By Aaron Wallace
Things are starting to look up for the decade. As sing-song melody and classic sensibilities are back on the rise, there’s a light at the end of the Rihanna-and-Gaga tunnel. For some of the year’s greatest offerings, let’s take a look at my picks for the 30 best music singles of 2012. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something new to love.
30. The Rolling Stones – “Doom and Gloom”
Released just a few weeks before the world was supposed to end (nearly depriving you all of this list – thank God we avoided that!), this catchy rocker finds the Stones waxing romantic about the approaching apocalypse. Jagger voices the band’s frustration with the media’s unceasing barrage of unpleasant news, ultimately deciding to cast it off and go after love in the world’s final hours. Relevant and rollicking, it’s a reminder that there’s still a place for good old-fashioned rock & roll in today’s music scene.
29. Phillip Phillips – “Home”
A song about finding comfort on an unfamiliar journey feels appropriate as the debut single for an “American Idol” champion. It’s the show’s best-selling coronation song to date, and unquestionably one of its best. Proving himself to be closer to Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood than Taylor Hicks/Lee DeWyze on the “Idol” victor scale, Phillips models everything here that earned him the crown: personable vocals, genuine earthiness, and a clear preference for artistry over commercialism.
28. Passion Pit – “Take a Walk”
In a time of economic downturn and political division, Passion Pit look at the American Dream with both optimism and a reality check. This contemplative-yet-uptempo indie-pop song serves as a reminder that when things take a turn for the worst, it’s okay to hit your knees, ask for help, and blow off a little steam. How? Take a walk — or, as the stomping beat suggests, a heavy-footed march.
27. The Lumineers – “Ho Hey”
“Ho!” “Hey!” The band’s purposeful chant turns what could have been a simple, folksy love song into an emotive indie rocker with lovably sweet lyrics. And to think that this same title on a rap song would have been so much less romantic…
26. Justin Bieber – “Boyfriend”
The full song isn’t nearly as sexy as the first 30 seconds suggest, but “Boyfriend” nevertheless heralds the growing up of Justin Bieber. His 2010 breakthrough, “Baby,” now sounds, well, infantile — like looking back at a childhood photo album. Alternating between his lower register and a clean falsetto with Timberlake-ian finesse, Bieber lands a legitimate pop punch in this hook-laden, slickly produced R&B dance number. Swaggy.
25. Rebecca Ferguson – “Shoulder to Shoulder”
Supposedly inspired by her short-lived relationship with One Direction member Zayn Malik, Ferguson croons beautifully about the imperfection of love. While we wait for Adele to give us 24 (or 25?), the UK’s 2010 “X-Factor” runner-up will do quite nicely as a tide-over.
24. Colton Dixon – “September”
Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 disco hit is nearly, wonderfully unrecognizable in Dixon’s studio cut from this year’s “American Idol.” With every heartfelt “ba de ya,” he turns a dancy relic into an epic power ballad.
23. Jukebox the Ghost – “Somebody”
“Somebody” kicks off with a breezy hook in falsetto and soon adds a steady clap in the mix. With ear-catching percussive sensibilities, it’s well-tuned summer pop material.
22. Rufus Wainwright – “Out of the Game”
Wainwright’s “Out of the Game” is a ’70s pop song for 2012, reminiscent not only of the era’s musical personality but also its appreciation for a complex lyric. The chorus begs to be sung along with, as it builds with “look at you… look at you… look at you… look at you,” and then erupts into “SUCKERS!” And if that’s not enough, Helena Bonham Carter lip syncs the entire video. Somehow, I’m not even surprised.
21. Haley Reinhart – “Free”
Reinhart’s voice soars with her signature retro sex appeal in this song about a mutually agreeable breakup. While it’s far from the best track on her debut album and a puzzling pick for her first single, it’s still quite a bit better than most of what made an impact on radio this year. It’s a real shame that “Free” never found its footing.
20. Jason Mraz – “I Won’t Give Up”
The verses are a tad cookie cutter-ish, but Mraz delivers them with a pure, raw vocal that makes them feel more genuine than they really are. The chorus, though — and to an even greater extent, the bridge — is something special. With piano stomps and ever-thickening layers of background accompaniment, the song builds into a delightfully verbose and harmonious ballad full of honest emotion.
19. Maroon 5, featuring Wiz Khalifa – “Payphone”
“Where have the times gone?” Adam Levine asks in a song named after something no one uses anymore. There’s cleverness in the band’s anachronism, given that the lyrics otherwise contemplate a bygone relationship. It’s as if the romance feels as long-ago to him as the era of spending coins inside a phone booth. What’s amazing is that the band made something so catchy out of something so depressing. Making people dance while you throw the f-word in the face of “happy ever after” is no small feat. Then again, maybe it’s just what the brokenhearted need to hear.
18. Regina Spektor – “Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas)”
Cheery, plucky, bouncy, and breezy, Spektor’s re-do of her own song hops from English to French, just as its lyrics skip from New York to Paris. She never seems to mind how silly it is, and neither do I. You almost get the sense that she’s floating through Central Park as she sings, and you feel like doing the same.
17. Rebecca Ferguson – “Backtrack”
Carly Rae who? One of 2012’s catchiest pure-pop jams, it’s this year’s “Rumour Has It.”
16. Joshua Ledet – “I’d Rather Go Blind”
With mind-blowing vocal power and control, Ledet takes on the Etta James classic and more than holds his own. “Something deep down in my soul,” he sings, and that’s what we hear.
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