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


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.



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”


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”


Fuck the Pain Away


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.




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.



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



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


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.”


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.