Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kenny's Top 25 Songs of the 2000s

ED. NOTE: This was supposed to be comment on the previous post, but it was too long. Please think of it as a continuation of that conversation.

Here's a crack at the top 25 songs of the decade. Even moreso than last time, this list is highly, highly personal and (obviously) subjective. I had two requirements: 1) the song needed to stand on its own merit as, at worst, a 4 out of 5 star song, and 2) it needed to reach me in a way that I couldn't shake. Now, what that looks like changes: in some cases, it was a guitar solo or a hook in the melody--something that would get in my head and then come pouring out whenever I tried to write. In others, it was a line, a lyric or a rhyme that struck me as so profound, my 2002 self couldn't help but post it as his "away message" on AIM. Lastly (and maybe worst of all) are songs that fused so completely with a place, person or moment in my life this decade that I don't have any choice but to love (or maybe hate) them. Unlike the albums list, I'll try to offer explanations for my choices. Here goes, in chronological order:

*** "Song" by Artist (Album) ***

"The Cedar Room" by Doves (Lost Souls)
The first sprawling arena rock song I ever heard that nonetheless felt intimate. Amazing bass hook, tight and memorable chorus, and one of Doves' often stunning and simple lead lines.

"Storm: Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven)
I could never review this song or its impact on me. The first 7 minutes are so, so incredibly beautiful and triumphant...and from there, the song does everything--everything--post-rock can do right. Eye-opening. Gorgeous. Perfect.

"Daylight" by Aesop Rock (Labor Days)
I know this is embarrassing to admit, but this was the first rap song I ever liked. I still struggle to like the genre, but because of this song, I feel like I can see a glimmer of what makes it so appealing for so many people. It's intelligent, angry and challenging.

"The Luckiest" by Ben Folds (Rockin' the Suburbs)
Rockin' the Suburbs was the album where my '90s-long love affair with Ben Folds as a musician and (especially) as a lyricist came crashing to the ground in a crazy, beautiful fireball. There are so many things I love about that record--"Fred Jones Part 2," especially, which finished off my favorite BFF song, "Cigarette"--but it also marked the beginning of my decade long hatred of overproduction. "The Luckiest" is everything wonderful and terrible about Ben Folds in a single song: strong lyrics, a genuine heart beating inside it...but wrapped in gloopy reverb, swelling with unironic strings, and so awkwardly placed at the end of the record as his "closer." But I nearly cry almost every time. It's also the rare song Meredith and I have shared: she walked down the aisle to a harp rendition of it.

"Idioteque" by Radiohead (I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings)
While I'm doing confessions, here's a doozy: I listened to my first Radiohead album during the fall of 2001, 4 years after "OK Computer" made them the default "best band" of their generation and another year after "Amnesiac." To say I was late to the scene is an understatement. In any case, my roommate that fall was a big fan of "The Bends," and at his prompting, I listened to it while delivering pizza for a month. I was hooked by the obvious fare: "Fake Plastic Trees" was a beautiful and haunting song, "Just" ripped it up, etc. I followed "The Bends" a few weeks later with "OK Computer," which I had always heard was good but which I had never listened to at all. I was so out of the loop with that record that I literally didn't know Radiohead had written "Karma Police" until I heard it on the CD. That record grabbed me like no record has before or sense--I was totally overwhelmed, again for all the reasons you would expect. But perhaps strangely, my love for "OK Computer" was so intense, I refused to go on to "Kid A" or "Amnesiac" for months afterward. I had never listened to anything but alternative rock, and I was sure I would hate what everyone called their "electronic" album. So, at Christmas, I picked up "I Might Be Wrong" on a whim, figuring live versions of a smattering of songs from "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" might ease me into those records. I also bought it for "True Love Waits," which I had heard on a mixtape. To condense this story a bit, the version of "Idioteque" on that record became the bridge for me between Radiohead as a "rock" band and Radiohead as a band honestly attempting to explore the aesthetic boundaries of music to the full extent their talents would carry them. I had never, ever thought of music that way before. After "Idioteque," for better and often for worse, I didn't want to think of it in any other way.

"This Magnificent Bird Will Rise" by Deerhoof (Reveille)
I'll keep this entry short: this song allowed me to see Deerhoof as a bridge between the soundscapes of post-rock and the pop experimentalism weaving its way through indie rock during the decade. This was good for me. Without it, I would never have gotten to Danielson, Deerhunter, The Books, Joanna Newsome and so many other artists.

"Cinema Air" by The Gloria Record (Start Here)
I know I am the only person in the world that loves this band, and I'll admit its not entirely warranted. But this song is brilliant, and it spoke to me so deeply and truly in 2001-2004, as I was seeing 50-70 movies in the theater a year, collecting 400+ DVDs and basically glutting myself on what has remained my favorite art form. Great opening line, too: "They say the city swallows trees / And I am responsible / Because I am indifferent to these things. / Got blood on my windshield / Why, there must be hundreds / Of movies in my head" Love the wandering piano, too.

"Hurt" by Johnny Cash (American IV)
This is not a revolutionary pick, I know...but if you don't immediately agree with it, listen to it again. Maybe the best cover of the decade.

"Untitled 8" by Sigur Ros (())
That was fun to type. This barely edged "Untitled 3," which marked the single most amazing moment in a concert I have ever experienced in my life. The difference: that bad, bad, bad ass drum solo at the end of "8." Gorgeous, and more emotionally ragged than most of their songs.

"Red Right Ankle" by The Decemberists (Her Majesty)
God, this is a beautiful and fragile song. It should never work, but it makes me want to weep. Fantastic pairing of his voice, lyrical style and music.

"Your Hand in Mine" by Explosions in the Sky (Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place)
I don’t remember why I bought Explosions in the Sky’s first record anymore. I don’t remember the first time I listened to it. But I do remember when I first realized how amazing it was. My friend Alex and I were building a puzzle in his dorm room, strangely enough, while we waited on my brother to come by so we could go to lunch. After being underwhelmed by “Those Who Tell The Truth…,” I had given the CD to Alex, who had earlier turned me on to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. He hadn’t remarked on it, but while we were waiting, “Have You Passed Through This Night” came on the stereo. The track opens with dialogue sampled from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. We recognized the voice, but before we could place it, the drums kicked in on the song, stuttering through a two-measure fill before the guitar and bass erupt on the track. It took us both by surprise, and we listened to the rest of the song without talking or working on the puzzle or looking for my brother. When it was over, we immediately burned him a copy of the CD and I took my original back to listen to that afternoon in my room. I was floored by it. Two years later, when Explosions in the Sky released “The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place,” I bought it on the day it came out, and there at the end of the album, I found what still seems to me to be the perfect distillation of what stunned me sitting in my friend’s dorm room, wedded to a love for melody and beauty that is missing in the work of so many other post-rock bands. A few years later, Explosions remixed “Your Hand In Mine” for the Friday Night Lights soundtrack, and again, the result proved to be that rarest thing in my ultra-cynical, hipster-ironic music catalog: something simply, honestly beautiful.

"Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)" by Sufjan Stevens (Greetings From Michigan!)
This is an odd choice for me. There are Sufjan songs that I love more: “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “To Be Alone With You,” “Pittsfield”—maybe even a half dozen more. There are also better Sufjan songs: “Romulus,” “Gacy,” even “Chicago.” But “Flint” is the song that sold me on Sufjan. It’s a haunting and sincere track, and the quavering of Sufjan’s voice during the chorus which is just a bit too high for him was so moving to me, even on my first listen, that I trusted him for the rest of that album. If it hadn’t been for “Flint,” I don’t think I would have been ready for some of what Sufjan was doing (and continues to do) as a musician.

"Pancho Villa" by Sun Kil Moon (Ghosts of the Great Highway)
This write up is shorter: I am madly in love with the rhythm on the acoustic guitar in this song. Madly. In. Love.

"Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes (Elephant)
Short again: I am madly in love with the bass riff in this song. It was hard to pick a White Stripes song, and in some ways, it seemed like a bit of a put on—but anybody that knows me knows how much I love the intersection between indie rock and blues rock. I love Jack White’s guitar tone. I love the simplicity of his chord structures. I’m not always sold on his lyricism, but this song just flat out rocks.

"Sonho Dourado" by Daniel Lanois (Friday Night Lights: Soundtrack)
Cheesy pick, but an important one for me (and a song that, in all sincerity, is totally underrated). For me, “Sonho Dourado” was the song that finally changed my mind about guitar solos. I had postured for a long time that “real” guitar solos were ones that enhanced the melody and emotion of a song, not dick-waggling exercises in petty showmanship. But deep in my heart, I still envied Eddie Van Halen (and even worse, the douche in the music store finger-tapping Van Halen on a ruby red Stratocaster). With this track, Lanois showed me how to merge these two ideas: he finally showed me how impressive—truly impressive—the right kind of lead guitar work could be. Don’t get me wrong; I still can’t do it. But now I know what I’m looking for.

"I Don't Believe You" by The Magnetic Fields (i)
Greatest. Opening lines. Ever. It took me a long time to figure out why my gut kept insisting the Magnetic Fields were amazing (“69 Love Songs” was the answer), but this was definitely the song that kept them on my mind. Also: who else has ever rhymed “ampersand”?

"Ocean Breathes Salty" by Modest Mouse (Good News for People Who Love Bad News)
Another song with lyrics that I’ve never been able to shake. “You wasted life / Why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife”? Awesome. Not my favorite Modest Mouse song (easily “Wild Pack of Family Dogs”), but a really good mix of everything they do well: thought-provoking, occasionally rocking, and always hovering just outside the mainstream, taunting the emo kids. I love it.

"Against Pollution" by The Mountain Goats (We Shall All Be Healed)
Still my favorite Mountain Goats song. Again, devastatingly sincere lyrics do the trick, but I have to add to that the way this song reminded me so profoundly of my brother in 2004-5. Not to get too personal, but my brother was and is my best friend, and in the year or so following my getting married and moving to Columbia, he sunk into a bit of a pit. He was out of school, in a job with devastating hours and (although he wouldn’t admit it to this day) a bit alone. But deep down, he was, of course, still the amazing and loving guy he always was…that guy was just getting beat up a little bit. Anyway, there’s something in the resignation of Darnielle’s protagonist here that struck me as hauntingly and achingly true: when the narrator says after shooting a robber that he “would do it again,” he’s not being cruel, macho or masochistic: he’s being horrifyingly honest.

"3xO" by Pinback (Summer in Abaddon)
Two stories for the price of one! I ALSO discovered Pinback via Alex’s stereo shuffle while building a puzzle in his dorm room. The weirdest part is that we only built two puzzles in three years. Maybe we should have built more. A brief note on the song: awesome drums, guitars that don’t sound like they could possibly be normal guitars, and hooks that don’t give you a sugar rush after you hear them. Also: one of the most amazing codas I have ever heard. Totally rocks.

"Masterfade" by Andrew Bird (The Mysterious Production of Eggs)
Again, lyrics carry the day. Bird’s depiction of a man struggling with the mathematics of faith is stunningly and perfectly managed.

"The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades" by Sufjan Stevens (Come On, Feel the Illinoise)
Love, love, love the bridge, and this is by far my favorite use of horns in any Sufjan song.

"European Oils" by Destroyer (Rubies)
Holy of holies, the pause and kick-in to the solo on this song is so, so awesome. I’m not really sure what else to say about it—I like most everything about it, despite its strangeness.

"Chinese Translation" by M. Ward (Post-War)
It seems to me there’s a timeless hum to Ward’s vocals—something warm and familiar, but also adrift, as if he was unaware of an audience—that is so well matched to the subject material in this song. I can’t think of anyone else’s voice pulling off a song like this, which recites, in back-to-back verses, the questions of a wandering youth to a prophet and then that prophet’s reply (which, awesomely, are the same). A wonderful match of singer, song and musicianship.

"Nantes" by Beirut (The Flying Club Cup)
Is there anyone on the indie scene under 25 doing more interesting work than Zach Condon? Beirut doesn’t always get things right, but they fuse sincerity and curiosity so well, their music is always, always worth hearing. For me, “Nantes” does it best: the song is catchy and, in essence, a pop song; but inexplicably, the solo is a sample of a French woman in an argument with an unnamed man, accented by the (deliberately in tune) sound of breaking dishes. Who in their right mind would expect they would be humming THAT all day?

"In Our Talons" by Bowerbirds (Hymns For a Dark Horse)
At a loss, here. I love the accordion, I reeeally love the bass drum, and the echoes are all excellent. I guess I’m not sure exactly how to explain this song, other than to say that there’s something strange and familiar in it, and I keep coming back to it, again and again.

"7/4" by Broken Social Scene (Broken Social Scene)
Of all the songs on this list, I’m sure this one needs the least explanation. It’s technical exercise that, by some combination of brilliant musicianship, turns itself into an absolutely convincing pop song. Brilliant, memorable and unshakable.

"The Gardner" by The Tallest Man on Earth (Shallow Grave)
I’ve had this song on my iPod for less than two months and it had already made its way into my top 20 most played songs. Crazy-brilliant lyrics and a wonderful rhythm guitar line make for the best coffee shop song ever…or at least that would be the case if anyone else could sing it and make it seem so effortless. Best verse of the year: “I know that runner’s going to tell you / There ain’t no cowboy in my hat / So now he’s buried by the daisies / So I could stay the tallest man, in your eyes, babe.”

Whew. That took an incredibly long time, but to be honest, it was a lot of fun. I hope you guys made it through this. If not, that’s okay, too.

I look forward to your lists.



Gaston Monescu said...

Didn't you go back to Ocean Breaths Salty AFTER the Sun Kil Moon version? Why, then, the MM version (which I remember lauding to you and you pooh-poohing)?

Also, I need a little bit more on 7/4. I don't see that as the song least needing explanation. Why not (for instance) Bodysnatchers off In Rainbows? That's as good a song. Explain.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

Way to challenge, Monescu. It's true that I went back to Modest Mouse after the Sun Kil Moon cover, but it's hard to describe how glad I was to have made the trip. Not only does the song rock, thanks to SKM's slowed down version, I was able to dig through the vocals and I realized how brilliantly matched they were/are to the material. I love Modest Mouse's sound, but I have trouble finding the single tracks where it is effectively distilled. With Sun Kil Moon's help, I realized that "Ocean Breathes Salty" marks one of those moments.

Hmm, "7/4," eh? I love the audacity of naming a song after a crazy time signature and then effectively camouflaging that craziness (in a way that bands like, say, Radiohead never do) within a pure pop song. I also love that, if the song hadn't carried that title, it would have been virtually impossible to tell that something was crazy about. It's such a superb technical achievement that the sheer pleasure of the song is all gravy. To be fair, this is also my nod to a group that has had a substantial impact on the decade, although frequently in incarnations that I don't get too excited about. I guess another way of saying it is that I feel like I "get" this song, despite its esoteric-ness, and what amazes me is that I think most anybody could "get" it. But if you're willing to dig deeper, it continues to reward you.

Sufficient? More?

Gaston Monescu said...

Still, you chose "Ocean" OVER "3rd Planet" which made your albums of the decade list. Funny choice, eh? I think so. Be specific about the ways the music and words coalesce. My fave part of "Oceans" has always been the section just AFTER "You wasted life, why you wouldn't you waste death" where things stop, and suddenly the bass line has changed and the guitar lead is REALLY great...

The BSS song has a parenthetical title which tips its hand a little. I love it, but I was looking for something about Leslie F's voice over a legitimate rock song (which I love) or the nice guitar overdubs. Specifics, Azimuth! Specifics!