No matter what corner of it you were listening from, 2012 was a truly interesting year for the music world, with the most exciting sounds often coming from the least expected places. An unassuming Compton MC delivered what many are calling the best hip-hop album of the year, a British pop diva materialized fully formed before our eyes. Genres were flipped on their heads: Even Taylor Swift couldn’t help but drop the bass a couple times, and finally the R&B singers were taking acid. But plenty of perennial favorites also delivered: Fiona Apple came out of hiding with her most emotionally raw material to date, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music formed like Voltron to occasionally dazzling effect, and trash princess Ke$ha continued to dole out undeniable party jams with the kind of sweet, sleazy panache [some of us] have come to love.
Join the Grantland staff as we relive the year in music via some of the most unforgettable tracks of the year.
Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, “Mercy”
Chris Ryan: I have been in line at coffee shops, at the supermarket; sat in doctors’ waiting rooms, at stoplights, in airport terminals; stood in the shower; and been stuck in meetings. Everywhere in 2012, no matter the activity or location, one phrase, so inappropriate (like, literally, never appropriate), running through my head and often out of my mouth: “OH-OH-OH-OK, LAMBORGHINI MERCY, YOUR CHICK SHE SO THIRSTY … ” It’s an annoying habit, it’s not a phrase I planned on saying when this year began, and I’m not particularly sorry for doing it. The refrain from Kanye West’s “Mercy,” like other lyrical snippets from the track — drunk and high at the same time, gone off that Molly, check the neck, check the wrist, them heads turning, that’s Exorcist — the whole song, like the video, does what great music always does: It feels exotic and new while also being somehow familiar. “Lamborghini mercy” just seems like something I should be saying, to myself and others. This beat feels like something that has always been there: the fake steel drums, the modulated vocal stabs, the Death Star tractor beam bass drops. I still remember the first time I heard it; I still feel the same way hundreds of plays later. Push, Kanye, and 2 Chainz are all my favorites, and Big Sean is like a tiny plastic pink flamingo placed in front of a photograph of the pyramids. He’s there to give you a sense of perspective. Which makes sense: Nothing this year sounded so big.
Ke$ha, “Die Young”
Andy Greenwald: In the Year of our Lord 1986, a great British poet wrote “if a double-decker bus / crashes into us / to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die.” Twenty-six years later, a Nashville bottle-blonde who takes her fashion cues from a homeless, minor comic book character and applies her eye shadow with a bedazzler updated Morrissey’s white wine for the Four Loko generation: “young hunks, taking shots / stripping down to dirty socks / music up, getting’ hot / kiss me, give me all you got.” Ke$ha herself is one year younger than “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” which makes perfect sense: The exuberantly morbid “Die Young” is all about checking out before the ugly light ever switches on. Crafted by a veritable bling ring of pop songwriting royalty — including Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco, and fun.’s Nate Ruess — Ke$ha’s komeback $ingle married her signature electrolling with an uncharacteristic hopefulness. Hearts and drums get ensnared on the dance floor, tents are pitched, inhibitions drop like dubstep bass lines. Life may well be wasted on the young, but the kids are just too wasted to notice.
Jessie Ware, “Running”
Molly Lambert: In the exalted tradition of wintry British divas like Tracey Thorn, Lisa Stansfield, and Sade comes this tear-soaked snowstorm about longing in transit from English singer Jessie Ware’s debut album Devotion. Shimmering guitar harmonies and reverbed synths bump up against muted brass and live drums in the dark hallway of a crowded party. “Running” has a stark sophistication that evokes Bryan Ferry’s solo work. Ware’s plush vocals are a triumph of understatement sliding over Julio Bashmore’s stylish production, the sound of desire trapped in frost.
French Montana feat. Rick Ross, Drake, and Lil Wayne, “Pop That”
Alex Pappademas: Club banger isn’t the word. Club pummeller, more like. The backing track’s a bucket of bottle-service ice down your neck, with 101 synth strings going psycho killer/Norman Bates, relentless tick-tock percussion, and a hectoring sample of Uncle Luke badgering strippers to drop and give him 20, all of it borderline funkless and yet as relentless and undeniable in its air-raid intensity as “Beat on the
Brat” or “Night on Bald Mountain” or “Hava Nagila.” This aggro not-safe-for-twerk Ciroc commercial/sack of super-expensive hammers was a hit record? People listened to this for fun and/or while having it? 2012, you were super-weird! There were loads more hip-hop songs I straight-up enjoyed more than this one this year, but nothing else sums up what too-big-to-fail rap music felt like in oh-twelve quite as well as this did. Party as duty as clock-punching grind — or like French puts it, “Work work work work work work.” For me it all comes down to Rozay saying “Let’s get these hoes on the Molly,” and more important, to the way he says it — with all the joie de vivre of a man supervising the loading of building materials onto a truck while frowning at a watch-face the size of a personal pan pizza. Let’s get these hoes on the Molly, so we can do what we came to this rented mansion to do, and then get on with our lives.
Major Lazer ft. Amber Coffman, “Get Free”
Emily Yoshida: 2012 felt like the first year in a while that pop music wasn’t throwing a collective tantrum, taking a few moments between French Montana–commandeered booty pops to catch its breath and get a new lay of the land. Call it post-recession wave, maybe. Regardless, the overall mood this year was more thoughtful, older, and wiser, and not a little battle-hardened. The album that encapsulated that for me was Miguel’s Kaleidescope Dream, a mature, mournful record that still managed to be incredibly sexy, but the song that said it all in five minutes was Major Lazer’s “Get Free,” led by Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman. Like their machine-gun-armed mascot in the lyric video, “Get Free” alternately stares numbly into space and soars over watery guitar lines and loud, lonely synths, all on the back of Coffman’s inhumanly powerful vocals. Yet as bleary-eyed as the song is, it hints at a future of still-infinite possibilities. “I just wanna dream, I just wanna dream, I just wanna dream,” Coffman repeats forcefully near the close of the song. Who doesn’t?
Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”
“If I’m butter / then he’s a hot knife.”
Sean Fennessey: Here’s how the terrible website RapGenius.com translates that couplet: “Contrapuntal penis/vagina exchange.” Say what you will about the naked ambition, the deluded racial politics, the scaled community integration, the corporate funding, and the squeam-inducing act of interpreting lyrics for dumb people: That’s a pretty chilling breakdown of basically all of the songs about love ever recorded. It might be the clearest description of human sexuality I’ve ever heard. It might also be the best way to describe Fiona Apple’s songs, all throbbing, thrusting, crazed, tender, hilarious, terrifying, fast, slow, flailing, adventurous, traditional, funny-but-not-too-funny-don’t-make-this-weird things that make the nutty people feel good about everything the voices in their head keep telling them is wrongwrongwrong. (In this case, those voices belong to Apple’s sister, Maude Maggart, who sings the skittering backup vocals here.)
It’s been a long time since Apple writhed in that “Criminal” video, either subverting jailbait or being victimized by a foggy faux-subversion. Either way, she’s an older woman now. Thirty-five, actually. And she seems it, a little ripped up by the strains of age and a little less bothered by seeming loopy. Her eyes bulge more. She’s veiny. Her songs have always been intense, but they’ve rarely been this quavering and manic. It’s got nothing to do with being a woman. Getting older, falling in and out of love, looking for sex, wishing someone would just listen. Infatuation, regret, fear. What a crazy-sounding but totally normal way to be 35. “Must be like the genesis of rhythm,” Apple sings of that moment — contrapuntal, two melodic lines in opposition.
Juliet Litman: Since Usher broke out in 1997 with “You Make Me Wanna” from his second album, My Way, he has been a commercial force. If you listened to the radio even periodically over the last 15 years, you won’t be surprised by the fact that he has had 10 no. 1 singles and four no. 1 albums — including this year’s well-received Looking 4 Myself. He entered the top 10 with “Scream” (peak: no. 9), but the album’s best song — and my favorite song of the year — was the first single, “Climax.”
The song was released on February 22, peaking at no. 17 on the Billboard Top 100 but no. 1 in my heart. Usher sings in falsetto (which is fairly uncommon for him) over a Diplo-produced beat, and it only takes about 30 seconds to understand why this song was not more commercially successful. It has none of the David Guetta, dance-music influence that suffused “OMG” and “Without You,” nor is it a derivative of the Dr. Luke and Max Martin Swedish School of Music (which I like, too!) that dominates the Top 40. Rather, it’s more akin to Usher’s R&B songs, like “There Goes My Baby” and “Moving Mountains” — two songs that also failed to crack the Top 10. “Climax” sounds like the song that the fictional Usher of my mind should be singing: It’s the perfect song for the singer who has transitioned from teenager known for literally dropping his pants while performing to world-famous pop star who wants to remind everyone of how talented he remains. If my Spotify plays count for anything, I have no doubt that “Climax” would be competing with “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style” for the song of the year title.
Best Coast, “How They Want Me to Be”
Chuck Klosterman: The sentiments expressed in “How They Want Me to Be” are not original. I’ve heard them metaphorically dissected in 1,000 other pop songs (and so have you). It’s a cliché of youth-oriented art. But sometimes a fragile person can deliver a cliché in a manner that’s so weirdly and relentlessly straight that a seemingly staid idea suddenly feels novel and disorienting. It reminds you that the cliché exists because — for some people — it will always be true. I’ll be honest: I don’t know much about the woman in Best Coast. I used to know her name, but I forgot it last summer; I know she used to date that dude in Wavves, but I don’t know his name, either. Maybe they’re still together? I kind of remember what she looks like, but just barely — I certainly couldn’t pick her out of a police lineup. But she sings like an indie-rock Patsy Cline who was listening to Parlor James the first time she ever got high, and I suspect we both think about our own lives way too much. This song is almost perfect. I love it.
BJ the Chicago Kid feat. Kendrick Lamar, “His Pain II”
Hua Hsu: We live in the golden age of rappers rapping about their feelings, yet I’ve never heard anything quite like “His Pain.” A cosmically snakebitten friend prompts Kendrick to reflect on how good he has it — not just the riches and fame but the more basic fact that his life isn’t worsening by the day. If that’s all it was, then “His Pain” would just be another one of those songs about survival and exceptionalism and the zero-sum game of life. But what makes the thoughtful, spiritualized Kendrick special is his self-awareness, the humility to recognize that he didn’t build it himself. “I don’t know why He keep blessing me,” Kendrick hums, over and over, as though repeating his doubts aloud will deliver him toward some answer. Nobody deserves all this, and all he can do is pay the gift forward.
Kendrick had a great year, and this song captured why he’s been such a startling figure. Rap’s tropes are overfamiliar and readymade, but Kendrick’s songs are always slightly askew: a baptism made to sound like a bottomless cocktail, cock tales gone horribly wrong, a shout-out to his imagined rival Arron Afflalo (of all people), and this: a song in which he raps himself hoarse wondering about the meaning of life.
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion” (Live on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon)
Rembert Browne: On July 9, a day before Frank Ocean’s debut album, channel ORANGE, was set to release, he made his television debut on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. With two singles already in rotation, “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pyramids,” either seemed like a logical choice to perform in the most high-profile moment to date in his bubbling career. Neither was chosen, and instead he took the stage to perform “Bad Religion,” the hauntingly beautiful, highly personal song that triggered the wave of questions pertaining to his sexual preferences a month prior. Instead of shying away from or denying said rumors, he now famously wrote a letter to his fans, and then seized the moment and sang that very song in his first real introduction to the masses.
Frank bared it all for four minutes, wearing his trademark red and white bandanna like Linus’s blanket, allowing the emotion from the song and the moment to overwhelm him, be it verging on tears toward the end, grimacing on the climaxed high note that follows “I can never make him love me,” and then, perhaps most wonderfully, smiling like a kid once his job of singing was finished and all that was left were the string orchestra and the Legendary Roots Crew behind him to bring it home. Again, he took a risk, and yet again, the risk paid off.
All the contextual factors that contributed to the performance’s meaning were important, but if you strip them all away, you’re still left in awe of how extraordinary a talent he is — and, more specifically, how utterly fantastic his voice is. The sheer effortlessness with which these notes leave his body is stunning, and the only thing that really tops listening to it is watching it. The version of “Bad Religion” on his album is wonderful, but hearing (and watching) him sing it live added an extra layer of rawness to the already raw track that, in his first performance of that stature, can’t really ever be duplicated. He’ll continue to perform the song live, but it’ll never be quite like that. It was a moment.
Divine Fits, “Shivers”
Tess Lynch: A Thing Called Divine Fits was released about two months after I gave birth, which was roughly how long it took for me to change out of the same set of pajamas I’d been wearing for eight weeks and go out on short drives to the grocery store to sit in my car in the parking lot and listen to music. I could only get about two tracks in per trip, because factoring in the time it took to roam the aisles and wonder what I was supposed to be buying, that was as long as I permitted myself to be out of the house last summer. “Shivers” was suitably melodramatic and perfect to play at eardrum-collapsing volume. Now it feels like a five-minute vacation during which I feel an intense need to remember to buy avocados and grapefruit soda. I don’t know if that’s what Rowland Howard intended when he wrote “Shivers” at 16 — I’m going to go ahead and guess not — but I’m really glad it got me out of those pajamas. They were pretty disgusting by the end.
Schoolboy Q feat. A$AP Rocky, “Hands on the Wheel”
Amos Barshad: I saw A$AP Rocky a few times this year, but only once through a fence on the side of the street in central Texas. It was at this year’s South by Southwest; I was hustling over from one show to another, and saw a little crowd assembled outside the barricades of an outdoor stage. It was rough, but you could make out Rocky’s voice through the din; if you moved your face back and forth over the slats, you could just about follow some of the action, too. And so when his buddy Schoolboy Q came out to do “Hands on the Wheel” and all hell broke loose, it was a snug fit: jumped-up nihilistic delirium as presented through little spastic blurs. See, Q and Rocky do hedonism fast and cheap and dirty: weed, brews, dope, crack, pills, a little bit of Pikachu, and then life is simple. “My n—- drunk as fuck. A n—- fucked up. We all fucked up.” If you’re not waking up in nothing but your draws and your leopard-print bucket hat and crushed up Oxy dust on the bathroom rug of some girl you picked up at the Jack in the Box on South Figueroa and Vernon at five in the morning, you’re doing it wrong.
Bad Books, “Forest Whitaker”
Mark Lisanti: Not a joke: My admittedly idiosyncratic decision-making process for this feature narrowed down the Song of the Year field to Taylor Swift’s “Never Ever Ever (The Not Getting Back Together Anthem)” and the track you see above. On the one hand, you have perhaps the biggest pop star in the world singing a song that flirts its way into your brain, excuses itself to go freshen up, and then moves all its belongings into your skull while you’re distracted by your seemingly incredible luck. It’s a breakup song that writes a breakup song about the super-intense relationship you didn’t even realize was a relationship until it started getting Modern Bride delivered to your house on the third date. How do you not recognize a song that insanely irresistible? You need to inject the hook from “Call Me Maybe” into your eyeball to have any hope of dislodging it.
I guess it came down to the unavoidable fact that I don’t like Taylor Swift, and I like this Bad Books record quite a bit. This is the catchiest song on that record. It is named for one of America’s finest actors. It sounds like it belongs on Grandaddy’s Sumday, another record I like quite a bit. “Forest Whitaker” can start sending Modern Bride to my house on the fourth date and I promise not to freak out about it.
Trevin Hunte, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”
Jay Kang: When a Diva kills a song, she presides over its soul for five years. All aspirational Divas who dare sing that song during the proprietary period do so at their own peril. Microphones explode, weaves combust, vocal cords get stricken with a pox of polyps. Such was the fate, then, of anyone who dared sing THE BIG SONG during Jennifer Hudson’s reign, which ended last Christmas. Long live the Queen.
In this first year of freedom, a new legion of wanna-be Divas went to usurp THE BIG SONG. Among the comers was the original sovereign, Jennifer Holiday, who tried to wrest the crown away from Jessica Sanchez on the Idol stage. In the Philippines, where a YouTube singing prodigy is born once a week, a new slew of contenders, led by Random Girl at the Mall, came hard at the throne, knowing that ownership of THE BIG SONG would yield unimaginable returns. Charice Pempengco, armed only with a Dukedom of THE BIG SONG, amassed a fortune and a recurring spot on Glee. And what was Jennifer Hudson other than just another Idol contestant before her surprise reign?
Here in America, the expiration of Hudson’s reign led several bright-faced singing competition Divas to try out THE BIG SONG. None of these performances were deserving of royalty, but a surprise contender emerged for BEST BIG SONG OF THE YEAR. His name is Trevin Hunte, and although he didn’t come close to killing THE BIG SONG, his is the only performance worth watching again.
But again, this is only a flesh wound. Ladies (and gentlemen), the throne is still open.