Island Def Jam

The 25 Best Singles of 2012


Usher, “Climax”

Both Diplo’s presence at the mixing board and the track’s similarities to the Weeknd’s drugged-out brand of R&B made “Climax” safe for tastemakers to like without sacrificing their street cred. Ultimately, though, it’s Usher’s masterful vocal turn that makes the single so effective. His lithe falsetto has never sounded better, but it’s the deliberate, measured patience of his performance that’s most impressive, particularly the way he slowly slides into notes and crescendos with each phrase in the song’s bridge. While so many of his contemporaries settle for singing that merely signifies emotions instead of actually evoking them, Usher’s delivery plays into the double entendre in the song’s title by methodically creating and then releasing tension.  Jonathan Keefe


Bat for Lashes, “Laura”

Natasha Khan knows how to inject just the right amount of showmanship into a song before things get too melodramatic, and the towering “Laura” stands as her best effort in straddling the line between her usual baroque-pop and the innate power of breathless histrionics. Building up like a grand stage production, “Laura” is most powerful when Khan reins in to humanize, rather than idolize, one of her familiar heroines: a wonderfully flawed, perhaps even delusional, starlet left withering without her spotlight. Fortunately, the proceedings never get too weepy, nor the swirling piano too syrupy, in our encounter with Khan’s delicate, tragic tale of faded celebrity.  Kevin Liedel


Kelly Hogan, “Plant White Roses”

“Plant White Roses” marks the second time in Kelly Hogan’s career, following a cover of “Papa Was a Rodeo” from the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, that she’s taken one of Stephin Merritt’s downbeat pop songs and roped it into the country genre, making it sound like it’s always belonged there. Hogan’s greatest gift as an interpretive singer is her ability to fully inhabit even the most multifaceted of narrators, and that skill aligns perfectly with Merritt’s dense songwriting. “Plant White Roses” is one of Merritt’s finest efforts, and Hogan sings the line “You’re all I need/But you need more than country songs” with a blend of cutting self-deprecation and genuine heartbreak.  Keefe


Jessie Ware, “110%”

Mood and minimalism reign on “110%,” where British newcomer Jessie Ware uses hushed come-hithers and laidback sensuality to display a mastery of soulful synth-pop. The track harkens back to the simplicity of late-’70s quiet storm, an evening jam bubbling up and down with little more than some diligent percussion, a cloud of barely there synths, and a pitch-shifted Big Pun sample. Ware herself is both angelic and teasing, imploring her hesitant lover to join in on that proverbial dance of seduction with sweet but direct sexual provocations. “I know you hear me, but can you reach me?” she calls. “Feel free to touch me, and we can play hard”  Liedel


Alicia Keys featuring Nicki Minaj, “Girl on Fire”

The Beatles knew that a song about self-empowerment requires a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic—hence those Lennon lines about beating his wife in “Getting Better” Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj are a fitting pair for this formula, and “Girl on Fire” grooves on the interplay between Keys’s positive reinforcement and Minaj’s gimlet-eyed offerings. Minaj plays the stuntwoman here, opening the track with a morbid sequence of agile rhymes and interposing unexpectedly to offer wisdom halfway through. Those doom-struck opening lines distil a nightmare of Marilyn Monroe: “And she brought a gun with her/Pills and some rum with her” The message is that any “girl on fire” (read: super diva) should avoid the glamour of self-destruction, even if she’s aflame with inspiration and maybe has a little steam to burn off. It’s a salutary lesson, and Keys nails the chorus to the back of the stadium.  Scheinman