Aught Lang Syne: 25 Best Songs of the Decade

So you thought we were done discussing the music of the decade? Well, think again. We didn’t get to what is arguably the most important list of all: The Best Songs of the Decade. When Tim introduced Aught Lang Syne last week, he discussed how certain cultural events will always be linked to events in our lives. Songs may be the best example of this phenomenon. Unlike albums or even music videos, which are generally experienced individually, we tend to listen to songs in groups: They’re on the playlists at the parties we go to; they’re in the background of the bars we drink in and the restaurants we eat at; they’re the songs we dance to when we go to clubs; they’re on the radio when we take road trips. In short, they are the soundtrack of our memory. These are the songs that we will inevitably remember when we think of the Aughts.

Of course, out cultural memory does not always have the best taste: It will probably be impossible to remember the Aughts and not think of the Black Eyed Peas, but God knows I’ll try. What follows, then, is not an attempt to capture the most popular, memorable, or iconic songs of the decade; it is merely a list of the 25 Best Songs. Nevertheless, it is often difficult–and generally undesirable–to dissociate a song from the positive memories of the context in which you heard it. So even without actively trying to incorporate these qualities, the Best Songs of the Decade will inevitably include some of the Most Popular, Most Memorable and Most Iconic.

Anyway, on with the list:

25) The Strokes, “12:51”

It’s easy to forget how big the “The” bands were in the beginning of the decade (The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, The White Stripes), but there was a time when The Strokes seemed poised to become the biggest band in the country. Alas, they could never really top 2001’s Is This It?, and First Impressions of the Earth was pretty disappointing, but “12:51,” the first single from their second album, was probably them at their best. The crisp and innovative guitar play of Nick Valensi on this song was what The Strokes were great at.

24) Rihanna, “Disturbia”

The quick, rhythmic cadence, combined with the spooky sound of the opening and the foreboding drumbeat, is what makes this song so catchy. Unlike a lot of dance songs of its caliber, “Disturbia” retains the sense of progression of a pop song. Rihanna’s voice retains a chilling effect throughout the verses, contrasting nicely with the more sweetly sung bridge. As usual for Rihanna, the way the vocals harmonize with the bassline creates a memorable song.

23) MGMT, “Kids”

The creepy-bordering-on-disturbing music video for this song, in which a small child is menaced by monsters who ultimately eat him, has gotten a lot of publicity (or, as much publicity as a music video can get nowadays). But the cool video shouldn’t overshadow the song itself, which retains a creepy feel of its own right. The layers of big sound and the reverberated vocals lend this song an impact that begets, and rewards, multiple listens. At the same time, the song has a very danceable, upbeat sound, which makes the track all the more captivating.

22) Spoon, “The Way We Get By”

I had hard time deciding on my favorite Spoon song of the decade. The band is great at creating singles, but they produce so many good ones (“Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” “I Summon You,” “The Underdog,” etc.) that it’s tough to pick their best. “The Way We Get By” gets the nod because of the piano part, which is a great illustration of Spoon’s mastery of pop simplicity. Plus, the song was included in The O.C. and Stranger Than Fiction, which can’t hurt.

21) Eminem, “Lose Yourself”

When this song came out, it would have been hard to imagine a bigger song coming out this decade. It came at the peak of Eminem’s fame, when he was by far the biggest and best rapper in the world, and he could star in a movie and actually be taken somewhat seriously in the role. This song also contains much of what made Eminem so successful: his memorable lyrics and his ability to make words that don’t rhyme (like “heavy” and “spaghetti”) sound like they do, as well as his ability to maintain a building intensity throughout a whole song.

20) The Streets, “It Was Supposed to be So Easy”

I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on this, but I’ve always preferred A Grand Don’t Come For Free to Original Pirate Material or The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (I never even listened to Everything is Borrowed based on its lukewarm reviews). Maybe I’m just a sucker for concept albums, but every track on this album, particularly this opener, is a rhapsodic and compelling highlight of the mundane. The bombastic intro to “It Was Supposed to be So Easy” sets up an everyman’s odyssey, in which The Streets/Mike Skinner outlines all he has to do today: return some DVDs, get money from the ATM, call his mom, and pick up his savings to fix his TV. Unfortunately, he grabbed the DVD case without putting the disc in it, his bank account is empty, and his cell phone battery dies. What happens to his thousand pounds, though, becomes a Holmesian mystery throughout the album.

19) Miley Cyrus, “See You Again”

A lot has been said about Miley Cyrus at this point—most of it has very little to do with her music. She’s a good role model for kids, she’s a bad role model for kids, she’s a Disney puppet, she’s a religious nut, she’s a great rapper, she’s dating a Jonas Brother, etc. Most people are sick of hearing about it at this point (I’m not, but that’s neither here nor there). But none of this should obscure the fact that “See You Again” is actually a great pop song. It’s both infectious and aggressive, and it does a pretty good job of harnessing Cyrus’ rather limited vocal talents.

18) Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out”

“Take Me Out” was almost too good for Franz Ferdinand’s good. By most measures, Franz Ferdinand are a one-hit wonder thanks to the success of “Take Me Out.” In his review of their second album, Nitsuh Abebe called them an “effective singles band.” To be fair, though, their debut album was a strong album on its own merits, but “Take Me Out” was catchy and charming and innovative, and none of the band’s other singles were quite as good. But comparing every song to something like “Take Me Out” is unfair; this kind of hit is a rare thing.

17) Wilco, “Heavy Metal Drummer”

This song is simply a mellow masterpiece. The gentle riffs and easy melodies are a perfect companion to the nostalgia of the song. There is a great story about Jeff Tweedy in Chuck Klosterman’s profile of him: Klosterman said something vaguely insulting about Jet, and Tweedy looks at him as if his mom were insulted, asking, “Don’t you like rock music?” Wilco may be a favorite of the indie scene, but they seem virtually without pretension, and a song like “Heavy Metal Drummer” is the perfect example of that.

16) M.I.A., “Paper Planes”

This song has some kind of political message about guns and immigration, I guess, but I don’t really care about any of that. It sounds badass. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to recognize The Clash song being sampled on this track, but I’m sure that air of familiarity played a role in the way it got caught in my head. Even those unfamiliar with “Straight to Hell” are bound to be impressed by the haunting background to M.I.A.’s silky vocals. Also, I would be lying if I said that this song doesn’t get a bump for being the perfect Omar Little soundtrack.

15) Radiohead, “Myxomatosis”

A lot of Radiohead’s best songs come when they seem angry. “Myxomatosis” is like that. Plenty of the tracks on Hail to the Thief are maudlin and slow, but “Myxomatosis” is powerful and almost hostile. The lyrics are violent and threatening, accompanied by an equally foreboding composition. Apparently myxomatosis is a lethal disease that infects rabbits, causing lumps and blindness. That hardly sounds ideal, but the way Thom Yorke sings it makes it sound much worse.

14) The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1”

This is probably my favorite song ever about a publicly employed Japanese woman training to be an expert in martial arts in order to defeat an evil race of flamboyantly colored alien robots…probably. For such a life-or-death subject, though, Wayne Coyne seems pretty laid back about the whole thing. The Flaming Lips are gentle to the point of being almost saccharine, so even when they deal in obscure details—which is often—they are only communicating an almost cloyingly sweet and pleasant message.

13) Manu Chao, “La Primavera/Me Gustas Tu”

Technically two songs fill this spot, but they blend into each other so well (and seamlessly—try and tell when the track changes without looking) that they have to be considered as one. As a suite of songs, it’s a beautifully laid-back rhythm. Manu Chao is known as one of the more eclectic performers worldwide, but the catchiness of this simple song transcends culture. It’s also easy to translate, which is nice.

12) The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”

The Hold Steady is kind of a throwback. The band leans heavily on guitar riffs, prominently features the piano, and has lyrics comprised of clear, declarative sentences. “Stuck Between Stations” is a great illustration of how Craig Finn can blend all three into a classic-style rock song. It’s a very refreshing approach for a post-Radiohead, post-Beck, world, in which it can seem like a song needs a drum machine and impenetrable lyrics to get noticed. The Hold Steady shows how guitar rock can be done well.

11) The New Pornographers, “Myriad Harbour”

So I just praised straightforward, sensible lyrics, and now I’m including a Dan Bejar song. I am a man of contradictions. I also feel odd about calling this my favorite New Pornographers song since A) it’s much slower than the upbeat, catchy pop they’re so good at, and B) it comes from by far their worst album, Challengers. Maybe the weak album allows Bejar’s poignant soft rock to come through even better, but I feel like I would love this song on any album.

10) Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”

This song is a mastery of pop form. The opening bass line develops an irresistible hook, and Clarkson’s voice is delicate enough not to overpower it. Clarkson’s voice also allows the song to build to an effective outpouring at the chorus, which is built to with confident aplomb. The shift in gears from the first verse to the chorus is dramatic and filled with pathos. The second verse, with a new beat added to the melody and slightly more assertiveness from Clarkson, builds on this change in energy. Then we get an even more energetic bridge and a guitar solo that cleanses the palate. This is the kind of tightly-packed, well-crafted song that pop music is about.

9) Interpol, “Obstacle 1”

I saw Interpol in concert and they were pretty mediocre. Then I saw them again and they were even worse. I still kind of hold that against them, but it’s hard to deny how good they are on record. It’s odd that their sound wouldn’t translate in concert, since the music has such a visceral energy, combined with the band’s technical skill. “Obstacle 1” combines Interpol’s two best qualities: Paul Banks’ guttural vocals and that whole isolated/interlocking guitar thing that they took from Television.

8 ) LCD Soundsystem, “Someone Great”

It’s really hard to pick a favorite song from Sound of Silver, but this is probably it. I love the pulsating intro, and how the song gradually adds more layers. Unlike “All My Friends” (which is still great), “Someone Great” seems to build musically as well as lyrically. James Murphy’s vocals in this song are trance-like and detached, which is probably better suited to his voice. Despite this vocal aloofness, Murphy still manages to convey the emotional climax of the song. This is a credit to Murphy, but no surprise, given the depth of the entirety of Silver.

7) Arcade Fire, “Intervention”

Once again, this is an example of a superior song off of an inferior album. Neon Bible as a whole is not as good as Funeral, but it’s hard to find a song on either album that makes more of an impact than “Intervention.” You wouldn’t think that a song that begins with a heavy, resonant organ would actually get more somber as it goes on, but Arcade Fire go to the depths of pathos with this song. The eerie backing vocals of Régine Chassagne send chills down your spine as Winn Butler sings lines like, “You’ve been singing Hallelujah with the fear in your heart.” The climax of this song is like the catharsis of Aristotelian tragedy.

6) OutKast, “Hey Ya”

I’ve already tipped my hand about my fondness for this song, but I don’t think I’m going out on that far of a limb when I call this one of the best songs of the decade. This song was incredibly popular when it came out in 2003, having that rare ability to unite fans of all genres. I remember being at a concert around that time, and this song came on during the break between the opener and main act. Andre 3000’s call-and-response got the crowd more excited than anything the live acts did that night. The song is electrifying and deceptively complex; Andre 3000 performs some impressive vocal gymnastics, layering the song beneath the relatively simple drumbeat. A song this good is bound to get played out, as this song certainly did. But six years later, it remains one of the most exciting songs of the decade.

5) Animal Collective, “Peacebone”

Like a lot of songs on this list, I didn’t really appreciate this on my first listen. Initially, my favorite song off of Strawberry Jam was “For Reverend Green.” I thought the intro to this song went on too long and sounded too much like a video game. After a few more listens, though, I realized just how smoothly all the pieces of this song fit together. All of the experimental sounds and unconventional noise on this track blend to turn “Peacebone” into a perfect rock song. The song is catchy and harmonious, and really as close to a “pop” song as Animal Collective has come (even closer than “My Girls”). Some hardcore fans may complain about this, but it’s not as if Animal Collective is sacrificing who they are; the intro does kind of sound like a video game. “Peacebone” simply harnesses that sound in a way that strikes you as both unconventional and familiar.

4) Kanye West, “Stronger”

I already indicated my feelings about this song in my recap of the decade in music. This song is an excellent blend of sounds, incorporating Daft Punk well and also adding enough to the melody and changing the tempo to create a song that sounds completely original. It’s noteworthy that West claimed to draw inspiration on Graduation from arena rock bands like U2 and Led Zeppelin; there is an anthemic quality to “Stronger” that gives it a bigger sound than most of West’s other singles. Even the lyrics—essentially just a variant on the “I’m awesome” theme—are evocative and colorful, from referring to himself as “the Christian in Christian Dior” to referring back to when “OJ had isotoners.”

3) TV on the Radio, “Wolf Like Me”

TV on the Radio does so many things well: vocal harmonies, percussion, synth, incorporating different instruments, unpredictable pacing, etc. On “Wolf Like Me,” they seem to do all these things well all at once. The avalanche of drums at the outset is such a powerful lead that it almost seems to overwhelm Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals. Until, that is, the backing vocals enter to add depth. Then all of sudden the song slows down, like a racecar going through a turn, and suddenly Adebimpe’s voice, backed by Kyp Malone, becomes the focal point of the song. Just like that, though, the song kicks back up again, with a renewed intensity that is almost frightening. Katrina Ford’s back-up singing enters like a chaotic chorus gradually building to the forefront of the song. By the end of the song, you feel almost exhausted by all that has gone on, and the eerie outro is such a sublime ending to such a riveting song.

2) Radiohead, “Idioteque”

If Kid A is kind of a musical novel, then “Idioteque” is a perfect climax. It has a haunting but arresting opening, and only builds in intensity from there. The electronic sampling and computer sounds of this album are most fully realized on this track; it’s pretty much impossible for me to identify one conventional instrument in this song, and yet the song retains the straightforward impact of the band’s more traditional compositions. A lot of this has to do with the impressive amount of complexity in the percussions that drive the song. This song is also an excellent showcase of the power of Thom Yorke’s voice. Although the lyrics to this song are, as they are for much of Kid A, essentially incoherent and disconnected images, the way Yorke sings them against the dark and fluid electronic sounds results in beautiful and emotionally evocative melodies. Some of the complaints about Kid A were that the band had abandoned its rock sound, but very few rock songs can match the intensity of Radiohead on this track.

1) Rihanna, “Umbrella”

I once got into a long discussion about whether or not Rihanna herself was integral to Rihanna’s success. After all, the argument went, she doesn’t write the lyrics to her songs, or the music, or play any of the instruments. She has a good voice, of course, but her vocal talents don’t approach that of other, less appealing, female singers, like Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey. Was there anything about Rihanna as a person that made Rihanna as a singer so good?

Well, here’s something Rihanna did: She sang the “ellas.” This song was originally written for Britney Spears. When she said no, the writers went to Mary J. Blige. But it’s hard to imagine any other vocalist pulling off the silky glide of the “ella”-laded refrain, let alone somehow rhyming “ella” with “forever,” that made this song so omnipresent in the summer of 2007.

And while the chorus was undoubtedly what made this song so ubiquitous, “Umbrella” is a great song from its opening. From the opening hi-hat and Jay-Z’s rap over the synthetic melody and Rihanna’s background “hey”s, the song manages to combine elements of rap, R&B, synth, and house music.

At its heart, though, “Umbrella” remains a pop song, retaining an indelible hook and a light, emotional force that gives the “ellas” a cathartic payoff. I can conceive of this song being a hit in the hands of someone like Spears or Blige, but it’s hard for me to imagine that this song would have kept this force, and been the best song of the decade, in the hands of anyone but Rihanna.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on December 12, 2009 at 11:56 AM

    I have 2 thoughts:
    1) I more or less agree
    2) that does sound like the same song!

    Reply

  2. […] to speak of the Aughts, John S presented his songs of the decade, but Nielsen has his own […]

    Reply

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