15. "Murder to Excellence" - The Throne
These are two of the best hip-hop beats you'll ever hear. Back in August when I did my initial review of Watch The Throne, I called it the best-produced hip-hop album I'd ever heard, and I still think that's true. This song is my best supporting evidence for that claim. But the beats aren't by Just Blaze or Timbaland or the Neptunes or Clams Casino or any of the other favorite producers of today. They're by Swizz Beatz and S1. Kanye doesn't even co-produce either part of this track, but both the "Murder" and "Excellence" beats are as perfect as anything you'll find on Late Registration. Never have I heard piano, percussion, and vocals put together so well in a rap track as in this one. As for Jay's and Ye's lyrical content, they basically talk about how great it is to be rich and black, which they do for most of Watch The Throne. But it doesn't really matter; they could recite passages from "Yo Gabba Gabba" over this beat and it would still sound awesome.
14. "Gangsta" - tUnE-yArDs
Merrill Garbus is the star of tUnE-yArDs. That much is brutally clear. What I like about "Gangsta," though, is that it's the best full-band effort on w h o k i l l. Nate Brenner's angular and distorted bassline is punctuated by the dueling saxophones and Garbus' always spectacular vocals. Taken individually, every part of "Gangsta" is wrong, but combined, everything is perfect. My favorite part is the last minute-and-a-half, from that breakdown/bridge section to the end. Everything gets mixed around as the track spirals out of control. The saxophones steal the vocal melody and later the bass line. There's no rhythm, and Garbus' voice is garbled, starting and stopping unexpectedly. Then everything comes back together in a beautiful mess. The saxes make otherworldly noises as the track comes to a close, leaving the listener in a completely different universe than he was at the beginning.
13. "The Shrine / An Argument" - Fleet Foxes
I've heard the music of Fleet Foxes described as only fit for canoeing. This is somewhat true, I can see myself paddling down a remote creek as the sun creeps through the trees as I listen to Helplessness Blues. But that's no reason to write it off. Never before have Fleet Foxes been as ambitious and brilliant as Pecknold and Co. are on "The Shrine / An Argument." This track is musical storytelling at its finest. Throughout the course of its eight minutes, this song takes me to more places than I can count on two hands. Compared with its beautiful video, its a masterpiece. I especially love the Eric Dolphy-esque free jazz bass clarinet towards the end.
12. "Towers" - Bon Iver
A great song from an otherwise fairly mediocre album, in my opinion. I mentioned before that the reason I didn't like Bon Iver's most recent record as much as For Emma... is that Bon Iver lost most of its simplicity. But "Towers" reminds me of my favorite songs from the first album, including its wonderful title track. The falsetto vocals and horn section would fit right in on the second half of For Emma... Vernon creates a country/folk rock vibe on this track, but it's still poppier and catchier than anything else on Bon Iver, and that's why "Towers" is miles ahead of any other song on that album.
11. "Taken For A Fool" - The Strokes
In the same way that "Towers" would fit in perfectly on For Emma, Forever Ago, "Taken For A Fool" would be a fitting addition to 2003's Room On Fire, another album earlier in a band's career which I love. I think what the Strokes tried to do with Angles is present a sort of extension of Room On Fire with a new twist. Almost all of it failed, but "Taken For A Fool" is fantastic, not only preserving the nostalgic feeling of the Strokes' earlier work but also providing a new wave flair. Most Strokes fans were annoyed by the change in Julian Casablancas' vocal style on Angles compared to the earlier albums, but on this song, he turns slacker into song, just like he did on Is This It. This is definitely the Strokes I know and love.
10. "Video Games" - Lana Del Rey
This is one of the first songs anyone ever heard from Lana Del Rey (real name Elizabeth Grant), and will be a song on her upcoming 2012 debut, which is an early front-runner for best album of 2012 already. There's something about the music Grant has put out that's quite unlike anything else that's been done before. This song could have been sung by some lounge singer in the 40s, but it's called "Video Games," so obviously its modern. Grant's voice has a slight country tinge to her voice that says Americana to me. There's so much going on underneath what she's singing in "Video Games," but it still manages to be mysterious and ambiguous. If everything on Grant's debut album is as fantastic as "Video Games," "Born To Die," and "Blue Jeans," it will be incredible.
9. "Cruel" - St. Vincent
The beauty of this song is in the juxtaposition of its danceable percussion and its melody, which is largely free from rhythm. Annie Clark's voice is ethereal on this track. Above the disco beat and her guitar work, the shimmering synthesizers and her airy vocals give the song a decidedly ambiguous indie flavor. Here's another check for the 2011 Return of the Guitar column: the guitar riff is as much a driving force for this song as the dance beat is. Clark proves throughout the entirety of Strange Mercy that she is an extremely talented musician, and that rings true here, as she meshes virtuosity and blissful pop.
8. "Rigamortis" - Kendrick Lamar
2011 was already a great year for hip-hop when Big K.R.I.T came along, but then Kendrick put out Section.80 and blew me away. There's only one other MC who displays the impeccable flow like Lamar on this track, and while that rapper is an artist who's been on the scene for nearly 20 years, Section.80 is Lamar's first real album. On the last verse, as he raises his voice and gets more intense, I find myself shaking my head in pure awe. I don't understand how he does it. It's incredible for such a young artist (Lamar is 24) to put out a track that's this good. "Rigamortis" might be the only song on this list that doesn't reach the three-minute mark. But if it were any longer my mind might explode.
7. "The Vent" - Big K.R.I.T
You know it's been an exceptional year for rap music when "Rigamortis" is outdone by not one, but two other songs. I can't even believe I put another one in front of "The Vent." Pat said it best when he said that the best thing about Big K.R.I.T is his brutal honesty. And there's no better example of this than "The Vent." There's no other rap song this year, or probably ever, that's made me stop and think, and even tear up (once) like this one does. As I said on yesterday's list, Return of 4Eva is filled with tasteful, understated beats, and "The Vent's" is one of the most minimal. But it allows K.R.I.T to fill in the void by baring his soul where other rappers would call for more synths or samples. I think Pat also said (somewhere can't find it sorry) that this isn't rap, but rather poetry. That's true. Allen Ginsberg would be jealous of its beauty.
6. "Countdown" - Beyonce
Everyone on the earth is jealous of Beyonce's beauty. There's not much I can say about "Countdown" that hasn't already been said, but I'll say it anyway. It seems to be the 2011 song that everyone and their mother likes. It's one of Yonce's most ambitious songs musically, combining non-western music elements with hip-hop, r&b, and pop. But it's also one of the most infectious pop singles of recent memory. It almost got annoying to me a few times. It's impossible to keep out of my mind after I hear it. It's not often a pop singer garners as much critical acclaim as Beyonce has for this song, and that's why she's the most talented pop artist today. That's not really even questionable.
5. "Vomit" - Girls
"Vomit" is probably the most simplistic song on this list, but that makes it raw, emotional, and powerful. I'm having trouble writing about it because there's just so little to it. A fourth-grader who just picked up a guitar for the first time could play that opening riff. Girls frotman Chris Owens admits he's not a great singer, but he makes up for any vocal mediocrity by constructing and writing songs meticulously and damn near perfectly. The first half of this song is dark and brooding, but then it changes, and Owens' emotion cascades through the speakers, and it is pure beauty. He doesn't even sing much during the second part, letting the backup singers take over, but one can truly feel what he's singing about. "Vomit" doubles as an ode to classic rock artists, especially Pink Floyd with the backup singers. It's strange how a song called "Vomit" could be so beautiful. I know that if I ever see this song performed live, and the circumstances are correct, my face will be streaming with tears by the song's end.
4. "How I Know" - Toro Y Moi
It took me a long time to realize that this song is great. It took me two times seeing Chaz Bundick live to realize that I really loved Underneath The Pine, and another time to realize that "How I Know" is the best song on that record. Now, I can't get enough of this song. The music is the most sophisticated of any song on this list. I still can't figure out exactly what is going on with the chord progression. It might be weird during the verse, but when that chorus hits, everything makes sense. The melody is ear candy, the guitar and bass anchor the beautiful chords, and the lyrics are poetry. Bundick is thinking of home. He is both comfortable in his thought, but weary and homesick. That is the beauty of this song. As I listen to it, it makes me both nostalgic and sad. But as Bundick sings the chorus a second time, and the track dissolves into thin air, I am purely happy.
3. "Nasty" - Nas
Even though Nas' magnum opus was released seventeen years ago, and nothing he's put out since then has been quite as good, he still remains the single best rapper on the hip-hop scene today (although Kendrick might change that in a few years). In addition to having one of the coolest voices of any MC, his flow is unmatched by any other. The first time I heard "Nasty," I didn't pay much attention to it. The second time was around the time the video was released, and I really listened to it and paid attention. And if the last verse of "Rigamortis" astounds me, the last verse of "Nasty..." Well, there isn't a word that really describes how good it is. Nas is effortlessly perfect. Busta Rhymes can spit really fast, but even his antics can't hold a candle to Nas' flawless flow. I could listen to that last verse over and over again. If the rest of Life Is Good is as great as its first single, we might be dealing with Nas' best effort since Illmatic, and maybe even more.
2. "Will Do" - TV On The Radio
1. "Art of Almost" - Wilco
Some have described Wilco's The Whole Love as a return to form for the long-established group. It certainly starts out that way. "Art of Almost" begins in the same way that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's brilliant "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" does. Noisy ambience, and then a complex drum beat that drops out shortly before the vocal melody comes in. Both are long, extended openers that close with a long instrumental section. Where they differ, however, is in their moods. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" feels apathetic, while "Art of Almost" feels dark and ominous, almost angry. The track is so tense the whole way through. What made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so undeniably brilliant was Wilco's use of noise and experimentation, and "Art of Almost" follows suit. Its noise makes it angular and weird, but it still follows conventional rock and roll traditions. Oh jeez, I haven't even started talking about Nels Cline's solo at the end. Cline is an interesting guitarist already. His note choices are more often outside of the chord progression than not. On his solo, which is by far his best guitar work with Wilco, he goes crazy. He does whatever he wants on that solo, and most of it should be wrong, but isn't. The weird solo adds to the quirkiness of the song as a whole. The rest of the band is equally as engaging instrumentally. Glenn Kotche is spot-on on drumset, following Cline's every move perfectly. John Stirratt lays down the bassline wonderfully. The other musicians work together in perfect harmony, as well, and the track ends in flawlessly controlled chaos and remains unresolved as it leads to the rest of the album. It's one of Wilco's best efforts since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as is this album.
Thanks for sticking with me, y'all. I know this is later than I promised, but at least I completed it before I went to bed tonight. Stay tuned for my ten favorite albums of 2011 tomorrow!!