Best Music Of 2011
Wed December 14, 2011
NPR Music's 100 Favorite Songs Of 2011
Originally published on Wed December 14, 2011 6:13 am
This year, we couldn't sit still. Shoving a flailing ear bud into place while running for the train, flitting through Spotify playlists from passionate fans of every genre or trying top each other on turntable.fm—this is how we approach listening to music now. At an alarming rate it floods our inboxes, blogs and record stores, pervasive yet more accessible than ever. Under the deluge there are songs that stand out, beg for repeat listens and eventually settle seamlessly into our lives.
To round out the year, NPR Music put together a mix with 100 of these favorite songs. Our staffers came armed with lists of the tunes that shook them up this year--the truly excellent, the roughly beautiful, the daring. Consensus emerged on several (What else do Beyoncé, Paul Simon and Blawan have in common?), while dark horse candidates stayed on the list by sheer force of love from one producer or another. It might sound jarring when a raging soca jam falls next to a haunting folk song, but that's how the year sounded to us--funny, joyful, heavy and always surprising.
This year was all about blurring the lines between genres, which seemed inevitable in a field over-saturated with sub, and sub-sub-sub classifications of type. Pop and electronic dance music reveled in its long-overdue civil union, where Rihanna's #1 pop hit was steeped in bubblegum techno. Elsewhere on the musical map, composer Judd Greenstein's charging melodies in "Change" represent dynamic new turf in indie classical, Lil Wayne sampled a song famously used in the movie Beetlejuice (when's that YouTube mash-up coming out?) and Jill Scott's "All Cried Out Redux" was probably the only beat-boxed ragtime joint you heard all year.
And perhaps above all, artists in 2011 wanted you to dance. If you found your groove to Colombian DJ Geko Jones, or hustled in step with the JD Allen Trio, or emulated Nicki Minaj's booty bounce, new adventures in beats and rhythms were incredibly present and as expansive as ever. So whether you'd rather mosh to Darkest Era or grind upon your loved one to Raphael Saadiq, we hope this mix makes you move, in whatever way makes you feel the best.
There's no way this list could include everything we liked, and it's probable we've left off a song that meant something to you. We hope you'll share your favorites of 2011 in the comments or tweet us @nprmusic.
NPR MUSIC'S 100 FAVORITE SONGS OF 2011
10/10 Ensemble, "Fiji"
A 17-minute sashay through composer Michael Torke's deliriously colorful, imaginary tropical landscape. Heavy on the congas, bongos and claves, but lighthearted and sweet.
Adele, "Someone Like You"
In tonic chords and modulated phrases, Adele's offered goodbye hug perfectly captures the feeling of waking up from a broken heart: you've both moved on, it hurts, you won't forget, you'll live.
Alabama Shakes, "Hold On"
Neil Young called it "ragged glory" — the sound of a band getting it together right before your ears. Fronted by soulful dynamo/regular gal Brittany Howard, the Shakes are breaking through.
Anthony Hamilton, "Mad"
Otis Redding would have loved this tale of irresistible, bad-for-you romance, sung by one of his worthiest inheritors.
Azealia Banks, "212"
Get your headphones up: The raunchiest shut-down of 2011 features Banks' never-predictable vocal delivery over a drilling Lazy Jay house beat.
Battles, "Ice Cream" (feat. Matias Aguayo)
For a group often tagged as "math rock," the colorful Afropunk-infused "Ice Cream" is one of the year's most boisterous and off-kilter dance parties thanks to fun hooks and a killer funked up organ groove.
An ode to married bliss that's also an exploding grab bag of sounds, from the Boyz II Men sample to a marching band.
Big Freedia, "Azz Everywhere"
A fresh tip of the hat to African-American call-and-response traditions that also provides the New Orleans bounce scene with an addictive dance floor anthem.
Bill McHenry, "La Fuerza"
A saxophonist's quartet attends a bullfight, with Salvador Dali and 'em. RIP drummer Paul Motian.
Bingo Players, "Cry (Just A Little)" (Olav Basoski Remix)
A happy house beat, Daft Punk-style synths and that sample. It's that simple.
High concept multimedia experiences aside, here's a stunning minimalist song about how science and humanity (or lovers, or an iconic musician and her fans) interact.
Blawan, "Getting Me Down"
A slow jam gets the galloping sugar beat that Brandy never knew she needed.
Bon Iver, "Calgary"
The opening synth smears hint at '80s-influenced grandiosity, but tenderness and grace exudes throughout.
Cass McCombs, "County Line"
Many have tried to revive soft-rock and few have succeeded. "County Line" feels like a needle-drop on a forgotten classic: There is a dust road and you are crying.
Caveman, "Old Friend"
Newcomers marry guitar melody to wash of sound, with timeless-sounding results.
Chris Brown, "Look At Me Now" (feat. Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne)
Busta and that bug-eyed beat: waking radio listeners from their stupor since February 2011.
Chris Thile & Michael Daves, "Sleep With One Eye Open"
Bluegrass from the dark end of the street — risky and raucous.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "Same Mistake"
An exceptional return to form for the band that once launched a thousand blogs. Epic indie pop anthem that will have you shouting along in cathartic joy by that third chorus.
Cute boy-girl pop that juxtaposes a sunny wall of sound songcraft with disturbing lyrics that hint at dysfunction underneath.
Danny Brown, "Scrap Or Die"
One of 2011's realest, saddest, most terrifying narratives; a zero-options, would be rags-to-riches story where a length of copper wire stands in for the glint of a happy ending.
Darkest Era, "An Ancient Fire Burns"
If you're not dreaming of driving a Camaro up a mountain to slay a dragon by the end of this song, you're doing it wrong.
Das Racist, "Michael Jackson"
Brooklyn internet thugs unleash their first legit single. True to form, it's stupid, childish and way too good to write off as novelty.
David Wax Museum, "Born With A Broken Heart"
A whirlwind treat from a loveable duo with a penchant for presenting pan-American folk with exuberant ease. Equipment: Donkey jawbone, Mexican jarocha guitar, trumpet, accordion, and — clearly — joy.
The Decemberists, "Down By The Water"
Portland folk-rockers incorporate memorable vocal harmonies from Gillian Welch and 12-string guitar from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck in this rollicking slice of down-home Americana.
Delicate Steve, "Butterfly"
New Jersey instrumentalists pluck, twang, strum and pitter-pat through the year's most epic sun-bleached back porch jam session.
Deniz Kurtel, "The L Word"
What begins as jumpy cut heard in the dance clubs of New York City circa 1989 ends saturated in some radiated strobe light out of time.
Drake, "Take Care" (feat. Rihanna)
The complex hip-hop Casanova's take on the blues, with a nod to Bobby Bland and some heavenly comfort from an ex.
The Bay Area veteran raps in a cracking and permanently quizzical tone over a beat made by video game-obsessed aliens. Brass heralds the 2-ply, Beastie Boys-quoting chorus.
Eleanor Friedberger, "My Mistakes"
Eschewing the hyperactive complexity of Fiery Furnaces while retaining the exuberant buoyancy and hooky vocal melodies. Plus a sax solo!
EMA, "The Grey Ship"
This seething and portentous gem takes a remarkable journey, worthy of every second of its seven-minute running time.
Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"
For all the talk of Fleet Foxes' echo-chamber atmospherics, "Helplessness Blues" takes about 60 seconds to reveal the meaning of life.
Fokn Bois and Jumo Daddy, "Lungulungu"
Ghanaian rappers half- and double-timing over a Hungarian-made beat that ambles with one leg, hustles with the other. Pidgin rap can be hard to understand, but it's probably the future.
Frank Ocean, "Swim Good"
The most charismatic R&B singer of the year delivers a visually rich portrait of existential torment paired with a club-worthy beat.
Garland Jeffreys, "Coney Island Winter"
The best Springsteen song the Boss didn't write this year, by a still-powerful veteran of New York's bohemian streets.
Gary Clark, Jr., "Bright Lights"
Slow-burning blues from a dazzling guitarist and popwise songwriter poised to blow up big.
Geko Jones, "Pa'la Escuela Nene" (feat. Maria Mulata)
A perfect example of why we love Geko Jones: only he could successfully mash up a classic genre like Colombian bullerengue (here featuring the fantastic vocal stylings of Maria Mulata) with thumping club beats.
Gem Club, "Twins"
A minor-key beauty from a cello and piano duo that slows the blood by filling the air between notes with sullen space.
Gillian Welch, "Hard Times"
Welch and David Rawlings sing beautifully of defiance and hope, but the net result is shot through with eternal ache.
Last-day-of-school sunshine, five-speed bikes in the cul-de-sac, laser tag at midnight. Can this please never end?
G-Side, "Atmosphere" (feat. PH)
Deceptively subdued, nearly effortless flow hovers above a reggae riff submerged in a glitch jungle gym.
Hammers of Misfortune, "The Grain"
With a soaring, melancholic chorus, "The Grain" repeatedly returns to a powerful riff that is the stuff that headbangs are made out of.
I Wayne, "Change Them Ways"
Representative of the "new school" in roots rock reggae, Jamaica's I Wayne preaches peace and harmony. His warning to the wicked is something we can all vibe to.
Jacques Greene, "Another Girl"
Clipped beats and wordless sighs made for staring out windows until an R&B siren pulls you out of the funk to get into the funk.
James Blake, "The Wilhelm Scream"
Heart-wrenching slow jam-slash-showcase for multi-talented young dubstep writer/producer-turned frontman, over the irresistibly lethargic beat of the year.
James Farm, "Polliwog"
An instrumental with more engaging, rollicking episodes than most sitcoms out there today.
Jay-Z & Kanye West, "That's My Bitch"
Kanye goes dumb; Jay name-checks half of New York's art scene. Meanwhile, the beat grows a booty, and shakes it.
JD Allen Trio, "Mr. Steepy"
Sixteen bars, short-and-sweet. Just saxophone, bass and drums making swing go H.A.M.
Jean-Guihen Queyras, "Cello Concerto in G minor"
Antonio Vivaldi, an early supporter of the cello, gets a hand from a French virtuoso whose warm, smart reading collapses 300 years of musical history.
JEFF The Brotherhood, "Bummer"
Nashville power punk duo buries this grungy breakup song's ample heart beneath a fuzzy drone of distortion.
Jill Scott, "All Cried Out" (feat. Doug E. Fresh)
The everywoman of R&B turns a Doug E. Fresh beatbox and a touch of ragtime piano into a breezy kiss-off on which she sounds more free and brazen than she has in years.
Jonsi, "Gathering Stories"
The Sigur Ros frontman keeps adding to his whimsically gorgeous solo legacy with a creamy dollop of sunny, swirling majesty.
The Joy Formidable, "Whirring"
British trio knocks it out of the park by marrying melody with chaos while careening headlong toward a ferocious, four-minute climax.
Joyce DiDonato, "D'amour l'ardente flame"
Everyone's favorite mezzo-soprano gives this aria from Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust a tender, lived-in passion.
Kate Bush, "Misty"
Sex with a snowman? Only the great Kate at her piano could paint it in colors this lovely and profound.
Katy B, "Katy On A Mission"
Katy gets harassed on her way to the dancefloor, remains focused on her priority; Britain's dubstep scene gets a human face.
Kay Ara, "Me Dough" (feat. Lil Shaker and Yaa Pono)
Kay Ara and his more established compatriots in Ghanaian rap bound over a stutter-stepping highlife sample and hold tight to a beat that drops with authority.
Kes The Band, "Wotless"
The ultimate soca jam of the year urged people to embarrass themselves dancing everywhere from Carnival parade lines to your desk at the office.
Lady Gaga, "Yoü & I"
Monster-sized ode to holding onto a piece of lost love forever and the best evidence yet that pop's queen of relentless provocation has a serious sense of humor.
Lagartijeando, "El Alto De La Paz"
You don't have to speak Spanish to understand the sexiness of this song's hook or its outrageously hip-grinding beat. Turn your swag on.
Laura Marling, "The Beast"
Spun out like one of Scheherezade's tales, this folk-metal ballad expresses a young woman's hunger and fury in no uncertain terms.
Lil B, "I Seen That Light"
In which the gleeful Bay Area purveyor of nonsense reveals a new, utterly convincing face: the humble, respectful motivational speaker with a heart (and a beat) of solid gold.
Lil Wayne, "6 Foot 7 Foot" (feat. Cory Gunz)
"Real Gs move in silence like lasagna," and other lessons in making perfectly reasonable points out of brain-melting nonsense.
Lisa Hannigan, "Home"
Featured player (on Damien Rice's O) steps front, center and widescreen, with lush instrumentation in one of the most exhilarating and beautifully sung songs of the year.
Los Tigres, "Jefe de Jefes"
The title means The Boss of All Bosses, which describes this band perfectly. There are other great Mexican bands but none as bad-ass.
Low, "Try To Sleep"
Soft and trance-inducing yet unmistakably alive, like running through grassy fields. Alan Spawhawk and Mimi Parker's harmonies have never sounded so uplifting.
Lykke Li, "I Follow Rivers"
Rhythm, mood and a declaration of undying devotion, from Sweden's answer to Stevie Nicks.
M83, "Midnight City"
There is no excusing the gratuitous saxophone solo, but we do anyway because "Midnight City" is the cursive neon sign outside the car window, and a contender for euphoria-inducing jam of the year.
Martina McBride, "I'm Gonna Love You Through It"
Country has never shied away from life's messy side, but this string-swept tearjerker about love's loyalty in the face of tragedy earns its sentiment.
Midnite, "Mongst I & I"
The legendary St. Croix roots reggae group since tells us to "keep good relations" with one another, despite the corporate greed and political discord around the globe.
A song that builds itself into a hazy trip while at the same time its exploding itself into fuzzy, synthy oblivion.
Miranda Lambert, "Mama's Broken Heart"
One of country's best young stars plays the bracingly brassy bad-girl role she was born for, spits fire in unforgettable fashion.
The Mountain Goats, "Estate Sale Sign"
A perfectly blistering John Darnielle anthem, suitable for shouting yourself hoarse after everything you hold dear has been pulverized into a fine powder.
My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"
Recorded live by a band that knows what the open road sounds like: 13 years in, Louisville's finest is still finding new tricks.
Natacha Atlas, "Batkallim" (Bombay Dub Remix)
Political prescience from an Anglo-Egyptian smartly steeped in pan-Arabic sounds: "Permit us to know freedom."
Nick Lowe, "House For Sale"
Sure, "House For Sale" functions as a sad metaphor for a relationship marred by neglect. But Lowe is such a humane songwriter that the song can't help but be shot through with hope for better days.
Nicki Minaj, "Super Bass"
The accents, the Slick Rick joke, that thing where you make up hand motions with your friends to the chorus.
Nicolas Jaar, "Keep Me There"
Gurgle, warble, boil and smoke, like a dank jazz side but a bit more baroque.
Now Ensemble, "Change"
Composer Judd Greenstein's tiny, urgent and insistent itches of melodic and rhythmic ideas explode into beauty.
Panda Bear, "You Can Count On Me"
A ghostly tapestry of cavernous Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies, chopped beats and found sound.
Paul Simon, "Rewrite"
As a kora shimmers behind Simon, "Rewrite" goofs on a misbegotten screenplay — until it reveals itself as a heartbreaking look at delusion and momentous mistakes that can't be deleted.
Pedro Soler & Gaspar Claus, "Insomnio Mineral (Rondena)"
A father and son combine an ancient flamenco guitar technique with a non-traditional approach to cello. You wish your family sounded like this.
Purity Ring, "Ungirthed"
Sweetness, light, handclaps, bounce and a touch of menace: ears ringing, teeth clicking, ears ringing, teeth clicking.
Randy Montana, "Burn These Matches"
A big, swollen country power ballad about temptation and fidelity, shot through with regret and relief in equal measure.
Raphael Saadiq, "Heart Attack"
Three-minute soul throwback fueled by a yearning vocal and an ace backing band, all churn and grind, and as potent as it is airtight.
Real Estate, "It's Real"
Sunny with a chance of winsome, sweet-hearted melancholy. What could be better?
Rihanna, "We Found Love" (feat. Calvin Harris)
An uplifting, club-ready pop banger about hard-earned love? Or a chilling account of a relationship doomed by substance abuse and codependency? Depends on how much time you've spent with the video.
SBTRKT, "Wildfire" (feat. Yukimi Nagano)
Masked producer gets an assist from Little Dragon's singer, who cements her status as indie electronic music's go-to guest vocalist of the year.
Seun Kuti, "Rise"
Slow-burning horns, swiftly moving social consciousness, and insistent grooves right out his father's playbook.
Simone Dinnerstein, "Ich ruf zu dir"
This pianist knows that what happens between the notes of this Bach cantata is just as crucial as what's written in the score.
Smith Westerns, "Weekend"
With a hot-as-a-car-hood-on-a-summer's-day guitar riff and a heart-wrenching chord progression, this song kicked off the sophomore album from these Chicago 20-year-olds in style.
St. Vincent, "Cruel"
Even on her album's catchiest song, St. Vincent's Annie Clark expresses darker feelings of fragmentation, discontent and uncertainty with sinister knife-twisting lines that pack an emotional punch.
Telebossa, "Eu Sonhei Que Tu Estavas Tao Linda"
Classic Brazilian songwriting with touches of chamber music and a subtle electronic presence, plus a surreal vocal. Like the moment after the sun sets and everything goes quiet.
Tinariwen, "Tenere Taqqim Tossam"
An awkward joint appearance on The Colbert Report probably didn't move the needle, but this collaboration between Tuareg rock gods Tinariwen and TV on the Radio makes for a sweet, soulful groove.
Dance-ready Afrobeat rhythms built from looping drums and the powerful voice of 2011 All-Star Merrill Garbus.
Tyler, the Creator, "Yonkers"
The lurching funeral march of a thousand angry commenters, the cubist mouth architecture of a suburban nightmare, the problem with starting a fire.
The Weeknd, "The Morning"
The peaceful eye in House Of Balloons' hurricane of addiction: Abel Tesfaye exalts his indulgences like "drinking Alizè with our cereal for breakfast." It's the beautiful sound of the end of the beginning.
Wilco, "Art Of Almost"
The boldest opening statement from Wilco in ten years, "Art of Almost" asserts itself with provocative sounds and fiery riffs. This ain't your dad's "Dad Rock."
Wild Flag, "Romance"
Feminist punk superheroes reveal their secret: SHAKE! SHIMMY! SHAKE!
Wye Oak, "Civilian"
Singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner's insecurities and personal flaws are laid bare before squealing guitar and driving drumbeats.
"Rubber" begins with distortion so thick it hurts and ends with the most cathartic burst of feedback and noise you'll bliss out to this year.