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 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.