As the Year of Our Lord 2012, and indeed mankind as a whole, barrels toward its inevitable conclusion at breakneck speed, most of our nation's top music critics have been busy compiling their yearly "best-of" song lists. Many of these compendiums are masterfully comprehensive, sweeping across genres and covering everything from the work of a Minnesota-based DJ that no one outside the Pitchfork offices has ever heard of, to A$AP Rocky b-sides, to the hit singles of America's most popular little sister, Taylor Swift. And these lists are, for the most part, incredible, and I highly recommend that you take a look at them. (Here's a great one, and here's another and another.) I've discovered some excellent new music recently thanks to these countdowns.
However, as your resident Dean of Pop Music Studies, I felt it was my civic and cultural duty to compile a list of the 10 best top-40 songs of 2012, and also three that I sincerely hope to never be tortured by again, starting in 2013. Indeed, this year was rife with some great and relatively diverse popular music, and it's high time we give some artistic cred not just to the capital-A Artistes who care not for the embrace of the masses but also to the hit makers who have, let's face it, probably shaped the future of wedding receptions for decades to come. The rules are that the song must have been released as an official single and must also have reached its peak in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 between Jan. 1, 2012 and today. Let's dive in, shall we?
The best (in no particular order):
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift: Max Martin + Shellback + T Swizz = pop glory of the highest order. This song works so beautifully because it has everything: the same old lovestruck-idiot Taylor Swift, but also a brand-new, sassy-bitch Taylor Swift. It is high-fructose girl pop from our prime high-fructose-girl-pop manufacturer, Mr. Martin, but it also manages to stay distinctly a Swift tune. It's also probably the most undeniably great single in Taylor Swift's pretty-undeniably-great-single-filled discography. Confession Corner: I have debated emailing a YouTube link of this song to so many of my ex-lovers and friends, and the fact that I've deemed it too cruel only speaks to how succinctly it encapsulates that joyful moment when you finally tell someone to go f*ck themselves. I don't like to gloat.
Key moment: The song contains a number of pretty great spoken-word interludes, but I think my personal favorite moment is the "what?!" that follows the lyric "we hadn't seen each other in a month when you said you needed space." I think we all know all about that "what?!"
"Mercy" by Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Pusha T: The definitive hip-hop smash of 2012 is also one of the best songs of the year, period. Everyone turns in highly entertaining verses, but the trophy goes to 2 Chainz, who rhymes "campaign" with "mayonnaise" and makes it sound like the gangster-est shit of all time. Then there's the incredibly seductive, indecipherable Super Beagle sample that is exceptionally fun to attempt to sing even though, let's face it, not a single one of us has the slightest idea what the f*ck is being said.
Key moment: the aforementioned 2 Chainz couplet, but also Yeezy letting us know that his bitch makes our bitch look like Precious. Hilarious and true.
"Some Nights" by Fun.: The Fun. song that is just infinitely better and less irritatingly earnest than "We Are Young." The marching drums just sound giant and epic and fantastic in every way, and the chorus is something I can truly imagine Freddie Mercury would have loved to have written.
Key moment: "You wouldn't believe the most amazing things that can come from some terrible lies." Amen.
"Die Young" by Ke$ha: Say what you will about K-money, but she knows her way around a pop hook (I know this because I have ears). At first I was super annoyed that she was still doing her rap-singy thing that worked so brilliantly on "Tik Tok" and went stale pretty much right after that, but only because I find the chorus so irrefutable. Then I realized, "Hey! That's Ke$ha, and the rappy thing keeps her from being Katy Perry or Jessie J, and that is definitively a good thing." Also, she's not half bad at it. (Check out "C'mon" on her new album, where she somehow manages to rhyme "cold Budweiser" and "saber-toothed tiger" with complete confidence. Dope shit.)
Key moment: "I hear your hearrrt beat to the beat of the drums," boom, boom. Those two massive drum hits: killer.
"Thinkin Bout You" by Frank Ocean: One of the most heartfelt, honest songs about first love to ever be laid on record. The way that Frank is able to lay bare the complex emotions inherent in love: yearning, regret, hope, desperation, etc., is nothing short of astounding. The fact that it is an R&B song sung by a man about another man only adds to its importance and grandeur.
Key moment: When Frank switches to his falsetto on the chorus, my heart breaks every single time.
"Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen: I've already written at length about the flawless splendor of this song, so I won't bore you with repetition. I know, you know, your boyfriend and your grandma and I bet even Justin Vernon knows: This shit is musical crack, and we all loved it like a love song while the high lasted.
Key moment: It's gotta be the call-and-response way the staccato strings interlace with the lyrics of the chorus, forming a perfectly knit sweater of pop euphoria. (Yeah, I just said that. Get over it. I'm tired.)
"Swimming Pools (Drank)" by Kendrick Lamar: I am so pleased to be able to include this song on this list. This is just such an outlandishly brilliant song from such an ingenious album, and the fact that it's been embraced on the level that it has illustrates how much more diverse U.S. popular music has been in 2012 compared with preceding years. I think my favorite part about the song's popularity is that it's everyone's current favorite wasted-at-3-a.m.-sing-along jam, but it's largely a cautionary tale about the dangers of alcoholism. Oh, the irony!
Key moment: The whole damn thing.
"Lights" by Ellie Goulding: I know this song technically came out roughly 50 years ago, but it didn't hit in the U.S. until this summer, so it makes the cut. I absolutely love this song, but I actually have spent a lot of time wondering why this became such a massive hit and yet Robyn's "Dancing on My Own," a similar yet superior song that is in many ways far more accessible, couldn't crack it over here. Regardless, this is a sophisticated pop song by a woman who I'm pretty sure is actually Tinkerbell's brooding, emo sister, and I'm glad everyone connected to it.
Key moment: The way the music completely drops out before the last chorus hits is a great moment of reflection and suspense.
"Diamonds" by Rihanna: This was such a nice left turn for Ri-Ri, and I thought it was extraordinarily shrewd of her to avoid trying to top "We Found Love" with another uptempo banger. The song is truly elegant, features one of her rawest, most emotionally connected vocal performances to date and has a great lyrical assist from 2012 MVP Sia.
Key moment: It's gotta be the lady herself rolling diamonds into a blunt on the album artwork for a song that's supposed to be her move toward sophistication. Hilarious! Second place has to go to the weird yet completely addictive accent she adopts for the the phrase "shine bright like a diamond."
"Climax" by Usher: After the "OMG" era (for the record, one of my least favorite top-40 jams of all time), it was nice to see Usher try something completely outside both his comfort zone and of the general sound of top-40 radio. This is such a weird, lurching love song that is, rather shockingly, not about an orgasm but rather about the impending end of a stagnant love affair. Equal credit goes to Diplo, who created one of the most massive, atmospheric, mysterious and haunting beats of his illustrious career.
Key moment: The breathy way Usher works his away around the lyrics "can't take it back, it's too late, we've reached the climax, climax."
Honorable mentions: "Adorn" by Miguel, "Titanium" by David Guetta featuring Sia, "What Makes You Beautiful" by One Direction, "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye featuring Kimbra, "Bandz a Make Her Dance" by Juicy J, "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees, "Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars, "Clique" by Kanye West, Jay-Z and Big Sean, "Where Have You Been" by Rihanna, "Glad You Came" by The Wanted, "Strarships" by Nicki Minaj, "Wide Awake" by Katy Perry, "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, "Skyfall" by Adele, "Your Body" by Christina Aguilera and "I Will Wait" by Mumford & Sons.
"Gangnam Style" by Psy: What can even be said? This is just "Party Rock Anthem" but worse and in Korean. The video was fun, though. Once.
"I Cry" by Flo Rida: I really could have included almost any Flo-Rida song on this, because I think he is one of the worst artists working in music today. It's not that Flo-Rida is "bad" at what he does per se. It's more that he insists on imposing his aggressive mediocrity on some of my favorite songs, in this case Bingo Player's vastly superior "Cry (Just a Little)," and that is unforgivable.
"Scream" by Usher: Every amazing thing about "Climax" was almost completely negated by "Scream." Generic, boring, radio shlock. Tsk tsk on this one, Ush.