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.
From our current vantage point, 2004 was a landmark year if only for its contribution to the pre-history of Internet memes, thanks to the Moldovan pop group O-Zone's "Dragostea Din Tei" -- better known, of course, as the soundtrack to the "Numa Numa Dance" video. (What happened next may surprise you!) All kidding aside, it was a landmark year for dancing in general. Conventional wisdom pinpoints the beginning of the contemporary EDM boom at Daft Punk's 2006 performance at Coachella, but the rap and R&B hits of 2004 were even more prescient of the ways that Euro-trance and urban radio would eventually collide: It's all right there in Usher's "Yeah," where rave stabs slash like bolts of lightning through shouted refrains that look now like the precursors to present-day "ringtone rap."
Skittering R&B beats, slouchy Caribbean rhythms and slinky post-junglism were the order of the day, variously teased out in Britney Spears' "Toxic," Nina Sky's "Move Ya Body," Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" and Kelis' "Milkshake," not to mention Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina," which (thanks in large part to a remix featuring Lil Jon, Pitbull and N.O.R.E.) helped introduce mainstream America to the sound of reggaetón.
Speaking of introductions, there were plenty of life-changing encounters in 2004. Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand and TV on the Radio all released debut albums that would have a huge impact on the sound of indie rock to come, while Modest Mouse achieved the damn-near unthinkable with their major-label debut, nabbing a Billboard Hot 100 hit with "Float On" and a Grammy nomination to boot. And in rap, a certain college dropout stepped out from behind the mixing desk to remind us that "Jesus Walks." In his Pazz & Jop essay, Robert Christgau called Kanye West "as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama"; nine years later, Yeezus would prove the continuing accuracy of that assessment. Jay Z, meanwhile, was reeling off "99 Problems" (of which a Picasso on the wall presumably wasn't one, although he became president of Def Jam Records, assuming a throne that no rapper has toppled yet). And M.I.A. kicked off her long run as pop's prickliest provocateur with her Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape and a deceptively sweet single, "Sunshowers."
Thanks to an assist from Jack White, Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose crossed over all the way to No. 3 on the Pazz & Jop albums poll; at the other end of the spectrum, Big & Rich delved into a gonzo fusion of country, arena rock and rap production values. In between those two poles, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, Gretchen Wilson, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss teased out the tension between roots and 21st-century pop in dynamic ways, complicating the red-blue binary narrative of that contentious election year. Throughout popular music, there was plenty of post-millennium tension in the air: For perhaps the most obvious example, just see U2's stadium-jolting anthem (with a Spanish-language introduction!), "Vertigo." Talk about an appropriate title. We've selected the 50 songs that best represent the year's dizzy heights; listen along with us as we take the plunge.