“What are you listening to right now?” If you work around music, you get this question a lot. The following list is my way of answering. Every year about this time, I like to take a quick look back at the best songs released so far. Music comes at us so fast and furious that it can be hard to keep up, but these are the songs I keep returning to.
But this is far from an exact science. These are songs that came out from Jan. 1 to March 31 in some fashion, regardless of whether the album is out yet or the song appeared on a previous EP or was already out in the U.K. (or Iceland). And this just represents my opinion with suggestions from other staffers here at Paste. Our year-end list is bound to look a lot different. Here are my picks for the best songs of 2012 so far…
25. Bahamas – “I Got You Babe”
Afie Jurvanen’s resume includes piano and guitar work with Feist, Great Lake Swimmers, PasoMino, The Stills and several others, but he shines out on his own here.
24. Reptar – “Sebastian”
The Athens band released one of my favorite EPs last year and will be following it up with a full-length shortly. The already-released single “Sebastian” is the best song on that album, sounding a little like Vampire Weekend’s much weirder cousin.
23. Fun. – “We Are Young” (featuring Janelle Monáe)
Indie-pop band Fun. rose from the ashes of The Format and immediately began aiming for the pop stars. They achieved escape velocity with this gigantic anthem. It was covered by the cast of Glee and included in a Chevy Super Bowl commercial all before the record was released. We include it here just because it’s catchy as hell.
22. Chiddy Bang – “Handclaps & Guitars”
Few rappers sound like they’re having as much fun as Chiddy Bang. This silly, little ditty would be our guilty pleasure if we felt the least bit guilty about it.
21. Ben Kweller – “Jealous Girl”
Is it possible Kweller is just now hitting his stride? On his latest single, he shows off pop chops worthy of Elvis Costello and Ron Sexsmith.
20. The Men – “Open Your Heart”
The Men draw equally from garage-y Stooges, indie Sonic Youth and guitar-god Van Halen for a six-string feast.
19. Miike Snow – “Paddling Out”
It’s been awhile since we’ve populated our Turntable.fm room and instituted DANCE LAW™, but this track from Sweden’s Miike Snow will be the first song I play next time we do.
18. Hospitality – “Friends of Friends”
Amber Papini’s vocals follow her guitar line while Brian Betancourt’s bass provides the counter on this joyful tune, but it’s the horns that take it over the top.
17. Dr. Dog – “That Old Black Hole”
With a perfect little guitar riff, Pennsylvania’s Dr. Dog delivers on the promise of capturing “the fast tempos and dirtier nature” of their live shows on the band’s seventh album Be the Void.
16. Odd Future – “Oldie”
I’ve made it clear that I’m not a fan of much of Tyler the Creator’s lyrics or antics, but—admitting credit where it’s due—the epic closer from Odd Future’s latest offers a nice counter to the alienating verses he drops elsewhere: “This is for the niggers in the suburbs / And the white kids with nigger friends that say the N-word / And the ones who got called weird fag bitch nerd / ’Cause you was into jazz, kitty cats and Steven Spielberg.”
15. Punch Brothers – “This Girl”
Chris Thile has assembled one of the finest groups of musicians to play folk instruments since Bill Monroe hired Earl Scruggs. But it’s much more than string-plucking wizardry at work here with competency, creativity and entertainment all turned up to 11.
14. Sharon Van Etten – “We Are Fine”
The quiver in Zach Condon’s voice provides a nice counter-balance to Van Etten’s fluid vocals on this beautiful ballad, a worthy follow-up to “One Day.”
13. Frankie Rose – “Interstellar”
There’s a spacy vibe to the aptly named “Intersteller,” the title track off latest from the former member of Dum Dum Girls, Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls.
12. Michael Kiwanuka – “Home Again”
The album isn’t out yet in America, but this soulful, folkie Brit has already won the BBC’s Sound of 2012. The laid-back vibe makes for a great entry on an early-morning playlist right between Otis Redding and Ray LaMontagne.
11. Justin Townes Earle – “Memphis in the Rain”
Justin Townes Earle grew up in Nashville and live in the East Village, but it’s the sounds of Memphis, Muscle Shoals and even a little New Orleans that shine through on his latest album.
10. First Aid Kit – “Emmylou”
Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg offer this pretty little love-note to their American folk forebears: “I’ll be your Emmylou, and I’ll be your June / If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too.”
9. Howler – “Back of Your Neck”
It’s tough to pick a track from among the many near-perfect garage-pop gems off Howler’s debut America Give Up, but “Back of Your Neck”—with its ’50s vibe guitar and background vocals will certainly do.
8. Alabama Shakes – “Hold On”
Brittney Howard’s voice is so big and backed with so much emotion that it’s easy to overlook the chops of the rest of the Shakes. Together, they sit at the heart of American music—melding rock, blues, soul and even a little bit of country.
7. Jack White – “Love Interruption”
We’ve learned by now that we don’t care whether Jack White records solo or with any one of his bands; we’re in. This first single from his upcoming album Blunderbuss was released back in January, featuring woodwinds (oboe and clarinet?) and soulful vocals from Ruby Amanfu of Nashville’s Sam & Ruby.
6. Vintage Trouble – “Nancy Lee”
Not many bands are looking back to Chuck Berry for inspiration anymore, but Vintage Trouble goes back to rock’s roots, led by one of the most charismatic frontmen I’ve come across in a long time in Ty Taylor.
5. Of Monsters and Men – “Little Talks”
Anyone anticipating the next Mumford & Sons album would do well to pick up Monsters & Men’s debut in the meantime as it’s full of the same big choruses and joyful folk-rock instrumentation.
4. The Shins – “Simple Song”
Even with a completely new lineup, James Mercer gives us another hook-laden, sing-a-long melody like the ones that made us fall in love with the band in the first place.
3. Leonard Cohen – “Darkness”
I can’t have been the only one dreaming about a Leonard Cohen album with stripped-down production, and Old Ideas is that dream come true. Dirty guitar, subtle organ, pretty bgv’s, some drums and that deep, wise voice are all you need.
2. Sigur Rós – Ekki múkk
The new album doesn’t come out until May 28, but the first single was released to Soundcloud in March, and it’s a return to the expansive winter sounds of the Icelandic quartet’s parenthetical () album.
1. John K. Samson – “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”
At least once a week for the past couple months, I’ve found a different John K. Samson song stuck in my head, but it’s a happy morning when that song is “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”—a track about freedom from the rigors of academia. The frontman of The Weakerthans has created what may be my favorite album so far this year.
Josh Jackson is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste. Follow him on Twitter @joshjackson.