Over the next few days, The Factual Opinion is counting down its favorite music of 2011, beginning today with some of my personal favorite songs of the year. These are tracks that have either stuck with me throughout the past twelve months, or that I expect to stick with me well into the future, or both. Instead of trying to include representative tracks from genres that aren’t really my thing, I decided to stick to what I know and consistently enjoy. So you’re not going to see Fucked Up or Tim Hecker on here, because, although I generally enjoy those dudes, I really have no point of reference as to what makes their hardcore punk or ambient music better than anyone else’s. Maybe the rap, synth-pop, and indie rock that I enjoy aren’t your thing. Hey, I’m sorry about that. But maybe they are! And maybe you haven’t heard some stuff on here that you might dig. That’d be cool.
Introspective songs on rap albums require threading the needle—getting a little misty without losing your manhood. On “Cigarettes,” Boston MC Reks navigates the problem by unraveling his biography through his history with smoking. As a kid, he wished his mother would quit smoking; as an adult, he buys Newports to help him deal with stress. An immensely gifted storyteller, he knows exactly which details to linger on and which ones to let speak for themselves (from the opening verse: “I used to ask my ma when my daddy died/ what he died of/ AIDS was the new craze I didn’t quite get/ what she meant”). And, just in case anyone should question Reks’ ruffneck credentials, he’s got a guest verse from M.O.P.’s Lil Fame, who reminisces about beating kids with bricks.
49. Destroyer – “Blue Eyes”
The second track on Destroyer’s Kaputt has every hallmark of a love song: mellow saxophone, cooing background vocals, mildly orgasmic breathy sounds. But check out the first lines: “You terrorize the land/ You are pistol and mortar/ Your first love’s New Order.” To a barely-listening indie rock fan, maybe he’s describing a badass chick with a synth-pop fetish. More likely, though, he’s talking about, like, Hitler Youth. It is, after all, called “Blue Eyes.” Right there’s the paradox of Destroyer’s 2011 album. The trappings of 80s soft rock (plucked from an era we associate with obscene wealth and greed) get used to obscure the palpable anger and anxiety underneath, whether in coke heads or poets or Nazi sympathizers.
48. Ill Blu – “Meltdown”
Before Michael Viner’s “Apache” became the greatest breakbeat of all time, it was just a straight-up bongo-tastic funk song. On “Meltdown,” London duo Ill Blu do for UK funky what Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band did for funk—strip it down to pure rhythm. Sure, “Meltdown” features synth- and bass-licks luscious enough to place them in direct lineage with Girl Unit’s gargantuan “Wut.” Yet the focus remains squarely on rhythm, beginning with a skittering, vaguely-tribal beat that underpins the whole track, and escalating toward monstrous, gunshot snare hits. Ill Blu’s greatest accomplishment is that they’ve produced something that feels more live than programmed. Released in February, “Meltdown” doesn’t seem to have had any instant reverberations on the UK funky scene, but, then, “Apache” took a while to get warmed up too.
47. Grimes – “Vanessa”
Like plenty of other musicians who’ve come up in the last couple years, Grimes’ Claire Boucher learned how to make music by fucking around on Garage Band. The sounds she’s pulled for “Vanessa,” though, are primarily acoustic—high hats, hand-claps, and a trellis of voices. The effect is a little like hearing a hand-built machine (or an automaton for the Martin Scorsese fans) whir and click while Boucher’s eerie falsetto guides the whole thing. So, the unearthly feel of “Vanessa” can be chalked up to something we don’t get a lot of these days: delicate—almost human—technology.
46. Kito & Reija Lee – “Broken Hearts (Dillon Francis Remix)”
Dave Nada had a cousin in high school that was throwing a skipping party in the middle of a school day. He invited Nada to DJ and hyped him to his friends. When Nada got there, he noticed the kids were vibing hard to reggaetón, and got anxious that they wouldn’t be into his Dutch records. Improvising, he put on his remix of Afrojack’s “Moomba,” but slowed it down to match reggaetón’s tempo of 108bpm. The crowd went nuts, so he played another screwed down house track. At that point, he realized he had fucked around and created a genre, which he called Moombahton. Plucked from Nada’s Moombahton compilation on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, Dillon Francis’s remix of Kito & Reija Lee’s “Broken Hearts” is a high point for the start-up genre. Francis mashes the bombast of American dubstep, slowed-down tropical beats, and the Lees’ bratty scream-singing to create a track that could very well point toward the future.
45. A$AP Rocky – “Trilla (Feat. A$AP Nast & A$AP Twelvy)”
A$AP Rocky garnered a lot of attention this year for being a rap polyglot. On his two mixtapes, he utilizes the hypnotic drag of Houston’s screw music, rides Clams Casino’s ambient beats, and even mimics New Orleans’ C-Murder on one track. Plus, he does it all while having the gall to be from New York City, one of the most rigidly traditionalist meccas for rap music. “Trilla” is the point where all of those influences congeal into a signature sound. A$AP seems to know it, too, because he makes a point to include his personal catch phrase, which also happens to be as bravely non-traditionalist as his sound: “I’m a pretty motherfucker.”
44. Iron & Wine – “Walking Far From Home”
On Iron & Wine’s first three records, Sam Beam’s take on folk music had clear restrictions. Everything was very neat and self-contained, but the precision and structure of Beam’s songs allowed him to wring drama out of the slightest changes—a new chord, say, or a shift in inflection. Live, though, Beam erases and redraws the boundaries of his music, unleashing it into psych-rock freakouts and jazz dénouements. So it’s heartening to hear Beam loosening the reins on “Walking Far From Home.” As Beam’s voice escalates, the music churns underneath it. Swaths of noise evaporate into acoustic piano, droning voices, and unfinished drum rattles. Then, the noise returns for a finale with enough emotional heft to match any one of Beam’s quieter performances.
43. Night Plane – “Parallel Lines”
“Parallel Lines” is off-kilter from the beginning. Right off the bat, it’s hard to tell whether the song is revving up or settling down; just when a particular melody starts to get going, it quickly dissipates. When the female vocals come in, they give you something to grasp on to—at least, until they start to overlap, jutting in and out of one another. A male voice climbs into the mix. Elements of the beat drop out and resurface. And someone’s cell phone keeps telling them they got an email. Over the course of nine-and-a-half minutes, Night Plane unravel the most slippery, maddening dance song of the year. It could all be some sort of hardcore raver fuckery: A song clearly made for the late hours, but with a built in sense of unease.
42. MondreM.A.N. – “Mondre Mo Murda”
Typically the quiet half of Main Attrakionz, MondreM.A.N. usually seems content to let his more loquacious partner, Squadda B, dominate the conversation. On “Mondre Mo Murda,” from the duo’s epic 808s & Dark Grapes II, MondreM.A.N. takes lead and nearly steals the show. Introducing himself with a “Hey mon,” and riding a galloping, reggae-lite beat, Mondre sets up the track as a slightly-amped weed track—for, like, stoners who enjoy jogging. Things really take off when producer Giorgio MoMurda (who has the best producer handle I’ve seen in a minute) drops a key change and introduces a smooth saxophone sample. Easily the lushest rap song of the year, the best part comes toward the end, when Mondre says of his group, “We ain’t nowhere yet. We ain’t shit right now.” I take that to mean Main Attrakionz is just getting started.
41. Cults – “You Know What I Mean”
“You Know What I Mean” may sound like a ballad, but it’s actually a waltz, which may hint at the complexity at the root of Cults’ seemingly simple songs. Real life couple Madelin Follin and Brian Oblivion (not his real name) specialize in songs that sound like 60s pop confections (the opening seconds reference the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”) Underneath the saccharine sound, though, are songs about co-dependency, depression, and anxiety. Here, Follin sings from the point-of-view of a girl most dudes would refer to as crazy. But, instead of juicing up the stalker-eque aspects of co-dependence, Follin takes the opportunity to dig around in the fear underneath, desperately punching the words when she sings the refrain, “I can’t sleep alone at night/ Yeah, you know what I mean.”
40. Eleanor Friedberger – “Roosevelt Island”
Rambling over a propulsive funk riff, Eleanor Friedberger remembers fragments from a hazy day, maybe more than one: how riding the train to Roosevelt Island is like riding the train to Coney Island; how people drop in and out of your days/life, like the girl with the same hair as her, or the guy who died in Philadelphia, or the guy she hated until she heard him giggle; how hard it used to be to cop drugs without a cell phone; how things (maybe drugs, maybe friends, maybe the Cyclone) can turn a dark day on dirty sand into a memorable one; how a subway ride can feel so comforting that you never want to get out; how sometimes you get back above-ground and realize you’ve forgotten how beautiful the sunlight is, and then you get to rediscover it.
39. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass (Feat. Esther Dean)”
Interesting thing about “Super Bass”: You can’t dance to it. At least, not easily. It’s bridge-walking music—driving just enough to get you across the distance; uplifting enough that you notice the water and the horizon. Nicki Minaj’s debut album may have gotten a tepid reception from critics, because of its reliance on R&B and pop tropes over Nicki’s rap chops, but “Super Bass” gives her an opportunity to make a case that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Flipping back and forth between airy choruses and raw verses, Nicki proves that even ferocious chicks can make boldly romantic gestures.
38. Patrick Wolf – “The City”
Patrick Wolf assembled “The City” from finger-snaps, rousing horn-riffs, cascading piano, power-vocals, and garish sentiments like, “Don’t let the city destroy our love.” Treading perilously close to musical theater, this guy. Wolf’s Glee-ful boldness results in a legitimate show-stopper, but it’s one that’s grounded in prosaic detail: “It’s not about those debts you made/ The car you never had/ The house we never owned.” So, “The City” echoes the English-Irish Wolf’s fellow countrymen Thin Lizzy and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, to become a genuine, working-class anthem—as opposed to one for a haughty Broadway audience. Fist-pumping is generally discouraged in our day-and-age, but here it’s appropriate.
37. M83 – “Midnight City”
When I think of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, I think of rinky-tinky electronics, snarling guitars and angst, lots of angst. But when M83’s Anthony Gonzalez chose the Smashing Pumpkins’ double-album as the inspiration for his own, he zeroed in on quite different aspects: oscillating between huge songs and tiny ones; relentless crescendos; a baldly emotional sweep. The success of “Midnight City,” the lead single and spirit animal for M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, comes mostly thanks to its hook—a pogoing yelp of synths. Gonzalez knows he has a good thing going with that riff. He knows precisely how to back off of it just long enough for you to miss it, and lets it do most of the heavy-lifting until the very end, when he embellishes it with an epic saxophone solo.
36. Tiger & Woods – “Curb My Heart”
The opening to Tiger & Woods’ “Curb My Heart” promises a drum-machine-R&B monster along the lines of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s ”I Wonder If I Take You Home.” It doesn’t disappoint of that front, with vocalist ‘Em turning in an 80s-worthy performance complete with vocal ticks copped from New Edition and Janet Jackson. The production duo, however, have a larger agenda, spinning the lightweight electro-disco into a relentlessly hard-hitting club tack. They turn ‘Em’s performance into an auditory hallucination, and display a Daft Punk-like knack for honing in on an exquisite groove and throttling it half to death (see also: “Gin Nation”).
35. Drake – “Dreams Money Can Buy”
34. Jai Paul – “BTSTU”
The voice at the beginning of “Dreams Money Can Buy” sings, “Don’t fuck with me,” in a wispy falsetto. That right there could be the perfect analogy for Drake’s entire persona: talking tough but sounding fragile. On the self-released track, Drake takes an approach like 50 Cent on “I Get Money,” flaunting his wealth, taking advantage of women, and admitting he’s a “top five” rapper mostly by default. Despite all the machismo, he never comes off as less than weepy, which must be by design. Don’t ever say the guy doesn’t have a sense of humor.
The sample source for “Dreams Money Can Buy” is Jai Paul’s “BTSTU.” In Paul’s hands, the falsetto “Don’t fuck with me” becomes like a “You won’t like me when I’m angry” tactic to set up for the hulking bass. Once the low-end kicks in, “BTSTU” primarily plays bait-and-switch, using Paul’s castrati vocals to lull you into a loping R&B stride before waylaying you with thunderous sub-woofer action. It’s a one trick song, but that one trick is delightful.
33. The Strokes – “Taken For a Fool”
When the Strokes heroically appeared during the waning hours of nü-metal, a large part of their charm came from the retro sheen and emotional distance of their music. The media focused on their leather jackets, skinny jean and thrift store t-shirts—fashions that only served to reinforce their aesthetic sensibilities. For the first time since, what, the 70’s, here was a band effectively marketing Cool. In 2011, after a five year absence and middling solo albums by most of the members, the worst thing the Strokes could have done for their “comeback” was put out an album completely off-brand. Oops. Angles’ sound is rooted in 80s classic rock like the Cars and ZZ Top—bands that are cool, but will never be Cool—that might have been too much for an audience with ten years of distance on Is This It. Thing is, half of the songs on Angles could stand alongside the Strokes’ best, especially “Taken For a Fool,” which affixes their taut guitar work to a snarky infatuation with a dense girl.
32. Kendrick Lamar – “Rigamortis”
“Rigamortis” is practically the very definition of a rapper showcase, with supremely talented spitter Kendrick Lamar speeding up his rhymes over the course of the song. His technical skill is impressive, so much so that it almost sounds like producer Willie B built the track around his voice. At least three clattering drum tracks flit in and out of his words, while a jaunty horn loop either screams through the lines or unexpectedly drops out altogether. It’s a virtuosic song, but aside from Lamar’s high-speed performance, it doesn’t call attention to itself in a way that reminds me of Q-Tip’s no-frills productions for A Tribe Called Quest. Artists who can marry that kind of classicism with forward-thinking and legit skills? Those are the ones you have to watch out for. They’re dangerous.
31. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
It’s not that there aren’t great songs born out of pop’s recent dependence upon house music (like Rihanna’s “We Found Love” for example), but it is heartening that the most ubiquitous song of 2011 contains a good old fashioned stomping and clapping breakdown. On “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele reaches through the annals of pop music and pulls from blues, gospel, country, soul, and jazz. She rounds all of it up and puts it to work in the most rocknroll way possible: As a vessel for her bilious anger.
30. Dum Dum Girls – “Wrong Feels Right”
I get a little jolt every time I hear the beginning of the Dum Dum Girls’ “Wrong Feels Right.” Dee Dee’s vocals come in crisply and immediately, a low drum roll ramping up underneath her. She sings demandingly, “Tell me what you dream!” The clarity is part of the reason it’s such a shock. The groups’ debut, last year’s I Will Be, used lo-fi recording to obscure their songs. With the massive and precise sound of “Wrong Feels Right,” and the rest of the He Gets Me High EP, it’s clear that the Dum Dum Girls were merely underplaying their hand. Here, their influences—The Pretenders, The Shangri-La’s, The Byrds, The Smiths—coalesce, and they turn into a promising force of their own. Even beyond the opening jolt, “Wrong Feels Right” is one of the most visceral and complete rock songs I’ve heard in a while.
29. The Rapture – “It Takes Time to Be a Man”
House music usually succeeds on the basis of simplicity and repetition. So, The Rapture’s experience with house means that their ballads are going to sound a little different from everyone else. At first “It Takes Time to Be a Man,” the closing track on In the Grace of Your Love, is skeletal in its construction. Over a drum pattern that does little more than hold the beat, an elusive piano phrase and a guitar melody play call-and-response. Luke Jenner sings about brotherly love with the spirit of a gospel-tinged house vocalist. But, when the back-up vocals come in with a chorus of Hallelujahs, and the song explodes into a (what else?) closing saxophone solo, it’s clear that the cues The Rapture have taken from house are more than just musical. They’ve captured the feeling of shambling into ecstasy.
28. Beyoncé – “1+1”
Up close, Beyoncé’s “1+1” doesn’t make a whole lot of lyrical sense. Her proclamations of love, courtesy of songwriter The-Dream, are usually confounding. “I don’t know much about guns,” she sings at one point, “But I’ve been shot by you.” Because… you’re… a gun? Because, then, if you’re her lover, wouldn’t she actually know a decent amount about guns. Even the opening lines are a labyrinth of nonsensical jabber: “If I ain’t got nothin’/ then I’ve got you/ If I ain’t got something/ I don’t give a damn/ ‘Cause I’ve got it with you.”
But one thing makes absolute sense: Beyoncé’s conviction. The way her voice skirts off uncontrollably whenever she says “with you.” The way that sometimes she can barely keep herself from growling. The way she completely earns the biggest power-ballad electric guitar solo in at least two decades. Her refrain, “Make love to me,” is neither pleading nor bullying, but rather a simple and profound direction, as if it were the more important and true thing in the world. Beyoncé owns “1+1,” she owns her relationship, and her conviction toward love is astounding, even if she can’t quite express it with logic.
27. XXXY – “You Always Start It”
The further we get from it, the more variations we hear on Joy Orbison’s “HYPH MNGO.” Mancunian producer XXXY’s version is rooted in UK Garage (experiencing a small revival amidst all the dubstep-pop crossover). The vocal sample on “You Always Start It” follows a similar pattern as “HYPH MNGO”—a couple of jumbled vocal chirps, followed by a more accentuated one, all seeming to say something vaguely like “you.” Where XXXY veers off is simple. He sets up the lush, garage-tinged track, and then, about two minutes in and for the rest of the six minute run, he proceeds to arpeggiate the shit out of it.
26. Frank Ocean – “Novacane”
Frank Ocean meets a dental student at Coachella who introduces him to pot laced with anesthetic. They hole up together for a while and end up like Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Rush, except with 100% more porn shoots. Yes, “Novacane” is a druggy R&B love song. Ocean aspires to more than that, however. He’s interested in how drugs can numb you to the joy and fear inherent in sex, and, more interestingly, how Autotune has caused a similar emotional distance in modern R&B. Odds are that the character Ocean takes on in “Novacane,” who admits, “Even when I’m fuckin’, Viagra poppin’,” is listening to 808s & Heartbreak while he does it.
-Marty Brown, 2011
(Hit up #25-1 here.)