The Top 20 Songs of 2011 January 18, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearender.
Pop music is my drug, and the more I withdraw from it the more I suffer. No matter how many folk or dubstep or black metal albums I listen to, a song full of irresistible hooks will always turn me into that mindless six-year-old kid dancing to Backstreet Boys and weeping to the tune of Westlife’s songs. Pop music has forever taken me hostage, and what do I get? Joy. Thrill. Fixation. That juvenile feeling of keeping a treasured secret. That accomplishment in being able to appreciate nuances of a song that most people think is junk. That delight in acknowledging the stupidity of it all but not being able to walk away from it. What else is there to get? Instead of pleading freedom, why not embrace it?
In a seminal essay, writer Tom Ewing talks about pop music and says, “[…] the primary tactic of the new pop critic was to bypass that and twitch back the showbiz curtain to locate these records in a production system. What made the tracks important wasn’t how they made you feel, but the innovative tricks creators used to get those effects. Intricate drum patterns, Bollywood samples, fake-harpsichord frills, or brutal minimalism—anything with an angle got love.” The first impulse is always one of love, of course, so why exempt feelings? Isn’t how music affects you more significant than how it is made, and consequently, how you respond to it?
Locally, 2011 is a year dominated by “Teach Me How to Dougie,” “Super Bass,” Adele, and Anne Curtis, each one of them inescapable, straightforward, and confrontational, and their ubiquity on television and radio easily switches between charming and annoying. Two of them appear below, and the other eighteen are for you to find out.
How about a nice shuffle before you read through the list?
20. “THE SHOW GOES ON”
The song that announced the arrival of Lupe Fiasco’s third album was ripe with risks. The much talked-about fight he had with his producers who insisted on controlling every aspect of the record resulted in the delay of its release, but it only made the song’s title even more fitting. Lupe gets away with the dull lyrics and lousy rhymes because they are wrapped in a nice, shiny flow that gets better every time the chorus kicks in, owing its flaps and bounces to Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” carrying his rough disappointments in a sleigh ride and pulling a neat pop song from a hat caked with filth.
19. “DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH”
The Pussycat Dolls are second rate and trying hard, and it takes Nicole Scherzinger’s second single from her first solo record to prove that. She doesn’t need the girls—she can nail a smashing hit single of her own. “Don’t Hold Your Breath” splashes with an ear-friendly mix of synths, bass, and piano, and on top of it is Scherzinger’s breathy vocals, steamrollering with lyrical punches and hip-shaking conviction. When she sings, You can’t touch me now, there’s no feeling left, imagine, how can a guy ever think of laying a hand on her again?
18. “BEFORE IT EXPLODES”
By now Charice should have graduated from doing covers and started performing songs of her own, but these matters are clearly beyond her control. It would take a while before people get used to her without a song or two from Momma Celine and Whitney. Her image is fragile, and appropriate songs have yet to come her way. “Pyramid” helped her immensely, and though club music wasn’t something that fit her puniness, it displayed her potential as a well-rounded recording artist, given a proper team of writers and producers.
“Before It Explodes,” the first single from her sophomore record, fulfills the promise of a pop star Charice who is not only confident in her vocal abilities but also in her shortcomings, as she becomes more disciplined in adding dramatic shifts to her singing. For someone who earns praise for excessiveness, she has managed to lose the fat and lop off the curls from her routine. Her voice lives up to the woman that Bruno Mars has envisioned for the song, and every time she hits the line, let’s stop the madness before it explodes, she roars with cockiness made even more impressive by the way she rolls herself around the bridge.
All right, all right, it’s a pain in the ass. But this musical monolith deserves a spot on a list that glorifies the popular and the dumb, and more so because “Friday” is a mix of the divisive and the comical and the ubiquitous—everything a pop song should be.
16. “HELENA BEAT”
Foster the People
After the massive success of “Pumped Up Kicks,” it seems that Foster the People have nothing much to worry about. Three or four tracks from Torches carry the same thump and wallop, and one or two of them are potential chart-toppers. However, there’s a fat chance that any of them will be played on Gossip Girl, Homeland, Entourage, or CSI: NY and be covered by The Kooks or Weezer. Being in the shadow of a kid in a shooting spree singing You better run, run run sucks big time, but “Helena Beat,” which vaguely speaks of alcoholism and drug addiction, possesses the earworm qualities that made its predecessor click: remarkable hooks, gutsy synth arrangements, androgynous vocals, and a slideshow of disturbing images. The glee that comes from “Pumped Up Kicks” spills right through here, filtered and moderated, which makes the song longer but tighter and loonier. It’s tough being a follow-up single, but apparently these trigger-happy guys from L.A. have more upsetting stories to tell and they send them in colorful boxes of sweets.
15. “SINO NGA BA SIYA”
All things considered, Sarah Geronimo should be thankful for Rayver Cruz. If not for him, she won’t have someone to throw virtual darts at every time she sings about heartbreak. “Forever’s Not Enough” is a superior song on all levels, but “Sino Nga Ba Siya” depicts her at her most wounded, and no one connects to listeners better than a woman who got hurt by her first love. Her words aren’t only clear—they are sharp, razor-sharp, cutthroat sharp. Her questions aren’t only straightforward—they are candid, honest, and undemanding. In fact, she might have been talking to Siri and asking for advice. It’s the song in Sarah’s catalog that may be the hardest for her to perform, but it captures her frailty and defenseless that her other hits cannot match.
14. “CHARLIE BROWN”
The best song from their weakest album, hardly because of the fuzziness of the songwriting—Took a car downtown where the lost boys meet, Took a car downtown and took what they offered me, lines which Chris Martin can scribble in his sleep—but by virtue of a rare kind of magic that their instruments manage to muddle up, the audio tracks that leap from everywhere, most especially the wailing guitars that burn the mawkishness and make the song frosty, slowly Zooropa-ing the mush away.
13. “THE EDGE OF GLORY”
[Born This Way]
A large portion of Lady Gaga’s persona is smokes and mirrors. Subtlety is never her strong suit, but she easily uses that to her advantage by channeling her diverse musical influences to her compositions. On Born This Way, she offers such huge servings of rock, metal, opera, and disco that listening to it becomes thoroughly exhausting. By the time the record hits the final track it’s all hot and heavy, and “The Edge of Glory” seems to add more weight with its slosh of techno synths that befits her larger-than-life ambitions. It’s a monster quite different from “Bad Romance,” “Poker Face” and “Born This Way”—it’s softer, richer, riskier in terms of structure, and her voice is fuller and fiercer. It’s a dance anthem for the weepies—it’s mad, manic, and maudlin, like the feeling of downing consecutive shots of vodka—and Gaga’s eclecticism has finally found an appropriate direction to go to. She never believes in “less is more,” so she asks Clarence Clemons to fashion a sax solo towards the end, batter the heart even harder, and pour more syrup.
Taken By Cars
Taken by Cars manage to refine their sound in Dualist, yet what stands out in their sophomore release is the unabashed dedication to hooks, specifically the eye-squinting polish and smoother texture that each song exudes. “Unidentified” follows the gleam of album opener, “This Is Our City,” and throws all the energy at the dance floor, punching holes in hearts as Sarah Marco spreads disco fever with her infectious singing. It’s more hypnotic than erotic, preferring spins and glides as the verses, chorus, and bridge seem to outrun each other’s slickness. There are no wasted seconds on the track—a cunningly seamless production is as scarce as hen’s teeth nowadays— and like every untouchable pop song, it pulls the ripcord at the most unexpected and breathtaking.
11. “WHO SAYS”
Selena Gomez and The Scene
[When The Sun Goes Down]
“Who Says” is Selena’s response to Facebook and Twitter haters who hounded her after she started dating Justin Bieber, and it’s wise of her to turn such torment into something sweet, into a celebration of individuality and self-worth. Hitting two birds with one stone, she is not only able to inspire her fans but also establish and reiterate, by dropping the word “beauty” countless times, how pretty she is, as if referencing to herself provides an impression of experience, an authority to speak on every girl’s behalf. Every time she repeats the verse, I’m no beauty queen, I’m just beautiful me, who can blame her self-confidence? Who dares to cringe after that figure of speech, It’s like a work of art that never gets to see the light? And who cares if the most expressive line in this song is Na na na na na na na na na na na?
[2NE1 2nd Mini Album]
Far from the feisty and gutsy techno-warfare singles the group is known for, “Lonely” wallows in simplicity. It takes away the Auto-tune, bombastic beats, and rap intrusions and lets the girls’ vocal abilities shine—the absence making its presence felt deeply—and such risky undertaking pays off in many exuberant ways. Invisible is the transition among the singers, and it shows how confident and comfortable they are in slow tempo. Stripped down, “Lonely” leaves 2NE1 in a state of utter nakedness, but there’s nothing to hide here but talent, which reveals the glitter and teeth marks of sadness.
[Limiters of Infinity Pool]
Ambivalence doesn’t work all the time, but in Ely Buendia’s case, when he drops words like a threatened man who finds comfort in poetry, it kills the monotony of a predictably dark and dull atmosphere. “TNT,” the lead single from Pupil’s Limiters of the Infinity Pool, starts with a flaming guitar riff that signals the clash of instruments about to inundate Ely’s vocals, peeling the layers until they reveal a door of sonic surprises. One can’t help but make a Teeth comparison after the nifty bridge, but that only adds to the song’s charming mysteriousness, which builds a fortress before finally drawing the curtains in a split second.
8. “TELL ME IT’S LOVE”
There was one touching moment during the Westlife concert in Manila when Nicky Byrne recounted a conversation with a Filipino staff member at the hotel they stayed in. The woman came up to him and said that she was a huge fan of the band and that their songs helped her get through elementary school. After making fun of his mates’ age, Nicky asked who among the audience was listening to their songs during elementary and more than half of the crowd raised their hands, which made the band members chuckle even louder. Shane started to sing words from “My Love” in a cappella and Nicky grabbed his camera to film the people singing along, and for the nth time the night was drowned in memories, all coursing through from the bright stage.
“Tell Me It’s Love” was never sung in the concert, but it was tucked somewhere in the band’s tenth and final studio album, Gravity. A throwback to their early singles, it is as generic as any Westlife song can get, alternating between Mark and Shane’s sweeping vocals, building up towards a chorus that looks back as much as it looks forward. Wrapped up by Nicky’s maudlin bridge and Mark’s trademark torch singing, the rendition of the song is close to perfect, which explains why the band’s breakup is a little hard to embrace.
7. “PATULOY ANG PANGARAP”
Angeline Quinto came at the time when the local music industry was consciously and unconsciously looking for someone as good as Sarah Geronimo. With the arguable exception of Christian Bautista, whose popularity is only hyped by his international fan base, Sarah’s contemporaries have all been passé—Erik Santos, Sheryn Regis, Rachelle Ann Go, and Mark Bautista are still out there but they’re only as negligible as anybody—and even she has been making constant efforts to reinvent herself to avoid the sharp fangs of oblivion. ABS-CBN knows that the solution is to come up with another talent search, even if it means producing another mediocre show.
Angeline bags the title among the hordes of Sharon wannabes , wins a recording contract, and eventually becomes the reliable provider of soundtracks for soap operas. Her breakthrough single, “Patuloy ang Pangarap,” maps out her journey, from dreaming dreams to finally realizing them, imbued with banalities that fail to make her flinch. Angeline’s careful singing gives her away: she means all the words she says. The song is about her, for her, and by her. By the time she reaches the peak of the song, she has nothing left to do but hold all her aces, flap her wings, and soar.
6. “ROLLING IN THE DEEP”
In the year that witnessed a tug of war between Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, Adele just stood in the middle: she took the cake and ate it by herself. She’s the corporal opposite of Amy Winehouse, but she shares the late singer’s knack for emotional lift, vulnerable to every proof that love is indeed a losing game. But unlike Amy, Adele prefers screams and histrionics, favoring drama and towering arrangements in lieu of sublimity, her quivering voice a reminder of hurt and willingness to suffer. From the guitar strums in the beginning to the thunderous claps in the bridge, “Rolling in the Deep” describes Adele at her most sorrowful, glimpsing at her healing heart before patching the holes of regret and despair. But the song also depicts her strength and sobriety. She takes all the pain in and lets it all out, her soul emptied out and filled again, showing everyone her breathtaking needlework.
[Araw, Oras, Tagpuan]
It is possible that the members of Spongecola, who have long been creating some of the most vexing pop songs in the past few years, are not aware that they have released their finest composition, lyrically and melodically, this year. “Tambay” is not a risky undertaking—it still makes use of the band’s trite songwriting and ostentatious chord arrangements—but now it is fine-tuned from start to end, progressing from a run-of-the-mill ditty to an irresistibly catchy courtship song that stands alongside the best of Parokya ni Edgar and Kamikazee. Yael Yuzon gives up the overbearing screams and delivers well-adjusted bellows, accompanied by guitar screeches and eager beats that fit the teenage vibe nicely, flashing a three-minute wonder worthy of numerous repeats.
4. “SUPER BASS”
Nicki Minaj (feat. Ester Dean)
In the past two years, a Nicki Minaj verse means gold. Whenever she makes a guest appearance, she turns a so-so song into something remarkable (“Up Out My Face”) and a good song much, much better (“Woohoo,” “Raining Men”). Sadly her own songs from Pink Friday lack the pump and kick of her collaborations, and if it weren’t for Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, to whom “Super Bass” owes its break, she’d be quickly reduced to a novelty, a trinket to be discarded over time. In a span of three minutes and a series of wild verses, fortunately, she changed all that. “Super Bass” is one of the year’s loudest and proudest turning points, an arsenal of all things weird and wonderful made even weirder and more wonderful by Nicki’s skill at catapulting, robbing every word and stuffing all of them into her mouth before launching an impeccable chorus. How the song turns affection into something worth sinning for is no easy feat, but the way she declares her fondness for a guy and sugarcoats it to the point of intoxication, there seems to be no other feeling happier than that.
3. “WE FOUND LOVE”
Rihanna (feat. Calvin Harris)
[Talk That Talk]
There’s something very hormonal about Rihanna’s songs that liking them equates to being instinctive and juvenile, her tunes teeming with immediate vibrancy that burst with force and color the moment the chorus hits and repeats. What makes “We Found Love” different, however, is that the listener’s expectations are only as good as the surprises she pulls, something which producer Calvin Harris has structured so slickly the sparseness of the words works surprisingly well to the song’s advantage, the blaring synths even catchier than the hook line itself. We found love in a hopeless place shines with peerless ebullience—it’s 2011’s tallest skyscraper as far as earworms are concerned, and Rihanna, who feeds on sadomasochism and doom, chants it with a mix of lust and despair, throwing daggers with her eyes closed. Knowing that she suckles on excesses, Harris gives her less, and one of the most trifling pieces she has been asked to work on turns out to be an exceptional gem.
Jay-Z and Kanye West
[Watch the Throne]
The kind of lifestyle that Jay-Z and Kanye promote doesn’t come close to the kind of lifestyle that the two lead in real life. Their richness goes beyond money, fame, and luxury. They no longer need a territory to conquer and a culture of contradictions to turn upside down. “Otis” seems purposely arranged to sound like an effortless exercise—the two rap titans trading verses that show off and underline their skill and influence—but in all its tremendous superciliousness there hovers a luster that never wears off despite the lack of anything that resembles a chorus, apart from the sample of “Try A Little Tenderness” that provides the song a charming pockmark. It’s a pronouncement of fortune, a statement of infinite assets and zero liabilities that no longer sees the sky as the limit. Nothing in it breaks new grounds except for Jay-Z and Kanye breakdancing on top of their careers with no one to challenge them but their own vanities, the throne left to no one but to their shadows.
Sasha Frere-Jones describes Beyoncé as “a quiet meritocrat, celebrating the pleasure of doing things well and not making a particularly big deal of it.” She dashes from one huge triumph to another without making a fuss, a diva and a hustler at the peak of her career who never runs out of novelties to offer, challenging herself in every career move she makes. After successfully headlining Glastonbury last June, she is now a proud mother at 30, giving birth not only to her first child but also to a number of songs that would soon inspire and make up her subsequent albums. Filled with references to her happy married life, 4 captures Beyoncé’s finest form as a singer, gracefully bending genres from soul to RnB, supported by an excellent team of producers that enables her to sharpen what’s already sharp and churn new classics.
“Countdown” stands out in the record’s stream of blues and spikes. In pure “Crazy in Love” fashion, Beyoncé delivers a maniacal confession of love that bleeds as much as it thrills, a song whose only idea of rest is a beaming smile. It is built on Beyoncé’s temper, a kinetic ball that rolls far and fast regardless of the flight of stairs it needs to climb, the topnotch quality of her voice complementing the mad instrumental crescendos. It champs at the bit, it tosses and turns, it jumps and sizzles—there are so many things happening in the song that it’s impressive how she manages to keep up and march along, but that’s her gift: being able to hold out her hand and touch numerous places at once. She sweetly talks about her relationship with Jay-Z, telling it like a school girl reminiscing a first kiss, and she is backed up by a cathedral of beats and colorful syncopation that lift her from the storm. Never has Beyoncé shown any sign of wavering; on the contrary, she goes up and up. polishing the structure of the song before returning to its centerpiece, rarely pausing for breath, hovering in midair for three and a half minutes, and then poof: she disappears.
NEXT: The Top 50 Albums of 2011