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The Best Tracks of 2012

2013.02.23
Best Tracks of 2012

I never listen to the radio.  I have close to 30,000 songs in my iTunes library, so I’m never really lacking for something to listen to.  If a song/album/artist is going to cross my radar, it’s not enough that they be insufferably catchy enough to warrant Top 40 play.  Conversely, great songs that are insufferably overexposed never bother me, because I don’t hear them enough to suffer appropriately.  This isn’t to say I ditch charted music (or pop culture) entirely; I do make it a point to see what is out there on occasion.

So, the following is a list of songs that caught my ear for one reason or another and warranted multiple spins in 2012.  A companion “Best Albums of 2012” list will follow, when I can get around to writing it, of course.

Note: The best way for me to provide examples of the songs on this blog is to post their music videos.  Some of these videos are absolute shit and don’t do their songs justice.  The following list is a list of songs, remember, and not videos.

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10. “Untouchable (Parts 1&2)”
by Anathema
I’m totally cheating, as these are two separate tracks, but this one-two punch opening Anathema’s latest album has an intricacy of musical arrangements and production that recall the solo work of Alan Parsons, before he decided he’d rather produce unremarkable electronic piffle.  From the once hard death-metal band, I didn’t expect anything like Weather Systems, but it’s a welcome left turn.

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9. “Kindred”
by Burial
It has been five years since Burial’s last LP, Untrue.  This may be because dubstep, which was Burial’s bread and butter in the latter half of the 00s, has morphed into an intolerable pop sensation, leaving the DL DJ wondering what his place is in electronica’s current landscape.  Burial fans can still count on about one EP a year, however, and Kindred was the highlight of 2012’s Kindred EP, a haunting, 12-minute South London soundscape.  Perfect for night driving.

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8. “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing”
by Field Music
All of Field Music’s latest album makes me happy, but the final track of Plumb especially makes me smile.  Maybe it’s the way the Brewis Brothers sing the phrase “theoretically true”.  Maybe it’s the bouncy drums, the ebullient melody… or some other kind of je ne sais quoi I don’t feel like flipping through the thesaurus to try to define.

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7. “Is David Bowie Dying?”
by The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lip’s latest album Heady Fwends came and went without much fanfare (being a vinyl-only release probably had something to do with it), but it was still a top-tier affair.  The highlight of the album, for me anyway, was this track, produced with Neon Indian, which may very well replicate the experience of David Bowie’s body as all trace of life slowly evaporates into the void.  Happy, happy stuff.

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6. “You Know You Like It”
by Aluna George
Though AlunaGeorge have yet to release a full-length album, the string of EPs and singles trickling into iTunes and other markets reveal that the marriage of George Reid’s impeccable production to Aluna Francis’s velvety vocal is a successful one.  Exhibit A: “You Know You Like It,” the poppiest and most sophisticated track yet from the duo.  This is the kind of music Morcheeba has been desperate to make since the early 2000s but has thus far failed miserably attempting.

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5. “McGreggor”
by Elbow
Elbow is in the running for my favorite current band (Radiohead keeps knocking them out of the top spot), and it’s a testament to their talent that a B-Side near-throwaway makes my list of best tracks of the year.  “McGreggor” plays like the scariest, angriest, most haunting eulogy ever given, delivered as the howling gasps of a damned soul as the coffin slams shut.  Vocalist Guy Garvey is a god.

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4. “Yet Again”
by Grizzly Bear
On their album Shields, indie darlings Grizzly Bear cut their most accessible track without sacrificing the lo-fi, left-field character they’ve cultivated.  After almost two dozen spins, the gear shift into the chorus still gives me a pleasant chill.

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3. “Pyramids”
by Frank Ocean
This is one of those epic tracks that burst with enough energy and ideas for an entire album.  As such, it’s emblematic of Frank Ocean’s incredible Channel Orange: polished, high-energy, mercurial, with a strong narrative drive lyrically.  In fact, it’s shifts and mood changes are so smooth, listening to “Pyramids” is like listening to a ten-minute dream.  Featuring strippers.

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2. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
by Kendrick Lamar
Thank God Kendrick Lamar released the Gaga-less version of this cut, a pleasing but pointed jeremiad against the myriad hip-hop sell-outs.  A pop queen guest vocal probably would have mutilated the very theme of the song.  (And, I really can’t stand anything about Lady Gaga.)  Lamar’s performance has enough texture and flow for five cuts—no need to crowd the field—and the vocal performance is so reflective and contemplative, it’s easy to miss just how indignant the lyric is (“To me that’s amazin’ / To you that’s a quick check / With all disrespect / Let me say this”).  Lamar is one of those old-school spirits capable of rapping about more than bling, ho’s, guns, and New York; “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” might sound a bit an odd in 2012’s hip-hop landscape, but it’s definitely a welcome incongruity.

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1. “Climax”
by Usher
I didn’t think anything of “Climax” when I first heard it early in 2012: I figured an R&B song with that title and its breathy refrain was just another Top 40 potboiler about fucking.  But I gave it another few spins after learning that Diplo produced the cut (Diplo being the DJ responsible for MIA’s “Paper Planes,” among other unique hits).  What I found was actually an intricately designed track with a smooth vocal and killer production.

How rare is it to find a song nowadays with a memorable melody, let alone one with a melody and vocal performance that perfectly matches its lyrical content?  For a song called “Climax,” Usher and Diplo sure do engage in some tantalizing orgasm denial on their cut; the music and vocal build and swell, but never push past the point of no return.  It’s a perfect counterpoint to the lyric, and quite a daring way to construct a hit.

There you have it.

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