30: Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001)
Kylie Minogue, the cool Aussie diva coming up on 30 years in the game, is one of the world’s most quietly experimental pop stars. Long before the Internet-era underground-to-charts pipeline that led Beyoncé to call James Blake and Drake to make stars out of anyone he pleases, Kylie was flirting with indie rock on Impossible Princess, and cutting-edge minimal techno on Body Language. It’s no surprise that her one of her most loved songs is an eerie wisp of a pop tune called “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
A song with a title like that has to be catchy, and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” isn’t made so much of tidy verses and choruses and bridges as hooks that intertwine together like coils of smoke. The tongue-tied “la la la” is one of the most ingratiating sounds in pop history, but instead of bludgeoning its hook relentlessly into the listener’s head, it floats around the skull like the ghost of some bygone yé-yé starlet. Even the bouncy acid bass that appears during the song’s most ethereal section is the kind of sound you never forget. Never has songwriting been more incorrect, but it’s undeniable.
And like in so much of the best pop, there’s a subtle creepiness. Few songs better embody the reverie of being lost in puppy-dog feelings, but her phrasing—“It’s more than I dare to think about”—makes those feelings seem dangerous, as if she was capable of doing something drastic. “Stay forever and ever and ever.” What horror flick does that make you think of? The more you dive into the depths of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” the more thorny and complicated it seems. But when it comes over the speakers, it wafts by like a cloud of blue-hued smoke. – Daniel Bromfield
29: Wilco – Jesus, Etc. (2002)
In hindsight, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a spikier album than most remember. The elegiac “Ashes of American Flags” and the epic anti-love song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” prove that, but “Jesus, Etc.” was a warm cocoon to rest in, not detached from the troubles of this world, but strong and comforting enough to recharge even the weariest soul.
It’s not a pat “there there.” Jeff Tweedy always had a knack for deceptively simple poetry and “Jesus, Etc.” is welcomingly subtle. There’s that sublime rhythm section shuffle that danced with those stately strings and Tweedy’s sandpaper croon, giving just enough gruffness to make it feel real. It floats along like some forgotten ‘70s gem, deftly weaving between folk, rock, pop and country; a continuation, and perhaps improvement, on Big Star’s twangier outings. And those slide guitars nearly sound like William Basinski’s decaying tape loops.
And on the topic of Disintegration Loops and music in the wake of the war on terror, hearing “Skyscrapers are scraping together” combined with “You can rely on me, honey” while we could still see the ashes from Ground Zero was something beyond normal art’s usual reach. Due to freak timing and Wilco’s well of empathy, “Jesus, Etc.” became a healing balm for a distressed, paranoid nation. Though it was recorded before 9/11, Tweedy’s impressionistic portrait of carrying a friend out of loneliness surely hit harder as we muddled along toward the mid-2000s and slowly came to grasp that our wars would be unending. “Our love is all of god’s money” might be Tweedy’s most stunning (and understated) lyrical turn. It’s not abandoning the scariness of the real world, instead it wants to help you through it. Tweedy knows he can’t solve everything, but he’s got a song in his heart, and a shoulder for you to cry on. You can rely on them, honey. – Nathan Stevens
28: Dirty Projectors- Stillness Is the Move (2009)
When Dirty Projectors mastermind David Longstreth perilously went out of his way to lament the state of modern indie rock earlier this year on Instagram, he found a kindred spirit in Fleet Foxes frontman, Robin Pecknold. Pecknold chimed in by highlighting 2009 as the last year indie rock felt “progressive,” conceding that other genres may have now eclipsed it in terms of musical innovation. Whether or not indie has lost its sheen is up for debate, but 2009 certainly was a good year for both musicians.
After releasing a handful of experimental and concept albums, Longstreth and the then-newly expanded Dirty Projectors stumbled upon a brilliant merging of disparate musical influences. Bitte Orca, while still finding common ground with other popular folk and baroque pop acts of the time, incorporated sinewy R&B melodies, knotty finger picking and jerky rhythms that gave their songs an organically dancey appeal. Longstreth’s vocals may be at the forefront of Dirty Projector’s music currently, but Bitte Orca was highlighted by Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian’s airy vocals that twisted and grew around each other in a tangled mess of harmonies and airy proclamations.
A deceptively simple song, “Stillness Is the Move” highlighted all of the idiosyncrasies that made Dirty Projectors’ music unique while still remaining a wholly indie pop friendly concoction. “There is nothing we can’t do/ I see you along the way, baby/ The stillness is the move,” professed Coffman in a jumble of words, delightfully tumbled across an off-kilter beat, a bouncing bass groove and high-pitched guitar squibbles. The song’s booming drum machine kick was inspired by T-Pain and many were quick to compare Coffman’s octave-jumping vocals to Mariah Carey.
An avid fan of Dirty Projectors, Solange presented a radically reimagined cover a few years later, replacing the song’s original beat with a dirty, bass heavy sample of “Bumpy’s Lament” by Soul Mann and the Brothers. Solange smoothed out Longstreth’s original twitchy melody, turning “Stillness Is the Move” into a slow burning, light night bounce. – Edward Dunbar
27: The Strokes – Hard to Explain (2001)
In 2001, rock band culture was still sifting through the wreckage of Woodstock ’99, the infamous bag of shit and douche that brought the nu-metalpocalypse to a long overdue close. Out of the ashes rose bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes that were good ol’ back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll. Dubbed “garage” by the media, the “Next Big Thing” was instead a pointed look backwards to a more romanticized notion of debauchery. The Strokes mixed Lou Reed’s detached cool with Television’s clean, interlocking guitar style to create a simulacrum of the late ‘70s New York City music scene. It certainly helped that the band looked the part, their meticulously unkempt sense of style and handsome young visages made the NYC brand of cool, well, cool again.
Released in the summer of 2001, “Hard to Explain” was the first single from the Strokes’ debut album Is This It, an album that that was rapturously received upon release and is still held up as a high-water mark for rock music in the aughts. The meticulously unkempt ethos that defined the band’s visual style also applied to the music. Despite the non-plussed demeanor of singer Julian Casablancas, “Hard to Explain” is all clean lines and precision. The song starts with what sounds like a drum machine, Fabrizio Moretti’s drums compressed to the point of sounding fake. The guitars jangle and fray at the edges for a few seconds before guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s sinewy guitar lead slips and slides its way to the fore. The song’s interlocking parts work incredibly well together, like a windup toy that has been set loose in an abandoned NYC warehouse; you get the impression it could go on forever. Over it all, Casablancas sings about the annoyance of being misunderstood by the self-proclaimed “wiser” generation of elders that always seem to have an opinion on what the youth are doing wrong. Casablancas does his best to elucidate the confusion of knowing the right thing vs doing the right thing but ultimately gives up. He doesn’t owe anyone an explanation and, frankly, it’s too hard to explain anyway. – Eric Mellor
26: MGMT – Time to Pretend (2007)
Every generation gets the “Born to Run” they deserve, and for millennials, that song is “Time to Pretend.” This isn’t meant to be an insult: MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” is, for lack of a better word, a massive song. Its chirping synths and triumphant horns are purely infectious in a way that keeps the song feeling fresh a decade later. They spend as much time espousing the “live fast and die young” lifestyle as they do highlighting the hidden loneliness therein. The duo, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, may not be tramps per se, but the youths of “Time to Pretend” embody the flipside of the same coin: they exist outside the accepted flow of adulthood, play by their own self-created rules and have, to quote the other megahit from Oracular Spectacular, “No time to think of consequences.”
“Time to Pretend” isn’t a subtle song, but VanWyngarden brings a sense of wistful earnestness to lines about how he’ll “Move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars,” as though excess and drug use were childhood aspirations. If you only hear the first stanza, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re in a song that promotes these things, but he acknowledges the cracks in the facade just 90 seconds in: “Yeah it’s overwhelming, but what else could we do?/ Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?”
The second verse is where the song takes off. We get the gentlest of electronic twinkling and there’s VanWyngarden, and the “cocaine and elegant cars” aren’t enough for him to ignore the things he’ll lose. He’ll miss his family, his home, and “digging up worms,” but the one that sticks is saved for last: “I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.” The beat surges as he lists these things, and we remember that this is a tongue-in-cheek flirtation with writing a rich kid party anthem.
Here, the freedom of this lifestyle stops being an alternative, and turns into just another part of the circle of life. “But there is really nothing we can do/ Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew,” sings VanWyngarden with a sense of acceptance. Choking on your vomit isn’t a tragedy, it’s something that is “fated” – and it sure beats a desk job, right? Sure, MGMT didn’t reinvent the wheel with “Time to Pretend,” but it’s one of the best pop cautionary tales that makes the lifestyle it’s warning against sound as dangerous as it is glamorous. – Hollister Dixon