15. Fucked Up – “Queen of Hearts” [Matador]
Although the sheer length of Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life bumped the album from my best of 2011 shortlist, its track “Queen of Hearts” is easily one of the year’s most exciting songs. A salvo of pure energy, “Queen of Hearts” kicks off the convoluted narrative that runs throughout the record. It is the perfect distillation of the two competing threads that keep Fucked Up so interesting: the mixture of Damian Abraham’s hardcore-shredded vocals and an almost pop sensibility, as if the band and singer are from two different planets. Throw in a duet with Madeline Follin from Cults and you have what may be the sweetest punk song ever recorded. Best of all, the chorus of “Queen of Hearts” is insanely catchy, just two people introducing themselves.
After a soaring guitar intro, Abraham’s ragged vocals set the scene of David and Veronica meeting. “Hello, my name is David/ Your name is Veronica/ Let’s be together/ Let’s fall in love,” he screams. But then Abraham’s corrosive vocals give away to Follin’s sweeter voice as she repeats the same melody. The song ends with Abraham shouting, “The boot off my throat/ Life is returning/ The boot off my throat/ Let’s all emote!” It’s a call to arms, a challenge to make it through the record’s lengthy runtime. But taken by itself, “Queen of Hearts” brings the noise, provides the energy and sticks a shot of adrenaline in the ass of 2011. – David Harris
14. The Mountain Goats – “Damn These Vampires” [Merge]
Forget LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” The Mountain Goats’ “Damn These Vampires” was the real party song of the summer. Tunesmith John Darnielle gave us a melodically beautiful, lyrically ambiguous tune about (a) the simultaneous pleasures and foibles of partying, (b) the pains of addiction, (c) the culturally ubiquitous Twilight series, (d) all of the above or (e) none of the above.
Whatever the lyrics mean, Darnielle joyfully mixes imagery from American westerns, horror movies and American industry. The “Brave young cowboys of the near north side” from the opening line are bitten by vampires and must ride all night on bridge rails. We get the notion, though, that Darnielle’s mixed metaphors add up to a cautionary tale about the dangers of excess (“feast like pagans, never get enough).” When the speaker admits he’ll “crawl ‘til dawn on my hands and knees,” “wake up like dead men” and “try not to hate the light,” he could be referring to the hedonistic abandonment of a crazy night followed by the regret of morning. When the speaker asserts, “Someday we won’t remember this,” we’re not sure if his anticipated memory loss is good or bad. He intends to overcome his current predicament, though, as witnessed by “Someday we’ll try to walk upright.” Only John Darnielle, one of the most original and poetic troubadours of our time, could make all this craziness add up to something meaningful. – Jacob Adams
13. Wild Flag – “Romance” [Merge]
“Romance” comes dashing out of the speakers at the opening of Wild Flag’s debut album, the sludgy, forceful guitar merged with trilling tones like an old video game prelude. The drums of Janet Weiss kick in with a sparkling energy and the song is off, the band of seasoned musical titans announcing themselves with a sonic manifesto of fiery freedom. The song sits perched somewhere between the thunderous attack of Carrie Brownstein’s former band, the justly revered Sleater-Kinney, and the tuneful drone of Helium, the previous group that arguably earned Mary Timony her greatest fame. The pair of them wrench mighty sounds from their respective guitars, driving the track with the urgency of newly engaged sirens.
“You watch us dance/ We dance till we’re dying/ We dance to free ourselves from the room,” Brownstein sings and it comes across as the clearest manifesto of what the band (which also includes Rebecca Cole, formerly of The Minders) is trying to get at: the pure exuberance of rock ‘n’ roll played with wicked abandon, yet also the tight control of skilled musicians. The chorus keeps circling back on itself verbally (“Hands down we like, we like what we like/ Hands down we like, we love, we choose you”), turning into a veritable whirlpool that draws in the listener. The later syncopated hand claps help a lot too. The whole song has the zingy bliss of a band that knows full-scale reinvention isn’t necessary when the comfortable parameters of rock songwriting can be so wonderfully bent to their collective ingenious will. – Dan Seeger
12. Cut Copy – “Need You Now” [Modular]
At this point in their career, Aussie dance-rockers Cut Copy are maturing into a fully-realized musical force. The (now) quartet’s loaded second album, In Ghost Colors, made them a household name among the hipster set and was all about those killer individual tracks, “Hearts on Fire” and “Lights and Music” filtering out as incredibly contagious anthems built on bright, energetic hooks. And this year’s Zonoscope found Cut Copy creating a set of songs that stand together even more carefully and play best back to back. It’s Cut Copy’s most disciplined expression of their neon pop, full of its own standout moments.
“Need You Now” is a natural opener that gives away an attention to structure and motion right from the start – a soft, hypnotic pulse building into soaring bombast over six exhilarating minutes. And while the track’s twinkling dreamland synths and heady throb hit right in the stomach, “Need You Now” is all about the controlled explosion at the four-minute mark. Songwriter Dan Whitford patiently croons a monotone verse over the song’s patient intro, but demands attention when his vocals finally lift off at the big, glorious refrain – the whole thing flush with ecstasy, strain and emotion that leaves the listener floating in the stratosphere right along with him. - Michael Merline
When one thinks of banging beats and swagger, Seattle is not exactly the first place that jumps to one’s mind. But Shabazz Palaces (helmed by effective-founding member Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro) has finally begun catching acclaim from all sides with Black Up. They’ve also made history as being the first hip-hop act signed to Sub Pop, which speaks volumes for the bridging of hip-hop/hipster cultures.
Social observations aside, Shabazz Palaces make dope shit. “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” might sound like a Dragonforce song title, but Butler and collaborator Tendai Maraire lace some serious slow burn heat. A hypnotic and thumping synth loop oversees a chilling, staccato drum machine that brings along menacing chime swings and real perk for the ears.
The washy, lyrical vocals work magic behind the silky cacophony, giving the song real structure and purpose. Shabazz Palaces have a keen ability with flow and scope, and the beat engenders a serious visual aesthetic – a spectrometer couldn’t do it justice. While some of hip-hop’s biggest and brightest continue on steady paths, upstart Palaces has been putting out increasingly-noticed cuts, and perhaps 2012 will find them more of the recognition they deserve. With visionary music like this, they might as well get used to a future as one of the most forward thinking and inventive acts in music, much less hip-hop. – Rafael Gaitan
10. Frank Ocean – “Swim Good” [Def Jam]
Though The Weeknd was quicker out of the gate in 2011, Frank Ocean, the smooth-singing member of Odd Future, slowly built up his reputation as one of the most promising R&B acts in recent memory. With Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean showed that R&B didn’t have to be a slave to the dance floor, an often notoriously vacant space lyrically. Though his 2011 release was filled with notable tracks, “Swim Good” stands as one of the finest amongst the bunch. The song begins with a four-chord, gospel-tinged organ intro, an apt introduction considering the tale of redemption and spirituality that follows. As “Swim Good” unfolds and Ocean details his heartbreak, the track takes on additional layers, and the staccato piano chords act as secure underpinning for the ridiculously earworm-y hook: “I’m about to drive in the ocean/ I’mma try to swim for something bigger than me.” As he wades in the water, removing his shoes and his suit, he sheds all the inhibitions and insecurities that come with a broken heart. This is a track that has the qualities of a love song and a breakup track all in one, yet is infused with an infectious optimism. Ocean pines, mourns and rebuilds all in the span of four minutes. “Swim Good” is brisk, catchy, but lyrically affecting to its core. - Kyle Fowle
9. Cults – “Go Outside” [Columbia]
In 2011, it seems all artists not only have every possible piece of information about them available on the internet, but also infinite ways to access even their most intimate of details. Perhaps it’s the return of genuine mystery that made the release of Cults’ “Go Outside” so cryptic and insatiable. Initially shrouded in mystery, all many had to go on about the group was an untraceable name and deceptively upbeat single called “Go Outside” that combined an airy childlike wonderment with the muffled vocal samples of Jonestown cult leader Jim Jones. An irresistible melody and joyful but distant vocals adorning the brooding unknown that permeates the soundscape made it the perfect soundtrack to the summer’s final sunset. Whether you consider the simplicity of the chords to be minimalist or the layering of elements to be philosophically complex, it made for the most jovial juxtaposition to enter jukeboxes in some time. Even with the eventual discovery that the group consisted of two NYU students, and the song catching fire to the point of appearing in baseball video game MLB 11: The Show, as a standalone “Go Outside” still retains a certain vague Lynchian intrigue that keeps listeners coming back for more. – Chaz Kangas
8. EMA – “The Grey Ship” [Souterrain Transmissions]
Erika M. Anderson, previously of defunct Californian via South Dakota experimental grunge trio Gowns, is the anti-blonde frontwoman of our generation. She is also one of the best live performers around. In between songs at a performance in San Francisco at the Independent this October, Anderson talked about being a substitute teacher for the Oakland public school system and later took fans through a rapturous sing-along of hit Violent Femmes songs. “The Grey Ship” experienced live is electrifying. Played often towards the end of EMA sets, the song like the rest of Past Time Martyred Saints takes you through troubled waters, an honest shit storm of Anderson’s emotional spectrum, without holding back, musically, lyrically or otherwise. As 2011 stands as a year of dark pop that reached far back and deep into previous decades, “The Grey Ship” was one of the most moving vessels, accompanied by fiercely distorted guitar and whispered vocal directions in three parts. At first with a confessional build and then with a rising resurgence, the song becomes more than itself, a trace of itself in the distance until it arrives slowly and nakedly again just like Anderson’s newest incarnation. - Sky Madden
7. Tyler, the Creator – “Yonkers” [XL]
When 2011 began, rap outfit Odd Future and its fearless leader Tyler, the Creator looked to make an impressive impact in the independent hip-hop scene with their underground rap movement. But once Tyler released the “Yonkers” video on YouTube, that plan was thrown out the window as its instantaneous viral explosion brought the cockroach chomping Creator to the attention of everyone from Justin Bieber to Kanye West. While the clip did land a Video Music Award nomination for best video and a Moon Man for Tyler as “Best New Artist,” the song succeeded in capturing everything exciting about the group in three minutes. The dystopian thump of Tyler’s production provides a sleek bleakness for his aggressive rhymes, conversationally combining the frustration of a post-everything youth with the gleeful absurdity of pop culture penetration and slapstick celebrity mutilation. The song’s release on XL shows a progression from the outfit’s earlier work in – terms of Tyler’s style maturing, but dinosaur orgies and angst tucked into irreverence promises no spotlight could burn hot enough to mold Tyler into anything he doesn’t want to be cast into. It’s unlike almost anything that’s come before it, making it one of rap’s best offerings in 2011. – Chaz Kangas
6. Lykke Li – “Youth Knows No Pain” [Atlantic]
With finger-snapping gumption and electrifying production value, the electro-based tracks of Wounded Rhymes are some of the Swede starlet Lykke Li’s most kinetically charged to date. “Youth Knows No Pain” best encompasses Li’s hybrid-savvy style, drawing heavily from the psychedelic ‘60s and trysting the wash of swirling organs with unapologetic soul and a blues-laden melody. Appropriately reverbed vocals paint several coats of Li’s glossy alto over the mix when she belts lines like “So come on honey blow yourself to pieces/ Come on honey give yourself completely/ And do it all although you can’t believe it” so brazenly. While “Youth” lingers near uncharacteristically orthodox territory, the song breezes through as freely as her most avant garde fair and overshadows the rudimentary structure. The sarcastic groove also speaks to the song’s satirical notion that today’s youth are problem free. Like most of Li’s music, “Youth Knows No Pain” is singularly unique, a sugar-coated twist on an accessible conception. It’s a pleasure to see the spotlight shine on her most grandiose, anthemic moments. Sometimes bigger is better. - Jory Spadea