Monthly Archives: January 2012

Songs of 2011

Tracks 50-1, The Compiled List

50. “Rich Kids Blues” – Lykke Li
49. “Always (On My Mind)” – Chiddy Bang feat. eLDee The Don
48. “Drmz” by A.A. Bondy
47.  ”What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” – Kelly Clarkson
46. Lisa Hannigan – “Home”
45. “Honey Bunny” – Girls
44. “Black Night” – The Dodos
43. “I Wanna Go” – Britney Spears
42. “Se Me Hizo Facil” – Buika
41. “Dreaming” – Mayer Hawthorne
40. “Baby’s Breath” – Bill Callahan
39. “Lucky Now” – Ryan Adams
38. “A Real Hero” – College feat. Electric Youth
37. “Bright Lights” – Gary Clark, Jr.
36. “Deep Shadow” – T.T.L.
35. “Morning Thought” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
34. “He Said I Can” – Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
33. “As Bright As Your Night Light” – Nerves Junior
32.  ”Waste” – Foster the People
31. “Same Mistake” – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
30. “Bedroom Eyes” – Dum Dum Girls
29. “D.I.S.C.O.” – The Young Professionals
28. “Colours” – GROUPLOVE
27. “Hold On” – Alabama Shakes
26. “Beach” – Peter Wolf Crier
25. “Billie Holiday” – Warpaint
24. “Hold You Down” – Childish Gambino
23. “Midnight City” – M83
22. “Immigrant Song (featuring Karen O)” – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
21. “Ignite” – The Raveonettes
20. “East Harlem” – Beirut
19. “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes
18. “Gangsta” – tUnE-yArDs
17. “No Light, No Light” – Florence + The Machine
16. “Amor Fati” – Washed Out
15. “Super Bass” – Nicki Minaj
14. “Dots on Maps” – Say Hi
13. “Valerie (’68 Version)” – Amy Winehouse
12. “Terrible Angels” – Charlotte Gainsbourg
11. “Rolling in the Deep (Jamie xx Shuffle)” – Jamie XX
10. “That’s My Bitch (Demo)” – Jay-Z & Kanye West
9. “Video Games” – Lana Del Rey
8. “Hard Times” – Gillian Welch
7. “Someone Like You” – Adele
6. “212″ – Azealia Banks
5. “Harvest Moon” – Poolside
4. “Somebody That I Used to Know” – Gotye (featuring Kimbra)
3. “Calgary” – Bon Iver
2. “Abducted” – Cults
1. “Shuffle” – Bombay Bicycle Club

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Songs of 2011, Tracks 10-1

Now comes the time when I bring the list to a close.  With the most far-reaching list I’ve ever created, 2011 truly had a wide range of incredible music, and the top ten are no exception.  It may not be as easily recognizable as 2010’s final ten, but it’s certainly just as enjoyable.

10. “That’s My Bitch (Demo)” – Jay-Z & Kanye West

Yes, you’re reading that correctly.  Watch the Throne was infamous this year, making a huge splash in pop culture upon its release at the beginning of August.  The album in general was breath-taking, and intentionally ostentatious, as two of the best rappers of all time spit verses detailing their opulence and talent.  Songs like “Otis,” “Niggas in Paris,” and “No Church in the Wild” were all astounding, but the best track from the two never ended up on the album; at least, the superior version never made it.  The leaked demo version of “That’s My Bitch” is actually the best song the collaboration created.  Guest vocals from Justin Vernon (better known as Bon Iver) and Elly Jackson (of La Roux fame) are more visceral, more personal, and throatier – not thin like on the final version.  Overall, the backing beat is more intense, more aggressive, whereas the album’s version seems to almost pull punches.  The mix of the final version seems tinny and weak compared to the lush arrangement of the demo.  Some of the more awkward lines that seem forced in the final don’t exist on the demo, and the flow of both men comes across as more natural; Jay-Z’s verse specifically is the best I’ve heard from him in quite some time.  In short, it’s almost a crime that the best song the men made was never even available for purchase.

9. “Video Games” – Lana Del Rey

Many of you may have never heard of the self-proclaimed “gangster Nancy Sinatra” before last week, and that’s a pity now that her name is synonymous with “bombed on Saturday Night Live.”  If we choose to ignore those truly horrendous performances and focus on the song itself, “Video Games” is stunning.  Her presence is undeniable, as she alternates between vulnerability and unleashed sexuality.  Power seems to ooze out of Del Rey as she sings, fluctuating between whiskey-smoked growling and soft, cooing notes throughout the song.  The instrumentation is minimal, as the focus is very purposefully on Lana.  She seems to flirt with equal parts sarcasm, depression, and earnestness in an almost maddening way.  Lyrics like “Heaven is a place on earth with you/Tell me all the things you want to do,” that would sound unbearably disingenuous coming out of other singers, hit their mark because of her authenticity.  “Video Games” is similar in subject matter to myriad other songs meant to pander to teens and college students (“Teenage Dream” anyone?), but the tone and approach are completely different and the result pays off in spades.  I only hope the SNL fiasco is a blip on the radar and not something that defines her career; let’s hope 2012 helps her become synonymous with “phenomenon” and not “overhyped disaster.”

8. “Hard Times” – Gillian Welch

It’s hard to accurately describe this song because it affects me so much emotionally.  Welch is as perfect as ever, with a song that could have easily made it onto the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack that she graced with her presence over a decade ago.  Swimming against the grain as she always has, the 44-year-old folk singer duets with her perpetual musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings, as they describe determination in the face of dogged adversity.  Known for her distinctive folk songs, similar to Allison Krauss, Patty Griffin, or Emmylou Harris, Welch specifically has a special ear for the timeless; “Hard Times” features only a guitar and a banjo, with the duo’s clear voices deftly describing the American spirit in times of economic disaster.  This song could have been recorded in 1931 just as easily as 2011, and the literary sensibilities of Welch, along with the sparse, austere arrangement hammer home that point.  The defiant chorus “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more” is something of an anthem without the bleating, raucous noise or the condescending lyrics; basically, it’s an anthem for those of us who grew up.

7. “Someone Like You” – Adele

Sometimes, I almost wish I could go back to last February, back to a world where Adele wasn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet.  As someone who’s followed her career since 2008 when her debut album was released, I grew to love her and think of her as something exclusive to my own world.  It isn’t that I wanted to prevent her success, it’s that I didn’t want her music cheapened by the adoration of the masses.  2011 was, without question, her year; she dominated the charts, spending fifteen weeks atop the US album charts, with worldwide shipments topping 17 million albums sold.  “Someone Like You” was a standout before the album was even released, when she released a simple video of herself singing the song in her London flat, surrounded by dogs, personal photos, and cigarette smoke.  The song set records in countries across the world almost immediately upon its release, and is the only song in Billboard history to top the US charts featuring only a piano and a singer’s voice.  There isn’t much I can write about it here that hasn’t been published already, as nearly everyone connects with this song deeply.  Adele’s powerhouse vocals slide up and down her impressive range with ease, cracking only slightly at the high notes in the chorus – and we assume it’s from anguish, not lack of control.  Backed only by a piano, the spotlight is on her and the painful, acutely personal lyrics about a lover scorned.  That’s the real triumph of Adele: that she can write a song about her own life and have it resonate with millions of people all over the globe.  If only other artists were as powerful.

6. “212” – Azealia Banks

The polar opposite of Adele’s aching ballad is this dizzying assault of vulgarity and arrogance.  Harlem native Azealia Banks made a splash in the rap world with her astonishingly acid-tongued ode to her own bravado.  Utilizing Lazy Jay’s brilliant beats from “Float My Boat” to the point of giving him a featuring credit, Banks delivers a casual, effortless flow that will leave even the most hardened musical critic stunned by the sheer audacity of it all.  She’ll undoubtedly draw comparisons to Nicki Minaj with her shifts between characters and cadences, but there’s far more nuance to this track than you may notice on the first listen.  Banks is all over the place on “212,” with a fluid flow, impressive singing, and an almost taunting tone for the majority of it all.  Perhaps most surprising is not the loquaciously caustic lyrics but how perfectly contained the entire track becomes; this is not the demo of a wide-eyed ingenue, but the debut of a novice that’s done her homework and then some.  When she finally builds to lines like “Who are you, bitch: new lunch? I’mma ruin you, cunt,” the effect is devastating and exhilarating at the same time.  Banks has created the song that all artists strive to achieve – an instant classic.  What’s truly impressive is that it was her first, and self-released to boot.  She’s gonna ruin you all, cunts.

5. “Harvest Moon” – Poolside

We move from a darling of the indie blogosphere to a pair of LA friends few people have even discovered.  Electro duo Poolside, otherwise known as Filip Nikolic and Jeffrey Paradise, were messing around in the studio as they finished up their album and felt like creating a cover.  Jeffrey suggested a Neil Young song and Filip mentioned that he knew “Harvest Moon,” from Young’s 1992 album Harvest, on the guitar.  They set about recreating the track, eventually throwing out the guitar entirely to distance themselves further from the original.  Young purists may barely recognize the song, as the atmospheric, almost purely electronic arrangement is nothing like the twangy guitars of the original piece.  The vocals are close enough to Young’s original arrangement that the changes aren’t distracting, but also singular enough that you know the duo didn’t lift them straight from Young’s recording, either.  At over six minutes of what the band calls “daytime disco,” you can almost feel the rays of sun at the beach, or smell the smoke from the bonfire at the lake house.  It’s one of those rare songs in which you can honestly lose yourself; the soothing vocal, the echoed notes, the sample of what seems like ocean waves – they all combine to overtake the senses.  I’ve written about songs that create a dreamlike state a few times on this year’s list, but nothing compares to the relaxed feeling of utter contentment that settles in after listening to this song two or three times in a row.  The song builds and dissolves throughout the course of its life, but eventually the true meaning of the lyrics shines through: the pained loss of a loved one.

4. “Somebody That I Used to Know” – Gotye (featuring Kimbra)

The odd parade of songs for spurned lovers continues, but this differs from Adele and Poolside in significant ways.  For one, both sides of the story are featured; perhaps more importantly, legitimate animosity and malcontent are on full display here.  Belgian-born Australian singer-songwriter Wouter De Backer, known by his stage name Gotye, crafts a song of bitterness and heartbreak as he sings with New Zealand singer Kimbra (born Kimbra Johnson).  Experimental instrumentation only adds to the impact of the song, as everything from a xylophone to a flute to even a little cowbell adding to the rich texture and haunting landscape of the track.  He sings in an address to an ex, seeming to reminisce on better times; once he reaches the chorus, however, the story changes abruptly.  His voice leaps an octave and he lashes out at how his ex-girlfriend treated him, resentful over her behavior.  Eventually, Kimbra adds her own verse, as if responding to Gotye’s vitriol, explaining her own feelings of hopelessness and even hinting that Gotye utilized gaslighting to hurt her. Once the next chorus is reached, Kimbra’s voice rises and sings with a different melody; the two voices are harmonious but almost approaching a call-and-response: as if the notes they emit are themselves fighting.  Her voice and backing harmonies bring to mind a more talented version of Katy Perry; throaty and deep, but with better pitch and more control over her instrument.  People have responded strongly to the strange mix of regret and acrimony, as the singer himself noting a need for more substance and less songs taking place on a dance floor.

3. “Calgary” – Bon Iver

Justin Vernon had a banner year, releasing an album with almost universal praise and racking up some massive Grammy nominations at year’s end; in fact, it’s hard to think of an artist besides Adele who truly exploded onto the music scene like he did in 2011.  Besides the praise for the album, though, a lot of the attention has fallen to the song “Holocene.”  While I find that track gorgeous and ingenious in other ways, I would argue that “Calgary” is actually the superior song.  Coming off of the folksy, restrained tone of his debut For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon leaned hard into transcendental electronic sounds, utilizing a charming synth-sound that no one expected.  With nonsensical lyrics almost appearing merely as vocal noises, the music on display here is nothing short of graceful.  Vernon plays with song structure throughout the piece, begging you to follow him on an implied journey, building toward a cathartic crescendo.  He adjusts tone and tempo as if they were instruments in and of themselves, changing his voice to complement the electric guitars at the bridge, constantly adjusting your expectation of where the song will head next.  Vernon flexes an intricate strength in “Calgary,” bringing your attention to a delicate balance of organic and electric, vulnerability and power.  This song will be remembered for years to come for its understated magnificence.

2. “Abducted” – Cults

There is an instant ferocity that comes to mind with “Abducted,” a sinister tone that clashes well with the 60s throwback sound.  Everything about this song is pure verve: make no mistake about it, this song has some serious teeth.  Despite the echoed guitars, despite the scaling xylophones, and despite that gorgeous percussive-heavy bridge, this song is seriously twisted.  Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, originally hailing from San Diego but now based in NYC, exploited the internet goodwill they received from their first song, “Go Outside” to their advantage.  Largely backed by heavy-hitters like Pitchfork’s fawning praise, they signed with Columbia Records for a full-length album.  This song, full of kinetic energy and literally bursting out of your speakers, comes from the resulting album and is nothing if not disturbing.  Follin’s vocals are saccharine, but don’t mistake them for naïveté.  She wails in an almost enraptured state , “He tore me up ’cause I really loved him,” and Oblivion responds in almost droll tones, recalling that he knowingly broke her heart simply for the fun of it.  The story is viciously delightful, the song itself sheer pop-rock perfection.

1. “Shuffle” – Bombay Bicycle Club

Could it be we’ve finally reached the best song of the year?  This four-piece British band is shockingly prolific, with three albums in as many years under their belt.  “Shuffle,” a summery, bouncing single that describes in vivid detail the rush of endorphins you feel while dancing at a concert, is an instant shot of dopamine straight to your brain.  The layering of this arrangement is beautifully complex, with “infectious” popping up in every single review I have seen.  There really is no other word to describe it – this song is a virus that infects you, body and soul.  It is exuberant, joyful, and intense; you cannot possibly listen to this without aching to dance.  Frontman Jack Steadman’s vocal flirts with falsetto through much of the song, hovering above the looped sample of his own scat singing.  The piano is simultaneously wonky and jaunty, perfectly executed to spread good cheer.  It’s almost like the culmination of so many movements in music right now – the layered synths, the vocal samples, the bouncing notes, the untempered bliss.  Who cares that it’s snowing in Boston as I type these words?  Listening to this song is like packaged sunshine, an ode to nothing but the inexplainable ecstasy we feel as a song takes us over.

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Songs of 2011, Tracks 20-11

We’re in the home stretch, with the final twenty songs basically highlighting the perfection and the diversity of great music that was released in 2011.  If you thought the spectrum was pretty wide so far…well, you haven’t seen/heard anything yet.

20. “East Harlem” – Beirut

The earnest crooning of multi-instrumentalist front man Zach Condon seeps into the body of this single, which defies explanation from even the most articulate music blogger.  Beirut is known for their far-flung influences, including Balkan folk and Mexican mariachi, and this song is the pop-leaning crystallization of their previous two albums.  Describing the wistful lament of one half of a Manhattan relationship, the protagonist pines for the sound of her breath.  It seems that a thousand miles separates the two, which is understandable in many urban environments today.  More importantly, the backing instrumentals of accordion, warm brass, agile piano, and wordless backing vocals all combine to create an almost comfortable, intimate feeling.

19. “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes

The surging harmonies are back but in short supply, and the band that arranges them better than any other in the business should consider themselves triumphant for pulling off some risky moves on their second album.  The mood is darker on this piece compared to their earlier LP and EP (Sun Giant) from 2008, and with this song specifically, they seem to shirk individualism for a feeling of belonging.  Frontman Robin Pecknold writes of a longing to work with his hands in an orchard, and the song’s tone becomes downright existential as it moves throughout several introspective pieces, slowing down from the quickly strumming acoustic guitars of the beginning of the track.  The tonal shift halfway through is brilliant, and the pitch throughout is, simply put, perfect.  It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly better than 90% of the music released these days.

18. “Gangsta” – tUnE-yArDs

What started as a one-woman project, created by Merrill Garbus and now featuring Nate Brennan, the duo known as tUnE-yArDs is now a veritable independent music force.  There are almost cacophonous, short blasts of saxophone, sampled loops of police sirens, and an all-consuming drum beat that envelop the listener.  The song is refreshing in so many ways, most importantly it’s use of inventive and brash rhythms, with looped “found sounds” and hostile lyrics detailing the danger of the “hood” – or Oakland, Garbus’s new home.  Garbus is erratic with her arrangement, removing sounds and instruments just as quickly as she introduces them.  She creates a legitimate storm of sound around you, with the audacious, combative song refusing to comply with the standard expectations of a pop song.  It may be dissonant, but it’s also an undeniable creative force in a world that all too often processed and AutoTuned.  Let’s be nothing if not frank, just like the song: if it’s good enough to be featured on The Good Wife, it’s good enough for any Best of the Year list.

17. “No Light, No Light” – Florence + The Machine

The famously ostentatious Florence Welch returned with her hugely successful sophomore album Ceremonials last year, and easily the best track is the vastly personal “No Light, No Light.”  Similar in sound to “Cosmic Love” from her debut 2009 album Lungs, this song features atmospheric vocals, bombastic drums, a church organ, and even a nimble harp, creating an almost religious fervor that could make the song more apropos at a revival than a concert.  When Welch hits a certain note at the end of the bridge, which lasts for at least twelve seconds, the results are jaw-dropping; her vocal chops almost transform her into a superhero, a literal banshee screeching her pain on stage.  Taking a page from Adele’s playbook, this song is significantly more personal than most of Welch’s repertoire, and it pays off in a huge way.  With lines like “‘Cause it’s so easy to say it to a crowd/But it’s so hard, my love, to say it to you alone” and the repeated “Tell me what you want me to say” drive home the anguish we can suddenly see in Welch.

16. “Amor Fati” – Washed Out

Chillwave is a movement that’s established its staying power, but Ernest Green skyrocketed to the top of the genre with his beautifully elegant album this past year.  “Amor Fati,” loosely meaning “love of fate” in Latin, is the standout with its warm, synthesized sound containing lyrics that alternate between mopey longing and determined ambition.  There’s an alienation that is intrinsic to this song – an alienation that is all too familiar to many, and thus serves almost as a comfort on the record.  Once the bridge begins with hand claps and wordless vocals, the effect of exhilarating pleasure is complete, swelling the heart with relief and cheer.  You may feel alone in a new city or at a new job or in a new school, but we all feel a little taken aback with a new chapter; this song, in essence, seeks to dampen that anxiety and assuage your fears.  It succeeds tremendously.

15. “Super Bass” – Nicki Minaj

Minaj was literally inescapable with this monster of a song, which somehow didn’t really take off until teen queens Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, of all people, publicly stated their love for their track.  It’s hard to believe the song was never intended to be released as a single, especially considering it’s now the most successful female rap single since Missy Elliott’s “Work It” almost a decade ago in 2002.  The exuberant, gleeful song describes meeting a handsome suitor and the giddy head rush Nicki experiences when talking to him.  Ester Dean belts out the undeniably slick chorus that stays with you while Minaj pelts you with her rhymes, and the result is the type of irrepressibly effervescent megahit that transcends the most cynical of critics.  This is that rare song that is loved by pretty much everyone.

14. “Dots on Maps” – Say Hi

Eric Elbogen is a one-man band that is consistently spectacular (and consistently underrated) with his rich, multi-layered, lo-fi creations.  You may remember that I chose his song “November was White, December was Grey” as the best song of 2009; “Dots on Maps” may not reach quite that level, but it’s still an incredible achievement in and of itself.  The bouncing piano keys, buoyant guitars, and what seems like backing maracas and even a delicate flute all combine to rival M. Ward or Conor Oberst for top songwriting acclaim in the crowded indie marketplace of contemporary times.  Elbogen recalls a more innocent life, clinging to his lover’s affection as they traverse the country and fight the bitterness that seems to encroach upon us all as we age.  Other songs from his latest album, title Um, Uh Oh, may have received more attention from the blogs and even film soundtracks, but the intimacy of this song certainly ranks it as one of the year’s best.

13. “Valerie (’68 Version)” – Amy Winehouse

I speak only for myself when I say that the untimely and, unfortunately, seemingly inevitable death of Amy Winehouse this past summer was utterly devastating.  She was a talent with almost limitless scope, and only she could improve upon an earlier remake of the Zutons’ song.  It may surprise some to find out the earlier release was actually her largest hit in her homeland; she famously recorded the original track in 2007 for Mark Ronson’s album Version.  This take has considerably slowed down the tempo; while still quite jaunty, the effect of the new instrumentation and her compelling voice practically erase the 2007 recording from her catalogue.  “Valerie (’68 Version)” is infectiously catchy, less concerned with swagger than authenticity.  It’s a testament to Winehouse and her talent that almost any of the songs from this final collection of recordings could have been an entry on this list, but the champion is most certainly this beloved cover.

12. “Terrible Angels” – Charlotte Gainsbourg

The daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg received an incredible amount of attention for her beautiful performance in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia this year, but I would argue that her biggest achievement was this song.  Thudding electro-pop with an aggressive, stomping beat backs Charlotte’s plea for “a release from isolation.”  It’s entirely unexpected from this artist, and the fact that Beck produced it makes it even more of a curve ball, but it succeeds in so many ways.  “Terrible Angels” was criminally overlooked by most of the industry, but Gainsbourg’s distorted vocals, at times breathy, at times snarling, are almost like another instrument in this heavily produced, industrial track.  It’s quite perfect for a plethora of occasions – strutting down the street, the soundtrack to your next fashion show, or even dancing in a parking garage.  Just don’t relegate Gainsbourg to the qualifier of “just an actress;” this song proves she deserves more attention for her music, as well.

11. “Rolling in the Deep (Jamie xx Shuffle)” – Jamie XX

You’re probably questioning my integrity right now.  You’re right, I included the source for this song on last year’s list (since “Rolling in the Deep” was released in 2010, despite how long it took you all to come around to it).  Many may think the original was one of those ubiquitous songs that steamrolled the competition this year, and they’d be right.  It hit number one in 11 countries, including seven weeks atop the US charts; by the end of the year, the single had sold almost six million copies in the United States alone.  The saddest thing about all this attention is the lack of spotlight this remix received.  It was released to the internet almost a year ago, near the end of January, and the sparse instrumentation, hand claps, and deliberate focus on her smoky, powerhouse vocals lands it safely as an entry on the all-time list of best remixes ever.  Donald Glover makes his second appearance on this year’s list with the best rap cameo since Nicki Minaj slayed everyone in the industry on “Monster.”  Glover’s inventive invective against an ex-girlfriend is absolutely brilliant, his verses articulate, rapid, and brutally cutting.  The one-two punch of Jamie’s arrangement and Childish Gambino’s jaw-dropping rap in the second half elevate this to one of the best songs of the entire year.  Take it from me: I’m still listening to it almost a year later and it is still awe-inspiring.

I promised you more fun and I’m fairly certain I delivered.  What do you think of the list so far?  Are you shocked at some of the entries?  What’s your bet for the best song of the year?  I hope you’ve enjoyed the fourth section and that I have your heads bobbing with the new music in your song libraries.

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Songs of 2011, Tracks 30-21

I know, I know, I should have published these yesterday.  The thing is – I actually have a social life.  So why waste any more time writing anything here when you’re chomping at the bit to see what songs I came up with for the third section of the list?  Well, wait no more…here they are.

30. “Bedroom Eyes” – Dum Dum Girls

A band that sounds like the love child of Blondie and the Donnas, Dum Dum Girls delivers a slice of fried gold with this slightly vintage take on drugs, sex, and rock & roll.  Dee Dee Penny (the stage name for Kristen Gundred) wrote lyrics that describe a hazy longing, as the protagonist lays on her bed, with the room swaying around her due to “some strange pill.”  The unconventional structure of the song merely reiterates the influence of the drug, as there are only two verses, with the rest of the song simply a scattering of lines repeated at least four times in a row in crystal clear pitch.  Penny used to be in Grand Ole Party, a phenomenal three-piece band, and her ease with music certainly translates to this song; a song that could comfortably exist in the past three or four decades.

29. “D.I.S.C.O.” – The Young Professionals

The Israeli duo of Ivri Lider and Yonathan Goldshtein sampled an obscure 1980 single called “D.I.S.C.O” from French band Ottawan, creating a monstrous electro-pop song in the process.  This song in and of itself is something of an unearthed secret, with only 2300 people listening to the group on last.fm; however, a shred of popularity has come from YouTube and the single’s eye-popping video.  Now that they’ve signed with Universal Records, expect to be seeing more of them in the coming year.  Lyrically, each verse splits the acronym of the title into more reasons the protagonist hates his ex-lover, with an example being “D is for doing what I want/I is for saying that I can’t/S is for somebody you’re not/C for don’t call me and/O is for oh no.”  The heavy synth and keyboard sound, with distorted notes throughout, create a frenzied intensity meant to get you on the floor.  Not since Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” has a self-loathing song about a break-up been so infectious and dance-worthy.

28. “Colours” – GROUPLOVE

This aggressive, pounding song with a flurry of stuttered lyrics and an almost cheerful rage bursting through the instruments is a breath of fresh air in a time when the radio was filled with some processed form of “music.”  LA-based quintet GROUPLOVE, led by charming frontman Christian Zucconi, staked their claim in the scene with this incredible song, recorded in an almost manic tone, a song of vigor and questionable sanity.  Seeming to describe a man’s willful descent into madness, the lyrics bounce in your ears, conveying feelings of enthusiasm and youthful vitality.  Zucconi’s nasal voice floats up and down the scale, appearing at times to almost screech in earnestness.  “Colours,” quite simply, affects the audience, regardless of their current mindset.  This is not a song you simply tune out as background noise; this is a song that stands defiantly front and center, demanding your full attention.

27. “Hold On” – Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes really does hail from Alabama and represents a veritable resurrection of soul, recalling an era of Motown domination, but with more edge.  Their sound is deeper than the slick stylings of the Detroit groups, a rawer rhythm and blues that features reverberated electric guitar, pounding piano keys, and a bass line that beckons from the Mississipi Delta.  Lead vocalist Brittany Howard wails and moans over insane blues riffs throughout the track, projecting a voice that seems to explode out of her.  With a sound as unique and beautiful as this, it’s no wonder Paste Magazine named Alabama Shakes as the best new band of the year.  That’s not the only industry buzz they generated, either; be prepared to watch this group storm the national audience after a blistering set at the Bowery Ballroom turned some incredibly important heads.

26. “Beach” – Peter Wolf Crier

The emotionless electric guitar on this track may recall Tom Morello from his Audioslave days, but the furious drumming and layered instrumentals here won’t leave you feeling as dead as the guitar seems.  Overarching percussion almost creates the sound of lapping water and crashing waves, with probably half of the song lacking any kind of vocals.  Lyrics stumble over each other when vocals are present, as the mix has them float over you, entangled like a fish in a net.  Utilizing rain sticks on a song that sounds of melancholy and abandonment is an inspired choice.  Minneapolis-based Brian Moen and Peter Pisano work together to craft this track that will certainly stay with you for quite some time.

25. “Billie Holiday” – Warpaint

The ethereal sound of Warpaint’s perfect harmonies literally surrounds you from the first few seconds of the song.  Perhaps best known for formerly including Shannyn Sossamon and Josh Klinghoffer of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, this now all-female band certainly isn’t found lacking musically.  The song is almost gauzy, similar in structure to, say, Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust,” but markedly more complex.  The smoky harmonies of the song transform the original lyrics to Smokey Robinson-penned “My Guy,” creating aural Klonopin as an end result.  Spelling out Billie Holiday’s name throughout the track, Emily Kokal’s vocals relegate the listener into a trance, a dream-like state that soothes the soul.  The transformation of the original’s giddy lyrics into this aching ode to a broken heart are, in short, phenomenal.

24. “Hold You Down” – Childish Gambino

When the news trickled around the blogosphere that Donald Glover was attempting a rapping career, I’m sure a fair amount of people laughed at this seemingly foolish endeavor.  Then they actually listened to his work.  Despite being best known for appearing weekly as Troy on Community (and being slightly less known as a 30 Rock writer for three years), Glover  has legitimate talent and arresting presence throughout his recordings.  The best track from his album Camp is “Hold You Down” – a double entendre that points out how prejudice suffocates cultures while also using slang that means “support or protect.”  Glover constructs the rare rap song that utilizes strings, a piano, hand claps, and earnest, poignant lyrics about racism in America.  He details his experiences growing up as an African-American man, with subtle and blatant bigotry rearing its ugly head on a near constant basis.  Besides being a beautifully crafted song with truly inventive flow, the lyrics latch themselves to you and hammer home the message.  One of the best by far? “You’re not NOT racist ’cause The Wire‘s in your Netflix queue.”

23. “Midnight City” – M83

French musician Anthony Gonzalez, better known as the frontman of M83, succeeded in 2011 where more popular acts like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry failed miserably – he utilized a saxophone in an organic and perfectly suitable way.  This song was a bit of a critical darling over the year, with blogs fawning over the sprawling lyrics dedicated to downtown Los Angeles and the heavily distorted vocal samples.  Pitchfork, PopMatters, and Paste all designated it as the best (or second-best) song of the entire year, with it’s 80s retro/futuristic sound and instantly recognizable riff.  It’s sure to be one of the most famous songs of the shoegazing genre, almost defying classification as a result of its extraordinary construction.  If you’ve somehow managed to get through the entire year without hearing it, prepare for a truly transcendent experience.

22. “Immigrant Song (featuring Karen O)” – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Only these three artists would have the courage to take on a song as distinctive in the popular memory as Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  I think one could argue that this version actually improves upon the original.  Meant to be the lynchpin in the duo’s score for David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, “Immigrant Song” is a shrieking and deadly track, with Karen O wailing like a banshee unhinged.  The cover reimagines the original, with Karen screaming the lyrics and the guitars delivering an almost industrial sound; Lisbeth Salander’s anger emanates outward in every note, with every anguished scream.  Reznor and Ross induce a frenzied anxiety throughout, with the emotion of the song building to a fever pitch by the time you reach the pounding conclusion.  In fact, the instruments used in the final thirty seconds of the track seem to recall a tattoo artist’s needle: obviously apropos given the film the men were scoring.

21. “Ignite” – The Raveonettes

Danish rockers Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo returned to glory this year with their most recent album, Raven in the Grave.  Known for their close, two-part harmonies and their electric-guitar heavy sound, the Raveonettes craft a song where the protagonist implores their current lover to shake off the current depression enveloping their relationship.  Part of the chorus conveys the fervor of this request, with lines like, “What if I could free you, what if you could smile ?/What if I could make your heart ignite just for a while?”  However, the desperation of the lyrics fail to completely mask an almost malicious tone inherent in the song.  As Spin wrote in their review, “There’s menace in the beauty, and beauty in the menace.”  I couldn’t agree more.

So the third section of the list takes a hard turn into some bleaker, introspective territory.  What did you think?  Are you ready for some more light-hearted songs?  Maybe less rock, rage, and racism would help?  Fear not, as the next twenty songs will expand the spectrum even more, and there will be plenty of exuberant dancing involved.

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Songs of 2011, Tracks 40-31

Another day means another ten songs on the list.  This section may have a few surprises, but bear with me.

40. “Baby’s Breath” – Bill Callahan

With a voice and style that has an uncanny resemblance to the late Jackson C. Frank, Bill Callahan truly stuns the audience with this loping, meandering tale.  To be honest, I can’t tell if this details the implosion of a destructive marriage, the realization that he took his wife for granted, or a regretted abortion; the lyrics are so convoluted that they could feasibly involve all three scenarios.  The song begins with a sharp intake of  breath, and the gardening/floral metaphors begin to cascade from Callahan’s smooth bass vocal.  With a tempo that alternates throughout the five minute song, Callahan weaves a story of strain, heartache, and depth in a way that the majority of contemporary artists simply cannot replicate.  This song is truly a triumph.

39. “Lucky Now” – Ryan Adams

Shirking the problem child reputation of his youth, the poster boy for rock & roll excess in an alt-country sound mellowed out considerably for his newest album.  “Lucky Now” specifically is a song obsessed with time, with the opening verse proclaiming, “I don’t remember, were we wild and young/All that’s faded into memory…/Are we really who we used to be/Am I really who I was?”  The painfully introspective track highlights Adams looking back on his 20s in New York.  Originally, the song was intended to be about his friend and bandmate, Chris Feinstein, who died in late 2009; eventually, however, Adams realized that the first draft was too personal.  He revised the lyrics in an attempt to make the song more accessible and succeeded without question.  The echoing electric guitar on the bridge makes the song soar before dropping back down to a quiet, somber tone as Adams repeats the first verse.  The effect is, in a word, poignant.

38. “A Real Hero” – College feat. Electric Youth

You probably haven’t heard electronic music with this much soul since the Postal Service took college radio stations by storm in 2003.  Featured most famously in last year’s film Drive, David Grellier’s collaboration with Electric Youth connects in a way that is simultaneously in your face and nuanced, vintage and ahead of its time. The line “You have proved to be a real human being…and a real hero” is repeated to the point of soothing the audience, with the ethereal vocals lapping at the brain like a low tide. Half of the Canadian duo Electric Youth, Bronwyn’s voice coos, her delivery both breathy and crystal clear as she induces a dreamlike trance in the listener.  Even without the context of the film, the song is affecting in its deceptive simplicity.

37. “Bright Lights” – Gary Clark, Jr.

The driving, reverberated guitars of this soulful blues number slug you like one too many shots at the bar.  Welcome to indie’s new darling: Gary Clark, Jr.  Hailing from Austin, Clark is the only artist in history to ever snag a lead review in Rolling Stone with an EP.  His swagger and bravado on this track are inspiring; the thundering guitars and steady backing drums accompany lines like “You gonna know my name by the end of the night” and “Bright lights, big city goin’ to my head.”  The protagonist is simultaneously arrogant and grounded, shocked that he’s survived all he’s been through so far.  With a full LP following this summer, we can only hope Clark survives for many years and continues to delivers songs as bombastic and charming as this.

36. “Deep Shadow” – T.T.L.

I guarantee you’re scratching your head at this one.  Yes, I’ve included an instrumental piece from the trailer to an as-yet-unreleased film – The Hunger Games.  The thing is, this amalgamation of pounding electric drum beats with an almost Asian-inflected bluegrass string is one of the most original pieces of music to be released in years.  This duo is so underground, the only information I could find on them online is that their initials (allegedly) stand for “Through the Lens.”  When the trailer for the film was unleashed upon the world in November, many praised the score, which conjured images of a dystopian future quite easily, evoking authoritarian regimes and jail cells with its driving bass and agile freedom as fugitives run through the woods with its mix of strings and chimes.  The internet was abuzz not only about the trailer, but also about the song, with many falsely assuming that super producer T-Bone Burnett was behind the composition.  Regardless of how famous you are, comparisons to Burnett are always flattering.

35. “Morning Thought” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

I can’t help but think of Broken Bells, the merger of Danger Mouse and James Mercer, lead singer of The Shins,  when I listen to Detroit-based duo Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein.  Their harmonies engage the audience as they mix electronic and organic music, with reverb from both swirling around the almost atmospheric vocals.  Nonsensical sampled ululations open the song with broken keyboards and pounding bass.  The lyrics, though vague, seem to imply a need to escape the pressure of the modern world, a need to explain the mundane and banal existence of our contemporary lives.  Given the title, I find it safe to assume that these are the thoughts of a protagonist waking up and preparing for another day slogging through the horrific commute, the vapid work, the insipid conversations wit coworkers.  If this the intention, I know I can relate.

34. “He Said I Can” – Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Vintage, funky soul of the best kind, Sharon Jones and her backing band are some of the most talented and consistent musicians creating music today.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing them live, you know that Jones is more than just a singer – she pours her heart into performances on stage, providing a truly transcendent experience.  The surging horns, the wildly eclectic bass, and, most importantly, Jones’s vocal gymnastics transport you back in time.  This song could easily come from an album released in 1974 instead of 2011, and that is meant in every way as a compliment.  Jones sings about a man who loves, supports, and empowers her – perhaps an old-fashioned message, but she sells it with conviction.  Besides, the first verse states that “nobody can kill the pain,” implying that Jones could live without the titular lover, and simply chooses not to.  Either way, the groove on the track is worth whatever misguided message she delivers.

33. “As Bright As Your Night Light” – Nerves Junior

The ornate distortion and layered synth sound of these Louisville natives resulted in constant allusions to Radiohead’s Kid A.  I’m not sure the references are accurate, as I would more readily compare them to Kasabian or even Arctic Monkeys, but I can certainly see why bloggers would head in that direction.  The music laid down for this track borders on cacophonous at points, but similar in construction to, say, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  The dissonance is entirely intentional, and the resulting song almost retrains the ear to appreciate its refreshing noise.  Cory Wayne croons over the chorus, mastering the auditory sneer throughout the verses, and, while it may take a few listens, you embrace his voice entirely.  With a vocal equal parts acerbic and enthralling, Wayne slowly wins you over, pulling you into the enveloping wall of sound.

32.  “Waste” – Foster the People

Last year’s kings are back with one of the most charming love songs of recent times.  Foster the People’s trio of Mark Foster, Cubbie Fink, and Mark Pontius construct an endearing ode to unconditional love.  It’s not clear if this love is romantic or familial, but I’m not entirely sure it matters, as it does seem to address addiction in the object of love.  References to “monsters,” “reliv[ing] the things that are gone,” and “the devil’s on your back” all paint someone supporting a loved one through recovery from addiction..The melodic dance-infused sound that they cultivated on earlier songs like “Pumped Up Kicks” and “Helena Beats” is present here.  The now familiar sound of keyboards, impeccable drumming, and distorted, fuzzy vocals is here, and while not as successful as on “Pumped Up Kicks,” the result is still absolutely delightful.

31. “Same Mistake” – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

One of the blogosphere’s favorite bands came back this year with a new album, and the opening track is exhilarating.  The unabashedly pop sound of the song utilizes strings and an earnest vocal from lead singer Alec Ounsworth, painting a volatile picture of careless youth and indiscretions that pulses throughout your entire body.  The new album was produced by John Congleton, who has worked with acts like Okkervil River and Explosions in the Sky, and his presence is obvious.  “Same Mistake” specifically recalls Okkervil River’s “Lost Coastlines” for me, an uncontrollable tale without a clear point, but unmistakably upbeat regardless.  I’m not sure if it’s possible to experience this song without tapping your foot, bobbing your head, or indulging in both at the same time.

So is the second section of the list any better?  Maybe you like the emphasis on electronic music here – or you prefer the soulful stylings of Gary and Sharon.  Do you vehemently hate any of the songs?  Sound off in the comments below and tell me if you think I made the same mistakes, or if you love the list so far.

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Songs of 2011, Tracks 50-41

It’s that time of year again, people.  Yes, I haven’t posted since last year’s list, but really – who gives a shit?  I moved to tumblr and I’m only posting here for my own entertainment/ease.  Without any further ado, here are the first ten tracks of the Best Songs of 2011.

50. “Rich Kids Blues” – Lykke Li

The Swedish princess of indie music released her second album this year to rave reviews, and this track specifically captured a zeitgeist of 2011 in its satirical attack on society a la the Occupy movement.  Her melody is on point, and her use of the theremin inspired, as Li deftly mocks the 1%.  The opening drum line and theremin are simultaneously intense and haunting, with her own vocals adding a rich texture to the song that pulls the audience in.  This enchanting layering continues throughout the song, regardless of the instruments used, and as she repeats herself over the chorus, you can’t help but tap your feet.  As her lyrics pierce the entitlement of the upper class, Li’s song entrenches itself in the scope of the year, from the sudden popularity of Downton Abbey to the staying power of the Occupy movement as it swept across the nation.

49. “Always (On My Mind)” – Chiddy Bang feat. eLDee The Don

Philly’s favorite black and white hip-hop duo came out with a new mixtape in 2011 that failed to live up to their first set, but this track stands out almost solely on its sample.  Pulling from the instant classic “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear, Chiddy Bang proves they’ll always know how to improve upon the smallest clip.  Chidera “Chiddy” Anamege and Noah “Xaphoon Jones” Beresin combine the haunting harmonies of Grizzly Bear with a rap song about love and support as a young artist leaves for a tour, with guest eLDee The Don promising to always “hold you down.”  With a verse that references Watch the Throne, Lindsay Lohan, and Conan the Barbarian within a handful of lines, you can count on Chiddy Bang to satisfy with the rapidfire delivery of pop culture references.

48. “Drmz” by A.A. Bondy

Another act who followed up a classic from a few years back with a disappointing set is A.A. Bondy. His 2009 album When the Devil’s Loose  is, hands down, one of the best albums released in years, but the same can’t be said for the 2011 set, titled Believers.  The song “Drmz,” however, is reminiscent of earl Bon Iver, with a deceptively austere arrangement caressing the ear.  There’s an inherent intimacy in Bondy’s work and voice, similar to Justin Vernon or Cat Power at their best, and every crack in his voice endears him to the audience more.  The instrumental bridge that almost seems to utilize wind chimes belies a self-imposed hermitage one feels by listening to the song, almost as if listening to it detaches you from the outside world.  Considering the year most people experienced in 2011, the feeling of escape is quite welcome.

47.  “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” – Kelly Clarkson

On the other end of the musical spectrum is America’s favorite export from Burleson, Texas: Ms. Kelly Clarkson. Releasing the type of song that’s become her bread and butter doesn’t seem to hurt Clarkson here, as her newest anthem of strength in the face of heartbreak recalls the pop domination of “Since U Been Gone.”  Honestly – the song is really that good.  Her newest album’s standout song boasts defiant lyrics and self-backed vocals that bounce over strong guitars and an electronic drum beat, truly stirring the soul in the process.  Perfect for strutting down the street or just dancing in your boxers, the first American Idol has reclaimed her throne with this perfect pop gem.

46. Lisa Hannigan – “Home”

The woman who got her start singing with Damien Rice has struck out on her own in recent years, and this song is arguably the best work she’s released so far.  Her throaty, wounded voice shows off its strength and range here, as her lyrics depict a meandering, peripatetic existence.  For any of us who have ever felt lost or struck out on our own to a new and unfamiliar place, this song should reverberate immensely.  Her familiar and eerily evocative vibratto climbs steadily through the second half of the song, cascading down the scale just as quickly as she climbed it.  The overall effect is quite moving, with the audience slowly realizing the authenticity with which she sings.

45. “Honey Bunny” – Girls

Christopher Owens and Chet “JR” White are back from San Francisco with another delightfully schizophrenic song about hoping for new love.  A solid two thirds of the song are swiftly strummed guitars, bouncing drums, and harmonies reminiscent of the surfer rock on their last album.  The bridge, however, sounds like an entirely different song, as Owens laments about his doting mother and the search for a woman who loves him as much.  The upswing at the end proves the strength with which the song was crafted, implanting images of a sun-soaked city stroll in your head as you dash out in hopes of discovering happiness in the arms of another.

44. “Black Night” – The Dodos

A deceptively upbeat song that appears to describe a possessive relationship, “Black Night” is one of the best songs released by The Dodos in the entirety of their career.  Meric Long and Logan Kroebe utilize a dizzying array of instruments to create a song that intensifies throughout, building to a climax as the protagonist stalks his former (possibly current?) lover through the dark night.  There appears to be a codependency in the relationship, but the slightly menacing tone of the lyrics begins to expose a more sinister intent, with questions like “Where you going to, are you going through, heaven or hell?”  The thundering drums and frantic guitar swirls around the lyrics and creates an almost panicked atmosphere; the end result is something quite enchanting.

43. “I Wanna Go” – Britney Spears

The obvious, pedestrian choice here would be “Till the World Ends,” as it was certainly ubiquitous over the year, either on the radio or in clubs across the country.  It’s impossible to argue that “I Wanna Go” was more popular, but it’s quite a simple task to point out that it’s the better of the two.  Constructed tightly, with a whistling hook that sinks its claws into your brain and never lets go, the driving beat and reiterated syllables of the chorus emerge over a high energy dance song that is easily one of the best Britney’s ever released.  The song serves as almost a mission statement of of her last several albums, coyly apologizing for her need to seek out release – either on the dance floor or in the bedroom.  The entire song is a wink to the listener, teasing them for falling prey to the insatiable structure of the track itself.

42. “Se Me Hizo Facil” – Buika

The gorgeously flawed voice of Concha Buika floats over this incredible song; her distinctive fusion of flamenco, jazz, and soul music is simultaneously soothing and sexy.  Buika, her parents originally from Equatorial Guinea, was raised near the Gitanos (Spanish Romani/gypsies) in Mallorca; this mix of backgrounds flavors the traditional flamenco of her country with a throaty, strong voice that sounds like whiskey and a smokey lounge.  The character and depth of Buika’s voice adds to the charm of the song itself, which details the protagonist’s quest to forget the woman they used to love.  If the song seems too slow at first, give it time – there’s quite a swell of energy in the last minute or so that transforms the entire experience and leaves a grin across your face.

41. “Dreaming” – Mayer Hawthorne

It’s almost like Ben Folds is still recording music, but without the condescending smirk.  The short-lived strings lead you in to the soothing, charming cadence of Hawthorne’s vocals and classic pop rock.  Singing about his questionable sanity over a springy, buoyant tune while employing hand claps, keyboards, and a steady drum beat, Hawthorne sings in falsetto throughout much of the song.  The impressive and, at times, subtle range displayed here, and the ease with which he slides throughout the notes shows that Hawthorne isn’t your average singer-songwriter.  Regardless, any song that references Punxsutawney Phil while utilizing words like “restitution” deserves some recognition.

So what do you think of the list so far?  Surprised by the expanded spectrum of artists?  Furious that pop already has two entries in the first ten songs?  Wondering why the hell I’m listening to Spanish music?  Sound off in the comments below.

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