The 30 Best Songs of 2011 (Headphones Required)

12/13/2011 04:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012
  • Kristi York Wooten Journalist and founder of, focused on music, global health and women's rights

We music critics haven't had much to froth over for the past few years. The charts across most genres have been decidedly barren of worthy sounds, thanks to the never-ending influx of auto-tuned fluff. Sure, there are always a handful of really great songs in any calendar year, but there was a whiff of change in the air in 2011 that promised an expansion of our aural horizons. To say that artists such as Florence and the Machine, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars brought back songs for songs' sake is an understatement; the writing this year was poignant and highly-listenable. Even radio staples such as Maroon 5's collab with Christina Aguilera ("Moves Like Jagger") had moments of undeniable pleasure, and everyone's favorite misguided hip-hopper Kanye West proved once again that maybe he's just brilliantly misunderstood. But the clearest trend in 2011 was the continued tendency toward intricacy and pastiche; artists had no problem throwing a spate of harp, piano. organ, horns, and synths in with their layered vocal harmonies (the details of which can go unnoticed without close listening).

So, grab your ear buds (or better yet, noise-reducing headphones), and get ready for a ride through the year's best songs:

1. "You Are All I See" by Active Child
The perfect marriage of harp, electronica, and angelic falsetto by LA-based frontman Pat Grossi.

2. "The Rip Tide" by Beirut
The most winsome and affecting of the superb nine tracks on the band's third full-length (and true breakthrough) outing.

3. "We Were Wealth" by Wye Oak
My favorite track from the best album of the year, by a Baltimore duo that made it cool to gaze at our shoes again.

4. "Words" by Givers

Lafayette, Lousiana's answer to indie rock - a gal, some beards, and an unexpected poptimistic twist. "I choose light," indeed.

5. "The River" by Elbow
Choosing the best from the Brit quintet's latest, Build A Rocket Boys, was nearly impossible, but hearing Guy Garvey sing this one live reduced me to a quivering puddle. Brilliant.

6. "Rivers and Roads" by The Head and the Heart
The band name says it all. Acoustic, yes, folk - so much more than ...

7. "The Bard Lachrymose" by Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo
Spare, sparse, lush, lovely.

8. "Someone Like You" by Adele
The SNL skit summed it up: a sad song, but an unforgettable vocal performance by a legend in the making.

9. "Houdini" by Foster the People
"Pumped Up Kicks" may have stolen all the airplay, but this was the track that rocked Torches.

10. "Snowflake" by Kate Bush
There's a reason so many artists count her as a major influence. Quiet will always be the new loud.

Best of the rest:

11. "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera
12. "I Want You Back" (Jackson 5 cover) by The Civil Wars
13. "Cruel and Beautiful World" by Group Love
14. "Lorelei" by Fleet Foxes
15. "Nu Revolution" by Les Nubians
16. "Surfer's Hymn" by Panda Bear
17. "We Have Everything" by Young Galaxy
18. "Lucky Now" by Ryan Adams
19. "You Make Me Feel" by Cobra Starship
20. "In Our World" by Yellowbirds
21. "Only If For A Night" by Florence & the Machine
22. "Mutual Core" by Bjork
23. "Chelsea Hotel" by Meshell Ndegocello
24. "Towers" by Bon Iver
25. "Codex" by Radiohed
26. "Confetti" by Cold Cave
27. "Skinny Genes" By Eliza Dolittle
28. "Hurts Like Heaven" by Coldplay
29. "Love Out of Lust" by Lykke Li
30. "All of the Lights" by Kanye West feat. Rihanna and Kid Cudi (EXPLICIT)

What were your favorites this year?