The 100 Best Songs of 2011
All links here are to free downloads, streaming audio or video unless otherwise indicated. While this is an attempt to put these songs into some kind of order with the very best stuff at the top of the page, it doesn’t really make sense to even try to arrange them numerically. Consider: if a song is good enough to be one of this year’s best one hundred, it has to be pretty special. You may find some dissonance with this year’s Best Albums list: the reason why a lot of songs from those releases aren’t on this one is because they were on this list in previous years.
#1: Erica Smith – Lucky in Love. This is a Paula Carino song from her Open on Sunday album, which topped the albums section of this list last year. And because nobody had the presence of mind to record the torchy, shattering version of this wryly haunting 6/8 lament that Smith sang at one of Carolyn AlRoy’s songwriter salons at the Parkside Lounge back in January, the link at the top of the page is to the Carino original. Which is only slightly less haunting. The link will be updated if and when audio or video becomes available; the same goes for the other songs here which haven’t made it to the web yet.
Laurie Anderson – Delirium. She debuted this achingly bitter, sweepingly atmospheric, elegaic suite at Lincoln Center last August: it may not have a title yet, and this segment may contain several individual songs.
Laurie Anderson – If You See Something, Say Something. A hilarious and spot-on dismissal of post 9/11 paranoia; it’s unreleased and may be part of a larger piece.
Laurie Anderson– The Real New York/Hard Times. As Anderson cynically explored the deterioration of a once-great city on an eerily calm, unexpectedly cool August night, a siren made its way north behind Lincoln Center. She played along with it: one of this year’s great live moments. As with the other Anderson tracks here, this is unreleased and possibly part of a larger piece.
Miramar– Di Corazon. The iconic Sylvia Rexach bolero, from the retro Puerto Rican band’s excellent Para Siempre album
Pinataland– Oppie Struck a Match. Historically rich southwestern gothic anthem from the Brooklyn chamber-rockers – “Oppie” here is the evil nuclear scientist. From their excellent Hymns for the Dreadful Night album.
Trio Joubran – Masana. Towering, epic, elegaic suite for three ouds and percussion – it ends their new Asfar album on a wrenching, powerful note.
Marc Ribot– Scene of the Crime. Classic Andre Previn as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download
Marc Ribot –Touch of Evil Theme. Classic Henry Mancini as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download.
Mary Lee Kortes– Well By the Water. The darkest side of deadpan, secretive midwestern stoicism, powerfully depicted by the Americana chanteuse. From her latest album Songs of Beulah Rowley Vol. 1
Spottiswoode– Wild Goosechase Expedition. Beatlesque psychedelic travelogue as metaphor for the Iraq War and centerpiece of the art-rock songwriter’s album of the same name.
Laurie Anderson– Dark Downtown/Remembrance. As with the other Laurie Anderson tracks here, this may be a mix of individual songs: a contemplation on how much New York has changed for the worse, and how people tend to be dismissive of those who’ve died, in order to “travel lite,” emotionally speaking. Powerful stuff.
American Composers Orchestra– Andrew Norman: Unstuck. The highlight of this fall’s SONIC Festival of contemporary composers, this is a mammoth, intense noir suite. You’ll have to do some fast-forwarding to find it – the link is to the Q2 broadcast of the works from the festival voted most popular.
Either/Orchestra – Mambo #2. The second of four Ethiopian folk songs arranged for big band and rescued from obscurity – and played exhilaratingly, live this past November – at the New School. Look for a release, and a real title for this, sometime in 2012.
Beninghove’s Hangmen – H-Bomb. This macabre surf rock instrumental is the best song on the noir jazz group’s debut album from earlier this year.
Either/Orchestra – Mambo #1. This is a haunting traditional Ethiopian folk song arranged for big band and rescued from the vaults – and given a North American premiere this past Fall at the New School. Look for a proper release sometime in 2012.
Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz– Nightmare Scene from Vertigo. Harrowing Bernard Herrmann noir Hitchcock film sounds, a track from the pianist and cellist’s Shuffle Play Repeat album.
Trio Joubran– Asfar. Title track to the three oud-playing Palestinian brothers’ haunting, stately new album
Billy Bang/Bill Cole– Improvisation #1. Digeridoo drone and dark improvisation, this one with the late great jazz violinist playing against the multi-reedman’s low rumbling backdrop. From the Billy Bang Bill Cole live album recorded in 2009 and just released this year.
The Oxygen Ponies – Good Thing. It crescendos out of spare, plaintive folk-pop with a cynical fury: “This is a call to everyone/Wake your daughters, rouse your sons/Take your aim and shoot to kill/So your friends don’t hurt you/Cause others will. ” From the Exit Wounds album.
Ward White – Pretty/Ugly Town. The brilliantly sardonic, literate NYC powerpop songwriter at his most caustic and cynical, giving both barrels to a starstruck wannabe who’s new in New York. From his characteristically excellent Done with the Talking Cure album.
Dixie Bee-Liners– Restless. Hypnotic intense blues-based bluegrass reinvented as noir Steve Wynn style anthem. The Virginia bluegrass band absolutely killed with this last winter at the Jalopy.
Trio Tritticali– Ditty. The title is sarcastic – this is a powerful Midle Eastern flavored mini-suite from the eclectic Brooklyn string trio’s debut album Issue #1.
Ansambl Mastika– Memede Zlatna Ptica. The best song on the Brooklyn Balkan band’s exhilarating latest album Songs and Dances for Life Nonstop reaches a literally unreal crescendo.
Michel Camilo– Then & Now. A classic macabre Erik Satie theme done as piano jazz with Dominican sabor, from the pianist’s excellent Mano a Mano album.
Steve Wynn– Cloud Splitter. Vintage hypnotic bracing intense guitar artistry – it’s hard to tell which guitarist is Wynn and which is Jason Victor. From Wynn’s Northern Exposure album.
Trio Tritticali– Azizah. The string trio go deep into the Middle East for this slinky instrumental. From their new Issue #1 album.
Either/Orchestra– 1-5-0-9. Look for this sometime in 2012, probably under a new title: it’s yet another Ethiopian-flavored anthem from the unsurpassed Boston Ethiopian jazz group.
Trio Tritticali– Who Knows Yet. The most haunting, pensive instrumental on the Brooklyn string trio’s excellent debut album Issue #1.
Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz – Vertigo Suite Prelude. Creepy Hitchcock film suspense from the pianist and NPR host with the cello virtuoso. From their new album Shuffle Play Repeat
Rahim Alhaj – Qaasim. Plaintive, intense instrumental with the Iraqi oudist carefully building a tune over a hypnotic djeridoo drone. Not on the web anywhere, it seems. From the Iraqi oudist/composer’s latest album Little Earth.
Walter Ego – Satellite. Wickedly catchy Ray Davies-style Britpop with one of the New York rocker’s most clever, casually dismissive lyrics.
Jennifer O’Connor – 7/12/09. Cruel summertime clinical depression perfectly captured in three vivid indie janglerock minutes. From O’Connor’s album I Want What You Want.
Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation– Ladies of Leisure. Pierre de Gaillande, frontman of lush art-rockers the Snow, has been busy translating many of legendary French songwriter Georges Brassens’ funniest, most vulgar songs; this is the classic Complainte des Filles de Joie, a metaphorically loaded defense of prostitutes.
The Devil Makes Three– All Hail. A caustically funny bluegrass song about the logical effects of the whole world being wasted on antidepressants – and a whole lot more. From their album Do Wrong, Right.
The Oxygen Ponies– Jellybean. Frontman Paul Megna being his usual insightful self, “Everyone around me is just sharing the same brain…I guess they find it’s easier to be part of the whole/Searching for a reason why they buy the shit they’re sold.” From this year’s Exit Wounds album
Swift Years– Old Man Santo. The witty Canadian worldbeat group put this one out a few years back, but who’s counting – it’s a twistedly funny nursery rhyme about GMO frankenfood.
Ward White –Radio Silence. A cruel and pretty hilarious dysfunctional road trip scenario set to catchy janglerock by the brilliantly sardonic rock songwriter. From his latest album Done with the Talking Cure.
Marc Ribot – Kill for Pussy. Classic John Barry as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download
Sanda Weigl– Ani Mei Si Tinertea. At the 92YTribeca this past January, pianist Shoko Nagai gave this gypsy haunter an absolutely macabre edge. From Weigl’s Gypsy in a Tree album.
Miramar– En Mis Suenos. This is the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero done with creepy psychedelic funeral organ by the Bio Ritmo spinoff. They absolutely slayed with this at Barbes in May.
Beninghove’s Hangmen– Reject’s Lament. A sad, creepy waltz from the noir jazz guys’ debut album
Beninghove’s Hangmen– Hangmen’s Waltz. Twangy 1950s David Lynch-style noir doesn’t get any better than this – also from the band’s debut album.
Ansambl Mastika– Zurlaski Cocek. A funky, exhilarating showcase for the Balkan band’s excellent soloists – from their latest album Songs and Dances for Life Nonstop.
Pickpocket Ensemble – For Those Who’ve Left. This was a good year for sad waltzes and this is one of the best of them, the Bay Area gypsy jazz band doing brooding Belgian barroom piano music. From their album Memory.
Rahim Alhaj – Going Home. More haunting oud over a low, sinister drone: gorgeously intense Middle Eastern sounds, also from his latest album Little Earth
A Hawk & a Hacksaw– No Rest for the Wicked. A blistering mini-suite of gypsy music from the Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff; from their latest album Cervantine.
Sanda Weigl – Toderel. Shoko Nagai’s creepy/icy piano lights up this dramatic gypsy ballad. From the album Gypsy in a Tree.
A Hawk & a Hacksaw– At the Vultural Negru. The Bay Area gypsy band encored with this intense, ecstatic gypsy music vamp at their killer concerrt at the Bell House this past summer; also from their latest album Cervantine.
Rahim Alhaj – Dance of the Palms. The great Iraqi expat oud player methodically building a haunting composition over ominous percussion. From his latest album Little Earth – happily this one has made it to youtube.
Mary Lee Kortes– Someplace We Can’t See. Sweeping, majestic, angst-driven anthemic literate rock by one of the great artisans in the field. Also from Songs of Beulah Rowley Vol. 1
Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation– I Made Myself Small. An original English translation of the Georges Brassens classic Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit, which could be a love song – or it could be about being totally pussywhipped.
Karen Dahlstrom– Galena. A haunting Gold Rush tale from the Americana multi-instrumentalist’s great new Idaho-themed album Gem State
The Dirty Urchins – Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down. This oldtimey shuffle is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing these folks were the band to do it.
Stephane Wrembel – Toute la Vie. The gypsy jazz guitarist wrote this one after watching footage of the 3/11 catastrophe – it’s haunting bordering on morbid, and hasn’t made it to the web yet.
Drina Seay– I Don’t Even Know What I’m Doing. The New York Americana chanteuse at the top of her intense, torchy game: this one is a staple of her live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet. She slayed with this one several times this year, particularly in October at Lakeside
The Brixton Riot – Hipster Turns 30. This GBV-style powerpop number might sound sympathetic at first but it’s really not. From the band’s forthcoming new album.
Rachelle Garniez – Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ostensibly the campy character actor has sunk to hawking antidepressants on tv – this one features a hilarious faux-operatic outro among other things. From Garniez’ forthcoming 2012 album Sad Dead Happy Alive.
Ward White – 1964. Retro fashion gets very subtly savaged by the great literate songshark. From White’s latest album Done with the Talking Cure.
Edward Rogers– Fashion Magazine. The most corrosive track from Rogers’ stunningly diverse new Porcelain album looks at trendy posers in gentrified NYC, set to hypnotically ominous Syd Barrett rock.
The Reid Paley Trio – Take What You Want. Late one night on the Lower East Side, after scaring the crowd at the club half to death, the charismatic retro rocker blasted through an unselfconsciously exhilarating version of this oldschool soul/blues lament: charisma defines this guy.
Oxygen Ponies– I Don’t Want Yr Love. How to tell a starfucker to kiss off, in three perfect minutes: the outgoing mantra of “nobody loves you anymore” is just plain brutal. From the Exit Wounds album.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears– You Been Lying. Snide, dismissive, anti-authoritarian punk funk: the band absolutely slayed with this in the middle of the summer at their show with Those Darlins here.
American Composers Orchestra– Ryan Gallagher: Grindhouse. Long, cinematic, frequently noir suite, another highlight of this year’s SONIC Festival of indie classical music. This one hasn’t made it to the web yet.
American Modern Ensemble – Robert Paterson: Sextet. A noir afternoon in the life of a man on the run – it doesn’t end on a happy note. From the new music ensemble’s collection of works by the eclectic percussionist/composer
Either/Orchestra– No Price for a Ride. Inspired by haggling over cab fares in Addis Ababa, this is another unreleased gem by the Boston-based Ethiopian jazz crew.
Beninghove’s Hangmen– Jack Miller. This is the spooky opening mini-suite from the noir jazz band’s excellent debut album
Either/Orchestra – Bati Lydian. A lush, sweeping new spin on ancient riffs: the Boston Ethiopian jazz group’s show at the New School in November featured a whole slew of excellent new pieces including this one from bandleader Russ Gershon’s forthcoming suite The Collected Unconscious.
Ansambl Mastika– More Tri Godini. A classic Macedonian tune done with slow, tricky expertise by the ferocious Brooklyn Balkan/gypsy rock band
Christian McBride Big Band– Science Fiction. This is an intense, cinematic instrumental brilliantly rearranged for big band by the iconic jazz bassist – and it’s nowhere to be found online. What a shame!
Tiken Jah Fakoly– Quitte le Pouvoir. The title means “leave office” in French – it’s the Ivoirien freedom fighter and roots reggae star’s signature song, most recently re-released on the excellent Listen to the Banned anthology.
Baseball Project– Twilight of My Career. Sympathy for the devil, in this case Roger Clemens. Steve Wynn has a career as a sportswriter waiting for him if he ever gets sick of writing great songs like this Byrdsy janglerock gem.
Spottiswoode – All My Brothers. Death on the battlefield via grim, hypnotic psychedelic rock; also from the Wild Goosechase Expedition album.
A Hawk & a Hacksaw– Cervantine. A slow, eerie, chromatic gypsy waltz with a nice jagged tremolo-picked guitar solo. Title track from their latest album.
Rahim Alhaj– The Searching. With Alhaj’s oud in tandem with an accordion, this dirge is one of the slinkiest and most haunting pieces on his latest album Little Earth. It’s also impossible to find online, strangely enough.
Randi Russo– Alienation. Scorching noiserock with Russo and guest Don Piper blasting back and forth throughout this characteristically resolute outsider’s anthem. From her Fragile Animal album, ranked best of 2011 here.
Taj Weekes & Adowa– Drill. Remember “Drill, baby drill?” The roots reggae star savagely makes fun of the idiocy of the idea in the wake of what happened in the Gulf.
Brian Landrus’ Kaleidoscope – 71 & On the Road. A haunting mid-60s style psychedelic soul vamp inspired by a veteran jazz drummer who’s stuck playing live dates in his 70s just to get by. From the baritone sax player/composer’s Capsule album.
Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion– Denton County Casket Company. Noir surf rock doesn’t get any better than this unhinged instumental by the Boston band. From their Legend of Goatman’s Bridge ep.
Dastardly – Middleground. The Chicago indie/Americana band’s hilarious and spot-on look at trendy shallowness on the small-club circuit. From their album May You Never
A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Uskudar. A tricky Turkish vocal tune from the intense gypsy band’s latest album Cervantine.
Steve Wynn– St. Millwood. This is a classic example of Wynn’s pensive, jangly, evocative side. From the Northern Aggression album.
Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine – When We Gon Care. Over seven and a half minutes of hypnotic vamping, the soul siren insightfully and wrathfully goes off on drug companies who invent diseases to market new products, and similar stunts that the 1% try to pull off to keep the other 99% of us disempowered. From her album The Only Way Out Is In
Shanghai Love Motel– The Universal Skeptical Anthem. A typical savage, corrosive anthem from the hyper-literate New York rockers. “Hang me with your velvet rope, but don’t wrap it around my brain.”
Spottiswoode – Wake Me Up When It’s Over. Irresistibly and blackly amusing look at the psychology of denial even in the most dire circumstances – yet another great song from the Wild Goosechase Expedition album.
Mark Sinnis– Fifty Odd Hours. A bitter, vengeful update on the Merle Travis classic Sixteen Tons. From Sinnis’ latest album The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror.
Andy Akiho– To Run or Walk Through West Harlem. A noir cinematic suite complete with sirens and a brief escape from a chase scene; from the pioneering steel pan virtuoso/composer’s latest album No One to Know One.
American Modern Ensemble – Robert Paterson: Star Crossing. Otherworldly, noir, cinematic flute-and-percussion instrumental; title track from the indie classical ensemble’s amazing album of Paterson compositions.
Laurie Anderson – Directions from Westchester. Anderson premiered this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past August, a LOL-funny satire of the kind of people who go to concerts there. Unreleased and possibly part of a larger suite.
Walter Ego– The Adventures of Ethical Man. Ethical Man is a cartoon character; he battles even more cynical underwear heroes in this extremely funny powerpop tune by the NYC literate rock songwriter.
Frankenpine– Blackwell Island. From the dark NYC bluegrass band’s excellent new album The Crooked Mountain – this one commemorates Nellie Bly’s undercover expedition to the nuthouse in New York Harbor in the 1890s.
Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion– Heads Will Roll. Another macabre blast of surf rock from the band’s Legend of Goatman’s Bridge ep.
Dina Rudeen– Hitting the Town. The NYC retro soul chanteuse at the top of her game: a metaphorically loaded tale of almost falling off the edge. From her excellent new album The Common Splendor.
Sanda Weigl– Un Tigan Avea O Casa. The gypsy singer/bandleader blasted through this wryly ironic song at the 92YTribeca last January. From her latest album Gyspy in a Tree.
Rahim Alhaj – Waterfall. This nine-minute oud-and-flute piece reminds of the great New York-based composer Bassam Saba. Also from Aljaj’s latest album Little Earth. The link here is to the track at Slacker radio.
Walter Ego– Made of Holes. This is another of the songs here that’s so new that it hasn’t been youtubed yet, a characteristically metaphorically-charged janglerock tune.
Vespertina – Girl in the Basement. Gothic art-rock from this collaboration between haunting chanteuse Lorrie Doriza and Stoupe from conscious hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks.
The Marcus Shelby Orchestra – Birmingham. A scorching, ornate big band jazz tribute to the freedom fighters of the American civil rights movement.