Middle 8: Favorite Songs of 2011

In a weak year for albums, the song was king. (And the king is most certainly not dead.) By far my hardest list to whittle down to eight, my favorite tunes of 2011 were mostly heavy on the synth with a few countryside exceptions. Nothing broke any major musical barriers here, but just show eight bands or artists who had an incredibly knack for melody and musicianship.

1. “You Are a Tourist,” Death Cab for Cutie

The first single from Death Cab’s Codes and Keys set the tone for the album with escalating “You Are a Tourist.” The song embodied the band’s experimental approach with tweaks and effects that challenged their traditional guitar-heavy sound. Along the way, singer and lyricist Ben Gibbard delivered an unlikely gush of affirmations that matched-up perfectly with the song’s sonic groove. In fact, I’ve spent most of the year with “This fire grows higher” still echoing in my brain.

2. “When You’re Not Around,” Julian Velard

While Julian Velard’s Mr. Saturday Night made our Top albums list, his best song this year actually didn’t even appear on that album. “When You’re Not Around” was released via both Velard’s weekly b-side website giveaways AND presumably via time-machine straight from the 1980’s. Between the Casio-keyboard instrumentation and the gospel choir, Velard delivered a song that would’ve fit perfectly in 1985 and certainly works fine 25 years later in 2011. A fairly straightforward tale of heartbreak, the song excels thanks to the way it builds towards its gleeful chorus breaks, including its final gospel break. No song made me happier in 2011.

3. “Country Clutter,” Dolorean

Unknown to me until the middle of the year, Dolorean’s “Country Clutter” struck a brilliant harmonic chord for me and easily muscled its way into the prime spot on my Autumn 2011 mix. The song’s dark irreconcilable lyrics contrast perfectly with the uplifting harmonies in the chorus, as if representing the hopeful aftermath of a stifling existence. For me, that’s the brilliance of a good break-up song: capturing both the pain and sorrow of the heartbreak but topping it with some element of wishful thinking. On “Country Clutter,” the angry empowerment is clearly heading in the right direction.

4. “Lorelai,” Fleet Foxes

If you were going to try to indoctrinate someone the ways of the Fleet Foxes, “Lorelai” would probably be the best song to play to them. The song deftly mixes wistful earthen guitars with dynamic, otherworldly harmonies and adds enough instrumental eccentricities to challenge the folk pigeonhole the band is often put in. Another example of finding beauty and hope in the wake of a failed relationship.

5. “Calamity Song,” The Decemberists

With a critically-acclaimed album (their last) and a nostalgic retrospective, R.E.M.’s best song in 2011 was naturally found on….The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead. With Peter Buck adding guitar, “Calamity Song” evoked R.E.M.’s heyday better than the band itself could muster. For me, it was the song that I couldn’t get away from. A distant beacon from a band I kept fathoms from my reach that suddenly surfaced and led me to the brilliance of this song and its parent album, but also of a band I should’ve been paying attention to all along.

6. “Shell Games,” Bright Eyes

The best of Bright Eyes’ latest album, “Shell Games” expertly mixes indie rock with new wave in an autobiographical confession of past regrets and new directions. (Note the references to past albums in the opening verse, “laid it at the arbiter’s feet”.) The song could also be about frontman Conor Oberst’s evolution from essentially being Bright Eyes himself to sharing “the load” with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, as well as more collaborative efforts in recent years such as Monsters of Folk and Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. Whatever angle you look at it, the message “Here it come that heavy load, I’m never gonna move it alone” made for not only an admirable affirmation but also the chorus that stuck in my head the most in 2011.

7. “She Goes Around,” The Damnwells

The Damnwell’s “She Goes Around” is by no means revelatory or unique but it succeeds as an effortless catchy throwback, causing almost unavoidable steering-wheel-tapping or living-room bopping. (The Vinyl Recliner does not advocate clapping to the song while driving.) The infectious (and repetitive) chorus propels a song ostensibly about the dizzying effect of a notorious heartbreaker. (“She lights it up like a million sparks, shooting from the hip straight through your heart and when she burns it down, that’s my favorite part.”) “She Goes Around” was indicative of the year’s music for me: With a general lack of earth-shattering balladry or revolutionary anthems in 2011, I found comfort joy in simple, catchy numbers like this.

8. “Mylo Zyloto/Hurts Like Heaven,” Coldplay

Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” was a slice of electronic pop fun earlier in the year, but Mylo Zyloto’s first song proper (the self-titled song is a brief overture) displays more interesting sonic layers and works better as an upbeat anthem to be sung on summer days or inside hockey arenas. “Hurts Like Heaven” also epitomizes the value of Brian Eno’s production influence on the album while not totally diverting from the traditional Coldplay blueprint. (Note: This slot on the countdown also could’ve gone to “Charlie Brown,” which on some days rivals or exceeds my enjoyment of “Hurts Like Heaven.”)

Outside Looking In: David Ford’s self-deprecating “Pour a Little Poison” paid homage to country blues, famous in the very locations that shun “a whiny little English boy singing the blues.” ; The Jayhawks returned to their classic lineup, which was at its best with “She Walks in So Many Ways”“Circuital,” the title song from My Morning Jacket’s latest album, builds on its atmospheric intro and encapsulates the band’s eclectic repertoire  while Jim James sings of spiritual circuitry; Iron & Wine’s “Walking Far From Home” employed distortion and a swirling rhythm to offset Sam Beam’s beautiful vocal; Adam Duritz digs through the original bouncy new wave arrangement of The Cars’ “You Might Think” to find the slight tinge of heartache underneath the devotional lyrics and sets it to a beautiful home-recorded piano arrangement.


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