The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: The Best 20 Tracks of 2011

Barney Hoskyns

A playlist for the year just passed: twenty sublime songs to lift the spirit and heal the soul—Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

1 "The Glorious Land" by PJ Harvey

Polly Jean becomes the conscience of Albion on this urgent, elegiac lament. Glorious indeed.

2 "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)" by Charles Bradley

More hand-wringing, this time in the form of anguished retro-soul. The ghost of O.V. Wright rises from the inner city…

3 "The Bronx" by Booker T. Jones

… and segues into this superb fusion of Memphis soul and hip hop beats. The best thing Lou Reed appeared on in 2011.

4 "Perth" by Bon Iver

Justin Vernon rewrites alternative rock with the aid of martial beats, mariachi horns and overloaded guitars. An elliptical song of defiant hope.

5 "The Way It Will Be" by Gillian Welch

Taking its melodic cue from Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer", this song of muted rage was the standout cut from the mildly underwhelming Harrow and the Harvest.

6 "Caught a Long Wind" by Feist

The Canadian priestess of offbeat melody and arrangement returns with an entrancing song of avian metaphors. Ballad of the year.

7 "Limit to Your Love" by James Blake

Brit boy wonder Blake covers Feist's earlier beauty and fashions a glitchy, introverted masterpiece from it.

8 "Wild Man" by Kate Bush

The only really great song from 50 Words for Snow but as good as anything Kate's given us before — a deep cry of compassion for an innocent primitive.

9 "Bats in the Attic" by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Exquisitely sad plaint of regret and reproach born of the interesting collaboration between a Scottish bard and a master of the new electronica.

10 "Pay Me" by Tom Waits

The prettiest, saddest ballad on Bad as Me. Grainy, blunt, heartbreaking.

11 "Lion's Share" by Wild Beasts

A driving synth pulse motors this wracked mid-tempo ballad. Jimi Somerville fronts Coldplay, but far superior to either.

12 "Midnight City" by M83

The latest edition of ironic French '80s Americophilia: a ridiculously beautiful and OTT anthem of urban euphoria.

13 "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" by Fleet Foxes

The best track on Helplessness Blues, if only (or mainly) for the central section that kicks in at two minutes. The most sublime close CSN-meets-America harmonies of the year.

14 "Desert Raven" by Jonathan Wilson

America — the band — also haunts this dreamy retro-canyon epic from the otherwise overrated Gentle Spirit. So does the ghost of Gene Clark.

15 "The Bad in Each Other" by Feist

A lurching, unsettling groove and scratchy African guitars launch this horn-blasted song of romantic struggle.

16 "No One Is (As I Are Be)" by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

The Beck-helmed Mirror Traffic made no Best Albums lists but should have. This laconic acoustic piece channeled Bobbie Gentry magnificently.

17 "It's Him!" by White Denim

I thought indie rock was dead till I heard White Denim. A combustion of diverse influences — the La's on this, the album's first track — the Austin band blaze on into the next decade.

18 "Written on the Forehead" by PJ Harvey

A harrowing song of war and devastation and the second best song on Let England Shake.

19 "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele

I loathed Adele at 19 but am quietly impressed by her at 21. This holy-rolling gospel-rocker made for a great pop record.

20 "Satisfied" by Tom Waits

The obverse of "Pay Me", this is Tom in full-on Stones-jones mode, all but challenging "Mr Jagger and Mr Richards" to step back up to the Exile plate — with Keef cranking away behind him. So you can get satisfaction.

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