Hello, and welcome to my much-delayed project to annotate my top 100 songs of our not-so-dearly-departed decade. This is going to be long enough as it is, so a few brief notes: This list is super-homogeneous, mainly focusing on the wussier strands of indie rock and commercial hip-hop, so if that’s not your thing, turn back now. Some of this stuff vaguely qualifies as “criticism”; some borders on solipsism. Nonetheless, I’ve been working on this since July and it’s finally in a form I can stand, so let’s run with it. I’ve included YouTube embeds where I can and streaming links where I couldn’t.
100. J-Kwon, “Tipsy” (Hood Hop, 2004)
J-Kwon should get major credit for his exuberant opening taunt, the perfect compromise between label-ordained responsibility and blunt reality: “Teen drinking is very bad. Yo, I got a fake ID though.” Otherwise he was a one-hit wonder the same way as Hurricane Chris (“Ay Bay Bay”) and Yung Joc (“It’s Goin’ Down”), dominating a whole summer with a hook and a beat rather than with anything to say. There’s lots of lines like “here comes the 3 to the 2 to the 1” just to get to the next rhyme—but the slippery beat makes that irrelevant. At a moment when the Neptunes could still do no wrong—before the oddness of N.E.R.D. and the commercially alienating exercises of Clipse—everyone wanted to rip them off, which meant a wealth of inventively minimalist beats in unlikely places. This welcome trend was quickly wiped off the face of the earth by a) crunk, which more or less justified itself b) the maddeningly monochromatic bullshit of G-Unit, which didn’t. In retrospect, “Tipsy” seems like a dispatch from a kinder, gentler age, when one super-dominant song was enough to guarantee even the lamest rapper a gold album. The Neptunes’ greatest contribution may have been inspiring producers to single-handedly elevate non-entity rappers to moments of true glory. This was one of the most pleasurably content-devoid songs of 2004; you can keep “Since U Been Gone,” even if that is slightly more fun to karaoke.
99. Rachel’s, “Water From the Same Source” (Systems/Layers, 2003)
This is the only wordless track on this list; there will be no mention of Mogwai, Godspeed, Sigur Ros and the rest of the post-rock pantheon because I don’t really care. Rachel’s themselves are rogue classical musicians betraying The Sacred Principles of Classical Music (which, in the 21st century, run either to preservationist classicism or saying nice things about George Crumb and the Kronos Quartet); Systems/Layers is the enjoyably pretentious result of their collaboration with a dance group for a project I’ve never seen and have zero interest in. This six-minute track is basically piano and strings languidly gliding through C-major in variations of descending arpeggios and patterns, repeating the loveliness rather than varying it. I’ve never been resolved in my own head whether it’s sentimental, New Age gack or actually quite gorgeous. I do know, however, that stripping the pretty dreadful opening credits music from Yi Yi and replacing it with this would be the only way of improving an otherwise perfect film.
98. Bentley feat. Pimp C & Lil Wayne, “C.O.L.O.U.R.S.” (Can’t Tell Me Nothing: The Official Mixtape, 2007)
Though super-entertaining in its own right, I’m mainly including this for three things it can be a metonym for: a) Bentley’s album was supposed to come out in 2006 and has yet to come within glancing distance of so much as a release date, so this is a tribute to all the rappers stuck in perpetual label purgatory (cf. Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury odyssey, Killer Mike’s life story, Big Boi’s latest and many more. b) My way of apologizing to Lil’ Wayne for being unable to choose a single track of his that clearly sticks out the purposes of this list (my personal preference is for “Dr. Carter,” but that seems vaguely wrong somehow); here, he’s slurring and weaving as unpredictably as Stephen Malkmus. c) My way of similarly apologizing to OutKast for always being vaguely annoyed by them no matter how awesome “Ms. Jackson” was; this track basically is ersatz-Outkast (“C.O.L.O.U.R.S.” stands for “Cool Outrageous Lovers Of Uniquely Raw Style,” apparently) without the stuff that annoys me. It was buried on a Kanye West mixtape more entertaining than the album (Graduation) it was supposed to hype, which could also say a few things about rap in the aughts if you wanted to, though I wouldn’t go that far.
97. Badly Drawn Boy, “Something To Talk About” (About A Boy soundtrack, 2002)
Before writing a bunch of shit songs and staging slapdash shows whose sole goal appeared to be giving Cat Power a run for her money in the public freak-out sweepstakes, Badly Drawn Boy wrote this gorgeously soft-headed track. I got this off of one of the samplers Landmark Theatres used to give out, which is also where I heard my first Elvis Costello song (and, uh, Ed Harcourt). The cover art is by Daniel Clowes, so I suppose it’s mildly collectible; it depicts New York’s Sunshine Theater, which I thought was so grotesquely dark and uninviting as drawn it couldn’t possibly be real, but it’s actually dead-on. Note: If you put this on a mix for a girl you’re pursuing, at least one of her friends will say it’s too sappy.
96. Peter Bjorn and John, “Young Folks” (Writer’s Block, 2006)
I heard about the song long before I heard it, and actively avoided hearing it because I figured it couldn’t possibly be as good as advertised. Then I was in a Mexican restaurant, and realized there weren’t that many terrifically catchy songs with whistle hooks going around and that I’d been a fool to avoid it this long. The unavoidable hit of 2006, at least if you were anywhere near Williamsburg and similar areas (I’m given to understand it later hit real honest-to-goodness radio stations and, puzzlingly, Grey’s Anatomy); ubiquity normally breeds contempt, but not so much in this case. The song itself is terrific, though hearing it at every last party and area restaurant for a year felt like it should be wearisome; in practice, it wasn’t. In retrospect we got off especially easy: in 2007, when MGMT’s ridiculously inane “Time To Pretend” might as well have been as huge as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Young New York, I realized I would’ve rather heard this for two continuous years. I heard “Young Folks” again a few months again, blasting from the stoop of people actually younger than me, which I guess means it’s a high school classic to them; that was disorienting.
95. The Cardigans, “Communication” (Long Gone Before Daylight, 2003)
From The Cardigans’ vastly underrated let’s-write-something-that-would-make-Elliott-Smith-himself-cry-and-stab-himself phase. Though best known (at least in the US) for freak ’90s hit “Lovefool,” The Cardigans nonetheless persevered far longer, seemingly caring neither about their US one-hit-wonder status nor the fact that none of the teens who’d reliably freak out to “Lovefool” through drunken singalongs valued them roughly as much as Ace of Base. Long after most stopped paying attention, they arrived at an incredibly depressing album—2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight—that easily beat Sea Change at Beck’s similar change-up game (the shift’s roughly the same: pop-craft and irony to unadulterated bummerness). From the opening chorus of “If this is communication, I disconnect,” I knew I was onto a Good Thing. For the kind of freak who can’t get enough of “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss),” there’s also The Cardigans’ arguably superior take on the subject, “And Then You Kissed Me” (“And then you hit me/And then you kissed me” etc.). This is for emotional masochists only, obviously. After Smith was gone and The Delgados broke up, but before The National came into my world, this album was mope music for a freshman year when I sorely needed it.
94. Baby Teeth, “Swim Team” (The Simp, 2007)
The most ignored Chicago band of the aughts (or whatever weird designation I could give them), Baby Teeth fell so thoroughly through the cracks that neither All Music nor Pitchfork could be bothered to review their awesome 2007 album The Simp. Baby Teeth took the most obvious bits of Queen (the guitars) and ELO (the strings) and mix-and-match them with other ’70s staples way less obnoxiously than you might fear. I have no clue what “Swim Team” is actually about, but the lyrics suggest a sexually frustrated 8th-grader berating an out-of-his-league girl for dropping swim team practice to hang out with another guy: “When someone comes to lunch you think that’s hot/It’s only twice a week, well that’s a lot/You’re either on the swim team or you’re not.” I question your commitment to the swim team! Cue end of tantrum and dramatic walk-away. The girl shows up the next day, totally blasé. Something like that.
93. Carlos Adolfo Dominguez, “Boobies (Clean)”
This is one of those songs you can use to annoy the shit out of people, which is precisely what a friend of mine did while working at his university’s student paper. I was briefly going through a phase where I read PopJustice, a British website which reviews each week’s “pop” singles (meaning “pop” in a more-over-the-top-than-Pet Shop Boys way), which made it really easy to find obnoxious novelty singles until I lost patience with sifting through the hype. Whoever this lunatic is, he’s never put out another song; in fact, if there’s a non-“clean” version of this, I’ve never run across it. A thickly accented European announces, over the world’s shrillest synthesizers, that he likes to go to the discotheque, because that is where he goes to dance. He proceeds: “I like to go to to the movies / The movies is where I feel your boobies.” His logic is impeccable. This is probably the only song on this list that could be considered strictly a novelty, but it never gets old.
92. Clipse ft. Ab-Liva, “Ride Around Shining” (Hell Hath No Fury, 2006)
In all likelihood the only hip-hop duo whose work plays stronger as cohesive albums rather than singles, Clipse were perhaps the aughts’s definitive example of a group whose fanbase—somewhat uneasily for all those still juvenilely concerned with “authenticity”—seemed to consist largely of white Pitchfork nerds. (The rest of their followers seem to be entirely in their native Virginia.) Clipse seem entirely cool with this: As Malice once noted in an interview, “the hipsters and everybody that’s just cool gravitate toward us.” Their first album, Lord Willin’, went gold on the strength of one single, “Grindin’” (though the song I remember hearing over and over on Austin radio was actually “When The Last Time,” which charted higher but was apparently less of a club hit). By the time their follow-up actually came out four years later, they were extremely frustrated and more than willing to diss “the crackers” at their very own label on nothing less than their lead single. (The only close comparison would’ve been if Wilco took the trouble to add a diss track to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which obviously would have been awesome.) It was hard not to suspect, when Hell Hath No Fury actually dropped (or, commercially, bricked), that part of the reason the indie rockers were championing it had more to do with its back story and deliberately alienating and non-commercial sonics than anything. Which, indeed, effectively made them hip-hop’s Wilco.
In truth, the Neptunes’s beats for Clipse were intellectually brilliant but not really any more difficult than, say, “Tipsy”; it’s just that where normally the oddest beats were anchored by the dumbest rappers, Clipse were heady and challenging even a capella. “Ride Around Shining” isn’t necessarily their most second-for-second effective song (though, like all of Hell Hath No Fury, it’s near-perfect), but it’s the song that quickest sums up their most overt oddities, both lyrically and musically; for people who “don’t like hip-hop” because it’s not overtly challenging, this is an effective in. The beat is little more than scraped piano strings and a deeply unnerving chorus screaming “Go, go, go.” Given Clipse’s penchant for nasal rapping voices and potentially excessive cleverness, they seemed less frightening than nerds enthusiastically playing the part of thugs with large vocabularies, which also helps the uncommitted. (Live, it’s a whole other story: Their voices drop down, and they seem to be actively toying with the idea of shooting the crowd.) But “Ride Around Shining” is freaky on every level, from Pusha T’s guide on how to treat women (“Fuckin’ with college bitches with innocent looks like Mya / Corrupt they mind, turn ’em to liars”) to Malice’s penchant for oddly authoritarian declarations with vaguely bibilical syntax (“Listen youngin’, you’ve only just begun / You’ll understand when you’re older / Said father to the son”). Given that Malice is now apparently a born-again Christian, this is strangely appropriate.
91. Jarvis Cocker, “Cunts Are Still Running The World” (Jarvis, 2006)
“Well did you hear, there’s a natural order / Those most deserving will end up with the most. That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top / Well I say: Shit floats.” The perpetually embattled former Pulp frontman has stayed more relevant since the group disbanded than most ex-frontmen, his bile apparently not tempered one bit. This is the best track on his solo debut, and it’s technically a “hidden track.” The two other best songs rely upon a sample of “Crimson And Clover” and basically ripping off “Bad Moon Rising,” so that’s not saying much; his second solo album was a vast leap forward, with screaming raw band courtesy of Steve Albini. This is the last gasp of Pulp’s cheap, massive synths phase, and a grand one it is too. It’s anti-globalism, but it’s really a thin pretense for being anti-everything, speaking to the disgruntled, just-dumped, never quite big/rich/good-looking-enough teenage worm in all of us. Given the massive chorus and underlying ethos (global solidarity through powerless discontent), it’s the much-needed antidote to U2, a fabulously ironic anti-anthem.