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I'm not one for best-of lists generally, and it seems especially inappropriate for 2000-2009, a decade in which that which was terrible greatly overwhelmed that which was good, and that we can't even agree on a name for, perhaps because we don't want to. But I do like music, and making mixes, insofar as they're a respite from the mismanagement and grief; The lights must never go out /the music must always play.
1. Mae Shi, "Lamb and the Lion," HLLLYH. My favorite lyrics of the decade: "I predict / a decline / in the price of Lamb and Lion International / The lamb's gone missing and the lion's sleeping peacefully / We've lost our quorum."
2. M.O.P., "Ante Up," Warriorz. Nine hundred and ninety-nine thou short of a mil. Miles Raymer lists the demise of gangster rap as one of his favorite things about the decade - "Commercial hip-hop rode into the 00s atop a bubble of economic excess, driven by blinged-out thugs big on gun talk and coke-slinging stories...." And, as Roy Edroso points out, its demise is noted by the recycling of gangsta rap vocabulary as geek trope. Nonetheless, I think it was important even as it consumed itself in a manner parallel to American culture over the course of the decade. This decade, more than any in a long time, needed a vocabulary with which to discuss economic violence while maintaining personal dignity and autonomy (while simultaneously reflecting on the tensions of doing so), just as blues, folk, country, and punk all served this purpose in their time.
2. The Thermals, "Pillar of Salt" /"Returning to the Fold," The Body The Blood The Machine. What can I say - the past couple years have been ripe for apocalyptic quasi-lapsed quasi-Christian melodious noise (cf HLLLYH). Hutch Harris singing "Maybe when I die, yeah, when I die, I won't die escaping, I'll die returning to the fold" gets me every time.
4. Brokencyde, "Freaxx," I'm Not a Fan But the Kids Like It. I didn't say they had to be good songs, or that they had to stand on their own outside the video - which, shot in a McMansion Sun Belt suburb, is as representative of its era as anything done by anyone who was actually trying. When the Range Rover pulls up in a driveway to a house in the middle of Foreclosure Acres it makes me want to cry.
5. Drive-By Truckers, "Decoration Day," Decoration Day. I view the absence of DBT on any decade best-of I've seen as anti-Southern bias. As good a song about violence as I've ever heard, a Southern version of The Saga of Njal Burned Alive. As Lee Sandlin puts it: "For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it's a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart." I think it's the best song recorded this decade, and I could even be talked into including Jason Isbell's "Never Gonna Change" and "The Day John Henry Died."
6. Neko Case, "Thrice All American," Furnace Room Lullaby. Case's elegiac tribute to a dying American city. "The people who built it / they loved it like I do" breaks me up.
7. Mountain Goats, "Palmcorder Yajna," We Shall All Be Healed. "And I dreamt of a factory / Where they manufactured what I needed / Using shiny new machines" is sort of what I feel like I'm supposed to be doing at my job every day, when it feels like the Web is like the bridge in The Bridge on the River Kwai:
This is why the Huffington Post is the number one rated blog. A quick scan will inform you of all current events. In an instant, you’re up to date. You can go to a party and talk like you’re living in the world, as opposed to being an outsider. Go to the "New York Times" site and try to figure out what is going on in the world in an instant. It’s IMPOSSIBLE!
8. Killer Mike, "That's Life," I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind. Sometimes you just need angry sociopolitical realism, and "That's Life" was the best angry sociopolitical realism of the decade. 'Cause Oprah won't say it. I know that "Georgia Bush" should be here, but "from the part of the city where FEMA won't come / coming live from the city where the dreamer came from / standing on the same corners that he stood upon / I've got virus in my waistband, death in my palm" does it for me.
9. Parts & Labor, "The Gold We're Digging," Mapmaker. "Will you be what's needed year to year?" Lines like that coming out of nowhere to break my heart are why I still bother listening to new music.
10. The Evens, "Around the Corner," The Evens. Yes, I've been reading a lot about economics recently.
11. Lady Gaga, "Just Dance," The Fame. I remember being in a bar and hearing this and thinking I'd heard it before, even though I hadn't; it's timeless and annoying as shit, an upmarket Britney to close out a decade that got more expensive as time went by. But at least, as a southerner from no great means, I understood Britney; club kids who want to make out with Matthew Barney remain as exotic to me as the other side of the moon. A person coming to fame by making music about what it would be like to be famous, followed by a sequel about being famous, is the sort of pop paradox that is either kind of engaging or world-historically depressing.
Experts agree that a sizable portion of contemporary popular culture functions according to a principle they've dubbed the "windmill": the merely comfortable selling the poor fantasies about the lives of the rich, the very rich, and the fabulously rich.... This rather consistent and, in its own way, beautiful mechanism has, however, one dangerous shortcoming - not infrequently, the rich themselves want to find out how the rich live, and thus are forced to study the existing literature on the subject, without fail produced by these same, merely comfortable arrivistes, who are, by comparison, if not entirely destitute, then still rather close to this condition. This is the only way to explain the Babylon of mansions in the Rublev neighborhood, or the frightening number of Maybachs stuck in Moscow traffic.
12. The Lonely Island, "On the Ground,", Saturday Night Live. Andy Samberg yelling I'M AN ADULT almost made the decade for me, even if "On a Boat" is technically funnier. They're either our Spinal Tap or our Monty Python.
13. Aaron Neville, "Louisiana 1927" (Randy Newman cover), Concert for Hurricane Relief. The best song off the best concept album ever, even if it's easier to write timeless things about the south because things there change so slowly, when they don't change violently.
14. Limp Bizkit and Johnny Rzeznik, "Wish You Were Here," "America: A Tribute to Heroes." Rockist Christopher Weingarten has it in the Idolator/Village Voice list of the 50 Worst Songs of the 00s, but I found it weirdly moving: two very successful pop artists accustomed to making songs of no great import wind up sharing a bill with the voices of several generations and end up... doing a heartfelt Pink Floyd cover. Like two kids in a college dorm. No, it wasn't good, but in its failure to do what we expect of art it was more resonant than the songs that succeeded. After all, it's a song about the difficulty - really the impossibility - of doing the opposite of what you do. And it didn't work, so it did, if that makes sense.
15. The Killers, "All These Things That I've Done," Hot Fuss. Maybe not on its own, but if you include the hallucinatory music video from Southland Tales it makes the list. Plus "You know, you've got to help me out" is a line I like for reasons I can't really put my finger on - perhaps because it's an unusual sentiment for a rock song, along the lines of "you just might find you'll get what you need."
16. Radiohead, "The National Anthem"/"Idioteque," Kid A. The former is my favorite; I put on headphones and listen to it really, really loud and feel like James Agee at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I need to give myself the fear. The latter is included because of Thom Yorke's chilling falsetto, which John Darnielle has much to say about.
17. Modest Mouse, "Out of Gas," The Lonesome Crowded West. It's my list, and I get to decide that Isaac Brock can see through time. Opinions are like kittens, we're always givin' them away.
18. The Hold Steady, "Killer Parties," The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me. Usually regarded for their lyrics, but the bridge sounds like a scene coming apart.
19. David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Wanted For Life," Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. I find the coda ("pardon me sir, I don't live here no more") impossibly moving.
20. The Extra Glenns, "The River Song," Martial Arts Weekend. No one sings about defiance better than John Darnielle.
And with that:
21. The Mountain Goats, "This Year," The Sunset Tree. There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year / I'm going to make it through this year if it kills me.