The Best Songs of the 2000s: The Outliers

No one who votes on a best-of list is ever completely, 100% satisfied with the results, and few group lists are as idiosyncratic as the individual ballots that come together to form a consensus (no matter how weird that consensus is). With that in mind, we wanted to give the participants in our recent Best Songs of the 2000s poll to defend their orphan choices—the songs that not only didn’t make our list, but only received a single vote from a single participant. In most cases, the artist in question didn’t make our list at all (the last two profiled here are an exception); in several cases, the artist in question didn’t receive any other votes! (Sorry, Aaliyah, Dntel, and Junior Senior!) Whatever the circumstances, here are a bunch of our writers back for a curtain call, to explain how and why they departed so completely from the crowd.

“Try Again” – Aaliyah (2001)

I was apparently the only one who voted for this, or any, Aaliyah song for this list. Which in some ways is fair. She broke big in the mid-90s and most of her best-loved hits come from that period. She also, tragically, was taken from us just one year into the decade. But even her short career has proved influential. It’s tough to imagine Rihanna and Beyonce’s chameleon-like charisma without her. She would have been 39 this year, and I wonder what kind of career she might have had during the rest of the decade. “Try Again” is slinkier and trickier than a lot of the R&B that emerged later on; there’s no in-your-face horn samples or dextrous rhyme spitting, but there’s a certain power to Aaliyah’s subtler come-ons nonetheless. It’s the kind of song that gets under your skin rather than making you want to get up and dance but, for me at least, that just makes it linger all the more. – Sara

“(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” – Dntel (2001)

Seeing three songs from Give Up make our list but not the track responsible for the creation of the Postal Service gives me flashbacks to North Six (now the Music Hall of Williamsburg for you youngs) on Good Friday, 2004. Throngs of bespectacled hipsters screamed “Evan and Chan!” at Ben Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello, et al. for the encore as they launched into a cover of Phil Collins’s classic (?) “Against All Odds” that sounded half baked compared to the version they eventually recorded. I like Give Up just as much anyone else in my demo, but Tamborello and Gibbard’s first collaboration promised something more glitchy, expressionistic, and experimental than a solid synth pop album. The voters of this list join the actual band in not giving a shit in what I think. – Rob

“Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” – Okkervil River (2007)

I’m a movie critic, not a music critic. But I’m a sucker for music about movies, especially if it has cinematic scope and ambition. “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” does that concept one better, because it’s actually a song about the filmmaking process, in particular how it can be shitty and unpersuasive and drudging. (The video, about a low-budget film crew making a seedy crime thriller set in a generic motel, emphasizes this theme; it’s also phenomenal for its own reasons, in particular the recursive zoom into the TV screen at the 3:16 mark.) Yet while Okkervil River’s Will Sheff is plainly critical of the garden-variety, direct-to-video trash that wanders across his television—“the breath that you breathed in the street screams there’s no science,” he snarls, a swipe at shoddy production values and cheesy special effects—he’s even more critical of himself; as the title suggests, “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” is about introspection, Sheff grappling with the gnawing fear that maybe his career isn’t worthy of the biopic treatment on the silver screen. His self-awareness is clever—“It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax / No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX”—but it’s also kind of sad. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, but what if our own stories are boring?

Maybe Sheff’s right about his own irrelevance; that no other contributor included this track on their list—and that zero Okkervil River songs made the final cut—would suggest his anxiety is well-founded. But with due respect to my colleagues, “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” is a stone-cold classic. Musically speaking, it’s absolutely massive, with relentless drums and hard-charging guitars propelling Sheff’s anguished howl of a voice. And lyrically, it’s full of nerdy bits of filmic language: fade-ins, dissolves, smash cuts, flickering panes of grain. By the time it reaches its third verse, about a “fake masterpiece serenely dribbling” from your speakers, the song’s crescendo threatens to combust, and Sheff’s concerns about his ordinariness seem laughable. Anyone can make a bad movie, or an unmemorable song. Masterpieces are harder to come by—fake or otherwise. – Jeremy Beck

“Move Your Feet” – Junior Senior (2002)

This is another song that got drilled into my head by a semester in the UK, right when this jam was at its hottest (#3 on the UK charts). But I maintain this is an all-time party jam: nu-disco, but unabashed about it. Move Your Feet refuses to hide its overwhelming cheesiness behind any irony or embarrassment. It immediately put me in mind of the goofy joy of the B-52s, which makes sense considering Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson provided backup vocals on their second album. Like the B-52s, Junior Senior made extremely fun dance music, and got zero respect for it. So I’m here to say they were a great band, and it still tears me up that I never got to see them live before they broke up. The delightful 8-bit video for Move Your Feet will have to suffice. – Jeremy Bent

“July, July!” – The Decemberists (2003) and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” – Vampire Weekend (2008) (or it “Sons & Daughters” and “A Punk?”)

Let me tell you all of the songs from my personal top 20 that didn’t make the final list: “Miseribilia” by Los Campesinos, “Time Bomb” by the Dismemberment Plan, “Dashboard” by Modest Mouse, “July, July!” by the Decemberists, and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” by Vampire Weekend. Of those, “Miseribilia” and “Dashboard” were my fault for voting my heart — other songs by those bands made the final list. And I get it with The Dismemberment Plan: They only had one album in the ’00s, and it was one where there wasn’t an obvious song to rally around. (In the Rob’s Process Podcast, it came out that Jesse, Rob, Randy, and I all voted for four different songs from that album.)

But, really, listmakers, nothing from the Decemberists or Vampire Weekend made it onto the list? They’re both bands that are very much In Line with what’s going on in the ’00s. The Decemberists was a part of a movement of bands that were described as “literary” (see also: Okkervil River,similarly shut out of the final tally). They put out five albums in the eligible period, and I’ve carried songs from all of them into this decade. I picked “July, July!” because it’s the one that gets me up and dancing — yes, a nerdy lit-rock band that also makes danceable ditties! — but I’d also accept “Sons and Daughters” for making a round that also kinda makes me want to cry? I’ve also seen them live a few times, and each time I’m surprised at how much fun they can be. They have that thing I associate with They Might Be Giants where they rock a lot harder live than they do on their records. Sometimes, there are puppets.

Okay, with so many albums and so many good songs, I can see why there might have been some massive vote-splitting going on. So what’s the problem with Vampire Weekend, then? They only had one album in the ’00s, and it was a corker. I love every song on it except for the one I fight about with Jesse (who tells me Chris backs him up). I love singing “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” My 3-year-old loves singing “A-Punk.” (She likes the video, too. She doesn’t know it, but she’s a big fan of Hammer & Tongs, because we are #hipsterparents.) If we don’t get “Diane Young” onto the next list, we’re gonna have words. – Marisa

”You Are the Best Thing” – Ray LaMontagne (2008)

This was one of the go-to wedding dance songs of the later 2000s. It has some great horns and it’s a perfect song to awkwardly sway to. Think Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” meets Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” for millennials. For those who may be offended by me including this song with those classics, you are the worst thing that ever happened to anyone. – Bayard

“Mississippi” – Bob Dylan (2001)

I know, I know – a Bob Dylan song on a 2000s list? Who are you, Rolling Stone Magazine Personified? But I think I can back this up with commitment: “Mississippi” is not only my favorite Bob Dylan song of the 2000s, it’s easily one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs of all time. I’ll save the details for our inevitable Dylan list, which will probably have few enough participants for me to force the issue. But I’ll just say that Dylan had a really good 2000s, his best and most consistent decade since the ’70s! He put out three thematically and stylistically coherent albums that work as a trilogy (amateurs will try to bump 1997’s comeback Time Out of Mind into that trilogy and knock out 2009’s Together Through Life, but if you listen to these albums a lot, Time, good as it’s been to you, is the outlier), and probably the best-regarded is 2001’s Love and Theft, featuring this song that previously appeared on a Sheryl Crow album, because Dylan works in mysterious ways no matter what decade it is. “Mississippi” is a perfect representation of Dylan in his old-timey craftsman phase. As to why it stands out more than, say, “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Nettie Moore,” or “Life is Hard,” I particularly love the gentle ruefulness and timeless instrumentation that makes it feel like such a work of confidence. It’s not going for maximum social impact or prettiest/scraggliest vocal or 12-minute endurance. It’s a just a romantic lament that happens to be written and performed by a master of the form. – Jesse

“Cry Me a River” – Justin Timberlake (2002)

I get that everyone loves “SexyBack,” when it comes on at the company Xmas party, but “Cry Me A River” is simply a better song. For one, Timberlake’s vocals are way more interesting, way less…um…autotuned and way less dependent on production and Timbaland and those repetitive YEAH’s. I know that he was well within the public consciousness before Justified, but on “Cry Me A River” he puts himself on center stage. Here he is just a young man with amazing vocal range and dance moves crying because Britney Spears cheated on him with Kevin Federline (KEVIN FEDERLINE), and turning that angst and hurt into a brilliant pop song. Sure FutureSex/LoveSounds is a better album, and “SexyBack” is the best song (maybe) on that album, but “Cry Me A River” is the most heartfelt, most tuneful, and flat out best work that JT has done as a solo artist.

As an aside, it’s interesting to see how far we (may have) come as a society since 2002 by looking at the music video. At the time, I remember thinking how amazing it was and how brilliantly it captured JT’s feelings, etc. etc. etc. Now I think that the idea of breaking into an ex’s house and watching her shower is…super-dee-duper creepy and she should definitely have dumped his ass and maybe consider getting a fucking restraining order on him or something, I mean that is some terrifying, controlling, vindictive shit! And the funny thing about the video is that everyone loved it! It was the MTV video of the year!! I just don’t know what to say about that. – George

“Motion Picture Soundtrack” – Radiohead (2000)

Radiohead are so good that they probably split their own vote in this poll, with everyone being able to pick a personal fave from across their career [They did. No fewer than a dozen Radiohead songs received at least one vote, far more than any other artists managed. Half of Kid A got at least one vote, and at least one song from every other album they put out in the 2000s received at least one vote. More amazingly, despite all these splits, they still got two songs on the Top 101. –Ed.] This one is my favorite, though! Mostly, I find this song achingly perfect because of the moment at 1:38 into the song when the harps come in and it turns from a dirge into some shimmering grace note. Kid A is a pretty bleak record, and this song is sort of bleak too, depending on how you read the lyrics, but those harps, man, they bring the song into the next world. – Evan