Tuesday, December 25, 2012

the top ten best hit songs of 2012

I've got to be honest here - when I wrote about the worst songs of 2012, I couldn't write about them all in one sitting. And it wasn't just because it was long and I needed a break - it was more because I got some damn depressed trying to parse my way through the worst of 2012's pop music that I needed some kind of break - any kind of break - just to reinvigorate my spirits.

Fortunately for me, I don't think I'll have that much of a problem here, because today we're going to look at the best of 2012 - which, if I'm being completely honest, was a really great year for the pop charts. It's not hard to see why, particularly if you look at the year in context with 2011. I've written before on the twin axes of pop music (here, if you're curious), which are maturity and intelligence. And while material tends to travel up and down these 'axes' in parallel, the collapse of club music in 2011 showed the first sign of a divergence in the pop music scene: music that was mature and intelligent, and music that was immature and stupid. 

Now, let me make this absolutely clear: you can have great pop music that is both immature and stupid, but in general, you tend to see greater quality, innovation, and interesting breakthroughs with music that's smarter and more mature because the subject area is broader and the people crafting the music tend to be more insightful. And I'm not confining this to genre either: just because an act is country or crunk doesn't mean they don't have some wry intelligence, and just because an act is indie rock doesn't mean they're all that deep or insightful or mature.

And since I'm a fan of great pop music, I was thrilled to see this axis divergence, and even more thrilled to see a ton of great pop music spring up from the doldrums of the club music scene. And as much as I'd like to shout praise to the heavens for the indie rock explosion that saw plenty of extremely solid acts rocket to the top, I can't help but acknowledge that there were great country, hip-hop, rap, and even mainstream pop acts that surprised me with their quality.

But before I get in all that deep into the material from this year, let's quickly revisit my list of best hit songs from 2011:

10. 'Jar Of Hearts' by Christina Perri
9. 'Fucking Perfect' by Pink
8. 'Coming Home' by Diddy - Dirty Money ft. Skylar Grey
7. 'All Of The Lights' by Kanye West
6. 'The Show Goes On' by Lupe Fiasco
5. 'You And I' by Lady Gaga
4. 'Fuck You' by Cee Lo Green
3. 'Rolling In The Deep' by Adele
2. 'Someone Like You' by Adele
1. 'Colder Weather' by The Zac Brown Band

And, as usual, upon reflection, I'd probably make a few changes to this list:


10. 'Jar Of Hearts' by Christina Perri 'Stereo Hearts' by The Gym Class Heroes ft. Adam Levine
9. 'Fucking Perfect' by Pink 'Back To December' by Taylor Swift 
8. 'Coming Home' by Diddy - Dirty Money ft. Skylar Grey 'Blow' by Ke$ha
7. 'All Of The Lights' by Kanye West
6. 'The Show Goes On' by Lupe Fiasco
5. 'You And I' by Lady Gaga
4. 'Fuck You' by Cee Lo Green
3. 'Rolling In The Deep' by Adele
2. 'Someone Like You' by Adele
1. 'Colder Weather' by The Zac Brown Band

Huh, not that many changes, really. Part of that is an indictment on how great all of these songs are, but part of it is also the fact that all of these songs represented the best of their genres and the best of growing trends on the charts. 

And if I'm being completely blunt, I don't know what part of my mind thought it was a good idea to put both 'Jar Of Hearts' (a song I've really soured on in recent months) and 'Fucking Perfect' (which has worn out a fair bit of its welcome) on the list, and it wasn't hard to swap them out for 'Stereo Hearts' (a song that grew on me due to some clever metaphors and an incredibly catchy chorus courtesy of Adam Levine at his best) and 'Blow' (a song that has problems, to be sure, but builds surprisingly well and is punchy enough to be a damn great dance/work-out track). And really, 'Coming Home' isn't a bad track in the slightest, but 'Back To December' is really so much better, and probably Taylor Swift's best song by far.

And with that, let's proceed to 2012, and some Honourable Mentions:





Nicki Minaj is one of those acts that I really want to like more than I do when she's 'good', and I want to like a whole lot less when she's 'mediocre'. The strange problem with Nicki Minaj is that when she's off-beat and weird, she's often the saving grace of many a mediocre song, but she can never quite elevate her weirdness into something truly awesome. But with 'Pound The Alarm', a song that barely strives to be above a b-side of 'Starships', I couldn't help but find ridiculously catchy and fun in a way that I didn't expect it to be. I certainly like it more than 'Starships', where Nicki sheds her personality in a haze of synth and autotune. I know that 'Pound The Alarm' does not to strive to be anything but stupid, pounding club music, but it has a certain demented charm that I found rather likable.


Ah, 'Gangnam Style', the one k-pop song I can actually tolerate. No, stop, those of you about to toss k-pop recommendations in the comments, I'm not interested. I completely get that there's a certain degree of cultural myopia in this criticism, but I actually like being able to understand the lyrics of the music to which I'm listening (one of the reasons I've always found it tough to get into latin or world music). That said, I can still like 'Gangnam Style' because Psy has a lot of energy and personality and he seems to have enough wry cleverness to pull off what the Beastie Boys and Ke$ha did: ruthlessly parody his own genre through being better than all of them. And like the best dance music, Psy actually makes you want to dance by having his song build with some pretty damn great crescendos and a hook that isn't obnoxiously terrible. And plus, he performed with MC Hammer at the AMAs in a pretty fucking awesome mashup. So yeah, I can't hate PSY - hope he rides out this guaranteed One-HIt Wonder as long as he can.



You don't need to tell me that Jessie J is the poor man's Katy Perry, and I can't even deny that 'Domino' sounds like a track that Katy Perry would have dropped in 2010. But where Katy Perry does as much as she can to distract from the fact she has no personality or talent (you can't explain the whipped cream spraying from her breasts in the 'California Gurls' video otherwise), Jessie J instead tries to assert herself on the track with as much personality and energy as she possibly can. And much to my absolute shock, it works, and I liked 'Domino' way more than I expected. Part of it is the fact Jessie J actually helps write her material with Dr. Luke and Max Martin (I call this the 'Shakira effect'), but part of it comes from the fact that it's just ridiculously catchy and energetic and Jessie J throws herself into the song with huge aplomb. The overuse of Autotune (which Jessie J doesn't seem to need) and some occasional weaknesses in her lyrics kept this off the list, but I definitely can't hate this song.



Miguel's 'Adorn' is a really good song, and one of the best examples of raw sexuality conveyed successfully in R&B. Unlike pitiful showings like Chris Brown, Miguel has a degree of maturity and intelligence in his juxtaposition of style that makes this song really work, drawing influences from Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and (of course) Prince. What really surprised me was how the muted and understated nature of the song was crossed with sincere joy. In a year where R&B got very icy and minimalist - a tone that doesn't really fit well with happier, brighter emotions - 'Adorn' really stands out as to how to play this kind of music correctly. The only thing that kept it off my list is a few weaker songwriting choices and the strange whooping that Miguel does on occasion, which kind of pushed me out of the experience. And yes, I know I'm nitpicking, but in a year where the songs were as good as they were, I had to be picky.




This year, Katy Perry released three deeply melancholic break-up songs and a disaster of a movie called Katy Perry: Part of Me reflecting on her 'tragic' break-up with Russell Brand. And frankly, I had no expectations that I would remotely like or even be able to tolerate any of them, particularly considering Katy Perry's brand of dumb, flashy obnoxiousness isn't exactly a good fit for the ballads that Adele made famous last year. And indeed, with 'The One That Got Away' and 'Part of Me', I was distinctly unimpressed (and the pro-military elements of the 'Part Of Me' video really pushed some unfortunate implications). But much to my frustration, I actually liked 'Wide Awake way more than I expected, and I'm having a fair amount of trouble figuring out why. I think part of it is the fact that, unlike the previous two examples, 'Wide Awake' sounds like the most 'real' song that Katy Perry has ever released, in that the autotune is a bit subtler and the lyrics (while not great) still suggest a great vulnerability that Katy Perry has rarely dared to embrace. And while the song is still highly polished, the tremble in Katy Perry's voice and the metaphors of falling and breaking down and then rising out of those trials has a little more texture then you typically see her pre-packaged pieces of pop. So if this is the first sign of a more mature and more complex version of Katy Perry... well, I might be interested.



The Lumineers were one of the indie success stories of this year and while I can't consider them great indie rock, they were certainly catchier and more fun than the bland drivel Mumford & Sons put out this year (I'll save my Mumford & Sons rant for another time). Nah, with the Lumineers, we have an act that ditches the pretentiousness of Mumford & Sons and the extreme reverb of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes for an indie rock act that's both light and fun. And yeah, I'll admit, the folk enthusiast in me digs the hell out of the rollicking nature of the song with the shouty backbeat. But I will be blunt and say that the song does fall short of my expectations, partially because it's too goddamn short to leave much an impact. I mean, seriously, guys, would it have killed you to add a bridge or an additional chorus or something?



I'm not normally the fan of Gavin DeGraw's style of tepid adult alternative (and that awful screencap isn't helping matters either), but 'Not Over You' surprised me, namely because it's actually pretty damn good. There aren't enough songs with good piano hooks, and even though Ryan Tedder's fuzzy, reverb-drowned production appears all over this track, Gavin DeGraw is a smart enough songwriter to actually make me give two shits about whatever relationship he's singing about. But what's interesting about this track is that it toes a very careful line: it's about a guy desperately trying to get over a girl, and while there is a certain degree of sullen anger in this song, it never becomes overblown or mean like in the average Maroon 5 track. And while this guy has an infinitely punchable face and a voice that is occasionally painfully nasal, he does come across as sincere, which earns a lot of points with me. And yeah, I can't deny that the subject matter does kind of resonate with me a bit on an emotional level - which is one of the main reasons I'm keeping it off my list, because I can't exactly be as objective as I'd like to with this track. However, I can say that while it definitely is flawed (the bridge is a little long and not as sharp as the chorus or the second verse), it's definitely a song I can like, even with some distance.



I had a lot of good things to say in my review about Usher's Looking 4 Myself, a very good but ultimately flawed R&B album that was about sex, sex, and more sex. Fortunately, I had nothing bad to say about 'Scream', one of Usher's best dance/sex jams from an entire album of dance/sex jams, one that manages to nail the decisive mature sensuality that Chris Brown's been consistently trying to rip off since the mid-2000s. As always, Usher's delivery is filled with emotion and passion (including the massive chorus and even bigger bridge), but to me the best parts of this song are the instrumentation. In a R&B age of minimalism or blatant overproduction, Usher's 'Scream' strikes the great balance of a sleek synth hook that knows when to cool off and give Usher full star billing on his track. So why am I neglecting this song when I put 'DJ Got Us Falling In Love' on my Top 10 List in 2010, a song that is arguably not quite as good as 'Scream'? Well, here's the issue - between that song and 'More' and 'Scream', Usher seems to be releasing the same song over and over again, albeit with marginally better production and style, and frankly, Usher's lyrics (which are never especially interesting) don't do enough to make the songs distinctive. Don't get me wrong, I dig the hell out of this song, but in a year of great hits, 'Scream' wasn't quite up to the deed. Also, sex.



Not going to lie, this song really caught me off-guard, partially because I don't keep up with the country charts as much as I should, and partially because I may have been early to dismiss the Eli Young Band for no adequately explained reason. I think part of it might have been the fact the riff seemed a quieter version of Brooks & Dunn's 'Ain't Nothin Bout You'. Now, there's nothing wrong with a country act drawing inspiration from the greats of the early 90s (Lord knows the majority of the pop scene has forgotten that song, which is a goddamn tragedy). But where that song was loud and brash and about a girl, 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart' is restrained and controlled and was one of the rare country songs that's actually about making country music. And while the Eli Young Band isn't as good as the Zac Brown Band in terms of harmonies and instrumentation and texture in the vocal delivery, they are definitely a very solid group with a deft gift for surprisingly somber songwriting. Particularly in this case, where 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart' describes those who have pursued music because it was their passion, and haven't exactly run in success. But the band manages to parlay this pretty damn depressing message to a great hook where the band tells those aspiring, young and old, to never give on their dreams, even despite the trials. Hell, they made it - and if they could make it, you can too!



Last year, Adele ruled my top 10 list with 'Rolling In The Deep' and 'Someone Like You' - and a year later, my decision hadn't changed in the slightest. Both of those songs are fucking excellent, with 'Rolling In The Deep' with incredible energy and righteous fury, and 'Someone Like You' nailing the difficult and complex emotions tied to the worst of break-ups. What makes them work so damn well is that Adele is a lot like Pink and Eminem - she doesn't hold back, and she's incredibly, revealing honest. Particularly with 'Somebody Like You', she took a huge risk in writing a song that sure as hell didn't cast her in a good light, but managed to pull off those complex and difficult emotions. 

Unfortunately, she doesn't quite reach as high with 'Set Fire To The Rain', and it shows. Now don't get me wrong, it's a great song with beautiful production and good lyrics and Adele throws herself into it with force, but it's not quite as good as its predecessors. For one, it's not quite as direct - Adele uses more metaphor and symbolism in this track, and frankly, I don't think it connects as directly as songs like 'Rolling In The Deep'. The other problem is production - namely, the heavy abuse of reverb on the album track really acts as a distancing factor, making the song not quite as viscerally impacting. One of the reasons I linked the live performance is because without the reverb, the song just has so much more soul and flavour. Still not quite good enough to get on my list, but it's up there.



Okay, remember when I said that stupid, immature music could still be good? Well, if I were to be hunting for a great example from 2012, I'd immediately choose 'Good Time', a song that was apparently created because Owl City's managers knew Carly Rae Jepsen's, and they gathered together to weaponize that cheesy bubblegum pop to create the ultimate twee summer song experience. 

Because make no mistake, 'Good Time' is dumb. Really fucking dumb. Owl City's lyrics are particularly mindbogglingly stupid, including the 'We don't even have to try' line in the chorus, which just struck me as insanely obnoxious (a repeated criticism I'd have for most of Owl City's later work, as a matter of fact). And I can't believe at all that Owl City woke up with a 'Prince song inside my head' - namely because Owl City is the kind of performer who is antithetical to the idea of sex, which is one of the fundamental facets of Prince's music. 

That being said, this weapon disguised as a song claimed another victim, because I can't help but dig the hell out of this bubblegum electropop song, namely because it is light and sunny and fun and doesn't remotely have any pretensions to being anything beyond that. It's the same appeal as the Black Eyed Peas 'I Gotta Feeling' or S Club 7's 'Reach' - it's dumb, it knows it's dumb, but it's light and fun and it wants everyone to join the party. Really not a fan of the video, though - who thought it'd be a good idea to drain the goddamn colour saturation? Video would probably look a lot better if there was some actual colour -



No. Not like that. Never like that.

And on that note, I think it's about time for my Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 2012. Once again, criteria is simple - to qualify, the songs have to debut on the list this year. So no putting 'Rolling In The Deep' or 'Someone Like You' on the list, we're counting down only the new hits, folks, so let's get this party started!

10. 2012 was the year indie rock really exploded, and while there was some acts that I'd classify as mediocre (hi, Mumford & Sons!), there was a surprising array of quality for the opening salvos. Even the acts that didn't blow my mind like the Lumineers had a distinctive, recognizable sound that made them stand out among other bands, which was refreshing considering the club tedium. And, of course, there were plenty of would-be hipsters cheering and praising their 'artistic integrity'.

And you know what's ironic about this? The reason indie rock has blown up the way it has can be linked to a series of sparks from an unlikely flame: Glee.


#10 'It's Time' by Imagine Dragons (Billboard Chart Position: #91)

As great as this song is, I'm certain of the fact that an act like Imagine Dragons would never have gotten popular without Glee, because, let's face it, they are a band called Imagine Dragons. As much as popular culture has begrudgingly begun to tolerate fantasy, bands like Imagine Dragons and NIghtwish and Kamelot and Dragonforce have a steeper climb right out of the gate because they have astonishingly geeky names. In fact, I'd argue that if they didn't have the dorky name, Imagine Dragons might have had a shot charting without Glee entirely, because at first glance they are a decidedly conventional alt-rock / indie rock act.

But, thanks to Glee covering the song in the first episode of season four (an episode I haven't seen - still haven't caught up with the new season and still debating whether or not it's even worth my effort to try), Imagine Dragons got much bigger than I could have expected even despite their silly name. And frankly, that's a good thing, because 'It's Time' is a great, fist-pumpingly awesome song with a ponderousness that makes it immediately feel like any other generic indie rock song to get mainstream airplay (hi, Mumford & Sons!).

But really, upon repeated listen, I completely understand why Imagine Dragons chose their silly name - because this song feels like it completely embodies what it is to be a teenage fantasy nerd. The plucky mandolin, the pounding beat straining to be epic, the female backing vocals behind the chorus after the bridge, the roar of guitars coming up in the backing chorus, and the way lead singer Dan Reynolds seems to exude archetypal fantasy-hero confidence in his vocal delivery and lyrics. Reynolds is clearly the big standout here, with a lot of personality in his gusto-filled vocal delivery, even sounding a bit like Bono at points (which, I need to stress, is a big plus). But really, the lyrics stand out here, as Reynolds asserts that despite the dark bleak world of the music industry that he's stepping into, he's 'never changing who I am'. And you know what, I kind of like that raw exuberant confidence, because I remember being a teenage nerd just like this guy, and he nails the tone perfectly.

The music industry is going to eat him alive.

9. With the return of indie rock to the charts, I was completely unsurprised that the Killers released a new album (Battle Born, which I reviewed here) this year. I was significantly more surprised that none of their singles managed to seriously impact the charts this year, particularly considering I can think of at least six off that album that would have a lot of energy and would do well on modern pop radio. 

But upon deeper reflection, I'm not all that surprised. The Killers are significantly more polished, yet more patently cheesy and ridiculous than most of the indie rock bands that broke this year (more justification for the Meat Loaf comparison), and their blend of 80s synth-pop and 70s rock doesn't really fit the pop landscape all that well.

But on the other hand, there might have been another reason why the Killers haven't broken into the charts yet - they've already been replaced.

#9 - 'Everybody Talks' by Neon Trees (Billboard Chart Position: #22)

Well, that's not entirely fair. In all due honesty, I have a hard time ranking 'Everybody Talks' or anything else the Neon Trees have put out as objectively 'better' than the Killers, but I sure as hell am not complaining about their presence, or how amazingly huge the band became. Pretty much everybody - including me - expected that after the Neon Trees' debut album Habits and their 2010 smash hit 'Animal', they'd drop completely off the face of the earth. That was always kind of the act the Neon Trees were - a lot of energy and flash, not a lot of substance, and getting nailed as 'The Killers-lite' is both pretty rough and completely accurate.

That said, none of that stops 'Everybody Talks' from being a fantastic pop song that I can't help but love, mostly because it screams retro in every way without being a throwback. Like 'Good Time', it's a song that's unashamedly dumb fun, but the Neon Trees elevate the material through tons of personality and surprisingly deft lyrics that blend retro-60s charm and references with very modern touches, mostly through Tyler Glenn's raw, post-emo delivery. It doesn't make the song all that dignified or cool, but the Neon Trees aren't looking to be cool - they're looking to be loud, brash, silly and fun. 

And, much to my surprise, the lyrics aren't complete crap either (one of the biggest weaknesses about the Neon Trees is about how ephemeral they are in the songwriting department), telling the painfully high-school tale of a guy who tries to serenade a girl, only to find himself the topic of gossip and conversation. But taking a cue from Barney Stinson's book, he never lets the words and thoughts of others intrude on his awesomeness and he continues his serenading, blithely ignoring the words of those jealous sorts who would be petty and gossip. It's still annoying, but why have them hold him down? It's got a lot of bravado and old-school retro charm that I really dig, and it's enough to get them here. 

So, okay, Neon Trees, you've set the stage for the Killers to come back. Or, you know, keeping making awesome music, that's okay too.

8. For this next act, we're leaping headlong into the world of country, a genre which, if you read my list of top ten songs from 2011, you'll notice I have something of a fondness for with my choice of 'Colder Weather' by the Zac Brown Band as the best song of the year. I stand by that decision today, namely because 'Colder Weather' is fucking amazing and is a prime example of the best modern country has to offer. However, not acts can be as awesome as the Zac Brown Band, and they didn't have any hits that charted this year from their album Uncaged (my review here), which was one of the best albums of the year. My disappointment is boundless.

Fortunately for us all, they seem to be rising up the charts again as we speak with 'Goodbye In Her Eyes', but let's turn our eyes and ears to earlier in the year, with a song I honestly did not expect to land on this list, but one I'm thrilled showed up all the same.

#8 - 'Red Solo Cup' by Toby Keith (Billboard Chart Position: #82)

A lot of people - music critics, country fans, and those who belong to neither category - absolutely despise Toby Keith, mostly because he made 'Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)', a song that may have attempted to satirize blind pro-American fervour in the aftermath of 9/11 - and then got appropriated as an anthem of blind pro-American fervour. Sort of like what happened with the vapid party girls embracing the half-parody works of Ke$ha, Toby Keith found himself the target of a lot of vitriol that I've always thought he never quite deserved. It wasn't like crass rat-shit like Darryl Worley's 'Have You Forgotten', an insulting piece of propagandized excrement that directly tried to link bin Laden with Iraq - yeah, people, if you're going to go after horrible right-wing country propaganda, go after that or anything/everything Jason Aldean puts out. 

Toby Keith, on the other hand, isn't nearly so bad. In fact, I actually quite like the guy, mostly because he doesn't take himself all that seriously and yet still has some macho swagger he can back up. In comparison to some of the balls-less country acts we have (Hunter Hayes, Rascal Flatts, Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, I can go on), Toby Keith comes out with a lot of personality, a lot of humour, and surprisingly deft songwriting.

And thus, it wasn't really much of a surprise that I really dug the hell out of 'Red Solo Cup', a song that has a lot of lively personality and surprising amounts of wit, particularly for a song that's about having a cheap, hole-in-the-wall party with red plastic cups. And while the part of me that loves cheesiness embraced this song without question (even outside of the utterly ridiculous music video), I came to like this song simply because it felt like the sort of drunken sing-a-long that people would get behind. It's not all that smart or dignified, but really, to nail a great drinking song, you don't always need intelligence and dignity. 


And on that note...

7. You know, if I think about acts that I'd really like to like more than I do, I don't think I could think of some bigger choices than Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, and Bruno Mars. All three acts have made some great tracks throughout the course of the careers, but they all frustrate me because so much of their potential has been squandered. 

I mean, for as good as Snoop Dogg is, half the time it feels like he's running on auto-pilot, and the fact that he's still able to slam out great hits when he's barely trying is just a testament to his potential if he actually tried. And while I get it that 'trying' hasn't really ever been a part of Snoop Dogg's mission (given the laid-back stoner persona that he cultivates), I've always wished that Snoop Dogg would engage himself in something and actually try. My issues with Wiz Khalifa are a little harsher - he has a fair amount of energy and some interesting lyrical ideas, but his technical delivery isn't nearly as good as it could be and I can't help but feel his focus could be significantly tighter. And Bruno Mars is a performer that really has a lot of old-school flair and style (to say nothing of some of the best production in modern pop), but there are songwriting weaknesses and some frustratingly bad choices he's made ('The Lazy Song') that hold him back from being a truly great performer.

However, there are points where you can truly grasp the brilliance and potential of all three acts - and when you can, the results are everything I hoped for.


#7 - 'Young, Wild, & Free' by Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, and Bruno Mars (Billboard Chart Position: #32)

I can't help but note the irony that 'Young, Wild, & Free' charted as high as it did this year, because every element of it screams of something from a different time, namely g-funk at the turn of the millennium. And as a long-time fan of that genre, I can't help but love that the Smeezingtons' production here perfectly mirrors the laid-back, easy-going swagger of that time. The groove is still tight, primarily driven by an irresistible keyboard hook and Bruno Mars' impeccable work on the chorus that's got an easy simplicity and elegance that reminds of me of the great hooks of 213. And as much as I wish the chorus was driven by the authorative bass of the late Nate Dogg (R.I.P.), Bruno Mars fills the void pretty damn well.

But really, the big surprise here was the interplay between Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg. It helps that both Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg are rapping about a topic they both love (marijuana) and are often at their best talking about it, but the back-and-forth conversational style of the song allows both artists to sound engaged while still maintaining the laid-back style necessitated by the subject matter. Wiz Khalifa still isn't a great rapper, but his youthful exuberance here is set at great contrast to Snoop Dogg's nonchalant flair, and he really shines here. And hell, I think this is probably one of Snoop Dogg's best songs in years, simply because he can channel his effortless cool swagger into an inclusive and generally fun ambience that makes this song a joy to hear. 

And speaking as someone who doesn't smoke pot but does support legalization, I do like that this song plays into the mellow fun-loving nature of the drug, operating as the lighter b-side to Kid Cudi's 'Day And Night'. And frankly, I like this more - the more society can strip away the stigma of marijuana while keeping people aware of the impacts (the odd coughing interlude over the final chorus does an apt job of that, I find), the better off we'll be.

6. You know, I was one of the first to rightly deride Foster The People as pretenders to any shred of legitimacy as an indie rock act, but at that point, most of my criticism was linked to the fact that despite claiming to be hipsters, Foster The People were really just as shamelessly corporate as any modern pop act.

But with the advent of indie rock gaining critical success, I've come to realize that that particular criticism isn't quite fair, because how can a band control what gets popular unless they explicitly make a sell out move musically, and I can cite plenty of cases of those this year. But simply because a band plays the occasional commercial or makes the occasional celebrity endorsement isn't grounds to explicitly hate the band on principle. No, I can hate Foster The People for their ephemeral worthless music and their pretensions to being so much deeper than they really are, which are perfectly logical and fair reasons (and with that, they're in good company - hi, Mumford & Sons!).

But now we're starting to move into an era where indie rock can be both critically acclaimed and massively successful, and I think there's no better evidence of that than this.


#6 - 'Somebody That I Used To Know' by Gotye ft. Kimbra (Billboard Chart Position #1)

I can be smug and say that I was one of the few that actually knew who Gotye was before he got big (I dug the hell out of his 2006 album Like Drawing Blood in a big way), but unlike most traditional hipsters, I'm not going to stop liking him just because he got huge, mostly because Gotye is an excellent musical act with a surprising amount of depth. His 2011 album Making Mirrors earned the critical acclaim it deserved for being both musically eclectic and cerebral, but I don't think anyone could have expected this song to rocket up the charts and become the biggest song of 2012, managing to keep Carly Rae Jepsen from the top through chart longevity alone (although the welcome boost from Glee can't be forgotten). 

And yeah, at this point nearly everyone has said their piece about this song, whether they like it or they hate it, but you can put me firmly in the 'liking' category for 'Somebody That I Used To Know', a song that works amazingly well as both a single and a greater figment of the album. On its own, it works as another great song with interplay between the singers, with a unique musical flavour and distinctive sound (with albeit a bit too much reverb slathered on the vocals). Both Gotye and Kimbra provide a lot of balance to the track, as both are performers that have exactly two types of range: emotionally distant/cold/'dead inside'; and pushing to their absolute vocal limit with wild abandon. And in the context of this song, it works, considering how quickly passive-aggressive becomes just-plain-fucking-aggressive for the chorus, which neatly summarizes how most 'exes' feel about their former partners if there was a nasty breakup. And on a side note, having checked out some of Kimbra's work, she has a demented streak that I find highly entertaining, but I like how relatively subdued and human she sounds on this track, all things considered.

But if anything, I like how 'Somebody That I Used To Know' works in context of the album even more. Yes, Gotye belongs to the league of 'album artists' (in comparison to 'singles artists', acts that put out good singles but not coherent album statements). Making Mirrors is an introspective album with a freshly brutal honesty, and 'Somebody That I Used To Know' fits this theme masterfully. Gotye's whininess is kind of insufferable until you realize that's the point, and Kimbra's verse is the cutting retort that shatters the mirror Gotye created for himself. As much as he'd like to think it's all the girl's fault and that he's blameless, Kimbra's presence shows just how blatantly unrealistic that is. So not only does the song work as a great single, it's also an album staple that reinforces and strengthens its theme.

And yeah, while I was surprised this song seized number one on the year-end charts list too, when you consider the previous ten years'  top songs (which were, in order: shit, mediocre, a classic, grating as hell, okay, insufferable, pretty good, annoying, okay, and fucking awesome), I definitely consider this song a step in the right direction.

5. Of every song on this list, this will be one of two I suspect for which I'll get the most flack.

#5 - 'Die Young' by Ke$ha (Billboard Chart Position #85)

It's also one that, if you know me, I have absolutely zero shame placing on this list. I reviewed Ke$ha's Warrior this year and I still hold it's the best damn pop album of the year, hands down. In her sophomore effort, Ke$ha proved that she had the chops, vocally, musically, and lyrically to be one of the best pop stars on the scene right now, and with Warrior, she leapt ahead of the majority of her contemporaries with one fell swoop. 

And even with placing 'Die Young' this high on the list, I still don't think it's the best single off the album (I like 'Dirty Love', 'Crazy Kids', 'Love Into The Light', and every deluxe track more than I like 'Die Young'). And while I'm on the negative, I can also admit that yes, elements of the hook sound like 'Good Feeling' by Flo Rida and that Ke$ha definitely shouldn't have said Dr. Luke and her fellow songwriters 'forced her' to write 'die young' in the lyrics in the aftermath of the Connecticut shooting (overreacting a bit here, Ke$ha, we both know the song isn't anything close to related to that - I understand you're sensitive to this, but own up to your art).

But even with that, I still love this song because it's got a ton of energy and is generally awesome. As much as it might sound like 'Good Feeling', it's better than that song because Ke$ha actually has a personality (unlike Flo Rida) and her lyrics are sharp enough to own that. It also helps matters that the music has a ton of energy and that Ke$ha throws herself into the song, proving once again that she doesn't need Autotune to sing, unlike some modern pop stars. And while I can't say 'Die Young' is the smartest song in the world, Ke$ha is at least smart enough to provide the alternate take of the song that's a lot darker and provides a welcome second take:


For all of you who have snubbed 'Die Young' and Warrior because of Ke$ha's previous work, I highly advise you rethink your decision, because not only is Ke$ha back, she's better than ever.

4. There are some acts that are called 'silent majority' acts - namely that somehow they get hugely popular, but never develop the sort of critical acclaim and rabid fandom that others do. Often times, their music is middle-of-the-road and easy to like, inoffensive and  - more often than not - completely uninteresting. Hell, often times the hatred for these acts is more potent than the fandom, because they are viewed as pretenders or pablum catering to the lowest common denominator.

At some point in recent years, Coldplay became one of those acts - the inoffensive, generally tolerable light alt-rock that had pretensions and ambition to being one of the best rock acts in the world, but whether through lack of talent or drive or intellect, couldn't quite make it. Now this isn't saying Coldplay isn't huge - as a band, they're one of the most successful rock acts of the past decade, and speaking as someone who has seen them live (with Snow Patrol - talk about a fucking excellent concert), they put on a pretty damn amazing show - but as hard as they try, they're not the Beatles or U2 and they never will be.

Apparently, however, nobody told the band that and they proceeded to do whatever a rock act does when aspiring for artistic credentials - release a concept album. This album was called Mylo Xyloto, was released in 2011, and was a dystopian-themed slurry of music that really didn't say anything all that interesting or exciting about a theme that's been done to goddamn death in the past few years. I've relistened to Mylo Xyloto recently and I've come to two stark realizations regarding it: firstly, you'd never be able to tell it's a concept album by listening to it; and secondly, while it is okay and better than I initially judged upon a second listen, it's still not within spitting distance of classic territory due to flaws in the production and some generally weak songwriting.

And like all albums with dystopian or apocalyptic themes, Mylo Xyloto contains a song that's strident, loud, bold, and anthemic - and to my shock, it actually turned out pretty damn awesome.

#4 - 'Paradise' by Coldplay (Billboard Chart Position #69)

Okay, it's time for me to put my cards on the table - yes, even despite all the 'silent majority' stuff (which is all true), I can still say I like Coldplay. I don't love them - their music isn't as gripping or emotionally intense as Snow Patrol, not as experimental or 'epic' as Muse, and their songwriting isn't within spitting distance of classic U2. But Coldplay has always had a talent for writing songs with big emotions. Even their quiet tracks like 'The Scientist' contain a lot of heartfelt emotion that feels real. But really, they're at their best when they unleash songs like 'Viva La Vida' and 'Clocks' and 'Violet Hill' (my personal favourite Coldplay song), because their generally atmospheric and broad production lends itself well to big sweeping songs that might not be all that complex, but still deliver on sheer loud bravado alone.

And 'Paradise' is definitely a song in that tradition, a track that picks up the best elements from Mylo Xyloto (the synths, the 'escapist' songwriting) while shelving the worst (the overproduction, the unnecessary autotune and electronic gimmicks). And with all of that in mind, there's really not a lot to say about it - it's big, Chris Martin throws everything he has into it and stretches his vocal range impressively, and the lyrics are hopeful and energetic in the best possible way. 

Now, make no mistake it's not as complex or interesting as 'Viva La Vida' and it really doesn't try to be anything but a big hopeful song designed to make you feel happy, but with that in mind, it succeeds beautifully in what it's trying to do. And best of all, it doesn't feel complacent or smug like 'Good Time' - no, Coldplay's trying not just to express how happy they are, they want to make everyone happy. And with 'Paradise', they come pretty damn close.

And now, we're down to the top three. I've got to be honest, these three gave me a lot of trouble, and I've spent a lot of time tossing the order back and forth, because they're all amazingly good and are damn close to the best each artist has to offer. And even though I've ranked them, the ranking tends to fluctuate depending on what mood I'm in, so keep that in mind as we go forward. 

3. At the end of 2011, Glee used a song practically nobody outside of the indie scene had heard of in one of their episodes. It was big, it was loud, and it was a pretty decent fit for Glee, but I remember watching that episode and promising to myself to look up the actual act that had performed the song - and sure enough, I started liking fun. right from then. Now, granted, the style change between their two albums (Aim And Ignite and Some Nights) was pretty stark - the first was an indie pop record that was pretty damn fun (no pun intended), but really didn't stand out as all that excellent (best song on the album, by the way, was 'Barlights' - check it out, it's awesome). But Some Nights was different - it sounded much more modern, taking some sparse hip-hop production and marrying to some classical, theatrical bombast that matched Nate Ruess' voice beautifully. Now the theatricality had always been there, and it has always been very clear where Ruess' influence came from, both in his delivery and lyrical themes, but now the music supported it.

And yet, I never really liked 'We Are Young' all that much. It's thudding and slow, and Janelle Monae (a R&B act with a lot of intelligence that you all need to be listening to) is completely wasted. And really, while the modernized theatricality was present in the verses, the music didn't quite back it up.

Fortunately, their next single rectified this problem.

#3 - 'Some Nights' by fun. (Billboard Chart Position #14)

Everything that makes fun. work as a indie rock act is present on 'Some Nights', and man, it's such a huge thrill to see that sort of style become embraced by the charts at large. The bombast, the superb singing, and the lyrics that are oblique enough to raise questions, fun.'s 'Some Nights' is the quintessential indie pop-rock hit and I'm thrilled to see it chart as high as it did and establish fun. as a real presence as more than a one-hit wonder. And considering so many acts (particularly indie rock acts - hi, Mumford & Sons!) were trying to sound big and epic, it's a real thrill to see fun. get epic right: using the right amount of bombast and pomp and genuine emotion to make the song just work on a visceral level.

Part of the credit here has to go to Nate Ruess' delivery, which by now everyone and their cat and their cat's partially digested bird they ate last Saturday can recognize as very reminiscent of the late Freddie Mercury's. Yes, Freddie Mercury of Queen, and if you don't know who Queen is, you can report behind the woodshed for a thorough thwacking. I have to believe that part of fun.'s success is linked to just how much Ruess sounds like Freddie Mercury, and how much fun. feels like a modern update of Queen, warts and all. And while 'Some Nights' isn't close to 'Bohemian Rhapsody', Ruess is definitely a good enough songwriter to make me think the band has big ambitions for the future.

And that's probably the most overlooked part of why 'Some Nights' kicks all amounts of ass - the lyrics are surprisingly great, just oblique and strange enough to hold some shred of indie poetry, but catchy and simple enough to sing along with (well, to a certain extent - Ruess has Mercury's range, after all). And when interpreted, the lyrics tell an interesting tale, because Ruess is singing about the band fun. itself, and what one might deem their sellout move by embracing mainstream popularity, something that probably was difficult to do for the New York indie act. But what makes the song work is the spread of emotions: there are points when Ruess is sad and melancholy at what he's lost, but at other points he sounds so righteously pissed that it's a little hard to believe how fun. could think they'd ever lose their identity. Like its companions on my 2011 Best Hit Songs list, 'Rolling In The Deep' and 'The Show Goes On', 'Some Nights' works on righteous anger and taking broad shots at the music industry that wants to grind them into processed cheese.

And then you hear the autotune in the bridge, and your spirits dip a little, because you realize that turning fun. into processed cheese might be all too easy. Being completely honest, that blast of grating autotune from an act that really doesn't need to use it knocked this song off the top spot for me. It doesn't really fit with the rest of the song, and most radio edits agree, cutting that part entirely. Apparently Ruess used Autotune because he thought it'd be fun to use, but it adds nothing here and only serves to detract a pretty damn great song. But overall, 'Some Nights' is still one hell of a gem, and if this stuff continues to remain popular, I've got high hopes.

2. You know, I've commented upon the minimalism in R&B a lot in this column, mostly because I think it's an interesting trend that leans away from overproduction. But at the same time, this sort of minimalism can be a double-edged sword: for one, it places the artist front and center, and can be unintentionally revealing. Worse still are the cases where the artist just doesn't prove as interesting, and the minimalism just makes the song glaringly tedious.

But occasionally, it works, and it takes an artist with real personality, skills, and charisma to make it work. And here...

Yeah, I'm going to say it. This is Usher's best song.

#2 - 'Climax' by Usher (Billboard Chart Position #72)

Stop and think about that for a second, because Usher has had a ton of fantastic songs (a fair amount of crap, too, if we're being fair). 'Yeah', 'You Remind Me', 'Burn', 'Confessions Pt. II', 'DJ Got Us Falling In Love', 'Scream', 'Moving Mountains' - I mean, dear god, there's a reason why this guy is fighting for the crown of Michael Jackson, and of the R&B acts working today, Usher's probably the closest to getting that crown. 

And yet, I consider 'Climax', a quiet storm break-up song drenched in iciness and minimalist synths, his best song. And I stand by it too, namely because 'Climax' manages to work on so many levels. The production, courtesy of Diplo (who also co-wrote the song) is jaw-dropping in the ways it manages to surge at precisely the right moments, with the finesse and control to perfectly match the vocal delivery. 

And the vocals - fuck, on the strength of the gorgeous falsetto alone, I'd love this song. Usher has never sounded smarter, more adult, and more mature than on 'Climax', and like with the classic R&B acts, he has finally realized that he doesn't need profane lyrics or explicit content to make his songs sensual as all hell. It helps that Usher has always had a fantastic voice, but he has the chance to display his whole range on 'Climax', and without the aid of autotune, he proves that he can own every second. 

But - and this is atypical for the standard Usher song - I'd like to highlight the lyrics as the real reason this song kicks so much ass. Usher's always had a strength for throwing himself into his lyrics and delivering them with real emotional intensity, and when given lyrics of actual depth and emotional complexity, he belies every word. This song is what his 2010 album Raymond v. Raymond should have been, and in a year full of crappy, crappy breakup songs, Usher's 'Climax' probably does the best in capturing the intricate, turbulent emotions of the situation and still makes it sound sexy as all fuck. 

And unsurprisingly, the critics adored this song when it came out, and it made plenty of top 10 lists already, and it earns all the credit it gets. Easily the highlight of his Looking 4 Myself album, it's Usher's best song and it's a fucking classic (pun intended).

And yet, not my favourite song of the year. Want to guess what that one is?

1. Not going to lie, I'm a little surprised I'm putting this song at the top of my list, because I'm fairly certain it's not going to top anyone else's list. I mean, a lot of people like this song, but it never got critical acclaim or was seen as anything all that special.

And yet, when I was listening through this list, this was the one song I found I could listen to over and over again, without getting tired of it. A song that comes from a pretty haphazard album, and I'd argue not even the best song on that album. It's not particularly complex or insightful, and while great pop songs don't need those labels, you'd think that my top song of the year would have them. 

But really, as a song that represents the best possible trends in hip-hop and popular music in general, I really couldn't choose anything else.

#1 - 'So Good' by B.o.B. (Billboard Chart Position #80)

Stupid screencap aside, I think B.o.B. is one of the most promising talents in hip-hop and rap right now, mostly because the guy draws from a plethora of influences, has fantastic flow, and generally throws himself into his music with aplomb. This is another act that works best with big emotions (noticing a pattern here), and he's got the craft and intelligence and class to actually back up what he's saying, something of a rarity in rap these days. 

And with 'So Good', B.o.B. does something almost conventional in the hip-hop scene: a luxury rap about how he's going to make his girl happy. But unlike T.I.'s 'Whatever You Like', which felt decadent and hedonistic, B.o.B. redeems his track by not referencing brands or clothes or jewellery, but by describing all the places around the globe he's going to take his girl, complimenting her not just on her beauty, but on the fact that's she's intelligent and mature and sensible. And while it really shouldn't be all that surprising B.o.B.'s doing this (he's done it before), it's such a welcome change to see that B.o.B. can actually make a hit out of it rather than the typical sleaze you see in modern hip-hop.

It helps matters that B.o.B.'s technique is better than ever, as he actually references artwork and wine and locations around the globe with an easy-going familiarity and charm that makes him seem infinitely more classy than Kanye, a man who is probably the best example of a guy who has expensive tastes but none of the class or appreciation to back it up. The fact that B.o.B. is able to make all these references fuse into a coherent song is pretty damn impressive, but that he's able to make them all rhyme fluidly and flowingly (albeit with some hard rhyming that B.o.B. manages to pull off with surprising grace) is nothing short of a miracle. Once again, I find myself making the comparison to Andre 3000, and it's a high compliment that B.o.B. earns - he's got the same charming easy-going style as the former OutKast member, to say nothing of the flow. And once again, for a southern hip-hop act, it's incredibly refreshing to see B.o.B. step on the stage with some intellect and class that some his older peers frustratingly lack. 

I should also mention the production here - B.o.B. enlisted Ryan Tedder for this track, and thankfully curbed the worst of the OneRepublic frontman's production tendencies while cultivating his best. 'So Good' manages to sound big and sweeping, the perfect summer song, all the while maintaining enough restraint and control on the keyboard synths and reverb to really let B.o.B.'s personality shine through and be the real driving force behind the hook.

But what really seals the deal for me is the delivery. As I said in my review of the album, B.o.B. primarily dealt with the theme of isolation with Strange Clouds, and in 'So Good', he's so thrilled to have someone that's not only beautiful, but also smart and well-educated and classy, that he considers it damn close to a miracle. It's something that breaks the haze of isolation for him, and he's damn near giddy with joy. And that joy, that energy, that sincere happiness is enough to put a smile on my face every single time. Yeah, I can't deny it's a little cheesy, but it's so sincere and lovestruck and genuinely smart that it just appeals to the modern romantic in me. 

So yeah, my number one song of the year, without a doubt, and from what I've seen of the charts so far, this year's going to be even better. So, until next time, have a happy holidays. And if you're sick of Christmas music, I've got a whole list of great songs from the year that are a sweet, sweet remedy.

4 comments:

  1. "shit, mediocre, a classic, grating as hell, okay, insufferable, pretty good, annoying, okay, and fucking awesome"
    I'm confused as I always considered Rolling in the Deep as the biggest song of last year. Care to elaborate?
    Otherwise nice post and I'm glad to see some "Some Nights" love. Gotta love that song!

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  2. Ah, I see what you mean - I was going in order from 2002 to 2011 (and to provide more context, the 2002 top hit was Nickelback's 'This Is How You Remind Me'.

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  3. Me in 2007 when I heard Gotye's debut album for the first time: "This guy will never make it big. Shame, I like him."
    Me in 2012 after Somebody That I Used To Know goes to #1: *spits out drink* *falls out of the chair* Hell yeah!!

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  4. Wait... You hate We Belong Together by Mariah?

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