80. Britney Spears – “Toxic” (2003)
By the time Britney released “Toxic” as a single in 2004, pop music had legitimately evolved from a TRL-baiting scourge into a credible threat to your iPod. The acquiescence worked both ways. We, the humble listeners, recalibrated our brain chemistries, using “Crazy in Love” and “Cry Me a River” (see below) as gateway drugs, in order to accept—or at least be less suspicious of—decent singers flaunting crystalline melodies and moderately dance-worthy production tracks. They, the pop stars, worked their asses off with producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes, in order to turn their songs sophisticated and current enough to rub noses with OutKast, Daft Punk and other artists signifying this same progressive populism in other genres. In this campaign, “Toxic” was the final gauntlet. A mild acknowledgement of the apparent awesomeness of the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 You” notwithstanding, if it was possible to like, even adore, a single by Britney Spears—the most vapid, least cool, big-time pop star of the era—then the dividing lines between cool and popular had been erased, and absolutely everything in music was fair game for your consideration.
For it to have succeeded, “Toxic” would have to have been the apotheosis of everything great about early 21st century pop music, combining the globetrotting wisdom of Timbaland with Madonna’s charisma and exceeding the sum. It would have to have figured out how to be a song that could appeal to everyone, including those who don’t like songs who appeal to everyone. Ultimately, “Toxic” did all of those things, and it did them by being one of the weirdest fucking pop songs in history, with Britney purring non-stop innuendo over a beat that sounds like a string section playing the sound of a cassette tape fast-forwarding and rewinding itself. Tons of avant-garde touches crowd the corners—at the end of the chorus, a fragment of Dick Dale-inspired guitar punctuates Britney’s falsetto; echoes and reverb abound; a vocoder colors Spears voice just before the break, and is never heard from again. As if all that’s not bizarre enough, in a poll of 700, 000 music fans in 66 countries by Sony Ericsson, “Toxic” was voted the second most popular song. In the world. Ever. It lost out to “We Are the Champions.”
79. Califone – “The Orchids” (2006)
Psychic TV’s “The Orchids” is a sweet, spacious song tucked into the beginning of Dreams Less Sweet—a dense, experimental, industrial album. Accompanied by vibes and oboe, Genesis P-Orridge sings in a nasal British accent about a series of traumatic sights that cause him to claw out his eyes, only to wake up the next morning and “fall in love with the light.” Rumor is, it’s about getting his genitals pierced—but, somehow, it comes across as hopeful and lovely. Psychic TV’s “The Orchids” is a perfect mixtape song, both because of its diamond-in-the-rough context on Dreams Less Sweet, and because of its gentle, heartwarming tug. It’s fitting then, that, according to an oft-told story surrounding the recording of Califone’s stunning 2006 album, Roots & Crowns, Tim Rutili stumbled upon “The Orchids” on an old mixtape, and it inspired the entire album’s creation, pulling him out of a stagnant musical funk. A cover version of the old Psychic TV song rests at the center of Roots & Crowns. Whereas P-Orridge’s version is airy and orchestral, Califone bend the sound of the song so that it actually evokes a sunrise after a rough night. Rutili turns in one of the most touching vocal performances of the decade, as he makes good on the subtle redemptive qualities of P-Orridge’s composition by connecting the emotional dots between “when doors forced open shut again” and having the will to force them open again the next day.
78. Röyksopp – “What Else is There? (Trentmøller Remix)” (2005)
Remixing should be a little like Iron Chef—the two producers use roughly the same ingredients, but come up with wildly differing dishes. Röyksopp’s original “What Else is There?” is exquisitely built out of vocalist Karin Dreijer Andersson’s greatest strength—as the singer for The Knife, Andersson can build tension in a song as expertly as David Fincher, or at least Beth Gibbons. After a spooky introduction, Röyksopp lets Andersson do the lion’s share of the song’s work, her voice calmly ratcheting up the pressure with each verse. Anders Trentmøller builds his remix around tension as well, but he has an entirely different take on it. Instead of a taut 3½ minutes where Andersson’s verses follow quickly on one another, he expands the spaces in between her phrases, composing an intricate acid house track around them. At one point, when Andersson sings “sudden explosion,” her voice fractures into a long-trailing echo. The beats drop out, and are replaced with a gently strummed electric guitar, so subtly indelible that it got sampled in a Girl Talk song. The whole thing conjures images of a woman floating along a moonlit road, which, incidentally, is what the video depicts.
77. Ryan Leslie – “Gibberish” (2009)
If he had simply played it straight, Ryan Leslie’s “Gibberish” would have been a delightful little confection of an album-ending ballad. Instead, it’s the rare satire that also works on a sincere level—in other words, satire as it was meant to be done before pesky concepts like sarcasm and irony got in the way. Ostensibly, “Gibberish” is about doing something romantic in the moonlight. We’ll never know, because Leslie mumbles his way through it. One sequence in the first verse sounds like, “Uss denami nusst/ Uss double o/ Uss denova uss ta/ Hiss tan doe.” Then, there’s the AutoTone—either the greatest musical innovation of the last few years, or the death knell of urban radio, depending on who you ask—which twists every word further out of shape. The percussion consists of canned finger snaps that flaunt their own artificiality and snare ticks that sound drum-machined, even though they were most likely performed by a consummate studio musician (Leslie’s debut features some heavy hitters like Tommy Mottola, David Sancious, and Tom ‘T-Bone’ Wolk.) Everything rings of such wily artifice—down to the synthesized horns that reference OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious,” a song that features the line, “The way she moved reminded me of a brown stallion horse with skates on you know,” which would probably fit in nicely here—that the song would be completely unbearable if it weren’t held together by a straight-faced piano melody and Leslie’s vocal, which walks a perfect line between parody and poignancy.
76. Killer Mike – “A.D.I.D.A.S. (Feat. Big Boi and Sleepy Brown)” (2003)
Possibly the best thing to ever come from rap-rock, on “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” Killer Mike snakes an anagram from KoRn, and spends 3½ minutes trading pussy jokes with Big Boi over a crunktastic beat that could have been composed by Ratatat. Big Boi bemoans camel toe, counts the number of times he fantasizes per minute, and catches a Blue Man Group show in Vegas. Killer Mike runs down a list of cultural names for vagina, repeatedly compares himself to Black & Decker, hits his granddad up for some Viagra, and throws in some safe-sex advice for good measure, all of which makes for one of the most hilariously censored videos ever.
75. Justin Timberlake – “Cry Me a River” (2002)
If “Toxic” was pop’s Yorktown in the war on rockism, then Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” was its Boston Tea Party—a move so bold and charismatic that it forced you to root for the people behind it. Timbaland turns in one of his most bracing productions (though Scott Storch supposedly co-produced), cobbled together from some manic beatboxing and a synthetic string section. Justin phrases his lines like an opera singer, while a real opera singer shows up on a sample—one that begins the song intact, and finishes it chopped up and manipulated. Justin’s smartest move was in making the song overtly about his ex-girlfriend, Britney Spears, so that when he sings, “You don’t have to say what you did/ I already know/ I found out from HIIIM,” he’s directly answering tabloid questions with exactly what they want to hear, and building himself a wealth of publicity as well. The video depicts JT lurking around Spears’ house, videotaping himself making out with another girl in her bed, and waiting for her to get home so he can spy on her in the shower. Dude even makes stalking seem like something that all the sharp-looking motherfuckers do.
74. Le Le – “Breakfast” (2008)
Le Le’s “Breakfast” is sleazy with a capital Z. With a two-note groove that simply bounces back and forth as if it’s the product of an 11-year old playing with a sequencer (or possibly this), the French (or Dutch) beatmakers sound like they’re barely even trying. The song lives and dies on the vocal performance—a series of most-important-meal-of-the-day-related come-ons that begins at “You’re the cheese on my baguette, the jelly on my bread,” ends with “Hola hola hola, oatmeals and granola,” and surmises, “Bitch, you breakfast.” There’s even a surprise twist—dude loves him some breakfast, but not nearly as much as lunch, dinner, and midnight munchies. Those are some follow-up songs we need to hear.
73. 50 Cent – “I Get Money” (2007)
There are a disconcerting amount of writers that claim that 50 Cent has personality. Dude thinks that “personality” means smiling with half your face or showing off your bullet wounds. The most personality 50 Cent has ever shown happens at 0:25 of “I Get Money,” when he raps, “I took quarter-water/ Sold it in bottles for two bucks/ Coca-Cola came and bought it for millions/ What the fuck?” Dude is: 1) Like, flabbergasted by his own success; 2) Taking credit for the success of Vitamin Water; 3) Flaunting his wealth and hustle in a realer way than just about any rapper ever. When he immediately follows with “Have a baby by me baby/ Be a millionaire/ I’ll write the check before the baby comes/ Who the fuck cares?” it’s, case closed, the most earned arrogance on the books. Nothing else is as loud or pronounced after those first couple of lines. Tethered by not only the deathless sample from Audio 2’s “Top Billin’,” but the chorus from Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” (which is probably overdue for a critical resurgence, incidentally), the rest of “I Get Money” is merely a victory lap. You could say something similar about 50’s career.
72. Death From Above 1979 – “Black History Month (Alan Braxe & Fred Falke Remix)” (2005)
When Death From Above 1979 broke up in 2006, bassist/synth player Jesse Keeler went on to form MSTRKRFT, a Daft Punk-infatuated skuzzy electronica outfit. This move, along with the band’s final release—a B-sides compilation of dance mixes of their only album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine—hinted at a deep affection for rhythm that rarely peeked through the band’s testosterone heavy rock of their debut. Secretly, Death From Above 1979’s “Black History Month” always had a dance mix in it—the ragged guitars that punctuate the song’s original version are only a couple of degrees removed from a Modest Mouse-style four-on-the-floor disco shuffle. What was unclear from the beginning was whether “Black History Month” had a masterpiece somewhere inside of it. In their remix, Alan Braxe and Fred Falke work miracles with their source material, kicking their remix off with an exact replica of the opening to “Billie Jean” and transforming a song that subverted pop ideals into one that embraced them. With a shimmering synth-line augmenting the chorus, sung from the point-of-view of a man nostalgic for segregation-era America, “Black History Month” makes the leap from mildly abrasive album track to monumentally subversive potential crowd-pleaser.
71. The Dirty Projectors – “Stillness is the Move” (2009)
After a concept album about Don Henley and an album length cover of Black Flag’s Damaged that was even more inscrutable than the original, odds that The Dirty Projectors would ever put together a song as pop-savvy as “Stillness is the Move” were slim. The internet rumor is that Dave Longstreth assembled the song’s lyrics from a large spreadsheet full of pop clichés. It’s definitely possible. “Stillness is the Move” is riddled with the type of romantic ambiguousness that dominates rock radio—“There is nothing we can’t do,” “I know we’ll make it,” and “I can’t imagine anything better” all make appearances, among others. Yet, there’s plenty of specificity in there too—contemplating getting a job as a waitress, “on top of every mountain there is a great longing for an even higher mountain.” Vocalist Angel Deradoorian is a revelation, careening to Mariah Carey-type heights with her voice. Longstreth’s guitar playing, which famously mimics Ali Farka Touré, operates like a sampled loop, both providing the melody and enhancing the rhythm. More importantly, Longstreth sets himself apart from his contemporaries by transforming a serious glut of ideas into a remarkably straightforward, accessible song. Indie rock ain’t dead yet.
-Martin Brown, 2009