Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You Oughta Listen to My Best of the Aughts

As the decade draws to a close, this music lover’s fancy turns to thoughts of best-of lists. Forgive me if I’m jumping the gun, but I just can’t imagine anything coming out in the next five months that will displace any of these from my Top 20 of the 2000s…

20. “I Turn My Camera On” by Spoon (2005) — Spoon’s exquisite, precious, tortured minimalism can wear thin sometimes. But this has got to be the tightest, most sinewy dance-rock track since Bowie’s “Fame.”
19. “Toxic” by Britney Spears (2004) — Kindly ignore the rest of her odious catalogue and focus instead on the hookiest chorus of the new millennium. You have to give props to an accomplished vocal performance that transitions effortlessly from breathless falsetto to machine-gun staccato.
18. “Hate It or Love It” by The Game (2005) — Maybe “Hate It or Love It” belongs on a best-of-the-’70s list, since it’s the Trammps sample that really makes this song. But the propulsive hi-hat and driving bass line added by producers Cool & Dre bring it credibly into the 2000s.
17. “What Ever Happened?” by The Strokes (2003) — Many of the Strokes’ best songs remind me of classic video games like Pac Man or Donkey Kong — not so much because of their overtly ’80s sound, but rather because of the way their apparent simplicity conceals their true worth. Just as Pac Man and Donkey Kong ply simple 8-bit graphics into exquisitely balanced games that bear repeated playing, The Strokes weave basic, unadorned guitar, bass, vocals and drums into sonic tapestries that merit repeated listening. It sounds easy, but it’s not.
16. “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Jay-Z (2001) — Sure, Jay-Z probably rapped better on dozens of other tracks over the past 10 years, but did any of them boast an arrangement as seductively lush as this? Soaring, cinematic strings; a touch of sitar; the plaintive wailings of Tom Brock; the basso profundo of Biz Markie: it all adds up to a soundscape that captures the New York of my fantasies, where Shaft, Donny Hathaway and Robert Redford from “Three Days of the Condor” all hang out on a stoop together.
15. “Island in the Sun” by Weezer (2001) — A Proustian melancholy suffuses this song, which seems to chronicle Rivers Cuomo’s frustrated desire to return to the innocence of childhood. We pass from hope (the sweet, flat, trebly sound of those opening chords) to anger (the overdriven fuzz of the chorus) to acceptance (the reverbed outro). “We’ll never feel bad any more,” sings Cuomo, but we know he doesn’t believe the lie himself.
14. “Love at First Sight” by Kylie Minogue (2002) — Distilled sunshine, 100 proof. Best use of the flange effect since Van Halen’s “Unchained.”
13. “Mistaken for Strangers” by The National (2007) — It’s pretty cool how this song nails urban anomie, but its real appeal lies in the mournful tones (is it a cello?) that pull the song to its defeated conclusion, like a little boy’s balloon slowly deflating the day after his birthday party.
12. “Heartbeats” by The Knife (2002) — On their own, the basic elements of this song — its rhythm, its melody, its harmony — would not earn it a place in my Top 20. But the tone, good Lord, the tone! The main synthesizer line is almost impossibly fat and buttery and rotund. They could play scales with that tone and it would still hold the power to hypnotize. Never has a tone so captivated me since Jimmy Page’s solo on “I’m Gonna Crawl.”
11. “Read My Mind” by The Killers (2006) — Like the arena rock bands of the ’70s, the Killers are strangely anonymous — blank vehicles for the delivery of music. Their identity lies completely in their sound, no more, no less. As with Journey or Boston, you can instantly recognize a song by the Killers. But beyond that, it is difficult to say anything about who they are, the way one could easily describe the personalities of, say, Morrissey or Limp Bizkit. So why include them here? Because of their ambition. Like their ’70s brethren, the Killers aspire to greatness, even if they don’t always reach it. A quote from Milan Kundera sums it up nicely: “Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produced books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional — thus non-useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious — is contemptible.”
10. “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne (2003) — Perfection can be terrifying. A flawless diamond enchants with its cold, cruel beauty. A powerful laser bores holes through titanium with its pure, concentrated light. And “Stacy’s Mom” stimulates the pleasure centers of our brain with its ruthless cruise-missile precision. Listen if you dare, but don’t listen too closely, or its robotic efficiency could melt your mind.
9. “The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots (2003) — “The Seed (2.0)” possesses a coiled intensity, like a snake that’s poised to strike but never does. Like “Astral Weeks,” it’s all build-up and no release; all potential energy and no kinetic.
8. “You Can Make Him Like You” by The Hold Steady (2006) — Who needs three chords? The Hold Steady will rock you with just two, thank you very much.
7. “LoveStoned / I Think She Knows” by Justin Timberlake (2007) — Not since “Layla” has a song shifted gears with such sublime beauty. If weightlessness had a sound, it would be “I Thinks She Knows.”
6. “Golden” by My Morning Jacket (2003) — The delicate guitar pattern that propels this ballad rises softly and slowly, like a hot air balloon. You don’t know how high up you’re going until you look down. So many songs bemoan a dream deferred; “Golden” is one of a few songs by an artist other than Miley Cyrus to celebrate a dream realized.
5. “Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado, ft. Timbaland (2006) — The best Prince song that Prince never wrote, “Promiscuous” accomplished something that fewer and fewer songs do in our fragmented, segmented, demographized age: it scored a monster hit, the kind that unites everybody. Whether you liked it or not, chances are you remember where you were and what you were doing when this song broke big in the summer of 2006.
4. “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga (2008) — A perfect fusion of high and low art. Oh Lady Gaga, I know you think you’re the latest coming of Andy Warhol, a real Greenwich Village artiste. But I really love you because you sound like a big-haired girl from Jersey or the Island.
3. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson (2004) — Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera may tower over Kelly Clarkson in the technical-ability department. But have any of them ever soared over a lyric as exuberantly as she does on this track? When the chorus kicks in and she sings the title line for the first time, rays of light dispel all gloom.
2. “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes (2008) — It’s no accident that every time I listen to this song I’m reminded of “The Lord of the Rings,” into which J.R.R. Tolkien poured a lifetime of scholarship in mythology and linguistics. Tolkien absorbed the essence of his sources so thoroughly as to almost fuse with them. The resulting work felt timeless and immortal. Fleet Foxes pull off a similar feat with “Blue Ridge Mountains,” a song that synthesizes a wealth of influences to, sacrilege alert, out-Going-to-California “Going to California.”
1. “Hey Ya!” by Outkast (2003) — Words do not suffice. Just listen to it again and remember for yourself.

Honorable mentions: “So Fresh, So Clean” by Outkast; “Clarity” by John Mayer; “Be Easy” by Ghostface Killah: “King of All the World” by Old 97s; “Ignition” by R. Kelly; “Lisztomania” by Phoenix; “Hot in Herre” by Nelly; “Glad Girls” by Guided by Voices; “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K.; “Maire Mhilis Bhrae” by Solas; “Made You Look” by Nas; “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” by PJ Harvey; “Let’s Get It Started” by Black Eyed Peas.

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