Though many still argue that 2011 was a year with below average music dominated by a few bands of dubious distinction, those of us who consistently dig through the underground know differently. For “genre whores” like me, 2011 was an unbelievable success, with bands of varied persuasions proving that just because an artist lacks success it often has little to do with whether their music’s amazing. This list is for those sick of hearing about the latest pop superstars, the winners of reality shows, and the makers of disposable pop trifles. These are twenty songs I think are the best indicators of where 2011 went and where 2012 could go if we keep clawing our way beneath the skin-thin surface of what radio-pop force-feeds us. And though it’s not an exhaustive list of every excellent piece of music I’ve heard and treasured this year, it’s a hell of a way to start the discussion. Dig in!
#20. Will Currie and the Country French – “City”
Will Currie and the Country French prove there must be something special in the Canadian water supply to explain the nation’s ability to produce an incredible variety of music across genres. In this case, Currie and company take on piano pop in the vein of Ben Folds, and this six-piece band delights in twisting the musical knife into your brain as you listen, helpless to stop from singing along and relishing the oddly syncopated time signature. They’re still so obscure this is the best online version of the song I can provide, but rest assured, this is a band fully capable of going mainstream with the right promotion. So enjoy them before they get steamrolled by commercial expectations.
#19. Alexander – “Truth”
Taking a break from his role as the leader of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Alex Ebert arrived early in 2011 with this fully-formed solo pop nugget. Opening with whistling over drums and a shambling, easy-going melody, Ebert bursts into frame with his vocals and the song’s officially in overdrive. Clearly this one’s inspired by modern reggae-pop in the vein of Matisyahu, with vocals akin to the laid-back slur of Citizen Cope. It’s by far the best song on the album. It stands so far above the rest of the material on Alexander that fans of the song will feel the album’s blatant genre-hopping is merely inscrutable bait and switch. That said, it’s a strong enough song that it’s worth remembering long after you forget the rest of his schizophrenic musical output.
#18. Great Caesar – “Everyone’s a VIP to Someone”
We’ve been prime for a ska revival since the third wave fizzled out in the late 90s, and Great Caesar is ready to pick up that mantle and run with it. The song is upbeat, blisteringly catchy and addictive as hell. And the band deserves mention for going their own way, building a fanbase from the ground up, maintaining full control over what they produce. Plus you’ve got to love the full horn section which takes on full focus two minutes in. For fans of the more ska-leaning tracks of bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones or Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Great Caesar is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Who says Brooklyn’s only got room for hip-hop?
#17. Baby Teardrops – “Smooth Sailing Ahead”
Baby Teardrops is perfect music for fans of jangle pop who are looking for the next best alternative now that R.E.M. has broken up for good. The songs on their debut, X is for Love, are bare-bones from a melodic standpoint, choosing a few chords and running with it, as the band builds hooks on the power of repetition. “Smooth Sailing Ahead” was one of several early singles from the album, and its chorus, repeatedly echoing the title of the song over crunching guitars and drums, is the ultimate garage pop antidote to lame, overly commercialized drivel. The rest of the album does an equal job of getting to the point, letting the hooks do the talking, setting Baby Teardrops up to be among the most interesting new bands of the year who nobody got the chance to hear.
#16. Noah and the Whale – “Tonight’s the Kind of Night”
Noah and the Whale is one of those bands which forces you to look beyond expectations. They folllowed up on 2009′s The Last Days of Spring, one of the finest post-breakup albums since Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, with this year’s Last Night On Earth, which plays out as the most earnest Springsteen tribute ever to come from a bunch of artsy Brits. “Tonight’s The Kind of Night” sums up the album’s thesis perfectly, with a sense of lyrical verisimilitude which you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Plus, the backdrop to those lyrics hooks you so immediately upon first pressing play that it’s damned near impossible to get the chorus out of your head once you hear it. “Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change,” Charlie Fink sings, and though you suspect making that change could prove difficult, the song’s upbeat nature suggests it is more than worthwhile to push yourself to find success rather than waiting around for things to happen to you.
#15. Hey Rosetta! – “Yer Spring”
Hey Rosetta! can seem a bit too artsy for their own good at times considering their overall garage rock leadnings, “Yer Spring” is the perfect song to showcase what their album Seeds has to offer. The invigorating percussion and subtle yet complicated instrumentation puts some heat in the blood, perfect for the winter month when the album saw its release. But the real reason this song is such a winner is the band’s ability to slowly build the energy through the length of the song, like winter turning into spring, culminating in a full band explosion of sound. Like the rest of the album, “Yer Spring” rewards listeners who are willing to give time for thematically, musically and lyrically adventurous music.
#14. Mike Doughty – “The Huffer and the Cutter”
Mike Doughty’s burned as many bridges to his days as Soul Coughing’s frontman as he possibly can, which can make it difficult for the uninitiated to give a damn what he’s doing with his solo work. But to ignore what he offered on 2011′s Yes and Also Yes would be downright criminal. A prime example is “The Huffer and the Cutter,” which features Doughty’s deadpan stacatto vocals against a backdrop of dense, thumping synths which simulate the experience of living in all its twisted, delicious glory. This may be his finest song in years, diging its way into your brain like meth-coated dark pop candy for the Breaking Bad generation. I dare you to find anything else from 2011 that’s quite this mindbendingly twisted.
#13. Matt Lowell – “Calling”
The deep bass rumblings that greet us upon first listening to “Calling” are juxtaposed with Lowell’s echoing vocals which hearken back to the likes of “Games Without Frontiers”-era Peter Gabriel without sounding dated. What stands out the most about this particular song is how Lowell seems perfectly unafraid to subvert what we initially expect from his blend of electronic experimentation and alt-pop confections. Fans of anyone from Massive Attack to Radiohead are likely to appreciate what Lowell offers up here. This one will definitely stick in your head long after you’ve hit the stop button.
#12. David Bazan – “Wolves At The Door”
Stripped down to its barest essentials, “Wolves At The Door” is a commentary on the cynical, fear-based discourse which has been prevalent last decade. The poor, desparate protagonist lets these wolves into his life and they destroy him from the inside while he blames everybody except himself: “They took your money and they ate your kids and they had their way with your wife a little bit while you wept on the porch with your head in your hands cursing taxes and the government,” he sings over a propulsive mix of bass, acoustic guitar and percussion. It’s a stirringly dark arrangement for lyrics of a twisted bent, but Bazan knows how to twist the knife just enough while maintaining a delicious hook which dares you to stop listening. It’s among the most memorable songs I’ve heard this year by a long shot.
#11. The Wailin’ Jennys – “Swing Low, Sail High”
This is as close to perfect as folk-country music gets, with a rich acoustic arrangement built to support the most stunningly evocative three-part female harmonies you’ll hear anywhere this year. Though this album, Bright Morning Stars, didn’t get much distribution beyond the indie folk scene, the beauty of the song stands out brilliantly against the mess that was most of 2011′s country music scene. If only folk-inspired music like this could make headway against “pop” country, the genre wouldn’t have such a poor reputation outside die-hard fans.
#10. SIMS – “Burn It Down”
This could be the theme song for Occupy Wall Street if the movement was about actually doing something more than protesting generalities. “Me I’m just over the line, under the gun, out of my mind,” SIMS raps as he encourages people to stand up and fight for something … anything … with action over words. I suppose this could be a perfect soundtrack to any revolution, liberal or conservative, as long as people actually are willing to put themselves out on the line for something. “Let’s get it going, less emotion – more emulsion – burn it down!” he pleads as the song reaches its conclusion. “We can start from scratch then and build it all back” It’s hard not to feel inspired, and that’s more than I can say for any other hip-hop single I’ve heard since Bad Time Zoo‘s February release.
#09. Only Son – “It’s A Boy”
In Only Son’s Bradburian world of cynical sci-fi prediction, we’ll soon have a world where parents can build a child genetically from the ground up – for a fee. And those who can’t afford to pay for the best can get a really great deal if they’re willing to buy their child the illusion of normalcy by giving up his rights as an adult. It might seem a lot to take on in a simple pop song, but Jack Dishel of Moldy Peaches fame sure is willing to swing for the fences, melding this tale of genetic engineering run amok with a tight bassline and eerie keyboards, culminating in a chorus so ridiculously off-kilter that other songs will have to fight to crowd it out of your skull. The rest of Searchlight pushes the envelope, shifting genres madly and making a case for being among the best indie releases of the year, but nothing else on the album tops this song for sheer audacity.
#08. Pistol Annies – “Housewife’s Prayer”
Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe combined forces this year to become Pistol Annies, the most invigorating thing to happen to radio country in years. The entirety of Hell on Heels is refreshingly willing to play with what supposedly makes for good “pop” country, returning to the genre’s roots: real people. “Housewife’s Prayer” is an honest look at honest Americans fighting to make it in a world which seems to be stacked against the little guy. “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire; I can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in and the bills keep getting higher,” Lambert sings, putting herself in the shoes of someone so tired of fighting to make ends meet that they’re contemplating going off the deep end for good. In a genre which has gotten lost in recent years by shifting into the realm of pop-rock cliché, music like this is bracingly effective. And it proves why Lambert in particular is among the most vital country songwriters working today.
#07. The Vaccines – “Wetsuit”
Meld the the relaxed beachcombing tunes of the Beach Boys with the punk hooks of the Ramones, and you might get a quick impression of what’s offered up by the Vaccines on this spectacular debut. “Wetsuit” is the winner among so many on this album, which is a front-to-back success which made it among my most memorable listens of the year. The single owes as much to the Beach Boys as it does to the Britpop of Oasis, creating a shimmering wall of echoing vocal harmonies atop a droning synth backdrop. When the song builds to its full potential on the chorus this becomes full-tilt enjoyment encapsulated. It’s impossible to sum up the band’s stellar debut with just one song, however. For a harder-edged take, check out “Wrecking Bar” or “Tiger Blood” as well.
#06. Brown Bird – “Bilgewater”
David Lamb makes his mission as a modern folksinger clear lyrically with “Bilgewater,” the strongest song off the band’s exceptional album Salt For Salt, which stands easily as one of my ten favorite albums this year. “When every day is like a war between the will to go on and a wish that the world would travel into the sun,” he sings, and it’s hard to top that line for sheer force of will. Still, musically he and his co-writer MorganEve Swain give it a good go. There’s a strong gypsy influence in the mix, merging traditional folk with edgy alternatives without falling victim to incongruous stabs of modernity. This is folk music for people who love the genre, fully appreciating Lamb’s willingness to avoid commercial trappings at all costs. In short, it’s magnificent.
#05. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers – “Song For Lovers”
No one’s ever going to accuse Stephen Kellogg of failing to lay his soul bare on a song. This guy doesn’t know the meaning of holding things in and his music’s always the better for it. “Song For Lovers,” however, stands higher than many of his other recent songs because even as it bares his honest feelings on the topic of religion and belief in general he manages to craft a winning hook, a pop song for adults that never pulls a single punch. The song is the album’s centerpiece, featuring ethereal background vocals on the chorus as Kellogg sings “I don’t know!” with reckless abandon, daring to admit that for all our hubris, in the end we really don’t know what we can expect beyond the veil of this world. We just have to have faith in something. I firmly believe if Kellogg keeps writing music like this, he’ll go down as one of the strongest, most consistent songwriters of his generation.
#04. Augustana – “Steal Your Heart”
This one’s the most mainstream song on the entire list, and it’s on here because the hook is the closest to perfection I heard all year. Augustana has long been overlooked as just another Counting Crows knockoff since their hit “Boston” controlled the airwaves years ago. But they’ve proven to be musical journeymen, crafting album after album of pop music which consistently blurs the edges between rock, pop and alternative, all without giving up on the most important aspect: the memorable melody. “I’m going to steal your heart away,” Don Layus wails on the chorus, and at the very least he manages to steal his way into your brain by the end, the endlessly addictive hook proving perfect for close headphone listening. The band’s self-titled album may be this year’s most unfairly overlooked pop gem, and this song is its clear champion.
#03. Amanda Shires – “When You Need A Train It Never Comes”
This song speaks loud and clear to anyone who’s ever felt broken down and shredded by circumstances beyond their own control. It’s a stunningly beautiful edgy portrayal of desperation and cruel reality, enough to bring tears to your eyes as you hit repeat and listen again. Shires hasn’t had a mainstream breakthrough yet, and her album Carrying Lightning showcases the idea that she’s comfortable right where she is, writing character sketches about life in the heartland, where nothing’s ever quite as simple as it seems. In a world where every choice comes down to the lesser of evils, choosing to spend some of that time listening to songs like this is always a wise decision. The rest of the album builds on this level of cut-to-the-bones honesty to create an incisive, brilliant piece of modern Americana which demands to be played, then played again.
#02. The Mountain Goats – “Damn These Vampires”
Known as one of the best living lyricists not named Dylan, John Darnielle knows how to craft a lyric and meld it to ear-catchingly brilliant melodies. With vocals akin to a mix of They Might Be Giants and R.E.M., this is music which isn’t easy to pigeonhole. This song in particular speaks to those who live lives of isolation, building on the religious imagery of past Goats albums like 2009′s Life of the World to Come: “God damn these vampires for what they’ve done to me,” he snarls, and it works well conceptually whether you choose a literal vision or a more metaphorical one. This is pure, straightforward musical innovation, easily accessible while managing to grow upon repeated listens. I can’t think of a stronger introduction to the music of an amazing American band.
#01. Steve Earle – “This City”
Steve Earle wrote this song as an ode to post-Katrina New Orleans, and it was featured prominently during season one of HBO’s magnificent Treme. Closing out Earle’s I’ll Never Make It Out Of This World Alive, the song proves to be among the best the living legend has ever written. Refreshingly, there’s not an ounce of political grandstanding to be heard, as Earle sings of New Orleans as a living, breathing entity which has seeped into his soul. The city’s heartbeat is its music, and Earle’s portrayal is in full focus: “No matter, come what may … this city won’t wash away; this city won’t ever drown.” I have to hope Earle has more songs like this in him, because this music is genuinely satisfying, and I’m pleased to know he can turn off the proselytizing when he wants to. “This City” is a heartfelt prayer of thanks for a hard-fought revival, and the can’t die spirit of the lyric speaks as much to America as a whole. This country won’t ever die as long as its heart beats strong, and great music won’t ever disappear.