2012: The Best of Music

    best of_2012_songs

    “Backstreet Freestyle” – Kendrick Lamar

    Kendrick Lamar usually eschews traditional brag-rap for more serious storytelling, so when he gets playful (over a Hit-Boy-produced beat, no less), it’s worth listening to. Whether spitting lines like, “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/ So I can fuck the world for 72 hours,” or implicitly comparing himself to Martin Luther King, Lamar shows that even when he’s joking, he isn’t afraid to think a little bigger.

    — Sebastian Brady
    A&E Editorial Assistant

    “Call Me Maybe” – Carly Rae Jepsen

    2012 was a good year for pop radio. With Hit-Boy continuing to produce sonically ambitious rap anthems and artists like Miguel and Kendrick Lamar slowly infiltrating Top-40 airwaves, the radio continued to seem like a more and more inviting place. One factor in this transition was Carly Rae Jepsen’s genius pop anthem “Call Me Maybe.” At times coming across more like a lost late-’90s French house track than the work of an aging Canadian pop singer, “Call Me Maybe” is full of subtle disco shimmer, lending a subtle forward momentum to that epic chorus. Just listen to that chorus.

    — Andrew Whitworth
    Associate A&E Editor

    “Cheap Beer” – FIDLAR

    Los Angeles punk-rock quartet FIDLAR, also known as Fuck-It-Dude-Life’s-A-Risk, has braved the grimy abyss of the underground scene to release its anticipated self-titled LP in 2013. Their last year’s single “Cheap Beer” positioned the group as the current forerunners in the craft of anthemic slackerdom. The tune’s mantra is as simple as it is unbearably catchy. “I drink cheap beer/ So what?/ Fuck you!” can come off as an unwarranted stance of aggression, yet in the ear of the right beholder, it stands as cry for solidarity. If you’re particularly interested in joining FIDLAR’s eternal struggle for good times, check them out at the Che Cafe on Jan. 25.

    — Taylor Hogshead
    Staff Writer

    “Everything Is Embarrassing” – Sky Ferreira 

    “Everything Is Embarrassing” starts off sounding downright peppy, opening with an upbeat drum kit that would fit perfectly on a Wham! track from the ’80s. From there, though, everything darkens. A somber piano joins in the otherwise pop-heavy track. Once arriving to the chorus, a synth wails as Sky Ferreira groans “Maybe if you tried/ then I would not bother.” Even though we end up in a dark, self-conscious place, the descent is gorgeous.

    — Sebastian Brady
    A&E Editorial Assistant

    “Mercy” – Kanye West feat. Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz

    For the first four minutes, “Mercy” is a good rap song, with impressive verses from Big Sean, Pusha T and Kanye West over a great beat. However, when you hear someone bellowing “TWO CHAAAAYYYNZ,” you realize something bigger is happening. Ninety seconds later, with lines like “I’m drunk and high at the same time/ drinking champagne on an airplane” ringing through your head, you grasp that you’ve just been introduced to 2 Chainz, and that things will never be the same.

    — Sebastian Brady
    A&E Editorial Assistant

    “Oblivion” — Grimes

    Claire Boucher’s breakthrough single, “Oblivion,” paints a fairly incongruous image. On the one hand, the artist (better known as Grimes) sounds like a 15-year-old girl doing a Mariah Carey high-note impression. On the other hand, lumbering, one-note synth and lyrics tinged with violence give the track a much deeper impact.

    It’s virtually every woman’s story, as Boucher demonstrates by explaining why she can’t walk alone after dark (“Someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you and you’d never have a clue”). This reference to sexual abuse is made even clearer in the music video — a montage of the artist surrounded by displays of overt masculinity (a crowd at a football game, a locker room, a mosh pit of shirtless bros, et cetera).

    Still, with good-natured melodies that aren’t ashamed of their bubblegum influence, “Oblivion” is more catharsis than doom and gloom. Watch Boucher bop around gleefully in the video and you’ll see — it’s the obvious girl-power anthem of the year.

    — Arielle Sallai
    Editor in Chief

    “Only In My Dreams” — Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

    With a whip-crack and a shimmering 12-string wild west guitar riff, Ariel Pink kicks off one of the year’s most immediately riveting love songs. Then, it’s off to dreamland. Nowhere else on Pink’s larger-than-life sophomore psych-singalong Mature Themes do all of Pink’s major influences (Byrds, Frank Zappa, the scores to late-80s Lifetime dramas) align so sweetly under Pink’s own deceptively inventive craftsmanship. What makes the song work, however, is the unshakable earnestness of that rockstar in the center of it all. He’s really in love, and so are we.

    — Ren Ebel
    Managing Editor

    “Super Rich Kids” – Frank Ocean

    Perfectly representing the Southern California social commentary angle of Frank Ocean’s outstanding “Channel Orange” (see also: “Sweet Life,” “Pilot Jones”), “Super Rich Kids” accomplishes with a speak-sing chorus and loping beat what Randy Newman spent most of the 1970s trying to achieve. Add Earl Sweatshirt’s genius verse (where else would you find a line like “brash as fuck/ breaching all these aqueducts”) and you have one of the year’s most exuberantly critical hip-hop tracks.

    — Andrew Whitworth
    Associate A&E Editor

    “Werewolf” — Fiona Apple

    On the surface, it might not seem like Fiona Apple has changed much since she debuted as a teenager back in 1996. Now 34, she’s as emotionally volatile as ever, spending most of “The Idler Wheel…” switching unpredictably between minor-key piano flushes and more aggressive pounding. On album highlight “Werewolf,” however, Apple laments the former, providing a level of self-awareness she once seemed too earnest to embrace.

    The usually scathing Apple saves the harshest criticisms for herself, comparing an ex-lover to a werewolf while admitting she “provided the full moon.” Comprised of mostly just piano, with the unusual addition of a recording of children screaming near the end, the track conveys a feeling of acceptance rarely seen from someone so proudly temperamental. “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key,” she sings in the somber closing refrain, finally realizing that sometimes a sad ending is better than none at all.

    — Arielle Sallai
    Editor in Chief

    “& It Was U” — How to Dress Well

    Though How to Dress Well’s 2012 release “Total Loss” was packed with highlights, none managed to stick with the listener like the sprightly “& It Was U,” likely the album’s most pop-friendly track. The most immediately noticeable part of “& It Was U” is that, yes, it literally contains no instruments other than drum machine. Rather than being alienating, as one might imagine, this decision allows Krell’s vocals to achieve a kind of rhythmic agility that a more cluttered instrumental wouldn’t allow. Coupled with the song’s impeccable melody, this willingness to be bold in both structure and presentation made “& It Was U” one of the year’s most satisfying pop moments.

    — Andrew Whitworth
    Associate A&E Editor

    Best Albums

    1. “Channel Orange” — Frank Ocean

    Frank Ocean is patient. He spent years in record label purgatory before releasing his debut album “Channel Orange” last summer. Given the album’s universal acclaim, it seems Ocean’s turn as an R&B superstar has finally come.

    Judging by the album, his wait wasn’t easy. The emotions that Ocean tackles make “Channel Orange” feel like a 17-track private therapy session set to music. He is disillusioned and suicidal on “Super Rich Kids”. He plays a shamed, destitute crack addict on “Crack Rock.” In “Bad Religion,” the album’s emotional center, Ocean laments unrequited love, choking out “I could never make him love me” in a plaintive falsetto. All of this is described in lyrics that are minimal yet evocative and powerful.

    — Sebastian Brady
    A&E Editorial Assistant

    2. “The Idler Wheel…” – Fiona Apple

    With her hoards of quirky, bespectacled followers, Fiona Apple has been responsible for some pretty obnoxious music. But there is a striking quality that separates Apple from the Michaelsons and Spektors whose tooth-rotting sweetness has soundtracked every Mac commercial of the last decade. She’s goddamned ferocious. And her latest and greatest achievement, “The Idler Wheel” strikes with devastating force. It is an album about sex and self-loathing. It’s a fantastic breakup album for the ages, but it’s also one of the most uplifting of the year. While much modern pop is dependent on ultra-sleek production, an album like “The Idler Wheel” can get lost in the shuffle. But if you’re looking for transcendence, you can find it in the simple playfulness of “Hot Knife” or the goose bump-inducing one-line timewarp that occurs on “Anything We Want,” as childhood friends go from playing hooky in middle school to facing the awkward and messy realities of a first sexual encounter. If anyone has a chance of rekindling the importance of raw songwriting, it’s Fiona Apple.

    — Ren Ebel
    Managing Editor

    3. “good kid m.A.A.d. city” – Kendrick Lamar

    The subtitle of Kendrick Lamar’s massively successful “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is “A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar.” It makes sense. Lamar does not rap so much as he tells stories. And “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is his story. Lamar turns Rosecrans Avenue, Compton’s main thoroughfare, into Memory Lane, driving us through how and where he grew up. We see him pursuing women, committing robberies, getting jumped and mourning his friend’s murder. At the same time, we see an innocent child falling victim to peer pressure and violent circumstances. The album is so personal it’s uncomfortable.

    But none of this would work if Lamar weren’t a gifted rapper. He switches tempos, rhyme schemes and subjects seamlessly, and he has a keen ear for beats. While the term “instant classic” was thrown around as soon as “good kid, m.A.A.d city” dropped, it’s too early for that. All we can say for now is that it’s a brave, vulnerable, shameless, poignant offering from one of the best young rappers of his generation.

    — Sebastian Brady
    A&E Editorial Assistant

    4. “Swing Lo Magellan” — Dirty Projectors

    After mastering complex, Talking Heads-style funk pop on 2009’s classic “Bitte Orca,” Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors found themselves facing monumental expectations on their follow-up, this year’s “Swing Lo Magellan.” Somehow, the Projectors, under the command of eccentric songwriter David Longstreth, managed to more than meet these expectations, crafting what might be the year’s most thoughtful, forward-thinking rock album. Spanning everything from Os Mutantes-baiting psychedelic guitar dirges (“Maybe That Was It”) to off-kilter R&B (“See What She Seeing”) and heartfelt folk-pop (the restrained, hummable title track), “Swing Lo Magellan” proved to be one of the year’s most endlessly replay-able albums.

    — Andrew Whitworth
    Associate A&E Editor

    5. “Mature Themes” — Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti

    Ever since Ariel Pink brought his home-recorded pop-rock masterpieces to the studio, his wildly experimental approach to traversing AM radio, ’60s pop, ’80s pop and psych rock has reached a wider audience. But where Pink’s classic “Before Today” tamed some of the songwriter’s more self-indulgent explorations, the epic, concept-driven “Mature Things” does not hold back. The album loosely follows the exploits of an L.A. rock star (Pink), and the album’s fantastic songs seem divided between those that Pink’s character is performing on stage, and those that reflect his inner rocker-on-the-edge turmoil. But “Mature Themes” is never anchored by the concept. Like “Before Today,” “Mature Themes” is, above all, a collection of tremendous and wholly original songs. From the jubilant golden-era homage of “Only In My Dreams” and the title track, to the unmistakably Pink originals like “Schnitzel Boogie” and “Symphony of the Nymph,” “Mature Themes” has confirmed Pink’s place as one of our most inventive and talented modern songwriters.

    — Ren Ebel
    Managing Editor

    6. “Total Loss” — How to Dress Well

    Of the legions of young musicians trying to escape the chillwave-witch house-PBR&B axis of genre limitations, none have done so as effectively as Tom Krell, the Chicago songwriter behind How to Dress Well. Drawing in equal part upon R&B, late-’90s neo-soul and elegiac hip-hop in the vein of Clams Casino, Krell uses “Total Loss” to document the process of grieving he experienced when several people close to him died last year. Across beautiful, aching tracks like the Steve Reich-indebted “Say My Name Or Say Whatever” or the cuddly neo-soul of “Running Back,” Krell examines themes of isolation, hope and, of course, loss with brutal efficacy.

    — Andrew Whitworth
    Associate A&E Editor

    7. “Evans the Death” — Evans the Death

    Rarely does a band’s debut come out as fully formed as Evans the Death’s. The self-titled album sounds like the new project of a late- ’‘80s indie-pop great, not like the work of a troupe of fresh-faced Londoners. Comprised of short, sweet, melody-driven songs lush with whirling guitar jangle, “Evans the Death” is the perfect pop album. What’s more, lead singer Katherine Whitaker’s Chrissie Hynde-esque belt steals the show, making droll lyrics about hating children and watching a TV docudrama reach Morrissey-esque levels of melodrama.

    — Arielle Sallai
    Editor in Chief

    8. “Oshin” — DIIV

    A lot of great indie-rock records came out this year, but none were quite as dazzling as DIIV’s “Oshin.” It’s a slow burner — not as immediately loveable as, say, the retro grooves of Tame Impala’s “Lonerism” or the Husker Du-esque throwback of The Men’s “Open Your Heart.” Instead, “Oshin” succeeds in a different way: It was 2012’s most atmospheric album.

    These are songs composed entirely around ambling guitar lines, much like those of Real Estate’s or Beach Fossils’, the band DIIV’s Z. Cole Smith sometimes plays guitar for. Coupled with moments of shoegaze-esque walls of sound and sparse, frequently unintelligible lyrics, the loose guitars immediately recall the rise and fall of — what else — the ocean (or should we say “oshin”?). Take this one to a cold beach.

    — Arielle Sallai
    Editor in Chief

    9. “Fin” — John Talabot

    With artists like Grimes and The xx occupying the cultural ground formerly held by acts like Feist or The Shins, the last year provided an opportunity for forward-thinking electronic producers to exhibit their work in pop-dominated spheres. At the head of this movement is Barcelonan house magician John Talabot, who began 2012 with only a couple of relatively unknown 12-inch records under his belt and ended it opening massive venues for The xx on their recent international tour. This rapid ascension is easy to understand when listening to “Fin”: tracks like “Destiny” combine melodically forward indie pop with more floor-friendly structures while songs like the devastating “So Will Be Now…” infuse cerebral house with a romantic attitude.

    — Andrew Whitworth
    Associate A&E Editor

    10. “Bish Bosch” — Scott Walker

    Scott Walker has had no difficulty defying the expectations of his fans and horrified onlookers over the course of his totally bizarre career. Once a suave — if occasionally eccentric — pop crooner in the 1960s, Walker more recently came out of hiding to completely reinvent his music with a string of three devastating and darkly sparse avant-garde works. But nowhere other than “Bish Bosch” has this master of unrelenting darkness been so much fun. There are horn sections, dog barks and towering string crescendos. There’s a nearly 20-minute song whose lyrics disintegrate into bad stand-up comedy jokes. And quite possibly for the first time in music history, there are musical farts that can only be appropriately described as haunting. But always, Walker’s dark Poe-toned stories blister beneath his restlessly inventive scores.

    — Ren Ebel
    Managing Editor

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $2320
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $2320
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal