Saturday, November 30, 2019

the top ten best hit songs of 2011

You know, I've said a number of times that my favourite lists to make are the top ten hits of any respective year, mostly because I have peculiar taste when it comes to my favourites and any chance to compliment songs people have actually heard... well, it's a nice boost. And once this is done - and with the exception of 2019 - I will have created these top tens for every year in the 2010s, and given that seemingly everyone is doing a retrospective, it does feel nice to place everything back in context.

But really, if you're examining 2011 in any way, shape, or form, it's a year that defies easy contextualization. Generally a really good year - although I still give a slight edge to the best of 2012 and 2015 - but not one that seemed to fit with any specific trends or sounds. If anything, it felt more like a year dominated by personalities, from the dueling pop divas to the rise of Adele's thunderous 21, an album that seemingly defied all expectations with its success. Yeah, rock was kind of non-existent on the Hot 100 - and you could argue hip-hop was kind of a mixed bag sliding through transition from the club boom - but between pop, soul, R&B, and a surprisingly bright year for country, there was a lot to like about 2011. More importantly, it was a year where the great songs were consistently great, where I didn't even have much difficulty filling out a solid - albeit surprising - list of Honourable Mentions. As always, the songs had to debut on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end list in 2011 to qualify, so let's get things started with...

10. So I've said before that I'm not really a fan of the pop self-esteem anthem. Not that I actively dislike them - although there have been some real duds in this department in the 2010s - but more that I've heard this formula hammered into the ground time and time again. And in the pop diva competition in 2011, this would become a default template to assert dominance - but that being said, there are certain pop acts where the self-esteem anthem doesn't make sense, if only because their image and brand don't quite align. And yet when you give that template to America's trashiest party girl...

So let's get the controversy out of the way first: when Kesha said 'We R Who We R' was inspired by a recent swathe of gay suicides across the summer of 2010, which later prompted Dan Savage's 'It Gets Better' campaign, she got some backlash for presuming to speak for that audience, especially when the text didn't have any explicit references. Which always kind of left a sour note for me in a similar way to the backlash against Macklemore for 'Same Love', because not only is Kesha openly bisexual, she repeatedly clarified that the song was more driven out of empathy even though she wasn't in that same situation explicitly, especially for someone who at that point of her career was getting openly derided - don't try to deny it, I was there and actively engaged in music criticism at that point, folks, it was ugly, frequently disingenuous, and more than a little sexist. Hell, this song sure as hell has aged better than Lady Gaga's overproduced clusterfuck of 'Born This Way' - sharp buzzing synthwork, a strong build-up, a hook that had some anthemic impact while leaning into the scuzzy, rough-edged dance scene Kesha was embracing in earnest on her phenomenal EP Cannibal, and it was a wallop that for a club-boom staple has held up remarkably well! Furthermore, while Kesha has made songs that are basically an extended pisstake, 'We R Who We R' proved she could hold her own with the rest of the scene - and deliver a kickass song to boot!

9. And while we're on the topic of Kesha...

'We R Who We R' might have had greater aspirational ambitions, but at this point in her career, Kesha was ripping away the layers of glam to reveal something more feral and dangerous beneath it, and while the Cannibal EP's title track probably remains my favourite, 'Blow' operates in the same territory, a buzzed out battering ram of a banger where the danger moves into the text and the intensity kicks up a notch. Kesha's aesthetic and significant chunks of her inspiration are rooted in punk, and this song shows it - snide, obnoxious, a little more raw in her delivery, emphasizing the real danger of this party to come and not the first time she'd toy with occult iconography either, maybe not quite picking up the groove of 'Take It Off' but absolutely the impact and attitude, amplified by a hook that even off that lockstep beat still sounds massive! This is the song I'd argue sets the table for what was to come for Kesha on Warrior, in stylism if not sound, and considering it remains one hell of a banger to this day, you all should understand why it's here.

8. So one thing I've noticed as a critic who covers both hits and albums is that when you get an act who is more defiantly underground crossing over with maybe a lesser song, you're stuck dealing with two sets of standards. That yes, this song is probably kickass for the mainstream pop charts... but in comparison with their larger back catalog it might be middling at best, and that's tough context to balance, which can lead you to not to overrate songs because they're from an artist you like, but also underrate them because you know they can do better. So with all that mind...

Look, I've reviewed Lupe Fiasco three times and he's made my year-end list multiple times, you know where I stand on him. You also should know that while I'm more charitable to LASERS than most, it is absolutely watered-down Lupe Fiasco and it wouldn't be until DROGAS Light that he'd sink to that level again, especially because for as great of a wordsmith as he is, he's also incredibly skilled at making songs with hooks and not so blatantly playing the pop game. But acknowledging that, 'The Show Goes On' is still an absolutely terrific song, a highlight on LASERS that plays the warped optimism of 'Float On' by Modest Mouse straight for an aspirational moment that feels earned! The guitar line and synth horns are slick as hell, Lupe sounds great on the beat without giving up an inch of flow, and his pure reckless confidence in his label clapback even as he gave them one of his biggest ever hits is the sort of balancing act that showed exactly why he got signed in the first place. And while I could sit here and say it doesn't go toe-to-toe with his best songs - it's not a 'Kick Push' or 'Prisoner 1 & 2' - it's the sort of pop concession that I'm still delighted to see win, even if today it's a bit of a relic. Shame we don't see more of Lupe getting success, but since he's charting his own path, everything turned out okay - and we still have this.

7. The big problem with making retroactive best lists is that you inevitably face hindsight, for better but also for worse, and what might have sparked an nervous frown a decade ago might feel a lot more foreboding now. And while it is important to understand the context of the era, added history does change how we view art, and it's pushed back or elevated songs on my lists before. Granted, when I first created a draft of this list, this song was not that far removed from this position, and I did struggle with whether this would fall of the list entirely. But at the end of the day...

So in my 'worst hits of 2011' list, I made the controversial statement that a lot of Kanye West's verses off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy weren't all that great, which is another reason I've never been crazy about that album; it's uneven, it's got deeper low points than you remember, it drags in awkward spots, the guest appearances are inconsistent, and the entire project is being carried on the dichotomy between Kanye's artistic hubris and raging insecurity, more on personality that actual content. Hell, that's basically true with 'All Of The Lights' , because the story Kanye sketches out is more flashes of panic and desperate emotion than anything coherent, now all overexposed in blazing hot lights. But I'll also admit that's the reason the song works so well in capturing that emotion, from the hook carried on Rihanna's dead-eyed delivery and a blur of vocal samples to the frenetic percussion, enormous horns, and increasingly fractured groove. And more than all of that, it's a focal point of tension, Kanye trying to capture the moment of being at an epicenter of accountability to which he's not accustomed, which amplifies that sense of danger and pushes this song into greatness... even despite how you can tell it's basically holding together on personality, and only barely at that. No, it's not better than 'POWER' or 'So Appalled' or 'Hell Of A Life' - the latter being my favourite song from that album - but in terms of one of Kanye's last charting hits this decade that earned its hype... especially considering where he is now, I'll take what I can get.

6. I can imagine just by the placement of this song ahead of Kanye I'm going to get backlash - but to be perfectly frank, I'm a little shocked this grew on me as much as it did, because this was a duet that nobody really was asking for nor saw coming, and it's not one I've seen get a lot of praise. But really, sometimes, you have just have to let the song...

Bit of background here: in the wake of the success of Lady Antebellum's 'Need You Now', you could tell some country labels were wondering if they could leverage their existing stars to capture that sort of interplay without having to form a supergroup. And in 2011 it was tried more than a few times, because not only did you see the short-lived breakthrough of Thompson Square, you also got duets like 'Me And Tequila' between Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter, and 'Don't You Wanna Stay' between Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson, who had the raw sexual chemistry of an oatmeal raisin muffin. And then there was 'Remind Me' pairing Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley - and I'll be honest, the chemistry is not perfect here, but that kind of makes sense in the context of the song: it's post-breakup and wistful, trying to lean into the little memories of their old connection, now clearly good friends who are getting caught up and maybe some of that spark lingers - but even if it doesn't, the good memories were still worth it. It helps a lot that the instrumentation is very country with its warm electric guitar, rich fiddles and pedal steel, and the sort of go-for-broke big swing that caters to both artist's flair for the dramatic, and the interplay clicks way better than you'd ever expect! Again, maybe this just hits a little different for me - I'm a little older, and I've actually maintained a really good friendship with an 'ex' who has gone on to get married and have a baby, so the wistfulness and maturity hits a different timbre for me, but when you factor in the lived-in details, a good guitar solo, and two artists who can amplify a pretty damn good song into greatness... yeah, it works.

5. On the angrier flip side, however, I don't think anyone needed to be told that this song kicks all amounts of ass and basically blew 2011 apart...

I'm still a little shocked 'Rolling In The Deep' was as big as it was in 2011, because for as catchy as it is, it's way more soul and blues than pop, and it's a dark song too, the sort of utterly pissed off breakup song that I'm still not sure Adele has ever completely replicated. And it doesn't have an obvious sonic influence either - you can point to the vintage soul and R&B acts that persisted just below the radar in decades previous, especially some of the retro jazz revival driven by artists like the late Amy Winehouse, but outside of the bridge this song doesn't swing or have a ton of groove: it's more jagged and percussive and borderline gospel in its swell, with the huge kickdrum, bass strumming, staccato pianos and careening spikes of guitar. And that's not to outshine Adele, who has the pipes, presence, and expressiveness of a singer who has lived a lot more life than her, and yet she's entirely convincing! And while the lyrics might be abstract, there's enough smoldering emotionality to make the anger, bitterness and regret almost feel primeval - there's barely anything like 'Rolling In The Deep' even to this day and it casts a long, dark shadow; in a decade where Adele put out some damn near classic hits, this is one of them.

4. You know, I think even at the time people were coming to realize that Lady Gaga's Born This Way era was a mess - not terrible or even mediocre, but incredibly inconsistent and yanked in a half-dozen directions by Gaga's desire to pay homage to her creative influences while ripping pop music inside out. And with the benefit of hindsight and the mixed reception of both ARTPOP and Joanne, it's hard looking back on the huge public spectacle that was Lady Gaga around the club boom and question just how much was really there. Hell, there were a lot of skeptics who thought it was all artificial flash and little substance even then. Since then... I don't want to say Lady Gaga has gotten more respectable as she's always been a classicist and music nerd at heart, but it feels like especially after A Star Is Born there are deeper roots. And yet if we go back to 2011... really, we all should have seen it coming.

I've seen 'You And I' as a polarizing song within Gaga's discography - it was a later single, it didn't really have the cultural impact of 'Born This Way' or even 'The Edge Of Glory', I even saw some try to brand it as country to further push it into a corner as an odd genre experiment on an album full of them. But let's be blunt: if there's a legit rock song that makes this top ten, it's Lady Gaga singing with the most fire she had on the entire album and featuring a guitar solo from Brian May of Queen! Hell, it's exactly the sort of trashy hard rocker that Kesha was already on the path to making, and in a certain roundabout way Gaga was going in the same direction that flattered her just as much, only with less obvious punk influence and more heartland arena rock that allowed her to accentuate her theatricality. Now on that alone it caused some to say this was just another affection, but I've never thought that - the writing is more blunt and hard-edged, calling to mind any dive across the United States, and even if they would switch out the state name in different parts of the country, how is that much different than any middle-of-the-road bar band who does the same, and Gaga leans into that hardscrabble sound with enough rawness to be convincing! And eight years later and after it's been proven just how deep Gaga's traditionalist streak runs, from the majority of Joanne to A Star Is Born, to me the reality of this song just solidifies. Also, it still kicks all amounts of ass as it revels shamelessly in ribald bravado, and if we're not going to get rock that even tries for any sort of sex appeal, goddamn it I'll get it here!

3. This song has always been on my list in some permutation - and yet if there was a year that tested how much it would last, it was this one, given that for one reason or another I wound up listening to a lot of this artist and by the end of things I was questioning whether or not the songs would have the same resonance; hell, at points it's made the album released by this artist this year a little harder to revisit than I'd like. But then I gave this a few more listens and it came together: this is Taylor Swift's best single, and I'm not losing this.

What always kind of surprises me about 'Back To December' is how utterly unlike so many Taylor Swift songs it is, both then and now. Sure, there's some swell of strings which is different in and of itself for her, but the echoing spikes of guitar are rougher and more contemporary, more jagged, puncturing the otherwise pristine beauty of the mix, with hints of deeper bells to ramp up the weight - compared to the girlish framing of previous Taylor Swift singles, this song has the weight of adulthood that you'd expect from an act like Lady Antebellum, and Swift can sell it. But the power of this song has always come in the writing - even beyond the rumours that Taylor Swift wrote this song about Taylor Lautner in a desperate attempt to win him back after she dumped him with careless disinterest. And what's so damn potent is that deep down, she knows it's futile - none of it is going to work, she gets it if he's too hurt or has moved on to truly let it all come together, and by the time you get the bridge that brings it all together with the subtle downward key change to emphasize that moment of sad realization... look, for an artist who built so much of her reputation on a shattered string of relationships, it's potent to realize that on her best album she was able to wring out real pathos and humility, and one reason why Lover connected so deeply was returning to this core. For me, Taylor Swift has always been at her best when she's found the detail and humanity in her writing, and on 'Back To December'... yeah, she got back there. Again, her best single, I stand by it.

2. I mean, sometimes it's not even fair. Sometimes the artist comes in, strips it all down for a song that today is hailed as a modern classic, and while I wouldn't call it my favourite of her singles, it's a song so emotionally resonant and balanced that it deserves all the credit in the book. And by now, you know what it is.

Something I always like to highlight when I discuss 'Someone Like You' is the cowriter and producer: Dan Wilson, frontman of Semisonic and a man who has an uncanny knack for sharpening the human element in any song. But you'd be forgiven for not noticing him: Adele's tremendous performance over the bare keys is one of her best and most heartbreaking, the closing track on 21 where after burning every bridge on an angry album, she encounters this ex directly and the mingled flurry of shame, anger, and genuine regret blowing through the song is almost too much to grapple with, especially as it rings so real. And what I love is how Adele knows exactly how universal this experience is - this could have been any love sparked of coincidence before falling apart - but it's still deeply personal to her experience. Hell, I'm not sure anyone could sell the bleeding edge of sarcasm in her delivery juxtaposed sharply with the unforced break in her delivery on the hook after the bridge, where she's clearly on the verge of breaking down but has to hold some sort of composure - how very British of her, but not in a way where it's obtrusive. In short, you don't need me to sing this song's praises any further - many have called it a modern classic and only the first ever pure piano ballad to top the Hot 100 - and yet it doesn't top my list. But before we get to that, I've got Honourable Mentions...

I get the feeling I like this more than I should - Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera have limited chemistry at best, it's a blatant pop pivot that isn't nearly as sexy or interesting as it thinks it is, and it's not as loose and trashy as it should be if its trying to emulate the Rolling Stones - one reason why I remember really liking the Glee mashup of this song with 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' which actually brought some of that trashy blues edge. But at the end of the day, it's a good pop pivot that doesn't compromise its groove, it's ridiculously catchy, it's better than damn near any of the Stones' disco attempts, and compared to what Maroon 5 would become this decade... look, if we could have more this and less of 'Memories', we'd all be better off.

Yeah, this is one of the questionable picks... and look, you don't need to tell me this is lower-tier Avril. The hook is over-compressed buzzy flash, I'm fairly certain the keyboard pickup they use was pulled from a budget sports arena, and Avril was never great playing the capricious brat, especially with the flattened electronic effects around her instead of, you know, any sort of rock edge. But I don't know what to tell you, the hook is potent, Avril still has boatloads of personality, and I can't be the only one who feels like this song kind of gets how toxic it is, especially as the guy seems to be kind of a distant douche anyway. I dunno, if you spend any time on Tinder and trying to date in the modern age where connections can blow apart off of a bad text message and the commitments are more flimsy than ever, there's a place for a song like this to cut loose. Not precisely a good or healthy place, and a more self-aware song would get that, but a place nonetheless.

Hey look, Adam Levine made this list twice - somehow! But it's for good reason, because Travie McCoy just assembled a sharply written, bouncy pop song that has arguably one of Levine's best performances this decade, a well-developed music tech metaphor that's kind of corny but in the right way, and the production balances the gleaming synths off the sharper guitar rollick and slight grain of the groove and scratching. It's a surprisingly textured song if you dig into the details of the mix, and the fact that the strings actually mesh within it pretty effectively is kind of remarkable. And look, the Gym Class Heroes have never been a particularly great act in their abortive run, but for one shining moment, they caught a great one.

Oh, I bet a lot of folks are going to be shocked that this isn't on the list proper - and for the longest time it was, as there's a lot to like about it: the retro soul groove off the piano, organ, horns and watery guitar, along with the precisely placed backing vocals, how well the kiss-off balances the comedy inherent to some of the lyrics with enough punchy charisma driven off of Cee-Lo's great delivery. And while I've always found the bridge a little oversold - which is why it's never topped my list - I will admit the song has cooled on me in the 2010s for other reasons. Part of it is how certain retro throwbacks have lost a little luster through over-exposure, but I remember seeing someone describe this as an 'incel anthem' and while I disagree, there is some of that pettiness that has never really sat right for me. And yeah, it's not really helped by some of the allegations that came out about Cee-Lo this decade and some of his asinine tweets about rape around the situation - saying that 'it isn't rape if the victim is unconscious' kind of taints how this song goes down, at least to me. Don't get me wrong, I still hear the appeal of this song and they didn't pursue sexual battery charges, but follow it with Cee-Lo's antics the rest of this decade... yeah, 'Fuck You!' doesn't hit the same way, just saying.

Hey, when Lil Wayne is on, he's on. In comparison with Jason Derulo's disastrous flip of 'The Banana Boat Song', Lil Wayne warps it into a banger where he'll sound sharper than he would for the majority of the 2010s. It's also insanely quotable but in the right way for Lil Wayne, where cleverness bounces off outright absurdity and delivered with just enough charisma to make you believe some of these lines aren't as stupid as they actually are. And then Cory Gunz swings in for a great verse of his own - a shame his career never went anywhere after this verse, he had a lot of potential, but for his brief impact on the Hot 100, this is a solid note to land - good stuff.

Katy Perry recruits Kenny G for a retro pastiche that's goofy as all hell, features rhymes that barely connect, dated pop culture references, and a video that's half-Glee stars, half 80s references - including Corey Feldman a full five years before he'd shake the music world with Angelic 2 The Core - and then Rebecca Black and Hanson to boot. No, it's not supposed to make much sense and watch or listen with any closer detail and it's hard not to cringe deeply - especially given that Katy Perry herself might be the worst part of her own song, especially given her delivery on the verses - but the big guitars, punchy groove, insanely catchy hook slathered with candy-coated synths, and the odd feeling that this  has had more staying power than I think anyone expected for a late-album Katy Perry song... yeah, for a shot of pop party adrenaline, this still works, I dig it.

Yeah, it's Britney bitch. Again - kind of kills that narrative that I 'hate' her that some people said after I had to cover Britney Jean and Glory, doesn't it? And yet even I'm a little surprised going back to the dubstep throwback with the shameless double-entendre on the hook that it's this Britney Spears song that works for me in 2011, in comparison with the Kesha-cowritten 'Till The World Ends' or the surprisingly propulsive 'I Wanna Go'. But 'Hold It Against Me' takes its warping punch, immaculately crisp production, and a ridiculously tight melodic hook to accentuate what always makes a great Britney song: tight construction, a crisp balance between sweetness and sensuality, and production that amplifies her presence without suffocating her. Hell, I even like the dubstep breakdown here that predates its mainstream ubiquity by a solid year, especially how it builds into the crescendo on the final hook. So yeah, Britney Spears delivered again - arguably one of her last good songs for years to come, but I'll take it.

And finally...

1. This is one of those picks that if you know me, you won't be surprised at the choice, as it's exactly the sort of song I'd praise to hell and back and taps all the right elements to connect. But if you don't... hell, providing you're not shocked this made the year-end Hot 100 at all, if you've only seen recent reviews you might be surprised this is topping my list. But that's one of the reasons I got so angry when I reviewed their last album: to fall down to one of the worst albums of 2019 from heights the band hadn't even achieved with this song, that says a lot about their prowess and what they truly delivered. And thus...

Let's not mince words: the Zac Brown Band struck gold with 'Colder Weather' - so much so they've taken the exact same chord progressions and repeated them exactly for later songs, they knew they hit something special here. But what's so fascinating about this song is how unlike it is in comparison with their broader discography - for a band not far removed from Kenny Chesney in aping Jimmy Buffett, the tropical climate is swapped for the frigid nights of Colorado and the lonely but understanding woman frozen in hundreds of miles away, a relationship that has the strength to span the lonely roads and the blizzard he'll have to cut through to reunite, if he even can. So the lead guitar is swapped out for cooler pianos in a windswept mix that features terrifically placed harmonies, with perfectly placed fiddle that interweaves with the few bars of guitar solo beautifully. And Zac Brown... this man used to be one of the best emotive belters in this era of country, and he can sell it all, even as the outro has the courage to strip it all away and only leave the slightest of accents to drive the tragic ending home. It's a stunning synthesis of perfectly chosen instrumentation, impeccable but organic command of atmosphere, and a beautifully crafted song that stands as one of a kind within country, even if the Zac Brown Band and other acts have tried to imitate its progression in the decade to come.Best hit song of 2011 - it was when I made this list and it remains so to this day, and while it's a damn shame that I don't think the Zac Brown Band will ever quite return to this again, but if they do... I can wait till then. 


  1. Born This Way is still a really damn good song.

    1. Damn straight. Does Kesha mention any transgender people on her song? Hell naw. Born This Way 4 lyfe.