55: Brand New – The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows (2003)
Leave it to Jesse Lacey to write not just a breakup song, but a cynical breakup song. The relationship in “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” isn’t ending because of infidelity or someone falling out of love, but because one of the partners knows the relationship won’t go the distance.
Released as the lead single from Brand New’s sophomore record, Deja Entendu, this signaled the band’s move away from its pop-punk roots. Jesse Lacey had written about bitter breakups and friendships ending on Your Favorite Weapon, but Deja found the band maturing both musically and lyrically. Here, Lacey’s words take the single beyond a typical emo-infused rock song. Indeed, what makes it so compelling is that the knowledge of why the relationship will end is never shared with the listener. There’s even a hint that the relationship was going along just fine (“We kept it safe and slow”) As a result, there’s an air of uncertainty, and the music suggests as much. The moody, unresolved frustration of the guitars mirror Lacey’s venom (“I contemplate the day we wed/ Your friends are boring me to death”) before exploding into a shout-along chorus of declaration (“Today’s the day we get tired/ Today’s the day we drop out”), giving it more depth than anything on the band’s debut.
Depth, of course, is what kept Brand New going. After Deja Entendu, it got weirder, moodier and more cerebral, but it all started with this single about prematurely ending something on the assumption that it will later anyway. Wait, didn’t they do that with a T-shirt two years ago? Maybe Jesse Lacey was trying to tell us something all the way back in ‘03. — Steve Lampiris
54. Kanye West – Flashing Lights (2007)
Graduation is the dividing line in the Kanye West discography. Either you became a fan because of this album, or this was the last album Kanye made before he became insufferable. However, there’s a dividing line within the album itself that suggests a marriage between the old Kanye and the new Kanye. “Flashing Lights” is, like much of Kanye West’s early work, driven by vocal samples and characterized by Kanye’s sneering-yet-easygoing drawl. Yet kit’s also deliberately unlike anything Kanye had done before. It also serves as a jumping off point for the fascinating artistic directions that Kanye continued to explore once the decade ceased.
On the surface, this is a lament about the price of fame, something that Kanye had already rapped about many times. What’s different is how Kanye undercuts his braggadocious nature with a sense of fear. While Kanye is superficially rapping about how fame and success has affected his relationship with an unnamed woman, the focus seems to be less on the relationship and more about what his newfound fame is doing to his psyche. He raps about fame keeping him at a distance from the people he loves and how it drives him and the people around him to act in ways that seem different from how things used to be. Over it all, foreboding strings and synths create an impending dread disguised by the glitz and glamour that should come with being so famous that the paparazzi (the “flashing lights” of the title) follow you wherever you go. The price of fame is not often examined in hip-hop, and what Kanye is talking about here is definitely removed from the popular subjects of the genre. Fame isn’t killing his cred or ending his relationship; fame is eating away at Kanye’s very soul. — Kevin Korber
53: Lil’ Wayne — A Milli (2008)
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times—not because it is overplayed, but because it provides endless fodder for that eternal lyrical question, “what did I just hear?” “A Milli” stands out not only as one of the greatest of the decade but one of the signature tracks in all of hip-hop. Freer and more spontaneous than any freestyle you’ve ever heard, it is so lyrically dense you’d think Wayne had gone on a six-month retreat to come up with the three sickest verses ever.
Propelled by a hypnotic Bangladesh beat, Weezy F. Baby drops bars that somehow include the phrases “Nigerian hair,” “venereal disease,” “Orville Redenbacher,” “Dennis Rodman,” “Mike Lowrey” (Will Smith’s character from Bad Boys) and a contrasting of goons and goblins that however improbably is one of the song’s great sing-along moments.
There’s also much more I don’t feel comfortable quoting—the song is nothing if not offensive. This is the id unleashed, the volcanic outpouring of an artist so good at what he does that nothing short of a complete lack of restraint can express it.
It is also one of the most experimental rap songs to ever be this famous. The beat consists of, well, not much—and is not something you could normally listen to for more than ten seconds— and the song doesn’t have a chorus, unless you think “I’m ill” counts. It is an alien sound that still sounds futuristic almost a decade after it was released.
It may be “A Milli,” but you can’t put a price on this kind of audacity. Wayne is associated with lean sipping, but he is best remembered as one of rap’s weirdos, someone with a restless, careening mind who injected rap’s mainstream with a kind of surrealism it has rarely seen. – Dylan Montanari
52. Coldplay – Fix You (2005)
The second single released from the 2005 album X & Y reminds us that sometimes the simplest songs can be the most beautiful. It begins as a hushed church organ ballad buoyed by singer Chris Martin’s unforgettable falsetto, and gradually adds plaintive textures of piano, acoustic guitar, strings and backing harmonies. The heart of the song is the bridge, when guitarist Jonny Buckland pulses a two-note riff in the vein of U2 and drummer Will Champion pumps eighth note beats on his ride cymbal, all of which inevitably explodes into a massive half-time beat that roars with resplendent piano chords and an anthemic chorus. The track winds down into melancholic piano and Martin’s repetition of the chorus—this time in baritone.
A simple exercise in dynamics, “For You” moves from the quiet and minimal to the loud and reverberant and back again, but such simplicity belies its raw emotional power. Martin penned the unabashedly sentimental track for his wife Gwyneth Paltrow after her father’s death. The songwriter acknowledges the difficulties of grief directly: “When the tears come streaming down your face/ When you lose something you can’t replace/ When you love someone but it goes to waste/ Could it be worse?” In the chorus, he offers his full empathy and support, indicating that this need not be suffered alone: “Lights will guide you home/ And ignite your bones/ And I will try to fix you.” The lyrics are as simple and straightforward as the music, but their sincerity taps into what it means to be human and to experience loss.
After X & Y, Coldplay began to shift its sound, embracing art rock and instrumentation on follow-ups Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto. Although these albums continued the band’s evolution and achievements, they moved the band into a realm distant from the minimalist beauty of this career highlight, one of the most stunning ballads in its catalog. – Ethan King
51: Justin Timberlake- Cry Me a River (2002)
By 2002, it felt like the boy band phenomenon that swept mainstream America in the late ‘90s was slowly drying up. The scene’s two flagship bands, *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys, were older and a bit wiser than when they started — the tight chains of the youthful pop started to become more and more limiting, and both groups could feel their star power start to wane. *NSYNC’s third album, Celebrity, was released to record breaking sales, but failed to reach the dizzying long-term success of No Strings Attached, and the band’s breakout star, Justin Timberlake, would soon be looking for an alternative. His savior would be found in a quickly rising producer that was flaunting a new and innovative approach to commercial pop production.
Fresh out of his time in boy band delirium, Timberlake seemed set on moving beyond his once narrow definition of pop. Though the seeds of this can be found in his brief work with rump shakers The Neptunes during his time in *NSYNC, Timberlake’s work with Timbaland introduced a fully grown approach to pop. Timbaland’s typically forward thinking production style turned Timberlake on his head, and reworked his music into futuristic funk. “Cry Me a River,” his kiss-off to ex-belle Britney Spears, flaunts an elastic vocal melody against sinewy guitars, sinister synths, a busy beat and, surprisingly, Gregorian chants.
Justified was hailed as both a new beginning for Timberlake and a continuation of his previous commercial success. “Cry Me a River” went on to hit the top five on the US Billboard Hot 100, Timberlake’s first as a solo artist, and its parent album, Justified, sold an excess of ten million copies. In what would prove to be one of pop’s most fruitful singer-producer collaborations, Timberlake and Timbaland would go on to work together on Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience, two albums hailed as some of pop’s most impressive specimens by critics and fans alike. “Cry Me a River” has since been covered by the likes of Taylor Swift, Chvrches and a young Justin Bieber proving its star making potential and cross generational appeal. –Edward Dunbar