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List-o-mania: The 11 best singles of 2011

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Here's to the inevitable demise of the CD, which nearly killed off the single. This year, empowered by easy digital access, some great singles made the rounds. Here are 11 of the best:

1. "Midnight City" by M83
French musician Anthony Gonzalez is just killing time, "waiting in a car, waiting for a ride in the dark." From such a humdrum moment comes the year's most sweeping, inspiring piece of music. Even if the rest of the rather ambitious double-album tanked (it doesn't), this single provides an unbreakable lynchpin. Its barking loops, simple thundering rhythm and raking snyths exact their pound of gooseflesh -- and then comes the only sax solo of the year that serves the song beautifully without grating cheese or winking with a hipster's irony. "The city is my church," Gonzalez moans, calling all to gather and worship in his shadowy, neon-lit dreamscapes. Amen, and thank God digital files don't warp or wear out from the repeated listening such a beautiful track demands.

( Listen to all 11 tracks on our Spotify playlist! )

2. "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People
The year's haziest, catchiest hook comes courtesy former commercial jingle writer Mark Foster. "It's a 'f--- you' song to the hipsters in a way," he told Rolling Stone, "but it's a song the hipsters are going to want to dance to." All year long, in fact -- cresting at Lollapalooza when a very sweaty Foster led the crowd bouncing to the song's tight-stringed bassline and recovery-room vocals. It's so sleepy-catchy that many haven't clued into the lyrics, which describe a teenager's daydream about shooting his classmates.

3. "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele
No, I didn't put Adele's "21" on my best-albums list. The year's triumphant best-seller is an impressive performance, no doubt, but its power ballads aren't consistent all the way through. This lead single, however, has been omnipresent for good reasons -- the deeply soulful shuffle, the hint of the sass to follow, not to mention that wide, wise voice from such a young talent. I still hear the song blaring from passing cars. A grey-haired neighbor asked me about it. My mailman was singing it one day. Now it's in my head again -- and that's not a complaint.

4. "Santa Fe" by Beirut
Zach Condon finally tips his floppy hat to his hometown in this lightly bouncy beauty. Broadening his already worldly horizons on this year's more streamlined album, "The Rip Tide," this effervescent single coos with Condon's chilly vocals while the techno-lite touches and sleepy mariachi horns color the edges. A fine song, and definitely my favorite video of the year:

( Listen to all 11 tracks on our Spotify playlist! )

5. "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey
A study of torch song tension, "Video Games" floats overhead held barely aloft on harp strings. New York's Lana Del Ray sings in a smoky, smirky voice somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Tarnation's Paula Frazer about the love of her life and his cursed recreation. Mastering the song's composure with the pluck of Piaf, she draws out an expectation for a lyrical and musical breakthrough for nearly five delicious minutes.

6. "The Wilhelm Scream" by James Blake
Just before Americans fell for Skrillex's sports-arena version of dubstep, the delicate James Blake came over from England to show us the genre's pinnacle of chilly, soulful grace. Singing with the clipped power and presence of a Neville brother, Blake considers the things he doesn't know as his careful beats and sketchy glitches devolve into a moist cloud of organ and off-kilter rhythm.

7. "End of the Night" by the Smith Westerns
In three-and-a-half minutes, Chicago's Smith Westerns rewrite the ending of "Dazed and Confused." Refocusing that movie's '70s-rock soundtrack -- but through a '90s Britpop lens -- they freeze-frame the action before our longhair hero decides to hit the hay, with similarly long-haired shy guy Cullen Omori leaving that resolution in doubt. "Are you gonna go home?" he asks as the sun comes up, the guitars keep twisting, the piano keeps plunking. This party could definitely keep going.

8. "Union Town" by Tom Morello
Chicago-area rocker Tom Morello focused his rage against the machine into a portable short set of contemporary protest songs -- a smart move for a musician during a year that ended with Time magazine naming "the protestor" as its Person of the Year. Bending out Slash-ing guitars and strumming Woody Guthrie grit, the title track to "Union Town" is a sing-along for whatever Americans may Occupy.

9. "Niggas in Paris" by Kanye West and Jay-Z (The Throne)
No one knows what it means, but it's definitely provocative and got people going this year. The album, a highly anticipated collaboration between hip-hop's biggest stars, was underwhelming -- but they'll always have "Paris." On this springy single, the two superstars revel in their high life while imagining how bad things would be if it hadn't come to this. They like the loop so much they performed the song eight times in a row during their United Center shows last month. That sh-- cray. (Clean version below.)

10. "Still Life" by the Horrors
Beginning life as a frizzed Goth quintet, the Horrors have evolved considerably into a bunch of Simple Minds wearing Psychedelic Furs. This cinematic single could have kept John Hughes alive, its synthesizers ringing over a patient, determined big-room beat as singer Faris Badwan offers assurances that he'll be there when you wake up.

( Listen to all 11 tracks on our Spotify playlist! )

11. "We All Go Back to Where We Belong" by R.E.M.
If it has to end, thank heaven it ended this way. After announcing its breakup, R.E.M. delivered a retrospective box set that included this final farewell, a sweet and ruminative ballad gliding over a Bacharach-like arrangement for French horn and strings. "Is this really what you want?" Michael Stipe sings. Is he asking us or himself? Breakups suck.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on December 20, 2011 10:00 AM.

Music review: Common, 'The Dreamer/The Believer' was the previous entry in this blog.

List-o-mania: The 11 best albums of 2011 is the next entry in this blog.

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