Thursday, January 21, 2010

MUSIC: Singles of the Decade (part 1)

Yeah, yeah––I know this is a little late in the game. Most music outlets have already closed the book on the sounds of 2009 and the 2000s as a decade. I’m nowhere near involved with the day to day of the music industry as I was the last time we closed out a decade (a century even!) in 1999, so while I remain a huge music fan, my perspective has become much more a fan’s than an industry insider. But in reading lots of year- and decade-end “Best ofs,” it struck me that if anything defined the 2000s in music it was the return of the single.

The album format isn’t quite dead––yet–—but what the rise and dominance of file sharing, widespread broadband access, iTunes, and the iPod accomplished in the past decade is nothing short of revolutionary. Undermining the over-priced CD, the digital revolution effectively returned the music world to the pre-Sgt. Peppers era where individual songs ruled–—except today it’s done with nifty gadgets and we don’t have to actually venture into a store to purchase music. The digital revolution also effectively killed off the record store–—a truly lamentable byproduct–—but that’s a topic for another post.

For the first few years of the 2000s I was thoroughly entrenched in the machinations of a changing music industry while serving as editor for a major regional music magazine. In the last half of the decade, I progressively returned to my music fan roots. As a kid in the early ‘70s, I listened to rock radio constantly, always seeking out what’s new and trying to find music–—primarily singles–—that made me want to jump around like a spastic, made me feel elated and unstoppable and what I imagined “sexy” might have been. I picked up WLS’ weekly Top 40 listings at record stores, bought lots of 45 rpm singles, and spent most of my New Year’s Eve with one ear on the Big 89 (WLS) countdown of the year’s top songs. As the late-‘70s rolled around and I got more serious about music, I started hanging out in record stores, looking at and reading album covers way more than I bought–—though I bought a lot more music as each year progressed. The album was the thing: were the dozen songs quality or not? Did the break in sides make sense? I started picking up music press like Rolling Stone and Creem, as well as the Illinois Entertainer, and devoured everything I could about new artists, new releases, and reviews–—I read a shitload of reviews—–and began what was certainly the initial stages of my future career: arguing with friends about music.

Of course today I don’t really listen to music the same way I did as a young burgeoning music fan—–once a music critic, always a music critic–—but for the past half a decade I’ve been able to experience a little bit of that earlier, untainted response to new songs as I encounter them. Which has been pretty cool after a couple of decades of being saturated in all the information and hype and back-story behind every new release before the songs even hit my ears. So the following list of the best songs of the 2000s consists exclusively of the songs I heard over the past decade that I liked the most, I listened to the most, I find myself humming years after having first heard them, that make me live my life more intensely, that kill me in some elemental way, that make me want to play air guitar or jump around or inflict on other people.

I’ve stuck with the traditional 10 here, with honorable must-mentions afterward, and I’ve tried to put them in some kind of order, though truth be told, aside from maybe the top 2 or 3, which I know are the best songs of the first decade of the 21st century, most of the tracks listed here could change in order on any given day.

Best Singles of the 2000s

10. “Last Nite” The Strokes (from Is This It, 2001)
The simple, persistent, bashy drum spine of this song is perhaps its finest feature, though Julian Casablancas’ scratchy and slightly disinterested vocals and the ragged guitars certainly contribute to the overall urgent effect. Not much going on lyrically here–—someone’s “baby” is turned off and apparently no one really cares or understands—–but sometimes just a craggy shout of “last night” accompanied by exactly the right rhythmic down stroke is enough to induce some kind of head bob or fist pump. Helping to kick-off the retro New Wave garage rock sound of the early 2000s, “Last Nite” has a timeless sound, which is why it may be the band’s sole but worthy contribution to “classic rock” radio in the 2020s . . .

9. “Knocked Up,” Kings of Leon (from Because of the Times, 2007)
Any band with the balls big enough to open an album with a smoldering 7-minute song gets my attention—–especially when it’s a knock out like “Knocked Up.” Barely 20 years old, the members of Kings of Leon have created such a rich, empathetic story in sound and lyric that it’s hard not to be effected by the confused teens who “don’t care what nobody says/We’re gonna have a baby.” They’re blindly fleeing their hometown and the rolling bass and tense, pulsing guitar capture perfectly the clandestine and ominous sound of such an escape. Punctuated by some harping chirps lifted/inspired by King Crimson’s “Sheltering Sky,” the song explodes twice in a short cacophony of teenage anger and questioning (“Where we gonna go?”). The song is related to Springsteen’s classic “Born To Run,” only these two tramps aren’t grabbing for the brass ring—they’re angry, rebellious, and completely unsure of what they’re doing. The most telling lyric is: “[She’s] always mad and usually drunk/But I love her like no other.”

8. “December 4th,” Danger Mouse/Jay-Z (from The Grey Album, 2004)
We can argue about the first or the best mash-ups, but hands down this is the greatest example of what the form can be and do. While the juxtaposition of The Beatles gentle acoustic “Mother Nature’s Son” and Jay-Z’s confessional “December 4th” may seem utterly incongruous, DJ Danger Mouse found the riffs and the way to make each song something new in this mash-up. Danger Mouse plucks the repetitive acoustic strumming of “Mother’s Nature Son” and reinforces it with a thick, clipped hip-hop beat loop that is catchy as hell (more so than both of the song’s source material, even). Jay-Z’s original is overblown, cheesy, and self-aggrandizing, undermining great lyrics and cheapening his mom’s narrative interludes. McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son,” while romantically pastoral, has always been one of The White Album’s cheesier moments. Danger Mouse scrapes away the cheese from both tracks and creates a multi-layered masterpiece that adds remarkable depth to Jay’s great lyrics. (Note: not available legally, but easy to find in more nefarious ways.)

7. “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab for Cutie (from Narrow Stairs, 2008)
The four-minute-plus instrumental intro to this 8-minute opus is absolutely entrancing, pulling you deeper and deeper into the song by sheer dint of the taut musical dynamism. The methodical build of instruments is dramatic, the far-away piano ebbing and flowing amid an unwavering bass line and some quietly distorted guitars. When the lyrics kick in half way through the song, you’re almost surprised that there are words and a voice–—something of an interruption of the sonic journey you’ve already invested so much energy and imagination to. The fact that Ben Gibbard’s voice is so unassuming and his lyrics are about purely obsessive love (“You reject my advances and desperate pleas/I won’t let you let me down so easily”) fit the music so perfectly that any interruption grudge dissipates and the first half of the song begins to take on new meaning. Pretty neat trick for a rock song.

6. “My Doorbell,” The White Stripes (from Get Behind Me Satan, 2005)
Visceral. Immediate. Urgent. I believe every single word and note and missed beat of this tune. Waiting for someone you love to call on you–—how vulnerable and irrational and plaintive and pissed can a human being be? From the first flat thudding drum beat and edgy shaker that open the song, you know someone’s got something pressing to express. Soon joined by simple but persistent piano comps and Jack White’s cracked sweet voice, the song never lets up in its earnest and imperative questioning of WHY DON’T YOU RING MY FUCKING DOORBELL AND WHY AM I SUCH A FUCKING SOP FOR NEEDING YOU TO RING ANYWAY? (Even his friends won’t come and save him from such wallowing.) It’s a rather simple song, musically and lyrically, but everything sounds like it’s just slightly off in such a masterful way that the result is a kind of soul music that’s new and old school and far too rare these days.

Stay tuned for singles 5–1 (coming soon!) . . .

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