Hipster Glasses, Facebook, and a Kiki: A Skeptic's Guide to Pop in 2012

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With only days left until the end of 2012, the Internet is full of best-of essays and lists and embeddable Spotify playlists that reaffirm critics’ and tastemakers’ street credit and perpetuate the myth that most people writing about music actually have any kind of significant impact on the way that pop music is created, packaged, and sold. I won’t bore you with such gas. Instead, here are some fun superlatives that summarize the world of pop this year, for those of you who may not have kept up with this realm. These are undeniable touchstones — meaning that should you, as esteemed people with ears, have scruples with this list, it would behoove you to make an appointment with a qualified audiologist post-haste. Otherwise, read! Click! Dance!

Best jingle about a cold beverage that you can sip on a hot day: At its heart, Pop For Skeptics has always been about providing a guide to the best pop music around — even as climate change threatens to burn down our world and turn us into a pile of cinders. It is in this spirit that the year’s best summer song comes courtesy of an Eastern European pop sensation who, after 2011’s inescapable hit “Mr. Saxobeat,” disappeared entirely from the American pop imagination.

Alexandra Stan – “Lemonade”

Best appropriation of niche slang in a pop song: It’s no secret that Scissor Sisters’ co-opting of black queer NYC culture with “Let’s Have a Kiki” — including a video that features no performers of color — has ruffled a few feathers. But as critical as we might be of its politics, it’s still one of the year’s best pop songs, which had the added benefit of teaching America that having a kiki is a part of everybody’s life.

Scissor Sisters – “Let’s Have A Kiki”

Best attempt to revive the 1990s: One the most terrifying realizations for those of us in our late 20s and early 30s is that media created in the 1990s can now be designated as “vintage.” We’re old, y’all. On the plus side, this means that relative newcomers are now looking back to that era for inspiration. Of course, the Spice Girls reunion at the Olympics this year was a spectacle, while the (also reunited) Backstreet Boys posing for an Old Navy commercial was more of a cultural curiosity. But both did little beyond indulging nostalgia. By comparison, something like Rye Rye’s “Boom Boom” — which boldly exhumed Vengaboys’ “Boom Boom Boom Boom” and infused it into a slick little hip-hop pastiche — was the perfect vehicle for reviving the ’90s.

Rye Rye – “Boom Boom”

Best example of pop music proving a self-important music critic wrong: Remember that one time I lamented about the lack of girl bands? Well, in the six months that followed, the Spice Girls jumped on top of some taxis at the Olympics Closing Ceremony. Then it was announced that The Saturdays are soon crossing the Atlantic to star in their own reality show on E! Little Mix gave us a high-spirited single about not letting the haters get you down, while StooShe recruited the surviving members of TLC to make a cameo in their cover version of “Waterfalls.” But the best, most satisfying example of a girl band who made me eat my own words? Click PLAY below to find out for yourself.

Girls Aloud – “Something New”

Most enthusiastic participant in a pop-related viral video: Earlier this year, French choreographer Yanis Marshall and a troupe of dancers filmed a slick dance sequence set to “Bright Lights” — an unreleased demo by Lana Del Rey. The cherry on top of this awesomely sweet homage to Del Rey’s trip-pop outtake is the seated spectator in the background who, without getting up, still gives the routine at least a sporting chance.

Best literal example of body art: Slapped online as a quick way to capitalize on the fervor around any musician, lyric videos are typically pretty trashy. You might go, “Ooo! Look at how that font swings as the song rushes from chorus to middle-8! Ah! Look at that color change to indicate a mood shift. Very fetch!” For the most part, we’re more likely to end up at a site like Sing365.com if we really want words to songs. So leave it to Amanda Palmer — rogue pop queen extraordinaire — and the Grand Theft Orchestra to disrupt the convention of lyric videos. “Want It Back” fares well not only because it’s an NSFW romp through stop-motion body art, but also because it is a very brilliant pop song.

Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra – “Want It Back”

Professional DJ I would most like to make the playlist for my birthday party: It would behoove people with ears to know that once upon a time, before Calvin Harris entered the RedOne/David Guetta/Timbaland phase of his career, destined to make beats for pop stars who could afford his quote, he made several solidly brilliant albums that negotiated a more deliciously complex relationship with dance pop. So when I think of Calvin, I don’t think of the shouty monotony of “We Found Love,” but rather something closer to “Feel So Close”

Calvin Harris – “Feels So Close”

Least unnecessary Lana Del Rey single: In the brief time Lana Del Rey has been treading the earth, she’s done a bang-up job of dividing people with ears into two unique camps: lovers and haters. She’s also excelled at bouncing back from the ire of music critics put off by her retrograde Americana luster by putting into action a contingency plan that could leave her with a career as a European pop goddess — in the vein of Kelly Rowland or Nicole Scherzinger — should the US start deflecting her advances. The secret to her success? Del Rey’s tireless output of singles. As if to keep us from focusing too hard on the flaws and strengths of any one release for too long, she put out about half an album’s worth of them in 2012.

But in a year when neither “Video Games” nor “Born to Die” are eligible, the clear high note of her repertoire is “Summertime Sadness.” It’s haunting, and unlike most of her ballads, it actually succeeds at evoking the ache of heartbreak.

Lana Del Rey – “Summertime Sadness”

Most overlooked viral marketing opportunity: This year’s Eurovision talent pool supplied some of 2012’s best pop songs. One of the standouts was Valentina Monetta’s “The Facebook Song” — a jingle about all the different ways you can connect to the world around you through Facebook. As absurd and mindless as the song is, it is also freakishly catchy. Had Facebook Inc. licensed the song, it could’ve been the perfect self-effacing pivot for the social behemoth to show the world at large that going public hasn’t turned the company into a stiff, buttoned-up corporate machine that is going the way of MySpace by gradually losing touch with the mechanics of a digital media culture it helped forge.

Valentina Monetta – “The Facebook Song”

Most effective utilization of hipster glasses in a pop music video: With even an episode of The Simpsons recently lampooning their culture, hipsters have definitely graduated from niche annoyance to mainstream curiosity. This year, no one picked up on that shift more effectively than Taylor Swift, who successfully completed her vault from country darling to critically acclaimed bubblegum pop princess. Sure, the hipster glasses she wore in the video for “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” weren’t the main reason for why it was a patently brilliant pop single, but they did make for an amusing talking point.

Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Best pop star collision: Marina and the Diamonds and Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson came together earlier this year, and it was magical. This team-up deserves far more notice than that phoned-in duet Madonna and Britney Spears spit out into the world several years ago.

Best song not likely to get US radio play because it’s in another language: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was inescapable this year, but for more discerning music listeners, it doesn’t go down without some reservations. An understandable hit across much of Asia, “Gangnam Style” was reappropriated to death across the US for its camp treatment of Korean culture — and PSY’s willingness to sell out his own roots to capitalize on the mockery thereof. But what if mainstream American fans and critics could get over xenophobia and judge foreign-language music on the actual music itself? Why not make a habit of looking at pop music created for regional distribution — pop stars who are happy to peddle songs to their constituents in signature enclaves without bending over backwards to appeal to English-speakers? These are pop stars who don’t need subtitles or appropriation via SNL. They’re also such superstars in their corners of the world that the idea of American conquest isn’t daunting so much as it is tedious; why start from scratch if you’re already calling the shots?

Shy’m – “Et alors!”

Haifa Wehbe — “Boukra Bfarjik”

Best artist who might make Lady Gaga regret waiting so long to release an album the public may not be too stoked on anyway: Though Paloma Faith and Lady Gaga operate in distinctly different spheres of pop, the American public are more concerned with aesthetics than sound; both performers have built reputations on their flamboyant style, and with Faith’s stateside rep beginning to pick up Fall to Grace debuted in the top 20 this month she could conceivably dilute the hype around Gaga’s ARTPOP. After all, Faith shows that you don’t need epic theatrics to deliver a proper spectacle — just stage presence and a solid pop song.

Paloma Faith – “Picking Up the Pieces”

Best Prince Charming of Pop that I would like to bring home to my mother: There has been a real paucity of proper pop princes in 2012. I mean, between Adam Levine and Pitbull, the major-label players are less interested in making decent music than they are in using pop to heighten their profiles. Calvin Harris — while being the kind of guy who could liven up a birthday party with a proper mix — seems like his agenda is booked until the end of time. Meanwhile, Jake Shears is the kind of guy you’d like to keep around to drink 40s with and kiki well into the night about theology or whatnot. Which leaves us with Sam Sparro: dapper, worldly, and a hell of a crooner.

Sam Sparro — “I Wish I Never Met You”

Best use of an orchestral album to cement one’s status as a pop icon: Pop stars who come from a certain time like to go into the studio with an enormous orchestra and cover their classics in order to cement their legend status. In 2012, no two albums more squarely fit this mold than Tori Amos’ Gold Dust and Kylie Minogue’s The Abbey Road Sessions. Achieving that rarefied level of pop stardom where last names are now redundant, both Tori and Kylie are examples of icons who could feasibly become elder stateswomen of pop in time. However, where Gold Dust was a by-the-numbers chore of a retrospective, Sessions was a thrilling celebration that managed to wring class from even Kylie’s campiest classics.

Best teenage magic act: If I were the type to make graphs, I could make one depicting how, as America nosedives further into class turmoil and political discord, so does the average American’s chance of ever finding true love and getting married and popping out a few sprogs or adopting cats. Still: heartbreak is the cornerstone of teenage magic, and no tune better encapsulates both feelings — without “Call Me Maybe”-style overkill — like Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing.” In an age of overwrought pop songs, “Embarrassing” is a subtle almost-love song that’s more relatable than just about anything else like it right now. After all, the simplicity of unrequited love is a frustrating myth. The frustration of almost-love? That’s simple.

Sky Ferreira – “Everything Is Embarrassing”

Best Beyoncé-related moment in pop: Although Beyoncé’s music was mostly absent from the pop ether this year, her influence on culture remained inescapable. A young teenager from Pennsylvania threw on a Snuggie and set the Internet on fire with a brilliant shot-for-shot remake of Queen B’s “Countdown” video. When people who can sing, dance, and/or wear a dress well dream about being a pop star, they dream of teenagers like Tan Do Nguyen throwing on a Snuggie and artfully recreating their music videos.