Best Music of 2011

Top 50 Songs of 2011

on December 09, 2011, 3:16pm
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year end songs Top 50 Songs of 2011

I promised the staff I would not go all Masterpiece Theater with this intro, so I’ll be brief. Our Annual Report has reached its halfway point with our Top 50 Songs of the Year. The many flags of our staff are hoisted high — and we couldn’t be happier with what we’re saluting. From Cults’ very first song to Tom Waits’ thousandth song, we put up the tracks that left us with more thoughts, feelings, and impressions than any other. We think we done good.

But just to make sure the world still spins on its axis, let us know what you think we missed from our list and what you liked in the comments. We thrive on that stuff.

Additionally, we’ve got the de rigueur Top 50 Songs of the Year Spotify playlist for you, a quick link to purchase the song on Amazon, and an easy ctrl-c +ctrl-v list for you at the very end immediately following our #1 song of the year.

As always, our profuse thanks for reading, enjoy these tunes, and we’ll see you again next week for the second half of our 2011 Annual Report.

-Jeremy D. Larson
Content Director

50. Ellie Goulding – “Lights”

ellie goulding lights Top 50 Songs of 2011

At age 24, Ellie Goulding’s folktronica turned heads across the world, especially with “Lights”. Remixed from here to high heaven by killer producers, sampled by Lupe Fiasco for his latest mixtape, and dropped by DJs looking to get well-dressed girls on the dance floors from the Bay Area to Eastern Europe, its appeal lies in its honest vocals, minimalistic beats, and stark, raving energy. It’s Goulding’s first charting single in the U.S. and Canada, and judging from the widespread allure (and the thousands who camped near her stage at festivals nationwide), it likely won’t be her last. -Paul de Revere

49. Cults – “Go Outside”

Cults debut album Top 50 Songs of 2011

Going from relative obscurity to indie stardom isn’t anything new, but the way Madelline Follin and Brian Oblivion of Cults did it with such New York coolness and style still seemed incredibly refreshing. By the time the mainstream caught wind of Follin’s adorably unique, helium-filled balloon voice, “Go Outside” was already a bona fide song of the summer contender. Its lyrics are like a mantra for anyone in a going-nowhere relationship, delivered in an irresistibly sweet, poppy tone. And how can you not dig that crazy glockenspiel solo? -Gilles LeBlanc

48. Big K.R.I.T. – “Country Shit” (Remix)

big krit remix Top 50 Songs of 2011

The original version of “Country Shit” showed up on last year’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, but this remix, featuring all-new bars from Ludacris and Bun B, goes harder in every way. Over a chopped and looped vocal sample and thunderous bass, K.R.I.T. delivers an unusually aggressive verse for “the folk in Texas that’s forever wreckin’ with the Styrofoam cup and the purple fluid.” This is a rave-up, no doubt, and it just might be the greatest Dixie rap get-together this side of “Int’l Players Anthem”. -Mike Madden

47. Mikal Cronin – “Apathy”

 Top 50 Songs of 2011

So much good came out of the fertile ground of the San Francisco psych/garage scene this year, and Mikal Cronin’s debut LP may be best in show simply because he’s got the hooks. “Apathy” digs in with stopgap verses and a vintage 60’s underground sound. Cronin is wrestling with that all-too-real twentysomething identity crisis; he’s a man who’s sure he doesn’t want apathy or empathy. Or everything. Or anything. His generation struggles with defining themselves, and finding a fine line between slacker and sincere is difficult. This loud and splashy confession pretty much nails that frustration. -Jeremy D. Larson

46. Cold Cave – “The Great Pan Is Dead”

coldcave Top 50 Songs of 2011

The primal themes and screams of Wesley Eisold on “The Great Pan Is Dead” could have been penned by the Vikings or the Huns or some dodgy Germanic tribe. It’s ostentatious like an arena song with more than enough of Eisold’s hardcore/noise/new wave bent to make it sound like it could have been out on Wax Trax! Records. “Yeah/I will come running/gunning through the years/hunting heart/crushing fears,” except Eisold makes it seem like he’s going to do this while completely on fire. All the while, at its core, it’s just a romantic ode to someone who warrants truly epic imagery — imagery that would fall flat without the high-stakes propulsion of the music below it. If love songs are played in Valhalla, this may be the only thing allowed. -Jeremy D. Larson

45. Das Racist – “Michael Jackson”

das racist michael jackson 608x609 e1312335135794 Top 50 Songs of 2011

“I’m fucking great at rapping!” With those five words, Himanshu “Heems” Suri embraces the new identity that he, Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez, and Ashok “Dap” Kondabolu have forged as Das Racist. Where elsewhere they’ll make you wonder whether this whole rap thing is just a lark, here D.R. take the simple to the nth degree. Whether it’s that ultimately basic brag, the “Michael Jackson/a million dollars/you hear me?/holler” chorus, or A.D.’s lithe “You go girl, it’s your world”, this song embraces the brilliance of simplicity. The beat kills, and references to Richie Valens, “Parenthood”, and McGuyver all smashed together somehow just makes sense. -Adam Kivel

44. The Horrors – “Still Life”

thehorrors skying Top 50 Songs of 2011

To be one of the 50 best songs of the year, at least one element of your introduction has to grab attention. With “Still Life”, The Horrors gave us three options. There’s the wobbly tape loop that gradually fades in, the body-vibrating drumbeat, and the bell curve synth melody. All that before we even get to the vocals! Faris Badwan sounds cautious, almost fragile, in the speak-sing verses. Once the chorus kicks in and the melody lights up, though, he richly belts out line after line, guaranteeing a sing-along from even the most casual fan. -Joe Marvilli

43. Bill Callahan – “Riding for the Feeling”

bill callahan Top 50 Songs of 2011

Bill Callahan is one of America’s most low-profile existentialists. “Riding for the Feeling” is a great example of why. Callahan’s smooth baritone lightly jogs along his own acoustic strumming, impressionistic organ, reverb-soaked electric guitars, and salt-and-pepper drums to craft a statement of beautiful futility. Mr. Callahan is capital letters THE TRUTH, and he spits a lot of it: “With intensity, a drop evaporates by law/In conclusion, leaving is easy when you’ve got some place to be.” How ’bout that for some cold, hard facts? But as the song progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the place Callahan has to be doesn’t really exist–that he’s just riding somewhere else, merely riding for the feeling. And so are we. -Drew Litowitz

42. Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down”

dum dum girls only in dreams Top 50 Songs of 2011

A single of anguish, “Coming Down” is the side of Dum Dum Girls no one has ever seen. During the six-minute ballad, the ladies leave the mystery of their personas to find bliss in the wake of something awful, the death of front woman Dee Dee Penny’s mother. The same fuzz can still be found, but this time there’s more emotion and urgency. Penny wanted fans to feel something, and it’s hard not to at 3:31 with Penny’s declarations of departure. Lo-fi becomes a thing of careful beauty on “Coming Down”. -Lauren Rearick

41. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

lykke li i follow rivers Top 50 Songs of 2011

Though it’s called Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li’s second LP could have easily been titled Wounded Rhythms. For proof, take a listen to “I Follow Rivers”. The melody drunkenly sways alongside her vocals, ranging from subdued verses to triumphant choruses. Clanging, hollow beats don’t just stick to the tempo, but occasionally flair and boost the background up. The woozy synth line remains laid-back but isn’t sloppy. Instead, it loosely drives the song forward without becoming the focal point. That’s saved for Lykke Li’s playful performance. On an album with as many heavy songs as this one has, that’s certainly a breath of fresh air. -Joe Marvilli

40. Wilco – “One Sunday Morning”

wilco the whole love1 Top 50 Songs of 2011

Jeff Tweedy warns us that this majestic 12-minute closer to The Whole Love is long in the very first line, but it’s a caution that proves to be moot. Despite the length and refusing to change its basic rhythm or structure, the song never tires, keeping the listener’s attention by sneaking in layer upon layer of instrumentation at strategic moments, then pulling it away. The whispering patter of Mikael Jorgensen’s piano may not drive the melody but blossoms and wilts at the mention of key words like “bells” and “the Bible.” Lyrically, it’s in the same vein as Sky Blue Sky closer “On and On”, a meditation on the relationship between Jeff Tweedy and a past acquaintance that only they understand. But its autumnal feel and confessional tone mean something different to everyone, the perfect tune for looking back on the year in non-linear terms. -Dan Caffrey

39. Liturgy – “Generation”

liturgy Top 50 Songs of 2011

Brooklyn’s Liturgy have spent the last couple of years working up quite the shitstorm in metal circles for their admittedly ostentatious attempts at re-conceptualizing the genre from the ground up in what they call “transcendental black metal”. Critical response to their latest LP Aesthethica, was pretty much split down the middle largely for that reason. But all talk about the band’s perceived pretension is shot to bits by the initial blast of noise that kick off the album’s best track, the starkly minimal instrumental “Generation”. Seven minutes of blazing guitars and cracking snares, this slab of molten no-wave fury is more akin to early-day Swans than anything remotely “transcendental”, or even “black metal” for that matter. Even so, they’ve catalyzed progress and conversation in a genre that has, for decades now, stagnated in Norse Mythology and church burning scandals. Who says you need corpse paint to rock? -Möhammad Choudhery

38. Washed Out – “Amor Fati”

washed out amor fati Top 50 Songs of 2011

Washed Out’s Ernest Greene continues to distance himself from chillwave, creating one of the year’s most danceable tracks in “Amor Fati”. Fans have come to expect an inclusion of synths, but it’s the addition of an infectious chorus from Greene that makes for an unexpected moment of pop. The prominent vocals provide a break of warmth from the chillwave lull of its counterparts. Its latin title “amor fati” translates to love of fate. If this is where Greene’s destined, we’re lovestruck, too.   –Lauren Rearick

37. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”

adele rolling in the deep Top 50 Songs of 2011

Each year, there comes a song that is seemingly everywhere, from non-stop radio play to appearances in TV ads and basic cable shows. In 2011, that song was Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Musically, it appealed to a plethora of audiences, as if it were assembled from an equal number of dark, bluesy soul tunes and light, airy disco tracks. The vocals are among Adele’s finest, with an undercurrent of immense wisdom driving forward the larger-than-life, emotionally devastated cries of pain and confusion. But it’s the song’s overall sentiment, of having immense romantic regrets and laying every last one of them on your ex, that made this cut such a massively universal experience. Rare is the track that can mend wounds and help sell the iPhone 4S, but “Rolling in the Deep” does all that and more. –Chris Coplan

36. AraabMUZIK – “Streetz Tonight”

araabmuzik streets tonight Top 50 Songs of 2011

Don’t let the trance label deter you. AraabMUZIK’s Electronic Dream is an atmospheric trip from beginning to end. Best experienced as a whole, there are moments that jump out from the rest, perhaps none more than “Streetz Tonight”. Here, AraabMUZIK dials back his trademark drum machine ingenuity in favor of woozy synth grooves and airy, simplistic female vocals for a different, more laid-back type of head rush. -Austin Trunick

35. Tom Waits – “Hell Broke Luce”

tom waits bad as me Top 50 Songs of 2011

Listeners had to be surprised the first time they heard this jarring, psychotic, nightmarish romp through a combat zone. “Hell Broke Luce” takes the form of a deranged boot camp march (“I had a good home, but I left, right, left”), with the time between Waits’ grating barking filled with banging and clanging, in-and-out guitars, sampled machine gun fire, and even a tuba during one brief lull. Lyrics include drill sergeant/grunt vulgarities, embittered questioning of authority, and lines that suggest the soldier protagonist sees himself as forever severed from the person he was before the war. (“What did you do before the war? /I was a chef, I was a chef/And what was your name? It was Jeff, Jeff”). I have no basis to judge whether or not Waits has captured the hellish realities of war on “Hell Broke Luce”, but I can say that if you’re listening to this track while out walking, it’ll keep you in step. Left, right, left. –Matt Melis

34. Kurt Vile – “Jesus Fever”

kurt vile cover Top 50 Songs of 2011

Ars longa, vita brevis, as the old adage goes: “Art is long, life is short.” On Kurt Vile’s “Jesus Fever”, the heartland rocker deals with this inevitable fate, all over a jangly progression that feels curated by Lindsay Buckingham circa 1975. One biting line: “When I am a ghost, I’ll see no reason to run/When I’m already gone/If it wasn’t taped, you could escape this song/But I’m already gone.” The lesson? Art is forever. In the digital age – especially a booming one like this year’s – that line takes on a whole new meaning. Art is forever… and everywhere. Now, how meta would it be if kids are listening to this in 100 years? Guess we’ll never know. -Michael Roffman

33. The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”

the black keys lonely boy Top 50 Songs of 2011

“These guys just don’t stop. The late-in-the-year arrival of “Lonely Boy” signaled a much anticipated dose of the Akron blues mongers, even though fans were still simmering from 2010’s Brothers. El Camino’s complete rip-roaring genius aside, the stealthy emergence of the lead single’s video of a solitary man dancing his ass off became an instant sensation as “Lonely Boy” could be heard leaking out from city bus riders’ headphones for a good week after its internet landing. And for good reason. The song is an infectious smack in the face of gritty blues riffs and powerful, rockabilly-influenced fury. Dan Auerbach’s muddy guitar rips into the single as Patrick Carney’s attack drums and a smattering of quirky backing keys propel the song into a spaced-out rock stratosphere where Mark Bolan and blues greats serve as ruling deities. As our own Harley Brown attests, the Keys are at the height of their game, and “Lonely Boy” is Exhibit-A of their zenith status. -Liz Lane

32. Battles – “Ice Cream”

battles ice cream Top 50 Songs of 2011

When Gloss Drop single “Ice Cream” dropped, it was the test for many of whether Battles would be the same after losing frontman Tyondai Braxton. The verdict? Not exactly the same, but that is no disappointment. The track wades familiar territory for Battles while placing itself among the trio’s more accessible work. Guest vocalist Matias Aguayo shines with a keen impersonation of Braxton’s trademark vocal manipulation over an irresistible, glitchy two-chord jam. Recommended with a scoop of cake batter on a waffle cone, but maybe not in the bathtub. -J. Harry Painter

31. Kate Bush – “Wild Man”

kate bush wild man Top 50 Songs of 2011

50 Words for Snow is a rare album themed to winter holiday months while not being pigeonholed as a Christmas album. “Wild Man” is a testament to that. It’s a seven-minute journey through the snowy crags of Tibet, name-dropping countless faraway places and romanticizing the fabled Yeti as only Kate Bush could. That said, it’s a very different Bush song in a lot of ways, with guest vocalist Andy Fairweather Low providing the chorus and Bush swapping out her usual vocal stylings with a husky Mark Knopfler-esque dialogue for most of the track. The sweetness of Bush’s words and the song’s misty, musical veil make it easy to mistake “Wild Man” as a love song, but that’s not quite it. It’s a tribute to the mysteries still hidden in the natural world and the figments we chase, rounding the corners of distant hills, just out of reach. -Cap Blackard

30. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “The Last Huzzah” (Remix)

lostintranslation Top 50 Songs of 2011

This Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire remix, paying homage to Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear remix”, dilutes the year’s cattle call of mixtapes, guest spots, and debut LPs down to the strongest collective showing from any five rappers on a single track. Everyone’s got their fuel, whether its Despot’s “vodka soda,” Danny Brown’s “straight shots of Cuervo,” or El-P’s “straight shots of Sterno.” The track’s an ode to getting lit up, a celebration of skill and saying, “Fuck it all.” If these five guys stumble into 2012 with this much moxy, the same as Biggie, Craig Mack, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes did back in 1994, they’ll be the ones coming up big and making great comebacks. -Jeremy D. Larson

“The Last Huzzah” (Remix) (feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown & El-P)

29. The Strokes – “Under Cover of Darkness”

thestrokesundercoverofdarkness Top 50 Songs of 2011

It is the oft-used “return to form,” right? The yearning Julian Casablancas vocals and the doo-wop exchange between the guitarists and drummer Fab Moretti. Top it off with another great solo courtesy of Nick Valensi, and you have the makings of classic Strokes. We may not be talking about Angles years from now, but I’ll let you know the moment this song finally stops dancing around my head. -Justin Gerber

28. Beirut – “East Harlem”

beirut east harlem e1307671917851 Top 50 Songs of 2011

The way Beirut toys with sense of place is so darn impish and charming. With the title and lyrics of “East Harlem”, you can’t tell whether Zach Condon is crooning about Amsterdam or New Amsterdam (NYC). Yet, at the same time, the details hardly matter. In this song about distance, you don’t know where you are for sure; you’re too lost in the sonic neighborhood or city block Condon has constructed. “Uptown, downtown” can seem like a “thousand miles between us” when you’re intent on studying the gorgeous detail of “East Harlem”, this city-song of blinding lights and gorgeous brass melodies. Go on, dwell in it. Stay awhile. -Paul de Revere

27. The War on Drugs – “Come to the City”

 Top 50 Songs of 2011

The anthemic centerpiece on one of the year’s most road-ready albums, “Come to the City” is to be played either with the windows down while  drifting along highways or in a stadium/field of a thousand pumping fists. It’s that kind of Arcade Fire-meets-Tom Petty power spun over reverberating organs and snapping drums that makes you want to lean your head out the car window and let the emotion wash over you with the wind. With Kurt Vile off on a solo career, frontman Adam Granduciel’s contemplative lyrics get to shine on their own. “I’ve been drinking up the sweet tea/It was made just for me,” he sings in a Dylan-esque warble. It was made for you, too, so drink up. -Benjamin Kaye

26. Frank Ocean – “Novacane”

frank ocean novacane Top 50 Songs of 2011

If the majority of Odd Future is the id, then R&B crooner Frank Ocean is the ego. His depravity is just as endless, but he exemplifies his more reserved, complicated side on Nostalgia, Ultra standout “Novacane”. The beat is a monstrous amalgamation of hip-hop bass, random, glitchy noises, and, most important of all, a solid groove that sounds stuck between genres and intentions. Establishing a drug-fueled storyline involving porn stars and a trip gone bad, Ocean paints a picture of a stunted youth in search of the next big high to cure what ails him. The diagnosis for Ocean’s soul is grim, but the pursuit of absolution never sounded so intoxicating. –Chris Coplan

25. Girls – “Vomit”

girls vomit 1 Top 50 Songs of 2011

“Vomit” is an anthem of solitude. Like Elliott Smith and Nirvana before him, Christopher Owens struggles with his own opiate addiction. This song is a declaration of an inescapable torment, an unanswered longing, a tender futility. The beginning guitar riff echoes with loneliness like a flickering lightbulb in a dark room. Owens repeats the line “looking for love” as he and Chet White descend into instrumental insanity: A guitar solo wracked with distortion erupts, an organ hums beneath, and melismas sound out through the song’s climax. “Vomit” is its own manifesto, expressing the belief that madness is freedom, that pain is inspiration. -Summer Dunsmore

24. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

beastie boys make some noise Top 50 Songs of 2011

Hip-hop is always boasting how it’s a young person’s game, but “Make Some Noise” proved that the Beastie Boys are dogs who still have some bite left in them. The fortified funk they sic on us at the start of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is aggressive, witty, and sweeping. It’s classic Beastie Boys… and then some. In light of their recent setbacks – from “MCA” Adam Yauch’s struggle with cancer to the album’s various delays – the Brooklyn legends ferociously returned to the spotlight. This single is a testament to that. While there’s a lot of wax-scratching nostalgia going on, there’s just too much energy at hand to ignore. So, when Yauch says, “The best is yet to come, and yes, believe this,” we most certainly do. -Gilles LeBlanc

23. Real Estate – “It’s Real”

real estate its real Top 50 Songs of 2011

A good-natured single, “It’s Real” by Real Estate defines California surfer rock. It’s a song about puppy love, as singer Martin Courtney croons, “I carved our names into a tree/I walked on decomposing leaves/I skated on a frozen sea/It’s real as far as I can see.” It does what indie music does best: weaves poetic, charming lyrics with a hooky chorus. However, it’s unique to many other love songs, which usually express the pains of heartbreak or the dark side of obsession; this love song is a revelry, an exposition of energy and enthusiasm that comes with the fascination for a loved one. It’s real. -Summer Dunsmore

22. Childish Gambino – “Bonfire”

bonfire Top 50 Songs of 2011

Donald Glover plays the clueless Troy Barnes on Community. So, why take his nom de rhyme, Childish Gambino, even the slightest bit seriously? Because of “Bonfire”, dummy. The lyrics encapsulate Gambino’s wit (“This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef”) and even offer up the nastier side of the MC’s rainbow-colored personality (“The shit I’m doin’ this year? Insanity/Made the beat then murdered it, Casey Anthony”). It’s also got one of the LP’s most beloved and recognizable beats, equal parts bouncy club anthem and gritty garage rock jam. But really, it’s Gambino’s impassioned and visceral delivery style, like he’s barking at the listener, that makes this track a true burner. -Chris Coplan

21. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

fleet fox helplessness blues Top 50 Songs of 2011

Fleet Foxes’ titular track off Helplessness Blues is a lovely distillation of their sound, with the spectral doves of musicians like Roy Harper and Van Morrison flitting around for company. It’s such an epic poem that five minutes can hardly contain its beauty or its magnificent scope, which ranges from jangling folk to heavyweight, ethereal rock. By now, everyone knows the group’s sublime harmonies are their namesake, but when entwined with urgent guitar work and despairing language, it only adds deep emphasis to that fact. Feeling helpless has rarely felt so nourishing, building up to what can only be called a dappled sunlit kind of music, “my light in the dawn.” -Siobhan Kane

20. Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”

radiohead king of limbs Top 50 Songs of 2011

Anybody who heard Thom Yorke’s live versions of “Lotus Flower” back in ’09 and ’10 never could have imagined what it would morph into when it eventually made its way onto this year’s The King of Limbs, a surprise in and of itself. That finger-picked guitar ballad is now long forgotten thanks to the skittering rhythms, distant hand claps, and other ridiculous noises that now constitute “Lotus Flower”. The song is as dub-dance-y as Radiohead has ever sounded, with a backdrop culled from fractured loops of god knows what. But what makes “Lotus Flower” so noteworthy is how Yorke embodies it: with a healthy dose of croon-swagger. Confidence hasn’t always been Yorke’s vocal forte, but he straddles the line so perfectly between that and melancholy that it opens up a lot of doors for what Radiohead is capable of. That’s a shitload of open doors, by the way. -Drew Litowitz

19. Cut Copy – “Need You Now”

cut copy need you now Top 50 Songs of 2011

It’s a tough feat to render six minutes of addicting hooks. But that’s what Cut Copy managed to do with “Need You Now”. That explains why it opens the Australian outfit’s latest LP, Zonoscope: Hit ’em with a punch, snag ’em with a hook. Vocalist Dan Whitford employs a slick baritone throughout, which certainly pushes this number ahead, but it’s when he lets loose four minutes in that the heat turns up. While not as immediate as tracks like “Take Me Over” or “Where I’m Going”, it’s all about the payoff sometimes, and you won’t find a better one than here. It’s so heavy they need a downer at the end to bring things back to element. Talk about a trip. -J. Harry Painter

18. Neon Indian – “Polish Girl”

Neon Indian Era Extraña Top 50 Songs of 2011

Ever wondered if the Super Mario coin-grab effect could be sampled successfully in a song? Welcome to the world of Neon Indian. Alan Palomo’s wistful cadence tells of lost love on Era Extraña standout “Polish Girl”, while spaced-out 8-bit synths evoke the longing, inescapable feelings of shoegaze. Yet, the result is a blissful four and a half minutes itching for a spin on the dance floor. With “Polish Girl”, Neon Indian has traded their signature chillwave stylings in favor of a dreamy spin on dance pop and set the new standard for retro chic. -Frank Mojica

17. Drake – “Take Care”

drake take care cos Top 50 Songs of 2011

“Take Care” is one of six or seven tracks that could easily be deemed the best of the batch from Drake’s enigmatic, epic sophomore album of the same name. Set firmly atop impeccable (and unconventional) production by Jamie xx, the track soars with an unstoppable, sensual hook by hip-hop diva Rihanna: “If you let me, here’s what I’ll do/I’ll take care of you.” I defy any heterosexual man to refuse that offer. But what makes this track stand out more than anything is the potency with which Drake raps. As he battles insecurity, brutal honesty, and harsh reality, we see the side of Drake that was promised from the beginning – the talented side. -Winston Robbins

16. Jamie xx – “Far Nearer”

jamie xx far nearer Top 50 Songs of 2011

Between his masterful Gil Scott-Heron collab/remix LP We’re New Here, the slew of top-notch remixes he put out (including a HUGE rework of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”), and a couple of choice spots on Radiohead’s TKOL RMX compilation, Jamie xx’s huge 2011 quelled any and all doubts that he could succeed out of the shadow of the xx. And all that goes without mentioning “Far Nearer”, his debut solo release and crowning achievement to date. Built around a sun-drenched Caribbean steel drum line and a mangled Janet Jackson vocal, it’s a dance anthem for the ages and one hell of a way to launch one’s solo career. How’s that for setting the bar high? -Möhammad Choudhery

15. The Mountain Goats – “High Hawk Season”

the mountain goats all eternals deck Top 50 Songs of 2011

Revolution hung thick in the air this year, and John Darnielle’s prescient salvo seems to be the people’s anthem that never was (meanwhile, 3EB turned this in). Darnielle’s boilerplate solo voice/acoustic guitar is backed by a four-part male a capella chorus that, despite The Mountain Goats’ obscene prolificacy, paves whole new avenues for a guy who’s been doing this for a long, long time. Darnielle’s vocals vary in dynamics and enunciation, causing the words to teem with frustration and resolve, something arena-worthy with just doo-wop harmonies and earnest songwriting. Sadly, Post-Barbershop-Quartet is not a genre I can throw on Pandora…yet. -Jeremy D. Larson

14. The Weeknd – “Wicked Games”

theweeknd1 Top 50 Songs of 2011

House of Balloons is fraught with tracks that are going to make you wish you lived a different, sexier life, but not one of them is more powerful than “Wicked Games”. As The Weeknd croons in his phenomenal upper register, “Bring your love baby, I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby, I can bring my pain,” you might honestly find yourself wishing you were addicted to codeine and emotionless sexual encounters. The track’s appeal to everyone’s dark side is endless. And while most listeners won’t ever pick up a Styrofoam cup full of prescription cough medicine and Jolly Ranchers to get faded, the song provides insight into a twisted life of beauty with a deep layer of abhorrent immorality looming just below the surface. -Winston Robbins

13. The Throne – “Niggas in Paris”

the throne niggas in paris Top 50 Songs of 2011

It’s still baffling that one of the hardest-hitting tracks on Watch the Throne contains a Will Ferrell sample from the figure skating parody Blades of Glory. “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative,” Ferrell explains. “It gets the people going!” The long-anticipated collaborative record between rap’s reigning monarchs is a celebration in excess, but it comes packed with knowing winks like this one. Jay-Z and Kanye West roll in with a slow burn on top of piercing synth loop, gaining momentum as the song unravels, propelling one another into top form on this explosive club-pleaser. It’s Jay-Z’s methodical, fast-firing approach that sets the stage for West’s urgent, free-flowing (if a bit bonkers) rhymes; on an album grounded in the spirit of a healthy competition between the two powerhouse emcees, it’s on “Niggas in Paris” that they come together as a single, unstoppable hip-hop dream team. -Austin Trunick

12. Destroyer – “Kaputt”

kaputt destroyer 480 Top 50 Songs of 2011

In the world of the album’s title track, drugs and women are indiscernible — two intangible forces that are meant to be chased across clubs, kingdoms, and radio airwaves around the globe. Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar never catches either one, but decides to write a song about it and dedicate it to America, a fact that he blatantly states in the final verses. Amidst wind effects, slowed-down disco bass, synthesized bleeps, and foggy trumpet, the band topples the fourth wall, then builds it back up again to continue their quest across time, space, and celebration for a high they may never get, but in turn bestow upon their audience. -Dan Caffrey

11. Wild Flag – “Romance”

wild flag wild flag Top 50 Songs of 2011

“Romance” is the most unabashedly pop song on Wild Flag’s self-titled debut. More Bow Wow Wow than Bikini Kill, it shows a different, deliriously infectious side of this burgeoning supergroup. With a ringing, crunchy guitar punch over pounding surf drums, it’s the killer hook in the chorus that will keep you coming back again and again. (If you’re not tapping your toes by the time it gets to the hand clap-driven “shake, shimmy, shake” breakdown at the song’s climax, you’re probably not a warm-blooded human.) Straight-up rock and roll this irresistibly catchy is a rare treat in this day and age; “Romance” should be finding its way onto feel-good mixtapes for a long, long time. -Austin Trunick

10. Foo Fighters – “Rope”

Foo Fighters “Rope” Top 50 Songs of 2011

The glorious possibilities of a three-guitar attack in Foo Fighters is truly felt with this tune from Wasting Light. With Pat Smear having officially returned to the lineup, the band created some of their most aggressive music to date. The echoing intro gives in to a track that bops between pop and alt-rock, before launching into Chris Shiflett’s thrash-metal solo near the song’s conclusion. Of course, it’s Dave Grohl’s constant that ties it all together. That being the tireless Taylor Hawkins, who proves once more why he’s one of the finest drummers in the game today, yesterday, and tomorrow. As the first single, “Rope” announced the return of the Foo, and in hindsight, it’s the cattle call that would go on to cement the band as the biggest rock act on the planet. They’ve had a good year. -Justin Gerber

9. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

james blake album cover Top 50 Songs of 2011

The first thing anybody who listens to James Blake’s true breakout track notices is how undeniably incessant it is. It’s a classic study in repetition.

With Blake’s cyborg croon evaporating into palm-muted guitar masked as a digital processor, interspersed with the sound a black hole makes when you throw the whole genre of dubstep into it, the song slowly explodes into a haze of static, processed synth-organ, and the deepest bass around. It’s like a noised-out tribute to every sub-genre of reggae-inspired dance music, that both mourns its present dilution in the mainstream and celebrates the places it still has yet to go.

What’s most interesting about “The Wilhelm Scream”, though, is what this repetition means to Blake and why he’s created this song in the first place. At its core, the song is Blake re-envisioning something he must have heard incessantly over the past few years: his own father, soft rocker James Litherland’s “Where to Turn”, from his 2006 album, 4th Estate. Under this context, the song becomes a manifestation of Blake’s nostalgia and love for his pops — his memories and emotions aurally orchestrated into an infectious haze of confused sounds that come together perfectly. Cool, right? -Drew Litowitz

8. SBTRKT – “Wildfire”

sbtrkt wildfire Top 50 Songs of 2011

As SBTRKT, Aaron Jerome has been one of the year’s most buzzed-about breakout artists. On “Wildfire”, the masked producer recruits 2011’s must-have collaborator, Yukimi Nagano (of electro-soulsters Little Dragon), for the year’s essential dance floor jam. Between a bassline that can only be described as downright filthy and the irresistible allure of Nagano’s velvety vocals, “Wilfire” is pure sonic sensuality. Drawing inspiration from South London post-dubstep to house to R&B, “Wildfire” takes everything that ever made someone dance in the past 20 years and spins it into something futuristic. As it deftly defies any single label, SBTRKT’s scorching style on “Wildfire” is a reflection of how the future will one day remember 2011. -Frank Mojica

7. EMA – “California”

 Top 50 Songs of 2011

Equal parts Psychocandy, Sinead O’Connor, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed, Erika M. Anderson’s (aka EMA) “California” turns heads with its aggressive-yet-vapid delivery and lyrics that spin tales of reckless abandonment. “What’s it like to be small-time and gay?” she crudely asks mid-song. “What does failure taste like? To me it tastes like dirt,” she asks and answers herself towards the end. It’s a slow shuffle that never really leads to an anthemic release as its rusty sprawl suggests, but that’s sort of the point. On paper, it’s just as seclusive and cyclical.

Sort of like madness. Anderson’s a native of South Dakota, so one has to wonder what her perspective is here. Here’s a supposition: It’s the struggle that California – the land of dreams and mystery, as suggested even by the likes of Steinbeck – isn’t what it appears to be. It’s a wasteland. It’s a falsity. But, she’s not alone there. When she says, “Fuck California,” so do we. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned from reality television, MTV, or reading short bios on any musician who’s ever surfaced on the Sunset Strip, California breeds a special sort of crazy. Anderson may never find her small-town roots again (“Schizophrenic rules the brain”), but she’s created one powerful ode to it. One of the best of its kind. -Michael Roffman

6. St. Vincent – “Cruel”

st vincent strange mercy Top 50 Songs of 2011

If you’re going to write a rock song around a single riff, it better be a ridiculously good one, something that you’re happy to get stuck in your head. There have been a few that fit the bill in indie rock over the last few years; Modest Mouse’s “Float On” and MGMT’s “Kids” come to mind. Add St. Vincent’s “Cruel” to that exclusive list. Annie Clark writes a completely oddball, vaguely old-timey verse melody, complete with saccharine background strings. But when she sings “oo-eh-oo-eh-oo-llll” on the titular lyric, that distinctive synthesizer riff comes into focus and simply owns you. It’s silly, it’s uplifting, it’s catchy, and it can completely carry the song. Throw in a majorly danceable backing track, a languid distorted guitar solo, and Clark’s wispy but powerful voice, and it’s indie rock gold. -Jake Cohen

5. tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”

tune yards bizness Top 50 Songs of 2011

Merrill Garbus’ wonderful first single from her second record, w h o k i l l, reflects her decision to focus some aspects of the live experience into studio recordings, and certainly, the wild energy of “Bizness” is hardly constrained by the medium of a record. Perhaps this is what makes her great: The medium of music is the vehicle through which she has chosen to convey her creativity, but it cannot bind her. “Bizness” begins with the kind of vocal gymnastics that brings to mind David Longstreth dancing in a frying pan — lovely, gloopy, roaming sounds that also act as a warm vocal harpsichord of sorts.

Then there is the percussive aspect. The way Garbus layers sounds and percussion is a joy to hear, the military beats, along with a kind of skeletal, clickety-clack kind of sound that reconnects to her fascination with African rhythms. Her world is one that is anchored by a childlike sense of wonderment, and when the arresting, strident horns step in, you cannot help but smile. This is also because you sense her giddy reverie in taking apart traditional song structures and building them up again in her own image. When she sings “I’ll bleed if you ask me,” you really believe it, because her thoughtful sincerity is clear, amidst the revels. The visual accompaniment to the song (the video directed by Mimi Cave) is a perfect rendering of tUnE-yArDs’ ethos – to reach out to the child in all of us, keeping us young, keeping us strong, keeping us dreaming. -Siobhan Kane

4. Beyoncé – “Countdown”

beyonce countdown Top 50 Songs of 2011

At this point in her exceptional career, Beyoncé has transcended the traditional confines of pop diva status. Her latest album, 4, is full of the finest cuts of her career, be it for their infectious, poppy nature or for their demonstration of real, relatable emotional displays. And one could easily say “Countdown” is the best song on that album and leave it at that. To do so, however, is to discredit a track that is not only great, but a step above on a record whose primary notion is of stepping further into sonic grace.

From the initial wail of Bey’s voice to the marching band vibe, the track is the heart and soul, the lifeblood of a record that is a dynamo of R&B gold, both new and old. Queen B has built an empire of love songs and tributes to her boo(s), but none, be it on this album or the three before, come off as easily and thoroughly as they do here. We dare anyone to resist falling under the spell of the chorus where, like a Gucci-wearing version of The Count, Beyoncé counts down the ways in which she loves her man. It’s everything we love about Beyoncé: the sing-along-ability, the bombastic nature, and the beat that digs its nails into your hips to make them shimmy all night. Count it any way you want, this number’s a shining gem in Beyoncé’s bangin’ catalog. -Chris Coplan

3. M83 – “Midnight City”

m83 midnight city 490x490 Top 50 Songs of 2011

A Parisian M83 fan said to me this year that Anthony Gonzalez is “the best French music producer, more famous in [the] U.S. than France.” So what’s made “Midnight City” and its double album source, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, catch fire like it has in the States this year? Well, “Midnight City” is a great single, for one. And it’s in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, which doesn’t hurt its exposure stateside, either. Surely, at this point, M83 has never been more popular than they are right now. And this year, a lot of that gets chalked up to “Midnight City”.

But look deeper. “Midnight City”, like all of M83’s music, touches on feelings valued deep within the American heart: light, innocence, and youth. M83 just shrouds them behind synth sheen and vocal processing on Gonzalez’s voice. When you imagine its abstract, misty mood piece in the classic Americana setting of Lover’s Lane or Makeout Point, it clicks. The narrator and a girl look out over how “the night city grows” a “mutating skyline.” “The city is my church,” Gonzalez sings. “It wraps me in the sparkling twilight.” It’s so gorgeous and wondrous, how can you not weep from its beauty? And how many songs this year have done that? O beautiful, for spacious skies, indeed. -Paul de Revere

2. Tyler, The Creator – “Yonkers”

tyler the creator yonkers Top 50 Songs of 2011

Cast aside all preconceived notions or any conclusions that you may have drawn about Odd Future for just a second. Try and get back to the moment when you first heard “Yonkers”. Whether you were a longtime fan or you were victim to the viral video that got tossed around for a few weeks, it moved you. It moved some to anger, and it moved others to excitement; regardless of direction, though, it moved you. There are few times in life when a song will force you to stop everything you’re doing because you’re too busy picking your jaw up off the floor. Even fewer are the times when those selfsame songs are written and produced by a 19-year-old. Much criticism has been cast in the direction of this song and at Tyler in general; many found his lyrics involving misogyny, brutal violence, and even rape to be supremely offensive. And ultimately, that’s a decision best made on an individual basis. But you cannot deny that, for better or worse, “Yonkers” is one of the most powerful hip-hop singles in recent memory. Still sends chills down my spine. -Winston Robbins

1. Bon Iver – “Holocene”

bon iver holocene Top 50 Songs of 2011

For as often as Justin Vernon’s cabin hibernation is parodied, doesn’t it sound just a little enticing? Leaving it all, sequestering yourself away from a world that won’t stop spinning? In some ways, Vernon never left that seclusion. The songs on Bon Iver may sprawl and breathe more, but they’re still born form Vernon’s desire for privacy and escape. They’re rural, surreal, and separate, and “Holocene” captures the essence of Vernon’s world, just as he tries to capture the essence of our current epoch.

The song pivots around the lyric “All at once I knew/I was not magnificent” and the garden of romantic words and loosely related imagery around it. Acoustic crescendos push the plot along, and the band’s woodwind and found sound arrangement provide the scenery. Whole ages of emotions advance and recede throughout its course, yet it manages to stave off melodrama.

Vernon recalls three hazy memories in three verses and gives them context with that pivotal lyric — an ego check. These are the lasting moments that Vernon hangs on to through it all. Can we find meaning outside of ourselves and inside missed connections or little moments we have with friends and family? This truly is what outlasts things. Now, none of this ideology is revolutionary, but Bon Iver renews its vows in the context of 2011 — a year of exponential speed and growth, of revolution and dissatisfaction, of disillusionment and displacement across whole swaths of culture and class. “Holocene” is that moment of reflection on the escape vessel as you float away from the wreckage and towards Bon Iver’s world. If escapism is increasingly how we deal with our problems, that ubiquitous cabin in the woods sounds better and better with each coming year. -Jeremy D. Larson


50. Ellie Goulding – “Lights”
49. Cults – “Go Outside”
48. Big K.R.I.T. – “Country Shit” (Remix)
47. Mikal Cronin – “Apathy”
46. Cold Cave – “The Great Pan is Dead”
45. Das Racist – “Michael Jackson”
44. The Horrors – “Still Life”
43. Bill Callahan – “Riding For the Feeling”
42. Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down”
41. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”
40. Wilco – “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”
39. Liturgy – “Generation”
38. Washed Out – “Amor Fati”
37. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
36. AraabMUZIK – “Streetz Tonight”
35. Tom Waits – “Hell Broke Luce”
34. The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”
33. Kurt Vile – “Jesus Fever”
32. Battles – “Ice Cream”
31. Kate Bush – “Wild Man”
30. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “The Last Huzzah” (Remix)
29. The Strokes – “Under Cover of Darkness”
28. Beirut – “East Harlem”
27. The War on Drugs – “Come to the City”
26. Frank Ocean – “Novacane”
25. Girls – “Vomit”
24. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”
23. Real Estate – “It’s Real”
22. Childish Gambino – “Bonfire”
21. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
20. Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”
19. Cut Copy – “Need You Now”
18. Neon Indian – “Polish Girl”
17. Drake – “Take Care”
16. Jamie xx – “Far Nearer”
15. The Mountain Goats – “High Hawk Season”
14. The Weeknd – “Wicked Games”
13. The Throne – “Niggas in Paris”
12. Destroyer – “Kaputt”
11. Wild Flag – “Romance”
10. Foo Fighters – “Rope”
09. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”
08. SBTRKT – “Wildfire”
07. EMA – “California”
06. St. Vincent – “Cruel”
05. tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”
04. Beyoncé – “Countdown”
03. M83 – “Midnight City”
02. Tyler, the Creator – “Yonkers”
01. Bon Iver – “Holocene”

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