Search Menu

The Ten Best Songs of 2012

The Ten Best Songs of 2012

Let's be real here. Viral tunes are dandy—but they don't need us anymore. The Internet spent a solid year pitching woo to "Call Me Maybe," so why belabor the point again? And there's nothing more any of us need to do for the YouTube-topping tyranny of "Gangnam Style." And even if we all suddenly forgot the chorus to "We Are Young," that gash in the ozone our ten billion off-key summer singalongs created ain't going nowhere.

Ubiquitous songs like these are testaments to their own power, but in their ear-wormy wake a lot of great things can go unnoticed. 2012 was a phenomenal year for phenomenally heartfelt music. We submit the following list to you in honor of songs that may not have earned the viral traffic of a Carly Rae or Taylor Swizz, but nonetheless vault themselves—and us— into a pants-off-passionate pit of sticky emotion.

These are songs that made us want to fall in love and songs that made us want to be alone forever. These are songs that made us want to dance, and songs that made us want to jump through plate-glass windows with a dozen Valentines roses clamped in our teeth. These are songs that, in one way or another, achieved that small miracle of music, and patterned a bunch of invisible vibrations into a collective that somehow made our brains, and our butts, feel feelings.

Here are our 10 favorite songs of 2012, and what they made us feel…

1. The song that broke our hearts
"Bad Religion" by Frank Ocean

Even if Frank hadn't already wooed us—if he didn't spout the best bars on "No Church In The Wild," or drop that sweet&sour Nostalgia Ultra mixtape last year, or crack his chest open on tumblr to describe the crushing romance with another man that partially inspired his music on Channel Orange—even if none of that happened, there'd be no denying the heartbreaking beauty of this song. In Frank's too-sage-for-Top-40 words, "unrequited love to me is nothing but a one-man cult." And the only way out of that kind of gig is drinking the Kool Aid. Cruel. Beautiful. True. Music as it oughta be.

Honorable mention: "Be Good (Lion's Song)" by Gregory Porter

2. The song that gave us hope again
"How" by Regina Spektor

Regina could take the plot to Night At The Museum and make it poetry. Literally—she did; it's called "All The Rowboats."  But of all the splendid stories Ms. Spektor sings on What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, "How" bites harder than any sentient t-rex skeleton in the gallery. Equal parts obituary for a broken relationship and premonition of a brighter future, this song is the best and worst parts of love shrunken to a gorgeous, four-minute sigh.

(Note: If Regina and I ever marry, as per my dream journal, our babies will be Spektor-Specktors.)

Honorable mention: "I Belong in Your Arms" by Chairlift

3. The song that most made us want to bike naked through Golden Gate Park
"Flood's New Light" by Thee Oh Sees

John Dwyer and friends set to tape some 200-plus songs throughout the last five years of their quest to explode a San Francisco garage using only guitars, and their newest album, Putrifiers II, boasts a few of the best. "Flood's New Light" is pure tambourine-smackin', endorphin-jammin', "ba-ba-ba" babblin' joy, and it only gets better with every friend you can amass for the off-key karaoke tribute.

Honorable mention: "I Am Not A Game" by Ty Segall and White Fence

4. The song that made us want to smooch on our pillows
"Kaleidoscope Dream" by Miguel

The title track from his glorious new R&B sleepover truly, Kaleidoscope Dream, combines everything that is great about this album; the track beats with bass stronger than a Hagrid hug, pays loving tribute to guitar-caressing afro legend Shuggie Otis, and—best of all—runs 100% free of those goofy ostrich noises Miguel makes all over radio single "Adorn." Sink in.

Honorable mention: "Climax" by Usher

5. The song that made us daydream
"Every Single Night" by Fiona Apple

Toy piano plinks are creepy—but, then again, so is emerging from a seven-year retirement with an octopus on your head. Whatever private underwater dungeon '90s firebrand Fiona has been plumbing on her hiatus, it's toughened her up for the most honest set of songs of her career, and some of the oddest ear-worms of 2012. Case in point, "Every Single Night," a painfully relatable monologue about the daily war with the demons—and, uh, giant squids—that keep us up inventing fanfiction about our ceiling tiles until 3am.

Honorable Mention: Divine Fits "Would that Not Be Nice"

6. The song that made us feel badass, even though we were just driving to school
"Bad Girls" by M.I.A.

RT if you love this song. RT if you LOVE this music video. RT if you tried to get your car up on two wheels and file your nails that way she does. RT if you totally ate it and took down a light post in the Walmart parking lot and got your license revoked. RT if you blast "Bad Girls" from a unicycle now.

…Nobody else? Just me?

Well… "Bad Girls" is still the jam.

Honorable Mention: "Weatherman" by Dead Sara

7. The song that made us angsty
"Stay Useless" by Cloud Nothings

Mmm, haven't tasted adolescent bitters like this since early Green Day! These midwest basement twerps have cooked the perfect soundtrack for bolting down the street in impotent rage, questioning everything and flipping off traffic. I only wish I could experience Cloud Nothings for the first time as a pissy middle-school senior, then contract amnesia (from too much head-banging, natch) and experience them for the first time again as a confuzzled college freshman. But now's okay too.

Honorable Mention: "Born To Lose" by Sleigh Bells

8. The song that made us happy to just be alive
"The House That Heaven Built" by Japandroids

When Japandroids performed this song in New York recently, they offered a disclaimer: "If you don't know it, that's cool. It'll take about three seconds to learn." This song (and their whole Celebration Rock bonanza) is bare-bones in the best possible way; an instant-gratification, fist-pumping guitar anthem that deserves the title "party rock" more than anything LMFAO's 'nanner hammocks ever wiggled into being. Thank heavens it's in the house tonight.

Honorable Mention: "Hold On" by Alabama Shakes

9. The song that made us want to run slow-motion victory laps
"Green Theme" by Baroness

This instrumental rock-pocalypse from Yellow/Green—the monster new double LP by Georgia swamp shredders Baroness—is epic. And we don't take that word lightly. Dudes: this is the shizz Aragorn listens to before freestyle tobogganing down Mount Doom on cave troll carcasses. This is the first track on Katniss Everdeen's "Rockingjay" survival mix, and probably the only reason she won that weird contest. If you make out to the climax of this song, the moon WILL explode. We've seen it happen. Listen responsibly.

Honorable Mention: "Gone in Bloom and Bough" by Caspian

10. The song that made us want to fight for love
"Five Seconds" by Twin Shadow

The lyrics are about the wicked paradox of being at once painfully close and painfully far from reaching a mutual level of love with another person. The video is about a daredevil biker rescuing his #1 bro from a gang of shirtless forest bandits (based on scenes from frontman George Lewis Jr.'s dystopia novel—no bull). The music is a looming cityscape of synthesizers, tickling guitars, and desperate echos of George's own love-lorn larynx. So…where do we sign up to make this the soundtrack to our lives?

Honorable Mention: "Madness" by Muse

How would you fill in these categories?
What were your favorite songs this year, and what did they make you feel?

Topics: Life
Tags: music, lists, 2012, videos, top of 2012

Write your own comment!

About the Author
Brandon Specktor

For 22 years, Brandon was a fat kid living in Tucson, AZ, which gave him lots and lots of time to write. He now works at a magazine in New York City, but still loves writing almost as much as he loves muffins.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email