Thursday, January 26, 2012

Top 50 Songs of 2011

Almost as important as the top albums of the year are the best songs. There were no shortage of great songs in 2011 in almost every conceivable style and genre. I personally feel indie rock, alternative, and the electronic genres had the strongest years, but it is easy to find great quality in virtually all forms of music. I have complied a simple list for 50-21, with detailed descriptions of my Top 20 songs:

49. Bright Eyes - Ladder Song

20. Iron & Wine - Big Burned Hand

Sam Beam never fails to come up with something tender and endearing, but this prime cut from Kiss Each Other Clean shows he's also quite the funkmaster. It opens with a horn section designed to make you get down, which sets the tone for the rest of the song. This leads into Beam's mythical story about gods of war and gods of love, and I quickly gather that his intention is to put you in the mood for some sweet passionate lovemaking. The realm of gods has been oft discussed, but never has it made us want to shake our booty quite like this track does.

19. Radiohead - Lotus Flower

Behold the power of good old fashioned hypnotism. There's a time and place for spacing out, and the pounding hypnotic rhythm of the bass and drums provides the perfect soundtrack for getting sucked into a trance. But it goes beyond that. The Chinese Lotus Flower is known for its pure and pristine qualities, and Thom Yorke cleverly ties that in to a theme of turning over a new leaf and experiencing rebirth - much like that of the lotus itself. Those searching for a new beginning may find Yorke's words leave an indelible impact.

18. Sepalcure - Pencil Pimp

I've always been something of a closet fan of intelligent dance music, particularly something with an edge to it. Here, Sepalcure has conjured up something that could be suited to the dance floor, but isn't necessarily restricted to that environment. The opening beat and vocal samples are sure to get your glowsticks in motion, but the song quickly takes on an ominous tone with some oppressive and slightly psy-trancey synth coming in over the top. Along the way, there is enough variation packed in to easily make for a great club stomper, while also offering food for thought.

17. Ott - Squirrel and Biscuits

Ott released one of the trippiest and zaniest electronic records of the year, and his originality and sense of personality was one of 2011's bright spots. The bouncy beat at the beginning is a sure fire to bet to get your head bobbing and your body rocking, and the distorted warbling vocal midway through is a humorous touch, but the real highlight comes near the end with the introduction of totally tripped out Indian scat vocals. And the outro synths near the end make for the perfect climax. Listening to Ott is not like being on a trip. Listening to Ott is like being on a trip while floating over a dance floor in suspended animation, on another planet.

16. Obscura - Septuagint

When German tech death metal masterminds Obscura were faced with the task of following up the critically acclaimed Cosmogenesis, what did they do? They slayed like none other, of course. This opening track from their third album, Omnivium, threw listeners for a slight curve with its Metallica-esque acoustic opening and power build up. But. of course, it wouldn't be long before the churning cauldron of guitars began to mix with the guttural vocals of Steffan Kumerer.

This time around, though, Obscura proved they were more diverse with acoustic sections and clean vocals thrown into the mix. The soft and organic touch is a perfect counterweight to the skin shredding carnage the band is so well known for. With songs like Septuagint as evidence, it seems unlikely that Obscura's rage will be quelled anytime soon.

15. Panda Bear - Last Night at the Jetty

Noah Lennox has always been an innovator. It is this spirit that perfectly informs "Last Night at the Jetty." Like the rest of the Tomboy album, it possesses a fluid and free flowing vibe. Listening to this song is like floating down a waterway, while also feeling decidedly dreamlike. Lennox

14. Gretchen Parlato - Winter Wind

Gretchen Parlato is one of those rare women who can convince you she is knockout using only her voice. Her sultry vocal summons forth a passionate intensity that will leave you rapt and mesmerized. The melody of the piano and the thunderous rolls on the snare are invigorating, but  her voice cuts through it all as crisp as an autumn breeze. This track is constantly in motion; there's a definite sense of urgency. And it all comes pouring out in the final sequence, with Parlato desperately trying to convince you to hold on - "it's the time of your life." If you've never felt electrified by jazz, it's high time you gave Gretchen the chance to sweep you off your feet.

13. Cities Aviv - Doom x Gloom

I have yet to find a rapper who can deliver such ordinary statements yet make them sound so profound. Gavin Mays has the type of voice that can make you want to run through a brick wall, but he can also make you think. Doom x Gloom evokes a mysterious mood, while borrowing elements from the Memphis horror rap scene. Mays's proclamation that "we fuck broads and the cross and they gulp the semen" is sure to make an impression, the majority of the mood in this song derives from the hellish cycle of drug use and abuse. Digital Lows was an album capable of striking up many moods, but the feelings generated by Doom x Gloom may well stick with you the longest.

12. Sleep Over - Romantic Streams

Forging the perfect blend of emotion and melody, Stephanie Francotti's catharsis as displayed in Romantic Streams is one of the year's most riveting moments in electronic music. Characterized by wispy vocals that seem to float up from a dreamlike vat, and somewhat dated sounding but soothing electronics, it may give you the urge to close your eyes and drift away into a neverending void. That's pretty powerful stuff.

But you may want to do you best to stay rooted in reality, lest you miss out on the pounding drum section near the end that punctuates Francotti's magnificent ethereal vocal. When all is said and done, the feeling provided by this song is akin to swallowing a sweet warm cup of milk and settling in to a blissful slumber.

11. Black Keys - Little Black Submarines

And then Dan Auerbach bared his soul. It begins with some pretty acoustic strains and Auerbach's Jim Croce-like attempt to have a telephone operator patch him through to his love. The acoustic guitar stands in stark contrast to the firestorm of catchy rock found elsewhere on El Camino. But it's much deeper than that. There are touches of Zeppelin that certainly enhance the effect, but it is perhaps the pained clarity of Dan's regret that leaves the strongest impression.

When the loud feedback begins to fill your eardrums, you know shit's about to get real. Auerbach releases the full wroth of his pain and anxiety, as this time he is appealing to the operator to "patch me back to my mind." The impact is increased by the picture perfect performance from drummer Patrck Carney. Truly, we haven't heard drum fills this spot on since Ringo beat the skins on "A Day in the Life." When it's all done, you feel like you have a new perspective on what it is to lose.

10. Trash Talk - Gimmie Death

In my younger days I toyed around with the notion that most hardcore was targeted toward disaffected middle class high school kids seeking an outlet for social pressures or family issues. If there were any notions of that still in my mind, Trash Talk came and totally kicked them straight out the window. Lee Spielman's disillusionment with the world around him sets the stage for one of the most visceral displays of the year. The wall of guitar aggression and the tightly compacted drum rolls wash over you like a tsunami of aggression. Make no mistake, you don't have to be a hardcore kid to feel what he's saying here.

9. Tune Yards - Gangsta

The breakout success of Merill Garbus has been one of the highlights of the year. Combining afro pop with pulsing rhythms, thumping basslines, and her own bold personalty, Garbus has established a sound that's out there even by Pitchfork standards. It's not for everyone, but personally I was sold on my initial listen. There's so much going on in this song, from the omnipresent bassline to the vocally syncopated police sirens to the way Merill's voice goes from high and fluttery to raw and back again. And the subject matter, which deals with violence on the streets where Garbus used to live, adds a rough edge to the mix. Love them or hate them, Tune Yards are a powerful new creative force whose light doesn't seem to be dimming soon.

8. Opeth - Slither

Ronnie James Dio was a man who meant much to many/ Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt is no exception. When I heard him speak about Dio at the Cannery Ballroom this October, it was readily apparent what a large influence the man was upon Akerfeldt.  So it's no surprise that Slither, the track Akerfeldt wrote to commemorate Dio's memory, was one for the ages. Slither attempts to capture pure headbanging ecstasy and turbocharged guitar assault that so many 70s rock bands like Rainbow used to make a name for themselves. It sounds nothing like a typical Opeth song, save for Akerfeldt's otherworldly vocal. And if you ever get to hear it a live show, keep a tight grip on your sandals -- the moshers go totally apeshit on this one.

7. Wilco - Born Alone

Comeback would be an apt word for Wilco in 2011, and this track was instrumental in keying that success.  It opens with a set of impeccably selected mellow pop/rock chords, not at all out of the ordinary for this one time alt-country band. The lyrics focus on cleverness and wordplay, as though Jeff Tweedy seems to basking in reflection. "I am the rider at the wheel of order/ marching circles at the gate," he declares. It leads into a heavy outro which gets totally wistful and reflective. In a time when rock is seeking to innovate so much, it's comforting to know there are people who are capable of sticking to the basics and doing it right.

6. The Decemberists - Down by the Water

Perhaps the greatest sing along of 2011, Down by the Water combines folky schmaltz along with sugary pop harmonies to create one of the catchiest and most fulfilling songs of the year.  Most of the magic lies in its stripped down and laid back nature. The acoustic guitar, the accordion and tambourine combine with the harmony between Colin Meloy and Gillian Welch to form an instant winner. And as always, Meloy is busy scouring the dictionary while he pens his lyrics. In just a few short lines, he is able to construct a vivid depiction of a sleepy small time port town. Pyrotechnics and big egos may dominate music headlines, but The Decemberists demonstrate that sometimes simplicity is key.

5. Amon Amarth - War of the Gods

Amon Amarth may occasionally draw criticism for being stuck in their mold, but when they're at the top of their game it's not tough to see why they stick to what they know. Nothing goes to waste here; every riff and progression on guitar sounds crisp, clear and clean. The build up and solo are a textbook demonstration of how dual guitar harmonies are meant to work, and the drums provide the perfect backing for the out of control guitar noodling. And that's without even mentioning that Johan Hegg's hearty growls about conflict between Norse gods lends a truly epic and legendary feel. War of the Gods is an iron forged piece of metal so hot you can still feel the steam rising from it.

4. Raekwon feat. Black Thought - Masters of Our Fate

If there was ever a rap song fit to serve as a soundtrack to a decisive battle, this would be it. A Winston Churchill sample surely doesn't hurt the levity of the track; you can practically hear him clenching his steely fingers as he speaks his message of courage and resolve. And it's spotlighted by a pair of emcees you would never want to meet in a dark alley. Raekwon comes in, speaking about the harsh realities of life. But even he is shown up by the mighty Black Thought, who opens one of the best rap verses ever with a statement we can all relate to -- "bridges I burn some, lessons I learn some, money I spent some, lent some, earn some." By the time it finishes you will surely understand your destiny lies in your own hands.

3. Iamamiwhoami - ;John

This is the Mac Daddy of production work. This song alone could provide a semester's worth of study on how to arrange .midi files like a boss. The main melodies are upbeat, catchy and danceable, but at the same time leave you feeling like you're stuck in a dark depressing hole you will never climb out of. There's quite a bit going on, from heavy sludgy synths to low fat beats and shimmering dancefloor electronica. Swedish starlet Jonna Lee shows off her impressive range as she weaves a tale about being subjugated, dominated, and cast aside. But through it all, she keeps on dancing. It manages to capture a feeling of jubilation while also managing to feel dreamy, isolated, and surreal.

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

In terms of delivering true honesty from behind the mic, Helplessness Blues is about as good as you're ever going to do.  This is Robin Pecknold's clarion call of self assertion, and he couldn't have put it any more eloquently. The instrumentation is first rate, the message is empowering, and the lyrics create a powerful and vivid sense of imagery. The most jaw dropping feature comes about halfway in when the time signature changes. It's practically like two top tier songs rolled into one. This is the part where the Fleet Foxes get to show off their patented pastoral sound and lovely vocal harmonies. Pecknold has clearly laid forth his masterwork here.

1. Steven Wilson - Deform to Form a Star

As if descending from the heavens themselves, Steven Wilson's classical progressive odyssey Deform to Form a Star takes top song honors for 2011. Wilson isn't the most virtuoso musician, but every element of his compositions come together brilliantly. The piano is beautiful and melodious. Every chord he picks out seems to have been carefully mulled and considered before being inserted into the final mix. His vocals are mellow and downbeat, focusing on a sense of loss and desolation.

But the chorus shines brightest, with a mystical quality that could practically penetrate the cosmos itself. If that isn't enough, there are also a pair of magical guitar solos that drive home the point. In a year filled with powerful songwriting and unprecedented innovation, Steven Wilson captures the #1 spot by simply being divine.

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