The 75 Best Songs of 2011

[27 December 2011]

By PopMatters Staff


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They Might Be Giants

75

They Might Be Giants
“Can’t Keep Johnny Down”

They Might Be Giants aficionados might have guessed that co-leader John Linnell had a fondness for the Smiths when the band released their rarity “Save Your Life”, which sounds suspiciously like a Smiths style parody. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” isn’t quite as literal a Smiths tribute—Linnell sings in his own voice, not a fake English accent, and the bouncing keyboard melody is more TMBG than Morrissey—but the song’s malcontent narrator, singing about imagined triumphs over imagined slights, hits a similarly sweet-and-sour tone. Then again, marrying catchy melodies to dark lyrics has always been their specialty; this instant classic proves it’s a talent undiminished by time. Jesse Hassenger

 


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Lady Gaga

74

Lady Gaga
“Born This Way”

Lady Gaga, of course, is known for her excess. And Born This Way is a towering showcase of excess. The result is an album that is a labor to listen to because of its over-the-topness. No such problems exist with the title track. All of the Gaga’s strengths on her one-hour monolith are condensed into a four-minute unstoppable ode to the outcasts of the world. Yes, it steals from Madonna’s “Express Yourself”, just as Madonna stole from other genres and expertly made them her own. Don’t be surprised if Madonna is taking notes for her next reinvention. Sean McCarthy

 


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The Dø

73

The Dø
“Too Insistent”

One strong single helped Dan Levy and Olivia Merilahti’s deeply flawed début album as the Dø to the top of the French charts in 2008. If their new record demonstrates their vast leap forward in consistency, its wondrous lead cut shows the new heights they can achieve. “Too Insistent” is intelligent art-pop perfected, a dizzying four minutes that has Levy’s instrumental talents and Merilahti’s emotive vocal completely in sync. Just too irresistible, more like. Andy Johnson

 


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Mamas Gun

72

Mamas Gun
“Reconnection”

Mamas Gun knows how to command your attention. Though The Life and Soul is packed with pop-soul perfection, “Reconnection” exemplifies the art of the group’s song craft. Vocalist/frontman Andy Platts gives a particularly spirited performance while band members deftly layer different musical elements over an incessant bass and drum-driven groove—glimmering piano chords here, melodic guitar phrases there. The band displays a brilliant trick when the closing vamp takes an unsuspecting turn. It’s an effective choice by a band whose talent only keeps expanding. Christian John Wikane

 


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Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi

71

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi
“The Rose With A Broken Neck (feat. Jack White)”

With the Billboard charts suffocated by pitch-correction software and hasty Orwellian production, infamous producer Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi took the time (apparently five years) to make an authentic homage to the increasingly respected realm of classic spaghetti western soundtracks. To this aim, they reunited some of the original session musicians used by the immortal Ennio Morricone and painstakingly replicated the means of production of the time, recording vintage gear live to tape without a computer in sight. They also enlisted Jack White to contribute his disturbingly damaged voice to the crown jewel of their creation “The Rose With a Broken Neck”, among others. The sound is warm, the vocals haunting, the production impeccable, and the experience unforgettable. Alan Ranta

 


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Ryan Adams

70

Ryan Adams
“Ashes & Fire”

Making it sound easy has always been a hallmark of Ryan Adams’ raging creative fertility, but on the unremittingly lovely Ashes & Fire, Adams gets down to the raw troubadourism of your Heartbreaker dreams. By ditching the Cardinals, Adams hasn’t sounded this tender since at least Jacksonville City Nights, playing it straight on the album’s title track, a rangy tramp through acoustic strumming and elemental symbolism. Perhaps other songwriters could approach the compositional heights found here or could enlist Ethan Johns to give the song its warm finish and Benmont Tench to supply piano embroidery. But good luck finding someone besdies Ryan Adams who can deliver a vocal performance like this one. Steve Leftridge

 


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The Dirt Daubers

69

The Dirt Daubers
“Be Not Afraid”

In 2011, attempted evocations of American folk purity usually resulted in the genteel bleating of flat-footed foxes and their kith—mood music for the comfortably disgruntled to play while stroking their beatific beards. For Colonel J.D. Wilkes’s the Dirt Daubers, folk tradition leads directly to a stark raving strange manifestation of creative American madness. “Be Not Afraid” exemplifies the screwiness of Colonel J.D. Wilkes’s exploration of the mysteries of the mythic American musical past, as the Colonel takes a break from recording raucous aural hellfire with th’ Legendary Shack Shakers to produce this relatively stripped-down distillation of pre-World War II musical styles. With Wilkes’s wife Jessica on vocals, “Be Not Afraid” storms through a weary lamentation that weaves together leftover bits from Southern gospel and white country blues and then almost invents hillbilly Klezmer along the way. The result joyously conjures specters of Wilkes’s beloved ‘mountain music’ with a menacing, slap-happy glee that hopefully has clean-cut guitar-strummers everywhere looking nervously over their shoulders. Paul Anthony Johnson

 


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Panda Bear

68

Panda Bear
“Last Night at the Jetty”

Lying in bed, anxiety can jar you awake as violently as the gunshot hand claps that open up this song. Life is messy and self-doubt is poison. Noah Lennox’s comforting mantra ” I know, I know, I know” appears when the voices and sounds around him scream the loudest but he manages to calm himself down. While his music doubles as his own’s therapist’s couch, for the rest of us it is a gift and what I can unironically describe as medicine for the soul. Eddie Ciminelli

 


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Jill Scott (feat. Anthony Hamilton)

67

Jill Scott (feat. Anthony Hamilton)
“So in Love”

Can everybody please stop with the “neo” tag when it comes to soul music now? The best rhythm and blues song of the past year that nobody paid any attention to took a classic duet formula (complete with spoken word bridge), updated it with today’s pop-music sensibilities and let the singing do the rest. Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton are a 2011 version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and this up-beat, groovy love story should have been enough to grab any R&B music fan’s attention. This track isn’t neo-anything. It’s just great soul music. Colin McGuire

 


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Okkervil River

66

Okkervil River
“Wake and Be Fine”

“Wake and Be Fine” is an outlier on its own record, I Am Very Far. It tightens the sweeping dramatics of that album into a Phil Spector-nodding, huge pop sound. Those thundering drums keep time under Will Sheff’s manic, mile-a-minute verses, each one building to worry and chaos before the swaying comfort of the chorus. “Wake and Be Fine” is the rare pop song that earns its melodrama, that goes for broke and manages to get there. Sheff and the band sound worn down by song’s end, and with good reason—these swirling nightmares have left them (and us) sweetly exhausted. We’re awake, but nothing is fine. Not until you play the song again, anyway. Matthew Fiander

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Washed Out

65

Washed Out
“Amor Fati”

Washed Out’s full-length debut Within and Without is a sublime aural chillwave/glo-fi experience. The tracks are perfectly aligned and carefully crafted, none more so than the stellar single “Amor Fati”, a touching song about support, strength and forgiveness that doesn’t sound like a corny self-help Whitney Houston ballad about support, strength and forgiveness. As for many Washed Out tunes, lyrics (and their inferred meaning) are incidental and often times unintelligible—that’s not to say that they’re unimportant, but rather complementary like a nice red wine with your steak dinner. So, when you’re on your 50th listen of “Amor Fati” (and you will be if not already) and finally make out the line: “Don’t drift too far / It’s not your fault / Let go, reach out / The choice is yours / To Find”, you’ll feel your heart lift even higher than it already does when the song begins. Enio Chiola

 


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The Vaccines

64

The Vaccines
“Nørgaard”

A rip-through-your-skull punk guitar riff. Whiplash-inducing pace. A girl. Yelling. A chorus you can’t not sing along with. Instrumental break with falsetto humming. “Going steady.” A boy. The Vaccines’ single “Nørgaard” had it all. That it happened to be about an actual Danish model was a nifty side note. That it all happened in one minute and 39 seconds was the very definition of rock ‘n’ roll. John Bergstrom

 


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Paul Simon

63

Paul Simon
“Rewrite”

It’s classic Paul Simon: The Afro-influenced backbeat. The quirky final 30 seconds of whistling. The gentle voice that is as soft as a million freshly fluffed pillows. The verses that come to life as stories right before your eyes. He’s a living legend, and this year’s So Beautiful Or So What reminded us all that he’s still got some serious songwriting abilities left in him. And of all the fantastic tales he offered in 2011, “Rewrite” was undoubtedly the best. Colin McGuire

 


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Pepe Deluxé

62

Pepe Deluxé
“The Storm”

Just when you thought you’d heard everything, Finnish scientists of sound Pepe Deluxé dropped “The Storm”, a beacon of analog originality in a sea of pro-tooled homogeny. This slice of cinematic surf rock is a minor character in the group’s esoteric pop opera in three parts, Queen of the Wave (due in early 2012), yet it clearly stands on its own merits, with an Analogue Systems synth bass, twangy guitar, bombastic choir refrain hailing the gods, and a tasty Joe Meek like transistor organ solo laid over a bed of funky drums and a full orchestra. Seriously epic. Alan Ranta

 


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Florrie

61

Florrie
“I Took a Little Something”

Musically, the song is all sweetness and light from the ringing piano that introduces the song, an impeccable post-disco/house burst of pop euphoria from Xenomania’s house drummer. But like a lot of her contemporaries, Florrie has more complicated emotions in mind. “I need to know just one thing was never in doubt… we’re happy ever after in my head.” Doubt and bliss have rarely been as inextricable, or as potent, and the result is as suited to solitary contemplation as it is to joyful movement. Ian Mathers

 


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Jamie XX

60

Jamie XX
“Far Nearer”

The steel pan is a stubborn bastard that refuses to die and resists the temptation to be backed into a corner. The mid-to-late ‘naughts saw an infusion of steel pan in the short-lived and unlikely Balearic revival, but as it was it about to wither from consciousness along came the XX’s programmer Jamie Smith last year with “Far Nearer”, a gorgeous effervescent island pounder whose tropical vibe plays more like rehab than all-night party. “I feel better when / You feel better when”, the soulful but tweaked voice intones. That the verse ends with the somewhat maudlin “I have you near me” matters little, since the longing of the first two lines speaks to an absence, a melancholy indicating that he/she is not near, at least not near enough, to the singer. This track floated around for a long time as a radio rip before the red hot Numbers label put it out this year. In an age of instant gratification though, it was worth well worth the wait to have it near us. Timothy Gabriele

 


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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

59

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
“The Body”

Awkwardness in your own skin is a supreme subject in music, especially so in the indie-pop bands the Pains of Being Pure at Heart musically take after. With sexual and religious matters at hand, the song plays up the shy romantic tension in their music. A soaring anthem, it epitomizes the way the Pains are shining up their influences. Its chorus “tell me again what the body’s for” is instantly iconic, feeling like it’s summarizing pop music as a whole while expressing generations of anxious youthful feelings. Dave Heaton

 


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Purity Ring

58

Purity Ring
“Belispeak”

Purity Ring, still a fairly mysterious act, burst onto the blog scene this year with the release of three stellar tracks. “Belispeak”, the best of these songs, distills the ingredients of the duo’s electro-pop into its purest form. Corin Roddick has clearly ingested the Knife’s discography. He lays steel drum-esque synths over a lurching beat, while Megan James gets her girlish vocals chopped and pitched into an alien patchwork. The results are immediately gratifying and subtly sinister, designed to cause a panic of the dancefloor… emphasis on panic. Corey Beasley

 


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Coldplay

57

Coldplay
“Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”

Drawing near-plagiaristic inspiration from an unlikely source (Peter Allen’s manic piano salsa “I Go to Rio”), the initial report from Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto offensive is a ravishing pop single. Riding successive waves of synth stabs, barricade-stomping rhythm, and Jonny Buckland’s glittering fills, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” achieves a tone of effortless joy. And although it may seem incongruous in a song featuring Chris Martin expounding on the cathedrals in his heart, its greatest point of impact derives from a display of restraint. Reigning in Will Champion’s thunderous drumming until the song’s final minute is a masterstroke, and his full entrance is a rocket-booster blast propelling an airborne craft straight into the stratosphere. This ain’t no comma, it’s a full stop. Ross Langager

 


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Fixers

56

Fixers
“Crystals”

Rarely has otherwise sleepy Oxford had so good a cause for local musical pride. The city’s productive five-piece Fixers are tipped for mainstream success in no small part due to “Crystals”, their deliriously entertaining roller-coaster ride of a single which simultaneously justifies and transcends the band’s comparisons to the Beach Boys. Joining searing guitars, stereo-panning synths and a mammoth chorus results in a psychedelic experience, which like all the best ones is gripping, disorienting and instantly unforgettable. Andy Johnson

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Blondie

55

Blondie
“Mother”

It’s rare that, 35 years into their career, a band releases a single on par with their classic hits. Blondie has. The group’s Panic of Girls (2011) spawned “Mother”, a rousing anthem that underscores why Deborah Harry remains an iconic figure and a peerless purveyor of pop melodies. Written by Harry with Kato Khandwala and Ben Phillips, “Mother” is fueled by the group’s patented power pop and lures you to wail its irresistible melody. It is an essential addition to Blondie’s legacy. Christian John Wikane

 


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Hammers of Misfortune

54

Hammers of Misfortune
“The Grain”

It’s wonderful how the best metal song of 2011 is so stripped-down and simple. Built around a straightforward yet immensely satisfying, galloping rhythm riff, “The Grain”, written by guitarist/songwriter John Cobbett is the sort of stately epic that hearkens back to the 1970s. Plenty powerful and propulsive, Cobbett smartly provides enough room for melodies, Joe Hutton turning in a soulful performance, Sigrid Sheie adding a piano coda that evokes “Layla”. It’s all enough to make even the toughest headbanger misty-eyed. Adrien Begrand

 


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Kurt Vile

53

Kurt Vile
“Jesus Fever”

The prettiest pop song on an album filled with prettified versions of Kurt Vile’s warped blues, “Jesus Fever” glides gracefully like a morning train ride through fog, while Vile sings both of moving on and of movement inside his body, in his heart, stomach and veins. Everything’s disappearing, even the song itself. This “Jesus Fever”, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s a state of ecstasy or something harder to pin down. The urge to lose yourself, make yourself vanish. Dave Heaton

 


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The Weeknd

52

The Weeknd
“The Zone”

As the Weeknd, Abel Tesfaye littered 2011 with a clutch of jams alternately apt and completely vital to experiencing the full pleasures of pre-party, peak-party, post-party, and mid-coitus euphoria. It was “The Zone”, however—the centerpiece of Thursday, his second of two 2011 mixtapes—that most ably and mercilessly captured all these altered trajectories in one suave embrace. The track’s stoned, near-expressionless hook (“I can’t feeel / A damn thiiing”) arguably encompasses the Weeknd’s M.O. better than any aesthetic accoutrement ever could, but its Drake who walks away with the cameo of the year (and the verse of his career), nimbly weaving a lament for strippers worldwide in an alliterative, concise, and laser-focused (adjectives few would use to describe Take Care) tour-de-force of tantalizing bravado. Jordan Cronk

 


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Austra

51

Austra
“Beat and the Pulse”

For all the eclecticism heard on Austra’s shimmering debut Feel it Break, breakthrough single “Beat and the Pulse” is the album’s one overtly gothic exercise. Built around a sultry, gently pulsating synth groove that feels part Siouxsie and the Banshees, part early Nine Inch Nails, singer Katie Stelmanis is the big reason why the song succeeds, her detached vocal delivery making the song even more enigmatic, even menacing. Adrien Begrand

 


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Glass Candy

50

Glass Candy
“Warm in the Winter”

Call me deluded (“You’re deluded” – a reader, somewhere) but when Ida No purrs “We love you” towards the climax of this long-awaited, extraordinary, cosmic masterpiece I believe her. LOVE!... and superfoxxy romantico space disco IS the answer! The apocalyptic decline of civilization in the years since 2008’s Deep Gems has been no mere coincidence; we need Glass Candy to save the world. At the very least make us shake what our momma’s gave us ‘til the sun falls out o’ the sky. Johnny, Ida, consider these words a message in a bottle; Hurry, and bring your love. Matt James

 


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Liturgy

49

Liturgy
“Glory Bronze”

Liturgy’s Aesthetica is a completely overwhelming album. Upon hearing “Returner”, the first single, a listener could be forgiven for assuming that song is the album’s high point. The song’s cascading energy, the screaming, and yes, the wall of sound that results, point to a climax that sounds impossible to top. Though to think this is a mistake, because in comes “Glory Bronze”, a song that turns the myth of Icarus into a sonic gale force. All members of the band proceed with astonishing speed and coordination, “bursting” together (to use the parlance of the songwriter). Although the song stops to breathe in its middle, eventually the opening riff returns and the song closes with a wail that aptly describes the magnitude of the sound: “An abyss spits out another abyss.” Thomas Britt

 


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Fitz & the Tantrums

48

Fitz & the Tantrums
“MoneyGrabber”

If Cee-Lo Green won the award for best kiss-off-get-lost breakup song in 2010, Fitz & the Tantrums has earned the 2011 honors. “MoneyGrabber” epitomizes the Fitz indie/soul esthetic and manages to sound simultaneously retro and contemporary. Like every classic song of its kind (“Go Your Own Way”, “Fuck You”), “MoneyGrabber” succeeds not just because of its spot-on arrangement, but also for the accompanying middle-finger attitude. Here’s one instance where the sounds of past and present fit together without seeming forced and overwhelming. Jeb Inge

 


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Big K.R.I.T.

47

Big K.R.I.T.
Dreamin’

Big K.R.I.T. has plenty of songs I’d call definitively essential to hear, but “Dreamin’” takes the quintessential mount in his songbook for combining all of his best traits into four intensely personal minutes. Built on a sample of the Brothers of Soul’s “Dream” that whispers “he’s dreaming” and “it’s not for real” under 808 kicks and Southern guitar licks, K.R.I.T. tells us the quite detailed story of how he came to stand on stages for a career. He tells us about his family and friends ignoring his dreams of being the next Eightball & MJG or Three 6 Mafia, his struggles to pay attention during football practice because he was too busy writing rhymes on his equipment, and his early attempts at coming up as a rapper in Meridian, Mississippi, a town as well known for its rap exports as Idaho is for its metropolitan areas. In the process he creates a pensive ode to artists of all forms, music or otherwise, exclaiming “Try for yourself / Just know that I was once considered just a dreamer / But I paid my dues and turned so many doubters to believers / They used to say…[he’s dreaming].” It’s hard to imagine any rap artist will create an equally picturesque tale of self-discovery any time soon. David Amidon

 


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Middle Brother

46

Middle Brother
“Million Dollar Bill”

Break-ups are always emotional affairs. When a love affair ends, blame tends to get placed on the other party, and regret, longing, and despair usually sets in. Irrationality is also present and the “I’ll show him/her” mentality takes over. Such is the sentiment in “Million Dollar Bill”, where the jilted protagonist adopts the personas of millionaire, astronaut, and famous movie star all so that he can stay relevant in the eyes of his former paramour. Taylor Goldsmith’s song actually pops up twice this year, once on his band Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong album and again here, performed by Middle Brother, a superior version that highlights the collaboration between Goldsmith, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez. Jeff Strowe

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Nas

45

Nas
“Nasty”

Leave it to Salaam Remi Already responsible for Nas’ biggest hits, Remi’s stripped down boom-bap sensibility proves just the right fit. The formula is so dumbly simple, you wonder why so many producers get it wrong: you lace the drums with just the right amount of knock, then get out of the kid’s way. Nas is in full on street-prophet mode here. “I’m not in the winters of my life or the beginning stage,” he muses. If “Nasty” is any indication, the story’s not even close to over. Justin Linds

 


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The Drums

44

The Drums
“Days”

“Days” can’t fix your car or iron your pants but it does contain ‘special’ magic. I believe it wields the power to convert ‘non-believers’. Their poptastic début was as perky as a puppy at the park but it unnerved many curmudgeonly joyless folk who baulked “Humbug!”. Alas the Drums returned older, wiser, armed with the battleworn Zen of Yoda. So get ready to eat your beanies! I double-dare you not to experience this aching, wistful ode to love lost and not blub like a lil’ girl before demanding a big hug. Resistance is futile, the time of everyone (yes, even you) loving the Drums is upon us. Matt James

 


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Zomby

43

Zomby
“Natalia’s Song”

In September 2010, Burial and Kode9 created a mix for Mary Anne Hobbs’ final show for BBC Radio 1. Their extended mix was full of great tracks, new and old, but the one that stuck with me for the rest of last year and all of this year is Zomby’s haunted “Natalia’s Song”. In 2011, the song was released as a single and included on LP Dedication. “Natalias’s Song” combines a syncopated beat that could be described as more Burial than Burial with the unlikeliest of vocal samples in Irina Dubtsova’s “O nem”. These elements blend into a song at odds with itself in a compelling and eminently listenable fashion—danceable and mournful all at once. Thomas Britt

 


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Lykke Li

42

Lykke Li
“Sadness Is a Blessing”

It never fails, that Hal Blaine drum beat from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” always packs an emotional wallop, and Lykke Li’s gorgeous “Sadness Is a Blessing” utilizes the classic beat to devastating effect, cranking up the melancholy tenfold. Sure, it’s all been done before, but when it’s composed as skillfully as Lykke Li and co-songwriters Björn Yttling and Rick Nowel do here, and sung with unflinching passion as she does, we’ll welcome it every time. Adrien Begrand

 


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Battles

41

Battles
“Ice Cream”

The first single off of Battles’ second album found the band in a more playful mood than anything on their debut. Until this point Battles had a reputation as a precision math-rock group, but “Ice Cream” is surprisingly loose. A big part of that feeling is due to Matias Aguayo’s ace guest spot as lead vocalist. His incomprehensible Spanglish isn’t meant to be deciphered, it’s there for atmosphere. And that atmosphere brings to mind easygoing sunny summer days; provided your summer days include a healthy amount of weird noises. Yes, despite the looseness this is still recognizably Battles, so the song comes complete with high-pitched, catchy synth lines and John Stanier’s hard-grooving drums. Chris Conaton

 


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Manic Street Preachers

40

Manic Street Preachers
“Postcards from a Young Man”

There’s a priceless moment in the triumphant, Queen-esque “Postcards” which makes me salute James Dean Bradfield, and not for the first time. It’s when he unleashes this ‘I’m-kicking-off-my-nappy’ Herculean hissy-fit mantra about non-conformity and not giving up. A roar from the valleys built to shake the mountains above. It’s ludicrously extravagant undoubtedly but so invigoratingly passionate and joyfully inspirational it captures in a hearty, firm handshake everything the Manics have always been about. James, Nicky, Sean never give up ‘n’ never give in and never stop being ‘ludicrously extravagant’ either. Matt James

 


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Raphael Saadiq

39

Raphael Saadiq
“Good Man”

Only Raphael Saadiq could summon up the specters of Curtis Mayfield and Norman Whitfield for the kind of post-apocalyptic R&B that 2011 is a banner year for (albeit usually via Autotune). Only impeccable ears like his could hear the not-so-sublimated fatalism in those founding fathers’ soulful orchestrations. This plea of a man betrayed is sung by the offending lady for the hook, and from her coy little mouth, even the soaring, redemptive bridge has the sinister edge of mockery – which, over a subtext of working-class struggle, resonates like hell right now. Benjamin Aspray

 


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Shabazz Palaces

38

Shabazz Palaces
“Recollections of the Wraith”

Shabazz Palaces’s fractured, cerebral brand of avant-rap would seem to preclude something as all-inclusive as “Recollections of the Wraith”, the soulful eye-of-storm standout strutting cockily amongst Black Up’s bent IDM confections and industrialized breakdowns. Built around an anonymous, effortlessly seductive female R&B sample, “Recollections” plays coy with its pop-minded hook while Ishmael Butler unloads pointed barbs—“Dilemma of this bitch ass cliché / Rap’s getting soft”—at the increasingly lazy genre he and Tendai Maraire seem to be systemically leaving in the distance with each new release. They may be encouraging pre-packaged, assembly-line rap personas to step aside (“Clear some space out / So we can space out”, goes the song’s other hook), but nary a demand be made when “Recollections of the Wraith’s” galvanizing display of electro-acoustic camaraderie is single handedly laying down the gauntlet for the next evolution of hip-hop. Jordan Cronk

 


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EMA

37

EMA
“California”

Failed utopias, the plight of gay kids marooned in Middle America, the empty promises of sexual liberation, a generational lineage of Old Testament fury either inherited or abandoned, and a flurry of pop culture references so encoded into our genetic makeup that they might as well constitute our own histories as much as our actual experiences do. “California” says so much about who we are and how we live in 2011 that it’s less a song than a collective survivor’s diary. Appropriately fragmented and apocalyptic, Erika M. Anderson’s greatest triumph here is not so much her unflinching hyperawareness as it is her bold defiance in the face of it all, reaching something like hopefulness in the observation that living to tell our tales still beats the alternatives. Jer Fairall

 


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Childish Gambino

36

Childish Gambino
“Freaks and Geeks”

Childish Gambino’s big moment came later in the year with his first commercial release, CAMP, but “Freaks and Geeks” is the tune that made us stand up and take notice. Gambino—aka Community‘s Donald Glover—makes a catchy song with no hook at all. Instead we get that lean, dramatic beat and Gambino’s sex-obsessed, vulgar yet hilarious rhymes to get us through. This stuff is endlessly quotable—he aims for low-brow in the most clever ways possible, lacing his rhymes with and endless spray of pop culture references—and the wordplay is intricate and impressive. For two marathon verses, Gambino never stops to take a breath and, in the end, gave us one of the most original and best hip-hop songs of the year. Matthew Fiander

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35

Robyn
“Call Your Girlfriend”

This warm electro beat would be a miracle for any artist to have, but it becomes a masterpiece in Robyn’s capable hands, because all she does is change perspective. Instead of being the girl that’s cheated on, she is the girl that the guy is cheating with, and she is as sympathetic as she is understanding. She tells him how to break up with his girlfriend, how to let her down easy, and how to move on. What an alarmingly fresh perspective on a tired scenario, and what an amazing song to go with it. Robyn may not have re-broken into the mainstream, but songs like this will outlast a lot of what mainstream pop music has to offer. Evan Sawdey

 


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Peter Bjorn and John

34

Peter Bjorn and John
“Second Chance”

Also known as the theme song to the new CBS comedy, 2 Broke Girls, as well as the tune used in certain commercials for Bud Lite, it’s easy to see how this spiritual cousin to Writer’s Block‘s “Young Folks” has come into focus on American network TV. It’s bright and instantly catchy with its cooing and cowbells, and boasts a guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place in Peter Frampton’s songbook. The best thing about this year’s terrific and return-to-form Gimme Some, one can only hope this song gets a second life beyond the boob tube, and rises to chart-topping glory—as it absolutely should. Zachary Houle

 


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Those Dancing Days

33

Those Dancing Days
“Can’t Find Entrance”

Normally the sort of thing parped out by Katy Perry whilst she gyrates in pink knickers on a cloud, it’s almost refreshing to know Can’t Find Entrance is the product of four scruffy-chic indie chicks from Sweden. A glamorous, effervescent pop rush that was the set the bar unbelievably high on second long-player Daydreams and Nightmares, it reminded us what synths were used for before dubstep arrived. Had Those Dancing Days not announced their indefinite hiatus back in August, this could’ve been a sweet taster of what was to come. David Smith

 


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Hayes Carll

32

Hayes Carll
“Kmag Yoyo”

A modern cousin to both Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever”, riffed in Dylan talking blues, Carll ups the ante in terms of sheer madness and utter insanity. A disillusioned soldier starts steals from the Taliban, deals heroin, gets popped by the men in charge, and is sent off to the deep recesses of space. Or at least, I think that’s what happens. The details are a bit fuzzy, but this biting piece of gonzo songcraft is a great listen and an even greater indictment of good ol’ USA foreign policy. Jeff Strowe

 


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Foster the People

31

Foster the People
“Pumped Up Kicks”

The instantly recognizable thumping beat with a classic vamp builds until the vocals begin, a quirky treatment using a bullet microphone. “Pumped Up Kicks” sounds sweet and simple, but the lyrics allude to a loner who warns kids to “outrun his gun”. The original demo version with singer/songwriter Mark Foster playing everything was released last January in an EP format, allowing the new band a bit more time to create an album around this single. It quickly went viral, becoming a crossover Top 40 hit that appeared in TV shows, movies and Saturday Night Live. Jane Jansen Seymour

 


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Iron & Wine

30

Iron & Wine
“Tree by the River”

If Kiss Each Other Clean is Sam Beam’s attempt at stripping away the enigmatic imagery and busy arrangements of The Shepherd’s Dog to reveal a 70s radio-friendly heart, “Tree by the River” is his hit-that-never-was. But don’t let the vocal harmonies fool you; this is no simple love song. Lost relationships aren’t mourned in “Tree” so much as reflected upon, with Beam’s narrator less fixated on his teenage relationship than with how he and Mary Anne faced the world, living for the present and “strangers to change”. David Bloom

 


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Mayer Hawthorne

29

Mayer Hawthorne
“The Walk”

It’s angry. It’s soulful. And it’s groovy. What more could you want from a DJ-turned-crooner from Michigan who loves Hall & Oates? The profanity will remind you of Cee-Lo, but this single from Hawthorne’s How Do You Do is much more authentic than the big man’s silly pop jingle. One listen to those powerful horns, that 1960s falsetto and one awfully catchy hook, and you’ll quickly take notice: “The Walk” feels much more real than anything blue-eyed soul was ever meant to be. Colin McGuire


 


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The Antlers

28

The Antlers
“I Don’t Want Love”

From the opening snare hit and softly strummed chords that usher in these three minutes of sad and simple beauty, it is impossible not to be drawn completely into the world of desire and denial that is the defining track of The Antler’s beautifully crafted 2011 album Burst Apart. The centerpiece of the song is Peter Silberman’s lilting falsetto which entrances and intrigues, recalling the poignant, striving tones of The Bends era Thom Yorke. This is an anti-love song for the lingering light of late summer nights and the dreamy haze of the morning after. It is an ode to ambivalence and fear that somehow manages to lift you up and fill you with hope, and there is an aching loveliness to it all that will haunt you long after these three minutes are over. Robert Alford

 


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PJ Harvey

27

PJ Harvey
“The Last Living Rose”

One of the more accessible tracks on Harvey’s exemplary Let England Shake, “The Last Living Rose” is also one of its strongest. A spare yet tuneful arrangement allows Harvey’s outstanding lyrics to take center stage, with the opening “Goddamn Europeans / Take me back to beautiful England” giving way to a poetic critique of all that her homeland has to answer for. For those who miss the more ramshackle quality of Harvey’s earlier material, the song feels both like a maturation of something found on 4-Track Demos and entirely new terrain for Harvey to explore. Maria Schurr

 


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The Joy Formidable

26

The Joy Formidable
“Austere”

Heralding a triumphant return of the most glorious aspects of ‘90s alt-rock and girl-led Britpop, Welsh trio the Joy Formidable’s A Balloon Called Moaning proved to be an embarrassment of riches throughout 2011, delivering single after single of sugar-rush guitar pop. “Austere” was the most awesome of the lot, riding a wave of a hypnotically squealing vocal hook and a blur of shoegaze-y noise, all culminating in a final, explosive minute of instrumental cacophony. Singer Ritzy Bryan’s melancholic delivery of an opaquely tragic-sounding set of lyrics (“I’d rescue you now / But in velvet you’ll drown”) hints tantalizingly at some hidden depths, but the music leaves the listener in such a happy daze that unpacking this particular “unfinished story” cannot help but take an inevitable backseat to another hit of the “Repeat” button. Jer Fairall

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Yuck

25

Yuck
“Get Away”

Yuck, the ‘90s revivalists with their influence-on-sleeve obsessions with Dinosaur Jr. and an assortment of shoegazers of yore, were one of the most hyped bands of the year in the blogosphere. When an artist gets as much attention as these London natives, the backlash is bound to begin. They have been called out by some critics as derivative and a bit deadpan during live performances. When I listen to “Get Away”, though, the opening track from their eponymous debut LP, I simply hear a band obsessed with proclaiming its love of music at very loud volumes. Even though Yuck’s record was released in February, “Get Away” is a perfect anti-summer anthem. The lyrics speak of wanting to go out and enjoy life, yet staying inside because of some vague notion of despondency. When listening to the lyric “I can’t get this feeling off my mind”, we imagine, though, that leader singer Daniel Blumberg might be talking about the song’s central guitar riff. It’s hard to forget. Why would you want to? Jacob Adams

 


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Kreayshawn

24

Kreayshawn
“Gucci Gucci”

With her Twitter beefs, nude photo leaks and N-word touting white friends, Bay Area native Kreayshawn was a 2011 pop culture phenom, landing a huge record deal with Colombia to boot. Not a bad result for a video director-turned-rapper with only one decent song under her belt. But what a song! With its infinitely chant-able hooks, old fashioned G Funk whistle and a powerful ‘womp womp’ engine, “Gucci Gucci” was pop rap perfection, which faultlessly played to Kreayshawn’s cartoonish strengths. Dean Van Nguyen

 


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Elbow

23

Elbow
“Lippy Kids”

If Elbow’s 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid cemented their reputation, then this year’s Build a Rocket Boys! was the icing on the cake for the Manchester band. The delicate “Lippy Kids” is its finest cut. At a time when young people are increasingly vilified, it celebrates the follies and triumphs of childhood, perfectly straddling the line between sentimentality and northern English grit. The song’s admixture of distinct piano lines, and its softly soaring guitar lines complete its quiet beauty. Alan Ashton-Smith

 


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Girls

22

Girls
“Vomit”

“Vomit” is Girls’ latest tour-de-force, a vertiginous mix of nostalgia rock elements that ends up sounding like nothing you’ve heard before in their hands. It’s a sprawling piece of yearning, burning rock that gains momentum slowly but surely, as pensive acoustic plucking builds to a crescendo of electric squalls that match singer Christopher Owens’ desperate vocals. But the indie epic ends with a twist, as some gospel backing traces Owens’ lovey-dovey lines to reach catharsis. It’s a gorgeously decadent touch, even for a band as freewheeling and free living as Girls. Arnold Pan

 


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St. Vincent

21

St. Vincent
“Cruel”

Few songs in this or any year cover as much stylistic ground as St. Vincent’s “Cruel”. At once pretty and haunting in tone, both artsy fartsy and basically a three-minute pop song in form, “Cruel” runs the gamut of aesthetic approaches, from the fluttery fairy tale orchestration that opens the song to its robo-funk grooves and crisp electro rhythms. But what really stands out about “Cruel” is how all the eclectic parts hang together when channeled through Clark’s unique artistic vision, which finds the sweet spot between the avant-garde and pop. Arnold Pan

 


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Cults

20

Cults
“Abducted”

From the release of her debut (with band partner Brian Oblivion) to appearing on Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, it’s been a banner year for Cults’ Madeline Follin. The highlight of all this activity came from the very first track of Cult’s debut. Calling “Abducted” an example of homage to the girls groups of the ‘60s doesn’t quite do it justice. Instead, it’s a vibrant recreation with in a distinct modern twist. Nianyi Hong

 


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Wild Flag

19

Wild Flag
“Romance”

The second time that Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony sing “sound is the blood between me and you” in Wild Flag’s debut single “Romance”, Brownstein hits that “you” extra hard and it sounds like it’s in caps, with an exclamation point or two. That exuberance isn’t just a high point of an infectious rock song; it also defines the album, the band, and pretty much everything you love about rock and roll. “Romance”, with rollicking, interlocking riffs from guitar and keyboards, backed by a relentless Janet Weiss drumbeat, is really about intense, heedless music love—the kind fans had with Brownstein and Weiss’s last band, Sleater-Kinney and may find themselves fast developing for their new adventure. It’s also love at first listen. Jesse Hassenger

 


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The Mountain Goats

18

The Mountain Goats
“Estate Sale Sign”

A driving, doom-haunted inventory that could be surveying the wreckage from Tallahassee nearly ten years later, “Estate Sale Sign” is John Darnielle at his most immediately ingratiating. It might take a devotee to relish the way he rushes through “stock shots, stupid stock shots”, but anyone listening can hear the ecstasy and terror in “I don’t wanna know!” It’s a song about waiting for the point of no return to finally arrive. And then, like the man says, every martyr in this jungle is gonna get his wish. Ian Mathers

 


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Wilco

17

Wilco
“One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”

“This is how I’ll tell it,” warns Jeff Tweedy in the first and last stanza of Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning”. As the narrator buries his father, the song slowly unties the knot of their troubled relationship. Tweedy’s 12-minute ballad transcends the normal boundaries of pop and achieves an almost hallucinatory beauty. “Ring them cold for my father / frozen underground / Jesus I wouldn’t bother / he belongs to me now.” A father’s disapproval coupled with a son’s furious guilt reveals a terrible truth: that men bury their fathers with both anguish and relief. John Grassi

 


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tUnE-yArDs

16

tUnE-yArDs
“Gangsta”

This year, multi-instrumentalist and all around musical ninja Merrill Garbus secured the proper recording budget to turn her scratchy, genre-hopping bedroom project into a formidable, full-blooded band. The freewheeling w h o k i l l touches on just about every genre you can name (and a few more that you can’t) yet it’s the feral “Gangsta” that offers the perfect distillation of Garbus’ gonzo sound. Part social commentary, part club banger, “Gangsta” is framed by Garbus’ looped police siren wails (harmonizing wails, no less), Nate Brenner’s spindly, hip-hop bass line, and some skronky horns. Never one to take a straight path from point A to point B, Garbus keeps us on the edge every step of the way—inserting uncomfortable silences, messing with time signatures, cutting and pasting random snatches of dialogue. We’re never quite sure whether we’re supposed to shake our asses or run for cover. Occasionally, the music drops out completely and Gurbus, holding single drumstick high above her head, defiantly shouts “Bang bang oui! / Never move to my hood / ‘Cause danger is crawling out the wood.” Heard. Daniel Tebo

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Lana Del Rey

15

Lana Del Rey
“Video Games”

When “Video Games” began doing the rounds online, speculation from bloggers and twittering types was immediate. Was Lana Del Rey an genuine new indie talent or a product manufactured by a label? As it turns out, she is both in equal measure. But who cares about questions of authenticity when her debut single sounds this good? At its core, “Video Games” might be a simple piano ballad, but Del Rey imbues it with a fragile tenderness that elevates it to something rather special. Alan Ashton-Smith

 


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Frank Ocean

14

Frank Ocean
“Novacane”

Frank Ocean’s presence justifies the entire existence of the over-hyped, style-over-substance rap collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. “Novacane” became a surprise hit this spring, and rightfully so. Funny and evocative, Ocean’s tale of Coachella love gone wrong purrs and soothes, its huge beat giving a boost to Ocean’s rich vocals. He sings with confidence but not braggadocio, favoring texture over pyrotechnic vocal runs, and he’s got the lyrical game to match. Kudos to Def Jam for finally realizing they were sitting on something great. Corey Beasley

 


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Bon Iver

13

Bon Iver
“Holocene”

There is nothing “magnificent” about the first few moments of “Holocene,” when the simple chord progression repeats but then is flanked by Justin Vernon’s voice, providing a warmth as familiar as your favorite blanket. This song feels akin to inhaling a deep breath of fresh air in the middle of winter. The trick here is how effortlessly he conceals the numerous layers at play throughout this composition- hear that bass sax? Those wind chimes? Not likely. Because with this one you aren’t listening with your ears as much as your heart. Eddie Ciminelli

 


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The Strokes

12

The Strokes
“Under Cover of Darkness”

The Strokes have never been able to recapture the acclaim that followed the band’s debut, but, as a song, “Under Cover of Darkness” bears all of the hallmarks that made Is This It such a success. It comes in the same package of world-weary attitude and effortless cool. Its lyrics tap into the same universal anguish—the band’s lyrics were never poetic so much as they were relatable—and include phrases you might hear outside of any dorm in America. (The lyrics to the big, rousing chorus are “Don’t go that way, I’ll wait for you.”) “Under Cover of Darkness”, however, surpasses its predecessors by moving beyond the droning guitar sounds and allowing for more playful melodies, keeping the Strokes from, as they put it, “singing the same song for ten years”. Marisa LaScala

 


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Fucked Up

11

Fucked Up
“Queen of Hearts”

What better way to open a gleefully bombastic punk rock opera than a song as rousing, life-affirming, and sweet as “Queen of Hearts”? The catchiest song Fucked up has ever written, it works brilliantly on two levels, a vivid, effective opening scene in the ambitious David Comes to Life storyline, and at its simplest, an adorable boy-meets-girl love song featuring Damian “Pink Eye” Abraham and Cults’ Madeline Follin in the coolest duet of the year. Adrien Begrand

 


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tUnE-yArds

10

tUnE-yArds
“Bizness”

The video for “Bizness” opens with tUnE-yArds as a child, resembling a prowling lioness. This encapsulates her; she’s ferociously childlike—tenaciously joyous. After two years of slowly building buzz, “Bizness” hit like a shotgun with everything special about her—the singular voice, the harmonic use of loops, the African polyrhythms, the inability to be pinned down, the confidence—turned up to 11,000. It was a large step from her humble, lo-fi roots and a declaration of uncompromised music badassery. Jesse Fox

 


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Florence and the Machine

9

Florence and the Machine
“Shake It Out”

While Florence Welch set the bar high for herself with a first impression as memorable as “Dog Days Are Over”, her triumphant single “Shake It Out” isn’t just on par with that signature art-pop number, but actually trumps it. Rather than playing it safe, Welch throws caution to the wind and goes all out on “Shake It Out”, a grand pop composition that’s a showcase for her even grander voice. More than anything, the song’s desperate tone and soaring orchestration show that Welch isn’t resting on her laurels, but pushing herself to bigger and better things. Arnold Pan

 


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Kanye West and Jay-Z

8

Kanye West and Jay-Z
“Otis”

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Mr. West has an uncanny knack for flipping samples—see his productions “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, “Lucifer”, or “Stronger”. For “Otis”, he sliced up the keys, drums, and vocals of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” to create one of the warmest beats of the year (“Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” says Jay about 30 seconds in). Join that with Yeezy and Hova’s unique rapport and you get one of the greatest moments of their storied collaborative career, despite the complete absence of a chorus. Yeah, these guys are kings. Mike Madden

 


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James Blake

7

James Blake
“The Wilhelm Scream”

“The Wilhelm Scream” is at once a startlingly adept cover and, paradoxically, Blake’s own haunting composition. The song borrows its vocal refrain (“I don’t know about my love…”) from “Where to Turn”, a minor 1970s soft-rock hit by Blake’s father, James Litherland, but uses it as more of a sample than a chorus—a distant, winding loop to be twisted, warped, and submerged beneath thick synth textures and icy echoes of drum loops. So goes Blake’s approach to recording. Much as he reappropriates elements from an eclectic grouping of contemporary genres (dubstep, soul, electronica), what results is indisputably his own. Zach Schonfeld

 


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Nicki Minaj

6

Nicki Minaj
“Super Bass”

Let us think about what could have happened had “Super Bass” had never graced the airwaves: Katy Perry’s cheesefest, “Last Friday Night (TGIF)”, would have had no competition for Best Summer Song 2011, the little British girl who famously belted “Super Bass” on YouTube would be just another precocious child, and Minaj would continue to be known more for her stellar guest appearances than her own material. So, thank goodness someone had the savvy to release “Super Bass” as Minaj’s seventh single, thus gifting the listening public with a deliriously hooky chorus and jackrabbit rhymes. Pelican fly, anyone? Maria Schurr

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band

5

Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band
“I’ll Fly Away”

“I’ll Fly Away” is a tune with a long history in American music; it’s a standard for New Orleans brass bands playing at jazz funerals, it’s heavily favored by gospel musicians, and has been a standard part of the bluegrass repertoire for decades. In other words, it’s thoroughly soaked in Americana, that catch-all genre that pulls from traditional American roots music forms. So, it was a perfect song for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band to make as the centerpiece of their stellar 2011 album, American Legacies. Despite all the superb versions of this song over the years, Pres Hall and the McCoury Boys virtually stamp this classic as their very own, offering up the definitive version to stand for the ages. Soaring trumpet, swirling clarinet, soulful lead vocals, airtight bluegrass harmonies, rhythmic banjo… this is Americana at its very finest. Sarah Zupko

 


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Radiohead

4

Radiohead
“Lotus Flower”

Introduced by Thom Yorke during some solo shows a couple of years ago, “Lotus Flower” worked great as a haunting electric guitar lullaby, but for the studio version Radiohead opt to beef up the arrangement, creating one of their most accessible songs in years. Yorke’s lingering falsetto has survived the transformation, but the tracks beauty isn’t stifled by the a web of energetic synths, pulsating beats and shuffling drum loops that now surround the vocal. And, famously, you could dance to it. Dean Van Nguyen

 


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Fleet Foxes

3

Fleet Foxes
“Helplessness Blues”

Fleet Foxes’ excellent second album Helplessness Blues has a lot of highlights, to be sure. But the album’s best song is its eponymous centerpiece, an unflinchingly earnest meditation on finding one’s place in the universe. “Helplessness Blues” starts out lean, riding on Robin Peckhold’s vocal harmonies and the relentless strum of an acoustic guitar for its first half. But then the song erupts into a massive coda: the harmonies multiply upon themselves, a few more guitars materialize, and suddenly the band’s up in the clouds. By the time they return to earth, being small and insignificant in an oversized world doesn’t seem so daunting anymore. Billy Hepfinger

 


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Adele

2

Adele
“Rolling in the Deep”

For those of us who didn’t know Adele’s breakthrough 19, this was the growing tremor that announced the coming of 21. For all its massive success, 21 isn’t a perfect album, as even the world’s biggest producers aren’t sure what to do with a talent this large. They should just listen to “Rolling in the Deep” more, which basically advises “get out of Adele’s way and let her do her thing. Andrew Gilstrap

 


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M83

1

M83
“Midnight City”

All it takes is four synthesizer notes. That’s it. Smothered in reverb, coated in ‘80s nostalgia, teetering on the edge of full-on explosion, those four notes pack more heart and energy than most albums released in 2011. But “Midnight City” is more than just a powerful introduction. On this transcendent standout from the sixth M83 album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Anthony Gonzalez and co-synth-scientist Justin Meldal-Johnsen build layer upon layer of keys, arena-sized drums, and vocal atmospherics (not mentioning one of the tastiest sax solos this side of a Springsteen record). The result? The synth Sistine Chapel. Ryan Reed

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/152008-the-75-best-songs-of-2011/