It’s not hard to find songs that made a difference at top 40 this year
Left-field hits from “Too Close” to “Ho Hey” didn’t just claim real estate on stations dominated by turbo-pop anthems a year ago, they also had an immediate impact on the mainstream pop records around them.
“Turbo pop” hardly went away in 2012. But by the end of the year, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift were in lock step with dubstep. One Direction was as mellow as its pal Ed Sheeran. And Phillip Phillips had paved the way for the real Mumford & Sons to finally pursue top 40 airplay.
Ironically, the song that represented the most changes at radio wasn¹t from the triple A stack. In fact, it would have been just another turbo-pop hit‹had it been in English.
PSY, “Gangnam Style”: Look back at Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” the surprise novelty smash of 2001, and the only claim you can make for its broader significance is that it created even more of an Eminem-era lyrical quandary for top 40. No one expects to encounter “Gangnam Style: in the gold libraries of 2021, but it¹s a surprise breakthrough for a number of reasons
It wasn¹t an entirely organic phenomenon. Only one reporting station found it without a major label involved. But after several years in which developing off the radio was the same as being off the radar, “Gangnam” did find its way to radio more easily than, say, “Pants on the Ground.”
When “Gangnam” did get to radio, it didn¹t need eight months and another three synchs to become a hit.
It wasn¹t in English. It would be nice to think that “Gangnam: will open the door for more international hits in other languages, but for reasons detailed below, the lyrics didn’t really matter.
It dramatically illustrated the power of YouTube for a new generation of listeners.
The last 30 years have been marked by numerous unlikely hits that got a boost from their video, but “Gangnam” may be the first song that exists on the radio entirely as a souvenir of the time spent enjoying it elsewhere. In that regard, and for better and worse, it again made radio “theater of the mind.”
Ellie Goulding, “Lights”: Some consider it just another dance-pop record with a slightly more ambitious lyric, but by the time “Lights” finished its yearlong rise to No. 1, it had become typical of the new polyglot pop music. It was also representative of the less encouraging trend of non-superstar hits needing longer to gestate than a human life.
Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know”: Yes, it was distinctive, but this always sounded like a hit record, and was indeed a hit elsewhere in the world. The issue was whether American programmers would recognize it as such. A year ago, it was still possible to think that Adele might represent an isolated breakthrough. Now, Gotye’s hit barely seems all that different compared to . . .
The Lumineers, “Ho Hey”: Remember when KIIS Los Angeles was mostly rhythmic, and upstart KAMP (Amp 97.1) was targeting listeners who somehow thought even one Taylor Swift song on KIIS was too pop? This week, “Ho Hey” is a power on KIIS and has just spread to Amp (and scores of other stations that never thought they’d play it). Now Mumford & Sons are going after top 40 and the call letters on the promotional email blast aren¹t WIXX Green Bay, Wis., the usual patron saint of pop/rock, but KIIS.
Ed Sheeran, “The A Team”: When “Bad Day” and “You¹re Beautiful” had their mid-¹00s moment, those songs eventually became young-end records as well. But they didn¹t start there. “The A Team” proves that the Colbie Caillat/Owl City movement toward acoustic singer/songwriter music for teens wasn’t a fluke. (And the trend proves it isn’t just a function of the One Direction/Sheeran connection.)
Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round”: After more than a decade of dirt-road anthems on country radio, one can¹t ignore that a more cynical take on small-town life has gotten as far as it has (high 20s so far). One of several current country hits, including Luke Bryan¹s ³Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,² that are less didactically pro-social than usual.
David Guetta & Usher, “Without You”; Ne-Yo, “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)” — Coldplay’s attempt to go turbo pop last year with “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” satisfied nobody, but it did, seemingly, propel pop-dance itself to a moodier place. Look at the differing receptions at top 40 for “Without You,” Usher’s “Climax,” and “The A Team,” and it’s interesting that R&B/dance artists still have to sneak their more contemplative lyrics in between the beat.
Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha-T, 2 Chainz, “Mercy” — One of several records that gave hip-hop purists what they wanted this year. Staggering demonstrations of raw skills that took place largely off the radar of mainstream radio. In 2004, when relatively hard hip-hop records still held sway at pop radio, West introduced a more radio-friendly element. Now that hip-hop needs the pop hits again, he has returned to releasing what are essentially great five-minute mixtapes.