20. Justice, “D.A.N.C.E.” (†, 2007)
I know people who really despise this song; that seems unnecessarily curmudgeonly to me, but abstractly I see their point. This is a song that nakedly apes Daft Punk unlike anything else on Justice’s sole official album to date, whose hooks initially seem stupidly obvious and pandering, a sell-out version of real dance music, a way of tugging at fond memories of the Jackson 5 without earning the comparison, a cross-over for people who’ll never actually cross over to investigate non-hit dance songs. All of which is true. I won’t pull some kind of nonsense about how what’s obvious is actually pure emotion breaking down your cynical barriers and making us a less hardened generation, or that it makes you want to dance despite yourself; I’m perfectly capable of standing still, thank you. But this song is infectious and overwhelming in a way that makes it clear it’s accomplishing all of its obvious goals without making you hate yourself. And why is it ranked so far above Daft Punk? Because it showed up way after my initial love affair with music; after, say, freshman year of college, it takes a lot more for something to worm itself into my life and take up permanent residence. Daft Punk certainly paved the way, but Justice got there after I despaired of ever hearing another Daft Punk album I liked as much as Discovery, let alone having someone take up their mantle (in unfettered obviousness, if not sonics). The other thing I like about this is that it’s a perfect single—one that stands out as such—from an album it really sounds nothing like but which I like almost as much in its entirety. More bands should pitch their big cross-over with this much care.
19. Elliott Smith, “A Fond Farewell” (From a Basement on the Hill, 2004)
In 2003, my 8th-grade history teacher Glynn Owens died just shy of 30. There was a memorial concert a month later, the clear highlight of which was the final act—Elliott Smith, himself less than half a year away from an untimely death (suicide rather than freakish tragedy). And I won’t lie: I was excited, totally beyond paying tribute to a teacher I’d liked. There were four opening acts, all connected to the honoree personally, but the bulk of the crowd was clearly there for Smith, chatty and disrespectful until he came out, unclear on what this was all in memory of. And then half a year later Smith (there, apparently, because Mr. Owens’s college roommate’s sister was Christine Chiba, Smith’s then-girlfriend) was dead, and it just seemed too ridiculously coincidental and excessively sad.
“A Fond Farewell” wasn’t one of the songs he played at that set, which was—aside from a reverential Tindersticks show—beyond pin-drop silent; barring Leonard Cohen tickets, I’m not expecting to see anything like that again. I wasn’t really sure where his head would be at; he’d dropped off the face of the musical earth for a while, there’d been nasty heroin rumors (mostly true), and he was on par with Cat Power and Badly Drawn Boy for reports of slurry, shaky shows where he’d give up on his own songs, seemingly bewildered by his own material. That show, though, was perfect in a lot of ways, not least of which was seeing one of my heroes overcome the minimal hope I had for a decent set and make it through on just one drink, barely flubbing anything. There wasn’t a hint of the darkness that’d be retroactively confirmed; for that, you have to turn to arguably the best song from the wildly scattered posthumous album.
There’s a lot of controversy about how closely, if at all, From a Basement on the Hill mirrors Smith’s intentions for its final form, which doesn’t matter at all here: In every respect, this song sounds done. The guitars are sickly and vaguely detuned: Smith favored fuzzy lo-fi acoustic guitars or crisply pop electric ones, but here we get both at the same time but ominously tweaked. The acoustic guitars are clearer (both mic- and mixing- wise) than usual, which makes them smothering; the electric guitar sounds sick, refusing to give you the comfort a song like “Baby Britain” would. The lyrics are grimly premonitary—not just in light of what happened, but less euphemistic and evasive than anything he’d put to record before. “This is not my life / It’s just a fond farewell to a friend” is a barefaced lie and the specifics (“Vomiting in the kitchen sink”) are worse.
I know at least one person who thinks this song is too bathetic and self-pitying for its own good (a charge that could apply with equal justice—or lack thereof—to Smith’s entire catalogue), to which there’s two possible answers. One is the cynical one: Smith’s suicide, like Kurt Cobain’s, retroactively proved that he wasn’t kidding, being ironic or self-pitying or trying to play up an image, and therefore you can’t call him on any of his work without being in bad taste, because—for better or worse—it comes from a very real and bad place. The other response is simpler: This song isn’t just about sadness or pandering to the cult of depression that inevitably emerges when your catalogue is almost exclusively concerned with bad times and worse feelings. This is a narrator viewing his own fatal decline with no attempt to pull back, heading for the final plunge. It’s the perfect storm clinical depression, the kind of drug abuse that has you convinced men in vans are following you (as he was), and a head that won’t shut up, rendered more chilling by the calm with which it gives up. The mind is a terrible master.
18. The Postal Service, “Such Great Heights” (Give Up, 2003)
A one-off far greater than the sum of its parts, The Postal Service combined the electronica of Jimmy Tamborello (whose work as Dntel never was heard far beyond the electronic world, even after this blew up) with the retarded lyrical stylings of Ben Gibbard, who seriously proposed on “Sleeping In” that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK because he was “slightly bored and severely confused”—surely a new low in post-Oprah psychologizing and rote ’90s-generation contrarianism. But Gibbard does have a lovely voice, even if he uses it to say the stupidest things, and Give Up fully deserves its rep as the indie Dark Side of the Moon (which it earned from hanging around the Billboard charts steadily enough to go gold long after it came out). I’m sure even as I write this, an overly sensitive college freshman somewhere is weeping to this song, which is—I’m not stupid—about as emo as love songs can get; he’s visualizing couples floating far above the humdrum daily world, for goodness sake. This is a genuinely great song, though, at least in part because of an effect that goes back to the early days of stereo—hissing glitchy synths that pan at ADD-speed from left to right speaker in a way that should be gimmicky but really make aggressive stereo mixing, for once, a transporting effect. Everything else in the song is icing, honestly.
17. The Game ft. 50 Cent, “Hate It Or Love It” (The Documentary, 2005)
True story: Everything The Game says on here is boring and pretty much sucks. In fact, 50 Cent—one of the most boring rap sensations of the aughts, a man whose charms seemed to be entirely centered around making a death threat sound interchangeable with speaking to customer service—has every single memorable lyrical moment here, waxing vulnerable about how his bike was stolen as a kid. For once he makes that monotone patter sound like he’s dancing around the track rather than just being boringly professional. But it’s mostly about that soul loop; hardly an original or new trick, even when the track come out, but arguably the best example of the decade.
16. Bishop Allen, “Queen Of The Rummage Sale” (February EP, 2006)
Given how fast their reputation went from no-count to widely despised, it’d be fairer to say I liked Bishop Allen before they were uncool than the usual “before they were cool” line (which is unappealing anyway). They were never cool; they were cultishly adored, and then they were loathed, but they never sold that many records or got that many amazing reviews in between. This had a lot to do with frontman Justin Rice becoming an (awesome) mumblecore comic actor as it did the actual music, which for some reason made a lot of people see red and talk about punching him in the face—but sure, let’s acknowledge that Bishop Allen, after an excellent self-released debut and 2005’s mostly stellar year-long series of 4-track monthly EPs, having finally attained a label, have evolved into a band that mostly pisses me off.
Let’s hope, then, that the mostly superb EPs of 2006 someday get their appropriate cult following. Some of the tracks were pointlessly and sometimes detrimentally re-recorded and released on BA’s first label album, The Broken String; this wasn’t one, basically proving that whatever the band had evolved into, they no longer recognized their shining moments. “Queen Of The Rummage Sale” was good enough to win over a friend of mine who only favors hardcore metal, rap and Merle Haggard, a five-minute metaphor in which a (frankly annoying sounding) girlfriend’s weekend habit of trawling garage sales for gems becomes an effortless, never overly-fleshed-out metaphor for a relationship that opens up into unexpectedly rewarding dimensions. Sounds deadly, but trust me: This is one of the more narratively assured songs I’ve heard this decade, drawing you along word-by-word.
15. Phoenix, “Lisztomania” (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009)
For some reason Phoenix are suddenly kind of mainstream popular, with Saturday Night Live appearances and Cadillac commercials and so on. This is longer than “1901,” the single that follows it on the album and got more love, but it’s pretty impeccable, complete with a faux-feverish “it’s showtime it’s showtime it’s showtime” break-down. I’ve rarely heard such a synthetic band that actually plays instruments, and I mean that as a compliment.
14. The Notwist, “Consequence” (Neon Golden, 2002)
I want this song at my funeral, along with Bonnie ’Prince’ Billy’s “I See A Darkness.” “Fade with consequence, lose with eloquence.” Right. The universe is collapsing in on itself anyway; the sentiment is universal rather than self-pitying. Musically, this is along the same lines as The Postal Service—electronica tempered by (an excess of?) conventional warmth via strings, but resigned rather than emo, and much more “mature.” NB: This is the last song on this list I like merely because it’s soothingly depressing.
13. Eminem, “Drug Ballad” (The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000)
It’s become fashionable in recent years to write essays about the death of the musical monoculture and how much it sucks we’ll never have another Thriller, which frankly doesn’t bother me; that sounds boring and like a quicker route than ever for people to call each other “hipsters.” (When Vampire Weekend can have the number one album in America, we’re all hipsters now. Get over it.) Still, I don’t expect to again see something like Eminem’s fascinating 1999-2000 death grip on popular culture. I don’t think a single person who went to high school in those years doesn’t know “My Name Is,” “Stan” et al. The songs were so ubiquitous even I heard them without ever listening to radio or having cable, but somehow still knew them (in contrast I didn’t hear, say, TLC’s “Waterfalls” til I got to college). Everything after Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers seemed like a comeback and mixed attempt at hanging on to relevance, even though Eminem consistently sells better than pretty much anyone. But the first two albums were commercially overwhelming, rapturously and seriously received by critics and genuinely terrified parents, a pretty amazing combination that briefly was actual news rather than mere music news (even if it was all mostly silly parental paranoia).
“Drug Ballad” isn’t the most iconic song on either of the albums, but it’s aged better than most of those. One of the few songs that isn’t either about issuing outrageous claims or discussing his own media image, it’s simply a straightforward, understatedly self-lacerating of his own drug use, sleeping with girls on Ecstasy and running around pathetically looking for another bong hit. “Back when Mark Wahlberg was still Marky Mark” sets the chronological stage precisely, keeping away from all the usual Marilyn Manson/Pamela Anderson/etc. shout-outs that usually ensued. It’s probably about as sincere and unmediated as Eminem ever got, which isn’t necessarily “good” per se but is super compelling in this particular incarnation.
12. Belle and Sebastian, “Asleep on a Sunbeam” (Dear Catastrophe Waitress, 2003)
Belle and Sebastian are probably the only sad band that got better when they cheered up, hired pricer producers and whored themselves. Compared to B&S phase one, the aughts brought B&S out of the musical idiom they’d pretty much exhaustively strip-mined (delicate chamber pop focused on lyrics and atmosphere rather than musical twists and turns) and straight into the world of brash, assertive pop. Which is fine: If the collected Tigermilk/If You’re Feeling Sinister/Push Barman to Open Old Wounds set isn’t enough for you, I really don’t know what to say.
“Asleep on a Sunbeam” is the kind of song Murdoch simply couldn’t have written or performed as B&S stood initially: That music is perpetually “autumnal” and “wintry,” and “Asleep On A Sunbeam” is, well, sunny. The musical and emotional frontiers have opened up; the male-female duet is breathlessly affectionate, balancing love, work, career and patience deftly. “I’m waiting for you to get out of your situation with your job and with your life,” Sarah Martin sings, and she sounds like she really means it, not like she’s offering an ultimatum. I can’t get behind the sentiment—nature/camping mean nothing to me—but the spring-has-sprung feeling does me good.
11. Radiohead, “Everything in Its Place” (Kid A, 2000)
I’m not entirely sure this is the best song Radiohead put out in our departed decade; I strongly suspect that’s the freakishly ambitious “Down Is the New Up” on disc two of In Rainbows, but it’s too soon to really be comfortable with that judgment. “Everything In Its Place” has a feeling of coiled menace never exploding; Thom Yorke’s whine—always on the verge of jumping into hysteria—is mostly in check, waiting for the storm. Rather than trying to write electronica, the band’s using the tools to suck you into the instantly palpable sense that all the lights are off, it’s dark outside and something’s gone horribly wrong; the lack of instruments is your first tip-off. Cameron Crowe captured it perfectly in the opening to Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise running through a deserted Times Square as the music swells, the empty media Jumbotrons screaming at him while no one’s around. Nor have I ever been able to shake Chuck Klosterman’s nonsensical but compelling reading of Kid A as 9/11 in musical form, with “Everything” as Manhattan at 8 a.m., normal but somehow off in retrospect. There’s a rare power in this song that goes beyond the merely abstract. If Radiohead are often over-explained as prophets of technological discontent and modern alienation, “Everything In Its Place” sounds like a picture slowly coming into focus, finally showing a media landscape that’s ubiquitous and insidious. Even those of us who are comfortable with that (I work on the Internet, and I think there’s something hilarious about a generation of mp3 fiends and music blogs waxing on technological alienation) can be sucked into the paranoia for a few minutes.