How deep was our singles love in 2011? Even deeper than the depth of Adele's one-woman singles catalog—though any reasonable list of the year's impact songs would have to include "Someone Like You," "Rumour Has It," and "Rolling in the Deep."
But we found room for a few dozen other favorites on our playlist, too—from Beyonce to the Black Keys to Leonard Cohen to Trace Adkins to Fleet Foxes and all the way back to unofficial singles queen Rihanna. Go reelin' through the year with us as we offer our list of 2011's real top 40:
Adele: "Rolling in the Deep"
The single that broke Adele through from star to superstar really did feel deep, sonically—from the quiet guitar strumming that starts the tune to the insistent kick drum that ratchets up the tension 25 seconds in, then that "We could have had it all" wail that's immediately buttressed by chanted backup vocals that give our heroine the extra girl-power boost she needs to get through. "Turn my sorrow into treasured gold," indeed. Soul is back, baby!
A lot of pop songs this year, like Rihanna's "We Found Love," used mid-song electronic crescendos as a highly effective dance-floor gimmick. But "Countdown" was the rare tune to make a chorus out of a de-crescendo, and it was irresistible. Or was it? Beyonce's singles from the 4 album have met with diminishing returns, and amazingly, this one peaked at No. 71 on the Hot 100. Well, it's still tops, or close to it, in our countdown.
Jay-Z and Kanye West: "Murder to Excellence"
The best track from Watch the Throne is really two different songs mashed into one, and it's a concept album unto itself in a mere five minutes. The first half is about the culture of murder in the ghetto—"Is it genocide?" West asks—while the second half places the pair's much-celebrated egotism in context, as a point of pride not just for themselves, but their brethren. Making that leap is a wild conceit only these two could pull off.
Demi Lovato: "Unbroken"
The first single off Lovato's post-psychological-rehab album was the hyper-dramatic ballad "Skyscraper," which will go down in history if, for nothing else, precipitating a classic Simon Cowell/L.A. Reid dust-up. But the best tune off Unbroken was the more rhythmically compelling title track, wherein the newly repaired Demi vows, "I'm gonna love you like I've never been broken," sounding like someone who's found her power but still has a few barely glued-together cracks.
Ronnie Dunn: "Cost of Livin'"
This moving single about the true cost of unemployment was just the kind of return to realism country radio needs. Dunn, his label team, and a lot of radio stations made an absolute cause out of getting this song into the top 10, and if their efforts inevitably fell a little short, there was no more shame in that than there is for the guy in the song, who's struggling just to get a job interview.
Drake: "Marvin's Room"
The best drunk-dialing song since Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," and 15,000 times as absorbingly self-loathing.
Kelly Clarkson: "I Forgive You"
Go ahead, call me "Mr. Know-It-All," but I can think of a half-dozen tracks from Clarkson's terrific Stronger album that would have made (and still could be) better singles than the one picked. This is one of them: an anthem of unearned, barely given forgiveness that's as blissfully assured in its delivery as it is nervous and tentative in its sentiment.
Foo Fighters: "Walk"
The Falling Down-themed comic video didn't do the song any favors, but stripped of those goofy visuals, Dave Grohl's album-closer opened up into a compelling (and mosh-able) anthem of rebirth.
Lana Del Rey: "Video Games"
It's not just us Americans that are oddly transfixed by Del Rey's debut single. Across the pond, the Guardian's staff deemed it the best tune of 2011. After her album comes out early in 2012, we'll have a much better idea of whether she's a true savant or idiot savant. But for now, we couldn't think of any more sobering soundtrack for all the Xbox games under the tree.
Nicki Minaj: "Super Bass"
Remember L'Trimm's "Cars With the Boom," from 1988? So, possibly, despite her tender age, does Minaj. Every generation gets the ode to subwoofers it deserves, and we must have deserved one this fun.
Foster the People: "Pumped Up Kicks"
Quick Rorschach test: Did you like this ditty worse or better when you realized it was a suburban shoot-'em-up? And where the heck is Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center when we need them in 2011?
Taylor Swift: "Mean"
If the bluegrass-flavored "Mean" didn't have T-Swift's name on it, it surely would have been rejected by the radio gatekeepers as "too country for country." Anyway, let's hope we're not betraying the critics' creed too egregiously by hailing this anti-critic anthem as the back-seat sing-along of the year.
Pistol Annies: "Hell on Heels"
As sweet as Swift was, that's exactly how tart the Annies were in their debut single—a hilariously slutty yet slyly underplayed ode to pure golddigging. Should we be hoping Blake Shelton signed a pre-nup?
Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse: "Body and Soul"
The furthest thing from a train wreck, thank God. This surprisingly sensible duet let us have one wistful smile amid the otherwise dour circumstances of the demise of 21st century pop's once-most-promising newcomer.
Katy Perry: "Last Friday Night (TGIF)"
"Firework" was a kids' song masquerading as an adult-seeming power ballad. Whereas "Last Friday Night" was a kids' song with a fantastic rhythm-guitar groove too great to be deserved by anyone but grown-ups.
Gillian Welch: "The Way It Will Be"
The queen of Americana hadn't put out an album since 2003, and since that time had kept fans' hope alive with frequently booted festival performances of this mesmerizingly mournful breakup song. The tune found its fulfillment as an official classic upon the worth-the-wait release of her comeback, the all-acoustic Harrow & the Harvest.
Bon Iver: "Holocene"
If choirboys had beards...
Fountains of Wayne: "Richie and Ruben"
The year's catchiest ode to dashed retail dreams—or, more to the point, why you should never invest in your friends' businesses. Who says rock & roll is no place for timely tips on the economy?
The Belle Brigade: "Losers"
This L.A.-based brother-and-sister team came out of the box with a beautifully melodious vow to give up all that is selfish and shallow and embrace being "losers"—without asking to be killed, baby. Charlie Sheen needs to be strapped into a chair and forced to listen to this again and again until he either gives up the idea of winning or goes (more) insane.
Selena Gomez: "Love You Like a Love Song"
If Britney had recorded this (and from the way Selena says "bay-bee," in the chorus, it was probably written for her), it would've been a monster. Somewhere besides Radio Disney, we mean.
Leonard Cohen: "Show Me the Place"
Here's something you won't hear on Radio Disney, or anywhere else besides the very left of the dial: Cohen, 77, previewed his 2012 release (his first in eight years) with a grave-sounding hymn that reminded us why he's popular music's poet laureate.
Adele: "Rumour Has It"
The secret weapon of 21: a super-percussive stomper that proved Adele has a playful side and kept her album from slipping into anything like self-pity.
Feist: "The Bad in Each Other"
Ruefulness never sounded more gorgeous than it does when Feist is lamenting how "a good man and good woman bring out the bad in each other." Few pop songs are as gorgeously magnanimous about accepting half the blame.
The Black Keys: "Lonely Boy"
How T. Rex-redolent are these guys, now? Enough to make us want to bang a gong (get it on).
Thompson Square: "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not"
When this song is the soundtrack, the answer is always going to be "yes." This sensual ode to overcoming shyness took 37 weeks to reach the top spot on the country chart, as programmers went through their own shy period before embracing it as a smash. Delayed gratification, is life as in the song, is better than none.
Rihanna: "We Found Love"
It's not clear what the song's electro-crescendo has to do with the tender sentiment about intimacy discovered "in a hopeless place," but the incongruity sure is exciting.
Not everything clicked on the one-off supergroup album by Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Damian Marley, Dave Stewart, and A.R. Rahman, but this particular tune lived up to its EverReady title.
Adele: "Someone Like You"
Because the hits just kept on coming. And because, when Adele chose to sing the slowest and saddest ballad the MTV Video Awards have ever witnessed instead of placating millions of viewers with the more obvious "Rolling in the Deep," it cemented her cred pretty much for all time.
Lil Wayne: "6 Foot 7 Foot"
Harry Belafonte might be rolling over in his grave if he were dead, but you simply cannot go wrong with a "Banana Boat Song" sample.
The New York Dolls: "I'm So Fabulous"
David Johansen wasn't just speaking for himself with the hilariously brash title sentiment, but for all born-and-bred New Yorkers, or anyone else fending off invaders from destroying their native culture. Occupy the Lower East Side!
Radiohead: "Lotus Flower"
If there's anything we don't think of Thom Yorke as, it's "flowery," but maybe there is something a little bit Buddhist about his and the band's ethereal geekiness.
Jay-Z and Kanye West: "N----z in Paris"
The superstar collaborators took to performing this single as many as eight times in a row in the encore segment of their recent tour. It's a stunt you're free to try at home, too.
Miranda Lambert: "Fine Tune"
In the great tradition of Prince's "Little Red Corvette" and other songs that have used automotive metaphors for sexual horsepower. And what other mainstream country singer would have realized how sexy it sounds to sing an entire song through a wall of distortion? (Bonus points for reminding us just a little of Led Zeppelin's "D'Yer Maker.")
Paul Simon: "The Afterlife"
His vision of what awaits us is a little gentler and less morbid than, say, the waiting room in Beetlejuice, but not much less bureaucratic. Of course, with Sion, there's bound to be a sense of real transcendence even in a comic version of the hereafter.
They Might Be Giants: "Can't Keep Johnny Down"
What sounds like an ode to indomitability is actually a very peppy but ironic description of a guy who ought to be kept down. Perhaps you know him?
Trace Adkins: "Just Fishin'"
Hey, people over 25 need love, too. That's why country exists, to offer adult songs like this tale of familial bonding on a fishing boat, the best, subtlest, and least sentimental of the myriad father-daughter songs that nearly overtook country radio in recent years. We'd like to think it's just a little bit feminist that Trace is taking his daughter, not a son, out on the lake. And if you needed a counterbalance this year to "Super Bass," it might just be this celebration of super bass-fishing.
Fleet Foxes: "Helplessness Blues"
Anthem for a generation. (Or two or three.)
Stephen Malkmus and the Licks: "All Over Gently"
Possibly he best breakup song for guys who clearly have no real intention of breaking up since 10cc's "I'm Not in Love."
Britney Spears: "Till the World Ends"
Resistance was futile.
Which of your favorites did we miss? Let us know, below...
- Arts & Entertainment
- Trace Adkins
- Leonard Cohen
- Fleet Foxes