We’ve reached the halfway point in the Top 50 Songs of 2011 countdown. I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, and Listmas in general thus far. Today’s set of 10 songs are probably the most eclectic yet, going everywhere from psychedelically weird to warm electronica to lo-fi to spoken word poetry to R&B to a pair of some of the most popular songs of the year. When looking back at 2011, it’s important to give some recognition to all those different types of music. For those that missed the first two installments of this Top 50 Songs list, here are a couple links to help you catch up:
And now, click past the jump to investigate songs #30-21, complete with mp3s (when available) or audio streams.
30. Battles – Ice Cream (ft. Matias Aguayo)
The loss of Tyondai Braxton almost seemed too much to bear for Battles, as without his cartoonish vocal presence the band appeared to have a hard road ahead. Thanks to some inspired guest vocals though, they were able to make their new record “Gloss Drop” work out reasonably well. Matias Aguayo contributes a colorful vocal to “Ice Cream”, a grand summer jam that’s so eclectic and fun it almost doesn’t need a voice to guide it along. The guys in the band aren’t so much showing off their intense talents as they are surrendering to an intense groove. In turn it makes it that much easier for us to do the same.
29. Washed Out – Amor Fati (mp3)
Glo-fi made a significant turn for the better in 2011 by largely stepping away from the “lo” and gaining some serious studio polish. Few benefited more from this than Washed Out, whose “Within and Without” was made so much stronger thanks to how much clearer it was compared to his earlier material. “Amor Fati” was the lead single from that record, and for good reason – it holds down an excellent synth-based backing beat as the vocals soar into the stratosphere through the intensely strong hook of a chorus. There are other, almost equally amazing moments on this album, but none with quite the same staying power.
28. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Ffunny Ffriends
Speaking of lo-fi, sonic quality doesn’t get much more degraded than the fuzzed out grooves of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut record. The thing is covered in the scuzz of cheap recording equipment, yet such strife only seems to add character to the songs. Take “Ffunny Ffriends” for instance. The song is deceptively simple on the surface, using an electric guitar and drums to form this bouncy little groove that holds strong on everything but the verses. One verse down and you’re bopping your head along to it and have the chorus down pat as well. The complexity arises in both the second character perspective that emerges later in the song which creates emotional depth, along with as a noodling little guitar solo that does a world of good in spite of its surface simplicity.
27. The Black Keys – Lonely Boy
By the time 2012 rolls around, there’s a good chance I’ll hate this song, and by that same token you will too thanks to the sin of overexposure. “Lonely Boy” is a great Black Keys song, dare I say even finer than anything off their last album “Brothers”. The grinding guitar groove, the pounding drums, the bouncy keyboard, and the choir assist in the chorus all combine for that unavoidable earworm you’ll be stuck with for hours afterwards whether you like it or not. It’s very much pop-rock perfection, the mojo great hits are made of, and in many ways it’s been a long time coming for this band. The only thing missing is a blistering guitar solo, the dose of spontaneity from which would help slap it out of its otherwise formulaic stupor.
26. EMA – California
“Fuck California, you made me boring,” Erika M. Anderson spits at the beginning of “California”. Her disgust at that, along with a few other things, serve as fuel to her fire across a track that is more experimental spoken word poetry than an actual song. Those words though, carry a hefty weight and provoke you in ways unexpected and true. Some of the best pieces of art accomplish such feats, and with the inherent beauty and ease by which so much music is funneled to us, we’re slaves to the melody rather than the message. Yes, “California” gets noisy and droning, but therein lies the barren wasteland upon which EMA has built her church. Pay your respects.
25. St. Vincent – Cruel
It seems to me that any number of St. Vincent songs off of “Strange Mercy” could show up on this countdown, but the single “Cruel” ultimately wins because of its one-word chorus. Annie Clark does more vocally with the title of the song than most other bands are able to muster in your average 3.5 minute track. “Cruel” is also in many ways the quintessential St. Vincent song, starting all beautiful and symphonic, developing into this buzzy march and surrendering to a shredding guitar solo on the bridge – all while anchored down by a pitch-perfect singing. It’s dark, it’s fun and a great reminder of how Clark perfectly balances those two sides of her own personality.
24. Iceage – Broken Bone (mp3)
One of the more ironic things about the title of this song is that Iceage were forced to cancel a number of tour dates this fall due to a broken bone(s). Their live shows often get so out of control that with all the moshing and crowd surfing almost everybody walks out the door with injuries of some kind. Why “Broken Bone” stands out amongst the strident and visceral punk rock of their album “New Brigade” is thanks in no small part to the frenetic power chords and bouncy rhythm spread wide over 2.5 minutes, just a touch longer than every other track on the album save for one. This is Iceage stretching and pushing themselves, and the result is remarkably great. Remarkably addictive too.
23. TV on the Radio – Caffeinated Consciousness
For whatever reason, TV on the Radio chose “Will Do” as the first single off their latest album “Nine Types of Light”, and the much more subdued cut largely underwhelmed along with the majority of other songs on that record. Almost as if they were saving the best for last, “Caffeinated Consciousness” steps in to close out the record, and it features a huge burst of energy to match the title. Unlike a more traditionally structured song in which the verses only build to the chorus, the exact opposite is true here. The song expends all its energy, heart and hooks during the verses and uses the chorus as a calming buffer between those electrified bursts. It truly is the auditory equivalent of a caffeine high, and possibly the band’s best song since “Wolf Like Me”.
22. The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls
In a sense it feels unfair to single out a track from The Weeknd as both long players he’s released so far in 2011 have been labeled mixtapes. Mixtapes are pretty much intended to be heard straight through front to back, hence the use of the word “mix”. In the case of “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”, the nearly 7 minute combo track really epitomizes what makes The Weeknd such a talent to keep a close eye on. Making liberal and unsanctioned use of the Siouxie and the Banshees song “Happy House”, the first half pairs that with a soulful female vocal, melding it into a rock-pop-R&B hybrid of the best (and emotionally tragic) sort. The second half is more traditional R&B, but no less affecting or intense. If you want to know what The Weeknd are all about but don’t want to invest the time, you won’t do any better than this snapshot.
21. Foster the People – Pumped Up Kicks
This was undoubtedly the song of summer 2011. It was everywhere and has quickly boosted Foster the People to stardom. We all probably heard it a few more times than we would have liked, to the point where it’s a bit of an annoyance these days. Yet it’s tough to deny the song’s power and the band’s ability to write a compelling hook. Hell, most people were so wrapped up in the chorus that it took them a couple months to realize the lyrics are very dark and violent. That lighthearted whistle solo during the bridge is a bit misleading in that aspect as well. Perhaps the greatest feat of “Pumped Up Kicks” is how it skates on the lines of influence from a few different styles and genres without taking any wrong turns. No wonder it’s been so damn successful.
TOMORROW: Top 50 Songs of 2011: #20-11!