Contributors: Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Simon Vozick-Levinson
Contributors: Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Simon Vozick-Levinson
The last thing we expected from 2012 – a universal pop song that everybody loved. It has it all: disco guitar, Chic bass, Philly soul-synth strings and brilliant testifying to the power of overheated hormones.
The debut single from country Next Big Thing Musgraves is a bleak-but-clever take on small-town inertia and ennui. This merry-go-round is no carnival ride, but the tune is gorgeous.
“Happy life with the machines scattered around the room,” croons Chris James, wryly praising the “digital family” while the robot-rodent EDM kingpin Deadmau5 twists knobs. Mau5 found James on Twitter, making this likely the first charting single built from crowd-sourced lyrics and vocals. It probably won’t be the last.
The beloved North Carolina indie-rock veterans make a break for the bridge after raiding the fridge and bust out a shot of school’s-out, storm-the-beach teenage fun – a perfect mess of sand-in-your-Converse good times, good-looking shoulders and well-honed guitar heat that can rip through your SPF-50.
Payphone – really? Did Adam Levine’s iPhone battery drain? The title may have confused a few kids, but the song was a smash, and for good reason. A burst of pure spun-sugar pop goodness, with delicious hooks and a surprisingly sour message beneath the candied surface: “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick.”
Bieber’s best weapon has always been his vocal tone – a soulful rasp that hints at depths of longing beyond his years. That tone is deployed to wondrous effect in this throwback blue-eyed R&B single, whose vibe, and lilting melody, are pure prime-period Hall & Oates. Bieber’s manager called it “hater-proof.” He’s right.
Naughty boys! Irish-English teen-poppers push at the genre’s PG-13 rating with a club-bumper that dares to raise the specter of under age inebriation (“Hand you another drink/Drink it if you can”). The unshakably catchy chorus does its work, as do the blunt 4/4 beats – and the salacious double-entendre in the title.
The excellent Brooklyn indie duo titled its full-length debut Mixed Emotions, and that’s what the album’s signature song delivered, driven home by singer Eric Emm’s mournful yelp. The music takes Eighties dance pop through some witty turns, from the chant-like background vocals to a “steel drum” synth solo.
This club-centric side project with Joe Goddard of U.K. electro-pop wizards Hot Chip and buddy Raf Rundell is a celebration of full-body contact and cheesy disco lyrics. "We've brought you all a gift/For maximum dance-floor uplift," they chant over an irresistibly rubbery house groove. Thanks, bros.
Brown exults with delicious self-satisfaction in his transformation from least-likely-to-succeed to Detroit’s top rap hope since Eminem: “Scribbled in my notebook and never did homework/Low attention span/Guess these Adderall worked.” Spiced with old-school scratching, it’s the year’s sunniest hip-hop nostalgia trip.
The Hold Steady frontman spins a tale about a down-and-out metalhead stuck in a cheap motel after a nasty breakup: “Playing records in a rented room/Hotter Than Hell into Bark at the Moon.” But the darkest part of this very dark story is the way Finn makes his guitar toll like a funeral bell.
For his first album of originals in seven years, trad-country torchbearer Yoakam had the inspired idea to call on Beck to produce a couple of tracks. The result, in “A Heart Like Mine,” hits you like a linebacker – a ringing, clattering blend of Buck Owens-style California country and Sixties garage psychedelia.
Teen aren’t teens, actually – they’re four Brooklyn twentysomethings. But on “Better,” they’re adolescent in the best sense, with keyboards swirling over a muscular thump that gives the classicist girl group a low-fi makeover. And the chorus is pure youthful bravado: “I’ll do it better than anybody else.” Not much neo-girl pop does.
The U.K. prog-rockers went Kid A with this year’s The 2nd Law, but this was the LP’s pop-ready cherry – all sweet Bonoish crooning by Matt Bellamy, electronically distressed backing vocals and deep-space bass wobble. Then the guitar rips in and brings it back to Earth. Chris Martin called it their best song ever; we agree.
Heems of Das Racist drops the year's most likable doofy love song, reeling o absurd science regarding the fairer sex over Bollywood boom-bap: "Women like to watch You've Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks/Women you're great; on behalf of men, 'Thanks!'" Foolishness, like most dude talk about women. But wise foolishness.
The Euro-slut club jam of the summer never fails to get the drink-spillingest ladies out on the floor. Two Swedish synth-pop girls pout about their mean boyfriend: “You’re so damn hard to please/We gotta kill this switch/You’re from the Seventies/But I’m a Nineties bitch.” Advantage: Nineties bitches.
The breakout rapper of the year delivers a woozy meditation on boozing that nails a drunk’s inner conflict: The slow-motion and hyperspeed verses mirror the arc of a bender, and there’s a liquid seductiveness in the groove, flow and chorus. In other words, ironically or not, it’s a fine drinking song.
Now this is some single-payer sexual healing. The R&B stud croons a baby-making slow jam that sounds up-to-the-minute fresh yet steeped in soul tradition. Miguel might be new on the block, but he already comes on like a master, right down to the way he lets his tongue linger over that “ll-l-let you” hook.
A huge, double-edged anthem that sounds like jingoism until you listen closer, when it reveals itself as both critique and challenge. “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” Springsteen declares, invoking Katrina, preaching to both the choir and the unconverted.
Old-fashioned, piano-slapping rock & roll with a drunk-ass punk-rock spirit – like Jerry Lee Lewis if he'd had his first religious experience at a Replacements show. You can practically smell the Yuengling coming off this skunky, slippery ode to lowbrow kicks from Philly to the South Side of Chicago.
This rocker condenses everything that makes these Brooklyn guys great into five taut minutes. Lead singer Ed Droste’s tender tenor shines on what might be his most eloquently yearning melody yet, playing off the rest of the band’s restless electricity – then the whole thing explodes in a richly cathartic feedback freakout.
On her breakthrough single, electro-pop savant Claire Boucher drops sugar-dust vocals over a thwunking synth loop, sounding perfectly dreamy until you listen to the words: “I never walk alone after dark. . . . /Someone could break your neck/Coming up behind you and you’d never have a clue.” The catchiness only makes it creepier.
Rapped with a wink, the year’s best sex’n’drugs’n’luxury-goods bragfest makes magic in the details – the wicked metalsmith groove, the punch-line non sequiturs (“Got a condo out in space/Open up your legs, tell me how it taste”), the way his voice pops up a couple octaves on the word “dick.” A new master of style.
This song introduced America’s answer to Mumford & Sons, complete with roots-rock barn-stomp, chain-gang choir and lyrics about hanging around Chinatown, waiting for a girl. Colorado kid Wesley Schultz sings, “I don’t know where I belong. . . ./I know I can write a song” like a heart-on-sleeve high-plains drifter.
Seoul Brother Number One invents a dance craze and conquers America, the one place that had resisted Korean disco. “Gangnam Style” blew up on YouTube and became a Top 10 hit in South Korea, Mexico, Ireland, Belgium, Lebanon, Israel, Russia and the U.S., where sexy laaadaaays know a monster beat when they hear one.
Two Vancouver guys cut the year’s most fist-pumping indie-rock song, a scorcher that suggests Springsteen with a sore throat and his underpants on fire. Amid atomic-buzz-saw chords and a raggedly catchy hook, Brian King rails against a “lifeless life,” concluding, “If they try to slow you down, tell ’em all to go to hell.” Yeah!
"I'm dreaming of a white president," Newman sings like a mush-mouthed Bing Crosby. Judging from the YouTube comments, lots of folks didn't get the joke. It's classic Newman satire in the "Short People" mold, a very funny, deceptively breezy take on a painful truth about a segment of the American electorate.
For dubstep purists, this was their “Judaaaaas!” moment. For the rest of us, it’s speaker-blasting thud-funk, obvious and proud of it, rewiring Daft Punk the way Daft Punk rewired Chic. Skrillex throws down the populist gauntlet for EDM, the most comically named genre since IDM, going for all-out superstar-DJ flash.
Steely Dan‘s master of smooth-as-butter cynicism drops a perfectly manicured, casually sleek R&B groove and wry lyrics that bear a hint of ecological optimism: “They may fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said.” But as for the weather in Mr. Fagen’s head: It’s all Sandy, all the time.
The 78-year-old folk-poet OG gets a collect call from God himself, who reminds the “lazy bastard living in a suit” that soon it’ll be time to go home forever. Cohen‘s voice rumbles with ancient wisdom, as background honeys and a restful organ pave his way toward heaven – suitless, but burdenless, too.
The Baltimore duo’s gorgeous minimalism keeps getting more refined. Victoria Legrand cryptically ponders love over vaporous organ, until everything goes silent but for a drumstick hitting a cymbal. And it’s like a sound you’ve never properly heard before. The chorus blooms like a fireworks fountain, and the world feels new again.
Love is pain, and nobody understands that quite like this suburban teen-rap every-girl. Pryde went viral with this homemade mumblecore hit, in the voice of a bored kid from Florida. It’s full of wit (“It’s my party, couldn’t cry if I wanted to”) and mall-rat ambience, as she waits for her boyfriend’s drunk-dials at 3:30 a.m.
This single-handedly proved the reunion was worth the wait. Diamond Dave rides the Van Halen brothers’ flashiest riffs in decades, shooting o one-liners with the wisdom of a strip-club Zen master – from “You want to be a monk, you got to cook a lot of rice” to “Look beyond that kung-fu fighting/God is love, but get it in writing.”
Usher has always had a Madonna-esque ear for the sound of the moment. Jumping on a Diplo beat for this smash single was one of his savviest moves ever: The understated electro brings out a stunning sensitivity in Usher’s vocals. The lyrics are about a harsh breakup, but the delivery is so heavenly you barely noticed.
London’s Vaccines leaven Strokes-tight tunes with a self-deprecating sense of humor: “I had a photo where John Lennon may have stood/Or so I’m told,” Justin Young sings against itchy, breakneck guitar, adding to the rich canon of undeniable punk-rock songs about being an unbearable punk-rock poseur.
There wasn’t much rock in 2012 with the scope or ambition of Mumford & Sons’ soaring Bono-meets-banjos brand of oldtimey folk. The isolation and dread in this ballad of road-weary longing proves that music can be soul-wrenchingly heavy without plugging in a single amp or hitting a power chord.
Over chattering jungle drums and rolling jazz piano, a multitracked Apple scats, murmurs and hollers a double-entendre (“I’m a hot knife, he’s a pad of butter”) and goes searching for “the genesis of rhythm.” Girl sounds like some mythic blues Eve who just got her first bite of forbidden fruit and really likes the taste.
fun. followed their epic debut hit, “We Are Young,” with another skywriting anthem, this one even more tinged with lush melancholy. It’s young-adult angst that almost anyone turning 23 can relate to, with lines like “I try twice as hard and I’m half as liked.” The martial beat and sky-high vocal charge still made entropy feel awesome.
“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June/If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too,” sing two Swedish sisters, name-checking country-music partnerships – Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, June Carter and Johnny Cash – in stunning harmony. Sometimes we Americans need outsiders to remind us of our awesome heritage.
In one of his most vicious songs ever, Dylan conjures a demonic figure – military brass, politician, CEO, pick your poison – while guitars glint like a switchblade. "Our nation must be saved and freed," he announces, explaining the deal with "I pay in blood, but not my own." It's like a pilot pitch for a "Masters of War" miniseries.
Mr. White: frisky, loud and utterly unhinged. He unleashes his most aggressive riffsince “Seven Nation Army” and reaches up into his wiggiest falsetto to testify about being under his demon lady’s sexual spell. When he yelps, “Spike heels make a hole in a lifeboat,” he sounds delighted to be going down with the ship.
This bold melding of church hymn, plain-folks lament and hip-hop protest bloomed on tour as Springsteen turned on his arena-preacher vibe. The song is a somber assessment of America’s state of equality; live, Springsteen turned up the light and promise – proving that the right way to hear this song of the year was not on iTunes.
The conflicted Kanye takes a back seat: This is Yeezy and pals having wild fun, jabbering catchy nonsense about cars and women over old reggae samples and deep bass stabs. Stop thinking, start bouncing.
A 17-minute epic on the scale of “Like a Hurricane” that surveys a long-term relationship in the wake of grown kids. Time and drinking take their toll, love almost saves the day, and a road trip becomes a revelation without a resolution. “Every morning comes the sun,” Young sings. And the guitars play on.
The year’s deepest love song won us all with the subtle gender-flipping in the opening verse, but the rest of the lyrics are even better. “Since you think I don’t love you, I just thought you were cute, that’s why I kissed you,” Ocean sings. The leap into aching falsetto a moment later is as universal as melody gets.
This synth-pop nugget is one of the greatest songs of the Great Recession: “My partner called to say the pension funds were gone,” sings Michael Angelakos with barely suppressed panic. Then the bright, upwardly mobile chorus kicks in, and you are reminded why pop songs exist: to help mute the pain.
It’s like a Clash of the Titans: Swift, the world’s hottest pop singer or songwriter, meets up with Max Martin, the Swedish maestro who’s been the Dr. Evil of global trash-disco for more than a decade. To nobody’s surprise, they cook up a perfect three-minute teen tantrum about country girls getting mad at high-strung indie boys, topping the charts faster than you can say, “This is exhausting.” It’s a stadium-chant breakup song that may have less to do with the actual guy it’s about than with the massive raging-cowgirl audience Swift has led to the pinnacle of the music world.
In a year when most divas couldn’t get beyond post-Gaga spectacle, along came Brittany Howard, a twentysomething from Athens, Alabama, who reincarnated the ghost of Sixties rock and soul without resorting to oversinging histrionics or bald imitation. “Bless my heart, bless my soul/Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old,” she sings in a husky moaning-in-the-moonlight drawl, riding a groove steeped in the stew of Muscle Shoals and Stax-Volt. Heath Fogg’s guitar line rolls forward, deceptively lazy, all dusty funk and twang, and Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson lock down the rhythm like Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. And then, in their own old-school version of a bass drop, the band ramps up on the chorus and Howard yells, “You gotta . . . wait!” just as they all stop the beat and soar for a breathless moment, like skateboarders hanging in midair, before crashing back to the rhythm. If there are ghosts in this music, they’re personal ones, but Howard wrestles ’em down, making this a battle cry against failure – for herself and anyone else struggling against steep odds. In 2012, that was a lot of us.