Posts Tagged ‘2011’

Favorite Songs of 2011

Posted: December 26, 2011 by Sean Flinn in Music
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I bought — and loved — more music in 2011 than I have in a very long time, if my Amazon MP3 store bill and iTunes “Best of 2011” smart playlist are reliable indicators. Some of my friends have expressed incredulity at this, but I think the list below (and my list of “Best Albums of 2011,” coming soon) will either dispel their doubts or just call them out as aesthetic sticks in the mud.

Listen along while you read by checking out my playlist of favorite songs from 2011 now — for free — on Spotify

  • Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues” — Robin Pecknold and company return with an anthem to self-doubt and surrender — fitting in a year when everyone realized that maybe things (economically, politically, interpersonally) weren’t going to get better any time soon. That the songs manages to still sound defiant, soaring, and triumphant provides more than a glimmer of hope.
  • Jessica Lea Mayfield: “Our Hearts Are Wrong” — Mayfield records under the watchful ear of fellow Akron native Black Key Dan Auerbach — and while her music eschews most of the Keys’ gritty gut-bucket rock tendencies, it captures all of the same mournful yet resilient soulfulness that lies beneath. The twangy lead guitar line here is the lure, holding the listener rapt while Mayfield sings a smart, histrionic-free ode to the fact that sometimes we just plain fall in love with the wrong people.
  • Cults: “Go Outside” — The band’s name leads you to expect something heavier or darker, but Cults cranks out pure alterna-pop confections, dripping with Spector-esque wall of sound production and girl-group harmonies (tricky, because Cults are a guy-girl duo, nothing more). Beneath the sugary sweetness: the bitter friction that results when an extrovert realizes she’s dating an introvert.
  • Smith Westerns: “Weekend” — The Smith Westerns are a snotty, punkish threesome from Chicago whose sense of entitlement far outstrips their experience or anyone else’s sense of what they’ve earned. In other words, they are true rock star in the making, whose credibility stems from peerless live shows and their latest record, a flawless glam rock homage to Bowie and Bolan in their primes. “Weekend” is the perfect soundtrack for every Friday from now until the end of time.
  • Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: “Stick Figures in Love” — Malkmus returned from his 2010 spring / summer reunion tour with Pavement to craft his tightest collection of solo songs to date. “Stick Figures” stands out as the epitome of his new found popcraft skills, so melodic in spots that you’d be forgiven for confusing it for the rockinest song that Belle & Sebastian never recorded. Drummer Janet Weiss, riding a high this year thanks to this and her work with Wild Flag, leads the rhythm section straight into the pocket with subtlety and grace while Malkmus launches his vocals into unfamiliar territory in the song’s back half.
  • Wilco: “I Might” — Wilco’s latest album, The Whole Love plays like a series of tributes to rock’s pop masters, with highlight “I Might” shouting out Get Happy era Elvis Costello. Easily Wilco’s most playful jam, and one of their sharpest, hookiest, best songs, period.
  • The Strokes: “Under Cover of Darkness” — Hey, remember the beginning of the year when The Strokes’s new album (a reunion of sorts) was the biggest thing going? Yeah, neither does anyone else. This song may remind you of why that’s a shame. In what turned out to be a very nostalgic year, The Strokes drew everyone’s attention back to The Cars (who also reunited in 2011) and (with this song especially) The Jam, two bands who convincingly argued that style was substance, in a way.
  • Beastie Boys w. Santigold: “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” — If anything, this dub-inflected standout from the Beasties’ delayed Hot Sauce Committee, Pt 2 made the even longer wait for Santigold’s sophomore follow-up more excruciating. Let’s just hope Santi doesn’t pull a Minaj and push all her gold into guest spots, leaving nothing for herself but pop dross.
  • Battles: “Futura” — Tyondai Braxton’s departure from Battles before the recording of their sophomore full-length left the band without a full-time vocalist. Gloss Drop showed any concerns over this were unwarranted. The band filled the vox gaps with like-minded guests (including Gary Numan) and proved, on this track, that they’re at their best anyway on mind-melting instrumental workouts.
  • Wild Flag: “Romance” — If you don’t already have a huge rock crush on singer / guitarist Carrie Brownstein, get your big dumb heart ready: this song will woo you, big time. Wild Flag is too much tagged as a post Sleater-Kinney side project (since both Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are members) or post-grunge supergroup (since Mary Timony of Helium also participates) — but “Romance,” a big bold blast of New York Dolls-esque proto-punk fury in which the band throws down for the life-affirming power of rock, shows the group to be much more than the sum of its parts.
  • The Black Keys: “Lonely Boy” — The Keys have been on a roll so long and so consistent at this point that other bands might have to invoke some kind of mercy rule, forcing them to take a years-long hiatus so someone else can snag some share of the glory for once. Reunited with producer Danger Mouse (who produced the stylistic breakout Attack & Release and who joins the band here as a temporary third member), the band hits another peak with this song. A ripping blues jam that blows by in an economical three minutes and change, “Lonely Boy” is all soaring choruses, snarling lead guitars, pounding drums, and keyed up lovelust. Unstoppable.
  • Peter, Bjorn & John: “I Know You Don’t Love Me” — PB&J will probably find themselves consigned to one-hit wonder status in perpetuity for the relentlessly catchy “Young Folks,” and that’s a shame. At their best — as they are throughout the excellent 2011 album Gimme Some — they are one of the sharpest, most consistent power trios on the planet. Exhibit A: This song, which springboards off of a steady motorik beat and dives headlong into a muscular psych-rock workout. Compare to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Doors Unlocked and Open,” a too polite, too restrained song with which it shares a strong rhythmic and melodic resemblance. It isn’t even close. “I know You Don’t Love Me” destroys “Doors …,” and in a just world, PB&J would take Death Cab out behind the shed and put them out of our misery. Being Swedish, though, they’re probably too nice for that.
  • Thee Oh Sees: “The Dream” — Psych-rock has officially entered a second golden age, with practitioners like San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees propelling the sub-genre into a sustained overdrive. The falsetto vocals on this absolutely slay me — you expect something burlier given the heft of the instrumentation, but these guys go straight for the light comedy of the upper register. If this song doesn’t have you air drumming in your car, it must be because you a) hate music or b) have no arms.
  • Wire: “Bad Worn Thing” — Wire, as one of the last bands standing from England’s post-punk big bang back in the late 1970s, has an impossibly impressive legacy to live up to. Arguably, the band has spent the better part of its career, post-mind-shattering-debut-album-trilogy, failing to live up to it. This year’s Red Barked Tree came close to reaching the stellar quality of those first three albums, and is a more than respectable entry into the band’s catalog. “Bad Worn Thing” stands as the best of the album’s songs, building to a ferocious rumble from an off-beat, metronomic opening and peppering its chorus with Wire’s trademark catty wordplay.
  • Chapel Club: “Surfacing” — If Creation Records was still cranking out the shoegazer jams and championing the stonier side of Britpop, Chapel Club could be its new flagship band. “Surfacing” kicks off the band’s newest full length with a propulsive drum beat and lyrics intoned with a menacing reverberation. The song’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: the chorus actually belongs to the standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which, while it got the band temporarily enjoined from releasing the song as a single, sounds incredible with feedback-drenched guitars going apeshit behind the lyric.
  • The Joy Formidable: “Whirring” — “Whirring” clocked in on my top songs list last year (courtesy of the band’s “A Balloon Called Moaning” e.p.). It deserves an encore here because of how dramtically the band re-worked the song for its debut full-length. Embracing the “noise” part of its “noise pop” genre tag, TJF add a full three minutes of double kick-drum-powered fury as the song’s second half, transforming it from a standout pop rocker into an absolute speaker melter.
  • DJ Shadow w. Little Dragon: “Scale It Back”: Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano was everywhere in 2011, dropping guest spots on SBTRKT’s debut, for example, and of course fronting her own band’s top flight album, Ritual Union. Nowhere was she better, though, than on this DJ Shadow track (from his album, The Less You Know, The Better). A classic Shadow slow-jam, “Scale It Back” features a truly sublime guest vocal from Nagano and stands as one of Shadow’s best songs ever, recalling his heyday as the king of trip-hop.
  • M83: “Midnight City” — An anthem for misremembered youth, conjured straight out of an imaginary past. The song drips nostalgia for a 1980s that may have never actually happened in quite the way M83 believes. It’s a John Hughes wonderland, where Cocteau Twins jam with Simple Minds on a New Order track, Molly Ringwald slow-dancing with Matthew Broderick in the foreground. Don’t be fooled. The ’80s were never this awesome.
  • YACHT: “Paradise Engineering” — I admit to having a soft spot for DFA Records bands, exclusively because LCD Soundsystem was, for a few years running, my favorite band and I now trust label chief and LCDS front man James Murphy’s taste implicitly. I was well rewarded for this trust with YACHT’s Shangri-La, a theme album (if not a concept album) built around explorations of utopias both found and made. To be frank, I love this track best of all because it’s driven forward by the sort of pulsing rhythm track that built DFA’s dance punk reputation. LCD Soundsystem may be gone, but for one album, YACHT made me believe in a paradise where it never played its final show.
  • Lykke Li: “Get Some” — Aided by Peter, Bjorn & John’s Peter Morén on production, Swedish songstress Lykke Li transformed herself into a one-woman 21st century girl group on her album Wounded Rhymes. Defying any and all pigeonholes, Li came bigger and bolder than any comparable talent this year, mixing singer-songwriter lyricism and song craft with Motown melodies and dance pop aggression. “Get Some” was her shot across the bow, the song’s title a challenge as much as an invitation. Not sure if anyone ever stepped up, but I’m damn sure Li remains unbeaten.
  • Nicolas Jaar: “Problem With The Sun” — A great song for a rainy day, first off, “Problem With The Sun” is the sort of track I wish more current electronic artists were dropping these days. Just glitchy enough to be interesting but not so much that it becomes distracting, it does what only the great DJs ever accomplish: marrying human emotion (in this case, feeling lovelorn) with futurist electronics, giving all that sonic machinery some real flesh and blood warmth. That Jaar’s vocal drips with vaudevillian humor ads unexpected complexity, turning the track into something truly elegant.
  • Radiohead: “Separator” — The more Radiohead makes music like this (read: as far removed from the nerve-racked paranoia that defined its classics OK Computer and Kid A) the more I like ’em. The band now excels at something that it used to keep fairly understated: making unequivocally gorgeous ballads. This is the zone where Thom Yorke’s wounded falsetto mutates from “whiny art-damaged 21st century neurotic” into an instrument of real beauty. More like this, please.
  • The Vaccines: “Wetsuit” — “Wetsuit” mines the same fertile territory as many essential Walkmen tracks that, each year, become more and more like catnip to me (I’m thinking “We’ve Been Had, “Another One Goes By” and even “The Rat”): the hastening of time that catches us all by surprise at some point. We all get old, but we don’t feel it as it happens. We only catch on in those awkward moments, when we suddenly realize that things have changed: it hurts more to fall down; our drinking buddies are no longer up for another night out; we’re up to our necks in situations when we once were only in up to our knees. And yet, there’s still that pull to youthful hedonism, a spirit that keeps us young even as it reflects our advancing age.
  • Charles Bradley: “Stay Away” — So, first, go listen to Wilson Pickett’s cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Marvel at how much better the cover is than the original. Think to yourself, “This should be impossible, because no one topped the Beatles … they were the masters.” But Pickett did it. The cover blows the original out of the water, because Pickett — like any great soul man — can’t deliver a performance without throwing his whole being into it. In doing so, he finds depths of humanity in the source material that weren’t apparent on the original. OK, got it? Now listen to Charles Bradley’s cover of Nirvana’s “Stay Away.”
  • The Rapture: “It Takes Time To Be A Man” — Surprise! Another DFA Records band. To keep the LCD homage going “It Takes Time …” is The Rapture’s equivalent to LCD’s “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” — a totally left-of-center mid-tempo piano ballad from a band that’s best known for its punk-infused disco infernos. In the context of the album and the band’s recent back story, though, it makes total sense, summing up the personal transformation of front man Luke Jenner following the death of his mother and his time in the proverbial wildnerness that followed. The song’s hip-hop production techniques — looped bebop piano riff, loping breakbeat backing — belie the song’s gospel foundation. What comes off at first blush as a future classic Williamsburg dive bar drinking classic reveals itself, over repeat listens, to be a profoundly spiritual meditation on finding one’s way through grief and maturity. I’m an atheist, but this felt like grace to me.