Without further ado (whatever ado is)…
1. Adele / Someone Like You
I first heard this song over the summer on NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast, and then rewound and re-listened to it probably six or seven times to catch all the lyrics and fully experience the song. Most obviously, the vocal performance here is absolutely phenomenal. Pretty much unparallelled in pop today. The piano riff stays out of the way for the most part, but it keeps the pace of the song from dragging and the bass notes pop to add poignancy. With disrespect to the performance, however, the true heart of this song is the lyrics. When I first heard the song I was taken aback by how accurately the song described a romantic situation I was in at the time, and it took me until probably twenty minutes after I stopped listening to it to realize that my life was actually nothing like the song. She presents the whole scene so realistically and vividly that, in that moment, I related exactly to it, despite that fact that I really couldn’t relate. Especially given its fundemental sadness, I think this speaks volumes about Adele’s gift as a songwriter as well as a singer. This choice was an obvious one for me, I think this song just has so much to offer on so many levels.
2. The Honest Truth / Typhoon
2011 was the year I discivered Typhoon, and I’m so glad I did. A standout on their March EP, this song has quickly become this band’s signature tune, showing of their best qualities as performers and the strength of Kyle Morton’s writing. The iconic rhythm sets the tone for the melodies that follow, and the whole composition swells to the point of bursting when the chorus-style vocals come in. Its a grand statement from this under-appreciated band, and I have a feeling that their next full-length is going to bring these guys some much-deserved attention.
3. Mama's Boy / Kanye West
Kanye wasn’t pumped when this track leaked over the summer, calling it unfinished and unauthorized. While it may not have gotten the official stamp of approval from Yeezy, the timeless soul-sampling beat, raw introspective lyrics and theatrical, confident performance make this track my single favorite hip-hop record of the year. West perfectly balances childish humor and honest, bitter emotion with threats like “I wanna run over you with my bike” and the priceless little-kid whine about not going to bed. Warning: It uses racial slurs heavily, but rap listeners should be used to that by now. Ye may not love it, but I do.
4. Beans / Chilly Gonzales
This track from the the nefarious Chilly Gonzales’ new album is undeniably goofy, but it also includes so much of what I look for in a song. Music should be fun, and this hip-hop parody hits all the right comedic notes with its ridiculous bean puns (“bean-aholic, call me Chilly Garbonzo”) and its relentless lampooning of the portayal of wealth in rap lyrics. Below the hilarity, however, is a legitimately pretty orchestral instrumental, with provocative twists and exciting builds. I plant seeds and then they blossom…
5. Lighthouse / NewVillager
I’ve written about this track before, and as much as I’ve continued to listen it, it still sounds fresh and exciting to me. The blending of indie-rock styles gives it universal appeal for me regardless of the context or my mood by incorporating dancy electro-pop, sunny acoustic guitar strumming and vocals that shift from Freddy Mercury drama to enthusastic gospel to, believe it or not, a rap verse. Its eclectic but still cohesive, which attracts me back over and over and keeps me from ever getting bored of this track.
6. Doorstep / tUnEyArDs
Merill Garbus, the formidable voice behind tUnEyArDs, really introduced the world to her crazy african-inspired melodic pop this year, and it left an impression on me as it did many others I think. This was the first song I ever heard of hers, highlighting her unique voice and innovative instrumental approach, which features the ukulele and relies heavily on looping. Her crystal clear voice is perfect for this super-melodic style, and her joyful spirit is absolutely infectious. I wanna see tUnEyArDs live really badly.
7. Perth / Bon Iver
This album made #1 on some 2011 year-end lists, and even though it didn’t make mine I do love Bon Iver, and I think this song stands out on an otherwise interesting but kindof forgettable album. Justin Vernon has a fantastic ear for melody and the technical skills to put the sounds from his head on record without too much interference. His billion side projects have definitely changed him as a musician since the first Bon Iver album (which I absolutely love), and as creative as he is here, I wish he’d return to more of a focus on conventional song forms. That being said, I think the melody of “Perth” just sounds so natural and intuitive, and the layered production is absolutely gorgeous.
8. Freaks and Geeks / Childish Gambino
Another polarizing figure of this year, Donald Childish Gambino Glover first attracted my attention with this cut, and I still think its his best. Lyrically, he’s absolutely obsessed with hip-hop conventions, especially mysogeny, gross-out humor and over-the-top bravado. Under this veneer though, Gambino has some real, honest emotion in many of his songs. I think Freaks and Geeks really sums up his lyrical approach and shows off his undeniably impressive flow. I think he’s a really interesting figure in rap and the indie world as a whole.
9. Valentine / Dispatch
Until this summer I had fully accepted that Dispatch, one of my first favorite bands, was over and finished releasing new material. To be honest, after this summer’s new self-titled EP it still doesn;t really feel like they’re back, but this one song ranks amongst their best acoustic offerings, and that’s saying something. The acoustic riff has an appealing, relaxed quality, and Pete Heimbold offers one of his best vocal performances to date, capturing the laid-back, beachy feeling of the song. It’s a great summer song, even though it might be winter right now.
10. Vagabond / Beirut
I’ve always loved Beirut, mostly for Zach Condon’s voice and their fascinating instrumental tendancies. The new album is full of great songs, but this one stands out as my favorite. The piano intro/riff and drum parts have a poppy approachability to them, the horns give it just enough of their trademark French style, and Condon’s singing is just dramatic enough. I’m also obsessed with the Calliope-esque break and the transition out of it. Its exciting and different, but it still appeals to things I love about rock music.