A Decade of Musical Semi-Consciousness: The Best Songs of the Noughties.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I could go back to the eleven year old standing in the CD shop, with about three old Irish pounds to spend, I’d choose differently. In my left hand, Eminem’s Stan; in my right, Don’t Tell Me by Madonna (cassette, with cardboard sleeve).
Maybe the Parental Advisory sticker spooked me. I don’t know what happened but I went home with Madge. Funnily enough the bloody awful Dido album that Stan opened the door for ended up in the house, a prime example of those rubbish coffee-table records of the so-called noughties.
There are songs I have listened to and (at the time) loved more than the choices on this list over the years, but you don’t need to know about me buying Teenage Dirtbag, ‘’appreciating’’ HowYou Remind Me or bounding around my room as a twelve year old to Rollin’ by Limp Bizkit (even had a red cap). Nor, indeed, do you care for the longstanding love/hate relationship with U2 or having Mr. Brightside on repeat in the highly dramatic mid-teens.
The aforementioned are consigned to the not-so-distant past with very fond memory.
Here are the choice cuts which transcend the decade that was and have proven themselves, on many levels, to be classics. Some I discovered in real-time, some I ignored, some I had to go back to, and some I even hated at first. I’m clearly slow to catch on, hence this list being created halfway through the following decade.
Never mind. Zeitgeist-forming, game-changing and retro-savvy brilliance awaits…
Radiohead – Everything In its Right Place (Kid A- 2000)
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At the time of its release I was very young, and although I had heard of Radiohead, it was in terms of how they were ‘The Best Band Ever’ TM and had naturally wiped the floor with every guitar group in the mid-90s. Fast forward to years of investigation and obsession, in retrospect Everything… is an incredible way to begin the next phase in this group’s fascinating journey.
You know the story of how much it dumbfounded certain people, and only segregated further the diehard. Funny how heavily invested in a musical act’s next move a person can be; testament to how important Radiohead are. Anyway, now I’m gushing.
Everything… it is an astonishing mental attic-clearing exercise with the title being its core mantra. It swirls around you, a perfect opening statement. Yet there is an agitated ambiguity, as Yorke sounds like a man losing touch with his reality amidst a rain of vocal samples until the title refrain returns to soothe us.
Even the clubbiest remixes of this still retain great quality. I’ve probably heard it thousands of times by now, which makes it hard to believe that when I first heard it I felt uneasy and reached for my copy of The Bends. Beautiful, robust and meditative. The future is uncertain but for now at least things are as they should be.
Queens of the Stone Age – No One Knows (Songs For The Deaf – 2002)
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Timed perfectly with the arrival of my first guitar, Saturdays meant Zane Lowe’s Gonzo show on MTV2, where No One Knows rotated heavily. It certainly packs a lot into four and a half minutes; memorable section after section, many lads my age can verbalise the wonky guitar solo and the bass break-down fairly accurately. Guitar nuts would freak at Hommes’ tone! An amazing lurking tune that seemed to stalk me through the decade, turning up on PA systems at school concerts, the inaugural Fresher’s Week indie disco, on the playlist at a house party at the ripe old age of 25, and never failing to please me.
The song and its video provided a cartoonish nightmare, totally unique, where no immediate reference points could be located. Well certainly not manageable as a 14 year old. Words like swampy, and terms like drone-rock were applied. It was as if a whole untapped area of guitar-based music had been located. It stands up today despite being now totally overplayed to death, surely a good sign. And Dave Grohl is playing the drums.
The Streets – Weak Become Heroes (Original Pirate Material – 2002)
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Mike Skinner first appeared to me on some long lost Sunday morning Channel 4 music show. He was being interviewed, clad in cap and Burberry (?), whilst playing pool and drinking pints. Spliced with clips from the Let’s Push Things Forward video, I was left feeling a little ‘meh’. Which is fair enough, I was far too pre-occupied with getting a mod-haircut, and you can’t embrace everything.
By the time A Grand Don’t Come for Free and Skinner’s brief ubiquity came about in 2004; I got it. I adored the album. Social realism was a lyrical dimension that captivated me, from early Damon Albarn to John Cooper Clarke to Dundalk’s own Jinx Lennon. It’s the Ken Loach kitchen-sink approach, normality can be extraordinary; we had English soaps on our TVs after all. Maybe that’s why most American hip-hop escaped me, but then again, that’s somewhere I need to delve further.
Going back to Original Pirate Material, this song’s parent album, I quickly got the feeling Skinner had blown his load on this remarkable debut, especially considering The Streets unfairly low-key departure and lacklustre projects which followed. Each track was a captivating insight into his life. He keeps it local yet universal, no easy achievement. The thesis I wrote in 2010 concerned Factory Records, and Chapter 3 was all about the inception of Rave culture. I was attracted to this song as it concerns Skinner’s direct experiences of it in the mid to late 90’s: They could settle wars with this, If only they will, imagine the world’s leaders on pills. An incredible wordsmith, with a great voice to boot.
Passion Pit – Sleepyhead (Chunk of Change – 2008)
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This sound-tracked many college nights out. At first crackly, as a beat comes in to play, it turns into a hyper-euphoric tune. Unspeakably uplifting, high-pitched voices fumble around, gorgeous melodies abound. It’s a fist pumper, yet the beat isn’t that hard, it’s just very… floaty.
I recall smiling faces, lights, a dance floor soaking wet from booze, and nights that felt like they could last forever. Clichéd as that sounds, good Pop should transport you and drip feed that serotonin. Sleepyhead does this.
What lodges it in my nostalgic mind more, is the fact that I didn’t seek out the tune, I only heard it again when I was out. So that familiar melody crept over me and I vaguely recalled it until I remembered it fully as I chanted in tongues the core vocal melody. In the indietronica noughties, pop and synth never worked so well together.
The Strokes – Hard To Explain (Is This It – 2001)
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Retro to the max, and yet authentic, The Strokes’ first album was something I bought within a year of it coming out. So I was early with that one. Only thing was, I hated it. I enjoyed the vintage rock of Last Nite, and bought the album on that basis and learned to play it on guitar. But the whole record I found ‘samey’.
By the time their sophomore release Room On Fire emerged, I was a fully paid-up fan. Their glory lay in the production values of Gordon Raphael, the man behind the desk. Garage rock for now, with hi-hats that sound computerised yet analogue.
Of course it is with a great deal of hindsight and massive critical kudos that has put their debut on such a pedestal today. Just as The Libertines and their romantic ramshackle style inspired a generation of also-rans into torn skinny jeans in the UK, The Strokes did something similar for the US. Swathes of guitar groups seemed to follow suit. It obviously isn’t always a good thing, being unspeakably cool; we now see how Paul Weller and Oasis have A LOT to answer for. But being that influential in your own time is quite something. Fuck it, great tunes; andHard To Explain is the best of the bunch.
Gil Scott-Heron – Me and The Devil (I’m New Here – 2010)
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The Decade of the Resurrection.
Springsteen never really went away but he rediscovered his mojo and became truly prolific, Leonard Cohen went back on the road, influential figures finally hit pay dirt (reunions everywhere!) and Johnny Cash and even Neil Diamond got the Rick Rubin treatment. However, few managed to emerge from the wilderness contemporised. Gil Scott-Heron did this to wonderful effect for this XL release, his first album proper since 1994, and sadly his last.
The standout track and first single from I’m New Here, it lyrically adapts Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil Blues from 1937. Possibly a natural heir, and with a turbulent life story to boot. Heron’s voice crackles plaintively over a menacing beat. It had further legs in the Jamie XX collaboration We’re New Here. If ever a song was built for nighttime, this is it; atmospheric and sinister, Heron, the voice of the city, revealing it’s dark underbelly. Great video too.
Interpol – PDA (Turn On The Bright Lights – 2003)
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Suddenly it goes widescreen, the camera pulls out and we’re no longer in an intense sweaty underground club, we’re in an enormodome of your choice.
That’s what the transition feels like at 3mins 10secs when PDA breaks down and begins a new phase. This song exemplifies the purpose of many of the rash of guitar groups produced in the US and UK in the 2000s. They all wore the right underground influences (The Velvet Underground, Television & Joy Division are now more popular than ever), but ultimately there was intent for a bigger wider sound, the stadium awaited. This doesn’t always have to spell disaster, like in the case of Kings of Leon or Razorlight; where initial promise lead to big and bland.
Although Interpol themselves didn’t become truly massive, PDA instils this recent wave’s trajectory. But that’s merely a theory and not what is really important here; it’s a great song. Paul Banks’ firm baritone holds its own against the most stressful sounding guitars. Darkly inviting, brooding and mysterious whilst satisfying the ‘rock’ urge I had at 15. It made me want to drink and seek live performance, made me want to dress sharp and get up to mischief. It still does. A belter.
Kelis feat. Andre 3000 – Millionaire (Tasty – 2004)
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I remember the explosive arrival of Caught Out There whilst watching Top Thirty Hits on Network 2 sitting in my school uniform. Overall, I never really knew much about her. She came in and out of my radar, with impressive, and crucially, interesting pop songs. She didn’t seem to have the omnipresence most big and world straddling pop stars have. First the singles, then the scent and so on.
Acapella was another track which only highlighted further, her gorgeous husky voice. Millionaire is the one though. A glorious collaboration with Outkast’s Andre 3000, himself one of the great noughties songwriters. There’s a simmering sexual tension in their vocal interplay. Everything about this sonically, is smooth. With a bit of research I’ve discovered the music is derived from a sample of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s 1985 song La Di Da Di. It has become one of my favourite songs of the last decade. I’ve only realised it recently.
Eminem – Lose Yourself (8 Mile OST – 2002)
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Noel Gallagher in an interview once alluded to the fact that it was easier to write songs in his early twenties and on the dole, than as a married, settled multi-millionaire. Now, although Eminem is blessed with an immense lyrical talent, unlike Mr. Gallagher; the Mancunian’s words could be applied. The Detroit rapper’s decade saw his quality of output waver dramatically. Crass, lazy, and bloated, his singles took pot-shots at the lowest common denominator celebrity-culture.
Lose Yourself is as cinematic as the actually very good and semi-biographical 8 Mile. A captivating story of the underdog, Eminem is bringing himself back to the point where he didn’t have much, just his rhymes and an impending rap battle as the film’s Jimmy Rabbit.
This is storytelling at its finest. It flows in a manner which could only be described as right. His urgent delivery of the narrative is captivating: His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy/There’s vomit on his sweater already: mom’s spaghetti/He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready. A massive success, Lose Yourself will more than likely go down as one of the best things the erstwhile Marshal Mathers has ever done. Strongly motivational, it could work on you, maybe not before a job interview though.
Arcade Fire – Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out) (Funeral – 2004)
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I first saw and heard Arcade Fire on Jools Holland. It was their debut UK television appearance, and they came kicking and screaming into my life. Looking back, my introduction to them feels as old-fashioned as it could be, and for that I’m grateful. I was reading NME, and listened to Dan Hegarty on 2FM, though not devoutly. I was under the impression I was well informed; this was 2004, I knew all about Bloc Party and the Futureheads when they were just at extended play stage. But Arcade Fire escaped me completely; they arrived fully-formed on television. That was as close as it got for my generation getting a glimpse into what it was like seeing The Smiths or David Bowie on Top of the Pops for the first time. Well that’s how I imagined it would be.
That night, Power Out was a visceral, frenzied mess of agitated and unusual looking people. And it sounded incredible. On record that energy is maintained, at once raw and rough, yet intricate and layered. Brass and strings converge violently with guitars and drums; a glorious manic panic, as if we were all plunged into an actual power outage and strangely happy about it. It’s a highly strung wig out which was a perfect introduction to a group who became very big indeed and stayed interesting, no easy feat. The band of the decade.
The xx – Heart Skipped a Beat (The xx – 2009)
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A wonderful, sensual track. This was the first thing I heard by The xx, given to me on a mix-CD, pretty much around the time it was released. The most sheltered and low-key sounding thing on playlist, it stood out exactly for these reasons.
Heart Skipped a Beat sounds like a late night phone conversation between a teenage couple, hushed as if not to wake the house. Its understatement only further drives home its power. The music straddles the line between synthetic and organic. Oliver and Romy’s vocal performances are so full of exasperation and lust, and totally believable. Sublime.
LCD Soundsystem – All My Friends (Sound of Silver – 2007)
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Play it at my funeral.
Not so long ago, after a house party which rolled into the next day, the sound of All My Friends roused the bodies piled onto my living room floor. I’m sure we had heard it hours previous to this when the night was in full flow, but it still made sense in our delicate state. With its happy/sad hook, it is durable enough to compliment celebration and introspection.
Here is relatively classic song-writing married with the formalities of all the best dance music we’ve become accustomed to (check out that repetitious piano right at the core). James Murphy’s impeccable taste has informed every facet of LCD’s music; hopping across genres, and incredibly self-aware; referencing yet reverential to the history of music. He always reminds me of the central character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the appreciator with the giant record collection.
All My Friends is a confessional you can dance to; ruminate on lost years, past choices that make sense to somebody who’s been on the planet half the time Murphy has.
One of my good friends had been endlessly extolling the virtues of this song for years; how it was a musical and lyrical triumph. It did take a while for it to click with me. And I never saw LCD Soundsystem live, even though I could have at a festival.
Still, timetabling errors aside; I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision/For another 5 years of life.