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Thursday
Dec312009

This used to be the future, part V (Tracks 20 - 1)

I used to hate lyrics. It somehow got in my head when I was a teenager that lyrics were incidental to the quality of a song and all that mattered was the vocal melody and how it worked with the music. I took this stupid idea of artistic purity further and began resenting songs that reminded me of people or places. I wanted to be able to appreciate a song for its own merits without sharing any kind of personal meaning with the music. 

Obviously, that changed. A great number of songs on this list are ones I love because of their lyrics and what they mean to me personally. And, as I detailed in Part I, it was in compiling these songs that recurring lyrical themes revealed themselves to me, as did the songs' influence on or reflection of events in my life during the time I was first listening to them.  

I'm a little disappointed to report the dominant lyrical themes of these 100 songs are unhappy ones. We're hearing a lot of regret, a lot of heartache, a lot of finality and a lot of oblivion. I wouldn't associate those words with myself in general -- I'd choose words like brilliant, amazing, awesome, tall -- but, paradoxically, I probably would use those gloomy words to characterize a number of my defining experiences in the last ten years. 

But there are positive themes as well, as you'll see in the first song in this final installment of This used to be 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 store links go to the version of the song I'm talking about, regardless of what Amazon's images and text might suggest]

 

20.
Song: Zero
Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Release: It's Blitz!
Year: 2009

You may have noticed the word "zenith" reappearing in my song commentaries. It was only in the making of this list that I realized I had a subconscious fascination with the concept of the zenith and that it goes back many years. Listening to Karen O sing about ladders to the sun and climb, climb, climbing higher makes me think of a sequence in CEREBUS, the largely brilliant but occasionally unreadable 300-issue comic book series by Dave Sim, wherein the lead character -- a talking, anthropomorphic aardvark -- flies higher and higher into the air until there is nowhere left to go. "Zero" also reminds me of Matt Wagner's excellent GRENDEL CYCLE, where we see the supreme being Grendel Prime with the caption, "Z is for the zenith, one who reached the peak alone." And like nearly everything else in this section of the list, "Zero" reminds me of my months-long journey across the U.S., when I was pushing myself to the limit in practically every way. I'm especially reminded of it when Karen O chants, "What's your name? What's your name? What's your name?" and asks, "Was it the cure?"

Also inherent in this song is of course the concept of zero or nothingness. I've extended the meaning of "nothing" to include finality, or the idea of being left with nothing. But more on that later.

Beyond those themes and connections, "Zero" is also a fantastic, fast-paced, new wavey tune that I love to play on repeat. There was a morning when I somehow managed to make my car dance to the rhythm of this song. 

 

19.
Song: Number 1
Artist: Goldfrapp
Release: Number 1 (Single)
Year: 2005

This song is a beautiful piece of synthpop that always reminds me of my girlfriend. The lyrics are about appreciating something special for as long as it lasts. While not a spot on reflection of our relationship, it's true that we had no intentions or expectations when we began seeing each other, it just seemed natural and we thought we'd keep it up until it wasn't fun anymore. We've been together nearly four years now.

 

18.
Song: Minimal
Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Release: Fundamental
Year: 2006

Design has been a fairly serious concern of mine for almost as long as I can remember. In fact, it's one of my biggest regrets that I didn't pursue a graphic design education because I realize now that not having designed anything wouldn't have been as big an impediment as I thought.

I'm extremely fond of minimalism, as you can see from this website, and it's a style I got into thanks in large part to the Pet Shop Boys. Their work with designer Mark Farrow has had a profound influence on the way I look at art and design, and not just that which concerns music (you can see the vast majority of this work in Pet Shop Boys Catalogue, now one of my favorite art books). So it's fitting that PSB would finally get around to writing a song about minimalism.

That the tune itself is not minimalist but rather a lush electro-orchestral piece (with bonus Peter Hook-style bass riffs at the end) is the sort of ironic thing I love about Pet Shop Boys, but the lyrics suit the subject very well.

An empty box
An open space
A single thought
Leaves a trace

Light and shade
Time and space

 The music video is also excellent, one of my all-time favorites.

 

17.
Song: It's All Over But The Crying (Remix)
Artist: Garbage
Release: Absolute Garbage
Year: 2007

If you told me in January 2007 that my favorite song of the year would be a throwaway bonus track remix of a throwaway song on a throwaway greatest hits album, I wouldn't have believed you.

I've listened to "It's All Over But The Crying (Remix)" more than any other 2007 track in my iTunes library. This subtle, understated version of what was a forgettable track on Garbage's disappointing and possibly final album, 2005's Bleed Like Me, stands up against any of the band's classic ballads. It's a very beautiful and very sad ode to the Complete and Total End of Everything. And not only that, but also the end of everything you once knew, like entropy traveling back through time and destroying everything that ever was. 

 

16.
Song: Conversation Piece (2002 Version)
Artist: David Bowie
Release: Heathen (Special Edition)
Year: 2002

The theme of endings continues here in "Conversation Piece", a song about a man at the conclusion of his life. This little Bowie song began its life as a B-side to "The Prettiest Star", a single released in 1970. It was later included as a bonus track on Rykodisc's 1990 reissue of Space Oddity, an edition which is now out of print. This version of "Conversation Piece," rerecorded decades later for the aborted Toy album, was released in 2002 as a bonus track on the special edition of Heathen. So for its whole life, "Conversation Piece" has existed as an obscurity, which makes it all the more special to me.

I used to listen to the original in my dorm room at boarding school. Like the song's narrator, my essays laid scattered on the floor and I felt invisible and dumb and that nobody would remember I ever existed. Later, around when this new, sadder version came out, my hands would shake and my head would hurt. These days, I look back at the time I spent in education and it really does seem so long ago. I wonder what Bowie was thinking when he rerecorded the track as an older man.

 

15.
Song: Yeah (Crass Version)
Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Release: Yeah (Single)
Year: 2004

The musical embodiment of putting your fucking money where your fucking mouth is. The mad disco buildup and breakdown in the latter half of this song never ceases to amaze and excite me.

 

14.
Song: Glam Bucket (Live)
Artist: Underworld
Release: London Roundhouse, England 28.02.2008 
Year: 2007
This one's on me (right-click/CTRL-click to download)

One of the few instrumentals on this list, "Glam Bucket" was first introduced to Underworld listeners on the 2007 tour in advance of Oblivion With Bells (Oblivion? The theme continues), their latest studio album. It's because of this that I feel justified in bending the rules of this challenge to include a live track. The album version, while perfectly good, does not come close to achieving what "Glam Bucket" is capable of in the live setting. Performances usually include some improvised guitar parts by Underworld's Karl Hyde that are not present on the studio version (which, interestingly, was originally composed for Danny Boyle's film, Sunshine, but Underworld had to take it back because it was too good to languish on a film score album), and they really do change the song. Whether I'm in my room with headphones on and eyes closed or in the middle of a crowd of Underworld fans under the stars in Central Park, "Glam Bucket" conjures every sight I've ever seen that fits the mood of the music and shoots them through my mind like a character's life flashing before his eyes in a montage of film. "Glam Bucket" blows my mind.

The version I've selected for you was recorded live at the London Roundhouse on February 2, 2008, and released as part of a series of live albums from that tour. 

 

13.
Song: The Way It Used To Be
Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Release: Yes
Year: 2009

It's funny, the way music lets us relive things without having to relive them, and how song that reminds you of a painful experience can become one of your favorites.

More than anything else on this list, "The Way It Used To Be" sends me back in time to a moment of finality that I remember with agonizing clarity. I'm hesitant to admit it, but the lyrics do tell an accurate story of something very important that happened in my life. The places, the imagery, the language, the way the story unfolds, even the style of music itself... everything is virtually identical to my experience. But the narrator isn't always me. Sometimes it's her.

 

12.
Song: The Diamond Sea
Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Release: Live Session EP (iTunes Exclusive)
Year: 2006
This one's on me (right-click/CTRL-click to download)

(It's not accurate to call this track "live" -- it's a studio recording done in one take. We used to arrange these at Sony and we'd call it "live" because it was easier and made more people click on the download link. I didn't break the rules!)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs version of Sonic Youth's old song -- some of the best lyrics I've ever heard -- just gets to me somehow. The strings have a really thick, heavy quality, like they're chains dragging you down. Karen O's restrained vocals make me think of a very big, very desolate place like a desert, somewhere where you're all alone and have been for a very long time.

Come to think of it, I've spent a lot of time in deserts.

 

11.
Song: Star Guitar
Artist: The Chemical Brothers
Release: Come With Us
Year: 2002

It's so weird to think there was a time when I didn't like this song. I remember listening to music at my friend Kendall's place in Boston and feeling very disappointed by the new Chemical Brothers release, Come With Us. It just seemed like a lot of repetitive nonsense. But "Star Guitar" fell into place for me a short time later on that drive across the country, with the American landscape flying past my window for sometimes hundreds of miles at a time.* I distinctly remember getting it and thinking, "Holy shit, this song makes me feel amazing." I've since used it in a couple of DJ mixes, including the MTHRFCKRZ Mix

*Imagine my delight when I finally saw Michel Gondry's video, which featured very nearly the same kind of imagery.

 

10.
Song: Digital Love
Artist: Daft Punk
Release: Discovery
Year: 2001

It's been a struggle not to load this list up with every track off Discovery, but you knew we'd get here eventually.

There's a lot to be said about "Digital Love" as a production -- much has been made of its very liberal sampling of an old song nobody'd ever heard before -- and as a pop artifact (it also wound up in Pitchfork's top 50 songs of the decade) and I agree with a lot of those things. But for me, the most important thing about "Digital Love" is friendship.

Besides being a track that my close friends and I can always enjoy together at any moment, the song title itself reflects how many of us made our best friends in this decade: digitally. Practically everybody I hang out with on a regular basis -- hell, everybody I hung out with over the Xmas holiday -- is somebody I met on the Internet or through someone else I met on the Internet. I live my life out in the world and on the Internet, where I keep my digital friends abreast of what I'm up to and what I'm loving, in turn making more new friends. I met my girlfriend at a party hosted and attended almost exclusively by people who met each other on the Internet. I am expressing my love for these people and for this music on the Internet, on this website that you're reading right now.

This is digital love and "Digital Love" is our song.

 

9.
Song: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
Artist: Daft Punk
Release: Discovery
Year: 2001

It was Boston, early 2001. Kendall Smith, my closest friend since the sixth grade, phoned and said, "You need to get over here as soon as possible."

I got in my car and drove to his building on Commonwealth Avenue and walked down into his little basement apartment. He was waiting for me next to the stereo with a CD already cued up.

He said, "Listen to this, friend."

My life was never the same.

 

8.
Song: Shoot Speed/Kill Light
Artist: Primal Scream
Release: XTRMNTR
Year: 2000

There's nothing I can write that can express why I love "Shoot Speed/Kill Light" as effectively as this photograph, which I took many years ago while listening to this song.

 

7.
Song: And All That Could Have Been
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Release: Still
Year: 2002

This obscure song by Nine Inch Nails, released originally on a bonus disc of a limited edition of a live album, is the most direct expression of the ideas of finality and nothingness that creep through quite a lot of the music on this list, especially music released from 2000-2002. 

Contrary to what I think is generally believed, I am not a very dreary, gloom-and-doom sort of person. I might wear a lot of black, but I spend the vast majority of my time in the company of friends, traveling, listening to music, going to films, watching television, dancing in clubs, dining, reading, trying to be creative -- really, enjoying the finer things in life. But it wasn't always like this.

It was during the 2000-2002 period that I suffered from a serious affliction, one that consumed all those areas of my life: friends, work, school, everything. Things got very, very bad and they always seemed to be getting worse. I came to truly believe that my life would never be anything else, that I somehow deserved what was happening to me, and, as a consequence of the medication I was taking to combat it, I was increasingly unable to even remember a time when things were different. 

The music and lyrics of "All That Could Have Been" spoke directly to me during that time, relating not just to a hugely important romantic relationship that was completely obliterated by all this, but to everything else in my life as well. All my goals, interests, ideas, memories -- I saw them all slipping away forever.  

But I got better.

 

6.
Song: Primitive Notion
Artist: New Order
Release: Get Ready
Year: 2001

The most perfect fusion of the classic Joy Division sound with the pop innovations of New Order, "Primitive Notion" was a revelation for me. Unlikely as it seems, Bernard Sumner's lyrics were just what I needed. He shouted right at me with ideas and images of regret and renewal, fighting back, driving, a yearlong winter and sending a message to the world. But it's the music of "Primitive Notion" that really inspires me. The syntheses of the live guitars with the dramatic keyboard parts and that driving dance rhythm -- those are the musical ingredients that make me happy. This song is New Order at their best, and it made me feel extraordinary.

You'll also note the red bar and color scheme of the Get Ready album cover, and its similarity to the red bars on this website.

 

5.
Song: Hurt
Artist: Johnny Cash
Release: American IV - The Man Comes Around
Year: 2002

:(

 

4.
Song: Maps
Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Release: Fever To Tell
Year: 2003

I've listened to this song on repeat four or five times while sitting here and thinking of something to say about it. I mean, this might be the most universally beloved song of the decade, right? I don't mean to seem lazy, but Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" really does speak for itself. 

 

3.
Song: Cut Here
Artist: The Cure
Release: Cut Here (UK single)
Year: 2001

Created to promote one of The Cure's innumerable compilation albums and the A-side of "Signal To Noise", another song on this list, "Cut Here" is a very specifically worded yet somehow universal anthem of regret.

I have a painful history with this song. "Cut Here" doesn't have the same power over me it once did, but it hit me like a ton of bricks at the time. The song quite obviously represents for me the dissolution of a relationship that perhaps didn't have to go down the way it did -- or maybe it did, if you believe in that sort of thing… which I do, occasionally. At another time, the song reflected a new relationship not pursued. 

It's possible i'm misreading the lyrics, but they seem to tell the story of running into someone who was once very special and becoming overcome with regret over how you should have appreciated them more when you were together. Or maybe it's about death, and remembering the last time you saw someone special and how that interaction wasn't as substantive as it should have been. 

Thankfully, I haven't been put in either situation yet. In any case, this song makes me miserable. It also sounds like New Order.

 

2.
Song: Aerodynamic
Artist: Daft Punk
Release: Discovery
Year: 2001

"This is cool, I can dig this," I thought, listening to the first minute of "Aerodynamic" for the first time. But then that arpeggiated guitar solo came in and I felt my brain start twitching and my eyes go all anime. We take it for granted now but can you remember? I mean, what the fuck was that guitar solo? And then the beats come back in and it's just... you only get so many musical memories like that. 

This song and Daft Punk in general have come to represent a major phase of my life. My entire 20s were soundtracked predominantly by this band and various versions of this song, notably the live performance found on Alive 2007 (the single best musical release of the whole decade). My road trip, my girlfriend, my best friends, my favorite memories of the decade, my identity itself, all of them were at some time or another wrapped up in this unbelievably brilliant song that will remain with me always as a powerful monument to one of the best and most important periods of my life.

 

1.
Song: Flamboyant (Single Version)
Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Release: Flamboyant (UK Single)
Year: 2004

Fittingly enough, "Flamboyant" was created for PopArt, a Pet Shop Boys compilation album that drew a distinction between pop and art by sorting all the PSB hits into those categories. But in doing so, they brilliantly demonstrated how pop and art are not mutually exclusive. That concept threads through practically every song on this list and also defines my approach to music appreciation in this decade, as outlined in Part I

"Flamboyant" itself explores this theme, being an acerbic and poignant reflection on the relationship between pop and art in our culture, a relationship that became poisonous in the last ten years. We saw the almost complete dissolution of what was once considered essential to achievement of fame: talent, charisma, and relevance, and a fierce embrace of celebrity's worst qualities: grotesquerie, vulgarity, and opulence. 

You live in a world of excess
where more is more 
and less is much less
A day without fame
is a waste
and a question of need 
is a question of taste

The landscapes of publishing and television are filthy with tabloids and "reality" programming focused wholly on the scandalous or otherwise bad behavior of celebrities, or at least the behavior that can be tenuously inferred or completely invented and then legally rationalized (as Ricky Gervais points out in Extras, the reason you see so many starlets' knickers is because the paparazzi literally get down in the gutter and photograph up their skirts). Almost never will you see in a print periodical or on television a critical discussion of the latest Brad Pitt film or Britney Spears record (thank God for the Internet -- see "Digital Love"). That those works exist and are meant to be important is enough to perpetuate our media's fascination with their "creators", regardless of whether or not those works are plainly abysmal. 

You live in a time of decay
when the worth of a man
is how much he can play
Every day
all the public must know
where you are, what you do
'cause your life is a show

What defines a celebrity has itself changed radically in the last ten years. In our culture's elevation of someone like Paris Hilton, we regressed to a feudal society where the aristocracy are set above everyone else simply by virtue of their birth. We service them automatically with tribute in the form of television ratings or supermarket tabloid dollars, which are the only remaining measures of success. Along those same lines, our most popular TV shows are those that expose the desperation of the American nouveau riche in their quest to become "classy" and not "trashy", which are of course very funny, but our media presents such people without a hint of irony. When there are no consequences but only rewards for these crimes against culture, what is to stop this ghastly game from perpetuating? As "Flamboyant" details, shame certainly never comes into it.

You're so flamboyant
the way you live
and it's not even demeaning
You're so flamboyant
It's like a drug
you use to give your life meaning
You're so flamboyant
The way you look
It gets you so much attention
Your sole employment
Is getting more
You want police intervention

But "Flamboyant" is not my favorite song of the decade just because it is about the decade. It's also a brilliant tune, an ingenious blend of classic Pet Shop Boys synthpop with this decade's harsher electro sound. The ascending keyboard melody you hear behind the words "It gets you so much attention" -- present only in this Single Version, available on the U.S. edition of PopArt but only on the "Flamboyant" single in the U.K.  -- struck a nerve with me the way so few songs do. Something about those two seconds of music made me feel very, very happy, and it still does today. When I began making this list, I knew those two seconds would make "Flamboyant" number one.

Pet Shop Boys' "Flamboyant" is also the only song I'm aware of that's managed to invoke fashion designer Issey Miyake and use his name in a rhyme. That is fucking rad.

Thanks for reading. 

Some other people have been participating in this challenge so check out their lists and commentaries:

If you're playing along and want to be linked here, just post a comment with a link to your list and I'll add it here.

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« Sound + Vision 1 | Main | Hyphocity, Fall 2009 »

Reader Comments (3)

The first of three posts on this topic is now at the top of http://houseofsparrows.blogspot.com/

A fun exercise so far - thanks for initiating it! I'm scouring your lists for things to grab in the near future - "Flamboyant" in particular sounds like a must-hear.

Thanks again!

DR

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Robson

Awesome list all the way through, Andy. I'm in complete agreement with your comments about "Hurt" by Johnny...gives me chills every time I hear it.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBryan.

Really, fantastic. I still need to actually dig in and listen to your decade closer, but it looks like a great one. Here's my official linkaging, because it's not 2010 where you are yet:

100-72
http://tinyurl.com/ybte4z5

71-50
http://tinyurl.com/yk8g99j

49-21
http://tinyurl.com/yhmpt57

20-1
http://tinyurl.com/ybas9jc

Happy new year, dude.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Fox

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