Here’s the second part of my Top Ten Songs of 2011 (you can find part one here). I can’t guarantee that you’ll know all the artists listed, as my Top Ten was based solely on my own tastes and preferences. This list is 100% all-natural: no formulas, sales figures, or chemical modifiers were used. These are the songs that defined my 2011.
One of my favorite discoveries of the year was Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, who imbue a 1930s musical ethos with timeless lyrical themes. This is probably not music for the dubstep set: washboard/bicycle bell percussion and hot bass solos abound, and the reedy, slightly warm timbre of LaFarge’s voice is reminiscent of an alto saxophone. “Head to Toe” manages to evoke early country & western and traditional string bands with a vaguely Django-esque sensibility. It’s unabashedly traditional stuff.
Taylor Goldsmith can write one hell of a love song: “When it hits me that she’s gone/I think I’ll be an astronaut/Make the moon my home and leave this world behind/So when she steps out to the night and finds the light that makes her pretty/She’ll be facing me every time she shines.” The melancholy and ambiguity bound up in that verse alone seem to encompass the entirety of human relationships. With all their nuanced longing, the lyrics are rightfully the centerpiece of this track, while the acoustic guitar and piano provide just enough support to punctuate Goldsmith’s voice effectively. Lyrically, this is the best song of 2011.
If the first 34 seconds of this song are the best part, what makes me keep listening to the other three and a half minutes? I haven’t been able to figure it out yet, but I think it’s got something to do with the exquisitely layered synths, muted guitar lines, and the spaced-out echo on the vocal. Also, there’s a whistling interlude. Who doesn’t love whistling? Upon closer listen, the seemingly inconsequential lyrics reveal a pretty dark tale, which manages to feel simultaneously like a twisted spaghetti western and a terrible story on the six o’clock news. Although this song was everywhere this summer and fall, it always managed to sound fresh to me. I don’t think we’ll hear anything from Foster the People again—they’re a one hit wonder if I ever heard one. But what a hit, right?
I occasionally get to believing that rock and roll on the radio really is dead. Then the Black Keys came along. I didn’t immediately like their previous album, Brothers, but I loved “Lonely Boy” from the start. Although the opening riff is great, it’s the squelch of Dan Auerbach’s guitar at 0:29 that restored my faith in modern rock and roll. It’s certainly not classic Keys, but that doesn’t make it bad—this sounds to me like a natural evolution for the band. Pat Carney’s drums have an adrenal pulse, and Auerbach’s vocal delivery sounds causal and tossed-off. He’s reminding everyone that a singer doesn’t have to be Pavoratti (or even Adele) to get the message across—heck, a rock and roll singer should be more Mick Jagger than Freddie Mercury anyway. The video, thankfully, proves that you can in fact dance to something other than the Black Eyed Peas. The Black Keys single-handedly made rock and roll cool again this year, and that’s why they get the number two spot.
When I first wrote about this song in August, I had no idea how completely Middle Brother would control my life for the next four months. Almost every song on their album has gotten heavy rotation on my iPod, on my computer, and in my car. “Middle Brother” is the song that started it all. In August, I said that this song “is what a rock and roll song should be. Relaxed, rollicking; a little boozy, a little crude.” That still holds true four months later. No one sounds like they’re trying too hard (despite the shout of “we did it motherf*ckers!” at the end of the track): the harmonies aren’t mind-blowing, some of the lyrics are incomprehensible (2:24), and a do-it-yourself ethos permeates the whole track. Above all, it is a supremely human and organic piece of music, which is what I love most about this track. If The Black Keys made rock and roll cool again this year, Middle Bother reminded us that it was never uncool.
So that’s it for another year of music. Hopefully you found something you liked, or maybe something you hadn’t heard before. If you did, please go out of your way to buy or download the track legally. Record contracts may not be the fairest thing in the world, but your favorite artists aren’t making any money if you just steal the music, right?
Thanks to everyone who has been following along here on Turntablr over the past few months. See you next year!