Each year I listen to music with a single goal: discovering the handful of songs I will cherish for the rest of my music-listening life. My year-end list is not a tribute to the past but rather a bet on the future, informed speculation on what I hope will still sound great years from now. Tomorrow I’ll publish my top 10, along with Rdio and Spotify playlists on the off chance you haven’t heard some of these. Until then, here are 10 I’ll still be listening to well into 2012.
20. “Daily Mail,” Radiohead. It was bound to happen eventually, I suppose: Radiohead released a bad album this year. Not awful, exactly, but King of Limbs was undercooked in a way we haven’t seen from the band since Pablo Honey. A handful of year-end critics tried to argue that there was gold in all that glitchy piffle, but the truth is that the band’s best song of the year was a non-album B-side. “Daily Mail” is a simple piano ballad until 1:40, when Thom Yorke’s piano zig-zags into something darker and more complicated. Drums rise up and horns sound. Yorke free-associates, and Johnny Greenwood remembers he can play guitar. “Daily Mail” builds like a migraine, grim and inescapable. But it turns out to be a thrilling catharsis — and the one 2011 Radiohead song you would actually look forward to seeing played in concert.
19. “Taken for a Fool,” the Strokes. You thought they were done, it seems like they are done, and yet waiting there on their middling new record was this instant addition to the greatest hits collection. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., their guitars still precise as surgical lasers, cut through years of bullshit to give Julian Casablancas some much-needed cover.
18. “Need You Now,” Cut Copy. Releasing Zonoscope in bleakest Februrary, when few of us could tear off our shirts and run down to the beach as “Need You Now” blares from our convertibles, seems like a missed opportunity. Then again, when why deprive us for another four months? The song begins modestly, with Dan Whitford telling his darling not to cry against a bed of shimmering synths. Slowly the band adds layers — soft ooh-oohs from voices in the background, a nice twist in the vocal melody around 2:45 — and suddenly you remember why you’ve been waiting so patiently for the latest from these Aussie disco cheeseballs. (This is the band that named a song “Eternity One Night Only” with a straight face.) The influences are obvious, but the approach is sincere. Play it loud enough and it’s like the springtime is always upon you.
17. “Piledriver Waltz,” Arctic Monkeys. The highlight of this year’s (*rolls eyes*) Suck It and See is a breakup song notable for its empathy. On one hand Alex Turner knows she hates him: “I heard the news that you’re planning / to shoot me out of a cannon.” On the other he knows how much she’s hurting: “You look like you’ve been for breakfast at the heartbreak hotel.” Even when he snipes at her for playing the martyr — “if you’re gonna try and walk on water, make sure you wear your comfortable shoes” — the accusation isn’t hurled so much as sighed. The song wheels to bittersweet conclusion with much left unsaid, and one of England’s best songwriters lets us fill in the gaps.
16. “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. A winning single from one of the most consistent bands working today. “Heart in Your Heartbreak” marries Kip Berman’s wistful vocal to a kicky beat and a sugar rush of keyboards I never tire of. When I saw the band live this year at Slim’s, this was the tune that kept us all pogoing in place.
15. “Hair,” Lady Gaga. Maybe it’s cloying, or pure fiction: the megastar looking back on her youth, recalling a time when her parents wouldn’t let her style her hair the way she wanted to. And yet contained within this song is everything we love about Gaga: the emphasis on self-expression, the tributes to individualism. It’s a cornball ode sung with such conviction that you never once doubt her sincerity — and its four-on-the-floor rhythm seldom failed to send me running to a dance floor, even if the closest one was in my bedroom.
14. “Countdown,” Beyonce. How many discrete musical ideas are in this song? A thousand? Is every verse actually a chorus? Or every chorus secretly a verse? When did Bey start calling Hova “boof boof”? Did she just make that up or is that something that people say? Is it OK if I start saying it now too? And keep saying it forever? Has so much joy ever been concentrated in three and a half minutes? If Beyonce didn’t exist would we be forced to invent her? Is this real life?
13. “Eyes Be Closed,” Washed Out. At last some chillwave to get excited about: anthemic, unembarrassed, built with modern instrumentation. Sure, you could still imagine it playing poolside at some boutique hotel, but what surprised me was how good it sounded on headphones. Ernest Greene, sincere as his given name would suggest, infused his synths with real feeling.
12. “Baby’s Arms,” Kurt Vile. The sound of a hazy, hung-over morning waking up with the one you love. Kurt Vile’s gentle acoustic reverie on the pleasures of his lover’s embrace recalls a young Van Morrison, brown-eyed girl at his side, sailing into the mystic.
11. “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj. One advantage to waiting until the year’s tail end to pick out your favorite songs is that you have the time and permission to graze on others’ lists. No song I slept on this year was as electrifying as “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj’s giddy tribute to the guy who turns her heart into a ghetto blaster. “Super Bass” is so wonderfully simple that when it comes time for a bridge, Ester Dean, who is responsible for the hook, just sings the chorus again slightly slower than before. Pure bliss.