15: Gorillaz- Feel Good Inc. (2005)
Can we just stop for a moment and appreciate how weird Gorillaz are? Creating an ever morphing pop mix that gleefully cherry-picks from dozens of genres, their music is as eclectic as their lore. The virtual band is fronted by the dude from Blur and includes a Satanist bassist, a robotic guitarist and a drummer possessed by the demonic spirit of Del the Funky Homosapien. My introduction to Gorillaz was at a Houston Astros’ game when I was nine. It wasn’t just when I first heard this song; it’s when I first heard hip-hop, period. Coming from a house saturated with classical music and Fleetwood Mac, that should tell you that Gorillaz were as ubiquitous as they were strange. Somehow, this mad scientist project took over the world. Because, even without the batshit mythos and stunning visuals, Gorillaz made some of the most compelling pop music of the era.
“Feel Good Inc.” could only have been made in a post-Napster age. R&B meets Brit-pop meets ‘80s throwback rap is all held down by a grainy, zero gravity chorus that’s one of Damon Albarn’s finest post-Blur hooks. And of course, De La Soul shows up to remind everyone they’re back from the dead over a bass line as nasty as Murdoc’s general disposition. These disparate elements don’t so much coalesce as transcend. Pop music has had plenty of weirdos, but in the ‘00s no one latched onto the euphoria of bizarre-o pop like Gorillaz. But this wasn’t just a catchy tune; this burrowed into the subconscious.
From Demon Days’ rightful place as one of the finest albums of the 21st century to Stephen Colbert preforming all of De La Soul’s rap on The Late Show, “Feel Good Inc.” rippled through pop culture with an influence that can’t be understated. They placed that opening manic laugh like they just realized what they had gotten away with. Paired with Jamie Hewlett’s Miyazaki-inspired visuals, it became a stark, anti-consumerism anthem that was consumed to the point of oversaturation. The chorus represents that, an effervescent, odd thing that reflects the image of Noodle blissfully playing guitar on a floating island, enraptured by a small, calm bliss that comes from nature, escapism and music. A true since of wonder at what could be.
It was a perfect distillation of, not just Gorillaz, but what pop would eventually mutate into. Gorillaz craftily predicted the culture vulture shimmer of Drake’s mass appeal and the “is it pop? is it rap?” questions fluttering around G-Eazy, Nicki Minaj and more, but for Gorillaz the answer was “who cares?” They would further refine this thesis with Plastic Beach but, even now, “Feel Good Inc.” feels like a broadcast from the future. Albarn and his merry circus, over a decade later, are still waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
– Nathan Stevens
14. Beyoncé – Crazy in Love (2003)
Introduced with the sound of a colossus bursting forth from the land of the gods to grace our mortal plane, all that the most respected rapper alive can do is walk humbly ahead, playing the pageboy, shouting “yes!”
The stakes weren’t exactly high. Beyoncé, her name then still followed by the now all but forgotten Knowles, was already the star around which one of the biggest girl groups in history orbited. A solo career was inevitable. But think of the ways they could have fucked it up. They could have faxed her a soppy piano ballad to play it safe. They could have tried to recast her as an edgy, brooding, mature star that says fuck a lot; granted that would come much later on and, thankfully, on her own terms.
Yet “Crazy in Love” doesn’t try to recast her as something she’s not. It simply says: “Here’s Beyoncé.” It comes on every bit as strong as it should. Its horns are a fanfare for royalty. Knowing the sweeping album-length artistry she’d be capable of once she gained more control of her career makes it seem even more impressive in retrospect. What other debut single has such an unmistakable sense of arrival? “Anarchy in the UK?” “Love Me Do” looks anemic next to it.
This is where we met so much of what we’ve come to love about Bey. Her unstoppable swagger. Her ear for brassy beats (seriously, how did Rich Harrison fall off after this?). Her writerly quirk of rationalizing all the crazy shit she does in the throes of love (“my pride is the one to blame,” she’d sing for the first of many times). Her inability to resist a few corny bars from the love of her life. The way every time she releases something, the world stops for a second to catch its breath. The way that after the world’s started turning again, those songs continue to be sung. – Daniel Bromfield
13: Lady Gaga – Bad Romance (2009)
Such early singles as “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” introduced the world to Joanne Angelina Germanotta and proved that she was destined for greatness from the outset. But her power remained in check until October 2009, when this single was released and the world saw her power fully unleashed.
Complete with its updated “Thriller” choreography, “Bad Romance” established Lady Gaga as the pop queen supreme, a title she held until Beyoncé stole it just a few years later. With the help of producer RedOne, she constructed a song that, with its modern-dance-pop-meets-new-wave aesthetic, looked at once forward and backward. While the production is sugar-rush intoxicating, it was the hook that ensured world domination.
You know the part I mean; it’s essentially baby talk, but its imperial slinkiness is so goddamn catchy that just reading the words catapults it to the front of your brain: “Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah/ Roma-roma-ma/ Gaga, Oh la-la.”
That’s the thing about an earworm: it’s a love/hate relationship. There’s an immediate dopamine hit and the regret afterward when you can’t shake it. It’s like the kind of guy she’s talking about; the relationship will never last, but it’s a thrill to ride the highs and lows of addictive drama until the inevitable crash: “I want your love and I want your revenge/ You and me could write a bad romance.”
“Bad Romance” isn’t Lady Gaga’s best song – that honor belongs to “The Edge of Glory” – but it is her most definitive. She rode its success, along with the rest of The Fame Monster, to a massive tour and the million-in-one-week follow-up Born This Way. She’d go on to play the Super Bowl halftime show, and became the first female solo act to headline (and sell out) Wrigley Field earlier this year, something not even her predecessor Madonna could boast. There are many reasons why Lady Gaga is a superstar, but none of them matter without this. — Steve Lampiris
12: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps (2003)
You know that Coldplay song, “Yellow”? What a massive hit it was! How perplexingly universal its emotional resonance seemed! Now, imagine if it were good! Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” is the indie-alternative answer to crap like “Yellow,” an anthem for the anti-anthem crowd.
Kicking off with Nick Zinner’s pins-and-needles guitar and Brian Chase’s tumbling, jazz-inspired drums, coming on as if he’s a punk Buddy Rich, the song hinges on Karen O’s striking vocals. The lyrics consist largely of clipped phrases repeated several times, starting with “Pack up/ I’m straight/ Enough/ I’ll say, say, say/ I’ll say say say,” the crisis only hinted at until that famous, cryptic chorus arrives: “Wait/ They don’t love you like I love you/ Wait/ They don’t love you like I love you/ Maps/ Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.”
The song title is reportedly an acronym for, “my Angus please stay,” a plea to Liars’ founder Angus Andrew. But gossip and cartography aside, it’s an evocative, talismanic word that, without meaning anything in particular, lends a weight and depth to the feeling it expresses.
“Maps” is just one of many highlights on Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s debut, Fever to Tell. In an alternate universe, perhaps “Y Control,” could have been as famous. But guitars make “Maps,” with the combination of sweeping bass notes on the chorus, the teasing, high-pitched melody line and the crash announced by the musical break indexing the height of heartbreak. Here is where the band combines the best of its influences in post-punk, goth and New Wave with Karen O’s talent as a romantic, lyrical songwriter. Years from now, on the streaming oldies station of the future, this will be on steady rotation on the early ‘00s channel as one of the definitive songs of the era. – Dylan Montanari
11: Jay Z – 99 Problems (2004)
The third single released from The Black Album featured one of Jay-Z’s defining hooks: “If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you son/ I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Its title and chorus was taken from an Ice-T single by the same name, but its beat comes from Jay-Z’s request that producer Rick Rubin give him, “something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.” The resulting old school hip-hop beat transformed it into one of the greatest songs of the decade.
Rubin, who in the ‘90s had turned from his early hip-hop production to such artists as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash, told Rolling Stone that the idea to use the Ice-T line came from Chris Rock, who suggested that Jay Z could build a whole song around it.
Rubin and Jay-Z shifted the focus of Ice-T’s superficial chorus to a litany of broader issues,
each verse identifying a specific problem. These included the common rapper’s gripe with critics who condemned the context of their rapping. But in his second verse, Jay Z tells the all-too-familiar story of being pulled over for driving while black: “License and registration and step out of the car/ Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are.” Jay-Z transformed the song into a lamentation about the experience of being a black man in America.
With its monster beat and biting sociological commentary, “99 Problems” is hip-hop with a mission that goes beyond music. In 2011, a Southwestern Law School professor explained that he used the song to teach students about search and seizure and racial profiling, among other legal concepts. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Jay-Z performed the song, updating the lyric: “I got 99 problems but a Bush ain’t one.” – Natalia Barr