Rankstravaganza: My 30 favorite tracks of 2011

10. “Private Caller,” Sondre Lerch

This one snuck its way into my Top 10 quite unexpectedly. The Norwegian singer-songwriter has been doing his thing for a decade now, and garnering a strong following in the U.S., but I knew nothing of him. I’m not even sure how or where I came upon this track. I just know I kept coming back to its semi-acoustic boogie.

9. “We All Go Back to Where We Belong,” R.E.M.

Would this pop tune—released as part of the compilation album Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011—have seemed as poignant if it hadn’t come out right after Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills announced they were calling it quits? Probably not, but damned if its Bachrachian arrangement and sentimental lyrics don’t make for a fitting coda to the 31-year career of America’s preeminent alternative-rock band. (See also: Racking Up Plays: “We All Go Back to Where We Belong)

8. “I Might,” Wilco

The 7-minute krautrock freakout “Art of Almost” is rightly getting a lot of praise as a bold statement of purpose from a re-engaged Wilco, but this subsequent track on the Chicago band’s eighth studio album, The Whole Love, is deserving in its own right. It packages all that adventurous momentum into one tight, elastic single. (See also: Racking Up Plays: “I Might”)

Wilco’s show on Jan. 31 at the Fox Theater in Oakland is sold out.

7. “The Valley,” Okkervil River

You see? Folk-rock isn’t all peace, love and unplugged guitars. Will Sheff and his Austin, Texas, cohorts let the fury fly on this track, building on a foundation of violent imagery (“a slit throat makes a note like a raw winter wind”) and snare drum that cracks like a shotgun.

6. “The Lark,” Timothy Monger

Monger was responsible for some truly ingratiating songwriting as a member of the Michigan band Great Lakes Myth Society, but this has to be one of his most appealing melodies to date. Starting with just his voice and banjo picking, it builds to an epic, Neutral Milk Hotel-esque frenzy of fuzz guitar and trumpet. (See also: Racking Up Plays: “The Lark”)

5. “Stone Rollin’,” Raphael Saadiq

The Oakland native and Tony! Toni! Toné! member returned with another strong collection of old-school R&B, exemplified by this title track. A sweaty, booty-moving jam, it has fluttering harmonica, a serious guitar groove, and enough soul to earn credible comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding.

4. “Burn it Down, Sims

Unlike other parts of Sims’ Bad Time Zoo—in which the philosophical Minnesota rapper’s criticisms of consumerism, disconnectedness and abandoned cities can be a bit too on-the-nose—here he lets imagery and metaphor do the heavy lifting. Members of the consistently impressive Doomtree collective, Sims and producer Lazerbeak—who provides an urgent, sax-driven beat—are just two reasons that Minneapolis is fast becoming the capital of intelligent hip hop.

Catch Sims with his Doomtree cohorts on Jan. 31 at Slim’s in San Francisco. Click for tickets.

3. “Still Life,” The Horrors

You could probably slip this deliberately paced anthem into a playlist of ’80s post-punk—right between some Echo & The Bunnymen and some The Jesus and Mary Chain—and nobody would notice. The English band has a reputation for making gloomy rock, but this song positively bursts with life, swirling around a backwards guitar part before soaring through a cinematic chorus.

2. “Canajoharie,” They Might Be Giants

It’s been more than 10 years since I was this smitten with a TMBG song. The nerd-rock progenitors offered up a typically absurdest take on evolution, involving a vision of a giant tentacle arm reaching out of an upstate New York swamp. “It was right through those trees. I’m not insane,” John Linnell insist over some guitar riffs that rock as hard as anything off of John Henry. (See also: Racking Up Plays: “Canajoharie”)

Catch They Might Be Giants live on Jan. 27 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. Click for tickets.

1. “Morning Thought,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Even with all my hometown pride, I didn’t give this Detroit duo much of a chance when its debut EP came out last year. Certainly the obnoxious name didn’t help matters, but also its low-fi pop just didn’t quite win me over. That all changed when I heard this track off the band’s first full-length album, It’s a Corporate World. It achieves a perfect balance of gorgeous catharsis and psychedelic weirdness, the same sweet spot that has served The Flaming Lips so well. A barrage of quirky effects (vaguely reminiscent of Sigur Rós) keep things interesting. A strong melody and thudding bass rhythm keep things grounded. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. also understands the power of vocal harmonies better than probably 99 percent of the folks trying to record pop songs in their bedrooms. (Without getting too technical, just listen to the way the duo’s voices rise and fall in a series of paired “ahs” at the end of the song, altering the intervals ever so to change the character of the chord.)

[free mp3]

Catch Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. live on Jan. 26 and 27 at The Regency Ballroom in San Francisco with Fitz & The Tantrums and American Tomahawk. Click for tickets.


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