80: Air – La Femme D’Argent (1998)
Even on a casual listen, Air do sexy better than just about anyone else. It’s part of their allure. Two French dudes in the ’90s doing exactly what you’d think two French dudes in the ’90s would be doing with keyboards and samplers. From Moon Safari onward, Air’s European lounge vibe was pretty much unparalleled. But they always mixed their seduction in with a bit of darkness or playfulness. Yes, “Playground Love” might be one of the best make out jams of its time, but it was also part of the beautifully depressing Virgin Suicides soundtrack. Air never make body motion music without some smarts. And their opening statement that introduced them to most of the world proved that.
“La Femme D’Argent” (either “The Silver Woman” or “The Money Girl”) is Moon Safari’s first track and sets up the entire album as a warm, surreal and sexy journey. The song is mostly carried by that smooth as butter bassline and slightly crazed keyboard solo, but there is a lot going on for a track that could have just been carried by sheer sensuality. The stirring string and piano combo floating in the background sounds like Moby’s “Porcelain,” a year before “Porcelain” came out. The go-to images are Go-Go Dancers, James Bond monologues and lava lamps, but “La Femme D’Argent” never treads into cheesiness. It’s far too beautiful. When the song finally bursts into a whirlwind of synths and strings, it feels like a reward. “Delayed gratification” is the phrase, but it works aurally as well as physically. And you can hear the final notes of the song rippling off into the brains of younger producers like Lone and Rustie. Air got spacier (Le voyage dans la lune), prettier (“Alone in Kyoto”) and sexier (“Playground Love”), but they never balanced all of them with such grace again. – Nathan Stevens
79: Radiohead – Just (1995)
“Just,” the glorious 1995 anthem by English alternative rock band Radiohead, is filled with the exact amount of belief-defying guitar skill and taunting lyrics that one would expect from a ‘90s rock classic. Because of the song’s chord progressions and the smooth but aching singing by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, “Just” is considered by some to be one of the best indie rock songs of all time. Regardless of rank, “Just” has stood the test of time. While it was a top 20 hit in the United Kingdom upon release, its popularity grew over time, and it was later re-released on Radiodhead’s Radiohead: The Best Of greatest hits album and as a cover by English super-DJ Mark Ronson.
The story behind the amount of chords in “Just” is apparently that Yorke and Radiohead guitarist/organist Justin Greenwood were competing to see who could get the most chords into a song. This is evident in the recording, as the two-bounce guitar chords off of each other until Greenwood unleashes a fabulous, memorable guitar solo and Yorke counters by taking his vocals up, up and away. It’s a song that manages to be sonically and intellectually satisfying all at once.
The music video for “Just” was directed by now-veteran music video director Jamie Thraves (who most recently directed the videos for Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” and Villagers’ “Everything I Am Is Yours”) and is famous in its own right. The end of the video contains a Lost in Translation-esque exchange of words as a man tells a crowd why he’s lying on the ground while Thraves keeps the editing rough, preventing viewers from knowing what the man said. The video has been a mystery since its release, and both Thraves and the band have refused to reveal what it is the man said.
So, like all things Radiohead, “Just” has the mysterious, the political and the artistic all working in tandem. The craft and the passion are here, but so is the challenge. When Yorke sings “You do it to yourself” over and over again, his voice rising, it’s hard not to think that he’s singing right at you. – Mike McClelland