Monday, December 19, 2011

The Best in Music: 2011

I'm going to spoil it for you: yeah, M83 and Bon Iver are on here. But they deserve it. It's universally acknowledged that they put out some great music this year. However, you're also going to see a host of other names that are unlikely to crop up on similar lists. I know what I like, and it ain't always what your snotty online music 'zine of choice likes. Read on ...

Overall, 2011 was a very good year for music. In fact, its only real problem was that it had the unenviable task of following 2010, which was an outstanding year for music. I think my biggest nagging problem was its distinct lack of an album that just felt like an unequivocal home run. When I heard Ashbury Heights' Take Cair Paramour last year, I knew immediately it would be the best album of the year. This year, that moment never came. My #1 album always felt like it could be nudged out of place at the last minute. Not that it isn't a fantastic album, mind. Everything I'm about to go over, albumwise and songwise, is tremendous. It's just that 2011 is the first year I can remember when I didn't have that Moment. (I did have such an epiphany for my #1 song, though. We'll get to that.)

Even so, the year held its own. There were tons of songs and records and concerts that are likely to go down in the annals of personal history for each and every one of us, and as such it's hard not to call 2011 a success. A year spent in transition, absolutely, but a good one nonetheless.

Before we begin celebrating, however, let us first have a moment of silence. 2011 cruelly relegated many artists to the musical graveyard. A special R.I.P. to a handful of personal favorites: Pure Reason Revolution, Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade, Innerpartysystem, R.E.M., Lou Reed and Metallica's good taste -- you will be dearly missed. May we see you all reunite someday.

And now for the fun stuff. Let's kick off the festivities with ...

  • The Most Overrated Artist of 2011: James Blake, whose supposedly groundbreaking debut sounds to me like little more than auto-tuned lounge music.

  • The Most Underrated Artist of 2011: The Rosebuds have been excelling at pop songcraft from the depths of obscurity for the better part of a decade.

  • Musical Crushes of 2011
    Chloe Alper (formerly of Pure Reason Revolution)
    Mark Foster (center, of Foster the People)

  • Favorite Music Videos of 2011
    Battles, "My Machines"

    Beirut, "Santa Fe"

    Cut Copy, "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution"

    Fleet Foxes, "The Shrine/An Argument"

    Foster the People, "Call It What You Want"

    The National, "Conversation 16"

    Tyler, the Creator, "Yonkers"

  • Top 5 Concerts of 2011
    This year I had the pleasure of attending eighteen shows and one three-day festival (which, for obvious reasons, can't be ranked). These were the best.

    05. Yeasayer @ The Music Box (Hollywood, CA)
    04. M83 @ The Music Box (Hollywood, CA)
    03. VNV Nation @ House of Blues (San Diego, CA)
    02. The Rosebuds @ Santa Fe Brewing Company (Santa Fe, NM)
    01. Arcade Fire @ Ukrainian Cultural Center (Los Angeles, CA)

    Once again, this list does not geographically discriminate. Albuquerque feels left out, though, so I'll give an honorable mention to Interpol @ Sunshine Theater. Great show; it deserves it.

  • The Best Albums of 2011
    Honorable Mention:
    The Antlers, Burst Apart
    Taking tips in equal part from Radiohead, The Cure, and Talk Talk, Burst Apart is a lean and muscular reinvention of the funereal dirges that haunted their 2009 breakthrough Hospice. It rocks harder, the melodies are stronger, the ambition is more varied, and the overall product is superior. [YouTube: "Parentheses"]

    Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years
    I'll always have a special affinity for post-punk (you know, the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Wire, The Cure, and so on), which is why there will always be a place on my shelf for bands like Cold Cave. Without changing one thing, this record sounds like it could have been made in 1982. Before you go ripping on it for that, stop to consider that that's exactly the point. [YouTube: "Confetti"]

    Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
    2011 was, without a doubt, the year for American beard-folk revival. But if it's all going to be this good, then why the hell not? Fleet Foxes' sophomore album is a huge, sprawling affair with big songs and little songs and in-between songs, all immaculately composed and produced. I have endless respect for someone who can create something both monolithic and deeply personal, and that's exactly what Robin Pecknold has done. [YouTube: "Helplessness Blues"]

    Other Lives, Tamer Animals
    More American beard-folk for youse, although I like this one better. It's darker and richer and affects me more. Where Fleet Foxes woo me with their technical skill, Other Lives do it by rigging their somber ballads to produce small but powerful bursts of emotion. It's an understated triumph, not revealing its secrets all at once, slowly sinking in. [YouTube: "For 12"]

    Panda Bear, Tomboy
    I'll be the first to publicly scorn Animal Collective if given half a chance, but something about Panda Bear's solo work tends to click with me. If Person Pitch was a sunny, drugged-out beach party, then this is the ensuing psychedelic ritual at the bottom of the sea. It's darker, moodier, trippier, and much less welcoming, but there's still something alluring about it. [YouTube: "Slow Motion"]

    Sepalcure, Sepalcure
    Think of it as a sunlit Burial with a less singular style and a dancier, more mainstream (or at least mainstream electronic) sound and you've got a highly enjoyable record that doesn't try to be anything it isn't, but still manages to mix many of the best aspects of dance music in 2011 into a neat, fun little package. [YouTube: "Pencil Pimp"]

    TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light
    If you were hoping for another "Wolf Like Me," I think you've always been doomed to disappointment. This, the band's highly underrated fourth album, finds them settling down and mellowing out and producing some of their prettiest, most contented music to date. Sure, it won't shake your world, but you already have their other albums for that. [YouTube: "Will Do"]

    The Top 11:
    11. VNV Nation, Automatic
    Now here's an album that brings me nothing but joy. For a decade, VNV Nation -- amidst a nonstop string of some of the best live shows you will ever see -- have struggled to release another album as good as 1999's Empires. Some are better than others, all are dreadfully inconsistent. Automatic still doesn't quite reach that high water mark, but it's by far their best effort: a bright, optimistic (no, seriously!) set of songs so strong I didn't think they could still pull it off. But here we are. And fuck, did I mention they kick ass live?
    [YouTube: "Space & Time"]

    10. Pnau, Soft Universe
    As it turns out, all Pnau had to do to make the best record of their career was sell out completely. The best moments of their enjoyable but patchy 2007 self-titled ("With You Forever," "Embrace") were straight-up pop, and as if they had read my mind for an attack strategy (as well as taking tips from none other than Elton John), those tracks serve as the blueprints for their entire fourth album. The result comes off very, very well. Soft Universe is immediate, catchy, polished, and tight. Nick Littlemore steps into the frontman/lead vocalist position with an ease that makes you wonder why he hadn't before, and the songcraft is uniformly the strongest of his career. It's the perfect kind of summer album: one where everyone is likely to find their own favorites, but no one can deny they're having a great time.
    [YouTube: "Solid Ground"]

    09. Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped
    In a way, Spencer Krug's hilariously and accurately titled solo LP hits me in the same way I imagine it hit him as he was making it: as a necessary, if more than a little bit melancholy, ode to growth and change. Having sadly left behind both Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, he uses the opportunity, through one of the most unique and focused musical conceits in years, to confront some demons. It is by far the darkest work of his career, and in many ways the most inaccessible. His lyrics have always been challenging, off-kilter, and unquestionably among the very best out there, but here, still cloaked in metaphor, they feel decidedly and restlessly personal. This is a Krug album for Krug devotees; very few are going to find an in here if they haven't already. People often speak of "concept albums." Here's one: a man writes his most personal songs to date and sets them to an odd but endearing array of outdated 80s organ sounds. The artistry can't be denied; the enjoyability is up to you. [YouTube: "Fast Peter"]

    08. Radical Face, The Family Tree: The Roots
    The best I can tell, Ben Cooper's sole songwriting agenda consists of grabbing onto your heartstrings and yanking them so hard you tear up involuntarily. On The Roots, the first of a supposed Family Tree trilogy that is scheduled to be continued next year, he does a pretty damn good job. This is the epitome of old, sad bastard music. It's also gorgeous, earnest, and very very compelling. The ostensible concept of these three albums is to tell the multi-generational story of a fictional family, starting in the 1800s and working to the present. This by itself is ambitious enough, but Cooper has challenged himself to render these songs with only the instrumentation available during the timeframe in which his narrative is set. As such, this, his 1800s album, is recorded entirely on acoustic instruments: guitars, pianos, accordions, and so forth. Whether he updates the sound as he continues his odyssey remains to be seen (I'm sort of hoping for the third album to be an Electric President-esque wash of melancholy synth-pop songs, but that's just me), but if the ensuing two volumes are as good as the first, we're headed straight for a modern masterpiece. [YouTube: "Black Eyes"]

    07. M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
    I love M83, and you do too, so let's get the elephant out of the room and clear up any misconceptions: he has never made a fully consistent album. Each has been very good, but they all have their rough spots. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is no different, but it makes up for this shortcoming with its sheer, beauteous sprawl. The album's the thing here. While it does contain several of Anthony Gonzalez's finest songs, it is specifically designed and sequenced to be listened to as a whole. It's this approach that ultimately makes it his defining achievement, as well as the perfect soundtrack to an exuberant night in the city. There is so much to love here, and everything is so obviously in exactly the place Gonzalez wanted it to be, that it's virtually impossible not to become immersed. Its sweeping, epic scope is irresistible. Joy radiates from every synth line, all earthly problems seem to vanish, and the world takes on a warm glow that does not dissipate until the final notes have faded out. When we're old and grumpy and looking back on the music of our youth that made us feel happy, we'll think of M83. We'll throw this on and live it out and feel young again. How many albums do you know that can do that? [Soundcloud: "Reunion"]

    06. The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low
    If half of pop music is about love and attraction, it stands to reason that the other half should be about love's sometimes inevitable dark side. We've all heard tons of break-up songs. Enough to not faze us anymore. But, see, Loud Planes Fly Low isn’t like most break-up music, and so it works on different terms. Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have spent the better part of the past decade as man and wife, churning out excellent and woefully underrated music. Somewhere in there, since the release of 2008's Life Like, their marriage fell apart. They could have disbanded. They could have done a lot of things. And yet, against all odds, here is an album of astonishing bravery and poise. This is moody, thoughtful, introspective music that never points fingers and, honestly, comes across as quite hopeful. The two acknowledge that their romantic ties have dissolved, but there’s a strong, uplifting sense that they will be able to successfully turn that page in their lives and continue as friends and bandmates. Where most would be content to sulk, the Rosebuds have taken their rocky emotions and challenged themselves to make something both inspiring and mature. It’s a hell of a feat, and they pull it off. [YouTube: "Come Visit Me"]

    05. Innerpartysystem, Never Be Content
    Innerpartysystem's final release is an intriguing breed of album (or EP, whichever; at 36 minutes, it's as long as many proper LPs): the kind with myriad noticeable flaws, yet nothing whatsoever that I would change. Call it an unconditional love. Never Be Content is a dramatic, tightly constructed overview of everything this band could do, as well as a tantalizing hint at where they might have gone had they not chosen to call it a day. A shift from their past work is immediately apparent: "And Together" announces from the gate that this will be a more overtly dance-oriented affair, and from there the record rollercoasters through six tracks of ups, downs, bumps, pivots, and loops. If the jarring, taken-on-its-own-terms first half seems a bit rough, hold out: the final three tracks are so incredible that they cast light back on the first three, allowing the entirety of the record to come together in a way that's both challenging and elegantly cohesive. Sound effects recall prior compositions, lyrics cross-reference themes, songs gang up to create a shattering sense of unity. The band might chide me for ignorning their advice, but even with its imperfections, this is exhilarating. I'm content. [YouTube: "Out of Touch"]

    04. Foster the People, Torches
    I could write a dozen pretentious things about Foster the People, from their lightning-fast rocket to fame to this album's awesome Where the Wild Things Are-style cover art to how preternaturally good-looking all of them are while still maintaining more than a modicum of musical talent, but the fact of the matter is that Torches, their auspicious debut, ranks so highly on this list because it is simply the best pop album I heard all year. Nothing more, nothing less. And I don't mean that as a pejorative. We all crave a good pop album now and again, and a pop album is exactly what it is: ten radio-ready synth-pop songs, all winners, with some (not to get ahead of myself) among the best any band had to offer up in the last twelve months. When this first dropped in May, I scarfed it up like the tasty early-summer treat that it was and readily came back for more. Well folks, it's winter, about as far removed as one can get from the sunny fire most of these songs were forged in, and I still can't get enough. I don't see the charm wearing off anytime soon. [YouTube: "Waste"]

    03. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
    Has this analogy been used before? Probably, but I thought of it too, and it's a good one: if Bon Iver's universally acclaimed debut For Emma, Forever Ago was (quite literally) the sound of a man sitting in a secluded cabin in the snowy dead of winter, his follow-up finds him in the thaw of spring venturing back into the real world. Where For Emma was cold and insular and monochrome, Bon Iver is painted in a rich, vibrant palette that breathes new life into each of its painstakingly crafted vignettes. In keeping with its themes of nature and geography, I like to imagine the album as a leisurely trip down a leafy, coiling river, each song a separate place or landmark along the way. As a journey, it is unparalleled. The reason for Bon Iver's near-mainstream success is as simple and pure and straightforward as most of the songs on this record: Justin Vernon is just damn good at what he does, and most people have the good sense to know a stroke of genius when they hear it. [YouTube: "Holocene"]

    02. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
    This is probably the smartest album The Decemberists could have made. Regardless of what you thought of it, it is undeniable that they put a portion of their fanbase at arm's length with their divisive, Zeppelinesque hard-rock opera The Hazards of Love. Some loved it, others considered it a bewildering misstep (I'm somewhere in between). The King Is Dead finds Colin Meloy taking about three or four steps back, re-entering territory I think most everyone can agree upon. Gone, at least for now, are the lengthy suites and thematic song cycles, and in their place, a concise assortment of catchy, emotive, well-written, well-performed American folk songs. It's the most straightforward and approachable record the band has ever made. It's also perhaps the most unpretentiously enjoyable, a quality which has allowed it to move many, many copies and finally give them the bona fide breakthrough they deserve. So who cares if they're not breaking any new ground? In the end, The King Is Dead provides me with one of the greatest pleasures that music can give, and one that jaded music snobs like me always seem to forget is possible: the simple joy of hearing another great album by one of your favorite bands. [YouTube: "Rox in the Box"]

    01. Cut Copy, Zonoscope
    It has been almost four years, so I think I can stake this claim without too much second-guessing: Cut Copy's 2008 release In Ghost Colours is, to date, my all-time favorite electronic album. From stem to stern, it is a flawless masterpiece. Creating a worthy successor must have been an stressful task indeed, so instead of trying to re-capture the high points of that record (who could?), the band has smartly opted to move in a new, if still recognizable, direction. As such, Zonoscope is a very different record: looser, more experimental, less geared toward packing dancefloors, spurred on by the variety of sounds and song structures they can weave into their already vibrant tapestry. The expansion suits them well. They don't always hit it out of the park like they did on In Ghost Colours, but the numerous highlights easily stand among the band's best material, while the rest still rises miles above the generic product that plagues so much of this genre. To wit: Zonoscope is not another perfect album, but it is an immensely satisfying one that cements Cut Copy at the forefront of electronic pop music. To have one #1 album is a hell of a feat. To have two in a row, well, that's a prestige reserved for giants. Bring on #3, guys; I know you have it in you. [SoundCloud: "Take Me Over"]

  • The Best Songs of 2011
    Honorable Mention:
    The Antlers, "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out"
    Binge drinking meets sexual frustration in The Antlers' most immediate and accessible song to date, a paranoid and electrifying spiral into hell that sounds nothing like the band we knew two years ago. [YouTube]

    Burial, "Street Halo"
    With special shout-outs to its two phenomenal b-sides, "NYC" and "Stolen Dog." Burial's first proper solo release since 2007's game-changing Untrue is a shrewd update of his signature sound that incorporates elements of house into his spooky ambient textures and skittering rhythms. Though more streamlined, the feeling remains the same: a perfect evocation of the unsettling isolation of nighttime. [YouTube]

    Coldplay, "Hurts Like Heaven"
    I wrote in 2008 when I put "Viva La Vida" on my Top Ten (I stand by it, motherfuckers) that Coldplay would never record a better song. It's still true. This is the next best thing: an anti-"Viva La Vida," brazen, energetic, sunny, and upbeat. That it's by Coldplay doesn't keep it from being good. [YouTube]

    The Decemberists, "Down by the Water"
    It's hard to pick a favorite from The King Is Dead. I'm not even sure I have one, so I'm falling back on this, the excellent harmonica-driven lead single that harkens back to early-80s R.E.M. in the best possible way. [YouTube]

    Example, "Changed the Way You Kiss Me"
    This, a concise and tuneful electro-pop track with a conspicuous hip-hop and dubstep influence, was a #1 hit in Example's native Britain. It failed to chart stateside. You tell me what's wrong with that. [YouTube]

    Fleet Foxes, "Blue Spotted Tail"
    Robin Pecknold went super ambitious to craft his band's excellent sophomore album only to have its most affecting moment be its simplest: a soft, brief, acoustic meditation on that all-encompassing question, "What's the meaning of it all?" [YouTube]

    M83, "Midnight City"
    The only thing greater than the massive hype surrounding this song is the song itself. Chalk it up to Anthony Gonzalez's tremendous ability to write a hook. There wasn't a more instantly recognizable track this year. Listen to it once, come back to it any amount of time of time later. Days, weeks, months, whatever. It'll take you two seconds to realize, "Oh! It's 'Midnight City'!" When Gonzalez wails, "The city is my church!" I still get chills. An instant classic. [YouTube]

    Pure Reason Revolution, "Tempest"
    The swan song from one of my favorite artists. Lots of bands broke up this year, but none broke my heart as much as this one. A gorgeous and fitting goodbye. [YouTube]

    Radiohead, "The Butcher"
    There was, if you were paying close attention, exactly one song this year that showed that Radiohead is still worth a damn. So of course they gave it b-side status on a vinyl-only single. Thanks, guys. [YouTube]

    The Whip, "Best Friend"
    A late-year contender that swooped in at the last minute and showed me once again how much I enjoy the electropop genre when it's done right. At this point in my life, it could well be the type of music I enjoy most unreservedly; my musical best friend, one might say. I'm okay with that. [YouTube]

    The Top 11:
    11. Wolf Gang, "Lions in Cages"
    Few songs this year better filled the seemingly obligatory role of anthemic indie pop song than this little morsel, the lead track off Wolf Gang's solidly enjoyable debut. Though lyrically dark, the music is catchy, upbeat, and memorable, with the sort of chorus you'll find yourself absent-mindedly humming as you're carting through the supermarket. The sound is big and important, and Max McElligott sells every note with his strong vocal delivery, winding the song up into a low-key victory. I am sure this is not the best song he can write, but it's a hell of a start, and I'll be one of many onboard to see what he tries next. [YouTube]

    10. Silversun Pickups, "Seasick"
    Brian Aubert's secret is that he smolders beautifully. Always stopping short of exploding outright, he conveys seething tension that never quite boils over. Where most can only communicate rage, Aubert's restraint allows Silversun Pickups the luxury of a sexy dangerousness that's just as apparent as ever on their newest single. It's nothing less than ear candy for those of us who believe that this sexy dangerousness makes for some seriously invigorating music. [YouTube]

    09. Innerpartysystem, "Not Getting Any Better"
    It's hard work writing a lengthy song that merits its runtime. Far too many veer off course and become boring or tiresome. "Not Getting Any Better" is the ideal antidote: a song that starts modestly, then spends every second of its eight minutes building in exactly the direction I want it to. This is Innerpartysystem in microcosm: the one track that evenhandedly shows they could write both pop songs and dancefloor monsters and emerge doubly fulfilled. From the careful melodies of the vocal sections to the eventual dance breakout, and the slow-burning synthesized strings that link them together, this is an underrated band at the top of their game. Maybe they thought they weren't getting any better; I beg to differ. [YouTube]

    08. Other Lives, "Tamer Animals"
    I was a champion of Other Lives' debut in 2009, but for all its lovely piano ballads and mournful melodies in self-referencing keys, it lacked a standout that was able to worm its way into my heart. The title track from their superior sophomore album rectifies any and all problems. This is a lush and cloudy affair, every bit as beautiful as it is subtly defeating. Make no mistake: this is not the soundtrack to your next hipster bake sale. This is quiet, secluded music, for when you're feeling down and just need some time to stop and sort everything out. We all have those days. Winona Ryder said it best in Heathers: "If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn't be a human being; you'd be a game show host." Other Lives understand this. They've got your back. [YouTube]

    07. Destroyer, "Bay of Pigs (Detail)"
    The thing about this song that makes it work so beautifully is that, at least as far as I know, it's the best possible version of what it is. In other words, when I say "drunk poet rambling for eleven minutes over guitars and ambient synths," neither you nor I nor anyone could find a better exemplar than Destroyer's "Bay of Pigs." I have been hating on Dan Bejar for years, and almost always with just cause, but this song proves that artists a person doesn't especially like can still strike gold if the time is right. I don't question its magnificence. Bejar's lyrics are crisp and pointed and beautiful, while the atmospherics he chooses to accompany them are ideally suited to the sort of foggy, intoxicated, deeply nostalgic nighttime stroll that the words evoke. And if this all just sounds oh so pretentious, he rewards you for your patience: the final portion is the clearest and catchiest music he has written, allowing the song to culminate exactly where it should -- in the stratosphere. So thank you, Dan. I am the last person I ever thought would put a song of yours on a top 10 (or 11) list, but this one deserves it. It's marvelous. [YouTube]

    06. Radical Face, "Ghost Towns"
    I'm still an English major at heart. I love words and stories and am trained to instinctively read symbolism into anything that will let me. I could write entire theses on "Ghost Towns," a heartbreaking song about a drifter whose inner monologue seems to double as a metaphor for the entire human condition. True, Ben Cooper is singing as a fictional character within the narrative framework of his album, but this character is so achingly universal that anyone who crosses his path is likely to relate to him. "I've seen more places than I can name, and over time they all start to look the same. But it ain't the truth we chase. No, it's the promise of a better place. But all this time I've been chasing down a lie, and I know it for what it is, but it beats the alternatives, so I'll take the lie," he sings, and lest you have a heart of stone, I challenge you not to feel something. When the coup de grâce comes in the form of a mournful accordion solo, you'll hardly know what came over you, but you'll know it moved you and you'll realize how powerful it was. [YouTube]

    05. The Good Natured, "Wolves"
    I am a man of simple but discerning taste. Sometimes all it takes to quench my musical thirst is a good, solid slice of electropop. Few were able to do it better this year than up-and-comers The Good Natured do on "Wolves." Think Witching Hour-era Ladytron with more drive and less flourish, sacrificing not one bit of the former's melodic prowess (the last 45 seconds feature a beautiful, and frankly unexpected, vocal coda that takes the song to another level). It's just about as immediate and engaging as this type of music gets, with enough hooks to keep you tethered and enough pure satisfaction to make you rush back to that replay button again and again. [YouTube]

    04. Guillemots, "Walk the River"
    I thought Guillemots were a flash in the pan. I never thought they'd match their brilliant "Trains to Brazil" (the only song I've ever heard that satisfyingly, and for that matter perfectly, addresses terrorism on a personal level), but here, trading universality and worldliness for an uncomfortable level of intimacy, they have. "Walk the River" may not be the better song, but it hits me harder. A lyrical masterwork, it better describes my day-to-day feelings at this point in my life than anything else I've heard. Most artists struggle for entire careers to pen a turn of phrase that can take my breath away. Here, in this very song, Guillemots do it twice. [YouTube]

    03. Bon Iver, "Michicant"
    I'll tell it to you straight: I wept the first time I heard this song. Not torrentially, but there were tears in my eyes. Who's to say why? Maybe, on some level, I related to Justin Vernon's impressionistic lyrics about youth, or maybe -- what with its harmonies and lullaby-ish vocal melody -- it really was just that beautiful. I have listened to it countless times since and, although the tears don't always come, the feeling is always there. And while much has been said already about this song's canny use of a bicycle bell, I have to agree: it is likely the most perfectly implemented use of that sound that I know of. [YouTube]

    02. Cut Copy, "Need You Now"
    A tour de force of build-and-release. Having shown the world about twelve times over on In Ghost Colours that they can write a perfect pop song, Cut Copy try their hand at something decidedly less immediate: a slowly percolating anthem that starts off modest and low-key, only to finish with fireworks and confetti and party streamers. It's a testament to their craft that it's impossible to pinpoint any one moment where the build backshifts into release, but somewhere along the way you'll realize you're flying where just minutes ago you were grounded, chugging away towards an unknown destination. The feeling is beautiful, cathartic, and just about the best thing I could have possibly asked for from this band. And I ask for a lot from this band. I hate giving nods to Pitchfork, 'cause they're a bunch of wankers, but they hit the nail on the head: "Need You Now" is the perfect side A, track one; an ideal kickstart to just about any album, mix, party, or life event it may be soundtrack to. It's rare for a band to shoot for the stars and actually make it. It's even rarer for them to keep going once they've gotten there. [SoundCloud]

    01. Foster the People, "Helena Beat"
    This is it, I think. It's the first weekend of my last undergrad spring break and I am standing, beerless and by myself, in a tiny bar in Santa Fe, NM, with about thirty drunk, mostly inattentive people, listening to an L.A. band no one has ever heard of (Foster the People? The hell kinda name is that?) play "Helena Beat." This is the best song of 2011. Corazón has now closed its doors and Foster the People have since become one of the most popular bands in the country, but despite these radical changes, I firmly keep to my assertion. There wasn't a better song this year. There couldn't have been. What "Helena Beat" does, it does perfectly. Whatever it is that makes this song so mindbogglingly great, it has satisfied all of my requirements for an entire genre. That's a big fucking deal. But I know, definitively, it isn't any one thing. The voice, the melodies, the appealingly processed instrumentation, the gradual build to that glorious final thirty seconds -- these all coalesce into one of the most satisfying four and a half minutes I have ever spent listening to pop music. "Helena Beat" wasn't the hit, wasn't the song that put this band on the map and made everyone turn their heads, but it should have been. [YouTube]

    And that's it, folks! As always, comments about my ridiculously questionable taste are always welcome and encouraged. See you all in 2012!