Best of Music 2012: The 10 Best Albums of the Year That I Listened To

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This year, my best album list is entitled The Best Albums I Listened To for the sake of indicating that there are so many albums released every year, and even though I listen to a lot of music, and a lot of different kinds of music, there’s no way I can listen to everything worth listening unless I’m given all the time in the world.

1. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Channel_ORANGE
In 2012, Frank Ocean came out with his confessional manifesto: a free-form, wide-ranging, heartfelt R&B ode to modern time, modern youth, and modern love.
Key Tracks: “Pyramids,” “Thinkin Bout You,” “Super Rich Kids”

2. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
David_Byrne_and_St._Vincent_-_Love_This_Giant
The combination of the sharp, decidedly masculine David Byrne and the delicate (but actually quite strong), decidedly feminine St. Vincent may have seemed discordant, but the finely crafted Love This Giant proves that it was a complementary masterstroke.
Key Tracks: “Who,” “I Should Watch TV,” “Lazarus”

3. Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
Bat_for_Lashes_-_The_Haunted_Man_cover
Haunted, indeed. Bat for Lashes bares her spirit (and on the cover, her body) in a set of raw emotions set to music.
Key Tracks: “Oh Yeah,” “All Your Gold,” “Laura”

4. Ellie Goulding – Halcyon
Ellie_halcyon
Halcyon is as twitchy as the most robotic of electronica, but it is fiercely humanistic. Each note is full of feeling and clearly originating from an actual person’s vocal cords. Who is this ethereal weirdo who has stumbled her way into the pop world?
Key Tracks: “Only You,” “Anything Could Happen,” “Hanging On”

5. Ke$ha – Warrior
Kesha_Warrior
What Ke$ha declared would be her “cock-rock” album actually ended up delving even further into electronica than her first album, with much of it coming off as Daft Punk fronted by Ke$ha. The rock sensibility did come through somewhat, thanks especially to Iggy Pop and a drum breakdown that echoed “In the Air Tonight.”
Key Tracks: “Warrior,” “Die Young,” “Love Into the Light”

6. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Jack_White_Blunderbuss_cover
Blunderbuss suggests a physical space for Jack White to have plenty of room to experiment – who’s going to complain about that?
Key Tracks: “Sixteen Saltines,” “Freedom at 21,” “Weep Themselves to Sleep”

7. Muse – The 2nd Law
Muse_2nd_law
If you’re not by now cool to Muse’s m.o. of unabashed ambition inspired by such phenomena as thermodynamics (the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium – the state of maximum entropy), then I guess you’re never going to be. The 2nd Law is, more than ever for Muse, the realization of epicness, yet it also takes time to cool off and go at some speeds that are unusual for the band on such notable tracks as “Madness” and “Panic Station.”
Key Tracks: “Madness,” “Panic Station,” “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”

8. Kimbra – Vows
Kimbra_-_Vows_-_Album_Art
New Zealand chanteuse Kimbra brings to the 21st century musical scene an exuberant jazz/R&B fusion. Vows is a cascade of danceable personal statements.
Key Tracks: “Settle Down,” “Come Into My Head,” “Cameo Lover”

9. Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods
Silversun_Pickups_neckofthewoods

Silversun Pickups’ horror album Neck of the Woods ever so lightly freaks its listeners out, poking at anxieties involving bodily invasiveness and existential hopelessness.
Key Tracks: “The Pit,” “Skin Graph,” “Busy Bees”

10. Passion Pit – Gossamer
GossamerPP

Passion Pit is going (remaining?) crazy. In the time between their debut Manners and follow-up Gossamer, their biggest decision seems to have been to keep their normal disposition at full-to-bursting.
Key Tracks: “Take a Walk,” “I’ll Be Alright,” “Cry Like a Ghost”

I Haven’t Heard These Albums in Their Entirety, But I’ve Heard That They Are Quite Good:
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls, Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak and Blu, Dr. John – Locked Down, Bob Dylan – Tempest, Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city, Nas – Life Is Good, Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball, Tame Impala – Lonerism, Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

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Best of Music 2012: The Best Music Videos of the Year

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2012 was not the best year for music videos, which is fair because 2011 was perfectly solid, and 2010 gave us some true standard-bearers. Meanwhile, 2012 was an excellent year for movies, while 2011’s cinematic output was relatively lackluster. You win some, you lose some. 2012’s music videos were not as filled with interesting narratives and unique, groundbreaking concepts as much as other recent years. That lack may explain why striking imagery carried the day for the best of 2012; “beautiful” is probably my most frequently used word to describe my top 10, and I don’t remember ever being as complimentary of the cinematography as I am this year.

1. Lana Del Rey – “Ride” [Dir. Anthony Mandler]

Who makes videos like this one anymore? Who ever made videos like this? Sure, there have been plenty of long-form music videos (and plenty of classic ones at that), but nothing quite like the baroque extravaganzas from Ms. Del Rey. This video’s whole story of Lana as this lost girl may just be completely made up. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, it’s aggressively fascinating. The lingering, lascivious camera, the wild mix of patriotism and Native American props and imagery, the wide-open cinematography, the tire swing connected to the sky – surely, this was what music videos were invented for.

2. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls” [Dir. Romain Gavras]

Leave it to M.I.A. – the best political music video provocateur around – to make a video of car drifting a statement of support for Saudi women drivers. The widescreen cinematography is beautiful, while M.I.A. and the other drifters are badass. Those two elements are enough on their own to make a memorable video. The feminist message would also be enough by itself. Somehow, together, they are synergistic.

3. Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem” [Dir. Anthony Mandler]

Lana Del Rey casting herself as Jackie O. surely must mean something. A$AP Rocky as JFK is intriguing, to say the least. The grainy, home-video style footage also captures the attention. I am not sure what it all means together, and I am not sure Lana knew either when she made it. Meaning often comes after creation. Now that this attention grabber of a video has been made, let’s see if we can find some meaning out of it. Lana is making an American myth of herself – surely something must stick.

4. Katy Perry – “Wide Awake” [Dir. Tony T. Datis]

Katy Perry used to strike me as, not exactly artificial – synthetic, perhaps. Now that she has made it to the point of her career where “Wide Awake” stands, I realize she may be the most authentic pop star out there. Hers is a finely put-together package, sure, but there is honesty in the assembly. She’s lived enough that she’s not going to blindly accept the fairy tale life she has aspired to, and she’s got the imagery to prove it, particularly the Freddy Krueger-esque paparazzo.

5. Psy – “Gangnam Style”

I’m not overly familiar with K-Pop, so I will just take Psy’s word when he says that “Gangnam Style” is a satire of the K-Pop aesthetic. I am familiar, however, with videos in which guys are blown away by ladies’ hindquarters, and “Gangnam” takes that trope to beautiful extremes. And the horsey dance – that happened.

6. David Byrne & St. Vincent – “Who” [Dir. Martin de Thurah]

In this black and white stunner from David Byrne and St. Vincent, the two of them look forward – never towards the camera – with cold eyes, but there is passion in their bodies. They are practically compelled to complete their dancing mission. Even St. Vincent’s lying on the ground is incredible posing. A triumph of physicality.

7. Ke$ha – “Die Young” [Dir. Darren Craig]

Guess what, world? The joke’s on you: there is a lot going on in the “Die Young” video, but none of it means anything! And that’s the way it’s always been with K-girl. Indeed, it is true that there is a mess of Illuminati symbols present in this video, as there have been in many recent pop videos. But it’s always been a bunch of noise. Ke$ha lays to rest the idea that it was ever anything else. (Or tricks us into thinking so…) So let’s all just have an orgiastic time.

8. Imagine Dragons – “Radioactive” [Dir. Syndrome]

The “Radioactive” video features a puppet fight in the style of a cockfight. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a commentary on animal rights or something like that. Or how it has anything to do with the song, for that matter. But with Lou Diamond Phillips, Alexandra Daddario and her incredibly deep eyes, and those puppets, how can I say no?

9. Woodkid – “Run Boy Run” [Dir. Yoann Lemoine]

I am not sure if the “Run Boy Run” video means much beyond what it is on its surface: a boy on a quest. But does it need to be anything more than that? A young boy’s imagination run wild is perfect fodder for a music video: chased by monsters while on the way to a castle – that’s something to watch. Plus, the whole thing just looks beautiful.

10. Calvin Harris – “Feel So Close” [Dir. Vincent Haycock]

The video for “Feel So Close” captures the feeling of bliss that the song also captures so well. With its montage of spirited dancing, kissing, playful banter, and smiling among young and old, male and female, with an M&M-worthy color palette set against a sunny summer day leading into the sunset, this living in the moment is about as close to heaven life can get.

Best of Music 2012: Best Songs of the Year

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Three of my top five songs of 2012 (numbers 1-3, in fact) have something in common: they were actually released in 2011. 2012 was The Year of 2011, with several of the biggest hits of the past year having been originally released the year before.

Top 5 Songs of the Year
1. Grouplove – “Tongue Tied”
“Slumber party, pillow fight”
When I first heard “Tongue Tied” many times over on the iPod commercial, I thought, “I like it. That’s another fine addition to the songs from iPod commercials.” And then it started getting some radio airplay, and I went into my second stage with it in which I was getting tired of it. But then at some point, maybe around the thirtieth listen, it reached the third and final stage for me, in which I determined that it was the best song of the year. Why these wild shifts? It remains inexplicable. But it must have something to do with the lyrics, which demand a more-than-cursory examination. There’s a fantastical sense to it all, as demonstrated by lines like “Marmalade we’re making out” and “Peter Pan up in the sky.” It doesn’t appear to be about anything more than just one random crazy party, but the way the lyrics lay it all out demonstrates that if you present anything properly, it can achieve epicness. The spirited, practically angry, singing at the end further solidifies this notion, and the outro chords are quite the capper.

2. Calvin Harris – “Feel So Close”
“Your love pours down on me, surround me like a waterfall”
I usually denote the best dance song of the year in my best songs of the year coverage – this is the first year that the best dance song has cracked the overall top 5, appropriately enough, as we are fully emerged in the EDM-dominated era. And Scottish DJ Calvin Harris’s “Feel So Close” captures a feeling that dance music may be best equipped to deliver: pure bliss.

3. Alex Clare – “Too Close”
“So I’ll be on my way”
“Too Close” is a song that could have only been made in 2012 (or 2011), and only by someone who has paid attention to music of the past 50 or so years. Combining a jazzy rock beat, a dubstep breakdown, and soul vocals, Alex Clare is not holding back on his musical arsenal. The lyrics describe a relationship at a crossroads – when emotions are at a high, and there are plenty of emotions to draw from. Representing that full emotional range naturally requires a full range of musical techniques: the steady verses keep things going, while Alex’s singing makes it clear that all is not necessarily so copacetic, and the bass kicking in for the chorus show just how volatile everything is. There is an ebb and flow, and it ultimately crescendos to a steady ending, allowing everyone to breathe, though it is not exactly the happiest of conclusions.

4. Ellie Goulding – “Anything Could Happen”
“I guess we thought that’s just what humans do”
Working in an AutoTuned, EDM-saturated era, Ellie Goulding isn’t scared of digital manipulation. But the fact that Ellie works within the normal strictures of the current pop scene along with her relatively straightforward cute little blonde physical appearance belie just how weird she is and just how weird her style of digital manipulation is. It’s hard to tell if the ee-ee’s of “Anything Could Happen” are the result of button pushing, or if Ellie can beep like that without any electronic assistance. To assuage any potential doubts about her vocal abilities, though, she leads into her climax with a powerful series of repeating “I know it’s gonna be’s” that lasts just a little bit longer than you expect it to, and then lasts a little bit more. Topping it all off are lyrics that praise perseverance with an outsider’s sensibility.

5. David Byrne & St. Vincent – “Who”
“Who’s this?! Inside of me”
The reviews I read of Love This Giant made a point of noting the discordant, but ultimately complementary, combination of David Byrne’s full-throated tenor and Annie Clark’s light, decidedly feminine voice. “Who” makes that contrast as obvious and as pleasing as possible, with Byrne’s string of interrogatives rhythmically intercut with Annie’s recurring “Who is an honest man?” I imagine that hearing David Byrne and St. Vincent sing any list of questions would be enjoyable. The particular list that makes up the lyrics of this song work well enough, which is to say, it succeeds at making me want to listen to it over and over.

And a Sampling of The Rest of the Best, Roughly in Order:

Imagine Dragons – “Radioactive”

Non-single/Twilight Soundtrack Song of the Year: St. Vincent – “The Antidote”
Non-single Runner-up: Ellie Goulding – “Only You”
Twilight Soundtrack Song of the Year Runner-Up: Ellie Goulding – “Bittersweet”

Kimbra – “Settle Down”
Alabama Shakes – “Hold On”
Ke$ha – “Die Young”
Lana Del Rey – “Ride”
Muse – “Madness”
Tom Waits – “Hell Broke Luce”
Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”
Drake ft. Rihanna – “Take Care”
Katy Perry – “Wide Awake”
Silversun Pickups – “The Pit”
Bat for Lashes – “Laura”
Woodkid – “Run Boy Run”
The Gaslight Anthem – “45”
Bruno Mars – “Locked Out of Heaven”
Miike Snow – “Paddling Out”
Martin Solveig – “The Night Out”
M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”
Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
David Guetta ft. Sia – “Titanium”
Atlas Genius – “Trojans”
Rita Ora ft. Tinie Tempah – “R.I.P.”
Alicia Keys – “Girl on Fire”
Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem”

File Under “Rihanna Just Cannot Stop Making Music”: Rihanna – “Where Have You Been,” “Diamonds”

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
Nicki Minaj – “Starships”
Martin Solveig – “The Night Out”
Neon Trees – “Lessons in Love (All Day, All Night)”
Foxy Shazam – “Holy Touch”
Bridgit Mendler – “Ready or Not”
The Heavy – “What Makes a Good Man”
Cher Lloyd – “Want U Back”
Garbage – “Blood for Poppies”
Demi Lovato – “Give Your Heart a Break”
Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
Sleigh Bells – “Comeback Kid”
Neon Hitch – “Fuck U Betta”

And in the spirit of 2011, I must mention one song that was released in 2011, but didn’t completely become a hit until 2012, but that I included on my Best Songs of 2011 coverage, thus making it ineligible for the Best of 2012, but I didn’t place it as high as it deserved to be for 2011, so I must amend that: “Somebody That I Used to Know,” by Gotye featuring Kimbra. It didn’t quite crack my top 5 last year, but it should have (it should have been second, to be specific). If I hadn’t heard it until 2012 and/or if it had been released in 2012, then it would have been Number 1 for 2012.

Best Lyrics of 2012:
“I guess we thought that’s just what humans do” (Ellie Goulding – “Anything Could Happen”)
“Stripping down to dirty socks” (Ke$ha – “Die Young”)
“I like your face do you like my song” (Bridgit Mendler – “Ready or Not”)
“Money is the reason/We exist/Everybody knows it/It’s a fact. Kiss kiss.” (Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem”)