Year's Best: Okayplayer's Top 12 Songs Of 2012

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.Frank Ocean - Pyramids (video still)

Now that we've closed the book on 2012, we can speak with (a little) more perspective on what it all meant--musically at least. In the world of music as in real life, 2012 was in some ways not as earth-shattering as its predecessor. Yet it was a year in which earth-shattering potential was realized. Specifically the rookies of the millenium--Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Gary Clark Jr., A$AP Rocky and The Weeknd, to name a few--all delivered complete, mature albums which equaled or outshone the flares sent up by their 2011 mixtape jams and one-offs. Bobby Womack and D'Angelo came out of retirement while Cody ChesnuTT came back out of nowhere. NaS decisively broke the curse of Illmatic's blessings after almost a decade and Kanye West made his mostly-theoretical label imprint into a road-ready vehicle for music that was actually good (meaning G.O.O.D., not BAD 25). Alla which is to say that while 2011 may have entered the names of more new artists into the roll-call of musical greatness, 2012 almost certainly added more jams to the canon of classic jams. And this list here is where we separate the peaks from the obsoletes--otherwise known as Okayplayer's Top 12 Songs of 2012.

1. Bobby Womack - "Please Forgive My Heart"

Ok, let's put this shit in perspective.Bobby Womack releasing his first album of new material in 18 years was already big news beyond the scope of big things that happened in this year or even this decade. But when that album--a collaboration with the dream team of Damon Albarn and Richard Russell of XL Records--turned out to contain some of the most effecting songs of Womack's entire 58-year career (the first record with his name on it was 1954's "Buffalo Bill." Dude was 10 years old) we are not talking songs of the century, we are talking immortality. It all comes together on "Please Forgive My Heart," one of several songs that seem to reference the well-known tragedies of Womack's life. The recent announcement of his struggle with alzheimer's--making this very likely to be his last voyage into inner space--just make it that much harder to listen to--and harder not to listen to.

2. A$AP Rocky - "Goldie"

Comme des f**k down, rap nerds. A$AP Rocky may not represent the much needed shot in the arm to the artform that Kendrick, Nas and Killer Mike all delivered in varying doses this year--but "Goldie" is definitely a hit of something addictive. It's the perfect cocktail of a hypnotic beat from Hit-Boy earning his name mixed with a generous helping of flow that "jus complimented it the right way." Proving once and for all that it's mostly the voice (and the furcoat swag).

3. Flying Lotus x Erykah Badu - "See Thru To U"

As mentioned, Flying Lotus' album Until The Quiet Comes is so multifariously off the hook that it's extremely difficult to pick an emblematic--or even a favorite--track. Luckily Erykah Badu makes it easy with the way her haunting voice wraps itself around the track, equal parts house and hard bop. Or maybe it's the other way around. The main point is, Badu's vocal--by turns spooky, slinky and playful--and FlyLo's track intertwine into a groove so together, you can't tell where it ends and where it begins.

4. Miguel - "Adorn"

There's no ranking for the 12 songs on this list but for a lot of people in the okayplayer office (hint: they're the female ones) this song is ranked 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. I'm not sure what I can say to recommend this song that has not been screamed at you by your partner over the sound of bed-springs pushed to the breaking point. Preferably addressing you as 'daddy'. Seriously though, this smoldering, spiritual love song (and, ahem, okayplayer premiere) is not just the sound of love in 2012. It may be the new most popular name for babies born in 2013.

5. Cody ChesnuTT - "Chips Down In No Landfill"

Perhaps the most revelatory song on a comeback album full of unexpected revelations, "Chips Down" is hard to describe without using reference points like Marvin Gaye, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. But perhaps what makes Cody ChesnuTT's mastery of the harmonic lessons taught by these masters connect so powerfully in 2012 is the urgent, idiosyncratic power of the stream-of-consciousness songwriting, in some ways more in tune with Frank Ocean than Lennon-McCartney or Holland-Dozier-Holland. The spontaneous feel of the lyrics adds an immediacy to the impeccable pop arrangement--and sets the listener up for the perfectly unexpected power of the soaring chorus.

6. G.O.O.D Music - "New God Flow" f/ Kanye West, Pusha T & Ghostface Killah

Could anything improve the perfect blend of minor-keyed sinnerman piano, "G.O.O.D. Music golden child" Pusha T at his rawest and the looped voice of Ghostface Killah exhorting us to "come have a good time with g.o.d.?" Yes. A cameo from the most mysterious chessboxer of all time, GFK himself, shaving off one of his toughest verses in years ("dead a cow for his f**cking leather). Among other things, a powerful sign that in spite of hype and delays, Kanye does know how to spell G.O.O.D. music (see also "Mercy"; "Clique" etc. etc)

7. Kendrick Lamar - "(Swimming Pools) Drank"

Like an anti-matter twin to "Goldie", Kendrick Lamar's weirdly DJ-friendly single "Swimming Pools (Drank)" follows a similar chop & screwed sonic template, but replaces pure swag with the young gun's trademark mix of articulate anger and self-doubt to arrive at the unlikeliest club anthem of the decade--and that's even before the altered voices that seem to follow young Kendrick everywhere pirate the signal at about 1:41 to say "OK. Now open your mind up and listen me, Kendrick." That's when the party really gets weird.

8. Gary Clark, Jr - "Numb"

Speaking of new gods, Gary Clark, Jr. stepped off the stage of last year's OKP Holiday jam into greatness in 2012. While his album Blak & Blu is well-equipped with amazing songs--each of them big enough to be an NFL anthem-- "Numb" is the one where he translated his time-travelling mastery of the blues into a powerful claim on the title of New Guitar God. Only a blues cat born in the wrong decade has the proper background to literally reinvent hard rock the way GCJ does on this song--and in the process "Numb" makes old-fashioned feedback crunch sound fresher and more radical than dubstep wobbles.

9. Frank Ocean - "Pyramids"

Mining for artistic gold in the titty bar has become r&b's favorite pastime in 2012, the wasteland of hit radio littered with more attempts to find an existentialist edge to the never-ending quest make it rain/clap/go low than there is dirty glitter on the floor of Pumps come Sunday morning. Most of the time. these cake-and-eat-it shots fail to be either deep or edgy. But with the simple Vegas-Cairo conceit in the title and refrain of "Pyramids", Frank Ocean doesn't just make it rain, he makes it rain in the desert. Of course it's his signature voice--writing like a rapper and singing like a choir-boy--that makes it all work, etching phrases like "let it be some jazz playing" into your consciousness forever.

10. Kanye West x RZA - "White Dress"

The second song of the year from Kanye West (and the second Wu-Tang collaboration, coincidentally) Ye's contribution to RZA's eyeball-popping kung fu flick The Man With The Iron Fists happens to be his most soulful, heartfelt composition in years, proving that the introspective rapper and producer still lives alongside the other Yeezies; the throne-bound rockstar and the multimedia mogul. Though "White Dress" is in many ways a perfect love song, it feels as much like a love letter to West's original fanbase as it does to the meanest Armenian in his life (c'mon, we all know who he's picturing in that white dress).

11. Joey Bada$$ - "Waves"

In the same year NaS and The Wu-Tang kept their respective franchises alive by updating their 90s street-purist mentality for a new era, the Pro Era crew, and Joey Bada$$ in particular, re-damn-birthed it for a whole new generation. "Waves" is the closest thing yet we've had to a manifesto for the movement/moment we refer to with the shorthand '90s babies' here at Okayplayer. Breaking daily lyrical bread over a partly-sunny jazz beat that could be an alternate version of Hiero's "93 'Til Infinity" one of the most remarkable things about it is the easy freedom it displays. Complete freedom, among other things, from the pressure to work as a club track, drive-time radio hit or even geek-out viral phenomenon. It works as a rap song.

12. Nas x Amy Winehouse - "Cherry Wine"

Nas was a veritable factory of song-of-the-year contenders in 2012 and although he put out jams that were stronger in terms of lyricism ("Nasty"), depth ("Daughters"), street knowledge ("Queens Story") and pure lickashot energy ("The Don"), this particular song is in fact bigger than hip-hop. A historic reunion of one of the great duos that almost was, "Cherry Wine" is Amy Winehouse's final wave goodbye as much as Nas' re-introduction. But 'historic' implies 'epic' whereas this tune's brilliance lies paradoxically in being small and well, comfy, and sh*t. Much as Amy felt about her Ray and her cherry, "Cherry Wine" is a song to come home to.

Honorable Mentions:

Robert Glasper Experiment x Bilal - "Letter To Hermione" (Glasper & Jewels Remix); Ka - "No Downtime"; Captain Murphy - "The Ritual"; Jimmy Cliff - "One More"; Major Lazer x Amber Coffman - "Get Free."