The Top 20 Tracks of 2012

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I listened to enough songs this year to choke a horse. And while digging through the bloated horse corpse that I like to call 2012, I found 20 of them that I especially liked.

20. Kanye West (Ft. DJ Khaled) – “Cold”

Over computer blips and orchestra hits, ‘Ye infuses his verses with that on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown passion we know and love, including a PETA-baiting line on the chorus that’s one for the ages.

19. Psy – “Gangnam Style”

There’s a moment in “Gangnam Style” where the music cuts out, and for just a second, Psy waits before delivering the chorus. The anticipation we all feel right then, in spite of ourselves? That explains how pop music can take over the world.

18. The Beach Boys – “Summer’s Gone”

Mike Love has done more than enough to deserve the claim of “the biggest asshole in rock history.” But there could be a silver lining to his latest dick move, because if the Beach Boys never record together again, their final musical statement will be this gorgeous, mortality-laden track. “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in,” Brian Wilson croons over a sea of swooning strings, echoey woodblocks, and artfully stacked harmonies – taking our breath away one last time before the leaves turn.

17. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”

Japandroids pull off quite a trick here, putting inspirational poster sentiments and stadium-ready riffage in a blender, and churning out a fist-pumping rock anthem for the downtrodden. No guitar could be loud enough to drown out its big, bloody, beating heart.

16. Dirty Projectors – “Impregnable Question”

The newly found, homespun sweetness of Dirty Projectors latest work is summed up in this chorus: “I need you/And you’re always on my mind.”

15. Ty Segall – “There Is No Tomorrow”

After a year spent pounding our eardrums like Tiny Keith Moon™, Ty Segall closed out his last of three records with this, a supremely catchy fuzzbox ballad that could be a lost Plastic Ono Band demo.

14. Frank Ocean – “Forrest Gump”

Over a smooth, Isley Brothers groove, Frank Ocean took a piece of pop culture I revile and transformed it into one of the sweetest romantic sentiments of the year: “You running on my mind, boy.”

13. Killer Mike – “Southern Fried”

The ultimate song to drive to in 2012, “Southern Fried” is quintessential Killer Mike, full of towering swagger, scythe-sharp wit, and a flow so commanding, it makes you feel like your 2005 Honda Civic is indeed your “meanest machine.”

12. Bob Dylan – “Soon After Midnight”

“I’m searching for phrases/To sing your praises.” How great is it that this, the most romantic opening line I heard this year, came from a grizzled old goat like Bob Dylan? And it doesn’t hurt that what follows is a total stunner of a country & western ballad, one of the prettiest tunes of the legend’s third act renaissance.

11. Angel Haze – “Werkin’ Girls”

With little more than a basic beat behind her, this brilliant, up-and-coming Brooklynite makes you stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention. An ode to females gettin’ cheddar, “Werkin’ Girls” doesn’t just break the glass ceiling – it crushes it back down to the sand from whence it came.

10. Usher – “Twisted”

Over a Pharrell Williams beat that radiates classic soul sunshine, Usher reboots Chubby Checker in the guise of a possessive man whose woman just refuses to play it straight. A summer jam if there ever was one.

9. Tenacious D – “Roadie”

Mythologizing the concert roadie as the heroic warrior who never gets knighted, The D pairs skillfully melodramatic wordplay with soaring melodies. In between belly laughs, there lies the urge to sing along as loudly as can be.

8. Trey Songz – “2 Reasons”

I’m just finishing up David McCullough’s massive 1992 biography of Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who had to fill the shoes of the far more eloquent FDR. I think that if Truman were alive today, he’d enjoy “2 Reasons,” at least on principle. Because when Trey Songz outlines, in no uncertain terms, the pair of reasons why he came to the club, he’s as straightforward as a Missouri farmer.

7. Nicki Minaj – “I Am Your Leader”

It’s too bad that Nicki Minaj albums remain nothing more than places to corral her singles, but damn, there’s nothing quite like those singles. “I Am Your Leader” was the best of several good ones this year, awash in Minaj’s masterful mic control and silly sense of humor, an example of the artist at her unpolished best. And Cam’ron’s hysterical cameo gets my vote for best guest verse of 2012.

6. Randy Newman – “I’m Dreaming”

No matter how many Pixar movies he scores, Randy Newman will always be one bitter son of a bitch. And “I’m Dreaming” – a piece of right-wing election year satire just begging to be misunderstood, a la 2004’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” – is as beautifully, caustically sarcastic as the guy has ever been.

5. Screaming Females – “Doom 84”

Very few guitar riffs can sound fresh after seven minutes of jamming. “Doom 84” has two of them, and Marissa Paternoster wields them like fiery broadswords, breaking down our natural inclination to refrain from banging our heads, caring not that our necks will be sore.

4. Mystikal – “Hit Me”

James Brown’s influence on hip hop can’t be overstated. But it’s never been so apparent as it is in this song, in which Mystikal appropriates Brown’s energy, rhythms and vernacular in pursuit of his own, Dirty South-ified version of “Star Time.” It’s an instant party, a blast of adrenaline, and a showcase for the emcee’s irresistible, raspy exuberance.

3. Frank Ocean – “Bad Religion”

A soul-searching confession, a tale not only of unrequited love, but of potentially unrequited moral fiber, “Bad Religion” is a jaw dropper. Ocean sings his open vein of a lyric sheet with a power that only comes from autobiography, that one squealed high note a window to his vulnerability. Art rarely gets this real.

2. Kendrick Lamar – “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”

My grandfather passed away a few months ago, right around the time Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City album was released. Which left me in a state of mind to be floored by this song, a 12-minute existential epic about how human beings long to be remembered after they’re gone. They say that once you put something on the Internet, you can never truly erase it, so maybe these words about Thomas M. Sweeney, Sr., will indeed live forever: He was a good, humble man, who worked hard, loved his wife, and never had a negative thing to say to me. I miss him.

1. Miguel – “Adorn”

As devastatingly sexy a pop song as its clear influence, “Sexual Healing,” “Adorn” swoons in lady worship, Miguel’s voice gliding over the synths and drum machines, confident in its innate silkiness, like something beautiful that just happens naturally. Like love.

Hot Fun in the Summertime: My Top 5 Shows of the Season

“Man, didn’t summer just fly by?” ‘Tis the season for remarks like this, which people invariably pull out when confronted by somebody they don’t like very much, because better to feign friendliness and move on than have to deal with the fallout of saying “I don’t like you very much.”

Anyways, didn’t summer just fly by? I haven’t posted since way back in those halcyon days of June 2012, when the summer was young and full of possibilities, there was a policeman on every corner, and American families cared about a little something called morals. Also the summer concert season was just getting underway in Western New York. My dance card was pretty darn full with reviews throughout, only two of which predictably turned out to be duds (sorry, Rascal Flatts and Def Leppard, but you’ve earned those reputations). This meant I had to miss some good shows in order to restore my proper sleep patterns – Sleigh Bells and Tune-Yards most regrettably – but as you’ll see in my top 5 list below, this was a wonderfully eclectic time to go check out major concerts in Buffalo.

5. The Beach Boys, June 29 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

Speaking of romanticizing a past that was never as idyllic and simple as we’d like to think it was, the surviving members of The Beach Boys got back together for a 50th anniversary tour this summer. And, much like the new LP that accompanied it, That’s Why God Made The Radio, this show was flawed, but still better than it had any right to be. Backed by a battalion of musicians and vocalists, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks made some of the most beautiful and ambitious compositions in pop history sound organic and true. Wilson’s voice was a little shaky, and his stage presence was catatonic, but that’s par for the course – hearing him sing the full-throated plea of “Please Let Me Wonder” was a gift, ditto the impeccably executed suites of “Heroes and Villains.” My only complaint echoes the sentiments of many a Beach Boys fan – Mike Love is a creepy cornball. Way too much of this show was dedicated to the elemental surf-rock ditties that place The Ballcapped One front and center; I understand the need to include “Surfin U.S.A.” and “Surfin’ Safari,” but did we seriously need “Hawaii,” “Catch a Wave,” “Be True to Your School” and the like? 50 years on, the contrast between these tunes and Wilson’s ballads of the same period is striking. The heartbreaking high of seeing him sing “In My Room” was enough to carry me through the stuff I’d rather just pretend didn’t happen (There was no encore performance of “Kokomo.” There was no encore performance of “Kokomo.” There was no encore performance of “Kokomo” …).

4. Feist, July 15 at Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor

Last year, Nitsuh Abebe wrote a great piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist are our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. I agree with his point for the most part, and as someone who unabashedly loves Ten Summoner’s Tales, I don’t find it all that insulting either. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her most recent album Metals, and her thunderous set this past June that leaned heavily on its songs, proved that she’s more dangerous than you’d think (unlike Wilco, who completely deserves the AC tag after the comfortable groove they’ve been in for the last five years). Seeing these songs performed live was a revelation – I already liked the album’s more visceral, sinister rhythms, but in concert they bowled me over like an unexpected storm. “How Come You Never Go There” swung hard. “Comfort Me” stomped and swooned. And “A Commotion” was a percussive blast the likes of which you most definitely did not hear at Sting’s Artpark show a few weeks earlier. Feist’s trio of backup singers unleashed powerful harmonies, dressed in what looked like sackcloth and dancing with ritualistic, glassy-eyed abandon. In my review, I compared them to the witches from “Macbeth.” Which might sound silly in the light of day. But in the shadow of the storm, anything seemed possible.

3. Girl Talk, August 23 at the Outer Harbor Concert Series

When you hear an eclectic mix of music, presented with carefully thought-out segues and an uncanny sense of timing, you know you’re listening to a great DJ. And on the Buffalo radio dial, it’s nigh-on impossible to find that kind of listening experience, what with pre-formatted playlists and strict genre-based guidelines (unless you’re close enough to pick up WBNY 91.3, Buffalo State’s student-run station). Which I think is the main reason why Girl Talk’s perpetual sweat machine of a set a few weeks back was just as comforting as it was propulsive. The one-man show of Gregg Michael Gillis – a wiry little guy with more energy than Usain Bolt – officially kicked off the latest new concert series on the waterfront with a non-stop stream of mindblowing mash-ups, cherry-picking riffs and choruses from 50 years of Billboard charts and re-purposing them in intoxicating new ways. He’s clearly a DJ who cares deeply for everything he’s sampling, a man who wants to show us just how good it sounds when Elton John and Biggie Smalls share the same space, reveling in the unpredictability that has become the mortal sin of corporate radio. In the moment, of course, all I knew was that Gillis was making me happy, churning out an irresistible party by the water by using the same fanboy passion that had the teenaged me making mixtapes for anyone who would pretend to listen to them. This kind of thing probably won’t infiltrate the mainstream as much as it should – the second Outer Harbor concert was a radio station festival headlined by Evanescence, that apparently attracted way more people than GT – but for one glorious night at least, it felt like anybody could play anything they wanted.

2. Iron Maiden, July 16 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

When I told the guy sitting next to me that this was my first time seeing Iron Maiden, he looked confused. Noticing the grey in my hair and the fact that I wasn’t wearing anything with the Maiden logo on it, he nodded, smiled awkwardly, and turned his head back toward the stage, politely giving me the brush like I was a homeless man singing for pennies. Although I like this band very much, my lack of devotion to it stood out like a nun at a satanist convention. Never in my life have I witnessed a fan base show such lockstep love for its heroes than at this concert, where I was possibly the only person who wasn’t draped in Iron Maiden merchandise, some of it bought that night, much more of it procured over the course of decades of concert-going. Brilliant branding has something to do with it, of course – the band’s mascot, Eddie, continues to be placed in one new, cartoonishly violent scenario after another, resulting in an endless stream of merchandise for fans to crave. But if Iron Maiden wasn’t such a toweringly awesome band, Eddie would have no soul, and not in the cool way. And after 30-some years, these guys still shred like no other, making my Maiden voyage an epic, blisteringly loud, blissfully nostalgic experience. They focused exclusively on classic material, playing most of the 1988 “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” concept album alongside “The Trooper,” “The Prisoner,” “The Number of the Beast” and other crazy-ass crowd-pleasers. Singer Bruce Dickinson wailed like a tortured opera singer and scampered around the stage non-stop, and guitarists Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers soloed like men possessed, the bright smiles on their faces an incongruous delight. Metal is a hip, underground thing these days, leaving Iron Maiden as one of the few true monsters of rock still delivering the goods to adoring stadium crowds. And during this show, it was obvious that their passion hasn’t ebbed one bit. If that doesn’t make you grateful enough to buy a t-shirt, then I don’t know what will.

1. Drake, June 8, Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

After filing my review after Drake’s stunning performance this June, I got turned around a bit on my way to the always-horrible Darien Lake parking lot. During my search for another exit, I just happened to run into the artist as he exited a backstage trailer en route to his tour bus. Unaware that I was watching him, Drake was bursting with post-show adrenaline, pumping his fists and grinning from ear to ear. It was encouraging to see this for a few reasons:

1. As a fan of Drake’s lush, nakedly emotional approach to rap, this private, unabashed display of childlike joy made me believe that he’s not trying to play us, that the feelings he espouses on record are his actual feelings.

2. This was a big star, getting as swept up in his music’s energy as his fans. I’m sure the boatloads of cash don’t hurt, but this sure looked like a guy who loves performing as much as anything else on earth.

I know, I know. I’m reading into this 10-second encounter way too much. But I can’t help myself. After seeing his set, a pristinely executed offering of ruminative R&B grooves and top-flight Dirty South beats, shot into the stratosphere by the emcee’s steady flow and infectious energy, I was thinking about Drake as an Important Artist, somebody who could feasibly keep mainstream hip-hop honest for years to come. Then I saw him celebrating like a kid who just got a bike for his birthday – not your typical, too cool for school Important Artist behavior.  “Hey, great set,” I shared. Drake stopped in his tracks like I’d actually said something he hadn’t heard a billion times. “Thanks, man,” he responded, with complete sincerity. At that moment, I couldn’t have been more of a fan.

What’s In My Discman, June 2012

In two days, I’ll be catching The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour stop at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. DLPAC is normally a stressful, unsatisfying place to see a show – if you want to get thousands of people to start throwing punches, give them a whole mess of rollercoaster rides and $11 beers. But fuck if I don’t give a damn this time. Seeing Brian Wilson on stage with the remaining original Beach Boys, cherry-picking tunes from one of the most beautiful and haunting back catalogs in pop music history, is sure to make every other possible annoyance fade away, like a sandcastle in the tide. Naturally, I’ve been listening to Beach Boys albums like crazy this month, something I do when the warm weather hits every year anyways. Here are the three records that’ve been getting the most spins. (And thank you to my stunning, loving wife, who gave me these tickets for my birthday, and will be by my side Friday night, even though she couldn’t care less about the old farts on stage.)

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio (2012)

It was easy to be skeptical about this project, a seemingly rushed-together LP released to coincide with the tour I’ll be experiencing on Friday. But while aspects of That’s Why God Made The Radio do feel a bit half-baked, and a few tracks get cornily self-referential, it is most definitely more than a lowest common denominator cash-grab. It’s also the perfect example of the clashing artistic visions of Brian Wilson and Mike Love. If you were in any way confused why the two haven’t worked together in a while, listen to the gorgeously morbid three-song suite the closes the album, where Wilson sings “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.” Then listen to “Spring Vacation,” a dopey good-time pop song in which Love sings “Driving around, living the dream/I’m cruising the town, I’m living the scene.” Brian’s still the fragile genius, all about introspection and the interplay of darkness and light; Mike’s still the aging rock star, all about Hawaiian shirts, cool cars and (I imagine) creepy leers. I don’t mean to put a line in the sand here – Wilson’s Jersey Shore-referencing “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is an embarrassing attempt at relevance, and Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is rather sweet in its simplistic pleas. But the biggest wins are Wilson’s – the incredibly pretty, “Our Prayer”-ish opener, the title track with its wonderful, cascading chorus, and that jaw-dropping trilogy at the end (was any Beach Boys fan expecting such a perfect coda?). So if TWGMTR is wildly inconsistent, it’s still an accurate representation of where the Beach Boys are in 2012 – a band that might not be on the same page, but one that still sings like angels through it all.

The Beach Boys – 15 Big Ones/Love You (1976-1977)

Some of the biggest artists of the ’60s have dealt with their various mid-life crises by making albums filled with the songs of their youth – and like David Bowie’s Pin Ups and John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, 15 Big Ones is a fun listen, if not a particularly life-altering one. As the first LP since Pet Sounds to feature the credit “produced by Brian Wilson” on the gatefold, the album must have been a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it’s actually aged pretty well, with originals like the cheerful, organ-peppered “It’s OK,” the breezy “Had to Phone Ya” and the bluesy “Back Home” fitting the old-time rock ‘n’ roll vibe while still giving Wilson room to scratch that harmonic itch. There are some throwaways here (e.g. a grating, dated-sounding “Chapel of Love,” a sluggish “Blueberry Hill”), but the lushly produced, reverent take on The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once In My Life” ranks up there with the Boys’ best ’70s work. And who’s going to complain about these vocalists tackling “In the Still of the Night”?

Love You, the second of this two-album set (thank you Capitol Records) was the last Brian Wilson-produced Beach Boys album before this year’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. And while it’s a ramshackle shadow of his glorious ’60s work, it’s an oddly compelling little masterpiece all the same, and my favorite of all the ’70s Beach Boys albums I’ve heard (Carl & the Passions and Holland have still managed to evade my ears). Wilson’s songwriting is straight-up goofy in places, and at times painfully childlike, but it adds to Love You’s ragged blend of synthesizers and doo-wop harmonies – “Johnny Carson” is the weirdest Beach Boys song ever, a straight-faced ode to the celebrity whose verses have a strangely ominous melody. And “Solar System” is a 2nd grade astronomy lesson sung by a blissed-out organist – but because it features Brian’s voice at its hoarsest, it’s also a bit of pop innocence that’s streaked with something sadder. Then there’s the heartbreakers – “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together,” a crushing duet between Wilson and his indifferent-sounding wife Marilyn, and “Love Is A Woman,” where Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine compel us to treat women nicely over a Fats Domino-ish arrangement. When Wilson sings, “Tell her she smells good tonight,” it’s so awkward, and so perfectly earnest, I can’t help but get chills.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

I’m not really sure what the critics think about this one, but I’ll be bold enough to come right out and say it – Pet Sounds is good. Honestly, it would be a waste of all of our precious time to blather on about the swirling, magnificently dense arrangements, the bittersweet love songs to beat all bittersweet love songs, the force of nature that is the band’s vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys have always been obsessed with the trappings of summer, but I think Brian Wilson was more obsessed with the brutally temporary nature of that season – before you know it, school’s back in session, the leaves are falling, and you’re starting to wonder if you were made for these times. Pet Sounds was summer for the Beach Boys, a time when their talents were in full blossom, their ingenious leader was as confident and prolific as he ever would be, and their songs were on the charts. Then they blinked an eye, and it was September.

Suddenly, This Summer: A Playlist

Today’s the first day of summer! Here are some tunes that’ll be perfect for that unforgettable summer car trip – you know, where you go to Home Depot to buy an air conditioner, so you can close all of your windows and watch reruns until the leaves start to turn.

1. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”
It’s no contest. This is the song of Summer 2011 – masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around; soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”).

2. Prince – “Play in the Sunshine”
Worried that the world’s going to shit and you’re never gonna find true happiness? Take a page from the Prince playbook, and dance your way to enlightenment to this exuberant blast of synth pop  – “Some way, somehow, I’m gonna have fun.”
 

3. Gordon Lightfoot – “Carefree Highway”
This makes me want to drive drunk.

4. Kylie Minogue – “Get Outta My Way”
A beautiful summer day can make you feel invincible. Add an irresistible dance song with defiantly independent lyrics, and you might try to walk on water.

5. Lil Wayne – “Best Rapper Alive”
Speaking of bouts of egomania, this straight-faced claim of greatness from a pre-superstardom Weezy is guaranteed to get the adrenaline flowing while you mow your parents’ lawn.

6. The Velvet Underground – “Who Loves the Sun”
What would the summer be without that crippling moment when you realize that all the good weather in the world won’t keep you warm at night?

7. Led Zeppelin – “The Ocean”
“Singing in the sunshine/Laughing in the rain.” Not the most bad-ass lyrics in Zeppelin’s oeuvre, but when you throw in Page’s gnarly riff and Bonham’s massive beat, you’ve got something earth-shattering.

8. The Beach Boys – “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”
Forget “California Girls.” This beautifully arranged cut (woodwinds!) about forgetting somebody’s number, then remembering it, then calling them and getting no answer, then writing them a letter, perfectly captures the vibe of a lazy summer day.

9. Outkast – “Skew it On the Bar-B”
Whether you’re an old school player or new school fool, this cut showcases Andre 3000, Big Boi and Raekwon at the top of their game – it’s guaranteed to make your barbecue sizzle.

10. The Zombies – “Time of the Season”
A sexy hit single from a British Invasion band previously known for expressions of towering wussery, this song’s percussive “ahhs” and “Who’s your daddy” pick-up lines could be seen as a relic of the late-’60s. But when the warm weather hits, that groove sounds like it was meant for today.