The Best of 2011

People often ask me what type of music I like most. I can never seem to pinpoint one particular style, because I love so many. But upon further reflection, for me it all boils down to good “pop.” From the fun “story” songs of the ‘70s to the techno-heavy ‘80s and beyond, I always seemed to gravitate most to tight arrangements with memorable lyrics and inspired vocals. And looking over this year’s collection, all 20 tunes have a pop sensibility that hit my musical sweet spot. Some faster, some slower, but all right on the mark. Hope you agree.

UPDATE:

I’ve removed the MP3 files but left the track listings below.

1. “MoneyGrabber” :: Fitz & The Tantrums 

Probably the first song I heard this year that I immediately knew would make the collection. Love the smooth, horn-drenched vibe that echoes the old Hall & Oates sound. Remind anyone of “Out of Touch”? Just a little methinks.

 2. “Lost in My Mind” :: The Head and the  Heart

Spare and elegant with driving acoustic guitar and piano throughout, this sextet out of Seattle delivered the debut of the year. Love the lines “How’s that brick laying coming? How’s your engine running?”

3. “Sweet Louise” :: The Belle Brigade 

This brother & sister duo are the grandchildren of film composer John Williams (talk about good genes). With pop hooks straight out of the Fleetwood Mac songbook, their debut album was produced by Matthew Wilder (of ‘80s one-hit wonder “Break My Stride” fame).

4. “Charlie Parker” :: I’m from Barcelona

With its 22 members (yep, 22!), I’m from Barcelona’s third release draws quick comparisons to The Polyphonic Spree. And this leadoff track kicks it all off with a sunny, sing-along homage to jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker.

5. “My Mistakes” :: Eleanor Friedberger 

Better known as one half of the duo the Fiery Furnaces, Ms. Friedberger struck out on her own this year and delivered this toe-tapping nugget. Make no mistake about it, the girl is obviously ready for the solo spotlight.

6. “Helplessness Blues” :: Fleet Foxes

The Fleet Foxes’ 2nd album and another tune to make my annual collection. With their signature baroque, folk-pop sound, it seems like 2 songs in 1: Simon & Garfunkel in the first half and an ode to owning an orchard in the second half. Epic and gorgeous!

7. “Came Out of a Lady” :: Rubblebucketrubblebucket

I don’t think I want to know what the title means, but this track sure is catchy. The overwhelming horn sound gives it a ska-like feel, but overall it’s just a great feel-good song with funky lyrics. Thank you Paste Magazine for this one.

8. “This Is Why We Fight” :: The Decemberists

Cited as “a concise and rustic country-pop collection”, this track from The King Is Dead is my favorite with its acoustic, banjo-picking, harmonica-filled, R.E.M.-esque sound. So come to me, come to me now! Sing it, Colin Meloy.

9. “Here to Stay” :: Abbie Barrett 

As random a find as they come, I love this little ditty from Boston-based Abbie Barrett and her backup band The Last Date. Thank God for the Web for uncovering hidden gems. Don’t think I’d ever hear this one on the FM dial 🙂

10. “We Are the Tide” :: Blind Pilot

Making their return to my collection (after first appearing 2 years ago), Blind Pilot does it again after adding 4 new members to their Portland-based outfit and churning out a catchy combination of mellow folk and West Coast indie pop. Nice encore, guys!

11. “Tiny Hands” :: Forbidden Friends 

This first single from Hutch Harris’ (front man for The Thermals) side project was described as being influenced by the sound and feel of the Violent Femmes. Love the line, “Never knowing if you’re real.” Pure pop at its best.

12. “Lament” :: Mount Moriah

An alt-Americana duo out of North Carolina, Mount Moriah caught my ear by surprise this year with a simple little song that grabs hold and doesn’t want to let go. Love Heather McEntire’s voice! And something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more of it to come.

13. “I Stand Alone” :: Theophilus London 

Thank you 90210 for introducing me to the 2nd release from this Brooklyn native. Upbeat and bouncy with flashes of 80’s funk, “I Stand Alone” reminds me of Seal crossed with Lenny Kravitz with a dash of The English Beat. And you gotta love the name!

14. “Sun of a Gun” :: Oh Land

With its driving, bass-filled club sound, Denmark’s Oh Land (a.k.a. Nanna Øland Fabricius) makes her debut with this infectious track and puts her Royal Swedish Ballet training to good use with one sweet little dance number.

15. “Tongue Tied” :: Grouplove 

A late addition to the collection thanks to the new iTouch commercial. This five-piece group out of L.A. reminds me of Modest Mouse with a little New Order techno-beat underneath. Who says advertising is good for nothing?! 😉

16. “100 Other Lovers” :: DeVotchKa

With a sound best described as “polka-rock” or even “circus music”, this track from the Denver quartet’s sixth album is a moody, swirling piece that brightens any day. But go ahead and try to make out most of the lyrics. I dare ya 🙂

17. “You and Me” :: Penny & The Quarters 

Originally recorded some 40 years ago, “You and Me” finally made its worldwide debut this year in the film Blue Valentine, thanks to a recommendation by its co-star Ryan Gosling. With a raw and soulful demo sound, it won the hearts of audiences, including mine.

18. “You Are a Tourist” :: Death Cab for Cutie

Just call me a sucker for Ben Gibbard’s voice. After last appearing on my 2005 collection, Death Cab returns with an optimistic ode to finding your way in the world. Nice guitar work, too. But it’s that golden voice. Like butter!

19. “Calgary” :: Bon Iver 

Speaking of voices, Justin Vernon’s 2nd album highlights his hushed, falsetto sound to great effect. And the brooding, slow-building “Calgary” creates a sonic landscape complete with quirky orchestral touches for that voice to flourish.

20. “Questions for the Angels” :: Paul Simon

Simon’s latest marks a return to form. In particular, “Questions for the Angels” really jumped out at me; a slow Brooklyn pilgrimage that examines heavy topics like humanity and the meaning of life (and billboards of Jay-Z). A good way to end this year’s collection.

 

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