The 20 Best Rock/Alternative Radio Hits of 2012

For at least a decade, mainstream rock has had what could be most politely termed a relevance problem -- not just dwindling album sales and radio audiences, but actual rock fans shunning most mainstream stuff for something more niche, whether indie or heavy or whatever. I can't argue with that, although I've maintained more curiosity for what's being played on these stations than most music critics, to the point that it's kind of becoming a beat I'm known for covering. In 2011, Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks" was a big deal because it was the only song that year to be both a top 10 hit on both the Alternative chart and the Hot 100, and no songs had done that in 2010. In 2012, six songs have accomplished that (the largest number since 2006), and the trend seems to be accelerating. It doesn't seem right to say "rock is back," since barely any of those songs prominently feature electric guitar. But in 2012, alt-rock radio and pop radio intersected like they hadn't in quite a while, while the post-grunge that people had been complaining about for years seemed to be finally on the wane. And overall it was just a pretty good year for the format, with a minimum of '90s dinosaurs lumbering around. There's also a Spotify playlist of these songs:

1. Gotye f/ Kimbra - "Somebody That I Used To Know"
#1 Alternative Songs, #1 Rock Songs, #1 Hot 100
"Somebody That I Used To Know" emerging as one of the biggest songs of the year in any genre parallel with fun.'s "We Are Young" helped me appreciate it as easily the more palatable of the two in that particular horse race. But after a while I really came to appreciate the stillness and intimacy of "Somebody," which is uncommon and surprising enough for a radio hit in general, but especially for one of the biggest selling songs in iTunes history. And its roots as an alt-rock hit were appreciated when pop stations started slapping an ill-fitting drum machine track on the song to make it mix in with their playlists, while rock stations stuck with the original version.

2. The Gaslight Anthem - "45"
#11 Alternative Songs, #22 Rock Songs
Ever since I got into The Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound a few years ago and its title track was a minor radio hit, I've been rooting for these guys to eventually move to a major label and become the best band on alt-rock radio, and that finally happened this year, with the Brendan O'Brien-produced Handwritten. The lead single could've been bigger, but it really was a pretty perfect song to signal that crossover, and I'm hoping they just keep blowing up from here.

3. Muse - "Madness"
#1 Alternative Songs, #2 Rock Songs, #60 Hot 100
Muse are a completely ridiculous band, taking stadium Radiohead in the opposite direction from Coldplay but just as calculating and creatively bankrupt. And, like Coldplay, a pretty reliable singles band. This song got a lot of knocks for being a silly dubstep bandwagon exercise, which it is, but the song itself really feels more like a Zooropa-era brooding U2 groove to me, which sounds pretty great.

4. Imagine Dragons - "It's Time"
#4 Alternative Songs, #4 Rock Songs, #23 Hot 100
An incredibly cheeseball song readymade for movie trailers, but that's what I like about it, because I'm a sap. And it just has a good intro that grabs you right off the bat and has a good strong singalong vocal. Shame about the Alex Da Kid-produced follow-up.

5. Dead Sara - "Weatherman"
#26 Mainstream Rock Songs, #31 Rock Songs
One of my fellow music critic apologists for radio rock, Maura Johnston, discovered this song the same week, maybe even the same day as me, the exact same way -- flipping through Billboard's Spotify playlist of charting rock songs. At that point, it was just entering the charts, and it never climbed very high, but it remains one of the real "holy shit" moments I experienced as a music lover this year. Dead Sara's whole album is great and varied, but "Weatherman"'s throat-shredding molten lava intro remains a singular, incredible moment.

6. The Foo Fighters - "Bridge Burning"
#14 Mainstream Rock Songs, #22 Rock Songs
"Bridge Burning" was one of my favorite rock songs of 2011, and it was frustrating to watch milder songs from its parent album get most of the radio spins. And once it was finally released as the 4th single from Wasting Light, the momentum was all gone and it became the least successful Foo Fighters single in something like a decade. But hey, it sounded pretty great on the radio the few times I did hear it.

7. Linkin Park - "Burn It Down"
#1 Alternative Songs, #1 Rock Songs, #30 Hot 100
A year ago, M83's was topping a lot of critics' year-end lists, while also starting to cross over to mainstream radio, and it spent most of 2012 as a ubiquitous alt-rock radio sleeper hit. The song always felt like kind of a bland Depeche pastiche with a nearly nonexistent vocal, though, and a few months later I was pleased when Linkin Park, rock radio's foremost secret Depeche Mode disciples, came up with a hit with a similar vibe that had that hooky rap rock flava I prefer to wimpy distant indie vocals.

8. Foxy Shazam - "I Like It"
#5 Mainstream Rock Songs, #8 Rock Songs
I haven't actively pursued conversations about whether this song, which features a white Freddie Mercury soundalike with a goofy retro mustache singing "that's the biggest black ass I've ever seen," is racist, because it's a really catch song and I don't want to feel even guiltier about enjoying it than I already do.

9. Florence + The Machine - "Shake It Out"
#11 Alternative Songs, #9 Rock Songs, #72 Hot 100
I remained staunchly opposed to Florence + The Stupid Name throughout all the debut album hype because I thought "Dog Days Are Over" was a bunch of toss or a bag of wank or whatever they say over there in her country. But yo, this song is straight, I fucks with this song real heavy.

10. Grouplove - "Tongue Tied"
#1 Alternative Songs, #3 Rock Songs, #42 Hot 100
This song irritated me greatly as an iTunes ad jingle, but once it became a radio hit it won me over pretty quickly, the whole thing has a pretty addictive energy. Too bad the follow-up single is total garbage.

11. Three Days Grace - "Chalk Outline"
#15 Alternative Songs, #5 Rock Airplay
Three Days Grace were, for several years, my least favorite band on hard rock radio, but now that they've made a couple singles in a row I've enjoyed, I have to pass along that distinction to Rise Against. Last year's "Lost In You" was a surprisingly solid downtempo song, and this one goes in the opposite direction with a heavy lurching groove and guitar and bass that are so heavily distorted they almost sound like big clanging synth chords.

12. Chevelle - "Hats Off To The Bull"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #16 Alternative Songs, #6 Rock Songs
Chevelle have been one of my favorite bands on hard rock radio for several years, but I gotta admit I lost some love for them when I saw them live earlier this year and dude was practically lip syncing to a pre-recorded vocal track. This song bangs, though.

13. AWOLNATION - "Kill Your Heroes"
#7 Alternative Songs, #14 Rock Airplay
AWOLNATION's debut single, the strangely haunting "Sail," was one of my favorite singles of 2011, maybe even my favorite rock single of the decade so far, and they're now approaching two years of consistent touring and radio airplay off of one album -- "Sail" is still in the top 20 most streamed tracks on Spotify. None of their other songs are remotely as good, but this, the third single has grown on me, even though as a Sonic Youth fan I feel like I should be offended by how closely the title resembles "Kill Yr Idols."

14. Neon Trees - "Everybody Talks"
#7 Alternative Songs, #11 Rock Songs, #6 Hot 100
Two years ago, Neon Trees scored the closest thing there was to an alt-rock crossover hit in that dark pre-Foster The People/fun./Gotye era of 2010, and this year they came back and did it even bigger with another stupid irresistible song. These guys really need to figure out how to get more than one hit off an album, though.

15. Walk The Moon - "Anna Sun"
#10 Alternative Songs, #20 Rock Songs
Like Neon Trees, Walk The Moon had me thinking for a while that sounding like The Killers (essentially, a glitzier more shamelessly pop post-Strokes bullshit kid of thing) was the best way to break through to alt-rock radio. Somehow this song lost its luster quickly and never got as big as I thought it was going to be initially, though.

16. The Killers - "Runaways"
#3 Alternative Songs, #13 Rock Songs, #78 Hot 100
And the actual Killers made a mild comeback this year, after people finally admitted that Sam's Town was not an embarrassing sophomore slump and in fact pretty much their crowning achievement, but also realized that The Killers' crowning achievement is no big deal. This one did a pretty good job of hitting some of those "When You Were Young" buttons, though.

17. Metric - "Youth Without Youth"
#15 Alternative Songs, #28 Rock Songs
Metric have now had four moderate American hits, landing somewhere in the teens of the Alternative chart, over the past few years, and I've finally started paying attention to them enough to realize that, and that they're pretty big in Canada and are apparently the mainstream outlet of one of the Broken Social Scene people. This song trades on the kind of glammy stomp that was big on pop radio a few years ago, but still it's pretty good -- pretty much is the comeback single Garbage should've had this year.

18. Halestorm - "Love Bites (So Do I)"
#2 Mainstream Rock Songs, #13 Rock Songs
Halestorm would be kind of a campy double entendre-loving foxy rock chick guilty pleasure for me even if this wasn't the year that Dead Sara did something similar with tons more balls and dignity. But still, they make pretty good singles, and this is right behind "I Get Off" as their second best. As it happens, today I was interviewing Steve Whiteman from Kix and he mentioned that he gives vocal lessons and Lizzy Hale is one of his former students, so she's really got the glam metal pedigree.

19. The Lumineers - "Ho Hey"
#1 Alternative Songs, #1 Rock Airplay, #7 Hot 100
A few months ago, my brother-in-law offered me an extra ticket to go see these guys, right before their song started to blow up big time, and it was fun to see a band right on the verge of getting big, and I was glad I hadn't heard them to pre-judge them based on all the old-timey Mumford & Songs shit that I hate. My wife loves their whole album, and it's not totally my cup of tea, but I respect this as a pretty damn durable hit song.

20. Alex Clare - "Too Close"
#1 Alternative Songs, #2 Rock Airplay, #7 Hot 100
Alex Clare was a weird little nexus of a lot of different trends this year, being a British guy with a 'soulful' voice and a beard and an old man hat but also having a kind of contemporary-sounding single with a bunch of cheesy dubstep drops that worked better in the context of the song than they had any right to. The weird thing is when you put all that together it gives me kind of an INXS vibe.

Bonus bile:
The 10 Worst Rock/Alternative Radio Hits of 2012
1. fun. f/ Janelle Monae - "We Are Young"
2. Volbeat - "Still Counting"
3. The Black Keys - "Gold On The Ceiling"
4. Shinedown - "Bully"
5. Soundgarden - "Live To Rise"
6. fun. - "Some Nights"
7. Youngblood Hawke - "We Come Running"
8. Of Monsters And Men - "Little Talks"
9. Rise Against - "Wait For Me"
10. Grouplove - "Itchin' On A Photograph"
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I agree with all of this for certain, except for the Of Monsters and Men brush off. C'mon, they're one of the best bands this year; they're different, catchy, raw and absolutely AMAZING live, believe me.
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