This list could go hundreds, thousands deep and it would still only touch the surface, so you know how much a struggle it was for me to cut it down to just 50. Ranking art is always a bit of a silly process, and it’s even more here, when every single song is brilliant. So don’t take the order too seriously. The real point of this is to give people a chance to hear the things that I simply couldn’t live without, the songs that make my whole world go around – and to hopefully turn you onto something that will hit you as hard as it does for me.
Albums list coming at some point in the next week or so.
It begins with the drum beat from “Be My Baby,” and right away you know it’s going to be something special. Then in come the guitars, the background starts to swirl, and then: “I just can’t help believing, though believing sees me cursed…” After one time through the verse, it explodes and she sings it all again, this time accompanied by the Wall of Sound. Before the next verse, the “oh baby baby”s fly back and forth. And then, at the 2:01 mark, the whole song is set on fire. The fireworks go off (literally), and all she sings is “Yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah!” but it sounds like poetry. There’s the smallest respite as it cuts back into the last verse when the music recedes, apart from the occasional burst of fire and light. The verse ends, there are a couple more “yeah, yeah!”s, and then, before you know it, the song is over, and you realize you’re about to pass out because you haven’t breathed in 3 minutes.
2. All Apologies and Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine – Carissa’s Wierd
It walks the line between despair and joy more perfectly than any other song I’ve ever heard. Depending on my mood, it can bring me to the edge of tears or can make me smile with delight. Or, sometimes, do both at the same time.
3. Elevator Love Letter – Stars
Shimmering, tender, lovestruck, and just about the prettiest thing in the entire world, even as it’s breaking your heart. No part exemplifies this more than the bit where the boy says “I don’t think she’ll know that I’m saying goodbye” and her voice comes right over the top, with eyes fixed upward and the purest sound of hope and wonder: “My office glows all night long, it’s a nuclear show and the stars are gone. Elevator, elevator…take me home…”
Any of these top three tracks could easily have been the #1. I literally cannot find a single thing wrong with any of them, so it’s really just a matter of chance which one I declare my favorite.
4. The War Criminal Rises and Speaks – Okkervil River
“Does the heart wants to atone? Oh, I believe that it’s so, because if I could climb back through time, I’d restore their lives and then give back my own.” The tension rises, the music begins to pound on the brain and Sheff’s voice crackles with intensity, bending and breaking, threatening to shatter at every moment. He makes no excuses, he cannot even cry, but it is clear that the mistake of 30 years ago has haunted him for every second of his life since. He does not ask to escape punishment, he only asks that those reading and watching to understand that he is not really any different from them, and for the hope that somehow he can be forgiven for falling into the abyss. An already brilliant song only becomes more so with the final verse, where Sheff turns his eyes back on the person watching at home, wryly mocking their show of shock and horror. If you only knew what you were truly capable of…
5. The Bleeding Heart Show – New Pornographers
It slowly builds until just after the 2-minute mark when the guitars kick into gear, the pulse quickens, they go up one more notch, and then Neko Case belts out “we have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show” and your heart stops. Every time I come back to this song I’m astonished once again by just how good it is. Just listen to the drums in the bridge, or the guitar riff that transitions from the “oooohs” to the final “hey la” bit. Just unbelievable.
6. Antarctica – Antarctica Takes It!
The embodiment of everything lo-fi was ever meant to be, it exudes joyfulness without pretense and feature a sound so warm it could keep you comfortable on even the coldest of Antarctic nights. At times soft and tender, at others gloriously carefree, it careens through a number of different tones but never loses its pure beauty. An attack by a giant squid, sailors sinking to the depths of the frozen ocean, and yet somehow it retains a sense of wonderment as they exclaim “Antarctica, you stole our hearts!”
7. Johnny Boy Theme – Johnny Boy
Just seven songs in and we’ve already got a repeat artist. This one has the same general ethos as “Bought More Shoes” (60s era girl-group goes punk, makes good) but it’s a bit more contained. Of course, by contained I mean that it’s just a regular nova instead of a supernova. I absolutely adore the little bit where she sings/whispers “Johnny, what’s got into you?”
8. Coming In From the Cold – The Delgados
If there’s an indie-rock Hall of Fame, this song deserves a prominent plaque. It’s everything you could hope for. The bit where the final chorus seems to be fading and then Emma Pollock hits you with “we’re coming in from the cold…” is one of my all-time favorite musical moments.
9. Life Goes On – Modest Mouse
It’s an early version of “Float On” from a show that I went to in Seattle right before Christmas, 2002. It’s significantly longer, with a lot more verses and more Isaac mumblings. It still has the same unbelievably catchy riff, but has a little bit less of the pop shine. As good as the studio version is, there’s something truly special about how raw and loud and unpolished this one is.
10. I Am John – Loney, Dear
It took me several years to fully understand the genius of “I Am John”, but I’m completely on board now. The whole song is a giant, escalating spiral as verses double back and trample on one another and the chorus jumps out whenever it has a chance until the end when the falsetto emerges and it is repeated as a final running-over-itself refrain. Remember that scene at the end of Back to the Future where Doc says “where we’re going, we don’t need roads”? He was talking about this song.
11. Westfall – Okkervil River
Another artist repeat. It won’t be the last we hear from these guys either. Where “War Criminal” is big and heart-rending and and mythical, “Westfall” is far more stripped down. This time, the murderer isn’t asking for forgiveness. The song really hits its stride in the second half as the pace picks up, only to fall away for the devastating final lines: “evil don’t look like anything.” That’s the truth of Okkervil River: evil lurks within all of us and as much as we want to tell simple stories we all know deep down just how much we are capable of.
12. Photobooth – Death Cab for Cutie
This one really marks the decade for me. It’s the epitome of the stripped down indie rock revival that eventually far overstepped its bounds: the literate and boyish charm, the absolutely perfect pop sensibilities. I became less and less enthused about Ben Gibbard as the decade progressed but there is absolutely no denying the vitality of this song.
13. Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl – Broken Social Scene
This song just defies explanation. I’ve delayed posting this list several days – despite every other entry being done – because I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say about it. Obviously, it’s beautiful, with the sort of aural landscaping that makes people want to reference Pet Sounds. But there’s something much else going on, too. That banjo, the strings, the deeply flanged vocals…and the way it creeps up on you until you realize you’re completely encased in sound and totally weightless. “Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me.” Yep.
14. Are You There Margaret? It’s Me God – The Lawrence Arms
It’s chaotic and beautiful, hardcore and honest, a three minute firestorm filled to the brim with slashing chords and screams and passion. The chorus is out of this world, but the absolute best part is the bit at the end, after the final chorus, when you think that the song is starting to fade out but they come back one last time to punch you in the gut.
15. Third Planet – Modest Mouse
“Everything that keeps us together is falling apart.” In seven words, the zeitgeist of an era is summed up, setting the stage for a record that will delve deeply into our sense of isolation. It taps into the inescapable feeling that, even as the world grows smaller, the things which helped us feel close to one another are fracturing.
16. My City of Ruins (youtube) – Bruce Springsteen
The link is for the version of him playing this song about a week after 9/11. It’s just Bruce and his guitar and you can just see in his eyes and the little quavers of his voice how much it hurts. He wrote it about a neighborhood falling apart but I’m not sure it would be possible to write a better song about 9/11. Possibly the most emotional musical moment of the decade is when he asks: “Tell me how do I begin again? My city’s in ruins…”
17. Title Track – Death Cab for Cutie
The song starts out as lo-fi as can be, with a beautiful little guitar riff that sounds like it’s coming from some deep, dark chamber. And then, a minute and a half in, they burst out and leave you stunned, speechless, and desperately wanting to hear more.
18. The Lethal Temptress – The Mendoza Line
It’s about just barely staying afloat, holding onto the dreams you once had, but knowing deep down that you’re probably never going to see them happen. You know that you’re never going to get what you wanted, but you struggle anyways, to find a way to create some new dreams, without glamour, fame, or a silly idea of perfection, but which will be all the more beautiful because they have been tempered by pain. “Just one more glass of gin before I fall back in to the arms of the lethal temptress.” It’s a devastating song.
19. Idyllwild – Trembling Blue Stars
“A girl whose favorite thing is snow – snow and being alone.” A voice that makes me stop in my tracks, and a line that makes me believe that love is real, and all around us. To listen to this record is to know how it feels to ride on the wind.
20. So Much Beauty in Dirt – Modest Mouse
One minute and twenty-four seconds long, and it’s exactly the right length. It’s about those moments, gone before you know it, but perfect in themselves. The refrain “so much beauty it could make you cry” is repeated a number of times, emphasizing that life is perfect in all its imperfections. The randomness, the pain, the mistakes, and the stupidity, all of these things are intermixed with the beauty, the wonder, the silliness, and the joy.
21. Henney Buggy Band – Sufjan Stevens
As good as the Illinois album was, how astonishing is it that the very best song of the project didn’t even make the cut for the record. Instead, we had to wait until the following year to hear this gem.
22. Black – Okkervil River
It’s full of barely contained anger, dragged along by the beat, the tension building. You can just see Sheff on the stage: his hair is drenched, he leans over his guitar, comes back up and lets loose a piercing “I’d call, some black midnight, fuck up his new life where they don’t know what he did.”
23. The Day John Henry Died – The Drive-By Truckers
Jangly, swaggering, big, boisterous. Triumphant even while it’s depressing. Everything that John Henry was meant to be.
24. No Rest for the Weary (youtube link) – Blue Scholars
“Hold your head high soldier, it ain’t over yet. That’s why we call it a struggle, you’re supposed to sweat.” This song is all about reveling in the rhythm of life, over a smooth beat and insidiously beautiful backing track that worms its way deeply inside you. It’s insistent, nagging, powerful. Angry but honest in its hopefulness, too.
25. Samson – Regina Spektor
A brief glimpse into that other world: where Regina and Samson live a quiet life together, where Samson never tears down the walls, and instead just shares a quiet night together with the girl he loves.
It really speaks to me because, well, given the choice: epic fame or a few happy years of love, I would happily fall into the mist with a pretty girl and her piano. I wonder how many of the larger-than-life heroes of our past would wish the same.
26. Grace Cathedral Hill – The Decemberists
It glows like the porchlight of a house in the woods in the deep mist of a cold evening. They were always at their best making dreamy-chamber-pop, and never more than on this track. I still am blown away by the simple beauty of: “are you feeling better now?”
27. Don’t Lose Yourself – Laura Veirs
This song is full of imagery that could entrance even the most prosaic of souls. And it’s got an awesome beat, too.
28. Rebellion (Lies) (youtube link) – The Arcade Fire
What’s there to say that you don’t already know? It’s big, glorious, sparkling, magical. A force of nature just barely harnessed. It might well be the definitive song of the decade. And it’s every bit as good as the hype.
29. How a Resurrection Really Feels – The Hold Steady
I never really got on their bandwagon. They’re just a little bit too in love with the catastrophe of the stories they tell. On this song, however, the pathos rings true in a way that is absolutely transcendent. They only really have one kind of story that they tell over and over, but when it’s done right it truly is epic and heart-wrenching.
30. Head Rolls Off – Frightened Rabbit
What we used to look for in God we now see reflected back in the world around us, in the eyes of a million hopeful souls, living, loving, singing, dancing, touching hands, writing stories. And this song is a mirror for it all.
31. Fluorescent Lights – Carissa’s Wierd
When he breathes “and I just hate these fluorescent lights” the weight of the world, the sadness of it all, and the harshness is palpable. And yet, you can’t help but just shrug it off. Sure, the world is a tough place, and sure lots of people are mean, cruel, or indifferent, but that’s no reason for despair. Not when it sounds like this.
32. State of the Union – David Ford
It starts quietly and then just builds and builds. What begins as a little folk song transforms into a full-fledged sonic onslaught, until you’re left wondering if the whole world is going to collapse around you.
33. The Con – Tegan and Sara
Tegan and Sara’s definitive statement of intention. A rambunctious pop masterpiece, packed with hooks and synths and unadulterated joy. It’s charming beyond belief, sensitive, swaggering, anxious, and compassionate. Everything you could ask for.
34. Spectacular Views – Rilo Kiley
It’s a huge, overwhelming song, surrounded by fireworks, and sweepingly anthemic. It’s all wide-eyed innocence, full of light and joy, until about 2 and a half minutes in, when she just lets it all go: “It’s so fucking beautiful!” And in that moment, everything in the universe makes sense. That’s just all there is to it.
35. Source Tags and Codes – And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Perhaps the best album closer of the decade. It rises above the noise and chaos, like some sort of glorious rock and roll city on the hill.
36. Next Exit – Interpol
I love this track so much in part because it’s a bit of a break from their usual sound. The doo-wop beat elevates the typical sort of dark and woozy Interpol ethos into something far more beautiful.
37. People Got A Lotta Nerve – Neko Case
Everyone knows how good a singer she is – and you get a nice dose of that here – but this song is really elevated by the interplay between that silvery voice and the jangly guitar. It just makes you ache inside it’s so beautiful.
38. Balcony – Birdmonster
I love this whole song, but it’s this high on the list for one reason: at roughly 4:15 when they come back to the chorus. It’s like the whole thing has been building to that one single moment. It’s a climax to end all climaxes.
39. Portions for Foxes – Rilo Kiley
It bursts out at you, knocks you over with the guitar riff. It’s a song about physical (and emotional) need, the joy of another person, and the realization that we’re all a little lonely, all a little messed up, and maybe that’s just okay. At the end when she repeats “but you’re bad news” over and over before concluding “I don’t care I like you,” you realize that it might just be enough. There’s no perfection, but there is something to be said for just getting by.
40. Let’s Get Out of This Country – Camera Obscura
I absolutely adore this song. It deserves to be played on a sunny day when you throw all your cares to the wind and just enjoy yourself.
41. Zolpidem – The Sinister Turns
Beautiful, funny, intelligent, and full of enough pop charm to make the even the hardest heart blush. It’s irresistible in the way only the very best songs can manage – where you can hear two seconds and instantly need to listen to the whole thing.
42. Subtle Changes – Sambassadeur
That galloping beat! Those soaring strings! That voice that wraps around you like your favorite blanket on a cold winter morning. This is a song to be treasured, to be listened to on repeat as you begin the long task of healing a broken heart. It’s the kind of song that reassures you – any world that contains something so beautiful can’t be all bad.
43. Night on the Sun – Modest Mouse
Isaac’s voice is in fine form – for all the lispiness the guy really could sing back in the day. Particularly on the “hopelessly hopeless, I hope so…for you” bit. But this song makes the list for the guitar work, which might be my favorite from any Modest Mouse song. It builds up languidly, but insistently. But then you get the instrumental section starting at about 3 minutes where it rings like the bells of God.
44. New Slang (youtube link) – The Shins
It would be almost impossible for a song to live up to the hype that this one got, but somehow it just about manages. I mean, of all the indie songs that could change your life, “New Slang” has to be pretty high on the list, wouldn’t you agree?
45. Modern Girl – Sleater-Kinney
It’s probably not their best song or anything, but it’s the one that I just can’t help but return to. One of the prettiest songs you’re ever likely to hear, but it would also win a bar fight with just about any other track in recent years.
46. Reason to Believe – Aimee Mann and Michael Penn
A great Springsteen song, made even better when covered by Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. The harmony created by the two singers gets at the heart of the song in a way that Bruce, by himself, simply cannot. The connection, the perfect interlinking of voices, is the ideal for which we strive. When the song is simply Bruce by himself, it feels like a simple song about a few people. With Mann and Penn together, it still feels incredibly personal, but it also hints at something a little broader, where we all take part.
47. Calendar Girl – Stars
This song is all about Amy Millan, owner of one of the most exhilarating voices on the planet. It’s the second verse that really does it to me. “I dreamed I was dying as I so often do…”
48. Parking Lot – The Coathangers
Sleater-Kinney meets The Replacements. Featuring the best scream of the decade.
49. Drunk With the Only Saints I Know – Carissa’s Wierd
Sometimes you just wanted to pound your hands against the unseen walls, rattle the bars, do something to make people understand what they were missing. We made mixtapes and CDs for friends, including a track from them on every one. At every chance we casually put on “Fluorescent Lights” or “The Color That Your Eyes Changed With the Color of Your Hair” or “Drunk With the Only Saints I Know” and hoped someone would (High Fidelity style) ask what was playing. Because we just knew deep down that if we could ever get people to take the time to truly listen it would all solidify, become as perfectly clear in their minds as it was in ours.
50. Marrow – Ani DiFranco
Her best work was in the 90s but Ani had quite a few great songs this decade, too. And none better than this one, which goes bigger and brighter than pretty much anything else she’s done.
Piazza, New York Catcher – Belle and Sebastian
Paper Planes – M.I.A.
On Marriage – The Six Parts Seven (with Carissa’s Wierd)
This Song Is You – Antarctica Takes It!
The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion – Okkervil River
Taxi Ride – Tori Amos
No Children – Mountain Goats
Oh, Susquehanna! – Defiance, Ohio
Come On! Feel the Illinoise! – Sufjan Stevens
Fresh Feeling – Eels