Every December I take my favorite songs from my favorites albums of the past 12 onths and put them together into one year-end mix. I usually try to write about that mix in some capacity, which is what you see here; you can also play this mix (minus a couple tracks) on Spotify. (Also, I know there are a lot of covers in this mix. I like covers.)
1. Tegan and Sara – “Closer”: Unlike seemingly most critics and fans, I wasn’t totally on-board for Tegan and Sara’s shift to a super poppy style on Heartthrob, the sister act’s seventh album. However, even a folk-pop curmudgeon like me couldn’t escape the amazing hook that animates this song, and the lyrics present the perfect romantic call to adventure – “I won’t treat you like you’re typical” seems to be about the best thing you could say to a would-be lover. The icing here for me is that this song reminds me of going to the Toronto Sketchfest with my friends Andrew and Chris, one of my favorite trips I’ve taken. I must’ve heard “Closer” 10 times in the span of three days. Canadians really love their Tegan and Sara.
2. Bad Religion – “In Their Hearts Is Right”: True North sees Bad Religion at the most furious they’ve been in about a decade; it’s impressive that a group surpassing 30 years can still muster this much indignation. All the better for us, though, because that indignation serves them well on tracks like “In Their Hearts Is Right,” typical of the Bad Religion style – intense strumming, soaring harmonies, a bitchin’ guitar solo, and a fantastic vocal hook that’ll stick with you.
3. Matthew Novak – “Doobly Wah”: Matt Novak is one of the most talented people I know. This tune, one of four on the Songs for a Now-Dissolved Relationship EP, is among his most catchy to date, perfectly mixing ’50s pop music tonality with incredibly personal reflections. If you enjoy this song, make sure you check out his other work here. (Helpfully, Matt also put out a compilation of his earlier stuff this year for you to download.)
4. They Might Be Giants – “Nanobots”: After one listen, Nanobots propelled itself into my top 5 TMBG records of all time. Here the Johns decide to return to the style that made their name – short, quirky (sometimes downright weird) songs broken up with slightly longer pop masterpieces. “Nanobots” represents the latter; John Linnell’s talent for crafting a vocal melody is on fine display here, as is the band’s love of cutting-edge science and lyrical obscurity.
5. Dropkick Murphys – “Don’t Tear Us Apart” (live acoustic): I bought Dropkick’s Rose Tattoo EP (a charity release to benefit victims of the Boston bombing) because its title track featured a duet with Bruce Springsteen; however, it’s this song that ended up sticking with me the most. The intensity and power of Dropkick is on full display here; for doing a stripped-down performance, they sure muster a lot of volume and passion (check out those backing vocals!).
6. Rilo Kiley – “The Frug”: Rilo Kiley’s RKives, a collection of mostly unreleased material, was a mixed but mostly solid bag; I couldn’t help but be drawn to this last track, though, which finds a happy medium between humor and heartbreak. What starts as a goofy dance number surprisingly turns into singer Jenny Lewis (or her character, maybe?) revealing a number of uncomfortably personal failings, so, you know, basically doing what makes Rilo Kiley music great.
7. Jim James – “A New Life”: In the middle of a rather lengthy, meandering album (I guess it’s what I should’ve expected), My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James unleashes this beautiful piece of Roy Orbison-style pop, with an earwig-like vocal melody and some positively lovely vocal work that could really only be called “crooning.” I think it was easy to overlook this track amidst a gaggle of other releases and songs, and that’s a shame.
8. Foxygen – “San Francisco”: Foxygen was a band I wish I’d spent more time with; they were part of my “cram everything you can into your earbuds in December” phase this year, and I ended up regretting skipping them back in January. “San Francisco” is a standout track on the wonderfully named We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, both for its lovely, lilting Beatles-esque melody and the impeccable couplet “I left my heart in San Francisco… / That’s okay, I was born in LA.”
9. They Might Be Giants – “We Live in a Dump”: In addition to the above-praised Nanobots, this year They Might Be Giants made At Large, a 2012 fan club-exclusive live album, available to the general public. It’s a fantastic reminder of why TMBG shows are so much fun, and this tune, previously available only on podcasts, encapsulates that reminder nicely. This super-short character study seems funny on the outside but perhaps reveals some uncomfortable truths about its narrator along the way; in other words, this is a perfect nugget of a TMBG song.
10. Murder by Death – “Hold On”: For a band that had one major-key song in four albums (“Spring Break 1899″ on Red of Tooth and Claw), tackling Wilson Phillips’ classic rom-com ballad couldn’t have been the most natural fit, but that’s just what Murder by Death does on their Kickstarter-backed covers record entitled As You Wish. Fortunately, the Bloomington, IN natives dive into their rendition with gusto, not shying away from typical ’80s trappings like cornily harmonized vocals or the backwards snare at the start of the final chorus.
11. Black Sabbath – “God Is Dead?”: Judging by almost everyone else, it seems I wasn’t supposed to like 13, Sabbath’s first studio release in 18 years, but what do I know? I thought producer Rick Rubin did an excellent job bringing the essential elements of Sabbath’s sound to the forefront; sure, the guitars are dropped about a step and a half lower so Ozzy can hit his notes, but that’s pretty excusable all things considered. “God Is Dead?” in particular feels to me like blueprint classic Sab. I find the lyrics especially fascinating; Chuck Klosterman has an essay about how Ozzy always seems so full of uncertainty in his songs, which is heavily at odds with his badass metal persona, and I can’t help but think of the human underneath the rock icon when he delivers lyrics like “Will someone tell me the answer – is God really dead?”
12. Neko Case – “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”: I’ve already written extensively about my feelings for this song. I did consider picking a more uplifting number for my year-end mix, but in the end, when I think about The Worse Things Get, it will always be this song I come back to. I got two year-end mixes where people picked “Night Still Comes” as their standout, though, so if you want something a little less morose that might be your speed.
13. Okkervil River – “Down Down the Deep River”: Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium was my favorite album released this year, a wonderful reminder of why they’re one of my favorite bands. Really any track from it could’ve made it on to this mix, but “Down Down the Deep River”‘s glistening synth lines and captivatingly twisting lyrics put it over the top for me. Singer Will Sheff has said he wanted Silver Gymnasium to feel like “an action figure you found in the woods”; well, this song would be like if you found a bunch of cool He-Man guys. None of the lame ones like Sy-Klone.
14. The Shock T’s – “Matt & Aimee”: A rare comedy band with relistenability, Chicago’s Shock T’s released their first album this year, and we’re all the better for it. “Matt & Aimee” is an album standout; besides the usual humor the Shock T’s deliver, there’s some legitimately insightful pathos to be found in this song about a couple that doubles down on commitment instead of calling it quits, and it’s kind of scary – at least to a single fella like myself. Tyler Paterson’s guitar playing should also be commended; he turns in a moving, beautifully executed rhythm progression that amplifies both the song’s heart and comedic payoff.
15. CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”: CHVRCHES is probably the most buzzy band on this list, inasmuch as I first gave The Bones of What You Believe a listen because so many of my friends recommended it. They were right on the money with this one; “The Mother We Share” provides a great example of CHVRCHES’ powerfully hooky style. I dare you not to try to sing along (which is tough – this song’s in a high register!).
16. HAIM – “The Wire”: Pop acts have always tried to emulate Michael Jackson, I think, but that trend seemed even more prevalent this year; among all the problems with “Blurred Lines,” for instance, how did no one realize that Robin Thicke basically steals the rhythm from “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”? Anyway, of all the bands channeling MJ this year, I think HAIM did it best and most originally; this song’s production is so slick you could put it in your car engine, but there’s some real songwriting prowess in how it’s all put together, and a lot of the little instrumental fills here and there just resonate with pure joy (my favorite: the guitar run at 2:57).
17. Kings of Leon – “Temple”: Somewhere along the line it became cool to hate this band (maybe when they got shit on by all those birds?). That’s alright. Mostly I felt Mechanical Bull was pretty middle-of-the-road, but if there’s one thing KoL knows how to do it’s construct a good, straightforward rock song, and that’s “Temple” all over. Caleb Followill’s pipes emit a powerful, meaty melody here, and it’s tough to shake once it gets in your head. “I take one for yououououou…”
18. Okkervil River – “Money Changes Everything”: I hadn’t consciously heard Cyndi Lauper’s version of this song when Okkervil River’s (included on the covers mixtape Golden Opportunities 3) invaded my brain space, and that’s a good thing (update: I have now, and Cyndi’s is terrible). OR turns this song into a Jersey Shore-style rocker; it’s maybe the most straightforward track Will Sheff and company have put out in years, but that’s cool because it’s totally kickin’. By the way, this whole covers mixtape is available for free online and features other ’80s stuff like Wang Chung and Don Henley.
19. Glen Hansard ft. Eddie Vedder and Jake Clemons – “Drive All Night”: If you know me, you know I think Bruce Springsteen is unimpeachable. And yet Glen Hansard certainly does at least as good as the Boss on this plaintive cover of one of Springsteen’s saddest. Eddie Vedder’s low harmonies add gravity to the track, and Jake seems to be using the opportunity to pay tribute to his late uncle, first following Clarence’s sax solo and then breaking off on his own, much as Jake has had to do on E Street. Straight up, this track is gorgeous, and when you buy it you help the charity Kids Rock, so get on it.
20. Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros – “It’s a Lovely Day”: Arguably, this isn’t a real song. Ian Rubbish is the alter ego of Fred Armisen, Portlandia star and, in May 2013, departing SNL cast member. Fred-as-Ian (his tribute to the Clash) recorded this song upon his departure from the sketch show after 11 seasons and then released it for free on his website (so it totally counts!). Frankly, it’s beautiful, and not even really all that funny – it’s just a sweet look at how life has ups and downs and sometimes you’ve just gotta get through it and say “it’s a lovely day.”
Again, you can check out most of these tracks on a Spotify playlist.