2012 was certainly an interesting year for pop music. This was the year that two indie acts came completely out of nowhere and wrestled each other for the #1 spot, a sprightly little Canadian teen princess (who’s actually 27) gave us a sugary teenybopper tune that somehow reached Thriller levels of acclaim and adoration, and billions of people around the world became entranced by a chubby Korean guy with his crazy ass video and his silly little horsey dance. While pop is still largely the domain of Rihanna, Katy Perry and the like, it looks like the changes I hinted at in 2011 are finally taking effect. Club songs are becoming less ubiquitous, indie rock is rising in popularity, and some of the more prominent teen heartthrobs have been surprisingly easy to avoid (at least for me anyway). All in all, I’d say it was a solid year for pop music. That’s why I’ve decided to do yet another Top 10 year end list of the best and worst songs of the year. Now I realize that some of you will probably hate a majority of the songs on here mainly because of overexposure, but keep in mind that this list was written by a guy whose done a fairly decent job of avoiding Top 40 radio stations this year, due in large part to no longer working at a place that blasts it 24/7. I didn’t even know half of these songs existed until I started my research. With one very special exception, there are only two criteria for this list: they have to come from Billboard’s year end list and no repeats from last year (because I really don’t feel like bitching about “Sexy And I Know It” twice). These are the Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 2012 (in my opinion).
10. “Dance (A$$)” by Big Sean feat. Nicki Minaj
Those of you who aren’t either foaming at the mouth or calling the Pentagon to demand that nuclear missiles be fired at my house are probably wondering why I’m putting such a notoriously bad song on what’s supposed to be a “best of” list. Let me stress this here and now. This is an awful, awful, awful song, possibly one of the worst ever made by mainstream artists. It’s obnoxious, repetitive, void of any talent or effort, and it’s an astronomical, incomprehensible, festering heap of stupid. But if you ask me, that’s what makes it so interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was revealed that this song was either an elaborate prank or made on a bet to see if Big Sean could make the stupidest song of all time. For whatever reason, everything about this song that would otherwise force me to change the station within seconds draws me in. Much like “Friday”, “A$$” is one of those songs that’s fascinating in how stupid it is. Every time I hear it, I find a new lyric to make fun of or a new detail in the production that makes me wonder what the fuck the producers were thinking. I listen to it for the same reason moviegoers enjoy hilariously bad films like The Room and Birdemic. If people can put so much time and energy into ridiculing Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black for making trite pop trash, then why not this shiny turd of a tune? I implore you. Check it out if you already haven’t. Send it to your friends. See what little tidbits of wrongness you can find within its context. And if you’re still not convinced I made a good point and think I’ve killed what little integrity I had in the crib, turn back now because you’re probably not going to like the rest of this list. Case in point…
9. “Gangnam Style” by PSY
This year, Billboard changed their credentials so that digital sales are now a factor for chart positionng. Considering that most people just buy songs off of iTunes nowadays I can see why they’d make this decision, but I could also see this having a bad backlash. (If they did this last year, “Friday” would’ve been a Top 10 hit. Just roll that around in your head for a second.) The viral sensation of 2012 was “Gangnam Style” an infectious Korean import that I can only describe as our generation’s “Macarena”. It was sung in a foreign language, it featured a maddeningly catchy hook, an accompanying dance, and an iconic video that in no time at all dethroned Justin Bieber’s “Baby” as the most viewed video on YouTube, and as of writing this has just become the first ever to reach a billion views. Some say that it’s just another obnoxious, disposable dance jam that’s no better than anything that Pitbull or LMFAO have ever farted out. Some say that it’s a clever commentary on South Korea’s huge problem with frivolous spending and outstanding credit card, but us dumb Amurricans don’t see it because A. it’s in a foreign language and B. the bizarre and extremely memetic video distracts from it even if it were sung in English. Personally, I can’t get mad at it. Sure, I don’t think it’s anywhere as deep as some try to convince me it is, but I don’t think it’s as shallow and dumb as others think it is either. Either way, it’s just a fun song. And if you can’t enjoy fun song every once in a while, then what good are you?
8. “Glad You Came” by The Wanted
Yes, I’m putting a song by a boy band on here. No, I’m not sorry. The funny thing about these pop stars that have become the target of ridicule on the internet (Justin Bieber, One Direction etc.) is that unless you have a little sister or cousin who’s a fan of them, they’re really easy to avoid. Seriously, ask anyone who leaves a lame Justin Bieber joke on YouTube’s comment section to name one of his songs and watch their words die in their throat. Seriously, leave the kid alone. He never did anything to hurt you there are hundreds of worse musicians than him. Now where was I? Oh yes, The Wanted. One Direction has recently become the new mark that the internet has declared open season on, mainly because both they and The Wanted seem to be symbolizing the return of the boy band trend of the late 90’s. While I’m inclined to agree that One Direction isn’t very good (although, like Bieber, they’re nowhere near the worst thing to happen to music), I don’t really have any problem with The Wanted, and I really enjoy this song. Think of it this way. One Direction are boys, and their aim is still by and large strictly of a high school variety. The Wanted are a bit more mature and aren’t interested in your kid games. Throw in an awesome accordion-esque beat and that’ll swing things in my favor. I guess it’s just an age thing. Okay, enough embarrassing myself, time to get to the genuine article.
7. “Too Close” by Alex Clare
One of my biggest changes this year as an audiophile is my introduction to the world of electronica and dance music. Whether it be trance, house, or even dubstep, I’ve become quite infatuated with EDM even if I’m still on the basics (Aviici, deadmau5, Skrillex). I’ve also seen a lot of artists try to merge these types of music with varying results. In the case of Alex Clare, he seems to be merging old-school R&B with dubstep. While this isn’t necessarily the best bass drop I’ve heard, it still compliments Alex Clare’s soulful vocals. There’s a right way and a wrong way to use dubstep breakdowns (we’ll get to the wrong ways on my next list), and here Mr. Clare nails it on the head. But even if you strip away the wubs it’s still a solid song as proven by acoustic performances. Like I said, his voice has a lot of soul, it’s got good lyrics and it’s pretty well structured. What more could you want?
6. “Home” by Phillip Phillips
The indie rock dam has had a crack in it that’s been growing over the past few years, but this seems to be the year it finally burst. Not only was this the year that fun. and Gotye dominated the charts, but other indie acts like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and Imagine Dragons all snagged major and minor hits as well. For a while I thought this Phillip Phillips guy was part of that wave, but imagine my amazement when I found out he’s actually this year’s American Idol winner. Now some of you hipsters out there are probably dismissing him as a soulless cash-in on the latest trends by the American Idol factory, but I think his winning is a symbol that this genre is finally getting the recognition it deserves, which last I checked is a good thing. The people could’ve very easily voted for just another pretty face, but instead they voted for a guy whose primary influences were Damien Rice, Mumford & Sons and Tool. I’m not saying that this is a sign of indie becoming the new grunge (although I really hope it does), but between this and Arcade Fire beating Lady Gaga and Eminem at the Grammys two years ago, I think it’s safe to say it’s working itself into the mainstream if its influence is this far reaching.
5. “Lights” by Ellie Goulding
Ellie Gould suffers from what I like to call “Bob Dylan Syndrome”. Basically what this means is that I think she’s a talented musician and a great songwriter, and I’m able to enjoy her work despite the fact that I don’t really like her voice. I don’t think she’s a terrible singer, but it comes across as too thin and raspy for my taste, almost like she’s singing with a cold or something. But bad singer doesn’t necessarily mean bad music. After all, David Byrne said that the worse your voice sounds, the more passionate you come off as. I’ve known about Ellie Goulding for a while had this song on my iPod well before it became such a huge smash. Like my #3 pick, this isn’t the best song I’ve heard by her but rather a good representative of her sound as a whole. The production is solid, it has some great synths, and while the lyrics are alright even though they took me a while to decipher.
4. “So Good” by B.o.B.
This is one of those song I didn’t discover this one until I started research for this list. I always thought the presence of nice guy rapper B.o.B. was good thing, mainly because we need a rapper that raps about something other than sex, clubs, cars and bragging about how awesome they are and how much money they have. Sure, B.o.B. has songs like that too, but they’re not what become singles. Instead we get some really sincere albeit corny love jams. And I don’t mean “Ignition”, I mean more like “You seem like a nice girl and I want to take you on a date at a museum or something.” At least that’s what the theme for this song is since it’s filled with nothing but jokes about Europe and Renaissance art. And I’m not entirely sure here, but I think the beat samples “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear. If that is the case, we can chalk up another for clever indie samples.
3. “Some Nights” by fun.
Originally I was going to lump both this and “We Are Young” together since I don’t really have that much to say differently about one, but after listening to both a few more times (as well as the rest of the album), I have to give the edge to “Some Nights”. “We Are Young” is a fine song, but doesn’t really seem to have much of a focus or represent their sound as a whole. In all honesty it sounds like two songs that were split down the middle and sewn together. “Some Nights”, on the other hand, is all you need to hear from fun. to know what they’re all about. Initially I found this song to sound like Queen doing covers of songs from The Lion King soundtrack, and while Nate Ruess is no Freddie Mercury, fun. shares Queen’s knack for the operatic and theatrical. Where “We Are Young” starts off at an interesting place but loses steam after a bit. “Some Nights” is a kinetic force that never loses its energy, with its pounding drums and chugging guitar backing up Nate’s vocals, it brings out its bombast and grandiose in interesting ways. If I had one problem with this song, it would have to be that auto-tuned vocal solo that comes out of nowhere that was distracting at first, but didn’t really derail the song. Other than that, this really delivers on the pomp and circumstance, something that’s been severely lacking in music as of late.
2. “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye feat. Kimbra
On last year’s list, I called Adele an original despite the fact that she released an album full of angry, bitter break up songs (with the exception of “Someone Like You”, where she takes a look at herself and realizes she’s not really over it, but you get the idea). Now pop music has a whole subsection of break up songs (Beyonce practically built her career around them), and one thing that most of them have in common is that they’re mostly one-sided, overly arrogant declarations of independence. “Somebody That I Used To Know”, on the other hand, turns the entire concept on its head by showing both sides of the story. That way we’re given a glimpse of their inner workings and we’re shown that there’s a lot more to this relationship than the “my ex is an evil soul sucking monster” attitude that I get from most of these songs. It starts off with Gotye expressing how hurt he is while hurling a bunch of passive-aggressive comments at his ex, but then Kimbra comes in, cuts right through the bullshit and reminds him of why they broke up in the first place. On second thought maybe it’s a little one-sided since the boyfriend is obviously in the wrong here, but it’s still a step up from the oversimplified revenge fantasies we’re used to. But even when you take away the complexity of the lyrics, this is one of the most unique sounding songs to break through in over twenty years. Maybe Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel could’ve gotten away with releasing a song like this in 1986, but I’ve never heard anything like it come out in my lifetime. With its triumphant win at the number one spot on Billboard’s year end list, this could very well be the herald of a new beginning. So what could possibly top it?
1. “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men
I know I’m cheating with this one because it didn’t make the year-end list and never charted higher than the mid-40’s, but for me, this was probably the best musical discovery I made in 2012. I’ve heard people describe Of Monsters and Men the Icelandic version of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. And while I admit they have a lot of similarities (the dual male/female vocals, the folksy yet catchy instrumentation, their fondness for shouting “HEY!” in their choruses), but where ESATMZ wore themselves out on me pretty quickly, Of Monsters and Men won themselves into my heart immediately and have stubbornly refused to go away. One of the main factors I considered for putting songs on this list is how often I can hear it without getting sick of it. I must’ve heard “Little Talks” nearly a hundred times now and I’ve adored it every single time. I love that Nanna Hilmarsdottir and Ragnar Porhallson’s honeyed vocals compliment and harmonize with each other so well, I love the accordions and trumpet in the chorus, and I especially love its poetic and compelling lyrics that hint at darker things than its bright and shiny façade would lead you to believe. It’s also important to note that this song is the most important chapter in their debut album, My Head Is An Animal, which unbeknownst to most is actually a concept album that tells the harrowing tale of two lovers who are exiled from their town after one of them is possessed by the ghost of a young woman who was raised by wild animals, but that’s a subject for an entirely different article. Of all the big indie breakthroughs to happen this year, I’m sad that this was the one that didn’t catch on, which is a shame because this song, album and band are all truly wonderful.
Well those are my top songs of the year. And if you think some of those picks were embarrassing and stripped away what little dignity I had, you’re probably right. But stay tuned next week when I reveal the worst hit songs of the year.