Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76
The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51

The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

50. "The Legionnaire's Lament" - The Decemberists
The Decemberists were the "it" band in indie rock in the first half of the decade, which of course meant that they were the symbol of all that was wrong in the genre in the second half. But they've put out album after album of pop songs about subjects that aren't love - which is called "quirky." This is my favorite of theirs, a peppy little number about a French Foreign Legion soldier addicted to laudanum in 19th-century Paris.

49. "He War" - Cat Power
The final entry in the indie-rockers-with-one-song-I-love. See also: Guided By Voices - "Everywhere With Helicopter." Although I did find it easier to get into Cat Power when she was backed by The Dirty Delta Blues Band for The Greatest.

48. "Umbrella" - Rihanna
It's always easy to pick on radio songs. By and large they stink, though Sturgeon's Law, of course, states that 90% of everything stinks. If you shovel away the crap that's endemic to any media, you find that many of the decade's biggest hits were also some of its best songs. "Umbrella," "Toxic," "Lose Yourself," "Crazy," "Hey Ya," "Rehab," "Jesus Walks," and more. I'll take that over 90's grunge-wannabes and Puff Daddy hip-hop any day of the week.

47. "Bamboo Banga" - M.I.A.
For all the writing about how M.I.A. was making the future of music, she's remarkably focused on the past. Her breakthrough album, Kala, samples The Clash on its biggest hit, "Paper Planes," quotes The Pixies on another track, and begins this stellar track with lines from The Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." The combination of influences including punk rock, world beats, and danceable hip-hop works about as well as anyone could hope on tracks like "Bamboo Banga."

46. "No Sunshine" - Rhymefest
Mixtapes, the staple of underground hip-hop and up-and-coming rappers, received a massive jolt in the arm from internet downloads. Perhaps the best of these is Rhymefest's Man in the Mirror, "the world's first Michael Jackson dedication album." This track works with the deliriously sampleable "Ain't No Sunshine" and turns it towards one of Rhymefest's favorite subjects, the difficulty of maintaining authenticity in the rap world.

45. "15 Step" - Radiohead
This is first track on Radioheads latest album, In Rainbows, and it achieved some notoriety simply for being a happy Radiohead song. But it's not just a happy song, it's also a fantastic one.

44. "He Did It" - The Detroit Cobras
I'm somewhat surprised that The Detroit Cobras aren't more well-known than they are. They do garage rock covers of famous and not-so-famous R&B songs. This one, originally by The Ronettes, is my favorite.

43. "Free or Dead" - Atmosphere
Atmosphere's MC, Slug, is about as clever as they come. This track demonstrates the pathetic arrogance of a young would-be rebel, and abounds with wordplay like "and I do believe in God/cause I keep coming across/all these fine women with low self-esteem."

42. "Say It Right" - Nelly Furtado
I'm mesmerized by Timbaland's beat for this song. There's an ineffable sadness in the spaces, that makes it sound oddly tragic. Plus, of course, you can dance to it.

41. "Electric Feel" - MGMT
The thing I like about this song is how it utilizes a lot of the tricks of much more upbeat songs, while maintaining its slow pace. It makes it sound wonderfully familiar and new at the same time.

40. "Gossip Folks" - Missy Elliot ft. Ludacris
While Missy Elliot had some of the biggest hits of the decade with "Work It" and "Get Ur Freak On," I found myself more drawn to her somewhat more conventional hip-hop tracks. This one's a great song already in the first couple of minutes, before Ludacris comes along and blasts it to a new level with one of best guest appearances ever.

39. "Smiley Faces" - Gnarls Barkley
While "Crazy" turned into the mega-hit, I preferred this other catchy-as-hell number from Gnarls Barkley's debut.

38. "Idioteque" - Radiohead
Kid A may be one of the most bizarre albums of the decade, where a successful rock band moved into the realm of electronic soundscapes (in addition to foregoing almost all conventional marketing ploys, like releasing singles). "Idioteque" combines a driving techno beat with Radiohead's rock instincts and Thom Yorke's ethereal wail to magnificent effect.

37. "9 Milli Bros" - Ghostface Killah ft. the whole goddamn Wu-Tang Clan
No song heralded the resurrection of the Wu-Tang Clan quite like this stunner from Fishscale, featuring every member of the group including Old Dirty Bastard from beyond the grave. Bonus points for Method Man bumping it in his SUV on The Wire. In fact, despite the music from The Wire being primarily diegetic, three songs on the show made it onto this list (I don't suppose it's a spoiler to say that "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "B.O.B." are yet to come.)

36. "Love and War (11/11/46)" - Rilo Kiley
35. "A Man/Me/Then Jim" - Rilo Kiley
Praise for lyrical density is almost always given to hip-hop MCs, or perhaps a particularly wordy singer-songwriter type. Rilo Kiley's third album, More Adventurous, demonstrates a traditional rock band's lyrical density. "Love and War" is an outright rocker and excellent at that, but discusses the plight of veterans of both struggles as well. "A Man/Me/Then Jim" is a gorgeous song in its own right, but the lyrics tell a dense, non-chronological story from multiple perspectives that requires multiple listens to fully grasp.

34. "Monster Hospital" - Metric
33. "Succexy" - Metric
Metric's best songs seem to come when they explore the intersection between sexuality and warfare. "Monster Hospital" explicitly does so by combining lyrics like "I fought the war/and the war won" with "hold my arms down/I've been bad" over a driving garage-rock beat. But it may be surpassed by its predecessor, the slightly more poppy "Succexxy," a sultry performance about the televised spectacle of war.

32. "Night Light" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006, having released their final album, The Woods, the year before. The Woods was a radical stylistic departure from their punk-to-pop previous sound, wallowing in the fuzzed-out guitars, driving beats, and musical disintegrations of 70's classic rock and pre-punk. The final song(s) on the album are "Let's Call It Love," a three-minute song which turns into a 10-minute destruction of music, rebuilding at the end to segué into the evocative farewell track, "Night Light." A long goodbye with the tiny, flickering possibility of hope, "Night Light" isn't just a great song, it may be the best final song any great band has ever done.

31. "The Way You Move" - Outkast ft. Sleepy Brown
It's probably not too much of a spoiler for me to say that "Hey Ya" is further up on this list, but let's not say that that means I'm picking sides in the great Speakerboxxx vs. The Love Below debate. The megahit single from The Love Below may be a tiny bit better, but I still think that Speakerboxxx has a more consistently good set of songs, particularly in the first half.

30. "No Children" - The Mountain Goats
Alcoholism and horrific breakups have never sounded like more fun.

29. "Jesus Walks" - Kanye West
Kanye (and songwriter Rhymefest) talked about Jesus and got their record played, which is impressive enough. But how much more impressive is it that the song kicks ass?

28. "Catalina" - Raekwon
This is actually the only song from 2009 that I have on the list. I'm hesitant to rate something too highly when I might hate it in a year, but it also seems like maybe this hasn't been the greatest year for music. One of the high points, of course, was Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx 2, which had previously seemed like it wanted to be hip-hop's Chinese Democracy - always worked on, never finished. In one of it's incarnations, it was attached to Dr. Dre's Aftermath label, but that marriage ended with Raekwon getting just a few Dre beats. But oh what a beat - the combination of Wu-Tang grime with Dr. Dre's production skills sounds like gangsta rap at its best.

27. "Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
How unlikely was this song for a massive hit? Sampling a somewhat unknown Clash song, espousing radical/criminal politics, from an artist controversial for allegedly supporting suicide-bombing terrorist seems like a perfect storm of cult hit. And that would have been okay, but sometimes the world gets it right, and a cult hit becomes a crossover hit.

26. "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" - The New Pornographers
There are a handful of sub-sub-genres of songs that I'm a sucker for. One of them is the incredibly catchy pop song about equally incredibly depressing content. This is one of those.


Claude said...

"15 Step" a happy song? Not if you listen to the lyrics. It is, however, one of my favourite Radiohead tunes.

That being said, I added a bunch of songs to my "check this out" list due to your top 100.

Rowan said...

Listening to the lyrics is occasionally difficult with Radiohead, though, especially at first....

Thanks for the kind words!