The best songs of 2012 did more than please listeners' ears; they also advanced the genres they represented, whether it was pop, hip hop, rock, EDM or whatever we're calling Fiona Apple's music these days.
Plenty of outlets have lavished praise on Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young's 2012 projects. But HuffPost Entertainment's list rewards artists who confronted seemingly immovable forces and triumphed. Frank Ocean silenced the homophobia that all too often prevails in urban music with an album that was simply too great to marginalize. Kendrick Lamar rapped about his hometown of Compton without glamorizing or demonizing its gang culture. Fiona Apple returned with a vengeance -- and a super-long album title. Taylor Swift turned tabloid headlines into pop poetry. Solange Knowles stepped out of the shadow of her sister Beyonce. Lana Del Rey might have punked us all. Diplo and Calvin Harris represented two sides of a dance-music wave that finally grew too big to be ignored. And Kanye West regressed in spectacular fashion.
All these artists, plus a few familiar names, made it onto HuffPost Entertainment's Best Songs of 2012 list. Take a listen below, and let us know in the comments who you hate us for omitting -- or including.
Kendrick Lamar - Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst
Picking a standout track from Lamar's "good kid, mAAd city" is a pain, because it's full of game-changers. There's "Money Trees," which gave Twitter "ya bish"; "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" (enough said); "Swimming Pools (Drank)," a thoughtful meditation on binge-boozing and alcoholism; and even "Poetic Justice," an endearing, Drake-assisted seduction song (just go with it). But "Sing About Me" captures Lamar at his most pensive. As he ponders his legacy ("[I] hope that at least one of you will sing about me when I'm gone. Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?"), he considers the costs of life in Compton ("Fuck that 'sorry for your loss' shit, my sister died in vain. What point are you trying to gain?") and wonders why his thoughts turn dark so often ("I'm not sure why I'm infatuated with death. My infatuation is surely an aggravation of threats"). And the form matches the content: A classic beat provides the backdrop for Kendrick's "normal" voice, with gunshots silencing him in the middle of a sentence. Later in the track, he fades from the mic. By the time the song's second skit has ended, the 12-minute track has evolved into a mini-rap-opera.
Kanye West - Mercy (ft. Pusha-T, Big Sean & 2 Chainz)
This year, Kanye shifted from baring his emotional wounds (see: "Runaway," "All of the Lights," "New Day") to flaunting and flossing in tabloids and clubs. His arms got bigger, his shirts lost their sleeves, and his lyrics stared you in the face. Whispering about his love of Kim Kardashian? He'll tell you that he "admits" he "fell in love with Kim the same time she fell in love with [Kris Humphries]," then immediately throw the NBA player and ill-fated "Keeping Up With the Kardashian's" co-star under the bus in the next line (on
"Theraflu", "Way Too Cold" "Cold"). He'll tell you he wants to marry her on "White Dress." He'll tell you that he knows you hate him and that he doesn't suffer you lightly on "Don't Like." Each of those songs have stronger moments than the verse he delivers on "Mercy," but "Mercy" was the bugler's blast: The gloves came off, and 'Ye (with 2 Chainz, Pusha-T and Big Sean) was ready to hate you back.
Icona Pop - I Love It
As Max Martin continues to produce and write an amazing slice of American pop radio, a whole class of his fellow Swedes focused instead on pop music for the dance floor. Trace that line from Robyn to Icona Pop, the latter of whom put out a sleeper anthem for a generation of club girls with a sense of humor. "I Love It" basically has one verse and starts off with an alarming intro, but all is forgiven by the time you hear "you're from the '70s, but I'm a '90s bitch." Music for the kids, to be sure. But can you blame them?
Calvin Harris - Sweet Nothing (ft. Florence Welch)
We'd rather eat our shoes than write -- and have you read -- one more piece on the "Explosion Of Dance Music In The United States," so let's just remember that it happened. What do we have to show for it? A slew of farewell tour dates for Swedish House Mafia, thousands of Adele and "Somebody That I Used to Know" remixes and a million blog posts about Skrillex. Some productions, however, seem like they may stand the test of time. Calvin Harris is the man behind extremely sensitive and spare recordings like "I'm Not Alone," but he's best known for producing Rihanna's anthemic "We Found Love." His work with Welch incites a similar type of joy in the listener, but it's made even stronger by Welch's vocals, which soar as high as Rihanna's but bleed even deeper.
Frank Ocean - Pink Matter (ft. Andre 3000)
Like Lamar's disc, Ocean's overflows with golden tracks. But while he's more lucid ("Thinking Bout You") and inventive ("Super Rich Kids," "Pyramids") elsewhere, it's on "Pink Matter" that Ocean goes all-in. Until Andre 3000 shows up, there's nothing but Ocean's painful crooning to get you by. But when Three Stacks does appear -- watch out.
Fiona Apple - Hot Knife
Inspiring this particular brand of passion in a woman probably isn't something most guys should put on their list of New Year's resolutions, but here Apple contrasts frantic lyrics about a man with a track that's full of space. She scats here, sounds choral there. It's a vignette ode to obsession -- something you get the feeling she knows a bit about.
Solange Knowles - Losing You
What a track! The first couple beats sound fun and airy, but trouble comes quickly in the form of the brooding synths and keyboard plucks that herald Knowles' first hook. Loss seldom seems so upbeat and beautiful, but this masterpiece pits the aural softness of Solange's voice against the downbeat lyrics: "Just treat me good and, baby, I'll give you the rest of me. I'm not the one you should be making your enemy." How could anyone break up with her? (Also, this track and Sky Ferreria's "Everything Is Embarrassing" are two peas in a sonic pond.)
Bruno Mars - Locked Out of Heaven
Yes, it's basically a Police song, but so what? Those who took Mars to task for sounding a bit like 16-time Grammy-winner Sting missed the point: Mars is an unapologetic borrower. That's why he and his band dress like they're from a different decade, and that's why his album is called "Unorthodox Jukebox." "Locked Out of Heaven" is a helluva lead single -- and it was strong enough to knock Rihanna's "Diamonds" off its Billboard throne. A great late-year addition to your Best Of playlist.
Gotye - Somebody That I Used to Know (ft. Kimbra)
Of the one-hit wonders of the year, Gotye's track rings more true than Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" or Psy's "Gangnam Style," because it includes actual images (she comes to get her records!). Whether the singer will manage to match this feat remains to be seen, but we're not holding our breath.
Angel Haze - Cleanin' Out My Closet
It's easy to dismiss covers and re-imaginings as gimmicks, but Haze's take on Eminem's infamous track is a force to be reckoned with: Frank and graphic in its description of the sexual abuse Haze experienced, her "Cleanin' Out My Closet" is easily the most challenging song of the year. Haze delivers it with a steady gaze, rapping about a topic normally considered unspeakable and thoughtfully examining the effects abuse has wrought on her relationships (both with herself and others). Listening to this track is almost a moral obligation.
Stars - Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It
Canadian indie-rock gods Stars have been making depressing and romantic (and romantically depressing) music for well over a decade now, but this year's "The North" easily ranks among their best albums. The lead single, "Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It," demonstrates why. It's somber, hopeful and danceable.
Taylor Swift - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Though she normally writes by herself, Swift was wise to link up with Max Martin. Her wildly successful album, "Red," is great because it has good songs from so many genres. "Never Ever" is the disc's perfect pop song. It appeals to Swift's teenyboppers and knocks in the club (as does "I Knew You Were Trouble," but that track relies on a dubstep-lite breakdown to get the job done). She's cheeky too, mocking her paramour for finding "piece of mind with some indie record that's much cooler than mine." If she's going to make a career out of lambasting her famous ex-boyfriends, let's hope they keep inspiring her to such heights.
fun. - Some Nights
The Guardian's Dave Simpson said it best when he noted the "oddly moving" quality of fun.'s songs. In the a capella intro to the title track off the band's Jeff Bhasker-produced album, lead singer Nate Ruess conducts a dark self-examination: "What do I stand for? Most nights, I don't know." The track recalls everyone from Phil Collins to Paul Simon, to Queen, with touches of Afrobeat and (regrettably) T-Pain, which is impressive given that it's ultimately just a Top 40 radio hit. "Some Nights" followed lead single "We Are Young," and grapples with the same themes. It's just a much better song.
Diplo - Express Yourself (feat. Nicky Da B)
Diplo remains the best example of an "electronic dance music" producer whose talents extend far beyond club bangers. A longtime hip-hop and pop producer (thank him and collaborator Switch for any M.I.A. song you've heard), Diplo brings a sense of pacing and space to electronic music that's unmatched by many of the biggest names in the genre. But 2012 saw him make his most unapologetic solo productions. No one who's a casual fan of pop music is going to fall in love with a track like "Express Yourself," and that's the point. Because for a very large chunk of kids wilding out over long, potentially MDMA-fueled nights at blacked-out house parties or grime meccas like New York's Webster Hall, this was the year's soundtrack. The mainstream noticed (the late Mac Dre must have chuckled as hip-hop and R&B -- Chief Keef to Rick Ross to The Weeknd -- raced to co-opt a culture of ecstasy and molly use), but Diplo was there from the start. Your daughters are still tweeting him racy photos of themselves.
An honorable mention: Major Lazer's "Get Free." Like most of Diplo's work, "Get Free" borrows faithfully from Jamaican culture and comes off as something wholly authentic (the SoMe-directed video didn't hurt, either). While many have tried to graft dancehall or reggae vibes onto their productions, no one did it better this year. Funny, given we're talking about a boy from Philly and a girl from Texas, the masterful Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors.
Lana Del Rey - National Anthem
I know, I know -- we've read your comments all year long. Yes, her dad's rich. Yes, her entire aesthetic is borrowed from people who did it better decades ago. And yes, she definitely underwhelms when she's performing (we barely made it through one of her shows). But putting "Anthem" in the title of your track is a risk that deserves one or two listens. And lo and behold, LDR delivered: "National Anthem" is a song that's undoubtedly 2012. Traces of Occupy Wall St. ("Money is the reason / We exist / Everybody knows it, it's a fact"), general disillusionment with American exceptionalism ("I sing the National Anthem / While I'm standing over your body / Hold you like a python") and the cult of celebrity ("It's a love story for the new age / For the six page") all make it in. The video featured A$AP Rocky in the role of John F. Kennedy -- half-stunt, half-statement. Topping it off is production that somehow sounds lush, excessive and altogether gloomy. Not bad for a walking meme.