60: Grizzly Bear- Two Weeks (2009)
Grizzly Bear have always made gorgeous music. This isn’t debated. But among their peers it was beauty of an unsettling quality. It was neither the zonked out mushroom haze of Animal Collective nor the clear tenor of Fleet Foxes. Grizzly Bear’s sounds seemed stitched together, so you could still see the wounds that came from the musical surgery. And, oddly, this might have been most apparent on their biggest hit, “Two Weeks.” Eventually rapped over by Childish Gambino and used in a thousand car commercials, “Two Weeks” was the sublime single that every indie artist wanted to make, but peek just below the surface and witness the uneasy movement holding it together.
Singer Ed Droste admitted the song was about the long, painful death of a relationship, a strange thing to center in a chirpy piano and heavenly harmonies. Daniel Rossen’s songs on Veckatimest were pristine folk ballads delivered with a serial killer smile, while Droste dressed up heartache and depression in rococo opulence. And despite the short run time, “Two Weeks” does feel wonderfully excessive. The Brian Wilson influence is obvious. “Two Weeks” is a toy box take on Pet Sounds, but with Surf’s Up’s sense of urgency and melancholy.
That urgency was delivered by drummer Christopher Bear through a deceptive line. At first, it simply seems to run with the chugging motion of the song. But repeat listens reveal a complex, clockwork logic to it. It unfurls like a Rube Goldberg Machine, adding to the disorienting nature of the song. That accents Droste’s lyrics. He’s often at his best when he’s implying, rather than outright telling, and “Two Weeks” is appropriately filled with half phrases, snippets of conversation and unanswered questions all flung into the air. “Two Weeks” looks at partners whose love has turned to annoyance and apathy, but still with enough care to glue them together. It’s fallen into a “routine malaise” as Droste sleepily coos. A nasty surprise for all those Kia buyers unconsciously humming one of ‘09’s most depressing songs, but better for the rest of us looking for a pop hit with incredible, fulfilling depth. – Nathan Stevens
59: MGMT – Kids (2007)
Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT never set out to be rock stars, let alone pop stars. Although the lead track from the band’s debut album, Oracular Spectacular, cheekily jokes about the duo living the lives of rock stars and leaving the drudgery and cliches of normal life far behind, it was not meant to be a mission statement. Still, the best jokes always carry a kernel of truth and soon after graduation, the self-proclaimed “joke band” were signed to Columbia Records. “Kids” had long been part of the band’s repertoire by the time they got around to recording it with Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), who added his patented brand of polish to the track, making it sound like it’s being played in the middle of an exploding nebula. The synths shimmer, the drums are more bombastic, and VanWyngarden’s multi-tracked vocals soar pleadingly over the whole shebang.
This song was everywhere. The instantly recognizable keyboard line is pretty much shorthand for late ‘00s electro-pop and was useful to any soundtrack (video game, TV show, political campaign) that wanted an instant dash of hipness. It’s essentially the “Bohemian Like You” of the late ‘00s and is likely responsible for the onslaught of similar-sounding bands that seemed to come crawling out of the woodwork (fun., Passion Pit, Portugal The Man). The song was at the center of a lawsuit against former French president Nikolas Sarkozy and even went on to be nominated for a Grammy, a pretty impressive feat for a couple of dudes fresh out of college. The bitter irony is that “Kids” had been a part of the band’s repertoire for so long that by the time it became huge, the duo were sick to death of it. As a result, for their next album the band essentially abandoned the sound they had popularized, seemingly content to leave the world of pop stardom for the comfy confines of following their muse. – Eric Mellor
58. Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day (2005)
At the heart of the great American sprawl of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which starts as a sad little folk ditty about death and opens on to something bigger—so that, by the end when our hero cries at the Great Divide, we know it’s about so much more than lost love.
The story is simple, sad and told in fleeting memories. Finding out his girlfriend has cancer of the bone. Their best times together—in the snow, “at Michael’s house,” the first time they made love and her father found out what happened. The day when he could have sworn he saw her breathing. And the slow and sad loss of the boy’s faith, beginning with an unsuccessful laying of hands (“nothing ever happens,” he sighs). But God isn’t just silent. God seems to be actively trying to hurt our hero. The imagery of the Lord’s face at his bedroom window, coupled with the closing line “he shook my shoulders and he shook my face/ And he takes and he takes and he takes,” makes the Most High sound like a burglar or a child predator or a murderer.
On one level, “Casimir Pulaski Day” is polite, almost cheerful in spite of its subject matter, with meaningful acoustic strums and a trumpet solo one can easily imagine a Boy Scout piping from the top of a hill. On another, it’s an American myth. A reference to a regional Illinois holiday ties it in with the scope of the record, making it sound less like a personal plea than something that can happen to anyone. And the literalism of the imagery is intercut with abstractions: a cardinal hitting the window, a reference to a “4-H Stone,” that mysterious line about the navy yard. And on a deeper level, we can connect it to what we know about Sufjan Stevens himself. He’s indie rock’s most famous Christian, but this is where we learn he’s not afraid to stand up to God. – Daniel Bromfield
57. Kelis – Milkshake (2003)
Some of the greatest unsolved American mysteries ask: Who murdered the Black Dahlia? What happened to Amelia Earhart? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? And what exactly is Kelis referring to as her “milkshake” in her most famous single? The R&B singer has never revealed the literal meaning of “Milkshake,” although she did tell Blues & Soul, “To me, a milkshake itself represents the essence of a woman. It’s that thing that men are drawn to about women and what separates one sex from the other.” When The Observer asked Kelis what the “milkshake” specifically was in 2004, she answered, “’It means whatever people want it to; it was just a word we came up with on a whim, but then the song took on a life of its own.” Despite fans never finding out what “that thing” is to Kelis, it peaked at number three on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in December 2003.
Like many hits of the early ‘00’s, the song was written by the Neptunes, or Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. According to Genius, “Milkshake’s” sound was inspired by Pharrell’s interest in the Brazilian club scene. He said, “We had never seen anything like that or heard anything like that. And so when I came back, I was like, ‘Man, I want to do something that evokes that kind of feeling.’” Pharrell adopted Middle Eastern sounds to create the song’s beats. “It would be something that even in Brazil they would go, ‘OK, we like the rhythm of this. We like the feeling of this, but this is from somewhere else,’” he said. It is truly the sexy and euphemistic topic of “Milkshake” that makes it so memorable, however. “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/ And damn right, it’s better than yours” is both enticing and playful, seductive and sweet. Even though we may never solve the mystery of the meaning of “Milkshake,” we will always recognize it as a message of female sexual empowerment and the genius of Kelis and the Neptunes. – Natalia Barr
56: Of Montreal – The Past is a Grotesque Animal (2007)
Where do you even start with a song like “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”? In the Of Montreal canon, nothing like it exists. The album which birthed it, 2007’s near-flawless Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, sounds nothing like this song. Up until this track, the album is bright, infectious and groovy, with only Kevin Barnes’ self-reflective songwriting to hint at what was to come at the center of the album.
Let’s talk about word count here, because “Grotesque Animal” is a wordy beast. Clocking in at a whopping 11 minutes and 52 seconds, Barnes packs in 488 words. By contrast, this blurb is only 372 words. Barnes lets everything out here. “Self-reflective” doesn’t cover it; by the time the following song, “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” arrives, Barnes has had such an emotional upheaval, he literally transforms into his alter ego, Georgie Fruit: “Let’s tear this shit apart/ Let’s tear the fucking house apart/ Let’s tear our fucking bodies apart.” It’s a song that’s as much about the psychic damage done by caustic relationships as it is about the power of mind-expanding drugs and depression. There are moments where Barnes expresses romantic turbulence in ways that feel like you could have written them if you’d been quicker: “It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you/ How can I explain I need you here, and not here too?” There are just too many incredible lines to even list here. “Somehow you Red Rovered the gestapo circling my heart”—what beats that?
Musically, the song squeals. The length of the song allows the way it builds to feel completely organic. It’s layered like a psych-heavy parfait, with looming mountains of guitar mayhem and hundred-foot synth squalls. The final three minutes are just the chorus of multiple Kevin Barnses “Ooh-ooh”-ing while being buried under a steadily growing wall of sound until even they disappear. It’s easy, even after a decade, to find new sounds you appreciate in that space.
Barnes will likely never top this song. “Grotesque Animal” feels like its birth and existence were radically life-altering for him. No matter how complicated and messy the song’s feelings are, it’s hard to not feel affected by that shift of self. – Hollister Dixon