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10 best (and 5 worst) singles of 2011

Love for Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, and Kelly Clarkson. Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus? Not so much

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Best
1. Nicki Minaj, ”Super Bass”
It was the boom badoom boom heard round the world — or at least from every ringtone, passing car, and pink-wig emporium in 2011. (When YouTube clips of Taylor Swift and teeny British ballerinas paying tribute to your track are each at 20 million-plus page views, you know you’ve entered the beyond-Thunderdome pop culture zone.) Still, ubiquity couldn’t kill our love for Nicki Minaj’s verbal jujitsu and high-fructose hooks; she’s one (pelican-) fly girl. —Leah Greenblatt

2. Foster the People, ”Pumped Up Kicks”
The greatness of this song doesn’t come from its junk-drawer-of-the-future sound collage, its revenge-fantasy lyrics, or even its kick-ass whistle solo. The secret is Mark Foster’s woozy charisma, which brings all those elements together in an effortlessly cool crossover smash that inspired awkward dancing, serious social debate, and subversive sing-alongs in the car-pool van — a rare pop-radio trifecta —Kyle Anderson

3. The Throne, ”No Church in the Wild”
Jigga and Kanye build their world-weary catalog of top-one-percent street wealth around a WWE-entrance-song-worthy rumble and shout-outs to 5 a.m. nights, Socrates, and the Rolls-Royce Corniche. Esoteric Odd Future crooner Ocean, the track’s true star, ices the lyrical cupcake by lending lines like ”What’s a king to a god?/What’s a god to a nonbeliever?” a haunting gravitas worthy of the biggest names in hip-hop. —KA

4. Lana Del Rey, ”Video Games”
If it were possible to give the entire Internet a case of the vapors, the self-professed ”gangster Nancy Sinatra” achieved it with her utterly beguiling, endlessly polarizing debut single. Some couldn’t get past the extracurriculars (those lips! that label deal!), but the song — a swooning noir symphony of intimacy and bad-girl ennui — stands gorgeously alone. —LG

5. Beyoncé, ”Countdown”
Her skittering, deliciously scatter-brained R&B über-jam has strains of everything from drum-line funk to Boyz II Men and Roberta Flack spliced into its musical DNA. Pulling it all together is Queen Bey, her voice slip-‘n’-sliding gracefully between genres while she brags about loving her ”boof” — the man who is still killing her softly, even though they’ve been at it for years. So what if it was a little heady for the Hot 100? (The song peaked at No. 71.) Go ahead and listen; we guarantee you’ll want to hit play again in T minus 10, 9, 8… —Adam Markovitz

6. Wild Flag, ”Romance”
A scrappy, choogling blast of pure grrrl-group nirvana, courtesy of four ’90s alt-scene survivors with stellar résumés — and clearly undiminished powers of garage-rattling rock. When ex-Sleater-Kinney guitarist (and current star of IFC’s Portlandia) Carrie Brownstein yelps in her hiccupy growl ”We love the sound/The sound is what found us/The sound is the blood between me and you,” it’s not so much a chorus as a manifesto: If you’re not dancing, you’re not listening. —LG

7. Britney Spears, ”I Wanna Go”
That icy four-on-the-floor beat and those irresistible alpine whistles (courtesy of Swedish superproducer Max ”…Baby One More Time” Martin) lure you in. By the time the chorus hits its glitter-and-fog climax, you’ve pledged your allegiance to the Brit-ish empire. ”Shame on me/To need to release/Uncontrollably,” she coos with an Auto-Tuned pout. We know exactly how she feels — minus the guilt, because pop this pixel-perfect is nothing to be ashamed of. —AM

8. Colbie Caillat, ”Brighter Than the Sun”
Musicians have used all kinds of gimmicks to evoke the pure hedonism of a permanent summer, from the Beach Boys’ sun-drenched harmonies to Will Smith’s celebrations of subwoofers and backyard barbecues. Colbie Caillat keeps it simple, offering up her own round of applause for that big shiny ball in the sky alongside a frothy melody so seaside-ready it should come with its own bottle of SPF 30 and one of those stripy towels with the built-in head pillows. —KA

9. Foo Fighters, ”Walk”
Dave Grohl has been the frontman and mastermind of a consistently excellent stadium-size rock outfit for over a decade and a half, but that doesn’t mean that he’s immune to Everydude insecurities: ”I think I lost my way/Getting good at starting over,” Grohl croons while a trio of guitars chime below him. ”Walk” is the sound of Grohl’s unending restlessness, delivered with the same eardrum-pounding joie de vivre he’s been unleashing since we knew him only as the shirtless Tasmanian devil pounding the drums behind Kurt. —KA

10. Kelly Clarkson, ”What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”
Note to all boys: Please keep breaking up with Kelly Clarkson. Seven years after ”Since U Been Gone,” we still need more single-ladies anthems like this one: a sequin-studded disco revamp that begins with a note of self-assurance (”You know, the bed feels warmer sleeping here alone”) before raging into full-blown I Will Survive defiance. Sure, what doesn’t kill you might make you stronger. But more important, it helps you write a mean pop song. —Melissa Maerz

Worst

1. Kim Kardashian, ”Jam (Turn It Up)”
Sure, it’s kind of like getting mad at a lemur for being bad at math, but the fact that she didn’t even try to sing on this lethargic robo-pop ”jam” — FreshDirect phone orders have been placed with more enthusiasm — just made it insulting. Straight up? It’s krap.

2. Insane Clown Posse, ”Leck Mich im Arsch”
That we can’t even print the English translation of the title in a family magazine is mitigated (kind of) by its taking its name from a Mozart canon, which it also samples. Less forgivable: that indie godhead Jack White produced a song that rhymes ”need” with ”butt cheek.”

3. will.i.am feat. Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez, ”T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)”
Jagger wisely phones it in, most likely from a luxurious hotel suite far, far away. But poor J. Lo gets the blowback on lyrical diamonds like ”Tell a jealous chicken/I don’t know what the beef is.” Listen once, and you’ll join PETA.

4. Limp Bizkit, ”Shotgun”
Kudos to Captain Literal Fred Durst for putting actual shotgun-blast audio effects on the lead single from his band’s 2011 ”comeback” album, Gold Cobra. And yet, this chronicle of running from the cops, rolling joints, and appreciating ”you ladies with the hot t–s” (as one does, when one is 41) somehow failed to set the world on fire.

5. Miley Cyrus covering ”Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Hello, hello, hello, how low? This low. —LG