90: Panic! At the Disco – I Write Sins Not Tragedies (2006)
It is hard to grasp that Panic! At the Disco was a band of recent high school graduates when they released their debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, in 2005. In just a few months, the group of 18-year- olds would release their second single, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” infiltrating not only the Alternative Songs charts but reaching number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out traced themes of adultery, mental health, marriage and alcoholism, all using theatrical, Vaudeville-like motifs and influenced by emo, pop punk and rock sounds. “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” illustrates many of the themes on the record, painting a scene of a wedding where every guest knows that the bride is cheating on her groom. The title refers to a line in Douglas Coupland’s novel Shampoo Planet, in which the protagonist says, “What I write are not sins; I write tragedies.”
In the opening verse, a bridesmaid approaches a waiter, declaring how beautiful the wedding is, as the waiter replies, “And yes, but what a shame/ What a shame the poor groom’s bride is a whore.” This often censored verse leads into the track’s infectious chorus, “I chimed in with a ‘Haven’t you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door’ No, it’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality.” The music video for the track has become just as iconic as the song and won Video of the Year during the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards. The video narrates the wedding in the song, where formally-dressed guests have their faces painted to make it appear that they have their eyes open, even though they are all snoozing during the ceremony. Lead singer Brendon Urie (and the only remaining member of Panic! today) plays the conscience of the naïve groom drawing attention to the bride’s infidelity and disturbing the wedding with scantily clad Vaudeville dancers. “I Write Sins NotTragedies” brought the quirkiness of many emo bands into the mainstream that year, turning angsty punk-influenced songs into pure pop songs and making Panic! At the Disco one of the most memorable alternative bands of the second half of the early 2000s. – Natalia Barr
89: Eminem – Without Me (2002)
In many ways, Eminem was the original troll. Appearing out of nowhere to warp hip-hop music into something undeniably original and refreshingly comical, he exploded onto the scene through a series of events we now understand to a limited extent through the film 8 Mile. Regardless of the degree to which his life may have been embellished by Hollywood, his fast-rap style and provocative, clever wordplay led to controversy and subsequently fame. He’s one of the top selling artists in the US, and when The Eminem Show dropped in 2002, it did so withthe hyper-confident brashness of a man permanently stuck at 18 years of age. The lead single “Without Me” is as straight-forward as you would expect from such a character — the lament of a man who for too long left us in the hands of other media figures. But “Guess who’s back!” He proceeds to comically insult these other artists (Moby, Prince and Limp Bizkit among them) and
even cusses his own mother with whom he’d recently settled a lawsuit in between records (there’s actually a line about it).
This isn’t the first dis rap of course, but it might be the first one that makes it visually and audibly apparent that Eminem is taking the piss out of pop culture and himself at the same time. The only people he leaves alone are his fans — those who are obviously in on the joke. A rap including the line “Nobody listens to techno!” immediately found its way into numerous techno tracks. Immediately, media began talking about the responses and fall-out to this re-entrance to the pop rap stage, and while fans were loving it, the fire of their rebellious adolescent instincts was being directly fed by this rapper who really had nothing to say other than “take my lack of seriousness very seriously.” The world took it seriously and another album went diamond.
Adopting the name of his proxy character, Slim Shady, Eminem cleverly uses the id to hide behind the facade of a fictional character who who acts like a dartboard for criticism. If you love him, you love Eminem. If you hate him, you hate Slim Shady. He’s a one-man product line, and this song was his showcase. Either way, the simplistic and uncomplicated mainstream-friendly production had the song reach number one in 15 countries and even appeared in the film Suicide Squad as late as 2016, sounding as fresh as the first day it’d been released. Every time it plays, it sounds as though he’s “back again.” – Darryl G. Wright
88: The Mountain Goats – This Year (2005)
Tattoo it on your forearm like a guiding mantra: “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” In finding a way to establish inner peace with the abuse suffered at the hands of his stepfather, John Darnielle managed to grasp hold of a phrase that managed to capture the cautious optimism that propels the downtrodden.
The Sunset Tree, the album “This Year” is featured on, felt like a breakthrough for the Mountain Goats. Starting first as a solo project with just Darnielle and a boombox, the Mountain Goats steadily became a more fleshed out band, and The Sunset Tree was the culmination of this. Rife with lush production and aching strings, Darnielle spent an album staring down his demons, and he came back breathing despite everything. The sunny disposition of “This Year” isn’t necessarily out of place on the album (“Dance Music” adopts the same bright piano and major chords), but it feels like Darnielle is trying to break through this by shouting it just to himself, like a constant note to self.
On its surface, the story Darnielle tells is a simple one: Darnielle, 17-years- young, goes out drinking and playing video games with a girl named Cathy. This story keeps getting interrupted by his reminder to himself: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” It isn’t until the very end, when the bubble of teen lust bursts courtesy of a stuck gear shift, that we understand why he keeps repeating this phrase: the broken home he left behind for “good things ahead” is staring him straight in the face, and it’s ugly enough that he doesn’t even describe it: “The scene ends as badly/ As you might imagine:/ In a cavalcade of anger and fear.”
I briefly met John Darnielle several years ago, and I thanked him for the work he did on The Sunset Tree. “It was the album I was put on this earth to make,” he told me matter-of-factly. The Sunset Tree shares ugly truths throughout, but in “This Year”, he offers us the promise of escape – and the promise that you’re going to survive this – even if it kills you. – Hollister Dixon
87: Animal Collective – My Girls (2009)
With a decade of work behind them, Animal Collective appeared to have established their thing. They had those Beach Boys harmonies, the folk influences and the weird sound effects and studio work to turn their music (which wasn’t always composed of “songs” in the traditional sense) into something distinctively theirs. They approached pop but never willingly came to it.
Merriweather Post Pavilion didn’t repudiate any of that, but the changes the band implemented in building on 2007’s Strawberry Jam led them to their career highlight. Critics insist on referring to the album as “accessible,” which is fair enough given much of what preceded it, but the reliance on that word neglects the level of experimentation still going on. The group’s gotten less weird-for-weird, but they’re still playing with sounds and textures and recording techniques.
Single “My Girls” remains an emblematic track from the disc as well as one of the best songs (and not just “songs”) in the band’s catalog. As with much of Animal Collective’s music, it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. The song opens with a feint at psychedelia using a sample of radio emissions from space, then builds on synthpop pattern. The vocals come in as if we’re drifting to a West Coast beach, but the interlocking vocal lines fit together in a different way, a children’s round raised one step in complexity.
Those pieces all work to serve Panda Bear’s expression of a basic desire: to provide a simple house for his wife and daughter. The lyrics reject consumerism, circling around domesticity and just a bit of comfort. Swearing on his father’s grave stretches the song to a multigenerational reflection. From the space-whirl opening, the lyrics turn to the little things while acknowledging the continuity of the singer’s familial thinking, finding an anchor in the consistency that allows the pulsing music and the various vocal parts to swirl as a centripetal covering.
It’s no discredit to the band’s later work (or to their various solo projects) to say that “My Girls” remains a high point. After satisfying its pop leanings, Animal Collective returned to their freakier side and other sorts of experiments. “My Girls” remains the group’s most visible song and a witness to the moment when their artistry founds its finest expression. – Justin Cober-Lake
86: Sufjan Stevens- John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (2005)
The eventual triumph of Carrie & Lowell wasn’t a surprise. Though Sufjan Stevens bouncedfrom symphonic cacophony to electronic-soul excess, the DNA of utterly crushing folk was always there. “Holland” and “Seven Swans” were the prototypes, but the real bedrock upon which all of Carrie & Lowell was built upon was “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
As with all of Illinois Stevens explored the mythology of the prairie state in devastating detail to mirror his own emotional turmoil. But “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” dove into the darkest material Stevens may have ever touched. On the surface, it’s a deconstruction of the life of Illinois’ most notorious serial killer – starting with a drunken father and false smiles passed to neighbors, turning to bodies hidden beneath floorboards. Placed between the crashing parade of “Come on! Feel the Illinoise” and the lazy grace of “Jacksonville,” “John Wayne” arrives as an utter shock. Stevens focuses less on the sensationalism and instead explores the intimate details. But even he breaks down. In what still may be the most beautiful moment in his catalog, he peers into the darkness and sees the victims. “27 people/ Even more, they were boys/ With their cars, summer jobs/ Oh my God.” Those final, lilting notes of “God,” as Stevens retreats to his falsetto, aren’t just chilling but gorgeous in a way that even he, master of hysteric beauty, has yet to match again.
Stevens doesn’t wade into moral proselytizing here. There’s no moral grey area on Gacy’s crimes. Instead, Stevens is forcing himself to look inward, to face his own sinister nature. “And in my best behavior/ I am really just like him,” he coos. For three and a half minutes, Stevens battles the devil and only sees the dark hearts of men. All of us capable of vile acts, overtaken by corrupted urges.
There’s another minuscule moment, even quieter than his rising cry. As the music fades, you can just make out Stevens, breathing heavily, sounding like he’s on the verge of tears. Perhaps he went too deep into the abyss. But, from that horrific place, he created the most astounding beauty of his career. – Nathan Stevens