Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Playlist, 60 Most Excellent Songs of 2011, 1-20

I've heard it said that the worst way to preface a "best of the year" list is to hem and haw on the subject of how difficult it was to narrow down.  We all know it's difficult, and we all know it's ultimately something entirely subjective. This is the third year I've decided to create this list and in each successive instance the total has increased by 5, not on purpose, mind you, but because in knowing that this is coming I become receptive to a wider and wider variety of music.  I wind up with a playlist like a time capsule.  I go looking for songs to fall in love with, and the result is that I wind up with a list of tracks that begins at a total around 125 and must be stripped of song after song upon repeat listen. Sometimes, whole albums feel like they should be included and narrowing the options down to a reasonable one or two stings a bit.  Sometimes a sound dominates, or, the need arises to include things that might be among the technical best, but not favorites.  Because at the end of the day this is just a personal blog, and not a major media outlet, I've opted not to make this harder than it already is.  Know that there is no particular ranking system at work.  While the absolute favorites have made it to the extreme top, number 50 is no less valuable than 25 on any given day.  On some of these too, you may wonder how one can be a favorite while another of something similar made it on the guilty list. Subjectivity, kids.  That's how it works...  

1. THE WEEKND / "HOUSE OF BALLOONS - GLASS TABLE GIRLS"  Slow down Siouxsie and the Banshees to a depraved crawl , mix with copious recreational drug use, a lethargic decadence, a splash of moral indifference, and add the slick R&B vocals of the mysterious Abel Tesfaye and you have the massive, achingly melancholy sound of The Weeknd; a group that can make rooms full of coke-addled wastoids into something beautiful.  Tesfaye and producers Don McKinney and Illangelo released three free mixtapes in 2011, this song is the title track of what is my pick for album of the year.  

2. LANA DEL REY / "VIDEO GAMES"  Chances are, if you frequent the internet, you've heard of Lana Del Rey. She's become a divisive name among hipsters and music nerds, a 20-something Californian sex kitten playing the role of tragic bombshell and growling her way through romantic slacker ballads.  "Video Games" is a gorgeous song with cinematic instrumentals that seem in opposition to Del Rey's oh-so current 20-something, stunted adolescent lyrics.

3. M83 / "MIDNIGHT CITY  M83 (Anthony Gonzalez) has long made dreamy, soaring electro-pop, the sort that releases some childlike urge to run across open lawns, through sprinklers, and over flower beds.  "Midnight City"  is one of Gonzalez's finest moments, bursting with howling, staccato synths and quiet, introspective moments. 

4. PANDA BEAR / "AFTERBURNER"  Pure 21st century, psychedelic disco.  The beats here are undeniable, sucking you into a sustained 70's sound that's been corrupted by a downed club drug into an overlay of beachy dream pop wails and cries from some delirious dance floor.  It's surprisingly fantastic.

5. PJ HARVEY / "THE WORDS THAT MAKETH MURDER"  This year, PJ Harvey returned with yet another album in yet another direction.  On Let England Shake, she took up an autoharp and spoke of war.  As usual, she succeeded. 

6. KAVINSKY and LOVEFOXX / "NIGHTCALL"  It's true that "Nightcall" was originally released in 2010.  If the Grammys can continue to nominate a two-year old Katy Perry album, however, then I can certainly list the song that made Drive's opening credit sequence so immediately classic.  

7. ANNA CALVI / "NO MORE WORDS"  Our other deeply cinematic sounding female vocalist this year was certainly Anna Calvi, whose sound is rooted in something glamorous and ghostly; red lipstick  and cigarettes burned across celluloid the world over.

8. JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST / "NI**AS IN PARIS"  Is this a game or a song?  What is the point?  We may never know for sure, but there's a reason they've been repeating it in encore loops as much as nine times in a single concert...

9. WASHED OUT / "FAR AWAY" and "EYES BE CLOSED"  In the original list, I ran these songs as separate entries.  In listening to them repeatedly since the summer, however, I kept coming back to the thought that they were of the same breath.  Washed Out has found a polished version of their shimmering, transportive sound.  Have these songs been used in car commercials yet?  Because, I mean...listen to them.  They scream: we are going away now and it's going to be great and we're traveling in style.

10. BEYONCE / "COUNTDOWN"  In a repeat of what has already been noted by many, I will say that the beauty of "Countdown" comes from its unbridled enthusiasm.  Beyonce is absolutely in love with being in love, she's thrilled about everything, and she seems to have found the place she wants to be.  She's happy, and it's a happy that makes you happy too.

11. PICTUREPLANE / "TRANCEGENDER" Dark wave electro with a techno bent that feels more like a mechanized autoerotic heaven than an obnoxiously thudding dance track.

12. THE RAPTURE / "HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE?"  The disco strikes back with a title that cribs from the Beegees and a jangling piano that screams early 90's while keeping in stride with the band's new wave, dance punk roots.  I could dance to this song like a million times.

13. NEON INDIAN / "POLISH GIRL"  Neon Indian's debut album was a mixed bag for me that still sits largely untouched in the library list of my iTunes.  Which, of course, is why I must admit that I was a little bit surprised to find I liked the bleep-blooping robot sounds of "Polish Girl" so much.

14.  ST. VINCENT / "CHEERLEADER"  Hitherto, St. Vincent had not impressed me.  I found her pretty boring, if we're being honest.  Strange Mercy, though, blew me away.  On the album, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) seems to have finally dropped any hint of naivety or unassuming presence and gone with the dark id that hid at the surface of her earlier works.  "Cheerleader" is a grinding assertion of place in which Clark lackadaisically dismisses societal expectations and digs her heels into the earth.

15. DESTROYER / "KAPUTT"  I'm sorry, have you heard this song?  How can you not like this song?  Even your mom will like this song.  Mostly because it's masquerading as mellow gold.

16. LYKKE LI / "I FOLLOW RIVERS"  This song sounds like a summer music festival.  Do you hear that little spiky steel drum beats?  That's the sort of sound that just cuts through the heat and makes it alright that the gigantic drunk bro dude in front of you keeps spilling beer all over your shoes.

17. BRITNEY SPEARS / "HOW I ROLL"  No, it wasn't a radio single.  This is a good thing, because you would never get it out of your head if you heard it constantly.  "How I Roll" is the other of the two songs that could be called "I Wanna Go" on Britney's Femme Fatale...and it's a fantastically simple pop song built off of easy sentiments, building schoolyard rhymes, and sonically dense layered bubble sounds.  If you don't like it the first time you hear it, don't will.  You will.

18. CANT / "TOO LATE, TOO FAR"  CANT is actually Chris Taylor, one part of Grizzly Bear who has been spending time experimenting with sounds of a slightly different variety.  I love "Too Late, Too Far" not for what it begins as, but for what it becomes in its second half...

19. GANG GANG DANCE / "MINDKILLA"  One of the oddest dance tracks around. All the pieces are there, but they're broken, dismembered, and burned until the ashes can be scattered across galaxies.

20. THE WEEKND / "THE MORNING"  As you may have gathered, it was hard to limit myself to only a couple offerings from The Weeknd's three mixtapes.  The album is seriously good, I can't say this enough.  I almost went with "Loft Music" or "The Party & The After Party" but decided to just opt for the hazy sounds of "The Morning" - a track that sounds like the tail end of a very long night.

Stay tuned....part II will appear tomorrow.


  1. suggestion: make a youtube playlist with all these so we can just play them all.

  2. 8Tracks playlist is now posted at the top...

  3. I've been playing all three The Weeknd mixtapes non-stop since Echoes of Silence came out about a week ago, and each one of them is such a welcoming and fresh R&B sound (finally - sick to death of all the pop stuff that has been classified as R&B but is just bad pop.)

    I even started to like Dirty Diana because of The Weeknd, and well, that was a daunting task to overcome as, to me, it is clearly the worst Michael Jackson song out there...

    And I agree about the suggestion!

  4. Thank you for this great list, you just made me discover some great songs are artists- I love Weeknd, and I love this blog, as well!Keep up the good work!



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