Thanks for hanging in there so far as we do Listmas 2011 proper with yet another day of counting down my Top 50 Songs of 2011. If yesterday was all about getting eclectic, today is much more thematically in the direction of upbeat pop and dark psychedelia. At least a couple of these songs have been in commercials or other such media-related ventures outside of the scope of music. That doesn’t so much matter to me, primarily because I’ve been listening to all these songs before they showed up anywhere outside of an album. In cases like that, I invoke the right of “finders keepers” in an effort to say that the music swayed me, not the product it may have been attached to in an advertisement or TV show. I hope these songs are familiar to you for those exact same reasons, and if you haven’t heard them before now, well, here’s your chance to make such a discovery. I hope this list has helped you find something new you may have missed earlier in the year. Speaking of things you may have missed earlier, have you checked out the first 3 installments of this Top 50 Songs of 2011 countdown? Here are the links so you can catch up:
And now, click past the jump to learn about songs #20-11, complete with mp3s (when available) or audio streams.
20. Grouplove – Tongue Tied
Damn you, Apple. For months I’ve been loving the hell out of “Tongue Tied”, and then a couple weeks ago you had to go and make it the soundtrack to your new iPod commercial. Now I’m being subjected to it every time I turn on my TV. I’m not complaining yet, because it’s so fresh and delightful that I haven’t grown tired of it, but it’s something I know will eventually happen. As it currently stands though, the song has about a million great things going for it. The vibe is entirely celebratory, the chorus anthemic and addictive, the vocals shouted with passion, and the lyrics about best friends and love provoke the warm and fuzzies. Need a pick-me-up? Want to grin from ear-to-ear? Maybe even want to dance a little? Here’s your soundtrack.
19. Wild Flag – Racehorse
(this audio is a live version of the song from Philadelphia)
Wild Flag is undoubtedly a great band, given the players involved, but they do have a couple small problems with their overall dynamic. If you want to hear the band operating at full power, in which the foursome work best as a cohesive unit but are each given an individual chance to shine, you can’t miss with “Racehorse”. It uses every second of 6.5+ minutes to exploit pure guitar shredding, keyboard jamming, drum fills that overflow, and a vocal performance so visceral that impressive only begins to describe it. For those fleeting moments, you forget entirely the names and the history of the people within this band and just surrender to raw talent. In an ideal world, Wild Flag would give you that same feeling on every song.
18. Destroyer – Chinatown (mp3)
One thing that you can say about Dan Bejar is that he’s consistent. Not so much sonically, as his last few Destroyer records have explored a variety of genres and textures, but more in general songcraft. The guy knows how to put together an album’s worth of top notch songs. He took a journey into the world of soft rock on “Kaputt”, and came out the other side again smelling of roses. Chief among the sweetness is “Chinatown”, opening track and first single from the record. The light acoustic strumming at the beginning gives off a very “Painter in Your Pocket” vibe, but eventually keyboards and shimmering electronics bring a different texture. As it floats along effortlessly while also managing to appeal to larger pop sensibilities, Bejar’s vocal intertwines with an assist from Sibel Thrasher in a remarkably sexy way, only enhanced by the copious use of saxophone. As they both confess to being unable to “walk away” from one another, it becomes quite clear we also can’t walk away…from this song.
17. Yuck – Rubber (mp3)
“Rubber” was my introduction to Yuck, and I can only hope plenty of others discovered the band the same way. On their self-titled debut album, they wisely chose to place the song at the very end. While it gels well with the rest of the record, “Rubber” hails more from the My Bloody Valentine school of shoegaze than the Dinosaur Jr. school of scuzzy-pop that everything else does. It dives straight into a deep pool of heavy chords that grind and drone to the point of auditory hypnotism and holds strong in that resolve for 7 straight minutes. “Should I give in?,” Daniel Blumberg chants with his bandmates. As the storm of noise only grows stronger, the resolve becomes “Yes I give in”. As they do, so do we, unable to resist being buried in sound. It’s calming and darkly beautiful.
16. Givers – Up Up Up
If you want to know what happy sounds like, listen to Givers. The best example of their overjoyed, caffeinated pop comes via the first track on their debut full length “In Light”. Male-female harmonies, Afropop-influenced staccato guitars, glockenspiel, and a whole lot of energy all contribute to making “Up Up Up” one of the purest pieces of indie pop released in 2011. Many seem to have recognized that as well, considering the song has popped up in a number of commercials, TV shows, and other soundtracks. It has yet to reach the point of annoyance though, if you ask me. Either that or the song is simply so delightful it holds a longer shelf life than most. I prefer to believe the latter.
15. Atlas Sound – Mona Lisa
If you’ve listened all the way through Atlas Sound’s “Parallax”, you likely took close notice of the song “Mona Lisa”, mostly because it’s unlike anything else on the album. Sitting smack dab in the middle of it all, the song behaves like a pop life preserver on a record otherwise adrift in a sea of psychedelia. That’s not intended to be a knock on the rest of the album, which is entirely excellent, but the point is this: though me tries more often than not to resist it, Bradford Cox knows how to write some damn good pop songs. Entirely heartfelt and with an aire of melancholy, “Mona Lisa” is mesmerizing and memorable, even as the lyrics speak only in vagaries. Imagine what would happen if Cox were to compose an entire record’s worth of songs in this style.
14. Beirut – Santa Fe
Prior to the release of the latest Beirut record “The Rip Tide”, Zach Condon unleashed a dual EP set called “March of the Zapotec/Holland”, the credit of which was split between Beirut and Realpeople. Realpeople was the moniker Condon went under in his earliest days of making music, when keyboards and electronics were more his friend than Eastern European melodies and horn sections. Revisiting that time in his life seems to have influenced Condon’s choices a little on “The Rip Tide”. Such an influence is most easily obvious on “Santa Fe”, which incorporates electronic textures along with those horns and that famous croon. It actually makes for one of the most energetic, upbeat and catchy Beirut songs ever. The evolution fits the band like a glove, and I for one hope Condon sees that and uses “Santa Fe” as a template for the next Beirut album.
13. Cults – Abducted
Last year, I named Cults’ “Go Outside” my third favorite song of 2010. Their self-titled debut album wasn’t even out yet, and my excited reaction was based entirely on the 7″ single they actually did release that year. Because I can’t well put “Go Outside” on this year’s countdown too, “Abducted” made for the perfect follow-up, proving that Cults were clearly more than just a one hit wonder band. From its lo-fi opening to the gratuitous use of xylophone to the expansive and addictive chorus, it takes a few times through to fully grasp all the wonderful things this song accomplishes in under 3 minutes. Moreso than anything we’d heard from Cults previously, this song removes some of the more twee aspects of the band’s sound to cut a little deeper with a hungry ferocity that’s anchored by an exceptional vocal performance from Madeline Follin.
12. Girls – Vomit (mp3)
I’d like to think that if Pink Floyd were making music today, they’d have produced something largely similar to the latest Girls album “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”. While the entire record is one incredible journey worthy of listening to from start to finish if you’re going to do it at all, the album’s greatest accomplishment and track that most clearly epitomizes the grandiosity of this effort is “Vomit”. Over the course of 6.5 minutes, the song progresses from a hushed acoustic opening into a degraded and intense electric guitar solo before wrapping up via a full-on organ build complete with a choir to provide backing vocals. Despite the flurry of activity on the instrumental level, frontman Christopher Owens keeps a steady vocal hand the entire time, playing like he’s wounded and yearning for his love to, “Come in to my heart”. On the surface, calling a song such as this “Vomit” makes little sense. That is, until you consider how Owens is very figuratively spilling his guts all over this song. I don’t think anyone’s mostly digested emotions have ever sounded this good before.
11. Real Estate – It’s Real
Sometimes you can do so much with so little. “It’s Real” isn’t the most forceful or exciting song in the world, but its lackadaisical attitude suits it more than perfectly. The guitar work is classic for the band by now, practically expected on most of their songs, but the lightly insistent tempo and the strong hook of a chorus keep things higher above board than normal. So does the cleaner production work, adding an extra glimmer to the already sunny melody. The lyrics are about a guy summoning up the courage to reveal his feelings for someone, and singer Martin Courtney plays the emotional aspect of it just right, which is to say with an aloof charm and a touch of shy hesitation. That sweetness in turn works its charms on us, and you’d have to be pretty cold-hearted to bitterly dismiss such an immensely likable track.
TOMORROW: Top 50 Songs of 2011: #10-1!