My top songs of 2011

It felt like beauty and the beat out there.

On the one hand, music has rarely seemed dancier: the rise of dubstep, the electro stranglehold on the charts, a four-on-the-floor fetish the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heydays of disco. On the other, indie “rockers” went soul-searching, digging up stirring ballads by appropriating seemingly “untouchable” pop sounds. Hip hop sounded like it was everywhere and nowhere all at once; rock was mostly nowhere, but for a few valiant warriors bringing the guitar tiffs. There were viral hits and vital misses. We grooved. We bounced. We pumped fists. We listened.

This is the year in song.

Yearly disclaimer:

Blah blah blah one song per artist blah blah blah songs had to be singles or extremely notable tracks blah blah blah songs need to work outside of album context blah blah blah which is why some favourite album moments aren’t here blah blah blah they’ll get their due on my albums list blah.

Six great 2011 singles from 2010 albums that felt too “2010” to make this list:

Diamond Rings – “It’s Not My Party”
The National – “Conversation 16”
Robyn – “Call Your Girlfriend”
Superchunk – “Crossed Wires”
Titus Andronicus – “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future”
Kanye West – “All of the Lights”

Ten great 2011 songs that just missed the cut:

Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
EMA – “Marked”
Girls – “Vomit”
Handsome Furs – “Repatriated”
Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”
Real Estate – “It’s Real”
Shotgun Jimmie – “Swamp Magic”
Britney Spears ft. Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj – “Till The World Ends” (remix)
The Strokes – “Taken for a Fool”
tUnE-yArDs – “Gangsta”

20. Destroyer – “Kaputt”

Much of Dan Bejar’s revelatory Kaputt sounds strangely familiar, as if its reverberated guitars and smooth horns are pulled from the ether of memories, but never so clearly that they are recognizable. The slow-building title track puts this literally – when Bejar sings “Sound Smashes, Melody Maker, NME / all sounds like a dream to me,” we sort of understand what he means.

19. Kanye West and Jay-Z – “Niggas in Paris”

Reports of Watch the Throne being simply an ode to opulence were greatly exaggerated, but the song that’s become the record’s anthem lives up to that description. Self-consciously ridiculous, “Niggas in Paris” is so much fun that Jay and ‘Ye have taken to playing it several times in a row to close out their show, the crowd getting more amped up each time. The record stands at nine – that shit is very, very cray.

18. Chad VanGaalen – “Sara”

When I interviewed VanGaalen earlier this year, he told me that he thinks it’s funny that everyone considers him a songwriter when much of the stuff he writes and records is more noise and experimental compositions. I’d argue “Sara,” perhaps the year’s best love song, is more than enough evidence to suggest that VanGaalen should give himself just a bit more credit in that department.

17. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”

Del Rey is a creature of questions. Is she manufactured or authentic? Is she actually interesting or just interesting to pop culture critics? Is “Video Games” distressingly sincere or frustratingly sarcastic? I’m wary of Del Ray rapid pop ascendance mostly because it means that, piece by piece, our questions will be answered, and “Video Games” plays best in its original, unknown form, leaving us wondering everything.

16. Cut Copy – “Need You Now”

I had a soft spot last year for Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” less because I liked the song and more because I appreciated its sentiment: there’s something powerful in the blunt, needy urgency of those three words. Cut Copy, of course, enhance their power by pairing them with a bouncy, escalating dance number that that, by the time of its final “do do dos,” is about as now as you can get.

15. The Weeknd – “Wicked Games”

What’s compelling about the best moments on The Weeknd’s first two mixtapes— “Wicked Games” being the best of the best—is that in the hands of another R&B artist, they’d be party anthems. Instead, the desperate, hedonistic infidelity of “Wicked Games” is paired with a low, grungy minor-keyed slow jam, playing up the desperate part of the equation and providing no false comfort or justification for its crimes of passion.

14. Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”

There’s been lots of signs over the past decade that Radiohead have become more interested in rhythm textures than melodies, which is the real crux of the pre/post Kid A fanbase split. Like In Rainbows four years ago, “Lotus Flower” is an example of Radiohead supporting both ends of the equation, giving Yorke a beautiful vocal melody to carry while Phil, Colin and Jonny drive its beat ahead, pulse after pulse.

13. Sloan – “Unkind”

Jay’s the strongest popist, Chris is the cleverest and Andrew is the most idiosyncratic. Where does that leave Patrick in Sloan’s matrix? More often than not, he seems to be the guy trying the hardest to write riffy hits, and he misses that mark more than enough to make him my least favourite Sloan member. But when he hits, oh my: “Unkind” is a beast, with that riff over that keyboard intro, with those solos, with those harmonies.

12. The Go! Team – “Buy Nothing Day” (featuring Bethany Cosentino)

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino could read the phone book and make it sound like summer, so it’s little wonder that The Go! Team recruited her to belt the one standout on their third album, Rolling Blackouts. Her classic pop pipes are a perfect fit with the Spector-gone-cheerleader wall of sound production, and the resulting track was one of the year’s best “spin around your living room” moments.

11. The Kills – “Future Starts Slow”

The Kills didn’t change a lot with their sound on Blood Pressures, but sampling real drums instead of using drum machines gave them a different swagger than before. The slow groove of “Future Starts Slow,” the album’s best song, adds Jamie Hince’s dirty guitar and perfectly blends Hince and Allison Mosshart’s vocals—with the crazy great “blow what’s left of my right mind” lyric—into something that sounds effortlessly confident.

(Songs 10-1, after the fold…)

10. Beyonce – “Countdown”

In a piece for Rolling Stone comparing recent singles by Rihanna and Beyonce, Matthew Perpetua astutely noted that Rihanna has been at the forefront of a shift in pop music away from R&B influences and towards techno-oriented dance music: she’s not releasing songs like “Unfaithful” anymore, to say the least. In contrast, Beyonce’s one attempt to play that game this year was dead on arrival (4’s mediocre first single “Girls (Run the World)”) and since then, none of her R&B-inspired tracks have gotten any chart traction at all.

It’s depressing to think that the top of the charts have become functional—music to party to (and, well, Adele)—that there’s no room for something so deliriously joyous as “Countdown.” It’s every bit as frantic as the hottest dance track, but rather than being propelled by an all-too-easy four-on-the-floor beat, it’s got the craziest horns of the year, Beyonce hamming it up with hip hop-isms and those vocal runs that are just barely hinged together. “Countdown” will have to be content with critical acclaim rather than pop success; that’s the commons’ loss.

9. The Rapture – “How Deep is Your Love”

I’m not going to go so far as to say that The Rapture’s comeback this year was an unequivocal success, since much of In the Grace of Your Love was just okay. But the band did manage to avoid the two greatest comeback pitfalls: returning with new material that sounds so much like your old stuff that it only reminds everyone how much better those records were, or trying something so different that your audience forgets why they liked you in the first place.

That’s why “How Deep Is Your Love” is so thrilling: it captures the feel of “House of Jealous Lovers,” “Get Myself Into It” and all the other great Rapture songs, but it also sounds very much like 2011 with that big drum beat, that repeating piano hook and, yes, that saxophone. It’s less a statement than a dialogue, a talking point for bridging the awkward “What have you been up to for the last five years?” conversation between listeners and the band. “How Deep is Your Love” makes the reintroductions easy so everyone can just shut up and dance.

8. Cold Cave – “The Great Pan is Dead”

Few sounds were as unexpected this year than the opening guitar bluster of Cold Cave’s first single from Cherish the Light Years. The band’s first album, Love Comes Close, was a moody, gothic electronica record – certainly a better fit with brooding quietly than rocking out. But listening to “The Great Pan is Dead” the first time like getting kicked in the face with energy: it’s overproduced, overstuffed and, when Wesley Eisold starts singing, oversung.

And it works. By punking up the melodramatic goth pop of bands like The Cure, Cold Cave create something that’s loud, aggressive and stirring. The synthesizers do the heavy lifting for the melody, which means that both Eisold and the song’s guitars get to cut like buzzsaws, each thrash or yelp amplifying over the one that came before. The song doesn’t so much end as it does sprawl across the finish line, exhausted…but ready to go again.

7. Young Galaxy – “We Have Everything”

I’d always flagged Young Galaxy as less a band in its own right and more of an Arts and Crafts brand extension: a minor league Stars, if you will. So Shapeshifting—made with a Swedish dance producer that band the traded tapes with, never actually meeting in person—raised all kinds of further identity flags with me on first listen: whose album was this, really? Was this shift towards drum machines and keyboards an artistic choice or a cynical calculation?

Sometimes these questions have answers, and sometimes the music itself renders the debate pointless. “We Have Everything” turned Shapeshifting into the latter for me: the song just glows, with that bouncy riff, effortlessly buoying the song forward, refusing to leave my head for months. Catherine McCandless’ deep presence gives the song its heft, making an awkward line like “in poverty, my love, we have everything” sound like magnificent poetry.

6. Lady Gaga – “Marry the Night”

Even though Born This Way’s best moments haven’t really connected as singles, Lady Gaga herself shoulders a great deal of the blame for her more-miss-than-hit 2011. The video for “Marry the Night” is a microcosm for a year that should have been hers to dominate: she combines some truly compelling images and settings with a five-minute intro that’s entirely self-indulgent schlock, blurring the line between person and performer without giving the audience a reason to care about either. Like Born This Way in general, she’s throwing so much out there to try and connect with people that there’s no way to find a beating heart in the centre.

Well, there is one way: pull “Marry the Night” the SONG out from everything that surrounds it—the video, the album, the egg hatchings, the monsters, the Gaga—and you find that clarity of vision and purpose that Ms. Germanotta might have once had. As an anthem of pop possibility, its motifs are well worn, but who cares when they sound so extremely, hyperbolically in the here and now? The idea that our nighttime selves can overcome our daytime doldrums never loses its thrill, and Gaga’s take on that idea doesn’t need any artifice for support: it’s all there on the track.

5. Rich Aucoin – “It”

Until last week, I was of the impression that Rich Aucoin’s current live show—a singalong smorgasbord of confetti and crowd-participation—was wearing a bit thin with me. I’ve probably seen it a good six or eight times now, to the point where things start to become routine: there’s the countdown to start the show, the parachute portion, the training the audience to sing along…it’s effective, sure, but as Aucoin’s recorded material becomes more compelling, the show felt to me like it wasn’t keeping up.

Then last week, he played a solo gig as the secret performer at The Coast’s Christmas party. I figured what the hell, I’m in good company, let’s give this show a shot again. And maybe it was that everyone there were also probably veterans of Aucoin’s show, but somehow this was different: at the front of the stage at least, everyone wanted to reclaim that feeling of the first time. The show just ramped up and up and up…until we reached “It,” the final song of the night and Aucoin’s most glorious creation. There was nothing that needed “reclaimed”: performance after performance, “It” hasn’t lost one single shred of its dizzying transcendence, and it was every bit as wonderful that night as it was the very first time.

4. Fucked Up – “The Other Shoe”

“The Other Shoe” is a wonderful single on its own, but I can’t help but feel that its rank on my list reflects its role within the larger David Comes to Life just as much. (And yes, I know this sounds contradictory to my own disclaimer above, but hear me out.) When I champion that record to others, I often come across people who are simply not down with screaming vocalists or punk music. They immediately put up blockers, and I get the sense that I’m losing an opportunity to introduce them to one of the year’s best albums.

And that’s when I bring up “The Other Shoe.” Because I was totally one of those people before I heard it: I didn’t get Fucked Up, they weren’t in my wheelhouse, and their acclaim alone wasn’t enough to convince me that they were worth my time. But “The Other Shoe” was undeniable: tuneful, catchy and powerful. At the risk of mixing metaphors, the song ended up as both a litmus test and a gateway drug: a great introduction to Fucked Up at their most exciting, and an indicator as to whether someone will find more to love about the band beyond it. Judging by the year the band just had, it’s working like a charm.

3. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

In any other year, this would be the best ballad by a landslide: universal sentiments that somehow seem deeply personal, glorious harmonies, and that wonderful final portion of song, where the drums kick in and take us slowly home. That it’s not higher on this list reflects that it faces stiff competition because on its own merits, “Helplessness Blues” is damn near flawless: the prettiest song by a band that excels at pretty songs, but with heft to spare this time around.

“Helplessness Blues” is, ultimately, a struggle with modernism, like so many other songs before it, but its temporary retreat to pastoralism isn’t an answer in and of itself: even as its character thinks about working his days away in an orchard, he also pledges that someday he’ll be like a movie star. He can’t escape the trappings of the machinery of life that surrounds him, so all he can do is try to find what beauty he can within it. Cold compromise rarely sounds this sweet.

2. Bon Iver – “Holocene”

Some songs that you come across sound like they’re fighting their way into your life: I’d say “The Other Shoe” fits that bill, for sure, as does “It” and, perhaps, my number one choice. But others arrive so quietly, so unassumingly familiar from the start that you wonder if they haven’t really been there all along. Maybe it’s not actually a new download; maybe it’s just a song that’s been on your hard drive, a song that you shuffle through and liked but only just now have come to love. Maybe your friend played it for you a few years ago. Maybe it’s less new sound than found sound.

In my heart, I knew “Holocene” was something new: after all, it would be strange for a song that’s known to me stop me in my tracks like it did. But from Justin Vernon’s falsetto mumbles, to that ethereal guitar pattern, to that fluttering saxophone buried in the back of the mix, to those big lines—“And at last I knew I was not magnificent,” “And I can see for miles and miles and miles”—it all seemed like it was mine, deeply and intimately personal from the very first moment. I expect that many others, including Grammy voters, had a similar reaction: deeply impressed by how such a unique voice created something so universal that everyone feels a part of it.

1. M83 – “Midnight City”

Let’d discuss the saxophone.

No trend in music seemed as surprising and widespread this year as the return of the oft-reviled woodwind. As Clarence Clemons moved on to that great gig in the sky, his influence felt larger than ever before: big saxophone solos on hits by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga; virtuoso Colin Stetson becoming the man for hire (TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver) and making his own acclaimed album; Destroyer and Bon Iver making acclaimed albums filled with smooth sax and earning scorn from some for their move towards “soft rock.”

That term raises a question: why exactly did we hate the saxophone in the first place? Was it an aesthetic dislike? That’s unlikely – our appreciation of musical sounds themselves is always tied up in a legion of social, historical and cultural connotations. No, it’s more likely that we hated the saxophone because of who and how it was being used: corporate shlock, trying to sound more like Springsteen or more like big band or jazz. Those overbearing, trying-too-hard solos signified the things we despised: falsehood, inauthenticity.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately—including Kurt Anderson’s current Vanity Fair essay—about how pop culture in the 21st century seems stagnant, that there’s a lack of anything truly new. These assessments are not wrong, but they miss that what defines our time is the Internet, and the Internet has placed our cultural past at our fingertips to do what we want with it: we can remix, mash it up, throw it into each other, mock, co-opt, adopt. It could be that we’re not talking about the future because we don’t have much to look forward to, but it’s just as likely that the past is just more fun right now.

M83’s Anthony Gonzalez is no stranger to playing with the past: his albums have always been heavily influenced by electronica’s heyday, and 2008’s Saturdays = Youth was basically a full-on love letter to the John Hughes 1980s. But he’s also no stranger to being overbearing, or trying too hard: not only has his music gotten more hyperdramatic over the years, but he’s increasingly stretching himself as a vocalist. No longer content to sing in whispers, he now wants to yelp and belt to the top of his register – with a timbre and style that, when you think about it, really isn’t all that different than the saxophone.

Just like how the saxophone can feel like “too much” very quickly, much of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming finds Gonzalez’s reach exceeding its grasp, his voice grating, his wall of synthesizers too huge. But on “Midnight City,” the year’s best single, every instrument sounds perfect. There’s the instantly-catchy synthesizer riff that never grows tired. There’s the way Gonzalez saves his higher vocal register for the song’s biggest moments, never letting it overstay its welcome. There’s the thrilling possibility of nighttime adventures.

And there’s the saxophone: a solo straight out of the “Careless Whisper” playbook, that had it opened the song would have perhaps been worthy of derision. It could very easily be too much. But by this point—after a year of resurrection, after four glorious minutes of escalating hyperdrama—its “too much” feels just about right.

I’m going to try to get to my albums list sometime this week, but time is quickly slipping away from me…you can get a sneak preview over at The Coast where they’ve published my top 11, alphabetically, with a few comments. If you don’t see it by Friday, it will run next week before New Year’s for sure.

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3 responses to “My top songs of 2011

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt considers Karmin and the uncanny valley of pop « McNutt Against the Music·

  2. Pingback: My top albums of 2011 « McNutt Against the Music·

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