NPR

Top 10 Top 40 Of 2012

Ellie Goulding (Courtesy of the artist)

If you're into the hits, most any year is a good one. Top 40 music is defined by mass appeal, which means that though some of it is bland, much more is at least catchy and often unpretentiously wonderful. 2012 stood out, though, because of three songs that went beyond momentary ubiquity to become companions to the changing seasons. "Somebody That I Used To Know," "We Are Young" and "Call Me Maybe" seemed like pleasant trifles at first, but they proved durable, and therefore meaningful, and we'll be singing them for years.

Beyond these basics defining the year, the Top 40 offered many pleasures. Some refreshed tried and true themes, like teen romance and women's liberation. Others were more personal, or more experimental, or (in the case of "Climax") both. One thing these songs share: the ability to make millions feel good. In a year full of difficult realities, that's worth a lot.

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One Direction, "What Makes You Beautiful"

Many have noticed the musical connection between this song and "Summer Nights" from Grease, but to me it's more like a complement to The Knack's "My Sharona." The winsome members of 2012's prime boy band mack on a girl who's sexy but doesn't know it; but instead of wagging their tongues they offer adorable non-sequitors ("the way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed" — lyric of the year!) and na-na-na their way to singalong heaven. Ecstasy rarely manages to be this sweet.

Usher, "Climax"

Diplo is one of the producers superstars enlist when they want to get cool again, and this simmering lament signaled a new phase in the long career of master showman Usher. But it's not flashy. Diplo's beat comes on like a headache; pushing against its throb, Usher uses his dancer's reflexes to modulate and build against it until the whole thing breaks. "Should we separate?" Usher moans, teetering on the edge that joins pleasure to pain. The song mesmerizes by never falling off that precipice.

Maroon 5 feat. Wiz Khalifa, "Payphone"

Maroon 5 is the kind of band that everyone expects will be a one-hit wonder — but then there's another hit, and another, and suddenly its Top 40 presence seems not ephemeral but essential. Rejuvenated by singer Adam Levine's starring gig on The Voice, this quintessentially suburban SoCal band has risen fully to the challenge, making increasingly self-aware music. "Payphone" is about the feeling of being "over it" — its lyrics mourn an affair as stuck in the past as that wired receiver Levine's holding in his hand, and the music's itchy island vibe is to reggae what squinting in the sun is to relaxing on the beach. Yet like Maroon 5 itself, "Payphone" drags you back into the questionable past, and makes you love it.

Ellie Goulding, "Lights"

Electronic dance music so often feels like a boys' game, with macho DJs displaying egos as big and irritating as their beats. Ellie Goulding's presence on the scene is a tonic: she's a real singer-songwriter displaying vulnerability and frankness in ways that defy the stereotype of the kittenish hook singer. "Lights" took more than a year to become the No. 1 song on the radio here in the U.S., insinuating itself into the mass subconscious with a dreamy production that's equal parts dynamism and delicacy. Goulding's wondering vocal proved irresistible to DJs; the song gained a huge, unceasing boost from myriad remixes. Recalling a childhood fear of the dark, "Lights" is also about the loss of fear on the dance floor, where a woman brave enough to lose herself can come into her own.

Kelly Clarkson, "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)"

Criticizing pop songs because they're built around clichés is like getting mad at cookies for containing sugar. What matters is how they're beaten into the batter. This ferociously frenetic dance-floor anthem wrings freshness from Friedrich Nietzsche's old rag of a saying — one that Kanye West, along with a million others, also recently invoked — via Clarkson's vocal, which sounds exactly like someone grasping at worn-out truths and, dammit, making them work. And he chorus's upward zoom is irresistible.

Neon Trees, "Everybody Talks"

Fifties, eighties, it's all the same to the kids making mash-ups of rock tradition these days. Liked 2012's biggest breakthrough band , fun., Neon Trees ostentatiously dips into many different lineages — show tunes, doo-wop, glam, and New Wave — to make rock that still smacks of now. Singer Tyler Glenn's cute sneer when he croons, "Hey, Sugar!" is punk enough to show he's not just being reverential, but the band did its homework, and nimbly moves from touchstones ranging from The B-52's and New Order to their emo big brothers The Killers in a song so well-constructed that it feels completely natural and almost new.

Little Big Town, "Pontoon"

When a bunch of country music stars got together to make a "Call Me Maybe"-style video tribute to this song, it took no one by surprise: fans already knew that to hear this song is to sing along with it. From the Mellotron-enhanced mandolin riff that draws you in to the slippery harmonies that keep the chorus floating, "Pontoon" is what it says it is: a pleasure boat big enough to carry anyone who climbs on board. The song has made Little Big Town, a group long respected for its pristine harmonies, genuinely lovable — and genuine stars.

Hunter Hayes, "Wanted"

Like a lot of mainstream country music, this puppy hug of a love song comes on a little corny. But unlike many of the power ballads that inspired it — Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses," for example — "Wanted" presents a paramour who's more interested in looking his sweetheart in the eye than in wallowing in histrionics. Hunter Hayes was a Cajun prodigy before settling in Nashville, and the young multi-instrumentalist clearly cares about making solid, sincere hits approaching the intimacy of the folk music he grew up with. When the surging production breaks three minutes in and Hayes bends forward into the gentlest falsetto imaginable, he fully earns the swoons he's raking in.

Nicki Minaj feat. 2 Chainz, "Beez in the Trap"

Nicki Minaj and the rising Atlanta area rapper 2 Chainz both had bigger hits this year, but this lazily unfolding show of rhyming prowess shows of their idiosyncratic voices in perfect harmony. With a beat that bubbles up like the balls inside a push toy and a hook that rolls off Minaj's tongue like a snap of Bubble Yum, "Beez in the Trap" is a tart confection served up to remind rap fans who decry Minaj's forays into sing-song pop that spitting serious verse and creating catchy choruses don't have to be mutually exclusive endeavors.

Demi Lovato, "Give Your Heart a Break"

Every parent of a tween or younger who allows screens in the house faces the Disney machine at some point. A strange thing eventually happens: you notice that, amidst the snarky slapstick on the sitcoms and the jaunty cookie-cutter pop, something genuine occasionally surfaces. This song is one of those things. Lovato — a 20-year-old former Disney star now graduated to the grown-up corporate pop world, as a judge on The X Factor — has a honey-dripping voice she can't quite control, and her producers here allow for its excesses, adding strings borrowed from Coldplay and a tingly bridge that fetishizes her vibrato. It sounds like the way a young girl feels: hopeful, insistent, a little crushed.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As Congressman Murphy's constituents sent him off to Capitol Hill, this catchy 2012 hit may come to mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) Hey, I just met you and this is crazy.

GREENE: Yep. That is Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe." Many of you also won't forget humming along to Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW")

GOTYE: (Singing) But you didn't have to cut me off, make out like it never happened, as though we were nothing.

GREENE: But believe it or not, these are not the only two songs that were on the radio this year. There were other huge pop hits in 2012. And NPR Music's Ann Powers pays attention to pop music all throughout the year and has some of her favorites to offer us today. Ann, welcome back.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me. I'm dancing around the room to that Carly Rae tune.

GREENE: Good, I've been dancing all year to that tune. But maybe 2013, it's time to give it a little bit of a rest.

POWERS: Probably.

GREENE: Probably.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: So I want to go down some of the list that you sent us. I don't listen to a whole lot of boy band music, but there was no escaping One Direction this year was there?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) But when you smile at the ground it ain't hard to tell, you don't know oh-oh, you don't know you're beautiful...

POWERS: My daughter, who's in third grade, gets a lot of messages that might not be that empowering from listening to the radio. But this one, it's pure self-help. It's pure boost you up. It's just the feel-good song for every girl out there wondering if she's starting to get chubby or something. You know?

GREENE: Well, I like this one on your list.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANTED")

HUNTER HAYES: (Singing) 'Cause I want to wrap you up, want to kiss your lips. I want to make you feel wanted...

GREENE: That's Hunter Hayes, "Wanted," right? What message is here? Is this empowering too?

POWERS: Oh, absolutely. You know, One Direction with "What Makes You Beautiful" kind of set the template for an ongoing theme in pop for male artists this year. But this song by Hunter Hayes - Hunter Hayes is such an interesting guy. He's 21 years old. He's a multi-instrumentalist and he does everything on his records. And he's decided to go for Nashville-style pop stardom, which, you know, you can call it country. But he's really a teen idol but a teen idol with chops, and that's what I like about Hunter Hayes.

GREENE: We should say, though, it wasn't just the males singing about being in love this year. There was some female artists too on that subject.

POWERS: Always. Love is the eternal.

GREENE: "Give Your Heart a Break"?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE YOUR HEART A BREAK")

DEMI LOVATO: (Singing) Don't want to break your heart. Want to give your heart a break. I know you're scared it's wrong, like you might make a mistake...

POWERS: Demi Lovato, you might recognize her now as a judge on "The X Factor" sparring with Simon Cowell. But she was a Disney prodigy. She was the star of the Disney movie "Camp Rock." And she's now evolved into kind of a young pop star who still has that teen feeling but is kind of going for bigger themes.

This song is really interesting. It my kind of slip by you but it actually is kind of like what the great girl group songs were like. It has that mix of vulnerability and trying a little too hard, which I love in a young voice and I think it really works in this song.

GREENE: So Ann, a lot of new names out there, but one familiar name, Maroon 5. I mean they were topping the charts in 2003. It's almost a decade later and they're still here and out with a really big hit, "Payphone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYPHONE")

MAROON 5: (Singing) I'm at a payphone trying to call home. All of my change I spent on you. Where have...

GREENE: Ann, can we talk about the fact that it's 2012 and no one uses payphones anymore?

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: Well, that to me was the clever thing about this song. I mean while the production of this song is very 2012, it sounds very contemporary, a little dancey - Maroon 5, with its kind of classic alternative rock sound, endures. And you know what? When you're really desperate, you're going to look for that payphone, just like you're going to look for a band like this.

GREENE: All right, but let's get real. "Call Me Maybe," the biggest song of the year, no doubt?

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: Well, according to the charts, David, it was Gotye. I think according to the zeitgeist, it was Carly Rae Jepsen. But according to the heart of this mom of a schoolgirl - who's loved boy bands ever since I saw Andy Gibb back in the '70s - it's One Direction all the way.

GREENE: Oh, she goes with the boy band.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Ann Powers...

POWERS: That's what makes you beautiful, David.

GREENE: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Ann Powers, NPR music critic, this has been fun. We'll look forward to the songs in 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) Oh-oh, you don't know you're beautiful. If only you saw what I can see...

GREENE: You can hear more of this year's best music - jazz, classical, folk - and the rest of Ann Powers' favorite pop, at NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) ...desperately. You don't know, oh-oh, you don't know you're beautiful. Oh-oh-oh, you don't know you're beautiful. Oh-oh-oh, that's what makes you beautiful.

GREENE: You're beautiful. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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