The 50 Best Songs of 2012

Music Lists Best Songs

Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.

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, and check under the No.1 entry for a full Rdio playlist of the top tracks.

50. 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.—Josh Jackson

49. Kanye West – “Clique”
Spearheaded by Hit-Man, the producer behind last year’s smash “Niggas in Paris,” Kanye West reunited with Jay-Z once again for “Clique,” the headline track off of Cruel Summer. “Clique” is immediately recognizable for its production, highlighted by a dark and brooding beat layered underneath verses from Jay-Z, West and G.O.O.D music newcomer Big Sean. With such a foundation, all three rappers utilize this dark tone to flex their respective muscles, to great results. Never one to shy away from his ego, West unleashes on a particularly arrogant list of topics including his relationship with Kim Kardashian, but he backs the arrogance up with a great song (and chart dominance). Hip-hop newcomers like Kendrick Lamar are making plenty of noise, but West and Jay-Z have proven time and again that they still set the standard.—Brian Tremml

48. Lower Dens – “Brains”
There’s something to be said for consistency, and the rhythmic palpitations of “Brains” are so perfect that Lower Dens have me drooling over the surgical precision of that cymbal tap. “Brains” takes the keys and drives you down a looping highway—guided by a simple, no-frills snare beat—with clashing keys and dueling chants for company. Hitting “play” on the breakout track from Nootropics sets the course for the best possible five-minute mental vacation—and it’s a playlist must for those back-to-reality treks, as well.—Hilary Hughes

47. Lotus Plaza – “Monoliths”
On Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest, Lockett Pundt wrote the brilliant “Desire Lines,” which dealt with growing older and how we lose focus of our goals with each passing year. On his second album as Lotus Plaza, Pundt’s “Monoliths” works almost as a more optimistic sequel to this idea. He’s living in the moment with no faith for what’s beyond, yet in the song’s second half, he joyously offers a glimmer of hope declaring, “one of these days, I hope I come around.” “Monoliths” is more compact than “Desire Lines,” but just as effective, an ode to those who believe they will one day find something to believe in.—Ross Bonaime

46. Perfume Genius – “Hood”
Perfume Genius’ sophomore album Put Your Back N 2 It saw songwriter Mike Hadreas overcoming alcohol and personal demons to construct a deeply personal and emotional 12-track collection. One particular standout, the two-minute “Hood,” was a haunting, melodic reminder of the power of story. Hadreas doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks; he delivers the lyrics overtop a simple piano, building to a powerful instrumentation that demands attention.—Shaina Pearlman

45. 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.——Josh Jackson

44. Mac Demarco – “Dreaming”
Easy instrumentals are the perfect preface for Demarco’s relaxing vocals, which amble along at an appropriately airy pace while maintaining the weary, well-traveled vibe of 2.—Dacey Orr

43. DIIV – “Doused”
Sometimes, you just need to dance alone: chin down, hair in your face, arms at your sides, feet anchored, while the rest of your body responds to the ebbs and flows of the set unraveling before you. DIIV’s “Doused” is perfectly suited for this kind of vibe, so make your own basement show by turning it up somewhere dark and letting every riff run you.—Hilary Hughes

42. Passion Pit – “Take a Walk”
While Passion Pit’s debut album paired heartbreaking lyrics with the most sunny, carefree dance-pop imaginable, frontman/songwriter Michael Angelakos lets the music carry some of the weight on the best song from the band’s solid follow-up Gossamer. It’s an ambitious turn, an epic song tackling immigration and financial troubles—a definite maturation from the band that gave us “Sleepyhead.”—Josh Jackson

41. Allah-Las – “Tell Me (What’s on Your Mind)”
If you were asked to present an album that typifies the Southern California lifestyle, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than the Allah-Las’ self-titled debut, which was recorded entirely on analog with Nick Waterhouse behind the boards. The Allah-Las’ laid-back, psychedelic surf pop harkens back to artists like The Byrds, Love and early Rolling Stones—their debut is the perfect soundtrack for a sunny weekend trip to the beach with surfboard in tow. Though solid from top to bottom, the album’s standout track is “Tell Me (What’s on Your Mind),” a gliding, energetic plea for a lover to clarify her intentions.—Ryan Bort

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.

40. The Magnetic Fields – “Andrew in Drag”
The glory of “Andrew in Drag” can be plucked from any of the song’s lines, but especially these: “I’d sign away my trust fund, I would even sell my jag/If I could spend my misspent youth with Andrew in drag.” The only thing better about the Magnetic Fields’ feel-good ditty is how damn campy it is, and the fact that it talks about cross-dressing without coming close to making jabs at a guy wearing a dress.—Hilary Hughes

39. Alt-J – “Tessellate”
Though Alt-J has four members, the band is driven by the power of threes. “Alt-J” is, in fact, the keyboard shortcut for delta symbol (Go ahead, try it). Of all the tracks on the band’s Mercury Prize-winning debut, An Awesome Wave, “Tessellate” is the most representative of their allegiance to the energy of the triangle. Introduced by a series of weighty keyboard chords, the song proceeds with frontman Joe Newman’s nasally vocals singing “Triangles are my favorite shape / Three points where two lines meet” before ultimately suggesting, “Let’s tessellate.”—Ryan Bort

38. Chromatics – “Kill for Love”
In the post-Drive era, we’ve heard plenty of slow and dreamy electro-pop. But few do it as well as New Jersey foursome Chromatics, and the title track from their April release, Kill for Love, demonstrates why. Opening with a shimmering pitter-patter of synth, the first quarter-minute is the auditory equivalent of seeing stars. Soon, singer Ruth Radelet enters with an alto that’s both rich and airy, invoking pills, booze, hazy memories and counting herself to sleep. Around her, restrained bass and drum synths ball-change in a one-two rhythm until, finally, an effects-laden guitar whisks us away. It’s about as close to slow-and-dreamy pop perfection as you’re likely to get — this year.—Rachel Bailey

37. Tanlines – “All of Me”
Resembling an uncountable number of Brooklyn trends, these miniaturists’ most consistent trait was their impossible knack for stacking hook over hook, atop a Pointillistic synth march and boxy 4/4 choogle. Tanlines’ “All of Me” burst at every wall with some new sticky bit—love that Indestructible Beat of Soweto-via-Mantronix breakdown at three minutes. If the Killers aren’t scared of the ease with which Tanlines assemble these Happy Meals, well that’s their latest mistake.—Dan Weiss

36. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
The now 37-year-old Jack White makes teen angst sound cool again in “Sixteen Saltines,” off his solo album Blunderbuss. The song handles an obsession with a woman in a way only White could. With surreal imagery and a killer guitar riff, “Sixteen Saltines” is a rock song for any indie kid who’s been snubbed by the opposite sex.—Taylor Evans

35. Grimes – “Oblivion”
In the opening of “Oblivion,” Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, is terrified of what could be looming in the dark. The music sets that tone, with synth sounds that wouldn’t sound out of place in an ‘80s slasher flick. Grimes needs someone to accompany her through the dark, and as she becomes less afraid, she mocks the shadows with a light, little “la la la la la.” In a year where ear-shattering bass and dubstep ruled, Grimes brings humanity back to dance, ready to skip through the darkness rather than fear its looming presence.—Ross Bonaime

34. Purity Ring – “Fineshrine”
With the release of their debut Shrines, Purity Ring easily met audiences’ high expectations, emerging from the musical womb with a fully realized live show and a stockpile of hits. The title-ish track, “Fireshrines,” shakes a cocktail of ebullient production, grotesque imagery and carefully enunciated, glassy vocals. “Fineshrine” turns cacophony into beauty, challenging listeners without pushing them away.—Philip Cosores

33. 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. Opening with a full minute of synths and ethereal vocals that could soundtrack trippy interludes from Terrence Malick, the song shifts into propulsive riffs that could have #NASAMohawkGuy nodding his head and thinking beyond Mars.—Josh Jackson

32. Vintage Trouble – “Blues Hand Me Down”
Opening with a stark drum/yowl/electric guitar figure, it’s hard to tell where Vintage Trouble’s The Bomb Shelter Sessions is heading. World-class journeymen bar-banders? Or something more primal? “Blues Hand Me Down” makes a grab for the mantle of the Exile-era Stones (sans Gram Parsons influence) and injects it with a modern-day fervor, tambourine shaking. We’re left breathless as the song gains momentum and shrugs off any vestige of the common place.—Holly Gleason

31. Killer Mike feat. Bun B, T.I. and Trouble – “Big Beast”
Killer Mike comes out swinging on “Big Beast,” the lead track off the triumphant R.A.P. Music. Recognizing the chance to grab the spotlight in the cluttered Atlanta rap scene, the vet quickly establishes his dominance as the angry rapper to beat. Mike’s unyielding fury with each rhyme is proof enough, but just for good measure Bun B and T.I. lay down their best guest verses in years, and in perhaps the most fruitful collaboration of 2012, El-P provides a hammering beat that lends a frightfully real weight. Always technically gifted and respected, Killer Mike finally willed forth a classic album and signature track with “Big Beast” to solidify his best-in-game status.—Zachary Philyaw

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

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

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.

10. Father John Misty – “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”
“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is almost a microcosm of what makes Fear Fun, Josh Tillman’s first album under his Father John Misty moniker, one of 2012’s best albums. It kicks off with the booming drums that Tillman is known for as a former member of Fleet Foxes, followed by a catchy chorus and somber-yet-hilarious lyrics, as he sings, “we should let this dead guy sleep.” Tillman’s song battles the physical urges, filled with drugs and sex surrounded by gravestones, with reverence for the dead. He’s living in the moment while facing his own future, mortality and uncertainty. He doesn’t know what comes next, but he knows that like his grandfather, we all will face the same end, but hopeful that someone will help us before the finality.—Ross Bonaime

9. Alabama Shakes – “Hold On”
Roots-rock group Alabama Shakes originally intended to be known as The Shakes, only being forced to add the word “Alabama” to their name in order to differentiate themselves from another group with a similar title. However, one listen to Alabama Shakes’ vocalist Brittany Howard should be more than enough to set their group apart from seemingly every band currently recording music. Arriving onto the scene in early 2012 with “Hold On,” Alabama Shakes immediately turned heads with their refreshing take on the traditional music that makes up their influences, headlined by Howard’s stunning vocals. With one of the best new voices in music and a commitment to making heartfelt and meaningful music, Alabama Shakes are clearly here to stay.—Brian Tremml

8. The Lumineers – “Ho Hey”
It seems like every year there’s an indie band that has a surprise hit on FM radio and ends up sharing the airwaves with the likes of Ke$ha and One Direction. This year, the title goes to The Lumineers. “Ho Hey” is a beautiful, simple song about unrequited love, a subject that everyone can relate to. Minimal instrumentals give the lyrics maximum impact. It also happens to have a very infectious chorus.—Taylor Evans

7. Miguel – “Adorn”
Miguel’s “Adorn,” the opening track to his breakthrough Kaleidoscope Dreams, is an invitation first and foremost. Within a few minutes, the R&B visionary unveils an album’s cornerstones: eccentric vocal quirks and manipulation, production reflecting both the basement and the studio, songwriting with eyes turned both backwards and forwards, and a voice that trumps all. The result is an open door to a colorful and distorted world, with Miguel’s earnestness providing its own adornment to an unmistakable technical gift of singing.—Philip Cosores

6. Of Monsters and Men – “Little Talks”
From its infectious horn-based jumpstart to the conversational and storytelling
harmonies of singers Nanna Bryndís and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson’s, this hit single from Icelandic sextet Of Monsters and Men is irrefutably one of the catchiest, joyful songs of the year.—Hilary Saunders

5. Titus Andronicus – “Still Life with Hot Deuce on Silver Platter”
It was hard to picture how Titus Andronicus would follow up an album as outstanding as The Monitor. But Local Business’ second track, which takes a lead-in from the album’s outstanding opener, “Ecce Homo,” sets listeners up for life after The Monitor, introducing a more playful take on Titus’ sound that rips the best elements of New Jersey rock ‘n’ roll and ties them with frontman Patrick Stickles’ tongue-in-cheek lyrics.—Tyler Kane

4. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”
A ten-minute epic that flows effortlessly from warped club banger to subdued electro-R&B to shockingly tasteful John Mayer guitar outro, “Pyramids” deserves a spot on the list for its pure audacity alone. Ocean never allows the track to overstay its welcome though, as his now signature croon remains captivating, even as he transplants ancient Egypt into a modern world of strip-joints and high-heeled women. If anything, “Pyramids” is a magnanimous experience of a song, showcasing Ocean as a standalone talent at his undeniably appealing best. Before the revealing Tumblr open letter, the late night TV appearances, and the critically adorned release of Channel Orange, Ocean kicked off the summer with “Pyramids” as a knowing foreshadowing that he would have the biggest 2012 of anyone.—Zachary Philyaw

3. First Aid Kit – “Emmylou”
Swedish siblings Johanna and Klara Söderberg pay tribute to the American country stars who inspired them on this sweet love song, singing “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too.” Their simple yet stunning harmonies are the song’s true stars—shining bright enough to be worthy of the big names they drop.—Bonnie Stiernberg

2. John K. Samson – “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”
Countless days this year, 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 Canadian frontman of the Weakerthans proves that power-pop can be just as powerful a vehicle to deliver clever and powerful lyrics as any coffeehouse strumming.—Josh Jackson

1. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”
On March 27, a Magic Johnson-fronted group bought the Dodgers, pink slime and the murder of Trayvon Martin continued to infuriate Americans, and The Hunger Games earned a cool 10 million bucks. But, you might best remember it as the day that you heard Japandroids “The House That Heaven Built.” After streaming the Soundcloud, your reaction was likely to listen again, and then again, and then again while sending the link to a half-dozen friends. Now, eight months later, the sincere and sweet words sound as anthemic as ever, the punk “ohs” still receive a raised fist in response, and the sweat-coated guitar swirls and drum fills evoke wonderful things, like youth and innocence, things that made you love rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.—Philip Cosores

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