To the end at last. 2012 has been my favourite year of music in quite some time. The art of song remains a lingering, laudable luminescence. Here are my top ten songs of 2012:
10. Icky Blossoms – Perfect Vision
Loops upon loops upon loops upon stoops,
Around and around and around, they abound;
Driving sounds through sounds on top of sounds,
Around and around and around, they abound;
Trumpets blast, aspersions cast, players cast,
Around and around and around, they abound;
They’re shrinking, growing, coming, going,
Around and around and around, they abound;
A sound’s a sound, seeking only renown,
Around and around and around, they abound.
9. a) One Direction – What Makes You Beautiful
Timed to perfection. The manufacturing of five eager, wholesome, good-looking lads is never a horrible well to draw water from, but that can’t be all there is. To get as big as One Direction have become, you need “the song.” What is “the song?” It’s one defining hit that’s inescapable, redoubtable, world-conqueringly massive. But bands like One Direction don’t always get “the song.” The Backstreet Boys had “I Want It That Way”, ‘Nsync had “Bye Bye Bye”, and now, One Direction, have theirs in “What Makes You Beautiful”. No one can ever take that away from them. Obviously from the Swedish hit factory that’s held a monopoly on domination-pop for the last 15 years (40 years if you want to go back to Ace of Base, and ABBA before them), “WMYB” checks off all the “to-do’s” on the list and laughs when it’s done. “WMYB” is so big One Direction can live off of its name for years. They’ll have to, as they almost certainly will never have a pop song this perfect cross their paths again.
9. b) Paul Banks – The Base
With “The Base”, Paul has joined the long line of Banks’ that’ve done it big: Carlton Banks, Azealia Banks, Canadian Banks, Lloyd Banks, Tyra Banks, Ernie Banks, Philip Banks, German Banks, Ashley Banks, The Hobbit’s Banks’, but probably not Vivian Banks and definitely not U.S. Banks.
8. Alt-j – Something Good
Alt-j have issued something good, nay, something extraordinary with this song. There’s so much minutia, so many tricks and layers (sticks, stones, bones, and prayers) in this song, one can listen to it 100 times and still not hear everything. But still, the melody is startlingly simple, fresh, authentic. The instrumentation and production are pristine, lovely, perfect. The video (featured below) — one of the best of the year — is a stunning visual companion to the song. The biggest compliment I can pay them is to say that I can’t compare them to any other bands, English or otherwise, heavyweight or otherwise, because to me, they’re already, inescapably, Alt-j.
7. a) Wintersleep – Resuscitate
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I can’t believe how good they’ve become. They are an absolute juggernaut of a band. They’re comfortable doing such a wide range of pop-alt-rock songs, and they’re amazing at all of them. Hello Hum is a fantastic album, and “Resuscitate” is its crown jewel. The band has a seemingly preternatural connection with one another, and each individual’s talents are obvious for all to see. They’re honest, compelling, hard-working and uber-talented. I wish the whole world had Wintersleep in its hands, ears, hearts.
7. b) Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks/Dirty Paws
From their masterful debut album, Of Monsters and Men have issued two brilliant tracks in “Little Talks” and “Dirty Paws”. “Little Talks” got all the publicity, and deservedly so; it’s a charming, gambolling, call-and-response gem of a tune, concocting an Icelandic take on a mishmash of Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons sounds. It has one of the best, prettiest videos of the year (featured below). With all the attention and accolades “Little Talks” garnered, “Dirty Paws” seemed to receive the slightly shorter end of the stick; too bad, as it’s a mega-sized, deliciously made and impeccably delivered ditty in its own right. Of Monsters and Men already, one album in, have a supremely sophisticated way with pop music and songcraft. Here’s hoping there’s a lot more where that came from.
6. a) Jessie Ware – Wildest Moments
This is what the best pop aspires to be. Endlessly catchy, but with a simmering soul inextricably tied to its grandeur. From the first kick of the kick drum, the immediacy of “Wildest Moments” is achingly apparent, and a sad nostalgia is evident in Jessie Ware’s voice and lyrics. It’s all sensational. Every last word, every last note, every drop of plangent power that pours from the pores of this pop phenomenon is perceptive, precise, a paragon.
6. b) Azealia Banks – 212
Whoa. Azealia Banks has risen with flaming, cussing, balls of fury on “212”. It’s a statement of intent from a starving girl whose appetite is voracious. What’s she hungry for? Well, everything apparently. Banks is the opposite of a mountebank; she’s menacing, furious, easy on the mic like she could roll out of bed, smile, and swallow you whole without batting an eyelash, more likely to give you whiplash from how quickly you’ve been gobbled up. The lyrics are borderline unintelligible, but the song works in spite of this (or maybe because of it). The beat/hook is ridiculously catchy, and the production is a controlled frenzy. Azealia is unabashedly youthful in “212” — angry, rude, playful, and focused. Her star exploded in 2012; it seemed like everyone wanted a taste of Azealia. I guess that c*nt gettin’ eaten after all.
5. a) Muse – Madness
Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mad-madness. And my, how it is. Bonkers, nuts, silly, preposterous. All of it. From the opening sounds of “Madness,” Muse have thrown every pre-conceived notion of what box they belong in out the window. “Madness” is a Mt. Olympus-sized amalgam of Queen and U2, where the devil with a matte black guitar lays down one of his best ever vocals. The production is perfect. It was designed to be a world-conquering behemoth, and it probably even exceeded that. I wish Bellamy’s guitar solo was 40x longer than the 19 seconds it is (3:07-3:26). It’s on the short list of best songs they’ve ever done, and without doubt, it’s the most surprising, out of left-field effort they’ve ever produced.
5. b) Die Antwoord – I Fink U Freeky
Zef. To death. “I Fink U Freeky” is simply one of the best songs of 2012. Rave, rap, pop, techno, all wrapped into the gnarliest ball of batshit crazy you could imagine. Die Antwoord are not so much diamonds in the rough as they are pieces of coal that died long before they could ever hope to sparkle, on the precipice of fading into oblivion as time and dust render them speckles of dust among the vastness. Only, instead of becoming what was, they halt the process, say “screw that,” and proceed to reform as coals. These new coals work tirelessly to ensure they never become the shining gems they were fated to be. The desire to remain dirty, soot-spreading objects that froth with frenetic, furious, demented energy is the impetus that brought them back to life, unified them, set them free. That’s so Zef.
4. Ed Sheeran – The A Team
What a voice. What a melody. What a talent. “The A Team” has been out for quite some time now, but no matter how many times I hear it, it remains a graceful, precious, melancholic lullaby, its ginger raconteur mesmerizing as his voice massages and caresses the melody. Sheeran’s couplets are extremely evocative, his wordplay a calling card, coup de foudre — an amazing accomplishment for any artist, let alone a 21-year old. It’s crystal clear, with “The A Team”, and his phenomenal debut album, +, Ed Sheeran is just getting started. He could have an effortless 40-year career in music, such is his talent. They don’t make many like him.
3. Bloc Party – The Healing
Kele Okereke often sounds vulnerable; it’s clear he’s in touch with his emotions, and the resulting effect on the listener is regularly striking. But “The Healing” is more than striking. It’s more than a pulsating wave of emotional resonance. It’s more than just a Bloc Party song. It’s more than just a song. It’s breathing. It’s forgiving. It’s living. Musically, despite a gorgeous melody, it’s a relatively linear song without too many tricks or complicated arrangements. But that’s not the point. It’s the softest, warmest, most authentic, most confident, most charming I’ve ever heard Kele. There’s a sage energy infused at the core of this track that’s more magnetic than even the mighty Magneto. I feel like “The Healing” is, in some ways, a sonic and lyrical companion to “I Still Remember” (from A Weekend In The City), and a wiser, more experienced friend to “Sunday” (also from A Weekend In The City). Bloc Party have released a number of amazing songs over the course of their already sterling career: “Like Eating Glass”, “Banquet”, “This Modern Love”, “Blue Light”, “So Here We Are”, “Hunting For Witches”, “I Still Remember”, “Sunday”, “Signs”, “Biko”, and “Ion Square” to name several.
But “The Healing” was love prima facie. A slate wiped clean, with a fond remembrance of what came before and peace for whatever will follow.
2. a) Robbie Williams – Candy
The King is back. “Candy” is the catchiest song he’s ever done. In a vast sea of amazing contenders, it’s the best pop song of the year. A joyous, romp of pomp and circumstance, a wily, wonderful worm of a dance. It’s so arresting, the first 50 DJs to play the song are still serving time. It’s so sugary, Wilford Brimley’s Diabeetus can’t go within 500 miles of the track without losing a foot. It’s a mammoth comeback tune, like an iPod resurrected from a Zune. From the opening playful sax bellowing through the addictive cymbal game of hide-and-seek to the brass flourishes at the end, “Candy” slays. Jacknife Lee’s production is impeccable, and Gary Barlow’s music is astoundingly seductive. Gary Barlow (“who?” to 99.8% of North Americans I’m sure) is one of the best pop maestros of the past 20 years. He has an uncanny gift for melody.
Upon first hearing “Candy”, I was gobsmacked, not having expected anything remotely this strong to come from Robbie’s mouth again. Not now anyhow. I thought his days of “wanting it” were far in the rearview mirror. But there burned embers in Robert Peter Williams’ soul — he still had it, he was just sitting on it. I hope to Hades this is the beginning of another great Robbie run. The best entertainer of the past 20 years is back. Life is good.
2. b) Maximo Park – The Undercurrents
It’s downright criminal that the video for “The Undercurrents” has less than 20k views on Youtube since its release in late September; I’m also miffed that the song hasn’t received more attention. It’s probably the best song the always (and I really mean always) consistent Maximo Park have ever done. Its melody is breathtaking. The hooks are beyond plentiful. The emotional heft of Paul Smith’s voice, as he sings lines like “we both have a lot on ow-er plate, somehow the walk was worth the wait,” is weightier than a walrus wearing a woolly mammoth. Maximo Park are a truly special band, mixing heartfelt lyrical sincerity with a phenomenal understanding of songcraft and pop structuring. I wish more of the world would see that, and hear this song, but if it’s destined to be forgotten by the masses, I’ll never forget it. I’ll keep it close, forever an electrical charge, coursing through, living in, my undercurrents.
1. a) The Helio Sequence – October
I have a confession to make. I had anxiously waited four years for The Helio Sequence’s fifth LP, Negotiations, the follow up to the staggeringly brilliant Keep Your Eyes Ahead. I was beyond excited for it. And when I finally got my hands on it, I listened to it for a bit, liked it, and put it aside. I suppose I wanted to listen to something else at the time. I am but a fool with follies for all to see.
Then, on a damp, dark November night, I discovered “October”. The Helio Sequence were playing at The Horseshoe Tavern, and after a stellar set by Ramona Falls, The Helio Sequence came on stage, and I recalled, from the first note, why I fell in love with the band in the first place. They are without question, one of the best live bands on the planet. Brandon Summers’ croon is often hypnotizing, and Benjamin Weikel is flat-out, the best drummer I’ve ever seen live, and probably on the short list for best drummers on the planet. They had me capitulating to every song; “Downward Spiral”, “One More Time”, and “December” were new songs that sounded fantastic and resonated with me deeply, while “Hallelujah” and “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” — two of my favourite songs of all-time (yes, like, ever) — temporarily eviscerated me. And then there was “October”.
Opening with a light guitar line, the song gradually builds, adding drums, synths, backing vocals, and several other lovely, lush, laudable layers. And then, the climax. Led by a carefully side-stepping, shimmering guitar riff that quite frankly, weeks later, still has me in tatters, shattered by its liquidity, fundamentally, unequivocally, matter.
“Keep Your Eyes Ahead” and (especially) “Hallelujah” were and remain epic, hymnal blessings. They were both irrefutably immediate. “October” is different. And perhaps that’s why it took me a little while to wallow in its wonder. There’s an august autumn feel to “October”, a slightly sullen, moderately melancholic mood that’s juxtaposed by an unflinching hope — the kind of hope that isn’t fuelled by prayer or faith, but of listening, patience, openness.
Brandon Summers sings, “there will be a next time.” I hope so. The weeks will pass, and they’ll turn into months, years even. There will be other Octobers. But there’s only one “October”.
1. b) Yeasayer – Henrietta
Yeasayer are reflective of modern music, throwing everything and the kitchen sink and the dinette set and the floor boards and the armoire and the cat into the production, issuing a fractured amalgam of the sounds and styles we find on the airwaves, from different frequencies, in our minds. This fractured approach is what makes them beyond compare, and unfortunately, also what limits the scale of their audience. To be frank though, I don’t think they’re interested in such lilliputian things like how many people dig their records. I think they have their sights on something bigger than all-encompassing, pop culture domination. They have their eyes set on transcendence, and on “Henrietta”, they’ve found it.
Yeasayer’s “Madder Red” was my favourite song of 2010. It was infallibly catchy, a pop masterpiece (inasmuch as Yeasayer do “pop”), a hymn to a higher power. “Henrietta” is quite different. It comes from the same parents, but it’s less overtly poppy, less designed to catch, and it’s more vulnerable, compassionate, wiser, more spiritual even. It’s a song with two distinct halves, the first being the progenitor, the hook-carrier, replete with pulsating, accordion-style shuffling synths, buoyed by a huge beat and a bearish, beyond funky bassline. The second part is, well, the transporter…
From 1:45 to 3:16, exploration breeds discovery — the discovery of a new dimension, a new time, a new force. It’s a beautiful, coruscating new realm, but it must be approached with caution, care, and calm, for it is not certain what lies ahead.
From 3:17 on, the exsanguination takes place. Miraculously though, there is no pain. Physical manifestations of existence are not necessary — no bodies, no blood, no space. There’s just soul, expression, energy. There’s just “Henrietta”. There just is.