18 and 1/2 years into the 21st century, Rolling Stone, celebrating a visual rebranding of the print magazine, decided to take a tally of the era’s greatest songs. The magazine was careful to point out the list does not reflect its editorial views, but the votes of “a large group of artists, producers, critics and industry experts.” Each tastemaker made a list of his or her 25 favorite songs of the century, which were tabulated and turned into a listicle. Miraculously, enough people seem to have thought of MIA’s “Paper Planes” to land it in second place, which is why the alternate title of this article is 25 Songs Rolling Stone Forgot About When It Thought “Paper Planes” Was Still Important.
These additional 25 songs are the ones I would like to send in, thanks so much for asking, to cast my vote with the following conditions:
- Avoiding mentioning an artist that was featured on the final list published already in Rolling Stone
- Acknowledging popular taste as a more reliable indication of greatness than my own
- Allowing for a whole lot of anti-pop bias, because that’s just not my genre, sorry ’bout it
Let me know when Rolling Stone releases their 100 Needlessly-Snarkiest Citizen Journalists listicle. Scroll to the bottom for a complete playlist of all 25.
25. “Jumpstarted”, Jukebox the Ghost
2018 | Caroline/Self-released; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Any band willing to emulate Queen at this level is clearly insane, and “Jumpstarted” is a rambling masterpiece that never had the slightest chance at the mainstream. But it’s a pocket symphony to rival the best of 20th-century glam rock. It’s the hero pop needs now, but doesn’t deserve.
24. “Sleepyhead”, Passion Pit
2008 | Columbia/Frenchkiss; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Passion Pit arrived at festivals with unparalleled energy, serving up cheerful, thumping electropop with manic positivity. The synth riffs in all their hits are special, but “Sleepyhead” seems laced with sonic candy floss and an especially dynamic hook.
23. “Sometime Around Midnight”, The Airborne Toxic Event
2009 | Majordomo; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
The angsty crescendo in this indie anthem is emblematic of the strongest stuff going on in the genre in the late aughts. For five minutes, it’s 2008 again — it’s sometime around midnight, you’re listening on your iPod, and the second it’s over the night feels so empty you just have to play it again.
22. “Drops Of Jupiter (Tell Me)”, Train
2001 | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: 6
Train’s first taste of major fame, this serenade tugs at the heartstrings with grandiose lyrics and an orchestral instrumentation. Block chords on the piano and a long string of “na-na’s” closing out the song make it a sort of contemporary aughts’ “Hey Jude”.
21. “Elevator Operator”, Courtney Barnett
2015 | Marathon Artists/House Anxiety/Milk! Records/Mom + Pop Music; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Just before the world burst with love for Courtney Barnett’s sarcastic Australian deadpan, “Elevator Operator” made it to alternative radio, and exposed a pretty chipper side to her. It’s about as cheerful as a dissuasion from suicide can be, and it handles suspense and relief like musical elements.
20. “It Wasn’t Me”, Shaggy
2000 | Big Yard/Dreamworks; Highest Chart Position: 1
This R&B-reggae crossover merges comical irreverence with a smooth, confident performance that makes us weirdly willing to get down with blatant infidelity. Sure, man, we didn’t see anything. Even my mom likes this song.
19. “In The Waiting Line”, Zero 7
2001 | Ultimate Dilemma; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
This dreamy downtempo lullaby sounds like it’s existed forever. Like a waiting line, it hangs suspended in time; like muzak, it passes and numbs the mind with a slyly jazzy vibe that catches you unaware with a bit of subconscious head-nodding.
18. “Chelsea Dagger”, The Fratellis
2006 | Fallout; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
The worst thing about the 21st century is the departure from garage rock and super-singable strings of meaningless syllables. There’s just not enough raging party guitar tracks celebrating sex workers anymore.
17. “Shut Up And Dance”, Walk the Moon
2014 | RCA; Highest Chart Position: 4
An instant shot of pure joy that harkens to the 80s without feeling costume-y. A great barometer for which of your friends are fun enough to continue hanging out with; get rid of the ones that groan and say “this one again?”
16. “The Cave”, Mumford & Sons
2010 | Island; Highest Chart Position: 27
Mumford & Sons were an unstoppable force around this time, roaring through pop music with shredding banjo riffs and powerful, quasi-shouted vocals – all the while delivering biblical messages of hope and strength, wrapped in luscious poetry.
15. “Samson”, Regina Spektor
2001/2006 | Self-Released/Sire; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Samson is the second saddest song ever, and the saddest song strongly featuring the words “wonder bread.” Leonard Cohen cried when he heard it (this is just a hunch). This song is so sad and so gorgeous that I have to deflect it with jokes.
14. “I Wanna Get Better”, Bleachers
2014 | RCA; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
I’ve never believed anything more than I believe every note Jack Antonoff wrote into this song. The ceaseless synth hits feel breathless, yet instead of being speechless, Antonoff delivers beautifully frank lyrics. And then he dated Lena Dunham. Can’t win ’em all.
13. “Ghostwriter”, RJD2
2002 | Definitive Jux; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
How can you tell such a strong story with no words? Lots of sections. Funky and cinematic, there’s no getting away from the narrative being so expertly ghostwritten. And good luck getting it out of your head later.
12. “Stacy’s Mom”, Fountains of Wayne
2003 | S-Curve/Virgin; Highest Chart Position: 21
Stacy’s Mom is the best-known MILF of the 21st century. And the lyrics and hopeful tone somehow skew this song to the naïve and charming, and it’s only endearingly creepy that we all sang it as kids.
11. “Gooey”, Glass Animals
2016 | Wolf Tone/Caroline International/Harvest Records; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart?
“Gooey” is that song you wish had another name so you didn’t sound so redundant saying it. “Gooey” is that song that makes you feel weird about being so turned on by it. And the gorgeous hair-raising music video doesn’t help at all.
10. “Take Me To Church”, Hozier
2013 | Rubyworks/Island/Colombia; Highest Chart Position: 2
Who could forget the sudden arrival of an honest-to-God spiritual in the Top 40? Who could resist wailing along to this quasi-ancient prayer?
9. “White Flag”, Dido
2003 | Arista; Highest Chart Position: 18
Dido had some of the greatest hits of the 21st century and I will go down with this ship. Eminem’s “Stan” made the final cut on Rolling Stone’s list, but nothing compares the silky noir of “White Flag” – an obvious child of the 90’s, miraculously born in 2003 and emotionally relevant forever.
8. “Hips Don’t Lie”, Shakira (ft. Wyclef Jean)
2005 | Epic/Sony; Highest Chart Position: 1
This is more than Shakira exuding sex, it’s Shakira spreading a surprisingly elegant latin/oriental pop dance beat to number-one status in America. It’s a miracle of American culture when songs like these top charts.
7. “Clint Eastwood”, Gorillaz
2001 | Parlophone; Highest Chart Position: 57
Maniacal and lethargic all at once, sinister but unthreatening. Gorillaz know how to tell a story, and the intricate cinematic instrumentation elevates the element of theater. The comparatively inelegant old-school rap lends an eerie honesty.
6. “I Try”, Macy Gray
1999/2000 | Epic; Highest Chart Position: 5
Soul legend Macy Gray technically released this song in 1999, but it only came to North America in the first month of the 21st century, and we should feel so lucky to claim it. It won the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 2001 Grammy’s and executes the unofficial most satisfying key change of the century.
5. “Short Skirt / Long Jacket”, Cake
2001 | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
It’s amazing that “Short Skirt / Long Jacket” is more than a novelty. In its careful arrangement it’s all at once edgy, energetic, funny, and best of all, aspirational. It makes you wanna go out and get that girl — or be her. The light condescension just makes it all the more appealing.
4. “Breezeblocks”, Alt-J
2012 | Infectious; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
The gory obsessiveness, the sweetness of the lyrics borrowed from Where The Wild Things Are, “please don’t go/I’ll eat you whole/I love you so” are as chilly and lush as the drunken vocals and grotesquely alluring guitars. The effect is like Interpol dipped in chrome.
3. “I Will Possess Your Heart”, Death Cab for Cutie
2008 | Atlantic/Barsuk Records; Highest Chart Position: 70
A droning, swirling ambience around a tirelessly marching bass line taps into infinity on this 8-and-1/2-minute track. When the vocals finally come in, the instrumentation dips into a delicious, hard-earned moment of the most satisfying silence to grace music this side of Y2K.
2. “Intro”, The XX
2009 | Young Turks; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
This spacious instrumental grows in increments obvious, but natural enough to be incredibly hypnotizing. A little primal, a little futuristic, one of the most cliche album covers to hang in your dorm room.
1. “Float On”, Modest Mouse
2004 | Epic; Highest Chart Position: 68
The sincerity of this rugged anthem could cut through even the most jaded defiance of positivity. Mantras are hard to believe but the three strums of the guitar after the bridge are the happiest sounds ever made, and have floated on effortlessly for 14 years already.