Over any year, the songs we download, get sent, obsess over, file into playlists, form the soundtrack to our lives' distinct chunks. There's more new music available now then there's ever been, in torrents, floods. And while that makes for a limitless swim, we're just as often drowning in it. Even the most open ear is going to miss out on something, get caught in their own sweet spot, not find the time to let catch on slowly. It's not something we can easily fix, and despite dogged effort, there's certainly some stuff I missed. But being truly definitive is next to impossible in the face of sheer volume, and of dubious utility anyway. The subjective choices we make as listeners, commenters, hold the only real intrigue.
So here are twenty-five songs that stuck with me this year. The list contains both bolts from the blue I replayed intensely from the first right-click, and those that snuck up on me, piggybacking on a complementary running order until they finally stuck. (I'm avoiding stuff from our best albums list, with a single exception.)
Your experience undoubtably varied, but here's how 2012 sounded to me.
Metz - "The Mule"
Savages - "Husbands"
While chillaxed lo-fi has yet to be abolished, 2012 seemed refreshingly full of ass-kicking hard rock. The two reigning champions of this past year's CMJ Festival just flat ruined rooms all over town with it. Toronto's Metz overtook audiences with their ungodly, bomb-drop feedback squeal. Their self-tilted record revealed pop blueprints beneath the roar, though the roaring still good and fearsome on tracks like "The Mule". London's Savages aren't quite as loud, but maybe even more intense? "Husbands" leans overtly on a jagged post-punk guitar sound and primal Patti Smith barks, but made their familiar elements seem alive in the minute, ready to fucking brawl.
St. Vincent - "Krokodil"
Annie Clark, who spent her 2012 recording and touring an ultimately unsatisfying record with her dream-date idol David Byrne, also finally made a move toward the completely unhinged rock album everyone has been dying for her to make, ever since she famously did that set of Big Black covers a couple years back. This Record Store Day exclusive recreated the highlight of her crowd-surfing summer festival sets, let her scream her face off about wanting dangerous Russian drugs, continued to blow her genteel, porcelain-doll image to tiny shards.
Sleigh Bells - "You Lost Me"
Screaming Females - "Doom 84"
Two strains of head-bang emphasis, by two bands at opposite ends of some perceived integrity scale. Sleigh Bells' second record was shrugged off pretty quickly, owing more to a career supernova that blew up too soon than a lack of determined improvement. The songs on Reign of Terror went further than the ones that made them famous(-ish). "You Lost Me" is especially good, sounding like a Satanic prom anthem that makes unlikely friends of shoegazers and cock rockers. It's not subtle, but it vibrates on a unique frequency.
Sainted workhorses Screaming Females got some studio time with Steve Albini for their toil, and turned in their best ever record, which featured Marissa Paternoster's best-ever riff on "Doom 84". It reaches further back in time for a Sabbath-grade corker that never quits, and even when you're sure it's at least taken a personal day or something, returns suddenly to not quit some more.
Lower Dens - "Brains"
Micachu & The Shapes - "Low Dogg"
Less-heavy corners, if you knew the right ones to look in, still revealed an magically itchy sort of unease. Baltimore's Lower Dens did their best work yet on the terrific Nootropics. "Brains", keeps its krautrock tight, while Jana Hunter floats over the groove, steps gently around it, peeks out from just around the corner. London's Micachu & The Shapes lowered their already unusual pop down into a grungy tunnel on their second album, stitching rusty industrial loops together, softening them only slightly with very British melodies deflated down to quarter size.
Prinzhorn Dance School - "I Want You"
Wymond Miles - "The Thirst"
For romance, my favorite mushy indie rock songs came from albums without much buzz at all. DFA records rock duo Prinzhorn Dance School took a long time to make their second record, wrestling with the challenge of following an ultra-minimal debut that seemed like a final statement, already made. The lovely "I Want You" has zero wasted motion, yet seems fuller than their first stuff anyway. Fresh & Onlys' guitarist Wymond Miles snuck out on his own to make a big, trembling goth rock album. Its best songs, like "The Thirst", are tastefully restrained and constructed, even when they practically levitate with late-night yearning.
Killer Mike - "Reagan"
Kendrick Lamar - "Backseat Freestyle"
I liked a lot of rap singles this year, from artists whose heavily discussed records veered wildly in style and tone. Career cameo-slayer Killer Mike's solo album breakthrough (produced by El-P, who also had a pretty sweet year, overall) had a righteous political fury to it that we could probably use more of. It called flaming bullshit on hip-hop's lingering preoccupation with materialism and violence, included President Obama in its scorching drug war nonsense that hasn't changed in decades, and dug up the Right Wing's St. Reagan just to kick his corpse. Kendrick Lamar's dizzy hit is, uh, a little bit more morally dubious. Maybe never more so than in its intro, which puts Lamar's dream of fucking all of the world's women with a monument-sized phallus on the same pedestal with Martin Luther King's Jr.s vision of racial equality. They are both dreams, after all. Very very wrong, and kind of super duper funny, also.
Azealia Banks - "Fuck Up the Fun"
Angel Haze - "New York"
But while Killer Mike couldn't help but remind you of Public Enemy (he's even getting mad about an 80s president!) and Kendrick Lamar presented himself as rightful heir to Compton's rap-culture Mecca, the freshest, most precedent-free stars were local young women. After her 2012-conquering "212", this was expected to be Azealia Banks' year to conquer. And while the rolling delay of her debut record Broke With Expensive Taste currently has it scheduled for February '13, she released a lot of work this year. An EP, a mixtape, singles, and videos kept her at a level hummingbird hover just outside the mainstream spotlight. "Fuck Up the Fun", produced by Diplo, is the best of the pile—a street carnival blast of self-amused hilarity, in which she manages to convince you that she actually is better, quicker, and more fun than everybody else. Angel Haze's "New York" is less of party, more of a threat. Haze moved to Brooklyn this year, introduced herself to the new neighbors by informing them that was in charge now. The song's click-beat, sick in both senses of the word, gives her an air of menace that's wildly improbable for a young lady who's gotta be like, 5'3".
Kitty Pryde - "Okay Cupid"
Kitty Pryde is not menacing, not a particularly athletic MC, bursting with self-confidence. So many factors combined to make "Okay Cupid" one of the easiest songs to write off in forever. "UGH, Internet white girl ruins rap, has no talent, is a tacky, phony jailbait," or something like that? But knee-jerk revulsion missed that this song was actually terrific, shining light on a recognizable female character who might actually never have been given voice in pop music before? The middle-class teen girl burnout, creative though shirking the effort required to be in school play (let alone the cheer quad), better suited to hiding out in her bedroom with a laptop, too smart to become some sort of Ke$ha mess, but definitely ready to fully entertain some real bad ideas while she's still young. Getting carried away about some hunky idiot, realizing it's dumb and not caring, because...hunky. I've met that girl. More than anything, she came across as a real person, and a real charmer.
Taylor Swift - "I Knew You Were Trouble"
Carly Rae Jepsen - "Call Me Maybe"
But it was boom times for the more traditional romantic teen-pop leads, too. A real banner year for bubblegum. Taylor Swift continued to burn down boyfriends like Sherman through Atlanta, but even though plenty of her usual up-the-middle strummy mash notes remained on RED, that record's big singles had a sharpness, sheen, and restlessness to them that she'd never managed before. "We Are Never Getting Back Together" is mercilessly catchy, and really, kind of funny. "I Knew You Were Trouble" is even better, toying with modern club music to portray an emotional rock bottom (that'll last at least until the next boy-bander, Kennedy, or B-list actor thinks he's the one who's getting out of it without getting a song written about him). Yet, even with Max Martin on her GChat, Swift got beat at her own game by a grown Canadian woman exceptionally apt at faking All-American Girl. Just mentioning her ubiquitous hook-delivery system started the "Call Me Maybe" head-loop you thought you were past, right? Sorry. They made it catchy on purpose.
Ellie Goulding - "Anything Could Happen"
In the "Huge Hits that Stayed Mainly Overseas" category, Ellie Goulding may have finally finished the near decade it's taken to fully work The Knife's uncanny valley synth-pop sound into the mainstream. Its lyrics are odd enough to sound very strange coming out of the comically bow-ed heads of contestants on The X-Factor, its vocal arrangements rad enough that even said contestants couldn't really fuck them up. It's a little clearer, more optimistic than the Dreijers would ever be, and it even goes to that big show-stealing Adele bridge for extra measure, before returning to its cool, precise digi-coos. Close-to-my-heart influence aside, it's just a great pop single that was slightly too cool to top U.S. charts.
Purity Ring - "Fineshrine"
That bleak Swedish sound continued to reverberate through the underground as well, and more so with every passing year. Purity Ring's much-hyped debut Shrines was practically all melodic drum bits and spookily warped vocals. Listening to its fairly similar songs in row, sitting through its dumber witch house trappings and shitty rap bits, was a bit of a chore, though. But in a single serving, packed into their neatest container? They had some great success pushing devotional lyrics into an icky David Cronenberg daydream.
Crystal Castles - "Child I Will Hurt You"
Crystal Castles go even bleakier than that, always, even in their dreamiest moments. This song, about people being shitty to vulnerable kids, hurts a lot at this particular moment in time. But it's beautiful also, and too true for sure.
Icona Pop - "I Love It"
Meanwhile, back in actual Sweden, they were fighting their sad feelings by burning ex-lovers' furniture in the streets, making shadow puppets from the glow, giggling 'til they puked.
Nite Jewel - "One Second of Love"
Ariel Pink's Haunter Graffiti - "Mature Themes"
L.A.'s weird pop community continued to thrive in 2012, complicating itself here, cleaning up there. Her BFF Julia Holter made the more accomplished album, but Nite Jewel's Ramona Gonzalez delivered her best moment as well, with this song about the cheap currency of Internet approval. (Clicking a "like" button is a low threshold, indeed.) Tiny lil' godfather of the scene, Ariel Pink, retreated from his smooth AM smash Before Today, to make a more difficult, almost confrontationally annoying record, the occasionally super-juvenile Mature Themes. It used the pop shamelessness of novelty songs or 70s sitcom themes to riff on important subjects like sex addiction and schnitzel. The hodge podge resembled the spotty schizophrenia of his old home-recorded stuff, but it ended up way more frustrating than those records ever were. Why? Because it couldn't help but contain some beautiful work, like "Mature Themes", the Elvis-Costello-on-a-Casio stunner you hear above. When we know he's capable of that, it's impossible to settle for the inside joke.
Liars - "No. 1 Against the Rush"
The best time I had covering music this year was the long weekend I spent in Raleigh, North Carolina, seeing dozens of bands at The Hopscotch Music Festival. Liars played the first night, and I entered the hall as they were stuck in mid-Pagan ritual. I've been a big fan of them forever, as my move to Brooklyn years ago coincided with their first run of Brooklyn gigs. I've devoured all of their records with great interest, but honestly, at the height of the furor over their art-punk witchery, I never quite expected them to turn into such consistent album artists. They seemed too wild to last?
Down South this fall, the weird rhythms of their particularly demented old chants came back to me involuntarily, pounding fast like an adrenaline heartbeat. "I...I am the bear....She...she is the girl..." That sort of muscle memory shout along can be transporting, semi-mysterious when you aren't expecting left-field nonsense to start flying out of your mouth.
Since, I've compiled a greatest hits for the band's career, let it switch my brain off for hour-long gym stretches. Their best work, edited down to 60 minutes that excises any lagging album stretches, is thrilling, one of the strongest in recent memory. This year's new record, WIXIW, is quite good in its own right, probably the most subtle and relaxed of their extended run. "No. 1 Against the Rush" is a highlight on it, and an instant greatest hit inclusion. It rounds the band's roughest corners while bringing them to a bright, percolating simmer. You can't really predict which bands will stay with you, which you'll fall out with over time. But with their new work hitting, their old work still lurking, somewhere inside, Liars persist.
Mirel Wagner - "No Death"
My purest, best, most emotionally devastating music moment of my year happened just a night or two later, when catching Ethiopian-born, Finland-raised singer Mirel Wagner's Hopscotch performance. Due to a torrential rainstorm that rolled in during the day, Wagner's long flights and late set were delayed by many more hours, leaving her with an early morning start, playing to an opera hall only a third full with the few people who'd been able to suss out the schedule change, and the fewer willing to wait around for her huge, but still semi-obscure talent. Alone on the big stage, only an acoustic guitar for help...she was phenomenal. A clear, strong voice of pain and exhaustion, with no show-biz gimmicks or showy stage craft to speak of. She still managed to keep the room alive in an expectant hush. "No Death", the standout track from her stark, amazing debut record, mingled grief, love, and surreal horror with natural conviction. I'll never forget it.
Lambchop - "Buttons"
But my favorite song this year, from my favorite record, was "Buttons" by Kurt Wagner's Lambchop. "Buttons" is a song sung by an old guy, and has to be, because It's so heavy with the weight of personal history. It's about arcs you start to see in people you know as years accumulate. Wagner's precise turns of phrase, are delivered to someone you gather he wasn't even great friends with but has known long enough to really consider at length They're accusatory, informed by bad news, but also empathetic, at least a little conciliatory, and willing to be wrong, even if he's too wise at this point for a positive outcome for this guy to be anything but a surprise.
At the risk of sounding phonily, pre-emptively like a very old dude while still hovering near beginning of my 30s, its easier than ever to recognize how this weight of people you've known for years, decades, can gain significance, even in the periphery of your own running autobiography. Seeing close friends succeed or not, stumble, dust off, is even bigger, but that blurry periphery matters too, little life examples you're moved to ponder from time to time. And in an era of easy, empty catch-ups, passive online check-ins, Wagner's table's length empathy seems all the more admirable and important. In short-story detail, his work cut deeper than any other artist's I heard this year.