Saturday, February 20, 2010

MUSIC: Singles of the Decade (part 2)

Sorry about the delay on the rest of this list—good thing the music of the 2000s didn’t change in the interim. Below are singles 5 through 1, as well as a handful of Honorable Must-Mentions.

Let me know what you think. Agree? Disagree? What were your favorites of the last decade?

Best Singles of the 2000s continued . . .

5. “Hey Ya!,” Outkast (from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003)
I know for sure that the first time I heard this song it was on the radio just before the album was released. I later saw the super-fun video featuring 8 different incarnations of Outkast’s Andre 3000. What I know for sure at this time is that I don’t know for sure how much that video played into my initial obsession with this song. But I couldn’t get enough of this song—still can’t. I think it’s the breadth of what is essentially a very 2000s pop song that keeps me coming back to “Hey Ya!” It’s an unabashed amalgam of pop styles from across the decades. The rhythm bed blends hip-hop and a simple backbeat that could be heard on many early ‘60s singles. The ascending synth swizzle evokes bubble gum pop, the acoustic strumming that ebbs and flows throughout the song would seem incongruous if it weren’t the one of the primary rhythm elements, and Andre 3000’s rappy singing splits the difference in the verses and switches to true toaster style during the call and response sections (a characteristics of some early R&B/soul hits). No real truths imparted in the lyrics: guy’s pumped cause he’s in love and then immediately begins to doubt the whole notion of “forever.” Fair enough—but when this song is cranked and you’re singing along, even the nonsense chorus and call and response seem to be talking about something. Something fun.

4. “A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action,” JXL/Elvis Presley (2002)
Never been much of a remix fan—too often the remixes are subtle or unremarkable changes that elicit so many shoulder shrugs or incompatible beats grafted onto a track to comic or silly effect. Not the case with JXL’s remix of this 1968 Elvis Presley track. Created for a 2002 Nike World Cup promotion, the song exploded onto the airwaves and charts and even onto the top-selling Elv1s 30 #1 Hits collection released later that year (it was track #31). What JXL does is masterful: he takes a decent suggestive Elvis song and turns it into an aggressive and highly sexual come on—purely by charging up the rhythm bed and adding some whirls, scratches, and other effects from the circa-2002 DJ repertoire. The original moderate tempo 2-minute track becomes a pumping, speedy six-minute workout. The benignly sexy Elvis of ’68 sounds much more insistent here. When he sings/demands “Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me” amid the pounding drums and surging horns, you can hear an irritation and determination in his voice that’s nowhere to be found on the original. So you do what he says. He is the King. And he does say please.

3. “Say Hey (I Love You),” Michael Franti & Spearhead (from All Rebel Rockers, 2008)
I admit it: sappiest damn song on the list. Who’d guess that Michael Franti, one-time hyper-political rapper of The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, would one day pen such a sweetly joyous and celebratory reggae-ska hymn to a human emotion so pure and simple? Love here is a refuge and solace from the pain and ghetto games and junkies Franti sees all around him: “I don’t want to write a love song for the world/I just want to write a song about a boy and a girl.” Even the righteous get weary, and when the more you see the less you know, knowing one thing, one love, is sometimes all in the world you need. All this sentiment would be mere mush were it not for the buoyant beat and rolling rhythm that thumps at the heart of this song. It’s all on the upbeat: the chinging keyboard comps, persistent maracas, and counterpointing handclaps create an organic groove rich and wide enough to gather and mitigate all kinds of misfortune and regret. “Say Hey (I Love You)" has quickly found a spot right next to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” in my catalogue of songs that can instantly lift my spirits no matter how bleak.

2. “Do You Realize??,” The Flaming Lips (from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, 2002)
Sometimes this song is too much to bear emotionally. Other times, it makes me feel a surge of life and energy and connects me directly to the cosmos we’re tearing around in. This is pop music of a symphonic nature. Washed in melodic synthesizers draped over a spare, chiming acoustic guitar and grounded by tympanic drums seemingly recorded in another room, this song speaks of the eternal, the celestial, the mysterious absolute. I’m not kidding. There’s a child-like awe to Wayne Coyne’s voice as he sings lyrics like this:
“Do you realize—that you have the most beautiful face
Do you realize—we're floating in space
Do you realize—that happiness makes you cry
Do you realize—that everyone you know someday will die”

I mean, how much more of life can you cover in four lines? For me, this song becomes overwhelming when I allow the wall of sound and Coyne’s voice and lyrics to evoke specific images from my life. I see my son’s beautiful newborn face resting in my arms and my mother’s 20-year-old beautiful face smiling down at me as a child. There are entire worlds, entire lives in those images. And the simple fact of that last line, when I really think on it, really think about the people that make up my life’s mosaic, and despite the people I’ve already lost, can be both unbearable and strangely, cosmically comforting. “Do You Realize??” that pop music art can do this to you? “Do You Realize??” how awesome that is?

1. “American Idiot,” Green Day (from American Idiot, 2004)
Best song of the 2000s from the best rock ‘n’ roll album of the 2000s. In three minutes, Green Day revives what punk music was and always should be: protest music. But a song also has to be the right song for the right time to truly be great. “American Idiot” was. Released in the fall of 2004, just as a majority of the U.S. population was beginning to awaken from its fear-induced post-9/11 torpor, the song encapsulated the anger and resistance that a minority of this country had been feeling since the Bush/Cheney administration began manipulating the country into an illegitimate war in the name of “protecting the homeland.” But that wasn’t Green Day’s sole target: they took direct aim at our over-saturated media culture, the willful dumbing down of citizens by hysterical “edutainment” media, rednecks, gay- and immigrant-bashers, and American idiots so easily swayed by paranoia and propaganda (two things the Bush administration and its media mouthpieces did very well). The band holds nothing back, either in musical performance or lyrical delivery and intent. From the first urgent licks that open the song to its sharp, abrupt end, “American Idiot” has both the traditional punk speeds—fast and faster. Musically, it’s a very simply song: bashing drums, an unrelenting, propulsive bass line, and some big, chunky guitar riffs. But Green Day rips into it like it’s the first, last, and only time they’ll ever play the song. Billie Joe Armstrong spits out vitriolic lines like this: “Don’t want to be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information age of hysteria/It’s going out to idiot America.” What better way to describe the past wired decade in the U.S.A.?

Honorable Must-Mentions
“Let That Show,” The Pernice Brothers (from The World Won’t End, 2001)
Fantastic chiming guitar pop and lithe harmonies. The sweet sound masks a fairly clear-headed lyric about ego, self-obsession, and the complete inadequacy of the two. Key lyric: “Was a time, when I thought I could talk down to all my friends/It’s a crime, when I think of how the sun revolved around me then.”

“Feel Free,” Jay Farrar (from Sebastopol, 2001)
“Breathe in all the diesel fumes/Admire the concrete landscaping/And doesn’t it feel free.” On just about every album he puts out, Farrar nails a tune that renders a sober view of America and its ideals. The spare, resigned sound of “Feel Free” evokes a car ride from Chicago to Milwaukee, where there’s always traffic and plenty of concrete.

“E-Pro,” Beck (from Guero, 2005)
Beck reclaims “na-na-na-na-na-na-na” as a hook in this thick mix of distorted guitar and fat-assed rhythm. His lyrics are as surreal as usual—“Handing out a confection of venom,” “Hammer my bones on the anvil of daylight”—so it’s hard to know precisely what the hell he’s on about. But this sure sounds awesome cranked loud.

“A-Punk,” Vampire Weekend (from Vampire Weekend, 2008)
So familiar yet completely different. When this came tumbling out of radios and web sites in 2008, with its weird blend of jumbled rhythm and wiry ska guitar and lilting flute, it was a thoroughly alluring head scratcher. “Look outside at the raincoats coming, say oh.” Say what? Say, what other crazy rhythms you guys got?

“Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley (from St. Elsewhere, 2006)
All it takes is a snippet of this song and it’s stuck in my head for the whole day. Sometimes longer. One of the best soul tracks released in decades. Cee-Lo Green’s delivery harkens back to The O’Jays and the Isley Brothers, and Danger Mouse abets the whole affair with a lush, string-laden track that would’ve sounded right at home on Top 40 radio circa 1975.

“Jesus Walks,” Kanye West (from College Dropout, 2004)
Despite what he’s become as a media figure, and even despite the relatively traditional religious belief underlying this song, “Jesus Walks” was an explosive entre into the spotlight for West as a performer. The sinning soldier in the modern world (and rap game) metaphor works, and West takes on a myriad of targets that plague African-Americans as well as the rest of us.

“All Summer Long,” Kid Rock (from Rock N Roll Jesus, 2007)
Anyone who can successfully link samples from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” deserves any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll fan’s respect—if only for sheer incongruous imagination. It’s hard to shake the chorus of this song once it gets into your head, and trite as some of the lyrics may be, it’s a heartfelt look back at life by a hard-partying midwestern guy nearing 40 years old. “Sometimes I'll hear that song and I'll start to sing along/And think man I'd love to see that girl again.” Now who can’t get behind that?

See below for Best Singles 6-10 . . .