Friday, December 18, 2009

The Generic Awards Special: Songs of the Decade

The aughts were the first complete decade of the post-Napster era. While file-sharing, iPods, digital files, and musical piracy had an undeniable impact on the music industry and its products, all was far from lost. As these twenty-five tracks demonstrate, the decade had a wide breadth and depth of musical achievement. Without further ado, let's get to this list.

Two ground rules:
1) Live albums and greatest hits are ineligible. Sorry, Kicking Television, How the West Was Won, and Nirvana: Live at Reading.
2) No album was allowed to have more than one track on the list. This wouldn't have happened in more than a few instances anyway, but I figure the more variety the better. Plus, two artists still managed to make the list multiple times.

25. M.I.A. - "Paper Planes" - (video) - Okay, okay, I'll be frank: I dismissed this song (and the album as a whole) when I reviewed Kala on its initial release. Two years later, I have no idea how that could have happened. "Paper Planes" pistol-whips the listener the second that Clash sample kicks in. M.I.A.'s sing-song vocals on the refrain play in perfect contradiction to the violent acts described therein. The musical marriage of Diplo and M.I.A. hasn't always proved fruitful, but this is the perfect synthesis of their talents. So, uh, no funny business.

24. My Morning Jacket - "Dondante" - (video) - When Z arrived in 2006, OK Computer comparisons were plentiful and inevitable. They were only lent more credence by each album having an epic, earth-shattering finale, with "Dondante" serving that role for My Morning Jacket. Jim James' vocals carry the load for much of the song, as the guitar flourishes hint at the maelstrom to come. When James finally lets go and the band lets loose, it's the sound of beautiful chaos.

23. Peter Bjorn and John - "Young Folks" - (video) - The runaway winner for "Mistake of the Decade," the famous whistling of "Young Folks" was originally put into the mix until the band could figure out an instrumental. Instead it became the most instantaneously catchy, yet simplistic, hook of the decade. As the music fleshes out around the aforementioned hook, the band has seized lightning in a bottle. That it became a left-field hit and career-defining moment for the band was inevitable.

22. Soulja Boy Tell 'em - "Turn My Swag On" - (video) - Yeah, I know, what the fuck, right? This isn't some joke or post-ironic hipster posturing. "Turn My Swag On" is amazing. It's the sound of an artist simultaneously winking toward and flipping off his critics, taking the best beat he's ever worked with and singing (admittedly terribly) about fucking waking up and getting ready in the morning. He's not only in on the joke, he is the joke, yet he transcends the joke and delivers this: part hip-hop, part pop, somehow neither, somehow both. His unabashed joy and confidence are endearing, and after this song finally sinks in, it's simply the fucking jam. For some, its appeal will never reveal itself. Advice to them: look in the mirror and say "what's up?"

21. Interpol - "NYC" - (WTF video) - Many a morning-after drive have been soundtracked by the third track on Interpol's immaculate debut. A bittersweet letter to his hometown, Paul Banks doesn't shy away from the city's ugly underbelly ("the subway she is a porno, and the pavements they are a mess") as he reflects apathetically about what the city (and by extension, life) mean anymore. "I know you've supported me for a long time, but somehow I'm not impressed," he reveals. Meanwhile, the song's ceaseless waves of guitar crest over, washing everything away. The city might not be perfect, but it's not going anywhere and it'll always be bigger than you. Same goes for life, but at least those moments of realization can bring about fantastic and touching music like this.

20. Broken Social Scene - "Lover's Spit" - (video) - Those encompassing opening chords. The sensual mood the songs sets. The tossed-off romantic vocals of Kevin Drew (who really has cornered the market on that). Modern lyrics touching on the classic theme of wanting to grow older and escape the angst of young adulthood. There are so many things to appreciate in this song, it's easy to forget the best one: this whole flawless composition is about fucking blowjobs.

19. Shearwater - "The Snow Leopard" - (video) - Johnathon Meiburg, sometimes contributor to Okkervil River, truly comes into his own as a singer-songwriter with "The Snow Leopard," the easy highlight from his band's best LP, Rook. Beginning with sonic hints toward Radiohead's "The Pyramid Song," the track sets itself apart as soon as Meiburg's vocals kick in. In the best alternative vocal performance of the year, the band follows his lead as he takes the song to soaring heights. By the time the horns kick in at the end, it's game over; Shearwater's won.

18. Immortal Technique - "Dance With the Devil" - (video) - In a genre where violence, misogyny, and drugs are embraced, "Dance With the Devil" is the answer. Telling the pitch-dark story of a wannabe drug dealer, the rapper guides us through a cautionary tale with such vivid detail and imagery that some listeners were left wondering if it were a true story. In its bloody and impacting conclusion, with a twist that would make M. Night double-take, Immortal Technique grabs the audience by the throat before concluding with a fatalistic lesson. Whether it's true or not isn't the point, it's a bleak parable that will stick with you either way.

17. Wilco - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" - (live video) - The opening track on Wilco's magnum opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it immediately establishes that this is an entirely new Wilco experience. Over rough-hewn, AOR-style production, Jeff Tweedy sing-speaks about a relationship, bouncing between past and present tense, and occasionally drifting into free-association. The song carries an undeniable force, with enough sinister subtext to give Tweedy's understated vocals extra gravitas. It's rare for a band to completely surprise with a sonic shift this late into their career, and even rarer that the shift results in the group's paramount effort. One can see why a major record label would doubt this song, just like one can see why major record labels are struggling.

16. The Streets - "Dry Your Eyes" - (video) - The emotional centerpiece of Mike Skinner's musical soap opera, A Grand Don't Come for Free, "Dry Your Eyes" chronicles the beloved protagonist attempting to cope with losing his love. The song's power and emotional tug comes not only from circumstances, because the song is able to carry those traits outside of the context, but from those heart-wrenching strings and the song's perspective. In the moment of realization that his "life is crashing before [his] eyes," she closes her eyes "for what seems like an eternity." Love isn't logical, emotions don't always make sense, yet here The Streets have managed to construct heartbreak in meticulous detail.

15. Band of Horses - "The Funeral" - (video) - Band of Horses stormed out of the gate in 2006 with lead single "The Funeral." Three years later, and the song hasn't let-up in the least. Ben Bridwell's vocals are given a tremendous task: to carry the emotional burden of the song's lyrics while competing to match the intensity of the band. Mission accomplished. Note to other hype bands: this is how you earn it.

14. Incubus - "Aqueous Transmission" - (video) - So, wait, the premiere ambient pop song of the decade came from... fucking Incubus? I can just imagine Brandon Boyd and company chilling in their tour van, patting themselves on the back, when by some deus ex machina they become aware of the existence of the Chinese instrument known as the pipa. But I have to give credit where its due, and while Incubus certainly take full advantage of the pipa, they also manage to craft a brilliant and perfectly cohesive framework around it. As he sings of floating down a river, the music flows with it in synchronization. I'm left jaw-dropped, double-checking that this indeed Incubus I'm listening to. Then, as if to fuck with me, the band puts a pointless one-minute outro of nothing more than frogs croaking. Yes, this is Incubus alright, but fuck if it isn't also brilliant.

13. Primal Scream - "Pills" - (video?) - As the name implies, this is a drug trip put to music, and not a good one. The heaviest song on this list, Primal Scream's "Pills" is the soundtrack to a horrifying, bleak acid trip through the night clubs of Hell. As the backing vocals reiterate themes of isolation and paranoia, the lead vocals warn you're fading away, presumably into oblivion. The song also manages to make the repeated use of the word "fuck" go from merely a shock tactic to a crushing realization expressed in a single word. Forget D.A.R.E., this shit will keep kids off drugs, while still being one of the most compelling listens of the year.

12. Missy Elliott - "Get Ur Freak On" - (video) - The second Timbaland hits those keyboard notes, this song's place among the decade's best tracks was sealed. More club-ready than previous Elliott singles like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," with more edge than later work such as "Lose Control," "Get Ur Freak On" is the ultimate product of Elliott and Timbaland's partnership. It's immortal enough that each could have rested on their laurels after its release. Thankfully, they've only used it as a compass pointing toward further innovation.

11. Radiohead - "Everything in Its Right Place" - (video) - "Everything in Its Right Place" is a more cerebral track than anything the world's greatest band has released before or since. The keyboards sound like something imported from another planet, Yorke's vocals float among the many sounds co-existing in the track's strange brew, another strong instrument in the mix. The disparate elements form a cohesive whole, decimating expectations in the band's post-OK Computer era. From this song on, Radiohead were capable of anything, and limited by nothing.

10. Cannibal Ox - "The F-Word" - (song-only video) - That the song manages to be the standout on an album as loaded as The Cold Vein automatically warrants a spot in the top ten. El-P's beat is breathtaking, dense and layered. There's a reason this album's instrumentals were released as a separate album. Yet, more than any other song on the album, "The F-Word" lets rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega take the forefront. Reversing the traditional role of gender in hip-hop, "The F-Word" finds the duo frustrated and denied by women, stuck in the friendship role despite desires toward love and lust. Stylus claimed the lyrical virtuosity conveyed "the potential for hip hop lyrics to work on as many levels as the finest English poetry." Allow me to nominate Vast Aire for Poet Laureate.

9. Bright Eyes - "No Lies, Just Love" - (mood-killing video) - I have friends both who love and loathe Conner Oberst, and both camps raise valid points, depending on perspective. Whereas his emotional nudity can be perceived as grating or overly melodramatic, on "No Lies, Just Love," the best song he's ever written, it's nothing less than gripping. Dealing with suicide, apathy, family, and disappointment, Oberst covers a wide breadth of areas with the master's touch that earned him Dylan comparisons in the first place. The arrangement is just as strong; when the music amplifies after the "if you go, then soon I will follow," it has never failed to give me goosebumps. As he cries out in the coda, there are shades of Lennon's "Mother": an artist facing his dispassion, disbelief, and disillusion, and contradictorily reaffirming life's importance to the listener.

8. Boards of Canada - "Dayvan Cowboy" - (video) - Leave it to the masterminds of the 90's best electronica album, Music Has the Right to Children, to come up with the 00's most impressive electronica composition. "Dayvan Cowboy" immediately and repeatedly finds one perfect groove after another, slowly bleeding one into another, a cognitive exploration of the mind using analog synthesizers and drum machines. This is music for when the drugs no longer work. It doesn't hurt that it has the decade's best music video to accompany it either.

7. Justin Timberlake - "My Love" - (video; actual song starts at 1:40) - Like Missy Elliott before him, Justin Timberlake's artistic future was forever altered for the better when he began working with Timbaland. "My Love" is the primary example. Timbaland throws out all his usual pop tricks. There's no element here we haven't seen before, but the combination is pop perfection, the musical equivalent of the first time Reese mixed peanut butter and chocolate. Timbaland lays the groundwork, Timberlake does everything he's asked to, and then there's T.I.'s verse, the second-best of his career (behind "Swagga Like Us") and a stone-cold confirmation of his talents. Consider this the aughts' equivalent of "Billie Jean."

6. Eminem - "Stan" - (video) - Eminem was, without argument, the most divisive figure in popular music this decade. Even Eminem was divided into two artistic "characters": Marshall and Shady. "Stan" tackles the criticism Eminem has faced as an immoral "role model" to fans, as well as establishes the distinct difference between Eminem the persona and Marshall the person. The sonic details (the scribbling of the pen, the background noise during Stan's final correspondence, etc.) make the song all the more enveloping and engrossing. "Stan" was (and, let's be honest, will remain) Eminem's career-defining track, one which took much more risk than obvious-subversive bullshit like "Fack" or "We Made You."
(sidenote: If I'd given out a "Worst Song of the Decade," it would have been the aforementioned "Fack.")

5. Wolf Parade - "I'll Believe in Anything" - (video) - I have a theory regarding the energy crisis our nation faces: there has to be some way to harness the pure energy Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug produce on Apologies to the Queen Mary's stand-out jaw-dropper. The sound builds and builds as Krug pleads to take his love away from the pains of the real world, to somewhere where "nobody knows [her] and nobody gives a damn." The energy pulses through the song, managing to maintain a crescendo for its entire second-half. The band demonstrates the ability to transport anyone with nothing more than drums, keyboard, guitar, and cries of howling longing. By the time it's over, the listener truly does believe in anything. After a performance as honest as this, how couldn't they?

4. Sigur Rós - "Svefn-G-Englar" - (video) - I read a brilliant author's take on this song, which was much more accomplished than anything I could produce. Take his word for it.

3. The Wrens - "She Sends Kisses" - (WTF video) - Full disclosure: I have a jaded affection for this song. About the same time I got into The Wrens, I broke up with my first love. After that point, listening to "She Sends Kisses" was a painful but essential experience. The song so perfectly captures the post-heartbreak fallout from a male perspective that each listen was a confirmation I wasn't alone in my suffering. Seeing your first love in the next girl ("I put your face on her all year"), the flooding of emotion from simply reading of text from your once-beloved, wondering how her next man could ever do the things you could; all of it was there, all of it rang true. Three years later, and while the feelings for that ex are gone, the feelings for "She Sends Kisses" are as strong as ever.

2. Radiohead - "Backdrifts" - ("Hard Candy" video) - Hail to the Thief may not have been Radiohead's premiere album of the decade, but as is to be expected from a band of their caliber, it provided moments of unparalleled excellence. "Backdrifts" is the track on which Radiohead return to rock from the ambient/electronica detours of their previous two albums, while perfectly incorporating lessons they had learned along the way. The lyrics of paranoia are fairly standard fare for the band's post-The Bends output, yet within the analog mind-fuck of the song's sonic strucutre, their power is amplified. Radiohead have continued to break ground with each new album this decade, which makes it all the more impressive that "Backdrifts" stands as their finest track during that span.

1. My Morning Jacket - "Steam Engine" - (song-only video) - It's a shame what's happened to mainstream radio. The days of triumphant rock and roll gaining widespread radio play are seemingly vanished, replaced by lazy, misogynistic hip-hop and faceless pop music. In 1977, "Steam Engine" would have been all over the air-waves, playing next to "Hotel California" and "Tuesday's Gone." The song is no relic though; rather, it is timeless. Jim James' voice remains one of America's under-appreciated national treasures (American Dad plugs aside), capable of hitting seemingly any note with ease. The guitar and drums do exactly what they're supposed to do: breaking through at the precise moments they need to; letting James carry the load when needed. The song is a heart-on-sleeve epic, the kind of beautiful craftsmanship and songwriting that wouldn't stand a chance on Top 40 radio. It's better that way. You can't play "Steam Engine" and follow it with "Poker Face."

And now you can tell me how wrong I am for leaving off Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Daft Punk, and/or your favorite band.


jordan said...

Huge props for 24, but the list could have used Bon Iver's Blood Bank.

Tom said...

Is this songs of the year, or songs of the decade...?

Erik said...

Songs of the decade. I wasn't paying attention when I typed the title. I corrected it. Thanks for the heads-up on that one, I missed it.

オテモヤン said...


Anonymous said...

erik, i love you.

Troy said...

haha you called it: needs more Kanye. Kanye is just too revolutionary in the hip-hop game not to have ONE song in the top 25. Also the Black Eyed Peas owned pop music for the majority of the decade, and obviously from a pop point of view they deserve mention somewhere as well. Good selections though; i'm glad this wasn't your average hipster music list and actually recognized hip-hop and pop music as viable candidates.

I'm glad you didn't include Lil Wayne aka the most overrated artist in the world.