A CD's worth of the year's best songs, generally from off the beaten path.
If you dig these songs please consider buying them; most can be had for less than a buck. They will also be hosted at Pruning Shears until Thursday, so you can try before you buy over there.
Here are my favorite songs this year from my RSS feeds. I use Sharp Reader as my aggregator but it requires the .NET framework, which older computers may not have. Feed Reader doesn't need it and is good too. See the "Free MP3 sites" part of my blogroll for my current feed list.
Most weeks I burn as many new songs as I can fit onto a rewritable CD and give it a thorough listen (usually five times), so in that spirit I keep the list under the same limit. In a way 80 minutes is arbitrary, but it's also respectful of listeners to show some restraint. If you fall in love with my taste in music drop me a line and I'll get you the rest of the songs I considered but didn't have room for.
On the reckoning of time
I age songs by release date, not recording date. Until I get my grubby little hands on it, it doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned. When it first makes it out to the public it is new, no matter how long it may have been gathering dust somewhere.
In addition to the ones mentioned in the list here are the albums in 2012 I enjoyed front to back:
Tender Trap - Ten Songs About Girls
Howl Griff - Fragile Diamond. Both this and Ten Songs will probably get pigeonholed as some kind of neo-Twee revival or something. What they really are, though, is first rate pop albums. I can always make room for one of those in my collection.
Rush1 - Clockwork Angels. After Roll the Bones I basically gave up hope for Rush, though I kept buying their albums. (They provided the soundtrack for my youth, and the pull of nostalgia is strong.) Clockwork Angels is a pretty amazing return to form, though. It has a few Spinal Tap moments, but they are mercifully brief; aside from those missteps the music is stronger than it's been for a long time. And "Headlong Flight" has Alex Lifeson's best guitar solo in about thirty years.
Teen - In Limbo. A little slice of lo-fi heaven.
The Finks. I don't know if they offer their music for sale anywhere, or if they just periodically throw songs onto Soundcloud. Whatever, it's great stuff and definitely worth a listen.
James Yorkston & the Athletes - Moving Up Country (10th Anniversary Edition). I know Dreamin' Wild by Donnie And Joe Emerson is the sentimental choice for many due to its remarkable journey (and earnest rawness), but Moving Up Country sounds like the work of a fully formed artist. Adding "The Lang Toun" to the first disc (it was originally left off for space) and the various demos on the second are a real treat as well. Also: "Cheating The Game" is the best song ever written.
I usually reserve an Honorable Mention spot for a longer song. Most years there's at least one 7+ minute song that I like quite a bit, but since I try to get lots of different artists on the list I don't want a single tune to crowd out several other candidates. When a longer song really blows me away (like "Bushels" by Frog Eyes in 2007) I'll make room, but overall I prefer to keep my selections under five minutes or so. This year there was no such song, so instead I went with:
22. "Borrowed Skin" - The Grates (Buy)
From Secret Rituals (highly recommended). I don't trust this pick because it's too squarely in my wheelhouse. I absolutely love pop rock. Lound guitars and good hooks are catnip to me, so the thought that I might be overrating it made me keep it off the list. Wow do I love it though.
(And yes as proof of concept I burned them on to a CD using Winamp.)
21. "Let It Go" - Cherri Bomb (Buy)
The latest reincarnation of The Runaways, and a fine one.
20. "Don't Save Me" - Haim (Buy)
Haim seemed to get quite a bit of buzz at the end of the year, and it's easy to see why. The synth pop vibe and cool delivery make a nice contrast with the urgency of the lyrics.
18. "Throughout This Night" - Cara Mitchell (Twitter)
Mitchell has a striking voice, and she does a nice job of letting simple, unadorned melodies show it off. Hear more on her Have You Ever Wondered EP.
17. "Killing Time is Murder" - Whitehorse (Buy)
A good, stomping beat and colorful stream of consciousness lyrics.
16. "Valentine" - Charli XCX (Home page)
Releasing a song called "Valentine" on February 14th has gimmick written all over it. But what do you know - it's a straight up excellent song.
14. "Homerun" - 1-O.A.K. (Twitter)
Includes some nice reflections on not always getting what you want.
13. "If You Were Mine" - The Cornshed Sisters (Twitter)
From Tell Tales, which does not appear to be available digitally but is recommended if you can find it. Some of the loveliest vocals you will hear this year.
11. (2012 Guiltiest Pleasure) "Waste My Body" - Tesla Boy (Twitter)
They sound about one step up from boy band status, but I couldn't get enough of this one. The keyboard transition that starts at 2:53 is 2012's Best Second in Music.
10. "Peter Sellers" - Stella Ella Ola (Twitter)
A good old fashioned garage band romp.
08. "Rainin' Inside" - The Trishas (Buy)
The guitar in this song is absolutely killer.
06. "New Bodies" - Bernice (Buy)
Murky and weird and strange, and alluring.
05. "King Kong" - Luu Breeze (Download mixtape) (Twitter)
The best beats in hip hop are the best beats in music. Also has possibly my favorite line of lyrics in 2012: "Growing up I wasn't put together right / couple screws loose."
04. "orion's belt (feat. riff raff)" - kitty pryde (Twitter)
Off of haha im sorry (recommended). At the EP link she writes "oh btw heres a mediafire link if u wanna do it the FREE WAY idk lol i hate payin for thngs 2," which is funny, generous and self-consciously teenager-y. It's also a good idea of what you can expect from "orion's belt." There's already been a lot of chatter about her over what she means for rap of feminism or God knows what else. (No links; Google it if you want.)
All that has tended to obscure something about her EP: it contains absolutely phenomenal hooks. The last song is a bit of a novelty, but the other four are crazy catchy. Sure those four are short - just over ten minutes combined. Who knows if her vibe will wear well over an entire album, or if she's even got another listenable song in her. Here's what I can say though: She's produced ten phenomenal minutes of music, which is roughly ten minutes more than the vast majority of artists. Even if we never hear from her again she'll deserve to be remembered for that.
03. "Choice Notes" - Alex Winston (Buy)
From King Con (recommended). This is probably the most straightforward pop song on her album (and her best hook). King Con is worth checking out because in addition to her tasty hooks she also has a slightly twisted sensibility. Songs like "Run Rumspringa" and "Sister Wife" are slightly off-kilter in the good way.
02. "Refill" - Elle Varner (Buy)
It's funny: this was on both her official release Perfectly Imperfect (recommended) and her mixtape Conversational Lush from earlier in the year, but I think the mixtape is a lot better than the for sale CD. Of the songs not on both, Conversational Lush has quite a few more high quality songs ("WTF," "Do You Want To," "Runaway," "Go," "Ghosts," "EV," "32 Flavors") than the CD does ("Sound Proof Room," "Damn Good Friends"). But buy the CD to support the artist, OK? Just put the mix tape plus those other two on the playlist.
Anyway, "Refill" is the best song on either album. Do you want to know what makes subtext work? When it isn't obvious. You have to be able to fully enjoy the text without the subtext intruding and causing dissonance. The raunchy subtext on "Refill" works, and works well.
01. "Never Again" - Nook & Cranny (Buy)
I think it's the jaunty fiddle that puts this one over the top.