Although every constituent part of Since I Left You predates the noughties, the record’s magpie assembly is perhaps the defining characteristic of this decade. But while Since I Left You is massively emblematic of post-millennial pop culture, that’s just an interesting aside. The real reason that it tops this chart is, quite simply, for its unparalleled, sun-drenched joy. From top to bottom and start to finish, Since I Left You is summer. It is warm and blissful, everything is light and beautiful. It’s airy and frolicking and sweet. But this is no saccharine, paper-thin infusion of pop dance – Since I Left You’s layers offer it a density that makes it feel like joy upon further joy; the real deal. It’s the sound of sherbet fizzing on the tongue, the sound of cartwheel-turning, all-consuming love, all at once. The doo-wop backing singers at the very start, the jazzy flute lick, the laid-back, swooping strings – with every passing snippet, a broader smile is cut. Then the vocal hook comes in, flipping the sadness of the song’s title and telling everyone that “since I met you I found a world so new”, and the track moves skywards.
While the single fades out after four minutes, the sprawling love song continues in every possible guise for an hour, eventually returning to Main Attraction’s sample to close out the album. There may have been more serious, world-changing records made this decade, but in Since I Left You, the Avalanches have created a fleeting glimpse of pure rapture. Everyone should fall in love to this record. Everyone should raise a glass to it. The introduction goes “Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise”. Welcome indeed.
Tonight I’ll blog about my number-one song of the decade, so with the countdown nearly over here’s a quick post just to say cheers for reading and being into it – I never anticipated this getting as many hits as it has, especially in the last few weeks. There’ll be Spotify playlists posted in the index pages tomorrow, but apart from that, this is pretty much it.
At some point between Christmas and new year I might do a bit about my top ten albums of the decade – if I can decide which they were – but just in case I don’t get round to it, merry Christmas, thanks for reading this, and I’ll see you back here in ten years’ time to do it all again with the decade that’s about to start.
There’s a fine history of surrealism in pop. Captain Beefheart, The Flaming Lips – heck, even The White Album isn’t exactly low on moments of weird. But despite the artistic endeavour, pop surrealism is all too often accompanied by po-faced overperformance, excessive artistic licence, general pretentiousness and, frankly, not enough fun. Not so with Over And Over. Despite singing about a “monkey with a miniature cymbal” and inexplicably spelling out the words “Kissing, sexing, Casio poke” as its finale, this is a record that doles out its surrealism with a snake-hipped delight, a wide-eyed smile and a satisfying crunch. It keeps its bizarreness light and its beats bouncy, both its lyrics and music offering just the right amount of wrongness. It offers funking, zippy synth lines and glorious guitar-as-kazoo wig-outs. It has basslines as grooving and mechanical as the aforementioned monkey. It holds the swaggering slickness of a band at the peak of their game. Not since Groove Is In The Heart or Love Shack has there been a floorfiller with such an unapologetic sense of fun, such a gleeful propulsion, such a daft sense of humour. “The joy of repetition really is in you”, sings Alexis Taylor, and he’s right – Over And Over is a dancefloor masterpiece that really can be played, well, over and over.
Radiohead expended so much energy this decade on making music that was wilfully cold and machined that on the relatively few occasions that they turned off their laptops and allowed themselves to feel rather than calculate, the results were spine-tingling. Pyramid Song is the champion version of these efforts, the zenith of Radiohead’s soulful side, precisely because no computer or sequencer could simulate it. The push-pull rhythm of Yorke’s piano motif, the way the drums hang back off the beat, the string surges and eerie backing vocals – every sinew of the track is unmistakeably handmade. Sure, undeniable cerebral effort has gone into choosing the notes and crafting the arrangement, but what really shines in Pyramid Song is the languid, fluid musicianship – it’s a complete song that doesn’t require scholarly devices to make it work: it just is.
Radiohead’s adventures in the noughties into electronica and the like contained much to admire, enjoy and study. Their experiments with oblique time signatures and instrumentation were at times spell-binding. But, more often than not, these intellectual pursuits masked their true strength. Bulletproof, Climbing Up the Walls, Exit Music (For A Film) – these are tracks straight from the gut, not the head, and Pyramid Song is another. In terms of intellectualism in rock, Radiohead are leagues ahead of most other bands, but songs like Pyramid Song remind us that they are also the best group of their generation at creating an atmosphere and intensity that is visceral, lush and defiantly human.
Pretty much everything about Stan is sad. There’s the jilted fan’s anger, his upbringing, a history of untreated mental health problems, the perceived rejection. Then there’s the breakdown of communication – Stan’s unanswered letters, shifting from apologetic to apoplectic, followed by Eminem’s uncharacteristically sensitive reply, ironically aware of the delicate situation. Then there’s the sadness of discovering that heroes aren’t all they seem: “See everything you say is real,” insists Stan, but not so, counters Eminem: “I say that shit just clowin’ dawg – c’mon, how fucked up is you?” (Indeed, from that point of view, Stan is a sort of disclaimer, Eminem’s cute way of admitting that he’s more mouth than trouser). And finally there’s the sadness of two people’s avoidable deaths, violent and unsettling, all set to the hopeless delusion of “I’ve got your picture on my wall / It reminds me that it’s not so bad”: for a song about absent idols, it doesn’t get much more desolate.
But the bleakness of Stan isn’t overbearing, or difficult to identify with. Indeed, anger as a result of rejection (albeit not this strong) is easy to understand, and Eminem’s character acting is supremely convincing here – his fricatives as Stan says, “I just think it’s fucked up you don’t answer fans” is particularly chastening, and his staccato flow in Stan’s final verse, emphasising the “dream”, “sleep”, “breath” and “scream” is delivered brilliantly, tense and taut.
Of course, an artist like Eminem composing a narrative with so many ironies and subtleties only augments Stan’s stature further – this is a welcome break from crass raps about weed and sex. It’s not just Eminem’s moment of clarity at the song’s climax that’s impressively told either – as Stan commiserates in his first letter, “I’m sorry, I had a friend kill himself over some bitch who didn’t want him”, the tableau of rejection and history-repeating is painted with a detail seldom seen in pop.
Still, cleverness notwithstanding, pretty much everything about Stan really is sad. But it’s poignant too, frequently profound, honest and shocking, which saves it from pure wallowing. Self-aware, impressively constructed (and then deconstructed) and moving, Stan isn’t just Eminem’s best song of the decade, it might just be the most powerful hip-hop song of all time.
For all its bravery in thought and execution, experimental music can often feel quite timid in delivery, even when created by massively successful artists. For all the sonic weirdness of some of Radiohead’s more oblique output this decade, for example, there was always a slightly apologetic reference to Modern Composer x or Rare Instrument y, as if an existing context was required to excuse the diversion. But then, occasionally, a track appears in the playground that wears its weirdness so boldly on its sleeve that it actually makes everything else feel slightly out of step. Its taunt back to the bullies is “no, you’re weird”, and, play by play, its every eccentricity becomes the norm.
That Get Ur Freak On is regarded, eight years on, as a classic pop record is testament to this very phenomenon: on the face of it, after all, it is a terrifically odd piece of music. Underpinned by skittering tabla and bhangra rhythms well before they became fashionable, then overlaid with Hammer horror synths and a crass kung fu flick riff, Timbaland’s soundscape is so contradictory that it should almost be incompatible with itself. Then there’s Elliott’s rap, a masterclass in surrealism, simultaneously meaningless and captivating, leftfield, audacious and unreservedly hyper. Her silences, her hollers of “nigga!”, the single line in Hindi, the hucking of phlegm half-way through – it is all utterly bizarre, but next to the beats it somehow swaggers with a boyancy entirely of its own invention.
But the truth is that Get Ur Freak On is a total outsider of a record, a maverick piece of music that ignores convention but still barges itself into the mainstream by sheer force of personality. It’s a bespectacled geek made hip by its own reclusiveness, a nerd of a song that has somehow re-coded pop to suit his own dance moves. Get Ur Freak On is embraceable and brilliant and unique, and a freak in every sense of the word.
In the final scene of It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey is saved from bankruptcy by his friends and neighbours and receives a book from his guardian angel carrying the inscription “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends”. It’s the movie’s epitaph, and remains a tearjerker because the desire for trustworthy, loving friends is so universal. Fast-forward 60 years, and relocate from post-war New England to post-millennial New York, and the sentiment endures: just as in Frank Capra’s classic, James Murphy reminds his audience of the beauty of friendship through reminiscences and reunions with his closest buddies, and the result is one of the noughties’ most moving sets of lyrics – quite some achievement for an 8-minute electronica record.
But the wonder of friendship is only the half of it – if Murphy is evoking It’s A Wonderful Life with one hand, he’s got The Graduate in the other, and the almost paralysing amount of opportunity offered by the cusp of adulthood. Sure, he has a “face like a dad”, and acknowledges the safety and warmth of grown-up life (“If I made a fool on the road… I can still come home to this”), but the sigh in his voice when he sings “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life” contains a bullish attitude to his youthful follies that is a near-perfect combination of regret and fondness.
But perhaps what’s most affecting about All My Friends is that it feels so personal, despite its universality. This is a James Murphy soliloquy, delivered from a hipster dancefloor by an ageing man who, with every passing year, holds his friends that much more dear and rues and revels in his misspent youth. For all its poignancy though, All My Friends is ultimately uplifting – even if life is slowing, it once burnt brilliantly bright. And anyway, no man is a failure who has friends.