2010 was an epic year for new music, at least in my opinion. Three albums released last year rank among my all-time favorites (The National’s High Violet, Jimmy Eat World’s Invented and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) with two others hot on their heels (LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening and Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor). There were so many great albums last year that I had to spend at least a portion of this year listening to some of the 2010 awesomeness I’d missed (like Total Life Forever by Foals and Tourist History from Two Door Cinema Club).
So six months in, how does 2011 stack up? It’s hard to judge at this point, but it doesn’t appear it’s going to be quite as prolific as 2010. However, there’s been a lot excellent music so far. Here’s a rundown of nine of my favorite songs in 2011 to this point, in alphabetical order by artist.
ARCTIC MONKEYS – “THAT’S WHERE YOU’RE WRONG” FROM SUCK IT AND SEE
The finale from Arctic Monkeys’ Suck It And See, the British band’s fourth album in six years, is perhaps their strongest overall song to date. It’s a far cry from the speed and intensity that marked Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which back in 2006 was the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders have experienced some real growing pains over the years, but on Suck It And See, they’ve finally figured out who they are. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” is literally the culmination of their career to this point. Cook’s melodic lead and Helders’ timely beats perfectly match the feeling in Turner’s croon. Who knew a two-chord chorus could hold so much power?
CUT COPY – “ALISA” FROM ZONOSCOPE
If you aren’t listening to Cut Copy, you’re definitely missing out. Informed by ’80s nostalgia and pages taken directly from the LCD Soundsystem playbook, their third album, Zonoscope, has definitely been my favorite album of 2011 so far. Every song feels like another step toward mainstream relevancy for electronica, a magnificent blending of all the styles that have become so vogue in indie these past few years. On deep cut “Alisa,” I think this Australian quartet hits their peak. Lead singer Dan Whitford sounds like Ric Ocasek and David Byrne’s lovechild while the band chugs along at an Aquanet-inspired backing track. This is a band with a lot more interest than just what’s going on out on the dancefloor, and it shows here.
DUM DUM GIRLS – “WRONG FEELS RIGHT” FROM HE GETS ME HIGH EP
On March 1, all-chick California surf-pop quartet Dum Dum Girls released four-song EP He Gets Me High. Three of the four songs are fantastic, including the aces title track and a rollicking cover of the Smiths’ iconic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” But it’s the first track, “Wrong Feels Right,” that I just can’t stop listening to. I’ve always been a huge sucker for Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, and this embodies what I’ve always enjoyed about Hynde. Lead singer Dee Dee hits a deep-voiced female confidence that Hynde has trademarked for the last 35 years. And while Dee Dee sings with such depth, the song is so bright and happy-sounding that I always find myself upset the song is only 2:31. Wrong does indeed feel right.
LADY GAGA – “THE EDGE OF GLORY” FROM BORN THIS WAY
It took two albums, one sorta-album, a zillion tweets and campaigns, a boatload of headlines and questions that had nothing to do with music, but it finally happened. On “The Edge of Glory,” the finale of her latest record, Lady Gaga realized her artistic potential. Everything works perfectly here: the feeling conjured by her lyrics, the largeness of the hook, the epicness of the overall sound, the simplicity of the chorus, the attitude in the message. I’ve grown partial to calling Gaga “The Last Pop Star,” because that’s really what she is, and she finally earned it with “Edge of Glory.” Of course, the song would be incomplete without the astounding work of Clarence Clemons on what sadly became his last musical contribution to this earth. What a way to go out.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “HEART IN YOUR HEARTBREAK” FROM BELONG
You wanna talk about fun? Look no further than this crew of New York nerds, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Their name might be complicated, but their tunes are anything but. On their first self-titled album they explored the vagaries of 80s noise pop and on this year’s Belong, they jump forward a few years, embodying the most fun of the 90s alternative rock singles I was weaned on. That fun shines through best on “Heart in Your Heartbreak.” It’s flippin’ adorable! Come on, tell me you don’t love the chorus of “She was the heart in your heart break/She was the miss in your mistake.” A perfect pop tune in any era, it’s capped off by a phenomenally not-ironic-at-all synth solo. PLEASE listen to this album, if just for the pure joy of “Heart in Your Heartbreak.”
PANDA BEAR – “FRIENDSHIP BRACELET” FROM TOMBOY
Noah Lennox, the Paul McCartney of Animal Collective, went four years between the release of his landmark Person Pitch and this April’s equal-if-not-better masterpiece Tomboy. The standout track from this terrific collection of genre-bending electronic indie is “Friendship Bracelet,” which is without question the most complicated track on this list. By the time the first chorus comes to a close, it sounds like Panda Bear is playing three different songs at once. Yet all the varied sounds come together, strung along by Lennox’s trademark harmonic inflections. I can’t even begin to guess what kind of instruments he used to put this song together. All I know is it sounds amazing. The next song on the album, “Afterburner,” is also excellent for much different reasons.
RADIOHEAD – “GIVE UP THE GHOST” FROM THE KING OF LIMBS
Let’s face it: The King of Limbs is not a great album. Certainly not up to the impossibly lofty standards Radiohead has set for themselves. Releasing three generation-defining albums (The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A) makes the rest of your career awfully tough. That’s not to say Limbs is without great songs. One that I believe immediately enters their canon is the haunting, circular “Give Up The Ghost.” Here Thom Yorke pays tribute to someone we share as a hero: Neil Young. The influence of Neil’s attention to detail and minimalist recording techniques is felt throughout, right down to the way Yorke sings. I can totally imagine this as some long-lost outtake from the On the Beach sessions. Its proves sometimes the best crib from the best. That willingness pays off immensely on “Give Up The Ghost.”
SMITH WESTERNS – “WEEKEND” FROM DYE IT BLONDE
These are young, brash Chicagoans I saw in Boston earlier this year. They played great but displayed immaturity and a lack of professionalism at the end of the set by bolting the stage before playing an encore. Like I said, they’re young and brash and will learn from their rookie mistakes. It may take some time before their personal maturity catches up to their musical maturity. “Weekend” is the Beatles-drenched opener of their second album “Dye It Blonde,” which is loaded with songs of its throwback ilk. “Weekend” is rife with catchy hooks and guitar licks and beautiful, longing minor 7th descending chords and tinges of young romance in the lyrics. There’s so much to love here. It’ll be nice when Smith Westerns start to love their fans back.
TV ON THE RADIO – “NEW CANNONBALL BLUES” FROM NINE TYPES OF LIGHT
Outside of the extremely funky “Golden Age” from Dear Science, I guess I never thought of TV on the Radio as a particularly funky band. I mean, a lot of their songs are about sex, but when you look at the guys, they don’t exactly scream “deep funky sexiness.” The first time I heard their new record about a month ago, I thought it was very good through the first six tracks. Then out came “New Cannonball Blues.” Holy. Crap. This song is the hottest thing this side of Kate Upton. It sounds like it was baked in a kiln before being applied to disc. It’s so smooth yet so forceful at the same time. And it’s nothing like anything TVOTR has put out before. I was worried Nine Types wouldn’t stand up to its prolific predecessor, Dear Science. But Dave Sitek and crew assuaged any of those fears solely based on “Cannonball.”
What have I missed? What have you listened to this year that I may not have heard? Let me know. I expect to be doing some reviews here in time, I can tell the first one I do will be Bon Iver’s new self-titled album. Hint: It’s amazing and you should listen to it.