2012 certainly hasn’t been a quiet year so far. We may still have three fourths of the year to go, but we’ve already seen Mitt Romney show off his excellent rap skills, we watched our last season of Jersey Shore that didn’t have a crib in the smush room, and we helped The Hunger Games take a massive bite out of box office records.
From Madonna’s record-breaking Super Bowl performance to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s first baby entering the Billboard charts just days after she entered the world, 2012 is also shaping up to be an unprecedented year for music. Check out my list of top ten songs from the first quarter of the year and share your favorites in the comments section below!
10. Madonna, “Gang Bang”
It seems almost reductive (see what I did there?) to point out that Madonna is the holy grail of pop stars. For proof, look no further than this Tuesday, when her 12th(!) studio record – the *almost* eponymous MDNA – is released.
Don’t let the ploy-for-attention title of “Gang Bang” fool you. Lyrically, it’s one of Madge’s darkest and most twisted tracks in years. “I’m going straight to hell and I got a lot of friends there,” her voice crescendos over the pulsing bassline. “And If I see that bitch in hell, I’m gonna shoot him in the head again ‘cuz I want to see him die over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.” So like … bye Guy Ritchie?
Musically, “Gang Bang” is explosive electro-pop with a sophisticated gothic twist. There’s also a dubstep breakdown sleek enough to grease up the proverbial (or not – we don’t judge here) stripper pole you’ll undoubtedly be clamoring to slide down whenever “Gang Bang” pours out your speakers. Plus, this past weekend during a live Facebook chat with Jimmy Fallon, Madge admitted it was her personal favorite cut off the new record.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the song’s title comes from the gun metaphors throughout it or the fact that with this solid track, Madonna literally fucks the relevance out of all her “competition.”
9. WZRD feat. Desire, “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie”
WZRD is the moniker of rapper Kid Cudi and producer Dot da Genius’ alternative rock collaboration. Unfortunately, the band’s self-titled debut album is to Cudi what hosting the Oscars was to James Franco – an overambitious and subsequently failed attempt to try to prove there’s nothing he can’t do.
While the majority of this album lacks a sense of cohesion and feels awkwardly off, “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie” is a major exception. Sampling the moody ‘80s synth pop deliciousness that is Desire’s “Under Your Spell” (made popular on the acclaimed soundtrack to last year’s hit film, Drive), this song masterfully blends Cudi’s signature hip-hop flavor with longing lyrics and a mid-tempo rock backdrop. It’s the first and only time on WZRD’s album that this multi-genre exploration enhances rather than hinders Cudi’s words. And the end result is one of the most interesting and catchy songs to come out of 2012 so far.
8. Ingrid Michaelson, “Ribbons”
On her latest album, Human Again, singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson decided to spice up her signature song recipe. If a sampling of Michaelson’s previous catalog suggests that her music was a one-pot-wonder with few ingredients more than a ukulele, an acoustic guitar and a pinch of percussion, Human Again transformed the songstress into a master chef. Instead of serving the same dish again, Michaelson baked layers of multi-instrumentation and sprinkled exotic new flavors into her signature sound. And while upon the first bite, Human Again may taste like something that you would expect from Michaelson, you’ll soon realize that this time around, the serving she’s put on your plate is significantly richer, bolder and more original.
“Ribbons” acts as a perfect example of the marriage between’s Ingrid’s acoustic roots and the full-band feel of her edgier musical evolution. While an acoustic guitar takes lead on the song’s orchestration, it no longer headlines a solo show. Guided by driving percussion and soaring strings, “Ribbons” becomes an ensemble piece, shining spotlights on its various supporting players to become a more lavish and detailed overall production. Lyrically, the song is composed of Ingrid’s classic poetic and subtle metaphors, securing that this is a woman spearheading a new and exciting movement of indie pop.
(Read my full review of Human Again here)
7. Mouth’s Cradle, “The Fever”
With their debut album, 2010’s The Next Big Thing, local Pennsylvania duo Mouth’s Cradle released one of the most refreshingly kick-ass records in recent hip hop.
The band is to their respective genre what Cory Arcangel is to contemporary visual art. By often crafting their beats out of obscure samples (i.e. the Pokémon theme song), Mouth’s Cradle uses a postmodern approach to create something completely new out of their twisted interpretations of pre-existing material. This invites their listeners to experience a seemingly familiar piece of art in an entirely new way. And thus Mouth’s Cradle’s songs take on their own artistic identities while simultaneously challenging the tools used to craft them.
Gearing up for the release of their next album (set to drop next month), Mouth’s Cradle has just released the record’s lead single, “The Fever.” Think B.o.B meets Freelance Whales meets the Pacman theme. Just don’t listen to this song any place you want kept clean because one play count in and your mind will be blown all over the place.
6. American Royalty, “Matchstick”
While describing American Royalty’s music video for “Matchstick,” Interview Magazine (who also exclusively premiered the clip) wrote that, “in keeping with the band’s genre-bending ethos, psychedelic images are paired with bluesy-sounding interludes, and the 1950s intro shows down with the 1970s aesthetic until an unequivocally modern chorus confirms the timelessness of American Royalty’s sound.”
While “timeless” may not have been the first word I would have used to describe a sound reminiscent of what you would imagine a collaboration between Elton John and Sleigh Bells sounding like, it’s perhaps a fitting adjective in that “Matchstick” is a track unafraid to scale the musical timeline by paying homage to both classic rock and contemporary thrashing electronica. Intrigued? You should be because when their first full-length album drops later this year, American Royalty is not a name you’ll be hearing infrequently.
5. Childish Gambino, “Heartbeat” (Tommie Sunshine Remix)
As one of the founders of Derrick Comedy (the comedy troupe behind such viral sensations as “Bro Rape,” “Blowjob Girl” and “National Spelling Bee”), an award-winning writer for TV shows such as 30 Rock and The Daily Show, and as one of the stars of NBC’s current cult-favorite sitcom Community, Donald Glover appears to have his hands completely full.
It’s no surprise then that on his debut major-release album, Camp (released last November via Glassnote Records), Glover (under the persona Childish Gambino) cheekishly raps, “I won’t stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.”
“Heartbeat,” the album’s largest single to date, is also arguably the record’s best track. A rapid-fire slice of electro-rap, this club banger tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers in a cheating scandal. Self-aware as he is funny, Glover writes lyrics that both comment on and have ironic fun with the often-regarded notion that hip-hop is a genre that demeans women. “I’m going straight for your thighs like the cake you ate,” he confidently spits out on one of the verses in “Heartbeat.”
The recently released Tommie Sunshine remix of “Heartbeat” extends the track by one minute by adding in a prevalent machine-gun bassline and speaker-thumping trance. And while the original cut of the song remains superior, this remix is the first can of Kerosene to truly set fire to the dance floor in 2012.
(Official music video for Heartbeat. Download the Tommie Sunshine remix on iTunes.)
4. Regina Spektor, “All The Rowboats”
After the lackluster critical reception of her last album (2009’s Far), singer/songwriter Regina Spektor knew that she had to break out of her comfort zone when working on her follow-up record, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats (out May 29th from Sire Records).
To assist her on this quest, Spektor took a page from Fiona Apple and enlisted the help of producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem, Alanis Morissette, Rilo Kiley). Together, the duo has given Spektor’s erratic folk/pop sound a dark, electronic makeover. This time around, when Spektor pounds away at her trademark piano, the sound leaving the ivory keys is accompanied by moody synth-pop.
Lyrically, the song uses the metaphors of paintings hanging in a museum to evoke imagery of feeling helpless and trapped. “Masterpieces serving maximum sentences/It’s their own fault for being timeless/There’s a price to pay and a consequence,” Spektor sings with clear agony in her voice.
If the overall direction of What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is to be discerned from “All The Rowboats,” it seems Spektor has reinvented herself to usher in a new era of brooding piano pop with a surprising and welcome twist.
3. Animal Kingdom, “Strange Attractor”
Since being named iTunes’ “Best New Alternative Act” after the release of their single, “Tin Man,” in 2009, British rock band Animal Kingdom have added quite a few more notches to their belt. For instance, they’ve toured alongside bands such as Snow Patrol, Vampire Weekend and Band of Horses and have had their music featured in TV shows like Big Love and movies like Never Let Me Go.
This spring, the band is set to release their sophomore album. Lead single “Strange Attractor” has the same melodic urgency as “Tin Man,” but with a heavily cranked up dosage of synthesizer. And it’s got a chorus so catchy, you’ll be mentally replaying it every quiet moment of your day.
It’s a good thing that “Strange Attractor” is a song big enough to fill a stadium. Because that’s exactly where Animal Kingdom will be performing it in the not-so-distant future.
2. Chiddy Bang, “Talking To Myself”
Philadelphia hip-hop duo Chiddy Bang had the industry abuzz long before the release of their debut full-length album this February. After all, what’s not exciting about a band that was endorsed by Kanye West on his blog, holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Freestyle Rap, samples indie musicians like MGMT, Ellie Goulding, Passion Pit, Sufjan Stevens and Yelle, and shares their weed with Keith Richards?
Upon my first listen of Chiddy Bang’s Breakfast, I immediately knew “Talking To Myself” was my favorite song on the album. The mid-tempo track perfectly represents Chiddy’s sound: a hipster-approved cocktail made from two parts awesomely written hip hop and one part toe-tapping indie rock. It’s a concoction that goes down so smoothly, it’ll have you constantly thirsting for another round.
1. Fun., “Some Nights”
For Fun.’s sophomore album, Some Nights, the band expanded on their anthemetic folk-laced harmonies to really push the limits of both their own music and pop in general. Some Nights is infused with soaring 70’s rock, trance-saturated beats, expertly crafted theatricality and a hearty dosage of hip hop influences.
It’s no coincidence that one listen of Some Nights evokes memories of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Both albums feature heavy production by Jeff Bhasker, whose additional credits include tracks from Jay-Z, Beyonce, Drake, Lana Del Rey, Kid Cudi, Mary J. Blige and Robin Thicke to name a few.
With Bhasker behind the wheel, the title track off Fun.’s Some Nights is the perfect sampling of this brilliant record. Blending tactful AutoTune with slick pop hooks and punch-you-in-the-gut lyrics (“My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she called love/But when I look into my nephew’s eyes/Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from/Some terrible lie”), “Some Nights” is a soaring triumph that both rejuvenates and challenges the rest of today’s pop standards.
Other notable tracks of the year:
- “Marathon Runner” by Yellow Ostrich
- “September” by The Shins
- “Do My Thang” by Estelle feat. Janelle Monae
- “Anna Sun” by Walk The Moon
- “Happy Pills” by Norah Jones
- “Perfect World” by Gossip
- “One Engine” by The Decemberists
- “Black Tin Box” by Miike Snow feat. Lykke Li
- “Dark Paradise” by Lana Del Rey
- “Happiness” by Sam Sparro