Songs of 2011, Tracks 10-1
Now comes the time when I bring the list to a close. With the most far-reaching list I’ve ever created, 2011 truly had a wide range of incredible music, and the top ten are no exception. It may not be as easily recognizable as 2010’s final ten, but it’s certainly just as enjoyable.
10. “That’s My Bitch (Demo)” - Jay-Z & Kanye West
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Watch the Throne was infamous this year, making a huge splash in pop culture upon its release at the beginning of August. The album in general was breath-taking, and intentionally ostentatious, as two of the best rappers of all time spit verses detailing their opulence and talent. Songs like “Otis,” “Niggas in Paris,” and “No Church in the Wild” were all astounding, but the best track from the two never ended up on the album; at least, the superior version never made it. The leaked demo version of “That’s My Bitch” is actually the best song the collaboration created. Guest vocals from Justin Vernon (better known as Bon Iver) and Elly Jackson (of La Roux fame) are more visceral, more personal, and throatier - not thin like on the final version. Overall, the backing beat is more intense, more aggressive, whereas the album’s version seems to almost pull punches. The mix of the final version seems tinny and weak compared to the lush arrangement of the demo. Some of the more awkward lines that seem forced in the final don’t exist on the demo, and the flow of both men comes across as more natural; Jay-Z’s verse specifically is the best I’ve heard from him in quite some time. In short, it’s almost a crime that the best song the men made was never even available for purchase.
9. “Video Games” - Lana Del Rey
Many of you may have never heard of the self-proclaimed “gangster Nancy Sinatra” before last week, and that’s a pity now that her name is synonymous with “bombed on Saturday Night Live.” If we choose to ignore those truly horrendous performances and focus on the song itself, “Video Games” is stunning. Her presence is undeniable, as she alternates between vulnerability and unleashed sexuality. Power seems to ooze out of Del Rey as she sings, fluctuating between whiskey-smoked growling and soft, cooing notes throughout the song. The instrumentation is minimal, as the focus is very purposefully on Lana. She seems to flirt with equal parts sarcasm, depression, and earnestness in an almost maddening way. Lyrics like “Heaven is a place on earth with you/Tell me all the things you want to do,” that would sound unbearably disingenuous coming out of other singers, hit their mark because of her authenticity. ”Video Games” is similar in subject matter to myriad other songs meant to pander to teens and college students (“Teenage Dream” anyone?), but the tone and approach are completely different and the result pays off in spades. I only hope the SNL fiasco is a blip on the radar and not something that defines her career; let’s hope 2012 helps her become synonymous with “phenomenon” and not “overhyped disaster.”
8. “Hard Times” - Gillian Welch
It’s hard to accurately describe this song because it affects me so much emotionally. Welch is as perfect as ever, with a song that could have easily made it onto the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack that she graced with her presence over a decade ago. Swimming against the grain as she always has, the 44-year-old folk singer duets with her perpetual musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings, as they describe determination in the face of dogged adversity. Known for her distinctive folk songs, similar to Allison Krauss, Patty Griffin, or Emmylou Harris, Welch specifically has a special ear for the timeless; “Hard Times” features only a guitar and a banjo, with the duo’s clear voices deftly describing the American spirit in times of economic disaster. This song could have been recorded in 1931 just as easily as 2011, and the literary sensibilities of Welch, along with the sparse, austere arrangement hammer home that point. The defiant chorus “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more” is something of an anthem without the bleating, raucous noise or the condescending lyrics; basically, it’s an anthem for those of us who grew up.
7. “Someone Like You” - Adele
Sometimes, I almost wish I could go back to last February, back to a world where Adele wasn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet. As someone who’s followed her career since 2008 when her debut album was released, I grew to love her and think of her as something exclusive to my own world. It isn’t that I wanted to prevent her success, it’s that I didn’t want her music cheapened by the adoration of the masses. 2011 was, without question, her year; she dominated the charts, spending fifteen weeks atop the US album charts, with worldwide shipments topping 17 million albums sold. ”Someone Like You” was a standout before the album was even released, when she released a simple video of herself singing the song in her London flat, surrounded by dogs, personal photos, and cigarette smoke. The song set records in countries across the world almost immediately upon its release, and is the only song in Billboard history to top the US charts featuring only a piano and a singer’s voice. There isn’t much I can write about it here that hasn’t been published already, as nearly everyone connects with this song deeply. Adele’s powerhouse vocals slide up and down her impressive range with ease, cracking only slightly at the high notes in the chorus - and we assume it’s from anguish, not lack of control. Backed only by a piano, the spotlight is on her and the painful, acutely personal lyrics about a lover scorned. That’s the real triumph of Adele: that she can write a song about her own life and have it resonate with millions of people all over the globe. If only other artists were as powerful.
6. “212” - Azealia Banks
The polar opposite of Adele’s aching ballad is this dizzying assault of vulgarity and arrogance. Harlem native Azealia Banks made a splash in the rap world with her astonishingly acid-tongued ode to her own bravado. Utilizing Lazy Jay’s brilliant beats from “Float My Boat” to the point of giving him a featuring credit, Banks delivers a casual, effortless flow that will leave even the most hardened musical critic stunned by the sheer audacity of it all. She’ll undoubtedly draw comparisons to Nicki Minaj with her shifts between characters and cadences, but there’s far more nuance to this track than you may notice on the first listen. Banks is all over the place on “212,” with a fluid flow, impressive singing, and an almost taunting tone for the majority of it all. Perhaps most surprising is not the loquaciously caustic lyrics but how perfectly contained the entire track becomes; this is not the demo of a wide-eyed ingenue, but the debut of a novice that’s done her homework and then some. When she finally builds to lines like “Who are you, bitch: new lunch? I’mma ruin you, cunt,” the effect is devastating and exhilarating at the same time. Banks has created the song that all artists strive to achieve - an instant classic. What’s truly impressive is that it was her first, and self-released to boot. She’s gonna ruin you all, cunts.
5. “Harvest Moon” - Poolside
We move from a darling of the indie blogosphere to a pair of LA friends few people have even discovered. Electro duo Poolside, otherwise known as Filip Nikolic and Jeffrey Paradise, were messing around in the studio as they finished up their album and felt like creating a cover. Jeffrey suggested a Neil Young song and Filip mentioned that he knew “Harvest Moon,” from Young’s 1992 album Harvest, on the guitar. They set about recreating the track, eventually throwing out the guitar entirely to distance themselves further from the original. Young purists may barely recognize the song, as the atmospheric, almost purely electronic arrangement is nothing like the twangy guitars of the original piece. The vocals are close enough to Young’s original arrangement that the changes aren’t distracting, but also singular enough that you know the duo didn’t lift them straight from Young’s recording, either. At over six minutes of what the band calls “daytime disco,” you can almost feel the rays of sun at the beach, or smell the smoke from the bonfire at the lake house. It’s one of those rare songs in which you can honestly lose yourself; the soothing vocal, the echoed notes, the sample of what seems like ocean waves - they all combine to overtake the senses. I’ve written about songs that create a dreamlike state a few times on this year’s list, but nothing compares to the relaxed feeling of utter contentment that settles in after listening to this song two or three times in a row. The song builds and dissolves throughout the course of its life, but eventually the true meaning of the lyrics shines through: the pained loss of a loved one.
4. “Somebody That I Used to Know” - Gotye (featuring Kimbra)
The odd parade of songs for spurned lovers continues, but this differs from Adele and Poolside in significant ways. For one, both sides of the story are featured; perhaps more importantly, legitimate animosity and malcontent are on full display here. Belgian-born Australian singer-songwriter Wouter De Backer, known by his stage name Gotye, crafts a song of bitterness and heartbreak as he sings with New Zealand singer Kimbra (born Kimbra Johnson). Experimental instrumentation only adds to the impact of the song, as everything from a xylophone to a flute to even a little cowbell adding to the rich texture and haunting landscape of the track. He sings in an address to an ex, seeming to reminisce on better times; once he reaches the chorus, however, the story changes abruptly. His voice leaps an octave and he lashes out at how his ex-girlfriend treated him, resentful over her behavior. Eventually, Kimbra adds her own verse, as if responding to Gotye’s vitriol, explaining her own feelings of hopelessness and even hinting that Gotye utilized gaslighting to hurt her. Once the next chorus is reached, Kimbra’s voice rises and sings with a different melody; the two voices are harmonious but almost approaching a call-and-response: as if the notes they emit are themselves fighting. Her voice and backing harmonies bring to mind a more talented version of Katy Perry; throaty and deep, but with better pitch and more control over her instrument. People have responded strongly to the strange mix of regret and acrimony, as the singer himself noting a need for more substance and less songs taking place on a dance floor.
3. “Calgary” - Bon Iver
Justin Vernon had a banner year, releasing an album with almost universal praise and racking up some massive Grammy nominations at year’s end; in fact, it’s hard to think of an artist besides Adele who truly exploded onto the music scene like he did in 2011. Besides the praise for the album, though, a lot of the attention has fallen to the song “Holocene.” While I find that track gorgeous and ingenious in other ways, I would argue that “Calgary” is actually the superior song. Coming off of the folksy, restrained tone of his debut For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon leaned hard into transcendental electronic sounds, utilizing a charming synth-sound that no one expected. With nonsensical lyrics almost appearing merely as vocal noises, the music on display here is nothing short of graceful. Vernon plays with song structure throughout the piece, begging you to follow him on an implied journey, building toward a cathartic crescendo. He adjusts tone and tempo as if they were instruments in and of themselves, changing his voice to complement the electric guitars at the bridge, constantly adjusting your expectation of where the song will head next. Vernon flexes an intricate strength in “Calgary,” bringing your attention to a delicate balance of organic and electric, vulnerability and power. This song will be remembered for years to come for its understated magnificence.
2. “Abducted” - Cults
There is an instant ferocity that comes to mind with “Abducted,” a sinister tone that clashes well with the 60s throwback sound. Everything about this song is pure verve: make no mistake about it, this song has some serious teeth. Despite the echoed guitars, despite the scaling xylophones, and despite that gorgeous percussive-heavy bridge, this song is seriously twisted. Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, originally hailing from San Diego but now based in NYC, exploited the internet goodwill they received from their first song, “Go Outside” to their advantage. Largely backed by heavy-hitters like Pitchfork’s fawning praise, they signed with Columbia Records for a full-length album. This song, full of kinetic energy and literally bursting out of your speakers, comes from the resulting album and is nothing if not disturbing. Follin’s vocals are saccharine, but don’t mistake them for naïveté. She wails in an almost enraptured state , “He tore me up ‘cause I really loved him,” and Oblivion responds in almost droll tones, recalling that he knowingly broke her heart simply for the fun of it. The story is viciously delightful, the song itself sheer pop-rock perfection.
1. “Shuffle” - Bombay Bicycle Club
Could it be we’ve finally reached the best song of the year? This four-piece British band is shockingly prolific, with three albums in as many years under their belt. ”Shuffle,” a summery, bouncing single that describes in vivid detail the rush of endorphins you feel while dancing at a concert, is an instant shot of dopamine straight to your brain. The layering of this arrangement is beautifully complex, with “infectious” popping up in every single review I have seen. There really is no other word to describe it - this song is a virus that infects you, body and soul. It is exuberant, joyful, and intense; you cannot possibly listen to this without aching to dance. Frontman Jack Steadman’s vocal flirts with falsetto through much of the song, hovering above the looped sample of his own scat singing. The piano is simultaneously wonky and jaunty, perfectly executed to spread good cheer. It’s almost like the culmination of so many movements in music right now - the layered synths, the vocal samples, the bouncing notes, the untempered bliss. Who cares that it’s snowing in Boston as I type these words? Listening to this song is like packaged sunshine, an ode to nothing but the inexplainable ecstasy we feel as a song takes us over.
Songs of 2011, Tracks 20-11
We’re in the home stretch, with the final twenty songs basically highlighting the perfection and the diversity of great music that was released in 2011. If you thought the spectrum was pretty wide so far…well, you haven’t seen/heard anything yet.
20. “East Harlem” - Beirut
The earnest crooning of multi-instrumentalist front man Zach Condon seeps into the body of this single, which defies explanation from even the most articulate music blogger. Beirut is known for their far-flung influences, including Balkan folk and Mexican mariachi, and this song is the pop-leaning crystallization of their previous two albums. Describing the wistful lament of one half of a Manhattan relationship, the protagonist pines for the sound of his lover’s breath. It seems that a thousand miles separates the two, which is understandable in many urban environments today. More importantly, the backing instrumentals of accordion, warm brass, agile piano, and wordless vocals all combine to create an almost comfortable, intimate feeling.
19. “Helplessness Blues” - Fleet Foxes
The surging harmonies are back but in short supply, and the band that arranges them better than any other in the business should consider themselves triumphant for pulling off some risky moves on their second album. The mood is darker on this piece compared to their earlier LP and EP (Sun Giant) from 2008, and with this song specifically, they seem to shirk individualism for a feeling of belonging. Frontman Robin Pecknold writes of a longing to work with his hands in an orchard, and the song’s tone becomes downright existential as it moves throughout several introspective pieces, slowing down from the quickly strumming acoustic guitars of the beginning of the track. The tonal shift halfway through is brilliant, and the pitch throughout is, simply put, perfect. It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly better than 90% of the music released these days.
18. “Gangsta” - tUnE-yArDs
What started as a one-woman project, created by Merrill Garbus and now featuring Nate Brennan, the duo known as tUnE-yArDs is now a veritable independent music force. There are almost cacophonous, short blasts of saxophone, sampled loops of police sirens, and an all-consuming drum beat that envelop the listener. The song is refreshing in so many ways, most importantly it’s use of inventive and brash rhythms, with looped “found sounds” and hostile lyrics detailing the danger of the “hood” - or Oakland, Garbus’s new home. Garbus is erratic with her arrangement, removing sounds and instruments just as quickly as she introduces them. She creates a legitimate storm of sound around you, with the audacious, combative song refusing to comply with the standard expectations of a pop song. It may be dissonant, but it’s also an undeniable creative force in a world that all too often processed and AutoTuned. Let’s be nothing if not frank, just like the song: if it’s good enough to be featured on The Good Wife, it’s good enough for any Best of the Year list.
17. “No Light, No Light” - Florence + The Machine
The famously ostentatious Florence Welch returned with her hugely successful sophomore album Ceremonials last year, and easily the best track is the vastly personal “No Light, No Light.” Similar in sound to “Cosmic Love” from her debut 2009 album Lungs, this song features atmospheric vocals, bombastic drums, a church organ, and even a nimble harp, creating an almost religious fervor that could make the song more apropos at a revival than a concert. When Welch hits a certain note at the end of the bridge, which lasts for at least twelve seconds, the results are jaw-dropping; her vocal chops almost transform her into a superhero, a literal banshee screeching her pain on stage. Taking a page from Adele’s playbook, this song is significantly more personal than most of Welch’s repertoire, and it pays off in a huge way. With lines like “‘Cause it’s so easy to say it to a crowd/But it’s so hard, my love, to say it to you alone” and the repeated “Tell me what you want me to say” drive home the anguish we can suddenly see in Welch.
16. “Amor Fati” - Washed Out
Chillwave is a movement that’s established its staying power, but Ernest Green skyrocketed to the top of the genre with his beautifully elegant album this past year. ”Amor Fati,” loosely meaning “love of fate” in Latin, is the standout with its warm, synthesized sound containing lyrics that alternate between mopey longing and determined ambition. There’s an alienation that is intrinsic to this song - an alienation that is all too familiar to many, and thus serves almost as a comfort on the record. Once the bridge begins with hand claps and wordless vocals, the effect of exhilarating pleasure is complete, swelling the heart with relief and cheer. You may feel alone in a new city or at a new job or in a new school, but we all feel a little taken aback with a new chapter; this song, in essence, seeks to dampen that anxiety and assuage your fears. It succeeds tremendously.
15. “Super Bass” - Nicki Minaj
Minaj was literally inescapable with this monster of a song, which somehow didn’t really take off until teen queens Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, of all people, publicly stated their love for their track. It’s hard to believe the song was never intended to be released as a single, especially considering it’s now the most successful female rap single since Missy Elliott’s “Work It” almost a decade ago in 2002. The exuberant, gleeful song describes meeting a handsome suitor and the giddy head rush Nicki experiences when talking to him. Ester Dean belts out the undeniably slick chorus that stays with you while Minaj pelts you with her rhymes, and the result is the type of irrepressibly effervescent megahit that transcends the most cynical of critics. This is that rare song that is loved by pretty much everyone.
14. “Dots on Maps” - Say Hi
Eric Elbogen is a one-man band that is consistently spectacular (and consistently underrated) with his rich, multi-layered, lo-fi creations. You may remember that I chose his song “November was White, December was Grey” as the best song of 2009; “Dots on Maps” may not reach quite that level, but it’s still an incredible achievement in and of itself. The bouncing piano keys, buoyant guitars, and what seems like backing maracas and even a delicate flute all combine to rival M. Ward or Conor Oberst for top songwriting acclaim in the crowded indie marketplace of contemporary times. Elbogen recalls a more innocent life, clinging to his lover’s affection as they traverse the country and fight the bitterness that seems to encroach upon us all as we age. Other songs from his latest album, title Um, Uh Oh, may have received more attention from the blogs and even film soundtracks, but the intimacy of this song certainly ranks it as one of the year’s best.
13. “Valerie (‘68 Version)” - Amy Winehouse
I speak only for myself when I say that the untimely and, unfortunately, seemingly inevitable death of Amy Winehouse this past summer was utterly devastating. She was a talent with almost limitless scope, and only she could improve upon an earlier remake of the Zutons’ song. It may surprise some to find out the earlier release was actually her largest hit in her homeland; she famously recorded the original track in 2007 for Mark Ronson’s album Version. This take has considerably slowed down the tempo; while still quite jaunty, the effect of the new instrumentation and her compelling voice practically erase the 2007 recording from her catalogue. ”Valerie (‘68 Version)” is infectiously catchy, less concerned with swagger than authenticity. It’s a testament to Winehouse and her talent that almost any of the songs from this final collection of recordings could have been an entry on this list, but the champion is most certainly this beloved cover.
12. “Terrible Angels” - Charlotte Gainsbourg
The daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg received an incredible amount of attention for her beautiful performance in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia this year, but I would argue that her biggest achievement was this song. Thudding electro-pop with an aggressive, stomping beat backs Charlotte’s plea for “a release from isolation.” It’s entirely unexpected from this artist, and the fact that Beck produced it makes it even more of a curve ball, but it succeeds in so many ways. ”Terrible Angels” was criminally overlooked by most of the industry, but Gainsbourg’s distorted vocals, at times breathy, at times snarling, are almost like another instrument in this heavily produced, industrial track. It’s quite perfect for a plethora of occasions - strutting down the street, the soundtrack to your next fashion show, or even dancing in a parking garage. Just don’t relegate Gainsbourg to the qualifier of “just an actress;” this song proves she deserves more attention for her music, as well.
11. “Rolling in the Deep (Jamie xx Shuffle)” - Jamie XX
You’re probably questioning my integrity right now. You’re right, I included the source for this song on last year’s list just one slot back from this entry (since “Rolling in the Deep” was released in 2010, despite how long it took you all to come around to it). Many may think the original was one of those ubiquitous songs that steamrolled the competition this year, and they’d be right. It hit number one in 11 countries, including seven weeks atop the US charts; by the end of the year, the single had sold almost six million copies in the United States alone. The saddest thing about all this attention is the lack of spotlight this remix received. It was released to the internet almost a year ago, near the end of January, and the sparse instrumentation, hand claps, and deliberate focus on her smoky, powerhouse vocals lands it safely as an entry on the all-time list of best remixes ever. Donald Glover makes his second appearance on this year’s list with the best rap cameo since Nicki Minaj slayed everyone in the industry on “Monster.” Glover’s inventive invective against an ex-girlfriend is absolutely brilliant, his verses articulate, rapid, and brutally cutting. The one-two punch of Jamie’s arrangement and Childish Gambino’s jaw-dropping rap in the second half elevate this to one of the best songs of the entire year. Take it from me: I’m still listening to it almost a year later and it is still awe-inspiring.
I promised you more fun and I’m fairly certain I delivered. What do you think of the list so far? Are you shocked at some of the entries? What’s your bet for the best song of the year? I hope you’ve enjoyed the fourth section and that I have your heads bobbing with the new music in your song libraries.