Best Songs of 2011

Most people who read me or know me know that I was pretty underwhelmed by most black music released this year.  I do think this was a stronger year for individual songs than it was for albums, but even so I could literally only come up with 10 songs that I really love, that I played a lot, that I repped for hard this year.  

Before we get to those though, here are a few runners-up. These are songs I like, that are good in their own way, but didn't quite bowl me over the way the top 10 did for one reason or another.

  • Anwar Robinson, “Come Over”
  • EPMD, “Don’t Get Clapped”
  • Frank Ocean, “Back”
  • Ginuwine, “Frozen”
  • JLS, “Shy of the Cool”
  • Johnny Gill, “In the Mood”
  • LastO ft. Stern Savage ,“The City”
  • Van Hunt ,“What Were You Hoping For”
  • Teedra Moses, “To Hell Wit It’
  • Nas, "Nasty"
  • Mobb Deep ft. Nas, "Dog Shit"
  • Jazmine Sullivan, “Fly & Sexy”
  • Lalah Hathaway, “Small of My Back”
  • Common ft. Nas, "Ghetto Dreams"

 

After the jump, get into the 10 songs that I adored this year.

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JLS – ‘Shy of the Cool’

Sometimes a single lyric can make a song work for me. 

"She’s just a few degrees shy of the cool" is such a beautiful turn of phrase. Those 9 words more efficiently and evocatively convey the song’s meaning than the verses, which are terribly overwritten.

And yet the song works because the arrangement* puts space around that lyric so you really feel what it's communicating. The song lets you sit with that image of this girl in your head long enough to recognize her – and emphathize.

And also the song builds in a way that never obscures the sheer power of those 9 words. It begins to come alive on the second verse once the instrumentation kicks in. And then after the bridge, the song creates a nice sense of urgency – care about this girl! –  by, wisely, giving Oritsé, the group's strongest vocalist**,  the opportunity to let loose with some beautiful vocalizing, letting JB do some nice falsetto work with those 9 words, and then, stacking Marvin's final vamp and the backgrounds.

It's actually quite breathtaking.

 

 

*This song is apparently a re-recorded, re-arranged version of an original song the guys wrote years ago when they were called UFO. The song was sort of a fan favorite and I guess that's why it was re-recorded for their latest album, Jukebox. Cool video of them practicing a rough version in 2008.

**JLS is still somewhat stubbornly faceless as a group. And this song doesn't totally change that, but it is another example of how effective the group can be with good material that producers shape by arranging the vocals in a way that really makes great use of each vocalist. They really need this kind of thing more consistently.

Beautiful Arrangement

I kind of love this song:

 

 

Or rather, I love how this song is produced. The song itself is standard lightweight boyband schlock. But damn if it isn't beautifully done, standard lightweight boyband schlock. 

This is a perfect example of how you make use of multiple voices singing in harmony (not this, if you remember). The vocal arrangement gives you simply more to latch onto and it alone sells the song. When you hear Oritsé adlib "and more!" over the backgrounds with Aston on top (I think it is Aston), it creates the exact right emotion.  It's insistent, but understated. 

I actually think that it is much harder to do these kinds of songs well because they are written in a way that really only requires an overabundance of earnestness (and pretty faces) from the vocalists since the song is already overwrought*. But, to their credit, the producers of this song really tried to make the best use of the four voices in the group** and pushed them to give much stronger vocal performances than they've given before. 

Oritsé, in particular, does terrific work here, turning in the only emotive performance of the four.

 

*Another example: Brandy's understated performance of the treacly Diane Warren song, "Have You Ever."  She simply flat out refuses to go for the "big dramatic moments" in that song. That is why it worked.

**Honestly, Oritsé and Aston are really the only truly capable vocalists in the group, so you have to really appreciate what is accomplished here.