Music in 2012

I haven’t done a year-end music post every year, or really any blogging at all in the past year, but these posts get me thinking about what it is that I like and don’t like in music, so I’ll keep doing them as long as they keep serving that purpose.

Most lists like this one came out about a month ago, but I find it too difficult to review a year’s worth of music before the year is even over.  So, I give it a month or so to get the fullest picture I can, even though there will inevitably some album or song I will wish I had included if I had just known about it.

My music tastes are constantly changing, and some years I listen to more new music than others.  In 2011, I listed a handful of my favorite albums and songs of the year, along with some disappointing albums.

This year, I wasn’t disappointed as frequently by bands I liked previously, thanks in part to my listening to albums first on Spotify before buying them, and I highly recommend that service if you haven’t tried it.  In fact, you can get the entire top 40 below as a Spotify playlist here to get you started.

Songs

Since I listened to quite a bit of new music this year, the list is long.  I’m going with my top 40 songs as the cutoff.  Links are provided to the Amazon album page, the official music video for the song (if one exists), and a live performance of the song.  The prices are as of 1/17/13, and some of them are pretty great deals right now.  Without further adieu, the list is below:

40. LP, “Into The Wild”
Into the Wild on Amazon ($5.99) | Official Video | Live Video
This song’s placement on my top 40 is more about LP’s amazing voice and less about the song itself.  She has some serious talent.

39. Iamdynamite, “Where Will We Go”
Supermegafantastic on Amazon ($5) | Official Video
Every time I listen to this song or “Stereo” (which appears later on the list), I am impressed that Iamdynamite are just a two-piece band, with both a guitarist and drummer singing.  There are not a lot of fun minimalist rock bands out there, but Iamdynamite seem promising to me.  Interestingly (or perhaps not), the lead singer shares his name with a more prominent fellow vocalist, Chris Martin of Coldplay.  That’s probably where the similarities end.

38. Bloc Party, “Octopus”
Four on Amazon ($5.49) | Official Video | Live Video
I’m not familiar with their previous efforts, but this lead single off of Bloc Party’s fourth album may have me looking back for more.  The repetitive guitar line has the sound of an alarm, which is fitting for a song conjuring up images of fear.

37. Atlas Genius, “Symptoms”
Through The Glass EP on Amazon ($3.99) | Official Video | Live Video
For a band without a full-length album out yet, Atlas Genius have certainly seen a lot of airplay on the alternative stations I frequent.  Lead single “Trojans” is an interesting song, but not as catchy to me as this one.  The band also have a song, “If So,” on the FIFA 13 soundtrack, which is itself represented three other times on this list.

36. Capital Cities, “Safe and Sound”
Capital Cities EP on Amazon ($7.99) | Official Video | Live Video
The video is a bit odd, but on the surface it seems like a fairly simple pop song about optimism in times of trouble.

35. Anberlin, “Someone Anyone”
Vital on Amazon ($9.49) | Live Video (acoustic)
Anberlin seems to be at their best when they can create a powerful wall of rock sound behind their emotionally-driven lyrics, which in this case are about understanding the implications of either a specific act of war, or a perhaps a larger fight of some sort.  If you can apply the meaning to something, the appeal of the rock rhythm behind it is fairly strong.

34. alt-J, “Dissolve Me”
An Awesome Wave on Amazon ($5.99) | Live Video
Winners of the 2012 Mercury Prize for the best album from the UK (plus Ireland), alt-J make their first appearance of three on the top 40.  Several songs from An Awesome Wave make reference to love that exists in various states of distress.  “Dissolve Me” covers the pain of trying to get to sleep while apart from a loved one.

33. Of Monsters and Men, “Mountain Sound”
My Head Is An Animal on Amazon ($8.99) | Official Video | Live Video
The second single off of the debut album from this Icelandic group, “Mountain Sound” is a simple, catchy pop/folk song about running from some kind of past transgression.

32. Django Django, “Hail Bop”
Django Django on Amazon ($5) | Official Video
The title’s spelling might throw you off, but I can’t see an interpretation of the song that doesn’t involve the comet Hale Bopp, which passed by our planet in 1997 and inspired a mass suicide by members of the cult Heaven’s Gate.  The cult members believed that their souls would board a spacecraft that was trailing the comet, and as crazy as it may sound, the song makes a little more sense within that context.

31. Muse, “Panic Station”
The 2nd Law on Amazon ($3.99) | Live Video
Muse are bombastic as a rule, which makes them a somewhat polarizing band, particularly if you’re not willing to suspend realism and just enjoy the ride a little.  I can understand either way, really, but I love them.  Although The 2nd Law crosses them more and more into pop territory and away from their harder rock roots, it still maintains a lot of the characteristics that make Muse what they are.  “Panic Station” falls more into their newer style, but at least it has a cool guitar solo.

30. The Chevin, “Champion”
Borderland on Amazon ($8.99) | Official Video | Live Video
There is an operatic quality to this song that has made it stick with me most of the year.  Check out the Letterman performance to see lead singer Coyle Girelli belt this one out.

29. Walk The Moon, “Anna Sun”
Walk The Moon on Amazon ($7.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Walk The Moon are not exactly breaking new ground lyrically or musically, but their songs do have some good choruses.  “Anna Sun” is the lead single and most memorable song from their self-titled debut.

28. Royal Teeth, “Wild”
Act Naturally EP on Amazon ($4.95) | Live Video
Hopefully Royal Teeth’s songs will get a little more lyrically interesting, but I do like the beats and harmonies on “Wild,” which you may have heard in several commercials in 2012.

27. Soundgarden, “Non-State Actor”
King Animal on Amazon ($8.99) | Official Audio | Live Video
Even without Audioslave, a political song from Chris Cornell just feels right.  This one rails against the unelected who are able to use the power of their money to get their voices heard and further their interests.

26. Django Django, “Default”
Django Django on Amazon ($5) | Official Video | Live Video
It’s a peppy, catchy light rock sound backing this put-down-themed track.  Django Django have some nice harmonies and an interesting overall sound to them.

25. Dave Matthews Band, “Mercy”
Away From The World on Amazon ($9.99) | Official Video
DMB is one of those bands that some people love to hate, but I’ve always appreciated their instrumental talents and think most of their songs are actually pretty interesting.  That said, they are certainly past their songwriting peak on their latest album.  “Mercy” is a strong song and an excellent choice for a lead single, but much of their recent work lacks the energy of “Stand Up” or their earlier albums.

24. Regina Spektor, “All The Rowboats”
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats on Amazon ($5.99) | Official Video | Live Video
I’m fairly new to Spektor, and apparently this song has been around for a while in her live performances.  Nevertheless, it meets my inclusion criteria for the list, having first been released on an album with 2012’s Cheap Seats.  Her voice is excellent, and the song itself is an interesting take on what it means to be an artist today.

23. Hey Rosetta! “Yer Spring”
Seeds on Amazon ($5) | Official Video | Live Video
This Canadian band is a little different from a composition standpoint, including a cellist and violinist in the main band, and “Yer Spring” is also a little different from a typical song.  The song lacks a real chorus but instead just takes you through a progression from one related thought to another, resulting in what I think is a beautiful song.

22. K’naan, “Hurt Me Tomorrow”
Country, God Or The Girl on Amazon ($9.49) | Official Video | Live Video
“Hurt Me Tomorrow” is a little out of place as the only rap song on this list.  However, it represents a nice departure from that genre’s misogynistic, foul-mouthed stereotype and is more than just a beat—it’s a creative song about someone who is (comically) not quite ready to let go of a relationship.

21. Sleigh Bells, “Comeback Kid”
Reign of Terror on Amazon ($5) | Official Video | Live Video
Sleigh Bells, probably more so than all of the other bands on this list, are a bit of an acquired taste, one I haven’t fully acquired at this point.  Their sound is rough around the edges (and really, really rough live), but I do like this catchy lead single off of 2012’s Reign of Terror.

20. Dry The River, “New Ceremony”
Shallow Bed on Amazon ($5) | Official Video
The rest of the Dry The River album was a little too melodramatic for my tastes, but “New Ceremony” hits the right balance.

19. Imagine Dragons, “It’s Time”
Night Visions on Amazon ($8.99) | Official Video | Live Video
A fairly basic rock song with a big chorus that will stick with you, and based on this song reaching the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100, it has stuck with a lot of people.

18. alt-J, “Breezeblocks”
An Awesome Wave on Amazon ($5.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Inspired by the imagery of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where The Wild Things Are, alt-J make the list again with a creative song about wanting someone so badly that you would hurt yourself (and them) to have them. “Please don’t go…I’ll eat you whole!”

17. Churchill, “Change”
Change EP on Amazon ($3.99) | Official Video | Live Video
I’m guessing this song will get a little bigger in 2013 than in 2012, but I’ve been hearing it for a few months and wanted to get it on this year’s list.  Churchill seem like a talented band—”Change” singer Bethany Kelly is not even the band’s usual lead vocalist—and I’m fairly excited to see what this indie-folk group can do on a full-length album.

16. Miike Snow, “Paddling Out”
Happy To You on Amazon ($9.49) | Official Video | Live Video
The only Swedish artist on this list makes the top 20 with this weird-but-fun song.  The beats really make the song what it is, but my impression is also colored by a couple of live performances I found online.  The one linked above is a studio performance, but they’ve also been on Letterman with one of the largest sets I’ve seen on that show.

15. Maps & Atlases, “Fever”
Beware and Be Grateful on Amazon ($8.99) | Live Video
I had never given much thought to “math rock” as a genre, but supposedly that’s what Maps & Atlases are.  I would expect to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of such a band’s work, but they’ve written some nice melodies to make that complexity work for them, and “Fever” is chief among those.

14. Mumford & Sons, “Below My Feet”
Babel on Amazon ($9.99) | Live Video
It took a while to get to them, but this is the first of four Mumford songs to make the top 40.  Babel does not pack quite the same emotional punch as Sigh No More, but it is still a solid album with plenty of songs worth remembering.  “Below My Feet” was the second song they performed on their SNL apperance from around the time the album came out, and I like how it builds into a truly soaring conclusion.

13. Fun. “Some Nights”
Some Nights on Amazon ($3.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Another atypical song structure is behind “Some Nights,” the title track from this Album of the Year Grammy nominee.  To me, this is their best song, although “We Are Young” finished higher on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart and is the song that catapulted them to their current popularity.  I’ve always had a taste for bands that max out on harmonies and melodic vocals, and Fun fit that description to a T.  Maybe it’s a little too emo?  I don’t know, but it’s still a cool song, even if I wasn’t as big a fan of the rest of the album.

12. Iamdynamite, “Stereo”
Supermegafantastic on Amazon ($5) | Official Video | Live Video
I mentioned before how impressed I am with the sound that Iamdynamite are able to get out of just vocals, a guitar, and drums.  You have to be pretty talented as a writer of lyrics and melodies to thrive on such simplicity (and no computer effects), and “Stereo” is the best example of their achievement to date.

11. Mumford & Sons, “Holland Road”
Babel on Amazon ($9.99)
I’m thrilled that Mumford & Sons have taken off in popularity with Babel, even if it is a little frustrating that they haven’t made huge strides in songwriting between albums.  This song is an exception, as it’s more unique instrumentally than the comparatively simple support behind the rest of the album’s fist-pumping choruses.

10. The Shins, “The Rifle’s Spiral”
Port of Morrow on Amazon ($5) | Official Video | Live Video
While not in the same class as “Simple Song,” “The Rifle’s Spiral” stands on its own merit as a rock song with lyrical quality that rises head-and-shoulders above most of what you hear these days.  The key for me with The Shins is that this quality doesn’t serve to make the music inaccessible, but instead it enhances what is already a song with a solid beat and tune.

9. Soundgarden, “Been Away Too Long”
King Animal on Amazon ($8.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Although my age and one-time fondness for Rage Against The Machine (particularly Tom Morello) will probably always leave me biased towards Audioslave—after all, I was still only ten when Superunknown was released—Chris Cornell has returned to his grunge roots, and that is just fine with me.  Kim Thayil’s always been solid, too.  “Been Away Too Long” is fairly self-explanatory, and it is indeed good to have Cornell and Soundgarden back.

8. Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks”
My Head Is An Animal on Amazon ($8.99) | Official Video | Live Video
“Little Talks” is a touching call-and-response style song about a couple dealing with the wife’s loss of her mental faculties.  It is the highlight of the Of Monsters and Men album, one which Amazon’s editors labeled the best of 2012.

7. Punch Brothers, “Movement and Location”
Who’s Feeling Young Now? on Amazon ($5.99) | Live Video
They will never be Nickel Creek, but Punch Brothers will do nicely to fill the void left by the former bluegrass super-group.  “Movement and Location” is the opener and most interesting song on the 2012 effort by mandolin master Chris Thile’s new band.

6. Muse, “Survival”
The 2nd Law on Amazon ($3.99) | Live Video 1 (London 2012 Closing Ceremony) | Live Video 2 (HQ Video)
“Survival” is a bit too simple from a lyrical standpoint to be realistically considered alongside Muse’s best songs, but the building crescendo of guitars and chant-worthy vocals still place it among 2012’s best.  The London 2012 Olympics could not have chosen a better band and song for a theme, although NBC certainly left me with a sour taste by failing to include the Closing Ceremony performance in its US broadcast of the event.  Poor form on the dismount, but I have a link above if you want to check it out (stay for the commentators’ reaction at the end).

5. Mumford & Sons, “Lover of the Light”
Babel on Amazon ($9.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Clocking in a little longer than most of their other songs, “Lover of the Light” stands out from the others around it on Babel, matches the emotional pull that was present across Mumford’s 2010 debut, and it is one of the best songs on the album lyrically.

4. Muse, “Madness”
The 2nd Law on Amazon ($3.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Lots of things about Muse are not quite what they were six or eight years ago.  I don’t know if it’s their appeal to popularity dumbing down the songs just a little, or if it just represents a great band a little past its songwriting peak.  There is no “Knights of Cydonia” or “Supermassive Black Hole” to be found on either of the last two albums.  Maybe they’ve matured, but I miss the widely varying sound that has now morphed into a more radio-friendly, but less interesting Muse.  “Madness” is one more step distancing the current form of Muse from that previous iteration, but it is a heartfelt song with memorable hooks.

3. Mumford & Sons, “I Will Wait”
Babel on Amazon ($9.99) | Live Video
The lead single off of Babel does not strike me in quite the way that some of the songs on Sigh No More did, but it is a great track nonetheless.  The harmonies are undeniably catchy, containing the best hooks on their album and perhaps the best of any song this year.  There’s a reason Mumford are now one of the most popular groups in the world.

2. The Shins, “Simple Song”
Port of Morrow on Amazon ($5) | Official Video | Live Video
It really is a simple, straightforward rock song, but “Simple Song” is so earnestly and powerfully delivered that I couldn’t get it out of my head for most of the year.  “Simple Song” raises the bar above the standard love song cliches with lyrics that get to the heart of what it means and how it feels to love someone.  The Shins’ live performances are also impressive because it can be difficult to fathom Mercer actually hitting the high notes in the chorus, but he does it every time.

1. alt-J, “Tessellate”
An Awesome Wave on Amazon ($5.99) | Official Video | Live Video
Tessellate is probably the most accessible alt-J song, and I think it represents the best confluence of the creative lyrics and distinctive sound of their debut album.  The guitar work is subtle, but it moves well with the vocals, and the bass line contributes to a haunting overall sound.  Joe Newman can really sing, and he shows it on this track, but his unique voice is only one piece of the puzzle that is alt-J.

Favorite videos from the above group: Iamdynamite “Where Will We Go” (official), Mumford & Sons “Lover of the Light” (official), Muse “Survival” (live, either performance), Hey Rosetta “Yer Spring” (live), and alt-J “Tessellate” (live, including “Interlude 1”).

Albums

5. Of Monsters and Men, My Head Is An Animal
My Head Is An Animal on Amazon ($8.99)

4. Soundgarden, King Animal
King Animal on Amazon ($8.99)

3. Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Who’s Feeling Young Now? on Amazon ($5.99)

2. Mumford & Sons, Babel
Babel on Amazon ($9.99)

1. alt-J, An Awesome Wave
An Awesome Wave on Amazon ($5.99)

Other Notes: Criteria and Disclaimer

For songs, criteria for inclusion on the list is as follows: The song must not have been released on a full-length album by the artist prior to 2012.  Songs included on a prior year’s list are ineligible.  Even though most of a song’s radio airplay may have occurred in 2012, the song is not eligible if it does not meet that criteria.  An example of an ineligible song for 2012 would include anything by Gotye (Making Mirrors was released in 2011).  On the other hand, “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons was on an EP last year, but since its first inclusion on a full-length album was in 2012, it is still eligible.  There are several EP-only songs on this year’s list that will not be eligible when (presumably) the artist releases a full-length album in 2013.

I will also add the following disclaimer.  If any form of entertainment facilitates intensely personal tastes, it’s music.  You may like folk, country, rap, dance, r&b, metal, classical, or something in-between.  I was raised on mostly folk and pop from the 60’s through the 80’s, and then I gained a taste for rock that my parents didn’t have.  Now I listen mostly to alternative “radio” (really Slacker Radio & similar apps on my phone), which kind of runs the genre gamut but focuses more on pop/rock.  My music may not be your taste, and my list is not intended to imply that I think an artist or song is objectively great, just that I think it’s great.

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