Well my friends, we’ve reached the end. The end of our countdown of the Top 50 Songs of the Year, that is. I pray you’ve enjoyed this recap thus far, as there’s been plenty of variety to hopefully satisfy tastes of all shapes and colors and ears. One of the things I wish I could have included more of on this particular countdown is hip hop, so I’d like to apologize for the lack of it. I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop, so that’s problem 1 right there, but also of the hip hop I did listen to, some I felt wasn’t quite good enough to qualify for this list (see: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne) while others made it quite difficult to single out a particular track as being better or more special than the others (see: Shabazz Palaces). So there’s no hip hop to be found in the final 10 songs listed below. What we do have though are all really special to me in their own individual ways. There’s a touch of folk, some more traditional pop be it upbeat or balladry, a few flashes of experimental or undefined, a couple dance cuts, and the genre revival of the year, 90s alt-rock. I like to think that my pick for Song of the Year is a little bit controversial, in that I’ve barely seen any mentions of it in any year-end lists, but I also feel like my logic and justification of its placement are valid. I hope you will agree with me, or at least understand where I’m trying to come from. So let’s get into it, but in case you’ve missed the other 40 songs covered on this list, feel free to follow the links below to learn more:
Without further ado, click past the jump to see my Top 10 songs of 2011, complete with mp3s (where available) or audio streams.
10. Fleet Foxes – Grown Ocean (mp3)
As good as the entire “Helplessness Blues” record is, it doesn’t have quite as many outright highlights as the band’s self-titled debut. The song “Helplessness Blues” is excellent unto itself, a multi-layered track that tends to highlight what Fleet Foxes do best, but it failed to move and inspire me quite as much as “Grown Ocean” did. Normally we wind up so distracted by the band’s pastoral melodies and gorgeous harmonies that we fail to notice the hippy-dippy lyrics associated with them. “Grown Ocean” continues that trend, with talk of mountains and starlight, but with a twist – it all takes place within a dream. The way singer Robin Pecknold approaches such absurdity, with complete sincerity and excitement, is actually the key to selling the song. The melody plays into that enthusiasm by holding onto a nervous energy, and as it starts to soar upwards, Pecknold sings, “In that dream I could hardly contain it/All my life I will wait to attain it”. The conviction with which he sings it not only makes us believe him, but in turn makes us yearn to turn our own dreams into reality.
9. Eleanor Friedberger – My Mistakes (mp3)
One of the biggest reasons The Fiery Furnaces work so well is because the two Friedbergers have their own distinct styles and personalities. Matthew loves the weird, surprising and unfamiliar, while Eleanor favors more traditional pop and overly descriptive lyrics. Separated from one another on their own solo efforts, it should come as little surprise that Eleanor came out on top, and her album “Last Summer” was very much a gem of that particular season (and beyond). “My Mistakes” led the charge both as the first track and single from that record, and it’s the catchiest, most delightful thing to ever have a Friedberger name attached to it. The melody is relatively simple and traditionally structured with some bouncing synths and a rather inspiring saxophone solo in the bridge. Eleanor does her typical sing-speak style vocal, which in this case exposes quite a bit of her personality as she chronicles the many problems she’s encountered over past summers. And tragic though the mistakes might be, she looks back on those times with a certain fondness and whimsy, perfectly matched to the melody. In this particular case, her mistakes are our gain.
8. James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream
Dubstep apparently became a “thing” in 2011, and given the subgenre’s rise to popularity, you can probably expect a whole lot more of it in 2012. James Blake is a pioneer though, one of the originators of such a sound. “The Wilhelm Scream” is his best achievement to date, a song that’s less about melody or hooks and more about raw emotion. Blake is a producer before he’s an artist, and as such his vocals are a secondary or even a tertiary priority. The minimal bleeps, bloops and keyboard parts are where all the action is, even as open space and silence are equally vying for attention. Intimacy plays an essential role as well, and as Blake sings in that quivering falsetto of his you feel like he’s a close friend making a heartbreaking confession to you in an extremely private moment. “I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore/All that I know is, I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’,” he sings almost whispering into your ear. Each “fallin'” is punctuated with overdubbed vocal harmonies, almost as if they’re echoes off some deep canyon walls spoken by someone moments before they disappear into the darkness below, the bottom invisible to the naked eye. In spite of its inherent sadness, everything about this song is at or near perfection.
7. Cut Copy – Where I’m Going (mp3)
Cut Copy are first and foremost a dance band. Call them electronica if you like as well, but their primary goal seems to be crafting these potential club hits complete with massively addictive hooks to stay with you long after the house lights have gone up. On their latest album “Zonoscope”, they managed to slap together another collection of brilliant material, though one track seemed to stand out just a little more than the rest. “Where I’m Going” backed off the drum machine beats and disco ball compositions to try something just a little bit different. The vocals take precedence here, as the band members use the verses for some intense Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and a healthy dose of psychedelia to match. And where most of their songs are built for the dark of the club, the mood on “Where I’m Going” is extremely sunny and upbeat, the perfect soundtrack to a day of fun and games outside. But the lyrics essentially invite you to take an adventure, and to do it in the most excited, celebratory way possible. The chorus is essentially, “Ooooohwoah, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Woo!”, done with such joy and simplicity you can sing along at the drop of a hat and are almost guaranteed to have a huge smile on your face when doing so. For those moments of inescapable bliss, or when you just need a mood lifter, there’s no song that does it better in 2011 than “Where I’m Going”.
6. M83 – Midnight City
Moving from arguably the brightest song of 2011 to one of the darkest (really in name only), “Midnight City” is a track that defines M83. If somebody unfamiliar with this electro-pop project of Anthony Gonzalez were to ask you what it was all about, you could play “Midnight City” for them and they’d have all the information they needed to know. It’s the best pieces of the band distilled down into this 4 minute chunk, so much so that it nearly ruins the rest of the double album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” by reaching such an apex two tracks in. Nothing else over the rest of those 75 minutes ever tops it, but thankfully there’s a handful of other tracks that come relatively close. Of the many, many things “Midnight City” does right, the dancefloor beat and washed out synths that form the main melody are key, but the little things turn this song from great to superb. The laser beam noises launching into the wordless chorus is one, the small bits of vocal harmonies are another, and greatest of all is the blaring saxophone solo that shows up unexpectedly but very pleasantly at the very end. Those of us living in or around a major metropolitan city also connect quite well with the lyrics that tell of skyscrapers and neon signs, but most of all the idea that, “The city is my church”. We worship at the altar of steel and pavement each and every day, and “Midnight City” is a soundtrack of the most wonderful sort.
5. Wilco – Art of Almost
If you ask me, one of the greatest album opening tracks of all time is “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, hailing from Wilco’s greatest record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. After their self-titled last album seemed to be a full-on retreat into safer, more pop-driven territory, it seemed like Wilco was through with that more experimental and darker sound they explored in the early 00s. On their new album “The Whole Love” however, the band managed to pull off a few surprises, which seemed to indicate they weren’t quite ready to retire just yet. Chief among them was “Art of Almost”, the 7+ minute opening track that marked a sharp step back towards greatness and the best single song Wilco have crafted in 9 years. It feels like a miracle from the very start, the way the glitchy beats skitter and flame out as the drums attempt to keep some semblance of a rhythm going. This leads into a huge swell of orchestral strings before calming when Jeff Tweedy’s vocal enters the fray. Keyboards tap hollow points and the bass squirms behind the singing for the vast midsection of the song, but that orchestra has a calmer resurgence and some fuzzy electric guitar works its way in for a bit as well. As if all of that wasn’t enough to get your motor running, the final 2.5 minutes of the song descend into the best, most intensely shredding guitar solo I heard all year. If only the entire record was as incredible as that one song.
4. Lana Del Rey – Video Games
It makes me laugh just a little to think about how “controversial” Lana Del Rey has become. Okay, so she used to be struggling musician Lizzy Grant and now is getting so much more attention as the plump-lipped pin-up pop star Lana Del Rey. I could care less about who she is or isn’t or what she looks like. The first time I heard “Video Games” it was hitting the play button on a whim and without prior knowledge of any back story. It felt like getting hit in the face with a pillowcase full of doorknobs. Translation: it knocked my socks off. I was instantly charmed by the very classic throwback style mixed with modern day sentiment. While Del Rey is clearly upset that her boyfriend appears to want to spend more time playing video games than with her, the way she phrases it remains curious and a bit ambiguous. Is she using the song to echo her devotion to her man in spite of the situation, or to subtlely and sarcastically insult her man? To put it another way, is she being submissive or dismissive? That question is also at the heart of the debate over Lana Del Rey, curiosity as to if she’s trying to exploit and use gender stereotypes to her advantage or make light of and tear them down? I doubt she’d answer that question herself, so the truth is for you to decide. All I know is, “Video Games” is a beautiful and extremely well constructed ballad that’s one of the 5 best songs I’ve heard this year.
3. tUnE-yArDs – Powa
More than any other song on tUnE-yArDs’ latest album “w h o k i l l”, “Powa” feels like it has graduated to some higher plane of existence most of us dare not comprehend. First off, about the song’s lyrical content. There are very few songs in existence that are as completely open and honest and proud about female sexuality as “Powa” is. Women singing about sex typically results in either being submissive to a man or using flowery language to cover up what might be considered by some as “explicit”. Merrill Garbus doesn’t sugar coat anything. Much of the song is about the pleasure she gets from having sex with a person she truly connects with. “Your power, in mine, it gives me thrills I can’t describe,” she sings, with the word “power” being a euphemism of course. But she also takes much of the idealism out of the song and in some ways out of sex with an aside addressing her mirror and how it bombards her with “life’s humiliations every day” while also wondering if her body might be the reason why her man likes her “from behind”. It takes an extreme amount of courage to just lay all the good and the bad out there like this song does, and that’s only part of what makes it perfect. The way it’s structured, from the lilting ukulele opening to the catchy, toe-tapping middle and all the way through the high pitched vocal acrobatics Garbus pulls off at the end, you could easily equate each one of those bullet points with foreplay, intercourse and finally orgasm. This song gives me so much pleasure over the course of its 5 minutes it’s my auditory orgasm. Funny, for some people, the song lasts longer than they do.
2. Smith Westerns – Weekend
The first time I encountered “Weekend” was over a year ago – sometime in November of 2010. It was the song unveiled to get people excited for the band’s then forthcoming record “Dye It Blonde”, and boy was it a selling point. “Weekend” is primarily about two sounds: sparkle and buzz. The first is echoed best in the twinkles that start and end the song but that also technically never go away but instead become reduced to background elements. The buzz comes courtesy of the heavily distorted guitar that forms the basis for the main melody of the song. It’s a hook in itself, satisfying and gnarly in its charms, and the sort of thing you find yourself humming when you’ve got a good mood and a quiet moment going. Speaking of moods, there’s a palpable excitement built into the song that brings about thoughts of house parties and drinking and generally spending time with friends. If that’s not something you still do on a regular basis, hopefully the song at least triggers fond memories of those times, which are generally some of the best of our lives. It also works as a soundtrack to almost every day of the week, either as a build up to that Friday through Sunday blast of fun and relaxation or during it. Really whenever you need a boost of good vibes, “Weekend” is there to set you straight. But there’s so much more going on in the song than simply anticipation and execution. Like many Smith Westerns songs, a girl is involved and the situation isn’t 100% perfect. “Her tears are never-ending,” sings Cullen Omori before later pining in the chorus, “Weekends are never fun/unless you’re around here too”. Bouncy, delightful and catchy though it might be, there’s the hint of sadness along with disappointment running as an undercurrent through the song, like the Sunday night before returning to the grind of work on Monday. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Simply nod your head, tap your feet, crack a smile, and enjoy the ride. Over a year and 100+ listens later, “Weekend” still “does it” for me, and I can’t say that about any other song in 2011, let alone the last few years.
1. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name) (mp3)
Have you ever encountered a song that struck you so completely dumbfounded it gave you Tourette’s? That is to say, upon listening to it all the way through, even your best attempts to describe the experience come out only as a series of curse words. It took me about 5 minutes of hardcore swearing before I was able to string a halfway decent sentence together the first time I heard “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”. What’s so special about this song to affect me in such a way? It’s actually a little tough to say. There’s so much accomplished over the 8.5 minutes this song runs that trying to piece it all together in a single paragraph almost does it an injustice. Perhaps the best place to start is with the lyrics, which are actually the least important thing about it. Least important because of their sheer difficulty to decipher, in no small part due to the use of a number of ten dollar vocabulary words. The best way to describe the lyrics is to say they’re taken from the perspective of a person killed by an expressway sniper, what with the first three lines of the song being, “Shot in the head/I’m coming up on an overpass/Rife Eyesight was lying low in the grass”. From there things progress from the natural to the supernatural, with the victim first being brought back from the dead by a “bleacher fixture kidless grinning aorta plaque”, which is a super flashy way of saying “creepy guy”. This sniper then kidnaps his barely alive victim and gets “scrubbed up for the surgery”, but because “you can’t bore a hole to a cavity where the soul lives”, the victim eventually dies on the table. The second half of the song then seeks to describe heaven, from its alliterated “cities of coral complexity” to its “tea-colored trout lairs”. And though I’m pretty sure I have the storyline right, there are still phrases like “palpate its baby teeth nodules with insensate fingers” that still elude meaning to me. Such are the challenges of a song that’s poetic and literary in its lyrics rather than plainspoken and direct. The melody itself gets no less complex. It starts as a jangly pop song that heads into a distorted and psychedelic breakdown (the sonic equivalent of death) before slowly rebuilding itself, via sections of punk rock, creeping piano dirge and a light touch of heavy metal for good measure. As music continues to evolve and re-evolve to visit past genres and styles, 2011 will likely be called the year we took a look back at the 90s. We’ve got everyone from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead to Smith Westerns to Yuck and Cymbals Eat Guitars to thank for that, and it’s the biggest reason why I feel “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)” is the song that best defines the last year in music. I didn’t listen to it more than anything else (at 8.5 minutes, you don’t always have the time), but what it lacks in traditional structure, hooks and brevity it more than makes up for via immense creativity and intelligence. Opening a record with a song like this takes sheer balls as well, because it makes much more sense to go with something short and accessible that sucks people in for the long haul. This song is twice as long as anything else on CEG’s “Lenses Alien” record, but it also establishes immediately what you’re going to get out of the next 9 tracks. The worst part is, it sets the bar too high, not just for the rest of the album, but for so many others that might want to wander down that same rabbit hole. With any luck, a band or two will try, and music overall will be better because of it, fueled on the wings of inspiration.
NEXT WEEK: My Top 50 Albums of 2011!