Christmas Mix List: Top 17 Songs Of 2012

“Who said nights were for for sleep?”
– Marilyn Monroe

For the past three years I’ve compiled my favorite music for a holiday list, posting a “best of” on Facebook for my friends. This year I’ve decided to try this on a different site, making it accessible to people I’ve never met. Sometimes I find a random list like this on the internet and discover new things. I like the idea of returning the favor.

This year’s list was interesting. There were songs on the list that came and went, and although many artists I appreciated released albums (Cat Power, The xx, Beach House, Chelsea Wolfe, etc.) their songs didn’t make the cut. I also wanted the list to be smaller, keeping the songs that were most important. I think I succeeded.

What has surprised me is how these lists are becoming more and more autobiographical. My list for 2011 was funereal in tone, preoccupied with struggle and death, which- sadly- was an accurate reflection of the year. While my list for 2012 is different, it is still cluttered with ghosts I wasn’t aware of. It reminded me of seeing Pola X (1999) this fall, only to discover that both of the leads (Guillaume Depardieu and Yekaterina Golubeva) had died a few years ago (pneumonia and unknown causes, respectively). The same thing happened while discovering music this year and will be detailed below.

Other recurring themes were an interest in distorted and synthesized sound, punk influences and the emerging importance of lyrics. In some cases I actually heard and understood familiar lyrics for the first time. Also, many of the songs here are what I would refer to as “night music,” songs meant for late hours when you’ve been awake too long. There are references to insomnia and being up too late throughout. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. Even as a little girl I was associated with The Innocence Mission’s “Keeping Awake.”

As I listen to this list I see how it exposes some of my vulnerabilities. I suppose I don’t mind making them public. We’re all vulnerable.

And besides, the music is free and available here. Simply click to download. Happy Holidays.

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1) Edie Sedgwick – “As You Go”

I’ve owned excerpts from Edie Sedgwick‘s Ciao! Manhattan tapes for some time. However, this short clip seemed fitting for this year. It was recorded when Sedgwick was 27 or 28 years old.

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2) Grimes – “Oblivion”

Grimes was one of my favorite discoveries of the year, and I’ve noted that her music has already appeared on many “best of 2012” lists. My introduction to this track was in early March, when the video debuted and got some press.

The thing is that “Oblivion” and its core meaning snuck up on me. It’s not only a danceable, addictive piece of alternative pop music. It’s something that I recognized line by line, a treatise on persisting (almost stubbornly) in a singular state of being, living and thinking. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It brought to mind Sarah Sophie Flicker and Maximilla Lukacs’s Vulnerability Manifesto, which champions that persistence.

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3) Broadcast – “Corporeal”

The day I bought The xx’s Coexist was overshadowed by this article (thanks a lot, Flavorwire). I ended up listening to Broadcast’s Tender Buttons (2005) instead. Coexist had to wait.

With “Corporeal” the song charts feelings I have never heard explored through music: in short, the uncertainties of having a body and having no idea of what to do with it. This makes sense since the word “corporeal” means: “of or relating to a person’s body, esp. as opposed to their spirit.” This is something I’ve struggled with myself, and hearing someone else exploring the subject was unexpected.

Having said that, the song took on another meaning when I discovered lead singer and lyricist Trish Keenan had died from pneumonia last year. Her body was no longer around, but her thoughts about it remained.

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4) Crystal Castles – “Doe Deer”

Marilyn Monroe once wrote, “Everyone has violence in themselves. I’m violent.” No one sums this up more than Crystal Castles, or as I fondly refer to them, “the two least polite people in Canada.” There is a divide in their music: the playful, 8-bit, dance-oriented stuff, then the noise pop that sounds like someone is taking a chainsaw to your head. When it comes to the latter I’ll download and listen to it 60 times over the next couple of days.

It’s possible that “Doe Deer” may be one of the most intense pieces they’ve ever done, something on par with John Zorn & Naked City’s “Bonehead.” I was also intrigued by one of its companion pieces, “Mother Knows Best,” and it nearly made this list, its lyrics notwithstanding (Want to look them up? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you will anyway).

In this case, the only lyric is “deathray.”

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5) Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”

During an interview with The New York Times Jack White recounted a dream about a beautiful woman. “She was smiling at me the whole time like she knew I was attracted to her,” he said. “And then in front of my eyes she started rising up, turning into this 30-foot giant… Not only was she becoming larger and more important than me, and able to crush me or destroy me — but at the same time she’s going out of focus, and I’m less in touch with how to connect with her.”

When pressed about the meaning White wasn’t sure. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know who that girl is. Maybe she’s all girls.”

“Sixteen Saltines” takes that notion all the way back to high school, a place where many experience their first love and first heartbreak. The idea of the predatory, cold-hearted woman takes precedence here, which isn’t surprising at all. White’s Blunderbuss is about the fallout of ended relationships (strangely, his ex-wife’s The Ghost Who Walks seems to be a precursor- the other side of the coin). Nevertheless, not long after its release this caused a debate about whether White is a misogynist or a feminist.

It’s no coincidence that White’s is the first male voice heard on this mix. He holds the distinction of being one of two men who have gotten (and kept) my attention in spite of trying to ignore them. When I heard Blunderbuss I regarded it as a quiet but lyrically violent album. The only thing that bothered me about it was that it has no self-evaluation. If it is interpreted as a personal document, then it exists in a world where nothing is Jack White’s fault. The finger is pointed at everyone else.

“Sixteen Saltines” has become more interesting over time because of this. I don’t agree with it completely, but like most of the album it has given me something to think about.

Also, it does relate to an old inside joke of my family’s: “Who Has Da Saltine Crackaz?” Answer: Jack White. Who would have thought.

– – –

6) St. Vincent – “Cheerleader”

I never thought Annie Clark would make a big impression on me, but she has become one of my favorite artists to write about, like describing “Cruel” as “disco music you could cry to” or “Marrow” as “covering Huey Lewis in a burning house.” Clark also has the distinction of being only of the only artists who can cover Tom Waits well. What’s not to like?

When it comes to “Cheerleader” I’ve come to appreciate it more than simply admiring it. Clark has a way of articulating the female experience in a way I immediately understand. She isn’t showy or melodramatic and simply states how she feels. I identified with the frustrations in “Cheerleader.” It reminded me of experiences at work (and in particular, working among men) that I never want to re-experience or repeat.

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7) Cat Power – “King Rides By”

The reason for including this track is too personal to explain. What I can say for sure is that I’m more than familiar with the song, having heard it twice before: on Cat Power’s original take on What Would The Community Think? (1996) and when my sisters covered it in 2008.

When the track debuted on Christmas 2011 the lyrics resonated in another way. I was surprised I had never caught on to their meaning before. The effect was great. It was so great, in fact, that the song upstaged Cat Power’s new material. I ended up having little to no interest in Sun when it was released in September.

– – –

8) Grimes – “Zoal, Face Dancer”

After discovering Grimes I ended up listening to her entire discography. Her 2010 debut, Geidi Primes, is probably one of my favorite albums of all time, a collection of songs that tap into the headspace of being female. Each one seems to be an inner monologue of half-finished, overlapping thoughts.

In the end “Zoal, Face Dancer” stood out. It reminded me of what I was thinking as a little girl.

– – –

9) The Horrors – “Sheena Is A Parasite”

I have to thank Ryan Blomquist for this one. During the year we began a music video exchange on Facebook and he sent me the video for this track, directed by the incomparable Chris Cunningham. It’s basically the band performing in some sort of blackened hellhole and features the spookiest, most apathetic guitarist of all time (seriously, I could stare at his dead raccoon eyes forever). It also features actress Samantha Morton, who is nearly unrecognizable and keeps exploding her guts at you.

All in all, the video is as disgusting as it is hypnotic. Don’t believe me?

Seriously. I’m not kidding.

Cunningham admitted he directed the video because he couldn’t stop listening to the song. Neither could I. I also couldn’t stop watching the video, mostly because I couldn’t believe my eyes.

– – –

10) Crystal Castles – “Air War”

It seems unlikely that excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses would end up in a dance song, but then again you wouldn’t expect Jim Broadbent to get sampled by Fatboy Slim. However, these things happen.

I’d say that “Air War” is one of my favorite dance songs of all time, perhaps a close second to Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” Of course, Kavinsky, Strength and old school Michael Jackson would make my unofficial list, but mostly because my sisters wouldn’t expect anything less.

– – –

11) Deerhunter – “Never Stops”

“Never Stops” almost made my 2011 list. When I visited L.A. that winter I was listening to it at the airport and actually paid attention to what was being said. Once again, the words of a song became front and center.

Like the band’s “Desire Lines” (which made the 2011 list) this song articulates a struggle and insatiability that I know all to well: what you try to achieve, what you never get over and what never changes. As this year is drawing to a close, I now realize that every line in the song has happened to me.

– – –

12) Neutral Milk Hotel – “April 8th (Demo)”

This year I was able to do something I never thought would happen: see Jeff Mangum live. The former frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel has been reclusive for the past decade, so the chance of him releasing anything or going on tour seemed like a pipe dream. But then it happened. Even better, I was pretty much in the front row.

Mangum’s performance of “April 8th” was one of the most memorable moments of the night. Although I had heard it countless times I found myself understanding it in ways I hadn’t before. This might have been due to Mangum singing it much, much slower, and the line “I’m of age but have no children” ringing a little too true. The references to being unable to sleep and wandering around at night were also hard to ignore.

– – –

13) Cynthia Dall – “Bright Night”

In April Pitchfork reported the death of lo-fi musician, photographer and activist Cynthia Dall. The cause of her death remains undisclosed to the public.

Because of this there was a resurgence of interest in her work, particularly her collaborations with Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog) and her two solo albums. One of the first songs I fell in love with was her indecipherable “Bright Night,” in which Dall is a tiny voice fronting of a wall of sound. “I want it so much” is pretty much the only line you can understand and little else.

By the song’s end it doesn’t matter what you hear. The music stands on its own and says enough.

– – –

14) Crystal Castles – “Wrath Of God”

The first I heard of Crystal Castles’ latest album, (III), was more spacious and dark than their previous work. It didn’t surprise me when the band stated it was written out of personal and political anger, and its cover art seems to reflect that (it’s a manipulated photograph by Samuel Aranda).

Out of the 11 tracks released “Wrath Of God” became a favorite. It’s a song where rage, electronica and dance music intersect. As it intensifies it sounds like the duo are scoring the end of the world (or at least a gigantic genocide, air strike or natural disaster- take your pick). Eventually Alice Glass’s voice distorts, knots, turns inside out and caves in on itself.

The song is over just as quickly as it started. By then it (literally) sounds like there’s nothing left but ashes.

– – –

15) Beck – “NYC 73-78”

(for Peter, wherever he may be)

I never set out to become a fan of Beck’s, but there are times where I’m simply glad he exists in this world. His remix of Philip Glass is no exception. In its original form it’s over twenty minutes long. I’ve included an excerpt here.

There’s something simple but transcendent about the end of this piece. Perhaps it’s the choir-like vocals or the calming effect of its repetitions. I’m not sure. All I know is that it’s been there for me many times, helping me concentrate, helping me work or wind down. It plays at one in the morning and I’m able to let go, to go to sleep. I’m grateful for that.

– – –

16) Exitmusic – “Passage”

I’ve followed Exitmusic since 2007, back to their days on MySpace and CD Baby. They put out one album and a few demos, then I thought I would never hear from them again. This was mostly due to its singer, Alexa Palladino, being hired as a supporting character on Boardwalk Empire, playing the doomed Angela Darmody.

What happened to Angela (and by proxy, Palladino’s career) has proven that amazing things can come out of unexpected and disappointing circumstances. It seemed that she and her husband, Devon Church, didn’t waste any time feeling sorry for themselves. They returned to the studio, got to work and released their second album, Passage, within the year.

The title track sounds like a firework display. It also shows how Palladino’s voice has changed, taking on a depth and power missing from their previous work. By the time she gets to the chorus- “Hold back the curse of life”- it’s the sound of someone pushing herself and her voice further than I thought possible. I was stunned and thought to myself, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Thematically “Passage” is about being unable to grasp or bide your time (in a way it parallels Beach House’s “Myth“). It explores those eerie moments where time is out of joint or your timing is off, those obscure hours where you’re “up and shaking / alone in this house.” I understood that completely.

– – –

17) Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”

I’ve been listening to Fiona Apple since I was twelve years old, but like many female artists it wasn’t because I felt she spoke for me. With these women I tried to understand, empathize and learn from their experiences, most of which were completely different from my own.

Then Apple’s The Idler Wheel… came out this year. It’s a spare, raw and percussive album, and for the first time I felt like Apple’s concerns were similar to mine (her lines about being “a tulip in a cup” in “Valentine” were particularly hard to forget). It’s a portrait of someone in stasis, unsure of their purpose and wondering if they’re a complete anomaly.

With “Every Single Night” the focus is the brain, a subject that has piqued my interest over the past two years. According to interviews Apple has taken an interest herself, trying to understand the chemistry and thought processes that make her who she is.

Although we’re quite different from one another it was interesting to hear her talk about this. When I hear the song it’s like being up late at night and looking out your window to see a light is on at another house. You think, “Oh, she’s up too.”

And you feel better. You’re reminded that you’re not the only one.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy downloading and good wishes for the new year (especially if I don’t see you before then.)

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