Coming up with a Top 10 list always feels like a fool’s errand. It’s impossible to listen to all the music that I want to, so any list always has to come with the caveat that these were the songs that stuck with me throughout the year that I actually heard. Other crititcs’ lists inevitably turn me on to stuff that I’d totally missed.
Secondly, even though these lists are branded “best of,” this is really just a list of songs that I really liked. Some of them are lighthearted, some of the them are musically complex, some of them are mindless. The only thing they shared was that I never tired of hearing them.
Speaking of, to quality, a song had to come out in 2012 (that automatically eliminated “We Are Young” and “Somebody That I Used To Know,” since they both were first released in 2011, even though they didn’t come to prominence until 2012. The song also had to be released as a commercial single —no deep album tracks.
We’re in a bit of a pop resurgence, which, for a pop music fan is pure joy. However, the movement feels more quantity over quality to me right now. I was surprised how few songs I fell in love with this year and I struggled to come up with enumerating my list. Regardless, below are my Top 10.
The text below is the same as on the video in case you’d prefer to read me rather than hear me.
10. “Payphone,” Maroon 5 feat. Wiz Khalifa
Forget about the contestants, Adam Levine and and his band Maroon 5 are the real winners from “The Voice.” Levine’s role as a mentor on the talent competition has completely revitalized the group. While “One More Night” was the bigger chart hit, “Payphone,” with Levine’s falsetto plaintively calling out his love via a now antiquated pay phone, struck a chord with me that resonated all summer. I’ll give him an unending stack of quarters as long as he keeps trying to call home to get a hold of me.
9. “I Will Wait,” Mumford & Sons
“I Will Wait” features all the hallmarks that we’ve come to love in the few years that this British quartet has existed: exuberant stomping choruses bolstered by Marcus Mumford’s furious acoustic guitar and Winston Marshall’s melodic, ringing banjo. They make an unholy amount of noise for a four-piece. Every Mumford song is a revival, each anthem promises redemption and “I Will Wait” is no exception.
8. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” Frank Ocean
Bolstered by a wavering, retro synth line and a drum machine, Frank Ocean’s slow grooving “Thinking About You” comes in at No. 8. The Odd Future graduate talks to a past lover who is never far from his mind. It’s sad, bittersweet, and ever so slightly hopeful in all the right places. Ocean’s falsetto takes the song right back to the ‘70s. It’s a gorgeous blend of the past and the present and yet it feels brand new. (Smart observers will note that the video is footage from "Pyramids"; there was no official video for "Thinkin'" and the label didn't have the rights to the great "SNL" performance.)
7.“Tip It On Back,” Dierks Bentley
Bentley’s voice is a ragged and rough in all the right places and he uses it to great effect on this banjo-laced tune. The mid-tempo slider is ostensibly about forgetting all your troubles by tipping a few drinks on back on a Friday night but there’s a sly sensuality to the song that adds a different dimension if you want to read that into it. And I do.
6. “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Kendrick Lamar
Rap is a genre that often glorifies alcohol but Lamar splashes cold water on that kind of thinking with this harsh look at addiction. One drink is too many and one thousand drinks will never be enough in this sobering tale that finds Lamar wrestling with his own conscience as he struggles not to go down the same alcoholic road as his grandfather and his friends. Don’t dive in. The water is not fine.
5. “Watching You Watch Him,” Eric Hutchinson
Eric Hutchinson’s “Watching You Watch Him” is a whole lotta heartbreak wrapped in a jangly, shuffling guitar beat. In this song, which comes in at No. 5, Hutchinson’s the poor sap who’s in love with a girl, who’s in love with a guy who couldn’t care less. It’s certainly not a new concept, but seldom has unrequited love arrived in such an appealing, bubbly package.
4. “Where Have You Been,” Rihanna
It doesn’t quite have the feel of a dance classic like last year’s “We Found Love,” but this effort, which was also produced by Calvin Harris, first brings you in with its insistent, thumping techno beat and then drops into a dubstep breakdown. But instead of feeling cold and clinical, the song’s theme of searching for a true partner warms it up. It’s a fascinating blend of trance and R&B and pop and, most importantly, longing.
3. “Some Nights, “ fun.
The rock trio brought a beguiling new complexity to the Top 40 with the multi-layered “We Are Young.” This follow up displays the same love for glorious harmonies, complex yet infectious melodies, and smart lyrics. Throw in a staccato, military drum beat and you’ve got a winning combo that stormed the charts but never once felt like the group sacrificed artistry for commercialism. Plus, Nate Ruess has the clearest, purest pop voice since Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump.
2. “Locked Out Of Heaven,” Bruno Mars
Mars is this decade’s Justin Timberlake. He sings like a dream and has a real command and appreciation for the soul music that has come before him. He builds on that to create something that sounds completely fresh. Take away the stuttering hiccups in “Locked Out Of Heaven, the thumping bass and the dubstep drop, and you’ve got a song straight out of the Motown era (crossed with a touch of the Police) and one that’s just as infectious.
1. “Little Talks,” Of Monsters and Men
Over the last few years, acts like Avett Brothers, the aforementioned Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers have ushered in a new genre of fierce acoustic-based rock. Combine that with a weird Icelandic sensibility and you get Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks.” On the rollicking song, acoustic guitars collide with the incredible downer lyrics about being torn apart by a departed love, delivered by a male and female singers trading off on the vocals. While we’re waiting for the ship to carry our bodies safe to shore, there’s no escaping the ghosts that haunt us... and when they sound this enticing, why would we want to? (NOTE: We know we have the wrong video in here. As soon as the label sends the right one, we'll replace).
So there you have it. Ten songs I found myself drawn to over and over this year. I hope you find some discoveries here and happy listening.
What songs would be on your list?