The 75 Best Songs of 2012

by PopMatters Staff

2 December 2012


65 - 56


Azealia Banks

On “212”, Azealia Banks introduces us to the multitude of voices that she holds within. There is the street-rap bravado of her opening verse, cascading from genre-redeeming declarations (“Hey — I can be the answer”), to dirty and declarative innuendo (“I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten”). On the second verse, she heightens her confrontational rhetoric (“You could get shot homie, if you do want to”), while affecting a detached and unimpressed inflection that rips through a string of would-be hook-ups, ending with the definitive “I’ma ruin you cunt.” Then in a mid-song breakdown, Banks shows off her melodic side, ditching the big-talking ego for a self-reflective tone: “Why you procrastinatin’ girl? / You got a lot but you just waste all yourself.” But after that brief moment of introspection, she’s back with a fury, hurling rude-girl shouts of “What you gon’ do when I appear / When I premier?” over that riotous, relentless beat. Robert Alford



Passion Pit
“Take a Walk”

From the opening bars, which slowly rise like a dawning sun, to the kickdrum stomp which grabs you by the lapels and carries you off, “Take s Walk” is nothing less than a mainline sugar rush to the brain. On paper, it felt like a huge departure from the band’s previous outings, with narrative themes more akin to Bruce Springsteen, it seemingly shunned the trademark sonic confessions which had been so well honed in Manners. But this is less about revolution and more about redefinition, as they set their cacophonous electro glitches, soaring choral harmonies and celebratory melodies to the stark realities of a recession struck America. Proving beyond doubt, that their candy coloured music is more than simple introspection and can illuminate even the darkest of corners. Tom Fenwick



Nicki Minaj

The love it/hate it/can’t get rid of it anthem of 2012, where Nicki Minaj rubs our face in the fact that she’s a gifted rapper who doesn’t want to just rap, but also wants to make us dance like the idiots we are. We’re easy prey to the last-chance, do-it-now hook, with its feeling of takeoff, and the repeat-this-and-chant-like-you’re a sports fan section of the song. It’s escapism, yes, something we need. It embodies her idiosyncratic approach to hip-hop in 2012, and delightfully says F-U to those who want their rappers to be skills-focused at all times, are too smart for pop music and too cool to dance. Dave Heaton



Of Monsters and Men
“Little Talks”

If the blaring trumpets that open “Little Talks” weren’t enough to get your attention, the unified shout of “hey” surely was. Over the past year, this song served as the siren’s call for Of Monsters and Men drawing numerous fans from around the world to the Icelandic band’s grasp. The joyous spirit of “Little Talks” may cover up the tale of a departed loved one and the partner ready to pass over and meet again on elysian shores. But the chorus is indispensible to the tale, and ranks “Little Talks” among the poppiest songs of the year. Sachyn Mital


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Transcendental Youth


The Mountain Goats
“Cry for Judas”

Though John Darnielle continues to plumb the depths of the rock bottom on Transcendental Youth, the zeal with which he does so has only grown and this set may mark the brightest and most lush soundtrack for the down-and-out in his career. Nowhere is this clearer than on the ultra-catchy “Cry For Judas”, a lean number at heart, writ large by irrepressible horns filling up all the space around Darnielle’s plaintive singing. No one can sing “long black night” to lead off a chorus and instill us with hope, but Darnielle does here, and therein lies the surprise of “Cry For Judas”, it’s got all the touchstones of a Mountain Goats song—the desperation, the nowhere-to-go claustrophobic energy—and yet it’s still a gut-punch when he sings “all is lost” and you know that’s just a sign to start over. Such is the dark hope of “Cry for Judas”, and staring into the abyss has never seemed so blindingly bright. Matthew Fiander


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Life Is Good


“Bye Baby”

“Bye Baby” closes a loop most rappers don’t dare to approach at any point. Nestled into the mid-section of his double-disc Street’s Disciple was a trio of songs that celebrated Nas’ marriage to then-star Kelis of “Milkshake” fame. He rarely celebrated the union on record in the years following, but the image of the pair became emblazoned upon many of the cultural moments that Nas fought to create after, particularly the photo of them wearing black shirts boldly labeled “NIGGER” in promotion of his not-yet-titled Untitled album. But their divorce was harsh on Nas, and resulted in the longest break between solo albums of his career. Life Is Good arrived brashly with Nas in a suit draped by Kelis’ wedding dress on the cover, and it ends with one of rap’s most sensitive, grown up moments on record, “Bye Baby”.

Laced by an interpolation of Guy’s “Goodbye Love” (and featuring Aaron Hall in the music video), Nas whittles a near-decade relationship down to four succinct moments that run the emotional gamut from bliss to heartbreak. He explains how the two fell in love and fell out, drawing out sketches of their happiest and lowest moments with such breathtaking ease. We’ll never know enough about their—or any—relationship to really judge who if anyone was at fault, but for these four minutes Nas has you believing that no love ever really dies, even as your better half is walking out the door with half your money and the best years of your life. If “NY State of Mind” was a project kid baffled by the world around him, “Bye Baby” is that boy all grown up, much wiser and yet just as surprised by the pitches life throws his way. It’s powerfully personal music the way few but Nas can deliver it. David Amidon




This is one of those tracks that thrives on its promises: long, long opening with a ping-pong bounce, vocal notes hit and held, subterranean thrashing squelch trying to break upwards and its ambitions kicked in the face by an electric little toot-ta-ta-too that holds the higher-sounding ground without having to put in any effort. It’s a continuously interesting piece of multinational bass from a North American producer who makes Blue Man Group boompipe on a shopping trolley while his Indonesian collaborator Nova sings gossamer. Gossamer plus bass is not new but that Indonesian presence refurbishes the idea. The original song, “Genjer-genjer”, was a 1960s hit, a comment against poverty, borrowed by the Partai Komunis Indonesia: in 1965 Suharto had the composer murdered in a massive anti-Communist purge. Filastine is wearing his activism in plain sight and a large part of his audience will never know. Deanne Sole



Sharon Van Etten

Yes, the namesake of Sharon Van Etten’s stunning gem “Leonard” is Leonard Cohen. Sure, it’s an act of hubris for Van Etten to invoke a living legend in the particular genre she works in, but it says a lot about her chops that she flies so close to the sun without getting singed. Like Cohen, Van Etten is able to balance meditative introspection with subtly expansive orchestration: While Van Etten’s down-home voice and acoustic guitar are intensely intimate, layers of tender instrumentation turn the solemn mood transcendent, as Van Etten is joined by the steady thump of a bass drum, the texture of a strummed ukulele, and a slight lift of strings. So even if Van Etten hadn’t confirmed the inspiration of the song herself, there’s enough to “Leonard” that brings that Leonard to mind, which is a tribute to both artists. Arnold Pan



Kathleen Edwards
“Empty Threat”

“Empty Threat” starts coyly, a few loosened strums on a barely audible acoustic guitar. Then, Kathleen Edwards’ light, powerful voice wraps you up like a winter blanket. Her voice is an instrument that is usually overlooked in the wake of her songwriting skills and Voyageur is no different. Some production and instrumentation flourishes from beau Justin Vernon gave the album a more expansive feel, but Voyageur is still Edwards’ realm and she stakes out her territory on opener “Empty Threat”. At once a push/pull argument that illuminates the trepidation of change and the draw of wanderlust (“I’m moving to America / It’s an empty threat”), “Empty Threat” works best because of its unsteadiness. The tension from the lyrics is anchored by a rock solid structure of a song, complete with a sing-along bridge. And “Empty Threat” is anything but. Scott Elingburg


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Local Business


Titus Andronicus
“In a Big City”

The opening guitars sound like gongs, ringing in the future. In the history of Titus Andronicus, which is essentially the history of Patrick Stickles, human being, Local Business is where they go from being a band that grew up in Jersey to being a band living in New York (forget that Stickles has actually moved back to the Garden State). It’s a small distinction, but growing up is a countless series of small distinctions that add up and become you and your problems, and your problems are both the same as everyone elses and the only things that you identify with. Soaring backup vocals, loud guitars and a ceaseless paranoia make “In a Big City” Springsteen without nostalgia, a unifying anthem, a confused, jumbled mess that could only explain life 2012. David Grossman

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