9. Black Keys - Gold on the Ceiling
El Camino was one of the best albums of last year by far and it wasn't even the Black Keys' best work. "Lonely Boy" was a deservedly huge hit last year but this, the followup single hinted that there was more to the album than just one catchy hit. It's what they do best. Grimey, dirty, hazy, unapologetic rock, with hints of soul running throughout. Danger Mouse pops up again on the list, adding Bee Gee's-esque organ, tambourine, and nearly gospel backup singers to the production, resulting in something the Keys' have not always specialized in; having fun. It sounds dark but celebratory at the same time; retro but decidedly current. None of these are easy tricks to pull off but it never sounds labored, only effortless, like they could do it again in their sleep. Rock music is not dead yet.
8. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Stars
Some of you may be familiar with this song due to Amanda Brown's searing performance on The Voice but if that is the only version you have heard, do yourself a huge favor and get familiar with Grace Potter. This woman's voice completely derails me. It's classic and beautiful and she and her band, the Nocturnals have been consistently churning out 60s and 70s revival rock for a few albums now. Then along came "Stars", the first proper power ballad from GP&N and it's about time! This song is achingly beautiful and so, so sad. Anyone who has ever looked at the stars with someone they cared about will relate to her not being able to do so anymore, since losing said loved one. It can relate to a myriad of situations and relationships but is universally heartbreaking due to Potter's breathtaking delivery. Veering from delicate, near whisper to impassioned howl, all in the space of three and a half minutes, simply put, she sells it. Anyone who is a fan of great singers delivering great songs should take this one to heart.
7. Frank Ocean - Thinking Bout You
When Frank Ocean released his mixtape last year, he served ample notice that a new and important voice in R&B, and in music in general, was here. This, the proper first single from his debut album, channel ORANGE, is a masterpiece. Frank's voice is absolutely gorgeous. His delivery in the verses is effective and understated but when he hits his falsetto in the chorus, it is unnervingly beautiful, calling to mind Prince, Maxwell, and D'Angelo all rolled into one. The lyrics are beautiful too, expressing his desires for a relationship to really go the distance, even though he is unsure if the object of his affection is thinking along the same lines. Is there anything more universally heartbreaking than unrequited love? But Ocean makes it sound amazing, or even desirable. We will be hearing his name for decades to come. Mark my words.
6. No Doubt - Push and Shove
I was majorly geeked when I heard No Doubt was making a comeback. The first single from their new record was great. I really enjoyed it and it was a moderate hit. But then, they released "Push and Shove"...and no one played it! I am still infuriated because this is far and away their magnum opus. Adrian described it as their "Stairway to Heaven" and while them being compared to Zeppelin is ridiculous, I kind of understand what he's saying. The verses are classic No Doubt, skillfully weaving dancehall, reggae, and ska, but then the bottom falls out and the chorus drops in. And what a chorus. It is a massive, dub-esque monster of a hook, sang by what sounds like an entire choir of tracked Gwen Stefanis, all as impassioned and pissed off as ever. It is pop gold and was helmed by mastermind, Diplo. This song really shouldn't work. It's almost like two or three different songs in one but not only does it work, it's darn near perfect!
5. Friendly Fires - Hurting
I! Love! This! Band! Their sophomore album, Pala, was one of my favorites of last year. They deliriously mix eighties pop with elements of rock, funk, and even a dash of R&B. I told Tia they sounded like George Michael and Prince had a band full of babies. This song perfectly encapsulates everything they do well. A throbbing bass line, sparkling synths, percolating rhythm, and an angsty, passionate vocal. It sounds It is the kind of song that is impossible not to groove with. Seriously! Try listening to this and not moving along. It's even harder not to sing along. "Your touch keeps on hurting!" Sometimes, you just need a joyous technicolor soundtrack to make your day a little more exciting and this song provides that mercilessly.
4. Drake f/ Rihanna - Take Care
You already heard from The xx earlier in this list, but producer, Jamie xx shows up again here, delivering a dense, layered song with "Take Care", finally realizing the potential often spoke of regarding Drake. This song is elegant, artful, patient, and unfussy, not often the marks of a hip-hop song, but maybe this shouldn't even be considered hip-hop. Whatever it's considered, one thing is for sure: it is the best work either artist has ever put out; Drake sounding less emo and more empathic and Rihanna sounding warm and nurturing, more human than any of her albums have ever allowed her, again hinting at range, this time in her lower register, that she hadn't previously engaged. Once the spoken word segment from Gil Scott-Heron begins, complete with tribal drums pounding away, you realize this song is more of an event, bringing together disparate elements that somehow fuse seamlessly into gorgeous art.
3. Taylor Swift - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Go ahead and roll your eyes if you must but this is, for me, the catchiest, most well-written pop song...like...ever. Ok, at least of this year. Don't let its brattiness throw you off. Taylor is a master of songcraft and when her prowess met up with pop mastermind Max Martin (responsible for Since U Been Gone and Oops I Did It Again to name a few), what else could happen but pop perfection? There is nothing wrong with this song. The guitar riff is great. Taylor sounds great. Every single thing she sings is a hook. Honestly, try to sing the "oo-oo-oo-ooh" pre-chorus around people and find anyone who doesn't get it stuck in their head. I'll wait. Plus, the break down phone conversation in the middle brilliantly captures the drama and finality of teenage relationships. Say whatever you want about this, but it is absolute perfect pop and I will be too busy singing along to listen anyway.
2. Usher - Climax
I have missed Usher. I realize he never really went anywhere but his foray into dance pop has become increasingly frustrating. Here is the premier R&B star of his generation and he was releasing songs like "OMG" and "DJ Got Us Falling In Love". Nothing is wrong with those songs but they don't even come close to the mastery of songs like "Nice and Slow", "U Got It Bad", or even "Burn". Where was my R&B Usher? Who was I supposed to look to? Chris Brown? Trey Songz? No thank you. So when I read the title of this song, I honestly didn't listen for about two weeks. I figured the title gave away just about everything in the lyrical content. I am so, so glad I decided to listen. This is Usher's best single. Period. Diplo makes yet another appearance on my list, his production mirroring the lyrical content, simmering, brewing, percolating, and then right before hitting a climax, settling back down. The push and pull is what makes this song so brilliant and Mr. Raymond serves up a stunning vocal to match. Right when it seems he is pushed to the edge of his voice, he pulls back again, utilizing his beautiful falsetto at times and showing the richness and fullness available in his chest voice in the stunning bridge. Thank God for this song. Please, Usher, keep going in this direction. You were made to sing like this.
1. Alabama Shakes - Hold On
If you just heard of Alabama Shakes due to their Best New Artist Grammy nomination, you still have plenty of time to educate yourself before they hand out the hardware in February. Who knows if they will win but honestly who cares? This is the most exciting new band to come along in years. This song is their debut single and is my favorite song of 2012. It fuses classic rock with 60s soul, while still managing to sound somewhat modern. Those who mourn current music and yearn for throwbacks need to listen immediately. This song rolls along with a classic guitar riff and solid rhythm and percussion, but it is all ultimately a showcase for lead singer, Brittany Howard's voice. And my God, what a voice! Imagine if Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding had a baby. I realize those are three of the most legendary voices of all time and please believe I don't just throw them around casually. This girl will be a legend one day if given the right material. She is otherworldy. During the verses, she is soulful and rich, almost swallowing the verses with her world-weariness but then the chorus happens and at the end of it, she leans back and wails out, "Oh, you got to WAIT!" and it is a near-religious experience. You simply have to hear it to believe it and if you haven't yet, please bless yourself and take a listen. If this is only the beginning, I can't wait to hear what else they have up their sleeves.