Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Top 20 Songs of 2012

No, I'm not resurrecting this blog - the title and URL don't really seem relevant anymore anyway, since I left D.C. a year-and-a-half ago. And no, I don't think anyone REALLY cares what my 20 favorite songs of 2012 were. And yet, here I am, using this old blog to post my top 20 of 2012 list. Because 2012 was a year when I found a lot of music that I fell in love with - including a couple of albums that I listened to on repeat for months on end - and I just felt like sharing. Conspicuously missing from this list, I'll simply point out: Muse and Mumford and Sons. Just pointing that out.

Check out the list, or don't. :)

Also, feel free to tell me I'm crazy.

Here we go!

20. "Lady," tUnE-yArDs

Starting with this one makes me a little nervous. It might set the wrong tone for the rest of the list and drive you away from reading the rest. tUnE-yArDs is one of those bands that, I think, most people will think is weird - and, I worry, some might think it's weird just for weird's sake. But I found tUnE-yArDs (a musical project made up almost entirely of Merrill Garbus) in 2011 and fell in love with the album "w h o k i l l." It's a 2011 album, so none of my favorites from it can be on this list, but I listened to tUnE-yArDs a lot in 2012 so I needed to feature something from Merrill here. This is her remake of Fela Kuti's "Lady," and one of the things I really love about Merrill's music is that, for a New England white girl, she does some really amazing African-inspired music. So while this may not be one of my favorites from her (please check out "Gangsta" or "My Country" or "Bizness" or anything else from "w h o k i l l" - especially if you like cute kids in music videos), "Lady" feels like a good No. 20 for 2011.

19. "Man on Fire," Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

This is a band that I loved when they first showed up; continued to love when "Edward" (aka Alexander Ebert) went off and did his own thing; and then loved slightly less with their follow-up album. But this is music designed just to make you feel good. Throw in the music video (without it, this might not be in the top 20) and you can't help but smile. Bonus: More cute kids in this music video! Come on and dance with me.

18. "Yes, Anastasia," Tori Amos

I don't listen to, nor obsess over, Tori nearly as much as I did back in middle/high school, but she will always be my favorite. And "Yes, Anastasia" has been one of my favorite songs since I first really listened to it while suffering from the flu on a family trip to Yellowstone. One of my favorite things about it is the strings (I love a big, stirring strings section), so when Tori and the Metropole Orchestra redid a bunch of Tori's classics for her 2012 album "Gold Dust," and one of the things they did was replace some of the strings in "Yes, Anastasia" with brass (and a gong?), I was a little appalled. Then I discovered a new way to love this song.

17. "How Long Have You Known," Diiv

Here's a band I just randomly discovered this year and was able to listen to on a whim thanks to Spotify - and ended up listening to in my headphones at work countless times over the last few months. I couldn't really name a single song, give you any lyrics, or tell you much about this band at all. But here's one that stands out in my memory among a very listenable collection of great ambient, background songs.

16. "Live and Die," The Avett Brothers

A band that I listened to on repeat back in 2009 or 2010, but one of those bands that gets slightly worse and worse as it gets more and more popular. Yes, that sounds like a douchey hipster thing to say, but what I mean is that the more they clean up and pop up their sound, the more they lose the raw edge that made them fun in the first place. 2012's "The Carpenter" certainly was not the Avetts' best album ever, and everything I like about "Live and Die" is catchy-poppy and not what I loved about Avetts past. But it's a fun song and worthy of a solid No. 16.

15. "Lonesome," Dr. Dog

Here's one of the few songs on this list that I don't actually own in my iTunes library, but thanks, KRCL, for letting me hear it lots and lots this year. "What does it take to be lonesome? Nothing at all."

14. "Dance for You," Dirty Projectors

I love Dirty Projectors' quirky harmonies, meandering vocals, and fairly straight-forward melodies without a lot of extra clutter. This song seems like the most traditionally Dirty Projectors song on their new album, and I like it.

13. "Flavor," Tori Amos

When Tori's album "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" came out in 2009, it was definitively my biggest Tori-related disappointment ever. Worse than "Strange Little Girls," which had the fortune of coming out when I was still just obsessed enough that even a bad album was good to me. I only listened to "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" a handful of times, and "Flavor" was one of the least memorable songs to me. So when I saw it released as the first single from 2012's "Gold Dust" remakes album, I was bummed. Turns out, if you throw some strings behind it, give it some shiny new production, and cap it off with a classically Tori video, it's a pretty awesome song. Chock-full of a oh-so-very-Tori message - "What does it look like, this orbital ball, from the fringes of the Milky Way? ... Raining fla-fla-flavor..." - the video beats you over the head with that message, but it's a good one: Simply, it's the diverse people who fill this planet that give Earth all this flavor that makes it so special. Just the hippy-dippy stuff that makes me love Tori so much.

12. "Myth," Beach House

Please just listen to this gorgeous song, and imagine yourself, I don't know, lying back in a tiny rowboat slowly drifting on a calm, glassy pond in a golden sunset. Or something like that.

11. "This Dead Bird is Beautiful," Lost in the Trees

If it wasn't for Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange" coming along midway through the year, Lost in the Trees' "A Church that Fits Our Needs" - which I discovered sometime around February or so thanks to my friend Mary taking me blindly to a Lost in the Trees concert - would have been hands down my favorite album of 2012. It's still a very strong second, and coming in a very strong second to "Channel Orange" is an amazing feat. It's an album written by the lead singer, Ari Picker, as a way of dealing with his mom's suicide (which she committed immediately after leaving Ari's wedding). It's a very moving, never-morbid, sad-but-not-depressing homage to his mom and her painful life, and this song smacked me in the face the first time I heard it (live, at that concert, before I had any idea that a dead mom was at the heart of this music). Ari says that when he was called to the scene of his mother's death, the cops told him that when they found her, "She was just lying there, crumpled - she looked like a dead bird." Listen to backup singer Emma Nadeau's sad, angelic song - she plays the spirit of Ari's mom, hanging around and visiting him on empty staircases and making sure "hell won't come into my house, not when you're around." Or even better, just listen to this lyric: "She has my eyes. She has my eyes, a golden glow, they glowed all night. Don't you say she was weak. Don't you say she was weak. I'll carry her. Because she breathed I breathe." Oh, and listen to those strings.

10. "Super Rich Kids," Frank Ocean

I spoiled it in the last entry, but for anyone who has spent much time with me since this album came out, the surprise was spoiled a long time ago: Frank Ocean is my new favorite artist, and "Channel Orange" is my new favorite album. I must have listened to this thing straight through, from beginning to end and then on repeat back to the beginning again, more than 50 times before finally allowing myself to listen to another album. I probably made it through three or four songs before going back to "Channel Orange" for another 25 or so listens. "Super Rich Kids" deconstructs the piano line from "Benny and the Jets" and uses it to explore a different kind of troubled youth: the super-rich, the kids for whom "the maid comes around too much; parents ain't around enough." Super-rich kids with nothing but loose ends; super-rich kids with nothing but fake friends. The boredom of a life devoid of any meaning because everything you could need or want is handed to you leads to tragedy, and this song drips of that emptiness.

9. "Yet Again," Grizzly Bear

I've never been able to describe very well what it is I love about Grizzly Bear, but I have, for a long time - in true "I was listening to them first" fashion, I can prove it, with this video, and this video, and this video, from a Grizzly Bear concert I went to alone at Salt Lake City's Kilby Court back in 2007, when not many people knew who Grizzly Bear was and when digital cameras' video and sound quality was horrible. But whatever it is I love about them, it's being vindicated as they've become the indie band, the band that Stephen Colbert called "it on a stick." This is my favorite track from their 2012 album, which isn't my favorite of their work so far but still holds up. I'm embedding a YouTube of this song, even though there's no video, just album art, because singer Ed Droste hates Spotify.

8. "Elephant Head," Cold Specks

As has happened so many times before, I first heard Cold Specks in a Take-Away Show from La Blogotheque. Al Spx, aka Cold Specks, has a voice that.... Um... Wow. So listen to it and enjoy.  I'm embedding the Take-Away Show rather than the studio version, just because that moment of watching/listening for the first time blew me away. "I predict a graceful expulsion." (The whole album is phenomenal. Buy it.)

7. "Forrest Gump," Frank Ocean

When Frank Ocean revealed that his first love was a man when he was 19 years old, he caught a lot of people's attention. But listen to his love/unrequited love songs, and it really doesn't matter what gender he's singing about. It's that feeling of helplessness in the face of our emotions - and the uncontrollability of someone else's emotions - that is such a universal thing. The fact that Frank uses the pronoun "he" so casually and easily is admittedly pretty exciting and represents a pretty big leap forward for pop/hip hop/R&B, but whatever. "Forrest Gump" is that classic teenage love story, subtly punctuated with gay innuendo but so timeless in its theme that it's one giant reference to a movie from the early '90s about a guy literally running through several decades and glancing at history as he zips past. It's also catchy, simple, and fun.

6. "An Artist's Song," Lost in the Trees

Ari Pickler's mom was an artist, and her art is clearly a strong symbol to Ari of the darkness and pain of her troubled life. But like I said, this isn't a dreary or morbid album, so in his mom's art he finds ways to get to know her as he never could when she was alive. I think it's gorgeous, and this is another song that really grabbed my attention when I saw Lost in the Trees live the first time. "A fearful song played by trumpets for my heart. I have a fear of darkness. So sing your hymn of faith, cuz I have none. Your song is my fortress."

5. "Bad Religion," Frank Ocean

There are three or four major themes in "Channel Orange" - I've actually graphed them out in my head; ask me to show you sometime and I will - and one of them is grappling with that intersection where spirituality, sexuality, and love collide. One thing I love about "Bad Religion" is that it's not guilt or shame or fear that's troubling Frank spiritually. It's the self-defeat of clinging to an unrequited love. I've been told by a fellow unnamed Frank Ocean fan who shares much of my DNA that this song is "pretty boring." I think he's very, very wrong.

4. "Golden Eyelids," Lost in the Trees

It's going to get pretty old if I keep writing about how much and why I love all these Lost in the Trees songs, so for this one, if you've stuck with me this far, just sit back and enjoy this gorgeous song and this gorgeous video.

3. "Garden," Lost in the Trees

So throughout "A Church that Fits Our Needs," Ari sings about his mother's suicide in a pretty sympathetic way - pained, questioning, introspective, but never really angry. Finally, in "Garden," nine songs in, he lets himself get a little mad, and the payoff is worth the wait. "The peace our music brings - our song is a garden, and what we sing will grow, unlike your killing song, cuz out your mouth come weeds. And my how the winter will turn the forest gray. It's so peaceful here, it's where I think I'll stay. And as you walk away I hear I you sing, 'Love, you're on your own.' You kill the peace our garden brings. Oh, what sorrow!"

2. "Thinkin' 'Bout You," Frank Ocean

The first single from "Channel Orange." He wrote it for another singer, a woman, and she recorded it and it was just fine. But then he took it back and made it his, and it was the best song that was played on radio in 2012. Period. "Do you not think so far ahead? Cuz I've been thinking 'bout forever." "Yes, of course, I remember - how could I forget? - how you feel. You know, you were my first time - a new feel."

1. "Pyramids," Frank Ocean

Ten minutes long. A story spanning thousands of years, from the jilted lover of Cleopatra to the emasculated lover of a Las Vegas stripper, this is an epic song, and easily my favorite of 2012. Yes, Frank Ocean caught everyone's attention by telling the world he was in love with a man, but he's also spent many years dating women. And whether that was because he's bisexual, because he was trying to hide his sexuality, or something else, the power struggles a gender-obsessed society crams into a heterosexual relationship are no stranger to Frank. I think this song is all about how men have long wielded their power in a sexist society while secretly harboring insecurities and powerlessness because they're ultimately slaves to their sex drives. So many hip hop songs are filled with the bravado of a guy proud of his sexual prowess. These songs are misogynistic, ugly, and inherently untrue when you compare them to "Pyramids."

There are three narrators in this song. The first guy, Cleopatra's husband or boyfriend or whatever, sounds like he has a lot of political power - he's ordering the legions of Egypt to launch a massive manhunt for the missing queen and Sampson, who she's having an affair with - but he's clearly weak and jealous and helpless and completely at Cleopatra's mercy. When he finds her dead of a snakebite, he's absolutely defeated, and you can hear it in his voice. "Oh, remove her; send the cheetahs to the tomb. Our war is over; our queen has met her doom. Oh, no more - she lives no more - a serpent in her room - oh, no more - it has killed Cleopatra." But even before that, he's been defeated by her: "The jewel of Africa - what good is a jewel that ain't still precious? How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?" I think it's really interesting the way there is gendered as well as racial belittling happening to this poor guy who can't help but define himself by his ability or inability to rein in and own this powerful woman: " "I found you laying down with Sampson and his full head of hair. Found my black queen, Cleopatra - bad dreams, Cleopatra."

The second and third narrators are the pimp and the boyfriend of a stripper/prostitute in Vegas in the 21st century. She works at the Luxor, and both of these guys are in a power struggle with each other but ultimately with her - she's the one in charge, and they're just desperately trying to own her and prove their worth as men by their ability to claim some control over her. The pimp does not sound like a very successful guy, but he's so enamored of this idea of being the classic pimp, so he puts on the braggadocio: "Pimpin' in my Convos. Bubbles in my champagne; let it be some jazz playin'. Top-floor motel suite, twistin' my cigars. Floor-model TV with the VCR. Got rubies in my damn chain. Whip ain't got no gas tank, but it still got wood grain." But even as all that bragging sounds a little weak - floor-model TV with a VCR? - he caps it off with his ultimate power play: "Got your girl workin' for me." She may be "your girl," but she's working for me. And it keeps him in business: "Hit the strip and my bills paid - that keep my bills paid." Notice how he calls her "that." Go ahead, objectify: That proves you're in charge. Good luck with that.

And we end by hearing from the stripper's boyfriend. She stops by to see him after a shift, and he does what he can to take care of her, to show her he loves her: He gives her a bath, he touches her in places only he knows - he tries as hard as he can to keep his claim on her sexually because he's obviously very in love with her and is terrified of losing her. The whole time, she's the one in power and he's weak. Even the line about penis size - the line that in any other hip hop song would be shameless bragging - is sad and a little condescending. She's telling him what he needs to hear to keep his pride in tact, and even he knows that's all that's going on. "The way you say my name makes me feel like I'm that n****, but I'm still unemployed. You say it's big, but you take it. ... But your love ain't free, no more."

Yes, it's kind of dirty and sad and tawdry and tough to listen to, but it's a story so beautifully told, with an emotional backdrop so clear without ever being spelled out or in-your-face, and the music is phenomenal. I really, really, really love this song. It pretty much ensured that 2012 was going to be one of my favorite years musically in a long time.

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