In 1959, a popular artist named Bobby "Blue" Bland released a song called I'll Take Care of You. What does this have to do with the Top 40-Ready Drake and Rihanna track that's blowing up the airwaves lately? Well, I'm glad you asked. Bland's song has been covered by a number of artists over the years, ranging from Elvis Costello to Etta James, and on his final album before passing early last year, Gil Scott-Heron gave it a shot as well. His cover, along with the rest of the album, was given the remix treatment by Jamie XX, the Rising-Star Producer and member of The XX. Finally, under a year later, Drake adopted the song, offering the bulk of Scott-Heron's lyrics to Rihanna while adding his own segments, lifting Jamie XX's beat, wholesale.
Pumped up Kicks---Foster the People, and Rolling in the Deep---Adele
I might be kind of a snob about mainstream music sometimes, but denying either of these songs is just kind of futile. Both exploded in 2011, and that's because they both prompt such undeniable Gut-Reactions, which is what all of the very best pop music does. Pumped Up Kicks came out of nowhere, the first single from the first album of a band that became a household name in well under a year. On this evidence, it's not hard to see why. PUK rides a bass that bounces so convincingly, you'd have to be strapped down not to move to it. Then there's that chorus, as catchy as anything yet made by man, occupied by provocatively dark lyrics that you don't even notice until about the seventh listen.
was, there's no arguing against Rolling in the Deep as the biggest hit of last year. The opening lines, "There's a fire/Starting in my heart," is as much a warning as anything, leading into stomping drums, piano chords, and, of course, Adele absolutely wailing. It's the perfect Spurned-Lover song: You can feel the hurt, but there's no way in hell that she's going to let that hurt break her (I Will Survive for a new generation, anyone?). The track that she sings in front of her matches her all the way, surrounding her with a perfect backing chorus, building tension with every passing second. I know half of the world hates these songs by now, but it's only because the other half of the world (along with some of the former group) just loved them too much. Both songs were Break-Throughs, both for their respective artists and respective genres (who else on Top 40 sounds like these two?), and the very Over-Playing that makes them a little hard to listen to now is all the evidence needed for why they rank as two of the year's best.
Art of Almost---Wilco
Part of what's so great about Art of Almost is wondering just where it came from. Following the release of 2004's A Ghost is Born, Wilco had released two albums, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), that showed them taking a turn towards the less experimental, and, in my opinion, less exciting. This year's The Whole Love is their best album since Ghost, but even it doesn't really have anything compatible with the Mad-House that is this song. As if turning back the clock, the band again reinvents what we've come to know of them, opening the song with a slew of effects and strings that sound like dark, heavy clouds. Jeff Tweedy's voice then joins in, backed by a sparse, strange track that soon fills up with deep, groovy bass line. Instruments get added in and replaced in this fashion for about half of the song's seven minutes, and then, after a transition of sorts, guitarist Nels Cline rips an into a monstrous guitar solo, because, why not? Art of Almost is a band flexing its muscles, proving to the doubters (like myself), that they still have the capacity to be one of the best bands on the planet. Here's to hoping for more insanity from Tweedy and company in the future, but even if this is just an offering from a distant past, its a gift, and it ought to be cherished (and Rocked-Out to) as such.
6 Foot 7 Foot---Lil Wayne ft. Cory Gunz, and Yonkers---Tyler, the Creator
Another tie, this time because I simply couldn't settle on one of these Out-Ranking the other for Hip-Hop song of the year. Sticking up for Lil Wayne, along with a lot of Top 40 rappers, can sometimes prove difficult, but this song needs no defense. The beat is simply enormous, bass thumps that reverberate in your eardrums, coated in a slew of samples, none of which feel wasted. What's even more amazing than the beat is that it's covered by a flow that actually deserves it. Lil Wayne's avalanche of disses and Self-Promotion is furious and boundless, spitting out lines like "You ni**as are gelatin/peanuts to an elephant/I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate," before just ripping into another, no chorus to get in the way. As if all this wasn't enough, 6 Foot 7 Foot closes with one of the most explosive guest verses of the year, courtesy of Hyper-Speed MC Cory Gunz. Hate on Lil Wayne all you want (and Tha Carter IV deserves a decent amount of it); this song is bullet proof.
As if Lil Wayne wasn't a divisive enough figure, he has to share the #5 slot with controversy magnet Tyler, the Creator. The Odd Future Hip-Hop collective to which Tyler belongs was everywhere last year, causing stirs with racy lyrics and onstage stunts, but its hard to imagine them taking off the way they did without this song. Yonkers is a sinister track, chugging along on the intense, rattling sound that it calls a beat before adding keys and a wicked turntable. Tyler, only 19 years old at the time, is with the track every step of the way, relaying a sordid inner-monologue, challenging you with his split identities as a troubled youth, and a dangerous lunatic. The video, which is linked to above, hit like a bomb when it dropped, and still stands as the most memorable of 2011 in the brain of this scribe. It's not just because of its values, both artistic and shock, but also for the way that it puts Tyler's alluring, untrustworthy persona front and center, just like the scintillating song to which it's dedicated.I'm Losing Myself---Robin Pecknold ft. Ed Droste
There's no shortage of great tracks on Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, but my favorite 2011 offering from their frontman, Robin Pecknold, comes from somewhere else: The internet! Back in early March, Pecknold dropped a three song EP of sorts from his Twitter page (no, he does not, in fact, live in the Blue Ridge Mountains). This is the first track, an acoustic Blood-Letting with nothing more than two men, and a single guitar. Pecknold's voice, often set to glorious shouting, or disguised in Four-Part harmonies, opens front and center, singing in a sweet middle register. His words tell a beautiful, painful story of falling out of love, brokenly whispering lines like, "But we speak easy/And we seldom fight/And I chew on the bones of the day/While you sleep soft and warm in the night." Ed Droste, one half of the Two-Headed Grizzly Bear frontman, has a much different voice than any of Pecknold's FF buddies, and the way that they harmonize reveals previously undiscovered strengths in each of their croons, the two linked together in a misty, gorgeous pairing. It's a small song, but sorrowful radiance pours freely from it.
Don't Stop---The Dodos
The Dodos don't always have it going, but when they do, I'd wager that they're one of the more under-rated bands on the planet. Their 2008 LP, Visitor, is one of the most mercilessly overlooked albums of the last several years, The Season cheated out of a deserved slot on a zillion Best Songs of the Year lists. This is their very best piece since that record, and it's a doozy. Meric Long opens the tune with some breakneck guitar picking, neglecting to offer so much as a word until bandmate Logan Kroeber has joined in with his similarly nimble drumsticks. The innate sense of chemistry that the two share is Mind-Blowing, changing up times and rhythms as though they share the same brain, chugging along amid spirited chants of, "Don't Stop!/Don't let your Boss catch you." For an Outro, the band does the only thing that makes sense; They pick up the pace yet again, positively flying into the song's sudden conclusion. Don't Stop is a celebration of a song, set to Speed-Demon pace, by a band whose finest moments are among the finest out there.
I wasn't exactly sure what I thought of Calgary the first time I heard it, and I imagine that's how a lot of people felt. The Justin Vernon of For Emma, Forever Ago was still there, to be sure, but the sound world and atmospherics of what he was doing had changed significantly. Is that 80's-Style Synths-Keys that I heard opening up the song? Are those distorted electric guitars? Do these lyrics make any sense to you? It was a mystifying experience, and what's so amazing about Calgary is that it remains a mystifying experience today. The song has no detectable structure, moving from one section into the next in a way that most songs wouldn't dare, all before dissolving into the air as gracefully as it first came into existence. The words, as impossible to fully comprehend as they may be, are made of poetic allusions, and though we might not know what, "Don't you cherish me to sleep/Never keep your eyelids clipped/Hold me for the pops and clicks/I was only for the father's crib," means, when we hear it in action, we know how it feels. When this one ends, I always wonder where it went, evaporating in its final moments, some vague sense of it still lingering in the air.
And Hype Starts Here's #1 Song of 2011 is...
Like you didn't see this one coming... While I was writing my final entry in my Top Albums list, I left all ten of the albums I had singled out for the top tear unranked, writing my analysis before discovering what I really felt deserved it. Midnight City... No contest. This was my favorite song of the year hands down, and it has been since the second that I heard it. It's kind of disheartening to pick such a cliche track, the song ranked in the Top 20 of the year by Billboard (#19), Paste (#2), Spin (#12), and Pitchfork (#1), but there's a reason that no one can deny it, and that's because it's undeniable. The screeching, wailing opening, blooms effortlessly into pound upon pound of 80's Dance-Rock massiveness. Frontman Anthony Gonzalez fills the verses by painting city life as a psychedelic experience, proclaiming, "At night the city grows/Look and see her eyes, they glow," before getting out of the way so that gigantic chorus can ride again. M83 is throwing a big bash here, but its one that also carries a strange sense of purpose to it, the song's arresting sounds waking you up to the world around you. It's a track that knows just how amazing it is, and it doesn't mind rubbing it in your nose a little, piling on an epic Saxophone solo in its dying minutes, all in the name of one extra layer of utter hugeness. It steps right up to the plate, almost declaring itself Song of the Year before you've even asked. It's not wrong.
Hype Starts Here's Top 50 Albums of 2011:
Hype Starts Here's Top 100 Songs of 2011: