The Top 101 Best Songs of the 2000s: Part 3
(The Top 20)
20. “Heartbeats” – The Knife (2003)
I want to preface this by saying fuck all covers of this track. Stripping “Heartbeats” to its barest elements to highlight the power of the lyrics does it a disservice. It’s more than just a tender love song; it’s so clearly a first love song. Jose Gonzalez picking away on his acoustic guitar captures just a single dimension of both the ecstatic joy and the inevitable doom of first love. The performance and instrumentation of the original recording strike a balance that makes the song legendary. Bathing in sawtooth waveforms right at the start of the analog synth revival and supplanted by impressionistic ESL lyrics, the one true recording of “Heartbreats” deftly contains multitudes. – Rob
19. “Idioteque” – Radiohead (2000)
This perfect crystal song; it would take little more than this one track for Radiohead to earn legend status. For a decade’s worth of bands-to-be, Radiohead was the unattainable horizon. Despite the pursuit, in the nearly two decades since “Idioteque,” we’ve heard very little that compares well to it. Perhaps music has gone elsewhere and the project is over. Nonetheless, this is not trivial music. Radiohead try harder. – Chris
18. “Ignition (Remix)” – R. Kelly (2003)
Adding “Ignition” to the Top 100 is easy until you’re asked to explain yourself. It goes without saying that “Ignition” is a timeless dancefloor megahit, but how do we continue to justify elevating a man who has caused pain in the lives of so many others? How do we deal with the cognitive dissonance that arises when you love the art but hate the artist? Thankfully these are all rhetorical questions, because I don’t have answers to them. I am not certain that many people do. For reasons unknown, R. Kelly is moving through the #MeToo era relatively unscathed. Even when it seemed as though he was going to join his gross brethren in exile when Spotify removed his music from their playlist and algorithms as part of their “Hateful Conduct” policy, the policy was axed a month later and Kelly’s music was restored. Is it because all the allegations of child pornography and sexual misconduct occurred during a time when public sentiment wasn’t strong enough to turn him into a pariah? Did we not care enough then? Do we still not care enough? It’s possible. For those like me who still enjoy the song, our willingness to separate art from artist must be greater than it is for, say, Harvey Weinstein, whose films make me cringe every time I see The Weinstein Company logo in the opening credits. This is difficult, but I anticipate that our ability to turn our collective blind eye toward R. Kelly will diminish in the years to come. – Catherine
17. “99 Problems” – Jay-Z (2003)
In retrospect, the entire premise of this song is kinda hilarious. After all, if you count releases from Jay-Z, Beyonce, and two of them together, our current decade has seen no fewer than three albums just about Jay-Z’s girl problems.But back in 2003, Jay-Z could announce, with full confidence, that “a bitch” was not among his many troubles.
If you’re going to listen to hip-hop, it’s hard to avoid having to reckon with this sort of thing sooner or later. It’s definitely Not Awesome for a song to keep using the word “bitch” as a synonym for “woman,” and the part later in the song where Jay talks about getting in a fight with someone and clarifies “this is not a bitch in the sense of having a pussy” is definitely Not Helping. Everyone’s got to draw their own line on this stuff, and mine is, basically, that I’ll just roll my eyes and move past it if the song is not actually misogynist (or homophobic or whatever) in content, and if it’s otherwise good enough to be worth listening to despite provoking said eyeroll. “99 Problems” qualifies for me, especially since it’s really not about women at all.
Instead, the song presents, essentially, a primer on being a young black man in America. We hear about predatory magazines that exploit Jay-Z’s blackness of advertising dollars, about how interpersonal conflict needs to be managed carefully because a confrontation will likely lead to being sucked into the maw of the justice system, and, in the song’s dramatic centerpiece, about a tense encounter with a police officer who is determined to circumvent a young Jay-Z’s Fourth Amendment rights. This imagined dialogue, based on an actual incident from Jay-Z’s life, showcases his rapping at its best, as he conjures fully-formed character to engage with; a cop whose racism is as casual and bored-sounding as it is menacing. Not only that, but the exchange contains useful legal advice! If a cop stops you for speeding, he’s not allowed to search your car unless you consent! Know your rights, people! -Craig
16. “Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes (2003)
Does anything cement rock god status as much as becoming a sports stadium staple? What about regular rotation at political protests? With “Seven Nation Army” the White Stripes achieved both with a single song. While the simple drum-and-guitar set up gave their earlier albums a bit of a rinky-dink, wheels-about-to-come-off feel, this one charges right out of the gate with its portentous bass-like riff and insistent thumping beat like the devil himself coming to collect your soul. That its chorus has no words only makes it easier for drunken football fans and righteous Occupy Wall Streeters to sing along to. Its perpetual ubiquity aside, it’s just a killer rock song, released at a time when there was some doubt such things could be big hits anymore. Jack and Meg’s personas always had a touch of the imp to them (lest we forget the “she’s his sister, she’s his wife” weirdness of their origins). That they almost single-handedly resurrected a genre with a song of such gung-ho simplicity might be their greatest trick. – Sara
15. “Since U Been Gone” – Kelly Clarkson (2003)
It’s as if someone challenged the demi-god of the Swedish pop hit machine that he couldn’t create a rock song. And then, he did. Kelly who? This is all Max Martin and his protege (when he still was a protege, and not yet accused of rape). And, it’s still a pop song. It’s still about the hook. It’s still about sing/screaming the chorus. – Ben
14. “All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem (2007)
I have cried twice while attending concerts: once while Leonard Cohen was performing “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” at the Barclays Center, his raggedy voice filling up that huge stadium; and once when LCD Soundsystem played this at one of their “final” 2011 shows. It’s difficult to capture in words exactly how it felt to be in the room at that moment but the concert footage below does a damned good job of showing what this band, and this song in particular, means to its fans. James Murphy’s lyrics often winkingly tow the line between archly reflective and genuinely scolding, but with “All My Friends” he sheds all the hipster posturing for the bittersweet longing for connection such armor often hides (is it any wonder this song featured prominently in the Greenberg trailer?). LCD’s instrumentation is never particularly complex and that works immensely in its favor here with the deployment of a single piano loop, which manages to build from hesitant to rapturous without actually changing at all. It’s important, too, that the repeated salvo of “If I could see all my friends tonight” is ultimately of a wish not fulfilled, which has particular resonance for those of us who grew up in a singularly destabilizing decade, when a lot of the things we were taught to expect in life ended up beyond our reach. Our friends might not always be together, but we remember how it felt when they were, and sometimes that has to be enough. – Sara
13. “Paper Planes” – MIA (2007)
Man, things change fast these days. Eleven years ago this song felt like a blast of fresh air; now it sounds like a missive from a freer time, when walls were being torn down, not built up. Constructed on the back of a pulsating Clash sample, with its playful, arresting chorus filled with gunshot and cash register sound effects, and delivered with an enviably confident swagger, “Paper Planes” anointed everyone who listened to it with instant street cred, whether you’d ever smoked weed or held a weapon in your life, even if just for three minutes and twenty four seconds. Unlike everyone who bought a Che Guevara shirt from Hot Topic, though, MIA had the life story to back it all up. Daughter of a Tamil Tiger, whose family went into hiding during the Sri Lankan Civil War before making their way to London, she channels that history of displacement into a border-hopping, politically conscious anthem that’s as comfortable soundtracking Slumdog Millionaire as the trailer for Pineapple Express. A celebration of globalization and immigrant hustle that white bros could openly embrace? Back then it seemed a bit comical. Now it feels radical. – Sara
12. “Do You Realize??” – The Flaming Lips (2002)
One way to reliably make yourself cry: Listen to your beautiful friend who was murdered in a horrific act of gun violence sing the line “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” My colleague Claire recorded a cover of this song with her band Trot Fox about 8 months before she was killed, and with the help of her friends and family, it was later produced and released as a memorial tribute to her. When you don’t have the chance to say “all of your goodbyes” to someone, you have to find ways to honor them after the fact — you can listen the song on Bandcamp and make a donation to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) while you’re there, and you can learn more about Claire’s work with my company, and donate to the fund we established in her name at Sanctuary for Families (supporting survivors of gender violence). – Michelle
11. “This Year” – The Mountain Goats (2005)
“It was song number three on John’s last CD: I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me. And it almost killed me.” That’s a line from the Hold Steady’s song “Girls Like Status,” a 2006 B-side that brought their indie-scene referencing right up to date, quoting a Mountain Goats song that came out just a year earlier and fusing it with the title and sentiment behind the first Hold Steady record, Almost Killed Me. (In later live incarnations, accounting for the passage of time, the line was tweaked to be allusive: “It was song number three on The Sunset Tree…”) I was in the crowd at the Bowery Ballroom when the Mountain Goats played there in 2011, after the 2000s were over, more than a few years removed from both references, and Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle had the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn come out and sing “This Year” as a duet. You can watch a video below.
In it, you can see that it’s Darnielle who first calls back to “Girls Like Status,” adding “and it almost killed me!” after Finn spits out Darnielle’s most indelible chorus: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” This is, however improbably, even more than the indie-rock equivalent of an earth-shattering superhero crossover event (at least for a lot of the SportsAlcohol.com editorial team). It’s a perfect live variation, because it’s an extra bit of fist-pumping that the original song doesn’t require. The line “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me” has a wonderfully simple, direct irony about it; it could be mistaken for a mordant laugh line on its own, and like a lot of Mountain Goats lyrics, it has that rueful, sorta-funny edge to it.
But given the past-tense narration of the rest of the song, filled to the brim with Darnielle’s inimitable and economical narrative details, the present-tense chorus actually already has “and it almost killed me” built in there. You don’t append this chorus to a story about childhood abuse if you didn’t make it through that year to tell that story, and you probably don’t tell that story in such vivid, brilliant detail if it didn’t come pretty goddamned close to ending you. The present-tense chorus turns “This Year” from perfectly written memoir into an anthem for anyone having a rough go of it, minus the cloying older-brother reassurances that tend to mar (for me, anyway) that sort of song. The betrayal or loss of a loved one, a shift in financial circumstances, a physical or psychological trauma, or nearly anything else really can almost kill you, and surviving (just staying alive, to paraphrase another Mountain Goats tune) can be a triumph. – Jesse
10. “Wake Up” – Arcade Fire (2004)
By 2004, I thought I had a handle on what I wanted my indie rock to sound like: something that squeezed as much rock ‘n’ roll out of as little as possible. If you were a cool band like the Strokes who could make a song out of a few strummed chords, great. If you could sound even bigger with just one guitarist and one drummer like the White Stripes, even better.
“Wake Up” is everything this kind of indie rock wasn’t supposed to be. When it was performed, there were an uncountable number of people on stage. It sounded big and anthemic. Wasn’t I supposed to hate rock music that sounded like it could fill stadiums? And, halfway through a decade where terrible things were happening in the world, it had the gall to sound…hopeful?
It turned out that “Wake Up” was just what I needed at a moment when I was getting too jaded for my own good. It is sad and uplifting at the same time. It warns against letting your heart turn cold. It is a Trojan Horse: It starts off with a guitar riff that could be a slow Strokes song, then builds and builds until it gets bigger and louder and becomes something else entirely: a rallying cry for the rest of the decade. – Marisa
9. “No Children” – The Mountain Goats (2002)
Much like I wish I could tell past me the first time I saw Ian McKellan’s lecherous, misanthropic James Whale in Gods and Monsters that it’s OK to laugh, i want to tell you right now that it is more than OK to revel in the darkness of this song. Of course, you already know this if you’ve been to a Mountain Goats concert in the past decade as you’ve witnessed a room full of people shouting along to every curse and epithet the narrator spits at his wife.
After years as a cult classic singer-songwriter who performed all his recordings straight to boom box, Jon Darnielle’s first studio produced album focused on his “Alpha” couple, a pair of married alcoholics who had been featured in his songs on and off for years. “No Children” is the sound of an addict recognizing the situation they are in. It sounds depressing, but god is it so fucking cathartic. The first step to recovery is recognizing you have a problem. Sometimes, however, you recognize the problem isn’t going away. We all make mistakes. Sometimes the only answer is to steer into the skid, no matter where that takes you. At least you feel a little better for a moment. – Rob
8. “Mr. Brightside” – The Killers (2003)
I remember the mania that gripped my college campus when this album was released: it was the eighties again, but it was also NOW. This helps explain why when my band covered this song at a show fifteen years later, the crowd went totally berserk (see header image of this post, the fellow with his back to the camera – Ed.).
Nostalgia plays a big part in why we love the music that we love: it lets us engage with the past, but only how we want to remember it. Even then, nostalgic music paves over the cracks and makes it sound even better than our memory. The lover who cheated on us is forgotten; the soaring new wave riffs remain as bright as ever. Everyone who loves the music of the eighties but wasn’t actually old enough for them loves this song, myself included. As for the Killers, they never did manage to top the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling from Hot Fuss, but I suppose that’s just the price we pay. – Jeremy Bent
7. “Take Me Out” – Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Here’s what you need to know: the tempo change works. It’s a rock song, so you’d think that if you wanted to kick it up, you’d go faster, right? WRONG. Franz Ferdinand flips that time-worn rock’n’roll move on its head. “Take Me Out” drops from a bouncy 144 bpm into a slower but much groovier 104 after about a minute, and it seals the goddamn deal. You think you’re listening to an uptempo rocker, but whoops! Now it’s a hot little disco number. Throw into the mix the shout-along chorus, extra-twangy guitar hooks and an irresistible beat drop just to be safe, and you’ve got to admit it: those boys from Glasgow tricked ya good.– Jeremy Bent
6. “Such Great Heights” – The Postal Service (2003)
This was my #1. And, while I like all the songs that got more votes than this, this is the cultural artifact will encapsulate the 00s for me. Because of Sub-Pop. Because of Garden State..
To start off, it defines Sub-Pop for the 00s in the way that Nirvana defined the 90s. To be clear, this is from the “indie” label’s biggest album of the 00s that way Nirvana’s was its biggest of the 90s. And this is a side project. So much a side project that I couldn’t decide on the vote between this and the Iron & Wine cover from Garden State And Garden State is of its time. It is entirely 00s, so when a manic pixie dream girl tells you, “listen to this, it will change your life,” you know the song that you are going to hear isn’t The Shins. It’s “Such Great Heights.” This track stands out for its self-conscious ingenuity, its hope in the face of longing and separation. The puzzle pieces in the freckles of our eyes. The great heights that you will ascend to when you are finally home. This is the song you want someone to play for you and mean it. – Ben
5. “Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady (2006)
Did you know Sal Paradise was right about boys and girls in America? And that one poem from John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs?
No, I guess it doesn’t matter if you don’t get the references. You don’t need to know Berryman, his suicide, or his poetry — the song will tell you what you need to know — surrounding yourself with deep thoughts isn’t going to help you. You are in for a sad time from the time of your boy/girlhood. This song is an anthem of sadness borne from expectations, dependency, exhaustion, and your own inevitable decay. You find yourself slipping in and out of the allusions, finding meaning in those turns of phrase and the tension between the guitar licks and the piano because, and this is where it gets personal: I’ve heard this song live over a half dozen times, and if you hear it without the piano, it dies. It never soars. Without the piano, it’s like flopping off a bridge. But with the piano intro and the piano at the bridge, well, that’s where it flies. Where it’s crystal clear. Where it gives you total retention. – Ben
4. “B.O.B.” – Outkast (2000)
This song is so ahead of its time the future it comes from still hasn’t arrived, yet was released so early in the decade (just ten months in!) that I almost forgot it would qualify for the list. Somehow, though, it foretold everything that was to come, not just in its hyper-speed mish mash of hip hop, heavy metal, and Afrofuturism but the eerie ways its title would retroactively reflect on world events. (“B.O.B.” stands for “Bombs Over Baghdad” and if the Bush administration was remotely cool instead of a bunch of puckered white assholes they would’ve tried to make it their theme song.) Assaultive yet joyous, chaotic but controlled, Andre 3000 and Big Boi spit their non sequitur rhymes with disorienting speed and effortless cool. Like a well-orchestrated big screen car chase, it’s difficult to grasp everything that’s going on while it’s happening, but that just makes the artistry all the more dazzling. Outkast would have bigger songs that got better airplay (and became wedding dance floor staples) but this blitzkrieg blast of proud black madness feels like their true legacy. – Sara
3. “Crazy in Love” – Beyonce (2003)
It’s entrance music, isn’t it? The fact that this song served as a de facto announcement/preview of Bey’s approaching solo-career dominance has been enshrined in countless best-of-the-year/best-of-the-decade/best-of-all-time lists by now, but I think one reason it endures beyond a Beyoncé hype machine (beyond the fact that she continues to transcend the hype around her amazing career) is that it’s not just her entrance music anymore. It heads up playlists, movie trailers, weddings–especially weddings, where it can be a dance-floor banger, wedding-party walk-on music, or, hell, your recessional if you’re feeling particularly exuberant. We took this Beyoncé song and ran with it, just like the song took the Chi-Lites horn sample that gives it such propulsive energy. And what a relief, to have a pop song so many of us can share and love. “Crazy in Love” is so great that even as it celebrates Bey, even as it showcases a vaguely half-assed Jay-Z verse, it feels like an act of generosity. The “Queen Bey” moniker may be overused, but what’s more regal than making your subjects feel grateful for your presence? – Jesse
2. “Hey Ya!” – Outkast (2003)
On paper, this song should be a mess. Evidence: a ’60s-styled soul rocker from a celebrated hip-hop group; an elaborately staged video featuring the singer playing eight different characters; the title and the chorus of the song are the same meaningless interjection; the heretofore unheard of instruction “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” But Outkast’s impressive alchemy fuses all of these elements into one of the most perfect singles of all time. Catchy, but not boring; fun, but not exhausting; distinctive, yet familiar in structure; danceable, but deeply relistenable production. It’s an ideal synthesis of all of Outkast’s combined interests, and the ultimate showcase for the always slightly sunnier André 3000 over the more brooding Big Boi. I could go on and on about its craftsmanship, but y’all don’t wanna hear me; you just wanna dance.– Jeremy Bent
1. “Maps” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003)
I will never forget the first time I saw Karen O. I was seventeen years old, in my high school boyfriend’s basement after midnight when MTV would actually play entire music videos. We’d probably just finished making out to Blink-182’s “Miss You” when that strange opening pan across the crappy veterans hall to the art rock weirdos walking onstage caught my attention. The jittery chiming guitar, the drums like a faltering heartbeat, the front woman who couldn’t quite look into the camera but commanded it all the same. I had no concept at all of the New York City indie rock scene or how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs fit into it. I had no idea that their other songs didn’t sound anything like this. All I knew was that Karen O, with her bright red lipstick and one leather glove and sweaty black hair sticking to her face, her gestures both vulnerable and emphatic, trying desperately not to cry, was everything I didn’t know it was possible to be.
It’s well documented by now that the tears were real; Karen had been waiting for her boyfriend to show up to the shoot and he was three hours late. Said boyfriend’s first name makes up part of the acronym of the song title: My Angus Please Stay. Perhaps it’s odd that a song so nakedly emotional, so tender and spiky, a straight-faced ballad of all things, ended up our top pick for a decade that started with unfathomable tragedy and ended in financial crisis, when something that announces itself more forcefully might make more sense. But I think it’s kind of perfect, an icon of accidental influence and a harbinger for the melding of indie and pop that was to come. Though aspects of “Maps” have since been co-opted by everyone from Black-Eyed Peas to Kelly Clarkson to Beyonce, the anguished sincerity of Karen O’s performance still cuts through the commercialized clutter. Sites like YouTube and services like Spotify would soon make stumbling across a music video obsolete, but for one shining moment, whether you discovered her in a Brooklyn basement or a Bettendorf, IA one, her kind was your kind too. – Sara
Is there a Spotify playlist? Of course there’s a Spotify playlist.