In 2009, we killed Auto-Tune, we partied in the U.S.A., and we howled “Awooo!” at the moon (en español, no less). And those were some of the more normal moments of the year: Seriously, there is no way to sum up a year that had so many bizarre and scandalous moments, so let’s have the songs do it for us.
These are my picks for the Best Songs of 2009: odes to abstinence and combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bells, songs of sadness and beauty, tunes about getting loaded and getting revenge. They’re all important in some way, and they all helped guide us through the tumultuous past 12 months. But that’s enough from me, let’s get to the songs. Oh, and I’d like to hear your picks, too … got a better list than mine? Angry that Britney didn’t make the cut (again)? E-mail me at [email protected], or just let me know in the comments below.
25. Black Eyed Peas: “I Gotta Feeling” Twenty million Peas fans can’t be wrong — and certainly not in this case. The song that dominated the Billboard Hot 100 (#1 for 14 straight weeks) also happens to be an effervescent, electro-tinged blast, managing to capture the promise of a million Saturday nights. Also, it’s the only song on this list to feature the phrase “Mazel tov,” which counts for something.
24. Mastodon: “The Last Baron” Thirteen minutes of doomy, interlocking guitars, pummeling drums and whiplash-inducing time changes that climaxes with the best guitar solo of the year — a fiery, fret-wrecking two minutes that will make your skull explode. It’s about inter-dimensional time travel, just in case you were wondering.
23. Ke$ha: “TiK ToK” On the basis of this song alone, Ms. Sebert seems like she’d be a fun girl to party with.
22. Wale: “Chillin’ “ A lean, mean slab of swagger-hop from our nation’s capital. Spindly, urgent beats floating above a chopped-up sample of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” Lady Gaga on the hook (channeling M.I.A.) and some deft wordplay from Wale himself (“I remain a Giant, and you’re Jeremy Shockey”) make this one great. And the Ben’s Chili Bowl cameos in the video are a nice touch, too. (R.I.P., Ben Ali.)
21. Franz Ferdinand: “No You Girls” The swaggering soundtrack to your favorite Saturday night activities (knife fights, sex in bathroom stalls, shame), from a group of Glaswegian guys who are apparently well versed in all three. It’s great, strutting guitar rock, and why this song — and its accompanying album, Tonight — weren’t bigger deals is beyond me.
20. Miley Cyrus: “The Climb” You want a classic, throwback pop ballad? You got it, courtesy of Ms. Cyrus. Somber piano? Trilling strings? Nondescript-yet-inspirational message about overcoming adversity? This song’s got it all, and it bears mentioning that Miley sings the bejeezus out of it, too.
19. The Flaming Lips: “Watching the Planets” A pounding, primal song about all the nebulous, intangible things we rolled into 2009 talking about (“hope,” “change,” etc.) that’s also one of the first to suggest that perhaps none of it holds any water. When Wayne Coyne yelps “Oh oh oh oh oh/ Finding that there ain’t no answers to find,” he isn’t just talking about black holes, you know.
18. Brand New: “At the Bottom” Ominous, snarling rock about death and burial and prescription drugs and other cheery topics of that sort. Full of loud/soft crashes, blurry fretwork and a positively crushing chorus, it’s feel-bad music for feel-bad times.
17. Kelly Clarkson: “I Do Not Hook Up” Originally written for Katy Perry, it’s probably a good thing she passed on it, since I can’t imagine anyone other than Clarkson doing it justice. It’s breakneck electro-pop with a big, rushing chorus and vocal fireworks galore. The best Kelly Clarkson song in years, from the best Kelly Clarkson album in years (All I Ever Wanted). We all win, even Katy Perry.
16. Lady Gaga: “Bad Romance” Deliciously over-the-top pop, as only Lady Gaga can do it. From the opening techno haze (which sounds like it could’ve been lifted off a Ministry of Sound comp) to Gaga’s delightfully silly vocal ticks (the whole “Ga-ga, ooh-la-la” thing) to the whirring, wooshing backing beat, this is decidedly arty fare, with a bizarre video to match. Only, there’s the chorus, a wondrous thing that can convince a million soccer moms to click the download button (or have their daughters do it for them) …
15. Kid Cudi: “Pursuit of Happiness” A molasses-thick beat courtesy of the guys in Ratatat, a slurry, slippery delivery by Cudi, a knocking chorus and a cameo by MGMT. It’s like a blog decided to make a posse cut, minus all the negative comments!
14. Thom Yorke: “All for the Best” Thom and his brother Andy cover the Miracle Legion, turn the song into a swooning, somber electronic daydream. It’s take-a-picture pretty, like that image of your loved one in bed on a Sunday morning, laughing, sun streaming through her (or his) hair — perfect in ways only you can understand. When Yorke sang, “This will be on my video tape,” this is probably what he was talking about.
13. Lily Allen: “Not Fair” Over the course of one week, I heard this song on the radio in New York, Paris and Rome, and each time, all the women in the immediate vicinity nodded in agreement to Lily’s razor-sharp dissection of a less-than-giving lover. Then they all laughed at the oral-sex line — it seems dissatisfaction is universal!
12. Paramore: “All I Wanted” The 2:40 mark: That’s when it happens. All the din falls away, and Hayley Williams — all five feet of her — is left by her lonesome. The tape is rolling, the clock ticking, and the engineer is peering at her from the other side of the glass. So she draws a breath and positively empties herself into the chorus, going bigger and getting higher than she’s ever been before. You can practically hear the heads exploding in the room. It’s the best vocal moment of 2009, signifying not only Hayley Williams’ transformation from a kid with Kool-Aid-colored hair to a full-grown woman, but her arrival in the pantheon of truly great rock vocalists. Welcome to the club.
11. Rihanna: “Russian Roulette” We spent the second half of 2009 waiting to see how Rihanna would respond artistically after Chris Brown’s assault on her, and with “Russian Roulette,” we finally got our answer: She’s hurt but strong — and changed. This is a sonorously sad song, full of self-doubt and self-eviscerating lyrics, proof that Rihanna has depths we never thought possible. And that she’s human, just like the rest of us.
10. Das Racist: “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell (Wallpaper. Remix)” Gloriously garish joke-rap, or slyly brilliant commentary on the twin evils of capitalism and globalization? Yes! As someone smarter than me commented, ” ‘Pizza Hut’ is either the track we, as a culture, need right now, or the track we, as a culture, deserve — or both” My favorite version is the (somewhat derided) “Wallpaper. Remix,” which sets the dumb banter (“I got that pizza butt/ I got that pizza butt”) to blaring sorta-sax and a cheesy Casio/ Eurotrash backbeat, which seems strangely perfect to me …
9. Miley Cyrus: “Party in the U.S.A.” OK, so I took Miley to task earlier this year for this song not meeting all the requirements of a party anthem — but it’s still a great single! All that matters here is the sentiment: that a good song can make all the difference, that a DJ can save your life, and that the butterflies really can fly away. Really, what more could you ask for from a pop song? A deliriously catchy robo-beat? Vague notions of patriotism? A Daisy Duke-fueled video? Well “Party’s” has all that, too. More proof that this is the greatest nation on earth.
8. Jay-Z (featuring Alicia Keys): “Empire State of Mind” This was a pretty good song before the Yankees ruined it (more reason for us Red Sox fans to hate A-Rod) …
7. Phoenix: “1901” Ridiculously catchy indie-pop, “1901” bobs and weaves and pumps its fists, but not before it checks its hair in the mirror first. Fashionable, smart stuff that re-imagines bookish subjects like “post-modernism” and “neo-classicism” as danceable, radio-ready rock (and sounds like it was lifted from every John Hughes movie ever made) — nobody did it better than Phoenix in 2009. From the library to the club, without a moment to spare, although of course, they’re French …
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Zero” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of It’s Blitz, but there’s no denying the catchiness of its first single, a strutting, joyous thing that builds to a positively giddy crescendo. This is basically a smart and sexy disco song, complete with Karen O’s vocal coos and a pounding backbeat.
5. Matt & Kim: “Daylight” I think this actually came out late last year, but it definitely made its mark in 2009. Homemade spaz pop from a pair of Brooklyn dumpster divers, “Daylight” is fuzzy and hissy, yet outshines songs that cost four times as much when it comes to sheer bliss. You’d be hard pressed to match the wide optimism of Mr. Johnson and Ms. Schifino, and with their shout-sung vocals and ham-fisted drumming, they’ve created a tune that proves you can get high on life.
4. Grizzly Bear: “Two Weeks” A sunny, shiny creature with a deceptively dark heart beating beneath its skin, “Two Weeks” is perhaps the best example of Grizzly Bear’s brand of hazy dream pop, all pitch-perfect vocal harmonies and casually plinked piano. But like I said, there’s something more here. Maybe it’s the ultra-creepy video, or the ghostly, otherworldy quality of the song, but this also sounds like the kind of thing that plays on repeat in Charles Manson’s brain. Then again, maybe that’s just me — the best songs make you think, after all.
3. Shakira: “She Wolf” The battiest song released by a major artist this year, “She Wolf” is wondrous for innumerable reasons: the Italo-disco boogie, the “Awooos,” the fact that Shakira compares herself to a coffee machine in an office. It’s a delightfully strange pop song, no bones about it, and proof that perhaps Shaki is wackier than you might have thought. And while all of that is well and good, what I like best about it is that Shakira was brave enough to release it — sometimes you’ve just gotta applaud that kind of determination, and dance to it, and watch the video over and over again.
2. Animal Collective: “My Girls” The indie song of 2009, and the soundtrack to a million acid flashbacks, “My Girls” represents one of the most important rock acts of the decade finally realizing their potential. Having explored the depths of avant garde, AC turned their attention to pop music and discover, “Hey, we’re pretty great at this, too.” Icy synthesizers, pounding drums, vocal “Wooos!” and other sundry, “My Girls” recalls all seasons and all eras — but mostly, it just sounds like tomorrow. You’ll be hearing this blasting out of the trunks of hovercars for decades to come.
1. Jay-Z: “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” Jigga might not have eradicated Auto-Tune in 2009, but you’ve got to commend the guy for trying. And that’s why “D.O.A.” is the best song of 2009: Jay’s thinking globally but acting locally, and he’s getting angry in the process. The No-I.D. beat — the angular guitars, the Klezmer breakdown — sounded like nothing else on the radio, even if Jay didn’t intend for the song to get played on the radio in the first place. Which is more proof of his reach as an artist, of his stature as the biggest name in hip-hop: He’s so huge he can put his fellow artists (not to mention the whole industry) on blast, and they still line up to pay their respects. To anyone else, a song like this would be career suicide, but it only made Jay stronger. From here, anything is possible. And if he’s claiming he’ll only wear black for a year straight, it’s probably because he murdered everyone else in the game …-MTV