This track has 4 things I love in a good pop song: a gapless transition from the previous song on the album, handclaps, prominent use of the major seventh chord, and double-tracked vocals. Also, the last ~42 seconds are sort of a hidden track, featuring what sounds like a field recording that nicely sums up the vibe of the album as a whole.
24. Obscura - “A Transcendental Serenade”
This (mostly) instrumental track really shows off the guitar chops present on the album, and showcases the best way to use acoustic guitar in really heavy music. Complex riffs, flawless leads, and a bit of robot vocals at the end for atmosphere.
23. Cults - “You Know What I Mean”
Instead of shying away from the endless 60s girl group comparisons, Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion (love love love that name) deliver this song that echoes, quite strongly, the melody from The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.” Another element I’m a sucker for: the 6/8 time signature.
22. Bon Iver - “Towers”
This song (almost) avoids the yacht rock pastiche that so many people have accused this album of; except for some smooth saxophone early on, the track sticks to what Justin Vernon does best: gorgeous vocal harmonies and evocative atmosphere.
21. tUnE-yArDs - “Gangsta”
No matter your opinion on her cultural appropriation, no one can deny Merill Garbus’s pipes. She has one of the most powerful set of lungs in music today, and this song showcases them nicely. Love the European siren that starts the song, that oscillating perfect 4th interval that lays the foundation both for the rest of the song’s harmonic progression and for Merill’s brilliant vocal riff that repeats throughout the track.
20. Childish Gambino - “Freaks and Geeks”
This quintessential CG track features some of his best wordplay, reference shout-outs, and balance of bravado and introspection that he brings to his music. The flow is nonstop, with a good mix of rhythmic and tonal variation, and the lyrics have legitimate laugh-out-loud (or, “lol”) moments.
19. Ghost - “Ritual”
From an album that only barely missed out on my top10 metal albums (see yesterday’s post for those), this song sounds like it’s straight out of NWOBHM, even though the band is Swedish, and the album was released in early 2011. Proof that you can make heavy music and still maintain clean, and, dare I say, catchy vocal harmony, this track ups the spook factor with its own satanic version of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our father, who art in hell / unhallowed be thy name…”).
18. TV On The Radio - “Killer Crane”
Through no fault of their own, the only reason this song is this low on my list is that I over-listened to it when I first got the album in April, and, after all, these lists are highly subjective. I feel pretty confident calling this the only TVOTR song with banjo (correct me if I’m wrong, <D>/<S>-ers), and its prog-pastoral atmosphere means it’s also one of the prettiest tracks they’ve ever put out.
17. The Decemberists - “Don’t Carry It All”
The opener from their back-to-basics album, this song shows Colin Meloy et al. at their folk-rockingist best, replete with harmonica-holder harmonica, a driving acoustic guitar riff that never fails to remind me of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” (seriously, check the rhythms; we may have an “Ice Ice Baby”/”Under Pressure” situation brewing), and perfect background vocal harmonies from one Gillian Welch. Even when they got away from their baroque storytelling, The Decembrists proved they still knew how to craft a perfect pop song.
16. Fleet Foxes - “Battery Kinzie”
From one excellent folk record to another, this little, underrated track that recalls the best of Simon & Garfunkel showed Fleet Foxes at their best, pulling from those who came before them while also offering a fresh, original take. The emphatic bass drum that echoes throughout the song and the descending riff at the end of the chorus are two subtle elements that make this one of my favorite tracks of the year.
15. Mastodon - “Octopus Has No Friends”
This track, like the record, is a hell of a lot of fun. Somehow, they’ve managed to capture the metal riff equivalent of what an octopus’s many limbs sound like. That intro bit that comes back during the chorus is just a perfect representation of a lonely cephalopod. A lot of my favorite Mastodon songs feature a very specific trait that this one definitely has: a complex, quickly moving guitar part with soaring held-note harmonized vocals over top of it (see also: “Quintessence” and “Hearts Alive”).
14. The Head And The Heart - “Ghosts”
Everything about this little jaunt rubs me the right way. The vocal melodies and harmonies, the galloping yet gentle piano, and and the oddly funny juxtaposition of such an upbeat song paired with such depressing lyrics (“One day we’ll all be ghosts / trippin’ around in someone else’s home) all combine to make a track I’ve listened to over and over again.
13. Frank Ocean - “American Wedding”
Maybe it’s my deep-rooted love of 70s classic rock, or my penchant for postmodern intertextuality; either way, I am bananas for this song. It’s a premium showcase for Ocean’s really excellent vocal skills, and comparing this song with its basis (the Eagles’ “Hotel California”) provides an interesting look at how artists’ impressions of America have changed. And man, that (mostly) a capella coda is just brilliant.
12. The Civil Wars - “I Want You Back”
Our friend and fellow |.DOLPHIN/SHARK.| contributor TWG is fond of saying that all cover songs need to serve a specific purpose; otherwise, what’s the point? In the case of this song, Joy Williams and John Paul White have taken the Jackson 5’s funky, soulful dance number and infused it with a discernible sense of loss. The original is one of my all-time favorite songs, and that these two were able to put out an original, interesting, and beautiful take on it surprised and delighted me.
Confession time. The band Friendly Club consists of my friend Dean and myself. We started messing around with Garageband loops around 8 years ago and made enough music to come up with a band name and song and album titles and artwork and lots of other paraphernalia. This song is easily our magnum opus. You can click the name up there to listen. Warning: it’s over 7 minutes long, and best heard with headphones. It’s also the pinnacle of my existence.
10. Justice - “Canon”
I had never listened to Justice before this album, even though TWG had a poster of theirs up in his room all 3 years we lived together. But I read all the descriptions of Audio, Video, Disco. and immediately sought it out. Prog-classic-rock-dance-electro-arena-metal? Yes, please! And that’s pretty much exactly how the album sounds. Eminently danceable, but still pretty heavy and complex, this song in particular epitomizes what I love about the album: synths all over the place, hard rock riffs, and sixteenth-note triplets.
9. Laura Marling - “Sophia”
Another powerful female vocalist on this list, Laura Marling is too young (she’s 21) for her to be this good; it’s just not fair. This song is a perfect mix of Joni Mitchell, III-era Led Zeppelin, and modern folk sensibilities. It’s a perfectly paced crescendo of a track: the whole thing builds and builds, until you’re begging for the drums to come in and kick it into gear. And then, they do, and it’s everything you want it to be.
8. St. Vincent - “Dilettante”
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Annie Clark’s evolution and progression as an artist; the fact that that this song sounds like an outtake from her first album Marry Me does not mean I don’t love where she is now. This song stands out from the rest of the album because it is different. The production is much closer—it feels like a live, dry performance of the song. It’s chock full of Annie Saint Vince classics, from the effected horns and fuzzed-out guitar to the adult lyrics and inherent darkness.
7. Protest The Hero - “Tandem”
My most earworm-iest earworm of the year. This song has been stuck in my head seemingly since I bought the album in March. It’s heavy and technical while still remaining poppy and catchy. I love the use of major thirds in metal songs, and the leadwork during the chorus singlehandedly makes me want to practice more so I can be as good as these guys. The lyrics talk about cancer, and it’s pretty ~serious~, but because I don’t listen to lyrics (especially in metal songs, because you usually can’t understand them, ever), I don’t mind. As I mentioned yesterday, this song (and album) are my most played of 2011.
6. Delicate Steve - “Butterfly”
The story behind this artist is really interesting (more on that in my top25 albums; uh, spoiler alert for those I guess), but I wouldn’t care at all about that if the music weren’t so damn good. This song sounds like a backyard jam by Southern robots in the future. It’s somehow soulful and digital, combining acoustic and electro into a fascinating mix of dance, bluegrass, prog, and math. In other words, if someone crafted a song in a lab just for me to like, this would be it. Oh yeah, and no vocals.
While there is some discrepancy here at d.o.l.p.h.i.n.s.h.a.r.k. as to our feelings on David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I don’t think anyone could argue that the teaser trailer featuring this Led Zeppelin cover wasn’t absolutely one of the best things of 2011, and so much of that is due to this song. Starting with last year’s Oscar-winning score for The Social Network, Reznor and Ross have proven adept at producing cinematic atmospheres that perfectly accompany Fincher’s fascination with obsession, but this cover propels what lies under the surface of that music and thrusts it full on into the world. They’ve added dark edge and snarl to what was already a kickass song about vikings. Also: yet another set of powerful female pipes.
4. Hammers of Misfortune - “The Grain”
Yesterday’s top choice on my favorite metal albums of the year, this brilliant progressive metal album, and this song in particular, features soaring choruses, NWOBHM riffs, 70s organ, acoustic noodly breakdowns, twin guitar leads, and everything else I love all crammed into one track. I dare you not to sing along.
3. Radiohead - “Codex”
Okay, guys. I know, I know, we can all agree this wasn’t Radiohead’s best output. The King of Limbs was short, too drum-y, and a direction we didn’t expect or really love. But holy crap is “Codex” a brilliant song. A piano ballad in the mode of “Pyramid Song,” “Videotape,” and “We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up),” this track is Radiohead at their best—moody, expansive, and gorgeous. Here the intersection of digital bloops and natural instrumentation really works. That bit where the the piano ascends right as Thom descends is so perfect it makes me never want to listen to anything else.
2. Beyoncé - “Countdown”
Proof that you can throw everything in your toolkit at a song and have it stick, this song has everything from dub, R&B, pop, funk, soul, and hip-hop. Beyoncé’s never sounded better, with her trademark chorus of vocal harmonies and highly expressive delivery. Who knew Boyz II Men would still be playing into the best of 2011? Oh, and that bridge thing where the snaps come on 4 kills me dead every time. An absolutely perfect pop song, even if I have no idea what a “boof” is.
1. Battles - “Ice Cream”
The second I heard this song, I knew none in 2011 would top it. I didn’t know what to expect after Tyundai left, but even though this song sounds close to nothing like the Battles from Mirrored, there’s still that recognizable weirdness, that playful computerization, that perfect bit of groove that let me know the heart of Battles still beat. Featuring truly unintelligible vocals (just the way I like it) by Matias Aguayo, “Ice Cream,” like its title, is the perfect summertime treat. It’s danceable and lively, with enough coolness to be refreshing. During the actual summer, it make me appreciate the present. Now, in the cold(ish—thanks Tennessee/global warming) throes of winter, the song provides some warmth and makes me look back fondly. It was my favorite song of 2011 from the moment I heard it (on my halfway through the year list, I made it numbers 1-10 on my top15 songs of 2011 so far), and nothing came out to topple it from its perch. Ice cream.
A bizarre combination of Alice in Wonderland and Breaking Bad, the video for Mastodon’s “Curl of the Burl” features surreal imagery that reflects the psychedelic elements of the song’s stoner metal roots. It also contains some really excellently low-budget special effects reminiscent of the best kind of cult horror film. Plus, naked fire boobs.
4. Beyoncé - “Countdown”
This video is another mishmash of varying influences, from the clean lines of art deco to the fastmotion dancing of silent films. Combine these with contemporary moves and vintage outfits, and you have a video that truly embodies the maximalist approach of the song itself. Particularly impressive are the color swaps near the beginning and the 10 Beyoncés grooving to the Boyz II Men sample.
3. Battles - “Ice Cream”
A perfect summer video for a perfect summer song. Ice cream, swimming, bathing suits, sunshine, dancing, all key summer signifiers. The most interesting aspect of this video is its found footage aesthetic, which recalls Battles’s use of samples and looping in their music. And hey, you can’t go wrong with a good old fashioned licking motif.
First, sorry there’s no embedded video, but NBC has taken it down, and the only version on youtube has embedding disabled. Click above for a link. This isn’t technically a music video, but it is a video, and it is of music, so get bent, sticklers. Featuring just Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, this performance of “Give Up The Ghost” on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show provides a fascinating insight into how Radiohead craft their songs. Although The King Of Limbs, where this song can be found, is a dense, intricately layered headphones album, this arrangement of one of its best songs is sparse, lovely, and downright pastoral. For all of their various bleeps and bloops, Radiohead can sure craft some killer melodies. When Thom loops his own voice seemingly a dozen times, the ensuing chorale of Yorkes is as affecting as anything they’ve ever produced.
1. Eleanor Friedberger - “My Mistakes”
At the heart of any great music video (or any great anything, for that matter) lies a compelling story. We want to see something happen, and for a reason. The music video for Eleanor Friedberger’s “My Mistakes” is not only my favorite one from 2011, but it’s also one of the best I’ve ever seen. The video is a study in comparison: using real, grainy footage of Eleanor shot for an art class when she was an undergrad at the University of Texas in the 90s, and contemporary HD video of her today, it tells the story of a woman at two distinct points in her life. In the archival material, proto-Eleanor is going through a routine of getting ready, and the footage shot today has Eleanor2.0 copying this original routine, utilizing clever match cuts to showcase the subtle differences in the two Eleanors. Astute observers will notice one Britt Daniel, of Spoon, playing the supporting role of guy-who-picks-her-up-for-a-date-but-then-just-gets-straight-to-mackin’ in the old, UT footage. In the new 2011 storyline, Eleanor is not getting ready for a date with some guy, but rather a jovial summer get together on the front stoop, complete with American cheese slices, peeps, and hard boiled eggs. The character of Eleanor has embraced her agency, and, despite fitting into the exact same dress (props, E.F.), she foregoes her earlier motivation for a more communal one. An examination of the lyrics (cue reader gasp at BIH mentioning lyrics at all) reveals the thematic resonance of this wonderful short story: “Why keep time traveling if it doesn’t get better on the second time around?”