I was so disappointed in the 2011 new music crop that I didn’t do any ranking of the year’s best songs at all, but 2012 was so fertile that I planned to do a top 20 that became a top 40. One way in which my list differs from many others you’ll find, besides the fact that it’s one person’s opinion rather than a staff’s collective thoughts, is that I’ve got several artists represented more than once. If an artist was good enough to produce one of the five or ten best songs of the year, there’s a decent chance the same artist produced another pretty good track along the way too, right?
Each song title is followed by links to purchase the song from amazon and from iTunes as well as a link to a video on Youtube, using the official video wherever possible. And I’ll apologize in advance for overlooking “Gangnam Style.”
40. Stars – “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It.” (amazon• iTunes• video) This is New Order all over again – if I played it for you and told you the song was a late cut from Substance, you’d be hard-pressed to dispute it, although the lead singer sounds more like a cross between Bernard Sumner and Paul Heaton of the Housemartins.
39. Atlas Genius – “Trojans.” (amazon• iTunes• video) This song almost out-indie-rocks itself both in lyrics and in sound, especially bringing indie darlings the Strokes to mind with its persistent guitar riff (but without hiding behind distortion). It’s one of the few songs on the list I didn’t like when I first heard it but grew to appreciate after hearing it several times.
38. Of Monsters and Men – “Lakehouse.” (amazon• iTunes• video) My second-favorite album of the year had a number of songs I could have considered for the list, but I ended up with three, including this one, probably the best song of the concert I saw them play in Tempe back in May.
37. Two Door Cinema Club – “Sleep Alone.” (amazon• iTunes•video) Reviews of this band’s second album were mixed, but I preferred the stronger guitar influence here to the heavier electronic sound of their debut. I was originally convinced after first hearing their debut single, “I Can Talk,” that this was just another Ben Gibbard side project.
35. alt-J – “Dissolve Me.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Easily my favorite album of the year, and maybe the best I’ve heard since Radiohead’s OK Computer, alt-J cross genres and blend sounds within three- to four-minute songs that boast intelligent lyrics that often tell complex stories. This song’s closing line, “She makes the sound the sea makes, knee-deep in the North Sea,” is one of the album’s more poignant images, behind a track that opens like twee-pop until the heavy bass line storms in to dispel that notion.
33. Divine Fits – “Like Ice Cream.” (amazon• iTunes• video) I’ll credit Nick Piecoro for introducing me to this supergroup, starring the lead singer of Spoon. I saw the final show of their tour in LA in November and the best track from their set was a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” which was tighter than the original. “Like Ice Cream” wasn’t released as a single but is my favorite track from the Fits’ debut album.
32. Grouplove – “Tongue Tied.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Fun and poppy despite the worst female rap interlude since Prince’s “Alphabet St.” Also, did you know tongue-tied is actually a thing? It’s called ankyloglossia and refers to a condition where the frenulum below the tongue is longer than normal, reducing the tongue’s mobility, sometimes as far as its tip. I only learned this because a friend of mine had a baby this summer who was born with the condition, which they promptly fixed through surgery.
31. Bat for Lashes – “Laura.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Bat for Lashes is Natasha Khan, who is nuts, in a good way. This goth-tinged piano ballad involves a plea to a friend who fails to recognize her own self-worth to see herself in a new light, not as someone who’s only good as the life of the party.
30. Ben Howard – “Only Love.” (amazon• iTunes• video). Howard’s album Every Kingdom was nominated for the Mercury Prize, losing out to alt-J’s debut, but was my second favorite disc of the nominees, sounding like a smarter, more honest David Gray.
29. Jack White – “Love Interruption.” (amazon• iTunes• video) White continues to mine old genres of popular music and find new ways to express himself without making the style he’s borrowing unrecognizable. This folk-rock duet has that typical Jack White unforgettable melody as well as the perfect line “I won’t let love disrupt corrupt or interrupt me” in its chorus.
27. Hot Chip – “Don’t Deny Your Heart.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Not quite as good as their magnum opus, “Over and Over,” but even more upbeat overall. I want to compare these guys to Erasure, but Hot Chip’s music is more layered and less overtly poppy.
26. Imagine Dragons – “It’s Time.” (amazon• iTunes• video) This might be the most overplayed song on the list – I think it ended up on an episode of “Glee,” which is the kiss of death for any song – but I’m trying to remain at least somewhat objective here, and I liked the song quite a bit before it crossed over, as did my daughter, who heard it just once and asked me to put it on her iPod.
25. alt-J – “Taro.” (amazon• iTunes• video) A song about the photojournalist Gerda Taro and her ill-fated love affair with Robert Capa – Taro was the first photojournalist to be killed in action, dying while covering the Spanish Civil War – over a two-part suite, one half sounding almost like a Belle & Sebastian track while the other draws on Indian rhythrms, like the score from a Bollywood film.
24. Ben Gibbard – “Oh, Woe.” (amazon• iTunes• video) My favorite track from the solo debut by Baseball Today listener and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Gibbard. The album version is great, but the live version I linked in that video, just Gibbard and his guitar, is really superb.
23. M83 – “Midnight City.” (amazon• iTunes• video) There’s something abstract about “Midnight City” with the deemphasis on its vocals and the repetition of a short hook that sounds like someone stepping on a clown’s horn, but I had to concede to my own brain on this one after I couldn’t get that hook out of my head for several weeks.
22. Tanlines – “All of Me.” (amazon• iTunes• video) I tend to put these lists together pairwise – would I rather listen to track A or track B? – and had to put “All of Me” over all other electronic/dance tracks save one because it’s a cleaner listen with more resemblance to a traditionally-recorded song. I have no objection to synthesizers, drum machines, and other tools of the trade; progress is wonderful, but I will likely always favor songs that at least structurally resemble the music I grew up listening to. Tanlines definitely draws on that early Depeche Mode sound and even some of the edgier New Wave stuff that defined my musical tastes in the early to mid-80s.
21. Ben Howard – “Old Pine.” (amazon• iTunes• video). The first track from Howard’s Every Kingdom album has three fairly distinct parts, with the middle one, where the lyrics begin, the one that drew me not just to the song but to the disc as a whole, one of only about a half-dozen albums I’ve purchased in full this year. The production here absolutely makes the track, as it sounds like Howard is in the room with you playing the acoustic guitar.
20. Black Keys – “Lonely Boy.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Actually released in late 2011, but it’s my list and I’m including it because I want to talk about Black Keys. Other than the National, I doubt readers have recommended any artist to me as much as they have the Black Keys, and I get it – I probably should like them more, as they draw so heavily on classic rock and hard-rock traditions that characterized most of my music collection from high school through my freshman year of college. But I find Black Keys’ music so derivative of its influences that I find myself separated from their music by a wall of disdain – if other artists on this list, like Jack White, Tame Impala, and Richard Hawley, can draw on the same influences but add new insights or flourishes to create something new, why are Black Keys so satisfied to imitate rather than innovate? “Little Submarines” is just “Can’t Find My Way Home” revisited. “Gold on the Ceiling” sounds like a T-Rex B-side. If anything, Black Keys became less creative on El Camino, since at least the two main singles from Brothers, “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You,” brought something new to the blues-rock table. Black Keys are more Whitesnake than Led Zeppelin in the end.
19. Django Django – “Hail Bop.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Another track from a Mercury Prize-nominated album in a very strong year for candidates after a disappointing crop in 2011. I know “Default” is the hit single and the critically lauded track, but I prefer “Hail Bop” for its better balance between its psychedelic-rock roots and the electronic elements Django brings to all of its tracks. I wonder if I’d like “Default” better if it were exactly the same track but without the muddled sample of the lead singer saying “default” all over the song.
18. Gotye – “Eyes Wide Open.” (amazon• iTunes• video) I hate Gotye’s Big Hit, enough that I’m not even going to say its name. This is a way better song, mostly because it’s not annoying, but also because it shows the multi-instrumentalist can rock out a little bit.
17. Mumford and Sons – “I Will Wait.” (amazon• iTunes• video) I liked Babel, Mumford’s new album (reviewed here), but didn’t think it was as novel as their debut – they cover a lot of the same ground with better production values and some improved quality in the lyrics. I can’t blame them for following a successful formula, but they’re going to have to try something new on disc three. Anyway, “I Will Wait” has been a huge hit single and earned them some Grammy notice, although it’s my second-favorite track on the album.
16. Capital Cities – “Safe and Sound.” (amazon• iTunes• video) This is an unabashed retro New Wave track, something Men Without Hats might be proud of, but again, there are tiny details (like the horn sample) that make a familiar sound seem fresh.
15. Tame Impala – “Elephant.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Really liked this Australian group’s psychedelic-rock debut, featuring Solitude is Bliss, but haven’t spent enough time with their follow-up aside from this bass-heavy track – like driving behind a steamroller on a desolate highway – and the spacier track “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.”
14. Richard Hawley – “Leave Your Body Behind You.” (amazon• iTunes• video) The former Longpigs guitarist was nominated for the Mercury Prize for the second time this year for his uneven but occasionally brilliant album Standing at the Sky’s Edge, featuring this song, reminiscent of some of the Stone Roses’ early material.
13. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines.” (amazon• iTunes• video) When Jack White wants to rock, he rocks. He crafts heavy guitar lines that seem so familiar yet are indisputably his, and he doesn’t hide them behind other instruments, nearly always including a section where he’s playing with no vocals or instruments alongside him.
12. Bat for Lashes – “All Your Gold.” (amazon• iTunes• video) A faster-paced, more layered track from Khan’s Haunted Man album, “All Your Gold” would fit as well on adult contemporary radio as it would on alternative radio – and I do mean that as a compliment.
11. alt-J – “Breezeblocks.” (amazon• iTunes• video) The nasal vocals aside, this is a brilliant track that describes a lost love affair, possibly with a violent ending, and then goes on to quote Where the Wild Things Are (something most reviews I’ve seen of the song seemed to miss entirely). It also utilizes some of the recurring lyrical motifs on alt-J’s album, including the image of two adversaries “toe to toe,” and fugal vocal lines that also appear on “Dissolve Me.”
10. Cloud Nothings – “Stay Useless.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Dylan Baldi’s one-man project is now a full-fledged band but he retains his lo-fi garage-rock stylings, just opting for a harder sound on their second full-length album Attack on Memory, led by this standout track and potential slacker anthem.
9. Of Monsters and Men – “Mountain Sound.”(amazon• iTunes• video) I loved Of Monsters and Men’s debut album pretty much start to finish, but I’ll concede the lyrics here might fit in a greeting card. It’s incredibly catchy, though, and my daughter and I have been singing the call-and-response chorus together in the car for months.
8. School of Seven Bells – “The Night.” (amazon• iTunes• video) The lyrics, both in content and in sound, are absolutely haunting: “Our ending/lit a fuse in my heart/Devoured me.” The video is nuts, by the way – they held a contest and the linked entry, starring a girl of maybe eight who is far too good at her role, was the winner.
7. Passion Pit – “Take a Walk.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Loved their single “Little Secrets” from their previous album, but this looks like it’s going to be the far bigger hit and I’m just glad to see this inventive synth-pop group getting more mainstream attention. No truth to the rumor that this is the theme song to the forthcoming film Moneyball 2.
6. Mumford and Sons – “Lover of the Light.” (amazon• iTunes• video) My favorite track from the new album, in part because there’s a little more going on here musically than anywhere else on the disc. And the video has Stringer Bell.
5. Civil Twilight – “Fire Escape.” (amazon• iTunes• video) I thought this song had disappeared without a trace until hearing it last week at Fido in Nashville; I immediately found its pulsing guitar lines, with a syncopated beat that gives the song a slightly funky groove, unforgettable, even to the point of forgiving the hackneyed reference to pharmaceuticals in the bridge.
4. The Vaccines – “Teenage Icon.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Post-punk and snarky, The Vaccines’ best song is either self-mocking or a vicious attack on the couldn’t-care-less ethic of many current rock heroes.
3. Bombay Bicycle Club – “Shuffle.” (amazon• iTunes• video) Released in the UK in June of 2011, although it debuted on the US Alternative charts on February 20th of 2012 and I didn’t hear it at all on the radio (specifically XMU) until March. The slight transposition of the recurring piano riff to keep it a quarter-beat off from the percussion gives the entire song the kinetic energy of a trip down a long flight of stairs…
2. Of Monsters and Men – “Little Talks.” (amazon• iTunes• video) The exclusion of these guys and of alt-J from the Granny nominations was an absolute embarrassment; I thought we’d turned a corner when Arcade Fire won in February of 2011, but that was the Felix Hernandez blip on the radar. OM&M love call-and-response tricks and they employed it most effectively here in a sunny song that masks the sad conversation between two lovers, one of whom is losing her memory or her mind.
1. alt-J – “Tessellate.” (amazon• iTunes• video) The best track on the best album of 2012, “Tessellate” takes a trip-hop beat with vivid imagery and nods to geometry and computer-aided design within a story of the end of a love affair. Any best-of-2012 album list that doesn’t include alt-J’s An Awesome Wave is invalid. It’s a groundbreaking record, a deserving winner of the Mercury Prize, and produced what was easily my favorite song of 2012.