A year in review: The best songs of 2011

 
 

As we say goodbye to the year just past, Aoife Valentine and George Morahan take us through the songs that may or may not feature on Reeling in the Years: 2011

Bright Eyes – ‘Ladder Song’
‘Ladder Song’ is admittedly probably the most depressing track on Bright Eyes’ eighth album, The People’s Key, but in that, it has a haunting charm. Despite upping the tempo considerably on this record, this mournful piano ballad is a throwback to classic Bright Eyes angst, obvious even from the delicate opening lines: “No one knows where the ladder goes/You’re gonna lose what you love the most/You’re not alone in anything/You’re not unique in dying.” There is no pretence here, it’s just Conor Oberst, an old piano, and tear-inducing levels of intensity. Oddly enthralling.

Girls – ‘Vomit’
Christopher Owens is a lonely soul. Isolated early in youth by his cult upbringing and now in adulthood by his innocence, ‘Vomit’ finds him begging and calling out for love and affection and luckily he gets a heartfelt response. What starts out simply with a sombre Owens and his guitar becomes truly epic when the gospel choirs and squalling feedback enter and you can audibly feel the warmth take over, assuring Owens that everything is okay. Simply joyous.

Lana Del Rey – ‘Video Games’
Despite all the talk of backlashes, nose jobs and ‘boring Gagas’, there was a crystallising moment when Lana Del Rey seemed like the greatest thing ever. It was upon first hearing the opening bars of ‘Video Games’, with its flecks of harp, metronomic piano, distracting amounts of background chatter and then the arrival of that voice. Defiantly limited, but debilitating in its flawed simplicity. It came out of nowhere in all of its affected, smoky glory, knocking the blogosphere sideways. Six months later and we await the former Lizzy Grant’s debut album to drop – hopeful, but knowing full well it could never top her opening salvo.

Rihanna – ‘We Found Love’
The once effervescent, happy-go-lucky Rihanna is now truly dead and buried and her phases as dark and damaged, and coquettish and sex-obsessed have now given way. It would seem that the ‘junkie slut’ image is what’s hot now, but in a good way. The words “featuring Calvin Harris” shouldn’t make sense on a Rihanna track, but it works. It’s an extremely rave-happy number, with trance-y keyboards and euphoric synths that ensure it will stay stuck in your head forever more.

Bon Iver – ‘Holocene’
Choosing a favourite track from Bon Iver, Bon Iver is what we imagine it’s like choosing your favourite child. You may say you don’t have one, but if push came to shove, you could probably choose, and that track would be ‘Holocene’. From Justin Vernon’s pitch perfect falsetto to the gentle, delicate guitar and calming layering, it is both slightly haunting and simply serene. Though it is probably the smallest step away from For Emma, Forever Ago of all the tracks on the album, it still marks a deeper, less hushed transformation which feels distinctly more mature than his debut. We may hear him softly declare “I am not magnificent,” but we whole-heartedly disagree.

Adele – ‘Someone Like You’
The night Adele performed this monumental ballad at the Brit Awards, the world changed. With one glittering performance, Ms. Adkins rose above the Duffys and Katie Meluas of the world and to the top of the A-List. The delicate oscillation of a lone piano is the only consolation for poor Adele as she revels in stagnation and nostalgia – there’s defiance and some attempt at putting on a brave face, but when all is said and done, Adele will still be searching for someone just like him. In that instant, Adele had the public on her side, all willing to put an arm around her, eat Häagen-Dazs and bitch about the ones who got away.

PJ Harvey – ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’
The reputation that now precedes Let England Shake is off-puttingly earnest – veteran singer-songwriter reaches creative peak while exploring the emptiness of war – and when hearing about it one could sensibly assume it’s a record to be admired rather than truly loved. However, PJ Harvey’s eighth album is home to plenty of proper tunes, not least of which is ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’. It’s a song that skips along; built on brass, handclaps and righteous drones lambasting the futility of conflict, culminating in the song’s brilliant climax – “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” so it goes, Harvey’s tongue dripping with sarcasm, a defining statement in a year dominated by protest.

Jay Z & Kanye West – ‘Murder to Excellence’
‘Murder to Excellence’ is a song almost split in two; it slips from West demanding we “stop and redefine black power” amid comparing casualties from the Iraq war to the casualties of black-on-black homicide in Chicago, before Jay-Z chimes in to celebrate ‘black excellence’, but the aroma of success never quite beats out the sense of inequality that is most obvious when Jay-Z raps “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go.” They’re not angry and in that, its cleverness and charisma shine, with the lyrics, sped-up-vocal-sample production, and the backing children’s choir only underlining the point. This is social commentary, but their way.

Katy B (featuring Ms Dynamite) – ‘Lights On’
2011 was the year dubstep – whatever that is – crossed over. Whether it was the po-faced experimentation of James Blake or the pneumatic drill-aping ear-rape of Skrillex, dubstep’s many diluted incarnations found some solace in the charts, but Katy B had a knack for getting people on the dance floor that you couldn’t help but applaud. Along with a freshly in-from-the-cold Ms. Dynamite and a bubbling beat that defined irresistible, ‘Lights On’ proved to be a call-to-arms for clubbers everywhere, while gleefully uniting the mainstream and underground in the process.

St Vincent – ‘Cruel’
Beginning with strings you would expect to find in the introduction to a forties movie, it’s something of a surprising turn when ‘Cruel’ quickly shifts to a disco beat, and comes complete with brilliantly terrible distorted, broken guitars. It’s effortlessly cheerful, and guaranteed to have you smiling, despite the implications that there’s something much darker underneath. Whatever though, it’ll still make you happy for no reason.

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