The unofficial tagline of this site is “It’s not Brittany, bitch.” But my hopes are that the days of such cornball kinderwhore are over. Why just you listen to these ten delicious pop songs from 2012 and you’ll find you’re beginning to feel much more optimistic about the future of pop music.
After drafting this list, I realized quite a few of these albums haven’t been released in the U.S. yet. Sorry for any aneurisms this inaccuracy causes in your tender, particular brains. But we gotta keep it up and coming around here.
“Baby Blue” is bliss, right from the little breaths that open the song. The slight echoes behind the harmonies and the one-up coin sound effect at 1:12 are nice touches but this would be an adorable song with just the pianos and playful harmonies. This is what sunshine sounds like.
There are some who would object to including a remix (or two) on this list because it takes credit from the original artist. But I see it as a way to give space for two acts. Oh No! Yoko makes some delightful songs of their own well worth checking out.
From the first second “Older Together” starts with a take-no-prisoners hook. The guitar and and throbbing synth compliment it perfectly. Instead of the standard motif of playing the hook with the chorus, that piano bit lets up for the vocals, so neither delight has to compete. Before your sick of the hook, the vocals come in. Before you can tire of the vocals, there’s that hook. His voice is unique but not quirky, and a subtle reverb gives it that extra little something. The second refrain takes it up a notch with a synth brass section.
It speaks to just how good this song is that I’ve been listening to it since the single was released last year and it still holds up to songs I’ve only been enjoying for a few months. It’s a sweet song with an irresistible melody. Fans of Peter Bjorn and John’s adorable ditty “Young Folks”. Shockingly, Amazon offers their whole album for under five bucks (right now Amazon is selling all five songs on that album for $2.99). Get it now before the cool kids catch on.
This would be a catchy song with just the vocals, piano and drums. But there’s a lot of little touches that make it more polished. The synth trills. Before the refrain there’s a two measure vocal sample that hints at the vocal layers to come. The layered and sampled vocals that make up the bridge are delightfully surprising.The drummer does little trills, just enough to keep it interesting but not enough to get self-indulgent. I’m happy to report that every other song I’ve heard from Gemini Club is just as nice as “By Surprise.”
Alt-J has put out one of my favorite albums of 2012, and it would be fair to put “Breezeblocks” on this list. But I want to be sure you hear this remix, which turned out to be one of my most-listened to songs of the year. Something about the vocal decay, like at the end of the phrase, “here I go,” just works. It reminds me of the way visual artists are working distorted images, finding beauty in what’s broken. And the tremolo is subtle, but tickles the eardrums just the same.
Here they are at least, the Top Ten Indie Rock Songs of 2012.
While this is a list of songs, in some ways this is also the Top Albums of 2012. Most of these bands put out more than one great song this year. But if I included more than one song by each band there would have been less bands overall, and each of these bands deserves recognition. But I swore I would never do another Best Albums list so this is what you get: the best song by my top artists of the year. It is hard to rank songs this good, so as part of weighing them, I sometimes ranked a song higher if their album had many songs that were just as worthy of being on a Best Songs List.
"Vexed" by Lord Blakely
As mentioned previously, I’ve used the phrase “indie rock” very loosely here. This blog is focused on underplayed gems, so you will find we keep it all indie here, whether it’s rock, pop, dance, hip-hop, or some genre that’s yet to be named. If you want to check out the top indie songs from other categories, they’re listed at the bottom of this post.
There’s a ton of bargains on this list; some of these full albums are selling on Amazon right now for less than four dollars.
As usual, to download the song, right-click on it and choose “Save as.”
These are not quite the top ten indie rock songs of 2012, but are still some of the best bands you shouldn’t miss out on hearing.
Note that I’ve used the phrase “indie rock” very loosely here. I’m only striving to make a distinction to break these up into the vaguest of genres. So you can look forward to a hip-hop list, a dance list, and an indie pop list. This mostly means rock, but they’re just as much defined by what they’re not: dance-y. These are the (second) best songs of 2012 with more grit than groove.
“Talliff” by Matt Lyon via City of Vultures
As usual, to download the song, right-click on it and choose “Save as.” Also, please note the music player at the bottom right of the screen that enables you to preview all the songs on this page as a playlist.
Little Jungles – Nothing Will Grow
Hey, Little Jungles, what happened? Your Bandcamp said way back in January of 2012 that this song would be on the forthcoming album I Would Kill For Some Sunlight. And here it is January 2013 and that album appears to be still forthcoming. “Nothing Will Grow” indeed. Ah well get this song from Bandcamp, where you can name your price.
I wish Spencer Krug would pick a band and stick with it. He’s all over the place, sometimes in Sunset Rubdown, last seen in Wolf Parade and now he’s the primary voice behind Moonface. Every year I think the gent has produced nothing new, I come to find he’s in some other project. Fortunately he has a distinctive voice and amazing lyrics, so I tend to realize it’s a Spencer Krug song the first time I hear it. This one sticks out for the line “Teary eyes and bloody lips make you look like Stevie Knicks.” I think that makes you look more like Tina Turner, but I guess that wouldn’t rhyme.
When I was a tween I went to my first R&B show (I believe it was EnVogue). I had been to oodles of shows so I knew the uniform: comfy jeans, comfy shoes, clever T, and discernible lack of hat. But there was a secret I didn't know about EnVogue fans: they dress up for a show like they are going to the prom. They get their hair styled, they wear suits and not dresses, but actual gowns. Gowns I tell you. They complete the look with the perfect prom accessory, a limousine. Not just one couple or ten, but droves of them. Three R&B shows later I discovered maybe it wasn't just EnVogue after all. Some people get dressed up for shows.
I'm not saying you need to follow a dress code by genre system. I may wear a tutu at any time, and I support your right to do the same. But some people do like to fit in, and might like knowing this stuff. I'm just saying if you are going to a kind of show you've never been to before, it might help to ask a knowledgeable type what people are likely to wear. Because if you show up dressed for the Prince show at the Gwar show you are going to stand out, and ruin your fancy shoes.
I’m a sucker for harmonies and handclapping. Both are in abundance. This is one of those bands I discovered because cool DJs keep remixing them. I look forward to getting to better getting to know their sound in 2012.
That echoey guitar and croon combination creates some surreal magic in “Top Bunk.” Sounds like: Animal Collective made a mainstream surf album. And what’s with that drum that sounds like an explosion at the bottom of the ocean? How are they producing that dub-step worthy bass out of an ordinary drum kit? If you like music that sounds like the soundtrack Venice Beach surfers hear as they drown, get this whole album, because it’s equally, oddly, delish. Just for fun, here’s a video of “Top Bunk” made with old Shwarzaneggar movies. It’s well-produced but I can’t imagine it’s official, what with copyright and all.
The word “mature” comes to mind: musicians that have been doing this for a while and have put some thought into the lyrics and how it all comes together. The guitarist plays around a bit, showing off but not too much, while the percussion trades off with a variety of synth melodies. Sadly, I haven’t heard the rest of this album, so please share in the comments if you can tell us if the other songs are as good as “Repatriated.” If this song ended at 3:40 it would still be one of the year’s best, but it goes on for another minute just to make sure you know: Handsome Furs know how to rock.
In the proud tradition of Le Tigre, Heartsrevolution is an indie pop band fed on the mother’s milk of riot grrrl punk rock. “I.D.” goes back and forth between the identity politics of war and pop music. It’s framed as a prayer so when she says “I think we got a bad connection… Can you hear me now CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? NOW?” the urgency is to a savior that doesn’t seem to be listening. My favorite part is where she puts a new spin on that pop-shlock icon when she says that her fear “is that the world will be filled with Britney Spears. ‘It’s Britney Bitch. And I’m not that innocent.’ We’re not that innocent.” But she’s not (only) talking about pop music fans, she’s talking about the claims about American jingoism’s good-vs.-evil motif. She’s saying we know the war cries are a bunch of BS. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more going on in this band than a bunch of crystal bling on a pink ice cream truck. If you like electro but wish you could find something with a bit more substance, Heartsrevolution may be the flavor you crave.
Jon Fratelli can’t seem to get his shit together. First the Fratellis make it big, and he quits the tour because he got too effing “tired.” Then he formed the truly fantastic Codeine Velvet Club, and quits it before they have a chance to build any kind of legacy. But what he lacks in caffeine/direction he makes up for in talent. It’s straightforward indie rock, with rollicking guitars, “Whoah-ohs,” and charming lyrics about life on the road and the women he meets along the way.
You can listen to Mister Heavenly’s entire album on Youtube, which is how I can tell you it’s a solid work with ample variety between songs. I wanted to pick one song from Out of Love and while I think “Bronx Sniper” is my favorite, the songs are so wonderfully different from one another you may find another suits you better. It’s no surprise, as Mister Heavenly is made of folks from The Shins, The Unicorns, Islands, Man Man and Modest Mouse. They even got Michael Sera to play bass for them on tour. Something good is bound to come of such a combination, and it seems that they’ve lent their talents in equal proportions.
This single appeared in 2010 but it didn’t get released on Amazon til 2011, so it’s fair game by my rules. Oberhofer sounds a bit under-produced in a world of Britney Spears, and that’s a good thing. It sounds like they recorded it on the second take, capturing all of Oberhofer’s emoting, whistling, and glockenspiel-tapping in its random, glorious splendor.
Initially “Go Alien” sounds like a Jonsi clone, which we could stand to have a few more of, so that’s fine. But twenty seconds in, some banging drums and guitar-slapping let us know that this isn’t all going to be lullaby music. I like that the build-ups and breakdowns in this song don’t fit the standard chorus-to-refrain ratio. Where most songs kind of do the same thing for a minute and then give you a repetitive refrain, Oh No! Yoko seems to change course every thirty seconds, taking you on a nice ride.
Patrick Wolf put out a ton of material in 2011. Most of it struck me as a pretentious but I’d listen to it again. Perhaps his seriousness keeps “The City” from slipping too far into bubblegum territory. It’s a new wave love song in the tradition of Crowded House or Tears For Fears. I love the piano melody, and only wish it were louder in the mix.“ The City” harkens to the days when a saxophone was a perfectly fine backing instrument for a rock song.
Hey, who uses this much flanger anymore, or at least uses it well? This song is an anthem, a song to dedicate to your friend who’s just gotten out of a long-term relationship or failed the bar exam. It seems all these years we’ve been in need of a song that proclaims “Get back into the rhythm of things and come to the bar!” So thanks for that, Pete.
Polarsets have put out one of my top-5 favorite albums of 2011, and “Leave Argentina” is just one song worth checking out (See my Best electro of 2011 list for a few others). The first thirty seconds of this song are nothing to get excited about, which makes the contrasting burst of sound all the more compelling when he breaks into the refrain. There’s all kinds of bells and electronic percussion and general exuberant wackiness. The refrain of “Leave Argentina” is one of many reasons Polarsets is one of the bands to keep an ear on in 2012.
It’s a simple guitar melody, some slow drums, occasional handclaps, and a few well-placed backup harmonies. When simplicity works, it’s all the more effective (see: The XX), and this Chicago band has pulled off a song just as catchy as some of the pop numbers with double the instruments, clappers, and singers.
I haven’t had a chance to listen to the rest of their latest album, but “Fire” is a sign that The Submarines are just as good as they were on the last one (which is worthy of blowing your milk money). It’s hard to believe it only takes two people to make songs this infectious. Maybe the synergy comes from the fact that they’re married. Maybe it is because singer Blake Hazard is a Harvard-grad whose great-grand-pappy wrote The Great Gatsby. Whatever the case, I hope this couple stays lovey-dovey long enough to get the fame they deserve.
This is probably the most over-played song on this list, but The Best Indie Rock of 2011 wouldn’t be complete without it. Thank goodness we have the Black Keys to pick up where the White Stripes abandoned the cause of reminding us of rock and roll’s long-time love affair with the blues. The Black Keys are back with another album, chock full of guitar-bragging in the fine tradition of Billy Gibbons and Angus Young.
The Go! Team are happy to present another album of songs for cheerleaders to rock-out to. If you’re looking for songs to do kartwheels and splits by, this is the one for you, and this here’s the finest track. Bonus points for naming their title track after the anti-consumerist holiday, though from vague lyrics are more likely to inspire a round of beers than a revolution. There’s a terrific Go! Team remix in my Best Dance Songs of 2011 list.
When it comes to dark, shoegaze-y rock born of some shadow-world version of 50s LA surf-rock, the Dum Dum Girls are not alone. The Raveonettes have produced another album for people who like their guitars with maximum fuzz.
The Wombats make rock music that’s as close as it can be to being described as “cute” without crossing the line into twee. “1996” is a full-blown nostalgia trip for twenty-somethings. If you liked “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” or “Kill the Director” or “My Circuitboard City” here’s more of the same.
I didn’t want to like this song because I overplayed The Ting Tings’ first singles until I was sick to death of girl rap-singing over guitar and a catchy beat. I thought I was through with all that, but “Hang It Up” refuses to be ignored. I forget to not like it, catch my head nodding, and when the guitar breaks out 1:40 I’m all “sweeeeet!” My apologies, Ting Tings. You still got it.
Fast drums and shrill synth and then it’s all over too quickly. Another in the category of great-bands-from-Sweden, Those Dancing Days are an all-girl rock band in the tradition of the Go-Gos and Sleater-Kinney. While their last single was more in the pop tradition of the Bangles this songs shows that Those Dancing Days can rock out like the late-90s girl groups.
Speaking of Sleater-Kinney, the Portlandia star is still making music, with her band Wild Flag. Perhaps should have been on my Best-of list, no?
The first time I heard TuNe-YaRdS I thought they were some sort of Afro-Carribean revival. And maybe they are, despite the fact that singer Merrill Garbus is not an African dude, but a petite woman as white as a stationary shop. It’s not really cleary what genre TuNe-YaRdS is trying to be, which is half of what makes them so great. The other half is that crazy voice, that swoops off in a thousand directions, at times pretty, at times raucous, at times soulful, but never predictable.
You know how your best friends are your partners in crime? How half the amazing pranks, road trips and crazy antics of your life only happened because of some off-hand brag or dare you had to live up to? It’s about time someone wrote a song about it. “You Told the Drunks I Knew Karate” is a fun and clever duet in the tradition of alt-folk story-telling. If you like Hello Saferide or the Moldy Peaches, be sure to give this one a listen.