No look back at the highs and lows of 2012 would be complete without acknowledging a pudgy thirtysomething Korean man with a serious expression and a goofy dance. The holiday-party season has been and will for many years continue to be marked by, as critic Chris Randle put it on Twitter, "the visceral unspeakable horror of thousands of dads attempting to do the horse dance simultaneously."
But if "Gangnam Style" proved to be the unlikely song that managed to breach the walls of American pop insularity, there were many more whose infectious melodies, thudding beats, and nagging hooks only managed to capture much of the rest of the world. Here are 12 huge novelty dance hits in 2012 from around the world that most English-speaking Americans will be either sorry to have missed or relieved to have been spared.
Michel Teló, "Ai Se Eu Te Pego"(Brazil)
If you were anywhere that spoke a Romance language in the first half of 2012, you heard this half-step groove being chanted along to by people who may not have understood Portuguese but knew a hit when they heard it. Teló was an unassuming sertanejo (Brazilian country music) star when much more famous soccer players danced to "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" after scoring clinching goals in late 2011. And as soccer goes, so goes half the world.
3Ball MTY ft. América Sierra & El Bebeto, "Inténtalo" (Mexico)
The city of Monterrey in northern Mexico has been the center of an explosion in young electronic musicians scavenging the best Latin and indigenous rhythms they can find and making a thick futuristic soup of them. They call the result tribal, and "Inténtalo" was the first pan-Latin hit in the style, due as much to América Sierra's breathy vocals and a whining synth hook as to the shuffle-stomped rhythm.
The tradition of the Carnival Road March music competition in Trinidad dates back to 1932, often seen as the birth of modern calypso. Other than a gap during World War II, the competition has been held every year since then on the Tuesday before Lent, with the winners becoming influential figures in Caribbean music. 2012 marked Machel Montano's fourth Road March win, and "Pump Yuh Flag" was a massive global hit, especially popular at big sporting events. There was one of those this year, you might have noticed.
WTF!, "Da Bop" (UK/Russia)
Ever since Australians Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP remixed a 1956 Italian song and had an unexpected global smash with "We No Speak Americano" in 2010, electronic producers around the world have been digging through discarded pop records from every nation, both for fun and hoping to score another left-field hit. Calling themselves WTF!, the London dance outfit Ultrabeat structured an infectious dance song around Russian singer Edita Piekha's Soviet-era classic "Nash Sosed (Наш сосед)" and had that hit.
Fuse ODG ft. Tiffany, "Azonto" (Ghana/UK)
Azonto is a Ghanian dance that originated among students in Accra, not unlike (to be reductive) the American dougie. For several years, it's been growing in popularity throughout the Ghanian hiplife scene (a combination of traditional highlife and hip-hop), but in 2012 it exploded throughout the West African diaspora. Ghanian rapper Fuse ODG is based in the UK, and Tiffany is the premier Ghanian female rapper, and their "Azonto" is a masterwork of repetition and goofiness.
Loreen, "Euphoria" (Sweden)
The small but fiercely devoted cluster of Americans who pay attention to Eurovision, the annual pageant of cheese and nationalism (and incidentally pop music) might scoff at the idea of "Euphoria" being unknown on these shores—or that there's anything silly about it. A sweeping diva stomper in the grand tradition of Cher, it won Eurovision handily in the summer of 2012. If its melodrama at first codes as more than a little ridiculous to U.S. ears, keep in mind: America's the country responsible for "We Are Young."
Alex Ferrari, "Bara Bará Bere Berê" (Brazil)
Brazil had a great year in the inescapable-party-song sweepstakes of the international pop scene—a third Brazilian song, Gusttavo Lima's "Balada," was nearly as big—but where Michel Teló brought a countrified accordion two-step to the international stage, Ferrari's "Bara Bere" is down-the-line Euro club fodder. Depending on your workplace, the video might be NSFW, but the song itself is thoroughly NSFAWAB: Not Safe For Anyone With a Brain.
Sam & the Womp, "Bom Bom" (UK/Netherlands)
Another British assemblage with a European outlook, Sam & the Womp is fronted by Dutch-Indonesian singer Bloem de Ligny, who calls herself Lady Oo, and uses horn charts that nod to Balkan brass bands while maintaining a steady electronic 4/4. "Bom Bom" could be seen as another descendant of "We No Speak Americano," even though the instrumentation and vocals are live rather than sampled; the combination of juicy thump and older ethnic sounds is appealing as ever.
Alina Devercski, "Flytta På Dej" (Sweden)
Not many of the songs on this list are imaginable as big hits in the U.S.—American pop tastes at the moment run to beefier bass, more rhythmic variety, and less textural variety—but Alina Devercski's liberational kiss-off to a bad relationship has the same mixture of rage and joy that fuels, for instance, Ke$ha. The repeated refrain "flytta flytta flytta flytta" translates to "move," as in "out of the way," though it's hard not to hear it as "dance" too.
Tacabro, "Tacatá" (Italy/Cuba)
Italian house producers Romano & Sapienza put a backing track to a dembow vocal by Cuban singer Martínez Rodríguez and released it in 2011; when it turned out to be a hit, they banded together and called themselves Tacabro. Like WTF! or Sam & the Womp, they're more a temporary alliance of convenience than a self-sustaining act. These kinds of shifting identities, happy mistakes, and fluctuating roles are part of the confusion and joy of Eurocentric pop, and are one more reason why Americans, who still think of music as being made primarily by bands in the old-fashioned rock sense, mostly don't embrace it.
Asaf Avidan & the Mojos, "One Day/Reckoning Song (Wankelmut Rmx)" (Israel/Germany)
Even here, with acoustic guitars and soulfully strained vocals, we can't escape electronic dance. Asaf Avidan is an Israeli singer-songwriter whose original material is reminiscent of Mumford & Sons or even Neil Young; his gentle lament "Reckoning Song" was quietly released in 2008. Four years later, German DJ Wankelmut scooped out the verses, plugged in a minimal beat, and made it one of the sleeper hits of the second half of 2012.
KyaryPamyuPamyu, "Fashion Monster" (Japan)
We close with the biggest non-Psy viral hit from the Pacific Rim. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, from the fashionable Harajuku district of Tokyo, gained meme traction in 2011 with the densely kawaii video for "PonPonPon." But the maximalist freak-pop tune "Fashion Monster," with a spooky-silly video released just in time for Halloween and an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink production by Japanese pop auteur Nataka Yasutaka, has made her a certifiable star in Japan, and by extension throughout East Asia and in the one place that embraces everything goofy, inexplicable, and wonderful: the Internet.