Pop Culture

Pop Music for Music Listeners: 2011 in Review

While I sit here watching BET with my father in my grandmother’s house in Fuquay-Varina, NC, I’m overcome with self-loathing. I hate being white. I hate my fragile, pasty skin, I hate my foppish lankiness, and I hate bearing the cruel stereotype of being financially stable and emotionally well-adjusted. Most of all, I hate my people’s music critics: what a bunch of snarky, ignorant assholes (a shelf full of alternative/indie rock does not a critic make). I’m currently writing an expository book on popular aesthetics called The Charlatans of Pop Music, which will hopefully delineate and solve the problems of my misguided people and ultimately prove that I am the only person in the world who can truly arbitrate on whether something’s good or bad. Later tonight, I will drink half a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 and then legally advise my cousins’ husbands on their fledgling moonshining operation—I’ve watched all of Boardwalk Empire. But for now, let’s talk tunes.

Top ten tracks of the year, in order:

  1. tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness” Finally, some West African-inspired pop music that doesn’t sound too affluent to be friends with me. Watch out for this Merrill Garbus—she understands style AND substance (unheard of these days).
  2. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream” This is the most immediately jarring record I heard all year. It takes maturity to cast a spell like this with such a sparse soundscape and hardly any linear progression. The overall impression vaguely reminds me of Hats by Blue Nile.
  3. Jay-Z and Kanye West – “N****s in Paris” It’s hard to find music that balls as hard as I do, but this shit cray. This is rap music for people who like rap music (something Hove hasn’t done in a while, and something Kanye has never really made a priority). But what’s with the asterisks, fellas? I have the hardest time keeping up with rappers’ colloquialisms. What does that word mean? Nights, perhaps. Nylons?
  4. Destroyer – “Kaputt” Breezy, beautiful, nostalgic…  Makes me wanna toot a rail of Peruvian flake off a flugelhorn. Dan Behar steals great lyrics, too (the visual equivalent would be an artist who makes mosaics out of magazine clippings).
  5. Fucked Up – “Queen of Hearts” As good as it is, I have a hard time enduring the entire album (David Comes to Life), but this track has all the Andrew W. K. on mushrooms that a smooth thirty-plus daddy needs. This is a master class on how to mix pretty singing with hardcore screaming without sounding like a bunch of assholes.
  6. The Horrors – “Still Life” Simple Minds much? Nope, these little punks are way cooler. If your whole band was born in the ’90s and you all love Richard Ashcroft, then you’re bound to buy a keyboard and rewrite 1985. Never mind their hair; this is a good young rock band.
  7. St. Vincent – “Cruel” It pains me to like someone who’s at all associated with Sufjan Stevens, but this is simply fabulous pop music. Moreover, Strange Mercy is one of the strongest albums of the year. Annie Clark, you have my attention. And if you see him, punch Sufjan in the scrotum for me.
  8. Kendrick Lamar – “Rigamortus” Harold Bloom once said of bodies on MTV: “… not one of them feels free except in total self-exaltation.” This is particularly true of rappers, and when the Compton emcee formerly known as K. Dot says of your “favorite rapper… (He dead), [because] I killed him (Amen),” I’m inclined to agree. If you don’t believe me, check out the fourth verse. Dude balls hard.
  9. Miranda Lambert – “Baggage Claim” Perhaps I’m biased. Nashville is a small town, and we’re all friends, at least casually. Blake and Miranda are the new King and Queen of the country genre, and they’re also two of the most genuine superstars in the world. That said, as easy as it is to hang out with Miranda Lambert, this never desensitizes you to what she can do on stage and in the studio. She may be the sweetest girl in the room, but she’s also the baddest bitch on the planet. [Also, the absolute worst country-pop hit is played better than the absolute best indie rock record. #wesessionplayersarereallyfuckinggoodatwhatwedo]
  10. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games” This is the real no-brainer; everybody loves it, and so do I. Obviously, it’s beautifully composed, arranged, performed, and produced. The biggest accomplishment, though, is how well Lana’s torchy voice lends itself to the sociologically topical ennui of the lyric. It’s impossible to plan for a record like this. Theists would say it’s a God thing.

In previous years I would now start discussing albums, but in case you haven’t noticed, albums generally suck these days. The blame can be imputed to our seemingly strange new music industry in which the business folk are desperately trying to find their dollar in this new easy information paradigm. Outside of country music where the listenership still obstinately tunes in to FM radio stations (I mean, who does that, right???—oh yeah, me), there’s little monetary incentive to record an album of high quality. Therefore, the albums suffer, but all the better for the singles! It’s like the fifties all over again. Here are some top fives broken down by the basic genres (I’ve decided to omit any songs mentioned on the first top ten list):

Rock n Roll (or, snappy bands that start with “The”):

  1. The Strokes – “Under Cover of Darkness” Thanks, Strokes, for rebounding from the insecurities of your third album. Despite what all those critics said, Room on Fire was tasty titties, and there was no need to change the recipe for First Impressions… Don’t keep us waiting another five years for the next one, please.
  2. The Vaccines – “If You Wanna”
  3. The Drums – “Money”
  4. The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”
  5. The Generationals – “Ten-Twenty-Ten”

Honorable mention: Real Estate – “It’s Real” (They could’ve beaten out The Generationals, but their name isn’t plural… and they’re not from New Orleans.)


  1. M83 – “Midnight City” This is the one all the other critics loved to death, and I can’t disagree. Isn’t it amazing how Depeche Mode-y everything sounds these days?
  2. Cut Copy – “Need You Now” Sounds like Kraftwerk lost their virginity.
  3. The Rapture – “How Deep is Your Love?”
  4. Julio Bashmore – “Battle for Middle You”
  5. Little Dragon – “Ritual Union”

Honorable mention: Metronomy – “The Look”


  1. Jill Scott (feat Anthony Hamilton) – “So in Love” This is my favorite new jam for when I’m cruising around Music City listening to the big station, 92-Q (radio for grown and sexy). It’s easy and perfect.
  2. Frank Ocean – “Swim Good” Yet another reason why anything NOLA touches turns to gold, except FEMA. I normally love R&B music for mature serenity and sexiness (see number one), but Mr. Ocean’s socially conscious melancholy is irresistible.
  3. Goapele – “Play”
  4. Kirk Franklin – “I Smile” Gospel.
  5. MercyMe – “Walking” Also gospel. WWJD? Make records like this, hopefully.


  1. MellowHype – “64” Tyler, the Creator gets all the love, but the whole Odd Future crew is badass. All they’re doing is ripping off Kool Keith, and they are correct.
  2. Chris Brown – “Look at Me Now” Make no mistake: this track is all about Busta and Weezy. It’s okay, Chris. Nice try.
  3. DJ Quik – “Ghetto Rendezvous” Old school!
  4. Meek Mill – “House Party”
  5. Treal Lee – “Throwed Off (F*** Everybody)”


  1. Pistol Annies – “Hell on Heels” I really like Miranda Lambert. A lot. Sue me.
  2. Ashton Shepherd – “Look It Up” I love a country girl who’s had enough of her dumb redneck boy’s bullshit. I also like it when she says the word “asshole” on her opening track. Ashton’s a sweetheart, but I know she could kick my ass. I guess I kinda like that, too.
  3. George Strait – “Here for a Good Time” Duh.
  4. Joe Nichols – “It’s All Good” Along with Easton Corbin, Joe Nichols is one of the only younger guys in the genre making records that actually sound like country music. This isn’t an impressive track; this is country music. By the way, I fucking hate the music of Jason Aldean.
  5. Scotty McCreery – “Write My Number on Your Hand” Trust me.


  1. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers” You don’t have to be Swedish to make great pop records, but it doesn’t hurt.
  2. Britney Spears – “Till the World Ends” Ever notice how every time Britney Spears releases a new album, it consistently includes one of the most infectious songs of the year? Give her a break, people. She’s lovely.
  3. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”
  4. Rihanna (feat. Calvin Harris) – “We Found Love”
  5. Joe Jonas – “Just in Love” George Martin was the fifth Beatle. Now, Weezy’s the fourth Jonas.

Best songs of 2010 that were still relevant in 2011:

  1. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
  2. Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
  3. Massive Attack & Burial – “Paradise Circus”
  4. Robyn – “Girlfriend”
  5. Smith Westerns – “Weekend”

Okay, and the best albums by old fogies who still make albums:

  1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake.
  2. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
  3. Wilco – The Whole
  4. Tom Waits – Bad as Me
  5. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
  6. Bjork – Biophilia
  7. Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
  8. R.E.M. – Collapse
  9. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
  10. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See Hey, these guys aren’t old. No, and they probably oughtta be number two on this list.

Honorable mention: Panda Bear – Tomboy They so good.

Dear God, don’t even bother:

  1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver Hey Justin Vernon, lose the band. Auteurs don’t need friends, and your self-titled has exactly three songs that aren’t meandering streams of odorless diarrhea (pardon me, “Beth/Rest” does have an odor). And none of the okay ones (“Calgary,” “Holocene,” and “Perth”) would’ve made the cut for For Emma. #realtalk
  2. Fleet Foxes A mix between The Beach Boys and Fairport Convention? Suck my dick. Quit grooming your beards for a second and write a song. Agh, who am I kidding? I just begrudge Robin Pecknold all his praise. Jerk.
  3. Florence + the Machine In a moment of weakness, I admitted to being pleasantly surprised by the song “Shake it Out,” and then I saw that dreadful performance on SNL. What’s the matter, Flo? Were you nervous? That song hasn’t outlasted two listens, and Florence can’t sing. There.

Okay, so where’s the metal, jazz, classical, folk, etc.? Well, this is really just a review for pop song forms. So let’s recap: Miranda Lambert is great, Bon Iver was a gigantic disappointment, “The” names are in again, Kool Keith is in for the first time ever, and I hate being white.

Happy listening!

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.