Pop music again ruled the year, given the inescapable run of hits from Rihanna, One Direction, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry. And, yes, tunes from Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift and fun. seem destined to never, ever leave my head. But the real heart of 2012 was in the R&B, hip-hop and country albums that reached beyond crazy, crazy, crazy hooks and thundering remixes.
The best albums of the year, at least to my ears, acknowledged future sounds while still harking back to sweet memories of the ’80s and ’90s.
1. “Channel Orange,” Frank Ocean: The tremendous buzz that preceded Ocean’s solo debut resulted in strong sales, ecstatic reviews, and six Grammy nominations, including record and album of the year. The most thrilling part? All the hype is warranted. Months later, it’s still a compulsively listenable masterpiece, highlighted by sexy, assured tracks “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump.”
2. “True,” Solange: There wasn’t a dreamier single this year than Solange’s “Losing You,” which should have, again, made the other Knowles sister a superstar. (It also should have happened with 2008’s “Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams.”) “True,” released only a month ago, plays on the ’80s flavor of Janet Jackson and Madonna. But it’s no nostalgia trip. Collaborator Devonté “Dev” Hynes gives it a defining sound unlike anything on radio. It’s just too bad more stations haven’t jumped onboard.
3. “Kaleidoscope Dream,” Miguel: This scorching album completes a platinum R&B trilogy of sorts with Ocean’s and Solange’s efforts. First single “Adorn” set a pointed tone for the album — sultry, sensual and a bit raunchy. It’s a thundering blend of ’60s psychedelia and ’90s grooves, with hints of Prince, Marvin Gaye and even Depeche Mode (during the ominous “Don’t Look Back”).
4. “The Idler Wheel ...,” Fiona Apple: Apple’s first album in seven years revels in desperation and despair. Lucky for us that translates into some of her best work. Though the emotions are extreme, there’s real joy in the dynamics of “Anything We Want,” “Every Single Night” and “Hot Knife.” And her voice is at peak form throughout the flurry of feelings.
5. “Free,” Bonnie Bishop: The Stratford High School grad’s previous music hinted at the sound she finally captured on “Free,” a raging, rock-and-blues firestorm of an album informed by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Etta James and Bonnie Bramlett. Bishop’s piercing voice wails and cracks through seven songs of regret, remembrance and hope, highlighted by the gospel-infused “Free” and rollicking “Bad Seed.”
6. “AM Country Heaven,” Jason Eady: Fort Worth’s Eady made the year’s finest country album by steering clear of anything even remotely associated with today’s definition of the genre. Instead, he doused his tunes in the easygoing sounds of the ’70s and ’80s, teamed up with vocal great Patty Loveless for “Man on a Mountain” and scolded current superstars on the title track.
7. “+,” Ed Sheeran: It’s taken the British singer-songwriter almost a year to fully break in the U.S. Single “The A Team” is finally a top 20 hit and a Grammy nominee for song of the year. But “+” is more than folksy filler. Sheeran incorporates soul and hip-hop into his tunes, creating a unique sound that’s fuller and brighter than what his breakout single suggests.
8. “Theatre Is Evil,” Amanda Palmer: The million-dollar story behind Palmer’s record threatened to overshadow the music. (She funded the album via the fan-sourcing Kickstarter platform and raised a record-breaking $1.2 million.) But it would be unfair to dismiss her punk-rock, cabaret pop as a marketing gimmick. The songs are big and boisterous, drawing from Blondie, the Cars, Tori Amos and Queen.
9. “The Lion The Beast The Beat,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals: It would have been easy for Potter to go stone-cold country after the success of “You and Tequila” alongside Kenny Chesney. And she does incorporate a bit of the twang in these songs. But the strength of “The Lion The Beast The Beat” is its unpredictability. The album veers from rock to pop to dance, sometimes within a single song. And Potter’s voice remains a powerful force.
10. “The Music of Nashville” — Original Soundtrack: It’s alternately sad, hilarious and none too surprising that some of the year’s most engaging country music comes from a prime-time soap opera about the genre’s home city. This isn’t a perfect collection, but it proves that contemporary country is an easily replicated sound. Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere acquit themselves nicely. And there’s no denying the star power and chemistry of Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio. Maybe Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean should set their DVRs.
While the list that follows may tilt toward the arcane, I’ll say nothing disparaging about Taylor Swift’s “Red” because I found it a very enjoyable pop album. In the end, though, it was too long with a handful of throwaway songs and too many creaky lyrics to make my short list. On the flip side of Swift’s sincerity, the mysteriously prefab Lana del Rey’s “Born to Die” grew on me as her wooden “Saturday Night Live” performance faded and the album’s weird torch music hung around. Still, my gut tells me these albums made only fleeting impressions. Sometimes, the wading pool can be cool and refreshing. More often, I prefer the vastness of the ocean.
1. “Mr. M,” Lambchop: Slow, soundtracky strings and a creaky conversational voice dropping an f-bomb: That’s how the first Lambchop album in four years gets started. Some have likened abrasive styles of music to screaming a profanity in a church. Lambchop’s sound is more like whispering a profanity at the symphony. It’s quiet, somber, lovely, melancholy and a little surreal and sinister.
2. “Bravest Man in the Universe,” Bobby Womack: Reclamation projects are often scaled down, back-to-basics affairs, but not this one. Damon Albarn and Richard Russell let Womack’s textured voice stand as the sole venerable sound surrounded by thoroughly modern arrangements. Just an old guy singing new songs about the big inevitable. That’s soul: whether it reminds you of then, now or, gulp, what’s coming.
3. “Life Is People,” Bill Fay: Speaking of reclamation projects, this would count as one if anybody’d heard of English folkie Bill Fay the first time around. A Wilco endorsement prompted new interest in Fay, who has done precious little since his second album went piff in 1971. Here his voice is creased and expressive, hauntingly so, and the arrangements range from spare piano to sweeping and ornamental. I’d welcome him back, but he was barely ever here.
4. “Fear Fun,” Father John Misty: After drumming and harmonizing with Fleet Foxes and making sincere and spartan minimalist folk records, Josh Tillman had an identity crisis, which resulted in a new nom de folk rock. It’s meta — Tillman taking on the persona of the charismatic Misty who in turn sings psychedelic folk-rock songs about Tillman — which would seem self-indulgent if the lyrics weren’t so funny and smart and if the music didn’t dig deep grooves.
5. “Nootropics,” Lower Dens: I have nothing but good things to say about Jana Hunter’s band’s debut album from two years ago. But this one, its second, is a fine example of a group finding its voice. The interplay between the dark rock rudiments and the coldness of the electronics creates a brilliant tension.
6. “Sun,” Cat Power: An electronic pulse runs through much of Chan Marshall’s first set of new songs in six years that assertively advances her sound with a jittery progressive bent that provides a consummate counterpart to the natural earthiness of her voice. It flits between hypnotic and jarring, both in a good way.
7. “Faithful Man,” Lee Fields: Decidedly retro in its outward presentation, so don’t expect a reinvented wheel. But Fields is such a dynamic singer that it doesn’t matter. Fields’ voice is explosive, and as he moves slightly away from funk and toward the powder-keg ballads, it becomes capable of even more volatile dynamics. He’s a master of shadings, putting texture in the quietest moments and a whisper of vulnerability in the louder ones.
8. “Confess,” Twin Shadow: The opposite of Fields’ approach is the one taken by George Lewis Jr., who can sing gritty Southern soul, but the instrumental approach on this assured album suggests he knows his way around rock, electronica and ambient. He’s comfortable with the synthy stuff, perhaps because it’s not used as ’80s affectation. The sound is quintessential nighttime driving music.
9. “Cabin Fever,” Corb Lund: It’s not every country songwriter who can cram post-apocalyptic self-reliance, bovine appreciation and a doomed spring/fall romance into his saddlebags as Lund does on this confident set of songs, which the Canadian singer-songwriter serves up with the perfect proportion of rural style and punky disregard for mannerisms. His wit and his independent streak set him apart, not just from Nashville (duh), but the all-too-earnest and serious Americana fringes.
10. “The Seer,” Swans: Comparing the Rolling Stones to Swans is like comparing apples to skulls, but it’s worth noting that 20 years after the Stones’ first album, they were doing “Dirty Work.” By contrast, 20 years in, Michael Gira’s dark, post-rock band has made its masterpiece, a claustrophobic and terrifying album of ominous industrial-grade art rock that suits the times.
Three from the past
“The Disintegration Tapes,” William Basinski: Maybe the most profound and moving music made in the 21st century so far. Ambient, fragile and scarred, it sounds like the uncertain future.
“The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (1968-1971),” Lee Hazlewood: Speaking of the future, singer/songwriter/producer/oddball cowboy Hazlewood was well ahead of his time as this generous anthology of cosmic oddball roots music proves.
“The Complete Sussex and Columbia Recordings,” Bill Withers: When soul went funky Withers went folky. He balanced simplicity and profundity with a deft touch. Not everything here is golden, but the first half is something close to perfection.