The 25 Best Songs of 2011

December 24, 2011

25) “Bright Lights, Big City” – Gary Clark Jr.

Guitar and Blues aficionados are heralding the arrival of this young axe-slinger as something huge. Clapton has been an early supporter and admirer of Clark and with good reason. This kid does exciting things with the guitar, making blues that is real without sounding like youthful misappropriation of an older art-form. He keeps it fresh by injecting little bits of his wide variety of musical influences, but nothing comes out kitschy or hodge-podge. The Bright Lights EP has a lot of us raring to hear his next full-length record. The best blues song in at least five years is the title track from that EP as Clark Jr. just lays out huge blues riffs and sings some real blues. Hey, 2012 might be a good comeback year for the blues  genre–it certainly seems like the emotional gamut such a humanistic genre is capable of covering would be much appreciated in these times.

24) “Swim Good” – Frank Ocean

Release a studio album already Frank! The fact that Frank Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra as a free mixtape to download is just astounding. It’s the best R&B record by a young singer in years, and one of the best free mixtapes I’ve ever downloaded of any genre (this was the year for quality free online music from Hip Hop and R&B artists as my upcoming “Best 2011 Hip Hop + R&B Albums” will note). “Swim Good” closes the year as my favorite Ocean track so far, though I changed my mind about that all year long as different songs were temporary favorites. “Swim Good” was released as a single, I hope plenty heard it.

23) “Codes and Keys” – Death Cab For Cutie

My favorite moment on the new Death Cab For Cutie record is this Beatles-esque pop song. The title track easily ranks with the best of the band’s career and if the rest of the album had been this good it would have been classic. It’s certainly not a bad album, just not as good as their classic Plans or Transatlanticism records. This song is simple enough, the lyrics are less wordy than most of Gibbard’s lyrics, and thus the band has all of this open space to fill as Gibbard rolls his words out slower and more melodically. The best thing about this track is the full on orchestral style production; I first heard this song on the internet as a rough live version before the record was actually out, and it was a lot more bare and basic. It was catchy even then, but when I heard it in it’s released version I fell in love with it.

22) “Blue Skies Again” – Jessica Lea Mayfield

Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Tell Me was the best country record of 2011 and it’s doubtful that many who regularly listen to country radio heard it or even know who this young, excellent songwriter even is. Her attitude, poetic skill, and smoky voice work better now than they did on her minimalist angst-ridden debut record (though that record certainly had its charms). Now she’s in full on pop-country and heartbroken balladeer mode, though of the decidedly alt-country terrain. “Blue Skies Again” is just a really upbeat, catchy single that is fun to replay again and again–the fact that the girl who wrote the chilling downer “Bible Days” can here craft such an instant mood enhancer is testament to her talent.

21) “Hex Girlfriend” – Neon Indian

So what’s the logical thing to do when you craft a wonderful pop hook, sing it wonderfully, and back it with a great melody? If you’re Alan Palamo making a Neon Indian song, you blanket it in noise and distortion. Noise Pop, Chillwave and Electronica music that manages to pull such wonderful melodies under such potentially distracting blips and blurs without burying it, that manage to make those melodies and hooks even more inviting and catchy are really a thing of wonder. “Hex Girlfriend” is all of that and more in barely over three minutes.

20) “Never Told” – J. Cole

J.Cole finally delivered the studio record hip hop heads have been waiting for ever since his excellent mixtapes began making the rounds. Cole World – The Sideline Story does its best to balance the two sides of Cole, the street rapper who makes music for trunk rattling and club-bangers as well as the college graduate hip hop intellectual who can offer biting social criticism. Sometimes he pulls that off in the same track, as he did with the excellent single “Lights Please” (which is included again on this album but  was already released via mixtape more than a year back and has thus already made this list before). “Mr. Nice Watch” handles the street side of Cole best on this album, but “Never Told” does the backpack-styled thinking hip hopper the best. Cole bluntly (and vulgarly) ponders the reasons provoking many men to cheat, even inserting an acted out conversation between a father and son in between two of the verses which points to the ills of passing on bad traits down the family line. Cole presents a song here tailor-made for some keen observations in Michael Eric Dyson’s next book.

19) “Midnight City” – M83

The best synth pop song of the year is M83’s “Midnight City.” Who knew there would be a resurgence of synth pop in the second decade of the new millennium? A fun style of music that really evokes its ’80s heritage without being burdened by it, electronic and chillwave indie-pop artists now mine the gold such lush textures have to offer, and when Anthony Gonzalez and friends are at their best in M83 no one can really do it better. “Midnight City” rattles the beats and sends things off with a terrific sax solo.

18) “Juggernaut of Justice” – Anvil

If you’ve seen “The Story of Anvil” on Netflix and you now want to cheer the guys doing what they have been trying to do going on three decades now, pump the title track from their new record. “Juggernaut of Justice” is fun heavy metal, complete with monster-riffs, clear lyrics, and cowbells. You’ll salute them if you dig metal and also have a heart.

17) “Go Tell Everybody” – The Horrible Crowes

Brian Fallon, the lead singer of the excellent band The Gaslight Anthem, took 2011 as the moment to release the album Elsie as a side-project under the moniker “The Horrible Crowes.” It’s a really solid album, and although it doesn’t quite satisfy the way a new Gaslight record would, it often comes close during its 45 minutes. My favorite song from it is “Go Tell Everybody,” a song that just sounds great pumping from car speakers. It’s got Fallon’s usual literate romantic-nostalgia lyrics, a great rock and roll chorus, and a great vocal breakdown section at the end.

16) “New Cannonball Blues” – TV on the Radio

The funkiest track on the new TV on the Radio album is “New Cannonball Blues.” It’s like a lost-gem from the height of Prince’s career if the height of the Artist’s career was just now taking place–hard rock funk that sounds fresh and not a tad bit dated. Turntables and techno undertones carry the hard-bop lyrics all the way up. Perfect for car speakers, headphones, home stereos, bars, or clubs. Every note is pretty much perfect.

15)”Art of Almost” – Wilco

“Art of Almost” opens the new Wilco record with the sort of left-field creativity the band used to call home ten years ago. A series of blips, feedback and distortion gurgle until a gradual swell of orchestral melody overtakes the noise and Jeff Tweedy’s voice broaches the ground-work to usher in a pop gem. The background industrial beat sticks around in the background and the band doesn’t make their full entrance until the four-and-a-half minute mark. The drummer counts off the beat then, and things turn into real rock and roll. The ending jam session is the best Wilco moment in quite some time, and that’s saying something with a band this consistently excellent.

14) “Youth Knows No Pain” – Lykke Li

The first half of Lykke Li’s latest album Wounded Rhymes is phenomenal (and the second half isn’t bad at all). The standout track (and there are some really close contenders) is “Youth Knows No Pain,”  which is about as perfect as pure pop music can get. This Swedish indie internet darling pulls out all the stops by twirling her excellent hooks through a track stuffed with tambourines, hand-claps, bass drums, and and a beyond catchy organ riff. The production layers multiple versions of Lykke’s previously more quiet voice to make it swell and this song is apt to get stuck in your head for days (and you won’t really regret that).

13) “Tater Tot” – Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli’s “Tater Tot” is a hypnotic, first-person hip hop narrative recounting the misadventures of a returning Gulf-war veteran unable to readjust to civilian life. The protagonist takes a wrong turn by picking up the wrong woman in a cafe and then stumbling into a botched robbery while trying to check into a hotel. The radio-call intro at the beginning of the track is here more as part of the overall Gutter Rainbows album theme, but it works even when listening to this track individually by instantly placing you in the landscape of this work. The distorted background loop heightens the claustrophobic tension that throbs through the song and the high-pitched out- of-tune violin which ends things nicely caps off the best verses that Talib spits on the entire Rainbows album.

12) “Everybody Needs Love” – Drive-By Truckers

“Everybody Needs Love” is the most ready for radio single DBT have ever released and their performances of it live all over late-night talk shows this year were phenomenal. This should have been a real hit for them, though I suppose DBT will always be the sort of band with a large following of critics, die-hard long-term fans, and only the small but gradual addition of new converts–Lady Gaga or Katy Perry they are not, so this side of 1979 they are unlikely to be a top 40 band. Anyway, DBT used two spots on Go-Go Boots to pay tribute to the excellent and too 0ften forgotten Alabama session musician Eddie Hinton, a white soul/blues singer with a great catalog of his own work but who was best known for his guitar work on songs by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Elvis, Otis Redding and everyone else who wandered down to Muscle Shoals to cut a soul song in the sixties. One of those tribute spots on the record is this lead off single, a cover of a forgotten Hinton gem. It’s bouncy and bright, lighter than a lot of DBT fare, and grounded by possibly the best vocal performance Patterson Hood has ever delivered. It’s a great and fitting tribute to a great over-looked musician.

11) “The World is Going Up in Flames” – Charles Bradley

There’s something just amazing about a man who’s wanted to make it as a soul singer all of his life finally releasing a first album in his sixties that actually garners him some well-deserved recognition. Daptone Records are the home for retro-soul and live-instrument R&B, so it’s great that their sub-label Dunham records released this, pairing Bradley’s rough-smooth-warm vocals with the excellent musical chops of the Menahan Street Band. The stand-out track from Bradley’s long-time-coming album debut is the single, “The World is Goin’ Up in Flames.” Bradley’s voice is the epitome of great, southern soul crooning and the old-school horn beat and backing vocals make this the best 3-minute soul song in years.

10) “Time Spent in Los Angeles” – Dawes

The first song on Nothing is Wrong is the most vintage sounding folk-rock song from an album full of them. Dawes pull this off in a way that shouldn’t be possible in 2011 by making harmony, jangle-pop, and full-on earnestness sound exciting and refreshing. This is an authentic-sounding, heartfelt, non-cheesy folk rock wonder.

9) “Hell Broke Luce” – Tom Waits

The most unsettling yet also the most catchy music on Tom Waits latest record is on this song, “Hell Broke Luce.” It sounds a bit like the heavy chair-hits-the-floor drumbeat found-sound music of his more recent records like Real Gone, which fits this harrowing military left-right chant which condemns the violence and horror of war and what it does to those who participate in it; Wait’s line that he “lost my buddy and I wept,” is practically soul-shaking in this context. Machine-gun fire and explosions erupt at the mid-point of the song before everything devolves into chaos as “Sergio is developing a real bad cough,” and the narrator tells us he “left my arm in my coat.” The music intensifies as the lyrics break down and the “what is next?” end-shout leaves listeners wondering the same thing.

8) “Job’s Coffin” – Tori Amos

Who knew that full-on feminism had such pop hook appeal? This year not only did we get a dance-floor jam from Beyonce expressing feminine power but…well, I guess such content is par-the-course for Tori Amos. Yet it makes this latest song no less powerful. Maybe Tori hasn’t had anything close to mainstream youth appeal since the mid-nineties, but she hasn’t lost her talent and force with the eyes off her. Her latest full-length is Night o f Hunters, and it is the type of record she has been long overdue in making. Her (enjoyable) path through adult-contemporary pop music (The Beekeeper) and her (less successful) attempt at returning to piano grunge rock (American Doll Posse) were sidesteps from producing this full-on blend of classical music, opera themes, and pop music which she has done wonderfully with her latest record. The stand-out track for me is “Job’s Coffin.” Tori enlisted her young daughter to sing parts on this latest story-record, and she’s present on this song. Mother and daughter sound wonderful trading lines and this call for women to rise up and and take their “power back” sounds terrific and delightfully melodic with its flute anchor.

7) “September’s Children” – Rise Against

The recitation of the names of the teenagers who took their own lives or suffered as a result of their sexual orientation and the bullying that brought them is enough to choke up any rock fan with a heart. This is a powerful song–sure, those who have pointed out some strong melodic similarities to the Green Day hit “Boulevard of Brokers Dreams” may be somewhat correct–this is far from the most original sounding song, but that’s forgivable and likely accidental. There are great songs all over Endgame, but this is the most heartfelt and unguarded moment on the record. This is a band playing with their hearts on their sleeves and their priorities in the right place and there’s not much more you could ask for from a talented rock band.

6) “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele

The music geek (read: snob) in me tempts me to refrain from acknowledging such a mainstream (read: popular) radio hit on a list like this, but that would be playing the role of the hater too much and in the process eschewing any level of “objectivity,” which is pretty hard to keep in what is arguably a completely subjective endeavor in the first place. Adele sold a crap-load of records, not just in downloads but in old-fashioned record store purchases with her 21 album because she hit such a wide variety of music consumers. Pop radio fans, older adult fans of classic soul and R& B, teenagers, music critics, and even a lot of indie kids responded to Adele’s music because she sings with an amazing voice, writes genuine music, and neither panders to the lowest common denominator nor stumbles into pretension. “Rolling in the Deep”  is that rare gem of a heavy rotation song that works on almost any station and doesn’t drive you crazy to hear it a year later. As many times as this thing has been spun on mainstream formats and at ubiquitous venues, it still sounds good. It hasn’t gotten old. It’s a really superb song, something rare in top 40 in that it really will be worth preserving and hearing at a later date.  Her voice soars and the hand-clap beat rattles (in a good way) through your head. This is what good pop music is all about.

5) “Booty City” – Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears

No one makes better old-school rhythm & blues rock songs like Black Joe Lewis and his phenomenal band the Honeybears. The lead-off track from Scandalous surpasses even the “Sugar Foot” single from 2009. What more could you want than this rollicking rock, a drum beat that won’t get out of your head, an on-fire sax solo, Joe Lewis shouting his best modern James Brown vocals, and a background singalong chorus inviting us all to travel to booty city?

4) “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” – My Morning Jacket

The most out-there song on MMJ’s latest, yet the most catchy and poppy at the same time is a folk-acid-rock and roll shout-out to the most extreme and derided of all global extreme metal sub-genres. Hearing a children’s choir chant out their support of Black Metal is worth the price of admission all on its own, but Jim James high croon and the band’s epic jam rock support sends everything over the finish line.

3) “Murder to Excellence” – Jay-Z and Kanye West

Now why couldn’t the rest of “Watch the Throne” be this powerful and relevant? Jay-Z and Kanye West are ridiculously talented. Jay-Z is the best rapper of his entire generation, Kanye West is a solid rhymer who is an excellent producer with the best ear for hooks and production of any mainstream hip hop artist of the past ten years, yet Jay only dips his toes into strong lyrical content a few tracks per record and though Kanye started off his career doing that much more often, he has since moved almost completely to the superficial with his content. “Murder to Excellence” shows you what can occur when the best mainstream rap artists shift their attention from the lowest common denominator to issues of the utmost sociological importance without shorting listeners on the beat, rhymes, or melody. This song kicks hard, the beat is fantastic, the verses are tight and strong, the emotion is maxed-out and this is one heckuva rap song. Watch the Throne had us bobbing our heads and blasting our car speakers at many other moments throughout the course of the record, but this is one of the only full tracks that let us many of us do so without at least a little moral consternation.

2) “Run the Worlds (Girls)” – Beyonce

“Boy this beat is crazy,” Beyonce tells us and she’s absolutely right. The best beat of the year (and the wildest in mainstream music this side of MIA) elevates Beyonce’s hip hop feminism shout-out to a whole other level. Beyonce’s latest record, 4, is easily her overall best yet and this is the standout track by miles. Over this intense, crazy, globally-influenced hip hop dance beat Beyonce praises astute female businesspersons, motherhood, and the complete power and nation-building strength of the female gender. This song is so frenetic and catchy that I wouldn’t be surprised to see even the most “macho” of guys unconsciously singing along to this in the club–or at least nodding their head.


1) “Words I Never Said” – Lupe Fiasco featuring Skylar Grey

The most potent track on Lasers, “Words I Never Said” is buoyed by an incredibly catchy hook that actually enhances and intertwines with Lupe’s verses rather than detracts from them or seems just tacked on. Lupe roars out of the gate in his first bar, condemning the war on terror before proceeding to indict the racism and xenophobia present in modern mainstream news and media, the violence and misrepresentation of his own Muslim faith by others who claim it and use it falsely for violence, and pretty much every US president past and present who have engaged in war in his own stance of pacifism. The song doesn’t stop at blanket condemnation as he deftly balances the complexity of modern society, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the apathy of those who complain about the way things are but do nothing to change them. Not every claim Lupe makes is going to be seconded by every listener–there are lines positing validity for the “Building 7” conspiracy theories and the carcinogenic affects of diet soda that I’m not sold on–but such statements don’t get in the way of an excellent hip hop track. I’d rather political and social passion be bursting forward unrestrained than hear another rehashed and tepid endorsement of capitalism or commercial banality. Lupe raps fiercely, Skylar sings beautifully, and a hypnotic beat flows everything down tremendously–hands down the best hip hop song of the year, hands down the best song in all of popular music during 2011.


3 Responses to “The 25 Best Songs of 2011”

  1. jcunroe said

    Wow, I’ve got to say, I thoroughly enjoyed your list of this year’s best songs. I’m in the process of compiling one of my own. You have such a wide variety of music and I think that’s incredible. I plan to check out each and every one of these songs, plus, I’m an avid Beyonce fan. Great blog.

  2. […] that the “Best Albums of 2011″ and “25 Best Songs of 2011″ lists are up, I’m moving into more genre-specific focuses to comment on a few more great […]

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