The Ten Cleverest Pop Songs of the '00s


Though the first decade of the new millennium produced, as always, plenty of dreadful and thus unintentionally funny music, it is high time to honor musicians at the opposite end of the ha-ha spectrum: performers demonstrating a rapier wit, a sharp tongue, or an oddball perspective that overturns settled notions about the world. The list that follows pays particular tribute to the smart-asses of the world, those quick with a quip, a lip-curling sneer, or a jab at celebrities, in the spirit of Van Halen's 1980s-era "Hot for Teacher," in which a smarmy David Lee Roth retorts, "I don't FEEL tardy!" Some of the selections are more thought-provoking than wisecracking, but there is a devilish genius behind each of the featured songs.

1. The Fiery Furnaces: "Nevers" (from Bitter Tea, 2006)

The Fiery Furnaces (Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger) are so creative that all it requires to spark their imagination is perusal of a map of central France, wherein lies the city of Nevers. From this arises an exquisitely nonsensical song about a town called Nevers and others of similarly dubious qualities ("Something," "Once Upon a Time," "Where-It-Was"). Conjuring Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on First?" routine, it challenges listeners to wrap their mind around such verses as "There's a village I visit that's Vaguely, sorta Vaguely, vaguely yes I seem to recall/Though it's unclear clearly vaguely, very vaguely, can't say it's been there once and for all." The main musical theme meanwhile morphs through various moods, rhythms, and timbres. "Nevers" is a whimsical Baedeker that advises wayfarers to "set the clock back twice or once upon a time in Once Upon a Time." Bitter Tea was an unjustly overlooked record.

2. Flaming Fire: "Lemon Isis" (from When the High Bell Rings, 2007)

This tune is a delightfully bizarre mash-up of the Serge Gainsbourg/Charlotte Gainsbourg succès de scandale "Lemon Incest," from 1984, which implied unnatural father-daughter relations, and Egyptian mythology, specifically the brother-sister canoodling of Osiris and Isis. It takes a jaundiced view of ancient Egypt, France, and phalluses. Flaming Fire is not above declaring its song the "pinnacle of Western civilization." Oddly for a group whose stated ongoing project is to illustrate every verse of the King James Bible, "Lemon Isis" also evinces a disdain for religion, telescoping theological history into repeated acts of human sacrifice to appease vainglorious deities.

3. Datarock: "Computer Camp Love" (from Datarock Datarock, 2007)

Datarock's (doubly) self-titled first album was an homage to the New Wave bands the performers grew up listening to, in particular the Talking Heads and Devo. "Computer Camp Love" is a geek's retelling of "Summer Nights" from the 1972 musical Grease. (LEADER: "Ran into her on computer camp." CHORUS: "Was that in '84?" LEADER: "Not sure. Had my Commodore 64, had to score.") Datarock is Norwegian, yet the song is remarkably on-target and fluent in its Americanisms. The track has a suitably nerdy-sounding synthesizer line, but there's something universal about sexual boasting, even among wireheads.

4. Plastilina Mosh: "My Party" (from All U Need Is Mosh, 2008)

Another band from beyond our borders (Monterrey, Mexico) that is completely clued in to American culture, Plastilina Mosh hit just the right notes with All U Need Is Mosh. "My Party" is a name-dropping rap orgy of tongue-in-cheek braggadocio, set to a languid Caribbean beat and marimba harmonics. Fantasies of Paris Hilton ("I like to watch her shake her baby maker") aside, apparently, everybody wants to go to the party, "Even the Police: Not Summers, Copeland, or Sting; I mean the kind of cops that don't sing." The fact that most of the celebrities who drop by are has-beens (Danny Bonaduce, Barry Manilow) makes the song all the funnier.

5. Flight of the Conchords: "Hurt Feelings" (from I Told You I Was Freaky, 2009) 

The New Zealand duo who star in the eponymous HBO television series as folk rockers trying to make it on the Lower East Side absorbed plenty of hip-hop influences in their adopted home. Here, they have concocted a worthy successor to Rodney Dangerfield's "Rappin' Rodney" no-respect shtick from the 1980s. In "Hurt Feelings," life is a series of stinging slights, from failing to draw compliments for "my casserole...could have said something nice about my profiteroles" to being told while shopping for swimwear that a ladies' size "wetsuit" would fit better to having one's own relatives forget one's birthday. "Were you ever called 'homo' because in school you took drama/Have you ever been told you look like a llama?" Twenty-four-carat gold tears of a rapper indeed!

6. Regina Spektor: "Music Box" (from Begin to Hope, 2006) 

Begin to Hope was Regina Spektor's most polished record to date, yet it was the five-track bonus disc that contained the most intriguing and quirky compositions, such as "Uh-merica," a sinisterly trigger-itchy update to the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." "Music Box" is a peculiar fantasia in which the figures on a music box yearn to escape their mechanized regimen and to "feel mortality surround me." The human pleasures the music box dancers are striving toward turn out to be as mundane as surreptitiously sampling the taste of soapy dishwater and launching an armada of bottle caps across the surface of the filled sink ("the greatest voyage in the history of plastic"). Set to an appropriately dainty habanera on the piano, "Music Box" is both strange and highly inventive.

7. Sparks: "(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country" (alternative lyrics) (from the EP Dick Around, 2006) 

A come-on suited to the era of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, "Can I Invade Your Country" asks a series of questions of the prospective partner in machine-gun fashion over an insistently rousing trumpet sally. It also refuses to wait for answers before moving on to more probingly pointed and militant questions, or before answering questions itself (Who's your favorite Beatle? "My favorite has always been Ringo, the least outspoken, the apolitical one.") The original version of the song, on the album Hello, Young Lovers, hewed close to the words of the "Star-Spangled Banner," but both versions feature the refrain, "Countries, planets, stars/Galaxies so far/Don't let freedom fade/Baby, let's invade.") In a politically charged environment, this was as surgical a strike on American military pretensions as could be found.

8. The Sound of Urchin: "Space Station on the 4, 5 & 6" (from You Are the Greatest, 2002)

Not a lot was heard from this band following its major-label debut, but "Space Station on the 4, 5 & 6" was a tour de force of free association and winking cultural references, from Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade to what Aerosmith members do to earn extra cash in their spare time (don't ask) to The Odd Couple. The goofy climax comes as the time-traveling commuter recalls a childhood episode in which a mall manager catches him nibbling the scented candles and the expedient he resorts to in order to escape, which involves strategic regurgitation. The song is also an artifact of sorts, from the days when the New York subway cost just $1.50 and subway tokens were still sold.

9. Jonathan Coulton: "The Presidents" (from Thing a Week Three, 2006)

Very much in the spirit of They Might Be Giants' historically informed ditty "James K. Polk" from the 1990s, Coulton's four-minute-long presidential survey is reductio ad absurdum, with each chief executive's tenure summed up in one line (Grover Cleveland appropriately enough gets two). The summations range from the harsh ("Johnson murdered kids in Vietnam") to the sublime ("James Monroe told Europe they could suck it") to the ridiculous ("Carter lusted in his heart for peanuts"; "Clinton gave an intern a cigar"). The song is a simple folk tune for guitar and voice, culminating three times in a tinny rendition of "Hail to the Chief" in which the guitar is joined by what sounds like an electric organ, toy piano, and some drums.

10. Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3: "Belltown Ramble" (from Ole! Tarantula, 2006)

 Robyn Hitchcock's best songwriting days are long behind, in the 1980s. But he still has a first-class eccentric imagination and a unique worldview. "Belltown Ramble" is a circuit around various Seattle landmarks (Denny Way; the "pink rotating elephant") that centers on an encounter with the warlord Tamerlane ("his teeth are brown"), set to a plinking, one-finger piano line in the right hand and a set of anodyne guitar chords. In the course of the song's perambulations, it enumerates the Seven Deadly Appetites that must be appeased (ignorance, opportunism, greed, fundamental faith, haste, and waste -- the seventh is never named, but may be sloth or possibly delusion). In the end, Tamerlane and the singer, seated at a wine bar, ask the bartender how it's going, and the barkeep responds by saying "it's going north, to Canada." Weird! - Steven Greenfield

Mr. Greenfield is a freelance writer and editor living off of alms and breadcrumbs in the vicinity of Lincoln Center in New York.