The 50 Best Songs of 2012

We count down the year's greatest tracks.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

There was plenty of great music in 2012, and there was more chaff than ever to sort through to find it. While the floodgates of free content that opened last decade began to dry up as labels regained control over their property, new artists rushed to fill the opening. Hip-hop mixtape sites remained a popular way for rap fans to follow their favorite artists, and sudden, viral, word-of-mouth success continued to defy expectations.

This year's list is diverse; few artists or labels could be said to have dominated the results, and rap music from several of the country's major regional centers all managed to throw some songs up on the board. Perhaps the biggest winner was producer Mike Will Made It, who crafted the sound of multiple massive hits, or 2 Chainz, who saw his re-branding efforts come full circle with an onslaught of solo and guest material that helped him become one of the year's dominant forces.

But for the most part, there weren't too many particular trends that really came out on top. Instead, thanks in part to the Internet's increasing space for niche performers, there was a balance between emerging personalities and the continued presence of reliable veterans like Kanye West and Rick Ross. R&B had a strong showing, as did independent artists who played with ideas of electronic composition and texture.

In a way, the expansiveness of the year's soundscape makes it more difficult to place all of the year's best songs into a competitive context. How do you compare the experimental minimalism of Grimes with the abrasive, violence-ridden yelps of Meek Mill? We asked ourselves the same question before sitting down to, track-by-track, listen to the greatest records of the past 12 months and make our final decisions.

All things considered, and debated, these are the 50 Best Songs of 2012.

RELATED: 25 Rap Albums From the Past Decade That Deserve Classic Status
RELATED: 25 Things Everyone Thinks About Hip-Hop (But Nobody Will Say)
RELATED: The 50 Biggest Hip-Hop Clichés

50. Lil Wayne "No Worries"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: I Am Not A Human Being II
Producer: Detail
Label: Young Money, Cash Money, Universal Republic

Believe it or not, the guy was who once regarded as the "best rapper alive" has to prove himself as a worthwhile asset to hip-hop these days. After last year's Tha Carter IV was widely declared a major misstep, Lil Wayne—superstar status and all—became the underdog. Quality guest spots on records from labelmates Drake, Tyga, and Nicki Minaj helped him retain some of his former reputation, but still, the public would not be satisfied until Tunechi shined on a record where he was the sole, or, at least, top-billed artist. Then "No Worries" happened.

It's distinct from his previous material, but provides what we've come to expect from Wayne at the same time. "No Worries" has the charm to include boasts about oral sex that don't come across as crass. The production and delivery legitimately exudes a sense of fun that makes the song easy to warm up to. "No Worries" is a reminder that Weezy can dominate airwaves at any given moment. No wonder he isn't worried about anything. — Ernest Baker

RELATED: Lil Wayne Is Back and It's Because of "No Worries"

49. Jai Paul "Jasmine"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: N/A
Producer: Jai Paul
Label: XL

Please, adjust your stereo; it's not loud enough. Play Jai Paul's "Jasmine"—only the second song the XL-signed songwriter and producer has released—so that the neighbors shriek about the bass line, that nervous "buh-buh-buh-buh" invading their pad. A simple guitar riff emerges. Strain to find it as it grows louder, joined by the drums and Jai Paul's whisper-mumbled words. They're the suggestion of a song, like something from a dream.

You can only make out the name Jasmine because the title prepared you for it. The song is barely there until the refrain, which becomes more intense each time, busts the track open into something like sex, with nasty-as-fuck guitars and synths. Bone to this. — Ross Scarano

48. A$AP Ferg "Work"

Not Available Interstitial

47. Tame Impala "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Lonerism
Producer: Kevin Parker
Label: Modular

The word "psychedelic" scares some listeners into conjuring up ideas of jam bands and '60s-style rock meant for acid trips with wide-eyed hippies looking to expand their minds through music. One listen to "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" and it's clear that Australia's Tame Impala deserves better than to be lumped in with the muddled mess of psychedelia in music.

The melody is strong enough to be plugged into a Beatles album, and there's an emotional chord struck in this song that makes any moment feel important, with or without the hallucinogens. — Jacob Moore

46. SpaceGhostPurrp "The Black God"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp
Producer: SpaceGhostPurrp
Label: 4AD

There was a justifiable cause for concern when SpaceGhostPurrp had some of his best work properly mastered for the Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp compilation. Much of his appeal is steeped in his grimy, lo-fi approach, which is lost at times when his work is polished. But not with "The Black God," a stark declaration of supremacy over some of Purrp's finest production to date.

When the hook hits and everything cuts out like a pivotal horror movie scene, you might really think dude is a deity. And if not that, then at least the ruler of the underworld, where everyone still listens to Three 6 Mafia. — Andrew Martin

RELATED: Who Is SpaceGhostPurrp?

45. Ca$h Out "Cashin' Out"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Patience
Producer: DJ Spinz
Label: Epic
If any song can instantly transport you to a time or place you heard it, "Cashin' Out" is it. It's not complicated; this is just the glee of payday in song form. From DJ Spinz' cheery production to the unforgettable hook from ATLien Cash Out, the song became a national hit the old-fashioned way, burning up airplay charts and gradually conquering the country.

In the mix from clubs to parties to late-night drives with the radio on, it was a moment of unalloyed optimism on playlists that tend to the dark and aggressive, a moment of pure joy too often denied space in hip-hop clubs. -David Drake

44. Kids These Days "Who Do U-Luv"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Traphouse Rock
Producer: Kids These Days
Label: N/A

Sure, this year's biggest Chicago rap stars were all about the drill phenomenon, but not Kids These Days. "Who Do U-Luv" is reminiscent of an early Black Keys track with its heavy vocal distortion and raspy, chanted vocals.

Where it sets itself apart from the past few year's blues revival is its lyrical components with lines like, "Pop you out a seed and let you see him on the weekend/Call it smart, some niggas say follow your heart." It's interesting that Vic Mensa's emotive words are repeated alone and with the hook in the back. The record is aware of its ability to impact. — Lauren Nostro

43. Dom Kennedy "My Type of Party"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Yellow Album
Producer: DJ Dahi
Label: Other People's Money

Dom Kennedy's "My Type of Party" is the platonic ideal of a great Dom Kennedy song. His rap style is simple, basic—a casual, conversational approach that owes a debt to Too $hort. His production choices are unique, sounding at once pop and slightly desiccated, as if they were about to disintegrate at any minute.

"My Type of Party," with an instantly memorable synthesizer line courtesy of underrated producer DJ Dahi, is an exemplar. The beat manages a neat tension between cohesive and fragile. The past few years have found Dom's star grow throughout the West Coast, but it's hard to believe that with songs like this he'll remain a regional phenomenon much longer, if he hasn't already transcended that status. — DD

42. Tyga f/ Lil Wayne "Faded"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Careless World: Rise of the Last King
Producer: Dnyc3
Label: Young Money, Cash Money, Universal Republic
This song technically came out during the last few hours of 2011. Releasing a party song on New Year's Eve is a no brainer, but "Faded" lasted far beyond its cash-in holiday drop. Plus, we like to use the argument that it was already Jan. 1 in some parts of the world at the time. That's because this song was fully and wholly a gem of 2012. It will resonate at this year's NYE parties much more than it did at last year's.

Tyga was riding the success of "Rack City" and this record proved that his winning formula wasn't a fluke. The newfound confidence in his flow remained intact, at the same time hilarious ("fuck a bitch in a peacoat") and brash ("vampire, fuck up your evening"). The production was an extension of the West Coast club sound Tyga found success with on his previous single, although less minimalist here, and to greater effect.

Then there's Lil Wayne's guest spot, a scene-stealing blend of aggression, humor, and wit. If Tyga's performance got the bases loaded, Wayne's is the grand slam that brings it all home. — EB

Interview: Tyga Talks Upcoming Album "Hotel California," G.O.O.D. vs. YMCMB, and Why Blogs Are Corny Now

41. Blood Diamonds f/ Grimes "Phone Sex"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: N/A
Producer: Mike Tucker
Label: 4AD

"Phone Sex" reaches new levels of happiness in music. With Grimes' flighty, playful vocals chopped over a low marimba-filled beat, the entire song is a dreamscape. Grimes' weirdly haunting lyrics ("Please, daddy, take me home/Please, daddy, talk to God") are all the more powerful on Mike Tucker's distinct instrumental. The track is otherworldly beautiful. — LN

40. Kid Cudi f/ King Chip "Just What I Am"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Indicud
Producer: Kid Cudi
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Universal Republic

After doing the rock band thing with Dot da Genius as WZRD, Kid Cudi left his fans with an unquenchable thirst for some straight-up rhymes. And that's just what they got from the Cleveland native on "Just What I Am," a return to form for an MC who makes being emotionally fucked up sound like so much damn fun.

Skimming through this woozy burner would lead you to believe it's just another weed anthem from Cudder. But take a second to dissect what he's saying in his verse—which follows King Chip's killer opening bars—and you'll hear the pain and torment in his words. It's a clever trick and one that allows the listener to fully appreciate a cut that's both an easily digestible earworm and a soul-baring audio journal. — AM

RELATED: Kid Cudi's 25 Favorite Albums

39. Nas "Daughters"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Life Is Good
Producer: No I.D.
Label: Def Jam

Nas continued his evolution as a songwriter on Life Is Good, and penned a radio and street-friendly anthem for the fathers out there with daughters, rapping about his own experiences raising his teenage daughter Destiny. From her writing letters to a male friend in jail to her posting a picture of a box of condoms on Instagram, no subject is left untouched.

This was Nas letting his guard down, and showing an honest side of parenthood that is rarely heard on hip-hop records, and for that, we praise him. The No I.D. beat was fantastic, too. — DI

RELATED: 50 Things You Didn't Know About Nas

38. Purity Ring "Belispeak"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Shrines
Producer: Purity Ring
Label: Last Gang, 4AD

Canadian duo Purity Ring is at their finest when their combination of ethereal vocals and electronics blends perfectly with their heavy drums and thick bass. Nowhere else is this more present than on Shrines standout "Belispeak." Megan James' tender voice is enriched by pitch-shifting back-up vocals, all of which Corin Roddick uses as a plaything for his booming low end and glimmering synthesizers. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Danny Brown hopped on a sequel to this cut and brought out its innate grit. — AM

37. Twin Shadow "Five Seconds"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Confess
Producer: George Lewis Jr., Chris Taylor
Label: 4AD

In 2012, indie music mostly shied away from bold displays of showmanship. Vocals were washed out and distant, soundscapes were fuzzy and electronically altered, and the music was, in many cases, meek and subtle, avoiding the in-your-face mentality of hip-hop, EDM, and mainstream rock. Twin Shadow's Confess handled things differently.

George Lewis Jr. stepped up as the closest thing to Freddie Mercury or Morrissey the indie rock world currently has to offer. With sharp production, an infectious melody, and dauntless lead vocals, Twin Shadow filled a void in independent music exemplified flawlessly on the dramatic "Five Seconds." — JM

36. Wiz Khalifa f/ Juicy J "My Favorite Song"

Not Available Interstitial

35. Trinidad James "All Gold Everything"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Don't Be S.A.F.E.
Label: N/A

The genius of "All Gold Everything" isn't just that it features one of the best lines of the year ("Popped a molly, I'm sweating. WOO!"), it's that it's specially applicable to a diverse audience. It's a song for the hypebeasts, the social media savvy college kids, and even the strippers. James shouts out every faction of the Atlanta scene, making his song (and in turn, himself) a uniting force in a niche-driven market.

After its release earlier this year, the song didn't hit right way. But once it was coupled with an excellent music video, Trinidad James went from a no-name to the hottest thing in hip-hop in a matter of weeks. Going into 2013, Trinidad is on the short of list of new rappers to keep an eye on. Don't believe us? Just watch. -IA

34. Pusha T f/ Kanye West & Ghostface Killah "New God Flow"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Cruel Summer
Producer: Kanye West, Boogz & Tapez, Anthony Kilhoffer
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam

For this G.O.O.D. Music collaboration with Pusha T, Kanye West borrowed the drums and hook from Ghostface Killah's classic Supreme Clientele song "Mighty Healthy" to expert effect on "New God Flow." And in a surprise move that even Pusha wasn't hipped to until the 11th hour, 'Ye added a brand new Ghost verse to the record for its final Cruel Summer album version.

As if the song wasn't already ridiculous enough with two fiery verses from Pusha and Kanye spazzing for 32 bars, the Wally Champ himself adds a whole new dimension to the track with some of the dopest guest rhymes of the year. It almost felt unfair of Kanye to commission a G.O.O.D. Music and Ghostface collaboration. That's just too much talent, and style. — DI

RELATED: Pusha T Breaks Down His 25 Most Essential Songs

33. Santigold "Disparate Youth"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Master of My Make-Believe
Producer: Ricky Blaze
Label: Atlantic
Whereas most tunes grab your ear with surging hooks and, sometimes, cheap tricks, "Disparate Youth" weasels its way into your brain without as much as a noticeable chorus. Santigold's single succeeds in its tropically-tinged instrumentation, which hits with guitar stabs and a steady groove. Also, the throwback new-wave influence is undeniably catchy. — AM

32. Rick Ross "Hold Me Back"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: God Forgives, I Don't
Producer: G5Kid
Label: Maybach Music Group, Def Jam

It's weird to think of now, but a lot of people didn't like this song when it came out. Before it was immortalized in the first verse of Kanye West's "To The World," it was criticized as a rehash of Rozay's old material—reliance on a formula he'd been overusing since "B.M.F." The sonic similarities clouded people's judgment.

If anything, "Hold Me Back" is the freshest take on the sound Ross popularized two years prior, and it has more meaning. Rather than empty boasts, this record confronts the challenges of prosperity in the face of oppression. Ross' verses become a narrative, his chorus a mantra. It's a high-octane rollercoaster ride of a song and proof that sometimes the best work doesn't get its due recognition on the first go around. —EB

31. Cloud Nothings "Our Plans"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Attack on Memory
Producer: Steve Albini
Label: Carpark

While the punk aesthetic ain't what it used to be, the genre's sound is still alive and well thanks to some key players. One of those is Steve Albini, whose production work is unprecedented—he's had a hand in albums by everyone from Nirvana to Cloud Nothings. It was his work on Attack on Memory that helped the Cleveland outfit properly embrace their gritty roots.

Case in point: "Our Plans," a raw, no-bullshit display of emotion. Ample credit goes to frontman Dylan Baldi, of course, whose throaty vocals and lead guitar really bring this track home with just enough angst. — AM

30. A$AP Rocky "Goldie"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Long.Live.A$AP
Producer: Hit-Boy
Label: A$AP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA, Sony

"Goldie" didn't move Rocky from Internet sensation to Billboard force like it aimed to, but that lack of a prerequisite pop sheen is why this record comes across as so unapolegtic and endearing. Rocky is so in the element, his flow is so perfectly in the pocket it's obvious you're in the midst of greatness. Nothing quite captures the high-brow/low-brow paradox of A$AP's worldview quite like the idea of sipping expensive champagne and chasing it with a 40. Let "Fuckin' Problems" be Rocky's big hit, "Goldie" is his most realized moment. — IA

RELATED: A$AP Rocky Breaks Down His 15 Most Essential Songs

29. French Montana f/ Rick Ross, Drake & Lil Wayne "Pop That"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Excuse My French
Producer: Anthony Lee
Label: Bad Boy, Interscope

Once you accept that "Pop That" is pure, unadulterated rap music for the (strip) clubs, you'll also realize how goddamn inescapably enjoyable it is, too. With French Montana leading the way and throwing down his "work!" ad-libs all over the monstrous production, the track gives way to loveable, explicit rhymes from Rick Ross, Drake, and Lil Wayne.

But let's be real: you're not listening to "Pop That" because you want to hear sharp punchlines or slick 16s. You're listening to it because you're on a dance floor somewhere, or in a car with the volume cranked up and your friends losing their shit. Also, that Uncle Luke sample? Perfect. — AM

RELATED: 10 Lessons French Montana Learned From Being a Coke Boy 

28. Fiona Apple "Every Single Night"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: The Idler Wheel...
Producer: Fiona Apple, Charley Drayton
Label: Epic

The Idler Wheel... is one of the most cohesive albums of the year, and that makes it hard to pick out a single, but in 2012 there were few moments in music as powerful as hearing the visceral, almost tribal chorus on Fiona's "Every Single Night." The song starts off delicately, but the tide turns when Fiona sings, "That's when the pain comes in/Like a second skeleton, trying to fit beneath the skin."

The intensity on that line, less than 30 seconds into the album, is just a hint of what's to come, but it's a powerful one. "Every Single Night" showcases Fiona's talent for turning her struggles and weaknesses into a very human expression of strength, both gentle and muscular, feminine and commanding. She's capable of appealing to raw human nature unlike any other. — JM

RELATED: The Fearlessness of Fiona Apple

27. Action Bronson f/ Riff Raff "Bird On A Wire"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Saab Stories
Producer: Harry Fraud
Label: Vice

Action Bronson and Riff Raff were an unlikely duo on paper, but over this hazy, Harry Fraud-produced, slow-burning banger, it all made sense, and each caught the awkward bounce of the beat excellently.

Bronsolino set it off, rapping about waking up and doing karate in the water, asking, "Why my drug jar look so empty?" RiFF RaFF added his own flavor, rhyming, "Aston Martin, sparking one in valet parking/Loan sharking, hoping that my days don't get darkened." With that, rap's newest Odd Couple was formed. —DI

RELATED: Action Bronson Is My Favorite Rapper of All Time

26. The xx "Angels"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Coexist
Producer: Jamie xx
Label: Young Turks

Coexist might not have had the same impact as its predecessor, but some seem to forget how strong its singles are. Not only that, but the xx have clearly honed and refined their sound while adding enough sonic touches to freshen it up. This is evident on lead single "Angels," a typically gentle track from the London trio.

Where the heavy-hearted tune differs is in the percussion from Jamie xx, who retains his minimalist approach but beefs up the track with smoky snares and heavy kicks. These are complementary strokes that transform the song from a low-key dream-pop tune into the type of track that completely engulfs you. -AM

25. Kendrick Lamar f/ MC Eiht "m.A.A.d city"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: good kid, m.A.A.d city
Producer: Sounwave, THC, Terrace Martin
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath, Interscope

Heavily inspired by Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand," Kendrick Lamar's "m.A.A.d. city" chronicles his descent into a drug-induced hysteria. He delivers his paranoid stress raps through a teenaged squeak, adding a heavy in-the-moment feel to his narrative.

Whether he's reminiscing on seeing "bodies on top of bodies" or threatening the gangbanger who murdered his cousin, Lamar and his guest, MC Eiht, vividly transport you to Compton as they have known and lived it.

Particularly gripping is the robot-like conclusion, which finds Lamar questioning the next generation's ability to escape the pain, crime, and, in his words, "the belly of the rough." -AM

RELATED: Kendrick Lamar: Talkin' 'Bout My Generation (2012 Online Cover Story)

24. Crystal Castles "Affection"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: (III)
Producer: Ethan Kath
Label: Casablanca, Republic, Fiction

With indiscernible vocals, maxed-out synths, and a gothic, demonic surge that runs through most of Crystal Castles' music, "Affection" can be pretty harsh on the ears. We like it that way, though. There's enough sugary pop out there, and to balance it all out, Crystal Castles pushes things to the opposite extreme.

On each album, however, they flirt with something a little more digestible, and sometimes those are their best moments. "Affection" is still a ghost of a pop song, but there's the hint of a skeleton there, and that makes it almost human, almost approachable, and a standout from the Toronto duo's most recent album. AM

RELATED: Crystal Castles Makes Tons of Noises, But No One Can Hear Alice Scream

23. Ty Dolla $ign "My Cabana"

Not Available Interstitial

22. Mac DeMarco "Ode to Viceroy"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: 2
Producer: Mac DeMarco
Label: Captured Tracks

It starts like the soundtrack to a slow-mo chase scene from Twin Peaks; it finishes like something out of the Joe Satriani guitar god noodle rock catalog (except, you know, actually listenable). In between is a deliciously earnest paean to budget cigarettes. Ladies and gentleman, introducing the strangest, weirdest, most original rock song of 2012.

Like the eponymous cheap cigs themselves, it's hard to discern exactly where "Ode to Viceroy" gets you hooked: Is it the groovy, minimalist rhythm section, the aforementioned effects-processed, loopy lead guitar lines, or the slightly creepy, is-this-song-actually-a-metaphor-for-something-else-nope-it's-not ("I'll smoke you 'til I'm dying") vocals? Maybe the whacked out marketing campaign?

All of the above, no doubt (or perhaps there's some secret addictive and noxious additive—who cares). Fuck a surgeon general's warning, with songs this great, the anti-smoking camp doesn't stand a chance. -Jack Erwin

21. A$AP Rocky f/ 2 Chainz, Drake & Kendrick Lamar "Fuckin' Problems"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Long.Live.A$AP
Producer: Noah "40" Shebib
Label: A$AP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA, Sony

In 2011, A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar made names for themselves. (Meanwhile, the already proven Drake showed he was arguably the best rapper working.) In 2012, they all upped the ante and took their bubbling-beneath-the-surface potential to new heights, dropping hit songs and smash albums. (Drake didn't drop an album, much less a solo single, but remained an omnipotent force in hip-hop).

We knew that all four of these guys on one song was going to be a fucking problem, and when they all show up in beast mode, ready to fuck your girl, trying to outdo each other at every turn, the enormous possibility of the record is fully realized, a rarity for much-hyped collaborations. -IA

RELATED: A$AP Rocky Breaks Down His 15 Most Essential Songs

20. Chief Keef "Love Sosa"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Finally Rich
Producer: Young Chop, Dougie
Label: Glory Boys Entertainment, Interscope

For his local fan base, Keef was never a one-hit wonder, but for a national audience, "Lose Sosa" was the moment that even detractors had to acknowledge that would probably have more than 15 minutes of fame. His career prospects remain an enigmatic uncertainty, but when "Love Sosa" surpassed "I Don't Like" as the most-viewed Keef video on YouTube earlier this month, it became not just apparent that he's a talented artist, but that he and Chop have something new to say, and a new way to say it.

The song shook away the lingering Lex Luger template from which "I Don't Like" derived. It's at once hooky and immediate and disturbingly unusual, like a rap song melting in real time. If "Hate Being Sober" is Keef's "Back That Ass Up," a universally-understood concept that has the potential for major chart action, "Love Sosa" is "Ha," a street single at once gimmicky and timeless, strange yet undeniable, upending the rules of how rap is supposed to work. —DD

RELATED: Trying To Make Sense of Chief Keef and the Chaos in Chicago

19. Beach House "Myth"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Bloom
Producer: Chris Coady
Label: Sub Pop
"Myth" is everything you want from a Beach House single: heartbreaking, forlorn vocals and lyrics from Victoria Legrand that seem to exist somewhere between Alex Scally's vibrant guitar lines.

Like their previous work, there's nothing terribly difficult or heady about this cut. It's all about the way everything marries each other, particularly when Legrand belts out "Help me to make it" right before Scally melts your brain with a brief and lush solo. It's beauty in its most simplistic form. -AM

18. Miguel "Adorn"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Kaleidoscope Dream
Producer: Miguel
Label: RCA

"Adorn" was Miguel's breakthrough track, the one that proved he wasn't going to sit tight as the R&B underdog, yet instead, broke boundaries for the genre. His play on words and luxurious vocals are all the result of a series of dreams the singer had which lead him to write the song. It's since been nominated for three Grammys, including Song of the Year. -LN

17. 2 Chainz f/ Drake "No Lie"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Based on a T.R.U. Story
Producer: Mike Will Made It, Marz
Label: Def Jam

2 Chainz and Drake are in full-on shit-talking mode for "No Lie," making the record notable for their high-level braggadocio alone. That's particularly true when Chainz snaps for his third verse, going slightly off-beat to shoot verbal threats at his enemies. Drizzy, too, is no slouch with his rhymes, dropping bravado like "Young as an intern, but money like I built the shit."

But the true winner here is Mike Will Made It, whose star power has risen considerably in the past year. With good reason, of course, as he's clearly mastered the craft of making menacing trap beats accessible for a wider audience by adding lush layers that are admirable from any musical perspective. -AM

RELATED: 2 Chainz: The T.R.U. Story (2012 Online Cover Story)

RELATED: 2 Chainz's 25 Favorite Albums

16. Usher "Climax"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Looking 4 Myself
Producer: Diplo
Label: RCA
While R&B stars with non-traditional sounds—or, at the very least, non-traditional marketing strategies—grabbed headlines throughout the year, it was Usher's mainstream crossover slow jam "Climax" that made for one of the genre's most memorable moments in 2012.

The production has a sparse, restrained airiness that allows for one of Usher's most striking vocal performances, shifting between the familiar choral melody into evocative uncertainty. The backdrop is detailed but subtle, a smooth, tactile canvas, while Usher's vocals have a tantalizing sincerity that gives the song an almost abstract eroticism. —DD

15. G.O.O.D. Music "Clique"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Cruel Summer
Producer: Hit-Boy, Kanye West, Anthony Kilhoffer, Noah Goldstein
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam

Sometimes a beat is all it takes. Hit Boy's "Clique" beat won't knock "N****s in Paris" from its throne, but it's the next best thing. Taking nothing from Big Sean, Jay-Z and Kanye—who all turn in all-star verses—but anyone would sound good over this beat. Perfect for a Jay collaboration, "Clique" captures the spirit of Timbaland without objectively sounding like any beat he's made; its vague exoticism gives it a threatening, swaggering intensity. -DD

RELATED: The Complete History of G.O.O.D. Music

14. Future "Turn on the Lights"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Pluto
Producer: Mike Will Made It, Marz
Label: A1, Free Bandz, Epic

In 2011, few people saw Future as more than "Tony Montana." But by the end of that year, hints that he was a considerably more talented artist had started to surface. He doesn't cut a star's stature; his personality isn't evident. His lyrics aren't particularly nuanced and he's had his fair share of clunkers, although they can be, at times, quite evocative. But he's a songwriter nonpareil, with a true gift for hooks and melodies, a craft-conscious studio rat.

Mike Will, who consistently brought out the best in Future this year, helped construct its watery emotive soundbed with attention to detail. But it was Future who, with one single, made the notoriously pimp-friendly hip-hop audience into a nation of committed Significant Others. "Turn on the Lights" managed this feat because it was a truly transcendent single, a moment of heartfelt, cosmic joy that captured the wide-eyed sincerity of the lovestruck in under four minutes. -DD

RELATED: Future Talks About His New Album "Pluto"

13. Danny Brown "Grown Up"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: N/A
Producer: Party Supplies
Label: Fool's Gold

Rap is currently infused with nostalgia, mostly by rappers too young to really remember the old days who claim that they wish it was still the old days. But Danny Brown's "Grown Up" is the best type of nostalgia, one that longs for the innocence of childhood.

Brown recalls days of free school lunch, choking when hitting the blunt, and being unable to focus in school during those pre-Adderall days. Who would have thought a song commissioned by a car company could be so good? -IA

RELATED: Danny Brown Talks Finding His Voice, Old Man Rap, Kitty Pryde & What He Learned From Jail

12. Schoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky "Hands On the Wheel"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Habits & Contradictions
Producer: Best Kept Secret
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

Schoolboy Q had a breakout year thanks in part to scoring an anthem with "Hands On The Wheel." Produced by Best Kept Secret, the song finds Schoolboy and a vengeful A$AP—who admittedly got outshined on his previous collaboration with Q, "Brand New Guy"—trading verses about getting fucked the fuck up.

Let Schoolboy's TDE brethren Kendrick Lamar make the concept albums, there's no way he's having more fun than Q. In this world, there's only weed and brews, and thankfully for us, and the song, no compromise on Schoolboy's part. -IA

RELATED: Who is Schoolboy Q?

11. Grimes "Oblivion"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Visions
Producer: Grimes
Label: Arbutus

According to 24-year-old singer/songwriter/producer Claire Boucher (known to most as Grimes), "Oblivion" isn't a song that best represents what she was trying to do with her critically acclaimed Visions. The album combines a wide-reaching set of unlikely influences from punk to electronic, but while some of the more experimental stuff may be what she aims for, the pop accessibility of "Oblivion" opened doors to a new fan base that fell head over heels for Grimes in 2012.

It's one of the sweetest, catchiest melodies of the year, but it's also doused in the dark, lo-fi style that makes Grimes one of a kind. -JM

RELATED: Who Is Grimes?

10. Major Lazer "Get Free"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Major Lazer Frees the Universe
Producer: Major Lazer
Label: Downtown

Major Lazer might have pushed back their new album, but the Diplo-led outfit more than made up for that delay with the release of "Get Free." While most might associate the group with dance floor-ready bangers, they toned it down considerably for this cut.

Rather than get all wild and layer synthesizer upon synthesizer, Major Lazer kept it laid-back. And it's a fitting setting for lead vocalist, the Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman, who incomparably drifts atop the chilling backdrop. -AM

9. Nicki Minaj f/ 2 Chainz "Beez in the Trap"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
Producer: Kenoe
Label: Young Money, Cash Money, Universal Republic

Nicki Minaj's year was schizophrenic. She conquered and (some would say) faltered in the worlds of both hip-hop and pop, and the entire ride was just as chaotic as it was entertaining. Mad scientist experiments like Minaj's genre-bending sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, tend to spawn at least a couple of genius moments, and the greatest example here is its single, "Beez in the Trap."

The record was a return to form for Nicki, with raps reminiscent of her mixtape days. Her willingness to branch outside of that sound had no negative impact on her ability to master it, either. Whether she's talking about dropping off women who "won't give it up" or rhythmically listing off every noteworthy city and state on the U.S. map, this is Nicki's best performance of the year.

Enlisting 2 Chainz for a guest verse at the height of "2 Chainz doing guest verses" mania was just the icing on the cake. — EB

RELATED: Nicki Minaj's 25 Sexiest Butt-Shaking GIFs

8. Lana Del Rey "Ride"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Paradise
Producer: Rick Rubin
Label: Polydor, Stranger, Interscope

Nostalgia, loneliness, and obsession weave through Lana Del Rey's "Ride" lyrics so perfectly over the heavy strings and piano melodies created by legendary producer, Rick Rubin. The pop ballad, which served as the first single from her Born to Die album's re-release, is filled with Del Rey's usual themes of daddy issues and addiction, but her ability to master her smoky vocals and heartbreaking lines like "I'm tired of feeling like I'm fucking crazy" brought a new level of vulnerability.

And somehow, it still feels like this record flew under the radar, but really, it ranks amongst the best work Lana's ever done. It's the song that proves her tremendous potential for longevity. "Ride" is so mature and progressive that it doesn't even feel like Lana was ever just a YouTube sensation. -LN

 RELATED: Lana Del Rey: Can She Live? (2012 Cover Story & Gallery)

7. Chief Keef f/ Lil Reese "I Don't Like"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Finally Rich
Producer: Young Chop
Label: Glory Boys Entertainment, Interscope
Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the most powerful. "I Don't Like" captured a mood, time, and place better than any intricate, nuanced, writerly affectations ever could. It was an emotional charge, at once shocking, addictive, and explosive. Its energy had a certain purity; yet-untouched by labels or marketing, the song and its accompanying video were the product of three teenagers and a 23-year-old videographer.

"I Don't Like" managed to transcend the sum of its parts to perfectly encompass a moment and a mentality and reinvent its obvious influences (Waka Flocka and Lex Luger) for a new generation and a new region.

It caught the ears of rappers across the country, most infamously those of Kanye West. While the remix is a tribute to the original's single-minded, concrete brick-hard bleakness, the original is what remains the most fascinating.

For many people, Keef's music remains a source of conflicted feelings, an understandable concern. But it's hard to be conflicted about this song's undeniable energy. There's something real here. — DD

RELATED: Trying To Make Sense of Chief Keef and the Chaos in Chicago

6. Juicy J "Bandz A Make Her Dance"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Stay Trippy
Producer: Mike Will Made It
Label: Taylor Gang, Kemosabe, Columbia

With "Bandz A Make Her Dance," the reinvention of Juicy J that began with his epic verse on Wiz Khalifa's "Errday" ("My mansion sitting on 40 acres, who the neighbors?/Kobe Bryant from the Lakers, now that's paper") and continued on "A Zip & A Double Cup" ("You say no to drugs, Juicy J can't") came to fruition.

Ironically, Juicy's smash hit—which benefited from an updated version with 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne—didn't even make the regular tracklist of his mixtape, Blue Dream & Lean. Instead it was featured on the re-release of the tape, which boasted 10 new bonus tracks.

The song cemented Mike Will's status as the go-to hip-hop producer of the moment, and also proved that Juicy is still as wily as he is trippy. -IA

RELATED: Juicy J Breaks Down His 25 Most Essential Songs

5. Meek Mill f/ Big Sean "Burn"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Dreams and Nightmares
Producer: Jahlil Beats
Label: Maybach Music Group, Warner Bros.

Hop on the treadmill, put this shit on, let that shit burn, and we promise that you'll be in the best shape of your life in no time. The ferocious energy of the instrumental matches that of the two young rappers on it who are both trying to break out of their mentor's shadows. What makes them such a formidable duo isn't their similarities, it's their differences.

Big Sean has always been accused of being humor and flash without much muscle, Meek has always been grit and aggression without much wit. So even while trying to outdo each other, they only end up complimenting each other that much more. -IA

RELATED: Chain Heavy: Meek Mill and the Cost of Success

4. Frank Ocean "Pyramids"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Channel Orange
Producer: Frank Ocean, John Mayer
Label: Def Jam

"Pyramids" isn't a great song, it's two great songs. This nearly 10-minute epic weaves a tale about a young girl lost. The first half of the record deals in the past as Ocean sings about the actual Egyptian pyramids. The second, and better, half takes places in modern times and deals with a stripper who lives with an unemployed loser.

What's even more amazing is that John Mayer (of all people) swoops in at the end for an excellent guitar solo. This is kind of song that only Frank Ocean could have made. Let this be a lesson that artistic risks are rewarded. -IA

RELATED: What Does Frank Ocean Coming Out Mean For Him And For Black Music?

3. Rick Ross f/ Drake & French Montana "Stay Schemin'"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Rich Forever
Producer: The Beat Bully
Label: Maybach Music Group, Def Jam
"Stay Schemin'" was the best single from Rick Ross' massive Rich Forever, and even stands above anything released from his proper album, God Forgives, I Don't. It's a continuation of the chilling sound Drake and Ross had already developed on a string of collaborative singles, from "I'm On One" to "Aston Martin Music," and French Montana's slurred style perfectly complemented the ambiance.

From Montana's hilarious catchy "fanute" to Drake's sympathetic shout out to Kobe Bryant, and Rozay's paranoid opening bars, "Stay Schemin'" remains the stark, ominous soundtrack to the emotional turbulence of 2012. -DD

RELATED: The 25 Funniest Rick Ross GIFs

2. Kendrick Lamar f/ Gunplay "Cartoon & Cereal"

Not Available Interstitial

1. G.O.O.D. Music "Mercy"

Not Available Interstitial

Album: Cruel Summer

Producer: Lifted, Mike Dean, Mike Will Made It, Kanye West, Hudson Mohawke

Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam

Some tried to resist, but "Mercy" is impossible to deny. Its chorus comes from an unlikely source—YB's otherwise-little-recognized "Lambo"—and it samples Super Beagle's reggae track "Dust a Soundboy," thanks to a suggestion from longtime Chicago hip-hop DJ Twilight Tone.

Produced by Lifted and with co-production courtesy of Hudson Mohawke, Mike Will, Mike Dean, and Kanye West, the track indisputably dominated 2012. It included a capstone verse for 2 Chainz and has done more for changing public perceptions of Big Sean than most singles in recent memory.

"Mercy" directly increased public awareness of "thirsty" as a slang term, making a mark on pop culture that goes beyond radio spins and digital sales. Simply put, it's the year's most undeniable musical moment, and proof that Kanye is as adept at churning out hits as ever before. —DD

RELATED: The Complete History of G.O.O.D. Music

Latest in Music