With this being the official Christmas week there won’t be a ‘proper’ singles round-up – partly because a lot of the songs aren’t really worth looking at, and partly because there’s very little ‘real’ stuff released (what would be the point in reviewing stuff that we know people won’t be interested in?). So, to make up for it here is my personal favourite singles of 2011. In no particular order, off we pop to look at a hotsch-potsch of what was an excellent year for singles…
Along with their fantastic debut album, Summer Camp gave us Better Off Without You – a single with so much infectious bubblegum brilliance that it, and it alone, gives us genuine hope for mainstream pop. It’s bright and uplifting, yet unlike so many songs of a similar vein embodies lyrics with real substance and grounding that countless listeners will fawn over. Singer Elizabeth Sankey never overpowers the track, instead letting her sentiments of an annoying ex come through more than over-zealous singing. Backing by Jeremy Warmsley helps add depth and intrigue with the male/female effect working well. Better Off Without You flows serenely with simple yet effective melodies and bathes us in optimistically brooding compositions.
In a year when dubstep went giant, Django Django were there to help us back down the beanstalk and to more interesting pastures. Echoing The Animal Collective and Hot Chip, but with a little more club-scene orientation, Waveforms casts off the shackles of ‘bass drops’ or ‘moments’ that have embodied so much of electronica music recently in exchange for long-spanning percussion beats, that demand the listener goes down the rabbit hole. The track starts off slowly and eventually builds into a crescendo of sounds and synths to a chorus that could very much be a modern day Beach Boys (thank a Soundcloud user for that comparison). Despite the steps in the track there’s no definitive segment where the listener is expected to go nuts –Waveforms is geared towards sanguine swaying and the occasional chin-stroking bounce, as oppose to constantly jumping around the dancefloor until your legs fall off. Django Django exemplify 2011 electronic music, digesting the best parts of the previous decade and fusing it with brand new ideas that have genuine longevity.
To continue the laid-back, almost melancholy feel of 2011, everyone’s new favourite band Metronomy released Everything Goes My Way. The understated and discreet melody of the track oozes class, with the vocals coming across as almost cold and taciturn – a perfect representation of the mindset of 2011. Like many singles of this year, the lyrics of EGMY suggest optimism despite a world of introverted low – the single houses idea that we, the listeners, are going to be okay. To use my masterful expert terminology of music (ahem), having Roxanne Clifford swoon ‘When you pushed me aside/Three weeks I cried’ half a step early, and including male/female vocals, are strokes of genius – it stops the track becoming dull or tedious, and the listener is offered a two-sided story rather than a one-dimensional tale. If there’s any justice in this world then people will be listening to Metronomy and Everything Goes My Way for a very long time.
After being told that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Glen Campbell did what any self-respecting musician would do – he went out and made an album. Ghost On The Canvas is of such beauty and heartfelt sincerity that you can’t help but let it burrow into your soul. The opening track and single from the album, A Better Place, brought us some grounding and kept us down to earth in 2011. It’s a gorgeous track that includes some delicately intrinsic guitar picking from Campbell – one of the most underrated guitarists in the world according to Billy Corgan. A Better Place sees Campbell embracing his fans, many of whom have grew up with his music by giving them some quality music, with his head held high.
The soundtrack for music lovers everywhere over the summer months, Yuck typified the 90’s grunge revival of 2011 with the growling Goddess that is Get Away. With nods towards Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins, Yuck reminded us of the sheer soul and bottle music had in the 90’s, but made it work for the optimistic iGeneration rather than Generation X. As with other tracks previously mentioned, Get Away embraces a ‘them and us’ ideology that young adults and the mid-thirties can relate too in this era. The ruminating overdriven bass is appeased brightly by sharp dagger-like guitar interjections, whilst the bellowing vocals and wall of reverb devour the listener.
Somehow, The Sheepdogs still haven’t become superstars and music overlords of the universe. However, I Don’t Know showed us the foot-stomping, laid back, whiskey in a smoky bar sound the band are capable of howling. Coming straight out of the Fleetwood Mac, Boston and Lynyrd Skynyrd school of quality rock music, the track takes us back decades to substantial guitar riffs and top-quality male vocals without being corny (think the Black Keys if they merged with all the best parts of The Darkness, without a jumpsuit in sight). The hazy dual-guitar solo is an absolute dream, and has the possibility of getting people excited about real rock music again. The power-chord extravagance of the bridge is exciting and doesn’t sound juvenile, as is always a danger. I’m in no doubt that a lot of listeners will be delighted at the exclusion of synthesisers and keyboards. It’s easy to create rock music – the hard part is making material that sounds fresh and interesting – but The Sheepdogs have done exactly that with I Don’t Know.
On paper, listeners would expect little from The Joy Formidable that they haven’t heard before. Perhaps with this in mind, the explosive three-piece demand we pay them attention with the opening bars of A Heavy Abacus. With assurance that they have our devotion, Ritzy Bryan begins her deliberately laboured singing, with a determined resolve and sheer will to be heard and identified away from the countless identikit three-piece alternative outfits. It’s the group knowing they have an uphill battle just to be considered, and with that in mind, forgetting about everything and simply enjoying themselves. A Heavy Abacus sees the normally ferocious band constrain themselves, with grit and brooding power emphasised and merely suggested, rather than being frivolously overused – the result is a wonderful track that sits aside an album of equal grandeur.
Oh, it’s that song from the 02 advert that you love but never knew who it was! If any band surged in popularity this year, then it was Foster the People – even if a lot of the public never knew their name. In a similar vein to Django Django, Pumped Up Kicks sounds delightfully modern and 2011 whilst ignoring the musical norms of many of its peers. Again, it isn’t extravagant or overt, and doesn’t force anything down your eardrums – it’s happy just being. A quick verse and we’re immediately given the infectious chorus, with the diminutive bassline changing little over the course of the entire piece. It’s bright and hopeful, yet holds twinges of melancholy and worry of what could happen in the future. You can go a bit mad and bounce around with Pumped Up Kicks playing, or just sit in the corner and take it all in. If anyone ever wants an example of 2011 as a whole, then they need just listen to this track.
From the ocean of depth that is the opening bars, to the final long-drawn ending, Snakes In The Grass by Sparrow and the Workshop is an exhaustively intense barrage of angst, anger and frustration. Artisans of tracks embodying heartache tinged with menace and mischievousness, this track is the pinnacle of second album Spitting Daggers. After a hulking introduction, the listener is thrown into a salvo of venomous vocals and a driving rhythm section that allows singer Jill O’Sullivan to get across some home truths. Halfway through we’re given a respite, with a beautifully open and uncovered overdriven acoustic guitar solo, which compliments the heart-placed-on-the-table gushes of the track perfectly. Leaving our ears unsure if they’ve just been in the middle of a roaring argument, or a lover’s declaration of adoration, Snakes In The Grass is the embodiment of candid honesty and authentic emotions that can only be projected in the wonderful medium of music.
Often noted as the songwriter’s favourite songwriter, Ron Sexsmith continued to be inexplicably overlooked in 2011, with his single Believe It When I See It being no different. Singing from the soul, Sexsmith’s ability to recite about personal involvements is rivalled perhaps only to Loudon Wainwright. The single is a lovely piece, easily cast-off as being a middle of the road song but is in fact very much straddling the beaten tracks of individual experience and observation. It’s heavily produced and highly polished (this does not have to be a bad thing), and can’t help but raise the weary spirits of the listener. The fact that Believe It When I See It was somewhat ignored despite its optimistic nature very much defines much of 2011’s music and culture as a whole.
This year has seen a cacophony of brilliantly widespread and interesting singles. As London burned, protesters made camp in the world’s capital cities, and economies have continued to collapse, 2011 will be remembered for its turbulence and disarray. This can be seen in the music of these twelve extensive months. A musical composition of passive and submissive qualities has been coloured with hope and determination overtones – with much of this thanks to cherry-picking the best elements of previous eras and remodelling them for our own use. Many people have been dismissive of the year and its contribution to music, but I think these people are completely, and utterly, wrong.