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Best Music Of 2011

The Top 10 Top 40 Of 2011

Kelly Rowland, on the cover for her single "Motivation." Courtesy of Universal Motown hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Universal Motown

Kelly Rowland, on the cover for her single "Motivation."

Courtesy of Universal Motown

Pop music can be just like junk food, its ingredients processed to the point where individual flavor is lost. But just as often, pop is strange and surprising and deeply alive: it's a repository for all kinds of musical ideas, a meeting ground for disparate scenes and influences, and a territory to be conquered by oversized voices and brash personalities.

For people who listen, pop provides connection with friends and total stranger, communicates shared values and spurs debate. Pop defines and reflects the rhythms of the public sphere, and comes alive in the moment when a private dream becomes archetypal.

As a believer in the power of pop, I'm drawn to sounds that go big. This list is made up of songs that claimed a spot on Billboard magazine's year-end Hot 100 chart, calculated to reflect the year's highest sales, online streams and radio play. Selecting favorites, I stuck to singles issued in the past 12 months (that means no "Grenade" or "If I Die Young") that didn't make the NPR 100 Favorite Songs of 2011 list — so, no "Super Bass" or "We Found Love." I still had plenty to work with.

Pop right now is a mash-up of cosmopolitan dance beats and All-American ethnic and racial diversity. Latin and Caribbean rhythms find a place on the charts next to rejiggered rock anthems and goofy novelty songs. Women express desire and explore self-empowerment; men show their vulnerability. It's complicated and contradictory and sometimes frustrating, like modern life itself.

The Top 10 Top 40 Of 2011

  • Lady Gaga, "Born This Way"

    Did outsiders and self-proclaimed freaks really need Mother Monster's battle cry, with its strident lyrics and its primordial disco thump? Turns out we did. Gaga's message, half disco throwback and half classic rock anthem, gained meaning on every dance floor and at every pride parade. Each new voice that took it up amplified its joy.

  • Jennifer Lopez feat. Pitbull, "On the Floor"

    Everything good about this song comes from elsewhere: from previous J. Lo hits, other RedOne productions, obscure Southern rap. But this is how American music has always moved forward: through sonic migration and amalgamation. Slinking through the track in her flesh-colored bodysuit, Lopez is a glittery magpie updating a sensual cosmopolitan dream.

  • Kanye West, "All of the Lights"

    The final single from West's 2010 masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released this January, is like an action painting: the artist scatters elements across its canvas to form a whole that's all motion and colorful build. There's a machine gun beat, a trumpet fanfare, and some spit from Kid Cudi; 14 guest vocalists, from Elton John to Alicia Keys, blend and collide to amplify the plea of the chorus. The lyrics are typical Kanye: half braggadocio, half paranoia, shot through with real emotion and insight. Rihanna, the Queen of All Hooks, grounds the cut with a chorus that makes West's point: bad or good, famous or nobody, people long to be seen.

  • Britney Spears, "'Til the World Ends"

    At 30, Britney Spears has been a pop culture lightning rod through a boom and a recession; she and her crucial collaborators Max Martin and Dr. Luke have crafted a sound that's as decadent and intense as anything the Weimar or Prohibition produced. This Eurodisco thumper populates the dance floor at the apocalypse. Its minor-key shifts and stuttering breakdowns capturing the shaky mood of a overdrawn, underinsured nation. Kesha cowrote this song; I'll bet that's where the edge comes from.

  • Jason Aldean, "Dirt Road Anthem"

    Aldean's smoke-fueled trip down a rural memory lane isn't the first country song to incorporate rap, but it gets the balance right. Young Southerners are traditional and tattooed; they rock out to big guitars and cruise in their trucks to hip-hop mixtapes. This is classic country, really, the sound of old ways colliding with the modern world.

  • Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne, "Motivation"

    What is a pop list without a slow jam, something steamy as a bubble bath and feathery as a pillow? This ethereal, explicit journey into the bedroom is a murmur in a pop world prone to shouting, though Rowland's sinuous vocal and the explicit lyrics make the point as clear as Donna Summer ever did. Lil Wayne chimes in with some easy foreplay: "I put her on my plate, then I do the dishes." Dirty!

  • Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, "Remind Me"

    What I love the most in this forlorn duet about dimming romance, beyond Paisley's jovial cool and killer guitar, is the dipping high note Underwood hits in the chorus. It's the crystal-clear expression of hope melting into disappointment, like the path of a solitary tear.

  • Dev, "Dancing in the Dark"

    Pop is where human desire meets synthesized sound. This whirr-purr of seduction, executed by the same voice who brought the intrigue to Far East Movement's 2010 hit "Like a G6," is 2011's cyborg performance — cool, smooth, shiny, highly functional.

  • Selena Gomez, "Who Says"

    Moms like me need songs like this one by the teen star now (unfortunately) better known as Justin Bieber's main squeeze. Power ballads about self-acceptance constitute their own genre by now, and Gomez's isn't as poignant as Pink's "F---in' Perfect" or Katy Perry's "Firework," both released in 2010. But it's just great to hear a bunch of grade school girls yelling out lines like, "I'm no beauty queen, I'm just beautiful me." I'll take it.

  • Adele, "Rolling In the Deep"

    I tried hard to finish this list without breaking my own rules, but in the end I had to bend to include the undeniable song of the year, which actually came out last November. Multiple remixes kept Adele's instant classic in the spotlight, but it's the original I love best. The stomping rhythm, the melody that plunges and climbs like a stairway halfway to heaven, Adele's roar, the lyric that blend poetic mystery with frank emotion: this is secular gospel for an age that really needs the uplift.


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