Billy’s Songs of the (Not Yet Finished) Decade

This particular post highlights the risk involved with including time elements in drafts and then failing to finish promptly. The fact that the decade did not, in fact, end last week mitigates a bit. Anyway, here it goes.

Drive-By Truckers @ Bierkeller, Bristol, 5/8/2008I’m sitting on the couch, a few minutes before 7 on Christmas Eve. The egg yolks are cooking in Old Granddad bourbon, prepping for their transformation into nog. It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the great American films, will be on in an hour. (Check out my appreciation from last year.) Life’s not bad for the moment.

So, in the the spirit of celebration, I’m going to overlook the fact that the decade actually ends next year — yes, I’m one of those, if 9 was really 10, they’d call it 10 — and plunge into the happy list-making business. What follows is Billy’s highly subjective list of the top songs – plus a few honorable mentions – songs of the Aught decade, 2000-2009.

You will notice a list heavy on the singer/songwriter, alt-country, overbiting white boy genre. I guess that’s my taste. I wonder why. I would welcome some other suggestions from outside that particular realm of toonage.

Anyway, here goes:

1. “Zip City” – Drive by Truckers – from Southern Rock Opera – 2001

Named for a real place in north Alabama, Zip City is the best song ever written/recorded about a self-aware, hormone addled 17-year-old boy who spends a lot of town driving around his small town. Which is to say that it might be the best rock song ever written because what else is rock about than self-aware, hormone-addled 17 year-old boys driving around small towns? A perfect, Faulknarian work of art I have never grown tired of listening to. I won’t even quote from it because you need to hear it in its entirety of effect. It needs to be very loud and preferably live. It’s my clear number one. The rest of these are in no particular order.

Out Here in the MIddle, James McMurtry, from Saint Mary of the Woods – 2002

Hey, baby, things ain’t so bad out here in flyover country. Best riff:

“Out here in the middle
where the center’s on the right
and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan
preaches every night, to save the lonely souls
in the dashboard light —
wish you were here, my love.”

Since You Been Gone, Kelly Clarkson, who cares what album – 2004

Don’t furrow your brows at me. Like none of you turned this song up loud when it came on the radio for the third time on your trip to Miami. It’s the apotheosis of Skittles rock. I still love it. It’s on my iPod.

This Tornado Loves You, Neko Case, from Middle Cyclone – 2009

Perhaps the first song to ever cast a natural disaster as a covetous stalker. Oddly lovely. And Neko Case has the definition of smoky voice.

“My love, I am the speed of sound
I left them motherless, fatherless
Their souls they hang inside-out from their mouths
But it’s never enough
I want you”

The Hitter, Bruce Springsteen, from Devils and Dust — 2005

Where the Rolling Stones were always about being rock stars, rather than institutions, Bruce over the years has become about being Bruce, an institution. I don’t think its his fault. When you become the “voice of a generation” — at least for one state or socioeconomic class — and you have something to say about morality and politics, I think it’s inevitable that your work almost becomes secondary to your Bruceness. Too many white guys of a certain age and inclination speak of Bruce in far too hushed of tones. I know, I used to be one of them. All that said, when he simply sits down to tell an American story, few writers and singers can match him. This song languidly traces the rise and fall of a small-time, regional champion boxer in New Orleans, who in the end, can’t escape that what he does is who he is. For better, and mostly, worse. I wonder if there’s psychological autobiography going on here. Anyway, it’s a fabulous song — Bruce’s best of the decade.

The Day John Henry Died, Drive-by Truckers, The Dirty South — 2004

My favorite song from my favorite album of my favorite band of the decade. Sadly, the guy who wrote it, Jason Isbell, left DBT a few years later and the band doesn’t play his music anymore. Isbell has produced a couple of really good solo albums. I recommend them. But none of the songs are as good as this one, a brutally unsentimental commentary on social and economic evolution set to a tight, driving “alternative” musical structure.

It’s all good, but I love this riff that ends the song:

“John Henry was a steel-driving bastard;
but John Henry was a bastard just the same.
An engine never thinks about his daddy;
and an engine never needs to write its name.

So pack your bags, we’re headed west and L.A. ain’t no place to rest.
You’ll need some sleep to pass the test, so get some on the flight
and say your prayers John Henry Ford
’cause we don’t need your work no more.
You should have known the final score the day John Henry died.”

And for what it’s worth, the DBTs have probably 30 songs that could make it on this list for me, depending on my mood. Buy their music. Best band of the decade. They have another album coming out in March.

Hey Ya, Outkast, from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — 2003

“Shake it like a Polaroid picture.” What else do I have to say? Was this the only good rap album of the decade, or am I just old?

All These Things That I’ve Done, The Killers, Hot Fuss — 2004

I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, that The Killers are the only guitar-driven rock/pop band of the Aughts that actually became huge in the Aughts. That shows the state of the industry, I’d say. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. Huge is overrated. Anyway, the Killers inherited the classic U2 tradition of catchy, emotion-laden songs with absolutely indecipherable lyrics. “All the things that I’ve done” is a classic example. “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier.” What? But it works and cries out for pyro and big arenas. So you just go with it. I love the poppy intricacy of the layered guitars and synthesizers.

“Wake Up”, Arcade Fire, from Funeral — 2004

Speaking of U2, I’m told that the band took the stage during its recent concert tour to this song by Arcade Fire, making it the thing played at their shows. “Wake Up” echoes The Killers, except better, with more to say:

“Children, don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to
rust.

I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”

That might be THE emblematic stanza for this chaotic and difficult decade. The rest of what I’ve heard from Arcade Fire doesn’t seem quite as good, but they struck gold with this song.

“Identity Theft,” Nellie McKay, from Obligatory Villagers — 2007

Nellie McKay is acquired taste – part potty-mouthed Broadway diva, part indie songwriter, part other stuff. But she’s original, and I really like this song, which is hard to describe. You sort of just need to listen to it.

“The Rake’s Song,” The Decemberists, from The Hazards of Love — 2008

If a bunch of English teachers specializing in Chaucer decided to form a rock band, they’d be the The Decemberists. They have a sensibility unique to the times. It allows them to get away with writing songs like this, which, and don’t read anything into this, is the best song about infanticide you’re ever likely to hear.

I want give honorable mention to two bands – the Avett Brothers and the Hold Steady — who created consistently excellent music this decade, making it difficult to pick out one or two specific songs. Saw them both live this year and would urge to buy their music, too. The Avetts play what you might call banjo punk with a little bit of boy band harmony mixed in. It works. The Hold Steady calls itself a traditional bar band and just plays really well-written, emotional modern rock.

And there you have it. My little list of songs. I’m sure I’ve left many worthies off the list. Please argue, reject, and suggest your own. I’m always looking to expand my musical tastes.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Chicken Music

8 thoughts on “Billy’s Songs of the (Not Yet Finished) Decade

  1. Hey Billy – It was fun to read your list. I especially approve of James McMurtry and the Drive By Truckers, and agree with your special note about the Avett Brothers. I lose track of how many years have gone by, so I doubt I could do an adequate job of adding to your list, but a few notes: All the songs on Robert Plant’s and Alison Krauss’ album stood up well. (No groans: You had Kelly Clarkson!) And at the tail end of your “decade”, the album Monsters of Folk, by the band of the same name, blew me away. My daughter has the Killers album. My first impression was not too good, but I’ll give it another listen on your recommendation. :)

  2. Hey Billy – It was fun to read your list. I especially approve of James McMurtry and the Drive By Truckers, and agree with your special note about the Avett Brothers. I lose track of how many years have gone by, so I doubt I could do an adequate job of adding to your list, but a few notes: All the songs on Robert Plant’s and Alison Krauss’ album stood up well. (No groans: You had Kelly Clarkson!) And at the tail end of your “decade”, the album Monsters of Folk, by the band of the same name, blew me away. My daughter has the Killers album. My first impression was not too good, but I’ll give it another listen on your recommendation. :)

  3. Thanks Becky. The Allison Krauss/Robert Plant album is a good call. I never heard it all the way through, but the songs I did hear on MNF I really liked. I’ll check out the Monsters of Folk. And as far as the Killers, just remember that they’re aiming at our kids, not us. You need a little self-important glib rock to get through being young.

  4. Thanks Becky. The Allison Krauss/Robert Plant album is a good call. I never heard it all the way through, but the songs I did hear on MNF I really liked. I’ll check out the Monsters of Folk. And as far as the Killers, just remember that they’re aiming at our kids, not us. You need a little self-important glib rock to get through being young.

  5. Going off the top of my head here and reserving the right to comment again when I can sit down with my CDs.

    I’d say Outkast was more Hip Hop than Rap. I thought the album was uneven. Jay Z’s Black Album or Kanye West’s College Dropout might contain better picks if your willing to say the rap/hip hop genres are fluid.

    I’d probably go for “The Corner” by Common (for, ahem, its common theme) or “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” by The Legendary K.O (for capturing lightening)

    Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak On” shouldn’t be forgotten either. The single came out in 2001.

    Gorillaz proved you don’t have to show your face to have a hit. “Clint Eastwood” woke up the Aughts as B.A.D.’s E=MC2 did for the 80s.

    I’m not sure how you left off “American Idiot” by Green Day. That must have been an editing error. :)

    In the country genre, the Dixie Chicks and “Not Ready to Make Nice” were a perfect response to the Toby Keith pap we were subjected to by most radio stations.

    Locally, it isn’t any secret that I’m a fan of the Dark Romantics. I’m still sick I was too sick to go to 2008’s CD release show. Anyway, “Another Song for Another Night” is on my early list.

    Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter” and Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” are on both on my list, not just for the attention they received, but because of their strong, emotional lyrics.

    Finally, my personal favorite version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was released by k.d. lang in the 00s

  6. Going off the top of my head here and reserving the right to comment again when I can sit down with my CDs.

    I’d say Outkast was more Hip Hop than Rap. I thought the album was uneven. Jay Z’s Black Album or Kanye West’s College Dropout might contain better picks if your willing to say the rap/hip hop genres are fluid.

    I’d probably go for “The Corner” by Common (for, ahem, its common theme) or “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” by The Legendary K.O (for capturing lightening)

    Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak On” shouldn’t be forgotten either. The single came out in 2001.

    Gorillaz proved you don’t have to show your face to have a hit. “Clint Eastwood” woke up the Aughts as B.A.D.’s E=MC2 did for the 80s.

    I’m not sure how you left off “American Idiot” by Green Day. That must have been an editing error. :)

    In the country genre, the Dixie Chicks and “Not Ready to Make Nice” were a perfect response to the Toby Keith pap we were subjected to by most radio stations.

    Locally, it isn’t any secret that I’m a fan of the Dark Romantics. I’m still sick I was too sick to go to 2008’s CD release show. Anyway, “Another Song for Another Night” is on my early list.

    Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter” and Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” are on both on my list, not just for the attention they received, but because of their strong, emotional lyrics.

    Finally, my personal favorite version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was released by k.d. lang in the 00s

  7. Nice list Chuck. I had no idea you were such the rap/hip hop impresario. I think musical genre definitions are pointless. I wouldn’t know how to tell rap from hip hop, the same way I wouldn’t know grind core from death metal.

    Great call on the Dixie Chicks. I actually just forgot them. That whole album is good. I really like the “Farewell to old friends” song, which is just nicer, more melancholy version of “Not Ready to Make Nice.” And “Traveling Soldier” off their older album was the first thing they did I ever really noticed. I remember thinking it was atypical for a country band, and I was right.

    Your one real stinker is Green Day. From my point-of-view, Green Day is to rock as “District 9” is to science fiction for you. Enjoyable, but not particularly original or powerful. If you like Green Day, you’ll really like the Hold Steady, who is what Green Day wishes they were. Go listen to the song “Constructive Summer” – The key line is “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher/Getting older makes it harder to remember/we are our only saviors/ — I know you appreciate The Clash reference.

    I can’t believe I missed the chance to see old Leonard Cohen at TBPAC a couple of months. Oh well.

  8. Nice list Chuck. I had no idea you were such the rap/hip hop impresario. I think musical genre definitions are pointless. I wouldn’t know how to tell rap from hip hop, the same way I wouldn’t know grind core from death metal.

    Great call on the Dixie Chicks. I actually just forgot them. That whole album is good. I really like the “Farewell to old friends” song, which is just nicer, more melancholy version of “Not Ready to Make Nice.” And “Traveling Soldier” off their older album was the first thing they did I ever really noticed. I remember thinking it was atypical for a country band, and I was right.

    Your one real stinker is Green Day. From my point-of-view, Green Day is to rock as “District 9” is to science fiction for you. Enjoyable, but not particularly original or powerful. If you like Green Day, you’ll really like the Hold Steady, who is what Green Day wishes they were. Go listen to the song “Constructive Summer” – The key line is “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher/Getting older makes it harder to remember/we are our only saviors/ — I know you appreciate The Clash reference.

    I can’t believe I missed the chance to see old Leonard Cohen at TBPAC a couple of months. Oh well.

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