70: Beyonce – Irreplaceable (2006)
No one talks about B’Day all that much anymore, which is a shame. Most of Beyonce’s early career doesn’t get the same amount of critical consideration that her self-titled album and Lemonade, especially, have received, and that really shouldn’t be the case. Beyonce didn’t ascend to the realm of pop-culture icon in the past few years; she’s been there for decades. The omnipresence of her work is such that it seemed to take a long time for critics of a certain stripe to really appreciate what she was doing. As a pop star, she’s been close to untouchable since Destiny’s Child, and moments of her solo albums are sheer perfection, few more so than “Irreplaceable.” Here, Beyonce’s persona as a pop diva portraying a level of strength and self-assuredness rarely afforded to female pop stars first asserted itself. If you’re looking for where Beyonce became BEYONCE, “Irreplaceable” is that moment.
The hooks start right at the beginning of the song. “To the left” is a set of words that belong to Beyonce Knowles at this point, such is the way they lure the listener in. What follows is the kiss-off to end all kiss-offs, a goodbye and good riddance to the kind of idiot who would do wrong by Beyonce. The arrangement is closer to mainstream pop than R&B, almost befitting of the “country song” tag Ne-Yo gave the song when he initially wrote the lyric. The crispness of the drums and guitars are very much of their time, yet they remain the only sounds of the 2000s that don’t sound hopelessly dated 10 years later. In truth, finding a genre classification for “Irreplaceable” is next to impossible: it’s closer to pop than R&B, yet it still feels too smooth and rhythm-based to really be pop, either. It’s both, and it’s neither, then. It’s just Beyonce doing what she does better than anyone else. – Kevin Korber
69: Snoop Dogg – Drop It Like It’s Hot (2004)
Thanks to Snoop Dogg, we will never hear tongue clicks the same way again. “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” featuring Pharrell and produced by the Neptunes, was Snoop Dogg’s first number one hit. The mass appeal came not from fancy production techniques and layers of sound, but from the minimalism of the track. An opening of sexy tongue clicks, a simple drum machine, synth chords and an interpolation of “White Horse” by Laid Back pave the way for Snoop Dogg’s memorable chorus, played over what sounds like a white noise machine: “When the pimp’s in the crib, ma/ Drop it like it’s hot…” The first verse goes to Pharrell, who references Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams, his luck with the ladies and his own lyrics from “Raspy Shit.” The second and third verses go to Snoop, whose opening lines are now the most quotable, vintage Snoop-isms, “I’m a gangsta, but y’all knew that” and “I’m a bad boy, with a lot of hoes/ Drive my own cars, and wear my own clothes.”
On GGN (around the 8:50 mark), Pharrell and Snoop Dogg discussed how Pharrell created the song’s hook and the sound of spray cans in the track, but it was Chad Hugo’s synth drop that was “the candle on the cake.” The phrase, “drop it like it’s hot,” originated long before 2004 in hip-hop music. Used as a metaphor to describe a certain dance move performed, in this case, by women in music videos, the phrase was included in many songs like Lil Wayne’s 1999 song of the same name, as well as Jay-Z’s “Cashmere Thoughts,” featuring Clark Kent, and Positive K’s “Ain’t No Crime.” Despite the origin of the phrase, it was certainly Snoop Dogg and Pharrell who made it internationally understood. The track took three months to obtain traction on the charts, but by December 2004, it topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks, was nominated for two 2005 Grammy awards, and was named the most popular rap song of the 2000s by “Billboard.” – Natalia Barr
68: Bjork – Hidden Place (2001)
The rollout for Bjork’s new “Tinder Album” certainly has been—overt. The obvious messages brought up by her body “transformed into a gate/ Where I receive love from” and a music video including a suggestive dance with a lovely alien point to Bjork’s current mindset pretty well. But Bjork embraced these consuming feelings far before OkCupid loosed its first electronic arrow. “Hidden Place” lifted the curtain on the ecstatic and sexual Vespertine, creating a fantasy – not of pornography but some sort of cosmic love.
“Hidden Place” starts slowly enough, with cut-up, stuttering synth fragments that sound like the false starts in nervous flirtation, unsure what tactic to use. And Bjork also wavers between bold and shy. She’s never quite coy, too aware of her own attraction and the pleasure that awaits. The music is more direct with its lust than Bjork’s words, but she does give a beautifully sensual description with “to almost have allowed one’s fingers/ To stroke the fingers I was given to touch with.” A good reminder that there’s much more to sexuality then straight love making.
She claimed she was “bored with big beats,” but she certainly wasn’t tossing her usual sense of scope away. In fact, “Hidden Place” is one of her most massive songs. The hyper-harmonics she’d put in place for Medulla bounce around the sound hypnotically. That ascending choral line that follows Bjork to her “hidden place” is euphoric. She also said she wanted the song to feel cold, and the orchestral movements do bring to mind a glacial palace. However, there is an undeniable, throbbing warmth ebbing and flowing just beneath.
Bjork said that “’Hidden Place’ is sort of about how two people can create a paradise just by uniting …obviously it’s make-believe. So, you could argue that it doesn’t exist because it’s invisible, but of course it does.” Aside from being the Bjorkiest way to describe a song, she also hits on something important. The pre-coital nervousness and post-coital bliss are inspiring, strange places, ready to transform at a moment’s notice, all controlled by unknowable chemistry and primal urges. Often this can be seen as something taboo or needing to be sanitized. It takes guts to show off this feeling of sheer pleasure off to the world, but when it’s this mesmeric, I don’t think anyone minds a bit of voyeurism. – Nathan Stevens
67: Gillian Welch – Look at Miss Ohio (2003)
By 2003, Gillian Welch had already made her name as a rustic folk storyteller, and for Soul Journey collaborator Dave Rawlings suggested that they fill out the sound with a full band. Even with an expanded instrumental repertoire, the album still heavily relied on Welch’s plodding strumming and vocal twang to capture her narratives—none more eloquently than on album opener, “Look at Miss Ohio.”
“Look at Miss Ohio” begins with Welch’s acoustic and Rawling’s slide drifting in a drowsy sway, providing a sonic lilt perfect for her narrative about a Midwestern All-American woman who tries to live her life freely, despite a myriad of societal pressures. The lyrics are minimal but memorable. Welch’s refrain of “Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio” does much of the emotional heavy-lifting, her voice falling from a high melodic trill to a low hush, as if to confide something: “She’s a running around with her rag top down/ She says she wants to do right but now right now.” Though lyrically lean, such a refrain captures the judgmental perspective of the townsfolk, Miss Ohio’s behavior and her desire to clean up her act – but only after enjoying life first.
In the verses, Welch describes Miss Ohio’s ex-lover who had his arm around her violently and possessively, “like a regimental soldier,” as well as her mother who was “pushing that wedding gown.” These pressures are stifling, leaving Miss Ohio with escapist desires: “Gonna drive to Atlanta and live out this fantasy.” Drums sneak in on the second refrain at a tempo that feels almost a step behind, as if to rein in Miss Ohio’s potential flight. Perhaps it’s also the unnamed jam that she finds herself in the last verse that reins her in: “I know all about it, so you don’t have to shout it/ I’m gonna straighten it out somehow.” Either way, Welch withholds her own judgment on the character and leaves it ambiguous if or how the beauty queen will set everything right.
Although Welch has since written a few more albums, none stand up as well as Soul Journey’s opening track. Covered by a number of artists such as Miranda Lambert and Blind Pilot, “Look at Miss Ohio” possesses a candor that translates well to any genre of music. But its story and its simplicity are what make it one of Welch’s more memorable tunes. – Ethan King
66: Battles – Atlas (2007)
If all those robots from Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” video decided to start a Fela Kuti cover band with Kate Bush, it would sound like Battles. After two EPs of increasingly intricate instrumental rock, Battles unleashed the culmination of those years of experimentation in the form of their debut full-length, Mirrored. Despite the formidable math rock resumés of each member, Battles eschew that genre tag at every turn. They take the elements of the somewhat humorless and detached genre and elevate it, making music that is arty, dynamic and fun. What has always made Battles impressive is the way they synthesized the human and the machine; they’re like the Borg of experimental music. For a prime example of what this band is capable of, look no further than the absolute masterpiece that is “Atlas.”
The song starts with drummer John Stanier (a human for the most part) pounding the toms of a real, live drum set while what sounds like an old-timey organ pumps in counter rhythm. It’s just a feint though, as the flesh and blood facade breaks down within seconds. The machines whir to life and, dear lord, they’re marching. As if that isn’t concerning enough, they gleefully “sing” as they stomp their way across the landscape. While this all sounds rather ominous and heavy, the beauty of “Atlas” is the way it sounds so enjoyable. Thanks to Tyondai Braxton’s heavily processed chipmunk vocals, I’ve always envisioned a line of mechanical dwarves merrily making their way underground, and “Atlas” is their version of “Whistle While You Work.”
Unfortunately, Mirrored was the end of the line for this version of the band. After an attempt at recording a follow-up, Tyondai Braxton would quit to focus on his solo work. “Atlas” remains the pinnacle of the band’s oeuvre, an anthem for a genre that shouldn’t have anthems. It’s pump up music for a future we all know is just around the corner. – Eric Mellor