my one real blind spot in popular music — as in, music I can’t like no matter how hard I listen, rather than music I just haven’t paid sufficient attention to yet — is metal. So it’s with a distinct sense of irony that I note that this is the song on the list which seems to demand the most intensely physical response from me. I love dance music, and dance to it frequently — but it’s always a decision. Moshing and headbanging to this isn’t. This is tribal music, and if I believed in any kind of cultural determinism I’d say it was my suburban white-trash metalhead roots showing through. But holy shit, you guys. I could never listen to a whole record of this stuff, but as a four-minute blast of righteous rage and political sloganeering (with a beach-funk chorus, which relates it to everything else on the list), music rarely gets better.
42. Usher ft. Lil Jon & Ludacris “Yeah!”
(Lil Jon, Sean Garrett, j.Que, Ludacris, Robert McDowell, LRoc, LaMarquis Jefferson)
Arista · 2004
One of the five or six jobs I’ve had over the past decade involved filing paperwork in a cement room off a mechanic’s garage. One day two young ladies from the receptionist department were assigned to help me shift stuff around. They brought in a radio and kept it tuned to the local pop station for the entire eight-hour day. I wanted to kill myself by the end of it. That was the context in which I first heard this song. (Actually, first, second, third, fourth, and fifth; that fucking station, man.) And not only my critical and emotional turnaround on chart pop can account for the fact that this song nevertheless made the list. Lil Jon is a one-note guy, but for the space of a single song, that one note is the greatest party ever. Usher’s Michael Jackson, Jr. moves and Luda’s greatest guest verse ever (which is saying som’n) only add to the festivities. If I had that day to do over again, I’d have such a ball.
41. Feist “1 2 3 4”
(Feist, Sally Seltmann)
Cherrytree · 2007
I have for the most part kept at arm’s length all the indie, both hipster-approved and NPR-respectable, that has emerged in the past couple of years, partly out of a sense of having fallen behind and never being able to catch up again — but just like how most people have no idea what’s on the charts at the moment yet still manage to hear the Really Big Songs, the “Umbrella”s and “Hey Ya”s, there are some indie songs which even unhip I end up hearing — and loving. Feist was sold to me as a gentler Neko Case, and Neko Case was already too gentle for me, so I was all set to hate this until I saw her sing it on Sesame Street. My weakness for horn charts has already been confessed; my weakness for Joan Baez, especially one leached of the stridency of the original, was something even I didn’t know about until Feist showed me.
40. The Killers “Mr. Brightside”
(Brandon Flowers, Dave Keuning)
Lizard King · 2004
My resistance to the Killers took a long time to break down. First, I knew about them before they got big, and was playing “Somebody Told Me” to wrinkled noses a year before everyone (by which I mean everyone everyone, not the everyone-who-matters of indie) played Hot Fuss nonstop. So of course I hated them when they turned out to be the biggest rock band to emerge in the decade. (That’s an uncontroversial statement, right?) Second, they were from Las Vegas. I live in the southwest, and if Los Angeles is a lie, Vegas is complete bullshit. (In the technical sense.) But, sigh, douchebags are people too. And as long as Brandon Flowers writes meaningless lyrics infused with voyeurism, paranoia and self-aggrandizement and the music pounds like a Michael Bay memory of the 80s — that is, as long as the song itself is playing, and I don’t have to think about it later — it’s got me. Surrendering to the bullshit is a key pop experience too.
39. Dizzee Rascal “Fix Up, Look Sharp”
(Dizzee Rascal, Billy Squier)
XL · 2003
This list is dominated to an embarrassing degree by the first songs I ever heard from various acts. This is no exception. I think, anyway; “I Luv U” may have been first, but if so it was immediately followed by “Fix Up, Look Sharp.” Which was the one that stuck in my head, thanks to the shock-n-awe of “The Big Beat” drums and vocals chopped into pieces and cranked up to eleven. (The “get on down!” refrain reoccurs regularly in my brain at very inopportune moments — and I’ve still never heard Squier’s original.) As for Dizzee’s actual rapping — well, it’s more or less foreign-language hip-hop to me, only occasional phrases making their way through the thick accent and heavy slang. Sure, I guess I could look up the lyrics, but I enjoy listening to pop in languages I don’t understand.
38. The Rapture “House Of Jealous Lovers”
DFA · 2002
Probably the recording most single-handedly responsible for the whole “disco-punk” revival that ate up a bunch of critical talk over the past decade (and went mainstream in bands like the Killers). Not that I know much about any of that apart from what I’ve read; in fact, in the midst of the hysteria in 2002 (look I was reading Pitchfork everything was hysteria) my favorite example of the trend was Radio 4, who I was too ignorant to realize were basically Gang Of Four without the intellectual underpinnings. But where a lot of acts just applied a four-on-the-floor beat to their angry guitar music, the Rapture — thanks to the DFA production team — jumped with both feet into disco culture, with complex percussion, slow-growing build-and-release structures, and real remixes. But disco culture is not my culture; so I’m happy that Luke Jenner’s raw screams also made the cut.
37. T.I. ft. Rihanna “Live Your Life”
(T.I., Just Blaze, Rihanna)
Def Jam · 2008
While it’s disappointing that what I heard as “ain’t got no time for no Hitlers” was just a product of AutoTuning Rihanna’s “ain’t got no time for no haters” (I was hoping to drag in an Elvis Costello reference), the real lyrical genius is in T.I.’s tongue-twisting verses, as rhythmically dense and complicated as high-speed jazz drumming. I’ve gone on record as liking T.I. without being particularly engaged by him, and his latest round of global dominance initially left me cold (“Whatever You Like” is just as boring when Weird Al Yankovic does it, which is as damning as anything in pop), but this has sneakily grown on me to the point that I took a Keri Hilson (MVP of 2009 pop, I’ll go ahead and say) song out of this spot to pay tribute to Rihanna’s Euro-yodel and T.I.’s cosmopolitan swagger.
36. Johnny Cash “Hurt”
American · 2003
There is a lie embedded in the structure of this list: it is that I have found new, young acts more interesting and vital in the 2000s than older, more familiar voices and faces. But some of the records released in the 2000s that I’ve listened to most frequently and have moved me the most were made by Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Marianne Faithfull . . . and Johnny motherfucking Cash. Nevertheless, it did not occur to me to include Dylan’s “Mississippi” or Faithfull’s “Song For Nico” or Strummer’s “Coma Girl” here; while I haven’t called this a list of pop songs, that’s what it is, and those older artists are simply in a different category, like John Adams or Patton Oswalt. Johnny Cash, though. You cannot ignore Johnny Cash, not even at the end of his life, when his authoritative baritone has all but disappeared, and even his legendary dark humor has deserted him, replaced by painful honesty about life, death, and regret. I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, and it still moved me nearly to tears just now when I listened again. It’s the crowning achievement of one of the great musical lives of our era; it’s the necessary reminder of age and mortality in the middle of youth and promise; it’s the only time I’ve ever been able to see the point of Trent Reznor.
35. Ladytron “Destroy Everything You Touch”
Island · 2005
Ladytron were my first serious disappointment of the indie era. My personal indie era, that is, the years (roughly 2001-2006) when I discovered, devoured, and cared deeply about modern music which could in some sense be understood to be out of the mainstream. I read about them before I heard them, which was how I consumed all music then, and they didn’t live up to the icily perfect, robot-precise electro I had conjured up in my head when I read the descriptions. I tried; “Seventeen” got a lot of replay from me as I tried to will its lame repetition into being something more than it was. Finally I gave up. Then they put out their DJ mix, Softcore Jukebox, and I was shocked into paying attention. My Bloody Valentine? Lee Hazelwood and Nacy Sinatra? Then why didn’t they sound better? And then they put out this song, and they did, and it was awesome.
34. Lil Wayne ft. T-Pain “Got Money”
(Lil Wayne, T-Pain)
Cash Money · 2008
Okay, yeah, “A Mili” is going to get the lasting critical love (Sasha Frere-Jones has already anointed it the “last hip-hop single,” for some dumb reason or other), but it was “Got Money” that convinced me that Lil Wayne was everything he said he was, in addition to being everything his detractors claimed. I tried to explain why here (it’s in there somewhere, look around), but the short version is: he does things with AutoTune and rhythm that amount to weird formalist experiments in addition to being thrilling pop moments and keying directly into the mood of our era. Maybe most importantly, he’s a natural entertainer (as is T-Pain, which the people who can’t get past the robo-vocals completely miss out on), a genuine heir to New Orleans’ long tradition of hustling, not-terribly-reputable musical geniuses. But to invoke the whole canon, Morton and Armstrong and Prima and Domino and Dorsey and Modeliste and Rebbenack, is to deny Weezy his true achievement, which is to create something new out of thin air: his own hyper, wacked-out self.
33. The Raveonettes “That Great Love Sound”
(Sune Rose Wagner, Richard Gottehrer)
Columbia · 2003
The day half my stuff was stolen out of a storage unit because we didn’t pay insurance on it, I lay on a stripped mattress and stared at the knots in the board above me and listened to the Raveonettes’ Chain Gang Of Love very loudly for a long time. “That Great Love Sound,” I decided, would be on my next mix disc. It would be the most personal mix I’ve ever made, the only one I’ve ever made for someone I wanted to love me, and she never heard it. Many of the songs now strike me as too sentimental or self-pitying or self-consciously tasteful; this one, with its healing white roar of overcharged guitar, its recognition that love means fucking up and being fucked up in turn, and its insistence on being both sweet and lacerating at the same time, still sounds true.
32. Goldfrapp “Utopia”
(Alison Goldfrapp, Will Gregory)
Mute · 2000
Yes, Goldfrapp became something wiser and weirder in the decade that followed, even (especially) as they turned to straight-up dance music and reintroduced the schaffel beat to a million glam-hungry indie fans (and thence to everyone in the world via Katy Perry) — but the much more minor, much more self-consciously weird art-pop of their debut shouldn’t be forgotten either. If it feels like the last great record of the 90s rather than the first of the 2000s, that’s because the rules had not yet been rewritten — Goldfrapp hadn’t yet helped rewrite them — and a couple of cabaret-and-exotica-obsessed geeks could indulge their own ominous sense of whimsy without having to play to the back of the stadium. All of which is to say: I heard Felt Mountain first, and haven’t devoted the same attention to anything else they’ve done.
31. The New Pornographers “Letter From An Occupant”
(A. C. Newman)
Mint · 2000
Here’s how lame I am: I first heard this song on public radio. Here’s how even lamer: in 2009. Probably a slight exaggeration; I must have heard it earlier, I just never listened to it before. But Neko Case on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me told a charming story about how when she tried to sing along with the record she couldn’t, which was how she found out that A. C. Newman had sped up her vocals in the final mix, the sly bastard, and for whatever reason that was what finally made the song click for me. Greatest power-pop band of the past decade and if it wasn’t for Sloan (or Teenage Fanclub, or whoever) since the 70s: we’ll take that as read. Greatest band of the decade: that’s more controversial, but there’s a stronger case.
30. Belle & Sebastian “Your Cover’s Blown”
(Belle & Sebastian)
Rough Trade · 2004
I knew the name Belle & Sebastian long before I deigned to listen to them — they were pretty much the gold standard for indie at the turn of the century among all the people who hyperventilated online — and when I did at last download an mp3 it was this one, their least representative work to date, a shiny epic with disco aspirations, a flamenco breakdown, and a guitar sound stolen from 10cc at their least admirable. Stuart Murdoch’s layered, intimately-observed narrative of loneliness and pursuit at regional discos pulled me in, and the glitzy, even slightly tacky production kept me charmed long enough for me to uncover and finally fully embrace the dance music the song gestures to. It’s still an indie song, embarrassed and ungainly, but because it was my first real encounter with Belle & Sebastian I could never really embrace their earlier, fragile-beauty work quite as much. The Life Pursuit is still their best record.
29. Kylie Minogue “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
(Cathy Dennis, Rob Davis)
Mushroom · 2001
The moment I realized this needed to be on this list was when, watching Green Wing for the first time a couple of years ago, I was struck by the moment when the disturbingly hilarious Michelle Gomez hums the wordless chorus to Julian Rhind-Tutt, visibly creeping him out. I had to scan my memory banks to place the song (I’ve spent so much time unaware of pop, it’s shameful), but when I did, I was impressed. It fit the scene perfectly — of course — but the scene also uncovered an undercurrent of pathological obsession I’d never heard in the song before, its feather-light synth waves and Kylie’s Australian version of what in America would be a wholesome country accent obscuring the predatory nature of the lyrics. I would have expected that sort of thing from Madonna, who’s been in the game of unsettling just as long as she has that of pleasing, but Kylie Minogue? Wasn’t she some leftover pop moppet from the 80s?
28. Missy Elliott “Get Ur Freak On”
(Missy Elliot, Timbaland)
My introduction to bhangra was Panjabi MC (via Jay-Z’s remix) — it would be a few more years before I realized that everyone else had already been introduced to it by the biggest club jam of the first half of the oughts. Of course, this wasn’t the uncut stuff; Timbaland as always chopped it up, sped it up, slowed it down, and made a music so futuristic that it was nearly theoretical. Over which Missy is Missy, swaggering, yelling, hocking, and forthrightly seducing with just as much privilege as any male. It’s pathetic that, as profiles of Lil Mama have shown, “Girl Raps!” is still stop-press headline-worthy — after all, Missy broke down those walls in the late 90s (a decade after Queen Latifah had done so in the late 80s (a decade after Lady B had done so in the late 70s)) — but if the challenge was living up to Missy, you can see why it hasn’t really been done.
27. Rihanna ft. Jay-Z “Umbrella”
(The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, Kuk Harrell, Jay-Z)
Def Jam · 2007
The silent globalization of American pop has been one of the most promising trends of the past five years. The guy who has been on half the chart entries in the past three years is from Senegal; Spanish-language party rap is a consistent presence on pop radio; and the most significant pop starlet to emerge since 1999 is from Barbados. The obvious retort is that it’s too bad they don’t bring any global music with them, being squeezed and pressed into the same robo-R&B mold as everyone else in pop music — which is both missing the point and not paying attention. “Umbrella” doesn’t necessarily sound Barbadian (as though there are any purely local musics anymore); but Rihanna’s method of declaiming lyrics rather than emoting them — a dancehall aesthetic — would have been impossible to cultivate in the showboating academies of American pop. Sure, it’s the “ella, ella, ella” hook that stuck in everyone’s head; but it’s the unadorned, almost hymnal way she sings it that gave the song legs.
26. Imogen Heap “Hide And Seek”
Megaphonic · 2005
But I was there. I was there in 2005 when someone reviewed this for some singles blog and downloaded it and listened to it once or twice and forgot about it. Until I saw the SNL digital skit mocking the finale of The O.C., and I realized it was actually a really effective piece of pop. Some johnny-come-latelies have been walking around saying that the only reason anyone heard the song was that SNL used it in a digital skit. Writa please. But no seriously, this is one of the most unusual things to ever get so popular. Maybe the effects-laden vocal was enough of a hook to get a million soulful indie nerds to buy into it; maybe it really was just the fact that it was in two heavily-watched TV shows. But popularity should be taken into account just as much as any other intangible metric. I can foresee a future in which this is seen as the kind of poorly-aged freak that could only have emerged in the weirdass chaos of the 2000s, like “Spirit In The Sky” in the 60s or “She Blinded Me With Science” in the 80s. If so, just let me say: I called it.
25. The Knife “Heartbeats”
Border · 2002
I’ve spent so much time on this list talking about what I don’t know, what I haven’t heard, and how ignorant and out of the loop I have been and continue to be that the question naturally arises who the hell do I think I am to make this kind of list in the first place? We’ll get to that at the end; my two excuses, that I’ve “had other priorities” (the single thing that’s driven the most traffic to this site was a brief plug for my list of records from 1900-1919), and that appearances aside I don’t think ignorance is something to be celebrated, quite the reverse, I’m really uncomfortable with being this honest, have little to do with my credentials in 00s pop. I have none. All of which is a roundabout way of saying — yet again — that I don’t have much to say about the Knife. I heard this song early on, loved its gothy synth-strobe, was bemused by the Jose Gonzalez cover, listened to the Knife’s first full-length once, and never felt the need to return to it or anything else they’ve done together or apart. “Heartbeats,” though. That’s the kind of single that lasts.
24. Justin Timberlake “Cry Me A River”
Jive · 2002
Speaking of which. It’s worth remembering now when he’s more or less accepted as the biggest male pop star there is — not quite the King Of Pop, but more versatile than the erstwhile king ever was; can you imagine MJ being able to cope with the relative chaos of Saturday Night Live? — that there was a time when it looked very much like it could go the other way. The boy band era was over, and Nsync wasn’t even the best of the boy bands, and the pretty one was trying to go solo, his sole credentials apparently being (to people who didn’t pay close attention to Nsync’s arrangements, because why would you ) “Britney’s ex.” The smart money would have been on him falling flat on his face: going by previous form, the New Kids, the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys hadn’t turned out any solo stars. (And still haven’t.) But then the record came out, and the Timberlake we know today came slowly into focus: smart, ambitious, restless, willing to laugh at himself, and not only a hell of a singer but a hell of a collaborator. People give credit to Timbaland for this record, and they should: it’s an amazing sonic document. But it was Timberlake’s melody, lyric, and performance that made it a modern classic.
23. The Shins “New Slang”
Sub Pop · 2001
I regret to inform Natalie Portman that this song has yet to change my life except in the sense that there is slightly more pretty, cryptic guitar-pop in it than I would otherwise have had. The reason that scene in Garden State has been so roundly mocked for a solid five years is that it’s hard to think of a band less likely to change your life than the Shins — except of course in the way that every band could change your life, if you hit them at the right emotional angle at the right emotional moment. Which doesn’t mean that a million sensitive indie hipsters are wrong; “New Slang” is every bit the fragile web of beauty and haunted, half-forgotten splendor they claim. For them. For everyone else — me, for instance — it’s a great, lilting melody and muttered lyrics I have not once paid attention to until just now when I read them online. (Hüsker Dü, everyone wants to be you.) But I like having it around. Just in case, someday, the right emotional angle slants down.
22. Amy Winehouse “Rehab”
Island · 2006
How did I not notice the “Runaway” riff in the verses until just now? I know it’s fashionable in some circles to sneer at Amy for her retro aesthetic, as though in a junkshop century any scraps we find useful or interesting or resonant aren’t worth salvaging, but for me it’s the only reason I ever paid attention in the first place. But that a guy who’s done top hundred lists of every decade for the past century would fall in love with her (and Mark Ronson’s) Etta James-meets-Del Shannon-meets-Phil Spector sound isn’t particularly surprising; that everyone else would do so is. Winehouse may be more famous for her addictions and misbehavior than for her music at this point; but the only reason anyone takes pictures of her looking like shit for the tabloids is because she set up her tabloid narrative with such precision in this song — and, by analogy, making the addictions and misbehavior of previous generations of pop stars seem less comfortably glamorous and more cellphone-photo sordid in the process.
21. Radiohead “The National Anthem”
Capitol · 2000
It’s those horn charts again. The first time I heard it, of course, it sounded like noise — where where the guitars I had been promised? This was a Radiohead record! — but after a decade with the record, probably my most-played of the decade (he confessed ruefully), it’s just a groove, that bass riff over and over and over and over while Thom wails something paranoid and despairing, robot orchestras swelling and dying in the distance — and then there’s an extended free-jazz outro. It was the most advanced music I’d ever heard; it was absurdly pop by global avant-garde standards; it was the centerpiece of an album the prickliest snobs on the internet would call the best of the decade and snobs aside was such a massive hit that it’s hard to find a rock act today that hasn’t learned something from Radiohead, even if it’s only “falsetto makes everything sound profound.”
20. Alicia Keys “No One”
(Alicia Keys, Kerry Brothers Jr., George O. Harry)
J · 2007
This marks one of the rare occasions on which I haven’t seen an entry on this list valorized anywhere else; for someone with my consensus-seeking instincts, this means I’m flying blind, without the support of my peers, lost in subjectivity. Yet I’m not actually worried that I’m wrong about this: the strength of the composition, the production, and the performance, piling as they do one on the other to create perhaps the most straightforward, even basic pop this decade has seen, are so obvious as to convert even the most chart-skeptical. (I have to assume.) As a writer and performer, Alicia Keys started out with a tendency towards bloat, overstuffing her songs and albums with not particularly original ideas; she’s pared down her vision since, becoming both more disciplined and more eccentric as her gestures towards a classicist past have become integrated into the futuristic modernism of her peers. The sine-wave snyth lines that decorate this piece could be right out of a Neptunes song; but it’s her music-box piano figure that underpins the overwhelming, terrifying emotions in her voice.
19. The Pipettes “Pull Shapes”
Memphis Industries · 2006
For a year of my life there was no album I listened to more frequently or with more delight than 2006’s We Are The Pipettes. They remain the only act on this list I’ve seen live, for which I pulled an all-nighter driving to Los Angeles. I don’t really believe in having a favorite anything , but if forced to pick one they’d probably be my favorite pop act of the decade. Which speaks more to my indie sensibilities than to their greatness, unfortunately — they gave me much of the vocabulary to enjoy Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton and a lot of other stuff on this list, but they remained firmly a niche act, their success limited to the indie audience that recognized references to the Ronettes, the Supremes, and the Shangri-La’s with just the right knowing smirk. But they did what they set out to do, which was to however slightly shake up smug indie assumptions like “boys > girls,” “guitars > beats,” “writing your own material > singing professional-grade songs,” and “imitating 60s-era beat groups > imitating 60s-era girl groups.” Yeah, they were a nostalgia act, but they were smarter and catchier and and less one-note and way more fun than the thousand and one faux-garage bands that formed this decade, just as in thrall to nostalgia but taken more seriously because they were dudes.
18. Kelly Clarkson “Since U Been Gone”
(Max Martin, Dr. Luke)
RCA · 2004
In which Max Martin transfers his sense of dynamics, the push-and-pull of his tightly wound pop structures, to instrumentation that codes as “rock,” even though the song could have been played on a Fairlight CMI and sung by Britney Spears and dismissed as just another lame dance-pop effort. But replace the faint digital scratches with faint feedbacking guitar, the loops with barre-chord strums, and the the whooshes and zooms in the break with power chords, and suddenly a generation of teenage girls think of themselves as rocker chicks. Which isn’t meant to sound dismissive: rock has always been pose and calculation as much as it has been frenzy and release, and the 2000s’ explicit acknowledgment that such identities can be fluid, taken on for the space of an album or single and then discarded when you or your audience grows bored, is perhaps far more honest than the greybeards now embarking on their forty-fifth farewell tour because their audience will not let them be anything but what they were in 1972. None of which is encoded in the song: it’s just a great dismissive breakup tune, perfect for air-guitar, jumping up and down (whether on a bed or not), and flipping a hearty bird to the loser who isn’t what he said he would be. Like most every song in the front half of this list, it’s a modern classic, a “Respect” for the text-message generation, a “Why Don’t You Do Right” fifty-some years on. As long as men suck, women will have to sing these songs.
17. The Libertines “I Get Along”
(Pete Doherty, Carl Barât)
Rough Trade · 2002
My ambivalence about rock, expressed in the foregoing, is nowhere to be found here. The Libertines, I’m going to go ahead and say and laugh if you want to, are the most rock & roll band to emerge since mm let’s say the Sex Pistols (fully aware of how managed, manipulated and curated the Pistols were and have been since, that’s kind of the point). Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying Pete Doherty is a misunderstood genius, or even a particularly interesting person. I haven’t been able to bring myself to care about Babyshambles (or Dirty Pretty Things, Carl Barât’s second band) since the Libertines broke up, but they still made some of my favorite music of the decade, all the more fascinating because it was always just on the edge of falling apart. Producer Mick Jones (not the one out of Foreigner) left dropped drumsticks and in-studio scuffles into the final mix of their albums, and that was just as much part of the Libs’ aesthetic as the preening about Albion or whatever. And it’s this song that found them at their best: the nursery-rhyme (which is to say medieval) brilliance of “I get along/Just singing my song/People tell me I’m wrong” closed out by the close-miked, casual “Fuck ’em” is still one of the best pop moments of the decade.
16. Peter Björn & John ft. Victoria Bergsman “Young Folks”
(Peter Morén, Björn Yttling)
Wichita · 2006
It was just a matter of time until twee went mainstream. That it happened with Victoria Bergsman out of the Concretes is about as perfect a coming-out party as twee fans could have hoped for; that it was more or less everywhere for a year after it came out so that even the people who had championed it at first were sick of it by 2008 was, well, what happens when stuff goes mainstream. The mainstreaming of indie, that topic of a thousand blog posts, could fairly be said to have met a saturation point here, and the fact that Peter Björn and John’s continued existence as a pop outfit has met with universal apathy reveals the limits of twee’s potential as a cultural force. Without Bergsman, that whistled hook, and a song everyone knows, what’s the point? (Equally, without PBJ, that whistled hook, and a song everyone knows, Bergsman’s solo career has been confined to rapturous Pitchfork reviews and the same devoted but miniscule audience.) But the song is just a whistled hook, a drum line which always turns out to be more sprightly than it was in memory, and Bergsman and Morén’s light-voiced, Swedish-accented delivery of the tweetastic narrative of falling in love at a party. And that’s enough.
15. Gorillaz ft. De La Soul “Feel Good, Inc.”
(Gorillaz, Trugoy The Dove)
Parlophone · 2005
As an example of where my head has been at in regards to pop music for most of this decade, when I first heard this song my first thoughts were not about Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, De La Soul, Danger Mouse, or Blur; they were about George W. Johnson. Johnson was the first African-American recording star in the 1890s, a one-time street performer stuck in front of a recording horn, where his attention-grabbing tricks of whistling and laughing in musical pitch translated into some of the first big novelty record sales. (He’s estimated to have recorded his signature, “The Laughing Song,” 25,000 to 50,000 times in the days when every record was a master.) The racist implications of the first black star on record being a chortling nonentity are hard to overlook; but the roaring, similarly mirthless laughter of black men in “Feel Good, Inc.” bridges the centuries and, whether De La Soul, Albarn, and Danger Mouse meant to do it or not, recontextualizes Johnson’s desperate, flop-sweat-soaked laughter as the first echo of what would become a giddy cartoon threat. Of course, if that was all the song did it would be even more of a footnote than Johnson himself: but it also rescues two reputations (De La’s and the Gorillaz’) from being dismissed as one-note has-beens, darkening both cartoon-bright images without significantly dampening their bright pop appeal. It can be read as a dry run for Danger Mouse’s later historico-pop recontextualization of a hip-hop maniac, but it stands on its own as one of the weirdest hit singles in a decade full to the brim of weirdness.
14. Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Maps”
(Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
Interscope · 2004
Yet again, I’ve barely heard Karen O and company beyond this song. I dutifully listened to Fever To Tell when it came out, but halfway through I was already in revolt against spiky post-punk revivalism, and the cool balladic “Maps” came as a relief from shrieks and scrapes that I haven’t revisited in a half-decade and probably remember as far more boring and samey than they really are. But it was the unexpected appearance of “Maps” as a song on the actual honest-to-God radio that made me pay attention. Not enough attention to take notice whenever Yeah Yeah Yeahs did anything since, unfortunately — but in my evolution into an old-school pop fan, I can’t help feeling like following a band is overrated; if they’re any good they’ll impinge on my consciousness without much expenditure of effort on my part. (Which wasn’t ever true and is becoming less so every day as radio crumbles before our eyes into just another media distribution channel and one of the less important ones at that. But anyway.) The unexpected vulnerability of the song was what surprised me at first; and it’s what’s stuck with me over the years as its moody guitar soundscaping has become just another element in pop (viz. two spaces down), Karen O’s plaintive “they don’t love you like I love you” variously interpretable as hopeless romanticism, anti-war sloganeering, obsessive stalkeration, or just reportage of some unknowable inner reality. It’s the pounding toms that tell us the truth: just keep going.
13. Beyoncé ft. Jay-Z “Déjà Vu”
(Beyoncé, Rodney Jerkins, Delisha Thomas, Makeba Riddick, Keli Nicole Price, Jay-Z)
Columbia · 2006
The disconnect between my first impression of Beyoncé (gritting my teeth in the back of a car as the white-girl driver sang along out of key to Destiny’s Child songs I in my youthful wisdom disdained as poorly-written and over-sung) and my current one (Queen of Pop and deservedly so; has she ever made a misstep or revealed more than she chose to?) is enough to make me always want to second-guess myself in regards to her work. Which means: I know “Crazy In Love” is the one that everyone else calls her masterwork, but “Déjà Vu” is the one I heard first and so I prefer its snaky 70s funk strut to the more abstract production of “Crazy In Love.” (I might be wrong, to quote another nerdy white guy.) Jay-Z’s breathless verses are just icing on the cake here: B’s ice-queen glamour, controlled even on the edge of emotional breakdown, has never been better deployed than here, her voice like liquid silk. It sounds like the most expensive funk song ever, materials imported directly from classic soul and worked by the finest craftsmen in the world into an immaculately-designed disco anthem. If the “you” of her lyrics is Jay-Z, his somewhat boorish bragging in the second verse (except, it’s Jay, so you believe him) only furthers the narrative: of course he’s fascinating, especially in the eyes of this powerful-voiced, powerful-emotioned woman he’s managed to land. The way she winds up as the song goes into repeated-chorus mode, getting more and more expressive while in control every step of the way, is like watching a master athlete at work: the slightest miscalculation will break every bone in her body, but she still makes it look easy.
12. M.I.A. “Paper Planes”
(M.I.A., Diplo, The Clash)
XL · 2007
The sample from the Clash’s “Straight To Hell” is often what pop writers build their hook around, positioning M.I.A. as a modern descendant of the Clash’s politicized, righteous punk. Which isn’t wrong; but the postpunk-era song I’m always most reminded of is the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” In both David Byrne’s paranoid fantasia and M.I.A.’s cut-up ransom note to civilization, a “we” of indeterminate referent is engaged in undermining existing political structures through direct action — or navigating the deceptive and deadly terrain of interpersonal relationships — or engaging in late-period capitalism — or singing a song about singing songs, casting the pop star as paramilitary freedom fighter/postmodern lover/capitalist. What exactly all the organization is for is never spelled out: it could be running drugs (thus the Pineapple Express hoopla), it could be running weapons (thus the Sri Lankan hissy fit), or it could be packaging and distributing records, which is after all the pop star’s first concern, and the gun shots in the chorus are after all a sound effect, one of the most bracing pop sounds in memory, their dancefloor meaning being merely their staccatto rhythm, followed by the most perceptive sound on the record: the kaching of a cash register. Terrorist, drug mule, capitalist, smuggler, human trafficker? Either way, M.I.A.’s getting paid, and no one can say she didn’t deliver on her end of the deal. “Paper Planes” thrills like few pop songs this decade, or any other.
11. Shakira “She Wolf”
(Shakira, John Hill, Sam Endicott)
Epic · 2009
She is the only pop star I paid close attention to throughout the decade. I’ve explained why elsewhere (#15); but Laundry Service was as important to me in 2001 as any record has ever been, and the huge success of “Hips Don’t Lie” felt like long-awaited justice finally being done on the pop charts. It was in Shakira that I was first able to hear the post-genre mixing and matching that has been the modus operandi of 2000s pop, and her “Objection (Tango)” (trad LatAm accordion with a surf-guitar solo and a disco beat! ?!) now sounds like a dry run for the all-conquering pop majesty that awaits us at #3. So why “She Wolf”? The obvious answer is, well, it’s her new record, and like many pop stars she’s a constant innovator, her newest always being her best. But it hasn’t had time to become a classic, is the obvious argument, not the way “Hips Don’t Lie” (e.g.) has. Point taken; and “Hips Don’t Lie” occupied this spot for the first several weeks that I was writing this list. It’s still an absolutely charming record, matching a Baroque horn figure to a reggaeton beat and even making Wyclef Jean interesting for the first time in ever — but it’s about Shakira as an image, as a (masturbatory?) fantasy, and as a body deeply conventionalized and in its clearest iteration deeply sexist. “She Wolf” is about Shakira as a person, as a psyche, and as (secondarily) a woman with a particular body (which isn’t even stable): it’s interior and subjective where “Hips Don’t Lie” was exterior and objectified. And I’m white enough to prefer a Paradise Garage string break to a booty-grinding reggaeton beat.
10. Kanye West “Love Lockdown”
(Kanye West, Jeff Bhasker, Esthero, Malik Yusef, LaNeah Menzies)
Roc-A-Fella · 2008
The summer of 2008 (as I’ve tried to explain, at punishing length, here) was immensely transformative for me and my listening habits. I had never seriously listened to pop radio before, and I believed the claim made by essentialist snobs, whether they privileged indie, hard rock, or old-school hip-hop, that pop radio had become a wasteland of terrible cookie-cutter thug ballads, soulless R&B, and the occasional brainless, utterly predictable bauble from a white person. Radio was drowning in guest verses, with all the hooks sung by the same people, using the same handful of unimaginative production tricks, the most damning of which was AutoTune’s clearly synthetic cheapness, which obviated the last bastion of Actual Human Talent left on radio, the Terrific Voice. Anyone could use AutoTune and they wouldn’t even have to be able to sing! Well, yes, which is why it’s the most deeply exciting development in pop music since I don’t know sampling or something. The original (and still heady after all these years) promise of punk was that it erased the need for virtuosity: just pick up a guitar, turn up the volume, and be a star. AutoTune makes the same promise for the voice: the last ivory tower has been knocked down, and pop is available for anyone with an idea to make a mark. Which brings us to Kanye. Few people have had more great (or otherwise) ideas in pop over the past decade; regardless of how the hothouse environment in his mind makes him act in public, he’s responsible for more good music on this list than anyone else, even Timbaland and the DFA. I will always be grateful to the summer of 2008 for preparing me to hear “Love Lockdown” in its first radio play. After all the busy, melodramatic, overstuffed ballads, the hateful club tracks and the simpering fake lesbianism, this moody electro lament was, at long last, a song. Like the gentlemen at #3 and #1 below (come on, I know you looked), Kanye could no longer be contained by the strictures of hip-hop and must sing. Thanks to AutoTune, he could, getting to the heart of our conflicted love affair with technology here at the end of the first decade of the third millennium. The machine has become part of us; and we sound more and more like machines, even at our most heartbroken and desperate. And then the tribal drumming comes in, just to remind us what’s still in our blood.
9. The White Stripes “Fell In Love With A Girl”
Sympathy For The Record Industry · 2001
It’s important to note here that I’m not advancing the idea that “Fell In Love With A Girl” is the White Stripes’ best song, much less that it represents some kind of holy purity which their later, more complex and less austere records defiled. “Seven Nation Army,” with its fake bass line, was the bigger hit, and Jack White hasn’t stopped evolving, restlessly searching out new ways to apply his pared-down Detroit garage aesthetic to pop forms both modern and classic. So why is this two-minute blast of hormonal teenage rawk, with a curious lyric about how love is fleeting (cf. #1 below) and a drum line that’s basic even by Meg’s low standards, here, rather than any of the dozen other White Stripes songs that could have taken its place? It was the first one I heard, but I don’t think that explains it all. The truth is that six weeks ago I listened to White Stripes song after White Stripes song, trying to figure out which one sounded best in between #10 and #8, and which one I could claim as the one that belonged on the list: not according to the judgment of my peers, but according to mine alone. “Fell In Love With A Girl” emerged as the answer, giving no reasons for itself. I can only speculate. Is it the noisy, overcharged guitar, the most purely punk sound I’ve ever heard on daytime radio or MTV? (This fell into the brief period between when I watched MTV and when it stopped showing music videos.) Is it the deceptively sophisticated rhyme scheme, misleading/beating/cheating/peeping/meeting/fleeting/repeating throughout the length of the song and for once in a Jack White lyric adding up to a coherent thought rather than just being rhyme for the sake of rhyme? The secret engine of White Blood Cells, the thing which most end-of-decade tributes to the Stripes leave out, was the faux-naïve power of acoustic songs like “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going To Be Friends,” practically giving the Moldy Peaches their tweepunk template. Even with the guitars revved up, “Fell In Love With A Girl” exists in the same delicate idyll, a heart-on-sleeve aesthetic that kids who don’t trust the glitzy, hyperliterate trappings of emo can get behind. Bobby says it’s fine, he don’t consider it cheating. Bobby’s not saying everything; is he perhaps related to Bobbie Gentry’s Billie Joe?
8. Christina Aguilera “Ain’t No Other Man”
(Christina Aguilera, DJ Premier, Charles Roane, Harold Beatty, Kara DioGuardi)
RCA · 2006
Those of you (and I realize I’m being generous in pluralizing that phrase) who followed this blog over the summer are surely unsurprised: of course the guy obsessed with the 40s is going to throw in something this indebted to big-band nostalgia. Two things there. First, I’m not particularly obsessed with the 40s, which is why it was one of the last decades I got round to writing about; I’m much more of a 20s/30s guy (which makes me far nerdier than you thought). Second, this is not an exercise in nostalgia however much people who flinch when they hear brass intrumentations claim it is. Sure, Aguilera herself complicated the issue by playing pinup-queen dress-up in videos and photo shoots, posing with obsolete technology and even namecheking Billie Holiday (of all people she owes nothing whatever to; Billie for instance had a passing familiarity with subtlety and nuance) on the album. But the song itself is thoroughly modern: looking past Premier’s crate-digging samples (from funk records released in 1968 and ’69, ahem), in its hyperkinetic, twisting funk it owes more to Michael Jackson’s impossibly sleek rhythm-pop of the 1980s than to anything made with acoustic instrumentation. (A debt she acknowledges in the song with Jacksonian cries and whoops.) It’s the giddiest rush of dancefloor infatuation this decade has produced — which is saying something, as dancefloor infatuation has been perhaps the primary topic of concern for 00s pop. (Cf. #6, which isn’t nearly as giddy but much more gorgeous.) Admittedly, I never paid attention to Christina Aguilera till she did this: my only exposure to “Genie In A Bottle” has still been “A Stroke Of Genie-us,” and I was uptight enough to loathe her “Dirrty” period as much as any patriarchal white hetero. She had to dress up as Betty Grable to hook me in: but her (and Preem’s) junkshop scavenging of the past to build giddy modern Frankenstein-pop was one of the first slaps across the face that made me start to take radio pop seriously. If they could play this, they could play anything.
7. Eminem “Lose Yourself”
(Eminem, Luis Resto, Jeff Bass)
Shady · 2002
I look forward to the potted histories of the future, when this song will stand as one of the markers of self-serious bloat which pushed radio rap into all-party all-the-time, crunk-n-jerk mode. (Viz. the way potted histories of 70s rock talk about prog as the reason punk “had to happen.”) And much like the icons of 70s rock, Eminem’s been a shadow of his former self ever since, unable to live up to the moment when he sounded as urgent and necessary as anyone’s ever been. (Our generation’s Rod Stewart? Oh my Lord that’s adorable.) All of this, I realize, makes it sound like “Lose Yourself” is dull and wanky, a melodrama of one that doesn’t even bother to be insane — and I guess I can kind of see how someone would think that, how someone would prefer the bounce, outrage, and vicious wit of his earlier singles to this overheated slice of self-help self-absorption. (It ends with the words “You can do anything you set your mind to,” for God’s sake. What is this, you can imagine Slim Shady snarking, some fuckin’ after school special?) But Eminem, for all the manufactured controversy and gleeful violence he got famous for, is still an immensely talented writer, rapper and (here) producer: he pushes through the melodrama into meaning. The craft on display on the jaw-dropping third verse is still astonishing some seven years later: all those rhymes for “spot” piling up on top of each other, until you’re screaming along with the last line, tears streaming from your eyes. (Just me? Oh, okay.) It’s a summation of everything Eminem had achieved to date, the first two verses in the third person as he describes the plot of 8 Mile (informed, as the whole movie is, by Em’s own biography), and then switching to a lacerating first person — “this is no movie, there’s no Mekhi Phifer” — he just unloads. He’d given hints of emotional depth before (“Stan,” obviously, but throughout his discography he’s far smarter and aware of what he’s doing than the stereotypical twelve-year-old fan he cultivated as an image), but this is the finest postmillennial portrait of the pressures of lower-middle-class life in America — “man these goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers” (there are three internal rhymes in that line, he’s fucking showing off even while speaking a truth understood immediately by everyone who’s ever felt the conflicted shame about taking food stamps and rage that it’s still not enough) — and Eminem became, briefly, not just the greatest rapper in the world (yes I said it, the fact that this is the highest-ranking rap song on the list isn’t a mistake or entirely attributable to my inner racist), but one of the most important writers in America. Of course he couldn’t sustain it; neither could Philip Roth. But the record still resonates: these times are so hard and it’s gettin’ even harder . . . .
6. Annie “Heartbeat”
(Annie, Svein Berge, Torbjørn Brundtland)
679 · 2004
In 2004 I was working at a job I wouldn’t admit to myself I hated (and would later be fired from for, basically, finally admitting it to myself), spending every moment I could spare (and some I couldn’t, thus the firing) reading Pitchfork and other indie-music sites and downloading everything I read about. (Onto office computers, like a moron. I mentioned I was fired, right?) That was the context in which I first heard “Heartbeat,” (Mem. I just mistyped that as first heart “Heartbeat,” which is also true if ungrammatical) as a gauzy slice of heaven in a sea of overthought, underheard noise I was purposely drowning in so that I wouldn’t have to think about my life. It was not until much later (okay okay this week, looking up the credits) that I realized that Röyksopp had had anything to do with it — I knew who Röyksopp were, oddly enough, having loved their 2001 record Melody A.M. back in the days when I had time to fall in love with whole records — and now that I know it makes so much sense, their peculiar sense of feathery weightlessness grounded by their predeliction for live-sounding drums. It’s those drums that make “Heartbeat,” kicking into double-time as Annie coos breathlessly about finding love on the dancefloor. Their crisp weight codes as “rock,” while the rest of the production codes as “techno,” and Annie’s voice itself codes as “indie pop,” its girlish softness more in line with the Sundays or Belle & Sebastian than anything we (Americans) think of as chart pop. Yet it was this record — and Scott Plagenhoef’s writeup of it in Pitchfork — that first made me realize that I liked pop more than rock. Within the next several years I would discover that I wasn’t alone, that there were whole pop-loving corners of the internet in which the output of singing women, genius producers, and writers-for-hire were discussed with as much seriousness and intelligence as the rock I had become used to, and bored with, reading about. (New York London Paris Munich, R.I.P.) If Annie’s voice had been stronger; if Röyksopp had chosen to use shinier production, I might never have given it the time; but as it was, this record set me however subtly on the course I’m still taking, into the heart of pop, in which I’ve rediscovered and reinterpreted everything through the lens of pop, asking not “is it true?” “is it authentic?” “is it subversive?” (the questions asked by rock critics), but “does it thrill?” “does it move?” “is it funny?” (which are the same questions, only more broadly applied). And every time I cue up “Heartbeat,” it still sounds like heaven, drawing me (drowning me) to the beat of its symphony.
5. The Postal Service “Such Great Heights”
(Ben Gibbard, Dntel)
Sub Pop · 2003
As I keep saying in as passive-aggressive a way as possible, this is a list of pop songs. There are a whole lot of important genres that aren’t well represented on this list — country, metal, Latin, the wide varieties of electronic music which don’t fit well under “pop,” not to mention the old warhorses like jazz, classical, and the contemporary avant-garde. But the one oversight I’m most conscious of, the one significant pop genre that came into its own and flowered in this decade without much attention and even less encouragement from the critical community among which I (if only as a reader) count myself, and of which I have taken no account on this list, is emo. “Death Cab For Cutie aren’t emo!” I hear you scream, and well no, I suppose not in the technical sense. They’re never loud enough, for one thing. But Ben Gibbard’s overlong, straining-for-wit lyrical conceits, the general bummed-out mood of their music, and let’s face it even their stupid name have been massively influential on the crop of emo (mall- or otherwise) bands that came of age after the turn of the millennium. Anyway this is as close as I’m going to get to talking about emo, so. I (doing things all wrong, as usual) had heard Dntel but not Death Cab For Cutie when the Postal Service’s album was released. I downloaded a few songs, thought they were nice if a little soporific, and then four months later stood in shock at a Borders as “Such Great Heights” played over the in-store speakers. There’s no reason I should have been surprised; Borders employees were just as likely as I was to have an interest in tasteful if somewhat out-of-the-way music, and what I didn’t realize and would have to be reminded of over and over again until I finally caught on in ca. 2006 was that indie was no longer indie in the sense of private. The Internet had done a lot of things to the music industry: one of them was giving everyone the ability to hear and love the pretty little laptop-pop songs that previously only a cult audience could have known about. I had thought I was part of the cult, but it turns out I was part of the cult’s mainstreaming: I too found out about it online. As to the song: Gibbard does his usual overextended metaphors, but placed in the context of Dntel’s pretty, pointillist soundscaping, the lines overlaid to fit the rhythm, he becomes the messy, human part of the machine, his sensitive-guy voice and flowing melody giving the dead-cool novo-glitch around him a beating heart. I haven’t heard the Iron & Wine cover; I don’t want to hear this song without a new wave guitar break repeated four times. Without those shrillest highs, what is there to come down from?
4. Gnarls Barkley “Crazy”
(Cee-Lo Green, Danger Mouse, Gianfranco Reverberi, Gian Piero Reverberi)
Downtown · 2006
In the Golden Age of American songwriting from the 1920s through the 1940s, the composer was king. His melodies would come tripping from the piano, elegant or moody or angular or rambunctious as he chose, and the lyricist would knock his word-pegs into the assigned note-holes like a carpenter with a rhyming dictionary. Then came rock, and people generally wrote songs all in a go, words and music coming together like the voice of God, multiple but unified, and they sang them too, because it was more democratic that way. Then came hip-hop, and with it the rise of a new figure, the DJ, who scrounged old records to make a backing track for the rapper, whose lyrics were so urgent and real that they dispensed with melody altogether. And now, within our own time, the seas have shifted yet again. Once more, the solitary genius sits at his keyboard and the music comes tripping out, elegant or moody or angular or rambunctious as he chooses, and once it’s polished up he hands it off to the guy with the rhyming dictionary, only he’s also a rock writer, coming up with melody and lyrics to fit the backing track. That this process describes the collaboration between Postal Service just as well as Gnarls Barkley’s is no mistake: it’s yet another way that pop exists now, both outside the industry structure of superstar producers and writers-for-hire and artists with their own unique vision, and somehow part of it. Gibbard and Tamborello famously made their record on different sides of the continent; Gnarls Barkley work similarly separately, Danger Mouse conjuring up impossibly tight and well-structured songs out of the scraps of old Italian soundtracks and whatever else he’s got laying around in what must be the most well-stocked music library in New York, and Cee-Lo stepping into a studio months later and belting out whatever comes into his head on top of it. It’s not hip-hop — nor is it rock, or dance, or any of the other ways of thinking about music we’re so used to slotting things into, although it’s informed by all these processes. It’s something new, something that would have been impossible without the myriad connections made live by the Internet, something that we’re only just beginning to see the fruits of. All of which has little to do with the song, elegant and moody and angular and rambunctious all at once, and only maybe 30% of that is due to the rubbery guitar line Danger Mouse lifted from the Reverberis’ soundtrack to a 1968 Django sequel. Cee-Lo’s obsession with psychosis and identity has found the perfect outlet: his own cracked, hoarse singing voice, the most unlikely pop instrument to emerge in this decade of liquid vocals and inhuman computerization.
3. Britney Spears “Toxic”
(Bloodshy & Avant, Cathy Dennis, Henrik Jonback)
Jive · 2004
There could only be one. In 1999, for no apparent reason (the journalists and fever-brained music writers digging deep into the historical and cultural milieu of the late 1990s have yet to explain the world to itself), a sudden boom in youthful dance-pop took place. But the Backstreet Boys, Nsync, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Pink — and also-rans like Vitamin C, LFO, 98°, B*Witched, and Mandy Moore — were not immediately apparent (at least not to me, not that I was paying particular attention) as a sort of sea change in popular music. They fit into what I perceived as a standard mold in 1990s pop, the ephemeral, “manufactured” act. Los Del Rio, Hanson, Lou Bega, Eiffel 65 — this stuff had always been around (Right Said Fred, 2 Unlimited, Jordy, MC Hammer), and was basically harmless and would peter out in a while, to be replaced by real music, the real pop that I was interested in — which would be, uh, Third Eye Blind and Everclear and I even liked a Creed song or two back then sigh. Except that I couldn’t really get a handle on these new acts; there was nothing obviously novelty about them. The nerve of them, acting like they were singing real songs and expressing real emotions, when they’re obviously just kids being told what to sing and dance and pose as! That, as far as I remember, was my attitude, insofar as I had one; apart from an isolated moment when I realized that a peer expressing visceral hatred for these acts was being disproportionate in his reaction, I mostly rejected them, with the result that I can’t hear my way back to the dance-pop wave of 1999-20001; it still sounds overly slick, calculated, and completely false to me. It wasn’t until these kids began their second or third acts that I started to take notice. Pink recast herself as a rocker; Aguilera as a stripper (foreshadowing the Pussycat Dolls), and Destiny’s Child and Nsync broke up and their lead singers became the respective (and respected) heads of their field. Even Mandy Moore eventually went all singer-songwritery. And the void at the heart of this narrative, the name I have left unsaid throughout? She never tried on a new identity, never recast herself as anything but another image, never became a person. She remains, even today, the perfect blank slate, an antiseptic, inhuman human being on which all the fears, the hopes, the desires, and the scorns of a particulate, unfocused age can be written and read and written over. Her voice is weak, her looks average, her personal life as close to the median American’s as an individual person could possibly be. (Quickie marriages, quicker divorces, teenage pregnancies, drugs and rehab and going a little crazy? I don’t know where you’re from but around here we sigh and call it life.) Her discography is devoid of a guiding personality, a singular if restless vision. None of it bears any relationship to the rest: her producers, a dizzying roll-call encompassing every interesting or even half-interesting idea in the decade, are the ones who deserve the credit, and take it. She alone has remained faithful to the original charter of 1999; she alone will bear the blows, do it again, be our slave, teeter on the threshhold of adulthood, fight the music, take her prerogative, demand more, call out a womanizer, ringlead the circus, seek Amy, engage in ménage à trois — all of it forever, for as long as plastic spins or ones and zeroes multiply — and be the sordid, vapid reflection of our own sordid, vapid desires. And in 2004, as the nation descended into its most harrowing, depraved chapter since Vietnam, as secret prisons multiplied across Europe and Asia, as torture flourished, as we shook and awed a foreign nation for a lie and a dollar, she reflected back to it “Toxic.” Woozy synthesized stabs suggesting Middle-Eastern modal strings, with sitar and tabla deep in the mix, evoke the primal fears unleashed by 9/11 and stoked by a secretive and careless presidency, of brown men in modern clothes spreading disease and mayhem. “You’re toxic, I’m slipping under.” (Remember the anthrax scare? Her writers could hardly have chosen a better adjective.) Who was toxic, if not the exotic Other we both feared and were impelled towards, addicted (“I need a hit, baby give me it”) to blood and oil and the remorseless logic of endless war? America, a thousand hack journalists wrote, lost her innocence on September 11, 2001. Yeah, just like Britney was a virgin. “Toxic” tells the truth, in both directions. Oh, yeah, and it’s a great dance song.
2. The Strokes “Under Control”
RCA · 2003
I no longer remember why I was reading the NME online. But I was, and I saw their writeup of “Hard To Explain” in the summer of 2001. I fell hardest for the “perfect blackout silence” line describing the moment when the song pauses as though to catch its breath. (Like, ahem, Aerosmith’s “Living On The Edge.”) So I downloaded the only mp3 I could find on whatever primitive file-sharing network I was using back then, a tinny mess of an mp3 which sounded like it was recorded off the radio by a computer mic and probably was. I no longer remember why I believed and trusted the NME. But I did, so I waited and waited until there were more Strokes songs — real ones this time — on the file-sharing network, and I listened to them and heard the combination of Television and Buzzcocks and Pavement and Velvet Underground that everyone else heard, and slowly got kind of excited about them and the possibility that they might work out to be the saviors of rock. And I bought their first record soon after it was released and listened to it not nonstop because I’ve never listened to any record nonstop that’s just not how I process things but I listened to it a lot. (I listened to it again yesterday for the first time in years and everything sounded exactly as I remembered it.) And “Last Nite” was on the radio — on the motherfucking radio! — along with “Fell In Love With A Girl” and maybe “Hate To Say I Told You So” though I don’t remember it, and Nick Hornby was right and all our patient punk-and-British Invasion-and-glam-and-Britpop-loving dreams were about to come true. We had kept the faith, we would be rewarded. Except of course, no, that didn’t happen, it was a blip and the Strokes were an indie band — the kings of indie rock for a while, if they wanted to be, although even in late 2001 I was aware of backlash — and so I became indie rock too, and over the next year or so would champion the Libertines and the Raveonettes and Interpol and the Polyphonic Spree and Hot Hot Heat and Simian. (Yes, Simian, long before they became a Mobile Disco. I still think that’s weird.) And then the Strokes made another record, and I bought it the day it came out because I was that guy now, and I listened to it with ears that had been thoroughly prepared by reading every single word I could find on the Internet about it, and so had mixed reviews. I couldn’t decide whether the Carsy keyboard-sounding effect on the guitar in “12:51” was irrepressibly awesome or irredeemably lame, because neither could everyone else, and I couldn’t decide whether the record built nobly on the promise of their first record or failed to live up to the purity of its vision, because neither could everyone else. “Under Control,” though. I was sure about “Under Control.” (Everyone else was not, as I recall.) Because in addition to reading every word I could find about the record, I had read every word I could find about the band, and Julian Casablancas had gone out of his way numerous times to namecheck Sam Cooke as a vocal influence, and I had just bought a Sam Cooke compilation and — look if I have to explain to you why Sam Cooke is great, I quit. “Under Control” was the song where I heard Sam Cooke the most. Well, obviously, it’s a rock & roll ballad, bearing the same relationship to the Strokes’ standard sound as “Surfer Girl” did to the Beach Boys’ early sound or “Tired Of Waiting For You” did to the Kinks’, slowing it down and giving it a little time to compose itself. I included it on a mixtape I listened to more than anything else in 2003, 2004, and 2005. It’s still my favorite Strokes song. They didn’t make a third record. No, hush. They didn’t.
1. Outkast “Hey Ya”
LaFace · 2003
Well, duh. What did you expect?
I knew sometime in 2004 that “Hey Ya” was the frontrunner for Song Of The Decade, and anything that came along in the back half would have to be damn good to live up to it. And nothing did.
This is an unfortunate byproduct of my silly “one song per artist” rule, which means that according to the label on the CD spine this is ineligible to be considered as an André 3000 song, which means that Big Boi appears nowhere on this list, which is ridiculous on the face of it. But if I have to choose between a song on which Big Boi appears and what I think is the best Outkast song . . . there’s no question.
Seriously, if you have any questions left, you haven’t listened to the song enough. Alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright OK now ladies!
I wanted to close out these pages with some thoughts on the 2000s, on list-making in general, and on just what the hell I think I’m doing here.The convention we have of separating musical activity out into decade-long chunks is just that: a convention, bearing as little relationship to the ebb and flow of actual musical activity as Euclidean geometry does to the lumpy, fractal world we live in. The 2000s, as a musical decade, are not easily summed up into any tidy apothegms. Fashions certainly change, but the technology by which twenty-first century pop is produced has stayed more or less the same, and there is nothing being made here at the end of the decade that was conceptually or technically impossible at its inception. (As if to prove the point, the first AutoTune hit is more than a decade old by now.) Multitrack recording in the 40s, stereo in the 50s, variable-speed tape in the 60s, electronics in the 70s, sampling in the 80s, and home audio software in the 90s — there is nothing like that for our era, nothing we can do that we couldn’t have done before. We have been bounded only by our imaginations in this decade; which, as it turns out, can be a pretty strong boundary. Much of the music on this list could have been made ten or twenty or thirty or forty years ago: does that mean the decade has failed? Or, more specifically, that the filter I have applied to this decade is too limited in the scope of its own imagination?
This list is limited, yes, and designedly so: both out of laziness and out of a sense of possibly misguided honesty, I didn’t want to have to do any homework in order to make it. My blind spots are large, and obvious: non-radio hip-hop, electronic subgenres whether for the club or the home, most indie rock after about 2003; country, metal, mainstream hard rock, industrial, emo, anything at all from outside the US or Britain (and even a lot from inside Britain, dubstep for instance), and on and on and on. And even where I’m most confident, I’m still ignorant: I’ve only heard the singles off Stankonia, for crying out loud.
So what drove me to think I should make a list of songs from this decade, a decade I have clearly taken only a superficial interest in over its course, and expect to be paid attention to by anyone with the slightest understanding of the subject? Especially since my list is so full of songs everyone has already heard? If list-making (pace Hornby) is about distinguishing and codifying a particular taste out of the welter of material Out There, what does it say about my taste that I’ve chosen only the obvious, only the already-praised, only the (dread word) popular?I’m sure a lot of people reading this would have preferred that I followed the path revealed by the handful of tracks that everyone hasn’t heard, follow the more obscure tributaries on which I found the Notwist, the Mountain Goats, Justus Köhncke, and Regina Spektor. They after all tell you something about me; everything else, superstar and critical darling alike, just tells you about itself, its inclusion here just another data point in the matrix of conventional wisdom.
But I am honored to be that data point. My instincts, as I have said, are towards building consensus, and I wear the image of rebellious outsider, the standard rock & roll (and hip-hop) pose, with an ill grace. (And anyway rankings and song choice are how I express my individuality.) If tout le monde also thinks “Hey Ya” is the decade’s best song, well — doesn’t that mean it probably is? Anyway, the more people say so, the truer it becomes. Talking about pop is nothing if not subjective for anyone this side of Joel Whitburn.
Anyway, that’s it. Finis. I’m done with lists for a good long time now. Which doesn’t mean I’m done with writing about music; I have several projects set to begin (or resume) in the new year. But to catch any stray thoughts I may happen to have in the interim, you’ll have to follow my Tumblr.