By Aaron Wallace
As is often true of a decade’s early years, 2011 was an off-year in entertainment. I guess the 2010s are still trying to figure themselves out. Of course, off isn’t always bad. Take Adele, for example… unexpected but oh so welcome. For other great offerings in music this year, let’s take a look at my picks for the 30 best songs of 2011… the best “singles,” actually (a term that becomes harder to define with each passing year).
Note: In the past, I’ve given objective measures like chart performance significant weight in determining this list. It occurred to me that criticizing the state of mainstream radio while also allowing it to influence my rankings made little sense. That said, I still want to recognize songs that manage to capture the culture all at once. Indeed, my #1 pick this year earned that place in part because of its power to utterly define 2011, musically speaking. So, charts still play a role, but musical strength matters more this year than ever.
30. “Weird Al” Yankovic – “Perform This Way”
It’s about time “Weird Al” took on the most ridiculous thing in pop culture: Lady Gaga. Amazing how the year’s most overblown song turns into something so delightful when the lyrics ridicule the underlying absurdity. While perhaps not Yankovic’s most insightful song, the lyrics are nevertheless insanely canny. The video is also one of the year’s (and the artist’s) best.
29. Arctic Monkeys – “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”
The best “don’t trust me” song since “Don’t Trust Me.” The James Bond-style surf riff lends the perfect intrigue to a song about duplicity.
28. Haley Reinhart – “Bennie and the Jets”
Like most in-season “American Idol” studio singles, the production is a tad cliché, but Reinhart’s sultry, powerhouse voice is at its most irresistible in this track. She glides over the big “Bennie”s in the chorus with sex and soul, making the Elton John classic her delicious own.
27. Foster the People – “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)”
A playful celebration of childhood do-what-I-want-itude. Or a diagnosis of new-generation adults’ do-what-I-want-itude. Either way, it’s super catchy.
26. Girls – “Vomit”
Radiohead meet Pink Floyd and… puke? Never fear, emetophobes… the song isn’t actually about vomit. No, it’s really all about an amazing buildup to an epic rock-and-roll choir.
25. Hugo – “99 Problems”
A complete reinvention of the Jay-Z song, Hugo’s new lyrics — and the video that accompanies them — paint a vivid mural of things that sound awful but are still apparently less problematic than a bitch. Who knew HOVA could work so well as country-blues-rock?
24. Cee Lo Green – “Bright Lights Bigger City”
Rebecca Black’s “Friday” got all the attention this year, but it was Cee Lo who delivered 2011′s best celebration of the weekend. Big on synth and string, the song is a grand earworm… a worthy (but less profane) follow-up to last year’s “F**k You.”
23. Glee Cast – “I Love New York / New York, New York”
The best “Glee” cuts improve on the originals or create an identity all their own. This one does both, at least with respect to Madonna’s original “I Love New York” (On the Town‘s “New York, New York” is nearly unrecognizable in this mashup, but in a good way). Electrified, layered, and contemporarily (and appropriately) urban, this is the rare “Glee” cover to dodge jukebox revue territory and instead play out like a radio hit of its own merit.
22. Panic! at the Disco, featuring fun. – “C’mon”
Can Panic! and fun. make a song together every year? And can they always be inspired by Alice in Wonderland? They don’t even always have to have a full symphony with marching band-style trumpeting, matrimonial chiming (apropos for a musical marriage like theirs), and an arms-in-the-air chorus like this one does… but, then again, can they please?
21. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”
Okay, so I don’t think anyone who’s heard a Chili Peppers song before will be surprised by the way “Rain Dance Maggie” sounds, but is anyone tired of their sound yet? Not me. Besides, these are some of their funniest lyrics… and there’s cowbell. We all need more cowbell.
20. The Decemberists – “Don’t Carry It All”
Dear Harmonica, we missed you. Sincerely, Where is Tom Petty Anyways? This beautifully harmonized, lively ballad takes the imagination to a bonfire on a crisp evening night… except the bridge. That’s in Italy.
19. Paul Simon – “Rewrite”
Simon’s soothing, acoustic storytelling is so earnest, especially in this wistful-yet-determined lament of a Vietnam vet revising the story of his life. Not since Carl Fredricksen has an old man’s psyche been so believably and touchingly expressed.
18. Steven Tyler – “(It) Feels So Good”
Without the rest of Aerosmith backing him, Tyler’s solo debut feels a little light. That said, when taken as pop rather than rock, it’s as fun as the singer himself, whose infectious personality won the world over on “American Idol” this year. The song’s called “(It) Feels So Good” and (it) really does. Outrageously hook-filled and accented with wordplay and some of Tyler’s best and most melodic screaming, the track is a pleasant taste of ear candy in the midst of today’s beat-heavy noise. We can all keep pretending Nicole Scherzinger isn’t singing in the background, right?
17. Manchester Orchestra – “Simple Math”
Lead singer and songwriter Andy Hull brings his signature brand of questioning to the subjects of religion, sex, and the former’s rules for the latter. As is often the case with his lyrics, the appeal is in his lack of agenda… he’s not making a point so much as just honestly trying to figure things out. While I doubt the band or many of their fans would call this “Christian music,” it has all the sincerity and lack of pretense that make for the most profound faith-based music. His voice is at its best here too. The music video is one of the best short films of the year.
16. Adele – “Set Fire to the Rain”
Adele set fire to the radio this year, sending Lady Gaga and her ilk up in flames with an onslaught of gorgeous compositions that made the heavyset English wailer 2011′s unlikely Queen of Pop. The lyrics are fiercely vivid, capturing both the devastation and fury of heartbreak. Those conflicting emotions are mirrored, respectively, by a ballet-worthy symphony on the one hand and heavy-struck piano with marching percussion on the other.
Stay tuned to aaronwallaceonline.com for more information on Aaron’s upcoming book about Walt Disney World… title and release date coming soon!