I promised the staff I would not go all Masterpiece Theater with this intro, so I’ll be brief. Our Annual Report has reached its halfway point with our Top 50 Songs of the Year. The many flags of our staff are hoisted high — and we couldn’t be happier with what we’re saluting. From Cults’ very first song to Tom Waits’ thousandth song, we put up the tracks that left us with more thoughts, feelings, and impressions than any other. We think we done good.
But just to make sure the world still spins on its axis, let us know what you think we missed from our list and what you liked in the comments. We thrive on that stuff.
Additionally, we’ve got the de rigueur Top 50 Songs of the Year Spotify playlist for you, a quick link to purchase the song on Amazon, and an easy ctrl-c +ctrl-v list for you at the very end immediately following our #1 song of the year.
As always, our profuse thanks for reading, enjoy these tunes, and we’ll see you again next week for the second half of our 2011 Annual Report.
-Jeremy D. Larson
50. Ellie Goulding – “Lights”
At age 24, Ellie Goulding’s folktronica turned heads across the world, especially with “Lights”. Remixed from here to high heaven by killer producers, sampled by Lupe Fiasco for his latest mixtape, and dropped by DJs looking to get well-dressed girls on the dance floors from the Bay Area to Eastern Europe, its appeal lies in its honest vocals, minimalistic beats, and stark, raving energy. It’s Goulding’s first charting single in the U.S. and Canada, and judging from the widespread allure (and the thousands who camped near her stage at festivals nationwide), it likely won’t be her last. -Paul de Revere
49. Cults – “Go Outside”
Going from relative obscurity to indie stardom isn’t anything new, but the way Madelline Follin and Brian Oblivion of Cults did it with such New York coolness and style still seemed incredibly refreshing. By the time the mainstream caught wind of Follin’s adorably unique, helium-filled balloon voice, “Go Outside” was already a bona fide song of the summer contender. Its lyrics are like a mantra for anyone in a going-nowhere relationship, delivered in an irresistibly sweet, poppy tone. And how can you not dig that crazy glockenspiel solo? -Gilles LeBlanc
48. Big K.R.I.T. – “Country Shit” (Remix)
The original version of “Country Shit” showed up on last year’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, but this remix, featuring all-new bars from Ludacris and Bun B, goes harder in every way. Over a chopped and looped vocal sample and thunderous bass, K.R.I.T. delivers an unusually aggressive verse for “the folk in Texas that’s forever wreckin’ with the Styrofoam cup and the purple fluid.” This is a rave-up, no doubt, and it just might be the greatest Dixie rap get-together this side of “Int’l Players Anthem”. -Mike Madden
47. Mikal Cronin – “Apathy”
So much good came out of the fertile ground of the San Francisco psych/garage scene this year, and Mikal Cronin’s debut LP may be best in show simply because he’s got the hooks. “Apathy” digs in with stopgap verses and a vintage 60’s underground sound. Cronin is wrestling with that all-too-real twentysomething identity crisis; he’s a man who’s sure he doesn’t want apathy or empathy. Or everything. Or anything. His generation struggles with defining themselves, and finding a fine line between slacker and sincere is difficult. This loud and splashy confession pretty much nails that frustration. -Jeremy D. Larson
46. Cold Cave – “The Great Pan Is Dead”
The primal themes and screams of Wesley Eisold on “The Great Pan Is Dead” could have been penned by the Vikings or the Huns or some dodgy Germanic tribe. It’s ostentatious like an arena song with more than enough of Eisold’s hardcore/noise/new wave bent to make it sound like it could have been out on Wax Trax! Records. “Yeah/I will come running/gunning through the years/hunting heart/crushing fears,” except Eisold makes it seem like he’s going to do this while completely on fire. All the while, at its core, it’s just a romantic ode to someone who warrants truly epic imagery — imagery that would fall flat without the high-stakes propulsion of the music below it. If love songs are played in Valhalla, this may be the only thing allowed. -Jeremy D. Larson
45. Das Racist – “Michael Jackson”
“I’m fucking great at rapping!” With those five words, Himanshu “Heems” Suri embraces the new identity that he, Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez, and Ashok “Dap” Kondabolu have forged as Das Racist. Where elsewhere they’ll make you wonder whether this whole rap thing is just a lark, here D.R. take the simple to the nth degree. Whether it’s that ultimately basic brag, the “Michael Jackson/a million dollars/you hear me?/holler” chorus, or A.D.’s lithe “You go girl, it’s your world”, this song embraces the brilliance of simplicity. The beat kills, and references to Richie Valens, “Parenthood”, and McGuyver all smashed together somehow just makes sense. -Adam Kivel
44. The Horrors – “Still Life”
To be one of the 50 best songs of the year, at least one element of your introduction has to grab attention. With “Still Life”, The Horrors gave us three options. There’s the wobbly tape loop that gradually fades in, the body-vibrating drumbeat, and the bell curve synth melody. All that before we even get to the vocals! Faris Badwan sounds cautious, almost fragile, in the speak-sing verses. Once the chorus kicks in and the melody lights up, though, he richly belts out line after line, guaranteeing a sing-along from even the most casual fan. -Joe Marvilli
43. Bill Callahan – “Riding for the Feeling”
Bill Callahan is one of America’s most low-profile existentialists. “Riding for the Feeling” is a great example of why. Callahan’s smooth baritone lightly jogs along his own acoustic strumming, impressionistic organ, reverb-soaked electric guitars, and salt-and-pepper drums to craft a statement of beautiful futility. Mr. Callahan is capital letters THE TRUTH, and he spits a lot of it: “With intensity, a drop evaporates by law/In conclusion, leaving is easy when you’ve got some place to be.” How ’bout that for some cold, hard facts? But as the song progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the place Callahan has to be doesn’t really exist–that he’s just riding somewhere else, merely riding for the feeling. And so are we. -Drew Litowitz
42. Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down”
A single of anguish, “Coming Down” is the side of Dum Dum Girls no one has ever seen. During the six-minute ballad, the ladies leave the mystery of their personas to find bliss in the wake of something awful, the death of front woman Dee Dee Penny’s mother. The same fuzz can still be found, but this time there’s more emotion and urgency. Penny wanted fans to feel something, and it’s hard not to at 3:31 with Penny’s declarations of departure. Lo-fi becomes a thing of careful beauty on “Coming Down”. -Lauren Rearick
41. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”
Though it’s called Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li’s second LP could have easily been titled Wounded Rhythms. For proof, take a listen to “I Follow Rivers”. The melody drunkenly sways alongside her vocals, ranging from subdued verses to triumphant choruses. Clanging, hollow beats don’t just stick to the tempo, but occasionally flair and boost the background up. The woozy synth line remains laid-back but isn’t sloppy. Instead, it loosely drives the song forward without becoming the focal point. That’s saved for Lykke Li’s playful performance. On an album with as many heavy songs as this one has, that’s certainly a breath of fresh air. -Joe Marvilli
40. Wilco – “One Sunday Morning”
Jeff Tweedy warns us that this majestic 12-minute closer to The Whole Love is long in the very first line, but it’s a caution that proves to be moot. Despite the length and refusing to change its basic rhythm or structure, the song never tires, keeping the listener’s attention by sneaking in layer upon layer of instrumentation at strategic moments, then pulling it away. The whispering patter of Mikael Jorgensen’s piano may not drive the melody but blossoms and wilts at the mention of key words like “bells” and “the Bible.” Lyrically, it’s in the same vein as Sky Blue Sky closer “On and On”, a meditation on the relationship between Jeff Tweedy and a past acquaintance that only they understand. But its autumnal feel and confessional tone mean something different to everyone, the perfect tune for looking back on the year in non-linear terms. -Dan Caffrey
39. Liturgy – “Generation”
Brooklyn’s Liturgy have spent the last couple of years working up quite the shitstorm in metal circles for their admittedly ostentatious attempts at re-conceptualizing the genre from the ground up in what they call “transcendental black metal”. Critical response to their latest LP Aesthethica, was pretty much split down the middle largely for that reason. But all talk about the band’s perceived pretension is shot to bits by the initial blast of noise that kick off the album’s best track, the starkly minimal instrumental “Generation”. Seven minutes of blazing guitars and cracking snares, this slab of molten no-wave fury is more akin to early-day Swans than anything remotely “transcendental”, or even “black metal” for that matter. Even so, they’ve catalyzed progress and conversation in a genre that has, for decades now, stagnated in Norse Mythology and church burning scandals. Who says you need corpse paint to rock? -MÃ¶hammad Choudhery
38. Washed Out – “Amor Fati”
Washed Out’s Ernest Greene continues to distance himself from chillwave, creating one of the year’s most danceable tracks in “Amor Fati”. Fans have come to expect an inclusion of synths, but it’s the addition of an infectious chorus from Greene that makes for an unexpected moment of pop. The prominent vocals provide a break of warmth from the chillwave lull of its counterparts. Its latin title “amor fati” translates to love of fate. If this is where Greene’s destined, we’re lovestruck, too. –Lauren Rearick
37. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
Each year, there comes a song that is seemingly everywhere, from non-stop radio play to appearances in TV ads and basic cable shows. In 2011, that song was Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Musically, it appealed to a plethora of audiences, as if it were assembled from an equal number of dark, bluesy soul tunes and light, airy disco tracks. The vocals are among Adele’s finest, with an undercurrent of immense wisdom driving forward the larger-than-life, emotionally devastated cries of pain and confusion. But it’s the song’s overall sentiment, of having immense romantic regrets and laying every last one of them on your ex, that made this cut such a massively universal experience. Rare is the track that can mend wounds and help sell the iPhone 4S, but “Rolling in the Deep” does all that and more. –Chris Coplan