50

With Every Heartbeat

Robyn and Kleerup

Robyn (2008), Kleerup (2008)

Robyn has a knack for unconventional song structures, and for bringing out the best in her collaborators (her other song on the list achieves both of these things as well). “With Every Heartbeat” marries strings and electronic beats with grace, and is particularly memorable forRobyn’s staccato mourning of the title line — “and it hurts with every heartbeat.”

Also check out: Kleerup’s collaboration with Lykke Li, “Until We Bleed”

49

Black & Gold

Sam Sparro

Sam Sparro (2008)

It’s a peculiar thing that, aside from diva dancefloor anthems, electronic songs rarely feature skilled vocalists. Sam Sparro, on the other hand, has a powerhouse set of pipes and has no qualms about mingling with synths and beats galore. His best song, “Black & Gold,” even goes one step further, combining not just a great beat and a great voice, but truly thoughtful lyrics as well.  The “you” in this song is not a lover as one might think, but rather God, while the lyrics reference evolution and the frightening emptiness of the universe. I don’t personally feel the same as Sparro (“If you’re not really here / Then I don’t want to be either”), but I can certainly understand the sentiment of wanting to find your place in the world and fearing that evertyhing is  “all just a bunch of matter.” Overall, this is just a great song from a very promising new artist. I can’t wait to hear more.

Also check out: “Ready for the Floor” by Hot Chip

48

Shut Up and Let Me Go

The Ting Tings

We Started Nothing (2008)

The Ting Tings have reincarnated the spirit of Toni Basil (of “Mickey” fame) and managed to make hits out of an unlikely blend of sing-song rhymes, playful guitar riffs, and danceable rhythms. “Shut Up and Let Me Go” was simply an incredibly fun pop song that brightened up the radio airwaves. Kudos go out to follow-up “That’s Not My Name” as well, a near-equally good sing-along with lyrics that are easy to alter for any situation (“That’s not my drink!” “That’s not my wig!”).

Also check out: “Le Disko” by Shiny Toy Guns, a similar boy/girl vocal trade-off but with a hard electro edge

47

Lose Yourself

Eminem

8 Mile Soundtrack (2002)

I did not want to like an Eminem song. I pretty much hated the guy when he first came out. If he wasn’t acting like a fratboy-child, he was acting like a homophobic brute. But then he had to go and record one of the best rap songs ever, and I had to concede that the man may personally be a turn-off but the talent is there. The lyrics do an amazing job of putting you in the scene, right off the bat: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy / There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti / He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready.” Eminem is good at getting into character, it’s just that this is the first time he sings as a character you want to root for.

Also check out: Eminem’s “White America” – perfectly distilling the (irrational) fear so many parents had

46

Clocks

Coldplay

A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

Coldplay is one of those groups who follows what I’ll call “the inverse popularity ratio,” where as they have become more and more commercially successful, I have found their music less and less interesting. (Sorry everybody, I don’t get the “Viva La Vida” love.) “Clocks,” from their sophomore album, is probably their most definitively shining musical moment (followed closely by “Trouble”). The song itself is ridiculously simple, composed primarily of a repeated piano arpeggio with a chorus that is mostly just harmonized “ooh”s, but it’s that very simplicity that makes it so compelling.

Also check out: “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, a sort of Coldplay Jr.

45

Such Great Heights

The Postal Service

Give Up (2003)

Ben Gibbard was a bit of a cottage industry in the mid-’00s, churning out a wealth of material for the emo-college crowd via Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. Although Death Cab is the band he has put more energy into, it was his long-distance emo-dance-pop side project that had the most success (he and collaborator Jimmy Tamborello famously worked by sending demos back and forth through the mail, hence the name The Postal Service). “Such Great Heights” is the most notable song from their lone, near-perfect album. It’s earnest without being sickly sweet, it’s catchy without being cliche, and to paraphrase American Bandstand, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Also check out: The most obvious successor to this now-defunct band is Owl City. “Fireflies” in particular sounds nearly identical to “Such Great Heights,” for better or for worse.

44

Die Another Day

Madonna

Die Another Day Soundtrack (2002)

It’s easy to forget this now that we are in Madonna’s post-”American Life” career, where in the last 7 years she has managed a whopping TWO top ten singles total, but before that 2003 commercial disaster, Madonna was still tearing up the charts. I am still astounded that “Die Another Day” was a smash hit. Listen to this song. Freaky auto-tuning. Barely a hint of a melody. Chopped-up dramatic orchestral strings. This is not the recipe for a hit. But she put the whole thing together (with the considerable talent of producer Mirwais), dumped the tired old Bond theme template, and dragged us all into the 21st century. This is also probably Madonna’s most bizarre set of lyrics: “I’m gonna wake up yes and no / I’m gonna kiss some part of / I’m gonna keep this secret / I’m gonna close my body now.” A good chunk of the song makes no sense, but the parts that do are all about defiance and self-control. If there is anyone who could actually force death away, it’s Madonna. And when I listen to this song, I kind of feel like I could too.

Also check out: “Easy Ride” from “American Life” — the logical extension of this song, featuring the line “I want to live forever”

43

When Love Takes Over

David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland

One Love (2009)

This was definitely a big year for David Guetta. The DJ, who had previously had quite a bit of club success with songs like “Love is Gone,” crossed over in a major way in 2009, producing the biggest chart hit of the year (Black Eyed Peas’ rather dreadful “I Gotta Feeling”), earning his first top ten in his own right (“Sexy Bitch” with Akon), and hitting a personal artistic best with “When Love Takes Over.” The song made me wonder why Kelly Rowland was never able to really kick her career into high gear like Beyonce, as she’s got an incredible voice and a good musical instinct (she also guests on 2 other songs on Guetta’s excellent “One Love” album). Right from the song’s opening piano arpeggio, it’s got you falling in love with it, while the lyrics convey that weird way that love can be both suffocating and liberating (“Head underwater / now I can’t breathe / it never felt so good”). This was the raise-your-hands-in-the-air club jam of the summer.

Also check out: “Rock That Body” by the Black Eyed Peas, also produced by Guetta – the only truly great song from their “The E.N.D.” album

42

Love Lockdown

Kanye West

808s & Heartbreak (2008)

He may have a gigantic ego, but Kanye West actually has quite a bit of talent to back it up. Were this a top 100, he could easily have 3 or 4 more songs on the list. In fact, I’m still not even sure if “Love Lockdown” is his best (“Jesus Walks” and “Stronger” both come to mind as strong alternatives). But this song completely caught me off guard when I first heard it — the boastfulness has been replaced with, well, “heartbreak” as the album’s title implies. And Kanye is… singing, instead of rapping, albeit with the heavy assistance of auto-tuner. Of all the things I ever expected to get from Kanye West, “emotionally raw” was never on the list. And yet here it is, and it is beautifully well done.

Also check out: Kid Cudi’s “Solo Dolo (Nightmare)” – a similarly sad turn from another otherwise pop-inflected rapper

41

Disco Science

Mirwais

Production (2000)

Music is generally a passive experience — it doesn’t really take any effort to listen a song. “Disco Science” is an exception. Beyond the “mm-mm” Cannonballs sample, the song is completely instrumental, and when that screaming siren finally comes in for the “chorus,” it practically dares you to keep listening. It is not, in itself, a particularly appealing sound – kind of like a fire alarm – and there is pretty much no way to have this song on “in the background.” But the sinister bassline and whip-like percussion that leads to it turn that noise into the more fable-like version of a siren – something that irresistably calls you to it (potentially to your demise). I’ve never taken drugs, but I imagine this is the kind of dance song that could make you completely trip out.

Also check out: Mirwais’s side project Y.A.S., which takes his trademark catchy electro and combines it with Arabic vocals

40

Rehab

Amy Winehouse

Back to Black (2006)

Now that Britney Spears has her shit together, Amy Winehouse has sadly positioned herself to be pop music’s greatest current tragedy. (It’s fitting that the first time I heard “Rehab,” it was in a YouTube clip synced to a montage of Britney singing.) But her personal life aside, Winehouse is an undeniably talented woman, and “Back to Black” was the rare case where an album achieved both commercial and critical success and actually deserved it. “Rehab” sounds so instantly like a long-forgotten soul classic that it’s hard to believe you’re actually hearing a 20-something Jewish Brit singing. Pop music can get pretty predictable sometimes, so to hear this level of musicianship infiltrate top 40 radio is quite a thrill. Here’s hoping Amy gets it together and gives us another addictive dose of retro-soul.

Also check out: Adele’s “Hometown Glory” — another compelling big British voice

39

What Else is There

Royksopp featuring Karin Dreijer Andersson

The Understanding (2005)

Royksopp has really become a personal favorite — their first album was decent, but its largely instrumental nature made it hard for me to get into. The second time around they brought in a number of guest vocalists (and explored their own vocals as well), and created one of my favorite albums of the decade with “The Understanding.” This is the strongest song from the disc, featuring the prolific singer Karin Dreijer Andersson, who is probably best known as the singer for The Knife and Fever Ray. Andersson’s distinctive voice — which vaguely recalls Bjork back when she was at her poppiest — is just the right shade of piercing and plaintive. The video – where the white-blonde, freckled singer floats through fields and buildings, dripping, uh, milk the whole way — seems to complement the song perfectly. This is just an utterly compelling track.

Also check out: The one stand-out song from The Knife, “Heartbeats,” which nearly made this list.

38

Human

The Killers

Day & Age (2008)

I’ll be honest, any one of The Killers’ three biggest hits (the other two being “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside”) could have taken this slot. Putting aside their “Sam’s Town” album (which, aside from “Read My Mind,” just left me bored), the group is incredibly skilled at merging electronics with rock. The lyrical hook of this song always strikes me as oddly layered — “Are we human, or are we dancer?” Singer Brandon Flowers has said this is a reference to a philosopher’s quote about the changing nature of humanity, people reacting mechanically rather than genuinely, becoming “dancers.” Essentially using “dancer” as a negative. And yet, this is the lyrical hook of a song that is basically a “dance” song. Is this a clever meta-reference? Or was it even intentionally ironic? Either way, it’s an achievement to create a dance/rock song that could make me think this hard while still making me want to dance and sing along.

Also check out: The lovely Pet Shop Boys remix of The Killers’ “Read My Mind”

37

Crazy In Love

Beyonce featuring Jay-Z

Dangerously In Love (2003)

Although her underrated Austin Powers soundtrack song “Work It Out” was technically Beyonce’s first solo single, it was “Crazy In Love” that immediately turned Beyonce into BEYONCE. That frantic drum loop, sick horn sample, and killer rap from Jay-Z all served as the perfect supporting cast to the newly crowned queen bee of R&B. The lyrics speak of reckless abandon in love, and the colorful video meshed well with the song’s vibe of structured pop chaos. She may have had the better part of a decade to practice for the role of lead diva, but Beyonce launched her solo career with a flawless song choice.

Also check out: Chrisette Michele’s “Be OK”

36

Fuck the Pain Away

Peaches

The Teaches of Peaches (2000)

If the title alone wasn’t enough, the first lyric in this song goes: “Sucking on my titties like you wanted me.” Yes, Peaches is one dirty bird, and she sure knows how to get your attention. Everything about this song is dirty — not just the lyrics, but the production, the bass-line, her voice, the hammering cymbals on the chorus — all of it. It sounds like it was recorded in a basement (it probably was, actually), and is powered by raw sexual energy that is both aggressive and desperate. (Side note: This is one of only two cover songs in my short-lived musical career that I have performed live — I mashed this up with my song “Everyone Wants to Feel Something” at a concert in Brooklyn.)

(I had never seen this video until just now – don’t know if it’s the official video but it’s amazing!) 

Also check out: Do you like crude sexual references, but crave a little more melody? Try “Pussy” by Brazilian Girls.

35

Music

Madonna

Music (2000)

Okay, in case you couldn’t guess it already, this is list is gonna be Madonna-heavy. She had a good decade, okay? Anyway, while many regard her 1998 “Ray of Light” album as the highwater mark of the newly electronic-leaning incarnation of Madonna, my preference has always been for the 2000 follow-up. When I first heard the song “Music,” it was genuinely unlike anything I had heard on the radio. The closest point of reference seemed to be Daft Punk, while others noticed similarities to early ’80s underground electro pop. Madonna gets a lot of flak for supposedly “stealing” the work of her producers and riding their talent, but I think that completely disregards the pop sensibility and songwriting prowess that she possesses. Not to mention the fact that bringing those cutting edge sounds into the mainstream, even if that ”edge” gets dulled a bit in the process, still encourages innovation in pop across the board. And this song — that single-note bassline drone, wildly vocoded hooks, and lyrics that swing from “do you like to boogie-woogie” to referencing the “bourgeoisie” — it deserved to become the giant hit it was. “Music” became her first #1 single in 5 years (and likely the last of her career), proving it really did “make the people come together.”

Also check out: Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” – another Daft Punk inspired sing-along.

34

Hurt

Johnny Cash

American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

Hoo boy. I don’t know how this whole project got its start, but Johnny Cash covering modern rock songs is undeniably brilliant. “Hurt,” in particular, is a perfect choice. The song, originally by Nine Inch Nails, is a slice of pre-emo self-obsession, which, let’s face it, sounds a bit like a 17-year-old’s journal entry (albeit a very GOOD journal entry) in comparison to Cash’s cover. Put this song in the hands of a widow near the twilight of his own life, and lines like “everyone I know goes away in the end” become monumentally more devastating. I can’t really listen to this song all that often as it cuts so deep, but when I do, it never loses its impact.

Also check out: Nine Inch Nails’ “Only,” their best song this decade

33

Satisfaction

Benny Benassi

Hypnotica (2003)

I remember distinctly the first time I heard this song, it was in a club right when I finally started going out (I was a late bloomer). This song scared me. Seriously. I don’t know that “fear” was the intention of it, but something about the emotionless computer “vocals” and the thick, dirty, relentless bassline just hit me at a visceral level. This song is like a robot threatening to fuck you to death. But the more I heard the song, the more I enjoyed it as well, and became a fan of Benassi, his Benassi Bros. side project, and his remixes for other artists (his mix of Madonna’s “Celebration” is one of the finest mixes of the decade). But it all goes back to “Satisfaction,” which, as the album title suggests, is just plain hypnotic.

Also check out: “Able to Love” from the same album – Benassi is determined to prove that computers can feel

32

O’ Sailor

Fiona Apple

Extraordinary Machine (2005)

If you’re familiar with Fiona Apple, you probably know the story of ”Extraordinary Machine” – originally recorded in 2003, never released, then leaked, then re-recorded for a 2005 official release. The end result is two near-equally sublime albums, so much so that it was really hard to pick one particular song as a stand-out. But it ended up being “O’ Sailor” that resonated with me the most. It coincided with a particularly rough romantic period of my life, and lines like “everything I have to look forward to / has a pretty painful and very imposing before” spoke to my melancholy. Apple is one of the most clever lyricists of our time, and it’s a gift that she’s an equally talented singer and pianist. Too bad this was her only album during the whole decade.

Also check out: The original unreleased version of Apple’s “Used to Love Him” – an angrier counterpart to “O’ Sailor.”

31

We Belong Together

Mariah Carey

The Emancipation of Mimi (2005)

I’ll confess: never in my life did I think I’d put Mariah Carey on a “best-of” anything list. Something about her just always rubbed me the wrong way – she seemed permanently stuck in high school, trying to be the popular girl at any cost – I just did not care for the woman. Does she have an amazing voice? No doubt. But the music wasn’t there. Then the “Glitter” debacle happened, and her world basically collapsed. Her music started flopping. She went crazy. The queen of #1s was now a mental case. And from these dark times she actually went ahead and recorded an album that I think she just made her happy, personally – the album title is fitting. And the music turned out good. Really good. The album’s best song ended up becoming an enormous hit, and deservedly so. “We Belong Together” sounded timely without being overly trendy, and was surprisingly clever lyrically (“This is getting too deep / I gotta change the station / so I turn the dial trying to catch a break”). This album, and in particular this song, represents an artistic oasis for Mariah. Her work since has been so-so, but at least now I know she has it in her.

Also check out: Follow-up single “Shake It Off” — which ended up just outside this top 50 list.

30

Who Knew

Pink

I’m Not Dead (2006)

Pink is one of those artists who is so reliably consistent that it’s hard to single out any one song as a particular highlight – they’re honestly all really good. Momentarily ignoring the label puppetry of her hip-hop-inflected debut (remember when people weren’t sure if Pink was white or just a light-skinned black girl?), I’d say she’s yet to have a misfire. “Who Knew” is probably the best of her releases, channeling her feisty girl-power rage into heartbreak. Not many people would react to a doubting friend by wanting to punch them in the face, but Pink certainly seems like the type who would. She also manages to expertly walk a careful lyrical line, providing enough specifity to hook the listener while leaving enough ambiguity to let anyone relate to this tale of loss (is it about death? a break-up? divorce?). I’m also grateful her label decided to re-release this song, which initially flopped, after the surprise success of “U + Ur Hand,” turning “Who Knew” into another top ten smash.

Also check out: Ida Maria’s “Oh My God” — a catchy shoulda-been-hit from a similarly scratchy-throated pop/rock singer.

29

The Girl and the Robot

Royksopp featuring Robyn

Junior (2009)

When I first heard this song, I thought it was a pretty solid electro pop song with a killer bassline. But that was about it. Then one line — and only that one line — kept coming back in my head: “I’m in love with a robot.” And I kept listening to the song. Over and over again. And it got better every time I heard it, until I realized that the whole track just nails it. Most pop songs basically hold your hand through the verses trying to get you to the chorus, and then repeat the chorus as often as possible. As with Robyn’s other entry on the countdown, this song has an odd structure that sidesteps that route. It ends up being that slight structural twist that, in a way, becomes the hook. Meanwhile, Royksopp have never been better — I hope they keep churning out material like “The Girl and the Robot.” Their last two albums have been masterpieces, and they deserve being one of only a handful of artists to grace this top 50 more than once.

Also check out: “Song 4 Mutya” by Groove Armada featuring Mutya Buena (also released as “Out of Control”)

28

If I Ain’t Got You

Alicia Keys

The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003)

With her sophomore effort, Alicia Keys proved that the hints of brilliance on “Songs in A Minor” were no fluke. “The Diary of Alicia Keys” is her best album, with a number of great songs, topped by the soulful joy of “If I Ain’t Got You.” It’s a love song in many senses — not just love for her man, but love for musicianship. I am a fan of electronic music, but I still find it important to step back from time to time and listen to music that eschews technological assistance in favor of raw musical skill. Keys has got the goods.

Also check out: “Flow” by Sade

27

Say It Right

Nelly Furtado

Loose (2006)

I don’t think anybody saw Nelly Furtado’s left turn into hip-hop coming, but after the shock of seeing her rap alongside Timbaland subsided, it turned out she was pretty damn good at working in the genre. “Promiscuous” and “Maneater” were both great singles in their own right, but it was “Say It Right” that found the perfect balance of her introspective lyricism and Timbaland’s addictive mid-tempo beats. Furtado sounds like she has had some sort of sorrowful epiphany, tinged with only the smallest sliver of hope, giving the song a quietly epic feel.

Also check out: I normally am not that impressed by mash-ups, but there is a version of “Say it Right” that uses the music of Robert Miles’s “Children” that is definitely worth finding.

26

Cry Me A River

Justin Timberlake

Justified (2002)

Teen pop is littered with the corpses of failed solo careers — how many other young singers have successfully emerged from boy-bands? Michael Jackson? Ricky Martin, sort of? Justin Timberlake was no sure thing, but “Justified” brought him into his own, and set the stage for a surprisingly successful decade. He’s only released two solo albums, but a slew of guest performances for everyone from Madonna to T.I. to the Black Eyed Peas has more than proven his skill. “Cry Me A River” is a fine Timbaland production, meshing Timberlake’s falsetto with a chunky mid-tempo beat and a backing instrumental that even includes nonsense mumbling as a musical element. Add in a video referencing Timberlake’s notorious breakup with Britney Spears, and you have a pop culture touchstone.

Also check out: “Shake It” by JC Chasez – NSync’s second-most talented member’s funky collaboration with Basement Jaxx

25

Maps

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Fever to Tell (2003)

“Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” This line is repeated over and over again in “Maps,” and it’s heartbreaking every time. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have become a surprisingly enduring rock band that’s willing to taste samples of a bunch of genres while never compromising their sound (the electro-inflected “It’s Blitz!” is a great album). “Maps” was the song that, uh, put them on the map, so to speak, and it feels like the aural equivalent of a raw, exposed nerve. It hurts, but in a cathartic way.

Also check out: “Publisher” by Blonde Redhead – from one of the best albums of the decade, “23.”

24

The Way I Are

Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson

Shock Value (2007)

Bizarre grammar aside (actually, I typically sing the chorus as “the way I is,” because — why not?), this is easily Timbaland’s finest moment as a solo artist. Hip-hop is already pretty danceable in general, but upping the tempo and merging it with a more typical dance sound while still feeling fully grounded in its root genre is a difficult task. Although a tad on the short side (the song really feels like it needs one more chorus to close it out), this song is just plain excellent pop music. And kudos to introducing us to Keri Hilson, who has since released a few more great songs of her own (my favorite being “Turnin’ Me On”).

Also check out: “4 My People,” a similar take on hip-hop/dance from Missy Elliot and Eve

23

Ring the Alarm

Beyonce

B’Day (2006)

It happened gradually enough that it never really caught anyone off-guard, but Beyonce went from a fairly tame R&B singer to a flat-out crazy bitch over the past ten years. Her early work with Destiny’s Child was decent but by no means did she stand out as the future pop superstar it now seems like she was (ahem) destined to become. Seriously, take a look at the cover of their album “The Writing’s on the Wall” — can you even identify which one is Beyonce at first glance? Every time I see that image I have to pick her out by process of elimination. In any case, her solo debut introduced us to some pretty nutty dance moves, but it wasn’t until “Ring the Alarm” from her second album that Beyonce really let her freak flag fly. This surprising choice for a single (her first solo effort to miss the top ten, albeit barely at #11)  featured instrumentation that practically clangs, a chorus that is more like screaming than singing, and a music video where she is flailing against security guards and dancing like she’s epileptic. And damned if I don’t want to clip on a fake ponytail and fling my head around along with her every time I hear this song. Girlfriend is ANGRY and I love it. I hesitate to ever heap unqualified accolades on an artist, but Beyonce is so much the real deal in pretty much every possible aspect (and damn it, she even seems like she’s a nice person), that she is worth every ounce of the praise she gets.

Also check out: Amerie’s “1 Thing,” another frantic hip-hop confection.

22

Consequence

The Notwist

Neon Golden (2002)

I don’t remember who shared this song with me, but I’d like to thank them now. The Notwist are a band of economy, stripping their songs of anything unnecessary and leaving just the raw, bare bones. Two nearly identical verses split the singer and his love into two distinct entities (“I’m not in this movie / I’m not in this song”), sung with the dispassionate resignation of someone who has gone through a painful love and come out exhausted. I envision the world’s rotation slowing when the song’s coda kicks in at the 3:30 mark. If you’ve never heard of The Notwist, do check this album out. It’s a great find.

Also check out: Erlend Oye’s “Ghost Trains,” a more electronic example of a singer’s emotional flatness somehow making a song convey more feeling than it would have otherwise.

21

Grand Canyon

Tracey Thorn

Out of the Woods (2007)

You don’t know how sad I am that Everything But the Girl hasn’t released any new material since 1999. They are probably my favorite group, and “Walking Wounded” has for some time stood as my favorite album ever. So it was incredibly exciting to finally get Tracey Thorn’s solo album, as her voice is perhaps the most lovely thing I’ve ever heard. “Out of the Woods” turned out a bit spottier than I would’ve liked (Ben Watt is clearly as key to the magic of EBTG as Tracey is), but among the handful of truly great songs, “Grand Canyon” stood out above the rest. As I looked online to find the full quote of my favorite lyric, I realized the whole song is a string of beautiful lines. “Down among the heretics, the losers, and the saints / You are here amongst your own / You’ve come home.” It’s a welcoming of unconditional love set to a disco beat, a misfit call to the dancefloor.

Also check out: “Hello There” by collaborator Cagedbaby (in fact, check out pretty much anything by Cagedbaby, it’s all good)

20

Nobody Knows Me

Madonna

American Life (2003)

Back in the days when people actually bought CDs, I used to have a habit of making sure to give one full, uninterrupted listen to an anticipated album to get my first impression. When I did this for “American Life,” as soon as I heard “Nobody Knows Me,” all I wanted to do was go back and listen to it again. And again. Madonna’s most hit-or-miss album hit it out of the park on this track, which I remember one critic describing as sounding like “a synth keyboard falling down a stairwell.” (I think they meant it as an insult – to me, that’s high praise.) The production won my heart, with its unusual 4-on, 4-off beat pattern (I’m hard pressed to think of another song that employs that style), and the auto-tuned vocals actually are in service of the song’s lyrics, obscuring her true voice because, well, nobody knows her. And I particularly love the twist on the meaning of “social disease” — wanting to escape that desire to fit the mold that “infects” so many people. I don’t know that many other people would call this song a highlight of the decade, but in a way that makes me all the more appreciative — it becomes my little personal gem.


(note: this is a remix of the original – both are great)

Also check out: Goldfrapp’s “Koko” — I’m not typically one to say “make sure you listen to this loud,” but, you really should.

19

Piece of Me

Britney Spears

Blackout (2007)

“I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17.” The first five years of Britney Spears’s career were a rapid-fire blur of constant “product” — she had 4 albums plus a greatest hits collection and a movie, all by the ripe old age of 22. Then that whole “55 hour marriage-two babies-Federline-shaved head-cooch shot-umbrella car bashing-handcuffed to a gurney-trips to rehab” period of her life happened. Yeah. So it’s no surprise when she released her next album 3 years later, she called it “Blackout” — I wouldn’t be shocked if she was in one that whole time period. What was a surprise was that it was, by a mile, her best album yet. Filled with funky electro, thumping beats, and warped voices galore, it set her up on a return to glory. The strongest song was the second single, “Piece of Me,” the best anti-paparazzi rejoinder since Madonna’s “Human Nature” a dozen years earlier. Sexual moans became part of the rhythm track, and her voice was deliciously manipulated on the chorus – “do you want a piece of me?” Ridiculously catchy, the song simultaneously summed up her career and became one of her finest musical moments.

Also check out: “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” from the same album — one of several other shoulda-been singles.

18

Fallin’

Alicia Keys

Songs in A Minor (2001)

This marks the only instance in my life I can think of where after hearing a new artist’s debut song just once, I immediately went out and bought their whole album. “Fallin’” immediately captivated me — I particularly love how towards the end the vocals just keep layering themselves on top of each other, and just when you think its as vocally rich as it can be, a whole additional set of harmonies kick in. American Idol hopefuls have done their best to ruin this song for everybody (I’m not sure what logical gap led so many to think the best way to stand out was to sing the same song as everyone else), but 8 years later, Alicia’s original has stood the test of time. It felt like an instant classic the moment it was released, and that seems to be proving true. What a fine way for one of the decade’s most talented musicians to enter the world stage.

Also check out: John Legend’s “Ordinary People”

17

Paper Planes

M.I.A.

Kala (2007)

I loved M.I.A.’s “Arular” album, and was equally impressed with her follow-up “Kala” — both mixed genres and cultures in a thrillingly unexpected way. And then there’s the song with the gunshot chorus. The first time I heard “Paper Planes” I was actually shocked — which is, generally, a hard reaction for a song to trigger (pardon the pun). She’s singing: “all I want to do is shoot you and take your money” — which, on a literal level, is rather extreme to say the least. I later read that her thinking behind this song was as a commentary on the racial/cultural profiling she had seen and experienced first-hand. By flat-out confessing to a stereotype, she’s pointing out just how ridiculous those stereotypes are. And she’s doing it with a very memorable chorus, clever raps (“I pack and deliver like UPS trucks”), and a hip-hop beat layered over a Clash sample. The fact that it became a mega-hit just sweetens the deal.

Also check out: “Galang” from her “Arular” album — which might even be catchier than “Paper Planes”

16

Don’t Stop the Music

Rihanna

Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)

Every time I listened to this song while compiling this list, I bumped it up a few more notches, until it climbed all the way into the top 20. While “Umbrella” may be considered more her signature song, it’s really this track that will still be played on the radio and in clubs in 20 years. Borrowing that Michael Jackson hook, and then piling about 8 other hooks on top of it, this song is ridiculously catchy. Like, swine flu catchy. Cover-your-face-with-a-mask catchy. Wear-a-condom catchy. Girl’s had a slew of hits in her short time as a star, here’s hoping she keeps churning out tracks like this one.

Also check out: It may have seemed like every song from this album was released as a single, but album cut “Lemme Get That” is another great Rihanna track.

15

Damage

Tiefschwarz featuring Tracey Thorn

Eat Books (2005)

To tide fans over between the last EBTG album and her solo release, Tracey Thorn lent her vocals to this song from indie-synth act Tiefschwarz in 2005. The song hit the sweet-spot of being darkly electronic without losing its emotional core, with the bassline sneaking in on the chorus to underscore the bitterness.”I was always there / but you never chose to care … damage / in a lonely place.” Break-ups are hard, but it’s even harder when you realize it was actually easy for the other person. This song deals with the pain of giving your heart to someone, only to learn later that they never even noticed.

(Unfortunately I could not find embeddable audio of the superior original version of the song online anywhere – but you can hear a 30 second sample at last.fm)

Also check out: BT featuring JC Chasez’s “The Force of Gravity” — a trancier version of love lost.

14

Destroy Everything You Touch

Ladytron

Witching Hour (2005)

I am always drawn to creative works that focus on the concept of trying to control emotion — as a very rational person, it is frustrating to know that feelings generally don’t respond to logic. Ladytron delves deep into that territory on this song, singing about destroying “anything that may desert you / so it cannot hurt you.” The contrast of soft female vocals against an onslaught of synths and beats is a fitting representation of the tug of war between feeling and thinking. There is no resolution in the song either — it’s just a battle, with each side trying to destroy the other. Maybe I’m being too cerebral about this, because all that aside, it’s just a great song.

(the real video is not embeddable — this is a fan-made clip)

Also check out: “Machine Gun” by Portishead

13

Strict Machine

Goldfrapp

Black Cherry (2003)

Sometimes a song comes along that has such an immense impact it practically launches its own new sub-genre. Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” was just such a song. A deep, surging bassline propels Alison Goldfrapp’s airy vocals to a climactic chorus, fetishizing the very electronics that allow the song to exist in the first place: “wonderful electric … I’m in love with a strict machine.” The group, whose ethereal debut gave no inkling of the electro-dance superstars they’d become, has influenced a number of already well-established diva pop stars, including Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Kylie Minogue. Goldfrapp even based their 2005 follow-up, “Supernature,” almost entirely around the structure of “Strict Machine.” Goldfrapp took a break from the dancefloor on their fourth album (“Seventh Tree”), but word is that they are moving back in a disco direction for their next release. I can’t wait.

Also check out: “Galvanize” by Chemical Brothers

12

Get Ur Freak On

Missy Elliot

Miss E… So Addictive (2001)

Missy Elliot is probably the most talented female rapper out there. I’m not even sure I need to use the “female” qualifier there either. “Get Ur Freak On” is perhaps the epitome of her striking combination of weird, catchy, and rhythmic. Sounding more like a Talvin Singh track than a hip-hop smash, she even establishes her superiority by… spitting at you (and the video shows this acted out, even). She and Timbaland could pretty easily be credited with keeping hip-hop as the one genre that can still innovate and surprise above any other.

Also check out: This other Missy song just missed the top 50, but the frantic “Lose Control” still blows me away

11

Get Together

Madonna

Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005)

“Confessions on a Dancefloor” is the kind of album that seemed to be firmly in Madonna’s past — 12 straight songs of unapologetic dance pop, with barely a hint of the Kabbalah-tastic, yoga-centric self-exploration that characterized her past few efforts. But damn if this wasn’t a surprising return to form for the old broad, and “Get Together” epitomized the album’s success perfectly. It is borderline impossible not to love this tune, its dreamy synths propping up an easygoing and ultra-catchy vocal that drifts along effortlessly. The chorus charmingly boils down the basic premise of millions of pop songs: “Can we get together? I really wanna be with you.”

Also check out: Madonna completely re-worked “Erotica” for her Confessions Tour to the point where I now call it a separate song, “You Thrill Me,” a total favorite of mine — it would’ve made this list if it wasn’t technically still a song from the ’90s.

10

B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)

Outkast

Stankonia (2000)

I’m noticing a theme on my list here — I’m most intrigued by pop artists who are willing to get a little weird. High on that list is easily the dynamic duo of Outkast. A more popular choice from them might have been “Hey Ya,” but that is one of the few cases in my life where a song I loved got SO overplayed that I am no longer able to listen to it at all, even 5 years after its release. Not the case for “B.O.B.,” which jumps right into its frantic 155 BPM beat (which is obscenely fast — a typical dance song is only in the 120s), and is scattered with easily chantable lyrics. After its first half, the song avoids a typical structure, bouncing from section to section with reckless abandon. The lyrics, as far as I can tell, are basically saying “go big or go home,” as both Andre 3000 and Big Boi reference the sacrifices they’ve made to pursure their career. I’m glad they did - we’re better off for it.

Also check out: “Universal Mind Control (UMC)” by Common – another clever entry in the dance-meets-hip-hop realm

9

Bad Romance

Lady Gaga

The Fame Monster (2009)

It’s fitting that in the opening scene of this video, white latex-covered dancers emerge from pods like aliens, because Lady Gaga certainly seems like she was dropped off here from another planet. She is easily the unlikeliest pop star of the past few years, as her bizarre styling, unabashedly gay pop, and just general freakishness don’t really scream “#1 pop star.” But this living piece of performance art has dominated all of 2009, and “Bad Romance” is pretty much the epitome of the cult of Gaga. The song itself is chock full of catchy hooks and insta-quotes (the Hitchock references particularly slay me: “I want your psycho / your vertigo shtick / want you in my rear window / baby it’s sick”), while the video cobbles together an endless stream of jaw-dropping costumes and slick choreography. It’s a little hard to really judge this song without a little more time to test its endurance, but considering how it seems to have even gotten many Gaga-haters to concede her talent, I think it’s likely it will go down as a modern pop masterpiece.

Also check out: “Whatever Makes You Happy” by the Sugababes – an act that sadly never broke through in the U.S.

8

Toxic

Britney Spears

In the Zone (2003)

To some of my friends, this is sacrilege, but I didn’t really like Britney Spears when she came on to the scene. She seemed more a “brand” than an artist, and although she started raising my eyebrow with the unexpectedly intriguing “Slave 4 U,” it was “Toxic” that finally won me over. This is basically pop perfection. So much so that I can barely think of anything else to say. Everything about this song is a hook, never relenting. I mean, really, how can anyone resist this?

Also check out: Kylie Minogue’s “Like a Drug” — a similarly chemical take on love

7

It Can’t Come Quickly Enough

Scissor Sisters

Scissor Sisters (2004)

This song was not released as a single, but it nevertheless has firmly implanted itself as a lifelong personal staple. I really can’t point out a single thing wrong with it. The production is impeccable — a swiftly moving beat and undulating bassline somehow are still balanced well enough for it to feel like a mournful ballad. Jake Shears’s voice slides constantly between tenor and his trademark falsetto, creating a rather hypnotic melody that is underscored by truly heartbreaking lyrics. “When you finally saw it coming, it passed you by and left you so defeated.” Anticipating something so badly, only to watch it drift out of your hands – who couldn’t relate to that? My only “complaint” about this song is that it is more the anomaly than the norm for the Scissor Sisters, who seem to prefer cabaret-like camp, particularly on their second album. I wish they’d revisit this sound again in the future.

Also check out: The Scissor Sisters twisted disco cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”

6

Idioteque

Radiohead

Kid A (2000)

I’ll confess that a lot of the bands that major music publications salivate over just don’t excite me — but one notable exception is Radiohead. Much was made of their shift toward knob-twiddling electronics on “Kid A,” particularly in light of their much-lauded, rock-oriented “OK Computer” (maybe that album title was subconsciously prepping us for their future?). However I think it’s become clear in the years since that their stylistic explorations are not frivolous — it’s all in service of creating great music, regardless of the instruments involved. “Idioteque” was as far to the dance side of things as they let themselves go, but I’m glad they went there. The song, like much of “Kid A,” uses lo-fi to its great advantage, the beat at times sounding more like an accidentally dropped microphone than an actual drum loop. The lyrics are vaguely apocalyptic, but sometimes a song doesn’t so much tell a story as it does set a mood. I found “Idioteque” mesmerizing on my very first listen, and nearly ten years later that feeling has not changed one bit. (Note that, at this point in the countdown, any song in the top 6 could have ended up being my #1 — choosing one was incredibly difficult.)

Also check out: “Harrowdown Hill” from Thom Yorke’s solo effort

5

Since U Been Gone

Kelly Clarkson

Breakaway (2004)

The greatest thing American Idol has brought us is Kelly Clarkson. I don’t think any contestant will ever surpass her. Once she got the obligatory over-blandified debut album out of the way, Kelly injected a bit more of her personality into the mix, and delivered this insanely perfect pop/rock gem. I have so many memories of shouting this at the top of my lungs at parties – which is the exact same thing everyone else there was doing – it’s just so freaking good. Kelly has continued to deliver great music (the “Breakaway” album seemed more like a “greatest hits” it had so many smash singles), even when her commercial fortunes were in doubt (label in-fighting nearly sunk her “My December” album, despite it being in many ways superior to “Breakway”), and I think we will all be enjoying her music for years to come.

Also check out: Kelly’s album cut “Maybe” from ”My December” was on early drafts of this top 50 list but eventually just missed out. The lyrics still kill me – “I don’t need to be fixed and I certainly don’t need to be found – I’m not lost.”

4

Mad World

Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules

Donnie Darko Soundtrack (2001)

Who would have guessed that a stripped-down cover of an early ’80s synth-pop single would end up, 20 years later, as one of the most haunting songs of the decade? Everything about this song is a fluke — it was re-recorded by two virtually unknown artists (can you name another song by Michael Andrews or Gary Jules?) and released on the soundtrack to “Donnie Darko,” a film which flopped on initial release, and virtually no one knew of the track. But as “Donnie Darko” began to obtain cult status over the next few years, the song was re-released to become a surprise Christmas #1 in the UK, and eventually reached a worldwide audience. But enough with the back story — the song itself is fascinating enough on its own. The lyrics are sad and direct in the simplistic phrasing of a child, referencing birthday parties and the first day of school, longing for guidance and meaning, only to find emptiness. By dispensing with flowery metaphors in favor of plainspoken desolation, the song cuts deep — “I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad / the dreams in which I’m dying / are the best I’ve ever had.” The subdued vocal is perfectly complemented by a stripped-down accompaniment of piano and strings. This song feels like the eye of an emotional hurricane — a brief moment of quiet and calm in the middle of a “mad world.”

Also check out: “Distractions” by Zero 7

3

Emerge

Fischerspooner

#1 (2001)

In the wake of Lady Gaga, the face-painting and odd costumes of Fischerspooner seem somewhat tame in comparison, but this duo is more about dirty, underground showmanship than shiny pop. “Emerge” is their calling card, a triumph of incredible music production, at times quietly skittering along with chopped-up vocals and submerged instrumentation, at other times forcefully hammering at you with a rapid-fire, fat-synth bassline and a shouted chorus. And despite the song not having any of the trappings of a typically uplifting pop tune, the repeated refrain is oddly optimistic: “you don’t need to emerge from nothing / you don’t need to tear away.” This is sung in half-time and double-speed, pitch-shifted up an octave, and layered until the song explodes in a scream near the end. Fischerspooner never really lived up to the promise of this first single with subsequent work, but on its own, this is easily one of the best songs of the decade.

Also check out: The Fischerspooner remix of Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World,” which transforms a bubbly pop tune into a desperate, sexual plea.

2

Don’t Tell Me

Madonna

Music (2000)

Of the 5 songs Madonna has on this list (by far more than any other artist), “Don’t Tell Me” might not be the first one that would come to mind if you were asked to name her most most memorable single of the decade. But this is a not a song that tries to put on a big show, it’s one that slowly wins you over until you want to hear it over and over again. While the lead single to “Music” didn’t really connect to her West-Meets-Electro look, “Don’t Tell Me” fully evoked that spirit in both its sound and its video. (The video is also one of the best of her entire career.) This song attempts to merge country with hip-hop, and amazingly, it succeeds. Madonna took the lyrics written by brother-in-law and alt-country artist Joe Henry for his love song “Stop,” re-arranged them to focus less on love and more on her own unstoppable spirit, and brought in the impeccable production of collaborator Mirwais (in fact, if you count his production work, he also makes 5 appearances on this list). The song’s guitar hook is made out of a chopped-up and re-edited progression, while the rest of the track is composed of little more than some wistfully playful strings and a mid-tempo beat fit for a line-dance. It sounds simple, but it all comes together with such effortless skill. The final third of “Don’t Tell Me” is an almost entirely instrumental coda, which could easily get boring after awhile. But every time I hear the song, I never want that addictive beat to end. You can “take the black off a crow,” “tell the sun not to shine,” or “tell the wind not to blow,” but you can’t ever tell Madonna to stop.

Also check out: The closest I’ve ever heard another artist get to succeeding at this style of folk-pop is Nelly Furtado’s “One Trick Pony”

1

Poker Face

Lady Gaga

The Fame (2008)

Could I really pick a dancey pop song that’s only a year old, by a barely established artist, that features the lyric “bluffin’ with my muffin,” and make it my #1 song of the decade? Yes. And I did. I almost didn’t even want to continue the rankings when I hit the top 6, and I swapped different songs numerous times for the top position. But in the end, I suppose I knew it would always come down to Lady Gaga. I am not a traditional fan-boy who loves everything an artist does no matter what, but when it comes to Gaga, it’s been easy to love her work. “Just Dance” took the better part of a year to catch on in 2008, but once it did, it paved the way for her biggest and best hit, the song that has been sampled, parodied, karaoked, mashed-up, and heard more than any other this year. “Poker Face” is supposedly about Lady Gaga having sex with a man but thinking about a woman (call me dense, but I wouldn’t have interpreted it that way), but that doesn’t really matter. An overarching theme is not the point of this track. Instead it’s all about some gleefully unexpected lines (“stunnin’ with my love glue-gunnin’” and the aforementioned “muffin” line particularly stand out), an impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head chorus, and a variety of nonsense syllables (“muh muh muh muh”) layered over some incredibly slick electro-pop — all of which add up to the most fun, memorable, and accomplished pop song of the past ten years. And for me personally, it comes with a bunch of wonderful associations. Once this song hit, I requested it like crazy with every DJ I could find, and eventually just started shouting “POKER FACE!” at anyone with the remotest musical inclination, whether it be a lesbian with a guitar on the street in Provincetown or an a capella group at the mall. In my head, this song represents not only every ounce of Gaga’s flamboyant persona, but also all the insane, uninhibited, and absurd aspects of my own personality. And even though everybody knows “Poker Face,” it still feels like it is somehow “mine.” Time will tell if I will still be happy with this selection for the #1 song of the ’00s, but considering that even after hundreds (thousands?) of listens, I still love it every time, I think I probably made the right choice. Lady Gaga, you’re entering the next decade as the most exciting artist in the business. I can’t wait to see where you’ll take us over the next ten years.

Also check out: A lot of other people seem to prefer “Paparazzi” — check out the Stuart Price remix of that song, which keeps the beat alive but brings out the blues hiding just beneath the surface.