Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
"Life ain't great now, but it's much improved/ Your album dropping this summer? That sucks for you!" With that one couplet, Bubba Sparxxx's 2001 single "Ugly" unwittingly summed up the state of pop music, and pop culture, as it would appear in the aftermath of that fateful late-summer day. The first eight months of the year had played out as if they were the dog days of the '90s, carefree and relatively prosperous. Partying seemed to be paramount on many artists' minds, from pop (Pink's "Get the Party Started") to R&B (Jagged Edge's "Where the Party At") to the dance-punk underground (Andrew W.K.'s irony-destroying ode to joy, "Party Hard"). Missy Elliott urged listeners to "Get Ur Freak On," Daft Punk stormed the disco with "One More Time" and Basement Jaxx took house music to Carnival with the giddy "Romeo."
And then, suddenly, the mood shifted. Bob Dylan's [Love and Theft], released on September 11 itself, looked almost prescient -- or retrospectively prescient, anyway -- with warnings like, "High water rising, six inches above my head/ Coffins droppin' in the street like balloons made of lead." So, too, did Montgomery Gentry's "Cold One Comin' On" and Radiohead's elegiac "Pyramid Song," both of which took on new meanings as the dust settled. The Soggy Bottom Boys' "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," from the previous year's O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the soundtrack was released on August 23, 2011 -- came to seem almost totemic in its nostalgic appeal. And before the year's end, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" would attempt to articulate the suddenly tricky question of what it meant to be American.
That's all in hindsight, of course, and hindsight also tells us what a gloriously diverse and unpredictable year it was for music, from the White Stripes' stripped-to-the-bone roots rock to Britney Spears' thrillingly futuristic pop, and from Gorillaz's absurdist cartoon art to Sum 41's stalwart pop punk -- not to mention surprise crossover hits from Argentina's Gotan Project and Algeria's Rachid Taha, who eloquently reminded us of the wide world beyond our borders.