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New Music Tuesday: The best songs of 2012

Singer Frank Ocean performs onstage at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival held at The Empire Polo Field on April 13, 2012 in Indio, California.
Singer Frank Ocean performs onstage at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival held at The Empire Polo Field on April 13, 2012 in Indio, California.
Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

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We have just about two weeks left in 2012. Where did the time go? Well, the good news is that we have a very special New Music Tuesday. Today, we look back at the best in pop, R&B and hip-hop in the year that was.

NPR music critic Ann Powers and Oliver Wang from join the show to run down their list of the year's best tunes.

Oliver Wang:

Artist: BJ the Chicago Kid feat. Kendrick Lamar
Album: PineappleNow-Laters
Song: His Pain
Summary: Kendrick Lamar had the best year of any rapper, and this may very well have been his best song, albeit a cameo, on crooner BJ the Chicago Kid's song from February 2012. The song masterfully uses a sample from James Brown's version of "Sunny."

Artist: fun.
Album: Some Nights
Song: We Are Young feat. Janelle Monae
Summary: One of the breakout bands of 2012, this is destined to be a "last call" classic at bars and clubs everywhere. It's also worth noting that even though fun. is ostensibly a "rock" band, the two main producers on it (Emile + Jeff Bhasker) came from the world of hip-hop

Artist: Psy
Song: Gagnam Style
Summary: Year of the viral song/video taken to new levels never seen before.

Artist: Frank Ocean
Album: Orange
Song: Sweet Life
Summary: Ocean made the leap from cameo singer to center stage with an R&B album that's neither hyper-contemporary nor purely throwback. You could call the vibe on here "West Coast" — certainly, Ocean's geographic references are — but Ocean nails the essence of "cool" that's understood regardless of what city you're listening from.  

Ann Powers:

Artist: Melanie Fiona
Album: The MF Life
Song: 4AM
Summary: Melanie Fiona is a Canadian R&B singer who hasn't quite made it big yet, but should. This wide-ranging album somehow fell between the categories of cult favorite and mainstream hit, but this very current spin on melismatic soul, grounded in Fiona’s vocal blend of passion and sultry grace, rewards repeated listening: its strong songs bear emotional insights that reveal themselves as more and more complex over time.

Artist: Gregory Porter
Album: Be Good
Song: Real Good Hands
Summary: The only jazz hands this young titan of a vocalist wields are the ones that swipe away the boundaries too-often put around that genre. Masterful vocalese and instrumental swing meets soulful declamation meets a mighty pop ear in these irrepressible songs.

Artist: The Very Best
Song: Moto
Summary: Traditional grooves meet every shiny thing the dance floor has to offer in this cross-cultural celebration of the 21st-century African diaspora built around the joyful, urgent exhortations of Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya.

Artist: Sinead O’Connor
Album: How About I Be Me (And You Be You?)
Song: Old Lady
Summary: One of pop’s greatest living vocalists returned to her classic ‘90s sound on an album so revealing, virtuosic and plain gorgeous that it should have been at the top of most critics’ lists. Her personal struggles got in the way of its reception, but please dig it out of the tabloids bin; it’s just fantastic.