It’s been another spectacular year for music, but what were the highlights? Here’s our pick of the 50 best songs of 2011. We also asked NME readers to vote for theirs – you can check out the readers’ top 20 here.
50 AKA What A Life
The Chief’s solo campaign began in the exact opposite way to Beady Eye’s: a year of radio silence rather than a 12-month brag about “classics”, and then some beautifully melodic and unashamedly ‘mature’ songs like these. With its disco beat and rave piano motif, ‘AKA… What A Life!’ was, by his standards, way out there; ‘If I Had A Gun…’ was as archetypal a Noel G song as you could ever imagine.
49 If I Had A Gun
Try as little brother might to turn the whole post-Oasis experience into a puffed-chest pantomime, the story on Gallagher Sr’s side seems to be all one of freedom and ease at long last. Rather than the bullish threat the title might suggest, Noel only wants to “shoot a hole into the sun and love would burn this city down for you”. There’s a relaxed relief that you can hear in his solo work so far. Rather than desperation to prove himself as a new man, Noel’s now got the time and space to work up songs that have been around for some time, such as this graceful beauty.
48 The Great Pan Is Dead
What do you get if you cross a hardcore frontman, a sex-obsessed noise artist, a fixation with ridiculous old goth and synthpop records, and a factory full of drum machines? Why, the hysterically OTT opening track on the second album by New York auteur Wesley Eisold and pals.
47 Muscle Memory
They had a silly name and they made two extremely fun jitter-punk albums but, alas, the Glaswegian sextet have decided to call it a day. Thankfully, they’ve gone out with a bang with ‘Muscle Memory’, a track so excitable it almost spews up.
46 Lose It
A swarm of cold-wave keys and Katie Stelmanis’ icy vocals provided the grounding, but it was the snowflake-like synth trills and the classical choir-like harmonies that ice-picked their way to ‘Lose It’’s heart. Lines like “My face screams without any motion” pinched us with stolid beauty.
It seems implausible that Copenhagen teens Iceage could emerge from the cocoon of the Danish hardcore scene – their frantic, speedy noise wasn’t built for indie-kid love. Then you remember ‘Broken Bone’, which rumbles like prime No Age or Liars, and has the catchiest chorus.
The biggest hit of 2011 that never was. Joe Goddard is the man responsible, and he brings all the eccentric charms of his band Hot Chip to a house tune that judders and quivers oddly, and yet manages to slay every line of defence your heart and mind has put up to fend off this sort of thing.
43 Reckless With Your Love
A double whammy. On one hand, an epic house anthem that walloped us with diamante-encrusted air miles (from Chicago via Toronto). On the other, a moody tale of paranoia and promiscuity in a world where it was more than the hot disco lights that flashed and burned.
42 Real Love
The most exhilarating live band of 2011 captured the stern and repetitive urgency of their gigs on this industrial-scale rave monster, tweaking up all that brain-spangling techno euphoria that underlays their steely and austere severity. New Order drummer Stephen Morris was on the studio knobs, too.
41 She Wants
One of three Metronomy tracks on our list, this first single, loping and luring, romanticises late nights, narcotics and sleep deprivation in earnest. ‘She Wants’ is like a slow-to-start pill that eventually crawls up your spine, seeps into your skin and then won’t let go.
Pretty fucking epic: three words that tell you everything you need to know about Justice’s comeback – from the sound (Zeppelin meets Europe) to the launch (as part of Adidas’ 2011 ads) to the video (the dawn of time, if that involved a herd of mammoths being chased out of town by Stonehenge).
39 I’m His Girl
Despite looking like hipsters in an American Apparel ad, Brooklyn’s Friend’s offer some handy tips on the rules of modern dating. Samantha Urbani is a “chick” not to be messed with: “I know I don’t want no-one suffocating me/Don’t settle for ownership, make it deep,” she purrs. Fellas, you have been warned.
38 Run The World (Girls)
Alright, so she’s never been one to shy away from tackling the subject of female empowerment. Still, this was Ms Knowles’ most unequivocal call to arms yet. Buttressed by an insatiable drum sample lifted from Major Lazer’s unhinged ‘Pon De Floor’, it’s Sasha at her fiercest.
Great artists morph when the mood takes them, and while it’s still early days, this indicates Marina Diamandis may soon assume the mantle of greatness. She picked apart the American dream and turned it into a banger: ‘Radioactive’ is a watershed moment, and 2012 oozes with promise.
36 My House
More camp than X-Factor’s Johnny Robinson performing in a cock-shaped tent, this is a precise, perfectly pitched nostalgia fest for fans of sweaty, poppers-fuelled ’90s New York house – all squelching 909s, slinky bass, hands-up piano and a male diva commanding us to get up, get up.
Like a love letter to urban music past, ‘Wildfire’ harked back to R&B’s golden age with sparse, stuttering, sex-o-phile bass that was pure Timbaland, while Little Dragon’s Yumi Nagano channelled the imperious sexiness of Aaliyah. A masterpiece of taut control.
34 Beat And The Pulse
With Austra, Zola Jesus and Cat’s Eyes leading the charge, 2011 saw a host of operatic maidens traversing the murky plains of gothtronica and doom pop. Katie Stelmanis vamped her way through this glitch-fest with a fiery intensity, making for the underworld’s banger of the year.
33 Piledriver Waltz
So good he recorded it twice – once by himself for the Submarine OST followed by a full-band version on the Monkeys album – but it was its bashful first incarnation, with Turner as sheepishly adorable as Oliver trying to bang Jordana for the first time, that was the real heart-melter.
From his Mercury-nominated debut, ‘Liiines’ was released under the watchful eye of Gilles Peterson in Brownswood Recordings mode. Piano sample loops and live drums meet Obaro Ejimiwe’s slurring, melancholic spitting on getting recognition for your lyrics. He doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.
There’s a theory that the best pop sounds happy but is, at its heart, broken. Or sometimes just broke. Over brisk handclaps and jangling guitars Jonathan Pierce sings of being unable to rescue his threadbare relationship through material expressions of love. ‘Money’ is about being young, indie as hell… and so broke you can’t afford petrol station flowers.
30 Rolling In The Deep (Jamie XX Shuffle)
The original is a near-perfect pop record, but Jamie manages to infinitely improve on it with just a few handclaps, a kick drum and a pitch bend. His obsessive, intricate cross-rhythms and Adele’s flawless vocal made this the heartbreak record that condoned hip-thrusting.
What a year BBC have had with the release ‘A Different Kind Of Fix’. While packed with glorious moments, none quite match up to the wide-grinning joy of ‘Shuffle’, its piano-led intro opening up into a merry little dance. It’s so good, every day we’re shuffling.
28 Post Break-Up Sex
Sometimes beauty is in simplicity. The Vaccines’ second single is basically four chords, a steady drumbeat and a relatable tale of lamentable lust. But stick it in front of a ravenous crowd and you get a rough and ready everyman anthem.
27 Ritual Union
If amazing gal-fronted pop was a country it would be Sweden-shaped, and with the title track of their album, Gothenburg’s Little Dragon have staked their strongest claim to the throne yet; this one’s a 21st-century, electro-pop banger with just enough melancholy to make it go down a treat.
26 We Found Love
How hopeless a place will Rihanna go to in order to find love? Judging by the depravity of this unlikely dance hit, somewhere pretty bleak. Some moments on the album have all the romance of a night in with a Fleshlight but here she returns to the rawness that made her. Stevenage, maybe?
25 Under Cover Of Darkness
The album was a duffer, but this single could have held its own on ‘Is This It’. Ditching the experimentation for old tricks (two choruses, cartoon riffs), it sounded messy (while being super-organised) and like the work of perma-hugging best pals (which it wasn’t).
24 The World Is Yours
Looking back at 2011, James Allan will no doubt wince at a few choices he made: ditching his all-black look for an evangelical white outfit wasn’t wise, for a start. But he can boast about recording this year’s most outrageously over-blown single. This is a skyscraping triumph of euphoric songwriting.
23 Shake It Out
‘Ceremonials’’s most epic moment (and by god, there were a few of ’em) sprouted from inauspicious roots: written with producer Paul Epworth while in the grip of a hangover, it ended with Florence channelling Annie Lennox, crafting a pop megalith in the process.
22 The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala
This seductively basslined stroll, with a ringing, Marr-ish riff, was the perfect canvas for Turner to revel in his lip-licking love of words: “She flicks a red-hot revelation off the tip of her tongue… I took the batteries out my mysticism and put ’em in my thinking cap”.
21 Pumped Up Kicks
From festivals to rom-com montages to Noel G’s iPad, FTP’s re-released debut single was everywhere in 2011. Unusually for a song so omnipresent, listening to its hyper-upbeat melodies about a psycho high-school kid-killer is still an enjoyable experience.
20 Beyond Living
Indebted to Hüsker Dü, Milk Music are the most exciting underground act of next year. Straight-up guttural rock, no gimmicks, a no-sell-out ethic pounding through their veins. Whooda thought the year ‘Nevermind’ turned 20 stoner rock would return in such a headfuckingly brilliant way?
Anna’s influences may take in Debussy and Ravel, but this stood out on her debut as its most perfect pop manifestation – not to take away the dynamism, ostentation and grandeur of this dark-hearted dynamo, like some preternatural consummation of the Bad Seeds and Pretenders.
This year, the two biggest songs – by Lana Del Rey and Adele – were rather plain love ballads. ‘212’, by comparison, is mischievous, quick-witted and full of filthy cunnilanguage: it’s made Azealia Banks, the coolest girl on the planet, and it delivered on 2011’s forward-thinking promise.
17 Broken Record
It was the tough club-kid sass of ‘Katy On A Mission’ that seduced us, but she snapped our willing hearts like reeds with this massive, glossy garage-pop ballad and, in “I know though we make our mistakes/That you’re holding every breath I take” one of the love lyrics of the year.
16 I Want You
If every Summer Camp song has its ’80s movie equivalent then this is ‘Fatal Attraction’, Elizabeth Sankey threatening to “kiss your lips so hard your entire face would bruise” as it breaks into a synth-pop strut. A stalker’s anthem to rank alongside ‘Every Breath You Take’.
15 Never Fade Away
Proke and pod as you might round the incisors of this gift horse, there was no plaque of irony, no inset of scurvy scenesterdom. Just a healthy, grandiose indie single, with hooks as sharp and nagging as a No 2 drill to a nerve ending, and as lush as an afternoon on laughing gas.
14 If You Wanna
Dumb to the point of having a PhD, this was raw excitement from start to soon after finish, with nothing in the way of fluff. Clanging guitars, relentless drums, simple lyrics – “Give it just another couple of months or so/Then you’ll be OK” – with the arrogance of people who knew they were about to silence their doubters.
13 The Fox
A breath-taking snapshot of a world in which fauna and flora could prove the key to freedom or the cliff edge to extinction. Zig-zag rhythms filled with crunching percussion, wizard-ish keyboards, fledgling desires and a need to be which sparkled out of every nuance of Malin’s vocal.
12 Baby’s Arms
The sort of song you scrabble for on YouTube and weep to in the drunken small hours, ‘Baby’s Arms’ was the most succinct example of the potent intersection between shivering sentimentality and dissipated despair that Kurt Vile wanders with his lonely, echoing guitar.
11 The Look
The restrained but on-edge emotional tone of Metronomy’s third album, ‘The English Riviera’, is at its highest-strung on ‘The Look’. A nervy, skittish single, its haunted dancehall-on-the-pier keys and Joe’s malnourished, morose falsetto are shored up by deliciously dreamy bass. Neurosis never sounded so damn hot.
10 Midnight City
Anthony Gonzalez drew on Jean Michel Jarre’s synth-work and John Hughes’ spunky ’80s teen films to come up with the most heart-bursting, euphoric anthem since Daft Punk’s ‘Digital Love’. And are we permitted to use the phrase “awesome sax break”? Looks like we just have.
9 I Told You Once
This preposterously hook-filled, highly danceable surf guitar beauty straight away felt like The Next Step in the long line of Saviours Of Guitar Music and, in “I hate myself more than I hate you” featured probably the best line anyone sang all year. No wonder folk got so excited.
This lion-eyed plea to an ex, channelling minimal splashes of soul, R&B and larksome Animal Collective exuberance, sent us spare with joy. As Michael Gove proceeded to wank the bare essence of our education system into a copy of Hard Times, ‘Bizness’ offered a DIY lesson in mind-expanding, culture-blurring ingenuity.
7 The Bay
As the global economy goes arse over tit, it’s all about staycationing to save a buck, folks. And who better to make the sewage-spattered English seaside look appealing than Metronomy’s suave supremo Joe Mount? With its crooning electronic funkola, ‘The Bay’ is the soundtrack to all your future holidos. Time to hi-di-flipping-hi campers
6 Ice Cream
Like an erratic, erotic cuckoo clock, this shows its charms one-by-one before going SEX MAD, beating you around the face with its gaudy mechanical wang. The glimmer of fingers stroking the surface of a pool trails sexy grunts, before Ian Williams’ keyboard explodes into Matias Aguayo’s waterslide-slippery vocals. Best enjoyed dripping down your chin.
5 Bed Of Nails
‘Bed Of Nails’ distilled ‘Smother’’s splendid brand of smooth sleaze into four minutes of sublime synth-pop sauciness. Nods to Mary Shelley and Shakespeare, as well as spellbinding beats, lifted it from pure perversity into something quite beautiful, yet still utterly shaggable.
4 The Words That Maketh Murder
The folly of war could hardly have been captured more succinctly in song. The sombre opening lines: “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget/I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat”. A haunting indictment of what happens when diplomacy and humanity fail us.
3 Still Life
We’ve long since ceased trying to prepare ourselves for what The Horrors get up to next but “A-listed on Radio 1” threw us. The siren song that drew their biggest audience yet was scarcely less of a shocker. The dark, krauty thrums of ‘Sea Within A Sea’ smoothed and rippled into a gorgeous groove, Faris’ voice rich and devoid of ire and irony as he promised “When you wake up/You will find me” over that deliciously dripping bassline. Easily the song of the summer.
OK, so his album turned out to be a bit of a dud, but for a brief moment in 2011 there was only ‘Yonkers’ — and ‘Yonkers’ felt like a very big deal indeed. No other track this year screamed ‘star appeal’ louder than this, and danger seeped out of its pores from the opening bars. Over a beat that sounded like the clanking cogs of a psycho-killer’s mind in motion, the Odd Future lynchpin introduced himself in the way only this 20-year-old son of an absentee father could (“I’m a fucking walking paradox — no I’m not/Threesomes with a fucking triceratops”).
1 Video Games
You probably won’t be too surprised to find ‘Video Games’ topping this list. Lana Del Rey’s debut single racked up over seven million YouTube views and spawned its own viral literal-video parody, as well as numerous lame cover versions by awestruck indie bands. It’s the most blogged-on, most meme-able and most unashamedly gushed-over song of the year, and if its position seems a tad inevitable, that’s only because putting anything else in its place would be a rank act of outright contrarianism too hard to swallow.