Best music of 2011
If you dig these songs please consider buying them. Most can be had for less than a buck. They will also be hosted at Pruning Shears until Thursday, so you can try before you buy over there.
Here are my favorite songs this year from my RSS feeds. I use Sharp Reader as my aggregator but it requires the .NET framework, which older computers may not have. Feed Reader doesn’t need it and is good too. See the “Free MP3 sites” part of my blogroll for my current feed list.
Most weeks I burn as many new songs as I can fit onto a rewritable CD and give it a thorough listen (usually five times), so in that spirit I keep the list under the same limit. In a way 80 minutes is arbitrary, but it’s also respectful of listeners to show some restraint. If you fall in love with my taste in music drop me a line and I’ll get you the rest of the songs I considered but didn’t have room for.
On the reckoning of time
I age songs by release date, not recording date. Until I get my grubby little hands on it, it doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned. When it first makes it out to the public it is new, no matter how long it may have been gathering dust somewhere.
In addition to the ones mentioned in the list here are the albums in 2010 I enjoyed front to back:
Astrid Williamson – Pulse. Went for a more electronic sound and still sounded great. I really admire artists like her and White Hinterland that change up their sounds and still keep a high quality.
Hannah Peel – The Broken Wave. A very pretty voice singing somewhat off-kilter (and occasionally disturbing) songs. Contrast is good.
Lupe Fiasco – Friend of the People. Nobody is pairing restless, socially aware lyrics with great beats as well as Lupe Fiasco. Don’t be fooled by the title, “WWJD He’d Prolly LOL Like WTF!!!” is very serious, and maybe the best hook on the album as well. (In other news: The Show Goes On got a great lyrical rework from Angel Haze.)
J Mascis – Several Shades Of Why. Dinosaur Jr. guitarist. I saw this one on several Best Of lists, which was nice. It doesn’t have the edginess that buzz merchants seem to favor, but it’s a really enjoyable collection.
Should O, Devotion! by Liz Green get a US release I’ll recommend that as well. Some have criticized it for the sameness of the sound throughout, but she has an absoluteley mesmerizing voice. She’s also an engaging and entertaining lyricist. It doesn’t have a single “w00t this is awesome!” moment but I listened to it, start to finish, over and over. (Also, sign me up for whatever Kate Jackson ends up putting around these two.)
(2011 Album of the Year) Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine. There already seems to be an emerging “she’s an old soul” meme gathering around her, but I don’t agree with it. She sings of alienation, excess, anger and dysfunction; those all fit very nicely on a young person’s frame, thank you very much. But her hooks are killer and she has a powerhouse voice to help her belt out her tales of woe. That should be enough, right?
I make it a point to listen to unfamiliar artists and to not repeat anyone on the songs list. However, if I really like one I’ll keep checking them out. Here are some folks mentioned in previous years.
Wussy – Strawberry. I actually just bought the album this week; their pre-release sample was great though, so I’m assuming the rest is awesome too. “Muscle Cars” was on my 2009 list.
Circus Devils – Capsized! Robert Pollard’s “Rud Fins” was on my 2007 list. Pollard writes better short songs than just about anyone. On Capsized! “Cyclopean Runways” comes in under 2 minutes and “End of the Swell” under 1(!), and both are great.
Lushlife – No More Golden Days. Cassette City was one of 2009’s recommended albums. He puts together some really nice hooks and I love his delivery.
Hype of the year
I thought it was going to be Elizabeth Harper, aka Class Actress: A fashionable, attractive woman from a hip locale. That usually means a label is desperately trying to distract the audience from the limitations of a marginal talent. The only hitch is that Weekend is a terrific song, one of the final cuts from the list. So she’s earned her hype. Instead I’ll just cut this baby in half, hand one chunk to Lana Del Rey (get over her already, boys) and pre-emptively hand the other to anything written about LCD Soundsystem in 2012.
I usually reserve an Honorable Mention spot for a longer song. Most years there’s at least one 7+ minute song that I like quite a bit, but since I try to get lots of different artists on the list I don’t want a single tune to crowd out several other candidates. When a longer song really blows me away (like “Bushels” by Frog Eyes in 2007) I’ll make room, but overall I prefer to keep my selections under five minutes or so.
“Valerie” – The Donkeys (Buy)
Off of Born With Stripes (recommended). The first Donkeys song I heard was Excelsior Lady a few years ago, and I loved the guitar work on it. There’s much more of that on the new album. “West Coast Raga” includes some really catchy sitar (honest!) and was on some early drafts of the list. But as the year went on and no extra long songs caught my attention I decided to put this one in the slot. It clocks in at a little under 7 minutes, and it has the best guitar solo of the year. It doesn’t dominate the song, either – The Donkeys don’t seem to go for guitar hero pyrotechnics. The solo happens in the context of the song, lasts less than a minute, and is out of this world.
(And yes as proof of concept I burned them on to a CD using Winamp.)
20. “400 Milles” – Les Breastfeeders (Buy)
Wins the 2011 “Louie, Louie” award for Best Garage Band Song.
19. “Nothing Nada Nothing” – Arrica Rose and The dots (Buy)
When I first started thinking about putting this on the list I’d think “is it really one of the best songs of the year?” And I’d listen through the first verse, then into the chorus, yes fine. Then the second verse ends and those horns start and oh my God those horns. Like something out of Common One-era Van Morrison. “Nothing Nada Nothing” is a very, very good song without them, but with them it is one of the year’s best.
18. “Cardiac Arrest” – Teddybears (ft Robyn) (Buy)
It was nice to see Robyn get some love towards the end of the year. I bought her first album when it came out in 1997 because I thought “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love” were absolutely phenomenal pop songs. Not too long after that Britney Spears sucked all the oxygen out of the room. This seemed outrageously unjust to me – I thought Spears was a low powered version of Robyn and couldn’t for the life of me understand how Spears was getting all the attention (then I saw the video for “Hit Me One More Time” and much was explained). Since then Robyn has been recording her own stuff and popping up elsewhere and – what do you know! – wherever she shows up there seems to be terrific music. (I had Rye Rye on last year’s list, and this year Robyn collaborated with her.) I think she’s a terribly underrated artist. “Cardiac Arrest” is just the latest example of many.
17. “Gas Station Roses” – Natalia Zukerman (Buy)
Elevated from the pedestrian “done me wrong” genre because Zukerman’s guitar, lyrics and delivery all make clear that she is as dissolute and unreliable as the object of her complaint. Favorite lyrics in 2011: “Now time’s an asshole / that forgot your birthday.”
16. (2011 Best Vocal) “Country Girls” – Kentucky Parlor Pickers (Free download)
Best vocals not because of technical merit but because of their unvarnished gusto. This singer is selling these vocals, goddammit, and you’re buying.
15. “Body Language” – Ish (Buy)
Biggest mystery in pop music this year: Why was this not #1 across the English speaking world? It’s got everything you could ask for. Everything. How on earth did it remain unknown?
14. “Sooner Or Later” – Joelistics (Buy)
Seems like this year’s best example of successfully incorporating hip hop into pop. Most of the time trying to do that results in a painfully awkward, contrived “here’s where we rap!” bit jammed into the middle of an otherwise un-hip hop song. Here, Joelistics grabs the rhythm and internal rhyming/alliteration but keeps the pop framework. THAT’S how you do it, folks. Also – “Sooner Or Later” does a great job evoking the expat experience. Dig the lyrics.
13. “Drive With Me” – Armen At The Bazaar (Buy)
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” seemed to sour a lot of people on a capella music. (I seem to remember even Bobby McFerrin being turned off it – or at least the song.) That’s a shame, because layered, inventive and unadorned vocals like this deserve an honest listen.
12. “Snapped” – Jhene Aiko (Artist home page)
Aiko could have gone with an unhinged “You Oughta Know” style but instead delivers an emotionless, almost flat, vocal. That actually makes it more powerful.
11. “Spare Change (dirty) feat Rellik, Touch & Leemai” – Plex (Buy)
Every year Brockway Entertainment releases a year-end Canadian Rap Future Superstars compilation, and I’ve downloaded the past couple. Both have been really high quality; it sounds like a lot of work goes into picking songs for them. The 2011 edition placed this one on my list as well as the song at #2, and had two near-misses (“Gets Me High” by Indelible and “Execution” by TRP). It’s still a free download, and I highly recommend the 2012 edition when it goes live.
10. “Further” – Correatown (Buy)
Off of Pleiades (recommended). A beautiful, delicate ballad.
09. “Sound of the Bells” – Jill Andrews (Buy)
Off of The Mirror (recommended). Makes me think of Sarah Siskind’s “Falling Stars” from my 2009 list – a singer in Nashville’s orbit releasing well-crafted, well-produced singer/songwriter pop songs. I hope she doesn’t get pigeonholed as a pure country artist because I think her music has appeal beyond it.
08. “Through The Night” – Ren Harvieu (Artist home page)
She’s getting lots of buzz and as The Line Of Best Fit put it: “Yes, it’s AOR, music your mam would probably like, whatever – there’s a void in the market opened up by Adele’s massive gob and it needs filling.” But it’s also gorgeous and lush, and Harvieu’s longing delivery is compelling. So: AOR, fine; mam would like, fine; it’s also one of the best songs of the year. These things are not mutually exclusive.
07. “Nylons in a Rip” – Nikka Costa (Buy)
Great percussion, great synth, great vocals. An all-around killer pop song.
06. “Raid” – Pusha T (Buy)
Piano/bass, piano/bass, piano/bass. I’m only vaguely aware of anything else happening in “Raid” because as soon as it starts the piano and bass hijack my brain. Best hook of 2011.
05. “You’re Too Weird” – Fruit Bats (Buy)
From Tripper (recommended). I’ve heard that Fruit Bats might be a bit of an acquired taste depending on one’s ability to enjoy male voices in a higher register. (As a Rush fan this has never been an issue with me.) The rule of thumb here is that if you don’t like Supertramp you might want to give this a miss. That said, “You’re So Weird” has a very nice groove, a cool little guitar solo, and 2011’s most memorable fadeout: “I’m the only one who ever believed in you,” repeated into silence.
04. “Perfect Slumber” – Ebba Forsberg (Artist home page)
Forsberg’s vocals are hard to describe. Almost husky, but not. Almost smoky, but not. Viscous. Somewhat incongruously, the speaker-popping bass near the end makes me think of the solo in Free’s Mr. Big. (Paul Rodgers, you sold your soul when you left them.)
03. “Free The Pterodactyl 3” – Hot Club de Paris (Buy)
Actually prompted me to do a quick audit. It’s coming up on five years since I began this little hobby. Since then I’ve listened to over six thousand songs from over five thousand different artists, and I figured out those numbers to give context when I write: This one has the best chorus out of all of them.
02. “Be Who U-R (dirty) feat Miss Tee” – Underground Realroad (Artist home page)
It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
01. (2011 Best Song) “Sounds Like Love” – Charity (Buy)
A song bursting with sweetness and exuberance. My favorite moment: “and we’ll see heaven – all right! – where we are.” Lovely.