Like last year, I didn’t think 2012 was a strong year for albums. But there were a good number of individual songs that I loved this year.
Here are the first 10 after the jump.
20. Big Boi featuring Kelly Rowland, Mama Told Me
This retro 80s black synth pop track replete with a sublime Kelly Rowland hook is pure unadulterated fun. Big Boi doesn’t get near the attention that he deserves, certainly not for the way he subverts and flips the player pimp archetype with increasing ease and sly humor (“We gon’ get low low down until we get back up/Boy everything gravy, taters mashed up”). Regardless, this is another classic gem from perhaps the most successful underrated emcee in the game.
19. Meelah, I Should Let You Go
It’d be easy to pay attention to the production wizardry and the airy backgrounds, but it’s really all about how Meelah never lets those things overwhelm a subtlely evocative lead vocal performance that is perfectly pitched. She’s always been a vocalist that understands the oft-underutilized virtue of less is more. And now 10 years after she so ably led the deeply, criminally underrated and ignored 702 she proves she’s still dope as ever. It’s a pleasure to get to listen to her wondrous voice yet again.
18. Keith Murray, La La La
In terms of sheer enjoyment, no emcee thrills me more than Keith Murray. He packs more quotables into a verse than just about any emcee in the game, makin even the most absurd non-words sound dope. La La La is no different as Keith spits lovely about how he just don’t care about what other emcees in the game think of him. He’s “sittin very legendary, omnipotent/spit with such gravity, mister pop clarity.” Few emcees say so much with so few words even when he’s flowin quick over a dope beat and so few understand exactly who they are and give not a fuck what that means commercially. Definitely lookin forward to Keith’s mixtape.
17. Luke James, Mo’ Better Blues
Luke James sings with such a profound power and clarity that he makes you wonder why such singing is all too rare among millennial artists. He obliterates the false dichotomy between technical precision and emotive beauty. The longing here is palpable, particularly when he unleashes that flawless falsetto. If he continues to record and release music of this caliber he could end up becoming the finest black male pop vocalist since Usher.
16. RZA & The Black Keys, The Baddest Man Alive
Any song from the dope-as-fuck soundtrack to RZA’s directorial debut, The Man With The Iron Fists, could be on this list. It’s that good of a soundtrack. But The Baddest Man Alive is the song that sonically evokes the ethos of the movie perfectly. It’s dirty and earnest and melodramatic – just like the film. And RZA sounds about as alive on the mic as he ever has.
15. Antoine Dunn, Miss My Love
Antoine Dunn’s a singer who exercises great restraint. A blues man at his core, his phrasing is flawless and his use of great backgrounds on Miss My Love both elevates and anchors the song beautifully. And most importantly, the song has a hint of sadness and wistfulness that makes it more than a kiss-off. It’s an expertly performed blues song about missed opportunities. Antoine wants ole girl to call him up, but he’ll be okay if she doesn’t.
14. Miguel, Gravity
Miguel did so much so right this year. He reintroduced himself with his Art Dealer Chic mixtapes so people could see what they missed on his 2008 Mischief mixtape and what got buried in the chart-focused-but-still-largely-dope songwriting of his major label debut, All I Want Is You. And he released Adorn, which is sublime and the perfect song to cement his reputation as the millennial avant garde genius that he is. But he made one misstep: by selecting only one song from each of the mixtapes for inclusion on his sophomore album, Kaleidoscope Dreams, he missed an opportunity to let everyone know that Gravity is his finest song of the year. Everything is right here, from the metaphoric lyrics, to the vocal arrangement, to the production, to Miguel’s lead vocal, which conveys just the right amount of pent-up sexual tension.
13. Melanie Fiona, Bones
Bones is, for my money, the finest song on Melanie’s sophomore album, The MF Life and is a perfect showcase for what she does better than any other singer of her generation: convey tremendous anguish. The lyrics are melodramatic, but Melanie never approaches them that way. There is power here, but she’s not oversinging at all. And the track has the right blend of percussive 60s girl group swing to it. Not enough of her work is this flawless, but Bones is reason enough to keep an eye on Ms. Fiona.
12. Rashad, Machine Gun
Rashad’s mixtape, Museum, is so chock full of wonderfully inventive ideas, but it’s Machine Gun that kept coming drawin me back. It’s a weird-ass threat of a song, all distortion and computer effects. And yet it manages to sound nowhere near as corny or silly as “machine gun as a metaphor for how dope i am” might suggest. There’s a clear-eyed simplicity to what Rashad does even if the music sounds layered or busy that I find incredibly remarkable. Like Dilla before him, Rashad comes into the game fully formed and totally unique. He keeps this up, he could be just as great.
11. Jay Electronica, Dear Moleskine
This is kind of a cheat since the song has been around since 2009. But this full version with about 3 minutes of Just Blaze’s beautiful music only makes that one, masterful verse resonate more deeply than it did before. There’s such melancholy here – “I’m just a sleep walking robot that’s outta gear” – and also genuine terror – “The grim reaper walking with his shovel right behind me/Trying to introduce me to the untimely unkindly” – that you can’t help but wonder what’s really goin on in Jay Elec’s head. Not since 2pac has an emcee been this unfailingly human and humane on record. If we never get a full studio album from Jay Elec, it wouldn’t surprise me. Even if it would disappoint me.