It's that time of the year again. Mostly everything has been released, certainly this is the case with music, and it's time to start putting the year into perspective. I found 2011 to be a fantastic year for music, perhaps without the highs or 'Important Albums' of years past, but still fantastic nonetheless. We saw dubstep rise (and fall?) in about the course of twelve months, Katy Perry reached insurmountable levels of annoying, and that Lulu atrocity even released. What more could you want? It's definitely been a year, and moving on from my previous three Quarterly Reviews, the final list of best tracks has risen. Moves have been made, shakes have been shook, and as usual all titles link to Youtube versions of the songs whenever possible, and for some that are not on Youtube, I put all the songs on Spotify into a playlist!
15. "Pharaohs and Pyramids" - Cut Copy
The suspicion that I had about Cut Copy, my personal Best of Fest at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival, was that their music wouldn't hold up as well once the cold weather started settling in because this album took almost the entire beginning of the year to grow on me. Luckily, perhaps in nature's attempt to add as much longevity to the Australian band's album, the summer held out for quite a long while this year. And even though the recent days have been chilly, I still find myself drawn to the most complete - if not the most audacious - song from Zonoscope
14. "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire" - M83.
Translating, roughly or directly I am not sure, to "Tell Me A Story" this track jumps out to me even more than the seminal "Midnight City" as the definitive track from M83.'s Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. The little girl who tells the story of a presumed hallucinogenic trip mixes beautifully with the constantly building, repetitive instrumental in the background. Like Animal Collective's "My Girls" or "Brothersport" without all the vocal distortion and production, "Raconte-Moi" may very well be the most distinctive song of 2011.
13. "D.D." - The Weeknd
Despite the previous year being a huge one from The Weeknd, it took quite a while for me to personally latch on to this brand of R&B. Oddly, it was the song that covers Michael Jackson (a man whose music I am mostly hot and cold on) that has me anticipating the 2012 output. Though it doesn't capture the essence of The Weeknd, the sinister undertones and self destruction are present but marginalized by the original, yet there's a chilling energy that climaxes in a penultimate shriek before the chorus kicks back in one last time. He makes it his own and turns it in to a The Weeknd song, which is impressive.
12. "Video Games" - Lana Del Rey
Few artists came blazing on to the scene as quickly as Lana Del Rey, but her lead single from her forthcoming album Born to Die has her disconnected, calm vocals at their strongest. The reserved, almost defeated tone in her voice is tragic for any number of reasons, but perhaps most because it calls our attention to all the distractions in life. As an advocate for video games I can't say I'm supportive of the stereotype that Lana Del Rey evokes here, but in the interest of art I'll let this one slide.
11. "Nightmare" - Tyler, the Creator
Overall successes and failures of Goblin aside (we'll get to that when the Top Album list rolls around), Tyler, the Creator always seems to be the best when he's openly venting, with the perception of personality seeping through his music. Though, as I have written before, I think the true genius of this song is when it is allowed to directly bleed into "Tron Cat," the way he slowly crumbles as this song progresses serves as perhaps the best microcosm of Tyler. There's the menacing, the bravado, and the vulnerability all documented.
10. "High Maintenance" - Miranda Cosgrove featuring Rivers Cuomo
Perhaps the year's greatest surprise, Miranda Cosgrove's pairing with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo is pop at its purest. Much has changed through my quarterly reviews, but this song has remained completely constant throughout the year for the title track from her High Maintenance EP. It's the most fun to be had with any track of this year, listening, pondering, singing, there's just a bliss that's simultaneously present and undercut by the creepiness of the subject material. Straight meta.
9. "The Lonely Doll" - Cass McCombs (no Youtube Version)
Cass McCombs speaks to the poet inside me, and few songs have appealed so directly to my poetic sensibilities than this track. Though it's easy to speak about hints of Edgar Allan Poe in the song, certainly it takes a fairly unassuming object and makes it creepy, McCombs's instrumentation is so key to complementing this song that it's hard not to see it as something that is distinctly modern. McCombs tells a story, something not seen a lot in songwriting. Perfectly self contained, completely satisfying, consistently replayable.
8. "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker" - Destroyer
At times feeling like a triumph of stream of consciousness writing, the standout from Destroyer's Kaputt has Bejar threading together ideas while the rest of the band integrates the lush instruments to create a sense of wonder that carries throughout this (quick) 8 and a half minute song. I have a strong predisposition to songwriting, so Destroyer hits close to home with the priority given to the lyrics. New York City just wants to see you naked...and they will.
7. "Lightweight" - Demi Lovato
Big year for songs that begin with a distinct sound device and carry it throughout. Lovato's "Lightweight" has the former Disney starlet continuing to grow artistically. It's easy to label Demi Lovato as tween pop, but the connotations that come with the genre diminish her accomplishments as a vocalist. When thinking about which song to select from Unbroken I was tempted to pick one of the more personal ones, either "Skyscraper" to focus on her ability as songwriter or "For The Love Of A Daughter" so I could go off on a diatribe about that song's messy history and how it serves as definitive proof that she has always been an artistic figure worthy of more attention, but "Lightweight" just feels more complete than anything else on the album, and sometimes a sense of completion is comforting.
6. "Bizness" - tUnE-yArDs
Self liberation defines part of what makes tUnE-yArDs successful, an outpouring of frustration in an almost hedonistic plea. At least that is the case with "Bizness," even if it the idea is slightly undercut by the myriad of sounds within which the band operates. There's a sense of freedom that has been taken up by the band's use of tribal imagery both on stage and in videos. Like a modern day "Howl" if we take Ginsberg to be an outdated referential figure.
5. "Cheerleader" - St. Vincent
Fairly easy to write this track off as just another relationship song, but St. Vincent doesn't make simplistic music and I think it's probably able to be argued that this song is the most empowering, for females and males alike, on this list. With lines like "I've told whole lies with a half smile" and "I've seen America with no clothes on" St. Vincent is able to create a type of remorse that also frames her in a position of power and knowledge. What is seen is never fully revealed, but it's enough to want to bring about a change. In an album packed full of fantastic tracks, "Cheerleader" rises.
4. "A Case Of You" - James Blake
I have a hard time elevating covers of songs, especially because James Blake is an artist who has been mislabeled as a dubstep musician and a below average writer. I wanted to select one of his many fantastic original songs from 2011 to occupy this spot, but I couldn't do it. In a year where Bon Iver was buzzed about the internet around, James Blake didn't even need to write a new song to out-Iver, Iver. There's a stunning natural quality to Blake's voice here, despite some hints of vocal modulation, along with his skillful piano. This isn't a song that validates James Blake as a dubstep musician, it validates him as a legitimate artistic force.
3. "California" - EMA
Another of the early year standouts that withstood the test of time, EMA's "California" is still as hard hitting as it was the first time I heard it. The sheer amount of lyrical content crammed in to this song sets it apart from most of the other tracks on Past Life Martyred Saints, and that's to the song's benefit. It gives the track room to breathe and to grow, as it all hurtles toward a stunning finale. A common complaint I have heard, and disagree with, about EMA's music is that it takes a while to get going and simply maintains a stationary position instead of fluctuating. "California" begins with a punch and doesn't let up, but the hits just keep getting harder as the song progresses.
2. "17" - Youth Lagoon
With this song it's better to just listen to it rather than reading all of the reasons why it touches me. I could tell you that the poetic devices here are simple, sparse, but effective, that the sound manages to slowly crawl upward as the song itself grows, or that I get all sentimental about nostalgia not too far (but far enough) removed from my past. That maybe I haven't completely moved on, but maybe that's also not completely bad. The chorus is gorgeous, lines like "Surrounded by nothing, but the nothing's surrounded by us" and "At least God doesn't judge me by the thoughts in my head / the snakes I couldn't find, I don't want to find" pierce deep inside myself, and this song is only marginally better than "Cannons," another Youth Lagoon heater. It's a song that makes me want to write again.
1. "The Last Huzzah" - Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire featuring Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown, and El-P
If that name didn't clue you in, there will be cursing ahead.
Hip-hop is my favorite musical genre. I enjoy the way it draws out the lyrical prowess of its top artists. I'm not really sure if any of these individuals are top working artists, actually it's easier to call most of them hip-hop's misfits, an idea that is toyed with with the egregious play on the seminal The Warriors line that recalls a Chapelle's Show skit that recalls a P. Diddy track that opens up the song.
There's a plethora of styles that shouldn't work together on this song, the more cerebral flows of Despot and El-P are a far cry from the yaps of Danny Brown and the fast/slow contrast of Das Rascist. Then Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire comes on and just goes off. I could write more, but just look at some choice lines from each verse to get a feel for the genius of the year's best hip-hop song, and possibly one of the best group rap tracks of all time:
Despot: "Don't beat him while he down off whatever his favorite swill be / I ain't a killer but don't kill me"
Kool A.D.: "I don't got guns dude / But let's battle and see who sons who / I'm readin' Sun-Tzu, translating Don Killuminati into Spanish / Wrappin' my body in bandages"
Heems: "I got three shirts and they all look expensive / 2000 Volkswagen mad old and dented / Skateboard P, Ashanti: foolish / Worst rapper on this track, third coolest"
Danny Brown: "I'm about my bread, ya ain't ya can roll / Try and stop that, get a bagel sized hole / Cause it has been nice, heat the house, use the stove"
El-P: He counts from 1 through 16 in his verse, culminating in these fantastic lines: "With inverted 31's and other unlucky omens / That's why I chug 7 and 7's til I'm fuckin' homeless / And every time you think my 15 minutes of fame are up / I spit another 16 and prove to the world I fuckin' own it"
Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire: "No food in my system and my pockets fucked up / Plus my mother still work, so why should I give a fuck? / Fuck a blog, fuck a label, fuck a meetin', fuck an A and R / Fuck a cosign, motherfucker, fuck it all!"
So what do you think? Did I leave anything out? Do any of these songs not 'hit' you like others from these artists did? Let me know what you think in the comments section, and see you soon for more Music 2011 coverage as the week continues!
Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blogfilled with all original works for your reading pleasure.
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© 2011 Richard James Thorne