[feature] 2012 in Review: 10 Defining Musical Moments

All the stories that made music so weird this year.

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- Dec 6, 2012

2012's almost through. It seems like just yesterday we were slaving through year-end lists for 2011, our heads full of hair and marriages intact. But 2012 was too full of events that rocked the music industry for us to be distracted by follicles or companions. We were frozen to our computers, following and discussing every one of them, and we've managed to whittle them down to the ten musical moments we think will define the past year for independent and alternative music. There. We're finished. Now please come home, baby.

1. The Year of the Nardwaur

Nardwuar The Human Serviette (that's his legal name) has been a Canadian icon for over two decades, but this year his interviews - namely those with hip-hop artists - made him one of the most iconic journalists of the year. Dude even did a TED Talk. He stuck to his formula for years and got signed to Pharell's IAMOTHER media conglomerate, and reclaimed the phrase “Gonzo journalism” from film students who read Fear and Loathing at the cottage. Chances are in a few years we'll hear that glorious “Who are you?!” yelled in the faces of some former presidents. Though on second thought, he's probably too good at finding stuff his subjects would rather keep hidden.

Nardwuar vs. Danny Brown

2. The Lana Del Rey Saga

As an album, Born To Die better serves as an inditement of online music journalism's standards and practices than a collection of enjoyable music. It constructed the opposite of the ironic, self-assured creature we prematurely assumed was singing “Video Games.” When that song debuted, our fingers were almost tripping over themselves, furiously typing up laurels before we gave her the chance to properly introduce herself. But talent that we constructed didn't match the reality, and the flaws in our artifice were beginning to show. We needed an out, and her SNL performance was it. We didn't just discredit her, we made her into a farce, a meme, the industry's tawdry whipping girl who was paying more for our journalistic failings than her creative ones. And the fact the album went on to sell three million albums only underscores the disconnect from reality this blog shit can foster.

3. Neo-soul revitalized

D'Angelo 's self-imposed exile in the early 00's marked the beginning of the end for neo-soul, a dynamic new genre of Black American music. If the volume of disposable hit singles are a measure of a new genre's staying power, neo-soul was on the verge of staking a claim on American culture (see Macy Gray's “I Try”). Yet it disappeared, and despite an excellent comeback album from one of it's true geniuses, the world wasn't ready until 2012. Grammy nominee Frank Ocean, a new face full of Curtis Mayfield-level genius, proved his willingness to shatter sonic (and social) conventions. Jessie Ware, proved herself a worthy heir to Sade and a remarkably self-assured diva with just one debut album. And How To Dress Well, a disciple of the genre, brought it further underground than ever before. But those folks aren't alone: D'Angelo made his comeback at the BET Awards this year, suddenly and spiritedly, as if he just felt that right now was when the world was really ready.

4. Pussy Riot

It's rare that a human rights abuse short of genocide rallies the musical community like Pussy Riot did. It was a strange situation; they weren't known outside of Russia until they were arrested and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for crashing and performing in a Russian orthodox church. Even so, protests soon spread from the musical community to houses of politics around the world. But why? It obviously wasn't just the free speech thing, nor was it simply because they were musicians (there wasn't nearly as much chatter about leftist folk-rock outfit Grup Yorum's arrest and torture by Turkish police). It was because Pussy Riot are punk rockers. For many of us in the West, punk was there in our past or remains key to our present. And to see a part of our personal history so besieged inspires a primal and totally natural disgust. We know those people in that band, we've listened to their music, and drunkenly pogoed at their shows. But the reason for the outcry doesn't diminish Pussy Riot's accomplishments, nor their incredible bravery; they lit a match underneath the political sensibilities of a new generation across the world, and they used music to hold power accountable at the expense of their health and futures, something many likely thought a platitude in today's world.

5. The Masters Return

This year's comebacks were dynamic in scope, and almost helped make up for the loss of Sonic Youth. Godspeed! You Black Emperor just started selling their first album in ten years unannounced at their merch tables, Kevin Shields insists that My Bloody Valentine's follow-up to 1991's Loveless is close to completion, and Fleetwood Mac are touring again. And though we've already mentioned it on this list, D'Angelo's comeback at this year's BET Awards is hopefully a glimpse of a full-fledged something from the long-absent artist.

6. Hip hop's shot-callers

In 2012, hip-hop became autonomous like never before. When Earl Sweatshirt finally emerged from boarding school, a year's worth of hype pressurized by scarce information exploded into a major deal and a label of his own, all in the same year he graduated high school. Flying Lotus masqueraded as the shadowy Captain Murphy, building an aura of cultish mystery that the public ate up. Lil B, the unsigned artist three years into his $40,000-a-show solo career, lectured at NYU. Joey Bada$$ is the high school senior that's charged with saving New York hip hop. And when Death Grips didn't like how their label was treating them, they leaked their new album themselves. They were following their hearts, but I think they also recognized that this new world is hungry for hyped hip-hop like never before, and would reward their gesture, just as it has their contemporaries.

7. Kraftwerk @ The MoMA

The choice of venue for Kraftwerk's career retrospective was appropriate, because it was more than just a reunion; it was a bonafide work of art. For eight nights, Kraftwerk performed one of their groundbreaking albums on each day, running through their century-defining catalogue for a lucky few hundred. They were shows too ambitious to tour, with 3-D glasses and extravagant digital projections, but fortunately for Londoners the band will take the retrospective the Tate Modern in 2013.

8. Rihanna the Sea Punk

This year it became easier than ever for artists to cry culture-poaching, and harder for labels to be discrete about it. Almost immediately after viewing Rihanna's November SNL performance, the Internet lit up with slighted Seapunk artists who immediately claimed her backdrop was a rip-off of Jerome LOL's “123.” Jerome was conflicted and others were furious, perhaps especially because it wasn't the first time Rihanna's been accused of lifting a style. But perhaps it's good that it happened, because it raised so many questions. Do subcultures that reference past decades (ie. the nineties) have ownership of their sources? Has the Internet made laying claim to any aesthetic obsolete? (M.I.A. and Diplo could probably have a heated debate over that.) And even if co-opters are acting immorally in practice but morally in theory, is there any use trying to stop them?

Rihanna - Diamonds (Live on SNL)

9. The Rise of the Unlimited Streaming Service

Recently, when a fan asked Unicorn Kid via Tumblr when his new single would be available on Spotify, he responded “I'd rather u bought it.” His response reflects a growing consensus in the musical community, that streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, which charge a monthly rate for unlimited streaming of an enormous music library, do not pay the artists enough for the use of their music. In an article for Pitchfork, Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 noted that for the first quarter of 2012, his band received a total of $1.26 for 13,760 plays, from both of these companies. Of course, voracious illegal downloading shares just as much if not more blame than these companies; David Lowry correctly noted that the services don't pay artists more, because there's no pressure to in the current “everything's free” climate. Tim Hecker has lambasted the digital age for cheapening today's listener/music relationship, and if he's right, these streaming services will only exacerbate the problem.

10. Tupac hologram @ Coachella aka DEAD RAPPER'S GHOST TERRIFIES FESTIVAL CROWD

Maybe in 2011 you could have felt a twinge of indignation at hip-hop genius-turned-headphone-magnate Dr. Dre topping the Forbes list of wealthiest musicians. But this year he and Snoop Dogg stormed Coachella with a set that was not just one of the year's best, but one of the most extravagant, thanks to an $100,000 hologram projection of Tupac Shakur. There was controversy, of course, but in terms of spectacle, nothing else this year tops tens of thousands of people screaming rapturously at the sight of a few beams of light.

Tupac Hologram Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre Perform Coachella Live 2012

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