Top 50 Songs of 2011 :: 5-2 [The city is my church]

 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 5 to 2.

5. Bon Iver - "Calgary"

Justin Vernon risked being punchline after his debut LP, For Emma Forever Ago. He gifted the listener a close-up view to a heartbreak which, in its very title, rang as chronological as it was intensely destructive. There was brutality in it to be sure, a type of riveting, car accident pathos from which the listener could neither turn from nor away. The question was not whether Vernon could rhapsodize his own pain, but could he do anything else? Bon Iver returned with a self-titled record with a markedly different directionality. "Calgary" was the first promotional release, a melting melody that showed Vernon as no less broken in 2011, though his sound had evolved in time with his lyrics. The bridge showed an assault of a different kind, all of Vernon's internal disasters, ones his listeners watched with such brutal voyeurism, turned finally democratic. We weren't watching him self-immolate anymore, we we were with him. The lyrics regarded a storm on a lake, and Vernon artfully placed us beside him, a tiny wail, "little waves our bodies break", the most evocative and fractured lyric of 2011. These inland bodies of water contained a certain mandate, he suggested, even their tiniest, lapping waves holding equally the power to break and be broken. These human dramas, small and local though they are, hold the same authority, not just to break Justin Vernon in public, but to destroy us all together. As Vernon closed, "the demons come, they can't subside", it was more than just the author who would be haunted.

4. Phantogram - "Don't Move"

It wasn't hard to feel existentially lost in 2011. It was so easy to know what something wasn't, but so much harder to know what anything was. Deconstructionism and semiotics had formally finished what sarcasm and irony had always known: No one had any idea what was good or bad anymore. Phantogram reflected on this dichotomy, finally waxing the brilliant denouement, "this is starting to fuck with my head." While, "Don't Move" never drew itself as a cultural commentary, it certainly was built to reflect this bizarre polarity with its chorus of, "All I know how to do is shake, shake/keep your body still, keep your body still." It was the dance track that told you to "stay the fuck still" (my words); it was the horn punch that dared you to move from your seat. You certainly flinched. All this came from a narrator that told you she wasn't your "your nervous feeling" or "your drinking partner" or "your paranoia" or even "your fortune teller". She wasn't anything to you, she insisted. And yet, "Don't Move" was everything in 2011. Richly contradictory, "Don't Move" told you to do one thing while making you do another. You loved it with that knowledge that this type of affection was flawed. It was organically and aesthetically delicious while acknowledging, of course you would feel that way. It was the most self-aware pop song of the year, but, then again, you knew I would say that, didn't you?

3. Tune-Yards - "Bizness"

In a world of lowest common denominators where the unofficial manta can suitably be, "Always new depths", it is hard to make pop that tumbles downward but elevates all the same. Merrill Garbus and her fantastic project Tune-Yards did exactly this on "Bizness", the best song from one of the year's best releases, w h o k i l l. Easily reaking new ground, Garbus looped her stunning voice once, twice, three times and four as the backing of "Bizness". Behind break-beat drums, Garbus' signature vocal sang out like an alarm, so full of pain, so confessional ("please, at least answer me this"), so unequivocal. In places she was fragile, begging for her life and claiming victim-hood, but even these states of being soared into new echelons against a rising arrangement of horns and tumbling loops. Each movement unveiled a new layer, and each obbligato fell down the scale like it had become unhinged from the top part of the staff. "Bizness" never felt weak or wilting. Quite the contrary, Garbus closed the song's final movement screaming into her own cacophony, a brave vocal fighting against arrangement risen around her like all these terrible, beautiful crashing waves. If the parts perpetually fell around her, "Bizness" was equally, relentlessly pointed up.

2. M83 - "Midnight City"

You realized right away that it was about nothing. M83's "Midnight City" did not have a grandiose second meaning, a rich subtext, an activist stance to be uncovered. The lyrics were as muffled as they were effectively meaningless. It was pure aesthetics. The picture it painted remained rich, dark and titillating, as the very title suggested. Wailing away on a dopamine synth hook, the most singular and memorable sound of 2011, M83 etched a series of visual metaphors that took the listener on a high-speed night drive through hyper-modernity.  Further even, "Midnight City" did more than seemingly emerge from some screaming neon downtown scene, it created that place. If it was about nothing, it was also from nowhere you recognized. The stylistic references of the 1980s were so solidly updated, futurized even, that strands of DNA proved labyrinthine. Picturing "Midnight City" was somehow easy, but describing it to anyone else was the rub. It was everywhere and nowhere. It sounded like a lot of things you had heard before and, again, like nothing else. And this was the success of "Midnight City", a profound dislocation in the context of the familiar. As M83 mastermind, Anthony Gonzalez rode his own hook into the late night hours, he took the listener with him, a blurry architectural tour of a place you'd never been. The lyrics and the meaning proved unimportant, the song's center successfully hollowed out to allow us inside, the purpose to be absorbed by simple osmosis, a thing you could feel coming through your skin.

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