A brief note to those who might not know what this is: One of my passions, aside from spending an inordinate amount of time overanalysing Saturday Morning Cartoon Shows, has always been music, and every December I like to come up with a short list of what I consider to be the standout musical events of the year. More often than not it's just a list of what I felt where the most memorable and enjoyable albums and singles released in the past 12 months. I'm not trying to claim any sort of authority here. I don't consider myself a music critic or a musicologist so I don't and can't listen to every single new piece of music that comes out and as a result the scope of something like this for me is by necessity somewhat limited. However, I do enjoy music a great deal and listen to what I consider a fair amount of it, so I do find myself having things to say about what I do get the chance to hear. That said, this won't be a list of what I consider the objectively “best” songs of the year, as I would never want to make a statement that sweeping and general, nor will this be a list of what I consider the songs that “defined” the year for the majority of people (if I wanted to do that I'd pick something silly and easy like “Call Me Maybe”, “Somebody That I Used To Know”, “We Are Young” or “Gangnam Style”). No, this is a list of the songs and albums that defined 2012 for me *personally*
Anyway, I've been doing this for the past several years now, but it's typically been restricted to social networking sites or my computer's hard drive. This is the first year I have something of an audience, and this feels like the proper place to post it. I think the case for music as Soda Pop Art is a fairly straightforward argument, so I trust I need not go into a lot of detail about the music industry and record executives or “selling out” or anything like that. And, as I'm no longer active on any of the places I used to post this sort of thing, I figured I'd take some time to relate what my picks were for a selection of previous years for those who might be interested in getting a basic overview of my taste in music and the sorts of things I like to listen to.
Single: “Evaporation” by Swimsuit
Album: Idle Labor by Craft Spells
Single: “Animal” by Neon Trees
Album: Homeland by Laurie Anderson
Single: “Bad Romance” by Lady GaGa
Album: Live from the Royal Albert Hall by The Killers
Single: “Poker Face” by Lady GaGa
Album: The Fame by Lady GaGa
With that sorted, here's what 2012 was like in music for me:
One of the most remarkable things about this year for me, and something that became rather a reoccurring theme throughout anything I heard in 2012, is that while I almost exclusively listened to new material being put by artists whom I was already a fan of or at the very least knew of, almost invariably the year marked a radical, decisive artistic shift for those selfsame musicians. For me this was a year of familiar artists putting out very strange and unfamiliar work, oftentimes the best work I'd ever heard from them. There seemed to be something in the air, the global zeitgeist, that exuded a feel of epoch changes and paradigm shifts. Perhaps it had something to do with elections all over the world and the fascination with the ever-looming end of the Mayan Long Count calendar and speculation about what that might mean, but at least in the world of music 2012 seemed to be shaped by a myriad of bands and acts making a stab at bold reinvention and metamorphosis. There were many breathtaking transformations to behold and, unfortunately, more than a few failed experiments and dead ends. Let's take a look at some of the most noteworthy:
Fun fact: Each of the songs on the list I discovered in one way or another through a video game console. I am now at a place in my life where I find most of my new music through Nintendo. I'm not sure if that speaks worse of me or the current music industry.
3. “The Fighter”-Gym Class Heroes feat. Ryan Tedder (May 31)
I have a bit of an affection for sports anthems: I spent the majority of the 1990s listening to them as that was the era where the genre had a large overlap with dance music. I fully admit to enjoying the odd high-energy number and it really does make a great soundtrack to run to. “The Fighter” is something different though; not just up-tempo but also upbeat, heartfelt and powerful. A cracking pop rap piece matched perfectly by a plaintive piano solo, “The Fighter” is a surprisingly moving and inspirational song that transcends its sports anthem pedigree to become something even more universal.
I'll confess to not paying Gym Class Heroes much heed in the past; I was never really a fan of their sound and their lengthy list of influences leads me to wish they were a bit more consistently excellent. But something seems to have roused them to action here, paired with OneRepublic front Ryan Tedder and Olympic gymnast John Orozco, as this is hands-down the best song of theirs I've ever heard. The music video is a documentary of Orozco's life as he trains for the London Olympics in his Bronx neighbourhood intercut with footage from previous competitions he was in and home videos of him as a child while Gym Class Heroes and Tedder provide the soundtrack. Lead singer Travie McCoy describes “The Fighter” as “serendipitous”, and it shows: The song has a quiet, gentle strength about it as Tedder and McCoy alternate poetic verses designed not only to pump the audience up, but speak to their soul.
Everyone working on this song was clearly inspired, and that in turn makes “The Fighter” a deeply inspirational song. It's one of the most motivational and affirmational songs of the year and has the potential to last beyond it as well. Its overt connection to this year's Olympics, or at least that of the music video, puts it in danger of becoming immediately dated once the New Year rolls around, but I have confidence this song can go the distance, just as it urges us to. Despite Orozco being the impetus, this song's themes are timeless and universal and are applicable to anyone who needs their faith and hope restored. Frankly, there aren't enough songs like that and these are expressly the sorts of times we need them the most. A world with “The Fighter” is already a better, healthier and stronger one.
2. “Gang of Rhythm”-Walk Off The Earth (December 12)
When I first started planning this post I originally intended to only spotlight one single and one album, mostly because, like I said, I'm not a music critic, have no aspirations to be one and don't feel comfortable trying to pass myself off as any kind of authority on the subject. Then, just as I sat down to start writing, this single came out. This was a complication because “Gang of Rhythm” is, as it happens, spectacularly, astonishingly, mind-blowingly good. I knew I had to say something about it, but I'd already picked my favourite single of 2012 and now had to face the prospect of knocking that one off the post to gush about this one. Eventually I said “screw it” and expanded the post to three singles, three albums and three runners-up just to include everything. So, if you're quaking in your shoes at the prospect of yet another Soda Pop Art missive that rivals Ulysses in length, you can blame Walk Off The Earth for that.
Walk Off The Earth are an eclectic multi-instrumentalist fusion folk band who have been recording since 2006, but started gaining widespread exposure this year thanks to their tongue-in-cheek acoustic covers of 2012's most memetic pop hits. They've amassed a rather extensive following on YouTube, and it should go to show you how in touch with Internet culture I am that the first I heard of them was when this music video showed up in my Nintendo Video feed, as of this writing, a week ago. “Gang of Rhythm” is, I believe, one of Walk Off The Earth's first original compositions, or at least one of the first to get attention on a large scale.
Describing what makes “Gang of Rhythm” such an unbelievably fantastic song is complex, as there are a multitude of reasons for this. I'll have you know this is very strange thing for me to be saying, as I've never been especially a fan of folk music myself; I don't have anything against the genre, but I've failed to be grabbed by a lot of it and it seems to have been taken over in recent years by a distressingly snobbish and beardy contingent of hipsters who look down on any piece of music featuring more instruments then a lone acoustic guitar and that lacks seven different layers of irony. On “Gang of Rhythm” Walk Off The Earth almost seem to be banking on a reaction like mine, as they pull one of most deft genre subversions I've ever heard.
The song opens with a single guitar chord and the lines “I've got this old guitar/the strings are rusty, but it's all I need”, immediately leading one to believe this is going to be yet another four minutes of strumming and navel-gazing. Slowly but surely though, the rest of the band is introduced: A drum, a shaker and then a ukulele. Lyrically though, “Gang of Rhythm” is still at this point a song about singing a song and doesn't give any indication it's going to be anything other than a basic, feel-good folk singalong. Suddenly though, at the 48 second mark the song just erupts into a chanting, stomping maelstrom taking the audience completely by surprise as Walk Off The Earth declare “We're like a locomotive/Under the big, hot sun/Just a chain in the gang of rhythm/The song is never done”. It feels like the band have thrown open the doors of the studio to let in an invigorating blast of world music carried in on a summer breeze and everything has suddenly become more global and more whole.
The music video is equally charming, as the band play a chain gang on the run from a bumbling law enforcement officer. It's simple, but beautifully shot and edited as every climactic surge is matched with some stunning framing wide angle shots and culminating in a giant party in an open field filled with happy, smiling, dancing people and Walk Off The Earth are, appropriately, in the middle of it all. Really, what more could you ask for? Leave it to Canada, home of many of my very favourite things, to produce something this deligthful.
I'll be honest, this was very nearly my pick for number 1. “Gang of Rhythm” is a beautiful and sublime bit of pure love. It's the polar opposite of hipster: It's sincere, honest and speaks to everyone all over the world because it genuinely belongs to the world. The rest of the EP this song comes from, R.E.V.O., is generally just as brilliant, Walk Off The Earth's signature fusion of folk, ska, reggae, punk, African music and pop continually finding new ways to surprise and delight (a particular favourite of mine is “Summer Vibe”, a perfectly glowing little composition that is now my new personal theme song). Were it a little longer and were it not for one track that's not quite as successful as the other three, it would have been a contender for my album of the year. As it is, “Gang of Rhythm” is a magnificent single, just about my favourite bit of music released this year and I heartily recommend it to anyone. Unfortunately, it came *extremely* late in the year and it just hasn't quite had the time to leave the sort of impact on me necessary for me to name it the single defining song of 2012 for me. 2013 though? I'd keep an eye on the horizon, because I suspect we all just might Walk Off The Earth.
1. “Stay Gold”-The Big Pink (January 11)
This was a really tough choice. “Gang of Rhythm” is a remarkable song: It's truly heartwarming and a fantastic piece of music. It's more than deserving of being anyone's best song of 2012, let alone mine. The decision to deny it the top spot it was not easy.
However, “Stay Gold” is a thing of absolute beauty.
I pretty much wrote The Big Pink off immediately as soon as I heard their 2009 debut single “Dominoes”. At the time, I scoffed at it and instinctively dismissed it and them as a transparent and ham-fisted attempt to rip off My Bloody Valentine while at the same time diluting their sound to a bare-bones pop hook that was offensively repetitive. Upon reflection and four years of hindsight, however...I still think I was right. “Dominoes” is rubbish: It's irresistibly catchy, but mind-numbingly redundant and musically blasé. It also boasts a chorus that is so stupidly and clumsily sexist it's abjectly hilarious: “These girls fall like dominoes! Dominoes!/These girls fall like dominoes! Dominoes!”, and as it's repeated 95 million times throughout the course of the song you can expect to have it drilled into your skull from now 'till eternity. Being played nonstop on the radio all throughout the latter half of 2009 earned the song no points in my book either, as overplayed ubiquity is the quickest way to get me to hate something with the fire of a thousand suns.
While I stick to my guns on that point, I may have underestimated The Big Pink because compared to “Dominoes”, “Stay Gold”, the lead single from their second album Future This, might as well have come from a different planet. When I first heard it my jaw hit the floor: “Stay Gold” is simply in a different league. Rather than My Bloody Valentine, The Big Pink's big influence is now apparently the Cocteau Twins (fitting, as they're signed to 4AD), and instead of sounding like imitators, they now sound like legitimate successors, as they combine that unmistakeable chiming, ringing wall of sound with a pop hook structure for the ages. In another complete reversal from “Dominoes”, instead of seemingly taking over the entire library of every radio station in existence like a particularly thorough and dickish cuckoo, the only place I've ever heard “Stay Gold” played outside my computer is on the soundtrack for this year's reboot of the venerable video game series SSX, which is where I first discovered it.
(I will admit I'm cheating a bit here: As a single, “Stay Gold” was technically released on November 14, 2011, but its parent album came out in January and didn't really seem to make much of an impact until it showed up in SSX, which came out in February. Certainly it's because of SSX I'm familiar with the song and that's what I most strongly associate it with. And anyway, these are songs that most defined 2012 for me personally, and there was really no contest for the top spot on *this* list)
From the outset you know you're in for something magical and special: Opening right up with a cathedral of ringing synth leads and guitar distortion and following through immediately with a thunderous, earth-quaking drum beat, “Stay Gold” wastes no time and effortlessly, confidently marches forward into what has got to be one of the greatest opening lines ever: “A time to love, a time to cry/And beat the darkness into light/We'll write our names across the town/Up is up and so is down”. What follows is three and a half minutes of rolling, flowing, towering 4AD pop strengthened by hauntingly oblique lyrics such as “These stings on our fingers just won't go/Chrome letters, outlines, arrows flow/The words drip off, we watch them fall/Desire of our mind is now written on the wall” and the chorus' gentle yet earnest appeal to “Stay gold, gold/Shining the way for us to follow”.
If this is the same band that was dancing in front of ice sculptures and comparing loose women to falling dominoes four years ago, which I'm not even entirely convinced it is, it's entirely possible The Big Pink may have just have pulled the most stunning and comprehensive musical turnaround I've witnessed in recent memory.
One of the most endlessly fascinating things about “Stay Gold” for me is that while fundamentally it's actually a very simple pop song, it manages to sound unbelievably complex and nuanced at the same time. It has a straightforward verse/chorus/refrain structure that's really rather basic, but The Big Pink's truly inspired innovation is to make the song's operatic emotion its soul and play its passion as a smouldering, circular rhythm instead of a climactic surge. While verses and choruses are distinct, the motorik-meets-Fairy-procession melodies and unwaveringly plaintive and pointed vocals cause them to flow into each other such that the basic musical structure is elevated to a point of unparalleled majesty and spledour.
I'm not judging music videos per se here, but I do look at them and they are something of a factor for me. Even if I was just doing videos though, “Stay Gold” would still come out on top without question, as it features one of the most breathtaking and vibrant videos I've seen so far this decade: An explosion of neo-Glam spectacle evoking a moody and contemplative haze. Flashing, metallic prisms of energy crash around a gender-balanced succession of models as the band loiters by an urban dreamscape and stares into the space behind the audience-It's incredibly fitting, tasteful and achingly beautiful. If you can only watch one of these embedded videos in 1080p, please, please make it this one: It's a sight to behold. It feels like a miniature performing arts installation and is a closing argument for the legitimacy and continued relevance of music videos as an art form. If we still had something like the 1980s MTV Video Music Awards that celebrated such things, this would surely have swept all the categories.
There really is no piece of music I've heard this year that is more deserving of being on the SSX soundtrack than this, because “Stay Gold” is that rare modern pop song, alternative or otherwise, that remembers it can be transcendentally powerful on a spiritual level: This is elemental music, made of wind and storms and air meant to be sung out into the world from atop a mountain peak as snowboarders and base jumpers fly over your head, leaping headfirst into the wild blue. At the same time though, “Stay Gold” is built on a core of very mundane human emotion, as the lyrics also exude at times a love of life, youth and friendship. It's at once glittering, radiant goddess music and a toast to nightlife and street culture. It may not have been the song that embodied what 2012 turned out to be, but “Stay Gold” was the song that, for me at least, best exemplified the potential of the New Year and the timeless earthly truths and ideals we try to keep in mind as we mark nature's cycle beginning anew each January. A simply staggering achievement, and without question one of the best songs of 2012, 2011, or just about any other year for that matter.
While nearly all of the albums I heard this year were well-crafted, enjoyable listens, there were some that, for whatever reason fell just short of greatness. Each of these albums was released by a returning artist and none of them are works any of them should feel ashamed about having in their catalogue. However, in a year defined by returning artists surprising me with firmly left-of-centre compositions and bold reinventions, being merely “good” was not quite enough to make the cut. It does, however, still make them worthy of mention and deserving of attention, so let's take a look:
3. Battle Born-The Killers (September 18)
The Killers are possibly the most ludicrous band in the world and I still unabashedly love them.
First of all, the idea of a follow-up to Day and Age, The Killers' last album from 2008, is itself an odd one. In retrospect, an act who made their commercial breakthrough in 2004 and are named after a pretend band in a New Order video, should have had the most obvious and looming sell-by date in music history. And indeed, the Day and Age tour culminating in the 2009 Royal Albert Hall headlining show seemed for all the world like The Killers going out in the biggest and brightest Blaze of Glory they could muster as Brandon Flowers jumped headlong into his best Glam Rock Space Messiah persona, which he can of course do effortlessly because no one will ever be able to convince me this isn't what Brandon Flowers actually thinks he is. So, one can hopefully forgive me for giving The Killers up for dead after they publicly crucified themselves on a neon palm tree at the end of the decade of Retro 80s fetishism (not literally, but knowing this band it's a wonder it wasn't).
But it's not the ghost of Day and Age that haunts Battle Born, The Killers' first new studio album in four years (a title which, me being me, I simply cannot read without immediately thinking of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim). If anything, it's that of Sam's Town, the 2006 follow-up to their beloved debut Hot Fuss and that's not...really a good thing. This was the album that showed the world for the first time how actually mad Flowers and The Killers really are, conceived as it was as concept album built around the actively insane goal of throwing New Order, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, The Chameleons, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, U2, Duran Duran, Queen, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen in a blender in order to create the Born to Run for Las Vegas and the southwest United States. Sam's Town was an unholy Frankenstein monster of an album that simply should not have existed and Flowers' attempts at heartland rock revealed him to be the Vegas boy he so proudly is as his lyrics were as thin and full of plasticky verisimilitudes as the city itself. But as fundamentally wrong as it was, Sam's Town wasn't at all bad, the band's actually commendable earnest conviction to their misbegotten ideals kept it big, loud, epic, cathartic and, every once in awhile, the majesty and pageantry of the whole thing tricked you into thinking you were listening to something genuine (also just like Las Vegas).
Battle Born sees The Killers returning to this approach: Everything is grandiose and palatial and the band exudes the seasoned confidence of the veteran performers they now are. But the flip side of this is it also raises the uncomfortable possibility The Killers simply got lucky on their previous high water marks. Nothing here really stands out; Lead single “Runaways” is suitably bombastic and balladic and is as full of Flowers' goofy and proudly cliche-ridden lyrics as anything else he's involved with is (though let's be honest-If you're listening to The Killers in 2012 you're not really bothered by that much and neither am I), but it's really the album's only real notable moment. There's nothing else here I'd call especially memorable (with the possible exception of “Deadlines and Commitments” and the title track), and certainly nothing that brings to mind the rapturous highs of “Mr. Brightside”, “When You Were Young”, “Human”, “Spaceman”, or “This River Is Wild”. Indeed, without the 80s revival zeitgeist that greeted Hot Fuss, the left-field experimentation with space rock and world music on Day and Age or the apocalyptic, era-closing feel that permeates it and Live at the Royal Albert Hall, The Killers have to fall back on their musicianship alone on Battle Born and, this being The Killers, there's not a whole lot to work with.
It's not that this is an unskilled band or that Battle Born is a particularly *bad* piece of work, it just all feels incredibly shallow and forgettable. But I mean The Killers have always been unapologetically shallow-They're the definitive Las Vegas band, writing hollow simulacra of emotion and playing them like epic poetry. However, in the past there's always been something to distract us from this basic truism and allows us to get lost in the music for a bit, and they seem to have finally come up empty this time. Without the charge of Hot Fuss, the refreshing airiness of Day and Age or the impassioned, religious zeal that defined Sam's Town and Live at the Royal Albert Hall The Killers artifice falls apart and they don't quite leave the impression they ought to. That said, Battle Born is a solid, well made album of exactly the kind of material one might expect of The Killers: You probably won't regret putting it on, but you might not remember it after it's over.
2. Picture Show-Neon Trees (April 17)
It's difficult to talk about Neon Trees without also talking about The Killers, so it's probably a good thing I wrote about Battle Born first. Like The Killers, Neon Trees are at least in part a retro throwback act that plays with the trappings of 1980s electronic music and combines it with a pop rock sound, and it's no coincidence they were discovered by Ronnie Vannucci, Jr., The Killers' drummer. What ultimately sets Neon Trees apart from The Killers is firstly that Neon Trees draws their rock pedigree from The Strokes instead of U2 and Springsteen and also that, well, they sound a bit more like an actual band. While The Killers revel in artifice and artificiality, building majestic castles out of Styrofoam and stage props, Neon Trees are content to keep their stakes comparatively small and on the whole sound much more like real live people.
A good example of this is their interactions with 1980s culture, which feel far more honest and genuine than anything The Killers have ever done: Neon Trees are certainly not afraid of sending up the trappings of the era, especially on songs like “1983”, a single culled from their 2010 debut Habits, but the difference is when they do it the result sounds like it was penned by someone who actually lived through the decade and is slightly bemused by the nostalgia fetishism it's been subject to in recent years instead of by a confused space alien who is under the impression humans communicate primarily through Las Vegas stage shows.
While the 80s influences remain on Picture Show, most obviously on “Trust” (which sounds like Neon Trees are hoping to channel Depeche Mode's Violator), it also sees them trying very hard to prove they're more than a retro-tinted pop rock band. Almost too hard, in fact. There is a curious 1950s motif that permeates this album: The album art and music video for lead single “Everybody Talks” deliberately evoke drive-in movies and Neon Trees display something of a fascination with a '50s rock 'n roll sound throughout (contrasting with the '80s and '90s veneer that defined Habits) and it all builds toward “Hooray for Hollywood” at the back end, a track apparently written as a critique of celebrity exploitation, though its hard to tell with such subtleties as having vocalist Tyler Glenn read off a list of deceased actors and musicians for 30 seconds, explicitly lingering on the call-and-response sequence “Amy/Whitney”. Yes, Glenn is no Lady GaGa, and, no matter how hard it tries at times, Picture Show is no The Fame.
But aping Lady GaGa is not the only thing Neon Trees experiments with here: Picture Show also features a fair number of slow, romantic power ballads that try to get across a softer, more gentle sound than Neon Trees are typically known for. These are a mixed bag-“Close to You” goes on for far too long for a song of its type (over 5 minutes) and while Glenn seems to have been aiming for contemplative he hit plodding instead. “Mad Love” is youthful and childlike to the point of being juvenile and grating and bringing in drummerXbacking vocalist Elaine Bradley for a duet here and on a few other tracks was perhaps a mistake: Bradley is a very skilled percussionist and backup singer to be sure, but as a lead vocalist she sounds a bit out of her element to me (also, given the lyrical content of some of the songs on this album, having two band members sing to each other is more than a little creepy). The only place I feel this really works is “Still Young” which manages to be an emotional slow burn without feeling forced or stretched. This is mostly due to the fact it also preserves Neon Tree's trademark energy and personality, which means it feels far more authentic.
What Picture Show most feels like is the product of a band grappling with unexpected fame and attention and having a bit of a hard time internalizing and reacting to it. “Everybody Talks”, while unbelievably catchy, sounds depressingly like Neon Trees trying to repeat the success of their runaway breakthrough “Animal” and a lot of the rest of the album feels like the band trying to backpedal away from the sound and vibe of Habits, hence failed experiments like “Close to You” and “Hooray for Hollywood”. But the very best parts of Picture Show demonstrate Neon Trees are not a one-trick act because they build off the soul of their debut and translate it into the context of a new album, which is what any good follow-up ought to do. Cuts like “Weekend” have the same charming charisma and character that made Habits such a winner and the delightfully epic closer “I Am The DJ” even proves the band can do songs in excess of 5 minutes just fine so long as they fully bring themselves to the party. Pity it took an entire album to get there.
What Neon Trees are best at is being an unabashed pop rock act that looks backwards and forwards at the same time while exuding a tremendous amount of fun and warmth in the process. I feel I *get* Neon Trees as artists and people far more than I do a lot of other music acts. I certainly relate to them better than just about anyone in the pop charts, who mostly sound less like people and more like soulless pop robots, or even someone like Brandon Flowers: This is very approachable, human music, not the overblown faux-Springsteen gospel of a somewhat hapless self-appointed Space Jesus. I get the sense Neon Trees are people like me who I'd probably get along well with if I met in person, and that's quite rare in today's pop climate. So long as they remember that, they'll remain capable of true greatness
1. Warrior-Ke$ha (December 4)
I don't suspect any of my nominations and acknowledgments for recording artists in 2012 will be as controversial as this one. Explaining why I actually *like* Ke$ha and enjoy her work has been a constant and regular challenge for me ever since she first appeared on the pop scene three years ago. And yes, I concede she's a very easy act to misread, that just means she's always overlooked and misunderstood by music snobs. See, there are really two people at play here: Ke$ha, the trashy, dirty, unapolgetically boozed-up party girl, and Kesha Serbert, her creator, the savvy and observant travelling mystic and music industry veteran. Both show up on Warrior, the second full-length LP for the pair, and the tension between the two is this album's defining feature.
Before I go further with my review of Warrior, I want to directly address those who doubt the existence of Kesha Serbert the artist. The thing is, despite the ubiquity of Ke$ha the performing act, it was always clear to those who granted her more than a cursory, dismissive glance when she first hit the scene it was precisely that, an act. Serbert scored a perfect on the SAT, had a working graduate-level knowledge of Cold War history in high school, has over 65 recorded songs to her name that date from before she got a recording contract and has written and produced for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, The Veronicas and Prince. She's not stupid in the slightest, far from it: She's probably one of the savviest people working in pop music today. Ke$ha is the tongue-in-cheek result of Serbert goofing around in a recording studio with her collaborators and making fun of what she dubs with a laugh if pressed “white girl rap” that wound up becoming ridiculously popular. The easiest person to compare her to is, actually, John Lydon: Both are artists with a deep love and understanding of music known mostly for utterly taking the piss out of it by trolling on a global scale.
While her mainstream debut Animal/Cannibal (not to be confused with the Neon Trees hit from the same year with a similar title) was meant purely as a bit of fun, Warrior comes from a bit more of a personal place, apparently the result of a several-year spiritual journey Serbert went on where she travelled the world alone living out of a sailboat (which, an aside, immediately makes her something of a soul sister to me as that's precisely my life goal) and written around themes of discovering enlightenment in a nomadic lifestyle and a love of life. With a pitch like that, I was really looking forward to this album and hoped this would finally be the year that proved Kesha Serbet is a legitimate and respectable musician to all the reactionary critics who sneered at her in 2010 calling her “filthy” and “gross” before engaging in a truly despicable bit of slut-shaming. Indeed, the year opened with a fantastic sign as she released, fittingly, the wonderfully oblique and challenging “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)”, a collaboration with The Flaming Lips and Biz Markie that ought to prove her artistic credibility once and for all. Unfortunately, at the other end of the year Warrior itself came out and...didn't quite measure up.
Warrior's main problem seems to be a demographic one. While “2012 (You Must be Upgraded)” was written for a loyal, seasoned and comparatively small art rock audience who could be expected to be used to something like it, Warrior is written for a much, much larger audience of Ke$ha faithful keenly tuned into the current pop landscape and many of whom listen to her completely sincerely and unironically. In fact, Warrior is so much of its time it's a weakness and a distraction-The LP's been out barely a month as of this writing and parts of it are already badly dated: The pop dubstep sound that permeates large swaths of the album is going to age as gracefully as glam metal, Rick Santorum is bewilderingly mentioned on “Dirty Love” and lead single “Die Young” is now fantastically inappropriate in the wake of recent events (pity, as it's actually quite good and one of the best crafted radio pop songs you're likely to find today).
This maddening dichotomy that haunts Kesha and Ke$ha is in full force here, and indeed it's even literalized at the level of individual tracks: A reoccurring theme sees Serbert doing calls-and-responses with herself and alternating between wildly different singing styles and polar opposite song structures. It's exceedingly clever, as so much of this album is-The handiwork of a consummate professional is self-evident. In addition, Serbert's firm grasp of musicianship and music history is clearly on display here: Following the frequent nods to Kraftwerk on her debut, Kesha continues to do well by her influences and prove her music geek cred here with an obviously Asia-inspired album cover and, on the record itself, by collaborating with Iggy Pop, Wayne Coyne and Alice Cooper, sending up The Strokes and Joan Jett (and managing to one-up them both) on “Only Wanna Dance With You” and “Gold Trans AM”, respectively and giving what appears to be a shout-out to, of all things, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's “The Romance of the Telescope” on “Past Lives”. Serbert also throws out what might be a barbed critique of Adele on “Thinking of You”, which tells the story of a neurotic, passive aggressive pop starlet who keeps phoning up her ex-boyfriend to brag about how over him she is despite clearly being anything but (even as Serbet herself amusingly channels Adele and mashes her up with Phil Collins' “In the Air Tonight” on “Love Into the Light”).
The big problem is, unfortunately, that Warrior remains a Ke$ha album. Serbert's stabs at authenticity and experimentation are constantly dampened and hamstrung by her need to put put out a big, AAA mainstream pop release. Because ultimately, no matter how wonderfully intriguing Kesha Serbet may be as person and an artist, it's Ke$ha who sells multi-platinum records and who has legions of loyal fans who adore her and her raunchy, tawdry excess. Serbert is happy to oblige, seeing it as she does as just another facet of living a rich and full life, and far be it for an old, antisocial stick-in-the-mud like me to complain. I have nothing against the gleeful, tongue-in-cheek id celebration and love of living Ke$ha embodies, especially as she doesn't seem to take any of it seriously: Sometimes it's good to let loose, have some fun and be unapologetic about it. But the troubling part of it for me is it seems to be holding her back somewhat as an artist. The archetypical example of this is “Supernatural”, a song supposedly inspired by an out-of-body experience Serbert had with Tantric sex but which sounds like a cheap and shameless lift of Katy Perry's “Extraterrestrial”. And if there's one person Ke$ha probably wants to avoid comparisons with it's Katy Perry, the self-appointed queen of vapid tween pop who is on record saying she doesn't consider herself a feminist (apparently the two are friends in real life which would explain some things, but I maintain Perry's public persona and Ke$ha's are fundamentally different and irreconcilable).
Warrior is a very, very good 2012 pop album, probably the best you can find. It's a straightforward demonstration that Ke$ha is a much more skilled and honed pop craftswoman than even some of the other people on this list: Warrior is exquisitely produced and far more intelligent and heartfelt then pretty much anything else on the charts, and each and every song is immediately distinct and memorable (albeit not always for the right reasons). Serbert's singing, often criticized for its heavy reliance on autotune, is superb here, and she delivers some thoroughly stunning moments on “Wherever You Are”, “Love Into the Light” and “Crazy Kids”, the latter of which features a truly elegant and sublime climactic tone shift that deftly and unexpectedly changes the whole feel of the song (indeed, the autotune on Animal/Cannibal was an aesthetic choice spurred by the type of music Serbert was trying to satirize. She can sing perfectly well, as this album duly shows).
It's not that Warrior is a poor album by any stretch of the imagination: It's incredibly cohesive, solid and polished and “Die Young” and “Wherever You Are” are just about perfect pop songs, but it could have been so much more: The overwhelming feel is that while this is Ke$ha's high water mark, Kesha Serbet has consciously decided to play it safe and keep the stakes low. This is not helped by misfires like “Wonderland” and the Iggy Pop duet “Dirty Love”, neither of which work at all in my opinion. If Kesha is this generation's John Lydon, she's an alternate universe Lydon reluctant to leave his Sex Pistols phase behind and who seems only tentatively willing to embrace Public Image Ltd. I started the year expecting Warrior to be Ke$ha's Metal Box-Instead, it's Never Mind The Bollocks v2.1 and that's not *quite* the same thing.
Indeed, unlike something like Battle Born, which is, I feel, entirely passable and that nobody who skips it is going to be missing anything of real value, Warrior is quite strong and I'd earnestly recommended it to anyone reading this post. There are moments of genuine greatness here that truly show how talented Kesha is as an artist, a performer and an observer. I very nearly called it one of my the best albums of the year, and even after all this it's still one of my favourites. But in the end, the sin Warrior commits is almost greater than the one that holds down Battle Born: Instead of being merely phoned-in and forgettable, Warrior is a badly flawed masterpiece: A great album that's simply not as great as it could have been and that doesn't seem especially interested in realising its full potential. And that's enough to keep it off the podium.
3. Gallery-Craft Spells (May 22)
Have you ever had one of those moments where you discover an idea you never would have thought of yourself, but in hindsight seems bleeding obvious? In particular, did you ever find someone who has put two or more things together that you never would have conceptualized in the same thought, but, once you see it, seems like the most natural blend in the world? In mid-2011, I had one such experience when I stumbled upon a new fusion genre that quickly became my favourite trend in music today: Post-Punk Surf Music.
I'm both a passionately spiritual surfer and someone who probably would have felt very at home in the European and British art house punk scene of the early 1980s, and even I would never have dreamed to mix these two styles together. I guess I can count myself lucky there is a whole movement of unspeakably talented artists in the contemporary indie scene, mostly in California and the tropical Pacific, who did, because the result is the most perfect and refreshing sound I've heard in ages.
There is as wide a spectrum of musicians and styles in this Post-Punk revival movement as there were in the original one: Swimsuit takes a bare-bones motorik percussion section reminiscent of Joy Division and early Neu! and melds it to crashing, tumbling yearning vocal harmonies and bright, classic surf rock guitar melodies while indie darlings Seapony seem drawn more to shoegazers like Galaxie 500 and My Bloody Valentine. Superhumanoids fashion airy, warm and emotional ballads out of Man-Machine-era Kraftwerk and Tropical Popsicle go for a darkly psychedelic, almost Goth lens that calls to mind Bauhaus and early Echo and the Bunnymen, giving them an utterly unique sound and perspective.
For my money though no act I've yet heard has seized upon the potential offered by Post-Punk Surf Rock to quite the extent of the San Francisco-based Craft Spells. Meticulous readers (those still awake after all this at any rate) will remember I picked their debut album Idle Labor as my favourite album of 2011, and with good reason: It's bloody fantastic. In his review of Idle Labor,AllMusic's Ned Raggett describes it as sounding like “...what might have happened if Morrissey -- or maybe more accurately a Morrissey fan from 1986 -- had barged in on the sessions for Low-Life or Brotherhood in the absence of Bernard Sumner...” and while that's about as fitting and accurate description of what Craft Spells sounds like as anything, I feel it also does the band a bit of a disservice. Front Justin Paul Vallesteros is no copycat, and while Craft Spells is at once immediately reminiscent of both New Order and The Smiths, their sound is unquestionably their own. In fact, Vallesteros has done his homework so well and understands this scene so innately Craft Spells sound eerily like they actually belong to the era they're paying homage to.
But Craft Spells are no out-of-time throwback act either, and have their gaze fixated on the surf rock fusion only made possible by the current scene. This is even more abundantly clear on this year's Gallery, and it has to be good if it puts Craft Spells high on my lists two years in a row: Downplaying some of the Morrissey-fan-meets-New-Order novelty of their debut, this EP sees Craft Spells further honing and refining their unique voice and making sure to put the contemplative guitar lines, which meld so seamlessly with the alternative dance making up the rest of the sound, front and centre. Vallesteros sounds more confident and assured in both his singing and composing and is, to be blunt, already a stronger and more poetic songwriter then Bernard Sumner ever was (much as I love New Order, lyrics and vocals were never their strong point). This is very much an album for beach and ocean people: Lyrics like “Feels like a paradise/As I watch the sun dance above her eyes” on “Warmth”, the breezy, sunny and introspective dance rocker “Leave My Shadow” and the sparkling, shimmering instrumental chorus on “Burst” evoke the vibe of the lifestyle with the same vividness the greatest 80s art rockers displayed.
Gallery may not be a bold, unprecedented turning point for Craft Spells in the way something like “Stay Gold” is for The Big Pink or “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” was for Ke$ha, but it's just as much a statement of purpose as either of those efforts. It's a solid display of what makes this band so special and sign of their growing confidence and self-assurance. As far as I'm concerned it's the best Post-Punk release of 2012, and it just might have been a contender to be one of the best of 1986 too.
2. This Is PiL-Public Image Ltd. (May 29)
Well, if I could give out an award for “Biggest Surprise of 2012”, this probably would have to be it.
If there's one thing I absolutely did not expect to see this year, or any year for that matter, it was a new Public Image Ltd. album. I knew John Lydon had pulled together a few PiL reunion shows in 2009, but I never expected a whole new album and record label to come out of that. Nevertheless, This Is PiL showed up under “New Releases” at the end of May on my AllMusic feed of all places, leaving me utterly gobsmacked and feeling a bit guilty I hadn't heard of it sooner.
A bit of background for anyone as in the dark about this as I was: Despite his public perception as a somewhat laughable washed up punk sellout, John Lydon has not been resting on his laurels in the decades since That Which Is Not, the previous (and what most I presume took to be the last) Public Image Ltd. album. Lydon has apparently always wanted to keep the band going, but due to life commitments in the 1990s and financial and bureaucratic holdups in the 2000s has been unable to do so until now. Lydon shopped the idea of a new album to every record label he could get ahold of, but nobody was interested in associating with Public Image Ltd. (though they were all perfectly happy to sponsor The Sex Pistols going on the nostalgia circuit, to which Lydon agreed reluctantly).
Eventually realising he would need to do this all on his own, Lydon spent the better part of a decade and a half buying back all the rights to the PiL name and back catalogue. Since there was no way he could have afforded this himself, Lydon eventually agreed to become the spokesperson for Country Style Butter to raise the money he needed. While his butter ad campaign has been universally reviled and derided, every penny Lydon made doing those ad spots went into Public Image Ltd., providing the funds for him to start his own record label, reclaim the rights to the band and finance a new album, a new tour, studio space and the infrastructure to physically press all the copies of the LP. You can make fun of Lydon all you want for his butter commercials, but just know we wouldn't have PiL or this album today without them, being literally the only way Lydon could find to raise the kind of money he needed. And that would be a real shame, because This Is PiL is one of the best albums Public Image Ltd. have ever put out.
It's immediately clear This Is PiL is the product of a band and a creative visionary with a love of music, something to say and the freedom to be able to say it any damn way he pleases. Most “comeback” albums I've heard from bands of this vintage have been anything but in my opinion, being painfully obviously born out of a need to quickly and messily cash in on the nostalgia of aging fans to make ends meet, exemplified most clearly by Echo and the Bunnymen's in my opinion frankly embarrassing output from any point after about 1985 or so. Even when they're not deeply cynical and uncomfortable, more often than not there's something about comeback albums that indicates that while the artist who put them may not yet be irrelevant, they might still be a bit passed their prime, such as Siouxsie Sioux's surprisingly tepid and tentative MantaRay or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's more-disappointing-than-not History of Modern (although my frustrations with that particular LP may stem from my own overinflated expectations for it just as much as its actual quality. That said, I still argue OMD themselves were the biggest source of those inflated expectations). This Is PiL, by contrast, comes right out, declares itself a rousing statement of purpose and proudly wears its consciousness and soul on its sleeve.
This Is PiL sees Lydon reuniting with his Happy?- and 9-era collaborators and while that may arouse ire from longtime PiL fans, on this album they prove themselves perfectly up to the task put in front of them: This is the most musically interesting and diverse Public Image album since at least The Flowers of Romance. Lydon's affection for world music and stylistic fusion, and that of the rest of the band, is the clearest here it's possibly ever been, as PiL mashes up reggae, hip-hop, spoken-word performance art and Metal Box-esque Post-Punk with matter-of-fact skill. It plays like nothing so much as a distillation and condensation of the various sounds, styles and influences Lydon has experimented with over the years (while at the same time forging a clear path forward) in an effort to write down exactly what Public Image Ltd.'s musical philosophy is, as befits an album bearing the title it does.
Thematically, Lydon seems primarily interested in exploring on the experiences, tragedies and hardships he's lived through and reflecting on how much his home country of England has changed without him, especially on “Human” (not to be confused with The Killers song of the same name from Day and Age)-Although residing in Los Angeles, Lydon returned to England to record this album. Lydon also seems to express disillusionment in the health of society in 2012 and sadness at the fact it hasn't progressed more than it has over the course of his life, most obvious as he launches into a despair-filled rant on “Terra-Gate”. At the same time though, This Is PiL is a very positive and proud album firmly about defiance and camaraderie. “Deeper Waters” showcases Lydon's love of sailing and conveys a sense of solitude and solace with the ocean and the larger universe that only someone who spends a great deal of time on the waves would be able to and “Lollipop Opera” is a charming 6-minute epic about trashing a hotel room dedicated to his “Lollipop Mob”; apparently Lydon's amusing attempt give a collective name to his fans along the lines of Lady GaGa's “Little Monsters” or Ke$ha's “Animalz”.
The standout track has to be lead single “One Drop”, an upbeat and charging reggae fusion piece in which Lydon rallies his Lollipop Mob by boldly declaring “We are the ageless/We are teenagers/We are the focused/Out of the hopeless/We are the last chance/We are the last dance” and ending with the heartwarming and affirmational line “Born in London/Out of London/But really, we are born everywhere”. The video is terrific, a delightfully up-yours anti-music video filmed with a single shaky handheld camcorder and featuring scenes of the band screwing around in the farmhouse studio they recorded in intercut with shots of London taken from the backseat of a car. Lydon and PiL are reaching out to anyone young at heart with a revolutionary soul all over the world, no matter the age, gender, culture or creed, and “One Drop” is a pure, positive and unashamed call to arms. It's powerful and indignant, but it comes from a desire for love, peace and solidarity. And that's as good a description of John Lydon as any: “One Drop”, and This Is PiL as a whole, show without a shadow of a doubt that while his spirit may have weathered, the years have taken none of the edge off it, nor have they robbed it of its sincerity and relevance.
1. Out of Frequency-The Asteroids Galaxy Tour (March 5)
The ghostly echoes of a party at some mid-1960s high roller club materialize out of the darkness. First a sombre keyboard riff, then an explosion of horns and percussion led by unearthly lounge crooner harmonies, and finally it all comes together in a stomping, out-of-control, in-your-face, histrionic hip-hop number. That's how The Asteroids Galaxy Tour open their second full-length album, Out of Frequency.
Cosmopolitan Danish pop outfit The Asteroids Galaxy Tour made their recording debut in 2009 with the self-consciously kitschy and fun Fruit, an album that brought to mind images of Sly Stone and Frank Sinatra in smoky casino lounges through a distinctly playful European lens. Consisting of bandleader Mette Lindberg, producer Lars Ivarsen and a rotating succession of world music performers, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour's trademark sound can best be described as a mixture of 1960s lounge music, pyschedelia, hip-hop, 80s electronica and bubblegum pop. The band first gained notoriety in 2008 when they attracted the attention of Amy Winehouse and their debut single “The Sun Ain't Shining No More” was used in an iPod commercial. They again hit global notoriety when “The Golden Age”, the lead single off Fruit, was used as the theme song for a popular ad campaign for Heineken in late 2010, resulting in its re-release as an expanded EP in April of 2011.
Though the paragraph above may not be the most ringing endorsement the band has ever had, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour have always been more then purveyors of ad jingles. Fruit displayed an impressive spectrum of musical styles and the effortless way the band played them off of each other gave it a unique feel all its own. Furthermore, jangly bubblegum pop, though present and very well done, actually made up a comparatively small fraction of that album's sound, Lindberg and Ivarsen preferring slower, more contemplative grooves on the whole. All the same though, after Fruit and the Golden Age EP I was prepared to chalk up The Asteroids Galaxy Tour as a charming and talented, if somewhat fluffy, novelty act. Then this year happened.
To say Out of Frequency is a step forward from Fruit is like saying travelling from Baffin Island to Tierra del Fuego is a jaunty Sunday drive. After opening with the aforementioned *three-part* art house-come-lounge-rap epic “Gold Rush, Pt.1”/”Dollars In the Night”/”Gold Rush, Pt.2”, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour immediately launch into the aggressive and unforgettable “Major”, upon which the singer who just last year was talking about hangin' with the Rat Pack is now delivering a devastatingly scathing condemnation of authoritarian ambition by way of a Paul Weller-esque story song about the rise and fall of a military junta against the backdrop of gang warfare. The music video is similarly shocking, as fans used to the goofy retro fun of “The Golden Age” are treated to stock footage from the fall of the Berlin Wall and South African apartheid riots intercut with scenes of Lindberg strutting around in what can only be described as a military themed dominatrix outfit before joining the rest of her band wailing away at their instruments in front of a spartan backdrop. Occasionally this is broken up by Lindberg barking the command “Now blow it up!”, set to shots of detonating bombs, rockets exploding on the launchpad and gasoline fires. In case her point somehow wasn't clear enough, Lindberg closes the song with the equal parts snarling and chilling lyrics “The big transition/You passed audition/No more opposition/NO!/Only pure demolition!/It's Major Ambition!”
In the hands of a lesser band, this jarring attempt at such a comprehensive image reversal would be laughable at best and disastrously humiliating at worst. But Lindberg, Ivarsen and their collaborators are not idiots; “Major” is still very much an Asteroids Galaxy Tour song, it's just no-one expected them to have a song like this in them. This is a surprisingly bare-bones piece, featuring primarily horns, a saxophone, a percussion section and Lindberg's trademark crooning. It's a no-bullshit hip-hop song that simply replaces the electronic sampling with a brass section and, as a result, is a shockingly natural evolution from their earlier material. The perhaps uncomfortable truth to be gleaned from this, however, may be that The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, a kitschy Danish bubblegum outfit, are now playing on the level of Public Enemy. Ironically, this may be some of the purest, most hardcore hip-hop and gangster rap in the pop landscape today. This is the most stunning transformation of a band this side of “Stay Gold”, but while The Big Pink pulled it off in a single, their album was a bit more changeable. Out of Frequency is a cohesive, comprehensive and unapologetic album-length statement: Of course it had to top my list.
What's really remarkable about this though is that The Asteroids Galaxy Tour actually manage to follow-up on “Major”...by transitioning effortlessly into the campy electronic disco number “Heart Attack” as if nothing had happened. “Heart Attack” is perfectly sugary and silly but, amazingly, it doesn't feel out of place at all and this is when it finally becomes clear what The Asteroids Galaxy Tour have pulled off here. Out of Frequency is not a panicked abandonment of the themes that made the band famous in pursuit of artistic credibility, its the maturation and evolution of those themes to a higher plane of existence.
Like their previous work, and like so many other artists on this list, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour run through an entire gamut of styles here: The toothy-yet bemused James Bond piss-take “Cloak & Dagger” mingles with the goofy '60s pastiche “Mafia” (which sounds like what we might have expected “Major” to sound like before we actually heard it) and the willfully progressive embellishment of “Arrival of the Empress (Prelude)” and “Theme From 45 Eugenia”. Nothing sticks out or feels like it doesn't fit: The Asteroids Galaxy Tour have a handle on an extremely disparate group of styles, influences and decades and they make it all blend together seamlessly. It's not clear the band is sending up various eras as much as they are assembling a giddy musical kaleidoscope that only they could stake a claim to. This is indie pop designed and played like art rock, and not once does Mette give any indication it's not meant to be taken just as seriously, even if it is on average more fun.
The whole album reaches a dizzying watershed on penultimate track “Suburban Space Invader”, a marvelously over-the-top space rock/pop rap confection that has to be heard to be believed. Almost the inverse of “Major”, “Suburban Space Invader” is a cheerfully upbeat and lyrically bewildering piece of work that alternates between descriptions of downtrodden nomadic youth and, well, space invaders, complete with abduction and probing and everything. It is unlike anything I have ever heard, and is also amazing. It seriously rivals “Major” as the standout track on Out of Frequency and with its memorable singalong structure and uplifting message (according to Mette it's about showing people how to be proud of who you are and where you come from no matter the circumstances) it's one of my favourite songs of the year, all-stop.
Elsewhere The Asteroids Galaxy Tour's innate ability to build off a myriad of styles and slightly hardened sound is just as apparent. Last year, they recorded a tongue-in-cheek cover of Men Without Hats' “Safety Dance” and played it as part of their live setlist. This year, they performed another cover: A stripped-down, acoustic rendition of Iggy Pop's “Lust For Life” which they play absolutely straight. Astonishingly, not only do they make the song work flawlessly after removing all of its rock excess and replacing it with horns, tambourines and shakers, they do so while Mette manages to completely avoid imitating Iggy Pop. She doesn't deliver her typical rap or lounge singer croon either, instead seeming to, bewilderingly, channel Tom Waits. Unbelievably, this works, and works really, really well. Not only do The Asteroids Galaxy Tour make the song wholly their own, they do it while giving the distinct impression they're far more capable and deserving of handling Iggy Pop's material then Ke$ha.
Mette has a propensity for lyrical density and her singing style is a bit of an acquired taste, so I can completely understand someone being hesitant to embrace music like this. Also, maybe some people might turn up their noses at this kind of band outright, fiercely objecting to The Asteroids Galaxy Tour lending their song to a beer commercial, or similarly to John Lydon peddling butter or “Stay Gold” showing up in SSX, but the harsh reality is that the music industry is not a profitable career path right now, especially if you're a young upstart band or one that prefers to circle the indie circuit. But really, if you think about it, this is a far, far better way to monetize music then the approach used by, say The Killers (and to a lesser extent Ke$ha) where the music itself is the mass-market product: I mean hey, at least Mette *likes* beer-she wouldn't let her song be used by a company she doesn't support. And honestly, if it weren't for those cross-promotion campaigns I might never have discovered any of this music, and that's a potentiality I shudder at. This is the best music I've heard in years.
Personally, I have no problem falling in love with a band known primarily for jingles. I mean, at the very least if we can turn out commercials with jingles of *this* quality, that speaks very well for the music taste of ad executives. And, as I hope I've showed, there's far more to The Asteroids Galaxy Tour then Heineken and Apple ad spots. This is a genuinely talented and exciting band who have just now come into their own and are well past deserving of serious attention and respect. Out of Frequency is absolutely everything I loved about music in 2012: It's savvy, creative, global-minded, pointed and critical while remaining positive and uplifting, sounds like absolutely nothing else, and was an entirely unexpected grand slam. Here's to the best for music in 2013, provided I can stop listening to the music of 2012 long enough to appreciate whatever it might have in store.