Each year I listen to music with a single goal: discovering the handful of songs I will cherish for the rest of my music-listening life. My year-end list is not a tribute to the past but rather a bet on the future, informed speculation on what I hope will still sound great years from now. Tomorrow I’ll publish my top 10, along with an Rdio playlist of the whole shebang. Until then, here are 15 tracks I’ll still be listening to well into 2013.
25. "Origin of Love," Mika. Starts with Mika’s multi-tracked voice humblebragging about how addicted he is to his boyfriend and never gets much beyond it. But there’s something charming about Mika’s gay abandon here; he sounds like he’s actually in love, for starters, and by the end you accept that he needs those faux-Gregorian chants in the background exclaiming “Mother of God!” and “Machismo!” Because love, and because Queen. But mostly because love.
24. "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns," A.C. Newman. It’s Newman-by-numbers in a way that makes you underestimate it at first, as if we’re simply owed a lifetime supply of power-pop tongue-twisters loaded with riddles that make you look up from your laptop to ponder them for just a minute (“I didn’t mean to live that many lies.” Hmm). Nope: shit’s hard, and just when you think the New Pornos vibe has been exhausted as an aesthetic project, here comes a curveball thrown fast and hard enough to knock you back to Mass Romantic.
23. “Sad Eyes,” Crystal Castles. Whoever told this band to record a soundtrack for committing sexual assault in a haunted house is creepy and should go to jail. But like their upstream end-of-year list-mates Purity Ring, Crystal Castles succeeded this year through a sheer willingness to disturb. “Sad Eyes” is a club banger from an alternate universe where the most reliable way to get people to the dance floor is to fill them with dread. Over a relentless 4/4 beat, phrases echo — Feign care and warm concern, the kiss you did not earn. But even without words, the sentiment comes across: violation, transgression, denial.
22. "Call Me Maybe," Carly Rae Jepsen. We gays have been doing an enthusiastic hey I just met you / and this is crazy since the 70s — used to call it cruising, now we call it Grindr — and one of my favorite 2012 pop memories was dancing at Badlands with a guy I had met in just such a fashion. We met 370 miles from where I lived, and it shouldn’t have worked, and eventually it didn’t, but in the months in between there was a moment where the two of us held each other and danced like maybe it might. “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad” —- that was the line we sang to one another the loudest. Before he came into my life I did miss him, I do.
21. “212,” Azealia Banks. I don’t want to hear this mess about how “212” came out in 2011, because you sure as hell didn’t tell me about it in 2011, and so there I was in 2012 queuing up that video of her in the Mickey Mouse sweater saying unspeakable and kind of scary things in a way that was so impossibly charismatic, so left-field fucking sexy, and I never really got over it. Took me a year to realize a song that sounded like a series of threats was actually a pep talk delivered to the self, a hungry young artist reminding herself to seize the day. Why you procrastinate girl, she wondered. They’ll forget your name soon. They won’t, and “212” is why.
20. "Capricornia," Allo Darlin’. I wouldn’t put it on my list of the year’s best titles, or band names, but forget about that for a second, darlin’, and just appreciate the perpetual miracle of jangly guitar pop like this. Melancholy in its disposition but effervescent in its harmonies, “Capricornia” is a kind of girl-group take on “California Stars” that manages to earn its own place in the firmament.
Shearwater always seemed like a strange project to me. It was started by Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, both better known for Okkervil River, supposedly as an outlet for their “quieter” songs. But Meiburg eventually came to think of it as his baby, and he left Okkervil in 2008 to focus on it exclusively. This is a bold move for a musician — Okkervil River is critically beloved and as close a thing to meal ticket as an indie rocker can hope for these days, whereas Shearwater’s more precious compositions seem destined to reach a smaller audience. But this is something I love about indie rockers — they’re forever abandoning the sure thing in favor of the great unknown. Think of Franz Nicolay leaving the Hold Steady, or Amy Klein leaving Titus Andronicus. At some point an entrepreneurial instinct kicks in and they think to themselves: I could do better on my own. And they give it a shot.
Shearwater is surprisingly old: It formed in 1999, and has released eight albums. For the most part I find the band’s work dull: each album finds Meiburg pensively noodling on guitar, perhaps with some light harp in the background, while he sings enigmatic riddles using five-dollar words. (“The silver shoals of the light in the deep brush the glittering skin where the great, dark body writes and the trembling jaw, the unfathoming sounds, of leviathan bound,” goes one not-unrepresentative lyric.)
But every once in a while Shearwater catches fire. “Century Eyes,” the galloping opener on 2008’s Rook, marks a welcome detour toward garage rock. “Castaways,” a deep cut from 2010’s The Golden Archipelago, might be the best showcase to date for Meiburg’s marvelous voice. Against a gorgeous melody, his vocal leaps from tender falsetto to a howl that could strip paint. He manages to convey through sound the image on that record’s cover, of a tiny boat sailing into a sunset — loveliness fading into something darker and more threatening.
The band returned this year with Animal Joy, and it starts with a song as fine as anything Shearwater has done. “Animal Life” finds Meiburg rediscovering his pulse, belting out his gnomic pronouncements with stirring conviction. Thanks to Tom Breihan I know that the name of Shearwater’s drummer is Thor, a fact you may well have intuited simply by listening to his hammering here. “Animal Life” is kinetic in a way that few Shearwater songs are, and Thor propels it forward with real grace. It being a Shearwater track there is still some loveliness to be found — a chiming piano in the outro is characteristically magisterial — but ultimately the song has the kind of primal force suggested by its title. I may still not understand why Meiburg left Okkervil River, but tracks like “Animal Life” make me glad he did.
(track via indie-rock-jukebox)