Music

The 75 Best Songs of 2011

The year's best songs are headlined by an instant synth pop classic, the massive hitmaking of the planet's hottest new diva, the pristine harmonies of a young band headed for greatness, the return of the poster boys for indie rock, and an instant Americana classic.

Artist: They Might Be Giants

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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

 
Artist: Lady Gaga

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List number: 74

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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

 
Artist: The Dø

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List number: 73

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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

 
Artist: Mamas Gun

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List number: 72

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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

 
Artist: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi

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List number: 71

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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

 
Artist: Ryan Adams

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List number: 70

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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

 
Artist: The Dirt Daubers

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List number: 69

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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

 
Artist: Panda Bear

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List number: 68

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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

 
Artist: Jill Scott (feat. Anthony Hamilton)

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List number: 67

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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

 
Artist: Okkervil River

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List number: 66

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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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