ONE - BEYONCE - 1 + 1
Nearly every time I've heard this song (including the 45 times in a row I listened after I first heard it), I have been blown away by the way Beyonce manages to make such a special moment out of a song so simple. Though the song's actual structure and melody aren't innovative (in the way that say "Countdown" is), this is a song for this specific time we are in. "We ain't got nothing but love." The sentiment isn't new ("Even though we ain't got money, I'm so in love with you honey"), but it's one that has persisted an unusually long time now. For much of our country, connections, relationships and love are the only riches people have -- and with job growth so slow, the only riches some can even hope to have. The country is in war or conflict or holding zones all over the place. Taking in national news -- political debates increasingly boiled down to polarizing impracticalities -- can feel like its own war. When I hear this song, I imagine a woman in this time, our time, caught in a whirlwind -- "Just when I ball up my fists" -- but mollified, protected by love -- "I realize I'm lying right next to you."
That she conveys this -- an anger, a fear, a trust bubbling below the surface -- with such a controlled tone and a beat that barely varies (it's hardly even there) is just proof of her talent. Atlanta singer-songwriter The-Dream wrote this song, under a different name, for his own second album. He also wrote most of "Single Ladies," so his talent is one that really finds magic with Beyonce. He leaked his demo sometime this year, and while I think his voice is great, the juxtaposition of his intended version with Beyonce's underscores for me how much of the power of this song is Beyonce's vocal talent. Take, for example, the cell phone video Jay-z shot of her rehearsing before she performed the song for the first time (on American Idol). For my money, she is the aught's most consistent (and evolving) pop star. Hundreds of listens after that first 45-spin run, this song still makes me cry. And even though I wasn't in love this year, when she sings "I don't know when I'm gon' die, but I hope that I'm gon' die by you," I feel exactly what she means.
TWO - ADELE - ROLLING IN THE DEEP (JAMIE XX REMIX, featuring CHILDISH GAMBINO) (plus the original, plus Lil Wayne's SFTW cover)
Because this was the most unavoidable song of 2011, I get that music bloggers are going to lash out against it. But I love the lyrics, and I loved dancing to it. It was covered and remixed every which way, which I think is one of the great themes of the year. The communal-nature of the Internet, where we all can somehow exist in one space, has taken music back to the share and sample like crazy nature of the 1960s. Somehow, this song felt like it belonged to all of us. And even though it was everywhere all of the time, the lyrics made Rolling the Deep feel personal, too. We could have it had it all, indeed.
THREE - HOLCOMBE WALLER - HARDLINERS
After a dark February and March, this song became my daily devotional. Holcombe's sweet voice, beseeching, "Repeat after me: I won't stop loving" made me hopeful for some future I wasn't always sure would exist for me. I love the line, "Don't laugh 'cause there just might be a soft curve in your hardest line." For me, this song is pure and beautiful deliverance -- not to mention catchy and backed by a gorgeous and smart video.
FOUR - THE WEEKND - THE BIRDS, PT. 1
I spent many an hour at the gym, biking or running faster because of this song's furious cadences. That snare running below his smooth voice!
FIVE - YOUTH LAGOON - 17
I love the pacing, the lyrics and the build-up in this sweet song about imagination and youth. It's pretty cinematic sounding, which is why Ryan and I made a video inspired by it.
SIX - AUSTRA - LOSE IT
This dark, cold and synthy song is catchy and dance-y. It's also somehow accessible, despite being sung by one of the weirdest voices -- that operatic warble!! -- of the year.
SEVEN - BEYONCE - COUNTDOWN
This song is stuffed full -- with lyrics, with samples and horns and drums and synths. THIS is Beyonce crazy in love, and though it's teeming, it never feels dizzying. For me, this song is Pavlovian -- if it's on, I can't not dance. I've danced in my kitchen, in the car, in the living room while my cat eyes me warily. The video -- somehow even crazier than the production -- is my favorite of the year (tied with Rihanna's "We Found Love").
EIGHT - JAMES BLAKE - WHY DON'T YOU CALL ME?
The first 30 seconds of this song kill me. This song is probably the shortest on the list, and even its 1:36 includes multiple seconds of silence. But that line -- why don't you call me what we both know I am -- says more than enough.
NINE - NICOLAS JAAR - I GOT A WOMAN
This song, a woozy seductive reimagining of Ray Charles' I Got a Woman tucked behind some French, soundtracked many a rainy Portland day for me. So dreamy.
TEN - FRANK OCEAN - NOVACANE
I love Frank Ocean's voice. On this song -- a tale of meeting a girl and smoking novacane -- he sounds his best - sexy, mysterious, lonely and new.