25: Usher – Yeah! (ft. Lil John, Ludacris) (2004)
The number-one song of 2004 would not have existed were it not for Lil Jon’s hit-making aptitude. When Usher submitted his fourth studio album, Confessions, to his label, it was clear that the record would have notable singles, like “Burn,” “Caught Up” and its title track. However, that one obligatory hot-and-heavy lead single was missing, and Lil Jon was recruited to incorporate some crunk into Confessions, but not without a slight misstep along the way. According to an Entertainment Weekly article, Lil Jon had produced several beats for Jive Records before his work with Usher. The recording company used one beat without Lil Jon’s knowledge for Jive artist Petey Pablo’s newest single, “Freek-a-Leek”—the same exact beat Lil Jon recorded, mixed and mastered with Usher for “Yeah!.” Since the Petey Pablo song had already made it onto Southern radio stations, Jive would not allow Lil Jon to reclaim his beat. Even though “Yeah!” uses no samples, it does draw from its original recording.
Whatever Lil Jon chose to change about his beat the second time around was certainly key, because “Yeah!” topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for 12 consecutive weeks, was certified Platinum and won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2005 Grammys. Although it is the kind of song that makes nearly every club-goer run onto the dance floor, listening closely to the lyrics reveals a rude awakening for Usher fans. After repping his hometown of Atlanta, (“Peace up, A-Town, down”) Usher makes it clear to us that he is in the club with his homies. He catches a woman checking him out, and follows her to the dance floor, during which he reveals an important detail: “Yeah!/ Shorty got down low said, come and get me / Yeah!/ I got so caught up, I forgot she told me/ Yeah!/ Her and my girl, they used to be the best of homies /Yeah! / Next thing I knew, she was all up on me screaming.” “Yeah!” is a narrative of a man in a club debating whether to cheat on his girlfriend, but if you can put this unsavory detail aside, “Yeah!” remains one of the best party songs of the 2000s. – Natalia Barr
24: Arcade Fire – Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) (2004)
The leadoff track from their debut album, Funeral, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” inaugurated Arcade Fire’s Springsteen-like mythologizing of the suburban that would reach its apotheosis (conceptually if not musically) in The Suburbs years later. With its haunting six-note motif and rather mysterious lyrics (“And if the snow buries my/ My neighborhood/ And if my parents are crying/ Then I’ll dig a tunnel/ From my window to yours”), the song brings with it considerable romance, as the unnamed addressee climbs out the chimney, going forth into the night to meet the song’s speaker. Together, like in a post-apocalyptic Christmas, they wander out into a seemingly abandoned, snow-carpeted world.
As the full band kicks in with an anthemic beat reminiscent of early U2, Win Butler’s vocals grow more desperate and impassioned, and with that growing yearning, the lyrics become more haunting—even a line as vague as “But sometimes, we remember our bedrooms/ And our parents’ bedrooms/ And the bedrooms of our friends” has lasting power. And the great, otherwise throwaway line that concludes that verse—“Then we think of our parents/ Well, what ever happened to them?” packs great punch, too. From the first verse to the second, the parents already recede into nothingness.
The band would be mocked for helping to spawn a kind of lazy songwriting where, once the musical themes are established, all the band does is play them at gradually increasing volumes to imbue the song with artificial emotional growth. But here it feels too sincere and urgent to be prey to this criticism, and “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” serves not only as a memorable song in its own right, but as the perfect overture to an album whose intensity reaches a fever pitch in its closer, “In the Backseat.”
But listening to it now, over a dozen years later, it seems daring to start the album with the beginning of a suite that sounds like a climax unto itself. On this opening salvo, the band spread its wings wide, took to the sky and, at least for a moment, reached it. – Dylan Montanari
23: 50 Cent – In da Club (2003)
When 50 Cent’s debut record, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, dropped in February of 2003, he made about as big an introduction to the world as one can in the rap world: 1.7 million copies sold in its first two weeks and a perfect 5/5 rating from XXL. It certainly helped that GRoDT had an impossibly catchy lead single that vaulted to number one.
That single was “In da Club,” a song so ubiquitous that its nine-week tenure at the top is eclipsed by the fact that it “broke a Billboard magazine record as the ‘most listened-to’ song in radio history within a week.” Not bad for a rapper who, up to that point, was known for a laundry list of celebrities he intended to steal from.
“In da Club” was a guaranteed smash all by itself. The whole point of the minimalist earworm beat was to launch a superstar. The song’s born-in-a-lab perfection—courtesy of Dr. Dre and Mike Elizondo, who together could do no wrong for a few years of the aughts—made its iconic status preordained. Anyone can rap on this track and it’d be a hit. That’s how perfect it is as an instrumental.
But perfect or not, the production found its partner in a street rapper with a salesman-esque, singsong-y flow. 50 doesn’t do much here beyond celebrating life and bragging about his newfound wealth and status, but damn if we’re not immediately sucked into buying what he’s selling. Maybe it’s because of his honesty (“My flow, my show brought me the dough/ That bought me all my fancy things”) or his respectable work ethic (“Got a mil’ out the deal and I’m still on the grind”). Whatever the case, the celebratory nature is unparalleled. Every time you play it, “In da Club” is the unabashed glee resulting from the greatest birthday party you’ve ever had, and the song doesn’t give a fuck if it’s not. – Steve Lampiris
22: Rihanna – Umbrella (2007)
Rihanna deserves more credit than she gets. Granted, anyone would look small next to the cultural monolith that Beyoncé has become, but Rihanna has quietly built up an impressive résumé of hits over the years, and it starts with her singles on 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad. Before then, she hit the charts with “Pon de Replay,” but whereas that early hit owed a bit to Rihanna’s Caribbean heritage, “Umbrella” is pure, mainstream pop. The song was the result of a day’s worth of brainstorming between Tricky and The-Dream, and the fact that it had a troubled, roundabout path to release is a shock in itself. In the hands of both Rihanna and Jay-Z, though, it became a piece of pop perfection.
The brilliance of “Umbrella” came as a result of each of its collaborators working at the peak of their powers. The-Dream and Tricky worked some real magic here; Tricky’s hi-hat beat that opens the song is the sort of thing that producers will be struggling to imitate for years to come. The chorus is the stuff of soaring pop dreams, the things that late-night sing-alongs at the bar or club are made of.
Rihanna’s vocals deftly balance sensuality and diva virtuosity; her delivery of the “‘Ella, ‘ella/ Hey, hey” hook at the end of the chorus is so infectious that it’s probably playing in your head right now. Then there’s Jay-Z, who opens the song with an effortless freestyle that serves as an introduction to Rihanna, the World-Conquering Pop Star with the swagger that exemplifies Jay at his best. As it turns out, his boasting wasn’t premature in the slightest; Rihanna did end up becoming a world-conquering pop star, albeit without a whole lot of cultural cachet. But why should she care about being “important” for the moment when she has songs like “Umbrella” that ensure that she’ll stand the test of time? – Kevin Korber
21: OutKast – B.O.B. (2000)
By the time OutKast released their fourth studio album, Stankonia, in 2000, many were already familiar with André 3000 and Big Boi’s predilection for eclectic Southern hip-hop. Yet nothing would have prepared listeners for the first single off of the album, “B.O.B.” OutKast ushered in the new millennium with a musical headbanger and a lyrical headscratcher, heralding a new era for the band’s experimental yet catchy dynamism. Explosive and frantic, “B.O.B.” moves with an unnatural energy that never lets up, the drum-and-bass production careening wildly through two rapid-fire verses, an infectious hook, a hip-hop-meets-Hendrix guitar solo and a gospel-inflected coda.
After André whispers the count-in, the song explodes into its furious and volatile groove and a barrage of rhymes. Blasting at an incredibly fast tempo, the band siphons a Y2K aesthetic into an all-out drum-and-bass assault, rife with electro breaks. Full of adrenaline, André and Big Boi spit edgy and animated lines at an even more torrential pace that only finds moments of reprieve in the melodic chant of the refrain (“Bombs over Baghdad”) and in the best guitar solo found in a hip-hop song to date. The group is joined in the final few minutes by a funky Southern gospel choir, who chant “Power music, electric revival,” an apt description for the song itself.
Although the verses—especially Big Boi’s—aren’t without their flaws in terms of conveying coherent meaning with each line, there are a few gems and slick turns of phrase that jive well with the off-the-rails beat. André begins with a neologism and a boast—“In-slum-national, underground/ Thunder pounds when I stomp the ground”—addressing impoverished locations around the globe, as well as embellishing his rap power. Most of André’s verse cycles through boasts and the more serious matters impacting the ghettos of the world. Although Big Boi’s lyrics leave something to be desired, his rhythm and flow go punch-for-punch with the attacking beat. And although the duo declared that they weren’t making a political statement in chanting “Bombs over Baghdad,” the refrain held an eerie prophecy for the geopolitical state of the world for the coming decade. – Ethan King