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70. RJD2, “Ghostwriter” (Deadringer, 2002)
The third (and last, thank God) song on this list mostly for using an unlikely sample in a hip-hop context. On “Devil’s Pie,” Mark Ronson makes a big, showy spectacle out of sampling the unsample-able—which is fun and all, but RJD2 simply speeds up and pitchshifts the unlikely vocal and flawlessly sneaks it into the song otherwise intact. Anyone who didn’t know the source wouldn’t find it the least bit incongruous, and I tend to favor understatement anyway. The song is Elliott Smith’s “I Didn’t Understand”—not just his usual fragile and decidedly unfunky song, but an a cappella one to boot. All that’s really being sampled is the first 8 seconds or so, and they come in slowly, answering a humming soul voice (Betty Wright, Wikipedia tells me); an unlikely but flawless union. The entire intro vocal is finally used before launching into the final brass riff, and it somehow makes sense.
RJD2 eventually went in some poorly-reviewed direction or other I didn’t follow; apparently things got a lot whiter and clumsier. But for a bit, RJD2 was sort of roughly splashing around in the same kiddie pool—hip-hop beats for white kids who only listened “for the beats” anyway—as DJ Shadow, who’d been MIA for a while. At least that’s how it played in high school (though that’s certainly not what Shadow or RJD2 were going for). I presume there were indie rock kids somewhere who were equally comfortable bumping radio rap and Spoon with equal frequency in 2002, but I didn’t know any (and maybe that’s because Pitchfork simply wasn’t reviewing it yet; who knows). In an interview I can’t find online anymore, RJD2 talked about how he generally tried to avoid dragging his indie rock collection into his hip-hop work but couldn’t resist this once; that attitude doesn’t help anyone, but I understand exactly where his unease is coming from. “Ghostwriter” is an excellent song, but it’s also a tense reminder of the automatic suspicion I used to approach all things hip-hop with. Smith’s presence on “Ghostwriter” automatically validated the song for me faster than anything else on the album. That kind of thinking just makes me kind of uncomfortable now.
69. Bloc Party, “This Modern Love” (Silent Alarm, 2005)
It’s hard now to recall why Bloc Party were tapped for heir-to-Franz-Ferdinand semi-fame; break-out single “Helicopter” is impeccable but generic, indistinguishable from a lot of what was on the market. Freshman year, I took albums very seriously indeed, even (especially) the ones I didn’t like very much on first listen; I’d go through all of them three times with a misplaced sense of grim duty. It took me a while to warm up to the whole album, but this unexpectedly warm, sad detour stood out from the beginning. The fact that Keke Okereke came out of the closet a few years later doesn’t change anything significant about this despairing broadside from one partner to another: “Do you want to come over and kill some time?” The world’s least romantic invite, but also recognizable, the hallmark of a relationship persisting beyond its natural life because you need the company. I heard this in a coffee shop four years later, surrounded by the new freshmen, and the fact that I could remember exactly when I started (and effectively stopped) listening to this made me feel ancient. I suspect this song will have an unnatural lifespan though; it kind of deserves to be a rare indie ballad chestnut. Cf. a note I got from a much older friend, apropos me putting it on my 2005 compilation: “Sad confession: I played it obsessively for myself after a romantic disappointment in mid-December, and got into a funk of self-pity. Thought I’d outgrown that shit 20 years ago…” Yes, the song is that effective.
68. The Stills, “Still In Love Song” (Rememberese EP, 2003)
The Stills sounded like they were from LA—i.e., they sounded like a slick, humorless band trend-hopping to their next career and label upgrade—but they were actually from Montreal. I never heard any of their other songs, because what’s the point? “Still In Love Song” is very good at being a dour, rhythmically propulsive song with a terrific chorus; part of the reason I thought they were from LA was because of the fawesome prediction “You’ll be selling lemonade to the overpaid.” Trying to break into the industry’s a bitch. That same summer, incidentally, saw The Pleased (a band which, incredibly enough, included Joanna Newsom, to no discernible effect) release their equally marginal but great “We Are The Doctor.” As far as forgotten singles justifying single-MP3 downloads, these two are as good as they get, and they’d be even more awesome if “Doctor”’s verse was surgically spliced with “Song”’s chorus. I’d take that over the entirety of the Interpol catalogue anyway.
67. Sondre Lerche, “You Know So Well” (Faces Down, 2001)
Strings. Warmth. Etc. You know the drill. I told a friend I was waiting to listen to the rest of the album ’til I really needed to be cheered up. He said that was the darkest thing he’d ever heard. I’ve still never listened to it.
66. Lil’ Flip, “The Way We Ball” (Undaground Legend, 2002)
During high school, Austin’s rap stations broadcast Texas rap that hadn’t broken nationally. Considering the frequently-bemoaned corporate-playlist wasteland, this seemed (and seems, still) like a big deal, a minor but unexpected last stand for FM radio as a force for good. Granted, they weren’t precisely playing the progressive sounds of the underground; mainstream Houston rap was just as materialistic, crass, mindless and novelty-hook-based as its national equivalent. (I don’t mean this pejoratively; that has its merits.) In 2004-05, Houston briefly seemed like it might unseat Atlanta as the next big hip-hop scene, but all these years later T.I. is still riding high while everyone else is basically back in the underground. The defining Houston sound is chopped-and-screwed—the late DJ Screw’s innovation, with music slowed to an unnerving, rumbling bass designed to simulate the effects of being fucked up on sizzurp—but it’s like major labels didn’t trust the one true signifier to connect nationally. Pretty much every big Houston rap single produced for national consumption had to sound generically of the marketplace it wasn’t a part of sonically, which did no one any favors.
That’s because with the arguable exception of Chamillionaire, I can’t make any great claims for the lyrical prowess of the Houston crew. Mike Jones briefly became a national star (I went from hearing him on local radio senior year of high school to seeing him on MTV in college), presumably because of his unbeatable party trick of yelling out his phone number over nearly every song and inviting people to call him (the number was changed and the invitation rescinded once he got too big, then restored when he realized the fans were gone). Slim Thug had an incredible voice and his 2005 album Already Platinum is underrated in many ways, but he’s hardly one of our great rap thinkers; he’s just a great presence, a Rick Ross-sized voice with more to contribute charisma-wise. Lil’ Flip was an amiable enough presence without anything besides money on his mind. But Flip’s big singles had killer beats perfectly designed to show off his lean-back-in-the-pocket crawl. (I went with “The Way We Ball” over “Game Over,” but that song’s incredible slowed-down video game backing—which sounds like a Super Nintendo in serious meltdown—is well worth your time.)
Besides their accents and slurred vowels, the Houston gang was very good about paying tribute to the city that’d supported them. I was born in Houston and spent the first six years of my life there, so my impressions aren’t too vivid. As far as I recall, it’s basically a swampy shithole that requires an hour’s drive to get anywhere no matter where you live. But Houston rappers gave the endearing impression they wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. In “The Way We Ball”—one of the more infectious glitchy-beat-plus-kids’-chorus songs of the decade—Flip thinks about doing business with the Rockets, discusses buying the Comets and gives the obligatory DJ Screw shout-out (in the video, I swear for one second he pops into his local Whataburger, a big Texas bonus). Everything—one-liner eulogy, admission the record company VP made him kind of horny during the meeting—comes out in the same flat, uninflected drawl. (Flip also mentions he’s still independent because “Jive couldn’t afford me,” which means he and Clipse should probably get together at some point and trade sob stories.) But the beat gives it spring and uplift; this is about as good as shameless, unjustified bragging gets.
65. Stars, “Elevator Love Letter” (Heart, 2003)
This is a perfect pop song: sweet but not maudlin, using electronic components without seeming desperately trendy, airy but not hollow. I could’ve gone with any number of songs from Stars’s follow-up Set Yourself On Fire, but that’s more of a cohesive set-piece; this is an unequivocally great, stand-alone pop song. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about something else; specifically, how lead singer-songwriter Torquil Campbell is a dickhead. After 2007’s In Our Bedroom After The War got a 7.4 on Pitchfork (which should be good enough, Jesus), Campbell lashed out on MySpace. Then he went one better in an interview with the A.V. Club, going off in 14 directions at once. “I really do think that people should probably lose their virginity before they start writing reviews for Pitchfork,” he opined (which at the very least implies he’s never been in a Williamsburg bar at closing time). He suggested the writers were low on life experience and hence couldn’t appreciate Stars’s special genius, and should “do some drugs and fall in love, and then start judging people. Because then you’d actually know something about life, as opposed to just being afraid of it and, you know, thinking Menomena are important.”
Obviously there are a lot of things wrong with implying that anyone who thinks you’re too melodramatic for your own good is a pantywaist virgin (it’s a cliche, among other things), but it’s that parting shot that really bothers me. What Campbell obviously was implying is that Stars are popular (relative to Menomena anyway) because they’re more emotional, and that both of those things confer social/artistic greatness. Which is complete horseshit, the kind of whining Chuck Klosterman does at his most embittered. The idea is that people who like Menomena are lying, or trying to differentiate themselves from the horde by championing something unpopular. But something is “important” to someone when it’s meaningful to them, and saying otherwise is an argument of the sheerest bad faith. Stars are (or at least were) just as great and emotive as Menomena. They just had better sales (still on a small level), and they’re talking like a bitter metal band that got lapped by grunge. And this is far from the only time/context I heard this kind of stupid argument.
As for Pitchfork…I’ll let the historians take that one. I’m pushing the word count as is.
64. Cassie, “Me & U” (Cassie, 2006)
I love my commercial hip-hop (obviously), but its mellower, crossover R&B counterpart is a blind spot for me. Histrionic female declarations of love just aren’t my thing. Most hip-hop artists feel the need to include at least one jam “for the ladies” on their albums, and generally it’s the most boring part. That “Me & U” doesn’t do that while playing the part of R&B jam is part of what I love about it. Like many a would-be Mary J. Blige (and I don’t get her either, sorry), Cassie is basically a faceless producer’s front; my friend Andrew Unterberger has admirably dissected her corporate lineage, an eerie hangover from the tail end of the time when a slimebag like Tommy Mottola could be one of radio’s biggest tastemakers. For a song that’s an attempted seduction (specifically, a thinly veiled invitation to enthusiastic fellatio), “Me & U” is an awfully chilly song whose music effectively neuters any sex appeal Cassie may have. Much of it is a sparse framework, an R&B song in negative space, with Cassie hardly taking up most of it; the loud, rude synth line that comes in for the chorus is mildly bonechilling, and her voice hardly gives comfort. “Me & U” seems more like Aphex Twin in a non-pissy mood than anything to pull out the whipped cream to. (Even “Umbrella”—another odd blockbuster—goes at least superficially for the emotional gut.) And yet it was a massive hit. Go figure.
63. T.I., “Bring Em Out” (Urban Legend, 2004)
T.I. called himself the king of the south long before he could actually back it up; eventually it became true. “Bring Em Out” was another salvo in his (successful) war on the singles chart, and it announces itself by sampling a Jay-Z song that had come out a year earlier, then running riot over it. Let no one say Clifford Harris suffered from excessive modesty; as anyone who’s seen, say, 25 minutes of ATL on BET on a lazy afternoon knows, T.I.’s idea of “acting” basically consists of sometimes thrusting his chin out all the way, occasionally pulling it in a bit closer for quieter moments. What I’ve learned from writing up his albums over the years is that—for all the braggadacio and threats to your personal safety—his persona is far more complex, ambivalent and oddly revealing than you’d initially suspect from his singles. King is full of non-specific violence, but avoids calling anyone out by name and actually seems sincere on RIP-dead-homey track “Up In The Sky,” where T.I. worriedly notes a late friend’s baby daughter “even resorts to violence like you”; on last year’s “Slide Show,” he speculates on “how much better life it would have been if I slowed down / Maybe I have been Kanye, instead of seeing gunplay.”
I’m not going to make some kind of insanely overstated argument for how T.I. is a relentlessly honest, self-flagellating Frederick Exley-type memoirist, but he has more to offer than albums of singles and filler, and his relationship to violence specifically is way more ambivalent than the usual PSA disclaimers. (He’s also internally consistent, unlike many rappers who vacillate between decrying stereotypes on one track before demanding more violence on the next.) “Bring Em Out,” though, is one of his best in the all-balls, no-nuance dept. I’m putting it here at least as much in tribute to T.I. (who has even better songs) as to master producer Swizz Beatz. Along with Just Blaze, Swizz remains committed to adrenalizing the hell out of every single he does, never wearing you out and somehow never getting stale; those two producers made aughts radio that much more fun.
62. Papas Fritas, “Way You Walk” (Buildings and Grounds, 2000)
It’s a truism that the quickest way to find catchy pop songs from undervalued bands is to watch iPod commercials. Well before that, though, smart assistants were livening up commercials, and it’s my understanding that Papas Fritas are best known for this massively Euro-trashy Dentyne Ice commercial. “Bubblegum pop” is an overused music-critic category, so it’s amusing that a band that actually fit the label literally soundtracked a gum ad. I read about Papas Fritas when I still got Magnet magazine; unlike many of the other one-hit wonders on this list (“hit” defined generously), I’m pretty sure their back catalogue will reward me eventually. In any case, whoever was enough of a smartass to choose this for a fun, sexy ad was obviously playing a trick on his overlords; “Way You Walk” is about as despairing as breathy male/female duets get. The man is trying to pin the woman down as to why she’s unavailable; she’s coyly non-committal at the start, claiming “Plans sort of changed up for the weekend/A friend came to town, been years since I seen him.” As he needles and needles, she loses patience without ever losing her calm, which makes it worse. By the end, she’s firmly established who’s in control of the relationship: “If I stay now, you don’t own me/If I go I won’t be sorry.” The guy is the sadsack; the girl is better and knows it. She may be hooking up with her “friend”; she may just be exasperated with the constant reassurances she has to offer to her insecure, previously default option. Either way, it’s devastating for the other half of the sketch. The commercial has the smarts to basically go the same way; the girl writes her name in the window, steaming it up with her Ice-y breath, but the guy assumes her flirting’s for anyone but him until it’s too late to get on the damn train. It’s like In The City Of Sylvia except artistically worthless. In any case, a great song whose sketch of a mutually toxic relationship cuts deeper than initially appears.
61. Portastatic, “I Wanna Know Girls” (Bright Ideas, 2005)
Mac McCaughan may run Merge—with the all-star roster of Spoon, The Arcade Fire and M. Ward, he’s got an untouchable indie rock all-star line-up that only seems to get more commercially successful by the year—but try getting people to take an interest in anything he’s personally done since Superchunk and all you get is the cold stare and the fishy eye. Portastatic is the sound of straight-up mid-90s indie rock, which is precisely why I like them so much; it’s the anachronistic persistence of a movement that still really doesn’t get enough love. Everyone wants to get rid of guitars and drums and do something progressive, but writing a complex, multi-faceted song with compelling guitar harmonies is no joke. (Do I sound reactionary? Fine, I kind of am.) In a catalogue that’s gone deep while no one in particular paid attention, “I Wanna Know Girls” is one of the sweetest platonic love songs ever written. On the one hand, Mac loves his wife, with an unwavering fidelity and sincerity that make me jealous: “I wanna know girls, but only love one.” He’s weak and knows it (“my love weighs a ton”). But he wants to know girls, as many as he can; he can learn how not to be the same misanthropic, doubt-ridden guy that writes songs like “Through With People.” The guitars practically define “anthemic,” and then there’s this line: “You say it’s like the movies, but movies never move me.” As someone who writes about movies all the time, this is inexplicably hilarious; it kind of explains most people’s default position to 90% of the stuff I love.