After a decade of what was (to me) pretty lackluster music, I was glad in 2011 to hear a lot of fresh and interesting songs in every genre of popular music. The following five songs were absolutely essential to the year 2011 and will take about 20 minutes to listen to, provided you haven’t heard a few already. With that in mind, here they are:
“Shake Me Down” by Cage the Elephant: from “Thank You, Happy Birthday”
These are uncertain times, and the beginning of 2011 was no exception to that uncertainty. Cage the Elephant itself was uncertain as to whether it was destined for something more than being the one-hit wonder that wrote “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” – which 50 percent of listeners seemed to think was the last White Stripes single. This sense of the unknown and wishing for a time long past was channeled into “Shake Me Down,” the lead single from their sophomore album, “Thank You, Happy Birthday.”
From the opening notes of the song (a dual-guitar interplay mixing ethereal slide guitar and delicate acoustic guitar), it was clear that the band had grown, and frontman Matt Schulz’s bittersweet meditations added to the sense of increased maturity – and conversely lost youth. These dark meditations at the outset of the song are turned into a raucous chorus, accepting the darkness of the present, the longing for the past and the hope of the future, as Schulz passionately yells, “I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun.”
“Headlines” by Drake: from “Take Care”
Drake’s success as a rap musician very clearly shows his artistic ability to create a second self – the performer persona – one which is totally different from his own personality.
Drake was a middle-upper-class Canadian who starred on none other than the teen drama “Degrassi.” This does not seem to describe a leader of the testosterone-fueled modern rap scene. His only choice was to take his fairly peaceful, harmonious and success-filled life and search for every inch of darkness he could find – or to revel in said success.
“Headlines” is a case of the latter, but keeps the low-key and ambient production style of the album it’s taken from, “Take Care.” The mix of subtle musicianship, great pop hooks and Drake’s perfectly metered yet aggressive rap delivery makes “Headlines” one of the best hip-hop songs of 2011.
“Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People: from “Torches”
The most addictive, memorable and easy melody of 2011 describes the psychological state of a child preparing to go on a violent rampage. It is in this way that Mark Foster – a former commercial jingle writer – encapsulates the perpetual spirit of dark irony which permeates indie/hipster culture and transcends it by making it a mainstream pop hit.
The song itself is a beautiful mélange of low-ebb grooves, with a high bass riff, subtle electronica keys and vaguely ska-inspired guitar, all of which build not into a violent rock chorus, but into what sounds like the refrain of a children’s song or a commercial for shoes with an infective and catchy jingle.
“Heartbeat” by Childish Gambino: from “Camp”
One could write a whole book on the amazing success story of Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), a former NYU Drama major and “30 Rock” staff writer. He is still part of the internet comedy troupe DerrickComedy (which produced its own film), a regular on NBC’s “Community” (still on indefinite hiatus) and a self-made indie rapper.
On “Camp,” Glover’s first release on a label, he makes his formerly impressive independent rap career look like child’s play: “Camp” dives and swells with spectacular string sections, guitar fills, anthemic drums, grand pianos and gospel choruses. On “Heartbeat,” a grooving dance track with blaring synthesizers, Glover describes an on-and-off relationship full of betrayals and hurt feelings.
Despite the track’s mechanical and electronic sound, Glover describes something totally human and sincere. It is part of his whole mantra that he expresses the truth about himself and his life, and does not use an artificial persona – and “Heartbeat” proves the power of this artful sincerity.
“Someone Like You” by Adele: from “21”
Fortunately, there is very little chance that anyone in the United Sates (or Great Britain, for thatmatter) has not heard “Someone Like You” several times over. But it is necessary that it is recorded in the annals of pop history (though of course the Billboard Charts keep all of their number-one singles immaculately recorded) as a testament to how very alive and human pop music can be.
Rejecting all conventions of dance and techno influence, auto-tune and the like, Adele belted out the most powerful song of the year on “Someone Like You,” a song which can touch nearly every adult (or even adolescent) heart with its unwavering sincerity.
It records fear, doubt, jealousy, hope and even love in under five minutes. It is a testament to the power of song that Adele can express that she felt the same way that millions, indeed billions of other people have felt at one point in time, and the common pathos and humanity that bind us, in a way that no simple speech could express. It could only be expressed through the beauty of Adele’s voice and the simplicity of her melody.