2011 didn’t turn out like it was supposed to.
It was supposed to be the year that the electro-Europop ushered in by Lady Gaga completed its rise to total airwave domination. It was supposed to be the year hip-hop gave up trying to be as relevant as it was in the ’00s. It was supposed to be the year rock staged a comeback. But none of those things happened.
Sure, electro-Europop was big, but it came via Rihanna and Britney Spears. Gaga had moved on already. While hip-hop is struggling to have as many big hits as it did five years ago, Kanye, Jay-Z, Drake, Nicki Minaj and Donald Glover continue to push the boundaries of what we expect of the genre. The biggest surprise of 2011, however, was the explosion of soul and folk music. Parents bought Adele’s 21 at Wal-Mart while their kid’s downloaded “Rolling in the Deep” for their iPod. British folk quartet Mumford & Sons not only landed a top 40 hit, but their two-year-old album rose to No. 2 in the album charts. Bon Iver shared Grammy nomination categories with Katy Perry and Bruno Mars.
The death of Steve Jobs caused reflection on how digital music has changed the record industry, and the year it finally sees in increase in annual record sales (thanks Adele), Spotify comes and threatens to change the business model once again.
2011 wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Honorable mentions: Lil Wayne feat. Drake: “She Will,” Strokes: “Under the Cover of Darkness,” Beyonce: “Countdown,” Kreayshawn: “Gucci Gucci,” Tyler the Creator: “Yonkers,” Britney Spears: “Hold It Against Me,” MNDR: “Cut Me Out.”
25: Jimmy Eat World: “Coffee and Cigarettes”
On “Coffee and Cigarettes,” Jimmy Eat World proves they can still make flawless, airtight pop songs even as hits like “Sweetness” and “The Middle” celebrated their tenth birthday.
24. Foster the People: “Helena Beats”
I’m almost positive the state legislature passed a law requiring everyone to ask “Do you know what this song really means?” every time “Pumped Up Kicks” came on. Well, this is Foster the People’s other song. And it’s better.
23. Lady Gaga: “Marry the Night”
“Marry the Night” is the thesis for Gaga’s overblown second album, Born This Way. The song opens with church bells before giving way to Springsteen-esque verses that let Gaga wail like Whitney and dance like Madonna.
22. Drake: “Headlines”
[Young Money/Cash Money]
Drake raps about the perils and promise of fame on “Headlines.” Hard to believe he can speak from experience about such topics, but remember, before he was featuring on Lil Wayne tracks, he was on Degrassi.
21. Cults: “You Know What I Mean”
The earnestness of Madeline Follin sounds like a long lost Ronettes hit updated for the 21st century. And it makes you want to let out a sad, slow sigh.
20. Emeli Sande: “Heaven”
Emeli Sande’s “Heaven” is to 2011 what Janelle Monae’s “Cold War” was to 2010. And in much the same fashion, it will probably be just as quickly and unjustly forgotten.
19. Mumford & Sons: “Roll Away Your Stone”
Roll away your stone and show me yours and I’ll roll away my stone and show you mine. Marcus Mumford sings about opening up in the final single off the British folk group’s debut album.
18. Beyonce: “1+1″
The lyrics seem a little dumb at first, but when you think of it as a modern day “Nothing Compares 2 U,” they aren’t so bad.
17. Lights: “Toes”
Canadian folktronica singer Valerie Poxleitner goes by the stage name Lights which is a good thing because A) Poxleitner is hard to spell and B) Lights is the name of the Ellie Goulding album, which like “Toes,” is really quite good folktronica.
16. Nicola Roberts: “Beat of my Drum”
A handful of brilliant songs on every underwhelming Cheryl Cole album doesn’t justify Girls Aloud continued hiatus. Nicola Robert’s “Beat of my Drum,” an indie pop anthem at the crossroads of Pitchfork and Popjustice, at least makes the UK girl group’s break a little more bearable.
15. Kele feat. Lucy Taylor: “What Did I Do?”
Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke gets lead credits on the song, but it’s really his back-up singer, Lucy Taylor, who shines on the track, a stopgap between Okerek’s first solo venture and his band’s fourth LP.
14. Robyn: “Call Your Girlfriend”
Robyn gets her heart broken on most her song, but on “Call Your Girlfriend,” she gets her man and plays home wrecker.
13. Adele: “Someone Like You”
Adele’s simple but emotional performance of the song at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards was chill inducing. And I think it made Britney Spears cry. Adele’s performance rocketed the single to the top of the Hot 100 becoming the first No. 1 song to only feature vocals and piano.
12. The Naked and Famous : “Young Blood”
MGMT stopped making music we expected MGMT to make, so New Zealand’s The Naked and Famous did it for them.
11. Drake feat. Nicki Minaj: “Make Me Proud”
[Young Money/Cash Money]
Drake outlines his ideal woman on “Make Me Proud.” A woman with a future, a past and a little attitude who runs on the treadmill, eats salad and has a couple things due and she always gets them done. Naturally, that woman ends up being a militantly feminist named Nicki Minaj, but Drake disarms her: “You don’t love them boys? … F*** that noise.”
10. Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne: “Motivation”
The award for best song by a Destiny’s Child alumni goes to someone other than Beyonce this year.
9. M83: “Midnight City”
Thanks to Spotify notifications on Facebook, you can see in real time how big the song got after Pitchfork put it at the top of their list. Not a bad pick for a year like 2011 though. After all, it ends with a sax solo!
8. Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris: “We Found Love”
At what point does “We Found Love” replace “Umbrella” as Rihanna’s signature song? I’m thinking sometime this week when it becomes her longest reigning No. 1 song.
7. Nicki Minaj: “Superbass”
[Young Money/Cash Money]
Nicki Minaj had a problem. All her cameos on other artists’ tracks were good, but none of her own songs were. That was until she released the bonus track “Superbass.” Hey Nicki, fire the A&R guy who signed off on Pink Friday’s tracklist.
6. Bon Iver: “Holocene”
The popularity of this song is some sort of turning point in popular music, but I’m not sure what it all means yet. Rise of an unlikely (and reluctant?) “pop star,” Grammy nomination for his song but not his album (while the guy who got him there, Kanye, was shut out), folk goes mainstream, hipster backlash ensues, Justin Vernon stars in a workout tape. Or something that that.
5. Britney Spears: “Till the World Ends”
Luckily, the world didn’t end on May 21 like that Pastor Harold Camping said it would, so we’ll be able to reuse Britney’s Rapture Eve anthem in 2012 when the Mayans said the Apocalypse will really come.
4. Jay-Z & Kanye West: “N***** in Paris”
[Roc Nation/Def Jam]
“No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” My friend thought it was about the NBA lockout. Even though lockout is finally over, lines like “that sh** cray” and will never get old.
3. Childish Gambino: “Heartbeat”
For someone who spends much of his time writing for 30 Rock and The Daily Show, Donald Glover sure knows how to spit the venom. The best example of this would be “Heartbeat,” a slamming synth rant about sleeping with an ex.
2. Lady Gaga: “Edge of Glory”
You know a pop song has reached the ultimate level of cultural saturation when uttering a line from the song incites singing (think “it’s getting hot in here!”). If you used the word “edge” in a crowded room at any point this year, nine times out of ten, someone would wail out “of glorrrayyy.” If they didn’t, they were at least thinking it.
Everyone from hipsters to hockey moms to high schoolers liked Adele’s biggest hit of the year. It was a perfect combination of the neo-retro style popularized by Amy Winehouse and the open diary authenticity perfected by Taylor Swift. It was the rare song that united listeners across an increasingly splintered musical landscape, topping the Hot 100 for seven weeks not to mention also charting on Billboard’s pop, adult contemporary, rock, dance, hip-hop/R&B and Latin charts.
Tags: Adele, Beyonce, Bon Iver, Britney Spears, Calvin Harris, Childish Gambino, Cults, Drake, Emeli Sande, Foster the People, Jay-Z, Jimmy Eat World, Kanye West, Kele, Kelly Rowland, Lady Gaga, Lights, Lil Wayne, Lucy Taylor Robyn, M83, Mumford & Sons, Nicola Roberts, Rihanna, The Naked and Famous