1. Jay-z/Kanye West — “Niggas in Paris”
Everyone who saw Jay-Z and Kanye in concert this fall has a “Niggas in Paris” story — in Detroit they played it seven times in a row, in Los Angeles 10 times in a row. And nobody got bored. The track introduced our hot catchphrase of late 2011 (“That shit cray”) and busted up several Internet memes involving everything from tasty snack choices to small children. But of course, “Niggas in Paris” wouldn’t be the pop-cultural tub-thumper it’s become if it wasn’t a crowning musical achievement first: It’s amazing what a simple nine-note motif can do when dangling under the royally clever boasts of two of our generation’s hip-hop greats, with references leaping from Le Meurice to the Olsen twins. Slip in a “Blades of Glory” excerpt or two and it’s a masterpiece — ain’t it Jay?
2. M83 — “Midnight City”
The brand of laser lightshow ecstasy oozing from “Midnight City” perfectly encapsulates the uncertainty surrounding our generation’s future. Our parents lied to us. Not all of us can be CEOs and rock stars. But M83’s extraterrestrial triumph begs 20-somethings to ignore resume-building for a second and catch their collective breath.
Gaining steam with a crescendo of outer space synth and shrieks of euphoria, “Midnight City” is the soundtrack to the summer during which nothing went the way you expected — you stayed out until 6 a.m. and came back with hangovers, bloodshot eyes and the realization that you’re not a kid anymore. But in a more abstract sense, “Midnight City” howls optimism. M83 aimed for the moon on “Midnight City,” and he won’t be satisfied until his starry eyed yelps grab you by the belt and drop you onto the marshmallow-soft cosmos.
3. Beyoncé — “Countdown”
It takes less than 10 seconds to realize that “Countdown” is going to be one heckuva ride. But before giving all the credit to Mrs. Knowles-Carter, take a look at who deserves a majority of the credit for the song. Members of Boys II Men and New Edition, The-Dream, and a couple of other prolific pop producers co-wrote it, and the hodgepodge is apparent throughout. Big-band trumpets, a xylophone part and reggae bongos all inhabit the same space, and somehow it works. Keep in mind, all this happens before the literal countdown even starts. As for Beyoncé, her performance is consistently spirited, and the lyrics send an unfamiliar and refreshing message that monogamy can be just as exciting and attractive as the promiscuous tendencies that the artists who populate the rest of the Top-40 chart portray.
4. The Strokes — “Under Cover of Darkness”
After five long years of a “we’re still working on our next album, guys — hold tight” mentality, Strokes fans were finally given a little taste to hold them over until the fourth album, Angles. With the release of “Under Cover of Darkness,” almost everyone could agree — the Strokes were back.
The song’s forte exists in the first 20 seconds: An electrified intro masking any sense of weariness and discontent the band may be experiencing. Intermingling guitars flirt and scream in a duo that bores deep into the brain and refuses to leave. The tune sounds re-energized — like maybe the hiatus has done the boys good.
There’s less of a husky Lou Reed presence and more of a poppy boy-band sound — like the Strokes have finally come to terms with their fame. In the lyrics, Jules asks if you’ll wait for him. This song reminds fans why the Strokes are worth waiting for in the first place.
5. Foster the People — “Pumped Up Kicks”
Let’s face it — you’ve probably heard this song everywhere, and maybe a few more times than you would have liked. It’s impossible to escape the track, as it frequents late-night talk shows, bounces in the background of stores and embeds itself in almost every playlist on the radio. Even with its overwhelming pervasiveness, it’s difficult to toss “Pumped Up Kicks” to the side. Be it the simple-yet-irresistible melody, the laid-back beat or the catchy, understated vocals, something about the song will keep it playing in the back of our heads long after it takes its bow from the Top 40. With a Grammy currently pending, Foster the People’s megahit has already made a massive mark on the music scene — and that feat isn’t unwarranted.