20. Foster the People “Pumped Up Kicks”
Every year has that one band that comes out of nowhere to become “famous” but none seemed as unlikely as Foster the People and their surprise hit, “Pumped Up Kicks.” A Los Angeles-based jingle writer, Mark Foster recorded “Pumped Up Kicks” playing every instrument on the track and doing the vocals. The track was released in September of 2010 to no acclaim and was basically pronounced dead. Three months later, it rose from the dead after Sirius XM’s Alt Nation put it into rotation. From there, the track’s momentum kept growing until it was crowned as the rock track of the summer. No wonder people proclaimed it “the little track that could.”
MP3: Foster the People “Pumped Up Kicks”
19. Kendrick Lamar “A.D.H.D.”
It is easy to listen once through “A.D.H.D.” and proclaim Kendrick Lamar a Kid Cudi wannabe. Similar to Cudi, Lamar portrays himself as a self-medicating loner. Unlike Cudi whose loner status seems tied to his sleep habits, Lamar’s estrangement is his discontent with society. First about his position: “you know when you’re part of section 8/you feel like no one can relate” then about his people “my generation sipping cough syrup like its water.” While socially conscious rap is nothing new, Lamar’s laid back style makes it seem more accessible than Immortal Technique or KRS-One.
MP3: Kendrick Lamar “A.D.H.D.”
18. Destroyer “Chinatown”
If you are going to call 2011 “the year of the saxophone,” you can not have Destroyer‘s “Chinatown” on your countdown. The track’s masterful use of the brass instrument is a combination of Kenny G-style easy listening and Charlie Parker-esque bop. The complex instrumental perfectly accompanies Daniel Bejar’s obtuse lyrics about a singular event which seems to be a conversation about a relationship in the streets of Chinatown.
MP3: Destroyer “Chinatown”
17. Drake “Headlines”
Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib team up for a warped-orchestral-score beat providing the backdrop for the lead single to Thank Me Later. The wobbly beat is perfect for Drake‘s am-I-really-that-comfortable-with-who-I-am flow whenever he plays up braggadocio. He raps “Listen to you expressing all them feelings/soap opera rappers, all these niggas sound like All my Children.” Brave words from a man who got called out by Common for being soft. But ultimately Drake gets the last laugh because, as he says “when they get my shit and they it, I ain’t even gotta say it, they know.”
MP3: Drake “Headlines”
16. Das Racist “Michael Jackson”
Every countdown that mentions Das Racist has skipped over “Michael Jackson” to instead celebrate Relax‘ more serious tracks like “Power” or “Girl.” The truth is that in the track where Heems exclaims “I’m fucking great at rapping!” is the first time we actually hear Das Racist sound great at rapping. Heems spits a language-hopping Busta Rhymes speed flow while Kool A.D. takes it down a notch bouncing between non sequiturs and sexy flow: “I’m a daikon radish/ see me next to sushi/sexually, I’ll sex your coochie/extra juicy/electrocute me.”
MP3: Das Racist “Michael Jackson”
15. Britney Spears featuring Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha “Till the World Ends (The Femme Fatale Remix)”
I thought that this selection would get me the most shit from musical elitists and then Pitchfork put it on their Top 100 Tracks of 2011. So why would Pitchfork and I both give critical acclaim to a track that seems like dance pop fluff? It was probably the addition of Nicki Minaj‘s heroic opening verse. In under a minute, Minaj goes through no less than four accents before finally announcing “it’s Britney, I’m Nicki Minaj, and that’s Ke$ha!” before going into the track’s already standing epic chorus. Throw in a little dustup outro and boom! The track is ten times as great as the original.
MP3: Britney Spears featuring Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha “Till the World Ends (The Femme Fatale Remix)”
14. R.E.M. “Oh My Heart”
It will be hard for many music fans to remember 2011 without remember that it was the year R.E.M. disbanded. Their break-up over shadowed the fact that they released an album this year and a damn good one at that. “Oh My Heart” remains the signature song from that album. Billed as a post-Katrina tribute to New Orleans from Michael Stipe, the beauty of the lush instrumental is complimented by a chorus of backing vocalists, namely Mike Mills and Eddie Vedder.
MP3: R.E.M. “Oh My Heart”
13. Frank Ocean “Novacane”
Frank Ocean is the kind of crooner that is too cool for whatever situation he’s in. So when the story of “Novacane” starts off, the listener automatically thinks they know where its going. When he sings “met her at Coachella, I went to see Jigga, she went to see Z Trip, perfect,” the audience automatically assumes that sex in the desert is the next step. But then Frank Ocean takes you in a completely different direction, that includes drugs spikes with local anesthetics, amateur chemistry, and everyone’s favorite line “cocaine for breakfast, yikes!” And then Ocean still delivers with some sex.
MP3: Frank Ocean “Novacane”
12. Jay-Z & Kanye West “Otis”
When I first heard Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “Otis,” I thought it was awful. The disjointed sampling mixed with “I am the one percent” lyrics all crescendoing with ear piercing screeches. But the more I listened to “Otis,” the more I heard. Jay-Z is essentially doing what he does so well, talking about money and fame and then Kanye is playing the schizophrenic little brother trying to compete with his big brother’s claims. Jay-Z raps “I got five passports, I’m never goin to jail” and Kanye picks right up: “I made ‘Jesus Walks’ so I’m never goin to hell.” It’s like a buddy cop movie only catchier.
MP3: Jay-Z & Kanye West “Otis”
11. Cut Copy “Need You Now”
On the surface, there is not much out of the ordinary with Cut Copy‘s “Need You Now.” The track features textured synth-pads, standard drum machine beats, and a vocalist with a cool deep voice. But when you listen to the song, you know this is not the typical etherial dance track; there is something more to it. The soaring effect created with the synths somehow soars higher than similar tracks. Singer Dan Whitford’s voice seems cooler than most others in the genre. When the track finally crescendos around the four minute mark, it is as if you have been swimming in a cool ocean and you finally make it to the surface and in the sky are fireworks. Not many other tracks in the genre can transport the listener like that.
MP3: Cut Copy “Need You Now”