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23 great songs of 2012

31 Dec


Living in the Information Age is both a wonderful and overwhelming thing. On one hand, we have more media and art instantly available to us than any generation before; on the other, it’s hard to know where, in all that cultural vastness, our attentions would be best directed. We always get the feeling that no matter what we’re listening to or how much we’re enjoying it, there’s something even better out there waiting to be discovered. And for those of my generation, on top of all that, we have years and years’ worth of influential and essential listening/viewing/reading behind us to acquaint ourselves with.

In other words, it’s a little tough being a pop music fan these days.

I try to find a healthy balance between the new and acclaimed, the old and heralded, and the obscure pet bands every music fan likes to keep in his back pocket. But I also work a full-time job and enjoy having a social life, so I simply don’t have enough time to hear or consider everything I’d like to. I do have a long commute and spend hours every week listening to music, but I’m a big proponent of absorbing an album before forming a critical thought on it – I’d rather listen to one album seven or eight times and be comfortable in my assessment of it than listen to seven or eight albums once and prematurely write them off or give them undue praise. Music is inherently a form of media that demands this kind of attention.

All of this is a long-winded way for me to say I cannot provide a comprehensive list of the best music of 2012 because I didn’t listen to enough of the year’s music. However, I have made a playlist of 23 of the year’s songs that I really loved. Some come from albums I also loved; others come from albums that fell a little short for me. You can listen to these in this Spotify playlist. I’ve written a little about each song below (in alphabetical order).

Allo Darlin’ – “Capricornia” (from Europe)
Twee music gets a lot of bad rap (often rightfully so), but Allo Darlin’s Europe, full of catchy, heartfelt indie pop gems, is an excellent example of the genre having more substance than many would have you believe. The jangly, infectious “Capricornia” is its best track.

Bat for Lashes – “Laura” (from The Haunted Man)
My expectations for The Haunted Man were high after Natasha Khan released the gripping, emotional ballad “Laura” as an early single. I ultimately found the album itself a little dull, but I keep returning to this track, which finds intensity in a simple piano chord progression, muted horns, and an affecting melody.

Beach House – “Myth” (from Bloom
Beach House’s Alex Scally hit the nail on the head in his interview with Pitchfork this year, when, addressing the criticism that their sound hasn’t changed enough between albums, he said, “A lot of people listening to music now don’t listen to the songs or lyrics at all. They just go, ‘Good tones…’ and that’s it. But we’re obsessed with songs. Sometimes, I feel like people aren’t listening to our songs, they’re just listening to the sound.” Beach House has cultivated a distinct sound characterized mainly by dreamy instrumentation and Victoria Legrand’s reverb-soaked voice, but that’s not the only reason to listen to them, and it’s hard to argue with a song like “Myth,” which is about how every relationship, with its complexities and heightened emotions, is a legend in its own right. It soars.

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” (from Kiss)
Here’s a song with a lot of haters, but I suspect they crank it in their car with the windows up. It may have all the substance of a frosting-topped cupcake, but it’s exactly what I want mainstream pop music to sound like – ridiculously catchy and fun. I mean, just listen to those strings. You cannot hate this song.

Cloud Nothings – “Cut You” (from Attack on Memory)
Now with a more abrasive sound and pessimistic outlook, Cloud Nothings doesn’t sound much like the low-fi pop-punk band they were on their 2011 self-titled debut, but Attack on Memory is a great rock album in a year full of them, and its final track “Cut You” is exactly the kind of hooky, rough-edged, loud song I love.

Damien Jurado – “Working Titles” (from Maraqopa)
This marks the second consecutive time songwriter Damien Jurado has teamed up with producer Richard Swift, and now it seems like 2010’s Saint Bartlett was just a warm-up for Maraqopa, an album of excellent songs full of wide-open, lonely spaces. “Working Titles” blends Jurado’s usual terrific story-telling (favorite lyric: “I’ll show up in a title of your song / I only hope somebody requests it”) with a yearning, shuffling instrumentation reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.”

Dirty Projectors – “Impregnable Question” (from Swing Lo Magellan)
Full disclosure: I don’t really know all that much about Dirty Projectors, and I never found the chance to listen to Swing Lo Magellan this year. But this song came up a lot on my 2012 playlist when I put it on shuffle, and I really enjoy the way it sounds like an old-school pop song with its doo-wop vocals, tried-and-true instrumentation, and syrupy sweet lyrics.

Dr. Dog – “How Long Must I Wait” (from Be the Void)
Be the Void is one of the year’s most entertaining albums. Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman and Scott McKinney know their way around a catchy melody, and the production is charmingly loose. If “How Long Must I Wait” doesn’t connect with some joyous inner part of you, then I’m not sure pop music is for you.

Fiona Apple – “Daredevil” (from The Idler Wheel…)
The Idler Wheel… is a pleasure from start to finish, although maybe a bit exhausting for casual listening. One of the best traits of Apple’s songwriting is the way she makes her voice another rhythmic instrument, not just in her emphatic delivery but in the actual words themselves. In a song like “Daredevil,” every syllable seems painstakingly chosen for maximum impact: some lines are crammed full of words while others have only two or three. What makes it all the more impressive is how poetic and moving the lyrics are as a whole.

First Aid Kit – “Emmylou” (from The Lion’s Roar)
It’s hard not to get bummed about the state of indie-folk right now, with all of its bland, interchangeable bearded-dude bands seeming all but ubiquitous. To polish up folk music is to take away much of its impact, and I’d direct fans of Mumford and Sons to Swedish duo First Aid Kit (sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg), who are quietly churning out gorgeous songs with spine-tingling harmonies and plenty of room to breathe. “Emmylou” sounds as though it were written and recorded in a valley, the voices and acoustic guitar sounding so organic they may very well have always been reverberating through a mountain pass.

Frank Ocean – “Pink Matter (feat. Andre 3000)” (from Channel Orange)
Channel Orange is an album that came dangerously close to falling prey to The Hype Machine for me, but I kept returning to this track, which goes from an already-great haunting ballad in its first half to downright amazing when Andre 3000 drops a verse in what may be his best guest appearance ever. It convinced me to give the album another shot, and, in short, I began hearing what I missed the first time.

Grizzly Bear – “Yet Again” (from Shields)
Grizzly Bear has always been an intriguing band in the way they’ve married the orchestral to indie rock, but that’s also made many of their songs seem curiously distant and, some of the time, not all that enjoyable. Shields is their best album yet because its songs are the most fully formed; listen to the way “Yet Again” blends its big, sweeping instrumentation with poignant lyrics and delicate vocal melodies.

Hospitality – “Friends of Friends” (from Hospitality)
At first glance, Hospitality might seem like yet another Belle & Sebastian clone (especially on album opener “Eighth Avenue”), but they’ve actually created quite a distinct sound for themselves, placing as much emphasis on bass and drums as guitar and vocals. “Friends of Friends” is poppy, rhythmic, and fun, as is most of the album.

Hot Chip – “Motion Sickness” (from In Our Heads)
I have a hard time with a lot of electronic music, much of the time for the reasons Beach House’s Alex Scally outlines above (“Good tones…”), but synths can be used to great effect when an actual song lies beneath all the spectacle, and Hot Chip has always specialized in making incredibly infectious dance music. “Motion Sickness” starts small before building itself into a joyous, booming thing of beauty.

Japandroids – “The House that Heaven Built” (from Celebration Rock
Celebration Rock is my favorite album of the year, not because it does anything particularly revolutionary, but because Brian King and David Prowse set out to make a great punk rock album full of anthemic songs with enormous singalong choruses, and that’s just what they did. What’s more, they beat the critics to the punch by already providing the best possible description of their music: “celebration rock” is exactly what it is.

Jens Lekman – “The World Moves On” (from I Know What Love Isn’t)
Jens Lekman’s other albums have never been all that cohesive, seeming more like collections of songs than anything else. I Know What Love Isn’t, a sort of concept album about a breakup, is the first to feel like a proper record; the trade-off is that it while it never reaches the heights of a song like Night Falls over Kortedala‘s “A Postcard to Nina,” it’s also much more consistent on the whole. “The World Moves On” is its centerpiece, utilizing Lekman’s trademark blend of humor and real pathos to describe life after a relationship.

The Men – “Open Your Heart” (from Open Your Heart)
It’s hard to pin The Men down; like Yo La Tengo, they jump from indie rock influence to influence, but unlike YLT, they don’t have a distinct base sound to filter those influences through. Still, something special is at work in their output, and this song, which sounds like Paul Westerberg covering the Buzzcocks, is as exhilarating a rock song as anything either of those artists did.

Parquet Courts – “Master of My Craft” (from Light Up Gold
Here’s another band working itself through a laundry list of respectable indie-rock influences (Minutemen, Wire, Pavement, to name a few), but they have a much easier time defining their sound than The Men do. With frantic, twangy guitars paralleling pulsing, shifting drumbeats while frontman Andrew Savage (also of Fergus & Geronimo) spits out witty lyrics surrounding various New York characters, Parquet Courts have crafted one of the most instantly memorable albums of the year. If you like “Master of My Craft,” get the whole album; you’ll be glad you did.

Royal Headache – “Really in Love” (from Royal Headache)
Royal Headache is a lo-fi punk band that sounds like it’s fronted by a soul singer. Their album is a joy to listen to. Get it.

Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents” (from Tramp)
I’ve been following Sharon Van Etten since she released her sparse, beautiful debut Because I Was in Love in 2009. Since then, it has been a pleasure to observe how she’s expanded on and refined her sound with every new release. “Serpents” is essentially a full-blown rock song with its distorted guitars and pounding drums, spearheaded by Van Etten’s heartbreakingly gorgeous voice soaring above it all.

Tame Impala – “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (from Lonerism
Lonerism is a synth-driven psych-rock album that sounds like it’s being dispatched from a rural landscape of some alien planet: it’s both familiar and new. Its songs sound great on their own and even better within the context of the album. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” which moves from hook to hook through a lush soundscape, is pure pop pleasure.

Titus Andronicus – “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus” (from Local Business
“Upon Viewing…” moves swiftly through its 3-and-a-half-minute runtime, with Patrick Stickles breathlessly firing out lyric after lyric about the absurdity of modern life. Unfortunately Titus Andronicus wasn’t able to maintain this kind of momentum throughout the spotty Local Business, but there’s still plenty to recommend the album.

The Walkmen – “Dreamboat” (from Heaven)
Here’s another formerly loud and abrasive band that’s toned down their sound through the years, embracing the term “dad-rock” by actually having pictures of their wives and children in Heaven‘s liner notes. There’s still a core Walkmen sound, though, and Heaven is still a great album; for proof, listen to the lovely closer “Dreamboat,” which features frontman Hamilton Leithauser waxing nostalgic over a sleepy, hypnotic guitar and drum pattern.

My top 5 albums of the year:
1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
2. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
3. Tame Impala – Lonerism
4. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
5. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Here’s hoping 2013 is another great year for music!



Christmas Can Be Cool – The Christmas Song

22 Dec

According to Wikipedia, “The Christmas Song” has been recorded by, like, every popular artist ever. And I’m not saying every one of those covers is bad, but I have never wanted to hear anyone but Nat King Cole sing this song. I suspect most people feel the same way – I rarely hear any other version of it anywhere. Why? Well, Nat King Cole just nails it. He sings it simply and he sings it well, backed by that syrupy-sweet orchestra and those jazzy chords. The lyrics, written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme, are just vague enough in their details to give the whole thing a feeling of timelessness – tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow, will always find it hard to sleep on Christmas night. Really, the title itself says all you can say about “The Christmas Song” – it is what Christmas sounds like.

(I’ve been holding off on writing about my three all-time favorite Christmas entertainments, intending to cover them on December 23, 24, and 25. However, I’ve decided to save them for longer, more involved posts next year and enjoy the remaining holiday time with friends and family instead. Merry Christmas!)

Christmas Can Be Cool – Low’s Christmas

17 Dec

I took some time today to look back on all that I’ve written for this series so far, and it seems pretty obvious that I love sad Christmas entertainment the most. Why? I’m not entirely sure. As some sort of halfhearted attempt at an answer, I submit Low’s 1999 Christmas EP. Here is a band that understands Christmas is a holiday as deserving of silent (and somewhat fearful) reverence as it is cheer and goodwill. Even if you don’t subscribe to the Christian faith (the members of Low do), it’s hard not to feel the sheer power of the Christmas story when it’s presented in an effective manner. “If You Were Born Today (Song for Little Baby Jesus),” with its barely-strummed guitar, almost unbearably slow tempo, and beautiful hushed voices, is the kind of song to make hair stand on the end of one’s neck, believers and non-believers alike. And the best track on the album isn’t even a religious one – it’s the cover of “Blue Christmas,” which, when it arrives at its wistful guitar solo, makes me think of the last call at a lonely bar on Christmas Eve. This is a lovely, strange, and honestly kind of creepy album, but then again, Christmas is a little lovely, strange and kind of creepy.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”

16 Dec

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the very best Christmas pop song ever written. This is not debatable. Do children hearing those momentous opening chords for the first time sense the significance of the occasion? Phil Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound, essentially the musical equivalent of a great bear hug, was made for Christmas time. If Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were set in modern times, there would be no need for the three Christmas ghosts – Scrooge would need only to hear the sound of Spector’s jukebox orchestra filling the room, accompanied by Darlene Love’s unbelievably emotion-filled voice, to be brought to his knees. Yes, Spector’s entire Christmas album is essential listening, but this is its best track; it deserves its own entry.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop”

15 Dec

(Guess I’ll just go ahead and double/triple up today.)

Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit is an indie rock band with a penchant for writing emotionally raw, tuneful, guitar-driven songs. “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop” is one of their finest showcases, a song that begins softly with finger-picked acoustic guitar and piano, eventually building to an exhilarating climax of pounding drums, electric guitar, and even a choir. Along the way, it offers a bittersweet truth: Christmas gives us a reason once a year to be cheerful and kind, but it’s all fleeting and maybe even a little fake. With an aching desperation conveyed through lyrics like “Once you’re tucked in bed / you’ll hold onto the day for the last few seconds,” the song perfectly captures the false hope that maybe that good feeling will stick this year. But then December 26 rolls around, and life has gone back to its past self.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home”

12 Dec

Reigning Sound is a garage rock band out of Asheville, NC that’s been churning out consistently excellent albums for a decade now to little fanfare. Their secret weapon: frontman Greg Cartwright’s impressive songwriting chops. He knows how to evoke real emotion with understated lyrics and simple melodies; like the best song writers, he makes it look easy. “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home” is one of their best offerings. The band grooves in a loose and boozy fashion, lead guitar wailing mournfully, as Cartwright tries to make amends for his past mistakes with an ex. What makes it all so effective is Cartwright’s humility-filled lyrics (“I feel guilty for the things I’ve done”) paired with the fuzzy, bruised, tired-sounding instrumentation. It’s the sound of resignation.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

11 Dec

Christmas is a time when we can throw caution to the wind. A time when we don’t have to be rational. We can cast aside worry and be joyful without reservation – or even reason.

Christmas is a time when we can unabashedly and unironically love a Mariah Carey song.

If “All I Want for Christmas Is You” were a new 2012 release, would I still love it? I don’t know how to answer that question. Although I like to think I’m not a cynical person, there’s a very real possibility I would see it as a shallow, soulless exemplification of crass Christmas commercialism. But my past selves still reside in some special place within me, and while they’ve willingly allowed me to let go of so many embarrassing former obsessions, my six year-old self, who listens to this song with his mom in her minivan often (sometimes in the middle of August), demands I recognize its greatness. He refuses to let me consider it objectively. The best I can do on the critical thinking front is halfheartedly suggest that this song really isn’t that far off from those on Phil Spector’s Christmas album, but I don’t really expect anyone to buy that argument. Suffice it to say that this song strikes some deep, indefinable chord with me, and I love it more than I can say. You can’t fault me for that, can you? It’s Christmas!