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.