It’s three more favorite than 10!
It was the best of decades for music, it was the worst of decades for music.
The Aughts, which the Grandpa Simpson in me loves much more than “The 2000s,” was a great decade for music fans. Perhaps the greatest decade, because it was easier than ever to find music that you loved. Hot funk, cool punk, old junk…if you had an Internet connection, you could go out and get just about anything.
I gorged myself like Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. I had always been a pretty active CD purchaser, but my music habit swelled to hard-drive busting proportions. I did my share of file sharing, both online as well as offline with friends who had huge tracts of tracks on their external hard drives. I bought a lot, too, adding iTunes and eMusic downloads purchased along with my ol’ reliable CDs. And that doesn’t even include trolling YouTube for a treasure trove of live performances, exploring the undiscovered streaming musical country of Pandora, or checking out the plethora of music podcasts. Practically anything I want to hear is right at my fingertips.
Yet I’m a little sad. Just ten years ago, John Cusack starred in Hi Fidelity as a grumpy owner of an indie record store. Today, the idea of going into a store dedicated to selling music seems almost as quaint as ordering from the Sears Catalog. Over Thanksgiving, while in a place that resembled civilization, I was at Best Buy, a place that despite its big box capitalism usually carries a pretty good selection of music. I was shocked at how much the music section had shrunk. It was maybe a quarter of what it used to be, with only slightly more floor space than that for the Casio keyboards and other miscellaneous electronic junk that doesn’t fit into an easy category.
It’s all Apple’s fault. The beauty of having your entire music collection on something the size of a cell phone has led to the physical demise of music. Don’t get me wrong—I love my iPod and being able to tap into my entire collection of music from my PC. But I miss that physicality of music collecting: visiting the shops, browsing the racks, perusing the album art and liner notes, and placing those new purchases into the shelves lined with my previous purchases. Now those rows and rows of discs seem like a musical fossil record.
Another double-edged sword has been the conversation about music. In the Age of Social Networking, there are more conversations about music than ever: more reviews to read, more ways to connect with fans, and even more ways to talk to bands directly. All of that has made it so easy to discover great new music. In fact, at the ripe age of 39, I feel like I have a better handle on music than I did at 19 simply because it’s so easy to find out about new bands who are creating great stuff.
At the same time, though, everything has gone niche. Sure, the Pop Music Beast still lumbers through our pop culture, with the beastmasters simply switching over to American Idol, satellite radio, and auto DJs on Clear Channel-owned stations. For rock fans, though, we’re losing those universal connections we used to have, where we would have a common bond over bands we knew and either loved or hated. Now I can run into a huge music fan and, despite being obsessive about this stuff, we both stand a decent chance of not knowing much about our favorite music. A post about .38 Special would generate far more conversation than a post about any of the following bands, simply because we’ve all heard .38 Special’s music. Just like the physicality of music, I miss that universality, even if it was a common bond of making fun of something awful. (In that regard, I’m grateful for Nickelback and Creed.)
Still, bad news aside, it was a hell of a decade for my ears. I started out with about 200 songs to consider, and even getting that down to 100 was hard. When I got to 50, it got painful. And the top 20 seemed almost impossible to whittle down. So I asked myself: If I could only have one CD with my favorite music from 2000-2009, what would be on it? One by one, some great bands fell to the wayside (Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Wilco, U2, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids, even my beloved Rush). I reached 13 and I couldn’t cut any more, but I also knew I could fit all of these on one CD.
So here are my favorite (lucky) 13 songs of The Aughts. It’s interesting that nothing from 2009 and only one song that’s kinda from 2008 made it on here. I think the later stuff is at a disadvantage because I haven’t had as long to live with it. The songs here are ones I return to over and over, that are old friends I keep in constant contact with. The last two years have been full of good tunes, but the older stuff and I go farther back. Call it new drummer syndrome: the new guy may play just as well if not better, but we haven't trashed as many hotels with him.
13) “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” Ted Leo and Pharmacists. The phrase “old school” gets thrown a lot, but Ted Leo is old school. In an era where a lot of bands (strip) mine the 80s for ideas, Ted builds on that old punk/new wave foundation. He brings a Clash attitude to an Elvis Costello sensibility for writing songs, and despite being fairly conventional in his arrangements, he’s created his own unique sound.
It’s possible I played “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone” more than any other song on this list, and yet I never grow tired of it. It hooks me with a great riff, gets me going with Ted’s vocals that are rough and soft at the same time, and keeps me around by keeping things interesting during the middle. It’s of the 80s but also timeless, and nothing would soothe my desert island nerves quite like hearing this song first.
12) “Goddamned Lonely Love,” Drive-By Truckers. I am a very lucky man in that I found true love very early in life. That’s not just mushy sentimentality, it’s just a simple fact. The Lovely Becky and I are made for each other. We both know it, and everyone that knows us knows it.
Yet, despite that happiness, I still like having a song for crying into my beer, because even when I don’t have blues, it’s cathartic to hear someone else’s blues. We all need those songs, and this was by far the best crying into your beer song I heard in the last ten years. Jason Isbelle’s vocals have a pack-and-a-half of regret in them, while the music has the sadness of a last call that’s going to end in a night alone. Ironic that Isbelle and the Truckers parted after making the amazing The Dirty South. That’s something to cry into your beer about.
11) “Ageless Beauty,” Stars. No song hooked me so immediately the way this did. I rarely buy an album after hearing one song one time, but the first time I heard this, I was online and ordering Set Yourself on Fire. Amy Milan’s voice is so pristine, clear and shimmering like an unspoiled lake at sunrise, that her vocals stay refreshing no matter how many times I play this. Match that with a great guitar riff that takes off like a sprinter from the first note and I’m not only hooked, I want to be pulled into the boat.
10) “Mr. Brightside,” The Killers. Back when we lived in Iowa City, TLB and I used to go with our friend MSF to a casino to play poker. The casino was about 45 minutes away, so we had a lot of time to talk and play tunes. Shortly after I bought The Killers Hot Fuss, I popped it into the stereo on one of our trips. From the back seat, MSF said, in a small voice that was both timid and exhilarated, “I love this song.”
There’s nothing as guiltily enjoyable as a guilty pleasure in the making, but that’s what “Mr. Brightside” is for me. As I whittled the list down, I couldn’t believe who I was removing while The Killers stayed on. In the end, though, I can’t deny how happy this song makes me. It’s big, it’s audacious, it’s kind of ridiculous, but it charms me every single time I hear it. When that break hits at the three-minute mark, just before the big finale, damn if I’m not waiting to sing, “I NEEEEVEEER!!!” So fuck credibility, because this is the “Don’t Stop Believing” of the new millennium.
9) “Maps,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This is here because of Rock Band. I bought Fever to Tell and immediately liked this song, but then set it aside for a couple of years. When it showed up in Rock Band, it completely changed my appreciation for it. I love playing the drums, pounding out the fat tom-tom beat that gives an otherwise delicate song a big, booming edge. I also got TLB to sing it with me, and she did such a remarkable job with Karen O’s vocals that I felt like we were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Yes, I’m a nerd.)
Beyond the game, it’s just a beautiful song, the best love song I’ve heard in the last ten years. Just like we all need a song for crying into our beer, we need a go-to love song as well.
8) “Hounds of Love,” The Futureheads. The best cover of the decade. Justin Townes Earle had better source material with his cover of The Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but The Futureheads take the best Kate Bush song and blow it up into the best fireworks show ever. The punky energy, the driving guitars, the clever background oh-oh-ohs, the way that it shoots out of a canon and keeps building until the very end…It’s just about perfect.
7) “Been There All the Time,” Dinosaur Jr. I thought at least U2’s “Beautiful Day” or Rush’s “Vapor Trails” would make this list, because both of those were huge returns to form for two bands I have spent my life loving. I had to give the nod to Dinosaur Jr., however, because they did much more than return to form. Here’s a band I kind of liked but never loved, but whose last two albums have been in heavy, heavy rotation. They didn’t just return to form, they went past the pretty high mark they had set. Beyond and Farm rock harder, sound better, and do more than even their classic 80s and 90s albums, without losing the crazy youthful chaos that made them so interesting in the first place.
“Been There All the Time” encapsulates what’s made their resurgence so entertaining. Crazy drums that still keep the beat, a fat guitar sound that J. Mascis should have had years ago, a breakneck pace that never loses control, and of course a pair of Mascis solos that cement his status as a guitar god, and one of the good guitar gods at that.
6) “The Swish,” The Hold Steady. Still the band I’d front if I fronted a band, and this song shows why. The music is practically a primer for classic rock. When the bass drum kicks in after the opening riff, I can see the stage lights popping on in time, illuminating an arena full of kids pumping their fists in the air in time. The pick it up and slow it down, keeping pace like a great roller coaster, but always rocking out.
What elevates this above most of the classic rock of my youth is Craig Finn’s lyrics. There’s so much smart amid the brawny riffs and thudding drums. How can I not love a line like, “She said my name’s Neil Schon but people call me Nina Simone/some people call me Andre Cymone/I’ve survived the 80s once already/and I don’t recall them all that fondly.” They’re like Cheap Trick, only smarter, and I mean that as a big, big compliment.
5) “Far Away,” Sleater-Kinney. A song that pretty much summed up my feelings about 9/11: the horror of watching it happen, the anger over what happened, and the hatred for how that anger was co-opted into discount superstore patriotism by the Bush Administration.
Mostly, though, it’s a lament for what happened that day, with the shouted, “Why can’t I get along with you?” getting into my bones. The “you” is universal here: what the fuck makes us do things like fly planes into buildings and bomb the shit out of people? Does ideology always have to trump humanity? I think the answer is unfortunately “usually,” which just makes the anger and sadness worse, but at least this song provides a cathartic release through its wailing ferociousness.
4) “The Bleeding Heart Picture Show,” The New Pornographers. Pop music that fits me like a tailor-made suit, and a good tailor-made suit, not some Project Runway challenge made out of twigs and newspaper. I had a half-dozen New Pornographers songs I considered. I picked this one because it sums up what makes them such a great group: taking a winning pop formula and turning it on its head. The formula is the hey-lah, hey-lah of the climactic ending, the crowd-pleasing finale that gets us all singing along. It’s the journey there—the slow build, the mid-tempo middle, before the bridge that ignites that ending, as Neko Case’s voice becomes more prominent with every verse until she shines on her own at the end—that makes this such a stand-out track for me. It manages to be catchy and epic, all in the span of a few minutes. That will always score highly with me.
3) “Skinny Love,” Bon Iver. Winter sucks. Yeah, white Christmas is nice and all that, but there’s a reason that when most of us fantasize about getting away from it all, it’s not about heading north to an Arctic research station for some much needed isolation and frostbite.
Still, the best art tends to come from painful experiences, and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is the kind of record that could only be forged in a frozen wasteland (northern Wisconsin, specifically). The fact that he recorded this in a winter cabin is obvious, because this album is winter: sparse, chilly, painful, yet capturing the beauty of new fallen snow that covers up all that pain, if just for a little while. The minimal arrangements highlight what makes Bon Iver so amazing to listen to: his voice, one of the best male vocals I’ve ever heard. He takes the quiet folksiness of Nick Drake and amplifies it into something powerful, with occasional howling that makes the quiet that much more meaningful. I loved the whole album immediately, but it was this song that I played over and over and over again. I give “Skinny Love” a big fat hug.
2) “Svefn-G-Englar,” Sigur Ros. I am admittedly a pretty conventional music fan. I’m not one of those guys who listens to jazz and classical and old-tymey music and whatnot. I mostly rock out, with forays into folksiness and electronica, peppered with an occasional dip in hip-hop. I don’t get very adventurous with my music very often, which TLB would say reflects on my overall personality. Quite true, and a big reason why me and Animal Collective don’t mix.
Every once in a while, though, something comes at me from left field that completely blows me away, even though it’s not in my usual field of listen. DJ Shadow’s trip-hoppy Endtroducing did that in the 90s, and Sigur Ros did that to me in The Aughts. (Technically, this came out in 1999 in Iceland, but wasn’t released in the US until 2001. Pitchfork included it on their 2000 albums list, so that’s good enough for me.)
I had never heard anything like this, which made it all the more remarkable that I immediately loved it. It’s whale songs played by a rock band, with big, sweeping guitars reverbed all the way to the bottom of the ocean, while falsetto Icelandic gibberish lights up the surface. This is so beautiful, I can’t help but dig deep into the well of rock review clichés and call it a transcendent tour de force that reaffirms the uplifting power of music, and mean every single stupid overwrought word, because a decade after living with this song, I’m still mesmerized by it.
1) “Happy,” The Wrens. My favorite song from my favorite album of the decade, The Meadowlands. I’ve written before why this album is meaningful to me: because it’s about that period when you’re old enough to see some of your dreams slipping away but not old enough to turn them into a haunting elegy about lost youth. You’re just sort of stuck in a house in New Jersey, spending seven years on an album that probably your friends will only hear. (If that’s not an allegory for blogging, I don’t know what is.) For most of the 2000s, that negativity fit me pretty well.
In the last year and a half, though, my attitude has changed, as has my feeling about this album. I finally got over myself enough to start doing what I really loved, to put in the sweat and effort that it takes to turn a good idea into something that other people may want to enjoy. I got over caring how many people would enjoy it or how long it would take or worrying about all the stupid baggage that just weighed me down and kept me from moving forward. I threw myself into the joy of creation.
I think that’s what The Meadowlands is really about. Four guys putting aside everything else because they love making music. They didn’t get rich, they didn’t get famous, and they haven’t made an album since this came out in 2003. Yet none of that matters because they stuck to their guns and in the process made one of the great albums of the decade, an album that would be on my desert island list for any decade.
“Happy” sums all that up. It’s an angry, sad elegy to a relationship, but once all that negativity is expended in the first 75% of the song, it kicks into a soaring conclusion that sounds downright relieved and happy. And relieved and happy is a great place to be.
Hope you enjoyed the list, and thanks to everyone who comes by and reads the Random 11 and the blog every week. For a while I wondered when I would end this blog. Now I just want to keep it going, no matter how much or how little I can post.