Monday, December 17, 2012

Top 40 Songs of 2012

40. Seapony - "Outside" 

I still miss the idiosyncrasies and personality of Transmittens a lot, but the Seapony songs are outrageously lovely.

39. Purity Ring - "Fineshrine" 

Purity Ring's album is a bit cloying as a whole, but in bits and pieces it is really nice. The songwriting on "Fineshrine" brings some warmth and personality that always seems to be lacking in the too-cool-for-school electro of the hipster age.

38. Superchunk - "This Summer"

Every time "This Summer" was played on the Current I only ever caught the last thirty seconds of it. I didn't actually hear the song in its entirety until the fall, and by then it was too late because this is the perfect song for bike riding, lake swimming, and porch beers.

37. Angel Olsen - "Acrobat"

Angel Olsen's sophomore album sounds like a lost artifact from the days of folk music past. Like a synthesis of Numero Group's Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies of the Canyon compilation and a healthy dose of Kath Bloom and Vashti Bunyan. Influences and agelessness aside, Olsen's Half Way Home is one of the most disarming albums of the year.

36. Jason Lytle - "Dept. of Disappearance"

I really disliked Lytle's first post-Grandaddy solo album Yours Truly, The Commuter but Dept of Disappearance reminds us just how good a songwriter Lytle is and how his voice and melodies marry to create very specific sorts of songs.

35. The Antlers - "Zelda"

The Antlers just won't quit. The followed up their masterpiece Hospice with last year's pretty much just as great Burst Apart and this year delivered again with the terrific Underwater EP. "Zelda" was my favorite track, loaded with sad horns, spaced out synthesizers, and all the haunted moodiness that makes this band so interesting.

34. The Avett Brothers - "The Once and Future Carpenter" 

The Avett Brothers make some of the prettiest music around. The thesis statement to their latest album is no exception, and while that album is a bit hit or miss, this song is the Avett Brothers at their best.

33. Islands - "Never Go Solo"

Nick Thorburn did it again! Another excellent Islands LP! That makes him 3/4 if you stand by the opinion that the overly ambitious Arm's Way was a bit of a failure despite half of that album being great. So 3.5/4! Not a bad record. I'm only going to assume "Never Go Solo" is an excuse for his spark-lacking solo album I Am An Attic.

32. Why? - "For Someone"/"The Plan"/"Probable Cause"/"Twenty-Seven"
Why? is one of my favorite band and they released one of my least favorite albums of the year. Mumps, Etc was heartbreakingly bad. It was a Why? album where all the honesty was replaced with grandstanding and self-parody. There were a couple of decent songs but most were repellent. It hurt. I listened to it so many times too, just to make sure I wasn't missing something. Like it might be a grower. It should have been, in my mind. The last three Why? albums are three of my favorite records. Alas, no dice. However, the Sod in the Seed EP was actually really good...if you subtracted the awful title track and "Shag Carpet." What you had in the middle of the EP was a mini-song cycle where all the songs felt like short sketches and that's probably why they worked so well. They weren't over thought or injected with self-deprecation. The four songs in the middle are loaded with the stuff that makes me love Why? and after I couldn't take Mumps, Etc I returned to these four for solace.

31. Mount Eerie - "Through the Trees pt. 2"

Phil Elverum always seems to be in the state of making the best music of his career. An endlessly fascinating and wonderful musician and songwriter that I really have nothing else to say about because I mean, it's Phil Elverum and he could have just quit after the Microphones' The Glow Pt. 2 and just kept. getting. better.

30. The Shins - "Port of Morrow"

The song on most lists that feature a Shins track this year is going to be "Simple Song" because those music critics didn't hear that song 100,000 fucking times this year. The first twenty listens or so, it was like "Man! What a great track! THE SHINS ARE BACK BABY!" And then it was everywhere. As ubiquitous as fun. or Gotye or Peter, Bjorn, and John when "Young Folks"was everywhere years back. No matter how good a song might be, any song can get played out. Fortunately, Port of Morrow is a great record and its title track is a real step forward for James Mercer. It's different, inserting some moodiness that I don't remember ever finding on a Shins track. A real atmosphere! Lady vocals too!

29. Sharon von Etten - "Serpents"

Everyone went all apeshit about Fiona Apple this year, but what about Sharon Von Etten? In terms of upper echelon female singer-songwriters, Von Etten is there. Tramp was a feat and "Serpents" was the most vital and moving song on that record. And one of the most vital and moving songs of the year. This shit just fucking slays.

28. Guided by Voices - "Class Clown Spots a UFO"

The only reason this monster jam isn't higher on the list is because it was previously released as "Crocker's Favorite Song" in a more stripped down fashion on one of the Suitcase sets. That's not really an issue per se, since this full-band version is so much better and triumphant sounding, but it's like when a band's debut LP is just a rerecording of songs from their earlier EPs. Though the songs are better, more complete, there's still something off. But it's GBV, and there are two more GBV tracks on this list so SOMEONE had to be in the high 20s.

27. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "Storms"

I've never really given a crap about Fleetwood Mac but my wife LOVES them. More like she LOVES Stevie Nicks. So when I told her Superwolf was covering one of her favorite Fleetwood Mac songs she kind of hit the roof, and then legitimately hit the roof when she heard it. It's so fucking good. They find a way to make this not sound like a cover (unlike some of the other covers on the Fleetwood Mac tribute this came from. Best Coast's "Rhiannon" which is absolutely soulless).

26. Beach House - "Myth"

Beach House has been proving that there is a place for overly pretentious music in the world because the music they make is so goddamn pretty. These two have a legitimate vision for the music they make, and while I've always found it a bit too prim and proper to convey any real emotional resonance lyrically, the music, production, and tone is all really top notch.

25. JEFF the Brotherhood - "Sixpack"

Though I missed Superchunk's "This Summer" on the radio every single time this summer, I DID however hear Jeff The Brotherhood's summer anthem "Sixpack" dozens of times. It was always on the radio, and I always got that hell yeah summertime feeling when it came on. This son of a bitch is good old fashioned raw and dirty fun.

24. Shearwater - "Animal Life"

Man, it's been the year of lovely music. Jonathan Meiburg has been pushing Shearwater to lovelier and lovelier places since his departure from Okkervil River a few years back and Animal Joy is another fantastic record. It really shows how much Meiburg has grown as a vocalist which is really special since he's already been establishing himself as one of indie rock's best singers these last few years.

23. Dirty Projectors - "Dance For You"

Following the masterfully performed yet chilly Bitte Orca, Dave Longstreth and crew delivered a record that was both sonically impressive and emotionally resonant. It's as if they knew they were being mega hoity toity with Orca and really brought some humanity back into their music this time around. Swing Lo Magellen has a lot of heart, and "Dance For You" was my favorite song from the album to randomly catch on the radio this summer.

22. Guided by Voices - "She Lives in an Airport"

At the end of 2011, I was elated to learn GBV would be releasing a new album in 2012. Thrilled. I never expected to have that. Even if it was bad, I was still going to be happy. And when it was actually really good, I was sated. And then they released another album. And another. Three albums, holy shit. And the thing is, if you take the absolute best songs from those three albums, you get one album length (by GBV standards, roughly 22 songs) record that is brilliant and stands up there with Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand. Sadly, it's just three really good records, and The Bears for Lunch is probably the best.

 21. Frightened Rabbit - "State Hospital"

More excellence from the pen of Scott Hutchinson. I cannot fucking WAIT for Frightened Rabbit's new album Pedestrian Verse. This song is an excellent teaser and finds Hutchinson in top form, telling a sad story and singing a sad song like he does so well all the time.

20. Twin Shadow - "You Call Me On"
I didn't think I was cool enough to listen to this incredibly hip music, but then I gave Confess a spin and found that I could really get down on George Lewis Jr's songwriting. His neo-new wave is vibrant and never seems to be trying too hard. I mean, I get the impression that Lewis is trying VERY hard to keep up his image based on his official music videos, but when it comes to the songs it sounds legit to me.

19. Jens Lekman - "I Know What Love Isn't"

Another excellent effort from the Swede. Jens Lekman just doesn't seem to know how to make a bad record. The title track to I Know What Love Isn't turns from sweet to sour in typical Lekman fashion. The premise is what happens when you want to get married for citizenship, which you feel to be a romantic notion and a good way to stay in a country you're not a citizen of but the twist is that you wouldn't be able to write a song about it. Classic Lekman, duh.

18. Moonface - "Yesterday's Fire"

It just wouldn't be a year end list for me without a contribution from Spencer Krug. This year, it's "Yesterday's Fire," my favorite song from his collaboration with Finnish band Siinai. It's the best thing Krug has mustered under the Moonface moniker so far, and the whole thing has this looseness to it that really brings about the best in all parties involved. "Yesterday's Fire" is a epic piece of drama that Krug makes sound like the end of the world with his vocals. But then again, he kind of always does that doesn't he.

17. Serengeti - "Geti Life" 

This hilarious collaboration with Yoni Wolf is far from Serengeti's best. Last year's Family and Friends was his best record so far, abandoning the hilarious Kenny Dennis for some real talk and some other, sadder characters. This year's C.A.R. lacks the gravitas of Family and Friends, but I just never got over "Geti Life" after seeing him play it whilst opening for Why?. Though Wolf was in the building, he didn't join Geti for the track and that made it even funnier. The line "Yo Geti Life/Laying next to the sweaty life" was hilarious to me. It still is. I brought that home with me like a communicable disease and spent the next four months harassing my wife with the line. She eventually turned it on its head after many protests that no, she does not sweat, and that it should go "Yo Jenny life/ Laying next to the sweaty husband." That just made me do it more. But goddamn this track is great. It's Geti's cleverness and randomness culminating in a great prank. And the reference to Why?'s "The Hollows" and the playful jabs at Yoni that wrap the song up just kill me.

16. Rooftop Vigilantes - "Automatic Trash"
I'm no longer living in Lawrence, but Rooftop Vigilantes still feel like my favorite local band. Sure, Minneapolis has a fine music scene, and while I was always obnoxiously outspoken about the Lawrence scene, I always though Roofie Vig were the most special thing ever. They were making the kind of music I wanted to listen to. Made by people under the same influence(s) I was. Just out to have fun and write clever power-pop songs. The most embarrassing thing I ever did in my whole life was do some incredibly drunken vocals on the band's second or third cover of Big Star's "September Gurls" the day Alex Chilton died. It was bad, I couldn't remember most of the lines, and afterward I immediately ran outside into a snowstorm, tripped on Massachusetts street, ripped open my brand new jeans at the knee and skinned the knee as well. It was not a proud moment. But that sort of drunken chaos is what I think of when I think of Rooftop Vigilantes, a band that is inherently tied to some of my best and worst Lawrence moments. "Automatic Trash" is another rock solid winner from a band that tried so hard to be the Replacements they ended up becoming something totally fresh and original.

15. Cat Power - "Nothin But Time" 

Meow. This sure is a sultry jam. I don't think it's meant to be a sultry jam but it has this hypnotic allure that helps it to sustain its ten-plus minute runtime. I am a huge fan of the long song, the same way gymnastics judges are fans of more difficult routines. It's very easy to fuck up a long song but when its done right it's a thing of beauty. A bunch of people holding up signs that say "8.3" or whatever. This song feels like Chan Marshall crawling out of the artistic hole she's been living in since the release of her last LP The Greatest in 2006. You wonder where she's been. There was the covers record Jukebox and her highly publicized mental health and alcohol issues. Who knew she was crafting another great record.

14. Guided by Voices - "The Unsinkable Fats Domino"

I heard this for the first time at the end of 2011. It must have been Christmastime, because I felt like with a new GBV record in 2012 and the Fantasy Football championship I'd just won, I didn't need any other Christmas gifts. So this one has some sentimental value, and it's why it's the highest ranked of all the GBV tracks of 2012.

13. The Tallest Man on Earth - "Criminals"

Every song on this record is great, so it was hard to pick a favorite. The title track "There's No Leaving Now," "To Just Grow Away," and the unavoidable single "1904" could all be in this spot. But something about "Criminals" really struck me in its spareness. This is what Kristian Matsson does so well. Letting his Dylanesque voice float over his gorgeously finger-picked guitar. It's a beautiful, beautiful track that he makes sound so easy.

12. Lambchop - "2B2"
Mr. M really caught me off guard early this year. I'd never listened to Lambchop before. I knew who they were but had never heard a single song. I don't know how I ended up with Mr. M but I thought it was beautiful. A sort of twisted Americana that felt real. "2B2" was the immediate standout and it stuck. "Gone Tomorrow" was amazing too, but I got to know this one by heart.

11. Cloud Nothings - "Stay Useless"

It seems like just yesterday I was watching Cloud Nothings play to no one at the Granada during Scion Garage Fest. That was a couple few years ago, and now Dylan Baldi and crew are recording with Steve Albini! The recording is naturally better recorded, but the songs are just as gritty. "Stay Useless" sounds like a desperate plea. To who I'm not sure but it sounds like the message Baldi is delivering is very important. It resonated with me at least because who can't ID with a sentiment like "I need time to stop moving/ I need time to stay useless." It's punky pop on its face, but deep down there something really promising about Baldi's songwriting. Something that he's already shown on the mature-beyond-his-years Attack on Memory which feels like a landmark album.

10. P.O.S. - "Bumper"

The Twin Cities music scene is slowly seeping into my brain. I haven't been avoiding it in my first six months here, I've just been too busy. The best way to know what's up in any local music scene is to go to shows, and I fucking hate going to shows. I can't do it anymore. I mean, I make my exceptions sure, for the Hold Steady, GBV, bands I really really love, but when it's like "Hey this random band is playing" it gets into "Ungggg, I have to go downtown and pay $8 to park and then I gotta pay $5 for a shitty beer and then stand for four hours and not talk to anyone cuz I don't know anyone here." I couldn't be happier. However I really want to see P.O.S. because his latest album We Don't Even Live Here is so fucking good I'm sold sold sold. The lead-off track "Bumper" got me hooked. I feel like "Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks and Bats" is the album's finest moment, but there's something unfuckwithable about "Bumper." Maybe it's those live drums that never quit. Those sharp, alienating synths that blast in right around the chorus. It just sounds legit. Like an answer to my fundamental problem with mainstream hip-hop. Alexander's explanation of the track pretty much makes me a true believer.

9. The Mountain Goats - "Cry for Judas"

I know I just said I hate going to shows, but the Mountain Goats show at the Varsity last month was so great. I guess that's not saying much because every Mountain Goats show I've been to has been great. My favorite bit though was John Darnielle's explanation about "Cry for Judas." He said he felt sorry for Judas because he is basically playing a part in a larger story that he can't quite comprehend til the very end. "I think Judas gets kind of a bad rap," he said. I really liked that line. I grew up Catholic, so I'm kind of game for anything that makes religion look weird or depressing. Like, "Isn't it WEIRD that Judas gets a bad rap because you know, he sort of has to betray Christ for this whole thing to work so he can die for your sins yadda yadda." Love it. I love it almost as much as I love the horns on this track, good lord it's like they're just pumping this thing full of energy and moving the Mountain Goats sound into uncharted territory. Hell yes.

8. AC Newman - "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns"
First off, let's talk about how great this song title is. It is awesome. Classic Carl Newman right up there with "35 in the Shade" and "Sing Me Spanish Techno." Second, let's talk about how Neko Case sings the back-up vox on this number and why isn't this a New Pornographers song? And does that matter, because it fits so well on this, a Carl Newman solo album. Third let's talk about how this is his best solo album yet, even surpassing his feisty debut The Slow Wonder which holds such a special place in my heart that I was surprised to see it nudged aside by Shutdown the Streets. Fourth, let's talk about how this is a perfect example of how Newman's songs work. The verses are always really good and well written so you're paying attention to the words as you're going along with the really good verse. There's usually a little break between verses that keeps you involved, and then it's back to the verse and then he absolutely dominates your being with a chorus that is so above and beyond what you were expecting from the relative tameness of the verse that you just want to put the old fist in the air and say "yes, please, thank you more please." I'm a sucker for Carl Newman though. I've been fawning over his songs since at least 2003 and turned both of my siblings onto the New Pornographers. It's such a blast to watch him continue to grow as a songwriter and more comfortable in his skin. For years he's come across as a bit prickly but Shutdown the Streets is full of warmth (probably because it's rooted in personal tragedy and thus, kind of by nature has to be full of warmth). This is just a textbook monster jam.

7. Craig Finn - "No Future" 

Craig Finn's depiction of the Twin Cities on all the Hold Steady records was never one that cast the towns in a particularly favorable light. But there was something romantic about his very clear love of the place where he grew up. Something that made me say "Guided by Voices is touring and the closest they're coming is Chicago or Minneapolis WE ARE GOING TO MINNEAPOLIS JENNY!" I bought the tickets without even thinking about it or asking my future wife. It was a gut call, and a good one. We fell in love with the city and it became a nice potential future refuge from the psychosis of Kansas and the depressing nature of Kansas City. Finn's solo record took all year to grow on me. I kind of really disliked it at first despite really wanting to like it, and "No Future" was the track that really broke it open. That and an in studio at the Current studios when we were up visiting looking for jobs for Jenny a couple months before we moved. The songwriting is all there, and it's just as good as his stuff with the Hold Steady ("Bed sheets for curtains/ I know one things for certain/ The devil's a person/ I met him at the Riverside Perkins"), and it's so fun to see one of my favorite songwriters take a chance with something different. I can only imagine what it's like to write fist-pumping anthems for a living. It must be exhausting. "No Future" is a straight-up killer though, with the way that chorus makes you want to cry when he sings about dying on the inside.

6. Perfume Genius - "Hood" 

It's so rare to find a music video that is so absolutely perfectly matched to a song. The video for "Hood," where Mark Hadreas is babied and made-up by a gay porn star, feels like the only video that could exist for this terrifically sad song. All of Hadreas' sophomore LP as Perfume Genius is this good though, which is scary. I don't know how someone can make music that is so sad yet so listenable. It's just so heavy. But tuneful as all hell, and "Hood" captures all of the fear we experience in the secrets we keep from the ones we love. I remember how impressed I was with Hadreas' debut Learning, and it wasn't even in a "this guy has a lot of potential" way you get with new artists. He already seemed to have it all figured out and it isn't even surprising that  Put Your Back N 2 It is as great as it is.

5. Benjamin Gibbard - "Bigger Than Love"

I guess all it took for Ben Gibbard to start writing meaningful songs again was to just not write songs for Death Cab for Cutie. I feel like he dried up when the fame really hit and he had to really start thinking about his audience, although I might just be full of shit and my personal opinion that the songs on Codes and Keys felt really hollow might be totally baseless. But that doesn't matter now because holy shit, "Bigger Than Love" is one of the best songs he's ever written. A duet with Aimee Mann, the song chronicles the doomed romance of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald via their love letters. It's an epic and complicated American tragedy that Gibbard manages to spin in five minutes with gravity and grace to spare. It was enough to cause me to reexamine my impression of Gibbard's decline as a songwriter, because if he's still got stuff like this in him I need to just shut the fuck up.

4. Gentleman Jesse - "Eat Me Alive"
I never really got into Gentleman Jesse's Leaving Atlanta, but I played this song about a hundred times when I was getting ready to leave Lawrence. That was probably the biggest thing that happened this year (and I got MARRIED this year). There was this huge emotional turmoil where I really felt like I was suffocating and couldn't live in Lawrence anymore. I just couldn't take it, I was getting incredibly depressed and had been ready to move (anywhere) the second I graduated until I met Jenny and found a reason to stay. But once she finished Grad school I was champing at the bit. I convinced her to move to Minneapolis with me and we moved. As I was cruising out of Lawrence on K-10 with my car packed full of records and other things too fragile for the U-Haul, I blasted "Eat Me Alive." It got me through. Ensured me that I was doing the right thing. That it was less about the consequences and more about if I felt like I needed to do something and I was going to live some depressed sham of a life if I didn't at least try to get out, then that had to happen. And now here I am, pretty much OK with the concept of moving back to Lawrence (somewhere outside of town on the northside, I think, out in the country with a little bit of land for dogs and small farm animals) because I know now that moving wasn't going to change how I felt about anything. Sure, there were better job prospects for me here and I ended up getting promoted, and there are definitely better job prospects here because Minnesota unlike Kansas thinks there is some importance in social services and that it's a cool thing to provide federal money for that stuff but ultimately, I got my woman, I got my shit figured out, and if I end up living the bulk of my adult life there I'm cool with that. But I couldn't have done that without getting out first, and "Eat Me Alive" was pretty much my battle cry for that.

3. John K Samson - "Letter in Icelandic From the Ninnette San"

Those who know me know of my deep and profound love of John K Samson's songwriting. I've been obsessed with his band The Weakerthans since I was about 16 years old and seriously looking for an out from punk rock. Samson not only provided that out, but inspired me to start writing and thinking in ways I was unused to thinking in. He was the best positive role model in the latter days of my adolescence and I am deeply thankful for that. Naturally, anytime he releases something I fawn all over it and his latest solo album Provincial is no exception. It's loaded with the rich character studies I've come to expect from Samson's oeuvre, and "Letter in Icelandic From the Ninnette San" was my absolute favorite. The images Samson creates are breathtaking and heartbreaking and just listen to it please.

2. Father John Misty - "Only Son of a Ladies Man"

J Tillman's new album under the moniker Father John Misty is a good one. A really, really goddamn good one that I'll tell you more about on my Albums of 2012 list later on but let's just say that it's really goddamn good. And the emotional core of that album is wrapped up in this track, "Only Son of a Ladies Man." There's plenty of goofy fun on Fear Fun, but this track just cuts the shit and hits you right where it counts. The swagger of Tillman's delivery is still in place, but when he tells you the tale of a funeral attended by a man's female conquests it really highlights the mythic qualities that make Fear Fun so much fun. It's a fable of Los Angeles told by a new arrival and the whole thing captures the crazy love/hate insanity of LA in all of its fucked up glory.

1. Japandroids - "Continuous Thunder"

I think "Continuous Thunder" might be the most romantic song I've ever heard. I loved the fist-pump anthems of Celebration Rock all the up to the last track where these chords just wrap you up in a little web and keep you there as you're sung one of the most perfect love songs you've ever heard. I immediately put it on a mix CD for my wife because I hadn't ever heard a song that so concisely summed up how I felt about her. I feel like we spend our lives trying to let people know how much we love them and it's just so hard to communicate. I've always used other people's words because it's so hard for me to put anything into words without rambling on and on about it. So "Continuous Thunder" was a blessing, and the thing is sure the lyrics are perfect but there's a joy in these chords and the huge sound they're reaching for that really drives this one home. It's sung with such conviction, too. "Heart's terrain is never a prairie/ But you weren't wary/ You took my hand/ Through the cold pissing rain/ Dressed to the nines/ Arm in arm with me tonight/ Singing out loud yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah/ Like continuous thunder," it goes. It's so simple. The second verse speaks of loving with a legendary fire and goddamnit yes. That's all I can say, really. It's got it right. It's the most badass song you're gonna put on your girl or boy's mixtape all year.

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