It’s that time again…time for me to spend a month stressing over what songs should be considered the best of the year. I put way too much pressure on myself to make this list the best it can be, but when your taste in music can shift simply by listening to the radio or hitting shuffle on your iPod, it becomes clear at some point that I just have to draw a line in the sand. Consider this that line. Songs 50-21 are listed below, and songs 20-1 will pop up tomorrow.
50. Joey and Rory “When I’m Gone” (Not Charted in US)
“A bright sunrise will contradict
The heavy fog that weighs you down.
In spite of all the funeral songs,
The birds will make their joyful sounds.”
Sometimes the brilliance of a song cannot fully reveal itself until placed in the proper context. In the case of “When I’m Gone,” it took the death of a dear friend of mine in July of 2012 to understand the depth of the lyrics Joey Feek sings in a patient, compassionate way. While I am completely at peace with my friend’s passing, just the thought of “When I’m Gone” is enough to choke me up. “When I’m Gone” is a testament to the power of a great song matched with its perfect vocalist and interpreter that can connect with listeners on a more than superficial level.
49. Ciara “Got Me Good” (Not Charted in US)
“My back is aching, my bra too tight
My booty’s shaking from the left to the right
My back is aching, I’m so in love
Baby all I know is you got me good”
They don’t make jams like this anymore, and that’s a shame. It’s not a cure for cancer, but it will cure what ails ya on the dancefloor. Ciara always amazes me that for as amazing a dancer she is, she can also sing better than many of her contemporaries. If there is any woman in the industry not named Beyoncé who can duplicate the success of Usher and Chris Brown on both the Pop and R&B charts, it’s Ciara.
48. Aiden Grimshaw “Is This Love” (Not Charted in US)
“An extension of hope, this could be misleading
Could you write it down now
Cause I can’t speak”
I rooted for Aiden on the UK version of the X Factor in 2010, and I was disappointed when he was eliminated seventh in the live shows, all but dooming him to Christmas lightings and karaoke parties. Fortunately, Grimshaw escaped the X Factor tractor beam and went in a more experimental direction with his first single release “Is This Love.” I hadn’t expected drum and bass, but I loved it.
47. Kylie Minogue “Timebomb” (#1 Dance US)
“We’re on a timebomb, you might not last long
So let’s just do it right now, do it come on
We’re on a timebomb, before the night’s gone
Let’s just do it right now, do it come on”
The K25 celebration that Kylie rode all through 2012 was a sight to behold. Vintage performances, lounged-up remakes (The Abbey Road Sessions), and a bangin’ new track called Timebomb that let Kylie show off one of her best assets in the video. No, this song didn’t revolutionize the pop industry, but it was fun, it was catchy, and snagged her another #1 dance hit in the US.
46. Calvin Harris “Sweet Nothing (feat. Florence Welch)” (#33 US to date)
“You took my heart and you held it in your mouth
And, with the word all my love came rushing out
And, every whisper it’s the worst, emptied out by a single word
There is a hollow me now”
If you had asked me earlier in the year, this spot most likely would have been taken up with “Spectrum (Say My Name)” after it got the Calvin Harris treatment. Luckily for all of us, we didn’t just have to settle for a remix, but instead we got a full-fledged collaboration between Harris and Florence Welsh. “Sweet Nothing” takes Welch’s powerful vocal and transforms it into something both powerful AND lighter than air. Brilliant pairing that needs to happen again soon.
45. Kelly Clarkson “Don’t Rush (feat. Vince Gill)” (#89 US)
“Let’s wake up in the afternoon
Pretend that we got nothing to do
No we don’t have to go by any agenda
We can make up our own rules”
Full disclosure: I’m a child of the country-pop movement of the late 70s-early 80s. I come by my love of Ronnie Milsap, Crystal Gayle and the Eagles honestly. So when I heard “Don’t Rush” for the first time, I was instantly transported in several directions. The track itself reminds me of Amy Grant’s “House of Love,” the intro sounds just like James Taylor’s “Her Town Too,” and duet with Vince Gill is a match made in heaven. This is not mainstream, but it is beautiful.
44. Marina and the Diamonds “Primadonna” (Not Charted in US)
“Would you do anything for me?
Buy a big diamond ring for me?
Would you get down on your knees for me?
Pop the pretty question right now, baby”
Much like Robyn over the past few years ago, Marina and the Diamonds have been on the verge of US success throughout 2012. Even though “Primadonna” received some US Pop Radio airplay, that breakthrough never came along despite a successful club tour and several performances on US TV shows.”Primadonna” captured Marina at her flirty, playful best and deserved a much more successful fate in the US.
43. Gossip “Perfect World” (#8 Dance US)
“Relax, it’s only dreaming facts
Giving way to feelings
No one ever stays long
It’s over when you wake up”
Expectations were extremely high for Gossip’s fifth studio release A Joyful Noise, but the album itself was mostly met with a less than stellar reaction. That’s not a bad thing for most acts, but when you are a critical darling like Gossip are, that is a bit of a letdown. More surprising was the fact that only two singles were released from A Joyful Noise, and “Perfect World” was the greater of the two. A dark, funky groove propelled this track along a synth melody with lead singer Beth Ditto’s trailblazing vocals acting as a light through a darkened cavern. The fact that Gossip are still not mainstream mainstays is a fact that still boggles my mind.
42. LeAnn Rimes “What Have I Done” (Not Charted in US)
“Love is darkness blinded by the light
Let it lead you, listen for the cry
I will find you, every time I turn you’re there”
This was supposed to be LeAnn’s mainstream comeback, and it may pan out. Unfortunately, that comeback backfired a bit with a less-than-stellar performance on the X Factor finale, followed by an explanation that seemed to lay the fault for her crazy vocal on her 13-year-old duet partner. In a fair world, “What Have I Done” would get all the praise it deserves, but instead tabloid headlines and gossip mongering probably have doomed any chance of success.
41. Kenny Chesney “Come Over” (#23 US)
“You can say we’re done the way you always do
It’s easier to lie to me than to yourself
Forget about your friends, you know they’re gonna say
We’re bad for each other, but we ain’t good for anyone else”
To say I’m surprised that a Kenny Chesney song ended up on this countdown would be an understatement, but give credit where it’s due. After 2010’s duet with Grace Potter “You and Tequila” (a huge miss that should have been on my list last year), it became clear that Kenny wanted to take on material that had a bit more pop appeal. “Come Over” went to #1 on the Country chart and was certified Platinum in the US.
40. Zedd “Clarity (feat. Foxes)” (#44 Dance US to date)
“High dive into frozen waves where the past comes back to life
Fight fear for the selfish pain it was worth it every time”
While more high-profile recording DJs like David Guetta and Calvin Harris enlisted an all-star list of vocalists to bring their club bangers to life, Zedd went with lesser-known singers that knew how to find their way around a thumping track. “Spectrum” (featuring Matthew Koma) became the #1 Dance track of the year in the US, and as the year ended, “Clarity” began its ascent up the chart. I loved how the track started out with a minimal track behind Foxes’ vocal, but then built into a massive floor-filler by the chorus.
39. Christina Aguilera “Let There Be Love” (Not Charted in US)
“Want you to tell me you need it
I wanna hear it repeated
Want you to take me completely
Want you to tell me, want you to tell me”
Here’s a scenario I never thought I would be in: loving a Christina Aguilera album that many of my peers despised and placed on their Worst of 2012 lists. For me, Lotus was cohesive, well-sung and mostly well written. Yes, Aguilera plays the victim a bit much at times, but in the context of today’s pop landscape, that actually plays out well. “Let There Be Love” hasn’t been released as a single, but I have no doubt that it will be unleashed on the clubs in no time, perhaps alongside the more mellow current single “Just a Fool.”
38. Cheryl Cole “Call My Name” (Not Charted in US)
“It’s a constant thought of my baby taking up my time
It’s a non-stop vision of you that’s playing on my mind”
Fool of the year goes to Cheryl Cole, who passed up a perfect opportunity to break big in the US with “Call My Name,” a song that couldn’t have been more “of the moment” if it were recorded live on the air. Cole is actually signed to will.i.am’s label here in the States, and I have no doubt that if the song were released here, it would have been massive. Instead Cheryl appeared to continue squeezing those sour grapes from her US X Factor debacle, rather than making the best of the situation. Still, “Call My Name” was a refreshing blast that reaffirmed the magic touch of Calvin Harris. (I was also obsessed with the sleeveless dancer from her Graham Norton performance linked here. You’ll know who I’m talking about as soon as the video starts…)
37. Bat for Lashes “Laura” (Not Charted in US)
“You say that they’ve all left you behind
Your heart broke when the party died
Drape your arms around me and softly say
Can we dance upon the tables again?”
When I’ve loved Bat for Lashes, I’ve really loved Bat for Lashes, and “Laura” became an obsession for me for several weeks. This ode to a woman feeling that she is beyond her prime showed a more subtle side to singer Natasha Khan’s voice, and I ate it all up. “Laura” not only benefitted from a stunning vocal but also from a beautiful video (linked above).
36. Taylor Swift “Begin Again” (#7 US)
“I’ve been spending the last 8 months
Thinking all love ever does
Is break and burn and end
But on a Wednesday in a cafe
I watched it begin again”
I was not a fan of Taylor Swift’s coming into the release of Red. You can blame it on the massive PR campaign or the horrific “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” but I just wanted her to go away. And then I heard Red, and I had to give it its due. The album is a solid body of Pop music, and among the gems on the album was the Country-pop ballad “Begin Again.” When Swift isn’t playing the annoying teenage girl in her songs, she is a very good storyteller, and “Begin Again” paints a full picture of watching a new relationship blossom.
35. Delta Rae “Bottom of the River” (Not Charted in US)
“The wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight
Drunk and driven by a devil’s hunger
Drive your son like a railroad spike
Into the water, let it pull him under”
I try not to have regrets, but a big one for me in 2012 was missing the opportunity to see Delta Rae live in concert here in Denver. With the Alt-Country movement in full swing, Sire Records and founder Seymour Stein unleashed Delta Rae on the world, and the group, consisting of three siblings and three other members, didn’t disappoint. While more people may know “Morning Comes” from its You Oughta Know status on VH1, “Bottom of the River” is the song that hooked me, sounding like a funeral dirge with tight harmonies and a driving drum beat.
34. Ingrid Michaelson “Ghost” (Not Charted in US)
“I’m a ghost, haunting these halls
Climbing the walls that I never knew were there
And I’m lost, broken down the middle of my hard heart”
Possibly my biggest album surprise this year was just how much I loved Ingrid Michaelson’s Human Again, which was preceded by the gorgeous single “Ghost.” While I liked her previous singles, those were more passing fancies than the substantial joy I got out of listening to Human Again over and over for a good month. “Ghost” is a moving tale of a lover who can’t move on after her relationship is long gone, and that pain was palpable in the performance.
33. Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait” (#23 US)
“So break my step
You forgave and I won’t forget”
Upon my first listen to “I Will Wait,” I had the same response most people had: “did Mumford and Sons get happy?” Alas, in listening closer to the lyrics, it became clear that this song was more an ode to relief after a confession than actual joy. Still, the added energy and exuberance was contagious, and it carried over to their performance at Red Rocks in August that was recorded for both the song’s video as well as a live disc for a Deluxe Edition of Babel.
32. Little Big Town “Pontoon” (#22 US)
“5 mile an hour with aluminum side
Wood panelin’ with a water slide
Can’t beat the heat, so let’s take a ride”
Not only did Little Big Town have the most fun song on Country radio this past summer, they also single-handedly brought the term “motorboating” into everyday conversations across the US. While I’m not sure that’s a good thing, the song did a great job of catching that lazy vibe when you are enjoying a day on the lake with friends and whatever refreshments you decide to bring along.
31. TVXQ “Catch Me” (#25 KPOP US)
“Baby catch me. Catch me. Catch me, girl, tonight
Tteona beorigi jeone (I’m serious I’m serious)”
The first of two KPOP songs on this year’s countdown, TVXQ decided to chase US success on the heels of PSY’s massive success. While the song garnered a couple of TV show placements, there wasn’t much enthusiasm generated for the song. That’s a shame, because whether or not you understand the lyrics to “Catch Me” (and I don’t), the song is hugely contagious with a soaring chorus and a pretty cool video to go along with it. Sadly, the failure of songs by the likes of TVXQ and Girls Generation to break through in the US probably signals that PSY was more a video phenomenon than a musical milestone.
30. Adele “Skyfall” (#8 US)
“Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark”
It is very rare that a song, a musical artist and a movie are so perfectly matched. Think Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Irene Cara’s “Flashdance,” and Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Alright” for said perfect matches. Allow me to add Adele’s “Skyfall” to the list. While I believe the song’s detractors had a valid point that this was not Adele at her finest, to my ears that doesn’t matter. Movie music is meant to match the mood, the narrative and the reputation of a movie, and “Skyfall” was a worthy successor to songs like “Diamonds are Forever” and “Nobody Does It Better.” There’s a reason the song performed better than any Bond theme in the past decade.
29. Emeli Sandé “Next To Me” (Not Charted in US)
“You won’t find him drinkin’ at the tables
Rolling dice and staying out ’til three
You won’t ever find him being unfaithful
You will find him, you’ll find him next to me”
So how is it that Cher Lloyd has garnered a hit in the US, yet Emeli Sandé is relatively unknown here, save her appearances in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Summer Olympics in London? No justice, no peace. “Next To Me” is the rare song that is vague enough that individual listeners can find their own meanings based on their past experience while still having enough meat to carry the song through. Despite Our Version of Events being a bit of a letdown, this song was a strong reminder of why much of the world is embracing Sandé.
28. Hunter Hayes “Wanted” (#16 US to date)
“You know I’d fall apart without you
I don’t know how you do what you do
‘Cause everything that don’t make sense about me
Makes sense when I’m with you”
A year ago I was praising Hunter Hayes’ self-titled debut album, hoping that he was given the opportunity to succeed. Apparently, a few other folks were feeling the same way. Fast forward 13 months, and second single “Wanted” topped to Country charts and is now climbing the Pop and Adult Pop charts while follow-up single “Somebody’s Heartbreak” is blasting up the Country chart faster than either of his previous singles. Next stop? A strong shot at Best New Artist at the Grammys in February.
27. The Weeknd “Wicked Games” (#61 US)
“Bring your love baby I could bring my shame
Bring the drugs baby I could bring my pain
I got my heart right here
I got my scars right here”
There was something so hypnotic about the Weeknd’s vocal delivery on “Wicked Games” that I couldn’t resist, but a good chunk of the credit should go to his production work that creates a grimy landscape that contrasts brilliantly with his brighter vocals. “Wicked Games” was originally released on the mixtape House of Balloons, but all three of the Weeknd’s mixtapes were released late in 2012 as Trilogy on a proper label, with all tracks getting cleaned up and remixed.
26. Ne-Yo “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)” (#1 US)
“I can see the pain behind your eyes,
It’s been there for quite a while
I just wanna be the one
To remind you what it is to smile”
In my opinion, Ne-Yo should get both the credit and blame for the current glut of R&B artists making club tracks with hot producers, as he was making cuts like this years ago in the form of “Closer” way back in 2008. In fact, I picked that song as my favorite of the year. “Let Me Love You” continued in that dance tradition, but didn’t have quite the same spark to my ear. Still, the song was a jam and carried the momentum forward from his own collaboration with a hot producer named Calvin Harris.
25. Ellie Goulding “Anything Could Happen” (#47 US to date, #1 Dance US)
“After the war we said we’d fight together
I guess we thought that’s just what humans do
Letting darkness grow”
Nothing ever seems to come easily for Ellie Goulding. Take 2011’s “Lights,” which was released mid-2011, made some minor noise at Adult Pop radio and mainly flopped in the UK. Then due to a series of events including Ellie playing gas stations and Starbucks locations across the US (it sure seemed that way), Pop radio picked up on the song, and it went on to become the #1 song at Pop radio for all of 2012. Unfortunately, the same thing seems to be happening to “Anything Could Happen,” but another funny circumstance appears to be helping the song grow at the end of the year: X Factor. Finalists Fifth Harmony performed the song two weeks in a row in their best-received performance, helping raise the song’s profile nationally.
24. Vicci Martinez “Come Along (feat. Cee Lo Green)” (#33 Hot AC US to date)
“Play with it while you have hands
Dust settles, cities turn to sand
Trespassing this is their land
Time flies, make a statement, take a stand”
Vicci Martinez potentially holds the title of “Most Successful Graduate of The Voice” based on the slow journey of “Come Along” at Adult Pop radio. The song originally debuted on The Voice back in May, and the song received some airplay but quickly dropped off the charts. To Vicci’s credit, she started a non-stop tour of radio stations and festivals across the country, and now the song has resurfaced and is steadily climbing the chart again. This could be the “Lights” of 2013!
23. Rihanna “Diamonds” (#1 US)
“You’re a shooting star I see
A vision of ecstasy
When you hold me, I’m alive
We’re like diamonds in the sky”
When “Diamonds” was released in September, I listened to it about five times in a row and declared that “Diamonds” was Rihanna’s best single release since “Umbrella.” For the most part, I still stand by that, despite my reservations endorsing anything having to do with RiRi. There’s no denying that Sia took Rihanna to a classier place that she needed to go, and I have to give credit where it’s due: Rihanna plays the chameleon well when she needs to change up her sound.
22. The Lumineers “Ho Hey” (#3 US to date)
“So show me family
All the blood that I would bleed
I don’t know where I belong
I don’t know where I went wrong
But I can write a song”
Speed round: name bands that rode Mumford and Sons’ coattails in 2012. Imagine Dragons, Of Monsters and Men, Phillip Phillips, Lumineers. At this point, The Lumineers have won that competition, as “Ho Hey” has outpaced all of those acts and even Mumford and Sons, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 2012. The Denver-based band benefitted from product placements in the US (Microsoft) and the UK (E.ON), and they were rewarded with top 10 rankings on both sides of the Atlantic.
21. Demi Lovato “Give Your Heart a Break” (#16 US)
“Don’t wanna break your heart
Wanna give your heart a break
I know you’re scared it’s wrong
Like you might make a mistake”
“The day I/First heard this/I said that/I didn’t want to hear it again/So here I am/Eating crow/And praising it/Readers don’t you understand!”
Yeah…I was wrong. Great song, great delivery, and Demi’s inclusion on the X Factor was finally justified.
Great list – I really like the fact you mix different genres and treat them equally. There’s a few here that I don’t know that I shall be checking out, and a couple (Hunter Hayes, Delta Rae) I perhaps need to look at again.
Looking forward to the rest of the list.
Thanks for the feedback. My normal disclaimer is that pop music to me is much broader than Top 40. Glad you like the diversity, and I’d love to hear what you think about the new artists you’re checking out.
I listened to the Delta Rae album at work this morning (which it turns out I’d had in my to-listen Spotify folder, and never got round to), and it was great, so thank you for that!
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