The year in music in 2012 has been interesting. I mean, aside from the fact Katy Perry keeps releasing Teenage Dream with even MORE songs ( seriously, just make another album, Katy. I promise to hate it, too). There is also the pop hook brilliance of songs like “Call Me Maybe” (love it) and “Gangham Style” (don’t want to love it, but I also didn’t want to love the Macarena and I failed at that). For the first time in Rihanna’s career I hated every single song she released in 2012 ( ha- “We Found Love” was a 2011 track. It was on my list last year, remember?). Scandinavia is experiencing a resurgence in pop music with acts that sound nothing like ABBA. Eurovision even proved that point by awarding Loreen’s dark dance track “Euphoria” the crown ( oh, Malta. Find Chiara and send her again. We’ll get that win for you yet).
There were comebacks witnessed and hiatuses announced. There was Beiber, Ne-Yo, something called the Wanted (?), and then fucking One Direction, a boy band whose sole reason for existence is to make my ears bleed. There were interesting songs by interesting acts that became hits- Gotye and fun. both topped Billboard. But still, as we speak, Ke$ha is number one, so…
Below the cut is my annual list of the songs I loved best. And as always, it’s eclectic. I am an odd duck.
20. Lana del Rey “Blue Jeans”
Her controversial Saturday Night Live appearance did nothing to enhance her reputation with music nerds. The horrific display of vocal skills she displayed that night did her gloomy ballads no justice. But “Blue Jeans” is a wonderful song on record. You can complain about entitled rich girls with obscene amounts of plastic surgery and barely any musical skills getting record deals all you want, but sometimes, a gem still comes out of the muck. del Rey is no more a singer than Britney Spears or Katy Perry, but with the right producers she can make a dark mood shimmer with desperation and unbearable sadness. It’s a depressing song musically, and it’s references to James Dean and eternal damnation via love still stick you where it hurts. It’s a pop dirge of top quality production and songwriting. Maybe one day it will escape my skull.
19. The xx “Angels”
The acclaimed indie band returns with a wonderful record, and “Angels”, Coexist‘s opening track, is a gentle electronica inspired track about love lost. In a world where more and more noise gets thrown on to each song, the minimalism of the xx’s first single off their second album is a relief. Also impressive is Romy Madley Croft’s subtle vocal performance, which trips softly over sparse beats and sweetly twisting guitars. Lovesick and exquisite.
18. The Soundtrack to Our Lives “Throw it Out to the Universe”
Lamenting the end to the great Swedish post-punk psychedelic band is pointless, as they are ending on a high note. The slow building scream of Ebbot Lundberg over chugging guitar rifts perfectly describes TSOOL’s mandate, and while one would think writing a tribute song to yourself is a pretentious ass thing to do, when you have produced such classic albums like Behind the Music, I will allow for such ego to happen. Fortunately, there is a twinkle of cynical humour, and the musicianship remains strong. As acoustic guitars smash-up against electric walls of sound, you have to sit back and revel in the fact that Sweden does, indeed, have more to offer the music world than ABBA.
17. Exitmusic “Passage”
If you want to be a duo, make sure you get noticed. And this single from the husband and wife team Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church got noticed in a huge way this year. Palladino’s dramatic classically trained voice can go from soft to devastating in less a single triad, and the raw emotion of the swirling, electronic orchestral swamp that surrounds her is just as beautifully tense. Compelling in all the right ways, it’s a real life movie love story creating brash art . (Seriously, read their back story, it’s so perfect and twee that you are convinced it’s an unfinished Nora Ephron screenplay.)
16. Antony and the Johnsons “Fell in Love With a Dead Boy”
Antony Hagerty has a voice that makes me weep. The achingly sad “Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” starts off with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra’s bold strings and that singular voice, and after a beat, the piano comes in and I’m done. The song dates from a 2001 EP, but this version from this year’s live Cut the World album is even more devastating in its intimacy and it’s immediacy. Antony is such a special talent.
15. Bassnectar f. Lupe Fiasco “Vava Voom”
From the video game tones that open the track to the hip hop swagger that has Lupe tripping, the Santa Cruz native reminds us that you don’t need to sell a gazillion albums to get the masses to dance. In the era of the celebrity DJ, Lorin Ashton’s alter ego remains quiet. But this brash braggadocio from a hip hop legend and the hippy with a love for playing with beats is one of the heaviest, cleverest dance track of the year.
14. Jack White “Sixteen Saltines”
Without Meg to hold him back, Jack wanders around from genre to genre, always fantastic, but never transcendent. Then he returns to the grungy blues he is best at, and we all gush and swoon. Blunderbuss is a good album, but the fierceness of “Sixteen Saltines” is reminiscent of the high point of the White Stripes, and since that band is no longer of this world, we take that singular sonic blast where we can get it. Not to mention, Jack’s guitar work is as brilliant as ever, and it blasts from the speakers with the force of a hurricane.
13. Bobby Womack “The Bravest Man in the Universe”
Confession: I love Bobby Womack’s 1981 masterpiece The Poet so much I can barely stand it. But Bobby’s late career output has been sparse and uneven. Fortunately, Damon Albarn dragged him into the new millennium, featuring Womack on 2010’s Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, where Bobby’s instantly recognizable soulful voice made a welcome return. Albarn is on hand for Womack’s first album of new material in two decades. and this song, the title track of this magnificent creation of an album, mixes soul music with trip hop beats. Bobby Womack is the comeback of the year.
12. Killer Mike “Reagan”
Revisionist history (aka PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW ACTUAL HISTORY EVEN IF THEY LIVED THROUGH IT BECAUSE THEIR IDEOLOGY IS SO SCREWED UP THEY CAN’T SEE THE TRUTH- sorry, history major meltdown) has tried to paint Ronald Reagan as some sort of theocratic libertarian saint when in fact Ronald Reagan was not. I disagreed with almost all policy he created, from trickle down economics to the war on drugs, but I also see it as more his people trying to turn the world than him. He was a puppet of sorts. Killer Mike takes it further. He recalls his childhood in Atlanta, where conspiracy theories about the war on drugs being a way to keep African-Americans in the cycle of perpetual poverty that still damages the community. On the back of President Obama’s win in spite of economic numbers that really should have seen him lose (again… history nerd alert, I love the President), one must wonder if the GOP are never going to be able to win the White House again. Racism is alive and well in the U.S.A. Killer Mike just speaks his truth over dark beats. It’s powerful stuff.
11. Bob Mould “Keep Believing”
The return of Mould, noise post-punk God of pretty melodies, former frontman of Hüsker Dü and my beloved Sugar, in any capacity makes me happy. Bringing me an album as sonically ferocious while as highly melodic as Sugar’s legendary 1992 album Copper Blue just makes me glad I rarely give up on the artists I love. Bob Mould remains, as always, one of my childhood heroes. And “Keep Believing” is an update on Copper Blue’s signature sound. I hum this song incessantly.
10. Amy Macdonald “Life in a Beautiful Light”
I really like Amy Macdonald. I know that she seems so MOR, plain, strummy bunny. But with songs like “Life in a Beautiful Life”, a sweet folky slice of life from a girl with a wonderful voice and a strong sense of melody, I can forgive some lyrical clichés and Corrs era sounding production. She’s just so winsome, and I just really love this song. Ack, some Scottish lass just smashed through my wall of bitter bitchiness and made me love a song about finding true love and being happy in your life. I hate it when that happens.
9. Calvin Harris f. Florence Welch “Sweet Nothing”
The albums may disappoint me by being to similar overall, but this track, using Harris’ trademark disco beats and Welch’s expressive voice, is a highlight in EDM this year. Dance tracks are supposed to make you get up and dance, and this one does it splendidly. Top it off with that incredible vocal, and you get this magnificent track. Skrillex may be the cool name, but Harris is comfortable and warm in comparison.
8. Frank Ocean “Bad Religion”
Frank Ocean stormed on the scene this year and turned hip hop on its head. An openly bisexual man who is part of Tyler the Creator’s Odd Future collective, he sings openly here about his struggles with both religion and the expectations brought about by religion, particularly in regards to the “him” Frank wants to love. Homophobia is sadly still rife in the African-American community, but thanks to Ocean, and vocal support from such hip hop kings like Kanye and Jay-Z, maybe there will be some changes happening. On top of it all, the church organs and falsetto of “Bad Religion” are heartbreaking and lovely. Ocean is an incredible artist, and I am going to love watching him grow.
7. Japandroids “The House That Heaven Built”
Canada is known for having memorable duos (hello, the Inbreds). But this Vancouver duo wrote what is possibly the most joyous album of the year in Celebration Rock. Of all the tracks on this incredible album, the hooky “The House That Heaven Built” remains on permanent repeat, rambunctiously storming all over my life with its infectious melody, loud guitars, and it’s screamed out vocals. Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.
6. Swedish House Mafia f. John Martin “Don’t You Worry, Child”
Another act breaking up after 2012 is hugely successful EDM trio Swedish House Mafia, who are playing their last shows in March 2013. After a two-year run that saw incredible songs from these guys, one cannot help but feel puzzled by this decision, but they feel they have reached the end of their journey together. The Mafia return to what made them huge names, bringing along “Save the World” vocalist John Martin, and soaring synths and beats. The chorus of this song is simply phenomenal. It just explodes through the speakers. I’m going to miss these guys.
5. Emeli Sandé “My Kind of Love”
Emeli Sandé takes the best of Alicia Keys and brings it up a notch. In a year where Keys’ album is making me cold ( I know it’s only been a few days), Sandé has upped the ante with this raw slice of heartbreak. Haunting piano backed with subtle drum beats, Sandé’s extraordinary voice stands front and centre, and it grabs you by the collar and rips you to shreds. Another person to observe over the coming years.
4. Cold Specks “Blank Maps”
She said her music is doom soul, and it seems as right a name as anything. It’s definitely soul, and it’s definitely got a dark gothic streak riding through it. In a year where soul women are changing the rules on the divas, I wonder how the big names will change their game for next time. Toronto’s Al Spx takes her unique tone and over more subtle synths, drums, and guitars, she creates a blasphemic hymn. “I am a Goddamned believer”. Indeed, I am one myself now.
3. Jens Lekman “I Know What Love Isn’t”
It’s easy to dismiss Sweden as the land of musical nonsense, or the Satan that unleashed ABBA and Ace of Base on a poor, unsuspecting world. But when you do that and refuse to listen to the lovely Swedish singer songwriters, you miss talent like the delightful Jens Lekman, who writes bouncy little folk pop drenched in Scandinavian melancholy. His vibrato free voice and gentle humour play over sweet guitar pop, and his broken heart give us all great reward after a five year hiatus. He improves upon his 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala, and he still cannot be anything but himself in the process. He’s like Morrissey, only less miserable. When you can say a Swede is less miserable than a Brit, you know we are dealing with someone special.
2. Of Monsters and Men “Little Talks”
Iceland’s music scene has been hinged on Bjork and Sigur Ros for so long you might not realise there are other musicians in Iceland. Hell, there are two that call themselves Jonsi. Considering the supreme oddness of the tiny nation’s two best known acts, the folky, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros meet Arcade Fire meets Bjork-like tone of singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir Of Monsters and Men should not have been so damn catchy, so damn cheerful sounding, so… In typical Nordic fashion, the lyrics are darker than the music, but man, what music. The warm blast of brass cuts through and lifts a strong melody, and the vocal interplay between Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson make for a memorable catchy pop song. This is the type of début single you all should be looking for, bands searching for one. Make it so undeniable that you have people like me play it a hundred times a week.
1. Sinéad O’Connor “The Wolf Is Getting Married”
I have stood by Sinéad through thick and thin. Her voice is just undeniable. I struggled with it- some albums just did not work, but I also know that Universal Mother was an overlooked gem of a record, and that Sinéad singing “Foggy Dew” with the Chieftains is a heavenly experience. Patience is sometimes needed when you are a fan of musicians who are clearly troubled. The music can sometimes be uneven. But the Sinéad I love and adore is on full display in 2012. In the expansive, messy, emotional, ugly beautiful mess of How About I Be Me (And You Be You) is this song, a lovely, highly melodic song with rare rays of hope and sunshine lyrically. It’s a love song I can get behind. And it’s the strongest thing I have heard from Sinéad O’Connor since “No Man’s Woman”. I am very much in love with this song, and have been all year.