2011 Critic's Poll Best Songs
MSN's critics and staff thus looked not just at official single releases but at any compelling song that grabbed their attention over the course of the year, whether stitched into a friend's shared playlist, uncovered in a personalized online audio stream or unearthed as a bonus track or alternate mix. The results? While the top half of our final 10 does celebrate bona fide hits, the bottom half offers some surprises in the new faces featured and the familiar ones missed.
2. Adele – 'Rolling in the Deep'
Given an album chart run for "21" that suggested she had deed and mortgage to the property, not just a short-term lease, it's unsurprising (if still impressive) that Adele's stiffest competition for the top slot on the singles/tracks front was herself. "Rolling in the Deep," the thundering lead track and first single, broke quickly in advance of the album, topped online and traditional charts, and landed on every conceivable radio format with the possible exception of talk radio.
3. The Black Keys – 'Lonely Boy'
The Black Keys gleefully soup up blues, rock and R&B factory parts with off-the-wall pop decorations (courtesy of co-producer Danger Mouse) and potent injections of gonzo 'tude. "Lonely Boy" is classic Keys: Set against a galloping mesh of guitars and keening falsetto backing vocals, Dan Auerbach delivers the familiar lament of a would-be Lothario who has "a love that keeps me waiting." With his uniquely soulful yet deadpan howl, he takes a (very) old trope for delayed gratification to fresh, funny, frisky heights.
4. Foster the People – 'Pumped Up Kicks'
An ingenious earworm dangles from the sing-along chorus of this shaggy pop gem, which jump-started singer and multi-instrumentalist Marc Foster's new trio, Foster the People. The loping beat, whistled hooks, cheery handclaps and sing-along chorus of "Pumped Up Kicks" all convey fun in the sun against lyrics that tell a very different story -- a murderous fantasy that threatens a shooting rampage. The net effect proved hypnotic, yielding a viral hit that in turn landed a major record deal and spurred the trio to head back to the woodshed to build an album's worth of material.
5. Beyoncé – 'Countdown'
As the stakes for chart rule drive digital divas to ever more densely produced studio clockworks, Beyoncé keeps pace with a Ritalin-paced hip-hop sprint that playfully folds romantic devotion and family planning into the chorus's robo-tweaked countdown that takes us from rendezvous to hookup to devotional shout-out for her baby daddy. Context is all, of course, fitting snugly into her "4" album's narrative hall of mirrors. Sonically, it's giddy ear candy that dazzles with its high-wire speed and intricacy.
6. Fleet Foxes – 'Helplessness Blues'
Fleet Foxes suggest that for some pop fans, there's no generational divide at all. Growing up with their parents' record collections, Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset seeded the band's sound in a shared reverence for postwar rock, folk, country and blues, which explains these Seattle suburbanites' evocative folk-rock, closer to Fairport Convention and CSN&Y than more recent freak-folk experiments. The title track of their second full-length applies this warm, filigreed approach to an appropriate mediation on growing up (hopefully wiser) that would have sounded right at home at Woodstock.
7. Teddybears – 'Rocket Scientist'
The fractious votes in this year's singles/tracks poll helped this propulsive, irresistibly funny slice of turbo-charged electro-rock-rap-WTF-pop steal sunlight, thanks to the major thumbs-up scores of just two voters besotted by the dial-spinning pop mash-ups that this Swedish trio delivers. The lead track on their star-studded "Devil's Music" album, "Rocket Scientist" lets Eve punch and flow with goofy erotic boasts built around robotic erotica worthy of a (good) "Robocop" remake.
8. Garland Jeffreys – ''Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me'
Split votes and our critics' eclecticism yield another welcome surprise in this track from "The King of In Between," Garland Jeffreys' stunning, triumphant return in his first U.S. release in nearly 20 years. The Brooklyn native still burns with undimmed rock energy while weaving an undisguised thread of mortality into songs that mirror his multi-ethnic identity through his command of rock 'n' roll, reggae, R&B and blues. Here, Jeffreys taps into a boogie that Hooker himself would recognize to present a righteous mission statement on rocking to the end.
9. Foo Fighters - 'Walk'
The closing track and second single from Foo Fighters' "Wasting Light" treads on what is Dave Grohl's most secure turf: muscular, melodic rock that weds pop lyricism to punk energy and creates drama through quick dynamic shifts. The same soft-to-loud left turns that he brought from Nirvana (adopting a Pixies sucker punch) and strategic crescendos deliver here as well on what's one of the full-length's strongest tracks.
10. Hammers of Misfortune - 'The Grain'
MSN's principal cheerleader (and, appropriately, chief metallurgist) for this Bay Area progressive metal band, Headbang's Adrien Begrand, hails the sextet's "17th Street" as the year's top metal album, and singles out "The Grain" as its crowning moment. A revamped lineup boasting a new vocalist and guitarist pares away the band's earlier folk filigree to focus on simpler, more restrained arrangements that achieve deeper impact: Begrand hears satisfying hard rock for every stripe of fan, from "old-school metal fans, underground aficionados, new young headbangers, [to] folks who like to dabble in metal come year-end-list time."