MTV’s list of the Best Songs of 2011 is like one of those old late-night commercials for awesome sampler albums: You’ve got your pop hit, a bit of rock, some hip-hop, R&B and a tune or two that you just can’t fully define, but which you definitely shook it to at some point over the past 12 months.
Last week, MTV correspondent Sway Calloway moderated a spirited roundtable discussion with some of our very own experts: James Montgomery and Rob Markman (MTV News), Yomi Desalu and Malika Quemerais (MTV Music and Talent) and Tamar Anitai and Nicole James (MTV.com). The panel managed to narrow it down to their top 10.
We will say that the year’s ultimate “Party Rock Anthem” made the cut, as did Rihanna’s waltz into the world of dubstep, a kitchen-sink empowerment anthem for anyone who’s ever felt marginalized, and an unexpected smash about a school shooting that is so catchy you might miss the sinister lyrics. Two of rap’s titans are also on the list, as is a pop princess who hopped on the Empowerment Express, an R&B singer who went the Dirty South route with two hip-hop icons, and a Latin rhymer asking for some eye contact over a club-banging beat.
10. “Firework,” Katy Perry
Sure, its release as a single came in late 2010, but the true impact of “Firework” was felt in 2011. It rang in the New Year at #1, was Perry’s top single of the year and is nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy. More importantly, the song’s message touched fans all over the world as the pop star toured the globe. “I wrote this song for anyone who ever needed a song. To help them, to lift them up,” she told the crowd when I saw her at New York’s Nassau Coliseum this summer. The arena shook as every person sang along with her and pyro lit up the stage, raining down like a wall of sparklers. — John Mitchell
9. “Look at Me Now,” Chris Brown
Tough, aggressive and completely unapologetic lyrically, Chris goes hard on the F.A.M.E. track, which also features rap heavy-hitters Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Grinding production, bleeping noises and bumping beats answer Brown’s siren call about not really caring very much what anyone thinks about him and his bad-boy rep. Why? Well, mostly because he’s “fresh than a mother—-er.” Given Brown’s nefarious past, it was a catchy, bold, brash statement from one of R&B’s biggest young stars. — Jocelyn Vena
8. “N—as in Paris,” Kanye West and Jay-Z
Kanye West picked a fitting Will Ferrell sound bite for “N—as in Paris,” but not even Yeezy could have predicted just how much his and Jay-Z’s second Watch the Throne single would get the people going. After leading with “Otis,” the Throne’s kinetic follow-up joint seems to be the ultimate people’s choice. The brash title and profane hook (“Ball so hard mother—-ers wanna fine me”) doesn’t exactly scream radio hit, but that’s exactly what it has become, peaking at #1 on the Billboard Rap Songs chart. The song has become so popular that Hov and ’Ye have performed it as many as nine times in a single night during their WTT Tour run. Now that sh– cray! — Rob Markman
7. “Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People
If you went to a rock club or major festival, turned on satellite radio, or visited any retail store that sells skinny jeans, you were likely entranced by the Los Angeles trio’s breakout hit “Pumped Up Kicks.” The combination of lyrics about a psychotic, gun-toting teen and cheery, New Wave-y bass bounce, seven-dwarves-worthy whistling, hypnotic electronic effects and former jingle writer Mark Foster’s dreamy falsetto vocals revived the feel of mid-1990s alt-rock. Plus, as it turns out, this potential one-hit wonder ended up having plenty more to offer. — Gil Kaufman
6. “Give Me Everything,” Pitbull
Pitbull is perhaps music’s most underrated hitmaker, but if 2009’s “I Know You Want Me” and “Hotel Room Service” weren’t enough to convince the naysayers, the Cuban pop-rapper’s omnipresent “Give Me Everything” should’ve done the trick in 2011. On paper, a song featuring Pit, Ne-Yo, Afrojack and sexy-siren Nayer might seem a bit all over the place, but by the end of the four-minute, 12-second jam, it all worked out quite nicely. There’s a reason the one-night stand ode hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The energetic dance groove, rapid rhymes and the track’s infectious hook were choice ingredients for the perfect party record. — R.M.
5. “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga
Quick, name another top 10 hit that seeks to empower the LGBT community, drag queens, the disabled or anyone who is “black, white beige, chola descent … Lebanese … orient.” You can’t, because nobody but Mother Monster has the cojones to release “Born This Way” as the first single off an eagerly anticipated sophomore album. The tune mixes soaring rhetoric with equally pulse-quickening beats. Of course, it was accompanied by a viscous-liquid-dripping seven-minute video that added to Gaga’s mind-tripping visual canon and further established her as one of the biggest triple threats in music. — G.K.
4. “Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO
LMFAO’s ode to being the life of the party is the definition of a guilty pleasure, and it was an instant hit, topping the charts and playlists. With a fist-pumping beat and lyrics that are nearly as silly as the leopard-print pants Redfoo and SkyBlu typically rock, “Party Rock Anthem” had everyone from your grandma to Justin Bieber “shufflin’. ” — J.V.
3. “We Found Love,” Rihanna
Rihanna fully embraced EDM on her Talk That Talk single. Produced by Calvin Harris, “We Found Love” is a swirling party track about love and loss. It took pop’s obsession with dance music to the next level thanks to its killer production. Sparse at times and completely enthralling at others, “WFL” is sad and joyous all at once. A call back to ’90s raves, the song made pop lovers want to break out their glow sticks and just dance. — J.V.
2. “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj
It wasn’t Pink Friday’s first single — hell, it wasn’t even technically on the album’s proper track list! — but “Super Bass” had all the right ingredients. There’s the bright and airy guitar intro, which eventually builds into a full pop affair complete with a knocking 808 and, of course, that patented bass drum. Lyrically, Nicki threw a shout-out to 1980s rap legend Slick Rick and threatened to slap a chick all in an effort to woo her drug-dealing crush. Typically, cheery-sounding pop hits aren’t so edgy, but the Harajuku Barbie has successfully elbowed her way into the spotlight alongside starlets like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift — and has done it her way.
1. “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele
Was there any doubt? The megahit so dominated 2011 that calling it the Song of the Year is putting it mildly. And we’re not just talking commercially — though it was the year’s best-selling track — or critically, mostly because focusing on those details fails to tell the whole story. Consider it the anthem to end all anthems, the feel-bad song of our time, the antidote for the Auto-Tuned masses. But maybe it’s best just to call it Adele’s coronation into the ranks of the all-time greats. She’s now and forever the Queen of Pain . Long may she reign.