Editor’s Note: Click here to read the previous installment of this feature.
60. William Shatner, “Common People” (Has Been, 2004)
It’s impossible to overstate how important Elliott Smith was to me from, say, ages 16-20. I was an awkward and unsociable post-adolescent, unable to sort out the teen angst from the real problems. I realized my faux-depression was immature and self-indulgent; that’s part of the reason I liked Smith so much, because he conveyed the same tension. Here was a guy writing beautifully-organized, impeccably arranged pop songs, only to fuck them all up with lyrical self-pity despite being old enough to know better. This isn’t necessarily how I feel about his work now (he had legitimate trauma to process)—but yes, there was a deliberately bratty depression thrown in there for good measure, which I dug. (Cf. “Looking Over My Shoulder”: “All I want to do is write another sonic fuck you.”) And then he killed himself and I went into mourning for two weeks, more or less. I went to a magnet high school that (Austin being Austin) might as well have been Indie Rock High, all bright middle-class white kids with collegiate music taste; his suicide was announced on Pitchfork at 8am, and by noon people who were normally friendly but distant were asking me if I was OK. I wasn’t; I was being a stupid 17-year-old, sure, but Smith’s work meant more to me than, say, most members of my immediate family.
Fast forward one year later, when the posthumous From A Basement On a Hill was getting released; I was now at NYU, but still kind of thinking like a high-schooler. I called an acquaintance and—for the first and almost certainly last time in my life—marched off to the Virgin Megastore to snap up a copy at the midnight sale. I got anticipatorily anxious in case it didn’t live up to his back catalogue, since this was all the new material left as far as I knew. As it turned out, the album was a mess—by far his worst, put together according to his not-very-clear wishes (“Ostriches and Chriping,” a negligible ambient wash, probably isn’t even his song). That same week, William Shatner put out his album, and it was better; Pitchfork’s back-to-back reviews, initially sacrilegious-seeming, were accurate. And this became strangely heartening.
There’s about seven really good tracks on Has Been, which is as much as anyone can ask for on an album that should’ve just been a queasy novelty; as a bonus, it’s the best thing Ben Folds has ever done with his mostly wasted talent. “Common People” is probably Pulp’s greatest achievement, as epic as “Baby O’Riley” but way less simplistic lyrically (class warfare in the post-Thatcher age, etc.), harnessing appropriately cheap keyboards to an unstoppably anthemic chorus. Shatner had apparently never heard it before Folds brought it to him. He might have actually taken the time to study and understand what he’s saying, or he might be bluffing and applying his signature weird reading patterns indiscriminately, but it doesn’t matter; his reading of the song is no less histrionic than Jarvis Cocker’s. Instrumentally, it’s not bad at all: Folds scrubs it down to clean, sharp keyboards and drums. What really sells it is Joe Jackson belting out the chorus in a proper way Shatner’s incapable of. The net result is a New Wave icon, ’90s semi-alternative brat and 60-something relic uniting to affirm that this one song is, indeed, a masterpiece. The song itself is aces; the cover proves how easy it is to love it even if you’re not a lower-class Brit seething with class resentment.
59. Air, “Playground Love” (The Virgin Suicides, 2000)
After Moon Safari, Air were (at least briefly) mandatory entry-level indie listening, slotted alongside Belle and Sebastian and Elliott Smith; I grew up on them. Since then, their fetishization of smoothness has becomes less fashionable. That’s a shame, partly because they’ve never gotten boring and partly because they’re far more perverse than people give them credit for. Like rogue auteurists, Air seem to operate on a “one for us, one for them” principle—“them” being an audience that can’t hang with 10,000 Hz Legend’s baroque eccentricities or Pocket Symphony’s seeming desire to be nothing more than an extremely leisurely way to calibrate your equalizer. And when they’re pandering, they’re the best; few could deny the charms of Safari or Talkie Walkie. “Playground Love” splits the difference between their two modes; it goes down smooth enough, but it’s also hilariously sleazy, featuring a porno-worthy sax solo. It’s seductive, but it also knows precisely how transparent its motives are, working both as make-out song and a repudiation of the whole idea of the “make-out song.” As with many bands here, I could’ve chosen quite a few other Air songs (“The Vagabond” is the best Beck song Beck didn’t write; ditto “Somewhere Between Waking and Dreaming” for The Divine Comedy), but this is the song that most neatly splits the difference between their populist and exclusionary modes. Also, it’s better than the entirety of The Virgin Suicides, the movie, which has to count for something.
58. Brakes, “Heard About Your Band” (Give Blood, 2005)
This is neither the first nor last meta-song about music on here, but it’s probably the only song in musical history (now or ever) to name-check Electrelane. It’s one-and-a-half minutes that remind me why I hate going to shows. “Heard about your band, I couldn’t help it you were screaming in my ear. Coked up arsehole, waiting for the Liars.” Either you get it or you don’t (if you don’t, you’re kind of lucky). For what it’s worth, Brakes’s cover of “Jackson” is indelible as well.
57. Ying Yang Twins ft. Trick Daddy, “What’s Happnin!” (Me & My Brother, 2003)
For a sex-obsessed Atlanta rap duo with not a whole lot else on their minds, the Ying Yang Twins managed to turn people’s heads way more times than you’d expect. There was “Whistle While You Twurk,” where they somehow got away with appropriating (and corrupting) Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and “Wait (The Whisper Song),” which in its own way took rap beats as far as Missy Elliott, coasting nothing besides a weird tweaked bass-drum frequency that slides up and down while the twins whisper something the lady “might want to hear”: “Wait til you see my dick.” (Apparently the Twins think a random guy walking up to you and whispering “I’m gonna beat that pussy up” without so much as a by-your-leave are among things the ladies enjoy.) But my favorite song of theirs is the undeniably business-as-usual “What’s Happnin!” Not a whole lot happens in this song, which belongs to the genre I don’t quite get of violent-threats-as-party-jam. There’s a lot of nonsense: one of the Twins (lord knows I can’t tell them apart vocally) tells us he still likes to play with his Tonka Toys. He sleeps with his gun. If you don’t believe him, ask his mother (and lo and behold, there she is in the video). Mostly it’s about the chorus: “BOOM! IT’S ON! THIS NIGGA WILL ROCK YOUR DOME! BITCH, WHAT’S HAPPNIN’!” Now: does this resonate with my personal experience? Not one bit. Is it an awesome way to get shamefully pumped up? Absolutely. Is the video absolutely hilarious, consisting of nothing more than fights on a football field, on a basketball court and in a boxing ring while an enormously obese man cheers on the action? Yes. Yes it is.
56. The Libertines, “Don’t Look Back Into The Sun” (single, 2003)
Ideologically, Britpop was basically a load of shit, a lot of half-digested notions about Britishness filtered through a sensibility that was The Kinks without the complexity; it also led musicians into some dangerous, potentially xenophobic places. Musically, though, there’s a few albums from the ’90s that hold up like, say, everything Blur did from 1993-1997 or Oasis’ first two albums. (I can love both and still sleep peacefully at night.) I was enormously obsessed with all the stuff for a long time in high school; I didn’t just have those albums, but a lot of the shitty ones as well. I’ve heard Suede’s first album; I even had an album by jj72, who I guarantee no one else remembers. In the UK, there are still bands putting out 3-minute guitar songs with thick accents, but they’re all pretty terrible (hence the useful term “landfill indie,” which really should be adopted stateside). The Libertines were the last band in this vein to be any good; on Up The Bracket, they were phenomenal. Shamelessly derivative and filled with the kind of energy that proved Pete Doherty didn’t really need to be on drugs in the first place, it made sentiments like “There are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap” make you want to agree, even if you really didn’t.
For their two albums, The Libertines worked with The Clash’s Mick Jones, who made them record live as much as humanly possible; the results were amazing on their first album and sporadically brilliant (but often messy) on their second and final album. For their radio singles, though, The Libertines turned to Bernard Butler. Butler—of the oft-moronic, aforementioned Suede—may be kind of a lousy songwriter, but he’s become a terrific producer over the years. Basically what Butler does is fine-tune every sound to a manipulative, compressed sheen that’s really no different in spirit from what Mutt Lange did for Shania Twain, but it’s so polished you don’t mind being manipulated. The release of momentarily being a slick band (as opposed to live performers getting it right while keeping the energy going) parodically freed up The Libertines to eulogize themselves as they were breaking down. “Don’t Look Back Into The Sun” tells you to keep racing, but it’s really closer to their last hurrah than they could’ve guessed. It kind of gives me chills. And then Britpop’s last afterbirth was over; the Arctic Monkeys never meant anything to me.
55. Sparks, “Suburban Homeboy” (Lil’ Beethoven, 2002)
Sparks have been around since 1970, and they still have the remarkable ability to annoy people just as intensely as the day they emerged; I love them, but I keep them in the privacy of my home. Play a Sparks song for most people, and their faces contort in pain; they assume I’m being ironic/masochistic. (OK, not this time.) Sparks’ aughts consisted largely of minimal keyboard loops, four repetitions at a time, bringing literal minimalism and chorale structure to bear on the pop song, tied to sardonic lyrics, the whole thing somewhere between theory and musical theater. “Suburban Homeboy,” on the face of it, should be an embarrassment: two fiftysomething men mocking hip-hop fans. But they’re not out of touch; they know precisely what they’re mocking (the dreaded, increasingly standard suburban white boy blasting Jay-Z in his SUV on the way to Friday’s football game and discussing how he relates to it), and they skewer it with relentless precision. Over a song that sounds like an Oklahoma! reject, the brothers Mael nicely dissect the psychology of someone who can say, with a straight face “My caddy and me, he looks just like Jay-Z.” A time capsule of a moment that sounds nothing like its moment—or any other moment, really.
54. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, “House Fire” (Broom, 2005)
It used to be that bands would hang tight locally until they were good enough to blow up and go national; nowadays, I’m not even sure what a “local band” might still be. (They grow up so fast! Or fade into nothingness. Local jam bands don’t count.) The impeccably collegiate Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin came from Portland and burst in 2005, at the moment when print music journalism was making its last stand; they got the best of print media and blog buzz at the same time, before the blog world accelerated everyone’s timetable. Presumably long out of school, SSLYBY’s terrific Broom nonetheless sounded like smart indie rock for grad students bumming around a liberal arts college town: they make propositions of marriage for after their thesis is done, they go on road trips, they “smoke all night” and “cough all day” because they’re young and think/know they can still quit. “House Fire” is a pretty simple metaphor (burning house as relationship), done with an understated wistfulness that’s hard to deny (certainly better than Charlie Kaufman managed), livened halfway-through by a strong guitar solo that kicks things up into a higher gear without getting immodest. It sounds like what it is: Dudes recording in their house, because they can and it’s the time of their life to do such things. (That I never got the chance is maybe my biggest regret about leaving Austin.) And yes: in case you’re wondering, they did eventually play in Moscow.
53. Scissor Sisters, “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough” (Scissor Sisters, 2004)
On paper, Scissor Sisters were not really My Thing, a group of hard-partying gay club kids singing about transsexuals and crystal meth. Their debut album, though, was super-fun ’70s pastiche regardless of where the lyrics were coming from: I made it thirty seconds into the first song from their follow-up (“I Don’t Feel Like Dancing,” which sounds like seriously methed-up ABBA) to realize how relatively calm they were the first time time around. Their self-titled debut splits evenly between the rocking and the balladeering; “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough” is the best of the latter category. The lyrics are the kind that read badly printed (“it can’t come quickly enough/And now you’ve spent your life/Waiting for this moment/And when you finally saw it come it/Passed you by and left you so defeated”) but scan really well after a night that’s gone downhill fast. It’s a farewell to fast-receding youth, but (perhaps more movingly) it’s really a song from someone young and wasted, who thinks a nebulous “it” is all over after a particularly bad night. (Alternately, they could just be perpetual drama queens, which is totally possible.) Worth noting: Both their debut and Franz Ferdinand’s came out one week apart in the UK. FF broke the US, but SS cracked the UK; band chiasmus in action.
52. Brendan Benson, “Jet Lag” (Lapalco, 2002)
“Jet Lag” is one of the best kiss-off songs of the decade, but it comes from an incongruous place. The talented Mr. Benson had, it’s true, been chewed up and spat back out by the major label system, but that didn’t make him any different from Clipse, Wilco, Spoon et al.—comparatively experimental groups that found new life with indie support. Benson, though, wasn’t remotely experimental; he just had the misfortune to be obsessed with twisty-but-hooky songs. He noted (in an interview I remember but can’t find) that he was screwed in the mid-90s because label execs complained his songs had no choruses. Which was ridiculous: There were pretty much three in each song, just never repeated. Each discrete part was that catchy. And, for whatever reason, mainstream radio America and indie nation can agree on one thing: Songs with no ambitions besides being sugary earworms are a bad thing, no matter how intelligently executed. AllMusic coined the unwieldy, largely unused term “Pop Underground,” which proved useful and suitably self-loathing. To wit:
”...power-pop that came after the original golden age of power-pop in the ’70s and very early ’80s. The main difference is time period, so Pop Underground is still distinguished by power-pop’s hallmarks—sweet British Invasion melodies and harmonies, ringing but muscular guitars. Yet because Pop Underground extends the life of a form whose most vital stages of development are past—and a form that was already classicist to begin with, at that—its artists either update the formula with contemporary twists, or simply re-create that formula to the best of their ability.”
Such retro-fetishization has never been a problem for the blues-rock purists, because that’s “tradition” and “authenticity”; in contrast, emulating Big Star apparently mostly means you’re retarded. Fine. Benson’s songs were about as innovative as they come in the arrangements department; as “Jet Lag” lurches into its chorus, the formerly trad acoustic guitar/vocals are joined by a deranged chorus of deep-voiced chanters and whistlers, an initially unnerving effect. What Benson’s saying, though, is very clear: “My precious generation is wasting their time/And behind their backs/I’m slipping through the cracks.” And why? Because we hate hooks. Nearly half of Lapalco was co-written with Jason Falkner, a clever multi-instrumentalist and talented songwriter who was, at the time, a bigger deal, doing session gigs with Air, Beck et al.; Benson’s climactic piss-take was solely his own, but it was also a dispatch on behalf of an entire genre. Ironically, Benson’s career was eventually resurrected by mega-fan Jack White, who drafted him into The Raconteurs, transforming him from struggling cult hero to That Guy Who Plays Next To Jack White. But he earned the money for sure.
51. Aimee Mann, “The Fall Of The World’s Own Optimist” (Bachelor No. 2, 2000)
Aimee Mann’s songs can often be boring (in the way that makes “well-crafted” pejorative), but her work with Jon Brion on the Magnolia soundtrack anchored said “well-crafted” songs to innovative, melodically restless production, some of which carried over to Bachelor No. 2. This song (oddly enough, co-written with Elvis Costello—I can’t really hear it) is perfect mope music (i.e., Mann’s entire career), down to the very title. Which doesn’t make it distinguishable from most of the songs on this list, but the chorus (“Hey kids, look at this/It’s the fall of the world’s own optimist”) gets stuck in my head on a pretty regular basis whenever I’m bummed.