My Picks: The 50 Tracks of the Aughts, Part V


Jan 17 2012, 20h04

20. Me and Giuliani Down By the Schoolyard-!!!, Louden Up Now, 2003.

This is the shortest nine-minute track on record. !!! sounds like an updated, NYC Sly & the Family Stone. Nic Offer, the only vocalist on this list one could describe as “objectively poor,” delivers one of the most heroic performances of the decade. “People always ask me, ‘What’s so fucking great about dancing?’ Well how the fuck should I know? I myself can barely understand it!” He half-howls, half-mumbles midway through the track, as stuttering guitar riffs take the foreground.

The epic, controlled chaos of the jam makes this track the Indie Rock answer to the Phishes and Widespread Panics of the world. That bass line just slinks and creeps throughout. A cowbell rattles and hums persistently in the background. Horns appear in charismatic “Live at the Apollo” flashes.

Unmistakably influenced in pieces by the past, the whole thing as a composite sounds like the future, even downright revolutionary, which only makes sense given the rant that Offer jumps into in the song’s second half: “New York City/is where/freaks come to be free/and if I can't get my freak on see/I'm a hang up Giuliani,/he can sick his lackeys on me/But you can't stop a new age dawning!”

By the time Offer declares, “Giuliani’s got his rules/but we don’t give a shit/let’s break em!” the line in the sand has been drawn, and as the band enters into its triumphantly militant finale, with only the drums of war pounding and Offer whistling a refrain of Beach Boys doo-wop reverberating into infinity, the message of the song is clear: in the battle of us against them, the “us” remains ready and willing to fight on for as long as it takes.

19. Fell in Love With a Girl-The White Stripes, White Blood Cells, 2001.

The Garage Rock Revival’s anthem, “Fell in Love With a Girl” clocks in at a blazing 110 seconds, and yet somehow feels shorter. This was the song that made the world safe for Twitter, offering proof positive that some of the most enduring, enjoyable statements require neither length nor complexity, just an unbeatable hook and the boundless energy of a ten-year old all jacked up on Mountain Dew.

The urgency of “Fell in Love With a Girl” remains its most striking aspect, operating as somewhat of a microcosm for the Alternative community’s concerns about the state of modern rock. Jack White doesn’t sing so much as hyperventilate. Meg White doesn’t beat so much as bash. For the Rockists lost in the turbulent wilderness that was the early 2000’s Indie Rock scene, the arrival of this song—and the Stripes themselves—to the forefront of the Alternative Rock scene was nothing short of a godsend. The white man’s racket never sounded so good.

18. Ignition (Remix)-R.Kelly, Chocolate Factory, 2003.

In the real world, the pick-up lines in the “Ignition” remix prove tastelessly trite enough to warrant shock, horror, and possibly physical violence from any subject of their use. Fortunately, as would be confirmed time and again over the decade, R. Kelly left the real world a long time ago. The Kool Keith of R&B, but with the sex appeal of Al Green at his best, R. Kelly helped an unequaled number of horny teenagers get laid with this track.

Maybe it was the song’s g-funk backdrop, which comes imbued with a lazy charisma not seen since Doggystyle. Or perhaps it was R. Kelly’s relentless onslaught of trashy metaphors that would make the world safe for Jersey Shore several years later. Then again, maybe it’s that classic thesis offered in the chorus: “I’m like so what/I’m drunk!” If you weren’t feeling “Ignition (Remix)” in 2003, you needed serious psychological help. Or maybe just to get laid.

17. 1901-Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009.

The most infectious, Billboard charts-friendly Indie rock jam of the decade’s latter half, “1901” revels in its own effortless coolness. Hell, it sounds like the type of song written by a bunch of French guys who wear impossibly tight jeans and scarves, and yet look both more than willing and totally capable of stealing your girlfriend right out from under your nose at a bar. If you liked Indie Rock in the Aughts, you fucking loved this song, you had no other choice. And the only person who loved it more than you was your girlfriend.

All you have to do is watch Phoenix’s live performance of this cut on Letterman to understand “1901’s” appeal. The band’s drummer, in the process of laying the song’s ultra-tight foundation, becomes possessed by the spirit of Keith Moon and, barely hyperbolizing here, annihilates his drum kit. Only outdoing his performance in terms of awesomeness is the reaction of the band’s keyboardist—who watches the whole thing with a mixture of first amusement, then incredulity, and finally, awe.

Most importantly, the live performance highlights “1901’s” ultimate legacy---as the updated, improved successor to the new millenium’s Indie Rock-crossover template, untouched since 2001’s Is This It. Shedding the Strokes’ nourish preferences for tough guy posing and leather jackets, Phoenix embraces the energy and enthusiasm of the band’s two most interesting members, drummer Fab Moretti and rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr., while reveling in a vulnerable awkwardness with a vigor that results in an authenticity/aura of confidence superseding even that of Julian Casablancas and Co. The song the Strokes have tried (and failed) to write ever since Is This It?

16. Big Pimpin’-Jay-Z, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, 2000.

About, oh, 99.9999 percent of hip-hop braggadocio is just that: talk. But then again, 99.9999 percent of hip-hop emcees aren’t that nigga Jigga. It would be another year before Jay-Z released “Takeover,” and sure enough, the decade’s most widely-felt and grimly effective diss track resonated in the accompanying, real-life events its title foretold.

It takes a once-in-a-generation, larger-than-life figure to possess both the audacity to call his own shot and the chops to then deliver the goods. It takes an emcee who can half-ass on the opening verse on this, the decade’s most gratuitously self-involved, and yet irrepressibly charismatic hip-hop track, to even make a track like “Takeover” in the first place. Eight decades after Babe Ruth, NYC would find its new bambino, the only emcee to not only survive in the most cutthroat, cannibalistic pop music genre in American history, but earn the respect of even his most entrenched foes along the way.

But wait, there’s more: those untouchable guest verses from Bun B. and the late, great Pimp C. of U.G.K., both of whom upstage the Jigga on this track and foretell the rise of the other dominant entity that would tower over rap in the Aughts: the Dirty South.

15. Hard to Explain-The Strokes, Is This It?, 2001.

Turns out the media hype was just slightly off when the Strokes were pegged as the forthcoming greatest band of the new millennium back in 2001. Strike the “greatest” and throw in “sexiest.” Is This It? reinvigorated a jaded alternative rock scene and resulted in live performances where a major rock act, for the first time since, I dunno, Duran Duran, sent girls in attendance into convulsive, screaming fits. A full ten years later, I still can’t walk around the local college campus without seeing at least a dozen dudes rocking skinny jeans and impeccably disheveled haircuts trying to replicate, knowingly or unknowingly, the band’s impenetrably cool veneer. This is the band that did for American Apparel what Nirvana did for flannel a decade prior.

But let’s get to the underlying brilliance of “Hard to Explain,” and the ways that this song personifies the generation that came of age in this decade. This is the sound of popular music making a clean break from the immediate past. There’s Fab Moretti leading off with a drumbeat that purposefully sounds exactly like a drum machine, doubling as the sound of the final nail being hammered into Generation X’s coffin. There’s Albert Hammond, Jr.’s melodic gutter groove on lead guitar. And best of all, there’s Julian Casablancas resurrecting the Who and the spirit of ‘63 with lyrical homages to both the classic “My Generation” motif of us-verses-them and the generation-gap communication issues of “I Can’t Explain.” “I watch the tv, forget what I’m told, for I am too young and they are too old,” Casablancas mutters. Pop music proof that some things will never change.

14. Can’t Tell Me Nothing-Kanye West, Graduation, 2007.

Guess who won the Aughts? If your answer wasn’t Kanye West, well, give it another shot. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” off Kanye’s brilliant album Graduation, showcases the decade’s M.V.P. offering forth his greatest strengths. Decadent, deliriously soulful production. Yeezy addressing his two most indomitable muses, his ego and his haters. A lyrical flow that conveys the emcee’s ambition and restlessness in its refusal to allow itself to be pinned down.

This was the warning shot Kanye West would fire to a pop music world that had already appreciated his greatness, but remained ignorant to his potential. Yeezy would reach even greater heights following the turn-of-the-decade, thus fulfilling this track’s promise. For a guy who has so many doubters and remains obsessed with earning nothing short of reverence from society---Yeezy sure recognizes one thing: he is at his finest when he pretends that he can give less of a shit about what people think of him.

13. Maps-Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell, 2003.

In my opinion, the remainder of this list, beginning with this track, exists on a tier above everything else that came out in the 00’s. In this regard, “Maps” represents the perfect cut-off point separating these top 13 songs from everything else that was released last decade (put another way, if I was to make Top 100 All-Time Pop Tracks List, the next 13 songs would be no-brainer additions), since each of the Top 13 all individually contain a certain element that puts it at a notch above so-called ordinary greatness.

That element on this track is Karen O, boys and girls. Throughout Fever to Tell, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s astonishing post-punk classic, she remains equal parts surly and unhinged. An unstoppable force of nature. Then comes “Maps,” and all that falls away in the face of this fiercely personal acknowledgment of vulnerability—the kind that can only emerge out of romantic love. Nick Zinner’s brawny guitar heroics keep things from getting too sappy, even as they accentuate the melodrama and heartbreak in O’s vocals. The best Post-Punk ode to heartbreak this side of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

12. Crazy in Love-Beyonce Knowles, Dangerously in Love, 2003.

How phenomenal is “Crazy in Love?” This is the track that made America watch the throne. Beyonce Knowles is the 21st century Marie Antionette. Jay-Z, three years earlier the defiant young Casanova declaring his intent to be “forever macking,” sells out as hard as any self-ascribed pimp in history ever has, and no one can blame him. The celebratory horns hail the arrival of the undisputed new King and Queen of Pop Music. The rest is history, y’all.

11. The Rat-The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows, 2005.

Of all the untold number of Indie Rock break-up songs throughout history, there’s no precedent for “The Rat.” No precedent for this kind of sheer, unbridled rage. No precedent for the way in which the whole band locks onto the target of the song like a heat-seeking missile. Lyrically, it’s all about that second line—where Hamilton Leighthauser’s shattered sense of self-composure becomes clear, as he repeats the accusation “YOU’VE GOT A NERVE!” Musically, the final seconds of the track say it all: the Walkmen are not merely content to rhetorically demand of the song's subject, "Can't you hear me!? I'm beating on the wall!!!" Still don't understand the level of anger Leighthauser is talking about? Allow drummer Matt Barrick to demonstrate.

This is the manliest break-up song ever, one where the listener ends up feeling sorry for the object of the track, rather than the singer. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the song that ended Punk, this was the song that ended Emo (quite thankfully, many would argue). Forget “New Slang” and the Shins. Throw away your Bright Eyes mixtape. Try going back and listening to Taking Back Sunday or Brand New or whatever after this track, you just can’t---like the relationship in the track, that bridge has been burned my friend.

The White Stripes R. Kelly Phoenix Jay-Z The Strokes Kanye West Yeah Yeah Yeahs Beyonce Knowles Japandroids The Walkmen


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