To close out our debut year and start off 2013 (I know it's March), I asked each panelist to select his or her favorite picks from panels past as well as some favorites we didn't mention. Here's what we came up with. Enjoy!
* * * * The Popologist Panel * * * *
- The Pop Messiah - Dean Boudreau is our lone Canadian panelist, which means he's pretty much like us but can't get Spotify and you can't send him iTunes gifts. That doesn't stop him, and his witty but wise blog, from getting it right when it comes to pop music (if not Ke$ha, who is in fact the pop Messiah). (@thepopmessiah)
- SmartPopScott - Scott Interrante is a music student who grew so tired of the blogging world that he decided to join it. Wanting to counter the satanically emblemed music site's preference for fashion and scene over musical content, he focuses his writing on the music and theory of Pop. His writing can be found at Dear Song In My Head (@SmartPopScott)
- Vertigo Shtick - The spark that grew into Vertigo Shtick came when one overly critical-thinking arts writer named David Kenniston noticed that there were almost no pop songs on Pitchfork's Best of the 2000s list, nor most other outlets either; it now exists to question, decipher, explicate and dispense the critical and artistic elements of mainstream pop, down to the nitty gritty details. (@vertigo_shtick)
- Popledge - Sarah runs one of the hardest-working respectable pop music news blogs around; follow her on Twitter and you can get top-notch critical thought in betwixt posts like "One Direction – full webcam video from their Hasbro chat, plus Niall Horan eats head!" (v.g.) (@popledge)
* * * * Albums * * * *
Panel PicksPop Messiah
Marina and the Diamonds - Electra Heart (August)
I've written far too much on Electra Heart to get into it again here, but Marina went from indie darling to bonafide pop star with this character piece/concept album about dysfunctional love. Beautifully produced and performed, this set of songs may be bitter, sarcastic and over-dramatic but there's something about it that sold me. I tend to focus on lyrics/vocals first and foremost, and marina uses her voice in ways that are so unique to her; her lower tones dripping with disdain and sarcasm and her breathtaking falsetto pulling at my heartstrings. I'll be seeing Marina in concert this coming May on the Lonely Hearts Club Tour stop in Toronto. I wonder if I should follow rule #3 from her single "How to be a Heartbreaker" and wear my heart on my cheek...
Adam Lambert - Trespassing (June)
"Trespassing" was easily one of the top 2 albums of the year in my opinion. (I'd have a hard time choosing between this and Marina and the Diamonds' Electra Heart for top spot.) From start to finish, every track is perfect and Lambert's voice has never sounded better. From the dancefloor-ready "Cuckoo" to the funk of "Shady" and further still to the sensuality of "Broken English" and the pain of "Underneath," It has fun and fluff, emotion and social commentary. It's sometimes deep and sometimes not-so-much, exploring many facets of the human experience and many genres of popular music but in a way that still seems cohesive. Brilliantly diverse and terribly under-rated!
Justin Bieber - Believe (July)
2012 brought us a lot of music with extramusical messages. Albums were artistic statements or concept albums that used their musical rhetoric to comment on or reflect popular culture. All of the universally picked ‘Top Albums’ of the year (Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, among others) fell into this category. Other, lesser renowned albums such as Lana Del Rey, Marina and the Diamonds, also dealt with broader sociopolitical commentary. Many of these albums are very good (very great!), but the album that stuck out to me didn’t rely on this kind of hook.
Justin Bieber’s Believe is good for the sake of being good. It does not operate on a larger scale than that, making the fact that it is so consistently great all the more remarkable. The obvious model for an album like Believe is the three classic Michael Jackson albums. These albums show off the singers in a wide range of pop styles, but the focus is on great songwriting and great vocal ability. Although Bieber sings through club-smashes, RnB tracks, acoustic ballads, and retro soul songs, the songs at their core are just great pop songs, as we see in the stripped down Believe Acoustic. Justin is still growing, but he has managed to craft an album that doesn’t need to say anything other than “I’m great.”
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (July)
Fiona Apple may be one of the the geniuses at work right now, as suggested by her subtly daring fourth album. It's an aerobic exercise for the listener, a 16oz steak for an audience used to marinated fast food. As such, it's a filling meal, and because it requires so much chewing and digesting it stays with you long after the Happy Meals have been processed and eliminated. It's also quite addictive, and I found myself compulsively returning to its poetic thoughtfulness, intimate and ingenious percussion-based production (with tour drummer Charley Drayton), and insidiously smooth song structure. The strangeness of the sound – scraping footsteps in the sand, children screaming on a playground, pots and pans – are so foreign yet familiar that the songs seem more complex in form than they actually are. That's how Apple hooks you, and the triumph of the album is the way it goes somewhere totally new but makes it feel like home.
Adam Lambert – Trespassing (June)
I really enjoyed finding out about Adam Lambert and his world in 2012, from a simple tweet asking if I should cover the pop star more on my blog I suddenly found out that ‘Glamberts’ were some of the most dedicated fans out there. It piqued my interest in the upcoming ‘Trespassing’ and I was relieved to find out that his music made up a massive amount of his appeal and it wasn’t all based on how he looked or acted.
Trespassing was/is a great pop album combining a number of different styles combined with Adam’s amazing voice which sometimes pierces through you like a light sabre. You want some funk? You’ve got it! How about a ballad? Yep. What about a disco-synch track? Yes you can have it all, and it’s that merging of all those sounds into a album which still provides synergy throughout by story-telling and impeccable production that always keeps me coming back for more. You can pick and choose tracks dependant on your mood that day or you can listen to the whole thing through and go on a journey with Adam, clichéd I know but with this one I believe it, I believe and respect his input and his passion for this LP. Oh and ‘Naked Love’ – that’s my tune.
Non-Panel PicksPop Messiah
Taylor Swift - Red
While we didn't examine it for Panel, rounding out my Top 3 albums of the year would be Red. It seems that there's a bit of a backlash against Swift in the media right now, which has led to more and more haters voicing their discontent in social media, but despite all the criticisms of her limited live vocals and highly publicized love life, Swift stands out as one of our time's great young songwriters. People reading this may immediately think of 2012 hit "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and dismiss my opinion, but remember that an artist should not be entirely summed up by their hit records. On Red, Swift displays a new maturity and challenges the country genre with influence from alternative, rock, pop and even dub-step (though the latter has certainly been debated). A listen through of the album in contrast to her earlier work sees significant effort into experimentation with both her vocals and her overall sound, but with enough awareness that it still fits into her catalogue nicely. Red is a wonderful album, whether you like her or not.
Jessie Ware - Devotion
Ware’s silky smooth voice leads her songs with power, poise and assuredness, separating her from other neo-80’s indie acts by dropping the apathetic act. The songs on Devotion do not call attention to themselves, but are crafted with sophistication, attention to detail, and with obvious passion and love.
Taylor Swift - Red
Finally making the full transition from country to pop, Taylor’s fourth album shows her triumphing as a songwriter. While many of the songs are immature in theme (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, “Stay Stay Stay”, “22”), she handles them with a new level of maturity and sophistication. Part of this maturation is evident in her recognizing the benefit of working with other songwriters and producers. Hit-making super stars Max Martin and Shellback introduce much more concise melodic structures to Swift’s language and allow her to grow as a vocalist and a songwriter. We also find Swift covering more inherently mature subject matter, such as the very sexual “Treacherous” and the fame-fearing “The Lucky One”. Her lyrics continue to be her strongest suit, crafting more intricate and nuanced narratives, but her increased musical ability begins to steal focus on Red. When “I Almost Do” melodically quotes “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, when her vocals ring out just a bit longer than guest Gary Lightbody’s at the end of “The Last Time”, when she sings the blue note on “All To Well”, we see Swift move towards a musical precision that is greater than anything she has done before.
Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
I liked Nicki Minaj's sophomore album for some of the same reasons I dug Fiona Apple's: it practically oozes with ingenuity. “I guess I went commercial/ Just shot a commercial/ When I flew to the set, though/ I ain't fly commercial,” she raps, when she's not describing a red and white car as “nunu marinara and pasta” or putting herself on Jay-Z's plane with “I'm in the HOV lane.” The performances are wacky and theatrical, from the breathless opener “Roman Holiday” as alter ego Roman Zolansky (no relation to Roman Polanski) and his British mother, to high and mighty winner on the Lil' Kim diss track “Stupid Hoe” to her most inspired (and controversial) role as pointless Rihanna-like pop singer on the second half of the album (hinted at in a hilarious aside on “Come on a Cone”). She's not as good as Rihanna or some of the other bimbos she's jacking in songs like “Starships” and “Automatic” (the best of which are RedOne productions and the worst Dr. Luke), but she has the last laugh as the pop numbers slay radio and the charts and incense hip hop purists. There are some duds – cut out the Chris Brown duet (WHY?!) and “Champion” and everything between “Automatic” and “Stupid Hoe” and you'd have a much better album. The pop half is an interesting experiment, although none of it is half as great as the minimalism of “I Am Your Leader” or the brilliant “Beez in the Trap.” In a weak year, Minaj's album has brought me the most bang for my buck.
Lana Del Rey – Born to Die
I think pop is healthiest when we have a diversity of artists in the charts. Ms Del Rey definitely added another dimension to the charts in 2012, at first an indie/YouTube darling this was the year that she made it platinum. It wasn’t a smooth ride to the top, she had to deal with the downside of fame after a much derided SNL performance but the quality of her singles and videos from Born to Die ultimately saw this LP through.
As with Lambert’s this was an album you could listen to in full without skipping any weaker tracks, it was a story-telling album with songs like ‘National Anthem’ and ‘Blue Jeans’ just providing the extra sparkles on top. As a song-lyrics fan this album also gave me and listeners a lot of lyrics to muse over and get excited about (something chart pop sometimes neglects), ‘take another drag, turn me to ashes’ sings Lana as she explores the dark side of American life on ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ and the hipsters favourite ‘in his favourite sundress, watching me get undressed’ in the famous ‘Video Games’ – it conjures up imagery and connections to the songs above just enjoying the sound of it you are also enjoying the content.
Tying into the hipster-vibe Lana is also a goddess to look at, but unlike Lady Gaga or Rihanna she doesn’t have to go down the bare-flesh route to look sexy, I like a classy pop star and Del Rey provides that in spades. Can’t wait to hear her next album already!
* * * * EPs * * * *
Panel PicksPop Messiah
Daley - Alone Together (December)
I've been completely fascinated by this ginger hipster from the UK with the old-soul voice since we first reviewed his EP in December's panel. He's quirky and has that x-factor that makes him memorable. The EP features two collaborations, one with pop heavy-hitter Jessie J (the funky "Remember Me") and the other with R&B goddess Marsha Ambrosius (the BEAUTIFUL title track) which are among my favorite singles of 2012. There are a few other tracks that have him ranging from pop to neo-soul, and it all ends with a moving cover of "Love is a Losing Game" by Amy Winehouse. Daley's voice drips with an androgynous sort of soul that feels like a throwback but I'm hoping he's more so the future. Nothing about Daley is expected, but everything about him is wonderful, so he gets my vote!
Luke Christopher - TMRW, TMRW (August)
Both of my EP picks from panel assignments were artists I had little or no exposure to when I received the assignment. First up is Luke Christopher's TMRW, TMRW mixtape. I choose this one because Christopher has something that many hip hop heavyweights don't have, which is VOCALS. In addition to having a pretty good flow and presence as a rapper, this boy can REALLY sing! He also used a lot of genius-level samples on this mixtape that helped to win me over (i.e. the title refers to a sample from Broadway's Annie.) TMRW, TMRW is refreshing and full of promise and I'm hoping to hear more from Christopher in 2013!
Icona Pop - Iconic (November)
The debut EP from Swedish DJ and synthpop suo, Iconic, is a collection of fun, expertly crafted pop songs. I had the privilege of seeing the girls open up for Marina and The Diamonds last December and it was an amazing show. “I Love It”, “Ready For The Weekend”, and “Top Rated” are all in my top songs of 2012. Although a full length album has been released in Sweden, this EP is all we have from the duo so far in the states. Hopefully that will change soon!
Azealia Banks - 1991 (June)
I can't get over how great and how entertaining is Azealia Banks' official debut EP. The concept and execution are equally brilliant. The combination of techno with hip hop is both timely and original, and it's not just a cynical or arbitrary conflation: the 90s house beat adorns and informs the throwback title track, while the incredible repetition of internal rhyme in “212” mirrors the loop-based techno exemplified in Lazy Jay's production. Her rhymes rival the best of Nicki Minaj and Kanye West but at twice the speed and density:
These niggas be vanilla, the chips be legitimateDespite Banks' occasionally exasperating personal fauxes pas (like Kanye is such a gentleman) I'm fascinated by her and can't wait to hear what she has in store.
They just want the pumpernickel sis in the linens with 'em
So since you vanilla men spend
Can my hot fudge bitches get with your vanilla friends
Hey, I’m the liquorice bitch
Before I talk about my choices I would just like to take this moment to briefly discuss EP’s because in general I am not a fan of them! I remember when I used to buy CD singles and you got 2 extra tracks with it that were often very good, now we all tend to download individual tracks I feel that the art of the single pack is disappearing. I’m not a fan of the EP because it falls into this void between a single and an album, you don’t hear about them in the charts or on the radio, I understand that artists use them to create a buzz on a blog but I would prefer either a really good single or an excellent album. EPs don’t connect with me in that way that they do.
Having said that I have listened to some good EP’s this year but do they have IMPACT?
Charli XCX - You're the One (October)
My first choice is definitely Charli XCX. It was my ‘pick of the month’ when we reviewed it and it was the only EP that jumped into my mind for this ‘end of year’ post without having to look up names. It was my favourite EP because of only one song though (hence my point about just releasing it as a single) that song was ‘You’re the One.’ The track is still on my iPod and I do re-listen to it a lot. I really enjoy the punchy dark pop nature of the production and her staccato vocals, but best of all it has a rousing happy pop chorus that fills me with optimism. You will also pick up the lyrics after just a couple of listens which always make me think ‘hit’! Continuing with my single idea, ‘Nuclear Sessions’ would have made an excellent b-side rather than calling it an EP.
Havana Brown - When the Lights Go Out (August)
My second choice is Havana Brown’s EP. I had to re-listen to it before writing this but I soon remembers why I liked it. I feel there is a definite drive and personality through the EP, in fact she is ready for an full album. Brown obviously knows what sort of artist she would like to be and the sound she wants to create. It was a nice mixture of three good pop artists Robyn, J-Lo and Cascada. Out of the five tracks on the EP I enjoyed four of them; it only fell down with one slightly tacky track called ‘Big Banana.’ Luckily RedOne tracks such as ‘You’ll Be Mine’ and ‘One Way Trip’ more than make up for it.
Ga In - Talk About S
A member of the K-pop girl group Brown Eyed Girls, Son Ga-In has released two solo mini albums (like an EP but generally the most popular way of releasing music in the K-pop world) including 2012’s Talk About S. The album’s five songs cover a wide array of styles, but her powerful vocals shine throughout, along with masterful production and songwriting. Opening track "Tinkerbell" has some of the most interesting and impressive production I’ve ever heard. The song sounds like "Toxic" on steroids, lead single "Bloom" is my top song of the year (but we’ll get to that later), and the duet with Yoon Jong-Shin is tender and beautiful.
Queen of Hearts – Warrior
Queen of Hearts does very little that's not tippy-top. This four-song set, also released as the year was winding down, included the lush, West Asian-tinged title track (not to be confused with Ke$ha's far inferior one), the immensely satisfying 90s/2012 hybrid “Broken Dreams,” and a glorious six-minute electronic re-imagining of Ben Howard's “Only Love,” the three of which alone are worth the price of admission and outrank many full LPs. There's also a remix of “Shoot the Bullet” which begs the question, why mess with perfection? But if you're anything like me, the thrill of the three original tracks will have you pressing repeat.
Solange – True
The doors were closing on 2012 when out of nowhere Solange came running up yelling “Wait!” and tossed out one of the best releases of the entire year. Every track on this sleek, groovy album is top notch, especially the pop-infused R&B single “Losing You” and the syncopated vocal bounce house “Don't Let Me Down.” True plays like a 30-minute soul set, and by all means listen, but beware: this magnificent EP is like crack.
* * * * Music Videos * * * *
Panel PicksPop Messiah
Lana Del Rey - "Ride" (November)
While I'm not really a fan of Del Rey, I chose "Ride" because on a technical basis, I would say that this is the most well-executed of the videos we looked at in terms of cinematography, plot, styling, etc. (Also, Meg Myers' "Curbstomp" is no longer available for viewing on YouTube.) It's epic and grand, almost to its detriment, and the song is kind of a snooze but most of hers are. I think that if Del Rey can be commended for anything it's her visuals and I can't say that a lot of the videos we examined last year left a major impression on me, so the movie buff in me appreciates the ghetto grandeur of it all.
PSY - "Gangnam Style" (October)
There’s not a whole lot more that could be said about this, is there?
Brittany McDonald - "Notice Me" (December)
I'm glad Brittany McDonald has been earning some notice for her great and heartfelt anthem and its splendidly crafted video. It's encouraging to witness the compassion with which she selects clips from early movies and contemporary music videos – she doesn't make the common mistake of preaching feminism while throwing women under the bus. Her understanding of the issue of which she sings is a big piece of what makes her message ring so powerfully.
Katy Perry – "Wide Awake" (July)
I love this video, the whimsical nature of it, her beautiful purple hair, the sweet fairytale story – it is all there. "Wide Awake" served as the ultimate end visual to the Teenage Dream era with Perry looking at her most beautiful. In her personal life Perry was also going through a divorce at the time and the video told the story of Katy stepping out of her cotton candy world and into a darker place where she had to protect herself and in the end reject the prince. I like a video that emotionally connects the lyrics with the visuals and I think it totally succeeds in this. I always feel a bit emotional when I watch it and like a change is coming. I guess for Perry this will be her next hopefully slightly darker pop era.
PSY – "Gangnam Style" (October)
It’s the song and the dance that just won’t go away! I have to include this video as one of my ‘picks’ because of the cultural impact it has made, no other music video has crossed the generations like it since the ‘Macarena’! The song would have been successful on its own but having the fun and well-produced video to go with it I believe propelled it upwards, everyone loves a dance they can easily learn and perform with your friends or family and this provided it across the world. It was also another example of the power that viral videos have on impacting the charts, videos are so easily shared now and I can remember UK pop-star Robbie Williams tweeting PSY’s video out to his fans about a month before "Gangnam Style" fever hit our shores. I hope this video ends up having a legacy in the long-term, that of introducing good K-Pop to the wider world.
Delta Rae - "Bottom of the River"
My favorite music video of 2012 actually was released in 2011, but Delta Rae didn't hit my radar until Rolling Stone tweeted about the "Women Who Rock" cover contest (which, sadly was won by Karmin). Delta Rae are a six-piece band and lead vocals are shared between them, so really I'm not sure they belonged in the contest, but through it I discovered their amazing debut single/video "Bottom of the River." It's a haunting, bluesy acapella track with pretty amazing vocals and the video, depicting what appears to be the capture and pending execution of a woman who is accused of practising witchcraft, appears to have been shot (mostly) in two takes. Something about its energy and mood just sticks with me and I recommend giving it a viewing.
P!nk - "Try"
This video is yet another shining example of P!nk showing us that she can snatch the wigs from all of your faves with a flick of any one of her tightly-toned extremities. With an impressive and athletic contemporary dance routine about the struggles of trying to become one within a poisonous and self-destructing relationship, P!nk reminds us that she can not-only dance, but also do all sorts of acrobatics and look gorgeous as she sings her ass off. The video is emotional, powerful and visually striking. A 2012 standout!
Katy Perry- "Wide Awake" Lyric Video
While we covered the official "Wide Awake" music video on the panel back in July, I’ve always preferred the lyric video that came out a bit earlier. Displaying the lyrics through the (then) new facebook timeline format along side milestones in Perry’s career, the video serves as a great retrospective of the amazing journey that has been Teenage Dream. "Wide Awake" was the final single from the Teenage Dream era, and to look back on everything that has happened, including 6 no. 1s, countless awards, and huge international sales, was a beautiful way to go out. As a fan who followed this album from the very beginning (in fact, it was really the first big pop album that came out after my pop-awakening, so it holds extra importance for me), I felt part of all the milestones the video goes through. I may have cried the first time I watched it. I may have cried other times too.
Nicki Minaj - “Beez in the Trap”
People have accused Nicki Minaj of being, in her words, nothing but a “rapping ass.” I love the “Beez in the Trap” video because it goes for broke on the concept. It's tits and ass everywhere! I love the joyless pair of big booty bitches she gets to surround her and 2 Chainz like the “Single Ladies” girls. I love the close-up of ass spread apart. I love the faux-excited look she makes when it starts raining dollar bills. It's “My Humps” in visuals, and as usual Nicki sells it to the ironic and non-ironic viewers alike.
Ke$ha – "Die Young"
It’s a real pity that this song won’t be remembered in the way that it should be due to events in America and Ke$ha’s rather daft statement on twitter that she was ‘forced’ to record the song. If you listen to the lyrics she actually says ‘lets make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young’ – she is not saying she wants to die young or that dying young is a bad thing. But still I understand that people link things in their minds and the single’s timing ended up being pretty disastrous in the end and seems to have cast a shadow over Warrior sales in general which is a shame.
Anyway back to the video, first off I love this song and the video is just like the icing on top, it was a big budget production which saw sexy Ke$ha re-born as an Illuminati promoting cult-leader. I really enjoyed all the occult mystery in the clip and also reading how people put meaning onto those images, personally I think the video gives us a glimpse inside K’s crazy mind. We’ve got wolves in space, black leather, skulls, crosses and more but it’s fun watching Queen K and her bunch of attractive men running round town kicking in church doors and generally ‘living it up,’ interspersed with Ke$ha’s pouts to camera it was a great start to the Warrior campaign and was followed up by some really slick live performances of the track.
* * * * Singles * * * *
NOTE: Most of the singles are available on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the post or by clicking here.
Panel PicksPop Messiah
Cher Lloyd - "Want U Back" (June)
As far as I'm concerned, “Want U Back” was one of the most infectious, straight-up pop jams of the year. It's cute and bratty and sort of ridiculous, but it's willingness to be ridiculous is endearing. I'm still not completely sold on Lloyd as an artist, and I haven't made the leap into checking out her album Sticks & Stones, but this was a fantastic single that stayed in my favor right through the end of the year.
Esthero - "Never Gonna Let You Go" (July)
Esthero is simply amazing. If you have no idea who she is, I suggest hitting up YouTube for an education. While I wouldn't call "Never Gonna Let You Go" her best work, it is certainly her most accessible. I didn't know when David assigned us this track that she had a new single/album coming out, but after purchasing the project through her KickStarter campaign I can say that Everything Is Expensive is one of 2012's best albums and I recommend both it and this - the first single released from it. It’s a bit of a stalker anthem, but that’s what makes it so fun!
Christina Aguilera - "Your Body" (October)
It saddens me that Aguilera's plotted comeback with 2012's Lotus has not been a big success (It's actually a pretty great album). Lead single "Your Body" was in my top 10 singles this year. I think the production by Max Martin is beautiful and unlike the other work he's famous for, with that pulsating beat and the way everything builds to a climax with Christina's vocals sounding as great as ever. I still want to randomly yell out "SAY!" even now. It was my pick of the month back in October and remains one of my favorite panel picks from the year!
Carly Rae Jepsen - "Call Me Maybe" (July)
This is another one that has been written about at such length, that it seems silly to say anything more about it. But I will repeat that the is one of the best pop songs ever written, and the way she sings “Call” a little bit flat to add color to it is so fantastic.
Nicki Minaj + Cassie - "The Boys" (October)
As odd as it seems, I just can’t get enough of this song. The stark contrast between sections is very alluring to me, creating a rhapsodic structure that works surprisingly well in pop songs (see Girls’ Generation's “I Got A Boy”). Nicki’s raps are some of her strongest in years and Cassie’s soft voice in the chorus serves to create a great contrast. The song creates a dichotomy between the strong, aggressive female power in Nicki’s verses and the weak, defeated female in the chorus. The contrasting musical ideas that seem disjointed at first are important to creating this dichotomy and to embodying the conflict in the characters between being a strong assertive woman and being affected by the “boys” that keep being unfaithful.
Christina Aguilera - "Your Body" (October)
Lotus is still sitting on my shelf unopened, but as far as I'm concerned Christina Aguilera has redeemed herself as an artist of my esteem with this refreshingly original and monumentally sexy Max Martin production. It's a fitting testament to a maturing singer's confidence in her sexuality that finally matches that which she's always rightly had in her voice.
Carly Rae Jepsen - "Call Me Maybe" (July)
“Call Me Maybe” is the little pop song that could. From the innocuous pizzicato strings at the onset it seems at first like a precious little hand tool, but by the end as you hear the gears whir to a stop you realize it's one hell of a giant circular saw. It's one of those pop smashes lightweight enough to carry in your pocket but that wouldn't seem out of place in the set list for the philharmonic. Call it fast food maybe, but it's a jumbo Big Mac with supersized fries.
NERVO – "You’re Gonna Love Again"
You know you have certain tracks on your iPod that you never skip, well for me this single is one of those songs. I always enjoy listening to it, I love the beat, the lyrics the build up to the chorus and the perfect mix of dance and pop music. I also think this group comprising of two sisters has a bright future ahead of them,. In a genre dominated by your Calvin Harrises and David Guettas it’s great to see a female act making strides in a traditionally male area. Hopefully 2013 will be their year!
Carly Rae Jepsen – "Call Me Maybe" (July)
"Hey I just met you, and this is crazy" turned out to be some of the most recognizable pop lyrics from 2012. I don’t think much more can be said about the song in terms of it being an excellent pop track, everything was right about it. I do worry though how it will affect the rest of Carly’s career. I thought her Kiss album was pretty decent but it is going to be hard finding a song to match the heights of "Call Me Maybe." I wonder if it should have been saved for a later point in her career to avoid only being known for one track. She presented at the Grammys with Katy Perry so it’s good to hear that she is gaining some different opportunities but I still think in five years time she’ll still be the ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl. It will take another couple of strong tracks to really cement her pop star career.
No Doubt – "Settle Down" (August)
This was the track that signaled No Doubt were back on the pop ska scene. I’ve really missed this group in the years they were away, I don’t think anyone else comes close to fusing those two genres like this group does. This single also heralded the return of one of my favourite female pop stars Gwen Stefani and this song gave her the perfect vehicle to show off her style of singing, full of attitude and female power it was a great return for the group. The single felt fresh but also captured their signature sound and with the bonkers yet enthralling chorus it’s one of my most spun tracks in 2012.
Tamia - "Beautiful Surprise"
I have been a big fan of R&B artist Tamia since the release of her debut album in 1995. Grammy-nominated “Beautiful Surprise” is a mid-tempo, breezy R&B jam, reminiscent of her 1995 single “So Into You” (one of my favorite songs of all-time). She always sounds very angelic and serene and this song instantly makes me feel good when I listen to it. It’s simple concept (about being surprised with an early return by your baby after a long absence) is a refreshing change from all of the drunken partying and sexual advances of the dance floor filler out there, proving that the simple and sentimental things in life can still make some sweet music.
Kelly Clarkson - "Dark Side"
As a long time Kelly stan, I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that “Dark Side” would be the third single released from “Stronger.” Though I wish her label would release more of the material on her albums that she herself has written, “Dark Side” is a beautiful song that anyone with insecurities that has entered into a relationship can relate to, and I certainly do! Also, for anyone interested, Glee also did a pretty-rad accapella cover of this track (led by Darren Criss) that I really enjoyed.
Bruno Mars - "Locked Out of Heaven"
After releasing Doo Wops & Hooligans, a debut album that blended retro vibes of the 1950′s and 60′s with modern pop stylings, Mars released follow up Unorthodox Jukebox and naturally moved on to the sounds of the 1970′s and 80′s. Naturally, being a child of the 80's, I love it. Lead single “Locked Out of Heaven” has echoes of The Police; a beat that makes me want to stomp my feet, big soaring vocals and a funky groove that sets it apart from any other singles to hit radio last year. With such an infectious melody, I can't help but want to sing along. It's definitely among my top singles of 2012!
Usher - "Climax"
My undisputed top-song-of-the-year for almost the entire year, "Climax" hit me like a ton of bricks when I first heard it back in February. Everything from the idiosyncratic production to the brilliant vocal performance, to the wonderful A♭#11 chord, to the sexy video, is fantastic about this song. In his almost 20 year career, Usher continues to be at the forefront of RnB music, and continues to be the best vocalist in the game, hands down.
Marina and the Diamonds - "Primadonna"
This was my introduction to the amazing Marina. It is simultaneously a perfect radio-pop song and a perfect criticism of radio-pop culture. Throughout her album, Marina (as her character Electra Heart), does this. She is critiquing pop culture by playing by its own rules. In my opinion, she pulls this off much more masterfully than Lana Del Rey, but not quite as wonderfully as Ke$ha. (Though I acknowledge that it is unfair to lump these three drastically different artists together. They each come at this idea from very different directions with very different results).
Ga-In - "Bloom"
As mentioned earlier, this is my top song of 2012. It respectfully knocked "Climax" out of its place in October when I first saw the music video. "Bloom" tells the story of a woman losing her virginity, and the feelings that surround that. The excitement, nervousness, regrets, and passion that comes along with her symbolically becoming a woman. She tries to convince herself that what she has with this boy is love, but subtleties in the music and lyrics show that she knows it’s not for real. The contrast between the A♭ minor verse and the A♭ major chorus depicts the contrast between the reality of what is happening and the fantasy of how she feels. It is an all around perfect pop song. I urge everyone to check it out! (Listen here)
Madonna - "Gang Bang"
Madonna is at her best in years on this menacing, Tarantino-inspired revenge fantasy, which blasts the senses with the cartoonish, cathartic rage of a woman scorned. The title may be an obvious ploy for shock value, and if the track wasn't as outlandish as it is that might be an embarrassment. Instead, it's a gloriously over-the-top romp that's too thrilling to be campy. It's a shame the rest of MDNA was such a muddled letdown.
Erica Gibson - "I Don't Want You Back"
It's exciting whenever an artist gets a pop song just right, and even more so when the artist is a total newcomer. Erica Gibson's brilliant song (produced by Scott Stallone) is a smash underneath the rug (it could have been a hit for an established act like Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez or Carly Rae Jepsen), but if Ke$ha's early unreleased library is any indication, the fact that you never heard it shouldn't disappoint so much as instill great hope for a strong career ahead. (Listen here)
Manufactured Superstars feat. Paris Hilton - "Drunk Text"
Paris Hilton may have hit her creative peak with her unofficial appearance on Manufactured Superstars' wonderfully satirical dance cut. “Drunk Text” uses all the most basic tropes of techno to underline the universality of the club world Hilton hilariously lampoons with lines like “I went out to the club the other night to, you know, dance with my bitches.” It works because we know Hilton knows the scene she's talking about and because she does it smartly enough to remind us that she's grown up – at least a bit. (Listen here)
Robbie Williams – "Candy"
"Hey ho here she goes!" If you know the track then ha ha it is now stuck in your brain! This was Robbie’s first single post-Take That tour, it was black-listed by Radio1 in the UK and Williams had threatened to quit pop if this single wasn’t a success. Despite the lack of airplay "Candy" was number 1 in the UK heralding Robbie’s return to the solo pop star world. Co-written with his band-mate and enemy now friend Gary Barlow it was a happy pop song with a bouncy beat and a big chorus. Many wrote off the lyrics as ‘nonsense’ but Rob reading a YouTube comment along those lines wrote a whole piece on his blog explaining each lyric in detail even this one which I thought was brilliant ‘ring a ring of roses, whoever gets the closest’ is actually a reference to the bubonic plague, Rob is saying if you get too close to this girl then you’ll get sick. As someone who reads into and expects a lot from song lyrics it definitely made me love and understand the single a lot more. You can read the full song meaning here if you are so inclined.
Kelly Clarkson – "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)"
Just when you start to just accept Kelly as part of the pop landscape she releases a single like this and reminds us all of why she is an excellent pop star. "Stronger" is an anthemic single, one that can be sung and meant buy anyone who needs that extra bit of courage or belief. A truly great pop single is one that can be played to anyone practically anywhere in the world and be understood and I think this is a great example of a world-wide smash single. It is always great when a statistic backs up your feelings about a song and when I heard that Stronger is now the best selling single ever from American Idol then I felt validated and really good for Kelly, ten years into her career still going strong and still doing it her way. If she doesn’t win a Grammy for it then there is no justice in the world!