Here’s the survey of the best – subjectively speaking of course – music of the year. And this year, I’m stretching to a top fifty (!) as if to hammer you over the head and say “music’s brilliant!”
01. Telephone Banking – Clean Bandit
On a BBC Radio 4 documentary recently (DL), Neil Tennant and various staffers describe their time on Smash Hits in the early 80s during what they called the ‘Golden Age of pop’ which was ‘an anarchy of absurdism’, an ‘industry of fun’ and an ‘incredibly creative pop music scene’.
It’s 1984, I’m 11 and I’m poring over Smash Hits. My copy has arrived in Co. Galway only a couple of days after publication from its faraway London base. I get a bit upset if the latest issue isn’t in stock when mum does the family shop on Saturday. I really, really don’t want to miss a copy. There’s Altered Images being weedy and interesting; there’s Aztec Camera with their fascinating name; ooh, Propaganda are scary; and it looks like Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King isn’t going to have any more hits…
Despite the irreverent writing style of Smash Hits, these people were characters. Like a cartoon or a superhero, there’s something heightened more vibrant about them. There’s Green Gartside talking philosophy while looking like Princess Di; Annie Lennox with her blood orange crop and black mask; Bananarama looking like strange dolls that had just been rescued from a box of old clothes…
These odd, affable alien creatures made their way into my imagination and became a kind of currency through school and beyond. Knowing about them and their music was a hook into a larger, less visible community populated by lots of similar boys and girls dotted around the world.
Cut to December 2012 and I’m a Londoner. I tweet that I feel that the non-more-London collective Clean Bandit (who I previously – and affectionately - labelled smart arses) have been robbed of a slot in the BBC Sound of 2013. Moments later one of a Clean Bandit mum tweets me back. Clean Bandit favourite the tweet.
Clean Bandit probably have no idea what Smash Hits was. Clean Bandit don’t need a Smash Hits to be discovered by music fans. They populate a parallel Top of the Pops where we can all programme our own Top 40 countdown on iTunes or YouTube. Our apps and tools will suggest more music we might like and we get it instantly. We are no longer separated by geography and time. The world has become smaller and faster; the scale has become larger, but the pop experience is no less thrilling.
So, Clean Bandit, does your mother play golf?
02. I’ve Got Your Music – Saint Etienne
Music fans of a Certain Age will a) love songs that reference being a fan of music, b) identify with being so distracted by music that it may come before everyday things such as work, life etc and c) love Saint Etienne’s dance phase. Let’s face it, we first met them when they did their Balearic cover of ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart’ and our love was cemented with the sugary pop of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. The subsequent stuff was ok, but Words and Music returned us to THRILLING.
Apart from this being glorious, what I like best about it is it’s assault on nostalgia. It’s a reminder that there is no Golden Age of music. Saint Etienne have been making referential pop music since 1990; always implying their adoration of pop.
It took all this time for them to finally nail their colours to the mast and catch up with the rest of us.
03. Honey – Bearcraft
Straight outta Dalston, Bearcraft reckon their genre is ‘Campfire Disco’ although ‘Honey’ is neither as carefree and jaunty as that description implies nor is it as painfully cool as one might expect from their postcode.
Instead we have an accomplished, intense slab of dramatic electronic pop. Orchestral stabs abound as Dicky Moore (also a fine Tweeter and guitarist in Scritti Politti’s live ensemble) demands/begs his honey to quit the skankery:
“Honey get your hands off those boys/Honey, get your arms round me”
Another plus of being a Londoner is that I’ve casually met Bearcraft (kind of). Dicky Moore is a gent but should be wary of hanging out too much with that famously non-prolific Gartside chap. You both should really be getting along with some new music now.
Until then, we’ll keep ‘Honey’ on a loop.
(Adapted from original post on Groove Loves Melody.)
04. Silhouettes – Avicii feat. Salem Al Fakir
The Guetta-ization of dance continued apace in 2012. Avicii’s ‘Levels’ may have been the massive hit and his spat with Leona Lewis may have attracted headlines, but it’s this deceptively poetic track that will earn itself multiple listens.
Swedes again. Typical.
05. Feel The Love – Rudimental feat. John Newman
Not much of a ‘song’ really, but was one of the few that made me stop what I was doing when I first heard it and attempt to buy it. Of course it wasn’t out at that stage so I found the (excellent) video, and deployed various extensions to turn it into an mp3.
Just like the youth do. Cue lamentations about death of music industry etc etc.
06. National Anthem – Lana Del Rey
The track that was crying out to be a single. Not that singles mean anything anymore; it did give Interscope a chance to make the astounding video featuring Del Rey as a Marilyn/Jackie figure and A$AP Rocky as Kennedy. All fabulously, controllably outrageous. But the track is a fabulously, uncontrollably catchy soarathon.
Fun Fact: Rick Nowels, song doctor responsible for much of Belinda Carlisle’s fabulously, uncontrollably catchy hits, is fabulously, unsurprisingly credited as co writer on this.
07. Climax – Usher
Sometimes as an adult fan of pop music, you see patterns. In the thirty years I’ve been watching, successful acts rest on their laurels and fade away; they experiment, fail and fade away; they get desperate but ultimately fade away. They common denominator being that most pop acts fade away eventually.
With several successful albums, Usher has been transitioning from hot young thing cheerily showing off his abs to the perhaps complacent dullard who wears sunglasses indoors. Producer Diplo too is veering far from his underground cool to shilling for Blackberry and threatening to ‘do a Guetta’.
Yet, alchemy. Usher soars and sounds like a real person while Diplo just about props that voice up on a futuristic sonic bed than is the very model of grown up restraint.
It won’t last for either of them. But this song will.
08. Euphoria – Loreen
‘Euphoria’ was tipped to win the Eurovision Song Contest from the very outset and why wouldn’t it be? It’s practically perfect.
The Swedes can be trusted to do things better. They have a stoical, vaguely socialist sort of fairness, pay high taxes which contribute towards a higher standard of living and, when they put their minds to it, remind the English-speaking world how sophisticated pop music is supposed to be made.
In 2011, Loreen’s ‘My Heart is Refusing Me’ (eventually the follow up to the globe-straddling Eurovision colossus that was ‘Euphoria’), wasn’t chosen to represent Sweden. That honour went to ‘Popular’ which came 3rd. But that’s how good Sweden is at this; their rejects are amazing.
Sweden is promising a very different approach to their Eurovision production in 2013. I can’t wait.
09. Harlequinade – Eugene McGuinness
‘Harlequinade’ refers to “that part of a pantomime in which the harlequin and clown play the principal parts”. It developed in England between the 17th and mid-19th centuries.
Londoner Eugene McGuinness’ current album (either second or fourth depending on how one counts these things these days) is The Invitation To The Voyage on the hip Domino label (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Magnetic Fields). He’s also managed to enlist veteran producer Clive Langer (Morrissey, Elvis Costello) and newer talent Dan Carey (Santigold, MIA).
Single and opening track, ‘Harlequinade’ is very much in the fresher, more electronic part of his register. With a sloping, dancefloor-friendly backing (reminiscent of Robbie Williams’ facsimile cover of Lewis Taylor’s ‘Lovelight‘), the lyrics are in that great tradition of sounding wonderful while not entirely making much sense when looked at closely.
Clown up and get down the indie disco.
(Originally posted on Groove Loves Melody.)
10. Losing You – Solange
I’m reviewing this for two reasons. The first is that Solange, with help from Dev Hynes (Lightspeed Champion), has returned with a sprightly-yet-sad track. With its heavy nod to the gentler side of 80s electro soul, the track is more than capable of standing on its own merits.
But the video….
Filmed in South Africa, Solange jiggles (we can’t call it dancing; sister Beyoncé will need to intervene) with various sapeurs, members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes, an organisation originating from the French Congo. The immaculate clothing is part of a way of life for the sapeurs, whose dazzling dandy-like elegance is accompanied by a high-minded moral code. Against the impoverished environs of their origin, the sapeurs are pure punk.
(Originally posted on Groove Loves Melody.)
11. Sad – Elton John vs Pnau
“If your music sounds like computers gently weeping with joy, I’m probably on board.” That’s my tagline on the Daddy or Chips Facebook Page. And here’s a good example. Elton supposedly heard Pnau’s ‘Wild Strawberries’ in a cab and felt compelled to seek them out. He then gave Pnau free reign to pillage his back catalogue, effectively turning himself into another sound to be sampled. The resulting album saw Pnau (or 1/2 of Empire of the Sun) pull an Avalanches-like fusion of dozens of Elton tracks into a cohesive whole (that made No. 1 in the UK). What is it about Australians and their sampling wizardry?
‘Sad’ contains five Elton tracks (including bits from ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’). Out of the lovely burbling 70s samples emerges a new thing; a lovely digital creature with a life of its own. Thrilling, really.
12. Heartbreaker – Steve Aoki feat. Lovefoxxx
Despite being pretty unlistenable to these ears, Steve Aoki’s album managed to bag a Grammy nomination (whatever that’s worth).
The standout track (not difficult) is this; a shimmering piece of electropop that is much enhanced with the charm of Lovefoxxx (of São Paulo wonky popsters CSS fame). Her Brazilian accent competes with Aoki’s synth washes, only causing alarm when she appears to ask: ‘Don’t you want to run with me and shed that foreskin?’
She may be asking to run with her and ‘share that first kiss’, but perhaps it’s best not to take any chances.
13. Bashful – Kwes
“A countenance accountable for the lack of mettle in my bones. I’m bashful…”
While Pitbull, LMFAO, Chris Brown and other types continue to infect the charts with their moronic paeans to ballin’ in the club with honeys etc, London’s Kwes does not hide his intelligence at all.
Earlier this year he reworked pieces from Puccini and Verdi into unusual contemporary productions involving audiences and outdoor structures. Brainy old Matthew Herbert has tagged him as one to watch. A multi-instrumentalist as well as producer, he also has colour synaesthesia whereby music triggers colours. He says this is ‘normal’ but it must influence his distinctive, individualistic productions.
And in a good year for introverts, Kwes has created a literate, cerebral anthem of sorts.
14. Memory Of The Future – Pet Shop Boys
Another old reliable, Pet Shop Boys surprised me by producing one of their best albums yet. With Kanye West/fun. producer, Andrew Dawson, at the helm, Elysium was a quiet triumph filled with assured, lush, detailed songs.
This soon-to-be third single is what Abba might have sounded like if they made The Visitors today i.e. a minor chord masterpiece that’s dramatically epic in an understated way.
That’s really very difficult to do, you know.
15. Laura – Bat For Lashes
Bring on the Baroque Pop. Apart from ‘Daniel’, I must admit to never having warmed fully to Bat For Lashes’ music. While not as claustrophobically showy as some of her Baroque contemporaries such as Owen Pallett, her music has lacked the warmth of, say, that of Rufus Wainwright.
‘Laura’ is different. Over just a piano, Khan becomes more and more passionate as she tries to inspire a friend who is a feeling a tad down in the dumps (is it a faded celebrity?). It’s simple and direct and with a cracker of a chorus.
Laura is lucky to have such a pal.
16. Benediction – Hot Natured & Ali Love
“lol wtf is this? nursery rhyme? “ asks electric.isle, both amused and repulsed, on Resident Advisor’s forum. shibbydoo elaborates a little more: “No, it hit the top 40 because its been promoted / advertised / shoved down people’s throats like any other mainstream, commercial, big-label crap. There is nothing special about this song in any way, all it proves is that if you get something in front of people enough, they will think they like it.”
These comments follow a very positive review that begins ‘[s]ometimes dance music is pop music, whether we’d like to admit it or not. It’s a minefield out there, dangerous enough that Jamie Jones felt the need to defend himself publicly for his latest single hitting the UK Top 40.’ And that agonising about what’s cool by critic, fan and artist is what makes the dance music world a little insufferable at times.
Just grow up and/or dance.
17. Adorn – Miguel
And here’s another of these New R&B Americans that have the hipsters salivating. Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Solange, Elle Varner and Miguel have been pumping out mixtapes stamped with quirky individualism that light up the blogosphere before breaking out in more traditional ways this year.
Miguel describes his music as “fly, funkadelic, intergalactic-hip-hop-meets-sexy-orgasmic crazy, dope shit”; a description that will sound familiar to fans of Janelle Monaé. For all her huge talent and imagination, she’s never produced anything as seriously sexy as ‘Adorn’: the hipster ‘Sexual Healing’.
18. The First Time I Ran Away – M. Ward
While I’m happy that this chart features so many hot new things, I also have my old realiables. I added M. Ward to my whitelist several years ago and his craftsmanship has yet to let me down (OK, the Christmas album as She & Him can be overlooked).
I have a crystal clear memory of sitting in the apartment one Sunday morning. Sunshine streamed through the window to where I sat reading. The place was still and silent except for M. Ward. This track with its floaty, almost ambient vocals and country twang seemed to suspend time in a sonic bath.
19. Thinkin Bout You – Frank Ocean
BBC Radio 1′s Nick Grimshaw reportedly said that he’d like to date Frank Ocean, ‘but I think he might be whiny, though. Like, “why have you not called me?”‘
With Channel Orange deservingly topping end of year lists everywhere, Ocean’s ‘whininess’ doesn’t seem to have put anyone else off.
His note on tumblr about his same-sex first love certainly got people’s attention but the music can hold its own. ‘Thinkin Bout You’ is like a sonic twin of Beyoncé’s ‘I Miss You’ (also written by Ocean). Sonically sparse, they appear deceptively simple at first. When Ocean implores ‘Do you not think that far ahead? I’ve been thinking ‘bout forever’, you can see where Grimshaw is coming from. Evidently, the rest of us don’t have such committment issues.
20. Upcoming Legendary – Dubplate Dionysus
“Inspired by Paris Is Burning, the chronicle of the ball culture of late 80s New York, Dubplate Dionysus debut with a most delicious – and slinky – slice of retro grace and poise. With the ‘woo.. yeah’ Lynn Collins sample in place, electro wizard Fredrick Royster joyfully channels Exposé’s “Point Of No Return” over Matt Keppel’s languid vocal. Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja and Anji Xtravaganza would declare it all kinds of fierce.”
That’s what I wrote for Groove Loves Melody and several months later, I have survived a night of debauchery with Mr Royster in Chicago and have found that this swinging, ebullient four minutes has staying power.
Unlike me after a night of debauchery in Chicago.
21. Caliban’s Dream – Underworld feat. Dockhead Choir, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Only Men Aloud, Elizabeth Roberts, Esme Smith and Alex Trimble
Goosebumps of Olympic proportions as elder statesmen of dance triumphantly curate the music for Danny Boyle’s tremendous Opening Ceremony in London.
22. Love Will Tear Us Apart (live) – Mary Coughlan
The original is over familiar. Nouvelle Vague’s version was gimmicky. Susanna & the Magical Orchestra slowed it down but didn’t convince. Mary Coughlan sings this like she’s not only lived it, but she’s lived it for everyone. I saw her doing it live. I was nailgunned to the seat.
23. Hope There’s Someone – Mick Hucknall
He’s unfairly derided. Let’s just park that. He has a beautifully soulful voice and manages here to translate Antony’s idiosyncratic original into a more relatable but no less powerful track. A brave choice of cover well chosen.
24. DJ Ease My Mind – Niki & The Dove
25. Dark Haired Mistress – Joe Chester
After three albums of exquisitely-produced near perfection, Joe Chester confounded expectations by releasing Hope Against Hope, a surprise album well outside of normal timelines and comprised of all sorts of music in all sorts of states. It’s as if he felt that immaculate production and selection was a constraint to be actively worked against.
In the download age, he’s right. And ‘Dark Haired Mistress’ is one of the tracks that could have very happily snuggled up to anything in his pretty-much-flawless oeuvre.
26. Latch – Disclosure feat. Sam Smyth
27. Taking In Water – Jessie Ware
28. Cut Copy Me – Petula Clark
Perhaps wisely, Carla Bruni seems to have packed in the singing to be full time French First Lady. Who would have thought that 79-year-old Petula Clark would sneak in to replace her as ‘Stylish Gallic Chanteuse (Who Is Not Actually From France)”?
29. The Globe-Straddling Megahit – fun./Carly Rae Jepson/Gotye
Everyone knows these songs. Most people love these songs. There’s very little wrong with them (apart from current overexposure). ‘We Are Young’ is a drunken anthem. ‘Call Me Maybe’ is a joyful celebration of our inner tween, and ‘Somebody That I Use To Know’ is the classic one-hit wonder; clever and too quirky to allow lightning to strike twice.
You will hear all three until you die.
31: Cry At Films – Bright Light Bright Light
Because if the baby gay 15-year-old me had the ability to make the sounds in my head come alive, they would have sounded like this. (That’s good, by the way; I would have made an outrageously great album that would have shown them.)
32. Aurora – Hans Zimmer
“I recorded this song in London in the days following the tragedy as a heartfelt tribute to the victims and their families” wrote composer Hans Zimmer after a gunman killed 12 people watching The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado in July.
It’s a beautiful, melancholy and quietly epic choral piece that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack of movie itself.
33. Let’s Have A Kiki – Scissor Sisters
RIP the Sisters. I saw them live for the first and last time this year and this late entry to the SS canon brought the house down.
34. That Calvin Harris/David Guetta Song – Various
Calvin has had four hits by himself, a few more as co-credit/remixer (most notably Florence + The Machine’s ‘Spectrum (Say My Name)’. David Guetta has also had another good year with his similar formula of verse/chorus/BREAKDOWN/chorus/BREAKDOWN/BREAKDOWN/BREAKDOWN. Sure, its all wearing a bit thin, but the best example of this quiet bit/RAVE KLAXON/quiet bit was Tulisa’s ‘Young’, which incidentally was produced by neither.
35. Hood – Perfume Genius
36. Andrew In Drag – The Magnetic Fields
I’ve always been a ladies’ man
And I don’t have to brag
But I’d become a momma’s boy
For Andrew in drag…
37. Lay On The Bonnet – David Stewart
In which, Example’s guitarist goes all future soulful.
38. Cut The World – Antony & The Johnsons
The new track on the stunning ‘best of’ where A&TJ perform their ‘hits’ alongside a lush orchestra. It suits them completely. Don’t watch the video for this track if you are in any way sensitive (i.e. anyone who like Antony & The Johnsons); there will be blood.
39. I Follow Rivers (The Magician’s Remix) – Lykke Li
Indie Swede gets remixed and no one really notices. Then Irish state broadcaster RTÉ use that mix to soundtrack an ad and *bong* massive hit. In Ireland. Turns out this remix has been huge all around Europe and beyond this year. Perhaps she’ll pull a Gotye and the UK and USA will play catch up in 2013. (Thanks David.)
40. Breaking My Fall – Bressie
Obscenely hunky Niall Breslin aka Bressie turns his back on the commercial rock of his band the Blizzards to deliver a fairly commercial-yet-addictive piece of electropop. A fellow Irishman, he now lives and works in London
so I can stalk him and his enormous biceps. (Oh, and the percussive sound at 3:19 sounds a bit like the sound of a message coming in on Gaydar. Kitty says.)
41. Sixteen Saltines – Jack White
42. She Wolf (falling To Pieces) – David Guetta feat. Sia
43. Emmylou – First Aid Kit
44. Oliver Twist – D’Banj feat. Skepta & Sneakbo
45. Picking Up The Pieces – Paloma Faith
46. City Boy – Donkeyboy
47. The Veldt – Deadmau5 feat. Chris James
48. Ni**as In Paris – Jay-Z & Kanye West
49. How Can I Live Without You (Make It Right) – Hervé
50. Gold Dust (Shy FX Re-Edit) – DJ Fresh