A couple of caveats about this year: I don't think this was a great year for a diehard pop fan, especially given that a good number of female stars either released little (Katy Perry) or weak new product (Kylie Minogue's ill-advised orchestral rerecordings is one stark example). When a Madonna album comes and goes and almost no one remembers... well, an era has ended, if you ask me. I mean we do even remember American Life.
Second, technology continues to change, well, everything. This year was all about YouTube and downloaded singles and, for me, the occasional thrill of finding an obscure no-name or small sensation with maybe a keyboard and some digital editing skills. Still, my torch burns brightest for straight-up pop, and this, for me, was what worked best:
Carly Rae Jepsen, Call Me Maybe. There's a thin line between having one of the all-time top singles and teeing up the ultimate Worst Song Ever, and Jepsen walked it pretty miraculously. Absurdly overplayed, way too influential in the zeitgeist... yet somehow Jepsen led the way with the brightest piece of ear candy in years. Maybe it's "ripped jeans, skin was showing", maybe it's the emphatic ambivalence of the title, which can't even sum up the nerve to be commanding (call me... maybe?). Which of course, it is just crazy to hand your number to some stranger you've just met. It's the details, the small but true observational aspects, I suspect, that gave this song wings. And Jepsen may not be able to match it, but the 25 girls who wish they'd sung it don't have anything nearly as catchy.
Psy, Gangnam Style. What am I, dead? Of course I heard it. And couldn't turn it off. Sure it's the arresting video and the YouTube thing, but Psy's real wonder was creating a piece of noisy techno-dance that wasn't so ear insulting as to require turning it off. Catchy, danceable, and a charming lyrical mess (i have no idea what "Gangnam Style" is, but at least we know it isn't some sort of anti-American gang violence). And sure, as it filters down into the wedding reception and prom market it will be.... unfortunate. But by then, shouldn't we just put on our coats, congratulate the lucky couple, and go?
Deadmau5, The Veldt (featuring Chris James). Deadmau5 is already a superstar as a dj and remixer, so why not cross over into making the music as well? The Veldt is one of those dance songs that clears away the clutter of what came before it, a complete rethinking of the rhythm and the tone of the night. That it's also brainy and engaging (adapted from that Ray Bradbury story where kids trap their parents in a videowalled room turned into an African Veldt) isn't just a plus... it's what it lifts it to greatness.
Pink, Blow Me (One Last Kiss). Not her best, but not her worst; much of Pink's material is starting to bleed into one raucous party song where the party always about to get going (and you can stay if you're not a douchebag), contrasted with a long dark ballad in which love is like some sort of addiction. Still, she's balls-out the biggest badass on the block, still outsinging most everyone, and wittier by far. "No more sick whiskey dick" and "we've had a shit day" do count for cutting through the clutter of niceness that tends to prevade pop these days. But perhaps a change-up of some sort, next time...?
Fun., Some Nights. I still think "We Are Young" is something of a disaster, but not for want of trying: the verses of that song are surprisingly thoughtful. But Some Nights is proof that Fun. can do it right and do it well. Maybe it's the creamy Queen-level harmonies, the foursquare marching band rhythm (Tusk?), but for me, it's the sobering, questioning stance of the soaring lyric. "Who the fuck wants to die alone?" Not me. And when I look into my nephews eyes... some of the most amazing things can come from some terrible lives. Gets me every time.
Austin Mahone, Say Something. Keep your Bieber. I'll keep looking.
One Direction, Live While We're Young. Last year, they were teens for the tween set, asking you to believe for yourself what they saw in you. Now it's all one night stands and easy sex... or did no one actually listen to the lyrics of this even catchier ear candy? ""I know we only met but let's pretend it's love... tonight let's get some, and live while we're young." Indeed.
The Ready Sets, Give Me Your Hand (Best Song Ever). Like I said this time last year, I find myself drawn to a slew of these (fairly interchangeable) po-up bands with a lot of digital skillz, peppy tunes and autotune vocoding. A song so airy and content free that it suggests - nay, insists - that some other song is actually the best ever, what I like is how well it sells this with an air of tuneful assurance. That kind of charm is missing from a lot of pop these days.
JTX, Seven Day Weekend. And not just cause he actually took the time to read my praise for him last year. This one is just a cheerful piece of party pop... but at least it's a party that actually sounds like fun.
Olly Murs, Troublemaker. Murs is another contest winner (Britain's Got Talent, I think, or some one of those) who is already enjoying a solid career in the UK, and surely can ride the coattails of 1D to the US. Not just teenboy pop, but teenboy pop that harks back to early Britney, and by extension, the career Justin Timberlake is too big to condescend to.
Bruno Mars, Locked Out of Heavan. A truly wondrous production, some sort of answer to the question of what would have happened if Michael Jackson had gone to England and recorded Beat It with Sting and Andy Summers, circa Roxanne. There may be an eighties revival, and Mars is the reason to hope it brings us more than just recycled cheese.
Maroon 5, Daylight. I've been wondering if "Overexposed" the title of their album is actually an ironic wink to their current reality, or an unwitting confirmation of their slide to selling out. I've already dissed Payphone, I can't even muster the energy to pan the pale white reggae-ish of One More Night, and then there's this. It's a lovely single, with a better soaring lyric than the others... but it's still awfully generic pop, a Chris Brown single with modest pop aspirations. And in a bad year, it's better tha most... if that's enough.