This is our favorite time of the year, when we look back upon the last 365 days of music and evaluate who made the biggest impact in many different areas in 2011. So rather than merely publishing a list of the best songs and a list of the best albums, we’ve compiled a handful of fun features that will keep you reminiscing about the music of 2011 — and hopefully finding some great tunes that you didn’t even know existed — for the entire holiday season and longer.
Sure, we’ve got your regular Top 100 Songs of 2011 list, starting with 25 honorable mentions below. But over the next three weeks we’ll be publishing a handful of others lists, including the Top 25 Cover Songs, the Top 20 Hip-Hop Songs, the Top 15 Instrumentals, the Top 25 Most Fun Songs, the Top 25 Most Danceable Songs, and 50 Songs That Didn’t Make Any Other List but Deserve to Be Heard. All of the lists are mutually exclusive, meaning that if a song appears on one list, it won’t appear on any others. And since we’ve embedded streaming audio for every track, that means there are 285 amazing songs, all from 2011, that we will introduce you to or remind you of over the next few weeks.
As you can see at the top of the page, to avoid publishing an excruciatingly long page, we’ve separated the lists into tabs. The Top 100 Songs of 2011 list can be read in five parts on this set of tabs, and as we add more lists we’ll link to them from the last page. Next week we’ll be posting our staff-wide Top 20 Albums of 2011, along with individual lists from each of our writers and some special features like the 10 Most Disappointing Albums of 2011 and the Best New Artists of 2011, so stay tuned for that too.
Without further ado, here are 25 Honorable Mentions that barely missed our Top 100 Songs of 2011. Enjoy!
-Jordy Kasko, editor
125. Erika Spring – “6 More Weeks”
A tantalizing, sweetly melancholic pop song from the Au Revoir Simone frontwoman. It is the perfect introduction to our lists as it demonstrates our decision to base our lists around pop music and catchy tunes, as well as our decision to include many artists that don’t normally make end-of-the-year lists alongside the predictable choices.
124. Rue Royale – “The Search and Little Else”
If you’ve never heard of this folk-pop group, now’s the time to introduce yourself. They’re a husband-and-wife duo who make beautifully-harmonized nature-oriented songs like this ode to wanderlust.
123. John Maus – “And the Rain”
Lo-fi music should not be allowed such addictive melodies. Maus mourns how “the rain came down/ down, down, down” in a baritone that seems like a stormcloud itself.
122. Gang Gang Dance – “Adult Goth”
Without a doubt one of the weirdest songs to appear on these lists, “Adult Goth” is a 6-minute experimental track that sounds like Björk with an electroclash backing band and Eastern influences. Don’t be scared!
121. Jamie xx – “Far Nearer”
“I feel better, baby,” the robotic voice intones, but you can’t really believe it, not even over those Caribbean sounds that seem like they could be playing in the background of a Corona commercial. Electronica has certainly carved itself out a place on this list!
120. Junior Boys – “Banana Ripple”
The 9-minute closer to Junior Boys’ It’s All True is truly bananatronica: it doesn’t taste quite like anything else, arcs from beginning to end with effortless grace, and has a quirky, phallic sexual appeal.
119. Feist – “How Come You Never Go There”
The Canadian singer-songwriter asks unanswerable, rhetorical questions like “How come you never go there?/ How come I’m so alone there?” on the lead single from her album Metals, and the herky-jerky rhythm makes for quite an enjoyable and memorable indie pop tune.
118. Poor Spirits – “No Bad Days.“
This one comes from a very, very obscure California duo that may have a bright future ahead of them, judging by how “No Bad Days.” balances silly lyrics and serious-sounding electropop to create the most tongue-in-cheek song on this list.
117. Mayer Hawthorne – “A Long Time”
Though my personal favorite track on Mayer Hawthorne’s soulful debut How Do You Do is the curse-heavy “The Walk,” this ’70s-style single is the track that will stand the test of time best. Watch for soul music to make a comeback in a big way in the next few years.
116. Lil Wayne – “6 Foot 7 Foot (ft. Cory Gunz)”
Weezy fans: don’t worry. If tha Carter heads back to jail anytime soon, it won’t be for long — he’ll “get through that sentence like a subject and a predicate.” Oh, and this radio hit is a lot more complex than its chanted, thoroughly annoying hook implies. Perhaps research is right, and annoying works best in ads or in music. (Katy Perry, are you paying attention?)
115. TV on the Radio – “Will Do“
With the band’s trademark swagger tuned down to an Interpol-like level, “Will Do” is not so much indie rock as it is a melting pot of genres, layered translucently over one another. The R&B undertones of the song, hidden far under the surface, elicit a certain carnal longing that Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals also imply. This tinge of tension, both sexual and emotional, is what makes “Will Do” not just a love song, but an aching, messy consummation of heartsick elegance.
114. Electric Guest – “American Daydream“
Produced by Danger Mouse, this young duo has constructed quite the pop-rock song with a European flavor. The ridiculously catchy chorus of “American Daydream” likely won’t leave your head for hours: “We keep going, don’t stop running/ They keep selling, we don’t want it/ So close to it, almost found a way/ Two steps closer, they keep coming/ We keep yelling ‘we don’t want it’/ Almost better, this thing’s bound to break.”
113. The Dangerous Summer – “Work in Progress“
Pop-punk may be all but dead, but this Maryland band intelligently combines many of its elements with straightforward rock and laces it all with incredibly intimate, emotive lyrics like “lately I’ve been losing truth… faith, I have been losing too.” There is a sad paucity of rock songs on this list, but tracks like “Work in Progress” make up for it.
112. Big Troubles – “Misery”
“I just wanna have some fun/ I just wanna fly for once,” this Brooklyn-via-Jersey group intone on a pop-rock song that takes its clues from garage pop as well as those big mainstream choruses.
111. Tashaki Miyaki – “Get It Right”
Bands that invoke shoegaze and ’90s indie rock are a dime a dozen over these last few years, but Tashaki Miyaki have a certain draw. It is almost masochistic in nature, a heartstopping moment of despair that is pleasurable on a visceral level, a realization that you’ve made a beautifully tragic mistake: “Guess I didn’t get it right/ You’re all I ever wanted/ Where will I go?/ What will I do?/ You’re all I ever wanted/ Who will I love/ If I don’t have you?” The distorted, languid guitar solo in the middle seems to shed a tear right into the heart of the song; when it ends, the listener is left not with a feeling of hopelessness but instead one of glorious melancholia. I’ll be listening to this one for awhile.
110. Scattered Trees – “Four Days Straight”
From the horribly overlooked album Sympathy, this track runs on a guitar riff so effortlessly catchy that I’m amazed that I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else before. You could classify this as indie pop-rock, but it’s one of those songs that’s great no matter what genres you enjoy most.
109. Chuck Ragan – “Meet You in the Middle (ft. Brian Fallon)”
Acoustic Jersey Shore rock, like Bruce Springsteen in 2011 with the power out. This may indeed be “going out of style,” but Mr. Ragan is meeting us all in the middle to tell us that rock ain’t so bad.
108. Architecture in Helsinki – “Sleep Talkin’”
I was on the verge of kicking this song out of the Honorable Mentions right up till the end, but I just couldn’t do it — “Sleep Talkin’,” not the last song from Aussie indie pop group Architecture in Helsinki to appear on this list, may be heavy on the sugary sweetness, but it’s a wonderful and addictive track that is among the most complete cutesy songs of the year.
107. The Golden Filter – “Shake“
“Shake” fades in with a buzz of synthsaws, which in turn morphs into pulsing arpeggios of more synths (well, it is electronica). A woman wails wordlessly in the background, and the layers of drums that are added create a 24th-century tribal vibe — and suddenly it breaks down. Then there’s some chanted nonsense about a tree and some “hallowed ground,” which fits in perfectly with the world music that incorporated into the twirls of water-saturated synthesizers. And then the song breaks down again – and that’s where I’ll leave you. The song is a technologic soul’s cry for nature, and it’s quite the saga.
106. Washed Out – “Amor Fati”
One of the first chillwave artists returns with an unmatched pop sensibility that penetrates even the most liquid of his compositions, like this standout from Within and Without, “Amor Fati,” which means “love of one’s fate” in Latin.
105. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – “Quail and Dumplings“
“Weather ain’t judgment and money ain’t love,” Will Oldham sings. While he is neither bonnie nor a prince, his music is both beautiful and princely, in a plucky, down-home way. You can almost feel the money falling through your pocket as Oldham sings wistfully “one day it’s gonna be quail and dumplings for we.”
104. The Horrible Crowes – “Black Betty & the Moon“
A sculpted neo-classic, its cavorting acoustic chords and standard 3-minute structure exude both an easy familiarity and a timelessness, like a campfire song of the 21st century. But if you’re thinking “bam-a-lam,” no need — the use of “Black Betty” has nothing to do (so far as I know) with the 1977 Ram Jam hit. This is a damn catchy, folky pop-rock track that I’ve found myself humming incessantly since I first heard it.
103. Beirut – “Vagabond”
The Balkan folk that New Mexican group Beirut usually play is minimized in favor of a more American sound on their newest album, The Rip Tide, and that allows highlight “Vagabond” to wander through its own ocean of Mediterranean sounds with a rock piano to guide it.
102. The Antlers – “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”
There is a certain inexorable creepiness to this song, which is why I chose the picture above to represent it. But at the same time it feels like a bad dream — something that will end eventually, even though “One bad night I’ll hold the glass until the glass can hold me down.” It’s more post-rock than most songs in The Antlers’ catalogue, but that only makes the atmospherics more intense.
101. Little Comets – “Worry“
A pop-rock song that is part The Very Best‘s “Warm Heart of Africa,” part Vampire Weekend, and part O.A.R, this tune features African-influenced guitars licks, a sunny equatorial chorus, and lyrics that are almost indecipherable but deceptively complex: “Her silhouette,” Robert Coles sings, “Is bleaker than a cigarette/ On a Tuesday morn when i feel humanity slip/ From broken hands down to her hips/ Realizing/ Lethargy in both her eyes/ And as the sun emancipates the dawn/ Her tanlines cackle with the power of the allegory.”
100. Portugal. The Man – “Sleep Forever”
A 6.5-minute classic rock ballad that demonstrates only a small part of the psych rock inherent to the Portland-via-Alaska band’s sound, “Sleep Forever” may seem like a dark song because of the title, but it is an uplifting conclusion to the band’s most recent album, In the Mountain, in the Cloud.
99. Okkervil River – “The Valley”
This stomping song has folk-rock, orchestral, and alternative rock elements that add up to an anthemic chant that would please the “rock and roll dead” that the Austin band Okkervil River blare about.
98. The Kills – “Pots and Pans“
Opening with a spectacular, stomping beat, Mosshart launches into her sincere-yet-unnerving delivery of “I can’t find enough pots and pans, let alone knives in my kitchen, to keep you cooking/ I can’t find enough love in my heart, let alone in my bones, to keep you standing.” The Zeppelin-esque guitar riff that introduces itself between each line adds a sense of blues not unlike Mosshart’s most famous project, her collaboration with Jack White entitled The Dead Weather. One might expect the rhythmic, unceasing bass drum to fade into the background after nearly five minutes, but it never does, and its reverberations, added to the writhing, tortured tumult of the finale, create a visceral reaction in the listener that thousands of bands strive for — but a rare few ever find.
97. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Heart in Your Heartbreak”
Everything from their sound to their name screamed neo-Joy Division on their first self-titled album, but this year’s follow-up, Belong, turned towards a sound not unlike The Smashing Pumpkins playing pop-rock versions of The Cure songs. ”Heart in Your Heartbreak” is possibly the most accessible song in the band’s catalogue — but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in quality.
96. Bleached – “Searching Through the Past”
My fianceé absolutely loathes this song, but I find its simple garage rock guitar riff and bubblegum pop vocals extremely attractive. It’s quite the earworm, and these ladies even performed it on TV recently. It may not be made for the mainstream, but you can’t argue with a song this catchy.
95. Rachael Yamagata – “Starlight”
“Starlight” is a desperate and impassioned plea to a lover over a bluesy riff and the best Adult Alternative chorus you’ve heard in 2011. In some ways, “Starlight” is a typical wretched “I keep wondering why I can’t leave” lovesong — but each listen reveals another layer to the pizzicato strings and the grooved beats. Once you’ve peeled back a few, you may find that the song is deeper than you thought. And then there’s the 3:08 occurrence of a sudden, almost carelessly descending “duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh,” like Yamagata almost decided not to perform after all. When the chorus re-enters proudly, you’re left muttering “duh-duh-duh-duh” to yourself for hours, wondering why, out of everything, that moment is the most conspicuous.
94. Austra – “Lose It”
Toronto native Katie Stelmanis’ debut album as Austra, Feel It Break, was thoroughly enjoyable, but it was the single “Lose It” that stood out as her greatest achievement on the album, a straightforward pop song cloaked in so many layers of light that it sounds eclectically foreign. Think last year’s “Home” by Glasser and add in a glorious, wordless falsetto chorus, and you’ll be close.
93. The Rapture – “Never Die Again”
The dance-punk of The Rapture’s first few critically-acclaimed albums gives way to straight out electropop (with only a slight clash element) on their comeback album, In the Grace of Your Love. The bad news is that this is no “House of Jealous Lovers” — but the good news is that it’s just as addictive, a danceable track that feels oh so much smoother and sexier than the band’s early-’00s work.
92. Phantogram – “Don’t Move“
There are wordless, electronically-modified vocals that are used as an instrument in themselves. There’s a head-turning brass riff. There’s an acidic bassline over a slinky beat that you might find in the subgenre trip-hop. ”Don’t Move” swims alongside its watery vocals with ease, and the production layers them magnificently — the vocals sound like a half-dozen perfectly synchronized swimmers slowly disintegrating into individual constituents, but not quite separated yet. The lyrics tell a lover to slow down and stop worrying: “Oh can’t you see that you’re fine/ And know that you’re still alive,” Sarah Barthel sings at the end, immediately after the chorus of “All you know how to do is/ Shake, shake, shake/ Keep your body still, keep your body still.” It’s one of those most addictive choruses of 2011, and you’d better believe that Phantogram won’t stay indie-level long into 2012.
91. Coldplay – “Paradise”
I believed that Coldplay would age gracefully and introspectively post-Viva la Vida, perhaps with a bit of well-earned swagger; instead, they took Prozac and turned the swagger of “I used to the rule the world” into the dreams of “Paradise.” It’s a towering synth-filled anthem that marks the band as U2 listeners even more than Radiohead listeners. But it doesn’t matter who they’re taking their clues from nowadays — they still know how to write a damn good song whose lyrics feel almost universal.
90. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – “Senator”
Yes, that’s Jack Black pictured above, playing a baby-holding senator campaigning for re-election in the video for “Senator.” But Stephen Malkmus, famous for singing in indie rock icons Pavement, knows what he really wants: “a blowjob.” This is an unapologetic rock song that snarls at “my duty to The Republik” and keeps on talking about blowjobs. How can you not love it?
89. St. Lucia – “We Got It Wrong“
”We Got It Wrong” introduces itself on an electrosafari, not unlike a neo-Toto song, with Calypso influences as well as chillwave forefathers. When those meticulously constructed melodies harmonize on the line “this house, broken apart” and the song suddenly explodes into a danceable rush of synths and dueling vocals, the rush of adrenaline is like an expensive shot of alcohol at sunset on a beach. Oh, the glory.
88. Low – “Try to Sleep”
This song will grab Video of the Year for its chilling John Stamos-starring clip that shows a couple driving languidly down a road… and I won’t tell you any more. It’s not the most exciting music video ever, nor the coolest, but it lulls you into a sense of false security with the slow-mo pop-rock of the song and the handsome face of Stamos. The song itself stands alone well, and when it breaks the fourth wall to tell you “Don’t look at the camera/ Try to sleep,” you may just look around you to see if you’re really being filmed, like The Truman Show.
87. Moonface – “The Way You Wish You Could Live in the Storm“
Is this song worth the one-five millionth of your life that you will have to spend listening to it (I did the math)? If you choose to spend the time, you won’t be disappointed: opening with a jocular synth and a repetition of the title, the album quickly evolves into the first of its turns. Like their namesakes in the sonnet form of poetry, these are moments where the music is paused for a nearly inaudible second before it erupts into an even bigger mess of sounds. And when this happens, slightly before 1.5 minutes in, psychedelic arpeggios carry the listener into the land of classic rock, escorting him on through the philosophical lyrics: “Sometimes we live in the storm, sometimes/ We hate everything/ We carry our shit around on our hips/ We drink it down on the museum steps.”
It’s a very distant song — both Krug’s vocals and the lyrics, which uses the second person to target an unknown person as “naïve” and a “little bug” in the face of the “eager beast” of the personified storm. It feels almost impersonal, but so ultimately subjective that the listener can create his own reality around the dancing electronica. As the song builds and builds to an increasingly tense finish, it gives the impression of a neo-”Stairway to Heaven,” something like a “Synthesizer to the Stormclouds” — the song is that enormous. Perhaps it deserves its mouthful of a title.
86. St. Vincent – “Cruel”
Another song with a great music video, “Cruel” shows Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) being “abducted” by a father, daughter, and son at a gas station and taken to live with them, clean up their messes — basically, it’s a metaphor for one’s life being taken over by family. The gorgeous new mother is slowly buried alive throughout the video, perhaps revealing Clark’s feelings on the matter of a traditional stay-at-home life.
85. The Weeknd – “What You Need”
The mix of vocals that introduces this slow-burning (“burning” with passion being the keyword) R&B song also provided an introduction to Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, one of the most exciting new acts of 2011. His emotional, soaring, removed vocals seem to contain all of the hopeless, envious love in the world when he sings, “He’s what you want/ He’s what you want/ He’s what you want/ Not what you need.” It’s not Tesfaye’s best song, but it introduced us to him, and many of his fans will never fall out of love with it.
84. Marissa Nadler – “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning”
Nadler balances fragility and independence on this loungey indie pop song. Though she probably could’ve gotten away with just a piano as the backing instrument, she fills out the space with soft drums, synth melodies, and ambient wind that seems ready to blow Nadler away in the morning. ”Baby, you will need to forgive me/ Been a sinner all my life, you see,” she sings with as much controlled heartache as any song on this list.
83. Princeton – “Clamoring for Your Heart”
L.A. indie pop group Princeton’s tight, gorgeous single “To The Alps” won me over early in the year, and this new one resolves itself as a gentle and yearning ’80s lovesong, complete with a funky Hawai’ian-esque solo and a choral ending. It’s the kind of indie pop that could easily break through into the mainstream — if it weren’t so obviously imitative. But hey, some people are just damn good at that… like these guys. I’d take this over a bland experimental song any day.
82. Destroyer – “Chinatown”
Most of the criticism surrounding Destroyer’s Kaputt, one of the best albums of the year (this is certainly not the only song of his on the Top 100), concerns how it imitates “soft rock” of years past. I don’t hear it. I hear jazz, Sinatra doing slam poetry, chamber pop, downbeat and contemplative disco. I hear a man expressing deep emotions through a lens of abstract metaphors and nearly apathetic tones that belie lines like “I know you and I know the score/ I can’t walk away, you can’t walk away.” I hear deliberate carelessness, the kind that has constructed some of the best tracks of all-time. Nearly any song on Kaputt could place on this Top 100 list, but to give other artists a fair chance, I’ve only chosen three of the best, starting fittingly with album opener “Chinatown.”
81. O’Death – “Bugs”
The shortest song on this entire list, “Bugs” by Brooklyn folk rock group O’Death is only 2 minutes and 13 seconds long, but it makes the most of its time with a plucky banjo straight from a Mumford & Sons song, a subtly effective string section, a unique earworm of a melody, and a post-folk sound that’s not unlike mewithoutYou.
80. Thurston Moore – “Mina Loy”
The Sonic Youth frontman’s third solo album generated this gem, which begins with a swirl of acoustic guitars and strings that sounds like the soundtrack to a ghost walking down a busy street without being seen. That outstanding intro lasts over a minute before a haunting whistler introduces the line “Found a diamond in the gutter”… and you know you’re in for a treat. ”I don’t care what it takes/ All he wants is for you to love him/ Without shame, without shame, without shame,” Moore intones breathlessly, and for a moment, the song seems to swallow your senses. Music that can do that belongs on any Top 100 list made, but you won’t see this song anywhere but The Tune.
79. Fleet Foxes – “Battery Kinzie”
Like the Destroyer album, almost any track from Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues could qualify for this list, but I had to narrow down the choices, and this was one that simply had to carve itself a place. ”Battery Kinzie” is one of the most accessible songs on the album, a folk singalong that breezes by in under three minutes but features some of Fleet Foxes’ most gorgeous harmonies — and that’s saying something. Even if you’re not too sure of what “Wide-eyed walker, do not wander/ Do not wander through the dawn” means (I’m not either), you still somehow understand the song on a visceral and innate level. It’s almost as if Fleet Foxes are channeling Mother Nature in their music.
78. Childish Gambino – “All the Shine”
Weighing critical opinion vs. popularity is nearly always a useless endeavor — one that will probably make you want to shoot yourself. When critical heavyweights Pitchfork panned Donald Glover’s (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) debut studio album Camp, many people forgot that everyone else loved it, including the fans who helped it reach #11 on the Billboard charts. Thus, besides one (rather poorly written) review, Glover managed to please both critics and fans, and listening to the pop-rap of “All the Shine,” it’s no wonder why: it’s likeable, memorable, and above all, shiny.
77. The Fresh & Onlys – “I Would Not Know the Devil“
Lo-fi ’70s rock guitar introduces the song before clicking drumsticks bring in the full band at the 13-second mark. From there, it explodes into a riff-driven track with a strangely catchy melody that should keep you coming back for repeated listens, if only to deduce the lyrics. The menacing tone of the song and the few lines that are clearer — like “I would not know the devil/ I’ve only seen him one time/ He had a twisted shovel/ He dug it into my mind” — lend it entrancingly Gothic overtones. If you’re into literature, perhaps it’ll call to mind the short story “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving. Even if you’re not familiar with the reference, there’s no denying the literary quality of the song, assisted by its timeless subject matter. If The Fresh & Onlys can continue to record music that is simultaneously catchy, snarling, and intriguing as this, they’ve got a bright future ahead.
76. Active Child – “Hanging On”
Oh, that harp. Oh, that falsetto. Ohhhh, that woozy slinkiness. ”Hanging On” is a sexy song despite its declaration, “I just can’t keep hanging on/ To you and me.” Well, I’ll be hanging on to this song long after 2011, and perhaps you will too.
75. Woodkid – “Iron“
Director Yoann Lemoine, 28 years old, has already broken into two entertainment fields: directing and music. Before “Iron,” the multi-talented Frenchman had already directed videos for increasingly famous artists over the last three years. But that wasn’t enough for Lemoine. He wanted to make the music as well as represent it visually. The cinematic influences are obvious from the start of “Iron,” when enormous drums beat out a stuttering beat to introduce a synth riff (the song’s chorus) of tormented grandeur. The lyrics themselves are the words of the archetypal soldier, sung in a wistful French accent by Lemoine (Woodkid is his pseudonym). The soldier calls from all corners of the world, all corners of time, revealing that “The sound of iron shocks is stuck in my head,” and, at the second verse’s climax: “I want to feel the pain and the bitter taste/ Of the blood on my lips, again.”
But it is the final line that strikes the most sympathy into the listener: “A million miles from home, I’m walking away/ I call to mind your eyes, your face.” It is the first romantic thought in a poem full of war and violence, an unambiguous conclusion that reminds the listener that war may scar love, wound love, defeat love — but it can never destroy love.
74. Ladytron – “White Elephant”
British synthpop group Ladytron have been around since 1999, but it seems they’re just now peaking. The layers of gloomy synths on “White Elephant” are enhanced by the somber vocal delivery from Helen Marnie, making for a grand dirge — an anthemic darktronica piece — that feels like it’s carried on a powerful gust of wind heading straight for your tiny little heart.
73. Panda Bear – “You Can Count on Me”
Animal Collective member Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) not only received one of the highest scores we’ve given out this year for his solo album Tomboy [read our review], but made an appearance at #5 on our staff’s list of the Top 10 albums of the first half of 2011. The lead track on that album is a gem called “You Can Count on Me,” one of the album’s poppier moments, where Lennox makes his voice into a chorus and syncs it with liquid synths, creating a sky-high hymn to the gods of music.
72. Wild Beasts – “Albatross”
British group Wild Beasts’ lead singer, Hayden Thorpe, is a countertenor — a rare male singer whose range is comparable to that of a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or soprano. His treble voice lends an air of fantasy and mystery to this literary blip-and-beat pop song, which speak from the point-of-view of the unfortunate man who kills the albatross (a symbol of good luck to sailors) in Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
71. Kasabian – “La Fée Verte”
“La Fée Verte” is a song befitting the drink it’s named for — absinthe. Launching with the line “Oh, green fairy, what you’ve done to me/ I see Lucy in the sky telling me I’m high,” it quickly turns into a six-minute acid trip down the river of BritPop, with strong Beatles and Oasis influences. Imagine if McCartney had written “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Lennon had written “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (a song he famously despises), and the two were combined into a song that asks “how does it feel to live your life where nothing is real?” Kasabian guitarist and songwriter Serge Pizzorno has said that the song is “a psychedelic tune about those moments when you look around and think the dream is over, and the only thing left to do is pull out the absinthe and head for oblivion.” Well, we’re ready. Bring on the absinthe and let’s see Lucy all over again.
70. Iron & Wine – “Walking Far from Home”
The opener to one of our favorite albums of the year, indie standby Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, is almost nothing like their former folky songs. It is a momentous, glorious cry to the heavens. It is chorus-less, progressing through 12 quatrains like a psalm from the wanderer, who describes each surreal sight that strikes him. Like many of the best tracks from 2011, it doesn’t fit cleanly into any genre, preferring to combine influences from all over the board.
69. Death Cab for Cutie – “Some Boys”
“Some Boys” is not the most epic track on Codes and Keys (“You Are a Tourist”), nor is it the most tender (“Stay Young, Go Dancing”) or even, arguably, the best (“Doors Unlocked and Open”). But the slightly distorted vocals that sing about how “Some boys don’t know how to love” touch upon a subject that no other songs confront in a similar manner. And with every listen, you grow to understand the song better.
68. The Decemberists – “Rox in the Box”
This isn’t the most popular song from The Decemberists’ January release, The King Is Dead, to mention on a blog — but those addictive fiddle solos are the reason we chose the down-home good-time bonfire song “Rox in the Box” over “Down by the Water,” “January Hymn,” or the handful of other Top 100-worthy track on the band’s last album before “an extended hiatus.” I, for one, would duel with that fiddle Charlie Daniels-style for the whole decade.
67. Hard-Fi – “Good for Nothing“
The lead single from this year’s Killer Sounds, Hard-Fi’s third album, sounds a little less like an ultra-pop Franz Ferdinand and a little more like the Arctic Monkeys filtered through Cage the Elephant and topped off with a Rolling Stones flair. It is a rockin’, rollin’ track with an anthemic chorus — exactly what Hard-Fi have always been best at — and it echoes Archer’s dream of writing “suburban rock” for those middle-class kids who want a musical voice. “I’m good for nothing, I can’t be beat,” is a true summer chant, and though this won’t win many critics’ approval, it’s good enough for us.
66. The Strokes – “Taken for a Fool”
The big chord that heralds the arrival of the highlight from The Strokes’ comeback release is classic rock-like in its statement of bluster, but the melody that drives the chorus seems to be straight from Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” It is a microcosm of the rest of the album, where The Strokes stole ideas from artists from MJ to Steely Dan and somehow turned them into a concise, creative rock album. ”Taken for a Fool” is merely the best example of the band at work. Plus it’s fun as hell to sing along with.
65. Butch Walker and the Black Widows – “Synthesizers“
“Everybody’s writing songs with synthesizers/ But I don’t have a synthesizer/ I can still get down like/ Duran Duranin 1985.” Thus begins “Synthesizers,” the midway point and highlight of Georgian (the state, not the country) singer-songwriter Butch Walker‘s sixth “solo” album since 2002. Walker’s slight country/southern rock tinge belies his introspective and mature songwriting — and yet he never loses his edge. “Synthesizers” utilizes its verses to tease the indie scene: “I don’t have any friends at Pitchfork or NME/ No sexy heroin addiction plaguing me,” he blares, and you can almost hear the laughter behind his voice. But the chorus is more of a motivational message: “For once, once in your life/ Won’t you do what feels right/ ‘Stead of waiting for the next big compromise,” Walker suggests before recommending that you “Get yourself downtown/ And shake it all out tonight.” There’s very little to dislike about Butch Walker, and a whole hell of a lot to love — so if you don’t know him yet, now’s a good time to get acquainted. “Synthesizers” is a good time all around, one of the best pop songs Walker has written. You won’t be disappointed.
64. Wax – “Need“
On “Need,” a track from his recent mixtape Eviction Notice, Wax pulls off the most difficult of lyrical stratagems: he preaches about materialism without sounding preachy. ”Need” works because it sets the message to a story, one that is captivating, hilarious, and remarkably accurate. I recommend reading the complete lyrics at the bottom of the page while listening to the track; it certainly enhances the experience. Nearly every line is quotable, but I’ll just start at the beginning: “I got a long list of needs, gotta satisfy ‘em all/ And the first on the list is a bag of Tylenol/ Cause I’m stressed out thinking I don’t have the time at all.” From there, the song tells of internet ads, fast food, billboards, video games, iProducts, Angry Birds, infomercials, male beauty products, sicknesses, and terrorists, all behind a wonderful hook: “It’s a lot of shit I really really need/ And I need to get all of it at a really fast speed/ I’m aware I’m a puppet of another man’s greed/ I don’t care, I’m in love with all this shit I really need.”
63. YACHT – “Shangri-La”
Portland DFAers YACHT released an album this summer called Shangri-La; it paints a picture of a world that could be better through songs like “Utopia,” “Dystopia,” and “Paradise Engineering.” The closing title track, “Shangri-La,” is the perfect ending. It is an indie pop masterpiece that gives you that feeling you get when you’ve just seen a really good movie and you’re staying to watch the credits roll. Bechtolt and Evans’ conclusion to all of these philosophical questions is: “If I can’t go to heaven, let me go to L.A./ Shangri-la la la-la-la-la-la-la-la” — because apparently Los Angeles is where we can find a modern-day utopian paradise.
62. Justice – “Audio, Video, Disco”
The best electronica makes more out of less (think Daft Punk’s “Around the World”), and that’s the case for the closing track on Justice’s sophomore album. It turns a tiny synth line into thunderous, world-shaking disco-rock — all while utilizing a mere three words. Audio. Video. Disco. The song is a multimedia experience through one medium only: sound.
61. Ryan Adams – “Shine Through the Dark“
Ryan Adams’ 13th studio album, Ashes & Fire, dropped in October — but sadly, it didn’t include this gem of a track, which was featured on the charity album Live from Nowhere Near You: Vol. II. Evidently, “Shine Through the Dark” was the first song he wrote after he blogged about “quitting music” two years ago. It’s an undeniably beautiful folk tune featuring Adams alone with his guitar, singing to the sky, and an unfalteringly optimistic track that is half of a lovesong (“Everything I ever said I did before/ Was just to get me here/ Get me here next to you”) and half of a calm campfire singalong (“These wheels turn fast/ These wheels turn bright/ Reflecting every moon that long goes shining/ Shining through the dark of the night”). It seems to hit some timeless note that is universal in all of us, not unlike Bob Dylan. Moments like these are precious in modern music, and should be savored.
60. Emmy the Great – “Trellick Tower“
Trellick Tower is a 31-story building in North Kensington, London. With its communications tower, it’s the 28th-tallest building in London — certainly not a singular landmark, but it casts a large shadow indeed. Emma-Lee Moss — also known as Emmy the Great — found herself in that shadow after she moved to West London with her fiance. When, shortly before their wedding, he (a former atheist) declared that he’d found God, broke off the engagement, and became a missionary, the tower “became [her] totem,” as Emma-Lee puts it.
The shadow of Trellick Tower extends over its namesake, the final track on Emmy The Great’s newest album, Virtue, which we gave a 4.2 out of 5recently. Under its vast umbra, Emma-Lee is no longer “The Great” — the instrumental paraphernalia of other Virtue tracks is stripped down to a single piano, and the singer-songwriter’s lyrics are possibly the most poignantly vulnerable that she’s ever written. In just over four minutes, Emma-Lee confronts her feelings about her ex-fiance through the lens of the cause of their break-up: religion.
The song leaves little in doubt, beginning with the aching lines, “You propelled yourself into the arms of God/ And Christ and all the angels/ Now you’re high above the people/ Who you used to call your equals.” It goes on to assert that what’s holy isn’t her ex-fiance’s religious choice, but the exact opposite — the person he was and the love they shared beforehand: “Something holy used to love me/ Something holy used to touch me,” she sings sadly. In one of the album’s most touching moments, she also compares herself to a saint’s relic, crooning, “I think relics ache for when the saint had breath/ They miss the thing that changed them/ And I’m a relic and you’re so so high/ You’re high as Trellick Tower.”
Using religion as a metaphor for her experience was genius on the part of Emma-Lee, but after listening to “Trellick Tower” you won’t be able to imagine the song any other way. It is the perfect paradoxical juxtaposition for a situation that seems paradoxical in and of itself — choosing the love of something you can neither hear nor touch over the love of a human being. And when Emmy ends the song (and the album) with a question, it is unclear whether she’s referring to her ex-fiance or the Trellick Tower itself: “Can I spend my life trying to climb you?” I think we’ve all asked that question in our lives.
59. Pinemarten – “On the Line”
Pinemarten is a small-time Derbyshire, U.K. producer who released a vastly overlooked album of electropop entitled If You Thought There Was Any Doubt this year. A standout track is “On the Line,” arguably the centerpiece of the album, a seven-minute journey that is guided by a four-note synth riff that works like a drug on the brain. As the track evolves, Pinemarten drones a perfectly-mixed vocal that almost works as another instrument rather than a separate entity (lyrics vs. music): “Can you please tell me, show me why do I feel this way all the time/ It’s not that easy making sense of this and you’re the reason/ Why can’t you just tell me what to think and feel and I know we’ll be fine.” The sense of bewilderment concerning the fear of unrequited love and the naïve notion that relationships are simple and easy to maintain is what lends the track its humanity.
58. The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”
Danger Mouse is my choice for producer of the year, if only for his spaghetti western collaboration with Danielle Luppi, Rome, and the newest effort by blues-rock duo The Black Keys. El Camino is a kickass rock ‘n’ roll album, perhaps the best of the year, and opener “Lonely Boy” exemplifies the band’s sound. There are echoes of another guitar-and-drums duo, The White Stripes — but even at their peak they didn’t charge headlong into a song the way Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney do here.
57. Jay-Z + Kanye West – “Niggas in Paris”
At recent shows, Hov and ‘Ye have been playing “Niggas in Paris” six, seven, eight, even twelve times — in a row. And remarkably, all the feedback’s been great. There’s no doubt that “Paris” redefines stadium rap, but the moment that everyone will remember comes just after the two minute mark, when Kanye raps, “Doctors say I’m the illest/ ‘Cause I’m sufferin’ from realness/ Got my niggas in Paris/ And they goin’ gorillas, HUH!”, and is interrupted by a sample from the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory: “‘I don’t even know what that means!’… ‘No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative, get’s the people going!” It could be a criticism of where mainstream rap is headed, or it could have no meaning at all — and that’s why we loev it.
156. ME & LP – “(Bonnie Says) No Shitty Ride“
ME & LP is Matthew Embree and Lisa Papineau, two musicians with quite the pedigree between them (Rx Bandits and Big Sir, plus contributions to Air and M83, respectively). They released their debut album Chez Raymond back over the summer. The second song that the duo dropped, the humorously titled “(Bonnie Says) No Shitty Ride,” boasts ridiculously danceable beats with a flamenco feel, maracas, and plucky vocals, and it quickly became my anthem for summer 2011. It’s almost impossible not to wiggle your tushie and try to sing along when the rolling rhythms begin, so watch out — you might knock something over.
55. Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”
Radiohead returned to frantic electronic beats (they supplement singer Thom Yorke’s maniacal dancing oh so well) and and minimalist songs on their newest release, February’s The King of Limbs, drawing endless comparisons to Kid A and Amnesiac. But where those albums seemed offbeat, different, weird, King of Limbs cuts like “Lotus Flower” seem synced to the times. ”Fast-ballooning heads,” doing what we want while the cat is away, unsettling bloops at the beginning? It all fits into the musical world that Radiohead helped to create. But you want to know the crazy part? 11 years later, Radiohead still do it as well as anyone else.
54. Yuck – “Shook Down”
We experienced ’90s nostalgia coming through strongly in the scene for perhaps the first time this year, and young London group Yuck led the charge with their fuzzed-out self-titled debut. Though “Get Away” is the popular pick for their best song from blogs, and I’m personally partial to the boy band-on-guitars bonus track “Milkshake,” “Shook Down” is perhaps their most mature and complete song to date. Maybe Yuck will help make rock cool again.
53. Wild Flag – “Romance”
Though the group contains two former members of the idolized riot grrrl indie rock band Sleater-Kinney, Pitchfork reminds us that “Wild Flag aren’t Sleater-Kinney, not even if you squint real hard,” and the song’s chaotic femininity might be Blondie on a bad hair day. Maybe that’s why Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer called them his “new favorite band” after their inaugural TV performance — or maybe it’s cause “Romance” is unbelievably fucking addictive.
52. Dredg – “Another Tribe”
Whether or not you know Dredg, it’s best to approach their most recent release, Chuckles And Mr. Squeezy, as you would a debut album by a band you’d never heard. Then you’ll begin to hear the magic behind the lilting, pulsing pop of “Another Tribe,” where Gavin Hayes croons “here we go, go again, following all the trends/ it’s become an obsession/ yeah, it’s time to except it.” Perhaps Dredg are following all the trends — the dance-beat pith of ”Another Tribe” certainly syncs with the current indie scene — but even if the song is as much indie pop as it is the band’s trademark alternative/progressive rock, Dredg sure as hell show that they have the talent to make good music in whatever genre they choose. Just listen to that melody and tell me pop music doesn’t fit Dredg as well as anything they’ve played.
51. Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down“
The somber 6.5-minute piece trudges through wet guitars and big, big production. It’s a lurid ode whose obvious interpretation involves drugs (“I close my eyes to conjure up something/ But it’s just a faint taste in my mouth/ I think I’m coming down”); however, read closely, the song seems to be about “coming down” from the high known as infatuation — Dee Dee promises “By tomorrow I’ll be leaving” because “You abuse the ones who love you/ You abuse the ones who won’t.” No matter how you interpret it, the song asks to be deeply personal… and god knows you’ll allow it in.
50. Clock Opera – “Lesson no. 7“
Unlike the London band’s previous whimsical pop, this track is a crescendo of pulsating guitars, an urgent and agitated bassline, and abstractly personal lyrics that moves in a linear motion towards a furious ending that is very, very British. Singer Guy Connelly moves from a soothing tenor to a riposte of a falsetto, one that stabs directly at the heart, with extraordinary ease; his vocals mold the clamor into a fist-pumping anthem with lines like, “Belief and seeing are proof after all/ And once I believed in you.” ”Lesson no. 7″ is best blasted at full volume, so don’t use laptop speakers to listen to this one.
49. Mariachi el Bronx – “48 Roses“
Imagine this: ascending strings and monstrous percussion hits open a song, half-Mariachi and half-rock. The tone is like a Mexican sunrise, warm and sweaty, forecasting a sweltering day of sex, jealousy, confession, and…more sex. “With four different lovers you don’t get much rest/ I’ve gone and created a mess” — the singer looks you in the eye as he speaks. Are you imagining Antonio Banderas? Yeah, me too. The narrator needs “a confessional that never closes” because “every king’s just a slave to his crown” — a wise philosophy, especially if that crown is a quartet of lovers. The song is a perfect mix of horns, strings, and percussion, an epic and cacophonic harem of sound. And it’s sexy (and hot) as hell.
48. Lil Wayne – “President Carter“
Beginning with a sample of President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration speech in 1977, the song is built upon a slightly Gothic riff that feels quietly intense and mysterious. Weezy lights up before launching into three of his best verses on Tha Carter IV (and an outro), where he fantasizes about what he’d do if he were president, shows a sign or two of maturity from experience (“these days I try to think twice when I can”), and asserts that there “ain’t no motherfucker harder than [President Carter].” The rapper even goes political at the end with some of the most hard-hitting lines in any song from 2011 (“Gorillas in suits/ The holy war, the spiritual troops/ Fighting over the mythical truth/ Drowning in the political soup”) and mocks the idea that “drugs were killing the youth.”
‘Course, it wouldn’t be a Tunechi song without a few puns, and he delivers in high (pun intended) form: “Nobody gives you a chance; you gotta take chances,” he says, before uttering the song’s best punchline, “I tried to fuck the world and couldn’t even get aroused.” Between the understated riff and skillful rhymes in “President Carter,” Weezy is actively prooving that he’s “much more than a good speech.”
47. Wise Blood – “Loud Mouths”
It’s hard to find much information on Christopher Laufman, the Pittsburgh native who calls himself Wise Blood, but evidently that’s not on purpose. A few scattered EPs and singles have been enough to pique critical interest, and he has shown the ability to continue refining his genre-mashing experimentalism without topping three minutes on a single track. The brevity is helpful in grasping the songs, which range from the cutely demonic “Loud Mouths” to the warped electronica of “The Lion” to the “shoot for the moon” aesthetic of the bent pop song “Penthouse Suites.” But it’s the unnerving choral samples and lines about “blowing powder up your nose,” all set to a playful, in-your-face falsetto, that makes us love the shit out of “Loud Mouths.”
Ivan Howard and Kelly Crips, the (ex)husband-and-wife duo The Rosebuds, ended their relationship before recording their fifth album, Loud Planes Fly Low, and channeled their emotion into the album. As usual, Ivan Howard dominated the lead vocals, but Kelly’s mezzo voice appeared consistently, singing alongside Ivan and taking the lead on one song, the standout “Come Visit Me.” It is a beautifully lachrymose disco tune, featuring one of the most pitifully poignant lines The Rosebuds have ever written: “I wanna feel something way out here/ I need something to happen now, even if it fucks me up.” It’s a difficult listen, especially if you’ve felt that way before, but more than worth it.
45. PJ Harvey – “The Words That Maketh Murder”
I spent four years talking about nationalism in both history and literature courses, so I’m goddamn prepped to deliver a 10,000 word diatribe on PJ Harvey’s latest album Let England Shake and its portrayal of war (specifically the Great War, where “soldiers [fell] like lumps of meat”) and England (“Goddamn Europeans/ Take me back to beautiful England,” for example — and the British press loved it). But I’ll spare you the pain, because no matter how much Let England Shake stamps and limps through British folk music (quite the contrast from Polly Jean’s last piano-based album), the xylophones and autoharp tell their own story. On the percussion-grounded anti-war stomper “The Words That Maketh Murder,” that story contains one simple message: war is murder.
44. Dum Dum Girls – “Bedroom Eyes“
Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls wrote “Bedroom Eyes” after returning from a European tour, jet-lagged and lonely: “I was home alone,” she says. “Insomnia was taking its toll; I felt absolutely crazy. I looked up poetry on the subject and found a Dante Gabriel Rosetti poem and the song was born from that. I’d finally convinced my dad to give me one of his prescription sleeping pills and it kicked in while I was writing the song and I started hallucinating.” It is unclear which poem she’s referring to, though it very well may be “A Superscription” — feel free to clear this up for us, Dee Dee!
The lyrics tell of insomnia caused by sleeping pills, with Dee Dee mourning that her lover is “in another bed” and admitting that “There is no hope for any sleep if you’re not here.” The bridge, where she repeats “I fear that I’ll never sleep again” over and over, is particularly striking to myself or anyone else who’s experienced insomnia for most of their lives. But in the end, the insomnia seems more emotional than drug-related in “Bedroom Eyes,” revealing the heartache behind the catchy and memorable ’60s melodies. Perhaps the song will keep you up for a little while tonight.
43. Light Asylum – “Dark Allies“
Light Asylum are a Brooklyn duo (of course) made up of Shannon Funchess and Bruno Coviello, and they got it right on their first try. ”Dark Allies” is the first track on their In Tension EP; it is a six-minute masterpiece that lives up to the epicness suggested by its name. The song combines the power of Vader, the coldness of Mordor (okay, seriously, pick a fantasy series and stick with it), and an expert electronic crescendo into the huge bass drums that define the track. And then there’s the lyrics. The first line is “Nail me to the cross in the darkest alley/ I said, the Prince of Peace doesn’t have to know about it” — and it never brightens up. From moaning “she’s my heroin” to wailing “on my knees I cry ‘Hail Mary’,” the song invokes both drug addiction and Catholic guilt in combination guaranteed to spice your imagination. The darkness of “Dark Allies” is self-evident… the “allies” seem to be invoked by the line: “As I knelt down beside/ With her dying breath, she said to me/ ‘I’ll wait for you, forever/ And ever, and ever, and ever’.” Throw the song on during a midnight drive on deserted roads and you’ll fall in love with it without wasting nine months like I did.
42. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
You know the song. Do I really need to explain why this soul-pop hit from the big-voiced Adele is on the list?
41. Common – “Blue Sky“
Not many artists could get away with sampling a song as immediately recognizable as ELO‘s “Mr. Blue Sky” and not come across as even more corny than the original. Even fewer could turn the song’s hook into a life-affirming loop of optimism. And no rapper but Common could use the “blue sky” as a metaphor for a higher power (“in the sky we’ll find the light”) without sounding preachy.
But the hook, executed to perfection by singer Makeba, is only a small part of “Blue Sky.” Makeba also delivers a grateful-for-life outro (“Crazy how I’m the one/ Could’ve been any way, but I’m sitting in the air”), and Common spits his verses with a relaxed Midwest flow. He recalls his dreams of being a rapper (“it all started with a dream”), references his acting career (“the young Denzel the way I move through scenes”), and mentions the healthcare plan of President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan (“Told him for health care, my music is the medicine”). It’s an inspirational song, and one of the best hip-hop moments of 2011.
40. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – “Two Against One (ft. Jack Black)”
Five years ago, when Danger Mouse (one of the best producers in the biz, co-creator of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells) and Italian film composer/producer Daniele Luppi set about to create Rome, an album inspired by the spaghetti western soundtracks of the ’60s, they probably didn’t expect it to take half a decade — or to generate the kind of interest in the music scene that isn’t usually reserved for the term “spaghetti western.” But they did, in large part thanks to guest appearances from Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals. White sang and wrote the lyrics to “Two Against One,” a guitar-and-harpsichord ditty that channels the Old West as it mourns, “I get the feeling that it’s two against one/ I’m already fighting me, so what’s another one/ The mirror is a trigger and your mouth’s a gun.”
39. Jamie Woon – “Lady Luck”
Ever since I first heard Jamie Woon’s brooding, gambling-averse single “Lady Luck” back in the spring, I haven’t been able to stop listening to the song. It is the perfect mix of R&B, pop, and soul, with lyrics that personify luck and mourn how she “ain’t playin’ on my side.” It’s a delicious, smooth song that by all rights should’ve hit #1 on the Billboard charts, but didn’t even make a mark.
38. Toro y Moi – “New Beat”
It was exciting to hear Chazwick Bundick, a.k.a. Toro y Moi, evolving from part of the chillwave fad of the last few years into a talented songwriter that uses funk, disco, synthpop, and even handclaps to create bass-driven tracks like the wiggly “New Beat.” The transition is so smooth that it’s almost unnoticeable on Underneath the Pine – you can barely imagine Bundick composing any other music. The album swallows you whole, partially thanks to this opener.
37. YACHT – “I Walked Alone”
We already discussed YACHT’s 2011 release Shangri-La back at #63, and “I Walked Alone” is the cut that demands YACHT’s highest spot on our Top 100. An ultra-danceable track, its lyrics that break our existence down to its simplest form: “The Earth goes round the sun/ And the sun provides the light.” But after a piano breakdown, the song turns into a round with three parts, all of which follow an ascending scale that seems to push the song towards heights that not many electronic-based bands can reach.
36. The One AM Radio – “Sunlight”
“After all this time, it shouldn’t be so hard to come home/ Come on, sunlight, get me out of here/ Alive.” ”Sunlight” may sound like a typical electropop track, but L.A. producer/songwriter Hrishikesh Hirway strikes a certain doleful note that makes for a perfect rainy day pop song — when you can’t see the sun, a cry for sunlight is all the more powerful.
35. Snow Patrol – “Called Out in the Dark“
The Irish group responsible for “Chasing Cars” hit a bullseye with “Called Out In The Dark,” the predictably prodigious first single from their November release Fallen Empires. It is inspirational (“This is your life/ This is your time”) and gorgeous (you can nearly feel the precious metals when Lightbody sings, “And how the heavens, they opened up/ Like arms of dazzling gold”); it is as melodramatic as you’d expect, painting surrealistic imagery that somehow invokes a dozen emotions at once: “Show me the arms aloft/ Every eye trained on a different star/ This magic, this drunken semaphore, and I.” An inebriated flag-waver? Awesome.
34. Penguin Prison – “Don’t Fuck with My Money“
I don’t know about you, but when I see an artist titled “Penguin Prison,” I’m going to give him a try. Especially if he has a song called “Don’t Fuck with My Money.” Penguin Prison is Chris Glover, a New York City producer and songwriter who released a few electronica/dance-pop singles over 2009 and 2010 before devising a debut album, October’s Penguin Prison. It’s rare to find an artist that actually lives up to the hype or the band comparisons within his press release, but the double-P logo of Penguin Prison puts most other artists to shame. When he’s labeled “Chic produced by James Murphy, or a collaboration between Prince and The Human League,” you can hear it in the music; when his debut is called “a modern day Off the Wall,” all you need to do is listen to the percussive gasps of “Don’t Fuck with My Money” to hear the reflection of a young MJ. And I drew comparisons to an American version of Hot Chip even before I read it in his bio. Between the charismatic and sassy vocals, the irresistible beat, and the charming superdisco aesthetic, this track is easily one of the best electronica/pop recordings of the year.
33. Blink-182 – “Up All Night“
“Up All Night,” the first song the seminal pop-punk trio wrote after reuniting in 2009, returns to the band’s introspective side with Mark and Tom trading off lines about how “everyone lies and cheats their wants and needs and still believes their heart.” There is very little pop-punk here though, as the band explores a pounding alternative rock that ends in a punk rock meltdown. Don’t you dare dismiss this as the dying breath of a band that was better before they took themselves too seriously — these guys have come a long way over the last two decades, and “Up All Night” rocks out with maturity and insight but doesn’t lose a power chord of the band’s appeal.
32. Charlotte Gainsbourg – “Paradisco“
They tell me not to judge a book by its cover — or a song by its title — but sometimes I just can’t resist. My intuition told me I would love “Paradisco” by French singer-songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg the second I saw that portmanteau pop up in my daily feed. And I was correct. ”Paradisco” plays like a combination of Blondie, Gary Numan, and The xx — it runs on a disco-ish beat and a clean New Wave bassline that sounds like someone pressed the delay pedal halfway through the riff for INXS‘ “Need You Tonight.” It’s an insanely catchy track, and you can blame Beck for producing it; Gainsbourg’s vocals are set slightly more into the background, letting the disco-ball dance effect become the pith of the track.
That’s not to say that Gainsbourg’s lyrics on “Paradisco” should be overlooked. The chorus says, “We’ll build an effigy out of the past/ And our clothes catch fire as we dance/ And I wonder how long it can last/ Walking through a room full of broken glass/ In paradiscos,” and it can be used to interpret the title as well as the meaning behind the song. As I said before, it was the title that drew my interest: it is a combination of “disco” and the prefix “para-”, which has multiple definitions that are applicable in understanding the chorus. A “Paradisco” could be “beyond a disco,” “resembling a disco,” or “a defective/abnormal disco” — the “Paradisco,” then, is modern music or perhaps ’00s philosophy as a whole, where we build an imitation of the past in a vain attempt to return to it. But it can’t last because our para-disco is merely a defective imitation of the past that litters the room with the “broken glass” of that past which we idolize but break apart while attempting to counterfeit it. At least that’s how I hear it.
31. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
Single-handedly making folk music mainstream again, Fleet Foxes followed up their 2008 self-titled album and Sun Giant EP, both nearly flawless, with the even better Helplessness Blues. The title track is now the band’s most recognizable song, and everyone from Zach Galifianakis to Bon Iver have fallen for the band. No wonder why. ”Helplessness Blues” may not be the highest-placed Fleet Foxes song on our Top 100, but its desire to “have an orchard” and “work till I’m sore” is a cleansing breath for many of us who are sick and tired with 21st-century society and its materialism. And wow oh wow, those harmonies. If you grew up with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, you’ll love these guys.
30. Ryan Adams – “Lucky Now”
“Am I really who I was?” Adams asks with the last line of “Lucky Now,” the first single from Ashes & Fire, his first real solo album since 2005. I suppose it’s a fair question after you marry Mandy Moore, and the contemplative lyrics fit the pureness of the folk/alt.-country sound that Adams executes so inimitably. Though I personally favor #61, “Shine Through the Dark,” “Lucky Now” is possibly the best song Adams has written since “When the Stars Go Blue.” Both tracks make my heart ache with a longing that I can’t quite explain.
29. Cults – “Abducted”
Cults’ self-titled debut justified the internet hype that followed their first track, “Go Outside,” which we named a Top 10 Song of 2010. On the opening track to the album, Madeline Follin admits that she’s “Abducted,” yet that she knows “he would be breaking my heart.” It’s one of those desperate lovesongs that speaks to the self-destructive in all of us, and it’s enhanced by a middle verse from Brian — “I knew right then that I’d never love her,” he mutters in a reversal of vantage points via duet — that unfastens the skintight three-chord parameters of the song, revealing a perky, titillating pop song stripped naked underneath.
28. Girls – “Vomit“
After a critically-renowned self-titled indie fuzz rock debut, Girls released an EP in late 2010, Broken Dreams Club, which traded experimental garage sounds for strong classic rock sensibilities, striking guitar work, and lyrics that delved even deeper into the psyche of Christopher Owens, the band’s lead singer and songwriter. He grew up a member of the Children of God cult, and his intensely personal words revealed a fucked up man with a strong desire to control his own future. Who can’t relate to that?
“Vomit,” the lead single to the band’s 2011 album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, continues the six-minute plus approach of previous standouts “Hellhole Ratrace” and “Carolina” but utilizes a simpler, circular lyrical approach. Depending on how you count them, there are approximately 10 distinct lines in the entire song; they won’t win any songwriting awards, but they’re emotionally punishing, especially sung in Owens’ straining, disconsolate vocals (you can read the lyrics below).
The true magic of “Vomit” (…oh dear…) is once again the guitar work, which revolves around a melancholy verse riff and an explosion of sound in the choruses. The song reaches higher and higher, moving past the “son” stage to the “holy GHOST!” (think Batman’s sidekick) stage with the addition of a choir and a soul singer. By the end, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that “Vomit” is like a combination of early-’00s scene band Brand New, Pink Floyd (particularly “The Great Gig In The Sky“), make-up sex, and My Morning Jacket. My soul aches every time I listen to the song. So why the hell is it called “Vomit”??
27. M83 – “Midnight City“
As you might expect from a band named after a spiral galaxy (Messier 83) 15 million light-years from Earth, M83 create reverb-heavy music that is sleek, towering, and as gorgeous as the stars. Gonzalez describes the band’s sixth studio album, October′s 22-track double-album opus Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, as “dark and very, very, very epic” — and the lead single, “Midnight City,” equals and very nearly surpasses that titillating VNV Nation-esque description.
Borrowing the structure of their 2008 standout single “Kim & Jessie,” “Midnight City” opens with a repeated synth riff that quickly explodes into an all-out ’80s fest. The riff carries the song through a few iterations of the chorus, where the spacey vocals pronounce lyrics that perfectly describe the atmosphere of the song (“Waiting in a car/ Waiting for a ride in the dark”) before building to an orgasmic climax complete with a saxophone solo and a slow fadeout. It’s very nearly a spiritual experience, one that Gonzalez validates when he sings “the city is my church”; this music envelops the listener in folds of familiar synthpop territory, simultaneously sending them soaring to faraway galaxies. It’s a musical drug, and one that you’d be very lucky to get addicted to.
26. Eugene McGuinness – “Lion”
From the opening guitar groove to the single note of surf to the Britpop-style handclaps, it’s evident even before the lyrics appear 25 seconds into “Lion” that this is an instant classic, a pop song that could’ve topped the charts in the late ’70s or early ’80s. It has the charisma and movement of a Bowie track, the modern sensibilities of Miles Kane, and the animal grunts of “New Age Girl” — all from one artist, the Irish smoothie Eugene McGuinness. The singer-songwriter’s last two albums (one under his name and one as Eugene & the Lizards) were jangle pop that kept a certain amount of “English reserve” to themselves, but McGuinness lets it all hang out on the furiously frantic “Lion” — and the result is one of the year’s best pop tracks.
The song would be nothing without its speed-of-light surrealist lyrics, however: “Cross-dressing cage-fighters juggle the bones/ Skeletons dancing up on xylophones,” McGuinness insists at the beginning of the second verse, and it all seems to add up to something danceably carnal, like a Totentanz or karneval (European History lovers, unite!). There’s something strangely yet undeniably sexy about the line, “The lions are out on the prowl/ So lions, I will believe you for now,” but also something undeniably ominous. It contrasts strongly with the near silliness of Kings of Leon-mocking lines like “The subtext is dire and the sex is not on fire/ But if beauty is truth that makes you a l-l-l-liar,” one of the most singable on the track.
We need more charismatic singers in pop music nowadays, especially ones with the range of Hurts‘ Theo Hutchcraft. ”Lion” is certainly “a disgraceful quest for immortality” — but more than likely, a quest that succeeds.
25. Peter Dragontail – “Crazy Bout You (ft. Maggie Horn)“
“Crazy Bout You” is a nearly eight-minute electro-house crescendo that burns like a cold fire and aches like the memory of a kiss. From meager synths and a few bass thumps, it escalates over the first two minutes, adding keyboards and increasingly complex beats to complement D.C. singer-songwriter Maggie Horn’s assertion, “oh, but still I’m crazy bout you.” Suddenly the song breaks down, removing the beat as Horn croons the first verse around the three-minute mark — her vocals are digitized, which would normally steal their raw emotion, but Horn’s words are so poignant that they shine through the production. “Every chance you get you seem to hurt me more and more/ But each hurt makes my love stronger than before,” is the song’s mantra, a couplet with which many of us can identify.
But the true center of the song isn’t the emotive-yet-mediocre lyrics. It’s the crescendo of beats and synths that explodes at just the right moments, retreats strategically before attacking with vigor, and guides the listener on a journey of dance and romance not unlike a Daft Punk track (say, “One More Time“). It’s one of the year’s best dance tracks, an anthem that could win the hearts of many if given the chance. Philadelphia producer Peter Dragontail has fewer likes on his Facebook than we do. Let’s bump those numbers up, shall we?
24. Holy Ghost! – “Some Children (ft. Michael McDonald)“
Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel, otherwise known as the NYC-based electronic duo Holy Ghost!, released their critically-praised self-titled album in April. ’80s-influenced dance tracks dominate the record, from the pulsating “Do It Again” to the Wham!-by-way-of-YACHT (also on DFA Records) highlight “Say It Again,” but the culmination of an album’s worth of enjoyable electronica comes during the finale. Michael McDonald, the blue-eyed soul singer who’s worked with The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, provides guest vocals to “Some Children” — as does an entire youth chorus (hence the title?).
Now, I’m a sucker for choir vocals in modern music, so I may be biased — but I get chills upon the first a capella notes that the choir hits before the bass and percussion slide in. The song moves through 3.5 minutes of Hot Chip-esque build-up before the choir starts singing: “that’s what makes you different from them, from them all.” It’s a ridiculously catchy ending — and even if repeats a few too many times…well, all the better to dance to, my dear.
23. Penguin Prison – “Golden Train”
On “Golden Train,” the song that introduced me to skilled producer Penguin Prison, a.k.a. Chris Glover, in late 2010, Glover dissolves disco lights into an acidic mix of a layered vocals and lyrics about a “golden train” that moves along unstoppably… maybe a metaphor for money? Capitalism? Time? The subject isn’t clear, but the words are delicacies: “It happens all the time/ An old design that can’t be traced/ Or shown on walls to contemplate/ If ever there was only one escape route/ Past the golden train.” Penguin Prison is one of those rarest specimens of artist, the kind that can communicate musically as easily as the rest of us speak or write, the kind that can find something fresh and beautiful in an oversaturated, overplayed genre and exploit both the nostalgia and the immediacy of the genre.
22. Destroyer – “Savage Night at the Opera”
As I said back at #82, Destoyer’s “Chinatown,” most of the criticism surrounding Kaputt, one of the best albums of the year, concerns how it imitates “soft rock” of years past. I don’t hear it. I hear jazz, Sinatra doing slam poetry, chamber pop, downbeat and contemplative disco. I hear “Savage Night at the Opera,” a ramble that is quietly glamorous. Dan Bejar intones “You’ll never guess just where I’ve been/ A life abandoned midstream/ Quatrain etched on a turnstile/ Just set the loop and then go wild” with a certain devil-may-care ‘tude well-hidden under his muttered poetry. Just what separates “Savage Night” from the rest of the brilliant Kaputt, however? Perhaps it’s that bassline, a fairy’s breath away from a Blur groove.
21. The Rosebuds – “Without a Focus”
The lyrics are the focus of Loud Planes Fly Low, The Rosebuds’ fifth album and the first since the (ex)husband-and-wife duo ended their relationship. And no wonder, for both Ivan and Kelly have a lot to say. For five albums, they’ve allowed their music to express their relationship, and even in divorce, they need it in order to express their feelings in a way that no other medium can so fittingly. These five albums have created a soundtrack for the couple’s relationship, from beginning to end, and it is very nearly worthy of a movie for that soundtrack. If you’ve gone through the end of a decade-plus long relationship, you may find many of the feelings on this soundtrack familiar, and love the album for it; if not, allow the words of maturity, experience, and sadness to speak to you, and hope you never understand what it feels like to sing “We overlooked it every day/ A thing of beauty, it just went away.”
20. Rue Royale – “Flightline“
The choicest cut from Rue Royale’s Guide to an Escape, the most criminally overlooked folk-pop release of 2011, is “Flightline.” Like much of the album, it centers around acoustic guitars; percussion slowly filters in through the slats, as a bass drum and what sounds like maracas guide the song towards a piano solo. And when the keys remain for the third verse, the effect is like a deep sigh that relieves the soul.
Ruth Dekker, one half of the husband-and-wife duo, takes the lead vocal on each of the three verses, and when her husband Brookln joins in, the harmonies are chillingly somber. But the true highlight of “Flightline” are the lyrics. Parallel structures watch the narrator “throw the whole of it away,” “try to start a brand new day,” and “feel the pain of my mistake” — but it isn’t until the end of the third verse that we discover exactly what she’s done: “we were beautiful together/ until selfishly I tore it all down,” she explains, before launching back into the narrator’s despondent condemnation of herself: “the rubble left behind me is only guilty of being in my flightline.” It’s a sentiment that many of us can share through the experience of self-loathing, and it lifts this humble and unaffected tune into the ranks of the Top 20 Songs of 2011.
19. City and Colour – “The Grand Optimist“
Though Little Hell, the third album from former Alexisonfire vocalist Dallas Green, is full of introspective songs that range from painfully beautiful to tenderly content, the standout for me is the third track, “The Grand Optimist.” Over spare guitar and piano that is somewhat reminiscent of Ryan Adams, the bearded-and-dorky Green ponders mediocrity (“I’m like a jack of all trades/ Who’s a master of none”), unfinished endeavors (“I fear I’m dying of complications/ Complications due to things that I’ve left undone”), and his father, who is the “grand optimist” that the title refers to. ”He’s always looking on the bright side/ Saying things like, ‘son, life just ain’t that hard’,” Green sings, juxtaposing his father with himself (“the world’s poor pessimist”). Finally, in the chorus, he communicates that, “I guess I take after my mother” — even though we never hear as much as a single adjective about his mom, we somehow understand through osmosis that his mom is a pessimist. And that reveals a lot about Green’s childhood and his parents’ relationship — and perhaps our childhood or our parents, too.
18. My Morning Jacket – “Circuital”
The first two tracks on My Morning Jacket’s latest release, Circuital, are easily the strongest: “Victory Dance” opens with a gong and crescendos into a soberly spiritual rock song of The Who proportions where Jim James “hope[s] to dance the victory dance over many lives to come”; it’s cacophonic ending is one of the most cleansing moments on any MMJ record. The song fades into the ambient synths, bass drum stomping at an incessant cadence, and wholesome guitar riff of “Circuital.” Nearly seven and a half minutes of groove-driven rock, complete with random howls and a riff as addictive — and stimulating — as coffee, it is Evil Urges’ “Smokin’ from Shootin’,” but expanded and aligned into one 7-minute thought. Like a microcosm of the album, it too comes full circle back to its basic components before James exits with a “shaaah!” — one of the best moments in the recent history of rock music.
17. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games“
The most interesting new artists usually generate the most controversy, and the oodles of internet love/hate for Lana Del Rey reveal that there is something special about her — and especially about her first single, “Video Games.” It trembles with the tremors of love, but is simultaneously awash with a melancholy classic-movie air that completely justifies Del Rey’s description of herself as “a gangster Nancy Sinatra.”
The song also demonstrates delicious nostalgia, both through the ’60s-pop-ballad strains and the lyrics, which describe nights on the town (“Kissing in the blue dark/ Playing pool and wild darts”) as well as unapologetically sexy moments (“I’m in his favorite sun dress/ Watching me get undressed/ Take that body downtown”) in the verses, before launching into a chorus which aches for love: “Heaven is a place on earth with you/ Tell me all the things you want to do/ I heard that you like the bad girls/ Honey, is that true?” The melodic changes and chord progressions are delightfully unpredictable — until you’ve heard the song a few dozen times. Then the heartache overpowers everything else, and the future seems incontrovertibly bright for the young, soulful, and strikingly beautiful singer… as long as she keeps it quirky and doesn’t tame herself.
16. Jape – “Scorpio“
Dublin, Ireland natives Jape have done well in their native country, making it to #16 with their third album, 2008′s Ritual, and currently climbing the charts with their fourth, Ocean of Frequency. But the rest of the world remains ignorant of this talented band, who write catchy songs that even Wikipedia can’t fully categorize: somewhere between “folktronica,” “electronic-rock,” and the band’s Facebook description “Gothic Pop,” it’s pretty clear where album highlight and new single “Scorpio” fits, at least to me: pop-rock. It relies upon drums, bass, and guitars, like any good ol’ fashioned rock song, and the electronic elements that infiltrate most of the band’s music sound absent here. The melody becomes an earworm before the song even finishes playing, but the lyrics are deeper than a surface listen seems to reveal.
If you can understand them, that is. Without a source available anywhere on the internet, I spent a half hour attempting to figure them out, but still can’t understand half of them. What I can understand, however, touches me in a way that even the melody can’t: “I love the shelter, but I need the storm,” Jape sing wonderfully. Who hasn’t been “in between what I once was and what I need to be”? ”Scorpio” is one of those rare tracks that is as well-written as it is catchy, and though “pop-rock” may have lost much of its widespread appeal from 10 years ago, Jape don’t sound dated at all on Ocean of Frequency.
15. Architecture in Helsinki – “Escapee”
This song by Aussie pop group Architecture in Helsinki gets my award for “Ridiculously Catchy Song of the Year.” Every single damn time I listen to it, I can’t stop humming it or whistling it for hours afterwards. No-one said music can’t be about the fun, and almost no song (see: #13) from 2011 is more fun than this one.
14. Digits – “Lost Dream“
Our highest-ranking song from a relatively unknown artist is a sumptuously minimalist electronic/indie pop track that should not, under any circumstances, be missing from your iTunes library. Don’t worry, you’re forgiven if you don’t already own the song — it comes from an esoteric artist called Digits, a Canadian native who possesses the unfortunate name of “Alt Altman.” If it’s real. In any case, “Lost Dream” reverberates through a bass drum-filled and synthed-out verse that establishes a tone of nostalgia, melancholy, and — paradoxically — optimism. But the real treat is the bittersweet, selflessly mature breakup chorus: “I am the last in a line of a long line of lovers/ Pray the day arrives that I can make some meaning of my troubles/ For now I just accept that what is lost is lost forever/ I only want what’s best for you, I only want what’s best for you.”
13. Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
While I agree that hearing it over and over and over and… over… can certainly get abrasive, The Song of 2011 gets stuck in your head like a jingle — which it kind of is, since Mark Foster wrote jingles at the time. Laying lyrics about school shootings overtop the whistle-able melody was simply pure genius. Just think… one day, in about thirty years when you’ve forgotten this song completely, your kid will start whistling the melody out of nowhere, and it’ll all come rushing back to you once again.
12. Bon Iver – “Towers”
Though its brother “Holocene” is getting most of the attention from end-of-the-year lists, “Towers” is the song that a few Bon Iver fans that I know still can’t get enough of nearly six months after the release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The simple clean guitar and Justin Vernon’s falsetto, incomprehensible lyrics like “Break the sailor’s table on your sacrum/ Fuck the fiercest fables, I’m with Hagen” feel so wholesome, yet so edgy at the same time. It’s this album’s “Skinny Love,” but warped and deconstructed by the “onus” of society.
11. Male Bonding – “Bones“
As the menacingly polished guitars fade in at the beginning of “Bones,” the first single from the band’s August sophomore release, something seems different. For one thing, a glance at the song’s length betrays a different band altogether: at 6.5 minutes, this is an extended roar, not a short bark like past Male Bonding material. The noise, the punk, the undermixed vocal lines — they’re all still there, but the band sounds… more mature. They utilize their noise efficiently, now; the backup vocals frequently intone “aaahh”s that augment the cacophony with a smooth ease.
And while you may not be able to understand the lyrics, you’ll be humming along within one listen — it’s that catchy. Beating insistently into your skull like a wave of distortion coming right in from the Atlantic, “Bones” is one of the most memorable singles of the year. When it ends, you will swear it didn’t last 6.5 minutes, likely because it’s terribly easy to get lost in the crests and zeniths (mostly crests) of the song.
10. Florence + the Machine – “What the Water Gave Me“
“What The Water Gave Me,” the first single from big-voiced Brit Florence Welch’s sophomore release, which dropped in November, moves the band in exactly the right direction. It’s unusual for a band to evolve this smoothly between debut and second album — which is why it’s often called “the sophomore slump” — and particularly unusual for a band to be so aware of their few faults that they confront them and eliminate them. “What The Water Gave Me” tightens up structurally despite its 5.5-minute runtime, longer than any other studio recording by the band; its direction is more linear than tangential, and its chorus is enormous yet humble.
But the magic of the song is how it builds so effortlessly from minimal instrumentation to the cacophonic torrent of an epic rock song. The lyrics certainly assist in the matter; they are difficult to interpret but shockingly poignant, especially on the chorus: “Lay me down/ Let the only sound/ Be the overflow/ Pockets full of stones.” Elsewhere, Welch alludes to classical mythology (“Poor Atlas/ The world’s a beast of a burden”) and seems to be making a deal with the “cruel mistress” of water to drown herself because “a bargain must be made.” The song is certainly vague, but it retains the feeling of a Greek myth throughout its crescendo, lending it an air of fantastical beauty and mystery.
9. Manchester Orchestra – “Virgin”
It is more than merely the highlight of the album, like “I Can Barely Breathe” and “Shake It Out” from their respective releases by Atlanta alternative rock quartet Manchester Orchestra. It is a culmination of immense power chords, a children’s choir, apocalyptic lyrics of time and power that recall Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” flawless production — basically one of the most epic songs ever written. “We built this house with our hands, and our time, and our blood/ We built this up in one day to fall downward and rust”…listening to “Virgin” is almost a religious experience in itself.
8. The Weeknd – “The Birds Part 1“
We introduced Abel Tesfaye’s The Weeknd project to you over the course of 2011, and included his breakout song “What You Need” back at #85. But it’s “The Birds Part 1″ that grabs a Top 10 spot from us. A few synth chords ascend to abrupt ends before Tesfaye enters with a muffled “ohh yeah,” introducing military-style snare beats. The entire song, and specifically the first verse, are exercises in tension, as Tesfaye experiments with unsettling rhythms and distressing electronic noises to create an atmosphere of dread.
But it’s a mournfully graceful trepidation, as evidenced by the lyrics: Tesfaye is warning a lovely lady that love “is no game” because “it won’t mean a thing to me/ I’ve been doing this too long/ baby girl, I’ve felt it all.” But he places some of the blame on his own shoulders, singing “don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me” during the album’s soaring chorus, which reaches new heights the second time around with a handful of harmonies crooning “I swear I’m just a bird/ girl, I’m just another bird.” While the significance of the bird may be open to subjective interpretation, the insistence of the song isn’t: it will leave a mark on you one way or another. This is worthy of being a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
7. Cass McCombs – “County Line”
Our #7 song of the year opens with a simple line: “On my way to you, old county/ Hoping nothing’s changed.” It’s a tale about returning home, played over a jazzy painting whose melancholy keyboards say more than any lyrics could. ”You never even tried to love me, woah-oh-oh-oh-oh,” McCombs sings in a fragile falsetto, “What did I have to do to make you want me?” I’m not sure if McCombs would like this comparison or not, but to me it sounds like what John Mayer would be making if he’d stuck to Continuum and taken a few too many sips of scotch.
6. Destroyer – “Kaputt”
Destroyer already made an impression on this list at #82 and #22, but it’s the title track that races up the charts to #6. If you’d have asked me before the year began if I’d give a top spot to a song with the line “Step out of your toga and into the fog/ You are a prince on the ocean/ In the pinch, in the sky, in your eye,” I’d have told you that it sounded like bad poetry and that you were insane. But Dan Bejar delivers the lines — and others about cocaine, back rooms, and NME – with such empathetic soul-searching, the kind that makes you feel as if he understands just what you’re thinking and is saying it in real time over the disco beat. It already feels nostalgic, and I’ve only known the song for a year — I can’t wait to see how it sounds in two decades.
5. The Rapture – “How Deep Is Your Love?”
This is NOT a cover of the Bee Gees disco hit. Instead, it steals a page from their book, erecting one of the best dance tracks in the history of music from a piano riff somewhat reminiscent of “Hand Me Down Your Love” by Hot Chip. This isn’t some heartfelt master ode — #2 and #3 have that covered — or a slice of ’60s pop-rock like #4. It’s just an anthem of an electronic piece. But sometimes that’s all you really need.
4. Girls – “Honey Bunny“
“Honey Bunny” is the opening track on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and in its brief 2:40 it boasts astoundingly catchy California pop melodies, a short surf guitar riff, and a tongue-in-cheek Oedipal breakdown on the bridge. It’s a far cry from the “combination of early-’00s scene band Brand New, Pink Floyd (particularly “The Great Gig In The Sky“), make-up sex, and My Morning Jacket” that made “Vomit” one of 2011′s most epic singles. Instead, we have a pop lovesong that works its magic through its sheer jangly fun.
But this is no ordinary pop lovesong. Owens’ insistence that his true love “might be right around the corner” and she’ll “look at me and know I’m the one” comes across as pitifully, stubbornly unrealistic rather than “I’m A Believer.” When he states that “You will love me/ For all the reasons everyone hates me” and lists those reasons — “boney body,” “dirty hair,” “the stuff that I say,” and drugs — it’s hard not to imagine a grungy misfit who defies the very fantasy-land that pop lovesongs typically try to invoke.
And then there’s the bridge. Owens finally gives a little background on the song, as the narrator ceases the assured rambles about his imminent true love to explain exactly why he needs “a woman who loves me, me, me, me, me, me!” “Mama, she really loved me/ Even when I was bad/ She’d hold my little hand/ And kiss me on the cheek/ … That woman loved me,” Owens proclaims petulantly, revealing the precise standard that all women are measured against — his mother. It’s Oedipal to the core, and this psychological revelation elevates the track to a further level of interpretation that makes it so much more than the pop lovesong on the surface.
3. Fleet Foxes – “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”
On the centerpiece of Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes gently remind the wayward son that “all of us walk so blind in the sun” on “The Plains / Bitter Dancer.” Many of the album’s lyrics speak to a human condition of helplessness mentioned in the title — the desire to, Walden-like, transcend the limits of shyness, of self-doubt, of the fear of living life to its fullest — and none do it better than this track. Divided into two parts, a bit of Appalachian folk with gorgeous nonsensical harmonies laid overtop and a piano-led folk song that seems to quietly accept you in even as it keeps you “at arm’s length” and tells asks “what have you done?” It may seem charmingly innocent, but like the rest of Helplessness Blues, it’s actually charmingly profound.
2. Iron & Wine – “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me”
It is not so much a denouement or an epilogue of Kiss Each Other Clean, where it appears as the closing track, as it is a culmination of Beam’s entire career – an epitome of music that most writers strive for but never find. It comes just in time, right after Kiss Each Other‘s two weakest tracks, the Dave Matthews Band-esque “Big Burned Hand” and the melancholy ballad “Glad Man Singing.” While these two tracks would take the reins on any other album, they don’t quite summit the peak that the rest of Kiss Each Other‘s songs do: they have the oxygen to make it up K2, not Everest. At this point, most listeners might be ready to press “repeat,” expecting the closer to be some sort of dulcet ballad like the two that closed Our Endless Numbered Days and The Shepherd’s Dog. But no.
Instead, Beam offers up one of the penultimate songs of this millenium: a prodigious, introspective, funky look at life. It rides 3 verses, saxophones, and the greatest dose of the ’70s onKiss through 3 minutes worth of touching lyrics that describe a person who “watches all the happy kids” but cannot be happy himself, hoping to “become” something else. “Become” is the mantra of the song; during the slow crescendo of the 4-minute conclusion, Beam sings a parallel lyrical structure: “We will become, become/ Become the sinner and the saint/ We will become, become/ Become the bandage and the blade.” He repeats with dozens of paradoxes, contradictory images, and vivid gut-wrenching certainty of what “we will become.”
After “Your Fake Name” works itself to a cacophony and finally rests on the straining, incomplete notes of a saxophone, you have to sit and take in the song – as well as its message of unfinished vitality – with an air of humility. There is always something else to “become” – hell, even Sam Beam might have a better album somewhere inside of him – and that is an important lesson to remember.
1. Jay-Z + Kanye West – “No Church in the Wild (ft. Frank Ocean)“
The synthesis of these three artists is certainly something to get excited about, but whether or not two of the premiere rappers in the business and one of the best young R&B singers (from Odd Future) could live up to the expectations was another matter entirely — until Watch The Throne dropped in August. While one of the trio’s collabs, “Made in America,” is more than solid, it’s “No Church in the Wild,” the album’s opening track, which launches into your ears with the conviction of a Song of the Year.
Sleek and determined like a hawk’s dive, the song enters with a four-on-the-floor beat, a tense bass riff, and 88-Keys’ talented production. And then it’s all Ocean’s expanse, as he croons introspectively “Human beings in a mob/ What’s a mob to a king?/ What’s a king to a god?/ What’s a god to a nonbeliever/ Who don’t believe in anything?” Further on, we find an auto-tuned Terius Nash (The-Dream) painting hedonism as the replacement “religion” for nonbelievers; however, the song doesn’t seem to take a strong stance on atheism, preferring instead to philosophize rich-musician-style.
And that’s where Hov comes in, paraphrasing Socrates (“Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?/ Socrates asks, ‘Whose bias do y’all seek?’”), possibly a first for rap music, and asserting that Thanksgiving is “disguised as a feast.” The only link between his verse and ‘Ye‘s pro-honesty anti-monogamy lines is a mention of cocaine and the final word: “preach.” It’s an order straight to Ocean, who immediately launches back into the song’s rhetorical chorus. You may not understand what the song’s trying to say, but you’ll love it just the same for its flawless construction, its head-on collision with religion, and its memorable lines (“You will not control the threesome”). Oh, and it’s ridiculously unforgettable.
Come back later this week for more lists, including the Best Albums of 2011 and quite a few others.