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.