This past year was really up and down musically. The biggest selling song of the year happened to be one of the best; chillwave came roaring back with releases from all the major bands; September saw major prog metal releases; and the indie scene continued to amaze. I had high hopes for 2011 releases from Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, and Björk (especially Björk), only to be let down. I also spent a lot of 2011 listening to older music that I missed along the way. One of the best was Trapeze’s Medusa, a 1972 hard rock album by the Glenn Hughes-fronted band that I heard about on That Metal Show. I can’t believe it slipped below my radar all these years. I also caught up on some older downtempo, indie, metal, and dubstep.
On my favorite songs of 2011, there’s a pretty good mix of heavier music, lots of indie, and even a hip hop song. What’s interesting is that most of these songs came out in the second half of the year:
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – ‘Weight of the Sun”
Lykke Li – “Love Out of Lust”
Friendly Fires – “Blue Cassette”
Toro Y Moi – “New Beat”
Neon Indian – “Polish Girl”
Cults – “Abducted”
Arch/Matheos – “Incense and Myrh”
Washed Out – “Amor Fati”
Ben Folds Five – “Tell Me What I Did”
Ben Folds – “Rocky” (unreleased 1992 track)
15. Memory Tapes – “Wait in the Dark” While was not as impressed with Player Piano as I was with the Tapes’ previous effort, 2009’s exceptional Seek Magic, “Wait in the Dark” delivers a shot of straight ahead indie pop, accented by studio effects, with a hint of chillwave. The sound definitely makes you think of Dayve Hawk’s previous band, the now-defunct and underrated Hail Social.
14. Anthrax – “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” If you told me that I’d be listening to Anthrax in 2011, I would have called you nuts. I hadn’t listened to anything the band put out since the early ’90s. Back with singer Joey Belladona, the band’s “Fight ‘Em” is a great thrash throwback song. Makes you want to mosh … if it was 1987 again, and you were 15 years old.
13. Corporate X – “Catch Me” Christine DeLeon’s vocals are superb on this addictive slice of indie electro pop. This is a band to watch.
12. Real Estate – “Green Aisles” It’s been exactly three weeks since I was introduced to this song by my sister-in-law. Real Estate are out of New Jersey but recall Southern California, circa 1975, mixed with indie sensibilities. “Aisles” is propelled by a simple bass line and chiming guitars; it’s inherently addictive. The song is also an excellent soundtrack for an afternoon drive.
11. Cults – “Go Outside” Brooklyn indie hipster band + Spector-ish girl pop = out of left field buzz and a choice 2011 track. The opening notes recall the great R&B classic “Strawberry Letter 23” and the rest keeps the neo-retro vibe.
10. Freestylers, feat. Belle Humble – “Cracks (Flux Pavillion Remix)” OK, this was a late 2010 release, but I didn’t get to it until mid 2011. Coming out of Never Say Die Records, this excellent dubstep track stretches the genre with a downtempo vocal style accented by a bouncing percussive beat, with nary a bass to be heard.
9. Washed Out – “You and I” This track encapsulates the essence of Washed Out: intricately layered synths, Carolina Polacheck’s languid vocals drenched in reverb, and sparse yet effective percussion. This is a clear champ of the year’s chillwave crop.
8. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep” You couldn’t get away from this retro soul-tinged song in 2011 if you tried. Not that it’s a bad thing. Adele got dumped and crafted one of the best breakup songs of all time, one that comes at you with a voice that crushed all others in her path. There’s also a venomous undercurrent in the lyrics that makes this more than a simple longing for love lost.
7. The Rapture – “How Deep Is Your Love” At over six minutes long, this is not the usual indie dance pop song; it’s better. The Rapture pull out a number of influences, from the trance-like piano opener to a horn section that stepped out of an ’80’s R&B song to some rather laconic lyrics. It works well.
6. Bon Iver – “Calgary” “Calgary” starts with sparse keyboards accompanied by Justin Vernon’s (aka Bon Iver) haunting voice. Just when you think the songs as good as they can get, the drums kick in, accented by pastoral synths and effects-laden guitar, and take it to a whole new level.
5. Lupe Fiasco – “Coming Up” The super deep groove in the verses opens into one of the year’s best choruses. This is simply a flat-out amazing hip hop song.
4. Foo Fighters – “Dear Rosemary” The Foos open with the best first line of 2011 (“You got away, got away, got away from me/Now get away, get away, get away from me”), and things keep getting better. The Foo Fighters continue to be the best rock band around.
3. Mastodon – “Curl of the Burl” Mastodon tighten their prog metal tendencies and get gritty with a blistering slab of riff-heavy metal. Meth heads, tree burls, and goats comprise their lyrics and are still peerless.
2. M83 – “Midnight City” The real hook in this song is a synth riff that comes straight out of left field, while a cascade of cavernous electric drums (think floor toms recorded in a hangar) push this song into the stratosphere. It’s big and grandiose and pleads to be played loud.
1. Arch/Matheos – “Midnight Serenade” There was no competition this year as to my favorite. The reunion between John Arch and Jim Matheos brought the year’s best album and this song, a masterpiece of prog metal. It’s more melodic and less complex than the other songs on Sympathetic Resonance, but it’s the perfect marriage of lyrics and music, technical prowess, and power. Stunning.