Best Songs of 2011
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The 75 Best Songs of 2011

Nostalgia Alert! Jump back a decade and enjoy the best songs of 2011. They are headlined by a synthpop classic, a massive hit from a hot diva, pristine harmonies of a young band headed for greatness.

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

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 folks who balked “Humbug!”. Alas, the Drums returned older, wiser, armed with the battle-worn 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

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. “Natalia’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

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

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

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

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

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

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 hyper-awareness 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

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 an 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