Monday, 31 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE MUSIC OF 2012

[Now with a handy Spotify playlist]
2012 Banner

If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I've probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven't clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend's sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should've given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I'd dig.
There's been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course.

Notable exceptions
Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They're sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you're in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012.

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song's “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she's talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that's much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows. 
It's all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it's about.
There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it's trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that'll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor's voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song's end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor's voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one.
By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It's confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does.
For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks.
And if we're talking about outros, listen to the way the song's close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River. It knows it's a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it's also a big 'Game Over' screen. PLAY AGAIN?
That's pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never...'s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn't this one? 
It's interesting because the pop archetype it's tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes. 
Here, the consummation isn't a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen's hands. She's a force of sexy nature.
Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it's an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video's ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there's no shame here, no debasement.
Ultimately, I think it's telling that there's no question mark at the end of the song's title. There's only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D'YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING, BABY?

Dancing like a mutha
I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it's just another embarrassment I've learned to slough off.
The most formative musical experiences I've had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes' Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis' wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds.
At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they'd played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant.
But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you'd never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor.
Especially, I'm thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all the right places for dancing to. I liked what I'd heard previously, but I woke up the next morning obsessed, and spent a month tracking down every song, live cover and demo I could.
Looking back at his setlist, I find the person responsible for this was Jamie McKelvie – one half of the team behind music-is-magic comics masterpiece Phonogram – and that the song immediately preceding it was Poliça's Dark Star. Both songs are as coldly beautiful as I've come to expect from McKelvie music. 
I quickly started filing both bands alongside Purity Ring, due largely to the fact they all feature women with beautiful voices being fed through distortion. Together, their stuff – Poliça and Purity Ring both have albums, Give Up The Ghost and Shrines respectively, but Chvrches are still just an assortment of mp3s on the internet – have made up a large chunk of my listening habits this year.
A short list of songs from 2012 I'd love the opportunity to dance to
-Tears by HEALTH, from their soundtrack to Max Payne 3
-Gabriel by Joe Goddard is the best thing anyone from Hot Chip has ever released. I've since discovered that it actually came out 18 months ago, but it got played so often on 6Music in the latter half of the year that I'm considering it a 2012 song
-Your Love, Your Drums/You Know You Like It by AlunaGeorge, another pair of 6Music bangers which are so similar they're joined at the gyrating hip
-Anything from the TNGHT EP
-Pretty much all of Japandroids' Celebration Rock, which finally clicked last week while running through the dark streets of my hometown
-I Love It by Icona Pop – the year's greatest slice of shouty Eurotrashy bratpop
-Mama Told Me by Big Boi. Speaking of which...
Meanwhile, over in my limited worldview of hip-hop
There was a point at the start of the year where hip-hop was the only music I was really listening to,  but 2012 hasn't really been the Year of Rap I'd expected.
I never quite managed to get into the El-P and Killer Mike albums, both of which have been cropping up all over the place in Best of 2012 lists. I wouldn't be surprised if they click in the New Year after I've listened to all those end of year playlists, and I come begging for forgiveness.

And while I'm unjustifiably lumping albums together, let's talk about Childish Gambino's R O Y A L T Y, and Kanye West's GOOD Music - Cruel Summer. Both were mixtapes in a more traditional sense, featuring a wide range of guests, with the headliners not necessarily appearing on each track – technically, the latter is only 'presented by' Kanye.
There are plenty of highlights – American Royalty, Silk Pillow and Schoolboy Q's Unnecessary verse on R O Y A L T Y; Cold, New God Flow and Mercy's oppressive beats on Cruel Summer – but because the albums weren't a sealed unit, it made the weaker tracks stand out, meaning I was more likely to stumble across the better ones on shuffle.
The second Big Boi record, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, also failed to live up to its predecessor – but then again, his solo debut is one of the best rap records of the last decade. Once again, it was the individual tracks which stood out, but for the right reasons. The aforementioned Mama Told Me, the pure simple filth of She Said OK, Phantogram's ethereal appearances on Objectum Sexuality and CPU – they all felt like, in a better world, they could have been hit singles.
Coming out late in the year, the album didn't get the summer of hard rotation it deserved, but I can't see myself tiring of it by the time the sun finally emerges in 2013.
Given that I've struggled to find a particular hip-hop album that hung together and worked for me, it's probably apt that my favourite rap music of 2012 came from Kitty Pryde's various releases, pushed onto the internet in messy mixtape-sized chunks.
(I've written about her already this year, when I named Okay Cupid one of the best songs of the year - a statement I stand firmly by - and compared it to Call Me Maybe.)
Falling in love was a foregone conclusion, really: with a handle stolen from my favourite superheroine, Pryde is a (roughly) teenage girl, rapping her way along the line between innocent youth, old-hand cynicism, and utter filth. Her song are scattered with a modern Waste Land of pop cultural references – Pikachu, Lizzy Maguire, The Sims, Last.fm, Justin Bieber.
There's something a bit voyeuristic about listening to her music, the thrill of a friend's older sister's diary – or more accurately, a MySpace page or LiveJournal blog. The songs feel kind of like they’re being written as she sits at her computer and pushed out at 2am, before she has any second thoughts. They're confessional and clever, honest but self-conscious. 
I can't quite imagine a full-length album from her, but I can't wait.
Versus mode
I always thought of Sleigh Bells' 2010 debut as a spirital successor to Crystal Castles – aggressively danceable, semi-incoherent glitch-pop.  Treats outshone Crystal Castles' second, released that same year, but here in 2012, it's the other way round.
More than that, the two have proved how wrong I was by going in two very different directions. While Sleigh Bells explore the taboo sounds of '80s arena rock on Reign of Terror, Crystal Castles's (III) dives fully into grim nihilist horror. 
I own both albums on CD, and I think handling the two tells you all you need to know. Reign of Terror's cover shows pair of battered converse, an image heavy on the dusty whites except for one blood-stained toecap. (III)'s cover is pitch-black goth.
Flip over and the track names fill in the rest of the blanks: Sleigh Bells titles embrace familiar rock clichés – End of the Line, Leader of the Pack, Road to Hell. Meanwhile, Crystal Castles manage to live up to titles like Plague, Kerosene and, my personal favourite, Child I Will Hurt You.
It's all a bit more complicated than that, of course, but I think I've done enough expansive analysis for one day.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.