Over the past month I’ve read, watched, or listened to dozens of year-end retrospectives. Best of year lists, entries reflecting on a specific artist or trend, podcast debates about the above, and an especially entertaining March-Madness-style bracket pitting the year’s hits against each other in a fight to the death (dontstoppopthat.com). However, I like to reflect upon the past year through the lens of the old-fashioned, borderline-irrelevant, payola-baiting Billboard Hot 100. (Ok, maybe there’s no more payola, but you can’t convince me that Maroon 5’s nine-week reign was not the result of a vast government conspiracy hellbent on keeping one-time Yankee-hater PSY from reaching the top of the charts; or a unified push by American record companies to forestall the incoming K-Pop invasion). The year’s Billboard Number Ones are not comprehensive and always leave out many songs that the define the year (no Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple or 2 Chainz to see here, folks), but it is always to interesting to see which songs captured our hearts and minds throughout the year.
After the EDM-plus-Adele hellscape that was the year 2011, 2012 comes as a breath of fresh air. The EDM is obviously still around, and the movement fuelled some of the year’s biggest hits (Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling”; Nicki Minaj’s “Starships”; every huge David Guetta song), but the songs that reached number one, rising above the untz-untz crowd, are an impressively varied group of songs. 2012’s number ones ranged from bubblegum pop, to faux Arcade Fire bombast, to full-throated diva belters, to blue-eyed reggae. In 2012, not one but TWO songs heavily influenced by Sting spent significant time at the top of the charts. In 2010 and 2011, the number ones reflected the most played songs at the club. The average number one had a high BPM, a 4/4 beat, and the build-ups and drops associated with club music, designed to make people lose their minds on the dancefloor (the exception being, as always, Adele). Last year, Number ones were, for the most part, quieter and slower, less insistent on us dancing like it was our last night on Earth. The most popular songs of the year were often songs more likely to be played at home alone as in a club. Songs like “Somebody That I Used to Know,” “We Are Young” and “Ho Hey,” the current number 5, would never have sniffed the Top 20 in 2010 or 2011. I’m not sure if the charts changed their methodology or if people changed their listening habits (probably the former), but either way, I love any change that might break us out of our early decade doldrums and into a new exciting period for pop music.
My reviews after the jump (I’m going to post them one at a time as well):
"Sexy and I Know It" – LMFAO: 1/7-1/14 (2 Weeks)
Ugh. I’m gonna skip this one for now. I’ll leave you with this brilliant sketch, and I’ll come back to “Sexy and I Know It” after I throw up in my mouth a little bit.
“We Found Love” – Rihanna ft. Calvin Harris: 11/12/11-12/31/11; 1/21/12-1/28 (10 Weeks)
I already wrote about this one for my 2011 recap. I’ll repost it though:
“THIS is how you do a House crossover. People criticize Rihanna’s vocal ability, but it’s hard to argue that she can’t be compelling in the right context. Rihanna is probably the most prepared of the current pop divas to handle the imminent electronic era in pop music, as her voice complements but never overshadows the production. Considering how simple most of Calvin Harris’s discography is, there’s a surprising level of attention to detail in “We Found Love.” There’s a subtle change in the instrumentation during each verse. I also like how they managed to avoid including a dubstep drop (must have been a struggle). It’s hard to imagine a more effective techno/pop fusion”
“Sexy and I Know It” – LMFAO: 1/7-1/14 (2 Weeks)
Ok, I’m back. I needed some time to emotionally prepare myself to listen to this song on repeat for this piece. “Sexy and I Know It” is a member of a unique pop music lineage, preceded by such classics as “I’m Too Sexy,” by Right Said Fred, and the gloriously awful “Bad Touch” by the Bloodhound Gang. These are one-joke songs. Isn’t it hilarious how these guys who do not fit even the broadest definition of sexiness are talking about how irresistible they are? “Sexy and I Know It,” by nepotism poster boys LMFAO, manages to be even more disgusting and ridiculous than its predecessors and even less funny. The good news for me is: “Sexy and I Know It” was the year’s worst number one, so there isn’t anywhere to go but up. This would be the worst song to chart in 2012 if it weren’t for the unfortunate “Birthday Cake (Remix),” by Rihanna & Chris Brown.
“Set Fire to the Rain” – Adele: 2/4-2/11 (2 Weeks)
Adele’s monster 2011 extended into 2012 with “Set Fire to the Rain,” a decent number one that can’t hope to match the iconic status already reached by “Rolling in the Deep” and “Somebody Like You.” “Rolling in the Deep” and “Somebody Like You” featured minimalist arrangements with Adele’s voice as the focal point. Her inflection and vocal timbre provides the drama and the emotion, and because Adele is such an expressive singer, the songs benefit from the spotlight on her vocals. In “Set Fire to the Rain,” her vocals are just as strong, but her performance is swallowed by the epic arrangement. Still, like almost everything else on Adele’s 21, “Set Fire to the Rain” is well-written and well-structured, even if it lacks the emotional oomph of her best songs.
“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” – Kelly Clarkson: 2/18-2/25, 3/10
Poor Kelly Clarkson. Every song she releases from here on out will draw comparisons to “Since U Been Gone,” one of the best pop songs of the past 25 years, and every song will suffer from that comparison. It’s hard to fault Kelly for returning to that well, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had enough of the Kelly Clarkson empowerment anthem for a while. “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” is a perfectly competent, catchy track that I have absolutely no need to ever hear again.
“Part of Me” – Katy Perry: 3/3 (1 week)
According to Wikipedia, Katy Perry’s Dr. Luke/Max Martin-produced kiss-off “Part of Me” was written sometime in 2010, presumably about her ex-boyfriend Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes (yep, that clown). It was officially released in February 2012, hot on the heels of Perry’s high-profile divorce from crazy person/comedian Russell Brand. So, the song’s lyrics, though they try to be personal and revealing, are vague enough to apply to two totally different (I assume) relationships. Everything about this song screams, “divorce cash-in.” The chorus is not memorable, especially when compared to her 2010 and 2011 smashes, and the instrumental track is typical Katy Perry, with guitars on the verses, synth on the chorus and huge 4/4 drums. “Part of Me” is the most transient and forgettable of 2012’s number ones, so forgettable, in fact, that she did not even perform “Part of Me” in the concert film bearing its name.
“We Are Young” – fun. featuring Janelle Monae: 3/17-4/21 (6 Weeks)
“We Are Young” is a mixed bag. It’s a song that feels like it could have been a great song, but it fails for a few reasons. Let’s talk about the good first: That chorus. It’s a great fucking chorus, one of the biggest and catchiest in a year full of big catchy choruses, with Nate Ruess’s voice soaring over Graduation-era Kanye synths and plinking piano. The bridge is pretty good, too, and would be better if Janelle Monae’s part was not buried under layers of harmony. I’ve heard people compare fun. to Queen, their chanted harmonies always reminded me more of the Lion King soundtrack, which is good, cause I like The Lion King more than I like Queen.
Now the bad: The first verses is dreadful. The lyrics are so self-important and read like entry-level poetry (“Getting higher than the Empire State”), and the melody uninspired. Worst of all, it does not fit at all with the chorus. More talented people than fun. have created great songs by mashing up two half-written songs, but here it feels like the chorus teleported in from some other, more interesting song.
Overall, the very good chorus and bridge comprise most of the song, but the terrible first verse and the awkward transition between verse and chorus (not to mention the sheer grammatical difficulty of writing about fun. on Microsoft Word) prevent me from giving “We Are Young” anything higher than a 6.
“Somebody That I Used to Know” – Gotye ft. Kimbra; 4/28-6/16 (8 Weeks)
When you think about it, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is probably the most left-field of 2012’s left-field hits. It rose to the top of the charts based almost entirely on word of mouth, without the aid of Bieber plugs, Chevy commercials or Internet meme machines. Just a great song with a great video reaching number one the old fashioned way. “Somebody That I Used to Know” is an effective break-up ballad, remorseful without being self-flagellating or vindictive. Aided only by acoustic guitar, xylophone and some nifty (read: not overpowering or melodramatic) synths, Gotye quietly and sadly confesses the ways that he and his ex were wrong for each other during the verse, resolving to put the past behind him. The chorus finds Gotye in with an anguished Sting-inspired yelp, lashing out at the girl for shutting him out of her life. The key to the song is Kimbra’s bridge, which turns the song on its head, revealing Gotye’s character to be, for lack of a better phrase, a total douche. “Somebody That I Used to Know” is based on real human emotions, and not the type of oversized pop song emotions found in “Stronger,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” or even “We Are Young,” and sure, it was overplayed, but I’m ecstatic that a song like this can find such traction on the radio and on the pop charts.
“Call Me Maybe” – Carly Rae Jepsen; 6/23-8/18 (9 Weeks)
When I was in Elementary School, I had a crush on a girl named Caroline (not her real name). I didn’t know what to do with myself. I liked a girl? Girls, to any grade school boy, are icky! So, I convinced myself that I didn’t like Caroline, but that I hated Caroline. I would taunt her mercilessly, make fun of her to my friends and loudly proclaim how much I hated her. The obvious truth was that I was lying to myself to avoid embarrassment about how I really felt.
I had a similar relationship to “Call Me Maybe,” albeit on a slightly more unconscious level. I first heard “Call Me Maybe” in early February 2012. My kneejerk reaction was to hate the fuck out of this song, mostly because my first exposure to the song came from the mouths of drunken sorority girls, before I ever heard the phrase Carly Rae Jepsen and I heard that it was vaguely related to Bieber. Drunken sorority girls are the reason why we have Spice Girls reunions, “Party in the USA,” and Ke$ha (who got a little better, but still). They do not have a very good track record (girls are icky, right?). When I finally heard the song at a bar, I began to understand the song in context, and even to appreciate the saccharine strings and the singer’s playful vocal stylings (“AND all the OTHER boys,” word to Howard Kremer, it was a Jepsen Summah). After that, I just could not abide the sheer catchiness of the whole thing. “Call Me Maybe” is one of those songs where just reading the name of the song in an article is enough to lodge the melody into your cerebral cortex for weeks on end. Soon enough, I was singing “BEFORE YOU CAME INTO MY LIFE I MISSED YOU SO BAD!” to myself in the shower. The melody had broken through my fierce resistance and invaded my subconscious. Around St. Patrick’s Day, I realized that “Call Me Maybe” was a fantastic pop song and claiming that I didn’t like it would be akin to claiming, “I don’t like candy, it’s too damn sweet.” Not to mention that the song would be inextricably linked to my senior year of college, and all the good memories therein. So I finally gave in. (Mind you, this all happened back in March, months before “Call Me Maybe” even reached the top of the charts. “Call Me Maybe” had an unnaturally long lifespan, probably because it’s fucking amazing). Before it came into my life, I missed it so bad, and what not.
“Whistle”– Flo Rida; 8/25, 9/15 (2 Weeks)
I’m tempted just to write “It’s a Flo Rida song,” rate it and call it a day. They’re all the same. Flo Rida is a rapper with no discernable personality. Though he’s technically proficient as a rapper, he never says anything memorable and his verses are just there to fill time between the hooks. “Whistle,” is no different. Flo Rida had three monster hits this year, and of the three, “Whistle” has by far the least memorable hook and least interesting production, yet it’s the one that reached number one. “Whistle” is relatively harmless, but if he’s talking about his dick, then dock 2 points from my rating (ick). I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, even though I probably shouldn’t.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift; 9/1-9/8; 9/22 (3 Weeks)
Step One: Take Taylor’s personality and ability to inject her personal life into her songs.
Step Two: Combine Step One with Max Martin’s ability to craft a massive pop hook
Step Three: PROFIT!
It took longer than most people expected, but in 2012, Taylor Swift unequivocally became the biggest pop star in the world. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the Max Martin produced smash engineered to drive her rise to the top, was the lead single from Red, the biggest album of the year, and one of four songs to reach the top ten from that album.
Though I’ve liked Taylor Swift in the past, I have never bought her as the shy girl who guys would dump for somebody hotter. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” finds her ditching that persona and embracing mean-girlhood. In this song she becomes, as Walter White would say, the One Who Dumps (get your goddamn mind out of the gutter, you disgusting person). “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” also finds Taylor abandoning her country roots (sure there are some acoustic guitar arpeggios, but they are more than likely synthesized) and aiming for pure pop. Though “You Belong With Me,” remains the perfect Taylor Swift song in my eyes, but “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is very good, with a likable spoken word bridge (love her inflection on “this is exHAUsting”) and some legitimate burns (the indie rock record that’s way cooler than hers) thrown in for good measure. Suck on it, Jake Gyllenhaal. You are officially the 2012 equivalent to Adele’s deadbeat window washer ex-boyfriend.
“One More Night” – Maroon 5; 9/29-11/24 (9 Weeks)
Way back in the intro (Congrats if you’ve made it this far! I’m almost done.), I alluded to a government-sponsored cabal devoted to preventing “Gangnam Style” from reaching the top of the charts. Now, I have no proof of this, but what else could possibly explain the nine-week reign of this Ace of Base rip by Maroon 1 Plus Four? “Gangnam Style” sat behind “One More Night” at the number two spot for seven straight weeks. “One More Night” was certainly popular, but popular enough to merit a nine-week reign on the top of the charts? I think not! I’m honestly not even the biggest fan of “Gangnam Style,” but there’s no denying that it had a cultural impact equal to, if not greater than, any of the number ones on the list. As for “One More Night”? I’m sure Adam Levine performed it on The Voice or something.
Ok, I realize I haven’t said anything about the song. I haven’t said anything about vanilla ice cream or white bread either. Why? Because those things are BORING! Just like “One More Night,” a slice of blue-eyed Reggae designed to provide background atmosphere for department stores. Say what you will about “Gangnam Style,” but at least it would have been fun to write about.
“Diamonds” – Rihanna; 12/1-12/15 (3 Weeks)
“Diamonds” was co-written by Sia, and you can really tell in the way that Rihanna sings it. The vocal melody would work very well for Sia, but in “Diamonds” it really just highlights the relative weakness of Rihanna’s voice, as she awkwardly wobbles between high and low notes. I enjoy plenty of Rihanna songs, but the best of them do not rely on her ability to deliver a brilliant vocal performance, but on her ability to sell a hook. There’s clearly a strong hook on “Diamonds,” but it is far too repetitive for my taste and her melodramatic vocals overload the already considerable bombast of the Stargate produced track. The chord progression was promising, but this track needed a stronger singer than Rihanna to do justice to the production and bring the melody to life.
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars; 12/22-present (5 Weeks…SO FAR!)
We all know that Sting is having a moment right now (see: Gotye), but I think it would be unfair to call out Bruno Mars for trend-hopping on this one. “Locked Out of Heaven” was probably written before anyone at Bruno Mars’ label knew that “Somebody That I Used to Know” was going to be a smash, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the success of that record directly led to the release of this one. That’s just some smart A&R work. Gotye’s track resembles the quiet bombast of Sting’s solo career, but “Locked Out of Heaven” is a direct descendent of early Police smashes like “Roxanne,” “So Lonely” and “Message in a Bottle.” I love all three of those songs, and I commend Bruno Mars for bringing back the spirit of those great records, but he almost ruins that classic sound by bringing some trademark-Mars squickiness to the proceedings (Can we please have a moratorium on people singing “your sex”? Is there any creepier phrase than that? I mean, besides Flo Rida telling everybody to blow on his dick whistle?). Remember, this is the guy behind two of the absolute worst songs of 2011 (his own “The Lazy Song,” and Bad-Meets-Evil’s execrable “Lighters). Still, “Locked Out of Heaven” is a solid pop song, with a great “yeah yeah yeah” hook, and the pleasure I get from hearing a reasonable facsimile of the best Police songs on Z100 counteracts some of that creep factor (not to mention that plenty of Police songs have lyrics that are just as creepy).
In Summation: 2012 was a decent-to-good year for number one singles. Any year featuring “Call Me Maybe” can’t be too bad. As good a year 2012 was for pop music and music in general, it felt like a table-setting year. The 2010s are in the process of developing a unique aesthetic for itself, and 2012 was a clear step away from the late 2000s style. I, for one, welcome our new era in pop music, especially if that new era features much less LMFAO. See you next year.