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Best of the Aughts A Single Take, #80 - #71

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Best of the Aughts: A Single Take, #80 - #71

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80. Tapes ’N Tapes, “Hang Them All” (Walk It Off, 2008)
Textbook blog-hype band: first album praised beyond (but only a little beyond) its merits by the blog cognoscenti, automatically slammed by same for their follow-up. I don’t wish to hate upon the undeniably enthusiastic voluntary sifters of new music or accuse anyone I don’t know of insincerity, but to a certain extent it seems like it didn’t matter at all what the quality of Tapes ’N Tapes’s follow-up would be. Like the British music press but faster and more aggressive, the blogosphere frowns upon bands who have the nerve to stick around after they’ve been sufficiently praised. Walk It Off’s back half is pretty weak, but the first half-hour is as good as (or better) than The Loon; it must’ve been the heavy-gloss Dave Fridmann production that annoyed some knee-jerk types. This is simply one of the smartest indie-rock songs of 2008, with every possible harmonic and rhythmic crack filled in; the main riff is two super-aggressive leaps (a 10th and an octave, one nestled inside the other), the guitars work in near-schematic rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint, and it never lets up. The chorus is as disciplinedly fierce as possible. That said, did hearing this at Urban Outfitters kill me a little and/or make me question whether my standards for aughts rockin’ are aggro enough? Yes. Even I’m not immune.

79. Of Montreal, “Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games” (The Sunlandic Twins, 2005)
One of 14 million bands proving the notion of “selling out” has become completely irrelevant, Of Montreal sold the melody to this song to Outback Steakhouse, which turned “Let’s pretend we don’t exist” to “Let’s go Outback tonight.” I can’t fathom who could possibly get angry over this. It’s not like there were millions upon millions of potential Of Montreal fans out there whose nascent enthusiasm was wrecked by hearing a hacky Outback commercial; frankly, it’s not like millions of Americans were ever going to give two shits about the band in the first place, even to the extent of trying to Google who was behind this jingle brilliance. On the other side of the equation, Of Montreal’s fans certainly should’ve known better than to gripe about a band with limited commercial prospects trying to make money as a band by exploiting commercial avenues other than limited-edition posters and 7"s. The Outback money, as Kevin Barnes has noted, fuels their costume-tastic shows, and certainly no one complains about those.

Of Montreal almost certainly has better songs (I’m partial to “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” where Barnes has the honesty to admit most artsy white guys would cheerfully sleep with the first girl they met that was into Georges Bataille, since that’s a good signifier of horniness), but this is their most ubiquitous one. My sophomore year roommate—who I think actually got hospitalized for half-a-day for being such a dedicated work-/career- oriented freak, and who alternated protein shakes with chicken and rice every day with muscle-building discipline, and who is probably doing quite well right now—somehow had this as his ringtone, so it must’ve permeated somewhere down the line to the real world. It’s also the rare song I’ve heard probably as many times as most bar-goers have heard “Don’t Stop Believing,” yet still am not sick of. There’s a lot of things wrong with Of Montreal at different points in their career (overt feyness and/or a sexuality so pointlessly blunt it’s 9th-grade-level is their latter-day bugaboo), but they’re one of the few groups to figure out a satisfactory midway point between loving Prince and the “fey ain’t gay” preference a friend described as my metier, so God bless ’em. This song is actually every bit as wistful and transporting as it wants to be, and probably would be for most people if not for over-familiarity. It still works for me.

78. Bright Eyes, “The First Day of My Life” (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, 2005)
For a long time I dated a girl who was really into Bright Eyes, whose endless quaver drives me off the wall, so we compromised: she wouldn’t play any of him when I was around, and I’d refrain from playing any rap. This worked pretty well, since we were 70% musically compatible otherwise (and super compatible on last.fm!). It’s not that Conor Oberst is untalented, only that lyrically he slipped straight from endlessly self-lacerating teen angst to boring political hectoring without hitting any kind of productive middle-ground along the way; perspective has perpetually eluded him. Sometimes the teen angst works, though, and this simple, lovestruck acoustic ballad succeeds in conveying both dazed wonder that someone’s walked into your life and a barely sublimated interest in getting them to take their pants off by purposefully foregrounding said feeling. In other words, it’s a con by a consciously self-deluding guy, but it’s effective. “Yours was the first face that I saw / I think I was blind before I met you.” Awwwwwwwww. Also an effectively restrained arrangement—little more than guitar and stand-up bass—contributes to momentarily triggering my tears-effectively-jerked reflex.

77. The Decemberists, “Sixteen Military Wives” (Picaresque, 2005)
As with Bright Eyes, The Decemberists are mostly annoying (I know this is a minority position, don’t bother chiding me), but they had near-objective peaks worth sifting for before becoming some kind of prog tribute band and I lost all patience. “Sixteen Military Wives” ditches the Archetypes 101 freshman Brit Lit survey crap Colin Meloy falls back on to convince the under-read he’s “literary” (all it takes is references to mariners and barrow-boys and people think you really know something, huh?) in favor of straight anti-Bush protest, which makes this song an excellent time capsule (and the video an even better one, since it’s a handy tribute to Wes Anderson’s freakishly influential style). It’s also crisp, rousing and succinct (literally by-the-numbers), which is more than I can say for most of their catalogue. For best results, play back-to-back with Margo Guryan’s B-side protest, “16 Words”. 16 is the magic anti-Iraq number?

76. Young Buck ft. Bun B, 8 Ball & MJG, “Say It To My Face” (Buck The World, 2007)
I will never understand why America embraced G-Unit; I can only attribute it to excellent marketing and branding on Eminem’s part, pushing 50 Cent out into the marketplace at the height of his popularity, transferring more than enough momentum for 50 to bring up whoever with him. The G-Unit rappers were parodically shitty (step up, all you Lloyd Banks apologists!), which would’ve been fine if their beats weren’t so monolithically boring. They learned all the wrong lessons from Eminem, combining the crudity of his blowing-off-steam roots with the dullest beats he ever thought made him a good producer. Listening to a track like “Piano Man” makes you wonder if they’re actively fucking with you or really think this is worthwhile. For the most part, G-Unit seem to exist solely for the purpose of making D12 look good; at least those guys enjoy their enthusiastic crudity.

As a human being outside the posse, Young Buck has some entertainment value, provided you’re a good 500 yards away from him. It was, after all, Buck who stabbed a guy at the Vibe awards in 2004 in full view of everyone, beat the charge, and then did a mixtape song about it (he seems to think it’s funny). I can’t claim to be overly familiar with him as a rapper—aside from being repeatedly exposed to much of the Aftermath/G-Unit crew’s work by a friend who thinks it’s funny to watch me endure apopleptic fits—but his guest verse on T.I.’s “Undertaker” is impeccably violent. (“Let’s all bow our heads and say a prayer for this nigga / It seems the undertaker’s coming any day for this nigga.”) “Say It To My Face” is essence of Buck as I understand it, enhanced by a surprisingly spry beat (by one Jiggolo; no clue) that bounces back and forth between its hackneyed Beethoven’s 5th opening, a UGK-esque organ, vulgarly aggressive horns and a wah-wah guitar line. It’s all quite clever at synthesizing disparate parts, though some might find it too gaudy.

Buck’s main function here is to intone the chorus (“Say it to my face, ho, say it to my face, they talk behind my back but they won’t say it to my face”) while sounding like he’s credibly issuing a death threat (his specialty). Bun B’s verse is full of decisive authority, and this song’s here at least in part to acknowledge the lack of UGK on this list. Like much of Bun’s work, the lines don’t scan as remarkable on paper, but his delivery makes them sound as final as scripture. The real highlight, though, is 8 Ball. To be honest, I don’t really know who he is, but he has one of the most fascinatingly, needlessly contentious lines I’ve ever heard. A few lines in, he suddenly announces “For the last time, I don’t smoke regular weed.” One struggles to fathom the circumstances in which he has to keep saying this. I guess no matter where 8 Ball goes, people are like “Hey 8 Ball, do you smoke regular weed or something better?” And he has to respond, “No, I don’t smoke regular weed.” Finally he has reached a tipping point and needs to clarify the record once and for all. Add up Buck’s naked belligerence, a better-than-average beat, Bun B’s reliable gravitas and 8 Ball’s amusing sense of priorities, and what we have is arguably the sole redeemable part of the G-Unit legacy.

75. Sex In Dallas, “Everybody Deserves To Be Fucked” (Around The War, 2004)
I found this through a randomly-clicked Pitchfork review of a Snow Patrol mixtape (huh), and the title just seemed too ridiculous not to follow up on. As with “Boobies” (#93), this is a fantastic song to annoy people with, and also an adroit parody of Eurotrash, combining an unplaceable accent with an untenable premise for the transparent goal of getting laid. The speaker’s idea is that “everybody deserves to be fucked,” though by “everybody” the anonymous man seems to mean, specifically, “me.” He wastes a lot of time asking girls their names, as if that’ll help him put over this fundamentally ludicrous premise and make it seem like he’s not just a self-centered fucking machine. Too bad the synths seem counter-productively set to “annoy.” As with “Boobies,” this amuses me probably more than it should, but it really does sum up my feelings about every guy who self-consciously used his accent to get laid while rambling drunkenly. It’s an unnatural evolutionary advantage. (NB: I’m channeling my college grudges now.)

74. Rhymefest, “Devil’s Pie” (Blue Collar, 2006)
I can’t really improve on Noel Murray’s praise/skepticism about this song: “I have a hard time resisting any hip-hop song that samples The Strokes, even though I realize that to some extent this song is sampling The Strokes because that makes it more immediately appealing to a pasty white hipster type like me.” “Devil’s Pie” isn’t the best song on Rhymefest’s official debut by a long shot, but it’s the one I’ve listened to most, for two reasons. 1) It samples The Strokes. I love The Strokes. We’ll talk about this more later. 2) Mark Ronson is annoying as a media personality but undeniably talented; playing the first few seconds of “Last Nite,” slowing them into analogue dysfunction—an all-digital file artificially approximating the sound made by a record-player when you cut the power as it’s playing—then chopping the supremely stiff song into ’70s soul rhythm guitar is kind of brilliant, even if he has to shift it down from A to G major to make it work. The point is in the bravado; there are approximately 17,000 rhythm guitars from actual soul that would’ve served just as well. That Ronson likes the Strokes enough to transform them into something he loves equally—something they definitely aren’t—is the point. When I got my hands on this album, I listened to the Kanye-produced track first (because Kanye is amazing), and this second, solely for the unlikely sample. It’s pretty exciting to see something decidedly non-hip-hop transformed into a plausible beat, especially something I love. The only other example I can think of is RJD2’s “Ghostwriter,” which almost made the list solely for RJD2’s brilliant, beyond-unexpected Elliott Smith sample, which freaked me out as surely the least likely sample source in hip-hop history.

Oh yeah, Rhymefest. Good rapper, regrettable homophobe. So it goes most of the time. Not his greatest song, but my favorite thus far for reasons beyond his control.

73. Weezer, “Pork And Beans” (Weezer (The Red Album), 2008)
For people my age (anyone from, say, 18-24), Weezer might as well be the Rolling Stones. I’m not sure I ever heard a Weezer song ’til high school (raised by classically-oriented parents, I didn’t hear radio for ages), but in retrospect I understand perfectly why pretty much my entire demographic knows “Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So” et al. word for word. Weezer was very, very good at putting the loudness of ’80s metal guitars at the service of ’70s power-pop harmonies, the better to push forward universally-understandable emo sentiments. The final combination is practically gene-spliced for raucous late-night shout-alongs (even if it took many of us years to actually get around to Pinkerton, which works even better for that). Though The Green Album spawned “Island In The Sun,” one of their most ubiquitous songs, the ’00s have basically been Rivers Cuomo convinced he’s doing the best work of his career while a disbelieving public largely wonders what the hell happened. (A contrarian element insists this is his best work, notably and predictably Chuck Klosterman.) 2005’s Make Believe is unbelievably bad, at least based on the radio singles: It takes real cojones to make a sub-Dandy Warhols track (“We Are All On Drugs”), but “Beverly Hills” was even more unforgivable.

All of which made “Pork ’N Beans” a pleasant surprise from an otherwise (by most accounts) unexceptional album. As a song, “Pork And Beans” starts off sounding extremely annoying, its hook almost clumsily catchy; by the time it’s done, it’ll be in your head for the rest of the day. Only slightly less self-reflexive than LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” it’s the ultimate in low-emotional-stakes songwriting; gone are the days of Cuomo as intense confessional balladeer. The chorus is gleefully nonsensical, and for once Rivers seems acutely aware of his position in the market; that he’s wondering aloud about working with Timbaland isn’t really a joke, considering Timbaland really thought it was a good idea to collaborate with The Hives. Cuomo seems very clear on how remarkable it is that a meat-and-potatoes guitar band like Weezer survived commercially this long.

But it’s the video that pushes the song over the top. On paper, it’s a cynical gimmick: the stars of YouTube, c. ’08, joining in all over the place. I don’t know who most of these people are (aside from Tay Zonday and the moronic Miss Georgia), but it doesn’t matter. Cuomo’s the closest thing we have to the musical equivalent of Klosterman—a dude who’s listened to the Pixies and Sonic Youth and then decided that was elitist and stupid and that whatever’s the most popular thing is automatically the best as well. That viewpoint has very heavy limitations (and it can be intensely irritating in its self-righteousness), but the good thing about it is that when Rivers invites others to the party, he’s not condescending. In video form, “Pork And Beans” is collaborative egalitarianism at its best, joyous partying with people I wouldn’t normally like (or, like most YouTube phenoms, who actively irritate me).

72. Junior Boys, “The Animator” (Begone Dull Care, 2009)
It’s kind of a shame Junior Boys will almost certainly never be a huge arena band, because they have the performance chops to pull it off. I don’t know who’s just in the touring band and who’s in for real, but at Pitchfork 2007 the bassist marched a one-two in place like he was getting ready to launch into “The Swamp” while the drummer wore his finest New Wave, ironically business-casual regalia. I’m not crazy about the first and third Junior Boys albums as entities—too monolithically hushed/dancy, respectively—but So This Is Goodbye is freakishly near perfect. I’m guessing part of the reason Junior Boys are so unexpectedly rousing live is precisely because their most upbeat material still has hushed whispers for vocals and intricately worked-over glitches for beats. Live, they rock real drums and louder vocals, which automatically kicks things up a notch; they bring out the sexy in what’s just enjoyably pathetic whimpering on record.

No one needs me to tell them how great Goodbye is (although I understand Last Exit has die-hard fans, who understand something about spare beats I don’t). So—even if this isn’t as devastating as Goodbye’s album’s closing duo of “When No One Cares” and “FM”—I’ll go with “The Animator,” from the mostly puzzling Begone Dull Care. Poised between structural solidity and temperamental fragility, “The Animator” (allegedly inspired by Canadian animator Norman McLaren, which is basically irrelevant to everyone but the band) doesn’t say anything worth writing home about (“I can’t draw a line without it falling off the page”), but it sounds, indefinably, like someone giving thanks and forgiveness simultaneously. Or maybe, more honestly, I never got over the year The Notwist and The Postal Service broke the same year and I thought warm, overtly devastated hushed electronic pop (“lappop!” That never caught on) would become the de facto ballad mode of the ’00s. Well, no: Turns out not everyone prefers that 80% of their music sounds immensely, unnecessarily sad with electronic help. But “The Animator” does; it could also be totally muscular live. Here’s hoping it far outlives the uneven album it comes from and Junior Boys pander to me like this a few more times.

71. Ms. John Soda, “Solid Ground” (No P. or D., 2002)
Ms. John Soda is a side project of The Notwist; I have the album this comes from, but I’m afraid to listen to the rest of it in case it’s something I don’t care for or tarnishes this. I’ve read a few reviews, each of which makes a point of dissing this song; it’s too wussy or something. Even more crushed than “The Animator,” “Solid Ground” is actually the opposite of its title: “No solid ground beneath my feet,” the anonymously cooing woman sings, and the song reflects that instability, building itself around an unreliable stand-up bass and a tarnished piano that’s seen better days. I don’t even listen to what she’s singing after that. If this had become a generic genre, I wouldn’t have complained. It didn’t.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.