Top 20 Tracks of 2011

It’s funny that in a year where we received a deluxe reissue of Nevermind, so few traditional rock bands truly mattered. Sixteen of 20 spots on this list belong to a solo artist, all of whom contributed to 2011’s varied and ambitious musical landscape (and one of whom sang about Solo cups).

20. Eddie Vedder – “Sleeping By Myself”

As much as I loved Pearl Jam in 1992, boy was it easy to make fun of Eddie Vedder’s hysterical mumbles. But this Ukulele Songs standout showcases a voice that’s aged well, embodying the sweet ache of unrequited love without a hint of histrionics.

19. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Love has been compared to pretty much everything in Mother Nature. But on “I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li manages to breathe life into another water metaphor. When she sings “You’re my river running high/Running deep, run wild,” over a murk of B3 organ and clanky synth toms, it’s the sound of someone trusting a potentially dangerous current, because to do so is to be alive.

18. Tech N9ne – “He’s A Mental Giant”

It was a year of wasted potential for Tech N9ne. All 6s and 7s had some highlights, but was overlong. His buzzsaw of a guest spot was wasted on Lil Wayne’s underwhelming Tha Carter IV. But this track’s rumbling swagger cut through the clutter as well as anything in 2011, positioning this brilliant, tongue-twisting MC as the brainiac superhero we need to protect us from whatever the Black Eyed Peas plan to do next.

17. Beyoncé – “1+1”

Few artists have captured feelings of dumbstruck yearning like Sam Cooke did with “Wonderful World.” Which makes this Cooke-inspired, octave-leaping gem of a ballad all the more impressive. Our problems might be bigger these days, but one math problem still trumps them all.

16. Tom Waits – “Get Lost”

Tom Waits is old enough to be a grandpa, but he steps into the shoes of a sexy young hood on “Get Lost,” tossing off exquisitely penned pleas for elopement with a trembling, psycho-Elvis warble. Toss in that filthy blues groove, and you’re reaching for the passenger door.

15. Nick Lowe – “Stoplight Roses”

This song nails that moment when you know you’ve fucked up a beautiful thing, and for good this time. Utilizing a killer metaphor for something that will never last, “Stoplight Roses” goes out to everyone who didn’t miss their water until the well ran dry.

14. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

It’s been a long time since we heard a single like this from the Beasties, a hooky slab of fuzzbox funk and freewheeling rhymes that’s just messy enough to be dangerous.

13. Bill Callahan – “America!”

On this stilted blues-folk epic, Bill Callahan shows love for his homeland by attempting to soothe its damaged psyche, with comedy and drama, self-loathing and bruised patriotism. When he bellows, “Everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention,” you best remove your hat, out of respect.

12. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

This is the perfect title for a Coldplay song. A phrase so brazenly gag-inducing, you end up respecting the sensitive-guy cojones required to actually use it. Then there’s the insistent kick drum, that beautiful Jonny Buckland guitar hook, and lyrics about the power of music to transport. Sure, you might’ve just puked, but wouldn’t you know it, you feel better.

11. Dominique Young Unique – “Gangster Whips”

Few rappers these days have the energy of this 19-year-old Tampa MC, who makes it indubitably clear that she’s the shit, and that those who disagree can go take one. On “Gangster Whips,” DYU gets all thug romantic over a tremendous, orchestra-hit-heavy beat – sorry T.I., but this is swagger at its best.

10. Heidecker & Wood – “Christmas Suite”

Nothing laid to tape in 2011 was funnier than Starting From Nowhere, the subtly ridiculous yacht-rock album from Adult Swim vets Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood. And “Christmas Suite” is Nowhere’s coup de grace – eight minutes of proselytizing about the importance of “the children.”

9. Brad Paisley – “Toothbrush”

The sweetest love song of the year might’ve looked like a reach on paper (as well as an ad for Reach). But this romance-via-dental-hygiene country shuffle is irresistible, thanks to Brad Paisley’s economy with words, those bouncy guitar licks, and a twist in the third verse that’ll get your waterworks flowing.

8. Beyonce – “Countdown”

This is a jam that grabs you by the ears and doesn’t let go. Beyoncé sings her guts out about her hubby (whom she grinds up on whilst in his boo coupe) and their baby to come, making for a cut that’s simultaneously wholesome and narcotic, 3-2-1 Contact chorus and all.

7. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”

If you’ve ever loved someone to a borderline sociopathic level, this hazy folk masterpiece is your soundtrack. “I get sick of just about everyone,” Kurt Vile admits, positioning the warmth of his love’s embrace as not only a comfort, but a refuge.

6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Otis”

The “golden age” of rap music ended around the same time sampling laws started to be enforced. And this exhilarating single would have us believe that’s no coincidence. Over a brilliant interpolation of “Try A Little Tenderness,” Jay and ‘Ye have the time of their lives.

5. Toby Keith – “Red Solo Cup”

We all know Toby Keith the jingoistic rabble-rouser, but he’s actually more of a goofball Parrothead. And “Red Solo Cup” is more clever by half than anything Jimmy Buffett ever did. An ode to everyone’s favorite keg party drinking vessel, this back porch singalong is catchy, unpretentious, and – when Keith confesses that the cup is his friend – downright hilarious.

4. Nas – “Nasty”

The knock against Nas is that he’s inconsistent. But damn, do his flashes of brilliance burn bright. “Nasty” has no chorus, no guests, and no mainstream ambitions. It’s just Nas, spitting three glorious, amphetamine verses over a skeletal breakbeat. When he lists the places he’s stashed his cash, it’s clear he’s worth every penny.

3. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock 1950s sound effect that’s appeared in countless Hollywood battle scenes, from Star Wars to Captain America. And it’s an ingenious title for James Blake’s icy cover of his father’s song “Where To Turn.” “All that I know is/I’m falling,” Blake sings, describing those moments when we feel like stunt men – silent, non-descript, and floating in space.

2. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

It was no contest – this was the song of summer 2011. With masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around, soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”), the louder you crank “Super Bass,” the more your worries fade.

1. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

“You had my heart inside of your hand/And you played it to the beat,” lamented 2011’s biggest rock star. It’s a great line, but what made “Rolling In The Deep” such a triumph was its organic groove – that thumping bass drum pulse belying all those lyrics about betrayal, making us stronger with every downbeat.

What’s In My Discman, April 2011

Heidecker & Wood – Starting From Nowhere (2011)

Subtlety is pretty non-existent in Tim Heidecker’s most well-known work, the wee-hour bong-hit variety show supreme, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! So when fans take Heidecker & Wood’s debut album for a spin (the other half of the duo is Tom Goes to the Mayor and Awesome Show music director Davin Wood), its relatively serious yacht rock underpinnings will come off as shockingly soft. But once the surprise wears off, Starting From Nowhere reveals itself as both a meticulously crafted homage to ’70s sensitive guy music and a calmly ridiculous bit of comedy. Take “Cross Country Skiing,” which opens the album. There aren’t any notable one-liners on the lyric sheet, but it’s an earnest folk song about a patently unexciting white person sport, and that’s funny. H&W employ the same quality melody/silly lyric formula as Tenacious D or Flight of the Conchords, but the comedy band duo comparisons end there. Heidecker’s delivery is soft and genuine, enough off-key to tell you he’s more comedian than vocalist, but bereft of any “hey, I’m being funny” elocution. This record is stuffed with clutch examples of bad lyric writing (my favs at the moment: “What are the questions we ask when we’re asking questions?” and “A canyon and a man can live in peace”), but they’re rarely spotlit, making them easy to miss the first time around. And that’s just fine with these guys. After all, Wood’s arrangements and melodies are such accomplished homages to Chicago, Steely Dan, Air Supply and Crosby Stills & Nash, chances are you’ll be humming along before you’re laughing out loud.

Simon & Garfunkel – Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. (1964)

With Heidecker & Wood on the brain, I was inspired to revisit this album, undoubtedly the cheesiest, most uneven effort of Simon & Garfunkel’s rarely flawed partnership. (The inclusion of “Bleecker Street” on a season 4 episode of Mad Men also contributed to this unexpected urge.) Missing the literary folk boom by a couple years, the album tanked initially, going clang with an audience that was already following Dylan to bold new territory. And it would be understandable if anybody didn’t get past the first track, a cornball run-through of the hymn “You Can Tell the World” that’s exactly what Christopher Guest was making fun of with The New Main Street Singers. But the balance of the record holds up better than I remembered, from the endearing innocence of “Bleecker Street” to the harmonic showcases of “Benedictus” and “Peggy-O.” And, of course, the original, acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence,” whose elegance is evergreen. On the whole, Simon’s writing still needed a bit more polish, but it’s all too evident here that the duo already had wuss rock lightning in a bottle.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)

To round out what has become the softest Discman trilogy yet, it’s the second and arguably best effort from Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”). After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, the one-man phenomenon behind Eels made a record that was understandably cynical and sad. And while Electro-Shock Blues might’ve been an open vein lyrically (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), its music provided the balance necessary to make it a valuable document of the human condition. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads here, there’s the lurching Tom Waits rhythms and found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk Beck breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time E admits to finding a new appreciation for being alive on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World,” you’re not only far from depressed – you’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.