SPIN’s 20 Best Songs of the Summer
SPIN's Charles Aaron makes a mixtape to help you transcend the dog days that time forgot.
I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I think we can come to an understanding about the summer of 2011 — it was all about some bullshit happening somewhere (as The Onion once so concisely put it). The political riots, the apocalyptic weather events, the celebrities taking an elaborate dump on our front lawns and then tweeting that it’s just nutritious fertilizer developed specifically to revive a withered economy.
It’s enough to drive a nation of college-age white kids to forsake hip-hop, take up with a skanky new squeeze named Molly, and repeatedly utter a new generation’s cry for understanding: “Dub-muthafuckin’-step!” So, in 2011, we needed the mindless exhilaration of preposterous, heartbreaking, or seizure-inducing summer tunes more than ever. Fortunately, there were a multitude of options. So, here are our 20 best of the summer, arranged as a mixtape, with no particular No. 1, though Foster the People’s blip of exhilarating mindlessness did capture a certain seasonal flag.
Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”
As Radiohead’s refusal to be the Radiohead of The Bends spawned a decade-plus of rom-com tissue-rock, MGMT’s refusal to be the MGMT of “Kids” birthed a faux-naif, synth-rock cottage industry — Yeasayer, Empire of the Sun, The Naked and Famous, Tame Impala, Neon Indian, etc. And most commercially viable of all was Foster the People, whose “Pumped Up Kicks” possessed that special alchemy of one dash half-assed demo, one smidgen sugary smart pill. The band members themselves came off like a team of unctuous software execs at happy hour, but that only deepened the song’s aura of meaningless, warm-weather ephemera.
Cults, “Go Outside”
So pretty, so earnest, so bored. Pick up a xylophone and walk off into the sun, little one. Then wander back inside for a snack and a sext and carefully layer and echo the vocals so they sound as gorgeously haunting as a girl-group collage on a teenager’s bedroom wall.
Frank Ocean, “Novacane”
The R&B everydude’s defining track builds an expectant, subtly heaving heartbeat groove as he careens through phony emotions and Viagra and art perverted by technology, blaming everybody but himself, getting numb and dumb off stripper booty and blow for breakfast. Finally, in the grand, tripod tradition of Juelz and Weezy, he ends up babbling soliloquies, unable to feel his face while smoking god-knows-what with an unnamed porn actress/dental student at Coachella. Couldn’t be more 2011.
Kanye West & Jay-Z, feat. Otis Redding, “Otis”
For all the self-involved drama queens in the house with an inflated opinion of your own struggle (like moi), stand up! This team-up of titanic egos was a dazzling display of market-driven artistic will that signified nothing less than the Goya-esque collateral damage of Afro-capitalist pipedreaming: “I made ‘Jesus Walks,’ I’m never going to hell / Couture-level flow, it’s never goin’ on sale / Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses / Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive / I get it custom, you a customer / You ain’t goin’ through customs, you ain’t been nowhere, huuhhharggh!” As a postcript, Otis Redding screams bloodily, like an alien tied to a stake.
DJ Khaled, feat. Drake, Rick Ross, & Lil Wayne, “I’m On One”
Boasting an infectiously squeaky swirl, the most enjoyable (or least annoying) example of what the fuck these three gents were up to this year — @drakkardnoir eternally oppressed by stardom, Officer Ross levitating and dialing up Marc Jacobs, Weezy free to reference Pat Riley and the Mayans. As a party track, it’s like hacking a high-end psychotherapist’s email.
SBTRKT, feat. Drake and Little Dragon, “Wildfire”
The masked Brit electronic-dance producer created the season’s slinkiest jam, a deft dubstep pas de deux. Then Drizzy showed up and suddenly we were trapped in a shitstorm of relationship semantics. Kinda thrilling, actually.
Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”
Like the fizziest drink at the beachiest cabana with the steamiest partner you’ve ever promised not to cheat on, “Super Bass” was the unstoppable, feel-good jam of the summer — and an effortlessly buoyant antidote to Gaga’s thermonuclear community theater. Produced by son-of-a-preacher-man Kane Beatz, better-known for tawdrier feel-good jams (“Bedrock,” “Bottoms Up”), Nicki’s shout-out to her man sincerely sparkled.
Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”
The irrepressible No. 1 mommy jets over to Firenze and turns those Jersey Shore bitches out with Italo-tech-pop ferocity. Sure, it reminds you a little too much of last call’s harsh light at the Bada Bing!; but with Dr. Luke and Max Martin as Britney Jean’s consiglieres, there’s no such thing as a walk of shame.
Benny Benassi, feat. Gary Go, “Cinema (Skrillex Remix)”
Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing example of Skrillex’s bro-dacious sweet spot, where he magically gathers the glowstick tribes by collapsing electro-house flutter, breakbeat stutter, and dubstep splatter. No, you’re a cinema, and I freakin’ love you, dude.
Skrillex, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”
Sure, it’s been out since you threw up your first Long Island Iced Tea on the backseat of your bud’s VW Golf, but nothing raised goosebumps at summer’s peak like “The Oh My Gosh Song.” That dubstep drop felt like riding a mine-train roller coaster operated by Satan’s meth connect.
Bare and Datsik, “King Kong”
Remember the St. Louis rapper Jibbs — sorta like Chingy, but with an even more infantile flow? Well, I don’t blame you. But here, this pair of dubstep producers take a pitched-down Jibbs catchphrase (“I got King Kong in the trunk!”) and use it to set us up for a thunderous combo of bass-bombing haymakers that turn the dancefloor into a Golden Gloves prelim.
Flux Pavilion, “Bass Cannon”
British producer Joshua Steele is the Chemical Brothers of dubstep, unloading warhead beats with such deft and high-spirited intensity that you actually feel privileged to be scared shitless. Not the track sampled for Watch the Throne’s “Who Gon Stop Me,” “Bass Cannon” might be the only hope we have of ever shaking Kanye’s confidence.
LMFAO, feat. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock, “Party Rock Anthem (Alesso Remix)”
I’ve never heard the goony, whiteboy-wasted original, but this remix, omnipresent at any 2011 event that remotely resembled a rave, is a tech-house banger of the highest (and I do mean highest) order. Crescendos flow like serotonin waterfalls, then lock into a groove that bubbles with a sinister smirk. The “every day I’m shufflin'” mantra (citing a spazzy dance craze) was a reliable signal that it was time to break out of a cuddle puddle that had gone on about an hour-and-a-half too long.
Martin Solveig and Dragonette, “Hello (Club Edit)”
What could’ve been just another amiably thumping house track jerked into a playfully pummeling ascension…but there was more! Electro-pop diva-in-waiting Martina Sorbara of Dragonette provided the chipper vocals, and injected an odd no-nonsense note into a scenario — French dance party — that’s usually total nonsense. Basically, she’s informing a cute dork that she’ll frolic and play nice for the sake of a good time, but “don’t get too excited because that’s all you’ll get from me.” Potential buzzkill, until you realize this is the approach we should all take all the time.
Studio Killers, “Ode to the Bouncer”
This Gorillaz-like, Scandinavian trio unleashes a cartoon drag queen, who promenades in front of a club’s “empowered and aroused” security staff, alternately lobbing insults and cooed come-ons, while the synth-strutting beat gets more and more maddening. There’s no resolution, of course, but the queeny firebrand does get off an enviable parting shot: “I’ve got a black belt in life.”
M83, “Midnight City”
M83’s Anthony Gonzalez obsessively seeks out mini-epiphanies by shining fluorescent klieg lights on 1980s micro-eras — Michael Mann circa Thief/Keep/Manhunter or John Hughes circa Sixteen Candles/The Breakfast Club/Weird Science/Pretty in Pink. This glistening dog-days joyride sounds like it’s being narrated by a seriously reflective Doogie Howser the day after he came out to his parents (“Waiting for a ride in the dark / Drinking in the lounge / Following the neon signs”). Scintillating and scary beautiful.
The Rapture, “How Deep Is Your Love”
Inspired by M83’s madcap cross-referencing, let’s play the what-if parlor game to vainly describe this heart-wrenching, sweat-drenched, career-reviving indie-dance anthem: What if house-music vox humana Robert Owens covered Gang of Four’s “Cheeseburger” with Antony Hegarty on piano? Or if Kajagoogoo went Kajagangsta? Or if Happy Mondays weren’t total crackheads? Or if electroclash rose from its Williamsburg 2002 tomb, reborn with Mighty Clouds of Joy devotion? Or if wailing sax outros were miraculously freed from Silver Bullet Band kitsch?
TV on the Radio, “You”
On Twitter recently, Das Racist’s Kool A.D. proposed that TV on the Radio might be a “very subtle Immortal Technique,” but based on this song, you could also argue that they’re a far more complex Bon Iver. Tunde Adebimpe puts his falsetto on the line, stumbling into that eternally awkward place where you realize an inappropriate summer fling will never be anything else, but nothing else will ever feel as dizzyingly thrilling. Gratuitous heartfelt regards to Jennifer O’Neill and Gary Grimes, from our tatty hearts to yours.
College, feat. Electric Youth, “A Real Hero”
These Canadian electro-poppers — influenced by “Nu Shooz, new shoes, and old cars” — out-M83 with this delicately devastating, alienated-’80s fantasia that serves as the theme song for Ryan Gosling’s latest tour de force Drive. A synthesizer (Korg, perhaps?) throbs like a gif of the last teardrop on earth repeatedly splashing on asphalt, while the nameless protagonist calls a wrap on the season and cruises into the blinding horizon. Somewhere, Deborah Gibson weeps in her cosmetic surgeon’s reception-area love-seat.
It’s common, thoroughly-vetted wisdom that you should close every end-of-summer mixtape with an aggressively formulaic, yet undeniably persuasive power ballad — needy guitars and lumbering drums gasping for air, a Hammond organ pleading, a gospel choir gamely trying to save everybody’s ass, and a singer who’s able, by hook or crook, to make you believe that he’ll be teetering on a ledge tomorrow if the fairy-princess of his dreams doesn’t come back, baby. Of course, baby ain’t coming back — because she never fucking existed! But that’s why this is our grand finale, and why it’s clearly time to bid this summer adieu and prepare for the inevitable (and perhaps redemptive) falling of the leaves.