This used to be the future may or may not be a series of reflections on this decade, all of which will have been prompted by the music challenge I issued in October that was initially put to me by my friend Lou O'Bedlam. When I decided to take the time to rank my favorite songs that were released from 2000-2009, I knew it would be daunting but I never expected the process would be so introspective. Almost immediately, the music began unlocking memories and feelings that seemed so much clearer (or occasionally even more confusing) with the passage of time. As the music fell on a timeline so did previously unseen significances. I tracked unconscious changes in my listening habits, lyrical themes I'd never noticed and other musical information that informed or reflected my real life experiences, sometimes profoundly so.
While I may not get around to blogging everything I've been thinking about, I did think about it and that was rewarding. The introspection is a consequence of making the music list but in terms of enlightenment the music list is the happy side effect of all that thinking.
As I said, one of the biggest personal benefits of compiling this list was identifying previously unconscious trends and movements in my listening. In the 1990s I was primarily interested in very loud, often aggressive electronic dance music as well as quite dark, angry and/or depressing alternative stuff (or "electronica", as it was once known). And if it wasn't in either of those categories, it was really "artistic" or something. All of it was was very, very serious.
In this decade, I came to fully embrace pop music, or rather the pop music form -- verses, choruses, hooks, simplicity, earnestness, silliness, sexiness… music that doesn't necessarily take itself seriously or music that does take itself seriously but does so in a way that seems very unserious, examples of which dominate this first installment of my list.
Concurrently, I became a big appreciator of the female voice. I don't think I was dismissive of women in music before but I'm pleased to observe that the vast majority of songs in this portion of my list are fronted by girls.
I feel more or less at home now but when I was first moved to America I saw myself as a child in exile and grasped pathetically at whatever might stimulate the sizable nostalgia tumor that'd manifested on the surface of my traumatized brain. Anything at all that reminded me of life before was like a drug. I made a friend on the Internet who'd send me strange things in the mail -- anime and music video compilations on VHS, mixtapes, artwork, weird comic books, things which I'd usually read/listen to/ watch in the middle of the night so my parents wouldn't ask me what I was doing. One tape contained a few Pet Shop Boys music videos and they triggered nostalgic memories of my life in Asia, where Pet Shop Boys were very popular. I didn't pay any attention to them back then but my friend's tape prompted me to explore PSB's expansive discography, initially as a dubious exercise in self-medicating but later as an enthusiastic fan of their exquisite music and typically cerebral lyrics.
Around that time, my mother walked into my room one day and proclaimed, "I just read a Newsweek article about a movie called Trainspotting. You are forbidden to see it." Naturally, I watched Trainspotting at the first opportunity. Not only was I formerly introduced to Underworld -- still my favorite group -- but the Trainspottingsoundtrack drove an astonishingly good New Order song called "Temptation" right into my miserable heart, effectively slaying the listener I was and prompting another pop excavation that yielded incredible rewards.
It was with the music of New Order, Pet Shop Boys, my already strong appreciation for David Bowie, and other artists of the variously post-punk and synthpop persuasion that I navigated my way out of the dismal aural landscape in which I'd isolated myself as a teenager. I was prepared to meet the decade ahead - the 2000s -- the future!
I wish it to be known that the goal of this exercise was to compile my favorite songs of the decade -- as opposed to the best songs of the decade. I'm not interested in putting forth a critical examination of music with heavy discussions about genre or cultural context. If you want that sort of thing, I recommend Pitchfork's shockingly reasonable feature on the subject, as well as Tucker Stone and the rest of The Factual Opinion's prodigious work in this area. The lists on this site are simply the tracks I loved most and, in most cases, why I loved them so much.
[Note: all the mp3 links go to the version of the song I'm talking about, regardless of what Amazon's images and text might suggest]
This song was part of what I would describe as a "phonomancing" experience as depicted in PHONOGRAM by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie. The idea is that music is magic and certain songs, lyrics and other musical material can be employed to various magical ends, often sending the listener into some kind of trance or even back in time. When I first moved back to Los Angeles and started going to clubs, I witnessed Muse’s “Time Is Running Out” do this to a girl.
It was 2003. I was on the floor by myself in an indie/britpop kind of club here in Hollywood. She had a cute asymmetrical haircut and was wearing something with bare shoulders. The final chorus began its build and she threw her arms in the air and started mouthing the words “OUR TIME IS RUNNNNNING OUT” and danced like she was casting some kind of spell. She loved dancing to the song so much, I couldn't concentrate on anything else but just watching her. It's definitely one of my favorite memories.
This song was always there, just waiting for Kylie to chisel it from the stone.
I was surprised to discover (thanks to iTunes' play count feature) how much I really did listen to Feist's The Reminder in the noughties, especially considering I gave it a lukewarm review earlier in the year and am usually hostile to the so-called singer-songwriter genre. But The Reminder is great and this song stood out for me -- as it did for so many people, based on its ceaseless appearances on my friends' Last.fm pages. Crisp, cool and pretty. As cliché as the saying is, Feist's music really is like a breath of fresh air.
The first album featuring the Prodigy's proper lineup since 1998, Invaders Must Die kicked my ass. I don't think I could have hoped for a more brilliant return to form for this superlative electronic group. Though brimming with fucking awesomeness, it was still easy for me to identify "Warrior's Dance" as my favorite track on the record. I'd always wanted The Prodigy to combine their early '90s happy hardcore sound with their modern aggro-techno style, so when "Warrior's Dance" began its slow build with those outrageous diva rave vocals, my eyes got wide and I turned it up LOUD.
As I said, one of the major changes for me in this decade was beginning to appreciate music that didn't take itself so seriously. I was a painfully pretentious listener in my teens and grew weary of experiencing music like an art school exam, especially with everyone else in the world letting their hair down and dancing to all sorts of horribleness like Britney Spears.
A friend of mine - a guy I've still never met in person - sent me a mixtape that contained "No Regrets", a single by Robbie Williams that featured Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on background vocals and production. It was fairly pristine pop in style but Williams' lyrics betrayed what I would describe as an inner... psychotic freak. I learned he was a former member of Take That!, a boy band that had caused me tremendous anguish when I lived overseas (as popular as boy bands are in America and Europe, they are even more pervasive in Asia). I also learned that Robbie had quit the group and gone mad. Something about this guy was seriously off and he did absolutely nothing to hide it, yet he was apparently one of the biggest stars on the planet - except for in the U.S., where nobody'd heard of him. That distinction alone was enough to make me excited about an artist in those Web 1.0 days and I absorbed Williams' catalogue. I discovered a kind of kindred spirit, someone who had an appreciation for perhaps simpler, catchier music but who also disdained the vulgarity and mindlessness of the mainstream.
Obviously, I never quite managed to truly forsake my pretentious leanings with music appreciation and was able to embrace "unserious" pop only with the help of a dubious, transparently deranged performer whom I contemplate in the context of the world's accelerating descent into spiritual oblivion, but hey, I got there.
Anyway, "Rock DJ" is madness. This song is barely about anything in the traditional sense, its lyrics and production being an occasionally intricate, often anarchic collage of pop references and curious inanities, yet the song is undeniably a masterpiece (as is its grotesque video).
Song: Le Disko (Version 1)
Artist: Shiny Toy Guns
Release: We Are Pilots (Version 1)
This one's on me (right-click/CTRL-click to download)
This song sums up everything about the Hollywood electroclash club scene of the early 00s: loud, sexy, unashamedly electronic, with stupid lyrics that make no sense at all. Shiny Toy Guns went on to ruin this track when they rerecorded it with an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production style for their major label debut (also called We Are Pilots) but I'll always have this original version to remind me of those fun, sweaty nights.
I saw Lady Gaga at Club Bootie before she hit it big. She was on stage at the Echoplex singing along to a mashup of her song "Just Dance" and Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." I still have the promo remix CDs they were handing out -- wonder if they're worth something?
I was initially opposed to Lady Gaga on account of her artifice, which is often garish, as well as the ubiquitous electro-R&B music style she employs, which is often ghastly. But I came to understand what Gaga was up to and I liked it, sonics aside, and I was ready to experience "Bad Romance" for the first time in the form of its music video, which I have described as batshit fucking loco. The song is also really, really good. The infectious hooks with the violent industrial-ish backing track reminds me of Marilyn Manson, in the best possible sense.
The first of many songs on this list to have been produced by Richard X, "Chewing Gum" might be the first of the modern "girl power" songs that I ever loved. Not that there's anything wrong with girl power, but something about Annie and X's style made me pay attention to a kind of track that I'd previously dismissed as being fake or a kind of aural roofie designed by hitmakers to cause drunk college girls to go "Whoooo!" or something.
Annie is a real person. The way she dresses, the alternately clever and emotionally sincere lyrics she sings, the lack of any diva attitude, the cuteness, the funniness -- she reminds me of my girl friends, really.
Song: Freak Like Me (We Don't Give a Damn Mix)
Release: Freak Like Me (UK single), Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol. 1
This one's on me (Right-click/CTRL-click to download)
More Richard X and more girl power! I learned much later from Jeremy Love, creator of the award-winning BAYOU for Zuda Comics, who also digs this version, that Sugababes' "Freak Like Me" is a cover of a '90s R&B song by Adina Howard. Richard X used the backing track from Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric?", making this is a song I wouldn't have liked in the 1990s when I was very much philosophically opposed to egregious sampling. I don't know what changed but by the time I heard this sexy beast of a song, I really loved it. I think Richard X and Sugababes' "Freak Like Me" might be unique in the mashup age in that it's a cover version that also samples a completely separate song, making it a twofer.
Lily Allen released two albums in this decade and I like pretty much every song on both of them equally -- they're perfectly great tunes with frequently hilarious lyrics about men with malfunctioning penises -- but I think "LDN" best embodies her bitchy lyrics/cheery sound style. I love to play "LDN" really loudly when I'm driving around Hollywood on a nice day.
This is another dark lyrics/cheery music track that I also like to play on an afternoon drive. We took a winery tour in Temecula for my girlfriend's birthday and this song was on the mix I made for the tour bus. Our guide, a really friendly woman in her 50s, loved the song and asked if she could keep the disc. I wonder if she ever got around to listening to the words.
As much as I can't stand the Australian's nightmare that is Neo Madonna, I can't deny that "Hung Up" is brilliant. Everything about the song is incredibly exciting and fresh - paradoxical, given the fact that it samples a decades-old ABBA classic. "Hung Up" is produced by Stuart Price A.K.A. Jacques Lu Cont, A.K.A. Thin White Duke, A.K.A. Paper Faces, A.K.A. Les Rythmes Digitales, whose work will appear elsewhere on this list.
I love everything about this track, even the vaguely pornographic scenario Kylie describes in the playfully cheesy lyrics. “Fever” showcases all of Kylie’s adorable vocal idiosyncrasies with cut-up beats and a smooth melody that I never got tired of listening to this again and again in the noughties.
I heard this song on the radio back when L.A. had a good radio station. As I alluded earlier, one of the changes I went through in this decade was becoming bored with artifice and more receptive to honest musicians, and Tegan & Sara definitely qualify as the latter. The emotions laid bare in "Speak Slow" are sort of shocking in their plainness -- which is not to say the song is uninteresting. On the contrary, it's that lack of a heavy stylistic filter that struck me (along with the excellent, catchy tune) and made me want to hear more about what these girls had to say about their lives and not, you know, what some art school dropout (like me) had to say about some other bullshit.
Release: Witching Hour (Ladytron album), XXX: Music from Thinking XXX (Soundtrack)Year: 2004
This one's on me (right-click/CTRL-click to download)
Nobody agrees with me but I know it to be true that the mix of "Sugar" on Music from Thinking XXX is slightly brighter and tighter than the one found on Witching Hour. The latter is more "hauntified" in accordance with that record's aesthetic, and you can go to Hell if you don't think so.
Perhaps it’s because I only started listening to Weezer in the noughties that I like The Green Album so much, because Weezer fans from the 1990s tend to despise it. I guess I can understand why. If Pinkerton was my Rosetta audiobook for emotions and angst and then I waited years for this piece of over-produced green poppy shit, I might be bitter too. But I was living in Boston when this came out and feeling very, very depressed about a number of things I’d done to completely fuck up my life. I forget the circumstances by which I came to listen to this album for the first time but I remember the drums kicking in and my spirits getting a little brighter. “Photograph”, cringeworthy, upbeat and bombastic as it is, was exactly what I needed at the time.
This is a song that I expect is on the list of anyone else stupid/bored enough to make one. A flawless track from Gorillaz and Danger Mouse, and one that I think represents its time extremely well while, I predict, never sounding dated. I love the otherworldly synth noises in the background.
Song: It's a Boy
This one's on me (right-click/CTRL-click to download)
You’ve probably never heard of Monaco. It was a band comprised of Peter Hook, the legendary bass player of New Order, and David Potts, a singer and guitarist whose style very closely apes New Order’s Bernand Sumner. They made two Monaco albums together before Hook split to go back to work with New Order and Potts to rehearse with Oasis (he never ended up joining). “It’s a Boy” sounds like New Order + Oasis. Big, big sound, lots of uplifting female choir backing vocals, pianos, guitars, keys, it's all in there. It’s very possible I am the only person on the Internet who likes this song.
My barriers to artists' actual lives broken down by Tegan & Sara, Lily Allen and the rest, I was somewhat prepared for the full-on assault of Kate Nash's harsh reality. In "Foundations," she paints an explicit but funny portrait of her failing relationship with some poor bastard, but there’s more to the song than embarrassing honesty. “Foundations” is also a great pop song, one I was surprised to discover (again, via an iTunes playcount) that I’d listened to almost more than any other in 2007. Thanks to Jamie McKelvie for IMing this to me out of the blue one day.