1. Frank Ocean, ‘Pyramids’
This almost 10-minute opus by silky R&B crooner Frank Ocean is a fascinating allegory—or “R&B odyssey,” as Ocean calls it—that fuses the narratives of ancient Egypt’s Cleopatra with a struggling stripper-prostitute in contemporary Los Angeles, and is based on Ocean’s own experiences growing up around strippers. It’s a kaleidoscopic mishmash that transitions seamlessly from club synths and trippy guitar riffs to neo-soul, and is the most toweringly ambitious—and grooviest—tune of the year.
2. Taylor Swift, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’
Bear with me now. This track off Swift’s fourth album, Red, opens with penduluming guitars complemented by sped-up lyrics about an emotionally taxing relationship (allegedly inspired by her breakup with Jake Gyllenhaal)—and then the singer screams, “Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground!” just as the entire bottom drops out, replete with wub-wub-wub dubstep wobbles. It’s a truly addictive pop mélange—like this year’s “We Found Love.”
3. Grimes, ‘Oblivion’
A hypnotic electro beat with strident, K-Pop vocals courtesy of 24-year-old Canadian chanteuse Claire Boucher, better known by her stage name: Grimes. The best song of the year to listen to while spirit-walking city sidewalks with your earbuds in, avoiding any and all passersby.
4. The Lumineers, ‘Ho Hey’
This folk rock outfit from Denver, Colo., was signed to a management firm after the firm viewed a YouTube video of the band performing this incredibly catchy love ballad in their apartment. At just a shade over 2:30, it’s too damn short—but that’s because you don’t want the thing to end. Regardless, you’ll be chanting the chorus for days after you hear it.
5. Gary Clark Jr., ‘Don’t Owe You A Thang’
The comparisons to Hendrix are a tad—OK, way—premature, but Texan Gary Clark Jr. is still the most exciting American guitarist to emerge since Jack White, which is cause for celebration. This blues-rock tune, with its ferocious guitar shredding and distorted vocals, is like the best song Stevie Ray Vaughn never made. Keep your eye on Gary Clark Jr.
6. Japandroids, ‘The House That Heaven Built’
This formidable Canadian rock duo has garnered a reputation for their raucous live shows and feverishly addictive screamo anthems. Off their second album, Celebration Rock, “The House That Heaven Built” boasts frenetic guitars and cymbal rushes along with a chant-along chorus. It’s fast, furious, and a helluva lot of fun. Go see them live for the full effect.
7. Kendrick Lamar, ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’
While not the most ambitious track off Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s thrilling studio debut, good kid, M.A.A.D. city, this tune exhibits Lamar’s rapid-fire Bone Thugs–esque flow and some very penetrating lyrics about rap-industry facades. He raps: “Die in a pitiful vain, tell me a watch and a chain / Is way more believable, give me a feasible gain / Rather than a seasonal name, I’ll let the people know this is something you can blame / On yourselves you can remain, stuck in a box / Ima break out and then hide every lock.” Indeed he has.
8. Beach House, ‘Myth’
The Baltimore-based dream-pop duo of Frenchwomen Victoria Legrand and Maryland native Alex Scally has churned out four beautiful albums thus far. Legrand’s delicate, Nico-esque vocals soar through a sweeping wall of sound in this expansive, ethereal track off their most recent LP, Bloom. Captivating stuff.
9. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Call Me Maybe’
I’m definitely going to get some nasty comments for this, but whatever. With all due respect to Psy, it was Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen’s terribly catchy pop ditty “Call Me Maybe” that proved to be the most addictive song of the year. Plus, it spawned great viral videos courtesy of everyone from The Roots & Jimmy Fallon to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team. You’ve sung this out loud at some point this year. Oh, you haven’t? I call bullshit.
10. Icona Pop, ‘I Love It’
One of the breakout stars of this year’s CMJ Music Marathon, the fashionable Swedish electro-pop duo of Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt, or Icona Pop, hasn’t released an actual album yet. But their exuberant club banger “I Love It,” about a woman scorned, was the girl-power anthem of 2012. “I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs. I crashed my car into the bridge. I DON’T CARE, I LOVE IT!” the two collaborator-friends shout in unison. Ladies, this one’s for you.
11. The xx, ‘Chained’
Coexist, the sophomore album by the dark, sexy British band The xx, was a bit of a disappointment compared with their absolutely mind-blowing debut. While on the whole, producer Jamie xx’s proclivity toward dance beats in lieu of swelling, minor-chord anthems proved detrimental, on “Chained,” it all goes down smoothly. And the sensual vocal interplay between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim is still the best in the game.
12. Alt-J, ‘Tessellate’
An Awesome Wave, the debut album from this English alt-rock quartet, won the 2012 Mercury Prize honoring the best album from the U.K. and Ireland. And with good reason. It deftly combined a variety of genres (ranging from folk to trip-hop and electro-synths) and the crown jewel of the album is this bizarre, scatterbrained tune featuring pulsing beats, glitchy guitars, and clanging percussions. FYI: their name, Alt-J, is the Apple keyboard shortcut for the Greek letter Delta.
13. Alabama Shakes, ‘I Ain’t The Same’
This Southern-rock band from Athens, Ala., emerged as one of the rising stars of 2012 with their melodious brand of bluesy garage rock. Their stunning debut album, Boys & Girls, garnered three Grammy nominations, and on “I Ain’t the Same,” vocalist Brittany Howard stretches her rough-hewn, pained vocals to Joplin-esque levels. She is an absolute dynamo and sings the hell out of this.
14. Chromatics, ‘Kill For Love’
I feel terrible that I just discovered the brilliant, Portland-based electro outfit Chromatics this year. Hell, they’ve been around since 2001, so there’s really no excuse. But better late than never. Their fourth album, Kill For Love, is jam-packed with futuristic, mesmerizing synth-pop anthems, and the title track, featuring Ruth Radelet’s detached, desirous vocals over Joy Division–y guitars and synths, is beautiful. That it received a big co-sign from The xx was just the icing on the cake.
15. Allo Darlin’, ‘Capricornia’
“Capricornia” is simply a delightful, tender, and melodious ballad from this London-based twee-pop band, as Aussie singer Elizabeth Morris lightly croons over strumming guitars, “Could you ever understand how you ended up here / And any friend you've ever had has disappeared / And the tug of heart string is the line that pulls you home, you / bear witness to the ones you used to know.” It’s a lovely tune about picking someone you love up when they fall.
16. Jack White, ‘Sixteen Saltines’
During his years with the White Stripes, Jack White was always a soloist of sorts, guided by Meg’s steady percussion. Following brief stints with so/so rock collectives the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, he finally went solo with his latest album, Blunderbuss. And this blues-rock burner, about White’s fear of his daughter growing up to be an uncontrollable hellraiser, is a frenetic blast of shredding guitars and clashing symbols, with White’s shrieking, Robert Plant–lite vocals cutting through it all like a bloody machete.
17. Cloud Nothings, ‘Stay Useless’
Attack On Memory, the third album from Ohio-based indie rock band Cloud Nothings, very narrowly missed our list of the 12 best albums of 2012. It’s a darker, grungier effort than their previous release, and “Stay Useless,” while angsty and slightly depressing, is a catchy-as-all-hell, three-chord punk song that’ll send you back to your own teenage years.
18. Kanye West (Feat. Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz), ‘Mercy’
This tune by Yeezy boasts insane production—he is, after all, arguably the best rap producer in the game—and more than a few quotable lines. “Lamborghini mercy / Your chick she so thirsty,” goes the chorus. While much off Kanye’s compilation album Cruel Summer was disappointing, this track was a certified club banger that garnered two Grammy nods and a ton of radio/club play.
19. The Cribs, ‘Jaded Youth’
This trio of brothers from Wakefield, in Northern England, has long been one of the most underrated (and thrilling) bands, and one of the better live rock acts, period. The addition of the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr slightly derailed them, slowing down their brand of testosterone-fueled, shout-along garage rock. In the Belly of the Brazen Bull, The Cribs’ fifth studio album released earlier this year, was a mixed bag but contained sock-rockin’ gems, like the track “Jaded Youth,” which combines angular guitars, brisk percussions, and a catchy chorus.
20. Ellie Goulding, ‘Anything Could Happen’
Despite being initially released in February 2010, British synthpop artist Ellie Goulding’s tune, “Lights”—about her childhood fear of the dark—exploded more than two years later, reaching the number two spot on the Billboard Hot 100 this past August after spending more than a year climbing its way up the charts. Now a bona fide pop star, Goulding released her sophomore album, Halcyon, in October to positive reviews. “Anything Could Happen” is an addictive pop anthem that begins with shimmering keys and mature lyrics (“After the war we said we’d fight together / I guess we thought that’s just what humans do”) before exploding into a soaring, synth-heavy chorus. The track has been used in promotional materials for the second season of the trendy HBO series Girls, which is a pretty solid co-sign.