The countdown continues with hip-hop both old school and really new school, with three towering smash singles and an underrated rock record.
Though Brighter Than Creation's Dark peaks at the very beginning with the saddest, loveliest song Patterson Hood will ever write, it holds its shape for an epic 19 songs and 75 minutes. Hood takes the toll of the Iraq war from two vantage points, ruminates on road life, spits in the wind of recession, and tips his cap to printer-of-legends "the great John Ford." Musical life-partner Mike Cooley spins one wonderful, low-rent character sketch after another, several of them probably autobiographical, led by a definitive metal-to-grunge saga he's old enough to have lived and a shaggy confession that outs country storyteller Tom T. Hall as this great band's biggest influence.
Song Sample: "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"
Single: "Gold Digger" — Kanye West (2004)
Hip-hop goes old-school R&B with a Ray Charles-referencing classic whose crucial final-verse swerve seals it.
The most convincing argument yet for what hip-hop as stable grown folks' music might sound like … hip-hop as the ultimate adult R&B, without the confrontational assault or showy party vibe of most contemporary mainstream hip-hop or the spare beats of the underground. Rather, AOI: Bionix luxuriates in the sturdy, comfortable, and soulful — groove music for stay-at-homes. This music doesn't grab you, but it deepens over time. And it's no accident that the more limited sources but more consistent groove connects more fully to the African-American musical tradition. After flying their freak-flag as kids, this later music embodied the black middle-class experience they were living.
Song Sample: "Bionix"
Single: "Since U Been Gone" — Kelly Clarkson (2004)
One of the four or five most universal pop songs of the decade. A live clip:
Documenting a journey from "the only place worse than Kandahar" to a triumphant moment that finds him "on a world tour with Mohammed and them," he's got a story to tell — a cousin left behind in the war, a girlfriend lost to it, a dangerous obstacle course of pirates, "warlords and beardos." He may have been raised on American rap rhymes and may have been involved in gun crimes, but he's seen enough real-life gangsta shit to dismiss American hip-hop's make-believe machismo. Instead, he hooks a beat up to Ethiopian jazz and converts it into hip-hop form, embraces his present with an optimism that, for once, is defiant and far-reaching, not forced and shortsighted.
Song Sample: "Dreamer"
Single: Get Ur Freak On — Missy Elliott (2001)
Definitely a "track of the decade" candidate. Official video: