The 75 Best Songs of 2012

Artist: Bob Mould

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Bob Mould
“The Descent”

What a year it was for Bob Mould fans. Sugar’s classic music from 1992 to 1994 was given a wonderful spit and polish, Mould was playing Copper Blue live for the first time in ages, and in the process, the former Hüsker Dü member rediscovered his love of good, loud powerpop. Backed up by a powerhouse rhythm section, the album Silver Age marked a return to the scorching power trio sounds of Sugar especially, and the best of the lot was “The Descent”, which was quintessential Mould, juxtaposing deep self-loathing with searing, soaring pop hooks. He could always make his misery sound glorious (“Here’s the rope that made me choke”), and his wry tale of emotional collapse turned into one of the most incessant and rich rock singles of the year. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: The Afghan Whigs

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The Afghan Whigs
“Lovecrimes”

The second of the reunited Afghan Whigs’ newly recorded songs, this Frank Ocean cover, proves they’ve lost none of their soulful sultriness. A slice of fused neo-R&B and alt-rock savagery, it’s as accomplished a song as any the Whigs cut in their mid-’90s heyday. With its sweeping violins, a piano you can envision smoke billowing from, a synthesized bass line vibrating with menace and walls of distorted guitar, the songs serves as a mood piece befitting a film noir. The consummate reinterpreter of others’ songs, Greg Dulli makes “Lovecrimes” sound as if he wrote it, the lyrics that lace affection with threats being an art he perfected. All told, the song gives longtime Whigs fans another reason to lament they broke up in 2001, but also vindicates their faith that the reunion would be nothing less than stellar. Cole Waterman

 

Artist: El-P

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El-P
“The Full Retard”

What better way to kick off the lead single to El-P’s excellent album, Cancer 4 Cure, than to loop in a hook from his late friend and rapper Camu Tao. Even more fitting is that Tao is insisting we “bump this shit, like they do in the future.” And, well, they certainly will. Over a shadowy but razor-sharp beat — one of El-P’s finest, which is saying something — El-P spits his labyrinthine flow and builds hope in a world that has let go of naïve notions of peace and harmony. Despite his acerbic nature — “fuck your droid noise” he spits at lesser producers — under it is a strange hope that once all the rubble settles, we might build something better. That’s the fire behind El-P’s rhymes here, and while they’re tough to keep up with, they’re brilliant when you latch on to what he’s saying. On one of the year’s best albums, this song finds El-P at his absolute peak, as both producer and rapper. Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Menomena

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Menomena
“One Horse”

The early reports surrounding Moms tossed around terms like “pathos” and “brutally raw” pretty freely — bold claims for the Portland outfit behind records as playful as Friend or Foe. I was skeptical, but the clincher comes in “One Horse”, Moms’ majestic, cello-painted stunner of an encore. Over a murmur of piano and sighing, cinematic string loops, Danny Seim signals the emotional denouement of his obsession with motherhood and mortality: “Boulder canyon / You made a son out of me”, the songwriter trembles, his voice shaky and worn. “I had a mother who swam in your streams.” Then the spiraling catharsis (“From dust to dust / Roots will pass through us”), as devastating as Friend or Foe is whimsical, and then the fade-out. It’s weighty stuff from a band known for patchworks of quirk. Really, it’s weighty stuff from anyone. Zach Schonfeld

 

Artist: Sun Airway

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Sun Airway
“Close”

Opening with a crafty nod to Heaven 17’s similarly elegant “Let Me Go”, “Close” quickly and completely floods your ears with blissful, artful pop. The lush synthesizers and trebly guitars are straight out of New Order/Cure land, but the primal, pounding drums and layered orchestrations reveal a flair for modern psychedelia. Throw in a Bob Dylan reference that Mr. Zimmerman himself would be proud of, and there is little doubt “Close” was the Number One song in Heaven in 2012. John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Laura Gibson

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Laura Gibson
“Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed”

I’m guessing that neither Laura Gibson, La Grande or “Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed” will figure much in any other best of 2012 lists. It’s a shame as she belongs in such company. The lead track from the album La Grande “Milk-Heavy, Pollen Eyed” is an achingly beautiful love song. Simply arranged — acoustic guitar, flute and minimal drum — accompanied by the sweetest, yearning voice, this record gets me everytime. It’s hard not to be moved as Gibson softly coos “Try as I may to carve my path / I cannot keep myself from stumbling back to you.” Gibson is a great American songstress whose light hopefully won’t be kept under a bushel for too much longer. Jez Collins

 

Artist: Pet Shop Boys

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Pet Shop Boys
“Leaving”

Although critics generally damned the serenely beautiful Elysium album with faint praise, most agreed “Leaving” was something special. I’d go so far as to suggest it’s the finest Pet Shop Boys single since “Being Boring” way back in 1990. Like that career high, this is a requiem for the ghosts of lovers and love lost. Crushing, grown-up pop offering one steady outstretched hand to lead you and your heavy heart out of the abyss and “Some hope to believe in love.” Oh, and that heavenly instrumental break around the two-minute mark? Kills me everytime. A real keeper and a guiding light for many a long, dark night ahead. Matt James

 

Artist: Dum Dum Girls

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Dum Dum Girls
“Lord Knows”

Lead Dum Dum gal Dee Dee clearly has an affinity and aptitude for the disconcerting dream-pop aesthetic of Julee Cruise’s work with Angelo Badalamenti. Look no further than “Lord Knows”, the de facto single from this year’s morose and magical End of Daze EP. Worthy of a place on David Lynch’s Zune, the sumptuous composition basks in the greying echoes of drummer Sandy’s spare rhythm and Dee Dee’s cautious, damaged coo. Those astute curmudgeons who recall the Cowboy Junkies’ saturnine take on the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” may find some similarities, but where Margo Timmins descended Dee Dee soars, finding ever more substance in the resplendent shadows. Gary Suarez

 

Artist: PS I Love You

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PS I Love You
“Sentimental Dishes”

The sophomore album that this Canadian two-piece (three-piece, if you see them live) released this year, Death Dreams, polarized critics: they either loved it, or were indifferent to it. However one feels about the long-player, you have to admit that its lead-off track “Sentimental Dishes” is a paranoid, nightmarish vision of guitar shredding that recalls, just a little bit, the overall vibe of Hüsker Dü’s “I Apologize”. With its instantly catchy guitar riff, and singer Paul Saulnier’s caterwauling vocals, this is an instantly pleasing song that should live on well into the intervening years. A true power-pop gem, “Sentimental Dishes” is worthy of endless playing and replaying on repeat. Zachary Houle

 

Artist: Islands

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Islands
“Hallways”

“Hallways” is a great indie track that has all the warmth, fun, and ramshackle appeal of an olde-tyme piano parlor. How often can those words be said about any song? As four hands tickle the ivories and a stomping shuffle rhythm keeps things marching along, Nick Thorburn makes the best of being given the ol’ cold shoulder. Thorburn’s ace in the hole? Those barbershop quartet backing vocals. “Hallways” makes being let down gently seem oh so overrated. John Bergstrom

65 – 56

 

Artist: Azealia Banks

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Azealia Banks
“212”

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

 

 

Artist: Passion Pit

Album: Gossamer

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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

 

 

Artist: Nicki Minaj

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Nicki Minaj
“Starships”

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

 

 

Artist: Of Monsters and Men

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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

 

 

Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: Transcendental Youth

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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

 

 

Artist: Nas

Album: Life Is Good

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Nas
“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

 

 

Artist: Filastine

Album: LOOT

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Filastine
“Gendjer2”

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

 

 

Artist: Sharon Van Etten

Album: Tramp

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Sharon Van Etten
“Leonard”

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

 

 

Artist: Kathleen Edwards

Album: Voyageur

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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

 

 

Artist: Titus Andronicus

Album: Local Business

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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

55 – 46

Artist: iamamiwhoami

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iamamiwhoami
“Play”

It wasn’t too long ago that iamamiwhoami was a viral whisper: a “who the heck is this?” project where people were more concerned about discovering who the mystery woman in all these surreal YouTube clips was than enjoying the world-bending, post-Bjork experimental madness that was going on in iamamiwhoami’s music. Now that the principal behind it was revealed to be little-heard singer Jonna Lee, the project suddenly took on a poppier, more song-oriented vibe (while sacrificing absolutely none of the weirdness that made this collaboration so unique), and before long, a full-length album appeared. So concise was the vision that the highlights are almost too numerous to name. Yet if we were to boil this project down to just one essential song, “Play” would be it, those synths sounding like the very life is draining out of them during the verses, resulting in an emotionally naked track that sounds like absolutely nothing else before it. When Lee cries out about making up songs for us to sing, she wasn’t kidding. “Play” is a stone cold classic that you only have to hear once before falling under its incredible charms. Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar
“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”

When Lady Gaga offers up a demo to Twitter of one of your songs that you collaborated on, but didn’t make the cut for your album, you know that you’ve pretty much arrived. But don’t let the big name throw you as a listener. The version that made the cut for Kendrick Lamar’s exceptional good kid, m.A.A.d city is still worthy of superlatives, and may just be all the better for not featuring the colourful chanteuse. When Lamar sings, “I am a sinner who’s probably going to sin again,” it comes across as so powerful and impassioned. And when he offers up, “Sometimes I need to be alone,” it’s such a universal sentiment that one can easily relate to. In fact, if you listen to the Gaga demo, it just doesn’t work — it’s such a masculine sentiment that Lamar is offering up here, that having a female voice singing the chorus detracts from the, urm, vibe of the song. So don’t let the star power fool you. Lamar’s album version and clear single is one of those songs that offers up some universal truths that any red blooded male can share and understand. Zachary Houle

 

Artist: Ceremony

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Ceremony
“Hysteria”

Ever since frontman Ross Farrar declared he was “sick of Black Flag, sick of Cro-Mags”, these Rohnert Park punks have slid further and further away from their hardcore roots in favor of the more angular sonics of P.I.L. and Wire. While the move has afforded Ceremony enough newfound fans to warrant its signing to mega-indie Matador, they haven’t entirely forsaken outright aggression. “Hysteria”, the cripplingly catchy lead track and lead single from this year’s paranoid post-punk eye-opener Zoo, dials listeners in to Farrar’s judgemental bum-out trip. Simple gang vocals hypnotize as thunderous drums and jagged riffs drone into a mix that, while predictable, is practically perfect. Gary Suarez

 

Artist: Cloud Nothings

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Cloud Nothings
“Wasted Days”

For me, 2012 started off as a smoldering mess promising death and despair. The first record that I heard was Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory, which acted as a perfect summation of 2012’s bleak promise. “Wasted Days” was its pinnacle. With an increasingly frustrated chorus of “I thought I would be more than this”, Dylan Baldi managed to capture the essence of young-adulthood angst. In its guitar freakout mid-section was the chaos of impending doom and in its final moments, the ultimate disappointment and accompanying anger. “Wasted Days” was the song of 2012 because it was 2012’s song. Steven Spoerl

 

Artist: Alice Smith

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Alice Smith
“Cabaret”

One of 2013’s highlights was already upon us in 2012 — the return of Alice Smith. After nearly seven years since the Grammy-nominated artist debuted with For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, she returned with a brand new single, “Cabaret”. Her voice is among the most remarkable instruments currently on iTunes, as the song’s 40-second a cappella introduction reveals to scintillating effect. Smith’s band is a driving presence on the track, with crisp drum beats and percussive accents fueling the rhythm. If the quality of “Cabaret” is any indication, Smith’s forthcoming album She may even surpass the critical reception of her debut. Anyone needing a primer on Alice Smith should simply start with “Cabaret” and “Let the lady carry you away.” Christian Wikane

 

Artist: Ryan Bingham

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Ryan Bingham
“Heart of Rhythm”

Best known for his Oscar-winning song “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart, many would label Ryan Bingham as a country singer with a little bit of rock in him. Well, with his foot-stopping, gritty album Tomorrowland, Bingham shows just what he can do for rock and roll. Never is this more apparent than in the album’s most addictive track, “Heart of Rhythm”. Bingham belts out simple-minded lyrics about a man asking a woman for a chance — a chance you have to imagine is given considering the propulsive beat of the accompanying drums and swaying sound of dual guitars. Ben Travers

 

Artist: Icky Blossoms

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Icky Blossoms
“Heat Lightning”

What an appropriate title for this song, the music within replicating in aural fashion the visual of electricity flashing across the sky. Throbbing with droning beats, the syncopation is offset with a sinuous guitar line and singer Sarah Bohling’s wounded, yet resilient, vocals. She intones lyrics of emotional ambivalence, alternately reflecting upon and advancing beyond a relationship that flared with the intensity and brevity of an electrical discharge. With the accelerated dance rhythm of the chorus and Bohling’s pensive pronouncements, the yielded effect simulates the notion of a midnight drive across a dry desert highway, hoping to either outrun the past or recapture a moment’s ephemeral ecstasy. Cole Waterman

 

Artist: The Coup

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The Coup
“The Guillotine”

Funk upon a time called now… the Coup are knocking at the doors of the rich and powerful, and they’ve got their guillotine to execute their own brand of justice. It’s an apocalyptic vision of today, where the have-nots watch the sky for the military helicopters whole plotting the revolution, to the rhythms of the best block party ever. Boots Riley walks us through this people versus the powerful scenario, with swiftness and visual flair. His ethos this year is to party and fight at the same time: “Let’s keep it bangin’ like the shotgun.” Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Bat for Lashes

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Bat for Lashes
“Laura”

I’ve seen more than a few would-be internet detectives trying to suss out the “true identity” of the titular character in Bat for Lashes’s stunning “Laura”. Is she a film actress, a fictional character, a pseudonym? The pointless exercise threatens to distract from the brilliance of Natasha Khan’s piano ballad, in which the British songstress imbues her character with such universal pain that Laura becomes whomever we need her to be at the current moment, including a bit of ourselves. Laura, devastated that “the party died”, only wants her companion, the song’s narrator, to join her in a “dance upon the tables again.” All that friend, in Khan’s aching performance, can offer is a few paltry words of comfort — “you’re the glitter in the dark”, “your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin”. There’s a gulf between these two people, the same space that separates our ideals from our reality, but the love Khan expresses here feels well enough in reach. Corey Beasley

 

Artist: Swans

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Swans
“A Piece of the Sky”

The penultimate climax of Swans’ latest magnum opus, “A Piece of the Sky” covers more terrain in its 19 minutes than most bands manage in a career. The song progresses, slowly but inexorably, from tension to tranquility: apocalyptic moans feed into a tense ambient roar; a positively cinematic swelling of overlapping guitars subsides into a trembling Angels of Light-style refrain. “Are you there?” wonders Michael Gira over ghostly backing vocals and scattered banjo clucks. “Is that really you?” It’s really Swans, delicate as it is, and more than any piece on the album (including the half-hour title cut), “A Piece of the Sky” approximates The Seer’s formidable scope. What’s more, the track encapsulates the album’s most staggering trait — that besides its penchant for suffocating gloom, The Seer is also capable of arresting beauty. Zach Schonfeld

45 – 36

Artist: Saint Etienne

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Saint Etienne
“Tonight”

If you were to choose a band to make the perfect love letter to the experience of pop music, Saint Etienne would be among the leading candidates. Out of all the Valentines to the power of pop the trio delivers on its return-to-form album Words & Music, “Tonight” is the best and most memorable. Through her breathless, barely-keeping-it-cool vocals, Sarah Cracknell captures the internal monologue of anyone who’s been eagerly anticipating her favorite band hitting the stage, while living in and for the moment. Yet “Tonight” conveys those feelings not just in words, but also in, well, the music, as producers Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs seamlessly mix-and-match decades of pop trends from girl-group vocals to disco grooves to indie charm to state-of-the-art technique. In short, “Tonight” realizes just the kind of experience it imagines. Arnold Pan

 

Artist: The Shins

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The Shins
“Simple Song”

James Mercer returned as frontman of the Shins with this single off Port of Morrow, the fourth album after 2007’s Wincing the Night Away. With a revamped line-up for recording (and another one for touring with the new material), Mercer easily found his footing again, crooning above a busy undercurrent and allowing a playful interlude before exploding into inviting choral harmonies. According to Mercer, the poetic line, “When you feel like an ocean made warm by the sun,” was an inspiration attained on a tour bus. The song celebrates Mercer’s new domestic life while also propelling him into the next chapter for the band. Jane Jansen Seymour

 

Artist: La Sera

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La Sera
“Please Be My Third Eye”

In 2012, La Sera’s Katy Goodman pushed aside Neko Case as Indie’s Great Pop Diva. A dazzling strawberry blonde armed with killer garage-punk hooks, Goodman’s blistering “Please Be My Third Eye” is an urgent pop anthem that’s irresistible on first listen: “Be my third eye / I want to see the light / Please don’t leave me blind.” What’s blinding here is Goodman’s demure girl-next-door pose and wry sense of humor. It masquerades who she really is: a pop lioness in full roar. John Grassi

 

Artist: Adele

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Adele
“Skyfall”

Music fans had been waiting to hear something new from Adele. Movie fans had been waiting four years for the next Bond flick. Those two worlds collided into one awesome song that left people talking for weeks. Generally speaking, “Skyfall” sounds like it walked straight out of the early ’60s, complete with dramatic instrumentation, a soaring chorus, and vague yet expressive lyrics. Some complained that the word “Skyfall” was repeated too much. Those people are not cool. James Bond-like cool, that is. If this song doesn’t make you imagine yourself driving in an Aston Martin to a high-stakes poker game where the world’s biggest super villains have gathered, then you have no imagination whatsoever. Let’s hope 2013 sees the best Bond theme in decades win a Grammy and an Oscar. Jessy Krupa

 

Artist: Murder By Death

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Murder By Death
“I Came Around”

Six albums on, and Murder By Death still write songs like “I Came Around” that sound as the quintessential distillation of all that makes them great. There aren’t many groups that can tackle the subject of a man attending a reprobate’s funeral just to make sure he’s dead, only to wind up converted to the deceased’s grandeur of character, but Murder By Death pull it off convincingly. The tune flows in its shifting like the plot of a film, a slow opening building to a crashing mid-section replicating the bacchanalian fray the lyrics describe, all coming to a halt with a mourning hangover. The quirky instrumentation of an accordion and a cello fused with a rumbling low-end, a strong narrative involving death and drunken debauchery, deft characterization and equal doses of grief, joviality, regret and wry humor are what make this Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon’s strongest cut. Cole Waterman

 

Artist: Spiritualized

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Spiritualized
“So Long You Pretty Thing”

Jason Pierce has spent so much time over the past decade wallowing in despair, even skirting death, that “So Long You Pretty Thing”, the show-stopping finale of Sweet Heart Sweet Light, can’t help but feel like a benediction. At one point it seems as if Pierce has again reached the breaking point, fragilely intoning, “Help me Lord, it’s getting harder / ‘Cause I’m losing all the time / I got no reason to be living anymore.” But then the clouds seem to part as if awakened from a chemical-induced stupor, ushering in a transcendent coda with a refrain so heart-swelling it evidences a future for Spiritualized far beyond what many might have anticipated. He may be working his way back up from rock bottom, but there’s solace to be had in the fact that Pierce is somehow now making the most inspiring music of his career. Jordan Cronk

 

Artist: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra

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Amanda Palmer
“Melody Dean”

Though not even a single from the incredible Theatre Is Evil, “Melody Dean” is the pinnacle of that album’s fun-loving, pop-oriented focus. A love letter to late 20th century popular culture, over the course of four short minutes the song references The Facts of Life, Stephen Stills, and the Knack’s “My Sharona”, going as far as to emulate the iconic guitar line from that song. Elsewhere, “Melody Dean” boasts driving piano, triumphant trumpets, autobiographical lyrics about a lesbian tryst, and a flawless percussion-vocal breakdown that builds to an explosive, sing-along climax as satisfying as anything to come out this decade. Adam Finley

 

Artist: Grimes

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Grimes
“Genesis”

“Genesis” unfurls from the beginning in waves of warm and distant tones, hovering like wisps of smoke above the steady chug of the dirty, down-tempo bass line. Then Claire Boucher’s voice rises through the fog of electronics, her words nearly indiscernible beneath the dense atmosphere of reverberating sounds, and when the beat drops all of these elements merge into a pulsing, unified motion that will propel the song forward to its oddly infectious destination. Grimes is equal parts electronic experimentation and pure pop energy, and “Genesis” is the fullest realization of that balance, moving you to dance while at the same time pushing up against the boundaries of what we can call a pop song. Robert Alford

 

Artist: Killer Mike

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Killer Mike
“Reagan”

R.A.P. Music was released in May, and to this day no song from 2012 has so consistently chilled me to the bone as “Reagan”. Opening with ominous piano chords and our 40th president swearing he did not trade weapons for hostages, a controversy that would come to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. As El-P’s synths cut in, Mike’s first verse appears to be a criticism of much of what rap music symbolizes in rap music: strippers, expensive chains, gunplay. But the song takes a subtle shift as El-P cuts to Reagan’s admission that “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not”. Suddenly, Mike’s talking about all of the oppression on his community the War on Drugs brought to his life, turning everything on it’s head as he explains that “slavery’s abolished unless you are imprisoned” and quickly desecrates every following administration all the way to our current president. As the social truth of his lyrics continue with exceptionally brash assuredness, Mike’s paranoia rises to the point he sprints out of the booth with the words “I’m glad Reagan dead”, which is followed by a repetition of the phrase “Ronald. Wilson. Reagan. 6. 6. 6.” Regardless of your thoughts on Reagan’s overall term as president, Mike and El-P present a position that is not only exceptionally engaging musically and emotionally, but damn well thought out as well. It’s probably the scariest rap song since hip-hop’s political heyday in the early ’90s, and that’s a great thing. David Amidon

 

Artist: Justin Townes Earle

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Justin Townes Earle
“Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now”

Despite its’ lengthy title, Earle’s track tells a rather simple story. The narrator has just broken his girl’s heart and she is obviously not happy. Over the course of the song’s four verses, he attempts to calm her pain and anger. Yes, he’s probably being a bastard and yes, she definitely deserves to be mad, but with a little time, effort, and perspective, things will eventually feel better. Earle’s song tells a common tale: boy meets girl, falls in love, and then for one reason or another simply falls out of love. Regardless of the circumstances or events associated with that feeling, the next step is to make a move and let her down (hopefully gently) and try and pursue what lies next. It’s not a noble task nor is it usually a painless endeavor to undertake. It is however, necessary, and Earle does a masterful job of showing understanding and empathy to both sides in this three-minute ditty jazzed up with some bittersweet Memphis horns that make the scene playing out even more realistic. Jeff Strowe

35 – 26

Artist: The Vaccines

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The Vaccines
“Aftershave Ocean”

In the midst of not having such a great year, the Vaccines managed to release an excellent song in the midst of their mediocre second LP, Come of Age. While it was unclear how many Columbia executives would have smaller expense accounts as a result of the rushed and ham-fisted sophomore flop, “Aftershave Ocean”, not even an official single, proved to be one of the best rock songs of 2012. Singer Justin Young, he of the vocal chord surgeries that may cost this band its potential, sings the melody right down the back of the main guitar lick, an infectious and fuzzy hook that is good as any downtown rock song since the first two Strokes LPs. Surely, “Aftershave Ocean” possesses more of a British sensibility, all moral victories and stiff upper lips in the face of grinding and unfortunate failure. Geoff Nelson

 

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

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Bruce Springsteen
“Death to My Hometown”

Harkening back to the Boss’ 1984 song “My Hometown”, Bruce Springsteen’s most powerful song on this year’s Wrecking Ball is also his most thoroughly potent blend of music and songwriting in years. In 1984, he was mourning the loss of his childhood home over a simply melody and a light beat. Now Springsteen is as angry as you’ll ever hear him. There’s a heavy, infectious beat behind his words and, at times, actual gunshot blasts. If this is the Boss’ idea of a rallying cry for the Occupy movement, here’s hoping for a few more protests… and soon. Ben Travers

 

Artist: Cat Power

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Cat Power
“Nothing But Time”

Cat Power’s “Nothin’ But Time” proves you don’t have to pack an 11-minute song with excess ornamentation or “suites” to justify its length. Sometimes, all you need is a simple, driving piano riff and a sense of purpose. Written for a teenager who was dealing with all of the challenges that come with being that age, “Nothin’ But Time” is the sound of a survivor relaying their wisdom. Chan Marshall’s empathy (“You’ve got the weight on your mind”) mixed with a rallying cry of “You wanna live” makes you believe there actually may be some light ahead. And Iggy Pop’s warm, grandfatherly presence toward the end only reinforces that belief. Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Stars

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Stars
“Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”

It’s surprising that on The North, on of Stars’ chilliest records, you’ll find one of the band’s warmest songs. While their thoughts about love usually come wrapped in nostalgia, wistfulness, and regret, on “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”, the band uses its signature synth-pop to sound a note of hope (and, fine, indulge in a little bit of defeatism about the song’s chances of radio airplay). “Hold On” makes you wish that people still made mix tapes for each other, because this would’ve been a good lead-off song—something that could melt the heart and make you dance at the same time. Marisa LaScala

 

Artist: POLIÇA

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POLIÇA
“Lay Your Cards Out”

Channy Leaneagh, the lead-singer and driving force behind POLIÇA, is all fecundity on “Lay Your Cards Out”, a sultry and distant drive towards an ironic pragmatism. Take the title, an urge to be straightforward, not surprisingly buried in reverb and, eventually, two drum kits. It’s almost unfair. Leaneagh’s layered and, seemingly vocodered, vocal is a swaying and sexy call to something allegedly simple. She urges us “to get your head right”, even when she well knows the band’s woozy and pulsing sound is half the reason her listeners might not know which way is up. Having gotten fully lost in the arrangement, the band dials down into the bridge, sparse synthesizers that give way to ratatat drums and Leaneagh’s closing argument, something tribal and beckoning. This was, perhaps, the only simple recommendation left. Geoff Nelson

 

Artist: Wrongtom meets Deemas J

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Wrongtom meets Deemas J
“At the Dancehall”

In the year Great Britain celebrated the Queen’s Golden Jubillee, the Olympics and even Andy Murray winning a tennis grand slam, “At the Dancehall” taken from the homage to London album In East London (the actual site of the Olympics) is a worthy song of the year contender. Bringing together elements of dancehall, ragga and jungle all wrapped in a furious vocal delivery by Deemas J and a sparse pulsing backing by Wrongtom this is an infectious, danceaholic track that will bring a smile to your face. It should have been the soundtrack for the medal presentations at the Olympics, I can just picture Usain Bolt skanking to this as he collected his golds! Jez Collins

 

Artist: fun.

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fun.
“Some Nights”

fun. entered the pop culture fray in a big, brassy style, with “We Are Young” topping the charts for six weeks, soundtracking a Super Bowl commercial, and making people actually dig around and figure out who the Format were. Yet as impossible as it seems, “Some Nights” became a hit as well, and it could very well be argued that it was a better song. Its numerous Queen references could be pegged as cheap stylistic thievery if the band didn’t synthesize the group’s sound so damn effectively, Nate Ruess’ vocals careening between passionate and vulnerable, his rallying cry turning into a wide-eyed view of the amazing things around him, before turning back into a defiant anthem again. It’s a tricky juggling act — one that’s doubly difficult on modern pop radio — but fun. have never nailed the landing quite like they do here. “We Are Young” may get all the headlines, but “Some Nights” is a straight up classic pop song that is just what the world needs right now. Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: Charli XCX

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Charli XCX
“You’re the One”

It took Charli XCX mere months from cobbling together a seemingly intact aesthetic from ’80s dance pop and the chart-friendly side of romantic goth on “Nuclear Seasons” to adding to it the one thing that no one could have noticed was missing: high contrast. As “You’re the One” begins, Charli is “dancing in the darkness” over a bleak, distorted bassline that shivers and stabs more than grooves. Her delivery is clipped, her voice high and tense, and the verse, true to form, admits little light. You can practically feel her pivot on her platforms as the chorus opens up and glimmers with adoration, and her vocals dip to a low and expressive warmth. By the time it’s over, she’s turned dancing in the dark from an expression of cold isolation into a celebration of devotion. And this doesn’t even account for the most charmingly melodramatic spoken word bit since T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul”. David Bloom

 

Artist: Esperanza Spalding

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Esperanza Spalding
“I Can’t Help It (Heads Up)”

The exceptional Radio Music Society is evidence that Esperanza Spalding exceeded even the most cynical critic’s expectations following her Grammy nod for “Best New Artist” in 2011. Almost any track from the album could hook a listener, but it’s the Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green-penned “I Can’t Help It” that Heads Up elected for single release. Spalding has included the song in her repertoire for quite some time but her version is more than mere nostalgia for Michael Jackson’s original recording. Produced and arranged by Spalding, “I Can’t Help It” is a prime vehicle for both Spalding’s singing and bass-playing talents (electric bass, in this instance). A guest spot by Joe Lovano on tenor sax only adds to an already perfect production. Classy, soulful, timeless — that’s what Spalding’s music society is all about. Christian John Wikane

 

Artist: Jack White

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Jack White
“Love Interruption”

“Love Interruption” has all the hallmarks of a classic track: simple instrumentation, a hummable melody, memorable lyrics with real emotion dripping from every word. In light of his highly publicized divorce and the sudden end to the White Stripes, “Love Interruption” could be seen as a kind of mission statement for Jack White, and it became the emotional centerpiece of Blunderbuss, an album packed with great songs. The conviction of the lyrics, the stolid strum, the doodling Wurlitzer and the utter lack of percussion gives the song an intimacy seldom found in White’s catalog. The knife twist of the male/female duet singing “I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me, anymore” gives the song a sense of strength, of shared purpose. It’s a hymn for the hopeful so deceptively simple and poignant that it’s a wonder no one had written that song before. But no one could have written it except Jack White. Adam Finley

25 – 16

Artist: Chromatics

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Chromatics
“Kill for Love”

Proof that Johnny Jewel can write killer pop songs as well as music for chiselled, beautiful folk to look enigmatic ‘n’ moody to. As lushly romantic and upliftng as any pop radio jam released this year and when that celestial chorus goes skywards it takes your heart with it. That killer almost metal riff, such a release it could cause whiplash. A Champagne supernova designed to send chills down your spine and have you reachin’ for the stars even if your heart’s in the gutter. One addictive shot-in-the-arm rush of glamorama euphoria that’ll have you jonesing for more. Matt James

 

Artist: Chairlift

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Chairlift
“I Belong in Your Arms”

On their second album, Chairlift achieve pop nirvana time and time again, but nowhere does the duo sound more lush and undeniable than on “I Belong in Your Arms”. From the song’s slick Duran Duran-esque production to its irresistible melodies, Chairlift craft one of the best little slices of art-pop you’re going to hear this year. During the verses, singer Caroline Polachek (at her most slinky and sensual) devotes herself completely to a lover… and then that killer hook arrives with a breathless rush. It’s young love encapsulated in under four minutes, and it’s damn near flawless. Billy Hepfinger

 

Artist: Anathema

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Anathema
“Untouchable”

With Coldplay recording with Brian Eno, Muse lost in their own pretentiousness, and Snow Patrol between albums, it was a progressive rock band that used to dabble in doom metal that came forward with they year’s most stunning slice of rock melancholia. British band Anathema had been gradually shedding its metal roots over the years, but with the two-part, 12-minute suite “Untouchable” they went for all-out mainstream stadium rock, with electrifying results. “Part 1” is rote in structure — tender beginning, slow crescendo, explosive climax — loaded with maudlin lyrics, but singer Vincent Cavanagh sells his lines with conviction, building up to his impassioned lines, “I’ve never seen a light that’s so bright The light that shine behind your eyes.” After the breathless conclusion of the first half, “Part 2” segues into a quieter, more plaintive interpretation of “Part 1″’s chord structure and melody, with Cavanagh and singer Lee Douglas engaging in a sweetly gorgeous duet over piano. Shamelessly and hopelessly romantic, “Untouchable” was made for mass audiences, and deserves to be heard by far more people than Anathema’s small cult following. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Pepe Deluxé

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Pepe Deluxé
“A Night and a Day”

This is one of the most ridiculous songs on one of the most ridiculous albums ever made. With its garage pop maximalism surging over a warped house bassline and hip-hop break, the first true single from Queen of the Wave comes off like some kind of twisted game show theme or deconstructed DJ Shadow/Beach Boys mash-up. With its black and white magician and mysticism video evoking some mixture of Ed Wood and Kenneth Anger, complete with a Korla Pandit type prophet called Yol Gorro and Miss Dominican Republic 2008 playing the character of Anzimee, the daughter of the Atlantean emperor, their visuals mystify and confound as much as their sonically dense, progressive sound. Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Death Grips

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Death Grips
“Get Got”

The fact that Death Grips don’t come onto the ballpark swinging and still manage to sound exhilarating should be extra credit. In fact, the rave flicker synth and jittering juke-ish beat soundtrack more of a sweaty fever dream than the group’s standard group-assault stance. MC Ride, as he stutters or “hydroplanes” the vestige of total darkness, waxes an “abraxas” of introspection. Unlike the vapid party music of 2012, Ride drinks and drugs just as hard, but it’s to suppress monsters, to avoid the cold determinism of being “Born wit a ski mask / On my face.” As the lead-in to The Money Store, this is but a throat clearing for the nightmare that follows (“So many ways / Ta Skin the Frame”), but it’s also perfectly unique brew bubbling anxiety in its own rite. At one point, Ride burrows a hole in his head to feel the breeze and even on the other side of the speakers you too can kind of feel that chilly wind blow, proving Death Grips are maybe even creepier when their knives aren’t drawn. Timothy Gabriele



 

Artist: Carly Rae Jepsen

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Carly Rae Jepsen
“Call Me Maybe”

Sometimes, even in the fractured popular music landscape of the 21st century, a song is well-written and catchy enough to appeal to pretty much everybody. “Call Me Maybe” is one of those songs. The song’s quiet verses, backed by pizzicato strings, perfectly set up the explosion into the dance beats and bowed strings of the chorus. The lyrics are simultaneously innocuous and universal (“I wish that attractive person would notice me!”), hallmarks of a good, disposable pop song. The internet, with its naysayers, not to mention thousands of parodies and inept covers of the song, may have fooled you into thinking that “Call Me Maybe” is terrible. But the internet also provided us with the best possible example of why the song is great: Jimmy Fallon and the Roots joyous version, played on classroom instruments while Jepsen confidently belts out the song in her natural voice with no digital assistance of any kind. Chris Conaton

 

Artist: Alabama Shakes

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Alabama Shakes
“Hold On”

The Alabama Shakes’ Brittney Howard has pipes and she knows how to use ’em. The Shakes rode into 2012 on a tidal wave of hype and responded by delivering a batch of rough, but solid songs, spearheaded by the monster single, “Hold On”. Although the plunking guitar is what first catches the ear, it’s Howard’s delivery that really steals the show. She starts out in a smokey croon that grows increasingly plaintive until she starts gaining steam in the chorus like an airplane taxiing on the runway. By the second time through, her voice is planted firmly in a range last seen in Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. Though the rest of the Boys and Girls is a bit of mixed bag, consider “Hold On” a sizable down payment on that whole “future of Southern rock” promise. John Tryneski

 

Artist: Father John Misty

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Father John Misty
“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”

There are some people that are convinced 2012 will be the Year of Reckoning so it makes sense that the best single to emerge from it would be shrouded in confusion and dark mystery. Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Blues” taps into a bluesy Gothic post-punk transcendence not heard since Nick Cave’s masterwork Abattoir Blues. In the song former Fleet Fox J. Tillman leads his band through an aching song about his grandfather’s death and the girl that’s with him as he goes through the motions. Graceful melodies and arrangements abound and it all adds up to 2012’s best single, with 2012’s best music video to match. Steven Spoerl

 

Artist: The Avett Brothers

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The Avett Brothers
“Live and Die”

From the group’s second record on a major, “Live and Die” doesn’t offer much that we haven’t heard from the Avetts before, but it’s so nice to hear it. You could argue that 2009’s I and Love and You was a touch too polished and piano-based, but The Carpenter finds the band and producer Rick Rubin hitting that folky, harmony-laden sweet spot more squarely and more often. A little Biblical imagery, a little yearning and temptation, a lot of love for life: this is the sound of the Avetts moving forward, but smartly reaching back to make sure they don’t leave their identity behind. Andrew Gilstrap

 

Artist: Blur

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Blur
“Under the Westway”

Well here’s one we didn’t see coming. Blur haven’t been an ongoing concern for almost a decade now and have released only three new songs since reuniting with guitarist Graham Coxon in 2009. Released in conjunction with what was falsely rumored to be Blur’s final gig, “Under the Westway” is an absolute miracle of a song that can hold its own against anything from band’s formidable catalogue. A stunningly gorgeous piano ballad built around one of Daman Albarn’s most achingly beautiful melodies and rendered to life by Coxon’s yearning, spectral guitar and some carefully controlled thunder from the rhythm section, “Under the Westway” packs everything that’s wonderful about Blur into four heartbreaking minutes. If this song is indeed the band’s epitaph, they will leave us at the very top of their game. If it marks the rebirth of their recording career, however, the possibilities are truly endless. Daniel Tebo

15 – 6

Artist: Django Django

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Django Django
“Life’s a Beach”

Readily compared to Beck, the Beta Band, and Super Furry Animals, London-based Django Django does share those artists’ signature penchant for shuffling electronic beats and rhythms. In fact, you would not be out of line in mistaking them for one of those aforementioned acts. “Life’s a Beach” also shares some common tones with ’60s era surf rock, most significantly in that its infectious grooves demand you to get up and start bouncing around, or if location prevents, begin bobbing your head and toes against the steering wheel, bus seat, or cubicle desk. It’s a good-time song that resonates simply for its pulsating rhythms rather than the often undecipherable lyrics. While the band’s self-titled album seems to center around the theme of a failing and crumbling relationship, the resulting negative effects that accompany such emotional upheaval are temporarily shelved during this song’s catchy and uplifting arrangement. For a few minutes at least, forget your troubles and heed the meaning of the song’s title. Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Gotye

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Gotye (feat. Kimbra)
“Somebody That I Used to Know”

There’s a reason why Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” remained No. 1 for eight weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the third longest running number one single of the year. It’s fucking brilliant. It’s also baffling to think that a track so atypical of a number one song managed to capture the hearts of so many world round—perhaps mainstream music isn’t as doomed as we thought. Gotye manages to balance real nuanced emotions of a tortured heart bested only when the woman he is pouring his heart out to takes the stage revealing his inability to see past his own nose. Accented by a near-perfect music video featuring a naked Gotye and Kimbra, the track is definitely the biggest success that Gotye will ever see, and that’s fine. His stylistic approach to songwriting isn’t long for a prolonged spotlight in the mainstream music scene, but who would’ve guessed that a little tune recorded in his parent’s house could have garnered such monumental international success. Good show. Enio Chiola

 

Artist: Santigold

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Santigold
“The Keepers”

Santi White’s sophomore release Master of My Make-Believe improved upon her 2008 self-titled debut in both message and presentation. While “Disparate Youth”, the album’s preceding single, laid out the album’s arguments amid some intriguing sonic flourishes, the new wave hooks of “The Keepers” made the critiques of America’s obliviousness to the everyday even more deliciously subversive. As an added bonus, its smartly demented (and self-directed) music video is one of the best of the year. Maria Schurr

 

Artist: Killer Mike

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Killer Mike
“Big Beast” feat. Bun B & T.I.

Killer Mike is brazen from the get-go on this album opener for R.A.P. Music. “Ain’t shit sweet ’bout the Peach / This Atlanta clown,” he reminds us, staking claim on his home turf and then roping in verses from other natives Bun B and T.I. to gang up on us. But despite all the bluster and fire here, there’s plenty sweet about these rhymes, from Bun B’s cool don flow to T.I.’s mile-a-minute, impossibly smooth delivery in which he takes us on a tour of Atlanta streets and the food chain of crime contained within them in what may be the verse of the year. But Mike returns in the end, all fire and fury after his laid-back friends, and takes aim at poppier rappers that end up on the TV. He’s “eyeballin’ all of y’all lames”, and with the venom he spits with here, those lames would do well to watch out. “Big Beast” is a brash, angry, loud, and excellent first song, the kind that’s tough enough to follow for Mike himself, even on a classic album like R.A.P. Music, and impossible for any other rappers in 2012. Matthew Fiander

 

Artist: Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Working with Max Martin and Shellback hasn’t diminished Swift’s chops — if anything, “Never” is the craftiest Miranda Cosgrove song ever, from the witty opening line (“I remember when we broke up / The first time”) that she smartly rhymes with “‘cuz like”, to the extra “ever” that ends each chorus. Might also be the hookiest Taylor Swift song ever, with those primeval cries of “weee-eeeeee!” and an overdubbed Swift army marching resolutely to the beautiful closing harmonies. You probably love this song; if you’re disappointed it’s “not country enough”, our conversations about it will be exhausting. Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: Jessie Ware

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Jessie Ware
“Wildest Moments”

Ambivalence is not an emotion typically associated with R&B, the musical province of extremes, be it pure carnal lust or the unhinged rage of a scorned lover. But “Wildest Moments”, only one of the gems on English singer-songwriter Jessie Ware’s debut Devotion, makes soulful pop bliss out of emotional odds and ends. “Baby, in our wildest moments / We could be the greatest,” Ware croons in sultry restraint, “Baby, in our wildest moments / We could be the worst of all.” Poised at the point where a relationship could take off into new heights or descend into untold misery, Ware treads the line with grace. A steady breakbeat and staccato keys punctuate her reflections with a hypnotic rhythm, and it’s all but impossible not to feel enraptured by the way the song seems to slowly fold around you. It’s a comfortable place to stay, that moment where anything is possible. Corey Beasley

 

Artist: Hot Chip

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Hot Chip
“Night and Day”

Not content to let the absurdity of One Life Stand’s lead single “I Feel Better” go unchallenged, Hot Chip put out the most fun song of 2012 in “Night and Day”, accompanied by an equally bizarre music video. (Which, by the way, wins the award for the Best Terrence Stamp cameo, ever.) But for all of the sci-fi nonsensicality of the “Night and Day’s” film, what makes this Hot Chip’s best single to date is one simple but crucial ingredient: THE BASS. Whereas past singles like “Ready for the Floor” and “Boy from School” were danceable but treble-heavy, “Night and Day” opts for the low end, producing a synth bassline that’s at least twenty times catchier than any other popular single this year. What’s surprising about this song, however, is that despite being the “party track” of the philosophical In Our Heads, it doesn’t feel at all out of place, proving yet again Hot Chip’s ability to simultaneously move feet and be moving. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Lianne La Havas

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Lianne La Havas
“Is Your Love Big Enough?”

The best pop song of 2012 that nobody heard, Lianne La Havas’ “Is Your Love Big Enough?” takes a surefire groove led by a handclaps section to die for and uses an anthemic element throughout a hook that is impossible to get out of your head. It may not be the most sizable single of the year, but part of its beauty lies within its understated aura. The track was one of the many highlights off her 2012 full-length debut of the same name, and it was the perfect introduction to the mainstream aimed at solidifying her place among pop-soul’s biggest players. Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Beach House

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Beach House
“Myth”

To paraphrase Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, “Myth” is one of the all-time great “Side One, Track Ones”. Starting simply with music-box percussion, it all builds slowly to Alex Scally’s howling guitar solo. Victoria Legrand tells a devastating, enchanting tale of lost love, using her husky voice and careful phrasing to mine her words for every last bit of portent. “Myth” is a distillation of Beach House’s entire appeal. They seem to make very little movement on the surface, while a chasm opens underneath. John Bergstrom

 

Artist: alt-J

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alt-J
“Breezeblocks”

Tweaking vocals and pounding keys offer an unsettling opening on alt-J’s stunning and propulsive single, “Breezeblocks”. Ostensibly about suppressing a lover’s desire to leave with concrete weights, it was 2012’s best pop song prominently involving a murder. This claustrophobic and troubling creation evolved into a full blown monster in its second act, a building and repetitive round of lyrics and melody, climaxing on the lyric, “I’d eat you whole”, easily the most bizarre lyric that you might have found yourself repeating this year. While the lyrical content was all Jeffrey Dahmer, the music channeled a series of strange harmonies and jagged arrangement shifts. It was the looping melody and haunting vocals that proved adhesive, something of the repetitive mania of loving someone too much, or a band or a song too much. “Please don’t go,” you might have thought. And the band didn’t, killing its audiences and hurling concrete blocks all the way down. Geoff Nelson

5 – 1

Artist: Plan B

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Plan B
“Ill Manors”

Taken from his soundtrack to his debut film appearance, “Ill Manors” is a furious attack on the media portrayal of working class, predominately black, youth in the UK, or “chavs” as they are dismissively called (think trailer trash in America). While Plan B venomously spits out the verses, it’s the breakdown and chorus that provides the emotional intensity to the song. The use of strings add to the sense of portentousness and violence that is captured on screen as real life images of police violence and youths rioting are intercut with fictional scenes from the film. This is tough, frantic British hip-hop/rap at its best. Plan B is developing in to Britain’s very own Eminem. Jez Collins

 

Artist: Fiona Apple

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Fiona Apple
“Every Single Night”

As the lead single and opening track on Fiona Apple’s fourth album The Idler Wheel…, “Every Single Night” functions as a raison d’être for the project. Lyrics like “every single night’s a fight with my brain” and “I just want to feel everything” set the tone for the album, and the instrumentation feels appropriately novel while still retaining her signature Jon Brion-esque carnivality. Vacillating between quiet and loud, the music echoes Apple’s mood, as she grapples with and ultimately embraces the dualities of her approach to songwriting and interacting with the world outside her brain. The song makes clear that, while she may only release an album once or twice each decade, the battles that she chronicles in her music happen nightly. Fortunately for us, every so often, she lets us see what’s going on in there. Matt Paproth

 

Artist: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean
“Pyramids”

For all the buzz around Channel Orange, most of the album’s pleasures are sneaky and quietly ambitious. “Pyramids” is the exception, for its length, content and split personality structure. He spends the half singing (dreaming) about Cleopatra cheating on him and being taken away, while cheetahs and thieves abound, and the second half waking up to sing, as a pimp, about the prostitute he’s in love with. Musically it’s as split: an almost dance track, with interruptions, and then a more downbeat slow jam. There’s fantasy in the story and music, yet in both halves it’s clear the man is building a mythology around a woman he doesn’t really know. You’d think by now artists would have exhausted prostitution as a metaphor, but here it’s, fresh. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Japandroids

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Japandroids
“The House That Heaven Built”

If we were building a case for the reemergence of authenticity, Japandroids could be the subject and “The House That Heaven Built” could be the thesis. Alternating between unmatched exuberance and a lyrical refrain to “tell them all to go to Hell”, the Vancouver duo crafted the biggest threat to melancholy this side of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. It’s not just a song with a great chorus that you absolutely should scream along to on your way to your miserable job; it’s also an admission of hope, an assurance that everything will work out, and moment of pure uninhibited ache committed to tape. Sorrow, you’ve just been put on notice. The rest of you need to put your fists in the air and start building your own heaven. Scott Elingburg

 

Artist: Grimes

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Grimes
“Oblivion”

Though it wasn’t the lead single from the Artist Also Known As Claire Boucher’s 4AD debut Visions (that was “Genesis”), “Oblivion” might as well have been, for this nouveau dream pop triumph is surely the album’s calling card, the definitive encapsulation of everything that makes the record (not to mention the musician behind it) so beguiling to listen to. Boucher’s helium-light voice darts along like a precocious youth over a squelching synth figure, and her gossamer background harmonies glide about and intertwine with one another as much as they rise and fall in sing-song fashion. Lyrically “Oblivion” is wracked by anxiety over the dangers of walking alone at night, and though the earworm melodies and tinkling textures put a carefree face on the circumstance, hearing Boucher sing “And now another clue / I would ask / If you could help me out / It’s hard to understand / ‘Cause when you’re really by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” breaks the heart, as it candidly communicates how vulnerable she truly feels. By the time the last bottom-heavy tones of the track finish winding down, it’s unclear if she ever found someone to dote over her health after all — or if she even made it home. AJ Ramirez

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