25. Y.N. Rich Kids - “Hot Cheetos and Takis”
I mean, yeah, it’s a song by elementary schoolers about snack foods, but it’s a really really good song by elementary schoolers about snack foods. Right? If someone played that for you and said that it was a new Mike Will Made It beat, wouldn’t you believe them? It’s better than most of the stuff that real (ie: adult) rappers typically work with. And the kids are all pretty talented! Dame Jones and Jasiona (aka the first and last kids, respectively) each have legitimately excellent verses, and even Ben 10 (aka the ODB of the group, aka the kid who just yells) adds something to the song. Finally, 2012 never saw an earworm-through-repetition better than the chorus of this track. Y.N. Rich Kids are the new Wu Tang Clan, and “Hot Cheetos and Takis” are their “Protect Ya Neck.”
24. Sleigh Bells - “Comeback Kid”
Like a lot of people I was disappointed by Sleigh Bells’ sophomore album. It must be hard to follow up such a fully-formed and successful debut, but vast swaths of that record sound like they just didn’t even try. Which is baffling, because “Comeback Kid” is definitely in the top two songs they’ve ever made, a oasis of quality noise pop in the Sahara that is Reign of Terror. It’s everything you want in a Sleigh Bells track. Alexis Krauss coos a sweet little pop ditty over Derek Miller’s monstrous riffs and furious Lex-Luger-paced drum machine purls. And all those guitar-monies in the solo! The only bad thing about this song is how much more infuriating it makes the rest of the album that surrounds it.
23. Lushlife feat. Angel Deradoorian, Cities Aviv, G-Side, Big Baby Gandhi, Deniro Farrar, and Serengeti - “She’s a Buddhist, I’m a Cubist (Remix)”
While the original was a fine track, Lushlife decided to dump absolutely everything in the kitchen into the remix of his track “She’s a Buddhist, I’m a Cubist” and strangely, it all works. Angel Deradoorian’s take on the song’s hook elevates to new heights as her voice swirls around absurd collection of rappers on the track. Honestly, could you come up with a more disparate set of MCs than the six on this track? You’ve got the disjointed free association of Big Baby Gandhi bookended by the thick, trunk muzik verses of G-Side (RIP) and Deniro Farrar, only to have Serengeti show up in full middle-aged-sclub mode as KDz (aka Kenny Dennis). It makes so little sense that it sort of ends up doing a complete circuit and winding up making a kind of Bizarro World sense. It’s such a dizzying listen that by the end you accept it completely.
22. Autre Ne Veut - “Counting”
Horns blat and blare. Lone voices plead before multiplying and ascending to the heavens. Synths whistle along serenely then suddenly accelerate furiously. You can actually hear Autre Ne Veut’s weirdo take on R&B expanding and evolving on this track, reaching heights that he’s never touched before. While he’s certainly previously produced excellent, “Counting” marks a leap forward in every aspect of his work as the songwriting, arrangement, and recording are by far the best he’s ever done. Don’t be surprised to find another one of the tracks from the forthcoming record Anxiety on next year’s version of this list.
21. Cloud Nothings - “Stay Useless”
All power chords and choruses, “Stay Useless” quickly establishes itself as the highlight of Attack on Memory and almost as quickly takes its leave, clocking in at a mere 2:45. But what a two and a half minutes! During that time frontman and mastermind Dylan Baldi repeats the song’s two line refrain (“I need time to stop movin’ / I need time to stay useless”) about a million times, his voice as full of audacity as his actual words are full of lethargy. It’s an interesting contrast, but this track doesn’t want to you to contemplate it; it just wants to feel it. And it feels pretty damn great.
20. Kate Boy - “Northern Lights”
Kate Boy must have the worst timing in the world. During the six years that have elapsed since the last proper record by the Knife, we’ve suffered a shortage of electro-pop that is equal parts forbidding female vocals, and plasticky synths. Then, Kate Boy finally show up with “Northern Lights” about ten minutes before the Knife announce a new album! We could have used you guys circa 2010! But, the thing is, “Northern Lights” is such a fantastic track that you can’t be too angry at their timing. In fact, the fantastically hooky chorus, slick funky bassline, and the stabbing synth bridge all suggest that they might be able to give the Knife a run for their money in the coming year.
19. Purity Ring - “Fineshrine”
One of my favorite directors is Dario Argento, the Italian horror master who renders his terrifying films with a sharp, art-house sense of beauty that (somewhat counter intuitively) meshes perfectly with violence and dread. Megan James of Purity Ring takes a similar approach in her work in Purity Ring, marrying the sweetness of her voice and melodies to her strangely creepy lyrics. And no where does she do so more effectively than on this track, as her sweetly terrifying entreaties to cut open her sternum pull her little ribs around you work perfectly with the blend of electropop by way of mid-00s crunk beats that her partner (Corin Roddick) surrounds them in.
18. Solange - “Losing You”
"Losing You" opens with upbeat drums, huge half-time hand claps, and cacophonous yelling, yet it morphs into a distinctly restrained pop track. Although supported by fantastic production by Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), Solange (aka Beyonce’s little sister) is at the very heart of this track. Her subtle yet commanding vocal performance stands starkly in the midst of Hynes busy production work. Her reservation serves to draw the listener in, while the track’s quietly devastating chorus hooks the audience permanently. It is, in short, a brilliant pop track that’s completely out of step with the current pop landscape in a very good way.
17. Lil Ugly Mane - “Bitch I’m Lugubrious”
Has there ever been a better title for a rap song? I honestly don’t think so. “Bitch, I’m Lugubrious” takes a common rap boast (to quote Heems “I’m fucking great at rapping!”) and adds in a SAT vocab section word that renders it somewhat absurd. The meaning is consistent, but since rap is still viewed as low art, throwing in the word “lugubrious” seems like a joke at best. But, Lil Ugly Mane absolutely backs it up by delivering line after line of knockouts, utterly destroying the track.
I somehow mixed up “lugubrious” and “loquacious” and never noticed until a month later. Whoops. It’s still a really good track though, and the amount of rhymes he pulls out for the titular line is still very impressive. My bad, y’all.
16. Icona Pop - “I Love It”
Most dance pop tracks build to a massive four-to-the-floor beat somewhere around three-fourths of the way through a song. Icona Pop’s massive single “I Love It” starts with it. (Well, after the spoken word intro.) From there the song spends the rest of its runtime proving that decision was right. An exuberant kiss-off of a break up song, “I Love It” assures the addressee that their former lover has found a world (and presumably a club) so new since they’ve left. Chanted all in unison by Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt (and Charli XCX), “I Love It” is as powerful and exciting as it is self-assured. (And, for one last aside-in-parenthesis, it’s also apparently the theme song of Snooki&JWoWW surprised question mark?)
15. Gorillaz + James Murphy + Andre 3000 - “DoYaThing (13 Minute Version)”
After hearing the edited version of this track, I am sure that a more than a few people declined to listen to the full version. While the edited version was a decent song, it certainly didn’t sound like the collaboration of three of pop music’s greatest boundary pushers. In those first few minutes, the track sounds like an outtake from some LCD Soundsystem album, but then Andre comes in. His verse starts out as a solid, if unremarkable 3 Stacks verse, which is where the edit takes its leave. But then it grows more and more insane until he’s yelling about how he’s the shit while Murphy’s synths and Albarn’s guitars squeal and squall around him. By then end of it, you’re fully convinced that these cats are the hippest in the fucking room by a mile, and that they should be allowed to make quarter hour long songs whenever they damn well please.
14. Symmetry - “Streets of Fire”
After the two and half hours of blips and bloops that form the vast majority of Symmetry’s Themes For An Imaginary Film, the album’s closer “Streets of Fire” is utterly shocking. Performed by Johnny Jewel’s Chromatics collaborator Ruth Radelet, it’s a starkly naked song both in terms of it’s sparse instrumentation and it’s bare lyrical emotion. Though it was undoubtedly heard by more people after it was incorporated into Chromatics’ “The River”, this remains the definitive version of the track. It’s a chillingly beautiful listen in which Radelet’s hauntingly beautiful refrain of “I’m still here / Waiting for you” seems to sink into your very bones.
13. Japandroids - “The House That Heaven Built”
Japandroids don’t bunt. They swing for the fences on everything they do, and they hit nothing but homers. They sound bigger than any two man band should, and they write gloriously unironic songs that never sound naive or clumsy. And, they named a song “The House That Heaven Built” and actually managed to make it so grandiose and anthemic that it actually deserves to be called that. Many have argued that music has replaced religion as the main avenue through which people have transcendent experiences, and Japandroids have offered those people a compelling Exhibit A in this track.
12. Frank Ocean - “Pyramids”
When was the last time you heard a nine minute R&B song? Scratch that. When was the last time you heard a nine minute R&B song that is completely devoid of filler and utterly worthy of it’s runtime? Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” is that and more. By the time that the song’s fifth minute rolls around most people are already believers, but then everything but Frank’s voice drops out. Then the drums kick into a completely different beat, and you realize that there are still new hooks to come. It’s as startling and exciting as any moment in music, and at that point, the song’s only halfway done.
11. Elvis Depressedly - “I Can’t Wait For You To Die”
After Coma Cinema’s amazing 2011 album Blue Suicide found Mat Cothran at his most elaborate and complex, his work in 2012 under his Elvis Depressedly moniker has seen him retract both conceptually and sonicly. His album Hotter Sadness' standout closing track is short even for him, lasting just over a minute. It's recording and instrumentation is as spare and raw as anything he's ever done, but it works perfectly with the song's harsh, withdrawn sentiment. And when Cothran's shredded voice finally spits out the song's titular line, you can't help but feel it as deeply as he seems to.
10. Death Grips - “@deathgripz”
In a few years, I expect we’ll look back at Death Grips as the defining sound of 2012. Whether that will be a good or a bad thing is still a toss up (just ask the Rapture how great it is to be the defining sound of 2003). But, no matter if we look back on them as pioneers or outliers, the one thing that is for certain is how great their best tracks are. The very best of the best appeared not on either of their two excellent 2012 albums, but as a tossed off single released with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim subset. Named after their former Twitter handle, “@deathgripz” is a perfect summation of the group, a song that sounds every bit as exuberant as it does enraged. It’s a dance party during the apocalypse, perfectly suited to it’s age.
9. El-P - “The Full Retard”
"The Full Retard" is El-P at his best and most apocalyptic. It’s a paranoid look through a scanner darkly into a future New York full of subdermally implanted chips and mass prisons, flying cars and winding breadlines. And that’s just from the Camu Tau-sampling choruses. The verses find El-P weaving characteristically tight webs of imagery and reference, painting himself as the harbinger of a terrifying yet unavoidable future. But, the song is far from somber. In fact, it’s often hilarious, once you unwind his metaphors equating mankind’s future to that of a gerbil stuck up a guy’s ass.
8. Rhye - “Open”
Sung with stunning honesty and a remarkably androgynous timbre, Rhye’s “Open” was the year’s most striking debut track. Supported by gently lilting strings, restrained horns, and a chorus of coos, the track presents a sort of deeply personal yet profoundly simple emotion. Yet, amazingly, Rhye manages to do this without the song ever delving into melodrama or descending into trite platitudes. In less capable hands, “I’m a fool for your love” might have become a bombastic statement, but here it’s a simple fact of being, captured in the amber of the music.
7. Spiritualized - “So Long You Pretty Thing”
Opening with a simple duet between Jason Pierce and a childlike female voice, “So Long You Pretty Thing” has quite a ways to go to become the climax of Sweet Heart Sweet Light. As the track grows to astronomical heights, it’s absurdly elaborate orchestration is held in check by J Spaceman’s modest, pleading voice and simple songwriting. It’s this dynamic between the grandiose and simple, the divine and the human that allows the song to expand to the heavens without crashing down on itself. By the time the track crests into its masterful chorus, it’s surpassed mere excellence and reached true pop transcendence.
6. Angel Haze - “Cleaning Out My Closet”
There are certain movies that I think are utterly and completely brilliant, but will never, ever watch again willingly. Among them are films like Irreversible and Funny Games, emotionally devastating films too powerful and emotional to watch more than once despite their stunning artistry. I never expected for a song to have the same effect on me, but the song Angel Haze built out of Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” is so brutally affecting that I’ve only listened to it two or three times despite how technically masterful. Haze tells her harrowing account of abuse and sexual violence as it should be told: vitally and viscerally real, but ultimately hopeful in a beautiful, resilient way.
5. Philip Glass - “NYC 73-78 (Beck Remix)”
Trust me, no one is more shocked than I am that one of the best pieces of music this year came from that most benighted of musical products, the remix album. And what’s more, it’s a remix of a famed composer by an artist that’s been lost in the swamp of creative stagnation for the better part of a decade. Who’s to say what about this project allowed Beck to finally escape the restrictive, Beck-shaped artistic framework he built for himself over the years. The result, a twenty-minute long reworking of Glass’ mid-seventies is shockingly brilliant, smoothing the composer’s highly rhythmic work out into a graceful, slowly unfolding kaleidoscope of muted, but beautiful, tones. It’s an absolute wonder to behold, a staggering and wholly unexpected achievement
4. Dirty Projectors - “Offspring Are Blank”
If you haven’t heard “Offspring Are Blank” live, you haven’t really heard it at all. The recorded version is undoubtedly excellent, of course. It’s the track that made me understand all the “art rock Led Zeppelin” descriptions that have been laid upon this iteration of the group. But, live it absolutely explodes. The band render it impossibly propulsive as, somehow, the Girly Projectors’ vocal harmonies soar impossibly higher, the pre-chorus drums hit harder, and the song’s massive riffs become downright monolithic. When my girlfriend and I saw them play this track live earlier this year, she turned to me halfway through, eyes wide, and mouthed “This is amazing.” There was nothing else to do, nothing else to say. I could only nod in agreement.
3. Usher - “Climax”
In an era where every pop song explodes at the chorus, Usher (and Diplo) made the best pop song of the year by drawing back. The incogruously titled “Climax” makes a virtue out of restraint and nuance in our EDM-crossover dominated, world. Every time our post-“We Found Love” ears expect the song to explode, it recedes in a masterful display of subverting expectations. And, yet, this is not a small song. Usher’s vocals alternately soar and drift through the atmosphere of the track. That’s because this isn’t really a small song in a big song’s world; it’s an introvert in a world dominated by extroverts. The perfect inward-gazing counter point to the outwardly pop landscape.
2. Korallreven - “Sa Sa Samoa (Elite Gymnastics Remix)”
Elite Gymnastics’ remix of Korallreven’s “Sa Sa Samoa” renders the track all but unrecognizable. While the original was a sparse, beautifully subtle collaboration with Julianna Barwick, the remixed version is 112% pure dance pop maximalism. Elite Gymnastics throw absolutely everything they can into the track, burying the original’s vocal and piano parts amid blown out tribal drums, a massive Whitney Houston sample, and a sample of the “cut the midrange, drop the bass” line from The House Crew’s “Keep the Fire Burning” before doing the exact opposite and launching into the song’s tea-kettle whistling synth climax. It’s a dizzying headrush of a listen that proves that sometimes the best thing to do is everything.
1. Kendrick Lamar - “Backseat Freestyle”
Once the opening vocal samples drops, Hit-Boy’s brilliant beat clangs in, and Kendrick starts yelling about how Martin had a dream, you know something special’s about to happen. Honestly, have you ever been more certain that a guy was about to really really go in on a beat than in those first few moments? You can practically hear K-Dot pacing back and forth like a prize fighter waiting for the championship bout to begin. And when he does finally go in, it’s with a fire that completely blows the doors off of anything else he (or anyone) recorded this year. He’s a man possessed; you can hear it in his voice. There’s a hunger there that insists that he rip everything to shreds. This is scorched earth rap, utterly destroying everything in it’s path. At the end of the track, you can’t help but be amazed that Kendrick didn’t just fulfill the promise of the song’s opening: he surpassed it.
0. Carly Rae Jepsen - “Call Me Maybe”
Our undisputed song of the year defies inclusion on this (or any) list, because it’s much more than a song. It’s a reminder of why pop music is great. There are a million things about this song that could be labeled as “bad.” The lyrics are nonsensical in a completely unartistic way. The synthetic strings are beyond tacky. The chorus is more infectious than it is catchy. And yet, all of those traits come together to make something intangibly great. The other day I passed a three year old girl singing it on the sidewalk, and wound up singing it to myself the rest of the way home. There’s something in this song (like in all great songs) that just gets to you. That’s what I love about pop music, and exactly the thing we’re celebrating in these year-end capstone posts. Those moments that remind you of why you love pop music so much.