01 November 2010

Midterm Madness

I don't have much to say about the midterm elections per se. I've mostly given up on political blogging (1) for mental health reasons and (2) because too many other people are doing it better than I can. If you want an educated guess about what's going to happen tomorrow, I recommend this guy's. My general view is that elections are largely decided by economic fundamentals, which would point to huge losses for the incumbent Democrats this year.

The nonstop horse race coverage has become exhausting for all but the most dedicated political junkies. If it were up to me, I'd implement something resembling the British electoral system (no television advertising, wrap the whole thing up in no more than a couple months), but as this would require changing the Constitution multiple times, it's probably never going to happen. It would appear that the nonstop freak show that is American politics is here to stay.

Liberals are understandably downcast about the likelihood of significant Republican gains tomorrow, but let's can it with all the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It may not look like it now, but these past two years have been pretty good ones for the progressive agenda, the headwinds of a depressed economy and unprecedented political obstructionism notwithstanding. Those headwinds may have diminished some of the accomplishments of the Obama administration, but they have not stopped the president's agenda (with the noteworthy exception of the Senate's failure to pass climate-change legislation).

Most significant, Obama won a historic victory on the issue of health care, shepherding to passage a bill that, while flawed and hardly the last word on the subject, forever enshrines into American law the principle that the government must act to ensure its citizens have access to the health-care system. The next Congress will not be able to undo that, nor will any future Congress. Electoral majorities come and go, but these kinds of substantive victories are what it's all about.

25 September 2010

Blissfully Yours

The 48th New York Film Festival kicked off last night with David Fincher’s highly anticipated The Social Network. I haven’t yet seen it (word from friends and colleagues is almost uniformly positive), but I would like to briefly highlight another movie showing twice at the festival this weekend: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the latest unclassifiable whatsit from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Over the past decade, Apichatpong has risen to the top tier of global art-cinema directors with a series of allusive head-scratchers including, most recently, Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006). His latest feature abandons the bifurcated structure of his past few films for something more diffuse and intuitive. The plot, such as it is, centers around Uncle Boonmee, who’s not long for this world due to an unspecified kidney problem. As he nears death, he’s visited by various entities from the spirit world, including his late wife and a son who’s been transformed into a red-eyed ape-like creature. Like Boonmee’s relatives and caretakers, we’re surprised at first by the visitors but soon begin to take it all in stride.

Uncle Boonmee is full of references not only to Thai animism but also to various aspects of the country’s history and popular culture, none of which I’m remotely qualified to write about. Fortunately, no background in these areas is required to appreciate the sheer beauty of Uncle Boonmee, which, like Apichatpong’s previous films, gets a lot of mileage out of the rugged landscapes of Thailand’s rural north, nor to marvel at the director’s effortless integration of all the disparate material. As Apichatpong indicated at his NYFF press conference earlier this week, each reel of the film was given a distinct look, a strategy most salient during a magical scene involving a princess and a rather libidinous catfish. Arguably, the film’s highlight, it’s one of several sequences with an ambiguous narrative relationship to the main action. (I hate to resort to the old critic’s trick of using one film as a club to beat on another, but the way Apichatpong integrates dreams and fantasies into not only the film’s action but its very DNA highlights how pedestrian and unimaginative something like Inception really is.)

Those familiar with Apichatpong’s sui generis brand of cinema can imagine how matter-of-factly all the fantastic happenings play out onscreen, but for the uninitiated, it’s important to emphasize what a profoundly generous filmmaker he is, the polar opposite of arch or pretentious. Like Apichatpong’s previous films, Uncle Boonmee is full of wry comedy, but the laughter never comes at the expense of either his characters or his audience, instead arising from a shared sense of absurdity at the collision of worlds onscreen. It all adds up to an often thrilling, occasionally confusing, and always restful experience, with the deliberate pacing giving you just the right amount of time to let it all sink in. A masterpiece is one thing, but a masterpiece that lets you breathe—now that’s something special.

13 August 2010

You Know Who I Am

I haven’t yet heard the new Arcade Fire album. I watched them on The Daily Show last night and thought they sounded pretty good, so I suspect I’ll catch up with it eventually, maybe even sooner than later. But without getting off on a self-involved tangent here, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider my reluctance to embrace this band. After all, I’ve mostly enjoyed their other records, this one is attracting lots of positive reaction, and I like what I’ve heard from it. And yet, I hesitate. Why? The obvious answer is that I’m merely reacting against the obnoxious level of hype around the band. There may be something to that, but this is hardly a phenomenon unique to Arcade Fire. Perhaps it’s more a question of sensibility. To put it another way, I don’t feel a connection.

This is not, of course, an entirely rational response, but it is a real one, and it’s crucial to the way most serious music listeners, as well as many casual fans, relate to pop artists—that is, in ways that go well beyond music per se. I’m not talking about anything as deadly dull as an artist’s “philosophy” or even worldview. What I have in mind is something more analogous to Andrew Sarris’s notion of “interior meaning,” a fully formed artistic sensibility that both encompasses and transcends form and technique, as well as thought and feeling.

Which brings us to the case of M.I.A. In the three years since the release of her second album, Kala, she’s become a pop-cultural lightning rod, celebrated as a hero by many fans for her backstory as much as her music and condemned as an empty-headed purveyor of radical chic by others. The latter camp has had no shortage of fuel, much of it provided by M.I.A. herself in a series of public pronouncements culminating in a condescending (albeit skillfully conceived and written) New York Times Magazine profile by Lynn Hirschberg, who, it must be said, has made something of a career out of this sort of thing. But anyone reading this obviously has access to Google, so I’m not going to rehash any of that here. What’s interesting is how all this drama relates to M.I.A.’s music. On the surface, M.I.A. signifies rebellion, third-worldism, even revolution, yet her dabblings in business and fashion, not to mention her much-chronicled life of luxury, locate her in a more nebulous space. And her public statements suggest that she’s not particularly well-informed.

I’ll try to explain. Once upon a time, things were simple. There was Society and there were those outside of Society, and you knew exactly which side of that line you and everyone else was on. This is not to say that elements of the counterculture weren’t quite regularly co-opted by Society, etc. etc., but merely that this used to be an operational distinction in popular culture. Now its last vestiges are disappearing. Nearly all of the true zeitgeist figures in the current poposphere—Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, Lebron James, Don Draper—are to a large extent blank screens onto which we can (and do) project our own fantasies of who they “really” are. Theirs is a studied opacity. They are both the culture and the counterculture.

M.I.A. fits this mold, although she bears less resemblance to any of the figures mentioned above than to Kanye West, another tabloid-ready superstar given to erratic behavior who, like M.I.A., has made great records despite a lack of conventional musical ability, in the sense of vocal or instrumental prowess. Both Kanye and M.I.A. are less artists in the traditional sense than musical and cultural curators, guides to certain sensibilities. (This is particularly true of M.I.A.—as a producer, Kanye is at least directly responsible for the sound of his records.) This is why questions about authenticity rankle so much. She’s identified herself with a certain political posture, and if she can’t deliver the goods, then…well what? My own views on the issue were succinctly articulated by Robert Christgau in his review of Maya: “The notion that M.I.A. isn't politically meaningful because her motives are mixed and her ideas are screwed up is clueless about how pop music works—namely, all kinds of screwy ways.” Yes, exactly. Pop (music or otherwise) is a medium of grand gestures and unintended consequences.

As for the album…well, you know, it’s all right, neither a Kala-level masterpiece nor the Self Portrait-style disaster that Pitchfork would have you believe. I’m not going to knock her for going all pop-star narcissist on us; she’s entitled to work that vein for at least one album, and it’s not like she didn’t warn us with the title. Following a minute-long intro (that’s why I don’t have an iPhone!), Maya kicks into gear with the industrial grind of “Steppin’ Up,” which strikes a familiar outsider pose, mocking the torpor of mainstream club culture (“Bass lines and ass/Anything fast”), and the savvy pop of “XXXO,” which casts a jaundiced eye on what passes for affection in the age of portable electronic devices. The canny wordplay of “Lovalot” conflates references to suicide bombers with mentions of Obama and Hu Jintao. And of course there’s the scintillating “Born Free” (think Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR with A Thousand Leaves-era Kim Gordon singing), the lead single that raised hopes of a Difficult Third Album in the In Utero/Wowee Zowee mode, even as the song’s “banned” (whatever the hell that means in 2010) video, a risible gloss on Peter Watkins’s 1971 counterculture classic Punishment Park, came off as just the sort of attention-getting stunt that M.I.A.’s grown too fond of. You take the bad with the good; unfortunately, it’s the best track on Maya by a considerable margin. To get there you’ve got to slog through the insipid reggae-pop of “It Takes a Muscle” and the formless muck of “It Iz What It Iz.” The shallow electro-rock of “Meds and Feds” sounds like the work of labelmates Sleigh Bells, which is OK because I can tolerate Sleigh Bells for exactly one song. And while “Teqkilla” is not quite as annoying as its title, “Tell Me Why” has some of the laziest lyrics in the M.I.A. catalog (“Things change but it feels the same”).

The so-called “deluxe” edition comes with four extra songs (are they part of the album are not?), of which only the first, “Internet Connection,” qualifies as a throwaway. Indeed, the perky punk-funk of “Illygirl” and the laid-back Afro-pop of “Believer” would have been better-than-average on the album proper. And the final track, “Caps Lock,” strikes a plaintive note found nowhere else on Maya. “My left side is my right side,” she sings, and no further explanation is necessary. She’s a rebel so she rebels. It’s a good bet that M.I.A. won't be following in the footsteps of Peter Garrett or Bono anytime soon, but that’s not to say there’s no content to her music, even if it’s merely a willingness to say “no” to society’s “yes.” And at least for now, that’ll have to do.

08 July 2010

The Meaning of Lebron

Tonight at 9 pm, Eastern Daylight Time, the man they call King James will speak to us on national television. On that broadcast he will reveal the secret that millions have longed to know and thousands have striven to learn: the identity of the NBA team for which he will be playing basketball for the next five or six years. Or possibly fewer.

So tell me something I don’t know. Obviously the whole ESPN broadcast is a massive ego trip, but accusations of egotism against a man who openly aspires to be a “global icon” are nothing but redundant. Lebron not only transcends sports, but conventional notions of celebrity. He is not only a new kind of superstar, equal parts athlete, pitchman, and free-floating signifier, but a literal superman (he may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he's surely the greatest basketball talent). As the likes of Beyoncé have shown, there’s no such thing anymore as overexposure, and backlash is reserved for history’s greatest monsters, like Tiger Woods. It is what it is. Hate the game, I say, not the player. The news that Lebron had opened a Twitter account this week seemed almost quaint. Lebron is the new medium. ESPN has a presence in Lebron, just as it does on television or the Internet. And as with TV and the Web, Lebron is now a part of us, like it or not. Despite a seven-year basketball career that would already rank him among the sport’s greats, what we are now witnessing is not his apotheosis, but indeed the birth of Lebron. It’s sort of like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, if that helps any.

So whether you’re a basketball fan or not, you too are now bound up in the meaning of Lebron and its implications for our collective future. Hence, the frenzy of the past few weeks, which have seen a deafening vuvuzela-like buzz of reports and rumors, in which it’s become impossible to separate fact from opinion, truth from spin, solid journalism from hope, spite, and wishful thinking. No piece of minutiae has gone unexamined, no stray comment or sartorial detail left uninterpreted. As with all things Lebron, the media attention is unprecedented, and everyone has an opinion. Because, rightly or wrongly, the choice he announces tonight will go a long way toward defining Lebron, forever shattering some cherished interpretations of him while validating others. It is a choice fraught with unintended consequences and hidden meanings, meanings totally unrelated to the idiosyncratic, even capricious, factors that motivate actual human decision-making. With the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers and the talent-depleted New Jersey Nets seemingly out of the picture, we’re down to four teams in the running for Lebron: the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks, and of course the Cleveland Cavaliers, and each has developed its own text, its own commentary on the meaning of Lebron.

Miami. The latest of a series of frontrunners, Miami would pair James with fellow superstar Dwyane Wade, along with all-star forward Chris Bosh. There are a lot of questions about the rest of the roster, and the idea of Lebron teaming up with another of the league’s top five players rankles basketball purists, but it’s easy to see why the Heat are considered the favorite tonight. Miami is The Show, Miami is Amazing, Miami feels like Now. Miami is three friends getting together to play pickup games, to create the nucleus of the kind of fun, freewheeling winner that veterans would sign up to play with for the league minimum salary—that is, if the NBA weren’t looking at a probable lockout in 2011-12. Miami says that Lebron is Spectacle.

Chicago. Chicago is the choice of the serious basketball crowd (unless they’re fans of one of the other teams in the field, of course). Unlike the attempts to build a roster from scratch in Miami and New York, Chicago offers a ready-made cast of talented basketball players whose skills complement each other. Chicago is where Lebron goes to win multiple championships as (unlike in Miami) the undisputed alpha dog. Chicago is rational. Chicago is greatness. Chicago is also a city in the shadow of Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Chicago says Lebron is Basketball.

New York. New York is the proverbial big city, the place where dreams are made, or at least the place where Lebron is supposedly most likely to fulfill his potential as a worldwide superstar, while reviving a moribund franchise in a rich basketball market. But New York is a bit nostalgic too, perhaps even more so than the final option below. Nostalgic for the days when it was the undisputed center of the universe, the days before Lebron and all the other new media made everything so confusing and complicated. New York says Lebron is The Big Stage.

Cleveland. And then there’s Cleveland, the team for whom Lebron, a native of nearby Akron, has won back-to-back MVPs without their reaching the NBA Finals either season. The roster is mediocre and appears unlikely to improve much in the near term. Cleveland is the choice of the traditionalists, of finishing what you started. Cleveland is destiny, living by faith and not by sight. Given the excruciatingly drawn out (not to mention nationally televised) nature of this affair, Cleveland doesn’t exactly say Lebron is loyalty, and we can safely pass over Lebron is humility, but mabye Lebron is Home.

05 May 2010

Free Jafar Panahi

I want to take a moment to draw attention to some organizing efforts on behalf of the Iranian director Jafar Panahi. For those who haven't heard, Panahi, the director of several fine films including Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006), was arrested March 1 for "unspecified crimes." He remains in custody and has since been accused of attempting to make a film against the regime, potentially a serious charge in Iran.

Shortly after Panahi's arrest, a number of Iranian filmmakers and other artists signed a petition calling for his release, and this past week a number of major American filmmakers and critics have launched a petition of their own. This post from critic Anthony Kaufman, one of the organizers of the latter effort, briefly summarizes how that petition came about.

The post also touches on a key issue, perhaps the key issue regarding this type of organizing, which is the possibility that such efforts to call attention to government-sponsored injustice could be ineffective or even backfire by prompting backlash from the authorities. I'm no expert on Iran either, but I think Anthony's analysis here is fundamentally correct. The depth and length of the protests in the aftermath of last year's elections clearly showed some major fissures in public support for the current regime, and international expressions of solidarity with the opposition have clearly had a positive impact on morale, if nothing else.

Coming attractions: I'll have something to say about Obama's Supreme Court pick sometime after he gets around to making one. Also, I was going to do a post about the new Arizona immigration law, but found that I don't have anything original to say about it. I will say that I persist in the belief that the right of law-abiding persons of whatever ethnicity to go about their daily business without fear of being randomly harassed by the police cuts close to the heart of what it means to live in a free society.

24 March 2010

Health Care Reform

Basically, what Biden said. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect and certainly won't be the last word on the subject, but this is a big deal indeed, the most significant piece of domestic legislation passed in the lifetime of anyone under 40 and proof that our political system is still capable of taking on big issues. Forget for a moment all the talk about public options, subsidy levels, CBO projections, etc., and focus on the big picture: the principle that the government should guarantee access to affordable health insurance for everyone is now enshrined in American law. And frivolous lawsuits and Republican talk of repeal notwithstanding, it's here to stay.

07 March 2010

Hurt So Good (aka Anything But Avatar)

A year after fielding one of the lamer Best Picture slates of recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made some big changes to its headline category for the 82nd Oscars. For the first time in 66 years, the Best Picture field consists of 10 films instead of five. The move was presumably a response to criticism of last year's nominees, which failed to include popular and critical favorites The Dark Knight and WALL*E in favor of bland Oscar bait like Frost/Nixon and The Reader.

For this year at least, it appears to have worked, with the overwhelming majority of cinephiles likely to find something to like (as well as something to hate). If we assume that the five Best Director nominees correspond to the movies that would have been selected for a Best Picture field of five (probably a good bet in light of the various precursor awards), then the five additional nominees include: a sci-fi allegory (District 9), a cynical art movie (A Serious Man), a cartoon about a septagenarian (Up), a literary British prestige picture (An Education), and an MOR populist entertainment (The Blind Side). I haven’t seen the latter two, although I suspect I’ll catch up with An Education at some point. But Up and District 9 are worthy inclusions that wouldn’t have made it into a field of five, and others would make the case for A Serious Man as well. None of the three feel like the traditional middlebrow Best Picture nominee.

Likely to join those five as also-rans tonight is Precious, a mostly bleak drama about a teenage girl (Gabourey Sidibe) dealing with incest, abuse, poverty, and illiteracy in 1980s Harlem. The makers of Precious deserve some credit for putting this kind of difficult material onscreen, but the whole thing made me a bit queasy, and not always in a good way. It made me think about Céline and—well, there’s a reason Céline ended up becoming a fascist. The Jason Reitman-directed George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air, a superficial drama about a man who fires people for a living, looked like a contender back in November but happily seems to have faded. The movie has nothing whatsoever to say about unemployment or the recession or much of anything else, but it’s at least a more competent film than Reitman’s Juno.

Tonight’s contest appears to be a classic David-and-Goliath showdown between James Cameron’s super-mega-blockbuster Avatar, the highest-grossing film in the history of the universe or whatever, and Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, about a sergeant (Jeremy Renner) who defuses bombs for a living. Regardless of which way the big prize goes, it appears more than likely that Bigelow will become the first woman to take home a Best Director award.

I didn’t hate Avatar. Cameron’s groundbreaking visual effects kept me interested for the first half or so, but I lost interest in the Pocahantas/Dances With Wolves storyline after a while, and the ill-advised attempts at political allegory, which managed to be both heavy-handed and incoherent, were too much to take. And 3-D still feels like a gimmick to me; if this is the future of cinema, count me out. (An Avatar win for Cinematography would be at least as depressing as a Best Picture triumph). The superbly crafted The Hurt Locker is clearly the superior choice and would rank as one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of the past 15 years or so, but of course deserve’s got nothing to do with it. Knee-jerk futurism combined with the blind worship of money, the venerable civic religion of both Hollywood and America, could well trump everything else. But I hope not.

If there’s a dark horse in this race, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s voluble World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds, my own favorite film of the year. Shaking off the cobwebs of generations of WWII movies, Tarantino’s film is both fluently conversant with the cinematic past and strikingly original in its appropriations thereof. It also has the most original take on Nazi evil in eons, courtesy of Christoph Waltz, whose comically deranged portrayal of the decadent Col. Hans Landa is tonight’s second-surest bet.

Predicted winners below, along with my personal choices, where applicable. The alert reader will note that I have fewer opinions than I used to, as well as less inclination to see bad movies.

Best Picture

In addition to expanding the field, the Academy changed the voting system for this category only. Rather than voting for one film, each voter is now asked to rank the nominees 1 through 10. After the first-place votes are counted, if no film has more than 50 percent of the vote, the film with the fewest votes is eliminated and its ballots are redistributed among the remaining nine films according to their No. 2 choices (i.e., the highest-ranked choice that hasn’t already been eliminated). This process repeats itself until one film has more than 50 percent of the vote. The upshot of the new system, known as “preferential balloting,” is that the film that gets the most first-place votes won’t necessarily be the winner. My guess is that this favors The Hurt Locker, a film that comparatively few people dislike, over the more polarizing Avatar.

Will win: The Hurt Locker
Should win: Inglourious Basterds

Best Director

Kathryn Bieglow’s one of those directors working on the edge of the mainstream whose name on a genre movie usually means it’s going to be interesting. Like last year’s winner, Danny Boyle, she’s put together a decent, if uneven, career and deserves to win one of these. Unlike Boyle, she has a chance to do it for one of her better films.

W: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
S: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Actress

Despite The Blind Side’s getting a Best Picture nomination, I just can’t bring myself to believe the Academy’s going to give an Oscar to Sandra Bullock. Surely they won’t go through with it. On the other hand, Helen Hunt won one, so who knows? Early on, it looked like this might finally be the year for Meryl Streep to take home her third Oscar, and first since the early ’80s, for her performance as Julia Child in Julie and Julia. Bullock is the clear favorite, and she’ll probably win…but this reminds me a bit of the Jack Nicholson/Daniel Day Lewis race back in 2002, when Adrien Brody snuck in and took the statue.

W: Carey Mulligan, An Education
S: [no pick]

Best Actor

Back in November, it looked like this might be George Clooney’s year, but Jeff Bridges took control of the race around the end of the year and appears headed to a landslide win. I haven’t seen Crazy Heart, so I’ll just pretend he won for The Big Lebowski instead.

W: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
S: Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Supporting Actor

That’s a bingo.

W: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
S: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress

W: Mo'Nique, Precious
S: Mo'Nique, Precious

Screenplay, Original
W: Inglourious Basterds
S: Inglourious Basterds

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Up in the Air
S: In the Loop

Animated Feature
W: Up
S: Up (close second: Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Documentary Feature
W: The Cove
S: [no pick]

Foreign Language Film
W: El Secreto de Sus Ojos
S: [no pick]

W: Avatar
S: Inglourious Basterds

Art Direction
W: Avatar
S: [no pick]

W: The Hurt Locker
S: Inglourious Basterds

Visual Effects
W: Avatar
S: Avatar

Costume Design
W: The Young Victoria
S: [no pick]

W: Star Trek
S: Star Trek

Sound Mixing
W: The Hurt Locker
S: The Hurt Locker

Sound Editing
W: Avatar
S: The Hurt Locker

Original Score
W: Up
S: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Original Song
W: “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart
S: [no pick]

Animated Short
W: A Matter of Loaf and Death
S: [no pick]

Live Action Short
W: The Door
S: [no pick]

Documentary Short
W: The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant
S: [no pick]

11 February 2010

Best Albums of the 2000s (part 2)

Here's 50-1. Last list-oriented post until December, I hope.

50. Graduation—Kanye West

49. Toxicity—System of a Down

Basically prog-metal with one foot in the mainstream, Toxicity was No. 1 on the Billboard chart when the planes hit on 9/11. The music’s jagged rhythms and jumpy transitions aptly represent the chaos of the moment—a sense only reinforced by lyrical references to “self-righteous suicide” and “the toxicity of our city.”

48. Kill the Moonlight—Spoon

47. 808s & Heartbreak—Kanye West

Haunted by the sudden death of Kanye’s mother, 808s & Heartbreak stands as his most radical and introspective album to date, nearly leaving hip-hop behind in favor of a Princely amalgam of R&B and synthpop. I’m not sure where he goes from here, but I look forward to finding out.

46. Ys—Joanna Newsom

It sounds like it should be a pretentious, unlistenable mess: 24-year-old neo-folkie harpist sings five songs, backed by orchestral arrangements, ranging from seven to 17 minutes in length. But somehow it all comes together beautifully, with the arrangements by Van Dyke Parks and Jim O’Rourke’s mix creating the perfect context for Newsom’s cosmic ponderings.

45. Discovery—Daft Punk

44. Rounds—Four Tet

43. ()—Sigur Ros

Recorded in a (presumably dry) swimming pool, this lengthy mood piece lacks the bold melodic flourishes of its predecessor, Agaetis Byrjun, but nearly makes up for it in atmosphere.

42. London Zoo—The Bug

I fell hard for dub reggae sometime in 2007, and this album, released a year later, extends the legacy of that music (as well as that of the original dub revival of the mid-'90s) into the 21st century.

41. Yesterday and Today—The Field

40. Extraordinary Machine—Fiona Apple

39. Fishscale—Ghostface Killah

I initially mistook this album for little more than a retread of Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx (1995). But if you can get past the de rigueur references to Scarface, this might be the most purely enjoyable of the many Wu-Tang solo albums. And the all-star roster of contemporary producers, including Just Blaze and the late J. Dilla, ensures that it's no mere nostalgia trip.

38. The College Dropout—Kanye West

The first third or so of Kanye’s debut is so great that the rest can’t help but be a slight letdown, making the album somewhat difficult to get through in one sitting. And his anti-education shtick is still stupid.

37. Arular—M.I.A.

36. Amnesiac—Radiohead

Radiohead was on such a roll in 2001 that this album was almost taken for granted. But what seemed at the time like a slightly unwieldy collection of rejects from Kid A now plays like one of the band’s more unified and substantial records.

35. Good News for People Who Love Bad News—Modest Mouse

Isaac Brock and bandmates find a little bit of emotional stability and artistic sustainability. Many of the guardians of indie-rock purity complained about this album, but it has some of the sharpest songs of the band’s career.

34. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes

33. Nothing’s in Vain—Youssou N’Dour

32. The Private Press—DJ Shadow

I suppose you could argue that Shadow was repeating himself a bit. But Endtroducing… is one of the greatest albums of all time, and nobody else sounds like this.

31. The Blueprint—Jay-Z

30. Stankonia—Outkast

29. DFA Compilation #2

Dispositive evidence that James Murphy’s career as a producer has been far more adventurous than LCD Soundsystem alone would suggest.

28. Rooty—Basement Jaxx

The best Prince album of the 2000s.

27. Modern Times—Bob Dylan

26. XTRMNTR—Primal Scream

Opening with a track called “Kill All Hippies” and closing with a cover of the Third Bardo nugget “Five Years Ahead of My Time,” XTRMNTR is the fullest articulation of Primal Scream’s complex relationship with the musical legacy of the 1960s. The album’s bleak tone and pervasive sense of a world falling into chaos, however, were all too contemporary, even prescient.

25. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark—Drive-by Truckers

24. Rings Around the World—Super Furry Animals

Smart, funny, weird, original Welsh indie rock. What more could you ask? Paul McCartney chomping celery? Done!

23. The Further Adventures of the Lord Quas—Quasimoto

22. The Woods—Sleater-Kinney

On their final album, the Washington state post-postpunk stalwarts finally let loose and bring the noise.

21. Smile—Brian Wilson

For obvious reasons, this was the single most difficult item to rank, which may explain how it got pushed out of the Top 20.

20. Third—Portishead

Mid-’90s legends return triumphantly with a new sound, channeling Syd Barrett and the Silver Apples through the Bristol murk.

19. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—Spoon

The indie-rock MVPs of the 2000s deliver their most ambitious and consistent album, their signature new-wave-inspired sound expanding to encompass dub, raga, and Memphis soul, among other things.

18. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea—PJ Harvey

Perennially tortured soul gets happy, accessible. It wouldn’t last.

17. Agaetis Byrjun—Sigur Ros

16. Original Pirate Material—The Streets

Mike Skinner proved to be something of a one-trick pony, but this debut, unburdened by the cramped production and narrative fixations of his later albums, aches with the troubles of drug- and Playstation-addled post-adolescents with little money and limited prospects.

15. Since I Left You—The Avalanches

14. In Rainbows—Radiohead

13. Everything Ecstatic—Four Tet

One of my favorite musicians working right now, Kieran Hebden has made a career out of the joining the dots and loops of laptop music with the fearlessness of free jazz and an obsession with pure sound. The rhythmic restlessness of this album lifts it slightly above his others.

12. No Line on the Horizon—U2

I’ve written enough about this album already. (See “Found Horizons,” posted March 10.)

11. Murray Street—Sonic Youth

Following a series of albums that had moved the band away from the pop mainstream and back toward the experimental noise-rock of the ’80s, Sonic Youth, with new member Jim O’Rourke, tries its hand at classic rock (sort of). The result is the band’s best late-period album, and possibly its best since the epochal Daydream Nation (1988).

10. Proxima Estacion: Esperanza—Manu Chao

That’s “Next Station: Hope” for all you monolingual Americans.

9. Is This It?—The Strokes

Young American rock band arrives to great fanfare. Critics go nuts. Backlash ensues. Nine years down the road, the whole Strokes phenomenon feels less like a rebirth than a last hurrah, but the album’s a stone-cold classic.

8. All That You Can’t Leave Behind—U2

Hardly a return to the expansive sound of the band’s ’80s period, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is basically Bono’s Tunnel of Love, an intimate, soulful plumbing of the hopes and fears of adulthood featuring U2’s sharpest batch of songs to date.

7. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not—The Arctic Monkeys

Further evidence of the shrinking half-lives of critical acclaim and rock stardom.

6. Vespertine—Björk

Less immediately accessible than her earlier albums, Björk’s masterpiece both demands and rewards close attention. There may not be another great album from the past 10 years that’s so dependent on duration and song sequence for its impact. On the opening track, the singer announces that she’s going to a “Hidden Place” and the rest of the songs—mostly about fundamentals like love, sex, and family—unfold in this private, interior space until the closing “Unison” blows the lid off the whole thing and lets the world back in.

5. Love and Theft—Bob Dylan

Dylan’s late-career comeback with the death-haunted Time Out of Mind (1997) was one thing, but who could have seen this coming? Glossing musical forms ranging from roadhouse blues to cabaret to swing to I-don’t-know-what, the astonishing Love and Theft has the generic range of a Beck album with nary a sample in sight. Less unified than Dylan’s follow-up, Modern Times, it’s warmer and funnier, and its wizened master of ceremonies has never sounded looser.

4. Kid A—Radiohead

Feel the cool electronic breeze.

3. Madvillainy—Madvillain

If there’s a musician more underrated than Kieran Hebden, it would have to be Madlib, who’s virtually reinvented hip-hop over the past decade or so. This (so far) one-off collaboration with MF Doom is all about the flow, channeling the musical spirit of truly classic rock in ways never heard before.

2. Kala—M.I.A.

I’ve already written plenty about this one too. (See “Combat Rock,” posted September 20, 2007.)

1. Late Registration—Kanye West

If Jay-Z is Jordan, then Kanye must be the Steve Nash of hip-hop—a master playmaker who can make the most ordinary of teammates look like a superstar. On his best, most expansive, most fully realized album, he gets terrific performances from inferior talents like The Game, as well as greats like Jay and Nas. The opening “Heard ’Em Say” is so perfectly arranged and performed that you forget that it’s the dude from freakin’ Maroon 5 singing background. “Touch the Sky” must be one of the most obvious uses of a classic soul sample that doesn’t make you wish you were listening to the original song instead. “Gold Digger” takes on the gender wars with humor and generosity. I could go through the whole record like this, but all good things must eventually come to an end.

06 February 2010

Best Albums of the 2000s (part 1)

Below is the first half of my Best Albums of the 2000s list, the third in a series of four posts looking back at the decade in music. Most of what I said in the intro to the Best Songs list applies here as well, particularly as pertaining to the personal and idiosyncratic nature of the list. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (i.e., iTunes), I have a pretty good idea of how many times I've listened to various tracks over the past six years, and this data did have some effect at the margins in terms of keeping the rankings honest. I'll try to get 50-1 up no later than midweek. Until then, here's 100-51:

100. Lovers—The Sleepy Jackson

99. Party Music—The Coup

98. 100 Broken Windows—Idlewild

Early high point from promising Scottish college rockers before their (in retrospect, perhaps inevitable) descent into overproduced moderate-rock hell.

97. Confessions on a Dance Floor—Madonna

I initially dismissed this as merely Madonna’s roots move, but the sense of effortlessness here is no mean achievement.

96. Phrenology—The Roots

95. Hypermagic Mountain—Lightning Bolt

It achieves total heaviosity. But it moves too.

94. Ta Det Lungt—Dungen

93. Untrue—Burial

92. 604—Ladytron

UK-based back-to-the-future synthpoppers reflect on love and commerce.

91. One Beat—Sleater-Kinney

90. Mesmerize/Hypnotize—System of a Down

89. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb—U2

This fair-to-middling entry in the U2 catalog finds the band spinning its wheels a bit, but the group’s newfound comfort with its own grandiosity would pay dividends down the road.

88. Thunder, Lightning, Strike—The Go! Team

87. Nouns—No Age

86. From Here We Go Sublime—The Field

Envious people will tell you that anyone with access to a computer could have made this album. But of course that’s part of what makes it great.

85. Rated R—Queens of the Stone Age

84. Songs for the Deaf—Queens of the Stone Age

Dave Grohl brings the thunder, making this the band’s best album by a whisker, despite a relative lack of musical variety.

83. Neon Golden—The Notwist

82. Lungs—Florence & the Machine

81. Gimme Fiction—Spoon

80. Silent Shout—The Knife

Of the many bands who’ve borrowed from ’80s synthpop over the past decade, The Knife has been one of the most original, deploying the genre’s bouncy sounds to cacophonous, menacing effect. And the distancing devices (heavily distorted vocals, raven masks) aren’t just facile alienation effects but function to evoke buried emotions and unspoken thoughts.

79. Hail to the Thief—Radiohead

78. The Unseen—Quasimoto

This stoned underground epic takes hip-hop’s crate-digging aesthetic strain to the next level.

77. Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.—Deerhunter

Evoking classic indie/alternative sources like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, these twin albums breathed some fresh air into a late-decade indie scene dominated by turgid hipster music.

76. Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts—M83

A consolidation, not a leap forward. But consolidations can be good.

75. Come With Us—The Chemical Brothers

74. Funeral—Arcade Fire

I remain suspicious of this band, but there are some gorgeous songs here to be sure.

73. Sonic Nurse—Sonic Youth

The second half of a productive two-album classic-rock detour with Jim O’Rourke finds the band stretching out comfortably. “The Dead are all right with me,” Thurston confides on “Stones.” As if we hadn’t known all along.

72. Beauty and the Beat—Edan

A sui generis amalgam of hip-hop and psychedelic rock.

71. Room on Fire—The Strokes

70. The Eternal—Sonic Youth

69. Magic—Bruce Springsteen

Channeling the weary-but-hopeful spirit of the ass end of the Bush administration, Magic easily achieves the political relevance that the post-9/11 The Rising audibly strained for.

68. Specialist in All Styles—Orchestra Baobab

67. Gung Ho—Patti Smith

66. Off With Their Heads—Kaiser Chiefs

Producer Mark Ronson provides some much-needed musical context for the band’s sharp-as-ever songwriting on this album, the Kaisers’ third and best to date.

65. Phrazes for the Young—Julian Casablancas

64. Girls Can Tell—Spoon

63. White Blood Cells—The White Stripes

The White Stripes made more-or-less the same album several times over, meaning that whichever one you heard first is probably your favorite.

62. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—Outkast

Long, sprawling, self-indulgent, but almost never boring. I still think Big Boi’s disc is better, but you’re welcome to disagree.

61. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard—Paul McCartney

Forced to straighten up and fly right by producer Nigel Godrich, McCartney delivers the most disciplined album of his post-Beatles career—and one of the best.

60. Demon Days—Gorillaz

59. First Impressions of Earth—The Strokes

Not the band’s most consistent album, but an aesthetic milestone, as Julian Casablancas gives voice to the nagging realization that the world might not be worthy of his best efforts.

58. Think Tank—Blur

57. Blue Cathedral—Comets on Fire

Combining neo-psychedelic ambition, indie-rock messiness, and ear-splitting volume, this album deserves to have been more influential by now. But it’s early yet.

56. XX—The XX

55. The Cold Vein—Cannibal Ox

54. Decoration Day—Drive-by Truckers

The Truckers broke into the indie-rock consciousness with their 2001 double-disc Skynrd tribute Southern Rock Opera, but it was this follow-up that established them as a top-echelon band and Patterson Hood as a major American songwriter.

53. Up the Bracket—The Libertines

It’s a shame they couldn’t keep it together for more than two albums, but of course the feeling that it could all fall apart at any moment is crucial to this particular rock aesthetic.

52. Da Drought 3—Lil Wayne

Most people would put The Carter III here instead, but I maintain that Weezy’s mixtape work, while less polished, is a lot more interesting.

51. Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike—Gogol Bordello

It lives up to its title, and that’s all you need to know.

29 January 2010

Best Music of 2009

I’m almost done with my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s list, but it seemed kind of ass-backwards to post that one before doing my Best of 2009 list. I had thought this year was going to be kind of an afterthought, what with the inevitable end-of-decade hoopla, not to mention that I appeared to be headed for my oldest and most esoteric Top 10 ever, but having now had a chance to catch up on some late-breaking releases, as well as others that I’d missed during the year, I’m now convinced that this was a pretty decent year, one with at least 13 or 14 albums that would have easily made my 2008 Top 10. Even better, 2010 is shaping up to be a monster, with strong new releases from Spoon and Four Tet already making bids for next year's list and new albums on the way from most of my other current faves. Less happily, this is my first rapless Top 10 since…well, ever, I guess. Raekwon’s fine Only Built for Cuban Linx…Pt. II came closest, but, good as it is, it seems like evidence that hip-hop is now entering its classic-rock period. That’s not a good thing, in case you were wondering. On to the list:

1. U2—No Line on the Horizon

U2’s 12th studio album is one of its best, with longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois asserting themselves as full-on collaborators. Following the solid but too comfortable How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), No Line on the Horizon reclaims the sense of musical and spiritual searching that has defined the band’s best work. (See “Found Horizons,” posted March 10.) (“Unknown Caller” “Moment of Surrender”)

2. The Field—Yesterday and Today
This supremely chilled out second album from Sweden’s Axel Willner improves on the formula of his 2007 debut, From Here We Go Sublime, adding a little rhythmic variation to his melodic techno. The most striking move is a cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” a new wave hit from the Korgis, which briefly adds a human voice to Willner's mix, but each of the six tracks on this carefully constructed album is subtly distinguished from the others. The result is the most aesthetically realized music of the year. (“Leave It” “Sequenced”)

3. The XX—XX
The debut album from a quartet of British early-twentysomethings who know what a VCR is. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim trade intimacies in vocals that feel almost whispered against the minimalist precision of the band’s arrangements. Supposedly they’re influenced by early-2000s R&B, but I can’t hear it. I’m thinking their parents must have listened to The Cure. Or possibly their grandparents. (“Crystalised” “Night Time”)

4. Julian Casablancas—Phrazes for the Young
The first solo album from Casablancas continues along the musical (synthpop, crooned vocals) and spiritual (Baudelairean) vectors of the third (but apparently not last) Strokes album, First Impressions of Earth (2006). I’m now convinced he has the stuff to develop into an American version of Jarvis Cocker, should we dare to even hope for such a thing. Included is the funniest/saddest song about NYC gentrification ever (“It started back in 1624…”). (“11th Dimension” “Left & Right in the Dark”)

5. Sonic Youth—The Eternal
Sonic Youth’s 15th proper album, and first for Matador, dissects and reconfigures musical elements from various phases of the band’s music to date—atonality, ironic pop forms, noise, hard-rock riffing, etc. As with U2 on No Line on the Horizon, the result is an album that feels both quintessential and not quite like any of their other records. Returning to the lo-fi sound of their ’80s period, the band stretches out gloriously on extended cuts like the alternately anthemic and meditative “Anti-Orgasm” and the unsettling “Massage the History.” (“Anthem” “Massage the History”)

6. Florence & the Machine—Lungs

With the Amerindie scene increasingly overrun by turgid hipster music (well represented in this year’s Pazz & Jop poll), it was refreshing to hear something hi-fi from a new artist with a big voice and bigger songs. A 23-year-old native of London, Florence Welch combines a variety of influences, mostly of the misfit female variety (Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Björk, etc.), and musical styles (alt-rock, soul, mainstream pop) on this buoyant, overflowing debut. (“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” “Between Two Lungs”)

7. Fever Ray—Fever Ray
This solo project from Karin Dreijer is in many respects even darker and more disturbing that her work with brother Olof as The Knife. The gothic soundscapes and distorted vocals recall the duo’s Silent Shout, but repeated listenings reveal Fever Ray as a more intimate, if no less mysterious, record, eschewing some of the dissonant sonic flourishes of the earlier album in favor of a haunting ambience. (“When I Grow Up” “Now’s the Only Time I Know”)

8. PJ Harvey & John Parish—A Woman a Man Walked By

For some reason, I didn’t much care for this when it was released in March, but having rediscovered it a few weeks ago, I’m now convinced that this war-haunted album is Harvey’s best since Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000), a reminder of how indispensable her artistic vision remains. The somber tone is similar to that of 2007’s dirge-heavy White Chalk, but here sadness and regret are tempered by anger, and Parish’s presence as collaborator adds some much-needed musical variety. (“The Soldier” “A Woman a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go”)

9. Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca
Something from an arty hipster band that I do like. (“Stillness Is the Move” “Temecula Sunrise”)

10. SunnO)))—Monoliths & Dimensions
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to get into metal—most of it tends to lose me as soon as the singer opens his mouth. SunnO))), a duo comprising guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, isn’t exactly a metal band, but the music does employ some of the instrumental and, yes, vocal tics of the genre in the service of what the band has termed “power ambient” music, a label that aptly describes Monoliths & Dimensions. The album’s doom-metal sonics are complemented by unexpected elements like a women’s choir and even a French horn. The vocals on the first track still remind me of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s a hypnotic song that holds up to repeated listenings, and the album only gets better from there. (“Big Church” “Alice”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

I half-assed this list so badly last year that I almost didn’t do one this time, but I’m happier with this one.

1. Girls—“Lust for Life”

2. Bob Dylan—“It’s All Good”

The title kind of says it all.

3. Bat for Lashes—“Daniel”

I’m highly ambivalent about Two Suns, much of which is beautiful and mesmerizing, even as other bits feel fraudulent. This is the type of goth-tinged pop song that a band like Love and Rockets might have been able to get on the radio 25 years ago, but which has sadly disappeared from the mainstream.

4. The Arctic Monkeys—“Cornerstone”

I want to hang out at the Parrot’s Beak. Or the Rusty Hook.

5. Patterson Hood—“The Pride of the Yankees”

Also some mention should be made of Edan’s unclassifiable “Echo Party,” a 29-minute track that reimagines the old school hip-hop party jam as some synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin’, and of The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms (1980) and The Good Earth (1986), the most significant rock reissues of the year.

08 January 2010

Best Songs of the 2000s (part 2)

Here's the second half of the Top 100 Songs of the 2000s. There were many great songs, but there was only one real contender for No. 1, since nothing else quite captured the, um, shall we say tone of the past 10 years. I'll try to get the albums list up next week. Until then, enjoy...

50. “Galang”—M.I.A.

49. “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood”—Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

The best song I’ve heard about the early days of the war in Iraq, perfectly capturing the thing that made this war different from all the others, that feeling that it simultaneously was and wasn't happening. It’s also about child stars.

48. “We Major”—Kanye West (feat. Nas and Really Doe)

47. “Sawdust & Diamonds”—Joanna Newsom

A moment of almost unbearable vision.

46. “Black Cadillacs”—Modest Mouse

45. “Maps”—Yeah Yeah Yeahs

This classic classic-rock ballad may be the only song from this band that I care about.

44. “Rain Fall Down”—The Rolling Stones

On 2005’s A Bigger Bang, Mick tried actually singing on a Stones album for the first time in about 25 years, and it turns out the old guy can still do it (“Feels like we’re living in a battleground and everybody’s jaa-ah-ah-ah-uzzzzed”).

43. “Weak Become Heroes”—The Streets

42. “99 Problems”—Jay-Z

This masculinist banger was more or less what the whole rap-metal thing was trying to get at all along.

41. “The Hardest Button to Button”—The White Stripes

Jack White channels his inner Iggy Pop.

40. “Hercules Theme”—Hercules and Love Affair

39. “White Winter Hymnal”—Fleet Foxes

38. “House of Jealous Lovers”—The Rapture

Back when hipster music wasn't such a bad thing.

37. “Amazing”—Kanye West (feat. Young Jeezy)

36. “Ms. Jackson"—Outkast

Andre and Big Boi do some brilliant tag-teaming in the service of a song of remarkable emotional maturity and complexity.

35. “A Certain Romance”—The Arctic Monkeys

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alex Turner: “And over there there’s broken bones/There’s only music so that there’s new ring tones/And it don’t take no Sherlock Holmes/To see it’s a little different around here/Don’t get me wrong though, there’s boys in bands/And kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands/And just ’cause he’s had a couple of cans/He thinks it’s all right to act like a dickhead.” I’m not sure how you learn to write lyrics like that, but sitting around listening to records definitely isn’t it.

34. “Pagan Poetry”—Björk

33. “Turn My Way”—New Order (feat. Billy Corgan)

Bernard Sumner lays it all out, with an assist from Billy Corgan. It’s the best track the latter was ever involved in, and that’s not a slam on the Smashing Pumpkins. Well, not a total slam.

32. “And Then Patterns”—Four Tet

31. “Never Gonna Change”—Drive-by Truckers

Southern gangsta rock at its finest. Still, the question lingers: Were the gun-toting, drug-trafficking truck drivers of Alabama really worthy of such a tribute? Yes. Oh yes.

30. “Umbrella”—Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z)

Supposedly this song was offered to Madonna and Britney Spears, but it needed the voice of an unspoiled newcomer (e.g., the 19-year-old Rihanna) rather than that of a jaded pop star (e.g., the 21-year-old Rihanna).

29. “Hard to Explain”—The Strokes

Rollin’ down the street smokin’ endo.

28. “Heat Breeze Tenderness”—Youssou N’Dour

I’m not sure the English translation of the lyrics in the album notes for Nothing’s in Vain quite does justice to what’s happening here, but I think I get it anyway.

27. “The Righteous Path”—Drive-by Truckers

Patterson Hood envisions the American Everyman, circa 2008. The verse about the narrator’s troubled friend is a remarkable blend of empathy and self-delusion.

26. “I Predict a Riot”—Kaiser Chiefs

It was huge in Britain, dammit.

25. “Another Morning Stoner”—And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

24. “Don’t Panic”—Coldplay

First song on their first album and the best thing they’ll ever do.

23. “Everything in Its Right Place”—Radiohead

22. “Clint Eastwood”—Gorillaz

21. “Modern Way”—Kaiser Chiefs

A rock anthem for our time.

20. “The Rat”—The Walkmen

Ah, the jaded city (“When I used to go out I’d know everyone I saw/Now I go out alone if I go out at all”).

19. “Superheroes”—Daft Punk

I think it’s “Something’s in the air.” Or “Love is in the air.” Or “Throw guns in the air.” It’s the repetition that matters.

18. “Flashing Lights”—Kanye West (feat. Dwele)

That hint of autumn underneath the ocean breeze.

17. “Moment of Surrender”—U2

U2 reached a number of long-sought aesthetic goals on No Line on the Horizon. This 21st-century hymn, mostly recorded in one amazing take in Morocco, represented one.

16. “Good Fortune”—PJ Harvey

Once in a while when the sun is shining and your head’s just right, the city’s not such a bad place after all.

15. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”—Bob Dylan

One of the songs that defined that surreal period immediately after 9/11, as its feverish lyrics took on resonances that even its august maker could scarcely have anticipated.

14. “Star Guitar”—The Chemical Brothers

A dispatch from some mythical place where the sun never sets and the music never stops.

13. “Jenny Wren”—Paul McCartney

Like an aging hall-of-fame pitcher who might not be able to bring it every time out—but can still reach back and throw a gem on a given night.

12. “Heartbeat”—Annie

Tip of the hat to Pitchfork for drawing my attention to this slice of pop perfection from Norway. Stopping brilliantly short after two choruses, the whole thing is pure elemental bliss, but it’s Annie’s distracted reading of the final verse that launches the track into the stratosphere, the dancefloor encounter of the song’s opening now slipped into memory.

11. “Finer Feelings”—Spoon

Memphis meets Sandinista on the best track from the best album of the decade’s most consistent band.

10. “Pyramid Song”—Radiohead

Possibly the most beautiful piece of music in the Radiohead catalog.

9. “Losing My Edge”—LCD Soundsystem

The particular anxieties of the aging hipster, captured with the keen humor and minute precision of one who knows of what he speaks.

8. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”—U2

Inspired by the suicide of INXS frontman and F.O.B. Michael Hutchence, one of the best white gospel tracks of all time.

7. “Jesus Walks”—Kanye West

The way Kathie Lee needed Regis.

6. “The Way We Get By”—Spoon

With a litle help from our friends, of course.

5. “B.O.B.”—Outkast

Just obviously great. I have nothing further to add.

4. “Casimir Pulaski Day”—Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan’s theology of suffering.

3. “Unknown Caller”—U2

Brian Eno’s never seemed more like a full-fledged member of U2 than on this majestic 2009 track, in some respects the pinnacle of a 25-year collaboration.

2. “Unison”—Björk

It wasn’t a great decade for love songs, but Björk was never much for following the crowd. Nestled at the end of her finest album is her greatest track ever, a nearly seven-minute fusion of strings and synthesizers, electronic beats and choral vocals. Somehow all the humanity and all the technology comes together, and it’s a glorious thing to hear. Play it loud.

1. “Paper Planes”—M.I.A.

The whole damn decade in 3:25.

06 January 2010

Best Songs of the 2000s (part 1)

At long last, the first half of my Top 100 Songs of the 2000s list. I’ll get the second half up once I finish writing some more blurbs.

I guess I should use this space to say something pompous about “the decade in music” but I think the past 10 years resist any easy generalizations or categorizations. Music from more sources than ever is now far more accessible than it’s ever been, which is all in all a good thing.

It goes without saying that what follows is a highly personal, idiosyncratic list of the decade’s best songs. It's certainly not a list of the decade's best singles, although I did make an effort to include a handful of songs from the pop mainstream. Favorites are played; age is shown. Lots of worthy songs are absent; many more I haven’t heard. I was going to do a worst-songs list too, but it turned out they were all by the Black Eyed Peas. Anyway, enjoy. And if you don’t like my picks, then make your own list. But whatever you do, don’t come bitching to me.

100. “In Houston”—Tapes ’N Tapes

99. “Daniel”—Bat for Lashes

Unlikely hot influence of the moment: Kate Bush.

98. “Ride Around Shining”—Clipse

97. “Somebody Told Me”—The Killers

A lot more fun than the unbearable “Mr. Brightside.” Less emo, more Journey.

96. “When Under Ether”—PJ Harvey

95. “Formed a Band”—Art Brut

Acidic rock from across the pond (“We’re gonna be the band that writes the song/That makes Israel and Palestine get along”).

94. “Still Tippin’—Mike Jones (feat. Slim Thug and Paul Wall)

93. “Romeo”—Basement Jaxx

92. “Sink Hole”—Drive-by Truckers

In which a resourceful Southerner comes up with an elegant solution to his foreclosure problem.

91. “You Know I’m No Good”—Amy Winehouse

Not “Rehab,” which is neither cute nor funny.

90. “Nothing Ever Happened”—Deerhunter

89. “Never Let Me Down”—Kanye West (feat. Jay-Z and J. Ivy)

88. “Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)”—Idlewild

Scottish rockers deliver a punchy power ballad with a title worthy of Morrissey.

87. “Stress Rap”—Cannibal Ox

86. “Never Miss a Beat”—Kaiser Chiefs

85. “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”—The Roots (feat. Amiri Baraka)

The sort of fusion of poetry and popular music that almost never works. Exceptions: Patti Smith’s Horses; not much else.

84. “Toxic”—Britney Spears

83. “Starálfur”—Sigur Ros

I could easily have picked the more elemental (and better known) “Svefn-G-Englar” instead.

82. “Hounds of Love”—The Futureheads

See No. 99

81. “Hola’ Hovito”—Jay-Z

80. “Mississippi”—Bob Dylan

“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” the man says. He comes close though.

79. “Karen Revisited”—Sonic Youth

78. “Monosylabik”—DJ Shadow

An exercise in sheer virtuosity. Shadow continues to slice and reslice the same beat, goaded on by the recurring taunt “What you gon’ do now?”

77. “Bowtie”—Outkast

76. “A Paw in My Face”—The Field

Axel Willner chills out to some Lionel Richie.

75. “All Falls Down”—Kanye West

“And the white man get paid off of all of that.” Apparently the phrase “white man” was bleeped out on MTV. Standing up for the master race since 1981.

74. “Return of the Loop Digga”—Quasimoto

73. “Lust for Life”—Girls

72. “Float On”—Modest Mouse

The buoyant theme song of the most depressing political year in memory.

71. “Heartbreak Stroll”—Raveonettes

70. “Someday”—The Strokes

In many ways we’ll miss the good old days.

69. “Schism”—Tool

The cry of the madman—or the last sane person in a world gone mad (“I know the pieces fit”).

68. “Stillness Is the Move”—Dirty Projectors

67. “First of the Gang to Die”—Morrissey

It’s hard not to read this as Moz’s typically perverse tribute to his legions of Latino fans.

66. “Chop Suey!”—System of a Down

65. “Shakey Dog”—Ghostface Killah

Dense, vivid narrative rap.

64. “Accordion”—Madvillain

63. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”—The Arcade Fire

62. “Hurt Me Soul”—Lupe Fiasco

Lupe can get a bit preachy for my taste, but this track from his debut is a bull’s-eye. The torrential flow of the climactic final verse is too generalized to qualify as political analysis but perfectly captures how overwhelming it all seems.

61. “$20”—M.I.A.

Showing off a tremendous range of influences, Maya raps about the cost of an AK-47 in Africa against a dense backdrop of chants, synths, and the bass line from “Blue Monday.”

60. “I Feel Like Dying”—Lil Wayne

Clearly the product of some serious drug use.

59. “Better Living Through Chemistry”—Queens of the Stone Age

See No. 60.

58. “Earthquake Weather”—Beck

It wasn’t the best decade for Beck, but this track from 2005’s Guero is sufficient evidence that he’s still relevant.

57. “The Rip”—Portishead

56. “Please Please Please”—Fiona Apple

The cry of the frustrated experimentalist. I feel her pain.

55. “Mr. Bobby”—Manu Chao

Can’t we all just get along?

54. “Idioteque”—Radiohead

The October 2000 release date of Kid A seems alarmingly prescient now. It’s almost as though something unbelievably horrible was about to happen and none of us had any idea.

53. “Long Walk Home”—Bruce Springsteen

If Obama had wanted a candid campaign theme song, he could have done worse than this update of “My Hometown.”

52. “Don’t Tell Me”—Madonna

The best of Madonna’s late-period singles and a concise articulation of a particular worldview. It’s not a worldview I share. Truth be told, it’s not a worldview I particularly respect. But it is delivered with conviction.

51. “Get Ur Freak On”—Missy Elliott

Some consensus choices are tough to argue with.