Warning: The following 2012 countdown does not contain Mumford & Sons' "I Will Wait" or Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe." And it definitely doesn't include PSY's "Gangnam Style," which means you can't blame us for Uncle Bob's disconcerting rendition of the Horse Dance at that next wedding reception.
Instead, this is a list of what, to my ears, were the most intriguing, compelling and just plain enjoyable songs from what turned out to be one of the most interesting years in popular music. There's much here to discover, and possibly much to disagree with as well. When you get a moment, go have a listen online at tinyurl.com/indyreverb, and there's a good chance you'll find a new favorite or two of your own.
12. Neil Halstead, "Tied to You" (Mark Van Hoen Remix)
Yes, Slowdive and Mojave 3 co-founder Neil Halstead sounds like Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, but he also sounds like Neil Halstead. And while Mark Van Hoen's unlikely remix of "Tied to You" might come across as sacrilegious to indie-folk purists, his addition of looped hand claps, low-fi electric guitar and subtle synth-pads actually seems to complement Halstead's beautifully hazy vocal more than the acoustic guitar in the original. In either version, "Tied to You" is a gorgeous tune that's about as close to a new Nick Drake song as we're likely to get.
11. Ghost, "Secular Haze"
Admittedly, it's hard to take Ghost all that seriously, given the Swedish band's affinity for hooded robes and its frontman's fondness for dressing as a skull-faced Catholic cardinal. But while Ghost's onstage pageantry takes Nordic showmanship to its illogical conclusion, the music itself has far less in common with black metal than it does with, well, whatever it is that Blue Oyster Cult used to do. "Secular Haze," taken from the band's forthcoming sophomore album, is a strangely beguiling mix of melodic psych-rock vocals, crunchy hard-rock guitars, and what I'm thinking sounds very much like a circus calliope. If Ghost breaks big in 2013, many will blame it on shtick, but the real reason will be songs like this one.
10. Knife & Fork, "Tightrope"
Knife & Fork is a collaboration between Laurie Hall from the indie-rock trio Ovarian Trolley and Eric Drew Feldman, a former member of Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band who's also recorded with the Pixies and produced Frank Black's solo work. At this point, I should also mention that Feldman and PJ Harvey, whose band he also plays in, recorded a track for an album I co-produced more than a decade ago. But even if we'd never met, I promise I'd still be touting "Tightrope," the trip-hoppiest track from Knife & Fork's sophomore album and a perfect showcase for the duo's oddly compelling mix of ethereal vocals and hypnotic pop instincts. Plus, the video has vintage footage of high-wire daredevils and a train-hopping chimp.
9. Beach Boys, "That's Why God Made the Radio"
The last thing I expected from 2012 — or really any year since the Beach Boys went the way of Jimmy Buffett — was a reunion single that captures the magic of Pet Sounds without sounding like half-hearted nostalgia. "That's Why God Made the Radio" reminds us why the Beatles were actually jealous of the Beach Boys, and why indie-rock songwriters still long to emulate Brian Wilson. And when those unmistakable harmonies come in on the chorus, it's hard not to get chills. Ironically, the release date of this loving homage to radio made it ineligible for airplay on the strictly formatted stations that thrive on the band's old hits.
8. Die Antwoord, "I Fink U Freeky"
OK, so Die Antwoord has slipped down the list a bit since "Enter the Ninja" was my No. 3 pick back in 2010. But maybe that's just because this year's overall music offerings are so much better. What's certain is that the outrageous performance-art personas of emcees Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er have helped them survive their transition from the indies to the majors and back again. And this feel-odd-hit-of-the-summer proves the South African rave-hop duo's music is as worthy of attention as the over-the-top imagery that accompanies it.
7. Father John Misty, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings"
Father John Misty's Fear Fun album was an immaculately composed, perfectly polished pop-rock debut that took critics by surprise, given that the album's creator had been best-known as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. Actually, Josh Tillman had numerous singer-songwriterly albums under his own name before abandoning the coffee-house-circuit vibe for a more full-spectrum sound. Standout track "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" is incurably hooky, with the forever cynical Tillman wringing four notes from a single syllable: "Je-e-e-e-sus Christ, girl / I laid up for hours in a daze / Retracing the expanse of your American back / With Adderall and weed in my veins." (Editor's note: Father John Misty will be playing the Black Sheep on Jan. 5.)
6. The ReMINDers, "You Can Count on Me"
When I watched the ReMINDers perform during the Planet Hip-Hop showcase at this year's South by Southwest, "You Can Count on Me" was the song that surely got the biggest crowd reaction. It's not hard to hear why. As featured on the Colorado Springs couple's sophomore CD, Born Champions, it's a moving expression of mutually assured devotion that juxtaposes rap verses and soulful choruses as deftly as anyone this side of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees.
5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Ramada Inn"
Best Neil Young I've heard in a very long time. All 17 minutes of it.
4. Y.N.RichKids, "Hot Cheetosand Takis"
"Munchin' on my Takis like I just don't care / Then I walked up to your girl and she's asking me to share." Who would have thought that the year's best ensemble rap would be a pre-teen ode to hyper-palatable snack addiction? With its heartfelt chorus ("Snack, snack, snack, CRUNCH") and a procession of seriously talented grade-school emcees, this was truly a breath of fresh air in a challenging year. The accompanying video is essential viewing; be sure not to miss the dreadlocked kid whose fairly screamed verse makes Mystikal sound like a sleepy-eyed crooner.
3. Chuck Snow, "Whichever Way the Wind Blows"
"Whichever Way the Wind Blows" is a profoundly moving ballad written and recorded at the height of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Chuck Snow, a veteran of Colorado Springs bands like the Autono and the Lo-Fi Cowboys, manages to capture that moment when what really matters in life is thrown into stark relief: "Heavenly light shine down on me / Down here it's too dark to see / My whole world is burning and I've only my soul / To carry me through whichever way the wind blows." Even if Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle had devoted a song to this tragedy, I'm not sure they could have done better.
2. Kimbra, "Settle Down"
While Kimbra was already finding fame Down Under, she'd remained relatively unknown here in the States until her featured vocals on Gotye's breakthrough "Somebody That I Used to Know" helped make it the best-selling single of 2012. That said, I much prefer this track from her Vows album, which showcases a quirky pop sensibility that's a bit less operatic, but no less brilliant, than Kate Bush. With its soaring chorus and intriguing lyrical references to '50s noir film A Place in the Sun, "Settle Down" is the most musically developed and emotionally arresting track from a 22-year-old artist whose star continues to rise.
1. The Coup, "Guillotine"
"Anger is an energy," Johnny Rotten once snarled, but I'm fairly sure that nothing in the punk-rock canon can match the intensity of this track from Oakland's premiere hip-hop duo. Try this lyric on for size:
Please sir, may we have another portion?
We're children of the beast that dodged the abortion
Neck placed firm 'tween the floor and the Florsheim
We'll shut your shit down, don't call it extortion
This irresistibly catchy track comes complete with choppy guitar riffs and infectious vocal chants ("We got the guillotine / You'd better run") that can hold their own against George Clinton's best. Add in a rumbling electrofunk groove that does the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" one better, and there's no doubt that the Coup has finally outdone itself. Like the song's French Revolution-themed video, which echoes the wildly theatrical aesthetics of Broadway's The Wiz and Spike Lee's Bamboozled, "Guillotine" is as intoxicating as it is incendiary.