Best Songs of 2012, Tracks 10-1
Well shit. Here are my final ten songs, with some surprises, some more heartache, and at least a handful of instant classics thrown in like the past few years. Hope you enjoyed 2012 (in music) as much as I did!
10. “Safe and Sound” - Taylor Swift feat. The Civil Wars
No one is more surprised about including Taylor Swift on my list this year than I am - let alone in the top ten. That said, this song is structured perfectly. T. Bone Burnett, most famous for the soundtrack to O Brother! Where Art Thou?, co-wrote this song with Swift and The Civil Wars, and he clearly knew what he was doing. It’s constructed perfectly - well within her range and sticking mostly to crooning, with a few breathy high notes, so she doesn’t have that usual nasal sound to her vocal. Backed by the harmonies of Joy Williams and John Paul White, the song is ethereal without sounding insubstantial, and fades out perfectly with the three chanting into the Appalachian mist. The subject matter is spot-on for the soundtrack to a dystopian film about an impoverished region of America, with Swift’s protagonist promising to keep her loved ones “Safe and Sound.” To me, it’s clearly the better of the two songs with this name on my list, and easily the best song Swift has ever recorded.
9. “Emmylou” - First Aid Kit
Sometimes you need to leave the country to get the appreciation you’ve been seeking; in this case, 2012’s finest ode to American country music was living in Scandinavia. These Swedish sisters - Johanna and Klara Söderberg - have a love for the legends of American country music that few could claim on the modern charts. There’s something about their voices that synchs flawlessly, and the resulting harmonies are stunning. They recount the love of Johnny and June Cash as well as Gram Parsons and, naturally, Emmylou Harris. There’s an almost psychedelic folk vibe occurring here that transcends the alt-country approach the sisters utilized. When they coo the line “Just sing, little darling - sing with me,” it’s basically impossible to say no.
8. “Nothing Is Anything (Without You)” - Wintersleep
Canada comes through again with this instantly catchy song coming out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Wintersleep was one of the acts at Osheaga I had never heard and quickly became my favorite new discovery. From the first few notes of this ditty, the aggressive percussion and mixture of handclaps and harmonized scales are a force to be reckoned with. The drum patterns are sharp and tight, pulling you into the mix effectively. Lead singer Paul Murphy tells us that, regardless of the petty disagreements from day to day, there isn’t anything that matters more than that special someone. It’s completely and indescribably infectious, and easy to play on repeat for weeks on end.
7. “Used To Be” - Redwood
I get it: this song is grating at first. It’s even discordant. The distortion from the overly-processed synths is literally almost painful to listen to…until it isn’t any longer. Like Stravinksy before him, Chicago-based electronic composer Jordan Parker knows how to teach your ears to hear new melodies. He has a way of blending chillwave and house music that I have never really encountered before. The first time I heard the song, I almost turned it off. By the time I finished the second listening, I was playing it on loop for an hour. There is an understated brilliance that exists here - perhaps too understated, as he was ignored by almost everyone this year when he released his Swim Fan EP. In the long run, maybe he’s just ahead of his time - just like Stravinsky.
6. “Cold Nites” - How To Dress Well
On the opposite end of the spectrum involving house blends, Tom Krell’s falsetto guides you through this marriage of R&B and hazy electronic. Krell pulls out most the notes, taking more and more time to deliver each word as the song progresses. This gauzy bedroom pop is perfect for some extracurricular activities between the sheets, with the clean, lush production lulling you into a dreamy state. There are harps and chimes and echoed falsetto all over this masterpiece, and it stays with you for days. The chirping birds at the end serve to convince you the entire three and a half minute song that preceded them never happened.
5. “Comeback Kid” - Sleigh Bells
Rock is sexy again when you throw Alexis Krauss and Derek Edward Miller together. Billed as the official lead single for their sophomore effort Reign of Terror, the over-driven guitars and drums on “Comeback Kid” are bizarrely catchy and almost belligerent. At the same time, the production from Derek has grown more refined, which opens up attention for the more pop-oriented hooks from Alexis. There is a beautifully constructed balance of rock and pop on this track that expands upon that almost contradictory union present on earlier songs like “Infinity Guitars.” The riffs get under your skin in the most sublime way, and the vocals from Krauss stays with you long after the song is finished.
4. “Losing You” - Solange
Countless reviews of this song bring up the fact that Solange is the younger sister to Pop Goddess Beyoncé; the glorious sound, however, is more like a cut from Robyn. The production is absolutely stellar, and the beat sounds like something that is just slightly ahead of its time, capturing a zeitgeist that doesn’t even exist yet. Pain reflected through the lyrics is betrayed by the bubbly background and funky, almost retro instrumentation. This song oozes self-confidence and a mind that’s been made up, regardless of the consequences. Solange may be breaking up with you on this track, but you know she’s going to go dance her ass off afterwards.
3. “All Eyes On You” - St. Lucia
There’s something about Brooklyn based multi-instrumentalists that just destroy me. Jean-Philip Grobler is originally from South Africa, but his music sounds like the washed out soundtrack to an 80s film taking place in the Caribbean…making his name entirely apropos. His whole EP is worth checking out, but the electro-pop game is elevated on his single “All Eyes On You.” As the song that launched a thousand blog crushes, the staccato delivery for the chorus quickly washes away in the layered, beachy production that follows. A gorgeous sax solo starts up with about two minutes left, and leads into the crashing denouement that simply blows you away. Simply put, it’s impossible to get the song out of your head.
2. “The Riot’s Gone” - Santigold
The lion’s share of attention for Santigold in the last year or so has been focused on her second album’s lead single “Disparate Youth,” and for good reason - it’s a classic song. For personal reasons, though, this song really resonates with me. As the son of a bipolar mother and a frequently abusive father, the cloud of self doubt that hangs over this song is palpable. Santi White’s protagonist aches with the need to personally connect, but is terrified of scaring people away - and I think we can all relate. 2012 was a rough year for a lot of people, and the insecurity present here over an unforgettable bridge and a slow, martial beat is refreshing. Nick Zinner, the guitarist of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame, is featured on the track, which is eerie considering Santi’s vocals sounding strangely similar to Karen O. The rapid-fire drum machine effect has a startling effect, especially given the psychological aspects of the song. Disjointed percussive melodies throughout the track couple with looped noises (that could be likened to a dolphin radar) to disorient the listener. The cumulative effect of the lyrics, structure, and vocals would cause practically anyone to form an instant emotional bond with the song. I know that I, for one, get sucked into her world on every play - whether I’ve heard it five times or five hundred.
1. “Thinkin’ Bout You” - Frank Ocean
There is something that is universally appealing about this song - even Beyoncé cried the first time she heard it, people. Perhaps it’s the atmospheric backing or the effortless falsetto, but everything on the production of this is flawless. Ocean doesn’t spell out the entire relationship for you, just random details that leave you oddly connected even though you don’t really know that much. As Pitchfork’s Jordan Sargant stated, the “strength of [Ocean’s] songwriting is his ability to make the unfamiliar feel intensely personal, as if you’re a friend that has long known all the particulars of his relationships.” Ocean wants forever and can’t have it, and the regret, sarcasm, anger, and longing are all wrapped into his voice. The production may be slick, but none of the instrumentation is used to hide or cover that pain he feels, and that’s the genius of the record. By letting his power and lyrics shine through as the true focus of the song, this track became a massive, overpowering hit; it may not have dominated the charts, but it conquered the hearts and minds of critics and fans across the world. In my book, it was far and away the best song of 2012.