The Nine Most Important Songs of 2011

The Nine Most Important Songs of 2011


Top Ten lists are of course, all the rage in our culture. This list is in no particular order of importance, but more to the point: why is it apparently incomplete? Why is this only nine, instead of the more familiar, and admittedly more round, number ten? The answer is simple: budget cuts.

Enough said, right? This was a year when the politicians, technocrats and modern barons of industry--that infamous “one percent”--were absolutely cramming austerity and poverty down our throats. Now, three years after the dawn of the Great Recession, it was hardly news to anyone that there’s something much deeper wrong with the system. As always, though, the solutions of society’s rulers has been to take it out on us rather than take responsibility for the mess they made.

This pain, however, was only one half of the story. The other half is much more inspiring: Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, New York City, Oakland. These were just a handful of the locations around the world where real resistance took off in a way that hasn’t been seen in close to forty years. And so, naturally, the way this was played out in music was equally stunning. These struggles made themselves undeniably felt; from the near-center of the mainstream to the underground scenes in all corners of the globe. It’s no exaggeration to say that, while real rebel music has never completely faded into the background, 2011 saw it storm to the center of the stage with all the unpredictably chaotic glory we would expect of it.

El General, “Rais Lebled”

Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old man who immolated himself in protest against repression and poverty, is without a doubt the most important human symbol of the Tunisian revolution that overthrew the long-hated dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After him, however, comes Hamada Ben Amor, better known to the world as El General.

When word spread that Ben Amor had been locked up for recording a protest track, that track went viral overnight. “Rais Lebled,” also known as “Mr. President, Your People Are Dying,” was scathing toward Ben Ali. You didn’t have to understand the song’s Arabic lyrics to hear how angry Ben Amor was, or how inspired he had been to see his fellow Tunisians take to the street after twenty-three years of Ben Ali’s rule.

“Get to the streets, take a look,” he implored in his song, “People are turning mad, police are monsters / Speaking only with their batons, ‘Tac! Tac! Tac!’ they don’t care / As long as no one is there to say no / Our constitutional laws are nothing but a decoration.” Ben Ali’s thugs surely anticipated that Ben Amor would be another “disappearance” of the regime. They didn’t expect a world-wide solidarity drive that demanded he be released. He was, and the rest, including Ben Ali, is history. The former dictator is now in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Amor, meanwhile, has in the past year gone from a little-known MC in Sfax to one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Lady Gaga, “Born This Way”

Three years ago, Gaga was being presented to us (by both mainstream punditry and the record industry itself) as just another flash in the pan pop star whose admittedly shocking and unorthodox style was little more than gimmick. “Born This Way,” contradictions and all, showed that to not be the case, and there are a few things about the song that made it resonate.

First is the obvious shout-out to Gaga’s queer fan-base--not to be taken lightly nowadays, when non-straight folks are still treated like second-class citizens in the US. Second is what that conscious breaking of the mold represents broadly in the music industry. This is assuredly a ready-made club track, and Gaga without a doubt a pop artist. The way she has approached both--with real chops and a now-iconic subversiveness--is what stands out. This is a female artist well-aware of the ways in which others like her have been transformed into eye-candy for straight men and has, torpedoes be damned, set out to find creative ways to skewer that nasty sexism from the inside.

It’s this that has put the machinations of the industry in a sticky situation. For years, executives have been insisting that pop music can’t fly its freak-flag and move units at the same time. Gaga not only proved how out-of-touch this notion is, but proved that real, off-the-norm artists can actually have real staying power in the music world despite all the meddling of these same execs. It might be just a beginning, but a beginning is enough to build on.

Arabian Knightz, “Rebel”

If the music of El General provided the hip-hop soundtrack for the Tunisian revolt, then Arabian Knightz are his Egyptian counterparts. For years, Arabian Knightz--credited as one of the first hip-hop groups in Egypt--struggled against censorship and outright intimidation from Hosni Mubarak’s regime. According to Sphinx, one of AK’s three MCs, Mubarak’s cabal were openly repressive toward all art: “There are a lot of poets in Egypt that really dig against the government. There are some of them that are still in jail until recently because of their poetry! So it was all forms of art; artists who would paint pictures about Egyptian politics, cartoonists that would go to jail, bloggers that would go to jail, everything!”

That began to change after the Egyptian masses took the streets demanding Mubarak’s ouster. It changed for artists in general, and it changed for Arabian Knightz in particular. First came their Internet release of “Not Your Prisoner,” a four-year-old song that the group had never been able to officially release until that moment. After that track took off in popularity, AK quickly laid down “Rebel,” piecing together samples of Lauryn Hill with their own Arabic and English rhymes demanding an end to corruption and poverty, and calling for real people power and Arab unity on the streets.

Within minutes of releasing the song online, Mubarak’s regime shut down Egypt’s Internet for a week. But it was too late; the die had clearly been cast. Mubarak stepped down not long after--the second North African dictator toppled by revolution in a month--and Arabian Knightz had become, along with El General, the new world-renowned faces of a young, vibrant and militant Arab hip-hop.

The Nightwatchman, “Union Town”

Around the time that Mubarak was losing his final, tenuous grips on power, Tom Morello was at home half a world away watching the events on television. When the footage switched to a hundred thousand union workers and their supporters marching on the Madison, Wisconsin State Capitol to protest the governor’s draconian anti-worker legislation, he looked at his pregnant wife and said “Honey, our boys are gonna grow up to be union men.” According to Morello his wife simply sighed and replied “The Nightwatchman is needed. You should go.”

And go he did. Morello, in his Nightwatchman alter-ego, was one of literally dozens of artists who flew in from around the US to play for the workers and activists occupying the Capitol to defeat Scott Walker’s bill stripping state unions of their rights. And hundreds of other sent messages of support. In the aftermath what he jokingly called his “Frostbite and Freedom Tour,” he sat down to write this song: “Union Town.” In some ways, it’s what we’ve come to expect from the Nightwatchman--steadfast, relatively bare-bones rebel folk. But his calls of “we’ll give ‘em hell every time” is also nicely complimented by some of his signature, face-melting Rage-esque guitar solos.

One of the reasons Morello said he began writing as the Nightwatchman was that today’s protests seemed dominated by “these kind of old ‘Kumbaya’ jams. We need songs for right now!” It seems safe to say that these “right now” songs have been so few and far between is because America has for so long been dogged by such low and sporadic class struggle. The fight in Wisconsin--though ultimately unsuccessful--and songs like “Union Town” represented a moment when all of that changed.

Lethal Bizzle, “Pow 2011”

Lethal Bizzle has a real knack for being on the cutting edge of British rebel rap. This was a song released originally last December as an intended anthem for the student protests against the Conservative government’s education cuts. With its near-hypnotic chop-screw beat--signature of UK grime--and aggressive lyrics, it’s little wonder the track was taken up so enthusiastically by the young, left-behind masses willing to do battle with the cops.

The same can be said for the song’s resurgence during the urban uprisings that swept England like wildfire this past summer. Here’s a song that sounds not only like urban decay, but like the thousands of young kids picking up the crumbling shards of their housing estate and chucking them right at David Cameron’s forehead. Of course, in the aftermath of the riots, Bizzle was one of the most unapologetic, vocal and principled rappers defending his art-form against the culture-warriors looking to spin the blame back on hip-hop.

In many ways, “Pow 2011” revealed a whole host of those amazing coincidences that abound when music collides with real, on the streets rebellion. Of course, Bizzle had no clue that his song would be embraced during the “dubstep rebellions” of late 2010, let alone that it would have a notable resurgence this past summer. It did, however. And that’s certainly to his credit.

Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul”

Everyone who appreciated Amy Winehouse’s soulfully tortured voice had been hoping for some time that she would eventually conquer her demons. Admittedly, it hadn’t looked good for some time, but the sporadic rumors of a new album were enough to keep hopes alive. On July 23rd, however, those hopes were given the final dash.

“Body and Soul” was the last song that Winehouse ever recorded--a duet with Tony Bennett. Released by her family on what would have been her 28th birthday--September 14th--it was our first glimpse at the final batch of songs that more recently hit the shelves. Lioness: Hidden Treasures, gives the listener a sense of Winehouse’s intense and broad love of literally almost every genre: from pop-rock to soul to Jamaican ska. Bennett’s own experiences of recording this song in particular certainly reflect the dark place she had now irrevocably entered. Says Bennett: “she knew that she was in a lot of trouble; that she wasn’t going to live.” And it’s hard to hear her croon “it looks like the ending” without noting that simultaneous love for music and pain of life sung back to you.

It’s certainly a jazz standard, and comes across as such. Given, it doesn’t exactly come across with Winehouse’s signature bad-girl soulfulness. Listening to her part of the song, however, sung in her one-of-a-kind smokiness, it’s hard to not hear the poignancy of having lost a young voice whose final curtain call came way too soon this year.

Jasiri X, “I Am Troy Davis (T.R.O.Y.)”

Nobody on America’s brutal and shameful Death Rows has garnered so much support since Stan Tookie Williams. The reasons are obvious: no evidence, most witnesses recanted their testimony, the victim was a white cop killed by a Black man in the South. In the last weeks of his life, Troy Davis became an international symbol of not just the blatant racism and injustice he personally endured, but for countless prisoners locked up across the United States who are viewed as little more than pawns for politicians scoring law-and-order points.

Given that Davis’ case had gained international attention, it made sense that artists and musicians from Japan to France to Los Angeles came forward demanding he not be executed. Jasiri X was nowhere near the most well-known of these artists, but his song--recorded and released once again via the ‘Net--nonetheless garnered him wide attention. The past few years have seen Jasiri make an irreproachable credibility among the militant hip-hop community; he’s released joints protesting the police deaths of Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, and was among the many artists who traveled to Wisconsin to deliver solidarity to the struggle there.

“I Am Troy Davis” reminds us yet again why Jasiri has earned that cred. He has a clear knack for working on a moment’s notice when the struggle demands it. Within days of Davis’ death warrant being handed down, this song was written, recorded, and set to the video posted online. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that Jasiri can strike that perfect balance between smooth flow and confident rhymes rooted in an organic political urgency. Of course, Troy is no longer with us. Neither is his amazing crusading sister, Martina Correia. As long as there are MCs like Jasiri X around, though, it seems certain that the struggle both of them built will, as always, continue.

Lupe Fiasco, “Words I Never Said”

Here is a song that was already controversial when it was originally released in March. Lupe Fiasco had already been somewhat under the gun in his struggles with Atlantic Records to even release Lasers in the first place. When it was reported that the lead single “Words I Never Said” would include the line “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit,” most mainstream outlets instantly made themselves look stupid (and more than a bit racist) by wondering why a rapper was criticizing Obama.

Then came the performance at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. It was a few weeks after the Occupy movement had taken hold in almost every major American city, and Lupe was performing the song with an “#Occupy” t-shirt, a Palestinian flag on his mic, and Erykah Badu singing in a burqa. Since then, Lupe has become something like the de facto musical mascot of Occupy, and this song intimately interwoven with its admittedly short history.

Lupe’s lyrics play at a similar point to that of his performance. In it he takes on the reality of ghetto life, the housing crisis, the “bullshit” war on terror and, of course, the sell-outs of Obama. Wrapped in all of this is the simple statement that has certainly been taken to heart by countless young people in the past several months: “If you don’t become an actor, you’ll never be a factor.” And in fact, all of these elements taken as a whole reveal a striking parallel to what the Occupy movement itself is confronting. You can say that the song is “unfocused,” or “unclear in its message,” but that pig-headed excuse misses the larger point: it’s the whole damned system. Tear it down.

Miley Cyrus, “Liberty Walk”

One thing should be made clear at the outset: there is, at least as of now, no reason to believe that Miley Cyrus--one of the biggest money-makers of the pop mainstream--is undergoing some massive artistic or political transformation. But during times of ascendant social movements, even the most sheltered, common-denominator artists can’t help but be affected. In the ‘60s, one example was Marianne Faithful, who went from sanitized girl-next-door to being arrested with Mick Jagger on drug charges and speaking out against the Vietnam War.

That’s the significance of “Liberty Walk,” Cyrus’ attempt at reaching out to the global Occupy movement. Artistically there is nothing of note here--the lyrics are shallow, the music seems to revel in its own mediocrity. And it’s been so processed as to render Cyrus’ already unremarkable singing voice without even the slightest tinge of soul. In other words, it sounds exactly how the one percent want our music to sound. When that same one percent feels no choice but to allow one of their most guaranteed commodities (and that is surely the way they view Cyrus) to support a movement that threatens their very existence, something is clearly in the air.

And really, you have to be under a rock to not get a whiff of it. Revolution, riot, resistance popping off in city after city, country after country. It has, undeniably, its own feel, its own iconic images, and yes, its own soundtrack. No longer is it quite so easy for the suits and execs to so easily turn their nose up at what happens in the world at large. No longer can they so quickly dismiss the fact that ordinary people are sick of the music business as usual.

Certainly, the kind of rebellion we’ve seen pour onto the world’s streets this past year has made actual living resistance (and not its fake, marketed variety) cool. Whether it can be ultimately commodified, its rough edges filed off and shrink-wrapped for safe consumption really does come down to our own actions and organization in the coming year.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He has also been published in Z Magazine, New Politics,, and other outlets. He can be reached at