Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Songs from 2011

by Conroy

With only days left in 2011, it's time for my annual Top 10 Songs list. As with the previous versions (see my 2010 list here), this list will count down what I consider to be the ten best songs from this year. As a reminder, there are a couple of ground rules for songs to be eligible for the list:
  • If at all possible, I try to include only one song per artist. For instance, I could have included multiple songs from the excellent album The King is Dead by The Decemberists, but adhering to my rule, and because I wasn't completely blown away by numerous album tracks, I've included just one song from the album. However, if we turned back time and I was writing about my Top 10 songs from say 1997, I would have included multiple songs from Radiohead's spectacular album OK Computer (after all, four songs from that album are included in my Top 250 Songs).   
  • All songs must be released in this calendar year (i.e. 2011). For instance, Adele released her massive hit album, 21, this year. The lead single "Rolling in the Deep" was a global hit, and it has made (often topped) critics’ Top 10 lists for 2011, but it was actually released and gained immediate airplay in 2010. Since it was released separate from the rest of the album and gained widespread attention, I must disqualify it from consideration for songs from 2011. Is this unnecessarily hair-splitting? Maybe, but I dislike recognizing songs more than a year after they become hits (or in the case of many great songs that don’t become hits, after their initial release). 
Also, as you read through this list I offer my familiar caution. As with all annual lists, my Top 10 Songs is based on impressions from this year with only a limited amount of time to have heard and internalized each of these songs. Often it takes years or more for the significance of a song, album, or any other artistic creation to become clear. I publish these lists because I think it's fun, generates discussion, and identifies some of the outstanding songs from the past year. However, it could be that I look back years from now with different opinions of what really was best from 2011 (consider my 2010 list to judge my judgment).  

Okay that's enough background, the list:

Conroy's Top 10 Songs of 2011

10. “Change the Sheets” by Kathleen Edwards. It’s been a few years since Kathleen Edwards’ previous release, the outstanding Asking for Flowers, but her follow-up Voyageur will be released early next year. If the whole album matches the quality of the lead single “Change the Sheets,” her fans will be much pleased. I especially like the multi-layered backing vocals that add a depth I haven’t heard from her before. The overall atmospherics of the track mix well with the personality that makes Kathleen Edwards’ music so appealing.

9. “Pill” by Edie Brickell. Edie Brickell has been around for a long time. She first hit it big with “What I Am" way back in 1988. So it was both surprising and exciting to hear her back this year with a self-titled album. “Pill” is a great example of ”happy” music – light, peppy, propulsive – that is about a dark subject, here depression. Some lyrics: “You can’t pay attention / It’ getting pretty rough / You feel a little down now / And you can’t get it up / They got a pill for that…” I like this type of juxtaposition of music and theme, but most of all, “Pill” is the type of song that can be listened to on a loop. I hope we don’t have to wait another eight years for the next Edie Brickell release.

8. “My Body” by Young the Giant. My sister turned me onto Young the Giant, and I’ve heard there debut album described as a mix of Fleet Foxes and Kings of Leon. Maybe, but I always find those types of descriptions unhelpful. What “My Body” features is a fantastic guitar-powered chorus, as good as anything released this year. Rock critics (and to a lesser extent fans) seem to have a longstanding angst that the genre is one day going to run out of steam. That a point will be reached when nothing new or interesting will come along. Given that the Rock n Roll has been popular and artistically inventive for over half a century, I find this point of view silly; no worry needs to be given to the fate of rock. Young the Giant is evidence that rock continues to be home to new, vibrant, and interesting music.

7. “Shanghai Cigarettes” by Caitlin Rose. I love the country twinge of “Shanghai Cigarettes,” but it’s as much a classic singer-songwriter 70s-era soft rock song as anything else (think one of the quieter Fleetwood Mac tracks). Ms. Rose has a lovely, inviting voice, and you’ll be tempted to share one of her Shanghai cigarettes, whatever they are. “My Body” is evidence that Rock n Roll is always evolving, but “Shanghai Cigarettes” is an example rock’s special ability to revisit and reinterpret past sounds and genres.

6. “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” by Brett Dennen. Brett Dennen can be hit or miss and sometimes his music is a little too quirky for my tastes (e.g., Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog)), but he can write a catchy track, witness “Sydney (I’ll Come Running),” which is dances forward along a jangly guitar and piano and Dennen’s high-register vocal delivery. I especially like the lyrics, not for their coherency (I’m not sure what crime the song’s protagonist is accused of), but for funny/odd lines like: “Soccer moms gossip in the dog park / Their bark is worse than their bite / They're only a couple of crazy cougars” and “If they wanna talk trash / They can talk, talk, talk / But they better come correct” and “There's a lot of good people living in LA, yes there are…”

5. “Bedroom Eyes” by Dum Dum Girls. “Bedroom Eyes” is extra-catchy, carries the girl group novelty that I tend to fall for (reminiscent of 60s groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals), and has the wall of sound guitar noise that harkens back to My Bloody Valentine (but with the harsh edges removed). It’s not hard to understand how this song and the album Only in Dreams were breakout hits. Dee Dee, the lead singer and song-writer, isn’t the greatest of lyricists, but one line, “Finally relax my weary limbs, just lay still / The ceiling undulates, the fault of some strange pill,” caught my attention because of its thematic similarity to Edie Brickell’s “Pill” (see above). Just a meaningless coincidence.

4. “Shake it Out” by Florence +Machine. I like the opening church organ dirge on “Shake it Out,” which you just sense will soon yield to an explosion of Florence Welch’s massive voice along with the guitar and drums to launch the song into the sky. This is characteristic Florence + Machine (I dislike that plus symbol the band uses), but there’s no denying how effective the wailing and heavy instrumentation is. “Shake it Out” is a good microcosm of the entire Ceremonials album, which all told is a better effort than the band’s debut Lungs. Florence + Machine earned some extra rock cred when they fronted for U2 on that band’s recent two-year tour. It’s pretty good when your singer can hold her own when compared to Bono.

3. “Some Boys” by Death Cab forCutie. The best rock album of the past year was either The Decemberists’ The King is Dead or Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys. At first listen to the latter you may be hard pressed to pick out the best track, but after repeated listens, I like the mid-tempo “Some Boys.” It’s definitely a DCFC track given Ben Gibbard’s typical nuanced vocal performance and the echo-y reverb characteristic of DCFC. It’s more intricate than may be initially realized. The title may remind you of The Rolling Stones infamous “Some Girls” off the album of the same name. Indeed check out the lyrics for both songs (“Some Boys” lyrics here / “Some Girls" lyrics here) and ask whether the DCFC track is a response or mirror to the earlier song.

2. “Somebody I Used to Know” by Gotye. I had never heard of Gotye (pronounced Goat-yeah) before “Somebody I Used to Know” played on the radio one day when I was coming home from work. But Wally De Backer, a Beligan by-way-of Australia, made one of the best songs of the year. It’s peculiar, unconventional, and brilliant. The break-up theme is cliché, but the clever lyrics (e.g., “Told myself that you were right for me / But felt so lonely in your company / But that was love and it's an ache I still remember,” and “And I don't wanna live that way / Reading into every word you say / You said that you could let it go / And I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know...”) and the male/female vocal dynamic, especially the aural sex the voices seem to have over the last minute or so, transcend the theme. The vocals, plucked guitar, and percussion (is that a xylophone pinging in here and there?) combine in a surprisingly effective and indeed haunting mix. I hope we’ll hear more from Gotye in the future.

1. “Calamity Song” by The Decemberists. The year’s best song is “Calamity Song” from The Decemberists. Colon Molloy, the band’s leader and songwriter, admitted that REM was a big influence when making The King is Dead, and you can hear that band in every note of “Calamity Song.” The track could have been comfortably placed on Murmur, Reckoning, or any of REM’s great 80s albums.  The end of the world theme and Molloy’s strange lyrical images are in-line with our apocalypse-obsessed times. The music is so catchy that we’re happily carried along through the nightmarish lyrics. “Calamity Song” is just the best song from an excellent album, one that shows The Decemberists in a new musical light. I don’t know if they’ll stick in this vein for long – they’re a notoriously idiosyncratic band – but this album stands along their terrific The Crane Wife as the best work of their career.

Honorable Mention: “Rumour Has It” by Adele; “Velcro” by Bell X1; “Codes and Keys” by Death Cab for Cutie; “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” by The Decemberists; “Tree By the River” by Iron and Wine; “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey; and “Starlight” by Rachael Yamagata.

No comments:

Post a Comment