10. Andrew Bird, “Scythian Empire” (Armchair Apocrypha, 2007)
Judging by his interviews, the suspiciously pleasurable Andrew Bird burnt out on pretty much all forms of modern music during his conservatory days and now just listens to the more obscure corners of the world music catalogue. Absolutely none of which you can hear in his music, which time and time again sounds effortlessly warm and well-crafted in a resolutely non-confrontational manner, which seems like a warning that maybe this is secretly Muzak. “Scythian Empire” is one of the best, an elegy for the decay and obsolescence of a once-proud reign now just remembered for a curious name and a few disconnected, passed-down images. Like The Flaming Lips, Bird’s a musical existentialist: Lyrics of doubt and worry against a reassuring musical backdrop.
9. Voxtrot, “Rise Up In The Dirt” (Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP, 2006)
One in a long line of Austin bands that threatened to take over the world and then screwed up somehow or other—e.g., Fastball, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead and more obscure contenders like I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness who never got past the local hype stage—Voxtrot wrote precisely eight perfect pop songs in 2006, on the combined Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP and Your Biggest Fan single. But they stumbled over the first album, losing themselves in uncontained emotion and rambling structures going nowhere in particular. Should they fail to find themselves again, “Rise Up In The Dirt” is still better than a lot of bands’ entire careers, with a two-part chorus that gets even more majestic when it seems to have peaked. The lyrics are very specific and understandable to anyone who’s a workaholic: “I believe in love / I’m married to my work” is an excuse for emotional unavailability, but it’s also an expression of pathology and frustration. I can’t reprint any of the other lyrics: They read maudlin but vocal conviction transforms them.
8. The Wrens, “Ex-Girl Collection” (The Meadowlands, 2003)
I’m pretty much convinced that The Meadowlands is the album of the decade; I know it’s not precisely free jazz, but I’ve never heard a band that’s so intricately worked out the most surprising, dense and interlayered harmonies and interplay they can think of for every song while remaining spiky, surprising and seemingly spontaneous; it marries pop discipline and noise interjections in a way I value. Or maybe I’m just too wussy for most Sonic Youth. “Ex-Girl Collection” is a deeply pissed-off break-up song—“Ann slams in, she pours herself a don’t-ask gin”—with the perspective of a grim satisfaction that it’s finally going down. The studio version starts with one guitar weaving up and down arpeggios, adds another pretty bass line and doesn’t go for the full attack ’til a minute-and-a-half in, when an annoyed rhythm guitar takes it from frail to crunchy. Live, the drums are out, and all you’re hearing is perfectly worked-out three part harmony; on record, it’s extremely aggravated. There’s also a terrific Will Sheff cover that allowed me, for the first time, to finally hear the (excellent) lyrics clearly. So The Wrens only seem like a studio band; their songs are shockingly resilient as well.
7. David Byrne, “Glass, Concrete & Stone” (Grown Backwards, 2004)
I first heard this song at the end credits of the perfectly worthless Dirty Pretty Things and spent the next year trying to find it in any form; eventually, it surfaced on Byrne’s Grown Backwards album, two years and a whole lot of anticipation later, but it held up. Most of Byrne’s ’90s solo work was pretty embarrassing—occasionally nakedly trying to turn back into a one-man Talking Heads and coming off as so much “edgy” rock for your stereotypical Hollywood-agent-with-ponytail—but the aughts found him in a surprising phase two, with new songs that were just as strong as his Heads-era work, but otherwise in no way connected to how he spent the most famous decade of his life. This is a song of vague images—meetings in parking lots, transparent but looming architecture, early morning wake-ups—that’s somewhere right between everyday mundanity and some kind of strange spy movie. It’s queasily lovely, down to the vaguely ill cello solo that takes it out.
6. Fountains of Wayne, “Mexican Wine” (Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003)
This was going to be Welcome Interstate Managers’ lead single, but then someone looked at P2P downloading services and found that “Stacy’s Mom,” for whatever godforsaken reason, was much more popular. So the clever video for this song—Fountains of Wayne on a boat with very professional rap video hos dancing up an incongruous storm around a band exuding nerdy professional aloofness—was tossed out as an afterthought, and FoW, three albums into their career, were suddenly a one-hit novelty band who apparently aspired to nothing more in life than stealing Ric Ocasek’s guitar tone (Ocasek was convinced they’d sampled him). “Mexican Wine” was a much better song that got lost in the shuffle, one I knew was my Song Of The Year as soon as it started. The lyrics are three vignettes delivered in snide, fatalistic couplets—a man killed by his cellphone exploding, a woman dying when she forgets her pills in the glove compartment, a man who gets fired from American Airlines and decides to spend the rest of his days drinking up. But the song’s inexplicably, smirkily triumphant (you can hear someone say “Yup” just before a full-blown guitar squall kicks in for the second verse), hookily exultant in its craft. Metronomically timed 4/4 pop doesn’t get much better. I really don’t know why people hate them so much.
5. Spoon, “The Underdog” (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, 2007)
Spoon broke the Austin curse and actually became somewhat popular. Also, in the past decade they’ve written maybe three bad songs; their track record is close to perfect. In orienting a song for the kind of shitty alt-radio station that normally sticks to Fall Out boy et al., Britt Daniel’s song was spare enough for Jon Brion to practically earn a co-writing credit just for figuring which 13 kinds of esoteric percussive embellishment were needed. And—Austin boys made good that they were—they made it a scathing anti-Bush diatribe as well, in the process inadvertently externalizing Austin’s UT-jocks-vs.-weedy-indie-kids conflict as well. The bush attack is a personal vendetta, since Austin residents nearly always go out of their way to themselves from the rest of red-state Texas; similarly, the first thing anyone tells you if you say you’re from Austin is something about how they’ve heard it’s “cool” and “different from the rest of Texas.” Here, the weedy underdog wins, the complacent bully goes down, and the trumpets do a little dance (clearly, Spoon were Obama fans), but this dynamic also applies to the two kinds of twenty-somethings who occupy separate, mutually disinterested circles that live in Austin; Slacker is really only half the story, and dated at that. This is one of Spoon’s best songs about Austin, alongside “The Way We Get By” and “Anything You Want,” which name-checks a now-defunct used CD store I used to shop at. Since I miss Austin and look forward to SXSW every year, this stuff is close to my heart.
4. The Strokes, “Is This It?” (Is This It?, 2001)
I feel like I could write a whole monograph about The Strokes at this point, so I’ll try to keep it short. Common one-sentence summaries of the band include: The former sound of young New York! The cathartic post-9/11 dance party! The return of garage rock! All of these are wrong. Everyone liked The Strokes (until they suddenly didn’t), but no one seemed to know why; they were just an exceptionally good rock band. I can’t find a truly undeserving track on any of their three albums, but even if they’d just done this one song, they would’ve been an awesome little footnote to the aughts (and that kind of nugget-y residue would be truer in spirit to the “garage rock” bands they allegedly resembled than their actual music). This is one awesomely bone-weary self-introduction: Most bands looking to make a splash would’ve buried this somewhere in the middle or as the closing comedown of their debut. The Strokes—presumably aware the rest of the album had more than enough firepower to pump themselves back up—said hello with the most despairing song of their entire career. “Can’t you see I’m trying, I don’t even like it,” Julian Casablancas croaks out through a filter making him sound as physically exhausted as what he’s saying. “I just want to get to your apartment.” Is he talking to a guy or girl? Is he too drunk to get home or just flirting out of rote habit? Either way, this man is palpably sick to death of everything.
In a horrendously indulgent and mostly annoying profile Jay McInerney did timed to the release of First Impressions of Earth, Fabrizio Moretti noted that “Julian’s become a lot more communicative since he quit drinking.” This disclosure is presumably not calculated to surprise anyone; Casablancas has written some of the most acute lyrics on record about misanthropic alcohol abuse. The rest of The Strokes’ catalogue is, if lyrically morose and musically aggressive, able to rouse itself only to say things like “You Talk Way Too Much”; it’s not quite Jarvis Cocker, but the brittleness is constant. But it’s concealed in incredibly tight, meticulously rigid songs. Spontaneity has no place here, as befits songs that were demo’d with Casablancas singing and playing piano by himself. “Is This It?” is pretty much the only crack in the facade: It opens with a little processed guitar gurgle, settles into a spare drum beat, and doesn’t introduce the full band until the end of the first verse. It’s vulnerable and gorgeous, perfect late-night self-pity music; everywhere else, you have to be much more energetic to get into it. (An early demo is more prototypically aggressive and oddly shoegaze-y.)
In an amusing Guardian feature where musicians choose the most overrated albums ever, Battles’ Ian Williams turned his guns on The Strokes: “As for their punk credentials, I’m not going to say anyone’s more authentic than anyone else ... But the Strokes are the new Duran Duran; the new decadence for the new millennium.” I’d suggest that a bunch of dudes interested in extended post-math rock have absolutely zero business even being invested in “punk credentials,” but more to the point that I can’t possibly fathom who’d care. The Strokes, to me, are one of the best bands in America; I could’ve chosen a lot of their songs, but this one really gets to their empathetic heart directly. Also, it’s a moment in time; not a post-9/11 one specifically, because that never resonated in Austin and in 2001 bands weren’t getting leaked two weeks in advance of their release and music took slower to drip down. It’s the sound of a momentary, quickly dated, undertapped indie rock paradigm shift that went on for a year-and-a-half, back when people listened to albums after they came out as opposed to being sick of them by the time they actually came out.
3. The National, “So Far Around The Bend” (Dark Was The Night compilation, 2009)
Shifting from 56k dial-up in high school to broadband in college meant I began accumulating and hoarding albums far faster than I could listen to them, which attendantly meant anything that wasn’t a real grabber out of the gate was probably not going to get many chances. That had some good effects: I was wearing myself out trying to listen to albums systematically. But that inevitably meant missing some bands that don’t reveal themselves on first listen. If not for the constant nagging of friends who knew better than me, The National might’ve fallen by the wayside; as it is, after about half a year I went from thinking Alligator was OK but kind of relentlessly self-pitying to having found my new Elliott Smith: the same moroseness, but more ambivalently textured and more nuanced. I wasn’t the only one: Pitchfork pulled their dismissive first review and ran an apologetic new one, and that mirrored a lot of people’s reactions. The National are a band that now come pre-packaged with the knowledge that every song needs five spins minimum to stop seeming underwritten and start becoming lush.
This is not the case with a few of their most immediate and popular songs—the Foo Fighters-stormy “Mr. November,” the slo-mo sunrise of “Fake Empire” (appropriated for an Obama campaign ad)—and it’s certainly not true of “So Far Around The Bend.” A jaunty one-off the band’s stated they aren’t going to pursue any further, “So Far Around The Bend”’s drums initially sound like they’re limping and the bass line is almost syncopated. Nico Muhly’s strings and woodwinds run around the band, which is marching firmly in place. Matt Berninger’s lyrics are precise and empathetic: “Take a bath and get high through an apple,” he states as non-judgmentally as possible.
The National don’t make promises they can’t keep either. “Pray for Pavement to get back together,” they sang—and, less than half-a-year later, they did! But it’s the mantra Berninger repeats over and over—“Now there’s no leaving New York”— that’s become mine. I came to New York in 2004 to go to NYU and try to network my way into film writing, which worked out. I probably haven’t been out of the city for more than two months total in the last two years. That can be oppressive, and part of me wants to leave all the time. But I can’t: This is one of the only cities where I can still do this kind of work, and I’m too ornery to try something else unless I’m forced to, and the people I’ve met here are impossible to imagine meeting in other places. This song is how I feel about New York, and I listen to it pretty much every single time I leave my apartment. And I’m grateful to The National in general for reminding me that I may go through music faster and less intensely than when I was in high school, but sometimes there’s something worth working with until it’s integrated into my life.
2. LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge” (12”, 2002)
This is pretty much what compulsive music-hoarding sounds like; when I finally heard this (three years later, on the bonus disk to LCD Soundsystem’s debut), me and a friend listened to it pretty much all summer long as we drove around Austin. The sense of falling-behind and aging isn’t relevant to me yet, but I’m completely sympathetic to the implicit thesis that “indie rock” now means comprehensive listening to an insularly-created canon; the disparate bands shouted out, none of whom are traditionally “indie rock,” have been retroactively co-opted as predecessors to what used to be a distinctive sound (from about 1992-97). It’s my contention that Odelay! may be the most important “indie rock” album ever written—more than any Pavement or R.E.M. or Feelies or whatever records—because its collage of samples foregrounded the act of becoming a broadly-listened amateur musical historian as what “indie rock” has come to mean. (That Odelay! was a mass-market success kind of proves the point; mainstream hits can be “indie” too, given the proper background.) “Losing My Edge”’s musical content is spartan, but the names James Murphy feels compelled to blurt out (all together now: “THE SONICS! THE SONICS!”) are the real heart of the matter. The ability to map together disparate musical points solely because they’re important to your sense of identity is how we (some of us, anyway) listen now.
My college roommate was going to interview James Murphy in 2005 and I said this was the only thing I was interested in. He gave me a pitying look and said “That song was three years ago.” He was apparently not trying to be ironic, but that’s the whole song right there.
1. Kanye West ft. Consequence and Cam’ron, “Gone” (Late Registration, 2005)
So here we are, at the top of the charts with every white person’s favorite rapper. Guilty as charged. “Gone” sounded more or less like The Future the first time I heard it, though increasingly it just seems like a freak blip. At first it’s just an Otis Redding sample, a piano and Kanye; then we get guest rappers and increasing amounts of strings, and at some point the sample’s gone entirely. Cam’ron spews some entertaining, meaningless alliterative nonsense and Consequence uses “gone” in every line so smoothly I didn’t even realize what he was doing until someone pointed it out to me; I thought he was just being a masterful narrator. But then there’s the bridge—a solid minute of nothing but strings and John Cage’s prepared piano getting scraped—after which Kanye returns like nothing exceptional’s happened. But it has: In five-and-a-half minutes, we get three excellent and completely different rappers sharing common musical terrain, and then we’ve heard sounds like nothing that’s ever happened in hip-hop before or since. Working together, Kanye and Jon Brion pushed each other further faster than they could’ve separately, with hip-hop and chamber pop meeting in a remarkable synthesis, at the exact intersection of two of my dominant musical interests at this moment. So this is the song of the decade. I know, I know: It’s not pushing the boundaries of songwriting itself, there’s no truly new sounds in there, it doesn’t really say anything about anything outside of Kanye’s ego and his technical proficiencies. But it’s still thrilling and odd and unexpected, at least for me, and that’s enough.