Monday, December 31, 2012

Nathan Flynn's Top 40 Songs of the 2012

After a year of listening to new music, I find that I’m not listening to a lot of 2012 music. There have been a few standout albums (Good Kid m.a.a.d. City, Some Nights, Vital, Cruel Summer) that I still listen to on a regular basis, but most releases, even some that I liked a lot- sorry Regina Spektor- have just fallen by the wayside. Well, this isn’t about the best albums of the year: this is about some diamonds in the rough scattered around some of 2012’s best and worst releases. My 40 favorite songs I would recommend checking out from this year (with links!) are:

41. “We Are Farmers”- Three Loco feat. Diplo
I was torn on this one because Three Loco, former child star Andy Milonakis’ rap group, is clearly not meant to be taken seriously but, on the other hand, they had a pretty good song with an absolutely killer sample by Diplo. I’m going to compromise on this one and keep it at number 41 but you really should listen to it. The beat is bananas.

40. “Want U Back”- Cher Lloyd
As one of the few Americans left who enjoys the Ting-Tings, it’s only natural that I was captivated by Cher Lloyd. She has the trademark spunk and delivery that made Ting-Tings frontwoman Katie White so appealing and the pop music production that would make anyone in the business swoon. Written and produced by Shellback, the author of Britney Spears’ comeback and Adam Lambert’s relevancy- neither of which I’m sure were necessary- “Want U Back” describes Lloyd feeling remorse for dumping her boyfriend, who appears to be better without her. An insanely catchy slice of bubblegum pop that can only be appreciated by anyone who puts aside their superiority complex for 3.5 minutes and can have fun.

39. “I’m Different”- 2 Chainz
“I’m Different” is the definitive 2 Chainz song. It gives him the chance to do everything he does best: yell during the chorus- best seen here with his boisterous “Pull up to the scene with my ceiling missing” shouts- and self-reference, which is done in spades. 2 Chainz is a loveable idiot and, compared to the rest of his G.O.O.D. music cronies, he really is different. Dude looks ridiculous and his style is distinctly different from pretty much everyone else’s- like Lil John with less intelligence. He really is the only one who could pull of lines like “2 Chainz but I got me a few on.” This is pure id rap, not necessarily done well, but done right.

38. “Baby’s on Fire”- Die Antwoord
Everyone’s favorite Afrikaans speakers were back in 2012 with an album that wasn’t great but did have this gem on it. Equipped with a great music video and some classic Yolande snark (I rock more bling than Mr. T/I make it look easy because it is to me), this is one of the best Die Antwoord songs in recent memory. However, it gets a bit repetitive and gets a little old after 10 listens.

37. “One More Night”- Maroon 5
This is the best song that Maroon 5 has made since Songs About Jane was released nearly a decade ago. With a sugary hook and a deliberate verse orchestrated to let Adam Levine’s voice absolutely bounce off the walls and back again. The instruments are stripped down to the point of near non-existence but it doesn’t matter because this song is all about Levine and “One More Night” is really the first time that model has worked in a Maroon 5 song. It’s a shame more of Overexposed didn’t sound like this.

36. “Thank God for Sinners”- Ty Segall
Twins was a pleasant surprise this year and its opening track “Thank God for Sinners” proved to be the brightest spot on it. The guitar riffs are blistering and Segall’s voice sounds just right layered on top of them. This is the way that lo-fi garage rock stuff should be made.

35. “Rooster in My Rari”- Waka Flocka Flame
Triple F Life was a huge disappointment coming on the heels of Flocka’s brilliant debut Flockaeli, mostly due to its reliance on club-friendly beats and weak guest appearances. “Rooster in my Rari” is a blistering three minute anthem about a woman who will perform oral sex on him in his Ferrari. This song is rooted entirely in excess and pleasure, and that’s all the listener gets when it’s over.

34. “Comin For Ya Head”- Wu Block
Wu Block may not have been a collaboration made in heaven, but it sure sounded like it on “Comin For Ya Head.” Ghostface Killah turned in his most memorable verse since 2010 and his streetwise sentiments sound as good as they did back in 1994. Sheek Louch, Styles P and Raekwon all come along for the ride and there isn’t a single dull spot or bad verse- even the production on this track rules. A home run from the Wu Block.

33. “Thrift Shop”- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Wanz
This song, in no way, shape, or form, belongs anywhere near the 33rd best of the year. So why is it here? Well, Wanz throws down the most killer hook of the year- his voice is smooth as silk- and Ryan Lewis is a actually a really solid producer. Macklemore brings the song down with his weak rapping, but he has to get some credit for coming up with the theme; he’s always at his best on the joke songs, so at least the rapping is better than usual. This joint is pure fun and, if you haven’t jumped on the much hyped Macklemore train yet, this is the first song you should listen to.

32. “Vices”- Memphis May Fire
Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the clean vocals in Memphis May Fire a lot more than their harsh ones. Matty Mullins is a great vocalist and puts on a live show that can’t be missed but, on record, his voice often comes off as too much. This isn’t the case with “Vices.” The song is varied enough, with a breakdown within the first minute of the song and a smattering of clean vocals in the middle, to keep Mullins sounding fresh. The lyrics also aren’t as lame as usual, which is always a plus.

31. “Bath Salts”- A$AP Mob
Part of me hates this song because it made me believe that the A$AP Mob would be a lot better than it was. This song is flawed, A$AP Ferg’s verse is lacking compared to his other ones and the beat is a little bit disjointed, but for the most part it’s the kind of rough-around-the-edges trill that the A$AP Mob should stand for. Rocky’s verse is also one of his best on a non-Clams Casino song.  

30. “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”- Kendrick Lamar
Good Kid m.a.a.d. City was really just a smorgasbord of the best songs of the year but I had to pare it down for this list. “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a chilled out, laid back joint that gets the album on the right note. It doesn’t have the tension or moral message that many of the other songs come with, it’s merely introspective: Kendrick Lamar dishing about himself, his career, and how he feels about the rap game right now. It’s important thematically only because it establishes Kendrick as the narrator but as a rap song itself it’s one of the strongest on the album.

29. “Call Me Maybe”- Carly Rae Jepsen
Look up ‘ubiquitous’ in the dictionary and you’ll probably read the lyrics to “Call Me Maybe” under the second definition. This song was everywhere during the warm months of last year; the Harvard baseball team did a cover, the U.S. National Swim Team did a cover, Jimmy Kimmel and The Roots sang it with Carly Rae- it just wouldn’t go away. The reason it wouldn’t, of course, is that nobody wanted it to go away. The song is devastatingly simple and the message universal, literally everybody above the age of 12 can relate to it. Not to mention Jepsen can actually sing and the production is top-of-the-line; people will look back at 2012 and remember “Call Me Maybe,” and I guarantee you those memories will be fond.

28. “Lamborghini Angels”- Lupe Fiasco
I wouldn’t exactly classify this song as a banger but I kind of want to. This kind of song reminds me why Lupe Fiasco is an exciting rapper. After a pair of dud albums where he tried too hard to commercialize his sound, Lupe came back in 2012 with a sleek album that harkened back to the good old days and “Lamborghini Angels” was the hottest track of them all. Rapped non-stop at a blistering pace, “Lamborghini Angels” is a thrilling song that sounds one-note at first but is actually really solid.

27. “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”- The Mountain Goats
Almost obligatory pick for The Mountain Goats here. John Darnielle does such a consistently good job that it’s almost hard to make distinctions between what makes his songs good and bad. Accessibility and lyrics are often my tie-breakers and “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” ultimately rose above the other songs on Transcendental Youth in those respects.  

26. “Grown Up”- Danny Brown
Danny Brown promised the world that he was done making dick jokes all the time and, on “Grown Up,” he makes good on his promise. A surprisingly mature and introspective track, Brown makes reference to the trials and tribulations of growing up in Detroit, doing things like “eating Cap’n Crunch for dinner,” and considers what he has to do now that his career has taken off. Although his voice sounds ill-suited to perform a song like this one, “Grown Up” shows a mature talent who’s ready to take the game by storm.

25. “I Knew You Were Trouble”- Taylor Swift
A downright blaspheme to anyone who loved Taylor Swift as a country darling, “I Knew You Were Trouble” is as in-your-face as Swift can afford to get and packs a huge punch. Armed with a dubstep-influenced chorus and some venom to spit, Swift pulls off her trademark change of style between the chorus and verses admirably well and the dubstep doesn’t sound out of place. This isn’t a direction many people were expecting her to go in and seeing her own it was a surprise in itself.

24. “Holy Ghost”- Rick Ross feat. Diddy
When Rick Ross rolled out his Rich Forever mixtape in early January, I assumed it was just a way to keep his fans satisfied until the release of God Forgives, I Don’t. Honestly, I couldn’t have gotten a worse read on what was to come. “Holy Ghost,” the opening track, opens on Diddy imploring “fuck yo dreams” and then transitions to Rozay’s huge voice “some say I’m getting money/must be Illuminati.” The song is littered with Christian imagery, and even church bells in the background, as Ross turns in one of his most creative performances of the year. He jests “my teacher told me that I was a piece of shit/saw her the other day/driving a piece of shit,” pleads “can you hear me father?” and brags he’s “certified, 8 digit.” The beat is big, but Rick Ross is bigger, and “Holy Ghost” cements him as a force to be reckoned with.  

23. “Swimming Pools (Drank)”- Kendrick Lamar
A criminally misinterpreted song about the dangers of alcoholism, “Swimming Pools” became an accidental frat party anthem by virtue of the phrase “Drank.” Anyone listening past the chorus will hear about Kendrick’s struggles to avoid the trap that many of his fellow Comptonites fall into and how his family was consumed by alcohol. Carried by a smart, subtle metaphor and a beat that dictates the flow without being bossy, “Swimming Pools” is one of the catchiest and smartest songs of the decade. Ultimately, the song is dragged down by its bloat and repetitiveness, but it’s still good enough to warrant many listens.   

22. “Cold”- Kanye West
For the most part, Cruel Summer was a sampler album, but nobody was going to stop Kanye from having a song all to himself. Kanye raps over a rare DJ Khaled beat that sounds like it wasn’t made to be overnight shipped to the local dance club and is even more over-the-top than usual. Some brags are bizarre “Dinner with Anna Wintour/racing with Anja Rubik,” while others are merely factual; in fact, “$6000 pair of shoes” sounds out of the ordinary only because the price isn’t higher. The last 40 seconds or so almost sound like a skit, with Kanye affecting a cough to add some sense to his product placement of cold medicine Theraflu, but we can only shake our heads and laugh: it's just Kanye being Kanye.

21. “Lines”- Big Boi feat. A$AP Rocky and Phantogram
Trap beats and loud production sure are cool but there’s something to be said for the power of minimalism. With just a staccato piano beat with a semblance of a drum beat, the focus is all on the rapping. Big Boi and A$AP don’t play around, they go in, state their case, and leave. Phantogram drops a haunting hook with ethereal sounding delivery. Both calming and upbeat, “Lines” manages to blur them in a way that only Big Boi can.

20. “Teardrop Windows”- Benjamin Gibbard
With Death Cab for Cutie already toeing the line between unique and complacent, frontman Ben Gibbard decided to fly solo and cross the line directly into complacent territory. “Teardrop Windows” sounds like a cut that could have been on Codes and Keys but didn’t fit the album’s theme. With the opening verse sounding reminiscent of less-than-memorable Death Cab song “Portable Television,” Gibbard takes it in a different direction by cranking up the volume to six and going at it. It’s a trademark song about loneliness and longing- Gibbard’s favorite emotions and he navigates these not-exactly-uncharted waters like a cartographer: pulling the right strings when he needs to and knowing when it’s too much. More an exercise in moderation than anything else, “Teardrop Windows” never tries to make a statement and just exists, in a sort of stasis, where everything is perfectly in its place.   

19. “Swing Lo Magellan”- Dirty Projectors
As barren as a couple taps on the snare drum and some light guitar strumming, “Swing Lo Magellan” is simple and straightforward, blunt and enchanting. The wilderness has long been a favorite setting for indie records but this isn’t Justin Vernon’s landscape, this is bright and vivid; the imagery invokes a sense of yearning and listlessness but David Longstreth’s vocals inspire hope. This kind of contradiction isn’t a new phenomenon but it sounds fresh coming with such a minimalistic soundscape.

18. “Myth”- Beach House
This song is a bit difficult to describe beyond the basic “this is a perfect slice of dream-pop that sounds exactly how you would expect Beach House to sound except done more precisely than usual.” Hence, I’m going to just leave it at that and let you do the deciding for yourself whether or not this song delivers.

17. “Wildest Moments”- Jessie Ware
It would be a bit too convenient to say that Jessie Ware sounds like a white Alicia Keys on “Wildest Moments” because she’s so much more than that. Her voice is dynamic and can fill the room with its presence. At the most basic level, “Wildest Moments” is a simple love song with all of the contrived elements that come with it. When performed, however, “Wildest Moments” has you hanging on every word. It flips the conventions of the love song on its head and turns it into something so much more significant.

16. “Take a Walk”- Passion Pit
Perhaps best known for its appearance in the Doritos Locos Taco commercials, “Take a Walk,” the opening song from Gossamer, was a sign that Passion Pit are both changing and ever-the-same. The differences are clear- the synth is basically absent from the song, when it carried nearly all the songs on Manners, with the guitars taking over as the driving instrument; laying down sharp notes for pacing. Then, of course, the band couldn’t change too much: everything hinges on Michael Angelakos’ vocals, perhaps now moreso than ever since they aren’t gratuitously autotuned, and his autobiographical lyrics have taken on newfound importance.

15. “Poltergeist”- Deftones
“Elite” will always be my favorite Deftones song because it has it all: drumming that refuses to quit, strong vocals from Chino Moreno and blistering guitars that refuse to let up. “Poltergeist” fits into the same mold that “Elite” had in place for it but with a little bit less of everything. Deftones have grown and thus have learned to be more economical with the resources that they have. However, they’re still playing the game, Chino’s still shouting and Deftones can still make a powerful record.

14. “212”- Azealia Banks
Kind of cheating with this one since it’s been floating around in single form for nearly 13 months now, but “212” became a can’t-miss track in 2012. Cut from the same cloth foul-mouthed, fast-talking as Nicki Minaj, Banks proves she isn’t messing around: throwing around ‘cunt’ like it’s no big deal (and perhaps it isn’t, considering her British roots) and claiming that when she appears “the end of your lives are near.” “212” is naughty, crude and brilliant, with disses and rhymes flying so quickly they’re nearly impossible to process in the moment. Banks does not enjoy the comparisons to Nicki Minaj and “212” proves why: because she’s a lot better.

13. “Comeback Kid”- Sleigh Bells
When this song was released as a single from the ultimately disappointing Reign of Terror, it seemed cheeky. Sleigh Bells would be having no sophomore slump seemed to be the message with this one. Although it ultimately proved untrue, “Comeback Kid” has all the discomfort and cacophony that one would expect from the speaker-busting duo with a smattering of melody thrown in to smooth out of the edges of the ‘clap-and-guitar’ main line and whirling synths that would make Crystal Castles jealous. The fact that Alexis Krauss’ vocals are decipherable for the first time in a long time is only an added bonus.  

12. “Toxic”- Childish Gambino feat. Danny Brown
Pretty much everything about this song is infectious. The SKYWLKR sample of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is warped in a way that puts a cool spin on the song while maintaining the original flavor of the track. Danny Brown of course makes good on his promise that his flow is “so pneumonia,” and Gambino forgoes his usual punchline rap in favor of cleverness and free-association: “got the Yakuza in my Jacuzzi.” This song bounces off all the walls during Danny Brown’s verse and then slows down greatly during Gambino’s, but the change of pace pretty much suits the song. Gambino gets shown up, but everyone expected that, didn’t they?

11. “The House that Heaven Built”- Japandroids
The revitalization of rock continues to happen everywhere but the radio as Japandroids released one of the best rock-minded albums since perhaps the 1990s. The centerpiece of the album was charged rocker “The House that Heaven Built.” It’s a punky song that is written almost poetically; a bit of beauty among the chaos that the song provides. It’s an almost orgiastic mix of mostly guitars and shouting that will get anybody up and moving.  

10. “Oblivion”- Grimes
“Oblivion” is an enigma of a song. On the surface, it appears to be a very simple, poppy melody with Claire Boucher’s vocals sprinkled throughout for flavor. Over time, it becomes apparent just how layered and intricate the song is. It’s nearly impossible to describe; the complexities, layers and apparently random vocal utterances are all calculated to an extreme degree but still sound spontaneous. “Oblivion” is truly smart pop music with a great vocalist.

9. “Little Talks”- Of Monsters and Men
I have a friend who is obsessed with all things Icelandic: their language, their people and their music are all blips on his radar that he tends to become obsessed with. My friend, however, is not a fan of Of Monsters and Men- they’re a pretty hit-or-miss group. That said, “Little Talks” is a nifty little DIY-style song that heavily features, of all things, an accordion. The male-female trading vocals are always a nice touch; written as if the two are talking to each other about how much they miss conversing. The song structure is solid and the energy of the group is palpable. Very fun, sing-along type song.

8. “Pyramids”- Frank Ocean
There were plenty of mammoth songs this year but “Pyramids” has them beat by a wide margin. A nearly 10-minute long, self-produced epic of a song, “Pyramids” is one of the most smartly written songs ever penned. The song, about a woman who was once revered as a queen but is now a common prostitute that seems to function as a metaphor for how women are treated in America, relies heavily on metaphor and historical allusion: both Cleopatra and Samson are name-dropped as if they’re fellow members of Odd Future. “Pyramids” is one of the rare songs that combines meaning, entertainment and the hottest R&B talent this side of The Weeknd.

7. “All the Rowboats”- Regina Spektor
A Regina Spektor song that sounds nothing like Regina Spektor, “All the Rowboats” has a huge sound in the chorus that gets diminished greatly during the verse, when it’s just her and the piano. The song is fast paced and exciting- with Regina alternating between something barely above a whisper and a booming shout into the upper register. Her dynamism and the racing piano bars make “All the Rowboats” at times thrilling and at others calming; it's almost the antithesis of the style that Spektor is known for performing, but there's nothing wrong with a little experimentation, as shown here. 

6. “New God Flow”- Kanye West and Pusha T
“Clique” and “Mercy” might have captured everybody’s attention but “New God Flow” was easily the best collaboration on Cruel Summer. Pusha T’s arrogance is on overload- “I believe there’s a god above me/I’m just the God of everything else”- and his flow is top notch. His verses go hard and then Kanye comes in and blows the roof off with the beat reduced to stomps and claps. Kanye’s head is big as ever and it fits perfectly into this behemoth of a song. This is the kind of song that we would have expected to be on Watch the Throne, and for good reason.

5. “Some Nights”- fun.
“We Are Young” might have catapulted fun. into the public conscious but it was “Some Nights” that showed the group had staying power. Driven by the internal conflict of singer Nate Ruess, “Some Nights” finds him questioning his values and decisions that he has made over the past few years. Underscored by the omnipresent question of ‘is fame worth it?’ “Some Nights” is an airy song for such introspective theme, buoyed by the autotune on Ruess’ voice (so seamlessly done it sounds like an instrument in itself) and a rhythm section mostly composed of hand clapping, “Some Nights” is unique and layered, much like the album itself.    

4. “I Like It”- Foxy Shazam
Eric Nally really does want to be Freddie Mercury and I’m totally ok with it. This song, an ode to “the biggest black ass I’ve ever seen,” rivals Queen’s best silly songs and Nally’s vocal performance is one of his best. He hits soaring highs like it’s easy and Foxy Shazam provides all the chaos and sonic dissonance needed to make this song a winner. Not to mention that it’s absolutely hilarious and a showcase of some serious talent. I like it indeed.

3. “Fuckin Problems”- A$AP Rocky feat 2 Chainz, Drake and Kendrick Lamar
So much can be said about this song. It’s a showcase of Who’s Who in the world of young rappers and exactly why they are the go-to guys that the blogosphere points to when pointing out “hip-hop ain’t dead.” 2 Chainz goes full retard on the hook, A$AP says whatever he feels like and Kendrick’s voice is elastic as ever, morphing line by line. Drake verse is the most pedestrian of them all but it’s still can’t miss. This was very nearly song of the year, with the right blend of humor, cleverness and talent making it the best hip-hop song of 2012 by a wide margin.

2. “Modern Age”- Anberlin
Maligned by minor production flaws in the chorus, “Modern Age” is flawless in nearly every other way. Led by a powerful synth line and, of course, Stephen Christian’s vocals, “Modern Age” sounds like the future of Anberlin’s music. Drenched in production and with the most basic hook of all time “Don’t we all/want to be loved,” this is far from the most complex thing that Anberlin has ever done, but its bluntness works in its favor. The instruments are used economically and Christian sounds like he’s going a capella occasionally. The production is ultimately the best and worst parts of the song, the vocal effects are that cool, but what ultimately makes this song so good is that nobody but Anberlin could have done it. It’s their unique flair that makes you overlook the bad production on the chorus and just feel the music. 

1. “45”- The Gaslight Anthem
Oh man this song has everything. Absolutely trademark vocals from Brian Fallon, a scorching riff from Alex Rosamilia and the most solid rhythm section in rock holds it down admirably well. This song hits the ground running and doesn’t let up. From the second Fallon enters the mix, asking us “have you seen my hands/just look at them shake,” you know this will be a fun song. By the time the chorus of “oh hey/turn the record over/oh hey/see you on the flip side” hits, your head will be bobbing uncontrollably and you might just be singing along. This is one of the rare songs that infects you; it grabs your attention and, for the 3 and a half minutes it’s playing, utterly consumes the listener. Not only is this the best song of The Gaslight Anthem’s career, it’s the best song of 2012. 

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