Sunday, May 20, 2018

the top ten best hit songs of 2012 (REDUX)

So this top ten list is going to be a little different than the previous few I've put together - mostly because I've made it before.

So let's back up a little - as many of you know, I started on YouTube in July of 2013, but I had begun writing about music a good two years earlier, first on Facebook and in 2012 on my personal blog, where I started by assembling my list of the top ten best hit songs of 2012. And while I've made reference to that year on Billboard BREAKDOWN and in year-end lists, I've never actually converted that list to video, which is what I'm going to be doing today... with a twist. See, my opinions have evolved and changed over the past six years and I figured it wouldn't be a bad step to revisit the year-end Hot 100 of that year and see if my greater critical acumen and hindsight had shifted my opinion... and while for the most part it hasn't, I am going to making a few changes from that original list, so there's no guarantee you'll know what shows up here.

But if there is one thing that has been solidified by this relisten, it's that 2012 stands head-and-shoulders above the majority of this decade with some of the best hit songs of the 2010s. Pop was still riding out the club boom to a fair amount of success, country was only in the early years of the growth of bro-country and landed some real quality on the charts, R&B was notching some genuinely forward-thinking tunes, and hip-hop... okay, maybe more of a transitional year overall, but there were highlights. But what makes the 2012 chart so vibrant was the indie boom, a flashpoint of out-of-nowhere crossovers from indie folk, pop and rock that for a brief shining moment redefined what a hit could be in the mainstream. And while it's dispiriting how much of it would fizzle away in the coming year - and indeed, if we're looking at a theme for this list it would be high points of potential never quite achieved again - it still left us with a list of tracks where I actually had to cut some great songs, something you can't say about years like, say, 2016. So as always, the rules are that the song must debut on the year-end Hot 100 in this year, and let's get started with...

10. You know, hindsight can be a funny thing when looking back on 2012 and seeing collaborations that make perfect sense at the time but likely would never make sense even a few years later. But in a sense if we were looking for a warm-up before 2015 made two of these artists into chart-dominating superstars, this is a point of humble, but wonderful beginnings.

I don't know a single person who if they remember 'Young Wild & Free' dislikes it, even if I get the impression it's still underappreciated and is bound to wind up as one of those songs that'll be huge when it gets mixed into a montage or meme in about five or six years. But before Wiz Khalifa got well over three billion views with Charlie Puth for 'See You Again' and Bruno Mars got nearly three billion for 'Uptown Funk', they teamed up with Snoop Dogg for a chill stoner anthem that was the lead single for a direct-to-DVD stoner comedy called Mac & Devin Go To High School. And really, 'Young Wild & Free' is about the only thing worth caring about from that film - the chill but jaunty piano-driven production from the Smeezingtons, how effortlessly Snoop and Wiz trade bars, Bruno Mars easing into the devil-may-care coolness that would come to define his later years, it's a hangout anthem if there ever was one with genuine groove and the sort of blissed out vibe that Jack Johnson would probably kill for. Songs this relaxed and naturally charismatic rarely get the acclaim a flashier song would seize, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth your time, especially when the hook is this sticky - you probably haven't heard this one in a while, but man it's worth it.

9. But on the topic of those flashier songs...

The Neon Trees tends to get a lot of shit from indie critics and for the most part I've never thought it was deserved - sure, the band was indulging in the sort of retro power pop that was shamelessly garish and neon, but it was also a ton of fun and definitely more enjoyable than too much of the oversold melodrama you're getting from today's new wave throwbacks. And while Picture Show wasn't quite as sharp as the band's candy-coated breakthrough Habits, 'Everybody Talks' knows how goofy it is and leans into it, carried on the snide wildness of Tyler Glenn and a choppy guitar groove that careens into a monster of a hook, helped along by Justin Mendel-Johnsen's production glitz before it became oversold in later years. And hey, what's wrong with giving the gossipmongers the middle finger in a wild hookup for all the wrong reasons - sure, it's a teenage sugar rush, but it's a damn good one, especially as it just smart enough not to take itself too seriously and just dumb enough to try anyway. Terrific track, definitely worth the relisten!

8. So I remember making a conscious choice to exclude this song from my list proper in late 2012 - I had heard it all year, I was a big fan of it, but I had also gone through a rough breakup at that point and I was worried that how much this song had connected emotionally might be compromising my critical viewpoint. In retrospect, considering how much emotionality comes into the appreciation of any art, I shouldn't have worried, because this is another underrated gem.

Gavin DeGraw is a bit of a tough artist to quantify - he broke through in the mid-2000s adult-alternative scene when the genre was nearing its peak of overexposure, with his biggest hit 'I Don't Want To Be' being a theme song for One Tree Hill. And I'll be honest: most of his work has not aged well - he didn't always have good production, he didn't consistently bring good material or vocals to the table, and he probably would have faded with the other acts of that era by the time the club boom hit. But then he teamed up with Ryan Tedder to deliver what I'd argue might just be his best hit, leaning into his yearning earnestness for a monster of a hook that makes post-breakup emotions feel all the bigger and more intense. And what adds the tension beyond those big minor piano chords are the lyrics - yeah, they're overwritten and a little clumsy, but just enough to capture that frustration of bottling up the emotions of a break-up that you know deep down no matter how much you don't want to admit it, there's no going back, and any desperate hope must be left to linger. And really, it's Ryan Tedder's glossy swell that gives this track the majority of its impact, and while it was very easy to get sick of him in 2012, you'll be seeing more him soon - in the mean time, years away from that breakup... yeah, this deserves to be here, about time he got the spot.

7. Oh, I wrestled with this one, because there were a lot of critics who panned the hell out of this track both then and now, for retreading territory that frankly the band did better on their previous record. And if there's any critical re-examination of the record from where that song came... yeah, it's entirely true, there's a reason that record is remembered more for misfired experiments and a concept that didn't make much sense than anything else. And yet...

The arranged flutters, the blurry strings, that breaks into a gloss of synths and guitar fragments where the artificiality of its heavenly swell underscores the wistful dreams likely unfulfilled until the firmer piano and final guitar movement provides the foundation, with layers of crescendos providing so much of the fuel to that elegant swell that shows exactly how Brian Eno's commitment to subtle dynamics can ring rich rewards. And sure, the lyrics are nakedly sentimental and I'll be the first to say that stuttered syllables and Chris Martin's falsetto are not an easy sell for anyone... but 'Paradise' doesn't give a damn about coolness or groove and approaches its huge melodies with the sort of uncompromising gusto for which I'll always have a soft spot. No, it's not Coldplay at their best - I'm not sure the band will ever write a song better than 'Violet Hill' - but it's the sort of ballsy swing for the fences that the band seems incapable of approaching anymore, and man, I miss it. At least there's this to remind us of what could have been.

6. So I'll freely admit there is something a shade... compromised in putting this song on the list - given the living hell that reportedly was the recording process and the avalanche of horrible stories surrounding the main cowriter and producer of this track, I genuinely questioned whether I'd ever be able to go back to this material ever again and recapture the core of brash, wild intensity. Thankfully, great art can transcend it, and some authorial voices cannot be denied.

Kesha's Warrior is one of the best pop albums of the 2010s - I feel I don't need to qualify that statement much, especially if you've heard the deluxe edition of that record, but I stand by it regardless. And while I've already talked at length surrounding how horribly mismanaged and badly marketed that project was in a number of Special Comments over the years, the song that has lingered the most in the public consciousness from that project is 'Die Young', a track nearly killed in the crib by horrible timing opposite the shootings in Sandy Hook in late 2012. But years later away from that - and with the knowledge that I'm not sure I'd put this in my top five from that record - 'Die Young' is a phenomenal pop song. Anchored in an sharper acoustic groove that nails the power clash against the synth swells and a wistful acknowledgement that even despite the magic definitely shining through, it's only going to last for a moment and Kesha's going to wring whatever sheen she can from it. And of course for a version that leans much more heavily into the melancholy, I recommend the Deconstructed version, which reminds me of the right way to pull off the slowed down, wistful cover that so many artists try and fail miserably - looking at you, Callum Scott and 'Dancing On My Own'. And yet through all of that - through a coproducer credit with Doctor Luke and an album that deserved better and the living hell Kesha fought through to get this to market - 'Die Young' remains a triumph, and a damn great pop song to boot.

5. When pop music scholars look back on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012, I can imagine they'll be bewildered by the biggest song of the year, the most burning indictment of the indie crossover boom and the sort of track that thanks to a long slow burn and a Glee cover became a #1 hit. And yet to understand the vast, weird potential of 2012, you need to understand this song... and oh, what a delight it was.

The clipped guitar phrases, the marimba twinkles, the distant patter of percussion, the subtle curdled tension in Gotye's verses, the ebbing wells of eerie synth and stuttered guitar phrases, and a hook playing with multiple levels of harmony both in guitar, synth, and some truly terrific multi-tracking - and that's before Kimbra shows up for the true gutpunch, riding the quivering Mellotron sample to cut down the song's monologue with some much needed context. It's a song that if you don't hear it in the context of the year already is striking in its strangeness and eccentricity, even in indie rock given the deliberation of its arrangement... and yet when you also consider how smart it is in Kimbra cutting through the gaslighting and realize that this was the biggest song of 2012, it defies easy explanation. Sadly it looks like both Kimbra and Gotye will never quite reclaim their chart success years later - although with Gotye it doesn't seem like he's ever had much of an interest in it - but for a moment in time 'Somebody That I Used To Know' broke the pop charts. And frankly, we could do with a lot more stuff like this these days.

4. But on the topic of indie artists getting a sudden boost from Glee and who probably deserve to be far bigger than they are, let's talk about fun., the indie rock project that scored a #1 hit with 'We Are Young' before lead guitarist Jack Antonoff went on to form Bleachers and co-produce some of the most recognizable pop music of the decade, spanning from Lorde to Taylor Swift. But in 2012, 'We Are Young' was a moment of breakthrough indie catharsis, the sort of overwritten tune that like 'Somebody That I Used To Know' threw open the doors... only to be revealed as kind of stodgy, underwhelming slog that wasted Janelle Monae and added up to a lot less than the sum of its parts. No, if you want to know the fun. song worth caring about years later... hell, you all know what it is!

What's so striking about 'Some Nights', both in 2012 and now, is its audacity: a percussion-heavy stomper full of huge vocal overdubs that treats its guitar line and gratuitous autotune as accent tones, confident the monstrous hook coaxed out by Jeff Bhasker will overcompensate for everything. And what's incredible is how frequently it works - the glassy whirs surrounding the lumpy roil of percussion, galloping against Nate Ruess pushing through one of his most dynamic performances. It's a song that earned a lot of comparisons to Queen for its theatricality and operatic melodrama, and as heretical as that might seem, it's a comparison that's mostly earned, although Ruess leans on millennial self-awareness at exactly what making a song like this means for fun.'s career prospects amidst huge personal turmoil. Hell, it almost seems like he's aware a track like this could end any future prospects as it proceeds through the breakdown at length - with the irony all the more cruel in how that happened just a few years later for Ruess - but what a sendoff as he puts all the more space between his internal dread, what a sendoff indeed! If there is a song from this list that'll be heralded as a 2010s pop classic from this list in twenty years, it'll likely be 'Some Nights' - and frankly, it's well-deserving of it.

3. If there is a song on this list that has gone forgotten by too many people, it's this one, the sort of quiet storm jam likely overshadowed by the other huge hit he dropped that year. Oh, the critics adored it - and for good reason - but in hindsight, there's a tragedy to how much it represents how little the artist behind it could follow it up in terms of experimentation and boundary-pushing R&B. But for a gleaming moment... oh, it was exquisite.

If you want to know why I've been an Usher fan for years... well, the album Confessions is the most obvious example, but 'Climax' comes in a close second, a song that has some of the most wiry tension and intensity you'll hear in modern R&B, anchored in Usher using his falsetto to absolutely gorgeous effect - folks, this is the gold standard, and if you wonder why I'm often so hard on bad falsetto vocals, this is why. But even beyond that, the incredibly sleek electronic production from Diplo, the sparse skitters of percussion, all of it woven into a stunningly sexy quiet storm song where you keep waiting for the drop to relieve that tension... and you never get it. In a year overloaded with warping dubstep, Usher ignores the conventions of the subgenre for the tightest experimentation of his career that asks the dangerous question of what happens when you hit the apex of a relationship and know it all could be well downhill from there. And with every whirling, pulse-pounding crescendo where Usher is pushing his vocal control to the absolute limit, you can't help but be yanked along for the ride. Many critics of the time appreciated 'Climax' for its construction and experimentation - like a new Tesla model there was more admiration of sleekness and efficiency - but the reason that 'Climax' has lasted is the core of emotional tension and the fact that, yes, Usher is just that goddamn good. Shame he could never probably follow it up.

2. If you remember my list from my blog six years ago, you'll be surprised by the inclusion of this song, because it was not on any of my lists. And really, if there was a song that got the benefit of hindsight and contrast more than any, it was this one, another shot of pure dark potential that's never been fully realized. But for a moment in 2012, Carrie Underwood got so close to getting there, and while 'Good Girl' has remained slightly more prominent thanks to its accessibility and stunningly difficult vocal line, this has always been my personal favourite - because, after all, the only good Carrie Underwood songs are when somebody ends up dead.

It's hard to describe why I adore 'Blown Away' so damn much. Part of it is because there's little if anything to compare it to in country or pop, a murder ballad half revenge fable, half tribute to The Wizard Of Oz in the twister that seals this abuser's doom. But what it reminds me more of is Wicked, particularly darker songs from that musical like 'No Good Deed' that show the tortured heel turn done more of necessity than avarice. And that's not even getting into the shrill twinkles and huge strings arrangement playing inside a massive stormy mix driven by the aggressive kickdrum, pianos, and howling guitars, and a chorus that literally blows apart everything in its path, confident enough to rely on the abstract but visceral imagery from a child's perspective to show the purging power of that windstorm. And that's before you get to Underwood's delivery - and look, I've been one of her harshest critics as relying far more on vocal power than texture, but between the pre-chorus that forces her into a rougher lower register and the sheer anguished triumph of her hook, it's absolutely one of her best. Let me state this again: neither pop or country have any other songs like 'Blown Away', a whirling colossus that Carrie Underwood has never topped and deserves to be far more remembered than 'Before He Cheats' or 'Jesus Take The Wheel' or 'Something In The Water' or any other formulaic pop country she's dished out. Like so many songs on this list, 'Blown Away' represents a moment of potential never quite achieved again and all the more impressive for getting there... but before we get to the ultimate example of that phenomenon, a few Honourable Mentions, starting with...

Remember when there was a shining moment that Jessie J could have been a serious pop star as the more vocally talented, more interesting Katy Perry? Yeah, if there's a song that shows just how close she got to that point, it was 'Domino' - the tight glossy synths playing off the main sharp riff, and Jessie J cramming in as many forced sex references as she can, and most of them only barely make sense. And yet it's infectious, and it's a fun in a way that Katy Perry really wouldn't be again... and that outside of 'Bang Bang' Jessie J wouldn't be again, but hey, there was hope, right?

I'll freely admit that the reason this is on my list and wasn't before is because of how much it became a karaoke staple for me - but at the same time, it's hard to not listen to this and think that Eric Church was ahead of his time in mainstream country, as the ramshackle percussion and more atmospheric guitar notes would become huge only a few years later, playing off of lingering piano chords that show a real swell of melody that many unfortunately ignored. But the reason this song resonates more powerfully is because Eric Church is as much of a music nerd as I am, so he's going to stuff the song with Springsteen references and the same rich detail that made that heartland rocker so impactful. So yeah, it's fan worship, but of the best kind, and Eric Church knows how to make it stick.

I know a lot of people will be surprised this is not on the list proper, probably for many of the same reasons that I put 'Climax' on the list - tight, wiry bass grooves, ethereal abstraction in the lyrics, Ellie Goulding carefully playing with atmosphere that has so much more swell that it might seem on the surface, it's a beautiful and absolutely haunting tune... but I dunno what to tell you, it got edged out, never quite hitting the swell that Ellie Goulding would prove such a master of handling on later singles and deep cuts. Yes, even despite being more commercial, I tend to like 'Burn' more - sue me.

If you've been following Toby Keith's career in the 2010s, you're probably very much aware of the spiraling tragedy of alcohol-soaked performances and the slow collapse of his major brands. And yet before the slip into debauchery, Toby Keith put out one of his biggest charting hits and while it's easily one of his dumbest on the surface, there's enough sly details to show just how clever of a songwriter he could be when he tried. The rhymes that are far more developed and complex than the wave of bro-country hedonism that would follow, the middle finger to Freddie Mac that reminds you a song like this would have had resonance in the years of the recession, and a sense of populism that almost excuses how the song is a half-slurred ode to a plastic cup. I'm not sure if music needed this song, but we got it, and there's very little like it to this day. Probably for good reason, but I still enjoy it.

It's weird looking back on Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012, before she became in the indie pop princess critics fawn over - back then she was a contestant on Canadian Idol and was dominating the charts thanks to 'Call Me Maybe', which in retrospect hasn't quite become the nostalgia bomb that, say, 'A Thousand Miles' has for Vanessa Carlton. But if there was a track emblematic of her vast potential going forward it was 'Good Time', a crossover with Owl City before his career imploded in unfortunate but spectacular fashion. And yes, it's a sugary blast of upbeat silliness that in no way earns the Prince reference in the first couplet, but even here Carly Rae Jepsen was bringing her subtle charisma into pop songs that seem simple but wind up meaning so much more. Again, nobody would argue this is a unbelievably awesome time, but for a good time, it's worth revisiting.

This is probably one of my favourite Katy Perry songs, certainly the best of any of the power ballads she's pushed to market, and considering I've been so hard on this material from her since, nailing down what works about 'Wide Awake' is actually pretty tricky. Sure, the sweeping synthesizers and stately but rounded beat definitely work for me, and the lyrics have a melancholic desperation that Katy Perry actually pulls off really well... hell, if there's someone who makes this work, it's Katy Perry, the pop star with a limited personality trying her best to emote with raw intensity that she rarely ever exhibits. It's one of the few times I've ever given a damn about her as a character in pop culture, and while the rest of this decade would not be kind to her, artistically or otherwise, this one has always stuck around, at least for me.

Yeah, Usher's other big hit is going to make this list too, mostly because nobody quite makes dance-pop R&B like he can, with a ton of pulse-pounding energy, electric synths, and Usher leveraging his huge range and charisma for all it's worth. I'll definitely say the lyrics can get pushy in a way that I doubt would fly in 2018, but it's thankfully clear that he's leaning into the sexual double-entendres as hard as he can, which might be the first time that actually saves the song. But even with that, the bridge is what really puts this over the top, an upward progression that pushes Usher to his limit and hits like an explosive device. Perhaps not the sexual tour-de-force that was 'Climax', but again, even when Usher is at his most direct, he can certainly deliver.

And now for the final song...

1. I remember every time I've made this list, I've always surprised myself that this is my favourite hit song of 2012, mostly because I'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who agrees or even really remembers this song in comparison to his other hits just two years earlier. And that's before you consider how badly his career flamed out - if you want to make a list of the most jaw-dropping disappointments of the 2010s... I'm not sure if he'd top the list, but for hip-hop, he'd certainly be close. And yet in 2012 there was some twisted alchemy that got it to work, the sort of pop rap that might not seem to have a huge shelf life but still captured an effervescent of moment thanks to Ryan Tedder's production... yep, it's B.o.B., and it's so good.

The treble piano keys, the sweep of the production, how effortlessly B.o.B. can layer his multi-syllabic flow over it... yes, it's not quite the same intensity that's inspired the Andre 3000 comparisons throughout this career, but the hook and vibe is so damn infectious it's hard to care. And yeah, on the surface it is just another bragging and flexing song, but it's astounding how much of it has not only aged well but feels genuine and head-over-heels in love that's exceptionally charming especially in the era of trap to come. Unlike so many rappers who want to emphasize how much better their lives are than yours and how much they're screwing your girl, B.o.B. wants to take his girl on a trip around the world and rap about fine wine and art in a way where you have to wonder if Jay-Z started doing the same a year later on Magna Carta Holy Grail from the inspiration. But B.o.B. plays into that casually light tone with such elegance that you almost don't notice how meticulously his rhymes connect, or how you could enter a track like this among the narrow list of hip-hop love songs and not fall pray to overcompensating bravado or posturing. It's a fun balance between relative innocence and maturity that's a perfect match for Ryan Tedder's production - yeah, it's kind of dorky and lightweight, but that's who B.o.B. was and when he fell prey to making the same meatheaded trap songs his material took a nosedive until he was rapping about the flat earth to stay relevant! If there is a song and artist that are more representative of the potential of 2012 to just go for broke, it's 'So Good' by B.o.B. - it was my favourite song of 2012 when I first made this list, and six years later, it's still on top. Man, I'd go back to this day...

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