Well, it’s that time of year again. Music bloggers and critics invade their internet with their picks for the best tracks of the year. It’s an impossible task because it’s inevitably colored by a heavy dose of subjectivity. Nonetheless, it must be done. Unlike my fellow tablrs, I won’t be doing albums of the year because frankly, I didn’t buy enough albums this year. However, I did download plenty of songs. I’m coming to this a little bit late (December 30th), but now, happily and defensively, I bring you #20 – 11 of my favorite tracks of the year.
No, it’s not a Lady Antebellum cover. Australian electronic outfit Cut Copy reached a critical and musical breakthrough this year with their well-reviewed third album Zonoscope, Slow-building album opener “Need You Now” takes their nostalgic, 80’s synth bliss to a whole new level. At six minutes, Cut Copy certainly makes you wait for the drop, but it’s delayed gratification at its best. Shimmering synths, bouncing bass, and nasal new-wave vocals – all the romantic desperation and euphoric release of 1980s pop is there (“I know we’re going crazy, but I need you now). This dancefloor sentiment is perfect for 2011 – the world might be ending, so just grab someone and get lost in the music.
The dumbest party jam of the year, not that there’s anything wrong with that. French DJ Martin Solveig’s collaboration with Dragonette, “Hello,” the song from those gum commercials, was already inane enough, featuring a stadium stomp beat, clapping, and that manic, lodged-in-your-cerebellum hook. Rising hip-hop artist/DJ D-WHY drops a verse over the original, which is by no means a novel concept, but he plays off the flirtatious vibe of Dragonette’s vocals, complementing them with a hedonistic verse of his own. The resulting interplay between the male and female voices gives the song a sexier and sleazier vibe – perfect proof that stupid is sometimes the best strategy.
I can’t think of any song that could have more perfectly scored the trailer and opening sequence for David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The song was probably chosen mostly on its on its opening line, “come from the land of the ice and snow,” and the film’s setting in Sweden. However, in this electrifying cover, this Led Zeppelin classic comes to embody all of the horror, dread, and noir sexuality of the movie. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs screeches and thrashes like Robert Plant while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross create a bleak, industrial techno soundscape akin to what they created for The Social Network. Normally, I’m not a fan of this kind of music, but this cover is a truly exceptional.
Admittedly, the Strokes long-awaited fourth album, Angles, was a colossal disappointment. However, not all was completely lost – there were still a few great cuts, including the driving “Taken For A Fool.” Frontman Julian Casablancas sings in that nasal, filtered vocal style that made his performance on Is This It so dynamic. The track employs the same brand of whirring, memorable guitar hooks and driving rhythmic force that characterized the early 2000s garage rock renaissance that the band helped to kick off. Even Elvis Costello gave this song his stamp of approval when he performed it with the band at Madison Square Garden earlier this year. One of the year’s best old-school rock cuts.
The leadoff track from this year’s chillwave breakthrough, Washed Out’s Within and Without, is heavy on atmospherics and delightfully mellow. With trip-hop beats, shimmering synths, and computerized horns, Greene wails over a sea of new age sounds with seemingly incomprehensible lyrics. But in this case, it’s not really the lyrics that are important, or even the music for that matter – it’s the ambiance. Sure, this might sound a song that could play at a day spa or some Eurochic hotel (I admittedly heard a lot of chillwave music like this last year in my London hotel), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome.
Why is it that the French know how to channel our nation’s collective 1980’s John Hughes-soundtrack nostalgia better than we do? All the blogs and critics have been gushing about this song (cough cough Pitchfork), but with good reason. Anthony Gonzales of M83 has truly crafted one of the most epic tracks of the year with this ode to dreams and urban sprawl. Ebbing and flowing, “Midnight City” coasts on glacial, ghostly vocal delivery in the verses before erupting into splendid cacophony on the choruses, featuring falsetto vocals, stadium-filling drums, and a mélange of synths. Plus that awesomely kitchy saxophone solo (more of that later in the countdown). That Victoria’s Secret ad didn’t hurt either.
Adele Laurie Blue Atkins and her powerhouse sophomore album 21 were by far the biggest musical success story of the year. Like everyone else on the planet, I bought it, but my favorite cut from the LP wasn’t the much-overplayed, albeit phenomenal “Rolling In The Deep” or the torch ballad to end all torch ballads, “Someone Like You.” For me, it was all about “One and Only,” an old-school, gospel throwback. Its chorus shows off the simultaneous grit and tenderness of Adele’s voice, while the instrumentation sounds straight out of Detroit in the late 1960s. Plus, the sentiment – longing and daring for someone just to give you a chance – is something that we can all relate to.
A few years ago, French DJ duo/electronic music act Justice (I guess there’s a lot of Frenchmen on this list) took the indie world by storm as the heirs apparent to the legacy of Daft Punk. One mega-smash later (“D.A.N.C.E.”), they disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived, only to reemerge four years later with this blistering cut off their sophomore album Audio, Video, Disco. Channeling unlikely influences like Black Sabbath and AC/DC, the men of Justice finally get to be rock stars over a rollicking, industrial electronic chorus, falsetto vocals, and verse structure mimicking “Iron Man.” Rock/rave on.
It’s a timeless pop/R&B staple – the ode to letting everything go and dancing the night away. Dozens of artists have done it, but none of them have done it with quite the same degree of whimsy and gothic grandeur as Florence Welch. This triumphant cut, “Shake It Off,” was easily the highlight of her spectacular sophomore album Ceremonials. Over swelling organs, tribal stomp drums and tambourines, and that towering sonic force of a voice, Welch cuts loose. She wails, “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off!” Not exactly the happiest of sentiments, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Florence. Joy and pain go hand in hand in her music, as they often do in life in general.
I tried all semester to introduce my roommate, a fellow turntablr writer, to music that he would like (apparently I only listen to “whiny white people” music, you’ll understand after you see my #1 pick). I finally succeeded with this old-school soul throwback off Detroit-bred Hawthorne’s How Do You Do. It’s a classic kiss-off that sounds like it came straight out of Motown, until you hear the NSFW second verse. That being said, it’s hard not to love this track, with its sensual lyrics, vintage horn stabs, and Mayer’s smooth vocal delivery. Like all great break-up pop songs, it manages to be funny, angry, and sad all at the same time. This guy should be much more famous than he is. Hilarious music video too.
#10 – 1 coming soon! Happy new year everybody!