From Rack City to the Gangnam District, pop music was a fun place to visit in 2012. We reconnected with old friends (Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj) and made some new ones as well (One Direction, fun., Our Girl...well, you know her name), with about as many different sounds and styles contending for our affections as we can remember in a long, long time.
2013 is already shaping up to be a year to be reckoned with as well, with new releases from 2012 absentees like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé on the way, but to quote the man Frank Ocean, we do not think so far ahead. So relive the year that was with our list of the 100 Best Songs of 2012—the boy-band songs, the one-hit wonders, the dancefloor anthems and the instant classics that made the year so unforgettable. Mayans, do your worst.
And by the way: Check out the rest of our year-end coverage, too!
100. TWIN SHADOW, "FIVE SECONDS"
A worthy successor to M83's "Midnight City" as the year's best, most lushly romantic '80s-inspired synth-pop song, with a title and hook that demands emotional urgency in an effectively literal manner. —Andrew Unterberger
99. DAVID GUETTA FEAT. SIA, "TITANIUM"
The French DJ's foolproof method of pairing treadmill-worthy beats with an above average female crooner gets new life with this inspirational take on metallics. —Emily Exton
98. NELLY FURATDO, "PARKING LOT"
It didn't get much attention after first single "Big Hoops" tanked, but Nelly's second Spirit Indestructible single "Parking Lot" was awesome, riding an inscrutably funky stomp-clap hook, with Nelly playfully serving as head head cheerleader: "Meet us in the parking lot / We're gonna turn the speakers up / 'Coz we ain't doin' nothin'." —A.U.
97. SOLANGE, "LOSING YOU"
Beyonce's little sister has a style and sound all her own on this somewhat regretful, somewhat empowering track. When paired with her effortlessly cool video (thanks to enviable dancing and wardrobe), it's clear S is going to be all right with or without out the boy in question. —E.E.
96. BAAUER, "HARLEM SHAKE"
Don't be surprised if this abrasive-but-impossibly-catchy jam ultimately ends up being sampled by as many pop and hip-hop songs as Major Lazer's "Pon de Replay"—its prickly, lurching groove gets under your skin like no other song since. —A.U.
95. GRIMES, "OBLIVION"
The shimmering, shimmying nocturnal pop gem off Canadian pixie Grimes' acclaimed Visions album, made all the more memorable by an exceedingly cute and unpretentious music video. —A.U.
94. R. KELLY, "SHARE MY LOVE"
Kellz is back with an instructional anthem for the people that should only be remembered for one word: "Populate." —E.E.
93. MIRANDA LAMBERT, "OVER YOU"
Miranda's ballad of loss and heartbreak, co-written by husband Blake Shelton about a real-life tragedy, would have endured for its heart-rending rawness ("You went away / How dare you? / I miss you!") anyway, but Lambert maybe owes Cassadee Pope a thank-you card for turning it into one of the biggest reality TV hits of the year as well. —A.U.
92. CONOR MAYNARD, "CAN'T SAY NO"
2012 saw many claimants to Justin Timberlake's vacant throne, but none could match the swagger of the young JT like this Apollo 13- quoting Brit. -Nate Jones
91. JASON MRAZ, "I WON'T GIVE UP"
Mraz's third big hit, spaced over the course of a decade, was maybe his best, the first time when his goofy personality failed to overwhelm the strong pop songwriting underneath, resulting in a sweet love song that should be soundtracking married couples' first dances for decades to come. —A.U.
For songs #90-81, click NEXT.
90. CHIEF KEEF FEAT. KANYE WEST, PUSHA T, BIG SEAN, JADAKISS, "DON'T LIKE.1"
In G.O.O.D. Music's take on the Chicago up-and-comer's breakout hit, you can practically feel crazy pupils of Pusha T burn deep into your skin as he barrels through his opening verse (woo!). Kanye's health conscious diet plan makes you forget about his flawed knowledge of 1999's In Too Deep. —E.E.
89. LEE HI, "1 2 3 4"
2007's neo-soul invasion finally reached South Korea with this smash hit from Survival K-Pop Star winner Lee Hi, who sings with a Winehousian groove with that belies her 16 years. —N.J.
88. NAS, "DAUGHTERS"
Life is Good was Nas' best-received album in ages largely because it was his most personal—perhaps nowhere moreso than on "Daughters," an honest, moving account of Nas' realization that he "ain't always been the strictest parent," and how his little girl's rapid maturation is creating questions for him he never thought he'd have to answer. —A.U.
87. OLLY MURS, "HEART SKIPS A BEAT"
Britain's Olly Murs will likely have no better chance to break into America than on the back of this reggae-tinged dance track, with a hook that just-just-just won't quit. —N.J.
86. ERIC CHURCH, "SPRINGSTEEN"
No, it wasn't actually Born in the U.S.A. that inspired Eric Church's country chart-topper, but that doesn't diminish the emotional impact of "Springsteen," a ballad that captures the feeling of being transported by a song to a time and place like few others. —A.U.
85. M.I.A., "BAD GIRLS"
There may have been no cooler sound in music this year than the shifting muezzen-style synths in "Bad Girls," a call to M.I.A.'s own unique kind of prayer —N.J.
84. MUMFORD AND SONS, "I WILL WAIT"
Among the earnest banjo-driven folk that filled the Sons' second LP, lead single "I Will Wait" stood out by tweaking the formula—it's the only Mumford song to start at the climax. —N.J.
83. CA$H OUT, "CASHIN' OUT"
It would be borderline-shocking if we ever heard from Ca$h Out again, but he cemented his place in hip-hop lore with the super-hooky, super-fun "Cashin' Out." Sing along with us now: "Riding with a ho named Keisha smokin' on Keisha (Smokin' on Keisha!).... " —A.U.
82. RIHANNA, "DIAMONDS"
RiRi's subdued Unapologetic lead single is a slow-burner that takes flight with powerful, and repetitive, aural punctuation created by her Bajan accent. —E.E.
81. RITA ORA, "HOW WE DO (PARTY)"
Somewhat of a sister-song to Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," only the British newcomer spends more time focusing on living guilt-free in the present than regretting her hazy past, while remembering to acknowledge the Notorious BIG. A style we can get behind. —E.E.
For songs #80-71, click NEXT.
80. WOLFGANG GARTNER, "FLEXX"
If Wolfgang Gartner ever decided to focus his attention from making visceral, exciting, unpredictable house singles like "Flexx" to making watered-down EDM-pop with celebrity vocalists, he could probably be as big as David Guetta. We hope he never does. —A.U.
79. THE BAND PERRY, "BETTER DIG TWO"
Having already expressed their willingness to die young, The Band Perry took it a step further this year with the delightfully unsettling "Better Dig Two," in which Kimberly Perry promises/threatens to follow her lover to the grave if need be. Country would be a better place if more songs aimed to be this uncomfortable. —A.U.
78. CHAIRLIFT, "I BELONG IN YOUR ARMS"
Love songs this sweet rarely also have this kind of energy, paced here by a pitch-prefect '80s drum-machine beat, a relentless bass line, and the frenetic breathiness of singer Caroline Polachek, crying "Because the world goes on without us / It doesn't matter what we do / All silhouettes with no regrets / When I'm melting into you." —A.U.
77. RICK ROSS FEAT. DRAKE & FRENCH MONTANA, "STAY SCHEMIN"
The many cultural contributions of "Stay Schemin'" considered, the song's legacy will ultimately be two-fold: Coining both the year's most unlikely buzzword ("Fanute," devised on accident by French Montana) and the year's most unlikely singalong catchphrase ("BITCH YOU WASN'T WITH ME SHOOTIN' IN THE GYYYYYM!!").
76. HALEY REINHART, "FREE"
This American Idol product looked to break away from the molds and/or curses of reality television with a confident, twang-heavy introduction that showcases the kind of sanging that drove Steven Tyler (and FOX audiences) wild. —E.E.
75. PASSION PIT, "CONSTANT CONVERSATIONS"
Passion Pit's Gossamer album contained a handful of the year's most compelling, off-kilter pop songs, perhaps none more so than "Constant Conversations," a falsetto-heavy ballad about alcoholism and paranoia whose most devastating lyric might still be the wordless "Oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhhhh" chant of the chorus. —A.U.
74. TAYLOR SWIFT FEAT. THE CIVIL WARS, "SAFE AND SOUND"
Featured on the Hunger Games soundtrack, Swift's haunting performance reminds us that her music doesn't only serve to air dirty laundry. Pairing her willowy air with the (arguably dysfunctional) duo creates lingering sense of mystery. —E.E.
73. CHRISTINA AGUILERA, "RED HOT KINDA LOVE"
Someone with more knowledge about the inner workings of the music industry is going to have to explain to us why the turgid "Your Body" got Xtina's big comeback single push instead of this perfectly effervescent morsel of cotton-candy pop. —N.J.
72. USHER, "DIVE"
Usher's seventh album treated us to the year's most operatic sex jam, as Ursh worships his lover's body (and her, uh, biological fluids) in loving melisma: "your legs, your thiiiiiiiiiiighs!" —N.J.
71. BEST COAST, "DREAMING MY LIFE AWAY"
Surf-pop Cali boosters Best Coast's second album didn't have as many Shangri-Las-worthy gems as its first, but it did have the lovely (albeit unsettling) "Dreaming My Life Away," a more dischordant, disorienting type of song for the band, but one that finds completely new layers in the group's sound and emotional impact. —A.U.
For songs #70-61, click NEXT.
70. NICKI MINAJ, "STUPID HOE"
The sound of Nicki Minaj, purified and mainlined. If you're not all that much for Her Minajesty, it might send you out of the room screaming, if you love her as much as we do, it's one of the Top 100 Songs of the Year. —A.U.
69. PINK, "BLOW ME (ONE LAST KISS)"
Pink's world-weary diva act was in fine form in 2012, and no better than on The Truth About Love's exuberantly stinging first single. As that supersonic upshift in the pre-chorus proves, even after ten years in the game, Alecia Moore can still surprise. —N.J.
68. OWL CITY & CARLY RAE JEPSEN, "GOOD TIME"
When twentysomething teenybopper Carly Rae Jepsen gets together with the eminently friendzoneable Adam Young, you know platonic fun times are in order. That's the case in this enjoyably PG party song, where the hedonism is limited to staying up past your bedtime and dropping your phone in a pool. —N.J.
67. SCHOOLBOY Q, "THERE HE GO"
Schoolboy Q's Habits and Contradictions wasn't one of the best rap albums of the year because of Q's intricate rhyming or thoughftul lyrics—the dude just had a great ear for beats and a great talent for hooks. Best of the LP's 18 gems was "There He Go," with a bellowing bass (or is it cello?) hook and a three-word title hook you'll be shrieking to yourself for days after. —A.U.
66. LEMONADE, "NEPTUNE"
While most of the cool kids are still trying to revive the '80s, Brooklyn pop trio Lemonade haves smarly moved on to the early '90s, and their single "Neptune" is a chill (and we mean chill) R&B ballad worthy of a PM Dawn or Shai crossover. The group's specific retro fetishes could prove to be well ahead of their time. —A.U.
65. ADAM LAMBERT, "KICKIN IN"
A worthy recipient of Pharrell's most Off the Wall reminiscent production, the Glam One takes flight following a searing synth introduction that feels like we've been transported inside of a pinball machine. There's belting, whispers and vocal modulation galore, all mounting to Lambert blowing us away with his high-octave howl in the final 30 seconds that make this track deserving of back-to-back party plays. —E.E.
64. HUNTER HAYES, "WANTED"
If country heartthrob Hunter Hayes was a little bit less good, he'd probably come off as considerably creepy, but love songs like "Wanted" are solid enough in their classic AAC roots—think Edwin McCain's "I'll Be" or Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris"—that when you hear his pleas to "put aside the math and the logic," you'll very likely end up adhering. —A.U.
63. RIHANNA FEAT. CHRIS BROWN, "NOBODY'S BUSINESS"
Given how much Rihanna and Chris Brown seemed to troll is this year, "Nobody's Business" had to be pretty good for us to not just automatically hate it. For better or worse, it was—a fun throwback of a dance-pop jam that proves that when Rihanna apes Micheal Jackson, no amount of bad Twitter PR can hold her back. —A.U.
62. SLEIGH BELLS, "COMEBACK KID"
Miami-via-Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells' attempts to meld metal shredding and girl-group pop hooks on Reign on Terror ended with some mixed results, but lead single "Comeback Kid" was the album's unqualified success, the most gently rousing headbanger of the year, like something from a Karate Kid remake directed by Spike Jonze. —A.U.
61. AZEALIA BANKS, "JUMANJI"
It's a milestone in Bank's young career: On this mixtape cut, the Harlem rapper finally got a beat as bombastic as her verses. While Banks' 1991 EP was unmistakably the product of New York City, "Jumanji" sounds like an amazing fantasyland, one where Missy Elliot sings "Under the Sea" in the middle of a circus. —N.J.
For songs #60-51, click NEXT.
60. BIG BANG, "BAD BOY"
Few K-pop singles are involving enough that you barely even have time to notice that they're in another language, but Big Bang's hip-hop ballad does the trick, with sweeping production, swag to spare, an enjoyably understated video, and two English lyrics on the chorus that carry the song's emotional content on their lonesome: "I'm sorry I'm a bad boy / You a good girl." —A.U.
59. JAPANDROIDS, "THE HOUSE THAT HEAVEN BUILT"
The most purposefully anthemic rock song not just of 2012 but really in any amount of time that we can remember back to, all huge riffs and drum rolls and WOAH-OH-OH-OHOHOH-OH-OHs. Every other rock song from this year sounds uncommitted by comparison. —A.U.
58. THE WANTED, "I FOUND YOU"
The Wanted left their first album in the dust with "I Found You," an absolutely scorching accordion-and-falsetto-led floor-filler that proved the distance between "Glad You Came" and late-'70s Rolling Stones wasn't nearly as big as we might have previously thought. Let's make it a hit, already. —A.U.
57. JUSTIN BIEBER, "THOUGHT OF YOU"
A stellar Believe cut deserving of more attention than some of the bigger name feature credits. While working through whether these all-consuming feelings are the signs of love or infatuation, the Bieb's vocals soar to new heights over Diplo's mounting beats. —E.E.
56. KANYE WEST FT. BIG SEAN & JAY-Z, "CLIQUE"
Jay-Z sleeps through his verse, and Big Sean is once again endured rather than enjoyed. Then comes Kanye, and two minutes of madness that find Yeezy comparing Maybachs with George Tenet, contemplating suicide and defending Tom Cruise against nonexistent domestic violence allegations. Who told him they were trying on this one? —N.J.
55. ZEDD FEAT. MATTHEW KOMA, "SPECTRUM"
Dance music is typically all tension and release, but in "Spectrum," the tension never really goes away, a couple odd chorus changes and an off kilter vocal from Matthew "I'm Dating Carly Rae Jepsen!" Koma resulting in one of the year's most mysterious—though still extremely catchy—EDM hits. —A.U.
54. ONE DIRECTION, "ONE THING"
The fellas want the girl they're interested in to know exactly how they feel, and aren't afraid to look crazy while singing about it. From climbing the walls to losing their cool, young love has settled in early and the boys are going to do their damnedest to get things to more forward—quickly—via bouncy guitar, patented percussion and a sprawling collection of "oh-oh-ohs" that's impossible not to sing along with. —E.E.
53. MUSE, "MADNESS"
The theatrical Brits bite from U2 and Queen even more shamelessly than before on The 2nd Law's first single, and their sound is all the better for it. When the four-part harmony chimes in on "Ma-a-a-a-adness," you'll wonder why it ever went out of style. —N.J.
52. JAY-Z FEAT. B.I.C., "GLORY"
The earliest scrapbook entry from the Carter family shows some of Hov's most revealing lyrics to date. Honest accounts of pre-and-post-pregnancy feelings rev up our tear ducts before the coos of the Most Famous Baby in the World officially open them for business. —E.E.
51. TANLINES, "ALL OF ME"
An all-out jam that will not be ignored. The Brooklyn duo's most blissful track on this year's Mixed Emotions makes us feel like it's summertime all the time. It's also one that's sure to help your mother, brother and grandmother quickly move from foot-tapping to all-out convulsions in a "dance like no one's watching"-type way we've heard so much about. —E.E.
For songs #50-41, click NEXT.
50. TAYLOR SWIFT, "I KNEW YOU WERE TROUBLE"
Lost underneath all the headlines about Taylor going dubstep was this song's skillful character sketch: a portrait of a player, painted with a surprising amount of empathy. —N.J.
49. CARRIE UNDERWOOD, "BLOWN AWAY"
The queen of country borrows some pages from the Kelly Clarkson playbook on the title track for her fourth LP, but despite her new rock sound Underwood still keeps things decidedly heartland: How many east-coasters could dream up the idea of manslaughter by tornado? —N.J.
48. RICK ROSS, "HOLD ME BACK"
Almost 75% of the song consists of monotonous chanting about how much [insert the condescending term of choice for your enemies] won't stop you from getting yours, but after a couple of consecutive spins it really becomes an affirmation. Rozay knows! —E.E.
47. THE-DREAM FEAT. PUSHA T, "DOPE BITCH"
Pop fans seem to prefer The-Dream's hits when he stays behind the decks these days, but "Dope Bitch" should have been massive, a skin-crawlingly addictive plink-plink piano hook adorning Dream's just-this-side-of-backhanded ode anthem to his bad girl. (The "And I mean no disrespect by this next line" qualifier helps.) —A.U.
46. JOEY BADA$$, "WORLD DOMINATION"
New York hip-hop's most promising rookie uses an MF Doom-borrowed piano shuffle and an almost-too-appropriate "Pinky and the Brain" sample to announce his imminent rule, running on a lyrical platform of "No beef like noodles." He'll get there soon enough. —A.U.
45. JUSTIN BIEBER FEAT. DRAKE, "RIGHT HERE"
Canada's favorite boys team up on a slick Believe track that allows Drizzy to stretch his vocal muscles and Bieber to brag a little in front of his pals in The Wanted. —E.E.
44. ELLIE GOULDING, "LIGHTS"
The little pop song that could, "Lights" crawled its way into the nation's hearts over the first half of 2012 with its twinkling production, subtle hookiness, and extremely game vocal from Goulding—with the music-video performance of the year to match. —A.U.
43. MIGUEL, "PUSSY IS MINE"
Nice boys like Miguel aren't supposed to talk like that! But what seems initially like a boorish boast reveals itself over the course of the song to be something much more vulnerable, as Miguel pleads for his lover to pretend she's been faithful to him: "So just lie to me, lie to me, lie to me, lie to me / I don't want to believe anyone is just like me." As a portrait of male insecurity, it's a killer. —N.J.
42. FLORENCE & THE MACHINE, "SPECTRUM (SAY MY NAME) (CALVIN HARRIS REMIX)"
"Sweet Nothing" is the song currently racing up the US charts, but "Spectrum" was the Calvin-Florence collaboration that really burned the disco down in 2012, proving that when given a syncopated piano hook to wail over, Ms. Welch has more Martha Wash in her than we ever could have anticipated. —A.U.
41. G-DRAGON, "CRAYON"
"Why so serious?" Good question—luckily, not one that needs be asked of G-Dragon, whose "Crayon" was one of the year's goofiest, least-predictable and most stupidly thrilling pop songs. We're guessing that knowing what the lyrics meant wouldn't help make it much more intelligible—hoping, really. —A.U.
For songs #40-31, click NEXT.
40. LOVERANCE FEAT. 50 CENT, T.I. & YOUNG JEEZY, "UP!"
LoveRance and 50 Cent had a gem of their own with "Up!," the most tender-sounding song ever written about beating that You Know What up, but it became twice the fun when they invited T.I. ("I give her man a hard time / He got a soft six and I got a hard nine") and Young Jeezy ("Think I hit her one time in the Waffle House / Might've been the IHOP") along for the ride. —A.U.
39. PINK, "THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE"
Pink's first-ever #1 album was a hard-earned one, and on the album's title cut, it really sounds it, as she sneers about the ups and downs of the titular emotion with the kind of been-there, done-that jadedness of a blues singer twice her age. The song's glammy strut and girl-group backing vocals make it a whole lot more fun than a B.B. King song, though. —A.U.
38. JAKE OWEN, "ALONE WITH YOU"
Aside from the song's sleek production, excellent harmonies and incredibly resonant lyrics, "Alone With You" predominantly makes the list for one reason: The way the chorus smushes two disparate lines into one stunning lyrical turn, "I can't be / Alone with youuuu got me out on the edge..." So cool. —A.U.
37. KE$HA, "DIE YOUNG"
Yes, the beat is nearly identical to Flo Rida's "Good Feeling,' but who cares? You Only Record a YOLO Anthem Once. Ke$ha's big comeback single finds the dollar-signed-one merging her Dirty Girl style with the "Live for right now" ethos of the day, with spectacular results. And kudos to Dr. Luke for those two bass hits after every mention of "the beat of the drums." —N.J.
36. 2 CHAINZ FEAT. DRAKE, "NO LIE"
Against all odds, 2012 was the year of 2 Chainz, and even if his biggest and most infectious solo hit was more attributable to the contributions of producer Mike Will and guest rapper Drake ("She might have a Grammy, I still treat her ass like a nominee"), Chainz' presence remains irrepressible, bragging "Left hand on that steering wheel / Right hand on that pussy!" —A.U.
35. ONE DIRECTION, "I WOULD"
1D's sophomore standout is a fun treat for spelling lovers, thanks to the consistent attention paid towards just how one or all five would L-O-V-E their lady in question. Powered by a chugging guitar and their signature stomp-clap breakdown, the most important lesson, though, is that one should always be intimidated by another man's tattoo count. —E.E.
34. ALEX CLARE, "TOO CLOSE"
Only in 2012: A guy who looks like he could have been one of the Mumfords, with a song that sounds like the Black Keys covering Usher, with Diplo providing the necessary dubstep breaks—and all brought to the masses via a Bing commercial. Not a bad time to be alive, all told (though we still prefer Google). —A.U.
33. THE WANTED, "GLAD YOU CAME"
After a few years of trying, the Wanted made it in America on the back of two historical breaks: One, the need for a second British boy band—older and boozer—to complement and compete with One Direction's squeaky-clean fun. And two, the EDM wave dominating the US charts, which proved a perfect fit for the Wanted's brand of Ibiza Gap-Year pop. Those infernal accordion synths didn't hurt, either. —N.J.
32. DEMI LOVATO, "GIVE YOUR HEART A BREAK"
On the surface this sunny track allows for Demi to makes her case for why the one she wants should be with her, backed by a collection of high-flying strings. But as her voice barrels forward it begins to show its limitations with slight crack, ultimately becoming her biggest complexities. It's relatable jam for anyone ever in love with the unattainable, giving you the musical pep talk you might need to put your own feelings on the line. —E.E.
31. CHARLI XCX, "YOU'RE THE ONE"
Charli XCX might be better off never releasing an album, and instead just releasing a steady stream of singles as tantalizing as "You're the One," a seductive and totally thrilling synth-pop love song, that make people say "Wow, if she ever actually released an album, she'd be the biggest thing since Robyn." People besides us say that, right? —A.U.
For songs #30-21, click NEXT.
30. BRUNO MARS, "LOCKED OUT OF HEAVEN"
Would "Locked Out of Heaven" still be one of the songs of the year without that air-horn like synth riff on the chorus? Probably, but that riff—and maybe Bruno's chorus grunting is the thing that really elevates "Heaven" from being a top-notch Police rip-off to being one of the most exciting songs you're likely to flip past on pop radio the last two months. —A.U.
29. NICKI MINAJ, "BEEZ IN THE TRAP"
While she's been busy orchestrating and organizing many a feud this year, Nicki provides us with a stinging response to any haters threatening to foil our own personal quest for immortality. With sticky production and a feature from 2K12's most ubiquitous (2 Chaaaaainz!), we applaud a song that finds ways to sincerely shout-out anti-cool locales like Hoboken, Delaware and Connecticut. —E.E.
28. FIONA APPLE, "EVERY SINGLE NIGHT"
Only a melody this lulling could house lyrics these unnerving without the song being completely unlistenable—let alone catchy, which "Every Single Night" comes dangerously close to being with its "Every single night's a fight with my BRAIII-AI-AI-AI-AIIIII-AIIIIN..." hook. Only on the bridge to things really get creepy, and that's pretty great too. —A.U.
27. TYGA, "RACK CITY"
Here we bow to the insight of old Popdust friend Brandon Soderberg of SPIN, whose first three reasons for "Why Tyga's 'Rack City' is the Best Song on the Radio [In January 2012]" are "1. It sounds like it's from six years ago, 2. It sounds like it's from 26 years ago, 3. It sounds like it's from 60 years in the future." Rack, rack city bitch. —A.U.
26. FUN., "SOME NIGHTS"
It shouldn't work. Queen-style harmonies, martial drumbeats, and the most melodramatic self-pity this side of Thought Catalog—who thought that would go together? But listen to "Some Nights" again and you can hear the tracks that paved the way for fun.'s ascendance this year: Their keen trick was in blending the earnestness of the Mumford crowd with the unapologetic artifice of Lady Gaga. That's the sort of mix that fills the kids with Glee. —N.J.
25. CHER LLOYD, "WANT U BACK"
An entire timeline of Stockholm Syndrome in three-and-a-half minutes: Who is this manic muppet, and why is she grunting? Does she know he doesn't want her back? At least she's honest about her brattiness though, that's refreshing. Do you think she's in on the joke? Huh, it's over already? OK, maybe just one more listen. Wait, why can't I get her voice out of my head? Rimembah ol the things that you an' oi did fuhst? No, stop looking at me like that, I'm just doing my Cher Lloyd impression. What do you mean, "Why do you have a Cher Lloyd impression?" —N.J.
24. SKY FERREIRA, "EVERYTHING IS EMBARRASSING"
Real talk: Sky Ferreira is the truth, or at least something like the girl you'd hate in high school, for legitimate reasons. This year's Ghost EP showcased the beauty's stirring vocals and love of borrowing from familiar '80s synths. Also of note: this EP's universal standout features the sexiest pronunciation of "basically" since Maya Rudolph and Jorma Taccone teamed up for an early '90s flashback. —E.E.
23. FRANK OCEAN, "PYRAMIDS"
You couldn't name a favorite moment from Frank Ocean's nearly-ten-minute, thoroughly genre-less opus "Pyramids"—you'd need a top five, and probably a top ten. In the running, though: The dance beat winding down to a stoner crawl, the backwards-playing John Mayer guitar solo, "The way you say my name makes me feel like I'm that nigga / Though I'm still unemployed." —A.U.
22. ICONA POP, "I LOVE IT"
Jersey Shore may be long past its prime, but the franchise proved this year it's still a dance-music kingmaker when Snooki and J-Woww chose Icona Pop's raucous opus as the theme for their MTV spinoff, and launched the song to the top of the fist-pump stratosphere. The tanned twosome's taste proved impeccable, for once—"I Love It" is pure mayhem, and it introduced the best boast ever for these Buzzfeed-driven times: "You're from the '70s, but I'm a '90s bitch." —N.J.
21. KENDRICK LAMAR, "THE RECIPE"
good kid, m.A.A.d citymight've been one of the albums of the year, but Kendrick's best single wasn't on it—"The Recipe," a tacked-on bonus track whose head-nodding vibes and pro-"women, weed and weather" stance would've made it a poor fit, but still cemented Kendrick's status as a worthy G-Funk torch-bearer. Plus, no song that starts with an airplane sound effect has ever been bad. —A.U.
For songs #20-11, click NEXT.
20. FRENCH MONTANA FEAT. DRAKE, RICK ROSS & LIL WAYNE, "POP THAT"
In which four of the game's hottest rappers—well, three-and-a-half—try to out-ball one another over a beat that sounds like taking PEDs thirty minutes before gametime probably feels. Valiant efforts all around, but the winner of course is the ghost of Dr. Luke, shouting loud enough for them to hear him even in the Alaskan titty bars: "POP THAT DON'T STOP POP THAT DON'T STOP POP THAT POP THAT POP THAT." —A.U.
19. LITTLE BIG TOWN, "PONTOON"
"Who said anything about skiing?" Not us, certainly. Chilling on the Pontoon—a boat, for you landlocked sorts—with Little Big Town sounds like a plenty good time to us, and listening to the drawl with which lead singer Karen Fairchild delivers the chorus: "Party in slow motion / Out here in the open / mmmmmmmm, motorboatin'...." Dammit, is it 5:00 yet? Do we have any vacation time left for this year? —A.U.
18. TAYLOR SWIFT, "WE ARE NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER"
Credit Taylor Swift and Max Martin for effortlessly transmuting teen-girl speech into music—the deadpan "What?" in the first verse, the faux-candid spoken-word section, the obvious eye roll that accompanies every "ever." Swift's gifts as a songwriter have been well examined, but maybe we haven't paid enough attention to her ear; if she ever gets tired of the music thing, she could have a hell of a career as the next John Hughes. —N.J.
17. THE LUMINEERS, "HO HEY"
Brevity is the soul of wit, and also of sneaky-catchy, TV-endorsed folk-rock singles. By the time you've totally succumbed to the song's charms, with its chant-along title-hook propelling it through its verses (CANAL AND BOWERY REPRESENT!!) to its impossibly sweet, impossibly simple chorus ("I belong to you / You belong to me / You're my sweetheart") and self-applauding intro, the song's 2:43 running time has already expired. "That song was kinda cool," you say to yourself. "I wouldn't mind hearing it in every commercial or movie preview for the rest of the year." —A.U.
16. CARLY RAE JEPSEN, "THIS KISS"
After listening to "Call Me Maybe" a couple hundred times, you would be forgiven for assuming Carly Rae Jepsen was much younger than her 26 years. Not so on her '80s-inspired follow-up, which finds Our Girl out in the club, wondering if she should cheat on her absent boyfriend with the attractive heartbreaker across the floor. There's no mystery here—both she and we know she's going to cave—but there is an emotional ambiguity that complicates Jepsen's teenybopper aesthetic. —N.J.
15. MEEK MILL FEAT. DRAKE, "AMEN"
Things were going so well for Philly rapper Meek Mill that he had to grab his buddy Drake, head to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and express his gratitude. "Amen" probably should've been the song's catch-phrase, but just in case, Meek backed it with two others in the same chorus: "Chuuuurrrrch" and "PREACH!," and hammered the song home with the year's best hip-hop piano hook (of many contenders). Some pastors just need a little funk in their life. —A.U.
14. MIGUEL, "ADORN"
Seductive and fresh, the sounds of "Adorn" go down easy, even before you begin to feel yourself start to blush over his complimentary and inviting requests. The rise of his personal blend of old-school soul and funk, blended with the same kind of baby-making soundtrack intentions typically reserved for old-school Usher or Trey Songz, has been one of the brightest moments this year. —E.E.
13. RIHANNA, "WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN"
RiRi's Talk That Talk feels like forever ago, but this track is hard to shake as it stands as a blend of all of Rihanna's sensibilities and musical experimentation over her nonstop career. There are at least three different movements to the song, appealing to fans of her mournful longing, Barbados bred-chanting and full-on rave dancing. She's putting forth her strongest effort in a while to make sure we find something to dissect, if not love, and we're having a hard time proving her wrong. —A.U.
12. NICKI MINAJ, "STARSHIPS"
Somewhere along the line, Nicki Minaj and Red One's patchwork jam of just about every hit of the 2010s—a pinch of "Moves Like Jagger" here, half a teaspoon of "Tik Tok" there—stopped being exhausting and started just being one of the most fun singles in recent memory. Nicki's singular personality tying it all together was probably the key: Who else in pop history would come up with a couplet like "Jumped in my hooptie hooptie hoop—I own that / And I ain't paid my rent this month—I owe that"? —A.U.
11. PSY, "GANGNAM STYLE"
Yes, it's a novelty song whose popularity is driven largely by one awesome music video. But that doesn't mean there aren't still auditory pleasures to be found in "Gangnam Style," from the zip-zip-zip of the opening synths to that booming hook in convenient English: "HEYYYY SEXY LAY-DAYYYY." If "Gangnam Style" leads to more Americans embracing the K-Pop industry, we'll all be forgiven for not understanding its apparently biting social critiques. -N.J.
For songs #10-1, click NEXT.
10. "FEEL SO CLOSE," CALVIN HARRIS
If the Scotsman truly wishes to shut up on his next album , we must cherish this ubiquitous club jam and his hypnotic style of speak-singing while we can. The lyrics don't necessarily make sense but it's Calvin's beats that propel the track, and us—be it through workday, non-existent marathon runs or anything else. —E.E.
9. BRIDGIT MENDLER, "READY OR NOT"
The grand jury's investigation into why Bridgit Mendler's "Ready or Not" has yet to become a worldwide megahit has yet to arrive at a satisfying conclusion, but our relentless write-in campaign will ensure that they will not rest until justice is served. "Ready" was the year's most (well, second-most) immaculately crafted pop single, with every little detail about it—the aural pixie dust sparkled after the "livin' like a fairytale line," the way the chorus jumps in a measure too early, the subtle use of scratching noises (!!!) throughout—adding up to a song where something new about it makes you smile every time you hear it. Even Bridgit's fake-British-inflection-for-no-reason becomes charming in context. The song currently resides in the lower reaches of the Hot 100, just waiting for its absence from the top ten to be noticed. Don't delay, pop listeners—act now. —A.U.
8. FRANK OCEAN, "THINKING 'BOUT YOU"
It took Channel Orange listeners 35 seconds to realize (if they hadn't already) how wonderful Frank Ocean was—that's the exact moment in "Thinking 'Bout You" at which the former Christopher Breaux unveils his luscious falsetto: "Or do you not think so far ahead?" He'd been playing it cool, trying not to show his hand—"I don't like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it," as he puts it later—but to no avail. The truth comes out, and with it those delicious high notes. One bar later he confesses, "I've been thinking 'bout forever," and his voice is so soft and so delicate and so brave that you think he could never tell a lie in his life. —N.J.
7. TAYLOR SWIFT, "STATE OF GRACE"
Not to be too cheesy about it, but "I never saw you coming / And I'll never be the same" was fairly close to our reaction upon hearing "State of Grace" for the first time. Nothing in Taylor's catalogue before hand suggested that she had the potential (or even the desire) to create a soaring stadium-rock anthem about love, one which at last did away with the little relationship details to keep fans guessing about who the song might be about (OK, so it's supposedly Connor Kennedy-inspired, but that couldn't matter less to the song) in favor of an attempt to get at broader, more universal truths of feeling, hitting high notes (both musically and emotionally) we never before knew her capable of. The fact that it's arguably better than all of the super-personal, super-detailed love songs on Red shows just how limitless Taylor's potential is as a songwriter and performer—when she gets tired of trying to be the next James Taylor or Joni Mitchell, she can switch it up and be the next Bono or Chris Martin, no problem. —A.U.
6. JUSTIN BIEBER, "BOYFRIEND"
2012 Bieber promised big changes and surprises on his second album, and 2012 Bieber delivered, most notably by channeling the creepy whisper of the Ying Yang Twins. Bieb's transition from "Baby" to out-the-gate neck-nuzzler ready to "swag on you" might be off-putting for some, but it's the kind of risk that will set himself up nicely for this continued journey toward adulthood we all can't stop talking about. It's also proves his growing ability to make his own choices; he's been clamoring for big-name hip-hop collaborations for years, but this time reserves the job of hypnotically chanting and date-planning himself. Stretching the bonds of "swag" and dropping Gucci Mane references are cool, but crooning the ways he'll love and treat you well that plays into the hands of his devoted Beliebers who have pledged to stick around for the ride. —E.E.
5. FUN. FEAT JANELLE MONAE, "WE ARE YOUNG"
The song that established the precedent early on that 2012 was gonna be the year of the Weird Indie Crossover—you're welcome, Gotye and Alex Clare—"We Are Young" stands as either the year's best fist-pumping rock anthem or the year's most subversive, disturbing pop song, depending on how closely you want to look into the lyrics. We're cool with eitiher, as long as we still get that pounding, instantly involving drum intro, the super-exciting "So if by the time.." gear-up in the pre-chorus, and of course, lead singer Nate Ruess stretching the word "Tonight" into an 11-syllable call-to-arms. We'll be doing the song as an end-of-night karaoke singalong for decades to come, even if we never could hit that high note on "fi-YAH!." Janelle Monae can even show up to sing her one line four times and then leave, if she's in the area and has nothing else to do. —A.U.
4. KANYE WEST FT. BIG SEAN, PUSHA T & 2 CHAINZ, "MERCY"
"Mercy" was the first glimpse we got of Cruel Summer and it turned out to be the best, with its four MCs each operating at the top of their game—an occurrence that would prove shockingly rare on the rest of the album. Big Sean, long the Donnie Kerabatsos of the crew, finds a role the works for him; somewhat unsurprisingly, that role turns out to be making goofy puns around the word "ass." Then comes Pusha T, who literally spits his nasty verse. (You can still feel the flicks of saliva on his microphone.) As the leader of the pack, Kanye gets a beat all his own, and he makes the most of it with a fierce staccato that punches every syllable like a jab to the head: "Most-rap-pers'-taste-le-vel-ain't-at-my-waist-le-vel." The only letdown is 2 Chainz' verse, which doesn't quite live up to the Godzilla entrance the song gives him, but that's not a cause for weeping, moaning, nor the gnashing of teeth. —N.J.
3. ONE DIRECTION, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL"
If the boy band revival of 2012 gave us nothing else but "What Makes You Beautiful," it still would have been a worthwhile cultural endeavor. "Beautiful" forced the boy band back into the discussion by smacking listeners across the face with its relentless energy, all drum fills and "Summer Nights" interpolations and BABY YOU LIGHT UP MY WORLD LIKE NOBOOOODY ELSE until you have choice but to submit to its charms. Listening to a TRL-era jam like Backstreet Boys' "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)" after this song is like switching from a double espresso to a watery soy latté—once you've converted, you really just can't go back. The fact that One Direction's second single was almost a carbon copy of the "What Makes You Beautiful" formula and still also made our Top 100 of the Year should tell you all you need to know about this song's awesomeness. —A.U.
2. USHER, "CLIMAX"
A throwback to the Usher we used to know—and originally fell in love with—this falsetto-heavy, Diplo track thrives on its uncertainty. We know it's not about that kind of climax, regardless of how Mr. Raymond makes you feel, but an analysis of a dying relationship Usher can't seem to fully part with; it's not just a question of what happened, but more of why he feels so much about something that was so toxic ("We made a mess of what used to be love/So why do I care, I care at all"). As he works through it, we're the true winners as exploring countless emotions allows Usher to stretch out his vocals and show off the haunting falsetto new generations continue to covet. —E.E.
1. CARLY RAE JEPSEN, "CALL ME MAYBE"
Was there ever any question? We'll answer that one for you: No, there wasn't. From about March on, the idea of another song being #1 on our year-end list was downright laughable; any other pop song that even tried to capture the top spot was given a patronizing pat on the head and sent on its way. "Call Me Maybe" reached the super-rare pop strata where even seeing its name in text was enough to make us happy, the mere suggestion of the song contained therein worthy of a smile. It was number one for nine weeks, tied for the longest run of the year, and that still felt like the song was getting short-changed. Even hundreds of listens in, the radio station was never skipped when it came on. Even as we fell really hard for "Good Time" and "This Kiss," questions of "Could this song be as good as 'Call Me Maybe'?" were met with responses of "Oh wait, 'Call Me Maybe' is 'Call Me Maybe.'"
She may not have another year where she even cracks our (or anyone else's) Top 100, but thanks to "Call Me Maybe," Our Girl Carly Rae Jepsen owned 2012. If you don't know by now, you probably never will. But if you didn't know by now, you probably wouldn't be reading this website in the first place. —A.U.
For instance: Here's the year in pop-star nakedness!