My 25 favorite songs of 2011, including but not limited to: hits, obscurities, disco jams, guitar monsters, boof-boof chants, pelican-fly rappers and karaoke-room-clearers. And Stevie Nicks, obviously. (Listen to the list on Spotify by clicking below.)
1. Britney Spears, “How I Roll”
Britney hooks up with the Swedish production duo Bloodshy and Avant, who also gave her “Toxic” in 2004 and “Piece of Me” in 2007, and like the first two chapters of the trilogy, it’s fiendishly inventive girl noise. Every sound effect that jumps out of the mix – Brit slurring the word “speakerrrr,” digital finger-snaps, a real beatbox pretending to be a human beatbox – builds the tension. There’s even a plot: An ordinary girl sits in her lonely room, dreaming of party lights far away, wishing she could escape to a place where she can show her kneesocks and drink tequila on the rocks, where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive. But the mean old world won’t let her break free, so she just sings along with the machines until she turns into a machine herself, because only the beat understands her. There’s your story of pop music right there.
2. Big Sean featuring Nicki Minaj, “Dance (A$$) (Remix)”
The Nicki showcase of the year, in a brilliantly titled avant-moron booty-clap bass throwback where the Hammer-time keyboard hook seems to beam in from another planet. Nicki is extremely informative about her ass-related needs, from “Google my ass” to “Kiss my ass and my anus, because it’s finally famous.” What she does with the word “Wakiki” (rhymes with “squeaky,” “geeky” and “dashiki”) is like a one-word tutorial on what it means to be awesome.
3. Beyoncé, “Countdown”
One of the billions of things I love about Beyoncé: The harder she tries to come on crazy, the less crazy she sounds. She might be the most aggressively sane pop diva ever, even when she’s boofing her boof boof. And I love how her ticking clock-of-the-heart countdown tweaks Jay-Z’s long-ago playa boast, “Do It Again.” Remember that one? “5 a.m. now we at my house / 6 a.m. I be diggin’ her out / 6:15 I be kickin’ her out.” That song must be a big Beyoncé fave. But those were different times, and this is definitely B’s countdown.
4. EMA, “California”
South Dakota guitar girl migrates to the West Coast, hates it, and vents her misery into a gloriously excessive tantrum with the opening words, “Fuck California, you made me boring,” swiping one-liners from Bo Diddley and Blazing Saddles. California might be “so fucked it’s 5150,” but so is she, which is why they were made for each other.
5. Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”
Never thought I’d see a time when Kajagoogoo reigned as the most influential band in indie rock, but for some reason, this was the year sensitive kids everywhere decided to go balls to the wall for Limahl. As a fan who has White Feathers on vinyl, I’ll be crushed when this fad passes. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon took the Eighties synth fetish farther than anyone – he cuts his Kaj with Christopher Cross chord changes, a keyboard intro from late REO Speedwagon, and filtered vocals evoking Toto in their “wild dogs cry out in the night” phase. I love this song so much, I spent months wondering if I actually hated it. But I can’t fight this feelin’ anymore, and I’ve forgotten what I started fightin’ for.
6. Jay-Z and Kanye West featuring Frank Ocean, “No Church In The Wild”
A year ago, what were the odds that 2011 would see a hip-hop craze for the prog-rock guitar stylings of Phil Manzanera, the Roxy Music beardo? The odds were . . . well, math isn’t my thing so I’ll just estimate those were some tiny odds. With Hov and Yeezy getting deep into arcane theology, this track is just another high.
7. Pistol Annies, “Hell on Heels”
All you need to say about the state of rock radio: As soon as you hear a crazed rock & roll drummer go boom, you know you’re listening to the country station. Between the levee-busting drumrolls, the “Gold Dust Woman” guitars and the gold-digger lyrics, these reverse cowgirls – Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley – make everyone else on the airwaves sound limp.
8. Rebecca Black, “Friday”
Imagine a “Star Wars” where Princess Leia doesn’t waste her 40-second video time capsule praying to Obi-Wan Kenobi, or any other dude. Instead, she says, “Is this thing on? Hey ho, let’s go!”
9. Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”
Nicki spends 3:19 talking an American guy (she’s into those! lucky us!) into her car, which is 3 minutes and 18 seconds longer than she would ever need, but she just likes to hear herself talk, and so do the rest of us. At first I missed the Slick Rick joke – when Nicki says, “You’re like slicker than the guy with the thing on his eye,” I thought she meant Bushwick Bill. But Nicki’s so brazen, she would try to pick up dudes by comparing them to Bushwick Bill. And in her case, it would probably work. The way she savors the line “I can tell that you’re in touch with your feminine side” is like an 11-word tutorial on what it means to be pelican fly.
10. Stevie Nicks, “Annabel Lee”
The gypsy queen comes back to tell the world who the eff she is, with a lyric by one of her hot dead rock & roll boyfriends, Edgar Allen Poe.
11. Rihanna, “We Found Love”
“We found love in a hopeless place” is a great disco hook, especially since places don’t get much hopelesser than Rihanna’s larynx. This is the first Rihanna hit that sounds like it was written specifically for her to sing, which might be why it’s her best by a mile. While her other hits tried to camouflage her spindly voice, here it just strains for that spindly melody. A bigger voice would spoil it, just as you probably will at the karaoke joint.
12. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
Canadian madman Dan Bejar’s songbook is already an impressive one, but he outdoes himself with this suaved-out Eighties trip, as if he and Howard Jones got a thing going on. Yet what sets Destroyer apart from the other boho faux-HoJos is (for lack of a better word) soul. Which in this case just means the music tries to make you feel something and succeeds. Excellent video, too.
13. Azealia Banks, “212”
Ya crew run run run, ya crew run run.
14. Kurt Vile, “Runner Ups”
“If it ain’t workin’, take a whizz on the world” – now there’s a philosophy of life.
15. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
The “Hey Ya” of 2011, and just as it was easy to overlook the melancholy in “Hey Ya,” it’s easy to miss the joyful ebullience of “Rolling in the Deep.” But nobody writes a song like this unless they just love the fuck out of making music.
16. Radiohead, “Separator”
So that first half of King of Limbs didn’t turn out to be much of a grower, now did it? But the flawless second half has this love-as-hallucination ballad, as Thom Yorke keeps wailing, “Wake me up.”
17. Neon Indian, “Fallout”
Synth-pop romance, with a little O.M.D. and a whole lot of Comsat Angels. And no sax solo, which in 2011 was some kind of breakthrough.
18. Thurston Moore, “Mina Loy”
A feminist-fanboy ode to one of New York’s greatest poets, from one of New York’s greatest guitarists, going acoustic for a few minutes of spooked ecstatic-peace beauty. (And if it piques your curiosity, check out the Dalkey Press’ new anthology, Stories and Essays of Mina Loy.)
19. The Horrors, “Still Life”
English art-twit rockers doing what English art-twit rockers were born to do, which means absurdly pretentious odes to attractively messed-up girls. When England runs out of these, it may have to start shopping around for another planet.
20. Xeno and Oaklander, “Sets and Lights”
A Brooklyn boy-girl duo, a basement full of vintage synths, and a rush of gloomwave mirror moves. It captures that chill that hits you at 2 a.m. when you suddenly notice everyone at the party has glowing replicant eyeballs. Rihanna could do worse than cover this.
21. Paul Simon, “Rewrite”
It’s the whistling solo that nails it. Just like the one in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” except here’s the wiseass kid from that song 40 years later – bitter, defeated by life, working at the car wash, wishing he’d given Rosie another chance. If it’s any consolation, radical priests and Newsweek aren’t doing so hot these days either.
22. Avril Lavigne, “What the Hell”
Anybody who thinks Lana Del Rey is art and this isn’t has some explaining to do.
23. Yuck, “Get Away”
“Hey 19, that’s Dinosaur Jr. / She don’t remember the Third Eye Blind / Hard times befallen the grunge survivors / She thinks I’m crazy, whatever, nevermind.”
24. Nicki Minaj, “Girlfriend”
This goes back to her Barbie World mixtape from nearly two years ago, so it’s stretching if not just plain dumb to count it as a 2011 song, but it is the song I played the most this year. It’s about friends, and why they’re good to have, and why it’s a smart move to treat your friends like total fucking rock stars, topics people are usually too chickenshit to write any songs about, let alone good ones. I can’t imagine how giving this song three minutes would make your life any worse.
25. Lady Gaga, “Edge of Glory”
Gaga demonstrates she knows what it means to steal, to cheat, to lie, while Clarence Clemons proves it all night. R.I.P., Big Man.
Rob Sheffield / Rolling Stone / December 21, 2011
Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he writes about music, TV and pop culture. He is the author of two books, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran and Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.