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End of the Aughts: Songs of the Decade

As the decade comes to an end, it is always interesting to look back at the songs that have influenced us, thrilled us, made us cry and made us think. Choosing one song as the decade’s best is a daunting task. Among the songs picked here, you will see a snapshot of our last 10 years. I hope you enjoy this feature as much as we did writing it. Also, it is important to note that this list reflects each writer’s individual selection. This is not meant to be a definitive list. – David Harris, Editor-in-Chief

“New Slang” by the Shins (2001)

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“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.”

It happened in about 30 seconds: the unavoidable reference from the film that nobody will ever claim to like anymore, and the moment that spawned the thrusting of postmillennial indie rock into the mainstream.

“Spawned the thrusting”? I think I’m going in the wrong order.

Indie rock crept into mainstream sensibilities throughout the early aughts thanks the rise of the Internet, shows like “The O.C.,” and bands like Modest Mouse who scored major label deals and had songs that actually appeared on the radio, assuring One-Hit Wonder status on some VH1 list alongside The Vapors and a-ha.

But 2004 was the moment, as Garden State single-handedly introduced to the rest of the world The Postal Service, Iron & Wine and The Shins, who had two songs on the soundtrack. If it weren’t for “New Slang” nobody would be accusing Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie of “selling out.” Or have even heard of them.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way:

Despite what “New Slang” stands for (whatever you think “New Slang” stands for), it remains an extraordinarily sad, beautiful song based on a simple-but-effective premise: If you reciprocated, things would have turned out better. {The rest of our lives would’ve fared well}, James Mercer sings.

Thousands of songs have been written on that premise, but “New Slang” — an acoustic ditty and the mellowest song on the otherwise manic Oh, Inverted World — is not a sentimental ordeal of self-flagellation. It’s far more well-rounded than that: longing, wistful, but humanized by an undercurrent soft-spoken disdain (Gold teeth and a curse for this town/They’re all in my mouth). It’s lovesick pop for the quietly bitter. – Danny Djeljosevic

” ” by Sigur Rós (2002)

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I first heard Sigur Rós’ untitled track (also known as “Vaka”) at a 2001 show in New York City. The band’s popularity was on the upswing thanks to 1999’s Ágætis Byrjun but the group still remained, like their early music, mysterious, mystifying and unique. People in the know whispered of an icy Radiohead where the singer sang in a made-up language and played the guitar with a violin bow.

Though the album () would not come for another year, something about the haunting and haunted “Vaka” stuck with me. I tracked down a bootleg from a Los Angeles show and listened to the track over and over. Somewhere in that frozen stasis and Jon Thor Birgisson’s lilting falsetto rested what I perceived to be the soundtrack for the rest of the decade.

The song begins with a simple melody, a ghostly pairing of high and low tones on keyboard. A fuzzy atmospheric haze surrounds these precious notes as the piano begins to improvise on the theme ever so slightly. Soon Birgisson’s voice trickles in, a fake start, something that does not exist in the early live renditions, that tease that tells you this will not be an instrumental piece. Round and round that hypnotic melody goes and then, as if a sunbeam through a cloud break, in come the vocals, almost three minutes into the song. However, “Vaka” continues to build, emotional crescendo breaking over emotional crescendo and Birgisson’s voice climbs higher and higher in register. It all falls back to the earth at the end as the song wearily and beautifully fades into nothingness, stripping away all the layers and leaving that crucial, simple melody to bleed out on a solo piano.

Though “Vaka” has gone on to become one of the band’s most successful songs, mostly thanks to a music video featuring children in gas masks cavorting in a nuclear winter, there is something prescient in the still sadness that it predicts will follow in the years to come. The last thing we need is another music writer pontificating about the horrors of the Bush Administration and all the other awful shit that went down in the last 10 years. Just listen to “Vaka” and you’ll see what I mean. – David Harris

“Barcarolle” by Tom Waits (2002)

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Trying to pick one song as the aughts’ best is a fool’s task: for every song a critic chooses, at least one reader will likely wonder why the hell the writer made that bizarre selection. Setting all this aside, the criteria I used was simple: of all the songs I heard this decade, Tom Waits’ “Barcarolle” is the only one that I can still listen to at any time, in any mood, at any place and never even become momentarily bored or underwhelmed.

At first glance (hell, even at second and third glance) “Barcarolle” is an unlikely candidate for this feature. The song didn’t define the decade in any appreciable way, nor did it bend, reshape, or obliterate any genres. It wasn’t created against the backdrop of the past 10 years’ key events – 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a crippled economy – and didn’t capture the bleakness and dread that defined most of this fucked up Bush-Cheney debacle of a decade. Even in the Tom Waits catalog the song is routinely dismissed as a decent song and not much more. Except for a few performances in 1992’s coolly-received play Alice, Waits didn’t get around to releasing it until 2002’s album of the same name, and even then it was tucked away toward the end of the record. Still, the song carries with it a beauty and fragility that was rarely matched throughout the decade.

The song, like most tracks from Alice, takes as its subject the devotion/illicit obsession Lewis Carroll carries around for the young Alice Liddell. It forgoes the vocal barking and musical clang usually associated with the musician in favor a beautifully subtle approach. The arrangement is wonderfully understated and among the most evocative Waits has recorded; a perfect blend of bass, piano, violin, and saxophone, each instrument is used to evoke a definite mood. Waits’ vocals are likewise restrained, with none of the lunatic wailing that has sometimes bordered on self-parody.

In addition to the song’s larger themes of devotion and obsession, “Barcarolle” is a moving rumination on mortality and aging. The idealized girl “skating on the ice/ In a glass in the hands of a man/ That she kissed on the train” will be young but for a moment, a truth the older narrator has already discovered but of which the girl seems naively unaware. Set against images that surface in Waits’ songs like clockwork, time passes indifferently and the simple joys of youth give way to the effects of time: “…the branches bend down/ To the ground here to swing on/ I’m lost in the blond summer grass/ And the train whistle blows/ And the carnival goes/ Till there’s only the tickets and crows here/ And the grass will all grow back.”

With an arrangement that could soften even the most jaded heart, “Barcarolle” offers a poetic take on life’s fleeting nature and little tragedies. Time moves on, with or without us, it suggests, with a steady indifference. It’s also, quite simply, the one song from this decade I’d choose to listen to above all others. – Eric Dennis

“Heavy Metal Drummer” by Wilco (2002)

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On the surface “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which appeared on Wilco’s 2002 breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is pretty simple – a catchy tune, bouncy beat and wistful lyrics about falling in love and watching KISS cover bands at “the Landing” (an area on the waterfront in St. Louis) on summer nights. But front man Jeff Tweedy has explained the song as being a sort of reverse reminiscence, nostalgia over things he was too cool in his youth to experience. While big-haired guys tore through power ballads onstage and girls fell at their feet, Tweedy and his hipster buddies sat in the back and mocked them and their lifestyle, clearly above it all. With this explanation in mind, the song can take on a couple of different meanings: taken from the perspective of one of those KISS-wannabes, it’s a lamentation of the good ol’ days when it was all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, ostensibly written as the ex-rocker sits in a cubicle somewhere hammering out TPS reports. Taken from Tweedy’s perspective, it’s a forehead-slap to himself, wondering why he spent his time sneering in the background when the guys on stage were having all the fun and getting all the girls. Either way, it’s the kind of song that was made for windows-down, summertime driving, the kind of song that makes me wish I was in St. Louis in the ’80s, dancing at the Landing, watching guys in “shiny, shiny pants and bleach blonde hair,” and most importantly, falling in love with a drummer (and another and another).

The song first appeared for free on Wilco’s website in the fall of 2001, after its record label, Reprise, dismissed them for not making an album they felt was commercial enough. After being picked up by Nonesuch later that year, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was officially released in the spring of 2002, perfect timing for “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which became my personal anthem of the summer. With 9/11 still close in mind, the song offered a small escape from the stressful, sad realities of recent days and a feeling of nostalgia (even if it wasn’t mine) for simpler, happier times when all that mattered was if the beer was cold and the music was loud. The song has been a staple on many of my playlists for the past seven years – playlists that serve as the background for BBQs, road trips and paddleball tournaments at the beach. Even in the dead of winter, it’s a great song to put on to remind myself that summer will be here soon. It may not be a heavy song, or a poignant song, or even a song whose lyrics really make you think. But it’s a gem of a pop song, one that makes you feel good and it’s sure to remain on many of my playlists for summers to come. – Tara Pierson Hoey

“Son of a Gun” by cLOUDDEAD (2003)

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There are plenty of people who will look back on this decade and rant about social networks, hyper media saturation and the death of the album, neglecting the fact that culturally this was a decade of cross-pollination. Maybe it was the rise of those same social networks that caused it, or maybe it was our supposedly shorter attention spans, but whatever the case, in this decade indie went disco, hip-hop went indie, guitar pop looked towards Africa and the Caribbean for influence and any number of other combinations happened. This isn’t to say that cross-pollination hadn’t been going on in music in the past, but in the last 10 years it seemingly became the norm, partially ignited by the atomic bomb that was Radiohead’s Kid A at the start of the decade. For a certain segment of the population, though, there was a different group that represented this cross-pollination, first as rumblings via mysterious 7″ releases and shortly after Kid A with the release of their own nuclear blast of a debut.

cLOUDDEAD may remain somewhat obscure here in the states (in Europe, though, it should be noted that they actually made it onto charts, the great John Peel himself even championing them) but to paraphrase an old remark about the Velvet Underground, seemingly everyone who bought their debut went on to form their own group. To continue the Velvet Underground connection, the main creative forces of the group have all gone on to bigger things, Why? acting as the heir to David Berman’s now vacant throne with his indie pop storytelling, Odd Nosdam now a big time producer who’s worked alongside Sage Francis and Danger Mouse, and Doseone a scene all unto himself, from his Notwist collaboration 13&God to his stunning, unclassifiable outfit Subtle. But cLOUDDEAD was where these three forces merged into something intimidating in its scope and execution, altering their own careers permanently as well as the anticon collective they all called home.

The clearest a mission statement ever got for the group was “Son of a Gun,” off of their first proper album Ten. Ten was a tight, cohesive statement that made clearer the sound and purpose of their self-titled 7″ collection; the production was beefed up, the ideas more fluid, the voices altogether more driven. And at the center of it all was the monstrous “Son of a Gun,” a nearly six minute epic about the war machine that fuels commerce. Where most of cLOUDDEAD’s songs mix surrealist imagery with slice-of-life portraits, “Son of a Gun” is incendiary in its focus, beginning as what sounds like a voice mail from a soldier heading off to deployment slowly becomes a relatively poppy, hummable tune about hunters who “dress their boys in bright orange/ And leave their daughters at home” as they go off, “stripping meat, stretching skin.”

But as the song progresses, so does the range, the poppy beginning morphing into a harder, more traditionally hip-hop structured section condemning Lincoln’s legacy to being a “foot background/ In a tourist’s shot” and his portrait “dead-center on the front of a five spot.” The climax comes as the voices start a playground chant of historic figures who “jumped the gun,” escalating until the music literally explodes. Within its less than six minute frame, the track touches on a veritable what’s what of things to come in the indie world– electronic-tinged indie pop, Danger Mouse-style minimalist hip-hop, in-the-round sing-songy weirdness that the Go Team! would take to the bank. Add to it the lyrical fascination with the paranoia that settled in post-9/11 (and be sure to see “Rifle Eyes” for even more of that) as well as a guilt-ridden look at just where America’s success came from and you’ve got all the ingredients for this decade’s anthem.

In the years to follow, cLOUDDEAD’s peers, devotees and collaborators would nurture the group’s template and ride it to the bank. TV on the Radio in particular, who have cited the group as a primary influence and whose Tunde Adebimpe has worked with Doseone on several occasions, carved an entire sound out of much of the material of “Son of a Gun.” In the paranoia and dirty bass of “Staring at the Sun” and the blitzkrieg of “Wolf Like Me” you can hear the parallels, but the effect will always be most startling on the source material itself. Of course, “Son of a Gun” wasn’t a hit single anywhere, it didn’t wind up getting airplay on every radio station on the dial like other song of the decade contenders. But the thing is, usually the most accurate portrayals of a time and a place are the least considered ones, the pieces that go unheard by the masses either because they’re too stark in their reality or too close to home.

“Son of a Gun” is the song for this decade not just because it sonically predicts so many of the paths the culture would take, not just because it would create a sound others would ride to greater success, but because it is precisely the song for the time– angry, confused, hurt and all too aware of the endlessly repeating cycle of history we’re stuck in. – Morgan Davis

“The Scarlet Tide” by Elvis Costello (2004)

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Written by Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett, “The Scarlet Tide” is a tender and chilling antiwar song (though Costello often described it as an “anti-fear song”) that encompasses ageless themes of insufferable loss fused with everlasting hope. Though listeners may be more familiar with Allison Krauss’ elegant, infinitely sad version from 2003’s Cold Mountain soundtrack, Costello’s rendition, set beneath the backdrop of a breezy, unassuming ukulele and enlisting the help of Emmylou Harris on vocals, is the more powerful adaptation, coming across as less of a victim’s lament and instead more of a bold testament to inner strength. When Costello and Harris sing about rising above “The scarlet tide/ That trickles down through the mountain/ And separates the widow from the bride,” this doesn’t sound like merely wishful thinking, but instead an absolute inevitability: fear be damned, we can – and will – overcome the darkness and decay of even the most heartrending times.

The early part of the 21st century will be remembered as a time of ill-conceived war, dangerously inept political leaders, lies and greed and though “The Scarlet Tide” takes the Civil War as its basis, it’s impossible not to think of the Bush and Blair regimes when Costello delivers lines about “swindlers who act like kings” — a condemnation that was especially obvious when, in concert throughout much of the decade, Costello tweaked the refrain to “Admit you lied/ And bring the boys back home.” This haunting and beautiful song is careful not to date itself, though, and “The Scarlet Tide” would have sounded as relevant 100 years ago as it will sound a hundred years from today. Even in Costello’s prolific career, few if any of his endeavors have so effectively encapsulated the mood of modern times while speaking simultaneously to timeless sentiments. In the span of two and a half short minutes, Costello, Burnett and Harris create one of the most profound testaments to the power of perseverance to emerge from popular music in the past decade. – Marcus David

“Gold Digger” by Kanye West (2005)

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Widely dismissed as misogynistic by critics who should know better, a misreading as egregious as those of “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Material Girl,” Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” twists hip-hop’s phallocentric bling-bling conventions into a subversive consumerist critique. A funnier, cooler, less didactic sequel to “All Falls Down,” it bridges the dance floor with the classroom, and attacks not gold digging so much as the economic and societal conditions that create the so-called gold diggers. Kanye stresses he ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, and as the song progresses, he articulates why, with a final holy-shit twist worthy of a mystery novel, one that recontextualizes all that came before. “Lemme hear that back,” he demands at the song’s abrupt finish, echoing his own caught-off-guard listeners, encouraging them to restart the track to hear the nuances and clues beneath the jokes, the hints that foreshadow the stunning conclusion.

“Gold Digger” began scaling the charts around the same time Kanye notoriously turned Mike Myers a few shades whiter by proclaiming “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” It was still ubiquitous when “Flavor of Love,” a harrowing snapshot of women’s quests for the wealth and fame that is by now an entitlement, premiered. Black celebrities like Kobe and R. Kelly were on trial for, to put it mildly, sexual indiscretions. And the most influential (and arguably most powerful) black woman in America was (and still is) regularly shilling high-end, overpriced products purported to “enhance” and “fulfill” the lives of her less financially secure audience. Like “Paper Planes,” that other indelible single of the 00’s, “Gold Digger” is a catchy, ringtone-ready pop song about economically oppressed people adopting unsavory practices to overcome that economic oppression. And as the decade closes amidst a worldwide financial crisis, both songs seem utterly prophetic.

In the first two verses, Kanye spins dense, witty tales of exploitative starfuckers, from a detached perspective not entirely his own. Far from copping out at the last minute, Kanye is defiant throughout, stopping short of pejorative attacks: “I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger,” “I don’t care what none of y’all say/ I still love her.” He refutes his buddies’ warnings, because ultimately, he is sympathetic to these women. Latching on to a millionaire rapper or baller is a more promising path to her own (or her child’s) security than depending on, or even supporting, some dude who’s mopping floors this week to do the fries next week. Kanye sarcastically urges black women to not chase the successful, to stick by their pothead job-hopping loser until he improves his standing enough to dump her for that ultimate status symbol: a white girl. It’s a ballsy, daring statement, one that indicts failures in black masculinity that liberal white academics are often too scared to concede, while also acknowledging the social stigmas that have marginalized black men. By the song’s end, the problems of men who live in mansions seem trivial, and the idea that underprivileged women routinely violating wealthy celebrities is almost as comical as that priceless “Tyco-lipo-Michael-Geico” stanza. “Gold Digger” challenges the standard rock-and-rap archetype, an archetype even older than “I Got a Woman” (the 1954 Ray Charles single that Jamie Foxx interpolates for the chorus), of the money-grubbing woman. Here, she is neither victimizer nor victim, but more akin to an outlaw hero who gets what patriarchy denies her by any means necessary.

Of course, culture is as much about who hears you as what you say. While “conscious” rappers and college professors had spouted similar sentiments, often with far less complexity and far more self-righteousness, “Gold Digger” reached a wider audience than any of them. It was a massive hit, blasted across radios, splattered all over television, popping up between 50 and Rihanna in the club. Its subversion pierced the mainstream multitudes, and dented the public consciousness, even if that public largely ignored the song’s more inflammatory dimensions.
Like the best Spike Lee movies, “Gold Digger” does not forgive or excuse its subjects, but presents the knotty motivations behind their actions. It negates the foolish “mo money, mo problems” premise that has dominated so much post-Biggie hip-hop. And four years later, in allegedly post-racial America, it affirms that black and white, male and female, rich and poor, are not divisions that a mere presidential election can reconcile. – Charles A. Hohman

“Kids With Guns” by Gorillaz (2005)

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“Kids With Guns” is a creepy song with a catchy bassline that swaggers with a beefy confidence. Not surprising since it’s from an album that uses a lot of smoke and mirrors before punching you in the gut. Demon Days, the sophomore album from former Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s fictitious cartoon band Gorillaz, eschews the easy “sunshine in a bag” pop melodies of their earlier singles like “Clint Eastwood,” veering off in a darker direction. Teaming up with Danger Mouse and amping up the nascent mythology of the cartoon band playing off the myths of rock, with it’s history of inducing moral panic, and cross-references these with the very real global experiences of the new century, to create something of a signpost of where we’ve been and the dangers that lie ahead.

Steeped as Gorillaz was with layers of irony and detachment, we’re never quite sure which side Damon Albarn is coming down on. At first the bassline crawls along like a mesmerized skeleton. It’s an odd song for an odd time. It wasn’t too far removed from Columbine shooting that parent communities weren’t still fretting about it happening again. I was working in one of my city’s more rough and tumble high schools and the kids would sing it in the hallways, as a kind of gallows humor. When the Sudanese refugee students started showing up though, the song disappeared. The kids understood that you could joke about guns in the school when the fistfights rarely escalated to knives, but when the kids in the hall were former child soldiers, the joking stopped. When Albarn sings “They’re turning us into monsters” is he talking about child soldiers and lost boys in countries like Sudan? War, unrest, and AIDS robbed millions of children throughout the world of their parents in the last decade and left them open to all kinds of dehumanizing exploitation.

The very next breath though sees him chanting “Easy does it, easy does it” directly recalling NWA and EASY-E’s 1988 “EZ Does It” bringing the implied violence out of the developing world and into the inner cities. At the same time, the second half of the line, “they’ve got something to say” almost appears to be championing youth. It would be simple to suggest that “Kids With Guns” is a critique of violence in youth culture, but that would be too easy. There was always an inside-out element to Demon Days and the presence of renowned rapper MF Doom later on “November Has Come” would suggest that “Kids With Guns” is just as likely a critique of post-Columbine parental fears.

In many ways there’s a feeling by the end of Demon Days that a day of reckoning is forthcoming, littered as the album is with references to a society filled with violence, drugs, alcohol, corruption, lost in a kind of consumerist malaise (“It’s all desire” he sings) with a cataclysmic environmental crisis looming on the horizon. Listening to “Kids With Guns” in this context, the implied consequences of the generation gap become apparent. As the decade progressed, pundits became more and more aware that numerically, the so-called millenial generation was set to be the largest and most significant player in North American politics, and Albarn reminds us “They’re got something to say no to.” The 2008 electoral victory of Barak Obama only confirmed this. Advancing mobile technology, coupled with social networking software, has given kids “guns” of an altogether different kind, capable of mobilizing or isolating themselves as desired, but leaving their parents ever more on the outside looking in. Cut off from their parents, like the child soldiers of Sudan, and buffeted by media voices and other authorities, the kids with guns are set to inherit this troubled world. Whether they save it or destroy it, “Kids With Guns” leaves the future uncertain and precariously balanced. – Sean Marchetto

“I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart” by Eels (2005)

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Mark Oliver Everett, the justifiably down mope-rock wunderkind known as E, has long occupied an interesting place in indie-rock obscurity. Though his most lauded work – the autobiographical Electro Shock Blues– came out right before the turn of the decade, Everett’s output has remained strong and frequent – yet he continues to defy the hype-wagon trends of household fame. In the last decade he’s released six studio albums as the band Eels; despite, he’s still relatively unknown among critics, alt-rock aficionados and New Media scouring hipsters alike.

His 2005 double-disc Blinking Lights and Other Revelations allowed Everett a cathartic look back at his shockingly depressing family history – his alcoholic and genius father died during E’s teenage years, his sister suffered from schizophrenia and committed suicide in ’96, and his mother died of cancer in ’98 – and features some of his most notable work. Its central theme consolidates those from his earlier output spanning the last decade, and also covers the spectrum of styles E has used over the years. One of the album’s best tracks, “I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart,” represents the crushingly sad side of Everett’s work. It explores the lingering guilt and pain of past relationships in a stark and minimalistic style that puts E’s gravelly – and easily recognizable – voice front and center, substituting poignant space for the twinkling toy-piano that peppers Blinking Lights and every Eels album, side-project, and b-side. The result is cold, shocking, and emotional and manages to demonstrate the simplest reasons Everett’s relative obscurity is both logical and difficult to understand. “I’m Going to Stop” is all too familiar to whoever hears it, yet so stark and direct it’s hard not feel E understands our personal lives more clearly that even we ourselves do. – Michael Merline

“Fidelity” by Regina Spektor (2006)

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Listening to “Fidelity” is like watching a sharp tongue melt into a warm lip lock without either motion canceling the other out. Sixty years ago if the violin plucks and drum machine were scrapped it could have been sung by Billie Holiday as a mournful four bar blues. In the golden respiratory system and on steady fingertips separating Regina Spektor from her piano, the same song speaks through the mathematics of a digitized waltz while discussing her only real subject matter of lasting importance: music. Not just its performance and composition, but the undiluted rubbing alcohol that’s used to sterilize perception in order to create a convincing likeness. Taking in the deluge of MP3s in the 21st century from all sides of the digital sphere, the public may have gotten their first real taste of the same reoccurring numbness that plagues former piano conservatory students like Ms. Spektor since we now listen to just as much music. However, just as we’ve begun absorbing more content, the interesting outliers of human interaction have scaled back into the curve. Eventually, any personal relationship worth pursuing costs $.99 on Itunes. Kicking off the second half of the ’00s, Begin to Hope laid out the blueprints for the age of Obama well in advance of the future President’s opening salvos against disconnection. “Fidelity” is its nervous system; something sinewy and dependable but also achingly fragile. In the core of this anatomy is a great meta-song that celebrates the fact that it will lose.

Spektor’s mea culpa is in telling us of the lush inadequacies within her own music. On the same shaky ground, the warm tendrils of love can ennoble rigid neurosis to create a new spirituality out of the same seductive noise. She crafts mini arias to punctuate the end of each chorus; stretching past her own electronic pop experimentation to fuse together something apart from context and even her own unmistakable royally impoverish disco/soprano/anti-folk voice. Like Klaus Nomi, Spektor’s western classical gifts are employed to search a hypersensitive sonic landscape until discovering the end of her imagination and the nadir of worrisome hypotheticals (“suppose I kept on singing love songs, just to break my own fall“). When Spektor reaches that cliff she asks us how terrible the consequences would have been had she not found it within herself to write “Fidelity.” If, like many of us, she had had let art consume her into writing melodies with fading returns and sawed off sincerity.

According to Spektor, Sire Records wanted to change the title to “Heart” for fear that people wouldn’t understand what the word “Fidelity” meant. But what would that have accomplished? It’s not a song about the origin of feeling. Instead it kinoscopes the conflict that love presents to profound belief, and when it feels soul stirring to let irrational affection overwhelm ballet-like modes of behavior. Whether or not the chemical fidelity of a vinyl record still strikes awe in one’s soul when compared to the flesh and bone fidelity that comes with committing yourself to others. Many of the best songs in recent years have chosen the former and we will likely spend the next 10 years trying to catch up with the technical innovations of works which represent the very best that audiophile culture has to offer like “Hey Ya ” and “All My Friends”.

In the here and now, Regina Spektor reminds of the other path that we might take. The phrase that’s repeated over and over in “Fidelity” is “it breaks my heart;” referring to tragedy of ceaselessly writing about love instead of being bruised and caressed by its awful contradictions. Looking on YouTube you’ll find countless teenagers being fed Myspace and Facebook from the bottle and wondering if there’s a better way to grasp the people around them. They’ve been covering this music(many times exactly this song) more than partly because its catchy. Striking on their own, many believe that the beauty of performance cannot be “lost in the sound” of a noisy and fast wi-fi world. Like any tune, you have to play all of it and willfully take in its grace with blistering persistence and annoying practice. By going through the ancient motions of rhythmic harmony it would be comforting to think how much maturity it has afforded them outside of the cold winds of online social networks. In front of their web cameras they are starkly within their passion, trying to balance worldwide exhibitionism by scraping past the desolate minefields of recoding in an empty bedroom while playing to an unblinking reflection. Their heads are very much with Regina Spektor, but its hard not to think that in their stomachs they’ve never felt more alone. It’ll be exciting to see what happens to these kids when that knot clear up and if they’ll see the same abyss that Spektor has mapped so poignantly.

So when we turn the page with them to 2010, let’s remember how we spent half our time this decade walling ourselves around music and the second half trying to dismantle it. Let’s listen to “Fidelity” one more time to remind ourselves of all things its not and to discover, paradoxically, all the possibilities it cheered for. – Neal Fersko

“Hold On, Hold On” by Neko Case (2006)

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For someone who spends enough time thinking about pop music to write about several records a month- some by bands most haven’t ever heard of, the task of assigning the superlative of Favorite Song of the Decade is the kind of daunting, frustrating exercise that makes you miss traffic lights going green. The thought of casting worthiness on one song and one alone takes over one’s thinking, occupying any internal dialogue that occurs during quiet, solitary moments; it’s the stuff cold sweats are made of. Picking a song by Queens of the Stone Age or the Black Keys, two bands whose b-sides and bootlegs I spent years of the decade gobbling up, seemed too subjective and flaky. Conversely, the undeniably, ridiculously good “B.O.B.” or “Hey Ya!” were amazing songs, ensuring OutKast would be icons of the Aughts and the especially zeitgeisty “Time to Pretend” by MGMT was also a strong contender. Yet, for as good as these songs were, I didn’t necessarily have a personal connection to them; perhaps they were already shared by so many others that I couldn’t keep them in my own shadow box of music listening elitism.

So, I turned to my iPod, like any good consumer who’d graduated Class of ’00. Using iTunes, I arranged the player’s 7,000 or so songs in descending order of number of times played and picked the highest-ranked tune released during the Aughts; in my unwillingness to suck it up and make a commitment, I’d left it up to the Aughts’ obsessions with gadgets, lists and statistics to make the choice for me. The result, ironically, was Neko Case’s brooding, stridently anti-commitment song “Hold On, Hold On.”

Written with unknown Canadian national treasure, the Sadies, “Hold On, Hold On” appeared as the third song on 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case’s commercial breakthrough, and again, later in the year on the Sadies’ own Live in Concert, Vol. 1. Beginning with the release of her debut, 1997’s The Virginian, Case would state in interviews that her songs weren’t about her, that instead, she was only telling stories. Yet, at the time of Fox Confessor’s release, she would describe “Hold On, Hold On” as the record’s sole autobiographical song. The music itself rolls in quickly, like the active funnel clouds she romanticize three years later on Middle Cyclone; a wet E minor arpeggio, heavy with reverb cuts to the chase, before an even twangier guitar sounds two notes like bells.

The most tender place in my heart/ Is for strangers,” Case begins, “I know it’s unkind/ But my own blood is much too dangerous/ Hanging ’round the ceiling half the time…” Case mirrors the moody swells provided by the guitars by throwing down, already, a lyrical gauntlet that challenges what we expect from a female singer; Case’s lyrics are colored in bloody red, professing her vulnerability for and emotional interest in new emotional conquests. “Compared to some, I’ve been around/ And I really tried so hard…” she promises, yet she sings, “In the end, I was the mean girl/ Or somebody’s in-between girl.” Case, who in an interview this year with Canada’s QTV, remarked that she was only recently becoming accustomed to the idea of loving people as well as animals, won’t or can’t get close to anyone. She’s only able to pursue relationships where she’s a soon to be tossed-off intermediary or otherwise, those she ends by breaking hearts. Yet, all the while, “That echo chorus lied to [her] with its/ ‘Hold, on, hold on, hold on, hold on.'” For the longest time, I had believed that that ‘chorus,’ in keeping with the mystery of most of Case’s lyrics, must have been a reference to some pop song extolling the virtues of holding out for true love and I would wrack my brain trying to decide which one it might be. Yet, with the rhythm deftly moving, sounding as if it might break from the center and fly off without her, Case sings “I leave the party at three A.M./ Alone, thank God/ With a Valium from the bride,” a few lines that now make me think that the ‘chorus’ she refers to is an entire lifetime of female friends and acquaintances that have pooh-poohed her inclination to be alone, that true love exists and that a traditional life-script of marriage is the answer. That bride at the reception ain’t so sure she believes in it and has to drug herself up to get on with it; Case gets antsy at the idea of binding herself to anyone, has her fun and leaves the scene, proclaiming, a little more strongly this time that “it’s the Devil [she] loves/ And it’s real as true love.” It’s a startling line made all the more indelible by Case’s straight-faced delivery of it’s ridiculous content; by the second or third time she’s sung it, she sounds almost relieved that she’s made peace with her inability to live a lifestyle she feels alien from.

That bell-like twangy guitar cascades again into a motormouthed-solo, typical of the Sadies’ Good brothers; tense and threatening to make the song its own, it’s vanquished by Case’s voice, sounding resolute now in her belief that someone else’s definitions of love and happiness just aren’t for her. And like even the most destructive of tornadoes, “Hold On, Hold On” lasts for only a short time- only two minutes and 47 seconds; the song takes precisely all the time it needs to plow a path of destruction through satisfied hearts, minds, and iTunes Libraries. – Chris Middleman

“All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem (2007)

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That’s how it starts/We go back to your house.” Sometime in the early to mid part of the decade, bands and audiences alike realized that they missed dancing. The indie kids were so used to crossing their arms, bobbing their heads and looking like they didn’t care that it came as a shock to them when they realized that they really wanted to freak out at a show. Rock bands started to incorporate dance rhythms again and suddenly, un-ironic disco elements (falsetto vocals, cowbells, squeaky keyboards), which in the ’70s were mocked by the rock crowd, was cool. Few individuals did more to bridge the rock/dance gap than James Murphy, one half of the influential production team/label DFA and the main force behind LCD Soundsystem, who were responsible for a number of the decade’s best songs.

Released on their terrific second album, 2007’s Sound of Silver,”All My Friends” is not necessarily a complex song-it keeps the same tempo and is anchored by a simple keyboard part-but it has a contagious energy and it keeps building before erupting in the chorus towards the end. The momentum is largely due to Murphy’s vocals and lyrics, both of which are yearning and soulful. LCD Soundsystem are the rare band who can make great dance/party songs, but also make great albums that are equally good heard on your headphones. You can imagine “All My Friends” soundtracking some all night party scene, but it works just as well soundtracking your walk down the street or smoke alone on a Christmas night.

What I think is amazing about the song it that it addresses aging out of the scene-a scene that the protagonist helped create-which is a rarity in pop songs. It’s as if the character from their brilliant earlier single “Losing My Edge” has grown up a little and is taking stock. It’s a remarkably mature and moving song about getting older, still trying to take drugs and stay out all night, but realizing those years are coming to a close, envying the kids, who look “impossibly tan,” and suddenly wanting to see everyone. At over seven minutes, it’s really an emotional epic, packing all sorts of conflicted and ambivalent feelings in before the euphoric, late-breaking chorus, “If I could see all my friends tonight.” It’s not a novel sentiment, but it gets me every time. And it’s a little utopian (or quixotic): yeah, I’d love to see all my old friends tonight, who wouldn’t?

It’s a song that you want to hear, towards the end of the night, at every party or in every bar at closing time. It’s a song that will be there for you. – Lukas Sherman

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“Kurt Vonnegut” by Born Ruffians (2008)

It can be tricky for pop bands to make a love song without being corny, but in 2008 The Born Ruffians successfully delivered a full album’s worth. Vocalist Luke Lalonde did this in part by making his lyrics incomprehensible (never before have I so enjoyed an album that I could barely understand). But it turns out that once you decipher all of those run-together lyrics, you’re actually consuming eleven upbeat love songs that are also laden with themes like suicide, aimlessness, disillusionment, boredom and the general human condition.

While the whole album is full of undeniable hooks, “Kurt Vonnegut” serves as perhaps the best representative as to why Red, Yellow & Blue works so well. Its second verse borrows from the eponymous author’s Cat’s Cradle with the lines “Tiger’s gotta hunt, bird’s gotta fly, man’s gotta sit and wonder why, why, why/ Tiger’s gotta sleep, bird’s gotta land, man’s gotta tell himself he understands.” This musing sits with the first verse’s reflections, where Lalonde longs for a broken heart, just to remind himself that he is human. However, the chorus and outro simply serve as a catchy love jingle.

The digital age seems to have amassed all of modern music into one place. While previously it may have seemed that indie rock and radio Billboard pop belonged to separate worlds, today we’re reviewing Beyonce in the same places we’re reviewing TV on the Radio. “Pop” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, and the Born Ruffians illustrate this well with their tracks that are half love songs and half darker musings. It’s pleasing to end this decade with the knowledge that songs can be thoughtful and infectious all at once. – Melissa Muenz
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