It’s that time of year again, so I don’t want to delay you too much in checking out the Their Bated Breath “Best Songs of 2012 List”. I’ve been writing about so many songs this year that I can hardly remember just how many I’ve listened to — but it could be over 1,000. This year I’ve decided against ranking tracks outside of the Top 10. It seems silly to rank a song at No. 37 and another I enjoy nearly as much at No. 40. What’s the point of that, right? Besides, I despise trying to say how one great track is not as good as another great track. Below you’ll find a list of the best tracks I’ve heard in 2012, followed by the final Top 10. Surely, like every year, there are going to be bands and songs I’ve missed. (I’ve listened to Japandroids’ “Celebration Rock”, but not enough. I’ve yet to hear Marissa Nadler’s “The Sister”, but I hear it’s great. I listened to Jessie Ware’s “Wildest Moments” back in June but need to re-hear it, etc.) However, I’ve gone over every single post I wrote this year, and re-listened to the music. I also ventured out into albums and songs I never did write about until now. For example, I never posted about Spiritualized’s gorgeous “Sweet Heart Sweet Light”, but not for lack of knowing about the album. Often, I like to trumpet the music of lesser-heard bands during the year. Other times I just imagine you’re tired of reading a 20th review of a record that other publications have written to death about. Some records, like Purity Ring’s “Shrines” (2012), I shied away from because a couple of the tracks are from 2011, and I selected one (“Lofticries”) as my favorite song that year. Before 2012 comes to a close, I’ll follow up this list with my favorite albums of the year. My hope is that you’ll look at the list and go out scavenging through YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Vimeo, or some other place online to listen to and then buy the albums. If I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll turn you on to an artist you’ve never heard before, but begin to love. All the songs should have links that take you to sites where you can stream to your heart’s content. Enjoy. Thanks for reading. –– David D. Robbins Jr.
10. Ela Orleans “The Season” (Statement / Split LP): Ela Orleans doesn’t make bad tracks. She just doesn’t. And she’s always pushing her music into strangely beautiful places. This year she’s really come into her own, with songs like “Elegy”, “She Who Could BIND You”, and “The Season”. One of the coolest trends that’s happened this year was avant garde artists finding more press in places like the New York Times and Pitchfork.com, which in turn leads to those same artists finding their work featured on more blogs and finding new venues now open to their music. Hopefully this kind of trend continues into 2013, and artists like Orleans will be appreciated for the musical adventurers they are. “The Season” sounds like an acid-trip courtesy of Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter, but with a scary kind of 70s feel, and quirky electronic nuances. It’s a song you need to hear. This is what I wrote about Orleans after hearing “The Season” earlier this year: “Ela Orleans just keeps becoming more nuanced — each newer track grows, changes, and intrigues for reasons different than the one previous to it. She’s a shape-shifting artist, always moving forward into new sounds, concepts, and visions.”
9. Bob Dylan “Tin Angel” (Tempest): It was leaked that Bob Dylan had a new album coming out, and it featured a “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”-length song about the Titanic, and wait, Bob drops the name of actor Leo DiCaprio in the tune. Then came the release of snippets of a trailer for a TV program which included a song called “Early Roman Kings”, also to be included on the new album. The latter is a fantastic song, but the former was Dylan overkill. But there are some beautiful tracks on “Tempest”, especially one called “Tin Angel”, one of the best songs he’s written, and in the same vein as “Time Out of Mind’s” epic ramble, “Highlands”. “Tin Angel” is a masterpiece. There’s sulfur and gun-smoke. The song is dark, fueled by the anger of a desperado, who is a man scorned by a woman. This revenge narrative is wild, and even traverses time, like some strange hybrid of Cormac McCarthy’s violent West, and Robert Frost’s poetic narratives like “Home Burial”, where the poem works through character dialogue. At first we’re in the Civil War era (“Old Henry Lee chief of the clan”), then the Crusades (“Well he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword / He renounced his faith he denied his lord”), then a deranged Spaghetti Western: “The gun went boom and the shot rang clear / The first bullet grazed his ear / Second ball went right straight in / And he bent in the middle like a twisted bin / He crawled to the corner and he lowered his head / He grabbed the chair and he grabbed the bed / It would take more than needle and thread / Bleeding from the mouth he’s as good as dead.” This is Dylan on the lyrical war path. Sinister and lovely.
8. Joseph Arthur “Yer Only Job” (Redemption City): Simply put, Joseph Arthur can write songs with the best of them. His pay-what-you-please double release “Redemption City” is another record you won’t see on many “2012: Best of” lists this year. Why not? Partly, it has to do with laziness. To write an opinion you’d actually have to sit down and really listen closely to 24 songs, split into two 12-track halves. But whoever bought and listened to the record would have run into a real gem, a record about togetherness in the old Walt Whitman sense of things. The record includes “Yer Only Job”, which showcases Arthur’s supreme command of language. I’m so impressed with the songwriting, I’ll just let it speak for itself: “Your only job is to be free / Free to live inside a tree / Free to see the way you see / If it’s strange then let it be / Your only job is to be free / Free to laugh, free to sing, free to think / You might be king / Or you might fly or swim the sea / You have it all when you are free / Freedom puts the fear in some / And they will tell you not to run / Not to dream … / For freedom fathers no command / Has no feet, no arm or hand / Has no language, has no rhyme / Has no clockwork or the time / For freedom is its own reward / It’s own protection without a sword / Without a fight, freedom stands / All day long with phantom hands / To your heart, above the sky / Winter lips, mountains cry … / Freedom is its own reward / Distorted power, singing chord / Freedom lifts the stars in space / Freedom is an angel’s face /The planets bouncing rubber balls / Freedom bouncing off your walls / You catch and throw, and catch some more / Freedom opens every door …”
7. Cat Power “Manhattan” (Sun): I got the feeling that Cat Power’s album, “Sun”, was cast off as an above-average record, receiving a lukewarm welcome, before it really had a chance to sink in. Sure, there were some decent reviews, but for the most part, on a scale of 1-to-10, it seemed the record was getting sevens. That’s unfortunate. This happens when an artist means so many different things to so many people. Some like the raw, hungry Cat Power of “What Would the Community Think”, in all her Nirvana-like slacker glory, screeching out “Nude As the News” lyrics, “I still have a flame gun for all the cute ones / To burn out all your tricks”. Others like the balladeer of “The Greatest”, woefully sitting at piano and singing the grand tale of besotted nights lived in dingy taverns. And there are still more fans that prefer the sultry cover-girl of “Jukebox” who can knock Hank Williams’s “Ramblin Wo(Man)” out of the park with easy flourish. So it stands to reason everyone finds a few songs they like on “Sun”, and write the rest off as “not sounding quite like the Cat Power I’ve come to know and love”. I’ve never been one to think like that. You get the artist as they are at the moment they wrote the songs. Chan Marshall is not the same person she was in 1995, so the music changes with her. And that’s a good thing. If a new artist debuted with “Sun”, we’d be talking about a major emerging talent. I was a bit surprised to go back to “Sun” only to realize just how many good tracks are on that record. “3,6,9” is an alcoholic’s brave exorcism of guzzling times and one-night stands. Using the digitally distorted phrase “fuck me” at the end of the track is a beautiful punctuation. “Ruin” was another favorite of mine. But since then, I’ve come to respect the dim-lit “Manhattan” as the best song on the album, and one of the best songs of 2012. It’s beautiful, elegiac, and yet upbeat pop. It’s a love ode to much more than a borough. It’s a gentle reflection on time, place, and personal nostalgia.
6. Frank Ocean “Thinkin Bout You” (Channel Orange): It was easy to tell when I was writing about Frank Ocean back in 2011, that he was floating in rarefied air when he first released a free online record called “Nostalgia, Ultra”. It was Ocean, How to Dress Well, and The Weeknd who were single-handedly breathing life back into the stale genre of R&B. Much like rap, popular culture was strangling the creativity out it. How did Ocean do this magic act of resuscitation? Well, obviously it starts with a slick voice and and even smoother style. But it has more to do with advancing the genre outside the traditional boundaries. The usual sexual topics drifted into the perverse, songs showed a slice of dark humor, and the styles advanced into indie territory. New York Times music writer Jon Pareles is dead right to say it’s as if Ocean combined R. Kelly with Prince. Sure, the topics of his songs are familiar to R&B listeners, stories of love, lust, and stylin’ and profilin’ at the club — but he comes at it from a different angle. The New Yorker’s astute Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that since Ocean arrived “Male R. & B. is now less about dancing and more about emotional clarity.” True. Metaphors and odd associations litter his newest record, “Channel Orange.” But that doesn’t mean Ocean can’t do traditional R&B. When he does, he masters it. Who doesn’t swoon when he let’s the high falsetto take over in “Thinkin Bout You”, proclaiming his romantic desires to a lover: “Or do you not think so far ahead? / Because I been thinking bout forever?”
5. Kendrick Lamar “Money Trees” (good kid, m.A.A.d city): I understand the explicit content of rap music isn’t for everyone. But I hadn’t felt this great listening to a rap record since Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. On “good kid, m.A.A.d city”, Lamar mixes a wide range of styles that sprint through the territory of acts as varied as Tribe Called Quest to Goodie Mob to that crazy-ass Madlib alter-ego, Quasimoto. There are a number of tracks to choose from off “good kid, m.A.A.d city”, and you can’t go wrong with “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” — but the killer cut is “Money Trees”, where the hook is the kind rappers and producers would love to have created themselves. I knew I was going to love this record when Lamar equated the dilemma of choosing the “bad” street life and the “good” spiritual life in this stunningly well-conceived verse: “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah / Pick your poison tell me what you doing / Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” The record is Lamar’s attempt to tell his own youthful narrative, and “Money Trees” is as good a place to start as any. It’s a youth full of life-changing decisions, hot sauce and Top Ramen, violence, dreams of money and thoughts of “going at a reverend for the revenue.” It’s possible the new phrase, “Ya bish” (whatever the hell that means), will be invading popular culture as much as fo-shizzle.
4. Spiritualized “Get What You Deserve” (Sweet Heart Sweet Light): I came to Spiritualized and J. Spaceman late in the game. The first song I ever heard from the band was “Baby I’m Just A Fool” from off their sixth studio album, “Songs in A&E” (2008). Some bands are just blessed. In this case, Jason Pierce’s lyrics floored me. I can still remember when I first heard the lines, “Baby I’m just a man, but I’ve got the dreams of god and kings / Well, I can’t hold my thoughts, my mind is full of a thousand different things / It gets so blurred inside, and I can’t even see the stuff that’s clear / Hell, it should be easy, but I have got the heart of men of fear.” I tell you this because the new record, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” (aka Huh?), has a number of songs in the same range, which is amazing to ponder. “Get What You Deserve” isn’t as wordy and Dylanesque as “Baby I’m Just A Fool”, but it’s a mix of everything you want in a classic song: the chorus harmony is stellar, the epic strings build the tension, a frittering noise barely perceptible in the background blends with sporadic guitar fuzz. (And there’s enough Beatles here to make Tame Impala say, “Hey, whoa, there’s a lot of Beatles here.”) The song seems to teeter between irony and submerged intent. It’s passionate and angry. “Get What You Deserve” is a song that barely holds back its disdain for the sort of modern, selfish mentality that says get everything you can, everyone else be damned. But it is a controlled anger, as Pierce sings the part of a man who lives without regret or conscience: “Gonna take more than I can borrow / When I get there, won’t look back / Got more riches any man can hold / Ain’t gonna make for what I lack … / Gonna shoot you while you’re layin’ down / I lost all of my direction / Gonna shoot you while your layin’ still / I used up all my affection.”
3. Poliça “I See My Mother” (Give You the Ghost): Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh is more than stunningly beautiful. I’d read an interview she gave with a Minnesota newspaper, where the interviewer asked her about the use of auto-tuned vocals. She made an interesting observation, one that serious music lovers have come to understand as true. Distorting vocals, even to the point of incomprehension, doesn’t inherently turn off listeners. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. A song like “I See My Mother”, can work from a purely emotive place, as well as on a concrete lyrical level. The seductive styling of the lead vocal becomes equal to the importance of the words themselves. Leaneagh has a wonderful understanding for how music and consciousness works. Music is often absorbed, more like a painting than a novel. Moods and sounds are intuitive at their root. When I first heard “I See My Mother”, driving home from work one night, I didn’t understand a word Channy sung, but I loved the song anyway. I raced to google it online. Then I read the lyrics in question on a lyric website, “Oh, what a web I have woven myself in / I’m always chasing after somebody else.” The words enhanced my appreciation, but even without that understanding, the song enticed. The way Leaneagh glides the verses across themselves felt sensual, sultry, like chocolate sauce dripping over ice cream.
2. Fiona Apple “Regret” (Idler Wheel …): Fiona Apple’s greatest gifts can be boiled down to two aspects of her music. First, there isn’t a musician out there, outside of Bjork, that puts so much passion into her songs. With Bjork, it’s more about the passion of creativity, but with Apple the intensity comes from personal experiences she externalizes into music. The chatter among the various reviews of her newest record, “Idler Wheel …”, mention that the relationship tracks are about her former boyfriend, writer Jonathan Ames. But the specifics don’t matter much, because we have the songs themselves to apply to our own lives, loves, and losses. The second gift I’ve come to admire about Apple is her awkwardly, but unique vocal cadence. She sings in so many different ways. Her voice is somewhat limited in what it can do, but she compensates with shifting styles through run-on verses, making slight pauses for effect, repeating little lyrical snippets, and sometimes delivering a throaty kind of singing that comes at you like a clinched fist. You’ll read a lot of lists that will call “Every Single Night” the best song on this fascinating record, or maybe “Anything We Want”, “Werewolf”, or even “Valentine”. They’re all fantastic songs, and the first two I listed contain prettier writing than “Regret”. But “Regret” is a real risk-taker. It’s esoteric in many ways. There’s that strange percussion, that really doesn’t quite sound like drums. Then there’s the deep, resonating pangs of a dissonant piano. Just when you think the song can’t get any more idiosyncratic, out come these ugly (and even somewhat clumsily-written), angry lines about “hot piss” and “white dove feathers”. But that’s the allure of Apple. Who doesn’t like a spit of spite? Even in the heat of something hasty, Apple weaves confessional gold. I couldn’t get enough of Apple’s throat-wrenching vocals that go deep, deep down like a spade into gravely ground. Suck on that, Ames.
1. Mmpsuf “The Beauty” (Retina / EP): It’s certainly tough to rank the best songs of the year, especially if you have a long list. Really, how far apart are the songs you rank at No. 20 and the song at No. 30? But every blogger or music reviewer knows that there are rare moments each year, maybe one or two, in which you feel like you hear perfection. (I can still recall in January of 2010, opening my e-mail and listening to Sharon Van Etten’s “Love More”, and thinking, “That’s it. It’s January and I already know this is the best track I’m going to hear all year.”) This time, that moment of knowing came to me in late November, listening to Mmpsuf’s “The Beauty”. I can say with supreme confidence that out of the 1,000-plus songs I’ve heard in 2012, “The Beauty” is clearly the best track I’ve had the honor of playing in my apartment. Creatively speaking, it doesn’t get better than this. The song begins with the thump of percussion, and the warped distortion of what sounds like digitized crashing waves or white noise from a television. More elements are subtlety added. Eglė Sirvydytė’s voice is simply another instrument, but the glorious one that ties everything together. Bandmate Aivaras Ruzgas and Sirvydytė create another world entirely, slowly and organically. It’s rare to encounter a song that does so much without feeling artificial or overly deliberate. “The Beauty” is absolutely crushing. The vocals are slightly distorted, then overlapped into delicious half-spoken harmonies. There’s a real sense of elegance in the build up, and an exquisiteness in the arrangement. The song title is apropos. You can find beauty amid the song’s haunting squelches, and the transporting lyricism about “the voices of trees and stones”, and Sirvydytė asking “do you hear them, do you hear them, now?”