Erik Huey’s Top 25 (plus 5!) Rock-n-Roll Songs of the 2Ks

Unapologetically, here is my list. It veers to the above-the-radar side, but I think if you’re going to rank the best songs of the decade, it’s a slightly different list than “my favorite songs” and has to take into account the prevailing zeitgeist of the entire ten year span, culturally as well as musically.

Hence, the Killers (who we’ve all burned out on by now) I think have to be given a high position on the list. Conversely, some of the most important and influential artists of the decade—My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen—aren’t represented because we’re looking solely at songs and not albums, tours, or commercial success.  Elsewhere, I’ve included songs by a particular artist that weren’t necessarily my favorite of the decade by that artist (for instance, I prefer U2’s “Wild Honey” and “In a Little While” to “Beautiful Day”) but they’re included because of their overall significance.

So, I tried to balance all that with the songs that truly compelled me to turn it up to 11 and hit repeat. Over and over again. Here they are.

30.          “Mississippi”      Bob Dylan

Like Picasso and Phillip Roth, Dylan is raging against the notion of mortality by working at a prolific pace in his later years, producing his best work since the mid-70s. This song elegantly showcases his wizened and gnarled, yet still romantic, world view, in the process summarizing 80 years of blues outsider sentiment with the single line “only one thing I did wrong, was stay in Mississippi a day too long.”

29.          “You Look Pretty Good on the Dance Floor”        Arctic Monkeys

Like a lager lout Shakespeare chronicling post-adolescent isolation in post-industrial England, Alex Turner showed the world exactly what it felt like to get rejected by a club girl in “tracky bottoms” who is twice as hot as you, with half your IQ.  I don’t know and don’t care how well this album will age in five years; for now, I’ll follow the advice of the Dead Kennedys—“tomorrow you’re homeless, tonight it’s a blast.”

28.          “Back to Black”  Amy Winehouse

I’m a sucker for the British soul chanteuse, as evidenced by many a late night drunken rambling about how Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” might be the most perfect record ever made.  Paparazzi sideshow notwithstanding, Amy Winehouse brought back soul siren authenticity like no other in this expanding genre, with much more devotion than derivation.

27.          “Hold On, Hold On”         Neko Case

Haunting, sparse and desperate; this song beckons from a dark place, promising light.

26.          “Life on a Chain”                               Pete Yorn

This record, along with the Strokes, inspired an entire generation of skinny guys with scruffy hair, tight jeans, and vintage t-shirts to become singer-songwriters, in the hope of scoring chicks as hot as those at a Pete Yorn show.  Hmmm… if only I could relate.

25.          “The Real Slim Shady”    Eminem

Two words:  Pure.  Fucking.  Genius.

24.          “Portions for Foxes”       Rilo Kiley

Jenny Lewis at her sardonic and sexy best, belting out “baby I’m bad news” to a nation of indie guys all too willing to ignore her proviso.

23.          “Nuclear”                            Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams was in many ways the soundtrack to the 2000s for me, and this is my favorite among the many amazing songs.  Nonsensical and romantic, with throaty vocals that almost make you want to take up smoking. Pall Malls. With a heroin chaser.

22.           “My Black Summer”       Go Kart Go

Christ does this song rock.  Sadly, it provides the only preview of what was to become a robust Second Act of a songwriter whose First Act defined West Coast power pop at its rough and sparkling purest.

21.          “My United States of Whatever”              Liam Lynch

Liam Lynch is either the dumbest genius or the smartest idiot. Whatever!

20.          “Punk Rocker”   Teddybears (with Iggy Pop)

The Godfather of Punk Rock reflecting on what it means to be a punk rocker at 60: unrepentant, indignant, and ready to kick the ass of anyone who dares question his legitimacy.

19.          “Leif Erickson”   Interpol

Dark, sexy and well-dressed. Like New York itself.  Sounding too much like Joy Division is like sounding too much like the Clash—modern music would be better if more bands tried it.  Just ask The National!

18.          “Valerie”              The Zutons/Amy Winehouse

I couldn’t stop playing this song when it came out.  It had every essential element a perfect power pop song: sugary hooks, teenage lyrics about unrequited love, and a girl’s name in the title. Then Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse got hold of it and made it ten times better.

17.          “Glad Girls”                         Guided by Voices

Pure pop bliss, from the only band I’ve ever seen drink more onstage than the Pogues and the Replacements.  Combined.  If I ever flat-line, dispense with the paddles in favor of headphones. Cue this up, hit play, and yell “Clear!”

16.          “A Little More for You”  The Hives

The greatest live band of the decade.  Period.  Howlin’ Pelle Amqvist is the Scandinavian James Brown.  He should be on Swedish currency.  And at this rate, he will be.

15.          “Float On”           Modest Mouse

“Good News for People Who Love Bad News” might have been the most prescient album title of a decade filled with bad news. Bear-soaked and world weary, this trickster figure tale is what indie rock SHOULD sound like. It’s what Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear would sound like if they had balls. So be forewarned Contrived Cute Rockers: it’s time to pick up a Les Paul and shave your sincerity beards, or I’ll send a liquored up Isaac Brock over to Williamsburg to whack you in your safety glasses with a Marshall half-stack.

14.          “Last Night”        The Strokes

These guys put the rock back in rock-n-roll, with a Lower East Side swagger and a riff-heavy guitar attack that defined the first third of the decade, and thankfully spawned an onslaught of faithful imitators. 

13.          “Do You Realize?”                            Flaming Lips

One of the most beautiful songs ever written.

12.          “Beautiful Day”                 U2

In 2009, it’s easy to take for granted that U2 is the Last Stadium Rock Band, capable of filling soccer stadiums worldwide with fans who cheer their new material louder than their classic hits.  But before “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” U2 seemed poised, along with R.E.M., for the nostalgia tour circuit.  Instead, they’re roaring into the 2010s as the only band in rock history to make relevant, compelling, and commercially successful new music thirty years into their career.  (The only band to come close, the Stones, didn’t even make it to twenty years with “Tattoo You.”)  They did it because they dared to do it.  And this is the song that re-launched it all.

11.          “Hurt”   Johnny Cash

Want to know what it sounds like for a living legend to stand on death’s precipice and stare down a life’s worth of sin?  Now you do.  And the video is the greatest, most poignant video of all time.  Of.  All.  Time.

10.          “American Idiot”                              Green Day

These guys took on the Bush Administration before anyone else dared (and certainly before it became fashionable), and in the process wrote the best rock opera since “Tommy.”  If Springsteen’s “The Rising” was rock music’s lasting response to 9/11, this punk rock assault was its Iraq War corollary—a scathing indictment of the country’s unquestioning acquiescence to chest-pounding groupthink.

9.            “Feel Good, Inc.”                             Gorillaz

See Song Number 2, below.

8.            “Constructive Summer”                The Hold Steady

If Jack Kerouac and Bruce Springsteen formed a punk rock bar band, it would be The Hold Steady.  I “heart” this band like no band since the Replacements.   I’ve seen them upwards of ten times, and every show is a sweaty ecstatic celebration of the redemptive power of rock-n-roll and the dark, gleaming promise of the American night.

Craig Finn is the greatest lyricist of the decade, spinning jaundiced but hopeful tales about archetypal rocker boys and party girls, writing the ongoing soundtrack to your disappearing youth as he chronicles every party you’ve ever attended, more coherently than you ever could.  Like that magical summer, when you and your friends drank on top of water towers and dreamed of a better tomorrow…

7.            “Wolf Like Me”                 TV on the Radio

Arguably the best American garage rock song since the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.”  Fuck “Twilight”—this is what turning into a werewolf really feels like.

6.            “All These Things that I’ve Done”              The Killers

Pure unadulterated glam rock spectacle.  The 1980s, updated and improved, with more glitter than ever before! It’s hard to pick a favorite from these slickly produced slabs of synth-laden candy (I could’ve as easily chosen “Jenny Was  Friend of Mine” or “Mr. Brightside”), but who can argue with the hypnotically hook-y chant of “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier”?

5.            “Fell in Love with a Girl”                White Stripes

Seeing Jack White on stage is like seeing Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in the same body.  He and Meg made rock-n-roll dangerous again, and brought loud guitars (I know it’s only one guitar, but it sounds like so many more) back to a guitar-starved idiom. The White Stripes are the artist of the decade, whether that decade is the 1930s or the 2000s.

4.            “Wake Up”         Arcade Fire

An inter-married Montreal art collective, living together in the mansion where they record their albums.  On paper, it sounds like the most pretentious unlistenable horseshit imaginable.  In reality, it is the most hypnotically engaging, spiritually moving music of the decade.  This song

3.            “Let There Be Rock”        Drive By Truckers

This song is the soundtrack to every adolescent rock-n-roll roadtripper in every small town in America who had to settle for whatever concert tours that happened to be passing through any second-tier arenas within a two hour drive.  Like scanning the FM dial in the middle night in the middle of nowhere, you take what you can get.  Even if it means settling for Blue Oyster Cult, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and the Johnny Van Zandt band when all you really want, all you’ve ever wanted—so bad it makes your soul ache—is to see Lynyrd Skynyrd.  “The rest, as they say, is history…”

Like R.E.M. did in the 80s, DBT will make you reconsider all your preconceived notions about the American South. They wrestle with the duality of their innate (yet informed) Southern-ness out in the open and out loud.  Out very loud.  “Let There Be Rock” is the apotheosis of this reckoning. But be careful.  After two listens, it will make you want to move to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and form a Southern-Fried rock band and go on tour to places like Rogersville, Alabama, where kids from nearby forgotten towns will stand on their chairs, lighters in the air, and chant “Let There Be Rock! Let There Be Rock! Let There Be Rock!”

2.            “Crazy”                 Gnarlz Barkley

See Song Number 1, below.

1.            “Hey Ya”              Outkast

“Feel Good, Inc.,” “Crazy,” and “Hey Ya” are the Platonic ideal of what an infectious dance-floor-cramming pop song can be.  In an increasingly fragmented musical landscape, where musical sub-genres are like inviolate silos guarded by ardent purists, these three songs mixed styles in a sonic blender to create a musical meta-narrative that cut across every possible demographic—from hip-hop to indie-rock to electronica, and all points in between—all of whom were shaking that ass at every club in every town in every corner of the entire world.  In cold and troubled times, these three songs fashioned a patchwork quilt of exuberance, escapism, and levity (does anybody remember laughter?) that enveloped us all, every one of us, in a much-needed communal catharsis where we could “shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture.”

And we did it together.  Does that make us crazy?  Possibly.

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As an added bonus, here are five songs from the 2000s which, upon hearing a mere once, I never failed to hit “replay”:

5.            Suffering Jukebox           The Silver Jews

4.            Easy                       Deer Tick

3.            If Looks Could Kill             Camera Obscura

2.            Sex on Fire          Kings of Leon

1.            Dancing on our Graves  The Cave Singers

-EVH/Cletus McCoy

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