The most ecstatic noise in Beyoncé’s “Countdown” doesn’t come when B flutters through the vowel-stretched “Boyyyy” at the song’s outset, nor does it come from the blats of brass, nor does it come when she delightedly wraps her voice around the newly minted term of endearment “Boof.” It’s buried so deep in the song’s stuffed-to-the-gills mix that it reveals itself only after her ode to fidelity and baby-making has been fully taken in: It’s an undergrowth of moans, pulsing in time with the rat-tat-tat drumline and underscoring the sensual pleasures that go hand-in-hand with the romantic splendor detailed in the lyrics. The close listener gets rewarded with the knowledge that, why, yes, she did have quite a bit of fun while trying to make that three from the two.
“Countdown” was both one of the standout tracks on Beyoncé’s 4 (#26 album) and a yawp of unbridled joy. And joy was at a premium in 2011, a year that was full of hard times—calamities both man-made and natural, economic uncertainty, the sour political side of the ’90s revival finally manifesting itself. It’s probably not accidental, then, that the song placed high on this year’s poll. Indeed, a lot of the albums and singles that performed well had a sense of wonder about themselves, inviting the listener along on journeys that veered into unexpected places with gusto.
Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” not only had a feel-good story attached to it—it was the Little Bonus Track That Could, a Pink Friday afterthought-turned-Hot 100 force—but it also sparkled sonically, its tale of infatuation manifesting itself physically and seeming to spill out of Minaj’s brain at the speed of light. The upstart uptown genre-melder Azealia Banks used her breakout single “212” as a way to figure out just what she could do with her mouth, whether it was shifting back and forth between ferocious rapping and silky singing, or flicking “that tongue, tongue d-deep in.” Wild Flag’s album (#4) was the work of four veterans of the now-retrofied ’90s indie-rock world who disdained the looking back engaged in by so many of their peers and instead created something wholly new, swearing blood oaths to each other and to the transformative power of rock and roll. Lady Gaga’s (#24 artist) maximalist approach to pop involved throwing as many things that she could—mermaid-sex fantasies, Clarence Clemons, a pro-gay marriage lobbying campaign—at whatever wall happened to be nearby, but her reactions when any of them stuck seemed absolutely giddy. And while Rihanna’s Calvin Harris–assisted “We Found Love” (tied for #18) was a brick house better suited for listening during dance-floor blackouts than anywhere else, its central, endlessly repeated conceit of finding “love in a hopeless place” could have doubled as a palliative for any politics-watcher wondering where all the optimism of 2008 had gone off to.
Even the entrants on my ballot that dealt with more somber themes had something pushing them underneath—PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, my co-No. 1 and the poll’s second-place finisher, quivered with knowledge that the world was in a dark place, its optimism manifesting itself with the declarations that something was wrong, and that the global situation shouldn’t be the way it is right now. Charli XCX’s “Stay Away” was a song about heartbreak that doubled as a realization of the importance of letting others into one’s heart, even if it resulted in some damage here and there; Patrick Stump’s “Everybody Wants Somebody” (from his solo debut Soul Punk, the other record topping my list) was a warning about unrequited love that wrung the joy out of protecting one’s heart so convincingly, it almost argued in favor of longing for someone else.
Before this year’s ballots were even sent out, many outside observers had tagged Bon Iver’s falsetto-swaddled, reverb-drenched second album, Bon Iver, as the likely pick for No. 1; it had Meaning and Artistic Growth, and Justin Vernon was coming off a year where he got an all-important co-sign from last year’s landslide albums-poll-winner Kanye West. To these ears, it sounded mushy and furtive, the work of a dude getting lost in his own depths for the sake of feeling even worse about having done so later; I found myself wishing that he’d edited himself a bit, so his points shone through more. (Although the constant information flow of the current age has made me a little more impatient, other records that could be classified as having “ambiance” also figured out ways to slyly do that or at least hint to the listener that one would be forthcoming.) That w h o k i l l—the second album by Merrill Garbus’s tUnE-yArDs, a shot across the bow that blended the personal and political into a stunning proclamation of faith in the self that quite literally begs “Don’t take my life away” at one point—marched to the top spot instead could speak to an unspoken desire to wrench one’s ears and brains out of the constant stream of bad news and appreciate the miracle that is being fully alive and present in the world, no matter what external, extenuating circumstances might exist.