60 Favorite Songs of 2011: #20-1
Looking at these 20 songs, I notice that only three of them are under four minutes long, and many stretch out well beyond the 5-minute mark. I think this says something about what I generally look for in songs: a sort of journey that sucks you in and, taking unexpected turns, deposits you somewhere different than where you started. But I believe it’s also indicative of where my head was at in 2011, and what a lot of music released over the course of the year sounded like.
In any case, I hope you enjoy the list, and as with #s 60-21, I’ve embedded the songs in each post, so you can stream them as you go.
20 :: Jai Paul
from BTSTU [single]
One of 2011′s most sonically unique tracks, this one-off from British newcomer Jai Paul (it’s the only thing we’ve got from him so far) seems like it couldn’t get any better — and then those saxophones at the end fade in.
19 :: Destroyer
Kaputt‘s title track and mission statement begins with a few seconds of instrumental doodling before the drums call things to order, and the song launches headlong into the lush, romantic mystery that this album doles out so expertly. Its six minutes are immersive, beautiful, strange, and expertly assembled.
18 :: Big K.R.I.T.
from Return of 4eva
Ably demonstrating throughout Return of 4eva that he can craft vintage Southern rap bangers in his sleep, Big K.R.I.T. turns his eye elsewhere at the close of the mixtape. “The Vent,” the result of this shift in tone, is a tuneful, spare, thoughtful, and downright heartbreaking ballad, the second half of which K.R.I.T. spends singing in a surprisingly great croon. Given the success it’s had, maybe we’ll get some more songs like this in the future.
17 :: James Blake
“The Wilhelm Scream”
from James Blake
In this overhaul of a forgotten song by his father James Litherland, Blake treats the repeated lyrical mantra (“I don’t know about my dreams,” etc) like a looped sample, keeping his delivery the same but changing the effects on the vocal and the shape of the song surrounding it. The result is the striking impression that he’s falling down a tunnel as he sings, giving added umph to the lyrics’ constant “falling, falling, falling.”
16 :: Lana Del Rey
from Video Games b/w Blue Jeans 7″
There’s no way I’m going to delve into the debate surrounding 2011′s most controversial artist in this space — but I will say that the way it played out was very indicative of the nature of the current internet music conversation. Now, when I listen to “Video Games,” I do my best to forget all the bullshit, and try to remember how wonderfully morose it sounded when I first listened to it back in the summer.
15 :: Young Jeezy [ft. Jay-Z & André 3000]
from TM 103: Hustlaz Ambition
Backed by one of the greatest beats of the year (from unknown producer M16), Jeezy and Hov go in with some “married to the game” double talk before 3K swoops in and steals the show with a verse bursting with his trademark aww-shucks charisma.
14 :: Bon Iver
from Bon Iver
When Bon Iver was released, people called this song a bold appropriate of off-limits 80s sounds (i.e. Bruce Hornsby), but the truth is that the album version sounds downright conservative once you’ve heard how Bon Iver played it on their summer/fall tour. That live version is a whole order of magnitude higher on the cheese scale, but the explosive gated snares and massive guitar theatrics made it all the more transcendent. More than any other song on Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest” proves that Justin Vernon is unafraid to follow his muse wherever it may lead him, and that he’ll usually find something majestic at the end of that path.
13 :: Lil Wayne [ft. Cory Gunz]
“6 Foot 7 Foot”
from Tha Carter IV
It was a nice moment of hope we had there, when “6 Foot 7 Foot” was released and it seemed like Tha Carter IV could mark the return of the old, insane, genius Wayne, inhaling the world around him and spitting it back out, scrambled, onto the track. That wasn’t the case, but we still have this treasure trove of quotable one-liners, enhanced by Cory Gunz’ almost-but-not-quite-show-stealing verse and a bonkers beat from Bangladesh (the producer behind “A Milli”).
12 :: Girls
from Father, Son, Holy Ghost
This slowly unfolding centerpiece to Girls’ sophomore LP is relatively straightforward, from a lyrical perspective, but it may be the most patient and magnificent track Chris Owens has penned thus far. After five minutes of meditation on the nature of forgiveness, the band kicks things into full gear, and the year’s most cathartic guitar solo expresses more than words ever could.
11 :: Yuck
The ingredients are simple: a killer guitar riff, muffled drums, loads of fuzz, simple lyrics, and boatloads of youthful exuberance. Throw in some harmonies, get quieter and louder at the right moments, and you’ve nearly got yourself a pop song for the ages. What makes a simple song like this as good as “Georgia” is that intangible x-factor that Yuck have in spades.
10 :: Elzhi [ft. Royce da 5'9" & Stokley Williams]
“Life’s A Bitch”
In this particular remake of an Illmatic classic, Royce da 5’9″ plays AZ to El’s Nas, both delivering razor-sharp, Detroit-centric verses. But the real star here is that immortal beat, which takes on a whole new life in the capable hands of funk band Will Sessions. They start with a faithful recreation of the original, but when El and Royce finish their verses, it spins off into unforeseen directions, with a jazzy, muted trumpet solo and a smooth-as-silk R&B outro. No song in 2011 was better suited for a drive on an oppressive summer day.
09 :: Fleet Foxes
from Helplessness Blues
The title track to Fleet Foxes’ sophomore LP begins with Robin Pecknold singing some of his sharpest lyrics to date over a strummy folk jam-out. That unique-snowflake talk in the first verse casts the narrator very much as a 21st-century 20-something, but the sentiment behind the song — confusion about which of life’s many paths to follow — is timeless. The song’s sound truly enters that timeless realm in the second half, where it slows down and opens up to accompany Pecknold’s pastoral orchard dream.
08 :: The Weeknd [ft. Drake]
Abel Tesfaye delivers one of his finest vocal performances over one of production team Illangelo and Doc McKinney’s most marvelous, sultry beats. Then, out of nowhere (the original .zip file of Thursday posted on The Weeknd’s website didn’t include a “ft. Drake” in this song’s title), Drake shows up and drops one of his best verses in a year filled with great Drake verses. It’s the perfect meeting point of these two artists’ kindred sensibilities.
07 :: Braids
from Native Speaker
On this lead single for Native Speaker, Raphaelle Standall-Preston displays her vocal talent (and her unusual lyrical sensibility) with some lyrics about childbirth — not a common topic in indie rock. And the band does that interlocking-rhythmic-gears thing better than anywhere else on the album, with motorik synths, pinging guitar, drums, bass, and vocals all juxtaposing each other while still fitting together perfectly.
06 :: Phantogram
from Nightlife EP
On their 2010 debut Eyelid Movies, Phantogram showed they could build songs with many layers but still retain an aura of restraint and alluring mystery, with stellar tracks like “When I’m Small,” “Mouthful of Diamonds,” and “Bloody Palms.” They take this approach to the next level on “Don’t Move,” the best song of their career, which ends with a 45-second climax that builds synths, drum loops, layered vocals, and guitar into a glorious pileup.
05 :: Radiohead
from The King of Limbs
The King of Limbs’ standout comes at its closing. “Separator” is a strange song at first glance, with Thom Yorke singing a melody — gorgeous even by his high standards — over a minimal bed of bass and drums. When that wonderful, spindly guitar line enters halfway through, things begin to get a little more dreamy, to match Yorke’s dream-obsessed lyrics. It only gets more spacious from there, and by the end of the song, you practically feel like you’re floating.
04 :: Youth Lagoon
from The Year of Hibernation
“July” starts inauspiciously enough, with Trevor Powers singing about watching 4th of July fireworks from a friend’s roof over a soft keyboard hum. But as things begin to pick up, it becomes clear that there’s heartbreak at the song’s core, and the louder and more anthemic the song gets, the faster and more overwhelmingly the story seems to rush forward, out of childhood’s innocence and boredom into the confusion of adulthood. Powers mourns the loss of that innocence as he howls a soaring chorus that arrives at the song’s climax.
03 :: Cut Copy
“Need You Now”
Seeing Cut Copy live this past summer, I realized that they are true masters of (among other things) knowing exactly when to release those “big moments” that lie at the very heart of dance music, and which many musicians spend entire careers trying to pursue. “Need You Now,” the perfect album opener, is one of those big moments after another: one long, perfectly-executed buildup that finally reaches one of the year’s highest musical peaks.
02 :: BOAT
“Forever In Armitron”
from Dress Like Your Idols
“Forever In Armitron” is an aggressively normal song. Where the #1 song on this list does its best to reshape reality in its own image, twisting it over upon itself into some impossible Escherian pretzel, “Armitron” sounds like hundreds, even thousands of other songs already in existence. Not only that, but its lyrics concern themselves with some of life’s more mundane moments. But it’s everyday guitar pop done to absolute perfection. I played and replayed this song this year and still wished I could hear it more often.
01 :: Braids
from Native Speaker
Down the rabbit hole we go.