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.

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