My Favorite Music of 2012

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Martha Wainwright

The Best Tracks of 2012 in two Spotify playlists:

Volume 1: Someone Who Looks Smashing In Athletic Wear

1. Saint Etienne, “Tonight” / 2. Tanlines, “All Of Me” / 3. The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew In Drag” / 4. Diamond Rings, “Runaway Love” / 5. Stars, “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” / 6. Jens Lekman, “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” / 7. Jessie Ware, “Wildest Moments” / 8. Of Monsters And Men, “Mountain Sound” / 9. Hot Chip, “Let Me Be Him” / 10. Rufus Wainwright, “Bitter Tears” / 11. Sinead O’Connor, “Queen Of Denmark” / 12. The Ting Tings, “Guggenheim” / 13. Aimee Mann, “Labrador” / 14. Imperial Teen, “Out From Inside” / 15. Miike Snow, “The Wave” / 16. Twin Shadow, “Run My Heart” / 17. Martha Wainwright, “Proserpina” / 18. Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife” / 19. A.C. Newman, “They Should Have Shut Down The Streets”

Volume 2: You Enjoy Sucking On Dreams

1. Metric, “The Void” / 2. Calexico, “Splitter” / 3. Sharon Van Etten, “Serpents” / 4. Regina Spektor, “All The Rowboat” / 5. Dr. John, “Revolution” / 6. The Gaslight Anthem, “Here Comes My Man” / 7. Deep Sea Arcade, “Girls” / 8. Keane, “On The Road” / 9. Bat For Lashes, “Laura” / 10. The xx, “Chained” / 11. Emm Gryner, “She’s Gone” / 12. Paul Brill, “Breezy” / 13. Patti Smith, “April Fool” / 14. Andrew Bird, “Lusitania” / 15. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, “Man On Fire” / 16. The Shins, “No Way Down” / 17. Ben Folds Five, “Away When You Were Here” / 18. A Fine Frenzy, “Now Is The Start” / 19. Goldfrapp, “Melancholy Sky” / 20. Field Music, “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing” / 21. Beth Orton, “Mystery”

Top Ten Albums:

1. Jens Lekman – I KNOW WHAT LOVE ISN’T
2. Fiona Apple – THE IDLER WHEEL…
3. Saint Etienne – WORDS AND MUSIC BY SAINT ETIENNE
4. Hot Chip – IN OUR HEADS
5. Rufus Wainwright – OUT OF THE GAME
6. Martha Wainwright – COME HOME TO MAMA
7. Ben Folds Five – THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND
8. Imperial Teen – FEEL THE SOUND
9. Stars – THE NORTH
10. Jessie Ware – DEVOTION

Also Recommended:

Often, I struggle to find enough worthy albums to fill out a top ten. This year, I could have easily done a top 15. Here are a few worthy candidates, along with favorite tracks in parentheses.

A.C. Newman – SHUT DOWN THE STREETS
Far more focused than his second solo album, slightly less convincing than his first, and preferable to the last two New Pornographers records. (“They Should Have Shut Down The Streets”, “Hostages”, “You Could Get Lost Out Here”)

Andrew Bird – BREAK IT YOURSELF
After seeing him perform most of this material in concert two years ago, I diagnose him with a case of Ani DiFranco Syndrome—the studio recordings can’t quite match the live renditions, but at least he cut out the filler that marred Noble Beast. (“Lusitania”, “Eyeoneye”, “Near Death Experience Experience”)

Bat For Lashes – THE HAUNTED MAN
She’s an artist in transition, still finding her voice. For all the studio wizardry on display here, she’s most effective when she places her vocals and melodies front-and-center. (“Laura”, “All Your Gold”)

Metric – SYNTHETICA
Ever confident and insanely catchy, but it breaks little new ground. Nonetheless, a solid follow-up to Fantasies so competent that grumpy old man Lou Reed doesn’t even embarrass himself in a cameo. (“The Void”, “Clone”, “Breathing Underwater”)

Miike Snow – HAPPY TO YOU
A strange but not unbecoming mixture of top 40 dance music with an indie rock sensibility: martial drum rolls, house music pianos and campfire whistling never sounded so good together. (“The Wave”, “Paddling Out”, “Bavarian # 1 (Say You Will)”)

Patti Smith – BANGA
She must have got something out of her system with that awful documentary about her from a few years back (or perhaps you can just blame its director); in her stunning memoir and now this, she’s rarely projected so much lucidity and warmth. (“April Fool”, “This Is The Girl”)

Sinead O’Connor – HOW ABOUT I BE ME (AND YOU BE YOU)?
Still a perpetual Hot Mess, but better that than a boring one. Easily her best since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, “Queen of Denmark” proves her gift for interpretation hasn’t diminished. (“The Wolf Is Getting Married”, “Queen of Denmark”, “Reason With Me”)

Tracey Thorn – TINSEL AND LIGHTS
After only a few spins, it’s now my favorite modern Christmas album and a testament to her continued relevance that the two originals are highlights. (“Tinsel and Lights”, “Joy”, “Taking Down The Tree”)

Top Ten Albums of 2012: # 1

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1. Jens Lekman – I KNOW WHAT LOVE ISN’T

I named his last album, Night Falls Over Kortedala my favorite of 2007, although its impact has faded for me over time. So, with many flashier, more obvious candidates to pick from, how is Jens once again responsible for my favorite album of the year? He doesn’t exactly pick up where Kortedala left off, although rest assured his lovably droopy voice and sardonic sense of humor are still intact—perhaps even more hangdog and acerbic than before. He’s also more genuinely world-weary, having apparently faced his share of heartbreak between the two albums (not to mention a bout of swine flu). He’s even called this record his “debut album” (although it’s actually his fourth) and it distinguishes itself by largely eschewing Kortedala’s sample-heavy aesthetic for a more organic, mostly acoustic palette that ranges from guitar-and-vocal simplicity (“Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”) to full-blown sophisti-pop (“Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”—the warmest sounding tune he’s ever written). Lyrically, Lekman’s still nearly infatuated with heartbreak, but rather than sentimentalizing it or wallowing in self-pity, he plays the part of wizened observer (one astute chorus goes, “You don’t get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully.”). What’s really so wonderfully affecting about Lekman is that he never suggests he’s entirely given up on love; you always sense his yearning to participate in the madness of it all, even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. With I Know What Love Isn’t, he’s found the ideal music and melodies for this pursuit—compelling, kind, and just a bit tart. For me, no other record this year has come close to matching its emotional pull.

Favorite tracks: “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”, “I Know What Love Isn’t”, “Erica America”, “She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore”, “The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love”, “Become Someone Else’s”

Video for “I Know What Love Isn’t”:

Video for “The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love”:

Top Ten Albums of 2012: # 2

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2. 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

The moment she made her infamous, glorious “This is bullshit!” acceptance speech at the 1997 MTV Music Video Awards, you knew a conventional career was never in the cards for her. With only four albums in sixteen years, she’s less prolific than Imperial Teen. And the best thing you can say about the unwieldy title is that it’s about four times shorter than her second album’s. However, once you sit down and actually listen to the damn thing (preferably on headphones), all of her public shenanigans instantly fade, for The Idler Wheel… strikingly sounds like nothing else, let alone much like her previous work (a relief, given Extraordinary Machine’s misguided attempts to feel modern). The only precedent I can think of is Sam Phillips’ recent stuff (particularly Don’t Do Anything) with its timeless, stripped-down tableau of percussion, piano and voice, but even Phillips (one of my favorite artists) has not managed music quite as ambitious and frightening and cathartic and arguably confident as this. The songs’ melodies may take a few spins to register and resonate, but once they do, the album’s allure seems infinite, as if one were to walk through a series of rooms and continually find another new door to open, another instrumental motif or vocal inflection to discover and obsess over. If that sounds too oblique for your taste, think of it as confessional swing music for people desperately trying to escape their dance partners, and simply marvel at the exultant chorale of vocal rounds Apple assembles on masterful closer “Hot Knife”.

Favorite tracks: “Hot Knife”, “Anything We Want”, “Every Single Night”, “Left Alone”, “Periphery”, “Werewolf”

Video for “Hot Knife”:

Video for “Every Single Night”:

Top Ten Albums of 2012: # 3

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3. Saint Etienne – WORDS AND MUSIC BY SAINT ETIENNE

On their last album’s penultimate song, this venerable British trio elegized its past while poignantly considering an uncertain future. “Over The Border” kicks off their long-awaited follow-up with a similarly structured track (spoken word verses bursting into a sung chorus) but replaces the earlier song’s melancholy with wisdom sparked by wonderment and possibility. Throughout, Sarah Cracknell, in a myriad of reminisces, recalls the ongoing effect music has had on her life while also pondering where it has yet to take her. It’s as if the pre-teen girl on the cover of So Tough (a photo of Cracknell herself, after all) grew up but still retained a sense of discovery. Since they always came off more like music lovers than career musicians, it’s hardly surprising to see them return after a seven-year hiatus with a concept album about what they most adore: getting ready to go out to a concert (“Tonight”), utilizing an iPod to transform one’s everyday existence (“I’ve Got Your Music”), chatting online about British number one hits (“Popular”, a blog I actually have bookmarked to the right) and completely losing one’s self on the dance floor (“DJ”). Words and Music is Saint Etienne at their very best; that it ends up at # 3 on this list tells you something’s rather exceptional about the two albums yet to come.

Favorite tracks: “Tonight”, “DJ”, “Heading For The Fair”, “Over The Border”, “I’ve Got Your Music”, “Haunted Jukebox”

Video for “Tonight”:

Video for “DJ”:

Top Ten Albums of 2012: # 4

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4. Hot Chip – IN OUR HEADS

Effortlessly hooky and emotionally profound, One Life Stand contained all I thought I’d ever want from a Hot Chip album; given their prior slapdash proclivities, I feared overall regression on this follow-up (and goofy first single “Night and Day” only fuelled it). Fortunately, In Our Heads mostly sustains their newfound maturity while tightening their craft even further. The first few tracks forge an irresistible, momentous groove that climaxes in the ecstatic “Don’t Deny Your Heart”; the second half gives way to more experimental attempts to expand their electro-geek aesthetic, like the start-and-stop wobbly pulse of “Now There is Nothing” (a weird but not unsatisfying welding of Prince onto Scritti Politti) or the trance-like “Flutes”, which convincingly keeps it up for over seven minutes. Even lengthier, “Let Me Be Him” builds from hushed reverence into a euphoric, initially wordless chorus—it’s probably my single favorite track of the year and it could be a massive hit if edited down to radio song-length (hint-hint, guys).

Favorite tracks: “Let Me Be Him”, “Don’t Deny Your Heart”, “These Chains”, “Motion Sickness”, “Flutes”

Video for “Let Me Be Him”:

Top Ten Albums of 2012: # 5

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5. Rufus Wainwright – OUT OF THE GAME

I know, it’s too cute to place the Wainwright siblings next to each other on this list but that’s honestly the way things worked out. This year, Martha made her first great album, but Rufus’ latest was even better—his best since Want One. Just went you thought he had suspended himself in a quagmire of self-indulgences far worse than cigarettes and chocolate milk (opera, inscrutable piano reveries, imitating Judy Garland), he’s done an about-face and moved on to a mellow, 70s singer/songwriter vibe he really hasn’t revisited since Poses. Easily his most accessible and warmest effort, Out Of The Game is still quirky enough for a Rufus record, finding room for torch-song doo-wop (“Rashida”), barfly lamentation (“Respectable Dive”) and even a little roller-rink worthy Eurodisco (the lovely, gliding “Bitter Tears”). Rufus also matches his sister in terms of acidic wit, kicking off one song with the lyric, “One day you will come to Montauk / and see your dad wearing a kimono / and see your other dad pruning roses.”

Favorite tracks: “Bitter Tears”, “Out Of The Game”, “Respectable Dive”, “Perfect Man”

Video for “Out Of The Game”:

Top Ten Albums of 2012: # 6

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6. Martha Wainwright – COME HOME TO MAMA

Like the rest of her family, she’s ridiculously talented, but on her first two records you only briefly sensed what she was capable of (“When the Day is Short”, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”, “You Cheated Me”). Here, she makes an advance comparable to the one brother Rufus did on his third record (I haven’t heard her interim album of Edith Piaf songs). Sounding ever more confident, she’s assisted by her late mother (who wrote the beautiful, elegiac “Proserpina”) and, less predictably, producer Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto). Opening up but never overwhelming the songs, Honda’s subtle electronics add texture and an oddness completely simpatico with Wainwright’s distinct style, especially when she warbles a lyric as acidic and self-deprecating as “I really like the make-up sex / it’s the only kind I ever get.”

Favorite tracks: “Can You Believe It?”, “Proserpina”, “Some People”, “I Wanna Make An Arrest”

Video for “Proserpina”: