Steve McQueen might be known as the "essence of cool", but Kurt Vile gave him a run for his money in 2011 with the laid back, word bending and extending track "Runner Ups". Vile hits certain words like a hammer and creates a momentary spark of emotion that gently sinks back into the steady groove that drives the song from start to finish. The track isn't flashy and neither is his wonderful album Smoke Ring For My Halo, but that's a compliment as Vile's music comes off as effortless, but the talent and songwriting displayed proves otherwise.
CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH
It seems detractors are dead set on comparing every CYHSY release to their stunning self-titled debut. It's a shame because a lot of people are missing out on a great record and some of the best tracks of the year. The standout track is the closing "Adam's Plane". Clocking in at over seven minutes, the song takes its time to develop from a devastating story complimented by frontman Alec Ounsworth's shaking vocals into musical deconstruction. The song takes a brilliant turn around the four and a half minute mark. A ravenous piano and all out vocals act as base while numerous instruments seem to break down and rain over them. I'll never forget the first time I heard this section and it still stands as one of the best moments in music from 2011.
"swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)"
The best hip-hop track of the year from the best hip-hop album of the year...and probably over the last five years. An all out assault on the current state of rap music, "Swerve" makes the proclamation: "If you talking about it...it's for show / if you move about it...it's a go." Heed Shabazz's advice Kanye, Tyler, and all other egotistical rappers: filling your entire record with self-imposed titles and compliments a great rap album does not make...letting the album speak for itself does. And it did for Shabazz Palaces.
"i won't fall apart on you tonight"
I equate my favorite pop rock song of the year from Friedberger as 2011's answer to Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard." Like the Simon song, "I Won't Fall Apart On You Tonight" is upbeat and makes the hips swing, yet the song feels reflective and much more than just a bright pop rock song. This was my song of the summer and any track that can make this cynical asshole smile with each spin has a power that has to elevate it to one of my favorite tracks of the year.
"putting the dog to sleep"
One of the two songs on this list that actually made me tear up on first listen (#2 as well). One can't help but be drawn in immediately by the first line: "Prove to me....I'm not going to die alone". The line is posing a request that can't possibly be fulfilled truthfully and The Antlers explore this complication throughout the song. The song seems to wobble and at any moment is ready to fly out of the speakers, but it never does. The instability finds stability and while the comfort proposed at the start of the song is never granted, the song makes the listener feel human, alive, and that's all that was wanted in the first place.
It's kind of sad, but "Buffalo" disproves the notion that if a band creates a hit then success quickly follows. The relatively unknown Deloreans crafted the most infectious rock song of the year but without a PR company or major label, the track found its place on a few music blogs and drifted away. It's a shame because "Buffalo" is a powerhouse of talent, emotion, and a chorus that has you hooked for days without ever becoming shameful like the top 40 hits of today. The guitars are sharp and lead singer J. Perry belts out his vocals with an out of this world energy. The quality of this song can't be ignored...at least by the few who get to hear it.
Let's be honest, when M83 created that little synth blip that repeats throughout "Midnight City", they had to high five and know they had a hit. I don't have much to say about this track, either you're on your feet moving or you just don't get it. I compare "Midnight City" to the level of a Michael Jackson single, it's one of those songs you just can't understand if someone doesn't like it. It's the most infectious song of 2011 without compromising any of the artistic creativity that we've come to expect from M83. In ten years this song will come on at a party and everyone will be as excited to hear it then as they are today...it's one of those rare songs.
"ghost on a canvas"
You're going to see Campbell's name all over our Best Of lists all week because his newest (and last) album is the most important record made this year. Campbell is slowly giving way to alzheimer's and gathered some of the best songwriters to help him create one last record, an album not only to say goodbye but look back on his fifty two studio album, fifty year career as one of the most important country/folk singers of all time. On the title track, Campbell turned to Paul Westerberg (yeah, The Replacements) to craft a nearly impossible song. The song tackles art and its relationship with immortality, what we leave behind, and the unknown next step. The power of this track and the whole album is that Campbell and his songwriters remain optimistic, much more concerned with showing off the beauty of life rather then dwelling in the future of Campbell's disease. It will be easy for a lot of indie music fans to shrug off this song and album, but if you enter this album with an open mind and care less about what is buzzing, you will find what Hank and I both strongly agree on: Ghost On The Canvas is the most important album of 2011.
I'm not on earth when "Codex" is played. I'm somewhere else. Somewhere distant. This has always been the power of Radiohead for me as a listener. They transport me into their songs and to the worlds they create with musical imagery. It's probably the most difficult thing in songwriting, for a band to make a listener see sound and every second of "Codex" has a crystal clear image placed in my head. I could be surrounded by hundreds of people, but when this song comes on, I'm all alone, in the world Radiohead created for me based off my own visual projections of the sound. I can't explain how it works but I know the feeling is rare and something I always want from a song.
VAN DYKE PARKS
Originally written in 2003 and made available for download for a short period, "Wall Street" was Park's examination of greed and brief moments from 9/11. In 2011, Parks re-tinkered with the song, adding lush orchestration and giving the entire song a musical show-tune feeling with Parks' lounge act vocal styling. This song is the ultimate juxtaposition as a casual listener can hear the beautiful arrangements if they want to, or if they dig in they discover the root of the song: greed, anger, the most violent moments from 9/11, and Parks' famous word play that made him one of the great songwriters of our time. The song slowly dissolves into the most heartbreaking moment of 2011 when Parks recounts a real life moment from 9/11 where a couple fall from a building, clutching each other until their death. Parks examines this moment with a poetic touch that marries itself to the music playing behind his vocals in such a way that my own notions of what is possible in music has changed. It will be easy for many to scoff at this choice because the melody is so sugary grandiose and Parks' approach as a singer isn't fashioned off the mainstream idea of a lead singer, but Parks achieves the highest levels of storytelling, composition, and thematic exploration in one song than many bands or artists can in their whole career.