While Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" is a well-known template for rock music, very few have managed to follow it well. Three whole decades passed from its 1971 release and no one bested it, not even Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" or Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" or, uh, Live's "Lightning Crashes." It was only in the 2000s that rock bands got their shit together and produced several candidates that lived up to "Stairway." But like the Highlander, there can be only one. Friends, today we're going to discover which of these 00s alt-rock slammers is the millennial successor to this classic rock not-slammer (the live versions are the true gospel).
Now, it's not like we're in an anthem-deficient time in music. The new lighter-wavers are just rap and trap and pop singles, which is great! But the nature of, say, "Black Beatles" is wholly different from a "Stairway" or its imitators, the likes of which we may never see again. These largely straight and white men made these songs because they wanted you to feel their very important feelings, dammit, and they were going to use all the tools in the arsenal of rock to do so. There's a pure, innocent beauty in that kind of obliviousness, and it's that magic we're trying to remember and tediously rank today. Seeing as how sports and competition are the basis of everything now, we're going to do this as a bracket tournament.
So you may ask yourself, "what makes a song a 'Stairway'"? That's a great question, so let's define what a "Stairway" is.
A "Stairway to Heaven" is…
1. Almost always a rock song, typically a ballad
2. Recognizable within the first few seconds
3. Already emotional from the jump, but eventually reaches a point that has all living things weeping openly
While there are definitely many giant, cathartic rock songs from the last decade, very few of them are actually known by regular people, and that ubiquity is what's really needed (i.e. "All My Friends" and other indie classics are not eligible). And yes, this will pool from songs released mainly in the last decade, as this gives the minimum amount of time for nostalgia to ferment into uncritical adoration. Cool? Cool. Let's meet the contenders, divided between American and UK conferences.
As a Canadian, let's go with North America first. Songs are seeded by runtime from longest to shortest.
USA: MATCH 1
KANYE WEST - RUNAWAY VS. MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE - THE BLACK PARADE
With their legendary piano intros and epic structures, these songs are behemoths among the giants of this list. Both Kanye and MCR have a claim for artist of the decade, too. "Black Parade" is emo's crowning moment, but "Runaway" made emo consumable for hypebeasts, which is the real pioneering moment here. Kanye wins!
USA: MATCH 2
GREEN DAY - BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS VS. MAROON 5 - SHE WILL BE LOVED "Boulevard" may have kicked off emo's mainstream dominance in the aughts despite Green Day having nothing to do with the genre, which is some crazy impact. "She Will Be Loved" only just manages to match that by birthing Adam Levine (note how in the video, he's hairless, like an infant) into the larger public consciousness. This battle may seem like a tough call, but in fact, it's quite simple. One song rips off "Wonderwall" and the other was written by Levine, the modern-day Robert Plant. Maroon 5 wins!
USA: MATCH 3
THE KILLERS - MR. BRIGHTSIDE VS. YEAH YEAH YEAHS - MAPS
"Maps" is the one of the few songs to ever have a distinct opening drum riff, akin to those of the late, great John Bonham. This, along with the rest of the band's equally Zeppelin-esque and powerful performances, should make it a shoo-in. Alas, it's up against "Mr. Brightside," which has a much more complex riff that is more desired among the novice guitarists that turn music stores into hellholes of sound every day. The Killers win!
USA: MATCH 4
LINKIN PARK - IN THE END VS. KELLY CLARKSON - SINCE U BEEN GONE
The soundtrack to a thousand AMVs faces off against the soundtrack to the actual lives of people. "Since U Been Gone" is much shorter than "Stairway" but it does that song's quiet-to-loud thing not once but three times in as many minutes, making it numerically superior to Zeppelin's one piddly climax in an eight-minute song. This also makes it better than Linkin Park, who didn't even have the balls that to put a guitar solo on "In the End." You know who actually had the stones to do that? That's right, Kelly did. Kelly Clarkson wins!
Now we move across the pond…
UK: MATCH 1
MUSE - KNIGHTS OF CYDONIA VS. COLDPLAY - FIX YOU
Glad to be in the land of messy-haired dudes singing at the top of their registers. Anyways, "Knights of Cydonia" is possibly the best song ever recorded but it also makes no fucking sense. "Fix You" has the most extreme slow-burn and release structure of any song on this list. It culminates in actual lyrics about crying, while "Knights" ends with a trio of Bellamies screeching about chemtrails. Coldplay wins!
UK: MATCH 2
SNOW PATROL - CHASING CARS VS. FLORENCE + THE MACHINE - DOG DAYS ARE OVER
This one's hard. Who among us isn't reduced to a blubbering mass the second Gary Lightbody's guitar and voice being to lead us on a slow, painful journey to the depths of our hearts and/or wallets? Likewise, Florence Welch's wailing chasm of a voice and her knack for writing fire songs about pagan rituals makes her a prime candidate for the "Stairway" crown. The catch is that "Chasing Cars" is more self-important than "Dog Days," which is what rock 'n' roll is really all about. Snow Patrol wins!
UK: MATCH 3
FRANZ FERDINAND - TAKE ME OUT VS. KEANE - SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW
As good a riff as it is, "Take Me Out" is far too cool and self-aware for this list. Tom Chaplin is so lame, he took a taxi into the goddamn woods for your ungrateful ass. But no, you already left him, and now he weeps into the arms of woodland sprites. Alex Kapranos and his perfectly-curated Soviet kitsch stand no chance. Keane wins!
UK: MATCH 4
GORILLAZ - FEEL GOOD INC. VS. M.I.A. - PAPER PLANES
This division has more songs with rapping in it than the US, the birthplace of rap, which is unsurprising seeing as how the English perfected the form with the genre of grime. Both these songs are flawless, but the fearless Maya Arulpragasam is a bigger rockstar than Damon Albarn, a man who has hidden behind both Graham Coxon's incredible guitar playing in Blur and cartoon apes in Gorillaz to sing his songs. M.I.A. wins!
Let's bring it back to the States and see how they're doing in the semi-finals.
USA SEMIS: MATCH 1
RUNAWAY VS. SHE WILL BE LOVED
'Ye made Adam Levine sing the hook on "Heard 'Em Say," meaning he technically owns him. Kanye wins!
USA SEMIS: MATCH 2
MR. BRIGHTSIDE VS. SINCE U BEEN GONE
What "Brightside" lacks in "Since U Been Gone"'s dynamics it more than makes up for with the lack thereof. It starts at a 10 and reaches a 15 when the whole band kicks in, eventually surpassing human comprehension at the chorus. The world's face when they hear this song is every single one of those "when u nut" memes at the same time. Killers win!
RUNAWAY VS. MR. BRIGHTSIDE
Think of the great matchups in American history. Ali vs. Frazier, Golden State vs. Cleveland, Moonlight vs. La La Land. This fight can be counted among them, and we're not even at the end yet. This is so exciting, guys! One song is a poetic ode to how being an asshole will ruin your life, the other is… the same thing, pretty much. "Runaway" follows the "Stairway" model to the hilt, and also has a verse from Pusha T, who raps like Jimmy Page plays guitar. But alas, "Mr. Brightside" avoids Autotune, which "Runaway" makes extensive use of. Autotune is the sound of music now and its rebirth as an artistic tool will be Kanye's lasting legacy. But it isn't rock 'n' roll and that's all that matters in this town. Which town is that, you ask? Sam's Town, of course. Killers win!
Congrats to the Killers and their ever-changing hair. Now we must figure out who the greatest Brit is. It will most likely be a sad man.
UK SEMIS: MATCH 1
FIX YOU VS. CHASING CARS
Yeesh, these are basically the same band and song, eh? "Chasing Cars" is one of the definitive remains of Grey's Anatomy's wide but often-unanalyzed cultural footprint, having been used in a pivotal scene where the Comedian from Watchmen dies. Not only has "Fix You" been in even more works of media, but it also was played to commemorate the life of Steve Jobs when he died. The ghost of the man who made the thing you're probably reading this on heard "Fix You," said "aight, I'm good" and gave the band phantom props before vanishing into the Thunderbolt-only flash drive his consciousness is stored on. Powerful. Coldplay wins!
UK SEMIS: MATCH 2
SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW VS. PAPER PLANES
"Paper Planes" is an extremely creative tune that still stands as one of the weirder hit singles of the last decade. Weird is not what we want here. We're looking for simple, banal, straight-for-the-gut wuss-rock. No one fits this description better than Keane and this is why they will always be great. Keane wins!
FIX YOU VS. SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW
With pianos, keys, and organs of all kind taking up breathing room in this match, it comes down to guitars to settle the score. "Fix You" features Jonny Buckland tearing all nine circles of Hell a new asshole with his Telecaster, and yet instead of daemon feces, out comes the angelic voice of Chris Martin promising us that everything's not lost. Keane went many years without a guitar player after not bothering to replace their first one and this is why they will always be mediocre. Coldplay wins!
*sigh* Told you it would be a morose guy. Give it up for Coldplay. At last it's come to…
THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN
MR BRIGHTSIDE VS. FIX YOU
Since this is a much tougher contest than what came before, let's break it down, all the way to the base criteria, to learn who will truly walk away with mid-00s alt rock's greatest prize.
RIFFINESS: Both intros provoke that desired "oh God, THIS song" feeling. But "Brightside" is the only one where that initial eye-rolling gives way to elation about the time Brandon Flowers imagines the woman touching the dude's chest. "Fix You" sounds like church, and not even in a really lit way. If one goes further into the core catchiness of each of the central guitar riffs, they'll find that "Brightside" is far more memorable despite nobody being able to hum it without sounding like they're imitating R2-D2. Oh yeah, the opening lines: "When you try your best but you don't succeed" is a classic simp bar, no doubt about it. However, no one's able to talk about doing just fine these days without coming out of their cages first. 1 point to the Killers!
EMOTIONS: Man, what feelings aren't contained within "Brightside?" It's a package of lust, anger, sorrow, and triumph, all wrapped up with a bow and given the magic kiss by a man named Flowers. "Fix You" is just "You are sad, but ooooOOOOH NOW IT'S OKAYYYYY!" This is shit. Also, it's impersonal as all hell. By making "Brightside" first-person, Flowers becomes us and we become him. "If you gaze long enough into the Killers, the Killers also gaze into you." Jesus said that. 1 point to the Killers!
EPIC: A reversal! "Fix You" just plain has "Brightside" against the ropes here. It's 5 minutes long and boy does it make use of that sprawl. The audience has enough time to get used to things before that guitar riff arrives, and then there's a whole back half of the song they have to somehow survive emotionally intact. Coldplay put together a real journey, and the Killers can't hold up with what's still structurally a pop single. The London boys get an extra point for following "Stairway" so nicely. 2 points to Coldplay!
Tie game. But, we're ignoring the biggest question of all and that is…
IS IT ANY FUCKING GOOD?
The problem with "Fix You" is that it's ultimately dishonest. Yes, Chris Martin literally wrote it to comfort a grieving Gwyneth Paltrow, but the song tries so hard to be Important that its craft comes to the forefront. You know you're supposed to find it powerful, you can tell you're supposed to ugly cry at the climax, you can hear the shit-eating grin in Martin's falsetto as he thinks "I'm gonna get these guys good." You can't enjoy "Fix You" without feeling like a fool.
There is no such guilt when it comes to "Brightside." Every second of this song feels like the first of a possible alternate life. This was one of the first songs the Killers wrote together, and their earnest enthusiasm is evident in every 16th-note hi-hat hit, open guitar string, and Flowers' wonderfully unchanging vocal performance. It was good even on the original 2001 demo, so why change it? Flowers truly believes in the soapy words he sings, much like how Robert Plant truly believed in the nonsense of "if there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now" on "Stairway." These songs unite listeners because they're uncalculated and lack the inhibitions of self-awareness. They're only interested in providing a thrilling, memorable, emotional experience.
To take things to their logical conclusion, The Fast and the Furious series as a whole is the "Stairway" of film. This is all besides the point, however. As one emotionally astute Youtube commenter put it, "The one thing that unites every American [is] knowing all the lyrics to Mr. Brightside," and while their comment doesn't matter in the larger scheme of internet discourse, they hit on a universal truth. Suffice to say, if you're unmoved by "Brightside," you don't believe in world peace. Let's finish this. 100 points to the Killers!
"MR. BRIGHTSIDE" IS THE MILLENNIAL "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN"
Glad we got that sorted out so efficiently.
Cover artwork by John Garrison.
All other graphics by Devin Pacholik.
Phil will gladly hear any debates. Follow or slander him on Twitter.