80: Green Day- American Idiot (2004)
The title track of Green Day’s seventh studio album was its first single, introducing the political punk rock opera of American Idiot to the world through anger. It was also meant to anger as many people as the band possibly could. The guitar-driven track makes way for singer Billie Joe Armstrong to condemn the Iraq War and biased media while mocking the “American Idiot,” who is a follower and believes propaganda on television. The ideas were triggered by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That’s How I Like It,” a song that defines its nationalism by pickup trucks, beer and hot women. Armstrong told Q Magazine, “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against.”
“American Idiot” was released during the election campaign of 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected as President of the United States. “Well, maybe I’m the faggot America/ I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” Armstrong chants in the second verse, contrasting marginalized and disenfranchised groups with those who identify with Lynyrd Skynyrd. In these lyrics, Green Day suggests that it is oppressed races, sexualities and religions that make America great, to use today’s terms. Although “American Idiot” received many positive responses, including four 2005 Grammy Awards nominations in addition to American Idiot’s Best Rock Album Grammy win, the song was banned from many radio stations across the country. Walmart even refused to sell the record in its stores. “American Idiot” was truly one of the few rock tracks that was unapologetically anti-Bush administration, forcing album distributors and listeners to take a stand by choosing whether or not to listen to it. Billie Joe Armstrong often wore a mask of then president Bush while he performed “American Idiot.” He told Rolling Stone, “We did everything we could to piss people off.” – Natalia Barr
79: Spoon – The Way We Get By (2002)
No matter how you slice it, Spoon have been pretty consistent since day one. By the time they arrived to album number four, Kill the Moonlight, the band had finely distilled everything that would make them one of the most un-fuck-withable acts in modern rock. Britt Daniel was able to put his Can influences and pop hook-smith abilities where his mouth was with this album, and the best example of the latter is “The Way We Get By.”
There’s something that feels inescapable about the sound of “The Way We Get By.” The piano melody from the song ended up everywhere you turned in television and movies, from “The OC” to “Shameless” to the criminally underrated Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. Spoon create earworms like it’s nothing (see: “I Turn My Camera On,” or “Don’t You Evah”), but “The Way We Get By” does this in such a playful way. That piano jangle borderline refuses to share the spotlight, allowing only Jim Eno’s woozy cymbals to mingle with the bar-room piano leading the song.
Daniel was 31 years old when Kill the Moonlight was released, but he somehow still channeled youthful abandon as easily as The Ramones did on “Blitzkrieg Bop” as though he were 10 years younger. Lyrically, the song is deceptively simple—it’s just about things that “we” do (i.e. get high in backseats of cars, sleep to “Shake Appeal”, etc.) or don’t do (practice discernment), for the most part—but it showcases some of the wordiness that has endeared him to so many rock dorks. When was the last time you heard someone sing the word “taciturn”; plus, he manages to say it such with Jagger-esque swagger. It’s a song that dares you to even try to dislike it, while gleefully dancing away from your attempts to not allow it to get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. – Hollister Dixon
78: Ween – Transdermal Celebration (2003)
Dean and Gene Ween (aka Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo) have made a career out of dubious intentions. As a rule of thumb, it’s probably best to assume they’re fucking with you. Ween, however, exist outside the rules. Amidst all their goofiness and druggy what-the-fuckness are some truly powerful songs full of sincere emotion. The band’s eighth album quebec is full of these gems courtesy of a confluence of circumstances that conspired to make the real lives of Deaner and Gener particularly difficult. Long-time drummer Claude Coleman suffered a broken back and pelvis from a car accident in 2002, Ween were dropped from the major label Elektra and, most importantly, Freeman went through a divorce. All of that darkness resulted in a pretty downtrodden album, or, at least, the most downtrodden album a band like Ween could make.
Nestled among songs about Zoloft, fancypants and broken relationships is “Transdermal Celebration,” a shockingly powerful song about the aftermath of an apocalyptic event that results in mutants taking over while the regular folk are sent “running for the hills.” It’s a dour concept that Ween imbue with a sense of wonder and longing thanks to the way they masterfully combine epic-ness with earnestness. Huge guitars laced with phasers, bounding bass and drums and lyrics about trying to make the best of a crappy situation are all mixed together here. Despite the destruction, the narrator of the song eventually sees beauty in the mutants and openly pines, “I wish you could see them.”
Unfortunately, this epiphany comes too late. Following a soaring solo by Melchiondo, jets scream overhead raining fire and crustaceans as the narrator wonders “Where is the mutation/ That once told me it was safe/ I can’t find him.” Whatever realization he’s had is about to be obliterated, turned to ash right in front of him. He’s panicked, not because of impending death, but instead because the joy he’s finally found is about to be ripped away from him.
Or maybe not. This is Ween after all. Maybe it’s just an epic song about mutants. – Eric Mellor
77: Clipse – Grindin’ (2002)
You know you tried drumming this beat on something—a steering wheel, a desk, whatever—when you heard it. It’s OK, we all did. It’s not your fault. Rarely is a rap beat so infectious and so inventive that it makes you wanna replicate it on something whenever it’s playing. Thanks to the Neptunes, Clipse’s “Grindin’” is a thing of minimalist beauty. The bass drum shakes any speaker it comes from, and the snare hits like a gunshot.
Of course, the skeletal production places the focus squarely on Pusha T and Malice, and they don’t disappoint. In fact, Clipse accomplish the impossible: they make inherently unlikeable people worth rooting for. They’re salesman, after all: they lure you in with clever pitches (“Call me Subwoofer, ‘cause I pump bass like that, Jack”) and next-level puns (I move ‘caine like a cripple,” and From days I wasn’t able, there was always ‘caine”), while using a children’s rhyme to brag and sound menacing (“Patty cake, patty cake, I’m the baker’s man/ I bake them cakes as fast as I can”). Malice even admits to selling coke as a means for providing for his family, making him a sympathetic villain. But just a few lines later, he pulls the rug out from under you by bragging about his expensive watch. Pusha T and Malice challenge you at every turn to hate them, despise them—but you won’t. You’re already mesmerized.
Which brings us back to the Neptunes. They had already established their hypnotic screwball sci-fi experimentation with Ludacris’s “Southern Hospitality,” Fabolous’s “Young’n (Holla Back)” and Britney Spears’ “Boys” and “I’m A Slave 4 U.” With “Grindin’,” though, the production was so different from what was popular at the time (even when they themselves ruled the charts), the song is eternally stuck out of time. “Grindin’” sounded like it was from the future in 2002, and 15 years later it still does. – Steve Lampiris
76: Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
Has there been a more fanciful, flat-out poetic songwriter than Joanna Newsom in this young millennium? “Bridges and Balloons,” the first song on her first album The Milk-Eyed Mender, uses the language of those fantasy realms we cook up as kids and leave behind as adults in order to tell a story of… what? It could be a fond memory of a departed lover. It could literally describe a parallel world Newsom dreamed up with a friend as a child. But the overwhelming impression is the same: that the door to a more innocent, carefree mindset has been shut. Newsom recorded this song at 22, the age when people typically accept they’re adults and ought to move on to the next stage of their life.
The fantasy world itself is rendered in a few brilliant strokes, worth quoting in full: “And I can recall our caravel/ A little wicker beetle shell/ With four fine maste and lateen sails/ Its bearings on Cair Paravel.” It blossoms in front of our eyes: the boat, the sea, the distant castle. Cair Paravel is a C.S. Lewis creation, but the world seems Terabithian: a place dreamed up by an inseparable pair, Newsom’s own part of the entity gone from her life along with her other half.
If you heard “Bridges and Balloons” when it came out, or decided to start the trek through the Newsom discography from the beginning, your opinion of the singer was perhaps formed at that moment. Many take offense at her howling, yowling voice, and a post-grunge era where punk is still arguably cooler than prog isn’t exactly kind to filigreed epics played on eight-foot harp. But Newsom’s ambition is as frightening as her effortless way with words, and “Bridges and Balloons” introduced a songwriter unafraid to shoot for the stars. “Bridges” might seem small compared to the towering epics she’d craft later in her career, but its scope is no less dazzling. This is purple prose perfected. – Daniel Bromfield