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50. Daft Punk, “Harder Better Faster Stronger” (Discovery, 2001)
Indie kids learn to dance blah blah blah. If I’d ever foreseen that Daft Punk’s totally euphoric Discovery would ever be drafted into some kind of stupid trajectory about how the head-nod, arms-crossed, irony-laden crowd of the early ’00s learned to dance and embrace pure joy and YOUTH VITALITY LOVE SEX, I probably never would’ve listened to it. I don’t know when this became true, but at some point dancing became an ideological issue for a certain kind of under-30 cohort, the idea being that anyone who says they don’t like to dance is either lying or afraid to embrace their true visceral impulses. You can like dance music without wanting to dance, and I don’t care what Lady Gaga has to say on the subject. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said when speaking at my high school, “Some Negroes ain’t got no rhythm.” Let me substitute the most obviously contentious word in there: Some of us can’t dance, and we’d appreciate it if you stopped telling us to stop being embarrassed and just be joyous. Also, on Halloween we don’t feel like making costumes. Can we enjoy our drinks in peace now?
Anyway. Discovery is a pretty much universally beloved album for anyone who’s heard it; this song is generally a consensus highlight, and I love it very much. There’s very little I can do to describe its sonic qualities freshly: There’s AutoTune distortion years before it was cool (everyone assumed it was vocoder, including me), and super-badass synth breakdowns, and it’s all unstoppably propulsive. So I’ll just explain how it works on me. For some reason, my freshman year of college I was saddled with a miserable crew of randomly assigned roommates: The psychopath who eventually tore a door off its hinges and was banned from housing, the stoners who stayed up ’til 5 am on shrooms and talked about the intelligence of dolphins, the rabidly Jewish guy who berated me for not being Jewish enough and practiced banjo in the small room’s confines to play along with his favorite jam-band/Oasis riffs and giggled at his own farts. (A banjo, for those of you who’ve never gotten up close, is absurdly loud.) In the middle of this, I got into one of those ill-advised attempted bonding sessions, and somehow I put Discovery on and the usual idiot grin I get listening to it beamed across my face. “I’ve never seen you so happy,” said one of the roomies, which is tribute to a) how oblivious they were to the misery they were inflicting on me and b) the power of the album to inflict joy on you when you’re in the middle of an atrocious year. All I have to do is head-nod and grin; the other kids can dance.
49. Mellow, “In The Meantime” (Perfect Colors, 2004)
Mellow’s name was a lie: Perfect Colors, their second (and seemingly final) album proper, is breathlessly sarcastic. I’m mostly including this song to point people toward an album that never saw a proper US release. They could do wistful gorgeousness as well as the next band (“Drifting Out Of Sight” is a textbook perfect pastoral), but “In The Meantime” speaks better to what made them distinctive: Guys who learned English only to mock more people in a language they’d understand; Pink Floyd guitar solos that undercut the snide lyrics with incongruous grandiosity; a generally flawless command of pop songwriting semiotics in the service of evil. “In The Meantime” isn’t about much aside from songwriters mocking themselves and how well they can write everything without anyone caring (“I wrote a song for Scientology”), yet it’s got maybe the most sardonically pompous final chorus of any song on this list. This is one of those great albums I’m frustrated never caught on.
48. The Shins, “Saint Simon” (Chutes Too Narrow, 2003)
I underestimated Chutes Too Narrow when it came out, on the assumption that 10-song sets of immaculate, crisply-done pop songs were a dime a dozen; in retrospect, The Shins might’ve been the last band of their kind to break through with real street cred before the great wave of Sonic Youth/dance fetishization broke through. I must’ve listened to this for a good half-year with little pause, and the whole time I felt guilty: It just seemed too easy, which in retrospect was obviously an illusion. I’m going with “Saint Simon” because it’s the prettiest, most ornate thing they ever did, a respite with string quartet that uses strings as counterpoint rather than doubling the melodic line (something that’s an all-too-common temptation for lazy arrangers). Still, this is an album; for a guy who’s shy about making his lyrics anything less than breathtakingly opaque, James Mercer can be very, very funny (“Just a glimpse of an ankle and I react like it’s 1805,” from “Turn A Square,” cracks me up every time). I didn’t (and don’t) like their first album, which swam in unnecessary reverb and obfuscation. Here, The Shins had the courage to rely solely upon their songs, record one of the dryest albums of the decade, and win.
47. The Fiery Furnaces, “Here Comes The Summer” (Here Comes The Summer 12” single b-side, but just get EP, 2005)
Choosing a song this straightforward and recognizable—it has a chorus and everything—seems like a cop-out when it comes to The Fiery Furnaces, one of the few bands I like whose preferred song-length is 10 minutes. Both Blueberry Boat and Bitter Tea are, if not masterpieces, dense and rewarding immersion tanks. In 2004, in transition between my hometown of Austin and coming to New York City for NYU, the concept of taking only four hours to change cities freaked me out; it seemed too abrupt. So I took Amtrak from Austin to NYC, which took 2-1/2 days. This was moronic, exhausting, sweaty and a little scary (the toothless Amish kept grinning at me). Blueberry Boat was my companion from Austin to Fort Worth, and arguably there’s no more perfect way to listen to it than with perfect concentration while staring at miles of unchanging landscape. Those times are harder to come by as life gets busier (especially when I realized I’d lost a little hearing to my headphones and had to give them up). So: Is it a cop-out for me to choose one of the Friedberger siblings’ more compact moments? Probably, yet it does have a lot of things that make them great: a striking treble-only range (The Fiery Furnaces have a recording sound even more identifiable than how they write songs) bright enough to be “pop” without really sounding like any conventional definition of the word, warbly guitar solos flirting with glam territory. It’s also fresh, invigorating, and one of their rare songs that could be deemed “lovable.”
46. The Killers, “Mr. Brightside” (Hot Fuss, 2004)
I don’t really understand why Morrissey is so obsessed with these guys, unless he just finds Brandon Flowers’s ambiguous (non?)-gayness relatable, and I certainly don’t really understand why they’re huge, or why anyone thought they could be The Next Great American Band; most of the singles I’ve heard suck. But everyone likes this song; the chord progression on the chorus is obscenely good, seemingly far better than they deserve, and the stomach-sick-jealousy should be instantly relatable to any male who was once 17. You know what this sounds like, so I won’t bother.
45. The xx, “Shelter” (xx, 2009)
This is the only band on this list that is a new band debuting in 2009; I needed one of those at least, and it is my casual impression that these kids (all of whom are 20, thereby nearly four years younger than me, which makes me insanely jealous of their talent) have “it.” Point of fact, their debut album may be the most accomplished, fully-formed, unimprovable debut since The Strokes’s Is This It. They really are that good, melding the inexplicable sexiness of Phase I Portishead with the sparse acoustics and economy of Young Marble Giants. “Shelter” is a girlfriend’s unapologetic apology: “Maybe I had done something that was wrong / Can I make it better with the lights turned off?” Yeah, you probably can. All we have here is a few sets of keyboard thirds, tribal drums and a nagging insistence on the importance of negative sonic space. These guys are The Future.
44. The Dandy Warhols, “Bohemian Like You” (Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, 2000)
I don’t recall anyone having particularly strong feelings about The Dandy Warhols before 2004’s DiG!—the definitive indie rock doc, the time capsule that reminds me of who I went to high school with more than anything. After that movie, though, everyone who cared about such matters hated The Dandy Warhols: Inauthentic poseurs, label-whores using their scuzzy faux-VU cred to market watered-down shoegaze to kids too dumb to know better, leeches for commerce, etc. All of which is stupid (for starters, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Warhols’s foil in the film, were/are an atrocious band), but spoke to something: The Dandy Warhols knew the people who hated them, and they were hated because they could spoof their enemies better than anyone. I grew up in Austin, and trust me: “Bohemian Like You” is spot on. Our protagonist is working at a vegan restaurant and offers free food as a chat-up line; the lady of his ambitions has an ex crashing on her couch who has to deal with the new boyfriend. (A crusty, perennial joke that works for any college town: “What do you call a musician who breaks up with his girlfriend? Homeless.”) And it’s catchy enough to be in a commercial (which it was, which is why the Warhols broke through in the first place), which is obviously a problem. Call them whores—they are; protest they’re not that talented (with the exception of Welcome To The Monkey House, they really don’t have an album that works start to finish for me). Go ahead. But if you know what they’re talking about at all, you know this song is true.
43. TV On the Radio, “Family Tree” (Dear Science, 2008)
In the annoying Medicine For Melancholy, a (no other way to put it) drunk black hipster starts ranting about how there’s no black people on the music scene; all we have is half of TV On the Radio. Aside from me being so bored that I spent the rest of the movie trying to come up with other examples (have we forgotten Cody ChesnuTT so soon? Or the now-defunct Test Icicles?), I suppose this is true. This would not, however, be obvious on a blind listen to their music: Indeed, on their first two albums, TV On the Radio seemed to go out of their way to sound like anyone, which meant they were tuneless and not a whole lot of fun. They’ve become more comfortable with the possibility of pleasure over time and giving it to you without a preliminary ascetic delay of two minutes. “Family Tree,” for me, is their most immediate song: Dave Sitek—like Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann—has figured out how to make his band sound huge without actually getting an orchestra. “Family Tree”’s simple echoing piano guts me every time; the last half’s shift into dynamic territory is just icing. The lyrics could probably be about several things—interracial romance, forbidden love, a lynching, a history of abusive families. Either way, it sounds grave and elegiac. And it’s unfortunate I have to think about that movie every time I listen to it.
42. The White Stripes, “Fell In Love With A Girl” (White Blood Cells, 2001)
The first White Stripes song I ever heard was De Stijl’s “A Boy’s Best Friend”—one of Jack White’s best straightforward blues pastiches and tensely coiled in its own right, but decidedly misleading. It was a random Napster download based on a positive A.V. Club review, which was pretty much my only guide back then; I hadn’t heard of Pitchfork. So I wasn’t entirely unprepared when The White Stripes suddenly went mainstream and blew up MTV: I thought this was what hyped underground bands did after a couple of albums, because the Nirvana narrative was still the default in my head. (Obviously, this changed.) The Lego-motion video was awesome, and their MTV Video Music Awards performance—with hordes of “spontaneous” dancers crashing the floor in front of them—was hugely enjoyable. I didn’t really understand why the song blew up (still don’t), but given hit-making power, The White Stripes proceeded to foist some of the weirdest singles ever heard on ’00s alt-rock radio, with White gracing the world with the progressively stranger “Seven Nation Army,” “Blue Orchid” and (two-and-a-half organ/guitar solos’ worth or whatever that was) “Icky Thump.” For this I thank White: Despite the occasional tedium of the actual albums, he’s an electric presence. I’ll never quite process the White Stripes show I saw in 2003, where White appeared to be covered with pallor-white make-up, making the whole thing seem like some kind of gothic revival tent. This may not be their best song, but it is the best of their pure, undisciplined adrenaline shots (something they actually didn’t do as often as their reputation suggested).
41. Wilco, “Poor Places” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002)
This is really half a song: This and “Reservations” are the complementary closing diptych on 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the groundbreaking et. al that transformed a mildly popular NPR-alt-country band into an indie sensation. Foxtrot was primarily embraced for its narrative: Conservative label blanches in the wake of artistic boldness, band disseminates album via online leak, ends up winning everyone over and selling more than ever before. The strategy was a precursor of what was to come technologically later in the decade, and noted avant-garde tweaker Jim O’Rourke was, given the band’s history, a bold choice. Nonetheless, Tweedy was 35 by the time the album was officially released and Wilco was no one’s revolutionary vanguard, something that became clear very fast. Tweedy’s a huge music nerd who’s had The Fiery Furnaces open for Wilco and loves to talk about Deerhoof, but his own music is essentially conservative (Tweedy’s approach suggests awareness but deliberate non-use of progressive developments in music. Together, “Poor Places” and “Reservations” encapsulate a lot of what Wilco did well on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that—after all the hype and overplaying (in my room, anyway)—is still capable of being heartbreaking at the right moment. The narratives of both songs are self-serving and solipsistic: Tweedy’s gotten in a fight and lost (“My jaw’s been broken / My bandage is pulled too tight”), he’s thinking about his dad (father issues!), his “fangs have been pulled” and—ergo—“I really wanna see you tonight.” He’s finally realized he’s a dick! Get back with him! But the song works—Tweedy’s sincerity may not validate him the way he thinks it does if it’s just lyrics, but as an expression of a devastated state of mind it’s wrenching. Back to back with “Reservations”—“How can I convince you that it’s me I don’t like”—it’s overwhelming, the culmination of an album that really did succinctly compact despair and resignation with a generous sprinkling of radio noise. It still really doesn’t sound like anything else.