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The Ten Objectively Best Songs of 2011

The end of the year brings, as we know, many many lists.  But you should read mine anyway.

1.  Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

Minaj’s consummate craftsmanship as an artist—in image, flow and production choices—makes her nearly anachronistic among contemporary hiphop acts.  Originally thrown onto last year’s Pink Friday as a bonus track, “Super Bass” .  The constant minute shifts in intonation showcase Minaj as one of the year’s most compelling personalities, sounding like no-one else around.  “Somebody please tell him who the eff I is…”  as if it could be anyone else but Nicki Minaj.

2.  Bon Iver – “Calgary”

Bon Iver is one of many in a lineage of similar-sounding male songwriters.  With his sexy beard and flannel shirts revealing just a hint of chest hair, Iver has built quite a fanbase, drawn to his good looks and sultry crooning.  Despite his narrow focus on men’s issues, Iver somehow overcomes the limitations of his sex and triumphantly pulls together an anthem for all of us.

3.  Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”

Sounding like the missing link between Nancy Sinatra and Timbaland, newcomer Lana Del Rey has emerged with a fully formed, distinctive artist in her own right.  “Video Games” reflects on a relationship.  The self-directed video adds another layer of meaning, forming a poignant elegy for the faded glory of America.

4.  Lykke Li – “Sadness is a Blessing”

Like a postmodern one-girl Shangra Las, Lykke Li singlehandedly reworks the lost love song into an ode for depression itself.  Though steeped in the cerebral tradition of theorists like Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, Li’s song, as the video makes clear is just as clearly interested in the visceral world of dance.  A better invocation of loss and melancholia there has no been for years, perhaps ever.

5.  Jojo – “Marvin’s Room (Can’t Do Better)”

This, Jojo’s masterwork, is not a comfortable listen, but it’s endlessly compelling—a jealous, vindictive, bragging, sad, tender drunk dial of a song.  It’s not particularly feminist friendly (“fuck that new girl that you like so bad”) in the way it viciously sees an ex’s new partner as a target (“a dancing little Barbie doll”.  But that’s immediately undercut with the brutally honest reflection (“she’s not crazy like me/I bet you like that”).  I believe her when she brags that she’s a better fuck than the new girlfriend (“when you’re in her I’m in your head” – ouch).  Like a messed-up EveryPerson, the narrator’s more drama than she’s worth–and self aware enough to know it–but still not able to break out of that compulsive cycle of paranoia, lust, and power.  “I’m just saying, you could do better….”

6.  James Blake – “Limit To Your Love.”

Having bubbled under in 2010, this was the year that dubstep pin-up James Blake finally broke.  Here Blake, who sometimes even writes his own songs sometimes, covers Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” to great effect.  Relying on just a piano, a sparse beat and a cute sub-bass, Blake’s fantastic effort almost makes you forget the original.

7.  St. Vincent – “Cruel”

In this razor-sharp ode to the alienation of domestic drudgery, the iniminatble St. Vincent pulls together a startling original palate of sounds, flipping between airy 40s musical interludes to jagged guitars and a driving disco beat.  On top of this, she pulls out the year’s most distinctive guitar solo, a dirty sludgy blast of distortion.  In an age of video-game wannabes, Annie Clark is the real guitar hero.

8.  Beyonce – “Countdown”

On this criminally overlooked single, Beyonce reinvents rnb once again, riding the horn-stabs and staccato drums as confidently as she ever has.  “I’m still falling” she croons, and by the time the Boyz II Men sample, you will have fallen too.

9.  Florence and the Machine – “Shake it Out”

A transcendent slice of churchified roch, Florence aims for the stadiums in this amazing slice of power pop.  As the organs swell, Florence impels us to shake it off, whatever devil may be on your back.  She might be “looking for heaven” but like every great mystic, she’s already there by the time the stunning cooed last minute is over.  A true devotional for a secular age.

10.  Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”

Thom Yorke is not a very talented singer, but the clear tone of his voice works well enough for his indie-electro records.  Over a soundscape clever crafted by his producer, Yorke dances through the videoclip like an ethereal, beguiling pixie.

 

Methodology note: Ok, Sady’s pointed out it might not be immediately clear what I’m doing here if you don’t read as much music criticism as we do.  So basically, I used a lot of small cut n pastes from actual reviews – using the reviews of men for the women, and vice versa – then finessed to make them artist-appropriate.  I wanted to spotlight the way that music criticism minimises women’s achievements through using  ”objective” aesthetic criteria that work to privilege male artists as a whole.

19 Comments

  1. Sanoe wrote:

    I don’t know any of these songs and know only two of the artists. I’ll be sure to check these songs out.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  2. D.D. Wysocki wrote:

    Heh. Thanks for the clarification! I almost never read music reviews, so I didn’t get the point at all!

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  3. Kiri wrote:

    I lol’d. I needed a lol. Thanks; this was really well done.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  4. Allison wrote:

    fantastic! I think the satire will shine through – I admit I assumed your appreciation of Nicki was entirely real, but by the time you got to Bon Iver “overcome[ing] the limitations of his sex” it was pretty clear.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Emily Manuel wrote:

    Oh, I love Nicki Minaj, but the key phrase in that one is “consummate craftsmanship” – something which is almost never applied to an artist like Nicki, even though she’s very deliberate in the choices she’s making.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  6. MikeV wrote:

    Bahaha! Nicely done, and point well-taken. I loved Radiohead’s review–music criticism is absurd.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Melissa wrote:

    Wow. I totally didn’t get it until I read the addendum. And I actually caught myself thinking “Wow, these reviews of women are really great, maybe the sexism in the industry is decreasing!”

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  8. Audrey wrote:

    I love it! Thank you, it really works.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Mary wrote:

    Thanks for the end-note, I think the problem is not so much that people won’t get the satire maybe as that they’ll just nod on past “music recs from Tiger Beatdown, sure, that’s cool, I’ll bookmark that maybe for the next time I buy music” and skim on past.

    Or at least, that was what I nearly did.

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Kathy wrote:

    Ha! I love this. I didn’t see the endnote when I originally read this through my feed reader and thought, “Hmm, something’s off about these reviews.” It’s disheartening, though at this point not surprising, that women are rarely seen as crafts, er men (craftswomen? craftspeople?) as in the Nicki Minaj “review.”

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Ali wrote:

    @Melissa:

    I just assumed that they were not that sexist because they’re *here*, and so the author will be more aware of gender things.

    I also don’t read music reviews, but will come back here after I do to see the point you’re making. The Bon Iver one was pretty icky, though.

    Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  12. Jordan Rastrick wrote:

    Now I just feel like a really not-up-to-date-with-music enough person, because I missed that this was satire. I just thought for Lotus Flower “that’s a really backhanded compliment kind of review, for a top 10 list”. Hmmm. Hopefully I would have noticed that in the original.

    The Bon Iver review should probably have been a bit of a red flag.

    Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  13. I love this. Love love love. Everything about it. And I haven’t heard all of these songs so I will be sure to check them out!

    Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  14. KittyWrangler wrote:

    Ha! I loved this! I read Bon Iver’s and thought, “oh no, she’s done the same thing that sexists do to women, to a man! The whiny guys will be out in droves in the comments!” But then I realized something was up. I thought saying a female singer was “steeped in the cerebral tradition of theorists” for Lykke Li was unusual, as female musicians are usually seen in somewhat mystical, emotional terms. And referring to Beyonce making music in an active sense and not being used like a preexisting musical instrument is also extremely unusual but I just assumed that’s because this is TBD.

    One gripe I have with music critics discussing women’s music: they always compare women exclusively to other women. Like, everyone’s comparing Nicki Minaj to Lil’ Kim. But I think Minaj has a lot more in common with Ludacris… too bad the critics can’t see beyond her breasts.

    And thank you for the mental image of Thom Yorke dancing though a video like an ethereal beguiling pixie.

    Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  15. canomia wrote:

    Hah, I didn’t get that it was satire at all. Now I’m just curious about what artists the stuff was really about.

    Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  16. Gillian wrote:

    Thank you for the note; I read practically no music criticism at all so I didn’t get it either. I just skimmed down until I saw a band I recognized and then I thought “hey, Thom Yorke’s not that bad!” Now I see what you did there. That’s cool. And you make a very good point.

    Monday, January 2, 2012 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  17. Knightgee wrote:

    What really frustrates me about it is how backhanded even the complimentary writings on female musicians and singers are. The rare moments where they aren’t are when the woman in question is making music on the terms men have decided are valuable and worth seriously discussing. Even then, her sex appeal or lack thereof becomes a factor.

    It also reminds me of an article which reviewed Bjork’s album in such a way that the male writer basically said that *obviously* a particular song on the album was an attempt to upstage Joanna Newsom, because there is just so little space for women in music and Bjork *must* be resentful of Newsom “stealing” her schtick and on this song she is trying to show her how it’s down. Barf.

    Monday, January 2, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink
  18. Julia wrote:

    Took me way to long but finally after the authors note and the help of everyone else’s comments I get this. Great job, this is awesome.

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  19. I just did a post referencing this one, about gender & race in pop music. Data are involved!

    Briefly: despite the critics, music with women’s voices is immensely popular, much more so than it seemed to be in the 60s and 70s. What is striking is the comparative unpopularity of white male voices these days.

    I really wonder if the music critics are Just Jellus, not unlike Nathaniel Hawthorne talking about those wretched women novelists and their all-conquering sales figures.

    Monday, January 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink