(3) U2, "With or Without You"
A couple days ago, my friend Sean pointed out, while listening to this song, which the committee also included on its 2009 Best Pop Songs Since 1978 mixtape, that U2 was a wack inclusion, and this song in particular, because the song’s obviously about Jesus. He went on a riff about the religious iconography of the song and really much of U2, and how U2 wanted to be Christian but not to be a Christian band (understandably), and how in his view that disqualified it. The committee thought about that.
This may be true, though there’s plenty of evidence in the song (all the “she”s for instance) to suggest the primary reading’s a more personal, romantic one. But it’s also articulating a surprising point, not just that "I can’t live without you"—that much is obvious—but that "I can’t live with or without you," which you probably already know from a million listens to the song. But here’s a song of longing and of exhaustion, or perhaps of doom, and perhaps it’s got a couple readings (as South Park pointed out, pretty much any romantic song can be turned into a Christian song by just switching in “Jesus” for the beloved, which raises some interesting questions about the nature of romantic or spiritual love better explored elsewhere), but even so, that makes the song in our view even more notable. It’s one of only a couple in the bracket that can be reasonably read as about religious love. And sure, one might have picked “One” in spite of the way it’s commonly misunderstood, or “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” as other committee members had suggested, but you know what? This is the jam. It’s one of their best-known songs, and it’s easy to forget now that U2 had some force then (in fact still does and isn’t just encrusted in the view that the culture’s started to take of the band as just a band embedded in the lining of Bono’s ego or the idea of a band and layered over, much as the saguaro cactus internalizes and grows over foreign objects embedded in it), and they could really crush a song. So we encourage you to listen to the song and not just to listen to your memory or idea of the song. You want passion? Here it is:
(14) Low, "Words"
When the selection committee met to consider initial nominations, Low felt like one of the indispensable and incorrigibly sad bands, even if they’re not remotely as well-known as their opponent here. Though they're a midmajor, Low is certainly the pinnacle of this kind of music (which I think someone named “slowcore” at some point, though it’s never felt super apt to me). Hailing from the frozen landscape of Duluth, Minnesota, Low makes cold-weather, stay-inside songs, so the video below feels more than apt. If what you want is lyrical pyrotechnics, this isn't your band: Low is not a band that’s going to get you with spectacular wit or narrative. As the song says, "too many words / too many words." And so there are actually very few lyrics on offer here. Instead, listen to the beauty of the two-part harmonies and the simple three-part instrumentation. Low’s best quality is its affect. It does the one thing very, very well. One of the committee members has seen them at least six times, and remembers the first show he saw, at Knox College on the tour for I Could Live in Hope, how they played in the tiny student snack shop for a crowd of maybe 75. He wants to tell you that he was amazed at how quiet a crowd could be: it felt like church, he has to say, and listening to this song you might, I think, imagine it: lights low, dark outside, just two voices, one drum, a bass, and a guitar. For the "guitar solo" in one song they just played the same note over and over very slowly for several minutes. Around 660 BC, Greek poet and mercenary Archilochus wrote: "The fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one: one good one." Seems like Low might be a good way to puncture the grandeur (grandiosity?) of U2.