Sunday 5 July 2015

The 50 Best Songs of 2012

As you would imagine, this one is from January 2013. I don’t know if the Youtube links are still active. And I seriously underrated Kan and Lau in this list.

Spotify playlist at

50. Drop Electric – Empire Trashed
Given that this year's Sigur Ros album was such a disappointment (more on that later), it seemed important to find other bands who were playing the same tricks (the cinematic slow build, the fiery release, the warm precise arrangements) without retreading old ground. Drop Electric does all this, as an excitable drummer slowly drags the song into catharsis. A song capable of providing all activities with very mild cosmic significance.

49. The Gaslight Anthem - “45”
Silly, slight, hypercommercial rockfluff. But silly, slight hypercommercial rockfluff that I listened to about seven times on the day it was released. Look, The Gaslight Anthem have probably never written an interesting or original bar of music in their lives, but their joyous determination to clatter into every known classic-rock cliché is charming, and they bellow them out with sufficient sincerity that one usually gets pulled along for the ride.

48. Exitmusic – Passage
Exitmusic were the second band to fill this year's Sigur Ros-shaped hole, and they're a lot more interesting than Drop Electric. This is late-night, dark-room music – like the lullaby of a beautiful robot. But the lullaby of a beautiful robot who occasionally explodes and starts shouting at you.

47. Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks
This appears to have become an enormous hit while I wasn't looking. Not exactly surprising: it's catchy as hell, and it's difficult to disapprove of horn riffs or gratuitous shouting of the word “hey”. Good video, too.

46. Lau vs Adem – Imporsa
(Mostly) Scottish trad folk giants Lau and their members show up a lot on this list. In this case, they're collaborating with Post-Rock and Electronica artist Adem, and I've arbitrarily decided that a band can show up twice in this top fifty if one of the appearances is a collaboration. Here, a shimmering fiddle and accordion chord sequence is abruptly replaced with a cavern of electronic beats; the folk instruments then gradually worm their way back in. I'm not convinced that the two genres merge convincingly here, but perhaps that's the point – the “vs” in the artist title implies that this is more of a duel than a dance. Overall, a noble experiment.

45. Mumford & Sons – Holland Road
Yes, yes, I know. I'm supposed to despise Mumford and Sons and everything they stand for. But the fact that they don't stand for anything makes this quite difficult to do. I'm as in favour of mocking posh people as anyone, but the whole “how can public schoolboys play roots music” argument is absurd. And the folky purists would have a point if Mumford and Sons ever actually professed to play folk music. As it is, soaring banjo-and-horn crescendos give me an aesthetic hit, and I'm not prepared to be embarrassed about that.

44. Keth Emerson - Tarkus – Concertante
In the great prog-rock pantheon of the early 1970s, Emerson, Lake and Palmer could comfortably be defined as the resident idiots: far more obsessive about creating “serious art” than their peers, but far less capable of doing so. With a happy regularity, though, their absurd self-importance created wonderful, completely mad results. One such example is 1971's Tarkus,a twenty minute epic, whose stream-of-consciousness lyrics are apparently about a creature half-armadillo, half-tank. It's not surprising that Emerson would make the decision to re-record an instrumental version of the song with a full orchestra in 2012. What is surprising is that parts of it (especially the opening few minutes) sound incredible – like a Bernard Herrmann theme tune to a particularly dangerous gameshow. It's overlong, it clings too closely to the original, and it's probably not worth listening to until you have developed the requisite level of affection for the original piece, but hey, self-indulgence is what Emerson, Lake and Palmer were for.

43. Ry Cooder – Mutt Romney Blues
There's a danger that protest music can be hectoring and po-faced. Ry Cooder avoids this danger by singing his gleefully immature muck-and-earth drenched polemic from the point of view of Mitt Romney's dog. There are sampled barks and everything.

42. Field Music – A Prelude to Pilgrim Street
So there are a lot of clever bugger bands about these days, who all get enormous critical acclaim, and all sound like they went to art school in New York: Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, and The Dirty Projectors had albums out this year, but I've tried without success to get past the plate-glass sheen of their heartlessly mechanical intelligences. Field Music, who I'd class as their British equivalent, are playing the same games, but sound like they're playing them for fun rather than to win. 2012's Plumb wasn't in the same league as 2010's Measure, but “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street” is an enormously satisfying (if slight) little song. It also has a melody weirdly similar to a whole bunch of Rush songs, which may further explain my affection.

41. The Martin Green Machine – PSP
Martin Green released the most dangerously insane album I've heard all year. He claims it's influenced by Zappa. I think it's more likely to be influenced by a sadistic desire to throw the listener into a deadly psychic hurricane from which they may never escape. The inexplicably named PSP is perhaps where the album cleaves closest to something approaching sanity. Occasionally it sounds awesome. Just try to avoid the scat.

40. Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny – Sweet Tooth Bird
Another catchy pop song for which my enthusiasm has been exaggerated by the blaring appearance of a horn section – this time as part of an appealingly scruffy arrangement. The whole album is full of slick tunes played in played in odd, thrown-together ways. In the best possible way, it's all spontaneously, sunnily pleasant.

39. Seth Lakeman – The Artisan
Like all right-thinking people, I mostly prefer Seth Lakeman when he's smashing up his violin bows with the brute force of a forearm that looks like the leg of a steroid-blasted horse. For the most part, his bows were safer on this year's album, but any disappointment was kept in check by the quality of this restrained piece of balladry, an homage to (of all things) good proper carpentry.

38. Spider Bags – Simona La Ramona
Hi, there's a cheery sixties pop song here to see you. Unfortunately, he got beaten up in a barfight last night, and he's now got a terrible hangover and glass sticking out of his face. Still, I'm sure you'll be great friends.

37. Kan – One Two Three
Aidan O'Rourke, the absurdly inventive fiddle player from Lau, and Brian Finnegan, flute and whistle player with Flook, do a spot of collaborating. Given their pedigree, one can assume that creating a warm, delicate folk tune wasn't exactly difficult for them. Still, neither's running a good bath, and you enjoy that. As long as you ignore the new age hippy nonsense in the sleevenotes, then all will be well.

36. Sarah Jaffe – The Body Wins
This should have been huge. Creepy, sexy, threatening, fiendishly clever soul pop with film noir horns and jazz piano smashed up by the kind of production someone has clearly slaved over for an ungodly amount of time. I don't think I've ever met anyone who's enthused about this, and I have no idea why.

35. Titus Andronicus – Food Fight

34. Diablo Swing Orchestra – Voodoo Mon Amour
The Diablo Swing Orchestra play Swing/Metal/Opera music, and if you think this doesn't sound like your kind of thing, you're absolutely and certainly wrong. Despite the large numbers of (wrong) people who've told me (wrongly) that they don't like it, I persist in my belief that their 2009 song “The Tapdancer's Dilemma” is one of the greatest, most joyous party songs ever written. “Voodoo Mon Amour” pulls out the same glorious combination of Swing, Metal, and Opera. If you didn't like it last time, you won't like it this time. But you'll still be wrong.

33. Lau – Save the Bees
Christ, Lau are clever. Taking the instrumentation and forms of traditional British folk music, Lau twists the kaleidoscope, stretching and slicing simple ideas into angular, crystalline new shapes. It's music for the head rather than music for the heart, but the stuff it'll do with your head is pretty impressive.

32. Flying Colors – Kayla
One of those self proclaimed supergroups where the “super” could be questioned (Neal Morse of Spock's Beard, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater, Steve Morse of The Dixie Dregs and latter day Deep Purple, and a couple of other guys I hadn't heard of), Flying Colors make hyperactive, solo-heavy pop-prog. The title makes the dangerous move of appearing to refer to both Marillion's “Kayleigh” (the ultimate pop-prog guilty pleasure) and Eric Clapton's “Layla” (the ultimate expression of the my-feelings-for-this-woman-will-be-expressed-by-my-thundering-guitar idea). Weirdly, the song pretty much lives up to the title. This pulls off empty bombast with more likeable swagger than anything else you'll hear this year.

31. Sigur Ros – Fjogur Piano
Sigur Ros's Valtari marked the point when the band stopped hungrily searching for variations on their sound and started cannibalizing their own cliches. This disappointment was made more irritating by the way that the album's achingly beautiful final track proved that they still had a capacity for wonder. Here, piano lines develop and intertwine like rainfall. It's nothing that Eno wasn't doing on Music for Airports in 1978, but that was awesome then, and it's still awesome now.

30. The Magnetic Fields – God Wants us to Wait
Mean-spirited sleazy disco blasphemy is the best kind of disco blasphemy. Here, over a disturbingly sweaty beat, an androgynously voiced Christian announces that actually, they're religiously opposed to the concept of extra-marital sex, but admits they probably should have mentioned this before they took off their clothes. It's a cheap joke, but a very funny one.

29. Portico Quartet – Ruins
Ghostly post-jazz minimalists Portico Quartet started adding electronic sounds into their music this year, and while the experiment gave mixed results, it's hard to argue against the spiralling, cavernous architecture of this track. It courses with solemn warmth, like an empty cathedral.

28. Storm Corrosion – Lock Howl
Storm Corrosion is Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth and Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree. Here, they replace their usual set of heavy metal influences with a nervous semi-acoustic energy. This is a twitchy clockwork weapon, constantly threatening crisis without ever quite reaching it.

27. The Dirty Three – Rain Song
Scruffy, swirling improvised music made by three men trying to hide how good they are at playing their instruments. They don't hide it very well. Sounds like how riding home on horseback at three in the morning would feel.

26. Ian Anderson – A Change of Horses
The best surprise of the year was that Ian Anderson (lead singer, writer and flautist for Jethro Tull) released his best album since 1977. “A Change of Horses” is the structural lynchpin of Thick as a Brick 2's narrative (and thank God that people are still making albums with narratives that need structural lynchpins), a warm meandering night journey which hints at English and Middle-Eastern folk music, and promises a glittering conclusion.

25. Fiona Apple – Hot Knife
Sexual frustration as high art. Songs like this help my (regularly abandoned) theory that most twentieth century forms of music are about rewriting how audiences respond to rhythm. Here, as the same dubious metaphor repeats and re-layers itself, steadily increasing potential energy remains unreleased. Also: there should definitely be more timpani in pop music.

24. Spiro - Rose Engine
Spiro take Philip-Glassish/Michael Nymany minimalism and play it on folk instruments. This is 2012's best piece of wood-carved mathematical craftsmanship, though you should probably seek out “Binatone” from 2009's Lightbox to hear how good they can be when they put their minds to it.

23. Max Richter – Spring 1
Richter was worried about how the rampant overplaying and commercialisation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons had destroyed his boyhood enthusiasm for the work: through recomposing it, he hoped to bring back his original feelings. Here, he takes the opening couple of bars from Vivaldi's Spring, and repeats, varies and shuffles them, like samples in dance music. The original piece is barely recognisable; what remains is a shimmering curtain of light.

22. Philip Glass – Rubric: Tyondai Braxton Remix
Tyondai Braxton of math-rock band Battles rewrites an orchestral Philip Glass piece with guttural, thumping electronics. The sudden shifts of rhythm and reappearance of vanished textures suits the new instrumentation perfectly, like a clanking steel factory grasping the purpose of art.

21. David Byrne and St Vincent – Dinner for Two
As much as I love explosive horn fanfares, I don't usually expect them to be romantic. But here, the sharp interlocking crescendos and semi-apocalyptic imagery signify nothing more than the nervousness of a man about to ask a woman out to dinner. This is Prufrock with a happy ending, and such sweetness has never before been generated by walls of brass.

20. Holly Herndon - Fade
A superlative piece of moody, moonlit electronica. Drum patterns form, mutate and phase out. Half-familiar synthesizer sounds drift into sight, before being snatched away. Ethereal vocals are chopped into their constituent parts and scattered between the beats. If religious rituals were retro videogames, this would be the music that accompanied them..

19. Hilary Hahn and Hauschka - Bounce Bounce
A classical violinist and experimental pianist perform a series of improvised pieces. Here, a nervous charisma is generated by a rubber ball is bouncing off a piano frame. A tight, energetic fracturing of scratched out rhythms.

18. Grinderman – When My Baby Comes (SixToes Remix)
I've written before about how Grinderman's music comes across as garbled transmissions from the darkest corners of the human soul. Most of this year's Grinderman Remix album muddies the signals: walls of feedback and electronics are smothered across the music, and personal heroes of mine (King Crimson's Robert Fripp, The National's Matt Berninger) make war on the original recordings. Sixtoes, however, clarifies the transmission, ripping the fuzzy, scuzzy wilderness out of his chosen song, and replacing it with smoothly gothic acoustics. This gives the lyrics room to breathe: Nick Cave's harrowing monologue takes the viewpoint of a fractured consciousness damaged by sexual assault. There are questions worth asking about whether the song is on the right side of the line between dramatisation and aestheticisation, but this is an undeniably impressive, disturbing piece of work.

17. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
Now that I've grumbled about Sigur Ros sounding exactly like Sigur Ros, I'm going to enthuse wildly about Springsteen sounding exactly like Springsteen. It may seem like hypocrisy, but it'll make sense to those of you who've seen me in a room where “Born to Run” is playing. When he's on form, Springsteen is still the God-Emperor of excess. He's certainly on form here.

16. Debo Band – Asha Gedawo
Primarily influenced by 1960s Ethiopian pop, this surging, joyous, horn-led bullet-train is the best party you've ever been to. It relentlessly refuses to finish, but then again, so do all the best parties. If you're feeling like a lethargic souldead monster, this will bring you back to life again.

15. Alt-J – Interlude I (The Ripe and Ruin)
The point when I fell desperately in love with Alt-J's spiky dreamlike art-pop was the point when they proved that they could veer wildly away from everything else their album was trying to do. A disturbingly odd minute of A Capella stream of consciousness poetry, this is part monastic chanting and part 60s psychedelia. Mostly, though, it charts its own dangerously angular course.

14. The Mountain Goats – Cry for Judas
Ignore the lyrics, and get a punchy, sunny slice of acoustic pop. Listen to the lyrics, and you get a wounded and wounding portrait of a broken (or at least breaking) man. It's not just sleight of hand, this is proper triumph-from-the-jaws-of-despair stuff. That John Darnielle is no longer solely concentrating on his (admittedly excellent) lyrics, but is also creating songs as brilliantly arranged as this, is a cause for enormous celebration.

13. Swans – Mother of the World
“The Seer” is the best album of the year; as the best track on it is rather atypical (you can find it at number 3), I've put two tracks in in the top fifty. “Mother of the World” is frightening and nauseating: for four and a half minutes, the same two charred, blunt guitar notes are repeated again and again, as guttural drums pulsate across its surface, and alien horns slither downwards. Soon, everything will abruptly stop, the song blasting off into other, equally terrifying directions. It's the sound that metal music claims it's making. It's ambient music, with the ambience in question being “having your head smashed in with hammers”.

12. The XX – Chained
I can't see how a human could have done this. The guitar solo is a single scale, but it's pure rather than banal. The two vocal lines intertwine with more ease and less art than birds in flight. Every warp of synthesizer light, every point of the rhythm is laid down with minute precision. To create this song would be like building a sunset.

11. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Mladic
Music as landscape, or at the very least as ocean. It also made me re-evaluate Hawkwind, which was sensible.

10. Sam Lee – Goodbye my Darling
This is how you arrange folk music. Sam Lee's voice is the crackled memory of a great-great grandfather, and each new layer of instrumentation glides in like the thickening pages of a forgotten book. By the end of its steady crescendo, the song is pulsing with blood and life.

9. Regina Spektor – The Party
I should find this disgustingly twee. I've tried to work up all the eye-rolling irritable cynicism I can muster. The wide-eyed declarations of love, the do-it-yourself broadway musical posturing, the blatant emotional manipulation of the toast to dead friends – all of this should fill me with scorn. But it's lovely. Genuinely, heartwarmingly lovely. Damn your talent, Regina Spektor, and your ability to break down my flinty exterior.

8. Craig Finn – No Future
Craig Finn (lead singer and lyricist for the Best Hard Rock Band on the Planet, The Hold Steady) is feeling miserable so that you don't have to: part way through the song, the bruised, impressionistic lyrics touch upon the narrator's hunt for solace through pop culture. It's unclear whether he finds it (he almost certainly doesn't), but the impossibly tender guitar arrangement here proves without doubt that such solace is possible. Finn is also probably the only artist who could rhyme “Good old Freddy Mercury” with “The Crucifixion still gets to me”, and mean both with equal and absolute conviction.

7. Django Django – Default
Band as rhythm section, rhythm section as battering ram. Django Django heard that 4/4 was the easiest time signature to dance in, and then got the drums to do the dancing for you.

6. Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Del McCoury Band, and the Blind Boys of Alabama – I'll Fly Away
A trad New Orleans jazz band, a bluegrass group, and a gospel choir have a particularly joyous jam together. The sound of the entirety of American folk culture exploding into itself. Or if you aren't feeling pseudish, the sound of embarrassingly talented musicians having a silly amount of fun.

5. Dan Deacon – USA
At some point around 1976, Prog became manner rather than method: once a set of ideas about the formal potential of popular music, it began to signify a specific set of instruments, tropes, and lyrical themes. All of which means that when, in 2012, Dan Deacon releases a 20 minute, four part instrumental epic about the American landscape, no one is using the p-word. They should be. Sometimes this sounds like the opening to the Lion King, only with all of the animals replaced with laser powered deathbots. Sometimes it sounds like Brian Eno's viking funeral. Sometimes it sounds like all the static electricity in the world holding a booze-fuelled family reunion. It always sounds incredible.

4. Andrew Bird – Danse Carribe
Given that Bird has clearly discovered the mathematical formula for sonic beauty, it seems deeply unfair that he hasn't shared it with anyone else. See, for example, his frightening ability to make whistling sound gorgeous rather than twee, or the fiddle playing at 3:03, which makes me sick with envy.

3. Swans – Song for a Warrior
It's all about context. “The Seer” (best album of the year, see entry number 13), is a brutal, hammering assault. Until suddenly, it relents, and unleashes this tender shaft of light. Well, at least until you realise how worrying the lyrics are. Bonus points for the best vocal performance of the year, as well as pedal steel that I actually really like, which is a rare occurrence. It doesn't work as well out of context, but that's fine, because it works amazingly in context, and you're going to listen to the whole album now, aren't you? (Yes, yes you are).

2. Sufjan Stevens – The Christmas Unicorn
In the right hands, sentimentality is a weapon. Here, Stevens' greatest achievement is taking the absurd and treating it with absolute sincerity. We all need his conviction. Because maybe the universe is more complicated than is comfortable. Maybe Christmas doesn't mean everything it should mean. And maybe love will tear us apart. But I'm the Christmas Unicorn, and you're the Christmas Unicorn, and it's alright, I love you. In the end, who the hell cares about anything else?

1. Bellowhead – Go My Way
(Can be heard at
By now, it feels like the Bellowhead backlash is in full swing. They've already proved that they can make slick, joyous big-band English folk. They've already proved that then can play it while dancing across stage, or while fitting two saxophones in one mouth, or while using kitchen implements for percussion. And, four albums in, they've also proved that they aren't very interested in innovating, experimenting, changing a winning formula.

In the end though, I don't care. This still sounds fucking astonishing.

I could break this song up into its constituent parts, its influences. I could discuss the aching beauty of the coda, the swift kick of the lyrics, the sheer confidence of the arrangement, the apparent ease of the playing, but when all's said and done, I'd much rather just stand back in awe.

No comments:

Post a Comment