In 2011, we shuffled and shook it out. We found love and decided to dance until the world ends. We rolled in the deep and celebrated the boys with the booming systems. Shoot, at one point, we even went to Paris with Will Ferrell . It was, to say the very least, an interesting 12 months.
So, how else to sum up the year than with my picks for the 25 Best Songs of 2011: odes to partying and pumped-up kicks, songs of sadness and beauty, tunes about getting loaded and getting revenge. Pop, hip-hop, rock, bed-tronica, they’re all here, and they’re all important in some way, mostly because they all helped guide us through a rather tumultuous time. But that’s enough from me, let’s get to the songs. Oh, and I’d like to hear your picks too — drop me a line in the comments below. So now, on with the countdown.
25. Nicola Roberts, “Beat of My Drum”: Supremely saccharine single from erstwhile Girls Aloud member mashes together every notable pop moment in recent history, yet somehow manages to be better that the sum of its parts. That’s thanks mostly to the supercharged, sing-a-long chorus, where the whole thing comes together in a head-spinning rush. She should go solo more often.
24. Against Me!, “Russian Spies”: Searing, surging punk from Gainesville lifers proves their time on Sire Records didn’t soften them one bit. It only made them more resolute. And, strangely, sadder too.
23. Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci”: Either the smartest song of 2011 or the dumbest, the beauty of “Gucci Gucci” — and Kreayshawn, for that matter — is that the answer is probably both. The goofy, horror-movie synth squiggle, the dollops of low-end whomp, the part where Kreay claims to have swag coming out her ovaries … it’s all good. Even if it’s not.
22. Gospel Music, “This Town Doesn’t Have Enough Bars for Both Of Us”: Peppy, poppy, pocket-rock that laments the lack of quality drinking establishments in Owen Holmes’ hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, and dares to ponder one of life’s great post-breakup quandaries: When does our place become just my place? He’s not smart enough to know the answer; instead, he spends his genius on barroom bon mots like, “I’m not drinking anymore/ But I’m not drinking any less.” Works for me.
21. Demi Lovato, “Skyscraper”: For about a week, this was the biggest song in the world (or the Internet), a fact that had nothing to do with irony, our nascent sense of superiority or kittens, and everything to do with the startling connection Lovato makes with the track itself. Oh, and the fact that she sings the absolute beejezus out of it. Given everything that’s happened in Lovato’s life , that connection makes sense, but it’s the maturity she shows on the song — and that final, chill-inducing chorus — that opened eyes, and served notice. Welcome to the club, Demi.
20. Lykke Li, “Get Some”: Overlooked, otherworldly single off Li’s equally overlooked (and otherworldly) Wounded Rhymes album, this one is very much about sex. Thumping, bumping, panting … and then Li pushes it all over the top with her smoldering, sumptuous vocals. The kind of song that requires a cigarette and a cold shower after repeat listens.
19. The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy”: After spending portions of their breakout Brothers album getting slightly contemplative, the Keys roar back with “Lonely Boy,” a song that only contemplates how best to make a guitar rev like a V-8 engine. A hard-charging, and even harder-chugging treat (with an equally hard-partying music video ), it’s the kind of classic claptrap you always knew they were capable of making.
18. Chris Brown, “Beautiful People”: Folks can talk about Brown’s hip-hop turn on “Look at Me Now,” but this single represents his biggest reinvention to date. A slippery, shiny club track helmed by Benny Benassi, like most of Breezy’s work it is undeniably sexy, but it’s also subtly smart too. And that’s where he made his biggest strides. Also, unlike “Look at Me Now,” he doesn’t even mention Mr. Miyagi once.
17. YACHT, “Dystopia (The Earth Is on Fire)”: Every day the sky gets lower (lowerlowerlower!) And every day the flames get higher (higherhigherhigher!) So, with apologies to Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three, this disco duo just decide to let the motherf—er burn.
16. Washed Out, “Eyes be Closed”: Massively ebbing and echoing bed-tronica (or, you know, “chillwave”) from some dude in Perry, Georgia. Bonus: Sounds nothing like Perry, Georgia.
15. Lil Wayne, “6 Foot 7 Foot”: Weezy and producer Bangladesh may still hate each other (or maybe they’ve made up, I can’t remember), but there’s no denying that both men are better off together. “6 Foot” starts with Harry Belafonte’s “The Banana Boat Song,” then twists it into something else entirely. Knotty and slightly seizure-inducing, it’s like “A Milli” times, well, a million.
14. Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”: The unlikely champion of the Summer Jam Sweepstakes, it started life almost as an afterthought (a bonus track on the Pink Friday deluxe edition) and ended up being Nicki’s breakthrough hit. Sometimes things just work out that way. Here’s to the guys with the booming systems.
13. LMFAO, “Party Rock Anthem” : It’s either the stoopidest song in recent memory, or perhaps LMFAO’s magnum opus (or maybe both), but why ponder points like that when the end result is this good. From its ebola-catchy hook to party-hearty machinations, this one is just begging to be blasted … and shuffled to.
12. Foster The People, “Pumped Up Kicks”: The year’s catchiest rock tune was actually last year‘s catchiest too — it just took folks a while to realize it. Hazy, loping and scratchy like a mohair sweater, it recalls a headier era when bands wrote ultra-hooky singles about ultra-dark things (Eels’ “Novocaine for the Soul,” the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” etc.) and earned repeated spins on radio as a result. Also known as the 1990s.
11. Rihanna, “We Found Love”: A few weeks ago, someone told me that this would ultimately end up being Rihanna’s signature hit and, at the time, I sort of laughed him off. I mean, did he remember “Umbrella”? But, the more I think about it, he may be right. Or at least on the right track. From the icy synth strains to Calvin Harris’ hard-charging pre-chorus, it most certainly is the song that best represents pop, circa 2011, and given RiRi’s standing in the field, perhaps in time, it will become her set-closing number too. For now, at least, I’m content to bask in “Love’s” masterful mix of the carnal and, well, the club.
10. Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”: I have been accused (many times) of being a Brit basher and, sure, that’s probably true, but not even I could deny this song. Super-charged star-burst synthesizers, robo-vocals and, of course, that iconic “Woah-Oh-Oh” chantalong, it’s the party jam for the post-apocalyptic future. And because of all that, it’s also an important song; not only a reminder that Britney is still capable of making truly terrific pop music, but that, really, she never stopped. And coming from one of her most ardent critics, that’s high praise indeed.
09. Beyoncé, “Love on Top”: You wanted a throwback jam, you’ve got a throwback jam. Big, bold, brassy and blissed-out, it represents everything B was going for on her 4 album, recalling roiling old R&B classics and the supreme diva-tude of the all-time greats. Sure, I could’ve gone for something like “Run the World (Girls)” or even “Countdown,” but “Love on Top” is where it all clicks, sublimely so. Joy for days, which, given our dire times, made this one an absolute lifesaver. Oh, and as is the case with all of her best tunes, Beyoncé belts here. And really, what else do you need?
08. Nickelback, “Bottoms Up”: Take away my cred card, but I am unapologetically in awe of this song. I wrote an entire column about its boozy brilliance earlier this year, but suffice to say, it is without a doubt the greatest thing Nickelback will ever do, in that they are first and foremost a party band, and this is their ultimate party jam: a song about getting supremely sh–faced, about drinking everything from Jim Beam to “straight gasoline,” complete with a crushing, ALL-CAPS chorus and appropriately chugging riffs. Oh, and at one point, Chad Kroeger rhymes “bar” with “fire,” mostly because he can. Hammer down, now and forever.
07. Bright Eyes, “The Ladder Song”: For as much noise as Conor Oberst is capable of making, it’s often the quieter moments where his rickety, ramshackle genius shines brightest. And “Ladder Song” — a heartbreakingly raw tribute to a friend who committed suicide — is not only his quietest, it’s one of his best. Backed by little more than a piano and a handful of otherworldly room tones, Oberst plumbs the depths of despair, his voice reedy and wavering, and, when he reaches bottom, discovers there are small beauties that make life worth living. It’s too bad, he ultimately laments, that his friend didn’t discover them too. The year’s most achingly beautiful song, by a hair-raising mile.
06. Drake, “Take Care”: There are no shortage of memorable, mystifying moments on Drake’s Take Care, but for me, none were quite as memorable (or mystifying) as the title track, which combines Jamie XX’s sparse reworking of Gil Scot-Heron’s “I’ll Take Care Of U” with Rihanna’s aching vocals and Drizzy’s bleary-eyed boasts. The end result is a song that’s so dark it’s practically nocturnal, echoing and empty. Perhaps 2011’s best example of a prime-time artist taking a major risk, it not only paid off in spades, it proved that Drake’s more than just a pretty face. He’s got brains, too … even if most of the time he’s too fried to realize it.
05. Florence and the Machine, “Shake It Out”: Part regret-filled lament, part old-fashioned revival, “Shake It Out” is a prime example of just what makes Florence Welch so great. It’s a heartrending song with an absolutely uplifting chorus, a mixture of somber metaphors and messages that ultimately decides to be an anthem for the downtrodden. It’s ethereal, otherworldly and, yet, decidedly visceral, too. And when combined with Welch’s hurricane vocals, it packs a punch few other songs could match. Be blown away.
04. Lady Gaga, “Heavy Metal Lover”: Buried toward the back of Born This Way, “Lover” was just about the only song Gaga didn’t release as a single this year, which is odd, considering it’s far and away the best track on the album. A masterful mix of “Transformers”-size techno pump and supple, slipstream synthesizers, it pulses and twitches, expands and contracts, and is probably the best example of what we all hoped BTW would be. As an added bonus, “I want your whiskey mouth/ All over my blond south” was unquestionably the pick-up line of the year.
03. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “N—as in Paris”: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IT MEANS, BUT IT’S PROVOCATIVE. IT GETS THE PEOPLE GOING.
02. Girls, “Vomit”: A haunting, haunted song that follows frontman Chris Owens as he drifts through deserted city streets, ghostlike, searching for his long-lost love, “Vomit” most certainly is not an uplifting thing. But it never tries to be anything of the sort. Instead, over the course of six-and-a-half minutes, it is content to work itself up to a frothy, gospel-tinged peak — recalling Pink Floyd and Spiritualized — and as Owens begs “Come into my heart,” you sort of realize that sometimes it’s OK to go it alone. Or at least that’s what you try to keep telling yourself.
01. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”: Not only the song of the year, it’s also quite possibly the song of our time, which is an odd thing to say, considering “Deep” is about as artfully anachronistic as popular music gets: a crackling, breathy thing that roils along on little more than a stubby guitar and some primal pounding, it positively roars to life the second the chorus hits, powered entirely by Adele’s prodigious pipes. No Auto-Tune, no mention of partying or material excess (and not even a single Will Ferrell sample), “Deep” is a throwback in every conceivable way to a time when artists actually sang (and sang about real, genuine emotions like sadness and anger), when a single could push an album for months and months at a time and, most of all, when people still bought music. And despite all that, it was still the crossover smash to end all crossover smashes, the song that not only dominated 2011, but defined it, too. Sort of gives you hope … or makes you realize we truly are living in the strangest of times.
Did he get it right? Sound off on Bigger Than the Sound‘s Top 25 Songs of 2011 in the comments!