My Favorite Music of 2011

The Inimitable Kate Bush

I’ve always hesitated compiling and posting a best singles list because of potential overlap with an albums list, and wouldn’t ya know, all of my top ten albums are also represented on the singles list, with one exception. Anyway, in summary…

My Top 25 Singles:

# 25 – 21
# 20 – 16
# 15 – 11
# 10 – 6
# 5 – 1

In lieu of sending out mix CDs this year, I’ve put two best-of-2011 playlists up on Spotify:

Night Time: The Best of 2011, Volume One

1. M83, “Midnight City” / 2. Tracey Thorn, “Night Time” / 3. The Kills, “Future Starts Slow” / 4. Sam Phillips, “Happy Mediums” / 5. Junior Boys, “Playtime” / 6. James Blake, “Limit to Your Love” / 7. Lykke Li, “Youth Knows No Pain” / 8. Kavinsky featuring Lovefoxxx, “Nightcall” / 9. Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What” / 10. Kris Delmhorst, “Tonight She Comes” / 11. K.D. Lang & The Siss Boom Bang, “The Water’s Edge” / 12. Fitz & The Tantrums, “MoneyGrabber” / 13. My Morning Jacket, “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” / 14. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games” / 15. Ivy, “Distant Lights” / 16. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy” / 17. Lady Gaga, “Marry the Night” / 18. TV On the Radio, “Will Do” / 19. Adele, “Someone Like You” / 20. Florence + The Machine, “What The Water Gave Me”

Blue Skies Again: The Best of 2011, Volume Two

1. Wilco, “I Might” / 2. Those Darlins’, “Screws Get Loose” / 3. Atlas Sound, “Mona Lisa” / 4. Beth Ditto, “I Wrote The Book” / 5. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “Belong” / 6. Jens Lekman, “Waiting For Kirsten” / 7. Smith Westerns, “Weekend” / 8. Raphael Saadiq, “Heart Attack” / 9. Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Blue Skies Again” / 10. Destroyer, “Kaputt” / 11. Gillian Welch, “The Way It Goes” / 12. Emm Gryner, “Heartsleeves” / 13. Iron and Wine, “Tree By The River” / 14. Calexico, “Lost in Space” / 15. PJ Harvey, “The Words That Maketh Murder” / 16. Kate Bush, “Misty” / 17. Laura Marling, “Sophia” / 18. Tune-Yards, “Bizness” / 19. Florence + The Machine, “Shake It Out” / 20. The Radio Dept., “The New Improved Hypocrisy”

My Top Ten Albums:

1. Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”
2. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
3. Kate Bush, “50 Words For Snow”
4. Fitz and the Tantrums, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”
5. Raphael Saadiq, “Stone Rollin'”
6. Sam Phillips, “Solid State: Songs From The Long Play
7. Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes”
8. PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”
9. Laura Marling, “A Creature I Don’t Know”
10. Tune-Yards, “Whokill”

Also recommended:

Calexico, “Selections From Road Atlas (1998-2011)”
Florence + The Machine, “Ceremonials”
Gillian Welch, “The Harrow and The Harvest”
Ivy, “All Hours”
Junior Boys, “It’s All True”
K.D. Lang and The Siss Boom Bang, “Sing It Loud”
The Kills, “Blood Pressures”
My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”
Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy”
TV On the Radio, “Nine Types of Light”
Wilco, “The Whole Love”

Top Ten Albums of 2011: # 1

1. Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”

I’ve followed this Canadian singer/songwriter’s career for about a decade now. She remains fairly obscure on this side of the border, but that’s less due to her nationality and more to a preference for self-releasing her music rather than signing to a major label (she actually did that in 1998 and only one album came of it). Staying independent has allowed her to build up a dependable body of work: good, solid albums with usually two or three exceptional pop songs on each that could make one swoon and also leave one puzzled as to why she’s not a big star.

With Northern Gospel, she’s crafted a great album full of nothing but exceptional pop songs— not anything that would give Rhianna a run for her money on top 40 radio, mind you, but pop in a classic sense, full of Gryner’s crystal-clear vocals, strong, smart melodic hooks and full-bodied but not overdone production that mostly eschews of-the-moment techniques (which have dated some of her earlier work) for a more timeless feel. From peppy opening salvo “Ciao Monday” to up-tempo rocker “Fast Exit” (which plays like Carole King covering The Pointer Sisters) to gleeful kiss off “Last Day on Earth” to majestic lighter-waver “A Little War” to the all-out glorious “Heartsleeves”, this is a flawlessly, unashamedly perfect pop album. In a year where I honestly began gravitating more towards singles than albums, this reminded me how affecting and essential the latter could still be.

Favorites: “Heartsleeves”, “Ciao Monday”, “Fast Exit”, “North”, “Last Day on Earth”

Top Ten Albums of 2011: 4, 3, 2

4. Fitz and the Tantrums, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”

Even though its subject matter spans from heartbreak to, well, heartbreak (except for “Dear Mr. President”, which addresses political rather than personal upheaval), I’ve found more ecstatic, unadulterated joy in this record than I would ever have expected from only hearing “MoneyGrabber” on its own. Anyone can easily approximate a classic, existent musical genre (in this case, neo-soul), but Michael Fitzpatrick and his rhythm-heavy band (emphasizing keys and bass with horns filling in for the absent six-string guitars) are sincere and totally committed to it as they lithely turn out one tight, exuberant song after another.

Favorites: “MoneyGrabber”, “Breaking the Chains of Love”, “Don’t Gotta Work It Out”, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”


3. Kate Bush, “50 Words For Snow”

As the sticker plainly states, seven songs in 65 minutes–the shortest of which clocks in at just under seven, the longest of which lasts for over thirteen and is about making love to a snowman. In between, there’s an Elton John (!) duet in which the man sounds more alive than he has in decades and the literal title track, the loopiest, most menacing song she’s recorded since Hounds of Love. If Aerial verified her unerring brilliance after a long sabbatical, this wintry song cycle confirms she’s still a seeker, a risk taker, and neither easily defined nor dismissed.

Favorites: “Misty”, “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”, “Wild Man”, “50 Words For Snow”

2. Destroyer, “Kaputt”

Before Kaputt, I liked Dan Bejar’s songs well enough but his mewling, wobbly voice nearly always put me off, both on his contributions to New Pornographers albums and his varied solo work under this moniker. Bejar doesn’t change the way he sings here (as if he ever could); he’s simply found an ideal, complimentary setting for his voice. Kaputt is a mélange of primitive-sounding drum machines and guitar and synth washes, adorned by velvety flutes, trumpets and saxes, most of it unfolding at a mid-tempo pulse. It slyly recalls early ’80s soft rock but feels both out of time and intensely personal as it admirably sustains a tone of introspection, regret and gentle resolve.

Favorites: “Kaputt”, “Savage Night at the Opera”, “Chinatown”, “Suicide Demo For Karen Walker”, “Blue Eyes”

Top Ten Albums of 2011: 7, 6, 5

7. Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes”

Only superficially recognizable from the woman who recorded Youth Novels, Ms. Li undergoes a striking transformation on her second album. Deepening her petite voice to an unanticipated degree, she matches the dark, aggressive, cavernous music full of upfront percussion and chilling atmosphere beat for clanging beat. She’s still pop (“Sadness is a Blessing” lies halfway between Phil Spector and The Jesus and Mary Chain) but far more profound that previously before.

Favorites: “Youth Knows No Pain”, “Sadness is a Blessing”, “Get Some”

6. Sam Phillips, “Solid State: Songs From The Long Play”

I haven’t written about Phillips’ subscription only project, The Long Play (5 EPs, 1 LP and extras for about $50) because although it’s for a good cause, it’s a lot to ask of a casual fan. Luckily, she’s made this 13-track selection of songs from it available to the public; since it’s a compilation, perhaps it doesn’t flow as well as Don’t Do Anything or Martinis and Bikinis, but her ingenuousness has not diminished; on the contrary, she’s embracing sunny retro pop more than she has since the ’90s, but with the intimate, homemade scope of her ’00s recordings.

Favorites: “Happy Mediums”, “Broken Circle”, “So Glad You’re Here”

5.  Raphael Saadiq, “Stone Rollin'”

Saadiq developed his skills as a member of ’90s R&B stalwarts Tony! Toni! Tone!, but he had fallen off my radar until I heard this album’s lead-off song, “Heart Attack” on WERS. It’s a hell of a “side one, track one” with its insistent, relentless beat. From there, Saadiq just gets crazier and more compelling as he crafts an idiosyncratic take on classic R&B that throws out all the rules. He titles a breathtaking love-will-keep-us-together lament “Go to Hell”, rather resembles a juiced-up Tracy Chapman (!) on the boogie-woogie shuffle “Day Dreams” and tonally runs the gamut from the simple, punky “Radio” to the ornately orchestrated “The Answer”.

Favorites: “Heart Attack”, “Movin’ Down the Line”, “Go To Hell”, “The Answer”

Top Ten Albums of 2011: 10, 9, 8

10. Tune-Yards, “Whokill”

In theory, Merrill Garbus should sound insufferable: her grab-bag, mutli-genre fusions, vocal affectations and “experimental” aesthetic paint her as a one-woman distaff Animal Collective–not exactly what the world needs. Thank god she’s smarter than that; if her lyrics occasionally read too blank or obscure, the music, crafted out of tape loops and live bass always gels, whether she’s abrasive and daunting (“Gangsta”) or hushed and discreet (“Wooly Woolly Gong”).

Favorites: “Bizness”, “Gangsta”, “Powa”

9. Laura Marling, “A Creature I Don’t Know”

Not an advance on the scale of I Speak Because I Can, Marling’s third set nonetheless exhibits some growth. “The Muse” and “Sophia” may lean more towards pop than folk but avoid slickness, and slow waltz  “Night After Night” refines the previous LP’s lovely Leonard Cohen-isms. “The Beast”, however, is an impressive epic that gradually builds to a menacing, electric guitar shredding roar–play it for anyone and you may have trouble convincing them Marling’s only 21.

Favorites: “The Beast”, “Sophia”, “Night After Night”

8. PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”

You have to admire Harvey for never making the same record twice. Lyrically, it’s her most thematically cohesive effort to date, fixating on war and its consequences. Musically, it’s a little weird: the autoharp is her axe of choice and she employs more saxophone than electric guitar. Weirder still, despite the often morbid subject matter, the tempo’s positively jaunty in most spots. She’s created a unique, gripping synthesis and I’d rate this even higher if I could make a lick of sense out of it.

Favorites: “The Words That Maketh Murder”, “In the Dark Places”, “On Battleship Hill”

Favorite Songs of 2011: # 5 – 1

5. Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Blue Skies Again”

The title evokes optimism and anticipation; a perceptive vocalist could also hint at a little melancholy. Mayfield goes a step further, putting an ironic spin on a well-worn cliché with a little help from the almost-sarcastic male “la la la’s” backing her up while keeping in tune with the song’s upbeat, ringing guitar swagger.

4. Emm Gryner, “Heartsleeves” (Click here to listen to this song – no video exists!)

Emm has always excelled at constructing big-hearted, breathtaking pop songs and “Heartsleeves” is possibly her finest one yet: tenderly addressing a close friend she has fallen out of touch with, she surges into an incredibly uplifting chorus that chimes and sighs on the phrase, “Don’t stop wearing your heart on your sleeve” with perseverance and grace.

3. Junior Boys, “Playtime”

Upon first hearing this over the summer, I noted how much I wanted to wrap this song around my body like a comfy, drowsy quilt, a metaphor more pertinent now as the temperature gradually drops. Blissfully unhurried and gorgeously spare, this doesn’t radically deviate from the band’s homemade synth-pop template, but they’ve never sounded so urgent and simultaneously, so serene.

2. Ivy, “Distant Lights”

Kicking off with a lengthy instrumental intro featuring a thumping, persistent electronic beat, this sounds nothing like the Ivy of old until Dominique Durand’s heavily accented vocal appears and then you’d never mistake it for anyone else. Still, this is a neat update of their lounge pop/indie rock hybrid–as cordially cool as ever, but also vigorously buffed into a silky, near ecstatic shine.

1. Destroyer, “Kaputt”

Around 1:30 in, Dan Bejar sings, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, N.M.E., all sound like a dream to me” and does so with such wistfulness and longing that it nearly kills me every time. I still can’t decipher exactly what this song is about (although the video above offers one interpretation), but I really don’t need to with music so yearning and impeccably realized: textural guitars and synths inspired rather than lifted from a New Order record, a restrained yet perpetual electronic beat pulsing in the background, and most affectingly, a mournful, soothing saxophone–a clarion call of comfort and sanity in a world overstuffed with destructive pleasures.

Favorite Songs of 2011: # 10 – 6

10. Adele, “Someone Like You”

Since one rarely hears a piano-and-voice ballad on contemporary radio anymore, this has a certain novelty to it, but Adele’s frank, persuasive yet not overdone performance makes it an instant standard–the first song in I don’t know how long that gave me chills upon first hearing it.

9. Fitz and The Tantrums, “MoneyGrabber”

Speaking of unlikely radio hits, “MoneyGrabber” initially seemed like such a throwback to retro-sounding ’80s blue-eyed soul (Hall and Oates, obviously, but also some INXS), I had little inclination as to what a resilient (and compelling) earworm it would become.

8. Wilco, “I Might”

Nothing like a brisk uptempo single packed with hooks (Motown beat! Garage rock organ! Do-do-do’s!) to shake a venerable band out of complacency; lyrics having something to do with setting the kids on fire give the whole package an unexpectedly weird sheen.

7. PJ Harvey, “The Words That Maketh Murder”

I’d never have guessed that one of the year’s catchiest songs would feature autoharp as its lead instrument and lyrics that reference numerous unpleasant war atrocities until they coalesce into an incessant manifesto (over pounding piano and a jaunty beat) of “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”

6. Kavinsky featuring Lovefoxxx, “Nightcall”

Such an ideal choice for the opening credits of DRIVE that it’s near impossible to consider it outside that context, this deliberate ’80s electro/Moroder throwback boasts a killer chorus that CSS singer Lovefoxxx just nails with a beautifully blank effervescence.

Favorite Songs of 2011: # 15 – 11

15. Tune-Yards, “Bizness”

Although as rhythmic and impassioned as a Fela Kuti song (“Don’t take my life away,” indeed), Merrill Garbus’ polyglot playfulness (notably evident in the video above) renders any hint of protest palatable–fun, even. Occupy-ers and Ani DiFranco, take note.

14. Kate Bush, “Misty”

You can’t accuse a veteran diva of losing her edge when her new album’s centerpiece is a 13-minute reverie on making love to a snowman; as it gently glides through piano chords and percussive fills, it sounds like little else in her oeuvre (as heard in the abbreviated clip above), but its strange lyrical epiphanies are still pure Kate.

13. Jens Lekman, “Waiting For Kirsten”

I’ve been waiting for a follow-up to Lekman’s 2007 gem Night Falls Over Kortedala; he finally put out an EP this year, the highlight of which is a typically witty account of stalking Ms. Dunst as she films MELANCHOLIA near his hometown. He’s self-deprecating as ever, but also puckish and defensive as he matter-of-factually states, “In Gothenburg, we don’t have VIP lines.”

12. M83, “Midnight City”

That weird, insistent distorted vocal hook’s kind of annoying, but everything else about this anthemic single’s pretty fantastic–particularly that glorious, closing sax solo which caps off a year of a long-dormant top 40 staple making quite the comeback (stay tuned for more of it on this countdown).

11. Florence + The Machine, “What The Water Gave Me”

Although Ceremonials won’t make my top 10 albums list, Flo’s the only one to score two songs on this singles list (see also “Shake It Out” at # 24). “Water” takes a little time to reveal its charms, gradually building toward a stunning finale rather than rushing head-on into such multi-tracked bliss, but it gives me hope that she’ll continue cultivating what she established on Lungs.

Favorite Songs of 2011: # 20 – 16

20. James Blake, “Limit to Your Love”

The Feist original boasted a strong melody (perhaps stronger than “1, 2, 3, 4”), so it naturally lends itself to a piano-and-vocal take (no matter the vocalist’s gender); the beats and bass Blake sparingly employs open up the song’s sense of longing and desperation to a nearly uncomfortable degree, which I’ll take over easily digestible love sickness.

19. Lady Gaga, “Marry the Night”

If Born This Way didn’t exactly elevate her to ’80s Madonna icon status, tracks like this (and “The Edge of Glory”) suggested a healthy Donna Summer fixation instead (vocally, at least)–dig the euphoric coda, which alone would get me out on the dance floor every time if I still went clubbing.

18. Laura Marling, “Sophia”

This neatly combines everything great about Marling in just under five minutes: lovely acoustic guitar intro, soaring but restrained harmonies, a rollicking beat smoothly added in the song’s second half and lyrics that seem neither banal nor obscure.

17. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”

I know she’s a heavily hyped up-and-comer but I knew none of that when I first heard her rich, languorous voice on satellite radio and thought, “Well, this is different“, even as I also thought of drowsy chanteuses from Nancy Sinatra to Hope Sandoval.

16. Lykke Li, “Youth Knows No Pain”

Previously a fairly twee (if affable) vocalist, Li reinvents herself right at the beginning of her second album: in this dark, groovy number, insistent front-and-center percussion and a swirling organ lick support a far more confident and potent singer.

Favorite Songs of 2011: # 25 – 21

This week, my top 25 songs of the year.  Next week, the top 10 albums.

25. Iron and Wine, “Tree By The River”

Mostly disappointed with Kiss Each Other Clean, the only song that clicked for me was this obvious single, a slice of effortlessly breezy musical comfort food on the same level as prime Fleetwood Mac.

24. Florence + the Machine, “Shake It Out”

At first, I wasn’t crazy about this song’s similarity to “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis, but Florence is better than that and I now adore the massive, resounding wall of sound she’s built here–her urgent and as always overpowering vocal actually makes me believe in the clichés she’s selling.

23. Those Darlins’, “Screws Get Loose”

Bratty, loopy garage pop that’s like a Go-Go’s gone grungy or a Breeders who learned their stuff at CBGB’s or Debbie Harry after too many cigarettes.

22. The Radio Dept., “The New Improved Hypocrisy”

Although like most other people I first heard them on the MARIE ANTOINETTE soundtrack five years ago, I only really got into this Swedish dream-pop band’s music recently. This dynamic anthem of sorts was the one new track off their singles compilation released earlier this year.

21. Raphael Saadiq, “Heart Attack”

As tight as any James Brown call-and-response funk workout, the beauty of Saadiq’s take on classic R&B is in how it creates a totally committed sensibility rather than just lazily recalling a specific sound.  And also, it rocks.