The Best 25 (Well, 26) Songs of 2012

The year's best tracks, from Carly Rae Jepsen, Japandroids, Bat for Lashes and more.

By Ryan McNutt Dec. 13, 2012

SONGS OF 2012:
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”

Great pop music — and I use the term here in its broadest sense — must strike a delicate balance between light and heavy. In one sense, it must seem easy, accessible, rife with the sort of sentiment that a listener can easily draw themselves into. On the other, though, it has to stick, and not just in the hooky sense. Great pop music must make itself feel essential, teasing at greater ideas, truths and emotions just one level below the surface.

The two greatest songs of 2012 are a flirty teenage pop song sung by a 26-year-old from Mission, British Columbia, and young adult adrenaline rush written by two Vancouverites who aren’t all that much older. On paper neither would be pegged as a modern classic. And beyond their BC connections, you’d be forgiven for presuming they don’t have anything much in common. But in their own way this year, they each spoke to pop music’s capacity to tap into the kinetic thrill of possibility.

In a year marked by unexpected pop hits (“Somebody I Used To Know,” “We Are Young,” “Gangnam Style”), “Call Me Maybe” was among the more traditional, yet certainly the most welcome. Originally released late last year, it spent the early months of 2012 creeping deeper and deeper into the collective psyche, one listener at a time. Myself, I confess I was originally ambivalent about the track, which says something. Unlike much of the pop charts, “Call Me Maybe” doesn’t overwhelm you with its charms at first listen. Its sparse, tasteful instrumentation has ample space in the mix, leaving room for a listener to find their own way in, on their own time.

The “trick” at the heart of Maybe is a simple one, and sure to be heard across the pop charts a zillion times over the next 12-24 months. (Heck, co-songwriter Josh Ramsay is already ripping it off for his own band, and on other songs for Jepsen.) It’s in a chorus that places the musical hook tightly would with the “one” beat, only actually hitting it on the first go-round and dancing around it on subsequent measures, with the vocals answering over the beat. The second time through the chorus, it adds an simple guitar line for extra kick, but the call/response between the pounding melody and the vocal lines — dance, sing, dance, sing — is the crux of the song.

Its heart, though, is Jepsen’s vocal delivery, which elevates the track above its physical construction. In the wrong hands, “Maybe” would have been shallow and vapid, but Jepsen effortlessly captures the breathless rush of teenage attraction. She makes some smart, subtle choices: the way she drawls “hawt” instead of a sharp “hot,” or the quick leap she makes up the scale to sing “crazy,” “baby” and “chase me” in the chorus. But it’s her whispery delivery as a whole that gives the song its hidden depth. Without it, the song’s mix of brazen confidence and awkward doubt  — CALL ME, maybe? — would seem forced. But Jepsen switches her tone line by line, at moments showing complete control and at others sounding fearful, anxious. She even makes a line as silly as “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad” work by infusing it with a complicated, fevered feeling. Through her, the song ensnares the uncertainty at the heart of young love arguably as good or better than anything in recent memory.

“The House that Heaven Built” also details the start of a relationship, but traces the story deeper, through its middle and end. It does this without Jepsen’s anxiety, replacing cautious, flirty optimism with the brash, world-conquering confidence of young love. But though its language is quite different than “Maybe,” “House” similary captures its sentiment with a sonic rush unparalleled in 2012, tapping deeper sentiments in its musical language.

“House” is a mythical construction, trading concrete descriptions for elemental imagery: houses of light, bodies that blush in the night, dying evil, bottles from heaven’s hand. If “Maybe” is about illuminating a universal human experience descriptively, “House” paints with much broader strokes, leaving the experience open to interpretation somewhat. Does “born of a bottle” suggest the liquid courage to try again? Does the song take place in a physical house? Are the two characters even together at the end of this thing? Does any of this matter?

Probably not. Because the feeling of the thing, the momentum that pushes those words forward, is something magnificent. Starting with that blistering guitar strum and never relenting for its five minutes, the song propels ahead, barreling towards the end, at which point it’s all you can do to not rush to the keyboard to press “play”  again. Japandroids have come close to capturing something like this before (2009’s “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” for example) but the difference this time is David Prowse’s drum part, which just barely holds itself together through each manic measure. The entire construction seems seconds away from combusting, which may be why the song is such a brilliant singalong: it’s like it NEEDS you to belt at the top of your lungs just to keep the seams from splitting.

If there’s a common ground between “Maybe” and “House,” its in the songs’ novel lack of low-end. In an era of dance-floor pop and BRAAAAAAP dubstep, here are two songs where the bass work is hard to hear, and where the melody and drums that do a great deal of the heavy lifting. The songs feel airy and light, floating rather than forcing themselves into your life. Eschewing the base and earthbound, they seem sent from a heavenlier, higher pop power that flies high above all the rest.

And in 2012, I loved all other songs in their shadow.

Here are 24 other tracks — hit singles, album cuts and other jams — that made a connection in 2012, a survey of the year’s highpoints, song by song:

2. Bat for Lashes – “Laura”: Natasha Kahn, with just a piano and a quiet orchestra by her side, delivers some of the most devastatingly lines of the year. The two-note splash in the chorus gives this baroque anthem an astonishingly moving sense of hyper-drama.

3. Titus Andronicus – “In A Big City”: A twisted, comic take on 20-something life in New Jersey, with references to John Fogarty and Big Country along the way. The final ramp up to the song’s closing lines is the key moment, though, translating that dark humour into anthemic bliss. 

4. Cold Specks – “Blank Maps”: “I am I am, I am I am, a god damned believer,” sings Al Spx, with weighty breath that makes a simple irony into something much more profound. An anthem of contemplative doubt woven with jangly, haunting guitars. 

5. Solange – “Losing You”: Beyonce’s little sister stakes her claim among the ranks of arty’s pop’s best with this synth-drowned, sweet tune about a broken relationship. A perfect pairing of an infectious beat with instantly-singable melody.

6. Santigold – “Disparate Youth”: A contender for my favourite sound of the year, that razorblade guitar that slices through the verses kills me every time. The fact that the rest of the song is effortlessly catchy helps a great deal too.

7. Fiona Apple – “Anything We Want”: Most songs that fantasize about childhood look back nostalgically, but this highlight from The Idler Wheel images its characters as kids today (he playing “UFC rookie,” even) while simultaneously desperately seeking a little human touch.

8. Icona Pop ft. Charlie XCX – “I Love It”: “You’re from the 70s, but I’m a 90s bitch.” Easily the year’s best kiss off line in the year’s best kiss-off song, it’s delivered with a fuzzed-out, ear-smashing wall of blissful noise.

9. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”: Of all the songs on the acclaimed Channel Orange, “Pyramids” is where Ocean’s scope as both songwriter and vocalist gets its best showcase. From funk to soul to prog rock, there’s a little of everything smashed in this knockout Egyptian-themed epic.

10. Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”: Bratty never sounded so thrilling as it does coming from Miss Surprised. What she loses in her trademark self reliance (Max Martin and Shellbeck do a lot of the lifting here) she gains in pure pop joy

11. Beach House – “Myth”: Beach House’s music has always been like short swoons on loop, so the hypnotic drawl on display here sounds like the culmination of much that the band has been working towards over its first three albums. A song to lose yourself in.

12. The Gaslight Anthem – “Howl”: Like an older, masculine “Call Me Maybe,” “Howl” needs only two minutes and a rapid-fire rhythm to capture the physicality of attraction and the hearty hope that comes from crashing into someone elemental.

13. Tegan and Sara – “Closer”: Building on some of the remixes they’ve commissioned in recent years, Tegan and Sara embrace their dance-y side and pen one of their best-ever singles, a sweet and sexy ode to first connections.

14. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”: Released as a one-off single, perhaps to rebuild some good graces post-MAYA, “Bad Girls” was a reminder of everything that was great about M.I.A.’s first two albums: attitude, beat and swagger to burn.

15. The Killers – “Runaways”: There’s a fine line between Springsteen and Meatloaf, and The Killers tiptoe all over it with this Battle Born highlight that, like the album it echoes (Sam’s Town), plows through its ridiculousness with impressive melodic force. 

16. The Walkmen – “Heaven”: The year’s best “jangle,” the guitar that floats through “Heaven,” reverberating on the left side, keeps the song ever-moving, echoing the desperate pleas of its protagonist trying to hold an adult love together.

17. Bruce Springsteen – “Wrecking Ball”: Springsteen’s gift is in infusing the simple with the profound. Here, he takes a song about the tearing down of a sports stadium and transforms it into a lament on death, time and owning a life well-lived.

18. Kanye West, Jay Z, Big Sean – “Clique”: “Mercy” was the hit, but among the best tracks on the mixed-bag Cruel Summer, “Clique” stands out for an awesome Hit Boy beat and, most of all, a top-notch Yeezy verse. (One whose story about seeing George Tenet is actually true.)

19. Cloud Nothings – “Stay Useless”: During an incredibly busy March, this was my little anthem: a lament for casualness, for comfort, for doing fuck all. Other songs on Attack on Memory had more attitude, but none were this fun.

20. Usher – “Climax”: Like a lost relic from an alternate reality, “Climax” suggests the sort of R&B artist Usher could be if he put aside the low-hanging-fruit club tracks he keeps reverting to. A soulful falsetto perfectly matched with Diplo’s quiet build.

21. Kathleen Edwards – “A Soft Place to Land”: Edwards’ Voyageur meshed her incredible writing with a wider sonic palette, and the two sides came together perfectly here, a simple breakup song with that stunning escalation in the bridge.

22. Bruno Mars – “Locked out of Heaven”: Where the hell did this come from? None of Mars’ accomplished-but-boring singles to date suggested that this sort of kinetic, energetic hit was even in his vocabulary. A strong suggestion that there may be more to Mars than meets the eye.

23. The Shins – “Simple Song”: I confess that I found a great deal of Port of Morrow rather dull, but even as an echo of past greatness, “Simple Song” is a damn powerful reminder of how a James Mercer melody can connect.

24. Ke$ha – “Only Wanna Dance With You”: I’m a sucker for pop appropriation. So when Dr. Luke and Max Martin, who made their name ripping off New York garage rock on “Since U Been Gone,” finally write an out-and-out Strokes song—AND get the Strokes themselves to perform on it—I’m pretty much in dance-in-your-living-room pop heaven.

25. Grimes – “Oblivion”: I’m in the minority that wishes that Grimes would make her songs pop a bit more, but “Oblivion’s” melodic charms were inarguable, with the sort of stick-in-your-head melody that you’d normally only get on the top of the charts.