Saturday, March 2, 2019

the top ten best hit songs of 2009

So I'll admit to being surprised that this, of all things, is the next top ten people want me to cover. You'd think folks would want me to finish off the 2010s proper before going back to 2009, but there you have it.

But I get it, because while I'd struggle to call it the best of the 2000s, 2009 was a pretty glorious year. Not only did it showcase the birth of YouTube chart criticism, but it was such a potent year to cover! 2009 is widely accepted by most as the birth of the club boom, where the kinetic, rock-tinged pop of the mid-2000s picked up more layers of glitter and went to party hard, picking up a grabbag of whatever hip-hop had survived the ringtone era, whatever rock that was willing to party, and basically lock the placid country scene out of the clubhouse entirely. More to the point, it was impossible to not see 2009 as a year of reckless abandon: the economy had crashed, most of my generation was broke, and if we we didn't have money, we were going to party as if we did - it might have seemed bleak, but I think a lot of us were riding the contact high that came from a new president and a desperate desire to believe in hope... even if that contact high would lead to incoherent silliness and a hangover we'd only halfheartedly regret. But I'll say this: even if I've slowed down a little bit, it's hard not to miss the manic fun of this year, especially when there were so many great hits, so let's get things started with...

10. Granted, given that I'm starting with this particular song, you could be forgiven for me saying that this year's hits were great... but let me make my case for this one.

In 2008, Britney Spears put out Circus, and frankly, coming after her projects in the mid-2000s I actually found it to be a surprising return to form, with a few of her better hits. Yeah, like every Britney Spears song it's overproduced and oversexualized, but there's something about how much 'If You Seek Amy' dives headfirst into its insanely goofy conceit that flips around to actually working. Yeah, it's the crudest and most obvious of double entendres that barely tries to make sense... and yet its dogged commitment to the conceit with the blaring synths and bombastic low end makes the song surprisingly infectious. And I'm not even going to try and untangle the weird juxtapositions in the video - although in untangling the all-American girl iconography Britney was saddled with her entire career this video is a fascinating case study - but there's a surprising amount of tension to the song given how ludicrous the premise is, and if they managed to actually pull it off... yeah, I have to respect it, definitely like this!

9. And on the topic of oversexualized pop lyricism that only tenuously makes anything close to sense...

Look, I've been a Shakira fan for years - yeah, her most recent stuff has been tepid, but in her peak she had a tremendous amount of charisma and I loved her willingness to go in daring and weird directions. And make no mistake, 'She Wolf' is weird as all hell - the choppy tinkling guitar rollick, the warping stabs at funk in the bass, the oddly slurred backing vocals, and then we get Shakira herself... and look, only she would describe her sexual frustration as abuse like a 'coffee machine in the office', the sort of line that would even stand out in a song that commits to being about lycanthropy! But that's the crazy thing about Shakira - she's got such a dogged commitment to a song that could have easily turned into something insanely goofy, but her raw sensuality and charisma actually makes it work even before the strings flood the outro to hit peak melodrama! Yeah, it's a ridiculous song... but in 2009 - pardon the pun - it was infectious. Can we have this Shakira back at some point, I miss this!

8. Let it be known that in the year of our lord 2018, we finally got a good Transformers movie. Not a great one - although I might not have any room to talk, I've never really been crazy about this franchise in any medium - but it was a crowd-pleaser and certainly better than the nonsense Michael Bay shat out. But throughout the course of seeing that movie and then trying to suppress my memories of the 2007 movie and its horrendous 2009 sequel Revenge Of The Fallen, I was struck by the one thing we should reclaim from that era...

So Linkin Park was in a weird spot in 2009 - in between their most accessible album to date at that point and their concept album experiment in A Thousand Suns, 'New Divide' was the closest thing many fans would get to a genuine hit for a few years. And again, it's a really damn good one - the fusion of harsher industrial elements with the chugging but sweeping electronic rock that was becoming their hallmark, it had more muscle and impact than damn near the majority of rock on the Hot 100 that year, and when coupled with Chester Bennington delivering the huge hook and still committing to real melody, I'd argue the track holds up as one of their best singles! Yeah, the lyrics have nothing to do with Revenge Of The Fallen - they seem more about purging old angst and finding enough to building something in this relationship - but given the turd that was that movie, I'm pretty much okay with that! And this song kicks ass!

7. Honest to god, this is the sort of underrated sleeper hit I'm genuinely surprised isn't bigger nowadays. I mean, it's a little dated to its time and one of the artists attached to it hasn't been active in years... but isn't that enough of a reason to reignite its light?

There's a part of me that wishes John Legend took more risks with his art - mostly because when he steps outside of his comfort zone for a loose, synth-inflected hookup jam with a punchy beat and plentiful handclaps, he actually shines a fair bit. The guy has the sort of understated class and winning charisma to ride this sort of production with ease, lending it enough gravity to make the sensuality convincing, but just enough flair to keep it light and bouncy. But really, as much as I like John Legend in this lane, Andre 3000 is just on a different level, with his verse careening off the production with winning ease that's more than a little goofy - a common thread on most of this list - but also just charismatic enough to make it seem endearing, and he's a great wingman for Legend here. It's just a ridiculously fun slice of late-2000s R&B and while the tones might feel a bit dated and thin nowadays, the groove is terrific and I'd still argue it's charming enough to get rediscovered any day - I mean, come on, Soulja Boy has somehow gotten his hit back into 2000s rotation, why not this instead?

6. Of all the songs that I'm going to put on this list, I can imagine this'll be the most surprising - mostly because the group behind it seems to have been forgotten by a lot of folks and I don't remember this song getting a lot of praise when it was big - let's correct that, shall we?

So let's not mince words: if we want to talk about mismanaged careers in the 2000s, we'd have to devote a lengthy passage to the Australian duo The Veronicas, a pretty damn solid electro pop-rock band that got tied up in a lot of messy label drama that utterly killed their momentum stateside, leaving this as their only crossover hit. And yet I remember people hating this song, mostly because of the clashing style that really begin to run rampant in the next few years: the smoldering low-end guitars, the sweeping bombast of the strings, the sizzling synths, and how the tight vocal harmonies was most reminiscent of Tegan And Sara if they had sold out at their most incoherent. But that incoherence is actually the point of the song and again, I'm a little stunned people didn't pick up on it: it's in the title of the damn song, they can barely think straight and throw in nonsense language because they're conflicted on the relationship and horny as all hell! And come on, who's going to look down on that, because once that context is introduced, the song comes together amazingly well! Shame the band couldn't effectively follow it up - and their 2014 comeback wasn't better, but that's a different conversation.

5. ...I mean, there are controversial picks, and then there are the nightlife classics of the club boom that get justifiable play to this day...

I can make the credible argument this is the Black Eyed Peas' best song: the guitar lick is fantastic, the swells of strings work amazingly well, all the members are balanced well, the song builds momentum and fist-pumping swell effectively while just remaining goofy enough to not take itself that seriously, the touches of autotune around the vocals make it feel contemporary to the time but never to the point where this couldn't be played elsewhere! And once you get away from the overplay - no joke, this track was dominant across both 2009 and 2010 so I can see how folks would get sick of it - The Black Eyed Peas gave us at the very least one song that justifies their entire existence. Yeah, it's pretty stupid, but when it's this fun, who cares - you can make the argument it's a modern pop rap classic, and I'd be hardpressed to deny it.

4. It feels jarring talking about this artist in the context of 2009... because he had a very eventful 2009 and often not for the best of reasons. That said, we're talking about a song that might as well be one of the best singles he's ever released, a distinct step outside of his style to forge a new path...

So just for reference, I can't include 'Love Lockdown' on this list - it hit the year-end chart for 2008, otherwise it would have a slot - but I honestly prefer 'Heartless' more! Kanye West plays into disconnected bitterness on this breakup song with a rawness tempered by the distancing effect of autotune off the padded bass and hollowed, spiky keys, that we only get hints of through the distortion on the bridge. And when you dig into the lyrics, it's a pretty ugly song - maddeningly catchy, sure, but Kanye isn't about to frame himself as sympathetic here as he spits his venom, and that chill permeates the production in a way that almost feels subversive against a pop framework, especially with the slight texture delivered from co-producer No I.D. It's bitter, it's morose, but it's also sharply written enough to highlight for as toxic as this situation is, Kanye keeps involving himself anyway and he's not about to skirt the blame. Granted, when he had his little escapade with Taylor Swift at the VMAs that year he wound up seeming a lot more toxic, but that's a different conversation - and this is a great song.

3. So it seems like whenever I make these lists, I can pinpoint the choices where the critical set would try to take my critic card away. And while I'd argue poptimist critics have mostly redeemed the arc of Britney Spears, this one is a little tougher to excuse, especially given the indie act to which this artist owes such an obvious debt. But again, I'm not one to bow to popular opinion, so let me make my case.

Let's get the most obvious points out of the way: 'Fireflies' is unbelievably twee and on the cusp of being profoundly uncool, and it is a pretty blatant retread of tones that The Postal Service approached with far more grace and good taste years earlier. And that's honestly many of the reasons why the song works at all, at least for me: a slice of yearning bedroom pop that is trying so damn hard to feel bigger than it is with all the sweeping atmospherics and strings that there's a charm in going for broke without a shred of self-awareness. Yeah, the Postal Service beat Owl City to it, but The Postal Service hadn't put out an album since 2003 and I'd argue the comparison isn't precisely apt either, especially when it came to the underlying attitudes - Ben Gibbard was speaking to dejected Gen X ennui whereas Owl City was targeting millennial earnestness in the same vein as Carly Rae Jepsen or any slew of acts that you can tell Owl City inspired along the way, along with a remarkably layered set of melodies that still sound terrific to this day. And while I can see some being hesitant to return to 'Fireflies' especially given the sharp decline of Owl City's career - seriously, as a one-time fan it's been heartbreaking - this is still a shining moment, and definitely worth some real consideration.

2. So this is one of those picks that if you know me and my history with this band - hell, after a fashion I even reviewed this album - you won't be surprised, but will probably shock those who don't know, especially as we're dealing with another project with mixed critical reception coming out of the 2000s, especially from a certain subset of longtime fans. But to this day I still hold that this band deserved more acclaim for swinging for the fences, and while this is not the best song from that album, it still belongs on this list.

Going back through 21st Century Breakdown, it's hard not to feel that audiences didn't give the project its due. Yeah, it was easily Green Day's most lavish and over-arranged project and was a far cry from the greatness of Dookie or Kerplunk, but beefing up the operatic scope of American Idiot showed the band at their most experimental and I'd sure as hell take it over the back-to-basics mess that was the trilogy three years later! And while I'd struggle to put '21 Guns' among the best songs from an album chock full of shockingly prescient tracks - seriously, it's more than a little alarming how relevant so many songs from that album feel today - it's got an anthemic power, righteous fervour, and earnest power that places it among some of Green Day's most striking power ballads. I'm honestly a bit stunned that it hasn't had a resurgence among the kids today, especially as it's still catchy as hell and has real punch, even if I were to say I might like the vocal arrangement from the American Idiot musical a tad more! Sure, it's shallow and broad and an obvious single after the success of the power ballads from the last album - it's Green Day, what the hell would you expect? And regardless, this song still kicks ass, and when I first assembled a rough framework of this list, this song topped it... but before we get to what replaced it, let's go through some Honourable Mentions...

Not the best Boys Like Girls song from that era and like with too much pop punk and pop rock of that era it's a breakup song that's trying to be anthemic with a huge shout-along hook that feels a little discordant... but I'm a sucker for a tight, crunchy riff and the two-step bounce of the hook captures the danceable edge that was emblematic of the rock of the late 2000s and that I really wish would make a comeback. Probably more fun than it should be, but absolutely worth it.

This is only not on the list proper because the Glee cover is better and I remember this song getting grating as all hell with the overplay. And no, this is not better than 'It Ends Tonight' or 'Move Along' or even 'Dirty Little Secret' - I keep thinking the original arrangement is a little undercooked on the verses in particular, especially with that riff having so much power on the hook - but holy hell, this has a monster of a hook and it kills at karaoke like you wouldn't believe. And on that topic...

So I've long been a fan of the Zac Brown Band because they had great instrumental texture, terrific grooves, and sweet vocal harmonies, and their breakthrough hit showcases all of it with one of the most immediately recognizable hooks in country from the 2000s. Hell, the only reason it's not on the list proper is because it feel a bit sedate and self-satisfied at points, and I'm never been fond of shoving the jingoistic elements into the hook - call a difference in culture between Americans and Canadians, but it's the cheapest possible pop and I know for a fact the Zac Brown Band were capable of better, from that album and especially the two that would come after it. Still a great song, though.

I'm still a little shocked that Maxwell actually nabbed a charting hit in 2009 with a great, smoky R&B cut that has aged remarkably well for coasting off that liquid smooth bassline and his delicate falsetto. The only thing that held this back from the list proper is how choppy the hook can feel and that weird buzzy film around the bells has never quite matched the organic rollick of the groove. Still, it's an underrated and oft-ignored song from an underrated and oft-ignored artist - definitely deserves another shot.

And on the flip side, we have a collaboration from four of the most over-exposed rappers of the past decade. And look, the brassy hook still slaps and I still hold Lil Wayne's verse as underrated among the three, but Kanye's content was turning to crap ten years ago, Drake was years away from his peak, and while many would praise this as Eminem returning to rage, that turned into Recovery and given how badly it's aged, I'm still mixed on the whole endeavor. Still a good song and the Travis Barker drum remix is phenomenal if you can find it, but man, how the mighty have fallen.

I'll freely admit that I probably haven't given Shinedown the credit they deserve, the sort of post-grunge arena rock act that tend to punch a bit above their weight class and remain a pretty solid act. And this is a solid enough single - a message to those who might not believe in him charting a path towards something bigger especially in the face of lingering failures as he's taking that second chance. And really, I have to give credit for how much frontman Brent Smith just sells it - walking the thin line between oversold angst and rage against production that balances some decently heavy guitars and swells of strings. And while this isn't really a band I'm about to seek out, when it comes to this brand of radio rock I'm not going to complain - solid track.

The track that started Lady Gaga's tangled web of mirrors that passes for a career... and there's a part of me that can't help but feel the more she focused on pure straightforward craftsmanship, the better off she was. Riding a cosign from Akon that she wound up outliving in spades and a feature from Colby O'Doniss that is utterly disposable, she wound up making the sort of party song where nothing quite made sense, so the blackout dance party is the only real release. Huge wiry synths, a few different twisted breakdowns that split the difference between accessibility and fuzzed-out iciness, it might not have been an exact sign of things to come, but it sure as hell has lasted, even to this day.

And finally...

1. It seems a little strange, even to me, that this is my favourite hit song of 2009, because even within the arc of this artist's career I'd struggle to call it her best or most impactful, or even her most resonant. Hell, many have outright described it as a turning point towards the end, with a cowriting credit that caused Clarkson to pull her own out of a refusal to be associated with what his legacy would become. And yet from that time, if I wanted a track that captured the overheated pop rock sensibilities of 2009 that thanks to a well-placed Glee cover would become a monster of its own right...

I've gone on record a number of times that I'm a fan of Kelly Clarkson's pop rock era - she's got a bite and timbre in her belting that fits with rougher guitar tones... but when My December failed to impress after she took the writing and production in house, I was under the expectation that Kelly Clarkson might not ever have another hit, and this is coming from someone who liked that album! But 'My Life Would Suck Without You' takes her characteristic husky but fiery bluntness and marries it to a massive pop hook that plays to her strength and gives her the chugging electronic groove to match. But it's not a song that dwells in darkness - no, what makes it fun is that it's an overcompressed sugar rush where she's openly asking whether she should take this guy back for all the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day... hell, look at the title, there's something there, right? There's almost something exasperated and yet playful about it, where the stakes are just low enough that something can be rebuilt but it's all so disposable anyway! In other words, if we're looking for the sort of pop song that absolutely makes sense as a favourite in 2009, it's this one: Kelly Clarkson, 'My Life Would Suck Without You'. Don't take it too seriously, she certainly didn't - and turned out all the better. And it's the best hit song of 2009 - enjoy!


  1. I think ALL of the Transformers films are damn good.

  2. Yeah you are dead wrong on Eminem, Recovery has not aged badly at all IMO.

  3. Kelly Clarkson at #1? You're crazy!!