GNARLS BARKLEY, 2006
In this frazzled and fragmented decade, when the Top 40 broke down into squabbling niches, the idea of a universal pop hit, a song anybody could love, seemed like a sweet old-fashioned notion. Then these guys showed up. Atlanta rapper Cee-Lo and indie producer Danger Mouse decided it would be a gas to pretend to be the world's greatest pop group, and so they gave the world “Crazy.” Everybody loved this song, from your mom to your ex-girlfriend’s art professor. It blasted in punk clubs and Burger King bathrooms. Every sucky band on earth tried a lame cover. For the summer of 2006, “Crazy” united us all into one nation under a groove. Gnarls Barkley packed a career's worth of genius ideas into three minutes — and then they basically disappeared. Does that make them crazy? Probably. But was this the most glorious pop thrill of our time? Totally.
JAY Z, 2003
Jigga’s incredible decade-long run reached its hard-rock crescendo in this Black Album smash, flipping an old Ice-T hook with go-go percussion and metal guitars. It was the funkiest thing Rick Rubin had touched since the Eighties. And needless to say, it was a relief for Beyoncé to be upgraded to “nonproblem” status.
Crazy In Love
The horns weren’t a hook. They were a herald: Pop’s new queen had arrived. Beyoncé’s debut solo smash, powered by that sampled Chi-Lites brass blast, announced her liberation from Destiny’s Child and established her MO: She’d best the competition by doing everything sassier, bigger, crazier.
After all these years, “Hey Ya!” sounds as weird and fantastic as it did the first time: A genre-humping blur of acoustic guitars, hand claps, dance instructions and André 3000’s funktastic charm. Fifty years from now, kids will still be asking what a Polaroid picture is.
Rapper Maya Arulpragasam cheerfully threatened to steal your money, over a beat sampled from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” tossing in cash-register rings, gunshots and shout-outs to Third World slums. The year after “Paper Planes” came out, the Pineapple Express trailer blew it up into one of the unlikeliest Top 10 jams ever.
Seven Nation Army
THE WHITE STRIPES, 2003
RJack White uses an effects pedal to make his guitar sound like a bass and howls about a rage so intense, he could take on an army all by himself. Result: the greatest riff of the decade and a massive, career-changing hit that college marching bands now play.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS, 2003
How often do we get a fiery soul ballad and an art-punk classic in the same song? Karen O testifies to the power of love as if she’s miraculously channeling Siouxsie and Sam Cooke at the same time. She wails the word “wait” with a heartsick ache, while Nick Zinner’s guitar and Brian Chase’s drums ride to her emotional rescue.
AMY WINEHOUSE, 2006
The humor in Winehouse’s 2006 salvo is darker now, given subsequent crack binges and other misbehavior. But "Rehab" still sums up the London diva’s greatness: Sonically letter-perfect retro soul with producer Mark Ronson's 21st-century beat-muscle and cheekiness. “He’s trying to make me go to rehab,” she sings, “I won’t go, go, go.” You go, girl.
The song that re-established U2 as the world’s biggest band looked backward, reviving the skyscraping sound of their Eighties classics. But the lyrics — “See the canyons broken by cloud/See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out” — were more ambivalent than the title suggested, a prayer for transcendence in a wounded world.
This creepy hit encapsulated the dramatic flair that made Eminem so impossible to ignore in 2000. A deranged fan writes Em a series of unhinged letters, and as the song builds to a bloodcurdling climax, Em is forced to confront his rep as a bad role model. And despite Dido’s reassurances, this story won’t end well.