The 20 best songs of 2012

We heard a lot of songs in 2012, but these are the 20 that made us sit up and listen.

While the sheer volume of listening available to us in 2012 was one thing, it was the quality of the music that was truly overwhelming. There were the striking, singular new voices (Kendrick Lamar, Mykki Blanco, Evian Christ), the established acts who reached for new clarity (The xx, Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland) and the radical about-turns that took us by surprise (Darkstar, DELS). Everyone brought their A-game this year, but after a long battle we’ve managed to whittle down the masses to 20 tracks that made our 2012.

20. CFCFExercise 5 (September)

Out of silence, a warm, sizzling electronic wind blows. Ripples of piano chords pierce through the quiet, and waver over a vortex of melodic composition. Then come the scanty, weightless percussive patterns and hopeless vocals, looping over that compelling wind. Sauntering elegantly between moments of despair, sorrow, and romance, Exercise 5 (September) is the best moment of CFCF’s modern classicist ‘Exercises’ EP (which – full disclosure – we loved so much we put it out), and is also a cover of the underrated opener to David Sylvian’s ‘Secrets of the Beehive’ album. It’s the shifting balance between the isolated, tender piano notes and Mike Silver’s poignant vocal delivery that stirs and steers that bittersweet feeling. [Karen Ka Ying Chan]

19. DELSYou Live In My Head

Matching production precisely with a lyric – especially one this simple yet spine-tingling – is never a straightforward ask. Fortunately, DELS absolutely nails it on You Live In My Head. Pounding bass kicks, emulating the heartbeat of someone locked in the thrills of infatuation, are coupled with twinkling xylophones and piano notes that cascade off one another hypnotically. Allowing those beats to reverberate indefinitely, and the instrumentation to gradually weave its magic in the mid-distance, DELS’ effortlessly effective vocal is given the space required to manifest fully. This is, by some distance, the most accomplished track the Ipswich rapper has penned, and few songs spoke so succinctly on love’s obsessions and intensities this year. YLIMH is essentially a love song, but one that feels haunted by a particularly modern knowingness: all too aware that once you’ve let someone in, there may be no turning back. [Robert Darnell]

18. Girl Unit – Ensemble

The appeal of Girl Unit’s music has always been its clever construction. With the ‘Club Rez’ EP, his latest output following one of 2010’s best, Wut, Phillip Gamble’s dashing return this year is most welcome. Out of the six-tracker, Ensemble is a natural standout, likely to interest those dedicated fans of chunky bass throwdowns, as well as those who have a preference for high-tempo, soul-leaning modern club tracks. Clearly aimed at testing the limits of the club sound system, Ensemble is injected with upfront, shape-shifting rhythms, an invigorating array of distinct textures, and rippling bass splurges – an unrestrained and thrilling display. It’s the south London producer’s most adventurous track to date, and one of this year’s most fun. [Karen Ka Ying Chan]

17. Angel Haze – Cleaning Out My Closet

The verses Angel Haze spits here are the sound of a young woman expelling the demons of her youth. With shattering clarity and vividness, she recounts the events that cut short her childhood at the age of seven, as she became the victim of sustained sexual abuse. These days it can, at times, feel like mainstream rap and hip hop has got lost in its own attention-grabbing reaches for oneupmanship; the listener met with a barrage of expletives used for the mere sake of it, leaving language obsolete. Angel Haze reclaims that here: her explicit and visceral descriptions conjure something so horrific, so personal, that every last word – every last breath she exhales – packs a resounding punch. Making exceptional use of the mixtape medium, the self-indulgent tone of Eminem’s original metaphor is flipped into extraordinarily brave and candid musical therapy. [Robert Darnell]

16. TNGHTHigher Ground

TNGHT, the explosive collaboration between Glaswegian producer Hudson Mohawke and Montreal’s Lunice, unites the bold and seductive euphoric qualities championed by the latter and the bone-crunching, speaker-ravaging sounds of the former. Higher Ground, taken from their debut EP, is a swift and joyous rattler, eking out a new space between hip hop, R&B, bass and funk. Its charm is that it gets straight to the point: an over-excited, meshed-up, energetic presence. Affirmingly propulsive, Higher Ground is a wonderfully elastic composition – the rhythm never settles and melodies never tire. In essence, it was the boombastic kick that 2012 needed and the kind of listen that never fails to revitalise. [Karen Ka Ying Chan]

15. Holy Other – Held

Drawing on the murky area between experimental, R&B and hip hop, Held, taken from Holy Other’s debut album on Tri Angle, is a poised, powerful yet remarkably subtle track. The Manchester artist presents a slice of gut-wrenching electronic music saturated with downtempo, abstract percussion and a mass of indistinct, haunting voices. Its highlight emerges two thirds through: splashes of overflowing piano chords, which turns it into one of those half-remembered love songs from the 90s – nodding to the year’s obsession with nostalgia but also unearthing something new and exciting. [Karen Ka Ying Chan]

14. Disclosure – Latch (feat. Sam Smith)

“Now I’ve got you in my space, I won’t let go of you/ Got you shackled in my embrace, I’m latching on to you.” The mildly claustrophobic refrain of Disclosure’s hit single this year hooked its way into the public’s subconscious in a way that their previous bouncy productions never quite managed to do. In 2012, the London-based brothers began to embrace a more traditional pop song structure to compliment their sugar-sweet house leanings, and with the help of vocalist Sam Smith, the result was a throbbing, racing heartbeat of a track that’s as flamboyant as it is sincerely sweet, cooing to its listener with several layers of hyperactive energy and staccato synths that shudder and sigh. Disclosure were always on to a good thing, but this year they made a song that really felt special – now we’ve got them in our space, and we’re not letting go. [Aimee Cliff]

13. Darkstar – Timeaway

Having articulated the melancholy of inner city life to grandiose effect on their dark, epic synth-pop opus ‘North’ [Hyperdub, 2010], Darkstar took a radical about-turn with the first single from their forthcoming second album ‘News From Nowhere’ on Warp. Timeaway was recorded in the relatively idyllic surrounds of the Yorkshire countryside and reflects the space and pace that their newfound context afforded them. It opens like a music box, or a dozen clocks slowly waking as they’re wound, and gently blooms into a swirling, many-layered exchange of ideas. “Feel the reaching / And start to entwine,” sings James Buttery, pointing to the dreaming that fed their new direction. The space Darkstar sought and found trickles and tickles through Timeaway; drink deeply, breathe freely. [Ruth Saxelby]

12. d’Eon – Al-Qiyamah

Al-Qiyamah is the epic culmination of the digitised spirituality carved throughout d’Eon’s spellbinding ‘LP’. Like much of d’Eon’s work, Al-Qiyamah reaches to ideas of the divine, alluding to Judgement Day, and the rather out-there notion that Gabriel, God’s messenger, may be trapped somewhere in the internet and reaching out to humanity. By all accounts, the whole thing should probably collapse under the weight of its own grandiosity – but it doesn’t. The closing is a sonic tour de force of technology-in-overload: an apocalyptic, fibre-optic communication meltdown, spun through crunching breakbeats, glitch-ridden electronica and shards of maniacal computerised noise. [Robert Darnell]

11. Mykki Blanco – Wavvy

“What the fuck I gotta prove to a room full of dudes/ Who ain’t listening to my words ‘cause they staring at my shoes?” Mykki Blanco asked over Brenmar’s toxic production on his track Wavvvy this year. “Nothing,” we answered, as we dropped low and got wavvy. With the most addictive beat of the year, at once restrained and indulgent, the trail-blazing rapper’s best track of the year was also one of the best tracks of the year, proving that this trail is one being blazed not only in the margins of hip hop, but right across the face of it. Wavvy is the product of a huge positive change that has come into force in mainstream hip hop this year, as rappers of multifarious identities beyond the masculine, heteronormative stereotype, have begun to find a voice. It’s also just plain huge. [Aimee Cliff]

10. Evian Christ – MYD

Exactly one year ago, London’s Joshua Leary, AKA the then-unknown Evian Christ, floored us with a handful of tracks posted on his YouTube channel. In what was probably the swiftest signing this year, he was picked up by NY-LON label Tri Angle. Known for their haunting experimental releases, Leary’s purple drank-soaked, padded sound proved a perfect fit with the label. MYD, a track taken from his debut full-length ‘Kings & Them’, is no exception. Dominated by that hypnotic “make your dollars” hip hop sample that rings out over a bed of subdued bass, it’s an addictive sonic wave that, when heard live, crashes and engulfs you. It’s an engrossing listen, with a real, intense pulse behind it. [Karen Ka Ying Chan]

9. Main Attrakionz – Love is Life (Produced by Supreme Cuts)

The deepest cut on Squadda B and MondreMAN’s new full-length ‘Bossalinis & Fooliyones’, Love is Life balances the Oakland duo’s raw reflection with the elevatory beats of Supreme Cuts to heart-swelling effect. It’s like the space and light of the track gave them the room to kick back and really get real. “Real shit / You don’t know my real life / You just hear me when I get in front this fuckin’ mic / But when I’m back to the sinks, I mean the ice / It ain’t nothing nice, ain’t nothing nice,” drawls Squadda B, underlining the uncomfortable truth that nobody’s interested in the reality – hustling drugs (“ice”) because your mum’s the only one bringing in an income (sinks is slang for “single income numerous kids”) – until it’s wrapped up in a rap verse, sanitised and glamourised. In a year of exemplary hip hop, Squadda and Mondre stand taller – and lean harder – because of their ability to walk that line. Their sonic aesthetic is undoubtedly now but – at their realest and their finest – their words reach to a timeless humanity. [Ruth Saxelby]

8. Kendrick Lamar feat. Gunplay – Cartoons and Cereal

There are a lot of qualities inherent to Cartoons and Cereal that justify its place on this list – its sonic and lyrical innovation, its disturbing imagery, its warped danceability – but what pinpoints it as one of the finest songs to come out of 2012 is actually the fact that it didn’t make it on to the final cut of Kendrick Lamar’s searing debut album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. Cartoons and Cereal works as the perfect prologue to the cinematic narrative that weaves its way through the album, falling outside the timeframe of the story Kendrick wanted to tell, but still as brilliant and as fresh as the songs that made the final cut. The fact that Kendrick has such finely-tuned judgement that he can eliminate something as incredible as Cartoons and Cereal from his album – and the fact that the album didn’t suffer for it – proves that he’s one of the most intelligent, and one of the most assuredly confident, artists of his generation. That trademark confidence was hinted at when this track dropped in February, as Kendrick drawled over the nightmarish skittering, “I’m ‘bout to make my mama rich”; and before the year was out, he did. [Aimee Cliff]

7. Jai Paul – Jasmine

Jai Paul, one of the most frustratingly, fascinatingly economical artists to emerge in recent times, killed it all over again this year with Jasmine. Under those guitar wails and hazy layers of production – with the opening gush of low-bit fuzz cheekily nodding to that debatable “demo” tag – sat a tender, sugarcoated falsetto, lost in the throes of a deep, potentially unrequited, physical yearning. It’s hard to predict what’s next for Jai Paul. While his appearance on Big Boi’s upcoming album hints that he may, finally, be ready to step into the limelight, we’re still lacking any word on an imminent album – or even EP release. But with this cut of shrouded soul, he built on the bubbling bravado of 2010’s BTSTU to maintain his admittedly short track record of near-perfect songs. Jai Paul has decided to be occasionally phenomenal rather than rush towards creative compromise and over-saturation. It can be vexing, but for now it’s working a dream. [Robert Darnell]

6. Jessie Ware – 110%

Dancing on your own, as Jessie Ware knows and Robyn knew before her, is an emotionally rich position, full of yearning and precarious possibility. On 110%, Ware’s spring hit that preceded her debut album ‘Devotion’, producer Julio Bashmore envisions the dark belly of the club with the gentlest of touches, sending signals skittering like marbles blinking light into its corners. Ware tiptoes through the scene, whisper-singing under her breath as she goes: “Won’t dance / Not without you / Small steps / They don’t lead to your heart / You keep me wishing in the dark”. While Running was the song that launched her, 110% is Ware’s most endearing statement yet, marrying with a fresh, easy touch her dance music roots and that massive pop voice. It might be a slight little thing, but 110% punches above its weight with an immediate intimacy that feels like the first listen, every play. [Ruth Saxelby]

5. Kwes – Bashful

As far as British pop was concerned in 2012, few moments came as perfectly formed as Kwes’s Bashful, an ode to his own shyness. Kwes expertly muddles the lines between synthetic and organic sound, and strives to keep you second-guessing throughout. The off-kilter bridge that meanders into earshot encapsulates this: momentarily grating, but then helping to reveal what a resoundingly well-crafted pop song this is. Aside from the infectious alliterative chorus, Kwes shows real lyrical panache, bouncing with ease between humorous references to buying cream Skodas and intriguing, complex turns of phrase like “I’m an atypical tropical youth”. Bashful by name, but not by nature: this is the antithesis of the sound of an artist lacking in confidence. After a couple of years in the wings mostly as a collaborator and producer, the sheer strength of Kwes’ writing abilities – both musically and lyrically – have put him centre-stage. With the communal spirit of the Warp label behind him, there’s no end to where he may go in 2013. [Robert Darnell]

4. Kanye West feat. Big Sean and Jay Z – Clique

It’s so completely Kanye to decide that Clique – his greatest floor-filler since Ni**as in Paris, a song that parodies 2 Chainz, disses Kelis and contains the lyric “he wasn’t really drunk, he just had a frew brews” – is the right place to discuss the depression he went through after the death of his mother. The song is at its absolute peak of energy, just recovering from the lyrical grenade that is “shit is real, got me feeling Isrealian”, when the uncomfortably close vocal comes to the forefront of the song, declaring “I went through deep depression when my mama passed,/ Suicide, what kind of talk is that?” Most disorientingly, the line comes packaged in the form of one of the catchiest moments of record, an elated voice clinging to its vowels, a step back in the production allowing the words to ring out. It’s so completely Kanye because it encapsulates that oblivious over-sharing nature, that deep-set unawareness, or perhaps disregard, for the parameters of “cool”, which defines him. He’s constantly, awkwardly pushing boundaries, and Clique is a brilliant reminder that even now, he still has the power to surprise you. [Aimee Cliff]

3. The xx – Fiction

“Fiction / When we’re not together / Mistaken for a vision / Something of my own creation,” sings Oliver Sim on the standout from The xx’s second album ‘Coexist’. If there’s ever been a more damning articulation of the mind’s deception of the heart I am yet to hear it. While on their debut album Sim’s lyrics were largely, literally, fiction – hopes and dreams for the future – here he writes from experience. Not that you need to know that to know that; you can hear it in the jump in his throat when he sings “You’re more than I can believe / Would ever come my way”. He stresses “believe”, almost grunting it; his frustration palpable. Sim is caught between despondency and desire, let down by his own white lies to himself, a feeling it’s all too easy to relate to. Romy Madley Croft’s sweetly plaintive guitar lines and Jamie Smith’s tentative percussion and beats frame Sim’s mood – allowing the feeling, and realisation. [Ruth Saxelby]

2. Dean Blunt feat. Inga Copeland – The Narcissist

As Hype Williams, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland have made a career out of circling one another, the audience and the truth. Their music stalks the subconscious, pricking at pressure points and stirring the gut. On ‘The Narcissist’, the centre-piece to Blunt’s mixtape released earlier this year, it’s as if Blunt and Copeland see each other clearly for the first time. Guards and pretenses are dropped; eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart pleas exchanged. The narrative is familiar – love at the end of the line – but it’s the delivery that kicks. The nakedness of emotion is stunning, almost painful – as if breathing it in stings – yet it also breeds a compulsiveness. I can never listen to this song just the once, hitting replay until I can tear away. It’s like shouting at a movie screen when the lead actors are talking at cross purposes; as separate entities in this song we see Blunt and Copeland’s strengths and flaws but we want them to work it out, find the common ground. Everybody needs someone to fold. [Ruth Saxelby]

1. Usher – Climax

R&B superstar Usher was clearly feeling inspired by the looming finality of 2012, and in a move no one predicted, managed to encapsulate the bittersweet ache of le petit mort in his ode to endings, the resounding achievement that is Climax. The very best pop songs are those that make you want to dance and shout while in public, and can bring tears to your eyes in private, and with the swell and sting of Diplo’s production, the thickly palpable tension of the lyrics and the wavering heartbreak of Usher’s masterful falsetto, it’s a line that Climax treads with ease. It’s the sadness, the thrill, the emptiness of knowing that something has reached its peak, and knowing that you won’t have it again; it’s a moment of abandon, and a moment of grief, all captured in the pulse of an instantly iconic pop song. [Aimee Cliff]

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