Apparently 2011 was a good year for music, because I couldn’t whittle down my list of favorite songs below 50. Then again I’m not very good with that whole brevity thing (reference my personal mix post for proof), so what the hell do I know? The answer: A LOT.
50. Feist – The Bad In Each Other
Feist gets a lot of well-deserved praise for her trumpet-mimicking vocals, but her guitar skills always jump out at me when I watch her perform on TV. One of her subtle but ear-pleasing riffs introduces her masterpiece new album, giving way to horns and pounding percussion on this bittersweet folk gem.
49. The Cars – Blue Tip
After decades away, The Cars returned and sounded exactly like The Cars should sound. Though late bassist/singer Benjamin Orr left a big void, Ric Ocasek and Co. didn’t miss a beat after they dusted off their old instruments, picked up a few new ones, and affixed their sunglasses just so.
48. Neon Indian – Polish Girl
I’ve discovered that this chillwave stuff is kinda like a Totino’s Pizza Roll — if you stuff a whole bunch of processed crap inside a neat little package, it can be quite enjoyable. And yes, I am a fan of Totino’s Pizza Rolls. Them shits is delicious.
47. Foo Fighters – Arlandria
Dave Grohl revisited the old loud-quiet-loud pattern that grunge made famous, but also made sure to layer a few modern touches to distract the listener from some classically cliché lyrics. The crushing intro riff also sounds excellent as a follow-up to thrash-burner “White Limo,” the preceding track on Wasting Light (and, in most cases, on stage).
46. Chris Bathgate – No Silver
This straightforward soul-crusher draws you in with steady dobro strums and double-tracked vocals, then builds up to a startling mandolin break, all while Bathgate breaks your heart by singing about not having a pot to piss in.
45. St. Vincent – Surgeon
Annie Clark veered away from her status as the female Frank Zappa on Strange Mercy, but that’s a good thing in regards to “Surgeon.” Sufjan-esque orchestra swells, Clark’s dry delivery and some head-spinning guitar lines create a stunning vortex of weird. Of course the best part is the end, where funk bass and quick stabs of keys give way to Clark doing some insane Moog-ing out on her ax.
44. Tennis – Pigeon
The ’60s-style barbershop ballad thing was very in this year, and it fit Tennis’ odes to sailing like a glove. “Pigeon” sways along to the tide, and at a tidy 3:02 doesn’t overstay its welcome.
43. Allen Stone – Unaware
Jesus Christ almighty can this Muppet-looking Eastern Washington (so basically Idaho) white boy sing. This is likely the best soul song to be released since before D’Angelo went shitballs crazy. Seriously, go grab your headphones, chair dance like a superfreak, and embrace the sudden urge to make a “Doin’ It Doin’ It and Doin’ It Well” playlist.
42. Rural Alberta Advantage – Tornado ’87
Though Departing was a step down from 2010’s stunning Hometowns, the RAA hit its rickety, rasp-ity sweet spot on another stormy-metaphor love song.
41. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – Booty City
The baddest man on the planet wants to take you to Booty City. No fucking way you’re turning that down. No no no, you’re turning that shit up.
40. Puscifer – Conditions of My Parole
I was under the impression Puscifer was just Maynard James Keenen’s outlet for goofy, lowbrow bullshit, but to paraphrase certified Hall of Famer Yoda, wrong was I. The cool-headed acoustic chord progression steals your attention, only for some serious bass and rapid-fire Keenanisms to sucker punch you straight in your manparts. The layered background vocals are worth the price of admission, though I wish the incredible synth solo Paul Shafer played during the Halloween performance on Letterman was on the album. Regardless, all us Tool and A Perfect Circle fans might want to cool it on the Puscifer flaming, methinks.
39. Eddie Vedder featuring Cat Power – Tonight You Belong To Me
Though it seemed like an odd move during Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary celebration, Ukulele Songs was a smashing success, and no song was more effective than EdVed’s cover of that one adorable song from “The Jerk.” The casting of Cat Power in the Bernadette Peters role was ace for sure, and though I’m a lumberjack of a man who smells of beard and earthen things, I’m not afraid to admit that this song is the cutest Goddamn thing I’ve ever heard.
38. The Cave Singers – Black Leaf
The jumpy, overdriven acoustic guitar lick is infectious, and the ramshackle vocals conjure up some good old-fashioned fire and brimstone nonsense.
37. Broken Bells – Meyrin Fields
The Meyrin Fields EP was top-to-bottom even better than 2010’s debut album from the James Mercer/Danger Mouse pairing, and the glitchy title track features more of those futuristic undertones and spacey choruses that I just can’t get enough of.
36. Mastodon – Spectrelight
I love that Mastodon can pound the shit out of your eardrums and still, for the most part, sing notes. More important, though, are the crushing guitar riffs that I’m pretty sure have aftershocks. It’s just Mastodon being Mastodon, which is better than being any other metal band these days.
35. M83 – Midnight City
This is a candidate for vocal performance of the year, and the cartoonish, criss-crossing synth lines ARE the sound of 2011.
34. White Denim – Drug
I’m always up for a little late-’60s San Francisco scene revival, especially if the guitars are gonna shift from dormancy to shred levels in the blink of an eye.
33. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman featuring Ben Harper – Save the Hammer for the Man
Rage’s baritone-voiced guitar player holds his own in a duet with legendary Van Morrison impersonator Ben Harper, and oddly enough Harper actually gets the better of Rolling Stone’s 40th-ranked guitar player of time (insert jerk-off pantomime here) in their ridiculous lap-steel/effects-pedal guitar duel. In all seriousness, this is the kind of music the Occupy movement needs, and I hope a few more artists follow these well-meaning millionaires’ footsteps.
32. Radiohead – Lotus Flower
The King of Limbs lost its charm to me not long after its release, but “Lotus Flower” endures through its trippy lead bass, head-spacey falsetto vocals, and the unshakable image of Thom Yorke’s terribawesome dancing.
31. Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside – Against the Law
Vibrato is abound, whether it’s from lead singer Ford’s timeless voice or the complementing funeral-speed rhythm guitars. Probably the coolest retro sound to emerge all year.
30. Wild Flag – Glass Tambourine
If you asked me to choose between Wild Flag’s all-encompassing alterna jams or “Portlandia,” I’d probably cry. Carrie Brownstein is on a roll, and the style-shifting “Glass Tambourine” (I hear echoes of everything from Hendrix and Pavement to Blondie and the Bangles) just may be the apex of it all.
29. The Decemberists – Burying Davy
Everybody kept fawning over The King is Dead, and just as I was starting to feel disenchanted about it, here came the Long Live the King EP and a much-appreciated return to renaissance rock by my favorite well-read Portland prog-folk troupe. Chris Funk was allowed to let loose all throughout this minor-key English folk-fest, and thank God. He is a bearded man, after all, and you cannot keep those types chained up. They WILL eat you, straight-up cannibal style.
28. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Spazz
Shoot me, but I’ve always enjoyed solo Malkmus more than Pavement, and seriously, why not? “Spazz” is like a master class in being a cool middle-aged guy who loves to play his guitar, and apropos to the title, the song shifts tempos as often as ladies accuse Herman Cain of titty-grabbing (terrible topical humor FTW!).
27. Mister Heavenly – Mister Heavenly
“Mister Heavenly” is another song to employ the oh-so popular ’60s-style pop vocals, but the indie supergroup adds a fresh twist by placing them atop a bed of fuzzed-up industra-bass and throwing in jabs of aggressive riffage. Your ears hear so much different and incredible stuff that when the clap-happy refrain takes over for the final 40 seconds, you’re suddenly jumping from foot to foot like you’re at a damn sock hop.
26. Widowspeak – In the Pines
A delightful crackle, springy reverb and breathy, cooing vocals bring to mind a morose Mazzy Star, which is apparently the best kind of Mazzy Star.
Stay tuned for picks 25-1, which, believe it or not, has even better songs.