This list is not in any order, and there's certainly some that I've forgotten. These are the songs that made an impact on my consciousness in 2012. I listened to a lot more chart music this past year, primarily because I joined a gym that played Channel V non-stop. And while that was a largely painful experience - 99% of music today is still aimed at helping moronic 19 year olds shake their azz and get with all the hotties at da cluuub - some good stuff managed to sneak in there too.
Gotye featuring Kimbra - Somebody That I Used To Know
Belgian-born Melbournian Wally De Backer, aka Gotye, notched up some impressive feats in 2012 - among them, the first Australian artist to hit number 1 in the US since Savage Garden, over 300 million views on Youtube, topping the charts in 23 countries, and apparently the most popular song ever in the history of the Dutch charts. Quite a feat for an "alternative" artist, whatever that tag means these days.
Kendrick Lamar - Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe
As someone who still remembers the Golden Age of Hip-Hop (aka 1988 - 1994, give or take), I pretty much hate every rapper who comes out these days. But Kendrick's all right. We can hang.
PSY - Gangnam Style
The first song ever to amass a billion views on Youtube, a worldwide phenomenon that had everyone doing the horse dance, making videos or their own versions (see the video below) and singing along to words in Korean that they didn't understand. Gangnam Style might be a sign of the weird times we now live in, but it is also the triumph of infectious pop music to overcome the barriers of culture and language.
While a whole lot of people are undoubtedly sick to death of hearing Gangnam Style and seeing its associated dances, this shouldn't detract from what is a pretty good song. Yes, on one level it is lowest-common-denominator dance music (it borrows liberally from LMFAO's Sexy and I Know it, which was clearly not designed for people with high IQs). But it functions on other levels too: a poke at the Korean establishment (even if non-Koreans won't quite understand that), and a complete reversal of many of the conventions that most pop stars play by.
Guy Sebastian featuring Lupe Fiasco - Battle Scars
The inaugural winner of Australian Idol back in the day, Guy Sebastian seems like a lovely dude, but he's also seemed kinda lame in everything he has released; a waste of one of the better talents to have graced that show. With Battle Scars, he has achieved the feat of actually recording something credible without sacrificing his pop instincts, and it is far and away the best thing the Malaysian-born and Adelaide-raised singer has ever . Lupe Fiasco's rap on the song is a nice addition because it doesn't seem tacked on like many rap-cameos do. In fact, the two vocalists blend so well together that they can be featured on Letterman as "Lupe Fiasco featuring Guy Sebastian" and it doesn't seem completely off.
Rudimental - Feel the Love
This British collective took a genre of music many of us had forgotten existed (drum n bass), dressed it up with jazzy trumpet solos and Stax-era soul touches, and somehow had a major worldwide hit. And then did it all again with Not Giving In. Who knew the world was crying out for this style of music? Both tracks have amazing videos too.
Azalea Banks - 212
(This is actually from the back end of 2011.) One of the dominant trends in popular music is the fusion of hip-hop with club music. This is hardly a new trend – back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a lot of this stuff going on, some of it pretty good – but it is ever-present at the moment. And much of it is pretty awful, to be frank, epitomized by the dubious likes of Flo Rida and Pitbull. A better example is Azealea Banks’ 212, which succeeds largely because it samples Lazy Jay's Float my Boat, which can stand on its own merits as an instrumental track, and is not as mind-numbingly populist as most of the big club-rap tracks around. But Banks' quirky personality is also a huge drawcard, and makes the video eminently watchable, while her fairly confronting lyrics take sexual braggadocio into dimensions rarely explored in hip-hop.
The Bamboos featuring Megan Washington - The Wilhelm Scream
Melbourne's top purveyors of deep funk give this James Blake tune a smoky, majestic makeover.
Solange - Losing You
Truth be told, I've never been a huge Madonna fan, and have cared little for the previous output of Beyonce's little sister Solange. So I'm not quite sure why I find Solange's Losing You to be one of my favourite tracks of the year, given that it sounds more like Madonna than anything Madonna has done in the last 20 years. I didn't even think much of it on first listen either, principally for its extreme Madonna-ishness... but once its hooks are in it doesn't let go.
Miguel - Adorn
In a similar vein to the Solange track, RnB singer Miguel gives a big nod to the 80s with his biggest hit Adorn. But in this case, he echoes late-career Marvin Gaye. A great example of how a track that is very obviously synthesised can sound sexy and soulful and not at all plastic; a "commercial" RnB track that is notable for its subtlety. Miguel's album is not all that, unfortunately, but he at least shows that his excellent track All I Want Is You from a few years back was not a fluke.
Carly Rae Jepsen, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots - Call Me Maybe
Worth it for the faces of The Roots as they play away in the background.
Frank Ocean - Thinking About You
It used to be that if you wanted to make proper soul music and avoid making stupid commercial RnB, the only way was to go retro, harking back to an era when people knew how to make proper soul music. Frank Ocean, like Miguel to an extent, is making "proper" soul while still sounding very contemporary. His album Planet Orange is one of the very best you'll hear this year. The revelation, in the lead up to the album release, that Ocean is somewhat less than 100% heterosexual, is a brave move for any "urban" artist. Had he been a white pop singer, of course, no one would have cared.
Chiddy Bang - Mind Your Manners
In hip-hop, a genre that revolves around being a badass, it's often forgotten that the music was once fun as well as cool. (The hip-hop fun test is whether you can dance to the track without making an "attitude" face.) I'm not sure how cool Chiddy Bang really are, but in Mind Your Manners they have a track that is fun and accessible without sounding horrible, which is actually quite hard to do.
Labrinth - Treatment
The charts are full of rock bands fooling around with dance and urban elements (guest rappers, four-to-the-floor beats, DJ scratches and electronic effects). Meh. When an urban/dance artist starts fooling round with rock, I expect it to suck. This doesn't.