Another year means another set of outstanding singles that had us feeling, well, all over the place. The amount of variety amongst releases this year was even more pronounced than in 2011, with artists exploring all ends of the musical spectrum. Out of the hundreds of singles that popped in and out of my head via music platforms new and old, twenty of them emerged as the singles that either remained on my mind from the moment the New Year’s ball officially dropped or rushed into it just in time for the holiday season.
So, before the Mayan’s predictions are declared right or wrong, let’s take a look at this year’s Top 20 Singles of 2012, in alphabetical order. (Note: All tracks mentioned below were released as official singles on or after January 1, 2012.)
Animal Collective – “Honeycomb”
Animal Collective whet our appetites for new music before the release of their highly anticipated album, Centipede Hz, this year with the great single “Honeycomb.” The incredibly vibrant and expectedly wonky track brings Avey Tare back to the front and the harmonious energies that made their previous release, Merriweather Post Pavilion, so enlightening back into the mix, but the track’s new sonics and dense layers also hinted at a return to the more tribal elements featured on the group’s previous efforts. Though the single would eventually not end up on the album’s final track list, “Honeycomb” still captures Animal Collective at their finest.
Bat For Lashes – “Laura”
Natasha Khan pressed on and infused her brand of indie folk with pop elements to turn her 2009 sophomore album, Two Suns, into one of the best surprises of that year. But prior to the release of her third album, The Haunted Man, she released a stripped-down ballad titled “Laura” that rightly reflected the album’s cover art and instituted a change of scenery for the artist. A somber piano melody similar to Pink Floyd’s “Paranoid Eyes” but infused with the tip-toe quality of Khan’s creeping vocal delivery, “Laura” is a bold and beautiful song that I can’t imagine most artists would dare to put out as the lead single to promote the release of a new album. The fact that Khan was able to present herself emotionally and physically bare to the masses gives the track an extra levity, yet even without context, the song is just as deftly reverent.
Beach House – “Lazuli”
The third track off Beach House’s 2012 release, Bloom, does exactly what the album title implies. A star-gazing wonder of a single, Beach House wonderfully nurtures the delicacy of its lyrical tonality and colored textures from the child-like opening to the fully flourished fade that closes the track. It’s as if you grow along with the song, and it becomes more and more of an experience on each listen. Add Legrand’s swooning vocals and the strong instrumentation that we’ve come to know so well from this duo, and you’ve got one of 2012′s best singles.
Death Grips – “I’ve Seen Footage”
The experimental rap artists from Sacramento are admittedly difficult to digest on first listen, but at least “I’ve Seen Footage” is one of the more accessible tracks in their catalog. That is by no means enlightening, however — the track comes with all the fixings of a sweaty and trashed ’80s dance club, with MC Ride’s subjective, alternate reality-based lyrics not withstanding. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s one of the year’s freshest and most intoxicating sounds, assaulting every one of the senses with blistering technicality and visceral energy.
El-P – “The Full Retard”
The hip-hop artist and producer returned after a five-year absence with one of the year’s stroke-of-genius albums, Cancer 4 Cure, which contains the Tropic Thunder-inspired title that is “The Full Retard.” The track doesn’t cover any new territory for the artist, but it has instead scoped it out, as El-P’s spitfire rap flow is better on this track than it has ever been before and the futuristically chopped-and-screwed nature of the beats is appropriately ahead of its time. The artist contributes a fantastic and breathless single to the rising trend of consistently excellent hip-hop releases.
Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”
Where was Fiona Apple over the last seven years? Well, it really doesn’t matter in the long run. Fact of the matter is she came back this year with The Idler Wheel…, and when I first heard her opening single, “Every Single Night,” it was as if she had never been gone. This unpredictable and stirring track is Fiona Apple in peak songwriting form, but I think we all know there is so much more in her career to come.
Frank Ocean – “Thinkin Bout You”
There are so many reasons why Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE is our favorite album of the year, and one of those reasons is “Thinkin Bout You,” a meta single that doesn’t push the boundaries of R&B so much as it reintroduces the genre’s spark. Like the fruit that bears the album’s title, Mr. Ocean peels away layers on the track to reveal his acidic core — you hear it in every little crack of his vocals. The song’s infectiousness is immediate, but its impact is gradual, demanding plenty of repeat listens for additional glimpses into the singer’s soul.
Grimes – “Genesis”
Claire Boucher has had a remarkable year as Grimes with her critically-acclaimed third album, Visions, and most of that success can be attributed to the sensory-pleasing and album-defining single “Genesis.” Her choice of synths and ethereal vocal effects on the track reveals a truly talented musician and producer at play, and the freedom with which she is allowed to run around is fully embraced here as well. The song ties so well into Grimes’ philosophies as an artist that even a surface-level listen to the track exposes realizations about her that lie deep, making “Genesis” a pretty ambitious and highly memorable production that guarantees a long shelf-life.
Grizzly Bear – “Yet Again”
Though Grizzly Bear’s latest album, Shields, doesn’t produce a runaway hit like “Two Weeks,” it does, however, contain a completely different and sometimes more invigorating kind of behemoth of a single altogether. “Yet Again” takes Grizzly Bear into larger landscapes, encompassing the band’s career-defining psychedelic folk stylings and allowing them the room to breathe. The track requires listeners to discover its intimacy through the reeds of electronic textures at play, but with such beautiful arrangements and an array of choral harmonies, “Yet Again” certainly provides enough pleasure without even trying.
Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
It’s pretty easy to assume at this point in music history that Jack White is a brand unto himself, which is why the sound of his solo release, Blunderbuss, can be fairly accurately imagined without even having listened to it, but a track like his “Sixteen Saltines” single still intrigues on every listen because it manages to pull all the right tricks out of White’s magic hat. Its boundless energy is infused with bluesy guitars, and White’s vocals draw all over the wall without constraint. He dishes out the wild with a dose of stride in a way that only Jack White knows how to do.