ALEXANDER – TRUTH
I first heard this creepy folk tune on the fourth season of Breaking Bad, and I immediately had to Shazaam it. I listened to it on repeat for the rest of the night and had a very difficult time getting it out of my head. There is something distinctively deep south about this song, I’m not sure what, maybe the bible reference. If you enjoy melodic slow acoustic songs with a tinge of darkness, give it a shot.
PJ HARVEY – WRITTEN ON THE FOREHEAD
PJ Harvey continually redefines herself. I think most fans could agree there aren’t many similarities between Rid of Me and White Chalk. In 2011 she did it again with the outstanding album Make England Shake. One of the many highlights on this album is the one that doesn’t quite fit in. The song contains the same World War inspired apocalyptic lyrics, but marries it with this warm and comforting instrumental. It reminds me of the peaceful feeling you get from listening to Primitive Radio God’s Standing Outside a Broken Booth With Money in My Hand. The soft synths and amazing “Blood and Fire” loop make this song the best feeling on an amazing album.
KENDRICK LAMAR – A.D.H.D.
I’m not sure what it is about this Compton based rapper that makes him so listenable. Maybe it’s the fact that he doesn’t talk about violence or disrespecting women, but still remains very observant of the trials his peers are facing. He isn’t gangsta, and he isn’t Tribe Called Quest, he fits somewhere nicely in-between. A.D.H.D. is a great example of how Kendrick can use his lyric prowess to describe the hazy drug induced view of his generation. Or maybe it’s just the weird accent that comes out when he says “fuck that” that makes me like it. If you want to hear him in a more catchy, harder hitting rap song, check out the equally awesome Rigamortus and Hiiipower.
FUCKED UP – A LITTLE DEATH
Former Polaris Prize winners came out with David Comes to Life this year with critical acclaim, and in all honesty, I was surprised. It’s not that I don’t love rock/punk music, I do. It’s that I have always had a difficult time listening to the classic death metal voice. And Damian Abraham, lead singer and Much Music’s The Wedge host, definitely has that voice. But I strongly suggest all of you to get over it like I did, because this song is one of the most rewarding of the year. The build in this rock song is classic, and despite the title, A Little Death is 100% life affirming.
tUnE-yArDs – BIZNESS
How could you not have fun with this song!? Merrill Garbus is all smiles, energy, and undeniable talent. Listen to this song, can you believe it was all created by her with the exception of one bass player? What is even more amazing is her ability to do all of this live by using a foot pedal to loop all of her drums, guitar, and vocals. She is a one-woman show, and a great one at that. Bizness (along side Gangsta) is the real highlight on w h o k i l l. It’s timing, great use of horns and vocals, mixed with a sheer sense of fun makes it my personal favourite this year.
WILD BEASTS – REACH A BIT FURTHER
These guys are my favourite musical find this year. I am always surprised how very little attention they get. Perhaps it comes from the somewhat feminine quality of the two lead vocalists’ voices, which plays a huge role in making Antony Hegarty less approachable as an artist. That’s unfortunate, because Wild Beasts are one of the most talented bands you will hear. Reach a Bit Further plays on all of their talents – a keen ear for melody, both singers extraordinary voices, and a mature use of minimalism. Please listen to these guys, and if this song doesn’t do it, try the more upbeat All the King’s Men and The Devil’s Crayon from their earlier albums.
SAINT SAVIOUR – REASONS
This beautiful song reminds me of something great that Dolores O’Riordan may sing. A soft minimal song that at first hangs on a single piano, and Becky Jone’s sole echoing voice. But that voice is pushed to amazing extremes as the song reaches its crescendo. It is joined by the guitar and drums to make for a timeless conclusion.
CUT COPY – TAKE ME OVER
Many bands have been trying to recapture 80’s synth pop, but maybe they realized they could never make an album that would compare to In Ghost Colours, and maybe they should just give up and start a ska band. 2008’s In Ghost Colours was one of the best and most solid albums ever made, so in 2011, Cut Copy had a lot to live up to. Although Zonoscope was not a great album (in my opinion), Take Me Over succeeded by having the band find their inner Men At Work. Cut Copy mixed their dance music sensibilities with a little bit of Men At Work’s Down Under. It makes for a whole lot of fun.
THE NATIONAL – EXILE VILIFY
The National have been hands down my favourite band of the last five years. They also happened to release my favourite album of 2010 – High Violet. So I will forgive them that they didn’t release much this year. But there was this little, understated, piano driven song Exile Vilify made for a video game called Portal 2. Yes, The National has a song in a video game. Even though this song is soft, it leaves an impression, proving that anything these guys put their hands on nowadays turns to gold. I chalk it up to Matt’s ability to commiserate with the whole world with just a few simple lines – ex. “You’re thinking too fast, you’re like marble on glass”.
BON IVER – HOLOCENE
For a long time, my girlfriend and I kept the amazing album For Emma, Forever Ago our little secret. And that’s how the album felt, a very personal and intimate experience. But by New Year’s Eve 2010 I had shared it with my brother and friends, and we were howling Skinny Love at the top of our lungs as we counted down the last minutes. It was a personal experience that everyone loved. The same can be said for Bon Iver’s 2011 self-titled release – an intimate and warm experience. Holocene works as the album’s highlight and as its centre. From the finger picking at the beginning, the song has you hooked. And although I always had difficulties interpreting Justin Vernon’s lyrics, there is something so relatable in Holocene’s ultimate phrase – “I was not magnificent”.
THE ROOTS – KOOL ON
The Roots know how to make great, solid records. Even with their full-time TV gig, they found the time to make albums like How I Got Over and Undun. Last year’s How I Got Over was one of my personal favourites (check out Right On, The Day, How I Got Over, Now or Never and Dear God 2.0), and although Undun may not be as good, it is still great quality hip hop. With Kool On, it is the mix of the catchy guitar riff and undeniably beautiful soul sample that make it a winner.
JAI PAUL – BTSTU
This song is introduced with echoing “oohs” that sound out of this world. Then the most bare of drum loop is set, and things seem pretty innocent. That’s until a bombastic crunchy synth sample is dropped like a brick over top. Then the song gets very cool. Also, Jai Paul wins the award of saying “Don’t fuck with me” in the sweetest way ever.
CULTS – ABDUCTED
This was a real though one. I’ve been torn by which song is better – Abducted or You Know What I Mean. Both are great, and both capture the early Rock n’ Roll era of the fifties without seeming fake or gimmicky. It was Madeline Follin’s awesome voice pushing the catchy chorus that made this one the winner.
RADIOHEAD – LOTUS FLOWER
Radiohead are far too talented of a band to ever make a bad record. Although The King of Limbs may not stand up against The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, or In Rainbows, that in no way means it wasn’t a great record. With Lotus Flower, Thom and crew make a song that marries the lighter notes of In Rainbows with the electronic beeps and boops of their early noughties records. But Lotus Flower keeps what was most important about In Rainbows, and that is the comfort to go back to straight forward melodies, and to embrace Thom’s voice again. What we are left with is a very cool, even sexy (yes sexy) Radiohead song.
THE DRUMS – MONEY
The Drums proved to be apt at creating extremely catchy songs with 2009’s Let’s Go Surfing. That song instantly puts a stupid grin on your face. The Drums have once again used their Futureheads meets The Smiths fast guitar style to make a new record – Portamento. Portamento actually shows a growth for this band as they created songs that are less immediately accessible with greater replay value in return. With the exception of Money – Money grabs you immediately, and puts that same stupid smile on your face. Check out the song Book of Revelation if you find the “I don’t have any money” line a little too cheese ball.
LANA DEL REY – VIDEO GAMES
My poor girlfriend had to listen to this song ad nauseam. I have to admit I was quite taken by this song (and the video) and did hit the replay button a little too often. Something about the harp, the piano, the strings, and her early Americana image mixed into these deeply cynical lyrics that cause a reaction. I really don’t care that Lana Del Rey is a manufactured image from Lizzy Grant, and that she possibly had surgery to enhance it. I actually think that furthers the darkness of the song, the hollow apathetic message – “this is my idea of fun, playing video games”.
THE HORRORS – STILL LIFE
Please, please, please, ignore what these guys look like. They make cool music, I swear! Remember when Interpol was cool as hell? Well that is The Horrors now. They first caught my ears with 2009’s song Scarlet Fields, which has grown to become one of my favourite songs of that decade. On their album Skying, they show growing confidence as a band, with no better an example than Still Life. Still Life strolls in with a confident bass line, and grows with synths and drums until Faris Badwan’s ultra cool chorus comes in – “When you wake up, when you wake up, you will find me”. Also check out the song Moving Further Away.
FLORENCE + THE MACHINE – SHAKE IT OUT
It was a toss-up between this song and What the Water Gave Me. Ultimately, it was the amount of fun I had listening to this song that made it win out. As an album, Ceremonials gets tiring in its never-ending attempt to keep things high energy, but looking at the songs independently, you really get to appreciate the grandeur of them. Shake It Up is the kind of song that makes you drive a little too fast and hit your fist against the steering wheel. But if any friends ask you what you were listening to when you get out, say Metallica.
ADELE – ROLLING IN THE DEEP
There is no denying Adele’s talent, even if you are sick of all the radio coverage she got (I don’t listen to the radio, so I’m immune). She has a powerful voice, and paired up with these drums and hand claps it makes for an excellent song. But if any friend asks what you were listening to, say Florence + the Machine.
LYKKE LI – LOVE OUT OF LUST
I’ve never been a huge Lykke Li fan, there was always something about her that didn’t feel genuine. But with Love Out of Lust she let’s her heart fall onto her sleeve, and the results are brilliant. This is a soft and gentle song, so if you get caught listening to this, well there’s nothing I can do to help…
A$AP ROCKY – PALACE
…Well, you could say you were listening to A$AP Rocky. At age thirty I find it extremely difficult to enjoy rap this gangster. I can’t listen to this generation’s version of Gravediggaz – Tyler the Creator and his crew. But with the smooth producing of Clams Casino, it makes A$AP genuinely enjoyable. And the great use of the chants in the background give this track an undeniable strength.
THE ANTLERS – I DON’T WANT LOVE
One of my favourite music websites Drowned in Sound continually sang the praises of The Antlers new album – Burst Apart. Although Drowned in Sound was responsible for introducing me to some of my favourite music (Frightened Rabbit), I ignored this recommendation as the 30 second sound bites from iTunes bored me to death. My Bad. Burst Apart is a stellar album. But before I realized this, I did manage to allow myself one single from the album – I Don’t Want Love. It is a simple song, but that small guitar riff and slow drums is all that is needed since Peter Silberman’s voice carries this entire track.
M83 – MIDNIGHT CITY
Anthony Gonzalez stands beside Cut Copy as the kings of synth pop. With his 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he perfects his 80’s nostalgia electronic niche. The best song on the album is Midnight City. The song uses a great build through the verses to take us to the climactic choruses, full of drums, multiple synth, and even 2011’s infamous return of the saxophone. Many people have failed this year trying to bring the 80’s back (Bon Iver), but M83 makes it feel completely natural and not corny.
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO – PETITE MORT
I was first introduced to Meshell with her brilliant song Beautiful, which made me more willing to spend on her new album Weather after it attracted critical attention. Like Wild Beasts’ album Smother, Weather is quiet, mature, a little sad, and a little sexy. Petite Mort is more on the sexy side, it really couldn’t avoid that with a chorus that asks “Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy now?”. This is smooth romantic date night music. Get your candles lit.
BEASTIE BOYS – TOO MANY RAPPERS (NEW REACTIONARIES VERSION)
If you don’t have fun while listening to the Beastie Boys there is something wrong with you. You really can’t feel too serious, too down, when you listen to Mike D’s nasal voice talking about peanut butter sandwiches. And even though I didn’t enjoy this album as much as Hello Nasty, or even To the Five Boroughs, there is no denying the fun and great beats of songs like Make Some Noise, Pop Your Balloon, and Too Many Rappers.
JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST – MURDER TO EXCELLENCE
I am one of those guys that cannot stand listening to two men talking about their ridiculous wealth and success with women. Call me crazy. Especially since those two men are extremely talented rappers capable of expressing so much more. It is unfortunate that Watch the Throne wasn’t an opportunity used to tackle bigger subjects than watches and cars. I loved the Kanye that rapped about personal struggles (I Wonder, Heard ‘Em Say, Blame Game, All Falls Down, Spaceship) or got political (Crack Music, Jesus Walks). But there were a few songs that spoke to more than “Ballin’ so hard”, namely Made in America, New Day, and Murder to Excellence. Murder to Excellence in my mind was the most successful.
JEREMY MESSERSMITH – TATOOINE
A love song based on the original Star Wars trilogy sounds like a horrible mistake. But this song’s connection to Star Wars happens to only be in one line – “Twin suns of Tatooine… taught me everything I know”. And that turns out to be completely acceptable. What you are left with is a simple strumming guitar and piano loop that make for an enjoyable and charming love song.
THE WEEKND – HOUSE OF BALLOONS/GLASS TABLE G
I’ve never liked male R&B. It is a genre I simply can’t relate to. It can be lumped together with country music for me most of the time. It has nothing to do with the music, I often really enjoy the beats that accompany the vocals. And I am not referring to the Marvin Gaye era, I am talking about guys like The Dream, Dru Hill, and Color Me Bad. These guys sing things that should really only be rapped or spoken. There is something about a man singing “Imma fuck you good” that just makes me feel awkward and then start laughing. But The Weeknd at times finds the right addition of darkness, and speaks about the right topics to make for a cringe-free listen. The best of the best is House of Balloons – Glass Table G, a sing-along song that talks about drug use and destruction of the family… not your average Color Me Bad theme.
THE STROKES – UNDER THE COVER OF DARKNESS
On Angles, Julian Casablancas let go of artistic control and let his band mates have creative freedom. Well… it was a good idea and all, but made for a disappointing album. Maybe Is This It and Room On Fire set our expectations too high, and didn’t allow for a flexibility of sound, but I found myself craving that style again while listening to the new album. Under the Cover of Darkness brings that nostalgia back. It is a tight, catchy, fun tune that allows for easy sing along. And in my opinion Julian has become a better singer who has pushed beyond his limited range, and that adds strength to the excellent instrumental.
EMA – THE GREY SHIP
I never got on the EMA bandwagon. The song California that attracted so much attention I found pretentious and not genuine. But the haunting The Grey Ship works perfectly. Her echoing voice and toned down guitar strumming remind me of the darker Modest Mouse songs (or maybe it is just the ship reference). But it is at the three minute mark that the song really shines, as it turns into a repetitive, fist pumping chant. Guitars, strings and drums build to a peak reminiscent of Parting of the Sensory.
DEVOTCHKA – ALL THE SAND IN ALL THE SEA
Like the majority of DeVotchKa fans out there, I started listening to them after the classic song How It Ends, which grew so popular it ended up in a video game commercial and the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. Fair enough, for a fairly unheard of band like DeVotchKa all press is good press. But now I have another DeVotchKa song to fall in love with, and I haven’t heard it in any commercials yet. All the Sand in All the Sea starts with a hurried keyboard and a hurried strumming acoustic guitar, and then Nick Urata’s unmistakable expansive voice enters, and right away you like it. This is smart and exciting “acoustic” music.
BJORK – CRYSTALLINE
Bjork is hit and miss with me. I feel she too often sacrifices direct melody for experimentalism. That is why my favourite album of hers is also the least progressive – Vespertine. With her new album Biophilia she has the same pit falls, where her songs have been stripped of accessible melody or structure. There are a couple of exceptions, namely Mutual Core and Crystalline. Crystalline sounds appropriately named, with its sharp keyboard sounds. It is also a very good song. For me, it is all in how Bjork embraces her beautiful voice in the chorus with the melodic “Internal Nebulaaa-ah-ah-ah”.
BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – YOUR EYES
If you haven’t heard the awesome Always Like This you may not know about Bombay Bicycle Club. First of all, if you haven’t heard Always Like This, get it, it rocks. But it is 2011, so I should talk about Your Eyes. This is an exciting fast pace pop song. A catchy guitar riff and marching drum beat move it along nice and quickly, and there is an excellent amount of build. It reminds me of a longer version of some of the more fun Shins songs, but with the addition of Jack Steadman’s trembling voice. Give it a spin.
FOSTER THE PEOPLE – HELENA BEAT
Yes, they are radio friendly. Yes, they are all-age accessible pop. Yes, they kinda look like hipster douche bags. But these guys aren’t Black Eyed Peas so much as they are MGMT. They make well structured, well played, accessible electronic pop songs that are undeniably catchy and fun. So far my favourite has been Helena Beat, with its heavily processed guitar riff and synth background. But it is that chorus that hooks you in nicely “I tie my hands up to a chair so I don’t fall that way”. Pure pop candy.
I BREAK HORSES – WINTER BEATS
From radio heroes, to the obscure indie band. I Break Horses don’t get much of a wikipedia page. And I couldn’t even find a picture with both members in it (missing is Fredrik Balck). I have only heard one song from this Swedish electro-shoegaze band, and that is Winter Beats. It is an excellent song, with its looping keyboard that drags you in. With shoe gaze or synth pop you run the risk of making formless mush, but Winter Beats has great structure and good melody. Add that to Linden’s hypnotizing vocals and a mad drumming climax, and it makes for a winner.
WU LYF – WE BROS
I am a huge fan of Wolf Parade’s Apologies to The Queen Mary, I’ll Believe in Anything is one of the best songs out there. There is something about WU LYF that embraces the feeling of Wolf Parade, maybe it’s the lo-fi rock music mixed with howling vocals. With We Bros, they mix some marching drums and group chants into that lo-fi rock, with great results. This a song to listen to very loud when you want to let loose. And in 2011, a year where good rock songs were few and far between, it is a welcomed sound.
PHANTOGRAM – DON’T MOVE
This synth/electro pop duo out of Saratoga Springs are made up of the very regular looking Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel. They look like your average couple strolling through the mall with a Starbucks. But this mild mannered Crystal Castles-esque him and her combo of musicians make some funky ass music. Some times more trip hop than synth, they mix Sarah’s smooth vocals with cool cut up samples. Don’t Move is my favourite song I have heard from them so far. It is so rich in great little details, but it also washes over your ears nicely, and you can dance to it! It’s a win win win.
COLDPLAY – MAJOR MINUS
I have never really agreed with anyone else’s opinion on Coldplay. Some people hate everything they do, some people love everything they do, Pitchfork thought they used to suck but are getting better, and I don’t side with any of them. In my opinion Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head are two of the most brilliant albums of the 2000s. And in my opinion, X&Y, Viva La Vida, and Mylo Xyloto were borderline wack. I honestly think it is because Chris Martin is simply TOO happy. The cheese ball saccharine injected sing along songs feel contrived and not genuine enough for me. Chris’s falsetto married much better with sad lullabies (Don’t Panic, Trouble, Amsterdam) and Beatles-esque experimentalism (Politik, A Whisper, Daylight). Coldplay was cool, and sometimes (believe it or not) dark and edgy. They were exciting to listen to. Major Minus brings me back to that place – Coldplay the band.
DUM DUM GIRLS – THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT
I was first introduced to this all-girl band with the song Jail-La-La. It was lo-fi good times. So when I heard they did a remake of everyone’s favourite The Smith’s song There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, I had to check it out. It doesn’t disappoint, distorted electric guitar and heavy drum add a kick of new age nocturnal excitement. That sound they achieve on the guitar solo is just perfect. It may be a remake, but it is still one of the best songs released this year.
TV ON THE RADIO – SECOND SONG
I wanted to end on a high note. Alongside Bizness, Second Song was my personal favourite this year. Like Bizness, it is inescapably fun and catchy (especially the ooh ooh oohs). With Dear Science they proved they could make accessible pop songs, and although the rest of Nine Types of Light really doesn’t follow its lead, Second Song continues down Dear Science’s path. And when TVOTR creates more structured songs with more accessible melodies, they always hit it out of the park.