Top 25 Most-Played Songs of 2012

Another year, another bunch of songs I listened to over and over and over again on my iPod. As per usual, I’ll hit the ol’ reset button on the iPod after posting this list, making it possible for new songs to reign supreme in 2013.

25. Moxy Fruvous, “Boo Time” (23 plays): This was one of my favorite bands in college, and I still (obviously) enjoy putting their songs in playlists or just listening to entire albums. The album this particular gem is off of, You Will Go to the Moon, is fun and serious and silly and touching and everything else, all at the same time.

24. Dr. Dog, “Lonesome” (23 plays): I dunno how iTunes decides what song is in what position when they’ve all got the same number of plays, but it decided to put this one in at number 24. I love the dobro part (it sounds like a dobro. Might just be a regular acoustic, but I dunno).

23. Better Than Ezra, “At the Stars: (23 plays): Another of the 23 Plays Club, this one a classic (can I use that word for a song that came out during my lifetime?) from a quintessential ’90s band.

22. Paul McCartney, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (24 plays): This is one of those songs I just love singing along to. I defy you to listen to it and not bounce along merrily. You can’t do it.

21. Mumford & Sons, “Little Lion Man” (24 plays): I tend to think of these guys as “Dave Matthews with a banjo,” ’cause that’s all I hear when this guy sings. And now you’ll hear it, too, and you won’t be able to un-hear it.

20. Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” (24 plays): I’ve always liked the folky side of Zeppelin, when they bust out the acoustics and get a little more down-home. This just happens to be one of the best “my woman ain’t no good” songs out there, and it’s fun to play on the guitar (even if I can’t hit the high notes like Robert Plant).

19. Charlie Sexton, “Regular Grind” (24 plays): The Dylan guitarist and near-legendary session man from Austin is something of a perennial favorite of mine, and this is one of the best songs off of the excellent Cruel and Gentle Things. Isn’t it about time he did a new solo album?

18. Bruce Springsteen, “Two Faces” (24 plays): I feel like Springsteen’s late ’80s/early ’90s albums are rather unfairly maligned. There’s some great songs on them (and some crap, too, to be quite honest), and though they definitely suffer from the production style of the time, you can find some stuff worth listening to. “Two Faces” is such a song: heartfelt, sad, a little bit angry, but with a great organ solo in the outro.

17. Richard Thompson, “Beeswing” (25 plays): Just a beautiful, sad song. The live version is even better than the original studio recording.

16. fun., “Some Nights” (25 plays): What? I’m allowed to like things that are popular sometimes, even if I think most of the rest of the album is absolute rubbish.

15. Woodkid, “Iron” (26 plays): I like it exclusively for its use in the trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Don’t judge me.

14. John Fullbright, “Satan and St. Paul” (26 plays): Probably my favorite song off of his first studio album, From the Ground Up, which you might recall was one of my favorite albums of the year.

13. Deer Tick, “Easy” (26 plays): A holdover from last year’s list, when it was #1 with a bullet, this song still held me captivated for a good chunk of the year. It’s just a damn good song, and pretty sinister.

12. The National, “Ashamed of the Story I Told” (28 plays): An amazing cover of an old Polaris song, one of those rare instances where the cover truly surpasses the original.

11. The Wallflowers, “Sugarfoot” (30 plays): Say what you will about the Wallflowers debut album (and believe me, I know it was a flawed effort), this song is just awesome and clearly firing on all cylinders.

10. Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks” (31 plays): I was amazed how much I actually ended up liking their full-length album when it came out this past year. Much stronger than I’d thought it would be, even if I did forget and leave it off my end of the year list.

9. The Gaslight Anthem, “Stay Lucky” (31 plays): The disappointment that was Handwritten drove me back to American Slang and this particular track, which I always have to listen to more than once when it comes up on rotation.

8. First Aid Kit, “The Lion’s Roar” (31 plays): The title track from their debut album (which I did remember to include on my list of albums for 2012) is just a masterclass in how to do awesome Americana. I’m rather in awe of these two (barely out of their?) teens from some cold country in northern Europe.

7. Dan Auerbach, “My Last Mistake” (32 plays): I think next year I may have to disqualify songs that were in the previous year’s list, ’cause otherwise you end up with nothing new to say about a song other than, “Yes, it’s still awesome, what do you want?”

6. The Black Keys, “Sinister Kid” (32 plays): I think it’s all down to the “Uhn!” that starts the song. I could care less what happens after a start like that, so it’s just gravy that the rest of the song is so damn awesome.

5. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Hometown Blues” (33 plays): One of the best Tom Petty songs you probably don’t even know. It’s off their debut album from way back in the ’70s, and obviously gets overshadowed by hits like “American Girl” or “Breakdown,” but it’s just a damn fun song.

4. Josh Ritter, “Girl in the War” (33 plays): A beautiful, melancholic tune about loss and war and fighting for what is important to you. It’s a very moving song, really.

3. Josh Ritter, “See Me Through” (36 plays): A great acoustic number from Ritter’s 2012 EP “Bringing in the Darlings” (if more of So Runs the World Away had sounded like this, I’d have liked it a lot more). I could sit and listen to the chorus of this song for days.

2. Gin Blossoms, “Pieces of the Night” (36 plays): Look, I’m not proud. I know the #2 song on my list is a Gin Blossoms song. About drinking so heavily the night before that you don’t remember jack squat the morning after. I realize all this, okay? I’m not proud of it, but I own up to it, at least.

1. Old 97s, “Champaign, Illinois” (38 plays): It’s an authorized rewrite of Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” only replaced that song’s sense of sadness and desperation with a kick-ass yowl and beefed-up alt-country rhythm and lyrics about Illinois and being on the road. And the chorus is just perfect.

So, there you have it: the twenty-five songs I listened to the most in the year 2012. Thoughts? Favorites? What did you keep hitting repeat on this past year?

Top Ten Albums of 2012

As the end of the year draws nigh, I, like so many other self-important know-it-alls, stoop to bequeath you, the audience, with my illuminating and elucidating best-of list for the year 2012. First, the also-rans.

Honorable Mentions

1. The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten: Back when I first reviewed the album, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, and that hasn’t really changed. Not bad, but not up to the level of expectations I had after the one-two punch of The 59 Sound and American Slang.

2. Calexico, Algeria: A good album, but it didn’t really do much to grab my attention or work in a vein outside of what this band’s been doing for awhile now.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill: It’s classic-sounding Neil Young & Crazy Horse. If that’s something you don’t feel you have enough of in your life, it’ll definitely fill that hole, but it doesn’t do anything we haven’t heard from these guys over the past about 40 years.

4. JD McPherson, Signs and Signifiers: Okie musician doing ’50s rockabilly/R&B/swing. Good stuff, even if it feels a little too pastiche-y.

5. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits: Britt Daniel could’ve just done another Spoon album. No one would’ve been able to tell the difference.

And now, on to the main event!

10. The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter: A much stronger effort than their previous, I and Love and You, with better songs and fewer fussy details. There don’t seem to be as many harmonies, though, which I find sad, and this particular record still fall short of their best effort (Emotionalism, for those keeping score at home).

9. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar: Scandanavian (barely out of their?) teens doing Americana and doing it right? Yes, please. “Emmylou” is gorgeous and heartfelt, and the title track is just one of the best damn songs I’ve heard all year.

8. Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal: “Little Talks” has been stuck in my head since sometime last year, and it hasn’t gone away. The rest of the album may not be quite as good, but it’s still pretty damn good. Plus, the lead guy in the band is a chubby man with a beard, which gives me hope of one day being a rock star myself.

7. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil: The album crowdsourced funding made possible, this ode to everything ’80s is pretty damn catchy. Palmer sounds like she’s having fun fronting a full band, and the GTO rise to the occasion. I do rather miss the old Dresden Dolls days, though.

6. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 3: A bit of a cheat, as this is sort of a “leftovers from the first two volumes” deal with less-developed songs from the Woody Guthrie lyrics with Bragg and Wilco tunes collections. There are still some great songs here, though, especially in Wilco’s offerings (“When the Roses Bloom Again” and “The Jolly Banker” are two of the best songs to come out of the Mermaid Avenue project, if you ask me).

5. AC Newman, Shut Down the Streets: A rather more somber album than we’ve come to expect from the power-pop wunderkind, but a compelling set nonetheless. It’s not anything particularly different from what he’s done on previous albums, but why fix what ain’t broken?

4. Bob Dylan, Tempest: I know, I know, a Bob Dylan album only ranking 4th for the year? Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse. But Tempest just didn’t really do enough new that I felt it deserved a higher spot. It’s good and all, but it didn’t really wow me. The best I can say about it is that it’s new Dylan songs, and they’re pretty good, but they’re nothing we haven’t really heard before.

3. John Fullbright, From the Ground Up: Another Okie, this one a widely-proclaimed “next Dylan.” Or maybe a “next Woody Guthrie,” as Guthrie is an obvious touchstone for the young man’s work (they’re both from the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Okemah, where my own father grew up and I spent many childhood summers). As I mentioned back when this album came out, it sounds exactly like what I thought Fullbright would sound like with a full band, and that was a good thing indeed. The good songs on here are great, and the songs I didn’t care for were still pretty good, just not to my taste.

2. The Wallflowers, Glad All Over: A surprisingly fantastic album from the younger Dylan and his crack team of cohorts. Glad All Over featured several of my favorite songs all year, the best of which was “Misfits and Lovers.” It’s got a bit of the Clash to it, and there’s a nice change in the style from the Wallflowers’ earlier sound while maintaining some continuity. Good stuff.

1. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory: Yeah, they’re two separate releases, and they really don’t share a theme or sound or anything, but they’re both fantastic and this is my list and shut up. Break it Yourself continues Bird’s streak of creating brainy, esoteric chamber pop that incorporates all sorts of different styles and sounds. His use of the violin becomes less and less about traditional playing and more about seeing what sorts of interesting sounds you can get out of the instrument. Hands of Glory feels like a spare, country companion to the world music-esque Break it Yourself. “Three White Horses” is probably my favorite song of the year. The changing tempos and shifting dynamics make it an inventive, enjoyable song.

Those were the ones I dug this year. What grabbed your interest?

New Song – Rise To (Demo)

It’s been awhile since I felt the urge to dig out the pen and paper and write a song, but said urge grabbed me earlier this week. When the sensation passed, I realized I actually had a whole song. I married it to a very simple chord structure (it’s just two chords in the verse and four in the chorus), and suddenly had something resembling a new song. And now you can hear it with your ear holes, hoo-mans.

Rise To (Demo)

Hard-Boiled: The Playlist

When I’m doing most of the things I do, such as writing, I tend to also listen to music. Music’s always been pretty important for me, and I find it difficult to concentrate when I’m doing certain tasks without music. TV just doesn’t cut it: I get too distracted, want to watch what’s going on.

With that in mind, here’s a playlist I put together a week or two ago to write my novel to. The songs have absolutely nothing to do with the actual novel or its themes or anything, just a loose collection of songs I’m enjoying at the moment.

1. The Cranberries, “Linger”: Who doesn’t love ’90s Lilith Fair fare?

2. Bob Dylan, “Paths of Victory”: This piano-based tune feels as much like a Woody Guthrie tune as anything Dylan ever wrote.

3. Paul McCartney, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: I myself have brown eyes and am a man. Draw your own conclusions.

4. Willie Nelson, “City of New Orleans”: Who doesn’t love train songs, especially from the point of view of the train?

5. Andrew Bird, “Three White Horses”: One of the best songs off the recent Hands of Glory EP, this is just a fantastic tune in a style rather different from Bird’s usual sound.

6. Woody Guthrie, “Dust Pneumonia Blues”: I just watched Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl documentary last week, and the use of Woody Guthrie songs in that got me in a Woody mood.

7. Lodger, “The Good Old Days”: Classicist Brit-pop? Yes, please.

8. Mark Knopfler, “Don’t Crash the Ambulance”: Humorous song about the passing of the torch of the presidency to the next guy? With Mark Knopfler’s baritone drawl and beautiful Strat fills? What’s not to like here?

9. Allison Krauss & Union Station, “Restless”: I feel this way when I write sometimes, so it seemed appropriate.

10. The Temptations, “Papa was a Rolling Stone”: I think it’s that saxophone part that does it for me.

11. Panic! At the Disco, “Nine in the Afternoon”: Don’t you dare judge me.

12. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “It’ll All Work Out”: I love the mandolin in this one. It’s one of the prettier Heartbreakers tunes.

13. Calexico, “Ocean of Noise”: Calexico putting their indie-mariachi spin on one of the best songs from Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. Brilliant.

14. Miles Davis, “It Never Entered My Mind”: My favorite Miles Davis song, from the criminally-underrated Workin’ album. Just absolutely amazing stuff.

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

Another dip back into the past, this time from April 2007!

I only started listening to the Decemberists a couple of months ago. I started with their first record, Castaways and Cutouts, I’ve started kinda working my way forward.

‘Cept I kinda skipped ahead a bit and picked up their latest record, The Crane Wife, last week.

Sometime between that first record and the latest one, the Decemberists discovered a couple of things: 1) an electric guitar, and 2) the work of Styx circa “Lady.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Their 1870s meets 1970s aesthetic actually works for the most part on this record. Thematically, it’s a loose song cycle based on a Japanese folk tale involving a man who takes a crane woman as his wife. The album includes two lengthy multipart songs: “The Crane Wife,” which is broken up into “Part 3” (which opens the album) and “Part 1 & 2” (which comes near the end of the record), and “The Island,” a track that sounds something like a prog rock epic about immigration, class struggle, dueling, and drowning. “The Island” features a section that nicks the warblely synth line from “Band on the Run,” with the twist that it’s performed by a string quartet. Part of “Come and See,” the first section of “The Island,” sound like something out of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer or post-Tommy Shaw Styx.

But lest you think it’s all epic-length story songs, fear not: the Decemberists can knock together a folky, poppy song in the 3-4 minute range with ease and poise. “Yankee Bayonet” is an effortless, sprightly tune about…well, a Civil War soldier and his lady love. “The Perfect Crime No. 2” races along breathlessly. “Shankill Butchers” is a creepy, old-fashioned “keep the kids in line” lullaby with a slow, stuttered rhythm. “Sons and Daughters” closes the record with a sweet, folky surge and a note of hope.

The album really holds together well as a whole, though “The Island” does drag after awhile and “The Crane Wife” could’ve been condensed to one part rather than three. But really, it’s a solid collection. The songs are strong and evidence a growth and a great sense of songcraft. It’s not for everyone–not everyone is gonna groove on subject matter mostly drawn from the 19th century–but for those that can dig into it, it’s a very rewarding listen.

The Wallflowers – Glad All Over

A new Wallflowers album is always a welcome sight, in my eyes. Admittedly, I was concerned that it wouldn’t be all that different than Jakob Dylan’s solo stuff of late (I had a similar concern about the solo stuff sounding too much like Wallflowers stuff, a problem which was essentially a non-starter when I finally heard it). So I came in with some concern: this is a very different band than the one that kicked off with the self-titled Wallflowers debut 20 years ago, but it also seems like a different band than the one that put out Rebel, Sweetheart in 2005.

This time around, the Wallflowers have a more muscular, rougher edge to their work than in their past few records. There’s an edginess to their efforts here, and much of the smooth guitar and organ work from records like Red Letter Days and Rebel, Sweetheart are gone. It feels like an organic growth, though, not a conscious effort to diverge from the past. This feels like a tougher rock record, and it feels earned. There are very few (what I’d think of as) typical Wallflowers songs on this record. “First One in the Car” feels the most Wallflowers-y, and while it’s not a bad song, it doesn’t really do much that they haven’t done before. But album opener “Hospital for Sinners” doesn’t really sound much like anything they’ve done before. Nor does first single “Reboot the Mission,” which to my ears has a definite Clash-circa-Sandinista feel to it, and that ain’t a bad thing. “Misfits and Lovers,” one of two songs to feature Mick Jones on guitar, is a standout track, with propulsive rhythms and a catchy hook. “The Devil’s Waltz” is a clever tune, and while “Constellation Blues” drags a bit, it’s an interesting examination of the life of a soldier.

Honestly, there’s not a bad song on the record, which makes me quite happy. It was one of those that I immediately restarted as soon as I got to the end of it, and what higher praise is there, really?

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

I’m always excited when a new Gaslight Anthem album comes out. American Slang was one of my favorite records the year it came out, as was The 59 Sound before it. So I had high hopes for Handwritten, their debut on Mercury Records.

Then I found out Brenden O’Brien was producing it.

Brenden O’Brien is the guy behind several big-name records from the past fifteen or twenty years, including Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and the Wallflowers’ Rebel, Sweetheart. And while I really enjoy both of those records, O’Brien has a tendency to make the production of all the records he does sound the same. They’re bright, shiny rock records, with strummed acoustics, chiming and chugging electric guitars, and deep drums.

And really, what we get here isn’t exactly bad: the band are all excellent musicians, and there’s definitely craft at work in these songs. But the writing doesn’t seem as sharp, the choruses don’t seem as catchy, and everything sounds smoothed out and rather murky. It’s glossy, arena-style production, and the already-weak songs suffer because of it.

It’s odd that everything ends up sounding so same-y, because O’Brien helps the band bring in some new instrumentation to fill out their sound. There’s organs and pianos in several songs, and many feature acoustic guitars more prominently (granted, the band’s used acoustics before, but never quite this much).

There are some decent songs here. “Here Comes My Man” is a ’60s girl-group song that swings and rocks all at once; “Keepsake” is standard Gaslight Anthem, but stronger than much of the other material on the album. “Howl” is pretty solid, and “National Anthem” shows quite a bit of promising growth for the band.

The bad, though, is mostly just bland and uninspired. “Handwritten” is standard fare for the band, but doesn’t do anything particularly well. Several of these songs – “Handwritten” chief among them – feel like leftovers from other albums, lesser versions of songs we’ve already heard.

Ultimately, Handwritten is a bit of a letdown, not because it’s bad but because it’s not as good as it could be. This is an album that doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessors. Hopefully they’ll turn it around for the next album.

Ringo Starr – Ringo

Here’s another oldie but goodie from the days of the Blogspot blog. Enjoy!

Poor Ringo was always the least of The Beatles. He wasn’t the writing genius like Lennon or McCartney, he wasn’t a spiritual guru like Harrison. He was this affable little man with a big nose who had an extremely limited vocal range and who occasionally sang songs about underwater gardens and brightly-colored submarines. It’s difficult to take Ringo seriously, honestly.

This isn’t to say that Ringo is without his charms. He is affable, after all, and he has a certain charm to him that’s hard to deny. Ringo is just so damn likeable. He’s loveable, and you honestly want to see him do well. You root for Ringo.

And so when The Beatles broke up in 1970 and inevitably started releasing solo records, you knew it was only a matter of time before even Ringo jumped into it; because honestly, he’s a Beatle, and Beatle = instant chance. So he put out a couple of almost noveltyish records, and then released Ringo in 1972.

The thing about Ringo? It’s really pretty damn good. Ringo knows what folks want to hear from him–vaguely folky, bright, uptempo songs that are poppy, fun, and probably just a little superficial; it’s what we expect of Ringo–and he delivers here. There’s not really any filler on the record, which is to say that all the songs are pretty decent. There are standouts, of course: “Photograph,” a song he co-wrote with George Harrison, is a fantastic number, as is his cover of “You’re Sixteen.” “Oh, My My” is fun, and “I’m the Greatest” (written by Lennon) is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek celebration of status, even if it’s only presumed status in one’s own imagination. The record maintains a consistent feel, which is that of a good time with old friends. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, nothing as overwhelming as All Things Must Pass or as daring as Plastic Ono Band or as self-consciously homemade as McCartney. This is just a fun record, and it succeeds on that level very, very well.

The record also serves as an unofficial Beatles reunion of sorts. All three of Ringo’s former bandmates contribute not only songs for the record but themselves: each appear on at least the track they penned, and their presence offers a legitimacy to the whole affair. Also on hand are Klaus Voormann, old Beatle pal from the Hamburg days, Billy Preseton, and The Band, who offer assistance (along with Harrison) on the excellent “Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond).”

The CD release of the album actually manages to sweeten the deal, adding three bonus tracks–including the single “It Don’t Come Easy”–to the already strong record. Really, if you have any love at all for old Ringo, this is a fantastic record (much better than…well, pretty much anything else he’s released). It’s a comfortable, fun, almost superficial (in the best possible sense of the word) album that it’s hard not to enjoy. You’ll tap your toes, you’ll sing along, you’ll be glad you’re listening to it. Not liking it would be like not liking a puppy, and do you really want to be known as the person who doesn’t like puppies?

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

When I first heard “Flaggin a Ride” this summer, I was sitting in the car with my brother. He turned to me and asked, “Isn’t this that new band Britt Daniel’s in? It sounds just like Spoon. Why not just make another Spoon album?” And I’ll admit, I was hard-pressed to come up with a response. On the surface, A Thing Called Divine Fits could have easily been a new Spoon album, with its stripped-down instrumentation and choppy vocals. Sure, there are some snyths here and there, but that’s not too far from where the band’s been headed the past couple of albums anyway.

All that being said, it is a slightly different animal than your usual Spoon record. For one, Britt Daniel isn’t singing every song. The other two guys in this project (both of whom I’ve never heard of, and I can’t say I’m all that familiar with the bands they’re in, either) both bring their own thing to the table, really, and it ends up a bit of a mash-up between the sound of the three members’ own work.

Thankfully, it’s a solid album full of catchy, well-crafted songs. The aforementioned “Flaggin a Ride” wouldn’t have felt out of place on Transference, the last Spoon record. Really, all of Britt Daniel’s contributions here (including a cover of “Shivers”) are pretty solid, and the rest of the band throw in a few great tunes, too. “Would That Not Be Nice” is a standout track, while “Civilian Stripes” is an acoustic-driven ditty that breaks the tightly-wound tension of the first half of the album. That first half is pretty relentless, with driving rhythms, sharp and clipped vocals, and dueling guitars and snyths. It some of the best stuff I’ve heard all year, actually.

Ultimately, A Thing Called Divine Fits is a pretty solid debut from a group of guys who have spent years honing their respective crafts. It’s a nice summation of what these three musicians can do, and hopefully the first of many more albums to come from the group.