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THE JOY INDEX: THE MUSIC THAT MADE ME HAPPIEST IN 2012

PART I: RATIONALE AND TRENDS Based on title alone, the reader might conclude that this essay is destined to become some sort of therapy session, with states of mind trumping critical responsibility. I won't categorically disabuse this notion, as the cross-eyed behemoth known as "the market economy" is currently paying rich dividends for oversharing. Baring your soul, your insecurities, and/or your breasts is big business these days. (Hell, just such a trifecta has done wonders for Lena Dunham. And I salute her for it! Unironically!) But before we plunge too deep into rabbit holes of another's devising, let me ground our objectives in a series of declarative statements. First, while this essay may become confused, it will never surrender to the rank forces of chaos. Second, the task of summarizing the year in pop music is something worse than a fool's errand; to merely attempt it is to flash a hybrid of hubris and poor taste, characteristics which I intend to evince in stunning detail. And third, although I've prefaced the substance of my remarks with the concept of "destiny," please let me draw my conclusions before you draw yours. I assure you this isn't auteurist pomp; it's simply a call for reserved judgment. Here's how it goes: I offer my opinions, then you get the chance to affirm them or negate them (or to ignore them entirely). I profess no authority, only interest, passion, and a quasi-masochistic penchant for lengthy editorializing. The slant of my perspective -- that is, the titular focus on happiness -- is an attempt to greet the Year-End Bonanza on friendly terms. It renders the numbers, be they descending on a best-of list or ascending on a genre-specific sales chart, completely subjective. The order isn't so important as the gestalt -- or, to use a more writerly idiom, "the narrative." For me, what matters is the aggregate impact of the selected trends, songs, albums, and artists -- how they held up as a whole, whether they vanished or endured, what they signify for you, me, and Western civilization at large. Have I lost you yet? Like I said, this essay may become confused. And I'm nothing if not a man of my word. So, welcome to the bungle, we've got fun and games. Games, mostly, as making sense of 2012's rich bounty of music is inevitably a trivial pursuit. Ultimately, the year-end manifestos, with their myriad lists and exclamation marks, resemble a Game of Thrones: Who's king? Who's queen? And does the royal line have any weight to it? To these questions, I can only answer, "Fuck if I know!" Again, we're trudging through the tar pits of petty opinion, not knowable truth. It seems to me that 2012 was a decent year for music. Quality was relatively strong, quantity was reliably overwhelming, and personality presented itself in heaping measure. That said, the year didn't have a clear "winner," by which I mean a single musician who managed to separate herself from the pack, emerging as a God among Titans. In 2011, Adele had played that role, as Kanye West had in 2010, Lady Gaga in 2009, and Lil Wayne in 2008. 2012 had many stars, most of them shooting, none of them blinding with light. Glory was claimed, held, and

sustained for a healthy interval, but the reins were always returned to the tastemakers. One could say that the year belonged to the social media, the mobile interface, or the continuing conflation of sound and moving image, both corseted into the latest models of digital culture. But how about this: How about we take a middle course, and posit that the year in music belonged to the year in music? The songs kept on coming, and we kept on listening to them. Perhaps the medium was the message, and the process the platform. Or maybe we're simply hungry hogs in a holding pen, devouring whatever slop is dropped in our buckets. Fuck if I know. "Fuck if I know" isn't the most exalted of leitmotifs, but it holds the virtue of being an honest one. It's also the first phrase that came to mind when I sat down to consider the year's inventory, specifically when I asked myself "What was the best music released in 2012?" I must confess to being unnerved by the sheer scope and gravity of the question. That feeling has passed, though it lingered too long not to be openly acknowledged. Moreover, the tenets of full disclosure require that I admit to a case of putting the cart before the horse. It's only been about five days since I paused to look back at 2012's pop contingent, reviewing my various playlists, purchases, and blog entries. Long before that, however, I'd conceived of the notion of the Joy Index -- an ostensibly novel and idiosyncratic way of assessing public art. Rather than make an argument based on merit, which could, of course, be undermined, I thought I'd say "These are the songs that made me happiest." At which point the case would be closed. My testimony would be unassailable, as it would be mine alone, and wouldn't purport to speak for a larger audience. This arrangement had a nice situational intrigue. I mean, if I were to claim that PSY's "Gangnam Style" granted me repeated visitations from the Baby Jesus, and was thus a divine construct, you couldn't disprove it, could you? But such convenient framing, in which the actual picture becomes almost secondary to the Photoshopping, lacks a certain backbone. I stand behind the Joy Index that follows, but I make no excuses for its contents or its elisions. Initially, I'd hoped to sidestep the job of compiling the year-end rank, through which some songs win laurels, others indignity. To skip the list, however, is to choose cowardice over engagement. It's to film the whole scene, painstakingly and professionally, only to eschew the money shot. I'll have none of that. So a Top 25 list will be forthcoming. But before we examine the trees, let's not forsake the forest. The year in music was large and leafy; it deserves a survey of its various blooms and yields. Getting at the totality of a given subject is what makes me happy, and the Joy Index will describe 2012 from several vantage points. First, we will enumerate the trends, both in the music itself and in the broader music business, that helped define 2012. Then we will cobble together our dean's list, pulling from genres far and near, from artists mainstream and underground. Finally, we will reduce the music to its essence, and name the individual moments that made the year in pop memorable. Here, I'm not using the royal "we"; I truly feel that this is a communal exercise, that I'm infused with a touch of the holy spirit. Perhaps it's the Baby Jesus Himself, still dancing along to "Gangnam Style," eagerly awaiting the celebration of his birthday.

Yes, I've just tried to take some of the piss out of this affair. Music is, to me, seminally important, but it's not feeding the Bangladeshis or brokering a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The joy it imparts is nearly universal, but the specific smiles come one by one, and carry distinct, disposable meanings. Let's not get carried away. Though I have praised, and will praise, 2012's music, the albums I enjoyed most this year derive from the late 1970s. They're Suicide's Suicide and Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, both veritable touchstones, not mere flashes in the pan. The first created something new (electropunk), the second improved upon something old (Laurel Canyon pop). They're classics, a label that's tough to dole out in real time, as the observer can never be sure what will advance and what will retreat. Thankfully, this post makes no claims for posterity. It's a dated document, copyright 2012, and it wraps its arms around its subject haltingly, but with a warm heart. Here's the year as I heard it. First stop, trends: 1. Binge and Purge: In 2012, the release schedule rarely slackened, but it did experience periods of drought. I'll remember the year not as a steady plateau, but as a series of peaks and valleys, with gluts dropping precipitously to grain shortages. Ironically (or, at least, unexpectedly), pop kept a pretty consistent countenance; it was indie that conjured the "feast or famine" analogy. As will be described below, pop outwitted its dry seasons, keeping its juicier grapes on the vine until they threatened to wrinkle, at which point the social media, using an entity known as "the viral video," imparted a spray of magical rejuvenation. Indie had no such recourse. Bored soldiers, second-tier athletes, and would-be celebrities weren't going to choreograph a charming dance routine to, say, Grimes' "Oblivion." As such, alternative music turned over faster and with more enthusiasm than its pop counterpart. An obsession was placed upon the "new," a condition reserved for the just-leaked and the yet-to-be released. This yearning for fresh product is healthy until it becomes counterproductive. Let me give you two examples. In July, Frank Ocean's channel Orange and Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan debuted more or less simultaneously. The indie world didn't have enough focus or bandwidth to give each album its due; so, after months of amplifying Dave Longstreth's promotional campaign, the blogs collectively rallied around Frank (who, it must be said, moved up his record's release date to accommodate the buzz surrounding his same-sex confession). This left the Projectors in a lurch, causing them to reel backward into the ghettos of baroque pop. A similar situation manifested itself in November, when Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city and Titus Andronicus' Local Business dropped on precisely the same Tuesday. Again, the erstwhile indie darling was accorded short shrift. Kendrick was canonized, Titus relegated to footnote territory. Sure, an argument could be made that, in each instance, the albums went head to head, and the better one prevailed. But indie isn't supposed to be governed by a winner-take-all mentality. It espouses a kind of limitless ceiling, where, bolstered by the tall white walls of the Internet, room is made for all objects worthy of veneration. This simply didn't happen in July or November. I know this because I was there, headphones and keyboard at the ready. The shame of the situation isn't merely that the Projectors and Titus missed out on some press at the very time when they needed it most. It's that the blinders of contemporary blogging train

all eyes on the savior of the moment, and thus facilitate the cycle of binge and purge. We could have come back to Dave Longstreth or Patrick Stickles after the short surges of Beatlemania had passed, but we didn't, at least not in any significant way. Their albums received good reviews and will make certain best-of lists, but their voices were never granted the advantage of the people's microphone. My argument is that indie needs to learn a lesson from pop, which never lets a blockbuster get swept under the carpet. "Call Me Maybe" and "Gangnam Style" were out for months before they hit the Billboard charts with any measure of conviction. They were skillfully scouted and deftly resuscitated, then deployed like delayed-release pharmaceuticals. Both songs carried the idiom through a full season, keeping the calorie in adequate supply even as inventories trended low. On occasion, indie needs to look back to the immediate past, so as to provide nourishment during lean times. We should aim to avoid both the binge and the purge, opting instead for a tenable parade of content, which can be understood and assimilated before it streaks by, energy uncaptured. This won't happen, of course, as smartphones and genius tablets have shown a tendency to beget stupid models of consumption. But I thought I'd get my grievance on record, if only for consideration by a higher authority. 2. Pop Shows Some Leg: Or, should I say, some legs. (As opposed to cleavage and apple bottom, which generally dominate the MTV protectorate.) Amid these half sentences, let me give you a full thought: Top 40 brandished some real workhorses this year, stretching certain tunes to the very thresholds of their integrity. I don't think it's irresponsible to note that the year in pop could be communicated in five songs: Adele's "Someone Like You," fun.'s "We Are Young," Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," and PSY's "Gangnam Style." Yes, the first two can be conceived as holdovers from 2011 -- but that's kind of the point. Pop is no longer quite so breathless as it was in years past. It encourages bigticket songs to take a seat and hang around for a while, maybe have a drink or three. The goal is to establish a vogue, then a virus, then a meme. This process takes months, and, as the days accrue, so does the revenue. With multiplatinum record sales largely a vestige of a bygone era, the speculators must get their precious metals from another source. Tours and merch aren't enough; what an artist needs is mindshare. And, by allowing a single to linger on the lees until its fruit is concentrated, the music industry is tempering the turnover that, in recent years, had enabled new #1 songs to manifest every week. Songs are no longer limited to our immediate musical culture; they're part and parcel of culture at large, populating YouTube channels and movie soundtracks and car commercials and football Sundays. The song can come from England, Australia, Canada, or South Korea -- indeed, none of the tracks listed above save for "We Are Young" was released by an American artist -- so long as it sets the United States aflame. This fire takes time to kindle and burn. Pop should be congratulated for granting its artists the benefit of a generous clock. Ubiquity eventually breeds contempt, but the fact that a single can hover above our various nexuses of entertainment for months on end is a testament to the song's construction. From pop to indie, we no longer treat "catchiness" with scorn. Now, we lionize it. And, several times a year, it manages to roar.

3. Bass God: 2012 was shaping up to be the year of Skrillex. Then June arrived, and the peasants began clamoring for a conventional pop song, not an extended instrumental. (Regard this period as the "Call Me Definitely!" portion of the calendar.) EDM had its "Woodstock moment" time and again, at the Grammys, at Coachella, at Bonnaroo, and, finally, at your local Zumba studio, in between the sweaty regimen of squats and thrusts. Skrillex, Deadmau5, Avicii, Tiesto, Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta -- all were profiled at length by even the most entrenched of rockist organs, including Rolling Stone and its attendant retinue of guitar rags. For a few months, Americans were ambling about, wildly and warily, waiting for the bass to drop. In the end, EDM won battle after battle, only to discover that the masters of war weren't going to sanction a single victor. Pop is so large and multivariate that it can swallow its children whole, absorbing foreign textures and tones into its default template, which calls for safe variations on verse-chorus-verse. Top 40 didn't ignore EDM. (How could it? Pop was already in its thrall, especially under the rubric of "digital disco.") So, instead, Top 40 flexed its lats, and made EDM its bitch. The pulses and quivers that positioned each laptop toter as an impresario were sanded down to palatability, then mixed into standard pop fare. The best example is Taylor Swift's great "I Knew You Were Trouble," which moves from plaintive acoustic strum to something resembling a bass bomb. Pop was thus able to monetize the growing craze for EDM without abandoning what sells in Dubuque and Peoria. Pencil-necked journalists proved unwittingly complicit in the coup, as they prevented the lay public from embracing a designation as clear as "electronic dance music." Instead, the form became known as "dubstep," which indie bloggers had previously associated with U.K. upstarts like James Blake. Amid the climate of confusion, straight pop (and will.i.am., the game's most reliable bottom feeder) walked off with all the cash. EDM would not stand alone; it would integrate or die. The form seems to have chosen integration. This, I think, is a smart move, as it'll enable DJs like Skrillex and Guetta to produce instrumentals for A-List artists. They'll lose a healthy share of house purity, but gain a humbling quota of reach. This tradeoff is a no-brainer: House/EDM was never a particularly pure discipline, and global distribution seems to befit the genre, which pulls expediently from every continent. EDM is the sonic equivalent of the action movie. Skrillex is its Stallone, Deadmau5 its Schwarzenegger. The sound is dumb but visceral, noisy but not without nuance. Centrally important is the realization that you don't need to speak its language to hear its message. Find the right beat, license it to the right collaborator, and the rest will fall into place, one country at a time. Now more than ever, listeners are looking for return on experience, not investment in cryptic lyrics. EDM has shown a talent for lighting the fuse. And the major labels, for all their faults, are awfully good at timing the explosion. 4. R&B Takes the Wheel: I don't think it's a coincidence that, just as Skrillex's skronk was sunsetting, Frank Ocean's star began to rise with tidal abandon. The various music consortia, from the online hustlers to the live concert kings, needed a new hero, and Frank was conspicuously well suited for the part. Here was a ridiculously talented, impossibly young popand-soul singer, who, rather than emerging naked from some thick ether, had already toiled in the business for half a decade. During his years with Def Jam, the artist had been known as

Christopher Breaux, and he'd written throwaway cuts for the likes of John Legend, Brandy, and Justin Bieber. Then, in 2011, he found his way into the popular consciousness: mixtaping. Nostalgia, ULTRA. was a study in subcultural smarts. It used hip-hop means (the mixtape) to win indie acclaim, riding the blog buzz to hook-man pole position. (See "No Church In the Wild," Frank's dense, lucrative collab with Jay and Kanye.) This would be a story of savvy marketing were the quality of the underlying music not completely fucking luxe. Ocean raised the bar for R&B mixtaping, showing that a free release needn't be a passing lark. "Novacane," "Thinking About You," and "Swim Good" were polished, professional songs, packing original beats and a unique voice. Frank used bold cadences and evocative lyrical flourishes, putting commercial R&B -- frequently stylized as "Rap&Bullshit" -- to shame. He would've worked just fine as a standalone wonder, out to rejigger the relationship between the rhythm and the blues. But, in a stroke of good fortune, it turned out that Ocean had brothers in arms, albeit kin of a different kind. A month after Nostalgia hit the streets, the Weeknd dropped his first mixtape, House of Balloons. Abel Tesfaye, the silver-throated crooner behind the Weeknd's smoke, would triple-down on Frank's conceit of free R&B releases, eventually posting three full albums to his remarkably well-art-directed website. The music was of a piece with its influences, but not unduly derivative or repetitious. Where Ocean was warm and confessional, the Weeknd was stark, serious, and reserved. He wouldn't let us see his face or peruse his profile. He wanted his art to speak for itself. And it did. A larger history is unnecessary, but a quick summary is instructive: In the annals of modern R&B, 2011 will go down as the year of the mixtape; 2012 as the year when the debut albums dropped, along with a million guards. The movement took time to sprout, grow, crest, and crescendo, but when it broke, it became the music lover's Story of the Year. I'd wager that no idiom provided me with more joy in 2012 than R&B, in particular the minigenre led by Ocean, Tesfaye, and Miguel. It's generally known as "Alt R&B" or, in Eric Harvey's bitchy but brilliant tag, "PBR&B." Thankfully, you don't need to have a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice to admire the merchandise. The music is a veritable Voltron of forms, protean but somehow singular. It takes the lean, electronic textures that have been tumbling about indie since the implosion of the garage-rock revival; injects them with the purple funk of Prince and the stratospheric falsetto of Michael Jackson; and compresses all the baked-in physical and emotional energy into next-level pop music. Only these aren't precious or pristine sound experiments; they're accessible albums, containing bona fide singles. And they have the potential to work as well commercially as they do artistically. Indeed, Miguel's "Adorn" has breached the borders of the iTunes Top 10. Ocean's channel Orange has sold a very respectable 400,000 copies. And Tesfaye's indelible ink has begun to seep into the pop mainstream, most notably in Usher's "Climax." I don't want to hear much about the extra-musical distractions, such as the tabloid press' one-week fascination with Ocean's sexuality or Miguel's suggestive use of his tongue on the Jimmy Fallon program. The one beef worth mentioning is the quick back-and-forth that the Weeknd and The-Dream had on Twitter earlier this year. Dream, who, let's be honest, deserves a great deal of credit for helping to engineer the Alt R&B tone, was performing a concert at New York's S.O.B.'s nightclub. From

the stage, he said, "I haven't done a show in two years. And since then there's like four n**gas that sound like me." Within hours, Tesfaye had taken to Twitter to write a base but effective response: "ham burglar lookin' ass n**ga..." (That's all it said. Who needs 140 characters?) At the time, these seemed to be fighting words. But the beef swiftly blew over, as the artists involved were too busy making music to dial up Suge Knight and his shadowy gang of Death Row assassins. Weeknd got in a good punch; Dream got Tesfaye to tacitly admit that he'd taken a few drinks from the Radio Killa reservoir; and we moved on to the main event -- the albums. To my ear, channel Orange and Trilogy were the year's finest and most complete musical statements. They represent the tent posts in a new vogue: indie R&B that answers to neither indie nor R&B. It's pop music, and its list of adherents includes everyone from How To Dress Well's Tom Krell to Solange Knowles. 2013 promises the mapping of more hemispheres in this brave new world. I'm anxious to hear what Frank and Abel have in the pipeline. I also won't sleep on The-Dream. The Hamburglar may have gone quiet of late, but he's sure to return for his cheddar cheese. 5. Stream, Baby, Stream: This was the year that I came to hate Spotify. Not because I find the service lacking -- on the contrary, it's a boon for the vast majority of music enthusiasts -- but because it presents too many options, in a manner I consider gauche. It's effectively an iTunes Store where every item is free, a brothel without bottom, cajoling you to come again and again. I use the whore metaphor with purpose: You can't buy anything on Spotify. You can only rent the object of your affection for a no-consequence romp in the house's sack. Perhaps the rules are different if you pay a monthly subscription fee -- I truly do not know, nor do I care to investigate the matter. What I want to focus on is this question of ownership: Should we pay for individual allotments of music? Or is the mode of dissemination the thing wielding value, with the content bulging clumsily as a happy incidental? My heart tells me that it's the music that's valuable. My mind, however, places the purse astride the platform. The venture capital community seems to regard the online space as one large receptacle for terabyte after terabyte of data. We don't really get Spotify or Facebook for free; in exchange for each service, we provide a treasure trove of personal information, from ZIP code to aesthetic preference. The network, in other words, is only as valuable as its mosaic of members. That's what makes Facebook unmovable: it has close to a billion accounts, most of them belonging to actual people. Spotify is attempting to achieve a junior model of this Zuckerbergian "buy in." Once it assembles a critical mass -- and I can't begin to speculate as to where the tipping point lies -- it will be here to stay. But, for the moment, it's a fly in the living room, buzzing with promise but dwarfed by the breadth of its borders. In the ultimate accounting, the winner isn't Spotify but the stream. That seems to be how we want to "experience" music. This is a shame, I think, as it lends primacy to the gallery instead of the artist. We genuflect before the centralized database, not the individual entries that make the database worth compiling. I'm not blind to the more practical side of the matter: We've long since entered the age of multitasking, and the stream has taken hold because it's convenient. No fuss, no muss, just the Lumineers on heavy rotation! Now, I don't especially care for the Lumineers, but if they help a single mom get through her day shift as an Accounts

Receivable clerk, that's all to the good. There, streaming is merely taking the place of radio, which died of its accord in the late 1990s. What troubles me is the ascending notion that music is tantamount to oxygen -- always in the air, to be consumed unconsciously, with nary a thanks or a tip of the cap. I understand the appeal of background music. White noise has its purpose, particularly in our increasingly loud and harried lives. Just remember that background music is called background music for a reason. By definition, it's an item of secondary or tertiary importance -- the happy incidental I described above. Well, the Joy Index isn't willing to settle for a happy incidental. If music is to remain a viable art form, it must be granted the dignity of center stage. People must make time for songs and albums, even if it's only a few minutes a day. I'm a part-time pop critic, and I probably listen to less music than my parents, who haven't purchased a new record since I was in diapers. This is a function of a phenomenon known as "Having Shit to Do." I can't blast the new Mystikal single while I'm writing a business proposal or responding to my boss' emails. That would be conduct unbecoming. But, when the work day is done, and I'm in my nightly fetal position, I focus on a few tracks of recent vintage, so as not to become a bystander to the times. These songs get all of my attention, and, more often than not, they prove to be worth the investment of few moments' focus. If a song moves me, I buy it. If an album shows promise, I pre-order it. There's a place for the stream in this culture of commerce, but it's as the appetizer, not the main course. To Spotify and its ilk, I want to offer my favorite political misfire of 2012: "You didn't build that!" You merely appropriated it, and sought to make it yours, paying royalties that couldn't maintain the expenses of a traveling flea circus. In the coming decade, we've got to return some power to the "content providers" -- you know, the people who actually make the stuff that fuels the entire music enterprise. As to how we're going to do this, I have to revert to my one-size-fits-all answer: "Fuck if I know!" 6. Separate But Equal?: When I think about music, two forces come into play: imagination, which tends to be optimistic, and analysis, which tends to be cynical. The first aspires to envision what could be; the second simply delves into what is. Imagination tells me that Abel Tesfaye, the Walkmen, and Japandroids are big stars, thrilling untold millions with their grooves and riffs. Analysis tells me that this observation is, to put it mildly, a bit off the mark. Aside from the pocket-protected core of my music-nerd friends, no one in my circle of intimates has even the slightest clue as to who these artists are or what their music sounds like. Where is the average person going to encounter "The House That Heaven Built"? On the radio? Bullshit! If a fellow is white and over 35, he's probably listening to the same mildewed classic rock and alternative nuggets that have sustained him since his days as an aspiring skateboarder. ("Sabotage" is a great song, but I don't need to hear it, repeatedly, in the context of nostalgia.) On the other hand, if a lass is black and under 18, she's likely getting earfuls of Rick Ross and Nicky Minaj, along with whatever pabulum the local Hot 97 affiliate is slinging. The two roads, both based in the blues, diverge in a wood, never to meet again. Fellow travelers thus become easy antagonists. Again, I'll cite some examples. I live in a mixed race community, with blacks and whites standing more or less in equal number. Our neighborhoods are largely segregated, but that's a product

of custom, not conviction. Black and white bump into each other all the time, rarely with animus. Just last Saturday, while waiting in line at the post office, I encountered an AfricanAmerican girl I knew from the gym. I'd place her somewhere in her midtwenties, just a few years younger than your humble (and graying) author. In the midst of an awkward hello, a ringtone rang out. It was a Drake number, and it was emanating out of the phone attached to the girl's friend, another black female in her twenties. I must have cringed or something, because the friend asked, "What's the matter, you don't like Drake?" I told her Drake was cool, but that I was old and, hence, Old School, still partial to Wu-Tang and Nas. I played anthropologist for a minute, and dropped the names of some young rappers that had been bigupped in 2012: A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt. Neither of girls had more than a token awareness of these artists. (Earl, in the event, drew a pair of total blanks.) The conversation was headed nowhere, as our tastes were too disparate, theirs a function of standard urban programming, mine an offshoot of the typical hipster beat. In the end, the friend jocularly told me that I liked "them salty-ass rappers." I wasn't sure what this meant, but it immediately became my favorite epithet of the year. My point is that we speak different languages because different languages are spoken to us. This isn't just another "Mighty, Mighty, Spade and Whitey" development -- Beatles vs. Motown, 45 years down the road. Huge divides exist within the races, and they continue to chasm into additional canyons. Example number two comes from smiling Caucasia, namely a discussion between me and an old coworker, with whom I used to attend to rock concerts. She sent me a message regarding last week's Grammy nominations, noting her selections in virtually every category. I was soon pulled into an impromptu IM chat, during which she focused on the race for Best New Artist. Her preference was for the Lumineers, but she admitted that she expected fun. to win. I didn't even know who was nominated -- again, I point you to the "Having Shit to Do" phenomenon -- but quickly eyeballed the shortlist. I spotted Frank Ocean and immediately chuckled, typing "Frank Ocean's in the running. He's gonna take it." To which my friend replied "Who's Frank Ocean?" That was a gut punch. But then came the elbow cross: "Oh, wait, isn't he that gay singer?" This statement made a mockery of the year in music, but its message was astute and telling. Frank Ocean, arguably my top artist of 2012, is, to the majority of those who've heard his name, nothing more than "that gay singer." The headline always outmuscles the body copy, even if it's merely the frame for a larger picture. If Frank wins Best New Artist, the Lumineers contingent will hint that pro-LGBT politics played a role in the victory, just like the Romney crowd continues to insist that Obama won the presidential election by awarding his deadbeat constituents with "extraordinary gifts." Music has become the stuff of internecine warfare, largely because advocacy has outpaced impact. We make our own radio stations now, and we tend to be some salty-ass DJs. This is where, against my better instincts, I have to give the hipsters some credit. They listen to more colors of music than any comparable socioeconomic group. Tap into their iTunes Library and it looks like a fucking Benetton commercial. Problem is, the musical conversations that the hipsters lead (and in which I regularly partake) amount to a kind of closed-door choir rehearsal.

The converts are limited to those who are standing immediately outside the church, or waiting patiently in the pews for their limp-wristed boyfriends. Our arguments, though loud and passionate, don't carry into the media that matter. Sitcom watchers and movie goers -- that is, the vast majority of Americans -- absorb music by osmosis, while shopping, scrolling, chillaxing, or channel flipping. They couldn't give a hoot or a holler as to which of this year's Ty Segall albums was the best. In fact, who the hell is Ty Segall? Fuck if I know! I'll allow this thread to close its case, but I have neither the time nor the power to put it out of its misery. The pain of non-overlapping playlists, of polyglot sounds with no dependable translator, will press on, in the form of a "separate but equal" logic. To each his own Spotify account, we say. This normalizes the "separate," but does it effectuate the "equal"? I don't think so. But, ultimately, my opinion doesn't matter. (Nor does my Joy, of course.) The final takeaway is this: Amidst all the social media huddling and data bundling, there's a great segregation among listeners. I can imagine a better, more inclusive listening environment. My sober analysis, however, tells me that this nobler plain is a pipe dream. I doubt it'll crystallize anytime soon. 7. Chris Brown Remains An Unconscionable Asshole: No explanation necessary. Just Google the leopard-print motherfucker.

PART II: THE YEAR'S 25 "BEST" SONGS If you read Part I of this feature, you know that I don't purport to have an objective understanding of which selections comprise the cream of this year's musical crop. In the critical ledger, "best" is typically used in place of "favorite" or "preferred." These are individual decisions, squared -- meaning that a) each entry on a Top 25 list represents a singular judgment, and b) in the case of a one-man operation such as this, the verdicts are issued by a single judge, even if he's decidedly unfit to wear the court's sober robes. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask only that you treat my opinions with a tender mercy. You'll likely disagree with a number of items that follow. But some, no doubt, will win your nods of affirmation. Our tastes aren't (and shouldn't) be the same; but, since we're probably attuned to sibling frequencies, our roster of results can't be completely irreconcilable. Let's find value in our differences and pleasure in our overlaps. This is, after all, the Joy Index: It aspires to document the music that made me happiest in 2012. I hereby submit that the list below does this humble job, regardless of whether its contents bear the Pitchfork or Rolling Stone seal of approval. So, with malice towards none, and charity towards all, I'll disclose my criteria for inclusion, then get on with the rank business of good, better, best. Here are the rules: 1) An artist may appear only once in the Top 25 compendium, even if he/she produced several songs worthy of prime placement. This ensures diversity, intrigue, and a clear acknowledgment that these lists are, almost inevitably, set pieces. I could fill a Top 25 with the work of just seven or eight artists. But where's the fun -- where's the joy -- in that? 2) Songs that were released as singles in 2011 are ineligible for this year's sweepstakes. Hence, Sleigh Bells' "Born to Lose" was never in contention, despite being part of an album that didn't dent the market until February of this year. What can I say? Tough nuts. The calendar comes with built-in provisions. 3) Songs that were released via mixtape in 2011, but were subsequently remastered for a studio album that dropped in 2012, are eligible. As such, the Weeknd has been invited to our insipid little party. And he's sitting among the V.I.P.s. That should do it. The only other thing I need mention is my mild but evident personal prejudice: I'm a bit of a rockist, but I harbor a soft spot for classic R&B. As for straight pop, it gives me a great thrill when it's good, as the bar for Billboard glory has been set a touch low in recent years. Rap was the music of my youth and remains a cherished form, albeit perhaps a little underappreciated in its most modern iterations. Enough context. Here's the main event. 1. "Pyramids," Frank Ocean: Epic yet immediate, ambitious yet accessible, esoteric yet familiar. This is what top-tier pop music should sound like -- soulful, sweeping, and dynamic, yet never hesitant to surrender to the primacy of the groove. Yes, "Bad Religion" was the shorter, more talked-about track. But, for all its beauty and bravery, I thought the song could've used an extra verse, if only to lift the narrative to a level of desperation that was commensurate with the

sheer anguish in Frank's voice. "Pyramids" is wanting of nothing, from sonic charisma to run time. Not content to tell just one story, it tries its hand at two, one ancient, one modern, and draws parallels worthy of high art. The eras and the antagonists are bound together by a compositional integrity, with the headlong chase of the first suite segueing seamlessly to the smoky chill of the second. Cleopatra had her Caesar and her Antony; here, her allure still reigns supreme, albeit over pyramids of different design and meaning. Find that meaning in the song itself, not my hasty summary. But please don't fall for the mouse trap laid by the youth press, which uses Ocean's sexuality as its sordid chunk of cheese. I, for one, really couldn't give a damn as to whether Frank likes men, women, or some intrepid combination thereof. What brought me the most joy in 2012 wasn't the lusty speculation regarding Ocean's romantic history, but the clear confirmation that Frank has a bright and beaming musical future. Channel ORANGE proved that he was as good as advertised, that the excellent but uneven nostalgia, ultra. was merely batting practice before the home run derby. The same-sex narrative is an aside, and needs to be treated as such. I'll be damned if a Tumblr post, however poignant, takes the glory that rightfully belongs to Ocean's music. He's grown significantly as an artist, and "Pyramids" represents his peak. The best song was the single. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 2. "Only Son of the Ladies Man," Father John Misty: Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Or at least put upon? These, to me, are the questions conjured by Father John Misty's debut LP, Fear Fun. We're not sure what to make of its minister, or, for that matter, his dark art. Is John a cult leader, a used car salesman, a Catholic priest, or a stand-up comedian? I'd go with "all of above," making sure to add "talented singer and songwriter" to the list. "Only Son of the Ladies Man" is the widest smirk from the year's most sarcastic album -- a designation that would signify nothing were it not backed by my sincere conviction that Fear Fun was also 2012's most underrated release in any genre. J. Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes, has created a persona that feels tragically, desperately, uproariously real. Misty is the best Sunset Strip balladeer since Harry Nilsson, and "Only Son" places him as the bastard child of Leonard Cohen's Lost Weekend in Southern California. (See Lenny's troubled collaboration with Phil Spector.) The key difference is that Tillman can sing. I mean, really sing. His voice isn't just exceptional by indie standards; it's gold by whatever standard on which you choose to grade your currency. "I'm a steady hand/I'm a Dodgers fan," croons Misty, and somewhere in between these two descriptions we find the measure of this late-model Lothario. He's an ordinary guy with extraordinary talent, the son and heir of a slyness that is criminally vulgar. More people need to hear his testimony. If you haven't, consider yourself cheated. If you have, you know that, from the standpoints of attention and acclaim, Father John was robbed. 3. "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls," The Weeknd: The whole of the Trilogy, writ small. With this track, alternately slow burning and crackling with carnal desire, Abel Tesfaye articulates his thesis: The way forward may be rendered foggy by drug and drink, but the horizon is not unknowable. Tesfaye doesn't paint with as many colors as his colleagues in newschool R&B, but that shouldn't imply that his vision is impaired. Weeknd keeps a sharp focus on

the blurred lines of love, lechery, and the liquor cabinet. He follows his beat like a star journalist, intent on writing a novel of seismic intensity. The resulting prose is frequently poetic, rarely overblown. Tesfaye's is a tart but trusted voice; his falsetto never rings false. "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls" first appeared on the Weeknd's debut mixtape, but the Trilogy version is crisper, keener, more arresting. It packs just the right mix of solidity and ether, hinting that its aesthetic can be contained by neither cage nor vial. It flashes what I think is the signal quality of Tesfaye's work: a purposeful pixilation. The images are dizzy by design, each snapshot made wobbly and blunted by studio technology. This track stands out for its heady divide, with balloon meeting glass at a midpoint of mesmerizing sonic calculus. As Tesfaye sings, "Bring the 707 out," the ground begins to give way, quaking this way and that with a spastic sputter, courtesy of a manipulated Roland TR beat. But before we fall into the crack, the plane takes off, and the flight pattern is set in motion. Altitudes change; attitudes remain consistent. Weeknd's music is a sustained joy, and deserves to be experienced at length. 4. "Heartbreaker," The Walkmen: Not the best song of the year, but probably the most perfect. The Walkmen have a way with verse-chorus-verse, and, on "Heartbreaker," their talents are so plain that they almost go unnoticed. This song has no body fat; it's streamlined like an Olympic swimmer who's meant to channel through the water with no drag on his progress. Theoretically, there's nothing special about three minutes of even-keel rock and roll. In practice, however, the sure-handedness of the band's playing is absolutely astounding. "Heartbreaker" has an easy, peppy propulsion, summoning the prim yet spiky textures that Hamilton Leithauser and company first employed on 2010's Lisbon. Speaking of Leithauser, he remains the people's champ, easily the most reliable and astute lead singer in a guitar-based indie band. That accolade may run long with adjectives, but the key noun is this: heroism. The Walkmen have a sense of the heroic, an ear for the simple rises and falls that make pop music so enthralling. "Heartbreaker" aims for the moon and lands somewhere beyond Jupiter -- not on account of bombast, but by means of the energy inherent in its ergonomics. When Leithauser sings "It's not the singer, it's the song," he's only half right. His track is blessed by both -- a fine voice and a spectacular melody. All told, the title is an obvious lie: This single doesn't break the heart; it warms it. 5. "Adorn," Miguel: Alt R&B's high-water mark, at least commercially. This is to say that Miguel helped the subgenre cross over, from the blog roll to the mass media. (He performed "Adorn" on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, for Pete's sake!) Savvy commenters were quick to notice the song's debt to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." For what it's worth, I initially missed the comparison, as I was convinced that "Adorn" stood sturdily on its own two feet. Those feet, being attached to Miguel's wiry frame, point somewhere between a James Brown tap and a Michael Jackson moonwalk. Lil' Miggy stays hyperkinetic, even as his voice flows supple and smooth. "Adorn" is a shiny ornament, bedecked with tinsel but not primped to a state of outright garishness. The liquid synths impart a purr, a hum, and a whoomp. Miguel matches their majesty with a vocal tour de force. In my opinion, he has the best voice of PBR&B's Big 3, the other two slots belonging to Frank Ocean and Abel Tesfaye. Yes, the song is deeply romantic. But if sexual healing has been prescribed, what injury would it presume to cure?

There's nothing wrong with an imagination that slants amorous. If R&B artists didn't sing about love, their work would be bereft of its animating force. "Adorn" triumphs by capturing this force and putting it on blast. Even Ellen's audience wasn't immune to his entreaties. As for the rest of us, we're simply doubled over with delight, panting for the encore. 6. "Stay Useless," Cloud Nothings: Dylan Baldi, Rustbelt genius! "I need time to stay useless" probably shouldn't be one of the more resonant lines of the year, but, in Dylan's angsty scream, the words play like revelation. The kid knew more at 19 than I did at 30, and I admit this with no shame or apology. When you reach a hingepoint age, where the tilt of your life should start to angle in a different direction, you sometimes get frightened into stasis. What "Stay Useless" argues, convincingly, is that stasis isn't always counterproductive. Sometimes, you need to tread a long plateau to figure out your function. In other words, you need a year or two to stay prone and pallid, so that when you make a break for the useful and constructive, you know that the alternative is no great shakes. This lesson -- insofar as it's a lesson, and not merely wishful thinking on my part -- is fortified by the tenor of Cloud Nothings' tone. The song is punky, grungy, power poppy, direct, as if the Smashing Pumpkins merged with Dinosaur Jr., then attempted to write in the riotous manner of the Ramones. "Stay Useless" never sees the threeminute mark, but it glimpses at truths that fall well beyond its pedigree. It gropes for Nirvana in the hustles and hysterias of the everyday. In the end, it goes nowhere of distinction, and rightly claims that that's OK. Here, uselessness has its utility. 7. "We Take Care of Our Own," Bruce Springsteen: A signal amid the noise. It's long been apparent that the Boss works for us. His discography is arguably the most populist in the classic rock canon; it's probably the most political as well. These politics are rarely explicit, but they always put in a full shift. Bruce's core subjects include character, identity, work, and responsibility, but each blow is struck against the anvil of basic morality. The clash of right and wrong, the essence of good will and fair play -- that's what the Boss is after, and it's why he gets behind all those steering wheels, why he drives all those dusty beach roads, why he never runs out gas. For Springsteen, the thrill is in the pursuit, not the outcome. So, in an election year, you knew he'd make his presence felt. It should've been no surprise that "We Take Care of Our Own" became the Obama campaign's de facto theme song. What should've been shocking, however, is that many reviewers, credentialed and casual, heard the track as slight and jingoistic. The title phrase operates on several levels, from the proud to the sketchy, and the commingling of earnestness and irony creates a potent undertow. Let this force grab hold of you. In its waves lies a lament worth listening to. They break on a shore defined by erosion and resilience, the first trending, the second rallying for a comeback. Yes, the metaphors can get galling and the symbols trite, but this particular rising is worth your attention. It had the guts to stay topical, and the courage to remain honest, even as the country that inspired its writing grew more and more divided. In America, we take care of our own, but not each other. This is the deficiency that the Boss is trying to correct. I don't envy his task, but I admire his determination.

8. "Die Young," Ke$ha: A romantic notion, sapped of its sweetness but not its ardor. Look, there are two ways to treat a title like "Die Young" in the wake of Friday's sickening massacre in Connecticut. We can simply throw in the towel, and work around the constructs of the song. Or we can compartmentalize, and rightly note that Ke$ha's track operates by a carpe diem logic, a philosophy that celebrates life more than death. I'll go with the latter, gladly. Pop can be a great palliative in times of trouble, even pop as seemingly superficial as Ke$ha's. "Die Young" is a great song because it's built on a solid foundation. Take away the studio bluster and you still have an engaging acoustic track, just the strumming and the singing, giving form to a fantastic melody and a hummable refrain. Of course, Ke$ha wouldn't be Ke$ha without a few tablespoons of skank appeal. She's contractually obliged to loose a verse or two of her silly white-girl rap, preferably while wearing a ripped unitard and glitter-dusted mascara. It's a tribute to the single's incorruptibility that the raps go down smoothly, setting the glorious chorus in stark relief. Synth and drum make happy bedfellows, and the aura of echo and hum shines brightly around the perimeter of the track. This is a truly professional pop song, full of vigor and vitality. It can stud most indie and urban playlists, provided your conscience can make a place for its animal pulse. I'd advise you to do just that. If I've learned anything in recent weeks, it's that life's too short to hate Ke$ha. 9. "The House That Heaven Built," Japandroids: A skin rush of a track, from an album that's remarkably skilled at eliciting goose bumps. Songs such as this can only come from a point of desperation, from a loss of bearing but not conviction. You have to have faith, a cause, and not much else, aside from a car. A modern man can't outrun his mortal constraints on the crosstown shuttle; when he reaches into his pocket, he needs to be able to pull out a set of keys, not a bus pass. With "The House That Heaven Built," Japandroids spark the ignition and take a last-chance power drive. Where they're headed nobody knows, but they're intent on getting there fast. The song revs like an engine, primed to accelerate beyond the outermost bounds of indie rock's speedometer. Brian King sings as if his life depends on it, largely because it does. His band was on the verge of breaking up when Celebration Rock was being written and produced (due to health concerns, not diva drama). This could have been Japandroids' last hurrah, so they didn't stint on the hallelujah. The sing-along hook -- as replete with "ohhhh!"s as a Misfits single -- contains the agony and the ecstasy of youth. It's doled out in concentrate, along with any number of breathless pleas. "If they try to slow you down, tell 'em all to go to hell!" -- in certain lights, that's a heavenly sentiment. Young hearts run free tonight. Come the morrow, run some more. Japandroids remind us that a moving target is harder to hit. Then they invite us to follow them towards oblivion. 10. "Losing You," Solange: Hypnotic funk from an independent woman. I won't play the hackneyed critics' game, and argue that Solange Knowles has finally escaped her sister's shadow. Given the market's appetite for cute storylines and quick cross-referencing, full freedom isn't going to be accorded anytime soon. If Solange breaks out in 2013 -- and, based on the staggering strength of "Losing You," there's no reason why she shouldn't -- it'll be with the press' explicit hankering on the sisterly tie.

That the younger Knowles still sits beneath Beyonce is not news. In fact, it's the very embodiment of "Dog bites man," as virtually every pop vocalist in the world considers herself subordinate to Queen B. "Losing You" registers as an important single because it indicates that, for Solange, this distinction in latitude is supplemented by a distinction in longitude. Sol can do sleek and sultry without a side order of vocal pyrotechnics. This is a tranquil track, devoid of melisma. Its beat snaps, crackles, and pops, but only as an undergirding for the singer's calm coo. Indie and Afropop cohere in a kind of Alt R&B, though to link Knowles with Frank Ocean or Miguel would be shortsighted. The colors here are a bit more Benetton, the jeans a size skinnier, the affect more Brooklyn than Billboard. Let's hope the hipsters don't snatch Solange up for themselves. Their loss would be pop's gain. 11. "Elephant," Tame Impala: The indie community seemed to prefer the phenomenal "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards." I, however, am partial to its foil and forerunner, the all-consuming "Elephant." Here, Tame Impala feel like they only go forward. The track has genuine momentum, riding a riff that's among the year's most infectious, despite being composed of just two notes. "Elephant" manages to summon all the virtues of prog rock -- its trippy, spacey, techy intrigue -- without succumbing to the attendant vices of languor and dolor. It's the Pink Floyd laser light show, as remixed by AC/DC. A wicked pummel is baked into the track, triggering head bobs and fist pumps rather than the passing of doobies. The music is coated with wild abandon, its leash of restraint used lightly but deftly. There's nothing tame about that. In short, this elephant's a beast. 12. "March to the Sea," Baroness: Perhaps the year's most concussive pop song. Baroness bring a double-barreled attack, but still make space for an undercard of musical nuance. Their march juts north and south as well as east and west -- meaning that the track's licks don't just crash, but volley. The interplay of the lead and rhythm guitars is a thing of rough beauty. Brutal downstrokes lumber alongside crack fingerpicking, mixing rumble and flutter. John Baizley's singing is perfectly gritty but never opts for the inscrutable devil-wail of contemporary metal. This, in part, is why I consider "March to the Sea" a pop song. It has verse and chorus, riff and bridge. In the age of Godsmack and System of a Down, this would have been a reliable KROQ single. Fifteen years down the road, the beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on. This one leaves a scar. 13. "I Knew You Were Trouble," Taylor Swift: During the last month or so, the piece of music that's afforded me the most pleasure is a 10-second passage from this big-ticket tune. Just before the minute mark, Taylor writes a brilliant change, abruptly shifting from an acoustic thwack to a chilly piano chime. Her vocals, initially aglimmer with little-girl emotion, take on a grown woman's gravitas. "I Knew You Were Trouble" isn't just the title of the track; it's the keystone lyric, the spot where the song matures, where Swift's catalog ripens. This single has taken some heat for its fun and games. Indeed, the syllable-ble-ble-ble extensions and the digital textures are fires that are tough to smother. Everyone's heard about the so-called "bass drop," which comes moments after the startling change. My position is that the bomb had already been detonated, with the sudden onset of the chorus. The skronk ripple was just added artillery, licensed by a gunner who's trained her scope on no shortage of ex's. ("Skrill-ex,"

anyone?) "Trouble" is the sound of a multiplatinum artist staying attuned to the tenor of her times, as Springsteen had done with "Dancing In the Dark" and the Stones had done with "Miss You." Don't hate the boss playa. Hate teen pop's hostility to anything new. 14. "All of Me," Tanlines: This one blindsided me. I'd seen Tanlines before, both on the blogs and live in concert, as an opening act for the Strokes' Julian Casablancas. The band struck me as all noodle, no backbone -- an outerborough curiosity best left on a side stage, far from the mosh pits of rock's more brawny brigades. So when "All of Me" scored a direct hit to my viscera, I had to do something that typically rankles a critic's cankles: Admit that I was wrong. Thankfully, Tanlines made this burden easy. Their single was so bouncy and ebullient that it floated high above the fray of idiom-specific partisanship. It's redolent of hipster Brooklyn, where laptops have usurped lead guitars and drum machines have replaced proper kits. This transition used to scare me; now I view it as healthy and inevitable. "All of Me" helped me turn the corner. It's a loosely coiled digital treat, rippling out with enthusiasm, surging in with brotherly love. It's a song that, to borrow from the lyric sheet, cues "Caps Lock emotions." My feelings push toward WOW!!! 15. "Please Forgive My Heart," Bobby Womack: The bravest man in the universe, performing an act of valor. After more than 60 years on the peripheries of pop, Bobby Womack returns to his first love: gospel. Yes, this is a modern R&B single, given odd buzzes and clicks by producers Damon Albarn and Richard Russell. But Brother Bobby, known in soul circles as "the Preacher," has a sermon in hand, and he's singing it to himself. Womack has led a difficult life, losing, in rapid then slack succession, his mentor, his reputation, his youngest brother, his recording contract, his sobriety, two children, and untold amounts of artistic credit. On "Please Forgive My Heart," this decades'-heavy strain is evident in his voice, which croaks and moans with a survivor's guilt. Womack has never been one to forsake the blues for the rhythm, but here he bares the tremors of a tortured soul. He calls himself a liar, repeatedly, and acknowledges that a mere "sorry" is not enough. In the end, it's up to the individual listener to pardon the Preacher. You're free to make your judgment as I make mine. But, please, mete out your justice with a graceful hand. No sentence can be harsher than the one Womack has already authored for himself. 16. "Sixteen Saltines," Jack White: I'd say that Third Man has gotten its second wind, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Jack White is compelling under whichever banner he chooses to fly, from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs to the Dead Weather. Going solo becomes him, as he's a mercurial fellow, destined to the call the shots rather than rollick in a formal ensemble. "Sixteen Saltines" is pure rocket fuel. The singing is urgent; the riff galvanic. White can play in all manner of styles, but, really, when you own a certain pocket of punk-tempered blues, why not tend to your property? This single does just that, flashing the sort of savage concision that eludes the White Stripes' kissing cousins, the Black Keys. There's also, of course, the inimitable weirdness. "Force fed, forced meds, till I drop dead." Captain Jack will get you low tonight, no matter what you're popping.

17. "Survival Tactics," Joey Bada$$: A great boom rap blast from a kid who's young enough to be my son. This is what hip hop sounded like just after its "Golden Age": brass on the sample, echo on the drums, all ears attuned to the MC. Joey represents the O.G. Brooklyn of Biggie and Jay, not the post-millennial borough of Das Racist and their silly cardigan crews. His survival tactics include the study of themes laid out in the Billy Joel handbook: "I'm stranded in the combat zone/I walked through Bedford Stuy alone." The difference is that Joey can't catch a train out to Oyster Bay. He's gotta keep his chin up and his flow tight. Also, he's not alone. Here, Joey teams with fellow BK baller Capital STEEZ. (One problem with 2012: Not enough STEEZ in the game!) The two teenagers rock the mic like wily veterans, then break for recess. Keep your eyes on the Progressive Era crew. They may be the East Coast's answer to Odd Future. 18. "Jericho," Rufus Wainwright: I'm aware that this list is currently riding the dragon of consecutive Billy Joel references. (How this happened, I know not.) With Wainwright, however, the focus is best shifted to another legendary piano man, Elton John. Rufus boasts Elton's dandy poses and plush interiors; he's very much into the apparatus of the pop star, from the natty clothing, to the doe-eyed television appearances, to the soaring production values. He can indulge in this preening bit of theater because he has a voice for the ages. "Jericho" showcases it brilliantly. Wainwright's latest album, Out of the Game, is a paddle toward yacht rock. On this single, the waters are choppy, but the boat stays afloat with commendable flair. Rufus plunges into the sea of love wearing only an admiral's cap, buoyed by little more than a louche baritone. Yet he emerges from the tides unstained by salt, untarnished by barnacle. He wins the battle of Jericho, and he takes no prisoners. 19. "Kill for Love," Chromatics: Any number of musicians have evinced a willingness to lay down their lives for their significant others. Prince would die for you. Bruno Mars would catch a grenade for you. Ben Gibbard would follow you into the dark. (This wasn't enough for Zooey Deschanel, apparently.) But who's ready to take matters a step further, and actually kill for love? Only Chromatics, Johnny Jewel's diamond-studded electropop project. Their lead single cut through the early year clutter, showing strength in a combination of stoicism and sonic detail. Jewel creates a cascade of complementary synths, and singer Ruth Radelet ensures that a rainbow follows the storm. Despite the "kill" in the title, this is not a menacing track. The tone is plaintive and vulnerable. Its love lies bleeding, waiting to be redeemed. 20. "National Anthem," The Gaslight Anthem: O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, Brian Fallon's jean-clad sincerity? Of course you can. (Hell, you could see it on the dark side of the moon.) For me, the operative Gaslight Anthem lyric has always been "If you never let me go/I will never let you down," from "Backseats." So simple, yet so significant. Fallon doesn't fuck around; his raspy voice doesn't allow him to. He needs to strike right at the heart of the matter, and, on "National Anthem," he does. Over strings that recall Green Day's "Time of Your Life" (not to mention Gaslight's own "Here's Looking at You, Kid"), Fallon tells his old flame, "The place where you were in my heart is now closed/I already live with too many ghosts." I wish he'd date Taylor Swift, if only for the bevy of unforgettable breakup songs that would follow forth. In the meantime, I pledge allegiance to Gaslight's work. They're Jersey's finest young band.

21. "Reagan," Killer Mike: This blistering single isn't merely anti-Reagan; it's also anti-gangsta, anti-swag, and anti-Illuminati. The saving grace is that it's pro quality, packing a beat by El-P and verses from A-Town's most overtly political rapper. Killer Mike is a bona fide mic killer, but, geez, even if I rhymed over this dove, the results would've been convincing. This is some Mason-Dixon shit, wherein a New York studio maven and a mouth of the Dirty South come together in a clenched fist. I don't agree with all its jabs, but I appreciate the fact that Mike is knuckling up. Hip hop's headlines need to extend beyond the gossip pages and the police blotter. The form needs journalists, eager to cover the street beat. Mike is a Woodward looking for his Bernstein. His column is worth reading, even if it causes fits of frenzy over at The National Review. 22. "Laura," Bat For Lashes: Impossibly poignant, but not without the potential for comedy. Here, I cite my own humiliation. Upon encountering this song, I immediately sent audio embeds to no fewer than two friends named Laura. I figured the line "Laura, you're more than a superstar!," delivered gamely by the charming Natasha Khan, would prove inspiring to my addressees. As it happened, neither woman acknowledged receipt, and I was made to feel like a pompous, and potentially lecherous, ass. No matter; the risk was worth the arid returns. Khan's partnership with co-writer Justin Parker, who previously contributed to a little ditty called "Video Games," is magical. This isn't a Lana Del Rey ballad, where the lens is fixed intractably inward. "Laura" finds a subject that's deeply personal yet demands to exist outside of self. It's a communal dirge, encouraging us to "get [our] glad rags on and sing along." Don't mind if I do, even if my team of Lauras refuses to join me. 23. "Husbands," Savages: The best thing about Joy Division is its music. The band's name, however, has a gravity all its own. Given the depressive timbres of Ian Curtis' voice, his unit's two-word tag is almost absurdly image incongruent. Sure, the phrase was pulled from the pages of Nazi-haunted fiction. But it was done so with sardonic wit, not historic malice. It was a winking conceit amid a grander post-punk concept. Savages have won notice for reaffirming this concept -- that of the buzzsaw guitars, spiraling in and out of control; the manic vocals, piercing holes in the ceiling; the nearly debilitating tension, ratcheted up to lunatic intensity. "Husbands" is precocious post-punk. A group this young shouldn't be able to reduce Manchester's industrial clamor to its lean and hungry essence. These girls have the keys to the Factory dangling at their waists, rusted over with glory. That Savages are exclusively female is virtually immaterial; attitude trumps gender, and solidarity usurps status. Their "Husbands" makes for a grim groom, one besieged by doubt and debrided by paranoia. Was this track recorded in a studio or a panic room? I don't know. But, either way, it renders its joy through nervous coherence, not a division between past and present. 24. "Too Close to Heartbreak," The Raveonettes: If I were being completely honest with myself, this tune might be positioned on the outskirts of the Top 10. What's holding it back is Sune Rose Wagner's reliable genius. He does whiplash rock and roll better than any other songwriter of his generation. Problem is, the rave has been going on for nearly 10 years, and

Sune's fans have come to take his skills for granted. "Too Close to Heartbreak" is one of the Raveonettes’ patented sweet-and-sour constructions: the music says "Full steam ahead!," the lyrics "Look out below (because I'm going to jump!)." The border between deliverance and selfinjury is worn so thin that it's almost indecipherable. Guitars surge and shimmer. The vocals ring warm and angelic. Then Wagner and Sharin Foo ask, in unison, "Do you care if I die?" Such a chorus can't help but change the ethos of a song. The chipper surface is peeled back, exposing the underlying bruises, stitches, and scabs. Yet Wagner, ever the esthetician, keeps the portrait firm and fuzzy. "Too Close to Heartbreak" stares into the abyss, but keeps its distance from the ledge. This is a remarkable balancing act, managed by a master musician. If Sune weren't so prolific, he'd likely be more appreciated. But he's not in pop for the applause; he's in it for the catharsis. I hope his releases bring him some peace. God knows he's earned it. 25. "What Gets You Alone," Divine Fits: Divine Fits are a super group that promises to be more than a passing fancy. Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner exude an electric chemistry; their side project is charged by bands classic and current -- not just the co-head's idling ensembles (Spoon, Wolf Parade, and Handsome Furs), but also punks and progs of earlier parentage, from the Stooges to the Birthday Party. "What Gets You Alone" has a serious case of the jitters. Boeckner's vocals jangle with shake, rattle, and roll, as does the attendant instrumental. The song reminds me of the Violent Femmes, made less grating and naive by a vintage Bowie croon and the sort of sleek arithmetic one might expect to find on a Talking Heads single. I wouldn't call the track angular or New Wave; I'd simply call it great. It keeps its pedal to the metal, from head to tail. Like 2012 itself, Divine Fits' headlong vibe just doesn't quit. On the calendar, such treatment can be exhaustive. Pressed onto vinyl, however, it's wondrous and thrilling. May 2013 follow suit. Anomalous Outlier: "Hit Me," Mystikal: This was too late an entry to merit serious consideration for the Joy Index. But it's easily the coolest, catchiest, and craziest rap single of the year. Imagine James Brown's funky bass lines and martial one-twos played over the besotted grumble of an Ol' Dirty Bastard solo track. Throw in a full band, some human beatboxing, a DMX-style bark, and the least convincing Whitey impression you've ever heard and you've got about a quarter of the elements that make "Hit Me" an undeniable winner. Mystikal is in Beast Mode from start to finish. (I'm not sure the man has another setting.) "Hit Me" flashes by like a lightning bolt, leaving burn notices from New Orleans to New Delhi. The dopey white guy whom the MC impersonates must come from some shady territory in between. Look at his testimony: "Hey, ya hear that Helen?/He's tearin' it up, that fella/I'd love to get my hands on those a capellas/That n**ga sicka and slicka than oil on a pelican." No Caucasian has, or ever will, speak such words. But that's precisely what makes them so fantastic. This isn't just Mystikal's Cash Money debut; it's also pure gold, particularly for those of us who love left-field irregularities. I couldn't, in good conscience, leave it off my list. Honorable Mentions: "Mama Told Me," Big Boi (feat. Kelly Rowland) "Electric Fever," Free Energy

"Please Be My Third Eye," La Sera "Runaways," The Killers "Krokodil," St. Vincent "Backseat Freestyle," Kendrick Lamar "It's Only Life," The Shins "Hey Jane," Spiritualized "& It Was U," How to Dress Well "Hustle Bones," Death Grips "Run," Blonds "R U Mine?," Arctic Monkeys "Fuckin' Problems," A$AP Rocky (feat. 2 Chainz, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar) "Dance for You," Dirty Projectors "Call Me on Broken Glass," Rostam (with notable assists from Annie Lenox and Carly Rae Jepsen)

PART III: SEMI-MAGICAL MUSICAL MOMENTS It's instructive to read this piece as an addendum to our earlier efforts, not as a clear-eyed grope for crowning glory. With the heavy lifting out of the way, we can now kick back and improvise, mixing mood and memory into a casual tribute to the music of 2012. I will be writing extempore -- which isn't really saying much, as I often write without aim or precondition. But the loose tie and uncombed hair of this essay stand in marked contrast to the lists of Trends and Top Songs that I posted previously. Those had to be mapped out, ordered, assessed, and reorganized. This entry, the wagging tail of the so-called Joy Index, will benefit from no such treatment. It'll simply ante up and play it as it lays. Here, our concern is the momentary thrills I derived from this year's releases, performances, and general sonic happenings. I'd wager that we shared a few favorite episodes, but that our passions aren't rendered redundant by uniform tastes. The overlaps will prove fun; the clashes ennobling. OK, maybe not. But let's push forward and see what happens. As I said, the following is a tribute to my favorite musical moments of 2012. Initially, this was to be the grand subject of my year-end essay -- the evanescent set gamely in text (or, less poetically, the starchy aggregation of the 5-second passages of rock and pop that sent a jolt up my spine). There was some method to my madness. I figured that, in my adult life, I've conceived of pop music first as albums, then as songs, and finally as brief snippets, which could be promoted to whole mp3s or be killed, unceremoniously, in the womb. The language of abortion is cruel but, I think, pertinent: Most of the tracks I deign to listen to these days don't make it to term. I'll cue up Pitchfork's Best New Music feed, engage the site's awkward streaming apparatus, and listen distractedly as I sift through the splintery wreckage that is my professional life. The songs that break through the static, and win my full attention, are justly celebrated. But for every triumph there are four or five losses. Many tracks don't even reach the 20-second mark. If I hear an effete bit of keyboard noodling, or the screech of an electroindustrial sample, the fucking thing is toast. On to the next one, brother. I'm not known for my patience. Neither is pop culture. And that's precisely why I fixate on "the moment," an easily digestible serving of art, artifice, or some insipid combination of the two. What we've undergone in the past 10 years or so is the iPodization of music: Every man's a DJ, every woman a paragon of taste. We curate our own cuts, then marvel at the ingeniousness of the selections. But in the midst of this marveling, we reliably hit the forward button. Tracks are skipped with reckless abandon, if only to give way to our temporary title holder. (The title being "Greatest Song in the World!") Within a week, that champ, too, will be felled. Another thrill awaits. Another flash of disposable deliverance sits invitingly on the horizon. We're compelled to pursue this chimera because it taunts us, whispering "Catch me if you can" into the winds of the digital universe. Perhaps you don't hear these words. Or maybe you hear them and effect the mature response: You ignore them. I can't seem to recuse myself from the challenge of the chase. So I'm unwittingly conscripted into furious reconnaissance missions, shuffling out toward the front

lines, primed for action. What the items enumerated below contend to document are the semirare instances of delight afforded by the daily slog through the indie blogs. The field work, by no means as dolorous as I'm making it sound, can turn up some real beauties. And their grace is measured in the split second of revelation, that instant when you realize that you've found something special. Moments like these can be fleeting or magical. The curse of contemporary society is that the two conditions have been conflated into an ongoing yet incohesive experience. Feats that would have merited a nationwide standing ovation just a few decades back now manifest in opaque corners, to be cheered or jeered by the same four or five hundred videophiles on YouTube. Clearly, we're not talking about "Gangnam Style" or "Call Me Maybe." Our objects of affection are smaller, but no less dramatic. They merit a list all their own, strictly for the purposes of pride and posterity. Here's mine. I'm sure I've forgotten a dozen or so worthy items, but this is the caprice of faulty memory, and cannot act as a disqualifier. What I remember below, I remember fondly. The entries comprise the moments that made 2012 a bundle of joy. Nice job, old man. Now take your bow and make room for your successor.

Eureka!: The Moments When Something Clicked 1. Working through the Weeknd: As hinted at above, my job is almost palpably horrific. It starts at 6 in the morning, ends at 11 at night, and is filled with duties including, but not limited to, the monitoring of Accounts Payable data and the washing, drying, and folding of my boss' underwear. Did I mention that we're open on weekends? And that the Sabbath is typically reserved for the most egregious busting of my rapidly shrinking balls? I won't issue formal answers to those questions. I'll simply say this: One Sunday last February I was tasked with typing up a long series of "book chapters" on Italian wine and food. I place those words in quotation marks because the writing was uniformly terrible -- lazy, nonidiomatic, grammatically deranged, and otherwise unsavory in taste and character. I certainly don't consider myself above such work, but, come on, who wants to indulge the egos of two absurd authors, made large only by the lucky inheritances that launched their careers? Again, let's consider the question rhetorical. The takeaway point is that I was aggrieved, and none too eager to spend quality time with my keyboard. As a salve for my servitude, I put on some music I'd theretofore considered ambient. This music was by the Weeknd, whom I lionized in my earlier Top 25 Songs feature. I'd enjoyed Abel Tesfaye's tunes in 2011 (check last year's transcript: "Initiation" made my best-of list), but I hadn't connected with his mixtapes on a visceral level. On that fateful Sunday in February, however, things changed. It was "XO / The Host" that got me. For whatever reason, the track triggered a synesthesia: all senses and sensibilities suddenly attuned. The rhythm of my typing aligned with the rhythm of Tesfaye's track, transitioning from soft keystrokes to paragraphconcluding clanks. I played Echoes of Silence continuously for about five hours, scoring a

morning and afternoon that, without the Weeknd, would have been disheartening at best, violent at worst. (Meaning that I might have punched a wall or something. Take it easy. I'm not a "lone gunman" type.) The mixtape stirred my soul, lifted my spirit, and allowed me to smirk, rather than rage, at the plain incompetence of my superiors. (Incidentally, I don't have to worry about them reading this, because neither gentleman knows how to turn on a computer. Plus, polysyllabic words usually give them pause.) Many subsequent weekends have been passed in the gracious company of the Weeknd. He reminds me that most of what's sacred comes from youth. And he gives me some meager faith that, in 2013, my relative youth will be served, and that my boss will be forced to confront the shame that should rightly be enveloping his entire being. OK, this entry is tinted a little darker than I'd intended. I imagine this is the cost of writing in the moment, from the heart. I promise that the selections that follow will be a touch more light hearted. This is, after all, the Joy Index. 2. Feeling the power of Frank's Ocean: No need for a stilted preamble or a sordid grouping of links. If you've read this blog regularly, you know what I think of Frank Ocean. The pieces I've written on him approach hagiography. But not even my choicest words do justice to the musical coup he enacted in 2012. He was an insider favorite in 2011, all but assured to break out in the new year. The first glimmer of next-level potential we got in 2012 was Frank's "White," easily the most arresting track on a bizarre, uneven Odd Future compilation. With this tune, Ocean had discovered his inner Stevie Wonder. Suffice to say that other wonders would follow. I recall precisely when I knew that Frank was in earnest -- that he wasn't just a talented pop singer, but an artist for the ages. The moment came mere seconds into "Pyramids," when the futuristic whoot-whoot-whoot effect arrived simultaneously with Ocean's vocals. The deft jam gave me chills. Chills that didn't subside for the whole of the track's 10 minutes. This is what I'd been yearning for: the seamless integration of man and machine, sharp synths astride painful confessions. One could almost hear Frank's music -- along with the Weeknd's -- as an R&B interpretation of the aesthetic popularized by Nine Inch Nails. I realize this makes no sense at face value. But I'm speaking of a phenomenon that goes further than skin deep. It's about the mechanical colored by the human, the wires and chips fitted with flesh and blood. Also, I like the fact that "Pyramids" weaves in a killer Kool & the Gang groove. What can I say? My desires are lofty and low. Ocean satisfies them both, without so much as blinking at the distinction. 3. Father John Misty rises from the ether: Am I the only pop aficionado who felt that, in 2012, Father John Misty was the very portrait of patricide? He released single after single of quality fare, yet never got the blog bump he so richly deserved. My favorites from his Fear Fun album include "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," "Funtimes in Babylon," "Nancy From Now On," "I'm Writing a Novel," and "Only Son of the Ladies Man." The latter song wins two stars, as it thrilled me twice, first as a studio track, then in a jaw-dropping live performance. When Misty took his act to David Letterman's late night television program, he exuded more charisma than any first-segment guest, be her a movie star or an Olympic athlete. Even Dave himself was beguiled. Watch the clip; Letterman announces, facetiously of course, that he'll be joining Misty

and Sons on their summer tour. I can understand the host's enthusiasm. Before the performance, I had no idea that J. Tillman, then regarded as the able ex-drummer for Fleet Foxes, could rattle the rafters with his voice. One line into "Ladies Man," my eyes resembled saucers. By the final verse, I was smiling ear to ear. The year has pressed on, but that shit-eating grin hasn't subsided. 4. Dr. StrangeLuke (or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ke$ha"): Well, "love" is a strong word. But it does fit the bill as it pertains to my feelings for Ke$ha's "Die Young." The song is now in the news for the wrong reason: a title that exacerbates traumas left by a maniac with a small arsenal of guns and a complete disregard for the innocence that existed outside of his troubled mind. Perhaps it's ironic that I found joy in "Die Young," but I've done the numbers, and the delight was both real and justified. To me, this single was more infectious than "Gangnam Style" grafted onto "Call Me, Maybe." It's perfectly structured, opening with the chorus, then exploding into a cavalcade of synths, drums, and poppy bounces. I'd never warmed to Ke$ha's music, with the notable exception of the refrain to "Your Love Is My Drug." Here, I was hooked from the jump, pulled in by the steady build and the sing-along melody. The moment that caused me to ultimately drop my sword was the "beat gone bonkers" fireworks display, loosed some 40 seconds into the track. It was a bass drop that I could relate to, that I could feel in my brittle bones. It also made me forget, at least for a short interlude, that the song ripped its animating energy from Eagle-Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight." Oh, Ke$ha. Even when you raise your game, you're still hopelessly derivative! 5. Sleigh Bells rang, and we listened: During the first quarter of the year, Sleigh Bells were probably the most talked-about act on the alternative circuit. Reign of Terror was greeted with baited breath and soaring encomia, at least among indie rock fans, who were eager to hear some true shred guitars. As it happened, the album's most popular track became "Comeback Kid," which didn't pulverize so much as charm. When I heard it, my focus shifted from sonic mastermind Derek Miller to local girl Alexis Krauss. (She's from Manasquan; I live in Asbury Park. Map it.) Krauss delivers the track's central thrill, riding above the riff, then folding her sultry pop voice into Miller's dance-metal instrumental. What we get is beauty and the beast. And a drum machine. It shook 2012 out of its winter stupor. Shame on us for forgetting the band and its wares as we ready out year-end lists. 6. Que Sera, Sera: Another paean to the overlooked. La Sera didn't garner a lot of headlines this year, but the band, like Sleigh Bells, made January, February, and March worth listening to. Katy Goodman, the woman behind the ensemble, chugged out a trilogy of fuzz rock winners: "Please Be My Third Eye," "I Can't Keep You In My Mind," and "Break My Heart." She had me more or less at hello. The rapid pitter-patter of the first single's drums, thickened by the rumble of the punk-pop guitar, generated momentum during months defined by engines gone cold. Her airy vocals sealed the deal. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only one who signed the contract. 7. Randy Newman had a dream: "I'm Dreaming," Newman's sardonic take on popular regard for the president, can be heard as a sequel to "Rednecks," wherein each man renounces his loyalty to Lester Maddox so that he may become a Lester Maddox all his own. In a kind of

perversion of "Be the change you want to see in the world," certain whites, Southern and Northern alike, have made their lives' purpose the undoing of Barack Hussein Obama. Randy is dandy for demonstrating how this bias is baked into the American biscuit. His protagonist is dreaming of a white president, because that's all he's ever known. The top line is "A real live white man, who knows the score/How to handle money or start a war." That's more or less the statement I get from my Republican relatives, who seem to forget Reagan's budgetary shortfalls, W.'s historically disastrous foreign policy, and Romney's greasy willingness to lie for the so-called greater good. This song merits a "Eureka!" because it's one of the year's few unambiguously topical releases. Looking at pop, I wouldn't have known that an election was coming. Listening to Newman, I'm reminded how important November's vote was for the future of our country. Obama may prove a flop; but, at the very least, his reelection shows that he wasn't a fluke. 8. The Walkmen run roughshod over my nervous system: If I remember correctly, I first heard the Walkmen's Heaven LP via NPR's First Listen service. There's a bit of hyperbole in those "first"s, as three or four album cuts had leaked before the full stream was made available. Two of these cuts, the title track and the great "Heartbreaker," struck me as vintage Walkmen: upright, honest, jangly, and inspiring. The third, "Southern Heart," was slow to the point of languor -- the sonic equivalent of molasses. It was a fine song, just a drop too deliberate for my liking. NPR's write-up scared me, as it promised that Heaven contained a fleet of similarly ponderous ballads. This was not altogether accurate, but I will admit that the record holds a few rockingchair numbers, which can't help but lull the listener into a stupor. Then, suddenly, comes, "The Love You Love," which straightens the spine with a resounding wallop. The song's choral shout - "What it is and what it should be!" -- is as punk as anything the Walkmen have ever written. It put my hair on end. And it quickly restored the band to their rightful position as rock and rollers of elite tact and pedigree. Also memorable: The Whitmanesque hysterics of Titus Andronicus' "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape With the Flood of Detritus"; the harried echo of the Raveonettes' "Young and Cold"; the psychic lift provided by Bob Mould's "Descent"; the steamroll emo of My Chemical Romance's "Boy Division" (hey, I got relocated to MCR's hometown in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and I wanted to keep things local); the fun, fun, fun (and rush, rush, rush) of easily loved, unfairly forgotten songs like Redd Kross' "Stay Away From Downtown," Lace Curtain's "Bedroom Honesty," Fang Island's "Asunder," Chelsea Light Moving's "Burroughs," King Tuff's "Bad Thing," the Vaccines' "Teenage Icon," FIDLAR's "Cheap Beer," Fort Lean's "The Mall," PAWS' "Miss America Bookworm," and Veronica Falls' "Teenage," among others.

Live on Tellyvision (or YouTube) 2012 was the year when I ceased to drown myself in caffeine in order to watch my favorite bands on late night television. Sleep time is precious; I'm no longer willing to jeopardize it for a

quick midnight snack of snap, crackle, or pop. I can listen to the performance in the morning, probably with more care and insight that I could at some ungodly hour of the evening. Besides, the Web is hopelessly pregnant with rich media files. They stream without borders, allowing, for instance, a Yank like me to take an afternoon perusal of the musical acts on Later with Jools Holland. (Good show, that. The blokes almost always do more than one song.) Anyway, here are a few performances that were worth staying up for and/or seeking out. Each has quickened my pulse, melted my heart, or triggered some other physical manifestation of an emotional appeal. For me, it's important that an artist prove himself in a live setting. He needn't sound exactly as he does on record, but he shouldn't crumble beneath the Klieg lights, either. The performance must transcend button pushing. These do, and then some. 1. Rufus Wainwright's Black Cab Session, performing "Jericho": A lovely song, done with just an acoustic guitar, an acrobatic baritone, and the irregular rhythms of vehicular traffic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW_TcNn-eUw (Note: I offer links, because if I embed each video, this page will take 20 minutes to load.) 2. Miguel on Ellen, performing "Adorn": Faced with the opportunity to take afternoon television by storm, Miggy brought his band, his cat-like reflexes, and a series of industrial-sized picture frames. He was clearly going for a "teen idol" conceit, and was almost undone by a dropped mic. (See the 1:28 mark.) The recovery is first graceful, then astounding. That split near the end? That's the stuff James Brown used to bring to the T.A.M.I. show. Miguel's pitch isn't perfect, but his performance is. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSF_syQ6VM8 3. Bat for Lashes on Jools Holland, performing "Laura": As it turned out, Natasha Khan was the indie chanteuse who should have received the 2012 press flourish that was cynically accorded to Lana Del Rey. ("Video Games" is still a great track; it just never found any brothers or sisters.) "Laura" is the year's best piano ballad. From a compositional standpoint, I'd take it over "Someone Like You." It denudes love and longing of their pretenses, and gets right to the business of eliciting chills. Prepare to shiver. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGWoB4JjV9Y 4. The Killers on Letterman, performing "Runaways": I think I mentioned chills? Well, try to get through this song's delayed-release refrain without succumbing to a skin rush. That's what the Killers do: tension and release. Also, are all Mormons good looking? First, 2012 had Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Then, at the conclusion of the primary season, Brandon Flowers presented in full bloom. Fuckin' guy looks like a Prada model, even with the vaseline he seems to be rubbing into his face these days. Shiny, seductive, and lethal. Killer all the way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k_dWzb1g5Q 5. Kanye West at the 12.12.12 Concert, performing a medley of hits in a leather kilt: I missed most of the 12.12.12 Concert, as I didn't have access to a functioning television at the onset of its broadcast. (A bulky Zenith sits just meters from my work station, but it often proves immune

to the pushing of its buttons.) Eventually, I pulled up a livestream, and watched a proud procession of sixtysomethings muscle through decades'-old hits. Nothing wrong with that. But I was hoping to see someone under 40. That's where Kanye came in. He was the first and only rapper to grace the Madison Square Garden stage. It's safe to say that his performance resonated more loudly in the social media than in the arena that actually hosted it. I visit only the tiniest alcoves of Twitter and Facebook, but, even in these small spaces, West's rapping was met with stentorian disdain. More than one tweet read "Who booked this clown?!?" More than one status read "Back to the REAL music, please!!!" I hate this sort of short-sighted horseshit. The man is the rap game's David Bowie, pulling liberally from disparate scenes, domesticating the more outré elements, and flooding the commercial markets with sounds that were previously limited to the underground. Yeezy knew he wasn't going to thrill the audience at MSG, but he kept his head down and plowed through about 400 songs in a little over 20 minutes. Who cares if his bass effect was lost in the mix? That his vocals were made mumbly by a sound system set on "rock"? That he was wearing a goddamn man dress? Kanye came, saw, and confronted -- which is precisely what you shouldn't do at a charity concert, unless your name happens to be Kanye West. It's ironic that the two musicians my extended pool of friends and acquaintances tend to hate on the most are Kanye and Taylor Swift. (The interrupter and the interruptee, respectively.) Taylor is assailed for her ex's; West for his nut flexes. But if the 12.12.12 Concert proved anything, it's that Yeezy's nuts aren't that big. If they were, they would've been swinging beneath the hem of his leather skirt. Still, you've got to give the MC credit for his ballsy setlist. No other act performed half as many songs, save the Who (who, I think, rang on a bit too long and removed one too many shirts; Daltrey's torso has seen better days.). To Kanye, I offer a raised fist and a quick admonishment: Imma let you finish, but I just want to say that Axl Rose wore one of the best kilts of all time!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbXZ0s2D4iI 6. Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band, Tom Morello, the Miami Horns, the Roots, Jimmy Fallon, and half of the Late Night studio audience, on the packed stage at 30 Rock, performing "The E Street Shuffle": This 7-minute strut through one of E Street's most cherished chestnuts almost single-handedly brought down America's unemployment rate. There was a job and a place for all who were willing to work. And each laborer was afforded the privilege of reporting to the world's greatest Boss. "The E Street Shuffle" is nearly 40 years old, yet it's as spry as a teenage gymnast. Here, the alacrity extends to the lyric sheet. When Bruce sings, "Everybody form a line," he's very inclusive in his definition of "everybody." The Late Night audience is permitted -- no, encouraged! -- to rush the stage, and it's Springsteen who's issuing the instruction. No wonder people are so passionate about the Boss. He plays for and with his audience, not at them. Be honest: Do you really think Mariah Carey is going to mix it up with the huddled masses? Is Lou Reed going to allow the vulgarians to impugn his art? Will Lady Gaga ever treat her Monsters as equals, not subjects? The answer is an adamant no in each instance. Bruce is the rock pantheon's most democratic performer. This late-night ramble simply puts a picture to his

ethos. It's one we should view with awe, at least until we can find the stamina to make it through the full 3-hour concert. (Tickets for the second leg of the Wrecking Ball Tour should be on sale shortly.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SVY43TbibY 7. Father John Misty on Letterman, performing "Only Son of a Ladies Man": Already linked above. Consider this an encore. It's easily my most-watched live clip of 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sZIwhx5ntM Live In Person 1. Morrissey, performing "Still Ill," at Terminal 5 in New York City: I don't make it out to the Big City all that often anymore, as I no longer live directly across the Hudson from Mighty Manhattan. On the rare occasions when I do subject myself to the righteous stank of the modern New Yorker, I typically have to take a sedative and a windbreaker, as my temper tends to flare with the river-churned gales. There's something about naked, Brahmin-accented arrogance that just roils me to the marrow. In my feckless youth, I bumped into far too many prep school graduates at Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows. They inevitably suffered from excess inventories of self-regard -- inventories that, in years past, I've been keen to beat out of them. (It helps that I travel with -- or, at least, used to travel with -- ridiculously large friends of all creeds and colors. A Dwight School alumnus might talk shit to me, but he tends to clam up rather quickly when my buddy Carl, who looks like Djimon Hounsou on equine steroids, enters the picture.) Ah, memories. I cite them for both comedy and context. Because this October, when I steered my car into Hell's Kitchen for a Morrissey concert, I made a point of giving myself a gameday pep talk: No fighting, Tone. No bandside bluster or opening-act arguments. Just sit back and enjoy the show. As it happened, Terminal 5 had no seats. It was standing room only, so my guest and I arrived early, and politely stood our ground. ("Excuse me, ol' chap," and that sort of thing. We were terribly nice.) He and I suffered through the tightening body crush and infernal heat of the supporting set. We held our positions as the fashionably late crowd filtered onto the floor. We resisted the urge for proper hydration as the temperature surged toward triple digits. Then, minutes before Moz was scheduled to take the stage, we found ourselves being nudged and badgered by a gaggle of leather-clad scenesters. My friend Lou loosed a few well-placed elbows, momentarily slackening the onslaught. Still, more dolts and douches emerged from the woodwork. The front of the floor section was rapidly becoming a pinball game ruled by rogue knobs, and, once a certain threshold had been eclipsed, I needed to send a clear message: No more cutting or jockeying, pal. This is a first come, first served arrangement. Those who lingered for a second burger at the Shake Shack thereby forfeited their right to prime Terminal 5 real estate. This being New York, no one listened to my calm and crisp entreaties. I was soon surrounded by a pack of bushy haired men who, given their Anglo-American proclivities, stood at least a head

higher than my short, Southern European frame. I effectively resigned myself to the fate of watching Morrissey take Manhattan from a neck-shattering angle. Then, I was knocked off kilter by another late comer. I immediately lost my restraint and said something along the lines of "What the f-ck do you think you're doing you f-cking @sshole?" (To my credit, I don't think I said it all that menacingly.) The guy gave me a passive shrug and I pushed him from whence he came. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Stirred by this atavistic physicality, I made a general statement: "OK, people, we're done with the Romper Room shit. No more shuffling." Lou thoughtfully added, "Any motherf-cker blocks my view and I'm cracking his f-cking head open." (This is known in the greater New York area as "Jersey in the house!" Security pays it no mind.) Not 15 seconds after I issued my decree, I felt a tussle to my left. I was three-quarters of the way into a Joe Pesci-style "Motherf-cker!!!" when the evil doers ambled into my sight line. There before me stood two drop-dead gorgeous blondes, done up fabulously for Manchester's finest. I lost the power to speak. Lou, my trusty wingman, shrunk like an unwatered violet. We blushed like schoolboys and indicated, nonverbally, that there just wasn't enough room to pass. The girls, obviously adept at this sort of thing, pressed up against us and shimmied athletically toward center stage, finding space where previously there'd been none. Suffice to say that I've had less intimate relations with long-term girlfriends. So cramped was the crowd that the girls' movement couldn't help but be immodest. It was fodder for an R. Kelly video, for Christ's sake. And I'm not complaining. And I'm not complaining for two reasons. First, the girls were uncommonly attractive, and I'm perpetually starved for chest-to-chest contact with comely females. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the lasses' petty pilgrimage saved the night. With one quick pass, they defused all the enmity in the pit. The duo downgraded the scene from one of physical confrontation to one of mere sexual humiliation. After their intrepid incursion, no one pushed or shoved, no one blustered or bloviated. We stood in place and waited for Morrissey, who arrived without further delay. So, yeah, Morrissey did perform. And I saw the entire show from the pit, about 15 feet from the stage. There was some rough-housing, but nothing beyond the ken of the singer's casually benighted Rusholme Ruffians. It was a spirited crowd, not an ugly one. And the night's encore, the Smiths' wonderful "Still Ill," cued a sustained period of sheer pandemonium. That's the moment that'll stick with me from the show -- not the flinging of threats or the raising of fists, but the five-odd minutes of brilliant concert. I thank the ladies for arriving when they did. Otherwise, Lou and I might have gotten the hook. Had the ejection come fast and furiously, we would have missed this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNbNYhczxpc. I'm a few feet north of the cameraman, invisible in the scrum of bodies. I remember flashes of light, figures passing over head, the great Morrissey reaching his hand toward mine, the two never to meet, owing to my abominable lack of length. The kid who received Moz's embrace, and remained on stage for a theatrical bow, had entered Terminal 5 with Lou and I. He was a

dedicated fellow, and I'm pleased that he, rather than some bloody git in a Man U zip-up (or, worse, some trust funder in a leather jacket and Beatle boots), took the evening's laurel. I'm a sucker for this narrative of sin and redemption, of anger morphed into joy. Yes, I was a little uncouth and judgmental, but the night righted itself in the wink of a young girl's eye. Yes, the frat pack makes concert-going a heinous business, but, in the end, a savvy child won his deserved glory. Good things can still come to those who wait their turn and abide by the rules. Now, some might argue that rock and roll should have no rules. Though that's a thesis I refuse to accept, I'm thrilled by the stunning lack of inhibition that exhibited itself during the playing of "Still Ill." That encore was, without doubt, my most joyful musical moment of 2012. I emerged from the pit worse for the wear but better for the experience. One rarely gets the opportunity to regard a legend from such close quarters. Even rarer is the chance to imprint an indelible musical memory whilst being kicked in the head by a wayward Chuck Taylor. For me, Terminal 5 is the terminus: The year's thrills end there. It's a shit venue, stocked with shit people. But when great rock and roll rears its head, none of that matters. You just strap on your helmet and sing along.

On that note, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We'll meet again in 2013, older, wiser, and still ill for bolder, braver sounds. Until then, may your music be a light that never goes out. And may joy be reliably yours, summoned by the mere flip of a switch.