To be eligible for this list, songs must have been released as singles in 2011, or before 2011 but having not become a hit until 2011.

Top 5 Songs of the Year
1. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
“And you played it, to the beat”
“Fire starting in my heart,” “the scars of your love,” “leave me breathless” – are these anything more than the phrases scrawled throughout a hopeless romantic’s diary? A more dynamic writer than most hopeless romantics, to be sure, but these are hardly feelings that haven’t been experienced by plenty of people before Adele. But it takes a chart-topping year’s worth of difference to have those feelings matched with the perfect instrumental accompaniment: that pulsing drumbeat, that steady and soulful piano, a sprinkling of spunky guitar, and, of course, that voice. When it comes to songs about love and heartbreak, the feelings are universal. A distinguished song is all about the expression. And Adele’s voice is about as close as anything can be to the aural manifestation of all the stages of a breakup; in “Rolling in the Deep,” it contains the weight of everything that could have been.

2. The Naked and Famous – “Young Blood”
“We’re only young and naïve still”
There are plenty of songs that feature some variation of the line, “We are young.” They mostly fall into one of two categories: an apology for youth or a desire to hold onto youth forever. “Young Blood” is informed by both of those traditions, but it has more of a Zen attitude about the whole matter, and the result is sublime. The subjects of this song are how they are, and the conclusion they have come to is to immerse themselves in the moment, for better or worse. The ideas conjured by “the in-between,” “a temporary escape,” and putting off matters for the time of “eventually” paired with the images of holding hands under the stars result in a beautiful moment that is fleeting, but captured forever to the tune of that indefatigable harpsichord riff.

3. Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
“Yeah the sleight of my hand is now a quick-pull trigger”
I misheard the chorus the first several times I heard “Pumped Up Kicks.” I mistook “outrun my gun” for “run for cover” and “bullet” for “brother.” Still, I did sense that there was something a little off and dangerous about the subject. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the bag: put a controversial topic to a catchy beat and fool the audience into singing along to something they may not be comfortable with. It’s a soft form of confrontation, but often enough, as in the case of Foster the People, it is effective, because there is a fully realized character here, and the lines are witty and unusual enough to stick with the listener. And it also had the best whistling of 2011.

4. The Joy Formidable – “Whirring”
“You make me sleep so badly, invisible friend”
There’s got to be at least one song among the very best of the year that gets by almost entirely on the sheer strength of its instruments, and “Whirring,” the standout track from The Joy Formidable’s debut The Big Roar, was the biggest roar of the year. The (oft-repeated) lyrics aren’t particularly profound, but they provide plenty of sounds for frontwoman Ritzy Bryan to sink her teeth into, and they serve their purpose of adding to the impressionistic dreamscape that all comes together in one cacophonous and orgiastic blowout. “Whirring” seems to nominally be about that thin space between waking and dreaming, but that is more or less an excuse for the band members to play chicken with each other.

5. Selena Gomez and the Scene – “Love You Like a Love Song”
“And I guess right now here’s another one”
I love movies about movies, I love TV shows about TV shows, I love books about books, and I love songs about music. A major pitfall that a song called “Love You Like a Love Song” could likely face would be being overly hokey. Selena Gomez & the Scene and producing team extraordinaire Rock Mafia solve that problem by embracing the hokiness. There are the subtle bits – sprinkling in the words “lyrical,” “melody,” and “symphony” to fully characterize Selena as one who thinks about love in musical terms. But the ultimate winning moment here is that very obvious chorus: the stuttering (of the word “repeat,” super natch) that captures the beeps of electronica and the old-fashioned skipping of a vinyl record. For those who study pop love songs, here is a mirror.


Just Outside the Top 5:
Adele – “Someone Like You”
Foster the People – “Helena Beat”
The Naked and Famous – “Punching in a Dream”
My Morning Jacket – “Holdin’ on to Black Metal”
Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”
Gotye ft. Kimbra – “Somebody That I Used to Know”
Raphael Saadiq – “Stone Rollin’”

4 Great Songs That Were Technically Released in 2010:
Of Monsters and Men – “Little Talks”
Ida Maria – “Bad Karma”
Martin Solveig ft. Dragonette – “Hello”
Lykke Li – “Get Some”

Mandatory Black Keys Song: “Lonely Boy”

Florence + the Machine – “Shake It Out”
Coldplay – “Paradise”
Skrillex – “First of the Year (Equinox)”
Fitz and the Tantrums – “MoneyGrabber”
Childish Gambino – “Heartbeat”
Das Racist – “Michael Jackson”

Best Song That Sounds Like It’s from the Drive Soundtrack: M83 – “Midnight City”

Dance Song of the Year:
Robyn – “Call Your Girlfriend”
And Three Great Top 40-Style Dance Songs:
David Guetta ft. Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj – “Where Them Girls At”
LMFAO – “Party Rock Anthem” (and “Sexy and I Know It” was great too)
Flo Rida – “Good Feeling”

Katy Perry ft. Kanye West – “E.T.”
Foo Fighters – “Rope”
Ellie Goulding – “Lights”
Lissie – “When I’m Alone”
DJ Khaled ft. Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil’ Wayne – “I’m on One”

The Rihanna Triptych, Naturally: “We Found Love” (ft. Calvin Harris), “S&M,” “Cheers (Drink to That)”

Two Great Songs from a Band I Didn’t Really Care for Before 2011: The Airborne Toxic Event – “All I Ever Wanted” and “Changing”

Twilight Soundtrack Song of the Year: The Belle Brigade – “I Didn’t Mean It”

Peter Bjorn and John – “Second Chance”
Justice – “Civilization”
Young the Giant – “My Body”
Ke$ha – “Blow”
Katy Perry – “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”

Best Cover:
Ke$ha’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

Best Song That Wasn’t Released as a Single:
My Morning Jacket – “Victory Dance”