The Best Songs of the Decade

Well, I suppose the decade is nearly 97% over, and in honor of Pitchfork staff’s recent publication of its top 500 songs of the 2000s (which is relatively piss poor as far as Pitchfork lists go, but it was pretty ambitious), I thought I’d create a list of the best 20 songs I encountered over the past 10 years.  These are not necessarily what I would think the best songs of the decade are, if I could hear everything; just the best songs I did hear (and you’ll no doubt notice glaring blind spots in my listening), and not necessarily my favorites either (although some of them certainly are).

Iconic and needs no explanation:

New Slang (The Shins – Oh, Inverted World)

Hurt (Johnny Cash (covering Nine Inch Nails) – American IV: The Man Comes Around).  I’m sorry, did I miss this one on Pitchfork’s list?

Toxic (Britney Spears – In the Zone)

Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand – s/t)

Such Great Heights (Postal Service – Give Up)

Should be iconic:

Jesus, Etc. (Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Ageless Beauty (Stars – Set Yourself on Fire).  Stunning.

Playground Love (Air – The Virgin Suicides Soundtrack)

Maps (Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell).  Best vocals of the decade?

Pyramid Song (Radiohead – Amnesiac).  Sorry Idioteque.

Top 10:

10. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song (Fleet Foxes – s/t).  Surprise!

9. The Fear (Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You).  A sparkling, top-40 pop song imbued with moral conviction?

8. Oxford Comma (Vampire Weekend – s/t).  A perfectly economical and self-assured pop song.  Easily one of my favorite songs of the last 10 years.

7. Miner At the Dial-A-View (Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump).  This track never gets old, and it’s been playing in my head off and on for seven years– the most beautifully epic song on a sleeper for best album of the decade.  Shame on you, Pitchfork, for missing this one.

6. Young Folks (Peter, Bjorn and John (featuring Victoria Bergsman) – Writer’s Block).  Possibly the “coolest” song of the decade.

5. Bloodbook on the Half Shell (Danielson – Ships). The majority of the song collects subtle tension on its way toward  the smashing alt-rock coda, which is purely euphoric and feels like a complete resolution to Daniel Smith’s entire previous work.   For those who have followed Smith’s meandering catalog since the 1990s, this is a gigantic moment.

4. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) (Arcade Fire – Funeral).  Okay, I have could easily chosen four or five other songs off of this album, which is why I think Funeral is the best album of the 2000s.  Ask me on a different day and I’ll think “In the Backseat” should be on this list instead.

3. PDA (Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights). The other coolest song of the decade.

2. Theologians (Wilco – A Ghost is Born).   At first, this song appears as one of the more conventional and less memorable songs on A Ghost is Born.  Through the second verse and the guitar solo, you understand the song has some sort of religious theme, but you don’t yet recognize it’s written from the perspective of Jesus.  The melody is pretty, but generic– until a louder guitar kicks into the bridge, introducing musical, and setting up lyrical, tension to the song. “I’m going away, where you will look for me.  Where I’m going you cannot come,” is sung against a dissonant and powerful guitar riff, conjuring a gathering storm.  It’s at this point you realize Jesus is talking, as if he’s being transfigured during this part of the song, the words taken directly from the Gospels.  The musical tension crescendos with more urgent guitar stabs.  “Nobody’s ever gonna take my life from me.  I lay it down, a Ghost is born, a Ghost is born, a Ghost is born.”  Then, suddenly, at this apex, the song returns to its original, unassuming melody against a fluttering, descending guitar riff, depicting the (joyful?) letting go of life.  After the riff recedes, the song winds its way to conclusion with the same innocent punchiness that characterized its first half.  But it doesn’t sound the same.

1. Come On!  Feel the Illinoise! (Sufjan Stevens – Illinois).  “Chicago” is the most “heralded” song off of Illinois, and is probably a fine enough to merit inclusion on most critic’s “best of” lists.    But come on, people; it’s basically one riff repeated over and over again, and it’s not even about Chicago.  Well, it’s a big riff.  And they played it in that movie, you know, with that annoying little girl.

“Come On!…” is far more varied, ambitious, and rewarding than “Chicago.”  It begins with an unassuming piano line.  It momentarily escapes its initial, Charlie Brown monotony through unexpected vocal harmony (“Chicago, in fashion…”).  But overall, the lyric-heavy first third winds up the tension broken by “Columbiaaaa!” at 2:20, sending the song into a vocal-less interlude for the next two minutes that changes its tone two or three times, ultimately creating a bed of strings on which the proceeding vocal material rests.   Sufjan’s most gorgeous singing on the album follows as the song slowly unwraps into a lone violin line, some two minutes later. The listener is at very different place than when the song began, but through all its mutations, the journey has been remarkably seamless.  I don’t know too many songs that could accomplish such with as much grace as this track.

Now, dear Discursionists readers, what do you think of the best songs of the decade are?

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11 Comments

Filed under Brandon

11 responses to “The Best Songs of the Decade

  1. Christopher

    Brandon-
    Brilliant choice of Sufjan’s work for your first choice! This album has been in my car for literally 3 summers now. This is my favorite song on the album, and one I love to enjoy when driving down PCH to my “swimmin’ hole” at Woods Cove, Laguna Beach.

    The song doesn’t get old to me because of the complex meter (in 5). I really enjoy the obscure instruments he uses (to pop music) such string quartet, english horn, and mallet percussion. The harmonic changes to unrelated keys are interesting, and paired with the driving rhythmic motive this song proves Steven’s vast musicianship. The trumpet descant is like icing on the cake for me.

    I also particularly love “The Predatory Wasp” on this album, and the highly minimalist number too that I have forgotten the name of.

    All in all, well done.

  2. czfinke

    I think that Pitchforks top 10 is pretty good. It’s hard for me to think of better individual songs than Paper Planes or Maps or Idioteque or My Girls. I mean, I can think of other songs that I love and would put on a list, but that is still a great list.

    Here are some others on my list off the top of my head:
    Strongest candidate for Number 1: “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse.” Hissing Fauna, are you the Destroyer by Of Montreal.
    “Kings Cross.” From a Basement on the Hill by Elliott Smith.
    “Paper Planes”. M.I.A.
    “Frontier Psychiatry.” Since I left you by the Avalanches.
    “Toxic” by Brittany Spears.
    “My Love” by Justin Timberlake.
    “My First Lover.” Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch.
    “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West.
    “John Allyn Smith Sails.” The Stage Names by Okkervil River.
    “If you had a Vineyard.” Theology (London Sessions) by Sinead O’Connor.
    “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” & “They are Zombies!!! They are Neighbors!!!They have come back from the Dead!!! Ahhh!!!”. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens
    “Extraordinary Machine.” Fiona Apple.

  3. Holly

    I’m sure my musical tastes aren’t as sophisticated as those of many of the other commentators, but what about:

    “Teardrop” by Massive Attack (this song is iconic).

    “Time to Pretend” by MGMT

    “1234” by Feist

    “Hard to Explain” by The Strokes

    “Sing” by Travis

    These are not my *favorite* songs (I fear my tastes are too particular), but I think they will stand the test of time.

  4. Holly

    Just checked out the Pitchfork list (I found them here: http://www.weallwantsomeone.org/2009/08/21/pitchforks-top-20-songs-of-the-decade/). Nice to see that LCD Soundsystem and Daft Punk made the list. If you’re not familiar with “Blind” from Hercules and Love Affair, check it out right now. GREAT song!

  5. blraatikka

    Christopher– yes! I’m so glad someone with actual musical knowledge can explain why that song is so good from that perspective. “Predatory Wasps” is also a favorite of mine on that album. I think the minimalistic song you’re thinking of is John Wayne Gacy, Jr., which in all honestly should have been on my list. I don’t “enjoy” it, but it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
    Finke– you’ve got some strong contenders here. I realize “Paper Planes” is a huge snub (but I actually like “Galang” better). Oops. I guess I can’t think of everything. I probably should have had some Timberlake as well. I’m a bit surprised with your pick of “Heimdalsgate,” but not necessarily in a bad way. I just never figured anyone thought of that as the kind to be a “best song,” you know?
    Holly– You’ve got some good candidates as well. I know I should probably have LCD Soundsystem represented, although I think Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is one of the more annoying songs I’ve ever heard. I agree that the songs you chose will stand the test of time. I thought hard about the Strokes– I actually think the understated album opener “Is This It” (title track) might be their best song because of its killer bass line. I listened to “Blind,” and the music sound cool, but I just can’t stand Antony’s voice. However, Antony and the Johnsons probably produced some of the best music of the decade, so are wrongfully left off my list.

  6. A.Sever

    Looking at other’s lists, I had to google many of them because I was unfamiliar with the songs listed. I have found most of them enjoyable though. BelowI have listed songs that I will likely be listening to in ten years. Many of you might be unfamiliar with these songs, so I have provided links for previewing purposes.

    Happens To Us Otherwise – Bound Stems (The Family Afloat)
    [audio src="http://www.flameshovel.com/mp3/BS02-happens.mp3" /]
    Such a great album, way overlooked in 2008. This whole album could be on this list.

    My Life is at Home – The Promise Ring (Wood/Water)

    Pay no attention to the video for this, just the song.
    Great song with a simple message.

    Falls of Montreal River/Silver Coast – Signal to Trust (Folklore/Golden Armour)
    [audio src="http://modern-radio.com/MP3/SignalToTrust.mp3" /]
    [audio src="http://modern-radio.com/MP3/STTSilverCoast.mp3" /]
    If only this band could’ve written all their songs like these two.

    Come Home Baby Julie, Come Home – The American Analog Set (Promise of Love)

    Again pay no attention to the video, just the music
    They put out so much music it was hard to narrow it down to one song.

    Victor Villarreal – You’re Worth It (Alive)

    Great guitar work on this one.

    Flightless Bird – Birthmark (The Layer)
    http://www.myspace.com/birthmarkincomputer
    A simple song with a repetitive beat and guitar part.

    You Remind Me of Home – Ben Gibbard

    Just a guitar and a voice is all it takes.

  7. Dru

    I do not recognize a single song. Not one. Seems a bit esoteric…

  8. Brandon

    Adam– thanks for the list. I haven’t heard any of those, but the Gibbard song made me feel particularly wistful. I like it.

  9. Josiah

    I was unaware that there was so much love for Britney Spears in this circle. I skip the iconic stuff, because most of that goes without saying, right? Sorry if I don’t have much to say about each song, but I want to keep this semi-brief. And I slowly lost steam as I got sleepy. I also apologize if I get long winded, as I currently have nothing else to do with myself.

    In no particular order, my top twenty:

    Sufjan Stevens has to be addressed, and my favorite track off of Illinois was Casimir Pulaski Day. It was minimalist without being obtuse, beautiful without being overt. I switch around about my favorite song off that album, but I always come back to this one. It’s also about love and loss, which is pretty much a universal feeling, but it is done in such a different way. I love it. Also we should not forget that SS released another fine album this decade, and “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” is my favorite track off Michigan. In response to the bit about Chicago, do you really not like Abigail Breslin that much, or were your indie sensibilities just offended that Chicago was featured in a popular movie in which she starred? It probably won’t make you feel any better, but it was also in almost every other “indie” movie that came out after the release of Illinois.

    Continuing to digress into others choices for a moment, “Theologians” is an awesome pick, and (I think) recognition of Ghost as Wilco’s best album. But I might almost put Spiders ahead of it, again simply because it rocks more. Yeah… Spiders over Theologians. (It sounds like nitpicking… but I can’t put Theologians at the top because of the iffy theology/Biblical paraphrasing, but it is a great song.) Spiders has a great sound, rocks and even allows me to forget that I’m essentially listening to a jam, which I usually hate.

    Air- had to include one from them, and I’m going with “One Hell of A Party” from Pocket Symphony. Great composition and use of eastern modalities (?) and instrumentation, topped off with Jarvis Cocker’s golden pipes. But now that I think about it, Brandon is right, Playground Love is the best Air track of the decade.

    Mountain Trip To Japan 1959 by The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players… because I can. How creative can you get? A song written as narration for a collection of old slides found at a garage sale. This is genius. And fun!

    Black Swan by Thom Yorke. Great song, but garners higher honors for having Cnut “holding back the waves” on the album cover.

    A Lack of Color by Death Cab For Cutie. Such a beautiful song from what was probably DCFC’s best album, the second half of the one-two punch that was The Photo Album and Transatlanticism. It has all been downhill for them ever since.

    Transcontinental by Pedro The Lion. I don’t really have anything to say about this one. I just like it.

    Untitled 4 by Sigur Ros. I think this was the most memorable track from the () album. It was everything that Sigur Ros always had been: Lush, beautiful, epic, sorrowful and uplifting at the same time.

    Hong Kong by Gorillaz (actually just Damon Albarn). This one is another great example of East meets West, and tells a beautiful story as well. I love the sound of the guzheng. It has a lament that I’m sure the stiff upper lip Brits felt when losing Hong Kong. Sort of the loss of Empire, encapsulated in song.

    Mushaboom by Fiest. Who doesn’t love a cute little love song written and sung by a girl, all about living in the country and raising your children and living a comfy pastoral life together?

    One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21 by The Flaming Lips. I think this song defined The Flaming Lips for many, and certainly set the tone for the Yoshimi album. It tells a story (which I love) and is nicely orchestrated. I don’t know what else to say.

    Crazy by Gnarls Barkley. I can’t say anything about this that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll just agree with everyone else and say that I love that bass line.

    Kick, Push by Lupe Fiasco. One man’s ode to this love of the skateboard.

    Once Around The Block by Badly Drawn Boy. I love the multiple guitar tone and xylophone.

    A Nervous Tic Motion of The Head to The Left by Andrew Bird. This is music like I would wish I had the balls to make, if I were a musician. Whistling, plucked violin, and that big beautiful Leslie speaker that sits center stage and drives the whole damn thing.

    We Came To Play by The Plastic Constellations. This album (and this song in particular) often satisfies my need to rock. And it’s from some local boys. Who make great music.

    When The Stars Go Blue by Ryan Adams (Yes, he wrote it). A beautiful (am I using that adjective too much?) ballad that was so awesome Bono ripped it off and tried to sell it as a girl group hit.

    I’d Rather Dance With You by Kings of Convenience. This song is fun and unexpected. And you can relate to it, which it always cool.

    Everything hits at once by Spoon. My introduction to Spoon. Again, something you can relate to and it makes your heart hurt. I might be including this song because the video was so awesome too, so I apologize, but I love it.

    Honorable Mention:
    Falling Slowly by The Swell Season
    Pumping on your Stereo by Supergrass
    Hard To Explain by The Strokes
    Your Ex-lover is Dead by Stars
    Domino Effect by Ozma
    Margaret Vs. Pauline by Neko Case
    Someone Great by LCD Soundsystem
    Destroy Everything You Touch by Ladytron
    Love Vigilantes by Iron & Wine
    The Golden Age by Beck
    Reckoner by Radiohead
    Gust of… by The Album Leaf

  10. blraatikka

    Well done, Josiah.
    No, I just happen to think “Little Miss Sunshine” is really not that great of a movie, outside of a couple moments. And honestly, I don’t think “Chicago” is among Sufjan’s best tunes. I could think of a couple better ones on Michigan and Seven Swans.
    Nice call on Andrew Bird. I considered “Fitz and the Dizzyspells”– you like that one?
    “Someone Great,” “Crazy” and “Lack of Color” could have been on my list as well. (In fact, pretty much the whole second half of Transaltanticism is killer.)
    I’d like to add a few more songs for consideration:
    “Son of Sam” – Elliott Smith
    “Cornerstone” – Arctic Monkeys
    “Lights Out” – Santogold
    “Sleepytime in the Western World” – Blitzen Trapper
    “I Love You Like the Little Bird” – Starflyer 59

  11. Josiah

    Oh, Son of Sam. I almost included that one as well. “You bastard! That’s so good – that should have been mine.” -Anyone?

    I don’t particularly like LMS either. You just seemed rather acidic toward poor Ms. Breslin. It was probably all my perception.

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