There’s no way to describe what happened with music in 2011. It got real weird. Artists celebrate when they sell 10,000 records, bands are so broke that they tour nonstop just to afford Christmas presents, the Internet is making superstars every month, rap record labels are starting to assemble like high-payroll sports teams, and sweaty DJs are selling out arenas like ’80s glam bands. Fully understanding the impossible task that is accurately describing the year in music as a monolith, we instead gave the Grantland posse the opportunity to ramble about their favorite song of the year for your listening pleasure. No one picked “We Found Love” by Rihanna, so it seems as if the assignment was understood by no one, but the responses submitted were diverse, surprising, and weird, just like the year in music.
Adele, “Someone Like You” — 21
I’m sure people will assume I’m being sarcastic when I make this selection, because “Someone Like You” doesn’t seem like a song that anyone still considers a song. It’s now more like a prop for SNL skits and rom-coms and irony mavens, almost like a modern incarnation of “Forever Young” or “Sailing.” But I bet “Someone Like You” will be the only song from 2011 I still like in 2021. This was a down year for pop music; most of the critical darlings will not be memorable, even by next summer. Adele is the exception, and particularly this song. Her voice is like driving through Montana. The lyrics are sad and (seemingly) quite real. The music is simple, so it will age well. My only real quibble with the track involves a homonym: When I first heard the chorus, I thought Adele was singing, “I wish nothing but the best for you two,” which made me think she was so open-hearted that she wanted to express sincere optimism to both her ex-boyfriend and his new wife. Upon further review, I’ve come to realize the lyric is technically, “I wish nothing but the best for you, too.” Oh well. There are strings attached to every single lover, but still they can’t tether us together.
— Chuck Klosterman
Megafaun, “Real Slow” — Megafaun
I listened to this hippie jam at least 27 times while sitting on a beach in Greece, reading Part 2 of James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. It evokes placid memories of Feta cheese, Metaxa, and violent conspiracies involving Cuban exiles and J. Edgar Hoover.
— Michael Weinreb
Wounded Lion, “Oh, Jim” — IVXLCDM
This is a cover of a Lou Reed song from Berlin (itself a cover of a Velvet Underground outtake, “Oh, Gin”). That’s great because I like to think about Berlin (concept rock opera!), but I don’t actually like to listen to it. It’s too depressing (Wounded Lion’s album isn’t depressing: It contains a song called “Black Ops”). The year 2011 was almost like a cover of a more depressing prior year: still a bummer at its core, but with the addition of a musician playing the triangle or Adam Levine’s whistling from “Moves Like Jagger” played backward, Autotune, and stuck in as a bridge. Playing this song at a high volume feels like stomping on Goombas.
— Tess Lynch
Juicy J & Lex Luger feat. Project Pat, “Pills, Weed, and Pussy” — Rubber Band Business 2
Some background: I went to Virginia this spring to interview Lex Luger, the producer of this song and most of the Juicy J mixtape it appears on, Rubber Band Business 2. Most of my time in Virginia was spent loitering in recording studios or riding around in a Ford Expedition watching Luger roll blunt after blunt while listening to his own music. One afternoon I told Lex that my favorite song on Rubber Band Business 2 was “Pills, Weed, and Pussy,” which it is — I love the way Juicy’s old Three 6 Mafia partner Project Pat intones the title phrase, and the way the horror-movie Theremin fillip in the beat nods to Juicy and Pat’s death-rap roots (although I guess most of the songs on this record do that, to some extent, because they’re mostly about mixing substances that will kill you. It’s a psych-rock record about attaining some kind of beans-n’-lean-aided samsara). And the video — three dudes getting bent like the 13th Floor Elevators in a motel room with a stocked medicine cabinet, filmed in solarized Predator-vision — is maybe the third-best Juicy J-related clip of the year, after the one for “Stoner’s Night” with the mature white lady in the robe as Juicy’s weed-grinding love interest and the one for Project Pat’s “Kelly Green,” where Juicy delivers all his raps while ironing (rubber band stage-business!).
Later that night I was in the Expedition with Lex and two of the guys in his orbit, Black and Jay. The windows were down; the moon hung fat and orange. Lex told Black and Jay that “Pills, Weed, and Pussy” was my favorite song on the record. They thought this was a hilarious thing for me to like, which it is. (But it’s my shit! I luhhhh this shit! Sometimes this summer I’d walk to pick my daughter up from day care while listening to this shit and wonder if the day-care ladies would let me leave with a child if they knew what I’d been listening to!) Black cued “Pills, Weed, and Pussy” on the car stereo and turned it up loud. Sometimes hip-hop can still sound like the only music in the world worth paying attention to. This is obviously a contextual illusion, but so is all music — it should crowd everything else out of the frame when you’re listening to it or else it’s worthless. And this music is hip-hop designed to crowd other hip-hop out of the frame. For the length of the car ride back to my hotel, even when the bass got so loud it made the CD skip, I was convinced that Juicy J and Project Pat and Lex Luger were all geniuses and that in a world where this music existed, anyone who still chose to listen to the Fleet Foxes harmonizing about dust motes in a sunbeam probably deserved to be bored.
— Alex Pappademas
Frank Ocean, “Thinking About You”
What a perfect name “Frank Ocean” is. It sounds like cheap luxury: glass diamonds, drugstore cologne, a New Year’s Eve banquet at a Las Vegas steakhouse. The seedy/classy Rat Pack crooner connotations of “Frank” (the flatness of morning light and old champagne) balanced out with poetic heft by “Ocean” (in tradition of evocative noun surnames: Billy Ocean, Fiona Apple, John Cougar). Frank Ocean is Christopher Breaux, a 24-year-old songwriter from New Orleans who evacuated to Los Angeles post-Katrina, becoming affiliated with the OFWGKTA crew. His mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra came out in February to critical acclaim. “Thinking About You,” which leaked in July, has floated around the web since then and been covered by Justin Bieber.
While mainstream R&B mostly fell down the Handbag house K-hole to hell (cruise director: David Guetta), alternative R&B swam laps around it on the web. Like all of the new home-studio stars, Ocean is an ambitious songwriter with wide-ranging influences (he recently tweeted about listening to John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”) and seemingly endless reserves of soft-pink bedroom songs that are more reminiscent of early (first three albums) Prince than those The Dream songs that aim to sound exactly like Prince songs (although those are great too).
With Justin Timberlake on movie-star strike, Drake still waffling hard on whether he’s a baller or a romantic, and Robin Thicke doing crazy interviews about how he gives his wife, Paula Patton, double-digit orgasms (EVERY TIME?), the soulful falsetto jam arena was wide open and primed for a rookie like Ocean to hose it down. The analog organ loop in “Thinking About You” is tinged with wedding chapel turned funeral home “November Rain” video melancholy. Ocean’s vocals are like a particularly intimate e-mail or cornered-at-a-party conversation; a dialogue between the play-it-cool-in-public voice and a pleading upper-register subtext. Like a Leonard Cohen song, a hypnotic secret message meant for one specific person is transmuted into a universal hymn to absent lovers. Ocean digs a heart-shaped grave and fills it up with tears.
— Molly Lambert
Stalley, “Hercules” — Lincoln Way Nights (Intelligent Trunk Music)
Stalley doesn’t sound like any other rapper. His cadence is weird, he looks like the coolest homeless person to ever ask for change, and his album Lincoln Way Nights is one of the best releases of the year. Stalley has no gimmick; he isn’t trying to create a new genre, shock you, or tell you how much money he has. He is just a dude from Ohio, and there is something really refreshing about that. Also, he has a silky 15-foot jump shot, can get to the rim, and may or may not have been on my basketball team for two years. What do you mean biased?
— David Jacoby
M83, “Midnight City” — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Everyone has their own personal vision of Los Angeles, nearly all of them preferable to the real thing. Some dream about rubbing elbows with A-listers at the Ivy, while others pine for ambling hikes in Griffith Park, an outdoorsy existence in which it’s possible to have both a dog and strongly held opinions about avocados. Me, I’ve always been partial to an imaginary, icy ’80s dreamscape distilled from Bret Easton Ellis novels, Giorgio Moroder soundtracks, and objectively terrible Jeff Bridges flicks. In my L.A., the hairstyles are always feathered, the vodka is always chilled, and there’s a coyote lurking behind every palm tree.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m fairly certain that French fabulist Anthony Gonzalez agrees with me. Gonzalez is the one-homme band known as M83; he recorded “Midnight City” while living in southern California. It’s the perfect soundtrack for moonlight driving in an impossible metropolis filled with nothing places: twisty exit ramps from freeways onto other freeways, that quiet part of Sunset where it suddenly comes alive and splits into four other streets like a self-flagellating hydra or a Diablo Cody sitcom. Gonzalez seems to have made the same faux pas as all temporary transplants, mixing up his own imagination with reality and somehow thinking the city is a “church” — or even that it’s a real city at all. Lost in his jet-lag smear, he keeps waiting for someone to pick him up (even though no one comes downtown after 9 p.m. and, really, you can’t exactly drink if you’re going to be driving, and, besides, wouldn’t it be nicer to finish that bottle of Syrah right here on the couch?) and forgetting that saxophone solos haven’t sounded this invigorating since the Getty moved to Brentwood.
It’s been 26 years and people are still afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles. But at least they’re willing to get behind the wheel.
— Andy Greenwald
Holy Ghost! feat. Michael McDonald, “Some Children” — Holy Ghost!
Holy Ghost!’s self-titled album contains plenty of high-end electro, modern disco, and/or dance jams. In my opinion, they have outperformed Cut Copy as the most accessible gateway indie electro band in 2011. The song “Some Children” is a must-listen because it features the vocal stylings of Michael McDonald. Although I’m sure Motown and Christmas albums pay the bills for Michael McDonald, it is good to hear his voice utilized in a progressive context.
The Decemberists, “Don’t Carry It All” — The King Is Dead
I am not cool. I do not write about music. I’m so unqualified to tell people what they should listen to. So, yeah — sorry, America. When we got this assignment, I totally wussed out and asked my friends what their top jams of 2011 were. Then two of my buddies suggested a song off one of my favorite albums from this past year. So I went with that one.
Someone who actually gets paid to write about this stuff called “The King Is Dead” “rustic,” which is accurate. The Decemberists’ album, and its first track, “Don’t Carry It All,” is also charming. And a little head-bounce-y. It also kinda makes me want to play the harmonica again, and that hasn’t happened since I was about 8 years old.
I’m not going to drone on about how this song reminds me of growing up in the Midwest (which it does), or spend a lot of time talking about how it now brings back fond memories of my friends who suggested it for this post. (Hi, Matt and Amy!) So I’ll just say this: When I like a song, I tend to listen to it on repeat until I get bored. After I moved “Don’t Carry It All” to my iPod, I played it on repeat for three days straight.
There. Can I go back to editing quarterback jokes now?
— Sarah Larimer
Clams Casino, “Motivation” — Instrumental Mixtape
Starting with Lil B, it seemed like every new-wave hip-hop weirdo was trying to get on a Clams beat. For the most part, though, they were wasting their time. The accidental genius (his sample-digging process: “I used to just type a random word — like ‘blue’ or ‘cold’ — into LimeWire or BearShare and download the first 10 results. I had no idea who the artists were or anything”) makes music that doesn’t need an extra anything to sound complete. I’m already on the record as declaring that the lush punch of “Motivation” is perfect for drinking three beers real fast and then zoning out while riding the bus, and I still think that’s true. But with an exponentially increasing number of spins, I now realize that “Motivation” is also perfect for soundtracking pretty much anything else awesome you might feel like doing.
— Amos Barshad
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Ni–as in Paris” — Watch the Throne
The most important line from the song is one that defines an album that talks about a lot of obnoxiously rich-guy stuff in the midst of a depression. Jay-Z slips in, halfway through the first verse, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris gettin’ fucked up too.” So really, it’s all about this: You have two guys who overcame two very different, for lack of a better word, plights of modern urban culture (for Jay, a life of selling drugs; for Kanye, never completely fitting in on the streets or in education or the arts), and now are all about celebrating themselves for not having to curb what they want to do to what anyone expects them to do. If you accept this as the thesis for Watch the Throne, then most of the album and tour makes sense. (Except for “Lift Off,” because there’s no excuse for that shit.)
Even the title of the song, which very well could have been called “Ball So Hard” (which Jay-Z had even lobbied for), was left as “N–as in Paris” because Kanye felt so strongly that the whole point of the song was that they were being unabashedly who they were, while in, you guessed it, Paris (where they had originally recorded the song). The fact that they would later go on to perform this song six, then seven, then eight, and eventually 11 times in a row while on the Watch the Throne tour (and while Kanye would scream, “THIS HAS NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE, NO ONE EVER PLAYS A SONG TEN TIMES IN A ROW IN A CONCERT”), was just icing on the “We’ll do whatever we want” cake.
So here’s the thing: The song itself is pretty great, and while it’s not necessarily even close to being the best from either artist, and even though there’s a lot of weird shit going on (like sound clips from Blades of Glory), what it ends up standing for is something pretty significant that, in a lot of ways, encapsulates everything that Watch the Throne was meant to be.
— David Cho
DJ Khaled feat. Drake, Rick Ross, & Lil Wayne, “I’m On One” — We the Best Forever
I’ll be honest, Klosterman and I had the same favorite song, with Adele’s “Someone Like You,” but after comparing our prose, his read like an adult talking about an instant classic and mine sounded like a 12-year-old girl trying to describe her love for Justin Bieber. So, for my second favorite, my choice happens to be the exact opposite of Adele, “I’m On One,” the hands-down hip-hop collabo of the year (sorry, “Huzzah”). On the surface, I want to hate on this song because it’s so irresponsible. Each rapper delivers one line that could turn a straight-edge kid from a high-achieving teenager to a dropout drug dealer with one listen. Drake: “All I care about is money and the city where I’m from.” Ross: “Ever made love to the woman of your dreams in a room full of money out in London and she screams.” Wayne: “I walk around the club, fuck everybody.” I hear this and am so thankful I’m 24 and not 15, because were the opposite true, my life would only revolve around sexing rich girls from Atlanta in London nightclubs while we threw stacks of unmarked bills at each other. But since I am a “grown-up,” I hear this song and, much like my reaction to Watch the Throne, I want everything they have. Everything. Each rapper brings their A-game in the track, and the end result is an exercise in flaunting short-term success. In this, the year of introspective, emotional rap (with Drake as a leader of this movement), this song is a nice reminder of what rap can be: just the rudest, most arrogant medium to ever exist.
— Rembert Browne
Destroyer, “Kaputt” — Kaputt
In the early ’80s, when whatever rebellion that surrounded new wave had evaporated into a neon fragrance, when English New Romantics trimmed their billowy sleeves and got soul, when jackets were required, when the only difference between Steely Dan and Bryan Ferry was their disparate uses for mirrors (snorting vs. gazing) — that is the moment of “Kaputt,” six minutes of yacht-pop bliss from Destroyer. “Wasting your day chasing some girls all right chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night,” Dan Bejar sings in the very first line, languidly suspended in the gap between irony and ecstasy, where this song does its contempo-casual business.
Bejar is best known as the tweaky voiced Bowie-freak in the New Pornographers, but he’s been making his own changeable, troubadour-tinged albums for over a decade. Kaputt, his ninth, was a tire-screeching whip-around into synthy smoothness that had a few people wondering if it was just a spoof on Bowie’s celebrated “chameleonic” career moves. It is, sort of, but it’s also a great pop record. I’ve been waiting for this song to reveal itself as pretentious and blanched and terrible all year long, and it just keeps revealing itself as pretentious and blanched and awesome. Dig, if you will, that doctor’s waiting room disco groove, those melodies as cool and soft as the Santa Anna winds in Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters,” the Miami Vice sex-scene sax magic, the stemwear-Succubi backup singers. I’d love to argue that he somehow “humanizes” all that sophisti-cheese but it’s beside the point: this is a private world of resplendent loneliness, of a mythic European disco where no one talks or dances, of austere chill as soul bunker. Of a distant memory: it’s after school in 1982, and there’s You confronted with a mildly arty and meditative early MTV video where a boy playing Sinatra wanders the forlorn 3 A.M. of a soundstage back alley past a long-haired man playing a double-breasted horn solo; there’s an empty bar that’s like a turquoise legwarmer vision of an Edward Hopper painting where he suavely finds a seat and stares down the camera’s eye over the bartender’s shoulder until he creeps you out with such severe style you can still kinda feel it oozing up your spine thirty years later. 1982 You really really just wishes this would all be over and they’d show John Taylor again. And they will, baby, just be cool.
— Jon Dolan