Individual tastes certainly vary, but around here we were pretty bummed about the state of music in 2012. There's so much music released and consumed now, that it's impossible to go a full year without strong favorites, but in general it seemed like the big hitters were holding out on us. The world didn't end, as it happens, and the floodgates opened! With only half of the year gone, there has already been enough terrific music this year to field 10, 20 picks more satisfying than what came before.
Thanks to Daft Punk, straight-up disco has gotten it's biggest moment since the 1980s (even as the hard-hitting electronica that they turned away from continues to deepen). Punk, post-punk, indie rock, and indie-pop soldier on as they always do, but this year has seen an unusual number of committed hits from ambitious young voices. Absent legends like David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine reappeared suddenly to regain their vibrancy alongside newer bands like Vampire Weekend, just now coasting into their career peak. Outsider noise that's been rising for years made significant progress towards real crossover appeal, as synth-punk, industrial, and even black metal continue to redefine themselves. These dark sounds have even bled into mainstream hip-hop production, most notably on Yeezus, but not only there. There have been exciting developments in almost every direction!
As we come to the end of the first half of 2013, I wanted to pause for a second to take stock of just how good this year's been so far. Here are 50 songs that sum it up for me so far, but someone with different preferences could easily come up with several dozen substitutes. (I'm not accounting here for big-deal records like Timberlake's, J. Cole's, or The National's that just don't do anything for me, personally.) That my version might not be yours is a testament to the breadth of the year's quality.
You can listen to the 43 songs available to stream in a Spotify playlist here. The 7 missing are embedded below.
Daft Punk - "Get Lucky"
Still bloodless in spite of hype suggesting that real musicians in a studio meant passionate warmth? Sure. But also impossibly well-crafted and truly significant as the Robots belated radio smash.
Pulp - "After You"
Pulp tarts up a never-finished song from cold storage with the help of James Murphy, marking the rare occasion a reunion tour sets off legitimate pangs for new material.
Glass Candy - "The Possessed"
Humid Italo disco, as usual, but with a bright-eyed enthusiasm in place of his usual pilled-out fog.
Anika - "In the City"
Of course, there's still room to make a Johnny Jewel song funkier, w/o sacrificing its cool.
Jamaican Queens - "Caitlin"
Undersung Detroit duo mash classic oddball indie-pop hooks with of-the-moment laptop production.
Majical Cloudz - "Childhood's End"
The moment when Impersonator gives Devon Welsh's emotive intensity its best instrumental counterweight.
Iceage - "Morals"
Super serious Scandinavian punks figure out how to slow down without softening up (much).
Savages - "City's Full"
Dark, stylish, furious. Even better on record than in manifesto!
The Julie Ruin - "Oh Come On"
Kathleen Hanna returns to music, sounding as bright as brash as ever.
Deerhunter - "Monomania"
In which Bradford Cox stops trying to make Deerhunter ever-prettier, and puts on a really ugly dress.
Scott & Charlene's Wedding - "Two Weeks"
Brooklyn via Melbourne band, providing the most charmingly dishevelled indie-pop around. "I'm old fashioned just like my dad/ I get awkward on video chat."
The So So Glos - "Son of an American (live on Letterman)"
Confident, catchy pop-punk from Brooklyn DIY scene institutions on record, elevated into something even better in the moment.
Thee Oh Sees - "Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster"
My pick for the best song the last few years of San Francisco's garage rock renaissance has produced.
Mikal Cronin - "Shout It Out"
Power-pop with a sunny summer crunch.
Foxygen - "San Francisco"
Soft-focus Kinks worship, but with enough of a sarcastic charm to transcend that accurate description.
Christopher Owens - "Part of Me (Lysandre's Epilogue)"
Twee, shy, a little corny, maybe. But Lysandre's closing cut is an eerie approximation of Paul Simon's pre-Graceland golden hour.
Veronica Falls - "Teenage"
Less ghost-in-a-graveyard goth-y and more OMG-the-world-is-gonna-end teen angst-y on the London band's sophomore album.
The Men - "Open the Door"
In which Brooklyn noise rockers find a back porch and a rocking chair more to their liking.
Eleanor Friedberger - "I'll Never Be Happy Again"
If Eleanor Friedberger never wants to leave her 70s singer/songwriter sweet spot, we're not going to cry about it.
Angel Olsen - "Sweet Dreams"
A perfect mix of alt-rock angst and alt-country twang.
Waxahatchee - "Misery Over Dispute"
Katie Crutchfield, of the badass guitar hero Crutchfield twins, at her brief, bruised best.
Phosphorescent - "Song for Zula"
Matthew Houck takes his sophisticated country to a bigger pop place.
Vampire Weekend - "Hannah Hunt"
On an album so saturated with melody and dread that the two seem almost too easy to conjure, the point in which Ezra Koenig's voice finally raises to a raw tremble.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Despair"
No matter how you feel about the rest of the album, Karen O remains beyond question in the wounded-but-triumphant torch song department.
Marnie Stern - "Year of the Glad"
Mellowing her hyperkinetic guitar heroics just enough to let her sly, spazzy personalty shine through.
Phoenix - "SOS in Bel Air"
French band trapped in their own success! Send help!
Laura Mvula - "Green Garden"
British soul performed at rooftop party pace.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)"
Sounding simultaneously like 30 years ago and 10 minutes from now.
Youth Lagoon - "Mute"
Late 90s psychedelia in an unexpected but welcome revival.
Tricky (f/ Antlers) - "Parenthesis"
Everything about this is weird. The fact that trip-hop pioneer Tricky repurposed the choir-boy indie of Brooklyn's Antlers, for one. But also how just moving the guitar crunch forward, upping the beat's impact, and doing his Emphesema grumble over the top could make the song this much more compelling.
Lower Dens - "Non Grata"
Moving from zoned-in krautrock to zoned-in krautpop.
Jenny Hval - "Mephisto in the Water"
Unusual new music from Norway, taking Julia Holter's ethereal grad-school vibe to a more unsettling place.
David Bowie - "Where Are We Now?"
There are emphatic rock songs on The Next Day that argue against age diluting Bowie's snarl, but this is the only one inhabiting the Leonard Cohen afterworld we daydreamed his comeback album would be. His best work in 15 years.
Boards of Canada - "Come to Dust"
They've been gone for years, but I can't remember the original BoC records having this much forward motion to begin with.
My Bloody Valentine - "New You"
For an album decades in the making, mbv was elegantly understated. This is its most direct pop song moment by a fair distance.
Deafheaven - "Vertigo"
Maybe the grandest cut on Deafheaven's excellent Sunbather, and definitely the strongest argument in years that black metal's art underground might have real crossover appeal.
Raspberry Bulbs - "Groping the Angel's Face"
A second argument, just for fun, grafting that metal dude roar to sludgy garage rock.
Pharmakon - "Crawling on Bruised Knees"
Margaret Chardiet packs on the menace, sounding like a heroine in a John Carpenter movie. Or maybe the monster.
Var - "Pictures of Today/Victorial"
Exploring the gauzy dream-life of the Copenhagen punk scene.
Zebra Katz - "I Think We're Alone Now"
Over what sounds like a slightly manipulated Robyn sample, Zebra Katz takes the cross-generational pop classic from puppy love to palpable menace. "I think we're alone now..." Uh oh.
(It's only posted online in the middle of Katz' full DRKLING mix-tape, but you can hear it starting at 18:26.)
Azealia Banks - "Yung Rapunxel"
Az Banks was dabbling in goth rave music well ahead of Yeezus. No concrete news on her debut record. Still dabbling, I guess.
Kanye West - "Black Skinhead"
The best song of the year so far, with maybe the best glam rock beat in 15 years? Anyone who says that Yeezus has no hits apparently never made it to Track 2.
A$AP Rocky - "Wild For the Night"
Spring Breakers went a long way towards me thinking that Skrillex might actually have something. God help me.
Danny Brown - "Kush Coma"
Danny Brown is stoned on space weed, probably.
Chance the Rapper - "Good Ass Intro"
No industrial angst for this Chicago newcomer, who sounds excited to be here at all times.
Disclosure - "When a Fire Starts to Burn"
Does this make anybody else miss MTV's Amp? We're long past the point of electronic music pining for a mainstream crossover, but this sounds like one anyway.
Classixx (f/ Nancy Whang) - "All You're Waiting For"
LCD Soundsystem's Nancy Whang, aka your disco girlfriend.
The Juan MacLean - "You Are My Destiny"
And another star turn for Whang here, continuing her run as the DFA's anti-diva in residence.
Big Black Delta - "Side of the Road"
Cosmic dance music, with an earth-bound thump.
The Knife - "Ready to Lose"
The Knife use their most straight-ahead pop sound in years to argue that we should never take anything from our parents. (Not embeddable, but you can listen here.)