65: Fleet Foxes − Mykonos (2008)
In 2008, it felt like the year’s best band was out of step with every other group around them. Armed to the teeth with stunning harmonies and subtle instrumentation, Fleet Foxes emerged seemingly fully-formed into a sonic marketplace where they could not have sounded less like everyone else in their class. To date, the band’s best song doesn’t exist on any of their albums, but rather on the Sun Giant EP, released just two months before their self-titled debut.
From a mythological standpoint, Mykonos is where Hercules laid waste to the Gigantes. It’s really just a Greek island, but when Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold sings about the place, it feels like he’s singing about a land that reality never got around to creating. “And you will go to Mykonos/ With a vision of a gentle coast/ And a sun to maybe dissipate/ Shadows of the mess you made,” he sings during the chorus, his voice soaring. Pecknold is using this as an oblique stand-in for drug rehab, a metaphor which is tender enough to never beat you over the head. It’s fitting that this is where un-killable giants were slain.
This song exhibits Pecknold’s mastery of imagery at its finest— a world full of snow-tipped pines, ancient gates and meadows turned brown by winter—and it’s impressive that it came so early in the band’s lifespan. Pecknold’s voice is formidable, and he knows it: the song’s second half finds all instrumentation dropping out regularly to give his soaring voice the unfettered spotlight, and he owns every moment with his tender barbs scolding his friend for daring to forget that “It ain’t often that you’ll ever find a friend.” His word choice is subtle but impactful, switching from a pleading command (“You will go to Mykonos”) to reluctantly helplessness (“You go wherever you go today”). The things that hatch from “the seeds of your thin mind” aren’t in his control any longer, and here, we see him accept it.
In a year that birthed 808s & Heartbreak and Tha Carter III, it almost felt daring that Fleet Foxes was able to get so far with such restraint. They may have spent the decade after this song’s release working to build oceans and mountains with their music, but it’s possible they’ll never again match this one simple, elegant highpoint. – Hollister Dixon
64: TV on the Radio − Staring at the Sun (2003)
In Lizzy Goodman’s recently published tell-all book about New York in the aughts, Meet Me in the Bathroom, she paints Manhattan as the home of scuzzy rockers in line with the traditions of the VU and CBGBs and she characterizes Brooklyn as art-house kids peering into the unknown. Following Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead in bridging the gap by mashing delirious rock into gleeful art-punk aesthetics, TV on the Radio would be one of the first bands out of the Brooklyn scene to embody a less punk, more experimental approach. Think of PiL compared to the Sex Pistols—the same sort of energy and anger, but funneled through a more radical form of rock.
Acting as their de facto debut, (OK Calculator is more a collection of glorified demos), 2003’s Young Liars EP is marked by the slow burn of “Staring at the Sun.” A constant rush throughout, its tensest moments are driven by a relentless hi-hat in rapt attention to a throbbing bass synth which threatens to tear the song apart at any moment. Its thrillingly minimal, a forceful push-and-pull between singer Tunde Adebimpe’s righteously powerful melody and the maelstrom of noise behind, created by Dave Sitek and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s guitarist Nick Zinner. Its demo version is equally gripping—the original’s sinister bass existing as but a twinkle in the band’s eye—and the entirety of the song is held together by looped vocals and beat boxed rhythms. Performed live, it’s an even more formidable beast: a full-strength TV on the Radio flexing its muscles, Adebimpe throwing his vocals into a raw fit with added backing from guitarist Kyp Malone.
Nearly 15 years later, “Staring at the Sun”’s rich blend of soulful vocals and art-punk charm is still infectiously energetic, laying the groundwork for TV on the Radio’s forward-thinking music ever since. – Edward Dunbar
63: At the Drive-In − One Armed Scissor (2000)
By the time At the Drive-In released “One Armed Scissor,” the lead single from their third (and, for almost 17 years, apparently final) album, Relationship of Command, they’d already put out a pair of LPs, four EPs and a split another EP with the Czech band Sunshine. But as Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen once suggested, many (most?) fans of ATDI likely discovered the band’s music in reverse order, making “One Armed Scissor” their entry point.
While that may not be the most accurate representation of the band, “One Armed Scissor” is nonetheless an explosive post-hardcore single, and it more than demonstrates just how wild (and weird) these guys were. Somehow, despite producer Ross Robinson steering the band towards a more mainstream sound and despite Andy Wallace’s mix covering the band in studio gloss, ATDI’s edge-of-sanity personality still comes through: the nervous, itchy guitars from Omar Rodríguez-López and Jim Ward; the tense rhythm section Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar; and howling vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s dense surrealist metaphors.
In this case, Bixler-Zavala discusses the stress of living on the road, describing a tour as a “campaign,” while making indirect references to heroin abuse within the group (“Sputnik sickles found in the seats”) as a way to deal with the situation and each other. As the prescient next line points out, it didn’t work: “Self-destruct sequence/ This station is non-operational.”
At the Drive-In would put out two more singles from Relationship of Command before blowing up six months after the album’s release. The result was two (main) bands, the Mars Volta and Sparta, both of which have interesting, if inconsistent, discographies. Don’t hold that against them, though. Few bands of that era can compete with ATDI’s 1994-2000 output, and even fewer produced a single as killer as “One Armed Scissor.” It’s pretty tough to top, which is probably why, at live shows, ATDI tend to play it last. – Steve Lampiris
62: Antony and the Johnsons − Fistful of Love (2005)
“Fistful of Love” is Anohni’s best and brassiest soul effort, a tearful and exuberant song of devotion, which is all the more disturbing because it’s very likely about an abusive relationship. It makes for easy comparison with the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” another ironic and disturbing song on the subject of domestic violence that was written by a woman. But while that Phil Spector brand was all simmering carnality under a tarp of tame puppy love, Anohni bares it all in a performance that suggests the kind of burning passion for another person that most of us will only feel once or twice in our lives. In addition to mitigating the detachment of the Spector song, which threatened to normalize the poor singer’s situation, Anohni’s performance only makes her song more disturbing; she’s trapped in a toxic situation, and as the endless refrain drags on and on and guest Lou Reed’s shrieking guitar rises up like a malignant smog, she sounds like she’s over her head, and only spiraling deeper and deeper.
Anohni came from New York’s queer underground art scene, and most of her work with Antony and the Johnsons (her birth name is Antony Hegarty, by which she went until a few years ago) is a sort of dark cabaret—raw in emotion but restrained physically. The few songs where she lets loose her soul chops are exhilarating, and often frightening. These tend to be her more religiously-minded songs: “Thank You for Your Love,” from the gospel EP of the same name, or the Earth Mother prayer “Kiss My Name.” “Fistful of Love,” too, pokes gingerly at the religious language of love (the word “devotion” echoes like a refrain). Indeed, there’s something Biblical in the way Anohni frames the situation of prostrating yourself before a powerful figure that’s supposedly loving but can’t be reasoned with. “I know it must be love,” she repeats, Job-like, as horns blare from on high. – Daniel Bromfield
61: Joanna Newsom − Emily (2006)
In 2006, Joanna Newsom flexed her wings on an ambitious, hyper-literate sophomore album with a virtually unpronounceable name, Ys, on which she assembled a team that is nothing short of insane: the album is produced by Van Dyke Parks (oh, you know, just the guy who worked on Smile with Brian Wilson), mixed by Jim O’Rourke and recorded by Steve Albini. It is a testament to her talent that, in the midst of such company, the most impressive thing is still the songwriting.
Driven by her signature harp and adorned with adventurous string arrangements, opening track “Emily” makes it clear we are well beyond the sound of her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Ostensibly about her sister (an astrophysicist), the song employs Newsom’s characteristic nature imagery in the service of a freewheeling and oneiric tale of skies, clouds, stars and meteorites. Emily, the character, is not only a Virgil-like guide to the astral plane, but also a distant, inscrutable figure toward which the song’s narrator stands in complicated relation.
In the long second verse, Emily appears as a kind of nurse figure, but one who both cares for the narrator and also seems to divulge something private, perhaps the loss of a child. This unleashes a crisis, though the sister remains a source of comfort and orientation: “Though there is nothing would help me come to grips with a sky that is gaping and yawning/ There is a song I woke with on my lips as you sailed your great ship towards the morning.”
In the song’s coda, the narrator seems to have returned home somewhere, observing the shifts in the garden and its creaturely denizens (“Peonies nod in the breeze and while they wetly bow/ With hydrocephalitic listlessness ants mop up-a their brow”). This time it is she who acts as a kind of compass for her sister, drawing her home, pointing her to the stars.
Even 12 minutes seem like too little for one of Newsom’s miniature epics, which have the frozen stillness of a Joseph Cornell shadow box combined with the storm of ancient tragedy. Though she has given us many such pearls, a decade later, “Emily” still has a shine all its own. – Dylan Montanari