Well, the world didn’t end, but it’s still in a right old state, and isn’t music the very best of comforts and the most comforting of distractions? I’ve had a special little moment with every one of these songs in 2012. I’ll wax lyrical on the top ten when we get there, and what a ten it is. Here’s the Spotify playlist, and here's the rundown from 50…
25. Caotico – Gold
24. Everything Everything – Cough Cough
23. Josephine Foster – Blood Rushing
22. Twin Shadow – Five Seconds
21. Krystal Klear – From The Start
20. Alex Winston – Medicine
19. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
18. Perfume Genius – Floating Spit
17. Phantogram – Don't Move
16. John Talabot – Missing You
15. Bright Moments – Drifters
14. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Thrift Shop - feat. Wanz
13. Friends – A Thing Like This
12. The Child of Lov – Heal
11. Orbital – One Big Moment
And the top 10…
10. Kitty Pryde – Okay Cupid
‘Get out my rooooom….!’ A super late entry from Ms Pryde and her girlish, lolloping gem of a single. It didn’t occur to me until about my tenth listen that this was rap. I’ve been so brainwashed into thinking rap belongs entirely to hip-hop but here’s Kitty to prove otherwise. Lyrically, this might be favourite thing on the list. Just listen:
‘Lordy, shorty, you're a 10 and I wait for your drunk dials at 3:30 am, I love them.
So call me sober when you're ready, not goin’ steady, but babe I planned our wedding already’
9. Todd Terje – Inspector Norse
Everybody loves this track, how could they not? It’s Bentley Rhythm Ace and The Clangers for a generation reared on Aeroplane mixes. Terje’s amazing instrumental shows there are other ways to be uplifting without having crashing great crescendos everywhere. And just when you think you’re in the groove with it, at three minutes thirty that weird hummmmmm bottoms out and makes you want to do all the messy things in the world. Out and out magic.
8. Grimes – Genesis
She’s the Enya you can dance to. That’s a good thing, by the way. I nearly chose ‘Oblivion’ or ‘Be A Body’, the album is choc-full of these little masterpieces, but ‘Genesis’ neatly represents everything she’s best at. The Enya’s really kick in just shy of a minute but then it gives way to that amazing beat... An electronic masterclass.
7. Mykki Blanco & Brenmar – Wavvy
The queering of hip-hop continues apace. Mykki Blanco is not just an artist who happens to be gay either, there is full-on sexual potency and radical drag at the heart of his material. This addictive track is actually trad hip-hop in lots of ways, the me-me-me vibes are intact and the production could be a 50 Cent record, but just listen to those words:
‘I pimp slap you bitch niggas with my limp wrist, bro
What the fuck I gotta prove to a room full of dudes
Who ain't listening to my words cuz they staring at my shoes…’
Come out Missy Elliott, it’s lovely out here.
6. Girls Aloud – On The Metro
Comeback single ‘Something New’ was just clearing the decks for this knowing, rollicking bullet of a track. Great pop can usually eclipse whoever is actually singing it, and this would have been just as good in the hands of anyone from Mini Viva to Kylie, but the fact Cheryl at the very least might have actually cried on the Metro adds some charming veracity to the whole affair.
5. Sleigh Bells – Comeback Kid
I didn’t really know or mind what Sleigh Bells were going to do next, but this piece of massive Ratatat-meets-Stars buzz-saw gutter pop turned into my favourite ever track of theirs. Drunk air-guitaring to this became a brilliant thing for me this year, it’s in my repertoire forever.
4. iamamiwhoami – Goods
Kate Bush’s influence seems to be all over the place this year (Alex Winston, Grimes) and nowhere is it more obvious than on the weird helium-and-trill vocals of this track, so it might take you a while to realise you are in the middle of the best dance song of 2012. Jonna Lee’s iamamiwhoami project has delivered something astonishingly good in the Kin album. Not a shabby moment on it.
3. Haim – Forever
Perfect guitar pop record. I’ve been falling in love to and with this song since the summer. It might turn out to be one of those golden one-hit moments a la Wilson Philips but right now it sounds like the greatest reason in the world to grow your hair and cycle round town with your sisters. The Lindstrom and Prins Thomas re-work was one of my favourite mixes of the year too.
2. Solange – Losing You
Her most sensational output since ‘Sandcastle Disco’, nobody has quite put their finger on why this track is so great, so perfect in fact. Every botched description I’ve read in the press has put it further out of reach. It’s a sad song first off, all my favourite songs are, but it sounds like she’s at a block party, and the weird dissonance between the two is a pop trick worthy of Prince. It’s quite simply brilliant. You can stop mentioning the B-word now.
1. Winhill/Losehill – Tell Her She's The Light Of The World
It’s fate and only fate that a band that just rolled up in my ‘recommended listening’ one day has had such a lasting impact on me. This video was the first thing I heard from Sweden’s Winhill/Losehill and it was love at first listen. ‘Tell Her She's The Light Of The World’ isn’t just my song of the year, their album Swing Of Sorrow is the most perfectly realised and moving set of songs I have heard in ages. From the opening ten seconds of silence, to ‘Karin’s Hymn’ where a mournful cello drops out of the sky like a Lancaster Bomber, to the perfect happy/sad Neil Young-esque ‘The House Is Black’ and ‘Long Way To Next Stop’, to the brilliantly funny Beirut-style stomper ‘I Leave You ‘Cause I Don’t Care’, this sounds like a band at the absolute peak of their vision, and it’s only a debut. Song, band, and album of 2012.
Postscript and Interview
I was so possessed by wanting to know where this kind of songwriting can come from, and getting tired of reading badly Google-translated interviews in Swedish, that I tracked down the band myself and asked them some questions. Here’s what they told me:
The music for this album was written under a terrible cloud of sadness around Jonas’ mother’s illness and subsequent passing. Is it important for listeners to know about these unusually fraught circumstances, or are you happy for the album to stand alone?
JONAS - I hope it can stand alone without the listeners necessarily knowing about all that. I mean, those things are the reasons we came together to make the record so of course it’s really important for us, but my impression is that anyone who has been through something similar, like the loss of a loved one or any form of painful breakup, can catch up on that just from relating to the songs in themselves.
The band name comes from a place near to me, just over in Derbyshire, where Jonas visited as a youth. What are your memories of England, and have you or any of the band ever been to Manchester?
JONAS – One of my memories is walking in the mountains just outside of Hope village; the landscapes were very inspiring and beautiful. The strongest memory though is the music I experienced and learned during my stay at a folk music camp. English folk music has definitely been an inspiration for Swing of Sorrow. Unfortunately though, I've never been to Manchester.
CARL – Many members of the band have been to the UK and we’d obviously love to come play there soon, especially in a music city like Manchester!
Where does the album title Swing Of Sorrow come from?
CARL - The short answer is that ‘back in your wild swing of sorrow love’ is the first line in ‘Don’t let the inside shine out’. But Swing of Sorrow was also the working title for another song way back, which we eventually changed. When we were to decide on an album title it suddenly came back to us. Partly because we felt that all the mood swings we’d been through during the grieving process was exactly that, a swing of sorrow. And partly because of the musical reference, a way of tying grief and music together.
What makes this record so special for me is that there are moments of terrible melancholy offset by a wonderful sense of elation and hope. Is that a fair assessment of your intentions?
JONAS - I find it hard to define intentions like that, composing is just so much more intuitive to me, but it’s definitely a really beautiful and flattering assessment of how one can receive our music.
Some artists revel in abstraction, such as Bon Iver, and that can work really well. Your writing seems to be the opposite, there’s a concern that the listener understands exactly what you intend. For instance the line, ‘In these songs I have tried to make it clear: whenever she is close there is no fear’, is one of my favourite moments. I find that frankness and lack of irony really moving. Is that an accurate description for what your music is trying to achieve?
CARL - I believe that sometimes a straight line like that can be the best way to say something complicated, and sometimes a queer abstraction is necessary to say the simplest thing. We’re really into writing songs and telling stories that matter to ourselves in ways that move the listener and I wouldn’t want to avoid any methods of writing to achieve that. We write for ourselves and for strangers, so to speak.
In the rest of Europe and America, Swedish music seems to fall in and out of fashion from time to time (see also Canadian music). Would you consider yourself part of a ‘scene’, and do you think it’s a help or a hindrance?
JONAS - I wouldn’t really say we’re part of a scene in that way. Of course there are some bands that we feel related to musically, but that’s sort of independent of time and space, and some bands that are our friends, but that’s mostly being from Umeå and having known each other from way back.
‘Karin’s Hymn’ is one of the loveliest instrumental pieces I’ve heard in years. Are you classically trained musicians, and do you differentiate between using one type of instrument and another when you’re making music for the band?
JONAS - Thank you so much. Writing that piece was a truly proud moment for me as a composer and one of the songs I remember playing on the piano for my mother while she was sick. Writing music to record and playing music live are two very different things to me and I try to think as little as possible of the practical circumstances and different levels of training of the musicians when I'm writing, so that the creative process can be as free as possible.
CARL – As far as the band is concerned, everybody comes from really different backgrounds with various degrees of having studied or worked with music, but we’ve all been playing together in different constellations since about high school.
What’s great about living in Sweden, and wuld you ever consider living anywhere else?
CARL - What’s great is the few remains of the welfare state, but that’s unfortunately being dismantled more and more for every day. If things don’t change for the better soon, maybe we’ll have to consider going into exile: preferably somewhere a bit warmer, less racist and more fair. Where is that again?
JONAS - The musical climate in Sweden is often very warm and supportive and it has helped me and the band a lot in the creation of Swing of Sorrow to have the kind of support we've had from other musicians, teachers, institutions and people around us.
I can hear so many diverse influences in the music (some that may not even be there), such as Neil Young, Beirut, P:ano… Who really does influence you as musicians and songwriters?
JONAS – Me and my co-producer Henrik Nybom (also the band's drummer) were listening a lot to classical composers while arranging and recording Swing of Sorrow, for example Igor Stravinsky and György Ligeti. Rufus Wainwright and Frank Zappa are two other important influences.
CARL – From those you mentioned, I’ve taken more interest in Neil Young again just recently, when it comes to writing lyrics. But during the work with Swing of Sorrow, and in general, I really find the most inspiration in writers and poets rather than songwriters. Lyn Hejinian, Forough Farrokhzad and Marguerite Duras for example.
JONAS - And in the end, just hanging around together is probably the most inspiring for all of us!
What new music have you enjoyed this year?
JONAS - Just the other day I discovered Sufjan Stevens latest Christmas-album which gave me a joyful feeling that'll hopefully stick during the holidays. My greatest musical experience this year was definitely Bon Iver's perfomance at Way Out West in Gothenburg last summer, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life, all categories.
CARL - It’s been a such a good year for new music I think, it’s really hard to choose. But Cat Power was really great, as well as Patti Smith and Rufus Wainwright. And I’d say some of the songs on Psychedelic Pill are among the best Neil Young’s ever written.
What’s next for the band, and when can we see you play?
JONAS - Well, we’re back to writing new material of course, and we’re really looking forward to play at By:Larm in Oslo in February, our first gig outside of Sweden!