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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