Welcome to the halfway point of the countdown, where blues-rock ladies, alt-rock boys, and a ferociously talented lesbian can all hang out together. I’m sure they’re all discussing music and Homeland over a bowl of homemade Chex Mix.
20. “Knock Knock” by Band of Horses
Y’all, I really love Band of Horses, and while their hottest hits tend to be ballads (see: “No One’s Gonna Love You,” which was awesomely covered by Cee-Lo), my favorite track on their new album Mirage Rock is “Knock Knock,” a sunny thumper with Beach Boys-friendly harmonies and a head-bouncing beat. Lyrically, too, this song is an energetic ode to taking risks, not wasting time, and basically going after your life. (At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.) A winner all around and one of my favorite up-tempo songs of the year.
19. “Flaws” by Bastille
If you don’t feel at least four percent happier by the end of “Flaws,” then I will send you a check for $4 billion in Blankenship Money. (Note: Blankenship Money only buys you imaginary goods and services.) The points is: British rockers Bastille have delivered one of the best rock songs of the year, with an irresistible chorus and a killer section where handclaps and shouting get all up in the mix.
I’ve included a great acoustic version of “Flaws” above. However, I can’t embed the studio version of this song, and that’s the one you really need to hear. So go listen to it. You will not be sorry.
18. “Ex-Old Man” by Kristen Kelly
It’s a minor national tragedy that this flawless blues-rock-country anthem was not a bigger hit on the country chart, but what can you do? Country music is always resistant to female artists. But screw the powers that be, right? Because we can just go listen to “Ex-Old Man” on our own, which opens with my favorite line of the year: “I’ve got an ex-old man and an ex-best girlfriend.” That one lyric, delivered by Kelly with smoky barroom swagger, tells you an entire story.
17. “Stars” by Grace Potter and Nocturnals
This soaring ballad got a huge boost after Amanda Brown performed it on The Voice, but there’s really no topping the original. She’s currently hovering on the edges of mainstream success, and if you ask me, Grace Potter is the next great rock diva, carrying on the legacies of Chrissie Hynde, Janis Joplin, and Heart.
16. “Give Your Heart a Break” by Demi Lovato
Color me surprised! I never anticipated that Demi Lovato would make a song I would like at all, let alone release one of my favorite songs of the year. But as I wrote a few months ago, when you forget about Lovato’s Disney-fied past and her exhausting personal drama, you’re left with a great pop singer who can inject a clever tune like this one with a lot of personality.
Fun fact: “Give Your Heart a Break” is co-written by Billy Steinberg, who co-wrote some of the best songs of the 80s, including “Like a Virgin,” “Alone,” “Eternal Flame,” and “So Emotional.” That’s partly why this song has such killer lyrics. I live for wordplay like “don’t wanna break your heart, wanna give your heart a break.”
15. “Perfect World” by Gossip
Beth Ditto and company never fail to excite me with their roof-rattling disco-punk, and “Perfect World” is no exception. There’s a grandeur in “Perfect World” that practically commands me to pound my fist in the air.
14. “Home” by Phillip Phillips
Color me surprised AGAIN! American Idol has become such a shitshow that I don’t expect I will ever watch it again, even if Nicki Minaj hurls feral cats at Mariah Carey. (And honestly: That’s going to happen, right?) And yet, after several years of failing to find an artist I could actually care about, the show suddenly delivered “Home” by Phillip Phillips. Yes, it’s trend-chasing the Mumford & Sons sound, but you know what? It’s still good. A song doesn’t have to be blazingly original to be satisfying. Sometimes, perfecting a formula is more than enough. So while I’m uncertain Phillips will have a long-term career, I have no problem cheering this fantastic hit. After all, I like Mumford’s new album, but no song on it brings me as much effortless joy as this one.
13. “Next to Me” by Emeli Sandé
I have written SO MUCH about Emeli Sandé this year that there’s really nothing left to say. If you haven’t heard the tambourine-shaking genius of “Next to Me,” then please do yourself a favor and start jamming right now. If you already know and love this song, then take a moment to share the Sandé experience with someone you care about. They’ll thank you.
12. “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean
Many, many things have been written about Frank Ocean this year, and with good reason. It took me a few listens to really understand his music, but now that I’m used to it, I’m hooked. Of all the songs on his exceptional album Channel Orange, “Thinkin Bout You” sums up his excellence the best: The evocative lyrics tell a rambling story about a man trying to convince a skittish lover that he’s faithful, but somehow, the weird images and parenthetical asides add up to a totally relatable story. And then there’s Ocean’s voice, which leaps into a beautiful falsetto when you least expect it, and the production on the song, which proves that you don’t need a lot of sounds to make a track feel full. Put it all together, and you get an unforgettable song.
11. “We Are Young” by Fun.
I know, I know. We’ve all heard this song a billion times by now, but try to remember how you felt when you first heard it. That titanic chorus, which the band waves like a giant flag on a battlefield. The thrilling dramatic movement in the music and lyrics, which build and build to powerful emotion, then recede for a bit, then come back full throttle. Along with “Some Nights” and “Carry On,” Fun. released three amazing singles this year, and if they sweep the Grammys in February—which seems possible—I won’t be one bit upset.
Mark Blankenship tweets as @IAmBlankenship. He lives for song countdowns.