After a year where much of my attention was diverted in other directions, I still have something to say about the singles that kept infecting my brain throughout 2011. I have been saying for a couple of years that it was a matter of time until dance music returned to the mainstream, and 2011 made that official. This list is very American, and a bit more mainstream pop than I normally go, but that’s just where my head was this year. As always, a few points of clarification:
– Songs had to have been released (or re-released) in 2011
– While I limit artists to one track per year, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson and Robyn all make a second appearance due to being a featured artist
– Chart position listed is for the Billboard Hot 100 peak position unless otherwise noted
25. What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)/Kelly Clarkson (US #64 to date) – While the record label was promoting “Mr Know It All” prior to the release of Kelly’s Stronger CD, a leak of “What Doesn’t Kill You” hit the Internet, and it was all over with. Bloggers lost their minds, complaining that this should have been the lead single instead of good-but-not-great track “Mr Know It All.” Then again, that “horrible” lead single ended up going Top 10. “What Doesn’t Kill You” should follow its predecessor into the upper reaches of the Hot 100 with a killer hook and a driving beat after the holidays pass as long as her Ron Paul endorsement doesn’t cause her any backlash.
24. We Found Love/Rihanna (US #1) – Rihanna was pumping out singles this year faster than rabbits have babies, but there’s no doubt that “We Found Love” was the best of all those tracks. Pairing her with Calvin Harris originally seemed like a gimmick, but the combo worked better than most would have guessed, and it’s probably not hard to imagine Calvin now having a similar career in the US as David Guetta now has, with superstar guest vocalists coming out of the woodwork to appear on a hit single. Besides, the musical phrase of the year goes to this track for the chorus “we found love in a hopeless place.” Good luck getting the song out of your head.
23. Don’t Kick the Chair/Dia Frampton feat Kid Cudi (Not Charted) – While most people were talking about the judges on The Voice, there was still a singing competition going on with some solid talent competing for the initial season’s title. Dia Frampton released “The Broken Ones” as her official debut single after coming in second on The Voice, but the label teased “Don’t Kick the Chair” prior to the release of Red and I was instantly hooked. The title refers to a phrase Frampton uses to say “stop your complaining,” and I took that to heart. It probably doesn’t hurt that Dia has some experience recording thanks to her sisterly duo Meg and Dia, but Red is a solid album that American Idol probably wishes they could get their winners to record.
22. The Living Proof/Mary J Blige (Not Charted) – One of my favorite Mary J. Blige songs is “Not Gonna Cry,” which appeared on the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. That song was just as powerful as a stand-alone song as it was for the moment it represented in the movie. “The Living Proof” did the same thing for 2011’s feel-good movie “The Help,” and showed once again that Mary does subtle just as well as she does over-the-top emotion.
21. Til Death – Wynter Gordon (US Dance #3) – Wynter Gordon was the dance diva rookie of the year with her album With the Music I Die. While you might know her voice from singing the hook on Flo Rida’s “Sugar,” she came into her own in 2011, placing three singles into the US Dance charts top five, including the #2 hit “Til Death.” With the right single and label push, Wynter could be ripe for crossover success, and “Til Death” might be the song to do it.
20. Storm Warning/Hunter Hayes (US #84, Country #15 to date) – He sings, he plays, he writes, he makes a killer cappuccino! Well, I have no proof of the final item, but you can hear all of the other items on his major-label self-titled CD, as well as on his first hit single. Hunter takes the best elements of pop-country music and makes them his own without it sounding calculated or cheesy. As we already noted, Hayes is well on his way to assuming the niche created by the likes of Bryan White and Rascal Flatts.
19. I Got You/Martha Wash (Not Charted) – The producers of American Idol have more often than not provided their champions with some seriously lightweight songs as their debut singles, but more often than not those songs are quickly overshadowed by legitimate hits. If they really want to find a solid song that captures that confetti moment at the end of the season, they couldn’t do much better than Martha Wash’s “I’ve Got You,” which felt like a coronation song to me the first time I heard it. Martha’s still got the pipes, but she found an empowering ballad that helps show a softer side I haven’t heard since her version of “Someone Who Believes In You” from the early 90s.
18. Moves Like Jagger/Maroon 5 feat Christina Aguilera (US #1) – I sat and watched the initial performance of “Moves Like Jagger” on The Voice in June, and I thought it was a joke. The subject matter, the whistle, the outfits…I thought it was a hot mess. Someone must have thought it was stellar, though, because it instantly went to #1 on iTunes. Airplay soon followed, and then once the visual spectacle was removed from the equation, I started to like the song. And then, I began to love the song. It was worming its way into my head, but I really didn’t care. Even Christina’s vamping on the final chorus was enjoyable. Maroon 5 needed a boost after the last few singles flopped, so it’s been good to see them stretch musically and be rewarded for taking a chance.
17. Put Your Hands Up/Kylie Minogue (US Dance #1) – When Aphrodite came out in 2010, I was taken with the album from start to finish, with the exception of “Better Than Today,” which I still dislike to this day. “Put Your Hands Up” was a joyous romp in the middle of the album, but I thought it would remain an album cut. Enter Pete Hammond, who remixed “Hands” to sound like something from Kylie’s SAW days, and the song ended up becoming Kylie’s fifth #1 in a row on the US Dance chart.
16. Heaven/Emeli Sandé (Not Charted) – Does R&B need a new Queen? If so, Emeli Sandé may be the woman to fill the gap. With its “Funky Drummer” beat propelling it along, “Heaven” feels like a throwback to some of the best dance records of the 90s, but with a deeper soul thanks to Sandé’s passionate plea. “Heaven” soared onto the UK charts, along with feature spots on Top 10 records by Professor Green, Wiley and Chipmunk. Emeli’s album Our Version of Events arrives in the UK on February 13, and the US release should be in June.
15. I Wrote the Book/Beth Ditto (Not Charted) – If you had told me in 2010 that Beth Ditto would release a full-fledged house track in 2011, I would have laughed and said “I WISH!” Fortunately for me and all her fans, that wish was granted in the form of “I Wrote the Book,” which appeared on a four-track EP released in early 2011. Proving she doesn’t have to sing pop punk to be fierce, Beth made the dance diva transition with ease. Extra points for the amazing video that paid tribute to Madonna’s “Justify My Love” while still maintaining her own personality. Next thing you know, a Gossip song will be used in a perfume commercial. Oh wait…
14. Never Will Be Mine/Rye Rye feat Robyn (Not Charted) – In a year where one of the biggest rappers was the larger-than-life Nicki Minaj, it was a great counterpoint to hear a rapper with the lyrical skills of Rye Rye get down to the basic task of using rap to tell a story and set a mood. She succeeded in spades with “Never Will Be Mine,” whose chorus was built around Robyn’s “Be Mine.” In fact, Robyn sang the hook and appeared in the video, leading to another round of “Robyn might get a hit in the US” hope. Alas, we found disappointment in a hopeful place, but Rye Rye’s full-length album should drop sometime in 2012.
13. Bright Lights Bigger City/Cee-Lo (Not Charted) – When Cee-Lo became half of Gnarls Barkley, no one ever anticipated that the group would have a hit as major as “Crazy” was, but that turned out to be the only hit the group had off of their two albums. Fast forward five years, and history repeated itself as “Bright Lights Bigger City” failed to capitalize on the protracted success of “F**k You.” Despite performing the song on multiple shows (including his own The Voice), the song never caught on in the US and never made an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, even after Wiz Khalifa was added on to a remix version. “Bright Lights” became my going out on Friday/Saturday night song, as well as one of my favorite remixes of the year courtesy of the Shapeshifters.
12. Good Life/OneRepublic (US #8) – So here’s a rarity in the music business: an album released in 2009 saw its biggest hit occur in 2011. While artists like Rihanna and Britney Spears turn out new albums before the last record is fully over, OneRepublic slowly but steadily released quality single after quality single. In the US, they dropped “All the Right Moves” in 2009, “Secrets” in 2010, and then “Good Life” in 2011, and the track became the biggest record in four years for the Colorado-based band. While the song itself is an uplifting, midtempo track with a catchy hook, the downside was that it seemed to usher in a rash of whistle-featuring singles.
11. Give Me Everything/Pitbull (US #1) – Over the past few years, Pitbull has been the go-to guy for pop artists looking to add a hip-hop vibe to their single releases, helping out the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias. Even though he’s scored top 10 records on his own, Pitbull decided to follow that model, enlisting Ne-Yo, Nayer and Afrojack for the first #1 pop hit of his career with “Give Me Everything.” While Pit’s flow was on point as always, Ne-Yo’s vocals soared on the chorus, propelling the track on radios around the world and ending up as the most-played song on the radio in the US in 2011.
10. Rumour Has It/Someone Like You/Glee Cast (US #11) – So there were three Adele singles in 2011 that were released, and all were worthy of inclusion. Well, I get to include two of the three thanks to this brilliant mash-up from the third season of Glee. While I’m not a fan of the show, it is hard to deny that their interpretations of current songs are occasionally worthy of hitting the pop charts, and “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You” fits that bill. The way the two songs are woven together just works, and the visual of the performance just heightens the impact of the song. Both Naya Rivera and Amber Riley excel on the track, and the cast picked up their highest charting song since “Loser Like Me” reached number six in March 2011.
9. Don’t You Wanna Stay/Jason Aldean feat Kelly Clarkson (US #31, Country #1) – Every once in a while I get it right, and the first time I saw Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson sing “Don’t You Wanna Stay” together, I knew it would be a hit. A year later, and not only did the song get to #1 on the Country chart, but it also sold over a million copies and reached the Pop Top 40. You would never know that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” was written for a solo singer because Aldean and Clarkson sell it as a duet so convincingly. If Kelly ever decides to give up pop for country music, she will become one of the biggest female singers in the business instantly.
8. Come On/Will Young (Not Charted) – While much of the blogosphere has anointed Will Young’s first single from Echoes for their end-of-year lists, I am much more drawn to single number two, “Come On.” Will’s voice is perfectly suited for heartbreak, and “Come On” puts that emotion on display as he realizes his love is about to leave him. Despite fears that his career might be waning, Echoes went into the UK album chart at #1, proving that real talent can come out of music reality shows.
7. Otis – Jay-Z/Kanye West (US #12) – When Watch the Throne came out in mid-2011, I thought the second single “Otis” would be their best chance at a mainstream hit, but who could have guessed that a slot on the Victoria’s Secret would launch an unlikely track like “Ni**as in Paris” into the Billboard Hot 100 top five? Based on an extended sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” I still grin listening to these two master MCs brag on their skills while demonstrating why they can do just that. This is some serious rappers’ delight.
6. Call Your Girlfriend/Robyn (Not Charted) – I continue to be frustrated by the way the US remains shut to Robyn’s music. Not even an opening slot on Katy Perry’s tour or an appearance on Saturday Night Live in December could get this song to chart, although it did surface on the iTunes charts for a hot minute. Robyn needs just one solid break, and then I am positive every single released over the past six years could be released in the States to sell millions of copies and dominate the radio. That would be justice. This final salvo from the Body Talk trilogy was pure pop abandon…being the other woman has never sounded so reasonable.
5. Super Bass/Nicki Minaj (US #3) – If you had asked me mid-year what track of Nicki’s would be on my year-end, it would have been “Moment 4 Life,” with Young Money labelmate Drake along for the ride. However, it would turn out to be Pink Friday bonus track “Super Bass” that rocked my world. Nicki showed in 2011 that you could be pop AND street on the same album, and she did that on her own terms. Like Drake, Nicki cultivates a persona that can’t be fully pinned down, and she ruled the sales and airplay charts as a result. The hook alone was worth the price of admission, but it was her playful rap delivery that sealed the deal.
4. Disco Moment/Bright Light Bright Light (Not Charted) – The slow trudge to 2012 and a full-length Bright Light Bright Light record seemed a little bit closer in 2011, thanks to the single release of “Disco Moment.” In fact, my favorite piece of mail this year was the envelope that contained the autographed single. Rod Thomas’s tale of confronting the end of a relationship conveyed both the angst and the relief of a toxic situation coming to a close. If you’re looking for an heir to the Pet Shop Boys’ place in pop and dance music, allow me to suggest Bright Light Bright Light.
3. Pumped Up Kicks/Foster the People (US #3) – A confession: I didn’t give Foster the People much attention initially because I felt they fit into the hipster group of the moment, but after hearing “Pumped Up Kicks” a couple of times, I quickly changed my mind. The song was worked to Alternative radio in 2010, but 2011 was when the track blew up at pop radio and battled for song of the summer against lesser singles. How a song that sounds happy and perky on the surface but talks about gun violence underneath the surface became a Top Five hit, I have no idea, but I’m not mad about it.
2. Take Care/Drake feat Rihanna (US #9 to date) – I spent much of 2011 waiting for Drake to leak his next track for the world to peruse, and I was rarely disappointed. The problem with hearing samples that you love from an upcoming album is that you are probably going to be disappointed with the remaining tracks not worthy of leaking. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with Take Care, which debuted at #1 on the album chart. Just prior to the release, Drake and Nicki Minaj performed “Make Me Proud” on Saturday Night Live, which the song went Top 10 the next week. In any other situation that song would have made my year-end list, but then Take Care was released, and Drake’s duet with Rihanna on the title cut blew me away. To this day I am amazed that Drake gets away with these downright dance pop tracks and still keeps his street cred, but I hope he keeps doing it. “Take Care” is just a piano and bass thump away from being a House anthem, and all I wanted for Christmas was a fully-realized House remix. Check out Mike Irish’s remix if you want an idea of what I’m talking about, but if anyone knows Frankie Knuckles, please pass on my request.
1. Set Fire to the Rain/Adele (US #7 to date) – In an album full of classics, it was hard to pick just one song to include, but since she technically only released three singles in 2011 (“Someone Like You” and “Rumour Has It” were the other two), I didn’t have to deliberate too hard. Although “Someone” turned into a massive hit and “Rumour” held a couple of radio formats over in between official singles, “Set Fire to the Rain” sounded unique and fresh on the radio when it hit the US airwaves in November. For my money, it’s the most powerful and passionate performance from 21, and deserves to be as big a hit as “Someone Like You.”