In no particular order:
1. Bon Iver – Holocene.
When I first heard “Calgary” by Bon Iver before the release of his self-titled sophomore record (and one of the best records of 2011), I thought, “if Cloud Nine had a sound, this would be it.” The rest of the songs on the record are sweet little symphonies, odes to loss and self-reflection; some are catchy, some are just like bells and harmonies. And one is “Holocene”, and “Holocene” is a good mix of all these attributes and one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard.
2. Deer Tick – The Bump
I do enjoy Deer Tick, but I was late to the game for their 2011 smash, “Divine Providence.” The record itself goes from the sublimely beautiful (“Chevy Express”) to the hilariously ridiculous (“Let’s All Go to the Bar”). Among the best songs on this extraordinarily good record is “The Bump”, a quirky blues-rocker with some gnarly call-and-response and the opening line to end all opening lines: “Got a lust for life/and a dangerous mind.”
3. Lady Gaga – You & I
This was Gaga’s year to show she’s more than a smoke-and-mirrors pop-version of a performance artist; she was an advocate for those who were beaten down and unable to think for themselves, and that’s what made her a star in her own right throughout 2011; however, she’s still a pop star and no song from her 2011 AWESOME record, Born This Way proves that more than “You and I”. With flavours from country and Broadway combined, it was one of the best singles of the year – catchy, raw and engrossing, with a crazy arty video, and a chorus that showed off Mother Monster’s extensive, flawless pipes.
4. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
While in a bit of a lull/hiatus over the past couple of years, Ryan Adams returned to solo work in 2011 and released “Ashes & Fire”, my favourite record of the past year. Among this gentle, lovely collection of songs – some among Adams’ best tracks ever – is the title track which boasts a story about metamorphosis of the heart through love and loss experiences. Best line: “Her eyes were indigo/the cats were all Calico/and the sailboats, they all sailed by/and a river she cried”. Genius.
5. ADELE – Rolling in the Deep
ADELE was as ubiquitous as orange juice at the breakfast table in 2011, showcasing her ballad-laden hit machine, “21”. And there’s likely not a soul alive who hasn’t heard “Rolling in the Deep”. It’s not my job though (most of the time!) to introduce people to songs they’ve never heard before. It’s just my job to talk with great fervor about songs and records I love. “Rolling in the Deep” sums up what it is to be a brokenhearted young woman – and it does so with all the rage, intensity and emotion of someone much older than 21.
6. Rihanna – We Found Love
While there’s nothing particularly interesting about someone wailing, “We found love in a hopeless place” again and again over driving techno-esque backbeats, there is something poignant about Rihanna singing these lines; her memorable public breakup with Chris Brown is always in the back of my mind when I hear Rihanna singing about hopeless places, and this catchy club song which includes intense lines like, “It’s like you’re screaming, and no one can hear/You almost feel ashamed/That someone could be that important/That without them, you feel like nothing”. The songs mixes catchy discotecque fun with a desperate form of romance. It’s as sad as it is glamorous.
7. LMFAO – Party Rock Anthem
The song that launched the phrases “Everyday I’m shufflin’” and “Sorry for party rockin’” into every day speech and introduced quirky cult faves LMFAO to the masses deserves nothing else but a place on a list of memorable important songs of 2011. Dear LMFAO: Sports arenas, dance clubs, wet t-shirt contests, house parties, pool parties, beach parties, doing shots, birthdays, and trips to Vegas thank you.
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Factory of Faith
While it’s not a single on the Chilis’ latest release, it should be. No song on “I’m With You” is catchier or funkier or reminiscent of past records and the band’s finest efforts to date than the infinitely fun, driving, bass thumper, “Factory of Faith.”
9. Gillian Welch – The Way It Will Be
“I can’t say your name/without a crow flying by.” Simplicity. Beauty. An exact image that conjures up the type of heartbreaking emotion that oozes from every shard of Welch’s smooth-as-glass voice. “The Way It Will Be” could have been written in the depression era, and you’d never know the difference.
10. The Black Keys – Gold on the Ceiling
It seems like just yesterday, the Keys’ breakout record, Brothers was released and took the indie-pop world by storm. Its sister record, El Camino is even further proof that this duo is monstrous and deserves every bit of cred and popularity they receive. Tracks like the raunchy, fuzzy “Gold on the Ceiling” are among good reasons why you should never count out the Black Keys. You must BLAST this to get the full effect.
11. Wilco – Capitol City
Wilco isn’t known for conventiality; even their more conventional records and songs are “unconventional” for Wilco standards, which makes them… unconventional. If that makes sense. Anyways, the most kooky song on 2011’s The Whole Love is “Capitol City” which sounds like it was written by Paul McCartney in the White Album-era – it’s adorable, thematic, Vaudevillian and Tweedy’s heartfelt vocals when he sings “I wish you were here – better yet, I wish I was there with you” make this my favourite track on the record.
12. Bright Eyes – Triple Spiral
Bright Eyes went from drippy folk darlings to 80s new wave pop-meets-Rasta in 2011. But the standout talent of these three when they work together is indicated by the fact that this doesn’t matter at all. “Triple Spiral” is an attitude-filled, lyrically blessed pop jam with a driving chorus and just a dash of melancholy.
13. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – (I Wanna Live in a Dream in My) Record Machine
Noel Gallagher’s solo breakout was proof that perhaps he was bound by the shackles of Oasis and needed to break free to re-reach his creative potential. None of the tracks on the record sounds particularly exciting or really different than his penned/sung songs with Oasis but there is more heart there and the melodies are catchy and refreshing. Illustrating this best is “(I Wanna Live in a Dream in My) Record Machine”, which soars… well… like high-flying birds.
14. Blitzen Trapper – Astronaut
Blitzen Trapper’s usually conventional (in a good way) southern-fried pop/rock expanded like a balloon on 2010’s “Destroyer of the Void” where the band demonstrated their potential to be trippy, acidic and experimental. “Astronaut” is a suite-like song that drifts between layers of sadness, depth, rock and romance. It’s the best track off their best record, this year’s stunning surprise, “American Goldwing.”
15. The Belle Brigade – Losers
The kind of song that I feel blessed to have come across doesn’t happen as often as you’d think (evidenced by my non-stop blab about how AMAZING and STUNNING and FANTASTIC so many songs and records are. Once in a while though, I really, really feel a song and it hits the jackpot of perfectly melding with and describing experiences in my life, and being a catchy little tune that is worthwhile to be included on anyone’s list, not just my personal one. “Losers” hits that mark right on the dot. It is a full-out anthem for the underappreciated underdogs written by two talented siblings who were/are (?) virtually unknown in the pop music landscape (but surely won’t be for long!!!); a song I wish I’d heard when I was 15 and an underappreciated and somewhat hopeless underdog; the song doesn’t champion underdogs but rather, understands them, values them, and places them into a community. It does so with great enthusiasm and a bold, strong, singable tune that you could chant in a parade as easily as you could listen to it at home on your record player.
16. Coldplay – Charlie Brown
While Paste magazine de-championed “Charlie Brown” for its bloated use of a Peanuts character for something deeper, I would disagree completely; in fact, I would say the song is the brightest, catchiest and most beautiful song on the band’s produced, noisy explosion of a record, Mylo Xyloto. I feel that Coldplay’s deep values are sometimes in synch with and sometimes contradictory with, their music; and this is a case of the contradiction – a song that is so catchy and harmless it could be sung on American Idol yet at the same time, a song so beautiful and melodic, it could be played by a symphony.
17. The Foo Fighters – Arlandria
In the barrage of my favourite bands that released really good records this year, most of them tried new things but the Foo Fighters returned to their hard-rock roots with their newest release, Wasting Light; a song that is among some of their best songs ever is “Arlandria”, which is angry and romantic and full of gruff, courageous heart all at the same time. I once named The Foo Fighters (along with Coldplay, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Green Day) as one of the “four horsemen of the mainstream apocalypse; meaning, twenty years down the road, their entire repertoire and shtick and identity as a band will be infinitely remembered. A song like this only proves my theory even more.
18. Fruit Bats – WACS
A first line like “let’s get stoned on put on records” along with trippy production that is reminiscent of The Shins’ or Granddaddy’s best work can only mean one thing: Road trip. Or, a gentle, easygoing listening experience with a heck of a lot of sonic prowess from an underground band that has an output that is not the most unique sound out there, but provides a lot of enriching imagery and good-hearted ditties that appeal to the Kerouac in all of us.
19. Foster the People – Pumped Up Kicks
“This is so catchy and fun! I’m going to dance to it at *insert hipster bar here* and drink my face off! Wait… did it just say ‘you better run, better run, faster than my gun’?!” Foster the People’s breakthrough single was actually recorded in 2009 and released in 2010 but it got its sea legs this past year, which allows it inclusion on this list. The song that was everywhere including number 1 on the iTunes singles chart tells the story about an underdog kid with thoughts of homicide and will get stuck in your head for HOURS after hearing it.
20. Rachael Yamagata – You Won’t Let Me
Hot off the heels of 2009’s gut-spilling Elephants/Teeth Sinking Into Heart comes the lighter, more accessible side of Ms. Rachael Yamagata on Chesapeake; ironically though, the best track on this sublimely sweet, consistently good record is “You Won’t Let Me” which wouldn’t look out of place on “Elephants” in its vulnerability, smoky, jazzy flavor and themes of unrequited love that is as yearning and painful as it is all-encompassing and passionate. Yamagata has one of the most underrated vocals in pop music today, and she squeezes every ounce of joy, pain and heartbreaking desperation out into this song, making it to me, the most relatable and meaningful track on the record.