The 8 Ball 12.8.12: The Top 8 Singles of 2012
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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The Music Zone 8-Ball’s 2012 year in review kicked off last week with the best music videos of the year, and this week we’re moving onto the top singles. As in every year there has been no shortage of promotional singles released in order to promote albums. While the Billboard Hot 100 has been largely dominated by the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Maroon 5, some (though certainly not all) of the best commercially-released songs have been ones that stayed a bit more under the radar. As music trends continue to evolve in the never-ending back-and-forth struggle of genres against one another, several songs have risen to the top to become the cream of the crop of 2012. This week those are the ones we’re looking at.
Caveat: In the digital age, what is and is not a single can be a bit of a blurry line. With services like iTunes or Spotify allowing listeners to take any track they want from albums and ignore the rest, it can be argued that the single is on its way out as a music industry standard. In all honesty, there is some truth to that. Still, the single still exists in its traditional form. You cannot just rely on Billboard charts because of the influence of digital services, and radio play can follow suit to veer off course. Thus I relied on the most solid sources I could find whether (in order of priority) it was an artist or label’s official site, Amazon, Wikipedia and then others; there will be some fuzziness so a bit of leeway is appreciated. As for qualifiers, the song in question had to be released in the US in 2012. This would qualify, for example, “Somebody That I Used To Know” even though as–a reader rightfully pointed out–I erroneously listed it last week among the music videos when the video was released in 2011.
Bruce Springsteen – “We Take Care of Our Own”
Gotye – “Somebody That I Used to Know”
Jay-Z & Kanye West – “No Church in the Wild”
One of my favorite developments of 2012 was the fact that rock made a bit of a comeback in all its forms. Many have predicted that rock was more or less on life support in the days of dance-pop, boy bands and reality singing competitions; they would usually add that it would take a person along the lines of a Kurt Cobain to bring it back. With all due respect, I see two flaws with that. First, the odds of another Cobain coming along are slim to none in our lifetime. And two, rock and hard rock made its comeback without a new person to call the voice of a generation. Case in point; Halestorm. The young hard rock band’s sophomore album, The Strange Case Of…, had a level of hard rock that was unabashed about its sensibilities and yet could be taken seriously by mainstream rock fans. And its secret weapon: Lzzy Hale. The frontwoman unleashed her incredibly singing voice with “Love Bites (So Do I),” the first single off the album. Hale proves herself one of the better and most versatile vocalists in the hard rock scene on this track as she keeps it at a wildly energetic yet tightly-controlled vocal level until the time is right…and that is when she unleashes her voice, powered by the perfect mix of rock chick snarl and pure badass strength. Following up with a year where rock seemed to headed toward increasingly tame territory, Halestorm came out, faced down the “rock is dying” claims and kicked their teeth in.
While hard rock and metal was making their way back to their old place just outside the mainstream scene, another pleasant evolution was occurring in rock, as indie rock once again became…well, indie. Now, let me be clear…I am fully aware that some groups like Mumford & Sons belong to major labels. But just as many are rising to prominence under independent labels, meaning that indie rock is starting to mean what it implies and not just an attempt by the big five labels to copy the sound of Arcade Fire, Bloc Party and/or Animal Collective. One of the things that have arrived along with the new era of indie rock is a strong infusion of folk sensibilities. It makes sense, considering how closely they are entwined. The sound was given a huge amount of mainstream legitimacy in 2012 as Mumford’s Babel became one of the highest-selling albums of the year. For my money though, The Lumineers had the best pure indie folk songs to hit the airwaves with the unbelievably catchy “Ho Hey.” Helped along via a Bing commercial, it has deservedly found traction and as of the week of this writing it sits at #5 on the Hot 100. In an era where Ke$ha competes with Rihanna for the top of the charts, that a band like the Lumineers can break through is a testament to them, and for good reason. As I said, “Ho Hey” is catchy but catchy alone doesn’t make a song a huge success. “Ho Hey” stands out because even with the encroachment of other folk rock acts on the music scene, this Colorado band stands apart in terms of authenticity and emotion. It is a simple enough song with a stripped-down sound, but that simplicity only enhances its power. It is perhaps the single-most effective earworm song of the year, and unlike with many songs that won’t leave your head most of us don’t want to have this one leave.
I realize that this is sort of copying myself, as this song also had an entry in my top 8 music videos last week. Honestly, I was surprised that once my list was compiled it was the only one; it just happened to work out that this was the perfect mix of fantastic video and impressive song. The song is about the rapper reflecting on the challenges of raising his daughter Destiny while being the public figure that he is within the rap game. I appreciate this song not only for the more serious subject matter but also for Nas’ old-school sound on this one. Rap is veering increasingly in one of two directions; the first is toward pop and contemporary R&B, while the other is a crunk-heavy sound. Nas has his tendency to veer in either direction from time to time, but on this track he stays clear of both and it clearly works to the song’s benefit. It is easily one of the best rap songs of the year in my book, both for the lyrical content and the aural qualities.
When fun. hit the mainstream music scene, I was more than a bit skeptical of them. Don’t get me wrong, “We Are Young” is a fun enough song but there was a definite feeling at the bass of my spine that it would get hideously overplayed and I would soon grow to hate them. Well, indeed that song did get overplayed, but surprisingly I didn’t grow to hate this indie pop-rock band as their follow-up song, “Some Nights,” was easily superior to “We Are Young.” It is a far bolder and more interesting track than its predecessor, with a stronger mix of genres to it and a better vocal performance from Nate Ruess. It is a song that has some obvious musical ancestors, the most obvious being Simon & Garfunkle’s “Cecelia,” but it melds those inspirations together into a single cohesive and original blend that shouldn’t work but does. The lyrics are intelligently-written and evocative without the need to spell everything out, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it is unbelievably catchy. This song didn’t quite hit the commercial heights that “We Are Young” did, but it found a much higher level of critical appreciation and it showed that the band was not content to go into the history books as a one-hit wonder.
You should probably get used to seeing Amanda Palmer’s work on my 2012 lists. I loved Palmer’s self-financed LP Theatre is Evil and this particular gem, which was released as a Tim Pope-directed music video back in September before the album’s release, holds a narrow edge over “Want It Back” and “Do It With a Rockstar” as my favorite promotional track from the LP. The song is a perfect example of how good of a songwriter that Palmer really is; it is a fairly disturbing ode to a state of being frustrated with a romantic partner’s emotional distance that starts off depressed but quickly takes a dark turn. Moderately subtle references to The Threepenny Opera (the inspiration of the song “Mack the Knife”) and protestations that she could never kill someone in real life–even if it meant getting her lover back–eventually fall away into a more ominous and warped direction by the end of the song. It is easily the most interesting promotionally-released pop song of the year and walks the line between alt-rock and pop in a way that echoes some of the better singer-songwriters of the past few decades.
Frank Ocean has had one of the most meteoric rises of the year. The R&B singer made headlines not only with his featured contributions on the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” but also by virtue of his headline grabbing admission of his sexuality in late June. The cynical among us noted that the admission was just before his album Channel Orange was released, and that certainly may have brought it to more peoples’ attention, but what kept them coming back was the quality. And foremost in that quality was this, his second single off of Orange. “Pyramids” is an incredibly ambitious song; it is epic in scale and sound as it covers a variety of sounds form club beats to smooth contemporary R&B, while the lyrical content gives the subject of the song a metaphorical elevation to the famous Cleopatra of Egypt and the act of prostitution a similar elevation to “working at the pyramid.” It is an multi-layered exploration of a time-worn story–the pimp falling in love with his employee–and is in fact partially inspired by Ocean’s own experiences living among both parts of that particular profession in Los Angeles. This is the kind of song that merits multiple listenings in order to appreciate it, though only one to really fall in love with it. That’s a rare feat.
Jack White’s first solo record was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The album still sits among one of the most critically-loved LPs of the year and for good reason. A big driver for the album’s success on a commercial level was “Sixteen Saltines,” which was performed on Saturday Night Live and precipitated an increase in sales for the disc. With its catchy guitar riff and classic Jack White sound, it was no surprise that people who were fans of White’s were going to fall in love with it and the rest of the public quickly followed suit. It is remarkably short even by today’s single standards, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in raw attitude. White was out to show that he could be just as good as he and Meg White ever were as the White Stripes and this was a powerful statement in support of that argument.
If you are a hip-hop fan and have not heard Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. City then you are missing out. There are a ton of great tracks on that disc for any fan of the genre, but its shining jewel absolutely has to be this. It has your attention right from the first note, with a moody sound melting into a quick little chant followed by Lamar waxing philosophical about the pitfalls of alcoholism. This is not the kind of subject matter you expect a major hip-hop artist to cover; it certainly seems like the kind of track that would kill the buzz that one might imagine floats around the Cash Money offices on a regular basis. It touches on temptation, peer pressure and many of the other issues that someone in a party environment might have to face, but more importantly it does so in a way that would make people want to listen. That being said, the song wouldn’t be anywhere near my top list if it was a good message with a bad sound. Lamar and producer T-Minus deliver on all aspects of this, making it an easy choice for me in regards to the top single of the year.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
One of the music videos I was embarrassed to have forgotten last week in the top 8 music videos was that of P!nk’s “Try.” You can say what you want about the song; I liked it even if it wasn’t one of my yearly favorites, but that’s just me. That being said, you have to respect the video which is a powerful and incredibly well-done dance interpretation of a dysfunctional, abusive relationship. I’m presenting both the video and the live performance at the AMAs, where she and her dance partner re-enact the video and she manages to keep singing with barely a pause. That takes a mind-blowing level of skill. Enjoy:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.