2012 was a thunderous year for music. So much is released on a daily basis, in fact, that many find it impossible to keep up with all these happenings. Fortunately for you, that’s what mxdwn does best. The following tracks signify what matters in music in our modern age. Sit down, chill out, and listen to what we consider to be the most important songs of the year.
40. Dethklok – “The Galaxy”
Dethklok’s “The Galaxy” explodes in a fantastic mutation of three different melodic ideas: one, an unforgettable space rock lead riff, two, an escalating variation on the first and third a simple chugging counterpoint.
39. Only You – “Applying Myself”
The lively simplicity of beach rock crosses yet another border. Vocal melodies that are equal parts new-wave, folk, and Celtic crash into jangling cranberry colored guitars. What emerges is a sing-along that’s more fun than anything you’ve heard this year.
38. Ken Stringfellow – “Shittalkers”
With an open letter to what could be critics, backstabbers, flighty fans or haters in general, Ken Stringfellow offers up a great piece of pained pop, desperately “keeping the streets safe from American kids.”
37. Ben Howard – “Everything”
Great songs can be wonderful without relying on riffs, as Ben Howard shows on this hook-free acoustic gem about loss and recovery and “Everything.” Just listen, imagine, and agree.
36. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Only in My Dreams”
Play it again and again. Lo-fi summer of love psychedelia looking through western tinted glasses. Equal parts cowboy and schoolboy, this is a perfectly written pop song for contemporary mods and the next wave of flower children.
35. Jack White – “Blues on Two Trees”
Starting off with a swampy blues stop, Jack White suddenly spits rhymes like ’80s hip hop as we’re sucked in and out of a creepy tale of love and trees.
34. Passion Pit – “Take a Walk”
Need a little time to clear your mind? Listen to Passion Pit’s steady beats and calming melody mixed in with lyrics that advise one on how to handle a stressful situation.
33. Patrick Watson – “Into Giants”
“We carried our love in cups to go,” sings Watson on the most vibrant track on his newest release. This life-affirming song sure has a way about it, a way that strikes an internal chord and motivates you to act, stay young and be love.
32. Sleigh Bells – “Demons”
If your ears survive the buzzsaw guitar, then the bass-drum pounding will do you in. If not, Alexis Krauss’ insistent shouting will get you. One way another Sleigh Bells’ “Demons” will bury you, but it hurts so good.
31. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – “The Killing Type”
Amanda Palmer’s unique storytelling talents and rocking dyanmics allow her to musically explain how a person craving attention from the one they love will drive them to do anything for it, even kill.
30. Scott Walker – “Epizootics”
With its gaseous horn section and drifting, spacey progression, Scott Walker’s “Epizootics,” one of the singer’s impossibly odd cuts on Bisch Bosch, just about takes the rotten cake. Stumbling like a puke-stained drunkard in a dark alley, the 10-minute epic wheezes with siren-like horns and off-the-wall imagery courtesy of Walker’s trademarked talk-singing. What more can be said? Scott Walker is an American treasure, and “Epizootics” is just another heart-stopping proof.
29. Foxy Shazam – “Holy Touch”
On first listen, there’s the risk here of misheard lyrics. “Kill me with your horny touch,” is it? No? Well, whether you expect over-the-top sexuality or actually get salvation through love, the Cincinnati sextet add legitimacy to the kind of winking cock-rock offered up by the likes of The Darkness and Steel Panther.
28. Beck featuring Jack White – “I Just Started Hating Some People Today”
This song can only be described in one way, interesting. This time with the help of Jack White Beck switches from country to punk, then ending with a funky jam making this listener yearn for more.
27. Cat Power – “Ruin”
One listen to the deft harmonies found on Cat Power’s “Ruin” and it becomes easy to appreciate how hard the band worked on nailing this song during practice. While it may sound familiar to a hit produced by any number of animal-print-sporting, glitter-toting ’80s glam bands, Cat Power has done well to take the popular rock music during the decade of decadence and modernize it with their own personal flair – and “Ruin” is a great example of this. This silky smooth jam will make you want to grab some friends and drive all through the night.
26. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”
In the land of entitled hip hop princesses, M.I.A has reminded us again why she’s a queen. Simple, catchy, and upbeat, Bad Girls sticks out as an anthem for women who want to “leave the boys behind” and go out and have some fun.
25. Bob Mould – “The Descent”
“The Descent” is a mixture of all things good one would remember from Husker Du. Crunchy distorted guitars colliding into dynamic vocals recreating the era in which Bob was a God.
24. Andrew Bird – “Desperation Breeds …”
Andrew Bird brings us a truly original style of modern folk music that showcases his voice and spectacular violin playing with “Desperation Breeds …”, which stands as one of the most touching and beautiful songs of the year.
23. Ben Folds Five – “Do It Anyway”
13 years since their last proper album, Ben Folds Five reunite and release a upbeat song of positive encouragement, featuring the crashing piano and creative vocals that made them so great.
22. Between the Buried and Me – “Telos”
“Telos” is a healthy ten minutes of prog-metal and mathcore action, catering to Dillinger Escape Plan and Tera Melos fans. Time signatures have never been this much fun (and scary)!
21. Howlin’ Rain – “Strange Thunder”
This is a track that rivals “Freebird” in its epic portion. The haunting tale knows when to sound sweet and when to become explosive, slowly building to a climax reminiscent of our best keepsakes from ’60s and ’70s psychedelia.
20. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines” eloquently laces together White’s signature unbridled
musical passion with a vividly tragic song about the tribulations of chronically pining after the fast, beautiful and unobtainable. Featuring untamed guitar solos, splashing drums, two-part falsetto harmonies, and grooves that hit the spot, “Sixteen Saltines” is perfectly imperfect.
19. Grimes – “Genesis”
Remember when everyone first started getting on the Radiohead bandwagon way back in the day? That type of just-before-its-time art-house music shares many parallels with Grimes, and her single, “Genesis”, from her 2012 album, Visions, is no different. While Grimes’ lucid vocals continue to elude sound engineers, they are enthralling fans internationally. In the song, “Genesis”, Grimes shows us that there is truly no end to the amount of vocal layers you can use. Definitely a post-production all-star.
18. Horse Feathers – “Fit Against the Country”
This is the Occupy Wall Street of folk music—characteristically sweet tenor vocals from Horse Feathers frontman Justin RIngle, cinematic crescendos of shivering strings, warm banjos, and subtly hypnotic guitar melodies, all wrapped into one critique of the modern-day working man’s plight.
17. Florence and the Machine featuring Josh Homme – “Jackson”
Earlier this year, the Internet was lit afire when Florence Welch and Josh Homme covered Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Jackson” on Unplugged. The simple folk song is rings true like an ode by the forefathers of folk, but the true magnetism of the song relies on the chemistry between Welch and Homme in this uncharacteristic duet.
16. Sharon Van Etten – “Magic Chords”
Sharon Van Etten has a way about her that makes you stop what you are doing and just listen to that sweet, crooning voice. With “Magic Chords,” we are reminded of a truth that can even evades a great poker player, that sometimes you’ve got to lose. By the end of the song, Van Etten effectively turns the phrase on its head with the quick quip, “you got nothing to lose this time.”
15. Flight of the Conchords – “Feel Inside (and Stuff Like That)”
New Zealand’s fourth most popular band sign on to do a “charity song” for Cure Kids! in honor of Red Nose Day. The hilarious “Feel Inside (and Stuff Like That)” features a whole host of New Zealand superstars, drawing inspiration both musical and lyrical from conversations the band had with children.
14. Sleigh Bells – “End of the Line”
When it comes to 2012’s Song of the Year, let’s talk Sleigh Bells. Their single, “End of the Line”, is a complex mix of cozy and comfortable melodies with warming vocals while simultaneously angsty and sorrowful. The lyrics are clear, both in meaning as well as being entirely audible, which is a quality missing from more and more new music. The synergy of inhumanly fast drumming, dragging guitar rhythms, vocals reminiscent of a whispering angel, and the repetitious harmony of all three on “End of the Line” create not only a great song anyone who has ever loved and lost can relate to, but a well-rounded song altogether.
13. Between The Buried And Me – “Lay Your Ghosts To Rest”
“Lay Your Ghosts To Rest” is dissonant, proggy and heavy enough to melt your face while you two-step and floor punch your way into a frenzy. Between the Buried and Me do what they do best: deliver interesting post-hardcore/metal relevant to this decade. The guitarwork alone will make you sweat.
12. Devin Townsend Project – “Liberation”
In the case of Epicloud where songs shift moods and dynamics, it’s nice to have one that begins at top speed and stays there. “Liberation” starts with a simple heavy riff and kicks into powerful vocals delivering at least three unforgettable hooks. It never lets up, which aids in conveying its message of hope in the process of moving on: “it can only get bitter or better.”
11. Alt-J – “Fitzpleasure”
Deliciously dark, buzzing bass notes thrum under heavy synths in this single from the UK-based band Alt-J. Trebly vocals warble over syncopated percussion in a rambling, big sound worthy of a modern-day Zeppelin song. “Fitzpleasure” constantly evolves, sinuously changing tempo and instrumentation, but it’s always interesting.
10. The Darkness – “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us”
After a reunion in 2011, fans have been perched at the edge of their seats waiting for The Darkness to return, and they have come back full force with their new single “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us.” Short but full of energy, their return really packs a punch, giving its listeners the catchy glam rock inspired feel of their earlier records along with maturation and broadening of their musical styles’ reach that would be expected from a band with over a decade under their belt. Definitely a must hear for fans of their older music, and new listeners wanting a feel good track that they can turn all the way up and sing along to.
9. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – “Want it Back”
Sustained, ethereal synth and stacatto piano chords may drive the core of “Want it Back” but what’s truly in control of this song is Palmer’s lyrics and vocals. It’s even on visual display as the first music video release from her critically acclaimed Theatre is Evil album. Ink and lyrics stain both the band and their environment. It’s an evocative accompaniment when paired with “Want it Back” and points to Palmer’s engrossing irresistability; one that helped fund and produce her latest musical endeavor. “Want it Back” pulls you in completely and bares all.
8. Extra Life – “First Song”
Despite singer–songwriter Charlie Looker and company since parting ways, Extra Life’s delicately-crafted American Gothic album, Dream Seeds, proved their unforgettable black swan song. Unfolding like some Hawthorne-era tale of foreboding and revenge, its very strange and personal tracks build one on top of the other like acts in a play. The set list’s interplay notwithstanding, however, “First Song” perhaps best crystalizes the album’s willful oddness and rich character development, as it lilts with darkly romantic guitars, warlike drumming and Looker’s inimitably melancholic tone. Between each stab of a quaking synth, the singer performs from the outcast perspective of a neighbor who may or may not be a child-harming freak. The character’s cajoling chorus, presumably directed at one of Dream Seeds’ innocent children, makes an equal-parts soaring and unnerving melody of the words, “A heart-shaped Rice Krispie treat / I hope you’re still sweet at 14”—only to finish with the words, “Don’t you ever forget how to sing / Grown-ups don’t know anything.” Aside from its stark and engaging arrangement, the song’s integrity, pathos and even humor make it one of 2012’s most haunting entries.
7. TEEN – “Electric”
For a group of newcomers, TEEN’s “Electric” is an auspicious debut brimming world-weary pondering. The three sisters and close friend aim for dark shades of ’60s psych rock with haunting backing vocals. Lead singer guitarist/vocalist Teeny Lieberson sings as if lost in a dream, “Everyone’s disposable / picture perfect, paint a perfect picture.” Each line seems adrift in musing, not lost in questioning. The song shifts from one eerie yet inviting phrase into another, until finally expanding into the songs enveloping crescendo, swirls of feedback dancing amidst the fade-out. It’s just catchy enough to stick in your brain, and edgy enough that each respective noise and bleep enrapture your attention.
6. Cat Power – “Cherokee”
Cat Power abandons the quiet, introspective folk she became known for and adopts a smooth electric guitar and slick drums on “Cherokee.” Rich, melodic keys undergird layers of interweaving vocal harmonies, creating a veritable tapestry of sound. “Cherokee” is Cat Power at one of her darkest and most evocative moments on Sun. While it boasts an upbeat tempo, the song laments “Never knew pain like this / everything dies,” melding sadness with pervasive natural imagery, Cherokee burial tradition, and the occasional cry of a hawk, to punctuate the chorus. “Cherokee” may be one of Cat Power’s most straightforward songs, but it boasts her signature knack for seamless composition and lyrical poignancy.
5. Santigold – “The Keepers”
Produced by Greg Kurstin (The Bird and The Bee), master of creating worlds of depth and dimension with music, Santigold’s single “The Keepers” not only transports us to a musical manifestation of being lost in an apocalyptic jungle, but acts as a warrior cry for American social consciousness.
“The Keepers” opens with tribal drum rhythms, as if to gather listeners around a fire to hear a great Sage impart ancient wisdom. Santigold’s betrayingly juvenile voice slashes through the track with a cryptic “I walk by with smoke in my eyes, like we don’t know where we’ve been.” Very much harkening to George Santayana’s infamous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Though definitely, a catchy, club-ready track, “The Keepers” is a heavily armed call to
action. Whether it’s cleverly handing the listener the double-entendre of “Our house is burning down” (think Parliament’s “the roof is on fire” vs. the figurative house burning down), or by delegating collective responsibility (“We’re the keepers/While we sleep in America”), to those willing to listen, Santigold’s single is a poignant, timely masterpiece, reminding us that we have the power to make a positive change or watch our world pass away.
4. Gorillaz featuring James Murphy and Andre 3000 – “DoYaThing”
In celebration of Gorillaz-themed Converse and as part of the shoe company’s Three Artists, One Song series, “DoYaThing” mixes Gorillaz’s signature sound with Andre 3000’s frenetic rapping and James Murphy’s ear for soundscapes. The percussive synth that starts it runs straight into a driving horn riff and 2D’s lackadaisical freestyle rhymes. Effects dance around the chorus, lifting off and propelling the song in a whole other direction once Andre 3000 takes the mic. The freakier half of Outkast’s deft rhymes and impassioned singing makes you long for him to just make his own damn solo album already. Murphy’s influence is more subtle; he even assumes the role of a postman baboon in the equally engrossing video, issuing a notice of eviction to 2D as the camera zooms out and up. The success of “DoYaThing” makes you wonder if this may be more than a one-off collaboration. With the duo behind Gorillaz at somewhat an impasse and on indefinite hiatus, Andre 300 focusing more on acting, and Murphy freshly retired from LCD Soundsystem, this unexpected earworm may be all we have to cling to from either of the three artists for a while.
3. Devin Townsend Project – “True North”
Devin Townsend Project’s Epicloud is amply stocked with an arsenal of orchestral metal tracks, but “True North” proves perhaps its biggest gun. Coalescing DTP’s quirky hybrid of theater, Queen-like pomposity and aggressive metal passages, the happy–heavy song starts with an ear-worm choir melody repeating the line, “I love you, I love you / I need you / I’ve always been around you,” later exploding with a cacophony of splendorous keys and guitar crunches. At the 1:20 mark, its trajectory suddenly veers course for more doubtful and introspective territory, finally overturning with anxious guitar scrapes and Devin repeating the line, “Where do we go from here?” Shortly after, a staccato union of guitars and drums slam with foreboding force as Devin and the choir counter with hopeful but reticent croons, perhaps suggestive of the faith-versus-fear struggle of a romantic relationship. Crashing out of a swirl of noises impish and angelic, good finally prevails with the choir’s closing shout of “Everyone into forever / Everything a part of me / Dancing on into Whenever / Effervescent Quality.” And with that, after such a stunning spate of gravitational warfare, stasis is once more found, and one’s faith can again be placed in “True North,” one of 2012’s most ambitious and cathartic songs.
2. Black Moth Super Rainbow – “Windshield Smasher”
Black Moth Super Rainbow has always provided its listeners with innovative and entertaining music, and they have done it once again with their new track “Windshield Smasher.” Upbeat, catchy, and high energy, this song finally uses autotune in a way that many of us have been waiting for. One of the first acceptable uses of this kind of musical technology since “Autotune the News”, Black Moth uses these effects to enhance the electronic style of the track, rather than using it to overcompensate for a complete lack of talent.
With the increasing popularity of computer generated music, more and more artists have been utilizing it to cover up poor vocals and general lack of musicality, and it is quite refreshing to see such a talented and creative band use it in this manner. It is this kind of innovation that makes this band such a joy to listen to and to watch mature and expand their musical reach.
A perfect combination of subdued post rock, dance beat heavy electronic, and even a dash of lo-fi, makes “Windshield Smasher” a great track for new listeners to find, and something that many old fans will enjoy. This song, and the rest of the album, is a perfect fit for anyone looking for something animated, “can’t get it out of your head” catchy, or an example of computer generated music done right, and definitely stands out as one of the greats this year.
1. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – “Bottom Feeder”
In an album over-loaded with stellar songs, “Bottom Feeder” is the one that jumps out amidst the pack. Like much the rest of Amanda Palmer’s excellent Album of the Year winning Theatre is Evil, Palmer has arrived at the pinnacle of her songwriting confidence. All of “Bottom Feeder” is an exercise in immaculate and complementary melodic ideas. The plunging piano lines and the slowly tumbling/rolling vocals in each verse (“Why you always kicking up the sand / kicking up the sand / you block your sisters so the sunbeams miss her) set the song’s pace and then only expand on it in subtle nuance until the song’s wailing conclusion.
It continues in low sighs, “Why you gotta be like that? / You’re never gonna bring him back / big fish, little fish / throw me in the water cause I want to be a bottom feeder.” The lyrics are evocative and colorful, illuminating a story that is both longing for that which others throw away too easily, and how just maybe some of those things should never be let go of. Like much of this year’s Album and Song of the Year list, it revels in a nimble and thoughtful use of all styles. Whatever styles and bits are pertinent. It’s a selective and intelligent approach to a world overwrought with information and opinions, largely forgetting the important parts of life.