Nicki Minaj: “Super Bass”
Rap finally gets its own “Umbrella,” a pop landscape-shifting generational singalong song beloved by little kids, grandparents, Taylor Swift (who capably covered it) and everyone in between.
Lana Del Rey: “Video Games”
This is what Fiona Apple would sound like if she were more erotic and less sincere.
The Decemberists: “Don’t Carry It All”
Meloy and friends threw everything into the pot — Mumford & Sons, classic folk, the lesser works of Tom Petty — and emerged with this rollicking, stripped-down gem.
Danny Brown: “Scrap or Die”
The Detroit MC forages for scrap metal in the year’s bleakest rap song. You won’t be able to listen to Kanye boasting about his “other other Benz” in quite the same way again.
Neon Indian: “Polish Girl”
This upbeat slice of twinkly eight-bitcq dance pop isn’t the best thing frontman Alan Palomo has ever done, but it’s almost certainly the least chilly.
The Vaccines: “If You Wanna”
The latest relentlessly hyped British band to founder on American shores, the Vaccines deliver a short, sharp blast of longing-filled pop-punk from their neglected debut.
Wale featuring TCB: “Bait”
The DMV anthem of the year, weirdly missing from Wale’s breakout “Ambition.”
Ryan Adams: “Lucky Now”
After years of lackluster releases, Adams returns with one of 2011’s best and most supremely simple heartbreak ballads.
Wiz Khalifa: “Roll Up”
The highlight of the Year of Wiz, this track contains every known Khalifa-ism, uh, rolled into one: irresistible hip-pop, pristine production (at the hands of StarGate, no less), weed puns and unashamed sentiment, baller style.
Britney Spears featuring Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha: “Till the World Ends” (remix)
For those who thought the original would have been perfect if only it had featured Minaj clucking like a chicken. Better than the original, which withholds the hook until the end.
Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson: “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Country’s leading hat act and a slumming “Idol” winner unite for the “Almost Paradise” of the 2010s. How could it not be awesome?
Jai Paul: “BTSTU”
Producer/artist Paul’s career-making track had circulated as a demo for ages before its release this year in finished form. Seemingly a precursor to the entire career of James Blake, it also functioned, via Drake, as the bedrock for the DJ Khaled hit “I’m on One.”
DJ Khaled featuring Drake, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne: “I’m on One”
Thematically, it’s no different than a hundred other rap songs this year: Khaled and crew fantasize about having sex in a room full of money, name-check Marc Jacobs and ruminate about Mayan end-times theories. But that melody! To say nothing of the ridiculous hook from Jai Paul, which is so nice we listed it twice.
Lagartijeando featuring Boogat: “El Alto de la Paz”
The Argentinean DJ/artist and the Montreal-based rapper unite for this sweaty mix of cumbia, Latin pop and electro.
Ashton Shepherd: “Look It Up”
Shepherd hams it up on this sassy twangfest, perfectly suited to Reba McEntire in 1991. (It’s a compliment.)
Though poor Thundercat was born about 30 years too late for his superbly retro space jazz to be fully appreciated, this Flying Lotus-co-produced track gives a perfect, if slightly steroidal, approximation of his sound.
This was the beneficiary of an infinite number of remixes this year, but the original, with its slow build to nothing and strangely exhilarating fluegelhorns, still can’t be beat.
Tinariwen: “Tenere Taqqim Tossam”
It took the guys from TV on the Radio, who guest here, to draw the necessary attention to the much-loved, little known Touareg outfit, which went back to its roots on one of many fine, acoustic-based tracks from “Tassili.”
Red Fang: “Wires”
Another remarkable and unlikely indie/niche genre crossover, this one between the Oregon metal band and Decemberist Chris Funk, who produced this gut punch of a track.
Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris: “We Found Love”
When one of dance music’s best beatmakers teams with the Gumby of pop divas, it’s a marriage made in crossover heaven.
Michael Kiwanuka: “Tell Me a Tale”
A young Brit from the Bill Withers School of Sensitive Seventies Soul Crooners releases a gorgeous debut track. Consider it a warning shot across the bow.
ASAP Rocky: “Bass”
Hip-hop’s newest savior comes from Harlem and raps about nothing in particular while carrying a bag full of killer beats, many of them generated by the mighty Clams Casino. He already has a multimillion-dollar major label deal.
Brantley Gilbert: “County Must Be Country Wide”
Every year, there’s a somber, attitude-slinging new country singer who professes that things were better and people more virtuous during the days of Hank, Johnny and Waylon, usually while dropping hard-rock power chords none of those icons would have appreciated. Gilbert is this year’s guy.
Super fierce black metal, masterly in execution. There aren’t any lyrics, but that might be for the best.
Beyoncé: “1 + 1”
Beyoncé just kills this otherwise unremarkable ballad. She knows it, and she knows you know it. Her obvious pride in her abilities, in her Beyoncé-ness, informs every note, but it doesn’t seem showoffy. It’s just sweet.