Top 5 Songs of 2011

5. Foster The People – Helena Beat/Pumped Up Kicks

Absolutely ridiculous. A band, on their debut effort, shouldn’t be capable of releasing a song as good as “Pumped Up Kicks”, let alone have another one in the bag just as good (or better) in “Helena Beat”. To have hegemony over hoi polloi this early in a band’s career is scary. The chorus of “Helena Beat” might be my favourite of the year. It’s as if the science of memetics were symbiotic with calisthenics, infecting your brain with the need to move in celebration, subject to its inescapable domination. “Pumped Up Kicks” is a rapscallion of the first order. There are so many hooks, even Mobb Deep’s Ones Shook (both parts). Whistling in pop tunes seems to be making a comeback. I’m all for it if it sounds this good. Foster The People are the L.A. MGMT, kindred souls, melodically benevolent, and linear-path retiscent. A couple of pop-alt masterstrokes to start a career. No biggie.

4. Planningtorock – The Breaks

“We break too easily”. Truer words, Planningtorock, might never say. That’s where common sense ends a fiery, forlorn, fantastical death. Just for kicks, like a sated sadist, “The Breaks” devours its own hooks, boiling flesh and bones in a cauldron as it executes the most devlish of sacrificial dances. The song’s debilitating sadness, fury and searing heart are camouflaged so well within the deliberate, snake-like pace and comforting saxophone trot that it may very well lull you to sleep and abscond with your soul. I’d be watching my back if I were you. The sound of The Knife giving Planningtorock (a.k.a. Janine Rostron) a foot massage with oil made of cocoa butter, glycerine, cinnamon, shaved rock from the tip of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and dinosaur (Stegosaurus) eggs, in a spa made of bamboo sticks, crystals, crystal meth, clay and (large) intestinal fortitude. Don’t be seduced, until you know its truths: if you’re ripping out your eyes and burning down the tide, you shouldn’t be surprised. Them’s “The Breaks”.

3. Bombay Bicycle Club –  Shuffle

To understand “Shuffle”, you needn’t possess any complicated algorithm, like the kind that gives Al Gore rhythm. Just understand, that even Mr. Green Jeans can’t help but wax the shit out of the dancefloor when he hears this song. No one can. This is the best non-dance dance song you could ever throw your left leg over your right and bust loose to. It’s the rag-time piano loop. It’s the scat-beat rhythm. It’s the key changes. It’s the sunday-strolling bassline. It’s Jack Steadman’s double-tracked harmony with himself. It’s the incredibly deft musical layering. It’s the subtle electronic pulse. It’s the sound of a band barely out of their teens rocket-launching an earworm directly into your medulla oblongata. It’s those lyrics. “Once you get the feeling, it wants you back for more; now it gets ethereal, feet ain’t on the floor. One step, like you needed it, jumping at the wall; why won’t you believe in it, until it’s gone?” Amid such a decisively catchy and dance-tastic tune, the bridge comes out of nowhere, and Steadman breathlessly pleas, “you gave to me, all I know; I will stay here, I will not go.” Shuffle? More like on repeat.

2. College f. Electric Youth – A Real Hero

“A Real Hero” is the best soundtrack (Drive) song I think I’ve ever heard. The most appropriate marriage of a song to its movie I can recall. The sound of Toronto’s Electric Youth cashing cheques at break-neck speeds, producers screaming, “let me feature you please”. The sound of 1983. And 2011. And 2056. The sound of a deflating balloon, a plaintive, wounded croon. The sound of patience. The sound of a miasmal smoke, a new-found hope. The loss of earthly possessions. The gain of otherwordly compassions.

From the anodyne opening sounds of “A Real Hero”, I am dericinated from my station. Where exactly I go, I don’t know. It’s above ground, in the typical sense of the expression. It’s in the atmosphere, somewhere, but of what compound(s) this atmosphere is made up of, I’m not sure. It could be oxygen, could be helium, could be nitrogen, could be nostalgia, could be phantasmagoria. I don’t know. Maybe it’s irrelevant. I’m dazed. I’m comforted. I’m feeling.

1. (Gregorian calendar) Florence & The Machine – Shake It Out

Answer: Synesthesia. Question: What is “Shake It Out”. (Trebek couldn’t take time away from his busy schedule of pretending to know the question to every single answer ever mentioned on Jeopardy and talking down to the [imbecilic] contestants who dare get them wrong to approve the construction, but I feel comfortable he would if he had the time.)

When I hear “Shake It Out”,  I hear music, but it’s not a passive experience. My heart beats bigger, louder, stronger. My feet tap, my arms flap, my fingers snap, my senses — all of them — trapped, busy, engaged.  Florence Welch is a musical savant and “Shake It Out” is a juggernaut and whipsaw. It slays with those monstrous, mountainous, mutinous vocals and that gargantuan, tectonic-plate shifting beat. It’s probably the best song of the year, and it’s most assuredly the biggest.

I was a tad worried for Ms. Welch, after all, Lungs was a behemoth of a record, and contained three phenomenal songs, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”, “Dog Days Are Over”, and “Cosmic Love”. By any normal measure, to have any song on the follow-up be as tremendous as the aforementioned three would be a clear-cut impossibility. Fortuitous for mankind, Florence (and producer Paul Epworth) don’t abide by normal measures, and being the thaumaturges they are, “Shake It Out” was birthed.

The lyrics speak of a devil, a demon residing on one’s back, encumbering the ability to move (dance) freely, as is one’s right to do. So how does Florence go about ridding herself of this demon? She becomes sycophantic, regaling the devil with golden platitudes and a soaring siren’s song. Unluckily for her, Lucifer knows what he’s latched onto and isn’t willing to get off the gravy train. Luckily for her, the sheer strength of her voice eventually shakes the demon from her person, leaving her free to dance, celebrate, be.

Such is the power of the best Florence and the Machine songs — they’re free. They’re also transcendent tornadoes made up of melody, harmony, beats and breath. The four elements of Florence and The Machine. Life is born.

1. (Alternate space and time) Future Islands – Vireo’s Eye/Swept Inside/Inch of Dust/Walking Through That Door

These songs are not the best of this year because they’re not of this year. Technically, these four songs, from the indomitable In Evening Air, were released last year, but saying they’re “from” a particular year or fixed space and time is an incredible injustice I want no part in perpetuating. Most truthfully, they’re of all times, of all space, ether’s child, everlasting…

Like the songs in focus, Future Islands themselves are a band from another era, but strangely, this era cannot be pointed to with any degree of certainty. Is it the 80’s? The aughts? The Protozoan? I can’t be sure, and I’m not entirely sure it matters. What I do know is that despite their uncanny ability to fluctuate temporally, they’re also, here. With but one listen, they become inextricably, invariably, here. And my how I’m thankful they are.

“Vireo’s Eye”, The Immediate. A denizen of my consciousness from the first second I heard it, “Vireo’s Eye” is perfection. Gerrit Welmers’ synth-work is sinister and surreptitious. William Cashion’s bassline if forthright, feral, and ferocious. Sam T. Herring’s vocal is melancholic, medieval and meteoric. It’s one of the most catchy and compelling songs I have ever heard. Coup de foudre in its purest sense.

“Swept Inside”, The Exsanguinator. Toiling in my being like a sky-dive is freeing, my blood drains slowly, peacefully from my body when this song plays. And not just some — all of it. Miraculously, I am fully transfused by song’s end. I think the lyrics might have something to do with it. What brilliant, emotive lyrics. “When he was young, he had a dream, to be a star on the movie screen; but now it all seems a silly lie, as he walks alone in the days on fire. He says nothing seems the same, and I can’t feel a thing; my body’s like a wave, caving in on me. He says everything seems strange, holding back the tears; but he smiles just like a child, in the days at night.” I am, swept inside.

“Inch of Dust”, The Menace. The song is like a collection of lions inside a glass menagerie. They were always going to bust loose. They were just biding their time. The most ominous song on In Evening Air, it’s also the most patient. The Peeping Tom. Hidden in the shadows, “Inch of Dust” is lurking. Contains probably the most affecting single vocal line of the album, as Sam Herring sings “it’s never, put together”. Except he doesn’t really sing the line, he doesn’t really speak it, it just kind of…emanates from him. A prime example of a song practising Occupy Your Brain. The movement is gaining steam.

“Walking Through That Door”, The Insidious. The opening track from the LP, “Walking Through That Door” is a fascinating song. On one side of the door, it’s manic, it’s pressing, it’s paranoid, yet, when one walks through the door to the other side, it’s composed, it’s revelatory, it’s enlightened. Neat trick Future Islands, neat trick.

Sam Herring is an interlocuter with himself on In Evening Air, locked in a sometimes-schizophrenic battle with himself, leaving the audience feeling like voyeurs for listening to these deeply personal reflections, gasping for air, unsure of whether Mr. Herring will come out alive. He comes out all right, but strangely, he doesn’t come from whence he came. He’s in a different place. He’s, at once, in different places.

What a heinous crime it would be to be lost in between dimensions. How much better it is to be of them all, everywhere, a presence. To be Future Islands.

Top 100 Songs of 2011 (10-6)

(Special Insert) Two Door Cinema Club – What You Know/Cigarettes In The Theatre/Eat That Up, It’s Good For You

Technically, these songs were released well prior to 2011, but it was this year that these tunes hit home, and what a fun, manic, dance-crazy home it turned out to be. “What You Know” is one of the best songs of the past few years, period. The bassline is fantastic and frenetic, chasing itself around like a dog to its tail with no end in sight, at peace with its jangly disposition. Alex Trimble’s guitar riff is amazingly sunny and energetic, like a red dot to the bassline’s cat. “What You Know” is an unbelievably catchy song. “Cigarettes in The Theatre”, the album opener, might even have a more frantic guitar riff than “What You Know”, and it’s no less hypnotic. Trimble sings “tell me your favourite things, tell me your favourite things” with the gusto of a 7-year-old on a serious sugar high. The sound of a song on speed. The sound of a band calling your attention. The sound of pure, musical vigour. “Eat That Up, It’s Good For You” is also rife with energy, but it’s…different. Accompanying its pleasant demeanour is a kind of sadness, inasmuch as TDCC can be sad (not very). From 2:19 to 3:08, the musical high point of the album, an explosion (that any terrorist group worth its salt would be proud of) blasts away everything around it. It’s more than just three guys pouring pure energy into a song, it’s melody giving birth to a star, shedding light onto a revolving planet whose atmosphere is birthing never-before-seen elements. Unbelievable debut effort.

10. Active Child – Hanging On

What a heart-wrenching marvel “Hanging On” is. Sounding like a moribund mendicant, Pat Grossi pleas, “I just can’t keep hangin’ on…to you and me”. The harp has never augmented such pain. And yet, amidst this deeply personal and painful poem, the song can’t help but ooze sexuality. This song is the sound of a stranger coming across a heart-broken lover, leery and left for dead, preying on said shell’s vulnerability, inviting it back to a loft and making love to it, passionate day after day, until neither body resembles that which came before. Intensely private yet profound in its nudity, “Hanging On” is as breathtaking as it is broken, lovely as it is unbearable, captivating as it is nihilistic. Draining, but who needs to be whole. What’s the point?

9. Beirut – Goshen

“You’re on in five, it’s time you rise or fade”. Fading was never an option for Zach Condon. He’s a bad, bad man, having released some of the best music of the past ten years, but he’s never sounded so personal and challenging as he does on “Goshen”. It’s a revelation. “Goshen’s” allure is twofold: part hyaline, fragile beauty; part diamond-solid pep talk. The first 1:23 of the song is buoyed solely by Zach’s voice and a piano (as simple an opening as I can recall on any Beirut song to date), and it couldn’t be more commanding if it were written on stone a tablet. When the brass and rolling snare come in, they’re understated and supportive of the tone, mindful not to distract the melody from carrying Condon to heights not of this atmosphere. “Goshen” winkles my heart out of its torso and pilfers my heart, only to drape it in a cottony blanket, ammend its previous debilitation, and return it with the utmost care. A simple surgery. A needed liturgy. Faith in sound.

8. M83 – Raconte Moi Une Histoire

“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” is the best representation of the incredibly ambitious double album, Hurry Up, We’re Waiting, and most all, M83 itself. I’m adjective-starved to describe its wonder, but nevertheless, I will try. The sweetest song of the year (by far). The most adventurous. The silliest. The most whimsical. The truest. The song coruscates with a beauty hitherto unexplored by M83. There are no boundaries on “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”. Not a single one.

Such is the crux of M83. The band doesn’t operate within the boundaries of musical ingenuity and imagination that almost all other bands do; there is a freedom, a life energy, that Anthony Gonzalez possesses that other people and artists just don’t. That’s why he can get a six-year-old girl to sing about hallucinogenic frogs, mommies becoming daddies, and cupcakes, while not having the song become a parody of itself. This wide-eyed sentimentality is contagious and courageous.

The girl’s saccharine voice is the song’s heart; Anthony Gonzales’ wailing cries are the blood; the bassline is the engine; the synths are the wings. This is Anthony Gonzales’ story. Tell me yours.

7. Gotye f. Kimbra – Somebody That I Used To Know

“Somebody That I Used To Know” castigates a bygone lover, but does it in hushed, dulcet tones (at least in the first part of the song), making the sentiment even more vitriolic. There is nothing dilatory about the melody. There’s a prancing mischief to the song. Gotye’s vocal plays perfectly off of Kimbra’s. One of those rare instances where a simple concept/melody/tune connects effortlessly with those who come in contact with it. A delicate powerhouse. A seductive duet.

6. Yellowcard – Hang You Up

To simplify the process and call “Hang You Up” emo is shamefully reductive and does the song a massive disservice. It’s quite simply the best song Yellowcard have ever done. Having clearly grown up since the days of “Ocean Avenue” and “Only One”, Yellowcard have shifted their focus from the unrequited love and bleeding-heart passions of youth, choosing now to magnify feelings of nostalgia, regret, the past. My how they wear that sentience well. This song is the sound of graduation. Of reverie. Of a certain callousness that haunts the shadow of the aging. It’s the sound of time, gone, and back again, irrevocably different.