2012 for me was, first and foremost, the year of Spotify. Having access to Spotify dramatically changed both the quantity and the range of music I listened to. I went through, at various points in the year, a jazz phase (lots of Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis, Jason Adesiewicz, and Colin Stetson, among others), an Early Music phase (Anonymous 4, Jordi Saval), and a “modern classical” phase (Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, John Cage). All of that was made possible, or at least facilitated, by Spotify; without it, I might have listened to one or two things by a few of those people, while with it I listened to hours of all of them. I also heard a lot more new releases, which makes it a lot easier to put together lists of favorites for the year that actually reflect what happened this year. That said, I am not at all trying to make a list of the “best” records of the year; what follows will be my favorites, and of course the lists still reflect my limited time and capacity to hear new stuff.
This was also the year of the instrumental for me. My top 10 artists on Last.fm for the year, ranked by the number of songs by each of them that I listened to, are:
That’s basically an entirely instrumental list (some of them, like Flying Lotus and Burial, have vocal samples, but they are rarely if ever the focus). In part that reflects the fact that I did a lot of my listening while I was working, and I find lyrics too distracting much of the time (especially when I am reading). But it was also a matter of preference; for whatever reason, this year I was much less interested in hearing people sing and/or rap than usual. It’s interesting (to me) to note that my list of favorite songs doesn’t really reflect that preference— most of these are in fact songs, with words. The albums list shows it more clearly, which probably reflects the fact that I tend to listen to instrumental albums as albums, all at once, and also that these records themselves tend to focus less on individual tracks.
I actually have a lot more trouble making a list of songs than albums, because I tend to listen to albums as a whole most of the time. I guess that is more and more unusual. Anyway, here are ten that I liked a lot this year, in no particular order:
I turned out not to love Grimes’s whole album— it has a lot of great moments, but overall seems spotty to me. This song, though, is the one that made me excited to hear the whole record, and I am probably unfairly expecting her to write a whole record this good.
Everybody loves this one, and for obvious reasons. Calling somebody a “singer-songwriter” stigmatizes them for a lot of people, I think, but this song makes me want apply it to Bat for Lashes in a totally positive sense.
This is not one of the songs that other people are mentioning from this record, but it leapt out at me immediately. Much of the “instrumentation” is built out of Fiona Apple’s voice, and I love that sparseness.
I probably only listened to this song a handful of times over the course of the year, but it has been stuck in my head more or less since I heard it the first time back in January. It doesn’t seem necessary to say more than that.
As I said when I recommended this song several months ago, I am not, by inclination, a big fan of Major Lazer (or, for that matter, Diplo); much of what they do seems designed to work in the club and in absolutely no other context whatsoever. I am also not a huge fan of Dirty Projectors (though I like them a lot more when Amber Cooper sings). So I would not expect to like a collaboration between them, but this is fantastic, in large part because it resists the tendencies of both of these artists to maximalism and volume.
If I were naming a personal artist of the year, it would probably be Burial. He is one of those artists who is making a kind of music that I was subconsciously looking for long before he recorded anything; hearing him for the first time gave me a feeling, almost, of relief, as in “Finally, there it is.” His Kindred EP was an evolutionary move rather than a revolutionary one, but frankly I don’t need him to do anything different right now. This is my favorite track from that record.
Cat Power’s Sun was another record I was really anticipating but ended up finding a bit uneven. There are, though, a bunch of great songs on there, and this is the one I liked the best.
I want more rap like this. I have more to say about this record below, but this album and this song reminded me of why I started listening to hip hop in the first place.
Like Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife,” this is a song that works because of the simplicity and spareness of the production; it is just drums and vocals, and those drums are doing a whole lot of work. The lyrics aren’t anything amazing— it’s basically just brag rap— but it is executed perfectly.
Yeasayer seems to have suffered from a junior slump with their latest record, indulging their most excessive tendencies. One this song, though, they remembered what they do best: it’s as melodic as the best pop songs, but with rich, complex instrumentation and vocal harmonies.
I sort of rediscovered Four Tet this year— or maybe just remembered what I like about him. He rarely does anything that jumps out at you as “experimental,” but he also doesn’t sound like anybody else. This track is a good example of the ways in which the repetitive qualities of much dance music can be productive; it iterates throughout, never really breaking but never standing still either.
My top 12 records for the year, again in no strict order. Yes, 12. Just because you have ten fingers doesn’t mean everything has to conform to that. Don’t be basist.
See above. When I want to listen to Burial, that doesn’t mean I want something instrumental, something beat-driven, or something post-dubsteppy; it means I want to listen to Burial. There are other people working in the same vein, but nobody does it like he does.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
This is somewhere on the top 10 or 20 list of basically everybody, so I don’t know what I am going to add. It’s a cliché to call records by female singer-songwriters “uncompromising” or “raw” or “honest,” but this record is all of those things. It is also musically challenging and accessible at the same time, which doesn’t make any sense verbally but it true anyway.
Aesop does his thing. Paranoid, dense, complicated, allusive, abstract, and it sounds great. Most of the time I have no idea what he is talking about in any literal sense, but he still manages some great punchlines; he gets meaning across indirectly but no less powerfully, like he is rapping “Jabberwocky” (double-time).
When I wrote about this record the first time, I compared Robert Henke (aka Monolake) to Trent Reznor in his ability to create a mode using timbre and texture; I can’t think of anything better to say about this record now. It is spooky and still and great.
I don’t know who to credit (maybe Flying Lotus?) with the great rise of non-dance, not-exactly-experimental, non-dubstep but still bass music stuff that has come out in the last few years, but I like it. This is a good example of that; it’s not for the club, but it bears the club no ill-will; it’s just not really interested. It’s heavy as anything, but it’s not using bass as a special effect either; it’s got melodies, but it’s more about texture.
Another example of what I am trying to describe when talking about Lorn— even though the two sound nothing alike. Actress has a much less cohesive, much more uneasy sound, and less density, but he scratches many of the same itches.
I have been raving about these guys for well over a year now. They have a genuinely unique sound, innovative and often pretty damn weird but still, ultimately, pop. Not every song works completely, and it could use just a bit more variation, but it’s still remarkable.
This is probably one of those things you either love or could care less about, and you’ll know pretty much right away which group you fall into. Like Burial, Godspeed has a sound and sensibility that they simply own, and there is no particular reason, as far as I am concerned, for them to mess with it too much. While it has little to do with the music itself, I also can’t help but admire the fact that they released this with, essentially, no fanfare— in fact, no announcement at all; the vinyl was simply available to buy at a show one day.
I wrote about this record a few weeks ago; I said at the time that it reminds me of the band Lush, whom I dearly miss; it also draws on bands like The Cure and My Bloody Valentine. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing to compare a new band to a bunch of (much) older ones, but Chromatics manage to pull the best things from these influences without ever imitating them.
I don’t know whether the fact that Chief Keef has gotten so much more attention than this guy says more about the state of rap or the way the media still like to cover it, but come on. Remember when rappers used to have something to say? This is a time capsule from that time, updated with fantastic production. More of this, please.
El-P (who also produced the Killer Mike record) probably doesn’t like you. You disgust him. It’s not personal; he is disgusted in general. This is what that sounds like. The relentless mood of this record can wear you out, but it’s good enough musically to make you want to keep listening, and El-P does more than say what he doesn’t like (or, say, repeat a list of things he doesn’t like over and over again in monotone); he builds a character and he inhabits it. “Like that was so heartfelt/ You really touched yourself/ I like the part where you cried/ I like nothing else.”
I took me a long time to figure out what to think about this record; actually I am still not sure I know. But I keep on listening to it, and trying to figure it out, and I think that says something. It is definitely weird, and impossible to classify: it sounds like absolutely nothing else. But it’s on the list because I am confident it will be one of the albums from this year that I keep coming back to, and keep finding something new.
Some albums I liked a lot, but that I wouldn’t quite put into the top tier for the year:
Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape #2
Simone Dinnerstein: Something Almost Being Said: Music of Bach and Schubert
Four Tet: Pink
Grizzly Bear: Shields
Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man
Holly Herndon: Movement
How to Dress Well: Total Loss
Holy Other: Held
Julia Holter: Ekstasis
Older Stuff Discovered This Year:
I kind of slept on this when it came out last year, but repeated recommendations from people whose taste I respect (as well as, again, Spotify) prompted me to sit down with it. As you see in the last.fm stats above, Tim Hecker became my most-listened-to artist of the year; I think that says it all.
As I said, this was the year of the instrumental for me, and that included the rediscovery of some electronic artists from the 1990s. The Future Sound of London was foremost among these, not least because of this record, which I did not know existed and which is not at all the sound I associate with them.
This is a piece for string quartet and HELICOPTER. Yes, actual helicopter. the performers fly around in the helicopter while playing. You can try to be as weird and crazy and over-the-top as you want to, but what ever you come up with, Stockhausen won that battle a long time ago.
So that’s it. I hope there are some things there that you haven’t already heard, because that to me is the value to reading this kind of list.