Monday, December 7, 2009

The top 10 songs of the first decade of the 2000s

After almost 200 songs, we've finally made it to the top 10 of the past 10 years.

(Click here for the whole list.)

10. Gnarls Barkley — "Crazy"

9. Sufjan Stevens — "Chicago"

Summer Anne, ranking this the 10th best song of the decade, says:

[I]f I ever made a church, my kind of church, we would worship outside, and this song would be our "Amazing Grace."

8. of Montreal — "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games"
Let's have bizarre celebrations!

7. Dresden Dolls — "Coin-Operated Boy"

This is an ingeniously constructed song. It starts out jaunty and full of innuendo for a few verses. The singer, Amanda Palmer, then takes the song deeper into her psyche by describing the songwriting process itself:
This bridge was written

To make you feel smitten-er

With my sad picture

Of girl getting bitter-er
The shift in the lyrics and music here (flowing arpeggios instead of percussive chords) seems to tell us we've left the physical world and entered her stream of consciousness. The bridge culminates with an obsessively repeated "I want it —," then "I want you —," then "I want a —," while the whole band mimics the repetitive, jerky movements of a wind-up toy (a lyrical and musical transition back to the verse). When Palmer finally finishes the sentence with the same words and melody that started the song ("... coin-operated boy"), her delivery has lost its previous childlike quality. She sounds weary from the one-sided relationship. At the end, the band winds down like a toy running out of batteries. Not only does Palmer's voice slow down along with everything else, but she sounds unexpectedly meek, as though it were dawning on her that she doesn't quite believe everything she's been singing.

6. St. Vincent — "Paris Is Burning"

5. The Postal Service — "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight"

I remember sitting in a cafe a few years ago, hearing this chorus for the first time — "You seem so out of context / In this gaudy apartment complex" — and thinking, "Hm, that's a pretty clever hook." Since then, I've probably listened to this song 100 times, and it still sounds startlingly new.

4. Franz Ferdinand — "Take Me Out"

The rock anthem of the decade.

3. Imogen Heap — "Hide and Seek"

Here's Imogen Heap's description of how this song came to be:
My favorite computer blew up on me. ... But I didn't want to leave the studio without having done anything that day. I saw the [DigiTech Vocalist Workstation] on a shelf and just plugged it into my little 4-track MiniDisc with my mic and my keyboard and pressed Record. The first thing that I sang was those first few lines, "Where are we? What the hell is going on?" I set the vocalist to a four-note polyphony, so even if I play 10 notes on the keyboard, it will only choose four of them. It's quite nicely surprising when it comes back with a strange combination. When it gets really high in the second chorus, that's a result of it choosing higher rather than low notes, so I ended up going even higher to compensate, above the chord. I recorded it in, like, four-and-a-half minutes, and it ended up on the album in exactly the structure of how it came out of me then. I love it because it doesn't feel like my song. It just came out of nowhere, and I'm not questioning that one at all.
The result sounds like a 21st-century version of a Renaissance madrigal.

Have you ever thought to yourself: if God is watching me and has to choose the single greatest 5 minutes of my life, what would they be? For Imogen Heap, the answer just might be those 5 minutes when she was creating this:

2. Arcade Fire — "No Cars Go"

The songwriting is almost embarrassingly simple, yet this is some of the most exciting music to come along in recent memory.
Between the click of the light and the start of the dream...

1. Regina Spektor — "Fidelity"

Spontaneous but refined, sincere but quirky, simple but complex. No song more beautifully encapsulates the spirit of this decade of music.

Regina alone, live:


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

A nice Austin City Limits ovation for ol' Sufjan, for a poignant, beautifully arranged song that conjures up both a city and a time of life using only the most minimal direct description.

And though I've heard "Crazy" several times before, I'd never gotten past being slightly annoyed by the hook. The lyrics are excellent.

Songs # 9 & 10 will be hard to top!

Ann Althouse said...

I think catchiness is a big factor in your choices.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Yes, I've said that one of my main criteria is:

"Is it capable of getting stuck in my head?"

John Althouse Cohen said...

And though I've heard "Crazy" several times before, I'd never gotten past being slightly annoyed by the hook.

My favorite part is the shift from the minor key to the parallel major -- that is, A major instead of the expected A minor -- after the choruses (on the words, "And I hope that you are having the time of your life," and later, "My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on a limb").

Penny said...

Couldn't agree with you more about "Crazy".

It's one of the few songs that has me crank up the volume every single time it plays.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Re Imogen's 5 minutes: see the movie "After Life," by my favorite director whose name I can never remember:

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks for the tip. It sounds similar to Defending Your Life, which we watched recently. Defending Your Life came out 8 years before After Life.

summer anne burton said...

Crazy seems to be one of those songs that splits people down the middle. It's on my list too, but to be totally honest it felt much more like an objective, this-song-is-technically-really-great-even-though-i've-never-cared-about-it-that-much choice than almost anything else that made it.

I really like what you wrote about Coin Operated Boy.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"After Life" and "Defending Your Life" are in the same subgenre but they don't resemble each other very much. BTW, the title of "After Life" in the original Japanese is "Wandafaru Raifu" -- you can tell the meaning just by saying it.

Also most highly recommended: the same director's "Maborosi" and "Han."

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

She breaks my heart in the sweetest way.

kjbe said...

I'm off to iTunes. Thanks.

TMink said...

Fidelity reminds me of some of the songs by Lights.

And what good is a pop song if it is not catchy?


Chris Althouse Cohen said...

I was thinking I would put Crazy at #1 on a list like this. Of all the songs this decade, I think it most clearly is something that not only was an instant classic, but would have been so no matter what era it came out of.

Alex said...

Are all you Cohen's related? And is JAC Althouse's son?

reader_iam said...

I enjoy this project of yours (and others of yours as well). In addition, I'm counting on your ongoing efforts to help me seem less fogey to my rapidly leaving-boyhoo son, so if you could just keep it up for oh, another 6-8 years, anyway, I'll be in your debt.

Ann Althouse said...

Jac is my son, as is Chris, and RLC is my ex-husband, their father.

Unknown said...

Perhaps I'm just too old to appreciate this music?

My honest reaction is, what a waste of a decade!

summer anne burton said...

"Perhaps I'm just too old to appreciate this music?
My honest reaction is, what a waste of a decade!"

If your honest reaction to this entire list -- a diverse collection of music recorded by a variety of people in a variety of styles over the last decade -- is 'what a waste,' your problem goes way beyond being old.

SFC B said...

Wow. Whole lot of music I normally don't listen to but enjoyed. Which is awesome.

An observation/question though. Looking through your list, as well as the lists of others you recommended, and I'm finding a total lack of anything in the metal/industrial/hard rock music genre. Even on the "Top 500" manages to ignore music from folks like Tool or Slipknot, but manages to include Nickleback.

I'm sure this observation says more about my taste in music than yours, but it was something I noticed while going through all the lists.

Unknown said...

As much as you may personally worship Regina Spektor, did she need to appear four times in this list? Was it not enough to list her absolute best song with a footnote that she did many more worth attention if anyone was curious? I think of what other songs could've made the list had the praise for Spektor not been so out of hand.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Doomtrain: If you include the runners-up, there are at least 100 different artists in the list overall, maybe as many as 150. I explained in the intro that I generally avoided giving more than 1 song per artist within the top 100 but that I was making a few exceptions. I simply didn't want to dilute the quality of the list by restricting Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, the Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, St. Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley, MGMT, and Radiohead to 1 song each. While you can always say there could have been one more artist included if I had omitted one of those repeats, you could also say the reverse: every additional artist deprived us of the chance to focus on one more great song by Regina Spektor or Rilo Kiley or Death Cab for Cutie.

Unknown said...

muchas gracias for the list! you have included some of my favorite artist and songs, but im afraid you accidently forgot modest mouse's "dark center of the universe"