First, sorry for not getting this out as fast as some other music writers. I tried, but I learned that if you want to make a list that doesn’t ape the choices of others while lauding a few personal favorites, then you gotta listen hard and long, you gotta add and delete, and finally, you gotta just let it go.
So here it is. And what I hope to accomplish with this list is not to recommend everything you need to know to be up to date with pop—those types of lists are more about developing a code most often employed to gain social status, and I distrust them. Instead, I’m suggesting here a kind of State of the Union for popular music and its genres. I defend things I think are good, and I leave conspicuously absent the stuff I don’t like, but really this list is about dropping a humble signpost on the interstate of pop music’s evolution.
Two things you should know: I’m a session bass player who’s played with a few of the guys on this list (my current employer is number one on country radio this week). So, I’ve got a few biases. And the other thing: If it’s mentioned at all, then I like it. I talk a lot of shit and I take some jabs, but that’s only because people who decide to become musicians have already chosen not to take their lives too seriously. If they do, then they’re either faking it, insecure, or not very good.
Some people call it “art rock,” but “rock” is a name of ever-waning utility. Some people call it “experimental,” but that’s a frustrating term for emphasizing the process over the result; art is not a science project, and I’m not interested in “results” unless they’re pleasing. The “avant-garde,” then, is reserved for those sophisticated enough to go “out there” and bring back something beautiful, and since the best days of the three-minute pop song are behind us, I believe the avant-garde is the place for our best and brightest.
Scott Walker—Bish Bosch. The final installment of a trilogy that includes The Tilt and The Drift. There’s nothing new under the sun except the music of Scott Walker. It’s a stunning conclusion to the best art song cycle of the last thirty years, and it’s my favorite album of the year.
Swans—The Seer. M. Gira got the old band back together and delivered a whopper.
Deerhoof—Breakup Song. Duh.
Godspeed! You Black Emperor—“Mladic.” I never much liked GYBE before, but this twenty-minute piece works nicely.
Animal Collective—“Father Time”
Modern country music sounds less and less authentic to people who don’t realize that authenticity is an illusion. When people distinguish between liking old country and disliking new country, they often do so because they can’t reconcile the difference in sound quality between analog and digital fidelity. If they cite the hokeyness of lyrics, then they’re giving the old stuff too much credit, the new stuff not enough, or they lack a frame of reference for how the genre works.
Dwight Yoakam—3 Pears. Back when I couldn’t distinguish between pop music and footwear, Dwight was the only country artist I chose to respect. Today, he’s still the best in an inherently reactionary genre.
Easton Corbin—All Over the Road. I got to play most of these songs with EC before the album was released, but I assure you I’m not biased (I was trying to quit that gig for a year before the Scotty McCreery camp called); this album represents what many people would like the genre to be.
Little Big Town—“Pontoon”
Lee Brice—“Hard 2 Love”
Dustin Lynch—“Cowboys and Angels.” I played a three-hour wedding reception gig with Dustin about four years ago. Nobody applauded the entire time. Good to see him finally get a hit.
Randy Houser—“How Country Feels.” Totally biased, but hey, the boss is getting his first number one. Let’s celebrate!
Florida Georgia Line—“Cruise”
I miss LCD Soundsystem.
Hot Chip—In Our Hands. After hearing the lyric “I like Zapp, not Zappa,” I was sure I would not endorse this album. But being wrong about Zappa doesn’t necessarily make you a bad band.
Icona Pop (feat. Charli XCX)—“I Love It”
Electric Guest—“This Head I Hold”
Jai Paul—“Jasmine.” There’s no way this isn’t James Blake making records under a pseudonym.
John Talabot feat. Pional—“Destiny”
Skrillex feat. Sirah—“Bangarang.” I listened to the entire EP in an airport earlier last year, and I laughed out loud at least three times, but it’s better to miss hard and hit hard than to shoot like you don’t mean it. Take note, indie rockers.
Jam City—“How We Relate to the Body”
The 2 Bears—“Bear Hug”
Remember that old episode of Beavis & Butthead when they watch the video for “Rattled by the Rush” by Pavement, and Beavis gets all frustrated because he wants the band to “try harder”? That television moment is perhaps the best definition of the indie genre. It’s ironic, it’s “just for kids” (way more so than rock or punk), it’s unimpressed, it’s underwhelmed, and it’s SEXY (way more so than rock or punk).
Beach House—Bloom. Baltimore band #1.
Lower Dens—Nootropics. Baltimore band #2.
Grimes—Visions. Overhyped and dangerously close to living up to it.
Liars—WIXIW. Liars live on as the best indie rock band of the last ten years.
Grizzly Bear—Shields. I hate liking this album.
Dirty Projectors—“Gun Has No Trigger”
The Fresh and Onlys—“Dream Girls”
Melody’s Echo Chamber—“I Follow You”
David Byrne & St. Vincent—“Who.” I find the album, Love This Giant, exhausting for working so hard to assert style. It’s as if these two were trying to prove how quirky they are when instead what they needed to do was neutralize some of their bold flavors. Sure, they’re having fun, but what about us? This song demonstrates what these two can do together, and could’ve done with the rest of the album.
Jazz is dead, but while the improvisers seek shelter under different umbrellas like R&B (Robert Glasper), avant-garde (Wadada Leo Smith), and trust fund hippy jam band bullshit (Medeski Martin and Wood—this is a knock on the heinously nonmusical MMW, not jam bands), there were some great albums released this year that can be categorized under no other name.
Christian Scott—Christian aTunde Adjuah
Fred Hersch Trio—Alive at the Vanguard. My only proud claim to fame is having sat front row at the live recording of Electric Masada for John Zorn’s fiftieth birthday party at the Tonic in NYC, almost ten years ago. Marc Ribot accidentally dropped his E-Bow in the middle of a solo, and I fixed it in time for him to finish the same solo with it. That was badass. This was an amazing live set also—one to be remembered—and I envy anyone who was present. Of course, I doubt any of you fixed anyone’s E-Bow, but still, you know, good for you.
Jack DeJohnette—Sound Travels. Esperanza Spalding is a better sideman than she is a frontman.
Didn’t listen to much metal this year, and that’s too bad because a lot of metal bands I respect put out good albums.
Torche—Harmonicraft. Florida was a breeding ground for many of the pioneers of death metal, but this Miami band doesn’t sound like a descendant of Deicide or Morbid Angel. Nor do they sound like the stoner metal bands they’re so often associated with. As good a time I had re-listening to this album very late Christmas Eve, after lots of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, I’ve decided to categorize this band as life metal.
Converge—All We Love We Leave Behind. This may be the last album Converge releases that doesn’t sound like they regret their neck tattoos. Enjoy it while you’re still young.
Pig Destroyer—“Permanent Funeral.” V-A boys, reprazent, reprazent-zent.
The best way for me to describe this category is, “You love these songs. Yes, you do. No, seriously. You do.”
fun.—“We Are Young.”
Carly Rae Jepsen—“Call Me Maybe.” Don’t tell me what to do maybe.
Taylor Swift—“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
Justin Bieber—“Die in Your Arms.” Best Bieb yet.
Beach Boys—“That’s Why God Made the Radio”
Because it postures differently from rock and indie (and don’t fool yourself: it’s as theatrical as anything else), punk music must be reserved for a separate genre. Genre distinctions are as existential as they are technical. Young people—the people behind rap, indie, punk, and rock—struggle with the meaning of their existence, while old people—the people behind country and R&B—struggle with their bills and bad marriages. The differences between indie, rock, and punk rely on how kids field the existential question. The coy indie kids flirt with it without making their intentions clear, the carefree rockers get it drunk and try to have sex with it, and the earnest punks fall deeply in love only to get their hearts broken. Punk is the most romantic of youthful pop music.
Cloud Nothings—Attack on Memory. Steve Albini: helping white people get angry since 1982.
Savages—“Husbands.” Sounds like the Slits.
The Vaccines—“Teenage Icon.”
Arctic Monkeys—“R U Mine.” This could easily be categorized as a rock song, but to me the Monkeys are an apple that fell and rolled away from the punk tree.
Superchunk—“This Summer.” Weird. Superchunk invented “indie” rock as we know it, and here’s a straight ahead “rock” song. What a bunch of “punk”s.
Modern R&B and modern country have a lot in common. Their song themes are similar, their performances are more refined and conservative than those of their more youthful analogues, and they both react according to the stylistic trends of those more youthful analogues. With the exception of the first two aberrant innovations, this list is all about old school jamz.
Frank Ocean—Channel ORANGE. If “Thinkin Bout You” is your favorite song of the year, then you are correct. It makes me feel things.
THEESatisfaction—awE naturalE. Modern Sounds in Rhythm & Blues Music.
Bobby Womack—“The Bravest Man in the Universe”
Lee Fields—“Faithful Man”
Sugarman 3—“Rudy’s Intervention”
Usher—“Climax.” Sexiest song of the year, though Easton Corbin’s “Dance Real Slow” is a close second.
The-Dream—“Dope Bitch.” The edited version is called “Dope Chick,” which is hilarious.
R. Kelly—“Share My Love”
No genre is better than any other. But, if there were, rap music would be winning by a nose. And in my opinion, it’s been in charge for at least the last twenty years.
Kendrick Lamar—good kid, m.A.A.d city. Bish Bosch is my favorite album of the year, but this one will probably be remembered as the best. It will age better than Channel ORANGE, and it will age way better than everything else.
Death Grips—The Money Store
Killer Mike—R.A.P. Music. Duh.
Nicki Minaj—“Come on a Cone.” If you weren’t so ugly, she’d put her dick in your face.
E-40—“Function.” In rap years, E-40 is 315 years old. He is the Yoda of hardcore rap music.
Plan B—“iLL Manors”
Nas feat. Amy Winehouse—“Cherry Wine”
Kanye, et al—“Mercy.” As a young man, I dreamed of rap music having a harmonic trajectory. I didn’t have lifting chord progressions from old Emperor records in mind, but I’m not complaining, Kanye.
Future—“Turn on the Lights.” An increasingly controversial choice, as many people believe he’s over-esteemed. I disagree. He’s one of rap’s most mature and restrained new artists.
Zebra Katz feat. Njena Reddd Foxxx—“Ima Read”
Chief Keef—“I Don’t Like.” First couple times I heard this, I thought he said “a fart” was one of the things he don’t like.
Juicy J feat. Lil Wayne & 2Chainz—“Bandz a Make Her Dance”
Rich Kidz—“My Life”
Angel Haze—“New York”
Kitty Pryde—“Okay Cupid.” Am I creepy for liking this song?
What is rock anymore? It’s kinda like the blues in that it’s all about I-IV-V progressions with some flat sevens thrown in. But to me, it’s where the old birds feel most comfortable, and where the young-uns pay homage to the old birds. This is where old sounds are made new, so enjoy it while its head is still above water.
Tame Impala—Lonerism. Duh.
Dr. John—Locked Down. Nice work, Dan Auerbach.
ZZ Top—“I Gotsta Get Paid.” This one got heavy rotation on the Houser bus this year. It’s bad, it’s nationwide.
Rolling Stones—“Doom & Gloom”
Bruce Springsteen—“We Take Care of Our Own”
Donald Fagen—“Weather in My Head”
Jack White—“Sixteen Saltines”
Pond—“You Broke My Cool”
Deap Vally—“Gonna Make My Own Money”
This year the singer/songwriter genre is reserved for the third wave of troubadours too obsessed with themselves to write about anything else. The following are artists who have been sent to their rooms, where they have been encouraged to think about why they’re there and why that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated under this roof, and they are not allowed to come out until they learn some consideration for others.
Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel. Yeah, it’s great, whatever. She’s like Wes Anderson in that she’s in a class of her own, but I wonder just how much influence she’ll have over future songwriters. Her songs are so personal, she’s starting to amount to a Regina Spektor I simply don’t want to vomit on, or a Florence + the Machine I don’t want to pants in front of the whole gym class.
Andrew Bird—Break It Yourself. To me, he’s the most consistent artist in popular music.
Mac Demarco—“Ode to Viceroy”
Craig Finn—“Rented Room”
Now then. The heavy lifting is done, so it’s time for some fun (read: more subjective) observations about 2012. All of the following lists are top fives.
Artists that Might Have a Decent Career If We Don’t Overhype Their Promising but Not Awesome Debut to Death (also known as the “Bon Iver Award”):
1. Alabama Shakes. They’re a very nice young group recalling a great sound, but take away their age and you’re left with a good amateur bar band with an interesting singer. American South exceptionalism gave us Kings of Leon, and the last thing we need now is more hillbillies trying to heal the world with Bono’s music.
2. Django Django. Sloppy song craft.
3. Alt-J. Lacks identity.
4. First Aid Kit. They got reverb in Sweden? And pretty singing sisters who know about Gram Parsons? No way! We should make a list about it.
5. Grimes. Okay, it’s not a debut per se, but seriously, Visions is overhyped. We all love it, sure, but let’s calm our happy asses down before we give Clare Boucher a thinking problem.
1. Jamey Johnson feat. Alison Krauss—“Make the World Go Away” (Hank Cochran). Written in 1963, this song has been recorded by a million artists, most successfully by Eddy Arnold in ’65. The classics never die.
2. Robert Glasper feat. Erykah Badu—“Afro Blue”
3. Japandroids—“For the Love of Ivy.” I think I’m one of the only music fans who doesn’t really care about this band, but I respect them for covering The Gun Club, a band responsible for some of the best music of the early ’80s.
4. (tie) Neneh Cherry—“Accordion” and “Dream Baby Dream.” “Hi, my name is Neneh Cherry. My Scandanavian friends here are called The Thing. We’re a jazz combo that plays songs by Madvillain and Suicide.” “Wow, that’s great! Say, could you throw in a Stooges tune, too? Preferably something from Fun House?” “How about ‘Dirt?'” “Thanks, Neneh Cherry!”
5. The Chromatics— “Into the Black”
Old Birds that Still Got It (AKA What Happened to All the Old Women Who Used to Write Songs???)
1. Leonard Cohen
2. Bob Dylan
3. Bob Mould. Are you seriously putting Bob Mould on the same list with these other guys? Yes, and I mean to suggest two things by it: 1) he’s that good, and 2) he’s that old.
4. Paul Buchanan. Okay, maybe I’m stretching it here.
5. Bruce Springsteen
Sorry About Your Luck, Man (AKA “TMI Award”)
1. Ab-Soul—“The Book of Soul”
2. Earl Sweatshirt—“Chum”
3. B.J. The Chicago Kid—“His Pain”
4. Fiona Apple—(Every song is a tie.)
5. Kacey Musgraves—“Merry Go ‘Round.” “Cause Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down [and I’m hooked on sounding exactly like Mar-anda Lambert.]” Nyuck nyuck.
Aw, Pipe Down, You Didactic Bastard
1. Lupe Fiasco—“Bitch Bad.” Learning political correctness from a rap song is like learning nutrition from a cereal box.
2. Macklemore—“Same Love.” I’ve been a choir boy since I was a little kid, and now it’s like Macklemore is preaching right to me!
3. Killer Mike—“Reagan.” God, I love this song, but what a self-indulgent tirade.
4. Cat Power—“Nothin But Time.” “Your world is just beginning / And I know this life seems never-ending / But you got nothing but time / And it ain’t got nothing on you.” Thanks, Mom. Now will you please get out of my room so I can shoot up and listen to the Richard Hell?
5. I don’t really have another one for this spot, so can I just remind everybody how much Cate Le Bon sounds like Nico?
1. Beach House’s “Myth” and Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” Dammit, they’re a half-step apart. If only there were a way to digitally alter the music…
2. Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” and XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel.”
3. Danny Brown’s “Grown Up” and Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Duh.
4. Van Halen’s “Stay Frosty” and Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man.” So they’re not really mash-uppable, but the new tune is obviously a rewrite of the old one.
5. Blur’s “Under the Westway” and Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Same key. Ding ding ding! Dammit, Blur tags two beats to the end of the progression. If only there were a way to digitally alter music…
I’ll admit it: I’m just one dude, and I miss shit. The following artists are those whom I either respect or would probably like, but I didn’t get around to listening to enough of this year.
1. R&B: Jessie Ware. I’ve only heard two songs, but they’re great.
2. Electronic: Flying Lotus, Andy Stott, and Actress. Haven’t yet heard the new albums. Criminal, I know.
3. Indie: The xx, Beachwood Sparks, and The Walkmen.
4. Metal: Blut Aus Nord, High on Fire, Pallbearer.
5. Singer-Songwriter: Bat for Lashes, Sharon Van Etten, Rufus Wainwright. Singer-songwriters are tough to listen to because they tend to write boring, overly personal songs. This genre has been in a deep trench for years.
2012 Trends that are Sure to Get Mediocre Artists a Record Deal in 2013
1. The Vocoder. Between Jai Paul’s eerie soul-borg and Future’s bel canto-bot, it’s easy to share in Kurzweil’s vision. If Chan Marshall’s auto-tuning, then the singularity must be coming!
2. 1133 Music. You remember the whole Alan Parsons Project/Lady Antebellum debacle? Pick up that guitar you never learned to play and strum two measures of G followed by two measures of B minor. Congratulations! You can now play “Myth” by Beach House, “Your Drums, Your Love” by AlunaGeorge, “Disparate Youth” by Santigold, and “True Romance” by Citizens! Now coo something softly on top, put some product in your hair, and go make your million dollars.
3. 5-6-3 Music. If you’re more of a melody person, there’s still time to cop that catchy germ from “Wake Up” off the Arcade Fire’s first record. Grimes did it on “Oblivion.” So did Palma Violets on “Best of Friends” and Johnny Headband on “Hot Button Topic.” The major pentatonic scale is in these days.
4. Drumline Music. Not a harmony or melody person? No sweat. Sample a marching band. Something about snares, quads, and cymbal crashes just drives the suits wild. Ask “Fitta Happier” by Quakers and “Patient” by Twin Shadow.
5. Duos. Beach House, Japandroids, First Aid Kit, Crystal Castles, Icona Pop, THEESatisfaction, Florida Georgia Line, Peaking Lights, David Byrne and St. Vincent, and Electric Guest, just to name a few. Fire your bass player. He sucks anyway.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.