Top 10 Tracks of 2011

Ott’s Mir, as well as Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown (my number one album last year) were the most complete, across-the-board records of their respective years by a mile, but within them, each track was so unique and brilliant that it was impossible to choose any one song over the other, and so ultimately none were included in the corresponding Top Tracks roundup for that year. I recall that scenario to illustrate my contention that one great track does not always a great album make, nor, by contrast, does a great album always have one standout track that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest–a contention which has proven even truer this year than last.

With only three artists being represented on both my Best Albums and Best Tracks lists, it brings me great joy to spread the critical love around and highlight several more solid albums of 2011.

Honorable Mention No. 23: “Mermaid” by powerkompany

This marks the first time a largely unknown Athens act has cracked either half of this annual housekeeping exercise. A last-minute assignment, powerkompany sunk a 50-footer at the buzzer, edging out a much more recognizable single from this year with their mesmeric, ethereal ballad “Mermaid” (for the curious amongst you, this spot was originally slated for Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers,” which, while a killer track, has already been covered on Glee, and thus does not need to be covered here). “Mermaid” kindles the same kind of dreamy, vaguely spiritual emotions as Julianna Barwick, and the repeated entreaty of “you look better in the sunlight” seems to call not only the vocalist’s subject, but also the listener forth into a world of far lovelier possibilities. “Comfort” or “Walking Away” could just as easily have occupied this slot, but it was “Mermaid” that was still rolling gently through my head for days after my first listen like a warm, hopeful mantra in a bitterly cold winter.

Honorable Mention No. 2:

“Oh My Heart” by R.E.M.

This was the last truly great song recorded by one of the last truly great bands of the 20th century. While the news of R.E.M.’s breakup this year came seemingly out of nowhere, rock historians may someday look back and see “Oh My Heart” as an early indicator of that decision. A musical love letter to wherever you call home, this track perfectly encapsulated what Athens means to R.E.M., and what R.E.M. has meant to Athens in these troubling and uncertain times. Is the objectivity of this pick clouded by my profound love for this band and a desire to pay tribute to their great legacy one last time. Damn right it is. I make no apologies.

Honorable Mention No. 1:

“The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix)” by Colin Stetson

Much to my personal delight, 2011 has seen a resurgence of pop relevance for the saxophone thanks to artists as diverse as Bon Iver, M83, tUnE-yArDs, and Destroyer. On the other end of the spectrum, Colin Stetson found an uncommon amount of attention for an obtuse, atonally-minded jazz expressionist, and that’s a pretty amazing thing in and of itself, but he absolutely backed up the hype with “The Stars in His Head,” one of many mindblowing compositions featured on his sophomore effort New History Warfare Volume II: Judges. Stetson somehow occupies the uppermost and lowermost ends of his instrument’s octave range simultaneously, preferring the extremes and straying into the middle ground only as an occasional, necessary bridge between them. Near constant trills and triplet runs define his multiphonic sound, which he achieves through the rigorously applied practice of circular breathing, effecting visions of a many-armed Hindu jazz deity wielding various saxophones, clarinets, and bassoons, and unifying their sounds into one. Definitely an acquired taste (a friend whose musical tastes I respect has compared the sounds Stetson creates with those of dying cats), this young talent is not for everyone, but he’s finding new ways to think about jazz, and getting a broader audience interested in some very abstract, avant garde corners of the genre. In my book, that already puts him nearly in a class by himself.

10. “January Hymn”/”June Hymn” by The Decemberists

The King Is Dead may not be The Decemberists’ best album (relatively speaking, it may actually be one of their worst, but that’s kind of like talking about the worst Seinfeld episodes or the worst Kubrick films. When you’re dealing strictly in greatness, it all becomes a matter of degrees.) but the twin-like songs dubbed “hymns” are among the band’s finest ever; lovingly crafted and gently executed with all the grace and tenderness that designation requires. Both fairly simple acoustic guitar arrangements as compared to the Decemberists’ most dramatic impulses, these two tracks showcase Colin Meloy’s dulcet, unmistakable, once-in-a-generation voice and his endearingly bookish lyrical style. It may be cheating a little to list them both (and it won’t be the last time I do it) but in my mind they were inextricably linked, like star-crossed lovers calling out to each other from opposite ends of an album too small to contain them, and it didn’t feel necessary for me to choose. They belong together.

9. “Cumbion de las Aves” by Chancha Via Circuito

Perhaps the year’s most aggressively danceable beat, the relentless clang of percussion on Chancha Via Circuito’s (Argentinian producer Pedro Canale) “Cumbion de las Aves” is a hypnotic hybridization of modern electronica and traditional South American music that nestles a pair of coiled flute melodies in a taut criss-cross of acoustic strings like two cobras in a wicker basket, but never once lets anything overpower the central, juggernaut power of its beat. This track could just as easily put you in a trance as make you want to dance, but either way, it’s the crown jewel of Rio Arriba, only the second album from a fresh and creative DJ who’s exploring the connections between electronic and world music in very exciting ways.

8. “Give Up the Ghost” by Radiohead

It’s so strange how much The King of Limbs didn’t register this year. It’s not like it’s bad. I don’t know that Radiohead is capable of making a fundamentally “bad” album at this point in their careers. And yet, here we are at year’s end, and Thom Yorke and company aren’t topping anybody’s lists for the first time since the Clinton administration. For all the hullabaloo, the myriad remixes and reissues, the only track from Radiohead’s eighth studio album that ever really resonated with me was the painfully sincere “Give Up the Ghost,” but it resonated in a big way. Set to the repeated, murkily washed out plea of “don’t hurt me,” this song finds Yorke facing the possibility of new love, and the fear that comes with letting go of the past to try again. It is an achingly beautiful, intensely vulnerable emotion that Yorke expresses here, and, as we’ve come to expect from the best Radiohead tunes, he pierces right to the heart of things. Thom Yorke sees through humanity, to the ghosts we all carry around with us, and reminds us, with all of his heart, that someone out there understands.

7. “Thanks”/”Unbank” By Plaid

Ok, last time, I swear. I don’t even have that great of an excuse for naming these two tracks co-winners of the coveted #7 slot. They play third and fourth on Plaid’s 2011 album Scintilli. They are head-and-shoulders above everything else on the album. Their names rhyme, sort of. Sorry, that’s the best you’re gonna get. The truth is, “Thanks” and “Unbank” represent the yin and yang of Plaid, the two distinctive qualities that make them stand out in what has already been established as a very good year for electronic music. “Thanks” is an intricate symphony of plinks and plunks; laser synths and off-timed beats interlocking and combining like choreographed Tetris blocks, suggesting the calculated, mathematically precise arrangements of a string quartet. “Unbank,” on the other hand, is one of the funnest tunes Plaid has ever composed. Evoking the video gamey quest nostalgia of classic new age albums like Ray Lynch’s Deep Breakfast, while repurposing that sound for the modern era, it’s the rare Plaid track that remains dancefloor-friendly throughout, and shows the duo’s estimable versatility. With this one-two punch at three and four, Scintilli was a near-miss for the albums list, and is well worth your time in its entirety.

6. “I Would Do Anything For You” by Foster the People

I would do anything for “I Would Do Anything For You” to replace “Pumped Up Kicks” as the Foster the People song I have to hear all the god damned time. It’s so bubbly and infectious, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it. Those sound like famous last words, but “I Would Do Anything For You” is the kind of day-brightening tune that makes you smile in spite of yourself. It embraces the possibility of falling in love all over again with gooey, discopop abandon and unabashed innocence, like a “Walkin’ on Sunshine” for the 21st century.

5. “The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake

A simple piece that yawns and stretches its way into something much more complicated, James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” is just the easy answer when choosing a track to represent the full scope and genius of his self-titled debut album. Based around a vocal sample from his own father’s largely unknown band, “The Wilhelm Scream” finds a man lamenting the realization that he may never fulfill his dreams. As the mournful vocal fragment loops over again and again, a storm of staticky electronics winds itself ever-tighter around the sample, muting it, muffling it, and ultimately, drowning it out. It’s tempting to read into Blake’s intentions when working with his own father’s material, but the beauty of this sonic construction requires no genealogical narrative adornment. Both Blake’s music, and what little we hear of his father’s, share a visceral pain and emotional honesty, and hearing one fade, however wearily, into the other is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all about this track.

4. “Diet Mtn Dew” by Lana Del Rey

Get ready. Believe the hype. Discover Lana Del Rey now, and make her your own, before she is discovered for you by your annoying friend with an Ipod Shuffle full of Ke$ha. You know, the same one who’s been raving to you about “Pumped Up Kicks” for weeks but never bothered with the rest of Torches. Because the hype is coming, and rightfully so. Is it weird that Del Rey is already slated for an appearance on SNL despite the fact that she has yet to release an official album? Yeah, kinda. Is it weird that her live-and-die-in-L.A. persona and DIY, I-generation spirit seem both tailor-made for this moment in pop culture, and yet somehow also completely original and unaffected? Extremely. Will it seem weird in six months? Not even a little bit. This out-of-nowhere internet sensation is every bit as good as advertised. America is already falling in love, and the first time you hear her purr “take another drag, turn me to ashes” on standout single “Diet Mtn Dew,” you will too. A sultry, loungey voice that sounds both innocent, and all too experienced, Del Rey projects softness even when singing about liking things rough. Already drawing the derision of more conservative women’s groups, she is the California kitten America’s been waiting for – created in our own image – the thigh-high sexpot with the heart of gold; a post-feminist antihero for a, by turns, more empowered and more conflicted generation of young women. She is all that and more. So steel yourselves. Prepare to be inundated. Soon enough, Lana Del Rey will be everywhere. The only question will be how early you chose to believe the hype.

3. “Wait” by M83

Not unlike Yeasayer’s “I Remember,” the cut that landed in the #7 slot on this list last year, M83’s “Wait” is a slow-burning torch song that stands out for its singular, emotional heft and naked simplicity amidst an album teeming with bigger, brighter sonic spectacles. Project mastermind Anthony Gonzalez’s vocals wash over the soundscape with an angelic upward intonation, as though each refrain were escaping up into the heavens. The repeated phrase “no time” becomes almost like a lullabye – albeit a full-throated one – setting the listener adrift on a moonbeam, sailing to a land where time no longer exists. The childlike wonder of having no responsibilities – nowhere to be, nothing to pursue but your dreams – is captured with an ear to the divine, and ultimately gives way to an echo canyon of joyous, almost animalistic wails; it’s the sound of freedom, true and absolute.

2. “Beth/Rest” by Bon Iver

This year, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar put his mind to reviving the smooth, smooth sounds of the Lite FM circa 1986 with an entire album (which I loved, for the sake of posterity) that took me screaming back to the dentist office waiting rooms of my youth. That album, Kaputt, was rooted in big, balloony synths, silky sax, Bejar’s trademark lyrical panache, and the general, badly upholstered vibe of an airport lounge. It is a stylistic tight-rope act that should be discussed and admired for years – an affectionate pastiche of a genre often thought of as unsalvageable. That said, with a single song, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon did more to redeem the careers of Richard Marx and Eric Carmen than Bejar did with nine. “Beth/Rest” doesn’t just fondly remember the “listen while you work” stylings of America’s tackiest decade, it reimagines them in a completely new context, swirling around his heavily manipulated voice, comingling with gauzey, meandering strings, a contemplative alto saxophone, and bendy-wendy, singing-saw-style electric guitar. If the lyrics are meant to be parsed at all, they would surely mean something different to everyone, but to my ear, this song is a lamentation. A man mourning not just the loss of love, but the loss of the belief in love. Calling upon the machinations of the corniest, most reviled era of romantic pop to try and save himself – holding up a metaphorical boombox and blasting Peter Gabriel into his own thoroughly disillusioned head – Vernon finds only a lugubrious, chaotic contrivance: his own despairing indie folk dressed up in sequins and leather pants. He transcends pastiche, and instead mines exhausted material for new emotion, and finds it. That’s why in ten years, every song on Kaputt will sound just as cheesy as your average Phil Collins tune, and “Beth/Rest” will still rip my heart out every single time.

1. “Glory Hallelujah” by Frank Turner

Frank Turner is an English singer songwriter whose fourth LP, England Keep My Bones, was released this year and went largely unnoticed. I myself only discovered him thanks to a random Facebook post. He began his career with the hardcore band Million Dead, and in making such an odd musical transition mid-career, it seems to be his acerbic wit and aggressive, at times confrontational delivery that has sustained him, and brought a thread of continuity to his body of work. England Keep My Bones is well worth a listen in full (the acapella “English Curse” is a real treat, highlighting the ease with which Turner repurposed his screamo metal fury into the more regal, bellicose menace of a half-soused Medieval warlord), but with “Glory Hallelujah,” Turner has penned not just the best song of the year, but one that I will share with people for years to come. Backed by a jaunty church piano riff, righteous organ chords, and eventually, a full-on gospel choir, Turner swings and strums his way through a chorus that is worth printing here in its entirety: “There is no God/So clap your hands together/There is no God/No Heaven and no Hell/There is no God/We’re all in this together/There is no God/So ring that victory bell.” Lambasting the hypocrisy of organized religion and the violence done in its name in the verses between, Turner repeats this triumphant chorus with the kind of passion and fervor one usually associates with that institution, not against it. Many people will call it an affront, and that’s their right. Get offended. Get angry. Write letters. Post to Facebook. Tweet. This is America, and thankfully, you’re still allowed to do that. But for those who take a breath, let the dust clear, and actually listen, they will find a song that is about many things – joy, fear, communion, hope – but that hate is not among them. In fact, this is a song about facing hard truths as a society; as a civilization; as a species. It’s about looking around a terrifying, potentially dying world and saying “enough is enough.” It’s about admitting that none of us – not one person on Earth – has a monopoly on God, life, death, or whatever comes after, or even much of a clue as to what’s going on in the meantime, and that that’s ok. It’s about the fact that, as humans, we need each other. I’ll share it again: “There is no God/We’re all in this together.” With those simple words, Turner sends a message that could (and hopefully will) resonate with people throughout the world, but one that a deeply divided America especially needed to hear in 2011, and will need to hear again and again as we head into an already-ugly election year. But beyond the very real, social relevance, it’s something we could all stand to think about once in a while on a personal level. This world very well might be all there is, so let’s commit to one another to make the best of it, in 2012 and beyond. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!