Monday, 17 December 2012

20 Best Songs of 2012: #10 to #1

10. Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a great pop song that at the same time treats the cliché of the breakup ballad with a healthy dose of irreverence. Even with its glossy pop surface and Max Martin-helmed production, Swift’s wry and intelligent sense of humour comes through. Although Swift is undeniably petulant at times, she sings most of the song with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, and it's refreshing to have an artist often seen as pensive to a fault not take herself too seriously.

9. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”
“Pyramids” has created its own myth and legend, entirely, it would seem, by the sheer fact of its existence. Its idiosyncratic presence in today’s pop landscape – it’s ten minutes long! it’s got an epic narrative! it was released as a single anyways! – deserves a discussion separate from the track itself. As a song, “Pyramids” has many merits – it’s incredibly catchy, and the shift in plot is thrilling and unexpected – but the hypnotic rhythm does occasionally distract from how Ocean’s imagery doesn’t always work. The pros do outweigh the cons in the end, and “Pyramids” makes it clear that Ocean is a daring and talented songwriter unafraid to test his abilities this early on in what looks to be a promising career.

8. Gotye (ft. Kimbra) – “Somebody That I Used to Know”
As with “Call Me Maybe”, the year’s other ubiquitous pop hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know” needs to be approached with a certain degree of objectivity; one needs to dig through the countless parodies and imitations to get at the essence of the song itself. Luckily, Gotye and Kimbra’s stunning vocals – the focus of the track more than anything else – make this work a genuine pleasure. The xylophone-laced melody might be seen as corny in other contexts, but here its brittle and dissonant atmosphere is an ideal fit. Heartbreak rarely sounds this accomplished, and this good, when transformed into music.

7. Dala – “Lennon & McCartney”
“Lennon & McCartney” is nothing short of sublime. The duo’s four-handed piano playing (yes, really: see this live clip) works alongside a string quartet to create a sun-filled, effervescent backdrop for Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine’s flawless harmonies. Top it all off with lyrics that riff on the age-old ‘opposites attract’ theme in a clever and imaginative way, and you’ve got near-perfection as far as I’m concerned.

6. Evening Hymns – “Asleep in the Pews”
“Asleep in the Pews” is a richly evocative meditation on loss and grief. Jonas Bonnetta’s inspiration for the song, his father’s death three years ago, lends “Asleep in the Pews” an additional potency beyond the quiet power of its melody and lyrics. Bonnetta’s voice, resonant and heavy with emotion, finds the light and shadow behind each word and brings the deep, dark woods the song describes to life.

5. Melody Gardot – “If I Tell You I Love You”
“If I Tell You I Love You” feels and sounds like a lost gem from Tom Waits’ vaults; that it’s actually a Gardot original reinforces her rapid progression to becoming one of the best, and most vital, jazz songwriters of her generation. “If I Tell You I Love You”, with Gardot’s sultry come-ons, murmurs and sighs, has some of the year’s best vocal work in any genre, and, if there’s any justice in the world, deserves to become a standard.

4. Amanda Palmer – “Do It With a Rockstar”
“Do It With a Rockstar” is wonderfully audacious. A send-up of the posturing that accompanies the rock star mentality and depiction of an identity crisis all rolled into one, the song never fails to thrill. The way its atmosphere and constant call of “Do you want to go back home?” transform so quickly from self-assuredness into vulnerability and doubt is just as remarkable.“Do It With a Rockstar” is Theatre is Evil in a nutshell: witty, irreverent and deeply, deeply human.

3. A Fine Frenzy – “Winds of Wander”
“Winds of Wander”, from A Fine Frenzy’s criminally overlooked Pines, envelops the listener with its unabashedly emotional songwriting and Alison Sudol’s yearning vocals. Opening with quietly plucked guitar, bird song and brief flourishes of piano, the song then slips into a slowly building waltz. “Winds of Wander”continues to grow in intensity and volume until both Sudol and the listener are quite literally carried away, and then gently returned to the ground.

2. Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”
“Every Single Night” feels, appropriately enough, like a transmission directly from Apple’s mind, but with a clarity and immediacy many singer-songwriters spend entire careers trying to achieve. It’s at once both ruthless and delicate, a quality most evident in Apple’s extraordinary voice. Her repeated plea, “I just wanna feel everything,” is a lifetime’s worth of abstract thoughts poured into one single, potent sentence.

1. David Byrne & St. Vincent – “Who”
The horns that announce “Who” seem carried in, as does the rest of the song, from some other universe. Byrne kicks off the song in style, but when Annie Clark comes in, coolly and seductively, with “Who is an honest man?”, the listener knows they’re in for something special. The two have a near-absurd amount of chemistry, practically flirting with each other as Byrne yelps and swaggers and Clark plays hard-to-get. “Who” is bold, brassy, adventurous and just plain fun – there was nothing else like it released this year, and there probably won’t be for some time to come.

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