Tuesday, 22 December 2009

100 - 11

In true chart fashion, as we enter the top 10, let's just refresh our memories of the previous 90 songs in my countdown. Click on the link for an individual entry. Also, you can listen to a Spotify playlist featuring the songs in my countdown here.

The Streets – Blinded By The Lights
99 The Libertines – Time For Heroes
98 Ian Brown – Fear
97 Infernal - From Paris To Berlin
96 White Lies - Death
95 Sweet Female Attitude - Flowers
94 Doves – Pounding
93 Franz Ferdinand – Take Me Out
92 Placebo - Meds
91 Foo Fighters - Best Of You
90 Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Zero
89 Panic at the Disco - Nine In The Afternoon
88 Maximo Park - Going Missing
87 Girls Aloud - Call The Shots
Prodigy - Omen
85 The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
84 The Automatic - Monster
83 Modest Mouse - Dashboard
82 Gangstarr - Battle
81 Wheatus – Teenage Dirtbag
80 Outkast – Ms Jackson
79 Darude - Sandstorm
78 Green Day - American Idiot
77 Panjabi Mc – Mundian To Bach Ke
76 Good Charlotte - Keep Your Hands Off My Girl
75 MGMT - Kids
74 Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps
73 Nelly Furtado - Maneater
72 Fischerspooner – Emerge
71 Andrew W.K. – Party Hard
70 Santigold - L.E.S. Artistes
69 Dizzee Rascal - Holiday
68 Gorillaz - Feel Good Inc.
67 Lostprophets - Shinobi Vs. Dragon Ninja
66 Destiny’s Child – Bootylicious
65 Radiohead - Idioteque
64 Pussycat Dolls - Buttons
Ash - Burn Baby Burn
62 Cypress Hill - (Rock) Superstar
61 Electric Six – Danger! High Voltage
60 Muse - Knights Of Cydonia
59 Jimmy Eat World – The Middle
58 Sonique - It Feels So Good
57 We Are Scientists - Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt
56 Kaiser Chiefs – I Predict A Riot
55 Outkast – Hey Ya!
54 Sugababes - Push The Button
53 Eminem & Dre - Forgot About Dre
52 Mystery Jets featuring Laura Marling - Young Love
R Kelly - Ignition (Remix)
50 Ladyhawke - My Delerium
49 So Solid Crew – 21 Seconds
48 Arctic Monkeys - Leave Before The Lights Come On
47 Queens Of The Stone Age – Go With The Flow
Britney Spears - Break The Ice
45 Hot Chip - Hold On
44 Prodigy - Warrior's Dance
43 All Saints - Pure Shores
42 Royksopp & Robyn - The Girl & The Robot
41 Biffy Clyro - Saturday Superhouse
40 White Stripes - My Doorbell
39 Operator Please - Leave It Alone
38 Eminem - Lose yourself
37 Arctic Monkeys - 505
36 M83 - Don't Save Us From The Flames
35 Hard-Fi - Living For The Weekend
34 The White Stripes – Fell In Love With A Girl
Daft Punk - One More Time
32 Linkin Park – In The End
31 Kelis – Milkshake
30 Dizzee Rascal - Fix Up, Look Sharp
29 Rage Against The Machine – Sleep Now In The Fire
Incubus - Megalomaniac
27 Bloc Party - Banquet
26 Kings of Leon - Sex On Fire
25 The Coral – Dreaming Of You
24 Roots Manuva – Witness (One Hope)
23 Mis-Teeq - Scandalous
22 Interpol – Evil
21 La Roux - In For The Kill
20 Sigur Ros - Hoppipolla
19 Muse – Plug In Baby
18 Noah & The Whale - 5 Years Time
17 Queens Of The Stone Age - Little Sister
16 Hot Chip - Over & Over
15 Jay-Z – 99 Problems
14 Missy Elliott – Get Ur Freak On
13 The Hives – Hate To Say I Told You So
Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head
Jordin Sparks - Battlefield

Friday, 18 December 2009

11: Jordin Sparks - Battlefield

Here's a list of winners of UK and US Pop Idol/American Idol/X Factor/Popstars series this decade: Hear'Say, Girls Aloud, One True Voice, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Will Young, Michelle McManus, Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson, Alexandra Burke, Joe McElderry. Safe to say that barring a small handful, reality TV pop stars haven't exactly set the pop world alight.

It seems apt to visit this topic right now, partly because of the ongoing battle for the Christmas #1 spot between Joe McElderry and Rage Against The Machine, but also because of my inclusion of the winner of Series 6 of American Idol on this list. The issue raised by the Rage campaigners is that the Christmas #1 slot has become monopolised by the X Factor winners over recent years, usually singing a cover version, and rarely adding anything different to the original.

But Kelly Clarkson, Girls Aloud, Will Young, Leona and, most recently, Jordin Sparks have proven that a reality-made pop star can have a successful career singing original material, without the need for gimmicks.

Jordin, for those of you unfamiliar with her work, won American Idol at the tender age of 17. She's from Arizona, and her style is a hybrid of Kelly Clarkson's pop-rock with Beyonce's R'n'B. But 'Battlefield' is into Tina Turner/Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey territory - a love song that relies on Ms. Sparks' impressive set of lungs and ability to belt out a tune with maximum force. She really sounds like she's giving this everything as she sings "why does love always feel like a battlefield?"

I fell in love with this tune earlier in the year. She changes the pitch of the chorus effortlessly and there's a heartbreaking menace to her vocals as she advises "so you'd better go get your armour." If only reality TV could produce more Jordin Sparks' and fewer Shayne Wards', the world would be a much happier place.

12: Kylie Minogue - Can't Get You Out Of My Head

I wasn't allowed to watch 'Neighbours'. My parents didn't approve of soap operas. But I knew what it was, I'd heard the other kids at school talking about it. Occasionally, my Mum would go out after picking us up from school and would leave us with a nanny or babysitter. On those days, I'd sneak into the lounge and catch a furtive glimpse of that illicit TV delight. I was well aware who Charlene and Scott (Kylie and Jason) were, and I made damn sure that I found a way to tune in on the day of their wedding. We used to share the school run with another family, and they had the self-titled Kylie debut album in their car. Many happy afternoons were spent sitting in Cricklewood traffic jams, singing along to 'I Should Be So Lucky', 'The Locomotion' and 'Especially For You'.

Skip forward a decade, and Kylie had largely fallen off my radar. For a start, I stopped listening to pop music in the 90s and spent my teenage years listening to rock and Britpop. But moreover, Kylie's profile was much lower during those years. I do remember hearing the Nick Cave collaboration. And then, of course, in 2000, 'Spinning Around' was something of a comeback single. Nevertheless, I, like the rest of the planet, remained largely oblivious to Kylie's career revitalisation.

And then, just as I was beginning my second year of University, I heard that most-recognisable of all vocal intros. "Laa laa laa, laa laa la-la la, laa laa laa, laa laa la-la la". And I saw the video, and I was entranced. I don't need to tell you much more about the song. You know it. Everyone knows it. It sold 4 MILLION copies worldwide, which, for a single in the digital age, is mighty impressive. It topped the charts in every European country, except Finland, oddly. It was her first US top 10 hit for 13 years. I don't know for sure, but I expect it's one of the three biggest selling singles of the decade. It helped the album, 'Fever' sell nearly 10 million copies. And Kylie's bottom became the most famous backside in the world, thanks to the figure-hugging suits of the video. It's just a great pop song, an all-time classic.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

13: The Hives - Hate To Say I Told You So

What's not to like about The Hives? A lead singer called Howlin' Pelle Almqvist? A guitarist who goes by the name Vigilante, and a bassist called Dr Destruction? Trademark matching black and white suits? The self-confidence to release what amounted to a 'debut' album, and calling it 'Your New Favourite Band'? Hyper-energetic live performances of straight-down-the-line, good ol' fashioned rock and roll? These guys are great, there's no denying.

Hailing from Sweden, The Hives burst onto the scene in the wake of the success of The Strokes and The White Stripes, and proceeded to (metaphorically) unzip their trousers and expose themselves to the world.

'Hate To Say I Told You So' was the breakthrough single, and it sounds as refreshing now as it did back in 2002, when it narrowly missed out on the UK Top 20. The Hives' didn't overthink their brand of rock - rhyming "wanna" and "gonna" isn't exactly Lesson One from the Morrissey/Dylan school of songwriting. But in its simplicity, it worked. Part of the reason for that is that downright dirty, great big rock'n'roll riff, one of the finest of this or any decade. It's not rocket science, but it didn't need to be. The Hives believe in fun, and with this first hit, they made their intentions perfectly clear. That they seem to enjoy so much doing what they do, merely heightened the enjoyment for the rest of us.

14: Missy Elliott - Get Ur Freak On

"Kore kara minna de mechakucha odotte... sawagou, sawagou"

Timbaland's fingerprints are all over the musical canon of the Noughties. His career began in the 90s, producing for the likes of Aaliyah, Usher, Nas and Jay Z, yet it's his work this decade that has catapulted him to 22nd in the list of all-time most successful producers, based on weeks spent in the UK Top 40 by songs written by him. That puts him ahead of the likes of Keith Richards, David Bowie, Prince and George Michael.

And if we look at his work this decade, you can track his subsequent success (with Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, the Pussycat Dolls and more) back to 2001, and the massively successful album, 'Miss E... So Addictive', which sold almost 2 million copies in the US alone.

'Get Ur Freak On' was the lead single from the album, and remains her highest charting UK single, reaching #4 in the charts. The song is based around a Bhangra beat, and a 6-note melody, played on the Bengali instrument, the ektara.

Missy has always held somewhat of a unique position in the music world. She's aggressive, as female rappers go, and her lyrics, especially on this track, verge on gangster rap. Her delivery has a natural flow, never more so when she yells "SI-LENCE! Hush yo' mouth, silence when I spit it out in your face, open your mouth, give you a taste". But it was the combination with Timbaland's bouncing tune that made this one of the biggest tunes of the decade. No self-respecting night out is complete without some of Missy's "new s**t".

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

15: Jay-Z - 99 Problems

Back when I was a teenager, I used to learn lyrics to my favourite songs. I considered it a sign of just how "with it" I was that I could recite all the words to The Offspring's 'Self Esteem' or any number of Nirvana songs. In time, I stopped intentionally learning lyrics, but the way my brain works, I still have a good recall for lyrics, especially those I've heard often.

I can recite all the words to '99 Problems'. I don't think this is cool. Far from it. I never planned to learn the lyrics. But I listened to 'Collision Course' (the Jay Z/Linkin Park live remix show) and subsequently the original of 'The Black Album' so many times that I can recite them down pat. Not cool that I know them by heart then, but overall, these are still brilliantly written lyrics. I particularly like the second verse as Jigga details one of his "problems" - in this case, being pulled over by the police for being a black man driving a nice car. The dialogue between Jay Z and the bigoted policeman (also voiced by Jay Z) is like something out of 'The Wire'. Jay Z isn't just rapping to a tune, he's telling a beautifully descriptive story. I love the use of the slightly respectful, slightly mocking "sir" by Jay Z, and the ridiculous generalisation made by the cop:
"Son, do you know why I'm stopping you for?"
"Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low? Do I look like a mindreader, sir? I don't know. Am I under arrest, or should I guess some more?"
"You were doing fifty-five in the fifty-four. License and registration and step out of the car. Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are."

Perhaps the mainstream appeal of Jay Z, Kanye and their ilk is that they don't exhibit the same levels of misogyny and violence as some of their equally talented (but less restrained) peers. Sure, Jay Z still uses the word 'bitch' here a bit too often for my liking, but this is not a song about women being "bitches", it's a song about black men getting a raw deal in 21st Century America.

A mention for the legendary Rick Rubin here too. After beginning the decade producing the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Slipknot, System Of A Down, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, his work on '99 Problems' was wholly unexpected and rather spectacular. Trademark guitar riff, big beat, #12 in the charts, easy-peasy.

16: Hot Chip - Over And Over

"Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal"

The nonsensical playfulness of 'Over and Over' was a breath of fresh air blowing through the British alternative music scene in 2006. Hot Chip's insanely addictive club floor-filler was NME's Single of the Year, and,
as I'd mentioned previously, was inescapable that summer. Yet it didn't suffer from overkill, probably because of its inherent freshness and impish lyrics about monkeys with cymbals, Casio keyboards, and generally, being "laid back". Every time that familiar beat started playing, I found myself hopping from foot to foot, allowing myself even a little headbang for the thrashy electro breakdown in mid-song.

The word play that was employed towards the song's culmination was bizarre and amusing to me. Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard spell out various words, each one letter shorter than the previous, and, apparently not bearing any relation to each other. So "K-I-S-S-I-N-G" and "S-E-X-I-N-G" make some sort of sense, but then that context is blown off course by the follow-up "C-A-S-I-O" and "P-O-K-E". I genuinely have no idea what they are on about. Does it matter? Not really. It's still a fine example of a modern electro-pop song, undeniably cool. "We'll give you laid back" indeed.

Monday, 14 December 2009

17: Queens Of The Stone Age - Little Sister

The best song ever to feature a jam block (it's not a cowbell, fact fans) as its central instrument, 'Little Sister' was the first single, and standout track on QOTSA's 2005 album, 'Lullabies To Paralyze'. Recorded live in their Sound City Studio in just one take, frontman Josh Homme has described it as a "sexually charged" reworking of the Elvis Presley song of the same name. Four quick knocks on the jam bell herald the introduction of the guitar riff, then Homme's trademark sex-and-cigarettes vocal style takes control, rattles the listener around a bit, before spitting us out the other side.

I said previously that
my #47 song of the decade, 'Go With The Flow' was rather "unconventional and gritty" for a chart hit. If that's the case, then how surprising must the success of this song have been?

Friday, 11 December 2009

18: Noah & The Whale - Five Years' Time

My favourite song of 2008. The whistling one that isn't Peter, Bjorn and John. The sound of that summer. The mandatory Laura Marling guest appearance (it seemed like she popped up on just about every folk hit of 2008). Twickenham-based Noah & The Whale released a song that on first glance seemed joyously happy, but on digging deeper, revealed its pessimistic side. The "sun, sun, sun", "fun, fun, fun" and "love, love, love" choruses seem unambiguous, but this is quite clearly a song about taking advantage of the present. "In five years' time we might not get along" suggests a painful end to the story. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. The last line is "in five years' time you might just prove me wrong". This is a song about the pointlessness of trying to predict the future. The singer hopes that his relationship will last, suspects it won't, but, in truth, doesn't really know.

Where do I think I'll be five years from now? And looking back five years, have I achieved what I set out to do? The end of a year, the end of a decade, these types of calendar-based cut-off points provide an opportunity for self-assessment and for planning. Likewise, Noah & The Whale's hit, which reached #7 in the UK charts - a lofty height for a debut single by a folk group - makes me think about the past, present and future. It's quite inspirational in that sense.... anything is possible.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

19: Muse - Plug-In Baby

I already wrote briefly about Muse's Wembley Stadium show when I placed 'Knights of Cydonia' at number 60 in my countdown. Watching the gig footage of 'Plug In Baby' (below) brought back more happy memories of the greatest gig I ever attended.

I was a Muse fan very early - I bought their debut album, 'Showbiz' shortly after it was released in 1999, and played the album to death. So for me personally, there was a lot riding on the "difficult" second album. 'Plug In Baby' was to be the first single, and both it and 2001's 'Origin of Symmetry' exceeded all my expectations. They distinguished Muse as being more than just Radiohead imitators.

Total Guitar magazine ranked the riff as the 13th best of all time, making it their highest ranking riff of this decade. The apocalyptic intro simply screams out of Matt Bellamy's "plug in baby", and guitar fans the world over could unite to the lyrics "my plug-in baby crucifies my enemies". Bellamy's falsetto vocals were at their anguished best, although their record label at the time, the Madonna-owned Maverick disagreed. The dispute over whether or not to tone down Bellamy's parts resulted in the band walking away from the label and releasing the album through Mushroom Records instead. I hope someone lost their job over that decision. Trying to mess with this masterpiece is inexcusable.

20: Sigur Ros - Hoppípolla

Just lovely.

NB - This is not the actual video for the song, but instead, the trailer for Sir David Attenborough's award-winning BBC TV series, Planet Earth. I prefer this one.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

21: La Roux - In For The Kill

One of my favourite Bloc Party lyrics is "live the dream like the Eighties never happened" and that's precisely how Elly Jackson, daughter of DCI June Ackland from TV's 'The Bill', has been conducting the past twelve months of her life. From being tipped for big things by the BBC at the start of the year, Elly and producer Ben Langmaid went on to release a gold-certified self-titled debut album, and saw their first two singles enter the charts at #2 and #1 respectively. As career launches go, this one's right on the money.

I was torn about whether or not to include 'In For The Kill' in my countdown. On the one hand, Jackson's Annie Lennox-inspired vocal style seems a bit forced, a bit too manufactured. But on the other hand, it's a great pop song with an infectious synth hook. I think it's a great example of how UK pop music has developed (been forced to develop?) in the post-Xenomania, post-Britney world. British acts have found it necessary to come up with alternative sounds in order to compete with the American megastars. And the Eighties revival is the clearest manifestation of that - there aren't any American acts doing what La Roux do. In the end, the brilliance of the song shines through.

Stupid haircut though.

22: Interpol - Evil

Interpol are the New York band who made it cool to be miserable. And 'Evil', from their second album 'Antics' was their biggest hit of the decade (#18 in the UK singles chart), the sound of a band truly achieving the potential that they had already demonstrated on their debut album, 'Turn On The Bright Lights'.

Make no mistake, 'Evil' is a thoroughly depressing song. It opens with the haunting picked guitars and Paul Banks' pained vocal. "Rosemary, heaven restores you in life". His voice is mostly devoid of emotion, until it comes alive as he asks "but hey, who's on trial?" To me, the song as a whole speaks of the loneliness of lost love, with the perfect chorus line "I spent a life span with no cellmate" as the song's centrepiece. The drums are barely noticeable aside from the chorus, where they set the tone.

Interpol started the trend (which then became seen as something of a Joy Division revival, despite the lack of any similarities between the two groups), but Editors, White Lies and countless others have followed suit. It's never been so hip to be blue.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

23: Mis-Teeq - Scandalous

Before she became the subject of national controversy for having the temerity to try and replace Arlene Phillips as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing (Arlene Who?), even before her solo career, Miss Alesha Dixon was a member (or more accurately, the face) of Mis-Teeq.

UK garage was approaching the end of its sojourn at the top of the charts when the London trio released their debut album 'Licking On Both Sides'. Nevertheless, the album reached #3 in the charts, selling over 600,000 copies and producing five singles, all of which cracked the Top 10.

By 2003 however, UK garage was well and truly dead as a genre. Moreover, the debut album had totally failed to sell outside of the UK. In the intervening years, a new breed of girl groups (Girls Aloud, Sugababes) had taken over. A reinvention was required. Stargate, the Norwegian producers who had been successful working with Atomic Kitten, S Club 7 and Blue, stepped up to the plate, and delivered 'Scandalous'. It was Mis-Teeq's finest hour.

I like the Allmusic description of the song "with its bubbling acidic basslines and wailing sirens". When you first heard Alesha's rapped bridge, you knew which Mis-Teeq member was most likely to go on to achieve solo success. For a while that autumn, 'so-so-so Scandalous' was everywhere. And the song achieved its aim, charting highly across the globe, including, importantly, decent sales in the US. It was straightforward pop, tailored to an American audience, but mostly, full marks go to the producers for a fine example of the art of creating an instant pop classic.

24: Roots Manuva - Witness (One Hope)

"I sit here contending with this cheese on toast"

I remember where I first heard 'Witness (One Hope)'. It was winter 2001, I was at University, and went to see some live hip-hop at Oxford's Cellar Bar. In between acts, the DJ dropped this one, and later the same evening, played it again after being inundated with requests from the student masses.

Rodney Smith's debut album, 'Brand New Second Hand' had passed me by in 1999, despite receiving critical acclaim and winning a MOBO award. I guess that pre-Eminem, I just wasn't on the lookout for up and coming hip-hop stars - it wasn't my scene. But all it took was one night to convince me to purchase the follow-up, 2001's 'Run Come Save Me'.

I loved everything about that album - the variety of the beats (contrast the aggressiveness of 'Witness' with the album's other big hit, the laid back 'Dreamy Days'), the cleverly-constructed lyrics, but most of all, it was Roots Manuva's delivery that won me over. 'Witness' begins with one of the most bizarre lines I'd ever heard. When he rapped "Taskmaster burst the bionic zit splitter, breakneck speed we drown ten pints of bitter", it made no sense, but I loved it instantly. The rhythm and flow of lines like "proof of the trophy and the champion belt, come sun, come rain, come hailstone pelt" is simply unmatched by any other rapper, British, American, whatever. The video's rather good too.

The Stockwell rapper has maintained that same high standard throughout this decade - 2008's 'Slime and Reason' is another personal favourite. But I keep coming back to that moment where it all started, with the bionic zit splitter.

Monday, 7 December 2009

25: The Coral - Dreaming Of You

Liverpool has a rich musical tradition; Gerry & The Pacemakers, Echo & The Bunnymen, The La's, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, that one from the Sugababes' original lineup... and I'm sure there's someone else I'm missing.

This decade, in particular, has seen a revival in the finest guitar band traditions of the city, with The Zutons, The Wombats, The Dead 60s and The Coral all enjoying success with variations on the British-tinged pop that made McCartney and Lennon world famous.

'Dreaming Of You' was a breakthrough hit in the summer of 2002, reaching #13 in the UK singles chart. It has a doo-wop 60s style, with harmonised backing vocals, as the band sing about the loneliness of unrequited love - "up in my lonely room, when I'm dreaming of you, oh what can I do, I still need you, but I don't want you now". When I think back to that summer (I was just completing my second year of university, and I was just embarking on a new relationship), this song stands out in the memory.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

26: Kings Of Leon - Sex On Fire

Proving the precise point I was making at the start of the last post, here comes a track by a band who have been disappointing on the two occasions I've seen them play live. Kings of Leon are definitely one of those bands who sound much better on record.

I'm going to say very little about this one, as it's probably the most well-known song of the past 18 months (it's this or Lady Gaga). But I know it is a fairly divisive song, probably as a result of over-exposure.

However, the inescapable fact remains that it contains one of the all-time crowd-pleasing choruses, anthemic like a terrace football chant. This song will have longevity unlike most others of the era.

Friday, 4 December 2009

27: Bloc Party - Banquet

Some bands record stunning albums and then struggle to translate those songs into a compelling live performance. Other bands play stunning gigs, but release albums of middling quality. Getting the balance right is clearly tricky, and only the very best bands can do both. What you want is a live show which stays true to the original songs, but offers enough twists and nuances to make it feel special, like a one-off.

It's this particular 'X' factor (and no, I don't mean the god-awful reality show) that has persuaded me to become a die-hard Bloc Party addict. I probably would have been a fan anyway... all three albums are excellent and contain enough variety to prevent what I like to call 'Oasis syndrome'* But catch them live, and they're a whole different beast. The albums can be quite moody and cynical at times, but live, Kelechukwu 'Kele' Okereke rarely stops grinning. It's infectious. On every occasion I've seen them, I've witnessed a band having a lot of fun doing what they love to do.

'Banquet' was essentially Bloc Party's first single in May 2004 ('She's Hearing Voices' had been released as a vinyl-only single in February 2004), but it was the release of a re-recorded version in April 2005 that grabbed the attention. By that stage, 'Helicopter' and 'So Here We Are' had already been minor hits, and when XfM added 'Banquet' to their rotation, I was hooked. Something about the way the guitars seem to dance through the air, or the way Matt Tong's unconventional drumming builds the song up to its climactic chorus, I guess.

Of the many times I've caught them live, their BBC Electric Proms show at the Roundhouse in October 2007 sticks in the mind. In front of a smaller crowd than they were accustomed to playing for, Kele was in fine spirits, despite the fact that he had been diagnosed with acute pharyngitis and advised not to play. The atmosphere was spectacular and after starting the set with some of their slower numbers (to take advantage of the choir which they'd invited on stage with them), when they burst into 'Banquet', I thought the floor might collapse.

Three albums later, I wouldn't say this is necessarily my favourite Bloc Party song, but every time I come back to it, it brings a smile to my face. I've even got a favourite bit... in the bridge, the music breaks as Kele sings "and if you feel a little left behind, we will wait for you on the other side", and then the drums and guitars crash back in as he repeats the line. I've sung along to that with 70,000 at Glastonbury, and on my own in my car, and it sounds just as relevant either way.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

28: Incubus - Megalomaniac

A second consecutive protest song, and the second song in my countdown directly inspired by George 'Dubya'.

For a brief while, it appeared that Incubus were on course to become one of the world's biggest bands. The 2001 single 'Drive' won Billboard's Modern Rock Song of the Year and went to #9 in the US charts. Their fifth studio album, 'A Crow Left Of The Murder' (the record on which 'Megalomaniac' was the opening track) sold 2 million copies after its release in early 2004. Three successive albums ('Morning View', 'A Crow...' and 2006's 'Light Grenades' reached the top two of the album charts Stateside.

But for all this success, Incubus were, frankly, never very good. I've always thought of them as the Maroon 5 of the emo world. Tacky lyrics and made-for-radio cheesy riffs didn't exactly set them apart as innovators.

It was their anger towards Bush that inspired their one fine moment. Much of their work was vitriolic, but 'Megalomaniac' had a readily identifiable target for that anger. "Hey megalomaniac, you're no Jesus, you're no f**king Elvis" sent a clear message that Average Joe no longer trusted the man with executive responsibility. These rock stars were voicing a widespread sentiment about the man who had failed to prevent 9/11 and who had taken the US into unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as I've mentioned, Incubus were never very good, and 'Megalomaniac' was the beginning of the end. It was their highest charting single in the UK, but they've never made the Top 40 over here since. Their greatest hits album was released this year, and didn't even reach the Top 100, which, in these days where a few thousand album sales guarantees you a Top 10 hit, suggests that their record company will be parting company with them shortly.

That said, if this song is their sole legacy, then it's a pretty decent legacy to leave.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

29: Rage Against The Machine - Sleep Now In The Fire

Two years before 'Bowling For Columbine' (and subsequently 'Fahrenheit 9/11') made Michael Moore a household name, he directed my favourite music video of all time. On January 26, 2000, the New York Stock Exchange was forced to lock its doors in the middle of the day. A large crowd had gathered on Wall Street, where Rage Against The Machine were filming their anti-capitalist video to 'Sleep Now In The Fire'. The NYPD were forced to step in when band members attempted to gain entry to the Stock Exchange, and Moore was arrested. The video intersperses footage of that day with a satirical version of 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?', criticising the US government's failure to deal with poverty amongst the American population. If you've never seen the video before, I implore you to click 'play' on the embedded video below.*

At the time, if I had been forced to go on 'Mastermind' to answer questions about Rage Against The Machine, I'd have struggled. I knew 'Killing In The Name' and 'Bullet In The Head' from pogo-ing to them at indie nights. I knew Rage were considered to be one of the most legendary bands of their era. And after hearing 'Wake Up' at the end of 1999 movie 'The Matrix', I was keen to investigate more, and so early in 2000, I purchased 'The Battle Of Los Angeles'. But essentially, I was still a Rage novice.

That all changed when I went to Leeds Festival 2000. Playing on the final day of the festival, in the early evening slot between Blink 182 and Slipknot, they drew the largest crowd of the entire weekend. And it was berserk. I've never seen a crowd like it, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people, all screaming along to every word, bouncing with energy. The moshpit was violent, but yet somehow welcoming. This was to be their last UK show before splitting up, and although they've subsequently reformed, I still feel privileged to have been present at a mind-blowing show, one of my top five gigs ever.

'Sleep Now In The Fire' was the fifth track on 'The Battle of Los Angeles' and the second single to be released from that album. It's typical Rage - a complex riff; lyrics from Zack De La Rocha in the form of a fierce political diatribe, spat with venom; a totally unnecessary, but completely brilliant Tom Morello guitar solo. The song covers themes of greed, slavery, the conquest of Native Americans, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the use of Agent Orange in the Vietname War. It follows in a fine tradition of protest songs, but then virtually every Rage song falls into this category.

* The video was nominated for Best Rock Video at the MTV Video Music Awards that year, but lost out to Limp Bizkit, prompting Rage bassist Tim Commerford to climb a fake palm tree on the stage in protest, interrupting Fred Durst's acceptance speech.

30: Dizzee Rascal - Fix Up, Look Sharp


So begins this song, and with it my huge affection for all things Dizzee. When Dylan Mills launched his solo career in 2003 (he'd been a member of Roll Deep Crew until then), no-one could have predicted the incredible success he would have. Mr. Rascal is a bona fide urban megastar, and best of all, he's our megastar. For Dizzee is a Londoner, through and through.

It hasn't all been plain sailing for Dizzee though. In the week that 'Boy In Da Corner', his Mercury prize-winning debut album was released, he was stabbed in Ayia Napa, possibly as a result of a feud with members of So Solid Crew (the artists behind
my #49th ranked song of the decade). But then again, getting stabbed (or shot) can do wonders for a rap career - just ask 50 'Fiddy' Cent. The enhanced publicity must have helped with the album promotion.

I had a tough choice to make when deciding which Dizzee songs would grace my decade list. From the first album alone, I could have chosen the playfulness of 'I Luv U' or the staccato mental-ness of 'Jus A Rascal'. And of course, there have been three subsequent albums, all of them great, all packed with memorable hits - like
'Holiday', which already made my countdown too.

But I went with 'Fix Up, Look Sharp' because that pounding, booming beat was the perfect platform to allow Dizzee to display the full lyrical dexterity and versatility that has made him such a living legend. It's not just the words, but the way that they are delivered, the rhythmical flow of his voice, that sets him apart. Of course, lines like "I stay sweet as a nut, sweet like Tropicana" don't hurt his case either.

Dizzee is now Britain's finest urban artist, able to compete with the best America has to offer. Not bad for the boy in da corner, the boy from Bow.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

31: Kelis - Milkshake

I still have no idea what Kelis was on about when she sang "my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard". Was she talking about real milkshakes, or is it a metaphor? All I know is that this incredible earworm of a song (and particularly her "la laa, la la la, I want it all" chorus) stuck in my head and never left.

32: Linkin Park - In The End

I'm not sure these things are tracked on a global scale, but if they are, then Linkin Park's 'Hybrid Theory' must be one of the world's biggest selling albums of this decade. It sold 24 million copies globally, and became one of only 8 albums released this decade to be awarded an RIAA Diamond Disc (for 10 million sales in the US). It went quadruple platinum in the UK and spawned four massive hit singles, of which 'In The End' was the last, and comfortably the most successful. It hit #2 in the Billboard charts (they've never had a US or UK #1 single), and was kept off the top by a forgettable J-Lo/Ja Rule duet. Linkin Park can easily lay claim to being the biggest selling band of the Noughties. Hell, they even get asked to do the theme tunes for the Transformers blockbuster films.

What makes this all the more impressive is that they are associated with a genre that was widely ridiculed (nu-metal) - indeed NME described 'In The End' as being "another slab of gormless MTV rap-rock from the bottom of the food chain". But ignore the critics and perhaps Linkin Park timed it just right. Along with peers including Limp Bizkit, System Of A Down and Korn, these American bands stepped into the gaping void left by Kurt Cobain's suicide and the resulting death of grunge. This was pre-9/11, but American teenagers were nevertheless angry, and nu-metal allowed them to headbang, and vent their frustrations.

The distinctive piano intro, the rapped verses (with Mike Shinoda rapping in between Chester Bennington's singing), and then the more traditional stadium rock chorus were melded together by Don Gilmore, a virtually unknown producer. He deserves the real credit for 'Hybrid Theory'. Lots of bands were going down the rap/rock crossover in the early part of the decade, and it's not as if it hadn't been done before (see collaborations between Anthrax and Public Enemy, or between Run DMC and Aerosmith). But Gilmore gave Linkin Park a unique style, at the pop end of both the rap and rock spectrum.

Bennington and Shinoda put it best themselves; "I tried so hard, in spite of the way you were mocking me". They were mocked, it's true, but their efforts were rewarded and after 'In The End' they never looked back.

Monday, 30 November 2009

33: Daft Punk - One More Time

Recently, there's been a great deal of discussion about the use of Autotune in popular music, prompted by the lead single from Jay-Z's latest album, which he titled 'D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)'. If Autotune really is dying in 2009, and if, as is widely accepted, it was born when Cher hit #1 with 'Believe' in 1998, then this really has been D.O.A - the Decade of Autotune.

This is all pertinent information because Daft Punk's greatest hit featured a vocal performance by Romanthony which benefitted from the technology. And one half of Daft Punk, Thomas Banghalter said at the time that "criticizing the Vocoder is like asking bands in the ’60s, ‘Why do you use the electric guitar?’ It’s just a tool... no big deal."

Glad we got that straight. Anyway, 'One More Time'. Massive global hit, criminally kept off the top of the UK singles chart by two terrible songs by boybands Westlife and A1. Daft Punk's biggest hit in the US. Their only ever #1 single in their home market of France, and a chart-topper in Canada too. Club anthem, still regularly played to drunken revellers across the world. And yet, strangely, not actually that danceable, certainly not to the extent of Daft Punk's earlier hits like 'Da Funk' or 'Around The World' or later hits like 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger'.

It's not really about anything. It's just one of those joyous collective moments, a song of celebration, a happy song that makes me smile.

Friday, 27 November 2009

34: The White Stripes - Fell In Love With A Girl

"I've said it once before, but it bears repeating"

The second ever charting UK single from Jack and Meg, which almost scraped into the Top 20 in the spring of 2002. Clocking in at just 1m 50secs, it's probably the shortest song in my countdown - a rapid-fire burst of hyperactive guitar. Whatever that emotion is in Jack's voice, it certainly doesn't seem like "love", but that's just one of the many quirky contradictions inherent in the White Stripes' music.

Of course, this song is most famous for its fabulous, multi-award-winning video.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

35: Hard-Fi - Living For The Weekend

Remember that Carling advert with a flock of birds flying across the sky, and then the slogan 'Belong'? How could you possibly forget it? That advert was unavoidable in the autumn and winter of 2006. And it was one of the major reasons why I went off Hard-Fi... they suffered massively from being over-played and 'Living For The Weekend', which soundtracked the advert, was the biggest culprit.

A few years have passed, and now that I'm no longer hearing it every 5 seconds, I've been able to reappraise the song. And it's clear that it is a great tune, with that infectious guitar hook and lyrics which resonated with the daily grind of urban living. The chorus ("Working all the time, work is such a bind, got some money to spend, living for the weekend") seemed to sum up the daily existence of myself and many of my friends.

'Living For The Weekend' was the penultimate track on the Staines group's debut album, 'Stars of CCTV'. I was, for a time, obsessed with that record. I loved the pomp of 'Cash Machine', the indie club floor-filler of 'Tied Up Too Tight', the anthemic 'Hard To Beat' and the mournful ode to society of the album's title track.
I interviewed the band on the day that they received a gold disc for 'Stars of CCTV' and I felt that this was deserved success for a likeable band, with a brash but confident frontman who had written a culturally important album.

Looking back now, I believe my initial assessment remains accurate. Hindsight shows that they weren't able to capitalise on their success, with second album 'Once Upon A Time In The West' generally considered a commercial and critical failure (despite actually topping the album chart in the week of its release). It certainly didn't produce any singles to match the high standards of those on 'Stars of CCTV'. A third album is on the way shortly. But they'll have to go some to match the heights of 'Living For The Weekend'.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

36: M83 - Don't Save Us From The Flames

The first ten seconds of this song, from 'Before The Dawn Heals Us', the third studio album by Antibes-based Anthony Gonzalez (aka M83) justify its appearance in this list. Mammoth drumroll, giving way to an epic choral soundscape. Nothing more to say - I love this band, and of all the brilliant songs they've recorded this decade, 'Don't Save Us From The Flames' is my clear favourite.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

37: Arctic Monkeys - 505

There's this bit in '505' which, when the Arctic Monkeys played it as part of their encore at Glastonbury 2007 (see video below), was one of the most euphoric moments I've ever experienced at a live show. It's at the end of the bridge, when they've reduced the volume and slowed the pace of the song right down, and then Alex Turner bursts back in, full pelt, with one of the most beautiful and poetic verses ever written - "but I crumble completely when you cry, it seems like once again you've had to greet me with goodbye, I'm always just about to go and spoil the surprise, take my hands off of your eyes too soon". I think it was about that moment, the penultimate song of a devastatingly good headline set, that I realised just how important this band have become.

It's easy to dismiss the Arctic Monkeys as being a product of the lad-rock, Britpop generation that preceeded and surrounded them, but tracks like '505' really distinguish them from the Fratellis and the Enemys of this world. Their songs are exquisitely constructed, with meaningful lyrics sung with real power and emphasis by their enigmatic frontman. They have had a huge impact on British music this decade, and with no signs of slowing up after three sensational albums, we can expect to see them cropping up in plenty of end of decade lists ten years from now.

Monday, 23 November 2009

38: Eminem - Lose Yourself

So this is what Marshall Bruce Mathers III (a.k.a Slim Shady, a.k.a Eminem) can achieve when he's got a movie plot to help focus his lyric-writing. Don't get me wrong - I'm a huge fan of Em's back catalogue. He has revolutionised the rap game, and he's truly one of a kind. It's just that his rhymes often descend into puerile name-calling and the lyrical equivalent of fart jokes. In small doses, we can laugh at his take on modern celebrity culture, but after a while, the joke wears thin.

Not so on 'Lose Yourself', a song so wonderfully crafted that it picked up an Oscar and two Grammys, and was recognised as the most successful rap single of all time by the Guinness Book of Records (on the basis of a twelve-week run at #1 in the US charts, topping the charts in 23 other countries, and becoming only the second song in history to record over two million digital downloads).

Set over a slow, almost plodding riff, Em sings in character as B. Rabbit about the difficulties in launching a rap career. The first verse vividly details Rabbit's stage-fright ("His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there's vomit on his sweater already, Mum's spaghetti"), the third verse explains Rabbit's desire to look after his family, his inability to hold down a regular job, and his realisation that success as a rapper is probably his only chance t make something of himself. The chorus features the most perceptive lyric of his career: "you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime".

'8 Mile', the film for which the song was written (Em reputedly wrote the lyrics on set between takes) is one of my favourite of the past ten years, and this is the second song from that film to appear on my list - the other was
Gang Starr's 'Battle' at #82. Eminem proved himself to be not only the premiere rapper of his generation, but also a fine actor. The film was gritty, often depressing, and always in-your-face, and this song, with its similar characteristics, was the perfect accompaniment. Autobiographical or not (and it's easy to see parallels between Eminem's life and that of Rabbit in the movie), this is his pièce de résistance, the high point of his remarkable career.

39: Operator Please - Leave It Alone

The Noughties must surely be remembered as the decade of opportunity for aspiring pop stars. Technology has opened new avenues for music fans to discover new artists, and with it, the traditional system of A&R has been thrown out with the dish water. Pop Idol and the X-Factor rely on text messages to identify popularity. Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys were famous on MySpace before they were famous on Radio 1.

But it hasn't just been about technology. Battles of the bands, previously a method for filling up empty spots in the calendar of a live music venue, have become genuine talent-spotting opportunities. Glastonbury ran one in 2004, and the winners, The Subways, went on to play that festival, and Reading/Leeds repeatedly, building an enormous and passionate fanbase.

Operator Please won that most basic of contests - All Saints Anglican High School's Battle of the Bands competition, in their hometown of Brisbane, Australia back in 2005. Just over two years later, whilst still teenagers, their debut album, 'Yes Yes Vindictive' (already an award-winner in their home country) was being released to critical acclaim around the globe, and they were touring relentlessly in London, New York et al. From something as small as a High School music competition, a star was born.

Of course, despite all this, you probably never heard of Operator Please. Despite their popularity, they still occupy a niche; a successful follow-up album (it's currently being mixed in LA) would go far to establishing a wider fanbase. But if you want an introduction to Operator Please, you can do far worse than watching the video above. Amandah Wilkinson's Beth Ditto-esque vocals quickly set her apart as one of the brightest young frontwomen in rock. But for me, what separates Operator Please from their peers are the sublime jaunty strings of violinist Taylor Henderson. Without them, Operator Please would be a poor Australian relative of Paramore. With them, they sound truly special, truly unique. Bring on album #2.

Friday, 20 November 2009

40: The White Stripes - My Doorbell

When I've been researching information about songs in my countdown, I've frequently turned to SongMeanings.net to see how different people interpret the song in question. But none of the user comments I've read on that site are quite as perceptive as this one, from user "memememe" about 'My Doorbell':
"it's obviously about his dick. any time a guy thinks about something that many times repetitively in that short of a period of time, it has to be about his dick."

Whilst I'm sure memememe is posting slightly tongue in cheek, 'My Doorbell' might as well be about Jack's dick. It certainly doesn't appear to be anything to do with the "bell, chime, or buzzer outside a door that is rung to announce the presence of a visitor or caller". The White Stripes do not write lyrics for people to understand, that much is clear.

Anyway, putting interpretations to one side for a minute, 'My Doorbell' follows the White Stripes' template to a 'T'. Meg (a.k.a. Bamm-Bamm Rubble from the Flintstones) smashes her drums, one at a time. There are no fancy drumrolls where Meg's concerned - it's just "der, der, der-der, dum, der, der, der-der, dum. And Jack (he's the slightly unhinged one, in case you didn't know) plays along to the same rythmn on his piano, while singing the song's main hook over and over - "I'm thinking 'bout my doorbell, when you gonna ring it? When you gonna ring it?"

Given that they are the most inventive band of their generation, this is pretty standard fare, but it jumped out on first listen to 'Get Behind Me Satan' as the one song that would be universally loved, and from my perspective, it's certainly proven to be the case.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

41: Biffy Clyro - Saturday Superhouse

Surprise success story of the decade must surely be the Scottish rockers, Biffy Clyro. After five years and three albums for Beggars Banquet, Biffy were well known on the rock scene. Four singles charted between 2003-2005, although none made the Top 20. They were well-known, but hardly well-loved. Perennial underachievers, if you will.

Then in 2006, Biffy left Beggars Banquet to sign for a Warner Music offshoot, 14th Floor Records. They spent the year recording in Canada, and early in 2007, released 'Saturday Superhouse', the song that would catapult them from being everyone's favourite support act to becoming headliners in their own right.

I can't quite pinpoint the exact day I first heard 'Saturday Superhouse', but I know that it took all of six seconds for me to become a fan. They won me over with that heavy stop-start intro, so simple but sooooo effective. Of course, the rest of the song is great too, with a singable chorus ("if we don't know where we belong, it'll make no difference where we started"), that led to cries of "sell-out" being levelled at Biffy.

And there's no doubt that this, and the other songs on 'Puzzle', and those on the recently released 'Only Revolutions' album are more commercial than their early work. But isn't that the point? After five years of struggling and failing to even break into the Top 20 singles, six of the eight they've released since have reached those dizzy heights, with 'Mountains' earlier this year providing them with a Top 5 hit. That success all started with this giant of a rock song from 2007.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

42: Röyksopp feat. Robyn - The Girl & The Robot

The phrase "work-life balance" was first coined in 1986, yet its usage in modern day parlance trebled in 2000 and has continued to grow through this decade. So it's apt that a song dealing with the pitfalls of an unhealthy work-life balance makes my list.

This pan-Scandinavian collaboration between the Norwegian electronic dance act and the Swedish pop star failed to chart anywhere outside of their native countries. But it's the standout track on Royksopp's fabulous 2009 album. Set over a techno-lite beat, Robyn bemoans the heavy workload and long hours of her partner ("the robot") and wonders when they might be able to spend more time together.

After the success of 'With Every Heartbeat' in 2007, Robyn can allow herself to be more selective about which songs she decides to record. We should all be grateful, therefore, that she partnered up with one of the finest electronica acts of the decade to record this instant classic.

Friday, 13 November 2009

43: All Saints - Pure Shores

The Noughties were barely six weeks old when the world was captivated by the adventures of Leonardo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen on the Thai island of Ko Phi Phi in the big budget, big screen adaptation of Alex Garland's 'The Beach'. OK, so maybe "captivated" wasn't the right word to use - the movie was universally panned by critics - but it did gross $144m at the box office, and I'm sure some of you readers will recall going to your local multiplex to see it at the time.

That same week in February 2000, one of the songs from the soundtrack went to #1 in pop charts around the globe. All Saints were back, trying to prove that the three #1 singles from their quintuple-platinum selling debut album weren't going to be the extent of their pop careers. Written off as a wannabe-Spice Girls (no pun intended), 'Pure Shores' was the moment that Blatt, Lewis, Appleton and Appleton arrived. Sure, they'd already had plenty of success, and 'Never Ever' had been a massively successful hit. But this was a whole different stratosphere - 'Pure Shores' was the second biggest selling single of 2000, and it helped force both the film's soundtrack, and their own second album into the record collections of large swathes of the British and European public. This was the moment they were promoted to the Pop Premier League.

William Orbit - at the time, the coolest DJ/producer in the entire dance world - was the mastermind behind this laid-back classic. Conveniently (and I speak from experience here) this song does actually sound brilliant when laying on a sunny beach, watching the waves come in. Whether that was intentional or not, it's true. The vocals are typical All Saints - sultry, breezy harmonies. It's a chillout anthem of the very highest quality.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

44: The Prodigy - Warrior's Dance

The Prodigy's 20th UK single, and their 11th to enter the charts in the Top 10, 'Warrior's Dance' continued the return to form that began with the release of 'Omen' (my 86th favourite song of the decade). Largely based around an obscure vocal sample of an obscure collaboration from 1989*, it's the only track on 2009's 'Invaders Must Die' album that would fit equally well on 1992's 'Experience'.

A sinister intro, layer on the vocal sample ("come with me to the dancefloor, you and me, cos that's what it's for"), add the old-skool rave beats and Bob's your uncle, you've got a Prodigy single. It's simple, effective and comes waving a giant nostalgia flag. But following the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy has served countless other artists just fine down the years, and making a song that sounds like tunes you recorded over 15 years ago doesn't necessarily need to be a bad thing. And in this case, it's quite the opposite, a huge return to form for a band that were once reviled by the media and large swathes of the British public (remember the 'Smack My Bitch Up' furore?) but are now deservedly treated like legends.

* Final Cut feat. True Faith with Bridgett Grace, since you asked. No, me neither!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

45: Hot Chip - Hold On

Hot Chip are the least likely pop stars of their generation. Nerds with guitars and laptops, sitting in their bedrooms at home, aren't supposed to have top ten albums and singles. Pop stars have a certain "look", Hot Chip look like cast members from 'The Big Bang Theory', all spectacles and knitwear. These guys shouldn't be mates with Kylie, but they are. They are the anti-stereotype.

After years of grafting at the fringes of the UK music scene, 2006 album, 'The Warning' provided the significant breakthrough in their career. The critically acclaimed album, voted best that year by Mixmag, managed to bridge the gap between indie shoegaze and electronic dance. 'Over And Over' was NME's single of the year, and was unavoidable - every TV show, every branch of TopShop, every radio station was playing it. A string of high energy live shows merely enhanced their reputation.

Tricky second album time, folks. Not for the Hot Chip boys, whose 2008 long player, 'Made In The Dark' was, if anything, better than its predecessor. It spawned the chart-bothering 'Ready For The Floor', but the whole album (reputedly inspired by Prince's 'Sign O' The Times') was packed with impressive electronic dance anthems, like 'Shake A Fist', 'Bendable Poseable', 'One Pure Thought' and this song.

'Hold On' is a relentless, growling song, building and building to a crescendo until the drums come crashing down on the chorus. Hot Chip's lyrics are nonsense, as on all their previous work, but don't let that put you off. "I'm only going to heaven if it feels like hell, I'm only going to heaven if it tastes like caramel" sings Alexis Taylor.

Again, no video available sadly, but here's a truly astounding performance of the song from the BBC's 'Later With... Jools Holland' show.

Monday, 9 November 2009

46: Britney Spears - Break The Ice

The most talked about popstar of the decade has had plenty of ups and downs in the past 10 years, but in professional terms, she hit all the right notes on 2007 "comeback" album, 'Blackout'. Her least commercially successful work (with fewer than a million sales in the US up to July 2009), it divided the critics, but made a fan of me.

'Break The Ice' might have only been track 4 on the album, and the third single released, but it definitely sounded like the most important comeback song on 'Blackout', maybe even her entire career. 2006-7 had been rough on her, Britney the villain, the focus of intense media coverage, idle gossip and pure speculation. There was the driving incident in Feb 2006 (when she was photographed driving, with her baby son on her lap); the divorce from K-Fed played out in the media; rehab; the head-shaving; an umbrella attack on a pap photographer; that dreadful VMA performance; and wall-to-wall coverage of her custody battle. There's probably some truth to the stories that emerged in that period - it would be understandable in light of her life in the glare of the paparazzi flashbulbs. I felt sympathetic towards her, but what I didn't expect was that she would return, only 9 months after the aforementioned head-shaving, with the finest pop album of her life.

And 'Break The Ice' was a confident song, a statement of intent, opening with Britney whispering "it's been a while, I know I shouldn't have kept you waiting, but I'm here now." Her breathless vocals never sounded better, whilst Timbaland's right-hand man, Danja did an immense job on production duties with that earworm of an electro tune.

Unfortunately, Britney's aforementioned "issues" meant that she wasn't able to record a video for the song, and the excellent animated version that was created seems to be something of a rarity on the interweb. So instead, here's the work of a dedicated fanboy (not me, I hasten to add).

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

47: Queens Of The Stone Age - Go With The Flow

Probably my favourite hard rock band of the decade, Queens of the Stone Age, led by their irrepressible frontman, Josh Homme, became the finest purveyors of sleazy stoner rock, with a string of phenomenal albums. 2000's 'Rated R' was the most critically acclaimed, and 2005's 'Lullabies to Paralyze' had the most catchy hits, but 2002's 'Songs For The Deaf' was the real masterpiece, a multi-million selling hour of guitar mayhem, all chugging riffs, chaotic drums (courtesy of a certain Dave Grohl) and husky vocals c/o Homme.

'Go With The Flow' was the album's central focus, its core, dividing up the heavier first half of the record from the slower, more considered second half. It's not a subtle track - the guitars come crashing in right from the off, and structure-wise, it's pretty much verse/chorus/verse/chorus, but in this case, this is not necessarily a bad thing. And the drumming time shift from verse to chorus is a work of art. Homme sings "I want something good to die for, to make it beautiful to live" and amazingly, makes it sound believable. That's the power of QOTSA for you.

Most impressively, for an unconventional and gritty hard rock song, 'Go With The Flow' reached #21 in the singles charts, no mean feat.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

48: Arctic Monkeys - Leave Before The Lights Come On

One day, years from now, cultural historians will appraise the lyrics of a certain Mr. Alex Turner, and will conclude that he was the premiere popular poet of his generation. In the same way that Morrissey had his finger on the pulse of British life in the 80s, the Sheffield frontman has a knack for describing society accurately, and with great wit.

'Leave Before The Lights Come On' is a prime example. At first glance, the song would appear to chronicle that moment at which the club lights come up at the end of a night, to reveal the carnage and devastation that has gone before. But dig deeper, and Turner is also describing the feelings of dread and regret that result from waking up alongside a stranger.

The Arctic Monkeys came out of nowhere, and took the music scene by storm. The story has been well recounted - the first big MySpace success story, they sold out London's famous Astoria whilst still unsigned, hit #1 with their first two singles, had the fastest selling debut album in history, and headlined Glastonbury less than two years after signing their first record deal.

Amazingly, 'Leave Before The Lights Come On' was rejected as an album track for 'Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not', and so never appeared on an Arctic Monkeys album. Despite this, it peaked at #4 in the charts in August 2006, and remains one of their fans' best-loved songs. In particular, it showcases the extraordinary drumming talents of Matt Helders, whose drum fills, particularly on the instrumental bridge are a sight to behold.

49: So Solid Crew - 21 Seconds

The Urban Dictionary defines So Solid Crew as "a band with more members than collected brain cells, So Solid specialise in banal, derivative, and hectic garage. Lyrically, though, they're just a bunch of Romford chavs pretending to be West Coast bad-boys, rapping about money, gats, and hoes like you'd think it had never been done before. As far as garage acts go, this lot should have been left in the garage with the engine turned on. They wrote a song called 21 Seconds, in which each of the 10,000 members had to talk bollocks really quickly for 21 seconds, one after the other, otherwise the single would have lasted for at least 2 hours..."

Yup, that just about sums it up. Except that, in my opinion, '21 Seconds' was a clever idea for a track, well executed and delivered. The proof is in the pudding, and '21 Seconds' topped the charts in the summer of 2001. Looking back at the chronology of #1 singles in the UK, you'll struggle to find a track that looks as out of place as this one. Sandwiched between Atomic Kitten's awful Bangles cover and 5ive's 'Let's Dance', '21 Seconds' was a controversial chart-topper (because of the content of the lyrics), and probably the high watermark of the UK speed garage scene.

The collective approach to the rapping on the record worked well in places, less well in others. My highlights would be MC Harvey's verse (which begins "every lyric I do..."), the way Romeo hands over the mic at the end of his verse ("two multiplied by ten plus one.... Romeo done"), and the world's first introduction to the exceptional talents of Lisa 'Leeeee-saaa' Maffia.

It turns out that So Solid Crew have recently begun recording songs for a comeback album. The world of music has moved on immeasurably since they made this remarkable debut, but with so many rap talents to draw upon, they've probably got a decent chance of more success.

50: Ladyhawke - My Delerium

2008 was a huge year for New Zealand culture. Backed by slogans such as "New Zealand: Like Scotland, But Further", Flight of the Conchords took the world by storm. And stirring up just as big a storm was Wellington native, Pip Brown, whose debut album 'Ladyhawke' sold over 100,000 copies in the UK.

That Christina Aguilera has chosen to cover 'My Delerium' for her new album should be considered a massive compliment to the Kiwi songstress, but it's not all that surprising - 'My Delerium' is a great pop song. Written by Hannah Robinson (Annie, Rachel Stevens, Sugababes, Saint Etienne) and produded by Pascal Gabriel (Soft Cell, Kylie, New Order), the song dazzles, occupying a berth somewhere between the synth-led glam disco of the 80s, and the harder grunge sound of the early 90s.

I love the way Ladyhawke's voice sounds on the verses of this song, echoey and distant. Contrast that with the "hey" and "stop" (at the beginning of the first and third lines of the chorus respectively) which seem to carry real force. Alongside the shimmering keyboard loop, it makes for an intoxicating mix, and whilst the rest of the album sounds more conventional, it's 'My Delerium' which stands apart as a song of the decade.