Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Best Songs (and Albums) of 2011

This past summer, I received bona fide praise regarding my year-end music recap from 2010. Did it come from a journalist at the New York Times? A critic from elitist indie snob-rag Pitchfork Media? My friend Cory, who kinda sorta felt obligated to say something nice to me when I asked him point-blank, "Did you like my post?" As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter. The Manifesto has been lauded for its discerning musical taste; as such, I have no choice but to churn out another "Year in Music" recap for 2011. I owe it to my readers.

We're switching things up a bit this year – my past analysis has been a little too song-heavy for my liking, so I'm appending a list of the Best Albums of the Year to the end of this post as well. By the same rationale, for each song, I'll highlight an alternative track from the same album that's worth checking out. I'll also give an overall album grade for each listed song in a woefully deficient effort to provide some broader context about the listed artist's work (e.g., "This song ruled, but the album was mediocre").

Finally, I'll be embedding videos wherever they exist (if they don't, I'll just provide a YouTube link to an audio version of the song so you can listen), and I'll provide some brief commentary on those as well. That said, a plea from your earnest music enthusiast: Please, for the love of Moses, do not judge a song by its video. Some videos are spectacular, while others are spectacularly stupid, but it's important to remember that they were all created after the song was written. They're fun to watch – just don't let them detract from the music.

(Also, remember the Manifesto's rule: no repeat artists allowed. I strive for variety in all phases of life. Well, with the exceptions of sexual partners and M&M flavors.)

Oh, and just to be crazy and to protest the tyranny of round numbers, this year the Manifesto is highlighting the best 33 songs and 12 albums of the year, because that's how we roll. Let's do it.

The Best 33 Songs of 2011
(Honorable mention: AraabMuzik – Golden Touch; Avril Lavigne – What the Hell; Beirut – Goshen; The Mountain Goats – The Autopsy Garland; R.E.M. – Discoverer; The Vaccines – If you wanna; Veronica Falls – Come on Over)

33. Feist – Graveyard. For a song about death, there's something wonderfully optimistic about Feist's mood here, especially on the insistent refrain, "Bring 'em all back to life!". It's as if she can resurrect the dead with her art.

Alternative track from the same album: Bittersweet Melodies.

Album grade (Metals): B. Nothing earth-shattering, but a cohesive, brittle album nevertheless.

32. Death Cab for Cutie – Underneath the Sycamore. This song actually upsets me, because it's so good that it makes the album's overall blandness all the more glaring. Still, it's further proof that Ben Gibbard can make even the simplest narratives resonate with simple majesty.

Alternative track: You Are a Tourist.

Album grade (Codes and Keys): C+. The most disappointing record of the year. I'm still weeping.

31. The Rapture – Come Back to Me. Good luck not bobbing your head to this one.

Alternative track: Miss You.

Album grade (In the Grace of Your Love): B+. Post-punk is definitively not dead.

30. Evanescence – Lost in Paradise. Amy Lee has always been fascinated by death, but here, she actually dies and ascends to Heaven, only to feel confused, misbegotten, and generally, well, lost. It's a hokey concept, but it works because of the utter conviction of Lee's singing. "I have nothing left," she wails despairingly. Probably because she pours her soul into her music.

Alternative track: The Change.

Album grade (Evanescence): B+. I make no apologies whatsoever for liking this band. None.

29. Foster the People – Helena Beat. I'm a sucker for a falsetto chorus, and Mark Foster's affable high-pitched delivery makes lines like "Yeah-yeah, it's O.K./I tie my hands up to a chair so I don't fall that way" sound a lot less stupid than they deserve. Throw in an unrelenting beat with some electronic snap, and I'm hooked.

Alternative track: Pumped Up Kicks.

Album grade (Torches): B+. Lots to like here – strong beats, catchy choruses, and a lead singer whose voice is just distinctive enough to avoid sounding derivative. Keep an eye on these guys.

Video thoughts: Yikes. Did Rob Zombie direct this video? I'm sort of freaking out right now.

28. The Joy Formidable – A Heavy Abacus. These guitars will knock you the fuck out, and if they somehow don't, Ritzy Bryan's no-holds-barred delivery will finish the job.

Alternative track: Whirring.

Album grade (The Big Roar): B. With some tighter production and a bit more lyrical focus, this could have been one of the best albums of the year.

Video thoughts: This video looks as if it's a freshman's final project for his arts & media class, the one where they encourage you to distort and blur imagery in an effort to glam up otherwise banal material. What a waste.

27. The Antlers – I Don't Want Love. The title pretty much says it all. There's an aching sadness to Pete Silberman's voice that seems insurmountable, as though he's some tragic literary figure borne from the pages of Tolstoy or Hemingway. Thankfully, his pain is our considerable gain.

Alternative track: Putting the Dog to Sleep. (Seriously, how's that for a depressing title?)

Album grade (Burst Apart): B. I wish I could love this album, but it's a bit too sleepy for me. And yes, my friend Brian just took out a contract on my life.

26. The Black Keys – Gold on the Ceiling. The electric riff on display here is absolutely bruising. That the chorus stands up to such a massively energetic buildup is almost miraculous.

Alternative track: Money Maker.

Album grade (El Camino): B. This just arrived last week, so I'm still absorbing it, but in all likelihood, the awesomeness of "Gold on the Ceiling" will simply dwarf the remainder of the album, regardless of its quality.

25. Zola Jesus – Collapse. With perhaps one exception (see #20 below), no band is more cheated by the inherent injustices of a best-song list, as Zola Jesus' magnificence can only be appreciated by listening to its album in full. Nevertheless, of all of the colossal, majestically beautiful compositions on Conatus, this closing track is the most resplendent, a shimmering monument to pain and loss.

Alternative track: Shivers.

Album grade (Conatus): A. Just listen, and be amazed.

24. Adele – Set Fire to the Rain. My problem with Adele is that she only knows one speed, and it's all-out passion. That's fine as far as it goes, and it can make songs such as mega-hit "Rolling in the Deep" impressively powerful. But there's no change of pace in her delivery; even on her gentler ballads, her astounding, uncompromising voice is always at full throttle. "Set Fire to the Rain," however, features sufficient buildup such that its eventual climax ("I set fire to the rain/Watched it pour as I touched your face") achieves actual catharsis. With a weapon as overwhelming as that voice, a little restraint can go a long way.

Alternative track: Rolling in the Deep.

Album grade (21): B-. Sorry, I'm just not a believer.

23. Austra – Lose It. For a song whose high point involves its singer yelping "Oh! Ah! Oh! Ah!" repeatedly, there's impressive sonic activity here. I love the juxtaposition between the piercing pitch of Katie Stelmanis' high-key singing and the ruefully staid bass line, while the production is squeaky-clean and perfectly prioritizes the vocals. The result is a twisty, inventive, and thoroughly engaging piece of music.

Alternative track: The Future. (Note: This song actually features the line, "I came so hard in your mouth".)

Album grade (Feel It Break): A-. Frequently unsettling, consistently compelling.

Video thoughts: It certainly scores points for artistry and ambition. I can't recommend it wholeheartedly, given that it's batshit crazy and makes no sense, but it's watchable.

22. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Ketamine and Ecstasy [no audio available]. For a group with as much indie street cred as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, there's nothing fancy about their latest record, which is probably why I like it so much. "Ketamine and Ecstasy" is the clear highlight, with a rip-roaring chorus and guitars that could punch holes in the walls. It's a reminder that great music can be great fun too.

Alternative track: Misspent Youth.

Album grade (Hysterical): A-. Swirling guitars, soaring choruses.

21. Cults – Abducted. Hey, a duet! The nifty thing about "Abducted" is that, whereas most duets place a premium on equality, the song subverts that dynamic – here, the woman is scorned and damaged, while the man is unsympathetic and cruel. Musically, however, it's Madeline Follin's enthusiasm that carries the day; few women have ever made being dumped sound so good.

Alternative track: Go Outside.

Album grade (Cults): B+. Impressively assured debut from a band whose best is clearly yet to come.

Video thoughts: Simply tremendous. This thing plays like a teaser trailer for the next David Fincher movie. It may, however, give you nightmares.

20. Bon Iver – Calgary. Selecting a single song to acclaim from Bon Iver's self-titled album is like choosing between your children, if your children murmured in hushed, hypnotic voices and created a sustained atmosphere of gentle, enveloping grace. So why "Calgary"? Why are you even asking this question? Shouldn't you just be listening to this album right now?

Alternative track: Holocene.

Album grade (Bon Iver): A. Wow.

Video thoughts: I have no idea what to make of this video. It's ethereal, it's sensual, it's beautiful ... and it's completely indecipherable. Terrence Malick would be proud.

19. The Lonely Island – Jack Sparrow (feat. Michael Bolton). So the joke – three wannabe rappers hire Michael Bolton to bolster their track with a "big, sexy hook", only to have him start yowling about the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films – is funny. But the buried treasure here is that the hook really is big and sexy. Intentional inanity of the lyrics aside, you could absolutely find yourself singing "A mystical quest to the isle of Tortuga/Raven locks sway on the ocean's breeze!" in the shower.

Alternative track: I Just Had Sex (feat. Akon). (Hell, the video for that one is pretty amazing too.)

Album grade (Turtleneck & Chain): B. Hit-and-miss doesn't even begin to describe it.

Video thoughts: The image of Michael Bolton impersonating Julia Roberts is so broadly hilarious that it's easy to miss the subtle nuances that make this video truly great. The ever-expanding exasperation on the trio's faces as Bolton grows increasingly unhinged is masterful. There's a reason these guys make money.

18. How to Dress Well – Suicide Dream 2 (Orchestral Version). Tom Krell's voice just keeps going up and up and up, it's astonishing my computer speakers don't shatter. The emotion on display here is palpable, and the string quartet accompaniment is fluid and gorgeous.

Alternative track: Suicide Dream 1 (Orchestral Version).

Album grade (Just Once EP): B+. It's just a four-song EP, but it sure is stunning.

17. Terius Nash – Long Gone. Composing R&B at its most soulful and intimate, Terius Nash (aka The-Dream) delivers lyrics that are startlingly direct and painful. The story of a curdling relationship broken beyond repair, "Long Gone" begins with confusion ("I don't know what I'm supposed to say ... I don't know what I'm supposed to do") before crumbling into anger ("You're gonna say you love me back/But the thing about that, it's so far from the facts"). Nash's silky vocals prevent the song from becoming unbearably depressing, but even they can't prevent the inexorable destruction, so in the end, we're left with the image of a shattered couple with no hope of reconciliation. And then there's this: "I forgot how to touch you, 'cause every time I reach, you pull away/And I've forgotten how to fuck you, and now when you say my name, it don't feel the same." Ouch.

Alternative track: Wake Me When It's Over.

Album grade (1977): B. A lot to like, but some ugly missteps derail it.

Video thoughts: Simply, elegant, poetic. Well-done.

16. The Decemberists – This Is Why We Fight. Colin Meloy's music has always been pleasant, but there's a surprising urgency underlying "This Is Why We Fight", best personified in an insistent, appropriately combative snare. Meanwhile, the supremely simple chorus ("When we die, we will die with our arms unbound!") features one of the best hooks Meloy has ever written.

Alternative track: Calamity Song.

Album grade (The King Is Dead): A-. Few contemporaries make more consistently engaging pop music.

Video thoughts: A smoothly executed morality play about what happens when you steal cans of tuna fish from a fake war camp. Neat-o.

15. EMA – California. Erika M. Anderson is clearly gripped by bitter, snarling rage, but her gift is to channel that rage into expressions of intimacy rather than pure anger. "California" is laden with instances of bilious hatred – my personal favorite is the scorching insult, "What's it like to be small-town and gay?" – but Anderson's tone transforms them into something redemptive. She's dismissive of her targets (she follows the earlier insult with the casual observation, "Fuck it, baby, I know you'll never change"), but she doesn't allow herself to be swallowed in her own scorn. "I'm just 22; I don't mind dying," she insists earnestly, yet you can tell she wants to stick around. Here's hoping.

Alternative track: Anteroom.

Album grade (Past Life Martyred Saints): A-. Seething rage has never sounded so good.

Video thoughts: Great concept, mediocre execution. Still, I love keeping Anderson in the foreground the entire time.

14. Thursday – No Answers. You want a hook, you got a hook.

Alternative track: Sparks Against the Sun.

Album grade (No Devolución): A-. I'm half-convinced that these guys would be superstars if they didn't have such a stupid fucking name.

13. Peter Björn and John – Second Chance. You want a hook, you really got a hook.

Alternative track: Dig a Little Deeper.

Album grade (Gimme Some): B+. Don't let the easy pleasantness of the songs fool you – this is well-crafted, nimble pop music. Just because it's familiar doesn't make it stale.

Video thoughts: Yawn.

12. Hooray for Earth – True Loves. The sonic verve here is unmistakable, but the pinballing dynamics and lively atmosphere never overwhelm the track's narrative drive. Just a loaded piece of music that will burrow its way into your brain.

Alternative track: Sails.

Album grade (True Loves): A. This is a deeply engrossing record that rewards repeated listens. Where the hell did these guys come from?

Video thoughts: It's Kubrickian!

11. The Rosebuds – Go Ahead. From its opening feral shouts, "Go Ahead" is an instant magnetizer, and as Ivan Howard spins his yarn of mundanity and frustration, it only becomes more intoxicating. "Let's plant a forest where we can hide when the city expels us/We can sleep in the branches, our own little outpost in the trees," he enthuses, and by then you know that this is pure fantasy and that his spouse is having none of it. This is the first Rosebuds record following the divorce between Howard and Kelly Crisp, so some melancholy can be expected. But that bittersweet knowledge lends "Go Ahead" a quiet yearning that somehow makes it more hopeful than depressing. Howard and Crisp may have broken up, but they're still making music together – surely that has to mean something.

Alternative track: Without a Focus.

Album grade (Loud Planes Fly Low): B. I desperately wanted to love this album, but I just never got there.

10. TV on the Radio – Second Song. This song has been genetically engineered to make humans sing along to it. Fighting that urge is fighting our own primordial instincts.

Alternative track: New Cannonball Run.

Album grade (Nine Types of Light): B-. A huge step down from Dear Science.

Video thoughts: Now here's an arts & media project of some value. Sure, it's obscure and inscrutable, but at least there's some narrative continuity at work.

9. Cut Copy – Need You Now. In terms of transcendent moments in music this year, it doesn't get much more epic than the final snare roll leading into the last chorus of "Need You Now". But that's just the gravy. Layering an effortless hook on top of an uncompromising beat, Dan Whitford sings with near-mechanical precision, but that shouldn't suggest that Cut Copy's music is in any way monotonous. On the contrary, "Need You Now" represents one of the world's top new wave bands in peak form, twinning soaring melodies with thumping electronics. That snare roll is just the icing, but it tastes damn good.

Alternative track: Take Me Over.

Album grade (Zonoscope): B+. An almost-great album that can't quite get over the hump.

Video thoughts: I'll give it this: I certainly didn't anticipate where this video was going. Puts a whole new spin on the "athletics are blood sport" motif.

8. Wild Flag – Romance. If you thought the opening riff of "Gold on the Ceiling" was electric, check this baby out. That's just the teaser though – Carrie Brownstein's balls-to-the-wall chorus is downright orgasmic. "We got our eyes, our eyes trained on you!" she spitballs, guitars clanging furiously all around her like metallic beasts. Yet for all of the raucous noise on display, there's a clipped discipline to the songwriting that prevents "Romance" from devouring its own tail. Instead, it pushes forward, again and again, consuming every drop of the band's considerable vigor. It's exhilarating and exhausting at the same time, but the exacting attention to details makes it thoroughly exceptional.

Alternative track: Future Crimes.

Album grade (Wild Flag): B. This one is a bit samey overall, but expect big things next time out.

Video thoughts: Think Office Space crossed with Point Break, only with women and not as awesome.

7. The Weeknd – Wicked Games. Does it get any more depressing than "Tell me you love me even though you don't love me"? That stench of hopeless longing pervades Abel Tesfaye's music, never more so than on "Wicked Games", a twisted, often grotesque ballad of sexual wanderlust and drug addiction. "Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain," Tesfaye coos, but you have to wonder if he even knows whom he's talking to. It's more the idea of love that's alluring to him, and he's willing to do anything in an effort to savor a brief taste. But what's truly breathtaking about "Wicked Games" are Tesfaye's towering, high-register vocals, which perfectly convey the depths of his desperation. He's tumbling down, even though his music keeps going up.

Alternative track: The Morning.

Album grade (House of Balloons): B+. Dark, despairing, dazzling.

Video thoughts: A highly persuasive thesis arguing that taking a shitload of drugs is probably a bad idea.

6. Florence + the Machine – Shake It Out. Subtlety be damned. Florence Welch's music is all about provocation, exultation, indulgence. And all the better for us, because when Florence gets hold of a note and shakes the hell out of it, we're treated to an otherworldly spectacle of vocal power. "It's hard to dance with a devil on your back, so shake him off," she instructs us, which is easy for her to say; Satan himself wouldn't be able to harness an instrument of such unbridled potency. But the magnificence of "Shake It Out" is that it doesn't simply function as a showcase for Florence's unparalleled talents; rather, it's an expertly composed piece of songcraft on its own terms. That it builds to a breathless conclusion in which Florence blows the roof off the Sistine Chapel can hardly be held against it.

Alternative track: Heartlines.

Album grade (Ceremonials): A. Top-notch songwriting, show-stopping talent.

Video thoughts: I liked Eyes Wide Shut better the first time.

5. Coldplay – Paradise. Coldplay don't really make music, more gigantic anthems that celebrate music itself. Sure, you can gripe about the lack of subtext, the hearts-on-their-sleeves earnestness, the manifest desire to be beloved. But then you hear the chorus of "Para, Para ... Paradise!" and it all just melts away. Here's a group that embraces the challenge of being the biggest band in the world rather than shrinking from it, and their conviction is undeniable. If they sound a bit entitled singing about immortality, it's because they've earned it.

Alternative track: Charlie Brown.

Album grade (Mylo Xyloto): A. They make good music. Just accept it.

Video thoughts: Sure, the metaphor – that one of the world's most popular bands is so free at heart that they're actually just a bunch of juvenile elephants jamming in the desert – is a bit flimsy. But giant stuffed animals are intrinsically adorable, and when that wandering elephant finds his soulmates at long last, it gets a little dusty.

4. Okkervil River – Mermaid. Whenever I hear this song, I just feel this breathless urge for adventure, and I feel compelled to kiss my wife and children goodbye and venture out onto the lost boiling black water surrounded by wild wailing winds so I can get a glimpse of a mythical creature of indescribable beauty. Then I remember that I'm single, like video games, and loathe boats. But for five minutes, I forget all of that. And so will you.

Alternative track: N/A. Inexplicably, Okkervil River declined to include "Mermaid" on their 2011 LP, I Am Very Far, releasing it as a standalone single instead. They need to fire their producer.

Album grade: N/A. (But "B" for I Am Very Far.)

3. Iron & Wine – Walking Far from Home. The concept is simple: Sam Beam is walking, and he's describing what he's seeing. And from that straightforward premise unspools a narrative of striking loveliness. The images Beam describes range from the mundane (blooming fruit trees, flowers on a hillside) to the poetic (sinners making music, sunlight on the water) to the absurd (a bird falling like a hammer from the sky, a millionaire pissing on the lawn), but they coalesce into a deeply moving tribute to the idiosyncratic wonders of small-town Americana.

Alternative track: Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me.

Album grade (Kiss Each Other Clean): B. It's a bit inconsistent, but when Iron & Wine get it right, their potential is limitless.

2. M83 – Midnight City. PERFECTION.

Alternative track: Steve McQueen.

Album grade (Hurry Up, We're Dreaming): A. An affirmation of the transcendent power of music.

Video thoughts: Stupendous. Take the apocalyptic framework from Foster the People's "Helena Beat" video, only replace the ugliness and nihilism with hope, childhood yearning, and euphoria.

1. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Heart in Your Heartbreak. The paradox of music is that it can be so uplifting when it's at its most devastating. Some of history's saddest songs are drenched in power-rock guitars (e.g., Guns N' Roses' "November Rain"), and the driving vitality of the instrumentation is what gives some of the most heart-wrenching music its emotional kick. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart recognize this irony, and they play with it both sonically (the perfectly pitched guitars here are supported by a ruthless rhythm section) and lyrically (see the title). The result is an impeccably crafted pop song that is bouncy, buoyant, and generally delightful. It is also unforgivingly bleak, from its very first line ("Take a look around, you're going down") to its stomach-punching closer ("Even if she'd stay, you know she's gone"). Like all things worth loving, you'll keep crawling back to it again and again, even if it sticks you in the gut every time.

Alternative track: Belong.

Album grade (Belong): A. They said it themselves: Dreams can still come true.

Video thoughts: Plainly skewing toward the "heart" side of the dichotomy, this video is upbeat, invigorating, and generally triumphant. Just don't be fooled.

And, as promised:

The Best 12 Albums of 2011
(Honorable mention: Cut Copy – Zonoscope; Evanescence – Evanescence; Peter Björn and John – Gimme Some; The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love; The Weeknd – House of Balloons)

12. Thursday – No Devolución
11. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical
10. Austra – Feel It Break
9. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
8. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
7. Zola Jesus – Conatus
6. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
5. Hooray for Earth – True Loves
4. M83 – Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
3. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
1. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

Till next year.

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