Best of the Decade: Popular Songs

December 11, 2009

In a previous post I wrote about my picks for the best popular music albums of the decade.  Today is devoted to my favourite songs of the decade.  In some cases they are drawn from those favourite records, in some cases not.  I have no idea if these songs received radio airplay and were bona fide commercial hits.  I can only be sure that they were well beloved in my house.

I have tried to put them into some sort of ranking, with the best ones first.  Where possible I link to the music itself so that you, should you be so inclined, can listen.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” (from Sufjan StevensIllinoise [2005]): I cannot get enough of this terrific song.  It’s a miniature pop symphony, moving from a gentle innocence to a joyful alleluia to a poignant lament.  It is a song about childhood and friendship.  If you do decide to click below and listen, don’t give up too soon.  This song cannot be judged without hearing it through to its finish.

“The Modern Leper” (from Frightened RabbitThe Midnight Organ Fight [2008]): I wrote about this record in my album picks.  “The Modern Leper” is the lead track, and it captures most of the good qualities that I find in the record as a whole, most notably a disarming honesty and plenty of urgent rock ‘n’ roll.  There’s nothing pretentious here, just straightforward music from the heart.  (Be forewarned that there is vulgar language in the first stanza of the song.)

“Intervention” (from Arcade FireNeon Bible [2007]): Arcade Fire were critical darlings during this decade, but I must admit that for the most part I just didn’t get it.  There were a few exceptions to that rule, and “Intervention” is one of them.  (Another is their terrific song “Rebellion (Lies)” (listen)).  From the massive opening chord on the organ, “Intervention” goes from strength to strength, building like a tidal wave.

Here is a live performance from the Rock en Seine festival.  It is amazing for me to see them playing before this huge audience; it wasn’t so long ago that I saw them give a concert in somebody’s living room in Montreal.  Anyway, the song begins about 1 minute in. (The studio version is here.)

“Cattle and the Creeping Things” (from The Hold SteadySeparation Sunday [2005]): The record from which this song is taken is an ambitious concept album that only just missed making my “Best Of” list.  It weaves together the stories of a group of down-and-out drug addicts and prostitutes as they try to live another day of their troubled lives.  The band’s singer, Craig Finn, is a talented and sensitive songwriter, and his songs, while honest in their portrayal of the damage these characters do to themselves and one another, is also compassionate and humane.  You get the feeling that these people are loved anyway, and that they are not without hope.  It’s a feeling that seems justified by the album’s closing track in which Holly, a prostitute, “crashed into the Easter Mass / with her hair done up in broken glass” and asked, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”  But the song I love most from the record comes earlier on.  “Cattle and the Creeping Things” is threaded with Biblical allusions, as two of the characters are reading the Bible and finding echoes of the events of sacred history in their own lives on the street.  It’s a great song.  Craig Finn has developed a kind of New York City sprechstimme, the better to get all the words of his rather wordy songs in.

“Down There by the Train” (from Tom WaitsOrphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards [2006]: I have loved this song since Johnny Cash included it on his 1994 album American Recordings.  We had to wait until 2006 to hear Waits’ own take on it, and it remains a wonderful song — one of his best, I think, and that is saying a lot.  The song moves against the backdrop of the American folk, blues, and gospel traditions, conjuring up memories and shadows, with a few of those inimitable touches that set Waits’ songs apart.  Over the years he has written a few “gospel” songs that were spoiled by a bit of sarcasm or irony thrown in, but I believe that this one can be taken straight.

“Wise Up” (Aimee Mann, from the soundtrack to Magnolia [1999]): I am cheating a bit here, but only a bit.  In the last week of 1999 the film Magnolia premiered at the box office.  It was a film that made unusually effective use of music, and one of the crucial sequences was set to Aimee Mann’s song “Wise Up”.  The song is unavoidably tied up in my mind with that moment in the film, and its context in the film makes it a better song, but I think (I think) it is still a good song without those associations.  Anyway, it has been one of my favourites these past ten years.  The song’s final line is open to various interpretations.  One might consider it a counsel of despair; I believe it conveys real moral wisdom.  Here is the sequence from the film in which the song plays.  I cannot take the time here to explain the situations of all the characters, but suffice it to say that the use of this song at this point in the film is really brilliant:

“Set Out Running” (from Neko CaseFurnace Room Lullaby [2000]): Neko Case wrote a lot of great songs during this decade, but this is the first song I ever heard her sing and it has remained a favourite.   My goodness, what a voice this woman has!  It makes my skin tingle and my hair stand up.  She’s pretty too.

“Bridal Train” (from The WaifsBridal Train EP [2004]): I love a good story song, and this is the best one I have heard in a while.  “Bridal Train” tells about a group of Australian women who, having married American soldiers, are embarking by ship to the United States to join their husbands.  It is a tear-jerker, so have a hankie handy if you decide to listen to it.

“Sweetest Waste of Time” (from Kasey Chambers and Shane NicholsonRattlin’ Bones [2008]): Ever since Tammy Wynette and George Jones recorded their classic albums together, the country music duet has been a high-stakes genre.  There have been some great duos over the years: Emmylou Harris with Gram Parsons, and Iris Dement with John Prine come immediately to mind.  In the 2000s I give the palm to Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, whose album of original duets is really excellent.  They sound great together, and they have an ear for the classic country sound.  This is sweet, sweet music to my ears.

“Roots” (from Show of HandsWitness [2006]): The Chestertonian song of the decade must be this one, from a relatively obscure British group.  It’s a song about loving one’s own land and country, and a lament for the erosion of British culture because of political correctness and mass entertainment.  It’s a simple song, but sincere and effective.

That rounds out my Top 10.  Here are a few runners-up:

  • “Keep Your Distance” (From Buddy and Julie Miller [2001]) [listen]
  • “The Beauty of the Rain” (From Dar Williams — The Beauty of the Rain [2003]) [listen]
  • “Aint’ Talkin'” (From Bob Dylan — Modern Times [2006])
  • “American Girls” (From Counting Crows — Hard Candy [2002]) [listen]
  • “The Man Comes Around” (From Johnny Cash — The Man Comes Around [2002]) [listen]

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