What struck me when preparing to write this introduction wasn’t what made our list of the best singles of 2012, but what didn’t. Ubiquity is the surest way to kill a song, and surviving nonstop airplay, covers, and Internet memes is often the purest test of a truly great single. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” landed at #12 on our list last year, before pop radio decided to (deservedly, but seemingly at random) pluck the New Zealander out of indie obscurity, but it likely still would have made our list again this year had it been eligible. And though the song didn’t make it, even Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” scored a couple of mentions (only the most hardened of music lovers didn’t let themselves succumb to this earworm for at least one day). On the other hand, Fun.’s “We Are Young” didn’t appear on anyone’s ballot, though it was nice to see Janelle Monáe on top of the charts where she belongs. And while there were a few K-pop songs shortlisted this year (including EXO-K’s “History” and Sistar’s “Alone”), the genre’s sole genuine crossover hit, PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” was decidedly not one of them.
What did make our list is a collection of songs that either survived their airwaves onslaught (by my count, Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” was playing simultaneously on three different L.A. radio stations at one point this summer) or deserved more (if “Somebody That I Used to Know” could cross over, why can’t Dirty Projectors’ “Gun has No Trigger”?). Trend-spotting is always a dubious enterprise, but characters, both real and imagined, made for good song titles this year, some of which were generously sprinkled throughout our Top 75, including Andrew the drag queen, noted cancer patient Henrietta Lacks (Yeasayer’s “Henrietta”), and the titular other woman of Norah Jones’s “Miriam.” The ’80s are still being mined for gems (by Jessie Ware and Santigold, who both appear twice on our list), as are the early ’90s (Azealia Banks’s pointedly titled “1991”), which can only mean one thing: Expect the return of R&B girl groups singing about scrubs and bills, bills, bills once we go over the proverbial fiscal cliff. Sal Cinquemani
Editor’s Note: Check out our list of the 25 Best Albums of 2012.
Liars, “No. 1 Against the Rush”
Liars’ best songs are about finding an idyll of relative calm within the hazy welter of peripheral noise. In “No. 1 Against the Rush,” it’s the undulating electronic pattern at the songs core, which transitions from a surging sine wave to a boxy circuitous loop, giving shape to the waves of synth and noise that surround it. Meanwhile, lead singer Angus Andrew offloads the usual cryptic lyrical gibberish, more focused on the shape of the words than their meaning, especially on the “again and again and again” verse endings. It’s another mesmerizing ode to obscurity from one of the most satisfyingly weird bands working today. Jesse Cataldo
The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew in Drag”
Less fantastical and wistful than most Magnetic Fields tracks, “Andrew in Drag” is also one of Stephen Merritt’s most emotionally acute missives, with an emotional core that stands out amid all the barbs and entendres, focused on the titular character, an object of affection who doesn’t really exist, the result of a one-off gag drag performance by a heterosexual guy. Shaping an especially catchy rendering of his melancholy for the happiness existing just beyond his fingertips, the singer offers a blend of pained resignation and bottomless ennui with each mention of the titular name, resulting in a perfect expression of wryly inflected longing. Cataldo
Santigold, “Big Mouth”
Dark, delusional, and dense with indictment, “Big Mouth” offers kiss-off lyrics to nameless haters. Its entrancing qualities are principally rhythmic and harmonic: Throughout Master of My Make-Believe, Santigold uses staccato twitches in her voice as a way to complete a beat, and this technique lies at the heart of “Big Mouth,” a track built otherwise on drum and bass, high-pitched faux-Gregorian chant, and the chugging stutter of a processed drumline. It’s a rave at a church, a neck-breaker that also feels like judgment day. The semi-scrutable lyrics project a knowing self-control that matches the steady thrust of the song. One imagines those downbeat references to Ke$ha and Gaga are intentional. But then one promptly forgets, and submits to the beat. Ted Scheinman
Meek Mill featuring Drake, “Amen”
Following the release of “Amen,” Philadelphia reverend and self-proclaimed hip-hop fan Jomo K. Johnson made a show of publicly denouncing the track, revoking Meek Mill’s “hood pass” for the general disrespect conveyed therein. It’s hard to see what there is to get so worked about; even with the constant invocations of God’s house and Meek’s general malicious murmuring, “Amen” is about as harmless as modern rap tracks come, a good-natured backyard burble that’s pushes the off-color references to the background, more about the interplay between Meek’s off-the-cuff charm, a twinkling keyboard riff, and a wheezing organ line, possessing such a sturdy musical base that even Drake’s goofy verse feels right. Cataldo
No Doubt, “Push and Shove”
No Doubt would have had to come back with a vengeance to justify its lead singer squandering a prosperous solo career in order to (admirably) regroup with her pals for their first studio album since before Osama bin Laden became a household name. Push and Shove’s first single, the catchy dancehall-pop hybrid “Settle Down,” is in many ways quintessential No Doubt, but the album’s title track had the potential to make a much more potent impact as a lead single, boldly pushing and shoving the quartet forward while maintaining their signature sound the way the first singles from their previous two albums did so successfully. Co-produced by Major Lazer, the reggae-fusion party anthem leaps from genre to genre and tempo to tempo with the kind of dexterity that can only be achieved by a band that’s remained as tight—and for as long—as No Doubt has. Cinquemani