It’s that time of the year again when we put aside our usual differences and start fighting over the year’s best music. While last year we summed it up with a year end edition of Mixtape Madness, this year we’ve gone all out, taking a writers’ poll on our favorite albums, songs, EPs, and music videos of 2011.
20. Smith Westerns – “All Die Young”
The Smith Westerns had a stellar followup to their self titled with the glammy “Dye it Blonde.” “All Die Young” carries with it all of the album’s signature moves – lush production, Bolan leads, and lyrics about the joys of youth. While “Weekend” (released in 2010) still holds the crown on that record, “All Die Young” does a great job of pulling off that song’s blissed out grandeur in reverse – starting like a casual walk which progresses into a spirited run on a spring day.
19. Azealia Banks – “212″
Azealia Banks is a late comer to 2011′s new artist pool, but she made up for lost time with a blistering opening salvo in “212.” The Harlem rapper rips into the song’s club beat with a three pronged vocal onslaught of faux-British turned faux-Valley-Girl accents, detailing how she’s going to steal your Parisean girlfriend. Most rap songs would use the bridge space for a guest vocalist, but Banks has it covered, singing the break like a House music siren before exploding back in with a threat, “What you gonna do when I appear?…Bitch, the end of your lives are near, this shit been mine.” We’ll see if 2012 proves her right.
18. Panda Bear – “Slow Motion”
Animal Collective’s most appreciated alumni had a good year with “Tomboy,” Panda Bear‘s followup to the heavily lauded “Person Pitch” album. “Slow Motion” takes Noah Lennox’s dreamy chant style and pushes it to wondrous places, with swells of piano and a second guessing beat set in 3/4 time. A perfect beach side track for people who don’t like the beach.
17. How to Dress Well – “Suicide Dream 3″
“Love Remains,” the debut record from How to Dress Well (aka Tom Krell) was a practice in pushing the boundaries of low fidelity. Playing like a cassette that had been used 100 times, the record was filled with beautiful R&B melodies that were begging to break out of the buzzing and tape hiss. On the EP, “Just Once,” they do just that, with Krell taking three songs from that record along with this new one, and cleansing them in a string quartet. The set is a dedication to Krell’s late friend, and “Suicide Dream 3″ feels the most personal as Krell calls into the night, “I wanted to survive/Would you turn on the lights?/I wanted to arrive with you there by my side.” The song is both a chilling and comforting ode to anyone who’s lost a friend, or woken up from a dream about it.
16. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”
On his self titled album, James Blake melds the world of modern electronica with classic soul, best exemplified by “The Wilhelm Scream.” A bed of pops and clicks form alongside a single keyboard that progressively gets taken over by a droning hiss as the “falling” that Blake sings about in the refrain slowly overtakes him. Blake gives his most compelling vocal performance on the album largely due to his treatment, having his voice flicker back and forth between speakers which creates a pleasantly disorienting effect when listening to the song on headphones.
15. Tyler, the Creator – “Yonkers”
2011 was the year of Odd Future, so it was fitting that the song that broke them into the world’s consciousness was by their fearless leader, Tyler, the Creator. “Yonkers” rides a mid tempo stalker beat and a doomed synth bass line, with each verse separated by a diabolical two note synth line which breaks apart Tyler’s rants about school shootings and stabbing Bruno Mars to death. With a pretty crafty one shot video to support it, “Yonkers” has stood as one of the most electrifying songs to emerge out of rap this year.
14. Phantogram – “Don’t Move”
Using glitchy electronics and Latin horns, Phantogram gave us an irresistible cut in “Don’t Move.” Following a dynamic similar to The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” “Don’t Move” follows Sarah Barthel’s dreamy voice along a handclap beat and entrancing tremolo guitars, with a vocal sample chiming in that sounds like the guy on “I Like it Like That.” When dream pop meets the dance floor.
13. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”
I Follow Rivers by LykkeLi
Lykki Li returned this year with a dark update of the cool persona she introduced on “Youth Novels.” On “Wounded Rhymes,” things get sexier, but don’t think for a second that she’s not in charge, even if she’s the one chasing you in “I Follow Rivers.” Channeling “Violator” era Depeche Mode, the song uses percussive synths and baritone guitar lines as a pedestal for the Swedish songstress’ chant heavy single. The song is catchy as hell, while still matching “Wounded Rhymes”‘s ashy album art.
12. Gang Gang Dance – “Glass Jar”
The shapeshifting “Glass Jar” kicks off “Eye Contact” like the history of evolution run in fast forward. Beginning as a formless algae, it eventually progresses, forming a time holding structure. In time, the drums kick in and the song gets on its feet as a vocal finally comes in nearly seven minutes into the track. From its long ambient intro, it would be hard to believe you could be dancing by the song’s end, by then again, surprising turns are kind of what Gang Gang Dance are all about.
11. Light Asylum – “Dark Allies”
For all the bands that were under the radar, Light Asylum have been the most compelling. Their music mixes a swirl of Moroder synths, a post punk drive, and stage inflaming vocals. “Dark Allies” best illustrates all of these strengths. Stretching out for six minutes, the song is a powerful synth driven epic that screams wildly into the night. The band’s relation to LCD Soundsystem makes a lot of sense (the duo appeared at the band’s final show at Madison Square Garden this year) — they share James Murphy’s passion for music history and like him, have the chops to push it into the next era.
10. Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”
Picking a single for “The King of Limbs” is not easy. While each song feels like its own individual entity, none of them immediately scream mixtape material. “Lotus Flower” is as close as it gets — it’s got a forward moving bass groove that chains up to Phil Selway’s drums in such a way that will get your toe tapping, or it could make you do a whole jittery dance if you feel so compelled. Thom Yorke’s falsetto croon is in check as well, all of which makes “Lotus Flower” sound like a slightly more reserved sequel to “Morning Bell.”
9. Yuck – “Georgia”
Yuck’s debut record is like a review of what made the 90′s great, made by a band that most likely was not conscious of it at the time. “Georgia” taps into indie rock’s jolliest moments, sounding like “Without a Sound” era Dinosaur Jr minus the wailing solos, with Kevin Shields vocals lapped on top. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart did a good job recouping Ride nostalgia this year on “Belong” but Yuck have the whole package down top to bottom.
8. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
While we yawned and moved on when Adele delivered “19″ two years ago, “21″ surprisingly found her revamping her sound slightly with a stronger set of songs heralded by this unstoppable foot stomper. The power of Adele’s voice is of course unquestionable, but “Rolling in the Deep” really harnesses her strengths with a steady progression and 60′s soul singer backing vocals. It’s the kind of adult pop song you can bang your head to, and the kind of song KT Tunstall has repeatedly been failing to write for her entire career.
7. EMA – “Marked”
“Past Life Martyred Saints” is an exercise in pain that goes beyond Erika M. Anderson‘s lyrics about self mutilation and drugs. Everything down to its recording style aches with soreness and resignation, which is best exemplified in the album’s centerpiece, the wounded “Marked.” What makes the song a cut above the rest of the album though is the redemption that takes place over the course of the song.
Sounding as if emerging out of an ash filled ventilator shaft, Anderson’s vocals are raspy and barely on key, sounding as if she just finished screaming her lungs out. As the songs progresses, the singer gains more strength as the instrumentation gets fuller and warmer. What’s most intriguing is the interpretation one can take from this transformation — is her realization that “these drugs are making me so sad” a decision for a new direction, or are they the fruits of a passed out dream? Therein lies the power of the song.
6. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”
It would be a fair claim to say Lana Del Rey is the most divisive artist of 2011. Coming seemingly out of nowhere in August, the singer had actually been kicking around for a while as Lizzy Grant. Revamping her style using “Bang Bang (He Shot Me Down)” as her template, “Video Games” became her haunting reintroduction to the world. Many have taken notice. While it’s possible LDR has set the bar incredibly high for herself, with a major label LP a mere month away and riding on the heels of an expensive and overblown Hollywood style video, at the end of the day. nothing can touch the simple beauty of “Video Games.”
5. Jay-Z/Kanye West – “Niggas in Paris”
It could be something about the southern rap beat, the Will Ferrell sample, or the irresistible double entendre of “dat shit cray!”, but the world is completely captivated by “Niggas in Paris.” So much so that the Throne (as Jay-Z and Kanye West are collectively now known) have been performing the song in concert not once, not twice, but as much as eleven (!) times. There’s a phrase used in film school known as “white telephone” which is used to describe Depression era movies that featured glamorous stories about glamorous people which were often swallowed whole by eager audiences. In a recession as deep as today’s, “Niggas in Paris” is the modern day equivalent. While we can’t really identify with getting fucked up in Paris and ordering fish filet, it doesn’t stop us from stomping up the dancefloor over and over when this jam comes on.
4. Cults – “Abducted”
While “Go Outside” was the perfect dream pop lit afternoon, “Abducted” is the Cults‘ driving rocker. Starting out like a transistor radio transmission, the song kicks in with rumbling bass and takes a page out of the “Neon Bible” with its glowing church organ part hanging in the background. “Abducted” is also unique to the band’s small but memorable repertoire as being one of the few songs that features a lead vocal from Brian Oblivion, whose low and straight forward delivery is the perfect foil to Madeline Follin’s childlike wails.
3. M83 – “Midnight City”
The perfect theme for a night out, “Midnight City” is own of this year’s most celebrated anthems. While mining the 1980′s alongside countless other artists for the past ten years, Anthony Gonzalez takes the glorious victory dance song that artists like The Cure and The Psychedelic Furs perfected and makes it feel entirely 2011. From the out of this world synth hook that opens and drives the song, all the way to that fantastic sax solo outro, it’s like rocking out to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” with the irony thrown out the window.
2. Real Estate – “It’s Real”
The audio equivalent of a picnic on a mild spring day, “It’s Real” is a highlight from a record that’s really like one big highlight. Everything hits in the right spot on “It’s Real.” The guitars and drums seem to click in to each other as if they’re all playing the song’s percussion, and that synth pad that comes during the solo sounds like a warm smile creeping across your face. For taking in suburban beauty on a clear day, “It’s Real” is the perfect soundtrack.
1. Bon Iver – “Holocene”
“Bon Iver, Bon Iver” is a surprising record, having risen from the chilly depths of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” the record sways and bends with resigned beauty. “Holocene” is one of its most compelling tracks, gently building on picturesque layers of guitar that are gradually joined by rustling snares and yawning saxophones. Justin Vernon‘s vocal lingers like an arm on your shoulder, telling you “you fucked it friend, it’s on its head,” but that that’s okay. While “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” is a record full of deeply emotional moments, “Holocene” is probably the most spot on in its humanity — an anthem for anyone who has realized that they were not magnificent.
PLUS: Songs you should really be listening to…
Burial vs. Massive Attack “Paradise Circus”
Holy Other “Yr Love”
Fred Falke “Aurora”
Burial vs. Massive Attack “Four Walls”
Solar Bears “Dolls”
Iceage “New Brigade”
Kwes “Get Up”
John Maus “Keeping On”
Laurel Halo “Hours Logic”
Apparat “Black Water”
The Field “The It’s White”
Clams Casino “I’m God”
Connan Mockasin “Forever Dolphin Love”
Balam Acab “Oh Why”
Young Galaxy “Peripheral Visions”
Atlas Sound “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs”