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.