Triple J Listeners Are Right: 2012 Was The Decade’s Best Year For Music

2012 laid the foundation for the music landscape of today.

hottest 100 2012 photo

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The triple j Hottest 100 Of The Decade was always going to be a contentious countdown.

Packing a decade into just 100 songs is a huge task and, as expected, there are varying opinions about the countdown. There is one thing triple j listeners definitely got right though — 2012 was the best year of the decade for music.

Twenty songs from 2012 were voted into the countdown — six more than 2013, the second most popular year. Alt-J’s ‘Breezeblocks’ was the highest place getter of the year, coming in at number 12, while songs by Flume, Tame Impala, Disclosure, Lana Del Rey and Frank Ocean also charted.

Despite being one of the earliest years of the decade, 2012 clearly left a mark; it was a bold, unpredictable year that saw a changing digital release climate and a resulting artistic rebellion. Genres were broken down and artists explored different ways of being noticed as the industry dealt with uncharted territory.

After years of grappling with piracy and the dwindling interest in physical music, 2012 was the year that things began to shift. According to the IFPA Digital Music Report 2013, digital download revenue had reached a new peak of $5.6 million, but Spotify was beginning to make headway with five million paying subscribers, up two million from the following year.


As it became even easier to cherrypick songs from full-length releases, the conversation surrounding the death of the album got louder. The artists that defined 2012 ignored those conversations.

If anything, there was a renewed importance placed on the album, and it resulted in exciting experimentation. Frank Ocean already had ears on him thanks to his acclaimed mixtape Nostalgia, ULTRA but his debut Channel ORANGE would take him to the next level.

It blended R&B, rap, pop and vintage rock into lovelorn vignettes and drew universal acclaim. The sound was groundbreaking, but so was the release strategy.

File sharing piracy declined in 2012 thanks, in part, to the rise of streaming, but it was still a cloud over the industry. Ocean dropped the album as an iTunes exclusive a week earlier than announced to get ahead of any possible leaks.

The physical copies didn’t arrive until a week later, which was almost unheard of at that point, but the album still shot to number one on iTunes. A year later, Beyoncé would take that a step further by releasing her self-titled album digitally without having even announced it.

Ocean’s surprise drop strategy has become a typical play in the streaming era but when he first did it, it felt unprecedented. As physical copies became less and less important, Ocean showed the freedom that a digital release allowed. When he unleashed his second record Blonde in 2016, it was almost expected that it would be a surprise release. And it was, only this time it was an Apple Music exclusive.

The Beginning Of The Future

Ocean’s two entries in the Hottest 100 ‘Lost’ (#34) and ‘Thinking Bout You’ (#62) both came out in 2012. Most of the 2012 entries, in fact, spotlighted acts who had broken through in that year.

It was a time of debuts by artists who would go on to be this generation’s crop of musical heroes. Lana Del Rey dropped her debut Born To Die, Flume went from bedroom producer to global superstar with his self-titled effort, alt-j gave us An Awesome Wave and even Kendrick Lamar made his major-label debut with good kid, m.A.A.d. City.

If you look at this year’s Glastonbury line-up, many of its top-line artists broke through in 2012. Lamar and Del Rey are two of the biggest drawcards on the bill, while Flume and Tame Impala will also headline festivals this year — depending, of course, on the spread of coronavirus.

There was a renewed importance placed on the album, and it resulted in exciting experimentation.

Lamar was already a notable name for rap die-hards by 2012 but good kid, m.A.A.d. City solidified his position as the future of rap. As hip-hop became a singles game, Lamar reinstated the power of the album, showing how its form could give way to a powerful narrative.

That wasn’t at the expense of big singles either. ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ (#60) and ‘M.A.A.D. City’ (#92) were huge records that were spun consistently on radio.

Several years later, Lamar collaborated with Taylor Swift on ‘Bad Blood’, another artist who evolved significantly during 2012.  Swift had successfully crossed over into the pop mainstream with her previous country records, but 2012’s Red saw her complete the evolution.

She teamed up with legendary producer Max Martin for the first time, taking over the charts with ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ and ‘22’. She took her diarised writing and put it in gigantic pop songs, ushering in an era of relatable pop writing that made way for artists like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.

Australia To The World

You probably could’ve predicted that 2012 was going to be a big year for Swift or Lamar, but few had their money on Australian acts Flume and Tame Impala.

As the industry declared the death of rock and guitar music, Tame Impala’s second album Lonerism offered a counter-argument. While their debut Innerspeaker caused a gentle stir, the genre-shifting, psychedelic Lonerism introduced Kevin Parker to the world powered by the thundering single ‘Elephant’.

The record unintentionally made Tame Impala one of the biggest bands in the world and captured the attention of artists in every genre. It also laid the groundwork for the band’s even bigger third album, Currents, which housed ‘The Less I Know The Better’ — the best song of the decade according to triple j listeners.

While Tame Impala’s music was going unexpectedly global, Flume was starting a homegrown push to superstardom. The bedroom producer from Sydney’s Northern Beaches captured Australia’s attention with glitchy, experimental electronica that was first uploaded to triple j Unearthed.

He’d well and truly won his home country over by the time his self-titled debut arrived, but the wider world was also beginning to catch on. Off the back of that record, he played at SXSW, Boston Calling, FYF Festival and more. He’d eventually find himself at the centre of the EDM world playing as a big-font act on festivals including Ultra Miami and Tomorrowland.

While Flume was taking over festivals, Gotye’s 2011 Hottest 100 topping track ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ (#2) was spreading around the globe. On the US charts, he broke a 12-year drought by going to number one with the song — becoming the first Australian to do so since Savage Garden in 2000.

Using a technicality, you could also say there was another Australian in the top position that year. Rihanna went number one with her Unapologetic single ‘Diamonds’, penned by Adelaide’s Sia.

‘Diamonds’ marked Sia’s first US number one as a songwriter. The next year, she would go on to write for Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Beyoncé, becoming one of the most sought-after songwriters in the world.

Bending Genres

Pop was beginning to mutate in multiple ways, allowing alternative Australian artists to permeate the mainstream. Pop music had long been written for radio but the emergence of streaming and digital platforms like Pandora gave an opportunity for pop music to thrive outside of its historical boundaries.

Lana Del Rey, who had four entries across the Hottest 100 and 200 countdowns, exemplified this change. While she wouldn’t crack the Billboard Top 50 until the next year, Del Rey’s debut album Born To Die was a divisive and confusing shift for the genre.

Last year during a speech at Billboard’s Women In Music event, Swift called Del Rey, “the most influential artist in pop”, and she was in no way exaggerating. In the words of Swift, “Her vocal stylings, her lyrics, her aesthetics, they’ve been repurposed everywhere in music.”

Pop had also begun to cultivate an experimental underground – one that would poke its head into the mainstream years later. Grimes led the way with her groundbreaking record Visions which combined intimate DIY electronica with glossy pop hooks.

Going even harder on the pop hooks was Charli XCX who released her Super Ultra mixtape — a dizzying, chaotic tape that began a push for her current title as pop’s experimental queen. FKA twigs also made waves with her debut EP, introducing audiences to eerie, elongated pop music.

In hip-hop, Future was beginning a movement with his Pluto record. The melodic, hypnotic record found favour with the critics and influenced the current generation of commercial rappers. His auto-tune heavy, ad-lib spotlighting style has left a mark on everyone from Lil Uzi Vert to Lil Baby, and it still remains one of the most prominent styles of hip-hop eight years after he first broke through.

2012 was a vitally important year in music — the beginning of the mainstream opening its doors to alternative stylings and genre-free ideology. Without it, our music landscape today would look very, very different.

And that’s exactly why the year was the best for music of the decade. Music fans everywhere began to embrace the niche and as a result, laid the foundations for the generation of music we’re currently in — a streaming era of genreless possibilities and ever-surprising release tactics.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter