Music Bummys 2012: Best Songs of 2011

[So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011.  Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two).  For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes.  Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins.  And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.

But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.

The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble?  Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think).  And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about.  I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us.  Writing helps me process that better.]*

Two days ago I listed out the best acting performances of 2011.  Today I’ll give you the top songs of 2011, along with my favorite songs so far from 2012.  The next few days will see the top albums and top movies of 2011.

My list of the best songs of 2011 is dominated by folk-tinged songs.  Sorry if you don’t like folk, but I chose the records that meant the most to me last year, and a lot of them happened to be folk.  But there’s a rap song on there, a country song, a Bon Iver song, and an electronic song, which nearly took my top spot.  But ultimately, 2011 belonged to Adele.

I realize that people don’t even have time to listen to every song on this list.  Choose three and try to listen to them right now- I’ve made it easy for you by linking to a place where they’re streaming.

I’m not really a music critic, so I don’t have much else to say.  Don’t expect me to be this concise when I give my list of movies a few days from now.

Here we go:

Top Songs of 2011

10. “Beth/Rest” by Bon Iver:  I don’t blame you if you find this song cheesy.  It sounds like the kind of song you’d find on an AM radio station, or maybe on a station hosted by the ubiquitous Delilah.  But to me, “Beth/Rest” is soothing and almost euphoric.  The whole time I listen to it, I’m constantly amazed by how Justin Vernon uses electric guitar and saxophone and steel guitar all to great effect, and all in the same song.  Falling at the end of Bon Iver’s great self-titled record, it’s the culmination of the creativity and resourcefulness that Bon Iver embodies.  And, sadly, we may not experience that creativity and resourcefulness for some time.

9. “Bright Lights” by Gary Clark Jr.:  The Black Keys are sitting on the bluesy rock throne right now after Jack White relinquished it, but Gary Clark Jr. threatened to depose the Keys with last year’s Bright Lights EP.  He’s drawn comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, but that’s unfair; no one should live with that burden.  Instead, just appreciate how fully Clark Jr. transposes the blues into our modern age.  The song sounds classic, but the crunch of that guitar is pure modern times.

8. “Days Like This” by Over the Rhine:  How can such a quiet song say so much?  The music is a harmless folk gem, but the melancholy is pervasive.  When Karin Bergquist sings about letting her regrets go, you feel those regrets, you feel her desperate hope that she’ll finally be happy.  And yet other lines are totally happy, such as when she talks about the sky being a clear blue or thinking about the people who love her.  This is a song that considers the full opportunity and scope of one life, and it’s hidden inside a simple folk song.

7. “This Changes Everything” by Matt Papa:  The song starts as a story, then becomes a rebuke.  The story is of Matt Papa taking communion as a child and crying, then looking around and seeing that no one else is.  He asks, isn’t this supposed to change everything?  (“This” refers to the fact that Jesus died but is now alive.)  When I first heard this song, I was wrecked; my life should look so different than others’.  If God came to Earth as a man, died for my sins, then beat death and rose again, then nothing is the same.  Matt Papa sings this with passion, desperate to call our attention to the urgency of this good, good news.

6. “Otis” by Jay-Z & Kanye West:  Yes, “Ni—as in Paris” was EVERYWHERE last year, but “Otis” was the better song.  They took a song that was already pure gold (Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”) and turned it into…more pure gold, a rap classic that finds Ye and Hov spitting about their riches and their swagger.  If you’re tired of rappers rapping about how awesome they are, well, then, this probably isn’t the song for you.  If you’ve been tired of Jay-Z phoning it in and Kanye rapping about his feelings, then this IS the song for you- Jay finally sounds like he likes rapping again, and Kanye is having the most fun he’s had since “Gone”.

5. “Oklahoma Sky” by Miranda Lambert:  So I live in Oklahoma and this song is about Oklahoma- so what?  I’m self-aware.  I know I’m biased.  I don’t care.  This is a gorgeous song, no matter where you live.  Sometimes love feels like lightning in a bottle; you couldn’t have planned it, you can’t control it.  And feelings like that are perfectly matched with something as naturally beautiful and uncontrollable as the Oklahoma sky.  Stop me before I get too sentimental on you.  Just listen to the song.  You’ll be waxing poetic too.

4. “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes:  So many songs are about love, it’s rare to find one that so eloquently captures the feel of anything else.  But frontman Robin Pecknold does just that in “Helplessness Blues”.  He sings of the universal struggle to find one’s purpose, with little help from previous generations, who offer platitudes and advice that amounts to little if the person on the receiving end has no experience.  Pecknold wrote Fleet Foxes’ second album while in the midst of a breakup; when his ex heard the album, she called him immediately and told him that if all the troubles they had were because of that album, it was worth it.  They’re now back together.  I’ve never tried to create something, but I imagine that, if Pecknold put as much of himself into this song as it sounds, it was a long, arduous process.  And if this is what comes of that, it would be totally worth it.

3. “You Are the Beauty” by Gungor:  No Gungor song illustrates the fact that they are a music “collective” better than this one.  There are so many different instruments filling your ears on this song- it’s a testament to the creative spirit that God planted in all of us.  This song essentially begins as a folk song, then morphs into a proggy guitar-cello-violin trio.  As a whole, it seems to reflect the many different facets of what God’s beauty looks like to Gungor.  I find something new in “You Are the Beauty” every time, and seeing them live only reinforces how malleable of a product they’ve created.  This song is a beautiful example of worshiping the Lord through creativity.  More worship artists should look to this song as the template for how to expand worship music beyond verse-chorus-verse into something truly creation-based.  There are few songs that point me to Christ both in their lyrics and the sheer depth of the music itself; this is one of them.

2. “Need You Now” by Cut CopyThe ‘80s have made a comeback, which may strike fear in some people’s hearts, but I’m happy as long as songs like this come out of it.  “Need You Now” (not the incessant but pleasant Lady Antebellum song) is a plea for attention that begs to be heard.  Lead vocalist Dan Whitford is no stranger to big melodies, but “Need You Now” crushes his other songs.  His voice starts low, at merely a disinterested attempt to comfort the girl he loves.  But as the synths expand and grow, his voice reaches a fever pitch, sure to pierce the heart of all the girls, not just his.  Seriously, how many Sixteen Candles- and Pretty in Pink-obsessed girls did Whitford seduce with this song?  But really, for a generation that has been seemingly unable to quit looking back at the ‘80s, we seem to have ignored the retro explosion’s best song.  You won’t believe me until about the 2:38 mark in the clip above, when his voice climbs above everything in the entire world and shouts out for love.  You’ll be a believer too.  My heart skips a beat every time.

1. “Someone Like You” by Adele: The rest of the album is sublime, yes.  But the rest of 21 is Adele fighting with herself to come to terms with her breakup.  On “Someone Like You”, she does it.  She finds freedom, somewhere in the middle of this ballad.  That’s what we yearn for when we have to wade through the mess after a breakup, and it’s truly hard to find sometimes.  But Adele does it.  Kelly Clarkson tried to achieve something like this on “Because of You”, but Adele’s catharsis in this song hasn’t been matched.  We’ve spent all of 21 singing with her, pumping our fist in agreement as she tells off her ex.  But when we arrive at “Someone Like You”, we stop, and we smile, because it’s going to be okay. And that is truly freeing.

Ten More Songs (in alphabetic order)
Adele: “Rolling in the Deep”
The Black Keys: “Lonely Boy”
Blitzen Trapper: “Love the Way You Walk Away”
Burlap to Cashmere: “Orchestrated Love Song”
Drake: “Take Care (feat. Rihanna)”
Fleet Foxes: “Grown Ocean”
Jay-Z & Kanye West: “Ni–as in Paris”
Needtobreathe: “Slumber”
Raphael Saadiq: “Go to Hell”
The War on Drugs: “Come to the City”

Top Songs of 2012 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Bruce Springsteen: “Land of Hope and Dreams”: The Boss has been performing this song live for years now, but the version he released this year on Wrecking Ball is heavenly.  He’s always full of mercy for sinners, but I’ve never heard Springsteen sound so hopeful and full of faith; this is how I want to be every day.

Carly Rae Jepsen: “Call Me Maybe”: I know what you’re thinking- what happened to Bum’s hipster cred?  First of all, I’m not a hipster, nor do I care about this “hipster cred” you speak of.  Second of all, this song is AWESOME.

Jimmy Needham: “Clear the Stage”: Jimmy Needham may have never written a better song than this honest, inward-looking cry for a revolution of the soul.

Trip Lee: “One Sixteen”: This is one posse track that doesn’t make a big deal about its posse; everyone on this song is here to point to the greatness of God, and conversely they’ve made the best rap song of the year yet.  All three rappers are at their best, but check out Andy Mineo’s verse; it’s a doozy.

Usher: “Climax”: This isn’t the Usher you think you know.  I know what this song is really about, but I prefer to imagine Usher standing in front of a burning-down club, belting out in falsetto while he looks for his love in the flames.  That’s how epic this track is.

*Reprinted from the first Bummys post this week.

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