(Catch up with #50-26 here)
25. 151 Feva Gang – “Kush Groove"
If we’re being honest, Stardust’s deathless “Music Sounds Better with You,” which cornered the market on uptempo house jams for about three years at the turn of the millennium, would be a suspect choice as the basis for any rap song. But for a weed anthem, something that all but requires a loping, dusty beat? That’s just absurd! On “Kush Groove,” 151 Feva Gang knock a couple of BPMs off of the club warhorse. Beyond that, they keep the party hyped up. 151’s Dapper Don hosts the revelry with the enthusiasm of a young Lil Jon, incessantly screaming out “Ya Dig!?!” and veering off into digressions (like a moratorium for going H.A.M., where he suggests that instead of going Hating Ass Motherfucker, we just go Gibson). The looseness of Don’s rhymes and the gregariousness of his personality play nicely against the source material’s rigid beats, giving the song a magical, near-endless replayability, much like Stardust’s classic—the feeling that “Kush Groove” could go on forever and that’d be okay. In the end, that may be the song’s greatest gift to stoners.
24. The Weeknd – “High For This”
The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye writes a lot about what Craig Finn might call “the way that whispers bite like fangs in the last hour of the parties.” There’s a sense of drug-induced claustrophobia and impending doom present in Tesfaye’s songs, and, most of the time, he’s content to play the creepy guy in the corner, waiting for the girl’s eyes to start to roll into the back of her head. On “High For This,” the opening to The Weeknd’s out-of-nowhere free album, House of Balloons, he convinces someone to get trashed and fuck without a condom. Tones and beats stream through the song like tracers in your peripheral vision. Tesfaye tells the girl, “You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you came for.” It’s creepy. More than that, it’s an extreme point-of-view to write an album around. But that’s exactly what the Weeknd does, and “High For This” is its most harrowing, compelling moment.
23. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
For the follow-up to their acclaimed debut, Fleet Foxes made a slight adjustment in their sound, as the band’s primary inspiration shifted from Americana to British Folk. Or from, say, Crosby, Stills & Nash to Fairport Convention. That might not seem like much, but the austerity of the British influence produced a parody of Fleet Foxes’ first album, rather than an evolution from it. Their self-seriousness seemed to get seriouser. Their melodies became drier. Though there was some grandeur (most notably in closer “Grown Ocean”), it was surrounded by tedium.
Which is not to say the band didn’t exhibit growth, the most exciting bit of which appeared in songwriter Robin Pecknold’s lyrics, which turned from vague excuses for harmonizing into thorny rambles (most of which also gave way to harmonizing). “Helplessness Blues” centers on one of the most interesting lyrical conceits I can think of, maybe because it’s antithetical to the principles of rocknroll itself. Pecknold opens explaining that he grew up believing he was “special”—he compares himself to a snowflake in what might be Fleet Foxes funniest moment by default. As he grows up, he discovers he’d “rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery,” emphasizing the power of community over the individual. As the song explodes from acoustic guitar into orchestration, Fleet Foxes ultimately wring deep pleasure out of mundane sentiment.
22. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “Huzzah! (Remix Feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown & El-P)”
Favorite moments, in chronological order: Underground veteran Necro’s droning, UFO-landing soundtrack of a beat; Despot’s Irish pride; Victor Vazquez calling out Immortal Technique for being obnoxious (shots fired!), exactly the kind of intellectual beef underground rap needs right now; Das Racist hypeman Dap’s performance on Heems verse (I mean, I assume it’s Dap; I’ve been wrong before), especially when he reveals that two, not three of Heems’ shirts look expensive; Heems proclaiming himself “the worst rapper on this track, third coolest”; Danny Brown, who put out an album about getting older this year, actually telling stories about walking to school in the snow; the precision of El-P’s counting-themed verse; and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, like, blown away that someone could be “still hungry” after a thousand views on YouTube. A thousand.
21. Win Win – “ReleaseRPM (Feat. Lizzie Bougatsos)”
With Gang Gang Dance, the power of singer Lizzie Bougatsos’ voice frequently gets obscured by all of the “experimental” shit she does with it. She’s renowned for her vocal flexibility, and is equally comfortable obscuring her voice with effects or singing in an Indian pop style. When she plays it straight, as on 2008’s “House Jam,” she’s a force. So, on Win Win’s “ReleaseRPM,” it’s thrilling to hear her take on the role of diva/muse. Former Spank Rock producer XXXchange and friends draw upon UK Garage to create a slippery rhythmic framework, slowly adding peals of noise to build toward a climax. Bourgatsos, miles away from the inscrutable presence she is with gang, dives head on into the role of sultry pop star, even adding a little pout to her intonation as she sings, “All I need is some sort of release.”
20. Joker – “The Vision (Let Me Breathe) (Feat. Jesse Ware)”
Jesse Ware’s performance on the B-Side to Joker’s “The Vision” is my favorite vocal of the year, edging out Adele and Beyoncé and a couple of others we’ll discuss further down the list. Though she shows a similar range, Ware has fewer vocal ticks and tricks than Beyoncé on “1+1.” She’s more direct, aiming for the sternum—just like the bass that underpins her. She flaunts a bit more melisma than Adele, but—strange as it may seem—her voice comes from a deeper place. She out belts the beltiest belter of the year. Ware’s voice is unrestrained, while Adele’s—as profound as it is—still retains a professional sheen. Adele keeps her feet planted while she sings; Jesse Ware throws her entire body into the song.
Given Ware’s vocals, “The Vision (Breathe In)” has all the trappings of an attempt at pop crossover. In actuality, Joker is still digging in the same holes that he has been, following the same blueprint as “Tron,” “City Hopper,” or “Psychedelic Runway.” Eruptions of scuzzy bass pierce through Ware’s performance. Chirping melodies weave in and out. For Joker, the song’s structure is airtight so that the actual sound can be unhinged. The two of them are technicians who allow themselves to get out of control. Between them, they create the type of dystopian encroachment the repeated lyric, “Just let me breathe,” hints at.
19. Junior Boys – “Banana Ripple”
It’s All True may have been riddled with inward-looking slow-jams and meditations, but it closes with the most ecstatic track of Junior Boys’ career. For years, Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have been building toward the kind of slippery funk they exhibit on “Banana Ripple.” Fitting, then, that they decide to spend nine full minutes with it. Fitting, also, that they take the long route toward ecstasy. “Comfort is in your past,” Greenspan admonishes, bullying you with ultimatums like, “If you don’t really want it, don’t come,” and backing you into a corner where the only way out is dance.
18. Azealia Banks – “212”
Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj both attended LaGuardia High School in New York—AKA The Fame School. They both studied theater, which should tell us something. That something is this: Drama geeks are great battle rappers. Of course drama geeks are great battle rappers. Acting camp school is less about learning how to feel your feelings, and more a training ground for exploiting others’ self-loathing for your own personal gain. Additional acting school lessons Banks employs on “212” include flipping voices at will, dropping the word “cunt” for dramatic effect (works every time), and consistently ratcheting up the tension without ever letting it break. And, if “212” instantly eclipses any single Nicki Minaj song, well, it’s only a matter of time until these two start feeding off of each other’s intensity.
17. Tyga – “Really Raw (Feat. Pharrell, Snoop Dogg & Game)”
Tyga knows enough get his two rudimentary verses out of the way quickly. He’s making way for the real show: Pharrell’s two best performances in forever. First, there’s the Neptunes’ production, all shuffling high-hats and errant horns—an acoustic version of their era-defining early work. Then, there’s Skateboard P’s work on the hooks. He’s just listing things that are “really raw” (a catchphrase that still has a chance to take off… right?), but every line is a pearl. It never occurred to me before just how raw KFC by the bucket it, but, yeah, I’d say “really” would be a pretty apt description of how raw that is. Same goes for jackets that smell like jet fuel, or gargling with champagne. Tyga’s best line even comes from repeating one of Pharrell’s and pairing it with an impression of Timmy from South Park. Elsewhere, Snoop Dogg does his daffy Uncle Snoopy thing, going so far as to call Tyga “Nephew” because he knows who he’s hired to be now. And, finally, Game (sorry, but he’ll always be The Game to me) compares himself to Nas before… wait, did The Game just compare himself to Nas?
16. Future Islands – “Balance”
Throughout Future Islands’ On the Water, singer Samuel T. Herring fluctuates between a pronounced theatricality and a guttural snarl. It’s as if the affectation of his pleasant, “professional” voice is attempting to restrain the rawness of his real one. When the growl breaks through, a gush of emotion attends it. On “Balance,” over band-name-invoking tropical rhythms, Herring is direct about his intentions. “You can change your life,” he repeats again and again, “It just takes time.” And it’s the growl, rumbling through a measured tenor, that turns that advice from platitudes into hard-earned wisdom.
15. Phantogram – “Don’t Move”
Phantogram’s “Don’t Move” is a work of cut-and-paste beat-smithery that lets you hear the seams. It opens with a full-throated voice, clipped, repeated, and patched onto a differently-intoned “oooh.” The horn line and guttural voice that round out the musical phrase nod to Portishead. But, instead of trip-hop’s atmospheric drag, Phantogram aim for a hard-hitting pulse to brace Sarah Barthel’s vocals against. “All you do is shake, shake, shake,” she sings, mercurially, before demanding, “Keep your body still. Keep your body still.” The song’s title is “Don’t Move,” but, ultimately, Phantogram is daring you not to.
14. Wiz Khalifa – “The Race”
Wiz Khalifa released his major-label return, Rolling Papers, shortly after scoring a huge surprise hit with “Black and Yellow”—a song that timed perfectly with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ascent to the Super Bowl. But Rolling Papers hedged its attempts to continue Khalifa’s pop crossover, providing Splenda beats and keeping the hooks closer to 50 Cent’s lazy singing than, say, Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes” chorus. That approach culminates in “The Race,” a breezy, joyous ode to the precise moment of his career when he envisions success without quite having it, completely. Yet. The result is something along the lines of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime”—uplift without a touch of cynicism.
13. MNDR – “Cut Me Out”
After the second chorus, MNDR’s “Cut Me Out” launches into her version of the bassline from Robyn’s “Dancing on my Own.” Synths throb incessantly, like a drum roll performed by hammers on a keyboard. “Cut Me Out” (which vastly outclasses its origins as a free Mountain Dew label single) may be the most unintelligible British pop song of the year—for example, MNDR begins by gathering sparks in a velvet bag. It might also be the most tightly constructed, creating an insane amount of pressure with not much more than those synths and MNDR’s mechanically expressive voice.
12. Clams Casino – “Motivation”
Lil B put out “Motivation” about a month before the enthusiasm for Clams Casino as a solo artist really got going. Once @clammyclams put up the free mixtape Instrumentals for download, the reaction to the bare “Motivation” track was instantaneous: Get That Kid Offa There. Lil B’s granola rhymes—self-indulgence (which, hey, is generally welcome in rap tracks) masquerading as inspiration—so completely miss the point of the beat that they nearly tank the whole song. Clams Casino’s work is all breath and anticipation, squealing synths and clattering drums, bombast and ambience. It manages to be both calm and loud; if it were an athlete, it would be in The Zone. So maybe Lil B isn’t entirely to blame for not being able to keep up with this monster. This thing was built to stand alone.
11. Big K.R.I.T. – “The Vent”
Big K.R.I.T. has travelled a huge distance on the strength of his Everyman persona—his perpetual mix of astonishment and shrewdness toward the music industry; his (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with wood grain; his continual thanks to his grandmother. “The Vent,” his most accomplished song to date, holds his Organized Noize-indebted production chops to a few extended chords and a barely-there beat, while he unloads a complex web of familiar insecurities, ranging from mundane to profound. Should I write another song about cars, or go deeper? What do I do about this girl I’m interested in? How do I shake this depression? “I put my problems in a box beside my tightest rhymes,” he raps, “And when it gets too full and I can’t close the lid, I spaz on my family and my closest friends.” Then, 60% of the way of the through the song, K.R.I.T. begins to sing, and things come into focus. He’s commiserating, sharing every tremulous thought, in the hopes that you (or “you) get some sort of comfort out of it. It’s an act that’s rarer than you’d think, but there’s no better way to cement his Everyman reputation than becoming your friend.
10. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”
Lyrically, “Video Games” is little more than a list of male fantasies. Lana Del Rey is literally in the backyard on a swing when her man comes home and whistles for her. She wears his favorite dress and takes it off to get his attention. She wants him to tell her what to do. “I heard that you like the bad girls, honey,” she sings, and if there’s even a hint that “Video Games” ironic, it’s in the follow-up line, when her voice lilts into a slight Betty Boop: “Is that true?” Mostly, though, Lana Del Rey doesn’t have to telegraph the desperation at the heart of her actions; the hypnotic march of the song accentuates it. After every line there’s a pause as she awaits his response, his command. “Video Games” uses many of the same components of Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game”—the steamy drawl, the arid strings, the sultry female lead—to create its exact inversion. These male fantasies are meant to be sexy, but they’re sad. Sad for her and him both.
9. Charles Bradley – “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”
Charles Bradley may sound like a soul-revivalist, but he’s really more of a vitalist. “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” may feel like classic R&B, dredged up from the annals of Stax, but it is as resonant as any other song this year. Part of that is, of course, the subject matter, spelled out plainly in the title. Most of it, though, is due to 63-year-old Bradley’s performance. He gives everything he has. Backed by the Menahan Street Band—a super-group of Daptone musicians best known for “Take the Road By Walking,” the basis for Jay-Z’s “And the Winner Is…”—Bradley absolutely wails the words, “The WooooooRRRLD/ Is going up in flames,” as if he’s already mourning, pleading for it to come back. Nicknamed “The Screaming Eagle of Soul,” Bradley practically anticipates all of the victory, fear, and ridiculousness of the year—the overthrown governments, Republican debates, and #Occupy movements—and weighs them all in his voice. It’s a lesson in how to make the political personal.
8. Yuck – “Georgia”
Yuck doesn’t retread 90’s indie rock tropes, as much as it provides a collective memory of them. The band distills the positive aspects of Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, Unrest, and plenty of other bands, while conveniently forgetting their rough spots. They are a band as Platonic ideal. Band as universal consciousness. And that is how they arrive at “Georgia,” one of the most perfectly composed songs of this, or any, year. A grungy guitar riff aims for the red, but gets clipped by the mixing board, so it doubles back on itself. A man and woman sing together, their voices shrill, obscured and unsure. “Georgia, I’m still in love with you,” she sings, tapping into the one sentiment that grows stronger with longer distance and fuzzier recollection. To that effect, “Georgia” might also be Yuck’s perfect mission statement. They make the heart grow fonder.
7. Tyler, the Creator –“Yonkers (Single Version)”
Here’s the easy cut you can use to untangle the Gordian knot of ethics presented by Odd Future’s rape lyrics (or anyone’s, really): If the rape jokes are funny, then fine. If they’re not funny, then they’re not jokes; they’re “jokes,” and you’re left with a bunch of angry kids actually talking about raping people. Simple. Is that something you’re into? Probably not.
When Tyler, the Creator released “Yonkers” in anticipation of his XL debut, he seemed to inherently understand this principle. Without losing any of the vitriol of his 2010 releases and appearances, “Yonkers” is far and away Tyler’s funniest song. “Jesus called he said he’s sick of the disses/ I told him to quit bitchin’/ This isn’t a fucking hotline”; “I’m a fucking walking paradox/ No I’m not”; “Here’s the number to my therapist/ You can tell him all your problems/ He’s fucking awesome with listening”—all deeply hilarious lines that could only be a product of that particular mind. Ignore for a second that Tyler tacked another verse on for the album that upended the whole song (dissing music publications instantly reduces you to an internet commenter). Ignore that he copped out on his whole serial-killer persona on Goblin, choosing instead to go the 10-years-stale “Am I?”/”Am I not?” Eminem route. Ignore the fact that Odd Future hasn’t made a decent rap record in ten months, but they’re still showing up on the covers of magazines. Concentrate instead on those lines and the Psycho shower scene beat, as abrasive as anything since the Bomb Squad. Concentrate on that. That’s what we were all excited about.
6. Charli XCX – “Nuclear Seasons”
The Cold War lasted 45 years, which makes it the rough equivalent to the length of teenage infatuation. On Charli XCX’s second enormous single of 2011 (the first being the Gothic-industrial “Stay Away”), she dives full on into the well-worn territory of the late 80s. Taylor Dayne and Martika, like anything else, get distorted by time. The heroic voices from Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” become brief cries from the dark. Dayne’s pristine dance-pop becomes an overblown, feedback-laden mess. Charli XCX’s hair isn’t crimped; it’s fried. The sound of “Nuclear Seasons” reflects what it would be like if we were in a standoff with the Russians now. We wouldn’t try to gloss over the situation. We’d just toss it in with all the other shittiness and add some billowing drums. Of course, “Nuclear Seasons” is actually about a teenage romantic dispute, not the Reagan Doctrine. It’s an interesting choice for a metaphor though. Love is war, baby. But it’s a boring one, so let’s get crazy.
5. Killer Mike – “Ric Flair”
The promos Killer Mike uses on “Ric Flair” come from roughly ten years into the wrestler’s four-decade run, but already Flair’s confidence has meshed with wrestling’s artifice, each illuminating the other. He’s talking shit, but his words have the effect of a Zen koan—a truth you never knew you knew. Producers Sweatbox Productions accentuate Flair’s showmanship with music that has the slight ring of a Vegas act—drumrolls, variety-show horns, and a schmaltzy soul sample. Mike lets Flair do the bragging for him, because he knows it’s part of the act. For his part, Killer Mike dispenses rote street wisdom and encourages kids to become better basketball players. Question mark? He is supposed to be the voice of authority here, and he definitely sounds it, lending gravity between Flair’s rants. But whose truths are more authentic? Does Ric Flair really have more cars than most of you have friends? Probably. Most of you don’t have that many friends.
4. Purity Ring – “Ungirthed”
Plenty of forward-thinking artists spend lots of time piling tons of shit into their songs—key changes, funky time signatures, exotic instruments, weird vocals, samples, studio trickery, kids’ choirs, rap verses, Timbaland. Sometimes those things even work. But you know what usually tends to sound like The Future? Simplicity. On “Ungirthed,” Purity Ring assembles an array of unassuming elements—synth strobes, tick-tocking electronics, zeitgeisty vocal chirps—and arranges them into a deceptively complex structure. The rhythm is the melody; the bass follows it. Nearly every chord sounds like an expression starting to escape from some robot’s mouth. Megan James sings about body parts—hands, eyes, skin, knuckles, ears ringing, teeth clicking—while her partner Corin Roddick manipulates her voice to sound like aluminum. As a whole, “Ungirthed” pulls off the rare trick of being experimental and accessible. They’re giving you a chance to acclimate to What’s Next.
3. Lil Wayne – “6’ 7’ (Feat. Cory Gunz)”
Rap—the actual act of stringing words together into compelling and clever phrases—deteriorated this year. The most interesting rappers were often the least skilled or most derivative. They are lacking in one or more of the critical areas on Kool Moe Dee’s infamous report card: Vocabulary, articulation, creativity, originality, versatility, voice, records, stage presence, sticking to themes, innovating rhythms. Rap is done, and I’m pretty sure “Six Foot Seven Foot” is most of the reason why. Lil Wayne won rap. Game over. The lyrics are so dense, so clever, so twisted that there’s nowhere to go from here. Wayne has reached maximum capacity for triple-entendres, punchlines, and phrases that take hours to unpack. Just rapping your head around the magnanimity of “Real G’s move in silence like lasagna” is a PhD waiting to happen. Six months ago, I was ready to call this the best Weezy track ever. Now, I’m almost convinced it’s the greatest rap of all time.
2. EMA – “California”
Erika M. Anderson’s ramble through “California” veers wildly from seething anger to nauseous regret. From schizophrenia to violence to folk songs. From getting punched in the mouth on Christmas morning to envying someone who’s never seen the ocean. From selling menstruation-soaked pants to sensing the taste of dirt in her mouth and mistaking it for failure. From watching Mary and Joseph, marching away from the manger with guns in hand, to watching her grandparents, to watching herself carrying the gun. The gun the gun the gun. She is exhuming everything from herself she can, and that includes blood, sex, and mess. It’s a journal entry, plain and simple. That might convey intimacy, sure, but I always wrote in my journals expecting someone else to read them someday. Private thoughts that ache for sharing. “Fuck California” means nothing if no one hears you say it; neither does an apology. “I’m just 22. I don’t mind dying,” Anderson sings, echoing the words of Bo Diddley. She is 28. When you’re 22, you do the worst shit, things you intend to atone for someday but maybe never do. And, yeah, you don’t mind dying, but it would definitely bother you if you died and no one had known you didn’t mind.
1. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – “I’ll Take Care of U”
Here are some running themes I keep coming back to in what I like about my favorite songs of this year: How a persona can be just as articulate about Who You Are as your “real” personality; how relying on a community can enrich an individual; and how the human voice can be expressive of things beyond the scope of language. Obviously, not all of the songs I picked for this list reflect those themes, but they’re what I kept writing and thinking about as I put this together. Now, as I settle in to write about my favorite song of 2011, I realize that it embodies all of those things.
Gil Scott-Heron may or may not have known that he was nearing the end of his life when he recorded last year’s I’m New Here. Either way, the album brought with it a certain sense of closure—of taking stock of the run that he’d had and singing about it wryly, but honestly. His version of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” was a little bit different. Gil Scott didn’t focus so much on himself; he focused on “you.”
Jamie xx released his remix of “I’ll Take Care of You” a couple months before Gil Scott-Heron passed away, his body ravaged by drugs, and possibly A.I.D.S. With elegiac piano and steel drum accentuating his voice, “I’ll Take Care of U” would be a great tribute to Gil Scott—if it weren’t a great tribute from him. Instead, he reaches outward, with all his suffering in the last two decades channeled through his creaking voice. With Brook Benton’s lyrics he uses clichés and plain-spoken words to communicate precisely what his poetry would never allow him to say: “I’ve loved and I’ve lost.” “Dry your weary eyes.” “I’ll take care of you.”
-Marty Brown, 2011
(If you're interested, here's a 100-song mp3 mix of my favorite 2011 music, featuring most of the songs on this list.)