Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top 32 Non-Jazz Songs of 2012, Part 1

Why 32, you might ask?  I'll tell you: a) it's an even number, and b) there were two more songs than 30 that I wanted to talk about.  Though my best albums list will include jazz releases, I elected to do the best jazz songs of the year separately.  So here are numbers 17-32 of the top non-jazz songs of 2012.

32. "Laura" - Bat For Lashes

This song's delicate arrangement of sparse piano, horns, and a few strings helps Natasha Khan's hollow melody float through the chord changes.  The melody in the chorus reminds me of Leonard Cohen's brilliant "Hallelujah," and "Laura" succeeds in capturing the melancholy of that song.  The song is a call to action as Khan pleads with the title character, saying that she can once again rise to the top.  "You're the train that crashed my heart / you're the glitter in the dark" she says as the chorus rises melodically, but the next chord unexpectedly goes down instead of up, as if the song is giving up.  "Oh Laura / you're more than a superstar" Khan sings.  But does she really believe that?

31. "Wildest Moments" - Jessie Ware


Continuing the lyrical theme of self-doubt in 2012, Jessie Ware sings "What if we've ruined it all" and "Why do we try," in "Wildest Moments."  Ware's airy voice sings the light melody.  It hangs around one note for the entire song and contrasts the massive production of this track, which is complete with multiple piano and synth tracks and booming drums.  The whole song is a question about the future, and Ware seems to think it could go either way.  She sings "we could be the greatest," but maybe "we could be the worst of all."

30. "Bad Girls" - M.I.A.

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Unlike the previous two female vocalists, M.I.A. couldn't care less.  But that has been her calling card for her entire career.  "Bad Girls" succeeds mostly from its excellent production, which features elements of world music contrasted with its electronic dance beat.  With "Bad Girls," M.I.A. shows once again that she is unlike any other hip-hop artist today, with her eclectic production choices and half rapping, half singing vocal style.  If this song is any indication, 2013's Matangi will be excellent.

29. "Losing You" - Solange

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In 2011, Solange's older sister (who you may have heard of; her name is Beyonce) released an excellent album with varied production styles including worldbeat, jazz, and dancehall.  In 2012, Solange followed suit.  If David Byrne had sung "Losing You," it might have fit right in on Remain In Light.  The song's production has a distinct retro flavor, with a synth that is very 80s, but it also has an energetic sample, muted guitar, and clapping, which suggest the uncategorizable worldbeat/new wave of the Talking Heads' 1980 masterpiece.  Having drooled over Blood Orange's production, Solange's excellent vocal is delicate and understated, and she refrains from the R&B belting that frequently characterizes her sister's music.

28. "Higher Ground" - TNGHT

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TNGHT created the best party banger track in recent memory with "Higher Ground."  Its rapid-fire sample kicks in right from the start, and just when you think the beat is going to drop, everything cuts out and the grimy, brassy bassline thumps through.  The influences of "trap" music are there in full force; some of the percussion sounds so Lex Luger-esque that I'm tempted to say they sampled a Flocka song for "Higher Ground."  This is a track that will be well-received at dance parties until the world ends.

27. "Wut" - Le1f


Everyone freaked out over this song because Le1f is one of the first rappers ever to be openly gay on a song like this.  But the fact is, the dude can really rap.  In the second verse he fits about 70 words into 15 seconds.  "I feel like I might be such a sick rapper" he says, too quickly to tell what he's saying.  The simple production, with not much more than a sax sample and some percussion, leads the way for Le1f and his dangerous flow.  There's no better way to describe this track than simply saying it's fun.

26. "Open Your Heart" - The Men

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The hypocrisy of the narrator is astounding here.  "I'm lost, I'm found / I'm tugging at your sleeve," lead singer Mark Perro screams, seeming to cry for help.  But he turns right around and says "Do what you want, be who you want to be."  The 2012 self-doubt infection has spread through this confusing and conflicted song.  This is a different kind of punk song.  The Men possibly don't know what their purpose is, but they're content to play their guitars really loud.  But as the chords resolve from minor to major on "do what you want, be who you want to be" at the end of the song, we're left with some hope.

25. "Ode To Viceroy" - Mac DeMarco

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I'm not a smoker, so I can't share Mac DeMarco's sentiments regarding cigarettes in this song per se, but I get the idea.  He knows the Viceroys he smokes are bad for him, but sometimes he needs them just to relax, just like any vice people have. And "Ode To Viceroy" is certainly a song about relaxation.  The lazy groove of the drums and bass accompany his not quite 100 percent vocal, as if he's smoking a cigarette on his porch on a summer evening, just trying to unwind.  The twin descending guitar lines at the end simulate unwinding and relaxing perfectly as the track fades to a close.

24. "Kill for Love" - Chromatics

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We now live in the post-Drive soundtrack era.  So the reverby synth-pop of Chromatics and bands like them isn't about to go away very soon.  But "Kill for Love" isn't just a signature sound.  Ruth Radelet's moving melody glides over the song's silken accompaniment.  The apathetic lyrics assert that only one thing matters.  The glitchy synth boops at the end shouldn't fit, but somehow they do.  "Kill For Love" is a sad shoutout to all the lonely people still on the dance floor at 3 a.m.

23. "That's Alright" - Kindness

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Adam Bainbridge felt the need to start out his disco/house/dance track with a minute long tenor saxophone solo.  His music as Kindness is definitely influenced by the disco and funk of the 1970s.  "That's Alright" features samples from the song "Still Smokin'" by DC go-go band Trouble Funk, and is based on the song so closely that Trouble Funk and Kindness recorded a new version for the song's official video.  "That's Alright" recreates the party funk atmosphere of bands like Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone with a new dance-punk twist.

22. "Goldie" - A$AP Rocky

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A$AP Rocky is definitely style over substance.  The lyrics to "Goldie" are basically boasts about how much money he makes.  "Yes, I'm the shit," he says.  But with one of the finest hip-hop beats this year, from up-and-comer Hit Boy, A$AP's lyrics don't need to be exceptional.  The looped drum sample gives the song a fat funk groove, while the chiming synth line is all the hook the song needs.  There isn't much to the beat at all, but it is immediately infectious, and the same could be said of the song as a whole.

21. "Only In My Dreams" - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

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Ariel Pink may have written and recorded this song with tongue in cheek, but he created an excellent pop tune.  The entire Mature Themes album borrows heavily from the psychedelic rock of the mid-1960s, and the bouncy bassline and small percussion of "Only In My Dreams" are no exception to this.  The guitar line's counterpoint to the vocal melody makes this track one that will get stuck in your head easily.  But proceed with caution -- the rest of the album is not nearly this accessible.

20. "Fire's Highway" - Japandroids

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The consensus favorite from Japandroids' 2012 release Celebration Rock seems to be "The House That Heaven Built," which is a great song in its own right, but I prefer the album's second cut.  True to its namesake, "Fire's Highway" is an excellent driving song, with its driving drums and noisy guitar riff.  There's also plenty of "whoa oh ohs" for those of us who don't know the words to sing along with.  The melody in the chorus is triumphant, jumping a full octave as lead singer Brian King screams his heart out.

19. "Do You" - Miguel

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Miguel is probably 2012's second best R&B singer.  On the second single from Kaleidoscope Dream, he makes a ridiculous proposition seem normal.  "Do you like drugs?" he asks, and you might scoff, but then he says "Yeah? Well me too," and you start to think that maybe he might be right.  His sultry, passionate vocal sells the song as he spans over two full octaves throughout the song.  The production avoids categorization, with a funk bassline, but "Hotel California"-esque guitar on the bridge.  There's no singular moment where the beat drops, and the track continues to build to the end.

18. "I'll Be Alright" - Passion Pit

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With all the problems Passion Pit frotman Michael Angelakos went through over the past year, there's no way he should have been able to write, record, and release such a delightful song, much less an entire album.  But "I'll Be Alright" is his answer to everyone who has cared for him.  "You should go if you want to... I'll be alright" he sings.  But it's clear he's still unsure of himself: "well I've made so many messes... I won't let you go unless I'll be alright," he sings later.  It's a devastating lyric, but I've come to realize that a sad song paired with happy production often makes an excellent track.  That's clear here, especially during the chorus, which features a sped up sample and sporadic, stop-and-start percussion.  It has no words, but rather functions as a musical representation of a wordless gesture of assurance.  This gesture might be terrifying to Angelakos, but at least we know it couldn't be more sincere.

17. "Comeback Kid" - Sleigh Bells

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Sleigh Bells are masters of power chords.  That's about all the guitars do in this song, an all-out rocker.  The band is known for its noise, and "Comeback Kid" fits right in, with its busy percussion and double-tracked distorted guitars.  A chiming keyboard riff drives the song as Alexis Krauss's airy voice sings the melody.  But during the pre-chorus, the band breaks the noise momentarily, giving way for the unexpected, chromatic melody.  This strange, out-of-character moment is what makes "Comeback Kid" such an exceptional track for Sleigh Bells.  A noise-rock band not using noise is risky, but it succeeds here.

Stay tuned for the second part of this list, as well as the top jazz tracks, music videos, and albums of 2012. As always, thanks for reading!


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