The Top 10
10) Portugal. The Man – So American
I had never heard of Portugal. The Man before this year’s release of In The Mountain In The Cloud. Beside being frustrated with the Alaskan rock group’s strange use of punctuation, I was extremely impressed with their sound. “So American” is track number one on the album, and from frontman John Gourley’s opening falsetto yelp, I was hooked. Portugal. The Man describe their sound as psychedelic rock, and there definitely is a strong similarity to later Beatles recordings. “If pain was a color to paint on you/ Your heart would be the color blue/ Be a painting, hung up there ‘til your body met your head/ Which were made of silver” – this is about as close in meaning to “I Am the Walrus” as anything I’ve heard recently. With a driving and uplifting melody, coupled with a complex and well-orchestrated arrangement, “So American” is one of the best rock ‘n’ roll tracks of the year.
9) Jay-Z and Kanye West (feat. Frank Ocean) – Made in America
We can all pretty much agree that Watch The Throne was not a very good record. There is no platform large enough to contain Kanye and Jay-Z’s collective egos; not even an album’s worth of one-upmanship and swagger. But it seemed like Yeezy and Jiggy had such a blast making the record, that you can’t help but enjoy it. While the outrageous “Niggas in Paris” and the no-doubt-extremely-expensive “Otis” have thus far garnered all of the attention, it is “Made in America” that is the album’s only true respectable point. Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean helms the track with a chorus that is devastatingly smooth. Ocean is about to blow up with the upcoming release of his debut album – his mixtape nostalgia, Ultra has been included on many year-end lists that generally refuse the inclusion of mixtapes; it was that good. “Made in America” is a bittersweet retrospection, where the two rappers recall their humble upbringings. This is an ode to the American dream, and Ocean pays tribute to the sacrifices of all the people who made the dream a reality: “Sweet King Martin/ Sweet Queen Coretta/ Sweet Brother Malcolm/ We made it in America.” On an album rife with shameless opulence, “Made in America” is a reminder as to how Ye and Jay first reached their throne. It’s as inspiring as anything released this year.
8) Tennis – Marathon
When husband and wife duo, Tennis, set off on an eight-month sailing trip around the Eastern Seaboard, it’s hard to know if they imagined that they would write an entire album dedicated to the memories of that clearly transformative experience. The story behind Tennis has the tendency to overshadow their breezy music. It is impossible to hear “Marathon” without imagining the songwriting inspiration. Both Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were philosophy majors at the University of Colorado Denver. After graduating, the two sold all their worldly possessions, bought an old sail boat, fixed it up, and embarked on a voyage through some of North America’s harshest tides. After returning from their trip, the two crafted an album that faithfully chronicled their capricious adventure. “Marathon” is the strongest track on Cape Dory and not only takes the listener on a journey out on the cold Eastern seas (“Red over white, fishermen working at night/ Not even once did we see a light”), but also takes a well-tread sound (‘60s pop) and gives it a uniquely modern twist. During the chorus, Moore’s voice is warped to a point where it’s almost unrecognizable. This is escapism in its most distilled form: poignant, catchy and ridiculously fun.
7) James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream
While James Blake garnered the most attention from his stripped-down cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” it was “The Wilhelm Scream” that proved to naysayers that the kid could sing. The lyrical melodrama of the track transforms Blake’s minimalism into an arena-type spectacle. Featuring bare and naked production, with cold, echoing tones intermittently ringing out through the hollow space, Blake bleeds onto the track, “I don’t know about my dreaming anymore/ All that I know is I’m falling, falling,” – it’s easy to imagine him slipping off a high-rise in slow-motion. The pungent whiff of inevitable death. And then silence.
6) Tyler, The Creator – Yonkers
Of all the rap singles released this year, only one condemned B.o.B, Hayley Williams, Bruno Mars and Pitchfork Media: Tyler, The Creator’s wonderfully sick “Yonkers.” The spoken-word fugue sends Tyler straight to the annals of independent hip-hop. With a mesmerizing, self-produced beat, “Yonkers” brings to mind Bernard Herrmann’s iconic theme to Psycho; Tyler’s lyrics are equally as violent and unexpected. The song’s accompanying video is appropriately haunting: a single shot black and white shot of Tyler sitting on a stool, ingesting a cockroach-like insect, transforming into something altogether alien, and then hanging himself. Only a teenager could come up with such a concept.
5) Bon Iver – Holocene
Bon Iver is an album that deserves to be heard in its entirety. Extracting a single track from the record feels almost blasphemous to Justin Vernon’s masterpiece. But Holocene is too good a song to pass up. With a simple yet haunting chord progression topped with Vernon’s achingly beautiful voice, the track marks a pinnacle for Bon Iver. Vernon seduces us, draws us in and slowly expands the sonic arrangement without our knowing. By the end of the song, when sax, chimes and drums are added to the mix we can hardly notice; we are so caught up in the magical soundscapes of Holocene. Vernon’s weightless and often impenetrable vocals act less as a narrative device, and more as an overall sensation. The phrases we are able to pick up: “you fucked it friend,” “I was not magnificent,” “I could see for miles” – these feel like musings from a different plane. There is no way a mere human could make such noises. This is not a song for our ears; it’s for our heart.
4) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
As I mentioned in my introduction, 2011 has been a year of escapist music: sounds that transport you to a more ideal place and help you forget the trials and tribulations of 21st Century life; music that helps us vacate our beings, and focus our thoughts elsewhere. Leave it to a group of indie rockers from Seattle to bring us crashing back down into our bodies. “Helplessness Blues” is an anthem for our age: disillusioned, fretful, bleak and utterly uncertain, Fleet Foxes do not paint a pleasant scene. But instead of retreating into the depths of fidelity and production, the band confront the problems of 2011 head on, armed with only an acoustic guitar, subtle percussion and Robin Pecknold’s sincere and plaintive voice. This could be the first song for youth coming of age in the face of our current economic, environmental and social collapse; the world is not a pretty place, and Pecknold does not hide his discontent. “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see/ And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be/ A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” The lyric passage captures a feeling of disenchantment with life; the shattering of youthful naïveté and delusions of grandeur, followed by the subsequent acceptance of mediocrity. Where Pecknold succeeds is his tone: he doesn’t make a life of insignificance seem like such an awful fate, which is a comforting thing indeed.
3) Cults – You Know What I Mean
When I originally drafted my ‘Top Ten’ songs list, I simply put down Cults for number three. I was not sure which song from their excellent self-titled debut that I would choose. “Go Outside” is the best song on the album, but is automatically disqualified for inclusion in this list as it was originally released last year. Part of the reason I chose “You Know What I Mean” above all the other great songs on the record, is because it is probably the most similar to “Go Outside.” It combines an inexorable ‘60s aesthetic with ethereal production, romanticized lyricism and addictive melodies. The song begins with a riff straight from The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” and then is quickly derailed by Brian Oblivion’s driving guitar and Madeline Follin’s lyrical pathos. It’s a powerful combination, and one that is riddled with neurosis and angst; a far cry from the sunny hedonism of “Go Outside.” Instead of “I really want to go outside and stop to see your day,” Follin cries “I can’t sleep alone at night, yeah you know what I mean.” It’s a welcome change, and one that signals at hidden depths below Cults’ carefree exterior.
2) Lana Del Rey – Blue Jeans
You would have to be blind and deaf to not know who Lana Del Rey is; what with her mesmerizing beauty and seductively sultry voice. And all those aware of Del Rey can be split into two groups: those that want her, and those that want to be her. It would seem prudish to try and apply genders to those preferences. In terms of an Internet sensation, the trajectory of Lana Del Rey (LDR to her followers) is second to none. The bewitchingly pouty diva’s debut single “Video Games” dropped earlier this year, and thrust Del Rey into the spotlight. Despite her completely manufactured image (nobody has lips that luscious), LDR has a unique mass appeal. But while “Video Games” has been getting all of the attention, partly due to its pitch-perfect ‘found footage’ music video, it is the B-Side “Blue Jeans” that is her best song to date. Where “Video Games” has Del Rey musing about a particularly pleasant relationship – “It’s better than I ever even knew/ They say that the world was built for two/ Only worth living if somebody is loving you/ Baby now you do” – “Blue Jeans” has her anxiously pursuing another man (whether this is pre or post the aforesaid relationship is unknown): “Said you had to leave to start your life over/ I was like ‘no please, stay here’/ We don’t need no money we can make it all work/ But he headed out on Sunday, said he’d come home Monday/ I stayed up waiting/ Anticipating.” LDR’s Kate Bush-inspired vocals (though she swears it’s “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”) soar heavenwards, despite the song’s cringe-worthy codependence. The highs are so high and her lows are delectably smoldering; “Blue Jeans” shows off the buzz-artist’s impressive vocal range. While Adele has been getting all the attention for being a ‘pop star who can actually sing,’ it is Lana Del Rey who deserves that acclaim. With her classic Hollywood looks, coupled with a bad-girl attitude (“love you more, than those bitches before”) Lana Del Rey has all the makings of a pop superstar. Watch out Gaga.
1) M83 – Midnight City
A good song is inherently different to a good album for all the obvious reasons. Where a quality record must have consistency, cohesiveness and general thematic balance, the best songs only need a few things to stand out: a catchy beat, somewhat meaningful lyrics, and a certain ‘je ne se quois’ that separate it from all the other catchy and meaningful productions. For a song to define a year it must have a really catchy beat,really meaningful lyrics and a hell of a lot of that ‘je ne se quois.’ M83’s “Midnight City” is a sweeping triumph, and it is strange when you realize that the track is only just four minutes long. But like all of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, “Midnight City” is epic. The song compresses driving beats, urgent yet opaque vocals, a completely intriguing (and completely appropriate) saxophone solo and nebulous synths into an organic ode to ‘80s aestheticism. Anthony Gonzalez’s hermetically plangent soundscapes trap the listener in a faraway world: a place where men grow mustaches un-ironically, and wear pastel t-shirts with white loafers. Yet strangely enough, “Midnight City” gestures more to the future than the past. And a future where men can grow an irony-free mustache is one that I’d like to see.
At the end of every year I always ask myself: how will this year be remembered in a century’s time? So, how will 2011 be remembered? By those who we lost: Amy Winehouse and Gil Scott-Heron. Or those who were found: Odd Future and Lana Del Rey. As the year REM and The White Stripes split? Or the year that Zooey Deschanel/Ben Gibbard and Thurston Moore/Kim Gordon split split. The year Arcade Fire went from being those ‘weird Canadians’ to being a household name? Or the year two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (Lou Reed and Metallica) collaborated on one of the worst albums in recent history (Lulu)?
Apparently a lot of other un-musically related things happened but I mustn’t have been paying attention…
Only time will tell which stories last, and which fade into the all-consuming vacuum of accelerated culture.
2012 looms ahead. And if the Mayans were right, then it will be an eventful one. Even if the Mayans were wrong (and let’s pray to God, or Quetzalcoatl, that they were), 2012 will still be wildly eventful. We will be treated to tours from The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Eagles and The Beach Boys (wheelchair access required?), new material from Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, and highly anticipated sophomore releases from Sleigh Bells, Tyler, the Creator, Tennis and The xx. Bring it on!