And the countdown continues! Here they are, my ten favorite songs of the year! Please don’t judge me too harshly for some of these selections…
RIP Clarence Clemons. Bruce Springsteen’s partner-in-crime had time to lend his orgasmic saxophonic touch to one last song before he passed away, but no one ever would have ever suspected it would be a Lady GaGa song. In some way, however, it seems strangely fitting. “The Edge of Glory,” the closer off Born This Way, carries that classic Springsteen spirit of reaching for one last chance, one final opportunity to better yourself and the situation around you. The Lady just chooses to express that sentiment in an entirely different way – with thunderous synths, furious strings, and one hell of a disco beat. It’s a peak hour anthem for an escapist electro-pop generation, as GaGa imbues his glittery pop with the romanticism of 1970s highway rock and roll. A match made in heaven, or at least a new wave nightclub.
Ryan Adams have reached his commercial highpoint several years ago, but this song, off the otherwise bland Ashes & Fire, proves that one of the past decade’s most prolific singer-songwriters hasn’t completely run out of juice just yet. It’s a sweet and simple song with guitar strumming and a piano background, before opening up with electric guitar in the final verse. It’s the perfect winter song with the lyrics “city of neon with toes that freeze.” It’s that classic alt-country sound that fans have come to expect from Adams. Plus, his vocals prove that he is still one of the best singers at conveying emotion. This time around though, he thankfully exudes all the pain and heartbreak of where he’s been, but complemented with his current complacency and calm. In “Lucky Now,” it proves to be a winning combination.
I’m not ashamed to admit my love of Coldplay. People make two primary critiques of their music – their lyrics are trite, meaningless platitudes about love and hope, and they write the same song every time. I’ll concede that both of those claims are completely valid and true; however, in this depressing world, are clichés and positive messages about hope the worst thing? Plus, I like that one song that they write. “Hurts Like Heaven,” the proper opener off this year’s ridiculously titled Mylo Xyloto, is classic Coldplay – spiraling guitars, piano crescendos, soaring vocals, but with a danceable twist. It’s the band’s most unabashed move yet towards straight pop, embracing all the current top 40 trends (listen for the subtle autotune on the verses). The song makes for a perfect introduction into an album that while it may have underperformed commercially, represents their most colorful and uplifting work yet.
Seeing as Ms. Spears can no longer dance the way she used to, it seems that her latest effort, Femme Fatale, was largely devoted to making her audience dance instead. There’s no better example of this than the sensational “Till the World Ends,” the best pop song of the year. In all of its mindless electro-pop glory, it perfectly sums up the partying ethic of the past year – well, the world might be going to crap, but dance anyways. Remember that scene in The Matrix Reloaded where all the people in Zion have a massive rave as the machines are closing in? This is what I picture as the soundtrack for that scene. It’s loud and arena-filling, with Spears’ robotic voice soaring above all the noise. If this song were playing during the apocalypse, which is apparently supposed to come later this year, I wouldn’t entirely mind. It would be a hell of a way to go out.
The best and most extravagant sample of the year, but would you expect anything less from these two titans of hip-hop? Embarrassingly, this song was the first time I was ever truly exposed to Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness.” I know, shameful. Blatant gaps in musical knowledge aside, “Otis” is braggadocious, arrogant fun from this year’s supergroup rap manifesto, Watch The Throne. Who else could get away with starting a song with a minute-long, egregiously expensive sample, purely to show that they can afford it, and then follow that with the claim, “I invented swag”? Otis’ words are reduced to a driving, rhythmic grunt reminiscent of Kanye West’s work for Jay-Z’s “Takeover.” Meanwhile, Jay-Z and Kanye run rampant all over the song, tossing off lyrics about Castro, supermodels, and Jesus, as well as coining the term “luxury rap.” If it didn’t exist before, it certainly does now.
Now this is how you make a dance song. I heard this track more than any other song as parties this fall, and with good reason. 22-year-old Swede Tim Bergling is a dance music wunderkind, and “Levels” pretty much gets everything right. Opening with a frenzy of electronic blips, the track fades out, only to bust wide open after the 1-minute mark with that anthemic hook, a rallying cry for progressive house fans everywhere. Stomping bass and synths carry “Levels” to yet another peak. By the time that grossly unnecessary and incredibly welcome Etta James sample comes in, a la “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” the listener is in pure ecstasy. There’s really nothing else to say, you just have to hear the song for yourself.
Sometimes, pop music is at its best when it’s subversive. Every once in a while, a song comes along where you actually have to stop and listen to the lyrics, before realizing that you’re horrified by the subject matter. In 2011, that song was Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” a happy little surf-pop ditty about a school shooting. Those nasal vocals, maddeningly addictive bass line, and whistling solo (there was a lot of that this year) made for one of the most peculiar hits of the year, and it very well might be impossible for them to ultimately top (one-hit wonder anybody?) Either way, they’ve given us an indelible classic that we’ll still be listening to for years.
Sometimes a song hits you at just the right moment in your life when you can relate to its message perfectly. For me, this song in 2011 was the Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues,” the title track off their gorgeous sophomore effort. At a moment in my life when I’m trying to figure out what exactly I want to do on this planet, the song’s sentiments about finding one’s purpose in life struck a chord with me. Plus, there’s the spectacular instrumentation. Fleet Foxes put their CSNY and Beach Boys influences on full display with furiously strummed guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies mostly unheard in today’s music world. Plus, frontman Robin Pecknold’s voice sounds positively angelic, truly one of the best voices in rock music today. By the time that time signature-change coda comes in, the song soars. They simply don’t write songs this beautiful anymore.
Beyonce’s aptly titled fourth album, 4, didn’t quite take off this year in the way her previous three solo albums have. That’s ironic, considering that it contained some of her most impressive and dynamic work to date. “Love on Top” made a brief blip on the charts after Beyonce performed the song on the VMAs, shortly preceding the very public announcement of her pregnancy. This song deserved way more attention than that. It’s a rare R&B song in 2011 that sounds completely timeless and joyous. Beyonce is clearly over the moon with happiness, and it shows not only in the lyrics, but also in the music. Finger snaps, disco horns, and five dizzying key changes later, it’s the year’s most rapturous love song. As much as people might mock the key changes, it puts Beyonce’s remarkable vocal talents on center stage, right where they belong. A hell of a song.
I wrote about this song back in August, and the way that I feel about it still stands, except that now I’m declaring it my favorite song of the year. Sometimes it can’t exactly be explained what a song is about, but rather, it’s what the song makes you feel that’s important. Bon Iver knows exactly how to encapsulate feeling and emotion in ethereal pieces of music that aren’t so much songs as they are moods. “Holocene” is a slow-burning combination of acoustic guitar, electronic haze, and Vernon’s disembodied vocals. As his falsettoed croon flows in front and back behind the wall of music, the slowly beating drum hits and repeated refrain of “I can see for miles” seem otherwordly. “Holocene” can stir so many emotions, but for my part, it conjures a mix of pathos, nostalgia, and sadness. It’s the soundtrack to waiting alone on the platform for a train and then staring wordlessly out the window of the train as the city skyline rushes by. It’s the score to rainy Sunday mornings in the house and late nights standing under a streetlamp. It’s the uncertainty of having no idea where you’re going while being utterly unable to remember where you’ve been. It’s the most moving and poetic song of the year.
Happy 2012 everybody! Here’s hoping we have another year of great music ahead of us.