It’s a LOT easier putting a list of favorite songs together than best albums. The latter requires a lot of critical thought; for songs, I can just go with feel (and cheat by looking at the most played songs in iTunes). Still, there are reasons behind each choice so check them out below. This list is in alphabetical order by artist to make it easier to run through.
If you just want to see the list of songs without the commentary, go here. And don't forget to check out my Best 50 Albums of 2011.
ADELE, “Rolling in the Deep” (21) – I seldom hear mainstream music, but a friend recommended this (thanks Melissa!) and I was blown away by Adele’s voice, her heartfelt delivery and the strong songwriting in this break-up recovery song.
The Airborne Toxic Event, “All At Once” (All At Once) – Overly dramatic and bombastic with Edge-like guitar, rumbling percussion, and a crazy build-up: I love it!
Amy LaVere, “Damn Love Song” (Stranger Me) – Opening with a harmonium and a psychedelic blues drone, then driven by LaVere’s upright bass and pounding percussion, this is a great bitter love song, meted out in excruciatingly slow time.
Anna Calvi, “Desire” (Anna Calvi) – This song showcases Calvi’s expressive and gutsy voice. She sings in a lower register than many female singers and resists the temptation to over-emote, letting this strong song speak for itself.
The Antlers, “I Don't Want Love” (Burst Apart) – A delicate falsetto singing heartbreaking and faintly disturbing lyrics against lush keyboards and guitars
Arctic Monkeys, “Brick By Brick” (Suck It and See) – Three minutes of kick-ass British rock ‘n’ roll
Austra, “Darken Her Horse” (Feel It Break) – Singer Katie Stelmanis has a wide-ranging and powerful voice. Here she brings a cut-crystal and sinister tone to this slow burn of a song.
Austra, “Lose It” (Feel It Break) – Different from “Darken Her Horse,” Stelmanis here lets loose an almost frantic wail, perfect for lyrics like “I get impatient.”
Battles, “Ice Cream (feat. Matias Aguayo)” (Gloss Drop) – I heard this song because of the attention received for its interesting (and definitely NSFW) video: this first time in years I’ve found out about a song via video.
Beirut, “Goshen” (The Rip Tide) – An absolutely lovely and haunting piano ballad, one of the quietest songs on this lovely album (#13 on my Top 50 Albums list)
The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy” (El Camino) – Great stomping garage rock with a slashing riff from guitarist Dan Auerbach.
The Black Keys, “Gold On the Ceiling” (El Camino) – A slice of white soul, complete with a classic group chorus, showcasing another side of this band
Bon Iver, “Holocene” (Bon Iver) – A droning acoustic ballad with Justin Vernon’s sweet falsetto and haunting lyrics: “I am not magnificent.”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest” (Bon Iver) – A complete change from the “classic” Bon Iver sound, this song brings the album to a stunning conclusion – and puts the world on notice that Vernon is much more than that “hippy, bearded guy in the cabin.”
The Boxer Rebellion, “Step Out of the Car” (The Cold Still) – An urgent bass line and thumping drum kit drive this excellent slice of guitar rock, highlighted by similarly urgent vocals and guitar work.
Bright Eyes, “Haile Selassie” (The People's Key) – A remarkable stew of a song, throbbing and melodious as Conor Oberst muses about the late Ethiopian dictator and Rasta god.
Caveman, “Great Life” (CoCo Beware) – A nice example of using minimal ingredients to build something special, this song builds effectively with repetitive tom work, droning bass, and simply strummed electric guitar providing a base for sweetly melancholic lyrics.
The Civil Wars, “Poison & Wine” (Barton Hollow) – An absolutely exquisite and sad duet, their two voices intertwining perfectly
Cold War Kids, “Mine Is Yours” (Mine Is Yours) – Strong vocals highlight this upbeat piece of alt-rock pop
Coldplay, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” (Mylo Xyloto) – A great stadium-ready slice of pop rock with rapidly strummed acoustic guitar, keyboards, and thumping bass drum
Coldplay & Rihanna, “Princess of China” (Mylo Xyloto) – A nice crossover effort with Rihanna and Chris Martin’s voices playing off each other well and swelling, rumbling keyboards
Cut Copy, “Take Me Over” (Zonoscope) – An exceptionally well done paean to ‘80s synth pop completely with electronic handclaps and Bryan Ferry-like vocals
David Wax Museum, “Born With a Broken Heart” (Everything Is Saved) – This is one kick-ass, sing-a-long piece of Americana.
Death Cab for Cutie, “You Are a Tourist” (Codes and Keys) – A muscular pop tune from Ben Gibbard and crew with processed and complex vocals, echoing guitars and great hooks
Deer Tick, “The Bump” (Divine Providence) – A song that captures the ethos of this band perfectly, a punk-country stomp with lyrics like “We’re full grown men, but we act like kids” and great loosely shouted voices echoing the singing.
Dengue Fever, “Cannibal Courtship” (Cannibal Courtship) – A piece of tropical fever with almost off-key guitars and vocals, a cheesy Farfisa organ, and words about being someone’s sacrificial lamb – you can hear this song being sung in some cheap beach bar in Southeast Asia.
Destroyer, “Poor In Love” (Kaputt) – Dan Bejar’s oddly pitched voice and unusual phrasing is the perfect instrument to convey his quirky observational lyrics. This quiet song also highlights his considerable melodic gifts and always interesting arrangements.
Destroyer, “Kaputt” (Kaputt) – A gently rolling funky bass drives this song with a female vocalist providing harmony for Bejar’s world-weary voice, and the addition of aching trumpet and saxophone runs.
Dum Dum Girls, “Bedroom Eyes” (Only In Dreams) – A delicious slice of guitar pop, equal parts of Pretenders and 1960s surf rock
Dum Dum Girls, “In My Head” (Only In Dreams) – See above!
Eleanor Friedberger, “My Mistakes” (Last Summer) – Few vocalists could shove this many words into a song and make it work, but Friedberger pulls it off with panache in this fabulously catchy lo-fi tune.
Eric Church, “Homeboy” (Chief) – Gulp … a mainstream country song! Not sure how I ended up hearing this, but it really grabbed me, in spite of its typically overproduced conventional country sound, mostly due to Church’s great voice, the story in the lyrics, and a strong melody.
Feist, “The Bad In Each Other” (Metals) – An interesting blend of styles, starting with oddly rhythmic stomped drums and handclaps in the verses, then slowing down for a sad chorus supported by horns and strings as Feist bemoans the difficulty of a good man and a good woman finding the good in each other.
Feist, “The Circle Married the Line” (Metals) – A showcase for Leslie Feist’s fabulously expressive voice
Fleet Foxes, “Montezuma” (Helplessness Blues) – Fleet Foxes is the only band with three songs on this list (not surprising since Helplessness Blues is my #1 album for 2011). This song opens the album, setting the tone with delicately plucked guitars, sweeping harmonies and Robin Pecknold’s crystal clear voice singing lyrics that sound like they were written by a man twice his age.
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” (Helplessness Blues) – A Fleet Foxes specialty is the “suite” (à la “Suite Judy Blue Eyes”) and this song is a perfect two-part example with a lovely opening over rapidly strummed guitars changing into a slow orchestral swell of chiming guitars and percussion at the end.
Fleet Foxes, “Grown Ocean” (Helplessness Blues) – Perhaps more than any other song on the album, this one captures Fleet Foxes’ ambition, creativity and musicianship. Bold, sweeping and breathtaking.
Florence + the Machine, “Lover to Lover” (Ceremonials) – As a whole, I found Ceremonials overwhelming, but some of the songs are riveting – and this is a good example, a soul-gospel rave showcasing Florence Welch’s incredible voice.
Florence + the Machine, “Spectrum” (Ceremonials) – Great rollicking percussion and the Machine’s trademark use of a harp drive this tune, another great rave-up.
Foster the People, “Helena Beat” (Torches) – Proving that “Pumped Up Kicks” wasn’t a fluke, this is an example of the dance-pop gems these guys produce. It’s a great handclapper with a nice retro-synth buzzing underneath.
Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks” (Torches) – A quietly seductive tune that, like its low distorted vocals, seems to insinuate itself into your subconscious. A classic “ear worm”!
Fucked Up, “The Other Shoe” (David Comes to Life) – “We’re dying on the inside” one of the guest female vocalists chants to start this operatic bit of hardcore. Soon Pink Eyes is screaming a surprisingly melodic verse and then joining the females for more choruses of “Dying on the inside.” Encapsulates the mood on this album perfectly.
Galaxie, “Shanghai” (Tigre et diesel) – This song is driven by a great uptempo chunky, bluesy guitar riff and handclaps. A delicious slice of Québec rock!
Hayes Carll, “KMAG YOYO” (KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)) – A “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for 2011 (and if you’re wondering, it’s military slang for “Kiss My Ass, Guys, You’re On Your Own”)
Heartless Bastards, “Parted Ways” (Parted Ways - Single) – A bit of 1970s retro rock with Erika Wennerstrom channeling any number of 1970s male vocalists
The Heavenly States & Britt Daniel, “Berlin Wall” (Oui Camera Oui) – A latecomer (thanks Ira!), I like this song partly because I was just in Berlin for the first time since the Wall fell and liked the accompanying video, but also because it’s a fun quirky simple guitar and piano song featuring Britt Daniel of Spoon.
Hey Ocean, “Big Blue Wave” (Big Blue Wave - EP) – Upbeat and slightly cheesy guitar pop from this Canadian indie band
JEFF the Brotherhood, “Ripper” (We Are the Champions) – The perfect name for this song, which opens with a crunching heavily distorted classic guitar riff and then starts, well, ripping away.
Joel Plaskett, “Jimmie's Still Jimmie” (Jimmie's Still Jimmie - Single) – A great slice of power pop from the Canadian singer-songwriter
The Joy Formidable, “Whirring” (The Big Roar) – A big rolling upbeat song (as befits a band of this name and an album of this title) with a great thrashing instrumental breakdown at the end
Juliette Commagere, “How I Look for You” (The Procession) – Commagere continues her streak of great synth-pop with soaring wall-of-sound vocals.
Kate Bush, “50 Words for Snow” (50 Words for Snow) – One of the more interesting and unique songs I’ve ever heard – and remarkably hypnotic for something that, aside from a short (albeit melodic) chorus, consists entirely of Bush breathing out a countdown and actor Stephen Fry reading (in a fabulous voice) 50 different words for snow.
The Kooks, “Junk of the Heart (Happy)” (Junk of the Heart) – As befits the subtitle, this is a cheerful, head bobber of a pop song.
Korallreven, “As Young As Yesterday” (An Album By Korallreven) – A lush soundscape starting with the sound of water dripping and then building into a wonderfully orchestral bit of electronic pop
Kurt Vile, “Jesus Fever” (Smoke Ring for My Halo) – An upbeat bit of folk pop whose melodicism partially disguises some unsettling lyrics
Library Voices, “Que Sera Sarah” (Summer of Lust) – If you’re going to try and pull off a song with a title like this, you’d better be good – and these guys are!
Library Voices, “The Prime Minister's Daughter” (Summer of Lust) – A particularly Canadian song sparked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comment that ordinary people don’t care about art.
Little Dragon, “Ritual Union” (Ritual Union) – Another one of the electronic bands I began listening to this year, this song features soulful vocals and warm chirping keyboards to accompany the loops.
Los Campesinos!, “By Your Hand” (Hello Sadness) – A messy handclapping song with hilarious lyrics about a date gone very wrong (“She vomits down my rental tux”)
Lykke Li, “Youth Knows No Pain” (Wounded Rhymes) – The opener on Li’s excellent second album (#27 on my Top 50 Albums of 2011) starts things with a bang, a booming tympani leading to a rollicking organ part and Li’s dramatic vocal delivery.
Lykke Li, “Get Some” (Wounded Rhymes) – The Bo Diddley rhythm pushes this awesome pop number along as Li sings some of her more provocative lyrics: “I’m your prostitute, you gonna get some.”
M83, “Reunion” (Hurry Up, We're Dreaming) – A big uplifting sweep of a song
Mother Mother, “The Stand” (Eureka) – A song that’s hard to categorize with offhand spoken word verses tauntingly echoed by a chorus of female voices
The Mountain Goats, “Damn These Vampires” (All Eternals Deck) – John Darnielle’s voice is a highlight of this mid-tempo folk rock piece anchored by acoustic guitar and piano.
My Morning Jacket, “Victory Dance” (Circuital) – A classic arena rock opening song (as the band proved during their concert swing this year) complete with a gong, clarion call keyboards and a dramatic build-up
My Morning Jacket, “Circuital” (Circuital) – The title song from the band’s strong sixth album (#14 on my Best Albums of 2011) is another “big” song with a muted picked guitar bit leading to a hooky acoustically strummed section.
Noah & The Whale, “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” (Last Night On Earth) – A snappy little bit of folk-rock, sung in a wonderfully wry and world-weary voice with a completely cheesy chorus that you can’t get out of your head
Noah & The Whale, “Just Me Before We Met” (Last Night On Earth) – The lyrics to this song made me cringe when I reviewed this album, but man it grew on me. Great hooky chorus – and I got used to the words!
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “Belong” (Belong) – A lovely slice of alt-rock with loud distorted guitars backing quieter, softly phrased vocals à la Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins
Panda Bear, “Surfer's Hymn” (Tomboy) – The best music creates images and feelings without necessarily even needing words. This is a great example: you don’t need to hear the lyrics to get the feeling of surf and beach from Noah Lennox’s Beach Boys-inspired vocals and the wash of keyboard sounds.
Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What?” (So Beautiful or So What?) – Paul Simon once again proves that he’s the master at pulling disparate influences together to create something unique. An African-flavored guitar figure and handclaps echo behind Simon’s always interesting lyrics.
Peter, Bjorn and John, “Tomorrow Has to Wait” (Gimme Some) – One of two incredibly catchy tunes from this Swedish band to make my list, this one features echoed repetitive verses, thumping tom work and shouted chorus.
Peter Bjorn and John, “Dig a Little Deeper” (Gimme Some) – Props to these guys for making a sing-a-long out of “All art has been contemporary.”
R.E.M., “Mine Smell Like Honey” (Collapse Into Now) – A final piece of pop rock genius from this seminal band
The Raveonettes, “Recharge & Revolt” (Raven In the Grave) – A distorted acoustic guitar strum and droning keyboards sustain this bit of Scandinavian noise pop
Real Estate, “It's Real” (Days) – An impossibly cheery arpeggiated guitar chimes through this lovely bit of sunny pop
Real Estate, “Out of Tune” (Days) – More of a mood piece than the other Real Estate song on this list, this is full of minor key chiming and atmospheric vocals.
Rich Aucoin, “It” (We're All Dying to Live) – Powerful baroque rock from this artist’s breathtaking debut album: uplifting, driving, and orchestral
Ron Sexsmith, “The Reason Why” (Long Player Late Bloomer) – A gorgeous uptempo number from this outstanding and underappreciated songwriter. Sexsmith’s voice has never sounded better. Music for adults!
The Rural Alberta Advantage, “Stamp” (Departing) – Frantically energetic with a much broader sound than you’d expect from a trio
Said the Whale, “Lines” (New Brighton - EP) – These Vancouver tunesmiths produce literate tuneful music that floats off in unexpected directions. This is a relatively straightforward tune for them and features their strong pop sensibilities and a do-wop chorus.
The Sheepdogs, “I Don't Know” (Learn & Burn) – Forty years later, these guys are channeling fellow Western Canadians The Guess Who. An acoustic rocker with a great shouted chorus.
Smith Westerns, “Weekend” (Dye It Blonde) – A squalling Mick Ronson-like guitar line starts this song off in glam rock territory but the softly sung vocals and soaring chorus are more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll.
St. Vincent, “Surgeon” (Strange Mercy) – A lush electronic stew with Annie Clark’s dreamy vocals and a synth solo at the end that comes right out The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway territory
St. Vincent, “Northern Lights” (Strange Mercy) – A different side of St. Vincent, emphasizing distorted guitars and electronic noise
The Strokes, “Machu Piccu” (Angles) – Not the strongest Strokes album but they still crank out punchy rock ‘n’ roll songs such as this one with its nice chunky guitar riff that eventually echoes the chorus.
The Strokes, “Gratisfaction” (Angles) – Another slice of The Strokes’ high energy, melodic rock ‘n’ roll
Tapes 'n Tapes, “One In the World” (Outside) – A sunny bit of Caribbean-inflected pop
Telekinesis, “Please Ask for Help” (12 Desperate Straight Lines) – Rapid beat, Cure-style guitar, and a busy rising and falling bass line weave together seamlessly to back Michael Benjamin Lerner’s tale of romantic woe.
Thievery Corporation, “Culture of Fear” (Culture of Fear) – With their musical curiosity and talent, you can expect just about any type of music from the Washington, D.C. duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. This song showcases their hip-hop stylings with Mr. Lif rapping out politically potent lyrics about the culture of fear we live in.
Thurston Moore, “Benediction” (Demolished Thoughts) – Backed by his always interesting guitar playing (in this case strummed acoustic) and by strings that could come from a Tim Buckley song, Moore sings this achingly sad song in perfect world weary voice.
Tom Waits, “Satisfied” (Bad As Me) – With great dual guitar work from Waits’ usual collaborator, Marc Ribot, and the (in)famous Keith Richards, this is a sprawling stomper in Waits’ best “brawler” tradition.
Tune-Yards, “Bizness” (Whokill) – One of those imaginative songs that defies description with off-kilter percussion, jazzy bass, tweeting descending keyboard runs and Merrill Garbus’ quirky vocal delivery
TV On the Radio, “Second Song” (Nine Types of Light) – A song that demonstrates why TOTR is one of the most interesting bands out there, blending a dramatic low vocal and piano bit with a funky falsetto, horn runs and slow walking rock beat
Viva Voce, “Plästic Rädio” (The Future Will Destroy You) – A bit of dramatic, slinky funk (and no I don’t know why they added the umlaut to the a’s in the song title)
Washed Out, “Amor Fati” (Within and Without) – The vocals are another instrument here, back in the mix and almost incomprehensible on this lovely bit of ‘80s synth pop.
White Wives, “Sky Started Crying” (Happeners) – Great punk energy on this tune, which features one of those guitar lines you’re sure you’ve heard before
Wilco, “Standing O” (The Whole Love) – A straightforward bit of country rock from Jeff Tweedy and crew
Wild Flag, “Romance” (Wild Flag) – This band delivers terrific high energy, riot grrrl rock with drummer Janet Weiss filling her way through this song like Keith Moon on amphetamines.
Youth Lagoon, “Afternoon” (The Year of Hibernation) – Candy sweet whistling starts this song quietly, then drums, bass, guitar and handclaps kick in and the whistling becomes the upbeat chorus to this delicious slice of pop
Yuck, “Get Away” (Yuck) – Distorted vocals and whining guitars provide decoration for a song that’s basically a highly melodic bit of pop