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2011: The Return of the Sax

The year’s top 10 best pop songs featuring saxophone

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Though 2011 saw the passing of iconic saxophone players Clarence Clemons and Gerry Rafferty, the year also marked the resurgence of their instrument in popular culture. After years of signifying the goofiest excesses of the Eighties, artists ranging from Bon Iver to Lady Gaga embraced the sax and made the woodwind instrument one of the most vital sounds of 2011. This list highlights Rolling Stone's 10 favorite sax performances of the year.

By Matthew Perpetua

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10. Fleet Foxes, ‘A Shrine/An Argument’

Fleet Foxes don't let the woodwinds loose until the climax of this two-part epic from their second album, Helplessness Blues, but it's worth the wait. The band may be famous for their mellow folk-pop, but the finale of this number is surprisingly atonal and intentionally ugly.

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9. Bon Iver, ‘Towers,’ ‘Perth’ and ‘Calgary’

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon went all-out with brass and woodwinds on his celebrated second album, adding trumpets, French horns and all manner of saxophones to his lush, delicate arrangements. In this clip from the British television series Later with Jools Holland, Vernon leads his band through three of the album's best tracks.

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8. M83, ‘Midnight City’

M83 have always specialized in retro-Eighties glamour, but they really doubled down on that style with "Midnight City," the lead single from their new double album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. The inclusion of sax ups the ante for the track, which would be thrilling New Wave either way.

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7. Iron and Wine, ‘Me and Lazarus’

Iron and Wine is best known for hushed, incredibly spare acoustic ballads, but on this year's excellent Kiss Each Other Clean, singer-songwriter Sam Beam expanded his palette to include a wide range of instruments, including warm, jazzy sax on the album highlight "Me and Lazarus."

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6. PJ Harvey, ‘The Last Living Rose’

Polly Jean Harvey got her musical start playing the saxophone as a teenager, but the instrument had been largely absent from her body of work as PJ Harvey until this year's Let England Shake, in which she added a lightly festive sax part as a counterpoint to the jaunty chords of her war ballad "The Last Living Rose."

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5. Katy Perry, ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)’

Katy Perry doesn't shy away from any sort of kitsch or silliness, so it's hardly a surprise when an ultra-Eighties sax solo is unleashed near the end of her massive hit single "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)." Some artists may be working to rehabilitate the instrument's reputation in pop music, but Perry makes it clear that she likes her saxophone with extra cheese.

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4. Eleanor Friedberger, ‘My Mistakes’

The sax in Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger's solo single "My Mistakes" comes as a surprise, but it's very welcome – after several clever verses spent reminiscing over old regrets, the solo lets loose all the pent-up frustration and sorrow that's only suggested by the singer's distinctive phrasing.

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3. Tune-Yards, ‘Gangsta’

Tune-Yards mastermind Merrill Garbus is one of the fiercest singers in pop music today, with a voice capable of such intensity that some of her shouts seem as though they could level a mountain range. In this performance of "Gangsta," a standout track from her band's breakthrough album, w h o k i l l, the singer complements her voice with sax parts so wild, they make her seem mild in comparison.

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2. Destroyer, ‘Kaputt’

Kaputt, Dan Bejar's ninth album as Destroyer, conjurs a misty, early-Eighties world out of carefully composed layers of synth-pop keyboards and lite-jazz woodwinds. It's a remarkable piece of work that almost singlehandedly makes some of the least cool sounds of the decade seem fresh and edgy in context. "Kaputt," the album's first single, nods in the general direction of Roxy Music but sounds more like the best-case scenario of a Bob Dylan/Kenny G collaboration.

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1. Lady Gaga, ‘The Edge of Glory’

Lady Gaga channels the spirit of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band all throughout her second proper album, Born This Way, merging their stadium-rock grandeur with her pounding disco beats. Rather than simply emulate the Boss' sax style, she went straight to the source and hired the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons to rip into what turned out to be the last great sax solo of his amazing career.