And here’s the whole damn thing in a tidy, easy-to-use and scent-free Spotify playlist.
25. Crystal Antlers – By the Sawkill
In a year where we were dodged by new material from the Mars Volta (again!), we were lucky to have one of our many bands with a deer-themed name help fill the freak-out garage prog void. “By the Sawkill” takes you by the balls by opening with a frantic fuzz solo, and the screamed-out vocals make sure you never have a reprieve.
24. Diego Garcia – You Were Never There
A dash of flamenco guitar, some backgrounds borrowed from “Five O’Clock World,” and an impossible-to-forget chorus make for the most infectious song I heard all year.
23. Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose
Bad girls make the best songs. I look forward to hearing this in the next Tarantino movie.
22. Timber Timbre – Woman
Evil. Fucking. Tuba.
Oh, and some seriously great crawling piano, spooky slide, and inventive singing.
But mostly, Evil. Fucking. Tuba.
21. The Black Keys – Mind Eraser
On an album where Akron’s finest seem to be spending a little too much time polishing a Bad Company impression, at least the finale delivers the balance of hard blues and melodicism we’ve all come accustomed to from Monsieurs Auerbach and Carney.
20. SHIM – I Don’t Know Why
If you wonder where all the rock went in 2011, Seattle’s beer-swilling, steak-eating SHIM stole it. All of it. And then they splurged the entire lot on this 1:41-long nugget of speed-freakin’ Foghattery.
19. Legendary Oaks – Grace Underwater
Another well-kept secret from Seattle, Legendary Oaks builds a forlorn guitar-and-fiddle duet up into an electrified shuffle with awesome double-tracked singing and a killer country-stomp guitar solo.
18. Cults – Go Outside
Though it’s just an innocent xylophone, the main melody plucked out by Cults in this pop-tastic pleasurefest is the kind of thing that will haunt you for days. Luckily the group took a few deviations from the line and came up with an enjoyable ode to recluses everywhere.
17. Blue Scholars – Seijun Suzuki
I love the nonchalance to this hip-hop tribute to some Japanese film legend I’ve never heard of before. MC Geologic lets DJ Sabzi take a few verses, and the beat-maker proves to be more than capable on the mic. Geo steals the show in his final turn, however, as he adds some natural tremolo by pulling his head back from the mic mid-verse, keeping the rap just barely audible before going back to full volume. Plus he name-checks Gorilla Monsoon, which is just fucking awesome.
16. Amy Lavere – Damn Love Song
This is some song I picked off during my lengthy foray into turntable.fm, and it hung around because of Lavere’s uniquely spiteful singing and the killer militant upright bassline (also done by Lavere). If Nashville wants to keep putting out tongue-in-cheek Americana like this, I’ll be happy to buy it.
15. The Jim Jones Revue – Foghorn
I don’t think anybody this side of The Killer himself has abused a piano so well. If Jones hadn’t kept this song for himself, I think Motörhead would have had a field day with it. Not that it needs improving, though. This is good, hard rockabilly delivered somewhere between 11 and 11.
14. Wye Oak – Civilian
Jenn Wassner is the next great American songwriter, “Civilian” is her greatest song to date, and far as I can tell she’s nowhere near stopping. Wassner’s interplay between her voice and guitar is damn near liquid on “Civilian,” and the solo section — a mess of guitar squelches and angelic backgrounds — is particularly a sound to behold.
13. Wilco – One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)
Album-opener “Art of Almost” drew me in with its adventurousness, but 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning” is what sold me on Wilco’s return to greatness on The Whole Love. It’s one thing for a band to spend 12 minutes cranking up the guitars and sequencers and God knows what else, but it’s another to stick to a relatively simple folk arrangement and not bore the shit out of the listener. Jeff Tweedy sings lazy, but his lyrics are anything but. The piano is taken straight out of Benmont Tench’s purely fictional book “HOW TO PLAY PIANO.” Nels Cline is downright subdued on lead guitar. In all honesty, I don’t know how it works … but it does. Goddamn does it.
12. Incubus – In the Company of Wolves
You probably gave up on Incubus a long time ago, and to be fair there’s not much on If Not Now, When? that suggests that was the wrong decision. “Company of Wolves” is one of just a handful of tracks that are bearable, but unlike the others, it boasts a left turn that rewards you for a little patience. The first three minutes or so treads the same path blazed by the folky “Earth to Bella” on 2006’s Light Grenades, but out of nowhere a menacing, science-fiction-inspired movement bubbles above the surface and takes over. Guitar maestro Mike Einzinger tries his best to get you floating into the ether, but Ben Kenney’s driving, repetitive bassline holds your ankles to the ground. Eventually it isn’t enough, as Brandon Boyd ditches words for stratosphere-shooting outbursts that puts it all over the top.
11. Blitzen Trapper – Street Fighting Sun
After two records of varying degrees of folk, Eric Earley adjusted the dials on his amp and reminded people that Portland isn’t just for sensitive beard-strokers (literally nothing wrong with that). A good amount of thunder aides the busy chord progression, but the kicker comes with the gangland vocals, roadhouse harmonica, and Who-quoting jaw harp during the breakdown and outro.
10. My Morning Jacket – Victory Dance
I cannot think of a more appropriate title to a song than this. If this doesn’t become the soundtrack to every sports pregame ritual, there is something truly wrong with America. Jim James has this knack for making a pretty traditional southern rock band setup push the boundaries, and “Victory Dance” is pretty much the prime example. For God sakes, he mimics an orchestra with his voice, and the guitar leads are somehow right at home among the demonic soul sounds.
9. Boots Electric – Boots Electric Theme
I feel like Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes’ solo debut was unfairly ignored, and I guarantee that you will be dancing your little hearts out as soon as you hit the ’80s-excess chorus doubled by Boots and Brody Dalle (wife of pal Josh Homme) on his own personal theme song. I anticipate this glammed-up, funked-out, Stonesy blast of deliciousness to find a home on the soundtracks of dozens of crappy ’80s revival movies in the near future, though I hold out hope that we all embrace it before it comes to that.
8. Graveyard – The Siren
What can I say, I’m a sucker for slow-burning, hard-rocking psych metal. The soulful singing of the intro draws you in, and just as you let your guard down — “TONIGHT A DEMON CAME INTO MY HEAD!” From there it’s pretty standard blues fare until around the 2:30 mark, where the tempo picks up and we get our Thin Lizzy on. And just so you know, if anything in 2011 makes me say “Thin Lizzy,” instant Top 10.
7. Blitzen Trapper – Astronaut
I typically try to stay away from doubling up bands on the best-of lists, but in addition to the impossibly fun “Street Fighting Sun,” Blitzen Trapper also came out with perhaps their best song by piling up all their trademarks in “Astronaut.” You got great lyrics, playful Southern beats, classic blues harmonica, revved-up guitar, an obvious Elton John influence, dead-on harmonies, and style shifting galore. If you want to know what Blitzen Trapper is all about, this is your gateway drug.
6. Ha Ha Tonka – Dead Man’s Hand
I was immediately attached to the tender mash-up of bluegrass, Americana, folk and country, what with its memorable acoustic lead and perfectly constructed melodies and harmonies. A song like this proves that you needn’t be an amazing singer to blow people away; you just need to know how to use your voice to the best of its abilities.
5. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – FFunny FFriends
Just when you thought Dirty Projectors had the market cornered on whatever the fuck it is that they do, Portland spit up an even better version. I don’t know how to describe shit like this other than throwing out a few verbs like “odd,” “sparkly,” “fun,” “quirky,” and “completely bangable.”
4. Bon Iver – Holocene
On an album full of impossibly beautiful material, “Holocene” stands out because of Justin Vernon’s expertise in emphasizing the right lyrics. “I was not magnificent” leads you into the thick of the track, and “I can see for miles, miles, miles, miles” stops you dead in your tracks just as the song gets ready to wind back up. The rickety bicycle solo is pretty bitchin’, too.
3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Robin Pecknold has a lot going through his head for such a young lad, but those things always have a way of manifesting themselves in some seriously essential music. The remarkable thing about this song, other than the lofty and big-question-asking lyrics, is how it could basically be two separate but equally great songs. The opening part is pretty, strum-happy British folk, while the second is the Fleet Foxes we’ve all come to know and love — rustic, head-swirling, harmonically arresting. And then the end, so hopeful — “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen…” It could easily sound pretentious, and lord knows we’d all love to point it out if it were, but Pecknold is so earnest that we know it’s not.
2. TV on the Radio – New Cannonball Blues
I think I’m addicted to synth bass. There’s something about setting a sonic bedrock with such low notes, especially if the vocalist likes to take it up to a higher register. Tunde Adebimpe is that kind of singer, equally adept at singing in his natural voice as well as one that mimics Earth Wind & Fire’s Phillip Bailey. Of course the voice is only half the battle, but lucky for us Adebimpe’s also a stellar melody-maker and lyricist, which is why “New Cannonball Blues” has a super-syllabic, note-perfect chorus.
1. The Antlers – Rolled Together
The guitar and bass spend as much time not playing as they do playing. The drums are absent for half the song. You barely notice the swelling undertow. But what you do notice are the incredible, repetitious vocals — “Rolled together with a burning paper heart/ Pulled together but about to burst apart” — and the otherworldly falsetto Peter Silberman pulls out of the bag for two short sessions of head-shaking ecstasy. So simple. So perfect.