Top 50 Songs of 2011 :: 20-11 [You could be my luck]

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 20-11.

20. Kyla La Grange - "Walk Through Walls"

In a hospital waiting room last January I opened an email from the publicist of a heretofore unknown British singer, Kyla La Grange. It was singer-songwriter stuff, I thought. In short, this would be instantly detestable. And then, like the great Eli Cash suggested, what if it wasn't? What if a tiny blonde girl with a guitar wrote the single biggest chorus of 2011?  "Walk Through Walls" was built for the sky, winking influences to Kate Bush (see: "It's the year of Kate Bush" joke, on going, 2005-present) and so full of life that it could not be ignored. "Walk Through Walls" suggested an ability to transmute physical spaces which was exactly what the waifish La Grange did in 2011. But she didn't just walk through these barriers, she began by destroying all of them.

19. Capital Cities - "Safe and Sound"

No one had more fun in 2011 than Capital Cities and their horn-heavy, electro-single, "Safe and Sound". It was a slam the first time you heard it, instantly singable, ebullient and entirely sunny. But this was back in June, before M83 would use a huge sax in their biggest song, before the Rapture would do the same on their promotional single. If it was going to be the Year of Unironic Use of Brass/Woodwinds In Pop, Capital Cities had the jump on everyone.

18. St. Lucia - "All Eyes On You"

St. Lucia is going to absolutely kill you in 2012 with a debut EP due out just after the first of the year. In 2011 the tropical single "All Eyes On You", a song that could easily slip into a Tom Cruise montage from the first half of Cocktail, came burning out of speakers and headphones with an aural portrait of something equatorial (even the band name notwithstanding). "All Eyes On You" was built on a series of lazy bass pick-ups, enough synth and keys to bankrupt your local Guitar Center and a hook so breathless and modular it fit into your heart and mind like a lost puzzle piece. Though the visual metaphors were all Caribbean, you were only taking a vacation from the rest of the synth-bands you thought you liked before you heard this.

17. BIGKids - "Drum In Your Chest"


I will confess I know next to nothing about BIGKids other than they send great personal emails and their single, "Drum In Your Chest" got more plays in a week than half the other music I listened to this year. The song was so damn simple, three or four lyrical couplets and a driving and metronomic chorus. The lyrics address our certainty that our breathing is controlled unconsciously, suggesting the sublime, "Will you remember to take another breath/when your heart's beating like a drum in your chest?" You chuckle. Of course, you would remember to breathe. Goofy, you think. But this is before the four-minute-twenty-second sprint that is "Drum In Your Chest", a single strong enough to make you reconsider basic bodily physics. Thus the stakes are set: you might not necessarily survive this. The band, I presume, welcomes this, a single built to dance to, a single built to kill.

16. Beirut - "East Harlem"


"East Harlem" is a swimming trip through Beirut's Zach Condon's magically real universe on the Upper (and he means higher than you're used to) East Side. It was a much more credible take on Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" narrative. Here, he is a downtown boy, but that doesn't mean what you think either, and Uptown has been retrofitted to be Spanish Harlem. The moment to watch in "East Harlem" is the arrangement shift at the 2:10 mark, a swinging engagement full of horns and the ever-present, foundational piano progression. Condon looses himself on a series of couplets that begin with, "the sound", suggesting it is tone alone that can save us. Sound. It is your breath at the door, he says. It is what will bring him home. Sound, he presumes, still has power, and in the second movement of "East Harlem", Condon presumes absolutely correct.

15. We Are Augustines - "Chapel Song"


Like Pela,before it, We Are Augustines do their best work introducing a lyric and then repeating it with increasing degrees of insistence. On "Chapel Song", the best song off their great 2011 LP, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, the band channels its origins as the aforementioned Pela, a group who once made a mountain out of saying, "Yeah, there's an undertow, but it ain't got me" twice in a row. This go round, We Are Augustines exploded "Chapel Song" into a repeated voice-quivering pathos around images like "shaking like a leaf" and "lying through my teeth". You have to say it twice, at least, and louder the second, to make it all work. The final edict, more recently appropriated by a company selling outerwear on television, "tear up the photograph/'cause its a bright blue sky" repeats no less than five times, each more meaningful than the last. We assume you'll need to listen to this at least as many times.

14. Dreamers of the Ghetto - "Tether"

The inevitable march of the drums in Dreamers of the Ghetto's seminal album closer "Tether" feels almost fatalist. The song directs itself less six-feet-under and more miles high. The resignation of the central lyric, "it's just another door/tether on the other side" belies the vitriol and energy in the vocals and arrangement. The edge appears at the song's midpoint where those marching drums attach with an abrasive down-stroke guitar chord. The synthesizers wash over the song's architecture at the 4.40 mark, maybe the single finest and biggest moment in music in 2011. It is spacious and grandiose as the band wails to the finish line, but neither of these qualities feel a bit out of place or even dishonest. In the end you were supposed to arrive here anyways.

13. Cults - "You Know What I Mean"

Cults asked listeners if "You Know What I Mean" in 2011 and they found mostly people did. Using conversational platitudes as song titles isn't new, but the Cults version connected to a bombastic and effusive single. Sure, the melody was cribbed from the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and, yes, they were one of those bands that went from a few blog posts to a Columbia Record deal in no time flat, but what made "You Know What I Mean" great had nothing to do with hype or criticism. The swinging snaps and wailing vocals would appear nowhere else. It was fragile and reactionary in the same breath, brittle and resolute. It was, ultimately, something intensely familiar.

12. Fucked Up - "The Other Shoe"

As a sense of foreboding seized our collective consciousness, Damien Abraham and Fucked Up cut through the fuzz and penned a song about "The Other Shoe" where the main lyric was, "We're dying on the inside". It was still hardcore, the band hadn't changed drastically since the seminal Chemistry of Modern Life broke them from relative obscurity in 2008. This, "The Other Shoe" was their thesis statement for their punk opera LP, David Comes To Life, a song that mixed big arena drums, delicate female vocals, screaming choruses and huge soaring guitars. In short, no one went more for broke than Fucked Up in 2011, making a great record about a fictional lightbulb factory (you can't make this up) and absolutely slaying on "The Other Shoe". The key part of, "We're dying on the inside" was that Abraham didn't make it a terminal diagnosis; they were marching orders and a call to arms.

11. Dry The River - "New Ceremony"

From the same East London folk scene that birthed Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling came Dry The River and their surging single, "New Ceremony". It was acoustically rooted, to be sure, but the song found its sea legs at the 1.30 mark when the pre-chorus spun, seemingly, out of nowhere with elevating strings and a vicious hook. This was only portentous of the chorus itself, a top of the room melody built to break most vocalists, a refrain that dumped its personal effects on the table, turned its pockets out and said, "This is all I've got." This was the sort of song that rhymed "prison kiss" with "dying wish" without batting an eyelash. There was something to be said for this brand emotivism in 2011 with no critical voice necessary.

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