100: Neko Case– Maybe Sparrow (2006)
“Maybe Sparrow” is a song from Neko Case’s critically acclaimed 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the album on which, to many listeners, she revealed what a powerful, unique singer-songwriter she was. As with many Neko Case songs, the tune feels like it begins in medias res, with four lines as disarming and cryptic as they are urgent and impassioned: “Maybe sparrow/ The hawks alight ‘til morning/ You never pass beyond the gate/ If you don’t hear my warning.”
Whom is this warning meant for? Case’s enchanting use of natural imagery suffuses the song with mystery and passion. A loping drum beat, traces of organ and violin coming and going like passing guests, an acoustic guitar counting our steps up to the soaring chorus—these are the elements of “Maybe Sparrow,” a song that exemplifies so much of Case’s singular artistry.
Listen to the “chorus”: “Oh my sparrow, it’s too late/ Your body limp beneath my feet/ Your dusty eyes as cold as clay/ You didn’t hear my warning.” The power and clarity of her voice are nearly unmatched in contemporary music, like a megaphone aimed at the heavens. Combined with her talent for lines so subtly poetic you barely notice them—“The engine hums a sparrow’s phrase/ For those who cannot hear the words”—this makes her music a totally immersive experience, though there’s little about it that calls much attention to itself. Her songs have a kind of dream logic—you’re not sure what they mean, but you’re sure that they’re meaningful, and they haunt you long after they’re over.
As any longtime Neko Case fan would assert, she has continued to hone her sound since and has gotten even better over the years. But Fox Confessor will always hold a special place in the hearts of Case’s devotees, and “Maybe Sparrow” may well be one of its most enduring and beloved songs. – Dylan Montanari
99: Junior Senior- Move Your Feet (2002)
There are more than a few songs that have successfully bottled pure, unabashed exuberance. Some obvious ones come to mind: “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “One More Time,” “Walking on Sunshine,” “I Really Like You,” “I’m A Believer,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” chief among them.
Oh, and Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet.” Not only is it wrapped in unadulterated joy, the sugar-rush immediacy threatens any listener with diabetes. The energy output from the darting hyper-disco production could power a small city. And Jesper Mortensen (Junior) and Jeppe Laursen (Senior) match that enthusiasm. Laursen is so excited, in fact, that he stutters while conceding the infectiousness of it all: “D-d-don’t, don’t stop the beat/ I c-c-c-can’t control my feet.” Meanwhile, Mortensen joyfully sing-shouts the chorus every time it comes around like he just discovered the meaning of life.
Admittedly, songs with a command – usually of the dancing variety – tend to have a short shelf life and little to no positive retrospection beyond novelty. And in theory, that should apply to “Move Your Feet.” The reason it doesn’t lies in the track’s simplicity. All it’s asking you to do is dance (just a little bit) and feel like you’re a part of something bigger; in other words, “Everybody/ Move your feet and feel united”. That’s it.
If the song doesn’t replace your morning cup of coffee (If it doesn’t, are you dead inside?), the music video surely will. The goofy, 8-bit technicolor acid trip contains such nonsense as smiling, and later frowning, toast; Junior shaving off his eyebrows, one of which becomes Senior’s mustache and a malevolent squirrel blowing everything up, including the Earth itself. The clip fit right in with the then-current culture because it arrived at a time when throwback nostalgia and visually eye-popping animation were de rigueur (see also: “One More Time” and “Fell in Love with a Girl”).
But it all comes back to the directness of the song. The second verse of “Move Your Feet” offers the listener a simple promise: All ya gotta do is hit “play” and “all of your troubles are dead and gone”. It’s the kind of childlike naiveté that can completely erase cynicism, if only for a moment. – Steve Lampiris
98: A Place To Bury Strangers– Exploding Head (2009)
Led by singer and guitarist Oliver Ackerman, A Place To Bury Strangers sounds like every electro industrial band from the ‘80s mashed together in some Lynchian machine that’s all blades and shrieking metal. They may not break new ground but their commitment to the details takes on an evangelical fervor the listener can’t help but internalize. I suspect that has something to do with Ackerman’s devotion to the SOUND of his heroes, going so far as to re-wire amps and invent guitar pedals that mimic the abrasive, squalling sounds of My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Exploding Head was the band’s sophomore album and carried with it all the inherent baggage that comes with following up a successful (by post-Napster indie standards) debut. Where the earlier self-titled album was all treble and trouble, Exploding Head pares back the layer of noise just a touch to reveal the songs beneath. Ackerman’s cool-as-a-cucumber vocal delivery is more prominent and the band appears to have discovered the toms on the drum kit. The track “Exploding Head” is quintessential A Place To Bury Strangers, a smorgasbord of spot-the-reference sounds. Is that a Cure-style phaser on the guitar? A disaffected Peter Murphy vocal? Ministry style guitar-scraping histrionics? It’s all there, like a sonic version of the Sgt. Pepper’s cover.
Lyrically, “Exploding Head” is concerned with what darkness hides in yonder heart. The song is filled with images of heads exploding (natch) and faces being blown off while the guitars strafe the landscape with shards of metal and sparks and the drums (the heart) drive relentlessly forward. In the end, “Lovers bound by their tongues/ Bound by their hands, bound by love” still manage to hide their innermost secrets from each other, their intentions clouding a truth they may not want or be able to see for themselves. With a heart this complicated, it’s no wonder a head feels like it’s got to relieve the pressure by any means necessary. – Eric Mellor
97: Sufjan Stevens- Chicago (2005)
The short answer is yes, it is a Sufjan Stevens song. Even worse, it’s a Sufjan Stevens song on Illinois, which pairs sadness and triumph like rum and coke. “Come On! Feel the Illinois” begins with Stevens rhapsodizing about the wonders of the Ferris Wheel only to end up in the fetal position. Even his ode to Superman is tragic; wash, rinse, repeat. But nothing on Illinois quite maximized that combination like “Chicago.” Thematically and story wise, it might actually be the most simplistic song on the album. Compared with odes to Mary Todd Lincoln and zombie riots, the tale of a few friends roadtripping through Stevens’ state of choice seems almost quaint. But with the details kept to a minimum, Stevens emphasizes the feeling. And few in the ‘00s had quite the deft hand he did with moving, swelling music.
According to the liner notes, Stevens played wurlitzer, bass guitar, vibraphone, piano, sleigh bells and a few other miscellaneous instruments. And that sort of crazed dedication and ornamentation shines through. Chugging drums, chiming guitars, a full choir swooning and an orchestra worth of strings all clatter and sing behind Stevens. It’s basically a sampler platter for the delightfully rococo arrangement choices Stevens made throughout Illinois, but turned up to 11.
“If I was crying/ …It was for freedom” might be the single silliest line on an album full of them, but it’s hard not to be swept up with the sentiment. Perhaps even more impactful is Stevens’ constant admission of “I made a lot of mistakes.” It speaks to the joy and terror of being young with zero responsibilities, a horrifying proposition where freedom in every direction also means possible failure on any path. In retrospect, it was the best and worst possible song I could have introduced to her. – Nathan Stevens
96: Radiohead- The National Anthem (2000)
It shouldn’t come as a shock that Radiohead would grow to become a frigid, alienating band on Kid A to anyone who’s seen Meeting People Is Easy, the documentary that follows Radiohead as they toured behind OK Computer. Those feelings don’t rear their heads too much till the album’s third track, “The National Anthem.” The preceding two songs—the alien “Everything in its Right Place” and the plodding lullaby “Kid A”—don’t prepare you for how much of a gut-punch “The National Anthem” is.
There’s something feral about this song. Yorke’s voice passes through torrents of distortion as he crudely jams out with grimy bass tones that snake their way into your skull. That rhythm is the only thing that helps you to feel grounded at times. The song’s drums can’t achieve that, as their feel is absolutely chaotic while they collide with a nine-piece horn section. It’s visceral in a way that the album Electioneering only grazed. After the three-minute mark, it almost sounds as though Yorke has replaced the line “It’s holding on” to “TURN IT OFF!”
Sadly, I was too young to watch when the band unleash this song on an unwitting “Saturday Night Live” audience in 2000, but it is no less potent today. Yorke thrashed around onstage, shouting his ring modulated vocals into Studio 8H while Jonny Greenwood hunched over an Ondes Martenot—an instrument most people in the audience had never seen and whose name they likely couldn’t pronounce. On multiple occasions, Greenwood left his alien instrument to manipulate a small radio on the floor. This is what happens when a band finds fame and discovers something ugly along with it. They aren’t interested in your expectations, and everything is better for it.
The song’s title may feel innocuous, but it’s perfectly named. This is Radiohead’s first attempt at world-building (if you believe fan theories about the album’s true meaning), so it only makes sense that their world’s national anthem would be befitting of its paranoia, angst and existential dread. An anthem befitting a nation bereft with anxiety. Radiohead is able to capture all of these feelings so well in just one tune. – Hollister Dixon