NOTE: I apologize for the delay in posting. Flu doesn’t lend itself well to clear thoughts.
2010 was a watershed year for music. Some of my favorite bands released albums, some new additions to the scene released phenomenal records, and I fully believed I would never see such a strong year for music again in my lifetime. 2011 seemed to confirm that fact. Despite seeing one of my favorite albums of the last decade released in 2011, Wye Oak’s Civilian, the year as a whole was quite weak. I figured that between my love affair with 2010 and my general declining interest in live music, that maybe I was just losing touch with things and not caring about music as much as I used to.
2012 changed that. It was another VERY strong year for music, with pop music making quite a resurgence and some bands putting out some truly landmark albums. There were a few albums that changed the landscape for their genres, but along with that, there were quite a few memorable tracks released in 2012. This article will take a look at 20 of the best tracks of the year. To hear each track, simply click on the song name and you’ll be taken to YouTube. Enjoy!
10. Cold Specks – Blank Maps
I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
At one point this year, this was probably my favorite track, and it’s not hard to see why. A sparse, crackling electric guitar begins what turns out to be a wholly ominous tune. The guitar moans and gives way to lead singer Al Spx’s haunting vocal performance that carries not just this song, but an entire album. There were fewer stirring musical moments in 2012 than hearing her belt out “I am I am/I am I am/a goddamn believer,” for the first time.
9. Kendrick Lamar – Backseat Freestyle
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Outside the context of the album, this song might seem a bit of a contrast to what you have heard about Kendrick Lamar. Many praise his headiness as a rapper, and his willingness to break outside boundaries. This song, however, is solely about gaining as much money, fame, and women as possible, and hearing it by itself would make it hard to distinguish from rap’s other thousand imitators who do the same thing. What differentiates this track is in the context of the album, Kendrick is simply growing up. It’s him, rapping in the backseat of a car with his friends, trying to show off. What he’s showing is that he can kill a monster beat, he can rap triple-time, if he wanted to do what everyone else was doing, he could. Thank God he doesn’t, though this track still stands as a testament to Kendrick’s skills.
8. Grizzly Bear – Sleeping Ute
When Grizzly Bear first released this track in early 2012, I can’t remember being as excited for a piece of music as I did for this one in a LONG time. The crunchy guitars, the downright slippery drumming, and the little accents(the tambourine, the 1/16 notes on the hi-hat, THAT ORGAN) that Grizzly Bear are known for added up to one phenomenal ride. That the song completely loses itself at the seams and concludes with that coda only adds to the mystique. I would love to see Grizzly Bear write strictly a rock record, if this is the kind of thing they can produce.
7. Frank Ocean – Thinkin’ ‘Bout You
This song gained some real leverage for me when Ocean performed it on Saturday Night Live. The song is soulful on record, featuring a delicate falsetto and that patented “realness” that Ocean injects into his songwriting that makes you feel all his songs are about actual real-time things and not just what the listener WANTS to hear. But on SNL, it was slowed down just a tad and really gained steam from the live vocal performance. Ocean really is thinkin’ ‘bout you, and you feel it. It’s goodness.
6. Kendrick Lamar – Swimming Pools(Drank)
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
It’s rare that two songs from the same artist make my top 20, so it’s ironic that this year, THREE pairs of songs from the same album make not only my top 20, but my TOP TEN! This is the first of those pairs, as Lamar shows a real ear for beats on this song, working his way through a very lush T-Minus chorus that uses a stuttering drum beat to usher in one of the best hooks of the year. While much gets made of urban/gang drug abuse, Kendrick tackles the very real problem of alcoholism within the same subset, acting out multiple personalities at a party, being pressured into and pressuring people into drinking. The beat itself feels woozy as Kendrick lays down one of the smoothest flows of the year, and it’s impossibly catchy. When I first heard this song, I knew some of hip-hop’s new royalty was being crowned.
5. Beach House – Lazuli
Much was made of Bloom’s lead track, “Myth”, but I preferred the second single right from the time I heard it. To me, the biggest shift Beach House made with this album was to put the rhythm section a little more ahead in the mix, and this song is a prime example of how well they did that. The drumming in this song carries the rush of the synthesizer, and Victoria Legrand’s vocal performance, particularly in the closing bridge of the song, is to die for. Where the drum beat subtly shifts in the second stanza to include a stuttering kick drum, dreams are made.
4. Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built
Up until this Japandroids release, I felt like their songs were the most unremarkably great that songs could be. Everytime I heard a Japandroids song, I thought, “wow, this is awesome”, and then the album went on, songs started to bleed into one another and it was hard for me to want to listen to much more.
This song is the perfection of that formula. One part “whoa oh oh” with one part hard-driving drum beats with one part jagged guitars with one part “when they love you and they will/tell ‘em all to love in our shadow/and if they try to slow you down/slow you down/tell ‘em all to go to hell.”
It’s a mantra.
3. Cloud Nothings – Wasted Days
Attack on Memory
Who said punk songs can’t be 8 minutes long? More realistically, who knew that a 21 year-old who looks like a live-action Archie comic reject screaming “I thought I would be more than this” over and over WOULDN’T be the most trite and over-obnoxious thing you’d hear all year? Sometimes songs don’t have a life to them, but this one almost over-lives, the raw emotion from lead man Dylan Baldi bleeding off the wax. It’s rare any song can hold my attention this long, but the smart use of dynamics lends this song an extra bit of oomph in an era lacking it. If this is punk for the new millenia, count me in.
2. Grizzly Bear – Yet Again
This track makes me feel a lot of the same ways that “Sleeping Ute” does, but it has the velvety pipes of Ed Droste leading it, rather than the milquetoast vocal performances Daniel Rossen usually lays out. That’s always an added bonus. Droste’s vocals give an added weight to the heaviness of the track, and it soars. While many people will probably say that Grizzly Bear’s best songs are found on “Veckatimest”, and that may be true from a commercial/pop success standpoint, it’s these two pillars on which those others will rest. Not a bad foundation.
1. Frank Ocean – Pyramids
It’s a 10-minute song with dazzling synths, a fine lead vocal performance that marries the loose concept of a stripper’s hard life with the life of Cleopatra, a tasteful John Mayer solo(yeah, those exist apparently), and a middle coda that is an absolute stunner. It’s intensely rare the song that defies the modern radio age and maintains it’s staying power for such a bloated run time, but this is the rarest of all those jewels: a track that not only doesn’t overstay its welcome, but leaves the listener wanting more of it. It feels like the future, and may just be the touchstone for R&B music as we head deeper into the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s no wonder Ocean has already talked about leaving music; he doesn’t need to contribute anything else to it past this.