2012 was a year for comebacks, for female artists not named Rihanna or Beyoncé, for bared pop emotion without apology. It was a year for Frank Ocean, for coming out not being such a big deal, for sounds that were brand new but still somehow familiar, for standing up for what we believe in. Such clichéd summaries are inevitably descriptive of election years, but this one in particular seems to have shaken off the cringe that follows the banality. Acts like fun. and Miguel are bridging the gap between pop and indie, bringing the best qualities of one to the other and refusing to apologize for it. With any luck, 2012 will represent the beginning of the end of the divide: the divide in Congress, the divide between mainstream and indie (thanks Spotify and Frank Ocean), the divide between rich and poor, gay and straight, you name it.
Okay, maybe I’m shooting for the stars with a statement like that. Maybe it’s just that 2012 had a damn good soundtrack that helped me believe the cliché, if only for moments at a time. Here are 20 of my favorites this year and some unnecessarily long-winded explanations as to why they came out on top.
20. “Cutty Love” – Milo Greene
The first time I saw Milo Greene, they blew me away. After being a band for about a few solid months, they went on tour with The Civil Wars, and when they stopped by the Berklee Performance Center, they swept the venue with gorgeously woven harmonies and sweeping folk melodies that pulled at me like a . . . I’ll spare the gratuitous metaphors, you get the point. They’re f*cking beautiful. They’re like Mumford & Sons’ seasoned and more earnest older sibling– except this is only their debut album. The driving beat behind “Cutty Love,” overlaid with a wash of vocal harmony and acoustic guitar, gets about as close as can be to the religious experience of seeing them live, and only promises a bright, bright future for these guys.
19. “Myth” – Beach House
“Myth”, the opening track off of Baltimore duo Beach House’s best album yet, slowly and deliberately pulls the listener underwater into a veritable ocean of layered synths and guitars. It’s what you’d imagine Robert Smith was listening to before he wrote “Just Like Heaven.” It’s what Elliott Smith might have listened to to fall asleep at night. It’s melancholy in its most exquisite, enveloping form. Someone hold me.
18. “Some Nights” – fun.
I know, guys, I hate me too. But someone had to say it, no matter how embarrassing it may be– fun. makes some quality pop music. What cold soul could remain emotionless as what’s-his-name from The Format questions his principles and purpose with an electronically-altered chorus backing him up? That sounded sarcastic, but swear to Beyoncé, I’m serious. I’m just gonna say it once here (and probably never live it down), fun., like, gets me – and deep down in your jaded hipster hearts, you know they get you too.
17. “Under the Westway” – Blur
This song from Britpop veterans Blur evokes a kind of aching nostalgia- so much so that the first time I heard it, I was convinced it was from the late 80s and not 2012 (a fact of which I remained convinced throughout most of the fall . . . oof). I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know as much about Blur’s discography as I probably should. But based off of this devastating ballad alone, you can bet that I plan on fixing that in the near future.
16. “Fineshrine” – Purity Ring
Purity Ring’s dreamy electronica gives Grimes a run for her money with standout track “Fineshrine,” off their debut album, Shrines. Wikipedia calls Purity Ring “post-dubstep.” I have no clue what that means, but the Brooklyn duo does incorporate sound bites and elements of wub-wubs and bass drops to stitch together impeccable alt-pop with that ineffable dreamy quality that every good electronica song possesses, that quality that fits with lines like these: “Get a little closer, let fold / Cut open my sternum, and pull / My little ribs around you / The lungs of me be crowns over you.” Creepy, creepy poetry.
15. “Bad Girls” – M.I.A.
After declaring her self-imposed retirement from the music industry and dropping a confusing last album in 2010’s // / Y /, M.I.A. came roaring back with infectiously kick-ass single, “Bad Girls.” The mantra of the chorus matches the feeling the song inspires: “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.” And the music video! M.I.A. rides on top of a car turned up on its side, like a badass! Do you really need more convincing than that?
14. “Would That Not Be Nice” – Divine Fits
Although I have my complaints about the Spoon-Wolf Parade supergroup that is Divine Fits (mainly that they sound just like Spoon), I can’t deny that they managed to craft a solid debut album, carried by lead single, “Would That Not Be Nice.” The pulsing bass line builds to a cathartic head that manages to get my feet tapping and my head bobbing no matter how shitty of a mood I’m in. There’s something to be said for a song that makes you not care that you forgot your umbrella during a thunderstorm or that you’re thirty minutes late for your hour-long class. I’d like to take this moment to thank lead singer Britt Daniel for inspiring my situation-inappropriate dancing this fall, and implore him to do more of the same in the future.
13. “Heavy Mood” – Tilly and the Wall
After about six or seven years of loving this band, I finally had the privilege of seeing Tilly and the Wall at Brighton Music Hall a few months ago, at which time I immediately fell in love with “Heavy Mood,” the standout track of their album of the same name. Tilly, famous for using tap dancing to drive a beat instead of (or over) drums, brought another impossibly catchy rhythm in “Heavy Mood,” living up to their past work after a four-year hiatus and completely contradicting the name of the song. Seriously guys, I’m going to go ahead and warn against listening to this song in public unless you want to make an ass of yourself dancing on the T. You heard it here first.
12. “40 Mark Strasse” – The Shins
At first, I was hesitant to pick up the new Shins album because I was afraid it would ruin my mental picture of the old Shins. I should have had more faith in James Mercer. The stoic wail that narrated a large part of my angstier adolescent phase returned in full force to pen the soundtrack of that first sign of autumn in “40 Mark Strasse.” It’s like he’s talking to me: “You play in the street at night / Blown like a broken kite / My girl, you’re giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans put another dent in your life?” I will NOT give up the fight, Mercer! Although, admittedly, I still don’t know what a ‘strasse’ is.
11. “Nothin’ But Time” – Cat Power
After a five-year hiatus, a bold haircut and a stint in rehab, Cat Power returned this year with one of her stronger (if not strongest) records, Sun. It seems that she has left the bare-bones folk singer-songwriter sound behind for a fuller, more experimental kind of ambience. It also seems as though she has left behind her anxiety and troubles with drugs and alcohol for a future painted with relentless optimism, as she details on ten-minute positivity anthem, “Nothin’ But Time.” Good on you, Chan. Good on you.
10. “Is Your Love Big Enough?” – Lianne La Havas
I don’t recall seeing this song on any of the major year-end favorites lists– and what a pity, because Lianne La Havas proves herself in this song to be one of the most promising folk/soul singer-songwriters of her generation. Her lazy drawl drifts through each verse with quiet power, her beats are catchy as hell and that guitar is just so soulful. If you discover one new song from this list, my vote’s on this one.
9. “Lonesome” – Dr. Dog
Philly’s favorite lo-fi rockers Dr. Dog came back this year with one of 2012’s best albums, Be The Void. I had a tough time picking just one song off of it to add to this list, but I ended up settling on “Lonesome,” the folksy, swamp-rock-y opening track. Toby Leaman’s signature raspy howl rumbles through a gritty beat, and the combination makes being lonesome sound like a pretty good time after all.
8. “Bad Religion” – Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean exploded onto the 2012 cultural lexicon through many different avenues: his revelatory debut album, channel ORANGE, his association with hip hop collective Odd Future, his coming out and still selling a bajillion albums, etc., etc. But leave all that aside for a moment, and his heartbreaking ballad, “Bad Religion” still stands on its own as one of the most beautiful tales of unrequited love ever told. Ocean is, above all, a storyteller, and the way he weaves lines together leaves me weeping without even knowing why. In two minutes and fifty-five seconds, Ocean manages to do what novelists need hundreds of pages for. Without knowing anything about his life, without looking at his tumblr or reading the headlines, anyone could listen to this song and know exactly who he is and where he’s coming from.
7. “Comeback Kid” – Sleigh Bells
Sleigh Bells answered their critically acclaimed noise pop debut with an even louder, tighter album in 2012’s Treats, the standout on which is “Comeback Kid.” Lead singer Alexis Krauss lent a much more integral role to the songwriting of this album, which resulted in much more traditional pop song structures. The band did not lose its edge, however; “Comeback Kid” still punches right through the speakers. Scintillating guitars overlaid with bold gunshot sound effects create a rhythm that is a little punk-metal, a little pop, and a whole lot of cool.
6. “You Ain’t Alone” – Alabama Shakes
I don’t know about you guys, but personally, I’m constantly on the hunt for that perfect blues-soul song– the emotive voice with a stellar falsetto, a steady beat that builds to the perfect blend of nostalgia and catharsis. It’s the song that sounds like you could leave it in the attic for a few years, come back, dust it off, and it sounds just as sweet as it did the first time. I don’t want to jump the gun here, but I’m pretty sure I found what I’ve been looking for in Alabama Shakes’ “You Ain’t Alone.” Singer Brittany Howard’s voice powers through the song like the perfect blend of Aretha and Bobby D, and for a second, I think I’m in a dive bar in Georgia in the 1960s. I can’t say I hate it.
5. “Werewolf” – Fiona Apple
I confess, I forgot about Fiona Apple for a few years there. After her second hiatus following 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, Apple finally released an album after a friend accused her of not writing music anymore (classic Apple). The album is entitled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (also classic Apple). I’ve gotta say, after all these years, she sure didn’t disappoint. While The Idler Wheel… is perhaps her most accessible album yet, “Werewolf” still stands out as a quintessential example of Apple’s style: searing lyrics filled with metaphor backed with not much other than jarring piano chords. Apple’s voice quivers with emotion, so much so that we feel as though we’re sitting in her living room, listening to her talk about an old relationship with a glass of wine, the contents of which have nothing to do with the taste of sweet bitterness in our mouths.
4. “Oblivion” – Grimes
Okay guys, level with me here and forget about the pussy rings, because I don’t care about your opinion on them. This year belongs to Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, and her sweeping sinister synth-pop that has the most sought-after characteristic in the biz: it doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve ever heard. Maybe you could pull a couple obscure or foreign names to throw at me and use as adjectives (She sounds just like “____” combined with “___” with just like a weird alt pop touch of “____”). Music nerds like you and I try to pull that all the time. Which, when I was trying to explain Grimes to a friend after hearing “Oblivion,” I was all the more impressed when I found myself at a loss for words. Go out and get yourself a copy of Boucher’s Visions to drown yourself in for a few days, then get back to me and try to tell me I’m wrong.
3. “Lord Knows” – Dum Dum Girls
Dee Dee’s Dum Dum Girls just keep getting better and better with every release, and 2012’s End of Daze EP is no exception. Dee Dee slows it down on “Lord Knows” to momentarily reflect on her actions. While the girls of Dum Dum Girls are generally known for their upbeat lo-fi fuzz pop, “Lord Knows” is more muscular- a fully imagined tale of regret that still manages to stick to the band’s nostalgic pop sensibilities. “Lord Knows” is simple in structure and meaning, but by all means the band’s strongest release yet, and incredibly promising of what’s to come.
2. “Everything is Embarrassing” – Sky Ferreira
Sky Ferreira has had several false starts in music these past few years, most of which had to do with creative differences with labels and producers. With the release of her Ghost EP, however, Ferreira has clearly carved out a style for herself and paved a path for the indie pop of the coming years. Her surly yet light-footed croon carries “Everything is Embarrassing”, an anthem for the age of Girls and tumblr. (Yeah, I said it. Don’t think I didn’t catch that eye roll.) Backed with producer Jon Brion’s clean synths and crisp beats, “Everything is Embarrassing” quickly became one of my most oft-played tracks of 2012. How appropriate.
1. “Pyramids” – Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean deserves to be at the top of every year-end favorites list of 2012 in some form, for reasons listed previously (see #8). As far as songs go, “Pyramids” is by far the strongest and most complicated track off of the nearly perfect channel ORANGE. Over almost ten minutes, Ocean spins a tale of a woman he imagines as Cleopatra. The song is split into two parts: in the first half, Ocean laments that Cleopatra has gone missing from the kingdom, only to reveal later that she has met her doom by choosing to leave her throne. The second part of the song then reimagines Cleopatra as a woman of the night, a woman that Ocean can never truly have because her love is for sale. I could wax poetic about how the song is a meditation on society’s modern expectations of femininity, sexualization, blah blah, you know the drill, but I won’t. Because I can’t do it justice. Because I’d rather let Frank Ocean do all the talking for me. For all of us.
Solange – “Losing You”
Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”
Ellie Goulding – “Anything Can Happen”
Imagine Dragons – “It’s Time”
Taylor Swift – “I Knew You Were Trouble”
Kanye West – “Mercy”
Check out the Spotify playlist of Music Editor Sydney Moyer’s Top 20 of 2012 here.