James Murphy

About a week and a half ago, the sports-and-culture website Grantland crowned OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” the “Best Song of the Millennium,” an accolade awarded just before the tenth anniversary of the song’s release this past Monday. This was the end result of a bracket that ran from August 22 to August 30, in which tens of thousands of people voted for their favorites, and — as we tend to do on the internet — gnashed their teeth, grew incredulous, and got all emotional about whatever song from whichever formative personal experience didn’t make it. Whenever these sorts of things come around, they’re inherently a bit ridiculous — as those involved in the creating usually acknowledge, even if those involved in the reading get a little carried away. But because of that way in which we can intellectually analyze music but also have the most visceral, ineffable reactions and connections to it (in a way, I’d argue, that just does not occur for movies, TV, etc.), people care about lists. They react.

The “Best Song Of The Millennium poll was delivered with a wink — the subtitle for this particular bracket admitted it was “totally arbitrary, completely ridiculous, [and] utterly infuriating.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. These lists or brackets or whatever teach us things. They tell us about how people make the associations they do, how others experience music, and the world at large. Following the results of this poll, I thought about how I have grown up in an era during which we seem ever more fixated on assigning one thing that hallowed status of single-handedly defining or encapsulating a time and a generation just as the task becomes increasingly problematic. I thought about LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” but we’ll get to that.

“The word of the decade was ’shuffle,’” Jarvis Cocker told Rolling Stone for their retrospective on the first ten years of the millennium. That observation’s straightforward enough, almost quaint when talking about music alone — that’s a decade that saw the sudden, shuddering pains of a record industry and a gradual drift from the idea of a hegemonic music narrative as illegal downloads and iTunes and Spotify began rearranging how we perceived and accessed music. In a larger sense, though, shuffle is how we consume pop culture in general; shuffle is how we now live our lives. People now have access to pretty much anything they want, whenever they want. Entertainment manifests in people’s lives in new ways, becoming entirely randomized and personalized. A person’s anecdote for why a particular song is important to them becomes all the more precious now that they might be having that experience in a vacuum.

This is that now-classic double bind of the internet. It brings you further from and closer to everyone else at the same time, and you’re supposed to love it for both of these qualities. With the digital free-for-all of the ’00s, generational experience is a lot more fragmented and varied. To a certain extent, that was always more true than we might believe — people like to talk about the old monoculture a lot now, and some people like to argue that there was never such a thing, that this was just the master narrative the media ascribed to a certain era. But it was real in certain ways and moments; the Beatles wielded the kind of cultural significance and universality that no single artist could replicate today. We all experience vastly different realms of pop music at different times in our lives now. Any music fan living during the ’00s — whether they were coming of age then or simply existing — has had the ability to experience everything at once. You no longer need to rely on a well-stocked local record store or that one good radio station in town to explore an artist for the first time. You can just YouTube anything you want regardless of era, style, or how popular or niche it was.

Taking all that into account, when you’re trying to define the so-called Best Song Of The Millennium, what’s the criteria for choosing? Is it even possible today to sum up ten or thirteen years in a list of 64 songs, let alone a single one? A lot of people seemed to hold a fervent belief that R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” could (and deserved to) be named the Best Song Of The Millennium; I, on the other hand, experienced that song through a Chappelle’s Show skit, and otherwise spent 2003 reading about and listening to grunge bands online. This is the sort of landscape in which even the biggest narratives are looser strands than they used to be. In that context, “Hey Ya!” is an agreeable result — a great pop single that was ubiquitous, even if it didn’t capture what it felt like to live through the ’00s in the same way as Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” or OutKast’s “B.O.B.,” for that matter.

LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” was on Grantland’s bracket. It got easily shut out in the first round by Usher’s “Yeah!” by a score of 41,491 votes to 17,322 votes. Yet “All My Friends” might be the best candidate out there for capturing the sensations of 21st century life, whether it’s the specific generational experience of Millennials, or the broader ways we experience culture. Many great pops singles are built up from a paradox, immediately emotive but smart enough to warrant revisiting for years to come, the kinds of songs that can be sad or happy depending on how you approach them. Since 2000, though, being able to contain those paradoxes is a skill that goes beyond making a song a memorable or continually rewarding. It’s what makes a song like “All My Friends” feel as if it has its finger firmly on the pulse of the times, like its whole being is a perfect representation of an era characterized by its fragmentation, and thus by endless paradoxes we live alongside daily.

James Murphy, as both a co-founder of DFA and frontman of LCD, is one of the most important artists the ’00s gave us for how well he traversed all this. By creating a record label whose express purpose was to mash-up seemingly irreconcilable genres (Punk v Dance; “Us v Them”), Murphy was one of the individuals you can directly credit with some of the genre blurring that has come to define how a lot of people are making music, and how a lot of people are writing about music. People readily discuss Murphy as a savvy songwriter who hasn’t entirely dispensed with his DJ roots, characterizing his catalog more as a jukebox filtered through his very personalized Soundsystem than a band with its own identity. Which is true — there’s Davids Bowie & Byrne, Brian Eno, post-punk, art-rock, and techno all present and traceable within his music. And of course Low and Remain In Light had their own mash-up behavior going on, so fast-forward a few decades and an artist like Murphy starts to seem — to quote the new Arcade Fire song he produced — a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Because of and in spite of that, there’s also no other band that sounds quite like LCD Soundsystem.

As an artist, LCD Soundsystem seemed to perfectly contain enough seeming contradictions as to be a sonic distillation of the times, a representation of what occurs when all the different strands crash together, and they seem to create something new, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it yet. “All My Friends” is their greatest achievement: arguably their most recognizable song, containing all of the various complexities that could be attributed to the band at one point or another, while also being an even further distilled version of the times. It’s hard to say whether it’s supposed to be happy or sad, naïve or disillusioned. Whether it’s supposed to make you feel twenty again or forty before your time. Maybe both, and maybe it carries all the corresponding years in between with it. So once you’ve weighed it down with everything it might be, or is supposed to be, does it still move? Can it?

If “Losing My Edge” was a rush and a push of an opening salvo, “All My Friends” completes the mission statement, refines and clarifies the manifesto. It’s one 7-minute summation of the experience of the millennium, the sense of wanting everything all at once, having access to everything all at once, and ultimately not feeling so much freed as paralyzed at the inescapable weight that comes with carrying all that with you. On one hand all our immediate access is great, but it also denies us a collective experience in the same way as older generations. So it produces nostalgia: for simpler times, or ’80s music, or vague notions of a past that seems easy to wrap your arms around. And it produces a detachment, a sense that there’s this big messy culture out there that you can try to touch but ultimately feels impossible to understand in its entirety. That’s why a band like LCD Soundsystem, and a song like “All My Friends,” capture that zeitgeist-y feeling: they sound singular, but contain the sorts of multitudes required to define an era during which we live with the pop of every era at the same time.

“All My Friends” is about aging, feeling disconnected, simultaneously reckoning with and missing your past. James Murphy turned 37 the year it was released, and it should appeal to people in their 30s. And yet Murphy’s impressionistic verses evoke more widespread experiences than chronologically approaching middle age. This millennium was kicked off with 9/11, and as it progressed we became able to carry entire decades of pop culture and history in our pockets. All of this ages us before our time, whether these were the years in which we grew up, or whether these were the years where we ourselves had children.”You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan/ And the next five years trying to be with your friends again,” Murphy sings. That could be about the struggles of aging and figuring yourself out, but it could also be about the seeming impossibility of navigating the people and culture around you when 2010 suggests 2001, 1987, 1964, and 1999 as much as it suggests itself.

It’s too overwhelming to face that all at once. Is it then any wonder that perhaps the two defining behaviors of our era have become nostalgia and ironic detachment, that we prefer our world through the perfectly faded haze of Instagram or the performative quips of Twitter? Even if you’d argue that the last thirteen years have been primarily characterized by a push and pull between irony and earnestness, it all stems from a sense of disassociation from our time and place — we intentionally say things we don’t mean so we don’t have to bare ourselves to all the noise that comes with infinite digital voices, or we overcompensate and overshare as a proposed salve to the supposedly corrosive effects of ironic living. Murphy buried some of the most earnest pop songs of the last ten years under a veneer of ironic wit. “All My Friends” taps into that same disassociation. It’s like, to paraphrase an old Don Draper quote, watching your life, knowing it’s right there, and futilely trying to break into it. That’s the engine behind “All My Friends,” behind its oscillation between sentimentality and one-liners. Thanks to the speed and abstractions through which we live our lives in the new millennium, you no longer need to be 37 to feel that way.

As there’s a wistfulness hanging over “All My Friends,” there’s something bittersweet undercutting that Grantland bracket, and the entire franchise of list-making, of trying to sum up the feeling of being alive in a particular time. We are so aware of so many things now that we need to organize our experience by numbered points or rankings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still value in it all. In a broad sense, this impulse to compartmentalize is a product of the speed of modern times. But it’s also a product of fractured times. By putting history into all these bite-sized chunks, we make the big shaggy thing digestible, but we also see the overwhelming expanse that is compression after compression, retrospective after retrospective, each successive one seeking to define your life experience in some fashion. They’re pleasurable, but they’re also daunting, making us acutely aware of all that human experience we can just barely touch.

Now, in this millennium, the idea of universal musical experience is a thing of nostalgia itself; the idea of there ever being a generation- or era-defining song again seems impossible. Don’t get me wrong: multiplicity is great. Nobody should bemoan all the options we have at our fingertips in 2013. But it’s one extreme we’ve tumbled into, and we haven’t entirely adjusted yet. Look at these most recent VMAs. We craft our snarky-but-I-don’t-care-enough-to-even-hate-them 140-character denunciations of their intrinsic meaninglessness, and then we spend a week talking, and writing think pieces. We still crave our universal experiences, to have monolithic markers with which to relate to those around us, to see all our friends tonight.

Part of living in this millennium means accepting all the competing informational and experiential detritus flying at you 24/7. It means not being paralyzed by all that has come before you waging war within you, but to tap into the juxtapositions and the dissonances and the confusions, and do something with it. It means believing for six years that “All My Friends” is the greatest song of your youth, the song that says everything there is to say about living today, but also accepting there’s only a measly 17,321 others playing on your team against Usher. It means accepting that a song you deem generation-defining might be just that, but explicitly because it exposes how impossible such a title is anymore.

So, then, in celebration of paradoxes. “All My Friends” is happy and it’s sad. It’s naïve, but also disillusioned. It can make you feel twenty again. It makes you feel forty before your time. It makes you feel twenty and forty at once. It spirals into drug-fueled escapism, and it spirals into nostalgia. It’s mature. It’s the sound of sobering up. It’s the song you play as the party peaks. It’s the song you put on headphones when you walk home in the early hours of the morning, and some nights you triumphantly reminisce about all the experiences of your life, but maybe the edges are haunted and just as you step up to your front door and Murphy’s last refrain echoes “If I could see all my friends tonight” you also know you’re searching, too, that you feel all the dejection and isolation that’ve been as much a part of these last thirteen years as a new online version of community, or as much as anything else. It’s a song about 1987 and 1997 and 2007 and probably 2017. Even weighed down by all of this, it still moves. And because we have no other option, because this is our new millennium life: We still move, too.

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[photo by Matt Biddulph]

Comments (58)
  1. eh. i still like someone great better.

  2. I haven’t read the above article quite yet, but I did take a look at the mentioned Best Song of the Millenium list. “Hot In Herre” won out against “Idioteque”… haha. People are funny.

  3. Literally nailed it.

  4. This song still gives me chills every time I listen to it. There’s something indefinable in the way it’s constructed, the way it builds, and the way it’s delivered that just flattens me.

  5. Reading the comments section for those bracket recaps was always a blast, including the hordes of Killers fans who came out of the woodwork after one of Grantland’s writers referred to the inclusion of “Mr. Brightside” as “throwing a bone to the emo-crowd”.

    I thought it was a fun but fundamentally flawed exercise with great artwork (seriously the drawings of the artists were great, I want the M83 one), with a bracket chosen by culture writers biased towards certain kinds of music (or in Rembert’s case, anything from Atlanta). My biggest problem wasn’t with the inclusion or not inclusion of a particular song (though how “Float On” didn’t make the 64 song list is a mystery to me, I recall it being quite a hit) but with the writers. Grantland has a really good and dedicated music writer in Steven Hyden, not including him in Grantland’s biggest music-related event of the year seemed like a missed opportunity.

    Oh, and “Int’l Players Anthem” was robbed.

  6. I vote Runaway for best song of the millennium.

  7. great article Ryan!

  8. This is a really remarkable article. It put into words a lot of the vague feelings I get so often when I think about the state of modern music. I was moved.

  9. …its the song that closed out my wedding reception and sent me into the streets of chicago singing while drunk marching to a bar with my friends. its the song that brought a tear to my eye while at the final show with my friends. its the song I will probably play at the 1st birthday of some weird future child and will be the last song played at my funeral for the few friends left living. It isn’t a song, its a f*ckin behemoth summation of life & culture.

  10. That dense copy is like a club beating down the simple appreciation of a song.

  11. I understand this article is more so about “All My Friends” rather than the results of Grantland’s poll, but it’s probably worth noting that Grantland’s readership is probably not that type who you’d expect to pick LCD Soundsystem as their song of their millennium. It’s a popular website, but when I think Grantland, I think of writers and readers who are mostly white collar white males in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s finally having an online resource to keep them up to speed with all of the “fun” things in life they used to have more time to enjoy before a career and having children hit in sports, the Internet, pop culture and music. “All My Friends” can easily soundtrack all of that and represent the “Best Song of the Millennium,” but for who is this “Best Song” saying something about? In this case, James Murphy’s fluorescent epic only says something about a fraction of Grantland’s readers (probably its youngest) while “Hey Ya!” hip, sports-minded pomp fittingly sums up the whole. Then again, if you were to ask a group of less cultured party mongers who entered the work force in the mid-2000s what the Best Song of the Millennium is, they might just greet you with Black Eye Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started.”

    • “but when I think Grantland, I think of writers and readers who are mostly white collar white males in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s finally having an online resource to keep them up to speed with all of the “fun” things in life they used to have more time to enjoy before a career and having children hit in sports, the Internet, pop culture and music. ” – you just described a lot of LCD Soundsystem fans. You’d be surprised at how many people who fit your description relate to a lot of the stuff James Murphy sings about.

      • “‘All My Friends’ can easily soundtrack all of that and represent the ‘Best Song of the Millennium,’ but for who is this “Best Song” saying something about? In this case, James Murphy’s fluorescent epic only says something about a fraction of Grantland’s readers.” — you just didn’t finish reading the rest of what I wrote to see I made the point you stated above :)

      • True, but I’d say the majority of people who come to Grantland for Bill Barnwell’s NFL recaps don’t even know who LCD Soundsystem is.

  12. Thanks for a piece on one of my favourite songs, but could I please get a credit and link for use of this Creative Commons licensed photo?

    Matt Biddulph — http://www.flickr.com/photos/51035707449@N01/4977783565

  13. “Prayer To God” for song of the millenium :)

  14. “It’s the song you play as the party peaks.”

    I highly recommend “All My Friends” as a closing track for everyone’s birthday party.

    In fact, I’d be cool if people sang me “All My Friends” instead of “Happy Birthday” from here on out.

  15. My favourite song of all time. I get the same goosebumps every time I hear it as I did the first time.

  16. It’s articles like this that keep me coming back here. Well done, Ryan. This certainly isn’t an easy subject to tackle, and it really makes you think.

    That being said, the point of these lists and articles, to me, is just to prove that music is all relative. Steven Hyden actually did a great job wrapping it up on Grantland. Sure, “All My Friends” will conjure up all the aforementioned feelings and opinions for us, but aren’t there plenty of songs out there about “1987 and 1997 and 2007 and probably 2017″? I guess what I’m trying to say is, why “All My Friends” (which, for the record, is one of my favorite songs ever)? Perhaps I need to read the article a few more times, as admittedly I might be missing a point, but again, isn’t this whole argument relative?

  17. Careful… we’re approaching the tipping point. This song is ALMOST overrated.

    • Seriously though… I love this song. But it is what it is… the grievances of an aging hipster… and I think it’s presumptuous to claim it applies to life outside of the experiences of an aging, middle-to-upper class white guy. It’s a great song, and definitely hits home to me. I’m just sick of hearing how it’s the best song ever when I can name several deeper songs off the top of my head.

  18. I love All My Friends, but I have no qualms with Hey Ya! as song of the 00s (though a ‘song of the millenium’ contest in 2013 is ridiculous for what should be obvious reasons)

  19. The last paragrapht totally nailed what this songs makes you feel. Great article.

  20. Hey Ya! certainly deserves the top spot.

    • I love Hey Ya! to the death (love it more than All My Friends actually), but I don’t know if I’d pick it as Best Song Of The Millennium. It’s quite representative for sure, but I don’t know if it would be the right choice.

      There a few hip-hop songs that feel might deserve a bit more, like 99 Problems, B.O.B., Runaway, One Mic, Grindin’, Get Ur Freak On… and that’s staying within hits only.

  21. I seriously do not get (and never got) all of the hype about LCD Soundsystem. It’s halfway decent dance pop.

  22. This was a superb essay & really, indicative of the exceptional quality of music writing Sterogum is delivering on a regular basis. I’ll admit: it’s the only song recorded since 2000 that is capable (given the right environment) of making me cry. And it’s made me cry, in public, more times than I can count.

    Hands down, best song of the millennium. I can’t even name a distant second from the Grantland list.

  23. How could this song be the sound of the millenium? I’ve never even heard of it until now. It sounds like fountains of wayne’s “Radiation Vibes”

    • Reminded me of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ by U2 (or the PSB cover, which I prefer). Thought the song was ok, but…no. Maybe u had 2 be there.

  24. For what it’s worth, “All My Friends” would be on my funeral mix if I died tomorrow (and for some reason had time to make a funeral mix).

    Nice write-up, though I disagree (to a point) the argument that huge cultural experiences don’t happen anymore. Songs like “Hey Ya!” or, more recently, “Call Me Maybe” still have the power to transcend our niche culture and define ages and experiences for millions of people – perhaps even *more* people than ever, what with the global availability of technology that provides them. I say “to a point” only because I think that these experiences are generally short-lived and, as a result, much more vapid then they were before the last ten years sped everything up to an untenable speed. Similarly, I agree with your point that nostalgia and irony are defining characteristics of our age, but more because the high-speed at which things occur require you to be detached (lest the thing you express real feelings for be suddenly outdated) and nostalgaic (because it’s the only way to express real feelings for something that IS outdated without being deemed so yourself).

  25. There were some nice upsets on that Grantland list, at least. For example, “1901″ beat “Teenage Dream,” and “Midnight City” defeated “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Weird that they seeded “Paper Planes” as low as a thirteen, though. I’m not surprised at all that it beat out “My Love.”

    As for “All My Friends,” I’ve never been able to get really into it, despite how much I’ve tried. It’s certainly a lyrically potent song, but I find it to be more depressing than it is enjoyable to listen to. Even from 2007 alone, “All I Need” or “Archangel” would be more ideal choices for me. If it’s a matter of identification, then perhaps I simply gravitate more towards songs that appeal to isolation and one-on-one intimacy than to a song like “All My Friends,” which seems to invoke a nostalgia for community–a nostalgia that I’ve never had (OK, seldom had). The line “If I could see all my friends tonight” just has less resonance for me than Radiohead’s simple “You are all I need,” or the hyper-desperation of Burial’s “Holding you–loving you–kissing you.” I realize I’m in the minority here, so I will stoically await any downvotes that might come my way.

  26. ‘Hey Ya!’ is the absolute right choice, because it is the nexus of all music of the era. It married the up surge of “Indie” (via the O.C.), with the 2000′s cultural hegemony of “urban”.

  27. I respect the LCD Soundsystem decision, but I have to say – Critically, it’s gotta be a Radiohead song. Something like “15 Step,” “House of Cards,” or “Lotus Flower.”

    Personally speaking – Gillian Welch’s “Hard Times” isn’t particularly relevant to this era, but it is exceptionally beautiful and a perfect composition. Beach House’s “Silver Soul” is more relevant (lyrically), definitely a potential contender. “Wake Up” or “We Used to Wait” by Arcade Fire hit home hard in the lyrical department, and U2′s “Peace on Earth” might work thematically.

    I’m also going to be extra-bold and suggest a Tame Impala song, like “Mind Mischief” or “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” That second album is immediately timeless and speaks lyrically of, well.. Lonerism, or the idea of being isolated, despite company or technology or anything else. Highly relatable, and especially “FLWOGB” is a stroke of musical genius.

  28. I’m really not a huge LCD fan – I like songs here and there but I don’t worship Murphy like a lot of music critics and such tend to. That said, “All my Friends” is definitely the best song of the millennium thus far, it really is as good as everyone’s said. Still gets me every time I hear it.

    I like the above props to Tame Impala, too – Lonerism really is a monster album and “Mind Mischief” would definitely have a shot at my top ten. Speaking of, I’m surprised there weren’t a bunch of lists above me while this thread was still popping.

    My top personal pics, no order after the first:

    All of My Friends
    Do You Realize?
    Time to Pretend
    Ignition (Remix)
    Golden (My Morning Jacket…here too, nods to Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt.2 & Mahgeetah)
    The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
    Hoist That Rag (Tom Waits)
    B.O.B. (also, Hey Ya!)
    Hard to Explain (also, Someday)
    99 Problems
    Mind Mischief
    7 Nation Army

    That’s 12, plus probably a few I forgot and a few I talked myself out of listing because they’d probably rank below all of the above (Letter From an Occupant, Walk Like a Giant, Better Living Through Chemistry)

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