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.

20. The Walkmen – “We Can’t Be Beat”
Just when we stopped expecting much out of Walkmen albums, Heaven quietly made its way on our Best Albums of the Year list, proving that though they getting up there in years, the Brooklyn rockers still can bring it where it counts. “We Can’t Be Beat” serves as a proclamation of the band’s endurance. The song begins only with sparse acoustic guitar and Hamilton Leithauser’s crooning vocals singing of apathetic world-weariness and the shortcomings that come with age. As he’s singing, though, the band’s instrumentation builds subtly before eventually breaking into a soft but confident gallop, with Leithauser, despite everything, coming to the victorious conclusion that no, in fact, we can’t be beat and the world is still ours.—Ryan Bort

19. Cat Power – “Nothin’ But Time”
“Nothin’ But Time” is Chan Marshall’s promise to a younger generation that it’ll get better. Things seem rough, but it’s up to you to get yourself out of your rut, cause no one else is going to do it for you. It’s not a new point to make, but it’s the way that Marshall does it that makes it spectacular. Halfway through the epic 11-minute “Nothin’ But Time,” Iggy Pop arrives to second Marshall’s proclamation of looking to the future. Throughout Sun and especially through “Nothin’ But Time,” Marshall proves that it’s never too late to start over and try something new.—Ross Bonaime

18. Sharon Van Etten – “Give Out”
Sharon Van Etten’s heartbreaking accounts of troubled love are at their most
powerful when laid bare in a painful frankness that can only stem from true hurt.
As steady, building guitars circle around her layered vocals, Van Etten drifts from a new encounter back to her own self-reflection, reducing with plain openness the yet-to-begin relationship to “the reason why I’ll move to the city, or why I’ll need to leave.” With pristine yet subtle production from the National’s Aaron Dessner, Van Etten marks her national emergence as one of the most painfully raw and arresting voices in indie music.—Zachary Philyaw

17. Twin Shadow – “Five Seconds”
Regardless of New Wave’s fashionability in 2012, Twin Shadow serves up “Five Seconds” with hardly a wink, resulting in a swaggering time portal to 1984, or 2004. Beyond its catchy melody and racing tempo, singer George Lewis Jr. cements “Five Seconds” as a gem with his desperate, composure-breaking lament: “there’s no way to forget it all.” For a moment, the Twin Shadow-persona that Lewis wears as armor shows cracks, teasing that the best could be to come.—Philip Cosores

16. The Men – “Open Your Heart”
Who said catchy tunes had to be pretty? The Men showcase their toned-down take on songwriting at its most extreme in the three-chord groove of the title track on 2012’s “Open Your Heart.” You can look at the track as an unforgiving banger if you focus on the uncontrollable guitars and rhythm section, but the song’s core lies in its hooks, reminding the band to open its own heart to any and all musical possibilities.—Tyler Kane

15. 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. Cute without being precious, joyful but substantial, this is indie pop at its finest.—Josh Jackson

14. Leonard Cohen – “The 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. On “The Darkness,” he sings “I used to love the rainbow / and I used to love the view / Another early morning / I pretend that it was new / But I caught the darkness baby / And I got it worse that you” before the final verse reveals a love gone sour. Like everything Cohen does these days, he does it with weight.—Josh Jackson

13. The Shins – “Simple Song”
With underdog hits like “New Slang” and “Phantom Limb,” it would appear that James Mercer is quietly trying to produce the perfect indie-pop tune. And he got pretty damn close with Port of Morrow’s “Simple Song,” a track that Mercer admits is his own tribute to his wife. The song’s near-perfection doesn’t end with its hooks or great structure; each piece of Mercer’s latest Shins lineup delivers a convincing performance from start to finish.—Tyler Kane

12. Dr. Dog – “Lonesome”
On the opening track off Dr. Dog’s Be The Void, Toby Leaman’s raw vocals mingle with Scott McMicken and Frank McElro’s alternating slide-guitar riffs and hollow-bodied blues bends, culminating in a multi-voiced jaunt that sounds anything but lonesome.—Hilary Saunders

11. Grizzy Bear – “Yet Again”
Though Shields lacks a clear-cut “single” in the vein of “Two Weeks” or “Knife,” “Yet Again,” finds Grizzly Bear deviating from the familiar to showcase something unexpected. Ed Droste’s confident and fragile vocals lead into unassumingly lush harmonies, all held in place by Daniel Rossen’s distant guitar strums, and for four minutes, Grizzly Bear are in their wheelhouse, only to ambush the audience with a noise-rock coda. Grizzly Bear soars in this light, echoing predecessors Wilco and Radiohead, whose similarly noisy turns proved hit songs and success are not synonymous.—Philip Cosores