My top ten:
10. Objekt - Cactus
Spent relatively little time following the Hessle / Hemlock / R&S end of things this year (do things inevitably run out of steam once a label compilation is released?). Arguably Objekt’s ‘Cactus’ is more of a carryover from 2011 anyway, when I was really immersed in this stuff. Listening habits have shifted since then, but this release is a very satisfying farewell point. It’s a prickly, stubborn track, like a series of rescinded provocations. Painstakingly designed and bristling with kinetic energy, it hits that golden mean of weirding you out and making you move at the same time.
9. Nina Sky - Comatose
Lovemaking stretched into a blissed-out slowdance – the movements perfect, the sensations overwhelming, the desire endless, making the risk of dissolution a small price to pay. Nicole & Natalie was also one of the best pop releases this year, give or take a Carly Rae Jepsen, which pushed the center-piece track up the list.
8. Cooly G - What This World Needs Now
The clear stand-out from Cooly G’s debut album, a reworking of the Bacharach classic made all the more poignant by Merrisa Campbell undercutting the sentiment with just a whisper of “is this all that we..?”
7. Wynter Gordon - Waiting
I learned to love the Phil Collins stylings of ‘Stimela’, but much prefer Wynter Gordon’s experiments with 1990s woman-fronted alt-rock. ‘Waiting’ pretty much leaves R&B behind entirely, crafting a stadium-sized singalong which even features something resembling a guitar solo. Exactly the kind of triumphant soundtrack I needed as I made the journey home after more than a year abroad.
6. Azealia Banks - NeedSumLuv
What do you do after ‘212’? How do you top perfection? Well, imperfection can have a certain beauty as well. Machinedrum’s ‘SXLND’ is probably the best thing he’ll ever do, and Banks is definitely NOT on top form as she whines and warbles over it, competing with and losing out to that Aaliyah sample. Entirely fitting with her tale of infatuation with an attached man. Her super-confident raps, extensively deployed elsewhere, are abandoned for unpolished singing. Dissatisfaction lingers: a song that could have been, but cannot be flawless, a romance that just doesn’t work no matter how aggressively you’re flirting, seducing, begging. ‘NeedSumLuv’ also set the tone for a year characterised by drift and experimentation which alienated many. But actually, combine the best bits from that Fantasea mixtape and the 1991 EP and you have pretty impressive debut right there, which is why Banks is so high on the list.
5. Rihanna - Birthday Cake (Funkystepz Miami Bass Mix)
But not as high as Funkystepz. This one is the best, because of the lust, the hoovers, and the CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE
4. Terror Danjah feat. Riko - Dark Crawler
Fifty adrenalin shots in the arm and you’ll still have trouble keeping up with the relentless pace of ‘Dark Crawler’. Danjah is set on carpet-bombing the dance, and if you think you can outrun the explosions, think again. Riko’s voice is almost swallowed up by the barrage of flying ordinance – the self-proclaimed London City Warlord just about manages to get the message about your impending doom across as missiles whizz and mortars fall around him. Grime’s deranged belligerence turns out to be a fitting soundtrack to Ragnarok. Prepare for your elimination.
3. Wiley - Humble Pie
2012 was the year when, for the first time in pretty much ever, Wiley sounded more vital than Dizzee. Personal view, obviously – I haven’t spent the past 10 years tracking their careers that closely. In fact, I had pretty much dismissed Wiley as a disgruntled elder eternally caught between envy and admiration for his apprentice turned master. Wiley’s view that Dizzee was the first one from the grime scene to become an ‘artist’ is correct: Dizzee was able to marshall the unruly vibrancy of the genre into a exemplary debut album. Wiley was scattershot by comparison, his non-sequiturs standing awkwardly next to Dizzee’s story-telling nous. But while Dizzee drifted onto new pastures, determined to escape the ends and enjoy himself as much as possible, Wiley kept at it – producing such huge quantities of music that the quality inevitably kept rising. He can just churn this stuff out. His genius isn’t focused like Dizzee’s, it manifests in hair-brained, impromptu, near free-associative outpourings that outline a messy, fallible, honest person: “that’s just being human” as Wiley would put it. I didn’t even notice the levels rising until the steady stream of ‘Step Freestyles’ started pouring out this year. Wiley mentions Lil Wayne as an influence, probably not just in terms of lyrical approach, but marketing strategy: saturating the internet with free music that kept the fans talking. It worked – Wiley finally scored his long-desired number one single. You can’t argue that it wasn’t well deserved. Picking one song to represent the mass of stuff I enjoyed this year is impossible. ‘Humble Pie’ doesn’t showcase the ferocious wit of his battle raps, but does provide some insight behind the scenes. But it really soars at the end with that floating saxophone line, and Wiley ad-libbing over it: about his Boy Better Know family, London, and then dorking out over a girl.
2. Dawn Richard - Save Me From You (Remix)
Yeah, I don’t care if the original version was released last year. Fact is, this is the culmination and encapsulation of the Armor On EP, which is one of the best albums of 2012. Dawn punctures the insecurity inherent in entrusting your salvation to another. The superhero metaphor only universalises this principle. Waiting on deliverance only attracts heroes who are stronger when you’re gasping (my discomfort about Whedon’s Avengers was basically over this). Your rescue depends on your own self-sufficiency. The song transforms bitterness into assurance, dependency into independence, providing the answer to all those waiting to be rescued: go rescue yourself.
1. Purity Ring - Fineshrine
What, again? You could (if you were a soulless husk) describe Shrines as 10 slight variations on ‘Ungirthed’, Purity Ring’s breakout hit and my favourite song of last year. But no, this good thing you can’t have enough of. The same way I can listen to Harriet Wheeler warble and sigh through David Gavurin’s glistening arrangements for all eternity, I can listen to Megan James navigate the wonder-filled starry night laid out for her by Corin Roddick. Purity Ring use modern sounds (imagine The Knife getting heavily into hip-hop), but they capture the same child-like exuberance and terror The Sundays did twenty years ago. Too much is made of their disturbing imagery. James is not out to shock, her outlook is one of innocent curiosity at the marvels around her. ‘Fineshrine’ talks about ribs cracking, but only to illustrate the physical ache of devotion to another, the unquestioning self-sacrifice involved. The hyperventilating vocal snippets accent that eagerness to surrender everything for someone else, an impossible will-to-abnegation. Dawn’s suspicions about the relationships of power that underline love are the mature response, but Purity Ring imagine a world free of those lines of division, where we can become each other’s resplendent shrines.
So 2012 turned out to be the year guitars completely disappeared from my listening habits. It's been building for a while now, only held back by residual affection for the bands around Los Campesinos!. But Gareth and Tom have moved on to where I can't follow, and I'm resigned to the fact that Johnny Foreigner will never achieve anything as perfect as their first EP and album. Time to let go. I wouldn't say I'm in indie rehab (where Alex Ostroff positions himself) – I don't actively want to flush guitars out of my system. I've adapted to and accommodated Belle & Sebastian, the Hold Steady and the rest, and they won't be got rid of. But their successors haven't been as successful, for whatever reason. Ideas have either run out, or have disappeared into bandcamp.
So what has replaced the guitars? Pop, hip-hop, R&B and dance, pretty much. The sort of stuff I listened to before I was a teenager, the stuff that had absorbing narratives and formal invention hiding in plain sight. And of that, you could characterize my tastes as shifting from the kind of things argued about on Dissensus to the kinds of things argued about on ILM. The conversations around music continue to be one of the main sources of interest in the sounds themselves, and although ILM is less good-natured, its debates are fiercer and more intriguing. I owe a secret debt to many of the members of the board, but I'll mention two names: Guardian critic Alex MacPherson and Pitchfork contributor Tim Finney.