I Heard Your Single: The top 20 singles so far this year, with Carly Rae Jepsen, Anthony Hamilton, Skrillex, and more
10:22 am Jul. 2, 2012
For the past few months, I Heard Your Single has taken stock of the best singles—everything from 7- and 12-inches to “focus tracks”—from local acts. The column is coming to an end, but for this final edition, we’ll skip our usual survey of new releases by New York musicians and go all-year and all-world. Below, a look at my Top 20 (or so) singles of 2012’s first half.
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (Interscope)
Every latecomer has the same response: “What’s the big deal?” The answer, of course, is that the song grows on you. That’s not how it’s supposed to work anymore, right? You’re supposed to think it’s the greatest thing ever the first 26 times you play it, in advance of knowing damn well the thrill will dim and even possibly flutter out entirely thanks to whatever set of digital annoyances you currently subscribe to. That’s not what happened here. It was the third time I heard this that everything clicked fully—not the first, not the second. It didn’t reach never-want-to-hear-anything-else levels till much later. Albums are supposed to work that way; singles, less so. But here we are. Her teen-pop peers’ tribute clip is the video of the year, too.
2. Usher, “Climax” (RCA)
Who else literally shivered the first time they heard this? It makes sense—you hear a bouncing beat, you bounce; you hear a deep baritone and you duck a little. And when you hear Usher finally unleash his falsetto (whole album plz) over skittering minimal-techno programming by Diplo and fractal-Technicolor strings by Nico Muhly, the whole thing passing by in freeze-frame slow-mo, your body responds in kind. Next impression: “Are they really going to get away with this?” Yes they did—more deliciously than anyone since Aaliyah and Timbaland made “Are You That Somebody” a full 14 years ago.
3. Dead Rose Music Company, “Faith” (Let’s Play House)
Alicia Myers’s “I Want to Thank You,” from 1981, was a nice little soul-gospel track that got plenty of play on cult Detroit radio D.J. the Electrifyin’ Mojo’s radio show. Mojo was a key figure in the early years of Detroit techno, which makes him one of a handful of D.J.s—John Peel, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and David Mancuso are others—whose tastes would form the backbone of entire subcultures. So it’s not that surprising that the London producers Dead Rose Music Company would select it to re-edit—that’s basically what “Faith” is. This has been a re-editor’s year—see Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Mixes, four C.D.s on Strut you can just swim in—and for me this takes the cake. All they do is chop it apart and apply a lot of filters, which is sort of like saying that all they did to make “Anarchy in the U.K.” was to write vague threats and step on a distortion pedal. True enough in the abstract, and absolutely hopeless in trying to explain this record’s power. The long-limbed, ultra-patient pace of the thing draws you in right at the start—lots of dance 12-inches build gradually to aid D.J. mixing, but here there’s a lot going on, and a lot of elements shifting—two or three different pieces of the vocal at any given time, no counting echo, pieces of the main rhythm instruments, and with a programmed kick and bottom end, the original elements float on top with a looseness that paradoxically adds to their heft. The first half seems desperate and dark, and then at 5:17, we hear, “He keeps me happy, so very happy,” which becomes the guiding vocal, layered till it ends, a shift that turns the track euphoric. But throughout, things happen that aren’t quite predictable, even when you know they’re coming, such as the sudden crash back in of the full piano after heavy, sine-wavy filtering. It works best in situ, of course. But seriously, 3:01—don’t miss it.
4. Beach House, “Myth” (Sub Pop)
I don’t understand. I’ve never given a moment’s damn about Band of Horses; the singer sounds like the guy from Supertramp. Beach House’s previous record was a snooze. Not real into “uplifting” guitars these days, or dippy romanticism. But. “What comes after this/ Momentary bliss/ A consequence/ Of what you do to me”? Oh wait: That’s the part where I melt, every single time.
5. Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)” (RCA)
Donna Summer, R.I.P.
6. I:Cube, “Transpiration” (Versatile)
Good year for zippy, squelchy keyboard riffs in dance music—another great one comes courtesy of Karmon’s “Wowshit,” (Diynamic)—not to be confused with Karmin, thank god—but this French house veteran’s stomps them all.
7. Zebra Katz feat. Njena Reddd Foxxx, “Ima Read (MikeQ & B. Ames Remix)” (Jeffree’s/Mad Decent)
Words this bitchy deserve drums this frisky.
8. Avan Lava, “It's Never Over” (Avan Lava)
Glow-bright synthpop from some former Fischerspooner associates—go figure, right? But the tune rings loud and so does vocalist T.C., who sings with complete conviction—as he also does on “Slow Motion,” the Flex Fantasy E.P.’s other highlight, a dead-serious R&B baby-maker that will go platinum the minute Usher covers it on his all-falsetto album.
9. Skrillex feat. Sirah, “Bangarang” (Big Beat/Atlantic)
Oh wait—he actually is the Chemical Brothers. I get it now. Awesome!
10. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, “Never Go Back” (Hollywood)
I only knew it by the chorus at first—must have overheard it a dozen times, and internalized it somehow without quite knowing what the words were. The connection was made only after I looked her up for business purposes—boom, that one, finally! Then I played it for a friend who liked everything but the chorus, and now I’m starting to wonder.
11. School of Seven Bells, “Lafaye” (Ghostly International/Vagrant)
I’ve seldom wanted so badly to dress in a black overcoat and strike gawky poses with dry ice all around me. The latter element, of course, comes straight off the guitar and hi-hats. Official music video co-directed by David Lowery, who made bigger waves in 2012’s first half with a little something he wrote.
12. Sleigh Bells, “Comeback Kid” (Mom + Pop)
Nice to see you guys, too.
13. [tie] Azealia Banks, “1991” (Interscope)
A$AP Rocky, “Celebration” (MP3)
Homeboy Sandman, “Cops Get Scared of Me” (Stones Throw)
The appearance of a few good young Web-savvy Harlem rappers doesn’t constitute a “scene,” especially with records whose approaches are as different as these three. It’s a pretty terrific coincidence, though.
14. [tie]Lone, “Crystal Caverns 1991” (R&S)
Dream Continuum, “Giv a Lil Luv” (Planet Mu)
Eats Everything, “This Elbow” (Pets)
Rusko, “Whistle Crew” (Mad Decent/Downtown)
Slick Shoota, “Beby” (Loose Squares)
Treasure Fingers, “Rooftop Revival (Radio Edit)” (Scion A/V)
Five fond looks back at various points of the U.K. hardcore continuum (copyright Simon Reynolds): Eats Everything drops a pre-jungle U.K. hardcore bridge in the midst of a dark house track; Lone, Dream Continuum, and Rusko with circa-’91 breakbeat-driven rave anthems, with “Giv a Lil Luv” bordering on juke, a sound repeated by “Beby,” only with more of a 2-step garage feel. The latter style is also mirrored by Treasure Fingers, with a goodly dollop of Todd Edwards’ vocal cut-up style. And you thought dance music was simple.
15. Anthony Hamilton, “Woo” (RCA)
16. Uner, “Pallene” (Cadenza)
Subtlety two ways—from a soul man whose records have sounded the same basic way far longer than the spread of R&B retro, and a Spanish deep-house-verging-on-techno producer who takes a while to get to the keyboard hook (welcome to the world of dance 12-inches, E.D.M. brats), and undermixes it, but good luck getting it out of your skull once it’s implanted.
17. Chevelle, “Hats Off to the Bull” (Epic)
Proof positive that good singles come from just about anywhere—even (gasp) Modern Rock radio veterans. (Hat tip: Molly Lambert’s “Grading the Charts” column for Grantland on the Modern Rock Top 10.)
18. Todd Terje, “Inspector Norse” (Smalltown Supersound)
19. Jacques Greene, “These Days” (Vase)
Two kinds of electronic-dance twinkle—one from a Norwegian latter-day disco expert messing with vintage ARP synths (and only vintage ARP synths—everything on the accompanying four-song E.P. is made with them), the other a French-Canadian who made my favorite single of 2011, “Another Girl,” stretching a teasing vocal snippet out even further than he did on that one.
20. Neneh Cherry & the Thing, “Dream Baby Dream” (Smalltown Supersound)
What a weird song to become a modern standard—Suicide’s 1977 original was covered recently by Bruce Springsteen and Black Tambourine. Then there’s this version, from a Stockholm jazz trio and the onetime pop star whose stepfather, Don Cherry, wrote the tune the trio named itself for. Seemed like a gimmick at first, but one listen eradicated that pretty fast. All the rest of my listens just confirmed it.