The 2000s were a great time to be a music fan. The “heavenly jukebox” became a reality as iTunes, post-Napster file-sharing, AllofMP3.com (briefly), Rhapsody, Lala, imeem, Pandora, Hype Machine, music blogs, and dozens of other sites and programs enabled us to access pretty much any song ever made, often for cheap or free.
Having the world’s music library available to anyone with an Internet connection made competitive notions like airplay, shelf space, and cover shoots a bit less important; attention became somewhat less of a zero-sum game. This allowed a sort of post-critical music culture to take hold, where notions of taste and guilty pleasures gave way to … well, at least to questions of whether taste and guilty pleasures had any meaning anymore.
The popularity of Pitchfork suggests that the more widely shared answer is “No, as long as your non-guilty-pleasure guilty pleasures are the right ones.” Inside my own head, the answer has been a more definitive no — so much so that I seem to have lost interest in one of my former life goals/dreams: being a music critic.
In that spirit, I wanted to share my favorite music of the decade. Not “the best” or “the most important” music of the decade; you can read any number of lists that will tell you why Kid A, Stankonia, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Merriweather Post Pavilion, et al were decade-representative and influential and great.
I don’t necessarily disagree; I respect or quite like Kid A, Stankonia, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Animal Collective does nothing for me, though). But respecting Radiohead’s artistic experimentation and growth doesn’t mean I ever think, “Hey, I know what would be fun to listen to now! Thom Yorke’s processed voice going ‘Nnninnn innnn onnnn ninnnnninnn mmnnnnn … Yesterday I woke up sucking on le-mone’ while a brooding synthesizer cascades behind him and the rest of the band chats about Chekhov in the other room.”
I’m increasingly convinced that the way we hear, appreciate, and respond to music is highly idiosyncratic, even biological. Here, then, is my highly idiosyncratic list of favorite albums and songs of the decade. Some of them I like because a note or chord change triggers an endorphin rush for me; some have interesting lyrics or structures; some I probably like because other people liked them; most of them I can’t properly explain why I like them.
And yes, a silly Darkness Christmas song really is my favorite song of the decade.
1. (multiple tie)
Fountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
With Rivers Cuomo turning Weezer into a derivative, novelty-act version of its former self (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne became the standard-bearers of power-pop in the Aughts.
Folds’s songs tend to focus on relationships, both romantic and familial, often of the failing or misanthropic kind. (“The old bastard left his ties and his suits,/Brown box, mothballs and bowler shoes./And his opinions so you’d never have to choose./Pretty soon you’ll be an old bastard too.”) Fountains of Wayne filled Welcome Interstate Managers with character studies ranging from wink-wink (the Cars-inspired surprise hit “Stacy’s Mom”) to fully earnest (the pretty, shuffling “Valley Winter Song”).
All three albums are full of the power chords (yes, pianos can make power chords), speaker-filling harmonies, and brain-salving chord changes that have increasingly become my kind of transcendent music. And unlike Cuomo’s tossed-off latter-day songs (“Where I come from isn’t all that great/My automobile is a piece of crap/My fashion sense is a little whack”), these albums are crafted and smart enough to warrant a decade’s worth of repeat listens.
2. Lucky Soul – The Great Unwanted (2007)
The second half of the decade saw a Motown/girl-group revival, led by Mark Ronson’s retro-soul production for Amy Winehouse and throwback bands like the Noisettes and Pipettes. While Ronson was more successful than the others, all ultimately sound gimmicky to me — appropriation without re-invention.
Lucky Soul is different. The band doesn’t just use retro sounds as inspiration/homage/reference. They sound like what a top-shelf ’60s band might sound like with modern recording equipment and sensibilities. There’s none of the –ettes’ tic of using a tinny, echoey guitar to denote “retro.” (If I wanted crappy recording quality, I’d just listen to the old music!) On The Great Unwanted, the retro sound becomes an accomplished band’s chosen palette, rather than their only reason for being.
But forget all that. The Great Unwanted is simply joyous, sentimental, and bouncy in all the right ways. If this had come out a little earlier, it probably would be my number one of the decade.
Jon Brion spent most of the decade scoring movies, producing albums, and performing regularly at the Largo club in Los Angeles. Lucky for us, he also released Meaningless and a handful of non-instrumentals on the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack (otherwise filled with his instrumental score). Together, they contain some the most interesting, complex-but-accessible pop songs of the decade. Hopefully we’ll get lucky and see another Brion album before the new decade is over.
Equally comfortable on the dance floor or in an arena, Mika made some of the most exuberant (“Grace Kelly”), fun (“Lollipop”), and funny (“Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)”) music of the decade. And though he doesn’t get the credit, his Euro-American-Lebanese roots and gender-aware songs represent a musical-cultural eclecticism no less important than M.I.A.’s. (And Mika, frankly, is a far better musician than Ms. Arulpragasam.)
Both of his first albums have repetitive and boring spots, but combine the best of both and you have pop perfection.
Emmylou Harris – Red Dirt Girl
Red Hot Chili Peppers – By the Way
The Darkness – Permission to Land
Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope
The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Elliott Smith – Figure 8
1. The Darkness – “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)”
2. Mika – “Grace Kelly”
3. Regina Spektor – “On the Radio”
4. Fiona Apple – “Not About Love”
The version on the unreleased, Jon Brion-produced Extraordinary Machine album is one of the best songs of the decade. The final release included a neutered version that traded driving, intertwined and dueling strings for an uncertain, mid-tempo drum pattern. An extremely weird musical decision. Listen to the unreleased version.
5. Emmylou Harris – “The Pearl”
6. Fountains of Wayne – “New Routine”
Top 6 comedy songs:
5. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (I assume) – “America, Fuck Yeah”
6. A Mighty Wind – “A Mighty Wind”
Top 5 cover songs:
1. Kiss – “Do you Remember Rock n’ Roll Radio” (Ramones cover)
2. Ben Harper – “My Father’s House” (Bruce Springsteen cover)
3. Eddie Vedder and Beck – “Sleepless Nights” (Everly Brothers cover)
4. Jon Brion – “The Game” (Queen cover)
5. Fiona Apple – “Sally’s Song” (Nightmare Before Christmas cover)
The rest, in alphabetical order by artist:
“Parting Gift” – Featuring one of my top 4 sung middle-notes of the aughts: In the chorus when she dips down in her register and sings “It said stop” with the last of her breath.
The Avett Brothers
Be Your Own Pet
“Big Yellow Taxi” (Joni Mitchell cover)
“Goodbye Earl” – This almost makes my top 6. Features the second of my top 4 sung middle-notes: The “low” in the second verse – “They searched the house high and lo-ow”
Fall Out Boy
Flight of the Conchords
“You Don’t Know Me” (feat. Regina Spektor)
Fountains of Wayne
“All the Roadrunning” (with Mark Knopfler)
The Hold Steady
Jimmy Eat World
“Carpetbaggers” (feat. Elvis Costello)
My Chemical Romance
The New Pornographers
Featuring the third of my top 4 sung middle-notes: In the chorus, when he sings “me” in the line, “you’ll never remember with me.” A perfect note.
Looking back, the Liz Phair saga is both one of the strangest music episodes of the decade and emblematic of the music culture’s rapid shifts.
After wowing (and wooing) the indie-rock crowd with 1993’s Exile in Guyville, Phair made two increasingly indifferently received albums during the ’90s (1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, which is my favorite Phair album). Then she made the bizarre decision to go after the teen-pop crowd for her 2003 self-titled album, enlisting pop songwriting machine The Matrix for four songs and “glamming herself up like a Maxim MILF of the Month,” as Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine put it.
This did not go over well, to put it mildly. Meghan O’Rourke’s inspired pan in the New York Times was only the most prominent of many critical drubbings (the O’Rourke review prompted Phair to write an impenetrable letter to the editor ostensibly in her defense).
From a distance, the whole thing seems rather silly. It’s not that O’Rourke or any of the critics were wrong, exactly. Phair’s makeover was unnecessary and embarrassing. But the horror at what Phair did is as much of its time as Phair’s decision to do it in the first place.
Phair didn’t see what was coming — she didn’t realize that the manufactured pop tart persona she was forcing herself into was a 1998-2003 anomoly. The very audience that always loved her, but that apparently never gave her the feeling of success she was seeking, was about to become a greater force in music than it had ever been, thanks to the Internet’s magical ability to simultaneously fragment the monoculture and connect subcultures. O’Rourke’s disappointment, meanwhile, seems quaint or itself unnecessary.
Why, for example, is it ok for Radiohead to go in a completely different direction and make obtuse, experimental music that often makes no sense (see “yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” above), but it’s not ok for Liz Phair to go in a completely different direction and make fluffy, silly pop? Hasn’t she earned the right? And wait a minute, why does she need to “earn” anything? Can’t she do what she wants?
Well, yes — and so can Meghan O’Rourke. But so much of the old critical culture was based on policing perceived transgressions like Phair’s. Now it seems (to me, anyway) that such policing is beside the point. There’s more than enough storage space and bandwidth for every artist to experiment in whatever obtuse or poppy way they please. Music blogs will or won’t write about them. The musician’s fans will or won’t listen. And then the musician can try something else.
Anyway, Liz Phair isn’t really such a bad album. The four Matrix-written songs are ridiculous, but they’re also catchy as The Matrix’s songs tend to be. The Phair-written songs sound pretty much like Liz Phair songs. I could pick out some sharp lyrics and some trite lyrics, but that would also be beside the point. If you know and like Liz Phair, they’re actually worth a listen. If you don’t, you’ll probably want to start somewhere else in her catalog.
Either way, if you revisit Liz Phair or check it out for the first time, start with “Love/Hate.” If the haters had given the album a chance, they would have found perhaps the most rocking, anthemic song Phair has recorded. With songs like that, there was no need for Phair to ruin her career — or for the critics to hasten that process along.
Queens of the Stone Age
Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Someday” – The last of my top 4 sung middle notes: In the chorus, the “I” in “I think I’ll be all right”
“The Return of Jackie and Judy” (Ramones cover)
“Island in the Sun” (hep, hep)
“Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (remix feat. Jay-Z)
The White Stripes
“Airline to Heaven” (with Billy Bragg, lyrics by Woody Guthrie)
The XYZ Affair
Disclosure: The lead singer/guitarist is a good friend.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs