The truth about any kind of group “best of” list is that it’s always going to trend toward conventionality, if only because there are always going to be a handful of movies, books, TV shows, and albums that critics generally agree are worthy, even if they’re not what we embrace most passionately. That’s why those of us who work on these kinds of lists urge readers to look at the ballots, where the idiosyncrasies of our personal tastes are better reflected, and where there’s a higher likelihood of finding something unexpected, and perhaps even unknown. But here’s another truth: When it comes to music lists, those individual ballots are also likely to be the least informed.
It’s not that the people who write about music don’t try to keep up, goodness knows. We read reviews, consult with each other, and share albums we think we all should hear. But musical tastes tend to be much more personal than taste in other art forms, and speaking for myself, I find it much easier to watch an acclaimed film that I may not like than I do to give a difficult album the spins required to “get it.” I do make an effort, but music is too closely associated with pleasure for me, not work—especially at this point in my life.
All of this is a way of saying that the list below is by no means intended as a best-of-the-year list. For one, it doesn’t feature any songs from albums that were on my official A.V. Club ballot, which means that it’s missing “The House That Heaven Built,” “Gentle Stream,” “Gone Tomorrow,” and “Tempest”—and any list without those songs wouldn’t even be my quirky little best-of, let alone some pronouncement from on high. Instead, the songs below are from albums that fell a little short for me (sometimes by just a little, sometimes by a lot), though these particular songs kept popping out of the mix whenever I’d shuffle the ongoing “2012” playlist I maintained all year.
As I’ve said often, I’m a big believer in songs over sounds. I’m impressed when an album takes an original approach or sustains a specific mood, but if it doesn’t feature any songs that would get the attention of my less musically adventurous friends, that’s a knock against it, in my opinion. I’m not saying that all music has to appeal to the middle—there are always mitigating factors—but sloppiness, dissonance, and hooklessness aren’t virtues I automatically celebrate, especially in bands that are basically just playing pop, soul, or rock ’n’ roll, only cruddier. So while the songs below span a number of different genres—though not wide enough, I admit, because I’ve always been more of a rock guy—what unites them is that I find them tuneful and memorable. They’re arresting, evocative; they sound like they’re making an effort to engage the listener, and convey something personal. (Yes, even the Meat Loaf song.)
These songs, plus 30 from my albums list, are available on this Spotify playlist (minus the ones that Spotify doesn’t have the rights to, of course).
Antibalas, “Him Belly No Got Sweet”
A dozen or so horn players, percussionists, and guitarists contribute to this polyrhythmic, deeply groovy dance track, punctuated by call-and-response political sloganeering, serving as “world” music for increasingly globalized times.
David Byrne & St. Vincent, “The Forest Awakes”
Both Byrne and Annie “St. Vincent” Clark have always carried themselves with a certain intellectual and emotional remove, approaching the world with the eyes of aliens, puzzled but oddly unruffled by what they see; on the jittery “The Forest Awakes,” the two musicians’ styles fit neatly over each other, sounding mutually rhythmic, arty, and full of hermetic insight.
Cloud Nothings, “Fall In”
The tautness of Cloud Nothing’s remarkable third album is best expressed on this punchy three-minute rocker, which has the unstoppable momentum of classic punk married to a sweet little harmony line, a simple chorus, and a ferocious guitar coda—one of the most compelling calls to arms imaginable.
Dinosaur Jr., “What Was That”
Three albums into the reunion of the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup, the trio continues to produce songs as strong as the ones it started with back in the ’80s, and though “What Was That” doesn’t deviate markedly from anything frontman J. Mascis has recorded over the past 30 years, his mountainous riffs coupled with the pounding rhythms of drummer Murph and bassist Lou Barlow is still one of the most reliably overwhelming sounds in rock, at once triumphant and heartbreaking.
Dr. John, “Ice Age”
The Dan Auerbach-produced Locked Down recalls the filé-seasoned psych-rock that Dr. John recorded in the late ’60s, and conjures up old ghosts on “Ice Age,” working in some of the African funk elements that were a major part of Dr. John’s “Night Tripper” persona, in ways that suit the song’s primal, apocalyptic air.
Drivin N Cryin, “R.E.M.”
Kevn Kinney pays tribute to his old friends and fellow Georgians on this rousing, ’80s-college-rock-styled explanation of how it felt to be part of a grand reconceptualizing of what “Southern rock” could be, three decades ago.
Mark Eitzel, “The Bill Is Due”
“Who needs the past?” Eitzel asks at the start of one of the most heartbreaking songs in a career dedicated to beautiful melancholy—a song that belongs in the pantheon of great music by anxious veteran artists looking back on a career that hasn’t panned out as they’d hoped.
Alejandro Escovedo, “Big Station”
There’s such an effortlessness about Escovedo’s songs that listeners could easily miss that he’s singing about desperate folks in desperate situations (and that sometimes the desperate person is Escovedo himself), such that even on a song with hooting train sounds like “Big Station,” all the apparent frivolity is in reaction to feeling adrift, hounded, and unsure.
Donald Fagen, “Miss Marlene”
In the past, a new Fagen solo album would’ve been a fairly significant event in the pop-music world, but Fagen’s Sunken Condos slipped out late in 2012 with little fanfare—appropriate for a record full of relaxed, jazzy character sketches like “Miss Marlene,” which sounds like an unreleased Steely Dan B-side from 1976.
Craig Finn, “Rented Room”
Finn’s adherence to folkiness and stateliness on his first official solo album disappointed some Hold Steady fans, but it’s easy to see the appeal of this style on this beautifully sad reminiscence, set to shimmering guitar and a rhythm that becomes more insistent as Finn builds the song from wistful regret to more palpable pain.
Gardens & Villa, “Gypsy”
The Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me was mostly a muddle, but if the record had been a contest, Gardens & Villa would’ve won outright for a buzzy, synth-driven version of “Gypsy” that captures the wistful regret of the original without sounding like a slavish copy.
Gentleman Jesse, “Take It Easy On Me”
It’s not that hard to come up with a convincing ’60s garage-rock sound—after all, bands have been doing it for 50 years—but Atlanta’s “Gentleman” Jesse Smith has the talent to use that handmade quality to boost crazily catchy songs like the jangly, fist-pumping “Take It Easy On Me.”
Great Lake Swimmers, “Think That You Might Be Wrong”
Tony Dekker’s band of Canadian folkies can sound at times like a more lush, polished Will Oldham (or like Lambchop served with a thick hunk of Bread); they mix clean, ’70s-style country rock with Old World European grace on the swaying, pulsing “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” a song where a cowboy waltz meets low-boil R&B, male and female voices intertwine, and elegantly swooping strings and fuzztone guitar enter into a conversation that’s bound to end in accord.
Grizzly Bear, “Sleeping Ute”
Grizzly Bear is a prime example of one of those acclaimed indie-rock acts that’s better at mood-setting than songwriting, but the band does have its inspired moments, and this stormy-but-melodic number is one of its best, creating real drama as it crashes its way toward a soft, sorrowful acoustic coda.
The Hives, “Midnight Shifter”
This was a great year for album-closers, and The Hives wrapped their electro-charged Lex Hives with one of the best tracks of their distinguished career: a fuzzy, balls-out, horn-stoked rocker designed to leave everybody in the crowd happily spent.
Patterson Hood, “Better Than The Truth”
Drawn from an album that has the quality of a “dirty realist” novel—all about a guy pissing away his youth and his closest relationships—“Better Than The Truth” puts the young protagonist in conversation with the wastrel he might become, as opposed the more grounded, regretful man who made this record.
Ice Choir, “Peacock In the Tall Grass”
This was also a good year for bands bringing back the softer side of early-’80s new wave, and Ice Choir paces the pack with this sinewy, synth-driven disco ballad, which has an achingly gorgeous Prefab Sprout feel.
Jaill, “Waste A Lot Of Things”
Further proof that power-pop lives on in unexpected ways, this chunky anthem from Milwaukee’s Jaill is hooky as hell but hardly conventional, as it laments past mistakes over a propulsive track that periodically steps backward, as though the band was afraid to push too hard and made a bad situation worse.
Joe Pug, “The Great Despiser”
Joe Pug’s album The Great Despiser is full-sounding and energetic, recalling the country-leaning side of ’90s college-rock (as exemplified by labelmates Jason Isbell and James McMurtry), but it’s also nuanced on songs like the title track, which pieces together plucked and strummed string instruments very carefully, considering how each accentuates this rollicking expression of self-pity.
Jukebox The Ghost, “Somebody”
Jukebox The Ghost’s overstuffed sound—equally inspired by Ben Folds, Fountains Of Wayne, and Queen—can result in songs loaded with complex harmonies and dense lyrics, often at the expense of clarity, but every now and then the band stumbles onto a song as perfect as “Somebody,” a fiendishly catchy track with faintly world-beat rhythms, a sticky chorus, and multiple soaring bridges.
Lucero, “Women & Work”
Lucero may have settled a little too comfortably into roadhouse country-soul on its latest album Women & Work, but the title track is classic Lucero, urging listeners to get up and dance, even though the song is dispensing hard-won wisdom about how life is impossible.
Aimee Mann, “Disappeared”
The poppier sound of Mann’s Charmer was inspired in part by the buzzy late-’70s rock records of The Cars and Blondie. Though, more than anything, the cozy “Disappeared” sounds like late-period Pretenders—once Chrissie Hynde had settled into wizened elder mode—and exemplifies how Mann’s simple, unpretentious guitar-pop music supports her wry observations about the world.
Meat Loaf, “Fall From Grace”
Meat Loaf’s Hell In A Handbasket is one of his most open and yearning albums—often embarrassingly so—but the balance between sincerity, craziness, virtuosity, and earnest self-parody resolves well when Meat Loaf applies his powerhouse voice to the surging anthem “Fall From Grace,” which turns genuine sentiment into something oddly thrilling.
Nude Beach, “Walkin’ Down My Street”
The main melody of this spirited retro-rocker sounds borrowed from Bruce Springsteen’s “Sherry Darling” and Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” but since both Springsteen and Petty borrowed liberally from their own influences, better to focus on how gloriously exultant “Walkin’ Down My Street” is, and not how derivative.
Chuck Prophet, “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat”
Veteran roots-rocker Prophet (who’s lately been Alejandro Escovedo’s main writing partner) throws baseball legends, cult leaders, the Vietnam War, and Bugs Bunny into this odd little toe-tapper, which squeezes actual history and popular culture into a single, compressed moment, capable of exploding outward with one mighty swing.
The Shins, “Fall Of ’82”
Just when James Mercer seems to have fallen into a rut with The Shins, he comes up with something relatively new (for him): a bouncy, uncomplicated old-school pop song, using the music of the past to explicate a pivotal moment from a time long ago.
Patti Smith, “April Fool”
One of the rare pop artists whose work seems like it should come with footnotes, Smith’s album Banga is nonetheless one of her most immediately engaging, thanks to relatively straightforward songs like the midtempo “April Fool,” which, as with all of Smith’s work, uses pop primitivism to construct complicated meditations on creativity, immediacy, and centuries of human endeavor.
Todd Snider, “Brenda”
While still only in his mid-40s, Snider has sounded like a cranky coot on his recent albums, but on Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables’ toe-tapping, Michelle Shocked-like love song “Brenda,” Snider and violinist/vocalist Amanda Shires nod to Bob Dylan’s similarly careening Desire while employing business-world and rock-star metaphors to express the perspective of the haves and have-nots.
Southeast Engine, “Old Oak Tree”
Following up last year’s outstanding folk-rock history lesson Canary, Southeast Engine released a thematically connected EP Canaanville, highlighted by this exuberant origin story, a song so exhilarating and rootsy that it sounds like it’s been around forever, just waiting to be sung.
2:54, “You’re Early”
A new addition to the canon of great stalker songs, “You’re Early” is a creepy little number sung from the perspective of a person keeping obsessive track of her crush-object, quietly muttering “I just wanna be close” over muted-but-intense noir-ish music and the distant whine of the backup vocals, as sisters Colette and Hannah Thurlow sketch a story and creating an atmosphere of dread in just over four minutes.
Sharon Van Etten, “In Line”
Like her pal Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Sharon Van Etten has found a way to transform droning indie-rock into a modernized version of the blues, using the textures of moaning vocals and vibrating guitars to lend songs like the funereal “In Line” a deep, soul-shaking misery.
The Waco Brothers & Paul Burch, “Monterey”
Paul Burch and The Waco Brothers’ Jon Langford are roots-music devotees who’ve spent their careers writing and recording songs that decode and recode the classics of folk, country, and mid-20th-century pop; on the Stones-y “Monterey,” Burch’s affected drawl gives The Waco Brothers’ raucous, seemingly off-the-cuff music a vibe that sounds more Lower Broadway after midnight than early evening at the Ryman.
The Walkmen, “Song For Leigh”
The Walkmen’s Heaven suffered only from being another very good album in a career that’s been devoid of missteps, but that’s nothing to hold against a track as beautiful and precisely constructed as the yearning, twangy “Song For Leigh,” which says “I miss you” about as eloquently as a rock song ever has.
M. Ward, “The First Time I Ran Away”
The songs on Ward’s A Wasteland Companion sometimes devolve into artsy atmospherics or ornery fuzz, but Ward still has a knack for marrying memorable phrases to winsome melodies, as he does on the delicate “The First Time I Ran Away,” a gentle reassurance that there’s always something new to anticipate and explore.
Water Liars, “$100”
St. Louis singer-songwriter Justin Kinkel-Schuster spent three days in rural Mississippi recording the album Phantom Limb with fellow traveler Andrew Bryant, and on the opening track, “$100,” the duo bleeds distortion and sludgy heavy-metal chords before giving way to a short, springy country-rocker and then lurching back into the murk.
Jack White, “Take Me Me With You When You Go”
Blunderbuss is an intermittently excellent LP that’s eclectic to a fault, burying a lot of Jack White’s personality, but the album-closing “Take Me With You When You Go” puts the quirkiness of the record to fearsome use, shifting from dreamy piano pop to rocked-up R&B over the course of its four minutes, hinting at what might happen one day when White stops performing exercises and starts combing what he’s learned.
Bobby Womack, “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)”
A city boy with a country twang—gospel-trained, but preoccupied by the secular—Womack sounds evocatively displaced over the Damon Albarn/Richard Russell-produced electronic backing tracks on the exultant “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around),” caught between the past and the future, the living and the dead, and the need to be heard while wrestling with the medium required to transmit.
The Young, “The Mirage”
In a grand year for overseas psych-rock revivalists like The Amazing and Tame Impala, don’t overlook the homegrown band The Young, who on the reverberating “The Mirage” turn string-bending and echo into a pretty haze.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Psychedelic Pill”
Young released a lot of music this year (and that’s not even referring to his songs that top 15 minutes), but while he seems more interested now in coming up with basic ideas that he and Crazy Horse can jam to, that simplicity also means that the songs have become direct, impassioned expressions of what’s on his mind, even if that just amounts to a memory of the old hippie ladies who used to ornament his scene.
Zeus, “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?”
On the rowdy, loopy opening song of Zeus’ album Busting Visions, the Canadian band splits the difference between the Badfinger and Harry Nilsson versions of “Beatlesque,” crafting a sound that could be played right now on a classic-rock station without any listener calling in to complain.