Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #1: "Helplessness Blues" -- Fleet Foxes

The best song of 2011 came to us relatively early in the year, when 2010 was still fresh in our minds. There was still quite a bit of music to be released, including the album on which it was released. Hell, many of us even had the silly notion that despite the fact that the year as a whole had been a bit of a letdown, we might still pull through. Score one for optimism, right? Haha, yeah. About that.

But Robin Pecknold has a strange way of keeping one hopeful, despite what has occurred and what is yet to happen. How this occurs is anyone's guess, be it the good vibes his band emits or the generally upbeat music they create. But somehow, no matter how bad it got in 2011, we always had Fleet Foxes.

"Helplessness Blues," from the album of the same name, begins with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar. Pecknold, his voice by now unmistakable after the runaway success of his band's debut record, sings of the uniqueness he was told he possessed as a youngster, before releasing that perhaps it is best to become a part of "some great machinery, serving something beyond me."

Fleet Foxes set the bar high for their second record, and "Helplessness Blues" far surpasses it. The song soon balloons into a more plugged-in affair, with drums and electric guitar complementing the sudden slash in tempo.

"What good is it to sing helplessness blues?" Pecknold asks, holding up the inherent optimism of the song. In an age where no one really knows where we're heading, Pecknold remains hopeful, and knows that doing otherwise will bring no good tidings. It's a lesson from which we can learn -- instead of pessimism reigning in our lives, why not have a healthier outlook on life? What good is it to live otherwise?

With beautiful harmonizing and instrumentation, Fleet Foxes created a song that may just define the decade with its message. It's tough to say where we're going, but perhaps if all of us had an orchard or two in our lives, we'd be a little happier.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #2: "Midnight City" -- M83

2011's best electronic fare came from a French artist that isn't Daft Punk or Justice. Who'd've thunk it?!

M83, a.k.a. Anthony Gonzalez and a score of backing musicians, released Hurry Up, We're Dreaming in the final quarter of 2011, a double album of epic proportions. Gonzalez utilized big guitars to go with his skyscraper synths, creating some of the loudest and most epic music to hit the airwaves this year.

"Midnight City" features a bouncing synth that sounds like a strange mutated scream at its onset, which keeps appearing time after time whenever the song needs extra 'oomph.' To this day, I'm still not sure quite exactly what M83's doing there, but its addition to the wall of sound the band creates drives the song over the edge.

Featuring monolithic synths and drums, "Midnight City" is every bit as huge as any other song released this year, especially in the electronic genre. The song quiets slightly when Gonzalez's vocals come in, but there's always the grandiosity lurking. The album as a whole was called one of the biggest of the genre in a while, and it's easy to see with "Midnight City." This is electropop on possibly its grandest scale yet.

And again, Year of the Sax alert! "Midnight City" features a jazzy sax solo toward its end, rising above the cacophony of electronic sounds. Its addition only furthers the strangely '80s vibe the song emits.

Do yourself a favor and listen to this entire album -- yes, the whole thing! It's a double album, but one of the most brilliantly conceived of its kind. "Midnight City" is only the beginning of this incredibly grandiose electronic opus.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #3: "Someone Like You" -- Adele

As this is a countdown that features a mere song per artist (with a few technical exceptions), it was tough to choose one song from Adele's miraculously great 21 that stood out above the rest.

In fact, when I was creating this list, I decided that no matter which of the two songs I was considering ended up being on the list, the order of the countdown altogether would not change. "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You" are both better than any other song I've mentioned thus far, but I don't find either of them to be of a higher quality than my top two. I hope that puts into words how much I love both of these songs.

In the end, I had to go with "Someone Like You." Weepy? Yes. But my god, can this woman write a breakup song. Well, soooort of a breakup song. I suppose the breakup's already technically happened, but this is the final separation, so to speak.

It's a song many can relate to. Adele's been separated from this lover for quite some time, but still harbors feelings for the object of her affection. But we are led to believe that it's been years since the fling, as said object has settled down, found a girl and is married. While that in particular may not have happened to all of us, I'm sure many can relate to the concept of rediscovering a lover for whom one still has feelings, only to find that they're quite happy without them and have moved on.

That said, unlike "Rolling in the Deep," this is not a song of anger. Adele only wishes "the best" for her former lover, claiming that she'll find someone like him one day. It's a refreshing spin on the subject matter, as many instances find the artist decrying the object of affection and denouncing him/her instead of wishing good tidings for them.

Adele crossed a lot of boundaries in 2011, and this is the song that solidified her as more than a one-hit shocker in America. Her brand of pop inexplicably caught on in America this year (not that I'm complaining!), and with "Someone Like You," she was vaulted to star status with one of the best ballads of the young decade.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #4: "Losers" -- The Belle Brigade

If you're looking for the underdog song of the year, this is your jam.

The Belle Brigade appeared on the scene this year with their self-titled debut. The duo, consisting of the Gruska siblings Barbara and Ethan, flew under the radar for the most part, but were still acclaimed critically by those that happened to come across their music.

The album itself was a wonderful 2010s take on '60s folk rock tunes -- understandable, given that the band has named Paul Simon's solo work as one of their biggest influences. In particular, "Losers" invokes the harmonizing of Simon & Garfunkel, with an updated folk rock sensibility for the times.

"Losers" is defiant, a harmony-laden song that takes a stand against the social mores of our generation -- or really, any generation... the song is fairly ambiguous when it comes to its timeframe. "There will always be someone better than you," they sing at first, changing later to "There will always be someone worse than you." "Don't care about being a winner," they sing, before laying out the list other things they simply don't care about being.

Possibly the most telling lyric of the song -- "I'm removing myself from the queue," they sing. The song is all about going against society's constructs, even if it means being called a 'loser.' In terms of messages, it's one of the best of the year, and the catchy melodies certainly don't hurt.

It's inspiring and timeless, a song which rises and rises to its inevitable climax, with howling vocals from the Gruska siblings. "Losers" was among the best indie rock had to offer this year, a telling prelude to a duo who will hopefully be around for quite some time.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #5: "The Edge of Glory" -- Lady Gaga

Many found Lady Gaga's Born This Way to be overly preachy, overproduced and a significant departure from her early material -- too significant, in fact, that some jumped the ship of Gaga around the release of the album's eponymous first single.

On the other hand, if you were me, you loved the new direction Gaga took, and didn't mind the craze that hit around February one bit. As a cohesive album, Born This Way is one of the best records to come from the new electronic music craze, and it's nice to see an artist that believes that pop music can resonate and make a statement in an age where the concept is increasingly rare.

Some might argue that "Born This Way" ended up the biggest single from the record, given its huge impact on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release. However, while I am a big fan of that song (potential Madonna knockoff? Who cares, it's catchy as fuuuuck), I argue for "The Edge of Glory," which didn't hit No. 1 but maintained its allure for months into summer.

The electro rock production from Fernando Garibay cannot be understated. Gaga's contribution is, of course, highly important to its success, but the pounding techno of the song makes it one of the best pop songs the genre has recently produced.

Gaga's edge-of-the-world vocal is one of her best to date. The song is already huge, and on the chorus, she rises to the occasion and then some, with a magnificent vocal run that furthered its grandiosity.

The late Clarence Clemons makes an appearance, too -- on the song's bridge, with a larger-than-life saxophone solo. Speaking of which -- 2011: Year of the Sax, yes? Of course. This song, "Last Friday Night," "Mr. Saxobeat," "Something to Believe In," "Midnight City"... what on earth was everyone's infatuation with the instrument this year? Me, I'm still waiting on the accordion resurgence. "Stereo Love" got us started, let's get this shit going.

Even the title of the song suggests an epic soundscape, and that's exactly what Gaga pulls off with "The Edge of Glory." A few of her singles may not have performed up to the ridiculously high standards of many, but looking back on the 2010s, it will be hard to avoid talking about this song as one of its best.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #6: "Yonkers" -- Tyler, the Creator

2011 was the year of Odd Future, and Tyler, the Creator, the collective's ringleader, led the way. The center of attention in almost every respect, the 20-year-old rapper released Goblin, which garnered him praise from a number of publications and a Best New Artist award at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards.

I think something we can all agree on when it comes to Tyler is that, as he says himself on "Goblin," he's "not that great a rapper." No one's falling head over heels for Tyler's flow or rapping skills. So, what's the allure? Why was Goblin arguably the most talked-about rap record of 2011, and maybe even the biggest had it not been for Watch the Throne?

Part of it has to be the DIY nature of Tyler's music, itself seemingly a backlash to the sleek, polished nature of modern rap. For those disillusioned with the direction of the genre, this can only be a breath of fresh air. Don't count out the rawness of the music, either -- and not just in terms of his vocal. There's an edge to the music that most mainstream rappers today wouldn't even dare to gravitate toward.

"Yonkers" was the song that propelled Tyler into the stratosphere, and should have scared every living rapper out there -- except, perhaps, for artists like Jay-Z and Kanye, whose appeal is all-but-solidified no matter what at this point. This was not only a backlash to overproduced rap, it was a full-frontal assault.

Tyler's always been under scrutiny for his misogynistic, sometimes overly-vulgar lyrical content, which targets basically anyone and everyone, and at times features lyrics that can be construed as insensitive toward the homosexual community. With "Yonkers," his lyrics aren't exactly as controversial as some of his other tracks, but it's still a shock to anyone who's hearing his music for the first time.

In keeping with the theme of Goblin, during which Tyler talks to his therapist about his problems and life, "Yonkers" is introspective, but also a song about the abandon he experiences in New York City. And while Tyler disputes the fact some call his music horrorcore, tell me that backbeat under his rap doesn't creep you the fuck out.

2012 will be an interesting time for Odd Future, as it's still to be seen whether the collective will actually remain relevant or if they're a passing fad. Frank Ocean seems to have something to say about this and may end up the more relevant in the long run, but for now, Tyler, the Creator is one of the biggest new rappers in the game, as well as one of its most provocative figures. What will he do next? It's rumored Wolf, his follow-up, comes out in 2012.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #7: "Lonely Boy" -- The Black Keys

We got a taste of Danger Mouse-produced Black Keys last year with Brothers lead single "Tighten Up," which found the band sounding its most polished yet, for better or for worse. With 2011's El Camino, the producer stepped into the mixing booth for the duration of the record -- and again, for better or for worse. While some found the band's progression to be altogether appealing and the sign of a band coming into its own as an act, others pined for the straightforward blues rock of the band's earlier releases.

"Lonely Boy," the first song released from the new record, is interesting in that it's possibly the least retro song the band has released. And that's saying a lot, because if this were most other artists, we'd be considering this a throwback affair. But with "Lonely Boy" in the Black Keys' case, the band is sounding its most with-the-times.

Make no mistake, though -- this is not necessarily a bad thing. Whatever one's opinions on the new record, it's difficult to deny the allure of "Lonely Boy." It begins with one of 2011's best riffs -- a garage-y lick, the bottom of which drops out almost instantaneously before it rises again, without warning. Pat Carney's drumming is a good time here, too -- very rarely these days (or ever, really) do we find a drummer that keeps time basically only with the snare and bass (sans cymbal), but that's exactly what he does on the verse. What results is a clattering rhythm that runs wild beneath Dan Auerbach's polished riffing.

"I've got a love that keeps me waiting," sings Auerbach on the chorus, joined by a smattering of backing vocalists. It's tough not to pay attention to him -- besides the clever lyrical content, the chorus is one of the catchiest you'll find in rock all year.

"Lonely Boy" proved to mainstream artists what seasoned veteran fans of the band have known for quite some time -- that The Black Keys are no fluke band trapped in olden times. Instead, their status as one of the biggest American rock bands of the day was cemented.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #8: "All of the Lights" -- Kanye West feat. ALL THE PEOPLE

No, that headline's not exactly that false... this song pretty much has everyone in it. Or, at least, a lot. Too many? Maybe. Eh, whatever.

I'm also aware that the song technically was released in 2010. That said, "All of the Lights" found its largest audience in 2011, so I feel compelled to include it.

Kanye's criminally-underrepresented-at-the-GRAMMYs My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is still talked about to this day as one of the biggest rap releases in a while, and its status as a critically-acclaimed piece of work only helps it along.

One of West's biggest strengths has been his ability to create beats and rhythms that are more than the simplistic drum loops and chords that many hip-hop artists resort to. "All of the Lights" is one of the best examples of this trend yet.

Featuring a majestic choir of horns and driving drums, the song features a plethora of different artists in addition to Kanye. 14 guest vocalists in all. Can you imagine the money spent on this song?

Luckily, things don't get too crowded -- probably due to the fact that only a few of the artists actually have individual parts. Rihanna is featured on the song's chorus, Kid Cudi on his own verse about halfway through, Fergie following Cudi. Elton John, of all people, features on the song's chorus toward its end, and Alicia Keys adds a few well-placed 'oh's.

In addition, Drake, Charlie Wilson, Ryan Leslie, John Legend, The-Dream, Tony Williams, Elly Jackson, Alvin Fields and Ken Lewis provide backing vocals. Damn. Daaaaaaayum.

It's incredibly over-the-top and excessive, but that's become something to be expected from West. And as the end result is beautifully conceived and features some of the top rhymes in rap from the past two years, I think we can give Kanye this.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #9: "Down in the Valley" -- The Head and the Heart

I firmly believe 2011 was a fantastic year for folk music -- as has been the last two years. One of the resurgence's biggest benefactors so far is Seattle's The Head and the Heart, who makes delightful indie-folk with a slight pop element.

The band opened for The Decemberists in 2011 and scored a hit single in the form of "Lost in My Mind." However it is "Down in the Valley," perhaps the band's most outdoorsy song, that rises above the rest.

With "Down in the Valley," we are introduced to Johnathan Russell's totally-suited-for-folk voice, slightly raspy but totally deserving of the throngs of indie-inclined fans he's sure to garner due to it. As evidenced throughout the song, harmonies are a big part of the band's success, and other members of the six-piece are able to hold their own against Russell's tenor -- including Josiah Johnson, who trades off on lead vocals with Russell.

Lyrically, the song brings to mind a roving fellow whose travels have led him afar -- but in the end, he always comes back to the valley that he calls home. "Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways," Russell sings, the tagline that I'm sure now adorns a thousand Tumblrs everywhere.

Along with warm folk instrumentation, the vocals on "Down in the Valley" create a sound that many will find appealing in this new age of folk music, provided by one of the rising stars of the genre.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #10: "No Light, No Light" -- Florence + the Machine

After Florence Welch and her lovely machine released Ceremonials lead single "Shake It Out," it wouldn't exactly have been an unsound assumption to make if one said that the singer had spent all her grandiosity on that one song. It was huge, with resonating choirs and a commanding vocal performance from Welch herself.

And then, we got "No Light, No Light."

Florence's newest single features a plethora of backing vocalists and orchestral backing, including a harp, and bombastic percussion. All this combines to create one of the most dramatic and altogether epic performances of 2011.

Welch has always had a penchant for going all-out, but this is ridiculous -- and I mean that in the best way possible. Secondary vocalists and organ give the song a church-like hymnal feel from its onset, and things can only go up from there. The tense drama of the song only rises with each second, the emotion in Welch's voice becoming more and more desperate.

"Heaven help me, I need to make it right," she sings, invoking the religious imagery ever-present in the song's music video.

One of the few times I truly got chills listening to music this year comes toward the song's end, when all other instruments cut out save for Welch's voice, following with the re-addition of bass and drums. It's one of the most powerful instances captured on record this year.

Florence + the Machine may forever be known in America for "Dog Days Are Over" and nothing more, but if there's any justice in this world, "No Light, No Light" will break out big as well. After Adele paved the way for grandiosity in pop music once more, the time is ripe for Florence to take her spot at the top, and this is the song with which to do just that.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #11: "June Hymn" -- The Decemberists

Sometimes, your favorite band releases an album that is steeped in the music you've grown to love since starting college. And when that happens, you're powerless to resist.

That's exactly what happened with The Decemberists and I in 2011. After the overblown prog rock of The Hazards of Love, the Portlanders toned it down with The King is Dead, a straightforward country-folk romp that ended up their most accessible record yet. Part '80s R.E.M., part Harvest-era Neil Young, The Decemberists created a record that will, along with Southeast Engine's Canary, always remind me of college and Appalachia as a whole.

The band stripped down to very minimal instrumentation on the two "Hymn" songs of the record -- "January Hymn" and "June Hymn." The former finds frontman Colin Meloy singing of clearing away the snow in the dead of winter. The latter, set on a sunny summer day, is among the prettiest the band has recorded.

Armed with a harmonica and his acoustic, Meloy is backed by Jenny Conlee's wafting accordion and Chris Funk's sparse guitar on the chorus, while Gillian Welch provides singsong harmonies. It's a rustic affair, with the band at its best when they're as pastoral as possible.

All this comes to greatest effect on the song's bridge, at which Meloy's and Welch's voices blend to create some of the sweetest-sounding harmonies created in 2011. Meloy launches into a harmonica solo after, poignant and emotional as ever before.

The Decemberists' music has always had its pretty moments, but it's hard to top the harmonies Meloy and Welch provide. And against the rustic background the rest of the band provides, "June Hymn" becomes one of the most hopeful songs about the summer months. "And years from now / When this old light isn't ambling anymore / Will I bring myself to write / 'I give my best to Springville Hill,'" sings Meloy, painting a vivid portrait of pastoral summer we won't soon forget.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #12: "Get Away" -- Yuck

Dear Yuck: You're about 20 years late, but seriously, thanks for coming out anyway.

The young Londoners released their self-titled debut in February, and were immediately compared to the likes of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and more. And it's easy to see why -- beside the catchy guitar licks, the distortion here is astounding -- especially on "Get Away," my personal favorite from the album.

It's as though the band wanted to sound as authentic as possible -- and if that's the case, it worked. The sound of music is steeped in '90s grunge, so much so that it sounds as though the song could have been released in 1991 rather than 2011.

The fuzzed-out tune also features one of the biggest earworm choruses of the year, one that rises over Mascis-esque guitar that squeals beneath vocalist Daniel Blumberg.

As far as retro goes (what?! we're actually calling the '90s retro now?!), this one took the cake this year. Welcome back, grunge. We missed you.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #13: "Sail" -- AWOLNATION

When Under the Influence of Giants frontman Aaron Bruno resurfaced in 2011 as AWOLNATION, most didn't bat an eye. His band had never captured the success many had predicted it to, with "In the Clouds" being their only, albeit modest, hit.

But many, including more than a few on pop radio, were forced to listen when the anthemic "Sail" marched onto radio. A departure from his earlier, poppier material, "Sail" is rough around the edges, with Bruno's voice cracking more than a few times in his higher register.

Dreamy synths punctuate much rougher, bass-ier electronics that lie beneath. In fact, the song itself is kind of like a dream, with an ever-present nightmare looming. It's sometimes sweet, but there's an inherent darker side that comes out at times with Bruno's vocal.

Electronic-based music may have never been this harsh in 2011. The juxtapositions within "Sail" made for an incredibly popular alt-rock track, one that is still sticking around on the charts to this day. With "Sail," Aaron Bruno finally had his taste of mainstream popularity -- and all he had to do was stretch his voice a little.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #14: "Civilian" -- Wye Oak

Baltimore duo Wye Oak had their best year yet in 2011, capped off with the release of new record Civilian on Merge Records. The band also opened for The Decemberists at the beginning of the band's North American tour (side note: SUPERB sets at the Beacon Theatre in New York as part of that tour), and played an acclaimed set at this year's Sasquatch Music Festival.

The song "Civilian," which was featured in a promo for The Walking Dead's season two premiere, is the duo's best to date. "I am nothing without pretend," sings Jenn Wasner to begin the song, as the sounds of percussion and ambient guitar fill the air behind her.

The guitar lick Wasner provides is intriguing, to say the least (and I say the least mainly because I don't really know what else to say). It's not especially catchy, but I couldn't stop listening to the song at first simply because of Wasner's guitar parts. It's quite unlike most other guitar sounds in rock this year.

"Civilian" eventually launches into a much louder segment, in which drummer Andy Stack provides train-clatter drum hits, all the while playing the keyboard part underneath it all (seriously, this guy plays so many different instruments even live, it's astounding). Soon after, we have a solo from Wasner, who distorts the thing to Kingdom come.

It's one of the moodiest, backwoods songs of 2011, and establishes Wye Oak as a force to be reckoned with in the future. While the rest of Civilian didn't match the highs its title track experienced, it showed us the genius Wye Oak can provide, even as a mere duo. That's a lot of sound coming from just two people.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #15: "November" -- The Wilderness of Manitoba

Canadian folk act The Wilderness of Manitoba remains, as they were at the beginning of 2011, one of the genre's best-kept secrets. A younger brother of Fleet Foxes with poppier sensibilities, the band finally came to America this year with the release of debut record When You Left the Fire, which came out a year earlier in native Canada.

Throughout the record, the subtle sound of a furnace can be heard crackling beneath the music -- a nice touch, considering that many might call some of the songs "fireplace worthy"... that is, the kind of song one would want to hear sitting around a campfire or fireplace, especially in acoustic form.

One of The Wilderness's best is "November," a song frontman Will Whitwham wrote while traversing the Trans-Siberian Railway in Asia. It's a song of solitary longing, complemented by ear-pleasing four-part harmonies. Acoustic instrumentation presides, with different instruments taking a turn depending on the version to which one is listening. The recorded version features a wailing slide guitar, while others more prominently feature the banjo.

"November" exemplifies The Wilderness of Manitoba at their acme. They're a band that can pull off some beautiful harmonies, catchy melodies and warm instrumentation. They're one of the rising acts in folk today -- especially within the smaller subdivision of chamber folk. Again, it's a record that slipped under many's radars, but is a must-listen for any self-described folk music fan out there.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #16: "No Church in the Wild" -- Jay-Z/Kanye West feat. Frank Ocean & The-Dream

Watch the Throne, the highly-anticipated collaboration between rap giants Kanye West and Jay-Z, lived up to its potential -- and then some. Its singles were huge, and its reach was astounding. There may not have been any other rap release this year that folks not as enamored with the genre listened to -- save, perhaps, for anything released by an Odd Future member.

Hey, speak of the devil -- "No Church in the Wild."

The lead track from Watch the Throne featured Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean on its hook. The album's densest, heaviest song, it featured prog rock-esque instrumentation over Ocean's vocal, an Auto-tuned segment from The-Dream and a steady flow from both rappers.

The song sets the scene for a grandiose record, for sure. Just check Jay-Z's opening lines, which make mention of mausoleums and coliseums. This was one of the biggest releases in rap in years, and 'Ye and Hova made sure it sounded that way.

An essay could be written on the song's lyrical content, arguably the best on the entire record. The rappers tackle religion on the song, with a plethora of religious imagery popping up, beginning with Ocean's opening chorus, which mentions the Great Chain of Being concept of Christianity.

Both are also concerned with power, and the song makes them appear pretty damn powerful indeed. The two biggest rappers in the world say some things, and you listen. That's power already for you.

Watch the Throne in general is an album that can take quite a bit of time to decipher. "No Church in the Wild" is the perfect starting point. Enjoy the rhymes these titans provide, and then look deeper into what they're really trying to say.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #17: "I Have Never Loved Someone" -- My Brightest Diamond

It's really quite tough to put into words how beautiful "I Have Never Loved Someone," from New York singer-songwriter My Brightest Diamond (aka Shara Worden), is.

Written as a love song to her young son, the song features eccentric instrumentation (always a mainstay in MBD songs, really) over Worden's surreal vocal. There's multiple versions of the song out there, including the instrument-laden record version, plus takes that are guitar-based.

But no matter the arrangement, the adoration in the lyrics is still there. A must-listen for anyone who's ever really been in love.

I would include the album version of the song, as I usually do with these posts, but 1) I couldn't find it on YouTube, and 2) Even if I had found it, this is the superior version. Recorded as part of La Blogotheque's Takeaway Shows, the performance is one of the most poignant performances I've ever seen put on tape.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #18: "The Birds" -- Elbow

British rock band Elbow returned in 2011 with Build a Rocket Boys!, fairly standard output for the Mercury Prize-winning five-piece. That's not to say it was a bad year for the band, but in no way did they really stand out, either.

Sometimes it takes an eight-minute lead song off the album to really catch one's attention. And that's exactly what Elbow pulled off with "The Birds."

The song's allure lies in the beauty it creates with its many supporting instruments. Singer Guy Garvey doesn't have too much to do throughout the song's first five minutes, his melody fairly stagnant and in a lower register. It's the instrumentation slowly building behind him that really makes the song. Its rising nature is a prelude to the explosion of sound that occurs at the five minute mark.

"The Birds" hits its stride when the strings arrive. Elbow does orchestral rock better than most, and they show it off here. It's the fusion of older stringed instruments and newer rock instrumentation that makes the song so intriguing.

Eventually, the song transforms into a sun-drenched, string-laden opus, with Garvey finally launching into his higher register. One might have expected that things would have gotten to that point before, but it's nonetheless a harrowing experience when the band is at full volume.

What I enjoy most is that the song doesn't even feel eight minutes long. Time well spent, I suppose.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #19: "(Not So) Sad and Lonely" -- DJ Shadow

We can chalk DJ Shadow up to another one of those artists still looking to recapture the glory of his or her critically-acclaimed debut album. In Shadow's case, Endtroducing hit big at a time when using just samples to create entire albums was a new concept. He revolutionized the art form with the album, and paved the way for many like-minded artists to do the same.

Alas, creating another release on par with Endtroducing has proved difficult for Shadow. In 2011, 15 years after his debut release, he released The Less You Know, The Better, his first album of new material since 2006. Compared against other records of the genre, it's a solid effort. Compared to Endtroducing or The Avalanches' landmark Since I Left You? It left much to be desired.

Still, the good DJ gave us reason to be excited. He showed that he still has the ability to produce great singular songs, even if they're separated by less-satisfying material. In particular, the album features a two-song combo, one of which appears toward the album's beginning; the other, toward its end. "Sad and Lonely," featuring a sample of Susan Reed's "I'm Sad and I'm Lonely," begins this cycle, with Reed's voice seemingly distant against piano and violin.

Later in the album comes "(Not So) Sad and Lonely," a rebuttal to its predecessor. This song also features Reed's vocals, but to a lesser extent. Here is where the record ends, and on an incredibly poignant note.

The majority of Reed's vocal that is utilized comes from a particular point in the usual song in which she sings, quite simply, "I'm troubled."

The violin present in "Sad and Lonely" returns here, but there's much more atmosphere to be found on the latter song. Most notably, slowly-rising guitar thunders beneath Reed and the strings.

(Not So) Sad And Lonely by DJ Shadow on Grooveshark

DJ Shadow has always been able to create a lush, atmospheric soundscape, sometimes ambient and sometimes a little more jarring or melodic. Here, he combines the two into a song that should please both folks interested in pleasant background music and connoisseurs of a beautiful vocal from the late Reed, who passed away last year.

If there's any part of The Less You Know... that anyone actually listens to, it should be these two songs. Both tunes are soothing and altogether beautiful.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #20: "Honey Bunny" -- Girls

If you're not a big fan of indie rock, one of the best rock records of 2011 might have passed you over. In a year where pure, straightforward rock was in one of its weakest states to date, bands like Foo Fighters and Cage the Elephant rose to the forefront, with little competition. Thus, it was as good a time as any for San Francisco duo Girls to stand out above the rest.

They definitely took the opportunity and went with it. Father, Son, Holy Ghost may not be as hard-rocking as some of the others mentioned, but it features some of the plain-and-simple best rock songs written all year, including the best Sabbath-inspired fare with "Die."

But it's "Honey Bunny" that resonates most purposefully. It's rooted in the music of the 1960s, with singer Christopher Owens a dead ringer for Buddy Holly.

Throw in a jangly-as-fuck guitar riff and pulsating drums, and you have a recipe for success even before the sunny chorus and surf rock guitar run kicks in.

Indie rock denizens: this was your best summer song of 2011, even though it wasn't actually released during the summer months. Quite simply, nothing was better.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #21: "Goodbye" -- Apparat feat. Soap & Skin

Sometimes the best records of the year are the ones that slip through the cracks of public consciousness -- just ask Germany-based electronic artist Sascha Ring. As Apparat, Ring released The Devil's Walk this year, an album that almost no one talked about. Hell, we even received the record at ACRN and put it into consideration at the music meeting, and it was turned down with little more than a 30-second listen.

And that's a shame, a real shame -- because The Devil's Walk is required listening for anyone out there that considers themselves an electronic music fan -- especially, I'd wager, if you have any sort of love for James Blake. I'm not saying they're exactly the same; I'm just saying that the kind of person who likes Blake is probably going to enjoy Apparat as well.

"Goodbye" is possibly the record's most well-known song, if there is one. It was featured in Breaking Bad's season 4 finale (Gus Fring's death), after all -- so that's something. This honor is greatly deserved, as "Goodbye" is one of those songs that simply sounds as though it should be set to a scene of a TV show or movie.

The intro to the song features strange stringed instruments before Ring's whispered vocal comes in: "Let's go into bed / And turn out the light." From there comes singular strikes of piano, and soon after, Ring's understated, hushed voice.

At the chorus, the song comes into its own. "Neither ever, nor never, goodbye," sings Ring against a rising choir of strings and backing vocals, with the sound of thunder appearing occasionally in the background.

"Goodbye" is one of Apparat's quieter songs, but also one of his most beautiful. Atmospheric and moody, it captures the drama of the occasion while refusing to resort to overblown tendencies. Such is the music of Apparat. Ring makes some of the smartest electronic music out there, and it's always a delight to take a listen -- and, subsequently, to take a journey across the vast musical plane Apparat creates.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #22: "Ice Cream" -- Battles feat. Matias Aguayo

Despite losing guitarist/singer Tyondai Braxton in 2010, New York experimental/math rock band Battles trudged on in 2011 with the release of Gloss Drop, their first record in four years. And in releasing the record, they showed that while Braxton's contributions were obviously appreciated, the now-three-piece could get along quite well without him.

Chilean singer Matias Aguayo joined Battles on "Ice Cream," Gloss Drop's second track. He provided vocals pretty much no one can understand to this day, but damn if they weren't catchy as all get out.

But of course, this is a Battles song, so one can almost always expect some fantastic instrumentation to go under the vocals -- if there even are any. The men of Battles did not disappoint in the slightest.

Slowly but surely picking up pace at its beginning, like a train rolling to life, the song exploded with a jangly riff, followed by the systematic drumming of John Stanier. From there, "Ice Cream" is pure chaos -- but with an underlying precision that keeps the whole thing from falling apart.

It doesn't matter what walk of life you come from, or even what language you speak -- "Ice Cream" is universal. Now, altogether now -- "Dame un helado derritiƩndose!" (...that's what he's saying, right...?!)

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #23: "Civilization" -- Justice

Had it not been for M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, Justice's Audio, Video, Disco may have been the most epic electronic release of 2011. This is something we've come to expect from the French duo, whose 2007 debut featured a big guitar sound piled atop its synths.

On Audio, Video, Disco, Justice rises to the occasion yet again, with just as much synths, guitar and electronic strings as before. The album picks up where Cross left off, evidenced with lead track "Horsepower." For fans of the duo, things couldn't have gone any better.

"Civilization" drops in after "Horsepower" as the album's second song, and its first with vocals. Ali Love, whose claim to fame prior to now was singing the vocal on The Chemical Brothers' "Do It Again," provides a robotic (in sound, not in terms of an inability to change pitches!) lead vocal against screeching electronic sounds and video game-esque synth work.

It's yet another song that would do well on a dance floor, but not because it's dumb club fare that has no other use other than to get the crowd moving. "Civilization" simply has such a rhythm and feel to it that dancing is basically encouraged. It's a disco tune updated for the 2000s, with '80s vocals thrown in for good measure.

Elsewhere on the record, Justice show why their mastery of combining synths, strings and guitar was feverishly missed for the past four years. Welcome back indeed.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #24: "Satellite" -- The Kills

The Kills very quietly made one of the best records of 2011 in Blood Pressures. The fact that the album was not included on very many year-end lists is puzzling -- after all, it may just be the duo's greatest release yet.

Whatever the reasons for the band's lack of notoriety in 2011, The Kills seem unfazed. There's a lot of dark, bluesy jams to love on Blood Pressures, beginning with lead single "Satellite."

With a grooving bass and drum part accentuated by one of the dirtiest guitar riffs of the year, "Satellite" features a dual vocal attack from Alison Mosshart and James Hince, though as per usual, Mosshart is the main focus here. But Hince's swagger-inducing instrumental accompaniment cannot be under-appreciated. The guitar work on the song, while not flashy, demands your attention from the very beginning.

On the chorus, Mosshart and Hince are joined by multiple voice to create a choir of "oh"s that is unsoundly intimidating atop Hince's riff. And it only seems to gain in intensity throughout the entire song.

This song is a perfect stepping-off point for new fans of The Kills, and it's easy to see why. With dreary rock riffs and sultry vocals, it's one of rock's best releases this year.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #25: "Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains" -- Southeast Engine

In 2011, Athens, Ohio legends Southeast Engine released Canary, their ode to the region some of the band still calls home to this day. Appalachia is an area with a rich musical history and diversity, but not too often do we hear about entire records inspired by the region that ends up resonating on a large scale. Unfortunately, Canary wasn't exactly that sort of album, as its appeal didn't run too far past Ohio. Though it was reviewed in Pitchfork and did receive accolades from Allmusic, the band itself is still not much of a household name.

But that certainly doesn't deter from the quality of the record. When I leave Athens in a few months to move on to wherever the hell I move on to, Canary is the album that will always remind me of Athens. If ever I find that I am missing the town, or simply need a fantastic representation of the region and its music, this is the music I will go to first.

Canary is a cohesive album in an age where making such a record is no longer exceedingly common. As is its nature, it is tough to pick out one song to talk about, because the songs roll together as one. It's healthier to talk about Canary as a whole rather than break it down into specific sections. The album tells the story of an Appalachian family living in Athens County during the Great Depression and the hardships they faced. For the record, Southeast Engine added more obvious alt-country influences to their usual folk rock fare. It fits the lyrical content like a glove.

But because this a song countdown, I must choose a song. Well then, why don't we go with "Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains"?

A largely acoustic song, "Adeline" brings singer Adam Remnant's wavering voice to the forefront. He sounds like an everyman here, the kind of guy you'd expect to find in Appalachia with a guitar in hand and a song to play upon request. That's, of course, something that helps Canary along -- it feels authentic, even if it was very obviously not recorded during the time period in which it is set.

The band doesn't utilize banjo too often on record, but "Adeline" does feature the instrument behind Remnant's acoustic guitar. It's a low-tempo song, with percussionist Leo DeLuca doing little more than simply keeping time behind his kit with bass and cymbal hits.

Also worth mention is Remnant's harmonizing with younger brother Jesse. Their sweet-sounding vocal blend fortifies the song's stripped-down chorus magnificently.

As said, Canary is an album to listen to for anyone interested in Appalachian music and stories. "Adeline" is the perfect starting point, if one isn't interested in jumping in head first just yet. It represents the back-home spirit of the record as a whole, and is simply a beautiful song altogether.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #26: "Pumped Up Kicks" -- Foster the People

It's tough to choose a favorite song off Foster the People's debut record Torches, because there's a lot to love on the album. From the piano-driven pop of "Houdini" to the greatest MGMT song MGMT never wrote in "Helena Beat," Torches will leave you downright obsessed within just one listen.

But it's hard to picture a better song than "Pumped Up Kicks." It's the song that garnered Foster the People its big break to begin with, and the song still makes its rounds on radio over a year after its initial release.

Plus, as Billboard associate director of charts/radio Gary Trust has said, "It's the perfect song." This is due to the song's inherent ability to transcend multiple genres and time periods. "Pumped Up Kicks" has elements of music dating back all the way to the midpoint of the 21st century. Folks were drawn immediately to its throwback feel, which can resonate on multiple levels for multiple types of people. Whether it's your five-year-old nephew or your 60-year-old grandmother, everyone played "Pumped Up Kicks" this year. It was everywhere.

Hilarious above all is the song's subject matter. A sunny, upbeat pop song on the surface, lyrically the song is actually about a young person's homicidal killing spree -- be it in a school, a mall... you decide.

That doesn't make "Pumped Up Kicks" an evil song, as frontman Foster has insisted that the tune is meant for discussion on the subject and preventing such an occurrence, rather than glorifying it. Of course, music is all about taking one's own interpretations from music. As such, it's easy to see why some were offended.

Although Torches is an incredibly poppy record by itself, "Pumped Up Kicks" is its chef d'oeuvre. Make no mistake -- years later, this is one of 2011's songs we'll still be singing.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #27: "Read All About It" -- Professor Green feat. Emeli Sande

Though not yet a notable figure in American rap, Professor Green has already built a steady following in his homeland of Great Britain and throughout many other European countries. After his certified-Gold debut Alive Till I'm Dead (featuring a fantastic song in the form of "Jungle"... check it out if you've never heard of Prof. Green), Green released his sophomore effort, At Your Inconvenience, a little over a year later.

Already, the record has garnered the rapper his first No. 1 single in the UK, in the form of "Read All About It." One of Green's most introspective releases, the song has the feel of one that could break out in other countries, should it get released there.

This is due in part to Green's delivery, which is strikingly similar to that of American superstar Eminem. That doesn't mean this holds true on every song Green releases, but here, the anger and emotion reminds one of a young Mathers.

Here, Green rhymes about his past -- particularly his relationship with his family. In 2008, his father committed suicide, and the tensions seem to still be tight three years later.

The song is brought to life by a big chorus, courtesy of Scottish R&B songstress Emeli Sande, one of the UK's rising stars. Combined with Sande, Green creates a song with the emotion of Eminem's angrier fare, but sans as much of an edge.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #28: "Paradise" -- Coldplay

Did anyone expect Coldplay to follow up the success of "Viva La Vida" with anything worthwhile or nearly as spectacular? I'm not sure I did. How much more progression could the same band that began with sappy (unrequited) love song "Yellow" achieve?

Apparently, quite a bit. Mylo Xyloto was another step forward for the British rockers, with an expanded electronic influence and a more noticeable pop sensibility than ever before. It was even experimental at times, as evidenced by lead single "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall."

"Paradise" is the point at which the new Coldplay meets the old. A piano-driven ballad laden with Chris Martin's falsetto, it is also one of the band's poppiest records, and shows off the subtle electronic influence Mylo Xyloto possesses.

Synths seemingly destined for the stars. Falsetto 'whoa-oh' group vocals on the chorus. A Bono-like vocal performance from Martin. Hell, it's no wonder "Paradise" ended up so popular, as well as so damn good.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #29: "April Fool" -- Manchester Orchestra

Atlanta rockers Manchester Orchestra returned in a big way in 2011 with Simple Math, the newest progression for a band that's been a rising star since 2006. Led by bearded wonder/seriously-though-he-should-be-in-Fleet-Foxes Andy Hull, the band created a record that likely would have hit numerous year-end best-of lists, had 2011 simply not have been as good as it ended up being. A contender early on, sure. Maybe next time, boys.

But of course there were high points, and at the highest sits "April Fool," a rollicking firework of a song that features some of Hull's most on-the-edge vocals and the rest of the band's most devastating guitar riffs.

Hull's hoarse howl is ever-present here, as it often is when the band is at its best. And when he delves into impassioned screams, you know he's singing his heart out. That's not to say "April Fool" is necessarily a highly emotional tune, but Hull really means what he's singing, and puts his entire being into it.

The guitar hooks, while perhaps not as memorable as "Pride"'s down-and-dirty riffage, provide the song with a chugging centrifuge that speeds the song along at a sometimes blistering pace. Of course, this is helped along by the percussion, much looser here than ever before -- likely due to original drummer Jeremiah Edmond's departure.

The energy here is astounding, and is yet again a signifier of what Manchester Orchestra could accomplish if they could string together an entire album of gems such as this. One day, Manchester's going to write one of the best rock records of our generation -- I still stand by this statement years later. But until then, a fantastic song here and there isn't bad.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #30: "White Limo" -- Foo Fighters

I've been waiting for this post for a good while, because... well, here goes: I'm incredibly unimpressed with Foo Fighters' Wasting Light. There, I said it. I'M SORRY. Sorry. I know this is one of the most beloved releases by the band and of rock music period in 2011, but I was put off immediately by the band's incredibly subpar choices for lead singles: "Rope" and "Walk." At least the former grew on me. The latter? Oh come on, you call that a chorus? Mr. Grohl, you're better than that. You're better than BOTH those songs. And "These Days"? Yawn.

Unpopular opinion continued: the best song off Wasting Light is the most un-Foo Fighters song ever. Yep, you already know what I'm talking about. It's "White Limo," of course.

Grohl is a self-professed fan of '80s hardcore punk, and with "White Limo," his love finally found a tangible form -- within the confines of a Foos song. After hearing the band due such songs as "Times Like These" and "DOA," I think the band's ability to replicate anything even remotely close to the genre could be reasonably questioned.

This rager of a tune explodes from almost out of nowhere on the record, certainly making it out of place, but I can recall interviews earlier in the album's production where it sounded as though this would actually be the sort of sound Grohl was going for with the entire album. So, understandably, "White Limo" got be pumped for the record. Maybe that's why I was so let down. OK, that could certainly be part of it.

If you're a fan of Dave Grohl's singing voice, "White Limo" won't have much to offer. Instead, the frontman presents a throaty howl that's surfaced on occasion on multiple other Foos songs. That said, he's never really done an entire song with it. Sure, there's a chorus in there, in which he attempts to bring some order to the chaos that is the rest of the song. But it doesn't really do any good, and that's quite alright.

Along with Grohl's impassioned growls, there's heavy guitar riffs, which occasionally remind one of the band's earlier works, but mostly recall the density of hardcore and metal releases 20-to-30 years prior.

For whatever reason, it's fun to listen to Grohl and company try to be something they're not. It was a step above the formulaic effort they produced otherwise. Give me this and "Bridge Burning," maybe throw in a little "Arlandria" for ballads' sake, and you've got something. Otherwise... mediocre. Sorry, Dave. Still love your videos, though.

(Speaking of which, PLEASE, if you know what's good for you, watch the music video for this song.)

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #31: "Changed the Way You Kiss Me" -- Example

London singer/rapper Example enjoyed his greatest success yet in 2011 with Playing in the Shadows, his third release. Released in September, the album hit No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart, and to date has charted two singles atop UK's music chart.

Certainly part of Example's recent success is his transition into more electronic-based sounds. The dance genre is on fire right now throughout the entire world, and to pass up on the opportunity to cash in would be asinine. Example sure didn't waste any time with the transition. "Changed the Way You Kiss Me" sounds like the release from a genre veteran.

Also part of the rapper's allure his ability to hold a tune, for the most part. Unlike many other contemporary rappers, Example's voice is good enough that his sung verses are not grating and unlistenable. In fact, while his rap on the song highlights his talents as an emcee, he's actually doing more singing here than anything.

Thanks to expert trance-esque production from Michael Woods, "Changed the Way You Kiss Me" is shot into the stratosphere by a huge electro sound backing Example's vocal -- and it's impossible to avoid moving to it. This is the club fare America has yet to replicate to its fullest potential.

As one of Britain's best releases of the year, "Changed the Way You Kiss Me" is everything electronic music should be. A killer hook, move-your-feet production, and even a driving rap for good measure. If you were unfortunate enough to miss this song this year, consider this your wakeup call.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #32: "Barton Hollow" -- The Civil Wars

Is it folk? Is it country? Is it Johnny Depp's new musical vehicle? Ah, who cares -- terrific is what it is.

The Civil Wars emerged in 2011 as indie's answer to Lady Antebellum. A male-female singing duo with twangy vocals and a penchant for sweet-sounding harmonies, Joy Williams and John Paul White caught everyone's attention -- including one Taylor Swift.

And it's easy to see why. Both Williams' and White's voices are exceptionally good. Slightly rootsy, slightly country -- very cross-genre, all in all, which presents the opportunity for crossover appeal. Sure enough, the band was nominated for two GRAMMYs this year, and in two different genres -- folk and country.

"Barton Hollow" is the duo's best song for a number of reasons. Its alt-country thud is highly appealing, the driving rhythm beneath a bluesy guitar riff. The duo's voices mix and mingle effortlessly, especially hitting a stride in each's higher register. Lyrically, it's dark. "I'm a dead man walking here / But that's the least of all my fears," White sings at the song's onset, setting us up for a lively Americana jaunt.

Elsewhere on the record, The Civil Wars tread a line closer to alt-folk or straight Americana, but with "Barton Hollow," it's easy to see why some consider the band to be a candidate for future country prominence. And to be quite honest, since this is where the band hits its stride most noticeably, perhaps a career move is in order -- that is, let's see an entire album of "Barton Hollow"s.

If The Civil Wars can do that, look out.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #33: "Get it Daddy" -- Sleeper Agent

On the heels of shows with fellow Kentuckians Cage the Elephant, Sleeper Agent began its ascent to probable future fame in 2011 with debut record Celebrasion. Deemed a 'band to watch' by Rolling Stone just a few short months ago, the six-piece caught on with howling frontwoman Alex Kandel, who fills out a double-pronged vocal attack along with Tony Smith.

Our introduction to the band came with "Get It Daddy," the album's lead track. And what an introduction it was.

An energetic, raucous slice of polished garage rock, "Get It Daddy" features a bouncing bassline and pounding drum beat over chugging guitars. Kandel and Smith trade off on vocal duties, with the former getting the most time front and center.

The amount of energy in 19-year-old firecracker Kandel is astounding, and Smith's yelp toward the song's end complements Kandel's slightly less edgy vocal.

Garage-punk never sounded this good in 2011. Sleeper Agent announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with on this blistering rocker, performed with the swagger of a band much older than they.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #34: "Colder Weather" -- Zac Brown Band

Country music has always been best known for about four different types of songs (that is, unless you listen to David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," which sheds light on a few more topics) -- the drinking song, the so-country-it-hurts song (which is sort of hard to explain, but just think of about any song that doesn't fit into the other categories and you're on the right track), the patriotic song and the impassioned ballad. Sometimes these mix.

Within the latter topic, there's a lot of sappy, whiny songs (as there are in any genre) that are either laughably bad or totally unmemorable. That said, occasionally a good one sneaks through. Example: "The Dance," "Whiskey Lullaby," that sort of thing. In 2011, a new classic joined their ranks.

Zac Brown Band's You Get What You Give was released in 2010, but the majority of its singles impacted radio the following year. "Colder Weather" was the band's second single, released last year but being slow to catch on, finally erupting earlier this year.

One of the band's biggest strengths has always been its harmonizing, which is put to good use in almost every song. "Colder Weather" is no exception, with downright beautiful harmonies coming through during an impassioned chorus.

Of course, there's also bandleader Brown's crossover appeal -- not only does he not really fit the look of a country star, but his voice is only slightly so. Plus, when it comes to a country jam band, Zac Brown Band is about the closest the genre has these days. The band has been able to reach many people, many of whom aren't regular country listeners.

"Colder Weather" is one of those songs that appeals quite soundly to that kind of person. Many can relate to the tale of a long-gone, long-distance, wayward lover, and the song is not so explicitly country musically-speaking that it's a turn-off for the non-country-inclined.

In terms of ballads of any genre, "Colder Weather" ended up one of the best of 2011. While it didn't match the runaway success of earlier band hit "Chicken Fried," it's the kind of song we'll be hearing from years to come on radio from the band.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #35: "Heartbeat" -- Childish Gambino

Donald Glover: one of the most polarizing figures in hip-hop. Who'd've thunk it?

One side finds Glover, under the rap alter ego Childish Gambino, one of the genre's fresh new faces, and a talented one at that. Others? Joke rap, degrading toward women, take your pick.

Whatever people's opinion on Gambino, he was definitely one of the biggest names in rap for the final quarter of 2011. Camp was acclaimed by many, unless you write for Pitchfork. Sometimes it was hilarious ("You See Me"), sometimes introspective ("That Power"), sometimes raucous ("Bonfire"). And then there's "Heartbeat."

Featuring spitfire rhymes and Drake-esque vocals, Gambino tells the tale of a girl he used to be with exclusively. These days, they're apart, but still come together for the occasional rendezvous. A love song it ain't.

This all is over a quick electronic beat, seemingly ready-made for radio play. Whether that actually happens is yet to be seen, but one thing's for sure -- Gambino came out swinging on his debut major label release, and it'll be fun to see what he can do in years to come, given that he stays relevant and in the public eye.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #36: "The Lament of Coronado Brown" -- Pearl and the Beard

After a stellar debut in 2009 entitled God Bless Your Weary Soul Amanda Richardson, Brooklyn indie folk three-piece Pearl and the Beard returned in 2011 with Killing the Darlings, after having road-tested much of the album's material in the months preceding its May release.

The record found PatB trying some different things compared to their debut, opting for an altogether less sunny experience in favor of Americana, different song structures, and even more eclectic instrumentation than ever before.

"The Lament of Coronado Brown" sticks out as one of Pearl and the Beard's best. A low-tempo, subdued performance in comparison to the band's usual fare, "Lament" is, put simply, simultaneously one of the loveliest and most heartbreaking songs released in 2011.

Pearl and the Beard features three vocalists, all astounding in their own rights, but with "Lament," it is cellist Emily Hope Price that shines -- both vocally and musically. Along with her sweet, impassioned voice, there's the dulcet tones of her cello, the lead instrument of the song. The performance exudes melancholy.

By the time Price's cello hits its final note, you'll instantly be back for more. Despite the song's intrinsic beauty, you can't help but feel a bit down after listening -- but it's an addicting down. Plus, it's followed on the album by the uproariously fun "Douglas Douglass." The contrast is superb, and it gets me every time.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #37: "MoneyGrabber" -- Fitz & the Tantrums

Plenty of throwback performances were put in this year, but perhaps none were as intriguing as that of Fitz & the Tantrums. The LA neo soul six-piece released their debut Pickin' Up the Pieces last year, but word-of-mouth didn't really reach the general public until earlier this year.

Featuring the charismatic Robert Fitzpatrick, himself an indubitable cross between soul singers like James Brown and the theatrics/look of David Bowie (basically, think of Bowie doing soul, and here's your result), the band broke onto the scene with "MoneyGrabber," a fitting example of their retro-ish musical tendencies.

The song is incredibly funky, a welcome breath of fresh air to this year's rock music charts. An air of classic Motown precedes it, and that's before Fitzpatrick and singer Noelle Scaggs enter into the fray.

Its energy is infectious, too. Joyous youth abounds on "MoneyGrabber," despite its lyrical content.

And speaking of that lyrical content, I think everything can be summed up in the chorus: "Don't come back anytime, you've already run me dry / This is your payback, money grabber." Oh, snap!

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #38: "Blind Faith" -- Chase & Status feat. Liam Bailey

After gaining modest acclaim with debut More Than a Lot in 2008, British drum and bass production duo Chase & Status roared back in 2011 with No More Idols, regarded as one of the biggest electronic albums of the year. All in all, seven singles found their way onto the UK's Singles Chart. A good year? Yeah, I'd say so.

"Blind Faith" was the album's third single, released in January. It's also, along with earlier single "Let You Go" (an entrant on my countdown last year), among the best the duo has ever produced, both for themselves and otherwise.

Featuring an exceptional vocal from rising star Liam Bailey, "Blind Faith" is a club track for the ages, one that was probably inescapable in Great Britain and would have been in America, too... had Chase & Status broken out in the country.

Its chorus is perhaps its strongest suit. Loleatta Holloway's 1980 disco track "Love Sensation" is transformed into an enormous club melody. Just listen to the '90s-ness ooze from her vocal. Holloway may not have recorded the vocal in the '90s, but its place in the era would have been cemented had it been set to music like this.

Along the way, the duo uses elements of house, dubstep and drum and bass to send the song to the stars. In a year of club music (and really, just clubs in general) glorification, here's where the genre hit its highest note. Brilliant production, and staggeringly good vocal performances.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #39: "Victory Dance" -- My Morning Jacket

Some people have this unconditional infatuation with My Morning Jacket, regardless of what the band puts out. While some prefer the bands Southern rock past, and others the matured rock sound of recent years, still more seem to enjoy the five-piece no matter what they decide to do on their most recent record of the time.

For me, MMJ's allure comes from their live show -- they're one of the best live rock bands out there, especially effective in a festival setting. That said, I don't feel they've ever been able to recreate that live aesthetic in the studio. Their sound off-record is so much more gripping and affecting than on-record. And (mainly because going to shows isn't exactly the easiest situation for someone in my financial situation) I just want to hear a record that doesn't let me down when I stack it against the live show, plain and simple.

OK, but that said, My Morning Jacket's new record Circuital isn't a poor effort. But aside from two songs, including the title track, there isn't much to really keep the listener's interest. If you've listened to the new record, I'm curious -- which songs, if any, do you actually still listen to? I know not everyone's the same, but I'd wager that it's not too many.

"Victory Dance" is the other track that piques my interest each and every time.

The song is a mainly chilled-out affair, despite its rising intensity all throughout. It's sinister, too. Above a deep, brooding bass, grooving guitar lines fade in and out of Jim James' vocal. The psyched-out jam gains in volume from start to finish, both instruments and vocalists following accordingly.

All in all, the song is a formidable opener to the album that, followed by "Circuital," creates an astounding one-two punch that should have been the beginning to a classic record. Instead, the rest of the album falters in comparison. But hey -- think of it as a two-sided single, and you've got a winner.

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #40: "Beth/Rest" -- Bon Iver

2011 will be marked as the year everyone went ALL THE FUCK OUT for Bon Iver. After For Emma, Forever Ago's runaway success and his collabs with Kanye on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the man born Justin Vernon was ripe for a flurry of success with his follow-up.

That said, many expected a return to For Emma form, and that's not exactly what they received with Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore effort. This was to be expected. Vernon didn't record the album basically by himself in a cabin in Wisconsin. He had more tools at his disposal, including more musicians. Those hoping for the intimacy of his debut... well, not to say Bon Iver isn't intimate, but it's so in a totally different way.

Still, the experiment worked, and Bon Iver has been nominated for multiple GRAMMYs, including some of the top honors of the ceremony for song "Holocene."

Disclaimer: I'm actually not a huge fan of Bon Iver. I KNOW, I'M SORRY. There's just something about him that doesn't catch me nearly as much as most others. I can respect and concede that it's a good record, but I didn't go gaga for it (or his other releases, for that matter) right off.

But Bon Iver ended up not becoming a throwaway I'll never revisit again for one reason: album closer "Beth/Rest."

Holy God Jesus Almighty. Christopher Cross called, Justin. He doesn't want his act back. He wants to know how you perfected it.

"Beth/Rest" is basically 30 years behind its time. Remember the yacht rock craze of the 1980s? Most of you probably don't or only do because you decided to revisit the time period because you weren't born yet. Well... it's not exactly the most manly genre out there, but it yielded some good stuff. Cross in particular nailed the genre with "Sailing," arguably the biggest yacht rock song ever.

With "Beth/Rest," Vernon pays a homage to the music. It is completely out of place and comes seemingly out of nowhere, but it's also the only song from Bon Iver that really resonates with me. This could be my secret love affair with Christopher Cross.

Seriously, this could have topped the Hot 100 charts 30 years ago. There's piano, '80s guitar, saxophone... what more do you need? Slide guitar is thrown in toward the end for good measure. It's such a foreign song to Bon Iver himself, but it would have fit right in three decades ago.

And really, when was the last time we had a good yacht rock song, anyway? We're due.


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