45: Radiohead − Idioteque (2000)
When you listen to Kid A, it almost feels like everything is leading to “Idioteque.” Despite the woozy vocals of the title-track, nothing on the album feels quite as inhuman as the mechanical beat. It’s that beat that hooks into you first—but it’s quickly joined by four yearning chords, pulled from composer Paul Lansky’s Mild und Leise. Those chords are just as inorganic as the rest of the non-Yorke sounds here, but like the best Aphex Twin songs, they tug on your heartstrings just enough to convince you that there’s something human in the notes.
Then we get to Thom Yorke, who comes in with something that’s closer to a tone poem than anything: as the story goes, he wrote the song in part by pulling phrases out of a hat. It’s political, but it’s common sense: “Ice age coming, ice age coming/ Let me hear both sides/ Throw it in the fire/ We’re not scaremongering/ This is really happening.” While not quite mainstream yet, nothing Yorke was singing about in “Idioteque” was new, but when he’s shouting “Mobiles skwerking, mobiles chirping/ Take the money run,” something felt a little prophetic.
Now 17 years and five albums later, there’s still nothing entirely like “Idioteque” in the Radiohead oeuvre. It is a song forever in a tug of war between humanity and machinery, Yorke a permanent cog in that machine. Yorke still sings now about the same problems that he feared would plague us then, but that wolf isn’t just at the door any longer, it’s in the bed; it’s why live performances of the song take a much more frantic tone. Radiohead wrote better songs before and after “Idioteque,” but few feel quite as important—and it’ll be important until the ice age stops coming. – Hollister Dixon
44: Radiohead − How to Disappear Completely (2000)
Radiohead has covered a wide range of sadness: the romantic doom of “Exit Music (For a Film),” the desperation of “All I Need,” the end-of-days musings of “Like Spinning Plates.” But “How to Disappear Completely” is the song above all others that can be associated with unadulterated, crushing depression.
Kid A was already a thesis on isolation, but after the frothing crash of “The National Anthem,” “How to Disappear Completely” broke away from any sense of normality or influence. There was no lifeline of familiarity to grab on to. Dread was all that was left.
It’s built upon Thom Yorke’s despondent vocals, a weeping orchestra wilting behind him amid occasional bursts of fractured electronics. Foreshadowing Jonny Greenwood’s eventual shuddering work scoring P.T. Anderson’s films, his arrangement for this song floats between traditional sorrowful strings and something else entirely. “How to Disappear Completely” quietly grows to its climax, where the strings seem to melt into a heavy morass and Yorke’s wild falsetto just manages to pierce through.
“I’m not here/ This isn’t happening,” Yorke sings again and again, conveying a loneliness and numbness that comes with the deadening of the soul. That lyric originally came from advice from Michael Stipe, who consoled Yorke during a maddening bout of touring. Stipe advised to use it as a mantra, to distance the band from whatever was eating them. Instead, Yorke turned it inward, creating a numbing agent. The sadness rolls through like a fogbank, until no other emotions are available.
It’s not exactly a pleasant listening experience: beautiful, thrilling, soul-shattering, but not pleasant. Like the Silent Hill games, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me or Requiem for a Dream, the purpose isn’t pleasure. It sounds alien, and not just in Radiohead’s usual esoteric way. You don’t just stare into the abyss on “How to Disappear Completely,” it immerses you—not so much screaming into the void as just letting the void take you. – Nathan Stevens
43: Missy Elliott − Work It (2002)
Unthinkably for a pop song, the chorus of “Work It” is unsingable. Half of it’s backwards, for one, and there’s a big-ass elephant blast plopped across it. Like Kelis’s milkshake, elephant noise is a swag so cosmic and unknowable it defies definition. It means big, it means beautiful, it means funky. “Work It” is elephant noise from the ground up.
The overwhelming impression of “Work It” is motion—emanating, like a comic character in an old Disney cartoon, strictly from the posterior. Has any song packed in more onomatopoeic references to one body part? Everybody knows about the “badonkadonk,” but more delightful is learning the sound an ass makes when let loose from a thong: “woom,” apparently.
“Work it” is mostly brainless party filth, but it’s poignant as shit at times. Elliott’s opening sex rap is disgusting, featuring maybe the least appetizing metaphor for cunnilingus ever penned—but when she ends it with “it’s good to know ya,” we feel a similar elation to what poured from Etta James on “At Last.” She knows she’s blessed to be fucked like that. And when she advises her female fans to “make sure you’re ahead of the game,” we’re hearing her mission statement.
And how could we forget Timbaland? His beat, one of the best, reminds us how deeply rooted in black pop tradition his “futuristic” productions are. On Supa Dupa Fly, he cribbed from classic funk, but here he pays homage to golden-age hip hop, when beats switched on a dime depending on what the DJ wanted to throw on the decks. Those five seconds or so when Missy screams “LADIES!” and the beat does a complete 180 is one of those moments you feel coming once you know the song, but it still hits you like a train every time it shows up. Like the rest of the song, it works on a gut level while being so much more artful and careful than it needs to be. – Daniel Bromfield
42: Missy Elliott – Get Ur Freak On (2001)
Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” was an international hip-hop hit with a variety of global grooves to match. With the help of Timbaland’s production, the pair produced a beat based on Bhangra elements, a Punjabi form of music and dance. This memorable six-note melody that introduces the track is played on a tumbi, a Punjabi guitar with one string. The track opens with a man speaking in Japanese, which translates to, “From here on, everybody’s gonna be dancing a little fucked up… make some noise, make some noise!” His voice returns at the end of the track, when he counts, “One, two, three, four” in Japanese. Hindi also makes an appearance in the second verse. After Elliott raps, “Got to feel it son/ Let me throw you some” a man shouts, “Maut mujhko” which translates to “Death to me.”
The longevity of Elliott’s sound and career is also alluded to throughout this song, whether she knew at the time of its production or not. She brings attention to her long-term friendship with Timbaland in the second verse: “Me and Timbaland been hot since 20 years ago.” Timbaland did produce Elliott’s first hit single of 1997, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” At the end of the verse, Elliott sees the future, rapping, “People, here I come now sweat me when I’m done/ We got the radio shook like we got a gun.” When this track was released in 2001, it was extremely successful, peaking at number seven on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Nearly 20 years later, it returned to its status as a Top 40 hit, following Elliott’s performance in the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show. One year later, the track officially went platinum, proving that Missy Elliott can shake the radio for decades at a time. – Natalia Barr
41. Radiohead – Pyramid Song (2001)
In 2001, Radiohead released the harrowing ballad “Pyramid Song” as the first single for their fifth album, Amnesiac. It was the band’s first single in three years; incredibly, they didn’t release any from Kid A. Recorded in a 12th-century church and composed around sustained piano chords and Thom Yorke’s slurred croon, the song is both hauntingly enigmatic and emotionally resonant. At the time, guitarist Ed O’Brien referred to it as the “best song” the band had ever recorded.
Beneath the opening piano chords lurks the malevolent growl of Jonny Greenwood’s electronic strings, which are made all the more affecting once Yorke’s warbling voice enters the fray: “I jumped into the river and what did I see?” The piano chords flex without a discernible time signature, at times feeling a step too slow, and at others, a step too quick. This rhythmic ambiguity arrests an uncanny, disjointed experience.
After the first verse, Greenwood’s strings mirror Yorke’s falsetto, cultivating a space of eerie intrigue for Phil Selway’s impossible-to-anticipate drumbeat. Greenwood’s arrangement expands and retracts around Selway’s jazz inflections, while Yorke continues to float his falsetto into the ether. But once the second verse begins, Yorke’s voice takes on a malevolent bite, darkening the song’s unusual grace.
Lyrically, Yorke elaborates the song’s strangeness by meditating on death. The imagery is dark yet alluring, filled with “black-eyed angels” and “a moon full of stars and astral cars,” not to mention the “little rowboat” that takes him and his “pasts and futures” to heaven. For a song about death, the refrain is reassuring: “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.”
Altogether, “Pyramid Song” remains one of Radiohead’s most eerily beautiful songs. Its odd harmonies, slightly dissonant strings and clever meter all work together to produce a profound experience. – Ethan King