Editor’s Note: Click here to read the previous installment of this feature.
90. Department of Eagles, “Floating On The Lehigh” (In Ear Park, 2008)
Arguably, the aughts traveled through three or four distinct phases of journalistically notable indie rock trends (read: space-filling pseudo-movements rooted in some truth, but basically the creation of lazy critics). There was the ridiculously clustered-together “garage rock revival” post-millennial phase (something so poorly and simplistically defined that, for a while, people thought maybe The Fiery Furnaces ought to be grouped next to the White Stripes, since they were both [faux-]brother/sister duos). There was the ugly middle period defined by (depending on where your head was at) either DFA and its disco-punk ilk and/or the notion that large groups of people standing around on stage constituted an automatically laudable, Gen-X-cynicism-repudiating ethos of “community,” “togetherness” et al. (Douglas Coupland would be so proud we snapped out of it!). The endgame (now over, apparently) was in thrall to the idea that Sonic Youth should be everyone’s favorite band of all time. There will be much more to say about these dismal mini-zeitgeists on another occasion.
At this particular moment, though, it seems like Grizzly Bear have a chance of making really ornate, multi-harmony vocals that resist automatic Beach Boys sugar very popular and generally The Next Big Thing if anyone can figure out how to rip them off. They’re very sui generis, but I prefer side project Department of Eagles, which concedes just enough to the kind of stuff I already understand; Yellow House aside, Grizzly Bear often stretches beyond what I’m comfortable with in their longeurs. Like Rufus Wainwright at his most Romantic, “Floating On The Lehigh” meanders through six minutes of woodwinds, the occasional operatic swell and non-urgent detours without ever seeming too tenuous. There’s real excitement to be found in music that can sprawl for a long time without losing you when it stops to breathe, which is pretty much always in this case. Downright post-coital.
89. Franz Ferdinand, “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” (You Could Have It So Much Better, 2005)
Franz Ferdinand went really quickly from UK NME heroes—just another group to be hyped up and spat out the next week, the way bands like (three random examples from an infinite number) The Ordinary Boys, The Paddingtons or The Enemy came and went—to honest-to-goodness US chart stars, suggesting to the overexcitable that they were going to be the next Oasis. (Britpop’s got the weirdest criterion for success: You have to conquer America to be fully validated, which apparently either proves that British music isn’t just an insular circle jerk, or that British cultural imperialism can still linger on in some consolation-prize way, or something equally ineffable. It’s a peculiarly one-way phenomenon: You don’t see too many American bands worrying about whether they’re rocking Brighton.) It might be hard for kids twenty years on to hear what exactly was so exciting about Franz Ferdinand. Though they wrote two albums of excellent, impeccable pop, I’m having trouble these days finding something in their music suggesting they were actually so many magnitudes better than any number of other, contemporaneous bands who never got over Talking Heads, aside from their freakish consistency. (There’s basically no filler on their first two albums, which is impressive.)
Still, I enjoyed and enjoy both those two albums in their entirety and it would be dishonest to leave them off; they were a brief moment suggesting the Pitchfork-approved zeitgeist was going to take over the world on a stadium-filling scale (I have no qualms about things I like blowing up; I rather enjoy it). As far as an arbitary representative track, I’ll go with this uncharacteristic piano-based ballad, if only because a) it’s adorable b) Alex Kapranos dated the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (hence the title), a ridiculously disparate union of incompatible chart positions and also the kind of nerd indie rock trivia precisely no one but me seems to find interesting. Indie rock power couples! Not since the glory days of Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield etc, etc.
88. Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma” (Vampire Weekend, 2008)
When Vampire Weekend played Pitchfork 2007, Nathan Rabin noted they were greeted with a sarcastic cry of “Keep on rocking! I love The Jonas Brothers!” VW probably objectively set some kind of record for least time elapsed from blog fame to the commercial success (they had a debut within a year-and-a-half of formation that went on to sell 900,000 copies worldwide). Reflexive disowning by the very people who first championed them came pretty much the day their album came out. They’re the poster child for both blog-rock’s upside (it can find good new bands way faster than the past noxious scouting process) and downside (if they’re famous too fast, no one who was an early adopter wants anything to do with them). Vampire Weekend’s biggest sin was being simultaneously poppy and preppy; it’s hard to tell which offended their detractors more. Edgeless? Sure. Bland? Probably. (Contra’s a whole other story though.) The fact that lead singer Ezra Koenig showed up at a 12-hour Fucked Up show and flawlessly screamed two punk chestnuts probably only made people uneasy, pointing out how short the connecting line is between formulaic pop and (by definition somewhat formulaic) purist punk. So I’ll go with one of their earwormiest and most unabashedly “elitist” songs (that title!) just for good measure; this is surely one of the slowest, least urgent songs ever to nonetheless be insanely catchy.
87. Killer Mike, “That’s Life” (single, 2006)
Pretty much one of the favorite 2006 songs of everyone who took hip-hop “seriously” (a designation which always sends up nearly as many warning flags as the recommendations of people who take TV “seriously”), this will probably stand better as a time capsule than the stinging declaration of intent it’s meant as, though it’s plenty vehement. In a little over five minutes, Mike denounces Oprah, “bourgeoisie niggers,” people whose “sick twisted faggot minds” lead them to theorize about why black people wear baggy jeans, and why Kanye was “damn near right” but how W. actually hates “all poor people, be they black or white.” An equal mixture of the mildly alarming and the pretty convincing, it’s about as honest and substantive as most ’00s rap got without being preachy. Mike shows you can be didactic but entertaining; in any case, the way he made his case was far more entrancing than said case. As of this writing, Killer Mike has changed to the name Mike Bigga, which is a damn shame.
86. Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, “Yahhh!” (souljaboytellem.com, 2007)
Diametrically opposite across the hip-hop divide there’s Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, who’s always struck me as a reasonably amusing guy, far from the nadir of rap he was supposed to be. (This will be the only time I impersonate a self-righteous poptimist; there will be no appearances from the Jonas Brothers or, I dunno, Ke$ha further down this list, I swear.) With his first hit, “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” he came up with one of rap’s most annoyingly insistent, catchiest verbal hooks, inspiring many suburban kids to Urban Dictionary the readjusted meanings of “Superman” and “Robocop.” When Ice-T took the sentiments of many critics to the next level and recorded a diss claiming Soulja Boy “singlehandedly killed hip-hop” and telling him to “eat a dick,” Soulja Boy shockingly came out on top by pointing out a) the man who once recorded “Fuck Tha Police” is now on Law And Order b) Soulja Boy’s financial success enabled him to move his family out of the ghetto within a year of breaking (“You should be telling me ’Congratulations young brother, get your money’”) c) if Ice-T really feels hip-hop is dying, he should get back in the studio and try to save it. Soulja Boy understands precisely what his goals are and what rap music’s current commercial paradigm is: It’s to make a great deal of money by being as entertaining as he knows how, and he’s fairly good at it.
As a song, “Yaah” isn’t noticeably more advanced than “Crank That,” but it gave birth to my personal nominee for most entertaining rap video of the decade. Soulja Boy’s at home with his friend Arab playing video games, but his management team insists he make an appearance at school. So off he skulks down the sidewalk, accompanied by his little claymation buddy, the “Hater,” who’s popped out from a video game to act as Soulja Boy’s (only marginally more inappropriate) id. When someone gets in your face—be that someone Hilary Clinton or Britney Spears (to Soulja Boy, all white people look the same)—yell “Yaah trick! Yaah!” It’s cathartic. The whole thing ends with a rousing parody of Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s,” with Soulja Boy changing the chorus from a celebration of rims to a demand that his teacher upgrade his F’s to D’s, jovially celebrating his own ignorance. “I’m just playing,” he concludes, “listen to Soulja Boy, stay in school,” but he can’t stop himself from cracking up. I salute Soulja Boy’s absolute lack of hypocrisy if nothing else: He’s no one’s mouthpiece for a school system he dropped out of. He’s a terrible rapper, but a pretty good entertainer.
85. Josh Rouse, “Carolina” (Nashville, 2005)
At one point, Rouse’s website talked up “The soft rock sounds of Josh Rouse.” It takes some nerve to court a label most would try hard to avoid, a perversity I dig (Rouse is on the record as a die-hard Bread fan). This is one of Rouse’s sparklier numbers (and one of his least ’70s fixated ones, for whatever that’s worth), but it’s sophisticatedly soaring. Rouse’s work is uneven as a whole, but when he’s on he can make awesome little ditties I listen to over and over again even though they’re obviously not necessarily anything more than well-crafted schlock. I think it’s about a hooker.
84. Ada, “Maps” (Blondie, 2004)
“Maps” was a reasonably popular song in its original incarnation—unexpected MTV spins and all—but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs never had their big commercial push to the next R.E.M.-tier level. (I certainly don’t think most normal, radio-listening, Godfearing Americans heard “Maps” until it was added to the Rock Band roster.) I like this synth-pop cover even better; with its glacial pace and calm, cheaply expansive synths, it ditches Karen O’s usual hysterics (effectively reined-in on “Maps,” but she’s really had some horrendously over-the-top moments) for epic detachment and serene resignation. If Karen O sings like someone who momentarily hopes she can actually stop her lover from leaving (“Maps” is the kind of song that demands the use of an overwrought word like “lover”), Ada’s tone transforms the whole thing into the greatest John Hughes prom scene that never was, a slow-dance frozen in time. That I prefer this approach obviously says more about my ingrained preferences than the actual merits of the respective versions, but I get chills from this; the original is just a very good song.
83. Los Campesinos!, “Frontwards” (Sticking Fingers into Sockets EP, 2007)
As of right now, Los Campesinos! are more interesting theoretically than viscerally, striving to combine a comical degree of reverence for Sarah Records and their American indie forefathers with shout-y punk. It’s probably an unrealizable project, but it’s interesting to watch them try to sum up the entire Indie Rock Ethos as they understand it in one band. This gleeful Pavement cover is as close as they’ve gotten thus far, transforming one of the Slanted And Enchanted era’s most haunted songs (only “Here” mopes better) into an unlikely punk-pop cut, complete with solo fiddle. Erudite, WE-LOVE-OBSCURITIES righteousness meets instant pleasure for a few minutes.
82. Girl Talk, “Smash Your Head” (Night Ripper, 2006)
Girl Talk is pretty awesome, but the problem is that I’ve talked to way too many people who feel like they can’t stand mainstream hip-hop in any other context except Gregg Gillis’—i.e., recontextualized against white radio-/indie- friendly hallmarks. When Gillis hijacks a rap vocal hook, it’s not hard to hear that it’s often the instrumentals, not the words, lifted by the juxtaposition, but listeners perceive it oppositely. It’s like, how much imagination does it take to hear the catchiness of the Ying Yang Twins anyway? But “Smash Your Head” admittedly works for everyone regardless of orientation, largely because the nearly minute-long juxtaposition of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (a ridiculously celebratory rap verse) and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (associated in the memory of nearly everyone Gillis’s age or younger with a whole tour bus in Almost Famous breaking out into reconciliatory sing-along) is just way too euphoric. Also, the X-Ray Spex song at the start is as erudite and obscure a reference as Girl Talk’s ever offered, so the best of the populist and elitist worlds in one song.
81. The Streets, “Don’t Mug Yourself” (Original Pirate Material, 2002)
For a brief moment I actually remember (but which probably would seem ridiculous to anyone even, say, three years younger), generally level-headed music critics and amateur over-enthusiasts really thought the commercial rap landscape of 2002—settling into one of its periodic torpors, where semi-novelty singles broke out but new artists with obvious staying power were missing—could possibly be taken over by a British guy whose sense of rhythm and meter was at best cheerfully indifferent and at worst actively incompetent. If anything, Mike Skinner’s odd first album sounds even better now than when it came out; I was dreading a follow-up phalanx of slacker Brits lazily offering aggressively lower-class vernacular as a goal in itself, but instead he was just the one guy (one who got a lot worse when he got too wealthy to remember what he was rapping about in the first place, though he’s had his moments ever since: We Survivors Of The Swine-Flu must all gather together one day to snicker over this).
Shortly thereafter, grime took over the UK rap scene and I never could get into it, no matter how gleefully eccentric and aggressive Dizzee Rascal’s pronunciations were; it just seemed like all the violence and pissed-off-ness of American rap, but with less fun (“progressive”) beats. Most of Original Pirate Material is gold; this unrepentantly male-centric song is as good as any. I’m hesitant to dutifully label it misogynistic, since it’s clearly presented as a bunch of dudes sitting around the-morning-after shooting the shit after a hard night of clubbing, halfway between stoned skit and vérité report. Among the cliched but quite possibly true advice—she’ll like you more if you don’t call her!—are terrific moments of dudes cockily saying things like “Stop me if I’m wrong! Stop me if I’m wrong!” and the sounds of friends cracking up over cheap silverware; British Apatow without the punchlines. But yeah, there was no way in the entire world this was ever going to take over American hip-hop. Are you kidding?