Top Ten Songs From Albums That Didn't Make My List
Songs from Albums That Didn't Make My List
I listened to a lot of music in 2012. At last count, I had over three days worth of music from this year, and much of it was very good. This made writing these year end lists exceedingly difficult, which is part of the reason you will see three honorable mentions on both today's list and tomorrow's Best Albums of 2012 list. Last year, I used this list as an excuse for basically a second ten, listing songs from albums that narrowly missed my albums list. There is some of that on this list (a fair amount of the songs on this list are from albums that came very close to my list), but there are also a smattering of songs that stood out on albums that were not in consideration for the albums list. What follows are ten (ok, thirteen) songs from 2012 that were great. They aren't the only great songs from this year, but I'd say they were some of the best.

Honorable Mentions:

"Stay Useless," by Cloud Nothings, off Attack on Memory

Calling "Stay Useless" Strokes-esque in its riff-heavy, fist-pumping construction is a high complement in and of itself, but the song attains a power all its own over its brief runtime. Attack on Memory was the sound of Cloud Nothings figuring out who they were as a band, and its invigorating pop-punk constructions were stellar across the board. But none was as catchy as "Stay Useless," which all but commands you to bob your head, scream along, and let go of your cares for a few minutes. In other words, it's a great rock song from a band to watch out for in years to come.

"Clear Eye Clouded Mind," by Nada Surf, off The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy

Nada Surf turned in one of the most solid indie rock albums of the year with The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (which would also top my theoretical list for "Best Album Names of 2012"), and it is never better than on the catchy, though provoking opening track. Above propulsive guitar, Matthew Caws sings of confusion about where he finds himself ("all I feel is transition") and a new perspective about his own significance in the universe ("the stars are indifferent to astronomy, and all that we think we know, Mars will salute your autonomy, but he doesn't need to know"). For a song ostensibly about how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, "Clear Eye Clouded Mind" has an energy, a vitality that belies its deeper meaning, as if daring us to make our lives matter.

"Give It Away," by Andrew Bird, off Break it Yourself

Andrew Bird is an incredibly loose, improvisational artist, recording Break it Yourself over a week, capturing the broad, beautiful, often meandering songs largely live. "Give It Away" is one of the album's highlights, opening with a beautiful, subtly orchestral intro and segueing into a song that fits Bird's style quite well: a contemplative, catchy number that gives the singer and his backing band plenty of room to spread and feel out what works. The song is hardly the album's most baroque, nor is it the most ambitious composition on the album; instead, it makes the list for its relaxed nature. Bird knows exactly what he is looking for on Break It Yourself, and on "Give It Away," it sounds like he's found it.

10. "Heartbreaker," by The Walkmen, off Heaven

Heaven is the most adult album The Walkmen have yet produced, examining themes of long-term fidelity, of the struggles of adulthood, and, ultimately, the satisfaction that can be found in (mostly) having your shit together. "Heartbreaker," then, is ultimately a song about sticking with someone once the shine is off the apple, once the magic has faded into routine. It may sound dull on paper, but when Hamilton Leithauser sings "These are the best years, ahh we'll ever know," he sounds like someone who has figured out where he'd like to be and is excited to get to settle there.

9. "Candy," by The Men, off Open Your Heart

A near perfect mixture of saccharine confessional and pained catharsis, "Candy" is an ode to carefree living, the sense of freedom that comes from having nothing to lose. "I've been through the darkest places, I've been a total mess," Nick Chiericozzi sings, " I picked up what I could and I laughed off all the rest. In the middle of one of the year's best punk albums, Chiericozzi takes a break for an earnest crooner, asking "When was the last time you were able to take a breath?" It's clear on "Candy," and throughout Open Your Heart that The Men have taken that breath, and used it to propel themselves forward, creating an album that stands strong in a year full of solid punk records, and a song that functions as a near perfect breather, whether that comes between the propulsive rock of the tracks around it, or from an evening of hard-partying that is being used to put off tomorrow's problems and introspection, "at least until the dawn."

8. "I'm Writing a Novel," by Father John Misty, off Fear Fun

A year after leaving Fleet Foxes, drummer Josh Tillman found himself living in Laurel Canyon, confused about how he came to be there and what living in a den of artists might mean to his future creativity. The result of this spiritual crisis is Fear Fun, an album packed to the gills with crashing guitars and darkly brilliant witticisms. Tillman finds himself in the hippie-filled canyon and his feelings on the matter are decidedly mixed. "I'm Writing a Novel," best captures that confusion in a wryly satirical examination of his new home, where "everywhere I go in West Hollywood, is filled with people pretending they don't see the actress and the actress wishing that they could." He's an artist in a veritable commune full of aspiring creative types where Tillman is "surrounded on all sides by people writing novels and living on amusement rides." Between a catchy guitar riff and a propulsive piano, Tillman's sardonic cynicism finds its most likable tenor, and its most absurd (the song features a talking dog), and an album about spiritual confusion and physical relocation finds its emotional center.

7. "Bad Religion," by Frank Ocean," off channel ORANGE

Perhaps the biggest story related to Frank Ocean's coming out (though, to be clear, he did not use terms like "gay" or "bisexual," simply relating a story about his first love, a straight man who could not reciprocate) is what a story it wasn't: Ocean straddles R&B and hip hop, two genres with longstanding, unstated "don't ask don't tell policies," yet there was no controversy around the story, nor around the stellar album that prompted Ocean's confession. On the album's best track, "Bad Religion," Ocean confides in a cab driver about his unrequited love, calling it, "nothing but a one-man cult." Anyone who has ever been in love with someone who didn't feel the same way should relate to the song, on which he laments, "I could never make him love me." The song isn't solely about unrequited love, though, also touching on Ocean's turmoil about remaining in the closet, confiding, "I can't tell you the truth about my disguise, I can't trust no one." Ocean's willingness to eschew commercial aspiration in favor of personal confession endears him to me, but it's his striking song-craft that has made his first two releases, last year's mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and his official debut Channel Orange, among the greatest musical offerings in their respective years.

6. "This Dead Bird is Beautiful," by Lost in the Trees, off A Church That Fits Our Needs

Lost in the Trees' second album, A Church That Fits Our Needs is a twelve track song cycle documenting the life and death of singer Ari Picker's mother, who committed suicide in 2009. The whole album is an achingly beautiful tribute to the woman who raised him, but it is never better than on "This Dead Bird is Beautiful," a lamentation that transforms grief and morning into hopeful remembrance." Don't you say she was weak," Picker commands, "I'll carry her, because she breathed, I breathe." There is such weight to those words, and such poignancy in the delivery, its clear Picker is quite literally baring his soul to listeners. In interviews, he has described the album as an attempt to find a sonic space for his mother's soul, and this feels like an incredible success. It's occasionally uncomfortable to be confronted with the veracity of Picker's suffering, yet the album is never more touching than in the song's refrain, "I'll carry her, but I'll always have her eyes." Rather than condemning his mother for taking her own life, Picker uses "This Dead Bird is Beautiful" to celebrate the life she lead, to forgive her, and to make it clear he will always carry her with him, no matter where his life takes him. Dark, harrowing, tragic, and ultimately hopeful, redemptive, and uplifting, A Church That Fits Our Needs was a narrow miss for my best albums of 2012 list, and "This Dead Bird is Beautiful" is perhaps the best argument for the album's greatness.

5. "I'm Not Talking," by AC Newman, off Shut Down the Streets

AC Newman, frontman of The New Pornographers went for a slightly different sound on his third solo album, Shut Down the Streets. Also, in some ways, a tribute to Newman's recently deceased mother (the album's title is drawn from the song "They Should Have Shut Down the Streets," a moving testament in which Newman globalizes his personal suffering), the album also sees Newman taking some of the best trends in folk music and "˜70s AM and using them to add dimensions to his standard pop instrumentation. Opening track "I'm Not Talking" is a perfect example of this new, creatively rewarding synthesis: an orchestra swoons in the background, carrying a wonderfully catchy melody to the next level. This is the sound of a more mature Newman, and what it lacks in indie-pop sheen it makes up for in sonic depth, swelling instrumentation and thoughtful lyrics.

4. "Wrecking Ball," by Bruce Springsteen, off Wrecking Ball

Springsteen's brand of patriotism is one tempered with a slight satirical element that is often missed. In the Reagan era, "Born in the U.S.A." was triumphed as a song about how this was the greatest country on earth, completely brushing over the track's recognition of hardship. Similarly, many people listen to Wrecking Ball and assume Springsteen has morphed into a right wing crazy (the reaction to the album's lead single, "We Take Care of Our Own," indicated no one learned their lesson from "Born in the USA"). The new album is a direct response to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, and it features a Springsteen that is angrier than he's been in a while. But the man is by no stretch a cynic: the album returns again and again to the idea that times may be hard, but we can always strive to be better. We needn't forget our mistakes or forgive without demanding change, but we have to try to be our best selves. As he puts it on the album's title track and best song, "Hold tight to your anger, and don't fall to your tears." "Wrecking Ball" is a song about taking down the walls between our ideal selves and our current position, about getting back on track by remembering where we were headed before we lost our way. "hard times come, and hard times go, just to come again," Springsteen chants, as if using the propulsive track to overcome his anger and finally move past his pain. It's a kick-ass, full throated rock song played to the cheap seats, a catchy-as-hell ode to our better selves and a reaffirmation of faith in the American Dream which, while tarnished, is far from dead. In other words, it's a classic Bruce Springsteen song.

3. "Revelation Blues," by The Tallest Man on Earth, off There's No Leaving Now

To say There's No Leaving Now is a pretty standard The Tallest Man on Earth album is hardly an insult"”over his three albums so far, Kristian Matsson has become one of the most celebrated names in folk music, drawing comparisons to no less than Bob Dylan. If there is an evolution here, its in the slow addition of multiple instruments to Matsson's repertoire. Where The Wild Hunt was largely just Matsson and an acoustic guitar, There's No Leaving Now often adds a few instruments and almost always to great effect. The album's title track is a marvel of Matsson's acoustic capabilities (and would have made this list if it wasn't bettered by the similar "Kids on the Run," from The Wild Hunt), but "Revelation Blues" is the best example of Matsson's evolving sound. With a quicker pace, an added woodwind, and a more upbeat sense of melancholy, Matsson indicates within four minutes that his style is not as one note as his detractors may claim. For fans of The Tallest Man on Earth, there is no rush to see evolution, but its nice to know Matsson still has some new tricks up his sleeve, and "Revelation Blues" is an indication that he can change without losing the emotive core than draws us to him.

2. "Give Out," by Sharon Van Etten, Tramp

Sharon Van Etten released her best album to date with Tramp (one of the last albums to be cut from consideration for my albums list), and it is never better than on "Give Out." The track captures her world-weary wisdom as well as she ever has, as she confesses, "you're the reason why I'll move to the city, or why I'll need to leave." The song could easily be mistaken for Van Etten giving into a man who is bad for her, but things are more complicated, and more beautiful, than that. She is "giving out" to her own worst tendencies, making a mistake she can see from a mile away more out of a tendency toward self destruction than out of some sort of weakness. Tramp packs more hope and growth into its runtime than most albums this year, exhibiting an evolution for the artist both personally and creatively. Sharon Van Etten hasn't forgotten the past, but she has learned how to channel it toward a more productive future. And that future will be a beauty to behold.

1. "A Simple Answer," by Grizzly Bear, off Shields

Grizzly Bear has come out of hibernation on Shields, their most forceful, immediate album yet. Roaring out of the gate, the album ups the ante on their previous work and becomes their most accessible album yet. "A Simple Answer," is, seemingly, a response to the question of how the band could evolve after their stellar sophomore effort Veckatimest. Half ballad and half rock song, half searching contemplation and half assured answer, the song indicates that what we need may be in front of us all along. If I had a problem with Grizzly Bear's earlier work, it was that it was all gleaming indie rock surfaces, that it was ultimately prettier, but also emptier than a lot of its contemporaries. "A Simple Answer" indicates this was never as much a problem as I had thought, that the band was just taking its time to unfurl. On Shields, arguably the band's best album yet, and at its center, on "A Simple Answer," the band has found itself and decided who it is and where its going. It's a place I plan to follow them.

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