Carly Rae Jepsen
“Call Me Maybe”

It would be negligent of us not to include what was possibly the most ubiquitous single of 2012. OK, America’ s inferior introduction to K-Pop, “Gangnam Style,” might have won that prize, but Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was the ultimate collision of bubblegum pop and maximalist studio sheen. The innate charm of Jepsen’s Sadie Hawkins pick-up isn’t just the song’s drill-into-your-brain catchiness, but the unassuming nature of the singer’s stardom. As third runner-up on Canadian Idol, Jepsen emerged without the pomp, circumstance, and over-sexed veneer of her peers—just the girl next door with a pop hit that plays equally in clubs and mini-vans. KJE


Ahmed Gallab, the brain trust behind Sinkane, came into his own this year, releasing his third album, Mars, with the lauded DFA label and subsequently expanding the project to a full-on band to take the music to the people. Mars was preceded with a single for “Runnin’,” the track which leads off the album. A blend of funk bounce, Stylistic soul, and punctuated rhythms, the song hits a groove that could continue on ad infinitum with little reason to ever let up. On the 12-inch Daphni’s and Chandelier’s remixes stretch the song into new elongated forms, but in its original two and a half–minute form, Sinkane creates a near-perfect distillation of his melange of influences. SS

Sky Ferreira
“Everything Is Embarassing”

Sky Ferriera is a pop chanteuse in reverse. At the start, labels were dressing her up as the next generation’s Britney, but soon lost hope in her lack of success and gave up trying to build the perfect post-millennial diva. Fast forward to 2012 and Ferriera’s been coupled with a number of rogue producers mining hypnogogic trails of ’80s pop to give her a second life (while only in her early twenties). “Everything Is Embarrassing” is one of two singles on our list crafted meticulously by producer Dev Hynes (“Losing You” being the other) and here he posits Ferriera as a young Madonna stepping over the borderline with sparkling synths and 808s echoing around the singer’s irresistible coo. Though Ferriera and Hynes have zeroed in on the ornaments of the past, their vision for pop also eyes a purer and simpler future. KJE

“Disparate Youth”

At times it seems like Santigold looks at her song titles as thesis statements. Take, for example, “Disparate Youth,” from her sophomore album, Master of My Make-Believe. With so many songs that seemingly only exist to get to the chorus, this track almost has an anti-chorus. The spastic guitar bursts that punctuate the song act as more of a hook than the actual chorus, and at no point is the titular phrase uttered. The song is about disparate youth, but it’s also part instructional speech, part motivational anthem, while the backdrop of Santigold’s post-dub and synth punk-funk styling is like getting a vitamin-enriched Klondike bar. DSH

Killer Mike
“Big Beast”
Williams Street

I admit to knowing next to nothing about contemporary hip-hop. I came of age during the True School era of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the like, and my interest in the genre peaked somewhere around the end of the first great run of the Wu-Tang Clan. While I gave Def Jux and other “underground” stuff a shot, it just wasn’t for me, and the Southern hip-hop explosion, sadly, passed right by me. However, Killer Mike’s “Big Beast” thankfully woke me up this year with a punch square in the face. A hyperactive blast of Dirty South bounce and “gangsta shit,” the song features UGK big man Bun B, Atlanta crossover success TI, and Trouble. Killer Mike sounds positively ferocious here when declaring, “I don’t make dance music. This is RAP.” Pow motherfucker, indeed! NK

Gotye (featuring Kimbra)
“Somebody That I Used to Know”
Samples & Seconds/Republic

In this age of fractured listenership, it’s rare that a song crosses over. But “Somebody I Used To Know” seemed to be everywhere. The dinky xylophone, muted keyboards, the low-tempo shuffle—nothing about it screamed “hit.” But as the cold-blooded retelling about the disintegration of a relationship unfurls, it hits the universal chord of love gone badly. Like an update of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” complete with a guest spot by Kimbra for the rebuttal, it was a song equally popular with the Glee masses as scuffed tennis–shoed indie dudes. DSH


Put on your headphones and enter a midsummer fantasy where post-goth nymphs with synths are just waiting to coo into your ear all night long. Grimes gave all the Manic Pixie Dream Girls a bouncy, dewy-eyed ode, ready-made to soundtrack their after-hours frolicking. And like those unavoidably habit-forming MPDGs and the adolescent yearning they inspire, the song’s layers upon layers of rhapsodic sighs are disorientingly pleasurable. At its climax, the lyrics disappear into pointillism; you can pick out individual words—heart, see, know, never—but it’s the romantic afterglow that leaves a lasting impression. MS

“Losing You”

Beyonce isn’t the only Knowles spawn with pipes and a creative bent for pop music. But whereas the older sis relies on bombast and spotlights, Solange prefers the understated, the organic, and the nostalgic. “Losing You” begins in the shadows with a polyrhythmic loop, lush keyboards, and a “Five Minutes of Funk” retread, but soon it floats into sunlight where Solange’s voice reaches a climax of melodic layers and cyclical affirmations. I’d hate to call it “shadow-pop,” because Solange is a superstar rising in her own right, but it’s an acceptable tag until her strand of ’80s soul reaches the Top 40. KJE

Divine Fits
“My Love Is Real”

There were probably a number of tracks that could have been the lead single to the Divine Fits’ debut album, but “My Love Is Real” is perhaps most representative of the basic pop elements at work on the record. The song is deceptively simple: a romantic sentiment sung by Dan Boeckner backed by several synth strains, and a bass-and-snare backbeat. However, with the various synth lines (I count six) fluctuating in and out of the song’s headspace, the track’s sparseness is deceptive. Instead, the song is a serpentine crossing of hooks that emphasizes Boeckner’s pleading lines. With a suitably scruffy cover of Camper Van Beethoven’s “I Was Born in a Laundromat” on the B-side, this single was the perfect introduction to A Thing Called Divine Fits. SS

Frank Ocean
Def Jam

Is it an exaggeration to say that everyone loves Frank Ocean? No, this modern R&B phenom has cast a songwriting spell on everyone from tween girls (he wrote a hit for Justin Beiber) to Jay-Z. “Pyramids,” an R&B epic so long it has an intermission (a guitar solo by John Mayer), captivated the airwaves and everyone’s imagination this year. While the lyrics at first sound like a typical misogynist hip-hop song—champagne, cigars, six-inch heels—a closer listen reveals it’s about revering women whether they’re Cleopatra or working at a strip club. At 25, Ocean’s already a pop revolutionary, with songs that are edgy and catchy, complex and unpretentious. And who else can say “panties” without sounding creepy? JR