Best Of 2012
Time to look back at the great songs and songwriters of the past 12 months. But which were the greatest?
his year has seen the arrival of many firsts and unique events, including the launch of this magazine website! Consequently this is the first opportunity for Songwriting Magazine to accumulate, debate and celebrate a shortlist of twenty-twelve’s outstanding releases, tunes, songwriters and artists. And then if that wasn’t hard enough, we had to decide on the winners of each category. So without further ado, let the awards ceremony begin…
PLAN B – ILL MANORS
The Defamation Of Strickland Banks proved he could do blue-eyed soul with the best of ’em. But did Ben Drew rest easy on his laurels in the Radio 2 pop world? Nope. First, Ill Manors the single proved Britain still had at least one mainstream artist with a political brain. Then came the film, in which the many characters’ back stories are sketched out via the medium of rap. The fact it worked – brilliantly – in the cinema was the first surprise; the second was finding the same tracks stood alone in album format equally well.
MICACHU & THE SHAPES – NEVER
An album that grabs your attention like it had been swallowed up by a vacuum cleaner. It’s an album of brilliantly inventive anti-pop, resplendent with inventive samples and unusual instruments – including a vacuum cleaner.
LANA DEL REY – BORN TO DIE
Last year the majority many written her off, but Elizabeth Grant’s persona responded in the best way possible and let her music do the talking. Racking up 2.8 million sales worldwide and achieving chart success with all four of its singles, Born To Die was a massive commercial success and even garnered respect from the critics.
THE SHINS – PORT OF MORROW
In the film Garden State Natalie Portman’s character tells us how The Shins will change your life and she wasn’t wrong. Port Of Morrow won’t change your life, but it does remind you of just how affecting James Mercer’s songwriting is. A real return to form.
EMELI SANDE – OUR VERSION OF EVENTS
When lead single Heaven – Sande’s first effort as a solo artist – reached No.2 in the UK chart last year, many would’ve been forgiven for labeling her a one-hit wonder. But after the album reached No.1 twice, became the best selling album of 2012 and spawned four hit singles, there would be no doubting the longevity of this assured debut.
FRANK OCEAN – CHANNEL ORANGE
It’s R&B, Jim, but not as we know it… R&B in the sense that Marvin Gaye and Prince are, not R&B in the syrupy pop pap sense. Let’s hope rumours of his retirement have been greatly exaggerated.
GOTYE – SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW
This was the easiest category of all to pick a winner in, because whether you loved the record, hated it or were ambivalent, there was just no avoiding the heartfelt, catchy (and to our ears, rather Police-like) Somebody That I Used To Know this year. To put it simply, Gotye owned the airwaves (and, thanks to a great video, below) in 2012; whether the Belgian-Australian singer-songwriter, who’s already got three albums under his belt, will now be able to capitalise on the single’s runaway success remains to be seen.
BAT FOR LASHES – LAURA
Natasha Khan has been writing outstanding, erudite pop music for more than six years now. Laura was the first single to be taken from her third album The Haunted Man and with its beautiful piano-driven songwriting, it’s certainly one of the best.
COLDPLAY – PRINCESS OF CHINA
Introduced by a raw pulsing synth line, and featuring Rihanna as co-vocalist, this was no ordinary Coldplay single, which is one of the reasons why it made such a great radio-friendly single. It still featured some excellent Chris Martin songwriting though.
ED SHEERAN – SMALL BUMP
A harrowing tale of a close friend who miscarried and the heartfelt disappointment that resonates at the final line of the lyric. However, the three minutes leading up to this point makes a tender and beautiful song that begs to be played over and over again.
FOSTER THE PEOPLE – PUMPED UP KICKS
If you listened to this upbeat slice of indie pop for the first time, and didn’t catch the lyrics, then it was a real surprise to find songwriter Mark Foster’s inspiration was the homicidal compulsion of the Columbine High School mass shooting. Still can’t help cheerily singing along.
ADELE – SKYFALL
It’s a hard life being Adele: not just one of the most successful artists of 2012, but one of the most revered songwriters of recent times. To top it all off she had to write the Bond song, and made a bloody good job of that, too.
Best pop song
CARLY RAE JEPSEN – CALL ME MAYBE
Ubiquity is the greatest aspiration of a pop song: to be everywhere, even if you wish that it was nowhere. This single from Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae, who finished third in the 2007 Canadian Idol, gained over 300 million views on YouTube and firmly established itself as a part of popular culture; how many of you have heard someone you know repeat the song’s annoyingly addictive refrain? That’s right, too many!
TAYLOR SWIFT – WE ARE NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER
Reportedly written in just 25 minutes by Swift and prolific super-producers Max Martin and Shellback, Never Ever is a quintessential three-minute pop ditty. Inspired by bitter break-up make-up gossip, its brutally honest lyrics make Swift’s troubled personal life a universal sing-a-long.
JESSIE J – DOMINO
Jessie didn’t need any help in the songwriting department having successfully written Price Tag as well as hits for Miley Cyrus and Chris Brown, but with Max Martin again dropping by to sprinkle some magic dust on this hook-laden pop gem proved to be a winning combination.
ONE DIRECTION – LIVE WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Every time we heard this we were singing it for the rest of the day… against our will, perhaps, but then that’s the mark of a great pop record.
FUN – WE ARE YOUNG
We were drawn to this song because it features the brilliant Janelle Monáe; we returned for repeat listens because it’s one of the few pop songs of 2012 that is not restricted by its simplicity, but rather revels in it. A brilliant record that reminds you ‘pop’ isn’t always a dirty word.
LABRINTH – EARTHQUAKE
Labrinth made his debut on Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out in 2010; in 2012, Tinie returned the favour. The result sounded like electro-grime-pop made by a stadium indie band.
Best rock song
CHEATAHS – THE SWAN
Can you hear that? Are you sure? Listen harder, that’s right, it’s the sound of our jaws still dropping a full four months after we first heard this song. So good is the fusion of shoegaze and grunge found in this song that you can barely believe that it came out in 2012, not 1992. There’s been many a false dawn for the return of these twin titans of the alternative rock genre canon, but if Cheatahs can continue to write songs this good then shoegaze and grunge will bathe listeners in glorious sunshine.
RICHARD HAWLEY – LEAVE YOUR BODY BEHIND
Reminiscent of Hawley’s earlier Britpop contemporaries Suede, Oasis and Doves, Leave Your Body Behind You, is a wonderfully psychedelic rock sing-a-long and a gem in the Mercury Award-nominated LP Standing At The Sky’s Edge.
BLACK KEYS – LONELY BOY
What’s that noise?! It’s a guitar with so much crunch it sounds good enough to eat, and then a few seconds later the raw earthy beats roll in. Mix some tasty hammond with a warm vocal and in a few minutes you’ve been dished up a hearty plate of meaty Tennessee rock’n’roll. Tasty!
ANTLERED MAN – MR RUNNER-UP TEENAGE BLOOMFIELD
It’s not big, it’s not clever, but it is loud, raw and soaked with adrenaline, a slice of honest-to-goodness rock that reminds you of just how vital QOTSA used to be once upon a time. Great title, too.
SPLASHH – HEADSPINS
A lazy let addictive bass starts this number off, before a similarly lazy yet addictive guitar line has you hooked. It has the pop sensibility of primetime Pixies, which is something few can fail to enjoy.
MUSE – MADNESS
Not a typical rock song, but typically Muse with Matt Bellamy’s soaring operatic vocal and signature Queen-esque arrangement. That pulsing synthesised bass intro kicks off yet another space-age electro-rock anthem.
Channelling Bob Dylan and John Denver by way of Oasis, this 18-year-old lad from Nottingham emerged from seemingly out of nowhere in 2012, and proved that there’s still room in the charts (and the public’s hearts) for real songwriters doing things the old-fashioned way. With a No 1 album already under his belt, the sky’s surely the limit for Bugg – or at least it is for as long as he can keep that same fickle public on side. Look out for a tour in 2013 with one of Songwrititing’s current hot tips, Valerie June, in support.
We actually thought A Fairly Average Wave might have been a more apt album title, but in terms of capturing the public’s attention you can’t argue with a Mercury…
In a year when female solo artists reigned supreme, Ms Ware progressed from singing on SBTRKT records to show her slick, grown-up pop could hack it in the mainstream.
Like Professor Green and Plan B before him, this 22-year-old emerged from the urban/rap scene but soon spread his musical wings much, much wider.
LIANNE LA HAVAS
There’s never been a better time to be one woman and her guitar… which panned out very nicely for this demure young jazz/folk/soul balladeer, thank you.
The former rapper famously ‘came out’ in 2012, but that was nowhere near as much of a shock as discovering the goldmine of edgy future soul that was Channel Orange.
Most Overlooked Artist
The Sunday Times made her debut long-player O, Devotion! their album of the week, and it picked up rave reviews from Uncut, Q, The Guardian and many more. People we played it to bought their own copies and we’re reliably informed all their friends loved it, too. Yet no-one’s ever heard of her, and when we saw her in a 500-capacity tent at this year’s Shambala festival there were all of about 30 people there. Frankly this world baffles us sometimes – let’s hope 2013 sees the self-effacing Liverpudlian getting more of the popular attention she so obviously deserves.
LIAM THE YOUNGER
Liam the who? That’s what you’re asking and that’s precisely why he’s on this list. An artist who understands the raw and delicate catharsis that made Elliott Smith’s first three albums so absorbing, expect him to secure cult status.
The greatest skill any songwriter can possess is to take a sentiment, an emotion and a state of mind that’s their own and make the listener feel as if they themselves are the song’s subject. Banfi has the quality in spades and it’s why he should be dug out of obscurity and planted into your mind.
THE PINEAPPLE THIEF
With nine albums under their belt, and critical acclaim of their latest LP, All The Wars, we’d have thought this nu-progressive rock band from Somerset would’ve followed Muse or Radiohead’s slipstream by now. Still, for many TPT remain a hidden talent yet to be discovered.
Sorry to bang on about Shambala but that was also where Songwriting first witnessed the raw blues explosion that is the John Fairhurst live experience. Awesome.
MICACHU & THE SHAPES
There’s something about playing a friend a song by a band you’ve just discovered and then to have them like the artist so much that they repeat the trick. Yet still Micachu & The Shapes are criminally overlooked. It’s time this astonishing band secured the repute they deserve.
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS
Do we hear scoffing at the back? Come on, admit it: you weren’t expecting a great deal from their album, Oceania, were you? No, nor were we. Which is why this record, which sounds like the Pumpkins on those first three, godlike albums, is a worthy winner of Songwriting‘s best comeback. Not so much a comeback, as this album features just bandleader Billy Corgan from the Pumpkins’ original line-up, but rather a triumphant return from Corgan.
DEAD CAN DANCE
How does a much-loved art-rock duo come back after a 16-year hiatus? With an album that’s exactly like the old ones but better, that’s how
After a series of triumphant reunion shows in 2012, there’s a documentary in the pipeline and now, tabloid rumour has it, a new album as well. Hurrah!
The second greatest grunge band of them all are on this list not for their album King Animal, but for their triumphant live performances. A whole generation who never thought they’d be able to see them live have had the opportunity to do so.
It probably wasn’t the comeback that Apple had planned, being arrested for possession of cannabis while on tour in September, but The Idler Wheel… – her first album in seven years – was an immediate return to form and has already earnt a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Album.
The 33 million-selling worldwide phenomenon that was Jagged Little Pill was always going to be a hard act to follow, but by 2008 it had appeared that Morrissette had given up trying. So although she’s not really been away, it was great to see Alanis return with gusto and album Havoc And Bright Lights reach the Top 5 in the US and No.1 in several other countries – not just her native Canada.
TAYLOR SWIFT – WE ARE NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER
Best hook? Best hooks more like! The signature reverse guitar riff that kicks things off and ticks along in the background will hook you in, the oooh-oooh of the bridge is pretty damn catchy and then bang!…the chorus hits you and its infectious title begs you to sing along ‘over over over’ again. It may be all part of Max Martin’s unfallible pop formula that’s paid dividends for Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry – and you can hear the similarities – but there’s no doubting the awesome power of the hook when its employed to such devastating effect here. Going three-times platinum in the US and reaching the top of the charts in more than six countries, means that there are a few million listeners who fell for Never Ever‘s charms.
LIANNE LA HAVAS – FORGET
From its opening moments to its close, this track is one big hook: one large enough to pull in a whale. Is Your Love Big Enough? won iTunes’ album of 2012, thanks in no small part to the endless hooks within; Forget possesses the best of these.
RIHANNA – DIAMONDS
Like many great pop songs, this has a ridiculously simple melody and lyric, but the layers of vocal hooks are cleverly catchy. Like the repetition in Umbrella, it’s helped by the fact the title is sung 35 times in 3 minutes 45 seconds!
ELLIE GOULDING – ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN
No wonder this track was picked to launch Ellie’s second album. Her distinctive falsetto vocal riff is immediate, infectious and signals that – not just anything – but something very special is about to happen.
SOLANGE – LOSING YOU
Beyonce’s little sister has arrived on the scene with an incredibly simple song that consists of two vocal lines that flow effortlessly between one another. Losing You is really just two devastatingly catchy choruses, which oozes the sassiness of Madonna and the cool of 80’s new wave. It’s seems we can’t turn the repeat button off!
As a strong contender in our Best Album this year, we’ve already highlighted the most obvious achievement of Sandé in 2012. However, those who delve further into her discography will also find her name appearing in songwriting credits for Cheryl Cole, Alesha Dixon, Tinie Tempah, Leona Lewis and, if rumours are to be believed, Susan Boyle. Emeli also co-wrote the huge Professor Green chart-topper Read All About It, which her stripped down rendition at the Olympics closing ceremony deservedly placed Emeli, and her music, in the global spotlight. We think her success as a solo artist writing her own material, achieving chart success with every release, combined with penning significant hit songs for other top acts, makes Emeli Sande our best songwriter of this annum.
If this was an award for the best pop songwriter of the last decade then this man would surely win hands-down, but 2012 was a comparatively quiet year for Max. Although he deserves being nominated here for co-writing We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together alone.
A relative newcomer to the songwriting game, Justin has certainly broken-through this year after writing six of the tracks on Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die LP, including hit singles Video Games, National Anthem and the emotive title track. If that wasn’t enough, Parker also penned our Best Single nominee Laura with Bat For Lashes.
You might’ve heard of this guy before. Even after bursting onto the scene last year and appearing practically everywhere, 2012 has seen Ed spread his wings and continue riding high as a serious songwriter. More hit singles from ‘+’ and being hired by Taylor Swift and One Direction will keep the royalty cheques coming.
Having spent many years working in the shadows of mentors RedOne and Max Martin, Kotecha has more recently stepped to the forefront being hired as a consultant by Simon Cowell and writing some of One Direction’s biggest hits, including Live While We’re Young. This man certainly has a knack for writing a pop hook!
In 2010 and 2011, it seemed Benjamin Levin – aka Benny Blanco – had the Midas touch, creating No.1’s for Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Maroon 5 – he was the man behind Moves Like Jagger. But 2012 has proved this songwriter can keep churning them out, with another chart-topper for Maroon 5, in the shape of Payphone, and Rihanna’s Diamonds. Don’t bet against him having a few more chart-topping tunes up his sleeve for 2013.