When I compiled my favorite singles of 2000-2009
, I did so first in breakdowns of individual genres, including pop
. But I'd never done that for an individual year before, and had found the approach interesting and rewarding enough that I recently started to get the itch to try it. And then, a few weeks ago, Billboard unveiled its new rules for several of its charts, which I wrote quite a bit about
, and which basically boil down to most every genre chart being determined largely by the melting pot of iTunes sales, rather than radio formats. And right now is, I think, and interesting time to think about how radio formats reflect different audiences' tastes in ways that are more nuanced than any supposedly objective division of music into genres. So I'm dividing my year-end singles into 5 lists by radio format, starting with this list of Top 40 and Adult Contemporary hits (the next 4 lists: R&B, rock/alternative, rap and country). So some of the songs here are 'pop' in every definition, some could be considered rap or R&B or rock but were played far more on pop radio than any other format (conversely, there are songs on the other lists that were big pop radio hits, but were also hits on their 'home' genre's format). I also made a Spotify playlist
of these tracks:
1. One Direction - "What Makes You Beautiful"
#3 Pop Songs, #4 Hot 100
The theme song of the 2012 boy band revival was a big, fluffy shoutalong power pop song that sounded nothing like the sleek, harmony-driven sound that drove the last big wave of boy bands over a decade ago. But what I really loved about it was those triplet accents that fall over the blocky beats every step of the way. Shame that both of the group's other U.S. top 40 hits sound like underwhelming carbon copies of the formula. One Direction were one of five U.K. acts to notch a U.S. top ten hit for the first time in 2012 (along with The Wanted, Jessie J, Ellie Goulding and Alex Clare), making for the biggest surge of Brits in American pop since the '80s.
2. Cher Lloyd - "Want U Back"
#9 Pop Songs, #12 Hot 100
Another Brit who just missed the top ten: the members of One Direction were discovered via the British version of "The X-Factor," as was Cher Lloyd, which given the dearth of suggests that for some reason talent show culture is more effective at creating stars in the UK than it's been in American for ages, to the point that their runner-ups are on the radio here more than our champs. Cher Lloyd's origin story had me dreading some kind of British version of Karmin or Ke$ha, and at first the Avril Lavigne 'attitude' of that goofy little grunt at the end of every 4th bar was more annoying than endearing. But man, what a hook.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Call Me Maybe"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
This is the kind of word-beating megahit that makes me look like some kind of contrarian just by putting it at #3 or anything but #1. Yes, it's very good, and yes the way it kind of sprang forth from completely outside the U.S. music industry to completely rule was pretty unusual and fun to watch, but my enjoyment of it is kind of dispassionate and impersonal; you'd be hard pressed to find someone who writes about pop music as much as I do who had less to say about "Call Me Maybe" in 2012. One thing I will say: it's all about the verses, not the chorus, for me.
4. Flo Rida f/ Sia - "Wild Ones"
#2 Pop Songs, #5 Hot 100
Australian singer Sia Furler, who'd previously had a cult profile in the US, with no Hot 100 hits, and was familiar to me only as the lady with the album covers that made her look mentally disabled, kind of exploded out of nowhere as a hitmaker in American this year. She sang the hooks on two top 10 hits and wrote two more, with probably more on the way shortly, while never appearing in the videos or having a really visible role otherwise. But she has a pretty great voice and, with respect to the late Etta James, may have given Flo Rida the best hook of a career that's been kept afloat for years by catchy hooks sung by other people.
5. Ne-Yo - "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)"
#6 Pop Songs, #6 Hot 100
One of Sia's aforementioned big hits of the year as a writer seemed kind of designed to piss off longtime Ne-Yo fans -- not only did he not write it, but the title aped the first big hit he wrote for another artist, and continued the turn towards uptempo dance pop he'd been headed in in recent years. But the fact is, Ne-Yo grew up on MJ, and his career and sensibilities have mirrored Lionel Richie and Babyface more than any post-hip-hop R&B stars of the '90s and '00s, so this turn frankly suits him far more than any of his contemporaries. And this song, while not up there with his best (certainly not "Closer," his first and finest dance track), is still pretty damn good.
6. Bruno Mars - "Locked Out Of Heaven"
#9 Pop Songs, #4 Hot 100
Bruno Mars was so incredibly ubiquitous for the first year or two after his breakthrough that it was kind of nice that he laid low for most of 2012. I think I especially came to appreciate him more because his last hit before that downtime, "It Will Rain," was pretty great, and so is his comeback single, "Locked Out Of Heaven." I'm sure he's got something as annoying as "The Lazy Song" just around the corner to annoy me again, though.
7. Demi Lovato - "Give Your Heart A Break"
#1 Pop Songs, #16 Hot 100
It was probably a fortunate twist of fate for Demi Lovato that she had the single that most resembled "Call Me Maybe" making the rounds in its wake. In any event, it was a good single choice for Lovato after she made two of my favorite pop albums of the last few years, had some personal crises, and came back with the weepy, weak "Skyscraper" and an album full of ill-fitting Timbaland tracks. "Give Your Heart A Break" was the right song at the right time, but it was also a nice little bit of old-fashioned pop craftsmanship from Billy Steinberg, the old pro who's been writing timeless shit like "Like A Virgin" and 'True Colors" for decades.
8. Kelly Clarkson - "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Greg Kurstin produced Sia's last album, and his ascendance as a pop hitmaker since then has been almost as swift and unlikely as hers. After logging years as a session keyboardist and as one half of first the one hit wonder alt-rock duo Geggy Tah and then one half of the cult indie pop duo The Bird And The Bee, Kurstin began to work his way up the major label ranks the last few years producing some UK hits and album tracks for American pop stars. And then, he produced three tracks on Kelly Clarkson's Stronger
, and the title track exploded as a multi-platinum monster, and put him on the A-list.
9. Pink - "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)"
#1 Pop Songs, #5 Hot 100
It must be awkward for Pink and Kelly Clarkson, who seemed like pretty different artists a decade ago but have slowly come to occupy almost the exact same lane, constantly being pitched the same songs from the same producers (Pink turned down "Since U Been Gone," which I would say was a big mistake but I think her catalog is pretty damn strong without it). And when Kelly moved from Max Martin to Greg Kurstin, Pink followed suit, although there are still some Martin productions on The Truth About Love
, they just kinda suck compared to the Kurstin tracks. "Blow Me" doesn't quite knock it out of the park -- the "shit day" section just kinda doesn't work -- but it's still a solid entry from an incredibly consistent artist.
10. PSY - "Gangnam Style"
#10 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
There are still people arguing that "Gangnam Style" is just a YouTube meme, and all people care about is the funny video and the horsey dance and don't actually like the song. But clearly, after millions of mp3s sold and a bazillion radio spins, the song has a life of its own as an audio experience (and those people can't all be doing the horsey dance in their cars and offices every time it comes on the radio, as fun as it is to imagine that). And I get it, it's a catchy fucking song.
11. Norah Jones - "Happy Pills"
#13 Adult Contemporary
The thing about Norah Jones becoming a superstar off of soft sweet vocal jazz ballads is that you always knew she was young enough that she probably had other musical interests, and it was inevitable that she'd go off and do something different. But it was surprising that doing something vaguely modern with drum machine beats by Danger Mouse could actually mesh well with her vocal style.
12. Rihanna - "You Da One"
#19 Pop Songs, #14 Hot 100
The majority of singles Rihanna has ever released have been top 10 Pop Songs hits, and most of those that weren't were R&B radio hits. So "You Da One" joins the short list of Rih singles that wasn't a top 10 hit in any format, along with "Shut Up And Drive," "Rehab," "Russian Roulette" and "California King Bed." I totally understood why those songs missed the mark, but "You Da One," a sweet electro reggae Dr. Luke confection, really deserved better, and seemed to kind of get lost in the shuffle of Talk That Talk
's crowded multi-format singles campaign. It also bears mentioning that 2011 and 2012 are probably the first years since 2003 that Dr. Luke didn't produce at least one of my 10 favorite pop songs of the year, if not several.
13. Coldplay f/ Rihanna - "Princess of China"
#24 Pop Songs, #20 Hot 100
Another rare Rihanna miss, I think this was one of those collaborations that just alienated both artists' fanbases instead of uniting them. But honestly, I thought it was pretty awesome. Rihanna and Eno on the same track, c'mon, that doesn't happen every day.
14. Drake f/ Rihanna - "Take Care"
#8 Pop Songs, #7 Hot 100
had several massive urban radio hits that all annoyed the shit out of me over the past two years, but the album's one single that was bigger on pop radio was more subdued and tolerable. It is kinda sad how Drake continues to chase Kanye's tail, though, this is such a "Lost In The World" rip right down to the Gil Scott-Heron sample.
15. Ellie Goulding - "Anything Could Happen"
#29 Pop Songs, #57 Hot 100
It really bums me out that "Lights" was a gigantic U.S. breakthrough for Goulding but the lead single from the album that came out immediately afterwards, "Anything Could Happen," was basically a blip. This song is so fucking good! And I still have no idea what people see in "Lights"!
16. Adele - "Set Fire To The Rain"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
The last of 21
's trio of chart-toppers will never attain the iconic status of "Rolling In The Deep" and "Someone Like You," but it's still a pretty majestic track that makes great use of her voice. Incidentally, the other day 21
became the first album released since Usher's Confessions
to cross the 10 million sold mark in the U.S.
17. Justin Bieber f/ Big Sean - "As Long As You Love Me"
#3 Pop Songs, #6 Hot 100
So far Justin Bieber's basically famous for being famous, and his music is as secondary as it's ever been for any teen idol (and it isn't for all for them by a long shot). So there's a good chance the only really immortal song he'll go down in history with any ties to is "Call Me Maybe," but this song felt like he was at least trying for once. Big Sean was really the wrong choice for guest MC, if it needed one at all, though.
18. Matchbox Twenty - "She's So Mean"
#31 Pop Songs, #6 Adult Pop Songs, #40 Hot 100
Matchbox Twenty was part of the mid/late '90s gold rush of acts that entered the rock charts at a time when "alternative" radio was at its wimpiest, then quickly crossed over to pop and adult contemporary formats, where they remained for most of their careers. So it's been interesting to hear them actually kind of rock out and have fun on later singles like this and "How Far We've Come" after people stopped paying attention.
19. Maroon 5 - "One More Night"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Maroon 5 is another band that was vaguely 'alternative' once upon a time, but in becoming pop stars managed to still be kind of a cool vaguely R&B-ish band, at least until they resurrected their flagging career by basically becoming a dance pop star vehicle for Adam Levine. I don't hate their new style as much as I feel like I probably should -- "Moves Like Jagger" wormed its way into my good graces, and even "Payphone" had some good qualities wrapped up in some very bad ones. But even the best of their recent hits, "One More Night," feels far more successful than it deserves, tying "Call Me Maybe" for the longest-running #1 of the year.
20. Katy Perry - "Part Of Me"
#3 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
This is solid in the middle of Perry's endless run of Teenage Dream singles -- not as good as the title track or "California Gurls," but at least way better than "E.T." or "Firework." As a #1, it seemed short-lived, and its charms wore off fast, but in a year that was light on hard-charging Dr. Luke hits it at least sounded pretty good the first couple times.
The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2012:
1. Rihanna - "Diamonds"
2. Taylor Swift - "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"
3. Nicki Minaj - "Starships"
4. Karmin - "Brokenhearted"
5. Jessie J - "Domino"
6. Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen - "Good Time"
7. Madonna f/ Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. - "Give Me All Your Luvin'"
8. Rihanna - "Where Have You Been"
9. Justin Bieber - "Boyfriend"
10. The Wanted - "Glad You Came"