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musicforants.com’s Best Songs of 2011

Date December 16, 2011

(photo by cubagallery)

These are 50 tracks that defined 2011 for us, presented in highly unscientific ordered list form, with Matt’s songs marked with a “-MG” and my choices with a “-TJ” next to them. To better spread the love, there’s only one song per artist. Click the links next to the track to download / listen to the song and go to our Spotify Playlist to hear them all. Enjoy y’all!

50. Austra – Beat and the Pulse MP3

The world Austra inhabits feels familiar. It’s a dark, mysterious place shrouded in shadow, but Austra makes it feel habitable. She welcomes you in where others try to keep their distance. She can be slightly more amiable than her peers, but that black edge is always there. -MG

49. Craft Spells – After The Moment MP3

I got hooked on the incredibly effervescent “After The Moment” after it made it onto Cheryse’s Spring mix. With it’s bouncy bass lines and twinkling synths, it sounds like a long-lost New Order track from the mid-80’s. -TJ

48. Washed Out – Amor Fati MP3

“Amor Fati” may be the most perfect realization of a Washed Out song yet. It has everything we have come to expect: shimmering synths, gauzy vocals, and an uplifting melody. But those familiar building blocks shape up into something that stands above anything else the band has done yet. -MG

47. Summer Camp – Better Off Without You MP3

Retromania was in full swing this year, and Summer Camp were one of the movement’s biggest enthusiasts. “Better Off Without You” is perhaps their most memorable tune yet with ebullient surf-pop instrumentation and a mesmerizing vocal performance from Elizabeth Sankey. -TJ

46. Ty Segall – Make The Sun Fury MP3

What an apt title. Segall’s music can sometimes seem like you’re seeing the world after staring into the sun; everything is overblown and out of focus. But there is an overriding sense of joy to “You Make the Sun Fry”, like it’s the kind of thing Segall can bang out in a lazy afternoon. It’s that kind of nonchalant finesse that makes the song so infectious. -MG

45. The Dodos – Don’t Stop MP3

I said: “Don’t Stop features the type of rapid-paced guitar plucking and spirited drumming that hooked me on [The Dodos] from the beginning, now interjected with twitchy electric guitar stabs and laced with their always-lovely vocal harmonies. An exceptional track from start to finish.” -TJ

44. TV on the Radio – You Y2B

If there were some kind of auditory dictionary, “You” would be the song that played for TV on the Radio’s entry. It has everything we have come to expect from a TVOTR song, but the band manages to make it sound fresh and exciting. The amazing video certainly doesn’t hurt it either. -MG

43. NewVillager – Lighthouse MP3

These art-pop kids from Brooklyn created one of the most exorbitantly catchy earworms of the year with “Lighthouse”. From the vivid orchestration to the jubilant vocals, the track is an absolute delight and did I mention how catchy it is, because HOLY FREAKING CRAP this song is catchy. -TJ

42. The Mountain Goats – High Hawk Season MP3

“High Hawk Season” can feel gimmicky at first. How many other songs in 2011 feature the North Mountain Singers as accompaniment? But using that spars arrangement, The Mountain Goats created one of the most original, affecting songs of the year. -MG

41. Moonface – Fast Peter MP3

Spencer Krug rarely releases anything short of spectacular and “Fast Peter” is no exception. The sprawling, eight-minute track is filled with dizzying organ arpeggios and addicting electronic loops and features a lush, otherworldy ending passage that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The track shows that Krug’s distinct, intense vocals and his vivid storytelling abilities are still in top form. -TJ

Follow the jump below to see the rest of the list!

40. Yuck – Holing Out MP3

Yuck’s debut had no shortage of earworms, but “Holing Out” proved to be the most consistently enjoyable. If the band turned the fuzz down just a tad, it could almost pass as a dreamy pop tune. But without that wall of noise, the chorus just wouldn’t be as sweet. -MG

39. Bodies of Water – Mary, Don’t You Weep MP3

For the most part, Bodies of Water’s latest album was a more stripped down, intimate affair but on “Mary, Don’t You Weep” the married duo bring back some of their more grandiose qualities with a mariachi horn section, big wall-of-sound drums and a triumphant chorus. David Metcalf’s Bowie-esque baritone perfectly complements Meredith’s charismatic vocals, making for a highly compelling three-and-a-half minutes. -TJ

38. Trash Talk  – Awake MP3

It’s hard writing about a song that is over before you even finish the first sentence. But Trash Talk understand that brevity is one of hardcore’s most important qualities. “Awake” bashes you over the head and then breaks your back over its knee before you even have time to realize you are being assaulted. -MG

37. Girls – Honey Bunny MP3

It took me a while to come around to the band Girls, but I couldn’t resist the charm of this lively throwback-pop tune, reminiscent of Dear Catastrophe Waitress / Life Pursuit-era Belle & Sebastian . The driving beat, clean sunshiney production and infectious melody immediately pull you in and Christopher Owens’ giddy, lovelorn lyrics are some of the most endearing of the year. -TJ

36. The Decemberists – June Hymn MP3

The Decemberists are certainly no strangers to grandiloquence, but “June Hymn” stands out because of its simplicity. Sure, the lyrics are as ornate as always, but the song is a delicate ditty that conveys the kind of worldly warmth that only Meloy & Co. can provide. -MG

35. STRFKR – Bury Us Alive MP3

I said: “Bury Us Alive” is everything a great electro-pop track should be, vibrant, exhilarating and highly danceable with a catchy-as-hell chorus. With it’s bombastic synths and explosive beats that recall the best work of bands like MGMT and Passion Pit, this track should become an instant favorite for dance clubs and house parties alike.” – TJ

34. WU LYF – Dirt MP3

WU LYF are still a bit of an enigma. Their carefully crafted aesthetic gives the feeling that you’re listening to a band out of time, like something created in a cult commune. But songs like “Dirt” show that the band just wants to write huge pop songs like everyone else. Even if WU LYF seem to be speaking their own language -MG

33. Mates of State – Palomino MP3

Mates of State has never had a shortage of extraordinarily catchy melodies, and the one in “Palomino” is certainly one of the most memorable in their decade-long career. The track begins with an exhilarating opening build,  has all the breathtaking tempo changes you’d expect from the duo, and then wraps it all up with an euphoric, sing-a-long climax. It all makes for one of the most satisfying pop songs of the year. -TJ

32. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Barnes’ Yard MP3

“Barnes’ Yard” is one of the most thrilling tracks of the year, a ravishing, barn-stomper that covers both the excitement and the tribulations of young love in it’s blistering two-and-half minute running time. The song makes great use of Nils Edenloff’s Jeff Mangum-like snarl (I especially love his delivery on the line “Your brother’s in the basement doing hot knives”) and Paul Banwatt’s explosive drumming. -TJ

31. Cults – You Know What I Mean MP3

“You Know What I Mean” starts simply enough; it could almost pass as some long-lost Phil Spector jam. But then that chorus comes in and completely obliterates everything that came before. Sure, there are some more verses here and there. But they’re really just teases until Cults give you that next hit. -MG

30. James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream MP3

Blake’s debut full-length came as a bit of a shock; after three EPs worth of boundary-pushing bass music, his tender voice seemed almost out of place. But “The Wilhelm Scream” proved that Blake is just as adept at tugging on heartstring as he is moving feet. -MG

29. The Strokes – Under Cover Of Darkness MP3

When “Under Cover of Darkness” was released this February, it was like we are all instantly transported to the first time we heard The Strokes’ debut album, Is This It. Those excruciatingly catchy guitars hooks, the enthusiastic bounce of the drums, Julian Casablanca’s off-the-cuff vocals and that huge soaring chorus are all there to remind us why we all fell for the band in the first place. Although the album didn’t completely live up to the songs promise, this was my go-to jam for much of the year. -TJ

28. Smith Westerns – Imagine, Pt. 3 MP3

“Imagine Pt. 3” is an exercise in patience. That’s not to say the songs is boring; in fact, quite the opposite is true. It’s a rousing romp of a song. But the preceding 2:54 are just a build up to the epic guitar break that ends the song. The song would still be great even without the last 30 seconds, but’s a testament to Smith Westerns’ abilities that they were comfortable enough to save the best for last. -MG

27. Patrick Wolf – The City MP3

It’s about time Patrick Wolf channeled all of his melodic and theatrical prowess into one big damn pop song. With it’s pounding drums, airy synths and extravagant horn section, “The City” sounds like it would have been a top 10 hit in 1985 alongside Huey Lewis and Wham!, but while the sound is certainly dated, Wolf sells it with an unabashed enthusiasm and earnestness giving the song all the flamboyance and jubilation it deserves. Even the cheesiest lines like “Wish you the top, top, top… TOP of the morning” bring a giant smile to my face. -TJ

26. John Maus – Believer MP3

Most great science-fiction has roots in very real issues: drug addiction, war, class struggles, racism. Authors tend to use the lens of sci-fi to refract and reflect society in order to open our minds to thinking about things in a new light. The same can be said of John Maus’ approach to music. If you strip away the noise and trappings of “Believer”, you’re left with a perfect pop song. Maus just makes you open your mind and work for it. -MG

25. Youth Lagoon – July MP3

Trevor Powers emerged as one of the most captivating new songwriters of the year, and for many of us, our first taste was the gorgeous “July”. Powers masterfully builds the track from a somber organ opening, then expands layer upon layer of chiming keyboards, drenched vocals, fuzzy guitar, and dancey electronic beats all melding together wonderfully. Like many of his tracks, “July” evokes Powers’ childhood, resulting in an achingly personal song, filled with warmth and yearning, that can’t help but tug hard on your heartstrings. -TJ

24. The Weeknd – Wicked Games MP3

What makes The Weeknd interesting is how much they revel in their debauchery, and nowhere is this more evident that on “Wicked Games”. It’s a fascinating look inside the mind of someone self-destructing and not giving a damn in the process. These are malevolent people who know it, and they make no excuses. -MG

23. Iron & Wine – Walking Far From Home MP3

A few years ago, the thought of adding electronic elements to Iron & Wine’s stripped down folk would have been unheard of, but it’s incredible how on tracks like “Walking Far From Home”, Sam Beam is able to put down the acoustic guitar and incorporate layers of synths and reverb into his sound without losing the essence of Iron & Wine. The track, which opens the most recent album, is a beautifully arranged song with all the majestic gospel-folk quality of his previous opus “Trapeze Swinger”, as Beam evokes apocalyptic imagery through a string of eloquent, riveting vignettes.  -TJ

22. Ford & Lopatin – Too Much Midi (Please Forgive Me) MP3

What makes “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me)” great is the turn halfway through. There’s no indication what we might find on the other end of the breakdown, but when we emerge into straight jam territory it just feels right. It’s a blissful bait-and-switch, and one we’re happy to be tricked by again and again. -MG

21. Lykke Li – Get Some MP3

On “Get Some”,  the centerpiece to Lykke Li’s sophomore album, the Swedish pop artist seductively belts out “like a shotgun, needs an outcome / I’m your prostitute, you gonna get some” over an assault of crashing drums, putting just about every other sexual come-on from the last 10 years of pop music to shame. The song’s pulsating beat and unforgettable hook accentuate the blinding charisma and tenacity on display from the singer. As she so clearly states, she doesn’t take demands and all you can do if you stand her path, is pray. -TJ

20. YACHT – Uptopia / Dystopia Y2B

Thanks to the video, these songs are inextricably linked. They’re two very different sides of the same coin; “Utopia” is a rollicking, uplifting jam where “Dystopia” has a dark and groovy swagger to it. Both songs highlight the kind of forward-thinking dance music that YACHT specialize in; it’s a strain that is constantly mutating into new forms and keeps you on your feet, both metaphorically and literally. -MG

19. The Antlers – Putting The Dog To Sleep MP3

The Antlers close their sophomore album Burst Apart with a stunning finale and one of the most emotionally affecting songs of the year. The song’s dark, haunting production is absolutely flawless with spacious electronic noise and soulful guitar stabs contributing to the song’s raw, breathtaking emotion. As Pete Silberman sings his heart out on the hopeful closing line “Put your trust in me / I’m not going to die alone”  after two albums-worth of melancholy and despair, it’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching moment and one of the most well-earned triumphant endings that you can imagine. -TJ

18. Young Galaxy – We Have Everything MP3

Young Galaxy’s songs take a minute to unfold and work themselves into your brain, but once they find a home they stick with you. “We Have Everything” pulses along on a driving beat and washes of synthesizers envelop you and draw you into the world Young Galaxy have created. By the time they actually get around to the chorus, it’s a very sublime game over. -MG

17. Little Scream – The Heron and the Fox MP3

I said: “Produced by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and featuring Aaron Dessner of The National, Little Scream‘s “The Heron & The Fox” is a delightfully simple song, not much more then picked guitar and whispered vocals, but the results are breathtaking. Laurel Sprengelmeyer gives an achingly pretty vocal performance and the multi-tracked acoustic guitar is lush and exquisite. You won’t be able to take this off repeat.”  -TJ

16. Nicki Minaj – Super Bass Y2B

“Super Bass” was an obvious pick for our token pop song, except for the fact that there’s nothing token about it. It’s just a great song. The hook is a monster and Nicki Minaj is on point, delivering the kind of head-spinning verses that were sorely lacking on her album proper. That one of her best songs, and one of the best songs of the year, was relegated to bonus track status is a puzzler, but it also gives hope that maybe Minaj has been holding back on us the whole time. -MG

15. Radiohead – Lotus Flower MP3

“Lotus Flower” made its debut as a bluesy, acoustic track that appeared in some Thom Yorke solo sets in 2010. Even then, it was evident that they were onto something special, but it’s not until they added those shuffling drum rhythms, spacey looped beats and atmospheric grooves that the song’s potential was unleashed. The track straddles the line of being dark, beautiful, haunting, and highly danceable (as anyone who’s seen the video knows) and Yorke’s falsetto has never been better as he waxes poetic about slowly unfurling lotus flowers and moons upon a stick. Will definitely go down as one of the stand-out tracks in a career full of them. -TJ

14. Wild Flag – Romance MP3

There is little in the first minute of “Romance” that prepares you for the massive hook coming your way, and once it hits there is nothing you can do to stop it. It’s the kind of fist-in-the-air release that Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss specialized in at their old job, and it’s something that has been sorely lacking from music in the interim. Despite a breakup, a break, a TV show, and various other distractions, with “Romance” Wild Flag prove that no one does it like they do. -MG

13. Junior Boys – Banana Ripple MP3

“Banana Ripple” is exactly the immense dance-pop banger that Junior Boys have been threatening to make for years. It’s nine minutes jam packed with vibrant New Wave synths, booming disco beats and an indelible melody that just about any other pop song would rightfully kill for. What really gives the song it’s edge though, is after four minutes of dancefloor bliss the song strips down to vintage R&B synth pop fronted by Jeremy Greenspans incredible falsetto, all before building back up with layers of funky electronica and echoing vocals contributing to a truly awe-inspiring climax. -TJ

12. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Who Gon’ Stop Me Now Y2B

Despite the quality of the singles from Watch the Throne, the sleeper hit of the record proved to be “Who Gon Stop Me”, a sci-fi epic of a song that can’t seem to sit still. The beat changes almost after every verse, constantly ramping up the tension while Jay and Kanye do their whole over-the-top braggadocio thing. What we end up with are two masters showing everyone else how it’s done. “Who Gon Stop Me” is exactly what a collaboration between two of rap’s finest should sound like. -MG

11. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy MP3

“Strange Mercy” a simmering, slow burn of a song that is deceptively sweet. Then, two-thirds of the way through, Annie Clark’s delicate guitar gives way to an angry, emotional release. It’s a cathartic release that leads solemnly to an inevitable comedown and fizzle. “Strange Mercy” may not be as immediate as some of the other songs on the album of the same name, but it’s by far the best. -MG

10. Cut Copy – Need You Now MP3

Cut Copy lead off their third album, Zonoscope with perhaps the best build of the year. The song forms layer by layer with euphoric synths, throbbing electronica and vibrant drum machines, all while managing to save it’s biggest and brightest moments for the overwhelming finale. Near the four-and-a-half minute mark the band finally lets loose and bombards the listener with all the crazed disco-rave energy they can deliver, making for one the most satisfying and celebratory climaxes that you’re bound to hear. Experiencing that anthemic moment, not once but twice this year in concert goes down as one of my favorite memories of the year. -TJ

9. Active Child – Playing House (ft. How To Dress Well) MP3

Who would have guessed that the best pop song of the year would come from a harp-toting former choir boy? Active Child’s sly R&B jam slinks along with all the sensuality of its more popular contemporaries. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Tom Krell stops by to make sure everything is up to snuff. Krell and Pat Grossi’s voices blend perfectly to create a seductive mix that is impossible to resist. Just because it feels good. -MG

8. Wilco – One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) Y2B

For the closer to Wilco’s seventh album, the band constructs a magnificent 12-minute opus that feels both refreshing and timeless. Over a breezy acoustic riff and lovely piano and string flourishes, Jeff Tweedy spins the song’s narrative of a son who grew up despising his overbearing religious father and even feels relief when he dies, only to later be burdened with guilt and actually yearning for his father’s advice. The narrator ends by conceding “Bless my mind I miss being told how to live. What I learned without knowing, how much more I owe than I can give.” The storytelling is so potent and the music so drop-dead gorgeous, that even at 12 minutes you wish this song would never end. -TJ

7. Neon Indian – Polish Girl MP3

“Polish Girl” was the rare song this year that completely took over the stereo. It was never enough to play it just once; as soon as it ended you needed to hit repeat and then hit it again. Alan Palomo took Neon Indian to the next level while staying true to what made us love him in the first place. All the elements are there, they’ve just been cleaned up and polished a bit, and that slight sheen gives the song the kick it needs to really stand out. It doesn’t hurt that “Polish Girl” trades in the lost love melancholy that makes for so many great pop songs, and it makes for a perfect compliment to Palomo’s retro-futuristic shimmer. -MG

6. Fleet Foxes – Grown Ocean MP3

“Grown Ocean” puts a triumphant cap on Fleet Foxes’ magnificent second album. After much reflective, soul-searching throughout the album, this is the moment where Robin Pecknold finally feels enlightened and self-assured, ready to accept the joys and heartache of life with open arms. The propulsive guitar strums and driving percussion underscore the rush of emotional bliss while the band’s trademark rising harmonies have never sounded as cathartic. The song closes with a exquisite a cappela section, as Robin steps towards his future with still uncertain, but hopeful significance. Let’s just hope that he allows us to continue to sit in on his journey. -TJ

5. Destroyer – Suicide Demo For Kara Walker MP3

I said: “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” is the centerpiece of the Destroyer’s Kaputt and the track that fully realizes its’ potential. The track opens with a hazy blend of synths, guitar, piano and flute that immediately puts you in a trance-like state. In fact, everything about the song evokes a dream from the abstract lyrics to the breezy instrumentation to Bejar’s drowsy, sly vocal delivery. Most breathtaking of all is the song’s instrumental refrain, a captivating display of dueling instrumentation amidst the pulsating electronic backdrop. The horns and woodwinds take turns one-upping each other with their increasingly flamboyant improvisations, resulting in the most arresting musical passage of the year.” -TJ

4. Gang Gang Dance – Mindkilla MP3

“MindKilla” sounds like aliens making tribal music while also tripping on their extraterrestrial psychotropic of choice. It’s almost as if there are four or five different songs playing at once. Gang Gang Dance so thoroughly integrate various genres and styles into their songs that the effect can be very disorienting at first. But that confusion is part of the fun. The twists GGD throw at you over the course of “MindKilla” is as exciting as it is befuddling. It takes a few listens to fully acclimate and finally assimilate yourself, but once you do it is a journey like no other. I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords. -MG

3. Bon Iver – Holocene MP3

Though most of the song titles on Bon Iver’s sophomore album reference cities & locations, Justin Vernon wisely broke the pattern for this spellbinding track, naming it “Holocene”, a geological term that describes the last 10,000 years of the earth history (including all of written history and modern civilization). The title helps to illuminate the key line in the song “At once I knew, I was not magnificent”, a humble confession about how small and insignificant you can feel when considering the vastness of time of space. These striking lyrics would be all for naught though if weren’t for the stunning musical canvas filled with wistful guitar, spine-tingling orchestration and sublime harmonies, all resulting in a song that overflows with pure beauty.-TJ

2. Das Racist – Michael Jackson MP3

“Michael Jackson” is kind of exactly what a song in 2011 should be. It somehow simultaneously foolish while also being one of the smartest songs of the year. Das Racist are clever lyricists, but rarely use their gifts to say anything of consequence, and they even take time out to bluntly assure each other “you good at rapping.” But Das Racist are brilliant in their absurdity; you need to be fairly advanced to willfully screw with your audience as they do. Or maybe you just need to be a huge dick. That juxtaposition is what makes the songs so fascinating. You never know if they’re laughing with you or at you. Either way, Das Racist are clearly operating on their own level, with no regard to anything going on around them. And that at least deserves respect. -MG

1. M83 – Steve McQueen MP3

Epic. It’s one of the most overused words in the modern lexicon, and you hear it nowadays used to describe anything from Michael Bay movies, to videos of cats doing tricks on Youtube, to your new haircut (and if I never hear the phrase “epic fail” again, it will be far too soon). In music terms, the word has been used to describe just about every post-Arcade Fire indie rock band on the planet, whether deserving or not. With “Steve McQueen” though, M83 has crafted a song that is truly worthy of the term, and in a sense, defines it.

The music is pure exhilaration from the swirling keyboards to the thunderous, skyrocketing drums, to the explosion of glorious electronica during the chorus. The lyrics further magnify the song’s grandiosity, with lines like, “I woke up stronger than ever, driven by big waves of fire” and “tears of joy run all over my face, my sensations reach the limit”.  It’s as if the track exists as a culmination of the entire human experience. When the band reaches the transcendent, breathtaking, overwhelmingly awe-inspiring climax and you’re singing “Living for, living for a thrill …Just waiting! Just waiting!!”, it truly is a revelation of EPIC proportions. -TJ

Spotify Playlist: musicforants.com’s Best Songs of 2011

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16 Responses to “musicforants.com’s Best Songs of 2011”

  1. Ryan said:

    Thanks again for a great list! A lot of new ones from all the other lists out there…some really deserved (yet overlooked) songs on here.

  2. Nick said:

    Awesome post Taylor :)

  3. Suskie said:

    Good list, with some surprising picks. And thanks for giving Banana Ripple the attention it deserves :)

  4. AustinOPowe said:

    Excellent list from a top-notch blog. LOVE IT.

  5. Takashi said:

    No los campesinos, florence, feist, or calvin harris?

  6. nikolajf said:

    you are missing I Break Horses.

  7. John said:

    Perfect recap!

  8. beefyt said:

    You’re so right! STEVE MCQUEEN really IS the greatest, most epic song!

  9. Andrew said:

    I love this list! Excellent job!

  10. Ari José said:

    Excellent excellent excellent! Midnight City is an incredible tune, but every single list this year has neglected to showcase the even-greater genius that is Steve McQueen.

  11. Alex said:

    Song link for “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” is incorrect.

  12. Taylor said:

    Working fine for me…

  13. Betty said:

    Last year’s playlist was simply brilliant and yet I couldn’t remember where I had downloaded it from. Finally retracing my steps, a year later, I have found this year’s list. I can’t wait to listen to it. Thank you!

  14. ren said:

    Thanks for this… very nice! Jónsi’s Gathering Stories deserve a spot somewhere on the list though. =)

  15. MissLori said:

    Ty Segall at #46 – totally deserving. I first found out about him through the awesome music supervisor at mySpoonful.

  16. Anonymous said:

    order by 1000/*