Saturday, December 22, 2012

Top Non-Jazz Songs of 2012, Part 2

Congratulations, everyone, we made it through the apocalypse.  Let's get right to it.  These are the top 16 songs of 2012, according to me:

16. "I Belong In Your Arms" - Chairlift

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Sometimes, pop bliss is all a song needs.  The stop-and-start verse melody releases into the soaring chorus which is sung beautifully by Caroline Polachek. That chorus is all the song needs to be a good song, but the counterpoint bassline and the frantic drums help make it a great one.  Chairlift sing this song like a futuristic dance-pop version of Fleetwood Mac (parts of this song remind me of that band's brilliant "Go Your Own Way"), and it succeeds in making me feel good every time I hear it.

15. "Big Beast" - Killer Mike

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Killer Mike delivers some of his most memorable moments on this song: "all o' y'all rappers and producers and such!" "a da du dai, wa da du da du dai."  But he's barely in half the song, turning the mic over to Bun B and T.I. to introduce his album.  The song is anchored by a massive beat from El-P, which is layered but isn't messy.  A repeating synth riff drives the song, which isn't bogged down by heavy bass like many rap tracks.  "Big Beast" is a perfect album opener.  Killer Mike makes a statement from the very beginning and makes it known that he is here.

14. "Heavy Is As Heavy Does" - Menomena

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Menomena lost a member but didn't lose any quality.  Their brand of corrosive art-punk is always interesting and always better played loud.  Danny Seim and Justin Harris scream the melody and harmony over this song's plodding piano accompaniment.  "Heavy are the branches / hanging from my fucked up family tree," Seim sings, as if he doesn't care at all.  "I don't care much for wishful thinking" he says, as the guitar and drums come in and the piano continues like a funeral dirge.  The saxophones layer in at the song's high point, creating a mass of loud rock that pounds into your head and will stay there for days.

13. "Mercy" - G.O.O.D. MUSIC (with Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, Kanye West)

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We've come to expect these sorts of songs from anything Kanye West puts his hands on.  With an excellent minimalist beat and one of the year's most quotable rap hooks, "Mercy" is the best radio mega-hit of the year.  All those featured pull their own weight, especially 2 Chainz (!!!) and Yeezy on the bridge, which is reminiscent of the heavy, synthy beats on MBDTF.  Though Cruel Summer was underwhelming, I'll be happy if we get a song like this from the Kanye West camp every year.

12. "Backseat Freestyle" - Kendrick Lamar

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"Backseat Freestyle" was the first song I heard from Kendrick Lamar's excellent 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city.  When I heard it, I didn't realize that the album would be so great.  But looking back on it, I probably should have.  Kendrick's flow is, as usual, astounding.  I especially like in the last verse when it morphs from one of his voices to another.  He shows his incredible versatility on this song as he takes the beat and completely takes control and makes it his own.



11. "Jonathan" - Fiona Apple

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There's no way that the piano bass line and the melody of this song should go together.  They are so harmonically fractured and based in different key centers.  But when they're played together and Fiona's warbly vocal ties it together, everything fits.  The found footage sound sample takes the place of a traditional drumset, which is the only electronic element to an otherwise very acoustic track.  Acoustic bass and tom-toms augment the piano only slightly, as this song is dominated by Fiona Apple's piano and voice.

10. "Wrecking Ball" - Bruce Springsteen

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The title track from Bruce Springsteen's 2012 album starts with the immediately recognizable sound of a clean-toned Fender Telecaster guitar.  Bruce's favorite guitar has never changed throughout his career, but also unchanged is his ability to write great songs.  "Wrecking Ball" makes all the right moves at all the right times.  An elegantly placed minor chord adds tension and release to the wide-open power chords in the verse.  One thing I like about Springsteen's masterpiece "Thunder Road" is that it builds to its seemingly highest point, but then keeps going, and "Wrecking Ball" does the same thing.  It doesn't take very long for the rest of the band to join Bruce and his guitar, complete with horns and choir.  With songs like this, Springsteen proves that he can still hang with anyone from a songwriting standpoint in 2012.

9. "About To Die" - Dirty Projectors

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Hearing the sampled percussion in the beginning moments of "About To Die," one wouldn't expect the addictive, catchy pop tune that follows it.  The syncopated bongo pattern embellishes the simple rock beat in the drumset.  But more important on this track is Dave Longstreth's lead vocal and the harmonies from Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle that have become signature for Dirty Projectors.  Longstreth sings the chorus melody, which outlines the major triad, and the girls' voices soar above him, giving the track melodic depth.  Longstreth is an incredible musician who rarely misses a note on guitar or vocals, but his songwriting skill is unparalleled here.

8. "Putty Boy Strut" - Flying Lotus

Video


That video is a perfect visual to go with this song.  From the very beginning, the hand claps simulate a factory-assembly line churning something out.  The sped-up sample melody blips add a strange, robotic element to it, as well.  The kick drum leaves enough space for the rest of the song to move full throttle.  Thundercat's frantic bass playing counters the melody line in a way that no other musician could do.  And just when you think the track is way too futuristic to be FlyLo, the vintage Rhodes sound comes in at the end, adding in the retro element we've all come to know and love from Stephen Ellison.  Who knew the catchiest song of the year wouldn't be Katy Perry?

7. "Mind Mischief" - Tame Impala

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This song couldn't have a better title.  The song is propelled by the same guitar riff for the whole song, and it basically has the same groove for the whole song.  But there are little discrepancies that will keep you listening closely, trying to figure out what's going on.  The bass sporadically drops in and out, coming back in at the most unexpected moment.  Behind the heavy drums, guitar, and bass are Kevin Parker's shy falsetto vocals.  "I just don't know where the hell I belong," he says, describing the music, which is comprised of parts that don't know where to go.  But as all hell mischievously breaks loose on this song, you find yourself bobbing your head to its blissful psychedelia.  Syd Barrett and Sgt. Pepper are politely applauding somewhere.

6. "Wasted Days" - Cloud Nothings

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Cloud Nothings frontman Dylan Baldi is 21.  And while he and I are the same age, he has released three albums including 2012's critically-acclaimed Attack on Memory.  Yet he still feels as if he could amount to more, as he makes blatantly clear in the album's second song.  The music drops out, and a lone bass line gives way to a five minute guitar jam session in the middle of the song, a la Sonic Youth.  After it descends into chaos, Baldi's voice comes back in, screaming "I thought / I would / Be more / Than this" over and over.  He couldn't be more confused, but it makes for exciting music.  The only bad thing about this song is that they elected not to put it at the end of the album.  It would close out Attack on Memory perfectly.

5. "Christmas Unicorn" - Sufjan Stevens

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There's really nothing all that special or new or different about "Christmas Unicorn."  It's just Sufjan doin his thing, which is more exciting than most stuff.  A few years ago he figured out that it would be cool to draw stuff out as long as possible and build it up so that the payoff is grand.  And then let it boil back down for six more minutes.  That's exactly what he does on the 12-minute closer to his Christmas box set, Silver and Gold.  He sings the same melody for almost the entire song, with that passive-aggressive snark of his.  And even though the whole song is basically a silly joke, Sufjan still nails the vocals, straining at all the right moments to draw you in to the song.  The "what the hell, why not" interpolation of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is as fitting as it is goofy.  But somehow, when he thinks he's just messing around, Sufjan manages to make awesome music.

4. "Lazuli" - Beach House

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The music of Beach House is so polished and smooth.  So it's fitting that Victoria Legrand chose the semi-precious gem lapis lazuli as the subject of her song.  This track is a wall of sound, never ending, like the smooth edge of a perfectly polished gem.  But what's so great about this song is its extended coda.  Set in a minor key, which is rare on a Beach House record, the second half brings back memories of late 70s-early 80s post-punk.  On an album that drew criticism from its lack of difference from its predecessor, this moment of brilliance is a clear improvement from 2010's Teen Dream.  "Lazuli" is the best song Beach House have recorded thus far, and if they keep moving in the direction of this song then they are destined for greatness.

3. "Yet Again" - Grizzly Bear

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Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor produced the band's excellent 2012 release Shields.  But on "Yet Again," he made the brilliant choice to let his bass playing take a back seat.  His minimal lines allow drummer Christopher Bear to have a field day.  On the song's ferocious instrumental coda, Bear pounds his kick drum on the eighth notes, shoving his fellow bandmates forward.  And instead of drenching the drums in reverb like he does with most of the guitar and keyboard tracks, Taylor keeps the drums clean, which allows them to cut through and drive the music.  After the hushed psych-folk of 2009's Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear, with the vision of Taylor, have realized their potential as an all-out rock band.  "Yet Again" is going to damage my hearing because I can't listen to it at anything less than full volume.

2. "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" - Kendrick Lamar

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There are two brilliant moments in this track, the stunning 12-minute centerpiece of good kid, m.A.A.d. city.  The first comes in the first verse, which is the voice of Kendrick's brother. "I woke up this morning and figured I'd call you / In case I'm not here tomorrow," he says, and then he gives Kendrick advice and tells him how proud he is of him.  At the end of the verse, though, as he is saying goodbye he says "and if I die before your album drop I hope--" and then three gunshots sound.  The second comes in the second verse, which tells the story of a weary prostitute in Compton.  She's in denial, frustrated with Kendrick for telling the embarrassing story of a prostitute's life on Section.80.  But she also knows that the story needs to be told for anything to change.  "I'll probably live longer than you and never fade away, I'll never fade away, I'll never fade away," she says, as the voice slowly drops out and the music cascades on without her.  By the time Kendrick can explain himself in the next verse, this girl is already gone.  She's past the point of no return and no one can help her, and no one takes notice until it's too late.  Not only does that explain this one story, but also it explains Kendrick's view on Compton.  The city's people are in denial about their problems, but no politicians take notice until things are too bad to fix.  That's why his brother is gone.  That's why there are so many women like the one in the second verse.  Clearly Kendrick feels some unnecessary blame, represented by him literally coming in too late on the third verse, unable to help.  Those two moments might seem like gimmicks in writing, but in the song, they are two of the most mindblowing moments in music I've heard in a long time.  This entry should really include the two songs on either end of "Sing About Me," those being "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "Real."  Those three songs (which clock in at over 25 minutes all together) are the dramatic high point of the album, and it's spectacular.

1. (tie) "Pyramids" - Frank Ocean

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"Bad Religion" - Frank Ocean

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I really struggled with which one of these songs I wanted to call the best song of 2012.  "Pyramids" kicks off with its percussive riff, part chiming synth and part church choir.  Then backwards drum hits come in, along with claps (or are they snaps?), which suggests electro-house.  Ocean's vocal comes in, which is part jazz lounge singer and part sultry R&B crooner.  Then disco bass comes in, doubled by a fuzzy synth.  This is all before the beat really drops, and when it does, all these things are anchored by a fat hip-hop/funk drum beat.  What can you even call this kind of music?  It sounds like such a mess in writing, an uncategorizable cacophony of noise, but Ocean's expertly nuanced vocal and the never-overdone production make it captivating.  It's the most interesting song musically from this year by a mile.  And I've only talked about its first half.  A little over four minutes in, the song abandons the electro-jazz-disco-funk-dance-hop beat in favor of a stripped down, largely percussion-less second half.  Showcasing Ocean's vocal versatility, this part features part-sung, part-rapped verses and vocoded, stop-and-start harmonies.  Toward the end, John Mayer's guitar comes in to play the track to a close.  It's so clearly the best song of the year...

But "Bad Religion" is just as fantastic.  By the time he performed this on Jimmy Fallon's show (see above video), Ocean had released the now-famous note on his Tumblr.  As he sung "I could never make him love me" and "It's a bad religion / To be in love with someone / Who could never love you," it made perfect sense.  He took a huge risk, coming out on his sexuality in such an honest way, in an industry that has been so homophobic for so long.  "I swear I've got three lives, balanced on my head like steak knives," he says, still a confused and terrified young man.  I can't imagine what it would have been like for him performing that song to millions for people, bearing the deepest depths of his soul to a world of strangers, unsure what the response would be.  But it's such a brilliant, honest, shocking and risky song.  Even the melody in the chorus is so strange, going up to the sharp-four on a minor chord, the tritone -- the most unnatural note in music.  But as he strains for that high note, singing as high as he can without going in to falsetto, he tugs at your emotions.  It's enough to make you feel everything Frank felt.  In less than three minutes, you feel the smiles and the warmth of the summer he spent with his first love, and the weeping and despair he felt as he told his love the truth, and found out that it couldn't be.  It will make you cry at some point (that just happened to me).  Frank Ocean here has written a song that could be compared to the best soul-bearing songwriters of all time.  His songwriting skill is fully developed at the age of 25.  These types of songs only come once in a long time, so don't overlook this one.  We'll end up calling it a classic.

Thanks for reading, everyone!  Stay tuned for my top albums of 2012.

-- Jacob

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