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.
I’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
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.