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30. The Divine Comedy, "Count Grassi's Passage Over Piedmont" (Victory For The Comic Muse, 2006)
Neil Hannon is a parallel-world survivor of Britpop. In 1991, while the UK was in thrall to Madchester and "baggy," The Divine Comedy released their first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse —subsequently and quickly deleted from the catalogue, but by all accounts extremely R.E.M.-influenced, which made Hannon about seven years late to the party. In 1993, as Suede and Blur mounted their first serious attacks on the brave new Kinks/Beatles-loving Britpop frontier, Hannon thought it appropriate to release the first DC album, Liberation, on which his greatest influence appeared to be Romantic poetry (the final song is three of Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems strung together) and Michael Nyman. Hannon's pretty much stayed the course since then, remaining stubbornly unfashionable: He's set Fitzgerald to song ("Bernice Bobs Her Hair"), written extravagantly Broadway-esque odes to national transportation ("National Express") and given the occasional winking reminder that he's aware of the present day (the hilariously acerbic parody "Europop," a love song using the BBC show "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World" as a metaphor). But his heart is in the Romantic era, which happens to be one of my least favorite eras in literature and which he brings to life, making the ideals new, fresh and moving again.
"Count Grassi's Passage Over Piemont" is the story of a fictional count (as far as I know) setting hot-air balloon passage over the continent, passing over Italy. But what's really on his mind is death: "If I'm to die, then let it be in summertime, in a manner of my own choosing, to fall from a great height, on a warm July afternoon." It's all unbearably sad and moving and reminds me of the kind of similar 19th-century crap my dad used to quote with great fervor. That's enough about that.
29. Neko Case, "Hold On, Hold On" (Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, 2006)
The splendidly odd Neko Case has the looks of a pin-up girl and the voice of an "American Idol" champion, both of which she downplays in favor of her weird lyrical and musical interests—idiosyncratic by any standard, more so considering she could make a killing by pandering with more low-cut costumes and/or "virtuoso" songs light on real content. "Hold On, Hold On" takes the normal male song about getting drunk and fucking up and renders it with the woman as irresponsible predator. Case is a monster on this song, stealing Valium from the bride and explaining why she's getting too drunk to be coherent and sticking to one-night stands. "I leave the party at 3 AM, alone thank god," she bellows, suggesting too many times where she left with the wrong person. "The most tender place in my heart is for strangers." Wicked guitar solo too.
28. Menomena, "Muscle 'N Flo" (Friend and Foe, 2007)
Once, booming drums were automatically designated "Spector"-ish; after The Soft Bulletin, every record with booming drums and distorted keyboards was destined for comparison to The Flaming Lips. Menomena, however, actually do kind of sound like The Flaming Lips: Big, double-tracked drums against extremely dry vocals and instruments, the gap accentuating the majesty of the songs rather than just turning into mush. Lyrically, "Muscle 'N Flo" unites the twin peaks of Bulletin: "Waitin' For A Superman" (agnostic resignation against an impossibly huge backdrop) and "Race For The Prize" (joyous affirmation of life in the midst of death, textbook existentialism, mostly an awesome sugary pop song). It begins in the morning, waking up hushed and unbalanced: "Oh in the morning, I stumble my way towards the mirror." There's a first angry chorus—"tiny scores, tiny rooms, lofty goals, met too soon"—that sounds like Bright Eyes lyrics set to a marching-band arrangement. There's the religious breakdown (Danny Seim came by his evangelical allusions from childhood): "If Jesus could only wash my feet / Then I'd get up." By the final affirmation ("I'm not young but I'm not through"), the song's reached such a fever pitch even octaves played on a rattly piano sound incredible. From resignation to affirmation with no change in material circumstances: That's not far off from The Flaming Lips at all.
27. Young Jeezy ft. Timbaland, "3 A.M." (The Inspiration, 2006)
You didn't think we were going to make it through this whole list without paying tribute to Timbaland, did you? Of course Timbaland had his many brilliant collaborations with Missy Elliott—an ex of mine insisted "Lose Control" wasn't even music, which is the best kind of compliment—but perhaps more than anything I treasure this tribute to the seemingly incongruous twin joys of multi-tracked a cappella vocals and Jeezy's epic sneer. It's woozily insistent on its gravitas, like a stumbling but still very dangerous drunk. I remember reading somewhere (I believe on Pitchfork, which has since scrubbed its archives of a lot of stuff) that Jeezy was concerned that Timbaland wouldn't produce a track that was hard enough for him. No fear there.
26. The Delgados, "American Trilogy" (The Great Eastern, 2000)
The Delgados were my own personal Smiths; either they or Tindersticks are the most consistently depressing band on the planet, and they say as much on this song. "No one, I mean no one, can depress me more than I can," sings Alun Woodward. "Lately I've been thinking that I'm going to give up breathing." Especially as produced by Dave Fridmann, they came off as the depressive reverse negative of The Flaming Lips, deploying extravagance in the name of overwhelming depression. The fact that they made an album called Hate only endeared them to me more; that was high school, and I listened to that sucker 50 times if I listened to it at all. (NB: This is the video of a single cut that's about a minute and a half short, but you get the idea.)
25. All Night Radio, "We're On Our Wave" (Spirit Stereo Frequency, 20004)
The long-delayed spawn of Odelay!, All Night Radio's stated project was to make albums that sounded like the radio-station bleeding you get on cross-country drives. I have no idea how they would have made this develop over multiple albums, but it was irrelevant: In another news item Pitchfork has since scrubbed from their archives, the band broke acrimoniously shortly after their release, where one of the band-members said something hilarious like "If you want your band to last, make sure your bandmate isn't fucking the manager." Inevitably (and appropriately given the concept), the album has some dead spots, but this isn't one of them. It's always made me think of a sweeter adaptation of The Last Picture Show, which I suppose is intentional, since the first line is "Down on my own at the picture show." It's standard alt-country fare—wistful, slow, with the slide guitar coming out of another frequency to interrupt the slow jangle you were listening to on its own. This is the kind of stand-out track that makes you want to listen to every album ever from start to finish just to make sure there isn't some kind of deep cut you could use on a mix later.
24. Jimmy Eat World, "The Middle" (Bleed American, 2001)
Everyone likes this song, right? The tremendously uneven Jimmy Eat World are infamous as Fred Durst's favorite band, which shouldn't be held against them; that they started Bleed American with the Prozac Nation angst-line "I'm not crazy cause I take the right pills everyday," however, should. JEW are not pop's great thinkers—they're more like the kid in class obsessively scrawling NIN logos on their binder (I suppose this no longer happens; what are the kids into now, Fall Out Boy?)—but Bleed American actually does have slightly more to offer than this massive hit single. Like "All Star" or "Hey Ya," this is one of those songs that you're supposed to be sick of due to sheer ubiquity, but it actually never got old. The generic inspirational lyrics aren't much of a drag: They're just streamlined enough for this surprisingly tight, slack-less ballad-as-anthem.
In retrospect, "The Middle" couldn't sound more like Rock Radio of 2003 if a hype-man went back over it and recorded himself screaming "2003" every five seconds. The drums are as unreal as AC/DC's, booming but flat; somehow, though, the vocals are evenly matched. There's one of those faux-U2 guitar sounds that sounds like a clock ticking and some widdly-woo keyboards imported from Paul Oakenfold or thereabouts. "The Middle" has every one of radio-ready's production tricks of the time, but the song, as a whole, is much better; it's an anthology but an exemplar too.
23. Elbow, "Leaders Of The Free World" (Leaders of the Free World, 2005)
'00s music criticism frequently centered around a bunch of whining about how the kids these days weren't responding politically to the Iraq War (read: We have no Bob Dylan and where are all the lousy, didactic protest songs anyway?). Out of the short stack of songs that actually could be deemed "political" (in the "right" way, as in not Toby Keith discussing the niceties of kicking terrorist butt), Elbow's comes out ahead by a large margin. "Passing the gun from father to feckless son" is succinctly pleasing as an indictment, damning without being hysterical. Mostly, though, it's a song about one deeply pissed-off man "sick of working for living...just ticking off the days til I die" with a chorus that adds instruments as it gets more and more irritated, from stripped-down lo-fi jam to stadium-filling chorus. Elbow fans tend to be fairly rabid, because Elbow get to have the complex, multi-listening-required songs that grow on you after initially coming off aimless, but they also get to be a UK Stadium Band. In a just world, all the attention lavished on Arctic Monkeys would've been better served here.
22. Metric, "Gimme Sympathy" (Fantasies, 2009)
I have a hard time justifying how much I love Metric, considering that they're kind of terrible in several notable ways. Most notably, there's the solipsistic hysteria that comprises the bulk of Emily Haines's lyrics, but also the vague sense that Metric—Canadian origins or no—have the unreconstructed ethos of an '80s LA band, with big guitar solos and a hot dancing frontman covering for a competent but less photogenic rhythm section that keeps the trains running in the background. "Gimme Sympathy" is the biggest single Metric's ever tried, trading stripped-down sexiness for a dance number of sorts, horn bursts and all. Haines is clam and unaffected the eye of the musical hurrican. The song is presumably about Metric's push-pull between their art-rock sympathies (as a Broken Social Scene offshoot) and their natural gravitation towards hooky pop songs ("stay away from the hooks," Haines warns herself). "Who would you rather be," Haines asks, "The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?" This is the kind of stupid question that ruins backyard BBQs, but Haines—amazingly—actually means it. The weird thing is that it sounds totally like a break-up song to me: "Gimme sympathy after all of this is through," Haines begs, which is what you ask for when you're in the moral wrong and want to be reassured you're not. But she's getting that worked up about, like, whether or not Metric will ever be a stadium band, which is ridiculous.
Yet this song works even after my personal emotional storm passed. (Timing is everything.) It's perfectly synthetic: On the first chorus, what sound like horns kick in, but the real horns on the final go-round reveal those as keyboards. And by that finale, Haines has made her choice: "C'mon baby, play me something like 'Here Comes The Sun.'" She gets it too: For once, her tendency to the gross, over-emotional overstatement works. What she wants to do is write a song that makes no bones about wanting to heal you, and, for a few minutes, she's singing it. Increasingly into their career, Metric seem like a smarter, less-perfunctorily-shrill version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (especially as that band—with songs like "Hysteric"—seems to be crossing over into their territory), but that's not what they're best at. They know warmth; it's cold in Canada, after all.
21. Rufus Wainwright, "Poses" (Poses, 2001)
Even after I moved to New York, there was really nothing I could relate to in Rufus Wainwright's lyrical territory. In pretty much every meaningful point of relatability—musical interests, socioeconomic bracket, sexual orientation—there's nothing to talk about. He's not even really an indie-rockin' kind of guy. Wainwright never really acted like the son of a Judd Apatow hero (even if he covered Loudon's "One Man Guy"), and it's doubtful he was secretly bumping LCD Soundsystem when no one was around; it's really no surprise he was commissioned to write an opera for the Met. His music is nakedly in thrall to the musical form, and he's aggressively gay; I don't mean that badly, just that I can't really connect to the line "There's never been such grave a matter as comparing our new brand name black sunglasses." Nor—even after I moved—have I worried about "wearing flip-flops on 5th Avenue" (the rent's too expensive). And so on.
What Wainwright achieved in just over five minutes (and most of his best work, which is to say the overwhelming majority of it), then, is pretty astonishing: He makes music so emotive it pumps real feeling back into the lyrics, even if you (e.g., I) couldn't really connect to them at first pass. Not gonna lie: I took six years of Latin in the public school system, so a passing reference to falling "from classical virtue" was enough to hook me in around the first time, and I wasn't perceptive enough to figure out for a while what he was talking about (basically, the kind of all-party/all-brand-name bullshit that kind of irritates me in reality). But Wainwright's clever enough to wriggle out of the specifics of his life with a piano/string-quartet arrangement as emotive as any of the Schubert lieder I'm 99% sure he loves, a melody that's already swelling madly even in its minimal opening form. The song's a gut-punch of longing within the most trivial circumstances—which, finally, is really what longing is like. When you're desperate and in real need, you don't have time for "longing."