Some these songs helped make our favorite albums the triumphs that they were. Some of them succeeded on their own. Together, they make up MXDWN’s favorite songs of 2011.
40. Ghost – Ritual
Pop and metal have always been not only mutually exclusive, but downright antagonistic towards each other. “Ritual” is a rare example of a band taking two completely different mindsets and making them inexplicably work together. While it’s as heavy a tribute to Old Scratch as you’re liable to come across, Ghost takes a page out of the Black Widow playbook and infuses “Ritual” with the catchiness that is pop’s ultimate aim. Far from just a gimmick to push singles though, the catch factor at work in “Ritual” is meant more to lull us into some semblance of true ritual fervor. Let it work it’s magic on you, and you’ll be surprised how easily the phrase, “Believe in one god do we/Satan almighty” rolls off your tounge.
39. Adele – Someone Like You
In the over-synthesized world of today’s music, it’s refreshing to hear true vocal ability organically paired with a simple piano, like on Adele’s hit single “Someone Like You.” Describing the pain of losing a lover to another person while holding on to hope, Adele sings with passionate wisdom beyond her years. Eloquently penned lyrics like “I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded that for me, it isn’t over” and “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead” help this passive-aggressive anthem usher in a new age of authentic music.
38. Elite Gymnastics – o m a m o r i
This shimmering, shoegazing stunner from the Minneapolis duo’s commanding r u i n EP may convey fear of death in its lyrics, but its propulsive Madchester shuffle and icy hot guitar gauze prove an ironic triumph in making listeners appreciate and enjoy life all the more.
37. Obscura – Septuagint
It takes a special band to turn a beautiful classical guitar intro into some of the most complex death metal you’ve ever heard, but German metal wizards Obscura are more than up to the challenge. Drummer Hannes Grossmann is in top form here, making the complicated, overlapping drum parts sound effortless, while departed bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling holds down the low end, and delivers a beautiful interlude as well. And not to be missed is lead guitarist Christian Muenzner’s blistering Baroque- and blues-infused solo mid-song.
36. Apparat – Black Water
Beginning with a lush fog of pillowy feedback, and ending with the barren sound of soft rainfall, “Black Water” paints a cinematic picture of hushed reflection. Dual vocals seem to materialize from vapor, floating to the ear through waves of smooth, pulsating reverb. The experience is simultaneously strange, and organic.
35. Beyonce – Party (feat. Kanye West and Andre 3000)
For a song that credits more than half a dozen writers, it damn well better be nominated for a Grammy (which it was). “Party” (from Beyonce’s fourth album 4) features a brief appearance from Kanye West and a verse from Andre 3000, who just about steals this song from Beyonce and only makes you crave his anticipated solo album even more. Of course there’s also Beyonce’s always-fine-tuned voice, although you won’t hear her full range in this particular song. “Party” is a feel-good song that takes notes from the 1980s, using an 808 beat, a sample of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” and an overall retro sound.
34. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Shadow on the Run
“Shadow On the Run” is a confession of all consuming obsession, and one of BRMC’s best songs in recent years. Dark and atmospheric are not complete enough terminology in describing their contribution to the Batman: Arkham City soundtrack. The presences of the suspenseful, sinister, murky, delirious and seductive, are also strikingly felt.
33. Cults – Go Outside
When those xylophone tinkles drift into the first few bars over that indecipherable giggling and mumbling, unless you’re expecting it, the big sound that comes in on that first vocal is a shock. It’s big, buoyant and refreshingly dreamy. Madeline Follin’s voice is a full, blasting wave of surfy girl-group joy and the wall of sound that accompanies it doesn’t sound so bad, either.
32. Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Oh. My. Gaga. While still on tour behind her mega-successful debut The Fame, Mother Monster unleashed this overwhelming ode to self-esteem, a pre-emptive strike against naysayers from her follow-up album of the same name. Yes, it’s a take on Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” but Madge didn’t reach this peak of Blonde Ambition until her fourth album. Gaga is kicking ass twice as fast with her own avant garde flair. She pays tribute to her inspirations without ever losing sight of her aspirations — mainly, being a beacon of acceptance (tolerance is for suckers) to her legions of outcast fans. AND it’s incredibly danceable.
31. Toro y Moi – Elise
Sunny yet somber, this elegant closing elegy from Chaz Bundick’s masterful sophomore album evokes feelings of longing, loss and love. Bundick beckons to be carried away over an aching piano line and subtly funky guitars and drums, all the while aware of the cost of the titular lady’s acquiescence. Like so many great loves and memories, the comfort only lasts so long. Unlike them however, you have this to listen to and relive over an over for that same sense of solace.
30. Grimes – Vanessa
This instant indie classic from the miraculously prolific Claire Boucher takes her previous avant bedroom pop leanings into the stratospheres of Donna Summer, with Boucher’s vocals selling her clearest, most soaring chorus yet with a falsetto worthy of Mariah Carey and a churning dance beat that any pop artist worth her salt would kill to sing over. Her mischievous “Hey, hey wanna play” refrain could be taken as either an invitation or a fare. Either way, you’re a fool if you don’t accept.
29. The Decemberists – Down by the Water
R.E.M.’s Peter Buck provides some guitar work on this ode to rural youthful indulgence, and it’s easy to pick him out (he’s the guy playing “The One I Love”). But the real beauty of this first single off of The Decemberists’ The King is Dead is the vivid portrait of a young man, a “tow-head teen,” as painted by songwriter Colin Malloy. So determined is he to get his swerve on from the “lash-flashing Leda of Pier 19” that he is ready to jump in the water without regard to anything or anyone else. And we are right there with him.
28. Evanescence – What You Want
After a four-year quiet spell, “What You Want” reintroduced Evanescence with force. The new territory of up-tempo sound is a complex game of balance between peril, and beauty. Always verging on spill over, it laces together layers of baroque metal, synth saturation, weighty guitar, and Amy Lee’s commanding vocals.
27. The Horrors – Moving Further Away
Kinda epic. Third album Skying thankfully moves this British band further away (ha!) from their roots as a maybe-metal group and into deep shades of goth and dream-pop. Swirling guitars and rhythms straight out of 1990s big beat, merged with Faris Badwan’s simple repeated refrains, sounds like the best remix The Cure never made.
26. iwrestledabearonce – It Is ‘Bro,’ Isn’t It?
A prime example of iwrestledabearonce’s unique brand of Alabama weirdness, “Bro” slides effortlessly between brutal death metal, atonal guitar bursts, and pop-inflected heavy rock. Vocalist Krysta Cameron proves that metal is no longer a boys’ club, moving between bowel-churning growls, Bollywood chants, and everything in between with ease. Keep your ears peeled for the outro breakdown, when guitarists Steven Bradley and John Ganey really bring the pain.
25. TV on the Radio – Will Do
It remains to be seen if we’ve heard the last of TV on the Radio as we know them, longtime bassist Gerard Smith having passed just a week after the release of this year’s Nine Types of Light. If so, “Will Do” serves nicely as part of this possible closing chapter. A determined song, its rhythm section creeping up on you like a pop music zombie, TVOTR’s suggestion to try a new love could also be a hint from the band to itself to press onward: “We won’t know the actual / If we never take the chance.”
24. Elbow – The Birds
One of my all time favorite tracks from Elbow is “Scattered Black and White,” and while the new album has taken on a different direction, Guy Garvey delivers a track that still makes an entire audience sway. I had the opportunity to see Elbow earlier this year at The Greek in Hollywood and Elbow opened the show with “The Birds.” A rock ballad with some electronic influence that takes flight with orchestral strings (pardon my second pun of the day).
23. Toro y Moi – New Beat
There’s a vibe running through this centerpiece track on Underneath the Pine that’s hard to nail down. Michael Jackson circa Off the Wall? Beck from somewhere in Odelay or Midnite Vultures? Ah, no matter. It’s a low-impact keyboard funk groove with Chaz Bundick’s light, breathy vocals, all incomplete thoughts and faux-hard exhortations: “Don’t forget, don’t forget.”
22. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
“Helplessness Blues” does what the entire Helplessness Blues album does–it searches. There is a reason this song was given the same title as the album; the song is reflective and singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold provides a sigh of relief when we realize there are indeed solutions to the problems and question imposed on the album.
21. Anthrax – Judas Priest
Thrash stalwarts Anthrax slow things down to a lumbering shuffle on “Judas Priest,” yet still retain the attitude they’ve become known for. Guitarist Scott Ian and his unstoppable rhythm section keep things grinding along, culminating in a flashy, syncopated bridge courtesy of bassist Frank Bello and drummer Charlie Benante. And just try to get the chorus, channeling Oppenheimer’s famous “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” quote after the first atomic bomb test, out of your head.
20. Adele – Rolling in the Deep
The choice of “Rolling in the Deep” as the first single for Adele’s 21 was a bold choice after the bluesy gospy feel of her Grammy Winning album 19, and took her heart wrenching break up anthems to arena levels. A song of heart ache and the demise of a love story, Adele sings from her soul when she wails “I can’t help feeling we could’ve had it all.” This track has bands everywhere covering her song, including a rendition of from Linkin Park that was also great.
19. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx – NY is Killing Me
The lead single from We’re New Here—the remix collab between the late jazz poet and the British indietronica producer—is quite literally like nothing we’ve heard before. Scott-Heron’s insistent bass voice is chopped up in blog-house fashion, and isn’t so much competing with the squeaky hip-hop vocal at the end as it is relieved by it. They’re woven together with a second yin and yang here, Jamie Smith’s chiming treble keys vs. his wobbly rhythm foundation. Pulling from established and new realms of bass music, “NY is Killing Me” would be a burdensome mess were it not for Smith’s skillful gestalt. This is more a five-minute suite than a long song, and just as exploratory.
18. Evanescence – The Change
It’s rare in hard rock or metal where a band truly rocks accompanied by a female voice that sings in a pure fashion. Like much of modern metal, most voices male and female alike opt for a dry-lung style, but not Amy Lee from Evanescence. Lee sings with stunning clarity, range and nimble grace while the band she’s fronted for the last ten years rocks harder and more convincingly than they did when they multi-platinum success and Grammy awards. On “The Change” Lee takes the song and confidently conveys the agony of a dying relationship, “Say it’s over / Yes it’s over / But I need you anyway / Say you love me / but it’s not enough.” This is a kiss-off of the dying love that celebrates the need for escape rather than wallowing in the self-pity of the loss.
17. Cut Copy – Need You Now
It would be acceptable to mistake Cut Copy for being around in the ’80s. The third single and first song off their third studio album Zonoscope is normally classified as an electronic pop song, and it’s true. “Need You Now” does sound like an ’80s college radio hit, but sometimes frontman Dan Whitford sounds like The National’s Matt Berninger, especially in the beginning of the song. And there’s something about that similarity that makes this song more than just a dancey pop song. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, it ends with you still craving more of Cut Copy’s sparkly resurrection of new wave.
16. Darkness Falls – Hey!
With “Hey!,” Danish duo Darkness Falls prove that female indie vocals and gothic sensibility can combine with great synergy. The intro features an arpeggiated theramin, recontextualizing the trademark horror film instrument as a harbinger of gloom pop. Josephine Philip’s vocals then enter as appropriately sober, yet youthful entities to vitalize the spookiness. Glowing chorus harmonies float along until the exclamation, “hey,” cuts in to accent each line with a darkened girl-pop-punk aesthetic. “Hey!” exemplifies Darkness Falls’ uncanny intuitive sense in fashioning amalgamations of style—with touches of goth, punk, indie, and pop—to create a dynamic mood of glowing terror.
15. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
“Call the neurosurgeon,” Lizzi Bougatsos wails on the thundering final track on Gang Gang’s exceptional Eye Contact. “Our dreaming space, it is open.” No one could ever accuse the band of being close-minded in their craft, but this peak effort (and album, for that matter) shows us how how much farther that space can spread and how exhilarating it can be to occupy it. “Watch me go. Here I go,” Bougatsos beckons. Good luck trying to keep to keep up with her, but damned if you won’t want to try for just a taste of the rush she’s clearing feeling.
14. 65daysofstatic – Crash Tactics
One of the most underrated bands out of England today, 65daysofstatic is an explosion of ideas, energy and mounting catharsis. “Crash Tactics” might be one of this year’s most unappreciated accomplishments. Buried behind the hype for post-rock instrumental acts such as Explosions in the Sky, the bullet-train speed of this one is something everyone should be talking about. Imagine Daft Punk’s “Human After All” with no words, angular guitars and a demanding presence that implies the will to destroy an opposing army and you have some sense of the wondrous escalating crescendo of this song. Each progressive phrase adds in some new sonic snippet that increases the drama and power of this song.
13. tUnE-yArDs – Gangsta
What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta? Unfortunately, Merril Garbus of tUnE-yArDs doesn’t have a lick of advice for the gangsta wannabes out there, but she can sympathize with the weak, the chronically disrespected, the eternal underdogs of the world. Off her second album, w h o k i l l, “Gangsta” is a tribal cry for the meek who want nothing more than to be accepted by gangstas, rastas, and anyone else who could survive in Merril’s hood (Connecticut?) where “danger is crawlin’ out the wood.” Like much of tUnE-yArDs’ music, the song is a collage of rhythm, vocals-as-sirens, raps, and some old recordings of who we can only assume are Merril’s grandparents. Quirkiness aside, Garbus evokes the claustrophobia and fear of living day-to-day with neighborhood violence.
12. Death Cab for Cutie – You Are a Tourist
In “You Are A Tourist,” Ben Gibbard encourages listeners to “define your destination,” which speaks powerfully to the divergence of Codes and Keys from Death Cab For Cutie’s previous six albums. Death Cab strays from the guitar-driven composition to one saturated in atmosphere. Clouds of reverb drench the bass line and the echoing lyric of “this fire grows higher.” Holding the track together are two relentless counterparts, the driving drumbeat and bass, courtesy of Jason McGerr and Nick Harmer. “You Are A Tourist” marks the band’s development in style and exploration of new ideas. Death Cab isn’t complacent but they judiciously continue in their niche of writing endearing alternative rock songs; and that’s why fans continue to love them.
11. Mastodon – All the Heavy Lifting
A shambling, swinging rocker, “All The Heavy Lifting” is the perfect slice of Mastodon’s Iron-Maiden-meets-Hank-Williams style of Southern metal. Drummer Brann Dailor is the standout here, his jazz-inflected fills and driving double bass drums thundering throughout the track, and providing a solid anchor for the dual vocal stylings of bassist Troy Sanders, and Brent Hinds, who also provides a little taste of his bluegrass metal guitar. An immense, textural, ominous chorus implores you to “close your eyes, and pretend that everything’s fine”, and a uniquely harmonized Mastodon bridge brings this gem of a track together.
10. Puscifer – Man Overboard
Whereas Puscifer’s first two outings dabbled with humorous subject matter, the art/comedy project fronted by mastermind Maynard James Keenan went a more sinister approach with 2011’s Conditions of my Parole. First single “Man Overboard” starts with a clang-y melody and a haunted murmur, “Blood sky in the mornin’ / Should’ve seen the warnin’.” Quickly a synthesizer pattern and syncopated drums increase the tension dramatically, playing directly to the song’s tension. As the swirling typhoon of a song expands, alarmist catch phrases punctuate the chaos: “All hands on deck” and “Women and children first!” Brace yourself, all is not well, and unless we rally our team, doom might be at hand.
9. PJ Harvey – The Last Living Rose
“God damn Europeans / Take me back to beautiful England,” she begins the second track on her groundbreaking 2011 LP of British ruminations. A rumbling bass creeps into the first few moments, and soon after her first few lines, a simple tambourine-supported drum beat picks you up and carries you off with the sweeping horns that introduce the bridge. It’s a 2:21 song, but it’s so beautiful in its simplicity that it leaves you longing for a few more measures. This song, though beautiful, is full of darkness and fog: “grey damp filthiness of ages,” “battered books,” “graveyards and dead sea captains,” “stinking alleys,” and “drunken beatings” are images that populate this stunner. But her gorgeous voice, sharp and agile as ever, carry an entire record full of disturbing imagery and stark lyricism.
8. Hank III – Ghost to a Ghost
No stranger to the mxdwn top ten songs–“Smoke & Wine” came in at number 7 on our 2006 Song of the Year list—Hank III returns with a decidedly more subdued track. “Ghost to a Ghost,” the title track from one of four releases from III this year, speaks in ominous tones (“On the third day I was dead / Torn apart by Crows / Found the secrets at the bottom / That no one knows”) amidst delicate violin and accordion. True to his pedigree, Hank Williams III has taken country even a step further here, blending just a smidge of metal edge with a dark, Southern-horror vibe. If you listen closely, you can hear none other than Primus’ Les Claypool and Tom Waits adding their own bizarre edge to cement this track as being equally creepy and infectious. It’s a seven-minute meditation on the dark side of life that you’ll find yourself repeating to yourself mere moments later.
7. My Morning Jacket – Holding On to Black Metal
“Oh, Black Metal, you’re so misunderstood,” Jim James sings in a smooth, low falsetto. Where’s the PMRC when you need to prove a point? The loud, often Satantically themed genre that is “Black Metal” does not warp teenagers’ minds. It’s a necessary step in many adolescent boys’ paths to self-discovery, and a stage that should pass. Wrap that message around a brass-blast accented guitar riff that nudges its way into rock and roll consciousness between “Smoke On the Water” and “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid,” and James and My Morning Jacket have an instant classic. Add to that a chorus of female friends-of-the-band singing like schoolboys in The Wall, and “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” is so big that it bears repeat listens to absorb its intensity. While the notion of MMJ writing a song in the style of bands like Venom and Possessed is not outside the realm of possibility, this tune is decidedly not Black Metal itself. It is, however, as sonically powerful and relentless as any song put on tape in the past two decades, and it’s the most memorable track off of 2011’s Circuital.
6. Florence and the Machine – What the Water Gave Me
I had been itching for some new tunes from Florence after Lungs and this was a welcome relief. Florence’s voice is not her usual harp-like self in this track, she explores a deeper darker self and is almost softer than usual. While I can’t deny the lyrics get a little deep and washes over me (pardon the pun), what gets me hooked on this track is how much of a tribal rock anthem this is. When Welch sings “lay me down, let the only sound, be the overflow,” it makes you want to wear that same white frock she has on in the video, sway in some water with a bunch of other hipster rockers and then jump up and down to the finale of this track. Bloody good track!
5. tUnE-yArDs – Bizness
“Bizness” stands apart from other tUnE-yArDs songs mostly due to its catchiness—the cherry on top of Merrill Garbus’s complex arrangement. The song builds piece by piece in an effective progression, from layers of vocal samples to a clickety drum beat, Garbus’s strained vocal delivery, and finally the whole band. Just as the building blocks begin to drop out in the bridge, becoming fewer and farther between, they plummet back together into a final explosion. The song culminates in the layering of several previous melodies over a bottom-dwelling bass line rooted in a minor key. While the harmonies and horn section of “Bizness” imbue it with a celebratory air, the lyrics designate themes of scarring, loss, and a relationship characterized by distance, victimization, and addiction. Garbus’s lyrics are ultimately cryptic though—listeners may ask, in the midst of such a multifarious dance of sounds, what does she mean by “business”?—and the vagueness opens the song to an expansive landscape of interpretation. “Bizness” exceeds expectation while hitting the sweet spot.
4. Foster the People – Pumped Up Kicks
Another killer song for 2011, this unexpected summer smash has made its way up the list with its catchy hook and chorus. Mark Foster has all the hipster kids singing along with its catchy beat, but it takes a few listens to understand what he is singing about in the chorus – “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/ You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun.” I’d initially thought this song was about trendy kids and their “kicks” aka shoes, however after some googling I found out that it was about bullying (“kicks”) and the result of it. A serious topic with a catchy drift – is this subliminal messaging? Who cares! It gets my vote as a great track and lets hope more people are dancing to it then doing any bullying!
3. Lykke Li – Get Some
Swedish songstress Lykke Li did more than avoid a sophomore slump with her album Wounded Rhymes. Instead, she organically grew her international following in part owed to hit lead single “Get Some.” Only peaking at #31 on the US charts, “Get Some” sunk into a wider audience’s subconscious through various TV appearances — 90210, Vampire Diaries — and a seductively infectious rhythm. With a variation on a Bo Diddley beat, the bouncing track rollicks almost sloppily forward with Li’s bored-whisper vocals barely registering the sexual power struggle playing out in the lyrics. Claiming the emotional upper hand, Li declares, “Just like a man / I’m a fortress.” Yet with confident detachment, she also recognizes the decidedly unromantic inevitability of the situation, “Like a shotgun / Needs an outcome / I’m your prostitute / You gon’ get some.”
2. M83 – Midnight City
To put it in simplest terms, this song is awesome. “Midnight City” debuted as the single prior to their 22-song album release and pleased the ears of both new and old M83 fans, especially after producing zero albums in three years. It’s surprising to me this song didn’t make the soundtrack to this year’s Drive, as Anthony Gonzalez wrote the lyrics to “Midnight City” based on his experiences living in Los Angeles (after previously living in France) and driving around California. The song begins with a terribly catchy beat disguised with synthesizers and features a full-bodied song complete with the synth, drums and a saxophone, while Gonzalez’s voice manages to lurk behind all of this while still being able to catch what he’s saying. “Midnight City” will make you move your body and fantasize about living in another place or another time. To me, all positive attributes.
1. St. Vincent – Cruel
St. Vincent’s “Cruel” is a testament to her mastery in melding disparate sonics into one, all-inclusive package. The song opens with a reverberant orchestral section of mysterious harmony and rhythm. It has the unsettling effect of a dream, impossible to place a finger on. Annie Clark disarms with the disturbing undertones of her first lyric, suggesting corporeal exploitation: “Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you.” “Cruel” isn’t, however, a dreary song. The intro materializes into an upbeat body colored with catchy guitar licks, a pseudo-dance beat, and vocal melodies that place Clark as undefeated in the face of cruelty. The distorted guitar tone in the bridge is almost grating, in stark contrast to the lush orchestral textures and sweetness of Clark’s voice. The viability of such contrast can be attributed to the unusual arrangement, which seem to go in several directions, but is in fact one system. When sections repeat, it isn’t without variation. The last verse modifies the chord progression into an ascension that features sparkling xylophone tones and a companion lyric about “waving flares in the air so they could see you.” After capturing attention with such luminosity, Clark returns to the central paradox, framing the repeated lyric, “cruel,” in a shimmering structure. This is an exceptional pop song that could only be written and recorded by a musician who knows her craft and how to innovate within the limits of appeal. Annie Clark employs uncommon strategies, along with her pop sensibility, to catch the ear and communicate startling subject matter.