No matter how much some atmospherics-obsessed musicos want to pretend that sonic innovation or raggedness or melancholy mood-setting are what makes artists “important,” my criteria is simpler: Do they have any songs that would make someone who’d never heard them before ask, “Hey, who’s this?” Not all of the acts below put out albums in 2011 that I could wholeheartedly recommend, but these songs are all mixtape-approved.
Ryan Adams, “Lucky Now”: Adams’ long-awaited Ashes & Fire is a touch too staid overall, but Adams’ flair for effortlessly catchy, pretty roots-pop stays strong on songs like this delicate yearner, which springs fully to life during one gorgeous guitar solo before settling gently back to earth.
Beastie Boys, “Long Burn The Fire”: There are more than a few winners on the B-Boys’ latest, but “Long Burn The Fire” leaps to the top, thanks to two classic Beastie one-liners: “I make you sick like a Kenny Rogers Roaster” and “The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding’s in my pants.”
Beirut, “Santa Fe”: The third album by Zach Condon’s world-folk outfit Beirut moves beyond the narrow thematic exercises of the band’s previous records, blending and building from everything the 25-year-old Condon has attempted before, as on the catchy, heartfelt techno-pop exercise “Santa Fe,” which creates that distinctly Beirut feeling of wandering idly through a bustling plaza in a European metropolis.
James Blake, “Limit To Your Love”: Here’s a case in point for how much songwriting matters, as Blake’s cover of a Feist song proves the sturdiness of Feist’s composing skills and easily outclasses the pleasant-sounding but overly sketchy material on the rest of Blake’s eponymous debut album.
Glen Campbell, “Ghost On The Canvas”: The title track to what will likely be Campbell’s final LP is a wonderful Paul Westerberg obscurity that Campbell and his producers give the full Jimmy Webb treatment, complete with swirling strings and a coda that reaches inspiringly upward.
Hayes Carll, “Another Like You”: Carll remains one of the brightest, funniest lyricists in contemporary country-rock, as evidenced by his duet with Cary Ann Hearst on “Another Like You,” in which she plays a sassy right-wing barfly and he plays a hardcore leftist who falls head-over-heels in lust with her.
Cloud Nothings, “Been Through”: If Rhino ever decides to revive its Poptopia! anthology series for the new decade, this sugary—as in sweet and grainy—power-pop anthem should be the opening track.
Dawes, “Fire Away”: Never have Dawes’ ’70s country-rock fantasies been more fully realized than on this affable six-minute Jackson Browne homage, which shifts from “nice” to “amazing” during a long break in which the harmonies soar and weave cleanly before giving way to a rippling guitar solo as mighty as any of the band’s idols.
The Decemberists, “I4U & U4ME”: In the same year that The Decemberists released an album without a single bum song, they gilded the lily with a terrific EP, featuring a song even better than any on The King Is Dead: “I4U & U4ME,” a chugging roots-rocker that’s both toe-tapping and moving.
Desertshore, “Randy Quaid”: Desertshore’s co-founders—guitarist Phil Carney and pianist Chris Connolly—join with Carney’s old Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon boss Mark Kozelek for a fine slice of dreamy soft-rock, halfway between Windham Hill and sadcore, with repetitious lyrics and simple, swaying patterns backing Kozelek’s description of an idle day in the San Francisco Bay area.
Destroyer, “Savage Night At The Opera”: Every Destroyer record is fairly distinct from what came before, but Kaputt’s mix of slinky soft-rock and ’80s-style art-disco was pretty unexpected, especially when applied to songs like this sinewy exploration of the jaded, decadent nightlife.
Thomas Dolby, “17 Hills”: Dolby has always seamlessly fused electronic and conventional pop orchestration, and for his first new album in nearly 20 years—and for its most beautiful song, the epic family history “17 Hills”—Dolby gets back to exploring imaginary environments through sound and words, and defining them primarily by the humans who populate them.
Dolorean, “Thinskinned”: On its fourth LP, Portland country-rock band Dolorean continues the band’s soft-focus sound of loping rhythms, brushed drums, hushed guitars, rippling piano, and the whispery regret of singer-songwriter Al James, but now with a little more zip, as on the nimble “Thinskinned,” which expresses how wide-open vistas can be spoiled by “one burr under the saddle.”
Feist, “The Circle Married The Line”: Feist’s Metals is generally more adventurous than her million-selling LP The Reminder, but it still sports plenty of songs like the sweet, slow-building “The Circle Married The Line,” which maintains the dramatic fragility of a moment.
Figurines, “Poughkeepsie”: Figurines’ fourth album still recalls Neil Young and R.E.M. (or at least the pieces of Neil Young and R.E.M. borrowed by Built To Spill and Modest Mouse), but with less abrasion and experimentation, and the Danish trio’s cleaned-up sound proves mostly appealing, especially when applied to songs with some of their old echo and pound, like “Poughkeepsie.”
Fountains Of Wayne, “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart”: As fun as Fountains Of Wayne can be when it sings gimmicky story-songs, the band’s core strength remains surging power-pop, and no rock band this year produced a song as packed with hooks as this uptempo, heartfelt masterpiece.
Gardens & Villa, “Thorn Castles”: The Santa Barbara quintet Gardens & Villa belongs to the tradition of scruffy California rock bands that make music as big, breezy, weird, and subtly sinister as their home state, and on “Thorn Castles,” the band adds an electronica element to classic Cali-pop, with noodling synthesizers that sound like they’ve been gathering dust and rust for decades, right up to the moment the band stumbled across them.
Glossary, “Cheap Wooden Cross”: Long Live All Of Us, the latest album by under-heralded Tennessee roots-rock band Glossary, adds more elements of R&B to the sound, and yet the record’s best song is a classically Glossary-esque tearjerker about how “we’re all here driftin’… killin’ time, passin’ through,” and how we look for something to anchor us, however temporarily.
The Go! Team, “T.O.R.N.A.D.O.”: This is what we want from The Go! Team: half ’70s super-team theme song, half cheerleader chant, all awesome.
The High Llamas, “Calling Up Ringing Down”: High Llamas’ Talahomi Way sees the UK avant-pop veteran act extending one lyrical idea at a time through vamping and pastiche, then wrapping up the whole affair with “Calling Up, Ringing Down,” a bossa-nova slow-dance that doubles as a lament for people who’ve passed through and gone.
The Jayhawks, “Tiny Arrows”: Gary Louris and Mark Olson reconvened The Jayhawks for Mockingbird Time, an album that takes into account 15 years of musical growth on the part of both men, from Louris’ post-Olson embrace of power-pop to Olson’s post-Louris exploration of long-line melodies and mountain music; the slow, gliding, CSNY-like “Tiny Arrows,” like all the best songs on Mockingbird Time, winds through changes, serving as a dialectical debate between Louris’ rock side and Olson’s folk side.
The Joy Formidable, “Whirring”: All of the promise of this booming Welsh rock trio is bound up in this song, which chimes and pumps happily like a relic from the early-’90s era of Lush and Belly, then builds to a torrential pummel over its final three minutes.
Ivan Julian, “A Young Man’s Money”: The punk-rock veteran converts 35 years of experience as a working musician and artist into a cohesive statement of self: a man in his 50s snarling about the hassles of urban life from the perspective of a kid in his 20s.
M83, “Midnight City”: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is way more album than it needs to be, but its highs are deliriously high, and no song on the album reaches the peak of the single “Midnight City,” which compacts the ennui and kineticism of the movie Drive into four minutes of synth-driven punch and swerve.
Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, “Stick Figures In Love”: Malkmus’ fifth record with his backing band The Jicks feels more like a real album than anything he’s done since ’01, thanks to the production by fellow alt-rock icon Beck, who works with Malkmus to expand his arrangements a little and to embrace his laconic West Coast pop side on songs like this buzzy, echoing charmer.
Middle Brother, “Someday”: Who would’ve thought that in a supergroup featuring the frontmen of Dawes and Deer Tick that the best song would come from Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez, whose “Someday” has the crunch of My Morning Jacket and the sweet coo of The Shirelles?
My Morning Jacket, “The Day Is Coming”: My Morning Jacket’s Circuital extends Jim James’ willingness to balance audience-friendly Southern-rock jams and acoustic ballads with genuinely odd journeys into dance music, worldbeat, and old-school R&B, and yet its best song is most familiarly MMJ-like: a yearning, poppy ballad that puts a chunky beat under a celestial choir.
R.E.M., “Walk It Back”: R.E.M.’s final album was the work of a band becoming belatedly comfortable with what it does best, as evidenced by the catchy acoustic number “Walk It Back,” which trades some of the immediacy of the band’s more daring LPs for durability.
Radiohead, “Separator”: The King Of Limbs wasn’t the from-left-field triumph that In Rainbows was, but it’s a solid record with a few standout tracks, such as “Separator,” which best exemplifies the album’s emphasis on repetitive, textured rhythms becoming gradually enveloped by less controlled sounds.
The Raveonettes, “Ignite”: The Raveonettes’ Raven In The Grave builds on the band’s standard distorted-guitar-over-pounding-drums, adding additional waves of dissonance and dreamy hum, such that songs like “Ignite” sound more like My Bloody Valentine covering New Order, not Jesus & Mary Chain or The Cramps.
Real Estate, “Out Of Tune”: It’d be nice if Real Estate would go beyond trying to sound like The Smiths’ first album and would incorporate a little Queen Is Dead or Louder Than Bombs into the mix, but it’s hard to dispute the effectiveness of the band’s methodology when it comes up with twangy, breathy pop gems like this one.
Reigning Sound, “Watching My Baby”: The simple joy of seeing a woman get dressed up for a night on the town inspires America’s best working garage-rock band to rock out for two glorious, perfect minutes.
The Rosebuds, “Woods”: Most of the songs on The Rosebuds’ breakup album, Loud Planes Fly Low, recall the beautifully forlorn sweep of Eurythmics’ “Here Comes The Rain,” but “Woods” has a lot more urgency as it describes a sad but inevitable trip into the darkness.
Ron Sexsmith, “Michael And His Dad”: For Long Player Late Bloomer, Sexsmith worked with fellow Canadian Bob Rock, best-known for producing some of the biggest albums of Metallica, The Cult, and Mötley Crüe, and the result was Sexmith’s most polished, poppy record since 2004’s Retriever, highlighted by typically catchy and touching Sexmith songs like “Michael And His Dad,” a vignette about an unemployed man finding time to play with his son.
Mia Doi Todd, “Summer Lover”: Formerly austere folkie Mia Doi Todd has developed into a devoted sensualist, building from simple acoustic plucking to something richer and warmer, with rippling piano and brushed percussion; when Todd sings “the tide is coming and going” on the gorgeous folk-pop ballad “Summer Lover,” she expresses an appreciation of future bounty amid a time of lack.
Treefight For Sunlight, “Facing The Sun”: Aping both the chirpier side of modern rock bands like Grizzly Bear and The Flaming Lips and the trippier side of ’60s sunshine-pop acts like The Free Design and The 5th Dimension, Treefight For Sunlight intends to nudge listeners into a waking reverie, filling heads with images of blooming flowers and shooting stars, as on “Facing The Sun,” which pulls out all the stops in four happy minutes of rich harmonies, swift tempos, and resounding vibes.
TV On The Radio, “No Future Shock”: In which TV On The Radio’s most pop-minded LP attempts to launch a dance craze that’s perfect for our accelerating end-times.
Jimmy Webb, “Cottonwood Farm”: Written (but never released) in the early ’70s as a reflection on Webb’s Oklahoma and Texas roots, this 12-minute epic is a sophisticated and affecting song, moving gently through reminiscences of growing up in the country, while shifting perspectives from the grown-ups at work to the children at play—always conveying the in-the-moment feeling of those times, then pulling back so that Webb can sing about what he knows now about what was really going on.
Wilco, “I Might”: The first clear sign that Wilco’s The Whole Love was going to be more focused and engaged than Wilco (The Album) was the release of this raucous, poppy single, which can stand with Jeff Tweedy’s best—and the man has a lot of best to stand with.
Wild Flag, “Romance”: In a year when bands from Cults to Dum Dum Girls credibly attempted to revive the girl-group sound in an alt-rock context, the supergroup Wild Flag stepped up and leveled the competition with this jittery, ecstatic clap-along anthem, the opening track to the band’s fine debut album.