Every month in This Was Pop, Steven Hyden and Genevieve Koski skim the surface and plumb the depths of the Billboard charts to dredge up what’s good, bad, inescapable, and bubbling under in pop music. This year, pop radio was defined by a couple of out-of-nowhere success stories, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which have their share of charms both novelty and musical. Like those songs, none of these choices need This Was Pop’s endorsement—their very appearance here is testament to their success—but these are the mega-hits of 2012 that we found tolerable in spite of their ubiquity.
Fun, “Some Nights”
Steven: 2012 began with a year-defining Fun single, and it ends with another. But while “We Are Young” seemed more zeitgeist-y back in January, “Some Nights” is the better song, and I’m betting it will become one of the pop standards to come out of the year. Which means we’ll be hearing this inspirational stand-on-the-desktops anthem in movie trailers and computer commercials for the next five years. For the most part I’m okay with it: “Some Nights” is the single greatest distillation of Fun’s “Queen crossed with Kanye” aesthetic. The secret weapon is co-writer and producer Jeff Bhasker, who supplies a bit of the stadium-jocking rhythmic uplift that he contributed to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But it’s Nate Ruess who really sells this song, boldly taking it to places vocally that skirt cheese while nimbly avoiding it. Millennials, you’ve finally found your “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”
Genevieve: Buried inside Justin Bieber’s so-so Believe, his noble but failed attempt at an “adult” album, is a pretty damn decent EP, anchored by the album’s two best singles, “As Long As You Love Me” and “Boyfriend.” The latter, which preceded the album’s release, was a warning shot for an evolution of Grown And Sexy Biebs that (thankfully) never fully arrived, but it still stands as one of the best pop singles of the year, despite—and maybe a little bit because of—its use of Buzz Lightyear as metaphor and the term “swaggie.” Easy comparison points abound—Justin Timberlake, The Neptunes, “The Whisper Song”—but the fact of the matter is that “Boyfriend” succeeds on its own enchanting, albeit familiar, terms.
Steven: I thought this was the pop single of the year from the moment I heard it, and I never really wavered from that assessment. I didn’t quite like the critically slobbered over Kaleidoscope Dream as much as many others did, but an artist who can write a song as perfect as “Adorn” deserves to be placed among 2012’s best in my book. Everything about this song is in the right place: The spare 808 beat, the ghostly synths, and most of all Miguel’s vocal, which revives Marvin Gaye from the dead and puts him back into one million bedrooms. With any luck, Miguel will be supplying radio with songs like this for years to come. But I won’t be greedy: “Adorn” is a bountiful feast on its own.
Neon Trees, “Everybody Talks”
Genevieve: A surprisingly great follow-up to a breakout single that had “one-hit wonder” written all over it, “Everybody Talks” doubles down on the new-new-wave slickness of Neon Trees’ “Animal” and adds a bit of sock-hop shimmy for a chewy wad of bubblegum goodness. It may not be especially substantial—despite hitting No. 6 on the Hot 100, “Everybody Talks” inspired few to check out the album that houses it, April’s Picture Show—but it is a solid three minutes of head-bobbing fun, from the introductory nod to “At The Hop” to Tyler Glenn’s go-for-broke vocals.
Steven: There wasn’t an album released in 2012 sillier than Muse’s The 2nd Law, and I mean that both as a criticism and a compliment. Muse’s creative method on this record basically boiled down to swallowing a bunch of incompatible influences at once and violently vomiting them back up. The 2nd Law often fails in spectacularly entertaining ways—I’d rather play this album than most of the “good” records I heard this year—but “Madness” is an unmitigated success, engaging with R&B and EDM more comfortably than any rock song this year while also delivering heaping piles of U2-style bombast. In the future, all rock bands will sound like this. Be afraid. Be excited.
Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
Genevieve: Poor Kelly Clarkson, doomed to spend her career chasing the dragon of “Since U Been Gone,” a once-in-a-lifetime pop single that defies replication. But Clarkson’s dogged pursuit of a follow-up anthem for the ages has resulted in some good, occasionally great singles, and “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” comes closer to the sweet spot than any of them. The cliché-riddled lyrics are only a detriment to those who (wrongly) believe cliché has no place in empowerment anthems, and the driving chorus all but demands fist-pumping. A lot of the credit goes to emergent super-producer Greg Kurstin, who injects a Robyn-esque electronic sparkle to the pop-rock proceedings, but no one could belt “Stronger” quite like Clarkson, who has a way of imbuing with absolute conviction even the most trite of uplifting messages.
Steven: This was a year of arty R&B critic-bait like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream. (The Weeknd’s trio of Earth-stopping mixtapes from 2011 were also generously packaged in Trilogy, which somehow cracked the Top 10 in spite of still being available for free online for more than a year.) But my favorite R&B record of the year was Usher’s big-budget grab-bag Looking 4 Myself, which found one of pop’s biggest superstars chasing every current trend and making them his own. The most stunning example is “Climax,” where Usher one-ups his moody counterparts, infusing deconstructionist soul with a little charisma and lots of vocal chops. There weren’t four more quietly intense minutes on the radio this year.
Nicki Minaj, “Beez In The Trap”
Genevieve: 2012 was a great year for hip-hop, particularly on the mixtape front, but unfortunately little of it made its way to the Hot 100, outside of the usual suspects—meaning pretty much Kanye West and Nicki Minaj—and a couple of outliers like “Rack City” (which I’ve come to sort of love, though I can’t wholeheartedly endorse its, um, “message”). Minaj is creeping right up on her sell-by date, and her two biggest singles of the year, “Starships” and “Pound The Alarm,” cement her transition from unhinged wild-card rapper to fashion-plate EDM princess. But then there’s “Beez In The Trap,” which just barely cracked the top half of the Hot 100 despite being the only real meat to the musical hash that was Minaj’s Roman Reloaded. (It probably doesn’t help that the radio edit makes Swiss cheese of the lyrics.) Isolated amid spare, sonar-like production, Minaj is at her best—which is still a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, though I choose to take it—rejecting the flashy maximalism that’s come to define her recent career.
Ke$ha, “Die Young”
Steven: Months before the release of her latest album, Warrior, Ke$ha intimated that she was working on guitar-heavy music inspired by her classic-rock favorites Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. At some point she was coaxed back to her signature Euro-pop nihilism, but “Die Young” still seems like a classic-rock song in spirit. Over handclaps and synths that squeal like a C.C. DeVille solo, Ke$ha turns a come-on to some dude with a girlfriend into a generational plea to YOLO the fuck out of life. Few rock bands dare to address self-described outcasts and degenerates anymore, so thank dirty Jesus in trashcan heaven that Ke$ha is here to raise the freak flag once again.
Pink, “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”
Genevieve: Fine, Steven, if you’re going to include a song from my arch-nemesis Ke$ha, I’m going to include this single from your least-favorite posturing pop badass. (Though I heartily co-sign everything else on your list, and I would love “Die Young” if I didn’t have to hear it forced out through Ke$ha’s nasal cavity like so much compacted fecal matter.) We fought this one out back in July, but I still love “Blow Me” for its big, brash production—also by Greg Kurstin, probably not coincidentally—and Pink’s bigger, brasher performance, which creeps right up on being shrill without quite crossing that line. Pink often gets relegated to the role of clown among pop starlets, what with her sneering, horn-throwing music videos and “look at me” potty-mouth shenanigans, but she can deliver an empowerment anthem like no other. (Except maybe Clarkson. See a theme here?) She’s as ostentatious and trashy as Ke$ha—right down to the mid-name punctuation, which I refuse to indulge—but with more polish and much better pipes. If only she were consistent enough to turn out full albums of stuff like “Blow Me” and “So What,” instead of just the occasional kickass single.