Monday, December 21, 2009

25 Best Tracks of the Decade: #25-11

Well, you knew I was going to write about music sometime here.  I was recently invited to take part in Two Way Monologues' "Top 50 albums of the Decade" poll, and through that exercise I realised that I scarcely liked any full albums from the past ten years.  Whether that's just me being old and ornery, or whether artists no longer have the focus to string together a strong, coherent album, I couldn't tell you. However, there were scores of individual songs that I felt were worthy of mention, so I whittled it down to a Top 25 of the '00s.  Part II will come soon!

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#25: “Astounded”, Bran Van 3000

A throbbing bassline starts quietly and distantly, as if you’ve just entered a warehouse somewhere in Montreal, and it gets louder as you approach the party. Then suddenly, the door opens and 70’s soul strings usher you in as the ghostly falsetto voice of the late soul legend Curtis Mayfield. Within moments, you’re in the midst of the longest kiss of your life.

Or, maybe I just watched the video for this way too many times back in 2001.

#24: “Music Is My Radar”, Blur

Having made their name with ultra-British pop, Blur had gone “more experimental” towards the end of the 90’s and then went “unlistenable” with 2003’s Think Tank. In between, this new song added to their Best Of managed to combine the best of both. Mumbled nonsense words, guitar noise, melodica and a pitter-patter drum part are not the usual recipe for “catchy as hell”, but Damon Albarn pulled this off and pointed the direction towards the Gorillaz albums to come.

#23: “Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”, Broken Social Scene

When BSS emerged to an avalanche of indie praise in 2003, I didn’t get it. Everyone talked about how “pop” it was and this seemed to them to be some big revelation. Personally, I could barely find a melody on the entire album; it seemed more like some college radio station’s B-side compilation. All except one slow-building, spellbinding dirge that, despite its title, didn’t sound much like what its main character would ever listen to.

#22: “10 A.M. Automatic”, The Black Keys

It’s not as though minimalist white-boy blues was invented in the early 21st century; you can find examples going back to the 50’s. But it did seem to be at its most popular in the early-to-middle years of the ‘00s, and when you listen to Dan Auerbach’s guitar literally roar out of your speakers, it’s easy to see why. It’s not necessarily the best song in the Black Keys’ repertoire, but the hurricane of an ending is unforgettable.

#21:”I Want Love”, Elton John

Anyone watching the stark video for a glimpse at troubled-yet-compelling Robert Downey Jr. was no doubt pleasantly surprised to hear the kind of Elton John song that hadn’t been heard for 25 years, aka good. The classic early 70’s sound was revived to back unflinchingly direct lyrics that resonate not only with any knowledge of Sir Elton’s life, but surely scores of ordinary listeners as well.

#20: “Look Good In Leather”, Cody ChesnuTT

Before this became an AXE commercial, it was a little-heard, low-fi soul song recorded on a 4-track full of joyous, good-natured boasting – and a lot of swearing, which you won’t be able to hear in the cheesy video below. Unlike most of the so-called R&B from this decade, there’s no showboating vocals, no claims to be consuming more expensive brands of alcohol; just a simple, surely undeniable assertion that he looks good in leather. And isn’t that enough?

#19: “Maps”, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

I’ve never understood why this is called “Maps”. But it was a revelation to learn that Karen O could actually sing, instead of scream, look insane and, well, act insane.

#18: “1,000 Times”, Tahiti 80

Beginning with Daft Punk and Air in the late 90s, French bands came out of the perceived wilderness and into the mainstream. Tahiti 80 were almost one of those bands, but never quite made it, perhaps because they just seemed light and fluffy as a blancmange. This song only reinforces that: it’s like a double-scoop ice cream in a sugar cone on a summer day. Apparently, people didn’t like that in 2002.

#17: “Dynamite Walls”, Hayden

A friend pointed out Hayden’s house to me a few weeks ago while walking the Toronto’s west end. It was much nicer than I’d expected, if only because I’d never equated Hayden – and his Eeyore-meets-Leonard Cohen voice – with success. Yet he is certainly successful on this epic, the aural re-enactment of driving through the empty highways that cut through the Canadian Shield.

#16: “1,2,3,4”, Feist

Knowing that radio play is available exclusively to the Nickelbacks and Mariah Careys of the world, most of today’s musicians would now consider placement in an Apple ad the peak of their commercial aspirations. “1,2,3,4” is, of course, one of the ones that made it, and it truly made Feist a worldwide name. You would think that a song like this would be a hit anywhere, in any era, but sadly, that’s not the case anymore.

#15: “Impossible Germany”, Wilco

I saw Fleetwood Mac this year, and when the crowd went nuts about two-thirds of the way through a 10-minute guitar solo by Lindsay Buckingham, I was reminded that once upon a time, audiences loved and expected long guitar solos. They’ve all but disappeared from the musical landscape now, having been made unfashionable by several generations of punk music, but Nels Cline provided perhaps the most memorable one of this decade. More like this, and they might make a comeback.

#14: “Golden Age”, Beck

Beck has done so many different things over the years, it’s hard to recall how surprising it was to hear him seemingly channeling Gordon Lightfoot in a sad, desolate and, most shockingly, direct fashion on “Golden Age”. Instead of “heads are hanging from the garbage bag trees/mouthwash jukebox gasoline”, he gave listeners “hold on/these days, we barely get by/I don’t even try”.

#13: “Dirty Harry”, Gorillaz

What do you get when you mix a children’s choir, a synth line that belongs in a Middle Eastern pop song and furious political rap? A walk through Kensington Market, yes, but also the kind of hit song that you would expect from a dissatisfied former pop star, a cartoonist and whoever happened to be walking past the recording studio at the time.

#12: “We’re Going To Be Friends”, The White Stripes

Everything about The White Stripes was palpably old school, from the strict red and white colour scheme to low-fi recording to promo copies released on vinyl to thwart file sharers. Fortunately, that extended to Jack White’s ability to write truly classic songs in a way that few still can. Here, he expertly crafts a nursery rhyme that is both amusing and touching: old school, indeed.

#11: “Décrocher les étoiles”, Keren Ann & Benjamin Biolay

Just quite how I first heard this song has been lost to me in a decade’s worth of late nights, day jobs, travel adventures and band rehearsals. But I am certain that from the first moment I heard it, I was hooked on its pulsing bass/whole note piano verses with oh-so-French duet voices over top. And all the obvious comparisons are moot when the beautiful chorus takes wing.


  1. Awesome. First off, you're a great writer, but you don't need me to tell you that. Second, you have my wholehearted concurrence on a good chunk of this list. I, too, wondered why everyone kept calling "You Forgot It In People" a melodic pop masterpiece, given that the emperors have no melodies. But I, too, made an exception for the gorgeous "Anthems."

    Kudos also for choosing "Maps," "Impossible Germany," "1,000 Times," "We're Going To Be Friends," "1,2,3,4," "Dirty Harry," and especially--especially--"I Want Love." Great left-field choice, and a spectacular song.

  2. Thanks Paul! Yeah, every time someone would talk breathlessly about "BSS did something revolutionary: they made pop!", I wanted to smack them with a Matthew Sweet CD.

    Also, I just re-read this, and realised that if you had told me ten years ago that two of the top tracks of the decade would feature Damon Albarn, I would've called you a filthy liar and ended the friendship right there.