As a concession to a vile, contemptible decade marked by commerce over reason, we pleaded to our editors at the Village Voice to let us publish the No. 1 entry as one of those annoying listicles that’s also a photo gallery that you have to click through over and over again–but they refused. (Good thing we’re not getting paid by the pageview.) But if there’s one thing we learned this decade, it’s that the people still love lists–so let’s put forth our reasons for deciding that the 2002 cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton is the worst song to come out of a decade filled with some of the most despicable examples of music inflicted on the world’s hearing persons.
1. In a decade devoid of ideas, bad covers spread like a particularly noxious kudzu
There was no better way to gauge the cultural bankruptcy of the past 10 years than to survey the landscape of so-called “ideas” consisting of little more than brazen attempts to capitalize on already-marketed brands. A zombiefied version of Pride and Prejudice? That book report will bring home an A-plus. Turning the funny-page staple Marmaduke into a full-length “boy-meets-girl story, a coming-of-age and cautionary tale”? Well, it worked for Garfield. A movie based on fucking Candy Land? Hey, everyone loved that game as a kid–especially the dumb kids! Pop music was no stranger to this phenomenon; the ever-deepening crisis of revenue saddling its attendant industry only made the remake frenzy seem more desperate.
Even in the innocent days before American Idol embarked on a yearly Bataan Death March through the set lists of this nation’s wedding bands, the music business was digging through the recycle bins, reusing any old track that had even the slightest Q rating. In 2001, you had Alien Ant Farm moonwalking all over “Smooth Criminal,” Smash Mouth board-shorting the Monkees for the Shrek soundtrack, and a Christina Aguilera-led battalion of pop tartlets slutting it up to the strains of “Lady Marmalade.” 2002’s exhumations included DJ Sammy’s version of the Bryan Adams prom chestnut “Heaven,” Mario’s curiously atonal rework of “Just A Friend,” and Eminem making another one of his super-unfortunate Serious Artist Statements in concert with the chorus of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”
In 2002, “Big Yellow Taxi” was pre-lubed and yearning for a nation whose nostalgia muscles were so atrophied they couldn’t comprehend much more than the “hey, this pop culture reference exists”-style comedy of Scary Movie 2. It was served on a silver platter lined with Starbucks gift cards, a shiny new/old plaything for a populace so unwilling to accept anything remotely new that the decade’s 20 highest-grossing movies were 95% sequels and remakes. By the end of 2009, Flo Rida and his ilk were able to reach the top of the pop charts simply by scraping the bottom of the pop barrel and adding an 808. We as a culture are pretty much one second away from will.i.am’s chart-topping “Mambo #6.”
When “Big Yellow Taxi” appeared, it wasn’t because Counting Crows didn’t have any ideas. (Though it wouldn’t be too surprising if Adam Duritz’s pea-sized brain was 85% dreadlocks, 10% water, and 5% actress phone numbers.) “Big Yellow Taxi” exists because the same nation that re-elected President Bush and demanded a sequel to Beverly Hills Chihuahua practically pisses their sweatpants at the idea of a modicum of change. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a song that didn’t need to be remade the first seven times, but Counting Crows figured it was easier to record it than rob a bank. It’s Alvin & The Chimpmunks without CGI and shit-eating–except in the case of “Big Yellow Taxi,” the CGI is the glossy purr of Vanessa Carlton, and the shit-eating happens whenever we have to hear this song at the dentist or at Walgreens or inside a dingy Guantanamo Bay cell.
To make matters worse, the version of “Taxi” that reached the charts is a remake of a remake–which is so meta it makes our heads spin. (You can substitute “such a dogshit stupid idea” for “so meta” in the previous sentence, if you’re so inclined.) “Big Yellow Taxi” was initially a hidden track on the Crows’ 2002 album Hard Candy, an album with a title that broke truth-in-advertising statutes at least twice. We like to think that whoever was putting together the soundtrack for the Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant romcom Two Weeks Notice had Hard Candy on in the background after a particularly stressful meeting where she was told that the flick needed to be “punched up” with a song that was sorta-recognizable, but also not, you know, like, old. “Taxi” probably hit her when she was lost in a panic about having to get in touch with Smash Mouth’s people for the 75th time that year.
2. Duritz completely misses the point of the song
Homeboy, not sure if you noticed, but “Big Yellow Taxi” is a song made for 10th graders to feel like they’re embracing something deep and spiritual and organic. And we’re talking 10th graders in the 1970s, so they didn’t have The Simpsons and Wikipedia and sexting-equipped phones. Who knows how a grown dude who went to four colleges missed the point of a Joni Mitchell song, although it might have something to do with the way you gender-flipped the lyrics so that you didn’t have to sing about being troubled by the departure of an old man. A lyrical shift that also, it should be noted, resulted in the words “swing” and “away” being awkwardly rhymed through the power of your not-at-all-convincing drawl. (Not to mention: Who hears a screen door swing? Someone who’s as against WD-40 as he is against DDT?)
Let us speak right into whichever of Duritz’s ears doesn’t have a cockily tipped wool hat over it. Adam, we don’t know if you misunderstood the song’s anti-globalization, anti-industrialization, anti-corporation message, or just chose to ignore it so you could get free Frappucinos for life. But we’re gonna hip you to a harsh reality. Seriously, you know the line about how they “paved paradise and put up a parking lot?” Like how they replaced something beautiful with something cold and heartless and commercial? That’s you. You’re the parking lot, motherfucker. You drove your shitty steamroller over something everyone loved so you could pander your sensitive pussyhound whine to people waiting in line at the Carl’s Jr. They paved Nirvana and put up a Counting Crow. Argh!
3. Why is Vanessa Carlton there again?
In 2002, Counting Crows had the slightly moldy stench of Courteney Cox and mushroom-induced Lollapalooza back tattoos around them, making record-company types wonder if they were a little bit too… ’90s to convincingly pull off a big new-millennium hit. Sure, the song itself was way past the midlife crisis point, and the movie to which the song was going to be attached clung to rom-com cliches so old that they might as well have called it You’ve Got Morse. But this is Hollywood! Age is yucky!
Luckily for everyone, the Long Island piano lass Vanessa Carlton was on the rise, and apparently available for an hour or two of studio time. Carlton’s career is almost as much an afterthought as her appearance, an integral part of the any-girl-with-a-piano-boom of 2001 (known in the industry as Y2Keys). Fuck us if her album Be Not Nobody didn’t even have a shitty cover of its own (the whitest version of “Paint It Black” ever) and album art that looked like something Blackmore’s Night found at the Ren Faire next to the giant turkey legs.
Anyway, it seemed like Vanessa had about enough time to peek her head into the studio and screech out enough saccharine, McDonald’s-foreshadowing “ooohhh, bop-bop-bop”s to justify being tacked on to the song’s credit list. Carlton’s presence in the song was the Hot AC equivalent of that particular moment’s common practice of adding Ja Rule to a female-fronted R & B track–but at least Ja Rule would get a verse or two in which to assert his presence. Carlton is so far removed from the proceedings that she’s forced to exist in a parallel universe from the band during the song’s attendant–and, of course, cab-filled–video. And it probably goes without saying that giving her a verse might have spared us the awkwardly “no homo” lyric change noted earlier.
Although it probably wouldn’t have, since Duritz likely would have wanted to keep the “deep” lyric for himself.
4. The song just fucking sucks
Producer-for-hire Steve Lillywhite transforms Mitchell’s crisp folk tune into a ropy mush of “groove,” a trip-hoppish drum loop that sounds like airport restaurants. Self-important synthestra flourishes, with Duritz coming in a measure or two too early, then over-enunciating every lyric. His nerdball pronunciation makes us face the ugly reality that “They took all the trees/Put ’em in a tree museum” is actually kind of a shitty lyric–especially since he takes the “museum/see ’em” rhyme and replaces it with the leagues-more-awkward “museum/see them.” The original’s neat 2:16 run time is extended to an excruciating 3:46–almost double the original’s length–perhaps because of the need to squeeze in Carlton and Duritz’s “dueling egos” outro, in which she does her best cooing sex kitten impersonation and he wipes up some of the da-la-la-la-la scats he left on the floor during the “Mr. Jones” session. Joni laughs at the end of he original because it’s fun; Duritz gives off a dour, serious vibe like Al Gore trolling for post-lecture vag. It’s like the whole song emanates from his soul patch.
5. DDT was banned in 1972
Hey, Adam? You were 8. Vanessa wasn’t even born yet. You’re a dickhead.
50. brokeNCYDE, “Bree Bree”
49. LL Cool J feat. Jennifer Lopez, “Control Myself”
48. The Moldy Peaches, “Who’s Got The Crack”
47. Akon, “Sorry, Blame It On Me”
46. Dynamite Hack, “Boyz-N-The-Hood”
45. James Blunt, “You’re Beautiful”
44. Aaron Carter, “America A O”
43. Basshunter, “Please Don’t Go”
42. 3 Doors Down, “Kryptonite”
41. Vanessa Hudgens, “Sneakernight”
40. Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and the Wu-Tang Clan, “For Heaven’s Sake 2000”
39. Aubrey O’Day feat. Roscoe Umali, “Never Fallin'”
38. Say Anything, “Got Your Money”
37. Satellite Party feat. Jim Morrison, “Woman In The Window”
36. Lady Sovereign, “Food Play”
35. Hampton The Hamster, “The Hampsterdance Song”
34. Happy Mondays, “Jelly Bean”
33. Heidi Montag, “Higher”
32. Smash Mouth, “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”
31. 50 Cent, “Amusement Park”
30. Swizz Beatz with Ja Rule and Metallica, “We Did It Again”
29. John Mayer, “Your Body Is A Wonderland”
28. Xiu Xiu, “Support Our Troops OH (Black Angels OH)”
27. Kelly Osbourne and Ozzy Osbourne, “Changes”
26. Beastie Boys, “In A World Gone Mad”
25. Weezer, “Heart Songs”
24. Gummibar, “I Am Your Gummy Bear (The Gummy Bear Song)”
23. Santana feat. Chad Kroeger, “Into The Night”
22. The Notorious B.I.G. ft. Bob Marley, “Hold Ya Head”
21. Crazy Frog, “Last Christmas”
20. Gym Class Heroes, “Taxi Driver”
19. Nickelback, “Something In Your Mouth”
18. Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)”
17. Simple Plan, “Perfect”
16. William Hung, “O Come All Ye Faithful”
15. Hinder, “Born To Be Wild”
14. Korn, “Ya’ll Want A Single?”
13. Sugababes Vs. Girls Aloud, “Walk This Way”
12. Disturbed, “Land of Confusion”
11. Darryl Worley, “Have You Forgotten?”
10. Fieldy’s Dreams, “Baby Hugh Hef”
9. Ashlee Simpson, “La La”
8. Limp Bizkit and Johnny Rzeznik, “Wish You Were Here”
7. Nicole Scherzinger, “Puakenikeni”
6. Hot Action Cop, “Fever For The Flava”
5. Alvin & The Chipmunks, “Get Munk’d”
4. Blue October, “Jump Rope”
3. Tila Tequila, “I Love U”
2. Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, “What’s Goin’ On (Fred Durst’s Reality Check Mix)”
1. Counting Crows ft. Vanessa Carlton, “Big Yellow Taxi”
50 – 31 were originally published on Idolator.com