1. "Midnight City" by M83
Opening with a massive and enticing synth-drenched soundscape, from the very beginning “Midnight City” paints with broad strokes the colossal, magnificent fantasy of M83 frontman Anthony Gonzalez. Released in July, the song was the first single from the band’s latest work, an ambitious double-album entitled Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that triumphs due to its ability to sound monumental without ever veering too far into indulgence. The culmination of three-years of devoted and meticulous dedication, Gonzalez has described the album as the “soundtrack to an imaginary world in an imaginary movie,” a world equally outlandish and indistinctly familiar.
Standing out among a multitude of masterful and addictive tracks, “Midnight City” is a stunning ode to the imaginative forces of youth, interlacing an endless ascension of synthesizers and pounding drums behind Gonzalez’s soothing, expansive vocals. With sparse but effective lyrics, Gonzalez weaves a nostalgic story of teenage hopes and young love, shouting “the city is my church” with an empowered, stirring zeal. Throughout the song’s four minutes the energy never falters, somehow growing larger and more epic with every second until it finally culminates in a magnetic, minute-long saxophone solo. 2011 was a year filled with a wealth of innovative and captivating songs, but “Midnight City” prevails because it never ceases to inspire awe.
2. "Crystalline" by Bjork
Björk’s music is not on our planet; no one but she knows what corner of the universe these sounds call home. What is creepy is that she uses instruments we associate with more innocuous settings to realize her bizarre, extraterrestrial vision. Those happy xylophones that open “Crystalline” sound innocent enough — until they don’t stop. The song lulls you into a trance as she contemplates the rocks and crystals we consider lifeless. They are very much alive, brought here by random occurrences and forever changing like you and me. The mind-blowing drum and bass breakdown closing the song sneaks up on you and proves that life (LIFE!) may just have to exist in space.
3. "Someone Like You" by Adele
At this year’s Video Music Awards, soul songstress Adele appeared on the MTV stage for her performance of the single “Someone Like You.” Clad in a black dress and accompanied with only a microphone and a piano, Adele made her VMA debut with a performance that was so simple and beautiful; even she appeared to be moved to tears. Adele capped off her enormously successful year with this heartbreaking ballad, a strikingly respectful send-off to a former flame that also acts as a glimmer of hope for a brighter future. Adele may have been scorned by the painful breakup with the song’s subject, but the boom of her voice has so much conviction that it’s clear that she has risen above whatever brought her down before.
4. "Under Cover of Darkness" by The Strokes
For all its progressive lyrics and shirtless frontmen, rock has lacked, for some time, an air of class. The Strokes landed with slickness not derived from overdubs or synth solos; they resorted to well-worn tactics polished by gentlemen of the past, a band aware of their place in post-Y2K ironic America. Their audience rests on the coasts as privileged, educated youth, like you, Ivy League reader. When they tried to defy their roots like in the brash First Impressions, we noticed and demanded our postmodern buddies back. “Under Cover of Darkness” is that return. Those guitar squeals and that snazzy Nick Valensi solo nod their hat to the 70s CBGB scene, while Julian Casablancas shuffles over a chivalrous chorus: “So long, my friend and adversary.” Hear that? He’s talking about us.
5. "Yonkers" by Tyler the Creator
Odd Future kingpin Tyler the Creator is far from the first rapper to indulge in ridiculous pop culture references — it’s practically required of all internet-era rappers — but he might be the first to distort innocuous pastimes and characters (Reptar, Chia Pets and Adventure Time) into disconcerting threats. As promised by his opening salvo (“I’m a motherfucking paradox / No I’m not”), Tyler is at once fierce and vulnerable, threatening radio softies Bruno Mars and B.o.B after he becomes self-conscious about his mom thinking he’s gay. The twitchy beat and Tyler’s bizarrely graphic descriptions of violence might turn listeners off, but his flow is undeniable, his beat is unnerving and he believes he’s killing it. Which, of course, he does.
6. "Cruel" by St. Vincent
When we think of protest songs, two words come to mind: Bob Dylan. Strumming the crap out of the acoustic guitar strapped to his chest, Dylan’s last goal was to make his listeners bob their heads or tap their toes to songs. Annie Clark, who performs under the moniker St. Vincent, turns the concept of the protest song right on its head. Armed with her electric guitar and backed by disco synths and the boom of a kick drum, Clark ponders our “casually cruel” gender roles. She gets sassy on the opening line, asking the victims of such objectification, “Can’t you see what anybody wants from you?” It’s cheeky lines like this over a disco arrangement that make “Cruel” perhaps one of the most unforgettable songs of the year. Plus, that vicious guitar solo certainly lives up to the song’s title.
7. "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People
Naysayers dismiss it as a California-cool version of Peter, Bjorn and John whistling their way through a song about a school shooting, but “Pumped Up Kicks” hardly deserves such denigration. The song moves along with a breezy patience. The production is clear and crisp, allowing a sense of space that made it ripe for remixes and reinterpretations. The lyrics were vague enough (few knew that it was about a school shooting on their first listen) that it was adopted as something of a summer anthem. Kids were running around wearing kicks of some sort and some good-looking dudes were whistling behind it, sounding like MGMT covering Joy Division whilst on Quaaludes — who cares what it was about? It was a smash, and everyone, from your mom to pop radio, knew it.
8. "Gangsta" by tUnE-yArDs
Simply put, Merrill Garbus is a force of nature. As the songwriter, vocalist, percussionist, ukulele player and occasional choreographer of the band tUnE-yArDs, Garbus has created an unorthodox and deliciously inventive music hybrid that proves unable to be defined to a single genre. “Gangsta” aptly showcases the hectic yet carefully constructed blend of vocal loops, drums, bass and horns that often materializes through Garbus’ trained improvisation. Blessed with an astonishing voice, Garbus changes range with an unexpected quickness, benefitting from her ability to sound both feminine and, at times, gender ambiguous. “Gangsta” stands apart thanks to its menacing confidence and bombastic beat that won’t be leaving our heads anytime soon.
9. "Go Outside" by Cults
Retro pop combo Cults technically released this track as a single last year, but it’s stood the test of time. Madeline Follin’s girlish, cyclical vocals and the resounding bell sounds grant the entire piece a sense of light-heartedness, but the opening soundbite from cult leader Jim Jones unsettles you from the start. Such nefarious sampling exemplifies how intelligent Cults are in their arrangements. From the beginning, they manipulate their audience: creating a hazy, unsure atmosphere with an old-timey organ; pulling into a relaxed halftime feel for the bridge; and ending the song with a glockenspiel-only rendition of the primary melody. “Go Outside” is a tall glass of lemonade on a summer’s day — it just doesn’t have quite enough sugar to make it saccharine sweet. And that’s cool with us.
10. "Novacane" by Frank Ocean
Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean specializes in overwrought love songs with enthralling drug-addled accounts of sexual missteps. On “Novacane,” Ocean recounts hazy memories of his affair with an aspiring dentist, a mysterious vixen who lures Ocean into a perilous world numbed by drugs. With his emotions temporarily muted Ocean seems unsettlingly honest, crooning “There’s no drug around/quite like what I found in you, you.” Whether he describes losing the feeling in his face or filming their sexual encounters “like Stanley Kubrick,” through his lyrics Ocean constructs a song both alluring and disconcerting. With its novel take on the conventional love story, “Novacane” epitomizes Ocean’s captivating and fresh appeal.