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Best Music Of 2012
Sat December 29, 2012
NPR Music's 100 Favorite Songs Of 2012
This is what 2012 sounded like streaming on our phones, blasting through tiny laptop speakers, booming wirelessly in our living rooms and spinning on vinyl while hanging out with friends. These are the songs that made us smile, made us cry, put our hands in the air, cracked us up, lodged in our brains, caught us dancing in our chairs and brought us back down to earth.
Explore our 100 favorite songs of 2012 below, presented in alphabetical order. Take them with you on Spotify or Rdio, listen to our discussion of the year in music and check out the rest of our picks for the best music of 2012.
Algodon Egipcio, "La Espina Del Cardenche"
The Venezuelan DJ's ethereal ode to "cardenche," a northern Mexican music style whose name itself (a reference to pulling out a painful cactus thorn) is full of emotion.
AlunaGeorge, "You Know You Like It"
Young Brits take on late-'90s radio R&B — rubbery synths, snapping percussion and coy vocals — with attitude to spare.
Ana Tijoux, "Las Cosas Por Su Nombre"
In this furious, danceable and biting critique of Chilean society, Tijoux stiffens her usually flexible, soft flow into an incessant, hard-hitting lyrical attack.
Ane Brun, "Do You Remember"
A joyful lament for a broken love affair. As her voice lilts and swings over a drum-heavy beat, Brun sounds like she's literally dancing away from her lover's bed for the last time.
Angel Olsen, "The Waiting"
Hopeless romantics are no stranger to the bouncing twang beat, but with Olsen's desperate warble and Beatles-y backing vocals, this is the kind of song everyone wants sung to them.
Arnaldo Antunes, Edgar Scandurra & Toumani Diabate, "Ce Nao Vai Me Acompanhar"
Brazilian/Malian blues/funk/pop/folk that contains mind-blowing layers of sound (start with Antunes' impossibly resonant voice) as it crosses borders.
Baauer, "Harlem Shake"
Equal parts subwoofers and squelch, this floor-shaking exercise by the young Brooklyn producer was one of 2012's electronic anthems.
Bang On A Can (David Lang), "For Madeline"
Michael Gordon wrote this haunting and nearly apocalyptic elegy in memory of his mother; it's at once both magical and mysterious.
Baroness, "Take My Bones Away"
The ever-evolving metal band mostly went metal-less this year, but gave us a few soaring hard rockers — including this song, with a chorus that won't leave your head for days.
Bat For Lashes, "Laura"
A lush, piano-driven portrait of Hollywood tragedy, "Laura" looks at a life of tabloid excess through a lens of empathy, humanity and compassion.
Behzod Abduraimov, "Danse Macabre"
A patient, tense performance of what's basically a 140-year-old, show-stoppingly spooky pop song.
Best Coast, "The Only Place"
This bubbly, hooky power-pop gem may boast of coastal dominance, but it also captures the simple pull of home — anywhere you might find it.
Bill Fay, "The Never Ending Happening"
Intimate piano balladry from an English folk-rock elder who spent his 40 years away from the recording studio gathering the wisdom that makes his music so generous and graceful.
Bonnie Raitt, "Not Cause I Wanted To"
The great Raitt quietly displays her astounding interpretive chops in this countrified blues weeper. It's the flip-side of her signature "I Can't Make You Love Me": This time she's the heartbreaker, and it hurts just as much.
Bruce Springsteen, "We Take Care Of Our Own"
As tricky in its own way as "Born in the U.S.A.," this rousing, bitter rocker is a protest song transformed into an anthem by unavoidable events — an election, a storm. But that's what happens with the Boss: He speaks what he feels, and Americans turn his passion into what we need.
Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe"
The inescapable, world-conquering summer jam of 2012. To those who continue to dispute this song's limitless charm, we ask: Why do you hate happiness?
Ceclia Bartoli, "Amami, e vederai"
Midway through this aria, the passionate world of opera is summed up in Bartoli's breathtaking (literally) performance of a single word, "Amami." Prepare to melt.
Chairlift, "I Belong In Your Arms"
Yes, the carefree synth-pop song is likely to soundtrack a whimsical afternoon in some teen movie someday, but we can soften our blackened hearts and fall in love for three minutes.
Cloud Nothings, "Stay Useless"
It may pay homage to sloth, but this is no mere slacker anthem: It also captures the way we're pulled apart by a need for both meaning and comfort.
Daughn Gibson, "In The Beginning"
Gibson's Hazlewood-tinged baritone spars with a simple soulful piano loop and a skittering, melancholic drum machine. Hmm, is this the first boot-scootin' goth-pop ballad?
David Byrne & St. Vincent, "Who"
One of rock's most idiosyncratic elder statesmen pairs up with a brilliant rising singer and guitar player. The result? Horns. Horns everywhere.
Death Grips, "I've Seen Footage"
An unreliable narrator's tales from the hood, delivered with a flow like blood from a broken nose.
Django Django, "Default"
A glitchy marching band fronted by a sympathetic android cowboy: "You're a cog in the machine. It's like a default."
Egyptian Project, "Besharis"
The Buena Vista Social Club concept goes to Egypt, layered with some sophisticated producing. (Resurgent trip-hop plus traditional sounds? Sure.)
Ellie Goulding, "Anything Could Happen"
Continuing her campaign to infuse dance music with the energy of real, specific human feelings, this feisty, beatwise singer-songwriter crafts a stirring first-person account of blossoming female independence.
Father John Misty, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings"
If it's possible to dance yourself into a hot, sweaty mess while feeling nothing but a creeping sense of loss and regret, this is the song that will coax you into doing so.
Fatoumata Diawara, "Bakonoba"
The French-Malian actress and dancer with a smoky-sweet, Sade-like voice glides atop a West African groove on her debut album. More, please.
FIDLAR, "Cheap Beer"
There's an argument on the Web over whether the key line in this punk meltdown is "Forty beers later and a lot of speed" or "Forty beers later and I lie in the street." The whole song sounds exactly like both of those things.
French Montana, "Pop That"
So joyously profane it should ride into battle on Game of Thrones, drunk on Arbor gold, swinging a sword two times its wingspan and still stinking of the local brothel.
fun., "We Are Young"
The most shout-along-able hit single of 2012 is more than what it seems on the surface. It's the chronicle of a bar brawl; it's the midnight plea of an unreliable narrator; it's the Glee generation's slide into maturity; it's an emo barn-burner that tells the ugly truth about male vulnerability for once. If you didn't notice all that, who cares? You still got to sing your guts out.
G.O.O.D. Music, "Mercy"
This hip-hop banger, the work of five different producers and four rappers, is minimalist, uncanny and catchy, anchored by 2 Chainz's flawlessly executed and gloriously braggadocious verse.
Gregory Porter, "Be Good"
A voice like Detroit 1960-whatever, an outlook from Bed-Stuy 2012 and songwriting chops with a certain timeless pathos of frustration.
Everything is fair game in a Grimes track, but "Genesis" gets at what Claire Boucher does best: joyous pop music blown out of a confetti cannon in slow motion.
Grizzly Bear, "A Simple Answer"
An odd but no less hooky song (maybe the most accessible this band has ever sounded), held together by sumptuous harmonies and a driving beat.
An ode to ladies as funny as it is feminist from a former member of Das Racist, the kind of sensitive guy who doesn't just "love the ladies," but understands that they like Dawson's Creek, umbrella drinks, cleanliness, books and harnessing "all this power that they garnish."
High On Fire, "Fertile Green"
A full-on thrasher capable of tearing apart Lucifer's jaw. 'Nuff said.
Hospitality, "Eighth Avenue"
Stumbling into one's place, in New York retrospect; perfectly jangly-sweet in the key of disaffection past. How else do you do indie-pop?
Hot Chip, "Look At Where We Are"
A song for the couples who've lasted long enough to reminisce, and motivation for those just getting started. One of the tenderest love songs of 2012.
Icona Pop, "I Love It"
Feeling frustrated? Want to scream? Here's a three-minute therapy session from two Swedish women. Prescription: Crank it.
Jack White, "Sixteen Saltines"
With White providing all the vocal harmonies and dueling guitar solos, this sounds like a room full of Jack Whites all trying furiously to outplay one another.
Jai Paul, "Jasmine"
How carefully made is this song? It wobbles like Gumby in high heels on a cobblestone street, yet it never tips and and still — somehow — sounds smoother than anything else you'll hear this year.
Jamey Johnson & Alison Krauss, "Make The World Go Away"
The centerpiece of Johnson's tribute to Hank Cochran, one of country music's most sophisticated songwriters, this duet unfolds in the warm, sad light of a velvet morning, when two cracked hearts give love one last desperate chance.
JEFF the Brotherhood, "Sixpack"
JEFF's contribution to the canon of dumb rock songs about drinking beer and hanging out is reliably dumb, reliably hang-out-worthy.
Jeremih, "F--- You All The Time"
A minimal koan of falsetto and electronic intervention, with smolder, space and sensuality in delicate accord. Who needs euphemisms anyway?
Jeremy Denk, "Ligeti: Automne e Varsovie"
Sentimental? Hardly. One motif, repeated obsessively — one leap up, then a sinking descent — slithers down the keyboard and under your skin.
Jeri-Jeri with Mbene Diatta Seck, "Mbeuguel Dafa Nekh"
The Senegalese group, led by Baaba Maal drummer Bakane Seck, unleashes a hornet's nest of percussion in this nine-minute Mbalax corker.
Joey Bada$$, "Waves"
Visions of his future dance in this teenager's head even as his aesthetic recalls a bucolic, Dilla-flavored, freestyle-friendly past.
John Fullbright, "Gawd Above"
Americana music's fiercest young contender speaks the word of a pissed-off deity in the punchiest slice of sacrilege music had to offer this year.
John K. Samson, "When I Write My Masters Thesis"
With wit and wordplay, the Weakerthans singer examines the way a lively mind can function at cross purposes with a directionless heart.
John Talabot, "Destiny"
It didn't get much sexier in electronic music this year than this come-hither crossover hit. If only all dance-floor encounters were this perfect.
Julia Holter, "Marienbad"
Stately and harpsichord-led, "Marienbad" is pop-music mitosis, from a Baroque bounce to an ambient four-on-the-foor house beat.
Justin Martin, "Don't Go"
The San Francisco producer shows his bass-heavy but introspective side in this two-step-esque track, slowly building on harps and a high-pitched female vocal simply singing the song's plea.
Kacey Musgraves, "Merry Go Round"
Packaging stormy lives into a sunny country-pop arrangement, the future country star stares unblinkingly at the tragic underbelly of small-town life.
Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, "Spin"
The zither-wielding 85-year-old Sun Ra associate and his eight sons generate a juggernaut of a groove, powered by Tycho Cohran's sousaphone.
Kishi Bashi, "Bright Whites"
A timeless tune that won't lose its charm, despite having rocketed from zero to "national ad campaign" in short order. Pure joy.
Kristen Kelly, "Ex-Old Man"
This spunky spin on the honky-tonk angel tale plays Kelly's soulful vocals off some tropical guitar to reveal that happy hour is also mighty-mad hour for some ladies clutching their margaritas at the bar.
A hiccuping, buoyant jam — as fresh and hard to resist as those dimples on the man who made it.
Lianne La Havas, "Is Your Love Big Enough?"
Like a lost gem from the fusion-frantic early-'70s soul era, this epic exploration of one young woman's creative process sweeps you up with its girl-group handclaps and African guitar line, as the young British singer lays her Nina Simone-loving heart on the line.
Little Big Town, "Pontoon"
Wonder what it's like to live in the South in the summer — that is, from early April to late October? It's Alabama humid, it's Atlanta loose, it's Mississippi laid-back, it's Arkansas fun, it's Memphis funky, it's Nashville friendly, it's a boat and some beer and some friends and some trouble, and it's exactly like this song.
Loudon Wainwright III, "In C"
The Wainwright family patriarch has a lot to be proud of this year (including two offspring on this list). His own contribution is a six-minute-long, nearly unvaried ramble that pulls poignancy from a never-ending spiral of ego, heartache and destruction.
LV, "Nothing Like Us"
The trio of South London producers recruited MCs Sello and Max of South African kwaito crew The Ruffest for a song that lives up to its title.
M.I.A., "Bad Girls"
"My chain hits my chest when I'm bangin' on the dashboard," snarls the serious troublemaker M.I.A. in this Danja-produced re-imagining of L.A. gangsta rap as part of a feminist Arab Spring. The music glints gold and sparkles with sweat as it moves to the growl of a slowly revving engine.
Machel Montano, "Go Down"
The king of soca music rides Brooklyn producer Dre Skull's Loudspeaker Riddim in the Caribbean equivalent to French Montana's "Pop That." A monster.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, "Same Love"
The Seattle duo proves there's more to it than just a clever YouTube hit. This song calls out not just for equal marriage rights, but also for equality in all aspects of life.
How do you improve something that's damn near perfect? British DJ Mala digs deep deep deep into the rhythms of Afro-Cuban danzon and Santeria-inspired beats for a mix that plays with time in a way that's nothing short of inspiring. How did he do that?
Marcel Khalife, "Oh, My Proud Wound"
The outspoken Lebanese oud master and composer brews a potent mix of traditional Arabic music and ideas from Western jazz in an energized paean to his homeland.
Martha Wainwright, "Everything Wrong"
The singer humbly examines life as a bumpy continuum, blazing a jagged but ultimately optimistic path across three notable generations.
Yes, this song is just as aggressive as the title implies. But its reckless melodies make it feel like the fun type of destruction: less rioting, more smashing piñatas.
Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Lie down in a comfortable position. Relax every muscle one by one. Feel the bubbling fountain of this song's beats, the gentle roll of Miguel's vocals moving from strong tenor to sweet falsetto and the trigger-point massage worked by the words buried in the background: Be my friend, my freak. Realize that seduction can be a meditation practice, too.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, "Walk Like A Giant"
When these folks get together, something loud and memorable always happens, and this stomper from Psychedelic Pill will stand the test of time.
Perfume Genius, "Hood"
A shaky tower built in tribute to conflicted devotion: sky-high, but full of weakness.
Ralph Peterson, "4 in 1 (Fo'tet)"
A drumming tornado jollifies a Thelonious Monk tune, preserving its tempest-in-a-teapot quality with woody clarinet and ringing vibraphone.
Rick Ross feat. Andre 3000, "Sixteen"
As if trying to prove that 16 bars aren't enough to contain them, Rozay and Stacks go on for eight minutes, tackling a new topic in every line and leaving us still wanting more.
Robert Raimon Roy, "Robert Raimon Roy"
The tonal descendant of Skee-Lo rides a cartoonishly dramatic track as he recounts a staid love life in elastic syllables.
Rufus Wainwright, "Montauk"
A fantasia of domestic bliss in the year of marriage equality, this heart-unraveling ode to Wainwright's daughter and her other dad, his husband Jorn, is beautifully haunted by the memory of Viva's grandmother Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010.
Ryan Truesdell, "Punjab"
An unreleased gem from luminary composer/arranger Gil Evans, expertly reconstructed in glorious minor-key majesty. Plus, tabla drums.
Saint Etienne, "Tonight"
No other song celebrated the (legal) ecstasy of dance music like this anthem from the British pop veterans. Wish it could always feel this way.
San Francisco Symphony (Adams), "Short Ride In A Fast Machine"
Ignited by a propulsive woodblock, the orchestra thrusts ahead with the intensity of a roller coaster. It's classical music's answer to the four-minute rock song.
Schoolboy Q, "Blessed (feat. Kendrick Lamar)"
The Top Dawg crew member may have bested labelmate Kendrick Lamar (albeit with his help) for best hip-hop song of 2012 with this tearjerker, produced by Dave Free.
Scissor Sisters, "Let's Have A Kiki"
Trust this lesson from Ms. Ana Matronic, because good house music has never steered you wrong. Invite your crew over, pump up this campy new dance-floor classic and dance your bad-night-at-the-club blues away.
Sean Rowe, "Horses"
Rolling thunder that stills itself around Rowe's remarkable voice to speak its quiet, piercing message: "I would go through the rain and snow if you keep me on your side."
Shemekia Copeland, "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo"
Sturdy blues from the genre's young queen opens up slowly, like the slowly raising consciousness of the abused and finally self-preserving narrator; its harrowing story reaches a climax in a fiercely expressive guitar solo from the great Buddy Guy.
Shovels & Rope, "Birmingham"
This rattling boxcar of a ditty tells the story of the harmonizing married couple who made it: two crazy kids who discovered each other banging out music on the Southern line and then drifted apart before realizing that the only songs that made sense for each of them were duets. It's a wedding song for a hobo camp, and its sheer joy ought to make a believer out of even the sourest puss.
Simone White, "Big Dreams And The Headlines"
Bells toll, drums roll and White whispers sweet comfort ("It's the little things that add up to life") to a friend who needs it desperately.
Sinead O'Connor, "The Wolf Is Getting Married"
Twenty-five years after her debut album, O'Connor looks inward to celebrate a complicated yet headstrong love.
Sinkane, "Jeeper Creeper"
Trance-inducing North African-style guitar hovers over a steady dance beat and bubbling synths. Unforgettable music with roots everywhere you look.
Six Organs of Admittance, "Waswasa"
Have you choogled today? Ben Chasny gets back together with the Comets on Fire crew to set that straight, fool.
Solange, "Losing You"
Can a throwback sound futuristic? Can a handclap sound wet? Can a song about falling out of love make you feel like you're doing just the opposite? Yes.
Spiritualized, "Hey Jane"
Only Jason Pierce can turn a Lou Reed-y rocker about a "troubled" love into a musical car crash halfway through before soaring way above the heavens on a Krautrock cloud.
Tame Impala, "Elephant"
Big, brawny and slightly gaudy, Tame Impala's genius "Elephant" slinks toward T. Rex greatness with its sexy, '70s stadium-stomp guitar hook.
Tanlines, "All Of Me"
Punctuated by kicky handclaps and whispers of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, the Brooklyn-based duo searches for a sincere emotional connection in this electro-pop banger.
The Mynabirds, "Generals"
A call for unity wrapped in grinding Midwestern pop. Politics and pop rarely get along so well. "Get your warpaint on!"
The xx, "Angels"
The band's new album is full of minimalist rumination, but there's nothing icy or distant about this knockout song of love and devotion.
Unwinding like a a long braid made of delicate percussion, jazzed-up keyboard and spoken-sung poetics, this is the most conscious, creative, artistic party jam you'll hear this year, based around an irresistible declaration of independence: Whatever you do, don't funk with my groove.
Titus Andronicus, "In A Big City"
You can take the punk out of Jersey, but you can never take Jersey out of the punk.
Todd Terje, "Inspector Norse"
This goofy yet soulful space-disco song is for the guy at the party who can't dance from the waist down, but is having a better time than everyone.
This song was the Prius of 2012: the most popular hybrid on the road, a highly functional blend of Usher's old-school R&B testifying and producer Diplo's future-touching electronic atmospheres. Mileage: amazing.
Waxahatchee, "Be Good"
You know that friend you're kind of attracted to but don't want to pursue because it might ruin what you already have? That's this song.
Wiley, "I'm Skanking" (The 2 Bears Remix)"
Wiley's grime classic is infused with a percolating '90s hip-house beat in this feral remix from The 2 Bears.
Y.N. Rich Kids, "Hot Cheetos and Takis"
A song about snack foods, made by a bunch of kids in an after-school program, "Hot Cheetos and Takis" has chops and charm to spare. It'll put a smile on your face every single time.