The best song of the millennium is going to be eliminated from Grantland’s Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium on the first day of voting.
“Ante Up” is a song about the joys of robbing people by the Brooklyn rap group M.O.P. You know that look Robert Duvall has in his eyes in Apocalypse Now, when he’s up in the chopper, listening to Wagner? That’s how I look when I listen to “Ante Up.” I love this song more than pretty much any piece of popular culture created during my lifetime. Nothing sounds more like New York City to me, nothing sounds more hip-hop to me, nothing makes me want to wreck a hotel room, do a cannonball off a garage roof into an empty pool, do the Jason Terry dance down Broadway during rush hour, or just wild the fuck out more than this four-minute rap anthem. When the horns start sounding in the opening seconds of this song, life goes into Michael Bay slow motion; the simple act of opening my car door feels like the most trill thing anyone has ever done. I know other people feel the same way; I have been in Brooklyn clubs when this song has been played and it is like having a Pentecostal church service break out in the middle of a DIY Krav Maga class. Music does not get better than this.
And “Ante Up” is going to get absolutely decapitated, with a “toot toot” and a “beep beep.”
Welcome to Grantland’s Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium tournament. This bracket does not care that the first time you heard “Ante Up” you were sitting in a rented van, moving your belongings from one side of Brooklyn to another by yourself, and it gave you the will to live. It doesn’t have time for your memory of when you attended an M.O.P. show at Joe’s Pub back in the early ’00s and you thought you saw the face of God emerging out of a cloud of marijuana smoke and flying glasses of Hennessy. Your personal connection to the music, and your informed estimate of where it ranks among the thousands of songs released since 2000, does not matter. What matters is do more people like “Ante Up” than R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).” And the answer is going to be …
No matter how much I personally like “Ante Up,” and no matter how many emotional and actual goons I could rally to vote for it, there is no way it will ever come within a parsec of “Ignition.” I knew this when I saw the utter joy with which people on the selection committee voted for R. Kelly’s 2003 anthem. They weren’t trying to be rude; that’s just the way things were. So, from the producers of Smacketology, the Souper Bowl, Sequeltology, Oscar Travesties, and the Most Hated College Basketball Player of the Last 30 Years comes the new tournament that is going to monopolize at least half an hour of your day.
The creation process was incredibly democratic, by which I mean everyone got a voice, there was a lot of backroom deal-making, and in the end I don’t think anyone was entirely satisfied with the final pool of songs. God bless America. Grantland staffers were asked to assemble a list of what they thought were the 25 best songs released, as singles, from 2000 to 2013. We didn’t get overly technical about what “best” meant, though we did urge listmakers to spread the wealth among genres and artists, not just pick 24 Interpol tracks and “Gangnam Style.”
We divided the 13-year pool into four regions: 2000-03, 2004-07, 2008-10, and 2011-13. After a few rounds of voting, we whittled the hundreds of songs down to 64, with 16 in each region. That’s where the magic happened, so to speak. Songs were then seeded and pitted against one another.
Here’s where you ask, “What were the criteria by which you assigned seeds?” Songs were pitted against one another to elicit the maximum amount of frustration, passion, and debate. Songs from slightly more obscure, niche genres (like, say, Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”) tended to get lower seeds, while the four no. 1 seeds had the most across-the-board support.
The matchups, to me, are the most fun thing about this whole endeavor. People make lists, contextualize, and celebrate the best songs of the day, week, year, and decade all the time. We didn’t just want to ask if Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” was one of the best songs of the past 13 years because most of us already knew it was. What we wanted to know is how people feel about “Teenage Dream” when it’s facing off against what is arguably its equal in ecstatic pop terms: Phoenix’s “1901.” (PS: the “1901″ vs. “Lisztomania” debate was about as hostile and cantankerous as any office debate I have ever witnessed during my time here.) (PPS: “Lisztomania” is better, but whatever.)
This head-to-head system has presented us with an assortment of tough choices:
• Two anthems of New York City swagger (The Strokes’ “Last Nite” vs. Jay Z’s “99 Problems”)
• The night out (Usher’s “Yeah”) and the morning-after game (LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”)
• Two songs that perfectly capture falling in (Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”) and out (Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”) of love
• The battle of stadium-size sexual longing (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” vs. Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”)
• Britney (“Toxic”) vs. Justin (“Cry Me a River”) (a song about Britney, no less)
• The Super Bowl of Smooth: Miguel (“Adorn”) vs. Daft Punk (“Get Lucky”)
I think “Dancing on My Own” could beat “Rolling in the Deep” in the first round; I think “Party in the U.S.A.,” an 8-seed, could win the whole thing. But really, this tournament isn’t as much about who wins as about the process of getting there. It’s about the journey, man. When I was in high school in the mid-’90s, genres were behind firewalls. It was hip-hop heads vs. punks vs. the depressed kids with older siblings who introduced them to Joy Division and the Cure. The only people who seemed to leave high school unscathed by the music-fandom wars were the ones who owned only one CD. You probably roomed with one of these people and their copy of Bob Marley’s Legend during your freshman year. They are probably still incredibly well-adjusted people.
But over the past 15 years or so, that has changed. Music is a lot more porous; the lines are, ahem, blurred. Taylor Swift performs with the guy from Jimmy Eat World and Kanye West regularly collaborates with Justin Vernon; Jay Z makes songs that sound like rock, Kelly Clarkson makes songs that sound like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and an indie rock band like Arcade Fire make wide-screen rock as epic as U2. Music communicates better with itself now. What I like about this bracket is that the whole thing is an infuriating but illuminating process, one that pits apples against apples, but also apples against papayas and apples against toasters. The key isn’t who wins, it’s the debate that it generates, the anger and despair and passion it provokes.
This bracket, hopefully, will ask questions. Not just “What’s the best song?” but “How do these songs relate to one another? How does someone who likes ‘Ignition’ feel about ‘Ante Up’?”
On second thought, don’t answer that last one.