We’re back for part 2, everybody! I won’t recap the entire year until I put these two things together and make the ordinal list of the best of the year (that’s right, people, I will make lists endlessly).
You can find a folder full of all the songs here.
Listen along. Well, don’t listen along. This list is alphabetical. You’ll probably get, like, brain whiplash. Anyway, this is the final and definitive list, so whatever else you thought you were listening to, you can go ahead and throw it out. Thanks.
Joey Bada$$ – Survival Tactics (f. Capital STEEZ)
There’s been a growing swell of more backwards-looking hip-hop, and some of it is actually ranking among some of the best stuff going. Joey Bada$$, however, is one of the first acts to actually directly rock a retro vibe in his work. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to continue to feel about it – and really, I don’t know how I feel about Joey Bada$$ as a rule, but “Survival Tactics” sure makes it seem like it’s a good idea at least some of the time.
Azealia Banks – Neptune (f. Shystie)
Azealia Banks put out a ton of music in the last six months, and most of it has been pretty good. Fantasea is the easiest place to start, and this song is the best song on Fantasea. I also don’t have a whole lot ot say about it.
Big Boi – In the A (f. T.I. & Ludacris)
Everyone acted surprised when this album took forever to come out, like Big Boi hadn’t been delaying and postponing his records since the early Outkast days. Like his other solo efforts, it’s pretty uneven as a record1, but has some really killer songs, including this all-geriatric ode to Atlanta.
Neneh Cherry and the Thing – Dream Baby Dream
The most unfairly-slept-on record of 2012 is also one of its weirdest. Sixteen years after she last recorded anything, she found a Scandinavian jazz ensemble named after one of her father’s songs, assembled a bunch of covers, and put on a pretty amazing display. Recorded in one take, it’s their cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” that takes home the medal here2. It’s not only the most compelling, but also the most impressive – covering Suicide means going up against Alan Vega’s vocal performances (the thing that drove Suicide in the first place), and “Dream Baby Dream” is one of the all-time best. Neneh Cherry takes it in the opposite direction, and comes out with a really impressive piece of free-jazz weirdness. You should all go buy this record right now.
Cody ChesnuTT – That’s Still Mama
Cody Chesnutt (look. I’m not doing that every time, alright?) was gone for so long that people had forgotten that he was missing. And then, out of basically nowhere, “That’s Still Mama” appeared as an advance single to a sprawling odyssey of an album. The advance single was still the best song on it, but it contributed to the back half of 2012 being a banner period for great R&B records.
Cities Aviv – Escorts
Dark, weird, and sounding basically like it was recorded inside his own head, this is exactly the sort of things that pushes all of the right buttons. Here’s to a long, long career for Cities Aviv.
The Corin Tucker Band – Neskowin
After her kind-of-unmemorable first solo record, Portland’s greatest singer found her footing and managed a much more consistent, much more satisfying album that, nevertheless, didn’t really have a killer single. “Neskowin” was the closest3, and so gets included here. Maybe I should’ve made an albums list this year. It would’ve looked different, and made it a little easier to find things to say about the music.
Dan Deacon – Guilford Avenue Bridge
On paper, Dan Deacon should be my favorite artist in the world. A noise musician who’s interested in the intersection of sound, composition and pop songs, he’s clearly a man who thinks about things in a similar way. But his records are always a little more interesting than they are listenable. “Guilford Avenue Bridge” is a genuine exception – a great single that has some pretty great sounds in it, and an absolute joy to listen to. Listen to it while driving and you’ll attract the attention of lots of cops.
Death Grips – Come Up and Get Me
Death Grips made a lot more headlines in the back half of 2012 for their antics than their music, violently and publicly severing their ties from their much-ballyhooed4 major-label deal. And that’s fine, because No Love Deep Web wasn’t actually very good. It had its moments, but it really could have used some more punching-up to be on the level of The Money Store ,or some more sample clearance to get back the magic of Exmilitary. “Come Up and Get Me” was one of the only tracks to arrive in a basically-fully-formed state, and it’s actually pretty righteous for all that.
Domo Genesis x Alchemist – Elimination Chamber (f Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples & Action Bronson)
Proving that Alchemist really could just throw everybody in a room together and it’ll come out sounding pretty good. Also, of all of Earl Sweatshirt’s scattered appearances since his return, this one is the most satisfying.
Emeralds – Search For Me in the Wasteland
I don’t know what Mark McGuire has been doing to write music for the last couple of years, but I hope he never stops. Holy shit.
Fennesz – Aware (f. Sakamoto)
Fennesz excels at straddling the line between “soothing sounds” and “boring lullabyes” in such a way that his records are basically a sonic teddy bear – they’re great for curling up around with a book or whatever. God that sounds girly. Anyway.
The Gaslight Anthem – The National Anthem
You know, at this point, your opinion of The Gaslight Anthem is probably already pretty set. They’re never going to do anything particularly surprising. That said: this is a really effective quiet ballad-type thing, and they should do more of that.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – We Drift like Worried Fire
Yeah, the album is songs that they had been playing live for years at the time of their breakup (this one as “Gamelan”). But the recordings are incredible, and the surprise of Godspeed returning made them even better.
Guided by Voices – She Lives in an Airport
I have nothing to add to the miles and miles of music-writer columns about Guided by Voices, but I would totally date a girl who lived in an airport if it meant I got to travel for free.
Tim Hecker & Dan Lopatin – Scene for a French Zoo
As brilliant as Tim Hecker’s solo albums are, his collaborative albums are always top-notch. Obviously this isn’t any exception, and actually, Dan Lopatin’s lighter, sillier vibe does a world of good for Tim Hecker’s studious removal. Noise records don’t come any better than this.
Himanshu – Killing Time
That is nothing less than the best sample flip of the year.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Zimgar
They came back, after sputtering to a stop in the middle of the last decade, with a couple of pretty-ok albums5 that seemed too much like they were chasing after their audience. Meat and Bone, true to its title, is nothing but the Blues Explosion being the Blues Explosion. “Black Mold” was the single – and rightly so, as it featured Jon Spencer at his most Spencerian – but the JSBX’s strength has always been in the nature of the band as a unit – they’re three musicians who play together tightly. “Zimgar,” then, was the best of their songs this year, despite having no vocals. Enjoy a great rock band playing great rock music.
Scott Kelly and the Road Home – In the Waking Hours
Scott Kelly appeared on two great records (this one and the Townes Van Zandt tribute record he made with Steve Von Till and Wino), and one pretty-ok record (about which more later). Which is good, but weird, because he’s still kind of an annoyingly affected singer. Nevertheless, can’t take away from this song, which is perfectly evocative of both the band’s name and its title.
Kendrick Lamar – Swimming Pools (Drank)
Kendrick’s album was marked by his intelligence, his wordiness, the immaculate production, and his age. So naturally the best song on it was the song celebrating hedonism. Naturally.
Maserati – Abracadabracab
I had my doubts about Maserati after their drummer’s tragic passing a couple of years ago – the drums have always been the most important part of a Maserati album, after all. But they put it back together with aplomb, and made epic-sounding music that sounds just like their namesake. And they should probably give a lot of money to whoever designed that delay pedal.
Menace Ruine – Set Water to Flames
Another top-shelf art-metal release, this one also continues in the proud tradition of Montreal bands with policies. Weird-ass singer Genevieve Beaulieu doesn’t think performing live is warrented, and sings songs about….something inscrutable and metaphysical, and her own Martin Rev, S. de la Moth, creates scraping, clanging drones that are sort of third-cousins to heavy metal (if you squint).
Menomena – Plumage
Another band that had to soldier on after losing a key member, Menomena did a little less well, although they still managed this single, which is pretty great in their usual yelpy tradition.
Metz – Wasted
Sometimes you just want something to be really, really loud.
Miguel – Do You…
“Give hugs not drugs,” you say? Miguel says “Why not both!”
The Milk – Picking Up the Pieces
Alright. Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, The Milk is basically The Coral with an updated sound6. But who wouldn’t want to be that? No, the real disclaimer here is that “All I Wanted Was Danger” is the best song on this album. It’s their “Dreaming of You”7. You should go listen to that song again right now. It’s a stone-cold classic. But it was the advance single for this album, and it was way in advance (like, I think it came out at the end of 2010). There are other good songs on this album, but “Picking Up the Pieces” basically gets the honor because it’s got Stringer Bell on it.
Mirrorring – Cliffs
Another in a brilliant series of noise-music collaborations, The confoundingly-misspelled Mirrorring has just enough Tiny Vipers to make it distinct from the already basically perfect recorded output of all-time favorite Grouper.
Mono – Dream Odyssey
It’s hard to fault Mono for making only a good record, since they’d been on a string of great ones. For My Parents is not a great album. It’s pretty good, but it’s basically Hymn to the Immortal Wind 2: Electric Boogaloo. “Dream Odyssey” is the best song, and it’s an awfully good best song, but it’s still hard not to sight when a great band’s momentum finally slows down.
Bob Mould – Fugue State
Bob Mould has, at this point, written so many great rock songs that they should just rename the genre after him. If I can be half as good at anything for as long as he’s been at making loud, catchy guitar music, I will have lived a happy life.
Murder of Crows – Down By The Lake
Alan Sparhawk is trying to work to death. Early in the year there was a Retribution Gosepl Choir record, with another due next year, Low has an album coming out early next year, and somewhere in between all of that, he found the time to make this record with violin player Gaelynn Lea. “Down By The Lake” is the prettiest song on the album and, since that’s sort of what they’re doing, it also makes it the best.
Nadja – Dagdrom
There should be a line through that “o”. I should go find the unicode character for it. Anyway, husband-and-wife duo Nadja finally (finally8) came back, and the results were, of course, miraculous. Aidan Baker has probably released fifty or so CDRs since this album, but his efforts when he hitches his talent to another musician are always pretty stunning9.
Neurosis – My Heart for Deliverance
This is the only good song on the album it comes from, but what a doozy. It seems that if Scott Kelly’s heart is for deliverance, it’s also not really in this album, which hits all the points you expect a neurosis album to hit, but manages to not be very filling anyway. Except this song, which is everything you could want out of a Neurosis track. 2012 was a great year for post-metal10, and it’s a shame that the forebearers couldn’t have made a better showing.
Franz Nicolay – Frankie Stubbs’ Tears
Remember how The Hold-Steady all of a sudden were a good band that people liked, and then they weren’t anymore and Craig Finn’s solo album sucked? Yeah. Well, maybe we haven’t been giving Franz Nicolay enough credit. This song also gets extra bonus awesome points for the “whoa-oa-oa-oa” part, which is basically the best thing anybody recorded all year.
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life
You already know whatever there is to know. Frank Ocean owned 2012, and that’s as it should be.
Pinback – True North
In the time between Autumn of the Seraphs and Information Retrieved, Rob Crow made two solo albums and a handful of collaborations, and Zach Smith has reunited his old band (the inimitable Three Mile Pilot, who proceeded to make a somewhat-disappointing record) and then broken it up again. And yet, Information Retrieved sounds exactly like Pinback, and therefore couldn’t be better. “True North” is a classic Pinback song, and it’s good to have them back, even if the road to that kind of consistency seems way more complicated than it needs to be.
POS – All of It
POS has been on an upswing to all-time greatness for the last couple of years. Doomtree’s No Kings was probably the album I listened to the most in 2012, and We Don’t Even Live Here is on that level, without being a re-hashing or a sequel11. It’s chock-full of great singles, and a couple of them might even be a little better, but there is no better boast in hip hop than “I’ve got A1 credit on my come-and-get-it card,” so “All of It” is essential listening.
Busta Rhymes – Wine and Go Down
Twenty years after Busta Rhymes appeard and the world didn’t know what to do about it, Busta Rhymes continues to appear. And you know what? We continue to have no idea what to do about it. Rarely is someone so singular also so popular, and his 2012 mixtape Year of the Dragon was as weird as anything else he’s done. “Wine and Go Down” is also a case of a bassline so good it’s actually typing this entry itself.
Rihanna – Diamonds
The “famous beautiful women sing songs about everything is going to be alright if you just be yourself” subgenre of pop song is generally the most irritating12 one going, but I’ll be damned if “Diamonds” doesn’t work like crazy. The difference between a great Rihanna song (“We Found Love,” “Umbrella,” “Diamonds”) and an ok Rihanna song (basically every other Rihanna song) is the song’s ability to work within Rihanna’s voice, which is very powerful within a very narrow range13. “Diamonds” does that, and transcends it’s silly “you are beautiful, no matter what they say14”
message in the way that pop songs should – yeah, it’s stupid and maudlin and overblown, but goddammit, that’s why we listen to pop music.
Rick Ross – So Sophisticated (f. Meek Mill)
There were probably other Rick Ross performances – “911” and “Hold Me Back” come to mind, but “So Sophisticated” makes it for that Beat Bully beat, which was so sick that seemingly every rapper had to build a verse around it on a mixtape15. And for good reason, it’s everything you want a track to be, and marks maybe the only time Rick Ross hasn’t dominated one of his own songs, which is no small feat.
Ty Segall – Inside Your Heart
Seriously, though, we all miss Jay Reatard a lot. Ty Segall is filling in admirably for the “wildly prolific and equally inconsistent” aspect, and occasionally manages a gem like “Inside Your Heart.”
Six Organs of Admittance – Solar Ascent
Speaking of mind-bogglingly prolific people, it’s Ben Chasny! It’s hard to keep track of ol’ Ben, and his Six Organs of Admittance records are usually not keepers. This time he hooked up with most of his much-better band, Comets on Fire and made an album that didn’t actually sound very much like Six Organs of Admittance. This turned out to be a good thing! And “Solar Ascent” was pretty good for any of you who might also still miss Comets on Fire. Basically, if you close your eyes and mumble “Comets on Fire Comets on Fire Comets on Fire” you can pretend that’s what you’re hearing. I promise I mean this in the best way possible. Really.
Swans – The Seer
There’s been a lot written about Swans since their return. And for that, I rejoice. A great many of us were carrying the flame for them in the fifteen years they weren’t around, and the reason was because their music was very much the product of one of the most uniquely, fully-formed creative visions in the history of rock music. Swans were, always, both the complete embodiment of what a rock band should be and entirely antithetical to it, and the best part was: no matter how high-minded and intellectual people wanted to be about their music – and it held up to all of it, with a sense of composition that matches the eggheadiest post-rockers and a head for sonic exploration that gearheads had to be impressed by – the fact was, and remains still, that it’s some of the most physically powerful music in the world. There are people who are unmoved by Swans, there are people who are put off by them, and that’s fine. And there will come a time when liking them isn’t cool again, just as it wasn’t for the first twenty years of their recorded life16, but what’s nice (and the reason for this digression) about their current popularity is that it completely coincides with some of the highest-quality work they’ve done, in addition to it being some of the most singular. Anyway. CLEARLY I HAVE OPINIONS HERE. “The Seer” is, in addition to an impressive addition outright, actually a pretty worthwhile distillation of what it is that makes Swans so special. Thereby, and after all of that slobbery fellatio of a paragraph, it’s probably also fair to say, if “The Seer” doesn’t grab you, Swans are unlikely to.
The Tallest Man on Earth – Little Brother
Actually, I suppose the only benefit to listening to these tracks in alphabetical order is that this song would be a nice little come-down after “The Seer.” Anyway, it’s a pretty little song from a pretty little album by a dude who’s absolutely not very tall, and also Swedish.
Tame Impala – Elephant
There’s a thing that happens every once in awhile with Tame Impala songs, where the thing that happens in the song is so obvious, but so un-heard, that you kind of have to stop and applaud it. “Elephant” is one of those songs.
Tor – Paper Rain
Canada, man. I don’t know what’s going on up there, but experimental music from Canada in 2012 was basically the best kind. “Paper Rain” is gorgeous, and pretty good for making everyday stuff seem extra-poignant.
Trampled by Turtles – Alone
Generally speaking, 2012 was a boring, lackluster year for Americana-type music17, but two of this year’s best albums were Who’s Feeling Young Now by the Punch Brothers and Stars and Satellites by Trampled by Turtles. “Alone” was a pretty refreshing breath of air in a year that saw a lot of stale old samey pabulum.
Kanye West – Mercy (f. Pusha T, Big Sean & 2 Chainz)
I’m only human, guys.
Paul Westerberg – My Road Now
The internet has afforded Paul Westerberg all sorts of new horizons in self-sabotage. Shortly after it became firmly entrenched that you could self-release albums, without a label, and without anyone fucking with it – something that it seems the prickly, self-directed Westerberg would thrive with, he released a single-track album, a follow-up that was actually a chunk of the middle of that album that had been taken out, an EP that arrived entirely without fainfare and then, earlier this year, this song. Nevertheless, having found it, it’s a pretty great song that’ll probably be chopped into pieces and used to fill in the space between an album of Slim Harpo covers or something in a couple of years. Sigh.
Chelsea Wolfe – Sunstorm
OK, so Unknown Rooms wasn’t supposed to be an album, but a collection of songs that already existed, which I suppose means it shouldn’t be here or whatever, but it’s her best….not-album…so far, and “Sunstorm” is one hell of a song.
2 Chainz – Birthday
2 Chainz has spent the last couple of years making guest verses that are a highlight of the songs they’re on (go listen to “Mercy” again to see it in action!). His own album was kind of uninspiring, except for “Birthday,” on which Kanye’s verse is so good18 that 2 Chainz is, basically, dropping a guest verse on his own track. Also, I’m not very good at getting gifts, so it’s always nice to know what people want for their birthday.
1 which, really, is even less a surprise than the fact that the album took forever to come out.
2 with an honorable mention to their excellent cover of The Stooges’ “Dirt”
3 followed probably by “Groundhog Day”
4 including by yr crsp!
5 and one top-shelf single in “Hot Gossip”
6 or a slightly-upgraded, less rock-oriented Zutons, but that takes longer to say.
7 or, again, their “Valerie”
9 it’s absolutely beside the point, but worth mentioning that his collaboration with Tim Hecker, Fantasma Parastasie, is a classic.
10 or art-metal or whatever. I know I’m grouping together like fifty microgenres here, but I don’t actually care. Feel free not to tell me about it.
11 it was also the subject of a hilarious Pitchfork review, in which the reviewer decided that the album was good because it wouldn’t convert people to POS’ political viewpoint, which may be the single dumbest criterion for liking an album I’ve ever heard. He didn’t disagree with POS’ politics – he said that people that did wouldn’t like the album and that is why he didn’t like it. These are the things that remind me why I read record reviews.
12 I’m not saying any of my problems would be solved if I looked like Rihanna, but I don’t think they’d be exacerbated.
13 interestingly, the other thing that “Umbrella” and “Diamonds” have in common is that they were written by people who generally represent the boring parts of hip-hop songs (The-Dream and Sia, respectively), who have trouble getting famous, and who have much better singing voices.
14 words can’t bring you down. Really, “Beautiful” is not only the patient zero of this kind of song, but it’s basically the song in whose shadow all of these songs, including “Diamonds,” which comes as close as anyone ever has to matching its parent song.
15 and Cadence Weapon, at a Daytrotter session, thus making this the most oddly-employed beat of 2012.
16 although I suspect they’ll never be as underheralded as they used to be – even as recently as a couple of years ago, meeting another Swans fan in the wild was a rare and special occasion, and playing Swans for people generally meant first describing them in terms of the early-eighties New York art scene (and, sigh, Sonic Youth), or playing their cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and hoping for the best. All of which was the case while Michael Gira was earning a fair amount of attention in Angels of Light and, briefly, as the guy who ran the label responsible for Devendra Banhart*. Swans fandom used to be full of proselytizing.
*remember that guy?
17 actually, I generally refer to all of it as “country” music, because it annoys bluegrass fans and folk fans alike, each set of whom tends to have bought the line about “country” music being unworthy of serious consideration. I, however, call it “country” music because I love country music, and that means that calling it country music makes it considerably more worthy of my consideration. Suck it, h8rz.
18 the revival of Funny Kanye West is basically the best thing to happen to hip-hop in years.