Our favorite songs of 2012
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This week’s question is a simple one: What was your favorite song of 2012?
I gave Researching The Blues, the latest album by L.A. punk survivor Redd Kross, a decent grade in my A.V. Club review back in August. But if I’d only been judging the album’s best song, “Stay Away From Downtown,” it would have blown the top off the grading scale. Immaculately crafted, leanly muscled, and sparkling with jangle, the instant power-pop anthem sums up everything the McDonald brothers have been aiming for with Redd Kross since the band’s 1982 debut, Born Innocent. The McDonalds aren’t kids anymore, but they bottle the lightning of wild-in-the-streets youth in “Stay Away From Downtown.” The song’s euphoric, Kiss-adoring video doesn’t hurt.
Randy Newman hasn’t really turned into the most complacent major talent of his generation. That’s an illusion fostered by the gap between his best early work and the kiddie-movie soundtrack tunes that recently inspired an especially nasty parody on South Park. But Newman’s doodling, used-up-money-machine image can also make it that much more startling when something pisses him off so badly that the Randy of “Sail Away” and “Rednecks” rises, slavering, from the grave, as with the Bush/Cheney era “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country,” or this year’s Internet single “I’m Dreaming.” I’m not sure what to make of the fact that, for all you hear about the changing shape of the electorate and the importance of the youth vote in deciding the election, old guys like Newman and Ry Cooder seemed most fired-up about using their music to say something about election-year politics. But it would be nice if the South Park guys felt chagrined enough to go after more challenging targets than Honey Boo Boo.
I spent the year listening to a lot of horrifying music, because I tend to listen to music when I’m writing, and I need to get into certain mindsets sometimes. That’s why Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is on my most-played Spotify list. But the two songs I’ve found most helpful in this regard are Delta Spirit’s “California,” the sort of yearning rock power-ballanthem that’s made to score the closing montage of a season première of a CW drama, and Ellie Golding’s “Anything Could Happen,” which I first heard this summer and quickly became obsessed with. I like Goulding’s raw voice, I like the way she says, “I don’t think I need you,” and I like the way it all sounds like the world is ending but we’re not gonna stop dancing. And in ultra, ultra obscure picks, I’ll single out Balmorhea’s “Pilgrim,” which got me through that week when I was convinced Mitt Romney was going to win the election.
I can’t listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” without choking up. This wasn’t always true. Hardly anybody in the States knew the song when it was released in Canada last year, but once it started catching fire here, I actively tried to ignore it, because sometimes I’m just a hater who assumes that popular things must be annoying. Even my husband knew the song before I did, and he maintains a grandpa level of pop-culture unawareness. Finally, the tune reached its way to me via a workout class, and the earworm found a comfortable nest in my head thanks to the bouncy beat, cheeky lyrics, and unexpected string chords. Some summer days as I dragged my ever-growing pregnant belly to work, I’d listen to the song literally 10 times in a row. (My favorite parody of the song was the dog version). Toward the end of the summer, I gave birth to my first child, Paul Edward Delahoyde. After four long nights in the hospital, we finally took him home, and “Call Me Maybe” was on the radio. I jokingly started singing the chorus as “Paul Me Maybe,” but then had to stop when I got to the line “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad,” because it was making me cry. The song obviously has nothing to do with having a baby, but that line is accidentally one of those lyrics that applied so hard to a specific moment in my life that it took my breath away. I would have always loved that happy little ditty no matter what, but now it’s got a little extra meaning.
2012 has been filled with irresistible top-40 earworms, plenty of power-pop goodness, and even a new Asia album, so I can’t help but find plenty of competitors in this particular field, but as the year winds down and I grow wistful about what 2013 may or may not bring, I keep coming back to a track from an old-school country crooner whose optimistic attitude helps raise my spirits as well: Don Williams’ “Better Than Today,” from And So It Goes. I’ve spent my life with a notoriously naïve outlook, but the older I get, the more I occasionally slip into cynicism, and worse, the occasional bout of bitterness. Williams’ song provides the perfect tonic to counter those dark moods, however, by painting a picture that brings me right back to being the old me: “I got two hands that ain’t afraid to work hard / And I jump out of bed every day / I know these times are real hard / Lookin’ on the bright side always pays.” It doesn’t, of course, but it’s amazing how easy it is to believe it does when the Gentle Giant tells you it’s so.
I guess it depends how we’re defining “favorite.” If we’re talking “the 2012 song I played more than any other I will still love in 20 years,” the hands-down answer is Fiona Apple’s “Werewolf,” my favorite track off of my favorite album of the year. It just hit home in regards to some personal stuff I dealt with this year, and it’s smack-dab in my vocal range (or so I like to think), which means it’s provided fodder for some dramatic, embarrassing private sing-alongs. But if we’re talking “the 2012 song that brought the most joy to my life,” then we have to careen over to the other end of the spectrum to “Hot Cheetos And Takis,” an ode to a very specific bodega-snacks combination (Lemonade Brisk optional) performed by children in an after-school program. It has all the makings of a novelty song, but it’s actually pretty impressive on its own merits, from the slick beat to the incredibly insidious hook to the verses traded by the seven preteens that make up the “Y.N.RichKids,” which range from impressively capable—especially the group’s lone female, who delivers my favorite line, “I got snacks on snacks on snacks”—to endearingly hyperactive. (Never change, No. 5.) To my knowledge, it remains a one-off phenomenon, and I kind of hope it stays that way, since I can’t imagine anything topping it in terms of unexpected awesomeness. I still regularly put it on whenever I need a day-brightener, and it never fails to deliver.
I was already primed for the return of Japandroids this year, but I was hooked when I heard “The House That Heaven Built,” the first single from what became my album of the year, Celebration Rock. With surgical precision, Brian King and David Prowse have created the prototypical Song That Kyle Ryan Will Love: Give me some big guitars, a fast tempo (anchored by propulsive percussion), and make it all super-catchy (some “whoa oh ohs” don’t hurt), and I’m in. I’ve been listening to “The House That Heaven Built” for a good seven or eight months at this point, and I still feel a charge every time I hear it. Some of my favorite songs have an energy that gives a sense of well-being, a boost of determination, and “The House That Heaven Built” has an extra dose of that with a chorus that basically says, “Don’t let anything stand in your way.” My wife and I have taken to singing it to our infant daughter, as a sort of punk lullaby: “When they love you and they will / tell ’em all they’ll love in my shadow / and if they try to slow you down / tell ’em all to go to hell.”
Love it or hate it—and I love it—it’s hard to argue the claim that “Gangnam Style” is the defining song of 2012. (Sorry, “Call Me Maybe.” Close, but no cigar.) It’s easy to criticize the song as a novelty, thanks to its now-ubiquitous dance, the lunatic video, and the countless parodies it spawned, but admit it: as soon as you hear the words “Gangnam Style,” you start hearing the song. It’s that catchy. And sure, musically, it’s little more than a clutch of cheesy dance-music clichés fused to a weird, chanted vocal, but it works. Hell, that’s all the more reason to admire it. Seriously, if anyone had told me this time last year that the biggest song in the world would be a K-pop electro tune by a chubby guy with a pompadour, I’d have assumed they were certifiable, but here we are. Regardless of whether it ends up marking a turning point for America’s acceptance of foreign-language pop or just a strange, one-time-only phenomena, Psy’s masterpiece has earned a place in music history. (Plus it gets serious bonus points for taking the title of most-viewed YouTube clip ever from Justin Bieber’s execrable “Baby.”)
I got really into a lot of songs this year, including Cloud Nothings’ “Fall In,” Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” and Titus Andronicus’ “Ecce Homo,” but Kyle actually took my No. 1 choice—Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built”—so I’m going to go with the close runner up: Thee Oh Sees’ “Lupine Dominus.” While the 20 seconds of high-pitched squealing that intro the song can grate a little, the track is such a total jam that I’ll let it slide. The Bay Area garage-rockers have the potential to really turn it on and rock the fuck out when they want, but this song exhibits great moments of musical restraint—at least for them. Sure, there are dirty guitar solos and plodding drums, but the track also has spare vocals and a general sense of eeriness. Still, turn the track up loud to experience it at its best.
Well, this is a tough question, because it might change every day, but for now, I’m going to say “The Love You Love” from The Walkmen’s Heaven, which also happens to be my favorite album of the year. It’s the most upbeat song on a record that’s, by Walkmen standards, pretty mellow and lovey-dovey, and it’s a rollicking palate-cleanser for more sweetness to come.
I have to echo Kyle and Marah’s sentiments on Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built”—an absolute barnburner that basically left all other 2012 releases fighting for silver. But two other complicated songs burrowed their way into my brain this year and never left: Cloud Nothings’ “Cut You” and The Weeknd’s “Enemy,” a track that didn’t appear on Trilogy, the re-release of Abel Tesfay’s three digital EPs. The latter is a perfect example of why Tesfay is the version of Usher from Community’s darkest timeline: hauntingly sparse and dramatic production with angelic vocals in direct contrast to the frightening lyrics, a sexual assault nightmare in the guise of an R&B come-on. The former has a similar dichotomy between catchy instrumentation and faux-conversation lyrics describing a past abusive relationship. I can’t really call either one a favorite, but I found both fascinating examples of storytelling in song, in spite of the grim subject matter.
I’ve cycled through just about every song on P.O.S.’ We Don’t Even Live Here as my favorite song right now, and it will probably change five more times before this publishes. But for the purposes of answering this question right now, let’s say it’s “Fuck Your Stuff.” I’m a sucker for songs about the class war and big choruses, so this song’s a little like looking into a mirror. I’ll never get over how much I don’t like the line referencing Wikileaks, but I wouldn’t love the song if there wasn’t some little thing to get under my skin. I also wouldn’t love it nearly as much if I hadn’t seen it performed a couple times before I heard the album version. It’s tremendous live, especially with the full Doomtree crew. The first time I heard the record, it took me a beat to recognize the song, and I love that it has two versions I can get behind. The only thing wrong with it is that I can’t add it to our holiday party playlist for five or six reasons to do with decency. Oh, and I sound like a terrorist when I sing it out loud. Don’t care.
There’s no album I’ve listened to more in 2012 than Silversun Pickups’ Neck Of The Woods, and no song on that album I’ve listened to more than “Busy Bees.” Adding a more electronic sound to their repertoire could have turned this album into their version of Smashing Pumpkins’ misfire Adore, but the studio augmentation ends up clarifying and deepening most tracks on the album. The drum machines that kick off “Busy Bees” serve as the bedrock upon which drummer Chris Guanlao drops hypnotic percussion, lending the song a dream-like quality that draws the listener into a tale about creative impulses, the lack of time to properly express them, and the worry that no one will listen to them once unleashed. What starts off as a slow, interior number eventually explodes into a agit-jitter guitar pop, mirroring the increasingly frenzied nature of the song’s protagonist. I won’t pretend to know exactly what lead singer/guitarist Brian Aubert is truly singing about in this song. But I do know that no song connected with me on a more intuitively emotional level this year than this track. Whether that’s a good thing, I’ll leave to others to decide.
Like a lot of the music-listening world, I didn’t really discover Mumford & Sons’ 2009 album, Sigh No More, until late 2011, and I spent the early part of 2012 listening to it obsessively on infinite repeat; it’s strange in a way that music so agonized and booming in some places, and so intense and whispery in others, could work as constant background music for my life. The advantage to being so late to the party, though, was that I didn’t have to wait three years for a follow-up, like everyone else did. 2012’s Babel drew a lot of reviews basically saying it was more of the same as Sigh No More, for good or ill—it’s always funny to me how people who really like a debut album are often disappointed if the next album varies from the pattern at all, whereas people who don’t like it, or think it’s overrated, are scathing if the sophomore effort doesn’t try anything radically new. I didn’t hear much radically new on Babel, but the lead track, “Babel,” gave me exactly the fix I needed: the big emotions and rushing intensity, but in the form of a song I hadn’t already heard 50 times over. And yeah, I know there are a lot of haters out there. Don’t care. Too happy.