Here are the songs that I think are the finest that I had the opportunity to hear in 2012. If you want to see the other 10, go here.
10. Avant & Keke Wyatt, You and I
Avant and Keke Wyatt need to go on ‘head and record a duet album. 10 songs. This good. Nothing more, nothing less. Their chemistry is remarkable. You and I succeeds not just because both singers are top-notch vocalists, but because it is a true duet; the kind we just don’t get anymore. Call me a sap, but I kind of love that this is a song about two people expressing their love for each other. Nothing more. No equivocations.
9. Sy Smith & Rahsaan Patterson, Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)
Two of my favorite vocalists recording a cover of one of Billy Ocean’s most thoroughly enjoyable jams? How could I not love this song? Sy and Rah sound like they are having a total blast on this song – and that makes the song that much more infectious. Interestingly, Sy and Rah are very different singers, but the song is arranged in a way that lets them both do what they do so beautifully without compromising what makes them both so thoroughly unique. It doesn’t sound disjointed. They blend beautifully. I never considered what it would be like if they recorded a song together before. Now I can’t wait for them to do it again.
8. Solange, Losing You
I don’t think Solange’s 80s new wave on True always works, but damn if she doesn’t nail it on Losing You. Her singing is more focused and thoughtful than the sometimes undisciplined vocals on Sol-Angel and that’s critical because otherwise the production here would overwhelm. Solange’s slightly melancholic lead vocal gives the song more heft than I think it would otherwise and actually elevates the song above mere retro kitsch. It’s really really infectious in the best sense of that word. Bonus points for a video that celebrates the effortless beauty of black people.
7. R. Kelly, Feelin’ Single
Feelin’ Single is both fun and a little vulnerable. We have only gotten R.’s vulnerable side a few times, but when we do it is glorious. R. Kelly is unquestionably one of the most gifted artists of his generation. But like so many great artists, his excesses and eccentricities have threatened to overwhelm his artistry over the last decade. So thank goodness that he’s decided to use, over the last two albums, early black music forms to resituate himself, to restate his obsession with sex and love and his own ego, to recapture his own tremendous capacity to write a great. fucking. song.
6. Frank Ocean, Pyramids
I only think a handful of Frank Ocean’s songs actually work, partly because I think the man is mostly a lyricist and doesn’t actually know very much at all about songcraft. So if Pyramids is a fluke, it’s a wondrous one. What I like the most here is the strikingly honest sense of male insecurity that permeates this song. I think his more straight-ahead vulnerability on songs like Thinking Bout You aren’t anywhere near as emotionally naked and open as his work on this remarkable song. I kinda wish the video were a better representation of what is really going on in this song, but oh well. Pyramids remains the one song from Channel Orange I genuinely love and if this is the direction he’s headed as a songwriter (which remains to be seen), then he might actually live up to all this maddeningly dishonest hype.
5. Brandy, Music
I think Music might be the most revealing song that Brandy Norwood has ever recorded and yet you can only get it if you buy the deluxe version of Two Eleven. If that doesn’t tell you something about who Brandy Norwood is right now, I don’t know what else could. It’s incredibly painful to watch an artist who has had the kind of profound impact on the industry that Brandy has had struggle to find herself as a grown-ass woman. So I quite enjoy that that struggle is laid so bare on Music, wherein Brandy fans finally get some confirmation of the crushing insecurities that lie at the center of this tremendous artist. I didn’t like most of Two Eleven at all, but Music is proof that her artistry is not dead.
4. Austin Brown, Groove ’92
Austin Brown released a lot of great songs this year, proving that he has a firmer grasp of songcraft than just about any other young brother in the game right now. I thought about including Stargazer with it’s incredibly inventive sample of the Jackson 5’s ABC, but Groove ’92 is the song that I found myself listening to nonstop all year. I love that it recalls the 90s but yet sounds nothing like what would have been a hit in the 90s. I love the background harmonies so fuckin’ much. I love the rhythm arrangement, which is deceptively layered and yet oh so simple. The mastered version that appears on the mixtape is a bit more muted, but this original version is sublime.
3. Lina, I Won’t Go Down
In terms of sheer emotion, there was nothing that knocked me on my ass the way that Lina’s I Won’t Go Down did. Lina’s always been a songwriter and singer who cuts right to the emotional quick of a song better than most. This torchy blues song is flawless in every single way imaginable. What I love most is how Lina’s lead vocal completely controls the tempo of the song throughout. She never lets the song get away from her, even as she unleashes some of the most anguished adlibs that I’ve ever heard her employ. If you haven’t gotten into Lina, you need to. She’s major!
2. Usher, (in order) Say The Words, I Care For U, Twisted, Lessons for the Lover, Climax, Sins of my Father, I.F.U.
Say The Words is my favorite song on Usher’s latest album, which is why it’s above, but it’s only marginally better than six other songs on the album. So much so that when I selected it for this list at #2 it felt incomplete. And that’s because the soulman that Usher truly is was on remarkable display throughout Looking For Myself, even if it was bumping up against the shook, chart-focused Euro dance pop Usher that he’s shamelessly (and unsuccessfully) trying to convince the world that he is. To truly highlight what Usher did this year, you have to talk about all seven songs. Climax and I Care For U are really the only instances of truly progressive R&B on the album and they obliterate everything that Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd can do on their very best days – because Usher’s a real, tried-and-true singer and they are not – so they get the most attention because popular music is always about valuing new black music at the expense of old black music (once it’s been suitably used up by white folks) as if the two can’t co-exist. Luckily Say The Words, Lessons for the Lover, Twisted,Sins of My Father, and I.F.U. remind us just how vital this music really is – and just how astute a vocalist Usher truly is. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Usher is his generation’s greatest soulman masquerading as the biggest pop star in the world. If he continues to be as inventive as he was on these seven songs, which I genuinely believe are better than just about every other song I heard this year, he’ll remain a cut above all the rest.
1. Nas, The Don
This track is monster and Nas flows lovely over it. This is about the best way that Nas could have reaffirmed his elder statesman status. It’s the single best song he’s recorded in a while and that’s saying a lot. For me it’s that moment right near the end where he says “under fire, I remain on some calm shit” that perfectly encapsulates who Nas is and why I adore this man and this particular song. Nas has nothing to prove and, as a result, that’s freed him up to keep making great music. He’s been quietly, masterfully having the most creative and brilliant 21st century of any other corporate emcee and as a result building a body of work that is practically unmatched. Nas the don…understood. Indeed