Monday, February 19, 2018

the top ten best hit songs of 2004

So this is the third big top ten outside of the current year that I've put together, and I think it's conducive to describe how this year differed in trends and sounds in comparison with those I discussed before. 2010 was at the height of club boom overexposure, and everything that charted, good or bad, was either informed by it and painfully dated, or ignoring it and sliding rapidly towards novelty. 1967... well, that was a year heralded by many as overstuffed with classic songs, but you could make a credible argument it was an 'off' year for many established greats, more transitional than anything else.

2004, meanwhile, has some elements of both. On the one hand, the charts were very much in the throes of the crunk explosion, but by proxy it was heralding hip-hop's utter dominance of the Hot 100. Yes, in 2004 indie rock was blowing up like you wouldn't see again for nearly a decade - most of which would hit the charts a year later - but 2004 hit the sweet spot where the kinks of southern hip-hop were getting ironed out and allowing for more diversity beyond New York and L.A.. And that was only a good thing, as 2004 was a huge breakthrough year for a number of acts that are now touted today with a ton of critical acclaim, either for landmark debuts or critical highpoints they'd seldom if ever reach again. And when you tack on the fact that pop rock was beginning its own rise, country hadn't started sliding to vapidity, and R&B was holding its own. The only genre that seriously suffered was mainstream pop, but that's more because hip-hop crossovers were doing it so much better, and when you consider that it really didn't have the stark lowpoints of, say, 2007, you can make a very credible argument that 2004 was one of the best years of the 2000s, at least for the Hot 100. And I can't even really say it was colored hugely by my nostalgia - yeah, I know and like a ton of this Hot 100, but it's hard to deny in a year flush with the debuts of Kanye West and Maroon 5, Usher's best album, Alicia Keys' best album, plus high points for Avril Lavigne and OutKast that we got something really special in 2004. And if you think that spoiled a lot of my list... well, maybe a bit, but you haven't seen nothing yet, so let's get this started!

10. So here's something that needs to be established before we go further: nostalgia, specifically emotional nostalgia, because like it or not there's always an emotional undercurrent to how art is perceived and remembered. And while that would have definitely been true for my 2010 list, that was also an era where I was a little more in-touch with the critical discourse around that music, and thus it wasn't as formative as the emotions beneath, say, 2004. And while I've always bucked against traditional markers of 'cool' in all of my content - and when we start talking about the country music on this list you'll understand why - there are two tracks on this list proper that no self-respecting critic would ever canonize... and yet...

Nathan Rabin once coined the term 'Dawson's Creek rock' to describe songs like this, and he's not wrong: wistful, middlebrow, unthreatening, intended for montages of sensitive young men staring into the distance. And Five For Fighting is close to the ur-text version of that character, sensitive piano balladry that's not as smart or insightful as Ben Folds and would be generally regarded with scorn by critics and audiences alike. And yet while this song is not as genuinely great as his follow-up 'The Riddle', I've really come to love this track regardless. Part of it is yearning earnestness always has more resonance for me than self-conscious irony, part of it was how Five For Fighting extrapolated the main melody line from The Cure of all places, and part of it was that it's not especially schmaltzy like James Blunt or Daniel Powter would be in subsequent years - hell, the flat acknowledgement that you only have so much time is poignant, especially notching off how much of it is just a series of moments. And yeah, it's willowy and wimpy and this guy is so lucky that adult alternative kind of had an off-year in 2004 - I mean, I'd take this over Sheryl Crowe's awful cover of 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' - but in terms of songs charting the progression and poignancy of life lived... well, it's not the only one on this list.

9. I remember when Maroon 5 was good... can we go back to that?

This was not Maroon 5's biggest song in 2004 - that would be 'This Love', and while that track has its fans, it's not especially one I'm eager to revisit, mostly it was playing in territory that even then was pretty obnoxious. But 'She Will Be Loved' was Adam Levine and Maroon 5 playing in more sensitive, emotive territory, and really, midtempo balladry was a good look and sound for them. The gentle, liquid guitars, Adam Levine underplaying, the content that... yes, it's the song about the insecure, damaged girl in a big world and it's very clear Levine is playing the other man outside of whatever destructive relationship she's in, but it's also very clear this is not his story, which is what gives the song its resonance. And I like the fact that while Levine clearly wants to be that guy for her, he never outright says he's the one to step in - there's an element of melancholy in acknowledging 'she will be loved' if she shows up at the right place, but there's no guarantee it's him doing it. It's a great, underrated gem of a song from Maroon 5, which somehow shines all the bright in comparison to what they became, and I do respect it.

8. So I mentioned that most mainstream pop suffered in 2004, but that was more because the genre didn't know what to do with its traditional starlets. Sure, Britney Spears would stick around despite a few very rough years ahead of her, but a lot of pop artists would either slip towards R&B - and fail - or head towards a rootsier sound, either in pop rock or adult alternative. At the same time though, there were also artists who didn't even seem to make much sense in the traditional pop archetype, so the fact that this turned out to be a hit still kind of blows my mind...

Yeah, of the songs that won't win me much cred among hipper critics, this is the second one... although reading through old reviews, this song did actually have fans at the time. This was coming off of Dido's second record, after her first album sold twenty-one million copies worldwide and went four times platinum in the States, mostly off of the lingering crossover success with Eminem on 'Stan'. As a pop star on her own, though, she fell in a weird lane, for while 'Thank You' had made her a coffee shop darling in 2000, 'White Flag' was darker, with a much deeper undercurrent of sadness that sticks with you in a weird, ethereal way, from the programmed beat, glittery fragments around her, swell of arranged instrumentation playing off the very gentle guitars, and a bridge that leads into a rather stunning climax and swell. It's a song that plays bigger than it can arguably back up... except that Dido's very intimate vocal pickup and effortless, aching poise anchors a song where she very maturely tries to process her emotions post-breakup... and fails. Yeah, despite it being her mistake that ended things for good, which she has to accept, she can't just surrender, which is playing against type. Again, this is the sort of material that soundtracked middlebrow pablum for years... but there was something real to it, and that's what got me coming back again and again.

7. Well, might as well get this one out of the way.

At this point, the culture industry has done a remarkable job cementing Kanye West into the A-list and his debut album The College Dropout as a classic - and spoiler alert, we're going to be talking about him again later. And thus it shouldn't be any surprise for me to come up here and say that no, a lot of that was true and deserved, and while The College Dropout definitely has problems, its lead-off single was the one thing a lot of hip-hop heads desperately wanted to get huge in 2004. I'll be honest, there's not a lot of hip-hop on this list because most of the crunk I love is good without quite being great, but even at its best it wasn't smart music and it didn't have the ambition of a song like 'Jesus Walks', a song that recast the struggle of black men in America as Biblical, almost Job-like, something that Kendrick would later extrapolate to tremendous effect last year on DAMN. But 'Jesus Walks' was more than just a thunderous statement of purpose that referenced police brutality with the military background and intentionally provocative music video, it was a statement of how an ambitious young producer-rapper could blow past mainstream expectations for his music and put a song with a huge hook shouting 'Jesus Walks' on not just the radio, but in the club as well, a living penance for Kanye's sins. So why isn't it higher? Well, yeah, for as much as I like Kanye's early years, his penchant for very dated, very corny pop culture references struck even here, with the Regis and Kathy Lee reference on the second verse and the Happy Gilmore reference on the first - I get why it's being used, I get the subtext, doesn't make it any less goofy or jarring with respect to the larger tone. Anyway, you don't need another critic to tell you why Kanye's work in 2004 was excellent, let's move on.

6. So there are two country songs on this list - and for those of you who only remember the Toby Keith side of country in the early-to-mid 2000s might be surprised by that. And really, I get it - this was not the country that was running up headlines, and probably wouldn't even be nowadays... but when I realize how not only did this song become a staple for the artist, but also a go-to karaoke song for me that cuts way deeper than I'd probably like to admit, especially considering who made it - yeah, it made this list.

So Tim McGraw has always been a massive singles artist, netting a frankly disturbing slew of #1 hits, and this was one of his biggest in his prime, the lead-off single to the album of the same name that also won him a Grammy. And it was deserved for this track, taking a pop instinct that's always characterized McGraw's best crossover hits and pairing it with lyrics that show what someone tends to do when a relative of theirs might not have much time left. And when you realize by the second verse it's about a father-son relationship and McGraw made the video as a tribute to his own father who passed away from brain cancer, it gives it the sort of lived-in gut punch that characterized McGraw's best songs. But it's not mournful, not really - like Cole Swindell's 'You Should Be Here', it's a celebration of life in its biggest, brightest strokes, and by the time you get the key change that knocks this song into the stratosphere, Tim McGraw had another bonafide smash beneath him - and for once, it's so well-deserved.

5. So on the one hand you have Tim McGraw making his big, Grammy-winning opus about life in the face of death that was a borderline pop crossover with the big strings and greater sense of opulence... but there's a flipside to it, one more personally told, a little more stripped back and country, from a veteran who will nearly always land on this list if he ever makes it...

There's a part of me that thinks Alan Jackson wasn't really expecting this to be as big as it was, especially considering it was a second single from a second greatest hits compilation and was as stripped down and personal as ever. Yet it went on to move over a million units and dig into the details you see why, telling the full story of a relationship from beginning to end in flashback montage. And in what has made Jackson such a profoundly moving storyteller is that he never pulls punches - the first time they were together it wasn't good, the pain in their relationship and story lingers, the conflict gets just as much as airtime as the good times, especially when the years start to slip by faster and faster. And when you pair it with an amazingly well-arranged interlude with guitar, strings, and pedal steel at just the right time, it's the second song on this list of someone taking stock of their life in the big picture, and Jackson is easily a more compelling presence than Five For Fighting. Another staple from a man whose career seems to be nothing but, 'Remember When' is a stunning song and definitely deserves to be, well, remembered.

4. So I know some of you are probably wondering with all of these saccharine cuts on this list, where's the anger or intensity or firepower, where's the rock? Well, as I've said, I didn't have an angry white boy phase as a teenager, I didn't listen to the post-grunge and nu-metal of the time, and when I was listening to symphonic metal in 2004, I sure as hell wasn't going to listen to Evanescence's sloppy writing and shockingly bad production on 'My Immortal', their big hit in 2004, especially if I had Nightwish and Within Temptation dropping far better projects that same year. That said, if there was a band that captured my dispassionate teenage angst and has actually held up fourteen years later... it's probably this one.

Rarely has there been a song about losing one's emotions or feeling about something or someone that's this intense - and actually believable in it! I'll be the first to admit that it might have just been bad timing with the release of Hybrid Theory to tap into any teenage angst, but Meteora and 'Numb' especially get there, mostly because Linkin Park have an uncanny ability to string together angst with impressively melodic hooks and the genuine curdling rage of burnout, and you know exactly the target. What's kind of ingenious about the song is its universality: it could be a toxic relationship or a parental figure or society or the system at large that's crushing down our protagonist towards conformity, it fits in, especially when the song is just empathetic enough to show the cycle continuing from before on the bridge, which is where the song really picks up its gutpunch against the glitched out synthesizers and seething guitar line. Also, I'd be remiss to not mention 'Numb Encore', the Jay-Z collaboration that is sadly not as good as you remember it, mostly because Jay-Z is in pop-crossover, I-don't-really-care-enough-to-try mold, but it got them both another Grammy so if you need your burnout angst pressed through another filter, there it is. For me, though, I'll stick with the pure version - at least it can still cut.

3. And speaking of anger that has held up surprisingly well...

In 2004, Avril Lavigne released Under My Skin, her darker, meaner, heavier follow-up to Let Go in 2002, and while it doesn't quite have the immediate starmaking singles in the way that her debut did, it's probably still her best record overall, mostly because it was the most streamlined, personal, and devoid of the blatant pop pandering that has cropped up across the rest of her career. And yet paradoxically 'My Happy Ending' was probably the most accessible song off that record and arguably one of her best, mostly because it plays the breakup with enough snide maturity to accept it, but enough genuine aggression to still want to beat the shit out of this ex. Sure, it wasn't that complicated - so to speak - but outside of P!nk - whose own darker, nastier project had unfairly stalled out a few months earlier - Lavigne could sell righteous teenage girl fury better than anyone else, while keeping the genuine passion at the core of the song and putting it in a pop package. And as a delivery mechanism for this sort of seething melodrama, with the perfectly placed strings section on the bridge to notch things up just a little more, Avril Lavigne would never sound better - and fourteen years later, I think we could all use a little more of rage on the Hot 100 right now.

2. So the songs that are topping this list will surprise nobody, absolutely nobody, this one especially. Hell, it's widely considered one of the best songs of the 2000s period, from any genre and any year - the critics adore it and for once the public completely agrees.

And hell, it's not like they're wrong.

It would take until 2004 for singles from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to land on the Hot 100 proper, and there were three of them that had a shot to make this list. And I was very much prepared to put all three of them here... except I've never been crazy about Sleepy Brown's hook on 'The Way You Move', and Roses' sadly has not aged nearly as well as, say, 'Bombs Over Baghdad' or 'Ms. Jackson', instrumentally or lyrically. But 'Hey Ya!' is damn near note perfect and anyone who says otherwise is wrong! The gleaming key flutters on the hook against the thick happy burble of the bass, the handclaps, the amazingly well-timed adlibs, the way Andre 3000 contorts across the track with an infectious nervy energy that highlights how elastic and potent of a performer he was - and that's before you get into the content, which is half a relationship sputtering out as our protagonist realizes the love isn't quite there, and half braggadocious silliness that is so amazingly quotable in its deflection from any deeper issue. And I genuinely love the video, slyly taking back an Ed Sullivan Show-esque backdrop to establish this track in the historical rock pantheon - Andre has always known his music history, and the shameless retro swagger of the whole affair makes a song like this timeless in a way so much crunk of this era isn't. Yes, it is genuinely heartbreaking OutKast was never able to effectively follow-up this commercial peak - I genuinely like Idlewild but I think I'm pretty much the only one - but we all still have 'Hey Ya!', and it's damn near a classic.

But before what get to what could possibly be better, let's knock out a few Honourable Mentions!

I told you all that Alicia Keys put out her best singles in 2004, and man, this one was excruciatingly difficult to cut - the naturalistic framing and instrumentation with cowriting credits from John Legend, production from Kanye, the fact that someone like Alicia Keys can slip into pure lovestruck girl-next-door territory despite being Alicia Keys and able to have any man she wants, the fact that it's such a straightforward classy love song but told so effectively you don't even notice or care... really, the only reason it didn't make the list proper is because it runs a little long and can feel a tad underwritten at points. But still, the song won Alicia Keys another Grammy, and it was very much deserved!

This one genuinely snuck up on me, and it was also a very serious contender to make this list - John Michael Montgomery's last big hit, a song that takes the wartime atmosphere and doesn't feel jingoistic or pandering in capturing the family relationship across the world, and when you have a genuinely great voice like his against straightforward country instrumentation, it's a song that goes down effectively, especially when you get the gutpunch of a final verse. It's also one of those songs that leaves more in subtext than outright text of what could be happening outside of those letters, and the fact that Montgomery can sell that possibility by what's not being said... yeah, have to respect a song like this, genuinely underrated.

Not going to lie, the reason this song makes the Honourable Mentions and not the list proper is that it can't quite take it seriously anymore thanks to Weird Al's 'Confessions Pt. 3', which is one of his funniest ever songs. But even with that, 'Confessions Pt. 2' is a tour de force of panicked relationship melodrama that at least Usher can convincingly sell. And while R. Kelly may have played in similar territory - and believe me, he had contenders to make this list, he was big in 2004 - Usher's legacy and natural charisma is nowhere close to as tainted, and even if 'Confessions Pt. 2' can feel silly at points, Usher is good enough to make it work, and I have to respect that.

So I've always struggled with Kanye's self-deprecating attacks on consumerism, this being one of them first through the lens of a black woman, then his own, trying to dig into the complicated pathology that drives him to spend money he doesn't have on increasingly fragile flexing that props up a system he still criticizes. I appreciate the nuance and focus of a song like this, along with the details that highlight deficiencies in education and the prison-industrial complex and the inherent insecurities that comes with dropping brand names, and I really dig how Kanye interpolates Lauryn HIll of all people here with the acoustics and a great hook from Syleena Johnson... but it never quite got all the way there for me, half because there are a few too many jokey setups and I wish more of the song embraced its storytelling beyond just his perspective instead of monopolizing the second and third verses. Still a damn good song, though.

At this point, No Doubt was basically being held together with string and duct tape and Gwen Stefani was already pushing her solo career, which would blow up in the next few years. So if they wanted to go out with a slick cover of a great Talk Talk song... hell, why not, the production is gorgeous, the groove is slick as hell, and Stefani can vamp like few other pop stars in this vein. It's not really better than the original, which is a new wave classic, but that slick synth groove and gentle opulence is executed amazingly well, and as a cover, No Doubt do it justice.

Hey, what did I say about Alicia Keys this year? And granted, while this is more of what you'd traditionally expect from her, she can still sell this sort of passionate soul ballad better than pretty much everyone else in that era! Again, suffers from being a shade underwritten, especially when you read about Keys' real world influences in the songwriting... but again, when she sounds this damn good, it's hard to care!

Okay, when anyone thinks of Britney Spears in 2004 they think of 'Toxic', a song I've never really liked and has production that has aged a lot worse than you remember. 'Everytime', meanwhile, never needed to sound slick or polished or refined, mostly because it's the sort of vulnerable moment you never really got from Britney and its edge comes in how frail and sincere it is. Granted, part of this has only been reinforced by me watching Spring Breakers entirely too many times, but when you realize Britney actually wrote this herself and yes it is about Justin Timberlake, it's surprisingly moving, even if you weren't invested in the slow moving trainwreck that would be Britney Spears' life in the mid-2000s that became way too easy to mock. But with a song like 'Everytime', it reminds us all there was some humanity there, and I respect that.

Okay, back to the last entry on this list...

1. It's incredibly rare when the public consensus and the critical consensus aligns directly - and not in retrospect, but at that precise moment when everyone heard something and universally agreed it was awesome, let's make this inescapable, especially when that song was at the zenith of a popular trend. For a song to be the biggest of a year and still be critically beloved and to actually hold up to this day... that's something special. But really, is there any way I can end this list beyond... 'peace up, a-town down'?

And really, could it be anything else? For many people, if you're going to ask them what song best represents popular music in the 2000s, 'Yeah!' by Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris will probably come up the most, it's entrenched itself in the popular psyche. And that, for the record, is a great thing because 'Yeah!' is an awesome goddamn song, maybe not the moment that made the careers of every act but certainly a high point. Would Usher be considered a figure on the A-list of R&B if it wasn't for 'Yeah!', or give Lil Jon the boost to propel crunk to the very top for several more years, or give Ludacris the clout to be as huge as he was in the decade to come. Yes, none of these acts have ever returned to the level of success that 'Yeah' gave them with its blaring synth loops, shrill whirs, sandy beat, and unbelievable catchiness, but I doubt they could even if they wanted to, a dancefloor jam coasting on the huge, amazingly well-balanced charisma of all three men. Again, it was never a song that evoked a lot of thought, but in the vein of the best crunk&b hits, it never needed that, coasting on superb multi-tracking, Lil Jon as the best possible hype man, and Ludacris rarely ever sounding better on a verse with nothing wasted. In short, sometimes the public, the critics, and me all come together in agreement: 'Yeah!', the biggest and best hit song of 2004, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

No comments:

Post a Comment