Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages: welcome to the end of 2011. This year saw the inclusion of music reviews in 72 Hours, The Frederick News-Post's all-encompassing weekend entertainment guide. The move didn't come without skepticism (don't worry -- I'll be keeping that "I know that Colin is your copy editor, but editing and writing are NOT the same thing. A good editor isn't necessarily the best writer for a music review. Maybe Colin McGuire should stick to page designing. Please avoid giving him assignments that involve writing until he takes a close look at some Rolling Stone reviews" email for as long as I live, silly emailer), though it did also supply some very kind words from some very kind people (most notably from Mr. Doug Alan Wilcox and the wonderful ladies of Beggar's Ride).
We laughed. We cried. We smiled. We frowned. I wrote. Some of you agreed. Some of you disagreed (Honestly -- I don't hate you, Ted. Promise.). Some of you attacked me through the written word. And some of you offered your thank-yous and your encouragement (Chelsea McBee, and The Knolly Moles, your kind words were duly noted).
Either way, we all had one thing in common, which is the music. If you read any of my reviews this year, chances are you enjoy listening to music on -- at the very least -- a tiny, discretionary level. And despite your opinions on me -- you can hate me, my opinions or my writing style all you want, but the one thing that you can't debate is the fact that these reviews were all written in good, objective and opinionated fun -- we can all agree that music holds an important part of our being, however small or big that may be.
So with that said, we wrap up 2011 by taking a look at the best the year had to offer. Below are the best songs from the releases that were reviewed in the News-Post over the past year (with the exception of Project Natale's fantastic "Endangered Liberties," which was actually released in 2010, thus the reasoning behind none of those songs appearing on this list), along with my picks for the best albums and songs the last 12 months offered on a national scale.
As always, we encourage your submissions for consideration in the 72 Hours music review column that appears every other week. You can send any and all of your musical recordings to 72 Hours, C/O The Frederick News-Post, 351 Ballenger Center Drive, Frederick, MD 21703.
Now quit taking me so seriously, and go have yourself a happy new year.
1. MISS SHEVAUGHN & YUMA WRAY
"A FOOL & HER HEART"
From the duo's 2011 EP, "Snake Oil Songs," the area's best song of the year is a bluesy ballad that is as heart-wrenching as it is inspiring. In fact, the vocal performance featured on "A Fool & Her Heart" is so good that the failed attempt at a full band sound at about the 2:30 minute mark doesn't even prove to be enough to remove this track from the year's top spot. But nevermind the forgivable misstep. Here, Shevaughn's voice soars in a style that combines the grit of such yesteryear icons as Etta James and Aretha Franklin with the modern-day pop soul presence of Adele and Joss Stone. Add a bit of organ and guitar and what you have is a recipe for a song that's not only the year's best, but also an indication that extraordinary musical talent exists within the Frederick area.
"A Fool & Her Heart" is the rare track that features an unforgettable vocal performance and enough authenticity to make sure you don't question where that voice came from. It's the perfect homage to classic soul music, and it's a song that both Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray should use as a template when they finally get around to recording their first full-length effort. This isn't just a good song. In fact, it isn't even just a great song. It's a nearly perfect song that suggests actual perfection might not be far from the duo's grasp. 2012 could be a big year for these two. Here's hoping there's a lot more from where this song came from.
2. BEGGAR'S RIDE
While Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray may have offered up the year's best song, 2011's best album comes from Baltimore's Beggar's Ride and this track is the best the duo gets on their self-titled debut. Sure, it might not have as much spunk as some of the other tracks that surround it. And yes, "Sunless Sky" could admittedly put you to sleep quicker than turning the TV to C-Span at 2:30 a.m. But it is on this track that Claudia SanSoucie and Kate Maguire's impeccable vocal chops combine to make one of the sweetest female harmonies in all of the year's music -- local or not. What makes this feat even more impressive is the balancing act the songwriters manage to pull off in order to maintain staying on the good side of boring. Despite the track's palpably soft texture and almost indecipherable vocals, both artists give haunting performances that leave you stunned, not sleepy. It's a hard accomplishment to successfully achieve, but SanSoucie and Maguire do it here with a perfect combination of grace and ease, making "Sunless Sky" all the more memorable because of it.
3. CHELSEA MCBEE
"THE WIND AND RAIN"
Goodness, gracious, this is beautiful. Shepherdstown, W.Va.'s Chelsea McBee surrounds herself with family members here to provide a chillingly a capella three-and-a-half-minute performance that is the year's most affecting vocal offering. The "Oh, the wind and the rain" refrain that is repeated after each line is both infectious and poignant as McBee combines her bluegrass singing ability with the harmonious help of beautifully placed backing vocals. Sounding as though it would have fit perfectly on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack, "The Wind And Rain" is truly one of the year's most remarkable musical offerings.
4. AMY SPEACE
"CHANGE FOR ME"
It's a wonder this isn't some type of Top 40 adult contemporary hit. Speace's somewhat bitter monotone vocals provide a backdrop filled with darkness and pain. The slow rock verses and glaringly open choruses suggest that this could have been a monster hit in 1997 on alternative rock radio, eventually landing itself on one of VH1's countdowns. But unfortunately for Speace, it is now 2011, and music lovers have made it a point to attach themselves to hipper-than-thou novelty acts or, well, Lady Gaga. It's too bad, too, because in a different era, it would have been nearly impossible for this song to not serve as the artist's breakthrough. "When you ever gonna change for me?" Speace asks over and over, burning a scene in your head that isn't ugly enough to look away, yet pretty enough to never forget. It's a fantastic combination of tone and talent.
5. THE LLOYD DOBLER EFFECT
"MEET ME IN LONDON" (LIVE)
Yes, this isn't a new song by any stretch of the imagination, but the honky-tonk-tinged arrangement of what was originally a nice, little pop-rock song is alone worth the price of the band's double disc unplugged set released this year. Phil Kominski puts on his best Steven Page-meets-Marc Roberge-like voice (one formerly from the Barenaked Ladies, the other from O.A.R., respectively) and Chris Brooks adds a boogie-down piano performance that allows this song's transformation from watered-down pop rock to danceable pseudo-retro-country to work. It's a perfect combination, really, and after so many years on the road, one would have to think The Lloyd Dobler Effect will permanently add Brooks, Albert Ketler's saxophone and Elizabeth Coyle Kominski's vocal prowess, considering how well their contributions mesh with the rest of the band throughout this live set. If anyone had any doubts beforehand, this version of "Meet Me In London" should be Exhibit A when making an argument for how interesting LDE can sound.
6. DOUG ALAN WILCOX
"... All told, what sets Wilcox apart from most other local acts is the fact that to him, being the next poor man's guitar-wielding John Tesh isn't necessarily a bad thing. And God bless him for that." That was the two-sentence combination that concluded the August review of Wilcox's "What I Meant To Say," spawning the singer to email me an alternate version of the best song that appeared on his 2011 release. Accompanying the email was a note suggesting the new take on the track may appeal to this particular writer, and to his credit, the second version did. However, which performance you prefer doesn't necessarily matter at the end of the day. Both feature that signature James Taylor-inspired voice and quasi-jazzy feel that paints portions of the songwriter's most recent effort. Add in a snare drum, some feather-light acoustic guitar sounds and an all-around pleasant attitude, and what you have is an artist who sounds like he would never hurt a fly. And God bless him for that.
7. THE KNOLLY MOLES
Goodness, gracious, do not say bad things about Frederick's own The Knolly Moles. This, I learned the hard way last month when a barrage of emails were sent my way after the review for their latest EP, "Skeezetown Blvd," wasn't nearly as complimentary as many of you seem to think it should have been. "GGD" is the best the band got on that 2011 release, and no, your nasty emails are not what allowed them a spot on this year's best-of collection. What did make this track one of the year's best is its palpable sense of fun that leaps through the speakers and into one's conscious with every listen. Sure, the chorus may be a little out of place, and yes, the group could have figured out a better way to transition between verses, choruses and bridges, but the ska feel that provides a groovy undertone throughout all of "GGD"' makes this without question the most entertaining song to come from the Frederick area all year. Remember: the Knolly Moles are not a bad band. Now, please: stop with the whiny emails, kids.
8. BEGGAR'S RIDE
"FIVE DAYS OF RAIN"
Oh, lord, this is a sad, dark song. The harmonica. The vocal harmonies that fit so perfectly amongst each other. The swaying acoustic guitars that seem as though they could simply stop producing sound and give up at any moment. There's a reason why Beggar's Ride is one of only two artists to have multiple songs make this best-of list, and while "Sunless Sky" might be the duo's most impressive offering, "Five Days Of Rain" is most certainly their most accessible. The secret weapon? Google a live performance of this song and notice how both women kick up the tempo ever so slightly, allowing for a surprisingly more morose effect. You'll never listen to this song the same way again.
9. AMY SPEACE
"It's Too Late To Call It A Night"
The second of two acts to appear twice on this countdown, Amy Speace steps away from the pop prowess that most of this year's "Land Like A Bird" provides to offer up a throwback country ballad that sounds like it could be played as intermission music at the Grand Ole Opry. It's beautiful, really. The bluesy electric guitar and acoustic piano over-power everything else, but that's OK as that combination draws a huge comparison to the quintessential bluesy/country/jazzy female crooner of this generation, Norah Jones. Speace allows a sense of seduction bleed through her voice here, too, creating a performance that is made emotionally sound by only her raw talent. "It's Too Late To Call It A Night" isn't just one of the great songs of the year. It's also a track that proves the songwriter is as versatile as she is brave. And those are two things that are an absolute must if you plan on having a career in music.
10. TED GARBER
"IT'S ABOUT TIME"
What good could a year-end list be without the inclusion of one, Mr. Ted Garber. This, from his "Live At Strathmore" set, is the climax of an album that features one-too-many attempts at climaxing over its 11 tracks. But that doesn't mean it's not worth listening to, especially if you fancy yourself a fan of the singer's blend of pop rock. "It's About Time" does the record's best job of capturing the live experience and that shines through here as the band breaks down and the handclaps hold the beat for one gloriously happy singalong. This track also proves to be the best at showcasing how groovy his band can get as Jon Carroll's piano skills funk this tiny little pop song up. Simply put, it's not a bad song, and if nothing else, this song proves that the one thing you can say about Ted Garber is that he sure can provide character to his performances. See -- I don't hate you, Ted. I was just hoping for a little more from this release. No bad feelings, right?
TOP 10 ALBUMS
1. PAUL SIMON
"SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT"
Paul Simon turned 70 in 2011 and "So Beautiful Or So What" is proof that age is nothing but a number. The uncanny storytelling ability that made Simon a household name (well, that and his delicately tuneful voice, of course) is still here. The African-inspired backbeat he became the poster child for after his masterpiece "Graceland" continues to be in full effect. And his ability to combine pop music stylings with world music flare is a talent that not only continues to exist in his composition, but it also sets him apart from so many of his peers.
"Rewrite" is the year's best song with its quirky chorus and verses aimed at telling tales of normal folk. Album opener "Getting Ready For Christmas Day" is as catchy as it is heartbreaking in its own cynical way. The title track is a bluesy romp that allows the music icon's bitterness and snark to shine through, proving he's still got things to say, even as he succumbs to his seventh decade alive. And "The Afterlife" is Paul Simon proving that more than anything, he excels at being Paul Simon better than anyone else on this planet, no matter how many musicians try to imitate his signature style. "So Beautiful Or So What" could very well end up being the last great Paul Simon album, and if that ends up becoming reality, this is the perfect way to go out. It's the best he's been since "Graceland."
Who knew 70 could sound so inspired?
2. MAYER HAWTHORNE
"HOW DO YOU DO"
When Mayer Hawthorne released "A Strange Arrangement," his debut album, all the way back in 2009, the effort was met with mixed reviews at best. Sure, his silky smooth falsetto made for some memorable moments, but overall, the album suggested there was a lot more the former DJ could offer if he ever decided to mature as an artist.
"How Do You Do" is the best blue-eyed soul record since Hall & Oates decided to quietly bow out of the pop music spotlight more than a decade ago. "The Walk" is startlingly angry and painfully fun. "Hooked" is straight out of 1964 Detroit, Mich., with its Temptations harmonies and Motown horns. "You Called Me" echoes more of the same retro soul feel as its upbeat tempo and silly love story paint a picture of authenticity. And "Finally Falling" is simply the best song Hall & Oates never wrote. The song's simplistic drum performance and accessible feel combine to form a result that is the best kind of pop soul. "How Do You Do" is sort of how Raphael Saadiq's "Stone Rollin'" should have sounded, and it might just end up being the best album Mayer Hawthorne ever offers. If this is what it sounds like to grow up, one can only imagine how it might sound once Hawthorne actually gets there. The result could be timeless.
"THE WHOLE LOVE"
"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." "Sky Blue Sky." And now "The Whole Love." That makes three masterpiece records for this Chicago rock outfit, and with their 2011 effort making a strong case for the best of those three, Wilco continue to churn out inspiring rock 'n' roll in an age when the word "inspiring" isn't necessarily synonymous with musical genres. "I Might" is near-pop-perfection and "Born Alone" proves that the sum of this band's parts is better than the sum of 95 percent of every other band's parts. Then, of course, "Art Of Almost" makes a case for The Best Wilco Song Ever with its epically long time-stamp and complete fuzzed-out aggression that eventually boils over. And "Standing O," "Black Moon" and "Whole Love" are all fantastic examples of how and why Wilco continue to remain major players in the rock 'n' roll world. Simply put, they are better than most everyone else. The lyricism. The musical subtleties. The painful vocals. It all comes together brilliantly on "The Whole Love," and it proves exactly how important Wilco are. Because without them, who knows what might happen to the future of rock music? Nickelback documentaries and Three Doors Down world tours? Ugh.
4. BOOKER T. JONES
"THE ROAD FROM MEMPHIS"
The legendary leader of the MGs returned this year when he teamed with ?uestlove and The Roots to produce one of 2011's most overlooked gems. A few missteps aside (why Jones is covering anybody at this stage in his career is truly one of the universe's unsolvable mysteries), "The Road From Memphis" is the best the organist has been since the mid 1960s. "Walking Papers" is driven by the Philly funk of ?uestlove's groove and a magnificent way to begin this mostly-instrumental collection of songs. That said, when the voices do appear, they are memorable. My Morning Jacket's Jim James' contributions on "Progress" are soulful and poignant while The National's Matt Berninger and soul princess Sharon Jones allow "Representing Memphis" to succeed as a ballad with their intertwining voices and pop-music approach. Interestingly enough though, the best vocal performance of the record comes from Jones himself on the irresistibly quirky "Down In Memphis." It's hard to believe Booker T. Jones is still making music this interesting, almost 50 years after he first began with his MGs. But his latest effort proves that the songsmith can still turn out some of the best music Memphis has ever seen.
5. JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST
"WATCH THE THRONE"
Ironically enough, "Watch The Throne" could make the case for being this year's most under-appreciated release. Where the lack of acclaim comes from is up for debate. Could it be the foray into some politically uncomfortable subjects that we rarely see from the usually-always-politically-correct Jay-Z? Is it the blatant and abundant over-use of soul-heavy samples that Kanye West has been praised for in the past? Who knows, really. What we do know, however, is that all politics and beat-making aside, "Gotta Have It" is probably the best track The Neptunes have been a part of since "Drop It Like It's Hot." "New Day" and "Made In America" are the two most sentimental tracks of the bunch, though they still fail to lose any of the momentum these two heavyweights create throughout each moment of the record. And "No Church In The Wild" and "Otis" both feature some of the best verses West has ever offered. "Watch The Throne" is the best hip-hop album of 2011, and how could anyone expect anything less? These two giants could make an album dedicated solely to Mozart interpretations and it would still contain the swagger and intelligence that makes this album so special. Luxury rap never sounded so good.
6. AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE
"WHEN THE HEART EMERGES GLISTENING"
The preeminent breakout jazz artist of the year offered up his Blue Note debut in 2011, and it's safe to say the 29-year-old earned his place among the modern-day greats with "When The Heart Emerges Glistening." Co-produced by the leading figure in the new class of jazz music, Jason Moran, this album served as a canvas for Akinmusire's brilliantly colored expressions and proved that the trumpeter has the abilities to stay relevant in an always-changing music world. "Confessions To My Unborn Daughter" is a stifling opening number that lets the listener know exactly what's in store as the players that Akinmusire assembles prove their worth by playing off each other with tremendous ease and palpable connection. "Regret (No More)" is a fascinating look at the tone manipulation ability the trumpeter beholds and "With Love" is a near-seven-minute opus that should be used a lesson for any up-and-comer looking to get to the top of the jazz music class. The future is bright for Akinmusire, and considering the artist hasn't even reached the age of 30, one has to wonder what he plans on doing for his next trick after such a memorable label debut.
7. JILL SCOTT
"THE LIGHT OF THE SUN"
If there was ever one adage to live by, it's this: whenever an artist decides to make a break-up album, it's always going to be worth checking out. What Jill Scott was able to prove with 2011's "The Light Of The Sun" is that when that aforementioned artist happens to be someone who has previously displayed an extraordinary amount of grace, talent, honesty and poetry in the past, the end product can result in some of the artist's best work. "So In Love" is a modern-day soul music classic, with Anthony Hamilton's uniquely Bill Withers-like voice providing the perfect complement to Scott's polished vocal chords. "Shame" and "All Cried Out Redux" are a one-two punch of block-party greatness as Scott shows off her hip-hop sensibilities. "Quick" is just under two minutes of fantastically fun storytelling as the singer somehow makes her heartbreak sound cheerful. And "Le Boom Vent Suite" is an epic two-part jam that blends subtle funk (look out for that one clean guitar stroke at about the two minute mark) with delicate slow soul designed for candle-lit rooms and bedtime hours. It's true: break-up albums can bring the best out of artists. "The Light Of The Sun" is proof of that.
8. RAPHAEL SAADIQ
It wasn't quite the follow-up we hoped for after 2008's brilliant "The Way I See It," but it was certainly still a record worth paying attention to. The good songs here are great. "Radio" is 1960s pop music at its best and its breezy Beach Boys vibe only adds to its authenticity. The title track is harmonica-filled bliss, "Heart Attack" is James Brown-funky and "Day Dreams" is quite possibly the neatest-sounding track the last 12 months saw. But "Over You" is an experiment gone wrong and "Good Man" simply never crosses into the ballad stratosphere successfully despite the back-and-forth, male-and-female set up. Still, don't let those words trick you into thinking "Stone Rollin'" is a bad album by any stretch -- it's just that these days, more is expected from the Tony! Toni! Tone! leader. With his latest album, though, Raphael Saadiq proves that even when he's not always at his best, he can still offer up some of the best R&B songs in music today.
9. J. COLE
"COLE WORLD: THE SIDELINE STORY"
He's a Jay-Z protg, so he has to be good, right? Well, not exactly (what's up Amil?). Still, this mixtape mastermind finally unleashed a proper debut album in 2011, and in a rare result, it actually lived up to the hype. Drake and Jay-Z cameos aside, "Cole World: The Sideline Story" is a gritty and intelligent collection of songs that are as poignant as they are catchy. Cole's constant wit and intricate wordplay on such tracks as "Dollar And A Dream III," "Sideline Story" and "Lost Ones" proves he's no fool, and the radio-ready hooks of the Trey Songz collaboration "Can't Get Enough" and the summer-jam-ready "Lights Please" remind everyone that he's smart enough to know how to concoct a Top 40 hit. And if that's not enough, he manages to match his boss's swagger on "Mr. Nice Watch" in a way that is reminiscent of the head-turning verse he dropped on Mr. Carter's "A Star Is Born" all the way back in 2009. The word on the street is J. Cole is planning on releasing a follow-up in 2012, and if that's the case, the music world better be ready to embrace a new star. If this is where the future of hip-hop is heading, "Cole World: The Sideline Story" suggests that the future is awfully bright.
10. RYAN ADAMS
"ASHES & FIRE"
Why Ryan Adams is still making sad music is beyond any logical comprehension (come on, man -- you are married to Mandy Moore!). All reasoning and/or justifications aside though, "Ashes & Fire" is a return to the sound and heartbreak his modern-day classic "Heartbreaker" displayed so well all the way back in 2000. The production is minimal and the alt-country twang of that aforementioned debut release is in full swing with such songs as the unforgettable "Come Home" or the album-opener "Dirty Rain." Add that to the killer band Adams recruited for this set (Norah Jones's haunting backing vocals add an eerie texture that Adams has been lacking; and Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty fame, adds keyboards that provide a great deal of honesty to the songwriter's already-brutally-honest approach), and what you have is a fantastic album from an artist that should be putting out more fantastic albums than he has. Who knows? Maybe the married life has evened Ryan Adams out. Either way, this is the best he's been since that 2000 masterpiece.
TOP 10 SONGS
1. PAUL SIMON
The greatest song of the year comes from (surprise!) the greatest album of the year. Paul Simon returned to what he does best with "So Beautiful Or So What" by combining words that paint fantastically visual tales with Afro-driven music that's as authentic as it is interesting. It all adds up to one big melting pot of genius and 2011's best song features the moment when his signature combination works best. The groovy backbeat. The quirky whistling toward the end of the track. The percussive acoustic guitar work. It's all here, and it all proves as a reminder that Paul Simon can still write a pretty darn good tune.
"I've been working on my rewrite, that's right/ I'm gonna change the ending/ Gonna throw away my title/ And toss it in the trash," he sings as part of the song's makeshift chorus. If such a notion is designed to signify his attitude toward what has probably become his career's twilight years, let's hope this is only the beginning to a long and fruitful finale.
2. JILL SCOTT FEAT. ANTHONY HAMILTON
"SO IN LOVE"
How this wasn't a summer anthem is beyond any logical thinking. The best song you didn't hear this year takes a classic R&B formula and updates it in the most danceable of ways. Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton prove to be the 2011 version of Tami Terrell and Marvin Gaye (without the sales numbers, of course), and this track is everything an upbeat, modern-day soul single should sound like, fully equipped with a spoken-word bridge and an infectious call-and-response chorus. Call it rhythm and blues music. Call it soul music. Call it pop music. Call it whatever you want. Just don't forget to use the word "great" whenever you try to describe it.
3. MAYER HAWTHORNE
This hilariously vulgar single off an album that probably fell between the cracks for a lot of people is the best Mayor Hawthorne gets on the best record of his short career. The "So long/You did me wrong" refrain is straight from Motown circa 1964 with its falsetto and bright horns, and the somewhat subdued anger Hawthorne's vocals display translates into the most sincere form of heartbreak (a form not void of four-letter words, mind you). It's groovy. It's soulful. It's fun. And it's filled with a throwback pop sensibility that is missing in most all of the songs currently burning a hole in your car radio's speakers. Cee-lo made it fashionable to cuss again. Here, Hawthorne makes it credible.
4. JAY-Z and KANYE WEST
Otis Redding's classic "Try A Little Tenderness" combines with two of the five best hip-hop artists today to form -- what else? -- the best hip-hop song of the year. The flurry of punchlines provide more wordplay than a New York Times crossword puzzle and the extended sample that serves as a prelude during the first 20 seconds of the track adds an element of authenticity that hip-hop admittedly lacks now more than ever. "Luxury rap/ The Hermes of verses/ Sophisticated ignorance/ Write my curses in cursive," West raps in what might be the best four bars of hip-hop in 2011. Indeed.
5. KELLY CLARKSON
"MR. KNOW IT ALL"
"Clarkson remains a slightly wearying one-note artist -- she's a wounded lover, bellowing her pain and scorching the earth. But wow -- that voice." Those were the words of Rolling Stone scribe Jody Rosen as part of the magazine's three-star review of Clarkson's latest release, "Stronger." Ahhh, yes. That voice. The first (and best) American Idol continues to remain relevant in a pop-music world that changes so much, it's a wonder we still know the words to "Miss Independent" eight years after the fact. That said, "Mr. Know It All" is a fantastically catchy pop song that showcases the same smiling-angry attitude Clarkson has become so good at conveying in song. And it all continues to work, why? That voice. Goodness, gracious, that voice.
"ART OF ALMOST"
The first track on Wilco's excellent "The Whole Love" sets a perfectly aggressive tone for the rest the album. Between the thunder-cracking sound of the first minute and the double-time sprint to the end of the song, you have a band refusing to be complacent within their already-acclaimed selves. It's rock 'n' roll in an age where rock 'n' roll doesn't come easily anymore, and for that reason alone, "Art Of Almost" stands above the rest of Wilco's 2011 work.
"HURTS LIKE HEAVEN"
From the most polarizing record of the year (most either love it or hate it, and it seems the latter is the majority), this the fastest Chris Martin and his boys have ever been on an album. It's that up-tempo approach -- along with some uber-'80s electronic drums -- that makes this one of the best tracks Coldplay have ever recorded, though it may very well end up being ignored when the band's history is written, considering how unpopular "Mylo Xyloto" seems to be. The groove gives a nod to The Smiths, the guitars give a nod to U2, and the in-and-out falsetto vocal track gives a nod to ... well ... Coldplay. Still, this is the most fun the British boys have had in a long, long time.
"SOMEONE LIKE YOU"
Settle down, pop music haters. Adele was 2011's favorite credible pop breakout star, and this song's stripped-down texture is only accentuated by the tearful sentiment behind this particular track. She's going to be featured on most every year-end list, and in a rare twist, the British singer will actually deserve the accolades she's destined to receive. "21" is a masterful soul pop record, and this song is one of the many highlights it contains. Here's hoping you get that vocal chord mess figured out by the beginning of 2012, Adele. The world awaits a proper tour.
9. BOOKER T. JONES
"DOWN IN MEMPHIS"
Booker T. Jones might be remembered most for his part in the legend that surrounds Stax Records and his band's classic hit, "Green Onions," but in 2011, the organ maestro offered up a solo effort that is among the year's best (a misplaced Gnarles Barkley cover notwithstanding). "Down In Memphis" is the best "The Road From Memphis" gets, and it also happens to be the only track on which Jones utilizes his often-overlooked vocal abilities, which, for the record, are pretty darn good. This groovy tour through Tennessee's most musically interesting city (sorry, Nashville) is made possible with help from The Roots crew, and their presence makes this track not only one of the best of the year, but also one of the best of the living legend's solo catalog.
10. RAPHAEL SAADIQ
After releasing the best album of 2008, Saadiq had a lot on his shoulders when it came to producing a follow-up. And while he admittedly didn't quite achieve the same greatness with 2011's "Stone Rollin,'" he did offer a few gems that are still light years beyond what most of today's artists could ever dream of offering. This harmonica-driven blues romp is a testament to the artist's versatility, and the storytelling ability the former Tony! Toni! Tone! leader displays is a talent missing from most pop music. It's some of the most authentic 1973 soul music you could possibly find in 2011.