My 50 Favorite Songs of 2012

It’s the end of the year and time for my annual “favorite songs” list where I countdown the songs that kept my iTunes busy – many of which will be new to you, and some of which were hard to escape on the radio.

I’m never pleased with the writing in these posts because I’m not a music critic and don’t know how to articulate why I like a song, but that never seems to stop me from trying. Your best bet to see whether you like the song too is to play it for yourself by clicking the link to see the YouTube video, playing from the Spotify playlist (5 of the songs aren't available that way), or looking for a surprise download option at the end of the post.

This Swedish song is fun and fierce and makes me want to wave my middle fingers around in triumphant anger. While researching for this post, I also learned it is best known in the U.S. as the theme song to Snooki and J-Woww’s spin-off TV show. Oy. But I’m going to use the chorus’ own lyrics and say, “I don’t care, I love it.”

The intense repetition is this song’s strength. Though I’ve never previously been a Ne-Yo fan, I couldn’t help but nasally sing the line “girl, let me love you” to myself ad nauseam for the past few months.

Tegan & Sara deserve a consistency award for never failing to make enjoyable music. Although the twin sister duo tends to keep their songs pretty minimalistic, they don’t ever compromise the rock, “Closer” being no exception. I look forward to hearing the whole album when it is released in January.

fun. has been a guilty pleasure of mine for a few years now (yes, they existed well before “We Are Young”), but they’re just a tad too cheesy to embrace wholeheartedly. “Some Nights” is no exception – I like most of what they’re doing here, but periodically I can’t help but get embarrassed, and I’m not sure whether it’s more for them or me. Maybe we can chalk it up to how strongly it mimics Simon & Garfunkle’s “Cecilia”.

Yes, I already ranted about this song’s blatant misogyny in a previous post. But if I disregarded all entertainment that I found problematic, I wouldn’t have much to listen to. So let’s make a couple of acknowledgments with this entry: this song is pretty tight, but Kanye still has a lot to learn.

I’ll come out and say it – this is the bro-iest song on the list. It’s a light enough jam that it would appeal equally to fraternities and sororities, both of which I’d have to imagine are this song’s target audience. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. If you find the song as catchy as I do, I’m sure you’ll make up your own excuses for liking it, too.

The song’s stripped back nature is entrancing. The echoes and emptiness of the song conjures thought of a post-apocalyptic world, as if the singer is the last person on earth.

43. Simple Song – The Shins                       
Sure, the song is about as simple as its title suggests, but there’s still plenty to love about it. As usual, The Shins best works are its most understated efforts. I’m charmed, at any rate.

The critical acclaim for Ocean’s latest album, Channel Orange, is not just hype – it’s legitimately solid from start to finish. This riff on one of cinema’s most famous characters is one of the standout tracks. Though it’s not overtly “fun”, the more you listen to it, the more you’ll appreciate the underlying whimsy.

If you’re having major Justin Timberlake withdrawals, this song will definitely be the solution. It might even be too blatantly derivative of J.T., but if he’s not making new music, you’ve got to take it how you can get it. On the one hand, the chorus’ repetition of the question “How does it feel to be the hottest girl in the world right now?” is excessively cheesy, but on the other hand, that’s half the song’s charm.

You’ll best remember this song for its prolonged riff on homophones for “Mary”: “‘Cause Mama’s hooked on Mary Kaye/Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane/And Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down./Mary, Mary quite contrary/We get bored so we get married/And just like dust we settle in this town/On this broken merry-go-round.” The song’s lyrics walk the line between stupid and clever so precisely that I have to chalk it up to intentionality. And though I’m not a fan of most contemporary country, I do appreciate this song’s harsh critique of the small town lifestyle that the genre usually celebrates.

If you enjoy a funny dance beat complete with some hokey vocals, this song just may work for you. No? Even if we throw in some trendy falsetto? Well okay then.

Firstly, the somber harmonies will hit you hard in the gut. Secondly, you will try to sing along but you’ll only be able to make guttural noises, which if not beautiful, still sound important anyway. Thirdly, the title will inspire you to use the word “Impregnable” more often.

This R&B artist released a solid debut this year, which included this song about the torment of falling short of the conventional standards of beauty. I mean, she seems pretty hot to me, but her struggle to accept her physical “flaws” is relatable and – better yet - it sounds really cool.

It’s mostly about the hook. That chorus – which are easily confused with the lyrics to Beastie Boys’s “No Sleep ’Til Brooklyn” – runs through my head a lot. If you can’t tolerate white boy rapping, you might not tolerate the verses, but there’s enough to genuinely smile at, including my favorite line (in context): “I know the road rules, but you need the real world.”

An array of instruments and voices combine to create this song with a bit of a tribal or world music flare. It’s a fun toe-tapper.

It starts as a simple yet catchy chant, and the repetition lulls you into a false sense of security. When you think you’ve got a handle on the song, it crescendos halfway through and starts messing with your expectations. By the time it’s over, you’re going to put it on repeat just to take the journey again.

I’ve never had Bieber Fever previously, but after I saw more than one music critic say that this was a legitimately good pop song, I gave it a listen and was pleasantly surprised. If we’re being honest, it’s the song’s writing and production that’s doing the heavy lifting here (no offense to the Bieb’s voice). It’s too bad we can’t hear this one on the radio rather than “Baby”.

I almost put this song on my list last year when it was making waves on the indie scene, but it just barely missed the cut. And then it did something I would have never predicted – it went mainstream. Hearing it 50 more times actually made me enjoy it more… it was the 100th or so time that had me screaming “Enough!” however. Overall, though, I think it’s a great thing for Top 40 music when an atypical song like this one hits #1. Here’s to expanding the definition of Pop.

Testone wasn’t my favorite American Idol contestant this year, but she sure made a fan out of me when she slayed this song. I’ve always considered “Vienna” to be a blah Billy Joel tune, but Testone changes the rendition dramatically and ends with some vocal acrobatics that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before.

I jumped the gun when I put “Little Talks” on my list last year before it was getting any radio airplay. Let’s just say I’m pleasantly surprised that mainstream radio embraced this quirky twee band. While “Dirty Paws” lacks the up tempo beat that makes its predecessor a hit, I thoroughly enjoy how the vocals blend together, which is definitely the key to Of Monsters and Men’s magic.

I feel as though I can unapologetically like Mumford & Sons because I was a fan before they even crossed the pond (check the previous years’ best of lists for proof). Yeah, the band definitely had “radio-friendly” in mind as they wrote this one, but crowd-pleasers work as long as you aren’t ashamed to be part of the crowd.

This saccharine-voiced Brit has found a lot of success in the past year or so, but my favorite track is not one of her hits, but “Explosions”. It’s a dreamy track that doesn’t waste Goulding’s vocal talent by burying it under a silly electro track. True to its title, the song does in fact “explode” at a few points, and you’ll get excited each time it does.

I enjoy how the Decemberists can make a song about the apocalypse sound so irreverent. The lyrics have a deeper/darker meaning than the peppy accompaniment would suggest. Plus, Colin Meloy’s vocals – per usual – are spot on. Can’t everyone in music have a voice this distinct and pleasant sounding?

It’s the best of both worlds: this song demonstrates how to seamlessly overlay a power ballad on a legitimate dance beat. The result is something grandiose that is sure to resonate.

This song moved me to tears. Although I’m fortunate to have never dealt with substance abuse and the recovery process, I’ve never felt more empathetic to the struggle than after listening to “Starting Over”. His honesty about having to grapple with relapsing after having become a role model for sobriety is chilling.

“Whoa – is that the kind of music Fiona’s doing now?” a friend asked while hearing this song. Well, no. Her latest album’s final track definitely stands out from the rest of its (fantastically) depressing fare. But the surprise peppiness on this song is just as great as the other songs on the album – perhaps even more so given its surprise factor. I love the rounds and I love that she’s not afraid to experiment and stray from her comfort zone.

I’ve previously discussed how this song borrows more than a little from the Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way”, but I’m going to stick by my initial declaration: all boy bands should be trying to mimic what is probably the best boy band anthem ever. Granted, “One Thing” isn’t quite as great, but it’s still a lot of fun and gives me some insight as to why they have such a massive preteen following – even if that’s not true of all of their music.

If you think Ke$ha’s verses are lazy/annoying, I’m inclined to agree. But the chorus is so phenomenal that, man, does it makes the verses bearable.   

Sande has a powerful diva voice – think Celine Dion without the self-importance. At first, I thought this song about her perfect, loyal man was too hyperbolic for its own good (the lady doth protest too much), but upon second listen, I think the man in question is actually God. I don’t listen to much gospel, but if that’s what it is in this case, PREACH. It’s good enough to bring me back to church.

With a vintage, hippy vibe, I’d swear “Awake” were an omitted track from the Hair soundtrack if I didn’t know any better. No need to take psychedelics, a couple of listens to this song will transform you to a happy place. 

Santigold has struck gold by creating a dark and complex song that is still readily pleasing to the ear. Her subversive take on pop is greatly appreciated.

A little bit of the interminably upbeat Matt & Kim goes a long way. That’s why I prefer their songs that have a bit of a darker edge: it helps counterbalance the inherent peppiness. This song is pretty in-your-face, but you’re going to like it there.

Sure, plenty of people were already familiar with this standout Adele track last year, but by releasing this song as an official single in 2012, it gave us all the opportunity to enjoy it on the radio, too. The tempo changes, selective repetition, handclaps, and haunting backing vocals make it Adele’s most ambitious song to date.

16. Two Step – Bear Mountain                   
I almost exclusively prefer songs with lyrics since being able to sing along is important to me. This electro-ish song is an exception to that rule, perhaps because it’s still easy to vocalize along with at points. It’s not only a great song, but a fun way to give your mouth a workout.

After lingering as some sort of pop culture figure I just couldn’t appreciate for the past five years or so, Swift has finally released a song I’m excited about. There’s nothing country about it – if anything it dabbles in dubstep – and sounds like some kind of Michelle Branch pop/rock hit. (In case that needs clarification, that’s a good thing: I miss Michelle Branch.)

Although I’ve always thought Mars was talented, I’ve never really cared for his individual songs. (Don’t get me started on that new “your sex takes me to paradise” “Message in a Bottle” wannabe.) “It Will Rain” is the first song I liked enough to download. Who would have guessed that I would finally be swayed by a ballad inspired by the vampire love in Twilight of all things? I can’t help it – the slow build here is killer.

Reinhart’s voice can dip, warble, soar, and growl, and she showcases it all on this one song. It seems like a recipe for disaster to let loose in so many ways in such a short span, but Reinhart handles it masterfully. According to iTunes, it is the song I played the most this year… by far. I guess that’s what happens when you put a song on repeat.

12. Carried Away – Passion Pit                  
Passion Pit’s sophomore album is even better than the first. This infectious song is sure to put an instant smile on your face.

This year, I blogged about the Eurovision contest a lot and, since then, the more I’ve listened to the winning song, the more I’m enamored with it. This Moroccan-Swed has a remarkable dance hit on her hands. Whereas most dance tracks just care about making you move, this song infuses a lot of passion and emotion, bringing you to the next – dare I say euphoric – level.

Minimal musically but jam-packed lyrically, this song addressing homophobia is elevated to levels of awesome thanks to Lambert’s soulful hook. “Same Love” can get a bit preachy at points, but its intentions are pure and it’s not hard to forgive a song for confronting an issue that most of hip-hop tends to revile or ignore. 

You probably already know this song via Phillip Phillips, the most recent American Idol winner. It’s a hit, but it’s the song, not the vocals that make it special (heck, our friend with the same name twice even said he didn’t like the song). That’s why I give all the credit to the song’s writer, Greg Holden, who used to perform the song in concert. He also injects more of the whimsy that

The Idler Wheel is THE album of the year, and if I didn’t restrain myself, just about every song on the CD could be in my top 50. I’ve seen critics pick a lot of different tracks as their favorites, but I have yet to see anyone single out my personal fav, “Periphery”. Apple’s at her best when you just let her play around on the piano and wax poetic.

Last year, I put Ocean’s upbeat “Novacane” on my list, but I must admit that that song alone gave me a mistaken impression of whom he is as an artist. The man is deep, and this slow jam is a pleasant thinker. Normally, I can only take falsetto in small doses, but I just want more and more of it on this track.

Damn, it won’t take more than one listen for this song to move you. Everything about it is beautiful. Though I’ve previously known Potter as more of a rocker, this ballad with a helping of country twang is the track that will make me forever a fan. It goes to show that a song doesn’t need gimmicks to be amazing.

This is the quintessential pop song, right? It’s fun, it’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s catchy… I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t at least appreciate it on some level. Plus, I’m absolutely confident that it’s timeless: twenty and thirty years from now, there will still be references to and occasional radio play for this song whereas most other 2012 pop songs will be long forgotten. Cheers to having a great #1 pop song that is so relevantly irrelevant.

The marriage between the piano and drums here is phenomenal. Consider it a victory if you can stop at merely tapping your toes with this one because it’s going to make you want to dance.

With all due respect to Ms. Jepsen, this has to be the catchiest chorus of the year. The bouncing piano and nasty hook stayed in my head throughout 2012. Even when you start panicking halfway that you're really enjoying a white guy's rap song, he pokes fun at this fact by giving a subtle nod to Eminem. Hi, kids!

It’s a collaboration between two artists of different genres that really works. When I’m feeling a little down, this song never fails to boost my mood and get my shoulders shimmying. This is the song I’m having the hardest time writing a blurb about because I find it special for reasons I can’t describe.

I’ve heard that the constant “ho hey” chant was an afterthought that just kind of stuck, which is pretty funny considering it’s so pivotal to this song’s greatness. Well, that and the adorable group-sing at the chorus. This song shows a fun side to folk, and its commercial success is well deserved. I’ve heard it at least 100 times this year and I’m still not sick of it.

Oh, and, if you like these songs a lot, there may be a way to download all of them at once. Maybe by clicking on this link? I won’t confirm, but I imagine you’d stand a much better chance of suddenly (and perhaps illicitly) possessing all of these songs in MP3 form if you’d click that link. Just promise to at least consider financially supporting any artists you wind up loving later, okay?

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