Top 50 Songs of 2011 :: 10-6 [We all got old at breakneck speed]
Welcome to our annual countdown of the 50 best songs of the calendar year. Songs must be from an EP, LP or demo released during 2011, no band may appear twice. Each post title contains a lyric from one of the ten songs to follow, a hint and a hook that stuck out clearly in this group. Today, we count down 10-6.
10. Florence and the Machine - "Shake It Out"
Florence Welch went for broke in 2011, and by this I mean she was as willing to use cliche, simile and bad metaphor as I was in the first clause of this sentence. On "Shake It Out", her bombastic and soaring single, she featured turns of phrase like, "regrets collect like old friends", "pound of flesh", "it's always darkest before the dawn", "dragging that horse around", "damned if I do and damned if I don't", "shot in the dark" and, again, "it's always darkest before the dawn". The song was a veritable Mad Libs of familiar figures of speech; it almost read like an athlete's press conference. But, it was specifically Welch's ability to traffic in such common tropes, updating them with her stunning vocals and top-of-the-room melodies, that made her so instantly relational on her second album. Some 27 months ago she was a bizarre woodland sprite playing the Bowery Ballroom, but in 2011, Florence blew away the concept of a sophomore slump with a common touch. If it was her mild weirdness, a Kate Bushness, a nearly garish individualism, that initially attracted label executives, it was her ability to speak to everyone in applicable generalities that made "Shake It Out" and Ceremonials so brilliant. Always fiercely internal, Florence previously kept the world away with a once-in-a-generation voice and by being almost religiously different. In 2011 she spoke to all of us at once, keeping us out by letting everyone in.
9. The Strokes - "Under Cover Of Darkness"
Angles was the album The Strokes had to make, and it sounded like it. Far from being a traditional "comeback" record, whole portions of the album felt workman-like, as if the very weight of the five album deal from RCA hung over every note. This wasn't exactly the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Casablancas checked out of the studio, or maybe the band turned on him; it didn't necessarily matter. Like a punch-drunk prize fighter, The Strokes got it together, not for an album, but for a song. "Under Cover Of Darkness" possessed an uncommon urgency in its opening angular riffs and its half pleading, half promising pre-chorus lyric, "I'll wait for you", a hook that most bands would take as the refrain to their first radio single. The Strokes, finding some of their old magic, pushed the "Good Enough" to be "Great", and the chorus itself was an explosion of ratatat drums and Casablancas' only passionate moment on the record as he bid goodbye to his "adversary and friend". The psychology was rich. Was this the band's goodbye to itself? Was it an admission of how hard Angles was to make? This doesn't even address the lyric about "everybody singing the same song for 10 years." Just how burdened the band was with an acute self-awareness, we'll never know. It was a tired album after a five year layoff, a strange contradiction, but for "Under Cover Of Darkness" it didn't matter. It was the song they had to have and did.
8. The Smith Westerns - "All Die Young"
Seeing The Smith Westerns at Pitchfork two summers ago would never have lead anyone to believe the band was capable of the awesome, funeral pop of "All Die Young". They were young and entirely unimpressive then. By 2011 their status as distinctly "youthful" remained unchanged though the qualitative distinctions about their sound had shifted. "All Die Young" was a throwback single on a throwback record, the opening organ chords and wistful guitars calling some blurry nostalgia of the type that is so easily projected by the listener. It was a slow-dance, at least at first, a languid Box Step through the end of a lazy summer. But the arrangement altered for the final third, an upbeat syrupy sing-a-long rooted in the title lyric. It wasn't a recommendation that we, or they for that matter, die, but it was that kind of blissful fatalism that can only happen in your late teens and early twenties. In days of increasing weight and seriousness, it was a carefree melody and a sense that we would all be alive or dead together. Youthful sentiment mixing easily with an uncommon musical sophistication, the latter free from any trappings of age.
7. The Vaccines - "Wetsuit"
London's The Vaccines were one of those rare rock acts that created backlash before their debut LP ever arrived in stores. Perhaps a product of an increasingly reactionary and fast-moving music journalism climate, the Vaccines emerged from nowhere with "If You Wanna", a sketchy mediafire download sent in the fall of 2010, and were roundly criticized by that very winter. Still, the band's debut LP, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? was one of the best rock debuts in recent memory and certainly one of the best rock records of 2011. The final single from the record, "Wetsuit" was the destillation of all that made The Vaccines so relevant this year. Singer Justin Young warbled platitudes about youth, introduced for the first time as suggestions and later appropriated as louder, anthemic orders. The song finishes with fist-raising aplomb and lyrics about salvation and purity, the kind of patriarchal generalities that so many rock songs begin and end with. Of course, even reading this, if you are determined to hate The Vaccines there is little anyone can do about it. In all probability, you hate their path to the seven spot on this list, to their record deal, to their festival gigs, as much as you hate their music. You also hate their music. Your vengeance is swift, we get it. But, The Vaccines charmed us in 2011 because they seemed in on the joke. Yes, their rise was mercurial. Yes, their record possessed obvious influences. But, if you hated them, the backlash was their creation. They made you do it, like them or not.
6. The War On Drugs - "Come To The City"
It takes a special band and a special song to have you yelping along on the first listen. It was an aesthetic reaction, done without thought or consideration, a visceral slice of sensibilities you did not know or did not remember you had. Perhaps the War On Drugs had you at the menacing, rolling drums that begin "Come To The City", seeming to move and spread like a cloud bank rising in the distance. Maybe they had you when you thought, "Shit, this reminds me of a U2 song that I used to love." Or maybe it was just a hymn of urbanization that hooked you, like so many, to follow their directions and end up in the city. The arrangement built a wall of sound that allowed the lyrics and melody bounce off it, sing from the top of it, hide behind it. The thrashing guitars and relentless drums were the story as singer Adam Granduciel wailed and yelped lyrics about "rambling" and "moving", one of those American stories about trying to find home between where you're from, where you've been and where you might belong. It ended in series of unintelligible moans from behind the guitars, the final edict being the first one: You will find yourself in the city, young man. You knew it the first time you heard it because it was a sense you always had; move forward, move on. Go forth and go now.