My Favorite Songs of 2011

Fifteen songs (plus ten honorable mentions) that stood out from the rest in 2011.
Midnight City M83
Still from M83’s video for Midnight City

In years past, I’ve always waited until after January 1 to post any year-end lists: it only made sense to me to post retrospective articles after the year in question was, you know, over. 2011 is a little different. My third child could come any day now. Therefore, I’m posting my year-end list before the “new baby” craziness begins (and blogging time becomes limited).

Simply put, all of these songs have stood the test of time, and have made 2011 more enjoyable, interesting, and exciting.

“Midnight City” by M83

M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was one of the year’s biggest albums, with nary a single ounce of subtlety anywhere in its two discs. Therein was much of the charm, as Anthony Gonzalez wore his heart on his sleeve and delivered one song after another that was crammed full of epic music that was equal parts 80’s nostalgia, shoegazer, and electronica. “Midnight City,” the album’s first single, perfectly encapsulates the album’s scope with its stadium-sized synthgazer rock. Oh, and that blazing sax solo that closes out the song? Easily my favorite single musical moment of 2011.

“Viljan” by Det Vackra Livet

Given my love for The Mary Onettes, and the fact that Det Vackra Livet is a Mary Onettes side project, its presence on this list shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Viljan” is as much a love letter to all that was good and golden about ’80s pop as anything The Mary Onettes have recorded, which means that it’s just a great pop song any way you look at it. And the thought that the duo are singing lyrics based on their grandmother’s memoirs makes it all the more endearing.

“Get Away” by Yuck

In music, everything that is old becomes new again. And in Yuck’s case, it’s the feedback-laden, distortion-heavy sounds of early ’90s alternative/college rock. Basically, with its frayed guitars, ultra-catchy melodies, and listless vocals (courtesy of Daniel Blumberg), “Get Away” reminds me of everything I enjoyed about Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Swervedriver, et al., back in college. Somewhere, J Mascis probably has a huge grin on his face.

“Still Sound” by Toro Y Moi

Every year it seems, there’s an album whose initial singles are so great, but yet it can’t ultimately deliver on them. Last year, it was Before Today by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. This year, it was Toro y Moi’s Underneath the Pine. Even so, I can’t deny that “Still Sound” is a fantastic pop song that skirts along the edges of chillwave but remains eminently funky thanks to that stepping bassline and some slinky synth-work. Methinks that if the Jackson 5 were suddently brought forward in time and given access to laptops and drum machines, they’d sound a little like this.

“I Want (You So Bad)” by Clive Tanaka Y Su Orquesta

Playing like a perfect blend of The Avalanches’ sample-delic pastiche and Daft Punk’s funky, vocoder-ized robot rock, “I Want (You So Bad)” is easily one of the year’s best dance songs for me. I can’t tell you how many times I went to town on some HTML/CSS/JavaScript/PHP with this song pumping in my headphones. What I enjoy so much about it is its sense of ebb and flow, how it moves from floor-thumping rhythms to spacey synth crescendos without nary a stumble.

“Beach Song” by Seryn

As an album, Seryn’s This Is Where We Are constantly swings for the fences with its huge arrangements and soaring vocal harmonies. But as “Beach Song” reveals, the band never loses sight of the tiny details, and those are what ultimately make the album. Here, a sprightly little banjo melody turns out to be the song’s driving force, anchoring the crashing drums and towering harmonies in a truly delightful way. It’s a wonderful example of balance and elegance, and it makes the band’s music all the more delightful.

“Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell” by Josh T. Pearson

At times, “Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell” is so over-the-top in its maudlin retelling of a relationship gone bad, and its lyrics this close to deadpan, that the song borders on self-parody. But then you hear Pearson gasp “Honestly, why can’t you just let it be and let me quietly drink myself to sleep/Honestly, it’s not what it appears to be, but only memories that ain’t got shit to do with you” backed by Warren Ellis’ mournful violin — and you either want to see about getting Pearson some professional help or you want to find the nearest whiskey bottle and do some moping of your own.

“Slouching Toward Reality” by Carlos Forster

I was a huge fan of the indie-pop outfit For Stars back in the day, so when I heard that For Stars frontman Carlos Forster would be releasing a solo album in 2011, I was pretty excited. It had been years since the last For Stars Release, but as soon as I began listening to Family Trees, time just seemed to melt away. “Slouching Toward Reality” is a perfect showcase for Forster’s talents: a golden voice that drips with heartache, poignant lyrics, and simple-yet-elegant arrangements. These all make for one of the year’s subtlest songs, and also one of its most quietly devastating.

“Tonari No Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)” by Imaginary Flying Machines

I’m hard-pressed to think of an album that I truly enjoyed more this year than Princess Ghibli, a collection of Studio Ghibli songs covered by metal bands. Yes, it’s gimmicky as all get-out, but the gimmick is so over-the-top that I’m grinning ear-to-ear with every listen. The thought of a band decked out in leather, chains, spikes, and corpse paint covering the theme of My Neighbor Totoro — one of the most beloved family films ever — with blast beats, shredding guitar riffs, and guttural screams aplenty, fills me with an almost absurd amount of delight.

“Corner of the Sky” by Cut Copy

Perhaps I should have written more about Cut Copy’s Zonoscope than I did. Part of the issue was that my initial listens left me underwhelmed. I missed the dancier style of their earlier releases (esp. In Ghost Colours) and the new album’s almost blatant Velvet Underground and Men At Work(!) “references” left me underwhelmed. But the album slowly worked its magic on me. Not completely, perhaps, but enough that a song like “Corner Of The Sky” has stuck with me over the months. The song resembles In Ghost Colours’ material, with its propulsive rhythms and whatnot, but it feels more refined and epic.

“Secret Name” by Jay Tholen

Jay Tholen’s music is a blend of chiptune, pop, progressive, and psychedelic music that’s full of infectious hooks and bleepy-bloopy sounds — and it’s blatantly Christian, to boot. There’s an immense charm to Tholen’s music, from his retro sounds to the ultra-sincere, off-kilter way he sings essentially praise and worship songs. Case in point: His cover of “Secret Name,” which transforms Dan Zimmerman’s soulful musings on Revelation 2:17 into a kaleidoscope of squiggly synths, hip-hop beats, and psych-y reggae atmospherics. Releasing music at a feverish pace in 2011, Tholen earned a place in my pantheon of favorite Christian fringe acts alongside the likes of Joy Electric, Danielson Famile, and Soul-Junk.

“The Village is Asleep” by Epic45

Ben Holton and Rob Glover have been pursuing a singular sound for the last fourteen years: a pastoral sound drenched in nostalgia and longing for other, more innocent times and places. Evoking shades of Talk Talk and Hood, Epic45 has emerged as one of the premier “nostalgist” acts in recent years. Their latest album, Weathering, is an ode to the fading rural English countryside, and “The Village is Asleep” is its finest moment. Indeed, one could argue that the song’s final two minutes represents the culmination of everything the duo have been striving towards, musically and aesthetically, for more than a decade.

“Snowed in at Wheeler Street” by Kate Bush

When I read that Elton John would be appearing on Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow, I dismissed it as typical Kate Bush whimsy and wackiness. And maybe it was, but the extraordinary result of that collaboration is the icy-yet-intimate “Snowed in at Wheeler Street.” Here, the duo play lovers chasing each other across time, only meeting at moments of tragedy (the burning of Rome, World War II-era London, New York on September 11) before drifting apart once more. Desperate to remain together yet torn apart by history, the duo’s plight reaches a frantic pitch enhanced by pulsing synths and graceful, reflective piano. When Elton John cries out “I don’t want to lose you again” in desperation, it hits like an emotional avalanche.

“Bed of Nails” by Wild Beasts

Wild Beasts’ Smother is full of stories of desire and longing, some of it carnal and some of it existential. On “Bed Of Nails,” Hayden Thorpe sings of commitment and pleasure using imagery that’s by turns vivid, whimsical, and erotic (e.g., “Surround me like a warm bath/Sum me up like an epitaph/Be blatant as a bailiff/I want my lips to blister when we kiss”). Underscoring his tale of unchecked — for better or worse — passion is an awesome balancing act between the band’s impeccable atmospherics and their ability to craft an irresistible groove.

“MindKilla” by Gang Gang Dance

Along with the aforementioned “Midnight City,” “MindKilla” was my favorite song of 2011. Its hypnotic blend of Lizzi Bougatsos’ warbling vocals and nonsensical lyrics, pounding acid-house rhythms, and ghostly guitar textures à la Pornography-era Cure should unravel at any moment, but it never does. Instead, it just keeps growing increasingly manic and unhinged, making it a thrilling song to listen to time after time.

Honorable Mentions

1. “Slo Glo” by HTRK
HTRK’s music is obscured by miasma and darkness, and yet it’s also alluring and sensual… in a foreboding, tragic sort of way. (Listen here)

2. “Lost In Waves Of Light” by Antonyme
Gorgeous and moving, a perfect blend of modern classical and ambient electronica. (Download here)

3. “New Beginning (Tidal Darkness)” by Deaf Center
An elegant, pitch-perfect balance of light and dark, beauty and tension, and some of the best dark ambient music I’ve heard in a long time. (My review of Owl Splinters, Listen here)

4. “Camaraderie At Arms Length” by The Caretaker
The Caretaker’s formula (subtly twisting vintage ballroom/jazz records with glitch and noise) seems simple enough. And then you hear it, and it begins to haunt you. (Listen here)

5. “Gallery” by A Second Of June
Beautifully world-weary post-punk from this French outfit. (Listen here)

6. “Amethyst” by French Curves
Yes, they owe a lot of their sound to Boards of Canada. But when the song really gets going, any simple comparisons just fall by the wayside. (Listen here)

7. “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes
I was underwhelmed by Fleet Foxes’ new album with the sole exception of this song, a lovely number that espouses the virtues of a quiet, more selfless and contemplative life. (Listen here)

8. “Montana” by Youth Lagoon
Much of my affection for this song was due to its haunting video, but the song is certainly lovely in its own right.

9. “You And I” by Washed Out
The only chillwave song that I needed to hear this year… or any year, for that matter. (Listen here)

10. “Pure Wet” by Jensen Sportag
I read somewhere that Junior Boys released a new album in 2011, but I was too busy grooving to “Pure Wet” to notice. (Listen here)

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