40. Gucci Mane, “Freaky Girl” (Hard to Kill, 2006)
Last year, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, Gucci Mane suddenly become a rap critic favorite. Perhaps he really is a new man and his new mixtapes testify to bold new frontiers in punchlines, but I doubt it. Mane is notable as one of rap’s more documentedly thuggish characters—murder charges were at one point dropped against him for insufficient evidence—and, for me, solely for this song. After I left Austin, I rarely drove except when visiting home home, so I only got to catch up with radio hip-hop twice every year; since that’s commercial radio’s change-over cycle anyway, that didn’t prove to be a big deal. I first heard “Freaky Gurl” on the way to the airport, maybe the last time I discovered a song like that. The lyrics are hypnotically moronic. On the radio version, Gucci lays down fool-proof instructions in the chorus: “She’s a very freaky girl / Don’t take her home to mother / First you get her name, then you get her number / Then you get-some get-some in the front seat of the hummer.” (The actual uncensored version—“get some brain”—is less satisfying for some reason.) The verses are even dumber, to a degree that seems like a joke (“You’s a college girl? Come be a Gucci girl”). The beat, however, alternates between standard late-’00s minimalist nonsense and a verse that sounds like a lost John Carpenter cue for Halloween; the contrast between the two component parts is impressive. The video’s even better: I don’t know if Gucci actually realized what was happening in the video or just did as he was told, but here he’s depicted alienating every single woman he leers at. They all walk away in disgust as he toasts himself (the other glass is rested on his Hummer). The rest of the video depicts Gucci rapping against a remarkably prison-/purgatory-like backdrop.
39. The Sleepy Jackson, “This Day” (Lovers, 2003)
The Sleepy Jackson were very hyped in their native Australia and very negligible in the US. Bandleader Luke Steele acted like a down-under Anton Newcombe, firing 10 people from his band (including his brother!) and generally behaving like a self-worshipping megalomaniac—a touching self-confidence eventually justified (maybe) by his side project Empire of the Sun’s indie/dance hit “Walking on the Sun” and a guest appearance on The Blueprint 3. In any case, their 2003 debut album Lovers is probably my single biggest guilty pleasure of the aughts: totally derivative, without substance and utterly calculated to push all my pop buttons. “This Day” is actually as sharp as Steele—normally prone to Oasis-level bromides or recycled cliches—gets. Steele understands that the girl wants to break up with him, though she doesn’t have the guts to push the button: “You miss my friends more than you ever miss me,” he notes, which is always a bad sign. For all that, the song—from opening accordion onwards—is ridiculously, unaccountably exuberant, the sound of nothing but Steele’s own ego lifting him up. Side note: I saw the band play a day show during SXSW 2003, and they managed to blow out the power twice in ten minutes, not understanding the strength of their own amps. It was awesome. Their second album sounds like bad Christmas music.
38. Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (The Black Album, 20003)
Speaking of Jay-Z: This is almost certainly not his best song, but I’m weak on the back catalogue, and this is one of the only rap songs I ever tried to methodically commit to memory. I never got halfway through the second verse; Kanye is about all I can keep up with and internalize. (Extrapolate as you will.) I got to learn to appreciate it twice: Once as one of the only highlights of the wan Gray Album, again on its own merits. The fact that Vincent Gallo cameos in the video is funny; that Rick Rubin looks ten times scarier is hilarious.
37. Saturday Looks Good To Me, “When You Got To New York” (Every Night, 2004)
I still haven’t wrapped my head around all the things Fred Thomas’s ambitious pop collective tried to do—pretty much anything from lo-fi Ramones tribute to string-backed ballad was fair game—but this is “Everybody’s Talkin’” for the aughts, a painfully on-point portrait of your prototypical self-consciously drama-tossed Brooklyn type. “You didn’t have money but you drank every night” is just one part of the equation as Thomas empathetically dissects one girl’s melodramatic life of self-conscious romance and whirling, ending every night at 7 am, smoking and breathless.
36. Crooked Fingers, “Big Darkness” (Red Devil Dawn, 2003)
Eric Bachmann ran the Pavement-loving Archers of Loaf in the ’90s, but the whole time he was secretly nursing a Bruce Springsteen fixation. “Big Darkness” is one of the hugest acoustic songs I know: With nothing more amped than electric guitars, it sounds live and recorded in big space. The secret’s in the upright double-bass added to the band for this album; it adds real volume. Lyrically it’s kind of standard: A small town somewhere in a mythical America, “covered in glue,” “where nothing moves,” waiting for a hero to come and deliver them. But when that bow starts swinging, you believe the hero’s here.
35. Coldplay, “Clocks” (A Rush of Blood to the Head,, 2002)
Coldplay’s first album was a bit watery (I like it more now than then, actually, which says something bad about me), but they knocked it out with A Rush of Blood To The Head, which is about as good as stadium anthems for the lyrically unpicky get. Coldplay were initially (stupidly) pegged as diluted Radiohead, but they really didn’t have anything in common besides the fact that they were British and kind of mopey; initially they were way closer to a hookless Travis (especially “In My Place,” which might as well have been a cover). “Clocks” is a great racer, and—coming as it does right after “The Scientist,” a pick-me-up after the wallow—soundtracked many angsty high-school nights. It also was endlessly ridiculous that I did classical piano for eleven years, but all anyone ever wanted to hear was one of the most technically cackhanded, “anyone can do this” riffs. Coldplay are anthemic MOR radio staples I can live with because they’re good at being extravagant with their banality. It’s hard to dislike this stuff unless you’re trying too hard; that Coldplay had to work with Brian Eno to suddenly be OK by Pitchfork is just one of life’s little idiocies. And fine, I kind of endorse it too. No, I won’t play it for you.
34. David Bowie, “Everyone Says ’Hi’” (Heathen, 2002)
Every major artist who kicks around for more than 15 years is eventually grandfathered into a cycle of respectfully reviewed comeback albums and then just as immediately forgotten/dismissed when the next one becomes the real comeback. So understandably not enough people found out that Bowie’s Heathen may just be one of his best albums. An anomalously sincere and straightforward apologia, this is a dad telling his grown son he misses him and that should he ever come back home, he’d be welcome: “We could do all the old things. We could do all the good things.” It’s a little embarrassing, but a well-meant plea. The fact that Bowie was probably not the best father to young Zowie—the product of his 8-year marriage in the ’70s during the cocaine/paranoia years—is what gives it resonance.
33. Ludacris, “Ho” (Back For The First Time, 2000)
Yes, this song, this juvenile playground taunt: “YOU’S A HO.” In high school it was the provenance of the dumb neanderthal skater kids who’d show up to class high in their sagging cargo pants. That made me wary, but that refrain was clearly made to be chanted by someone, so I guess they had a point. On the one hand, it’s a song Beavis and Butthead might’ve approved of had they made it out of the ’90s; on the other hand, it’s not just the joyous crudity of the taunt but the obvious pleasure Luda takes in spinning infinite variations on it, finding the ho within every word in the English language he can think of quickly. (Why do you take a ho to a hotel indeed.) And while I’m here, let’s briefly pay tribute to Chris “Ludacris” Bridges—not, perhaps, the most brilliant of ’00s hip-hop artists, but the most consistently exuberant. If Lil Wayne is a great rapper on his own and a consistently, inexplicably atrocious rapper when guesting, Ludacris is the opposite. After his solid first two albums he stopped being essential to me solo, especially when he grew a social conscience and put out the dreadful “Runaway Love” (it’s pretty much what it sounds like). As a guest, though, he instantly brightens any track he’s on, radiating sheer exuberance and the joys of lewd overpronounciation. May he prosper for years to come.
32. Doves, “The Man Who Told Everything” (Lost Souls, 2000)
Along with Mercury Rev’s “Opus 40,” this is one of the most epically bummed songs I know. The title evokes Bowie, but the music is somewhere in Sergio Leone’s west: guitar and a singing saw over slow-burning strings. You can sink into it. It’s ostensibly about a politician breaking down, telling the truth and fleeing, but it doesn’t really matter: It’s the sound of ultimate renunciation.
31. No Kids, “Great Escape” (Come Into My House, 2008)
Forget Vampire Weekend for a moment: For real, unintegrated Ivy League/New England tweaking there’s this gorgeously desolate chamber exercise, all interweaving woodwinds and string quartet. The title nods at Blur, but there’s no real escape possible: “wandering the gardens of the estate is doing nothing for me.” It’s a wink—our musical protagonists generally aren’t bummed-out LL Bean royalty, and these musicians probably aren’t either—but the emotion beneath it’s real enough: “I’ve been driving, but it’s been no great escape.” The wistfulness here can’t be confused for fragility (for better or worse, what often happens with Sufjan Stevens, the closest analogue). They’re clear-eyed about living with the depression.