I don’t know about you, but for me, 2011 was not a year of discovery. Most of the songs that bubbled their way to the top of my most-played tracks from last year were by bands I already knew and loved. Oh, there were some surprises along the way—a Norwegian singer-songwriter here, a former Entourage cast member there—but mostly I listened to bands that continued streaks of great music. I hope that says more about the music released in 2011 than about me getting older and settled in my ways.
If you followed this blog at all, you won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that the following list leans heavily to the indie-pop side of things, though there is some hip hop, R&B and noisy rock ‘n’ roll to be found.
When the artists, their labels or established websites have provided free mp3 downloads of the songs, I have included links. Also, because all the cool kids are doing it, I created a Spotify playlist featuring all the tracks except one that wasn’t available on the service. (Pssst! The Downer Party: Upload your most recent EP!)
30. “Used to be a Cop,” Drive-By Truckers
Patterson Hood can still tell a story better than most. Set to a characteristically dark, southern-rock boogie by the Georgia band, this tale is written from the perspective of a creepy guy who just can’t get over the loss of his gun, badge or wife.
29. “KMAG YOYO,” Hayes Carll
The title is an unofficial military acronym that stands for “Kiss my ass, guys. You’re on your own.” Though the Texas singer-songwriter is more interested in how an impressive stream of rhymes can form a narrative—detailing a young soldier’s journey from opportunistic drug trafficker to stratospheric test subject—the result hints at the same sense of political outrage that Steve Earle does so well.
28. “Santa Fe,” Beirut
Everything that makes Zach Condon’s melding of Eastern European brass and electronic burbling so intriguing is represented in this melodic ode to his hometown.
27. “Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars
If all of Nashville’s offerings sounded more like this howling boot-stomper; featured such haunting harmonies; and touched on traditionalist themes like sin and redemption, I might actually tune in to country radio occasionally.
26. “Civilian,” Wye Oak
The Baltimore band continues to impress with brooding, introspective rock. The title track from the duo’s third album starts with Jenn Wasner picking her electric guitar and contemplating her need for intimacy, and it concludes with one heck of a noise-rock freak-out. (See also: Racking Up Plays: “Civilian”)
25. “Senator,” Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
Even after so many political sex scandals, there’s still something a bit shocking about how direct the Portland, Oregon, band is in juxtaposing the prestige of the United States Senate with the lewdness of oral sex. Some critics have complained that the result is “cringe inducing,” but this is Stephen Malkmus. Back in the grunge era, Pavement got heaps of praise for making such snotty rock.
24. “Montezuma,” Fleet Foxes
The Seattle indie-folk band’s sophomore album has all the gorgeous harmonies that made its debut so instantly pleasing, but it has a depth that gives it more staying power. The lyrics are awash in self-reflection, with singer Robin Pecknold questioning his place in the world: “So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter. Now what does that say about me?”
23. “Roosevelt Island,” Eleanor Friedberger
I have the advantage of being not terribly familiar with The Fiery Furnaces, so I don’t have any hangups about how Friedberger’s solo debut compares. All I know is I’ve been enjoying the odd combination of funky clavinet and stream-of-consciousness lyrics tumbling out of her mouth, as she muses existentially about a trip to the titular island in New York’s East River.
22. “Clap,” Saigon
The New York emcee demonstrates everything hip hop ought to be in 2011: honest, brash, neither humorless nor frivolous, potentially a little bit offensive, and featuring Faith Evans singing a gospel-inspired hook. And don’t forget the hand claps. Hip hop needs more hand claps.
21. “Tell Me What I Did,” Ben Folds Five
The inaccurately named trio reunited this year to record three tracks for Folds’ career-spanning retrospective. This song about a schoolyard bully, penned by bassist Robert Sledge before the North Carolina band broke up in 1999, is the only one that approaches the freewheeling piano-punk that made the band’s early albums such fun. (See also: Racking Up Plays: “Tell Me What I Did”)