The 50 Best Songs of 2012

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With the rise of Soundcloud and Bandcamp, the single has begun to make daily music headlines. Whether it’s a giant like Leonard Cohen leaking out a track through YouTube or a newcomer like Allah-Las sending out their first songs through a stream, we’ve got our ears out for quality new tunes. After tallying ballots of Paste staff and writers, which included nearly 300 different selections, we present our top 50 songs of the year. Comment in the box below with your own favorites.

30. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”
2010’s /\/\ /\ Y /\ was a disappointment, but “Bad Girls” is a return to form for M.I.A. Powered by Middle Eastern- and Indian-influenced hooks and the rapper’s sneers of “live fast, die young, bad girls do it well,” it’s a total earworm—easily her catchiest single since “Paper Planes.” Our girl Maya proves once again she’s among the most badass in all the land, spitting out empowered, assertive lyrics like “shift gear automatic damned if I do, who is gonna stop me when I’m comin’ through? What we got left is just me and you, but if I go to bed baby, can I take you?” and making us count down the days until her next full-length.—Bonnie Stiernberg

29. Stars – “The Theory of Relativity”
The dreamy synth vibe of this lead track from The North evokes the feel of vintage dance-pop behind the soft vocals and highly expressive lyrics we’ve come to expect from Stars. On “Theory of Relativity,” Torquil Campbell’s nostalgic verses are given weight by Amy Milan’s vulnerable choruses until the end as they together sing, “Don’t be scared, there will be things we never dared.”—Dacey Orr

28. Woods – “Size Meets the Sound”
With Bend Beyond, psych-folk veterans Woods condensed their expansive, reverb- and feedback-laden garage rock into their most concise, polished collection of songs to date. The album features several standout tracks, but “Size Meets the Sound” is perhaps the best example of the band’s more streamlined approach. While still touching on all of Woods’ strengths—even their predilection for distorted jams—the song is economically built and moves with a propulsive energy that leaves no room for even the slightest digression. The band bursting back into the song’s main riff after a freewheeling breakdown is the most powerful moment on the whole album.—Ryan Bort

27. Rufus Wainwright – “Rashida”
Mark Ronson lent his Midas touch to Rufus Wainwright’s Out of the Game, helping the singer produce his most radio-friendly work in years. In return, Wainwright serves up this kiss-off to Ronson’s former fiance Rashida Jones, bemoaning the fact that he’s already bought an outfit for a Vanity Fair party she’s uninvited him to but thanking him for an excuse to write a song and “call Ms. Portman”—most likely Jones’ close friend Natalie Portman. But even when you remove all the tabloid fodder, you’re left with one hell of a track, a driving doo-wop number featuring excellent Wainwright vocals that toe the line between melancholy and venomous and perfect “whoa-oaa”s from female back-up singers before reaching a crescendo with a Charysse Blackman vocal solo.—Bonnie Stiernberg

26. Justin Townes Earle – “Look the Other Way”
Every Justin Townes Earle album since his 2007 debut has been a steady progression, culminating in this year’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. “Look the Other Way” is a desperate plea for redemption to someone who may not even care. Earle’s bluesy rock pairs perfectly with his proclamations that he’s learning to change for the better.—Taylor Evans

25. Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”
It just so happens that the opening track of Fiona Apple’s incredible The Idler Wheel… is also one of its strongest. The lulling bell backing sets a clear stage for Apple to be as triumphant and defiant as ever, using the spotlight to show a day in the life of Fiona in lines like “Every single night I endure the flight/Of little wings of white-flamed butterflies in my brain.” It’s unashamedly honest, but we’d expect nothing less from Apple.—Tyler Kane

24. Sleigh Bells – “Comeback Kid”
Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller have their musical guns drawn on “Comeback Kid.” After avoiding a sophomore slump, the duo has crafted a pop gem that dares the listener not to like Krauss’ peppy vocals and the accompanying synthesizer.—Taylor Evans

23. Dum Dum Girls – “Lord Knows”
“Lord Knows” is one of the many standouts on Dum Dum Girls’ no-filler EP End of Daze. It’s a departure from the morose, dreamy garage pop that hooked many on Only in Dreams. Instead of leaning on thin, fuzzed-out guitars, “Lord Knows” is a slower, reflective number that sees bandleader Dee Dee Penny reflecting on living a pure life and leaving all rock ‘n’ roll trappings behind.—Tyler Kane

22. Divine Fits – “Would That Not Be Nice”
“Would That Not Be Nice” hooks the listener with pulsing rhythms leading into coarse vocals that balance the powerful instrumentals with a passionate lo-fi vibe. The song exemplifies the effortless energy found in the band’s live show as well as throughout the rest of A Thing Called Divine Fits.—Dacey Orr

21. Tame Impala – “Elephant”
While “Elephant” tells the tale of an unrightfully large ego, Tame Impala has every right to boast about the sonic journey it puts its listener through in one of the most exciting rhythmic adventures of the year. “Elephant” moves all over the place, creating a sound as equally badass as the song’s antihero. “Elephant” has the feel of late ‘60s Beatles with the modern twists and thumping power of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, playing out like a roller coaster in pitch black. You’re unsure of where it’s going next, but damn, it’s hard not to look forward to the next twist or turn.—Ross Bonaime

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