Note: It should simply be accepted that a song on this list receiving even a 0 score is still better than any song not on this list that would have, using different criteria, received a 10 out of 10 rating. (You can download these ten tracks as a non-mix mix here, or just click through the songs to stream them.)
1.7 | "Santa Fe" by Beirut
I could hardly ignore this song because this is, for me, the definitive Beirut song. I once lived in Santa Fe, down the street from Beirut’s parent’s house. I spent a New Year’s eve with him and his wife, burning the furniture in my house and watching "Why Must I Cry?" and Saddam Hussein’s hanging. I have a lot of snowed-in and/or dark memories of Santa Fe. But “Santa Fe” expresses just about every light, happy, and good memory I have of the place.
1.9 | "Otis" by Jay-Z and Kanye West
"Otis" is too goofy to be as serious as it is. It’s to happy to be so mean. I’ve heard like three other rappers this year rip off that "going through customs" line, as if air travel were the new pinnacle of class. If anything, it’s where white celebrities (hey, Kevin Smith and Alec Baldwin) are treated like people of color. "Otis" is similarly democratizing: it balls up all our class resentment and racial hatred and re-packages it into a consumer-friendly jam. It’s not exactly anesthetizing, but it doesn’t pile on the pain, either.
3.2 | "The Wilhelm Scream" by James Blake
In cinema, the “Wilhelm Scream” is some bullshit sound production that nerdy guys will tell you about. The song “The Wilhelm Scream” is some awesomely transcendent sound production that nerdy guys will tell you about. The main difference? The filmic Wilhelm Scream is about 1.3 seconds long, and the Blake song covers five different levels of emotional hell over the course of 277 seconds. What you think is just a background artifact at around the 120 second mark rises slightly through the right channel like a lone cicada gnawing on your brain. It indicates that the absolute bottom of the song is about to fall out 30 seconds later, and if you don’t get shivers every time you hear it, then call an hearse; you’re dead.
3.9 | "Haters Opinion" by Green Ova Underground
My favorite video game writer (sorry Bissell, stop repeating your talking points, ok?) is Tim Rogers. His primary innovation (beyond elegantly entertaining bloviation) is his anatomy of friction. My favorite of his frictions is “crunchy”, which is “when things collide, hold there for an instant, and then, in that instant of holding, a ‘winner’ is determined, and it is that winner who proceeds beyond the loser.” This production by Clams Casino is the crunchiest production. I would literally pay $19 for a high-definition version of this song because at this fidelity, the rough edges have about as much prominence as the chompy-hungry-crunchy parts, which is a shame. Shady Blaze is a pretty good rapper, too.
5.2 | "Illusions of Grandeur" by Lil B
My iTunes has the Illusions of Grandeur mixtape tagged as 2010, but the internet says it’s a 2011 joint. Great. The thing about Lil B is that listening to Lil B is really unpleasant. I do not in any way subscribe the theory that he’s some kind of idiot-savant, which is frankly kind of racist. But it’s also the least interesting explanation for his despite-all appeal. “Illusions of Grandeur” gets to the best parts of his work — Clams Casino production, thematic uplift, an actual narrative thrust — all of which are simply missing from 78.333333333333333% of his work. “I was a robber, turned positive” is all I need to hear, and I’m just taken away from here. It’s wonderful.
6.0 | "Strange Mercy" by St. Vincent
The song directly following “Strange Mercy”, “Neutered Fruit”, is perhaps a better song if we’re being really real here. But this is music. “Neutered Fruit“‘s sort of quasi-Egyptian, block-like melody (as in, it sounds like pieces of the Great Pyramid of Giza falling about your head) is majestic and disturbing. “Strange Mercy” is neither. It’s a close, personal song. Comforting. It’s an amniotic-sort of song, and if that’s dismissive toward St. Vincent or Annie Clark, then I do not apologize for feeling comforted by the things that comfort me. “Strange Mercy” is the feeling of being clutched.
6.1 | "Something Wrong" (feat. Codie G) by Kristmas
Honestly, I’m not sure how Kristmas, G-Side, Yelawolf, Block Beattaz, DJ Burn One, and all the rest of the New Alabama Rap Consciousness Collective (N.A.R.C.C.) relate or fit together. From taking it all in this year, their work has all blended together into a textureless meta-narrative, which is how I also came to understand Robert Lowell. What I do know is that Kristmas is really one of the only rappers I’ve ever related to on a deep, personal level, and “Something Wrong” is too smart (and interesting, which is easy to forget when you’re making ‘smart’ music) to ignore.
9.1 | "212" by Azealia Banks
I mean, I know that NME thinks Azealia Banks is cool, but the only substantive thing about her is still on The Singles Jukebox. I guess she’s been ‘around’ for years, but her “212” and imminent major label debut are somehow the mirror opposite of LDR? There’s a lot of stuff you can do to write about her? I don’t know. You know what I know? I know I listened to this song literally 50 times in one day. I went on vacation the next day, which was stressful because it was a travel day. By two days later, my life felt empty and purposeless, and I didn’t quite pin it down until I woke with a song in my heart. I’d discovered that listening to “212” has somehow become sort of integral to my everyday existence.
9.6 | "Fuck Your Ethnicity" by Kendrick Lamar
"Fuck Your Ethnicity" is a koan of a song. It has the catchiest and pseudo-objectively best hook of any rap song in the last year or more. I can’t even begin to understand how to explain why this song means so much to me without saying things like “It’s the ‘Exhibit C’ of 2011, except it’s both better and made by someone who actually seems to like rapping.” Or, “It makes anyone who’s ever said ‘#swag’ seem like they should probably get in line for the M.O.R. rap gulags.” Or, “It’s probably the only rap song you need to hear if you only hear one rap song every year.” I don’t know why I put all those in scare quotes, because they’re true. It’s just that “Fuck Your Ethnicity” is really understated in the way it’s good. Trying to say something ostentatious in an encomium feels disingenuous. You just have to listen to the song, and you’ll get it.
9.9 | "California" by EMA
I don’t know why I didn’t give this song a 10. (This is, of course, the very most objective and authoritative assertion of aesthetic criteria you’re likely to read all year.) I shaved off a tenth of a point, I think, because I know the song will just get better with age, so I wanted to leave a little room for it to grow in stature. A dirty secret: I don’t see a lot of live music, even though I live in New York and love music. I saw EMA, though, and it was great! She’s a stalking giant on stage, and she actually wears this gold necklace that says EMA. I like how this song mentions the album’s title in its lyrics, because it’s somehow not cheesy in this instance. I love how this song is just a clinic in writing a bridge-less masterpiece.
I’ll confess to you now, Past Life Martyred Saints is my favorite (ahem, I mean, the "best") album of 2011. It just reads like a Nirvana album to me. That sounds terrible to me when I write it, but I mean it recaptures a revolutionary feeling without being reactionary. It’s very modern, but it still has its soul. It’s wicked, like, young and concerned . It’s also aloof. So this whole Fuck California. You made me boring” opening, which is immediate and arresting, also sort of cracks me up, even though the song is as serious as a mortal wound. She says, “What does failure taste like? It tastes like dirt. I’m begging you to please look away”, which is insightful. Earlier she says, “I’m just twenty-two. I don’t mind dying”, which is stupid. There’s virtually no exposition, and no narrative, in “California”, yet it feels like all those great old movies I’m supposed to have seen. The song is great because it’s about four and a half minutes of entirely living inside someone else’s head. I truly believe in the phenomenological reduction as a tool for daily living, so it’s not surprising that both relation and transcendence figure highly in my musical proclivities. This song somehow has maxed out both categories, at the same time, and that’s wonderful and impressive — beyond words and numbers.