44 Wonderful Things About Music In 2012

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44. “Nashville”

Nashville may be an over-the-top prime-time soap opera, but it’s also one of the most accurate depictions of the record industry in recent pop culture, with characters who are forced to reckon with declining sales and painful marketing compromises. While it’s nice that the drama between Connie Britton’s and Hayden Panettiere’s characters has some grounding in the reality of contemporary country music, the most exciting thing about the show are the performances, like the Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen’s rendition of The Civil Wars’ gorgeous tune “If I Didn’t Know Better.”

43. French Montana featuring Lil Wayne, Drake, and Rick Ross, “Pop That”

French Montana teamed up with three of the biggest stars in rap for the year’s most shamelessly lusty club anthem. The video belongs to a long line of clips in which rappers party by a pool and objectify girls in bikinis, but it may actually be the best of its kind, if just for the sheer volume of twerking on screen in just five minutes.

42. Himanshu, “Womyn”

Himanshu (aka Heems), formerly of Das Racist, is very good at sneaking clever, complicated ideas into essentially dumb music. In this song he makes a lot of silly jokes — mostly at his expense — about how much he likes ladies, and while it basically sounds like any number of goofy hip-hop songs about girls, it slowly sinks in that it’s an earnest tune about genuinely appreciating women and recognizing them as people who have lives, opinions. Which is very “no duh,” but in the context of rap, it’s actually a radical thought.

41. Nicki Minaj vs. Mariah Carey

Kevin Winter / Getty Images [Minaj], Bryan Bedder / Getty Images [Carey]

Nicki Minaj typically throws shade at fading stars like Lil’ Kim, but this year she stepped up to the big leagues of diva feuds by picking a fight with her American Idol costar Mariah Carey. The conflict began during an Idol auction in Charlotte but carried on for weeks, with no less than Stevie Nicks entering the fray to blast Nicki for having the nerve to disrespect Mariah. The pop drama was amped up by the age difference between the two women, with Nicki representing a new generation of divas and Mariah standing as one of the most established and successful stars of all time.

40. Björk’s “Biophilia” app

A lot of musicians have been experimenting with creating apps, but they’ve mostly been a waste of time. Björk’s Biophilia, on the other hand, is a game-changer that is not only engaging and inventive, but a central component of her larger Biophilia project. It’s not an app for the sake of making an app, it’s an app as a fully formed and fascinating work of art. It didn’t blow up in the marketplace and hasn’t reinvented the album as Björk had hoped, but it’s an important step forward.

39. Fun., “Some Nights”

Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Fun. may seem like a bunch of squares, but they’re the most inventive rock band on the radio by far, mixing the essence of ’70s rock with the electronic textures of modern pop, the campy bombast of musical theater, drum line percussion, and whatever else comes to mind. “Some Nights,” their signature anthem, is a wonderfully overstuffed power ballad that’s as odd as it is sentimental.

38. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert, “Same Love”

“If I was gay, I’d think hip-hop hates me / Have you seen the YouTube comments lately?” Macklemore raps in “Same Love,” an incredibly earnest song admonishing hip-hop culture for widespread casual homophobia. This song could easily be smug or sanctimonious, but instead, it’s warm, open-hearted, and conversational, which is exactly the right way to go if you actually want to change someone’s mind.

37. Anne Hathaway sings in “Les Miserables”

The trailer for Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of Les Miserables is nothing but Anne Hathaway singing a powerful rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream,” the melodramatic ballad that launched the career of Susan Boyle. It’s absolutely brilliant in that Hathaway’s technically sharp but subtly emotive performance sells the movie even to people who’d normally avoid musical theater, but it’s also horribly misleading in that she actually has a minor role and will barely be in the film at all. But when you have something this stunning, why not flaunt it?

36. “We Invented Swag: NYC’s Queer Rap”

Michael Renaud

Pitchfork writer Carrie Battan’s article about NYC’s LGBT rap underground is the year’s most impressive piece of music journalism. Battan profiles rising stars like Mykki Blanco, Zebra Katz, and Le1f while thoughtfully placing their music in the context of the rich history of queer subcultures and a hip-hop culture that is very slowly learning to accept non-straight sexuality after decades of outright hostility toward gay men.

35. Big Bang, “Fantastic Baby”

Big Bang, a South Korean boy band led by the flamboyant and wildly charismatic rapper G-Dragon, are one of the most compelling acts in K-Pop. “Fantastic Baby,” their first hit to cross over in North America, is a bewildering house-music juggernaut. The music video, which looks like a bunch of teen dandies posing in an ornate video game, takes it all to the next level.

34. Animal Collective, “Centipede Hz”


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Centipede Hz is like one of those Magic Eye posters — at first, it’s hard to find its form in its treble-heavy clutter, but once you acclimate to its tonal range, you “see the boat,” and from that point onward it just sounds like a bunch of pop songs. Or, at least, Animal Collective–style pop songs. The sound of it all makes perfect sense too: They’re emulating the compressed, interference-heavy sound of radio and drawing on childhood memories of discovering music for the first time, when it all sounds a bit mysterious and alien.

33. “The Hottest Chick in the Game”

Writer Sean T. Collins and artist Andrew White’s brilliant Web comic “The Hottest Chick in the Game” tells the story of a future version of Drake who attempts to defy the natural order of the universe and comes into conflict with an Illuminati cabal led by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Blue Ivy Carter. It’s basically like an episode of The Twilight Zone set in the world of contemporary hip-hop, and it digs deep into Drake’s public persona — never satisfied, and always searching for something he can never have. As strange as this story gets, it’s amazing how this fictional world seems only slightly removed from what you hear in the music made by any of the stars who show up in this comic.

32. Perfume Genius, “Hood”

“Hood” is an expression of a deep, consuming fear that one’s partner will leave them if they ever truly knew them. It’s a bit painful to hear because Mike Hadreas’ lyrics and performance are so raw and direct, but it’s also quite beautiful, because you hear him resisting this anxiety in every note.

31. Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven”

Ian Gavan / Getty Images

Bruno Mars has been churning out hits for a few years now, but he really stepped up his game with this smash hit, which updates the distinctive sound of The Police for a generation born well after that band broke up in the mid-’80s. The song, a collaboration with Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, is a major artistic breakthrough for Mars and signals the potential for a full-on New Wave revival in mainstream pop.

30. Ceremony, “Adult”

The guitar chords in “Adult” stab at you like long, sharp knives, but it’s the words that really slice you up. Ross Farrar attacks the listener with the cold reality of maturity, bluntly reminding us that “we have to give up on things we love,” repeating the phrase a few times over before amending it with a “sometimes” that makes the message only slightly easier to stomach. A lot of punk-rock culture is built on trying to reject this notion, so it comes out sounding like a challenge to the band’s roots in California hardcore but also a strong-willed fight against compromise.

29. One Week // One Band

One Week // One Band shakes up the usual music-blog format by giving space for one writer to dig into their fandom of a particular artist over the course of a week. The site hit its stride this year, with a tag team of seasoned critics and talented novices expounding on everything from ABBA and Stevie Nicks to Liars and The Beta Band. The site is at its best when it finds new angles on familiar subjects, like when Web designer Joey Pfeifer thoughtfully explained how Weezer turned him into a huge music fan after spending all of his teen years largely indifferent to it, or when Daniella Joseph spent seven days offering fresh perspectives on Radiohead, the most critically fawned-over band of the past decade.

28. Miguel, “Kaleidoscope Dream”

“Do You…”

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R&B star Miguel’s breakthrough album is sleek and sexy, but also surprisingly goofy and self-effacing, revealing him to be an exceptionally sincere and open-hearted dude in a genre full of slick lover boys. His lyrics are rarely subtle, but his music is — shifting from low-key minimalism to colorful hooks throughout Kaleidoscope Dream with effortless grace.

27. “The Nekci Menij Show”

David Monger’s wonderfully bizarre YouTube series The Nekci Menij Show is both a passionate tribute to and scathing satire of the modern pop diva. The series, which is based largely on the style of the cult hit The Uncle Dolan Show, parodies nearly every major female pop star today, but does so with the reverence of someone who is obviously deeply in love with the drama of the pop charts.

26. Sleigh Bells, “Demons”

Charley Gallay / Getty Images

Derek E. Miller’s guitar riff in “Demons” is so perfect and elemental that it’s hard to imagine how it wasn’t already in a hit by AC/DC, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath. Whereas a lot of modern metal rejects pop hooks in favor of needless complexity, Sleigh Bells embrace the riff’s blunt simplicity, hammering it all home with thudding beats and a chorus that sounds like a cheerleader squad chanting for Satan.

25. Killer Mike, “R.A.P. Music”

“Don’t Die”

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Killer Mike has been turning out smart, technically impressive rap records for years, but he came into his own this year with R.A.P. Music, a consistent and ruthlessly concise album produced entirely by El-P. It’s a heavy record, full of harsh noise, blunt beats, and lyrics that harshly criticize economic and political corruption. It’s a bold set of songs by a major talent and a reminder that sometimes it takes an artist some time to hone their craft before delivering their defining work.

24. “Low Times” Podcast

“Low Times” is essentially an old-school zine in the form of a podcast, and its trio of hosts — Daniel Ralston, Maggie Serota, and Best Show on WFMU host Tom Scharpling — regularly engage in career-spanning long-form interviews with icons of indie rock, punk, and beyond. Every episode is a gem, but look for Ralston’s chat with reclusive Fugazi singer Guy Picciotto and Scharpling’s entertaining and insightful conversations with G.E. Smith, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.

23. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!”

“We Drift Like Worried Fire”

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first album in a decade is the most abrasive and aggressive record of the Canadian collective’s career, but also its most powerful and immediately accessible. The album, split between two 20-minute suites and two shorter drone pieces, is bleak and highly cinematic in its blend of orchestration, art rock, and metal. Allelujah! often feels like confronting darkness and evil on a grand scale, and its most cathartic moments are like summoning the courage to stand up to that horror.

22. Kitty Pryde, “Okay Cupid”

Kitty Pryde’s rap on “Okay Cupid” is shockingly intimate, to the point that it feels like you’re invading her privacy by listening in. “Lordy, shorty you’re a 10 / And I wait for your drunk dials at 3:30 a.m. / I love them,” she confesses on the hook, sounding like she’s spilling her guts to a crush who should be inches away, but is in fact nowhere to be found.

21. Titus Andronicus, “In A Big City”

“In A Big City” is about growing up in the shadow of New York City, and how living so close to this major cultural center shapes the way you think of yourself and where you’re actually from. Like most songs about being from New Jersey, it’s an anthem for underdogs, and while most of the lyrics are ambivalent or self-deprecating, Patrick Stickles sings it all with the intensity of a guy eager to overcome great odds.

20. Britney Spears on “X Factor”

FOX, Ray Mickshaw / AP

When Britney Spears signed on to be a judge on X Factor, expectations were pretty low. The Britney we’ve seen in the media over the past few years has been such a train wreck that all she really had to do to be considered a success would be to show up and not speak in tongues. As it turns out, Britney is actually fully coherent and totally charming. Her star power totally eclipses everyone else on the show, and her costars seem to be totally in awe of her, to the point of never, ever disagreeing with her judgments. The best thing about Spears’ presence on the show is her incredibly expressive face. She seems totally incapable of hiding her emotions, so whether she loves something or hates it, you get the unvarnished truth of her opinion. Singing competitions are typically driven by overly polite judges, but Britney brings radical honesty to the genre.

19. First Aid Kit, “Emmylou”

The most tear-jerking country ballad of 2012 was, against all odds, written by a pair of Swedish sisters who are barely into their twenties. “Emmylou” is a song about yearning for a deep romantic connection, and Klara Söderberg describes it all in the context of the great romances of country music: “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June / If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too.”

18. Skrillex, “Bangarang”

Theo Wargo / Getty Images

Skrillex was a living meme in 2012 thanks to his odd name, strange appearance, and status as the figurehead of EDM and dubstep. “Bangarang,” his first single of the year, proved that he’s more than a punch line or record-industry buzzword by showcasing his talent for merging abrasive electronic textures with deft musicality.

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