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50 Best Songs of 2012

Taylor made weapons-grade teen pop; Kanye put his brain on cruise-control, dubstep kingpins and stadium rockers invited us all to their parties

50 best songs 2012

Taylor Swift made weapons-grade teen pop; Kanye West put his brain on cruise-control, dubstep kingpins and stadium rockers invited us all to their parties

 

Contributors: Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Simon Vozick-Levinson

rolling stones

Rankin

18

The Rolling Stones, ‘Doom and Gloom’

The Stones return after seven years with the kind of apocalypse-blues kick-in-the-teeth only they can deliver. It’s “Start Me Up” stripped raw for a near-future full of zombies, war and environmental chaos. Mick Jagger stretches out the word “screw” like he’s slowly tightening one into the world.

kitty pryde

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

17

Kitty Pryde, ‘Okay Cupid’

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.

van halen

Robert Yeager

16

Van Halen, ‘Stay Frosty’

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

Francesco Carrozzini

15

Usher, ‘Climax’

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.

the vaccines

Nicky J. Sims/Redferns

14

The Vaccines, ‘Teenage Icon’

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.

mumford and sons marcus mumford

Courtesy of Big Hassle

13

Mumford & Sons, ‘I Will Wait’

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.

fiona apple

Courtesy of Epic Publicity

12

Fiona Apple, ‘Hot Knife’

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

Rahav Segev/Getty Images

11

fun., ‘Some Nights’

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.

first aid kit

Courtesy of Cobracamanda Publicity

10

First Aid Kit, ‘Emmylou’

“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.

bob dylan

Courtesy of Sony Music

9

Bob Dylan, ‘Pay in Blood’

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.

jack white

Jo McCaughey

8

Jack White, ‘Sixteen Saltines’

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.

bruce springsteen

Courtesy of Sony Music

7

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Rocky Ground’

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.

kanye west

W. VanDerper

6

Kanye West feat. Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz, ‘Mercy’

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.

neil young

Danny Clinch

5

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ramada Inn’

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.

frank ocean

C Flanigan/FilmMagic

4

Frank Ocean, ‘Thinkin Bout You’

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.

passion pit

Courtesy of Sony Music

3

Passion Pit, ‘Take a Walk’

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.

taylor swift

Sandra Mu/Getty Images

2

Taylor Swift, ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’

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.

alabama shakes

Pieter M. van Hattem / Contour by Getty Images

1

Alabama Shakes, ‘Hold On’

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.

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