November 19, 2012

AwkwardSound Presents: The 25 Best Songs of 2012

The borders between indie and mainstream become more blurred by the minute, and AwkwardSound's 25 Best Songs of 2012 is a testament to that. Over the course of the past year, we've seen some of AS' favorite DIY and meme-worthy bands take bold steps onto larger platforms, whether it be eschewing genre boundaries, hooking up with largely reputable independents, hitching their stars onto other peoples' wagons or just signing their names on the dotted lines of major label contracts altogether. Pop stars pairing up with trendy songwriters and producers continues to be a must for the fashionable bunch who's end game is critical adoration, a spot at Coachella and a marginal radio hit. Even the most rock-orientated musicians seem to be trying their hand at delving into ultramodern electronica or writing tracks that would have made for impeccable FM fodder during the apex of alt-rock's '90s heyday. A well-rounded year to say the least, here's the 25 Best Songs of 2012...

25. Earl Sweatshirt - "Chum"

A short time out in Samoa serves the long-absent Odd Future original right on one of his first new tracks since his return. Earl Sweatshirt getting all emo on us about the current state of life with his parents and pals since coming back is not just a mark of maturity since the days of thinking that violence was funny, but the natural feel of the thumping piano and beat production is a throwback to OF's pre-Internet infamy days, without all the shocking lyrics attached to them. Criticize camp Odd Future all you want, but "Chum" is a promising sign from the collective's prodigal son that these kids have it in them to do something great for hip-hop when they use their talents for the better.




24. Fear of Men - "Mosaic"

Up and coming UK girl-boy indie quartet Fear of Men are determined to tug at raw emotions in earnest on "Mosaic," a melancholy single filled with soft-spoken heartache entwined between tightly wound '80s guitar pop and wavering radio telecasts that beckon back to the better times. Break-up songs notoriously tend to celebrate one's new found single status, but "Mosaic" has a funny way of inviting some grieving love nostalgia back into the narrator's head with a grimacing smile, and be thankful ruby-voiced frontwoman Jess Weiss lets you in on it.




23. How to Dress Well - "Cold Nites" (Charli XCX Remix)

Lo-fi R&B-pop experimentalist How to Dress Well's Total Loss refines its production compared to the crackly 2010 debut, Love Remains, but its the scorned lover loneliness carried through the effervescent soundscape on Charli XCX's remix of "Cold Nites" that magnifies the emotional pull of the music. Mastermind Tim Krell's vocal once hid in the background behind layers of hiss, but now his growingly confident Timberlake-esque falsetto -- while fractured and at odds with its emotions -- mixed with Ms. XCX's pain and frustration inside a soft banger is still heavy enough to show you just how much it all hurts.




22. VÅR - "In Your Arms (Final Fantasy)"

Last year, Iceage emerged as a prominent face at the forefront of Denmark's DIY punk uprising, but in 2012, its frontman Elias Rønnenfelt alongside Loke Rahbek of Sexdrome slowly began surfacing a different shade of sound from the dismal Danish underground with their electronic project VÅR. "In Your Arms (Final Fantasy)" is among their promising first listens, masking blinking synths and optimistic romanticism under Iceage's raw production in a manner that offers up a different take on brutality which listeners have come to expect from Rønnenfelt.




21. Blur - "Under the Westway"

After flirting with dedicating themselves to a full-on reunion for years, it took an invitation to represent the best of Britain at this year's Summer Olympics closing ceremony celebration to get some new material out of Blur. "Under the Westway" is a melancholy piano ballad that reminds us of everything we miss from the seminal Brit pop rock quartet, combining Damon Albarn's knack of knocking England's sociopolitical landscape with tongue-in-cheek euphoric anthemry that leaves listeners with a bittersweet aftertaste of hope.




20. METZ - "Wasted"

When the fore shock of feedback begins to hiss its way into your stereo on METZ' "Wasted," it signals a pretty clear warning to listeners that a quake of riff awesomeness is about to wreck their sound system. The Toronto band culls influence from a variety of seminal post-hardcore and grunge-era giants on their self-titled debut, but this album cut in particular makes the most of them by merging the biggest in Nirvana's unintentional bro culture lyrical crossover with Drive Like Jehu's fuck-things-up quickly decibel assault.

METZ - "Wasted"


19. The Men - "Open Your Heart"

Despite shaving some of the decibels off their sound on their latest effort Open Your Heart, the Men find a clever way to redistribute a bulk of them into the album's title track. Remaining friendly with a wave of reverb and an aggressive tempo, the Brooklyn neo-punk quartet's decision to situate themselves in the garage rather than the squalid alleyways their brand of hardcore-inspired rock results in ear-bleeding power-pop without losing any of its edge.




18. Death Grips - "I've Seen Footage"

Hardcore noise-rap act Death Grips thrive off confrontation, slinging out rhymes that illuminate war crimes, street violence, drugs, disparities and a general paranoia of authority steeped in modern times and technology. "I've Seen Footage," off their first release of the year, The Money Store, will probably go down as the trio's most "radio-friendly" track they'll ever write from their controversial time as part of the Sony Epic roster thanks to its hyper-colored rhythm. Yet, even in accessibility, Death Grips manage to take shots at our apathy caused by Internet brainwashing, proving you can beat the very evildoers your music is trying to take down at their own game by wrapping up your grating message neatly in a dance song.




17. Trash Talk - "F.E.B.N."

Trash Talk reach out to a larger audience on their Odd Future Records debut 119, but the album's closest thing to a proper single doesn't escape the primal scream and no holds barred blitz that has made them darlings in the hardcore punk underground for years. "F.E.B.N." if anything is Trash Talk pounding the pavement through chorus-curling riffs and a circle pit-forming drum beat to find that perfect balance between their rebellious image and a sound that ensures their message is heard loud and clear.

Trash Talk - "F.E.B.N."


16. The Gaslight Anthem - "45"

There aren't too many mainstream alt-rock bands left out there who can write radio-friendly listens that are both commercially viable and something you'd actually want to own, but the Gaslight Anthem's jump from the indies to the major leagues is as ready as ever to clean up that misconception on their Mercury Records debut Handwritten. "45" is its scorching single that elevates these humble Jersey boys from the basements into the same arenas as their heroes Springsteen and Pearl Jam without necessarily distance themselves too far away from the punk-inspired sing-a-longs that got them here in the first place. Brian Fallon might be digging deeper into his gruff vocals to fill the added space around him, but "45" is genuine guitar rock made for unapologetic repeat plays.

The Gaslight Anthem - "45"


15. Charli XCX - "You're the One"

UK pop songstress Charli XCX continues to a find healthy resolution between her goth chic style and Spice Girls-influenced grandiosity with her only single of the year, "You're the One." At just the age of 20, Atchinson's vocals and lyrical penmanship exude a level of confidence and maturity beyond her years, and with glossy, innovative high end production in tow, "You're the One" twists and contorts your average bright synth pop textures by refracting the kaleidoscope into only cold shades of red, blue and black on the dance floor.




14. Screaming Females - "It All Means Nothing"

Screaming Females have been lurking in the DIY basement scene circuit for years now, but with some help from alt-rock sound auteur Steve Albini and the magic that happens in his Electrical Audio recording studio, the New Jersey trio's brand of scrappy indie-punk has been transformed into a dinosaur-sized helping of rock 'n roll riffage on Ugly's roaring opener, "It All Means Nothing." If you've seen Screaming Females in the flesh, you know their sound has always sounded this big, but "It All Means Nothing" is the first time the grand scope of Marissa Paternoster's wails and scaling guitar solos alongside the band's crunchy stomp is captured in full.

Screaming Females - "It All Means Nothing"


13. Frankie Rose - "Know Me"

In 2012, BK queen Frankie Rose shed her lo-fi skin and stepped out on her own with the confident re-debut, Interstellar. "Know Me" is the album's standout single, refashioning the former Vivian Girl with less reverb, grander pop gestures influenced by '80s new wave and a heavenly C86-inspired backdrop to her sound. For the longest time, it seemed like many leading ladies from indie rock's new school of girl groups were afraid to fully embrace their pop influences, but "Know Me" is proof that you can still sound pretty bad ass without all the hiss and fuzz covering up your gorgeous vocals.




12. Passion Pit - "I'll Be Alright"

Gossamer is a bi-polar pop autobiography surrounding Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos' well-being, and as sad and serious the subject may be, the Bostonian indie-electronic quartet isn't using that as an excuse to steer away from inspiring listeners on "I'll Be Alright." Schizophrenic and manic like the soundtrack that must have been playing in Angelakos' head at the time of writing, the candy-coated glitches and upheaval chorus in which he proclaims he'll get by (and ultimately admitting he needs someone to help him do so) make for the year's most healthy marriage between personal demons and an emotional antibody of dance action.




11. Sleigh Bells - "Comeback Kid"

Even though Sleigh Bells scale back on the fury of noise on this year's redeeming sophomore effort Reign of Terror, the heavy blows punching their way beneath the surface make the melodies pop out more than ever on the LP's standout single, "Comeback Kid." Alexis Kraus' cheerleader anthemry combined with Derek Miller's beefy hardcore-inspired riffs struggled to balance themselves out on Treats, but "Comeback Kid" lives up to its title as these two Brooklyn kids sew style and substance the right way with this genre-melding, guitar-shredding listen.




10. Beach House - "Lazuli"

On Bloom, Beach House doesn't necessarily reinvent their swirling dream pop colors as much as they embellish them across a larger canvas. Yet, on its captivating standout "Lazuli," the Baltimore indie duo at least makes an effort to send Victoria Legrand's bellowing vocals and the hazy backdrop on which they rest above the atmosphere and into the night sky, proving there's plenty of dazzling mystique left in Beach House's settled sound.




9. Sky Ferreira - "Everything Is Embarrassing"

After stepping away from the pop spectrum for a few years to figure out her direction, Sky Ferreira chooses the right one on "Everything Is Embarrassing," the clandestine closer off this year's reintroduction EP, Ghost. Unlike the many variations of synth and electro-pop the Los Angeles singer-model-actress trifecta has tried her hand at over the past years, "Everything Is Embarassing" marks a future-thinking portrayal of Ferreira's artistic and emotional development with a shimmering beat circling around a broken-hearted chorus (made perfect by production from Blood Orange) that isn't yet too downtrodden to have a self-deprecating solo dance party in your bedroom with.




8. Merchandise - "Become What You Are"

"The music started / I realized it was all a lie / The guitars were playing out last year's punk," are the ominous words uttered in the opening moments of "Become What You Are," the centerpiece track on Merchandise's breakthrough effort, Children of Desire. Frontman Carson Cox has a confident Morrissey swagger in his incandescent voice that makes every consonant and vowel careen their way around the gilded synths and densely fuzzed out guitars, but what makes this song such a remarkable listen is that it comes from a reformed DIY hardcore act who've realized nostalgia is attempting to stunt the genre's progress since experiencing a revival in the past few years. The message is received: "Become What You Are" is a sign of the times, the year's most crucial take on the state of punk rock in 2012 and a look into its future.




7. Chromatics - "Kill for Love"

The slick dark, romantic cinematic undertones of Chromatics contribution to 2011's Drive soundtrack transcend seamlessly onto their latest effort, Kill for Love, with the album's title track being a gorgeous dance pop gem that doesn't stray too far from the plot. Gleaming Italo synths and the heartbeat of a drum mask Ruth Radelet purring violent intentions. It's like staring straight into the headlights of an oncoming collision, and loving every second of the pain just when the crashing chorus hits.




6. Fiona Apple - "Werewolf"

Fiona Apple has never shied away from laying out her emotions publicly -- bloody, honest and raw -- but The Idler Wheel... centerpiece "Werewolf" is one of those once-in-a-full-moon instances where she takes accountability for what's making her heart ache. As she peers back on a past love gone awry from a more accepting point of view with top-notch metaphors likening her relationship's downfall to that of lycanthrope and shark attacks, this naked ballad reminds us how dangerous Ms. Apple can be with just her words and a piano, bringing out out the monster in simplicity in the process.




5. Ceremony - "Hysteria"

Reformed Bay Area hardcore makers Ceremony complete their transition into a different territory of punk with "Hysteria," the leadoff single off their Matador debut, Zoo. As far as Ceremony songs go, the quintet might be abandoning the heavy-handed turmoil that encased past work, but "Hysteria" more than makes up for it with Anthony Anzaldo leading the charge with a deep-sifting riff line followed by a call-and-response initiation from listeners during the tracks breakdown as frontman Ross Farar's nihilistic rage fuels the fire. As polarizing in the ears of hardcore purists the song may be, "Hysteria" shakes things up, and there really isn't anything more punk rock than that.




4. Liars - "No. 1 Against the Rush"

The always shape-shifting Liars astoundingly reinvent themselves from noisy art rockers into a fully-immersed electronic trio on WIXIW, with single "No. 1 Against the Rush" seemingly capturing the metamorphosis as it happens. Instead of pouncing tribal drums and surprising listeners with guitar pedal and shout attacks, slow-gliding ambiance, teleportational synths and frontman Angus Andrew's murmuring vocals provide a gateway to this new wavy and rhythmic soundscape. Strip away the minimalist electronica and swap in their usual cast of instruments, however, and chances are that "No. 1 Against the Rush" would still fit in alongside any of Liars' non-WIXIW material, and that's the genius of this transformation.




3. Frank Ocean - "Thinkin Bout You"

Odd Future's resident crooner Frank Ocean modernizes the R & B cry baby jam on Channel Ocean's lead track, "Thinkin Bout You." Soft, sultry and with all his heart, Ocean's range absolutely blows this thing out of the water by switching up rap-rhyme verses and a soulful falsetto chorus over a barely-there beat and production that doesn't go over the top, ensuring those silky pipes get due notice and that Ocean's ex-lover crawls back into his bed in no time.




2. Cloud Nothings - "Stay Useless"

Dylan Baldi has come a long way since the bedroom pop days of last year's self-titled debut, with Attack On Memory showcasing the most out of the solo-project-turned-quartet's angsty, snot-nosed spitfire on "Stay Useless." Like Screaming Females, Cloud Nothings benefit from Steve Albini's tight production prowess, giving this track edgy corners to compliment the ear-worming melody, making for one of the greatest pop punk jams of the past decade. Baldi as a lyricist, too, comes of age on the track as we hear the formerly nasal-voiced frontman snap back at his own existential crisis with a snarl befitting any punk coming to terms with their impending adulthood.




1. Japandroids - "The House That Heaven Built"

Japandroids make music that reaffirms your existence here on this ridiculous planet, and "The House That Heaven Built" is evidence of that. The leadoff single of Celebration Rock stays true to the Vancouver noise-punk duo's tenants of ceremonious hooks, sing-along choruses and naive nostalgia-laced lyrics. As with the rest of of their sophomore effort, however, growing older hasn't softened their edges, evolving their sound into bigger directions and more fully-amped with adrenaline than ever. Look around you, and it doesn't take very long to see that many growing into their adult shoes during this economic shitstorm are either still hurting or merely stuck in the same spot where they were four years ago. Japandroids' "The House That Heaven Built" is the anthem for those people to start kicking down doors and take control of their lives whether the rest of the world is ready for it or not.

2 comments:

  1. Dude, nice list.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks! The Best Albums of 2012 list should be up early next week.

    ReplyDelete