The Best Music of 2012 [Top 20 Pop & Hip-Hop Singles]

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And now for the installment that will appall and/or enrage half the people reading this series. It’s time to review the top pop and hip-hop singles of 2012!

The slow demise of the album as a method of music delivery to the vast American mainstream is nowhere more apparent than in these genres, and it’s almost unfair to compare most pop or hip-hop albums to indie rock or R&B records. The goal is just different. In the world inhabited by superproducers like Dr. Luke and StarGate, the entire plan is to max out those 99 cent iTunes singles and blast Youtube views into the tens of millions; to create a three-minute piece of catchy, digestible pop perfection, not to craft a coherent musical statement lasting an hour or more.  Some may decry that as the fall of American culture, but it really isn’t that far a cry from the early days of Motown, when Berry Gordy would spin a newly cut single for his panel of employees and ask for a show of hands on who would opt to buy that record instead of a sandwich. Meanwhile, tons of rappers break out on the basis of a track or two posted to Youtube, well before they score a record deal.

So, to adequately address this, I’ve pulled outstanding tracks crafted for single release into a separate category altogether. As a member of the poptimist school of music criticism, I can tell you that there is NOTHING ironic about the selections below. I fully enjoy every one of them. After all, there’s nothing wrong with devouring both a perfectly cooked filet mignon AND a soft-serve chocolate ice cream cone. (Just…maybe not at the same time.)

Our Spotify playlist has been updated to include these 20 tasty singles:

Special thanks to Doan, Nils Coq au Vin, Alison the Business Casual and Lady McGregor for helping me discover and enjoy these great tunes.

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”

Easily the defining pop song of the year. First released in Canada in fall 2011, it later broke wide thanks to the promotional efforts of music manager Scooter Braun, a rising Svengali who enlisted Justin Bieber and friends to create a delightful viral video (above). “Call Me Maybe” went nova upon its 2012 release in the US, obviously. A spate of Youtube takeoffs followed and the song rocketed to #1, becoming the hit of the summer. It’s repetitive, but insanely catchy, and Jepsen sells it with a winning vocal performance.

A$AP Rocky, “Goldie”

We told you about A$AP Rocky in last year’s best music series, and he continued to deliver in 2012 ahead of his first album, scheduled to drop early next year. This single combos a syrup-drenched trap-styled hook, crafted by the aptly-named Hit-Boy, with Rocky’s jaunty, jabbing lyricism. “Everybody play the tough guy till shit pop off.”

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”

A glorious ode to secondhand store shopping from this breakout Seattle duo. There are so many great elements to this hit – a ridiculously tight horn loop and the outstanding refrain “This is fucking awesome” most prominent among them. And I always laugh when Macklemore stops the song to say of Gucci fashions, “Yo, that’s fifty dollars for a t-shirt.”

Cher Lloyd, “Want U Back”

A supremely catchy cut from a former UK X-Factor contender, working under the wing of Max Martin subordinates Shellback and Savan Kotecha. It’s tough to resist her righteous “UHH!” of frustration and jealous rage on the chorus, as she denounces the new girlfriend of a dude she once dumped. This might not have been a #1 hit, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable pop delight.

Kanye West f. Big Sean, Pusha T., 2 Chainz, “Mercy”

This posse cut, the highlight of the GOOD Music compilation, is basically an awesomeness contest. Three of Kanye’s top protégées compete to see who can deliver the dopest flow around the campfire of a great beat built around an old dancehall sample by producer Lifted. (Big Sean’s verse, the first one, is especially good.) This is a mighty track.

Flo Rida f. Sia, “Wild Ones”

A truly international production that features an Austrialian (Sia), two Frenchmen (producers “SoFLY & Nius”…I know, horrible), a Swede (Axwell), and — well, you can guess where Flo Rida is from. It’s another wholly enjoyable if shallow joint from Flo, whose hot streak of sing-song hits continues. Sia brings a great hook to enliven the moment, which offsets the fact that the beat isn’t quite what better producers like Dr. Luke and David Guetta have delivered for Flo Rida in the past.

Kitty Pryde, “Okay Cupid”

So hateable, yet so delightful. The future of hip-hop? A bratty ginger teen crushes on some hoodlum in this song that annoys the shit out of you the first time you hear it…and then grows on you. Unless, of course, you have a daughter, in which case it’s basically a horror movie. The hook (“Lordy, shorty you’re a 10 and I’ll wait for your drunk dials at 3:30 AM, I love them”) is super fresh. I would be totally embarrassed if anyone caught me listening to this under normal circumstances, but I have to be honest with you, dear readers: I really like this song.

Fun., “Some Nights”

Yeah, it’s a pretty transparent rip of the Simon/Garf classic “Cecilia,” but so what. You can’t rightfully deny the glory of the ascending, in-stereo “Come on” session that breaks out around the 2:25 mark. There’s even some ridiculous autotune. In my opinion, this song is far superior to the band’s breakout hit “We Are Young,” but like that song it’s an impressive piece of work by frontman Nate Ruess and producer Jeff Bhasker. We’ll be hearing much more from them in the future, I’m confident of that.

Ke$ha, “Die Young”

Speaking of Nate Ruess, he helped Kesha Sebert pen the delightful hook that powers this instant dance party. Dr. Luke and his sidekicks Benny Blanco and Cirkut are here to bring one of their trademark beats, combining electronic sounds with strummed acoustic guitar. The percussion programming is perfect, it practically mind-controls you. Many may hate on this crew – but I truly appreciate their talent for pop songcraft.

Maroon 5, “One More Night”

Why does Justin Timberlake get all the credit for white man pop genius that Adam Levine rightfully deserves? JT turned movie star and hasn’t cut a great record since George W. Bush was president, and meanwhile Levine cranks out one fun hit after another with no sign of stopping. He’s also pretty adept at writing his own stuff at times, while also working well with the Swedish Music Factory on occasion (Max Martin behind the boards on this one, assisted once again by Kotecha and Shellback). In the year 2012, Levine > Timberlake.

San Cisco, “Awkward”

ADORABLE Aussies act out a tale of romantic frustration bordering on creepy stalking in this wonderful video. Watching this band go to work puts a big smile on my face. The fact that the cute girl is also the drummer … I mean, how can you not be sold on this?

Krispy Kreme, “Denzel Washington”

At first we thought he was an Alabamian redneck in his grandma’s weight room…then it came out that he was actually a high school valedictorian from Michigan doing a character. Somehow, this knowledge made Krispy Kreme’s work even more enjoyable, and his releases got better and better throughout the year. This one is my special favorite, with Krispy basically reciting the plots of mediocre recent Denzel Washington movies. “How could you forget The Book of Eli, where Denzel played a superhero blind guy?” Although legal action from the donut chain forced him to change his name to Jelly Bean Jack, he’ll surely have many great songs to come.

Owl City f. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Good Time”

Proving that she’s no one-hit wonder, CRJ joined forces with one-man synthpop machine Owl City for this infectious hit. She really brings her A-game, from her excellent second verse to an impassioned “Whoooo!” It’s always a good time when listening to this joyous cut.

Y.n.RichKids, “Hot Cheetos & Takis”

The incredible product of the best afterschool program ever. Grantland’s Rembert Browne delivered the definitive take on this red hot masterpiece. Recognize, this is much more than a viral video. It’s the new “Teach Me How to Dougie.”

Miike Snow, “The Wave”

Bloodshy & Avant, the curiously named producers behind Britney’s classic hit “Toxic,” apparently added a singer to form this indie pop band. This single is easily the class of their album Happy to You. Military rhythms are complemented by an insistent piano riff and a memorable vocal.

Rihanna f. Kanye West, “Diamonds (Remix)”

Sorry RiRi, but the original track is FLAT. Kanye’s crazy intro on the remix transforms it into something wonderful. In a maniacal verse, he references Tay Zonday and hollers like a lunatic. Most of all, he slowly but surely builds the song up to a level where Rihanna’s entrance reads as triumphant. It’s like a whole new song after Kanye gets hold of it.

Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Tay Tay has written so many hits on her own that, perhaps alone among today’s pop stars, she really didn’t need to link up with Max Martin and his band of vikings to move records. But everyone’s doing it, so why can’t she? And so Martin and Shellback deliver YET ANOTHER #1 hit. But this song really shines thanks to Swift’s impertinent attitude, sneering at a too-cool ex-boyfriend with comments like “this is exhausting” and mocking his affinity for “an indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Putting aside her mooning-girl-in-the-bleachers persona for a pop-twee heartbreaker angle, Tay Swift successfully evolves.

2 Chainz f. Kanye West, “Birthday Song”

Wisely recognizing that a great hip-hop birthday song hadn’t been released since “In Da Club,” the artist formerly known as Tity Boi (!!) created this amazing track. The video is particularly jaw-dropping: I feel like 2 Chainz couldn’t be more comfortable in this Boschian hellscape, while Kanye seems mildly weirded out.

Psy, “Gangnam Style”

Love it or hate it, this is the only track that really challenged “Call Me Maybe” for 2012 pop supremacy – and they have one thing in common, the promotion of gifted talent scout Scooter Braun. Regardless of Braun’s influence, though, the fact that a K-pop track satirizing social conditions in the wealthy districts of Seoul broke through to become the #1 song in America and the most viewed video ever on Youtube, while inspiring a horsey-dance craze worldwide – I just inherently respect that achievement. And damn the haters, this song is fun.

Tegan and Sara, “Closer”

Well now THIS is an intriguing development! The indie siblings team with Pink producer Greg Kurstin to create this surprisingly commercial and dance-floor-ready pop track. It’s the lead single for their forthcoming (2013) album, and I must say I would like to hear more where this came from.

bestof2012 Rumors on the Internets

Introduction and Hon Mentions

Top 20 Pop & Hip-Hop Singles





Best Music of 2012 (Spotify)

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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