Number Ones: The Highest Selling Singles in Oz for 2012, 10 to 1

I write TheVine's Number Ones column, and part of the reason I do so is that I think a song selling more than any other over the period of a week is interesting. The song itself might not be interesting, but it's usually interesting (to me, at least) to try and understand what people see in it. Of course, plenty of songs sell a lot of records without quite making it to number one, and so I'm always fascinated by the end of year chart. What songs could have been number ones except for that pesky other song?


Last month, ARIA released their annual Top 100 Singles Chart of 2012. This year, of the top 20, there were six songs that were some variation of teen pop (Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, etc), five songs that were some variation on rock or indie (fun., Maroon 5, The Script), three songs of singer-songwriter ilk (Ed Sheeran, Matt Corby, etc), five songs based around rap vocals (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Flo Rida) and one song that's apparently progressive trance (Swedish House Mafia). In comparison to last year, this is a lot more white people being angsty and a bunch less R&B mythologising The Club. Anyway, without further ado: here's the Top 10.

Read tracks 11-20 here


10. Swedish House Mafia (feat. John Martin) - 'Don't You Worry Child'

Dance music aficionados have a tendency towards putting music into microgenres, and sometimes get angry about other people getting it wrong. Simon Reynolds calls Swedish House Mafia "fluffy feel-good trance-house", while the wider belief suggests they fit into the genre of 'progressive house'; a form of house music labelled 'progressive' not because it features odd time-signatures and complicated guitar solos but because the music progresses towards an end point, a chorus (whereas other house music is more content to set a mood and stay there).

Other signifiers are high production values, euphoric melodies, and typically featuring acoustic instruments at times - strings or piano, most often. 'Don't You Worry Child' is very shiny-sounding and well-mixed and mastered; there's a bit of acoustic guitar here and there; the melody has a definite euphoria to it, and there is a strong sense of progression, of building up to the chorus. You can see why Simon Reynolds would use adjectives like 'fluffy' and 'feel good'; it's not challenging music. It does remind me of a Volvo.

However, it also sounds rather a lot like 1990s eurodance; the kind that had a bald black guy in a vest do a rap in the middle 8 - think 'Be My Lover' by la Bouche, 'Another Night' by The Real McCoy, 'Sing Hallelujah' by Dr Alban or 'Give It Up' by Cut'n'Move. Like these tracks, 'Don't You Worry Child' is based around synth chords doing a particular syncopated rhythm over a fairly straight four-to-the-floor beat. To be fair, there's a distinct lack of bald rappers in vests, and there's a definite modern computer-synthy smooth sophistication to the sound absent from, say, 'Be My Lover'. But nonetheless!

(from my Number Ones post on the song from November 2012)

9. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Wanz) - Thrift Shop 

In a 2008 article in the Atlantic, Virginia Postrel discusses economic research suggesting that, the higher up in the economic food chain you are, the less likely you are to want to conspicuously show off your wealth, whether you're black or white. Conspicuous consumption—the fancy economic term for being blinged out—usually means that though you're from a poor group, you're trying to say to the world that you're not poor. For rappers, being blinged out is saying "just because I'm black doesn't mean I'm poor". In contrast, instead of worrying about bling and Gucci t-shirts, Macklemore presents himself as a hipster. I mean, it's a song called 'Thrift Shop'. Funnily enough, hipsters have a sort of reverse bling. Essentially, a hipster is a derogatory term for a well educated young white person who is poorly concealing their attempts to impress other well educated young white people. The hipster has no real need to show off their wealth (if not actually wealthy, the hipster is parading the potential for wealth) in order to get people to pay attention to them. What they are actually parading, in a lot of ways, is their leisure time.

The hipster has the time to look through the thrift shop to find the right outfit; the time to research obscure genres of music; the time to research where the best coffee is. I think it's this implicit having-of-leisure-time that irritates many people about hipsters (especially if the irritated have the 60-hour a week high-paying high-stress jobs they need in order to put their 3 kids through school and secretly wish they had the time to complain about the difference between dubstep and brostep etc). Anybody can go and buy a gaudy, expensive-looking handbag or coat. Shops selling that stuff are easy to find. But to find a dress that fits within your aesthetic in a thrift shop is going to mean you're spending lots of time and effort (ironically there's now plenty of boutique thrift shops where other people have done that searching for you, and the exorbitant amounts of money they charge reflects the time you would otherwise spend finding it).

Within these separate contexts, Macklemore - a white male with a hipster aesthetic, however steeped in hip-hop culture he is - is telling his hip-hop compatriots that bling is a scam. You might get respect from people in the ghetto for your gold-plated grills, Macklemore is saying, but everyone else laughs at you. You might laugh at Macklemore wearing this thrift shop stuff - the 'onesies', the 'flannel zebra jammies', and the 'plaid button up shirt' of the song; but that this stuff is cooler than bling -- if you're from somewhere that's not the ghetto.

(from my Number Ones post on the song from December 2012)

8. Birdy - 'Skinny Love'

Bon Iver isn't exactly an unknown. He won a Grammy for Best New Artist last year, after all. Both his albums have sold fairly briskly in Australia. And Bon Iver's original version of 'Skinny Love' was a #21 in the 2008 Triple J Hottest 100. But most people in Australia don't watch the Grammys, or care about them (they barely watch the ARIAs!), and most people don't listen to JJJ. Birdy's cover, originally released in 2011, when she was 14 (!), is fairly obviously inferior to the original; Birdy doesn't have the intensity of emotion that Justin Vernon has when he's singing it. When she sings the chorus - "and I told you to be patient" -she's prettily singing a song she likes, no more, no less. When Vernon sings it, he distinctly sounds like he's singing through tears. The slight 'chorus' effect on the guitars on Bon Iver's version, slightly out-of-tune with each other, gives a rustic feel; it's easy to imagine, listening to it, that Vernon really is sitting in some shack in the middle of nowhere.  Birdy's piano playing, on the other hand, lacks fluidity - at several points, it sounds awkward, rhythmically a little off; she speeds up and slows down for no particular reason. 

But, in the wake of Adele and 'Somebody Like You' - people obviously digging young British piano-playing songbirds singing ballads - commercial radio in Australia could see the appeal of Birdy, and a lot of people heard the song for the first time. For a 14 year old, Birdy's version of 'Skinny Love' is fairly impressive; she has good control of her voice, and there's an appealing starkness to it all. But take away "for a 14 year old", and it's not that impressive. There are hundreds of people around the world playing in cafes who do cover versions of the song that are as good as this.

7. Justice Crew - 'Boom Boom'

Justice Crew are nobody's definition of authentic. They don't write their own music, and don't play any of the instruments on their recordings. They were discovered on a reality TV show, Australia's Got Talent - the kind of reality TV show that has Kyle Sandilands as a judge, no less. And they don't even really present themselves as musicians - they're dancers first and foremost. They're like the male equivalent of burlesque dance troupe Pussycat Dolls, who were more well-known for dancing and er, "presentation" than music.

The Justice Crew are transparently obviously supposed to appeal to teenage girls - after all, they do take their shirts off towards the end of their video clip to reveal their lithe dancer bodies. I would be shocked if they didn't lip-sync live. They're famous for dancing, not their emotional singing. Their fans are going to see them dance. Nobody at the concert will particularly care if they sing live so long as they're taking their shirts off at some point, while dancing up a storm. In fact, I wouldn't at all be surprised if it turned out that none of the Justice Crew actually even sing on this recording. After all, the singers who are on 'Boom Boom' have noticeably American accents, using American hip-hop idiom; when they sing 'party', the singers pronounce the 'r' like an American would. This could well be because it actually is an American singing the song instead of the Australians and New Zealanders who make up the Justice Crew. Are Justice Crew the modern Australian Milli Vanilli? Perhaps (though Auto-Tune these days can work wonders, and it's certainly not impossible that there are members of the Justice Crew that can actually sing...).

(from my Number Ones post on the song from August 2012)

6. Nicki Minaj - 'Starships'

'Starships' sounds like Minaj and her collaborators (including part of the team who wrote 'What Makes You Beautiful, and RedOne who produced most of Lady Gaga's hits) were trying to jam in echoes of as many chart-toppers as humanly possible. There's the guitar intro reminiscent of 'Raise Your Glass' that starts the song. When Minaj starts singing, she reminds you of Taio Cruz's 'Dynamite', the way it repeats repeats repeats random words from the lyrics lyrics lyrics for no reason reason reason except that it sounds right right right. Once the first chorus comes in - "I'm on the floor, floor..." - the music sounds a bit like 'California Gurls' by Katy Perry. The big hooky second chorus - "starships are meant to fly.." - has the aspirational things-in-the-sky-are-awesome message of Katy Perry's 'Firework', a musical backing reminiscent of Flo Rida collaborating with David Guetta, and echoes of 'We Found Love' by Rihanna. And then there's the section after she sings the line "higher than a motherfucker", where it suddenly sounds like something or RedFoo have had their grimy hands all over. When the second verse starts, Minaj's raps are at times reminiscent of Ke$ha on, say, 'Die Young'. And the sheer oddness of Minaj's vocals itself - the way she sounds reasonably unhinged - is part of the sound of commercial pop music now, thanks to 2011's 'Super Bass'. In a funny kind of way, 'Starships' sounds a lot like DJ Earworm's 'United States Of Pop 2012', where Earworm - like Minaj, you suspect - is deliberately trying to mash up as many recent chart hits as he can into the one song.

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