A special edition — the 10 best songs of 2011:
n M83 — “Midnight City”
All it takes is four synthesizer notes. That’s it. Smothered in reverb, coated in ‘80s nostalgia, teetering on the edge of full-on explosion, those four notes pack more heart and energy than most albums released in 2011. But “Midnight City” is more than just a powerful introduction. On this transcendent standout from the sixth M83 album, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” Anthony Gonzalez and co-synth-scientist Justin Meldal-Johnsen build layer upon layer of keys, arena-sized drums, and vocal atmospherics (not mentioning one of the tastiest sax solos this side of a Springsteen record). The result? The synth Sistine Chapel
— Ryan Reed
n Adele — “Rolling in the Deep”
For those of us who didn’t know Adele’s breakthrough “19,” this was the growing tremor that announced the coming of “21.” For all its massive success, “21” isn’t a perfect album, as even the world’s biggest producers aren’t sure what to do with a talent this large. They should just listen to “Rolling in the Deep” more, which basically advises “get out of Adele’s way and let her do her thing.
— Andrew Gilstrap
n Fleet Foxes — “Helplessness Blues”
Fleet Foxes’ excellent second album “Helplessness Blues” has a lot of highlights, to be sure. But the album’s best song is its eponymous centerpiece, an unflinchingly earnest meditation on finding one’s place in the universe. “Helplessness Blues” starts out lean, riding on Robin Peckhold’s vocal harmonies and the relentless strum of an acoustic guitar for its first half. But then the song erupts into a massive coda: the harmonies multiply upon themselves, a few more guitars materialize, and suddenly the band’s up in the clouds. By the time they return to earth, being small and insignificant in an oversized world doesn’t seem so daunting, anymore.
— Billy Hepfinger
n Radiohead — “Lotus Flower”
Introduced by Thom Yorke during some solo shows a couple of years ago, “Lotus Flower” worked great as a haunting electric guitar lullaby, but for the studio version Radiohead opt to beef up the arrangement, creating one of their most accessible songs in years. Yorke’s lingering falsetto has survived the transformation, but the tracks beauty isn’t stifled by the a web of energetic synths, pulsating beats and shuffling drum loops that now surround the vocal. And, famously, you could dance to it to. — Dean Van Nguyen
n Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band — “I’ll Fly Away”
“I’ll Fly Away” is a tune with a long history in American music; it’s a standard for New Orleans brass bands playing at jazz funerals, it’s heavily favored by gospel musicians, and has been a standard part of the bluegrass repertoire for decades. In other words, it’s thoroughly soaked in Americana, that catch-all genre that pulls from traditional American roots music forms. So, it was a perfect song for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band to make as the centerpiece of their stellar 2011 album, “American Legacies.” Despite all the superb versions of this song over the years, Pres Hall and the McCoury Boys virtually stamp this classic as their very own, offering up the definitive version to stand for the ages. Soaring trumpet, swirling clarinet, soulful lead vocals, airtight bluegrass harmonies, rhythmic banjo ... this is Americana at its finest.
— Sarah Zupko
n Nicki Minaj — “Super Bass”
Let us think about what could have happened had “Super Bass” had never graced the airwaves: Katy Perry’s cheesefest, “Last Friday Night (TGIF),” would have had no competition for Best Summer Song 2011, the little British girl who famously belted “Super Bass” on YouTube would be just another precocious child, and Minaj would continue to be known more for her stellar guest appearances than her own material. So, thank goodness someone had the savvy to release “Super Bass” as Minaj’s seventh single, thus gifting the listening public with a deliriously hooky chorus and jackrabbit rhymes. Pelican fly, anyone?
— Maria Schurr
n James Blake — “The Wilhelm Scream”
“The Wilhelm Scream” is at once a startlingly adept cover and, paradoxically, Blake’s own haunting composition. The song borrows its vocal refrain (”I don’t know about my love ...”) from “Where to Turn,” a minor 1970s soft-rock hit by Blake’s father, James Litherland, but uses it as more of a sample than a chorus — a distant, winding loop to be twisted, warped, and submerged beneath thick synth textures and icy echoes of drum loops. So goes Blake’s approach to recording. Much as he re-appropriates elements from an eclectic grouping of contemporary genres (dubstep, soul, electronica), what results is indisputably his own.
— Zach Schonfeld
n Kanye West and Jay-Z — “Otis”
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Mr. West has an uncanny knack for flipping samples — see his productions “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” ‘‘Lucifer,” or “Stronger.” For “Otis,” he sliced up the keys, drums, and vocals of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” to create one of the warmest beats of the year (”Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” says Jay about 30 seconds in). Join that with Yeezy and Hova’s unique rapport and you get one of the greatest moments of their storied collaborative career, despite the complete absence of a chorus. Yeah, these guys are kings.
— Mike Madden
n Florence and the Machine — “Shake It Out”
While Florence Welch set the bar high for herself with a first impression as memorable as “Dog Days Are Over,” her triumphant single “Shake It Out” isn’t just on par with that signature art-pop number, but actually trumps it. Rather than playing it safe, Welch throws caution to the wind and goes all out on “Shake It Out,” a grand pop composition that’s a showcase for her even grander voice. More than anything, the song’s desperate tone and soaring orchestration show that Welch isn’t resting on her laurels, but pushing herself to bigger and better things.
— Arnold Pan
n tUnE-yArds — “Bizness”
The video for “Bizness” opens with tUnE-yArds as a child, resembling a prowling lioness. This encapsulates her; she’s ferociously childlike — tenaciously joyous. After two years of slowly building buzz, “Bizness” hit like a shotgun with everything special about her — the singular voice, the harmonic use of loops, the African polyrhythms, the inability to be pinned down, the confidence — turned up to 11,000. It was a large step from her humble, lo-fi roots and a declaration of uncompromised music talent.
— Jesse Fox