The Top Tens, 2011: Top Ten Songs


Again, it’s hard to tell if its just where my sensibilities are at this year or if its the sign of a larger trend, but I feel like guitar driven rock n’ roll is making a comeback amongst music critics and bloggers. There’s been an uncommonly strong slate of rock, psych, punk and metal this year, but my top songs of 2011 also include some folk, pop and synth/electronica.

10. Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”

Yes, it’s the song that launched a thousand memes of Thom Yorke breaking it down, but it’s also the catchiest song off Radiohead’s groovy, jittery album King of Limbs. Like many of Radiohead’s songs over the last few albums, “Lotus Flower” (appropriately to its title) blossoms slowly as it works its way into your subconscious.

9. Girls – “Forgiveness”

Girls’ lead singer and primary song-writer has an almost-too-spot-on ear for warm toned, hippy throwback pop. But with this song off the band’s stellar album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Owens’ embraces his inner David Gilmour – “Forgiveness” begins as a languid acoustic ballad and slowly builds to a towering guitar solo and a huge gospel powered climax.

8. Fucked Up – “I Was There”

For all the blistering guitar work on Fucked Up’s magnum punk opus David Comes to Life, none is more immediate than on “I Was There.” “I Was There” kind of serves as a second-act finale to the album’s ambitious rock-opera narrative. Lead singer Pink Eyes, singing as a character called Vivian who witnessed the death of titular David’s true love, barks his way to his best performance of the album. But the real stars here are the band’s three guitarists (10,000 Marbles, Gulag and Young Governor), whose swirling riffs give way to a shattering guitar solo.

7. Bon Iver – “Holocene”

Bon Iver’s self-titled second album is full of left-turns (how about that Peter Gabriel channeling album closer “Beth/Rest”?) but it’s the song that sounds like it could most comfortably rest on songwriter Justin Vernon’s debut record For Emma Forever Ago that turns out to be this record’s most indelible. Though the lyrics are pure refrigerator magnet poetry, Vernon’s soulful delivery lends a degree of strong, if abstract, emotion. And his expert band’s handling of the song’s gorgeous arrangement, with its delicate acoustic guitar plucking slowly building to full-blooded, horn-enhanced finale, conjures familiar, Emma-esque wintry landscapes that are somehow warmer and more comforting.

6. White Denim – “Burnished”/”At The Farm”

Though oddly separated on White Denim’s teriffic album D, “Burnished” and “At The Farm” clearly play as one song, and hence I’ll treat them as such. “Burnished” launches directly into a proggy, technically complex groove that’s nonetheless completely accessible and head-noddingly catchy. Guitarists James Petralli and Austin Jenkins trade some jammy riffs before the band heads into “At The Farm,” an acrobatic, Allman Brothers meets King Crimson four-minute instrumental breakdown. I can only imagine how incredibly difficult this off-meter, jazzy tune is to play, and it’s remarkable how effortless and fun White Denim makes it seem.

5. Austra – “The Beast”

Most of Austra’s debut album Feel It Break finds singer Katie Stelmanis’ operatic voice in service of catchy but unremarkable disco-pop songs. But the album’s final tune, “The Beast,” consists solely of Stelmanis’ voice, strings and a darkly twinking piano, and it’s absolutely spine tingling. Lyrically the song tips its hat to the classic “Beauty and the Beast” narrative (told from the p.o.v. of The Beast, of course) and the track is so evocative of spooky woods and towering corridors that it would be the perfect companion for Jaques Cocteu’s silent black and white film version of the tale.

4. Thee oh Sees – “The Dream”

Prolific San Fransisco psych-jammers Thee Oh Sees released so much material this year it’s almost hard to keep track. Their 2011 highlight, though, is definitely “The Dream,” a cracked out surf-rock shit kicker off Carrion Crawler/The Dream. Led by a relentlessly catchy bass-line (played on a detuned guitar, I think), “The Dream” comes at you in waves – there’s mellow-ish choruses that inevitably lead to more and more echoey wails and batshit guitar solos, cresting in a monster jam around the six minute mark. The song then grooves its way to one last chorus and, most likely, the repeat button on your Ipod.

3. M83 – “Midnight City”

Up until this point, I had been largely unimpressed with M83’s Anthony Gonzolez transition from one-man electronic epic factory to front man of a John Hughes soundtrack reinterpretation band. The band’s gauzy Saturdays = Youth felt forced to me, but if it was a necessary step towards Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – especially the soaring album highlight “Midnight City” – then I’m willing to accept it. Buoyed by mastermind Gonzolez’ increasingly confident vocals, this neon lit alchemy of synthesizers, electronic beats and one very real saxophone solo should have been the song that accompanied Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver in Drive.

2. Tune-Yards – “Bizness”

Tune-Yards had a breakout year with Whokill, the album that finally brought the right musical accompaniment to Merrill Garbus’ unique voice and sensibility. Though the record is full of great songs, “Bizness” is the most outsized success because it most successfully fuses Garbus’ subversive lyrical content and absurdly catchy, click-clacky Afro-beat inspired rhythms. With a huge assist from bassist Nick Bremmer, somehow the band turns Garbus’ sarcastic ode to powerlessness (sample lyric: “I’m a victim, yeah!/don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away”) into a Talking Heads-like dance party.

1. Wilco – “Art of Almost”

So, these days it seems that everyone knows that Wilco is one of the best live bands in the world (if this isn’t you, please check out their live recordings). It also had become common knowledge that, in spite of the ferocity of their concerts, their albums had been veering dangerously close to Dad-rock. And while new album The Whole Love is a great step back in the right direction and the strongest album the band has released since A Ghost is Born, much of it continues in that mellow vein. Not true of opening track “Art of Almost,” perhaps the first studio track that equals the band’s tectonic live show. Here’s a song that represents everything good about Wilco – it starts with Jeff Tweedy’s trembling voice and Radiohead-ish electronic beats and string swells; then comes John Stirratt’s rolling bass-line and Glenn Kotche’s tick-tock drums; then the thunder comes with guitar-hero Nels Cline peeling off a face-melter over the last three minutes of the track. I’ve yet to see this song live (I’m sure it destroys) but, exceptionally, the album version is more than good enough for now.

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