My 25 favorite songs of 2012, including but not limited to: hits, obscurities, roller-disco jams, air-guitar disasters, rap anthems and dubious karaoke picks. And Van Halen, obviously. (Listen to most of these songs on RDIO below.)
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
This is what pop is for, right? A Canadian Idol refugee nobody ever heard of conquers the planet with a diabolically brilliant blast of teen lust. A song that invades your soul. A song you hear everywhere you go. A song that forces you to keep making up new verses just to keep that melody flowing (like Mark E. Smith from The Fall, like Caesar conquering Gaul, “Another Brick In The Wall,” and now you’re in my way) even though you’re only a few minutes away from hearing it again (like Heidi Klum needed Seal, this Captain needs a Tennille, DeBarge sang “Time To Reveal,” and now you’re in my way) because it always ends too soon. This song once made me loiter two hours at an Arby’s in Queens, nursing my curly fries, waiting for it to come on the radio. I could have just plugged in my iPod, but I wanted to hear it blast out loud and light up the room. Where do you think you’re going, baby?
2. Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
Taylor always reminds me of my bitch Morrissey, and this break-up anthem is her “Suedehead.” She wears Morrissey glasses in the excellent video, and you can totally imagine him as the boy in her songs. (“And he’s like, mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head, and I’m like, I mean, this is exhausting, you know?”) Her video gets crazier the more you watch it. (You can tell this dude is indie because when he calls from a bar, he uses a payphone. Bars always have those, right next to the neon sign that says “BAR.”) Consider how easy it would have been to give this ex a cheating problem, or make him the tantrum-throwing screamer instead of her. But Taylor wanted to do a break-up song where she’s as high-strung and clueless as he is, because it’s funnier that way, and she doesn’t mind playing the fool because that’s part of feelin’ 22. She even lets the guy have friends – which puts her on a much higher level of emotional sophistication than Morrissey. Or me, obviously.
3. Japandroids, “Continuous Thunder”
The Vancouver punk duo go for a big-hearted goopy power ballad, complete with a guitar hook swiped from .38 Special. (“If I’d Been The One,” to be precise.) Then halfway through, they crank the already-lofty cheese level through the roof with a clumsily heartfelt pro-girl sentiment. (Long overdue, as the late great Adam Yauch would say, after the buzzkill lyrics on Japandroids’ previous album.) “Continuous Thunder” was the only song of 2012 to make me cry on a New York City bus, which is just about the ugliest thing a song can do to you, but I can forgive because I’m trying to be as mature as Taylor Swift here. Proof that punk bands who take .38 Special too seriously are 100 percent better than punk bands who take Tom Petty too seriously.
4. Future, “Astronaut Chick”
Atlanta hip-hop has a long tradition of ATLien space-invader futurism, but this is ridiculous. Future gets so spaced out, his girl’s eyes turn into strobes, until all he can do is stare and slobber all over the chorus: “You’re my astronaut chick and that’s the only thing that matters to me.” He’s done what even David Bowie couldn’t do – he puts his “Space Oddity” and his “TVC15” in the same song. Happy landings, rocket man.
5. Kanye West featuring 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Pusha T, “Mercy”
“Drunk and high at the same time”? Yeah, that’s reeeal hard, 2 Chainz. You must’ve had a team of neurobiologists working on that one. But it’s merely the funniest dumbass boast in a song full of them, over those melted-like-Dali steel drums.
6. Icona Pop, “I Love It”
Two Eurotrash disco girls chant, “You’re so damn hard to please/We gotta kill this switch/You’re from the Seventies/But I’m a Nineties bitch.” On the Icona Pop angst spectrum, I am currently 38 percent “from the Seventies” and 62 percent “Nineties bitch.”
7. Craig Finn, “Meserole”
The Hold Steady frontman sings a scruffy acoustic B-side from his ace solo album. He hangs around Brooklyn street corners, jotting down memories before they slip away, chatting up dangerous girls. An old-school cobbler shop (“zippers fixed and boots are sold”) makes him wonder how much of his rock & roll heart is fixable and how much is broken beyond repair. Some things you lose, some things you give away.
8. The So So Glos, “Son of an American”
Punk rock kids from Bay Ridge, stuck in bored-teenager torpor, break free with a blast of joyful guitar rage, going out to Shea Stadium to scream in the bleachers and root for the losing team.
9. Miguel, “Adorn”
Slow-jam shakedown of the year. Roses are red and violets are blue, Miguel’s gonna rock this world for you.
10. Van Halen, “Stay Frosty”
David Lee Roth, Mr. Non-Stop Talker What A Rocker himself, reunites with the brothers Van Halen to light up the sky for four minutes, using up every gimmick in their ice cream truck. No clue why they worked so hard on this tune – it sure wasn’t the money. (You don’t need great new songs to sell a reunion tour; it’s kinda the opposite.) But everybody in the band explodes like they waited years for this song, and they’re not the only ones. Sing us home, Diamond Dave: “Look beyond the kung fu fighting/God is love, but get it in writing.”
11. Psy, “Gangnam Style”
The most absurdly catchy Top Ten hit to namecheck Korea since “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” The first K-Pop song to seduce the sexy ladies of the USA, but it won’t be the last. Any next-phase new-wave dance craze that gives us a chance to see Noam Chomsky utter the words “oppan Chomsky style” is one for the ages.
12. Tanlines, “All Of Me”
Synth-pop romance, all digital finger-snaps and twitches and handclaps, while the sad robot-boy singers make eyes at the robot girl.
13. Bob Dylan, “Narrow Way”
You knew he was trouble when he walked in.
14. Killer Mike, “Reagan”
Everything you want in a protest song, including the right ratio of flamboyant hyperbolic bluster to informative historic detail. (Those two Reagan soundbites are perfect.) Everybody on the radio used to sing about hating Reagan, from “1999” to “99 Luftballons,” except back then everybody was too scared to name names. It almost felt like saying his name just enhanced his power. Take Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” – a blatant protest song about the nuclear arms buildup, released during the 1980 election. But now it just seems like a cute song for kids to sing in minivan ads. So the way Killer Mike gets a murderous thrill out of spitting that name, tapping into years of dormant rage, has a huge taboo-busting payoff. I hope this song gets as famous as “Crazy Train.”
15. Cloud Nothings, “Stay Useless”
Ten years ago, there were two kinds of guitar bands: the ones who wanted to keep rewriting Joy Division’s “Disorder,” and the ones who wanted to copy the Strokes. But this sounds like the Strokes trying to rewrite Joy Division’s “Disorder,” which automatically makes it the best 2002 song of 2012.
16. Lil B, “Worldwide”
The Based God seemed to drop dozens of mixtapes in 2012 – this gem comes from the one he called The Basedprint 2. (No, he didn’t bother with a Basedprint 1.) He sends criminal-minded rhymes over a piano loop of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O sobbing the words “run, run, run away.” A perfect mix of bravado and terror.
17. Leonard Cohen, “Anyhow”
It’s strange how much Leonard Cohen and David Lee Roth have in common – a couple of wizened Jewish sages who come down from the mountaintop every few years with a new bundle of Zen proverbs, even though they’re all about prowling for ladies and pondering the line that runs up the back of the stockings. Even pushing 80, Cohen can bring it: “I dreamed about you, baby, you were wearin’ half your dress/I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?” Stay frosty, L.C.
18. Nicki Minaj featuring Cassie, “The Boys”
As Leonard Cohen’s fellow Canadian Jewish theologian Drake would put it, sometimes “the gods get to acting like the broads,” which must be how miracles like this song happen. Nicki’s candy-colored hissyfit + Cassie’s Bow Wow Wow haircut = girls just wanna have fun.
19 & 20. Saint Etienne “Haunted Jukebox” and Superchunk “This Summer”
It’s strange how much Saint Etienne and Superchunk have in common. These jokers made two of the best summer records of 1994 (Tiger Bay and Foolish, respectively), surprisingly soulful adult statements from bands who’d never promised more than a weekend of kicks. They also made two of 2012’s best summer songs, raving about how music follows you around and messes with your brain and stirs up your memories, while you’re trying to forget that song, forget that girl and move on with your life. For Saint Etienne, it’s a night of dancing to your ex’s disco singles; for Superchunk, it’s a Southern road trip blasting “my parade of hits and a tape full of hiss.” But “Haunted Jukebox” would have been the best song on Tiger Bay, just as “This Summer” would have been the best song on Foolish. Music, you are so weird.
21. Kitty Pryde, “Okay Cupid”
The smartest songwriter to rhyme “hooligan” and “fool again” since Peter Criss. And I love the way she shrugs off punch lines like “It’s my party, couldn’t cry if I wanted to.”
22. Usher featuring Rick Ross, “Lemme See”
The toughest part of being an Usher groupie has to be keeping a straight face every time he asks, “What you gon’ do to me?” Dude, she took off her skirt back in the first verse.
23. Grimes, “Oblivion”
This is EDM, as in Early Depeche Mode, except even weirder because the singer is a doo-wop art girl who hates feeling miserable but realizes getting better might take a while. She also might be planning to axe-murder her next boyfriend, but they can work that out.
24. Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball”
The first time I heard him sing this, on his 2009 tour, he had Clarence Clemons right there next to him. By the time he released it this spring, it was a different song, just because his friend was gone. Songs change that way, and that ends up being what this song is about, the way Springsteen sings it now – a ghost story. Every love story is a ghost story, if it lasts long enough.
25. One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”
Oh girl – people see no worth in you, but Harry Styles does. And when he compliments you on the way you flip your hair, it’s praise from a true master. Somewhere, Davy Jones is smiling.