In the long, long ago–back before this blog had a gimmick, if one can imagine–I succumbed to itemizing the best music over the last decade. Because all the cool kids all do it it’s always fun to find out what ten songs hit people the most over the previous decade; “the best” is impossible. And in doing so, you figure out if you’ve missed something vitally important along the way. Yeah, for a publication like Rolling Stone it’s some sort of coronation but when you have friends with similar tastes, it’s essentially a gimmick that leads you to good music in the end. Either songs of haven’t before or haven’t heard in a while, it’ll affect you in some way. Or to turn your nose up to them from that point forward. Y’know, whatever.
You can find the lists here. But one list that was never posted came from my friend Erik, who is contributing to tomorrow’s edition of Mixtape Weekend. No big deal…if it wasn’t probably the best written of the group. You, dear readers, who have no one to blame but myself. I got lazy and kept pushing it off until it was February, and then kind of besides the point. But now, in the interest of sharing music (and in October), here is his list. It rules. Tune in for his equally-awesome mixtape tomorrow. Without further ado, here’s my pal Erik’s Top Ten of the Decade:
The White Stripes – Fell in Love With a Girl
White Blood Cells, 2001
It was early in the decade that we were all reminded of just where rock and roll started — the blues. Jack and Meg White came springing out of Detroit waving a two-minute single in the air like a middle finger to the sackless schlock that was being sold on the radio at the time (Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” had topped the Modern Rock charts for two months when White Blood Cells first dropped). They introduced themselves cordially to us all with a riff built on ballsy distortion and thudding drums, with Jack telling us in his particularly nasally voice how he, in fact, fell in love with a girl.
2003’s Elephant may be their tour de force, full of gems like “Seven Nation Army” and “Ball and Biscuit;” but nothing will ever stick in your mind quite like seeing Gondry’s Lego pastiche for the first time and wondering just exactly who these people could possibly be.
Wilco – Poor Places
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002
It’s difficult to remember sometimes that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, in fact, a pre-9/11 record; but maybe, just maybe, we want to forget that. The lumbering Marina City towers on the cover are a little too evocative of the World Trade Center towers; the lyrics of songs like “Jesus, Etc.” are too reminiscent of that fateful morning (“tall buildings shake / voices escape singing sad, sad songs”). But if “Jesus, Etc.” is mistakenly identified as an account of that morning, “Poor Places” might just be an eerie prediction of the future, with or without that context. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are evocative without having any concrete certainty. From what we can figure out, there are sailors sailing off (to fight the war, as we discover in an early demo of the song); we’ve had our fangs removed; we’re apathetic to how exactly they feel overseas; bows are being tied around trees; we wish we could see someone; and, if there’s any sense in us, we’re not going outside.
The repeated mantra that we’re not venturing out into that dystopian landscape only brings it closer to our view. The outro of the song — a woman on shortwave radio repeats herself monotonously over washes and washes of grainy, distorted noise — could’ve been the greatest ending to an album of all time; and at the very least, it’s one of the most enduringly goosebump-inducing moments in recorded music. If the fuzz doesn’t grab you, the sudden silence after it will.
Nirvana – You Know You’re Right
The fact that I’m listing two songs on this list that were not, in fact, written or recorded in this decade feels like a giant kick in the nuts to musicians everywhere. Oh well. I was starting my freshman year of high school when this gem finally got released; needless to say, good old fashioned angst-rock was a necessary prescription at the time. At that point, the best angst-rock we were actively turning out onto the charts was schlocky and derivative of the worst of the late 90s (Linkin Park). Some of us turned to the previous generation’s champions of angst-rock for guidance; but even they were actively fucking it up at the time. Billy Corgan was, if you recall, selling smiles and flowers as the frontman of Zwan. (“Honestly” — honestly?)
So instead, we focused our attention to someone we knew couldn’t actively screw it up — because he’d been dead for eight years. It was essentially perfect — even the story of the song’s release was angst-ridden. Dave Grohl and Krist Novaselic had fought long and hard with Courtney Love over the song’s release, as well as over the resulting With the Lights Out boxset. In the end, we all won. Kurt Cobain, God rest his soul, let loose from the vaults with a primal scream that still sent shivers up our spines and still felt fresh eleven years after Nevermind broke big. Thusly, we were saved.
Outkast – Hey Ya!
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003
Don’t believe André 3000 for a moment; he’ll tell you that he’s just being honest in the song, but he lies to you with the first four words. He counts it out — “ah-one-two-three-UNH!” — but all of four measures in, he’s deviating from his own metrical scheme. No sensible person in pop — much less danceable pop — would have the audacity to build a song around such constant metrical changes. But he does it — he drifts in and out of your standard 4/4 over the course of the entire song, scattering measures of 2/4 in like he was Johnny Appleseed.
It’s one thing to take one type of musical gambit; but Andre’s also laying down a very outside-the-box chord progression on an acoustic guitar in a genre that isn’t exactly acoustic-guitar-friendly. He breaks so many of the rules that it seems incredible that he pays attention to the few remaining rules of a good pop tune — handclaps, dropping the beat, classic bits of MCing to invite people out on the floor. The resulting amalgam of ludicrous musical choices with a pinch of the tried-and-true results in one of the catchiest and most memorable songs of the decade.
The Postal Service – Such Great Heights
Give Up, 2003
Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello did himself a favor, hooking up with Death Cab frontman Benjamin Gibbard to collaborate on “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” for 2001’s Life is Full of Possibilities. The pair enjoyed the collaboration so much that they turned it into a full-fledged side project — one that has kept Tamborello from eating Ramen. Give Up was wildly successful, spawning a generation of kids who dream of making the next big hit on their iMacs (in a genre given the unfortunate moniker “lap-pop”), as well as a slew of commercial placements (including, ironically, UPS).
“Such Great Heights” was the Postal Service’s flagship single, full of saccharine but verbose lyrics and panned beeps and whirrs over a four-on-the-floor dance groove. If Weezer made it okay for the geeky folk to play guitar, the Postal Service made it okay for the bookish wallflowers to finally get on the dance floor. (Thanks, guys.)
The Arcade Fire – Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)
I was initially disappointed with the Arcade Fire; every review I came across seemed to sing their praises for their huge and epic sound. I gave Funeral a cursory listen and felt it just didn’t live up to expectations. I was expecting film-score orchestrations and sheets of bigger-than-life sound; it was a battle lost before it was fought. With a more open mind much later (I’m late to every good party), I finally heard what those reviews meant – that the Arcade Fire plays with timbre in a way that few other bands could dream of doing. They swirl different sounds in and out of songs, sounds that fit where they don’t belong – strings and quirky folk instruments in between twinkling pianos, thick guitars, thin synths, thudding drums, and titanic vocal arrangements. “Neighborhoods #1” is one of the finest examples of their aesthetic; it trips and turns over different sounds all carrying the main theme, be it the piano, a crunchy guitar, or the vocals. The lyrics, too, are built on a clever defiance of expectation — the archetypal story of lovers running away together and starting their own life becomes a tale of feral living in the frigid cold.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2005
The world isn’t supposed to be rife with characters like Bob Dylan or David Byrne — geniuses that border on the eccentric, artists that reveal about our worlds than they ever seem to about themselves. Whether Alec Ounsworth is our generation’s poorly-voiced troubadour or merely an impostor is up for discussion, but he certainly has grabbed his share of attention in the meantime. He’s followed in Dylan’s and Byrne’s footsteps, with oblique lyrics built out of disjointed, disparate images. He’s followed Dylan’s penchant for interviews full of non sequiturs, and Byrne’s penchant for quirky white-boy funk (“Life During Wartime” vs. “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth”).
“Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” is not Ounsworth’s most accessible composition on the album (“Skin…”), nor his lushest (“In This Home On Ice”). What makes this the track from the album is its swaggering braggadocio and its sharp-edged consciousness; he tells us over a jagged acoustic riff that there’s nothing left to fear, and yet he begs that we lend Mary-Kate Olsen a hand. Whether he’s assuring us that they are ‘child stars’ or ‘chaste whores’ (or both) escapes me; and either way, he’s right. The final seconds of the recording is reminiscent of the way similarly-voiced Jeff Mangum got up to leave at the end of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — a wordless statement to remind you that you didn’t just finish listening to just any ol’ album.
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever
This is as much historical perspective as it is aesthetic choice. Cirque de Soleil’s LOVE soundtrack, put together by Sir George and Giles Martin, was originally intended to just be a giant remixing project — digitally transferring all the original master tapes into ProTools, tweaking the mixes, and editing songs down for time. It was Giles that had the brilliant concept of truly combining songs; he began by time-stretching the hypnotic drum track from “Tomorrow Never Knows” to fit beneath “Within You, Without You,” creating something entirely new out of familiar old parts. The project then took on an entirely new focus, and a brilliant new record came to fruition.
“Strawberry Fields” wasn’t the first of the new mashups (“Within You, Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows”), nor was it the most innovative and creative (the intro to “Get Back”). That said, it showcases the improvement in technology over the last forty years by showing off the clarity of Lennon’s pitch-shifted vocals instead of his highly distorted slow-tape vocals. (You don’t realize how altered his voice sounds on the original recording until you hear this.) Furthermore, the outro — showing off solos from songs ranging from “Penny Lane” to “In My Life” and ending the song with “Hello Goodbye” — showcases Giles Martin’s ability to deftly and musically combine songs.
It’s a testament to more than Martin’s skill, though; it legitimizes one of the decade’s newest art forms — the mashup. Even landmark mashup albums like Danger Mouse’s Grey Album or Girl Talk’s Night Ripper have too many questions surrounding them to critique them on an aesthetic level first and foremost. Instead, any serious critique must ask questions of legality and artists’ intentions first. With LOVE, the album was fully endorsed by the Beatles. Furthermore, the Martins were working from the master tapes; the usual brand of technical trickery to pull vocals out of tracks (at the severe cost of fidelity) weren’t necessary. Instead, we have a piece of art viewed on art’s terms, not copyright law’s.
Who knew the Beatles would still be actively pushing musical boundaries almost forty years after they broke up?
Justin Timberlake – SexyBack
The opening to the fourth movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. John Williams’ Jaws theme. Both are based on the discord of an ascending minor second, an interval that inherently gives a strong sense of foreboding that lies between that melodic interval. Both make full use of the interval’s natural sound to build a sense of suspense themselves; few pull it off better than Williams’ score. But what is the greater artistic stroke — using something to its intended purpose, or bending its meaning into something wholly different? With a little syncopation added and a fat synth laying it down, Timbaland creates something that’s not foreboding but instead inviting. And then, of course, he lays that on top of a set of 909 bongos reminding you exactly where those off-beats are. Mr. Timberlake takes Timb’s groove and slinks over it with a vocal that makes you swiftly (and thankfully) forget that he was ever part of one of those accursed boy-bands.
Battles – Atlas
One of the crimes of the rise of electronica and all of its hardware is the loss of the shuffle. The dearth of shuffle-based music in pop since Gary Glitter shouted “Hey!” over it in ’72 can be, in part, attributed to drum machine layouts and the rise of disco. Electronic-based rock is difficult enough to find on its own; forget shuffle-based electronic-based rock. Battles, however, is no ordinary band; their level of technical proficiency blows away most musicians beyond those in symphony orchestras. Their creativity surpasses even that, though; their ability to integrate electronics into their brand of prog-math-rock is flat-out awe-inspiring.
For once, though, they stuck to one meter in “Atlas” — and built a brawny tour de force of shuffle-based balls-rock in the process. Tyondai Braxton’s pitch-shifted vocals ask us politely to show Alvin and the rest of the Chipmunks what begins at the edge of town. What we find there is one bad-ass instrumental section whose sonic thrill ride can only be outdone by watching Battles perform it. Check out the footage of them playing it on “Later with Jools Holland” — not one but two of these cats play keyboards and guitar simultaneously. It’s mindblowing.
Death Cab for Cutie – Scientist Studies (We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, 2000) – My favorite ending to any record ever; and easily one of my favorite records of the decade, if not all-time. They have more balls than “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” would ever let on.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Can’t Stop (By the Way, 2002) – One of the funkiest songs of the decade. The fact that John Frusciante has survived the entire decade deserves a shout-out alone, forget that he actually thrived during it.
Queens of the Stone Age – Little Sister (Lullabies to Paralyze, 2005) – Probably my favorite guitar solo of the decade; Josh Homme can wail. Before anyone makes the joke, it’s not a Goddamn cowbell.
Broken Social Scene – 7/4 (Shoreline) (Broken Social Scene, 2005) – I can think of two good songs in 7/4 off the top of my head. The other is Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Good company.
Albert Hammond, Jr. – In Transit (Yours to Keep, 2006) – The most sunshine and summer packed into a single song since Brian Wilson had sanity left in him.