20: Wilco – I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2001)
With creative control over their record, in 2001 Wilco made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you’re a fan of Wilco, you know what’s next: they were dropped by Warner Bros. imprint Reprise after the album’s completion, streamed it online and, in 2002, released the album on Nonesuch, another Warner Bros. imprint. As it turns out, the album really was good enough for Warner to buy it twice. It proves this right off the bat with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
There’s something dreamlike about “Break Your Heart.” There’s a loose sound collage happening behind Tweedy throughout the song, and while the connective tissue is hard to grab onto at times, it makes perfect sense for the song’s narrative. Glen Kotche’s the first member we really hear; Kotche’s drumming prowess is unquestionable, but it’s remarkable how well he does to set us up for the woozy tones of the song, with just cymbal crashes mixing with a synth wave and a metronomic beat. Kotche’s fever-dream beats mingle with Jay Bennett’s array: organ, toy piano, Wurlitzer. Jeff Tweedy doesn’t show up for a full minute, and his speech is slurred: “I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue.” The song’s obtuse, corkscrew narrative will lead us back to a place before he ditched “disposable Dixie cup drinking” and graduated to full aquariums, as we watch collapse happen in reverse.
Tweedy is rarely direct, but lines like “Take off your Band-Aid, cause I don’t believe in touchdowns.” are even more challenging to parse than usual. He speaks of the tumult of love in cryptic phrases: “Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning/ Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers.” It’s a way in to his life, but he’s not going to make it easy. As the song ends, the pretense of structure is thrown out and Tweedy is forced to abandon his drawl to shout over the maelstrom: “What was I thinking when I let go of you?!”.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” has become an unassailable piece of Wilco’s catalog, to the point where it’s easy to speak wistfully about everything that the band does so well here. It’s easy to forget, amidst the cascade of noise, that Wilco managed to build the perfect breakup song, and one of the best songs of their career to date. – Hollister Dixon
19: The Rapture – House of the Jealous Lovers (2002)
The entire career of The Rapture pretty much begins and ends with this song. Prior to “House of Jealous Lovers,” The Rapture were just a regular ol’ indie band that sounded like Modest Mouse covering Public Image Limited songs. It wasn’t until James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy approached them about recording “House of Jealous Lovers” that everything changed. The version Murphy put together was initially dismissed by the band and Sub Pop for straying too far afield from the band’s sound and Sub Pop decided to set the band loose. Murphy and Goldsworthy snapped them up and released their version of “House of Jealous Lovers” as the first DFA Records release. Initially pressed as a 12” in the summer of 2002, DFA marketed the record to dance clubs, where it became a huge hit. Major labels soon came sniffing but The Rapture chose to stick with DFA, particularly since the DFA production team had become so integral to the band’s process. It was over a year before The Rapture finally released their debut album Echoes and a new, shorter version of “House of Jealous Lovers” was released along with an accompanying video.
“House of Jealous Lovers” is the epitome of dancepunk. It is raw, sweaty and kinetic, combining the alien groove of PIL and Liquid Liquid with the crude energy of James Chance and the Contortions and Gang of Four. Aided by Murphy’s detailed production work, the band’s energy oozes through the speakers. Just check out that perfect hi-hat sound (a long-standing Murphy obsession) and Matt Safer’s rumbly nimble bass. Guitarist and singer Luke Jenner’s guitar crackles above the rhythm section while his voice scrapes out the inside of your skull. The combination of all of these elements is simply electrifying.
Unfortunately for The Rapture, by the time Echoes was finally released, there was a sense that they had missed their moment. It didn’t help that the album was a bit of a hodgepodge. They ultimately made the jump to the majors, releasing their follow-up nearly three years later on Universal, the “punk” qualities of their sound noticeably diminished. “House of Jealous Lovers” still thrills though, a reminder of a time when the notion of dance music made with rock instruments was a novel idea. – Eric Mellor
18. Eminem – Lose Yourself (2002)
“Lose Yourself,” the first single off the soundtrack to the film 8 Mile, is peak Eminem. Rapping as and about his alter ego, Rabbit, from the film, Eminem transforms a semi-autobiographical narrative into the ultimate motivational anthem, exchanging grim moments of gritty realism with triumphant ones of overcoming the odds. Along with the film, “Lose Yourself” marked a high point in Eminem’s already successful career, hitting number one on 24 charts around the world, getting nominated for five Grammys (winning the award for Best Rap Song) and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the first hip-hop song to do so.
Despite its success, it didn’t take the Detroit-raised rapper long to cut the track. In fact, during a break while filming 8 Mile, Eminem recorded it in a portable studio on set, recording all three verses in “one shot,” to quote the song’s lyrics.
After a brief piano intro, the Rocky-esque electric guitar pumps in, with Eminem providing the thesis of the song in spoken word: “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?” From there, he explodes into the first verse and begins developing the quintessential underdog story. He recounts the nerves that rattled Rabbit’s earliest rap battles: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy/ There’s vomit on his sweater already: Mom’s spaghetti,” but locates a redemptive arc in Rabbit’s persistence. The chorus emphasizes the necessity of such persistence, advocating that he (and, by extension, the listener) must seize every opportunity and persevere through doubts: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/ This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” In addition to his ability to motivate others through his storytelling, Eminem’s verses also employ sophisticated polysyllabic rhymes, finding the perfect cadence and rhythm to match the fist-pumping beat.
“Lose Yourself” began a string of mature anthem-like tracks for Eminem, as he moved away from the comical levity of his early work. In addition to its tremendous commercial success, the song found its arm of influence stretching to Broadway, where Lin Manuel Miranda took up its themes in the song “My Shot” from Hamilton: An American Musical. Altogether, “Lose Yourself” remains one of the finest motivational anthems of any genre, expressing a universal desire to overcome the odds. – Ethan King
17: Interpol- NYC (2002)
Now 15 years removed, New York City’s early-aughts rock renaissance can be fondly reminisced about. Riding on a post-Strokes wave of success in 2002, Turn on the Bright Lights instantly established Interpol as one of the premier bands of the era. Defined by its moody atmosphere and downbeat rockers, no other song represents Turn on the Bright Lights, and by extension Interpol themselves, more than “NYC.”
Drummer Sam Fogarino has always been Interpol’s secret weapon, conjuring a righteous thunder that instantly gels with Carlos D’s melodic basslines. Here, they are at their most primitive, Fogarino forcefully economic in his fills and propulsive in his snare rolls, while Carlos D remains tightly packed in the groove’s pocket. A simple two chord progression carries the song throughout, guitarist Daniel Kessler wafting the chords around with just the right amount of reverb — enough to mitigate the claustrophobically quick chord changes and give the song a rooftop opening.
“I know you’ve supported me for a long time / Somehow, I’m not impressed,” murmurs Banks, high-pitched synth pads softly wafting down and into a gentle crescendo into Kessler’s clattering subway-rhythm guitar leads. Bank’s vocals are a quavering yet rich baritone that is instantly attention grabbing. Ian Curtis comparisons are on point, but Banks is less abrasive, more reserved in his delivery. “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights,” he croons, eyes gazing downward.
Recorded a mere two months after 9/11, though a Metro North ride away from the city in Bridgeport, “NYC” can be viewed as a lament for the spectacle of downtown Manhattan. In reality, the song was written months before, and was first premiered during a John Peel session in April 2001. However, that early version lacks a certain punch — the end product’s world-weary and lonesome delivery that could only have been derived post-trauma. “The songs were written before 9/11, but the unintentional meaning they take on isn’t any less of a meaning,” stated Carlos D. “We were holding the cards to a certain message that was about to become relevant.” – Edward Dunbar
16. The National – Fake Empire (2007)
In the early 2000’s, New York City’s music scene was the dingy dive bars of the Lower East Side and Alphabet City, a playground for rich kids playing hooky on life while aping the Velvet Underground or the Stooges in a bid to get famous. The late 2000’s saw a drastic shift, though, one that extended beyond music as a concept being forced across the East River due to rising rents. The layabouts playing rock music for quick fame seemed to fade into the background, replaced by trained musicians with a thoughtful, insular way of working. The ideas were more expansive and complex, going far beyond the world of 4/4 rock. It was an environment that was ready to accept the National’s morose, contemplative indie rock, which was perhaps a bit too slow for the breakneck party that was going on earlier. A song like “Fake Empire” likely wouldn’t have gotten any traction in 2002, but in 2007 it became an anthem.
Singer Matt Berninger has said that “Fake Empire” is an angry song, an attack on the incessant wars waged by the then-concluding Bush administration. Yet this politically righteous song begins not with a bang, but with a slow moan and delicate piano. While the song slowly builds to a blissful, horn-fueled breakdown, it never really explodes in the way that one expects “political” songwriting should. It is too realistic for that. “Fake Empire” doesn’t call for a bloody revolution; Berninger doesn’t have the undirected rage for that. Nor does his ennui surface as hedonistic abandon. Instead, he wanders his city arm-in-arm with his beloved, carrying a container of spiked lemonade. He does everything he can to keep going, even as the world around him seems determined to grind to a violent halt. It’s a mature sentiment from a band who came into their own just as their audience grew up enough to find them. – Kevin Korber