There seems to be general agreement that 2012 was not a good year for pop music—musically, commercially, or for those who cover it. I have my doubts about this (I have my doubts about the whole concept of good and bad years in general, but that’s another discussion), but there’s no doubting the negatives.
The commercial aspect is obvious: CD sales continue to drop, and digital sales aren’t rising fast enough to compensate. Individual track sales are booming, but LP sales are still far behind.
For critics, while the opportunities to publish, or at least self-publish, continue to expand (which may be part of the problem), the possibility of getting paid has dropped. The two most obvious signs of this decline—the firing of Maura Johnston at the Village Voice in favor of the snarky, listicle-based, and largely out of touch music coverage featured in the other Voice Media papers (disclaimer: by extension, I was one of the victims in Maura’s firing); and the failure of Uncool to find crowd-sourced financial backing (largely their own fault, but still)—suggest that support for decent music writing exists, for the most part, only among decent music writers, and stretches not much further than their families and friends.
As for the music, this has been a transitional year, though I wouldn’t call it a complete disaster. The collapse of hip-hop as the reigning genre, a process that started back in 2008, became a general part of the discussion this year, as the music all but disappeared from the top ten. Older stars like Usher (and Beyonce in 2011) found it almost impossible to scale the pop charts, even after they modernized their sound. Of the younger artists, only Nicki Minaj and Rihanna have managed to stay near the top of the charts, but both had established themselves in the years before, and there were no big breakout artists.
In rap, though a number of new artists in the older mold (Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz, Big Sean, and others) scored decent hits, none of them have made much of a mark on the pop charts. Far more successful, and claiming the most critical interest over the last year, have been artists like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, and Future, who follow in the wake of the album that broke the old form’s dominance: Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks. 808s is not only one of the markers for the commercial collapse of hip-hop, but has become far more influential musically than anyone expected. West, not surprisingly, is also the only established rapper who continues to have major pop hits.
So far, though, even as hip-hop has faded, nothing has stepped up to take its place, at least not in in comparison to the total domination hip-hop enjoyed for over a decade. Instead, we have three different streams rising up and sharing the spotlight.
The one that has gotten the most attention, and certainly the most press, is the dance and party music that has been stuck with the name EDM. EDM made its first major appearance on the pop charts via The Black Eyed Peas in the late oughts, just as hip-hop was starting its swan dive. The electro-based minimalism of BEP has been largely replaced by various types of eurodisco (Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia), and dupstep (Skrillex, Diplo, Zedd, and many others).
Over the last year it was dubstep that got the most attention. Skrillex’s singles, though never large pop hits, stayed on the lower reaches of the Hot 100 through most of the year, and he sold out everywhere he played (which was pretty much anywhere, and almost every night). Then came Usher’s Diplo-produced “Climax”, one of the best singles of the year and a number one r&b record, but not a big pop hit, most likely because it was too subtle to come across on top forty radio.
After that, it was as if the floodgates had opened, and every wave contained another “drop”. By the end of the year, dubstep had found a place in almost every genre. Not just in r&b and hip-hop, but in sensitive singer-songwriter balladry (Alex Clare’s “Too Close”, produced by Diplo), teen-pop (Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber), and even, if you stretch the definition a bit, country, in the form of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” The most garish and obvious cash-in came on Pitbull’s “Back In Time” (produced by RedOne). Laying the wobble on Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” created one of the most joyfully ridiculous pop moments this year, and it continues to mystify me that the record wasn’t a bigger hit.
Just behind EDM was teen-pop, mostly in the form of the effervescent Jepsen and the somewhat beleaguered and bipolar (in a relationship sense) Swift. The Disney factory, which for all intents and purposes created teen-pop as a genre, was for the most part silent this year, with only the rehabbed Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break” scoring big, although Bridgit Mendler continues to hover on the lower reaches of the Hot 100 with the readymade “Ready Or Not”.
The Disney gap was largely filled by Brits. Boy band One Direction turned the Disney blueprint into gold, pumping out one bright, snappy pop/rock track after another, while Cher Lloyd toughened the stance without losing the cheeky corniness of the genre (if anything she amplified it). “Want U Back” is too mature to fit the Disney mold well, but follow-up single “Oath” could have come off the soundtrack to any Disney Channel musical of the last five years (“Oath” wasn’t a big hit, but it was scooped up by a lot of teens with their iTunes gift cards after Christmas—enough to give the record it’s highest chart placement after it had fallen off the Hot 100 two weeks before; the next week it was gone again).
The third stream produced big hits but hasn’t, as far as I can see, gotten much publicity, or what it has gotten has been for a different reason. I call it the “new seriousness”, though that can hardly be considered a genre name. Most of these records came from what usually get called “indie bands”, though that label becomes more meaningless all the time (and it never meant much). The biggest hits, by Gotye and fun., (Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” started the ball rolling in late 2011), feature intense self-reflection and -doubt, with a heightened, though intellectualized, sense of musical melodrama.
These records aren’t to everyone’s taste, obviously, but the fact that lesser artists (Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Ed Sheeran, even American Idol winner Phillip Phillips), have been able to make hits along the same basic lines suggests that there’s a growing sense of—dare I say it?—personal responsibility building in the pop audience. The real proof may come later this year, when the new Arcade Fire is released. If they get a hit single, I’d say the “new seriousness” is officially a trend. If not, it’s a blip. (Meanwhile, the record I thought would be the next big “serious” hit—Passion Pit’s “Take A Walk”—continues to hover in the lower reaches of the chart. It’s dropped off a couple of times over the last three months, but it always comes back).
But was 2012 a mediocre year? I don’t think any year that contained “Call Me Maybe”, “Climax”, and “Adorn” could be called bad, and these judgments are best made in retrospect anyway, so I’m only prepared to go as far as calling it average and transitional. The pop audience is still making up its mind as to what will follow hip-hop as the dominant paradigm, but I would assume it will be a mixture of all three streams, an idea already explored by artists like Robyn and on Jepsen’s critically praised but commercially disappointing album Kiss (again, Arcade Fire’s new album may work as a test case, though I doubt there’ll be much teen-pop influence).
At any rate, my picks for the best songs to make the Hot 100 in 2012 are below. Basically, anything that would deserve a B+ or better—if I bothered to grade records, that is—is included. The only track missing from the playlist is Swift’s “Begin Again”, which isn’t yet available on Spotify. These are not in order of quality, though a lot of my favorites ended up at the beginning and the end, with the slightly lower quality stuff tossed about in the middle. The mix is a mess, but then the year was a mess, and at least this gives a sense of how scattered it was stylistically.
My choices make up slightly less than ten percent of the records that made the chart this year, and as could be expected, some of the inclusions and omissions are questionable, not just by you, but by me as well. Still here it is. (Ten percent, by the way, is what I would consider average. If it were fifteen it would be a good year, twenty a great one. Anything much below ten, though? I don’t even want to think about it).